Science Fiction Studies


#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March 2006

Neil Easterbrook

A Huge Ellipsis

George Slusser and Jean-Pierre Barricelli, eds. Genre at the Crossroads: The Challenge of Fantasy. Riverside, CA: Xenos, 2003. xiii + 238 pp. $17.00 pbk.

James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria, eds. Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005. xix + 374 pp. $30.00 hc.

”It is the trope of our times to locate the question of culture in the realm of the beyond.” —Homi K. Bhabha

Several years ago the eminent critic and historian Sacvan Bercovich came to TCU (Texas Christian University) to deliver a talk on the state of current literary scholarship and its future. More than 250 academics attended the keynote address of a two-day symposium on the emergence of cultural studies within English departments; the event was covered by local newspapers and television. During his earnest and erudite presentation, Bercovich remarked in an aside that the fundamental characteristic of literature is its status ”as fantasy.” Several of the conferees were both perplexed and dismayed, and in subsequent discussion inquired if he’d actually meant what he’d apparently said; surely he shouldn’t confuse real literature with popular nonsense such as science fiction? In a sober and utterly serious reply, he insisted that ”The history of literature is ... the history of science fiction becoming literature.”

Despite the fact that distinguished full professors at Harvard University offer such remarks; or that distinguished academic presses (such as those affiliated with Yale or Cambridge) publish books on sf; or that the recent fiction of distinguished ”literary” authors (such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Roth, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, or Richard Powers) centers on distinctively sf tropes and situations—despite all that, academics interested in sf still suffer a profound legitimation anxiety.

A profound demonstration of that anxiety can be found in Slusser and Barricelli’s Genre at the Crossroads: The Challenge of Fantasy, a collection of twenty chapters (plus an introduction) that fall into two rough groups. I cannot recall ever reading a collection where quality varies so radically from chapter to chapter. Slightly less than a third of the volume’s total, the opening ten selections revolve around two polemics, one by Slusser and the other by Frank McConnell, followed by seven responses from Gregory Benford, Brian Aldiss, Gerald Gillespie, A. Owen Aldridge, Mark Rose, Bradford Lyau, and G.S. Rousseau. Originally ”conceived as a symposium under the auspices of the Eaton Program, as an event summing up the status of fantasy studies in the university at the end of the 20th century” (vii), the polemics ask ”Who’s afraid of science fiction?” (3) and ”how come?” (25). The answer proffered by both editors—a view supported by Benford, Gillespie, Lyau, and Rousseau, but rejected by Aldiss, Aldridge, and Rose—is the East Coast ”literary establishment” and literary academics (3, 8-10, 22-24, 60, 63). The last piece of the first section is Slusser’s response to the responses. Two thirds of the book comprise the second group of ten essays: ”examples ... proposing new approaches to the basic problem of placing and locating fantasy (and science fiction)” (ix). Only this second section of the book is currently useful, and then only half of its essays, which individually are quite good and suffer none of the flaws that so mar the rest of the collection.

First, I shall discuss this stronger second section. Eric Rabkin, in ”The Fantastic and the Pretty,” judiciously catalogs how literary studies have repeatedly and mistakenly understood the fantastic as ”the pretty,” beginning with passages from Measure for Measure and Phaedrus. Dave Clayton’s excellent essay (”Is Fantastic Literature Subversive?”) presents an exceptionally cogent reflection on some theoretical convolutions in the definition of fantasy. Using Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981) as his touchstone, he interrogates fantasy’s limits as he demonstrates its ineluctable ambiguities. In ”The Light Fantastic: The Systematic Obfuscation of Fantasy,” Gary Westfahl starts from a paradigmatic academic call for papers to ask if ”the fantastic” is a legitimate critical or generic category. His stimulating conclusion is that the fantastic ”does not exist” (177) and that invoking it produces ”dismal and pointless results” (182). There are also two solid, informative essays on fantasy and music—one (by Barricelli) that actually and cleverly considers music as the very model of fantasy and the other (by Slusser) that traces some of the metaphors and motifs on music in German Romanticism, specifically in Hoffmann’s Johannes Kreisler. These five fine, rewarding essays constitute about forty percent of the book—a fairly substantial portion, especially considering that the volume is not from a scholarly press.

