Monday, March 7, 2011

Earl Kemp's Who Killed Science Fiction?

Paul Di Filippo, in a recent column in Barnes and Noble Review, recapped the state of science fiction and its various subgenres through the first decade of the twenty-first century. I'll leave the details of Paul's reviews and commentary for you to indulge in at your leisure, but Paul does mention that some continue to proclaim the demise of science fiction. Paul writes:
Of course, as we all now realize, the twenty-first century is proving both more and less science-fictional than the literature imagined, in strange and perhaps essentially unpredictable ways. This condition bedevils SF to some extent, as both its continuing credibility and utility come under question. Some authors and critics have recently even gone so far as to pronounce the mode deceased. Such statements regarding the death of SF are eternal. In 1960, for instance, a famous seminar was conducted under the heading "Who Killed Science Fiction?"

So for more than 50 years now, we've been hearing about the death of SF, especially with regards to genre magazines. I even freelance for one such magazine -- Realms of Fantasy -- that has seen three different owners/publishers in as many years, and yet the magazine's 100th issue will be published in June!

I was intrigued by the "Who Killed Science Fiction?" seminar -- actually, it was a survey rather than a seminar -- to which Paul referred, so I followed the link he provided to a fanzine -- eI29, December 2006; this particular volume is entitled The Compleat and Unexpurgated Who Killed Science Fiction? by Earl Kemp1. eI29 includes the original 1960 edition of WKSF? plus the updates Kemp wrote in 1980 and again in 2006, all with new introductions.

In mid-1960, Kemp put together a questionnaire on the state of SF magazines (keep in mind that by 1960 the earlier, prolific pulp magazines had all ceased to exist) that he sent to 108 individuals, a virtual Who's Who in Science Fiction at the time: Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Alfred Bester, James Blish, Robert Bloch, artist Hannes Bok, Ray Bradbury, Marion Zimmer Bradley -- and that's just a few of the names and only from the first two letters of the alphabet!

Of the 108 questionnaires mailed (yes, this was long before email and web-based forms), 71 were returned. Kemp compiled all of the responses and published the document in December 1960. The front cover of that 1960 publication is reproduced here; this is Kemp's personal copy, signed by cover artist Ed Emsh. Kemp writes: "For the longest time I felt that my copy of the book was permanently attached to my hands; I seemed to cling to it so possessively. In reality, I was just taking it with me everywhere I went that there was the slightest possibility that I could get one more contributor to autograph their text. I had this foolish goal of getting every one of them to sign my book eventually. It was a commonplace sight at conventions and science fiction related parties for years."

Of those who responded to the questionnaire, Robert A. Heinlein was the only one who insisted that his name not be used or inferred in the results to the questionnaire. Kemp tells of his encounter with Heinlein at the 1961 Seattle WorldCon after Who Killed Science Fiction? won the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine:

...Robert Heinlein approached me. He had this deliberately calculated way of insulting through faint praise; his words would flow out of him effortlessly as if he had spent some time rehearsing them, perhaps saying the words aloud to himself. "If I had of known what a good job you would do with Who Killed Science Fiction?" he said, "I'd have allowed you to use my name in it."

I was holding my personal copy of the book at the time; it had been considerably annotated and autographed by the many contributors who were as proud of the volume as I was. Without me asking, Heinlein took my copy of Who Killed Science Fiction? from me, opened it to page 13, and wrote a big "Robert A. Heinlein" over the Anonymous No. 1 byline.

So, what was in that original questionnaire that motivated 71 of the fields best and brightest to respond (and for Heinlein to wish to remain anonymous)? Earl Kemp posed 5 questions -- that's it, just 5 questions (though one question had multiple parts); here they are:

  1. Do you feel that magazine science fiction is dead?
  2. Do you feel that any single person, action, incident, etc. is responsible for the present situation? If not, what is responsible?
  3. What can we do to correct it?
  4. Should we look to the original paperback [mass market paperback] as a point of salvation?
  5. What additional remarks, pertinent to the study, would you like to contribute?

