#59 = Volume 20, Part 1 = March 1993
SF Film Reconsidered for the Electronic
Brooks Landon. The
Aesthetics of Ambivalence: Rethinking Science Fiction Film in the Age of Electronic
(Re)Production. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and
Fantasy #52. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992. xxxviii+187. $45.00. Credit-card orders
Brooks Landon's book is wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and state of the art. It
concerns SF film and, towards the end, almost becomes SF in its provocative speculations
on the future of such film. It is a lively, refreshing study which makes us look at SF
film anew and passionately advocates the possibilities of the genre as a form of SF.
His study is really two books in one. The first part, "The Aesthetics of
Ambivalence," argues that most criticism of SF film has been inadequate because based on
literary rather than film-specific standards. The second, "Rethinking Science Fiction
Film in the Age of Electronic (Re)Production," argues that SF film will soon become
either obsolete or be totally transformed through new computer technology. Both arguments
are presented with energy, wit, and sometimes dazzling insight. What ties them together is
his concern with what might be called the SF ethos or "SF thinking," so that science
fiction can be seen not only to encompass SF in print, film, TV, and comic books, but also
to have become all-pervasive in contemporary culture in many other media, especially MTV
videos, rock concerts, performance arts, computer animation, and virtual-reality
technology. He describes the ways we are living in an increasingly science-fictional world
and the ways in which SF itself and our understanding of SF must change in a radically new
To briefly summarize his arguments: We tend to identify SF film by its narrative
elements, but the earliest SF filmmakers, such as Méli ès, were more interested in
cinematic tricks and spectacle than in narrative, and this holds true through the history
of SF film, which has always been technology-driven rather than story-driven. Silent-film
critic Vachel Lindsay wanted a romantic, visionary cinema and emphasized films as
spectacle rather than story. Landon would return us to that emphasis.
The SF literary community dismisses most SF film as inferior to writing, not
recognizing its film-specific value and different ways of meaning. Yet both SF literature
and SF film partake of the SF ethos. If we compare a film such as The Thing or Blade
Runner with its literary antecedent, we can see both the film and the written text as
part of the same hermeneutic system: "the film can serve as a lens for better studying
its source and a mirror for better studying ourselves" (44).
At present, SF film may have exhausted itself as a genre and simply be recycling its
material in imitative movies or sequels. But new electronic technology--computer
animation, interactive narratives, and virtual reality-- promises to radically transform
SF film and possibly create a synthesis of the divergent trends of SF literature and film.
Production technology has become the new story, one more interesting than the narrative it
ostensibly supports. We are at the threshold of a new stage, similar to the pioneer years
of filmmaking a hundred years ago. We need new ways of thinking and writing about this
Landon cites several recent books on SF film: Vivian Sobchack's Screening Space, Slusser
and Rabkin's Shadows of the Magic Lamp, Kuhn's Alien Zone, and Camera
Obscura 15 (these last three are edited anthologies). Sobchack's book is the most
significant. Landon draws on her work but really approaches SF film from a different
direction. Sobchack addresses fellow film critics, using their specialized language,
whereas Landon, although knowledgeable about film criticism in general and SF-film
criticism in particular, addresses primarily the SF community of writers, readers, and
scholars. He is interested in the interaction between SF literature and SF film and the
value of both as SF, and he attempts to mediate between film critics and the SF community.
Most film critics, he argues, have not done justice to the films because these scholars
address fellow film critics and know little about SF thinking. But SF writers have not
done the films justice either because they tend to dismiss them as "not SF," inadequate
by the standards of print SF. Landon aims to redress the balance.
His is also one of the best studies yet of cutting-edge material: cyberpunk, the new
electronic technology, the spread of SF to new forms of media, and the predicted coming
transformation of SF. Few current critics of either literature or film have Landon's
expertise about the new technologies of computer animation and virtual reality. His
comments on the continuing electronic transformation of the culture, as we move beyond a
print-oriented culture and into the new reality of electronic media, may be the most
original contribution of his study. He concludes, "At a time when computer animation and
other forms of electronic imaging literally compel us to have a new point of view, even
immersing us in the completely computer generated surroundings of virtual reality, it is
time for us to approach the concept of science fiction film 'as though for the first
time,' focusing not on what it used to be, what it failed to become, but on what it
is--and on what it will become" (160). Landon forces us to confront not simply SF film
but also the concept of SF "as though for the first time."
The least useful idea in the study, it seems to me, concerns the supposed
"ambivalence" of SF film. The term is too loose, overlapping with other terms such as
"tension," "dichotomy," or "structural opposition": it encompasses too many possible
uses and is applied to too many different areas of SF film to be of much utility. And is
this "ambivalence" exclusive to SF film or is it also demonstrable in other film genres?
As Thomas Schatz says, "the static nucleus" of any film genre "manifests its
thematic oppositions or recurring cultural conflicts" (quoted, 19). For that matter, some
of this "ambivalence" may be part of print SF as well. Landon writes, "Call it tension,
conflict, contradiction, parataxis, oxymoron, what have you, this juxtaposing of
situations, icons, or elements from the essentially dissimilar epistemologies of science
fiction and fantasy is itself one of the most prominent characteristic of science fiction
film" (85). But consider the blend of elements from myth, fairy tale, romance, pure
fantasy, and hard SF that characterize a novel such as Dune as much as a movie
like Star Wars.
