Science Fiction Studies

#44 = Volume 15, Part 1 = March 1988


NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE

The Late, Great Alfie B., 1913-87

Alfred Bester died on September 30, 1987 of heart failure after a year of slow recovery from a broken hip and arm. He was to be the Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England, but was forced to cancel because of his health.               

Bester was never a full-time, permanent resident of the SF world, although— ironically—he was one of its best writers from the mid-'40s through the late '60s. He jaunted to the SF world when he needed it, then returned to the mainstream. Bester prided himself on being an ``everything'' writer, a professional who had always made his living by writing. Indeed, he produced copy for nearly every popular medium: comic books (Superman and Captain Marvel, among others: 1942-46); radio (stories for Charlie Chan, Nero Wolfe, and a variety of others, mainly detective series: 1946-50); television (including Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and the Paul Winchell show: 1950-56); and magazines (most notably Holiday, from 1956 to 1970, by which time he was Senior Literary Editor). SF was for him always ``therapy'' as well as an ``escape valve'' which he used when the stresses of the purely commercial world were too much with him.                

His SF output was small: five novels, a handful of essays and reviews, and 36 stories (21 of them collected in Starburst, 1958; The Dark Side of the Earth, 1964; and Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester, 1976). But two of the five novels and at least one of the stories are considered classics by any critical standard.                

The Demolished Man won a Hugo in 1953 and remains a model of the psychological SF-mystery story today. In fact, given the recent cyberpunk movement, Bester's surrealistic imagery, scenic pacing, frenzied activity, and bizarre characters all seem more like today's fiction than yesterday's. The Stars My Destination (1957) is undoubtedly Bester's masterpiece, showing his ``pyrotechnical'' style at its best. Samuel Delany is not the only one to have called it ``the greatest science fiction novel ever.'' Gully Foyle's tale of redemption from evil against a setting of human corruption and pain is a touchstone for all SF read afterwards.               

Bester's stories are all good reading and some are much more than that. ``Fondly Farenheit'' appears in so many anthologies for good reason: it may be the finest study yet produced of human being and artificial creature caught in the Frank en stein syndrome, extrapolated further than Shelley ever dreamed. In addition, the stories about time travel (``The Men Who Murdered Mohammed,'' ``Time is the Traitor,'' ``Of Time and Third Avenue,'' ``Hobson's Choice'') stand as classic comments on the foolish fantasy of trying to improve life by migrating to another time. In fact, if there is one thread in Bester's SF, it is the necessity for taking responsibility for the here and now, for committing to the present. This seems especially ironic, given Bester's often-stated insistence that he wrote SF to escape, seeing it as ``the last remaining outpost of free literary expression and experiment in our damned conventional culture.''               

Several years ago I corresponded with Bester on my way to writing about him. Receiving a letter from him was a lot like waking up on the Fourth of July—I never knew what the contents would be; but I could bet they would always be explosively vivid, filled with quips, anecdotes, explosive comments from left field. At least once, in what must have been a fit of sardonic self-mockery, he signed himself ``the late, great Alfie B.''                

I never did meet him, but I shall always remember the time I saw Alfie Bester in larger-than-life action, at an academic conference in New York City ten years before he died. Bester had been invited to share a panel with Charles L. Grant, Isaac Asimov, and Ben Bova. He arrived attired in well-worn high-top sneakers, jeans whose major characteristic was that they looked comfortable, and a sports coat whose better days had been years before. He carried what must have been the world's largest jock bag, crammed with newly-purchased bottles of wine that did not quite fit into the zippered closing. He sat down behind a long table with the other writers and managed to behave conventionally for about half the discussion. Then, apparently able to stay put no longer, he leapt up, walked around to the front of the table to be closer to the audience, and paced back and forth, gesturing and talking. The other three writers (none exactly shrinking violets) tried to interrupt but finally lapsed into what might have been either respectful or overwhelmed silence. It was one of the most extraordinary performances I have ever seen.                

I suspect that the anecdotes about Alfie will continue to surface for years. Yet Alfred Bester's legacy was the wonderful stories he told us, not his own vivid personality. We can therefore honor his memory no better than by reading and talking about the SF he loved. -- Carolyn Wendell, Monroe Community College


                                                                                                                                                             

Who Was Really Moxon's Master?

In the Fall 1985 Extrapolation, E.F. Bleiler had an intriguing piece of analysis, ``Who Was `Moxon's Master'?'' (pp. 181-89), in which he convincingly showed that Ambrose Bierce's famous story ``Moxon's Master'' (1909) may have quite other meanings than it is usually supposed to have. Commonly thought to be a simple tale of a robot murdering its creator, it actually is, says Bleiler, a tale of a murder of passion—or at least, it admits of that additional interpretation. The automaton of the story, Mr Bleiler argues, was not a genuine one but only a fake mechanism of the order of Maelzel's Chess Player exposed by Poe: that is, it was secretly operated by a human being, namely by a woman who happened to be Moxon's mistress, perhaps a woman whose relationship with Moxon was already approaching its end and who strangled Moxon in a lovers' quarrel, using the powerful mechanical hands of the contraption.                

