Science Fiction Studies


#30 = Volume 10, Part 2 = July 1983



Editorial Introduction

This issue is not, of course, our first to be devoted explicitly and primarily to pre-20th-century SF. SFS No. 10 (November 1976) concerned itself almost exclusively with "Science Fiction Before Wells," and No. 23 (March 1981 ) somewhat less so with "Science Fiction Through Wells." What perhaps distinguishes "Science Fiction in the Nineteenth Century" from those predecessors (which it otherwise complements) is the degree of bibliographical interest of its contents.                

We have arranged the essays that follow according to one of our usual principles, the chronological order of the text(s) each concentrates on; and going through them in that order, you will no doubt traverse a certain amount of familiar territory before coming upon bibliographical terrae incognitae. Yet even the familiar territory has been mapped in new ways here. Virtually all serious students of SF these days read Frankenstein, and much has been written about it; but Anca Vlasopolos still manages to find a hitherto unbeaten path through its pages as she explores Mary Shelley's consistent emphasis on comely appearance as expressive of the class-consciousness and values of an oppressive aristocracy. So, too, the tradition of "lunar speculations" extending from Plutarch to George Tucker has been much discussed since Marjorie Nicholson called attention to it 35 years ago; but Maurice Bennett takes new bearings on its relation to Poe, whose "Hans Pfaall," in Bennett's view, romanticizes the "voyage to the Moon"—that is, conceals a project for escaping the spatial and temporal confines of terrestrial reality and exchanging the cares they impose for a "lunar" imaginative freedom.                

Darko Suvin's critical survey of "Alternative Histories" published between 1871 and 1885 likewise contains names and titles already on the map of SF. But others— Blair, "Green," "Lang-Tung." Maitland, etc.—even historians of the genre may be unacquainted with. Furthermore, while "Victorian Science Fiction..." will give the reader a good idea of what the works dealt with are about, Suvin offers socio-critical analysis, not mere summary; and in the process he rewrites the history of SF in the years that immediately led up to Wells.                

Nadia Khouri takes a similar approach to the lost-race utopias that proliferated in the US around the turn of the century (i.e., roughly between 1890 and 1910). Though even specialists in the field will be largely unconversant with the fictions she treats of, she does not do any such tiresome thing as recapitulate plots, but instead provides a sense of what these lost-race utopias are typically and individually about by identifying their topoi and conventions and connecting those characteristics to the age in which such visions of "conspicuous consumption" abounded.                

Also belonging with the articles which make up the bulk of this special issue is Marc Angenot's review of the reprint edition of Albert Robida's Le Vingtième siecle (1883), one of a number of works by a French satirist virtually unknown to the English-speaking world whom the reader can become acquainted with through Angenot's account. The remaining essays likewise fit in in one respect or another with those already mentioned. Margaret Miller focuses on a little-known work which owes its rediscovery to the impact of the Feminist Movement on literary studies— Charlotte Gilman's Herland (1915) —and contrasts it with Suzy Charnas's Motherlines (1978); David Ketterer brings new evidence about the composition of The Seedling Stars, Titans' Daughter, and A Torrent of Faces to bear on a careful exegesis of those books of James Blish's having to do with his collaboration with Norman L. Knight; and Peter Fitting, in his lucid and insightful explanation of what Philip K. Dick is about, takes as his examples titles which have hitherto elicited little comment and which may therefore be familiar only to afficionadoes of their author.               

All in all, then, you should find this issue full of surprises, and not merely those of a bibliographical sort.

Maurice J. Bennett

Edgar Allan Poe and the Literary Tradition of Lunar Speculation

Abstract..--Edgar Allan Poe's short story about a fictive voyage to the Moon, "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, " is the precursor of all contemporary SF works recounting astronautical adventures. The scientific and technological exactitude underscored in the note Poe added to the 1840 edition has contributed to the formulation of the thematic and narrative concerns of the genre. Such concerns derive from Poe's desire to differentiate his tale from those which preceded it and to signal the originality and superiority of his own effort. At the same time, he points to the existence of a literary tradition of lunar voyages and directs the reader's attention to the most exemplary works in that tradition

