Science Fiction Studies

#56 = Volume 19, Part 1 = March 1992


NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE

Arkady Natanovich Strugatsky (August 28, 1925—October 13, 1991). Arkady Strugatsky, the elder of the two Strugatsky brothers who collaborated to write the most popular SF books ever written in the Russian language, died this fall after a long period of failing health. When I visited him in his Moscow apartment for the first and only time two years ago—even then he generally declined visitors because of a heart condition—he was as full of humor, erudition, and graciousness ``in real life'' as one imagined the author of those books to be. He was a large, handsome man whose great pleasure was in translating madieval Japanese poetry. To two generations of Russians, Arkady Strugatsky was more than a favorite writer (SF or otherwise!), he was a personality, in the Eastern European sense of the word. His person represented a certain sense of values and ideals for thousands of educated Russians (as well as Georgians, Estonians, and other former Soviet nationalities). He had fans, followers, and fan clubs. Somewhat he was loved for Monday Begins on Saturday, Hard to Be a God, The Ugly Swans, Roadside Picnic, and the numerous other novels he wrote with his brother Boris, but he was loved more for the position he lived in society: at all times, under all regimes and pressures, a position of courage, honesty, humaneness, and intelligence. He was for glasnost—the word and concept was already part of the Strugatskys' censored 1976 novel Definitely Maybe—but he warned against ethnic strife. He was for change, but he had few illusions about quick fixes. In one of the last interviews he gave, he said: ``We used to write about the world as we would like it to be, now we write about the world as we are afraid it is becoming.'' Perhaps the most comforting words one can find on the sad occasion of Arkady Strugatsky's passing away are his and Boris's own words at the conclusion of an early book, Far Rainbow:

Without looking back they walked into the sea, waist deep, then chest deep, and then they swam after the setting sun, bearing their blind comrade on their backs. To their right was a black wall reaching as high as they could see, and to their left was a black wall reaching as high as they could see. There remained only a narrow, dark-blue slice of sky and the red sun, but soon even these were lost in the shimmering water, into which they swam, hearing only the sound of the banjo and song:
                                                You never bent your head
                                                But looked up to the sky
                                                And kept on going . . .
                                                                                              —Yvonne Howell, University of Richmond

 

The Plutophiliac Critic: Implications for the Scholar of ``The Fork in the Road.'' Cristina Sedgewick's report on the present condition of SF publishing, ``The Fork in the Road: Can Science Fiction Survive in Postmodern, Megacorporate America?'' (SFS 18:11-52, #53, March 1991), has already generated much discussion—in letters to this journal (SFS 18: 294-98, #54, July 1991), in a special session at the 1991 SFRA Conference, and in many informal venues. Indeed, that stimulation toward discussion is the essay's greatest value. While, as some readers have suggested, it may contain various factual errors, and while Sedgewick may have created some straw men—for example, her personification of the professional-writer-as-hack—and while her extensive use of parentheses and endnotes may indicate the need for more recollection in tranquility, Sedgewick has raised many issues too important to dismiss easily. Her essay suggests that writers, editors, critics, publishers, and booksellers are all inflicted with debilitating Plutophilia.      

However eager we may be to deny it, we must seriously consider the charge that, whether we realize it or not, each of us involved in the world of SF, as in the larger literary world, is controlled by money. We would like to believe in an ideal universe where bibliophilia reigns. There, canon-formation, our class lists, and bookstore shelves are determined by a process mapped out in the following chart:

writers                  editors                    critics                        publishers, booksellers
professionalism     sharpening &           observing sharply,     producing,
as writing               developing a            refining, encour-         selling the best
one's best               writer's work           aging
      ↓                     ↓                                 ↓                                 ↓
                censorship by allowing only the finest works to survive
                                                               ↓
                constantly growing and evolving body of SF

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the situation were really like this?      

Sedgewick's essay, however flawed it may be, points out that the bibliophile's dream is not the reality.  Instead, she posits a quite different situation, one in which love of money has led to a lack of vision and a progressive banalization of SF. Her charges may be summarized as follows:

writers                  editors                    critics                        publishers, booksellers
professionalism     fast fixes and           elitism and easy         bottom line and faulty
as hack work         bottom line              influences                   sense of market tastes
     ↓                           ↓                              ↓                                       ↓
self-censorship      censorship based     censorship by con-    censorship through pub-
                              on economics          trolling the canon       lication and distribution
          ↓                      ↓                                ↓   
                 homogeneously conservative body of SF

I would very much like to deny these charges. Wouldn't we all? Instead, I shall discuss one particular path of the plutophiliac chart, that of the critic, because Sedgewick herself did not develop it; it is an area about which I have some knowledge; and it should be of specific concern to readers of SFS.      

