The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

22 05 2011

The following letter to the editor is from Astounding Stories; Vol. VII, No. 1; July 1931: 

Dear Editor:

I have purchased many of the issues of your magazine, and have read everything in them, including the letter columns, with great interest. I have particularly enjoyed certain stories, such as “The Forgotten Planet,” “The Jovian Jest” and “The Planet of Dread,” in which genuine imaginative quality was combined with good writing. Many other tales, not so well written, I have enjoyed for their fantasy, their suggestive ideas.

In following “The Readers’ Corner” I have noted the objection to so-called “im[132]possible” stories, voiced by some of your Readers. Stories thus classified, one would infer, are tales dealing with the marvelous and the mysterious in which the author has not attempted to give a naturalistic or scientific explanation of his wonders and mysteries. In other words, he has not rendered them in terms of the test-tube. He has admitted the inexplicable, the “supernatural.”

Personally, I enjoy stories of this type, as well as those that are written with the purely scientific approach. I suspect that those who condemn them are suffering from a rather amusing—and also pathetic—sort of unconscious hypocrisy. I think that people who read your magazine, as well as Science Fiction magazines in general, are people with the ingrained human love for wonder and mystery; but some of them are afraid to accept and enjoy anything—even a fairy tale—that is not couched in the diction of modern materialistic science, with a show of concern for verified credibilities. Probably, in most cases, they would like and prize the very stories that they condemn if the writer had used a different terminology, and had offered explanations that were even superficially logical according to known laws.

Please do not think that I am decrying, or even criticizing, Science Fiction. I consider it a highly important and significant branch of present-day writing, and have hopes of contributing to it myself. I am merely advocating an open attitude of mind and imagination. For those who think that the “impossible” requires justification—or cannot be justified—I would suggest that the only impossible thing is to define and delimit the impossible. In an infinite, eternal universe, there is nothing imaginable—or unimaginable—which might not happen, might not be true, somewhere or sometime. Science has discovered, and will continue to discover, an enormous amount of relative data; but there will always remain an illimitable residue of the undiscovered and the unknown. And the field for imaginative fiction, both scientific and non-scientific, is, it seems to me, wholly inexhaustible.—Clark Ashton Smith, Auburn, Cal.

Seriously, hasn’t this debate gone on long enough? 🙂 Science fiction doesn’t have to use “real” science to still be science fiction. Besides, not all science is static and unchanging. For example, once you reach the quantum level, “real” science becomes slippery and depends to some measure on the biases and beliefs of the scientist reading the results. In fact, I just read this article where scientists are still arguing if gravity or dark matter drive the universe. Who knows? Twenty years from now there may be another theory, equally plausible based on raw data and the way scientists read that data. Realism is great and all, but there’s plenty of room for the fantastic, for the unknown. Who cares if FTL travel is impossible as long as it is being used in a way that serves the story? Who cares if aliens are portrayed as too similar to humans as long as the author is saying something worth saying or maybe even simply entertaining? And this applies to other genres, too. Who cares if there’s not really such thing as a monster under your bed? Who cares if a bug’s exoskeleton could not support its own weight if it became a giant like in some drive-in flick? Who cares if there’s no such thing as a masked serial killer who can not be stopped by falling out windows, getting shot multiple times, stabbed, and taking a hatchet to the head? Who cares if fairies aren’t real? Who cares if unicorns were really narwhales and mermaids were manatees as seen through the rum-soaked eyes of a sailor? Not everything should be read as literal or factual. Especially not any branch/genre of fiction due to its very nature as … well … FICTION! That’s not saying you can’t give real world messages or meaning, that’s not saying you can’t reflect reality (good writing ultimately always reflects some measure of reality even if just as a larger parable or metaphor). Anyway, thank you Mr. Clark Ashton Smith. I approve your message. It speaks as well today as it did 80 years ago…



One response

10 08 2011
“…the only impossible thing is to define and delimit the impossible…” « T.J. McIntyre: A Southern Fried Weirdo

[…] title to this post is a quote from Clark Ashton Smith within a letter I discussed earlier on my blog. Feeling inspired, I decided to have fun writing a piece of impossible, pulp-inspired science […]

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