I have, by pure coincidence, been re-reading Kate Wilhelm’s 1975 collection, The Infinity Box. I was reading the title story because I mean to write something about it; I read the rest simply for pleasure. Until I realised how much what I was reading connected with recent discussions about the current place of women in science fiction, and in particular my contention that what we consider to be science fiction has narrowed in recent years.
Two things struck me very forcibly when reading the Wilhelm collection. First, that the stories were even better than I had remembered. Second, that while I knew these stories were unequivocally science fiction when I first read the collection (probably about 1977), today they would almost certainly not be considered sf.
It took me a while to work out why that might be, but in the end I think it comes down to context.
The constituent stories first appeared at the very start of the 70s. This was the tail end of the New Wave, and while I would hesitate to identify Wilhelm as a New Wave writer she was undoubtedly and unavoidably influenced by the dominant mode of the genre. The New Wave was actually a two-part thing. In Britain it really got going around 1963/64 and petered out probably about 1971 (which pretty much dates it from Michael Moorcock’s assumption of the editorship of New Worlds to that magazine’s Dr Who like death and revivification as an original anthology series). In America it came slightly later, probably starting around 1966/67 (Judith Merril’s England Swings SF, Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions) and lasting probably until about 1974 (we might think of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren as the transformation point). The after-effects lasted, of course, some can still be identified today, but the New Wave itself was short though its influence on the genre was wide and deep.
It is facile (but no less true for that) to identify the determining characteristic of the British New Wave as being a discovery of literary modernism (a form that had more or less passed science fiction by completely to that point). In America, though there was some avant garde literary experimentation (which tended to skip modernism and go straight for postmodernism), the determining characteristic was iconoclasm, the use of a subject matter (primarily sex) that had largely been absent from the asexual sf of the so-called Golden Age. That said, there is still one thing that both versions of the New Wave shared: the attitudes of their time.
From the late 1950s onwards, the works of people like Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, R.D. Laing and B.F. Skinner escaped the academy and became widely and popularly known. Laing, for instance, was a most unlikely bestseller and, according to Gavin Miller, a major influence on Alasdair Gray (see Alasdair Gray: The Fiction of Communion). Sociology and psychology were the new sciences, and, being new, the most relevant to now. And because these were the happening things, they were the base sciences underlying the happening sf. Wilhelm, for instance, references Skinner and behaviourism directly a couple of times in this collection. They were ‘soft sciences’, in the somewhat disparaging term of the old-fashioned hardcore sf fans for whom the ‘hard sciences’ (physics, chemistry and, at a stretch, biology) would only ever really do for proper science fiction; but they were sciences nonetheless, and for those readers and writers who wanted to move the genre on from its rather staid, limited core, that was good enough to underpin a new science fiction.
The interesting thing in all of this, of course, is that the science fictional interest in how our society works, for instance, whether in the relatively realist form of Wilhelm’s ‘April Fool’s Day Forever’ or Thomas M. Disch’s ‘Angouleme’ or the far more baroque ‘“Repent, Harlequin” Said The Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison, brings the genre close to the concerns of the mainstream. Similarly, the behavioural and psychological interest of Wilhelm’s ‘The Infinity Box’ or Delany’s ‘Time Considered As A Helix Of Semi-Precious Stones’ or Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ also brings the genre close to what is considered the natural territory of the mainstream.
Given the new level of interest in literary form and experiment at the same time, and it is hardly surprising that the tail-end of this period also saw the greatest agitation from within the sf community for the tearing down of the ghetto walls. Those outside the sf ghetto had no reason to see it yet, of course, but within the community we were recognising that what the best contemporary science fiction was doing was little different from the best mainstream literature in either technique or concerns.
What happened next, perhaps inevitably, was the release of Star Wars in 1977. Suddenly everybody, in or out of the ghetto, was confirmed in their impression that the core of the genre was concerned with extravagance, size, big dumb objects and mythic archetypes. Even if their work wasn’t already being questioned, Laing and Skinner and Marcuse would have no place in a Star Wars universe. The social and the psychological dropped out of forming the science in science fiction; and no matter how the majority of the genre’s better writers strived and continue to strive to maintain the social and psychological qualities first introduced to the genre during the New Wave, these qualities are now part of the literary form rather than the core scientific concern of the fiction. Nowadays, with exceptions (and there are always exceptions) the majority of science fictions take as their core scientific concerns exactly the same ‘hard’ sciences as did the sf of the Golden Age, physics, chemistry and, at a stretch, biology.
The genre has contracted back to where it had been, and as a result the sort of science fiction that Kate Wilhelm was writing in this superb collection would no longer be recognised as science fiction.