George Edgar Slusser. Harlan
Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin. 64p. Georges Edgar Slusser. The Space Odysseys of Arthur C. Clarke. 64p. San
Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1977. $1.95 each (paper). - "The Milford Series: Popular
Writers of Today" seems to promise a kind of reader's guide, touching base with most
of a specific author's major or popular work. But George Edgar Slusser, who has written
most of these pamphlets to date, is interested more in tendentious theoretical criticism,
aimed presumably at professional academics. As these two monographs (Nos. 6 and 8 in the
series) bear witness, the result is an uneasy compromise, for which it is hard to imagine
the proper audience.
Slusser does attempt to place each author in a tradition of literature and thought. He
looks for a "pattern of meaning" running through the authors' oeuvre which
will demonstrate the importance of the work and justify Slusser's interest in it. He
offers some useful insights about the work as a whole and examines fairly closely a number
of texts, in so far as they bear upon Slusser's thesis. But the effect of the whole is
unsatisfying, like a meal without a main course.
If an author uses an important theme -- assuming we have agreed that the theme, in
context, is important -- that does not prove the importance of the writer or his work.
What Slusser does establish is that the theme under consideration does have some
significance for the author, within his work. Even there, however, his selectivity is
annoying, his readings are one-dimensional and sometimes forced, and his refusal to deal
with matters of style and technical mastery leaves a curious vacuum where substantiation
is needed for terms like "greatness" (Clarke) and "some of the finest, most
provocative fantasy in America today" (Ellison).
For Clarke, the theme is that of the travels of Odysseus, a natural analogy for a
member of a sea-faring nation looking toward space travel. Indeed, voyages and returns,
searches by fathers and sons for each other, and overt allusions to Odysseus' adventures
can be found in Clarke's works, even more than Slusser adduces. That they can also be
found in the writings of countless other SF writers Slusser brushes aside. American SF
welcomes progress (Campbell and Le Guin are his examples), whereas Clarke is "doomed
to chronicle progress, and to deny it at the same time." Heir to Tennyson, Wells, and
Stapledon, Clarke has an emotional allegiance to an Empire whose dominance is past, not
only in foreign affairs but also in empirical science and mercantile capitalism.
Intellectually, Slusser allows, Clarke may speculate on progress, resulting in utopia,
evolution, or transcendence. But the Clarkean utopia is sterile and stagnant, evolution
leads to blind alleys and transcendence is too radical a change. Emotionally, Slusser
charges, Clarke is committed to man in his present biological form -- and by extension his
outmoded cultural form. Unable to break this commitment, Clarke compromises with his
vision by imagining progress largely from the standpoint of the spectator; his characters
are unable to act, their paralysis acting as a means to epiphany, the elegiac vision of
tiny man in a huge cosmos.
So far, so good. These are clearly problems or topics recurrent in Clarke's fiction,
but not only in Clarke's fiction, and they are not the whole of Clarke's fiction. The only
variations Slusser notices, however, are increases over time in size, complexity,
self-consciousness and satirical intent. Repetition of his theme without adequate
development or flexibility seems to reduce Clarke's claim to "greatness," based
on his enunciating and helping to constitute a major issue his culture is coming to
Borrowing from Lucien Goldmann (and Gérard Klein), Slusser's method for dealing with
Clarke can not otherwise distinguish between the great and the mediocre. He keeps asking
questions about evaluation, then essentially sweeping them under the rug. The method also
provides no tools for close analysis of texts, except the hunt for evidence which will
support the initial thesis. This leads Slusser at times into tortuous reasoning,
half-truths, apparent irrelevancies and even misstatements of fact.
Some of his problems may stem less from the method he has adopted than from the
difficulty Slusser has in expressing himself clearly. His sentences often build by
accretion, rather than development: his arguments do not flow logically, so much as they
meander in circles, resulting in apparent contradictions. He has Clarke choosing both man
(human form) and progress, but rejecting the forms (utopia, transcendence) progress takes
in his work. While recognizing that Clarke is conscious of the Odyssey pattern in
his work, Slusser maintains Clarke is not consciously rewriting the Odyssey; while
for all of his growing self-consciousness, Clarke is said not to be conscious of the
underlying social patterns which require him to repeat himself. Perhaps these problems are
only apparent, because I missed an ellipsis or a turn in Slusser`s thought; but he seldom
takes a stand without undercutting it almost to the point of negation; so I would plead
that the critic is also guilty of contributory negligence, if I have misread him.
