Science Fiction Studies

#35 = Volume 12, Part 1 = March 1985


  Formula Fiction?

Frank Cioffi. Formula Fiction? An Anatomy of American Science Fiction, 1930- 1940. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982. xi+181pp. $25.00

Cioffi's volume (number three in the ''Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy" series, edited by Marshall Tymn) is misleadingly titled. His main title is not really a question, scarcely even a rhetorical question, since his clear assumption is that the work covered is formulaic fiction, though fiction which develops from stock formulas to new blends of old formulaic elements, and finally to new formulas only distantly related to those of older genres. And his subtitle is even more misleading--since his focus is not on all 1930s' SF but mostly on pulps, with a self-proclaimed emphasis on Astounding.

Since we are given no taste of the fiction of preceding decades, and since Cioffi frequently illustrates how 1930s' patterns persist into the SF of our day, we are forced either to take on faith that this decade differs from others or to render on the whole enterprise the Scottish verdict of "Not Proven." And, given the absence of evidence, whatever choice we make seems arbitrary. Like most theoretical frameworks, Cioffi's is so universal as not to differ greatly from what the unaided reader concludes going by the seat of his or her pants. In some ways, it even confuses the reader.

On the positive side, Formula Fiction? is valuable for its "how we got from there to here" approach. Most importantly, it focuses our attention on SF at the very time that it was in transition from an offshoot of the pulp romantic, or detective, or western, or adventure story, to an important, definable new form. By tracing SF's progress from thinly disguised stock form through new combinations of stock elements, to new genre, Cioffi helps establish its unique nature. The book illustrates how writers, at first reluctant to rebel against publishers' and editors' demands for more of "the mixture as before," came eventually to bootleg in subversive plot elements, and then eventually to go off more openly in their own directions.

In Cioffi's terms, "Status Quo" SF ultimately rejected the interpolation of the anomalous into a conventionally "real" fictional world, in favor of a restoration or reassertion of familiar, traditional values. Dissatisfied writers gradually rebelled, introducing "subversive" elements into their work, with the fictive society adapting (or crumbling) in response to the introduced anomaly.

Writers began to vary their stories into "Transplanted Status Quo" tales, distancing the normal situation by setting it on a spaceship or an alien planet, for instance. These stories offered the advantages as well as the limitations of the western and related forms. "Inverted Status Quo" stories showed traditional values, or institutions, or (especially) technologies as inferior to new ones. The crucial point here was that, in flat contrast to most traditional fiction, the status quo in these developing SF stories did not always win out.

Once this major change was introduced, it was only a small step to full-blown "Subversive Science Fiction," "Destructive" or "Incorporative," depending on what happened to the anomaly. Finally, in Cioffi's system, comes "Other World" SF, which "works on principles entirely different from those of any naturalistic world" (e.g., wholly matriarchal worlds or ones in which people have been superseded by machines).These might be "Flawed" or "Ascendant," again depending on whether the anomaly failed or succeeded.

Now for my reservations. Overall, the book offers sporadic insights and observations. But these derive more from Cioffi's intelligent reading of the stories individually and in groups than from his theorizing. I think he errs in trying to make relatively neat packages of what inherently resists such tidiness. There is always a tentacle or a solenoid sticking out of the box, or three humps and a cone pushing the conceptual wrapping into a decidedly ungeometric shape.

To use this formula notion as an approach makes sense; to pump it up into a system shows up its defects. The whole project should have resulted in a longish article. By spinning it out to book length, Cioffi forces his interesting and fruitfully suggestive idea into a Procrustean bed surrounded by telltale lopped-off limbs. Rather than systematize, Cioffi would have been well advised to talk about elements or emphases. The book is largely ineffectual, too much in need of qualification. I would have a hard time trying to teach SF from Cioffi's stance or his book.

