Science Fiction Studies

# 11 = Volume 4, Part 1 = March 1977

Thomas J. Remington

Three Reservations on the Structural Road

That most students of modern fiction are deeply in Robert Scholes' debt goes without saying. Moreover, that all those who take science fiction seriously owe him much gratitude for placing his considerable prestige on that side of the literary lists also goes without saying. Nevertheless, I feel that there are three major problems in Structural Fabulation, Scholes' "prolegomena to the serious reading of what we loosely call 'science fiction',"1 and that we should consider these problems before wholeheartedly embracing the book's views, however exciting we may find those views to be. Whatever its virtues, Structural Fabulation condescends to science fiction, oversells it, and badly misrepresents it.                

The least serious of these charges is that science fiction is condescended to in Structural Fabulation; after all, SF has frequently been condescended to by the literary establishment. Nevertheless, it is puzzling to find Scholes condescending to SF while simultaneously proclaiming it to be transcendentally significant. Thus, while pronouncing Ursula K. Le Guin "at the very top of the group of contemporary structural fabulators" (p 98), Scholes insists on cutesifying her as "The Good Witch of the West," noting that "the one photograph of her I have seen pictures a woman of an appropriate formidability" (p 80). While praising Dune, Scholes congratulates Frank Herbert for not freighting his work "with a greater conceptual weight than the romance of adventure can comfortably handle," which sounds all right, but then, in the following clause—with a tone that seems completely insensitive to the relationship between the critic and the author of a valued text—Scholes adds in Herbert's praise, "nor does he often try to philosophize beyond his own intellectual range" (p 69, my emphasis).                

Now I don't wish to seem unduly concerned at this kind of condescension. To some extent, at least, it is typical of a tone into which Scholes occasionally lapses, and not really indicative of his approach to science fiction.2 In fact, I suppose, it's probably fair to say that some condescension toward SF may even be necessary in a book aimed for an audience of literati that is unfamiliar with science fiction. Nevertheless, it's an annoyance.                

Somewhat more serious, I think, is the problem that Structural Fabulation tends to oversell SF. In Structuralism in Literature, Scholes argues that structuralism should be accorded the position abdicated by the traditional God (p 182). The notion gets repeated in Structural Fabulation, where we find: "To some critics I have seemed to invoke a new orthodoxy and to preach a new dogma called structuralism, thus establishing for structural fabulation a kind of religious sanction based on science. There is a certain amount of truth in this charge" (p 103). Elsewhere in Structural Fabulation we find: "I spoke of the necessity for future-fiction. Let me reiterate that thought in this context." The context that follows is a jeremiad on the condition of modern society and government. "To live well in the present, to live decently and humanely, we must see into the future," Scholes writes, and then adds: "I am not very hopeful about our ability to rise above present selfishness and direct our culture toward a decent human future. But if there is any hope at all, it will depend on the ability of our men and women of imagination to make us see and feel the reality of our situation and the consequences of our present actions. Truly, where there is no vision, the people perish" (pp 74-75). The implication seems fairly strong that the vision that is our lone hope for salvation from perishing is to be provided by men and and women of imagination who help us see into the future by purveying future-fiction. I'm very fond of SF, but if it's all that stands between us and Armageddon, I'm even more worried than is Scholes.               

Of course, it may be unfair to suggest that Scholes places the future of mankind in the hands of science fiction writers in quite the uncritical fashion that, say, Eliot Rosewater does in Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, when he tells a convention of science fiction writers in Milford, "I love you sons of bitches.... You're all I read any more.... You're the only ones zany enough to agonize...over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to be Heaven or Hell."3 Ostensibly, at least, Scholes makes some distinctions between "structural fabulation" and "star dreck" (p 43). True structural fabulation establishes a high standard and, "obviously, not all works that are called 'science fiction' meet this kind of standard. Many writers are so deficient in their understanding of the cosmic structure itself that they have no sense of the difference between purposeful discontinuity and a magical relaxation of the cosmic structure. And many others seek to present traditional romance as if it had some structural or speculative significance" (p 43). However, the distinction seems often to blur—as for example when Scholes refers to "the surge of pleasure we get when we begin to read any new work of science fiction" (p 104—my emphasis).                

