From Our Archive: Biographical Fantastic

Framing the Unframeable

What does the fantastic bring to the storying of lives? By Gary K. Wolfe

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“Unser Leben ist kein Traum, aber es soll und wird viellicht einer werden”.
(“Our life is no dream; but it ought to become one, and perhaps will.”)

– Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenburg), as quoted in George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1859)

“And do not rely on the fact that in your life, circumscribed, regulated, and prosaic, there are no such spectacular and terrifying things.”
– C. P. Cavafy, “Theodotus,” as quoted in Elizabeth Hand’s Last Summer at Mars Hill (1998)

When one looks at the published memoirs and autobiographical sketches written by science fiction and fantasy authors, mostly for the benefit of their fans – the sort of thing collected in Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s Hell’s Cartographers (1975) or Martin Greenberg’s Fantastic Lives: Autobiographical Essays by Notable Science Fiction Writers (1981) – one is initially struck by the relative thinness and lack of genuine introspection of many of the essays. Typically, such pieces read as a variety of Augustinian conversion tales, depicting a precocious childhood, often solitary and bookish, sometimes sickly, sometimes featuring battles with parents to get into the adult sections of the library, and characteristically leading toward a moment of revelation: “And then came Hugo Gernsback” (Alfred Bester) [1] “Then I saw and bought an issue of something called Amazing Stories” (Damon Knight) [2] “So science fiction entered into and began warping my life from an early age” (Brian Aldiss) [3] etc. In one of the still-comparatively rare autobiographies of SF writers, Wonder’s Child: My Life in Science Fiction, Jack Williamson ends a chapter with the following cliffhanger:

Something else happened, however, in the spring of 1926, the first year I was out of high school. Something that changed my life. Hugo Gernsback launched a new pulp magazine, filled with reprinted stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and A. Merritt and Edgar Rice Burroughs, stories he called “scientifiction.”

The magazine was Amazing Stories. [4]

Following these road-to-Damascus moments, however, these memoirs and autobiographies seldom become genuine testaments, instead amounting to not much more than narrative resumés, filled with anecdotes of encounters with fellow writers and editors and often with almost obsessively detailed accounts of sales figures and payments; one comes away with the sense that (a) science fiction writers all clearly remember the first SF story they read, and (b) they keep really good tax records.
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