Science Fiction Studies

#12 = Volume 4, Part 2 = July 1977

Clareson's Latest Collection

Thomas D. Clareson, ed. Many Futures, Many Worlds: Theme and Form in Science Fiction. Kent State University Press, nd [1977], ix+303, $5.50 pb, $12.50 hb.

In his introduction to this volume, Thomas Clareson says that he wants to "provide the reader with an appreciation of various of the critical methods by which science fiction may be explored" (p ix). On the surface these fourteen essays--eight of them newly published here, six reprinted or revised from earlier periodical publication--are as miscellaneous as you could wish. But underneath that surface variety I can only distinguish three critical approaches, which might be called (1) topical, (2) generic, and (3) ideological.

To start with the first and most familiar of these approaches, we can group together those five essays which focus upon some special topic--computers, Greek myths, lost worlds, to name a trio. In conception, such essays fall into the pattern of "Monks in Chaucer" or "Flowers Among the Pre-Raphaelites." Clareson's own essay, "Lost Lands, Lost Races," surveys the "lost world" novel that flourished in Britain and America between about 1870 and 1930. We see the formula being woven by H. Rider Haggard, worn threadbare by his imitators, and then being re-dyed and refurbished by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although Clareson hints at a few of the social implications of this formula (response to the disappearance of the frontier, urban fascination with the primitive), he spends most of his time cataloguing examples, and very little time considering why this type of novel should have arisen in this period, or why it should have become so popular. For example, to what extent is the "lost world" motif a commentary on imperialism, then at its height? Is the erotic image of the pagan princess--vividly documented by Clareson--a device for turning colonial peoples into passive subjects of a masculine empire?

Two essays focus on machines, particularly robots and computers. Carolyn Rhodes compresses her theme into her title, "Tyranny by Computer." Examining such novels as Vonnegut's Player Piano, Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, and Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, she shows that the cybernetic revolution has consistently been treated as a source of dread in science fiction of the last thirty years. But she never looks up from the texts themselves to consider the events that were shaping this dread--the cybernetic revolution itself, the regimentation of society during the Second World War, the reign of McCarthyism, the social trends described by Reisman in The Lonely Crowd or by Whyte in The Organization Man. Patricia Warrick does occasionally look up from her texts to the social process in her article, "Images of the Man-Machine Intelligence Relationship in Science Fiction," and this is one of several reasons why her contribution makes that of Rhodes seem superfluous. Warrick offers a compact guide to the vast literature of automata, robots and computers, ranging all the way from the inevitable Frankenstein to Stanislaw Lem's glittering Cyberiad. She pays attention to the actual--as well as the fictional--history of computer technology, and thus helps us to see the fiction as a creative response to social reality. Those writers who interest her most, including Zelazny, Ellison and Delany, have passed beyond the machine-as-object-of-dread syndrome to imagine cybernetics working changes in human consciousness and character, to imagine even some creative symbiosis between humans and machines.

The essays by S.C. Fredericks on "Revivals of Ancient Mythologies in Current Science Fiction and Fantasy" and by Beverly Friend on "Virgin Territory: The Bonds and Boundaries of Women in Science Fiction" are both well-informed and well-argued examples of the topical approach. Fredericks explicitly says that he is not treating myth as a mode of thinking--which would have required an ideological approach--but rather that he is examining the "revivifications" of specific myths, or myth-systems, in selected authors. Zelazny, Delany and John Gardner (for Grendel) receive his most extended analyses, the latter example reflecting the fuzziness of boundaries between science fiction and other contemporary forms of narrative. I for one would be interested in seeing Fredericks make use of his encyclopedic knowledge of mythology and science fiction to consider why myths have become so prominent a part of the genre, and in what ways--if any--the modes of thinking characteristic of science fiction resemble those of mythology. Beverly Friend offers a long-overdue indictment of the sexism which has been an integral part of science fiction from the beginning. In personal and forceful language, she calls up for us the dominant images of women as robots, as damsels in distress, as mindless luggage toted about by male scientists. Some of the most outrageous examples are drawn from members of the pantheon such as Asimov and Heinlein. In the 50s and early 60s male writers such as John Wyndham and Theodore Sturgeon were capable of transcending sexual stereotypes in their fiction, she tells us. But they were rare examples, well within the margins of experimental error. More recently, of course, the strongest challenges to those sexual stereotypes have been offered by women writers, including Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin, both of whom Friend discusses perceptively. Indeed, science fiction centrally concerned with the status and potentialities of women is among the most socially-aware fiction now being written, for the simple reason that our attitudes toward women are intimately linked to our attitudes toward nature, toward intuition, toward spirit--all those dimensions of existence traditionally ignored by the genre.

