Science Fiction Studies

#13 = Volume 4, Part 3 = November 1977


Notes, Reports, and Correspondence

On the Lem Affair. Probably the "Lem Affair" should be allowed to die a natural death, since it does nobody any credit, but I am sure that it will not die soon, that there will be more letters in forthcoming issues of SFS and other journals, taking this side or that without sufficient information, in spite of Pamela Sargent's and George Zebrowski's attempt to provide a "chronology." One more effort to provide persepctive on the affair can do no harm.               

One aspect of the situation that has received little attention is that organizations like SFWA have no memory: they are recreated every time a new president takes office. Because they are manned by volunteers, even the existence of a set of bylaws (which often are not available) is no guarantee of any continuity of experience or administration. With SFWA it is even more difficult: the writers who fill all the administrative positions do so at their own expense. The cost is real: when they are administering they are not writing, and the time involved may be anywhere from one-fifth to one-half their working time, depending upon their efficiency and their dedication. They do not have time to find and reread previous decisions, or the papers of previous officers, or even their file (if they have one) of SFWA Bulletins and Forums. Important questions often are bounced off an advisory committee of present officers and previous presidents. In Lem's case this wasn't done, unfortunately.

Most SFWA actions get taken because some member thinks something is a good idea and pursues it. Lem was offered an honorary membership not because the officers knew his work and his opinions and honored them—my guess is that at the time (five years ago) none of them had read any of his fiction and certainly not his criticism—but one member pressed for the honor. It does nothing for the completeness or objectivity of the Sargent-Zebrowski chronology to omit the revealing fact that George was that member. The officers, I'd guess, took Lem on faith.                

The action to declare Lem's honorary membership illegal does SFWA no credit. On the other hand, Lem's acceptance of the honorary membership while holding in contempt the organization and the fiction it was dedicated to protecting and promoting did him no credit either, nor the frequent publication of his contempt after this acceptance. One could make excuses for both, but at this point they are all pretty irrelevant. I would like to deal with one characterization of the SFWA action, however, that it "punished" Lem. Lem has not been deprived of life, freedom, money, or reputation. His work will continue to be published in this country as long as the publishers are happy with it (and, in this capitalist system, it makes money). The SFWA action will not cost Lem a single sale; it may even sell a lot more books through notoriety. Neither will it prevent Lem from publishing his criticism in his usual journals (and, in spite of his professed desire to "work for reform from within," I don't recall seeing any of his opinions published in an SFWA publication); it might even make his work more sought after. If the process has not already begun, I would not be surprised to see his two-volume study of science fiction, Fantastyka I Futurologia, ride to an English translation on the wave of his "punishment." Lem has been deprived only of membership in an organization he regretted joining (in his own words) within a year of his acceptance, of an association he found odious. If he has been "punished," it is only because he or his defenders choose to view it that way.                

But that's all history. Lem has indicated to several persons, including then SFWA president Frederik Pohl, that he doesn't want to be a member of SFWA; he wouldn't join the organization as a regular member, not even if his dues were paid by other members. His defenders will respond, "Of course not, after what has happened." His Atlas article suggests that he wouldn't have accepted in the first place if he had been wiser. The further beating of this dead horse will do nobody any good, and if the intention is to reform SFWA it cannot be done in the pages of SFS. And as an organization without memory the only way to achieve change is for members to run for and accept office, or volunteer for service of other kinds.                

Lem's criticism, on the other hand, is still with us. From my reading of it, my conclusion is that in spite of his study and his professed familiarity with American science fiction he doesn't know it very well; he doesn't evidence a great deal of understanding even of the SFWA publications he says he read. Nobody knows how well he reads English; certainly he doesn't have a sufficient command of the language to trust himself to write in it. This is not to criticize him for his deficiencies—very few of us know Polish, and I wouldn't trust myself in any foreign language—but to point out the inadequacies of the information on which he bases his conclusions.               

Lem's criticism seems to fall into two kinds: when he is academic he is obscure, and when he is not academic he is polemical. Perhaps he is polemical when he is academic, too, but it is difficult to be sure. I have been informed by several people that Lem writes out of a different tradition; I suppose we should make allowance for that, as we must make allowance for the inadequacies of translation, even though Lem makes no allowances in his criticism. We have an obligation to point out errors of fact no matter what the tradition, and if the conclusions are in error call into question the critical assumptions.                

