Science Fiction Studies

#63 = Volume 21, Part 2 = July 1994


A Haldeman Souvenir.

Joe Haldeman. Viet Nam and Other Alien Worlds. NESFA Press (P.O. Box 809, Framingham MA 01701-0203), 1993. xi+223. $17.00 plus $2.00 s&h USA, $4.00 s&h elsewhere.

This anthology of fiction, essays, and poetry offers two corrections to the lenses with which we examine Haldeman's work, and is therefore valuable beyond its status as a collectible souvenir.

First, this volume, arising from that science-fiction community known as fandom, clarifies our observation of Haldeman's relationship to it. He was a science-fiction fan well before he became a professional science-fiction writer and has maintained close ties with that social entity. Second, the directness of Haldeman's prose style and his informal narrative stance have continually misled some readers into believing that the stories themselves are simple and casually produced. On the contrary: through his meticulous and inventive plot structures and his almost poetic condensation of narrative, Haldeman is capable of great complexity. This volume, which presents Haldeman's fiction alongside his less widely known essays and poetry, allows us to see that complexity more clearly.

Fandom, examined minutely within the group, and almost invisible from without, deserves consideration at the middle distance which this volume provides. Viet Nam and Other Alien Worlds is the most recent in a series of commemorative anthologies of the work of the guests of honor at the New England Science Fiction Association's annual convention, BOSKONE; the next volume should appear before this review is published (As it has; see the following review.--Ed.). NESFA produces volumes which vary in format but are generally attractive and desirable additions to collectors' bookshelves since they often, as here, include items not easily found elsewhere. The present volume clarifies in several ways how the relationship between fandom and the professional writer results often in liberation and sometimes in indulgence.

The indulgence of this volume lies in its editing, the only weak element of the book. The collection does not make clear who selected the works to be included: certainly Haldeman was involved; Aron Insinga is identified as editor in an acknowledgment, and he in turn identifies Tim Szczesuil as an assistant editor. Although we cannot know who decided what was to be included the results suggest an occluded selection process. There is a clear logic in collecting Haldeman's "Confederacion" stories, pieces taking place in the same imagined future as his novels All My Sins Remembered and There is No Darkness (written with his brother Jack C. Haldeman II). These stories are "Passages," "A Tangled Web," "Seasons," and "The Mazel Tov Revolution." But the reasons for choosing the five essays which follow the novella and three novelettes are less sharply focused. Although most of the essays are previously unpublished and none is widely available, Haldeman must have other essays which fit these parameters; while these five are stimulating, they seem to have only a little to do with one another or with the fiction and poetry which surround them. The poetry, in contrast, has the strongest justification for inclusion: it is major work, difficult to obtain but central to Haldeman's oeuvre.

A clearer editorial presence would have emphasized connections among the three groups of works and made sure there were more connections to be inferred. It would have demanded a more sharply defined overview from Haldeman's introduction to the volume, and it would have polished up the dated material in the essays on the space program. Finally, it would have caught some glitches: the misplacement of a chart, and the mistitling of a novel. The relationship between author and fan, which often benefits from informality, has also permitted an indulgent amateurishness to creep into the book's production.

More important than these flaws of indulgence, however, are the freedoms which fandom allows in a volume of this sort. In the marketplace, Haldeman's voice can be heard only when it sells, but in the more private sector of fandom, that voice can speak in less marketable ways. For instance, novelettes and novellas are less likely to be anthologized than short stories: here, only the longer story forms appear and one piece, "Seasons," is unarguably a significant work. Of Haldeman's short works, his war stories receive the most attention, but the four stories here remind us that Haldeman has other themes and subjects as well.

The five essays included are also liberated from the marketing myopia that kept most of them from publication. Two of the essays were linked to timely events, and when those events left the public eye, the essays lost their marketability, but not their value: here the indulgence of fandom becomes a virtue. "Not Being There," originally written for The Rolling Stone, concerned the Challenger disaster which Haldeman and his wife observed from Daytona Beach. Haldeman offers a couple of unique spins on the experience in his account of the disaster. From the 1960's on, he had spent years trying to go up himself, so that his witnessing of the crash was charged with a personal engagement. The larger portion of the essay, however, develops a different aspect of the debacle--its political and economic causes. Haldeman's skill at clarifying scientific and technological information for the non-specialist combines with a tone of tamped anger to make the essay a powerful condemnation of bottom-line politics. An appendix makes clear that Haldeman foresaw problems with the Hubble program as well, reminding us that the essay has an importance beyond the occasion for which it was written, and making us wish he had attached a "told you so" coda to update it.

The second occasional piece which an editor judged past its perfect moment is the essay "Photographs and Memories," Haldeman's response to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit "The Perfect Moment." Again highly engaged, Haldeman brings to the exhibit his knowledge of photography, war, and the current scene, crafting a meditation on Mapplethorpe's techniques of objectification and shock. His accompanying chart (misplaced in the introduction) explores moral responsibility, censorship, and the boundaries between art and sensationalism. NESFA has done a special service in making this essay available not only as a gloss on the state of the arts in general but as a gloss on Haldeman's work in particular. The essay's compact complexity reminds us of the same attribute in Haldeman's fiction. Its recognition of the "invisible" techniques which shaped Mapplethorpe's final product--shutter speed and development techniques, for instance--remind us that Haldeman's final products also involve equally meticulous production techniques. And its movement away from easy moral platitudes to a more complex vision remind us to look for that same movement in Haldeman's fiction.

Two other essays collected here deal with Haldeman's best-known subject, the Viet Nam war. The title essay clarifies the metaphor of war as an alien(ating) experience which has informed much of Haldeman's science fiction, and "War Stories" is what he calls a "gang review" of books on Viet Nam which a literary magazine asked for but eventually rejected (ix). While the first essay provides an excellent introduction to much of Haldeman's fiction, "War Stories" reveals the originality with which Haldeman approaches any subject, an originality which may have kept the essay from previous publication. Haldeman compares his own experiences in Viet Nam--the war he experienced--to the experiences, and the war, described in six books. His war, "as murderous and painful as it was," is less violent and grisly than these books generally portray, and the review attempts to account for the discrepancies (186). He points out that "a natural journalistic selection procedure is partly to blame, and partly it's the psychology of interviewing and being interviewed" (190). He also speculates that his own experience may have been atypical, and further, that for some witnesses, "the membrane between invention and memory has disintegrated" (193). Such a complex and ambiguous perception of the facts in these books on Viet Nam does not adhere to any standardized attitude toward politicized historical events, and so, while it may be unsatisfying to a magazine's editorial position, it is valuable to a scholar, or a fan, of Haldeman's work.

The volume concludes with four narrative poems, all previously published in fairly well-distributed venues, but valuable here because they represent the importance of poetry throughout Haldeman's career. In the poems, Haldeman shows remarkable control over form, especially in the linked sestinas of "Saul's Death" and in the free form of "DX," as well as over emotional and imagistic content. Scholars who, like fans, care about more than the bottom line, will find much to explore in Haldeman's poetry, which has not yet been critically considered.

Viet Nam and Other Alien Worlds represents an idealized community of fans and authors in which the author can speak to an intimate audience in ways he cannot ordinarily do in public, and his readers can imagine themselves in a close dialogue with the author. Because NESFA has allowed Haldeman this forum and his readers this relationship with the author, they have produced more than a commemorative souvenir of an sf convention. They have allowed us to see the author more completely than the market will usually bear. Haldeman's own essays caution us not to see him with blind indulgence but with sharpened awareness.

--Joan Gordon Commack.


Another Souvenir Volume from NESFA.

Emma Bull and Will Shetterly. Double Feature. NESFA Press (P.O. Box 809, Framingham, MA 01701-0203), 1994.x+264. $17.95 + $2.00 s&h in US, $4.00 s&h elsewhere.

Much of what Joan Gordon says in the previous review can be applied to this interesting and well-edited volume. Not so well known and considerably younger than Joe Haldeman, Emma Bull and Will Shetterly (woman and husband) are perhaps even more involved with fandom and sf activities, so that this book may be said to be concerned entirely, in the selection of work to be reprinted or resurrected from the rejection file as well as in the specially written headnotes and bibliographies, with their work as writers, editors, and publishers. During the last ten years each has published four or five novels and a dozen or so short stories. As collaborators they have created an imaginary world and made it into a "shared world," having edited the five volumes of the LIAVEK series, which include contributions by various other writers as well as by themselves. As proprietors of the Steel Dragon Press, they have published fictions by Steven Brust, Larry Niven, Jane Yolen, and Barry B. Longyear and four comic books.

--RDM


The Filial Alternative.

Susan Strong Hassler and Donald M. Hassler, eds. Arthur Machen & Montgomery Evans: Letters of a Literary Friendship, 1923-1947. Kent State UP (800-666-2211), 1994. x+195. $26.00.

One would hate to be called a groupie, and might even bridle at fan, with its suggestion of uncritical adulation. But those of us who when young imbibed as readers so deeply of literary nectar that we never sobered up, even after recognizing that we have little or no creative talent, must seek some exercise, some work to accompany the morning-after drink which we must take to ward off the hangover but which would otherwise plunge us into fannish drunkenness. So we clerk in a bookstore, or write for or edit a little magazine, or do graduate work in and then profess literature, or become a book-collector-- some or all of these or something similar, well aware that the more active we become the more likely it is that we will call down on our heads the wrath of "real" writers (see Gary K. Wolf's report on the 1993 World Fantasy Convention, page 34 of the January 1994 Locus).