Most significantly, I feel that Scholes seriously misrepresents science fiction. Consider, for example, his summary of the usual complaints against SF, and his way of treating those complaints. "What are some of the things which the traditional literary critic knows about SF?" Scholes asks rhetorically, and (among others) offers these two answers: "He knows that works of SF use the language clumsily, with neither grace nor wit. He knows that these works lack interesting characters, being populated by robots, some of whom are supposed to be men and women" (p 47). Scholes seems to plead SF guilty to both charges: it "is less concerned with individual psychology than some earlier forms of fiction have been," he writes, and adds that "it is fair to say that the representation of unique individuality is not so much an end in itself as it has been in some realistic novels" (p 48). Scholes goes on to state: "The question of language in SF is perhaps more crucial. And here again it is fair to say that much SF is written in journeyman's prose, serviceable but inelegant. Can important ideas be conveyed in such prose? It is an interesting question" (pp 47-48). It's also a question which I don't believe Scholes ever really attempts to answer.                

At least part of the problem lies in the fact that Scholes attempts to have his cake and devour it simultaneously. Since he grants that SF frequently falls short of traditional fiction's mark in characterization and language, he turns to the time-tested argument that science fiction is a literature of ideas, and therefore immune to the same critical treatment accorded older types of fiction:

In SF ... it is the new idea that shocks us into perception, rather than the new language of the poetic text. And it is precisely because of this that our old formalistic methodology seldom works well as a critical approach to SF. This approach itself has functioned as a great block to our perception of the richness and beauty of a new fictional mutation. The analytical tools fashioned to deal with Flaubert and James will not work so well with writers operating from a quite different set of premises. (p 47)

Now the argument that science fiction—as literature of ideas—must be weighed differently from other fictional types has been around for a long time; the case is made cogently by Eliot Rosewater, who "admitted...that science-fiction writers couldn't write for sour apples, but...declared that it didn't matter. He said they were poets just the same, since they were more sensitive to important changes than anybody who was writing well. 'The hell with the talented sparrow-farts who write delicately of one small piece of one mere lifetime, when the issues are galaxies, eons, and trillions of souls yet to be born'" (§2). I'm never sure how seriously I think SF critics should take this idea, but it's one that has been around for a long time. It's an idea that one could imagine a structuralist treating in some fascinating ways, for it gives science fiction some of the characteristics that the French structuralist, Claude Levi-Strauss, gives to myth, the substance of which, he says, "does not lie in the story which it tells."4 Such a view comes around to James Blish's position that "science fiction creates myths in which, because the authority of modern science is invoked to back them, modern man can believe."5 Thus, the first time I read Structural Fabulation, I waited somewhat breathlessly for Scholes to demonstrate the superiority of Kilgore Trout to the sparrowfarts. What I got was a demonstration that at least some science fiction writers can write for sour apples and are (I suppose) talented eaglefarts.                

Scholes begins by quoting a long passage from Theodore Sturgeon's "Slow Sculpture": "I ask you to consider it seriously as prose, for its rhythms and resonances," he writes, "and for the ideas that it conveys" (pp 49-50). "There is no reaching for the purple heights of rhetoric in this passage, but this is not disposable prose, either. It is sculptured prose, spare as a Japanese rock garden.... Japanese gardening is a semiotic art which communicates powerfully through a careful syntax employing a highly restricted lexicon. Sturgeon's prose works in the same way" (pp 51-52).                