Bleiler's first main argument, that the automaton perhaps was not really an automaton, is wholly convincing. His second point, that there was a woman involved, is less so. His third argument is that Moxon and his visitor sat drinking, and that the young man, who tells the story as a much older man, may for this reason be an ``unreliable narrator'': not only is he cocksure and somewhat naïve, as is shown by his heavy-handed attempts at irony over the woman whom he suspects is hidden in Moxon's ``machine shop,'' ``which no one but himself was permitted to enter'' (p. 17), but he was drunk at the climax as well. Although alcohol is mentioned in the story not by so much as a word, Mr Bleiler surmises drunkenness from certain impolite behavior of the visitor, especially the discourteous, ``extraordinary'' (p. 184) question: ``Moxon, whom have you in there?'' (p. 18). My contention is that while alcohol may have been involved, it cannot be substantiated from the text, and that as an explanation it is not really necessary.                

During their conversation about the consciousness of machines and other things that constitutes the first part of the story, some noise is heard from the ``machine shop''; and while Moxon goes off to see what is the matter, the young man frankly does eavesdrop and hears some muted words of ``Damn you!'' Moxon later returns with four parallel scratches in his face that the visitor (and with him the reader) thinks were caused by a woman, and Moxon says were caused by a machine. In heavy irony, the young man replies: ``I hope that the machine that you inadvertently left in motion will have her gloves on the next time you think it needful to stop her'' (p. 19).                

Never having given Bierce's story a close reading, I found Bleiler's interpretation a real ``eye-opener.'' It is highly original, but nevertheless leaves one uneasy. I think that it fails to explain satisfactorily several important things, and that there are a few places in Mr Bleiler's argument where he is clearly off the track—and indeed, remains somewhat puzzled himself. I think that I can offer, following Mr Bleiler's lead, a solution that leaves no loose ends, requires no speculations that cannot be verified from the text itself, and invests the story with additional ambiguities: at the least, it adds two new interpretations to the ones already delineated by Bleiler.                

Bleiler concludes his essay: ``Let us now return to the title of the story, `Moxon's Master,' and let us substitute `Moxon's Mistress.' A suitable entry in Bierce's Devil`s Dictionary could be `Mistress. A master.''' My own claim is: if there was no real automaton, there was also no woman. ``Moxon's Master'' is his ``confidential workman, Haley'' (p. 21), Moxon himself was a homosexual, and his young visitor perhaps a latent homosexual.                

Haley is first mentioned in the second part of the story as the only person besides Moxon permitted to enter the machine shop (in a repetition of the phrase, already quoted from the first part, with Haley added—a certain inconsistency); and he makes his actual appearance only in the last lines of the story, when the young narrator is in hospital, having been saved by Haley from the fire that destroyed Moxon's premises.                

The main and only evidence for the existence of a woman is a few scratches on Moxon's face when he returns from his machine shop—this on the assumption that in a lovers' quarrel a woman would scratch, while a male would rather use his fists. Like the young visitor-narrator, readers pride themselves on their perspicacity for having seen through Moxon's ruse. A machine that scratches, indeed!                

But Mr Bleiler describes what is (or has been) going on thus:

When the young man continues to press his point about thought in a mechanical device, Moxon replies in an odd manner. He invokes plant tropisms in a frankly sexual imagery....
                The young man objects to Moxon's biological analogies, declaring that he had been talking about mechanical devices, not plants, and sarcastically asks Moxon if thought is inherent in inanimate substances. Moxon continues his exposition, now citing analogies of combinatory growth—soldiers who assume formations, crystals that form in molten metal, and facets in snowflakes. (Does this mean that she is pregnant?) (p. 183; my emphasis)

Now this speech is indeed odd if Moxon has hidden a woman in the next room whom he wishes to remain hidden, especially when it is obvious that his visitor has already fastened upon that thought. But it makes good sense if Moxon is a homosexual; then we may assume that he is trying to convey to his visitor that there are other kinds of love than the love for a woman, and his sexual talk in disguise may be interpreted as wooing the young man, especially as there seems to be a progression from heterosexual love to increasingly homo- or uni-sexual forms in the examples given. ``Soldiers in formation'' suggests the image of homosexuality, rather than, as Bleiler will have it, a pregnant woman; and as a soldier of long service in the American Civil War, Bierce can hardly have been unfamiliar with male homosexuality.                

All the examples that Bleiler interprets as indicating female sexuality might more easily be construed as leading towards unisexuality (or, seen on a more spiritual plane, as asexuality). It appears here disguised as panpsychism: ``Do you know that Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm?'' (p. 19). And if Moxon's sexual talk is a covert proposal to the young man, we already have a very good motive for the crime of passion of the mechanic hidden in the machine shop: jealousy towards the young visitor. For after all, the young man is no casual visitor; he must have a certain familiarity with Moxon, for right at the beginning of the story it is established that the young man had observed a certain peculiarity in Moxon's behavior for weeks, which indicates a certain closeness; and certainly that day Moxon devoted a long time to his visitor, while his workman (or more than workman) was left neglected in the machine shop. Given the sexual implications of Moxon's speech, the mechanic has even more reason to be jealous; particularly if he (and this would lend a certain satisfying symmetry to the incident) listened to Moxon and his visitor on the other side of the door, just as the young man ``frankly listens without any compunction about eavesdropping'' (Bleiler: 183) when Moxon leaves him for a moment to see after his automaton(?)/woman(?)/workman(?).                