Nevertheless, this is an important book in its field, one that I would recommend for
university libraries and recommend also to colleagues. It advances the discourse on both
SF literature and SF film and will be of interest to students and critics of popular
culture, film, the relation between literature and film and between technology and
culture, and postmodern theory.
--Andrew Gordon University of Florida.
Worldly Myths, Otherworldly Realities.
David C. Downing. Planets
in Peril: A Critical Study of C.S. Lewis's Ransom Trilogy. Amherst:
University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Kath Filmer. Scepticism and Hope in Twentieth
Century Fantasy Literature. Bowling Green: BGSU Popular Press, 1992.
Most early reviewers of C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet(1938), David C.
Downing tells us, surprisingly failed to notice--or at least did not comment on--the
theological nature of the story. Not even the Bent One was recognized as Satan. Today, by
contrast, we are at the opposite extreme: it is taken for granted that Lewis's fictions
are all "theological fantasies," some even blatantly so, as in Perelandra, Till We
Have Faces, and the Narnia tales for children. But what does this label really mean?
That Lewis was merely writing religious propaganda? That he hit upon fantasy as a
serviceable gimmick for promoting his religious convictions? What about the rapidly
proliferating fantasy literature of recent decades, endlessly recycling religious,
mythological, and occult themes--more gimmicks or propaganda?
It is the great merit of the two books under review that they demonstrate that the
relationship between fantasy and religion is more complex than these questions would
suggest. Kath Filmer, an Australian specialist on Lewis and editor of The Victorian
Fantasists (1991), presents a brief, highly selective, but thoughtful examination of
fantasy as a literature of hope, with individual assessments of the interaction between
skepticism and hope in the works of Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, Hoban, and Orwell, in Michael
Ende's The Neverending Story, in American fables (Thurber, Vonnegut, Beagle), in
children's fantasy, and in recent novels including Bradley's The Mists of Avalon
and Lindsay Clarke's The Chymical Wedding. Downing's book on C.S. Lewis is the
first monograph devoted entirely to an analysis of Out of the Silent Planet,
Perelandra,and That Hideous Strength (the Ransom trilogy). It is tightly
focussed, carefully researched, and sensitive to the religious and cultural contexts in
which Lewis wrote.
Filmer argues that fantasy literature is itself a form of religious discourse. By this
she does not mean that fantasy authors simply stick religion into their stories, or that
fantasy is "about" religion, or even that fantasy is a literature of faith. Rather she
contends that fantasy "speaks" religion, that it is displaced religious discourse which
uses the characteristic features of religious discourse and for the same purpose: the
articulation and potentially the arousal of hope. She goes so far as to say that fantasy
texts "allow for the same kinds of experience in reading as do religious texts" (4),
that by providing glimpses of the marvelous or "insights into possibilities," they
address the universal need to hope, thereby undercutting modern skepticism. In developing
these ideas, Filmer draws heavily from Romanticism (the Coleridgean Imagination, the poet
as prophet/priest) and Tolkien.
Because fantasy is a literature of hope, Filmer believes that hope can be found even in
texts that are overtly skeptical of traditional religion or pessimistic about the future.
Her reading of Riddley Walker (1980) is a case in point. Even in this bleak
future there is still the articulation of limited hope based on individual choice. Filmer
also usefully points out that even hopeful works (Tolkien, Lewis) have their measure of
reserve and skepticism. These readings clearly support her contention that fantasy
involves engagement with traditional religious issues of skepticism, belief, and hope (4).
Unfortunately, she does not stop there. In her final chapter, she asserts that "Fantasy
consistently articulates hope" (145), but her readings of Alan Garner and 1984
do not bear her out. Essentially the only hope she finds in 1984 is
extra-textual: the sheer influence of the novel has helped to prevent the future it
depicts. If Filmer had cast her net more widely over the waters of fantasy, she might have
caught some very unhopeful fish indeed: Machen, Hodgson, Lovecraft, Peake. Her suggestive
thesis really applies only to certain currents in 20th-century fantasy. Further, her
discussion would benefit from some conceptual clarification--"fantasy" (1984?),
"hope," and "skepticism" are all quite elastic in her hands. Even so, Filmer's
discussion is thoughtful, her brief readings are carefully nuanced, and she treats a
number of authors who have been neglected by other scholars.
Just as Filmer shows that Lewis's last novel, Till We Have Faces, is anything
but a ringing affirmation of faith, so Downing demonstrates that Lewis did not
deliberately turn to writing fantasy as a convenient means of parading his religious
beliefs. Downing writes that "the truth is just the reverse: Lewis did not simply
adopt fantasy as a didactic vehicle after his conversion; rather it was his love of
fantasy, myth, and romance that led him to Christianity in the first place." (35).