As I mentioned above, Earl Kemp revisited the survey in 1980, and again in 2006. Though in the intervening 46 years many of the original participants had passed away or were difficult to track down.

The Compleat and Unexpurgated Who Killed Science Fiction? -- eI29 -- is a wonderful, historical document revealing how writers, editors, and authors felt about the state of SF at the time. And thanks to the generosity of Kemp and, eI29 is available as a free download in both PDF and HTML formats. The zine is quite lengthy, 190 pages, but if you have any interest in the history of SF, you won't be disappointed.

One of my main reasons for blogging about Earl Kemp's project -- in addition to bringing the availability of the eBook to your attention -- was to post the following quotation from author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., from his response to the original questionnaire. The emphasis on the last paragraph in the quote is strictly my own.

Nobody killed science fiction. Science fiction is not dead. More money will be spent on stories with science in them during the next year than in any year in history will be spent by magazines, television, radio, book publishers, movies, and even Broadway.

So what is the beef?

The pulp writers can’t make a living any more? Tant pis. They made intelligent readers want to throw up.

Anybody who announces that he is a science fiction writer is announcing that he is in damn bad company financially and artistically.

-- Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 1960

There's still another paragraph, but you get the drift: Vonnegut wasn't a big fan of the pulps or SF. But more importantly, finances and artistry aside, Vonnegut really hits upon the idea of the "ghettoization" of science fiction [a subject I touched upon in my February 16, 2010, blog post entitled "Aliens Have Entered Mainstream's Orbit," on the works of author Judith Moffett].

But with all due respect to Vonnegut, and in conclusion, he did send Earl Kemp an apology later that same year, after receiving a copy of the bound edition of WKSF? Vonnegut writes: "Thanks for the handsome present... My own contribution to Who Killed Science Fiction? was irresponsible, and I'm sorry for it. What it expressed more than anything else was my own isolation.... Underneath all that shoptalk something very important spiritually may be going on. I hope so."

Notes and Footnotes:

In a post by Bud Webster on his Facebook page, I recently learned that The Merry Blacksmith Press has published a print edition of The Compleat and Unexpurgated Who Killed Science Fiction? So now you can add this incredible historical document to both your eReader and your book shelf. On his FB page, Bud commented: "One of the aspects of this [book] that struck me while reading it (and I'm sure was a factor in Merry Blacksmith's choosing it) was that the questions it poses are still being debated, online and on convention panels. Is magazine sf dead?..."

1. Fanzine ei is copyrighted © and published by Earl Kemp under the aegis of


  1. a couple of nitpicky points:

    RoF is a fantasy magazine, not a science fiction magazine (pedantic? yes!)


    "keep in mind that by 1960 the earlier, prolific pulp magazines had all ceased to exist" is not true. Several of the pulps were still going in the 60's, including the FIRST SF pulp and arguably the most famous pulp: Astounding, which changed its name to Analog that year, Amazing which was at that time a reprint magazine, Fantastic (the same), If and a couple of others. (There were 6 SF/F rags in publication in 1960 and as many as 13 during that decade).

  2. Just a note to let you know about a book blog I’ve started with a different twist: “Writing Kurt Vonnegut.” Every Saturday, I post another excerpt from my notebook as Vonnegut’s biographer— profiles of the people I met, the difficulties encountered, and the surprises, such as finding 1,500 letters he thought he had lost forever. It’s a blog written in episodes about being a literary detective.

    “Writing Kurt Vonnegut” is only three weeks old but has already been linked to from GalleyCat, 3 Quarks Daily, the Book Bench, the Rumpus, Identity Theory, Maud Newton, and Litopia. It’s receiving several hundred hits a day.