Since there is, as Cioffi himself admits, considerable overlapping among the types and subtypes he presents, a breakdown by themes would have been far more useful and illuminating-- something on the order of what Paul Carter gave in his 1977 study, The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction. But this notion Cioffi emphatically rejects: "Instead of using theme as the organizing principle of SF criticism, I am offering 'formula' or 'narrative structure' as the element most crucial to categorizing, differentiating, and analyzing SF stories." And, although he lists Carter's work in his bibliography, Cioffi clearly thinks little of the book or its approach ("Science fiction of the thirties has never been adequately analyzed").

I question how necessary any SF typology really is. That categorizing yields a few insights does not demonstrate a need for a whole taxonomy. It is almost as if Cioffi or Tymn has determined that since other popular culture forms have one (vide Cawelti), SF should not be the only kid on the block without one. Perhaps this obsession with taxonomy and categorization is an attempt to make something long considered slightly shady into something respectable. I do not think SF needs to be so defensive. It can stand on its own feet, or wheels, or pseudopods, and does not need the fallacious integrity that theorizers would impose on it.

Finally, trivial but easily preventable errors always suggest to me--rightly or wrongly, and particularly in a book intended as a guide--that the author might tend to be equally careless in handling his more important, less easily verifiable, material. Cioffi, for example, consistently misspells Leo Margulies' name; he calls American writer Thomas Disch English; he lists John Campbell's tenure as editor of Astounding as 1938-71 on one page (p. 25), and five pages later runs a chart which gives 1937 as the starting date; and in the appendix he lists "Eando Binder" as the pseudonym of Otto Binder alone, even for the period when the Binder brothers shared it. There are also some freshman writing gaffes that more careful editing would have caught (e.g., the misuse of "enormity" on p. 18).

--Donald J. Weinstock California State University, Long Beach

Voices for the Future?

Thomas D. Clareson & Thomas L. Wymer, eds. Voices for the Future, Volume Three. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1984. 220pp. $19.95 cloth), $8.95 (paper)

Voices for the Future is a collection of essays on "major science fiction writers." From the beginning, the series has been eclectic both in critical approaches and in its selection of writers for study, though guided in the latter by Clareson's stated principle that the authors should have "gained academic attention--at least in the classroom, if not in the amount of critical material written about them" (Introduction, Vol. 1). Volume Three continues this tradition, now expanded to include authors of fantasy as well as SF; and, like most essay collections, this one is uneven. But it is uneven for reasons that raise serious questions about Clareson's and Wymer's editorial policy and about the purpose of the series as a whole.

Some of the essays are first-rate. For instance, "The Majesty of Kindness: The Dialectic of Cordwainer Smith," by Gary K. Wolfe and Carol T. Williams, analyzes the oppositions on which Smith's fiction rests: human and non-human, male and female, romance and reality; above all, the organic and the technological. In examining Smith's short stories and his novels, both SF and mainstream, Wolfe and Williams demonstrate why SF was the most effective form for his particular vision.

Thomas L. Wymer's "Naturalism, Aestheticism and Beyond: Tradition and Innovation in the Work of Thomas M. Disch" argues that the central quality of Disch's fiction derives from his infusion of the traditions of Naturalism and aestheticism into the assumptions and cliches of pulp SF. Like the aesthetic tradition as a whole, Disch's central concerns are art, revolution, and theology; his dominant tone, that of comic seriousness. For these reasons, and because of Disch's stylistic virtuosity, Wymer identifies Disch's closest parallel in the tradition of modern fiction as James Joyce. The only disappointment about the article is that, because of space limitations, Wymer does not pursue Disch's work into the '70s. Consequently, he does not examine either 334 or On Wings of Song. These are important novels, especially the former, which one would very much like to see examined. But certainly this article represents an important advance in Disch criticism.

Joseph L. Sanders in "'The Passions in the Clay': Mervyn Peake's Titus Stories" offers a useful approach to reading Peake's unfinished series. Sanders argues that Titus Groan and Gormenghast together should be seen as one "unified and successful" unit, since both novels deal with a single situation which is resolved by the end of the latter. Likewise, the novelette Boy in Darkness, though in terms of Titus's life set about midway through Gormenghast, represents a significant step towards the world of Titus Alone and hence should be grouped with Peake's third novel. Though Peake's ill health would not let him finish the story of Titus (the third volume is far sketchier than the first two, while the fourth exists only in the form of notes), Sanders' reading allows us to make the most of what we have.

