Science Fiction Studies

#12 = Volume 4, Part 2 = July 1977


Jerzy Jarzebski

Stanislaw Lem, Rationalist and Visionary

Abstract.-- This survey of Lem’s fiction and non-fiction between 1951 (The Astronauts) and 1973 (second edition of Tales of Pilot Pirx) considers at some length the successive volumes of Star Diaries and The Cyberiad; it also summarizes his early critical reception in Poland. Clearly, whatever Lem’s form of expression, he always returns to the same themes: chance and necessity in the development of mankind, determinism and indeterminism in the life of man, and finally the concept of the cosmos as a game. It would appear that nobody is fitter for pointing out man’s inner contradictions than Lem, who is on the one hand a sober brain seeing the world through categories and laws, a rationalist to the bone, and on the other hand a prisoner of his own emotions and fears, with a special inclination for phantasmagorical visions. The fate of his hero always logically serves his author’s thesis, yet the hero is also thrust into a world of baroque visions, of powerful sensual and emotional impressions. The same conflict may be detected in Lem’s language between an inclination towards exactitude and precision of expression and a contrary impulse towards stylistic exuberance. Even Lem’s scientific essays are full of overflowing metaphors.

Bernt Kling

Perry Rhodan

Abstract.-- The Rhodan SF series, with well over 700 volumes and over 100 paperbacks so far, is the most successful series of this sort in West Germany and since its publication in the United States, probably in the world. This essay offers a brief overview and publication history of the series.

Stanislaw Lem

Cosmology and Science Fiction

Abstract.-- Beginning by praising Cosmology Now (1973), with a caution about how soon its science will become obsolete, this essay considers the relationship between cosmology and SF. The facts are clear: both universes, that of the writers and that of the scientists, grow ever more apart. Science fiction started its escape from the real cosmos even before the question was formulated why the universe remains so silent, why other life-forms and other civilizations have not been discovered after decades of "sky listening." Yet SF itself has become so encapsulated against the space of cosmology that it is increasingly unwilling to receive any signals--any news from the field of science with the exception of what manages to make the front pages (such as the tale of the black holes). This encapsulation took place when SF authors got hold of two fantastic, very convenient inventions: unlimited travel in time, and unlimited travel in space. Thanks to time travel and FTL, the cosmos has acquired such qualities as domesticate it in an exemplary manner for story telling purposes; but at the same time it has lost its strange, icy sovereignty. SF doesn’t know of the cosmos of colliding galaxies, the invisible stars sucked in by the curvature of space, the pulsating magnetic fields. Structurally, the civilizations in SF remain arrested in the 19th century, with their colonizing tactics of conquest and their strategies of war. SF has not the slightest idea what could be done with the power of a sun, if it isn’t used exclusively for the destruction of inhabited planets. SF criticism often talks of a "sense of wonder" that the field is supposed to generate, but upon close examination, the "wonder" divulges its close relationship to the tricks of a stage magician.

Tom Moylan

Ideological Contradiction in Clarke's The City and the Stars

Abstract.-- From the works of Wells on, science fiction has been primarily a petit-bourgeois literature: written and read not by the elite who control technological capitalist society but by the merchants, farmers, teachers, technicians and their children who are not part of the ruling class but who seek reforms, usually characterized by populist ideology, that would bring them into positions of power and end their own alienation and oppression. In this vision, capitalist society and science is criticized for its dehumanization, alienation, and often physical destruction of people--and for its misuse of science and technology. But just as there is a critique and a wish for escape so there is all too often a desire simply to reform and control rather than to negate and transform. The typical SF protagonist is not a revolutionary but a rebel, one who rises in the world from a powerless position and changes society by means of newly gained personal power. Seldom is social change collective, class-based, and revolutionary. Arthur C. Clarke’s SF, reflecting his own ties with space technology, explores the possibilities for development of space flight and planetary colonization either by the US government or by an Americanized world government. A curious figure, Clarke is both propagandist for the US space programs and mystical prophet of the end of humankind and the ascendancy of superior life forms. Clarke’s support of US capitalist hegemony is both strengthened by his obsession with technocracy and mystified by his visions of a distant non-human future. With this background in mind, The City and the Stars can be recognized more readily as a mechanism of SF’s bourgeois ideology.

Robert M. Philmus

H.G. Wells as Literary Critic for the Saturday Review

Abstract.-- H. G. Wells’s association with The Saturday Review began when Frank Harris took over its management in 1894. The period from November 1894 to April 1897 during which Wells regularly submitted brief essays and book reviews to Harris were formative. In those years he was at work revising The Time Machine, seeing to the publication of The Wonderful Visit and The Wheels of Chance, drafting The Island of Dr. Moreau, and assembling two volumes of his short stories. As if those projects were not enough, he also wrote speculative essays and reviewed books on scientific subjects for SR, while concurrently acting first as drama critic for The Pall Mall Gazette and then as SR’s principal reviewer of fiction. This overview concludes with brief description of the ninety-two book reviews and other items written by Wells for The Saturday Review between 1894 and 1897.