For his next example, Scholes turns to Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon. In praising the passage from "Slow Sculpture," Scholes had, Eliot Rosewater to the contrary, concentrated on prose style. In praising Flowers for Algemon, he concentrates on prose style and characterization. "We see the growth of Charlie Gordon's mind through the evolution of his prose style as well as in the events narrated.... Charlie acquires a competence in grammar, an extensive lexicon, and a rich, vigorous syntax—and then gradually loses all these as his mental powers fade.... The intensity of our emotional commitment to the events of any fiction a function of countless esthetic choices made by the author—at the level of the word, the sentence, the episode, the character, the ordering of events, and the manner of the presentation. These aspects of Flowers for Algernon cannot be dismissed without devoting much more space-time to this story than is available here" (pp 57-58). So two strong points about Flowers for Algernon are its characterization of Charlie Gordon and the stylistics by which it presents that characterization.6               

Turning to Olaf Stapledon, Scholes approvingly quotes a passage from Brian Aldiss's Billion Year Spree: "How it is that the funeral masons and morticians who work their preserving processes on Eng. Lit. have rejected Stapledon entirely from their critical incantations is a matter before which speculation falls fainting away. His prose is as lucid as his imagination is huge and frightening" (Structural Fabulation, p 63).                

Next, Scholes directs his attenthon to Frank Herbert's Dune, telling us of the book that "what makes it exceptional is the systematic way in which the narrational events are imbedded in a particular ecological setting, and the thoughtfulness and delicacy that have gone into the major characterizations" (p 68—my emphasis).                

Turning to John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, Scholes again finds that no truly new criteria are needed to judge the works' greatness; he writes, "Brunner's technique in these books is reminiscent of that used by the giants of naturalism. Like Zola...Like...Dos Passos... The characters in these fictions are as trapped by their cultural systems as the characters of Zola and Dreiser" (p 73).                

The last quarter of Scholes' book is devoted to a consideration of Ursula K. Le Guin's work, particularly The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein "she displayed powers so remarkable that only full and serious critical scrutiny can begin to reveal her value as a writer" (p 80). In it, "we hear the bardic voices of folk-tellers, the cryptic voices of religious mysticism, and above all we hear the voices of the two main characters, who draw our human concern more intensely as the story progresses" (p 91).                

All this is more than mere quibble. Scholes urges the view that science fiction has virtues that can make it valuable—even necessary—despite the fact that it may be written in a fashion that will make it fall short of the criteria by which we evaluate other literature. But to exemplify this judgment, he offers works and writers that—with one single exception—he urges to be deserving of "non SF" recognition; perhaps significantly, the exception is Dune, which has received more attention outside the circle of science fiction regulars than has any other SF novel. With the exception of the two Brunner novels, Scholes specifically praises all the works he considers for their prose or their characterization—or both. Brunner's books are praised for being like Zola's, Dreiser's, and Dos Passos'. The argument that science fiction has a significance that can make it valuable despite what older methodologies might consider its weaknesses is left to dangle. In fairness I should add that Scholes doesn't ignore the fact that the works he's discussing are science fiction, and he comments on how the techniques of SF contribute to the works' effectiveness. But he never demonstrates that SF has a value that transcends older critical methodologies nor, aside from the aforementioned assertions, does he even attempt such a demonstration.                

Perhaps this is for Scholes to misrepresent merely his own arguments, not science fiction itself—as I have suggested that he does. But the fact is that the works he chooses call attention to the kinds of works he excludes from his study—and I do not mean by this the Kilgore Trout, Cap Kennedy, or Perry Rhodan schools of SF. For instance, for all one can tell, the new wave never even dampened Scholes' shoes. To be sure, Scholes states that "one danger in using works illustratively, as I have done, that each inclusion excludes so many alternate possibilities.... I apologize for that and hope to offer some compensation in the list of titles included in the bibliography" (pp 98-99).

