Science Fiction Studies

#67 = Volume 22, Part 3 = November 1995

The Hughes War of the Worlds in Paperback.

H.G. Wells. The War of the Worlds. Edited by David Y. Hughes. Introduction by Brian W. Aldiss. The World's Classics. NY: Oxford UP, 1995. xlvi+188. $6.95 paper.

The text of this edition is that of Indiana UP critical edition reviewed in SFS #61, November 1993, with a new and briefer set of explanatory notes. The Introduction by Brian W. Aldiss discusses Wells's career as one of the great men of his day, his early sf and its influence, and particularly the impact and later influence of The War of the Worlds. The remainder of the apparatus, by Patrick Parrinder, is the same as that in the OWC edition of The First Men in the Moon reviewed briefly in our last issue. This is of course the best edition for classroom use or for anyone who feels he cannot afford the critical edition. It must be regretted that the book is not available to teachers, students, and readers in Britain.


The Everyman Time Machine Re-Edited.

Further to my review of the new Everyman editions of Wells ("Questionable Guides," SFS #64), it should be noted that the defective Moorcock edition of The Time Machine has now been withdrawn and replaced by a new 'Centennial Edition' with a different editor (The Time Machine: The Centennial Edition. Ed. John Lawton. liv+106. £3.99, $3.95. The Everyman Library. London: J.M. Dent, and Rutland VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1995.) Though not wholly free of error (what is?), this is a substantially corrected version of the original 1935 Everyman text with a new introduction and a careful and much-needed Note on the Text. Unlike its predecessor, it is likely to prove a very adequate edition for teaching purposes.

--Patrick Parrinder

Writing for a Purpose.

Carol Farley Kessler. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia, with Selected Writings. Syracuse University Press (800- 365-8919), 1995. xi+316. $34.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.

Kessler states that Gilman's life and utopian writing are "a potential model for readers today" (4). Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a potential model for how today's literary critics can author truly useful books. It exudes Kessler's ability to anticipate and to fulfill readers' needs. The first three chapters-- an overview of Gilman's life, a survey of her utopian writing, and a discussion of connections between the life and the utopias--are followed by ten not readily accessible short stories and chapters from four novels. This combination of scholarship and original work adroitly enhances readers' understanding of Gilman's unique contribution to feminist knowledge and utopian fiction.

This volume's "complex communication process" (5), its emphasis upon an author's writing and living, shows that Kessler wishes to impact upon readers' lives. She insists that Gilman's words can do things: "Whether Gilman's utopian writing continued or instigated her healing, it has the potential to initiate ours.... Gilman's utopian fiction might guide us into transitional spaces that could encourage our passages to other worlds. We, too, can progress toward utopia in reading fiction that asks us as readers to imagine other possibilities for the conduct of our lives" (12). When Kessler describes words transporting people to other worlds, she evokes Le Guin's new notion of "churten," outer space travel in which stories propel spaceships. Are critics and writers currently undertaking "a journey of exploration" (9) in which theorizing gives way to moving readers to new worlds, to utopia? I think that the answer is affirmative and I think that the critical enterprise at large can derive a much needed progressive thrust from generating texts which function like churten ships to carry readers to new spaces. Kessler provides a model for how feminist critical words can lead to actions in readers' lives. Like Gilman, Kessler is "writing for a purpose" (23).

Kessler's juxtaposition of practical and critical approaches emphasizes Gilman's relevance to contemporary concerns. She explains that Gilman is still ahead of her time (43) and she illustrates exactly how Gilman impacts upon contemporary life. Undergraduates living on Whoppers and French fries, for example, would be excited to learn that "fast food chains, frozen prepared food companies, take-out windows in restaurants, and catering services testify to the efficacy of Gilman's reform, if not to the quality available, often falling far short of the healthful nutrition Gilman required" (46). Many of their teachers would be glad to know that "Gilman forces us today to rethink commonplace daily activities and recognize their relatedness to larger social goals" (64). I am impressed by Kessler's insight that Gilman reflects contemporary fiction, that Gilman writes metafiction: "Long before the fashion for metafiction, Gilman self- consciously wrote a story about stories--about the possibilities for alternative outcomes, beyond the expectations of the genre" (113). This point provides a means to link Gilman with today's feminist fabulators. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, then, is appropriate for students and for professors, pedagogical and critical pursuits. Furthermore, the volume could be read with pleasure by the general public. Kessler's ability to engage diverse audiences shows a progress toward utopian critical writing.

