A "Stepping-Stone" Study of
Paul K. Alkon. Science
Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. Twayne's
Studies in Literary Themes and Genres. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994. xix+175 pp.
It is known from their correspondence that Jules Verne occasionally complained to his
publisher P.-J. Hetzel about the "restricted milieu" that he was "condemned
to move around in" when writing the novels of his Voyages Extraordinaires.
Verne was referring, of course, to Hetzel's insistence that they be highly pedagogical,
strongly mimetic, and morally "wholesome." For Hetzel, the unprecedented
commercial success of the Voyages served as a kind of intrinsic justification for
this particular narrative format; but for Verne, such editorial strictures proved to be
quite chafing at times.
One cannot help but feel that Paul Alkon, in his new book Science Fiction Before
1900, must have experienced similar frustrations with the format required by his own
publisher Twayne. As an accomplished scholar of science-fiction narratives whose earlier Origins
of Futuristic Fiction (see SFS #47, March 1989, 94-102) made a substantial
contribution to the field, Alkon was apparently asked by Twayne to do the impossible:
reduce the entire pre-twentieth-century history of science fiction to some 175 published
pages (sized 5 x 8), arranged in only four chapters of 20-40 pages each, preceded by a
basic chronology, and followed by a supplemental "Bibliographic Essay" and a
list of recommended sf titles. In his preface to Science Fiction Before 1900,
Alkon explains how, when confronted with this daunting task, he was forced to abandon the
traditional "survey" in favor of a very different approach:
Every fan of science fiction remembers with pleasure Arthur C. Clarke's classic 1953
short story "The Nine Billion Names of God." But I believe there would be few
happy memories of an introduction to science fiction's early days that read like a catalog
of the nine billion works before 1900 with some claim as precursors or exemplars of the
genre. Of course there were not quite that many. There are, however, enough serious
claimants so that to mention, let alone discuss, them all or even those most widely read
in their time would create an impression of astronomical magnitude more bewildering than
enlightening. I intend this book, therefore, to provide soundings rather than a survey.
Those who know, or think they know, the history of science fiction will have the
satisfaction of deploring my omission of many favorite and doubtless relevant texts that
are among what I consider the "nine billion." ...
...I have concentrated on a few key works that mark the most significant phases in the
early evolution of science fiction... My discussion even of these milestones is not
designed to be exhaustive, however, but rather to provide orientation—and, I hope
stimulation—allowing my readers to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with these
archetypes and with relevant criticism of them as a way of embarking on the right path to
their own close encounter with the origins of science fiction. (xi-xii)
The key words here are "introduction," "soundings,"
"milestones," and "orientation." Together they provide a very apt
description of his Science Fiction Before 1900, both in its purposefully limited
scope and in its goal to be an initial stepping-stone for the neophyte to other works of
and scholarship on pre-20th-century science fiction. And, judged by these modest
intentions, Alkon's short study is quite successful.
The book opens with a brief chapter called "A Short History of the Future"
wherein Alkon discusses the many modern definitions of science fiction as a genre
(historical, reader-response, thematic, etc.), the relationship of science fiction to
Gothic fiction, and several sf "precursors" like Swift, Defoe, Cyrano, Guttin,
Mercier, et al. As concerns the historical starting-point of "true" sf and sf
criticism, the author states unequivocally in the opening sentence of the chapter:
"Science fiction starts with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Its first critic
was Percy Shelley" (1).
Each of the ensuing three chapters targets certain "masterpieces" of
19th-century science fiction in England, France, and America (i.e., the United States):
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and H.G. Wells's The Time Machine; Jules
Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Albert Robida's The
Twentieth Century; Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and Mark Twain's A
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Other sf writers and works are mentioned,
but as a rule only briefly and contextually. The author explains his unusual three-country
modus operandi by saying: "This arrangement somewhat blurs chronological
relationships, but... I wish to stress that science fiction has from its outset been an
international phenomenon transcending political boundaries while nevertheless taking on
distinctive features that reflect different national preoccupations" (xiii). But
Alkon's rationale here is not terribly convincing. One finds, for example, very little
detailed comparative analysis of such "different national preoccupations" among
the sf traditions of these three Western countries, apart from those facile (and wholly
dubious) generalizations attributed to them in the chapter titles—e.g., "England:
New Viewpoints," "France: Technophilia," and "America:
Technophobia." And although such attributes may well be "ultimately of great
significance to the genre" (57), they are nevertheless very misleading when used as
national labels. In this respect at least, it seems clear that the organizing principle
used in Science Fiction Before 1900 was dictated less by a desire for critical
insight than by a need for exegetical expediency.
