Image Source: Endless Bookshelf
Continuing our series of interviews, for the current iteration we interview Hal W. Hall who has been responsible for giving the Islam and Science Fiction project valuable advice and information on relevant resources. Hal W. Hall is one of the foremost Bibliographer and Librarians in the domain of Science Fiction literature with almost 50 years of experience in the area. He has written extensively on the subject and has a large number of compilations under his belt. He has indexed close to 200,000 resources on Science Fiction which is staggering feat in itself especially in the pre-internet days.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: How did you get interested in the study of Science Fiction?
Hal Hall: In 1967, I was in my first job as a librarian, working on the reference desk. A student wanted to do a research paper on Isaac Asimov, and asked for book reviews on some of his books. After checking the available indexes, I could not find what he needed. As it happened, I recalled such a review in a science fiction magazine I had at home, so I brought it to him the next day. The event piqued my interest, and I searched more – there was little to nothing about SF and fantasy in that college library. What about an index to SF book reviews? So I did a pilot index of three SF magazines I had, and sent it out for comment to the three magazines, and to a few librarians I knew. All of them (21 people) replied that a review index would be useful. The first volume of Science Fiction Book Review Index came out in 1971, and the annual series lasted 21 years. In the mid-1970s, I started indexing secondary literature of SF and fantasy. That led to three hard-cover indexes and several shorter versions, and ultimately to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Index, online at: http://sffrd.library.tamu.edu. By way of numbers, I have indexed about 80,000 book reviews, and just over 110,000 secondary books, articles, and news notes about SF and fantasy.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: How has Science Fiction changed in the last 50 years?
Hal Hall: SF has gone from hardcovers and pulps to paperbacks and magazines, to movies and TV. From print to electronic, with side trips to hypertext and interactive fiction, and on to electronic/video games, played singly or interactively online. And those are just the formats. “Hard” science fiction is still there, but harder to find that before. Fantasy is more popular than ever. Since I lean to the “hard” stuff, those changes don’t please me much. On the other hand, we have The Martian, both book and movie – what more could a “hard SF” fan want? As an aside, I have dipped heavily into the “science fiction” available free or inexpensively on Amazon and other platforms. Some is mediocre, some pretty good, some really good – The Martian, showed up there, for example. The glaring deficiency in that concept of publishing is the lack of editorial guidance, and a serious lack of “poorfreding”. The authors try, but I can attest that proofing your own work can be a lost cause. The author sometimes “sees” what should be there, not what is actually printed. The next decade should be interesting. I sometimes wonder if movie and TV science fiction and fantasy is building toward a crash, like the oil industry experienced. Is there such a thing as too many SF/F movies and TV shows? Is it a bubble that may burst? Time will tell.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: In the last few years there has been a lot of debate about diversity in Science Fiction. In your observation, how has the Science Fiction author landscape has change in the last half century?
Hal Hall: One of the perils of being a diligent indexer is a significant lack of time to keep up with the wealth of authors and fiction we have available. I read consistently, but not in a high volume. Hence, my opinions on diversity may not be valid. Is SF/F blessed with a greater diversity than in the twentieth century? Without a doubt! Has the field reached an equilibrium of adequate, if fluid, diversity in many aspects? I can hope so, but I could not prove it. There are more female authors now than in the mid-twentieth century, for example, and many are highly visible and highly regarded. There are more African American authors writing, and they are more highly visible and highly regarded. The twenty-first century has seen a surge of interest in Islamic writers and fiction, as you well know. China has had an active SF tradition for years, and it is only just now reaching our shores in translation. Latin American SF is not well known in America, not to mention a scarcity of domestic writers. Is it enough? Surely not. To be diverse and inclusive requires constant attention, as writers, readers, and critics. I was made aware of the Islamic aspect of SF and diversity through my colleague, Rebecca Hankins. That personal contact “turned on” my attention. I noticed items I might have otherwise passed by, and could pass on them to Rebecca. That is a good example of how discussions of diversity raise consciousness and help foster diversity.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Some folks have stated that given the accelerating pace of technological progress it is becoming harder to predict the future. How do you think the Science Fiction literary community will respond this?
Hal Hall: “When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.”
Tennyson, in “Locksley Hall”, was pretty good at dipping into the future, and perhaps accurate in concept if not detail. That may well be my theme in answering this question: SF may predict concepts and alternatives, but not so much details. That said, there are many cases where the fertile imaginations of SF authors concocted devices and technologies that are eerily similar to things we use every day. There are also thousands of things that remain only in the realm of imagination. And that is just the physical stuff. I haven’t seen “psychohistory” in operation yet, to name only one of the many “social science fiction” concepts that have emerged in SF. It is interesting that SF has become more dystopian over the years, to the extent that some writers are publicly saying “Wait a minute. All is not lost. We should write some stories that aren’t dystopian.” I mentioned “hard science fiction” earlier. Even more difficult to find is the category labeled “social science fiction” that tries to look at the mid-range future and see what the world might be like socially. If there is a valid purpose to which SF might aspire, perhaps it is in exploring the trend-lines of current events. What would a “tea-party” America actually look like? How would a “China-centric” world look, and function? Would an authoritarian, non-democratic America be a good place to live? How will the issues of sexuality and repression play out in America and the world? The questions and viewpoints are many. The fiction is harder to find.
