Science Fiction Studies

#66 = Volume 22, Part 2 = July 1995

 


NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE

On Symbols for Science Fiction. Gary Westfahl's article “Wanted: A Symbol for Science Fiction” is not without that touch of humour we expect from this critic. Everyone would agree it's fun looking at all these symbols which have stood for sf over the years. The notion of two cogs from a nineteenth century analog clock representing creativity is appealingly simplistic. Spaceships represent a quantatively different kind of symbol of a far more powerful kind, since they have not—unlike cogs—yet happened; or at least we have yet to see in production a ship in which your average sf critic might wish to travel. They are still the treasures of our imagination. When for instance Howard Brown's marvellous spaceship came barrelling towards us on the cover of the August 1934 Astounding Stories, it was much more than a mere machine: it represented a belief. That belief was shared by very few people—the belief that one day we might travel by means as yet unknown to distances as yet unknown.

That particular belief is still shared by most of the “sf community” (if such a term is still valid). Spaceships are still viable shorthand for a cogent belief.

Of course, writers may object to having spaceships on their covers, just as they used to object to semi-nude blondes when you could have semi-nude blondes on covers: because then their novel is marked down as merely generic, rather than an attempt at an individual work. When I began to write, I believed John W. Campbell was proclaiming that writers should be as individual, should find as many ways of putting over the Holy Grail, as possible. At one time, Campbell did something Westfahl has no space to mention: employ a different symbol top left every month! The hostility such a belief as mine encounters, from the very people who might be considered to welcome change, is instructive (and alas continues for ever to instruct...).

So that, as Westfahl rightly points out, the spaceship and other symbols, used by publishers and librarians and other breeds, affect the attitudes of everyone associated with them including authors. It stultifies them. For sf to maintain a true diversity, therefore, we really don't want a symbol any more. Or how about an ambiguous symbol, if we must have one something to signify what once the spaceship truly did—not just the machine but the Unknown?

Writers are sometimes fortunate enough to find a publisher who allows them to use a cover of their own chosing. Such is my current experience with Robin Bloxsidge of Liverpool University Press. When in Oslo National Gallery recently, I stumbled on what I thought was the perfect symbol for sf. I needed it for a collection of essays LUP (and also Syracuse UP) was about to publish. There is the Unknown, symbolised by something even more powerful than the Machine—Nature herself. Something cool, aloof, Powerful, and—in the view of many—awaiting conquest!—Brian W. Aldiss, Oxford.

 

The Nesfa Achievement. I read with interest Gary Westfahl's article “Wanted: A Symbol for Science Fiction” in the March 1995 issue of SCIENCE FICTION STUDIES. However, I must take exception with his description of the New England Science Fiction Association's achievement as “a crescent moon with two spaceships in front” (13, fig. 34). That “second spaceship” is a pine tree—a traditional symbol of New England. The achievement is blazoned in our bylaws as “Azure, on a moon increscent argent, a pine tree proper. In the moon's arms, a spaceship of the second outbound to the chief dexter point.”

A monochrome representation is on this letterhead. We also wondered why he rotated the symbol so that the dexter became chief.

We do have theological arguments as to whether the sides of the tree should be a line or have fringes.—Anthony Lewis, Framingham.

 

Tesseracts. In “Wanted: A Symbol for Science Fiction” (SFS 22:1-21, March 1995) Gary Westfahl invites information “about other symbols for science fiction, especially ones that diverge significantly from” the “patterns” he describes (18 n2). In 1988 a Canadian publisher based in Victoria, B.C., Press Porcépic (since 1991, Beach Holme Publishers) launched the imprint Tesseract Books for its line of sf publications. The logo reproduced below, which purports to be a tesseract, appears on the title page of every Tesseract Book.

A tesseract is a hypercube, a square figure which has four spatial dimensions (as distinct from a cube which has three and a square which has two). The designer of the above logo has counterfeited a tesseract with an elegant illustration of what at first sight might be construed as a box within a box, or a box with a box-shaped cavity sculpted out of it, or a number of other possi bilities depending upon which of the differently shaded areas are foregrounded. The consequent effect of this cleverly contrived optical illusion is of a diamond-like or star-like twinkling. As a symbol of sf it combines the elements of perception (an aspect of a couple of the symbols that Westfahl discusses) and new angles of vision; of unexpected realities or dimensions; of mathematics, geometry and science; of a mysterious alien artifact; of the blackness of space and mystery; and of that star-like twinkling. Outer space is of course a direct or indirect element in almost all of the symbols that Westfahl reproduces.

Three years prior to launching Tesseract Books, Press Porcépic published an original anthology of sf by Canadian authors—the first such—entitled Tesseracts and edited by Judith Merril. The title was apparently inspired by a painting by Ron Lightburn that was used on the cover; it depicts Saturn as viewed from one of its moons on the facing side of a cube which floats above a desert-like landscape. Since 1985 three other anthologies in the same series have appeared: Tesseracts2 (1987) with Jeff Kuipers' cover-art impression of a hypercube, Tesseracts3 (1990) with cover art by Ron Lightburn (a cube with computer circuitry and an insect on the facing side), and Tesseracts4 (1992) with cover art by Jeff Kuipers (a cube with a facing television screen). Tesseract Books was named for the anthology series and the 1990 and 1992 volumes in that series are Tesseract Books so the tesseract logo appears on their title pages.