I expect readers to be intrigued by Kessler's ideas about linking Gilman to contemporary feminist thought. According to Kessler, Gilman anticipates Chodorow (58), relates to Gilbert and Gubar (111), and is applicable to Russ (59) and to Piercy (107). Connections such as these strengthen feminist discourse. I quickly switch from strength to weakness to express my appreciation for Kessler's willingness to state that all aspects of Gilman's life and work are not utopian. She informs readers that Gilman is both at ease "with a position of white racial superiority" (73) and "waxes anti-Semitic" (77). Despite Gilman's insights about housework, I cannot, with the ease advertisements attribute to floor care products, gloss over texts which wax anti-Semitic. Kessler alerts me to the fact that it is sometimes necessary to read Gilman positioned as Judith Fetterley's "resisting reader." Charlotte Perkins Gilman is an interesting and practical means to make more people members of the "developing community of readers" (115) whose lives are touched by Gilman's living and writing. Kessler educates readers and provides her colleagues with an example of how to bring academic writing closer to becoming a move toward utopian space.

--Marleen Barr Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,

Text and Context.

Doris T. Myers. C.S. Lewis in Context. Kent State UP, 1994. xvi+248. $28.00.

Yet another book on C.S. Lewis? One more that purports to place him and his work in context? Hasn't this been done many times before? There are biographies (A. N. Wilson's remains the best), studies of his Christianity and his Romanticism, his role as a teacher and as a popular moralist, his friendship with Tolkien and the Inklings, his space trilogy there is even a companion to the Narnia books. What more can be said about Lewis' context?

Judging from Doris Myers' new book, a very great deal indeed. Her happy thought is to apply to Lewis' fiction some of the same techniques he used in his academic publications to elucidate medieval and early modern literature: to examine his presuppositions and the context in which he created his works. By following this approach, she is able to demonstrate that, contrary to the common view of Lewis as a displaced Edwardian (or worse), Lewis' fiction is rooted in contemporary issues and controversies, especially the debates over the nature of language and metaphor that were common in British intellectual life during the interwar years. Myers first analyzes the language issues which concerned Lewis, then shows in successive chapters how these influenced The Pilgrim's Regress (1933), Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), That Hideous Strength (1945), the Narnia chronicles (1950-56), and Till We Have Faces (1956). Lewis' other fictions, The Screwtape Letters (1942) and The Great Divorce (1945), have less to do with philosophy of language, in Myers' reading, and are not treated.

It was not the development of technical analytic or linguistic philosophy that provoked Lewis, but rather a more accessible publication, C. K. Ogden and I.A. Richards' The Meaning of Meaning, first published in 1923 when postwar disillusionment with government propaganda and distrust of language were widespread. Ogden and Richards represented what Lewis came to see as the "low evaluation" of language, that words simply refer to things, not to universals, and have no inherent connection with the things designated. The mind is no more than a passive recipient of sensory data. Empirical, objective meanings of words can be established through analysis of usage and behavior. Only such scientifically based language, therefore, can yield valid knowledge. The opposing view the "high evaluation" of language was expressed by Owen Barfield in Poetic Diction (1926). To Barfield, coming from a background in Platonism, Coleridge, and Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy, words refer to universals and thus are inherently connected to things, language is metaphorical, and the mind is active in formulating concepts which correspond to universals. At bottom, scientific language is no less figurative than poetry; both can produce knowledge through their common basis in metaphor.

