Thinking back on what I read in Analog over a twenty year span (as I’ve done a few times here recently), another all-too-common tropes that comes to mind is the use of some obscure scientific idea in a manner contrived to show off just how smart the author thinks he is.
There’s obviously going to be some element of science in science fiction (otherwise it’s space romance or space opera or fantasy or some other “soft” genre). It may be pseudoscientific, it may be totally fabricated but handled consistently as established knowledge for purposes of the plot, but central to the plot will be some element of systematic inquiry into natural phenomena or speculative technology or the like. The problem is not science in science fiction, it’s what science is used and how it’s handled.
What differentiates this kind of science fiction from others is the author’s selection of an obscure concept or theory which they then elaborate on to excess. The tell is that the story is more about this concept than its effects on the characters involved, more a demonstration of the author’s brilliance or cleverness in finding and relating the concept than an exploration of its consequences or potential.
I don’t have the time to delve into the 50-year collection and pick out specific illustrative examples, but in general any story involving obscure concepts from cosmology or quantum mechanics will fall into this category. The more jargon-laden and compulsively detailed the presentation of the concept, and the more tortured or cringe-inducing the effort to make it relevant to the plot, the more certain the reader can be that this is what is going on.
Like so many bad aspects of modern science fiction, this quirk seems driven by the need to demonstrate a superior intellect to others rather than the desire to explore ideas. It’s the class nerd shouting: Look at me! Look how smart I am! My brains make me special and superior! In short, it’s both a product of and a product aimed at the brand of socially-inept but delusionally self-important outcasts observed in the recent Hugo Award controversies and “pink SF” generally.
It’s also, I suspect, what turns a lot of mainstream readers off with regards to science fiction. They might like a popular science fiction movie and decide to give written science fiction a try. But when they encounter one of these stories, they are reminded of the gamma losers they knew in school, and it sours them on the genre as a whole. Whether that association is made consciously or not, I think plays a large role (along with the creepy sexual perversions and taint of pedophilia that stained the genre in the 1960s and 1970s) in why despite the success of science fiction in film and television, reading and writing science fiction are still looked down on.
I read about as much as I could tolerate, which was not quite to the end of Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalities. I may tough it out through the last few pages, but that’s enough.
I still think there’s a lot of interesting potential in the Shaver Mythos, some interesting ideas, situations, and settings. Unfortunately, that potential is wasted with writing so bad as to be unreadable: long narrative dumps, stilted dialogue, corny and inconsistent descriptions of the imagined technology, goofy recycling of elements from other mythologies, poor story mechanics, etc.
Then there are simple writing mechanics and stylistic errors that any minimally-competent editor would have caught. For example: multiple instances of the same significant word in the same sentence or paragraph. It was a little thing to notice, something that happened that I might not have noticed had it happened only once or twice, but in one 5-6 page stretch I noticed that it happened so many times that, as it happens, I couldn’t not notice when it happened. Just as awful is Shaver’s frequent description of events or places as in some way “beyond mere words to portray” or “exceeding human ability to understand”, a cheap gimmick whose overuse fills me with a weary loathing I struggle to adequately convey.
I’ve read a lot of mediocre SF (I subscribed to Analog for 25 years), but I didn’t fully appreciate the term “hack writer” until I experienced Richard Shaver. I think if I taught English or creative writing classes at the high-school level or above, I would be tempted to teach my students editing by assigning small groups one story apiece. Go, and make this readable. Even government-school students couldn’t make it any worse.
I’m a few pages into the wonderfully-titled “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia”, the second of the stories in the collection, and can already see why Shaver is compared to Ed Wood. The writing is schlocky, the names are cheesy, the dialogue is campy, and the overall quality is at the level of a high-school creative writing assignment.
There’s something endearingly strange about it all, and something compelling about the storytelling. For all its faults, there’s something that holds my interest enough to keep going with it.
I suspect that someone could make a project out of rewriting Shaver’s stories in a more competent form (assuming they’re out of copyright) and organizing and clarifying his mythos along the way. Behind the ineptitude there are some interesting ideas a good writer could explore further in new Shaver Mythos stories as well.
Resuming my personal project of reading classic SF from the 1930s – 1950s, I decided to give the oft-discussed Shaver Mysteries a try. I figured that if I’m going to make arch jokes about hell-creatures from the hollow Earth and Nazi flying saucers, I should probably know the source material. This wasn’t what I expected to find:
Armchair fiction presents extra large paperback editions of the best in classic science fiction novels. “The Shaver Mystery,” by Richard S. Shaver, is perhaps the most controversial piece of science fiction ever written. Supposedly a true story, it is widely considered to be the nadir of science fiction literature, the “Plan 9 From Outer Space” of the whole genre. Some people considered Richard Shaver to be a genius, but most others considered him and his editor, Ray Palmer, to be two of the biggest blights to have ever entered the field of professional science fiction writing. Shaver’s wild ramblings are a thing to behold. We have never encountered an author who could write such consistently overlong sentences that appeared to make no sense whatsoever. Genius or nut-case? You decide. Here in Book One, are the first three parts, just as they appeared in the June, 1947 issue of Amazing Stories: “Formula from the Underworld,” “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia,” and “Witch’s Daughter.” Also included in Book One is the mind-boggling, yet essential “How to Read the Shaver Alphabet,” which pertains to Book Two as well. “The Shaver Mystery” is presented in paperback for the first time. Heaven help us.
In other words, Shaver’s writing skill is on the same level as today’s Hugo Award winners. On the plus side, at least he (probably) didn’t write his stories as clumsy vehicles for cockamamie cultural Marxism and cringeworthily intimate unwanted explorations of his personal dysfunctions.
We shall see.