Critics (and I include all literary scholars in this category) may be accused of economic elitism—that is, they take seriously only those forms of literature which they are paid by institutions to study and to teach. Such economic discrimination results in an aggravatingly stagnant pool of literature. That which has always been taught is all that will be studied or taught, and literature's validity is based on its simply being in place. Since SF is a rather new academic subject, we can look profitably at how the present standing pool of SF was dammed up, and the answer may again be economic. At the most obvious level, we can only teach what is in print. What stays in print are those works which publishers and editors deem to be of lasting importance—economically. We may like to think that scholarly judgments and SF-reader consensus on quality determine the economic viability of particular works, but we need to recognize that other factors influence a work's success and its ability to outlast the first printing.      

Critics may also be accused of being easily influenced by editors and publishers through the power of the book review. Richard Ohmann's compelling essay, ``The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1975'' (Canons, ed. Robert Von Hallberg [Chicago, 1984], 377-401), describes the great influence of The New York Times Book Review in determining readership and canon formation. As anyone who has reviewed books knows, it is seldom the reviewer who determines what shall be reviewed; rather, it is the editor of the review who makes such decisions. Ohmann cites a 1968 study of the NYTBR which suggests that editorial decisions may have economic roots: ``the largest advertisers got disproportionately large amounts of review space,'' with Random House, the largest advertiser, buying 74 pages of ads and receiving 58 pages of reviews (381). While reviewers may comfort themselves that their reviews are honest, we might remember that ``the single most important boost a novel could get was a prominent review in the Sunday New York Times—better a favorable one than an unfavorable one, but better an unfavorable one than none at all'' (380). Ohmann's discussion of the Times' influence goes one step further: ``Cultural leaders read the Times Book Review too: not only professors but...75 per cent of our elite intellectuals. By reaching these circles, a major Times review could help put a novel on the cultural agenda'' (382). The economics of advertising thus lead directly—and right through the critic—to canon formation.

It is safe to assume that this process functions within the SF field as well as outside of it. Such review apparati as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Review Annual and the SFRA Newletter may not rival the economic power of the New York Times Book Review, for example, nor that of Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine within our own field. But the less economically influenced reviews are much less widely distributed than the others. Even here in SF, where The New York Times Book Review doesn't spend much time, the canon may well be economically rather than culturally determined.      

While Sedgewick merely implies rather than develops the above charges against the critic, she does develop one specific charge which risks being neglected because it is nestled among her essay's endnotes, where I myself might have missed it if my own name had not caught my eye. In her sixth endnote (38), she cites both Veronica Hollinger and myself for blaming the current state of SF on writers rather than on editors and publishers. Specifically, she claims that when Hollinger assumes that feminist SF writers have chosen to ignore current literary movements or when I complain that too many feminist SF writers use the same earth-mother ideals, we neglect the probability that editorial and self-censorship have determined the nature of what gets published. That is, we criticize writers for restrictions imposed upon them by economic factors. I strongly suspect that Sedgewick is correct.*      

But what else can we do? How can we discuss the state of unpublished and unavailable SF? How can we review unpublished and unavailable SF? How can we teach it? Our only recourse is to be gadflies whose sheer pestiness may suggest that there is economic advantage in providing a less stagnant pool. We must nag publishers to keep important works in print— sometimes through the book representatives who visit our offices, sometimes directly in letters, sometimes indirectly by writing about such works and their importance. We must nag editors directly when we know them, indirectly in our reviews of what is published. We must, in our scholarship, think not only about what is present, but what is absent. We must complain about the limitations we see in the present state of SF, and praise the fine works that do make it over the economic dam to freshen the waters of SF. —Joan Gordon, Nassau Community College.

——————————
*I must indulge in one Sedgewickian note to acknowledge that, while economics does, I believe, often lead to the blanding of SF, not all economic influences upon the field are negative ones. I spoke of Sedgewick's claim about economic censorship to two professional, although hardly hack, writers, and their responses contradicted Sedgewick's claims. Gene Wolfe stated that ``This economic contraint works to the advantage of authors like me'' (letter to author, May 2, 1991). He believes that editors, whom he describes as ``upper-middle-class young people with B.A.'s and M.A.'s...living in New York,'' would publish free verse, belles-lettres, and ``trendy political rant,'' if left to their own devices. Joe Haldeman was more fatalistic in an article he sent me from the Spring 1987 SFWA Bulletin: ``The fact that some lousy writers make big bucks while some excellent ones have to sling hash or harangue freshmen isn't even worth discussing. It's just there, like pattern baldness. Most bad writers never get published'' (38). —JG

 

Sofia Letter: Farewell to Totalitaria. The publication of SF in Bulgaria is experiencing an extraordinary boom. Each year an average of 40 books and 150-200 short stories are published. Ten years ago the sale of SF books totalled about 50,000 copies a year; this year it is estimated that the total will be more than 100,000 copies. One of the reasons for this tremendous popularity has been that SF provided an escape from the reality of the totalitarian state.     