Unfortunately, the other five essays in this second half cannot be praised. They range from the perfectly capable and articulate (Gary Kern’s lengthy description of the Norwegian novelist Jens Bjørneboe’s three part The History of Bestiality [1966-73], which doesn’t say anything specific about either fantasy or science fiction) to the shockingly inept (George Guffey’s ”systems analysis” of Astounding Stories between 1930 and 1934, which posits this obtuse inference: ”science-fiction writers wrote stories which they submitted to the editor—who published them, rejected them, or returned them for revision. In addition, outside forces [advertiser, market pressures, etc.] constantly affected the overall system” [156]). Michael Clifton briefly discusses ”unbounded spaces” in sf cinema simply to describe how some depictions of the unconscious are negative and some depictions are positive. When Bud Foote finally turns to the fiction of H. Beam Piper, all he supplies is plot summary. John Grant’s meandering comparison of the relation between his novel The World and Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation Cool World (both 1992) is a set of unedited remarks from an oral presentation at least twice as long as warranted; his own concise articles on the topic in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) afford far more insight.

The essays in the first half of the book are all dated, reading like a time capsule initially sealed in 1987 and now opened in 2005. Of course, we all sympathize with the editors’ dilemma, since we appreciate the vagaries and delays of academic publishing, but these essays ought to have been rewritten and updated, or returned to the desk drawer from whence they came. It’s especially surprising that Slusser decided to publish this volume, since he is already the co-editor (with Gary Westfahl) of a far better collection addressing the same topic (Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy [2002]; see Sanders’ review in SFS 30.1).

The central point of engagement in the first section of Genre at the Crossroads concerns two articles in popular literary magazines—one from Esquire in 1984 and another from Harper’s in 1985, both assaulting science fiction along all-too familiar lines; together and separately, they form the locus for Slusser’s and McConnell’s counter-attack. Slusser’s most recent reference is to Donna Haraway’s influential ”A Cyborg Manifesto,” which he cites from the 1991 book publication (though the essay initially appeared in 1985). McConnell’s most recent reference identifies Jean Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters (1985) and ”eight Garfield volumes” as concurrent bestsellers (27), which dates his remark at about 1986. Rose refers to ”Margaret Drabble’s new edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature” (51), which is the fifth edition from 1985. Essays in the second section also show signs of age; with the exception of a single modified footnote in Clayton (92 n26), no one other than Kern refers to anything published after 1994, but the problem is more serious in the first section.

The antique tenor of many articles is correspondingly obsolete. Here are two examples. Slusser says ”a look at the body of American ‘literary’ fiction of the last 30 years reveals the increasing degree to which it has been permeated by the themes and images of SF. This fact however is not only emphatically denied, it is passed over in increasingly explosive silence” (4). The statement no longer holds true. It was probably true in 1985, and is probably false in 2005.

A second example concerns a certain hysteria about literary theory, a topos in the literary discourse of the mid-1980s but quite rare today. Slusser remarks that ”across the peaceful campuses of America, literary criticism, in its persistent silence on SF, is undergoing ... ‘horrifization.’ Though there are surface variations, structuralism and post-structuralism offer a unified wish” (17). Setting aside ”horrifization,” whatever that means, the first comment is at least ten and probably twenty years tardy; the second comment is simply false; and both are branded temporally by the verb ”is undergoing.” Slusser draws examples from that notorious structuralist Edward Said, in 1972, and Jacques Derrida, in 1968. While McConnell’s delightfully chatty, opinionated essay does not share Slusser’s pretense of academic rigor, he manifests the same theory anxieties of twenty years past, grumbling about ”deconstructionist tinkerings” (30) and how reading Tolkien ”sends deconstructionists running for their Todorov, if not their Maalox” (26). While amusing, McConnell conflates poststructuralism with structuralism and also chooses a poor example: Todorov’s structuralism was of the 1960s and early 1970s; by the mid-1980s he had moved on to other matters, including a critique of deconstruction. All of which rather deflates Slusser’s pretense that ”The remarks of George Slusser and the late Frank McConnell are still legitimate, as fresh as the day they were uttered” (viii).

In spite of the dated nature of the volume’s arguments, examining our legitimation anxiety does constitute a significant area of our scholarly activity. So are Slusser’s and McConnell’s remarks ”still legitimate”? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we are still engaged with the battle of legitimating our study. No, in the sense that hyperbole and inaccuracy, straw man and petitio principii arguments do not serve the purpose of convincing the literary and academic mainstream that we are serious scholars involved with serious literatures. The book fails to fill the ”huge ellipsis” (10) it sees in academic criticism.
Slusser concludes that ”The purpose, finally, of our position papers was not to engage in sterile polemics but to provoke readers to think seriously about science fiction and fantasy. In our position papers, we purposely painted an extreme vision of a cultural timestop, where we gave the role of O’Brien to the Esquire editor or the department chair” (67). But the specious blandishment and tu quoque posturing remain unprofitable, which is more-or-less the consensus of Aldiss, Aldridge, and Rose, who offer four sharp retorts. First, there is neither a literary establishment nor an academic blockade (37). Second, some books are good, some books are bad, and in sf and fantasy quite a lot are really quite bad, and we ought not deny it (38-39). Third, let’s not be ”philistine” by saying nasty things about other kinds of lit, such as the mundane mainstream; attack their bad books, sure, but don’t dismiss entire genres (38). And fourth, let’s do our work as solidly and carefully as we can, perhaps even aggressively—but quit whining and wait for history to turn its wheel (39, 51-53). I suspect that Genre at the Crossroads is a title you’ll want for your university or public library collection—forty percent of the book is quite good—though (even given its modest cost) you’ll not want to purchase it personally.

