Science Fiction Studies

#31 = Volume 10, Part 3 = November 1983


Editorial Introduction            

"Extraliterary Forms of Science Fiction" can be looked upon as a follow-up to our November 1980 issue on "Science Fiction and the Non-Print Media." We had planned it to have as many articles on the subject as its predecessor, but circumstances conspired against the arrival to two would-be contributions in time to make our printing deadline. Nevertheless, the range of concerns that this special issue opens up compensates, in our judgment, for any quantitative shortcomings it may have.               

The lead-off essay, on SF film, is a case in point. In it, Manfred Nagl parts company with those critics who concentrate on single movies and more often than not give them a "mythic"—i.e., ahistorical—interpretation. He instead considers the SF film from a binocular historical viewpoint, as both a generically and an economically collective enterprise. He attends first to the early SF serials, and it is by way of them that he comes to what he argues are their inheritors: the SF films from the 1950s on and the series televised since the '50s by US, Japanese, and European broadcasting stations. Through the kind of historical perspective he takes towards SF film, he is able to indicate not merely its formulate nature, but also the ideological character that the economic realities of its production have gradually ensured for it, thanks to the financial consolidation culminating in the "New Hollywood" and to the concomitant mass-media alliance for marketing SF films and TV series and their spin-off commodities.                

Compared to Nagl's essay, the unusual thing about Janis Svilpis's is not so much the approach as the subject. Svilpis applies the methods of semiological analysis to SF illustrations, especially those on the covers of 1950s' SF magazines, and finds in them a psychological and sociological significance that bears upon attitudes and expectations about SF. His discoveries concerning the examples he deals with undoubtedly hold interest in themselves; but what he is doing is at least equally of interest (as he himself concludes) for pointing the way to further study of the generic "code of visual images."                

Karin Blair, in "Sex and Star Trek," may also lay claim to breaking new ground in viewing from a feminist perspective works of SF apart from literary texts; and if "E.T. as Fairy Tale" seems to have no similar distinction, that is only because Andrew Gordon has already made the kind of psychological exegesis that he practices familiar. On the other hand, readers who remember his "The Empire Strikes Back: Monsters from the Id" (in SFS No. 22), with its prescient account of why Empire would not have the box-office success of Star Wars (nor, as it turned out, of its sequel, Return of the Jedi), will be curious to learn what reasons Gordon adduces for E.T.'s appeal.                

Aside from the four essays on "Extraliterary Forms of Science Fiction," the following pages offer Victoria Myers' "speech-act" analysis of The Left Hand of Darkness and Stanislaw Lem's dissection of Roadside Picnic. The latter essay, insofar as it discloses what the Strugatsky brothers are up to, can be read in conjunction with Daniel Gerould's "On Soviet Science Fiction," and insofar as it reveals Lem's own thinking about SF, can be connected with Dagmar Barnouw's remarks on what The Cyberiad, for instance, has to say to those experimenting with "artificial intelligence." Similarly, readers of Myers' account of the ways of misunderstanding and communicating in Ursula Le Guin will also be interested in James Bittner's review of Elizabeth Cogell's bibliography of that author.

Karin Blair

Sex and Star Trek

Abstract.--The TV series Star Trek seems to affirm traditional male fantasies in a most direct and unenlightened way. Typically, as in an episode like Requiem for Methuselah, the female characters are constructs of the male imagination, femmes-objets for Captain Kirk to love--and leave. This is also true of Star Trek, the Movie, in the course of which Via, the "new woman" who has in effect sacrificed her hair (symbolic of her sexuality) for the sake of her career, becomes the pawn of forces greater than herself and is thus made into one more "disposable female." Yet Star Trek does offer women a role-model opposed to the traditional, male-dominated mythology of the sexes: Dr Spock. In the TV series (but not in the film), Spock does not fit in with the sexual stereotyping that otherwise dominates Star Trek: virtually devoid of emotion, he can be perceived as a kind of homme-objet. As such, he has inspired women to fantasize for themselves roles which evoke the masculine side of their identity and hence tend toward liberating their consciousness from the sexual models imposed by a male-dominated world.

Andrew Gordon

E.T. as Fairy Tale

Abstract.--Although Steven Spielberg's film E.T. is as irrational as his earlier film Close Encounters, it is a far more acceptable fantasy because it has a child hero and follows the structure of classic fairy tales. E.T. is children's literature, whereas Close Encounters is simply childish. Some of the fairy-tale models E.T. is patterned after include "The Frog-King" and "Peter Pan"; children have certainly embraced E.T. as the new Peter Pan of the space age. E.T. also seems to express the mythic archetype Jung calls the "eternal child " or "child god." Like a fairy tale, E.T. is a maturational fantasy which recapitulate certain stages of human psychological development. It appeals on a number of different levels, and each viewer will resonate on a different psychological chord to this reassuring fantasy.

[A response by David Ketterer, and Andrew Gordon's reply, appear in SFS 32 (March 1984).]

Stanislaw Lem

About the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic

Abstract.--The strategy theologians apply to their principal subject is not properly available to the writer of SF. The mystery of the Alien, unlike that of God, cannot be preserved by resorting to dogmatically imposed contradictions without betraying the true nature of science fiction. Yet presenting the Alien has its problems. H. G. Wells's approach in making his Martians physically hideous left them mentally and socially unreconstructed; their motives for invading Earth remain recognizable caricatures of human thinking and hence compromise their Otherness. However, the legion of imitators who have debased the example of The War of the Worlds in trying to outdo it in the realm of monstrosity have deposed of that problem by neglecting to furnish their Cosmic Invaders with any motive whatever only to supply themselves with another, by substituting a malign, inverted fairy-tale universe for the real world that SF should model itself after.