And why then the seeming impropriety of the young visitor's question: ``Moxon, whom have you in there?'' (p. 18).1 Have his standards of social conduct been lowered by alcohol, as Mr Bleiler suggests? Why, his is a classical case of jealousy; just as the mechanic is jealous, so is he! And what Bleiler regards as his ``extraordinary'' question is the standard question of jealous people who suspect a concealed lover! Of course, he is jealous of a woman who might have been allowed more intimacy with his guru-to-be Moxon than he's been allowed, never suspecting for a moment that Moxon may have a man in.                

The story's mood then becomes quasi-religious, which is not so peculiar as Mr Bleiler thinks, given the common roots and close connection of sexuality and religion; indeed, it is inescapable. And since the homoerotic import of the proceedings has to be kept camouflaged, it is only natural that it should take the form of a unio mystica, of agape, love for god and all creation (and particularly its prophet, Moxon).                

Nor has Moxon's speech, if wooing it was, been in vain, for his visitor indeed experiences a conversion, described in the strongest possible religious terms (as of Saul to Paul). And further: ``My feet seemed hardly to touch the earth; it was as if I were uplifted and borne through the air by invisible wings...'' (p. 20). Does this mean, as Bleiler would have it, that the young man is roaring drunk? He has rather been struck by love; he experiences the heightened state of consciousness and well-being of someone who has just fallen in love.                

And it becomes even more clear when, already having left, he returns to Moxon ``to seek further light from him whom I now recognized as my master and guide'' (p. 20). That's as close to a declaration of love as the young man will ever admit to himself—and as close as Bierce could and needed to go if he wanted to write about homosexuality in a disguised form, given the strictures of his time and the structure of his writing.2  Whether intoxicated by too much drink (as Bleiler suggests), or a surplus of natural philosophy, or overwhelmed by love (as I say), the young man returns to Moxon to witness the final stage of the homosexual drama and then is either knocked out or passes out from too much drink and/or from the shock of seeing the object of his newly found, almost divine love being killed.                

My interpretation has at least Occam's Razor on its side: it requires only the young man, Moxon, and his mechanic, while Bleiler operates with two more entities, a woman and alcohol. It also does away with one or two coincidences which are inescapable in both the conventional and Mr Bleiler's readings. This is foremost the coincidental arrival of Haley (what is he doing out there in the middle of a storm-swept, rainy, thunderous night?) on the scene of the conflagration just at the right time to save the narrator. If Haley is the murderer, he was there all the time. And if he is a murderer, he is also an arsonist, and we have no need to believe in an accidental lightning (his own suggestion) to destroy the evidence of the crime, especially the automaton. As the murderer, he also has a much better reason than an innocent bystander to visit the young man in hospital and to try to find out what he really knows or suspects. And certainly he has good reason to impress upon the narrator that it was he who saved his life, and to appear modest about it at the same time (as he does, for only when pressed does he admit that it was he who carried the young man from the flames!).                

Of course, it might be argued that as the murderer he could also easily have killed (or left to perish) the only witness of his crime; but, as the story shows, this wasn't really necessary, and perhaps he didn't wish to burden his conscience with a second murder. This is also in accord with the behavior of jealous people. While jealousy takes the most varied forms, in most cases when a jealous person resorts to violence, the violence is directed against the beloved person rather than his (or her) real or imagined rival. Further, if a woman were the murderer, we must explain her extraordinary strength in strangling Moxon by some mechanical amplification of her powers; if a man were operating the device, no such explanation is required.               

My explanation also does better justice to Bierce as a writer, making him out to be more devious than Bleiler credits him: he brilliantly used a social convention (that, in his time, decent women visitors didn't take off their gloves) to misdirect the reader, while not believing it himself and going against a much deeper social grain.

Bleiler quotes M.E. Grenander's general observation: ``Bierce makes the intellectual awareness on which the whole psychology of his protagonist's terror rests, a wrong one; hence all emotional and sensory reactions which follow are erroneous and the reader's perceptions of this gruesome inappropriateness to the facts of the real situation is what gives their peculiar distillation of horror to the Bierce tales'' (p. 181). According to the prevalent interpretation of the story, in the first part the young man (and with him, the reader) becomes convinced that Moxon hides a woman; and this is erroneous, for in the second part the young man convinces himself with his own eyes (and with him, again, the reader) that there was indeed an automaton, just as Moxon claimed. The initial error is thus corrected. According to Bleiler also, the young man at first believes that there was a woman, and then becomes convinced that there was indeed an automaton; but this impression is erroneous: the first assumption was right after all, and there was indeed a woman (and no automaton). Back to where we started. But I am saying that both assumptions are erroneous. Bierce, the clever old rascal, is still one step ahead of the young man and the reader alike. No cat, no canary: there is neither a woman nor a robot, we and the young man have been misled—two times. The story, in both parts, is beautifully symmetrical—and equally misleading.
                Where, then, is the real story? The real story emerges only in the brief, third part, actually only a few lines, in which Mr Haley makes his appearance and the young man asks his savior:

`Did you rescue, also, that charming product of your skill, the automaton chessplayer that murdered its inventor?'3
                The man was silent for a long time, looking away from me. Presently he turned and gravely said: `Do you know that?'....
                That was years ago. If asked today, I should answer less confidently. (p. 21)

