Science Fiction Studies

#19 = Volume 6, Part 3 = November 1979

Carlo Pagetti

Twenty-Five Years of Science Fiction Criticism in Italy (1953-1978)

1. The 1950s.The first issue of the SF-novel series "Romanzi d'Urania" featuring Clarke's The Sands of Mars appeared in October 1952. The intentions of Mondadori, one of the biggest publishers in Italy, were clearly to reach a new stratum of readers, beyond the many thousand addicts of the "gialli" (yellow-cover paperbacks) devoted to crime and detective stories. These new readers were expected to be young, interested in technology and the development of the sciences, and as far as fiction is concerned, uncritical and naive, as the short introductions to each issue of "Urania" made abundantly clear.1

The academic circles were, of course, only too ready to ignore the new phenomenon labelled by Giorgio Monicelli, first editor of "Urania," as fantascienza, a genial neologism which has since been exploited in many different contexts. The Italian idealistic tradition in cultural studies, originated by Benedetto Croce, could not approve of a seemingly rootless, mass or popular literary system, while the Marxist critics, theoretically more perceptive, looked rather suspiciously at the ideological implications of a literature heavily indebted to Anglo-American models. Only an "irregular" scholar and poet, Sergio Solmi, waded valiantly in in Nuovi argomenti (a literary magazine edited by, among others, Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini) with a brilliant and sympathetic acknowledgment of the potential and actual relevance of "a new monstrous mythology," "a collective utopia." He compared it to the Renaissance genre of heroic poetry, arguing that SF, born out of the positivistic creed as a reaction to the decay of older values at the end of the 19th century, is exploding into a galaxy of new authors and new literary conventions.2 However, in the fifties Solmi was a remarkable exception to dull commentary and utter silence, broken only by the harsh irony of people such as the essayist (and later admirer of Tolkien's saga) Elémire Zolla, who emphasized the childishness and intellectual simplicity of the SF fans, and, indeed, of the whole genre.3

2. The 1960s. It was scarcely an accident that, at the beginning of the sixties, two "progressive" intellectuals, concretely engaged in political activity with the Italian Communist Party, Laura Conti and Augusto Illuminati, approached SF with serious insight, trying to analyze the socio-cultural patterns of the genre.4 Illuminati's interpretation of Van Vogt's "The Enchanted Village," though questionable, is a lively example of textual reading. Broadly speaking, the sixties were dominated by sociological or socio-cultural preoccupations, spreading from a fresh ideological sensibility and from the discovery of American critics such as Leslie Fieldler. Umberto Eco, in a brief essay in his collection Apocalittici e integrati, defined SF as "allegorical literature with didactic intent," which must be dealt with through its contents and its character as "consumer literature" (letteratura di consumo), not as a new experimental art.5 Its origins should be sought in the Enlightenment tradition of the satirical pamphlet, which Vonnegut and other contemporary SF authors have rediscovered.6 In Nuovi riti, nuovi miti GilloDorfles was less sure of the presence of traditional literary modes and forms: what is relevant in SF, according to him, is the recurrence of certain themes and conventions, which are "typical of our Age."7

The inner ring of SF readers was shocked in 1962 by the translation of Amis's New Maps of Hell (as Nuove mappe dell'inferno). Amis's attention to the satirical and social values of SF found friends and foes, and a full-scale, though somewhat narrow-minded, debate burst out in the Italian magazines, such as Galassia and later Gamma (both pro-Amis), and the short-lived but brilliant Futuro (anti-Amis). This too testified to the urgent need for a coherent critical attitude. SF fandom responded by elaborating its own brand of criticism, mainly informative and historical. Its beginnings are marked by the brief book La fantascienza by the SF writer Lino Aldani, and by the introductions and short articles of Roberta Rambelli, editor of Galassia and herself a prolific SF writer.8 The first SF magazine where criticism acquired the dignity of independent status, not restricted to the praising of the narrative material selected by the magazine, was certainly Gamma (1965-1968), on which together with Vittorio Spinazzola and Valentino De Carlo, I collaborated while still an undergraduate working on a thesis on American SF -- most likely the first such thesis in Italy -- which was defended in 1967 at the State University of Milan. Other young people more or less connected with fandom who showed a strong interest in SF criticism were Riccardo Valla in Turin, Gianfranco De Turris and Sebastiano Fusco in Rome, and -- in the late sixties -- Vittorio Curtoni and Gianni Montanari in Piacenza.