The best way out of such difficulties lies with the method the Strugatskys adopt in Roadside Picnic: of not-depicting the Alien. They never allow us a sight of the Visitors, only the concrete results of their "landing." About the latter the authors offer us plenty of details, which viewed microscopically, as it were, remain exactly that: details. Concerning the source and significance of the deadly objects that have constituted themselves as Harmont's Zone there is no end of theorizing; but the explanation finally favored Dr. Pilman's, is the one the title anticipates: that we are dealing with the debris from an Alien roadside picnic.

Within the context of such a hypothesis, the Strugatskys' focus on the lives of the "stalkers," who make perilous forays into the Zone in pursuit of profit, seems designed to discredit both sides in the meeting of two civilizations. The human beings behave solely in base and self-destructive ways, while the Visitors prove their murderous indifference to humanity. Unfortunately, however, the fiction does not exclude a possibility that undermines this intended meaning: that the objects were contained in a space-probe vehicle which broke apart upon nearing our planet; that consequently raining down on Earth, they arrived in damaged condition. This accident would account in the most economical way for all the "fictifacts, " but it does not comport with the authors' title analogy.

If their oversight in failing to rule out the hypothesis of a "damaged gift" is one defect of Roadside Picnic, the Strugatskys' manner of concluding their narrative is another. With Arthur and Redrick's quest for the Golden Ball, the fiction becomes fairy-tale-like--an unintended effect at odds with the book's overall impression. That so highly commendable an attempt to treat the theme of Cosmic Invasion should suffer from these weaknesses underscores the difficulties to be encountered in trying to carry out the optimal strategy of preserving the SF mystery through the very unfolding and presentation of the fictional events.

Victoria Myers

Conversational Technique in Ursula Le Guin: A Speech-Act Analysis

Abstract.--Speech-act theory as developed by J.L Austin and J.R. Searle provides the conceptual means for dealing with the relationship between an utterance and the context in which it is uttered. Adapted to the description of dialogue in Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD), the theory enables us to comprehend how the SF writer accomplishes two essential tasks: that of erecting convincing linguistic barriers between earthling and alien, and that of achieving a sense of ordeal in overcoming the barriers to communication. The barriers themselves are evident in Genly Ais initial conversations with Tibe, which exhibit the communication process as something vulnerable to breakdown, but also capable of conveying intentions. Here the Austin-Searle theory, predicating an analogy between literary and natural speech acts and offering concepts of intention, of illocutionary force and perlocutionary effect, and so forth, allows for an analysis of the reasons for Genly's misunderstanding, but also of the motives and meaning behind Tibe's ambiguous speech. By the same token, the theory can be used to explain how Genly, much later on in LHD, manages to surmount the obstacles to communicating with and understanding Estraven. Thus it not only exposes the problems of generating misprision and subsequent comprehension to be those of verisimilitude: it also shows how style becomes the instrument of the theme.

Manfred Nagl

The Science-Fiction Film in Historical Perspective

Abstract.--The SF film, the second oldest extraliterary medium for SF and without doubt the most popular of SF vehicles these days, has yet to receive satisfactory critical attention, despite the increasing number of books devoted to it. Taking cognizance of previous criticism, the present essay begins with matters of generic definition and then moves on to consider the history of the SF film. Here the focus falls not on individual films so much as on the early serials, which are the forebears of TV SF series, but also of many subsequent SF films, with their plagiarized imitations or legitimate sequels. What is likewise evident from this historical perspective is the process by which the film industry has first consolidated and then become part and parcel of a mass media conglomerate, manifest in the marketing of spin-off products from SF movies and TV shows, but also in the ideological character of those movies and shows as commodities. This last point is by way of what various critics have had to say about SF film, and particularly through a contrasting of "mythic" approaches, which obscure more than they explain the ideological content of film, with others which attend to the film as formulaic sign (in Dieter Prokop's non-semiotic sense) and product of agglomerating financial interests. There are indications that the SF film as the "New Hollywood" conceives it presently faces an economic crisis, and certainly it has been greatly debased, becoming a third or fourth generation cliché. But especially problematic is what the future holds: with the advent of pay TV, video cassettes, and so forth, it is hard to tell what will happen to the "traditional " SF film--if indeed, it survives.

J.E. Svilpis

Science-Fiction Magazine Illustration: A Semiotic Analysis

Abstract.--Illustrations in the SF magazines may be read as propositional statements couched in a code of visual images. Their syntax may be quite complex: the illustrative code is combined with the linguistic code on magazine covers, and by themselves the illustrations can obey principles of organization that depart from mimetic "realism. " The semantics of the illustrations also has ramifications, since they can be interpreted in various ways--as adjuncts to an actual narrative, as adumbrations of potential narratives, as statements about the generic membership of the magazine in which they appear, and as discourses about the genre to which they belong. The rocketship, one of the most common signs in the illustrative code, has both phallic and technological associations that give it a broad range of usages and semantic contents; it is therefore a good example of the semantic complexity of the code. Close investigation of the semiotics of SF illustration will yield useful information about the sociology of SF and about the way that SF fans understand the generic system of popular literature.

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