Science Fiction Studies

#27 = Volume 9, Part 2 = July 1982


Pirates in Paradise

Alexis Lecaye. Les Pirates du Paradis: essai sur la science-fiction. Paris: Denoël/ Gonthier, 1981. 250 p. FF24.10 cloth, FF15.00 paper

It seems that for the last few years there have been more general and theoretical essays on SF in French than in English. It is true that SF criticism in France had not kept pace with British and American scholarship up to the late '70s and that French criticism was too often marked by two archaic traits--one, to consider SF as a simple avatar of fairy tales and gothic fantasy and second, to describe SF by cutting out slices called "themes": planets, aliens, robots, rockets, etc. ad nauseam. M. Lecaye takes a different approach: starting with problems and types of experience common to modern humankind; he finds them represented in one way or another in SF. The risk remains that SF will be considered as some sort of systematic allegory of the modern world, and even of "universal" and "eternal" themes: "sex, dreams, time, drugs, social organization, labor, happiness, games"-- those themes being in fact, says he, "obsessions common to every human being and every literature" (p. 13). Ca commence bien! -- as the French say: that is good for a start; M. Lecaye displays extraordinary facility in the art of the No-MatterWhat. At the end of his introduction, he has managed to say about SF everything and its contrary with such an impetus toward nebulosities that it dissuades asking him the least explanation. We then learn that since 1968, French youth have been showing an equal fondness for "SF, history, and...historical novels." This revival of interest in Walter Scott (I presume) seems a bit unexpected but let us take it for granted. This situation we are told is due to the fact that "in historical novels the boundary between fact and fiction is blurred" whereas in SF "it has disappeared altogether" (p. 15). Well, well. We are not far away from that commonplace of Mickey-Mouse post-modernism that in contemporary society reality outmatches fiction. And indeed: "Where is the break between La Rumeur d'Orléans [a field inquiry] by the sociologist Edgar Morin and Spinrad's Jack Barron? In both cases, one deals with racism and its dreadful consequences" (p. 20). "Nonetheless what opposes irreducibly sociology and SF, is...first of all the fictional hero, warrant of an a priori subjectivism" (p. 21).

At this juncture, the reader has understood that this book is not to be reviewed: It should be extensively quoted. One goes from surprise to surprise. One discovers that George Lukacs was a "sociologist" (p. 36), one learns that "the Last Judgment has lost its actuality" (p. 22) and finds an adequate albeit brief summary of Engels' Anti-Dühring (a brochure about how "to embezzle your neighbor's labor without his consent," p. 37). There is, as one guesses, lots of humor in that essay--including involuntary humor, I suspect. A leftist varnish covers up commonplaces of magazine politology. The series "Médiations," in which this monograph is published, is considered to be one of the best collections of original essays in social science; Pirates in Paradise will hardly reinforce this opinion.


Science-Fiction "Stereotypes"

Antoni Smuszkiewicz. Stereotyp fabularny fantastyki naukowej. Wroclaw: Ossolineum, 1980. 167p. 30 kts. (ca. US$0.50)

The subject of Antoni Smuszkiewicz's book is Polish "popular" SF and its chief aim is to define and exemplify the narrative models characteristic of this type of literature. The author attempts a morphological description of the underlying functional models of SF.

The theoretical basis for the book is the Polish analytical tradition, particularly the results obtained in their analysis of narration by Kazimierz Bartoszynski, Bogdan Owczarek and Edward Balcerzan; but Smuszkiewicz refers as well to the work of Propp, Greimas, and Souriau. The argument is built mainly on Bartoszynski's studies of narrative structure and the nature of literary "stereotypes." Smuszkiewicz stresses that the literary stereotype is a means of communication between the author and its readers, and that it should not become a criterion of evaluation. He has, however, some difficulties in keeping the two apart.

The book proceeds following two basic ways of looking at the plot of a literary text: syntagmatic and paradigmatic. The syntagmatic order of narrative elements reveals the "grammatical" rules of its internal structure. This allows a description of the main aspects of its constitutive events in terms of (I) functions and their place in a narrative sequence, for which Smuskiewicz constructs an elementary model (chap. 1) and then details its structural variants (chap. 2); and (2) actants and their configurations, which are complementary to functional structural models (the point of chap. 3). The author distinguishes five subvarieties of his basic functional model of story plots: "unusual invention," "rescue mission." "conflict," "exploratory journey," and "journey in time."