With Ellison, the theme appears to be the rebellion and suffering of Prometheus, though
Slusser does not so label it, and the pedigree is the line of classic 19th-century
American writers who also wrote what he calls "mythical allegories." Depending
on the given sentence, this term seems to equate with, or to include fantasies, myths,
cosmologies, parables, and quests. Representative stories from the Ellison canon yield
examples of duels, revenge motifs, combats between unequals, characters who suffer at the
hands of "system-builders" and those who rebel, frequently with futile results.
As in the analysis of Clarke, this is not unique to Ellison, though it may be more
prevalent, not to say obsessive, there than in the writing of other fantasists; nor is
Ellison's predilection for this theme or structure evidence in itself of Ellison's talent,
whether fine and provocative or raw-edged and banal.
Slusser's procedure in this booklet is more to illustrate a variety of ways (arranged
by category and subclassification) in which Ellison's theme is manifested in his works.
The major categories are sections labelled Journalism, Fantasy, and Myth. The first
consists of Ellison's writing about television, gangs, and literature, and trying to find
the right voice or persona. Midway between a distanced sentimentality and an involved
confusion, he is seen to strike a balance in his writing about writing, in introductions
to his own and others' works. Slusser seems to have brought this up to parallel Ellison's
balancing act in his fiction between what the critic early on sees as complementary
"pitfalls": "private fantasy" and a mythic objectification of
something internal, apparently the Jungian "shadow." But the later discussion
forgets that these are bracketing dangers and proceeds to praise Ellison for internalizing
topical issues and developing mythical cosmologies and quests.
Keeping to more of a survey format than in dealing with Clarke, Slusser reads
individual stories more for themselves, but he is still constrained by the limits of his
thesis. He sees Ellison, unlike Clarke, as having flexibility and development, such that
his later stories lead toward reconciliation with the enemy, if not resolution of his
central problem. Ellison's later stories also reveal a "new complexity of design and
texture," though Slusser's observation of this change is offered less in the analysis
of the stories themselves than as an afterthought, and one about which he --
characteristically -- has reservations. Out of much backing and filling, it is not too
surprising that Slusser ends with a series of rhetorical questions. Ellison's
"pattern of fiction" is apparently not as fixed as Clarke's; but the direction
in which Slusser apparently would have him move is toward a new dispensation, a new Genesis,
a new set of positive values, and it is by no means certain that this represents a
goal of Ellison's.
Perhaps the monograph format cramps the critic's style, and these critiques would be
better either as short thematic essays or as book-length studies. But Slusser can not
blame the form for the sometimes impenetrable thickets of his prose and the shifting sands
of his argumentation, both of which present serious obstacles to a casual reader. A more
dedicated scholar should find useful insights for understanding some of Clarke's and
Ellison's work. But actual application to the text of their fictions and establishment of
their real significance are largely left as a series of exercises for the student.
David N. Samuelson
Vian and SF
Boris Vian. Cinéma
Science-Fiction, ed. by Noël Arnaud. Paris: Christian Bourbons, 1978.
214 p., Can. $11.10.--"No, this is not a publisher's fad," writes Noël Arnaud
in his preface. In fact, lately almost every word from Vian's hand seems to have been good
for publication. This time, most of the material reproduced is more or less related to the
cinema rather than to SF. No doubt Boris Vian's fans will be pleased with this
compilation, which is almost exhaustive as far as SF is concerned. For the student of
paraliterature, it is a valuable document on the post-war para-artistic world in Paris,
and -- to a lesser extent -- on the impact of American (counter-)culture on native
Obviously Boris Vian (1920-1959) illustrates the intense disgust that was felt by a
category of young intellectuals towards ideologies and politics as a result of the Second
World War. For him as for many among his friends a substitute is "American
culture," i.e. popular music (jazz and rock 'n roll), literature viewed as
"different" (e.g. in Faulkner), the série noire novels, cinema
(musicals à la Stanley Donen), and of course SF.
