Peon #27, May 1953

Some students using a mimeograph to print a newsletter

If Asimov and Bradbury are the high priests of science fiction, then the fan writers of magazines like Peon are the lollardy of the sci-fi world. The rarefied atmosphere in the upper echelons of science fiction brought access to real scientists and the luxury of long amounts of time to acquire and test scientific knowledge, which the lay priesthood of the mythology of science fiction had less access to. As a result, they helped define the culture and growth of science fiction by processing and interpreting the tropes and peculiarities of sci-fi in a way more tied to an emerging angst about the present, trepidation about the future and struggle to make sense of an increasingly integrated, secular and uncertain society.

Each story in this issue of Peon demonstrates this divide in it’s own way, leaning more heavily on social, political and idealistic storytelling elements than on hard speculation or rigorous prediction. It has a slightly unsteady feel and a fair amount of it is given over to an ongoing (at the time) conversation about trends in the industry––the proliferation of pro-magazines diluting the quality of science fiction and the cost of keeping up with everything now flooding the market. This dissatisfaction plays into the feeling of popular responsibility for the genre but it’s a little tedious for a modern reader. The stories and columns on the other hand, while they lack the polish of something that might be found in Galaxy, are insightful and have an underlying sense of care and passion that make them worthy in their own right.

In “The Unwary Allies” by Joe L. Hensley, a benevolent and learned alien race is faced with an unseen and seemingly unstoppable enemy. Their worlds are being overtaken and destroyed by this enemy and the aliens in retreat are stripping border worlds of anything their enemy might take advantage of. Their last resort is to reach out to and cultivate less developed worlds that may have the potential to resist this terrible enemy in the future. The narrator of this story has been chosen for a mission on one of these worlds.

He will go into some kind of suspended animation and be reborn in another place, on some planet far across the galaxy to help condition the people of that planet to make them ready for the encroachment of the enemy. The big reveal comes in two parts, first we learn that the role this alien will play is that of science fiction writer. He comes on the heels of great scientists and thinkers who have already laid the groundwork for the technology and development that will give the faraway people of the planet, Earth we’re informed around this point, the equipment they will need to protect themselves. His role is to condition them to be curious and broad thinking, and to turn their attention away from their petty internal affairs and consider their place in the universe beyond the confines of their little gravitational pit in space. Finally, he asks the authorities sending him on this mission what his name will be: Joe Hensley comes the reply.

peon_may_53Now, so, this story is far more fantasy than serious sci-fi, which, contrary to the attitudes prevailing in some quarters during this time, actually makes it more interesting and effective. Lengthy speculation on how anything in this story might actually be achieved would only obscure and detract from the point. It’s an acknowledgment/declaration of the idea that sci-fi had begun to transcend its pulp roots as a pure commodity and pass somewhere into the realm of folk or fairy tale. It had taken on a unique symbolic meaning and function for a specific community that related to a largely overlapping but diverse universe of ideologies.  The central idea is that writers and consumers of science fiction are an elect group, with a responsibility, implicit or explicit, for the salvation of life/goodness/truth/whatever from eradication/destruction/evil. Contained in here is the western archetypal notion of conflict of the diametric opposition of “good” and “evil,” or maybe more properly in this context, creation and destruction. There’s also an allusion to apotheosis: rebirth and self-sacrifice in the name of salvation, indicating a spirituality and popular moralism that sci-fi was beginning to take on. This is fully realized in Star Trek with its aggressively egalitarian/utopian example for society presented as a weekly sermon/morality play.

This kind of fantastic moralizing signals changes coming in the genre that would mark the transition from golden age to new wave science fiction storytelling. The highly pro-social and moralist trends in the late golden age sci-fi works would expand radically in the next few decades and be transformed. The experimental, if simplistically handled, concepts of putting the author in the text and employing pseudo religious (Christian in this case) mythology would be superseded by later authors. Still, these early experiments by less-developed authors have in them similar shades of the fringe prophet archetype that new wave authors, cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writers of the 60’s – 90’s would go on to redefine in a uniquely late 20th century fashion. Next week I’ll be talking about Ex Machina,  rooted in the rapid changes and great imaginative leaps of new wave and post cyberpunk so if that seems interesting check that out, you Scum.

The mythological significance of science fiction and the fan community that has supported science fiction have a mutual reliance on one another that give longevity to the genre and allow certain individual works in the genre to fully transcend its pulp roots. The morality plays of Star Trek, the allegorical warnings against fascism in 50’s and 60’s sci-fi and the chilling new wave prophecy of oligarchic dystopia all depend on a core audience that demands sincerity and seriousness from authors.

This issue of Peon has a couple of other quite fascinating glimpses into the future of sci-fi, both in the mainstream and out. Identity and ambiguity of self were always components of the genre, even all the way back to Frankenstein. “Chain Smoker,” by Larry Saunders, is about the possibility that A. we are not who we think we are, and B. that the illusion of identity could be perpetrated on us through our habits, addictions or pleasures. The central idea is that we might be unwitting agents of a larger power. Notably, the author of this story doesn’t intimate that these powers are necessarily sinister, merely that they are large and powerful and don’t understand us (but would like to).

As computer intelligence and corporate power expanded over the next decades it would be easy to imagine this same story told essentially verbatim 20 odd years down the line with an all-powerful AI or world spanning mega-corp substituted for the speculative aliens of this text. Those specific tropes of arcane powers are absent from this story but are foreseen by another article later in this zine. It’s a discussion of a then up-and-coming concept in sci-fi called the Blesh, a portmanteau of blend and mesh denoting an idea about a possible future for humanity in which the lines between individual and the group are blurred.

Most science fiction of the first half of the 20th century concerns itself with people who are more or less like us, they look like us and pretty much speak English. This trend is a storytelling expedient because the principal characters in any story have to be relatable, but it’s also telling of an unwillingness to completely abandon the present. Most imagined cultures and people from the early days were just like the people of the time, but in space and with ray guns. The idea of the Blesh was that this was an unnecessary, limiting and slightly precious conceit and that science fiction should allow itself to experiment not only with what humans might do in the future, but also with what they might be. It’s not that no one had ever attempted to reconcile a vision of the future with the changes that future must produce in humanity though.

The fact that this changing definition of humanity has to be central to any narrative about future cultures illustrates the central shift of that time. The genre was in limbo between the age of science fiction as a genre focused on setting and the age of science fiction with a real––and borderline spiritual––focus on what it means to be human or even alive.

It’s the breadth of this remit that makes the genre especially powerful in its mature years. Unlike the previous frameworks used to define and explore the human condition, science fiction takes as read that humanity is not a fixed point and explores the conditions of humanity as a consequence of environment or as the result of concerted engineering. Science fiction becomes mythological in this era by adopting, possibly even seizing, the position that it’s possible to find a range of truths about the human conditions by holding nothing as inherently sacred, taking nothing for granted.

This issue of Peon is valuable as a fascinating artifact of a time when average people were realizing and operationalizing this possibility and laying a foundation that the mainstream or aristocracy of science fiction authorship would spend the years to come expanding on. It’s a  representative example of how the popular adoption of the tools of science fiction, or fiction in general, became something totally apart from a commodity or tool of education/indoctrination. In the hands of people who care about it, are willing to explore it and interpret it on their own initiative, literature takes on the ability to be an instrument for deciphering social conditions and exploring novel social structures.