Science Fiction Studies

 

#3 = Volume 1, No. 3 =  Spring 1974


Notes, Reports, and Correspondence

A REACTION TO SFS #2. It seems to me a mistake to treat Franz Rottensteiner as a serious critic or to respond to him more elaborately than by pointing out his errors, e.g., "that no American or English author has written a story that would endorse a Marxist view of change, or at least contain an intelligent discussion of it." Mack Reynolds, in a long series of stories published in Analog in the sixties, has done just what is demanded in the second clause. Rottensteiner also says "the disinterested observer [Are his initials F.R.?] will find a total innocence of SF writers as far as real problems and likely developments of the future are concerned." Again, this is just plain wrong--see recent work by Edward Bryant, Richard E. Peck, Dave Skal, Charles Platt, and Kate Wilhelm.

I was disappointed in the discussions of Aldiss, Heinlein, and Farmer. Jameson's article is interesting, but the jargon in it is awful--worse than anything in SF. I don't find anything to quarrel with in Rottensteiner's essay on Farmer, but it doesn't take much critical intelligence to notice that a lot of Farmer's work is crude, etc. What would be really interesting, and much more difficult, would be to try to find out why these crude efforts are so popular. That could not be done in a vacuum--the critic would have to examine published responses to the work, talk to readers, perhaps even interview the author. I left a similar job undone when I wrote my essay on van Vogt in the forties. Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.

Thus I am bothered by what seems to me a tendency to treat SF stories as if they were another kind of essay--as if only the content mattered. When this is done, everything that is alive in the story slips through the critic's fingers. In fact, in a lot of cases it's a mistake even to take the content as primary--what looks like content may be something the author whipped up on the spur of the moment to fill a hole in the story. It may be what Hitchcock calls a McGuffin--some gadget or plot device that has to be there or the machinery wouldn't work, but it doesn't matter at all which gadget or device it is. This is the case in the Asimov story, "Little Lost Robot," cited by Plank on page 75. The parallels between robots and black slaves are there quite explicitly, but are there purely as a plot device in a formal puzzle story.--DAMON KNIGHT.

 

H.G. WELLS AND EARLIER SF. There are some interesting parallels to Wells's First Men in the Moon in a book published in London in 1864: The History of A Voyage to the Moon, With an Account of the Adventurers' Subsequent Discoveries: An Exhumed Narrative Supposed to Have Been Ejected From a Lunar Volcano. First, the main narrative is signed by and deals with two protagonists. One, Stephen Howard, the first-person narrator, is a man of literary propensities and the financier of the enterprise. The other, Carl Geiger, is partly a scientist-dreamer and partly an explorer and man of action. The Bedford-Cavor opposition in Wells is not too dissimilar, down to the foreign sounding name of Cavor. Second, Geister and Howard find a "mineral-repellent" mixture of clays which they use to coat their space vehicle. The repellent power is counteracted by iron shields that can be lowered into place to stop the repulsion. This would make sense of Cavor's sphere, which as described would, it seems, immediately fly off from any center of gravitational attraction regardless of Wells's "shutters." Third, Geister sets up a test to see whether the vegetation enclosed in their flying house-to-be would supply enough oxygen. Though this test is not as clear a parallel as the others, it does correspond compositionally to Cavor's (unintentional) test which raises the roof of the house while proving the efficacy of Cavorite. Finally, when Howard and Geister are preparing to send their manuscript to Earth (by sealing it in a metal ball and putting the ball into a volcano that is about to erupt), they are beset by doubts that if they communicate their "repellant" recipe, "the jackals of all great discoveries... the sneaking traitor ... the idle, unprincipled offspring of Earth's rank society, the adventurers par excellence" (pp280-81) would invade the Moon. Therefore they leave the key elements of their mixture undescribed. All this, if used by Wells at all, was obviously refashioned very thoroughly, but it may still have given him some stimulus for Cavor's final message.

This is a rather indifferently written book, worth no more than a footnote even in the most generous history of SF, and I do not think much of influence-hunting as such, unless the different uses of the same motif are stressed as much as the motifs' continuation. The present book uses More and Kepler, I think, and possibly also Francis Godwin and Poe's "Hans Pfaall," yet it does not approach their interest. But it is rather curious to note how evidence is accumulating for Wells's having had a much more thorough knowledge of the whole SF tradition, including obscure sub-literary works, than students of his SF have so far noted. We have, of course, known of his antecedents in Swift, Mary Shelley, Kepler, and Plato, because he told us of them--as he also told us of Blake, Percy Shelley, Hawthorne, Bellamy, and Morris--but we have not taken this seriously enough.