The trilogy, Downing contends, represents Lewis's effort to recapitulate the same process
for his readers. First Lewis "tries to enchant his readers with fantasy worlds of
wonder and danger, battlefields of good and evil; then gradually he reveals a correlation
between these new, absorbing fantasies and some old doctrines whose familiarity may have
bred contempt in his readers, or at least indifference." (35) This view of the
trilogy does not lessen the didacticism of the novels, of course, or their religious
content, but it does make their composition a fascinating process. Downing carefully
situates the trilogy in relation to Lewis's childhood, schooling, and intellectual and
religious development through agnosticism and skepticism to his conversion in 1931. He
then lays out methodically in five chapters the principal components of Lewis's worldview
and the major influences that shaped Lewis's writing: his Christianity, the influence of
his Classical and Medieval scholarship, the portrayal of evil in the trilogy, the pilgrim
theme ("cosmic voyage as spiritual pilgrimage"), and the primary intellectual and
imaginative sources. Each chapter is divided into thirds, one for each volume in the
trilogy. The wealth of detail and clarity of exposition admirably support Downing's intent
"to provide the context for an informed reading of the trilogy" and "an interpretive
guide" (7). The final chapter offers an assessment of the trilogy as a whole, identifying
its strengths (especially Lewis's vision, prose style, and intellectual breadth) and
examining the charges of sexism, violence, and antagonism to science (which Downing
believes have a limited validity). Planets in Peril is a major contribution to
Lewis studies and should be the standard work on the trilogy for many years.
Lewis did not call his novels science fiction, even though Out of the Silent Planet
seems to begin as SF and was written in opposition to Wells, Stapledon, and J.B.S.
Haldane. To him they were "fantasies" or "romances," but not therefore untrue. On the
evidence presented by Downing and Filmer, a definition of "fantasy" in terms of the
impossible or supernatural is simply irrelevant. "Fantasy is true, of course," runs Le Guin's well-known statement (cited by Filmer).
"It isn't factual, but it is true."
--Robert Galbreath University of North Carolina
Paradise as Propaganda.
Stephen Lessing Baehr. The Paradise Myth in Eighteenth-Century Russia: Utopian
Patterns in Early Secular Russian Literature and Culture. Stanford:
Stanford UP, 1991. xiii+270. $37.50.
As the West watches the new Russia plunge into chaos with a mixture of perplexity and
impatience--why can't those Russians ever be free and happy at the same time?--it
is commonplace to blame all the trouble on the so-called reactionaries, who by now include
many of the most enlightened intellectuals and opponents of the former regime. It has
simply not been possible, overnight, to exchange Russian paradigms for paradise with
Western ones. Indeed, as Yuri Lotman has suggested, the West has not insisted on
Paradise-on-Earth at all, opting instead for practical and humane institutions to fill the
middle ground between heaven and hell. Russia, for better or for worse, has not been
inclined to settle for anything less than earthly paradise--in the name of which the
tsarist patriarchy and the communist revolution were justified. In the Russian experience,
the opposite of oppression has usually been not freedom but anarchy.
In the book under review, Stephen Baehr traces the paradise myth in Russian literature
and culture from approximately 1682 (the accession of Peter the Great) to 1796 (the death
of Catherine the Great). He shows how during this time literary, iconographic, and even
horticultural representations of paradise effected a major shift in the functional
location of the sacred. All that was holy and desired in the unattainable Kingdom of
Heaven was invested (by various rhetorical and symbolic conventions) in descriptions of
the already attained terrestrial paradise of the Tsar's Russia. Baehr presents a
convincing case that "much of the literature using the paradise myth in
eighteenth-century Russia was closer to the literature of the European Renaissance courts
than to that of the contemporary Enlightenment, reflecting a 'culture gap' between Russia
and the West that is significantly larger than is generally acknowledged" (xi). I think
the point has not lost its relevance in our century. It is precisely Russia's temporal
estrangement from the West, as well as spatial and political distance, which continues to
confound even relatively sophisticated analyses of the country's situation.
Chapter One discusses the "language of paradise" and is accompanied by a helpful
appendix. The appendix organizes the "definitional components of the paradise myth" by
source. The detailed listing (e.g., milk and honey, dumb tongues speaking out for joy, no
sorrow or pain, etc.) should be useful --if not simply delightful and amusing--to anyone
who studies utopian themes in literature or enjoys recognizing the rhetorical strategies
of the paradise myth as they resurface in cereal commercials on TV.
Chapter Two discusses Russia's transformation from a sacred to a secular culture and
shows how the paradise myth was put into the service of the latter. Chapters Three and
Four show the paradise myth in full bloom in 18th-century Russian literature. Descriptions
of a perfect time are compared--not contrasted--to contemporary reality.
Eighteenth-century texts portray Russian progress toward perfection as somehow
accelerated, as if Russian civilization could not only catch up to but also overtake and
outlast all others. Likewise, descriptions of a perfect place were composed as praise to
what did indeed exist. One is reminded of the Tsar's winter gardens, which so astonished
the Marquis de Custine in 1839. The gardens were meant to portray the Russian court--and
by extension all of Russia--as a garden of Eden. Baehr's analyses also shed light on more
recent texts: as recently as the 1960s, Russian SF could still recast the same
paradisiacal motifs without parody or obvious naiveté, as the success of the
Strugatskys' Noon: 22nd Century(1962) demonstrates: in the Strugatskys'
collection of short stories, the development of civilization has reached its felicitous
end-point in perfected communism (spread from Russia to the rest of the world), and the
topographical incarnation of this perfect society is the city-garden.
