Well, I was born, if it makes any difference, in Louisville, Ky., circa 1902, and educated, if at all, in the public schools of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin. While at the latter institution I assisted in the demise of the now totally defunct Wisconsin Literary Magazine, succeeded once in having it suppressed (the only time, incidentally, that the publication ever showed a profit) and was ejected in 1923. All the same, that crowd made Middle Western literary history and is still making it, tho they've scattered. It included the rising star of Horace Gregory, the tragic Majory Latimer, Paul Gangelin, who writes plots for the movies (one smash to two flops), and the less literary but far more famous Charles Augustus Lindbergh, who enjoyed the honor of "graduating" with me. They summoned him back for an honorary degree, but they haven't asked me yet.
Anyway, as to how I personally became interested in science fiction—I didn't, That's supposed to imply that I've always been interested in it, from the days of such juveniles as Robinson Crusoe, the Motor Boys series, and Tarzan, and eventually to the real classics of Verne and Wells. That doesn't exclude a few others who receive less attention from science fiction readers than they deserve, Bellamy (whose "Looking Backward" is still a social influence in such movements as the erstwhile popular Technocracy) Conan-Doyle, Poe, and Mrs. Shelley. Those writers wrote with an attention to realistic detail that has been rather neglected in these days of purple, green, or crimson rays, of ant-men, beetlemen, lizard-men, and what not. Science fiction has slipped a peg or two, right into the epic stage, with heroes, demi-gods, and mythical monsters. Or such is my impression.
And as to how I write—well, in longhand, with a pencil, on a sheet of white paper. I can't type a first copy successfully because the mechanics of typing takes too much attention, at least the way I type. It isn't a total loss, however, since it saves revision, which takes place during the typing.
Other details—I suppose I ought to claim to write by inspiration. I wish I did; it's far the easiest and most effective way, and don't think it can't be done either. It can; I've known people whose minds worked that way, but I'm not one of them. These fortunate souls suddenly receive an idea pre-cooked and ready to serve, and down it goes, fever hot, on paper. But I have to think up my ideas, plan them to a fair degree of completion, and then write them. They usually change somewhat in the writing, and I have had them escape entirely, go rampant, and end up quite differently from the original plan. That probably happens to anyone who writes; one character, intended to be subordinate, suddenly turns out to be too interesting an individual to ignore, and the plot gets warped around until he (or occasionally she) is carrying the burden of the story.
That's even happened in novels, of which I've written a few, not under my name, but I won't divulge the pseudonym. Of course it's a rarer occurrence, because novels have to be planned with some care, and even outlined on paper. One can't trust memory alone when sixty to one hundred twenty thousand words are involved. Anyway, I can't. They say Voltaire wrote his "Candide" in twenty hours, and Ben Hecht tried with fair success to duplicate the feat in his "Florentine Dagger," but I'll bet that Ben at least had a few ideas beforehand.
To return to science fiction, having made plain that I like it. now I'll tell why I don't. There's one general weakness and one universal fallacy in the material published today. It's a tough one to express but perhaps the proposition can be phrased as follows: Most authors, even the best, seem imbued with the idea that science is a sort of savior, a guide. the ultimate hope of mankind. That's wrong; science is utterly impersonal and never points a way, nor is it interested in either the salvation or the destruction of the human race. The words "should" and "ought", in their moral senses, are not scientific words at all, and when a scientist uses them he speaks not for science but for philosophy or ethics, not as a scientist but as a preacher. Science describes but does not interpret; it can predict the results of any given alternative actions, but cannot choose between them.
If that paragraph seems a little involved, here's an example. The great sociologist Doe, we'll say, has discovered that because of the unchecked breeding of the mentally deficient, the human race will degenerate to the moron level within fifty years. Now Doe can get excited as he wishes over this as a member of the race, but as a scientist, all he can say is something like this: "I call attention to the probability that if we permit this trend to continue, in half a century the average level of intelligence will have descended to that of a twelve year old mind. If the trend is to be checked, an effective means is sterilization of the unfit before reproduction is possible." Not "we ought to" or "we should" but just if. That's all science has the right to say. The choice then enters the domain of ethics, and the battle is between those who feel that the good of the race is paramount and those who believe that the rights of the individual are sacred, and that we have no moral grounds for violating them. Science has indicated the roads, but ethics has to choose between them. A propos of this, I suppose all of us know which road modern ethics would choose, but only a hundred and fifty years ago, during the highly individualistic eighteenth century, all the weight of the best minds was in the opposite scale. Even a simpleton had the right then to fulfill his life to the utmost, to find (theoretically at least) the greatest happiness he could, even tho that included feeble-minded offspring. In those years "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" meant exactly that.
All of which is quite beside the point. What course ethics chooses doesn't make a damn bit of difference in the argument, which holds that science is only a signpost and not a guide. Say it again: Science is neither judge nor savior. It cannot choose. It is a road map, not a standard.
Here's the element that makes so much science fiction seem unreal. Half our authors use the word "scientist" about as the ancient Egyptians used "priest"—a man of special and rather mystical knowledge that has set him apart from the rest of humanity. In fact, as soon as the word is mentioned, one visualizes either a noble, serious, erudite, high-principled superman, or depending on the type of story, a crafty, ambitious, fiendish, and probably insane super-villain. But never a real human being.
As for the weakness, that's simpler. It's merely that most of our writers fail to take advantage of science fiction's one grand opportunity—its critical possibilities, if you get me. It's the ideal medium to express an author's ideas, because it can (but doesn't) criticize everything. I mean—well, Western stories, for instance, have no critical possibilities because they deal with conditions fifty years dead. Romance has only a few opportunities in sociological fields. Adventure is equally limited, but science fiction has no limits. It can criticize social, moral, technical, political, or intellectual conditions—or any others. It's a weapon for intelligent writers, of which there are several, but they won't practice its use.
Oh, a few have tried it. Dr. Keller does it well occasionally, and Miles J. Breuer did it magnificently once or twice. Dr. Bell (John Taine) touches on it at times, but won't descend to practical suggestions. And by far the most of this sort of writing, when couched in the usual form of satire, is heavy, obvious, and directed at unimportant targets. No one has attempted it on the scale of Bellamy, who actually did criticize world social conditions in the form of a science fiction story, and presented a sort of solution.
For science fiction can do what science cannot. It can criticize, because science fiction is not science. It is, or at least ought to be, a branch of the art of literature, and can therefore quite properly argue, reject, present a thesis, proselytize, criticize, or perform any other ethical functions.
Or anyway, that's my opinion, and it won't make a bit of difference to those readers (if any) who've plowed thru to this point. The younger writers will stand by their guns—or purple rays—and the younger readers will take as much delight as ever in super-scientists, Earth-Mars wars, ant-men, tractor rays, and heroes who save country, earth, solar system, or universe from the terrible invaders from Outside.
More power to 'em. I'd like to experience those same thrills again myself.