Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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NON-ESCAPE LITERATURE

For most of the years I've been editing this magazine, the various non-science fictioneers who have, at one time or another, deigned to investigate this odd-ball phenomenon, have reported on it as a peculiar form of "escape literature". For all of those years, that's intensely irked me. Science fiction, in my opinion, is not, was not, and will not be an escape literature.
I'm beginning to see, though, that the various psychologists, sociologists, litterateurs, et cetera, et al., who have reported on it as an escape literature did have some reason for their statements.
What's finally brought that home to me is the reactions that have followed the launching of Sputnik - and, to a slower time scale, the explosion at Hiroshima.
Most of us in science fiction felt that the introduction of the atomic bomb, and the nuclear power reactors, validating the concepts we had been presenting for years, would bring a rise in the science-fiction field.
It did... for a few months. And that was followed by a marked decline, which swept out of the field quite a few magazines that had hastily tried to "get into the act".
The reactions to Sputnik have been more rapid, and, therefore, more readily perceptible and correlatable. There was, again, a sudden rise in interest in science fiction... and there is, now, an even more marked dropping of the science-fiction interest. A number of the magazines have been very heavily hit.
I think, now, I know why.
Imagine a man who came across an old, Fifteenth Century Grimmoire, full of magical formulas and incantations, and directions for summoning demons. Intrigued and amused by the old superstitions, the pompous ridiculousness of the things the old boys believed, he shows it to a number of friends. They decide it'll be a wonderful stunt for a Halloween party, and go through the ancient rigmarole for summoning a Demon. And there is the Demon.
Only because it was just a lot of ridiculous flubdubbery, the amateur magicians didn't bother to draw the protective spell of the pentacle. They thought the old boys were kidding...
I think the people of the United States thought we were kidding, too. And then... there was Sputnik. And we hadn't bothered with the protective spell of the pentacle; all we had was the Pentagon.
I think they thought we were kidding. That nuclear weapons and space flight were amusing ideas to play with... nonsense, of course, but amusing nonsense...
Apparently, they thought that science fiction was an escape literature, and read it as such.
It happens that science fiction's core is just about the only non-escape literature available to the general public today. Secret military reports of course are non-escape literature; they discuss satellite stations, bases on the Moon, antigravity devices and the like. They're being discussed in those reports because the men who write them find themselves grimly, terribly, forced to face the woeful reality that things change, and new factors come into action. That there is no security in knowing all the answers to all the known forces... because new forces arise.

The essence of "main stream literature" is that There Are Eternal Truths And Nothing Really Changes.
Sure, the Fundamental Things Remain... but their value changes. Instincts several hundred million years old remain in Man... but they no longer constitute the dominant force in Man. Man still has a sex instinct - but it no longer dominates him so that he is driven to rape any available female. The Ancient Fundamentals make the entire body of mainstream literature - which is, today, almost one hundred per cent purely escape literature. The soft, almost formless, nearly pointless stories found in the mass-circulation magazines are a wonderful retreat from the reality that is somewhat more fundamental than the ones they choose to consider.
It's nicer to say that evolution is based on the survival of the fittest; it's more honest to recognize that it is based on the elimination, the culling out, of the incompetent. That the Universe is not cruel, but it is quite definitely ruthless. You're allowed a weakness... if you pay for it with a greater strength, but the payment must be laid on the line, not promised sometime when it's convenient.
Furthermore, we can't buy the Universe; we can't purchase clear title to it. We can only rent space, and the rent on the top-floor space we happen to prefer is simply "achieve more than anyone else in the building does - and that means more than you yourself did last year".
When we fail with that rent, we lose tenure; we join the rest of the culls that Evolution keeps removing.
You don't find anything of that theme in the main-stream literature; it's an uncomfortable lump that wouldn't be nice in an escape literature.
So quite a few people took to reading science fiction and fantasy, because they thought both were fantasy - escape literature about safely, comfortably impossible things like atomic bombs and vampires and orbital satellite rockets and werewolves.
When Hiroshima winked out of existence, some of them were sufficiently disturbed to go back to reading about less unpleasant, more immediate, "realer" things like problems of being fired by the boss for incompetence. But they still thought we were kidding - that it was just bad luck that those weird, and therefore safe, imaginings happened to come almost true.
Besides, it was our atomic bomb, wasn't it? So it wasn't quite so bad... it was our own, private, well-guarded secret.
But Nature is, of course, a blabbermouth; shell tell anybody who asks the right questions. The real effect of learning that science fiction wasn't kidding about atomic weapons came when it became manifest that it was not our private, vest-pocket secret.
Test Mike was quite disturbing, too. And radioactive fall-out in your own backyard, your own local home dairy delivering milk that made the scintillometers tick off the counts.
Probably nothing is so deeply disturbing as having a nice, safe, fantasy wake up, stretch immense muscles, yawn, and start looking around... all on its own, and not controlled by your imagination any more.