Douglas Robillard's "Uncertain Futures: Damon Knight's Science Fiction," unlike any other article I can find, focuses on Knight's fiction, rather than his criticism, his biography, or his role as editor. The fiction, though widely varied, does reveal a kind of method: Knight tends to take some of the best-known and most-used SF subjects and make them "his own by changing them, introducing new elements, making them more logical. Sometimes he has seemed to turn them inside out to see what new motives they can reveal." Examining first Knight's short fiction, then novels, then novellas, Robillard piques the interest of those who have never encountered Knight's work, and reminds those who might have forgotten its interest and value.

Finding four essays in a collection of eight which can be praised so highly (actually there are five, but more of that in a moment) might seem to be sufficient to justify the collection; but the remaining essays raise serious questions of purpose and judgment, questions which go beyond the merit of individual essays. It is not just that three of the four are, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, weak, but that their inclusion in such a volume at all seems questionable.

David N. Samuelson's essay on the SF of Frederick Pohl is, in fact, excellent; but it was just published in SFS in 1980. I don't quite see the reason for republishing it so soon in this kind of format. Certainly there is need for a discussion of the fiction of Gene Wolfe, but Clareson provides us with little more than a summary/survey with no controlling thesis. Wolfe is, granted, a puzzling and difficult writer, but surely he- and we--would have been better served if Clareson had held off writing until he had arrived at some sort of synthesis, even of a comparatively preliminary kind. Jane Weedman's essay, "Art and the Artist's Role in Delany's Works," demonstrates the same virtues, but also the same limitations as those noted by Peter Fitting when he reviewed the Starmont House volume on Delany that Weedman authored (see SFS, 11 [1983]: 88-90). The essay seems to be an initial formulation of the ideas represented there, with no significant additions or changes in emphasis or focus. It is true that, if the current volume of Voices had appeared when it was originally scheduled, it would have preceded the publication of the longer Starmont guide; and certainly there is plenty of precedent for studies being reprinted or republished in slightly altered form. Nonetheless, an owner of the longer study gains nothing from the article printed here. As for the essay by Horton Presley on C.S. Lewis, I can see no excuse for its existence. Lewis is surely one of the most exhaustively studied writers in the field; and while this does not, of course, mean that there is nothing more to be said about him, it does mean that we do not need another superficial survey of his fantasy and SF, complete with biography and plot summary. Presley's essay contains nothing that has not already been said dozens of times.

Perhaps these are merely the complaints of a frustrated idealist, one who has never quite accepted the fact that, in the academic world of "publish and/or perish," Sturgeon's Law is bound to apply; but I like to think there is a larger issue here. The field of SF criticism is getting increasingly well-plowed, which means that it is time to evaluate more carefully how we invest our money and our efforts. A series like Voices of the Future could potentially be very useful, if it focused on providing career surveys of those authors with a significant body of work and very little critical attention. Several of the essays in this volume do precisely that. But why use up effort, time, paper, and above all money producing yet another essay on a well-known figure like, for instance, Lewis? The field is currently producing a wide variety of critical volumes--single author studies, whether written by one critic or a group of them; SF and fantasy encyclopedias of various descriptions; compilations of biographies of writers, of interviews with writers, of memoirs and histories of the SF community in its early days; even studies of the pulp magazines and their editors. But no one has set out in any systematic way, I believe, to survey the "overlooked" authors. Voices for the Future would be an obvious place to do so; if there are to be any further volumes, the editors need to establish and publicize some better and more consistent editorial policy about the authors to be discussed.

--Kathleen L. Spencer UCLA

Crossbreed Commentary

David Wingrove, ed. The Science Fiction Source Book. NY & London: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984. 320pp. $25.50

In spite of the continuing academic embrace of SF, with its fine offspring of systematic literary commentary, hybrid mixtures still flourish in the marketplace. David Wingrove's work is not as much a picture book as some, and parts of it are more probing in analysis and substance than others; but it is still the same mixed genre that is neither quite scholarship nor quite popular guidebook.

