A, B, and C
The Significant Context of SF: A Dialogue of Comfort
A [A is an SF fan trying to become an SF writer; he has a B.A. in English
literature]. I have just been asked to teach, in a nearby community college,
a course in SF, in the "Science and Literature" slot, entitled
"SF and Future Shock". So I'm thinking of subscribing to SFS, just
as to Extrapolation or a number of fanzines, because I hope to find in it
articles about people like Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, or Ballard, which I can use
in my course.
B [B is a graduate student of literature]. I have lately become
somewhat interested in SF because it seems to me some nuggets of social
criticism can be found in it, though it feels entirely too comfortable in the Amerikan Empire for my taste. If SFS will--as different from the mutual
back-scratching and, as far as I can understand, meaningless little feuds in the
fanzines--bring out the ideological function of SF as a branch of mass
literature to keep the masses quiet and diverted, I might read it in the
university library and use it in my freshman course "Literature and
Changing the World".
C [C is a university professor in an English department]. I am
fascinated by SF as an example of modern urbanized folklore, which is of
greatest theoretical interest for anybody interested in poetics and its
paradigms. I do not mean that we have to stick to structuralist orthodoxy
--indeed, what is so fascinating about SF is how its paradigms evolved out of
the oral legend, the voyage extraordinaire, the utopia, the Swiftian
satire, etc., under the impulse of scientific popularization-, sociopolitical
changes, etc. I will subscribe to SFS on a trial basis hoping it will not
be either pragmatic and positivistic, as A would like, nor forget that it deals
with a genre of literature out of which you cannot pick ideas--critical or
otherwise--like raisins out of a cake, as B would seem to want.
B. Whatever I seem to you to want, I hope you will agree we do not need one
more among the unconscionable overpopulation of academic or quasi-academic
journals. If SF is worthy of sustained critical attention...
A. Hm. I fear that too much of that will kill it off cleanly.
C. Scholarly and critical attention, I would say.
B. If you wish--I don't see the difference between them. Anyway, we must
first of all ask "What are the uses of SF?".
C. Better, "What are and what could be the uses", and furthermore,
"What can criticism tell us about them, and which type of criticism can
tell us anything significant about them?".
A. SF is the literature of change, more realistic than realism.
B. Ah, but is it? I spent some time yesterday with the U.N. Statistical
Yearbook 1971, a pastime I recommend to you two gentlemen as quite
eye-opening, and culled some figures out of it which I wish to enter into the
record of this discussion. I have divided them into two columns, DC for Dominant
Countries (Europe with USSR, North America, South Africa, Australia, and New
Zealand), and RW for Rest of the World, and rounded all figures off. So here
1070 2560 millions
4500 2500 million tons
tons per head
16,900 4,500 million kilograms
kilograms per head
$ U.S. per head
370,000 90,000 titles
35 titles per million heads
*The ways of UN statistics being inscrutable, the DC statistics here include
Japan but not the USSR and is thus valid for 925 million people; the RW
statistic includes only Africa and Asia without the Socialist countries and is
thus valid for 1600 people.
** Without – again the mysterious omission! – the P.R. of China.
To point out the moral: not only each country, but also our old Terra, as A
might say, is divided--despite our unprecedented technical capacities for making
it finally inhabitable in a fashion befitting human potentialities-between the
haves and the have-nots. The haves are concentrated in the nations comprising
about 30% of mankind, which--as it happens--are also almost exclusively White.
The economy and therefore the communication system (including book and
periodical dissemination) of the haves differs radically from that of the
have-nots. More than 80% of all book-titles are written by and published
in the "have", and therefore politically dominant. countries.
C. This is a fascinating exercise in literary sociology, to which one should,
however, add that, as we know, the number of copies per title is
disproportionately higher in North America and Europe than anywhere else, so
it's only fair to assume that over 90% of all books produced and consumed
in the world circulate in a closed circuit, in what you called the
politically (and you should have added economically) dominant countries.