Be that as it may, Alkon's discussions of these classic sf texts are uniformly lucid,
very informed, and written with an elegance of style that is sometimes sadly lacking in
contemporary sf criticism. Despite the "restricted milieu" which Alkon is
"condemned to move around in," he manages to synthesize and personalize some of
the best modern commentaries on these literary works, and to point the interested reader
in the right directions for further study. That is not to say that there is no original
scholarship here: Alkon's innovative treatment of Albert Robida, for example, opens new
pathways to a long-overdue reconsideration of this French sf writer and illustrator. But,
to his credit, Alkon also frequently cites the observations of other respected scholars
who have turned their attention to the early history of science fiction (e.g., Amis,
Bleiler, Clareson, Clarke, Philmus, Suvin, Aldiss, Stableford, Versins, Franklin, among
others—one work, however, which he appears to have overlooked is John J. Pierce's Foundations
of Science Fiction). And his supplemental "Bibliographic Essay," albeit not
exhaustive, lists a wide assortment of previous sf scholarship on this topic in the form
of reference works, historical and theoretical studies, anthologies, and studies of
individual writers and works.
True to its Twayne parentage, Science Fiction Before 1900 is not meant to be a
major watershed in modern sf scholarship. Its primary goal, as with most other titles in
the Twayne series, is to be a broadly informative and reasonably up-to-date introduction
for non-specialists. However, in choosing Paul Alkon to write this particular book (and,
we are told, Brooks Landon for a forthcoming volume on science fiction after 1900), Twayne
is making significant progress toward enhancing its image as serious criticism.
Writers on Women Writers.
Sheila Roberts, ed. Still
the Frame Holds: Essays on Women Poets and Writers.
Evans Studies in the Philosophy and Criticism of Literature #10. The Borgo Press (P.O. Box
2845, San Bernardino, CA 92406-2845), 1993. 216p. $30.00 cloth, $20.00 paper, plus $2.00
This collection might just as easily have been subtitled "Essays by Women Poets
and Writers," since the majority of the contributors are just that: poets and writers
who have, for the purpose of the collection, turned their attention to other poets and
writers. As a collection, however, these essays lack any recognizable informing direction,
an absence perhaps signaled in advance by what is a distinctly non-committal title.
Two of these essays, however, might be of interest to SFS readers: Katherine Fishburn's
"Reforming the Body Politic: Radical Feminist Science Fiction" and Barbara
Drake's "Two Utopias: Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Ursula Le
Guin's The Dispossessed." Unfortunately, neither is very strong.
Written in 1980, Drake's essay, which points out a number of politically ambiguous or
problematic features in Piercy and Le Guin's novels, assumes her readers' unfamiliarity
with the texts. While her brief supplemental note of 1992 situates her own essay
historically, she does not, in turn, situate Le Guin's novel by referring, for example, to
any of the essays in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989) which might
have shed light on what she identifies as Le Guin's reluctance to "put forth a
clearly feminist viewpoint" (120) in The Dispossessed (a criticism which is
hardly news by 1993).