Wingrove's other work may tell us something about the lack of unity in this book. He has been the editor of Vector, and he has co-authored a critical study of Brian Aldiss. This leads me to wonder how easily the fan and the scholar-critic get along in the same person (the problem here is surely endemic rather than being Wingrove's alone). Certainly a book like Wingrove's reveals that there are often many difficulties in the marriage. But it is a lively marriage.

Wingrove's longest section--two-thirds of the volume--he calls "A Consumers' Guide"; and it is really a greatly abbreviated version of a standard reference work, such as Curtis C. Smith's Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers. But whereas the short critical essays in Smith (or in Nicholls' Encyclopedia) bear some designation of their authorship and are clearly based on some scholarly investigation, Wingrove does not disclose who wrote which of the "essays" in his book; he only gives a preliminary list of contributors. The result, I think, is an unevenness that ultimately makes for useless "consumerism." Furthermore, Wingrove never divulges his criteria for selection-- which is especially unfortunate in view of his inexplicable omissions, and equally strange inclusions (e.g., of minor British writers), here. I have no a priori objection to a piece on Voltaire, for example; but had Wingrove been systematic, he would have told us why Voltaire--and why not also Diderot--and would have assigned responsibility for such a judgment.

The book does contain a number of signed essays, the best of which, in my opinion, is Brian Stableford's long survey, "The SF Sub-Genres. " (In contrast, an "afterword" by Kingsley Amis seems tired and unnecessarily scornful.) What makes Stableford's broad synopsis so convincing is that he gives the impression of having read virtually everything published. Future scholars, undoubtedly, will revise his imposing generalizations; but his essay here, like so many of his pieces in Foundation, is another genuine "encyclopedic" contribution to SF criticism. He seems to be as good a D'Alembert as we have, and his writing is not just "consumeristic."

The other attractive feature in Wingrove's volume (in this case consumerism, but of the valuable type) is the section comprising short essays by writers themselves on how they write SF. That sort of dining is, of course, standard in hybrid mixtures like Wingrove's; but the essays here-- and most of all, Sladek's--strike me as particularly lively and interesting.

Even though I must conclude chat this unclassifiable tome contains much that is useless for the systematic study of SF, it is only fair to qualify chat verdict. For this "source book" also evinces something of the energy of SF itself, so that its consumerism may serve to (re)vitalize SF scholarship. In any event, I would recommend that the essays in the book be listed and described separately in the annual surveys of SF research; for that will further the purpose Brian Aldiss attributes to this uneven collection when, in his "Foreword," he names it a "discussion book."

--Donald Hassler Kent State University

A May Companion

Julian May. A Pliocene Companion: Being A Reader's Guide to "The Many Colored Land," "The Golden Tore," "The Nonborn King," "The Adversary." Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. xiii + 219pp. $13.95. -- Whatever else one might say about May's four volume Saga of Pliocene Exile, one cannot deny that it is BIG--a gushing, swirling torrent of a story in which the reader can get lost literally as well as figuratively. I remember feeling overwhelmed any number of times by the floods of names, characters, and cities that kept pouring over me, even though I was enthralled by the Saga.

Rather than trying to put a glossary into each volume, May has published it separately, fleshing out the book with other informative and helpful material. Although it comes too late to help most of us, some fans may be inspired to re-read the series with the Companion in hand as guidebook. Also included is a chronology, some family trees, maps of the Pliocene world, diagrams of the ship Kyllikki, and a bibliography that shows graphically the extent of May's research into the Pliocene.

The book also contains three interviews with May, all done within the last few years; and here May herself comes alive and speaks entertainingly about her life, her work, and her visions. Obviously the Galactic Milieu is a real place, a living entity, in May's mind, and she talks of it with the conviction that the truly creative author cannot help but convey to the reader. For libraries that own the Saga, the Companion is an essential purchase, and fans will want it for their own libraries.

--Susan L. Nickerson Carmichael, CA

Bibliographies of Ballard and Zelazny

David Pringle. J. G. Ballard: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984. xxxvi + 156pp. $45.00.

