Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996

 

Prophecy and Parody.

Patrick Parrinder. Shadows of the Future. H.G. Wells, Science Fiction, and Prophecy. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1995. xi+170.

The character--and with it, the quality--of this book of Patrick Parrinder's on H.G. Wells does not, I think, begin to become evident until almost its halfway point. Up till then, readers will likely believe that this volume, like most others in the genre of literary criticism, is a collection of more or less connected essays/chapters, each of which is self-contained--a belief that Parrinder himself encourages by acknowledging the prior publication, in three different venues, of four of his nine chapters and portions of two others. That, however, is for the most part not the case here. Parrinder, especially in his first section ("The Impatient Imagination," ßß1-7), does not make his way, with logical rigor and by comprehensive evidentiary reasoning, from one premise to the next, spelling out connections as he goes along. Instead, Shadows of the Future largely operates through the kind of associative consciousness that we expect in poetry. Hence the protocol for coming to terms with discursive prose is for the most part inappropriate for this book, which is about as discursive as In Memoriam, say, and arguably less so than is the work that this one always has in mind: The Time Machine.

The most impressive results of Parrinder's modus operandi are to be found, I think, in his fifth chapter. He begins that by considering briefly the influence of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on Wells (and also on other sf writers, notably Asimov). After bringing to mind the British Empire, he returns to Gibbon, this time relating his paradigm of decline and fall to Henry George's perception that inequality is the cause of social decay. He next says something about George Gissing's unfinished work on the Roman theme, Veranilda, in the terms that Wells used in his moving essay on that friend of his; and this takes Parrinder to the Palace of Green Porcelain that he'd already identified as a decadent reincarnation of "the Crystal Palace and the South Kensington Museum" (43-44; see also his informative comments, 53-54, on late- 19th-century museums in England and elsewhere). Back in chapter 3 (40-42), Parrinder had made a case for 802,701 as not just an entropic number but a date incorporating two different time-scales; and now he capitalizes on (and also clarifies) that insight by observing that "[t]he Palace of Green Porcelain belongs to the foreshortened, historical scale of future time--as it were, to AD2701 rather than 802,701" (74); it belongs, that is, to the Gibbonian time- scale for "The Fall of Empires" (Parrinder's chapter-title) rather than to the Darwinian-geological time traversed to get to the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, and beyond. He next takes a quick look at Wells's empire of the ants, both in the story so named (1905) and in The First Men in the Moon (1900-01), and concludes by considering the invocations of Gibbon in The War in the Air (1908).

The overall point of this chapter, in Parrinder's own summation of it, reappears as part of a larger statement: that just as "historiography...becomes prophecy in Wells's hands," so "travelogue turns...into utopian vision" (92). After suggestively developing that insight apropos of a large handful of titles--and most notably The Future in America (1906)--in a chapter called "New Worlds for Old," Parrinder next focuses chiefly on A Modern Utopia (1905), under a heading ("Utopia and Meta-Utopia") which marks the reappearance, slightly revised, of an essay that originally came out in SFS (1985: 115-28; it is one of two reprints from SFS in the book, the other being "Imagining the Future: Zamyatin and Wells," SFS 1973: 17-26). The self-consciousness that Parrinder means "meta-" to denote evinces itself, inter alia, in Wells's constant tendency towards parody (Parrinder supplies a page-long catalogue of examples), a tendency neither entirely compatible nor wholly at odds with prophecy, in Parrinder's--and Wells's--understanding of the two.

"Prophecy" and "parody" also name the predominant themes of Shadows of the Future. This becomes most apparent in the final chapter, "From Prophecy to Parody." But there Parrinder (albeit in keeping with his overall rubric for this discussion: "Wells's Legacy") has much more to say about J.B.S. Haldane, J.D. Bernal, and their traducers (especially C.S. Lewis and J.G. Ballard) than he does about Wells. What is missing, then, is something that would have made Parrinder's thematic treatment amenable to reformulation in terms of a thesis--an absence that is all the more inexplicable in view of the fact that Parrinder is himself the author of an essay that incisively details the complex relations, via Dickens and Morris, between prophecy and parody in The Time Machine ("News from Nowhere, The Time Machine, and the Break-Up of Classical Realism," SFS 1976: 265-74).