If Drake identifies her critical predelictions as rooted in the late 1970s, Fishburn
seems, at first glance, to refuse historicization altogether. It is one thing to link
certain feminist sf with 1970s feminist paradigms, but quite another to treat Dorothy
Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1977) and Shulamith Firestone's The
Dialectic of Sex (1971) as if they were the latest word in feminist thought. Equally
irksome is Fishburn's statement that
Historically, science fiction has been a male-oriented and male-dominated literature,
written by men, for men and about men.... Until now, in other words, science fiction has
been nothing more than a futuristic version of twentieth-century American suburbia. (31)
After pondering that "now" for a while, I wondered whether this essay was,
like Drake's, not of 1993 at all. In fact, it seems likely that Fishburn's perception that
feminist sf is a "newly emerging genre" (30) must also be at least twelve years
old. That said, her examination of fiction by Joanna Russ, Anne McCaffrey, James Tiptree,
Jr., Octavia Butler, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Sally Miller Gearhart is interesting, if a
bit doctrinaire about the absolute responsibility of female/feminist writers to reinscribe
the world "correctly" in their fiction. It is as if Fishburn expects these
writers' audiences to assess them solely on the basis of their ability to represent
visionary gender politics.
Apart from these two essays and Yasmine Gooneratme's well-researched and compellingly
argued "Film into Fiction: The Influence of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Cinema Work upon
Her Fiction," the fiction criticism in Roberts' collection is rather lame, and the
most accomplished essays here are devoted to poetry, by Diane Wakoski, Rosemary Dobson,
Gwen Harwood, Sylvia Plath, and Margaret Atwood, among others.
Despite Roberts' title, this collection indicates that the "frame," as a
barrier or constraint to women's writing, is precisely what does not hold, when it is
subjected to intelligent critical and artistic scrutiny.
—Nicola Nixon, University of Toronto.
The Rebel's Progress.
Marleen S. Barr. Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond.
University of North Carolina Press (800-848-6224), 1993, xi+231. $39.95 cloth, $14.95
As Marleen Barr announces in her introduction, Lost in Space is a
"mapping" of her "professional road" (10), a hybrid collection of her
work before and after Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction (1992), and a
partial retracing of the literary ground covered in both Feminist Fabulation and
her earlier Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory (1987).
Of the thirteen essays in Lost in Space, six have already appeared in journals
like Foundation and Extrapolation and in anthologies such as Rhys
Garnett and Richard Ellis's Science Fiction Roots and Branches(1990); another
essay appeared in somewhat different form in Feminist Fabulation. The six essays
in Part 2 of Lost in Space—identified as "After Feminist Fabulation"
—are new, focusing on writers as diverse as Octavia Butler and Saul Bellow, Margaret
Atwood and Salman Rushdie, gathering these writers together in a manner that Marge Piercy,
in her Foreword, likens to that of the shepherd/ cultural critic who brings stray
lambs/texts "back into the fold" to be "properly examined and renamed"
Lost in Space is equally an unabashed celebration of Barr's apparent arrival
at mastery, an articulation of an unshakably firm "identity theme" (15). If Barr
stops just short of recording her own career trajectory as feminist fabulation
("feminist metafiction"), she nevertheless recounts a metacritical adventure in
which she is the unchallenged heroine. Figuring herself first as a swashbuckling
"assistant professor/swordswoman dueling [her] way past those who wished to
impede" her (5)—a gutsy upstart who "had the courage to clap [her] fingers
against typewriter keys" when "confronted by institutional powers that attempted
to silence" her—she then fashions herself as unrepentantly rebellious. If she had it
all to do again, she "would still damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead"
(10), despite the dangers of her not getting tenure.
Now, much as we might enjoy tales of critical adventure, especially those refining what
Samuel Beckett termed "kicking against the pricks," Barr's self-enunciation as
the heroic critic of Lost in Space raises some distracting questions. To what
degree, for instance, can the feminist critic simply adopt connotatively oedipal models
and assume that her substitution of herself for the son who struggles against the father
will be read as ironic? And to what degree will this identity thematics be read as blatant
self-aggrandizement, a muted crowing over the temporarily conquered, if not dead, father?
It seems to me that Barr, who is so ostensibly concerned with challenging that
undifferentiated monolith "the Patriarchy," and with "critiqu[ing]
patriarchal master narratives" (10), should perhaps be more careful about mapping her
own "professional road" as the well-traveled road to Thebes. And she might well
exercise a bit more critical awareness before configuring herself, apparently without
irony, as an sf messiah, one who is single-handedly "saving from oblivion the texts
constituting feminist science fiction" (156).