3. The early 1970s. The early seventies marked a watershed in Italian SF criticism, establishing SF as a worthwhile subject of study and research. In Franco Ferrini's Che cosa è la fantascienza, the socio-cultural approach, animated by a perceptive ideological analysis, became much more complex; while in Il senso del futuro, I tried to link some of the best US authors (Bradbury, Sheckley, Dick, Vonnegut) to the 19th-century romance.9 My book was influenced by H. Bruce Franklin's Future Perfect, but also by the theories of Agostino Lombardo, an Italian scholar who identifies the distinctive mark of American fiction in the juxtaposition of a symbolical level derived from religious attitudes and a realistic level mirroring everyday life and secular mores.10 As for Che cosa è la fantascienza, this is an extraordinary essay of 150 pages, crammed with intuitions and ideas, many of them crying aloud for a more lengthy development. According to Ferrini, SF, through the ever-present concept of Progress (or Doom), enforces the idea that history cannot be changed or modified.11 The acquisition of a new reality does not embody the discovery of its negative side, and is therefore basically false: "social" SF and dystopia, with their ambiguous defense of older values, are fake "progressive" literature, just as SF monsters "are monsters without any obsession, and therefore they are not even monsters."12

Both Ferrini's book and mine appeared in 1970, and in the same year Riccardo Valla and I edited a special issue of the review Nuova presenza, devoted to SF and especially to J.G. Ballard, who appeared to us as its culminating point.13 Ferrini continued to insist on the literary quality of the best SF texts also in the long introduction to the critical anthology La musa stupefatte, the only volume of this kind published in Italy to date.14

It was becoming increasingly clear that SF had to be considered in relation to the wider field of modern literature. In 1974, Ruggero Bianchi examined SF in the context of contemporary American fiction. In a long chapter of his book La dimensione narrativa,15 he stressed the vitality of SF, but also the need for going beyond some of the well-established critical clichés and taking a fresh approach (e.g., to the "Faustian myth" which would connect SF with the Romantic tradition). In the following year Bianchi, together with Valerio Fissore and other Turin scholars, edited a book of essays by various hands, Utopia e fantascienza. the first consistent, though not entirely successful, attempt to build up a school of SF studies.16 Certainly the University of Turin remains one of the strongholds of Italian SF criticism, though work is in progress also at other academic institutions.17

In recent years the growth of critical consciousness has been also favored by the translation of French and English texts, although the more advanced work of Ketterer, Scholes, and Suvin has up to now escaped the recognition it deserves.18 In this sense, one can consider encouraging, though a bit peripheral, the translation of Northrop Frye's The Secular Scripture, with an interesting introduction by Giovanna Capone: in his preface to the Italian edition Frye mentions "contemporary SF" as one of the main fields of reference in the book.19

4. Today. These last years have witnessed manifold, but not always fully satisfactory, responses to the problematics of SF: except, maybe, for Vallerio Fissore and Franco Ferrini (who have not been regularly writing about SF), the approach is generally more empirical than theoretical. Most of the critics coming from fandom are not able to overcome the limitations of content-paraphrase and positivism, while among the academics a good theoretical background is still too seldom matched by an extensive knowledge of the texts.

Moreover, up to now, only scholars of American literature have manifested a deep interest in SF: so far as I know we do not have Slavists studying Russian or Polish SF, or Romance scholars probing into Verne or modern French SF. On the whole, the gap between historians, biographers, and positivists (usually working inside the field) on the one hand, and theoreticians, sociologists, and "literary" critics (usually academics) on the other, has not yet been bridged. Some aspects of SF which are specifically Italian still await critical treatment. The sociology of SF in Italy has been completely neglected: who reads SF in Italy? Who sells SF? Nor do we have a real history of SF in our country. We do have, though, a few competent people working in the field of cinema: in this connection, Franco La Polla is worth mentioning for the insight which allows him to place SF film production in the context of American cinematic art generally.20