The paradigmatic approach, on the other hand, allows Smuszkiewicz (in chap. 4) to discuss characteristic features of the narrative vocabulary, the personnel, props, and topography which are the changeable elements to be used within the unchangeable functional model and its appropriate "actantial" model. The obtained functional and actantial models are based on detailed studies of about 100 texts representative of contemporary "popular" Polish SF.

The models turn out to be relatively simple. One problem with Smuszkiewicz's book, however, arises from his initial division of this texts into "popular" and "high" SF. Unfortunately, he nowhere explains the criteria for such a discrimination, which anyway leads to certain incongruities, such as dividing Lem's works into "popular" (e.g., Eden, Stories of Pirx the Pilot, and The Invincible) and "high." Books by the same author that seem to have a very similar narrative model--such as The Invincible and Solaris--are thus put in separate compartments. This confines the value of the model Smuszkiewicz obtains to what he calls "popular" SF. Furthermore, to start by postulating a mere "popular" or primitive model within a genre, to choose one's material accordingly, and to end up by finding primitive traits in it, would seem to be a methodological "vicious circle."

According to Smuszkiewicz, the banality of the models is caused by a crisis SF is undergoing at present. There are not enough authors who possess the literary talent, scientific knowledge, and imagination necessary to meet the demands of a plausible SF. In search of variety, the authors of the texts he analyzes do not invent new conflicts but only vary props and complications--in other words, they rearrange the narrative vocabulary.

In the course of his book Smuszkiewicz raises a number of interesting points--e.g., the sociological and historical reasons for certain tendencies in the plots of Polish SF or its relation to other SF. But he does not fully discuss such matters, preferring to limit himself to constructing his models. The book's greatest merit lies in its detailed and competent analysis of those models; and as far as they are representative of the lower reaches of Polish SF--and perhaps SF in general--the book is an interesting contribution to SF studies.

--Ewa Stachniak

Romanian SF

"Science Fiction in Romania," [special issue of:] Romanian Review, 35, no. 1: 1981. 175p. Subscription: Ilexim 3, qtr. 13-Decembrie/ POB 1136/ Bucharest, Romania

The Romanian Review devotes a special issue to contemporary national SF, with several short stories and a section of essays dealing both with SF theory and with Romanian writers (all contributions are in English). Romania has a rich tradition of utopian writings and conjectural satire, going far back in the 19th century. It also displays a host of talented and versatile contemporary SF writers who can count on a faithful domestic readership--to the point where SF has become a well-established section of Romanian literature. SF criticism also flourishes in this relatively small country (see for instance our review of Ion Hobana's last book in SFS No. 23. Hobana's study of Jules Verne was awarded the Grand Prix Eurocon 1980).

I should like to signalize, among the essays, V. Kernbach's reflections on Bradbury, "A Modern Moralist" and H. Perez's "The Possible and the Real," which also stresses the fact that the modern SF writer is a moralist necessarily demanding from his reader an open and unprejudiced mind. Vera Adam publishes a--regrettably too short--note on SF written by children, "Once Upon a Time There Will Be." S. Radian discusses the specific fortunes of SF in Romania and recalls several polemics between proponents and detractors of SF as well as debates about its definition (a cognition-oriented genre, a variant of realistic literature, fantasy fiction, etc...). Fan Clubs flourish in all Romanian cities. Several publishing houses offer both translations and original novels. It seems that French and Polish SF are translated there at least as much as American and British


Le Guin by a Lover of the Marvelous

Barbara J. Bucknall. Ursula K. Le Guin. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1981. xv + 175p. $10.95 cloth, $5.95 paper

A book can display enthusiasm and a critic can admire almost without reserve a given writer without in fact rendering her/him justice. True, Barbara J. Bucknall draws on her "own delight" in Le Guin's stories and her study is well informed, pleasantly written, and not devoid of interest. None the less her critique always remains to my mind somewhat below the complexity and subtlety of Le Guin's work itself and involuntarily reduces her fiction to its most banal elements, transforming the author of The Left Hand of Darkness into a "romantic" writer of "poetic" fantasies, a definition which is not totally untrue but is certainly unjust (p. 154 for instance).

True again, Le Guin's works display a "vivid imagination"; that they also display "strong moral values" (p. 1) is a matter of ill-timed support, all the more unfortunate when applied to an opus whose questioning of moral presuppositions and demonstration of their relativity are generally agreed to be a major trait. The analyses of the novels, one by one, essentially plot-oriented, often seem to imply that these tales can be read as leading to rules or counsels governing moral life, love, friendship, and marriage. That Le Guin is concerned with ethics is one thing; but that does not amount to saying that her fiction contains moral parables or philosophical allegories as such. Others would say that Le Guin's moralism is a not always happy bent that fortunately is subverted and made ambiguous in the polyphonic and open aesthetics of her major SF novels.