Daniel J.H. Levack. Amber Dreams: A Roger Zelazny Bibliography, with annotations by Darrell Schweitzer, Fanny Wurts, Jeff Levin, & Tom Whitmore. San Francisco: Underwood/Miller, 1983. 156pp. $8.95 paper

These two bibliographies, one from a specialty press which sells largely to fans and collectors and the other from a reference book publisher which sells largely to libraries, illustrate rather clearly the different approaches to SF scholarship characteristic of fans and scholars. Amber Dreams is clearly a "collectible," a specialty item lavishly illustrated and available in a hardbound edition signed by Zelazny himself. Pringle's Ballard bibliography, on the other hand, follows the more or less standard format of earlier volumes in the G.K. Hall series; primary and secondary bibliographies arranged chronologically, with various appendices and indexes and a strong emphasis on annotated secondary sources. 80th volumes achieve what they set out to do, but what they set out to do seems quite different.

Pringle's volume is a crucial addition to Ballard studies, and it could not come at a more appropriate time, given the attention being paid to Ballard's recent The Empire of the Sun. It includes an excellent introduction, giving an overview of Ballard's life and career, and a lengthy interview with Ballard which dates from 1979. The primary bibliography, divided into fiction, non-fiction, and "miscellaneous media," covers Ballard's works through 1982. The annotated secondary bibliography also includes material through 1982, but as in most volumes in the Hall series, coverage is more spotty for recent years. Pringle is also a bit eccentric in what he includes, at times apparently trying to cite almost every mention of Ballard (such as passing references in an essay by R.A. Lafferty and an interview with Alfred Bester) while excluding or overlooking more substantive comments by Warren Wagar, Mark Rose, and Lester del Rey--as well as Pringle's own essay in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia!

Perhaps more unfortunate, as Pringle admits in his introduction after telling us that some of the best Ballard criticism has appeared in French, is the exclusion of all non-English criticism. (There is a brief appendix of Ballard's "non-fiction" in French, although these are mostly interviews which could have been included in the regular non-fiction section.) Finally, there are the indexes. The standard G.K. Hall format is to include a primary and a secondary index, but a number of contributors to the series have invented their own special indexes (the most useful of which was Lahna Diskin's subject index to criticism in her Theodore Sturgeon volume). Pringle adds an index of "Persons Referred to by Ballard and His Critics," and for the life of me I can't figure out what it's good for. This is a minor complaint about a generally first-rate piece of work, however.

Roger Zelazny has already been treated in the G.K. Hall series, in a volume by Joseph Sanders (reviewed in SFS no. 26); but this doesn't mean that Levack's Amber Dreams is redundant. With its illustrations of book and magazine covers and its detailed bibliographical descriptions of individual items, it will prove invaluable to Zelazny collectors. With its offhanded and "probably quite incomplete" listing of secondary sources, it is of limited value to the scholar. While the Hall series provides annotated secondary bibliographies which give an overview of the development of an author's reputation (Pringle's volume on Ballard is especially good at this), Levack offers only annotations of Zelazny's fiction. The annotations are by a variety of hands, and too often resemble promotional blurbs. Furthermore, the annotations for novel and magazine versions of individual stories are exactly the same, giving us no hint of what if any differences there are between say, "He Who Shapes" and the considerably longer novel The Dream Master.

Although there are a variety of indexes, character series lists, and the like, the bulk of the volume consists of the chapters "Books" and "Stories," but "Stories" includes non-fiction, poetry, speeches, introductions--apparently anything not booklength. Both sections are arranged alphabetically by title, which leads to several "Untitled" items in the "Stories" section. There is, however, a chronological list of Zelazny's work as an appendix. Among the book's most valuable features are comments by Zelazny about individual works, taken from various sources, and some of the bibliographical notes, especially the one which seems to establish that Zelazny actually wrote the middle sections of Deus Irae, his collaboration with Philip K. Dick, and not just the ending, as earlier reported by Carl Yoke (in his 1979 Starmont House volume).