In SF, Vian may well be considered as one of the most active and knowledgeable amateurs
who introduced American SF to France in the early 1950s. Of the 9 contributions here
reproduced, 3 are particularly significant: one short story, "Paris, le 15 décembre
1999": the article published in J. -P. Sartre's Temps Modernes in 1951
("Un Nouveau Genre Littéraire: La Science-Fiction"); and an interview with
movie director Pierre Kast ("Pierre Kast et Boris Vian s'entretiennent de la
Commentators have at length saluted Vian's multiple insights. Once again they are
apparent in this book. But, whatever his talents might be, it should be remembered that
his perspective regarding SF is obviously steeped in the mid-century; 30 years or so have
passed since the days when Raymond Queneau, Boris Vian, and Jacques Audiberti met at
Parisian bar La Reliure as members of the Club des Savanturiers (a porte-manteau word made
up of "savant" plus "aventurier"). American models of SF were then
largely dominant. Through the 1950's movement (and the influence of American patterns of
SF), SF gained recognition as a literary genre, although very often labelled as
Can a general line be taken from Vian's positions regarding SF? In his article in Les
Temps Modernes he describes SF as the renaissance of epic and exalts its prophetic
capabilities. It is even a mystique, says Vian. However, in a subsequent article published
in La Parisienne, Vian is more critical of "prophetic SF," which is
more in compliance with his ideas of literature generally.
As regards Vian's SF production, it must be pointed out that only two short stories
pertain unquestionably to SF: "Paris, le 15 décembre 1999..." and "Le
Danger des Classiques" (the only notable SF text missing from this book). Moreover,
they are far from being significant examples of Vian's imaginative power, which appears to
best advantage in his four great novels (L'écume des jours, L'Automne à Pékin,
L'Herbe rouge, L'Arrachecoeur). Thus his role was more important in the defense of SF
in literary reviews and through his translations of Van Vogt and Lewis Padgett than as an
SF writer. On the whole, SF may seem very marginal as compared to the other artistic or
para-artistic activities to which Vian put an extremely talented hand.
-- Jean-Marc Gouanvic
Boris Eyzikman. Inconscience-fiction.
n.p.: Kesselring. 1979. 319 p. FF. 85.00 -- Boris Eyzikman is a young French scholar whose
first book, SF et Capitalisme (Paris, 1972) is to a certain extent summarized in
his essay, "On Science Fiction." published in SFS No. 6. His second
book, on SF comic strips in the US, La Bande dessinée de SF americaine (Paris:
Albin-Michel. 1976), has yet to be reviewed here. But here comes the third, a collection
of essays, most of them previously published in SF and other literary journals between
1974 and 1978. The most expedient introduction that one may formulate about Eyzikman for
the benefit of a non-European public is that he is a "Freudo-Marxist."
Unfortunately this label (and Eyzikman's critical approach is greatly suspicious of
labels) sheds more shadow than light on the matter -- especially if the American reader is
thenceforth tempted to affiliate Eyzikman with E. Fromm or H. Marcuse.
Not that Marcuse, for one, does not figure in the intellectual landscape. French
"libidinal economy" is, like many other phenomena, a scion of 1968. But the type
of Freudo-Marxism practiced by Gilles Deleuze and J.F. Lyotard is not to be considered as
a humanistic and totalizing attempt at gluing together Marx's critique of society and
Freud's critique of psychic life. Deleuze or Lyotard are more eager to deconstruct than to
build any syncretic theory: they have Freud criticizing Marx, and Marx questioning Freud
in a spirit of radical doubt, of intellectual provocation, and of a euphoria of
subversion. And subversion is in their "style" as well, and for good reason:
they suspect conceptual thought as being an instrument of both libidinal and political
repression. Concepts migrate metaphorically, they also are submitted to a textual Entbindung
-- unbinding -- while the discourse oscillates between academic austerity, polemical
acting-out, coarse jokes, philosophical conceits, and lyricism.
I know that such an introduction is out of tune, seemingly condescending and facile --
but that is because I am faced with an actual difficulty. Although Deleuze and Guattari,
and more recently Lyotard, have been translated into English. I fear that their way of
thinking (with all its critical potential and its obscurities) is still rather alien to
the informed North American reader.
Boris Eyzikman, who studied under Jean-François Lyotard (without becoming his faithful
disciple) belongs within this general atmosphere. His book is brilliant, original,
repetitive, unsystematic. Let us be content with focusing on the central thesis.