So, is prediction, never mind accurate prediction, critical to SF? Not so much – but good story-telling can point out dangerous paths. Above all, however, fiction has one overriding purpose: to entertain. If technology, or philosophy, or religion, or diversity becomes the point of writing, the story-telling may suffer. Certainly there are many examples in the past. Some of Heinlein comes to mind.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: What are your favorite works of Science Fiction?
Hal Hall: My favorite author is Chad Oliver. He put anthropology in his SF, and was a grand human being. I had the privilege of knowing Chad, and bringing his archive to the Cushing Library at Texas A&M.
I enjoyed much of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov at their peaks, and read Andre Norton, Le Guin, Brin, Van Vogt, and a hundred others.
Baxter’s Evolution is a book I dip back into for the encompassing view of life he presents. I go back and read James Schmitz’s The Demon Breed for good fun. Williamson’s Darker Than You Think stays on my re-read shelf, as does Frank’s Alas, Babylon and some of Weber’s “Honor Harrington” novels. One day, I will go back and read Stapledon, too. There are many others I could name.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Do you see a truly global Science Fiction literature emerging in the near future?
Hal Hall: A truly global science fiction literature in the near future? I would guess “near future” is a reach. I think the intermixing of national and language traditions will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, as indeed it has been in the past. Here in the US, we have had intermittent attempts to make available non-English literatures. The Strugatski brothers and Stanislaw Lem come to mind as successful authors in translation. A few anthologies featuring multiple linguistic traditions have been published. In the opposite direction, of course, American and British SF has been widely translated. Recently, The Three-Body Problem has opened the door to a rich Chinese SF literature.
Global, of course, has two possible aspects. I have spoken of stories in translation. I could also look at the globalization of the content of stories within a language or national culture. In that sense, of course, I can only conjecture from my experience as an American reader. How often do stories intermix languages and cultures in their story-lines. Quite often, in my reading experience, but on a percentage basis, not as much as we might hope. It may be that this aspect of globalization – in the storylines – will do more to intermix cultural traditions than will pure translations. How well another culture is realized seems to vary widely. For example, Rebecca Hankin’s research into the presence and presentation of Islam in science fiction shows both the good and the bad of writing about other cultures. Some are sympathetic (and informative) inclusions; some are uninformed, and some are insulting. I suspect that may be true of other cultural traditions, also. It is a laudable goal, but very hard work for the writer.
Turning back to translated fiction, the web offers a platform to increase the availability of stories to different cultures. World SF did a bit of that, offering a variety of fiction and nonfiction in its five-year lifespan. Reviving World SF, or building a new model, could revitalize the spread of SF and fantasy across cultures.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: How has technology changed the state of study of Science Fiction ever since you took up this subject?
Hal Hall: In a nutshell, from print to Web.
As noted in my first comment, in the early 1970s, there were very few options for library research into science fiction, and those few were not in most libraries. There were no scholarly journals, and few critical books about science fiction. There were a few fan indexes, and books by SF fans and authors. Extrapolation, a scholarly newsletter that evolved into a critical journal, first published in 1959, and the Science Fiction Research Association published their first newsletter in 1971. Today, Extrapolation, The SFRA Review, and Science Fiction Studies are all available in print and electronically, along with many other genre-specific titles. Founation is still available only in print. In 1970, I transitioned my printed secondary indexes into Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database, providing free access to over 110,000 items about SF and Fantasy. The Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Weird Fiction Magazine Index: 1890-2007, by Stephen T. Miller & William G. Contento provides access to virtually all SF and fantasy magazine fiction through 2008 in a CD-ROM format. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database provides sound, easily available information on published SF and fantasy. Those titles are just the tip of an iceberg of information on the web.
Libraries and fans are working to make magazine issues and runs available. Some material from South America is available on the University of South Florida Library web site. Fans are putting up many issues of fanzines, as are some libraries.
Research has never been so easy, and at the same time so difficult to do with rigor and accuracy. The problem is not in accessing hundreds or even thousands of possible sources; the problem is finding your particular needle in the haystack of sources. For all our great advances in providing material, we still lack a truly effective way to zero in upon the articles and books that are specific to our topic of the day.
The greater danger, for SF/F and other research, is for the scholar to take the easy out in research, and rely only on that material that is electronically available on the web. For all the millions of web pages out there, there are scores of books, articles and news reports that are only available in print, often only discoverable by using historical printed indexes or other “archaic” tools. Let the scholar beware.
Excellent interview, thanks Muhammad! My dear friend Hal always provides thoughtful insights and knowledge, thank you.