In Charter Five, Baehr provides a fascinating account of how the paradise myth
inward" under the influence of the Masonic movement, which reached its peak among Russian
writers and thinkers in the second half of the 18th century. Chapter Six and the Epilogue
discuss, respectively, the rise and fall of the Russian utopia as a literary genre and
cultural model. These chapters in particular will be extremely valuable to anyone who is
interested in comparative utopian fiction or SF. For instance, at least in the genre's
formative stages, both science and "westernizing" were anathema. We are used to seeing
Russian SF and utopian fiction embracing science and technology as if technology were the
key to establishing paradise on Earth (abundance for all). Whether this one-sided
interpretation is a projection of our own desires or a sudden willingness to believe
official criticism of the Soviet era, it ignores pre-Soviet precedents. One might
speculate that post-glasnost SF will be marked by a revival of anti-science, anti-Western
utopian themes. The utopian patterns described by Baehr, so different from the West's, so
firmly rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy, may still shape much of Russian literature and
culture. And Russians, as is well known, like to fulfill their own literary prophecies.
Before thanking his intellectual, personal, and financial supporters in a brief
preface, Baehr refers to the "all-too-many-yeared process of writing this book," which
is, after all, only the first volume in a projected series devoted to the use and abuse of
the paradise myth in Russian literature and culture. He need not apologize. In the current
publish-or-perish era of American academics, one welcomes a book which has been deeply
researched, but then trimmed and shaped over time, so that the final result is a pleasure
to read from start to finish.
--Yvonne Howell University of Richmond.
Familiar Feminist Territory.
Margarete Keulen. Radical
Imagination: Feminist Conceptions of the Future in Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy and Sally
Miller Gearhart. Aachen British and American Studies, #1. Frankfurt
am Main/New York: Peter Lang, 1991. 122pp.
I am not at all certain who the target audience for this study might be. Keulen writes
in English about the texts of three American writers, but she herself is a German academic
writing in a second language and Peter Lang is a German publisher. The three texts which
she analyzes in detail--Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969),
Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Sally Miller Gearhart's The
Wanderground: Tales of the Hill Women(1979)--are classics of American feminist
utopian literature and, as such, they are already the subjects of a large body of critical
writing. While Radical Imagination surveys a fair amount of this earlier critical
material, it breaks very little new ground. It also seems caught in a bit of a time warp
as far as feminist utopian fiction is concerned. Apart from one brief reference to Suzette
Haden Elgin's Native Tongue (1984), none of the works which Keulen discusses was
published after 1980; her study virtually ignores a whole generation of feminist utopian
writing produced in the more than two decades since the publication of The Left Hand
Keulen's English is by no means idiomatic and her occasional errors in terminology,
such as the reference to American pulp magazines as "fanzines" (23), tend to jar, as
does the lack of careful proofreading of her text. Thus, while her book is intelligent and
fair-minded, it reads somewhat awkwardly and, in its attempt to cover a broad range of
material in not much more than one hundred pages, rather superficially.
Keulen's application of critical and theoretical material also sometimes verges on the
eccentric. For example, while she makes several references to Joanna Russ's critical
writings, there is no mention in her study of Russ's classic "Recent Feminist Utopias"
(1981), still one of the most valuable overviews of the feminist utopian fiction produced
in the period which is Keulen's focus. And although she relies on the definition of SF
introduced by Darko Suvin in his early essay, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction
Genre" (1972), Suvin's chapter on utopian fiction in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction
(1979) is absent from her bibliography. More seriously, perhaps, her very
conservative application of this definition leads her to exclude Piercy's
time-travel novel from the SF fold. And her tendency towards absolutist
statements--for example, that "Woman on the
Edge of Time is the only modern utopia in the sense used in this study ever written
by a woman writer of the English language" (49)--is a real problem within the context of
a British and American scholarship which has become suspicious of too-narrow definitions
and too-clear-cut generic boundaries. All in all, Radical Imagination reads like
Keulen's attempt to come to terms with fiction and theory which is less familiar to her
than it might be to North American readers for whom it has been more easily accessible.
On the other hand, this study might well provide a useful introduction to its subject
for a German readership unfamiliar with the traditions of American feminist SF and utopian
fiction. Its introductory section, for example, provides a good overview of utopian
fiction and its relationship to SF. Kuelen contends that "utopian literature is a
literature of ideas rather than a literature of aesthetic innovation; the emphasis is on
the conceptual rather than on the poetic" (11), and the greater part of her study is a
survey of the treatment of various ideas in the three novels upon which she focusses,
under headings such as "The Personal Realm: Sex/Gender Roles, Relationships," "The
Public Realm: Political Organization, Institutions, Social Structures," and "Religion
and Mysticism." Perhaps the best work she does is with Gearhart's text, recognizing its
somewhat naive biologism and essentialist feminism, while also arguing for the inherent
consistency of Gearhart's vision. She also gives Monique Wittig's Les Guérill ères--a
text frequently overlooked by North American scholars--its due as an important predecessor
of American feminist utopian fiction.