SF is (or should be) a "revolutionary, mutant Literature" in so far as it
releases imagination, unbinds libidinal investments, subverts stable paradigms riveted to
institutional bases. This accounts for Eyzikman's pun in his title: SF is the fiction of
the Unconscious. Any attempt at defining such a "genre" try a set of contentual
variants would amount to reducing and repressing it for fear of its revolutionary
potential, through a neurotic devotion to "reality" and to "literatures of
reduplication." Under the label of SF, we find, to be sure, some of the best samples
of such a literature unbinding desire but also a hulk of amorphous and mystifying writings
where what ideology calls "reality" is simply camouflaged by its being projected
into the future. Even if Eyzikman does not cherish axiological judgments, this distinction
between authentic and alienated SF runs through his book and determines his strategies.
Philip K. Dick, whose work is repeatedly praised, can he seen as the literary forerunner
of such contemporary French (anti-) philosophers as Jean Baudrillard or J.F.Lyotard: they
sometimes even seem to simply transpose Dick's dramatized presentation into a systematic
theory, thus converting Dick's insightful intuitions into noncritical obscurantism (as
suggested in Suvin and Angenot's "Not Only But Also." SFS No. 18 \ 1979\:170).
There are excellent pages in Eyzikman's book: his interpretation of Ubik as
"an area of pulsional simulation" (no wonder Ubik is here as a key
text), several essays dealing with SF and underground "comix," SF iconism in
general, The Lords of Swastika as fascist fiction, etc. Eyzikman's critical
imagination is rather centrifugal (as in his concept of SF: from one page to the next, he
moves from urbanism to torture and civilization to the aesthetics of graffiti). In the
final analysis I shall reproach him for fetishizing in his turn "Desire,"
"Freed Energetics," "Primary Processes," and "Mobility"; for
sometimes indulging in facile manicheism; and perhaps for having a penchant for
sentimental anarchism. Eyzikman looks like a medical man who would prescribe only one drug
and knows only one therapeutic -- more Entbindung! This does not prevent me from
admiring his unfaltering alertness towards the here and now, present cultural changes, new
aspirations and new forms of expression, and the critical fire he puts them through. Thus,
Inconscience-fiction is a "controversial" book in the sense that it
requires being read, whatever difficulties it may present at the outset. Otherwise, as
Paul Valery suggests:
Neither read, nor understood:
To the best of the minds
So many errors are promised.
Philosophy and Fiction
René Schaerer. Philosophie
Lausanne: L'âge d'homme, 1978. 338 p.
This book is still worth mentioning though it neither directly nor indirectly treats
SF. René Schaerer is a professor of Philosophy in Geneva and a specialist in Plato. His
last book, as the title suggests, deals with the interconnectedness of mythos and
logos, speculation and narration, meditation and fantasy. These are the two
components of thinking, in both cases an adventure of the mind answering the
"question of questions": is there a meaning to life? Such an adventure the
author tries to trace back through Western thinking by rereading critically major texts of
philosophy and literature, from Homer and Heraclites to Claudel and Husserl. Socrates in
the Phaido suggests that, although distinct, mythos and logos do
"sing the same music." If the SF scholar does not fear to go astray in
"serious" philosophy, he/she will find in Schaerer's book a suggestive
More Nearly Perfect
H. Bruce Franklin, ed. Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century.
2nd ed. rev. London, Oxford, & NY: Oxford UP. 1978. xi+404 p. $15.00 cloth. $4.95
Future Perfect was, I believe, the first "academic" anthology of SF,
and as such, it remains exemplary for its carefully defined yet wide-ranging scope. The
fact that the volume has never been out of print may be taken as a gauge of its popularity
over the last 15 years and hence of its influence on what has by now become a tidal wave
of critical interest in SF.
In the second, revised, edition of Future Perfect. Bruce Franklin tacitly
acknowledges this new wave of critical attention by omitting passages from his general
introduction and elsewhere that these days might appear to be pedantically elementary or
overdefensively apologetic. He offers in their place some remarks -- on developments in
science and technology in 19th-century America -- that seem designed to prompt the reader
to work out correlations between SF and its social context. The latest version of Future
Perfect also differs from that of 1966 in one other major respect: Franklin has
dropped Dr. Mitchell's "Was he Dead?" -- a story whose merits are surely nugatory
-- and substituted two new selections. One of these is "A Thousand Deaths," not
Jack London's best effort in the way of SF, but no doubt his best published before 1900
and certainly a curious piece from a psychological standpoint (as Franklin does not
neglect to point out). The other is Washington Irving's "The Men in the Moon,"
whose main claim for consideration lies with its authorship.