This debate is, of course, a version of the familiar medieval controversy between nominalism (words as merely names) and realism (words referring to real universals), made newly relevant, as Myers clearly demonstrates, by postwar disenchantment with linguistic manipulation by government, business, and media. It is no news that Lewis adopted the realist position, in part through his friendship with Barfield. What is new is how closely Lewis' fictions engaged the language issues of the day. Myers' sensitive reading of The Pilgrim's Regress, for example, reveals that this allegorical satire of modern culture is far more based in language issues than previously recognized: the metaphorical nature of language, the specific metaphors employed (especially the geographical metaphors which recur throughout Lewis fiction), the wordplay that satirizes numerous examples of current literary criticism and linguistic analysis.

Myers' approach to the Ransom or space trilogy to focus on the most science-fictional of Lewis' works for the purposes of this reviewis to consider Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra in the context of literary genre and the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow readers, while That Hideous Strength is treated in connection with the issue of language control. In essence, Myers argues that in the Ransom trilogy Lewis deliberately attempted to reach both "lowbrow" and "highbrow" readers, the former by writing adventure fiction, the latter by emphasizing "style, classical background, and moral seriousness" (28), and uniting them by using mythic structures. Despite his conservative outlook, Lewis strongly defended genre fiction when well done. In 1953 he sharply criticized cognoscenti for ignoring Childhood's End while taking seriously "any `realistic' drivel about some neurotic in a London flat."

Myers provides detailed comparisons of Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra with their Wellsian counterparts, The First Men in the Moon and The Time Machine, usually but not entirely convincingly to the detriment of Wells. Her contention that Perelandra owes far more to The Time Machine than to Milton should be considered seriously.

Regarding language issues, Myers makes much of the fact that in the first two novels of the trilogy Ransom is a philologist (like Tolkien and Barfield), not a linguist; and so, to a certain extent, is Merlin in That Hideous Strength. As a philologist, Ransom is concerned with the documentary study of classical languages, interpretation, and the relationship of language to culture, not behavioral studies of nonliterate peoples. By virtue of this grounding, Ransom is open to understanding and to coping with the reality that is revealed on other worlds, while Weston, the caricature of a scientist, is narrow-minded and rigid, incapable of grasping reality as it actually is. It is not easy going even for Ransom, however. In Perelandra, as Myers cogently demonstrates, the strangeness of the language used by Tinidril, the unfallen Eve, owes much to Barfield's theory of metaphor as well as to her own innocence of human social convention.

That Hideous Strength, surely one of Lewis' least successful fictions, considers the effects of the improper use of language and science on the modern world. Its context is a secondary school textbook, The Control of Language by King and Ketley, which adapted Ogden and Richards to the teaching of English. Lewis attacked it directly in his Riddell Lectures, The Abolition of Man (1943), and indirectly in the third Ransom novel. He believed that the educational practices proposed by King and Ketley, especially avoiding emotion in language, would stunt young persons' emotional growth and their ability to reason. What makes us human, Lewis believed, is trained emotions, the ability to recognize the affinity between emotion, aesthetic response, and reason. In the novel, modern science's attempt to reduce everything, including language and humanity itself, to observable facts and analyzable objects leaves everything, including science itself, open to manipulation. Science becomes power, not knowledge; language becomes propaganda, not a relationship between mind and the universe. Merlin, who replaces Ransom as the principal protagonist, succeeds in overcoming the enemy and setting matters right through his power of language.

These few highlights of Myers' analysis must suffice. They do not do justice to the complexity of her exposition. Her book is clearly written, detailed in its analyses, firmly based in the texts of Lewis and his contemporaries, and by no means uncritical of Lewis' accomplishments. Myers is persuasive in showing that Lewis' fictions are indeed grounded in a contemporary context of language philosophy and that their function is misunderstood if they are viewed as thinly disguised moralistic or theological tracts. C.S. Lewis in Context is one of the indispensable books on Lewis.

--Robert Galbreath University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Vonnegut, A to Zog.

Marc Leeds. The Vonnegut Encyclopedia: An Authorized Compendium. Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1995. xvi+693. $75.00. Leonard Mustazza, ed. The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut.Greenwood Press (800-225- 5800), 1994. xxxiii+346. $59.95.

Although published by the same press, these volumes are otherwise about as different as they could get.