Still, even readers who demand full and discursive treatment of a subject will not be entirely dissatisfied with this book's "shadows" of such. It is true, for example, that Parrinder takes us from the Romantic--P.B. Shelley's "hierophant of an unapprehended inspiration"--to the Wellsian Prophet without saying anything about Carlyle, and likewise he develops the metaphor of "The Broken [Delphic] Tripod" (ß2) without reference to Theodore Bulpington's obsessive vision of the Delphic Sibyl. But by the same token, just about every single one of Parrinder's chapters could--and perhaps will--generate an entire discursive monograph.

At this book's outset, as I hinted at mine, Parrinder expresses his conviction--which is also his premise--that The Time Machine is "one of the Prophetic Books of the late nineteenth century, casting its shadow over futurity" (viii). I take his fundamental point to be pretty much the same as one that occurred to me, in rather more prosaic terms, in 1989: that The Time Machine counts as a masterpiece because the rereading of it often, if not always, yields new discoveries. Shadows of the Future, as it proceeds "in widening circles" around its subject--and by reason of that mode of proceeding--not only makes such discoveries of its own but facilitates others that we might not have made without it.

--RMP.


Those Who Can.

Robin Scott Wilson. Paragons: Twelve Master Science Fiction Writers Ply Their Craft. New York: St Martin's Press, xiv+368. $24.95

In the days when I still had time to write fiction, I took part in a regular fiction-writing workshop which would last an entire weekend. We would circulate copies of the stories in advance, and each participant would comment on each story. On one particular weekend, I submitted a story about a woman going mad through being isolated from other contact with humans, and one of the workshoppers complained about the dialogue. In fact, there was no dialogue; in the story it was essential that the protagonist always failed to speak to anyone. Yet the workshopper felt obliged to comment negatively on and about my (nonexistent) dialogue, as it was a subheading within the six-part structure of his analysis: plot, character, setting, theme, point of view, and style.

Later I learned that this structure derives from the Clarion workshops, where a number of aspiring writers are closeted with professional or published sf authors for a number of weeks. Each of their stories is subjected to close analysis by their fellows and the professionals, being taken apart like a used meccano model. Whilst it might seem daunting to be on the receiving end of such sustained analysis, there is no denying that Clarion has produced many important writers since its inception; it is to sf what the University of East Anglia creative writing course was to the Booker Prize.

In 1973 Robin Scott Wilson, the founder of Clarion, edited a book called Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader; the title explicitly alludes to George Bernard Shaw's dictum of "Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach" and attempts to overturn it. The sf writers who teach at Clarion obviously can, and do, but they also teach. The volume contained six essays by Wilson, under the headings of plot, character, setting, theme, point of view, and style, and each section then had two short stories, each one being followed by a discussion by the author of the story with regard to the heading. The waters--all American--included Delany, Russ, and Le Guin, as well as Wilson himself.

Twenty-three years later and Wilson has edited a book called Paragons: Twelve Master Science Fiction Writers Ply Their Craft, repeating the format of Those Who Can. Wilson's introductions remains more-or-less the same; he makes an honest but dangerous admission that "I have learned little since then." A quarter of a century seems a long time to retain the ideas about writing--in 1973 the experimentalism of the British New Wave and Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies was on the wane but there was about to be an explosion in feminist sf. Cyberpunk was over a decade away, postmodernism was barely talked about, and sf had little academic credibility. The changes that Wilson has made are mostly to pronouns: the hypothetical author is as likely to be described as "she" as "he." The authors chosen this time came to the fore in the 1970s or 1980s--with the exception of Joe Haldeman--and are still, as far as I know, all Americans.

The peculiar thing about Wilson's introductions is that the models of good writing which he chooses are not from science fiction: for example, Henry James and Walter Scott. This is not to say that these are poor models to follow, but it seems odd to concentrate so much on the mainstream. This collapses any distinction between genre and genre works, as it seems likely that the headings of plot, character, setting, theme, point of view, and style might equally well apply to crime, historical, or romance fiction; the specificity of science ficion is entirely obscured.