That a "respectable" author like Irving should make his appearance hand in
hand, as it were, with the ideologically and "artistically" disreputable Jack
London nicely illustrates the impact that Future Perfect continues to have (and
is doubtless intended to make) on received views of American literature. The additions and
changes Franklin has instituted do not, of course, put his book beyond reproach. (The
inadequacy of the section on Mark Twain, in particular, will become evident the moment
David Ketterer's anthology of Mark Twain's SF appears.) But to quarrel over Franklin's
selections -- or rather, to quibble about them, since as a totality they are quite
justifiable -- is to miss the important point: that Future Perfect still
represents a pioneering assault not only on the entrenched "canonical"
assumptions about American literary history, but on the still widely accepted distinctions
between "high" and "popular" genres.
One Question, Everyone Answers
Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff.
science-fiction: à la recherche d'une définition.
Paris: Robert Laffont. 1979.424 p. -- We will start with the following
hypothesis: everybody has got something to say about SF, everybody is ready to
formulate some implicit or explicit definition of the genre. This would even be
a distinctive feature of SF as a cultural phenomenon. You cannot interview
people in the street about serial music, Islamic mysticism, classical prosody
vs. free verse, or Lacanian psychoanalysis: you are likely to get 2% of more or
less relevant answers and 98% of serene indifference. I. and G. Bogdanoff were
convinced that, with SF, although people do not necessarily read any, it would
be different, that everyone -- rich and destitute, widow and orphan, cleric and
layman, fortunate and unlucky, the youth and the veteran, the worthy and the
unworthy, the prophet and the deceiver, the cultured and the illiterate, the
soldier and the civilian, the heathen and the believer, the jester and the
philosopher, the justice and the outlaw, the philanthropist and the misanthrope,
Romeo and Juliet, David and Jonathan, the sound and the furious -- everyone in
this society is ready to make some statement, even if it be totally irrelevant,
about SF. To prove their point, the Bogdanoffs endeavored to interview whoever
has got a name in contemporary Europe: the Pope, the King of Belgians, Lévi-Strauss,
Georges Marchais, etc. The first two did not fail to answer but cautiously
eluded the Bogdanoffs' curiosity; the last two remained extremely vague. But for
dozens of other celebrities the question "what do you think of SF"
provoked an unhesitating response -- adorned with all commonplaces, confusions
and absurdities that one might expect. That is what the Bogdanoffs, social
psychologists despite themselves, call "The Sci-Fi Effect." They
conclude that SF (the word if not the "thing") is a "social
revealer." It discloses present hopes, fears, anguishes, contradictions.
The Bogdanoffs' book is at the same time a pleasant picaresque novel about two
amateur interviewers and their victims, a dictionary of idées reçues in
Flaubert's style, and a serious and valuable attempt at elucidating the
sociocultural position and image of SF.
Cataloguing Science Fiction
Stan Baretz. Catalogue
des âmes et cycles de la S.F.
1979, 298 p. Can. $5.95. -- For more than a century the "Catalogue des
Armes et Cycles" of Saint-Etienne (France) has exemplified the poetic value
of commercial catalogues. M. Stan Baretz, replacing weapons (armes) by
souls (âmes) in the original title, clearly tries to preserve some
poetical dimension to this survey of contemporary
world SF he offers to the French public. He is also aware of the fact that in
the world of fans, easier and faster than anywhere, harsh criticism arises, and
that a general survey of SF is a target not easy to protect.
This book is a series arranged in alphabetical order of 200 or so entries, mostly
writers' names from Adlard to Zelanzy, with a small number of thematic notes (End of the
World, Perceptions of Reality [?], Utopia. . . ). French writers are not over-represented
and Baretz's choices do not call for any obvious reservation. As expected, the content of
the notes themselves, in a book that claims a large degree of subjectivity, is often
questionable. Should we look at Le Guin as a writer who prolongs the great cyclical sagas
of Asimov and Herbert? Is it true that the Strugatskys work is "limited in its goals
and means by the ideology it harbors"? Nonetheless, all in all, I don't find obvious
factual mistakes, and there is an obvious and successful attempt at balance and clarity.
This "Catalogue" will be useful to readers interested in French SF, and in the
extent to which US and other writers have been translated and received in France.