These meanderings (which have some relationships to my meanderings on love and honor in the review that follows this one) were brought on partly by Joan Gordon's review (above) but mostly by the Hasslers' Prologue and Introduction to the book under review. The Prologue begins:

Often in literary history, relationships among writers suggest family connections. Those who write, or want to write, seem to want to be seen together in one large tribe, or tribes. There exist, of course, outsiders, orphans, bastards, pretenders, even bounders, but those relationships also comprise a sort of family. Generally the lineages are easier and more obvious to trace; and so the fascination that we find in literary history and in our work on the texts of these letters has come in part from our gradual recognition of the large family of letters. In a small way, we feel more a part of that family now. One way to see this book is as our attempt to share that feeling. (vii)

The Introduction is titled "The Filial Alternative." The alternative is, in one sense, a way of writing literary history; in another sense, a way of positioning oneself in the literary community. Montgomery Evans, as a wealthy young man, began as a collector. He chose to collect, as many collectors seem to do, the work of a writer somewhat obscure but of some critical esteem--as it happened, Arthur Machen, whose fantasies enjoyed a bit of a vogue among the general readership in the 1920s (and are still admired by fantasy enthusiasts). In 1923 the 22-year-old Evans and a friend, with letters of introduction, called on the 60-year-old Machen and were graciously received. That visit led to a friendship maintained through correspondence and visits paid by the world-traveling Evans until Machen's death in 1947. Evans looked on Machen as on a beloved father and frequently sent him gifts (food parcels during the war years). Their correspondence ranged over all subjects, especially literature and politics. After Machen's death Evans gathered Machen's letters into the two large notebooks that formed the basis for the present work. The Hasslers, having interviewed surviving friends and relatives of both Evans and Machen, have provided commentary on the relationship and on the literary world of the time, so that this is a quite unusual and most interesting work.

--RDM.


Approaching Utopia via a Technological Plateau.

Howard P. Segal. Future Imperfect: The Mixed Blessings of Technology in America. University of Massachusetts Press (413-545-2219), 1994. xviii+245. $40.00 cloth, $15.95 paper.

There is a scene in Metropolis, a confrontation between Masterman and his son, in which Masterman says "God is Power" and the son replies "No, God is Love." It is erroneous to oppose love to power. To love is to submit to power; to be loved is to enjoy power. The true opposition is between love and honor. Love asks us to acknowledge our weakness and submit to the stronger; honor demands that we assert our strength and submit to no one. We seek some sort of synthesis in compromise: an acknowledgement of weakness and an assertion of strength that neither promises nor demands absolute submission. Metropolis ends with Masterman's promising that the rich will henceforth be kind to the poor.

Love and honor are matters of the spirit; we are also physical creatures and as such seek physical comfort. Utopia is a place in which everyone is comfortable both spiritually and physically. The apology for not sharing the wealth seems always to have been that there is not enough to go around--not enough, that is, if our country is to have the appurtenances of civilization. The many must be poor so that the few can be rich enough to build magnificent buildings and otherwise fund the arts. The promise of advancing technology has been that it will someday no longer be necessary for (in the words of FDR) one third of the nation to be ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-fed. That it might also serve to moderate the inequalities of power relationships has been less attended to.

Despite its subtitle, Future Imperfect is not directly concerned with the ways in which technological advance has added to and subtracted from our spiritual and physical comforts. It is rather concerned with the "American Ideology of Technological Progress," that is, with what intellectuals and publicists have over the years had to say about the possibilities and probabilities opened up by technological advance. Part I, "Technology and American History Rethought," is concerned, inter alia, with Leo Marx, Alexis de Toqueville, the concept of the middle landscape, and the concept of a technological plateau. Part II, "Technological Museums Revisited," begins with an account of the professionalization of technological work in America (the gradual replacement of the gentlemen amateurs by university-trained engineers) and continues with an account of the ways in which museums have reflected and contributed to the technological optimism that has generally characterized our history. The single chapter of the fourth and final part, "High Tech and the Burden of History; or, The Many Ironies of Contemporary Technological Optimism," is devoted to the inadequacies of such popular prophets as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt, to the ways in which American history is falsified by advertisers, publicists, and especially by such institutions as Disney's EPCOT Center, and to examining (and generally deflating) the claims that our "information age" will lead to decentralization of power and greater freedom for ordinary citizens (on this point, compare Terence Whalen's "The Future of a Commodity" in the March 1992 SFS).

Part III, "Four Technological Visions Reexamined," with its acute analyses of Bellamy's Looking Backward, Mary E. Bradley Lane's Mizora ("the First Feminist Technological Utopia"), Vonnegut's Player Piano, and the various works of Lewis Mumford, will be of most direct interest to students of literature. But we are citizens as well as students and so in these dreadful times, when the prospects for a decent society seem dimmer than ever before in our century, we search for a glimmer of hope. One can be found in chapter 3, "The Automobile and the Prospect of an American Technological Plateau": a society in which technology has become sufficiently advanced and widespread that equivalent attention can be given to achieving equally vital nontechnological improvements: social, economic, cultural, political, and so forth.... It is also to propose that beyond a certain level of affluence for increasing numbers of citizens --a level I concede hardly yet reached by millions of Americans and others-- further technological advances are less and less important and less and less appreciated. Instead, other objectives--such as avoiding boredom, institutionalizing diversity at both work and leisure, extending democracy, and preserving the remaining natural environment--gradually become paramount. (33-34)

Early on Segal speaks of America's inheriting "a European tradition of utopianism, which gradually altered the prospect for the realization of utopia from the 'impossible' to the 'possible' to the 'probable," (5). The probability has faded away during this century as the fruits of technology have been consumed in the pursuit of honor. Segal himself is less than optimistic that "a technological plateau will become a conscious goal of a majority of Americans rather than a de facto development among a minority" (35). But in the midst of doubt we can continue to hope that technology will someday make it possible for the demands of love to rival those of honor.

All in all, Future Imperfect is one of the most rewarding books to come my way in the last few years.

--RDM.


Curtain Up!

Ralph Willingham. Science Fiction and the Theatre. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 57. Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1993. xiv+213. $55.00.

A popular impression is that there has been very little science fiction on the stage. A corollary is that the two forms are incompatible. Ralph Willingham's new study, Science Fiction and the Theatre, the first full consideration of the history and possibilities of sf in the theatre,* refutes the first and attempts to discover why the second has been so deplorably constant to date. He makes clear that he is not merely seeking to lodge sf per se onto the boards; his ambition is to recreate the strengths of theatre itself with the help of the strengths which sf can offer.

He admits that very little sf theatre of substance exists; this is probably due to "mutual misconceptions" of writers in both fields. In addition, most theatre-goers and fantasy fans as well have been under the impression that sf, too often defined with mad scientists, monsters, images of colossal space scenery and technological razzle dazzle, is impractical in the theatre. He demonstrates that for better or worse, each of these sf-subgenre has appeared in some form on stage, and while it is hardly an overwhelming number, he lists and briefly describes no less than 328 plays, operas, and performance pieces which can properly be labeled as sf, including more than a dozen on the Frankenstein theme alone. This does not even include the numerous children's theatre pieces which satisfy the category. This remarkable research into ancient and modern sf theatre, renowned and forgotten and even as yet unstaged, does not negate his primary intention not to discuss sf plays as such but instead to discuss the influence of sf on the theatre, and not the reverse.

He believes theatre has failed to take advantage of what sf can offer it. Sf writers have been reluctant to work for the stage, while playwrights without an sf background have failed to use it well. In a bold statement he complains about contemporary theatre that it "has become ordinary because so much of it is about ordinary people having ordinary problems," ignoring the work of Tony Kushner, Jon Robin Baitz, and David Mamet, whose strengths arise from their root in what appears to be the commonplace. His conviction is that it is precisely the imaginative loops of sf which would revivify Theatre and lend it new stature, new avenues of expression. Comparing theatrical sf to the sf of human-oriented writers such as Le Guin and Blish, the sf plays he catalogs are, he feels, as "ordinary" as today's stagefare, the work of writers working with tired formulae. The problem has been, with too few exceptions, that fantasy elements are intended as entertainment and not as intellectual challenges.

He finds two basic causes for this situation. One is the tendency of individuals outside the genre to consider it merely escapist literature. He does not deny that much of sf is just that, but at its best, it is rich literature, he feels, with characterization equal to the best of theatre. The playwright who can utilize such sf can offer the theatre something it desperately needs. This demands a perception of sf beyond the cliches as well as the public conception of the genre as either weirdly dressed characters usually in musical comedy, or as satire, allegory, or other message.

The second reason for the failure of sf to become an element of the theatre is the expectation of theatre people and audiences alike that any play of sf must actually create the vast fantasy described or implied, something better done on film. The author describes sf classics which have been spare in terms of technology or gadgetry, such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation; nearly all its fantastic events occur not in the action of the novels but "offstage." He points out in a chapter on staging problems, that Shakespeare could create vast scenes for his Globe audiences with words and little scenery, that Capek's R.U.R. relied alone on costume and make-up, and Shaw's 30th century was able to display its technology with a television phone. Ray Bradbury's one-acts and even his full-length adaptation of his novel The Martian Chronicles do not require elaborate sets. Willingham offers other examples which with proper expository preparation and imaginative staging manage without vast expenditures for eye-boggling stage machinery, including Staurt Gordon's adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan and Constance Congdon's intriguing-sounding Tales of the Lost Formicans.

In partial rebuttal, stage sense dictates that offstage events and effects do not make good theatre. Willingham himself points out that the ancient Greeks used machinery to introduce their gods on stage. Furthermore, while simplicity is always a virtue, is it an economics-dictated virtue? Bradbury's showcase of his Fahrenheit 451, listed but not discussed in the Appendix, was a modest production which failed as either good drama or a musical, but a viewer sensed that had it reached professional status, some spectacle would have enhanced it. Unlisted is a 1991 small budget adaptation by Harv Dean of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. The crudity of its assumed effects plus a script which reduced the book wholly to its allegory doomed it. Better work in each would have helped.