B. And of course if we added Japan to those countries, and since the rest of
the world quite rightly concentrates on textbooks and similar immediate
necessities, we see that "literature" or "fiction" in the
sense developed by the European civilization with the rise of mass printing and
a bourgeois world view, is in 70% of the world totally unknown... Or if it is
known, it is confined to an extremely thin stratum of intellectuals, and it
functions as very effective shop-window dressing for the imperialist ideology
that more and bigger means better--that, say, the paramilitary NASA Moon program
is the realization of SF dreams. Thus, it conditions and channels in that
direction the expectations of people.
C. For better or for worse, it does seem inescapable to conclude that our
normative circle of teaching, reading and criticizing "fiction" (a
term I'm increasingly dubious about anyway), with all our supporting
institutions such as foundations or ministries for culture, prizes and clubs,
editors and publishers, kudos and heartbreaks, bestsellers and near-starvations,
is a charmed closed circle.
B. Irrelevant to the majority of mankind. And if you see, from some other
statistics I will spare you, that even within the 30% of the white bourgeois
civilization there are entire social groups that do not consume literature but
newspapers, comics, movies or TV, if anything--then that majority becomes quite
overwhelming Then we have to conclude that SF is written for a petty-bourgeois
reader, who is indoctrinated by some variant of a late-capitalist, often wildly
C. Well, I would make all kinds of reservations to this big leap of yours,
such as saying SF is here and now written for such a reader, and that of
course there are exceptions, as we know that corporation executives and
air-force generals, who are certainly not petty-bourgeois, also read it. And
anyway what do you mean by petty-bourgeois shopkeeper?
B. No, obviously I mean anybody who is not a worker or farmer working with
his hands, nor a capitalist employing people to work for him, but in between.
The three of us discussing SF are all petty-bourgeois.
A. Now that you have again noticed me, let me ask you one little common-sense
question: if SF is all that irrelevant to anybody, except perhaps in the past
and to the virtuous socialist society in Russia and China, why bother with it?
And with a magazine devoted exclusively to it? Why don't you just go away (to
B) into the streets or jungles, or (to C) into your well-upholstered
ivory tower study, and leave us who love SF in peace?
B. First of all, I never said anything about "socialist" societies.
In Cuba and China there is, as far as I know, and I tried hard to know,
practically no SF; in the Warsaw Pact countries, it has its own troubles which
we can save for another discussion. Secondly, even if the circuit within
population, it is which SF happens comprises only, say, 10% of the world an
extremely important 10% and quite worthy of investigation.
A. But you would investigate them only as petty-bourgeois worms wriggling
under your microscope?
C. Well, I don't know what B would do, but I would plead for the introduction
of another factor into our equation. We have so far talked about the present, or
better, synchronic, and thus necessarily socio-political context of SF. But it
also has a temporal, diachronic context
as a genre. Now if you'll allow
me to go on about this a bit, I have just 'been going through E.D. Hirsch's Validity
in Interpretation (1971) for a graduate seminar, and Hirsch--however one may
disagree with him on other issues--argues persuasively (as do other people such
as R.S. Crane, Claudio Guillen, etc.) that for any utterance, an essential part
of its context--by which I mean "the traditions and conventions that the
speaker relies on, his attitudes, purposes, kind of vocabulary, relation to his
audience," etc. (Hirsch 86-87)--is represented by its genre. A literary
genre is a collective system of expectations in the readers' minds, stemming
from their past experience with a certain type of writing, so that even its
violations--the innovations by which every genre evolves--can be understood only
against the backdrop of such a system. The properties of a genre enforce
meanings for any given readership. The basic property of all present literary
genres is that they are a mode of "leisure activity", made possible by
certain existential situations--by normative economic possibilities and
political decisions, such as limiting the working time to so many hours per
week, putting a certain price upon the reading, etc. As other genres, SF is
integrated into the normative system of "literature" first by
opposition to it, then as marginal, now sometimes aspiring to the status of
socially approved "high" literature, etc.
A. If I translate what you have been saying into plain English, it says that
SF is a recognizable group of works distinct from other groups, which we knew
anyway. So why the whole fuss?