However, a glance at the bibliography reveals the validity of my point. After listing two critical volumes and two titles of journals (one of which is SFS), Scholes offers "A list of science fiction for the uninitiated," and gives this explanation for his selections: "The following list is taken from works published over the past two decades. It names those Hugo, Nebula, and International Fantasy award winning novels which I can personally vouch for as excellent. A list of my personal favorites could be much longer, but by allowing only my negative judgments to work on the set of award winners I hope to offer the reader something more useful than one man's preferences. And this, too, is only a place to start" (p 106). I see no way to read the phrase "allowing only my negative judgments to work on the set of award winners" other than as a statement that an award-winning work that is not on the list is one over which a negative judgment has been exercised. Included among such negatively-judged works are two by Roger Zelazny, This Immortal (originally titled And Call me Conrad) and Lord of Light; one by Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection; and that premature ripple of the new wave, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. Further, by arbitrarily including only works from 1951 to 1970, Scholes permits himself to ignore Philip Jose Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go and Robert Silverberg's A Time of Changes. Finally, the same arbitrary time limit, coupled with the decision to ignore the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, places Barry Malzberg's Beyond Apollo outside the pale.                

I can speculate on at least part of the reason for Scholes' exclusion of new wave SF from his recommended bibliography. In pointing out the psychosociological reasons for the rise of certain forms of popular literature—including science fiction—Scholes notes that "all the forms of adventure fiction...have come into being in response to the movement of 'serious' fiction away from plot" (p 39). We readers need a "narrative fix" (p 40), and "the vacuum left by the movement of 'serious' fiction away from storytelling has been filled by 'popular' forms" (p 40). New wave SF tends to forego this narrative advantage, to emulate the movement of "serious" literature away from storytelling. The new wave SF writers are merely finding another entry into the blind alley that Scholes feels traps the metafictionists (pp 8-9); this may merit them our pity, but it certainly doesn't gain them a spot on a list of recommended science fictionists. At least that may be why the new wave SF writers are excluded from the list. (In support of my hypothesis, it is worth noting that while the "self-reflective" and "metafictional" The Einstein Intersection by Delany is omitted from the list though technically eligible, the more traditionally-narrated Babel-17 by the same author is included.)                

Whatever the reason, such an omission is misleading to those who would understand science fiction through Structural Fabulation. In Structuralism in Literature, Scholes turns to Tzvetan Todorov's Introduction à la littérature fantastique for an explanation of genre:

Todorov begins by pointing out that a literary genre is fundamentally different from the generic classifications of zoology and even of linguistics. In literature, he points out, "each work modifies the whole set of possibilities." ...Every literary text is a product of a preexisting set of possibilities, and it is also a transformation of those possibilities. Therefore, literary study must operate by proceeding from the set of possibilities toward the individual work, or from the work toward the set of possibilities—which is, in fact, a generic concept. Genres are the connecting links between individual literary works and the universe of literature. (p 128)

To attempt to undertake a study of the theoretical genre of science fiction while ignoring its best-known and most controversial modern movement seems a major misrepresentation.                

But there is a further and even more significant set of absences in the list over which Scholes' negative judgment has exerted such a thoroughly pruning influence. Consider the following list of authors and works, all eligible for inclusion on Scholes' list, and all subjected to Scholes' "negative judgments": Robert Heinlein — Double Star, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; Clifford Simak — City and Way Station; Isaac Asimov — The Foundation Trilogy (awarded a retroactive Hugo in 1966 as the best SF series); Alexei Panshin — Rite of Passage; and Larry Niven — Ringworld (along with Dune and The Left Hand of Darkness one of the three novels up to its own time to win both a Hugo and a Nebula). To that list one can add two novels which are excluded by Scholes' arbitrary chronology, but which were, at the time he was writing, the only two winners of both the Hugo and the Nebula since Ringworld — Asimov's The Gods Themselves and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.7               

What this group almost shares in common is antiquity; only Panshin and Niven among these authors were not publishing by the mid-forties. But, on the other hand, Scholes' "approved" list includes some old timers too—Sturgeon, George Stewart, James Blish, and Fritz Leiber all were publishing by the mid-forties. An even closer connection is that, with the possible exception of Simak, the group of excluded writers are all purveyors of that variety of SF usually termed "hard," and which is generally understood to insist on a rigidly accurate portrayal of science and of the scientific method. Only Herbert and Brunner on the "approved" list could even be remotely construed as writers of hard SF, and there would be a good deal of argument about either one.                