We are now also able to answer a question that puzzled Mr Bleiler; and in doing so, we recognize the ingenuity with which Bierce gave away the solution in the title of his story by cleverly concealing it on the surface for all to see (the method used in Poe's ``The Purloined Letter''):

The word `master'...is more difficult to explain [than Moxon, who was a real Englishman], for there is no obvious reason that Bierce, who chose his titles carefully, should have selected it.
 The device did not master Moxon in the surface narrative. When it made noises in the next room and Moxon went to it, it was Moxon who mastered the device. And in the game of chess that the narrator describes, again, it was Moxon who demonstrated mastery. The device did kill Moxon, according to the narrator, but this does not constitute mastery. (p. 182)

Quite right; but Mr Bleiler has fallen into the same trap that has so far, apparently, unfailingly caught all critics of the story: that ``Moxon's Master'' denotes a master over Moxon, while in fact the title indicates foremost quite another, more humble sort of master. ``Moxon's Master'' must be his hired master, his artisan, his confidential workman, his automaton builder, his master of mechanical skills, Haley.4 -- Franz Rottensteiner, Vienna
-----------------------------------------------
1. If one argues, as Mr Bleiler does, with the mores of the times, it should also be noted that it was extremely callous of Moxon to leave a possible mistress alone in his machine shop, while taking his time to talk at leisure with a visitor. And foolish to boot, if he expected her to take this neglect silently.
2. Of course, it would also be possible to give the whole story a non-sexual meaning; Moxon and his workman may not have been lovers; in that case the whole story would be about a quarrel between master and pupil, the latter fearing that the master might turn more towards another pupil. Thus I said above that I have added two additional interpretations of the story to Bleiler's. But an interpretation as basically a homosexual drama gives ``Moxon's Master'' additional depth.
3. Another instance of the young man's naïveté and Bierce's misdirection: as the murderer, Haley had every reason to destroy, not save, the evidence that a human originator of the crime might be involved. Another is Haley's remark to the narrator (about his presence on the scene): ``You may have to do a little explaining'' (p. 21). This applies equally to Haley himself.
4. A suitable entry in Bierce's Devil's Dictionary might read: ``Master. What human beings would rather become over others than of themselves. Working might also make you one; and a workman may be a workingmaster.'' By frequent mentions of ``master,'' Bierce establishes one overpowering meaning of the word, while being careful not to associate Haley with ``master.'' Of course, Haley may also be a ``master'' in the sense of Bleiler's ``mistress.''
                All the quotations from the Bierce story are from Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce (NY: Dover Publications, 1964) via Bleiler.

                                                                                                                                                                         

 

The Joyce of Blish: Finnegans Wake in A Case of Conscience

At the outset of James Blish's novel A Case of Conscience (1958), Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Peruvian-born Jesuit priest who has been working as a biologist on the planet Lithia, is absorbed in trying to understand a passage from a complex book that he has brought from Earth. In the fifth chapter, the priest returns to the same book and comes to what he believes is a solution of the problem on which he has been working. So far, the book that Ruiz-Sanchez finds so intriguing has not been named, and despite having dropped several hints (as well as quoting copiously from the original text), Blish could not expect most readers to recognize the source of the key passage. Thus in the ninth chapter, a third of the way through A Case of Conscience, the narrator identifies the work in the course of describing the protago nist's preparations for returning to Earth:

The four commission members cleaned up in almost complete silence the house in Xoredeshch Sfath that the Lithians had given them. Ruiz-Sanchez packed the dark blue book with the gold stamping without being able to look at it except out of the corner of his eye, but even obliquely he could not help seeing its long-familiar title:
FINNEGANS WAKE
James Joyce
So much for his pride in his solution of the case of conscience the novel proposed. He felt as though he himself had been collated, bound and stamped, a tortured human text for future generations of Jesuits to explicate and argue. (9:80)

In A Case of Conscience, the year is 2049, and Father Ruiz-Sanchez is part of a four-man scientific commission sent to Lithia to learn about the planet and determine what to do with it. Ultimately, he comes to believe that Lithia was conceived by Satan for the purposes of undermining faith in God, since the Lithians are highly rational and moral yet have no religious system or awareness whatsoever. Ruiz-Sanchez argues that Lithia should be placed in perpetual quarantine to avoid contaminating humanity with its apparent proof that religion is unnecessary for the development of morality and social consciousness, but he loses out to another commission member, Cleaver (a physicist), who believes that the planet should be treated as a colony and exploited for its rich deposits of lithium, with which mankind can make thermonuclear weapons. At the end of the novel, the priest watches Lithia from afar through a device that allows him to see what is happening 50 light-years away, and on the orders of Pope Hadrian VIII he pronounces an exorcism on the planet. Just then—coincidentally, perhaps—the planet explodes, probably as a result of a scientific miscalculation, but conceivably, as Ruiz-Sanchez believes, through an act of God.                

The passage cited above is the third of five major references to Finnegans Wake in A Case of Conscience. These references are so closely intertwined with the themes of Blish's novel that some of its aspects probably cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of its connections with the Wake. In the present essay, which deals only with Ruiz-Sanchez's reading of Finnegans Wake, I hope to show that the Joycean elements of Conscience provide us with insights into the literary and theological problems that Blish raises in his novel and illustrate Ruiz-Sanchez's limitations in dealing with those problems.                