One night a year ago the six-meter concrete monument of the communist deity Lenin, poised in front of the Sofia Sheraton, flew away to an unknown destination, hanging from a Soviet-built M16 helicopter. What for Lenin is going to be a backyard looking-over-the-fence future is past, I hope, for us over here in Bulgaria.      

It seems that like the great utopian Lenin, but much earlier, a view of life flew away (or future, or utopia, or whatever it was going to be) which was formed in the '50s and '60s by some of the ``socialist SF writers'' while at the same time Western SF was becoming part of Bulgarian social life, along with pop music, the drug culture, pornography, new-style poetry recitals, and so on.      

The Russian SF writer Alexander Belyaev (1884-1942) was the progenitor of the totalitarian SF movement with works like THE AIR MERCHANT and THE RULER OF THE WORLD (both 1929), as well as The Struggle in Space (1928; US ed. 1965), in which Communist Utopia confronts Capitalist Dystopia. [The small-cap titles are the author's translations for works not known to have been published in English.] The main achievement of these works was the breaking down of the barrier between SF and ideological propaganda (and vice versa). The product of this cross-fertilization was an ideology-oriented, brain-washed and brain-washing naive near-future utopia that haunted Eastern Bloc countries for the next 50 years.     

In Bulgaria the emergence of this totalitarian wave of SF occurred differently amd later, but it occurred nonetheless. THE TREASURE OF THE PLANET EARTH (1960), a novel by Zora Zagorska, develops an orthodox SF idea: the crash of an alien spaceship into the Pacific. Part of the crew fall into the hands of the militarist US government made up of murderous zealots and trigger-happy bomb droppers while the others escape to the Soviet Pacific coast, where Bulgarian and Soviet scientists pull them out of the crippled ship, half-dead and raving about their crewmates. The book is chiefly concerned with the bloom of science exploration under Communist rule and the moral perspectives towards life on the opposite coasts.      

Less overwhelming but still worthy of mention is GUESTS FROM MION (1964) by Peter Stupov, which opposes a high-tech space-station communist utopia to a dystopian Earth almost unrecognizably transformed by a capitalist invasion, with an alien nation trying to break the deadlock.      

Stephan Volev's THE YOUNG CENTENARIANS (1950) presents sleepers awakening from suspended animation to a communist world in the year 2000, when all men are equal, with their work made easy by machines and their happiness assured.      

The variations on this theme were innumerable and of wildly varying quality. The clichés continued, better drawn than before, but clearly distinct from the trend set 50 years earlier by the great utopian socialist Wells. Oddly though, few of the authors engaged directly with the practical processes they set up, being more concerned with showing how sensationally good life would be in a communist utopia or how awful it would be in a capitalist dystopia.      

In other words, the utopian vision of the earlier period in Bulgarian SF declined into wishful and wistful dreaming with no connection to the reality of life. The messages that came through the antennae of totalitarian SF were a far cry from the earlier utopian enthusiasm or socialist optimism. Those writers who worked in traditional SF (Lyuben Dilov, Pavel Vezhinov) and those fans who admired their work, seem to have felt threatened. (According to the Organization for Defense of Human Rights, KGB agents paid a visit to Ivan Efremov's widow soon after his death and conducted a ruthless search for manuscripts. It is well known that Soviet authorities were suspicious of his classic utopia Andromeda [1957], which foresaw an ideal communist commonwealth.)      

The dark times are over. A new and more rewarding generation of SF writers has appeared. Greater attention is paid to credible motivation, the problems of human nature, and the events of everyday life. No longer is near-future utopian communism a focal point; instead the stories deal with the breakdown of the social order, the corruption of society, and social evils. This period, which in essence has seen a further development and growth of Bulgarian social SF, is still in process. It includes writers like Val Todorov, who has produced a highly original SF novel on anthropological themes, IRCALA, THE LAND OF THE DEAD (1991). There is also Lyubomir Nikolov, a novelist somewhat in the Strugatsky tradition, whose second novel, A WORM UNDER AUTUMN WIND (1988) presents an extravagantly inventive journey in an alternate TV-reality. And there is Velko Miloev, whose short-story  collection, LULLABYCOMP FOR YOUR KID (1989), is a confident debut. Looking back on a decade which has produced such works, is it not time to say farewell to Totalitaria?—Julian Stoinov, Institute for Endocrine Surgery, Sofia.

