Science Fiction Studies

#34 = Volume 11, Part 3 = November 1984

 

BOOKS IN REVIEW

  Science Fiction and Philosophy

Robert E. Myers, ed. The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy. Critical Studies. Westport, CT & London: Greenwood Press, 1983. xvi + 262pp. $29.95

The editor of this collection of essays accounts for it in institutional terms early in his introduction: SF has been acquiring academic legitimacy while philosophy has been going popular, "applied." The two trends converge, the two genres of writing meet; this book is produced.

Many members of such organizations as the Modern Language Association, the American Association of Philosophy Teachers, the American Philosophical Association, the Popular Culture Association, and the Science Fiction Research Association are involved in initiating, participating in, and supporting program changes and special new sessions to informally discuss and formally 'influence' the reassessment and modification of the long-standing tenets of various organizations, graduate programs, journals, and professional committees.

This volume is both a contribution to and a product of these changes and their concomitant attitudinal receptivity or openness. All the contributors to this volume enjoy reading SF; they are critical appreciators of the genre, and about half of them are professors of philosophy. The others are associated with high schools, institutes or universities in the areas of English, the social sciences, linguistics, futurism, and the medical humanities. Thus, they bring different backgrounds, training, and professional skills to bear on the critical elaboration and examination of the philosophical problems and values within science fiction stories, novels and series. Starting from different perspectives, they meet at the intersection of science fiction and philosophy. (pp. x-xi)

In other words, the book is a product of the academic industry, processed information to gratify the needs of mass education; and it has been explicitly designed "to exclude jargon" (p. xi), i.e., to ensure that the commodity is readily consumable by nonspecialists. The organizational format--17 short essays (approximately 4000-5000 words each) grouped into eight conceptually titled sections, with each section prefaced by a two-page summary introduction by the editor--supports and reveals this general intention, although clearly some groupings (e.g., the second, "Space-Time and Time Travel") are more conceptually coherent than others (e.g., the eighth, "History and Heroes, the Sublime and Changing Theism").

Once this is understood, and once allowance has been made for the general methodological limitations (not unique to this book by any means) of approaching SF as a supermarket of ideas, it is then fair to remark that this particular package has some appeal. It will not make a major contribution to knowledge and it will not likely transform dramatically its readers' views of SF or philosophy. But the text will help to consolidate among a broad audience the view that SF is worthy of intelligent attention. Moreover, a strain of humanistic speculative engagement with questions about a human future that matters and has the chance to be better than the present runs through most of the essays and provides a useful corrective within the currently skeptical literary milieu. Even a theoretically weak paper like Philip Pecorino's "Philosophy and Science Fiction" is helpful in this ideological respect: at least it re-emphasizes a pragmatist philosophical tradition that values the speculative side of thought as much as the analytic (though, curiously, there is no reference here or anywhere in the book to Ernst Bloch). In a related vein, Dorothy Atkins' "Star Trek: A Philosophical Interpretation" accounts persuasively for the thematic appeal of that humanistic television series.

The typical procedure of the essays is to outline some thematic (philosophical) interest and then explore it with reference to two or three authors, books, or stories. This method permits no comprehensive conclusions, though it allows interesting questions to be posed. All told, the articles touch on some 50 SF authors (and a far smaller number of philosophers); the recommended readings after each piece, though forming an eccentric and unprioritized listing, may serve as a helpful supplement for readers relatively new to the field. By and large, the essays are inoffensive intellectually and generally competent. Perhaps half of the 17 essays could be described as good. The best are those that bring their own viably articulated conceptual framework to the materials at hand--e.g., Alexandra Aldridge's "Science Fiction and Emerging Values," Lee F. Werth's "Siddhartha and Slaughterhouse Five (A New Paradigm of Time)," Paul Rice's "Metaphor as a Way of Saying the Self in Science Fiction," the Atkins piece, and the essays mentioned below.