When A Case of Conscience opens, Father Ruiz-Sanchez is reading page 573 of Finnegans Wake, ostensibly as a distraction from his demanding biological work on Lithia (1:7-8). Since the Wake is on the Index Expurgatorius, he is allowed to read it only ``by virtue of his Order,'' which apparently takes seriously the ``diabolically complex'' case of conscience posed by the book. The Joyce passage on which he focusses is the Honuphrius law case, in which the Earwicker family history is converted into a sordid tale of incest, betrayal, and perversion. The passage is narrated in the form of a law text, with references to scholarly commentators on the case, and it concludes with a question about the conjugal rights of an unfaithful husband. In this early scene, the priest is quickly lost in the text of the Wake, unable to sort out the problems of identity, evidence, and morality posed by the Joyce text. He returns in the fifth chapter to ``the dark blue book with the gold stamping which he had brought with him all the way from Earth,'' again in the hopes that ``It would at least give him something to think about with which he was not personally involved'' (5:46). Reaching the end of the case, he comes to ``the basic question, the stumper that had deeply disturbed both the Order and the Church for so many decades now'': ``Has he hegemony and shall she submit?'' Rereading the question, he is astonished to see that if a comma is inserted after ``hegemony,'' what appeared to be a single question phrased two ways becomes two distinct questions, and that he can legitimately answer them ``Yes, and No'' (5:47)—yes, the husband has hegemony, but no, the wife need not submit to him. His ``solution'' leaves Father Ruiz-Sanchez disappointed that ``one of the greatest novelists of all time [had taken] seventeen years to write a book the central problem of which is exactly where to put one comma,'' but as he closes the book he feels ``a small stirring of elation deep inside him'' at the thought that ``the Adversary had taken another fall'' (5:47-48).                

These first two references to Finnegans Wake occur while Ruiz-Sanchez is on Lithia, the second, with his proposed solution of the Honuphrius case, coming just about the time when he begins to believe that the planet is a diabolical trap. The third reference, cited above, coincides with his preparations for leaving Lithia, and the fourth and fifth appear after his return to Earth. The dilemma posed by Joyce's book, which seems so important at the outset of Conscience, appears less and less important to Ruiz-Sanchez as he becomes increasingly absorbed in the real theological dilemma presented by Lithia. When Pope Hadrian proposes that an attempt at exorcism would at least reveal whether or not the whole Lithian situation is merely an hallucination caused by a Satanic spell, rather than evidence of the Manichaean doctrine that the devil can be creative, the priest bows his head in shame that he has overlooked the obvious solution to his own case of conscience while absorbed in ``a book which to all intents and purposes might have been dictated by the Adversary himself...628 pages of compulsive demoniac chatter'' (16:152). Finally, just before pronouncing the rite of exorcism, he wonders if the pope ``had seen...that the time Ruiz-Sanchez had devoted to the elaborate, capriciously hypercomplex case of conscience in the Joyce novel had been time wasted; there was a much simpler case, one of the classical situations, which applied if Ruiz-Sanchez could only see it'' (18:178).

The Joycean aspects of Conscience have been scrutinized from different angles by several critics, each of whom has shed light on the case. Jo Allen Bradham regards Father Ruiz-Sanchez's readings of Finnegans Wake as misreadings that reveal the priest's inability ``to separate the major from the nonessential in the case of Lithia....Having missed the case in literature, he misses it in life'' (pp. 76-77). Robert Reilly argues (p. 176) that the Wake, like The Divine Comedy, to which Blish also alludes (although less prominently), is ``an intellectual model of the universe, serving the reader as a basis for making judgments about reality,'' and that the reader's inability to decide between the opposing ``world views presented by these two works'' is related to the ambiguous and agnostic position advocated by Blish's novel. David Ketterer, in the most thorough study to date of Conscience, observes that there is an analogy between the placement of Finnegans Wake on ``the Index Expurgatorius'' and Lithia's de facto placement on the same Index (1:7, 9:80); that both A Case of Conscience and the Wake passage that Father Ruiz-Sanchez studies deal with ``the fallen human condition''; and that ``the emphasis placed on interpreting a passage in a book serves as a reminder of literary reflexivity, a reminder that to unravel Ruiz-Sanchez's case of conscience is actually to interpret a book'' (Ketterer: 96).                

The most extensive analysis of Joycean references in Blish's fiction has been carried out by Grace Eckley, who observes that there are significant allusions to Joyce in other works by Blish, including the short story ``Common Time'' and the ``Star Trek'' novel Spock Must Die!. As for A Case of Conscience, Eckley traces the book's title to the passage in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen notices ``a young professor of mental science discussing on the landing a case of conscience with his class'' (Portrait 5:192; Eckley: 334). She also points to other possible connections with the Portrait and with Ulysses, and she comments on the significance of the Finnegans Wake passage, although most of her commentary consists of explaining the way the passage operates within Finnegans Wake itself. Unlike Bradham and Reilly, she regards Father Ruiz-Sanchez's solution of the case in the Joyce text as essentially correct (p. 339). Summarizing the ``impact of the Wake example on the action of Blish's novel,'' Eckley argues that there is ``only one short conceptual leap'' between Ruiz-Sanchez's belief that he can outwit Satan by understanding a diabolically conceived book and his parallel belief that if ``a planet...created by the Adversary...is banned, the Adversary can be defeated.'' This conceptual leap, however, from ``Church policy regarding books'' to the ``heresy'' of Manichaeanism, reveals the priest's ``extreme parochial egotism,'' a characterization on which Eckley does not elaborate (p. 340).                