Indeed, self-referential irony is noticeably absent from Barr's autobiographic
representations in Lost in Space. Such an irony might, for example, tacitly
acknowledge other critics—for example, Natalie Rosinsky, Nan Albinski, Sarah Lefanu, or
Angelika Bammer—who have also written extensively about feminist sf. It might even
acknowledge that the very works Barr examines are, for the most part, still in print,
still being taught in plenty of university courses, and consequently are far from
languishing in oblivion—unlike, say, many of the works of prominent male sf writers.
Barr insists, however, that we not compare feminist sf with other sf, that we abandon
the sf "label" because it identifies "genre" fiction, and that we
adopt instead her "feminist fabulation." She views her self-appointed task as
essentially a mission of salvage, aimed at recovering what has been almost irretrievably
lost within the black hole of "genre" fiction, by placing it into a category
that is supposedly larger, more serious, and more acceptable in and to the academy.
Feminist sf writers should be called "postmodern feminist fabulators" and their
work should be taken "out of the sf field altogether" (102) in order that it may
assume its rightful place in the postmodern canon. Like prodigal daughters,
"postmodernism's exiled—and silenced" (142) feminist sf writers need to be
If Barr were only arguing for the expansion of the so-called postmodern canon, which is
to some extent what she implicitly argues in Feminist Fabulation, she would still
have to address precisely what constitutes that canon and which critics have had a vested
interest in maintaining its supposed hegemony. In Lost in Space, however, Barr
takes the postmodern canon as a given and never mentions those complicit in its
fashioning; it is thus tempting to think of this written-in-stone canon as somehow the
metaphoric equivalent of the patriarchal "Elders" who impeded Barr's
professional progress in the first place.
The entire question of agency seems to be adroitly avoided in Lost in Space:
who, for instance, "tosses [feminist science fiction] out of the canon" (212);
who forces it into oblivion; who exiles and silences it? Clearly, the knee-jerk response
here would be an unequivocal "men," despite Barr's sympathetic treatment of such
projects as Alice Jardine and Paul Smith's collection, Men in Feminism. But the
agents of this exiling, tossing, and silencing are, in fact, constructs: the
frequently-invoked and monolithic "Patriarchy" and the equally-uninflected
"Postmodernism" are deployed interchangeably. As constructs, the former remains
virtually uninterrogated and the latter is never recognized as mutable and slippery,
defined differently by different theorists of postmodernism. In Lost in Space
there are no real agents to perform the work of exclusion. Even the most likely
candidates—Linda Hutcheon (The Politics of Postmodernism), Frederic Jameson (Postmodernism,
or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism), or Jean-François Lyotard (The
Postmodern Condition)—never appear responsible for the seemingly aggressive ejection
and excision of feminist sf from the postmodern canon. Indeed, postmodern critics never
appear at all in Lost in Space: only Jameson's The Political Unconscious gets
a passing reference, Hutcheon's reading of Rushdie's Midnight's Children receives
a nod, and Lyotard remains unmentioned, as do any other theorists currently engaged either
in establishing or interrogating a postmodern canon.
And yet it is this very obfuscation of the fact that canons are made and not born, this
hyperbolic rhetoric of aggressive exclusion, and this evasion of confrontation with
postmodern canon-makers that allows Barr to perpetuate her initial self-figuration as the
lone heroine assaulting an impenetrable fortress and potentially risking her academic
career—all for the sake of rescuing feminist sf from sure extinction as mere
"genre" fiction. Given, however, that the sf maidens-in-distress appear to be
none other than Suzy McKee Charnas (Motherlines), Marge Piercy (Woman on the
Edge of Time), Sally Miller Gearhart (The Wanderground), Joanna Russ (The
Female Man and "When It Changed"), James Tiptree, Jr. ("The Women Men
Don't See" and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"), Zoë Fairbairns (Benefits),
Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness and "Sur"), and Margaret
Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale), Barr's polemical rescue of them from obscurity
seems suspect, to say the least.