Spectacle will not of itself produce a success. The author compares Via Galactica, an elaborate production of a pop sf-line musical which failed, with a vest-pocket sf musical show, Warp!, with mock special effects and a cult following, but no more successful. The appendix lists Dave Clark's Time, the most spectacular show I have ever seen, but even with the canned voice of Lawrence Olivier as a disembodied head in space, only the desire to see those effects at the climax (the entire theatre throbbed and glowed like a great spaceship) restrained our early escape from its trite plot.

It is a mixed conclusion. One might say that while economy is admirable, and its restraints may in some instances actually make for better theatre, Willingham is being unrealistic. Today's non-sf Broadway musical scene consists almost wholly of spectacular shows such as Les Misrables, Miss Saigon and Cats; Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard will debut at an unheard of $12 million. It is a norm that audiences spending a good deal for a night at the theatre apparently expect. Business expediency dictates star actors as well.

His history of sf drama is an excellent and comprehensive summary, indicating that the public will accept scientific themes, even though the science may be sugar-coated. He commences engagingly with a 17th century farce about a fatuous scientist, considers sf in opera, such as Offenbach's robot coloratura in The Tales of Hoffman, thence into the 1920s with undisguised and skillfully written science fiction: Karel Capek's real robots in the play still most widely associated with science-fiction theatre, R.U.R.; Shaw's Back To Methusaleh, an extended span of life; and Maurice Browne's 1928 Wings Over Europe, atomic energy. The list continues to our own time. An interesting subject by itself is his account of the many adaptations of the book which many consider the first true sf novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Its pirated and inferior theatrical versions, popular almost immediately after the novel's appearance, are now available only by contemporary account, but they "set the low standards that have prevailed in science fiction drama to this day." However, he singles out for praise a 1988 production of Barbara Fields' Playing With Fire (after "Frankenstein"), a modest, small-cast production in the Brechtian mode and faithful to the spirit of the novel.

In his consideration of contemporary plays he reveals a tendency, elaborated in a chapter offering six somewhat esoteric "samples," to admire plays of ideas, possibly more literary than stageworthy. It was this very quality, not only its 7-hour length which has relegated Shaw's Back to Methusaleh to the printed page for most of its life. In our own time, Nicholas Nickleby and Angels in America, of similar length, have had memorable and successful runs, performed in halves. He mentions but fails to perceive the success and artistic importance of the Glass/Wilson opera, Einstein On the Beach, a brilliant if discursive five-hour piece whose climax, influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, is sf. The theatre needs ideational drama, and should take risks, but not at the danger of boring an audience. Of the plays Willingham praises as potential models for the goals he espouses, some have received a single or at most a few performances; others have never been staged at all. The best-known is a monologue. The playwrights are respected, but the prose of the excerpts appears affected. There is something of literary elitism here. The monologue is the Glass-Sirlin-Hwang 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, on stage a Joycean melange of words, music and projections. The recorded CD includes not a word of dialogue. This scarcely seems to be a path for sf theatre.

The author lists but does not discuss the later and large-scale Metropolitan Opera production of the Glass-Hwang opera The Voyage, visually a compromise between the literal and the realistic with the voyages of Columbus sandwiched between those of extraterrestrials and of earthly space travelers. Textually it is pompous. Its style satisfied no one much at all. He errs in a statement that the sub-genre of cyberpunk has not yet been addressed. The performance art of the Survival Research Laboratories of San Francisco has produced purely visual works in the genre, but without human characters (See Veronica Hollinger, "Playing at the End of the World: Postmodern Theatre," Staging the Impossible, 182). The Banff Center for the Arts has sponsored The City and Memory, an interactive computer performance piece by Toni Dove and Michael Mackenzie. As described in SFS #62, it is derived from Virtual Reality techniques. With its need for technological gadgetry this is theatre for the individual rather than traditional communal theatre, but beneath its apparent Max Headroom surface, it offers a real human situation, the investigation of the murder of a child within a crumbling city. W.A. Dwiggins's full-fledged sf play, Millenium I, not listed here, was written for marionettes, but has human characters. These are essentially intellectualized exercises.

Since comedy and satire have been part of sf since Cyrano and Swift, they would appear easily incorporated onto the stage. In a chapter on comedy in sf theatre, Willingham discovers half a dozen of some originality but bemoans the tendency of others to fall back on cliches. There are several he missed. He found several Frankenstein comedies but Have I Got A Girl For You! was not one of them. It may not sound like sf, but this 1986 musical by Joel Green- house and Penny Rockwell, inept but funny, was an adaptation of the film The Bride of Frankenstein. Barry Keating and Stuart Ross's Star-Mites, a bargain-basement production which missed in every sense, had the temerity to appear in 1989 on Broadway with an intergalactic plot about a girl who loved a comic book hero. In early 1992, the composer of Little Shop of Horrors, Alan Menken, failed to repeat his success with two one-act sf stories, Weird Romance (book by Alan Brennert). The field still remains wide-open.

Willingham's book is an excellent reference work, no less so for its forthright writing style. Can fantasy and science fiction on stage ever be other than genre plays? If his "samples," or others, can reveal the inner fire which produces great theatre, his primary concern for sf as genuine theatre will have been realized.

*A prior book, Staging the Impossible, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, was published in 1992 by Greenwood Press, attempting with mixed results to study fantasy in the theatre, and offering a perfunctory overview in two chapters on Science Fiction. See my review in SFS #61, November 1993

--Ben P. Indick Teaneck, NJ.


The Human/Machine Interface.

Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn, eds. Clockworks: A Multimedia Bibliography of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface in SF. Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1993. xvi+324. $75.00.

The entries in this compilation, all annotated in longer or shorter form, are grouped into nine sections: 1. Reference Works; 2. Anthologies and Collections; 3. Fiction; 4. Literary Criticism; 5. Stage, Screen, and Television Drama; 6. Stage, Screen, and Television Drama Criticism; 7. Graphic and Plastic Arts; 8. Music; 9. Background Reading.

To describe what the compilers of this bibliography set out to do, it is perhaps best to let them use their own words: We privilege humans in defining "useful works" in dealing with the "human/ machine interface." We also have thought a great deal about the insights of M.P. Esmonde's essay on "...The Icon of the Robot in Children's Science Fiction." ... E.g. we cite works where one can judge machines as either good or bad. We cite works where our relationship with machines tells us something about the human-- either as an eternal essence or a (historically) constructed category. How many prosthetics can we add to human beings before those human beings become cyborgs? Would it be well for us to become cyborgs, helping to break down categories?... How many additions of mechanical or electronic parts before the cyborg becomes (just) a machine? Conversely, can a machine make itself into a human being? About being a machine? What does it do to humans to be inside machines? Can metaphorical apparat (the apparatus of the State) become sufficiently "mechanical" that it becomes a fairly literal machine? And so forth. We favored works where machines were of thematic significance, and the themes had to do (mostly) with humanity: our philosophies, self-image, and politics--including politics of race, class, gender, and, in a couple of instances, age and generation. (xiv)

The compilers don't feel any need to define sf or machines or the human/ machine interface, but my impression is that they are not interested in simple machines like levers or in steam machines or in the tools of war, transport, industry, and communication in general unless a tale about them reflects a philosophy of human versus machine. They favor complex machines, especially those of the pseudo-human form (like robots) or information processing machines like computers. I take it that a novel about the "Zulu war machine" wouldn't do and that texts about human beings broken on the rack or the wheel would fail to qualify as dealing with the human/ machine interface. On the one hand we see that Brian W. Aldiss's HELLICONIA TRILOGY is included--something that I, being of a simple mind, would consider as in principle dealing with the bashing-in of heads in an exotic setting. On the other hand, Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, which talks a lot about machines, is not included. The compilers perhaps share the opinion expressed by Algis Budrys in 1971: "though the word here is 'machines,' what Lem goes on to describe are exclusively architectural features--groins, vaults, pillars etc.--rather than shafts, gears, cathodes, lenses, resonators and other transmission devices. Since anything recognizably mechanical must by definition have recognizable parts with centuries-old names, they are prima facie not at all beyond the power of interstellar Mankind to build" (Benchmarks [Southern Illinois UP, 1985], 309-10). This is an astonishing piece of prose. Who would have thought that there exists an American sf reviewer who has either never heard of computers, or perhaps doesn't consider a computer a machine, or thinks that computers still have cathodes? Or that cathodes are hundreds of years old? And there are scientists who think that we are all organic machines/computers.

Within these boundaries, the coverage of the compilers seems fairly comprehensive and useful, although one can always point to omissions, especially when you turn to foreign works with which American readers are less familiar, e.g. Ernst Jünger's The Glass Bees (1957), or, for the "Background" section, the work of Hans Moravec, an advocate of an "sf-like" computer-generated "immortality." You have to remember that R.U.R. is a play or look him up in the index to find Karel Čapek, since The Absolute at Large is not listed. Needless to say, I haven't checked all the entries, only sampled a few on relevant writers with whose work I am familiar.