Michael D. White

Ellison's Harlequin: Irrational Moral Action in Static Time

Abstract.-- Though Ellison has written this story to protest a rigid bureaucracy ruled by a social elite, his story fails to negate the power and the future of this totalitarian dictatorship. What is negated in protest itself: the Harlequin, a symbol of the enlightened yet anguished individual conscience rather than a symbol of history as process, is negated. Historical process itself is nullified. So Ellison’s protest of a social system corrupted with rational technocracy and with bloodied but rich overseers is as ineffective as the Harlequin’s conscientious rebellion against Ticktockman. In this story, both content (the theme of rebellion against oppressive authority) and form (the ahistorical embodiment of conscience and rebellion in one person, the Harlequin) nullify the purpose and the consequences of social protest. Ellison has fictionally embodied, in fact, the Kantian-Weberian ideological separation of "fact" from "value." Like Weber, he has provided a "factual" analysis of an ugly mechanical world about which one can do nothing. The Harlequin’s comical acts of disruption cannot succeed; thus, progressive social change cannot be the theme of Ellison’s Harlequin. The theme is the futility of protest in effecting social change. We are left with the existential Angst of the great tragi-comic clown-hero who valiantly throws himself under the wheels of the great machine, only to be "worked over" and mechanically recycled by the Timeless Technology.


Gary K. Wolfe

Mythic Structures in Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon"

Abstract.-- Discussions of the relationship between science fiction and myth usually begin to break down as soon as the question of basic definitions arises. There is little agreement as to the meaning of either term, and trying to establish some relationship between them begins very quickly to seem like an attempt to draw maps of clouds. But this should not be taken to mean that myth study has little to offer the study of science fiction or vice versa. In this paper, I apply a specific methodology drawn from the study of myths conducted by Claude Levi-Strauss to a work generally received as science fiction, Cordwainer Smith’s "The Game of Rat and Dragon." The confluence of Levi-Strauss’s particular method with this particular work should not be taken as an argument that all science fiction should be studied using this method, or treated as myth. Perhaps more than any other writer of future-history series, Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) manages to impart to his tales the aspect of "strong time" of which Mircea Eliade speaks in describing the power of myth--"the prodigious, ‘sacred’ time when something new, strong, and significant was manifested."

Ursula K. Le Guin

A New Book by the Strugatskys

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika. Tr A.W. Bouis. Macmillan, 1977, ix+245, $8.95. Also UK: Collier-Macmillan.

Roadside Picnic is a "first contact" story with a difference. Aliens have visited the earth and gone away again, leaving behind them several landing areas (now called The Zones) littered with their refuse. The picnickers have gone; the packrats, wary but curious, approach the crumpled bits of cellophane, the glittering fliptops from beercans, and try to carry them home to their holes...

Some of the mystifying and dangerous debris proves useful—eternal batteries which power automobiles—but the scientists never know if they are using the devices for their proper purpose, or employing (as it were) Geiger counters as hand-axes and electronic components as nose-rings. They cannot figure out the principles of the artifacts, the science behind them. An international Foundation sponsors research. A black market flourishes; "stalkers" enter the forbidden Zones and, at risk of various kinds of terrible and painful death, steal bits of Visitors' litter, bring the stuff out, and sell it, sometimes to the Foundation.

The implied picture of humanity is not flattering. In the traditional first contact story, communication is achieved by courageous and dedicated spacemen, and an exchange of knowledge, or a military triumph, or a big-business deal ensues. Here the aliens were utterly indifferent to us if they noticed our existence at all; there has been no communication, there can be no understanding; we are scarcely even savages or packrats—we are just garbage. And garbage pollutes, ferments. Corruption and crime attend the exploration of the Zones; disasters seem to pursue fugitives from them. A superintendent of the Institute thinks, "My God, we won't be able to do a thing! We don't have the power to contain this blight. Not because we don't work well.... It's just that that's the way the world is. And that's the way man is in this world. If there had never been the Visitation, there would have been something else. Pigs always find mud. "

The book built on this dark foundation, is lively, racy, and likeable. It is set in North America—Canada, I assumed, I am not sure on what evidence—which may have some relevance to the economics of exploitation shown at work, but very little otherwise; the people are just ordinary people. But vivid, alive. The slimiest old stalker-profiteer has a revolting and endearing vitality. Human relations ring true. And there is courage and selflessness (though not symbolised by power, wealth, or a Star Fleet uniform) in the protagonist, Red, a stalker, a rough and ordinary man. Humanity is not flattered, but it isn't cheapened. Most of the characters are tough people leading degrading or discouraging lives, but they are presented without sentimentality and without cynicism; the authors' touch is tender, aware of vulnerability.