Professor I.F. Clarke has reminded us how The War of the Worlds could and should be read--as a culmination of the "future war" species. Sam Moskowitz has pointed to E.P. Mitchell's "The Crystal Man" as a stimulus for The Invisible Man. I would add not only The History of a Voyage to the Moon but also Greg's Across the Zodiac (itself possibly picking up the repulsion force from the former book) as a stimulus for both The Time Machine (Greg's Eveena, the tiny child-bride, is, as the name indicates, a prototype of Weena, up to the prominent flower-plucking episode; and the sequence of Martian social formations may have helped to suggest the history of the Eloi) and The First Men in the Moon (the windows of Greg's spacecraft act as lenses, and there is an interview with the superior king of Mars, who wants to know about the new energy and its warlike potentials). The War in the Air seems to me indebted to George Griffith, and the future orientation of eroticism at the end of The World Set Free to Tarde's Fragment d'une histoire future (1896; tr. 1905 as Underground Man) to which Wells wrote a revealing preface. Finally, Wells was clearly in a much more intimate love-hate relationship to Verne than has so far been allowed for. To give just one example, A Journey to the Center of the Earth abounds with passages pointing to the underground worlds of both The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon, which look more and more like twin works. After a rereading of Verne's opus, I for one am convinced that the galling references to "the English Verne" prompted Wells in a number of his best SF works to go Verne one better: e.g., Cavorite versus the Moon cannon, "In the Abyss" versus Nemo's underwater visits.

Thus a meticulous reading of 19th-century (and perhaps earlier) "subliterary" SF in Britain, France (e.g., Flammarion), and the USA (possibly even dime-novels) would yield some good studies and Ph.D. theses on Wells's antecedents. This would not at all detract from his stature. Indeed, it would enable us by comparison to fully understand that Wells's significance, of epoch-making proportions in SF, is precisely in fusing and raising to a higher literary and philosophical level almost all the motifs and strands of anticipatory, utopian, and adventure-story SF between Swift and himself.-DS.

 

AN INDEX TO AMERICAN MASS-MARKET PAPERBACKS. I can remember the excitement I felt in 1939, first when reading of plans for Pocket Books, and later when a display rack with the first ten or fifteen titles appeared at a local newsstand: henceforth I would be able to buy books for 25cts rather than 75cts (the price of "popular copyrights") or 95cts (the price of Modern Library books)-for me, a difference great enough to make the buying of books something it had never been before, a comparatively casual matter. Pocket Books, Inc., had the field to itself for a year or so, but Avon was established in 1941, the New American library (as the US branch of Penguin Books) in 1942, Dell and Popular in 1943, and Bantam in 1945. Although Donald Wollheim's anthology, The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, appeared as early as 1943, SF was virtually unrepresented in the paperbacks until the 1950s. The first Heinlein appeared in 1951, the first van Vogt in 1952, and the first Asimov in 1953, which was also the year in which Ballantine launched its distinguished line with The Space Merchants, and perhaps the year in which Ace began its exercise in quantity. Such facts can be discovered by perusing R. Reginald and M.R. Burgess, Cumulative Paperback Index 1939-1959: A Comprehensive Bibliographic Guide to 14,000 Mass-Market Paperback Books of 33 Publishers Issued under 69 Imprints (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1973, $24.00). The second volume, covering the 1960s, is planned for 1977. -RDM.

 

A SPECIAL SF ISSUE. The Fall 1973 issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination (Department of English, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Ga. 30303) contains articles by W. Warren Wagar on Wells, Peter Wolfe on Skinner's Walden Two, Robert O. Evans on Anthony Burgess, David Skilton on Trollope's The Fixed Period, Howard Fink on Orwell, Robert M. Philmus on Swift and Orwell, David Ketterer on "utopian fantasy," Sylvia E. Bowman on utopian views of man and the machine, and Darko Suvin on utopias as a literary genre--all in all, a very satisfactory collection. No price is given for the issue: "Copies will be sent to selected institutions, libraries, and individuals upon request," whatever that means. -RDM.

 

SOME CONTEMPORARY MATERIAL ON FRANKENSTEIN, AND A NEW SF HISTORY FROM FRANCE. An 1818 review of Frankenstein, from Blackwood's, and an 1838 parody, "The New Frankenstein," from Fraser's, together with two pictorial illustrations from the 1831 edition, ascribed to Mary Shelley herself on the basis of what is perhaps a misinterpretation of the title page, appear in Paradox #9 (Bruce Robbins, PO Box 396, Station B. Montreal 110, $1.50). Mr. Robbins, a part-time dealer specializing in European material on SF, advises us of the publication of Histoire de la Science Fiction Moderne by Jacques Sadoul (Paris 1973), "a year-by-year history of 20th-century SF in the English- and French-speaking worlds," with "60 slick pages of book covers, magazine covers, photos, fanzine covers, etc." Write to Mr. Robbins for price and other details on this and other foreign-language works on SF.-RDM.

 

A CORRECTION. In the note entitled "An Award for Lem" (SFS 1:139), the characterizations of the two books were interchanged: His Master's Voice is an SF novel: Hard Vacuum is a collection of reviews of nonexistent SF books. -RDM (with apologies to DS).


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