My own interpretation of the relationship between Conscience and Ruiz-Sanchez's reading of the Wake overlaps these interpretations at several points and differs from them at others. I see significant peculiarities in the priest's interest in Finnegans Wake, the first being that he seems mainly involved with a sequence that occupies less than two full pages of a 628-page text. (This is the only passage that we see him reading, and when he opens the book it ``almost automatically'' opens to page 573, suggesting that that is where he normally has the book open [5:46].) His belief that this section contains the ``central problem'' of the Wake, and that the ``solution'' to the book hinges on the placement of a comma which does not in fact appear in the text of Finnegans Wake, constitutes one of the most reductive readings to date of the Wake, one that tells us less about Joyce's book than about Father Ruiz-Sanchez's inability to deal with literary (and moral) ambiguity.1 In addition, two of the five Conscience passages that allude to the Wake deal with the book's dark blue cover and gold stamping—that is, with coverings, or ``cases,'' to cite one sense of the key word that Ketterer has discussed at length (pp. 97-102). His alternation between the book's cover and one brief section of its text suggests that Father Ruiz-Sanchez is not consciously involved with the book as a whole, but only with selected aspects of it that he finds appealing or intriguing, a fact that further weakens the authority of his response to the work and, by extension, the validity of his interpretation of Lithia.               

As to why he chooses to involve himself with the Honuphrius case rather than another section of Finnegans Wake—the fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper (pp. 414-19), for example, or the meeting of St Patrick and the Archdruid (pp. 611-13) —there are several possibilities. Eckley's observation that the passage in question has to do with ``a case of adulterous conscience involving a priest'' gives us one possible reason for Ruiz-Sanchez's obsession with the passage, albeit not one that he would want to acknowledge. It is also true that while establishing identities is a problem throughout the Wake, this passage deals with particular explicitness with the issue of who people are, how they are related to one another, and what sins or crimes they may have committed, an aspect of the episode that might suggest a connection between the reading of the book and the attempt to understand our relationship to an alien race. Like virtually every other reader of the Wake during the 1940s and '50s, Blish almost certainly supplemented his independent readings of the Wake with the interpretation provided by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, since at that time the Skeleton Key was the most extensive and most prestigious commentary available on Joyce's book. If he consulted the Skeleton Key while writing Conscience, he would have found another reason to have his protagonist focus on the Honuphrius passage. Campbell and Robinson describe the Honuphrius case as ``probably the strangest and most complicated [passage] in the book. Practically without warning a relatively innocent glimpse into a bedroom opens out upon a morass of indescribable decadence. The apparently healthy ocean of paternal love deteriorates into a sick sea peopled by monsters of incest and perversion'' (p. 330). An interpretation like this would reinforce the parallel between the book that the priest believes was written under diabolic inspiration and the planet that he imagines was contrived by the Adversary in order to undermine one of the cornerstones of Christian theology.                

Ironically, Joyce explicitly identifies Honuphrius as a representative of the Church of England, since he ``pretends publicly to possess his conjunct in thirtynine several manners [cf. the 39 Articles of Anglicanism]...for carnal hygiene whenever he has rendered himself impotent to consummate by subdolence'' (573.19-23). This satiric thrust at the impotence of the Church of England led Campbell and Robinson to interpret the passage as signifying Joyce's belief that the Anglican communion does not represent a genuine transubstantiation of the bread and wine, proving, they say (p. 311, n. 11), that ``In the end James Joyce remains the son of Rome!'' Few Joyce scholars today would accept that judgment without serious reservations, but in the 1940s and '50s many did; and if Blish was among them, he might well have meant to undermine his protagonist's credibility as a literary critic and theologian by having him overlook a putatively pro-Catholic interpretation of the passage at hand in favor of an anti-Catholic, diabolical, and even heretical one. This in turn would lessen our confidence in Father Ruiz-Sanchez's analysis of the situation on Lithia.               

That there is a direct parallel between the priest's interpretations of the passage and of the planet is suggested in several ways, the most obvious being that Ruiz-Sanchez believes that both the Wake and Lithia are diabolical and attempts to ban investigations of the planet just as the Church, in the novel, has banned Joyce's book. The alien world and the Wake are, however, more complex and ambiguous than even Ruiz-Sanchez can imagine, and he may be too quick to claim victory over the Adversary when he reaches his ``solution'' of the Honuphrius case (5:48); likewise, the pope must tell him, later, that he has probably misjudged the Lithian case. The two cases differ, however, in one crucial respect: Lithia is an entirely new problem, one that Ruiz-Sanchez approaches armed only with his knowledge of terrestrial biology and of human theology, which may provide him with inappropriate models for the analysis of Lithian biological and ethical systems. Finnegans Wake, however, had accumulated a fairly large body of commentary by the time Blish wrote his novel, so that by the mid-21st century, when Ruiz-Sanchez approached the Wake, he would have the benefit of a tradition of scholarly, and scholastic, commentary on the text. Blish even refers indirectly to the fact that critical analyses of the Wake preceded, by several years, the publication of the completed text of the book itself: on the first page, Ruiz-Sanchez recalls that the ``century-old problem'' of Honuphrius and his family had been ``first propounded in 1939'' (1:7), but later he thinks of ``the barnacle-like commentaries the text had accumulated since it had been begun in the 1920's'' (5:46-47). An alert reader who does not know, at this point, that the book Ruiz-Sanchez is reading is Finnegans Wake might well wonder how a book first published in 1939 could have been subject to critical commentaries in the previous decade. A Joyce scholar, on the other hand, will probably see in this quotation a humorous reference to the maiden name of Joyce's wife, Nora Barnacle, as well as the more important characterization of scholarship's parasitic relationship to literature—a relationship that, in the case of Joyce's book, began with analyses of the fragments that were published in the 1920s and '30s under the general title Work in Progress.