Take setting, as an example. It is surely an essential feature of sf that it is distanced from the consensus environment of everyday, mundane reality. Whether sf is characterized by cognitive estrangement or cognitive dissonance, a sense of wonder or a sense of strangeness, whether it is set in the future, in an alternative present or past, or on an alien planet, its setting is different from that of a realist story. Indeed, Wilson admits "[O]ne might argue that it [science fiction] is distinguishable from other fictions only in setting" (142). The two stories which represent setting are Kim Stanley Robinson's "Glacier" (Boston) and Lucius Shepard's "Beast of the Heartland" (an anonymous American town); Shepard's tale of a boxer seems not to be science fiction at all. The other ten stories seem to have equally parochial settings--I don't recall a foot being set outside North America let alone on the Moon or Alpha Centauri or inside a black hole.

Some of the authors themselves discuss sf writers--Pat Murphy brings up Karen Fowler, Bruce Sterling discusses Greg Bear, Stanislaw Lem, and Olaf Stapledon, and Howard Waldrop mentions Henry Kuttner, Robert Silverberg, and Theodore Sturgeon. But it is as equally likely that they will cite Conrad (Robinson) or Hemingway (Waldrop, again) as influences. In seventy years of American genre sf, it would appear that no writer has emerged to take as seriously as James, Scott, or Browning.

When sf writers are cited, it is as something to avoid. The final section of the book is "A Workshop Lexicon," by Bruce Sterling, which grew out of the earlier "Turkey City Lexicon" compiled by Sterling and Lewis Shiner "from the work of many writers and critics over many years of genre history, and it contains buzzwords, notions, and critical terms of direct use to SF workshops" (352). It is mostly a catalogue of things to avoid, of stylistic howlers and old plot chestnuts: in other words closer to a parody of sf or the public's perception of pulp fiction. It is better on advising what not to do than on what is to be done.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with sf writers looking out side the genre for their models; otherwise sf would indeed turn into an incestuous parody of itself. On the other hand, much of the worst sf comes from those outside the genre and thinking that they can write science fiction--look at Paul Theroux, Martin Amis, and P.D. James. What an sf writer can hint at in passing, by drawing on the megatext of all that has gone before her, an incomer will waste pages in establishing.

If the weakness of this anthology lies in its embarrassedness of admitting to being sf, then its strengths lie in its stories and afterwords. Even so, there are problems with the rigid sectioning of the book. Can characterization be distinguished entirely from point of view? For that matter, if sf is, as many claim, a literature of ideas, with the idea as hero, can characterization be divorced from theme? Inevitably a story discussed under one heading could be as easily discussed under another; Sterling's "Our Neural Chernobyl," written in the form of a review, would illustrate style as well as theme, just as the present tense of Pat Murphy's "Rachel in Love" is as much a product of style as character. Nancy Kress's "The Price of Oranges," with its lesbian twist, is presumably a thematic cousin to Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, unless citrus fruits have become a sexual signifier.

Kress's eight-page account of how she came to write the story and of the process of revision is particularly enlightening. Fowler's afterword to "Lily Red" will enable us to fit the story into her career, especially in relation to her novel Sarah Canary. Greg Bear, on the other hand, hardly gets going on the subject of characterization in "Sisters." Waldrop, who so often prefixes his stories with notes anyway, is as fascinating as always on how to write a stylish story; but it might have been more rewarding to see him annotate his story as he did with "Jetboy" or as Damon Knight did with "Masks" in Those Who Can.

It is perhaps in the nature of such a book that it feels somewhat bitty: some stories of use to aspiring writers, others of use to critics. The attempt to squeeze particular stories into given categories produces several important self-analyses, but there is no synthesis, no bringing the threads back together. But its biggest failing has to be in its self-presentation of "Twelve Master Science Fiction Writers Ply[ing] Their Craft," as all too often it steps away from dealing with science fiction, and the "masters" at work, into rules for simply writing.

--Andrew M. Butler University of Hull.


Asimov's Personal Discards.

Scott E. Green. Isaac Asimov: An Annoted Bibliography of the Asimov Collection at Boston University. Bibliographies and Indexes in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1995. xv+146. $55.00.

The introduction to this bibliography identifies the books listed as "Asimov's personal collection" and claims that those by authors other than Asimov himself "must have some significance for Asimov since he could have had hundreds if not thousands of complimentary books from his publishers and fellow writers" (xi). In other words, these are supposed to be the books that Asimov kept as of some importance to himself.

