Science Fiction Studies

#74 = Volume 25, Part 1 = March 1998


NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE

On The Gate to Women's Country: An Exchange

Re-Opening the Gate to Women's Country. It was both interesting and illuminating to read Wendy Pearson's recent article on Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988, London: Corgi, 1989).* Meeting almost daily media reports of unsolved serial rapes or serial murders of women, like those apparently occuring now in Perth, stories of women stalked, beaten or killed by partners separated de facto or divorced, even shot on the steps of the Family Court, entire families murdered by a divorced, separated or recently paroled father, innocents shot because a man failed an examination or, as in Port Arthur, felt a grudge against society in general, a straight Australian woman sometimes finds it a little difficult to resist the position that “All men are bastards!” and the lures of celibacy. Pearson's article offered a salutary antidote to this pessimism. There are, however, some points in it that cause me uneasiness.                

On a minor level, there are some ambivalences and errors: firstly, the article claims that all conception in Women's Country is artificial (Pearson 212); there are indeed grounds for this, but there is also the comment, “`That pregnancy was by artificial insemination'” (Tepper §34:337; my italics), which suggests others are not. More importantly, Stavia's mother Margot does not kill the camp commander Michael (Pearson 204); that is done by the servitor Joshua (§34:350-51). Moreover, it is the servitors who rescue Stavia from Holyland and plan to “rescue” the other women in the south (§34:341-42). Further, near the closure a character explicitly remarks that the women's leaders hold Joshua and other servitors like him in full respect (§34:331); and it is these men who express the valuable new gene of telepathy/empathy (§34: 332). Since the servitors' physical fertility is not in question, these points weaken Pearson's argument that men are emasculated in Women's Country, either literally or metaphorically (203-04).                

Again, the article lays considerable stress on Patroclus' erasure from Hades, which is cited as the clinching evidence for Tepper's homophobia (219- 20). But at one point Tepper's Achilles does explicitly ask/mourn, “`Where is my friend, Patroclus?'” (§33:327). On the other hand, Homer's Patroclus is barely mentioned when the heroes visit the sacrifice for the dead in The Odyssey; and when he says that being alive on earth at the lowliest level would be better than remaining a prince in Hades, Achilles never even considers that it would divide him from Patroclus (The Odyssey, trans. E.V Rieu, 1946 [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965], §11:181-86). Are we then to convict the producer(s) of The Odyssey of homophobia too?                

At a more serious level, I am uneasy with the stages of argument, drawing on a quote from Hannah Arendt, which establish that Tepper regards all men as the same, and produces them all as either violent or emasculated (Pearson 203-05). It appears to me that here the article commits the very sin of slippage of which it convicts the text. I am also uneasy with what appears to be an implicit conflation of sexuality and procreation. Just because the women of Women's Country are breeding for peace, does this mean the end of sex? (Whether read as intercourse or otherwise). There is, of course, the contradiction between the equation of Women's Country and Hades, with the claim “there is no fucking in Hades” (§7:70), and the apparent occurrence of (heterosexual) sex at the festivals and possibly at other times. Otherwise, why would women need contraceptive implants? But even if the novel erases or ignores all but heterosexual sexuality, does this therefore mean sexuality can be equated solely with reproduction? Not even two thousand years of Christianity has managed to implement that restriction. But even Pearson's contention that all reproduction is to be by AI does not therefore include the destruction of (hetero)sexual desire; to assume so seems to me to adopt the sort of reductive, selective, one might say patriarchal, tunnel vision of female sexuality that feminists have contested for years, and for which the article wants to indict Tepper herself. If, however, Tepper is to be convicted of diminishing and normalizing (hetero)sexual female desire (Pearson 226), then surely the stronger point of argument is not the treatment of male homosexuality but the glaring absence of any alternate female sexuality in Women's Country?                

Though aware of the constraints of space, as a Marxist-based reader I would also have liked some siting of Tepper's text against utopic/dystopic writing, gender war in science fiction, and contemporary history. Even if Peter Fitting and Jenny Wolmark have already treated the first point, I wished for some overt engagement with these critical and fictional traditions, and even more, with the sense that I get from US feminist writing in the late '80s of disillusionment, schism, and loss of impetus. It seems to me that to read Gate outside these contexts, from whatever standpoint, is to overlook important shadings in the text.                

My greatest uneasiness with the reading issues from a similar lack of connection with Tepper's other work. Having done considerable work on this oeuvre when considering it for a PhD chapter, I am aware, uncomfortably at times when I consider how long it took to make the penny drop, of Tepper's bent for the ironic, the covertly playful, and for satire whose poker face is highly reminiscent of Swift. Admittedly, these aspects are strongest in her earlier work, as with the rich word-play of the True Game trilogies. Certainly, the texts that follow Gate, especially the latest three—A Plague of Angels, Shadow's End, Gibbon's Decline and Fall—show a reductive and patently essentialist bias that supports Pearson's argument. And perhaps I am a particularly naive reader, whose pleasure in word-plays like the A-Morfus in the True Game and caricatures like the foxhunt in Grass can be dismissed by greater sophisticates. Nonetheless, the satires that play through Beauty, for example, leave me, at least, prepared to argue that The Gate to Women's Country closes Tepper's earlier phase of more subtle and playful thought-experiments; that it is actually neither essentialist, homophobic, nor even a utopia, but rather takes separatism and essentialism to their reductio ad absurdum. In fact, Gate can be read as a dystopia that, like Swift's “Modest Proposal,” critiques essentialist tenets on inherent male violence by straight-facedly exaggerating them to the point where the reader recoils from their sheer inhumanity.                

In this light, I would argue that Pearson's reading of the passage on homosexuals' fate in Gate (§17:200) is a case of irony missed—irony that drops an early clue to the dystopic nature of Gate. I am aware that not all of the text sustains this view, and that Gate is less consistent than, say, The Handmaid's Tale. On the other hand, there is the closure, with the grief and guilt of the women who condemn the garrison, the self-condemnation of the Damned Few, and the black conclusion of Iphigenia at Ilium, which equates Women's Country with Hades (§35:362), exposes the very current dilemma of women who do have the choice of being killed by men or killing men and being damned for it (§35:362), and leaves Joshua weeping, like Rachel in another story, “for them all” (§35:363). I appreciate Pearson's demand that we entertain differing standpoints on a text (200), and welcome her interpretation. I also welcome her implicit acceptance that there may be standpoints differing from hers. Without claiming, however, that Gate is beyond criticism or that my view is hegemonic, I do wish to argue that to me the closure, in particular, makes Gate look less like an endorsement of homophobia than a straight if disillusioned woman's take on the proposal, “Men—you can't live with them, and you can't live without them,” and which, even in the liberatory genre of science fiction, finds no tenable, humane way out.—Sylvia Kelso, James Cook University.

*Wendy Pearson, “After the (Homo)Sexual: A Queer Analysis of Anti-Sexuality in Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country,” SFS 23:199-226, #69, July 1996. The article argues that Tepper “reproduces the hetero/homosexual binarism that is valorized in our culture” and thus “Gate tends to obscure and distort the sexual natures of individuals” while it “seeks to suppress...the stories of homosexuality and of sexuality that underlie the visible story” (202). It goes on to see the Warriors, who are the target of extermination by the eugenic program, as “the real, that is sexed men” (203), and their replacement servitors as “without sexuality” (204), to suggest that Gate has a “hell-or-high-water commitment to essentialism” (205), and to reinforce these arguments by reference to the text's elimination of and anxiety about homosexuals, especially the treatment of Patroclus in the nested play, Iphigenia at Ilium.

