Mutation or Death


Sean Guynes
Mutation or Death: Science Fiction, the Literary Left, and the Futurians, 1937-1961
exp. completion 2020

“Today we are face to face, face to face, I repeat, with the choice: Civilization or Barbarism—reason or ignorance.”

– John Michel (“Mutation or Death!” 185; emphases in original)

October 30, 1937. Packed into the small meeting space of the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia, PA, roughly twenty attendees listened as the gangly science-fiction (SF) fan and amateur writer Donald A. Wollheim delivered a provocative essay written by his friend, fellow New York SF fan, John Michel. The essay, “Mutation or Death!,” was nothing less than a call for a revolution within the nascent SF community.  This was a relatively small body of people who read and wrote in the SF magazines published by Hugo Gernsback and gathered to discuss science and SF at conferences, like this one, and in fan clubs, like the several Wollheim and Michel had belonged to in New York City. Michel’s essay was loaded with heavy-handed rhetoric about the political future of SF, aimed at a handful of teens and twenty-somethings.  While overblown (in his own words, “heavily loaded with dynamite and fraught with shaking possibilities” [183]), the language demonstrated the seriousness of Michel’s belief that what he had to say was vital to the SF community. Though Gernsback published the first SF magazine, Amazing Stories, only eleven years prior in April 1926, Michel claimed, “The Science Fiction Age, as we have known it . . . is over. . . . Dead, gentleman, of intellectual bankruptcy” (183). It stood plain to reason for this acerbic twenty-year-old that SF was dead, in fact, dead on arrival, simply because “no single science fiction organization has ever made any lasting impression on anything” (184).

Michel’s essay hypothesized that the genre had, as yet, made no serious impact on the world. He therefore called for an SF with a political purpose: “Science fiction has to do something” (185). For Michel and his friends from the NYC fan club who, like Wollheim, had helped draft the essay, that “something” was a choice between “Civilization or Barbarism—reason or ignorance” (185; emphasis in original). While Michel’s ultimatum for an SF of action was wrapped in the binary imperial-anthropological language of civilization versus barbarism, in the essay’s final strokes, Michel borrowed from the language of biological imperative to transform the binary into mutate or die. Michel put this ultimatum to the gathered fans, concluding that SF could either mutate away from the hollow, scientific-progressive idealism of those who saw SF as merely a way to imagine new, often militaristic technologies (or, worse yet, those who only saw SF as entertainment), and thus allow the genre, its writers, and its fans to become a garrison “for all forces working for a more unified world, a more Utopian existence, the application of science to human happiness, and a saner outlook on life” (187), or it could die.

Michel’s essay ended with a final plea for the gathered fans to pass a resolution that the SF community would choose mutation over death, that it would, in essence, choose his communist-tinged (and even anarchist) vision of an anti-fascist Utopian state in league with “the democratic forces of the world” and “the heroic defenders of Madrid and Shanghai” as the future for SF (187). The resolution failed. Voting in favor were only eight fans, Michel’s friends who served as delegates from the Philadelphia New York Fan Association (NYFA) (Rich 27). It was no secret in SF fandom that Michel and his closest NYFA buddies–including Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, and Robert A.W. Lowndes–were (at least nominally) communists. Those four, known to early SF fans as the Quadrumvirs, were active in both the New York SF fan scene and in various local chapters of the Young Communist League (YCL)—Pohl even edited the Flatbush YCL newsletter; Michel eventually joined the Communist Party USA. In the discussion that led to the resolution vote, many fans were wary of the Quadrumvirs’ communism, while others, like Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, were simply annoyed that politics had been brought to the SF table (Rich 27). Despite Michel’s failure to solicit the fans’ interest in a decidedly communist future for the genre, the “Mutation or Death!” speech nonetheless sent ripples through the insular SF world of the Depression-era east coast.  Most notably, it set in motion the formation of a group initially known as the Michelists, after its instigator, but renamed a year later as the Futurians.