Four essays illustrate the second approach, which I have called generic criticism. In each case the writer is pondering the boundaries of science fiction, perhaps with an eye to marking them more closely, as Steven Kagle does in "Science Fiction as Simulation Game," or with an eye to erasing them, as Samuel Delany does in "Critical Methods: Speculative Fiction." Kagle's article, which elaborates on the analogy implicit in his title, stresses the active role the reader must take in playing the "game" of science fiction. But it is not at all clear how or if this game-experience will carry over into the reader's life, a benefit which Kagle claims. Delany writes as a maker of fictions, and therefore like T.S. Eliot or Flaubert or Tolstoy in analogous situations, he naturally offers an apology for his own kind of writing. This apology involves stressing the continuities between speculative fiction (his choice of title over science fiction) and other kinds of intellectual constructs. For example, he argues that critics have propounded simplistic lineages of literary influence within the genre, while writers themselves have been deeply affected by everyone from Shaw to grandmothers, by everything from nuclear technology to Hittite folklore. Novelists always recognize that purely literary genealogies are nonsense, but critics, trained to read literature, and drawn by taste to certain kinds of writing, persist in constructing those lists of influences. Delany also claims that the impulse behind science fiction is closer to that which animates poetry than to that which animates other kinds of narrative fiction. True perhaps for Delany--and for others such as Bradbury, Ballard, Clarke, Zelazny--this claim seems patently false for writers as diverse as Le Guin and Brunner.

Thomas Clareson's other essay, "Many Futures, Many Worlds," a kind of introductory digest of typical stances within the genre--utopian, dystopian, absurdist, etc.--shows little awareness that the same stances have recurred in most other writing of this century. Stanley Schmidt also concerns himself with distinctive qualities of the genre. His essay, "The Science in Science Fiction," examines the various ways in which scientific speculations have been integrated into stories, stressing, in the process, John Campbell's profound influence on the genre. Like Delany, Schmidt writes in part as an apologist for his own kind of fiction, the sort of fiction generally associated with Astounding and Analog. As a consequence he can find little to say about most recent science fiction, except that it makes scant use of science.

The five remaining essays in the collection all display the third critical approach, which I have called ideological. One of these essays, "The Philosophical Limitations of Science Fiction," by Patrick G. Hogan, Jr., I group here out of courtesy to its title, rather than its argument. Indeed, after three readings I cannot decipher what the argument is; it seems an essay in search of a thesis. Hogan is interested in the contributions both philosophy and science fiction might offer for our speculations about the future of earth: that much is clear, and that is about all that is clear.

The other four essays in this group I call ideological because they pay careful attention to the structure of ideas, values, and attitudes in the texts which they study. These are the most original and most valuable articles in the book, I believe, because they reach beyond the level of subject-matter or topic, beyond the level of generic paradigms, to the deep structure of science fiction--epistemology, philosophy of history, world-view, cosmology. At this level we begin to see connections between science fiction and the myriad other ways we have tried, during the past hundred years, to make sense of our world and ourselves. Thomas Wymer, for example, argues persuasively in his essay, "Perception and Value in Science Fiction," that the development of the genre has recapitulated, on the level of epistemology, the shift from an Enlightenment to a Romantic world-view. An analogous shift from empiricism to relativism, or even subjectivism, has also taken place in twentieth-century physics, and in modernist literature generally. Thus Wymer enables us to gauge the broader cultural significance of certain fundamental trends in the ideology of science fiction.