The most successful literary criticism in the text is appropriately concerned with the contemporary theme of distorted communication: Adam Frisch's "Language Fragmentation in Recent Science-Fiction Novels" analyzes the dead-ends in logic and language that leave the protagonists of Russ, Dick, and Delany "naked and raving upon the technological heath of the twentieth century" (p. 157); while Joann Cobb's "Medium and Message in Ellison's 'I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream'" studies how the "structural imagination" (p. 159) meets the communicative threats of technological progress. The two most valuable theoretical essays are William Schuyler, Jr.'s "Heroes and History" and Bart Thurber's "Toward a Technological Sublime." The former, well-versed in Derridean deconstructionist criticism, argues that the epic mode is not satisfactory as a universal paradigm for history. Schuyler then examines the deconstruction of the epic mode in Delany's Tales of Nevryon and the assault on epic causality in "counter-epics" like Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, concluding with a proposal a la Richard Rorty to respect the unadjudicable truth claims of "incommensurable discourses" (p. 207), i.e., of different strategies of representation that provide us with irreducible but not incompatible truths (since no mode can tell us everything). This is standard avant-garde philosophy and literary criticism, but elegantly written, and refreshingly more contemporary than many of the other conventions employed in the volume.

Thurber's essay in intellectual history is worth noting as perhaps the most far reaching of the intellectual contributions that the text makes: he examines the history, meaning, and influence of the concept of the sublime and supplements the argument advanced by Brian Aldiss and others that SF is essentially a sublime/Gothic genre of writing. Of particular interest is his argument for a "technological sublime"--i.e., for a connection between the sublime and the techniques of science. He proposes, apropos of Verne, that the debate in SF theory about character depiction vs. technical interest misses the point of the genre and its history. Verne "added something new":

He assumed that his readers would find technological detail interesting, not because he was a bad writer, necessarily, but because in Verne science is not like the sublime, nor is it where the sublime is, it is assumed to be sublime. Verne's contribution was to fuse the two, indissolubly. Whatever scientists do is sublime, for good or evil; ...it is the process, the science, which is as new, as wondrous, and as powerful in its way as Frankenstein's monster. (p. 222)

In a world of inescapably scientific horizons, the "sublime" then arguably mediates the acceptance of science as "the model of some of our greatest and most powerful aspirations " (p. 222), and correspondingly also mediates the transformation of science into fiction as the way we tell stories about those aspirations (and anxieties) and come to terms with those horizons.

--John Fekete


The Mechanical God

Thomas P. Dunn & Richard D. Erlich, eds. The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction. ["Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, " no. 1.1 Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982. 284pp. $29.95

Consisting of a brief preface and lengthy primary and secondary bibliography by the editors, a breezy introduction by Brian Aldiss, and 18 critical essays, The Mechanical God is largely a study of robots, computer characters, cyborgs, and other mechanized beings. The figures considered range from the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz to the workers who plug into machines in Delany's Nova. Among the more interesting issues considered by the contributors are the nature and implications of machine intelligence, the anthropomorphic bias evident in portrayals of robots and other advanced machines, and the morality or amorality of relations between machines and human beings.

The best of the essays are very good indeed. Christian W. Thomsen compares the treatment of robots in Asimov's I, Robot and the short stories of Stanislaw Lem. He shows that Asimov's Three Laws or Robotics are in some ways self-contradictory and that Asimov raises issues he does not resolve (and might not even know he has raised); Lem, on the other hand, writes with the deliberate intention of parodying the Asimovian line of SF and satirizing the attitudes implicit in Asimov's stories. Among the other essays that I found particularly interesting and informative are Donald M. Hassler's astute analysis of Tevis's Mockingbird, Russell Letson's discussion of the fables underlying SF treatments of machine intelligence, Donald Palumbo's survey of sexual mechanisms in SF films--especially good on the sexual iconography of Alien, 2001, and Dr. Strangelove--and Gary K. Wolfe's concluding essay, "Instrumentalities of the Body: The Mechanization of the Human Form in Science Fiction."

Since there is not space here to consider every essay individually, I will merely add that William M. Schuyler, Jr, writes very perceptively about the twin questions of robot morality and the morality of human-robot relations. Applying Kant's moral imperatives, Mill's utilitarianism, and the act-centered philosophies of Confucius and G.E. Moore to a variety of SF works, Schuyler demonstrates, essentially, that you pays your money and you takes your choice of philosophies: each of the philosophical systems under investigation would lead to different moral judgments, and no one system is entirely satisfactory in all circumstances. Schuyler's conclusion is persuasive, as is his underlying argument that one function of SF is to set up extreme cases that test human values.

