Science Fiction Studies

#21 = Volume 7, Part 2 = July 1980

Eternity, Infinity, and a Critical Magazine

Foundation, Nos. 1-8: March 1972 - March 1975 (reprint). Boston: Gregg Press, 1978. $35.00.

The story of Foundation began in 1971, when -- thanks largely to the efforts of novelist, anthologist, and fan George Hay -- the Science Fiction Foundation was set up at North East London Polytechnic. Peter Nicholls, a young Australian living in London, was appointed Administrator to the Foundation, and soon became the dominant influence behind its journal, which he edited from 1974 to 1977. The first (pre-Nicholls) issues amounted, as he observes in a specially-written introduction to this volume, to little more than a "kind of reprint fanzine." Under his guidance and that of his successor, Malcolm Edwards, the journal has achieved a degree of originality and intellectual liveliness which make it a worthy competitor to SFS and Extrapolation. At the same time, it has a distinct personality which is perhaps indicated by Nicholls' retrospective statement of editorial priorities: "The journal would embrace bad taste; it would prefer the acid, the controversial and the succinct, even the occasionally vulgar or the occasionally cryptic, to academic blandness" (p. xi). One might quarrel with this -- Foundation has usually been controversial but rarely, if ever, succinct -- but there can be nothing but praise for the combination of features which has made the journal what it is: the ongoing "Profession of Science Fiction" series of essays by leading writers; the selection of critical articles, almost invariably of an ambitious, "literary survey" type; and the lively review section, with its extensive coverage of new fiction.

That said, what is there of lasting interest in the early issues of a periodical which, thanks to Gregg Press, will presumably now be on some library shelves from here to eternity? Much of the best material -- by Aldiss, Delany, Ketterer, Le Guin, Silverberg, and Suvin, for example -- has already been reprinted elsewhere. A handful of other essays (notably Shippey on SF and the idea of history, and David Pringle on Ballard) deserve to be better known than they are. Apart from these, the main impression on rereading Foundation is of the ubiquitous Mr. Nicholls himself. Intelligent, well-read, and boundlessly self-confident, this engaging ex-Leavisite seems to have embraced virtually every role a magazine affords, from that of resident critical sage ("The Great Tradition of Proto-Science Fiction") to typer of envelopes. There are times when the result is an object lesson in how not to edit a serious journal -- a lesson which might be summarized as follows. Do not promise to appear with a regularity you cannot achieve. Do not sprawl into page upon page of chatty editorializing. Do not make irrelevant (or, for that matter, relevant) interventions in the middle of your contributors` articles. Do not ask readers to write in saying whether or not they approve of such interventions. Do not give the names of your contributors' wives and children in your introductory notes to their articles, and, if you must do so, try to avoid having to apologize to said wives and children in the next issue for misspelling their names. Above all, do not keep announcing your own forthcoming but never-to-be-completed critical history of SF .... Nicholls' Eternity, Infinity and the Pulp Magazine was once eagerly awaited. Still, it would be unfair and ungenerous to throw more than a handful of pebbles -- especially from this rival glass house -- at the ex-editor who did so much to give Foundation its identity. Now in its 18th issue, it remains one of the very few journals from an academic source which I find readable from cover to cover. As I write this review the humanities division of North East London Polytechnic is faced with severe retrenchment as a result of the Thatcher government's education cuts, so that the magazine's future looks rather bleak. Its loss would be a severe blow to the SF community. in Britain and elsewhere.

-- Patrick Parrinder

Ellison and Clarke

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 confront.

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 practices.

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 Science-Fiction").

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 "new."

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

(Un)conscious Fiction?

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.

--Marc Angenot

Philosophy and Fiction

René Schaerer. Philosophie et Fiction. 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 meditation.

--Marc Angenot

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 paper.--

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. L'Effet 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.

--Marc Angenot

Cataloguing Science Fiction

Stan Baretz. Catalogue des âmes et cycles de la S.F. Paris: Denoël, 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.

--Marc Angenot


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