Polemical criticism may have its place, but as a strategy for reform it is usually unsuccessful. Criticism must be discriminating; you can only destroy a genre, not reform it, by telling its writers how unrelievedly bad it is. Moreover, the polemic falsifies itself by superlatives and sweeping generalizations such as, in the Atlas article: "simply bad writing,"  "wooden dialogue," "awful," "hackneyed," "make me ill," "deceptive ballyhoo," "idiocy," "cultural cancer," "terrible," "the most patent foolishness," "trash," "lies," "nonsense," and "bad literature." The use of such words and phrases is not only unscholarly and injudicious, no matter what the audience, it calls into serious question the value of anything else the author might have to say upon the subject. In fact, if an American writer or critic had published such comments about Eastern European writing, he would be violently attacked as a chauvinistic, reactionary, Red-baiting illiterate.                

But it is not only Lem's method and diction but his message that is questionable. When Lem says "we would have no literature worth mentioning" if past authors had accepted the suggestions of Heinlein (repeated by Anderson) that "we are competing for our readers' beer money," he ignores the long tradition of writing for money (or for patrons, or for dramatic or literary judges) that Samuel Johnson celebrated when he said that "no man but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money." Are we to accept Lem's romantic notions about writing only for "art" or "self-expression" or some other non-reader-related reason (which has produced as much bad writing as any kind of commercial hackwork, only most of it doesn't get published) and forget Shakespeare and his eye to the groundlings as well as to his own fortune, or Twain, Bennett, Wells, Hemingway, and dozens or even hundreds of other contributors to our literature who were born poor and had to "get ahead," as Wells put it, by their writing?                

The inevitable exaggerations of polemic writing make it easy to expose. In the review-article by Lem in SFS Volume 4, "Cosmology and Science Fiction," even if we ignore the critical question as to whether the function of SF is to deal with science or to explicate the universe (a naive assumption that I cannot deal with here), Lem makes a number of flat statements that are demonstrably false:
                1) "...for SF ... the silentium universi doesn't exist at all." Forgive personal references, but they come most immediately to mind—I might cite my own novelette "The Listeners" (1968) and the novel by the same name (1972) as a fiction specifically about the silent universe. No doubt there are others, but I'm not going to do the research to come up with them. The examples I cite are those that come immediately to mind.
                2) "...there is in SF not a single one of the civilizations of the'third stage'...which are able to control stellar energies." The fact is there are dozens of them: in fact Larry Niven's entire "known space" series of stories and novels is built around such civilizations. His Puppeteers, for instance, are fleeing from the explosion of the central core of the galaxy by taking their planets with them equipped with their own artificial suns. Niven's Ringworld, Shaw's Orbitsville, and the series of novels by Pohl and Williamson focus on civilizations capable of building "Dyson" spheres around their suns, and that's pretty close to the "third stage." At the end of Blish’s Cities in Flight and of Anderson’s Tau Zero,we have the universe destroyed and reborn.
                3) "...in SF cosmic civilizations have no intellectual culture at all..." The fact is that in SF one tradition runs directly counter to the human-inhabited universe created by Asimov and others. In this other tradition a primitive earth is judged and condemned or aided, or exploited by superior civilizations or galactic unions, etc. One might cite Clarke's "Rescue Party," Dickson's "Dolphin's Way," Williamson's prototypical Trial of Terra, or even Van Vogt's The Players of Null A, Clarke's Childhood's End, Heinlein's Glory Road, and Haldeman's Mindbridge. If the question is about the alienness of cultures, I might offer Clement's Mission of Gravity, Carr's "The Dance of the Changer and the Three," or Eklund and Benford's "If the Stars Are Gods."                

Lem goes on to suggest, though he does not state it directly, that SF does not deal with the immensity or the cruelty of space. As a matter of fact, there is another tradition lauched perhaps by Leinster's "Proxima Centauri" and later exemplified by Heinlein's "Universe" that describes that immensity in terms of human longevity, and my own Station in Space (1958), particularly the last part, "Space Is a Lonely Place," was a specific attempt to deal with the harsh and cruel realities of space flight and the terrors of space.                

Lem also suggests that SF does not reflect the fact that "it makes no sense at all to look at the universe from the viewpoint of ethics," but that is the precise point of Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," itself a touchstone story for much Campbellian SF. He also suggests that SF is unaware of neutron stars and singularities and Hawking black holes, of the cosmos of colliding galaxies, the invisible stars sucked in by the curvature of space, the pulsating magnetic fields. Go read, among others, Larry Niven, I would say to him. I could cite—. Oh, what's the use. We have our hard science writers who are as cognizant of contemporary cosmology as Lem, and I suspect more so. If they do not respond to it to his satisfaction, he has a much better recourse than complaining because other writers do not write the way he thinks they should; he can prove, with his own writing, that his vision is superior—though, indeed, only for him.                