Early in his essay, Schuyler refers to The Mechanical God as "a general-interest work. " This is one way of putting it; another would be to say that the volume is somewhat uneven, both in its focus (sometimes broad, sometimes narrow) and in its quality. Editors take the best contributions they can get; and if the pieces are not aimed at pretty much the same audience, that is often an unavoidable problem. Still, I wonder about the note appended to the preface (p. xiv), which lists a handful of works that have definitions of SF: this list, which begins with Cliff's Notes end ends with Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, suggests that the editors had a hard time placing their audience. The fact that several of the essays contain more plot summary than useful analysis is another problem. Yet the bibliography and several of the essays are so good as to compensate for the lapses elsewhere in the collection. If the book is not really essential reading for every student and critic of SF, it is good enough to belong in the library of every university where people teach, and write about, SF.

--Patrick A. McCarthy


Entertaining Science

Amit Goswami, with Maggie Goswami. The Chronic Dancers: Exploring the Physics of Science Fiction. NY: Harper&Row, 1983. xi+292pp. $18.50

Most readers of SF will find this book fascinating and a genuine pleasure to read. The Cosmic Dancers is interesting not for its theses: (1) SF contains some interesting discussions of physics, and (2) "although science fiction does not itself produce a paradigm shift [ la Thomas Kuhn's concept in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions], it keeps telling us when one is needed" (p. 2). The first assertion is obvious; the second is not convincingly demonstrated. The book's attraction is in the physics itself, which is almost always informative and, often, awesome. Written for the non-scientist who shares with Goswami "an interest in and an enthusiasm for science fiction and/or space, time, mind, reality, and so forth" (p. 9), The Cosmic Dancers succeeds in explaining and speculating on several of the more interesting hypotheses, theories, and mysteries of physics, which SF writers have incorporated into their stories.

Amit Goswami teaches in the Physics Department at the University of Oregon. Clearly, he knows his physics. His citations and examples from more than 70 SF novels and short stories demonstrate that he is also familiar with most of the major works of SF. Goswami has not the polished style of a John McPhee, Lewis Thomas, or Stephen Jay Gould, his exposition is closer to Asimov's non-fiction--short sentences and a clear, straightforward argument. At times, the author's boundless enthusiasm and the numerous exclamations begin to weary the reader, but Goswami usually avoids the purple prose of a Carl Sagan. Given the space and his purpose, Goswami cannot transmit as full an account of the paradox, mystery, and excitement of relativity theory or quantum mechanics as, for example, Heinz Pagels does in The Cosmic Code, but The Cosmic Dancers does explore enough of relativity, wave phenomena, entropy, black holes, quantum paradoxes, the nature of human consciousness as well as "paranormal" phenomena (a phrase that Goswami dislikes) to encourage the reader to investigate further. The autobiographical details and anecdotal material illuminating the personalities of such figures as Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Dyson, Heisenberg, and Pauli help to communicate and evoke some of the excitement that physics holds for the author.

The title, The Cosmic Dancers, may suggest such books as Capra's The Tao of Physics and Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters; but while Goswami is sympathetic to attempts to find analogies which link physics to Eastern philosophy and mysticism, the book does not press the arguments too aggressively. By and large, it concentrates on explaining the basic concepts of physics which have found their way into SF along with some of the more exotic speculations of theoretical physicists and astronomers. If one is unfamiliar with Lagrange's calculations, the Dyson sphere, the Corilis force, tachyons, antimatter, negentropy, the Drake equation, black holes, Hubble's law, de Broglie wave-length, Schrodinger's cat, Bell's theorem, or the holographic model of reality, then The Cosmic Dancers will provide many hours of interesting reading and an increased appreciation for some of our more important SF authors.

--Charles Elkins


Covering Apertures

Brian Griffin and David Wingrove. Apertures: A Study of the Writings of Brian Aldiss. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984. xiv+261pp. $29.95

Philosophically, this set of essays starts from the "Existential Predicament" which is the basis of the ironic world-view so characteristic of 20th-century literature in general, including New Wave SF as its most recent adherent. Isolation and fragmented consciousness are viewed as the central intellectual concerns for humankind in our century. Griffin and Wingrove regard Brian Aldiss as a Modernist writer engaged in an "ever-present search for integration" (p. xiii): "Intellect and Nature, Inside and Outside, order and chaos: Aldiss is torn between these opposites" (p. 46). Other useful divisions which come up in the essays are "heart vs. head, " intellect and emotion, and left-brain mentality vs. right-brain. Aldiss's attempt to give humankind a chance to glimpse a possible, future transcendence of opposites justifies the metaphorical title of the book; Aldiss truly provides his readers with an "aperture" into the integration of consciousness. Correctly, too, both critics see Aldiss as a writer on a quest for psychic wholeness which is far from complete: single works and his opus as a whole remain ambivalent and elusive, and no one style or attitude can be isolated to pin down Aldiss to any one side in the war of the opposites. Such broad generalizations concerning the author are the most valuable and insightful part of this book.