The SF Writer as Demiurge.
George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Styles of Creation: Aesthetic Technique and the Creation of
Fictional Worlds. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press,
1992. ix+271. $45.00 cloth, $20.00 paper.
This is an excellent collection of articles, perhaps the best ever on SF in general,
but it does not have the unity implied by its title, by George Slusser's opening article,
or by the title of this review. In "Reflections on Style in Science Fiction," Slusser
takes up the ancient question of determinism and free will, now reduced to collective and
individual, langue and parole, rhetoric and style. Bringing several
theorists on language to his support, he argues against Michel Butor (the infamous 1967 Partisan
Review article*), Paul de Man, and others to the effect that style, even if
subservient to rhetoric, is still significant in world creation. Many readers will find
the article taxing and will wish to end the argument simply by kicking a stone as an
appeal to common sense, but in our present cultural environment an argument such as
Slusser's is probably necessary as an introduction to a book of this kind.
The style in question is that of modern SF, illustrated on page 21 with the
opening sentences of seven well-known stories, of which the first is del Rey's "Helen O'Loy": "I am an old man now, and I can still see Helen as Dave
unpacked her." This style plunges the reader directly into the "created fictional
world" and so differs from that of earlier SF, which usually moved the reader from the
familiar to the strange by sending a Londoner to Utopia, a Victorian into the future, or
an Earthman to Mars. Carl Freedman, in "Style, Fiction, Science Fiction: The Case of
Philip K. Dick," follows this line to argue that Dick, not generally considered a stylist
of the order of Ursula K. Le Guin or Samuel R. Delany, is actually a master of the modern
SF style and so need not be apologized for. He ends his article with a challenge:
need to examine again such apparently undistinguished stylists as Asimov and Heinlein"
I have no problem with all this; after all, Delany argued this case long ago, and has
also argued that style is the true mark of real SF and that real SF came into existence only when the writers of inchoate SF developed a style unique to
their genre. But I do have a problem with Slusser's failure to qualify the concept of
world creation. As he says, "The very idea of world implies a complex set of
laws and relationships--something that operates on the level of a general linguistic
system and can only be articulated by means of such a system. The stylistic utterance,
then, defined in relation to this idea of world, can be little more than idiomatic, an
exception to the rule" (3). It follows that style cannot create new fictional
worlds; it can only modify the fictional world we know by making exceptions to such rules
as disallow women arriving in boxes and so having to be unpacked; with respect to matters
not depicted (perhaps as much as 99% of the "laws and relationships"), the reader can
only suppose that the modified world is much the same as our own world or at most
speculate on what side-effects would accompany the specified differences. All this is
perhaps obvious, but making explicit the difference between creating and modifying would
have rendered unnecessary the question that precedes the sentences quoted above:
the 'creation' of a fictional world be an act of style when style is traditionally seen as
belonging to the realm of the individual rather than collective utterance?" Whether or
not rhetoric--or the collective imagination of the SFWA--could fully articulate and thus
create a truly new world in the way Butor suggested is another question, though (as
Slusser apparently believes) a foolish one.
David Brin discusses metaphor and imagination. Gregory Benford beats a dead horse in
"Style, Substance, and Other Illusions" but still has much of interest to say about his
own writing and that of others. Though style and substance are inseparable in the finished
product, they can be distinguished for purposes of discussion, as is demonstrated by his
article, as well as by "Styles of Invisibility: Sustaining the Transparent in
Contemporary Prose Semblances," by Brooks Landon, who also wishes us to understand that
"prose style as the dress of ideas" is an outmoded idea (247). Rhetoric as a catalogue
of figures forms the basis of Jefferson Peters' "Persuasive Worlds and the Rhetorics of
Art and Science in Science Fiction," and as a catalogue of neologisms the basis for Gary Westfahl's
"Words of Wishdom." Joseph D. Miller, in "Just How Frumious Is a
Bandersnatch?" makes an amusing and persuasive argument for the importance of the
ambiguous in imaginative fiction.
Karen A. Hohne and Susan J. Navarette write on the languages of horror fiction, Hohne
of contemporary and Navarette of fin de siécle authors. Navarette's note 25
provides what seems to me the oddest thing in the book:
Although this anxiety [about impending chaos] was felt more intensely during the
Victorian period, it had manifested itself earlier in Western culture. For example,
Alexander Pope anticipates Lovecraft's dark vision in the final apocalyptic lines of The
Dunciad Variorum (1743):
Signs following signs lead on to the Mighty Year;...
Thy hand great Dulness! lets the curtain fall,
And universal Darkness covers all. (109; my 19-line ellipsis)
Though the date is wrong (the Variorum appeared in 1729; the 1743 text is a
bit different), the important thing is that Theobald and Cibber, however dull they might
be, are hardly to be compared to Cthulhu.