EDITORIAL NOTE. Dr. Stoinov is a representative of the Sofia Science Fiction Club and has been active in Bulgarian fandom since the early '80s. His first SF story was published in 1978, when he was 19 years old. He is a regular contributor to US fanzines like Mark of the Beast (Baltimore) and Orbiter (Fort Wayne), as well as to SOB: The European SF Newsletter.

 

Damon Knight is editing a new magazine called Monad: Essays on Science Fiction. Its contents, according to his ``Manisfesto,'' will be confined to contributions by SF writers (though he adds that ``I...will publish anything I like''); and this is certainly true for his first issue (cover-dated September 1990, but received by us this past summer). None of the contributions to it (by Le Guin, Aldiss, Disch, Sterling, and Knight himself) is strictly an essay and at least one isn't about SF; but in all of them (sometime) SF writers speak about their work. Copies of this handsomely produced magazine are available for $5.00 each (or $18.00 for four issues) from Pulphouse Publishing / Box 1227 / Eugene, OR 97440.—RMP

 

Call for Papers. The 17th annual meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies will be held November 19-22, 1992, in Baltimore. The Society is an international, interdisciplinary organization devoted to the study of both literary and experimental utopias. If you wish to organize a panel or give a paper, please contact the program chair no later than June 15, 1992. Send proposals to Lise Leibacher / Department of French and Italian / University of Arizona / Tucson, AZ 85721. Telephone 602-621-7350 or 602-299-8727.      

 

The Science Fiction Research Association will hold its annual conference June 18-21 in Montreal at John Abbott College. If you wish further information or have suggestions or proposals for individual papers and/or panels, please write to Steven Lehman at home (4319 Esplanade St. #2 / Montréal, Québec, Canada H2W 1T1) or at the college (John Abbott College / Box 2000 / Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Québec, Canada H9X 3L9).
      Contributions are invited for a special issue of Moreana, the international quarterly of Tomas More Studies, on Utopia. Manuscripts (2 copies) of up to 30 pages, conforming to the MLA Style Manual (for articles in English) should be sent by January 1, 1993, to either of the guest editors: Elizabeth McCutcheon / Dept. of English / University of Hawaii / 1733 Donaghho Road, Honolulu, HI 96822; or Clarence H. Miller / Dept. of English / St Louis University / St Louis, MO 63108.     

 

The Society for Literature and Science will hold its 1992 annual meeting October 8-11 in Atlanta, with the Georgia Institute of Technology as host. Send abstracts for individual papers, and proposals for seminars or special panels, to Pamela Gossin, History of Science Department, 601 Elm, Room 622, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019. The due date was February 1. Whether late submissions will be considered, SFS does not know.

 

The Books and Manuscripts at Fullerton. Forthcoming in a book to be published by the Patrons of the Library at CSU Fullerton, is an essay by Willis E. McNelly, ``Science Fiction in the Fullerton Library,'' on the scope of its SF collection. Included, as well as several thousand books, are complete or extensive runs of most of the SF magazines. Perhaps of greatest interest is the extensive collection of manuscripts by Brian Aldiss, Eric Temple Bell (``John Taine''), Gregory Benford, Ray Bradbury, Avram Davidson, Philip K. Dick, Harry Harrison, Zenna Henderson, Frank Herbert, Joe Poyer, Norman Spinrad, Leon Stover, Boyd Upchurch (``John Boyd''), Robert Moore Williams, and others.      

Professor Emeritus McNelly is currently at work (with Sharon Perry, Special Collections Librarian) on a complete inventory of the Herbert collection, which includes the manuscripts of ``all his fiction and much of his non-fiction from the beginning of his career'' as well as setting copies, galley proofs, page proofs, notes and plans, and correspondence with editors and publishers. The Dick collection, of which SFS published a census in #5 (March 1975), though not as complete as the Herbert, is very extensive. The essay includes an account of its origin and progress. Professor McNelly will send a copy of his essay gratis to any SFS reader who writes him at the Department of English, California State University, Fullerton, CA 92634-9480.—RDM

 

The Machine Slows Down. From the December 1991 Locus comes the sad news that Isaac Asimov, of all people, is suffering, after all these years, from writer's block, and so has abandoned his monthly article in Fantasy and Science Fiction and has put off completing the new FOUNDATION volume. He is, however, continuing his weekly column in the Los Angeles Times and his monthly editorial in Asimov's. A monthly article by Gregory Benford will replace the Asimov article in F&SF.     

Isaac Asimov was one of the first to respond with a subscription to the announcement of the establishment of SFS, albeit with a letter saying that people turned to teaching English only after failing as writers. When his subscription ran out, he wrote to say that SFS was too much for him, that he would not renew, and that we should in no circumstances send him further issues. We wish him well.—RDM


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