In Response to Sylvia Kelso. I want to begin by siting this response to Sylvia Kelso specifically in the personal. I first read Gate in 1989. I had not previously read any of Tepper’s other works and came to Gate with high expectations; I had at that time been teaching science fiction at the university level for about eight years and I had come to conceptualize gender and sexuality as very important components of any course investigating contemporary SF writing. I had taught a number of utopian works by women, including Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin, as components of SF courses at several different universities. When friends I respected, from both the SF and the academic worlds, told me that Gate was the best piece of feminist utopian writing in years, I was understandably eager to read it and, perhaps, to consider adding it to my course reading list.                

Gate was first published in September of 1988; the Bantam paperback edition, which I read, came out in August 1989. Why do these dates matter? Because my entire article is about a response to the novel that can only be contextualized in terms both of the time frame in which the novel was written and in which I read it. I read this novel for the first time two months after the death of a close friend, Bill Maddess, from an AIDS-related syndrome. Bill’s was the first death amongst our close friends; it has not been and will not be the last.                

Kelso has chosen to set her critique of my article in the context, not inappropriate to the novel, of “almost daily media reports” of male violence towards women. I chose, instead, to set it into the context of an entire society’s violence towards gay people, particularly gay men. Yes, the world suffers from a litany of horrors. I write this today on December 7th, the day after the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. Ironically, that tragedy happened two months after I first read Gate, four months and two weeks after Bill’s death. Am I supposed to weigh these two horrors up against each other and declare one to be more dreadful, more worthy of rage and grief, than the other?                

To do so would, in any case, presuppose that the two events are unrelated. And yet both stem from the operation of regimes of power within society: the “gay plague” is welcomed as an antidote to the movement of queer people from the margins to the centre; female engineering students are murdered by a man who hates women because they, too, have seized some degree of centrality and even, perhaps, power. Anything which takes women out of the limited roles of “kinder, küche, kirche” or that allows for any form of sexual expression which does not reinforce those social practices is ultimately subversive of them. While women and gay men may not always understand the ways in which they are linked by notions of gender, those ideas seem utterly transparent to the violent fringes of the far right: it is no accident that a single group in Atlanta is responsible, according to the FBI, for the bombings of both abortion clinics and a lesbian club.                

Kelso seems to want to have it both ways: she structures her critique by listing a series of recent, local examples of male violence against women, but then goes on to argue that Gate is a satire which exaggerates male violence against women to the point where it becomes so extreme that the reader is forced to realize the fallacy. In this instance, it seems an either/or situation— either Gate is a satire, in which case violence is not an innate characteristic of men, or it’s not, in which case the situation in Perth has some relevance.   

However, Kelso’s attempt to identify Gate as part of a satirical tradition, although weakened by the way in which she sets up her response in the context of a woman’s response to perceived male violence, is, in fact, a salient one. Of all the points Kelso makes, the strongest is her identification of Tepper as having a “bent for the ironic, the covertly playful, and for satire whose poker face is highly reminiscent of Swift.” Although I have to presume that there is no mens rea in Kelso’s use of the word “bent,” a word which I could not myself use in this context with a straight face, I do admit the point. Completely. If you wish to or can read Gate as ironic, covertly playful and satiric, you will see an entirely different text. Believe me, I’ve tried!               

In the text that I hold in front of me, a battered and much-read paperback, a work I have gone through with the proverbial fine-tooth comb, I cannot find irony or satire. Yes, there is a kind of playfulness, mostly on the level of word play, but there is nothing that suggests to me that the book should be read as other than “straight.” And, yes, that is a pun. But on the textual level, I see nothing to indicate why I should read this novel as a satirical reductio ad absurdum of essentialist positions on gender and sexuality. Furthermore, I am not at all sure that anything in the text paints the males of Women’s Country with such a degree of exaggeration that “the reader recoils from their sheer inhumanity.” The men don’t seem very pleasant, it’s true: they practice war, as they are taught to do; they resort to prostitutes; and they plot against the nice women who feed and clothe them.  Is this Dachau? Is this Auschwitz? Is it Cambodia or Bosnia or Rwanda?

Look around; worse things happen in the world every day. By comparison, the men in Women’s Country are mice; only the women are effective masters of the genocidal. They are the ones who eliminate the warriors (and the queers). That is the exaggeration; that is “the sheer inhumanity” from which I recoil. The irony that strikes me here is not that the men in Women’s Country are so dreadful, but that they are not. In fact, the novel sets up an entirely different set of men as those from whose sheer inhumanity the reader recoils: the Holylanders. Yes, the novel does suggest that the Holylanders are what the men from Women’s Country would like to become, yet the very presence of the Holylanders makes the warriors that much less unsympathetic.                

To move from the issue of satire to Kelso’s argument that the novel is not homophobic, I have to suggest that we have a very different understanding of the word. From my standpoint, the word “homophobia” cannot be applied to the Odyssey. It is a contemporary term that speaks to contemporary attitudes, as do the words “homosexual,” “gay,” and “queer.” There is a very strong argument, most neatly articulated by Foucault, that the “homosexual” did not exist prior to the mid-nineteenth century, because homosexuality was not seen as limited to a specific group of people but as a sexual act (and a sin) which anyone might perform.

Even today, the word “homophobia” is not, as I indicated in the article, unproblematic. We have two very different, and sometimes conflicting, understandings of the term. On the one hand, it is a term adopted by both psychiatry and popular culture to indicate an individual with an “unnatural” fear of homosexuals and/or homosexuality. As a passing nod to the pervasive dangers of reinscribing the same discourses, I might point out the irony of identifying as unnatural a phobia of that which was, up until 1973, regarded as “unnatural” and diseased by the psychiatric profession. On the other hand, we have the fairly consistent use of the term within both gay and lesbian studies and queer theory to indicate the way in which society regulates and coerces social relations towards a normatized heterosexuality, the very “heterosexuality” that does not reflect the actual practices of real people, but rather the ideology to which we are as citizens in western countries expected to subscribe.                

The question of whether Gate is or is not homophobic cannot logically be related to an understanding of The Odyssey as a text in its own right. I should also add that I do not accuse Sheri Tepper of homophobia. I have attempted to demonstrate that the text is homophobic, in the later, structural sense of the word. I know nothing whatsoever about Tepper, beyond the basic biographical information available to any SF scholar, and would not presume to say anything about her personal beliefs. It would be fairer to say that we are all, at times, capable of homophobic moments and gestures; we have all, after all, grown up in and lived in what may well be the most homophobic moment in Western history, a moment made inevitable by historical shifts in our understanding of sexuality and gender and by the concomitant political and social changes with which we are struggling.                

When Kelso says that she is “uneasy with what appears to be an implicit conflation of sexuality and procreation,” I can do no more than agree with her. So am I. That conflation within the novel, a conflation which has been utilized deliberately and over almost two millennia by those intent on establishing a normative and highly regulated (hetero)sexuality, is one of the most difficult aspects of the novel. What I argue is that Tepper takes it one step further, in the exact direction desired for the last two thousand years by the major powers of Christendom, and points towards a world in which all sexuality can be eliminated.                