An author's pretensions to originality and his critique of writers whom he regards as rivals must always be suspect. Accordingly, I examine not only the texts which Poe acknowledges as precursors of "Hans Pfaall" but also others which seem pertinent for determining his literary debts and his degree of innovativeness. Plutarch's On the Face Appearing within the Orb of the Moon (1st century A.D.), Lucian's A True History (2nd century A.D.), Keller's Somnium (1634), Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone (1638), Wilkins's The Discovery of a World in the Moon (1638, 1640), Cyrano's L'Autre monde (1650-57), and George Tucker's A Voyage to the Moon (1827)--these all partake of narrative and thematic conventions which are also integral to "Hans Pfaall," albeit displaced and camouflaged in it. Among those conventions are the use of "science" and analogical logic for the imaginative exploration of the cosmos, for analyzing the intellectual and social life of Earth from the vantage point of the Moon, and for distinguishing (as Poe's endnote makes clear) the superior rationality of "Hans Pfaall " from the imperfections of its forebears

The important innovation in this story of Poe's lies not in the verisimilitude or the plausibility which he vaunts, but in the object and motive of his hero's voyage. All the works which came before "Hans Pfaall" concerned themselves with public questions: with the state of science, with philosophy, with manners and mores. Pfaall, however, flees precisely to escape from these things, which to him have become insupportable. His story thus discovers a secret project: the Romantic one of exchanging quotidian cares for imaginative freedom. He symbolically transcends the limits of terrestrial reality and achieves an existence beyond space and time. In his tale, Poe has fused science and mysticism in the way that critics like Samuel R. Delany regard as characteristic of SF.

Peter Fitting

Reality as Ideological Construct: A Reading of Five Novels by Philip K. Dick

Abstract.--This essay focuses attention on a scene that recurs in the fictions of Dick: the hero s discovery that what he had taken to be reality, phenomenal and empiric, was in fact only a simulacrum put in place at his intention or a hallucination which had imposed on him--a scene corresponding to a certain category of dreams that we have all had. This discovery scene, the variable forms and role of which in the Dickian imagination Peter Fitting presently examines, correlates with a kind of novelistic critique of the positivist idea that we can have unmediated knowledge of the objective world. Contemporary theoreticians, on the contrary, concede that world, together with the knowing subject, is socially constructed as ideology. Yet while acknowledging in theory that reality is not given to us objectively and directly, we inevitably assume in our everyday experience that we do have direct contact with a natural reality. Around such concepts and such givens the Dickian fiction develops. The external world as simulacrous construct can be discovered under the form of the successive "subjective universes" presented in Eye in the Sky, in the induced psychosis of Time Out of Joint, in the massive experiences of hallucinogenic drugs depicted in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in the objectified schizophrenia of the hero of A Scanner Darkly, and finally in the "theophany " of Valis. Those last two texts especially reveal in what measure identity itself is a function of ideology. Dick, who proclaims that "I have never yielded to reality," has written books which eloquently testify not only to the force and the loneliness inherent in his refusal to accept "reality, " but also to the hope which leads him to dream of the transformation of the world.

David Ketterer

Pantropy, Polyploidy, and Tectogenesis in the Fiction of James Blish and Norman L. Knight

Abstract.--A concern with genetic engineering links The Seedling Stars, Titans' Daughter, and A Torrent of Faces. In the four stories which make up The Seedling Stars, the most important of these three books, a technique designed to fit human beings to alien worlds is called 'Pantropy, " which means "changing everything." The question arises, if everything about a human being is, or can be, changed, is the result still a human being? This dichotomy between change and an unchanging human reality or essential truth is ambiguously mediated by a developing sexual analogy which figures in the two central stories, "The Thing in the Attic" and "Surface Tension. " Experiments with polyploidy have led to the creation of a persecuted race of giants in Titans' Daughter, a work marred by hokey plotting, poor characterization, and contrived symbolism. A Torrent of Faces, by Blish and Knight, takes over a process called "tectogenesis" and artificial sea beings called "Tritons" from Knight's 1940 novella, "Crisis in Utopia." An analysis of letters exchanged between the two authors (and now part of the Bodleian Library Blish Papers) reveals the division of labor that went into the novel over a 19-year period. What might appear to be a division between the themes of overpopulation and tectogenesis is shown to be reconciled by the Tritons. Blish's and Knight's work in the area of genetic engineering mediates between that of Wells, Stapledon, and Huxley on the one hand, and that of Pohl and Varley on the other.