In fact, her argument that the exclusion of feminist sf is generically-motivated rather
than gender-motivated tends to manufacture isolation, separating as it does feminist sf
from its generic connections and forcing it into an uneasy, and frequently awkward,
dialogue with canonical postmodernism. And, while the most forceful aspect of Barr's work
is her construction of "feminist fabulation," she nevertheless tends to deploy
the construct to produce a generic leveling, to remove the distinctions between, say,
Bellow and Butler in the interest of getting feminist sf into the postmodern canon, as if,
somehow, such an entry represented the zenith of achievement. Not only does Barr fail to
address the implications of a wholesale removal of feminist sf from the sf field—the
field in which it maintains a gendered and political dialogue with other texts, and the
field from which it derives and transforms its tropes, paradigms, historical
resonances—but she does not seem to recognize that a conferral of a new label on feminist
sf, on the strength of fiat alone, is not going to make it so.
Perhaps in emulation of some postmodern texts, Barr dismisses the importance of
contexts, such as the historical or material differences between, say, Poe's "The
Black Cat" and Anita Hill, or the cultural, racial, and gender differences between Thelma
and Louise and The Boyz 'n the Hood. Reveling in the play of panhistorical
textuality, she seems not to register the potential problems involved in forging
connections between feminist sf and canonical postmodernism, whose critics rightly point
to its characteristic apolitical ahistoricism and its perpetual identification with crises
of masculinity. Nor does Barr acknowledge her own procrustean manoeuvres in feminist sf;
she has to, for example, champion Salmon Rushdie, Thomas Berger, and Saul Bellow as
feminist fabulators, and then reprimand Joanna Russ for her hard line on sex-role reversal
sf written by men, concluding with the homily that "science fiction's feminists
should listen to the genre's male women" (77). While Barr herself continues to ignore
Samuel R. Delany, she does reassure us that the "White House is now occupied by
antipatriarchal fabulators" (125).
This skipping about from Poe to the White House, from Herman Melville to Star Trek's
Next Generation, from Robin Hood to Boyz 'n the Hood, may indeed offer a
demonstration of fabulation at work, or of a free-ranging textuality with whimsically
synthetic referents; but it effaces cultural, historical, and political difference,
disconnecting texts from both contemporaries and audiences and coyly joining them through
spurious linguistic triggers. If the dissolution of ideological boundaries is Barr's
proposed means of "saving" feminist sf by indulging in some limitless play of
the signifier in order to widen the parameters of "canonical postmodern
literature," then we might be tempted to dismiss her project as rather too costly for
any sf engaged in cultural interrogation. However, the idea of feminist
fabulation remains compelling in its suggestive potential for linking feminist sf and the
work of writers like Jeanette Winterson, Fay Weldon, Angela Carter, and Kathy Acker, all
of whom critique patriarchal assumptions within quasi-fantasy. These writers, however,
escape Barr's attention.
Instead of making expedient compromises in order to shoe-horn feminist sf into a
"postmodern canon" that is, depending on one's perspective, either already
completely ossified or so expansive that its designation as "canon" is a
misnomer, Barr might more usefully elaborate on her conception of feminist fabulation and
stop trying to use feminist sf either to disinter the bones of postmodernism or to
contribute to its exploding nondefinition. Much as feminist sf might have been
disadvantaged by its genre fiction stature—at least, according to Barr—were we to
compare the shelf-life or academic life of, say, the canonical Donald Barthelme and the sf
Joanna Russ, Russ would win hands down. And, apropos of obscurity, when was the last time
anyone actually read the egregious Abortion or Snow White?
I do not believe that feminist sf needs a savior. What it needs is a theoretical
framework to facilitate its dialogue with other forms of feminist fiction. Feminist
fabulation, as a construct, has that potential; but in Lost in Space that
potential remains unrealized.
—Nicola Nixon University of Toronto.
Virginia Harger-Grinling and Tony Chadwick, eds.
Robbe-Grillet and the Fantastic: A Collection of
Essays. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 59.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1994. viii+187. $49.95.