Of course if Lem is referring to purely generic writing, the kind that plays games with genre concepts, he may have a point, even though he puts it in generally unacceptable terms. And he should say so. He doesn't and whatever useful criticism that might be available is lost in the easy disproof of his sweeping generalizations, such as "The laws of the market do not permit it—today no authors and publishers would dare to subject the readers to a cure of giving up that would equal the renunciation of easy solutions to fictitious problems." He is totally wrong: any writing that does what he asks for would be snapped up by a publisher and bought by readers; it might even win a Nebula or a Hugo. As an easy demonstration—American publishers publish Lem, and his books are bought and read by the American fans he finds so contemptible.                

In his understanding of the U.S. publishing situation and of American SF, Lem doesn't know what he's talking about. He reads the SFWA Bulletin and comes up with the revelation that "publishers still pay 2 cents a word...while books have doubled in price..." when the basic rate for magazine fiction became 3 cents a word in 1950 and is now 4-6 cents a word; books never paid by the word. All this casts doubt on the rest of his message.                

The ready acceptance, without rebuttal, of Lem's polemics is a symptom of SF's traditional inferiority complex. We are either eternally defensive (as some people will consider this letter) or ready to grovel when attacked by anyone with literary credentials or pretensions. No wonder many writers and editors are suspicious of academic interest. If we don't uphold our own scholarly standards, if we judge without data or are not as quick to point out the mistakes of our own critics as we are the errors of the literature, then we may well be as parasitic as the Lester del Reys of the SF world insist.—James Gunn.

 

On Lem on Cosmology and SF. As a cosmologist who also writes sf, I'd like to comment on some of S. Lem's declarations on this subject in SFS #12.                

He occasionally strains facts for effect (a vice he accuses many sf writers of adopting): it is fairly certain that we don't live in a cyclic universe, for example, and the universe is indeed "closed" in the geometric sense. Also, the silentium universi is not ignored in sf at all (see Gunn's The Listeners), and in any case Lem mistakes the occasional listening for radio signals from other civilizations for a concerted program. Nobody expects instant success from a radio monitoring project, and the few stars eavesdropped on haven't made scientists "feel compelled to attribute ever smaller figures to the psychozoic density in the cosmos, because the accumulating negative results of the 'sky listening' force them to do so." I'm afraid Lem simply isn't doing his homework on this; the largest earnest attempt has listened to only about 200 stars.                

Similarly, I don't think he should brush off sf writers with the assertion that none have speculated on what Type III civilizations would be like. The whole Type I, II and III scheme (tapping planetary, stellar, or galactic energy resources) comes from Stapledon; Shlovskii, the Soviet astrophysicist, merely formalized it.

I do agree with the general tenor of his remarks—sf does seek cozy universes. They are far easier to make humanly interesting. However, let's remember that even Pascal's horror at the abyss is an anthropomorphic projection. It may not even be so that the universe is ethically neutral, and any assumption made about this possibility is a valid basis for speculation. Then too, collapsing space and time enables one viewpoint character to grasp the scales involved, a technique as old as Wells' Time Machine, so we can't simply frown at these devices as philosophically misleading; they're necessary for fiction to exist.                

I, too, find much sf about black holes etc. pallid, but Lem's evoking the crushing tides of neutron stars as an example of the antiheroic nature of cosmology and physics rings oddly, considering Niven's "Neutron Star" of a decade ago. Who says there aren't 'human' problems near singularities? And—incidentally—singularities aren't necessarily final; Stephen Hawking is even now working on techniques to extend physics into the time before the origin of the 'big bang.'                

I find it difficult to follow Lem's assertion that "nothing is today so much held in contempt in SF as reason" when he appears plainly unacquainted with a fair amount of recent sf. Also, he seems to ignore his own fine work which often treats themes central to this discussion. (Maybe they're 'not SF'?) I know it's hard to know everything that has been done—I had already written If the Stars Are Gods and raised issues I thought only skimpily addressed before then, when I stumbled upon Solaris—but I have a scientist's dislike of sweeping statements unbacked by data. (Demonstrating the vacuum is tedious.)               

Finally, I wish Lem had more experience with the way science is done and the feelings of scientists, before deciding on the proper attitude toward its findings. The doing of science tells us much about its philosophical impact. The astrophysicists and cosmologists I know—the authors of Cosmology Now, for example—don't share one single emotional state regarding their findings. The range of human reactions to the universe is large. I think SF's role in depicting this and exploring it is invaluable. Showing science as a human enterprise is more important in the long run than describing the more transient fictions of cosmology itself. —Gregory Benford.

