The World of Science Fiction by Del Rey, Lester, 1979

The World of Science Fiction by Del Rey, Lester

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Despite its limiting title, Lester Del Rey's The World of Science Fiction: 1926-1976, The History of a Subculture gives a pretty detailed history of at least the magazine driven side of the genre from the late nineteenth century to 1976, the year of the book's publication by Del Rey Books. Although it was intended to be a general history, Del Rey spent the majority of his time detailing the ups and downs of the magazine markets and the publications that made it up. Personally I think that it was an excellent choice to do so, and by doing it that way Del Rey managed to differentiate his book from Gunn's Alternate Worlds, and Pohl's The Way the Future Was, the former of which was more personality driven in that it focused on individual authors and was much broader in scope because it described the early history of European literature for examples of fantastic texts - and was thus academic in voice - and the latter of which was a more personal account of Pohl's own experiences as a publisher, writer, agent, etc., and therefore read like an autobiography.

Del Rey's thesis was that during the first fifty years of its history the genre moved in twelve-year cycles; that is to say, after every twelve years someone filled with new ideas about how to manage a publication would come along and bring their ideas into the world, and thereby transform the genre. For the most part Del Rey supported his thesis adequately enough with anecdotal evidence, though the fourth age of SF, indicated by the rise and relatively quick fall of the New Wave, then by American authors tendency to be at once literate and again pessimistic, did appear to throw Del Rey for a loop. This is certainly not to say that Del Rey did not understand the meaning of what was happening at that point in time. Its just that there was so much going on that it became difficult to encapsulate each event in a paragraph or two and relate it adequately to his theory. An unfortunate consequence of survey books like this is that there just is not adequate space to write more than a paragraph or two about any one topic. For example in describing the impact of the magazines and their publishers on the markets Del Rey took considerable time in the aggregate mentioning the major stories from each era. Of course there were so many of them that he could not afford to give each more than a sentence or two, and probably because of that reason the weight of his opinions seem to be broad and light, instead of probing and meaningful. Del Rey remained somewhat impartial, though animated and full of enthusiasm, in the recounting of the history of the genre, Though he did tend to go light on certain stories - some of which I would have happily torn apart, like A.E. Van Vogt's Black Destroyer, and as a result the book seems to be slightly unbalanced.

While Del Rey also put forth his opinions on the impact of fanish activities on the development of the genre, in my opinion this very important aspect of SF history was severely under-weighted in comparison to other topics in the book. Fanish activities played a major role in the development of SF because fans not only were given easy access to writers and editors through letters columns, but they made new inroads by creating and distributing fanzines, by writing columns in established prozines, by organizing and holding conventions, by starting and running publishing houses, by documenting events, by entering the profession themselves, and by any of a thousand other active methods. Del Rey did not ignore these things, but instead deferred to Moskowitz, who had written a book called The Immortal Storm some decades before. I was also a bit confused by his constant mention of the Moskowitz book and his practical exclusion of Harry Warner, Jr.'s excellent All Our Yesterdays.

Del Rey also missed the mark with his barely-three-page list of important works from each of his eras. Three pages is not enough space to describe important works from before 1815, much less those from fifty years of the modern era of the genre. His appendices and index were also spotty and weak. Honestly one day I am going to personally go through all of these non-fiction SF books that I have and rewrite (and in some cases write for the first time) all the miserable indecies in them, this one included.

On the brighter side Del Rey gave an excellent telling of the development of the hardcover fiction markets, which really did not start in the United States until the 1950's or so. In that alone Del Rey gave significantly more information then anyone else who had discussed the topic before including Gunn, Pohl, and Asimov, Maltzberg, Knight, Panshin...anyone. Del Rey also gave more information than anyone save for Alva Rogers (in A Requiem for Astounding) on John W. Campbell. We are treated not only to an insider's view of his ascension, but also the controversy surrounding his acceptance of radical theories, his dedication to crack-pot tropes, and his long and hard attempts to bring some credibility back to Astounding and then Analog. Del Rey would have been the best to do this right, I think. It seems to me that Del Rey was never as interested in politeness for the sake of politeness as some of his contemporaries, like Asimov. He held Campbell in high regard, and paid credit where credit was due. But Del REy was also infamous his directness and honesty in many situations. Still, I wish that there was more about him. Campbell fascinates me, and there is not now and probably never will be an authoritative book on him.

While I consider this book to be worth the acquisition-aggravation, it should be read in conjunction with other genre history books. I've mentioned a few above, and reviews of others are available on this website, and more will come on line in the future. The fact is that writing a history of anything is as much interpretation as it is recounting of the facts. Nobody is likely to ever get it right, but many have interesting ideas about what the facts mean.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)

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