The emphasis on a tradition of scholarly interpretation of the Wake may have a more direct, and more significant, relationship to the passage that Father Ruiz-Sanchez is reading. Six times in the Honuphrius passage, Joyce refers to what the authorities have had to say about the case: parenthetically, the text alludes to other (supposed) texts which have affected our understanding of Honuphrius and his crimes by offering interpretations that become part of the reconstruction of the facts of the case. Documenting his own text with such phrases as ``(the supposition is Ware's)'' (572.32), ``(a cooler blend, D'Alton insists)'' (572.35-36), and ``(in Halliday's view)'' (573.2), Joyce gives his account the appearance of scholarly objectivity while actually undermining that pretense by showing how difficult it is to get a clear, direct look at any event, historical or otherwise, without relying on other people's suppositions and inferences. Joyce took his authorities' names from historians who had written on Ireland, and Blish continued the process of appropriating a previous ``authority'' for his own purposes. Thus Joyce converted Sir James Ware, a 17th-century historian who wrote The Antiquities and History of Ireland (Glasheen: 301), into the commentator whose ``supposition'' it was that Fortissa had had illegitimate children by Mauritius, while Ruiz-Sanchez remembers that ``The Fortissa-Mauritius relationship was...really only a supposition of the commentator Father Ware'' (1:8). In this reading, Ware takes on a clerical identity that he lacked both in real life and in the pages of the Wake.2 As a priest who is simultaneously a character in Finnegans Wake and one of its interpreters, ``Father Ware'' forms a double for Father Ruiz-Sanchez, another priest who is both part of the text that we are reading and a commentator on a parallel text and an alien world.                

The passage that Ruiz-Sanchez has chosen for analysis is therefore related to his situation in one way that has nothing directly to do with his proposed solution or with the crimes and identities of the people involved in the law case, but has to do rather with the way in which the case is presented and its implications concerning the limitations of scholarly inquiry and the relationship of authority to interpretation. Although he believes that the Honuphrius case is ``something...with which he [is] not personally involved'' (5:46), his alternative fascination with, and scorn for, the book suggests the importance for him not only of the Honuphrius episode but of Finnegans Wake generally, since the entire book challenges the idea that a particular interpretation of its ``unfacts'' (57.16) should be accorded privileged status.                

Indeed, while his bestowal of holy orders on ``Father'' Ware associates Ware with Ruiz-Sanchez as an (ironically) ordained commentator on the Wake, Ruiz-Sanchez also imagines for himself a more significant connection with the book—the physical text itself: just after Blish finally identifies Finnegans Wake for us, he tells us that the priest ``felt as though he himself had been collated, bound and stamped, a tortured human text for future generations of Jesuits to explicate and argue'' (9:80). As much suggestive of the Inquisition as of the Jesuit tradition of scholarly inquiry and argumentation, this self-description tells us a good deal about Father Ruiz-Sanchez's odd relationship to the text that he has sought to interpret, to the Jesuit order, and, moreover, to the church that will excommunicate him on his return to Earth. It tells us, first, that he is uneasy about the damage that critical interpretation may do to a text, and suggests in this way that Ruiz-Sanchez may have doubts about the validity of his own interpretation of the Wake. It also implies that he fears the sort of ruthless imposition of Church authority that resulted, at one time, in the Inquisition, and that he associates that authority with the tradition of scholarly interpretation of sacred and profane texts. In this way, it appears that despite his conscious belief in the stern theology of The Divine Comedy—a belief he expresses, late in the novel, when he says ``that Dante had been right, as every Catholic who reads the Divine Comedy knows in his heart of hearts'' (18:170)—he is unconsciously implicated in the ``heretical,'' anti-authoritarian vision of James Joyce, who, in his ``diabolically complex'' last work, demonstrated that there can be no clear-cut, definitive solutions to the sort of moral, ontological, and epistemological problems posed by Finnegans Wake and, later, by A Case of Conscience.
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1. Arguing against Bradham's interpretation, Ketterer says that ``There is no reason to suppose that Blish would not applaud both Ruiz-Sanchez's interest in Finnegans Wake and this example of his interpretative acuteness....Ruiz-Sanchez's answer is as ambiguous as Joyce's question, with or without the comma. `Yes, and No' might be interpreted as two straight answers to two straight questions or an ambiguously phrased answer to an ambiguously phrased question. After all, Joyce did not put a comma in his question'' (p. 97). This is certainly true if we take ``Yes, and No'' out of context, but Blish tells us that Ruiz-Sanchez reads the Wake passage as ``two questions, despite the omission of a comma between the two. And so it demanded two answers'' (5:47). Ruiz-Sanchez phrases his two distinct questions (``Did Honuphrius have hegemony?'' and ``should Anita submit?'') and answers each before summarizing the whole answer as ``Yes, and No.'' The context clearly indicates that ``Yes'' is the answer to the first question while ``No'' is the correct response to the second.
2. I am indebted to David Ketterer for the observation that ``Father Ware'' also refers to The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) by Harold Frederic, an allusion that is all the more interesting since Theron Ware is also the name of a character in Blish's Black Easter and The Day of Judgment. On the Blish-Frederic connection, see Ketterer, pp. 298-300.