I recognize the “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” aspect of the book, but I find that the more problematic because the text systematically eliminates all other options: faced with the chance to start anew, the women deliberately choose not to raise girls and boys alike or to raise boys to be pacifists; faced with the need to invent a new sexual regime, the “Damned Few” decide on one which minimizes sexual possibilities in all directions. Why, after all, should the women of Women’s Country not be lesbians? Whatever I do with this novel, I end up coming back to the fact that the text eliminates homosexuality as an option because it is too attractive, too likely, too desirable. This reminds me of the contagion theory of homosexuality: a single kiss from a lesbian will turn any woman into one, according to certain respected medical and psychiatric authorities in this century–which may account for some of the furor over a certain recent episode of Ellen.

As Peter Wimsey said in Gaudy Night, “Won’t you allow me to hand you a more serviceable weapon?” The clearest danger my article on Gate presents is the danger that it will be taken up by neo-conservatives as yet more proof of what nasty people feminists really are. In the battle between the neo-cons and the “feminists” (the ones who claim that violence really is a y-linked trait or that all penetrative sex is a form of rape, etc.), it can be very hard to claim a middle ground.               

Queer theory offers a way around these two forms of extremist rhetoric; along with post-modernism in general, it suggests other ways of understanding human cultures that allow one to remember that they are not structured only in terms of sex/gender. Just as science fiction explores new ways of looking at the world, surely new tools for exploring science fiction are equally appropriate and, perhaps, essential. It is here that I am most uneasy with Kelso’s response, because it seems in some ways to be operating in the same mode as the novel itself. Kelso’s critique suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that a queer response to Gate is somehow missing the point; by ignoring the possibility that queer theory can illuminate the SF text, Kelso risks eliminating the contribution of the (homo)sexual in exactly the same way that Gate itself does.—Wendy Pearson, Trent University.

 

On the Space Program and on Science Fiction: An Exchange

The Case Against the Case Against Space—and a Case for Science Fiction. Gary Westfahl is one of those comparatively rare critics from whom one expects to learn something. The typical Westfahl argument is usually fresh, never half-hearted, often sharply polemical, and almost always thought-provoking. All these qualities and more are present in his recent essay, “The Case Against Space” (SFS 24:193-206, July 1997), which may be destined to become his most controversial and widely discussed offering to date. Even more ambitious than its title suggests, the essay argues not only against space travel (at least in the near future) but also, as a kind of corollary, against science fiction itself. It is consistently clever, vigorously written, and often extremely plausible. It is also, for the most part, wrong—and hence in need of refutation on the same high polemical level that the essay itself occupies. This I will try to supply.                

The bulk of Westfahl’s piece is devoted to making a case against what he sees as the three major arguments for space travel, and especially for the American space program: the philosophical argument that space exploration fulfills a fundamental human impulse to travel into distant, unknown regions; the practical-economic argument that there are solutions to earthly problems to be found, and hence money to be made, in space; and the practical-defensive argument that we need to establish ourselves in outer space in order to defend against possible planetary disasters. None of these arguments, says Westfahl, “can withstand scrutiny” (193). Actually, though, they all manage to withstand Westfahl’s own scrutiny fairly well. True enough, he does make clear that advocates of space travel have often shaped their arguments in jejune and sloppy ways—no small service in itself. He is also to be commended for explicitly repudiating that most drearily illogical of all arguments against space travel, namely the notion that the exploration of outer space should wait until all problems on earth are solved. But, when it comes to dismantling the case for space travel, Westfahl proves much less than he claims to prove.               

It is worth examining Westfahl’s points in some detail, not only because of the intrinsic importance and what I expect to be the widespread influence of “The Case Against Space,” but also because Westfahl clearly and coherently states what many others are probably thinking. The first and most influential argument for space travel that he tackles is the philosophical proposition that, in Westfahl’s paraphrase, “humanity must venture into and occupy outer space to fulfill an inherent human drive to explore and inhabit unknown realms” (194). Westfahl demonstrates that, when this idea seizes the imagination, it can lead many people—including even a resourceful, modest astronaut like Neil Armstrong, a shrewd and brilliantly humorous novelist like Philip K. Dick, and a lucid, earnest scientist like Carl Sagan—to say some silly things. But that does not necessarily mean it is false. I must admit that I am myself reluctant to make confident generalizations about “inherent human drives”—not because I disbelieve in their existence, but because I know how easy they are to posit carelessly and how hard they are to prove rigorously. Beyond our purely biological needs, virtually all of us desire sexual pleasure and food that not only nourishes but also tastes good—and of how many other “inherent human drives” can one really be certain? Still, it does seem a reasonable hypothesis that the desire to explore strange new worlds is extremely widespread, and that it can be at least partially satisfied by indirect as well as direct means. What parent, after all, has not observed the apparently unlearned delight of the toddler as she explores the strange new worlds of her own household? And, surely, the vicarious thrill experienced when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon was about as close to a universal sentiment as the human race has achieved in recent decades (or maybe ever). Furthermore, the impulse to travel and explore is not only widely shared but at least potentially admirable as well, since (as Westfahl himself admits) it leads to new, important knowledge. One need not quite agree with Dick that exploration is “virtually an instinct” (quoted, 194), or with Armstrong that the Apollo 11 mission was analogous to salmon’s swimming upstream, in order to concede that the impulse to get out of our own cramped little planet and to look around a bit does provide a powerful, respectworthy motive for space exploration.               

Nor does Westfahl show otherwise. What he does suggest is that, even during the supposedly “nomadic” hunting-and-gathering phase of our race’s existence, and especially since the agricultural revolution of some 10,000 years ago, on which virtually all human civilization depends, the vast majority of human beings have stayed pretty much in one place. Large-scale migrations over great distances have been exceptional; and, when they have occurred, they have been not (or not only) expressions of any general wanderlust, but specific responses to dire crises. These are interesting facts, to be sure: But what they demonstrate is not that the desire to travel is not widely felt, but merely that it has not been widely fulfilled. By the age of 25 I had done more than ten times as much traveling as my father had done during the equivalent period of his own life. According to Westfahl’s logic, it would appear that, between the G.I. Generation and the Baby Boom Generation of Americans, something happened in our family to intensify the drive to travel. Yet I happen to know that my father enjoys travel and exploration at least as much as I do, and would have done a great deal more of it during his youth, had his time and attention not been unavoidably engaged by other matters—notably the Great Depression and the Second World War. If, as Westfahl demonstrates, most people have spent their lives close to home, the most logical explanation is that most people have always lacked the opportunity to do otherwise. A minority have enjoyed such opportunities, and taken them—Leif Ericson, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Captain James Cook are a few of the better known examples—and it is more reasonable to view them as fortunately situated to pursue what might be called the “travel principle,” than as merely eccentric in their shared desire for travel and exploration.               

