..... Willis in a serious mood reveals a more thoughtful side of his nature .....


by Walter A. Willis

(fromRHODOMAGNETIC DIGEST Vol 2 #5 March, 1951)

In a recent issue of Super Science, English author Bill Temple has this remark to make about a story called "Gateway To Darkness":

"Craig (the hero) has, apparently with the author's approval, the blind end-justifies-the-means philosophy which we keep getting thrust at us via American films as something admirable. (There's a typical crop just arrived in London glorifying Gable as a gambler, Bogart as a night-club owner, various others as 'smart' reporters, with no regard for truth or for people's feelings, and interminable gangsters and racketeers slapping each other down monotonously.) In these things violence seems to be accepted as the only worthy solution to any problem, and the crazy values are just -- crazy. Pitiable -- and dangerous.

"Craig batters a guard to death and then feels wronged when the dead man's fellow-guards rough him up a bit. He even takes their names and addresses with a view to avenging this 'wrong'. It's possible that the guard might have had a loving wife and children; they don't count in Craig's philosophy -- only Craig does, and he imagines, it seems, that he's a lord of life and death. Rather too many people are getting that idea these days, and rather too many other ones, especially authors, are taking it for granted."

This seemed to me something that has needed saying for a long time. Admittedly, heroes killed people in the old days, even wiped out whole universes with gay abandon, but it was always done in the most honourable way and with the very best intentions. Never, no matter how intolerable the provocation, were they guilty of anything discreditable -- or even credible. But nowadays we have "realism", and they go in for torture and murder quite as enthusiatically as the villains. Now under Mr. Hubbard's guidance they have even graduated to genocide, and the only way you can tell them from the villains is that their names are usually monosyllabic and their exploits invariably successful.

In my naivete I thought this was a bad thing, but the editor of Super Science reassures us: "We think violent and amoral fictions are unpleasant as a symptom of our Zeitgeist, but not necessarily unpleasant or dangerous itself. But what value has popular fiction if it does not reflect the temper of our times?"

This is such a muddle-headed piece of nitwittery that I hardly know where to start on it. In the first place, since when has s-f been supposed to reflect the temper of our times? Isn't that just what we've been complaining about all these years, that in s-f the twentieth century world is too much with us? Bad s-f is contemporary pulp with pseudoscientific garnishments, whereas good s-f, whether escapism or serious extrapolation, should be as much out of temper with our times as it can possibly get.

Then there's this crack about the Zeitgeist, which I take it is in for some other reason than to show that the editor has heard of the word. Well, it may be true that the American nation has a collective guilt-complex about dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese and needs to identify itself with heroes who throw them around like pebbles. But personally I refuse to believe that the ordinary American, or even the cultured and socially conscious reader of Super Science Stories thinks about the atomic bomb for more than ten minutes from one day's end to the other. The journalists over here talk the same claptrap. The nation is horrified about this, the nation in mourning over that. Looking at the nation you wouldn't notice it particularly. A little mild emotion when he is actually reading the daily papers, perhaps, but it's ten to one that the worried look on his face when he puts them down is about his girl. There are a few thousand intellectuals who think themselves into ulcers about the state of the world, but the vast majority couldn't care less. They know, if you ask them, that the world is going to hell, but they don't feel any responsibility for the actions of "them" (the government). Why should they; they weren't consulted. No, this collective consciousness is a figment of the journalistic imagination, and always has been. While the Bastille was being stormed, there was a far bigger crowd in the street queuing up for the theatre. And ask yourself how many times today you have thought about atomic war. Don't you know you're supposed to be thinking about it all the time?

Zeitgeist, indeed! When you find anyone quoting German it's a sure sign that they're going to be woollyminded. The truth is much less pretentious. It is that some years ago Hollywood discovered the commercial possibilities of sadism. The public really IS interested in sex, and sadism has the immense advantage of being the only sexual perversion, except chastity, which can get past the Hays office. Furthermore, it is photogenic, and acceptable to even the most puritanical. You might say even especially acceptable to them. After Hollywood, the pulps, and now the editors of Super Science Stories, heaven help their wit, think it is part of the temper of the times. Well, I have never been to America, but I'm pretty sure that the people there are as kindly and polite as anywhere else and don't spend their spare days beating each other up a la Bogart, any more than we in Ireland are continually exclaiming "Begorra", and splitting one another's skulls with shilelaghs. (Really, we don't!)

As for the glorification of violence not being an unpleasant or dangerous thing, ask yourself who was to blame for Belsen or Buchenwald -- fundamentally to blame. Not the guards, perverts or cowards as they were, not even the white-collared men in the distant offices, but the millions of kindly people who like ourselves condoned: who were able to put these happenings out of their minds because to them the victims were not real people, just so many Jews or Gypsies more remote than a wounded child from a stratosphere bomber. Which of us would dismember a living child? Yet many of us have done it by remote control and still sleep nights. It's not the evil that fills the world with cruelty, but the sheer stupid lack of imagination.

It's the most difficult thing in the world to make oneself realise that other men are centres of the universe, like ourselves, but it's also the most important. And anything that dulls the edge of sensibility, even the facile callousness of pulp authors, is not only dangerous and unpleasant, but damnable.

Data entry by Judy Bemis