On Science Fiction History

Clark Ashton Smith

I have read the symposium on science-fiction the Winter 1949 issue with great interest. Since you have summed up so ably in your editorial the main deductions to be drawn, I will content myself with a few footnotes, so to speak. For one thing, it struck me that most of the contributors (Dr. Keller excepted) failed to emphasize sufficiently the historical aspect of the theme and were too exclusively preoccupied with its contemporary development. Yet surely, for the proper understanding of the genre and of fantasy in general, some consideration should be given to its roots in ancient literature, folklore, mythology, anthropology, occultism, and mysticism.

I was quite surprised that no one mentioned Lucian, Apulcius and Rabelais among the forefathers of the genre, since all three are of prime importance. Lucian was a satirist and skeptic who, in the form of imaginative fiction, endeavored to "debunk" the religious superstitions and contending philosophies of his time; being, one might say, somewhat analogous to Aldous Huxley, who in turn has satirised modern science. Apuleius, borrowing a plot from Lucian in The Golden Ass, expressed, on the other hand, the power and glamor of a sorcery that was regarded as science by the moiety of his contemporaries; and his book, in its final chapter, plunges deeply into that mysticism which is seemingly eternal and common to many human minds in all epochs. The omission of Rabelais is particularly surprising, since he was not only the first of modern satiric fantaisists, but also one of the first writers to develop the Utopian theme (so much exploited since) in his phalanstery of Theleme—which, I might add, is the only fictional Utopia that I should personally care to inhabit!

Another thing that struck me was the ethical bias shown by some of the contributors, a bias characteristic of so many science-fiction fans, as opposed to the devotees of pure fantasy. Such fans are obviously lovers of the imaginative and the fantastic more or less curbed in the indulgence of their predilections by a feeling that the fiction in which they delight should proceed (however remote its ultimate departure) from what is currently regarded as proven fact and delimited natural law; otherwise, there is Something reprehensible in yielding themselves to its enjoyment Without entering into the old problem of ethics plus art, or ethics versus art, I can say only that from my Own standpoint the best application of ethics would lie in the sphere where it is manifestly not being applied: that is to say, the practical use of scientific discoveries and inventions. Imaginative literature would be happier and more fruitful with unclogged wings; and the sphere of its enjoyment would be broader.

What pleased me most about the symposium was the prominence given to Wells and to Charles Fort, and the inclusion of your anthology, Strange Ports of Call. I could mention books, out of my own far from complete reading of science-fiction, that were missed or slighted by the contributors. Of these, Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan is perhaps the most salient from a literary perspective. It is a gorgeous and sumptuous satire on the results of self-achieved immortality. Leonard Cline's The Dark Chamber could be mentioned, too, since it depicts with singular power the retrogression of a human being to the primal slime. Incidentally, one ought to mention Lucian's True History, for it contains what is probably the first inter- planetary tale, a fantastic account of a voyage to the moon. And sometimes I suspect that Freud should be included among the modern masters of science-fiction! But one could multiply titles without adding anything of permanent literary value and significance.

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