In recent years, within the science fiction community, there has been a reckoning—of sorts—with the genre’s racist, sexist, and colonial past. From pioneer and first-contact stories being thinly-veiled justifications for colonialism, to male-coded obsessions with conflict and conquest, to a near-absence of non-white characters except as props or as antagonists, there is much in this history to confront, to discuss, and to overcome. And as the last decade has shown, this discussion is not always a comfortable one.
In his book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said talks about the “contrapuntal canon”. In discussing how colonialism forms an (often) unacknowledged backdrop to the classic literary texts of the Western canon, Said writes that, nonetheless, “we must … read the great canonical texts with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented in such works. The contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes – that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.”
While Said’s point is about tendencies internal to literary texts, we can also think about it in the context of literary traditions. Science fiction is not a monolith: even as racism, colonialism, and sexism played a dominant role in SF-production through the long 20th century, there were always writers and texts that questions, challenged, and subverted that dominant paradigm. The contrapuntal canon, or the hidden transcript, as it were.
At Strange Horizons, we see ourselves as committed to a plural and diverse vision of SFF, and therefore, as a continuation of this older – and sometimes submerged – tradition of against-the-grain writing. To know – and understand – more about our forebears, for this Fund Drive Special Issue, we decided to interview Chandler “Chan” Davis, one of the most outstanding exponents of the contrapuntal canon, at a time at which the dominant, regressive tendencies of science fiction were at their apogee: the 1940s and the 1950s.
A mathematician and a science fiction writer, Davis was notoriously dismissed from the University of Michigan, and jailed, during the McCarthy years. He wrote a range of science fiction stories (some of which are collected in the anthology, It Walks In Beauty), exploring themes around nuclear disarmament, sexism in society, labour and capital, and first contact and language. The science fiction critic, T.G. Shenoy, recently put together a compilation of his stories, which can be accessed here).
Now 95 years old, Chandler Davis very kindly agreed to this interview, which was conducted via collaborative Google Doc earlier this year. The interview also contains responses by Hannah Taieb, Professor Davis’ daughter. Through this interview, we hope to give you a window into a lost – but important – part of the history of our genre and community.
Gautam Bhatia: Let me start with a somewhat broad set of questions. You wrote science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s as an avowed communist, at a time when the United States was consumed by the Red Scare (which saw you jailed for a time, as well). Your stories reflect your politics, whether it is satirising corporate culture in “Adrift on the Policy Level”, or the very direct references to union-busting in “Last Year’s Grave Undug”. How welcoming and open was the science fiction community at the time to left-wing ideas? Was it more difficult, say, to publish pro-Union stories than anti-Unions ones (such as “The Roads Must Roll“, for example)? Was there a group of writers who shared your views and beliefs, and wrote stories that, in a similar fashion, reflected those views?
Chandler Davis: The science fiction community in the 1940s was a strange conglomerate. The Futurians were Communists or sympathizers from before my time; Robert Heinlein had several biases including a sentimental acceptance of militaristic values; John Campbell had his own biases, including a worship of technical fix carried over from the Hugo Gernsback era … I could go on and on. The strangest thing was the extent to which it was a community, without people dropping their individuality. Now to some degree this was illusory: an author might think it prudent not to rhapsodize about the wonders of a future Soviet America in submitting a story to an anti-communist editor (prudence we had to practise in our non-SF life as well), and an author might try to improve chances of acceptance of stories by writing under pseudonyms concealing gender or ethnicity.
To some degree it was mere expression of allegiance to the science-fiction tradition we all honored. But on the whole it was a genuine sense of community, across fracture lines which outside the genre-bubble, in the real world, were guarded by snarling watchdogs. I don’t think I resented “The Roads Must Roll” when it appeared, for example, I may even have been grateful that unions were recognized as part of the scene, but my firm pro-union beliefs were not shaken. (Going to work in a union shop about that time, I volunteered to serve as a shop committeeman the first chance I got.) We listened to ideas coming from ideologues of world-views we didn’t share at all. It was for me a liberating time in the same way as the New Left twenty years later. Maybe somewhat older leftists like Phil Klass and Fred Pohl didn’t feel the same liberation.
