Mutate or Die: Eighty Years of the Futurians’ Vision




OCTOBER 30, 1937. Packed into the small meeting space of the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia, roughly 20 attendees listened as Donald A. Wollheim delivered a provocative essay written by his friend, fellow New York Fan Association (NYFA) member John Michel, whose stutter was too intense for public speaking. The essay “Mutation or Death!” was nothing less than a call for a revolution within the nascent science fiction and fantasy (SFF) community. In it, Michel proclaimed, “The Science Fiction Age […] is over.” Despite the fact that it had only been 11 years since Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories and launched the so-called Golden Age of SFF pulps, the genre was, in Michel’s view, “dead” from “intellectual bankruptcy.”

This must have come as a shock to the attendees, who likely assumed science fiction was alive and well, believing that it bore great ideas and predictions about the future of humanity. It soon became clear that what Michel meant by his galling declaration of SFF’s death was that the genre lacked a “politics,” and thus was devoid of a purpose beyond mere entertainment.

If John Michel is remembered for anything in the science fiction community — and he’s certainly not beloved on account of his fiction, which has gone almost entirely uncollected in the 70-ish years since he stopped writing — it’s for his controversial speech that October, because it was this speech that launched the movement toward organized politics in the SFF community.

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If the New Wave is most often cited as the ancestor from which the current political climate of SFF descends, why should anyone care about what a bunch of white guys — and James Fitzgerald, a respected black fan organizer in New York City — were saying about SFF in a Philadelphia hotel in the late 1930s?

To begin, the 1930s catalyzed many important struggles for rights and equality that reverberated into the latter part of the 20th century. Massive real estate speculation, a period of intense business and industrial expansion, and rapid modernization in the first decades of the 20th century led to a bottomed-out market and a rapidly sinking, slow-to-recover national and global economy. While FDR’s domestic economic policies and the Works Progress Administration relieved some of the burden of the Depression, economic and social dissatisfaction roiled to the surface as Americans of all walks of life looked to new political doctrines and theories of socio-economic organization in order to build a world hospitable to the downtrodden.

This history is well documented. Of course, the labor movement of the 1930s was not always hospitable to gays, lesbians, and peoples of color, just as society itself was not, but such disenfranchised groups found homes in the pro-labor circles of the 1930s. It is from this mix of radical elements that the Futurians emerged, condemning SFF publishers, writers, and fans for their lack of interest in revolutionary politics — or what they simply termed “politics.”

The Futurians saw a lack of politics in SFF as indicative of a troubling complacency with forces of oppression. If the genre wasn’t attempting to make a statement about the uses of technology and scientific advancement for building a positive, anti-fascist, and pro-revolutionary future, then it wasn’t worth reading, much less writing or publishing. In contrast to today’s Sad and Rabid Puppies, #GamerGaters, and #MAGAlytes, who regard the politics of social justice as detrimental to society, the Futurians sought to forge new futures by committing the SFF community to overturning inequality and oppression.

This is not to say that John Michel and Donald Wollheim were the first to call for SFF to imagine leftist visions of the future. Utopian literature proclaimed leftist futures long before the Futurians; in fact, social movements for justice and equality were driven by a science-fictional utopian impulse to imagine better worlds. The late 1800s saw a surge of utopian writing in the Anglophone world, much of which was tied to particular social movements: examples include Edward Bellamy’s socialist Looking Backward (1888) and Martin Delany’s black liberationist Blake; or, The Huts of America (1861–1862). Even outside the strictly utopian texts at the turn of the century, H. G. Wells wrote adamantly political SFF, so the Futurians were not by any means mold-breakers in their suggestions that SFF should be “political” in imagining radical futures.

The Futurians, however, were the first to suggest as much from within the bounds of a coherent, visible, organized SFF community. This community included a network of writers, readers, editors, publishers, agents, and cover artists all connected to the SFF pulps that Gernsback started publishing in 1926. Since the pulps were all about formula and repetition, Gernsback’s success in bringing together elements from 19th-century fantastica and stories of technical invention and progress (thus giving name, shape, and form to “science fiction”) was quickly replicated. By 1937, SFF magazines abounded. There were numerous fan clubs, especially on the East Coast and in larger cities like New York, and many of them were attached to particular magazines or publishers, like Gernsback’s Science Fiction League, which he hoped would ensure a steady community of readers (and thus a steady stream of sales) as well as a stable of people he might draw on as new writers.

The SFF community that the Futurians emerged from was a new development, more akin to how the SFF world looks today. The situation of interconnectedness among fans and creators of organized clubs allowed the Futurians to join together around as the vanguard of a new future for SFF. Though drawn from marginal members of the SFF community of the 1930s, the Futurians became the movers and shakers of SFF writing and publishing in the postwar years, paving the way for the New Wave. If the New Wave was their legacy, then so are we.