In addition, the chronology of the individuals named above (who range in time from the tenth to the eighteenth centuries) should be kept in mind in order to qualify Westfahl’s assertion that the notion of a basic human drive to travel “first emerged in nineteenth-century Europe, where it functioned as a useful rationale for imperialism in general and for certain explorations in particular” (196-197). Doubtless both the desire and the opportunity for travel did greatly increase during the last century (in large part because of the revolutions in transportation technology), and it may be that the concept of an underlying travel principle in the human psyche had never been explicitly formulated before. But the multisecular history, stretching back to ancient times, of both travel and travel literature (the latter having long been a means by which the travel principle is vicariously satisfied) suggests that what the nineteenth century witnessed was the expansion of something very old, not the creation of something ab initio. As for Westfahl’s linkage of the travel principle with European colonialism, the point is, in itself, acute and important. But it by no means justifies Westfahl’s contention that the philosophical argument for space travel is simply and solely “the basic argument for colonialism warmed over” (197). One might as well condemn the building of railways in Asia and Africa, or the study in the West of non-Western languages, on the grounds that those enterprises were also closely connected, especially during the nineteenth century, with plunder and mass murder in the colonial world. As theorists of postcolonialism like Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha have in recent years helped us all to understand, very little of importance has taken place during the last few centuries that has not been strongly marked by the imperialist project. To be reminded of the link between imperialism and the valorization of travel is salutary, and should warn us against taking travel and the impulse to travel as unqualified goods. But, unless one is prepared to write off the culture and civilization of the last half millennium in toto—a position held neither by Gary Westfahl nor by any other sane person—the connection to imperialism does not establish the travel principle as an unqualified evil either. Furthermore, since we know of no extraterrestrial races to be exploited, the philosophical argument for space travel would appear to be about as morally autonomous of imperialist evil as anything can be in a world profoundly shaped by imperialism—despite the fact that the rhetoric of space exploration and colonization has inevitably borrowed from the immense rhetorical resources of European imperialism.                

Second in importance to the philosophical argument for space travel is the practical-economic argument that space exploration may help us to solve some pressing material problems here on earth. In response, Westfahl offers some commonsense cautions, which are, for the most part, sound enough in themselves, and which have indeed often been forgotten by overzealous proponents of space exploration. He points out that going into space is extremely expensive and likely to remain so for a long time to come; that potentially useful research-and-development conditions present in space (extreme cold, a perfect vacuum, weightlessness) can be imperfectly but perhaps satisfactorily duplicated at far less cost on earth; that the economic benefits of space exploration and occupation may take so long to materialize that terrestrial solutions to the same problems might be developed more quickly. These are all reasonable points, and intellects inferior to Westfahl’s could have discovered them. But there is no reason to think that such gobbets of middle-class common sense exhaust the subject. Even if, say, extraordinarily big and powerful freezers will always be preferable to space travel as a way of gaining access to temperatures near absolute zero, there may be different sorts of problems that of their intrinsic nature can best be approached through space-based technologies. Some problems may demand not simply this particular condition or that, but entire new environments that can be found only beyond our own atmosphere. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson has suggested that the terraforming of other planets, like Mars, will be the means of discovering the keys to solving many of the most important ecological crises on earth. This is admittedly speculative; but it is perfectly rational speculation, and cannot be undermined by the kind of short-term bookkeeping that Westfahl brings to bear on the matter.                

The bookkeeper’s ideology is, unfortunately, most strongly in evidence in what Westfahl presents as his most decisive rebuttal to the practical-economic argument for space travel:

Perhaps all one needs to say is this: during twenty years of agitation for the economic exploitation of space, the smart money, except for modest efforts to launch [unmanned] orbital satellites for various purposes, has stayed away from space—has emphatically stayed away from space. The obvious conclusion is that the smart money realizes something about massive investments in space that [Jerry] Pournelle and [G. Harry] Stine aren’t talking about. (198)

It is astonishing that a critic of Westfahl’s intelligence could fall victim to so preposterous a fallacy as this. For the most obvious truth about “the smart money” is that it is colossally stupid—often, even, in relatively short-term matters, and nearly always with regard to long-term projects such as the economic exploitation of space must inevitably be. For what Westfahl terms “the smart money” is just the nearly psychotic obsession of American capitalism with the quarterly bottom line, at the expense of research and development and of long-range planning generally—something that has been condemned not only by those opposed to capitalism in general, but even by representatives of such relatively more rational and civilized capitalist systems as those of Japan and the European Union. If there is any particular body of opinion that is utterly unqualified to evaluate the possible economic benefits of space travel, it is, precisely, “the smart money.”               

At this point, anyone with a general knowledge of science fiction must think of D.D. Harriman, the improbably visionary capitalist in Robert A. Heinlein's widely reprinted novelette “The Man Who Sold The Moon” (1950). Asked to specify the profits to be made from a lunar voyage, Harriman (borrowing freely, one may note in passing, from the rhetoric of imperialism) replies:

This is the greatest real estate venture since the Pope carved up the New World. Don’t ask me what we’ll make a profit on; I can’t itemize the assets—but I can lump them. The assets are a planet—a whole planet, Dan, that’s never been touched. And more planets beyond it. (§1; p. 246 in The Best of Robert Heinlein, London: Sphere Books, 1973)

Now Westfahl might reply that the real lesson here proves more for his side of the argument than for mine. After all, Heinlein’s novella was published in 1950; less than two decades later, men did walk on the moon, and today, nearly three decades after that, the practical rewards of which Harriman speaks so confidently are hardly in sight. But it is difficult to gauge the appropriate time scale for a project so vast, requiring so much preliminary exploration, so much planning, and so much sheer trial-and-error, as the conquest of the solar system. How much material benefit to Spain would one have seen in Columbus’s voyage when his ships were, say, a third of the way across the Atlantic? Though Harriman (and Heinlein) may be wrong in detail, the form of Harriman’s statement must be the form of any rational conjecture about the economic rewards of space travel.                

Finally, Westfahl takes aim at the practical-defensive argument that we need to establish an ongoing presence in outer space in order to be well positioned to defend our planet against catastrophic disasters such as a collision with an errant asteroid. Westfahl acknowledges that the danger exists, but maintains that it is too improbable, at least for the next few centuries, to justify the expenses of a space program. Now, the chance of such a disaster is a matter about which the scientists are hesitant to be utterly confident. But the real reply to Westfahl here is just that arguments based on expense must always be put in their socio-political context. If we had a clear choice between the kind of space program needed to guard against planetary collisions and, say, fighting disease on earth, it might be sensible to forget space and to spend the cash on public health instead. But anyone who knows anything about American politics knows that the health professionals aren’t going to get the cash anyway. And, in a society that regularly wastes hundreds of billions of dollars on a military budget aimed against enemies either partly or totally imaginary, it is peculiar to make an argument from frugality against preparing for a danger that is, at least, real. Furthermore, even those human powers who do, to some extent, actually threaten us can do little worse than to annoy. But a planetary collision would be, and by long odds, the worst disaster in the history of the human race: the equivalent, most likely, of full-scale thermonuclear war, or possibly even worse than that. Though I acknowledge that rational people may differ in evaluating just how much we ought to spend to defend against such a terrible, if unlikely, catastrophe, there is something more than a little strange in the way that Westfahl takes it all so lightly: as when, for instance, he characterizes those who wish to prepare for a collision as “cowards” (199), or when he tries to minimize the whole matter by arguing that a collision would not actually render the human race totally extinct.

So the case against space travel collapses. The three arguments in favor of space travel that Westfahl rightly takes as the most central can all survive his attempts at refutation. I will not now take the apparent next step and argue the case for space, because, for one thing, I am more lukewarm on the matter than most readers of these lines will probably have guessed. I do believe that the three arguments Westfahl challenges are fundamentally sound—though, in the nature of the case, they all contain speculative elements that can’t be proved— yet—with anything like mathematical certainty. But space travel has never aroused my personal enthusiasm (as it once did Westfahl’s), and I have argued against Westfahl’s case out of a cool sense of intellectual duty, not crusading zeal. There is, however, something else about which I am enthusiastic, namely science fiction. I will now address the second major part of Westfahl’s argument, which is provocatively summarized in his final sentence: “A case against space, in other words, is also a case against science fiction” (205).                