I crabbed earlier about Scholes' ignoring the new wave, which I called the best-known and most controversial movement in modem science fiction. But the lack of consideration paid to hard SF seems perhaps even more puzzling. Consider the following comment by Isaac Asimov: "I have heard people recently talking about hard science fiction as though it were some kind of minority cult within science fiction. Hard science fiction is and has been and very likely will be the most popular variety of science fiction.... Hard science fiction treats science from its romantic aspects."8               

Why does Scholes ignore hard SF? The question is particularly perplexing since it is the writers of hard science fiction more than any others who produce the journeyman prose and the fantastic ideas which Rosewater and Scholes both seem to see as the proper test case for the value of science fiction. Moreover, certain of these works of hard science fiction seem to suit themselves particularly well to structural analysis—more or less independently of prose style and characterization. Just for examples, the spiral movement in Asimov's "Foundation" series wherein we seek the other end of the galaxy and find it at our starting point, or the yearning for and clinging to the human hearth in Simak's City, or the replicating triads and triplets in The Gods Themselves would all have made interesting examples for structural analysis, and would have produced better test cases than those works which Scholes chose for extended discussion—and which turned out to be written in well-crafted prose and to contain solid characterization.                

When I speculated on the absence of new wave works from the "approved" canon, I was at least able to come up with a literary reason for their omission. That is, while I thought it a disservice to purport to treat the genre while ignoring an important part of it, I could at least grant that the specific kind of SF called "new wave" might seem, from Scholes' viewpoint, to be a capitulation to the very trend in "serious" fiction which had resulted in science fiction coming into significance. But when I speculate on the absence of hard science fiction from the "approved" list, I find myself looking at reasons other than literary ones. I think we're dealing with a religious disagreement.                

Consider that hard science fiction writers often enjoy positing problems in their works and then offering technological solutions for the problems. Further, hard science fiction tends to be optimistic; no problem is beyond a technical solution, and man tends not only to triumph over his environment but actually to dominate it—if not through technology, then through simple cussedness or dumb luck. If the earth seems unpleasant to us, we invent the means to live happily ever after—on Jupiter (City); if energy runs low and our methods of obtaining more endanger our part of the galaxy, we discover new ways to get energy and glut our insatiable appetite (The Gods Themselves); when we venture to the stars, we fear nobody because our technology makes us tough and our natural cussedness won't let us be defeated (Starship Troopers, Rite of Passage); and if all else fails, our natural dumb luck will enable us to come out on top of any problem we may either encounter or cause (Ringworld).                

In short, hard science fiction presents a view which Scholes doesn't much like. In a long passage at the end of Structuralism in Literature, most of which he himself quotes at the beginning of Structural Fabulation, he states the need for "a politics of structure (and a politics of love)" (S in L, p 199). Such a need is not likely to find its reflection in, say, Starship Troopers, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, or any of the other works by Heinlein which can best be exemplified by the concluding statement in The Puppet Masters: "The free men are coming to kill you! Death and Destruction!"                

Scholes then goes on to say: "One can only hope that ecological thinking (which is structural thinking) will help to reeducate us all.... On various levels of activity, man's ability to exert his power in self-destructive ways exceeds the ability of his feedback systems to correct his behavior" (S in L, p 199; Struc. Fab., p 16). Such a view is at odds with the casual presumption that man can expand his power indefinitely as works like The Gods Themselves and Ringworld seem to presume. In Structural Fabulation, Scholes dogmatically asserts: "Our heritage from the past century, from its dominant forms of fiction and its dominant styles of life, has been intensely materialistic and 'propertarian.' We must grow away from these values. We must learn to relinquish our tight grip on the immediate moment, and its immediate pleasure, in order to live in harmony with a cosmos that won't stand still" (p 25).                