Stanislaw Lem is well-represented (although the commentaries are sometimes a bit odd), but of course his important ground-breaking philosophical work that decades ago discussed questions of identity from a cybernetic point of view, virtual worlds and cyberspace and the like, isn't mentioned since it hasn't been translated yet. But the Strugatskys are definitely under-represented. Only Far Rainbow is listed, but not Prisoners of Power (with its variety of advanced machinery) or Monday Begins on Saturday or The Tale of the Troika (with its talking black box). And what about Roadside Picnic? The alien artifacts clearly are machines, and the whole novel is about human interaction with them. On the other hand, Frederik Pohl's Heechee novels, in which the subject matter is identical, are of course included. It is hardly surprising that Pohl's novels are more popular than the Strugatsky work, but it is surprising that apparently nobody has commented on the similarities between them. Both are about alien artifacts found in the cosmos or at certain locations on Earth. But while Pohl treats the interface with the often dangerous artifacts as a lottery which costs some people their lives and makes others incredibly rich, with the banal message that it is better to be rich than dead, the Strugatskys treat their mystery in an existential manner: it brings out the hidden qualities in their protagonists. In sf, it is the fate of the thoughtful works to be largely ignored, while those that are colorful and (because of their banality) very readable sweep the awards.

In sf, most influential in the human/machine interface have been Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, not because of their intellectual brilliance or usefulness for the construction of real robots (they have none), but rather because of their unlimited dramatizing possibilities. They opened for sf a purely rhetorical possibility that has no connection with real life but offers good fictional gambits. The starting point is always an apparent violation of the Three Laws; and the author then goes on to show that the Three Laws were not broken after all and that this impression resulted only from an imperfect human understanding of those laws which were properly understood only by the robot specialist. Much the same might be said for the "Cyberspace" of William Gibson, another fairy-tale construct that has no connection with the virtual space of actual computers. What it correctly prefigures is only that computers will get ever more "user-friendly," and that no user need understand the first thing about them. It is all a matter of "intuition," the myth of the hacker who knows nothing but instinctively grasps everything. Nobody believes in a Protestant work ethic any more; sf is part of the new irrationalism that believes in "talents" that cannot be understood, and therefore need not be explained; at best they can be illustrated by some (rather uninspired) computer-graphics.

Clockworks seems to be a good beginning towards the goal aimed at by the compilers.

--Franz Rottensteiner Vienna.


Ecological Awareness in German Sf.

Amy Stapleton. Utopias for a Dying World: Contemporary German Science Fiction's Plea for a New Ecological Awareness. German Life and Civilization No. 13. Peter Lang Publishing (212-764-1471), 1993. 158p. $37.95.

Amy Stapleton's thesis Utopias for a Dying World is the first study in English of contemporary German science fiction, and, after Ulrike Gottwald's Science Fiction (SF) als Literatur in der Bundesrepublik der siebziger und achtziger Jahre (Peter Lang, 1990), which for the most part simply assembles a number of reviews of German authors/works, the second on this topic in any language. Stapleton doesn't claim that a new ecological awareness is the dominant feature of German sf, but rather selects works that show such an awareness. For Gottwald, the favorite motifs of German sf were time travel, alternate and parallel worlds, and post-doomsday societies. Stapleton is of the opinion that most citizens of Western civilization haven't yet recognized the seriousness of the self-caused ecological crisis, and she agrees with those thinkers who stress the necessity of a new ecological orientation, a change of consciousness. In the first chapter, Stapleton establishes a theoretical background for her analyses of specific sf texts by discussing four German books on the ecological crisis: Klaus Michael Mayer-Abich's Wege zum Frieden mit der Natur, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker's Bewusstseins-wandel, Carl Amery's Die kologische Chance, and Robert Jungk's Und Wasser bricht den Stein.

In the second chapter Stapleton deals with "Science Fiction as a Consciousness-shaping Vehicle." Although sf, as "popular literature" or "Trivialliteratur," generally has a larger audience than elitist works of literature, it is nevertheless more subject to market rules. Publishers very rarely publish sf with a didactic purpose in mind, and readers as a rule rarely buy sf to be enlightened, so that a large part of sf in Germany and elsewhere is really escape literature, especially those works that Stapleton doesn't care to mention. In her analysis of individual works Stapleton first turns to "negative utopias." In "Negative Utopias--I" she discusses four novels and one novel series of an apocalyptic nature, written for quite different audiences, from juvenile readers to lovers of space opera. They comprise two young-adult novels by Gudrun Pausewang, a novel about a future Germany by Matthias Horx, a well-known "Zeitgeist" journalist, a novel by H.W. Franke, by many considered to be Germany's leading sf writer, and a popular series by the eminently successful and prolific Wolfgang Hohlbein. Her conclusion is that, except for the "Charity" series by W. Hohlbein, these novels, despite certain conceptual weaknesses, serve a fundamental and most important function: "They force their readers to think, and more specifically, to review their own attitudes towards technology, towards a military-based world economy, and towards political and social structures which blindly pursue the same old destructive course" (65). One can hardly take issue with the analyses of Stapleton, but one wonders why she hasn't included an author like Michael Springer, whose novels Was morgen geschah (1979), Bronnen (1981), and Leonardos Dilemma (1986) credibly evoke catastrophal settings.

In "Negative Utopias--II," Stapleton takes a look at some of the best German short stories, those by Karlheinz and Angela Steinmüller (a husband-wife team from the former GDR), Peter Schattschneider, and Karl Michael Armer, amongst others. "To support their potential for bringing about a Bewusstseinswandel [consciousness change] on the personal level, these stories need to be read in a way which looks beyond the effectiveness of their scenarios and elements of suspense or intrigue" (89). Her readings of the stories sometimes tend to be a bit forced. Under the heading "Uncertain Utopias" Stapleton summarizes three novels by Carl Amery (both an sf author and a mainstream writer and journalist who has dealt extensively with ecological and theological questions), Maria J. Pfannholz (whose Den Überlebenden is one of the best of the "Bajavarian German sf novels"), and Peter Lorenz (another GDR novelist). In Amery and Pfannholz, Stapleton notes a certain negative attitude and a preference for "losers" that renders the fight for ecology like a fight against windmills and precludes any reasonable effort for the preservation of the environment. She considers these works to be defeatist, generating rather mixed reactions in the reader.

Hardly more successful is the search for "Positive Utopias," and Stapleton is forced to agree with anthologist Horst Heidtmann in the preface of one of his anthologies: "Positive utopias cannot be written any more as they were written a hundred years ago." Even when authors want to invent a better future, they are obliged not to overlook the dangers of progress. Aside from H.W. Franke's novel Endzeit, Stapleton's examples here are mostly taken from GDR sf: Bernd Ulbrich, Klaus Mckel, the Steinmüllers, Waldtraut Lewin, and Johanna and Günter Braun.

Stapleton concludes that to achieve a real "Bewusstseinswandel," it is necessary to change attitudes beyond the narrow circles of sf and other books dealing specifically with ecological questions. But such a consistent strategy to achieve a "Bewusstseinswandel" is nowhere in sight: it cannot be deduced from her texts or from German sf in general; it is rather a viewpoint chosen to unify her thesis (although it would be possible to cite further and in many cases stronger examples, e.g. Christof Schade's novel Der genetische Krieg [1985], a heavily ideological work that deals with the reduction of the gene reservoir by the introduction of super-productive but infertile seeds; Lothar Streblow's short story collection Sundera [1984], or Reinhard Wegerth's Der grosse grüne Atemstreik [1985]). I doubt that a "plea for a new ecological awareness" is a common or dominant concern of German sf, which rather offers, as does sf everywhere, a wide range of themes, motifs, and viewpoints, as well as many levels of literary excellence or indifference.

--Franz Rottensteiner Vienna.


The Complete Text of a Hitherto Abridged Masterpiece.

John Cowper Powys. Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages. New edition. Ed. Wilbur Albrecht. Colgate UP (800-365-8919), 1994. xxii+873. $48.95.

Although not sf and only in small part fantasy, this romance should be of interest to many readers of SFS as perhaps our century's most profound treatment of the Matter of Britain. The editor's introduction traces the history of the text from the manuscript through the publication of the abridged first edition (1951) and the preparation of the present edition, which is half again as long as the first. The author's preface, "Historic Background to the Year of Grace A.D. 499," tells us that since virtually no British documents have survived from between the middle of the 5th century and the middle of the 6th, it seems "highly probable that this historic blank...was filled with Arthur's powerful and prosperous rule, this lack of documentary history being itself evidence that for one generation at least matters in this island were well under control" (xvii). The action takes place during eight October days in a valley in northern Wales ruled by the descendants of the Brython Cunedda (of whom there is historical record). The tale is one of contending peoples (Picts, Scots, Berbers, Romanized Brythons, Brythonized Romans, and Saxon invaders, with the last two survivors of the corpse-eating aboriginal giants thrown in for good measure) and of contending philosophies (Druidism, Roman Paganism, Mithraism, Christianity, Agnosticism). In addition to Porius (great-great-grandson of Cunedda, with Romans, Berbers, and a giantess among his forebears), the characters include Arthur, Taliessen (who recites a number of his poems), the author of the Mabinogion (it seems, 817), and most important of all, Merlin, whose attitude towards the gods perhaps represents the basic philosophy of book.

--RDM.


The Tone's the Thing.

Tom Shippey, ed. The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories. Oxford and NY: Oxford UP, 1992. xxii+499. $25.00.

Shippey's anthology, parallel in presentation to his Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories reviewed in SFS #60, is every bit as professionally done as that earlier volume. A select bibliography of single and shared author and edited anthologies of fantasy, a brief but useful critical bibliography, and a thoroughly researched and meticulously presented six pages of sources (including author dates, places and dates of first publication, and reprint information for each story) and source acknowledgments are appended to this collection of 31 stories, beginning with Richard Garnett's "The Demon Pope" (1888) and ending with Terry Pratchett's "Troll Bridge" (1992). The selections range widely through the genre, including turn-of-the-century stories just breaking free from the tradition of "genteel fantasy" (by Garnett and Buchan), those opposing science to magic or law to chaos (Brunner, Niven, Anderson, Davidson, Pratchett), those relying on "themes and figures from ancestor-genres" (Yolen, Carter, Lee), sword and sorcery (Dunsany, Howard, Moore, Leiber, Vance), and urban fantasies (Peake, Beagle, Tiptree, Eisenstein, Shepard), as well as mixed-genre stories by Lovecraft, Wellman, Kuttner, and others.