Anyone intent on doing Zelazny research will want to consult the Levack volume as well as the earlier Sanders bibliography, and only genuine Ballard devotees are apt to spend $45 for the Pringle bibliography. To this extent, my earlier point about the different audiences for these two volumes may be moot. Libraries seeking to build a basic collection of SF bibliography, however, are probably safe as long as their budgets hold out with the G. K. Hall volumes.

--Gary K. Wolfe Roosevelt University

Literary Descendants of C.L. Moore

Rosemarie Arbur. Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston, G.K. Hall, 1982. 277pp. $27.50

Three thorough and painstaking bibliographies are here collected in one volume. Rosemarie Arbur argues that the work of Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Anne McCaffrey belongs together because they are the most prominent literary descendants of C.L. Moore; but her concern really is not so much to make connections among these writers as to provide a good primary and secondary bibliography of each of them. Arbur's book provides what she justifiably describes as an exhaustive bibliographic account of the authors' SF, virtually exhaustive listings of their other fiction, poetry, screenplays, recordings, essays, reviews, and interviews, and a usefully annotated selection of the more important reviews of and articles on their work. Such an ambitious bibliographic undertaking is inevitably imperfect, as Arbur herself recognizes with a becoming but quite undue modesty in her preface. Her work is nonetheless remarkably complete and accurate.

In her introduction, Arbur covers a lot of ground--from biographical introductions to the three writers and some comments on their work, to more general remarks on women and SF--and she covers much of it well. She rambles a bit, though, and spends too long on some peripheral topics, such as the shortcomings of SF criticism, Brackett's collaboration with Ray Bradbury on "Lorelei of the Red Mist," etc.

Arbur's organization leaves something to be desired. Entries are arranged chronologically by date of publication, but reprints are referred to immediately following the details of original publication. Sometimes Arbur gives details of the reprint and a reference number to a later entry or entries; at other times she just gives the cross-reference number. Consistency would not only be desirable for its own sake, but might have obviated unnecessary repetition.

Cavils aside, this is an excellent piece of work: it will add substantially to the growing, but still very small, body of serious work on women and SF.

--Linda Leith John Abbott College

Labor of Love

Michael Burgess. A Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy in the Library of Congress Classification Scheme. "The Borgo Reference Library, vol. 8." San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1984. 86pp. $19.95 (cloth), $9.95 (paper)

While not indispensable, Burgess's Guide is a useful tool for the SF researcher. Following the Second Edition of Anglo-American Cataloging Rules and the rules adopted by the On-Line Computer Library Center, Inc. (the cataloging data base adopted by over 3500 libraries in the US), Burgess provides the reader with a handbook for gaining access to all literature included under the rubric of fantastic, which he defines as "including science fiction, fantasy (fantastic fiction), and supernatural horror, with peripheral coverage of utopian, gothic, and macabre literature. Not covered are the occult, futurism, or UFOs" (p. 3). The Library of Congress (LC) classification design is broken down into common subject headings, author main entries and literature numbers, and subject classification numbers. For example, under the subject heading "science fiction," one will find over 100 subheadings, before one gets to the next category, "Science fiction, American." Limited by the LC's policy of not cataloging mass-market paperbacks ("only authors with cloth or trade paperback publications"), the section devoted to author main entries and literature numbers is extensive and helpful; about 2800 authors are covered (e.g., Asimov's number is [Z8045.59] and PS3551.S5, Lem's is PG7158.L39). Reading the section on the LC subject classification will save one from having to rummage through the card catalog; for example, Japanese SF is PL740.65.S3; PN1995.9.S26 deals with SF films. The last section of the book, the Index, gives LC numbers from "alchemy in drama" to "wolf children in literature."

The reader is obliged to learn more about the intricacies of the LC cataloging scheme than I suspect he or she wants to know--e.g., in cataloging by author, PS3501PS3549 represents American authors from 1900-1960, with the first Cutter deriving from the second letter of the surname and the second Cutter from the first letter of the work, etc.--but, all in all, one is grateful for Michael Burgess's four-year labor of love.


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