Future’s past: science fiction’s origins

Thursday’s science fiction symposium featured authors Harry Harrison, Frederick Pohl and science fiction expert Rusty Hevelin. The speakers discussed everything from the history of the genre to why the SciFi channel can be depressing. PHOTO | SEAN REED

Don’t call it SciFi – to them, it’s a dirty word. And they should know. Frederik Pohl, Harry Harrison and Rusty Hevelin are giants of the genre, and they shared their knowledge at the Alumni Association’s annual science fiction symposium Wednesday night.

Pohl and Harrison are the writers. The novels Gateway – which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards – and The Merchant of Venus are two of Pohl’s most well-known works.

Harrison is also an award-winning author of many science fiction bestsellers, including the DeathWorld and Stainless Steel Rats series.

Hevelin is influential in a different way. He is the guardian of science fiction and fandom. He’s been a major collector of pulp magazines and science fiction artwork since the 1930s.

Science fiction as a genre started in the late 19th century, but it found an audience in the ’30s. Pohl discovered a whole new world as a child when his father gave him his first copy of Science Wonder Stories.

“I thought it was wonderful literature, but I didn’t know any better – I was 10 years old,” said Pohl.

Pohl spent a lot of time in secondhand magazine stores buying old magazines for a nickel apiece.

Pohl’s peer and good friend, Harrison, was 5 years old when he discovered his first science fiction magazine. This magazine served as the catalyst that led to his writing career.

Pohl and Harrison were both inspired by writers H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling.

“I was greatly taken with his writing about the future because he did it in a sort of offhand way, as if it was all true,” Pohl said.

Harrison agreed.

“Kipling and Wells were the only ones who could write science fiction well,” Harrison said.

All three men agree that it takes a certain recipe to create good science fiction literature. There are the basics: good writing, believable characters and a hook to get and then keep the reader’s attention.

Then there is the stuff that makes science fiction what it is. A new idea or invention is usually the ticket to a good story. Some technological and scientific knowledge is also necessary, Hevelin said.

The face of science fiction has changed in several ways since these men began. Hevelin recalled how science fiction was mostly male-dominated in the early years.

“Women came into it and we began to get a different kind of science fiction in the stories,” he said.

Before women actually used their names in publication, they employed male pen names to hide their identities.

Harrison recalled a quote he heard once about how science fiction writing was viewed in times past: “Science fiction is written by Englishmen and Americans and not by foreigners or women.”

Pohl sees a different kind of change.

“We’re living in a science-fiction world now,” he said. “A lot of things science fiction talks about has either become fact, technologically or mechanically, or they are all concepts that everybody’s familiar with now. We live in a world that has absorbed a lot of science fiction and made it part of its daily life.”

There is one change that these men neither accept nor associate themselves with.

The phrase “SciFi” and all it implies leaves a bad taste in their mouths. Science fiction and SciFi are not the same thing, according to Pohl, Harrison and Hevelin.

“When you’re reading a science fiction story, you should be able to tell yourself that that under certain conditions, this could actually happen,” Pohl said.

To this trio, SciFi is more along the line of badly made Japanese monster flicks. They try to avoid being connected to anything bearing that label. And when it comes to the SciFi Channel, not a lot of good can be said.

“The SciFi Channel is really depressing the hell out of me,” Pohl said. “It’s all sorts of fantasy and numerology and spiritualism that should not be associated with science fiction. Unfortunately, it’s very successful.”

Pohl, Harrison and Hevelin don’t cozy up too close to the Star Trek and Star Wars phenomena, either.

“Both have produced a huge following of fans,” Pohl said. “Neither Star Trek nor Star Wars has ever really said anything about the future that hadn’t already been said earlier and said better. They’re not inventive in terms of what is going to happen. It’s fun to watch, but it has never, ever troubled anyone’s intellect.”

So what is the allure of science fiction? To these men, it’s pretty simple.

“It leads you to look at the world in a way that you can’t experience in any other way, to see things that might happen and imagine things that could happen,” Pohl said. “It’s mind-broadening.”