According to Asimov's own account in chapters 94-95 of I, Asimov (Doubleday, 1994), the truth is the exact opposite. In 1964 Asimov, who had periodically been burning such of his papers as no longer had any value for him, was asked by the curator of the Special Collection of the Boston University Library to donate them to the library: "I gave him whatever I had, and since then I have given him a copy of every book in every edition, English and foreign, every magazine containing a story or essay of mine, all my correspondence, and manuscripts, and so on" (288-89). Asimov kept one copy of each English-language edition of each of his books. The fact that the Boston University collection does not include a first edition of a number of titles is presumably accounted for by there having been only one such copy in the "whatever I had" of 1964.

--RDM.


Science Fiction as a Bridge to Philosophy.

Stephen R. Clark. How to Live Forever: Science Fiction and Philosophy. London & New York: Routledge (800-634-7064), 1995. 240p. $69.95.

Science fiction is described sometimes as popular philosophy. Philosophy is described less often as systematic science fiction. Though science-fiction writers have been borrowing philosophical themes freely and developing them in a narrative form to their logical conclusions, philosophers tend to ignore science fiction, at least explicitly, fearing the criticism of their pompous colleagues. Stephen Clark proves in his recent book that they do so at their own peril. Philosophers may be more systematic than science-fiction writers, but they lack their imagination and broad mindedness. Clark notes correctly that imaginative stories are thought experiments that do not usually prove possibilities, but reveal complexities. Some of the complexities may prove that what appears possible has unacceptable implications. "'What is now proved,' said Blake, 'was once only imagined. What is now clearly imagined was once only a sense of something missing'" (9).

Clark discusses systematically science-fictional thought experiments about immortality. The literature about immortality sheds light on the philosophical problem of personal identity: What makes us who we are? Why are we considered the same persons through life's vicissitudes? What is preserved in science-fiction stories about immortality (e.g. as resurrection, incarnation, or disembodied survival) reflects visions of what is essential or coincidental about our personal identities. A related problem in the philosophy of mind is whether neural mental events can be recreated on a computer network, whether our existence is uniquely biological or whether it can be reduplicated without neural networks, in which case mental events are epiphenomenal, secondary or added to neural or silicon-based processes. Some kinds of immortality do not preserve identities but what was most important for the identities while they lived, the meaning of their lives. The philosophical issue is whether what gives our life a meaning is eternal (as Plato would claim) or the best moments of our lives that pass away never to return. A final question is moral: Is it right or wrong for man to be immortal or crave immortality?

Clark is very well read indeed in science fiction. He covers the subject of immortality in science fiction (and poetry) extensively and thoroughly. Clark surveys critically the various forms of immortality in science fiction. But he does not try to argue for a specific theory of personal identity and what would constitute indefinite survival of the person. Clark's general line of argument follows the philosophy of the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936). Unamuno claimed that human life is tragic because there is a clash between our desire for immortality and the certainty of eventual death. Unamuno's solution for the tragic conflict was religious faith that satisfies the desire for immortality through the divine. The existence of God is a consequence rather than a cause of our desire to be immortal. Like other existentialists, Unamuno held human existence to be an undefinable mystery. Clark surveys accordingly the imagined reflections of our desire for immortality in science fiction. He does not endorse a particular version of immortality that assumes a certain theory of human existence. He concludes that immortality is a mystery that can be achieved only through a transcendental leap of faith. Eventually the universe will come to an end and whether or not something else will follow, what happened before the end would not affect what will follow. We will be forgotten and lost like tears in rain. The non-believer can discover a meaning in life and prolong his existence in one way or the other, but immortality requires divinity. Clark presents religion and science fiction as equally motivated by a desire for immortality, a search for the divine.