No one mentions plot (an outmoded concept), but the concatenation of events can be
treated as a matter of style, as it is by Landon, by Richard Lutz and Sharon Delmendo in
examinations, respectively, of Barry Malzberg's Herovit's World and Stephen
King's Misery, and by Stephanie Hammer in a discussion of satiric SF in the
Prose style figures only to a minor extent in the remaining essays (the style of this
writer or that is judged rather than examined). Charles Platt, in "The 'Missing Middle'
of Science Fiction," instances Murray Leinster as a mid-rank author of the Golden Age and
Jack Chalker as a popular present-day writer of SF to demonstrate that, although the best
SF is better written today than in the Campbell era, "middle-brow, unpretentiously
entertaining science fiction...has deteriorated" until it's all but unreadable. Patrick Parrinder writes of SF landscapes, Robert A. Crossley of SF museums, and Peter Fitting of
"Utopian Effect/Utopian Pleasure." Finally, Paul A. Carter's article on the career of
Nat Schachner (SF pulpster) and Nathan Schachner (historian and novelist) consists of
biography and plot summaries, but is none the less interesting for that.
It is remarkable that 18 articles of such high quality should all have come from the
1989 J. Lloyd Eaton Conference. Can any other meeting of that conference, or any meeting
of any SF conference, claim to match it?
*Butor's article, "Science Fiction: The Crisis of Its Growth" (Partisan
Review 34:595-602, Fall 1967) evoked some discussion in SF circles. My recollection
is that James Blish submitted a rebuttal to the journal only to have it rejected, but I
have been unable to document this. Perhaps it was someone else.
Guinevere Fails to Interest.
Barbara Ann Gordon-Wise. The Reclamation of a Queen: Guinevere in Modern Fantasy.
Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, #44. New York/Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1991. x+174. $39.95.
This study is a survey of the figure of Guinevere as it has appeared during the course
of Western literature; references range from the romances of the early Middle Ages to
works of contemporary fantasy, in particular, to Marion Zimmer Bradley's definitive
feminist revision of the Arthurian legends in The Mists of Avalon (1982).
Gordon-Wise's aim is to bring readers up to date on the changing fortunes of the figure of
Arthur's unfortunate and much-maligned queen, and, not surprisingly, she concludes that
"Modern Arthurian fantasy, with its concentration on Guinevere, has placed the feminine
and its association with the imaginative, the subconcious, and the visionary in the
foreground" (152). While this study contains interesting information of an historical
nature, Gordon-Wise's concentration on Jungian archetypal criticism results in broad
strokes and superficial analyses; she pays less attention to differences in language and
narrative structure which might have added depth to what remains, for all its ambitions, a
fairly superficial survey of the "images of women" variety. In addition, her
Jungian-oriented feminism frequently merely exchanges negative images for positive ones,
so that an essentialist binary remains embedded in her study. And Guinevere herself,
perhaps because of the limitations inherent in her role within the Arthurian legends,
fails to come across as more than a tangentially relevant figure, even in contemporary
feminist revisionary fantasy.
Revolution or Outgrowth?
Stephen A. McKnight, ed. Science, Pseudo-Science, and Utopianism in Early Modern
Thought. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. vii+221.
Unfortunately, many books of essays by accomplished scholars, no matter how well
intentioned their editors, wind up as hodgepodges, containing little wheat and much chaff.
Stephen A. McKnight, professor of history at the University of Florida, who both assembled
and contributed to this volume, made sure that his fellow scholars stuck to the last. The
result is a distinguished and lucid work of collective synthesis; these seven essays--the
intellectual product of three historians, a political scientist, a professor of
literature, and a professor of the humanities--bring into clear focus the most recent
thought on the relationship of magic, alchemy, and other "pseudo-scientific" traditions
to the development of science in the early modern period.
Alan G. Dubus, the University of Chicago professor whose writings on alchemy have
garnered wide acclaim, leads off with an insightful essay on his academic training in the
history of science, beginning at Northwestern University some 35 years ago. In those days
the scientific revolution, when discussed at all, was characterized as a lock-step journey
of progress resulting in the triumphant eclipse of the irrational (meaning alchemy,
astrology, and magic) by the rational (meaning the mechanical philosophy, mathematics, and
experimentation). It was also a journey simply of "internal" developments within the
various sciences, almost wholly devoid of emphasis on the relations of science to society
and culture, or "external" developments. Today the profession, for it is now that, no
longer sneers uncomprehendingly at the occult. Taking up Dubus' trail, Betty Joe Dobbs, a
longtime student of alchemy in the age of Isaac Newton, traces the origins of the great
man's interest in the occult and its bearing on his enduring scientific legacy. As much in
search of the divine as the physical, Newton embraced the alchemical belief in God as
"active" principle, or creative agent, which both complemented and spurred his research
in the new natural philosophy, a sharp reversal of the conventional belief echoed by the
economist John Maynard Keynes that the alchemical papers, which Lord Keynes purchased at
auction in the 1930s, are "interesting but not useful, wholly magical and wholly
devoid of scientific value."