In his essay on "Science Fiction as Fictive History," Robert Canary also reflects on epistemological questions, arguing that the narrative strategies which science fiction writers employ rely upon more or less conscious views of history. The three views of history that he finds most prominent in the genre are linear, cyclical, and what he calls "linear nonextrapolative." The first of these is implicit in most science fiction which has been termed extrapolative; the second is the most common view of history in treatments of the far future or galactic empires; the third posits a radical disjunction between our present world and some alternate reality. John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, Asimov's Foundation trilogy, and Delany's Einstein Intersection serve Canary as illustrations of the three historical perspectives.

J. Norman King, I suspect, will irritate many science fiction enthusiasts by his essay on "Theology, Science Fiction, and Man's Future Orientation," for he uses the genre to illustrate concerns and perceptions that he has reached by other--mainly theological--routes. But I find his example valuable, precisely because he is thinking through science fiction to questions which bear a much more general significance for our lives. At the outset he suggests how our thinking about ultimate questions--human origins, human nature, human destiny--has been altered by scientific, philosophical, and social developments during the last two centuries. One consequence of this period of intellectual and material ferment has been a shift from past-oriented to future-oriented world views. For an age which stresses "man's self-creation in the future" (p 241), as our age does, science fiction is an ideal medium of exploration. Because King has grappled with science fiction at the level of ideology, he can speak of standard themes, such as man-machine relations, aliens, and mutations, with an awareness of their implications for our self-understanding.

I have saved the best essay for last. Gary K. Wolfe's "The Known and the Unknown: Structure and Image in Science Fiction" seems to me a model for criticism which seeks to probe beneath the surface materials of fiction to fundamental structuring ideas and values. Conceding his significant debt to Levi-Strauss, Wolfe treats the key polarity--so familiar in science fiction--of known and unknown. Such "icons" as the spaceship, the humanoid creature, and the city, Wolfe argues, mediate between the two poles: the spaceship is a known microcosm, carrying its crew into the unknown; the creature dwells in a non-human environment, yet appeals to animal levels within us; the city, a synthetic world, shields us from the outside, from the natural, the unconquered. At some point in each transit from the known world to the unknown, voyagers must pass through a barrier, perhaps many barriers. One of the most interesting features of Wolfe's argument is his examination of how these barriers--physical, metaphysical, psychological--structure fictions as disparate as Clarke's The City and the Stars, Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and the film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Throughout the essay, Wolfe insists on the connections between ideological structure and the structure of ideas and relations in society: and that, it seems to me, is the most illuminating critical approach presently available.

Among the methods you will not find represented here are the stylistic, psychoanalytic, sociological, and semiological. I cannot judge to what extent these omissions reflect Clareson's editorial choices--every collection of essays is blessedly finite--and to what extent they reflect the state of science-fiction criticism. Fancy methodology for its own sake is so much glorified scaffolding. But there is no reason why our critical methods should not be commensurate, in complexity and sophistication, with the fictions we are studying.

--Scott Sanders

No Keys for Science Fiction

Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff. Clefs pour la science-fiction. With a preface by Ray Bradbury. Paris: Seghers, 378p.

This book appears in a series of monographs all called "Clefs pour..." ("Keys for...") and mainly intended for university students. It represents a theoretical survey of contemporary SF, international in scope, with a slight emphasis on French writers. A second volume is announced with a preface by Roland Barthes: it will discuss "SF's place within literature," "its ideological and psychoanalytical functions" (?), and its "innermost nature." Although the authors repeatedly state that "SF is one of the most important phenomena today" (e.g. p 16), this first volume, in my opinion, is an example of what SF criticism should not be (or perhaps one should say, should no longer be): full of factual, sometimes purely anecdotic, data but methodologically and conceptually inconsistent and unclear.

