SF Horizons - A Journal of Science Fiction Criticism

S F Horizons was a critical journal conceptualized and organized by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison. It saw two issues published, in 1964 and 1965. It was an extremely good example of early science fiction criticism and it is an outright shame the project was discontinued. Following are excerpts from the journal, which I hope everyone enjoys. While copies of the original are quite difficult to find, the digest was reprinted in one volume by Arno Press in 1975.

The first issue was published in Spring of 1964 and it features content by James Blish, Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison, among others. There is a very enlightening transcript of a conversation where Kingsley Amis, C. S. Lewis and Brian Aldiss discuss science fiction, a lengthy piece by Brian Aldiss where he critiques Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time, called Judgment at Jonbar and an article entitled The Use of Language in SF by G. D. Doherty.

Of particular interest to me was A Statement of Policy by the editors Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison. I have copied the full piece here so that the ideas and concepts behind this project can be fully understood by those who have interest in it. As far as I know, it hasn't appeared elsewhere.

SF Horizons Vol. 1

"It has almost become a cliché among newsmen, article writers and scientists: the phrase 'far beyond the wildest dreams of science fiction.' This expression is brought into play when referring to some scientific discovery or theory that not only isn't beyond the bounds of sf's wildest dreams, but has usually been worked to death and abandoned years past by the unsung labourers in the extra-terrestrial vineyards."

"Critics, teachers, editors, writers - all the people who should know better - remain remarkably ignorant of the realities of sf, while at the same time feeling free to condemn or brush it aside. Their attitude has long served to bolster the reactionaries inside sf itself who greatly desire to continue their existence as outcasts, a term they translate to mean superior beings. These are people whose contention that sf is a special medium which must be treated by special standards has created one of the major stumbling blocks in the path of intelligent criticism of sf."

"In reality we need no special pleaders; the long-flickering spark of sf existence has finally burst into a hearty flame that is fed by a continuous supply of books. During the year of 1962, at least 160 sf books were published in the English language. The attitude once widely held within sf that any sf book was a good one, and was best not panned in public, produced a flock of reviewers and no critics. Whether this pose was necessary at the time to ensure the survival of sf is unimportant now. SF may still be suffering from a number of deforming, and at times repellant, diseases, but none of them are fatal."

"Sf is not going to die tomorrow, or even the day after. Its antecedents are long and honourable, reaching back to the earliest stories that embody the myth-making capabilities of mankind. Its future is assured because it can satisfy large numbers of the literate on both conscious and subconscious levels. But what sf must have before all its potentials can be realized is a wide and flourishing literature of intelligent criticism."

"Without a doubt, a good deal of this criticism will employ the scalpel rather than the laurel crown, simply because of the bad work that persists within the sf field. Segregated by the force-screen of the in-group's self-satisfaction and the ignorance of the outsiders, a number of rank growths have been allowed to flourish and fester. The continued credit given to such incompetent writers as H.P. Lovecraft t will radically improve a writer's work - but and A. Merrit has encouraged further imitation of their original sins, and seduced publishers into continual reprints of their desperate dramas. They should be relegated to the same relative historical niche as that occupied by Honre d'Urfe and Mrs Alpha Behn in their role as precursors of the modern novel - and reprinted as often."

"Criticism must also be positive; herein lies its strength. It is a skilled surgeon's saw that should be applied to the body of sf literature, so that the same hand that cuts away the gangrenous matter will revitalize the healthy. There is no sf writer who would not profit from a keener analysis of his creations; in fact the better the writer, the surer his ability to profit. Self-analysis helps, of course - and in the long run is the only criticism that will radically improve a writer's work - but is of no aid to the lesser writers seeking some yardstick by which to measure their own efforts."

"The reality of this search is manifest in the very existence of this journal. While its two editors in a world blessed with teenage novelists, cannot be considered beardless youths (one of us going so far as to indulge in a moustache), we do fall into the ranks of the newer writers. Citizens of different countries, we find a mutual background in our interest in sf and in our desire to know more about the art and act of writing science fiction. To our dismay, we found very few answers to our questions, and no magazine devoted to intelligent and critical analysis to this field. Since no one else was producing it, we have been forced to do it ourselves."

"Our heartfelt thanks are extended to the contributors to this first issue. They not only share a mutual enthusiasm and respect for this most exciting form of literature, but possess the requisite spiritual and physical energy to translate their ideas into the commentaries published here."