I confess that I find this corollary of Westfahl’s to be less coherent and much less skillfully argued than his main argument against space exploration. In exhibiting, for refutation, his case against science fiction, I will therefore try to be as fair as possible by sticking as closely as I can to Westfahl’s own words. The basis of his position is the assumption that “advocacy of space travel is the central, defining ideology characteristic of modern science fiction” (203). Unfortunately, says Westfahl, this advocacy can now be seen to be dead wrong. Though science fiction was correct in asserting space travel to be technically possible, “science fiction was incorrect in underestimating the economic costs of these projects and in failing to note the absence of any compelling reasons for such projects—it [i.e., space travel] shouldn’t be done” (203). Accordingly, the very basis of modern science fiction is untenable, and the failing is moral as well as intellectual:

Science fiction repeatedly asserted that human expansion into space would be quick, easy, and widespread, and that assertion, which once might have been mildly criticized as overly optimistic, must now be reclassified as a bald-faced lie. And lying to people not only damages your credibility but can damage those people as well. (204)

Science fiction, then, is a lie, because what Westfahl asserts to be a “foundational assumption” (204) of the genre—that it “presents not only colorful flights of fancy but reasonable descriptions of discoveries and events that might actually happen someday” (204)—is contradicted by the genre’s fallacious advocacy of space travel. Thus does the case against space become the case against science fiction.                

There are several points to be made in response. In the first place, although space travel—including the assumption of widespread human movement into space during the near future—is certainly an important presence in modern science fiction, it is not nearly so pervasive or dominant within the genre as Westfahl assumes. In many works space travel does not figure at all, while in others the temporal setting of space travel is a future so distant that Westfahl’s arguments against space are irrelevant from the start. Indeed, when we look at the works that have largely defined the aesthetic standards of modern science fiction—the works, that is, whose existence is mainly responsible for the serious critical discussion of science fiction—we find that, in a surprisingly large percentage, near-future space travel plays either no crucial role or no role whatsoever. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (which features no important near-future space travel by humans), Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration, J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Gregory Benford’s Timescape, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Marge Piercy’s He, She and It—to take a mere handful of instances from the postwar Anglo-American tradition, and without naming any author more than once. Furthermore, I have deliberately confined my list to works universally recognized as science fiction by the publishing houses and the bookshops. But, for those of us who still maintain that the genre is defined neither by such commercial pigeon-holing nor by the representation of technological gimmickry, but rather by the literary effect of cognitive estrangement, there are numerous additional titles that spring to mind: George Orwell’s 1984, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and many others. Even on the level of representational content, the connection between modern science fiction and space travel, especially near-future space travel, is not nearly as strong as Westfahl maintains.                

But there is a far more important point to consider here. Even if the narrative of every important work of science fiction centrally involved the representation of near-future space travel, Westfahl’s conclusions about the genre would still not follow. This is true for reasons having to do with the nature of both fiction in general and of science fiction in particular. On the more general level, it has been—perhaps since Aristotle’s Poetics, but certainly, and especially within the English-speaking tradition, since Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry—an indispensable principle of literary criticism that the “truth” of fiction is to be found on a completely different plane from the truth of history, law, science, philosophy, or other nonfictional discourses. As Sidney famously points out, the poet (by which is meant the writer of fiction, whether in prose or verse) is the only author who never lies, because the poet never affirms anything to be true on the plane of factual accuracy where alone lying can take place. It is thus bizarre for Westfahl to accuse the science-fictional representation of easy and widespread near-future space travel of amounting to “a bald-faced lie.” Actually, there is a double confusion here. For even a nonfictional prediction of such travel could not be a lie, since a lie is a factual statement that one knows with certainty to be false; and nobody possesses the kind of certain factual knowledge of the future that Westfahl seems to claim for himself (at one point he lists several “fundamental truths” [204] about the future of space travel) and to assume that science-fiction authors claim for themselves. But the more serious confusion is to believe that we read fiction for the sake of factual truth at all, or even factual advocacy and prediction. The value of a fictional work that represents near-future space travel has nothing to do with whether such travel is feasible or desirable on the level of fact and public policy. Its value must be measured by different criteria. Indeed, a nice irony of the whole subject is that the author who has given us the most detailed, convincing, and memorable narratives of space travel is, almost certainly, Stanislaw Lem; and Lem, as Westfahl himself correctly notes, is, on the policy level, an opponent of space travel.                

At this point it might seem pertinent to ask what sort of value fiction does have, if it is not the informational sort. But this is, of course, an immense question, and one to which many critics, from Aristotle onwards, have given valuable answers. There is no room here to rehearse even a significant fraction of that critical terrain. In concluding, however, I will say a few words on the matter with specific reference to science fiction—since it is here, I think, that Westfahl’s confusion of fiction with fact yields the most serious mischief. For the notion that science fiction is to be valued (or not) on the grounds of factual plausibility is to commit oneself to an aesthetic that is trivial at best and meaningless at worst. With many of the greatest works, the application of Westfahl’s criterion results in almost total nonsense—for what could it mean to judge whether Dhalgren or The Female Man or Wild Seed present “reasonable descriptions of discoveries and events that might actually happen someday”? Yet even with those other works, like Timescape or Neuromancer, in which the issue of factual plausibility can, at least, be meaningfully discussed, the discussion (while it might contain interesting considerations of time travel or computer technology) could have no real significance for the evaluation of those novels as science fiction. Like all science fiction worth reading and talking about (hardly more than 10% of the total, as Theodore Sturgeon famously noted), Benford’s and Gibson’s imaginings are valuable for the light they shed not on possible futures but, indirectly, on the actual present. Indeed, one might say that the only future that ever really matters in science fiction is the future that, as J.G. Ballard would put it, is never more than five minutes away. Timescape can teach us much about the dangers of environmental crisis and, even more, about the academic practice of science and its relation to the centers of social power; Neuromancer has a good deal to say about the power of multinational corporations and the social impact of cybernetic technology. But Benford and Gibson teach their lessons not in the manner of the futurist or the policy wonk, but in the manner of the poet.                

The poetics of science fiction is, I think, still best conceptualized by Darko Suvin’s category of cognitive estrangement. By presenting us with worlds other to our own, science fiction defamiliarizes the mundane environment we all inhabit and helps us to see it with new eyes. By so doing, science fiction makes clear that the world we thought we knew is by no means naturally pre-determined or supernaturally fore-ordained, but is merely one complex conjuncture of circumstances among many other imaginable conjunctures; and thus science fiction always (at least implicitly) suggests the utopian possibility that the world around us may yet be radically altered, for good or ill. By estranging our mundane world, by lifting the veil of familiarity from it, the science-fiction writer, as Sidney would say, “never affirmeth” anything merely factual about our world; but, by enabling us to see our world in a fresh perspective, the science-fiction writer helps us to make our own “affirmations” (and negations) on levels far more consequential than that of information.                