"SF does not exist as a unified genre": this statement represents the authors' main thesis. However, since the notion of genre itself is never circumscribed, the thesis remains an intuitive assumption reminding us of the traditional and commonplace gambit that "SF cannot be defined," which is usually the preamble to twenty pages of whimsical attempts at definition.

"SF today has absolutely nothing in common with that of the 'Golden Age'" (p 12): the less justified the assumption, the more categorical and emphatic it becomes.

A first "unified" definition appears on page 13: SF is "a branch of imaginative literature, together with fantasy and fairy tale (le marveilleux)." Such a distinction (inspired by Jacques Sadoul, we are told) does not prevent the authors from later on discussing Lovecraft, Merritt, C.L. Moore, Tolkien, Moorcock, or Jean Ray as SF writers (p 91 et passim).

However, all things considered, their own definition will read as follows: "SF is an experimental literature of the Possible" (p 14), "experimental" being apparently self-evident to them, and "the Possible" referring to "everything that is not reality" (sic, p 14).

Unavoidably the reader experiences here a feeling of discomfort: off-handed and assertive, the text does not seem to justify its theoretical seriousness. Some further examples: "For the literary critic, there is no such thing as a history of SF" (p 18). What critic? Where? "Jules Verne is without any doubt at the inception of what is called scientific anticipation" (p 18). Is there any actual anticipation in Verne? The best critics, such as Huet, Serres, Chesneaux, doubt it strongly; and what about the recent work on an SF tradition prior to Verne?

"H.G. Wells is quite probably the source of most of today's main SF themes"; "Wells discovered [inaugure] the themes of Time Travel, Space Travel, and Contact with Alien Civilizations." There is really no need to refute such misleading half-truths. "With the exception of Rosny, Robida or Renard, European writers in no way contributed to the genre's development" (p 21). Why only three exceptions, and what about the Germans and the Russians, if no other Frenchman is to be retained?

And this, about the United States: "The history of this country is much too recent: it cannot engender myths, or [?] turn itself towards the past" (p 220). Alas for Melville! Alas for Mark Twain! Alas for Hawthorne!

The legends and stereotypes of the average anecdotic "history" of SF are remembered and developed by the Bogdanoffs with, here and there, a journalistic pathos inspired by the Reader's Digest: "Whether leftists or rightists..., hyperrealists or impressionists..., serious or joyous, young or old, rich or poor, all SF writers constitute a heterogeneous but strongly united world..." (p 27). More specific statements are not exempt from the same bombastic irresponsibility: "Le Guin's The Dispossessed...: A good example of contemporary revival of Golden-Age-type SF" (p 25)! Nevertheless, as far as sheer data are concerned, the Bogdanoffs' study is rich, varied, and well informed. The problem lies in erratic value-judgments, conceptual poverty, and lack of methodology.

The book is divided into four main parts.

I. A more or less intuitive synthesis (but based on relevant data and statistics when available) of external sociology of SF, in France and in the States: production, royalties, distribution, readership, critical feedback....

II. Schools and Genres. The "schools" are, in fact, countries: there is an American school, a French school, an English school, etc. And there are seven autonomous genres determined by a) the theme, b) the literary technique: first, mythological SF (e.g. Zelazny): second, space opera (with two main trends: E.R. Burroughs and E.E. Smith); third, heroic fantasies or sword and sorcery, beginning with William Morris; fourth, hard science fiction (e.g. Larry Niven); fifth, politics fiction (e.g. Aldous Huxley); sixth, the New Thing (e.g. Dick's Ubik), to be distinguished from: seventh, speculative fiction (Le Guin, Spinrad, etc. ad libitum). One doubts one's eyes and thinks of Borges' zoological categories "found in a Chinese encyclopaedia."