WORKS CITED

Blish, James. A Case of Conscience. 1958; rpt. NY: Ballantine Books, 1979.
Bradham, Jo Allen. ``The Case in James Blish's A Case of Conscience,'' Extrapolation, 16 (1974):67-80.
Campbell, Joseph. & Henry Morton Robinson. A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. 1944; rpt. NY, 1961.
Eckley, Grace. ``Finnegans Wake in the Work of James Blish,'' Extrapolation, 20 (1979):330-42.
Glasheen, Adaline. Third Census of Finnegans Wake. Berkeley, 1977.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. 1939; rpt. (with corrections) NY: Viking Press, 1959.
________. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [1916], ed. Chester G. Anderson [``Viking Critical Edition''] NY: Viking Press, 1968.
Ketterer, David. Imprisoned in a Tesseract: The Life and Work of James Blish. Kent, OH:1987.
Reilly, Robert. ``The Discerning Conscience,'' Extrapolation, 18 (1977):176-80.
-- Patrick A. McCarthy, University of Miami
                                                                                                                                                                            

 

The Stapledon Bibliography: A Clarification

I'd like to thank you very much for the review of Olaf Stapledon: A Bibliography that appeared in the November 1987 SFS. The book was intended to be of use to both scholars and collectors of Stapledon's works, and we believe that we have met our goals.                

There is one criticism, however, that we would take issue with. In your review you remark that ``Potential users of the volume should know that its index is not as comprehensive as its record of Stapledon's writings is...and for instance [his] review of Star Begotten...appears in the index under its title...but not under `Wells, H.G.''' But the material you sought is indeed in the index. It appears as a subentry under the heading ``Books, Author and Title, Reviewed by Stapledon.'' The heading begins on p. 154 of the index, and the material pertinent to Wells can be found on p. 156, where you can see that Stapledon reviewed several other books by Wells. We had arranged the index in this fashion so that all material relevant to Stapledon's reviews would be found in one place, and the user of the bibliography would not have to search the whole body of sections B and C, or indeed search the whole index, to find all the reviews cited in the book. (The arrangement of the index in this fashion was noted in the paragraph immediately preceding the index on p. 153.)                

I hope that this clarification will prove useful to any of your readers who have occasion to consult our book. -- Harvey Satty, New York City
                        

 

Unknown Black SF Writers?

In her review of Ruth Salvaggio's Starmont essay on Octavia Butler (SFS No. 43), Kathleen L. Spencer describes Butler as ``one of only three Black SF writers to date and the only Black woman.'' This is an unprovable and, I am sure, incorrect assertion. In The Immortal Storm, Sam Moskowitz (presumably speaking of the mid-to late 1940s) states that ``it is an established fact that colored science fiction readers number in the thousands.'' If he is right, then it is reasonable to assume that some of these Afro-American SF readers, like so many of their white contemporaries, tried to sell stories to the SF magazines. We have no way of knowing how many of the stories published in these magazines might have been written by Afro-Americans, nor have we any way of knowing the extent to which their work is represented in SF novels, story collections, and anthologies. SF editors have always received many submissions from writers previously unknown to them. (There would be no way of distinguishing which of these came from Afro-Americans; so there is no reason to assume that racial discrimination played any role in editorial decisions.)                

It would be interesting to know just how many Afro-Americans read, and wrote, SF, and what these readers and writers thought about the genre at various stages of its evolution. Until somebody researches this topic, it would be advisable to refrain from offering assertions based purely upon conjecture. -- Fred Lerner, White River Junction, VT                                                                                                                                                             
 

I take Mr Lerner's point: it would, perhaps, have been more politic to have said ``only three recognized Black SF writers'' (the other two being Steven Barnes and, of course, Samuel R. Delany). Nonetheless, despite the number of Black SF readers Moskowitz mentions, or the stories Mr Lerner posits by Black authors submitted to, or even published in, the magazines, it is important to remember that the writers of SF have, for most of their history, formed a very small and quite intimate community. Most of them knew everybody else who worked in the field with any persistence and/or success—by reputation if not personally. Thus it is quite likely that we would know about any Black author of SF who did not deliberately conceal her/himself, à la Tiptree. -- Kathleen L. Spencer, University of Nebraska  
 

 

Call for Papers

The 13th annual meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies (SUS) will be held at Emerson College in Boston, Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 1988. It is co-sponsored by the New England American Studies Association (NEASA). Since we are celebrating the centennial of the publication of Looking Backward, we welcome papers on Edward Bellamy and other aspects of utopian thought and practice.                

If you wish to organize a panel or give a paper, please contact either Lynn F. Williams (of SUS), 71 Orchard Street, Belmont, MA 02178; or Blanche Linden-Ward (of NEASA), 100 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02116.                

The deadline for abstracts and session proposals is May 1, 1988.


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