The Critical Response collection, part of a series, is attractively bound in blue-grey buckram. Inside, the typeface and format look remarkably like those of SFS itself a few years back. Aside from one very brief 1952 review (in those early years Kurt Vonnegut seems to have been invisible), it contains essays and reviews during the quarter century from 1966 through 1991. For the record, one of the essays (by Daniel L. Zins, 1986) is from SFS, and one of the reviews is by me (from National Review, 1973). While I find its other aspects attractive, the proofreading is abominable (as a shameless example, I found four typos in the three pages of my review). Materials are arranged chronologically by novel; thus the second item in the book is an essay from 1983, because it is about Vonnegut's first novel, the 1952 Player Piano.

Vonnegut's career can be charted in any number of ways, with the graphs taking different kinds of roller-coaster rides. As one of the later reviewers noted, he went "from the science fiction racks to the black humorists' clique to the Spokesman for Youth lectern to the mainstream." In the 1980s, his books were selling in the millions and, judging by my own twenty-one-year-old, he is still popular with Youth. But on the other hand, there is a general critical consensus that his best novels came early, and that the best of all was either God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or my own favorite, Cat's Cradle. A break in quality occurred after Slaughterhouse Five, when Vonnegut announced in Breakfast of Champions that he was giving his characters their freedom. Indeed, a few years ago a session at the Modern Language Association convention was devoted to "Vonnegut's Second Career," evaluating the merits of the later novels as though they belonged to a different genre than the early ones.

Or one could worry about Vonnegut's relation to sf. Taking their cue from the infamous "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" of Sirens of Titan, to some extent from Slaughterhouse Five (where the Tralfamadorians reappear), and from some of Vonnegut's own statements, a number of essays in this collection see sf as mainly an aspect of comic relief. But Vonnegut's first novel was "straight" sf, and Cat's Cradle is also based on a solid, straight sf premise--here it is religion (Bokononism) that delivers the comedy. And the critics enjoy quoting Eliot Rosewater's praise of Kilgore Trout and the other sf writers, "I love you sons of bitches" (in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, one of the few Vonnegut works that doesn't have sf elements). Consequently other essays here are devoted to Vonnegut's use of his scientific background and outlook.

This collection is consistently of high quality. The only disappointment is an early review from the New York Times by Terry Southern, written when he and Vonnegut were both lumped among the Black Humorists. It is dutiful, surprisingly so, but less than inspired. The most curious piece is a later review (actually an article) by another novelist, John Irving, a shameless rave for the weak Railbird. Irving calls Vonnegut "our strongest writer," emphasizing the moral elements. He even compares him to Dickens which happens to be the highest praise that Irving, a real Dickens fan, can bestow on anyone. Irving gets downright mawkish in his praise of Railbird: "Its last word with a proper chill, and a proper sadness is 'Good-bye.'" Garp! If you have been collecting books on Vonnegut, you already have a number of these essays, including three by Jerome Klinkowitz from his various Vonnegut collections, and two by Mustazza himself on Vonnegut's last two novels from his own recent book. His essays are as good as any others here.

When we turn to The Vonnegut Encyclopedia we find a different kettle of Kurt. Less attractive binding, different typeface, better proofreading. This is a one-man job by Marc Leeds, and apparently comes with Vonnegut's blessing, as he has written a one-page foreword. Not content with writing an encyclopedia, Leeds has also included a "concordance." In other words, this book is intended as a guide to characters, places, ideas, and key words in Vonnegut's work. Even though Marc Leeds seems to have written a dissertation on Vonnegut, he apparently didn't merit any entries in Mustazza's extensive bibliography, and his encyclopedia seems to be an amateur production; in fact, the first words of Leeds' preface are "I am an unabashed Kurt Vonnegut fan. In the academic marketplace this may not get me very far...." Perhaps Dr. Leeds should be abashed.