Shippey briefly recounts the genre's history and convincingly justifies his selections in a detailed informative introduction that distinguishes modern fantasy from its precursors through a parallel relation to science fiction and its emphases:

The distinctive feature of modern fantasy as opposed to its premodern precursors is...not just an interest in the supernatural/impossible, but a demand that the element be brought into some accommodation with the rational and the scientific. (xv)

This demand, in Shippey's view, further manifests itself in "a wish to control, to explore, to discover the rules and absorb the implications of the other world which produces fantastic events" (xiv). As it both tailors his selection process and focuses his introduction on modern fantasy, this position assists Shippey's production of an impressive anthology, one worthy of the "Oxford Book" title.

However, another agenda, one somewhat disturbing to this reader, informs Shippey's introduction. Early in his argument, while discussing the presence of an element "known to be impossible" as a necessary identifying feature of fantasy, Shippey attacks "current academic definitions, which leave one wondering whether those who produce them ever stray into an ordinary bookshop at all," then proceeds to misrepresent Todorov's "fantastic" as an attempt to define fantasy alone (xi). In the process, he reduces a full page of Todorov to a four line quote, eliding the critic's categories of the fantastic, the uncanny, and the marvelous. This reductive gesture allows Shippey to "prove" Todorov somehow both wrong and out of touch with "ordinary" bookshops and readers through an examination of stories by Eisenstein and Tiptree (Alice Sheldon) that, in this writer's view, validate Todorov's argument. By introduction's end, Shippey claims that fantasy is not merely neglected, but "despised" by "academic criticism," then refers generally, but not by name, to two recent studies of the genre that either forsake popular fantasy writers for commentary on canonical authors, or apply the pejorative terms "cult" and "industry" while discussing the genre (xxi). This indictment of the academic as somehow always already outside "ordinary" experience combines with his argument that, finally, "the true appeal of modern fantasy" lies not "in what one can get out of it" but "instead in a tone" evoked by fantasy elements presented in opposition to "the increasingly powerful forces of secularity and rationalism" (xx-xxi), thereby banishing academic inquiry from the paradoxically ordinary experience of fantasy. Shippey, then, denies academic discourse access to fantasy while simultaneously calling for the recognition and the "rescue [of] a powerful living tradition from academic marginalization" (xxii). This evocation of an apparently irreconcilable opposition between the academic and the popular pervades the tone of Shippey's introduction and mars an otherwise quality anthology, sustained by an informative definition of modern fantasy as parallel to yet distinct from science fiction.

--Jake Jakaitis, Indiana State University.


Gary K. Wolfe

On Some Recent Scholarship

The following reviews were written for Locus and are printed here with the permission of its editor-publisher, Charles N. Brown. The purpose of this department is to provide prompt notices of scholarly/critical works on sf, some of which will treated at greater length in later issues by specialist scholars, or simply to provide SFS readers with a review in those cases where the publishers have failed to send SFS a review-copy. Professor Wolfe, whose Known and Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (1979) is a classic of sf criticism, is one of the few scholars who take all sf as their province and so is well qualified for this task.--RDM.

Jane M. Lindsold. Roger Zelazny. Twayne Publishers (800-343-2806), 1994. 166p. $22.95. Twayne's ubiquitous and apparently endless series of tightly-formatted author studies has come late to science fiction and fantasy, and seems to give its academic authors quite a bit of leeway as long as the prescribed format is satisfied. This has resulted in wildly inconsistent approaches to sf writers such as Le Guin, Herbert, Asimov, Dick, Heinlein, and Harry Harrison, and some platforms for pretty quirky critical theories.

Jane M. Lindskold's Roger Zelazny is No. 640 in Twayne's United States Authors series, and the third booklength critical study of Zelazny's work (the first two being Carl Yoke's Starmont Guide in 1979 and Theodore Krulik's Ungar volume in 1986). Like Yoke (Zelazny's friend since childhood), Lindskold has had extensive support from Zelazny on the project, and generous quotations from fairly recent Zelazny correspondence give the book its major value. Those who already know Zelazny's work pretty well will find here a lot of interesting background material, but anyone seeking a useful guide through the complexities of this allusive and varied body of fiction won't get much help: the book is almost all background. Four of the book's six main chapters simply detail influences--schooling, reading, art, music, poetry, even martial arts (with too little attention paid to sf contexts or precedents)--and the last two explore Zelazny heroes and female characters (a topic more likely derived from Lindskold's own interests than from its weight in Zelazny's work). Individual novels and stories are mentioned fragmentarily, often only in passing, and Lindskold never conveys a real sense of the excitement of reading Zelazny or of the ways in which he has advanced sf both stylistically and thematically. For a guide to Zelazny's fiction, Carl Yoke's Starmont volume still remains the best choice.

Stan Nicholls. Wordsmiths of Wonder: Fifty Interviews with Writers of the Fantastic. Orbit, 1993. 461p. 8.99 paper. Books of author interviews, like bowls of guacamole, can be wonderful when dipped into but monotonous and lumpy when consumed straight through. Fortunately, Stan Nicholls--whose Wordsmiths of Wonder features interviews with no fewer than 50 writers of sf, fantasy, and horror--is one of the better interviewers around, choosing a wide variety of famous and less-famous subjects, permitting them to come through as individual voices, and keeping himself out of the way. Nicholls deftly avoids the two main traps interviewers so often fall into--either getting so involved in minutiae about specific works that the uninitiated reader feels left out, or mechanically going down a list of generic questions that make the interview read like a census report. Obviously, many concerns repeat themselves from interview to interview; most of the fantasy writers, for example, either grumble about or pay homage to Tolkien, and about half the sf writers allow as how they can't read the stuff anymore. But new insights emerge as well: among younger fantasy writers, the influence of Moorcock seems almost to rival that of Tolkien. There are also some tasty ironies: American writers envy the literary acceptance of the fantastic in England and Europe, while British writers talk of how much better their books do in the States. Several writers complain of the big bucks that go to formula series writers, and then Terry Brooks seems to rub it in with the comment that "The ringing of cash registers is music to my ears."

Slightly more than half the interviews (26) are classed as sf, 13 as fantasy, and 11 as horror--although there is obvious overlap with authors such as Moorcock, Ray Bradbury, Robert Holdstock, Dan Simmons, and Brian Stableford, who are all included in the sf section. Many focus heavily on current or recent books; Kim Stanley Robinson talks mostly about his Mars trilogy, and Joe Haldeman offers helpful insights into The Hemingway Hoax. Among the other Big Names you'd expect to see here are Pohl, Aldiss, Moorcock, Sheckley, Silverberg, Bear, Ballard, Donaldson, Barker, Niven and Barnes (interviewed together), James Herbert, and Tanith Lee. But Nicholls doesn't ignore commercial or cult writers like Brooks, Asprin, and Douglas Adams, and devotes deserved attention to writers we seldom see in such venues, such as Howard Waldrop, Michael Swanwick, Iain M. Banks, Lisa Tuttle, and David Wingrove. Still less familiar names show up in the horror section: Guy N. Smith, Shaun Hutson, Jonathan Aycliffe. Nearly all the subjects seem sincere and decent, nearly all of them whine a bit, and together they're enough to convince you that modern fantastic literature has no center whatsoever and doesn't add up to anything. With 50 writers covered, don't expect a lot of depth, but the breadth of coverage is the most impressive of any such recent collection I've seen.

Ron Miller. The Dream Machines: An Illustrated History of the Spaceship in Art, Science, and Literature. Krieger Publishing Co. (Box 9542, Melbourne, FL 32902), 1993. 714p. $112.00. I can't imagine who's actually going to shell out a hundred and twelve dollars for Ron Miller's massive The Dream Machines, although the book appears to be such an obsessive labor of love that I find myself hoping that someone will. Unfortunately, despite its promising title, the book is something of a disappointment both as a cultural history of an important icon and as a coffee-table art book. In the first place, it isn't really a history at all, but rather a detailed year-by-year chronology of real and imaginary spaceships and spaceship-like things from 360 B.C. to 2004 (the last few entries are based on current projections of planned projects). This makes it pretty convenient to look up what was going on in the world of spaceships in, say, 1657 or 1959, but I don't think I've ever actually met anybody who would want to do that. On the other hand, one looks for interpretive overviews almost in vain; if you want to know how Victorian spaceships or Weimar rockets reflected the anxieties or hopes of their societies, or why spaceships came to acquire an almost mythic status in American pop culture, Miller doesn't give you a clue. His approach to history is that of a compiler, and his model seems to be those massively detailed bathroom books like James Trager's The People's Chronology, which also tend to lack any sort of scholarly apparatus to let you know where the author gets his information. (There's a lengthy bibliography in the back which cavalierly mixes fiction and nonfiction, and which notably omits almost all works on the history of technology or the history of sf.)

Most of these complaints might go out the window if the book delivered the kind of sumptuous color plates and lively text of the best coffee-table books, but it doesn't. There are a total of 16 pages of color plates, most of them reduced to fit three to five pictures on a page; those great lunacies of Paul, Bergey, or Wesso that you might hope to find are almost invisible. Instead, the text is packed with enough schematics, profile drawings, black-and-white photos and engravings, and sketches--many by Miller himself or by Rick Dunning--to give it the appearance of a model-builders' handbook. But even most of these lack captions, and few of them are interesting enough to make you want to wade through the surrounding text to find probable references.