"We may feel that ontological uncertainty has become critical orthodoxy, and is
itself in need of deconstruction," ventures Ralph Yarrow in one of seven essays
devoted to the "fantastic" aspects of Alain Robbe-Grillet (53). This statement
reverse-engineers his project, stripping it down to the conceptual building blocks of
post-structuralism—indeterminacy, play, multiplicity, decentering, and reflexivity. The
other essays within the latest Greenwood Press offering employ similar means to analyze
relationships between fantasy and subversion.
Such analysis might appear tangential to sf. After all, Robbe-Grillet is principally
known among Francophone cognoscenti as one of the authors associated with the
"Nouveau roman" (New Novel). Centered around Editions de Minuit in the 1950s and
1960s, the "nouveaux romanciers" included Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and
Marguerite Duras. Their works interrogated narrative devices intended to accord
significance to events, substituting a distanced, abstract style that frequently
emphasized acts of perception. In novels and screenplays like Le Voyeur (1955), La
Jalousie (1957), and L'Immortelle (1963), Robbe-Grillet crafted clinical
accounts of objects and surfaces.
Surprisingly, Robbe-Grillet occasions new valences for the fantastic. In "The
Fantastic Robbe-Grillet," Tony Chadwick and Virginia Harger-Grinling align his work
with Harold Bloom's definition of fantasy, as it flees literary predecessors and the
discursive registers forming the realist canon. However, Robbe-Grillet "moves his
fictional world as close to the objective reality of the everyday as he possibly can"
(5). According to Chadwick and Harger-Grinling, Robbe-Grillet's version of fantasy is
precisely this dynamic vis-à-vis realism. By inserting the fantastic into the domain of
the putative "real," the authors explode generic boundaries.
Subsequent essays further demonstrate the frangibility of genre. In "Fantasy,
Metafiction, and Desire," Ben Stoltzfus reads Robbe-Grillet's parodic reflexivity as
a cognate for the fantastic. After reviewing definitions and giving textual examples, he
concludes, "Robbe-Grillet foregrounds units of establishment ideology and subverts
them through reversal, exaggeration, and distortion, thereby generating a discourse of
fantasy" (34). Barbara Havercroft contributes another post-structuralist critique in
"Fluctuations of Fantasy: The Combination and Subversion of Literary Genres in Djinn."
She discusses Robbe-Grillet's 1981 novel as a fantastic text that incorporates traces of
detective fiction, popular romance, and sf. In so doing, "it disrupts the very
generic conventions it requires for the enactment of this disruption" (118).
The remaining essays will likely arouse little interest among SFS readers. All involve
subversion. Ralph Yarrow and Thomas Spear provide surveys of the author's textual
gamesmanship, while Sjef Houppermans' "Fantastique Angélique" scrutinizes
related ground in his autobiography. François Jost then addresses subversion within
Robbe-Grillet's films. Given his colleagues' en vogue footnotes, it is strange to find
Jost citing classical film theorists like Sergei Eisenstein and André Bazin. Perhaps he's
being subversive . . . or fantastic.
—Neal Baker University of Iowa.
Rehabilitating Bat Durston?
David Mogen. Wilderness Visions: The Western Theme in Science Fiction Literature.
2nd Ed. The Borgo Press (P.O. Box 2845, San Bernardino, CA 92406-2845),
1993. 128pp. $25 cloth, $10 paper, plus $2.00 s&h.
The subtitle of Mogen's monograph suggests that he may be going to take on that brand
of space opera referred to as "cowboys in space" and immortalized as a subgenre
by the 1950s Galaxy ad that compared it to the pulp western story, using
"Bat Durston" with his six-guns/rayguns blazing, a wrangler/spaceman, etc. In
fact, the author does refer to a later version of the ad without, sad to say, identifying
Bat for a generation which doesn't have access to early Galaxys. But in doing so,
he dismisses that paraliterary subgenre as his subject. Rather, he immediately redefines
"the western theme" as "the frontier theme," which perhaps should have
been the work's subtitle all along.