C. Ah well, the good old Anglo-Saxon empirical common-sense! But
unfortunately, following your logic we would need no science at all, because we
all know that a rocket can go to the Moon anyway. Well, perhaps we do, but did
we until somebody studied it with a lot of equations and technical jargon? You
mean that gravity is self-evident? Or that social gravity--the
power-relationships in society, which enmesh culture too--is self-evident? No,
what you nicely call "the fuss" is just the sound of specialized
science at work. Yes, so far I have used a certain specialized discourse to say
that SF is distinct from, but also linked with, other literary genres, which are
distinct from, but also linked with, other forms of human behavior within
certain normative social expectations. But only such a specialized discourse can
eventually provide us with a way of using the socio-political insights of friend
B, without forgetting that we are--as you will agree--dealing with literature.
For the most important principle in any genre, as Aristotle suggested some time
ago, is its purpose, which is to be inferred from the way the genre
functions. That purpose channels the genre into determined social forms; it
unifies the writers and readers by means of "a notion of the type of
meaning to be communicated" (Hirsch 101). Thus, genres are strictly
culture-bound, historical and not metaphysical, they are "guiding
conceptions that have actually been used by writers" (Hirsch 109); and no
criticism of SF has a chance of being relevant if it does not first identify the
purposes of the chunk of SF it is considering--a story, the opus of a writer,
the works of a period, etc.
A. Why not simply ask the writer?
C. Ah, but common sense is a very limited instrument in scholarship.
The writer may be dead, or he may have forgotten, or--most importantly-he may
not be right about the purpose of his tale: the creature has a life of its own
if it is more than a plug or ad. It communicates something to the readers even
if the author is unknown.
A. OK, why not ask the readers? Here this sociology stuff could finally be of
some use: just send them forms with questions.
C. Of course, the critical community should try to assemble as much
information as possible about the author's overt purpose and about the ways his
work was accepted by different categories of readers. But again, what
readers--those of the publication date or of today? Opinions about Shakespeare,
say, have shifted radically through time, and just imagine how radically they
will shift about Arthur Clarke. And why should not all readers of a given time
be collectively on the wrong track? The history of Athenian first prizes for
tragedy is almost as sad as that of the Hugo Awards. No, I'm afraid that the
critic's final evidence is the interaction of his own knowledge and sensibility
with the words on the page. In that respect, the formalists were right and we
all have to start by applying their insight: when judging literature, one begins
by a close reading of it and a discussion of its compositional,
characterological, ideational, rhetorical and other inner relationships.
B makes a grimace and a skeptical sound.
A. Well, such things may after all be useful in my teaching, and I hope SFS
will concentrate on them, and never mind the sweeping theories.
C. No doubt, both B's sociological context and your "pragmatic
formalism" should have a place under the sun--if done real well. There are
too few good SF critiques around for a good review to be able to stick to any
scholarly "line". But now we come to my main conclusion which, I
think, transcends both your positions. For I maintain that there is no way to
understand what one is reading unless one has an approximately full knowledge of
the range of the words and the meanings of their juxtapositions. This knowledge
forms part of historical semantics, that is, it pertains to ever changing
social tastes, which differ from period to period, from social class to social
class, from language to language. And so, consistently intelligent formalist
criticism leads to consistently intelligent sociological
criticism, and vice versa; or better, both must fuse for a criticism that
will be able to render justice to any literary genre, and in particular
B. This may all be very interesting, but don't you think that we live in a
catastrophic world, with genocidal warfare, starvation in half of the world,
rising tensions within Amerika itself, ecological collapse, very possibly an
economic crisis, and so on, all looming threateningly ahead? And is not
therefore the usual SF-as-escape ludicrously irrelevant to us too, not only to
the other 90% of the world? And shouldn't it therefore be judged by how much it
serves the cause of a liberated mankind?
A. There you go again! Can't you liberate mankind without SF?
C. Well, precisely, I think if you want to liberate mankind--which I am much
in favour of--you cannot start by asking for servitude. I think SF cannot be
your handmaid, but it could be your ally--and an ally is treated with
consideration and met half-way. For SF, as all literature, has always (and I
think this is the answer to A's objection about why bother) existed in a tension
between the sociologically dominant tastes of its readership and its own bent
toward the truly, the radically new. This has always been an ideologically
subversive genre, and most of its very visible weaknesses today can be traced
back to strong existential pressures on its writers and readers.
A. Well, I would admit some of that exists, even in the U.S.A.--just think
about the troubles Tom Disch had with Camp Concentration and Norman
Spinrad with The Iron Dream. But this was finally rectified....