The one important SF magazine currently published in Italy, Robot, devotes a certain number of pages to "criticism," but again, the term covers here many different meanings: pieces of general information, small bibliographies, comments, and biographical notes. Despite the dangerous tendency to an amateurish reductive criticism which tries to take in the whole career of a prolific author in four of five pages, Robot, may prove to have the same function Gamma had a decade before in helping the growth of a few promising critics. One of the editors, Giuseppe Lippi, is worth mentioning even now, as he is responsible for some remarkable work on Lovecraft along with introductions to translations of novels by other writers. Another positive development is taking place in the hardback editions, usually issued by "specialized" publishers, like Nord, Fanucci, or Armenia (and by their predecessor in the sixties, the SF Book Club) and containing critical prefaces or introductions stretching beyond the narrow bounds of the historical-cum-informative.21 But when the Milan-based Nord Publ. devotes a whole series of texts to criticism, the results are largely disappointing: both Montanari's outline of British SF and Curtoni's history of Italian SF suffer the old limitations of the fandom -- a lack of clear methodology and adequate bibliography, culminating in the tendency toward inflationary evaluations of SF texts.22 While the first part of Montanari's book is the history of SF repeated once again without any particular new insight and the second part offers an all too superficial profile of some famous names (leaving out Aldiss), Curtoni considers only the "ghetto" authors -- who are on the whole, with due respect to their craftmanship, minor writers in comparison with Buzzati, Morselli, and Calvino. Much more rewarding is the work of Inisero Cremaschi, who has become one of the more interesting Italian SF writers in his own right, but also the herald of a "national renaissance" in SF -- about which I daresay I am a bit skeptical.23

While older writers such as Dick and Ballard, and newer ones like Delany, Disch, and Le Guin, are practically unknown beyond the specialized criticism, a possibly exaggerated accent has been recently laid on Asimov as the best representative of values and conventions in contemporary American SF. Here a sociocultural approach was in a sense unavoidable, and it can, in fact, be found both in the positive appreciation of Asimov by Ruggero Bianchi and in the more severe critiques by Alessandro Portelli. Bianchi's perceptive analysis of The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, the Foundation trilogy, and the robot stories, pinpoints Asimov's awareness of the impact of technological progress on everyday life. According to Bianchi, the covenant between man and machine, in its various phases, is an allegory of the choice between anarchic individualism and the need for a programmed world order which modern society has to face. As a positivistic scientist, Asimov believes that a technocratic society will ultimately emerge; he does not trust the "irrational" masses; and he is interested in the psychology and behavior of the power-holders, who create and control machines, as well as in the ideological and psychoanalytical implications of the future world, with its gigantic over- or under-ground urban structures.24

Some of the main themes examined by Alessandro Portelli are remarkably similar to those observed by Bianchi, though a few points about the use of linguistic devices and the SF "rhetoric" of Asimov are undoubtedly different. According to Portelli, in Asimov's fiction the present and the capitalistic order are dressed up as utopia, i.e. an idealistic and spatial expansion of Capital. This brilliant conclusion leads Portelli to an over-simplified evaluation of SF as a totally reactionary genre, which skillfully inverts the ordinary processes of change: "When they invent a world from point zero, writers of SF pay attention to the chemical composition of the atmosphere, for example, but neglect to tell us about the composition, say, of corporation executive boards. Social relationships tend to appear as natural facts; the stars and the air, by contrast, are subjected to infinite changes."25

The symposium on SF criticism held in Palermo last October with the participation of many outstanding foreign critics (see the note in SFS No. 17) should mark a turning point in the affirmation of SF criticism in Italy, though the gap between "specialists" and "outsiders" was apparent even in Palermo.26

Some of us have been trying for years to start a magazine exclusively devoted to SF criticism, but, beyond financial and other practical difficulties, it will be a big problem indeed to keep it at the high standard required today to compete successfully with our Canadian, American, and British colleagues. And the use of Italian is a further liability, as our native language seems on the verge of extinction, from an international point of view. Anyway, at the first National Congress of the Italian Association of English Studies (A.I.A.), held in Rome in April 1978, SF has received full critical recognition.27

5. Poe, Wells. Only very recently has Italian criticism begun analyzing Poe's fiction in the light of SF.28 In Bianchi's critical anthology E.A. Poe: dal gotico alla fantascienza (1978), Valerio Fissore examines the influence of Poe on Gernsback's Amazing Stories and Riccardo Valla employs a broad psychoanalytical perspective to deal with narrative devices used by Poe and later rediscovered by other writers of SF. Both critics look upon the effective link between Poe and 20th-century SF with a good deal of skepticism.29

Wells's "scientific romances" too have enjoyed only limited attention in Italy. Paradoxically, the most relevant contributions to understanding the relation between Wells and SF published in Italy have been translations of foreign criticism.30 A happy exception has been Romolo Runcini, who has lucidly placed the Wellsian "scientific romance" in the context of the 19th-century growth of a literature that is both popular and yet ideologically dominated by the ruling class.31 Bruno Sabatini's H.G. Wells, pioniere della fantascienza is largely indebted to Bergonzi's The Early H.G. Wells, and applies moralistic-cum-didactic criteria to the evaluation of Wells's contribution to SF -- which the author does not seem to have read extensively, anyway.32 The rediscovery of Jules Verne as significant novelist is also a very recent matter and has not yet produced the stimulating results we have seen in France.