As it happens, there is a Canadian SF novel entitled Tesseract (1988) by the Scottish-born Torontonian Joseph Addison; it concerns a conscious mechanism called—you guessed it—the Tesseract. But the best known sf work centering on the tesseract idea is Robert Heinlein's “And He Built a Crooked House” (1940). An architect named Quintus Teal builds an extraordinary house according to tesseract principles; it provides access to startlingly new dimensions of reality. Heinlein's “tesseract house” is surely an appropriate symbol for the fun-fair crooked house of SF, the windows of which frequently present unexpected vistas.

A striking phrase in James Blish's The Day After Judgment (1970) gave me the main title of my Imprisoned in a Tesseract: The Life and Work of James Blish (Kent State University Press, 1987). In that book I noted that Blish was a regular contributor to Tesseract, an important fanzine published by the Science Fiction Advancement Association; its first issue is dated March 1936. I go on to speculate that

Presumably the name was intended to convey some notion of what science fiction was all about. Although constrained by a three-dimensional present, the implication is that science fiction may afford some kind of enhanced perception of our reality by evoking an awareness of the fourth dimension, conventionally the dimension of time. From this point of view, science fiction might be said to allow for a depth dimension of the present. Clearly, this conception of science fiction, with its possibilities and its limitations, stayed with Blish throughout his life. (318)

The jacket illustration for Imprisoned in a Tesseract conveys the impression of strange new dimensions of time and space by depicting Blish in a bewildering interior environment associated with the famous Dutch artist of warped geometries, Maurits Corneille Escher (1898-1970).

For information about the fanzine Tesseract, consult Sam Moskowitz, The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom (1954; rpt 1974), 63-68, 75, 95, 180-81). Unfortunately I have not seen a copy of the fanzine and so cannot report on whether or not it ever featured a tesseract logo or ever ventured a visual representation of a tesseract.—David Ketterer, Concordia University.

 

Goodbye to Extrapolation. I learned as an M.Sc. student of the strict limitations of validity for any extrapolation of the kind “IF we assume that A, B, C, etc., will be constant, THEN X is inversely proportional to Y” (Gay-Lussac's Law of Gases, if I remember well). I have therefore always been suspicious of extrapolation in explanations of the Possible Worlds of sf. Though it was a kind of Gernsback-derived orthodoxy very popular when I first came to North America, in the 60s, it seems simply a crass form of technocratic nostalgia for somewhat refurbishing the status quo by making room among the rulers for a new class of engineers and other applied-science people. Retrospectively, I find I have been too kind in not rejecting it wholly and a limine in Metamorphoses of SF: I guess because I am myself (as any self-respecting Marxist) a cultural conservative in the sense at least that I disbelieve in creating new terms to slice up the experiential world unless absolutely unavoidable as well as in letting go of old terms until they have become absolutely useless.

Now finally, having seen—in the Conclusion of Positions and Presuppositions in SF—that sf narrations are parables, and parables cannot be extrapolations (though they can be about extrapolation, parables of extrapolation), I find a phrase by Maurice Merleau-Ponty which for me puts the last nail into the coffin marked “uselessness”: “Fundamentally, dialectical thought excludes all extrapolation, since it teaches that there can always be a supplement of being in the being [I guess I'd call that a novum, DS], and that quantitative differences tend to transform themselves into qualitative ones...” (Le Visible et l'invisible [Paris: Gallimard, 1964] 128, my translation). There goes a great majority of sf: no supplement of being in its being! (or: a fake supplement; but that would be an essay, not a note).—Darko Suvin, McGill University.

 

The Time Machine: Past, Present and Future. An international symposium to mark the centenary of H.G. Wells's scientific romance will be held July 26-29, 1995, in \London, sponsored by the H.G. Wells Society and the Eaton Program of UC Riverside. Speakers will include Brian Aldiss, Michael Foot, Doris Lessing, and Elaine Showalter. While pre-registration will have passed before this issue of SFS reaches its readers, one supposes that last-minute arrangements can be made by contacting Prof. Patrick Parrinder, The H.G. Wells Society, 82 Hillfield Avenue, Crouch End, London N8 7DN, UK. Telephone 0181-340-6355.

 

SF-LIT@LOC.GOV. To participate in the Literary Science Fiction & Fantasy Discussion Forum, send the message SUBSCRIBE SF-LIT [FULL NAME] to LISTPROCESS@LOC.GOV. The forum is moderated by staff at the Library of Congress; there is no charge for participation.

 

CLF. One message distributed by SF-LIT announces the formation of the Council for the Literature of the Fantastic at University of Rhode Island. For further information write Daniel Pearlman at DPEARL@URIACC.URI.EDU.

 

Paper Call. The following announcement would hardly bear either condensation or paraphrase:

Conference: “Speaking Science Fiction.” 11-13 July, 1996.

Who Speaks Science Fiction? Science Fiction is a series of dialogues: between realism and the fantastic, between its “pulp” and “literary” wings; between “hard science” and harder philosophy, between its sub-genres from space-opera to cyberpunk. The debate continues: between practitioners and archivists; linguists and physicists, academics and fans. Existing within and between national traditions, science fiction speaks literally, as metaphor and narrative, and figuratively, as a reflection of the outer world and inner space, and is spoken by many who do not read it—merely live it in their everyday fives. Is the attention given to science fiction by cultural theorists and the world of information technology a sign of health or is it a dialogue which ignores the genre's past and undermines its future?

SPEAKING SCIENCE FICTION will look at the languages of SF: the dialogues and discourses within the field and between it and other areas of knowledge and culture. Papers touching on any of these debates will be welcome. The cost of the conference will be approx £130, including hotel accommodation (B&B+evening meal). For further information, contact: Andy Sawyer, Librarian/Administrator, Science Fiction Foundation Collection, Sydney Jones Library, PO Box 123, Liverpool, L69 3DA, UK.


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