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
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.
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
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.
Science Fiction as a Bridge to
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
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,
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
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.
Advertising and Sf Illustrations
Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan. Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the AmericanFuture.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. 7½hx10w. 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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