 

On Barbour on Le Guin. In Ursula Le Guin's "own list of 'influences'" she does not mention D.H. Lawrence ("A Response to the Le Guin Issue," SFS, 3 [March 1976], 46). Still, there are striking parallels between the displaced romantic comedy that we find in Le Guin's work and the equally displaced, though far more pessimistic, romantic comedy we find in Women in Love (1920; rpt. New York: Viking, 1960). The most noticeable parallel between Le Guin and Lawrence is the imagery associated with the love- and sex-life of Shevek and Takver in The Dispossessed (especially §10) and the relationship of Birkin and Ursula, a relationship that occasionally approaches Birkin's ideal of "two single equal stars balanced in conjunction" (Women in Love, §13, p. 142).                

Birkin's theories on love closely parallel what Douglas Barbour has pointed out as the theme of "Wholeness and Balance in the Hainish Novels of Ursula Le Guin," both before The Dispossessed and in that novel (SFS, 1 [Spring 1974], 164-73 and "Wholeness and Balance: An Addendum," SFS, 2 [November 1975], 248-49).                

Birkin denies that he wants to merge with Ursula or dominate her. Instead he presents the image of the balanced stars and calls for a human bond that is pure and irrevocable, a commitment that allows "freedom together." He insists that this bond and conjunction is the way in which men and women achieve being, wholeness, integrity, selfhood, and, indeed, pure masculinity and femininity (Women in Love, §13, pp. 139, 142-44 and §16, pp. 191-93), Birkin takes the Yin-Yang concept and presents it modified with a slight macho perversion: the man is to become purely masculine and the woman purely feminine, a denial of the speck of Yin within the Yang and the speck of Yang within the Yin—in Jungian terms, a denial of the anima and animus.             

Still, though, Lawrence and Le Guin are in basic agreement on the centrality of the bonded pair: a couple who become whole by being part of a "conjunction," a couple around whom a healthy society might coalesce—and a couple in harmony with a Way or universal scheme (see my "Catastrophism and Coition: Universal and Individual Development in Women in Love," TSLL, 9 [1967], 117-28).              

Perhaps, then, Women in Love should join the list of "influences" on Le Guin. But I would prefer to suggest that we have here a case of significant analogy (as Odo might say) or homology, with Le Guin and Lawrence working with the same ideas from Chinese philosophy. If there are major differences between Le Guin's and Lawrence's presentations of the "wholeness and balance" theme, it is probably because "Lawrence was groping for something Le Guin has found" (James W. Bittner, personal communication).—Richard D. Erlich.

 

A Note in Correction. The review "World SF for the Russian Common Reader" (SFS 4:84-85) by Andrzej Zgorzelski was written in English—i.e. was not translated from the Polish by Franz Rottensteiner (who forwarded it to us). We regret the error, and congratulate the author on his command of English.

 

The Meaning of the Loch Ness Monster by Roger Grimshaw and Paul Lester (42 large-format pages, cyclostyled and bound) is recommended reading for SF critics, despite its seemingly peripheral subject. For in fact its ten sections comprise a discussion of the relationships between folklore and science, of types of evidence for admissibility of phenomena (legal, scientific, popular prejudices), of "the common sense of science," and of the Monster as carrier of the unknown with a wide range of connotations. It can be obtained from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, United Kingdom, by sending a money order for 25 pence (British). —DS.

 

Turner, Gillespie, Lem, and Others on Silverberg. SF Commentary #51 contains an article by George Turner, "Robert Silverberg: The Phenomenon," which is much the best discussion of Silverberg's much discussed autobiographical piece in Hell's Cartographers (see SFS 3:208) that I have yet seen, together with reviews of various of Silverberg's books by Bruce Gillespie, Stanislaw Lem, Paul (not Poul) Anderson, Van Iken, Don D'Ammassa, and Barry Gillam—all in all an admirable collection of considerable value to anyone interested in Silverberg's fiction or curious about his recent announcement that he will write no more SF. For those not familiar with SFC, let me say that it is published in Melbourne by Bruce Gillespie, himself one of the best of SF critics, and, all things considered, is surely the best of the SF fan magazines. Previous issues have been mimeographed, but #51 is typeset and printed, as all future issues will be. Subscription in the US and Canada: $6.00 for five issues, from Hank and Lesleigh Luttrell, 525 West Main, Madison WI 57303. —RDM.


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