In the next issue of SF Horizons, Aldiss and Harrison have collected an array of pieces for their readers. Included is an interview with William Burroughs discussing science fiction, an article by James Blish titled SF: The Critical Literature, With a Piece of Twisted Wire by Harry Harrison and British Science Fiction Now by Brian Aldiss.

SF Horizons Vol. 2

In the editors section of this installment, titled Megadunits, Harrison and Aldiss state the following:

"This magazine, as the observant will have noticed, appears irregularly. It almost died between issues - by what must be regarded as coincidence, since science fiction itself almost died in the same period."

"Never has the field yielded such a yawn-provoking crop of reading matter. Every other volume is an anthology or an anthology of anthologies. Even the bad stuff seems to have been in short supply, and the novels contain no novelties. Even the news that Robert Silverberg is re-entering the competition seems to do little to stir the lethargy."

"On the other hand, we have watched the growth of a genre that seems to owe a debt to sf, the near-future politically-oriented novel, often written with an eye to serialization in Saturday Evening Post, to becoming a Book Society Choice, to turning into a motion picture. Peter George's "Two Hours to Doom" (American title: "Red Alert"), which became "Dr. Strangelove," fulfilled most of these conditions, Burdick and Wheeler's "Fail Safe" all of them. "Twelve Days in May" and "Advise and Consent" are also within this genre, as is the latest Peter George, "Commander-1." A good earlier example was S.B. Hough's "Beyond the Eleventh Hour."

"These novels characteristically have scenes set in the Pentagon and Kremlin; half the characters live in uniform or Washington; the President talks like Henry Fonda. Everyone seems bigger than life, not only because they are destined for the wide screen but because they have the vital fictional asset of characters in a Shakespeare historical play: the fate of nations rests on their every action. The mood is documentary, the talk of emergency and overkill, the tension unrelenting. The corridors of power are well and truly paced and often it is difficult to tell who the real enemy is."

"Such megadunits beat sf at its own game, mainly because they at least begin in an environment with which any tv-viewer or newspaper-reader is entirely familiar. And even granted the powers of the imagination, it is easier to visualize a Russian ICBM in a trans-polar trajectory than a triffid in a ruined supermarket."

"Well, if we can't lick 'em, we can join 'em to the extent of claiming that these novels are a part of science fiction. In fact, their ancestry is different, and derives not from the Poe-Verne-Wells axis but the Buchan-Oppenheimer-Bond axis. Megadunits at the least pretend to exist in our actual world and use real events to create their tensions. "Fail Safe" takes the same sort of loving care to describe the War Room at Omaha as Fleming does describing 007's personal armament. Science fiction (with a few notable exceptions like Clarke and Clement) has never cared that much for facts."

"Perhaps it is inevitable that while sf is in this low state, the standard of reviewing has dipped perilously as regards to both quantity and quality. A reviewer has little to keep him on his toes. Old Sturgeons and Van Vogts continue to appear under new titles ; new editions of old titles choke on the lists of publishers, so that the English Penguin Books, publishing five "new" sf books in their sf series in July, include another reprint of "the Space Merchants" and a fresh translation of "Journey to the Centre of the Earth." A reviewer naturally responds with idling pulses."

"To take two examples of the falling off which are dear to the hearts of the present editors, when one of them put forth a new collection of stories, it received only four reviews in the whole of Great Britain; and when the other of them put forth a novel call "Greybeard," the reviewer of it in "Analog" - once regarded as the leading sf magazine - professed to find in it an accident that "melted the ice caps and raised the seas;" obviously, he was thinking of some other book by some other author he read at some other time."

"The editors of this journal do what they can to combat this sort of dimness before dozing off themselves. But in so doing, they have unavoidably to concentrate on the few writers in the field that still show green tips; because of the rarity of these writers, a life-and-death struggle of back-slapping and stabbing may at first appear to be in progress. For this we can only apologise and say that it shows we are really impartial, and any number can - are invited to - play."

"All the same, we undertake that when the next issue appears, it will not contain the names Blish, Ballard, Harrison, Aldiss, Bradbury, or Knight in the text - or not too often. We may even put out an all-Heinlein issue."

Since there were no further editions of SF Horizons we are only left to conclude that Aldiss and Harrison did not find any additional authors worth their time to interview and analyze. Of course its possible their dedication simply moved to other arenas other than furthering the critical analysis of science fiction.

While SF Horizons is certainly not the only example of science fiction critical analysis, it was a very early one, and it was proffered by Harrison and Aldiss, who combined are a force to be reckoned with in science fiction circles. This stands as an example of what sf critical journals should have always aspired to be and is a highly recommended addition to any science fiction collector's assortment.

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