The first published discussion of breeder reactors appeared in the pages of this magazine; that was in 1946, and we weren't kidding. The first published descriptions and discussions of thermonuclear bombs appeared simultaneously in this magazine, and its companion magazine, Air Trails. That item specified the use of lithium hydride, triggered by uranium, and suggested a twenty-five mile radius of destruction.
So that's a fantasy escape-literature, eh? We were just kidding, huh?
You'll also find a discussion of deuterium-deuterium fusion reaction for power back in 1939, also in this magazine. The basic reasons for using that reaction were outlined; they're the same reasons that underlie the present research for hydrogen-fusion power.
Incidentally, the world will never use uranium, thorium, or plutonium fission power to any major extent. And that's a prediction on which I'm not kidding. The only practical power-reaction for massive use is the deuterium fusion reaction; that, or the lithium-hydrogen reaction. Reason: those two reactions, properly managed, yield helium and energy, and helium is absolutely non-dangerous. Fission products can be tolerated only in small quantities; large quantities cost too much to dispose of. The fuel may be cheap - but the ashes are too damned expensive. Deuterium and lithium are cheaper, and the ashes can be safely dumped right in a man's face.
So we weren't kidding - and the discovery of that fact has lost us some readers. Since Astounding has, throughout its history as a Street & Smith magazine, never pretended it was kidding, and has, for twenty years, been the non-escape literature that seeks to meet the problems of tomorrow in the only possible way - "git them before they git you!" - Astounding has not suffered much. Nearly all of our readers have known right along that science fiction isn't fantasy, and isn't kidding. Hiroshima was an objective confirmation of what we already knew was real; Sputnik again confirmed the theoretical work we had done on the problems of tomorrow. They weren't frightening revelations; we hadn't been kidding ourselves, or anyone else.
But there are a lot of badly frightened people around. Some of those who decided to try science fiction after Sputnik went up must have left even faster than they came. If we weren't kidding when we talked about Sputnik... maybe we aren't kidding when we talk about aliens, Out There, who - horror incredible! - might be wiser and more powerful than Man.
It is not my intention to turn to "safe" fantasy - the escape - literature that certainly is becoming more and more popular. Science fiction is not, and never will be a mass-appeal type of material; still, there are some who have the unusual characteristic of being able to enjoy a non-escape literature - who can look at a problem that hasn't slugged them over the head yet, and like thinking about it.
From the consistent, strong shout of "Take it away!" every time Astounding has tried a story verging on the fantasy side, I'm sure this audience doesn't want escape literature.
Ok, friends - stick around. We haven't been kidding - and we aren't going to kid anybody in the future.
Even if they do go on thinking we're kidding when we talk about antigravity, faster-than-light interstellar travel, and some other things we don't have yet.
Or... at least we don't have them yet publicly. But two friends of mine, both professional, recognized scientists, have separately, and circumstantially, reported watching a demonstration of an antigravity device that worked.
At the Los Angeles Science Fiction Convention in September, I stated my personal, present hunch. The first man to reach the Moon may get there with a rocket. But the first trips to the other planets will not be made by rockets. Not because rockets couldn't - but because the force field approach will intercept the line of rocket development.
And I'm not kidding on that, either.

February 1959

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