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Now that we have a grasp on why we should care about an 80-year-old SFF fan club, some questions remain. Who were they? What did they care about? And what happened to them? It’s clear that the Futurians were, in fan studies scholar Karen Hellekson’s words, “SF’s best-known fan club.” Beyond this, the Futurians are often invoked in anecdotes about particular authors who belonged to the group — these anecdotes have the effect of reinforcing the seemingly obvious significance of the group without saying very much about them. No major critical work exists on the Futurians, although there are a handful of autobiographies and critical biographies about members’ lives, including a semi-autobiographical account of the group by Damon Knight.

Were they a minor anecdote, as most SFF histories have made them out to be, notable only because they were a congregational space for folks like Isaac Asimov, James Blish, and Judith Merril? These authors were legends in the 1950s and 1960s, and their works remain powerful today. Knight, for example, is the namesake of the SFWA’s Grand Master award, and almost anyone who reads science fiction has formed an opinion about Asimov’s robotics laws and the Foundation trilogy. Others who gathered with the Futurians, such as Robert Lowndes, Wollheim, and Frederik Pohl played key roles by editing SFF magazines throughout the 1940s. Still others helped launch publishing careers and served as editors of anthologies, as Wollheim did with DAW and Merril and Knight did with various “Best of” projects. Finally, many Futurians acted as SFF agents, like the indomitable Virginia Kidd, who represented Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Joanna Russ, and Gene Wolfe.

The individual careers of several of the Futurians thus had a significant bearing on SFF for decades to come. But did they matter then, during their short period of existence between 1937 and 1945? That is, did they matter as the Futurians? The short answer is yes. In fact, as Mike Ashley points out, the Futurians’ stories, published for the most part in the late 1930s and early 1940s in magazines edited by either Pohl, Lowndes, and Wollheim, were “pyrotechnic bursts” that brought a “depth of talent” to the field rivaled only by the new writers being groomed by John W. Campbell for Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown. And this was partly because they lived in such close proximity, sharing housing, workshopped stories, and were prolific co-writers.

It’s rather curious, then, that the Futurians are largely an anecdote in the SFF history books, remembered for being a club where later greats gathered and politicized fandom. Regardless of how they are remembered, they were significant in their own time, and they cut an influential path down which much of SFF followed, particularly regarding genre politics. As inheritors of their legacy, it’s important to remember what the Futurians aspired toward and hoped for. Perhaps there are lessons useful for our contemporary moment in their fevered, youthful dreams for a more revolutionary, more democratic genre.

We can start with who they were. Though membership rotated and was largely based on who came to meetings and who lived with whom, a stable body of Futurians existed. They began with the Quadrumvirs, as they were known in early fandom: Lowndes, Michel, Pohl, and Wollheim. These four were (at least nominally) communists, and their political inclinations in the late 1930s were no secret, since they expressed their politics at NYC fan club meetings and in their fanzines. They were all active in local NYC chapters of the Young Communist League — Pohl even edited the Flatbush YCL newsletter; Michel eventually joined the Communist Party. The Quadrumvirs were the intellectual and political heart of the Futurians. It was they who went to the Philadelphia meeting to give Michel’s speech.

“Mutation or Death!” polarized the East Coast SFF community, splitting it between the “Michelists” and the rest of fandom. The Futurians’ ranks soon grew. Some of their members never published, like Daniel Burford, Jack Gillespie, and Herman Leventman, but they were active in group meetings or, like Rosalind Cohen, married into and thus were considered part of the group; others, like Hannes Bok and Kidd, published next to nothing but contributed in other ways, the former as a pulp illustrator and the latter as a literary agent; still others, like John Michel and Walter Kubilius, had short-lived SFF writing careers; and a small portion, those like Asimov, Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Merril, and Wollheim, became influential movers and shakers.

To understand the significance of the Futurians’ legacy, Michel’s “Mutation or Death!” is worth considering. Although not all of the Futurians saw eye-to-eye politically, we can read much of their writing as touched by the essay’s key premises. It was loaded with heavy-handed rhetoric about the political future of SFF. While overblown — in Michel’s own words, “heavily loaded with dynamite and fraught with shaking possibilities” — the language demonstrated the seriousness of Michel’s belief that what he had to say was vital to the SFF community. To Michel, it stood to reason that SFF was ineffective simply because “no single science fiction organization has ever made any lasting impression on anything.”

Michel’s essay argued that the genre had made no serious impact on the world. He and the others were young, living in urban centers wracked by the Depression, and surrounded by revolutionary political movements clamoring for change. Michel therefore demanded an SFF with political purpose: “Science fiction has to do something.” That “something” was a choice between “Civilization or Barbarism — reason or ignorance” (emphasis in original).

While Michel’s ultimatum for an SFF of action was wrapped in the binary imperial language of civilization versus barbarism, in the essay’s final strokes he borrowed from the language of biological imperative to transform that binary into another that called for the genre to mutate or die. Michel put this ultimatum to the gathered fans, concluding that SFF could either mutate away from the hollow, scientific-progressive idealism of those who saw SFF as merely a way to imagine new, often militaristic technologies (or, worse yet, those who only saw SFF 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” — or it could die.