McKnight next steps on the stage to reinforce the claim that modernity is less an
epochal break with the past than a natural outgrowth of it, a continuing, albeit altered,
quest for the age of light long dreamt of by the philosophers of old. The roots of modern
science are firmly planted in the priscia theologia, the wisdom of the ancients
recovered by members of the Neoplatonic Academy, Marsilio Ficino, and Giovanni Pico della
Mirandola. The permutated Hermetic view of man as magus, as God's designated emissary to
maintain the macrocosm and perfect the microcosm, became a driving force in the Promethean
quest to understand and subdue the earth. So, too, did the stream of religious thought
known as millenarianism, the sabbath of world history. According to Klaus Vondung, a
professor of German literature, the priscia theologia was seen as a way of
extending millenarian control over all sciences for the even higher purpose of creating a
universal wisdom and comprehensive view of the world and history.
In what is perhaps the book's most provocative essay, David Walsh, Chair of the
Political Science Department at the Catholic University of America, argues that his own
discipline, as well as the other social sciences, have arrived at almost nothing in the
forms of laws, theories, or generalizations after emulating the natural sciences for over
two centuries. Vexing, too, is the fact that ours, putatively the most scientific
civilization ever, is plagued by a public and professional discourse in which rules of
evidence and logic are rarely applied. Enamored of Giordano Bruno and Thomas Campanella's
idealized state, City of the Sun, Walsh argues for a restoration of a mythology
that promotes empirical openness, a new social order in which mystery and reality coexist,
where man acknowledges that he is not God. Unfortunately, the author is no more specific
in his prescription than is former President Reagan when he waxes, glassy-eyed, over his
"City on a Hill."
In the concluding essay humanist Wilbur Applebaum offers a succinct reprise of the
volume's main themes. Yet Applebaum also makes clear his aversion to the revisionist
thesis that the term "Scientific Revolution" no longer has efficacy, that it is only
another bend in the river of intellectual history whose shoreline dwellers suffer from
cultural myopia. Something remarkable happened in the 17th century, and that something
altered history's course for all time.--.
--Gale E. Christianson Indiana State University.
Aldiss at Large.
Margaret Aldiss. The
Work of Brian W. Aldiss: An Annotated Bibliography & Guide.
Introduction by David Wingrove. Bibliographies of Modern Authors 9. Borgo Press (P.O. Box
2845, San Bernardino, CA 92406), 1992. 360pp. $39.00 cloth, $29.00 paper (plus $2.00
In her foreword to The Work of Brian W. Aldiss (WBA), Margaret
Aldiss, the author's wife, credits the completeness of her study to Aldiss' long-standing
habit of keeping an efficient filing-card index of all his work. WBA certainly
has the strengths (and may also have some of the weaknesses) of bibliographies compiled
from an author's private library. One weakness is the absence of page numbers for some of
the early works (Aldiss had failed to note them on the filing cards) and also for some of
the later works. The compiler's statement that the filing-card lists have been "supplemented with searches through" various bibliographical sources (5) and her remarks
about foreign translations imply that WBA contains references to editions she did
not see. The user should keep in mind, then, that ghosts may lurk in these pages. One
error, to be discussed later, may have to do with a non-existent edition. These cautions
notwithstanding, it should be understood that this is as full a bibliography of a living
author as we are likely to enjoy. The heart of the work is five large listings of Aldiss'
books, short fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and other forms (TV or radio plays, interviews,
After a brief chronology of Aldiss' life, the main body of the work begins with part A,
which lists separately published works (both fiction and nonfiction), arranged
chronologically by date of first publication, as are all the lists. Section A84 is devoted
to Helliconia Spring, first published in 1982 by Jonathan Cape in London. The
various later editions and translations are lettered A84b through A84r. Some appreciation
of the comprehensiveness of WBA can be gained by considering item A84q, a samizdat
carbon-copy edition of a 1988 translation into Russian.
More accessible are the American editions, and it was in checking these that I noticed
the following: A84b is the first US edition (NY: Atheneum, 1982), described as a 361-page
clothbound book, and A84g (the edition I have before me) is entered as "[Garden City, NY:
Science Fiction Book Club, 1985], 429 p., cloth. Imprint reads: New York: Atheneum,
1985." These entries illustrate the real usefulness of information that might sometimes
seem pedantic. The brackets in A84g let us know that we will not find the name of the real
publisher and edition in the book itself: A84g admits its cheaper book-club status only in
a note on the flap of the dust jacket. If the jacket is absent, the edition can be
distinguished from the first US edition only by the pagination, since the SFBC edition has
429 pages rather than 361.
The imprint in the SFBC copy I have, however, is not exactly what it is said to be in
item A84g, for there is no date on the title page and only "Copyright © 1982 by Brian W.
Aldiss" on its verso. The statement in WBA, if accurate, would mean that there
are at least two different SFBC printings, one with a publication date and one without,
and possibly two distinct editions.
To return to the format of the bibliography: following the list of editions of Helliconia
Spring are brief quotations from reviews in the Guardian, the Pittsburg
Press, the Daily Texan, and the New York Times Book Review.