A survey of the most important historical and critical scholarship on SF reveals at most that the Futurians were “SF’s best-known fan club” (Hellekson 154). Beyond this, the Futurians are invoked in anecdotes about particular authors who belonged to the group—these anecdotes have the effect of reifying the seemingly obvious significance of the group without saying very much about them. No major critical work exists on the Futurians, though there is a handful of autobiographies and critical biographies about various members’ lives that naturally take the group into consideration. Originally founded by the Quadrumvirs, the Futurian ranks quickly grew to include Isaac Asimov, Elsie Balter (later: Wolheim), James Blish, Hannes Bok, Daniel Burford, Chester Cohen, Rosalind Cohen (later: Dockweiler), Harry Dockweiler (pseudonym: Dirk Wylie), Jack Gillespie, Virginia (later: Blish), Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Mary Byers (later: Kornbluth), Walter Kubilius, David Kyle, Herman Leventman, Judith Merril, Leslie Perri (real name: Doris Baumgardt), Jack Rubinson, Arthur W. Saha, Larry Shaw, and Richard Wilson. Some of these never published, like Burford, Gillespie, and Leventman, but were active in the group’s meetings or, like Rosalind Cohen, married into and thus were considered part of the group; others, like Bok and Kidd, published next to nothing, but contributed in other ways, the former, for example, as an illustrator in SF magazines and the latter as a literary agent; still others, like Michel himself or Kubilius, had relatively short-lived publishing careers in the SF magazines; and a small portion, those like Asimov, Knight, Kornbluth, Merril, and Wollheim, went on to become the most influential movers in SF over the next few decades, whether as writers, editors, or both.

Some Futurians: Cy Kornbluth, Chester Cohen, John Michel, Robert A.W. Lowndes, and Donald Wollheim

The Futurians lasted only a few years before infighting, personal rivalries, and shifts in political opinion drove wedges between several members (Michel, in particular, who tried to sue most of the other members for one reason or another, and who found himself less interested in politics); they were finished by 1945. In their short time the Futurians had attempted through self-published fanzines, newsletters, fan club meetings, conventions, and by publishing in new SF pulps—such as Future Science Fiction and Science Fiction Quarterly edited by Lowndes, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories edited by Pohl, and Cosmic Stories and Stirring Science Stories edited by Wollheim, all in the early 1940s—to enact a loosely leftist SF project. While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly the politics of any individual Futurian at any moment, their dedication to an anti-Stalinist, anti-fascist vision of an egalitarian Utopian future achieved through non-militaristic scientific advancement, including the ending of world hunger and of war and the breaking down of racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies, shone through much of their writing, even extending to issues of race, as in Asimov’s 1939 story “Half-Breed,” about miscegenation, and to issues of gender, as much of Merril’s early work and Perri’s few stories did. It is clear that despite the breakup of the Futurians, the political impetus that brought them together in response to Michel’s founding crisis remained a driving force of much of their writing throughout the next few decades, defining their careers, in some sense. Critiques of capitalism and consumer society, for example, abound in the work of Pohl and Kornbluth, who together co-wrote several satirical novels like The Space Merchants that lambasted consumerism. Asimov’s most famous work, the three Foundation novels (1951, 1952, 1953), are something of a literal response to Michel’s articulation of the choice between mutation or death as also a choice between civilization of barbarism: Asimov’s novels chart how barbarism might be finally fought off and civilization forever safeguarded through the invention of the science of psychohistory. Thus, the worlding of the Futurians’ loosely allied leftist political project did not cease when their club dissolved, but continued in the writing of some, even in disguised forms, throughout the 1940s and beyond.

With this brief account I do not mean to suggest, of course, that the Futurians were all to a one leftists, nor do I mean that those with leftist or even explicitly communist political leanings in the early days of the group remained so throughout their lives. Pohl and Asimov, for example, both distanced themselves from the Futurians’ leftism, the latter going so far as to suggest that the Futurians were only labeled communists by other fans because it was a reasonable insult (211). Knight, Merril and Wollheim, on the other hand, never renounced their leftist politics; Wollheim was still admitting his desire for a communist world-state in the 1970s in his semi-autobiographical The Universe Makers and Merril sounded a rallying cry for a return socialism at the end of her life (Merril and Pohl-Weary 266-267). In light of their personal histories, then, the archive of Futurian fiction beckons to be read as a site of productive tension between the international leftism of the Cultural Front out of which the group first emerged and the later refusal or not of leftist ties in the wake of World War Two, after which leftism was branded by postwar American mainstream as Stalinism and the ideological enemy of all good Americans. My readings will therefore confront and tease out the evolving political tensions woven into Futurian SF.