    Perhaps you’d like to give it a look at

    All the best,

    Charles J. Shields
    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November 2011)

  3. COF --

    Yes, I would say that classifying ROF magazine as strictly "fantasy" as opposed to the more generic "science fiction" is indeed nit-picking. Have no fantasy novels and stories ever won the Hugo, which is awarded by the World Science Fiction Convention? 'Nuff said.

    As to your second comment, I stand corrected in one sense, that pre-'60s SF magazines still existed in the '60s and beyond. But my rhetorical question would be: Were they still considered "pulps" by that point in time? I think not.

    Regardless, we can agree to disagree, and your comment is welcomed.
    - marty

  4. Charles,

    Since I did expressly quote Vonnegut in my blog post, I'll leave your comment for those readers who have a particular interest in learning more about the man. Best wishes with your project.

    - marty

  5. COF, first of all, "Astounding/Analog" hadn't been a pulp since it went to digest format in 1943. It briefly returned to bed-sheet in March of '63, but then went back to digest almost two years later. At the time that Earl Kemp began his project, there were no pulps left - everything had gone to digest format. Robert Weinberg did revive "Weird Tales" briefly in the '70s as a pulp-sized magazine, but the circulation was quite low and it didn't last.

    Secondly, there was a single circumstance that occurred in the late '50s that had a significant affect on the publishing world. I'll quote from my review of _Who Killed Science Fiction?_ which will run in the May issue of "Orson Scott Card's Interglalctic Medicine Show":

    "At the end of the 1950s, the science fiction magazine was in big trouble. American News Company, the dominant magazine supplier in the US, had folded in 1957, and that one event affected almost every newsstand magazine being published. Major periodicals continued, finding independent distribution with smaller companies, but the impact on the more marginal titles was catastrophic. Over the next few years, both new and long-running titles dropped like flies, including many of the magazines which featured fiction. The ones that survived either had strong backing from publishers like Dell or strong subscription rosters.

    "Science fiction magazines, along with the Western and Mystery magazines, were perhaps hit hardest and never really recovered; by the time things had settled down, the paperback book had taken over as the primary source for the casual reader, and it was no longer possible to sustain low-circulation magazines. As author and critic Barry Malzberg said in his invaluable book of critical essays, _Engines of the Night_, 'For most of science fiction, the Fifties ended dismally. There is no way to argue this.' Here endeth the lesson."

    To this day, the genre magazines have never quite recovered from this. Yeah, there have been new magazines popping up, but far more of them have failed than have continued. Even the few who had major corporate backing folded.

    The point of Kemp's revival of this important fan-work (and it does manage to transcend its faanishness quite handily) is that the primary question - is the science fiction magazine dead - is still being debated online now.

    Believe me, the difference between the titles on the stands in 1956 and 1960 was night and day. By the time Damon Knight founded the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1965, those few members who made an actual living from writing sf/fantasy were doing so because of book publication, not from short-story sales to the periodicals, something that was possible to do in the 1930s-50s.

  6. Hi, Bud,

    Your history lesson is/was most welcome. Thank you. It's interesting, too, that I chose to draft a blog about Kemp's book at around the same time that you were writing your review of the book for OSC's IGMS.

    Again, thanks for sharing your expertise with us.
    - marty

  7. Thanks for all the time and attention you've paid my project WKSF? It is fascinating reading about who/what I once was.

    Earl Kemp

  8. Hi, Earl,

    I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

    Reading WKSF? -- through all of the responses you received from the original questionnaire -- was like a window into the past, a snapshot of the science fictional attitude at the time. Great stuff. Thank you.

    - marty

  9. Er, how exactly could Heinlein insist that his name should not be inferred from the questionnaire?

  10. Hi, Addy,

    I obviously wasn't privy to the exchange between Kemp and Heinlein, but I'm guessing that Kemp could have mentioned something about this anonymous person (a telling description, location, anything) that those in the know would have figured out who it was. And once one person figured it out, well, the sf telegraph didn't work as quickly in those days as it does now, but there were still telephones, cons, fan meetings, fanzines, etc.

    - marty