III. Themes, divided into "scientific themes" and "socio-psychological themes," the latter superseding the former today. "Space travel" is a theme, but "the galactic empire" is also a theme, and a "scientific" one into the bargain. The "alternative universe" is another theme: why not an eighth "genre," by the way? "Robots," "the lost country," and "alienation" are psycho-sociological themes: needless to say, the extension of the notion varies. The Bogdanoffs seem to be convinced, just as Van Herp and Sadoul, that the concept of theme is the be-all and end-all of SF criticism. Various summaries are devised to illustrate the categories: did the reader ever notice how even the best 100-word summary of an SF novel makes it appear nauseatingly infantile? There must be a reasons for that, which would tend to prove that the novel's theme is, by itself, not necessarily its most important element.

IV. Other Media, i.e. comics and movies in a cursory way.

The book also has several appendices: an annotated index of SF writers and critics, a glossary of common SF phraseology, lists of the Nebula and Hugo awards and the Apollo awards (for France), and a general bibliography.

In sum: this study--although useful and within certain limits reliable for contemporary French SF--is mediocre in every other respect. If the authors continue at this low level of criticism, they should not be advised to publish a second volume.

--Marc Angenot

Cawelti on Formula Stories

John G. Cawelti. Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. University of Chicago Press, 1976, viii+336, $15.00.

Raising several basic questions about the study of paraliterature, Adventure, Mystery and Romance is an intelligent book, one much needed at this moment. John Cawelti's casual tone and style of presentation should not lead one to assume the book is not carefully conceptualized or precisely written. Its most obvious gap--particularly but not only for readers of SFS--is the absence of a major section dealing with SF. Nonetheless, its central issues are closely related to concerns of SF critique, and can be adapted to them quickly. There are other absences as well, formulas in popular narrative which, Cawelti explains, he could not deal with: soap operas, various kinds of romance, TV sitcoms, superheroic comics, etc. These gaps, however, also highlight the vast amount of material he does cope with in the course of his more than three hundred very useful pages.

Cawelti begins with a generalized analysis of the notion of literary formulas, and relates these to--by differentiating them from--genres and archetypes. He goes on to set formula beside artistry to evaluate the individuality/tradition issue and then, to follow the tradition of specific formulas, he sets formula as a concept within larger cultural contexts. He continues by providing a typology of literary formulas, primarily devoted to the genres which give the book its title, but considers as well some aspects of melodrama and horror-fantasies dealing with alien beings and states.

The most thorough and by far the longest section in the book deals with various aspects of crime and detective fiction. Cawelti examines the most important moments in its history through the various elements of Puzo's The Godfather. From its contradictions, he works his way, through formula models, back to E.A. Poe, and forward again through Conan Doyle to the "classical detective story" of Christie, Sayers, Carr, Tey, Marsh, and Innes. The ratiocination of its detectives is then contrasted with the development of the "hard-boiled" story by Spillane and the Black Mask writers (Hammett, Chandler, Gardner). Attempts to explain evolution of formula within a changing cultural context are almost always conducted in positivist categories. In a discussion rich with consistently insightful tangents, he explains that the crime novel moved from a nineteenth-century pattern of crime among intimates (among people of a known and apparently settled society, often as small a group as a family) to early twentieth-century stories of larger-than-life gangster heroes. These narratives usually included the downfall of an individual who had sought wealth by illegal and immoral means; and the obverse of it was often the tale of the detective who, in order to remain true to values which had brought about the downfall of the gangster, found it necessary to turn his back on financial success. The contemporary gangster prototype is the corporate criminal as alternative hero, Cawelti explains, and returns to the Don figure of The Godfather, along the way discussing the ancillary figure of the revenger.

The last of the book's major parts is a long look at the western. As distinct from Cawelti's earlier and more synchronic study, The Six-Gun Mystique, here he analyzes the evolution of a formulaic type. He begins with Cooper, works his way through the dime novel, examines more substantially The Virginian and by way of Wister the transformation of the western from mass pulp to a standard paraliterary genre, and then strides across the last seventy years from Zane Grey and W.S. Hart through the movies of John Ford to the extremes of Sergio Leone's quasi-American westerns and the anti-western phenomenon of tracts such as Thomas Berger's Little Big Man.