Nadia Khouri

Lost Worlds and the Revenge of Realism

Abstract.--Utopian romances describing "lost" races established in a hollow Earth or isolated in inaccessible valleys abounded in the US around the turn of the last century. These tales generally feature a team of explorers from the outside world who come into a stagnant society in which immense riches accumulate and where archaic rituals coexist with advanced technology and disturb the equilibrium of that ambiguous utopia, a utopia engendered by anachronism, especially in the form of the mixing of epochs. 20 romances belonging to this tradition (first prefigured in Frank Cowan's Revi-Lona, 1879) are examined in the essay, which assesses the recurring thematic concerns of these fictions as expressive of the image that the "man in the street " had of "conspicuous consumption" (á la Veblen) as American millionaires realized it at the fin du siècle. The lost-race utopist thus transposes into fiction the values of the "leisure class"and his ambivalent bourgeois admiration for its standards of 'pecuniary beauty. "

Separated from the rest of society by his style of life, the millionaire becomes a legendary being, stereotypes of whom radically contradict past ideals of democratic austerity, frugal and egalitarian, which the Founding Fathers of the American Republic espoused. The lost-race utopist hyperbolically envisions the prodigality, the extravagance, the accumulation of heteroclite riches of the "leisure class, " but combines them with the old ideologies of the Frontier and of the pioneers, ideologies resuscitated by the dream-possibilities opened in the Klondike at a moment when opportunities for becoming rich were in actuality disappearing. Such a sequestered utopia as these writers conceive of has no value as a model: the object of covetousness, it is accessible only to a few elect. It therefore testifies to the privatization of utopia, imaged (and as it were, allegorized) by the emblem of an internal sun shining at the center of the Earth, and likewise expressed in the way the imaginary lost race organizes power around an authoritarian figure (king, arch-priest, princess). The entire form of the implosive system is constructed from the paradox of a "contemporary antiquity " from utopia as privatized desire and as commodity, and from fetishized power. These tales for the most part end in the disintegration of the lost world, partly as a result of an internal disintegration, partly as a result of the intervention of the hero(s) from the "real" America. To paraphrase William Morris, it can be said that the lost-race utopia is "a Vanderbilt paradise dreamt by a Cockney." 

Margaret Miller

The Ideal Woman in Two Feminist Science-Fiction Utopias

Abstract.--Writers of feminist SF have, both at the turn of the century and today, used utopian fiction as a vehicle for their vision of what female human nature would be like under optimal social circumstances. In comparing Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) with Suzy McKee Charnas' Motherlines (1978), we see which feminist assumptions about women's nature have persisted and which have not. While Charnas, representative of late-20th-century feminism, does not share Gilman's assumptions that women are innately peaceable, maternal, and asexual, she does assume, like Gilman, that women's culture is more co-operative, non-hierarchical, and nurturing than men's.

Darko Suvin

Victorian Science Fiction, 1871-85: The Rise of the Alternative History Sub-Genre

Abstract.--The year 1871 witnesses a sudden development in UK ST, opening a period in the history of the genre which extends--according to the point of view one adopts--to 1901 With Wells's The First Men in the Moon), to the First World War, or even into the 1930s. The principal sub-genres of this period in SF are the Extraordinary Voyage, the Future War Novel, and the Alternative History (Bulwer Lyttons The Coming Race prefigures all three). The Alternative History, which succeeds and supplants the Classical Utopia cum static "anatomy," presents an alternate fictional place displaying various solutions to current societal problems through an imagined alteration (varying in extent) of world history. Focusing on a group of 33 such Histories, Suvin finds that those of the years 1871-79 can be classed as either "comico-satiric" or "serious," and those of 1880-85 as "coarse" or "relatively sophisticated "His analysis is directed not only towards identifying the formal characteristics and thematic concerns of such Alternative Histories but also the ideological and social conditions which give them their raison d'être and their significance. The high points of the sub-genre through 1885, both from an aesthetic point of view and as social criticism, come with Edwin Abbott's Flatland (1884; which anticipates, inter alia, Zamiatin) and Richard Jefferies' After London (1885; which looks ahead to Wells and beyond). 

Anca Vlasopolos

Frankenstein's Hidden Skeleton: The Psycho-Politics of Oppression

Abstract.--Continued interest in Frankenstein suggests that the novel possesses a covert structure that gives it enduring coherence. The hidden logic of Frankenstein rests on Mary Shelley's fusion of the sociopolitical forces used to ensure the survival of the aristocracy and the private drama of a man who sees himself as ineluctably driven to incest. The principal dynamics of Victor Frankenstein's actions involves incest-avoidance; his fear leads to the creation of the monster and to the demise of his circle. Given his unnatural origins and consequent alienation from society, the monster represents the dispossessed. The abhorrence and cruelty he inspires are also directed against characters who serve as parallels and who, though not initially monstrous, become victims when perceived as monstrous--that is, as threats to the established order. Frankenstein's subtext, psychic and political, reveals that monsters are made, not born.

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