Of course, the estrangements of science fiction are cognitive, that is to say, rational, in contradistinction to the deliberately non-rational estrangements of fantasy and Gothic literature. But we must not lose sight here of the crucial Sidneian point (which Suvin himself never, perhaps, makes quite as clear as one might wish) that the cognition of science fiction operates on a different level from the cognition of science, engineering, law, or public planning. The cognition of science fiction is wholly internal to the fictional process and, as I have elsewhere suggested, might better be termed a literary cognition effect. In other words, a particular text is judged to be science fiction rather than fantasy not because its estrangements are judged rational by Gary Westfahl (who says that stories of near-future space adventures are “actually fantasy” [205]), or by me, or by some committee of experts, or even by the author herself when in a reflective mood. What matters is whether the text itself presents its defamiliarizing novelties as cognitively based. That is why novels like Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik can be instantly recognized as great science fiction, despite the fact that scientific and generally rational opinion almost unanimously denies the plausibility of the kind of extra-sensory perceptions on which both narratives heavily depend. Of course, actual scientific cognition can be one means of achieving the literary cognition effect, and is often (by no means always) the preferred way for some writers, like Asimov or Benford. But, as Bester and Dick illustrate, there are other means as well, which are no less capable of producing major science fiction.                

I do not deny, however, that there have always been those who read science fiction in the way that Westfahl seems to think appropriate: that is, readers who like science fiction because they fancy it provides a quick, easy way of satisfying our factual curiosity as to what the future might be like. As T.S. Eliot might remind us, it is the very mark of the lazy, uncritical reader to misunderstand the kind of reward that various discourses offer: And so some take their philosophy from Romantic poetry, their criminology from the Sherlock Holmes stories, their lessons in self-defense from John Wayne movies. It never works. Science fiction is fiction. You may, of course, repudiate fiction altogether and maintain that there are other forms of discourse better worth your time. This, I suspect, is the position towards which Westfahl, in his heart of hearts, is now tending, and it is a position with no despicable intellectual lineage; after all, it can claim Plato and at least certain elements in Hegel. But science fiction is fiction. It neither has nor can have any other kind of glory.—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University.

In Response. Having struggled long and hard to express and defend my views on space travel as effectively as possible, I have no desire at this time to revisit those arguments in counter-response to Carl Freedman's response—an activity more likely to generate heat than light, in any event. His thoughtful objections should be carefully read and considered, and, retaining some residual affection for the enthusiasms of my youth and the literature that embodied them, I may at some level be rooting for him to succeed. In the meantime, it might be instructive to calmly and briefly discuss what I view as the bases of our disagreements.   

Regarding the issue of space travel, I believe our dispute involves the burden of proof. A space program of the sort typically envisioned by science- fiction novelists and space advocates would require expenditures in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars, would demand workable solutions to several major scientific and technological problems, and would remain highly susceptible to catastrophic failure even if all of the financial and scientific hurdles were overcome. Under these circumstances, I feel that the case for space travel must be, as I said, “compelling” (SFS 24:202)—proof beyond a reasonable doubt, as a lawyer would say, and proof of the sort not provided by vague references to posited human instincts, optimistic projections of future economic profits, and exaggerated fears of impending asteroid impacts. Even if these arguments can be somewhat rehabilitated along the lines Freedman suggests (which I do not agree is possible), this would remain a case for space travel essentially based upon a preponderance of evidence, and one of insufficient force to be persuasive to me, given the issues involved.                

As Freedman admits, though, supporting a vigorous space program is not one of his genuine passions. (Indeed, a person who never purchased a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Robert A. Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, and must instead rely on a later English anthology to quote from the title story, need not testify to a lifelong lack of interest in space travel.)  Freedman is fervent only in opposing my final claim that “A case against space, in other words, is also a case against science fiction” (SFS 24:205). And here, our argument involves nothing more than the definition of terms.                

I have repeatedly argued that “science fiction” should be primarily defined as that tradition of twentieth-century literature associated with that label and strongly connected to the visible community of science-fiction writers, editors, and readers. Both this tradition, and many individual works within this tradition, have been explicitly and implicitly defended for providing a generally accurate prediction of humanity's future expansion into space; indeed, a shared belief in that future has been the key force inspiring and binding together innumerable texts in that tradition. If this belief is exposed as false, then many individual works embodying that belief may be invalidated, and the entire tradition unified by that belief may dissipate and fade away. And that is, more or less, what I endeavored to convey in my essay.                

For Freedman, science fiction should be defined, following Darko Suvin, as “the literature of cognitive estrangement,” consisting of those texts which critics agree exemplify that definition. Since these texts are chosen on the basis of their literary value, not their ideologies, their status is in no way threatened by any assaults on their ideologies; and, since this tradition of literature is created and maintained solely by critical perceptions, it will contin

In short, my final argument makes perfect sense if one is thinking in terms of my definition, and is complete nonsense if one is thinking in terms of Freedman's definition. It is unfortunate that these divergent views about the meaning of the term “science fiction” should engender unnecessary argument, but this is one area where I will not compromise. The way I define science fiction is well supported by a wide range of printed references and public opinions, and the fact that a small coterie of critics have attempted to impose their own different and idiosyncratic definition is of no concern to me. I will never employ inane augmented terms like “genre sf” to describe the literature that I study; from my perspective, it is rather critics like Freedman who should develop augmented terms like “Suvinian SF” to describe the literature that they study. In the meantime, while the issue is unresolved, critics should always explain exactly what they mean by the term “science fiction,” and readers should always consider what those critics mean in responding to their work.—Gary Westfahl, UC Riverside.

Freedman Replying to Westfahl Replying to Freedman Replying to Westfahl. One of the functions of genuine controversy (as opposed to mere verbal mud-wrestling) is to clarify the nature of intellectual issues under dispute and thus to help all of us think about them more efficiently. I believe that the present controversy between myself and my friend Gary Westfahl about space travel and science fiction has served this function well, and that only a little more needs to be said here. I will confine myself to two points.                

First, on space travel, I recommend a fascinating recent article on the future of space exploration by the eminent physicist and science writer Freeman Dyson: “Warm-Blooded Plants and Freeze-Dried Fish” (The Atlantic Monthly, November 1997, pp. 71-80). Dyson maintains that the large-scale—and relatively inexpensive—colonization of the solar system will start to take place within the next century or so; he fixes on the year 2085 as the date when “the private settlement of pilgrims all over the solar system will begin” (79). He further suggests that within a few hundred years an actual majority of the inhabitants of the solar system may be living in the Kuiper Belt of comets outside the orbit of Neptune. This vision is strikingly similar to those in many of the works of science fiction whose prescience Westfahl so fiercely doubts. Of course, Dyson—like Westfahl and myself—is engaging in speculation, though in considerably greater scientific detail than either of us has offered and with incomparably more scientific authority than a pair of English teachers could possibly claim. (In the nature of the case, all discussion of the future must be, at least to some degree, speculative; the notion that any statements in the future tense could, like a very few statements in the past tense, be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” strikes me as fanciful.) But, in any event, my hunch is that Dyson is correct. Westfahl's hunch is presumably the reverse. Could we perhaps settle the matter with a friendly wager, to be paid off at the Eaton Conference of 2085? Though it is sadly probable that neither of us will be attending that gathering in person, one thing that Westfahl and I fortunately have in common is that we are both the fathers of exceptionally intelligent, charming, and beautiful young daughters. Should they eventually decide to have children of their own, as seems reasonably likely, then the odds are good that each of us can be represented at the 2085 Eaton by an aging grandchild—one of whom may well mutter a few sotto voce curses at the long- dead Gramps who, as late as 1997, failed to see how utterly inevitable (or how utterly impossible) the twenty-first-century colonization of space would be.