Gunn and Candelaria’s Speculations on Speculation, however, which conveniently anthologizes some of the best and best-known science fiction criticism of the past forty years, may be a moderately useful addition to your professional library (even given its less than modest cost). In it you will find generally substantial and generally representative selections from fifteen generally important figures and teams: Gunn, Gary K. Wolfe, Darko Suvin, Barry N. Malzberg, Paul Kincaid, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, Robert Scholes, Alexei and Cory Panshin, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, Colin Greenland, Michael Swanwick, Judith Berman, and James Patrick Kelly.

The twenty-four selections (mostly excerpts from longer books, but several stand-alone pieces), are divided into six promisingly abstract categories: ”Identification” (direct definitions of the genre); ”Location” (how sf relates to other literary genres, including the dynamic between the capital L penthouse and the sub-basement ghetto); ”Derivations” (the historical development of the genre’s central terms and concepts); ”Excavation” (the important movements of New Wave and space opera); ”Infatuation” (less on the ”large and interactive fandom” [267] than on the sense of wonder and reading protocols); and ”Anticipation” (allegedly ”the shape of things to come” [311], which it most certainly is not, a matter I’ll return to below). Restricted entirely to literature, the book contains no commentary on sf’s problematic relationship with film and television or comics and computer games; nor does Speculations on Speculation engage that larger set of common cultural phenomena now linked to and coded by sf, which according to Brooks Landon includes ”theme parks, military thinking, and advertising ... the development and marketing of products from breakfast cereal to pickup trucks” (xv).

The best statement of the book’s project comes in the introduction to the fourth section: ”The purpose of this volume is to deal with the ways in which science fiction has been envisioned, interpreted, re-envisioned, and re-interpreted. In this anthology, the actual events of science fiction are seen obliquely, through the lenses of critics’ arguments about the characteristics, classification, or development of the genre” (235). Gunn and Candelaria then recommend that students seeking a more conventional literary history seek out texts such as Gunn’s Alternate Worlds (1975), Aldiss’s (and Wingrove’s) Trillion Year Spree (1986), or Clute’s and Nicholls’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (rev. ed. 1993). Candelaria’s introduction, despite an annoying reliance on an extended metaphor of ripening fruit, also sensibly and clearly recommends earlier accounts of sf published between the late 1950s and mid-1970s, titles he briefly annotates. A flawed, idiosyncratic, but useful bibliography for additional reading and research is included at the end of the book.

Avoiding the conventional histories and focusing on criticism and theory allows Gunn and Candelaria to concentrate the sections on some of the genre’s fundamental conceptual categories; many of the anthologized pieces form parts of the veritable bedrock of our discipline: Suvin on ”cognitive estrangement,” Delany on high lit and reading protocols, Aldiss on the post-gothic mode, Le Guin on characterization and metaphor, Scholes on romance and fabulation, Gunn on hard sf, and Hartwell on how ”The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve.” Many of the other essays—such as Kincaid’s use of Wittgenstein’s solution to the problem of categorization, his concept of ”family resemblance”—should rightly become new strata in that disciplinary foundation. It’s wonderful to have so many excellent and important matters covered in one convenient text.

Yet there are still too many gaps, too many huge ellipses. Perhaps the problem is the complex diversity of science fiction rather than the blinders of the editors’ hermeneutic preferences, but the book has, in my view, two obvious and disastrous failures of omission. One is less troubling than the other. First, the book seems to privilege that kind of sf more frequently associated with the hard sciences; to the extent that it has a secondary interest, it is with literary history and literary convention; both of these are perfectly reasonable focal points for the book. But it remains soft on the human (or ”soft”) sciences of sf— anthropology, ethnography, sociology, linguistics, political theory, and philosophy—all of which have provided springboards for important works of sf and for extended scholarly discussions.