Hannah Taieb: I was moved and fascinated to see that the “bubble” of science fiction fans and writers took shape so firmly as a community, superseding the harsh divisions of 1940s/50s America. I guess as a daughter, having grown up watching my father pushed away and attacked by McCarthyism, it was moving to me to imagine that within the sci-fi community Chan was not rejected by sanctimonious red-hunters, or at least that he didn’t experience things that way— didn’t see himself and other leftists as somehow in a separate world. Instead, he experienced a sense of “community across fracture lines”, a feeling I didn’t get the sense of Chan often experiencing.
GB: In 1949, you wrote an article titled “Critiques and Proposals”, that dealt with stereotyping in literature generally, and in science fiction in particular. In that article, you called upon science fiction writers to make an active effort to not only avoid stereotyping (on grounds of race, gender, ethnicity etc.) but to work towards breaking them down, even if it means an – initial – defamiliarising effect for the reader. You made the point that the very fact that much of science fiction was set in the future allowed writers to imagine realities in which those stereotypes no longer existed – foreshadowing something that Ursula Le Guin would say many years later, about the role of science fiction writers being to imagine alternatives (including to capitalism). Do you think that more than other genres, science fiction allows for such possibilities, and that writers in the genre should be actively thinking about how to construct such possibilities in their fiction? CD: Oh, thanks for bringing this out so clearly, Gautam! Yes, emphatically. Is this to say merely that science-fiction ought to be always utopian (imagining and figuring forth a better world) or dystopian (warning against wrong policies by exhibiting horrid futures they might lead to)? Not at all. With Ursula LeGuin, I want SF to open up thinking about the future in more complex ways too.
GB: In “Critiques and Proposals”, you talked about how editors (in 1949) were unlikely to accept a black or Jewish individual as the protagonist of a story, and how science fiction continued to have problems with gender (even though it was ahead of other genres of writing at the time). In many respects, the science fiction has made great advances in these respects over the years. But one thing that you don’t mention in your article is class—and in that respect, there doesn’t seem to have been such an advance. I can’t, for example, recall many recent works of science fiction I’ve read that have had a trade union member as a protagonist. Do you think science fiction has had—and continues to have—a certain obliviousness when it comes to questions of class?
CD: Yes, to some extent. But many SF stories have presented a class structure different from that we know today, an aristocracy, or an elite privileged in some novel way. Think of Brave New World, for example. That counts as awareness of class structure, and imagining new structures societies might have is manifestly a desirable part of the genre, and recognized to be.
GB: Also in “Critiques and Proposals”, you advance a set of proposals for how writers can escape stereotyping black or Jewish characters in their stories. One suggestion that I didn’t see in the essay is something that the genre grapples with now to a great extent: that it is the job of editors and publishers to actively seek out writers who come from backgrounds that—to quote the end of your essay—“have been discriminated against.” So, just to take your own example: one of the solutions to the stereotyping of black people in science fiction would be to ensure that black writers write for, and are published by, science fiction magazines. I was wondering why you didn’t moot that as a proposal for editors. Was it something that would have been dismissed out of hand at the time?
CD: No, I just didn’t think of it; I wish I had.
GB: In this 2013 interview with Josh Lukin, you discuss the centrality of the “resourceful protagonist” to science fiction, and the importance of “no hero” stories, in order to highlight that it is structures or institutions that are oppressive. I think this remains an issue with science fiction even today: the writer Saladin Ahmed tweeted about this recently, and I’ve flagged the point in a couple of reviews I’ve written on contemporary science fiction (that is otherwise quite good). Do you think the individualist bent of science fiction has detracted from an accurate identification of the systemic root of the problems that we face, and the need for collective action to overcome them?
CD: Thanks once again for clear expression of a major challenge for authors. But even if, like Saladin Ahmed, the author is conscious of it, there still may be a protagonist who feels lonely, who suffers from the lack of an effective community of fellow rebels.
GB: Let’s get to the stories themselves! One thing I am struck by when I read your stories is their range: in your science fiction, you’ve explored corporate culture, robots, post-apocalyptic societies, nuclear war, eugenics, and the arms race, First Contact, space opera, the world of work and labour, and so much more. Could you tell us a bit about how these themes reflected your own preoccupations at the time, and how you’d situate your work in the context of what your contemporaries in the science fiction community were writing then?