Something else that strikes me as a bit naive is Ms Bucknall's reliance on Le Guin herself, "who," she says, "is her own best critic" (pp. 15, 23, 28, 29, 37, etc.). Well, no--fortunately or not: writers quite seldom are truly good critics of their own works; and though it is permissible to quote them among others, to count on them to guide you into the "true" meanings of their art amounts to self-deception. I am also disappointed by the frequent trait of SF criticism to confuse "map and ground"--as General Semantics would put it. For example, about The Left Hand of Darkness: "Is this a story of sublimated homosexuality? No, for the Gethenians are androgynous." Well, I do not believe that homosexuality would offer any key to the novel, but to discard the question by invoking Gethenian "androgyny" is astonishingly simplistic. A priori, androgyny is a pure fictional device which is not to be taken literally and therefore, in itself, does not refer to anything in our empirical world. What it means depends on its position in the field of the fictional apparatus. It is true that some feminists have been reading such elements of the narrative literally, thereby producing a dismemberment, a fragmentation of the text, rendering it flat and innocuous, whether to praise it or to condemn it.

Ms Bucknall's chapter on The Lathe of Heaven and The Word for World is Forest is more to the point to the extent that the latter novel may be read at least as a mediation, as a one-to-one allegory about the Vietnam War. Chapter six is a good description of The Dispossessed, its boundaries and abuttals; what is missing is simply a critical evaluation. I must say again that Taoism (which is a recurrent explanatory device in Ms Bucknall's monograph, as in others') does not to my mind explain anything. Ms Bucknall goes on to examine the most recent short stories, The Eye of the Heron (1978), and The Beginning Place (1980). She concludes by saying that Le Guin's fiction must be envisaged as a whole, connecting fantasy and SF, closely tied by the same themes and preoccupations, "freedom, love, courage, and adventure, in the inner and outer worlds" (p. 154). This conclusion applies to Le Guin to the same extent that it also applies to lots of fine people--which brings me back to my preliminary remark: this study which displays so much admiration for Ursula K. Le Guin and her work is fundamentally uncritical and finally offers an impoverished image of the novels it pretends to praise.


Guides to Science Fiction

Marshall B. Tymn, ed. The Science Fiction Reference Book. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1981. 536 + ix p. $14.95 paper. Neil Barron, ed. Anatomy of Wonder. A Critical Guide to Science Fiction. 2nd edition. NY & London: R.R. Bowker, 1981. 724 + xiv p. $32.95 hardbound, $22.95 paper

The title Science Fiction Reference Book is something of a misnomer since, as the subtitle indicates, the volume in question also deals with fantasy. This "comprehensive handbook and guide to...the science fiction and fantasy fields" (as it is billed to be) for the most part comprises essays and appended bibliographies parcelled out under the rubrics "Backgrounds," "Fandom," and "Academe."

Making up the first of those sections are contributions on the history of SF (Thomas Clareson), on children's fantasy and SF (Francis Molson), on SF art (Vincent Di Fate), on "The Fantastic Cinema" (Vincent Miranda), and on criticism ard reference tools (Tymn). Next come entries on the history of SF fandom (Joe Siclari); on "writing awards," including a list of Hugo and Nebula winners and (selected) nominees (Harlan McGhan); on "Literary Awards" which for some reason I cannot quite discern are to be put in a separate category (Howard DeVore); and on SF and fantasy magazines (Tymn). Finally, James Gunn offers an account of the critical fortunes of SF; Roger Schlobin "An Annotated Core List" of modern fantasy arranged alphabetically by author; Joe De Bolt another annotated list, this time in chronological order, of "Outstanding SF Books: 1927-79"; Elizabeth Cogell a catalogue of SF and fantasy holdings in US and Canadian libraries; and Tymn a bibliography of "Resources for Teaching SF." Information on US doctoral dissertations (Douglas Justus), SF organizations (Tymn), "Specialtys Publishers" (Tymn), and definitions of SF and fantasy (Schlobin) appear under the heading "Appendices."

Though something of a potpourri, the book contains much that is useful and at least one thing, Cogell's catalogue, that makes it indispensable. On the other hand, the continuing rash of books about SF has insured almost instant obsolescence for some parts of this guide, and especially for Tymn's descriptive bibliography of critical and reference materials, which, as it is, has some startling omissions (the most egregious being Darko Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction).