In general, however, both critics spend too much effort trying to relate Aldiss to mainstream novelists and poets who are not relevant to the literary works at hand. It is true that Aldiss is a "writer's writer" and one of the most well read, even bookish, of SF writers of any period; but his relationships with modern SF per se are almost totally ignored. Thus in Griffn's discussion of Hothouse (pp. 41-55), so many other literary classics are introduced for analogy that a reader gets lost in the obscurity of erudition: Ian Watson's The Embedding, Wordsworth's The Prelude, Shakespeare's The Tempest, Ibsen's Peer Gynt, Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, Joyce's Ulysses, C.S. Lewis's Perelandra, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and John Milton. Wingrove reacts similarly to Frankenstein Unbound (pp. 162-69), emphasizing practically everything but Mary Shelley's classic. As it is, by both critics there is page after page of allusion to, or citation from, classic world authors without developing enough coherence or relevance for them. Neither of the critics tries to separate "source" proper from a parallel.

One gets the Romantic-Existential connections with Aldiss without a proper appreciation of his SF/satire affinities. Perhaps this approach would have proven more insightful if Griffin and Wingrove had commented in greater detail upon specific passages: substantive paragraphs are cited on at least every other page, not only from the works of Aldiss but from countless mainstream works. Aldiss is a master of multiple styles, from Lucianic prose to poetic Joycean word-play, yet nothing specific is done with his virtuoso's range. In general, this lengthy scholarly volume has too much quotation, with too little being done with the passages reproduced.

In terms of ideas, both critics are least insightful when it comes to Aldiss's all-pervasive sense of humor and his universal flair for satire. Thus this failure leads Wingrove (pp. 75-6) to compare The Dark-Light Years to Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness and poems by T.S. Eliot instead of looking to more appropriate parallels in Swift's Gulliver's Travels and related Menippean writings. Similarly, Griffin's essay on Non-Stop (pp. 8-23) overlooks Aldiss's Socratic Irony while doing justice to Modernist Irony. The authors also refuse to deal with another side of Aldiss's significance: he is a tremendously entertaining writer and the constant extra-textual orientation towards mainstream literature ignores the powerful "pop" culture appeal of this writer (e.g., as Wingrove comments in respect to the "science-fictional trappings" of Dark-Light Years, Aldiss is involved in "a temptation to be 'entertaining' at all costs" [p. 77]; cf. Griffin on The Primal Urge: "At his worst, Aldiss can be intellectually arrogant or, at the other extreme, too matey and populist in his approach. At his best, he makes nonsense of the highbrow/lowbrow SF/mainstream polarites of our time" [p. 64]).

The footnotes are difficult and obscure--and comprise a disproportionate number of pages in the book. Often they seem to be a second-order text overlaid on the first, and many references to primary works would have been better included in the text proper; again, as in the text proper, the extensive quotations appear as more of a hindrance than a help. However, a valuable bibliography of the publications of Aldiss is appended to the volume.

Few readers will be attracted to such murky, pretentious writing as both of these critics prefer. Both take an author as accessible as the Beatles (Barefoot in the Head is on the same order of crazy as Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band) and try to turn him into T.S. Eliot or D.H. Lawrence. Neither has done enough to appreciate Aldiss's moral committment to a united humanity and a planetary consciousness; neither has enough respect for his wit and gregariousness, for it is always Aldiss's effervescent sense of humor which has carried him through all the pessimism and irony. Neither has any liking for SF of any period, and thus both critics try to develop an improper literary context for discussing this particular SF writer.

--Casey Fredericks


A Good Beginning

Schlobin, Roger C. Urania's Daughters: A Checklist of Women Science-Fiction Writers, 1692-1982. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1983. xiii + 79pp. $6.95 paper

For readers and scholars interested in following the evolution of SF produced by women authors, this checklist, "Starmont Reference Guide No. 1, " will be a helpful tool. Schlobin postulates that the first step toward serious study of "women's" SF must be an identification of the authors and their works. He has drawn from a number of recent reference sources, and the resulting guide is brief, unannotated, but fairly comprehensive.