The final section, a short sketch of the best-seller as social melodrama from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Jacqueline Susann and Irving Wallace, makes clear, as does Cawelti himself in his conclusion, the large amount of analytical work still necessary to clarify historical paraliterary forms.

In relation to both the detective novel and the western, Cawelti explains how the superficially vast difference between Poe's Dupin and Spillane's Mike Hammer, between The Virginian and Shane, hides an invariant structure and intention in the underlying forms that hold each set of phenomena together as a recognizable unit which we call genre.

In a brief related comment, Cawelti explains that certain momentary best-sellers disappear because they have not captured any sense of universality. This question of universality is never really discussed here. Are there in fact such things as universals in paraliterature (or in literature)? Is it ideal forms or material relationships between narrative and social phenomena that lie at the base of all literary problems?--these are the uncoped-with questions that haunt, even dominate, most critical analyses, and they are not absent here. But since Cawelti has carefully chosen not to deal in traditional literary terms with his several "formula stories," it is only at moments that the questions of universality explicitly enter into his discourse. Or perhaps this question could not be dealt with for paraliterature until a study such as Cawelti's has been written.

To be sure, in the early pages Cawelti had raised a series of open questions concerned with the source of the popularity of popular fiction and films, of popular entertainment in general. What is this source? he asks. Is it simply a good story told well? that is, are we dealing with artistry? or is it a story which embodies values and attitudes that its audience wishes to see affirmed? or is it "some kind of psychological wish-fulfillment, the most popular works being those which most effectively help people to identify imaginatively with actions they would like to perform but cannot in the ordinary course of events?" (p 22). Such questions, dealing with the relations between popular fiction (story-telling in general) and the audience for these narratives, are perhaps the initial ones to ask now. Cawelti can not and will not answer these in his book: "We certainly do not know at present which, if any, of these assumptions is correct" (p 22).

The most important reason not to answer his own question is for Cawelti a formal one. He suggests one cannot deal with these relationships until one knows the nature of what is being read. His book is an attempt to delineate some of the specifics of this nature. But once the book is done we as readers and students of paraliterature are left with a problem: what have these "formulas" grown out of? If they come from an ideology, one accepted as a sort of common-sense, its contours have remained invisible, because the study has never explained its pre-conditions. So it is a curious paradox that Cawelti's analyses of specific incidents and situations as well as of literary traditions keep pushing me, and (I get the sense, perhaps) him as well, towards the meta-analysis which would explain his presuppositions. Not even in the conclusion, however, does his analysis venture to step over into the discussion of such ideological alternatives or oppositions. Yet these have to be explored if the cultural and social mesh of which the text is a part is to be seen historically--in categories, that is, both larger than the text's immediate cultural and social context, and related to distinctions which help explain not only the specific nature of a popular text, but why the text has become popular. For example, Cawelti takes from Raymond Durgnat the notion of a "network of assumptions," follows Durgnat's analysis of how the same network can be exploited to vastly different ends, and then adapts this concept to the popularity, over a period of time, of John Buchan: "That Buchan is still enjoyed with pleasure by some contemporary readers indicates that there are enough continuities between British culture at the time of World War I and the present day to make it possible for some persons to accept Buchan's system of probabilities and values at least temporarily for the sake of the story. That Buchan is no longer widely popular, however, is presumably an indication that much of the network of assumptions on which his stories rest is no longer shared" (pp 32-33). Here is precisely the kind of analysis which, if followed up, could lead to at least some preliminary understandings about the nature of popularity in terms of relations between a text and its audience.

Of course, this should not be allowed to obscure Cawelti's considerable contribution here; rather, it is a critique many parts of which could not have been formulated as explicitly but for his study. Cawelti's work is excellent both in his specific analyses and for long stretches of binding conceptualization. Suggesting that many of his large and most of his small insights hint at more than he allows his explicit abstractions to confront makes one hope for a sequel in which these dominating questions will be, if not answered, at least asked and explored.

--George Szanto

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