In Miller's favor, he provides enough summaries of both obscure and classic sf stories, and enough detailed information about the development of real space and rocket programs (as well as hoaxes), to give the book an undeniable reference value to anyone who wants to study the history of the spaceship--perhaps with an eye to writing the kind of technological/cultural history that still deserves to be written about this intriguing topic.

Steve Holland. The Mushroom Jungle: A History of Postwar Paperback Publishing. Zardoz/Zeon Books (20 Whitecroft, Dilton Marsh, Westbury, Wilts, BA13 4DJ, UK), 1993. 408p. 14.95. Last year saw the publication of Philip Harbottle and Stephen Holland's Vultures of the Void: A History of British Science Fiction Publishing 1946-1955 (reviewed by Nicholas Ruddick in SFS #60, July 1993), an entertaining if piecemeal chronicle of a justly-ignored era of British sf, when publishers of truly Dickensian sleaziness would sometimes lock writers in the basement to hack out reams of junk fiction, under appalling deadlines (reportedly 70,000 words per week in the particular case in question), for a pulp paperback industry that even Rupert Murdoch would find embarrassing. That writer-locked-in-the- basement story, which sounds suspiciously like a colorful bit of publishing folklore, is repeated in Holland's The Mushroom Jungle but with the additional testimony of a corroborating witness. It's a small example of the greater discipline and thoroughness of this full-fledged study of the postwar British paperback industry (the title refers to the fly-by-night publishers who proliferated in vast numbers during this time) as compared to the anecdotal nature of Vultures of the Void. Holland apparently knows more about what's under this rock than anyone, and his detailed accounts of print runs and buyouts can get a bit monotonous, but for scholars of this sort of thing (if there are any), it's likely to be the standard resource for some time to come.

If the hero of Vultures of the Void was John Russell Fearn, who as Vargo Statten sold some five million copies of sf books in the early 1950s, the hero on this broader canvas is the even more forgotten Stephen Frances, whose ridiculously tough "Hank Janson" gangster stories sold more than twenty million, stayed in print into the 1970s, and even got reprinted in America. (Near the end of his career, Frances wrote a well-received Spanish Civil War epic, La Guerra, but he died in obscurity in 1989.) It becomes clear that the pseudo-American gangster epic was the basic model for other genres as well, leading to such sf titles as The Human Bat v. the Robot Gangster and to endless fake tough-guy dialogue drawn from American B-movies. An exception might be the Westerns, which were often written in an impenetrable version of American cowboy slang and bore equally impenetrable titles such as Owlhoot Triggers for the Law. You can't help wonder what kind of writing lies behind such titles, and Holland gives you about as much as you can stand by way of examples; nor can you help but wonder how they came up with those wonderful house names (two of my favorites from the sf lists are "Vektis Brack" and "Bengo Mistral," the latter of whom is credited by Holland as the author of "the worst single piece of fiction ever published," Pirates of Cerberus). Holland describes how all the major genres of pop fiction got trashed by these small-time sleazelords, discusses the major authors and cover artists of the period, and offers some supplementary material on censorship trials and the antihorror comics campaign in Britain. Several publishers and writers actually spent substantial time in jail under a Victorian obscenity law, which would seem outrageous if you didn't suspect they deserved it on the basis of sentence structure alone. While Holland's focus is not exclusively on sf, he offers enough insights into the British pulp world to provide convincing evidence that Americans never again need apologize for Hugo Gernsback or Ray Palmer or even Mickey Spillane. On the other hand, who might be the American Vektis Brack?

Brian Attebery. Teacher's Guide to the Norton Book of Science Fiction. Norton, 1993. 129pp. $00.00.
Upon first reading the Le Guin/Attebery/Fowler Norton Book of Science Fiction, I wondered if some of the historical perspective missing from that book's selection of stories might be provided by Brian Attebery's "Teacher's Guide," which was unavailable at the time. It turns out that Attebery has done an excellent job, providing not only one-page commentaries on every single story, but adding five introductory chapters on teaching sf, sf history and marketing, and various critical approaches, along with primary and secondary bibliographies and a list of resources. He correctly suggests that for all its bulk, The Norton Book ought to be supplemented by some attention to the history of sf, some discussion of marketing and publishing forces, and an awareness of major critical approaches to the field. Although not as extensive as earlier stand-alone teaching guides such as those by Jack Williamson and Patrick Parrinder, Attebery's little book represents the most concerted attempt so far to bring the resources--and vocabulary--of sf's emerging critical theory into the classroom.

One might complain that Attebery's 10-page overview of sf history is impossibly brief, but his chapter on "Science Fiction, Literature, and the Marketplace" is one that ought to be read by every teacher of the genre. Subsequent introductory chapters highlight major critical concepts, with a special emphasis on Samuel R. Delany's "subjunctivity." What is most interesting is that Attebery then brings these specific critical concepts into play in his discussions of individual stories, boldfacing such key terms as "novum," "estranged," "protocol," "extrapolation," "analogy," "icon," "megatext," "metaphor," and "gender." He does not, as a rule, place the stories in the context of sf traditions or of other works not in the anthology, and it seems to me this misses an opportunity to open up the book up further. His selection of 90-odd recommended sf novels will also raise some eyebrows for what it excludes and includes, especially a novel by Leigh Brackett called The Long Goodbye. (He means The Long Tomorrow, but if Raymond Chandler starts showing up on sf course syllabi, we'll know who to blame.) As with the anthology itself, there's much to argue with here, but on the whole the teacher's quide, far from being a mere list of dumb "discussion questions," genuinely adds to the value of The Norton Book of Science Fiction.

Jack Zipes. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood.  2nd ed. Routledge (212-244-3336), 1993. 408pp. $49.95. In 1983, folklore scholar Jack Zipes published a fascinating collection of 31 versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" from around the world, dating from Charles Perrault's 1697 version to Angela Carter's 1979 "The Company of Wolves." The book was more than a folkloristic survey of variations on a theme, however, and it generated some controversy; Zipes was out to show how a simple folktale was appropriated over time to serve consciously literary and social agendas involving sex and power, and how many earlier interpreters of the tale (including Bruno Bettelheim) had either been taken in by, or contributed to, these agendas. It was a landmark book in calling our attention not only to the ways sexist values have infiltrated the literary fairy tale, but to the crucial differences between genuine folk material and the ways in which literature transforms that material in the service of social conditioning. Now, a second edition of The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood adds seven new pieces, a new prologue, and a substantial final essay, "Reviewing and Re-Framing Little Red Riding Hood," revised from its appearance in Zipes's collection of feminist fairy tales Don't Bet On The Prince. The book retains Zipes's long introductory essay, which has already become something of a classic in the scholarly analysis of the literary folktale.

Of the new additions, the most entertaining--and most relevant for sf readers--is Sally Miller Gearhart's "Roja and Leopold," which, set in a near-future world of corporate politics and out-of-control trendiness, manages to contrive a happy ending for the tale while at the same time celebrating animal rights, vegetarianism, and lesbianism. It does all this without losing a healthy sense of humor. Tanith Lee's "Wolfland," like the Angela Carter piece, is a modern Gothic rethinking of the tale, while Anne Sharpe's "Not So Little Red Riding Hood" updates Thurber's famous version (also included) by substituting karate skills for Thurber's revolver. Zipes also discovers an almost unknown playlet by Alphonse Daudet, a brief parody by Pierre Cami, and poems by Olga Broumas and Gwen Strauss.

All this material reinforces Zipes's original argument, which is further bolstered by his incisive discussion, in the epilogue, of the ways the tale has been illustrated through history. (The book is richly illustrated, and even includes examples of how the tale has been used in ads for scotch and cars, but in order to fit all the illustrations in, many have confusingly been embedded in versions for which they were never intended.) All that's missing to make this a comprehensive cultural history is some discussion of various other pop culture manifestations of the tale; Stan Freberg's 1950s parody recording, various tv and cartoon versions, or even the dumb old Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs classic would all lend texture and support to Zipes's basic arguments. Nevertheless, Zipes ought to be a role model for anyone who would make pronouncements about "fairy tales" without considering the context of the particular version they are discussing. He is both a meticulous scholar and a passionate guerilla fighter against what he calls (borrowing from Diane Herman) "the rape culture," and his book is not only an invaluable resource for the study of folk and fairy tales, but a model of solid research in the service of serious and worthwhile consciousness-raising.

Katherine Burdekin. The Proud Man. Afterword by Daphne Patai. Feminist Press (212-360-5790), 1993. 350p. $35.00 cloth, $14.95 paper.  Katharine Burdekin, who died in 1963, has remained all but invisible in critical and historical works about sf; even Sarah Lefanu's generally well-informed Feminism and Science Fiction misidentifies her 1934 novel Proud Man as a "future dystopia," and most readers who have heard of Burdekin know her only through the spookily prescient Swastika Night (1937), which --published two years before the invasion of Poland--depicted a Europe some seven centuries after Hitler's conquest, and remains Burdekin's best work. Both of these novels were published under the name "Murray Constantine," not so much to gain the added leverage of a male name but--according to Daphne Patai in her afterword to the new Feminist Press edition of Proud Man--to protect Burdekin's family from possible repercussions against such strongly antifascist work. This alone tells us something of the atmosphere in which Burdekin was writing, and of her perceptive understanding of the appeal of fascism. (Burdekin had already published two time-travel fantasies under her own name in the 1920s.)