The problems are mostly those of inclusion and exclusion, but also include an apparent inability to condense anything, and a certain amount of indigenous ineptitude. To take the concordance aspect first, I can understand why every mention of the atomic bomb is listed; this might be a useful way to use up two pages in a Vonnegut encyclopedia. However, I found it under the listing "Abomb, American bomb, atomic bomb, atom-bombed, atom-bombing, atombombed, atomic weapons, hydrogen bomb, the bomb...neutron bomb." Why is all this listed under "A-bomb" when not one of the five long quotations under this heading mentions "A- bomb," while four mention "atomic bomb"? This is a real problem, since an entry for "atomic bomb," if it existed, would have come fifteen pages later too far for browsing. Anyway, two pages are devoted to the reasonable subject of nuclear bombs but why are three-and-a-half pages devoted to "stairs, staircase, stairheads, stairway, stairwell"? Not one of the many quotations makes the concept of "stairs" significant; it is not a meaningful concept in Vonnegut in the way that "stars" might be. I say it might be, but "stars" is not a word included in this concordance. (Note: after finishing this, I found, curiously enough, a spirited defense of precisely the "stairs" entry in the "feature review" of a recent SFRA Review [#217:21-25, May-June 1995].)

On to the names of characters. Here Leeds is reasonably competent, but often misses part of the significance. For instance, "Hartke, Eugene Debs." Leeds notices that "Hartke is the second of three Vonnegut characters named for Indiana labor leader Eugene Debs." But he fails to mention (as the several essays in Mustazza's book that include this character fail to mention) that "Hartke" is also a significant Indiana name. Vance Hartke, one-time senator from Indiana, was practically a Vonnegut character himself thirty years ago; if memory serves, Hartke was strikingly liberal for an Indiana politician, but he was also voted by his peers the least effective member of the Senate two years running. So it goes. As Vonnegut's books served me as a rather bizarre guide to Indiana when I moved here some time ago, I can testify that they include many comic references to Hoosierdom; Leeds has missed many of them. In fact, "Hoosier" isn't even in his concordance, even though it is Vonnegut's prime example of a granfalloon.

And another problem. None of the essays in Critical Response makes a connection between the struggle with mental illness of Vonnegut's son Mark and Vonnegut's own works; in fact, only John Leonard mentions Mark Vonnegut's book The Eden Express. I looked up Mark in the Vonnegut Encyclopedia and couldn't find him where he should have been; instead he appeared under the heading "Vonnegut, Dr. Mark" several pages earlier. All of which reminds me that in Cat's Cradle, chapter fifty-five is titled, "Never Index Your Own Book." Probably one shouldn't alphabetize one's own encyclopedia either. I did say that this appeared to be an amateur production?

--Charles Nicol Indiana State University.

Thinking About (Thinking About) the Nuclear Event.

Peter Schwenger. Letter Bomb: Nuclear Holocaust and the Exploding Word. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. xviii+163. $38.50 cloth, $13.95 paper.

I have been wanting to review this book, however tangential to the study of sf it might be, for quite some time now. Like a text by Jacques Derrida, however, which one tends to approach obliquely rather than directly, Letter Bomb rather defies the process of intellectual translation which makes for a straight forward review. I do not find it surprising that Derrida's is an important presence in this meditation on the nuclear imaginary.

While not directly concerned with sf, Letter Bomb certainly recognizes the relevance of sf to its project and periodically introduces various genre and slipstream texts into its discussion. For this reason, and because of the very original and relevant variation it plays on that field which has come to be known as "nuclear criticism,"* it is well worth undertaking a reading of this dense and occasionally visionary study. Letter Bomb, as its author is well aware, names not only its subject but itself; it explores explosions, real and fantasized, feared and desired, at the same time as it wants passionately to set off its own intellectual explosions in the minds of its readers.

 Perhaps it would be accurate to characterize Letter Bomb as a work of meta(nuclear)theory. Reading more like something by Paul de Man than Paul Brians, Letter Bomb reflects upon some of the ways in which post-industrial culture has thought about the nuclear event. Its purpose is less to explore individual works, however, than it is to construct, slowly and indirectly, a kind of composite portrait of apocalypse, one drawn from fact and fiction, theory and narrative, politics and psychoanalysis. This portrait is not the last word, however; in the "final" analysis, Schwenger is concerned with how we have arrived at these constructions and what they can teach us about the power of language and/in its interactions with the human psyche.