Readers familiar with the first incarnation of Anatomy of Wonder will find that the "second edition" is no mere expansion. It is, of course, that, with more than half again as many pages as the original issue. But there have also been some more or less radical revisions in its conception. While entries for the period from 1938 on have increased to 849 from the previous 650, the number for the years before 1900 has been retrenched. However, a new section has been added on foreign-language SF, subdivided into German (Franz Rottensteiner), French (Maxim Jakubowski), Russian (Patrick McGuire), Italian (Gianni Montanari), Japanese (David Lewis), and Chinese (Ye Yiong-lie). Here as a rule (but not invariably) the reader will find--listed alphabetically by author (in the standard format of the volume as a whole)--works that have not yet been translated into English. Apart from the changes already noted, there are two others: my introductory discussion of definitions and history has been dropped, replaced by Thomas Clareson's more accessible historical survey of SF to the 1920s; and for Ivor Rogers's "The Gernsback Era: 1926-1937" Barron has substituted "SF between the Wars" by Brian Stableford.

The entries throughout this tome remain inconsistent in point of accuracy and otherwise. Many give a good idea of what a given fiction is about; but some are at best misleading even on fundamental matters (e.g., one could not guess from the account of Solaris that the ocean itself is not the only--or indeed the focal--mystery in that book). Nor would a student be well-advised to rely solely on Anatomy of Wonder for bibliographical and suchlike data. Nevertheless, this reference work is far more comprehensive--and affordable--than its sole competitor to date, Magill's Survey of Science Fiction Literature, as the first resort for getting some advance idea of the contents of a given SF text.


Science Fiction for the Classroom

Thomas L. Wymer et al Intersections: The Elements of Fiction in Science Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: The Popular Press, 1978. 130p. $5.00 paper

Donald L. Lawler. Approaches to Science Fiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978. 560p. $11.95 paper

These two volumes, taken together, eloquently illuminate the broad genre of SF and provide a flexible resource for those teaching courses in the field. Intersections is a thin, easily read cookbook for students who want to understand or write in the genre, while Approaches offers a more sophisticated grasp of SF's peculiar characteristics and virtues.

Intersections, a supplementary text intended for a general audience, is a brief survey of the technical elements of fiction (plot, setting, point of view, symbolism, etc.) explained in simple terms and illustrated in the idiom of SF. Numerous references to novels and short fiction (primarily such classics as The Demolished Man, "Repent, Harlequin," and "The Veldt") allow the instructor to assign readings that are not only notable but also coalesce with the book's outline and thus facilitate the construction of a thoroughly coordinated program.

This is not to say that the book locks the instructor into a rigid format. In fact, it lends itself well to a variety of approaches. Assuming no background on the part of the student, the text fully explains all references to outside readings and gives both knowledgeable and naive students all the information they need to understand the material. Thus, Intersections by itself offers a self-contained unit designed to acquaint students with the basic elements of the genre. Alternatively' used in conjunction with properly selected readings, it can unify an intensive investigation of SF as a specialized sub-category of literature.

Students who aspire to the status of professional writer and those who want to write at the amateur level will find much useful information in Intersections. Those who seek a non-practicing understanding of the genre will find the text equally beneficial, since it will give them a perspective which non-literature majors usually lack when they enter elective literature courses.

Approaches on the other hand, consists of a selection of short stories with a limited but adequate amount of support material. In contrast to Intersections relatively ahistorical treatment, Approaches attempts to place the genre in its cultural context. The book supplies an 11-page calendar of events which gives a year by year list of scientific intellectual, and literary developments that relate--in some cases very tenuously--to SF. A biographical sketch of its author precedes each reading, and introductory sections provide enrichment.

The readings are well chosen and balanced. They include Poe and Wells; Heinlein, Bradbury, Clarke, and the older Leiber; Scheckley and Wilhelm. These and others ably illustrate both the genre's history and its major subgenres--fantasy-, soft-, and hard-SF. An Instructor's Manual gives "editorial commentary" on each reading, and discussion/review questions suggest topics for class discussion, term papers or exam items.

Clearly, Approaches could be used as the only text in an SF course. Anyone planning to adopt this book, though, should consider using it in tandem with Intersections. Together, they provide a versatile package that allows the instructor to tailor a course to the needs of any particular class. (And since it is difficult to anticipate the collective "personality" of a class until the course is actually under way, this sort of flexibility is always a plus.)

The two texts complement each other with no significant duplication of material, and their comparability is reinforced by the fact that Approaches contains several of the stories cited in Intersections. This simplifies the task of assembling copies for reading assignments and increases the utility of the package. For about the price of a single clothbound text, it is an idea worth considering.

--C. Bruce Hunter

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