The Feminist Press has already reprinted Swastika Night and, in 1989, published for the first time Burdekin's far-future feminist utopia The End of This Day's Business. Now, with Proud Man once again available, it's becoming clear that Burdekin deserves recognition as the leading feminist utopian writer of her era, as well as one of the most thoughtful and provocative sf writers of the 1930s--and possibly as one of the more influential as well. Olaf Stapledon knew her work, and Daphne Patai has provided suggestive evidence that Swastika Night may have been one of the unacknowledged influences on Orwell's 1984. Proud Man, about a visitor from a far-future hermaphroditic utopia to 1930s England, seems in many ways to anticipate Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos series, with its long expository passages and coolly analytical questioning of the more irrational aspects of human behavior. And the notion of exploring the role of sex in human affairs from the perspective of a character from a society without sexes prefigures Le Guin by three and a half decades.

We get very little information about the narrator's own society, and the strongest sf-narrative aspect of the book is the way it explores the interpersonal effects of telepathy. But Burdekin's real strength is her relentless and unsentimental analysis of a startling range of human behaviors, from war and economics to homosexuality and hair and clothing styles. During her time in London, the narrator has occasion to read and comment on Huxley's Brave New World and Point Counter Point. This not only gives us a sense that Burdekin knew quite well the tradition in which she was writing, but that she viewed that tradition with a kind of critical insight we would not see again until the feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that she has all but disappeared from that tradition ought to be an embarrassment to sf history, and The Feminist Press deserves much credit for giving her a second chance.

Isaac Asimov. I, Asimov. Doubleday, 1994. 552p. $25.00. Michael White. Asimov: The Unauthorized Life. Orion/Millenium, 1994. 304pp. 16.99. A frustrated creative writing teacher once told me about a student who turned in a draft of a story, apologizing that he still had to go back over it to "put in the symbols." Isaac Asimov, who thankfully never worried much about putting in the symbols, seems to have written I, Asimov with the express intent of putting in the opinions that were largely invisible in his first two thick volumes of autobiography. Both In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt-- titles taken from a fake "anonymous" poem that Asimov wrote expressly to yield up such titles--were strict chronological accounts of Asimov's life and career, offering few real insights but standing as monuments to the pure power of anecdote. You found yourself reading page after page of details about a life at least as uneventful as your own, captivated in part by the very mundanity that ought to be putting you to sleep.

Near the end of I, Asimov, when Asimov is describing how his wife Janet persuaded him to undertake this new autobiography (although Janet insists in an afterward that he really wanted to do it), he offers the disarmingly simple observation that "I have a pleasant writing style and can keep people reading, whatever I write." Short of a complex stylistic analysis, that's about all you can say about what makes Asimov's prose so engaging. He was our era's great artist of explanation, a master of the declarative sentence and the lockstep paragraph, and both his fiction and his nonfiction conspire to convince you that the world makes more sense than you thought it did. I, Asimov--Asimov himself preferred the title Scenes from Life, another line from that same poem, but Doubleday has opted for the pun on I, Robot--is no exception.

For all his 470-odd books and his legendary contributions to the development of sf, Asimov may well earn belated recognition as one of the premier short essayists of our time. I, Asimov takes full advantage of this, consisting of 166 short chapters on a variety of topics and people that were important to him. More than a quarter of these chapters, not surprisingly, concern Asimov's own writings, and another quarter are sketches of specific people, mostly family members and sf personalities. The latter is a who's who of four decades of sf: Pohl, Kornbluth, Wollheim, Campbell, Heinlein, de Camp, Simak, Williamson, del Rey, Sturgeon, Clarke, Gold, Boucher, Garrett, Ellison, Bova, Clement, Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg.

For the most part, Asimov's true feelings about these people, revealed at last, are hardly the stuff of lid-blowing; the man seems to have been almost pathologically affable. But whereas the earlier volumes reduced almost everyone to walk-on roles in Asimov's galloping chronology, here they become real, and even the most familiar stories take on a new light. The split with Campbell over dianetics, for example, is treated gingerly in In Memory Yet Green, but what Asimov politely called "mysticism" in that earlier book is here treated as what we all know it was--a fatal romance with pseudo-science that critically weakened Astounding and turned Campbell into a "diminishing shadow of what he had once been." (Elsewhere, Asimov misses the boat when he suggests that only his own writings have kept Campbell's name alive--an indirect expression of the fear that his own name may fade. Fat chance.) Similarly, Heinlein's occasional mean-spiritedness and growing right-wing militance (which Asimov seems to ascribe, Reagan-like, to a change of wives) is treated candidly, as are Sturgeon's growing financial problems late in life. But for the most part, Asimov is generous with his fellow writers and friends. He is less forgiving of his first wife Gertrude, but even here he seeks to find some logical external cause for their growing incompatibility (mainly, it seems, she smoked--even though it took more than 30 years for this and other factors to lead to divorce).

Anyone hoping for insights into the Asimovian creative process--exactly where the Foundation stories or the robot stories came from and how they were shaped--won't find much more help here than in the earlier autobiographies. To the end (and much of I, Asimov was written from the hospital bed when he knew his days were numbered), Asimov seems genuinely mystified by his own talent. He recounts again the famous story of how Campbell gave him the assignment for "Nightfall," but he hasn't a clue as to why the story was so popular. Nor did he seem to think there was much special about the Foundation series when he turned it over to Gnome Press in 1951. When he tries to explain the dynamics of his straight-ahead, no-nonsense narrative style, he ends up throwing up his hands. When he achieves unexpected emotional impact--which seems to be how he gauges his own favorite stories ("The Last Question," "The Bicentennial Man," "The Ugly Little Boy")--he simply ascribes it to "writing over my head" and can't figure out how he did it. For a man who seemed almost as egotistical as he says he is, he is constantly amazed at his own successes--the most artless of major artists.

For all its congeniality, however, I, Asimov is inescapably the work of a dying man. In a three-page chapter titled "Gathering Shadows," he obsessively details the deaths of no fewer than 26 friends, and the chapters dealing with his own heart attack, triple bypass and later hospitalizations reveal an odd mixture of clinical detail, resignation, and embarrassment at his own mortality. By the very end of the book, detailing his activities in May of 1990, Asimov returns to the simple catalog-of-events style of his earlier autobiographies, almost as if to show us that he was simply too busy to die. The very reserve and lack of sentimentality with which Asimov treats his progressive physical decline give these chapters an almost heartbreaking quality, but he never ceases from explanation--even when it's his own leaking mitral valve in question. I couldn't help suspect that the fabled Asimovian wit must have seen in this final confrontation with mortality the seeds to the greatest explanatory challenge of all--Asimov's Guide to Death. I, Asimov is a sad book, and in some ways a tired one, and it does nothing to modify the classic Asimovian view of himself as a convivial genius--no grumbles from the grave here. But if Asimov wants to be charmingly opaque until the end, what's to complain about? A man is entitled to his own myth.

With more than 2,000 pages of Asimov autobiography available, one wonders what purpose a book such as Michael White's Asimov: The Unauthorized Life is supposed to serve. Certainly there are lacunae in Asimov's accounts of himself and his work, and his chronic lack of introspection leaves plenty of room for others to assess his place in the history of sf or the history of popular literature in general. There is also plenty of non-autobiographical material available--at least a half-dozen critical studies; endless anecdotes in autobiographical works by Pohl, Moskowitz, Knight, Williamson, Clarke, and others; scores of interviews; an extensive analysis of his literary relationship with Campbell in Alexei and Cory Panshin's The World Beyond the Hill; letters of Campbell and others; and of course the huge manuscript collection at Boston University. Surprisingly, White makes use of almost none of this; his tiny bibliography includes only seven badly-chosen non-Asimov titles (omitting all critical studies of Asimov except Joseph Patrouch's 20-year-old book), and he offers no further documentation beyond a few footnotes. White describes his visit to the Asimov collection at Boston, but shows little evidence of having found anything there, and as far as I can see there's almost nothing here that isn't drawn from Asimov's own writing.

As a critic or literary historian, White is a disaster. His view of sf history is almost exclusively second-hand, drawn from Aldiss and Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree and Scholes and Rabkin's Science Fiction: History/Science/Vision (whose subtitle he omits in his bibliography). He thinks that "Marooned off Vesta" is "now one of Asimov's most famous stories," that "Nightfall" is Asimov's only attempt at emotional or philosophical fiction, that the Foundation stories "established" space opera (at least in "the minds of teenagers," an arguable oxymoron), that The End of Eternity is Asimov's masterpiece because it contains a nice romance. He repeatedly refers to the robot story "The Evitable Conflict" as "The Inevitable Conflict." He claims that the Martin Greenberg of Gnome Press "operated honestly," which might get yelps from a lot of people besides Asimov had White bothered to ask. He cites Robert Heinlein as a member of the Futurians and Ray Bradbury as part of the New Wave. He even lists the star of TV's MASH, whom Asimov met once, as "Alan Alder." It's an eye-opening book, all right.

When White makes one of his rare attempts to link Asimov's life to his fiction, he does so with the sensitivity and gusto of Geraldo Rivera: pouncing on Asimov's complaints that his first wife Gertrude seemed uninterested in sex, White tries to ascribe the major novels of the 1950s to a "sexual awakening" during a self-confessed one-night stand in Cambridge in 1953 (even while admitting that, except for The End of Eternity, there's no more evidence of sex in Asimov's fiction than before)! Later, he tries to cast doubt on Asimov's own boyish claims of sexual prowess, and wonders what Gertrude's side of the story might have been, but he never tries to check it out or to demonstrate that it has the remotest relevance to anything useful. Lame as it is, this is what presumably is meant to give the "unauthorized" in the subtitle its hint of titillation, and if so it's merely another example of White's naive adolescent view of the sf world.

