Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, March 3, 2017


The World of Science Fiction 1926-1976:  The History of a Subculture by Lester del Rey (1979)

Science fiction has been the red-headed stepchild of literature for much of its existence as a genre.  Although examples of science fiction had been rife for decades, it emerged as its own distinct field with the April 1926 appearance of Amazing Stories.  Hugo Gernsback, the publisher, was a canny inventor, and innovator who had a penchant for both promotion and bankruptcy.  Gernsback named this new genre scientifiction -- a somewhat logical and unwieldy term that encapsulated the type of story he wanted to promote.  Luckily the term soon evolved to be science fiction.  Gernsback wanted his brainchild to be associated with science, based on the feeling that it would gain more acceptance if people thought it to be educational as well as entertaining.

The first issues of his magazine relied heavily on reprints by H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and others since there were not professional science fiction writers.  Soon, though, the mantle was picked up by enthusiastic readers of the magazine.  New writers began to emerge.  Stories tended to be poorly written, awkward, and juvenile -- but they were enthusiastically received by Gernsback audience, many of whom were young.  Science fiction seemed a field just right for socially inept but intelligent young readers.  (Certainly not every reader fit this category, but enough did and were the most vocal and energetic of the genre's fans.)

Lester del Rey was a popular writer in the field, as well as an editor, critic, and someone who had been involved with the publishing end of science fiction.  And he had been a visible fan for much of his life.  When this book was published, del Rey Books was an arm of the Ballantine publishing group of Random House.  Under the auspices of his wife, Judy-Lynn del Rey, del Rey books was a leading publisher of science fiction; del Rey himself was hire to bring out the del Rey Fantasy line.

There were few people as qualified as del Rey to write this science fiction history.  Others had approached the subject with varying degrees of success.  Harry Warner wrote from a deep personal knowledge of fandom.  Sam Moskowitz approached the subject with a somewhat scholarly bent, focusing on particular authors and themes.  Donald A. Wollheim  used a highly personalized (and somewhat opinionated) approach.  Sam Lundwell presented a view from outside the US.  Frederik Pohl, Jack Williamson, and others focused on the impact of the field on their own lives.  James Blish, Damon Knight, Judith Merril, Algis Budys, and others used demanding criteria to dissect the genre.  Del Rey has incorporated most of the above approaches to produce this book.

For del Rey, science fiction seems to evolved in cycles of about twelves years.  He divides them as The Age of Wonder (1926-1937, in which the nascent field began to stand on its own). the Golden Age (1938-1949, with the advent and influence of magazine editor John W. Campbell), The Age of Acceptance (1950-1961, signaled by a glut of new magazine, the rise of the paperback novel, and the emergence of science fiction in television and film), and The Age of Rebellion (1962-1963, which brought in new ideas, new approaches, and a greater concern with contemporary issue).  These cycles are generalized of course and are basically handy only for framing discussion.  Del Rey covers each adequately and entertainingly.

Those who were familiar with del Rey personally know that he was intelligent, fiery, opinionated, and outspoken.  Those last three qualities were toned down for this book, but they are there.  The main problem with this book -- and others like it -- is that there is just too much to cover decently.  It's broad focus, while entertaining, forces the book to rush through too many events, too many instance, and too many facts.  There are many gems to be gleaned from this scattershot approach but the reader is basically dipping his or her toe in a vast ocean.  Then, too, the final section, in which the author tries to gather everything together and look to the future, by necessity lacks a firm focus and now seems outdated.

This is a good book.  A useful book.  I especially appreciated del Rey's inside look on how publishing decisions are made.  There is very little new here for the die-hard science fiction fan, but I'm glad I had a chance to go back four decades to experience once again the wonder and excitement of my favorite field.


  1. Very nice, Jerry. The cover looks familiar, though that means little, but I do think I've read it, and some of the others you mention. Thanks for this review.

  2. Then again, the books this one was meant to sit beside were such as James Gunn's ALTERNATE WORLDS, Brian Aldiss's BILLION YEAR SPREE (later revised as TRILLION YEAR SPREE) and, to some extent, David Kyle's PICTORIAL HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION (though that one was more a coffee-table book, of course). Moskowitz as scholar is half-true, and a bit kind...Mike Ashley more thoroughly qualifies, among those who made a long-term project of contacting as many survivors as possible to get the story directly from them.

    Del Rey was opinionated, and had at least as many questionable assertions about the field as Gunn (who has no few), and his willingness to, well, pander (as with the SHANHARRA books) was more than a little off-putting, but he did write some notable fiction, helped along such other writers as Algis Budrys and Harry Harrison early in their careers, and did some useful things in his time at Ballantne/Del Rey as well...the Thorne Smith reissue program didn't hurt my feelings any, for one.

  3. I'd like to hope someone will say I "did some useful things" in my time, Todd, though I doubt that will happen. In comparison to the every day SFF reader, he did a lot.