My main criticism of the book is that it presupposes that the reader is already familiar with contemporary philosophy. For example:

Budrys's teleportative device in Rogue Moon (also employed by Pohl and Williamson in Farthest Star) is.... The one to be 'transported' is scanned (and thereby torn to shreds), the information is dispatched and a new body, an exact duplicate, created in the receiver. Since the information can be dispatched to many receivers, there can be many simultaneous duplicates. Budrys's Rogue Moon is probably the best and clearest exposition of those problems now associated with Derek Parfit's theory--written back in 1960. Here, and in Farthest Star, what had seemed single individuals are compelled to think of themselves as disposable instances of a type-- and instances that may vary in uncomfortable ways. (36)

Most contemporary philosophers are familiar with Parfit's controversial book Reasons and Persons (1984). Parfit attempts to prove that personal identity does not matter for personal survival. He uses for that purpose thought experiments about duplicating a person and destroying the original that resemble Budrys's earlier work. Clark should have explained the relations between Budrys and Parfit. Science-fiction readers are not necessarily familiar with Parfit's work. Philosophers who read Parfit may be interested in a detailed examination of the implications of science fiction on Parfit's positions. Clark is equally reticent about a number of other philosophers.

Clark proves that science fiction is highly relevant for philosophy, but does noy try to convince non-philosophers that philosophy is interesting for people who like science fiction. Thus, he loses some of his potential audience. At £40 a copy, the book cannot be bought by ordinary science-fiction fans (unless they are personal friends of Robinette Broadhead). Perhaps had the book offered a better synthesis of philosophy and science fiction it would have been possible to market it to a wider public in soft cover and for a more affordable price.

In societies where philosophy is not part of everyday discourse and is not taught in high schools, university philosophy teachers have to try and connect their subject matter to the previous experiences of the students; science fiction and religion are heuristic bridges to philosophy. I can imagine an introductory text to philosophy from a science-fiction perspective. Other syntheses of philosophy and science fiction may concentrate on problems that are not discussed by Clark. For example, stories about time travel may have interesting implications on the philosophical discussion about causation, chaos, and determinism. Stories about shifting realities such as Stanislaw Lem's may be useful for examples for epistemology. Histories of the future such as Asimov's FOUNDATION TRILOGY are useful for issues in the philosophy of history. The visions of alternative civilizations, life styles, and regimes may be useful as case studies in ethics and social and political philosophy. Science fiction may predict the effects of future technologies on society and the ethical dilemmas that may be have to be faced. In an age when much of professional philosophy is limited to analyzing language or playing games with it, science fiction still discusses some of the traditional problems of philosophy such as what may the universe be like and what is our place within it? Where are we coming from? Where are we going? What does it mean?

--Aviezer Tucker Palacky University, Olomouc, Cz.


The Orwell Industry.

Peter Dawson. George Orwell: A Literary Life. Literary Lives series. NY: St Martin's Press, 1996. xxvii+175. $35.00.

Peter Dawson writes that, in addition to the biographies by Crick and Shelden, he has 38 studies of Orwell on his shelves and that there are books on Orwell that he doesn't have as well as numerous essays. Books in Print Plus (9/10/96) lists 39 books on and 39 editions of books by Orwell. Dawson is the editor of the nine volumes of The Complete Works of George Orwell published in hardback by Secker and Warburg and in paperback (with differing apparatus) by Penguin. Eleven additional 600-page volumes, collecting miscellaneous material, are scheduled for publication by Secker and Warburg in 1996.

Dawson's brief but rewarding study is "chiefly concerned with what influenced Orwell--people, reading, circumstance--and his relationship with publishers and editors" (ix). The "Conclusion" reviews Orwell's critical reputation at the present time, which has declined greatly in recent years, especially with respect to the novels, a number of critics (including my colleague Darko Suvin) having pronounced even 1984 a bad book.

1984 is one of the pivotal books in my life. I believe it still worth reading and teaching, and am happy to see it is still one of the most widely used texts in sf courses. The passage of time has made much of its satire opaque to present-day students, which is not a bad thing for such teachers as have themselves made sure they understand the significance of such things as Orwell's making "Airstrip One" the 1984 name for what is now Great Britain.

--RDM.


Advertising and Sf Illustrations

Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan. Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the AmericanFuture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. 7hx10w. xviii+157. $24.95 paper.

A reprint of a book published in 1984 to accompany an exhibition at the Smithsonian. Its pop-sociology text on anticipations of future "communities," "homes," "transportation," and "weapons and warfare" is illustrated with reproductions of advertisements and of illustrations from sf and popular-science magazines of the years 1910-1950.--RDM


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