The checklist covers some 375 authors and over 830 titles. It is arranged alphabetically by the authors' real names and includes a list of pseudonyms, variant names and joint authors, and a title index. Coverage is restricted to book-length, English-language novels, collections, and anthologies, and works have been cited by first editions whenever possible. The earliest work in the list is the 1692 English translation of Gabriel Daniel's A Voyage to the World of Cartesius, perhaps best described as "proto-SF."

Perhaps the most glaring error in the checklist is the inclusion of Micromégas by "Françoise" Marie Arouet de Voltaire. It is difficult to believe that this was allowed to slip through, but it adds a bit of humor if nothing else. Minor errors and typos are few, and the volume is solidly put together.

If there is to be controversy about Schlobin's list, it will undoubtedly revolve around his definition of SF: "science fiction must be based on the extrapolation of existing knowledge...part of the known world of the writer's time." Taken literally this definition would exclude much of the corpus of SF as we know it, so Schlobin has added a secondary type of SF called "pseudo-scientific." This condescending sounding category contains works based on "theories unproven at the time of composition--like time travel, spiritualism, mesmerism, and extrasensory perception--adorned with technological trappings."

Trappings indeed! As a number of classic SF novels are based upon the "theory " of ESP, Schlobin's secondary definition seems to reduce to second-class citizenship such authors as Bradley, McCaffrey, and Tiptree, to name but a few. And it enables him to include metaphysical ramblings such as Lessing's Canopus in Argos series and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. In the ongoing effort to differentiate SF from fantasy and its other relatives, this muddled pseudo-definition win provide little light but probably much heat. Those who use other definitions or criteria can whack happily away at this straw figure.

Nevertheless, Schlobin's checklist should be useful for collectors and general readers, as well as researchers and librarians. Supplements would be welcome, for "women's" SF is growing exponentially, and comprehensive bibliographies are long overdue. This is a good beginning.

--Susan L. Nickerson


Female Protagonists

Betty King. Women The Future: The Female Main Character in Science Fiction. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984. 295pp. $18.50

In this bibliography, Betty King has set out to create a reference book for teachers and readers of SF "in their efforts to locate [female] characters about whom they want to read." It includes only works that are or have been available in book form: novels plus collections of short stories and novellas. The humble tone of King's preface and introduction is engaging, and her work will be useful in adding to the growing literature on SF by and/or about women. Its usefulness, however, is marred by methodological and organizational problems and by various inaccuracies and omissions. A historical perspective is used beginning with a chapter on the period 1818-1929, and with chapters on each of the succeeding decades. Within each of these, several titles are annotated, and many others merely listed as additional readings: the principles of selection here are not made clear. There are appendices on collections and anthologies, on women characters in erotic SF, and on amazon women; also a perfunctory bibliography of secondary material (here at least King might not have restricted herself to books), and three indexes. Of these, the last--an index to titles and authors--is indispensable. I doubt if the other two--an "Index of Physical and Mental/Emotional Characteristics of Characters in the Synopses" and an "Index of Story Particulars of the Synopses"--are worth the time that must have been spent on them, especially since they make no reference to the many important books King has not seen fit to annotate.

--Linda Leith


Pop. Lit. Crit.

Tom Staicar, ed. Critical Encounters II: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1982. ["Recognitions" Series]. 166pp. $11.95 cloth; $6.95 paper

This collection, Tom Staicar says in his foreword, is offered "as a guide to some of the most provocative and worthwhile fiction to be found on crowded bookstore shelves. " It comprises essays on the work of Richard Matheson, Doris Piserchia, Ian Watson, Hal Clement, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, the Strugatskys, and Vonda N. McIntyre, and a discussion by Eric S. Rabkin of "The Rhetoric of Science in Fiction."

Staicar announces et the outset that "You don't have to be a science fiction expert to read this book" and that "No background reading is required to get the full value from this book. " This translates in practice into unwieldy plot summaries in most of the essays hanging on to variously tensile thematic threads. More emphasis could have been placed on formal characteristics without jeopardizing the book's popularity. It is because he does discuss such matters that Rabkin's historical account of the ways in which scientific language is used in works of fiction is the most interesting article in the collection.

If Rabkin throws this into relief, Patrick L. McGuire, in his essay on "Future History, Soviet Style: The Work of the Strugatsky Brothers," shows up how careless most of the essayists are about defining a cultural and political context for the SF writers they discuss. McGuire presents an account of developments in Soviet SF from the late 1950s on, and views the Strugatskys' output in the context of political developments in the USSR. No such context is referred to in the case of any of the English language writers discussed. Only the Russians, it would appear, have an ideology.

--Linda Leith  


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