Clearly, for Scholes, the emphasis on technology, on human indomitability, on chauvinism for the human species, is not in accord with the word that he himself preaches. For my own part, I face this disagreement with something of the discomfort that a confirmed Pentecostal lawyer might feel if hired by the ACLU to fight against school prayer. The fact is that my personal view tends to conform to that of Scholes. But I also feel that when he confesses that "there is a certain amount of truth" in the charge that he seems "to invoke a new orthodoxy and to preach a new dogma,...establishing for structural fabulation a kind of religious sanction based on science" (Struc. Fab., p 103), he momentarily loses sight of the facts that, as he himself says, "science itself must be speculative in order to continue" and that, as he also says, "Fabulation is not a science. It does not ask 'What is?' It asks 'What if?' And by doing so it forces us to think about what is and what may be" (p 104). Surely in the area of fabulation there is room to speculate that such pessimists as Scholes and myself may be wrong, and that the tomorrow that awaits us may not be the one we expect. To be properly speculative and (so I would say) to be properly structuralist, we must anticipate an infinity of possible futures—including ones where the goddam propertarians turn out to have had the inside track all along, and where the Green Slime God of Neptune turns out to be the Universal Immanent It.

In conclusion I would add that I'm uncomfortable in judging Structural Fabulation so harshly. Robert Scholes is a major force in contemporary literary criticism, and I'm grateful to him for lending his stature to the cause of gaining serious attention for science fiction. Nevertheless, as his first commentary on science fiction, Structural Fabulation falls short of what one would have expected of him. On the brighter side, Scholes has, in partnership with Eric Rabkin, produced a new book called, interestingly enough, Science Fiction ("I'm coming a bit further out of the closet," Scholes joked at the Science Fiction Research Association meeting in Missoula, Montana, last June.) At the Missoula SFRA conference Scholes gave a presentation called "The Anti-Science-Fiction of C.S. Lewis," and stated that it was in substance a chapter from the new book. If the SFRA presentation was any indicator, the new book should achieve what Structural Fabulation set out unsuccessfully to accomplish; it should place the field of science fiction into a critical perspective that will clarify the significance of SF in the contemporary literary milieu. If the Lewis essay is a representative sample of the quality of the new book, Science Fiction should enable us to ignore Structural Fabulation as a mere false start, a blotted prelude to a truly significant study.


1. Structural Fabulation (US 1975 xi+111), p ix.
2. When Scholes treats material to which he's less sympathetic than he is to SF, the condescension can make one's teeth ache. Where are Dante, Aquinas, More, Newman, Hopkins, and Teillhard de Chardin to be left when we are told in Scholes' Structuralism in Literature (US 1974 xii+211), p 182) that "it would be a strange comment on the ecology of ideas if Catholicism could persist for two millennia without a grain of truth in its theology"?
3. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (US 1965), §2.
4. Cited from Structuralism in Literature, p. 61.
5. Preface to The Light Fantastic, ed. Harry Harrison (US 1971 vii+216), p 12.
6. Presumably relevant here is Scholes' parenthetical comment, "Mr. Keyes, we might note, happens to be an English teacher" (p 57).
7. Considering Scholes' enthusiasm for Ursula K. Le Guin and his specific praise of The Dispossessed (p 98), it is amusing to speculate on what changes and/or contortions his list might have had to go through in order to include that book, had its awards been collected before Structural Fabulation was in press. Whatever else, the list would have ended up being considerably more contemporary.
8. The comment was made in a discussion on The Ballantine Science Fiction Hour, a radio program put together to promote a group of "hard" SF writers by having them discuss their works and their views of science fiction. The program was released through National Public Radio.

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