CD: One striking example of my writing responding to the preoccupations of the time is my responding to the threat of nuclear weapons. All of us in the science-fiction gang who learned of the Manhattan Project only in August 1945 felt at least a momentary joy of vindication: we had been saying this might happen, the general population didn’t know, and lo! we were in the right. But most of us soon realized, “Hey! this is a calamity, an atrocity” (and to think it was done in the name of the American people). Some of the authors sounded the alarm. I cite especially [Theodore] Sturgeon’s “Memorial”, my “The Nightmare”, and Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses”, but there were several others. We put it before our audience a rather large and international audience– that if your country is the target of nuclear attack, then it is up to you not to strike back but to do everything to RESTRAIN your country from striking back. We were right, but our message didn’t stick, in the USA or anywhere.
GB: Cooperation and language are two recurring themes in your work. They come together in your story, “To Share The World”, which is quite a wonderful First Contact tale: a species that human beings refer to as the Nibblies communicate through electric current, and their form of communication constructs a world that is by definition experienced and articulated in and through community. It put me in the mind of some of Samuel Delany’s work, and more recently, China Mieville’s Embassytown. How do you understand the role of language in shaping the world, and the role of science fiction in interrogating this relationship?
CD: Language may not shape the physical world, but it surely shapes the social world, and I don’t think I brought out in “Share Our World” or any of my other stories what range is imaginable in other intelligent species. Hey, to make this point clear, I’ll have to get back to the task of writing and dream up some more extraterrestrial alternatives! It’s worth thinking about. In the real world, I don’t think we’ll experience First Contact in the sense of Murray Leinster‘s SF, or mine, or Carl Sagan’s, but thinking about it is important for life in the real world because it helps enable us to handle the changes going on all the time in here-and-now social evolution.
HT: Gautam raised the question of the “resourceful protagonist” and the importance of “no hero” stories, and later came to the issue of cooporation, using as example the Nibblies in To Share the World which Gautam points out have a “shared world” that is in contrast with human beings. I just wanted to point out that to me there is a link between Chan’s interest in “no hero” stories and his creation of stories with multiple heroes with complex interconnections. My favorite of Chan’s stories, along with It Walks in Beauty and Letter to Ellen, is Hexamnion, with its coorperative multiple protagonist(s). I am not making a point here, except to bring together the two issues, and to say that I think Hexamnion deserves a mention along with the Nibblies, in talking about images of cooperation.
GB: Sticking with the theme of language, in your novelette, It Walks In Beauty, there is a point in the story when the protagonist, Max, resolves to think of and refer to Paula as “her” instead of “it”. Immediately thereafter, he catches himself wondering “how much difference would a pronoun make to – her?” “It Walks in Beauty” was published in 1958, and it’s quite extraordinary how these lines foreshadow an issue that would come to the fore many decades later; it’s only now that we are seeing mis-gendering being started to be taken somewhat seriously, and there’s still a long way to go. I wanted to ask what was in your mind when you made your protagonist think of correct pronouns as something important, as almost a revolutionary move.
CD: It is a fortuitous resemblance. I didn’t imagine the kind of gender-challenging we see now, though Ursula LeGuin and Samuel Delany did, impressively. I did fix on stereotyped sex roles, as they exist, and the damage they do to genuine human relations, and I’m proud of the acuity of my critique. “It Walks in Beauty” is near-future SF as opposed to imagined-world SF, as I intended to make clear by reference to an actual 1940s popular song. Exaggerated though the problems were in the story, they’re real problems, and I meant Paula’s optimism at the end—despite the failure of her attempted lesson—to stand for my own determination in 1954 (when I was writing) to do something to fix them. The editor, my friend Fred Pohl, thought the bitterness had to be let stand, and changed the ending. Without consulting me, yet! I told Judy Merril, and she agreed that my original ending was better. I insisted that subsequent reprinting of the story use the original faintly hopeful ending. I’m still determined to try to fix those problems. We’ve come a long way, baby … well, a little way, and there’s a long way to go.
HT: With regard to It Walks in Beauty, I preferred Fred Pohl’s ending; perhaps, as a woman, I identified with the bitterness of Paula watching the fellow prance off cluelessly. But I’m still glad that Chan, in 1954, the year of my birth, had determination to stick to his feminism even when it got hard and challenged his conceptions of femininity. I’m sure I benefited from that, growing up.