Schwenger builds up the layers in Letter Bomb through the deployment of some unusual juxtapositions. Derrida's theoretical text, The Post Card, is discussed alongside David Brin's sf novel, The Postman, and both are placed beside/against Peter Townsend's nonfiction account of The Postman of Nagasaki. Derrida's "seminal" statement on deconstruction, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" and Russell Hoban's postmodern post-apocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker, are read through each other. Jacques Lacan's revisionary psychoanalysis is juxtaposed with the surreal dream/reality which is Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

As all of this might suggest, Letter Bomb can be difficult reading, especially for readers unfamiliar with its theoretical languages and contexts. It rewards persistence, however; its images, ideas, suggestions, arguments, and readings proliferate widely and wildly, like the weapons stores of some unregenerate nuclear power, all aimed at setting off those explosions of which Schwenger believes language is capable.

Schwenger opens Letter Bomb by deploying Derrida's 1984 commentary on the nuclear event, "No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives)." In this early and very influential example of nuclear criticism, Derrida argues that the nuclear apocalypse remains "fabulously textual, through and through" (qtd. xiv; emphasis in original); that is, it exists only in our own imaginative constructions of it. This, however, does not simply amount to another formulaic deconstruction of material reality which is followed by absolutely no material consequences. As Schwenger argues, "Nuclear strategy mingles science with beliefs about others' beliefs, and of course about others' science, and one's own, in a proliferating and paradoxical network of speculation which yet constitutes our reality" (xv).

The texts through which the apocalypse is constructed have their own intensely important roles to play in the world. For this reason, Schwenger is interested in the ways in which the human imagination constructs and then interacts with the idea(s) of the nuclear holocaust, and in the role of language and reading in such interactions. He tells us that Letter Bomb

began as a study of literature about nuclear holocaust that is, a study of what literature could "tell" us about nuclear holocaust and our reactions to its suspended potential. The nature of the telling itself was always, of course, in the foreground but so complicated was this nature where the nuclear referent was concerned that the question soon generated another, its reversed mirror image: the book became a study of what the nuclear referent could tell us about literature. (xi)

Nuclear fiction has its own specific role to play: "A post-nuclear war narrative is addressed to, posted to, those who live in a prewar condition. To the degree that this is a didactic fiction, its aim is to initiate a `return inquiry' into the origins of that postnuclear world in the world we are inhabiting now" (7). Schwenger comments not only on Brin's The Postman and Hoban's Riddley Walker, but on Maggie Gee's The Burning Book (1983) and Denis Johnson's Fiskadoro (1985), as well as on the massively technologized Robert Wilson/Philip Glass "opera," Einstein on the Beach (1976). His reading of Riddley Walker is particularly good, raising important questions about representability and narrative, the interplay of absence and presence, within the context of "Circling Ground Zero" (the title of the chapter).

What, finally, is the role played by these imaginative textualizations which include not only fiction, but studies like Maurice Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster and René Girard's Violence and the Sacred? By extension, we are also asking about the role played by Letter Bomb itself. Perhaps surprisingly, Schwenger's aim is a consciously utopian one. He turns finally to the philosophy of Ernst Bloch, because, for Bloch, "the work of art performs a particular, and particularly important, utopian function. It is an aesthetically attempted preappearance: art for Bloch is a laboratory of forms and impulses" (146). In the last of his many unexpected juxtapositions, Schwenger turns from Bloch's philosophy of utopia to Lacan's commentary on language's potential . as a process of growth, one which, ideally, terminates in "a radical destabilizing, indeed an explosion of self" (149). Finally, then, it is language and the productions of language which Schwenger contrasts to the nuclear explosion which promises only absence. Letter Bomb concludes on a note of faith in humanity's ability to image, and therefore to help insure, a future. While I do not always share its faith in the powers of imagination and language, I am compelled by its rigorous arguments and I am certainly attracted to its postmodern philosophy of hope.

[*In his introductory chapter, Schwenger notes that "nuclear criticism" came into its own in the mid- 80s. See, for example, the SFS special issue on "Nuclear War and Science Fiction" (#39, July 1986); see also Paul Brians' Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984 (Kent State UP, 1987)]


moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home