1. On the cultural policy of "Urania," see the articles by Andreina Negretti, Riccardo Valla, and myself in Luigi Russo, ed., Vent'anni di fantascienza in Italia (Palermo, 1978).

2. Sergio Solmi, "Divagazioni sulla 'science fiction,' l'utopia e il tempo," Nuovi argomenti (Nov.-Dec. 1953): 1-28; this and other essays on SF have been republished in his Della favola, dei viaggio e di altre cose (Milan-Naples, 1971) and Saggi sul fantastico (Turin, 1978).

3. See Elémire Zolla, Eclissi dell'intellettuale (Milan, 1959); 58-59.

4. Laura Conti, "Alla ricerca delle radici storiche e psicologiche del racconto di fantascienza," Problemi del socialismo (Feb. 1961): 171-88; Augusto Illuminati, "SF americana ovvero l'ideologia del possibile," Il contemporaneo (Dec. 1961): 58-75. In these years Elio Vittorini, interviewed by Inisero Cremaschi, showed a mixed attitude towards SF, complaining about its "gratuitousness" and quoting Gulliver's Travels as the great example to follow (see Inisero Cremaschi, ed., Futuro: il meglio di una mitica rivista di fantascienza [Milan, 1978], p. 338).

5. Umberto Eco, Apocalittici e integrati (Milan, 1977; first ed. 1964), p. 373

6. Umberto Eco, Preface to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Le sirene di Titano, (Piacenza, 1965).

7. Gillo Dorfles, "La fantascienza e i suoi miti," in his Nuovi riti, nuovi miti (Turin, 1965), pp. 207-230.

8. Lino Aldani, La fantascienza (Piacenza, 1962); Roberta Rambelli and Andrea Canal, "Introduction" to their Fantascienza: terrore o verita? (Milan, 1962). On a short history of SF magazines and fanzines in Italy see Gian Filippo Pizzo, "Profilo storico," in Luigi Russo, ed. (see note 1), pp.8-17.

9. Franco Ferrini, Che cosa è la fantascienza (Rome, 1970); Carlo Pagetti, Il senso del futuro: la fantascienza nella letteratura americana (Rome, 1970).

10. See Agostino Lombardo, Realismo e simbolismo (Rome, 1957) and La ricerca del vero (Rome, 1961).

11. Franco Ferrini (note 9), pp. 54 ff.

12. Ibidem, pp. 69-70 and 86.

13. See Carlo Pagetti, "SF: da Swift a Ballard," and Riccardo Valla, "Introduzione a Ballard," in Nuova presenza, No. 37-38(1970): 1-9 and 21-25.

14. Franco Ferrini, introductory essay to "La Musa stupefatta" o della fantascienza (Messina-Florence, 1974), pp. 7-68.

15. Ruggero Bianchi, "L'assurdo logico," in his La dimensione narrativa: ipotesi sul romanzo americano (Ravenna, 1974), pp. 157-213.

16. Utopia e fantascienza (Turin, 1975); see my review in SFS No.8: 91-92.

17. Giorgio Spina has published his lectures for a university course given in Genoa as Utopia e satira nella fantascienza inglese (Genoa, 1974). In the English Department at the University of Pescara courses on American SF have been held both by myself and Leo Marchetti, while Francesco Marroni reviews SF books regularly in the monthly Informatore librario. Oriana Palusci is the author of an essay on women in Le Guin's fiction to be published in the forthcoming first issue of Rivista di utopia e narrative fantastiche, edited by Riccardo Valla in Turin.

18. Jean Gattégno, Saggio sulla jantascienza (Milan, 1973); Jacques Sadoul, Storia della fantascienza (Milan, 1975), with a good Appendix by Riccardo Valla, "La science-fiction in Italia," pp. 357-63; Brian Aldiss, Un milione di anni fa (Milan, 1975); Alexei and Cory Panshin, Mondi interiori: storia della fantascienza (Milan, 1978), to which I wrote a short introduction, "La critica anglo-americana della fantascienza," pp. v-x, in order to make the Italian readers at least superficially acquainted with the most recent and important SF criticism.