B. That's not the most important category. A more sophisticated weapon is
financial: hunger has the power to kill, and enforce obedience, more surely than
bullets. That is called repressive tolerance, I believe. And I would like to see
in SFS critics with enough information and guts to take a long cool look
at the powerful shapers of taste and enforcers of orthodoxies in SF, such as
magazine editors and publishing houses.
C. Serious structural investigations could, and I hope will be undertaken of
phenomena such as Campbell's enforcing of his various orthodoxies, or the
normative publishing format of 60-80 thousand words for SF novels 1940-1965, and
the deep consequences such taboos have had on U.S. SF. And similarly crass
taboos should be shown up from other countries and ideological climates.
However, the most insidious pressures on SF are neither administrative nor
commercial, but psychological. Most of us, readers and writers, have been to
some extent brainwashed.
A and B [in chorus]. Speak for yourself!
C .... brainwashed, even if with wailing and gnashing of teeth, into the
broad individualistic consensus. Many SF writers probably do not feel too
unhappy in their little niche within the one-dimensional vision of the world;
after all, they have invested great pains into the carving out of that niche.
Yet the temptation of being creative somehow, wondrously, pops up here and there
even against such terrible pressures--a "mission of gravity", indeed.
But creativity has then to pay a high price for emerging: instead of the
straight vertical of creative liberation, we get a bent ballistic curve, or, in
some exceptionally powerful take-offs, at best a tangent. Yet a tension persists
between social institutions--the centres of political, financial and ideological
power--and the writer struggling to cut a path through their jungles armed only
with a typewriter and some paper. That tension between entropy and energy,
between the existential powers-that-be and the creative reaching out toward a
vision of the new, is always rekindled and always revolutionary. And it would
seem to me the goddam duty of the critic to be always on the side of the writer
in his subversions of what exists.
B. Marx called that "a pitiless criticism of all that exists".
C. Quite. Including Marxist orthodoxies. For the demand that we go into the
streets or jungles or the rice fields of Honan is, here and now at least--(and
that might change)--impractical for most of us, and therefore sectarian. It
would, I think, create that very state of emergency, when all specifically
humanized pursuits are abolished in favour of direct measures for collective
survival, which we are--or at least I am--trying to avoid.
B makes another grimace.
C [somewhat hastily]. This is, of course, not a sneer at working, or
if need be fighting, in the streets, jungles or rice fields: it simply
acknowledges that the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness-through reading-SF,
or in other words, that the autonomous criteria of all art, including very much
SF, will (if we are only consistent enough to hold fast to them without
deviating under the pressure of irrational, exploitative and class-bound
prejudices) lead us toward a classless humanism. [Pontificating]. Thus,
all art works against dehumanization in direct proportion to its significance
established according to its own autonomous criteria.
A. You mean according to whether there is a poetic theme, a clear plot,
consistent characterization, effective composition, and so on?
C. Yes, I mean that too. But beyond those aspects common to all art, I mean
that SF has a particular historically determined, scholarly recreatable and
critically evaluatable purpose. And I contend that the minimal common
denominator of that purpose, the source of its creative pathos and the reason
for its existence, is something that I like to call cognition--a central
and informing concern for conceiving and discussing radically new views and
understandings of human relationships and potentialities (even when they are
masked as Nautiloids or what not). That is the specific poetry of SF. Therefore,
SF which is significant by the most immanent, inner or formalist criteria
imaginable, will necessarily clarify hitherto mystified and obscured
relationships. It will permit us a better orientation in our common world; it
will militate against class, nationalist, sexist or racist obscurantism which
prettify the exploitation of man (and nature) by man. I may be too optimistic,
but I truly believe that SF at its best does its bit of such a "production
of man by man", and does it in a powerful and inimitable way. This is to my
mind the answer to "Why SF?", or what are and could be its uses. And
if SFS can contribute to the understanding of both how and also how come
SF does that, then the question of "Why SFS?" will also have
B [not quite persuaded]. Well, let's hope so, but . . .
[not quite persuaded]. Well, let's wait and see , but . . .
The discussion went on for quite some time, but lack of space in SFS forces
us to cut it short here.
Transcribed and edited by Darko Suvin.