My second point concerns the definition of science fiction, which, as Westfahl rightly indicates, is the only really hotly disputed issue between us. It is, of course, a commonplace of semantic theory that serious intellectual disagreements frequently resolve into disagreements over definitions—think of all the arguments that have been generated over the proper construction of such words as “life,” or “freedom,” or “justice,” or “love”. Though “science fiction” may not be so lofty a term as any of these, it is, I insist, primarily a literary term; accordingly, it is appropriately discussed in literary-critical terms, and such discussion of it requires a literary-critical definition. “The literature of cognitive estrangement” is indeed the literary-critical definition that I myself find most productive, though it is not the only one available. Westfahl, however, pretty much eschews a literary-critical construction of science fiction altogether, in favor of a more sociological one. For him, what really matters is not the formal literary structure of a text at all, but rather the degree to which the text is “strongly connected” to a certain network of literary production, distribution, and consumption that he calls “the visible community of science fiction writers, editors, and readers.” Now, I certainly do not deny that literary criticism and the sociology of literature are related disciplines; but I do insist that they are not the same thing. Nor do I deny that work undertaken from the perspective of Westfahl's sociological definition may be valuable in various ways. But I do insist that literary criticism also has a right to exist, and that literary critics (whether they are a “small coterie,” as Westfahl puts it, or a teeming horde) need not apologize for writing in literary-critical terms about a literary genre in the pages of a literary-critical journal.—CF

 

On Other Matters

Plans for Robida in English. I'd been wondering what I.F. Clarke could be adding to the seminal work he had already done on future war fiction, and now I'm finding out. I'd tried to cover the non-English language stuff in my own book, but it wasn't easy (I had to have one friend, who was studying in Russia, look up some examples there and abstract them for me). Now it looks as if we'll get full coverage from Clarke, who has always been one of my idols as an sf historiographer.
   I hope he'll forgive me for using the appearance of his excellent piece in SFS #74 as an excuse to bring up one of my pet projects. I've thought for some years that it would be a great idea for somebody to do a facsimile translated edition of Robida's The Twentieth Century and/or War in the Twentieth Century, with the English text (in a larger font, since English takes fewer words than French) wrapped around the illustrations just like the original French text. True, Robida (as Clarke observes) isn't that great a writer, but the text would enhance the artwork, which has always been reprinted out of context before. It would be fairly inexpensive to do, I imagine. (We wrap text around art sometimes at the trade magazines where I work, and we do everything on the cheap). The project might even be commercially viable as a coffee table novelty book, in the same tradition as the reprints of classic Sears Roebuck catalogs, especially if it could be inexpensively promoted somewhere (Dare I mention the Sci-Fi Channel?). Any suggestions from fellow SFRA members?—John J. Pierce, Bloomfield.

 

The Editor's Slant on The Time Machine. There is one problematic aspect of the novel The Time Machine that has attracted what I regard as misleading or at least inadequate commentary—a footnote, the one and only visible intervention by someone identified as “Ed.” (S§11:138, G§8:74).* Harry M. Geduld's bracketed comment alongside this footnote—“[Wells's note]” (G 74)— gives, intentionally it seems, the misleading impression that Wells himself is the Editor. That is not the case. The Editor of The Time Machine, like the Time Traveller and like the narrator, who we eventually discover is named Hillyer, is a fictional character. He may, or (much more likely) may not, be the same person as that one of the more sceptical addressees of the Time Traveller's narrative who is introduced as “the Editor of a well-known daily paper” (S§3:47, G§2: 38).

The Editor's footnote arises in relation to the Time Traveller's account of his exploration of an ancient museum of natural history and technology which he calls the Palace of Green Porcelain (S§11:133, G§8:72). The Palace is built on sloping ground to the southwest of what was London in the vicinity of what was Banstead. At one point, walking down one of the museum's many galleries, the Time Traveller is startled by the sudden appearance alongside him of his female Eloi companion Weena:

Had it not been for her I do not think I should have noticed that the floor of the gallery sloped at all.* The end I had come in at was quiet above ground, and was lit by rare slitlike windows. As you went down the length, the ground came up against the windows, until as last there was a pit like “area” of a London house before each, and only a narrow line of daylight at the top. I went slowly along puzzling about the machines [on exhibit], and had been too intent upon them to notice the gradual diminution of the light, until Weena's increasing apprehensions drew my attention. Then I saw that the gallery ran down at last into a thick darkness....

*It may be, of course, that the floor did not slope, but that the museum was built into the side of a hill.—Ed. (S§11:138-39, G§8:74)

In the course of the narrative we get used to the narrator reformulating his theories about the world of AD 802,701. In this case, someone else, a perhaps more objective outsider, does the reformulating. Geduld, in his explanatory “Notes,” observes simply that “The note—by Wells—contributes to the narrative's semblance of authenticity” (G 114 n20). This is a reasonable point but it does not account for the degree of creative contrivance that Wells has clearly applied to the topographical setting of the Palace of Green Porcelain.                

John Huntington's explanation is the most elaborate. He puts the gradient puzzle in the context of the up-and-down opposition in The Time Machine which he points out is “an important expression of the basic Eloi-Morlock opposition” (H 46). Commenting on how “the Time Traveller finds himself unexpectedly underground,” Huntington notes that the Time Traveller “confesses he wasn't even aware of the slope” (49). Presumably, Huntington has decided that the Editor is mistaken and that the gallery floor does slope, and that it slopes downwards. Relating Weena's presence near the supposedly raised end of the slope and evidence of the Morlock's presence at the supposedly lower end, Huntington explains the Editor's “curious footnote” as follows: “By translating the up-down division into a lateral one, the museum ingeniously mediates the division's absolute separation” (47). In other words, as Huntington later puts it, “The green porcelain museum unites up and down by a lateral movement” (70). Wells is thereby pointing to the common humanity of the Eloi and the Morlocks and to the Palace as a museum which combines Eloi Oriental aestheticism and Morlock technology.                

Leon Stover, in one of the notes to his annotated edition of the first book publication, the 1895 text, questions Huntington's notion of “the museum as a structure that `mediates' between Eloi aestheticism on the surface and Morlock utilitarianism underground”:

But this hardly can be the case if Wells takes the war of the two cultures as a war to the knife. More likely the sloping or inward direction of the gallery indicates that only the subterranean Morlocks hold any useful value in a world whose enfeebled masters neglected to give them proper direction; there is nothing to mediate between Eloi and Morlocks, if the former represent a failed ruling class calling for replacement. (S 138-39 nl99)

Unlike Huntington, Stover realizes that the Editor may be correct—the gallery floor may not in fact slope—and hence his reference to “the sloping or inward direction of the gallery...” (139 nl99; my emphasis).                

But, like Huntington, Stover misses the essential point of Wells's contrivance here. Exactly why did Wells envisage the Palace of Green Porcelain as built on sloping ground? Stover realizes that the Editor's footnote must be important: “This one and only footnote, inserted by a fictional editor, must have some very special significance” (138 nl99). And so it does, and that significance amounts to much more than Huntington's aperçu.                