19. Northrop Frye, "Preface to the Italian edition," La scrittura secolare (Bologna, 1978), p. 17.

20. See Franco La Polla, "Poetiche della nostalgia," in his Il nuovo cinema americano (Venice, 1978), pp. 136-39 and 151-62; see also the more exhaustive but uneven two volumes by Giovanni Mongini, Storia del cinema di fantascienza (Rome, 1977).

21. See H. P. Lovecraft, Il guardiano della soglia (Rome, 1977), with essays by Gianfranco De Turris, Sebastiano Fusco, Claudio De Nardi, and Giuseppe Lippi; Ruggero Bianchi, "Lo specchio e lo schermo: l'immagine come essenza," an introduction to David G. Compton's L'occhio insonne (Milan, 1977); Valerio Fissore, "Ossi di seppia," an introduction to Philip K. Dick's Episodio temporale (Flow my Tears... ; Milan, 1977); Giuseppe Lippi, introduction to Barry Malzberg's Oltre Apollo (Milan, 1978); Riccardo Valla, preface to A. E. Van Vogt's Le armi di Isher (Milan, 1978); Carlo Pagetti, "Anarres dopo Anarres," an introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin's I reietti dell'altro pianeta (The Dispossessed; Milan, 1976) and "Introduction" to Philip K. Dick's La svastica sul sole (The Man in the High Castle; Milan, 1977).

22. Gianni Montanari, Ieri, il futuro: origini e sviluppo della fantascienza inglese (Milan, 1977); Vittorio Curtoni, Le firontiere dell'ignoto: vent'anni di fantascienza italiana (Milan, 1977).

23. See Introduction to Inisero Cremaschi, ed. (see note 4); also Cremaschi, "Cronistoria della fantascienza italiana," an introduction to Universo e dintorni: ventinove racconti italiani di fantascienza (Milan, 1978), and my "Introduction" to Vittorio Curtoni (see note 22), and my short review of Cremaschi's collection of short stories in L'Unitý (Jan. 2,1979).

24. Ruggero Bianchi, Asimov (Florence, 1977); see especially ch. 3 and ch. 6.

25. Alessandro Portelli, "Il presente come utopia: la narrativa di Issac Asimov," Calibano (1978): 138-184.

26. See my comments in "Convegno di Palermo sulla fantascienza e la critica, " L'iinformatore librario (Jan. 1979):11-15.

27. See my "J.G. Ballard: sperimentalismo e mitologia del futoro," now in Atti del I congresso nazionale dell'associazione italiana di anglistica published as a special issue of Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli, Sezione Germanica, 21, Nos. 1-2 (1978):99-109.

28. But compare the chapter "Il laboratorio di Aylmer e il vascello di Gordon Pym" in my Il senso del futuro (see note 9,), pp. 57-84.

29. Valerio Fissore, "Poe e la fantascienza?" and Riccardo Valla, " 'La fantascienza' di Poe: I'antilogica come copertura," in Ruggero Bianchi, ed., E.A. Poe: dal gotico alla fantasicenza (Milan, 1978), pp. 69-76 and 285-98.

30. I am thinking of Darko Suvin's "Grammatica della forma e critica della realtý," Strumenti critici, No. 18 (June 1972): 197-217, and Julij Kagarkickij's H. G. Wells: La vita e le opere (Milan, 1974). In his "Preface to the Italian edition," the Russian critic stresses his conviction that SF is an important literary medium, especially if linked to the Wellsian tradition. Among the best "disciples" of Wells he adduces Čapek, Bradbury, and, strangely enough, Vonnegut. A more complete bibliography of Italian criticism on Wells's "scientific romances" will be available in my essay "The First Men in the Moon: H. G. Wells e la strategia narrativa dei scientific romances," to be published in the forthcoming issue of Studi inglesi.

31. Romolo Runcini, Illusione e paura nel mondo borghese da Dickens a Orwell (Bari, 1968). Runcini has also published an essay on Aldous Huxley in Vito Amoruso and Francesco Binni, eds., I contemporanei: letteratura inglese, I (Rome, 1978), pp. 641-66, while I have tried to relate Forster's "The Machine Stops" to utopian literature in "Una utopia negativa di E.M. Forster," Studi inglesi, No. 1 (1974): 203-30. Wells and a whole army of forerunners appear in a sociologico-ideological more than a literary dimension also in Francesco Mei, La giungla del futuro: guida al mondo di domani attraverso la fantascienza (Rome, 1978).

32. Bruno Sabatini, H.G. Wells: pioniere della fantascienza (Florence, 1969).

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