Michel’s invocation of the concept of mutation is significant, especially in the context of the techno-scientific orientation of the genre he hoped would mutate. His invocation drew on the language of Darwinian evolution: those organisms that survive are the ones that mutate to fit the new circumstances of their ecology. At the same time, in the language of SFF, mutation signaled then, as often now, a shift that radically destabilizes the perceived essence or integrity of a being; often, a mutated being is one that has become monstrous, that has been, in the example of H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), sundered from the community to which it originally belonged.

It seems that both of these meanings are implicit in Michel’s understanding of mutation in 1937. He wished SFF to survive the present moment, to adapt to a new and undeniably political environment, to change out of necessity; at the same time, he recognized (and perhaps relished) the fact that SFF, once mutated, would become something new, monstrous, and different from the SFF which came before. In this way, he and the Futurians were hardly different from the “new guard” of writers being developed by Campbell and Raymond Palmer, who wanted to fill their magazines not only with good stories but with smart, inventive ones that challenged the generic demands of old space opera, invention tales, and swashbuckling sword-and-planet adventures.

Michel wanted this as well, but he also wanted a political movement within SFF. He wanted SFF to be the vanguard of possible better futures, not just far-future romances that projected the history of the present into some glittering future. Michel, Wollheim, and those who forged the Futurian legacy wanted more. For them, SFF should be a revolution unto itself, constantly provoking and calling for those things that might bring about “a more Utopian existence,” as Michel called it. It should be the literary arm of the left.

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Despite the optimism of Michel’s fervor, and perhaps because of its intensity, the Futurians burned bright and short. This is not all that surprising, since the career of many early fan clubs, magazines, writers, and even generic trends lasted only months. By 1945, the group was through. Many had gone to war or participated in home-front war efforts. Those who would become major writers in the years that followed were publishing across the SFF magazines, not just in those edited by Futurians. Others found that the promises of the old left were besmirched by Stalinism and the increasing political danger of being a communist in the United States, or no longer saw a need for a leftist crusade following the seeming success of the anti-fascist victories of World War II. Some had become disillusioned with the utopian promise of SFF and the technocratic approach to futurism after it was revealed that atomic power had been harnessed for mass destruction.

The Futurians (and Michel in particular, who left SFF in the 1950s after a career of 22 stories) may have disappeared into the night of the postwar period’s hectic reassertion of patriotism, conservatism, and American imperialism, but Michel’s call for mutation lived on in the Futurians’ writing (not to mention the editorial and agential exploits of Wollheim and Kidd). They wrote novels and stories imagining more equitable societies or outlining dangerous futures: in the satires of Pohl and Kornbluth, in the civilizational quandaries of Asimov, in the apocalyptic visions of Merril, or in the gritty darkness of Blish. Wollheim, among the most significant 20th-century SFF editors, never revoked his leftist leanings and was still championing them in his later nonfiction writing. The former Futurians carried on the shared vision that had once bound them together, and many remained fast friends. In time, their legacy was taken up by the New Wave and its successors, mutating the genre again and again.

It has become clear from the genre’s history that SFF’s mutations are bound up in the political. One key lesson of the Futurians’ success is that revolutionary change must be systemic: to create change, our efforts have to be institutional in nature, and our targets must be systems rather than just individuals. A single writer cannot make change alone, but must be supported, along with other writers, by the institutions of publishing: magazines, editors, readers, and people putting their money behind publishing houses, book reviewers, cultural taste-makers, bookstockers, awards, anthologies, and so on. Power exists in the social relations that uphold and gird the system, not in the hands of individuals, and therefore truth can only be spoken to power when it is spoken to the many. The Futurians knew this, and in the end they mutated collectively into an institutional force.

Beyond this crucial lesson, it’s also worth remembering the Futurians because they were pressing for a similar fight to the one we face now against Puppies and MAGAlytes. They mobilized eight decades ago against a rising tide of fascism on the right and against complacency from liberals purporting to vouchsafe ideals of democracy and freedom. In their opening volleys of the SFF culture wars, the Futurians precipitated a crisis of identity for the genre, questioning its purpose: Will SFF be mere schlock and drivel, suitable only for entertainment purposes and nothing more, as so many claimed of the pulps and mass, lowbrow culture? Or will SFF utilize the extrapolative faculties of the genre to imagine, and then help build, a better world according to a coherent political ideal?

We are facing a similar crisis to the one the Futurians faced. What kind of SFF do we want? What will it do for the world? How will it imagine better realities, possibilities, lives? Who will it imagine these for? What problematic inheritance from the genre’s lengthy history will it improve upon? Will it seek new ways to topple heteropatriarchy? Will it recast or destroy old tropes to decolonize them? Will it improve upon the representation of those long marginalized, some of whom still have yet to hear their voice in the genre? Will it become something truly transformative?

At the base of all of these questions, we might ask the following in the tradition of the Futurians: How can we make SFF into a utopian technology that will reshape the horizon of the present and make possible the worlds we hope to inhabit?

The bell rung in Philadelphia eight decades ago rings forward into the future of today with surprising power. Let’s remember that past, grapple with the Futurians’ legacy, and remake the present.

Let us commit to cultivating an ever-mutating SFF and let the rest die.

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Sean Guynes-Vishniac is a PhD student in the Department of English at Michigan State University.


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