To discuss sf in terms of the long-standing American literary fascination with the
frontier is to situate it directly within a mainstream concept that legitimizes the works
he chooses to discuss, but at the same time pretty well confines him to discussing
"canonical" (i.e., to some degree "literary") sf from the start.
Perhaps I am overreacting to what is after all only a misleading subtitle, but I had
hoped, in picking up the book, to read a long-overdue attempt to resuscitate a kind of sf
which, within the field of its own criticism, is decidedly non-canonical.
The first chapter does pay some lip-service to space opera, though Mogen seems more
intent in dismissing it, largely through amplification of negative assessments in the
critical work of other sf scholars: Amis, Ketterer, Clareson. He briefly invokes only one
example, Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars (where are the best writers of
science fiction "westerns"—E.E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, Ray Cummings?).
Further, though he makes the important distinction between "literary" and
"non-literary" western fiction, throughout the book he uses only three exemplars
of "literary" western/frontier fiction, the Deerslayer novels of James Fenimore
Cooper, Owen Wister's The Virginian, and A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky. I
have no doubt that Mogen has read rather more widely in western fiction, but I could wish
for a wider comparative range of non-sf analogues to the sf works which are his subject
(what about Eugene Manlove Rhodes, whom readers of westerns consider a neglected literary
genius?). If I were of a less trusting nature, I might think these, along with the major
critical works on the frontier theme in American literature, were his only non-sf reading
Once into the discussion of the frontier in sf, Mogen proves the value of such a focus.
His chapter on "The Frontier Metaphor in American Culture" is a concise overview
of Frederick Jackson Turner's original frontier thesis and the best of recent criticism of
and emendations to it. He rightly points out that Turner's thesis is peculiarly American
(whatever Turner thought) and that viewed in this light, despite some of its shortcomings,
it remains a strong basis for investigating the frontier as "the uncreated
future" (Edwin Fussell's phrase).
Moving into the sf world, Mogen discusses the conquest of space as the sf response to
an exhausted, frontierless Earth, using Robert A. Heinlein's obvious admiration for the
buccaneer capitalist individualism of frontier expansion as the prototype of the frontier
as Maker of Men (sexist noun intended). An obvious contrast to Heinlein's admiration for
the entrepreneur in space is Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, which
sees future capitalism in terms of the schemers who sold broken-down oxen and inadequate
prairie schooners to gullible treasure seekers heading west from the Missouri River in the
decades of western expansion.
Outer space and the habitable worlds it encompasses form a different aspect of the
frontier, the American Protestant idea of the frontier as enemy, to be tamed rather than
adapted to. The mixture of types of Martian colonists in Ray Bradbury's The Martian
Chronicles—"offensive and insensitive dudes, naive American boys, or true
frontiersmen capable of appreciating the planet's alien environment and native
culture" (72)—provides Mogen with a solid basis for discussion of the various
attitudes toward both the physical challenges of colonization and the moral dilemmas posed
by indigenous races. Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest is an obvious
vehicle for the contrasting attitudes of the "offensive dudes" and the
"true frontiersmen," which Mogen carries out quite ably. Brief discussions of
Frank Herbert's Dune and Joanna Russ' We Who Are About To . . .
seem somewhat off the mark, though. Herbert's treatment of Paul Atreides' adaptation to
the morally superior Fremen culture is certainly relevant to Mogen's discussion, but the
transformation of the desert planet itself is less about the dangers of terraforming an
alien environment than it is a vehicle for plot complications that can only be explored in
several subsequent volumes of the saga; Russ' novel is less an argument against despoiling
an alien planet than it is an argument against perpetuating the neanderthal values of the
stereotypically beastly males she shipwrecks on her planet. What a pity that Mogen's book
was in press before Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars appeared! Robinson's novel
(and its sequels) would have given him much more relevant material for his investigation.
Mogen's penultimate chapter, "Regressive Frontiers: Pastoralism and Other
Survivors," focuses on an unexpected, yet completely logical, extension of the
frontier theme, that of a return to a frontier society caused by an atomic holocaust on
Earth itself. Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow and Harlan Ellison's "A Boy
and His Dog" are well-chosen as the polar exemplars of Leo Marx's dichotomy between
the Machine and the Garden as applied to post-holocaust sf.