Ultimately, the present project imagines a critical history of the Futurians and their fictions that draws on Michel’s understanding of SF as a genre, located in the magazines and amateur fiction writing circulating in fanzines, and as a community, housed in fan organizations and their activities as well as the critical-discursive space of fanzine letter columns and editorials. As such, I want to conceive of the Futurians as an institution and in doing so turn my attention, as Mark McGurl calls literary scholars to do in his book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, to the literary history of institutions. I am therefore interested in how institutions—official, semi-official, or otherwise communally sanctioned instantiations of a social group and its network of discursive identity-making practices—produce our experience of literature and culture. In this case, I look to the literary history of a generic institution constituted in magazines, letter columns, stories, fan organizations, book series, and a discursive relationship among SF writers and fan, all of which might be thought of as institutions themselves. While the history of SF magazines and book publishers is not a new phenomenon, it has thus far been a largely bibliographic practice and less a critical, historiographical one. At the same time, I want to recognize through this project that as a literary institution and moreover as an institution of popular fiction, SF is subject to questions about mass production and the literary market. I thus frame my history of the Futurians and their fiction around the three interconnected areas of critical inquiry: literary institutions, literary production, and literary market.

Within this scope of interpretation, my project will examine the Futurians and their fictions as a response to what Michel considered the crisis of science fiction; namely, the question of its relation to the political, to doing “something” in the world beyond entertainment. That crisis took place at the plexus of a number of cultural and political formations in the United States during the Depression, wartime, and immediate postwar periods. The Futurians’ interest in SF, as Damon Knight put it in his retrospective on the group, was in part a psychological one: being an eighteen or nineteen year-old in the Depression, “you had no future. . . . there were absolutely no jobs, no openings, no anything. It was an endless futility” (15). In the moment of their coming to the genre, SF provided a future, even if an imaginary one. When married to their political ideals, SF became a space for thinking the possibilities of communism and other anti-fascist, leftist visions, especially those that questioned the increasingly militarized nature of science and the nationalist postwar discourse of techno-scientific progress. It also, later, became a career for many Futurians, who either went on to become well-known writers or editors, while others quit SF altogether. This project therefore extends several decades after the Futurians dissolved in 1945. I stretch my reading of the Futurians and their fictions to 1961, to a moment that might be considered the next crisis in SF, strikingly framed as a new death of the genre: the “death” of the magazine market and its replacement by the paperback book market. This next crisis for SF was also a discourse among fans, captured in Earl Kemp’s fanzine Who Killed Science Fiction?, which compiled three-dozen responses to the titular question by various well-known SF writers, editors, and publishers—including several Futurians. Although the Futurians continued to produce writing that more or less remained interested in leftist politics after 1961, they were joined by and thus subsumed in a larger shift occurring throughout the 1960s toward the socially and politically conscious SF of the New Wave.

In order to frame the Futurians’ political interests within a period of intense leftist cultural productivity (and in New York, no less) my project comfortably positions the Futurians as conversant in their moment with the Cultural Front and the literary Left. In fact, while the Futurians may be a relative anecdote in SF studies, perhaps the only account of them that approaches a probing one appears as a brief passage in Michael Denning’s magisterial history of the Cultural Front, where he notes that “Several left-wing writers groups brought together young black or ethnic writers from working-class backgrounds in the decades after the demise of the John Reed Clubs, and they had a significant impact on post-war writing. The Futurians [for example] were formed in 1938 by radical young science-fiction writers, several of whom were members of the Young Communist League” (225). While the Futurians were no doubt part of the diverse horizon of American culture’s “laboring” in the 1930s-1940s, in this project I also read the Futurians in necessary relation to science fiction’s readers, writers, and editors, together comprising, on the one hand, the early fan community and its institutions (fanzines, clubs, conventions) and, on the other, the publishers and theirs (magazines, anthologies, book series, literary agencies). Finally, my project attends to the structuring, institutional forces of literary and cultural production in mid-century America as they impacted the Literary Left, science fiction, and—at the intersection of the two—the Futurians.