Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Refuting the Myth of the Sci-Fi Virgin

Hugo Gernsback
James Reich, writing in, declared that we can trace the stereotype of the sexually misaligned science fiction nerd back to Hugo Gernsback, the pioneering magazine editor who largely laid the genre’s modern foundations. Gernsback’s nigh-Victorian aversion to sex, in contrast to the lurid exhibitionism of the penny pulps of his day, in Reich’s telling, set the stage for a neutered genre that persists to this day.

Reich’s theory is elegant in its simplicity. If we can trace a single continuous line of sexual dysfunction over the course of nearly a century, then we have a main critical thread that permeates the literature. There’s something satisfying about laying the trajectory of an entire publishing genre at the feet of a single man. Reich’s photo of a buck-toothed nerd sandwiched between two pairs of boobs makes a nice touch.

This theory also spits in the eye of reason.

Do we really believe a single editor’s grab for upmarket panache has influenced youths’ sexual development for nearly ninety years? Has no other editor really had sufficient influence on the genre as to leave a mark on its mores? That arrogates a lot of power to one man, who is conveniently not around to rebut the argument. And it assumes its audience is beholden to a moral structure that was already wheezy when Gernsback channeled it.

Reich’s thesis requires its audience to approach the literature as a complete sexual tabula rasa. It requires science fiction readers to remain immune to the influence of parents, teachers, peers, religious leaders, and other role models. It requires readers to stick their fingers in their ears and close their eyes when faced with today’s sex-obsessed popular culture. And it requires them to never read any literature other than science fiction.

It starts to seem somewhat unlikely.

Isaac Asimov
Unfortunately, Reich sees a correlation, and assumes that fandom causes sexual repression. But he does nothing to prove causation—because his is not the only explanation, or even the best one. I find it altogether more probable that people who are drawn to a life of the mind, and feel at best torn and ambivalent about fleshly appetites, would gravitate to literature that shares their values.

At one time, such readers probably would have read mystery fiction. Its use of complex mental puzzles would have satisfied the longing for intellectual stimulation, and broadly sexless protagonists like Auguste Dupin, Miss Marple, and Sherlock Holmes would have let the thinking audience feel comfy in their own skin. Cozy mysteries, with their overwhelmingly cerebral appeal, would have been just what such nerds needed.

But the intrusion of swinging masculinity, by authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, let in much of the primal physicality that brainy readers wanted to avoid. It’s impossible to read mystery today without encountering sex in such detail as to cross even jaded Lotharios’ eyes. The genre is now laced with heaving bosoms, sucker punches, and other flourishes that Agatha Christie would have lamented as unevolved.

Meanwhile, science and technology came to dominate the public discourse, giving rise to slickly published science fiction. Who can blame nerds for leaving the mystery fold and migrating to a genre that spoke to their desires? Reich’s “Raygun Gothic” provided a home for a certain audience for half a century. But since the 1980s, this genre too has attracted an increasing sexual forthrightness, and many nerds now favor fantasy or nonfiction.

Harlan Ellison
That said, Reich does dance close to one lingering consequence of Gernsback’s legacy, without ever quite touching it. Long quotes and allusions to Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, and Harlan Ellison, who had to push back against censorious publishers, which wanted to dumb SF language to that acceptable on Saturday morning cartoons. That, unfortunately, we can lay on Gernsback’s lap.

Gernsback was unabashed in advocating his pedagogical purposes with his “scientifiction.” He wanted to use the tropes of boys’ adventure fiction to teach youth the ways and reasoning of growing science. This inculcated the attitude that SF is for children—and that reading SF is symptomatic of arrested childhood. This belief proves remarkably durable, outside the genre audience, despite copious evidence of serious adult readership.

In short, Reich’s thesis only makes sense to outsiders, and only if they don’t think too hard about it. Hugo Gernsback made a limp bid for post-Victorian respect. James Reich uses that hoary grab to infantilize science fiction audiences decades after the fact. I ask you: which of the two really holds legitimate, intellectually ambitious readers back?

1 comment:

  1. Huzzah huzzah. Perfectly accurate as near as I can tell. Philip Jose Farmer didn't think so either, or Theodore Sturgeon.
    Tell me David Brin writes for children. Sure he does. Or Ian Watson. Outside of Heinlein's juveniles and H. Beam Piper's Fuzzies, there isn't much that could be reasonably seen through the lens presented in the original argument.