Judging from Hard to Be a God, The Final Circle of Paradise, and this book, the Strugatsky brothers are immensely versatile writers; the traits common to all three books are rather subtle: a quality of good humor; of compassion; of emotional honesty. The "premise" of this one, the picnic-litter idea, could have lent itself to easy sarcasm, or to wishful thinking, or to sensationalism. There is irony, yearning, and adventure in the book, but it does not stick in any one vein; it is a novel. Complex in event, imaginative in detail, ethically and intellectually sophisticated, it is, in the last analysis, the story of a particular person, an individual destiny. Red is not an interchangeable part, as the protagonists of idea-stories are. It's his book. His salvation is at stake. The landscape has changed greatly, but see, there, that's Mt. Dostoyevsky, and there's the Tolstoy Range....

The end, the very end, leaves me brooding. Is it a spiritual victory, or a raising of the irony to the next power? Perhaps both; for Red, epiphany and spiritual liberation; for humanity—what? "HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED"....

There is an interesting parallel between Roadside Picnic and a book of Stanislaw Lem's, Glos Pana, written in 1967 and not yet available in English, though a 1976 French translation is available from Editions Denoel, Paris, La Voix du Maitre. The book is set in a top secret research facility in the Western American desert; its narrator and all its characters are scientists, set to work on decoding an accidentally (?) intercepted message from the stars. The problem is thus presented "from the top," intellectually (there are many parallels with the Solaristics chapter in Solaris), rather than "from underneath," emotionally; but it is very much the same problem:

The myth of our cognitive universalism, our capacity to receive and understand extra-terrestrial, hence totally new, information, remains unshaken, even though, having received a message from the stars, we did no more with it than a savage who, having warmed himself at a bonfire of all the greatest scientific books, congratulates himself on having put his discovery to the best possible use. [p 43; my translation]

This "myth of our cognitive universalism" is of course a central theme in Lem's novels. His handling of it in this book is extremely interesting, particularly in contrast with the Strugatsky story. The message from the stars is, it appears, a letter of instruction, the description of an "instrument"; neither the instructions nor the purpose of the "instrument" are fully comprehensible to the human mind; but the senders of the message, envisaging this possibility, have built in precautions against the misuse of the instructions, or part of them, as weaponry (which is of course what the Government is hoping to get from the project). It is impossible to make a bonfire of these books.

Nature provides no such precautions; nature is helpless against—indifferent to—the use we make of what we discover. The senders of the star-message are not indifferent; no error, misunderstanding, or ill intention can pervert their "instructions" to a destructive end. When the narrator says that, in realising this, he has "touched, for a moment, their grandeur," he means moral grandeur.

In the Strugatsky book, the Zones, though dangerous, are unprotected; the alien visitors were as indifferent as the rest of nature to our safety. Moral choice, moral corruption or grandeur, is left up to humanity.

Lem's narrator is left defeated and humbled: he sees mankind as having failed the test. The Strugatskys' hero "passes the test," but it was not sent him by any conscious agent. His triumph is purely personal, a victory over himself; one cannot believe that he really has won "HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE." Both books are profoundly sad, but what is dry and bitter in Lem is both rougher and tenderer in Roadside Picnic.

The second half of the Strugatsky book, Tale of the Troika, is not a novel but a tale, in the classic Slavic-Central European mode, Gogol through Ilf & Petrov through Lem et al.: the Send-Up of the Bureaucracy. Verbal fireworks, desperate wit, fierce absurdity. To turn a scream of pain and outrage into a belly-laugh, there's courage! But it is a light-handed courage, the heroics of the high-wire dancer. In my favorite passage, a decrepit inventor presents to the Inspectors his Heuristic Machine, which will provide the answer to any question whatsoever. The Heuristic Machine consists of a 1906 Remington typewriter "in fairly good condition," and the inventor. Its operation is beautifully simple: you just ask it a question, and the inventor hastily types out the answer. The answers, as might be expected, are rather peculiar, and contain a good many misspellings and typographical errors, which the Machine angrily defends and the inventor stubbornly repeats. "'Insade!' the old man whispered. 'Look insade, where there's an analyser and a thinker!'"

I cannot judge the accuracy of the translation, by Antonina W. Bouis, but the English is flexible, colorful, spirited, and gives one no sense at all of reading a translation. I hope Macmillan will give us more Strugatsky and more Bouis as soon as possible.

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