What the Editor calls “a hill” (S§11:138, G§8:74), the Time Traveller calls “a turfy down”: the Palace “lay very high upon a turfy down...” (S§11:133, G§8:72). The words “high” and “down” do, of course, signal the up/down division that determines Huntington's spatial approach. However, in conceiving this up and down business solely in vertical terms, Huntington entirely misses the relevance of the notion of a sloping line—the line actually described by a down or hill. There are many references to hills in The Time Machine and a corresponding Darwinian symbolism of ascent and descent. The Time Traveller first arrives in the future “still on the hillside upon which this house [his house, where he is relating his adventures] now stands...“ (S§4:56, G§3: 42); further into the future he sees “a richer green flow up the hill-side” (S§4:58, G [“hillside”] §3:43). In the Eloi-Morlock future, he walks “towards the hill again” (S§7:87, G§5:55). Twice, in the dawn, the Time Traveller believes he “saw a solitary white, ape-like creature running rather quickly up the hill...” (S§8:97, G§5:59). In their journey, the Time Traveller and Weena head “up the hills towards the south-west” (S§10:123, G7:69) before they “proceeded over the hill crest towards [what was] Wimbledon...“ (S§10:124, G§7:69). Along the way, the Time Traveller conjures up an image of the Morlocks underground “on their ant-hill” (S§10:125, G [“in their anthill”] §7:69). In the context of his battle with the Morlocks, the Time Traveller focuses on a “hillock or tumulus, surmounted by a scorched hawthorne” (S§12:149, G§9:80).               

The two slopes of a hill, hillock, tumulus, or down provide an outline image of the rise and fall of civilizations, or the ascent of evolution and the descent of devolution. That is one reason why The War of the Worlds concludes with a description of the Martian war machine atop Primrose Hill in London. And, of course, the same hill symbolism explains Wells's choice of his narrator's name—Hillyer (which could be pronounced “hillier”). In a letter (dated 26 November 1997) reacting to a first version of this note, Patrick Parrinder writes that “logically.... if the narrator is `hillier' (more able to compete, higher up the evolutionary slope) than the Time Traveller's other guests then the Traveller himself is the `hilliest.'”                

By arranging that the Palace of Green Porcelain be situated on a slope (like the Time Traveller's house), Wells is allowing for a variety of ironies implicit in the relationship between a museum designed to illustrate every aspect of human progress—the glorious ascent of man—and the real lay of the land. What, it may be wondered, is the direction of the sloping ground? Is the museum on the upside or the downside of the down's or hill's gradient?                

And what of that gallery floor? Is it truly sloping? The Time Traveller seems to have decided that it is; he refers to the floor as “running downward at a slight angle from the end at which I entered” (S§11:138, G§8:73). He also refers to “what appeared to be sloping shelves” (S§11:135, G§8:73). And Weena “had been rolling a sea-urchin down the sloping glass of a case...” (S§11:136, G§8:73). But, as the Editor suspects, the gradient of the down/hill visible through the museum's windows may have given the Time Traveller the mistaken impression that the floor and the shelves were sloping. After all, why build sloping shelves? They would hardly be practical. Whatever was placed on them would likely fall off. In all probability, then, the Editor is correct. The floor does not slope (and nor do the shelves). Consequently, the Time Traveller's illusion of a slope that has Weena (the Eloi representative) issuing from above and the Morlocks from below should be read as Wells's symbolic, ironic comment on the illusory basis of the class system.                

In his 26 November 1997 letter to me, Patrick Parrinder provides one plausible reading of the Editor's footnote and its context: “the Time Traveller assumes that he must actually be on a downward `evolutionary' slope, but to another observer it will be apparent that this is strictly unnecessary, since in evolution (as in other dynamic competitive systems, e.g. capitalism) inertia does not allow one to stay in the same place: as the Time Traveller's own conjectures about the future of humanity reveal, to stay level is to go down. Hence by walking horizontally the Time Traveller sinks deeper and deeper into the side of the hill.”                

But the essential point is, that at any moment, we poor benighted human beings cannot be aware of the true big picture. Have we peaked? Are we coasting? Are we on our way down? In the main we build our floors level but, over the long haul, our destinies are inevitably moving upwards or downwards. Moments of rest—such as that which the Time Traveller and Weena share at the end of the museum chapter on the presumably level surface of “a little open court within the palace” (S§11:144, G§8:76)—are rare and brief. We should not forget our last picture of the Time Machine “on a sloping beach”—that “desolate slope” (S§14:159, G§11:84) that finally awaits us all.—David Ketterer, Concordia University.

*WORKS CITED IN THIS NOTE
S = Leon Stover, ed. The Time Machine: An Invention: A Critical Text of the 1895 London First Edition. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland and Co., 1996.
G = Harry M. Geduld, ed., The Definitive Time Machine: A Critical Edition of H.G. Wells's Scientific Romance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.
H = John Huntington. The Logic of Fantasy: H.G. Wells and Science Fiction (NY: Columbia UP, 1982.

 

On Wells's Source for the Phrase “Things to Come.” I have always thought that there was an element of Poe's “Mellonta Tauta” in it. On looking into my old Liddell and Scott (1869 ed.), p 905, I find “τὰ μέλλοντα, things to come ...the future. Thuc. 1, 138; 4, 71; Plat. etc.” Poe's title would differ a little, but not significantly, “These things to come.” I don't remember whether Wells knew any Greek, but he might have looked up Poe's title. Reinforcement from several sources. All speculation, of course.—Everett F. Bleiler.

 

Paper Call. The 23rd Conference of the Society for Utopian Studies will be held in Montreal October 15-18, 1998. SUS is an international, interdisciplinary organization devoted to the study of literary, social, and communal expressions of utopianism. Send 1-2 page abstracts of proposed papers or panels by May 30 to Naomi Jacobs, English Department, University of Maine, Orono ME 04469-0122; phone 207-581-3809; fax 207-581-1604; e-mail <njacobs@maine.maine.edu>.

 

An Important Book Remaindered. For a copy of David Ketterer's Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (published by Indiana UP in 1992 at $27.50; reviewed in SFS #58), send $10.00 to David Ketterer, 4231 Wilson Avenue, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H4A 2V1.

 

One Hundred Years of The War of the Worlds. The H.G. Wells Society is organizing a conference in London to meet Sept 18-20, 1998 to mark the centenary of The War of the Worlds. Details from the Secretary, H.G. Wells Society, 49, Beckingthorpe Drive, Bottesford, Norringham, NG13 ODN, UK.

 

A Gender-Bending Journal. Announcing Femspec, an interdisciplinary feminist journal dedicated to critical and creative works in the realms of sf, fantasy, magical realism, and other supernatural genres. If you are interested in speculating, theorizing, creating, and questioning gender across the boundaries, we are recruiting editors and readers as well as manuscripts. We are emphasizing interdisciplinary approaches, and encourage work on teaching as well as literary and cultural criticism and creative material. We hope an approach to pedagogy will bring in work from a wider area of disciplines. We are interested in a variety of feminist approaches, and aim to be inclusive of ethnic and cultural diversity in an internationalist perspective. Contact Batya Weinbaum, POB 69, East Montpelier, VT 05651-0069, batyawein@aol.com, 802-472-8527; Robin A. Reid, Department of Language and Literature, East Texas State University, Commerce, TX 75429.


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