Finally, Mogen seeks to make some aesthetic judgments on the fiction he has been
discussing so far primarily in terms of metaphor. Implicitly, he has been making aesthetic
judgments throughout. With the exception of some of Heinlein's 1940s prose and perhaps
Isaac Asimov's "The Martian Way," just about all of his key works are those no
college sf teacher would be ashamed to offer in a reading list to be judged for quality by
academic peers. Nevertheless, he has some substantive comments to make, especially
concerning three highly influential infrageneric critics, Darko Suvin, Stanislav Lem, and
Joanna Russ. He takes Suvin to task for suggesting that the "historical analogic
model" of sf is "the lowest form" of analogic modeling, as contrasted to
"the highest," a mathematical model (117). Mogen's entire monograph is a potent
argument against Suvin's ex-cathedra (and highly personal) enunciation, but he gets in one
significant blast at Suvin's doctrinal stance: "deriving aesthetic judgements on
actual science fiction texts from such theoretical pronouncements is a risky business at
best, and an arbitrary and ruthless one at worst" (117). He points to a similar
confusion of theory with reality in Lem's declaration that any sf dealing with a
regressive future is "implausible," replying that "Lem's abstract ideal of
what science fiction should be is not always relevant to judging the literary quality of
actual texts" (114).
His evaluation of Russ' "Towards an Aesthetics of Science Fiction," a less
arrogantly phrased work than those of Suvin and Lem (though ultimately just about as
arbitrary in its conclusions) is more complex. He agrees with her that the metaphors of sf
are often so removed from the metaphors common to mainstream literature that a special
regard for them is a requirement for judging the literary quality of sf (a point made at
greater length and with more specificity by Samuel R. Delany in his "Some
Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction"), but refuses to follow Russ to her
conclusion that sf cannot (also) be judged by the usual literary criteria. Instead he
relies on Delany's less arbitrarily restrictive definition of sf (in "About 5,175
Words") as occupying "the entire realm of the subjunctive that describes
'Events that have not happened'"(115). Clearly, Mogen gravitates toward Delany's
embracing rather than excluding definition because of problems encountered in his previous
critical study of Ray Bradbury, specifically the criticisms leveled at The Martian
Chronicles as not being sf (Mogen details these, but most SFS readers will
already be aware of them). I would hope that in future, Mogen might be persuaded to deal
at greater length with the general question of the aesthetics of sf, because his outlook
strikes me as a healthy one, centered in the reality of specific texts rather than in the
search for some exclusionary abstract principle which, like the central texts of most
religions, legitimizes itself through its internal definition of itself as holy writ.
Wilderness Visions, despite the few cavils I have with it, is a
thought-provoking first step (a fact Mogen acknowledges) in the criticism of a large body
of sf in terms of a well-defined mainstream literary approach. It should form the basis
for more expanded and concentrated studies in the future.
—Bill Collins Kutztown University.
Science Fiction as a Way of Life.
Barry N. Malzberg. The
Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg.
Ed. Mike Resnick and Anthony R. Lewis. NESFA Press (P.O. Box 809, Framingham, MA
01701-0203), 1994. x+281. Paper $14.00 plus $2.00 s&h in US, $4.00 s&h elsewhere.
The concept of recursive science fiction (i.e., sf about sf) was set forth by Anthony
R. Lewis and Barry N. Malzberg in An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science
Fiction (1990; reviewed in SFS #54, July 1991). Malzberg, in between more serious
work, has made a kind of specialty, or hobby, of the form. The present book contains a
novel, Herovit's World(1973), two novellas and two novelettes (as those terms are
defined for awarding sf prizes), and eight short stories, all satirizing not so much sf
itself as sf fans, editors, and writers. This is the world, as they say, of sf in the
gutter where it belongs. Malzberg has also written serious sf and serious sf criticism
(see the article by David A Layton, SFS 18:71-90, #53, March 1991), but he seems not to
have attempted serious fiction about serious writers writing serious sf.
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