David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds. The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard Science Fiction. Tor Books (800-221-7945), 1994. 1004pp. $35.00. Hard sf--the focus of the 1983 Eaton conference (and the 1986 critical book derived from it) and last year's special issue of SFS--seems as intractable of definition as sf itself. The latest and most ambitious contribution to the debate is this huge anthology, containing some 67 stories, introductions by Hartwell, Cramer, and Gregory Benford, and extensive story notes. Both Hartwell and Cramer agree that hard sf is widely perceived as somehow being at the core of the sf enterprise, but beyond that they never quite let themselves get pinned down to a usable definition. It's up to the reader to weasel one out of their various comments, story introductions, and--above all--the selection of stories included.

Those who believe that hard sf can be defined historically by the period of John W. Campbell's editorship of Astounding will find a pretty good selection of classically Campbell-era stories and authors. From Campbell's Astounding come stories by Hal Clement, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, Philip Latham, Tom Godwin, Gordon Dickson, Clifford Simak, Raymond F. Jones, Theodore Thomas, and Vernor Vinge. Add to these some predictable classics from Heinlein, Asimov (with three stories), Clarke (two stories and a short-short), Poul Anderson, James Blish, Bob Shaw, and representative works by more recent heirs of this tradition such as Robert L. Forward, Dean Ing, Gregory Benford, Donald M. Kingsbury, Larry Niven, James P. Hogan, Greg Bear, and David Brin--and you've got a pretty healthy selection of stories of the sort you would expect in an anthology of this scope. But soon fuzziness sets in. The stories above constitute about two-fifths of the contents of Ascent of Wonder. The remainder, including a handful of historical precedents (Verne, Wells, Kipling, Poe, Hawthorne), a few run-of-the-mill magazine stories that are exemplars of type--and no fewer than two stories each by Le Guin, Ballard, and Gene Wolfe, plus such unlikely candidates for hard sf as Richard Grant, C.M. Kornbluth, Anne McCaffrey, John Sladek, John M. Ford, Theodore Sturgeon, James Tiptree Jr, Cordwainer Smith, and Philip K. Dick. The reasons for their inclusions rest mostly in the individual story introductions--and what gradually emerges is that Ascent of Wonder is really meant to be an ambitious examination of, in Hartwell's words, "the way science functions in science fiction." The problem with this, of course, is that if science doesn't function in some way, it's not science fiction in the first place. Hence, there's no clear principle of exclusion, no acknowledgment that any subset of sf exists other than hard sf. In other words, there's a fair amount of fudging going on here, and a lot of stories are included that directly violate the relatively hard line taken in Benford's guest introduction.

The pleasures of reading hard sf, to be sure, are much in evidence in The Ascent of Wonder, and most of the arguments are likely to come directly from the book's ambitious and misleading subtitle, and from odd comments in the often pedantic story introductions. Viewed from another angle, the collection might be seen as a deliberate response to such other recent anthologies as Le Guin, Attebery, and Fowler's Norton Book of Science Fiction, designed with the intention of putting hard sf back in the center of the table while acknowledging the impact of more metaphorical and "literary" texts. (Nearly two-thirds of Hartwell and Cramer's contents date from 1960 or later--the same period covered in the Norton book.) As both a reading and a teaching anthology, The Ascent of Wonder has much to offer that The Norton Book doesn't, and many readers will prefer its inclusive approach to that earlier anthology's revisionist approach. And certainly the arguments likely to be engendered by the book's more controversial selections and strange critical proclamations may help to enliven critical debate. But readers who hope to clarify their understanding of hard sf aren't likely to find much illumination coming from the very fuzzy set of stories included here.

Christophe Canto and Odile Faliu. The History of the Future. Trans. Francis Cowper. Flammarion (Abbeville Publishing Group, 488 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022), 1993. 160p. $45.00. This richly-illustrated French coffee-table book well-translated by Francis Cowper, seems like a good idea, but it quickly becomes apparent that the authors have only the vaguest idea of what they're trying to do. I think their goal is to show how various aspects of the future have been visualized by sf writers and artists and other futurologists over a period ranging roughly from 1851 to 1961, but their odd way of approaching the topic ends up telling us nothing about the future and very little about the history of attitudes toward the future. This is not a scholarly history-of-ideas text along the lines of Fred Polak's classic The Image of the Future, and its maddening reference scheme and lack of an index make it virtually useless for research.

The authors begin promisingly enough, distinguishing, for example, between "life-sized" and "magnifying" futures and noting how authors have tended to select future dates by one of three methods: "reflex" (round numbers like the year 3000), "conventional" (dates derived from some sort of extrapolation), or "arbitrary" (such as setting a story 500 years from the time of its writing). This introductory essay, and the historical "Chapter O" which follows, are the strongest parts of the book's text. The five chapters which follow, on daily life, machinery, architecture and urban design, dystopian or disaster scenarios, and space exploration, all follow the same basic method: a narrative description of the future liberally sprinkled with quotations taken from a bibliography of a hundred or so sf stories and futuristic texts, apparently chosen almost at random. This means that the same future scenario may have one aspect drawn from E.M. Forster, the next from Murray Leinster, and another from Buck Rogers--all jumbled together as unholy collaborators in some incoherent "consensus" that really tells us nothing about any author's vision. (In order to find out where these quotations come from, you have to turn to the notes at the back of the book, which often give only a name, forcing you to turn to the "Works Cited" pages for a full citation. Similarly, in order to find where the illustrations come from, you have to turn to a separate set of notes in the back.)

The illustrations are fascinating and very well reproduced, but they often have little to do with the text, so that, for example, a 1936 Paul cover for Amazing seems to illustrate a 1960 Yefremov story and a 1956 Emsh illustration for a Jack Sharkey story is set opposite a quotation from Bester's The Demolished Man. And the texts chosen as sources seem almost wholly arbitrary--a random story each by Dick, Leiber, Cordwainer Smith, Evelyn E. Smith, two Asimov novels and two story collections, Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, various French magazines, etc. Ray Bradbury is given equal time with Arthur C. Clarke as a futurologist. Wildly conflicting ideas and visions are jumbled into the same paragraphs, as though all sf writers agreed with one another (a nightmarish thought if there ever was one). The overall effect reminded me of nothing so much as Robert Lindner's famous case history "The Jet-Propelled Couch", in which the therapist had to unravel an extended psychotic fantasy cobbled together by someone who had read too much sf and forgotten that it was, after all, fiction.

Aurel Guillemette. The Best in Science Fiction: Winners and Nominees of the Major Awards in Science Fiction. Scolar Press (Ashgate Publishing Co., Old Post Road, Brookfield, VT 05036-9704), 1993. 379p. $39.50.
At the risk of offending some of my fellow academics, there are some aspects of sf scholarship that simply ought to be left to fans and fan presses. I have here before me the old Franson-DeVore History of the Hugo, Nebula, and International Fantasy Awards, sloppily printed, annoyingly organized, crudely stapled together, extra pages stuffed in to add 1976 awards--and I also have Aurel Guillemette's neatly printed and imposingly hardbound The Best in Science Fiction, which lists many of the same winners and nominees, but in an even more annoying format that looks like the work of a berserk IRS bureaucrat. Guillemette hopes to guide readers to the "best in science fiction" by cataloguing winners and nominees of 17 major awards, then adding chapters that list the same awards by author, by title, and by year. Such a project would be of marginal value even if it were done well, but it isn't.

The first thing most readers will notice is that many categories of awards are simply omitted. The Hugo lists omit dramatic presentations, editors, magazines, fanzines, artists, and fan writers, as well as the Gandalf, Campbell, and special achievement awards (although the University of Kansas Campbell awards are included in a separate section). No Grand Master Nebulas are here, and no World Fantasy or Horror Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Awards (although fiction awards are included for all these.) Nor is publication information given about the winning books and stories. The author claims that such material would "have greatly increased the extent of the text," although the text is already far longer than it needs to be because of all the permutations of award listings that take up subsequent chapters, and because the clunky database format requires 16 pages to list Hugo winners and nominees (I note that a Worldcon Program book gets a more complete listing in four pages).

Many awards are missing altogether: the Prometheus, Crawford, Mythopoeic Society, Readercon, Rhysling, and Lambda awards are invisible, as are all academic awards and foreign-language awards. Let's assume this is due to space considerations as well, and examine the book only as the limited listing it purports to be. Now we run into additional problems of incomplete or inaccurate entries even for what's included. Michael Flynn, for example, won the 1991 Compton Crook Award, but isn't even listed as a nominee here (no winner is listed). Harlan Ellison's Angry Candy won a World Fantasy in 1989, but is given only as a nominee; again, no winner is listed. The winners of short fiction and story collections for the 1992 World Fantasy Awards are not indicated, though all nominees are listed; ditto the 1991 Nebulas. Titles are often truncated to fit the columns, and occasionally collaborators' names are omitted for the same reason. There are too many typos: Sword of the Lichtor, Thomas Pychon, Chton, Robert Silberberg.

At the end, Guillemette purports to offer a numerical tabulation of the very best sf works by arbitrarily assigning weighted points to each award (5 for a Hugo or Nebula win, 4 for a nomination, 2 for a Stoker award, etc.) and then totting up the totals. As a result, we now have statistical proof that Neuromancer is the greatest sf novel of all time (28 points), and that "Bears Discover Fire" is the best story (25 points). This has some curiosity value, I suppose, but as we work our way down the list, the rankings grow increasingly arbitrary. Both Gateway and Shadow of the Torturer garner 18 points, for example, but the former is ranked 16th and the latter 24th (with five other 18 point books in between). Lincoln's Dreams is the 231st best sf novel ever (blurb writers please note) with 7 points, but way down at number 294 is This is the Way the World Ends--also with 7 points. (Everything in between gets 7 points, too.) All this database abuse might be forgivable if the book were a reliable guide to the awards themselves, but it's not even that. It does, however, cause one to wonder about the merits of a federally-mandated waiting period prior to the purchase of computers.


moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)  Back to Home