GB: Quite a few of your stories portray human beings failing—or refusing—to cooperate with each other, even in situations where it would be in their interests to do so, and sometimes with tragic consequences (and in “To Share the World”, the literal “shared world” of the Nibblies is placed in stark contrast with how human beings imagine the world). At times your work almost feels like a critique of the atomism that capitalism has brought us, an atomism that has perhaps become worse since the time you wrote these stories. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about these ideas of community, cooperation, and atomism in your work, and in science fiction more broadly?
CD: You’re quite right, Gautam, to relate the ideology of market economics to weakness of cooperative behaviour in capitalist society. Not talking about actual markets but about the terribly prevalent ideology of the inevitability of competition—an ideology now called neoliberalism, though there’s nothing neo about it. And you’re quite right that science fiction should bring more to the struggle to break out of it. Utopias are likely to be free of dog-eat-dog ruthlessness, but all kinds of SF could do more to address this.
GB: My personal favourite out of all your short stories is perhaps “The Aristocrat”, where a nuclear disaster seemingly divides people into “human” and “Folk”. The story is told from the perspective of a human who exercises what he believes is an enlightened-despotic rule over the Folk, in order to preserve civilization—until things start to go wrong. I read both It Walks in Beauty and The Aristocrat as being stories that interrogate, and undermine, the categories with which we order the world, and demonstrate, in a way, the futility of endeavours to exercise control over diverse and plural ways of being as well as the arrogance of those who think they can unilaterally shape the future. In particular, “The Aristocrat” pushes back against different forms of historical determinism. I was struck both by how this is at odds with institutional communist ideology, and also at odds with some of your contemporaries, such as Isaac Asimov, whose idea of psychohistory does depend on the world being knowable, and therefore subject to human control. Would you have any thoughts about this?
CD: Isaac Asimov has Hari Seldon’s knowledge of laws of societal development, and hence his ability to predict the future, break down due to one unpredictable event, the appearance of one individual, the Mule, with unique capacity to influence. Asimov came from the Marxist tradition, and was surely commenting on the great difficulty of understanding history well enough to predict it. I also come from the Marxist tradition. I believe that history can be understood, as the result of deterministic causal processes, but I also believe that the unpredictable events are everywhere. (Too bad we can not ask Asimov whether he agrees; he well might.) If this is a contradiction, I hope it is of the fruitful dialectical kind. In short, I believe that there is no bound on how well we can know the laws of history, but that our knowledge will always fall short of taking every small contingency into account, and that small changes can have large consequences, so that our predictive power, while improving, will always fall short. I call myself a radical contingentist. Have you read “The Next Thousand Years or So”, a lecture I gave here a few years ago? It accepts unpredictability without accepting unknowability, and attempts to justify this.
GB: Your other post-nuclear disaster story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug”, feels oddly prescient in many ways, especially when Pop says to his companions, “the US invaded itself.” I was reminded of the recent Capitol attacks, and the firmly tongue-in-cheek comments about how the US was finally serving itself a sliver of the taste of its own medicine. Many of the themes that you explore in that story—in particular, how, even in a ruined world, people will still cling tenaciously to the world-views that they have instinctively come to inhabit—feel very real today. In fact, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” could literally be written today and feel entirely contemporary, other than a few odd dated references. Did you anticipate, when you were writing that story, that six decades on, we’d still be exactly where we are now?
CD: No, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” is another warning story. Magnifying some present trends to show them more clearly. I’m glad we are not where that story depicts us! By the way, this is an instance of the difficulty even of understanding history, let alone predicting. As I also explained in my essay “The Next Thousand Years or So”, mentioned just now, I could not imagine in the 1950s that our society could survive unless we achieved nuclear disarmament. Indeed it still remains to be understood! We must try to solve that riddle, as part of our solving the grand riddles of history—at the same time as we try to steer the course away from nuclear catastrophe, which is still terribly threatening, but not inevitable.
GB: Professor Davis, thank you so much for your time, and thank you to Hannah as well. I hope you do get around to resuming writing those First Contact stories!
This interview first appeared in Strange Horizons and has been republished with their permission. You can see more of their work here.