Reginald Bretnor’s 1953 Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future is a collection of essays by a variety of authors on the subject of science fiction, its meaning, and its future. Bretnor published three such collections. I have previously reviewed the other two:
Having discovered some months ago that this venerable text was still in print, courtesy of Advent:Publishers, I couldn’t resist acquiring a copy1. Having just read Lem’s Microworlds, I was interested in SF history and decided to reread this text for the first time in half a century, enough time for every memory of it (save knowing I’d read it) to have vanished.
Many of the essays seem less focused than they could be, but they could have been much worse. I found the book of value as an interesting snapshot of an early moment in SF history. IMHO, it sheds some light on why 2023 American SF developed the way that it has.
SF was very much an isolated literary backwater back in 1953. Hence I would have assumed that SF writers and critics would have little interest in other literary currents. But I was wrong. This book is very much engaged with its wider context. Perhaps this is due to SF being new and new works being sparse. Readers would have had to stray outside the genre to keep themselves amused. Only an introvert of Claude Degler quality could ignore everything not SF.
Should you read this? Would you like it? Well, I thought the standout chapter was Boucher’s history of SF publishing2, which might be worth reading even if you took a pass on the rest of the volume.
Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), and here (Barnes & Noble). I did not find Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future at Apple Books or at Chapters-Indigo. Frankly, I was astonished to find it anywhere.
The text itself is discussed below. The 1953 text is divided into three sections: Science Fiction Today, Science Fiction as Literature, and Science Fiction, Science, and Modern Man. I have marked these divisions with bolded titles.
One thing about this edition that caught my eye (beyond the astonishing fact that the text is in print at all) is the table of contents. There is no table of contents. I am resigned to indexes often being absent, but surely tables of content are required?
Retrospect and Prospect (original to the 1979 Extended Edition)
A short preface reflecting on Modern Science Fiction, written a quarter century after first publication.
I had taken some comfort in thinking that a 1953 text could not possibly feature cane-waving and cloud-shouting about the New Wave. Foolish me for having purchased a later edition with an added preface denouncing the New Wave.
Science Fiction Today
Preface (Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future) • essay by Reginald Bretnor
Bretnor proposes a symposium of essays from a diverse assortment of authors, some of whom he agrees with and some (Wylie being particularly singled out) of whom he does not.
When I say “diverse,” I mean diverse by 1953 standards. Contributors are mostly white men, although there is one woman and two gay men. (Readers might have heard from other sources that the men were gay, although I doubt it with Clarke and am unsure about Heard, but readers wouldn’t have learned it from this book.)
The Place of Science Fiction • essay by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Campbell muses on human history and 1953’s moment in said history. Can SF play a useful role in navigating this ever-changing world in which we’re living?
Probably obligatory to include JWC at this moment in history, but this boring essay could have been written by ChatGPT.
The Publishing of Science Fiction • essay by Anthony Boucher
Boucher provides a short history of modern SF. Modern SF being the variety Gernsbeck kicked off in 1926, a short history is all that there was.
It’s interesting (at least to me) how dramatically the field changed over the course of the 1950s. Judith Merril’s perspective just a few years later was quite different and of course by the 1960s, Earl Kemp would wonder Who Killed Science Fiction?
Something Boucher takes pains to underline is that even at this very early moment, some questions are hard to answer definitively because the questions themselves are hard to frame so that only one answer is possible. For example, he provides an array of answers to the question “what was the first SF anthology?,” framed by possible definitions of “first,” “SF,” and “anthology.” SF history only gets murkier.
Science Fiction in Motion Pictures, Radio and Television • essay by Don Fabun
An assessment of the state of motion picture, radio, and television SF as of 1953. Radio comes off poorly and Dimension X is not spared. Fabun ignores X Minus One on the flimsy pretext that it didn’t air until 1955 and there was no possible way to know it was coming.
Science Fiction as Literature
Critique of Science Fiction • essay by Fletcher Pratt
At a first glance much of SF may seem to be subpar if considered as literature. As Pratt explains, this is only because so much of SF is badly written along many axes. At least there is ample room for improvement.
Interestingly, when Pratt discusses SF’s shortcomings in characterization, he points out that women authors such as Merril, MacLean, Moore, and St. Clair are exceptions. In many SF works of this vintage one would be hard pressed to learn that women existed at all. Pratt not only has somehow discovered this apparently obscure fact, he holds the women authors up for collective praise.
Science Fiction and the Main Stream • essay by Rosalie Moore
Moore, a poet, examines the relationship between science fiction and mainstream fiction.
I am kicking myself because there is a well-known phrase in SF for what Moore examines here and I cannot think of it. The closest I can come is “decrypting conventions.” The significance of a sentence in mainstream and the same sentence in SF can be very different because in one, it’s likely to be a metaphor or a simile and in the other, simple description.
Imaginative Fiction and Creative Imagination • essay by L. Sprague de Camp
Author de Camp examines how creative imagination works. Will it allow 1953 Americans a better chance of foreseeing the future than the Victorians had? De Camp suspects that the answer is: not by much, if at all.
Science Fiction, Science, and Modern Man
Social Science Fiction • essay by Isaac Asimov
A brief discussion of the social side of science fiction (to which Asimov’s Foundation could be said to belong). Included is a historical discussion whose generalizations often appear to be misleading or wrong.
Science Fiction: Preparation for the Age of Science • essay by Arthur C. Clarke
This is really more of an essay on the history of space travel in science fiction.
Science Fiction and Sanity in an Age of Crisis • essay by Philip Wylie
Wylie fulminates about collective foolishness in the face of better decision-making processes and the dire consequences of such willful foolishness.
The only reason Wylie is not remembered as SF’s crankiest man is because competition for that title was exceedingly competitive.
Science Fiction, Morals, and Religion • essay by Gerald Heard
What of man’s quest for meaning?
I believe Gerald Heard is this Gerald Heard, whose life makes for interesting reading. Would Bretnor have known of Heard’s relationship with Christopher Wood?
The Future of Science Fiction • essay by Reginald Bretnor
Bretnor tries to envision what the future holds for SF. Surely, the field—not stagnant and repetitive like mainstream—will continue to change and what was bright and shiny in 1953 will seem old hat by 1973!
Bretnor comes this close >< to inventing the term “future shock.”
Bretnor was on the money about fashions changing in SF, but fails to consider that the new hotness could be something of which he vocally disapproved. Notably he took time to complain about New Wave in his 1979 introduction.
There are endnotes (updated in 1979) but no index.
1: I could have borrowed a copy courtesy of my local university. Although not the copy I read half a century ago, which appears to have been retired.
2: One number to ponder: Boucher suggests about sixty SF novels were being published a year at this point. I will be misusing this in a future essay.
Also of interest: “$100 or less for the average short story, $1200 for a novel. (…) There must be some way of being just as poor with less effort.” Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $1,100 in 2023 USD and about $14,000 in 2023 USD.