Although these particular excerpts are highly laudatory, Brian Aldiss (who annotated the
entries) does not shrink from quoting the occasional harsh judgment--a reviewer of Report
on Probability A, for instance, is quoted as saying, "I found it tedious." The third
subsection lists "Secondary Sources and Reviews," and here is where some of the hardest
work of the bibliographer has been well done. There are 62 entries for Frankenstein
Unbound, 70 for Billion-Year Spree, and 75 for Helliconia Spring.
In some of these no page numbers are listed, but most contain complete bibliographical
Since the main listing is chronological, the simplest way to find the entry for a
particular work--say, Last Orders (a collection of short stories)--is to consult
the Title Index. There I am referred to section A69, where I find that my copy (Carroll
& Graf, 1989) is an American edition much later than the first British edition
(Jonathan Cape, 1977). Although WBA does not provide information on the exact
relationship between editions, the notation of 223 pages for both editions makes me
suspect that Carroll & Graf's is a photographic reprint of the Cape edition. Such
details about the printing are useful to the specialist, and this listing of the various
editions is certainly far more extensive than anything to found elsewhere.
When the book is a collection of Aldiss' stories or a collection he has edited, the
contents are listed. These lists are obviously most reliable for the British and American
editions in the compiler's possession: she points out, in fact, that the contents may
differ in foreign-language editions.
Part B lists Aldiss' short stories: 306 stories in their various appearances and
translations. This can be the part of the bibliography most often referred to, since it is
often more difficult to locate a short story than a book-length work. Suppose we are
looking for "Outside," a story that first appeared in New Worlds Science Fiction
31. Section B21 gives us publication information for 21 appearances in English-language
publications, the most recent in 1989, plus a cross-reference to E13, the entry for a
cassette recording. Nowhere, by the way, was I able to find the cut-off date for entries,
but it appears to have been 1991: the only items dated 1992 are WBA itself and
several memoirs contained within it.
Part C, perhaps the least satisfactory, lists as C1 through C259 "all nonfiction works
except individual book reviews and minor contributions to fanzines" (229). Note that
parts A and C overlap slightly in that one could expect to find a nonfiction book in
either; in fact, the main entries seem always to be in part A. For example, section C96
for Billion-Year Spree (1973) is brief, providing only publication data, a short annotation,
and a cross-reference to A50, the main entry (including reviews) for the
book. And despite the statement that C lists all of Aldiss' nonfiction,
Trillion-Year Spree is missing, having an entry only in A. The criteria
for inclusion in C are not clear: again, despite the author's note to the
contrary, a half-dozen or so reviews of individual books do find their
way there, for what reason I can't say. If I were to suggest any change
in a later edition of WBA, it would be here, where I would wish for as
complete a list as possible of Aldiss' book reviews. What Aldiss has to
say about the work of his contemporaries can yield real insight into his
Part D lists the publication data for 46 of Aldiss' poems that appeared
separately (apparently mostly light or occasional verse) as opposed to
the lyrics in a larger work, like the ones in Barefoot in the Head.
Some of these poems seem to be ephemera, and the usefulness of listing
them in a bibliography is doubtful: why supply documentation for a limerick
that appeared in a convention program (surely all but unobtainable) while
failing to list a review of a study of SF that appeared in an SF journal?
The next part is quite different, though. Part E, "Other Media," supplies
information on a surprising number of works in other forms, mostly radio
or television plays or readings. Aldiss has written both original dramas
and adaptations of his fiction for dramatic presentation. Here we find
some major items that I would guess are all but unknown to North Americans for
example, a four-and-a-half hour reading on the BBC of Frankenstein Unbound,
with Aldiss himself narrating. We also find that Roger Corman's film adaptation
of Aldiss' book was released in 1990, modestly titled Roger Corman's
Frankenstein Unbound. Since 1991, according to WBA, it has been available
on video cassette, but no information about the cassette is supplied.
Part F lists Aldiss' work as an editor, both on his own and in collaboration
with Harry Harrison. This part is very brief and in some respects duplicates
the information in the other parts. The 1967 through 1975 volumes in the
Best SF series have much fuller entries in part A, including annotations
and the contents of each volume; the entries in F would be more useful
if they contained, where applicable, cross-references to the entries in
Part G, however, is another very useful listing, citing at least the
great majority of the criticism on Aldiss. Here again the book seems to
have been edited with unusual care: I discovered not a single error in
the entries for a score of articles that I checked point for point, and
a scan of several decades of Foundation, Extrapolation, and SFS
revealed no major article by or about Aldiss that is not included in WBA.
Part H lists honors and awards Aldiss has received, and Part I, "Miscellanea,"
supplies Who's Who-type information in addition to a few facts neither
well-known nor easily found. Here, for example, are the pseudonyms Aldiss
has used (not many and thankfully not often), and notes on five stories
by other hands in which Aldiss has appeared as a character a sure-fire
winner in SF trivia contests. The last 60 pages are devoted to a selection
of excerpts from critics and two autobiographical memoirs.
In sum, WBA is useful and reliable: it contains much information that
can be found nowhere else. Future studies of Brian Aldiss will start with
this work, and in many cases the writer will need no further reference
Walter E. Meyers, North Carolina State
[A response by Margaret Aldiss appears in SFS
60 (July 1993).]
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