While related to the first omission, the second is far more serious: the utterly astonishing absence of commentary on gender and race as central critical categories. Le Guin and Delany have written widely and persuasively about gender, race, and sexuality, so the editors clearly are familiar with that work. They therefore made a conscious decision to elide the topic. True, so far very little has been written on sf and race (at least very little that’s very good), but there is an extensive and simply superb (and eminently excerpt-able) body of work interrogating sf’s connection to gender and sexuality. Because there has been so much sophisticated work, I hesitate to single out any author specifically, but allow me to name three—Joanna Russ, Jenny Wolmark, and Wendy Pearson.

Like that excellent party game ”What are the ten best (or worst) sf novels?” I agree that we could play ”which essay?” hour after hour and year after year (which of course we do, which is both what makes our professional conversation simultaneously so much fun and so fundamentally frustrating). But if Speculations on Speculation’s central topic is ”to deal with the ways in which science fiction has been envisioned, interpreted, re-envisioned, and re-interpreted,” then it is absurd to ignore one of the most vital, most telling ways that sf has been conceptualized and debated. Here, for instance, is how Pearson convincingly frames the point: ”Science fiction’s task, often, is to make visible to us the unthinking assumptions that limit human potentiality; epistemologies of sexuality are just as binding and just as important to the construction of any future society as are epistemologies of science” (159). Race, gender, and sexuality may not be sf’s only concern, but to exclude them is a serious failure of the editors’ judgment.

Within the sections and their selections, some obviously better choices could have been made, especially in ”Excavation” and ”Anticipation.” Despite its pleasantly colloquial accessibility, ”Anticipation” is by far the book’s weakest section. If this section is ”the shape of things to come,” then why include Swanwick’s taxonomic summary from 1986 enumerating the factional camps of the 1980s? While it may well be one of sf’s delightful oxymorons, I don’t think the editors actually intended us to ”anticipate the past.” Another inexplicable frustration of the essay concerns its title, ”A User’s Guide to the Postmoderns,” since Swanwick is blissfully unconcerned with defining the conceptual category of postmodernism. Kelly’s account of slipstream is similarly less concerned with the concept than in compiling a chatty list. Both of these essays first appeared in Asimov’s, and a tone that was probably usefully appropriate for that context seems misplaced in a collection with Suvin, Scholes, and Delany. The third essay of this section, however, Berman’s ”Science Fiction without the Future,” is quite worthy of inclusion. She rightly laments sf’s ”declining relevance” (342), resulting from the recent nostalgic settings and even elegiac tone of much sf, as if an earlier techno-scientific optimism about the future were now impossible to envision; she attributes the phenomenon to ”anxieties experienced by baby boomers at a particular historical moment” (333). While an acutely stimulating observation, it nevertheless excludes such trends as the British Boom’s future fever, even though her essay initially appeared in 2001.

It’s especially in this final section that I’d prefer some alternates, such as Gary Wolfe’s own ”Evaporating Genre,” a justly celebrated essay from a celebrated collection (Edging Into the Future [2002]). Broadly but persuasively focused on the inevitable evolutionary change within fantastic literatures, this single essay makes a significant contribution to our continuing conversation about sf. Another possible example is Roger Luckhurst’s vigorous reassessment of legitimation anxiety—”The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic.” (Add your favorites here.) While such titles might not actually predict the shape of things to come, they might better leave us with strong articulations of the central intellectual problems. As Gunn and Candelaria remark on their first page about their hopes for the text’s effect, they wish to suggest ”some of the benefits inherent in the uncertainties of definition, the desirability of leaving room for play in our understanding.”

Coupled with reference works such as Clute and Nicholls’ Encyclopedia or Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder (now updated in a fifth edition, 2005); lucid and intelligent overviews such as Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn’s The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003); and perhaps something that also gives some detailed close reading in representative titles, such as Landon’s Science Fiction since 1900 (1995, 2002), Speculations on Speculation could be a part of an excellent course of essential reading on the genre and theory of sf.

Indeed, careful reading of the two volumes under review could certainly help counter some of the basic legitimation anxiety that continues to mark, and mar, our field.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Landon, Brooks. Science Fiction after 1990: From Steam Man to the Stars. 1995. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Luckhurst, Roger. ”The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic.” SFS 21.1 (March 1994): 35-60.
Pearson, Wendy. ”Science Fiction and Queer Theory.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003. 149-60.
Sanders, Joe. ”Oh Yeah? Who Says So?” SFS 30.1 (March 2003): 101-08.
Slusser, George, and Gary Westfahl, eds. Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy. Westport: Greenwood, 2002.
Wolfe, Gary K. ”Evaporating Genre.” Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation. Ed. Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 2002. 11-29.

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