Science Fiction Studies

#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987

Carlo Pagetti

SF Criticism in Italy, In and Out of the University*

[*Grateful thanks to Dr Marie-Christine Hubert, who translated the quotations from Italian. For a better understanding of the following pages, I refer the reader to my previous reviews on Italian SF criticism published by SFS, especially to "25 Years of SF Criticism in Italy (1953-1978)," SFS #19 (1979):320-26.]

SF criticism in Italy is taking well-meaning but not always impressive steps forward. At the university level, there is still a strong inclination to consider SF as an intriguing but basically ambiguous field of research, placed somewhere between mass-media culture--boosted up, but also disgraced, by the Spielberg gang--and contemporary debris derived from nobler literary loins (gothic and utopian fiction, etc.).

The intensive and sometimes exclusive use of Todorov's Introduction à la Littérature Fantastique is a clear token of a certain kind of only partially informed attitude towards SF. From this point of view a very interesting book is I piaceri dell 'immaginazione, edited by Bianca Maria Pisapia (University of Rome), which collects a fair number of good essays on theoretical problems connected with the definition of "fantastic" and "fantastic literature" and on a few English and American authors belonging to this vast area. We move from Swift to the Gothic novel, from Brockden Brown, Poe, and Hawthorne to Mark Twain and James, but SF as a recognizable entity (I don't say genre) never materializes, not even as a part of the 19th-century American romance (despite the works of, say, Bruce Franklin and David Ketterer). In an ambitious and elaborate essay by Stefano Gnisci  "Reale Immaginario Fantastico" (Pisapia, pp. 36-62) "so-called science-fiction" (p. 59) is simply one of the many tunes the complex relationship between Realism and Imagination (quizzically labelled RI) is played upon: "a polymorphous universe in which the fabulous and the gothic, romance and science-fiction, utopian and 'black visions,' the supernatural and terror, the esoteric and the enigmatic, ancient times and the future meet and are tossed together on the waves of the RI sea" (p. 55). A mare magnum indeed--or rather, a Poesque mare tenebrarum. According to Dr. Gnisci, any critical attempt aimed at creating artificial boundaries among genres belonging to the same "magnetic field" of 20th-century Fantastic Literature should be defined through the two opposing forces represented respectively by Kafka and by Borges. Other authors can only move towards the former focus or the latter, be they called Wells or Meyrink, Lovecraft or Vonnegut, Lem or Calvino, Tolkein or Stapledon (p. 61). (Lists made up at random are peculiarly patchy. What happened, for example to Bulgakov or to Blixen?)

All the same, brilliant insights are extremely valuable when they stand on the solid rock of an exhaustive bibliography--except that the bibliography devoted to SF at the end of I piaceri dell 'immaginazione (pp. 310-16) is erratic and far from complete. The contributions by Teresa de Lauretis, both in Italian and in English, are ignored, while a team of popular journalists like De Turris and Fusco is given three entries (maybe because they live and work in Rome?). Patrick Parrinder is excluded; James Blish is there with More Issues at Hand, but not with the previous Issues at Hand. Lois and Stephen Rose's The Shattered Ring is another casualty, as are old but valuable texts such as Of Worlds Beyond by L.A. Eshback and Science Fiction Now edited by Basil Davenport. Although SFS is dutifully mentioned, I cannot find any hint whatsoever of Foundation or Extrapolation. And why is Ketterer's New Worlds for Old placed in a separate section on "Anglo-American Literature," together with the "classical" works of Fiedler and Levin?

So SF is seen simply as a small and not particularly exciting area of "Imagination," but is also considered--even more unfortunately--only as a corrupted development of the great utopian and dystopian tradition. This is apparent when one remembers that in the wealth of symposia and publications devoted to Orwell in the crucial year 1984, nobody in Italy really thought it worthwhile to deal with the relationship between Orwell and post-war SF. Stefano Manferlotti (University of Naples), author of brilliant essays and books on Orwell, gives equal room in his Anti-Utopia to Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, and Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, but carefully avoids all allusions to the term science fiction. When he quotes in a footnote Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, he does so while strongly disagreeing with Suvin's "extremely risky [azzardatissima] hypothesis" that literary utopia is "the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction" (p. 31). As a coherent consequence of this attitude, Dr. Manferlotti forgets the vital anti-utopian line of SF in the '50s, to which attention was drawn by Kingsley Amis's New Maps of Hell and, in Italy, by Ruggero Bianchi and myself at least. If Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is actually mentioned by Manferlotti a couple of times, no reference is made to Vonnegut's Player Piano and Cat's Cradle or to The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, while Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar is relegated to a footnote in a long list of modern utopias placed on imaginary islands. Manferlotti, to be sure, limits himself to British authors and to a thorough analysis of the British literary and cultural milieu. This decision, however, is itself questionable, especially as it leads him to totally ignore Le Guin, (whose concept of "ambiguous utopia" he nevertheless makes use of).

The problem is that even a good critic--such as Manferlotti undoubtedly is--adheres to a credo that not only separates utopian/dystopian fiction from SF, but also considers SF as a sort of bastard, worthless legacy (something like Lear's Edmund) good for a quotation or two, and otherwise to be brushed aside. Most illustrative of this attitude is the critical stance of Vita Fortunati (University of Bologna), Italy's most brilliant and active scholar in the field of English utopian literature. Some of her statements sound like a death-knell. In her lecture "Dall'utopia alla fantascienza," subsequently published in an impressive miscellaneous volume on "the forms of" utopia, we discover that SF writers are deeply interested in technological progress, but not in any of its real political or social implications (p. 263). There is not even, in SF, a convincing image of the future world, because "the present where the SF writer lives and works is paradoxically presented as a society of the future, what we would call a utopia" (p. 264). The scientific spirit itself, as embodied in SF, is utter sham: "It is really paradoxical that in science fiction, where one would expect to find a celebration of science and a rational view of problems and phenomena, one finds instead a backsliding towards magic, alchemy, or in any case something irrational and possibly even religious" (p. 265).

The fact that both Fortunati and Manferlotti underestimate the impact of H.G. Wells, whose scientific romances constitute a necessary link between 19th-century utopias and 20th-century anti-utopias and SF, is critically dangerous in my opinion. Fortunati's conclusions do not seem to focus on a particular work, nor to distinguish between average products and novels by Vonnegut, Dick, Ballard, Le Guin, and the like: "We are dealing with a type of literature which is generally conservative, consoling and evasive. From a literary point of view it can be said that science-fiction novels, unlike utopian novels, seem to be mostly the kind of work which cannot be read on more than one level" (p. 268).

Fortunati and Manferlotti are specialists in the field of English literature; and for that reason, they tend to share the cautious response that many Italian intellectuals had in the '50s and '60s (and that some of them still have today) towards a literary genre largely identified with American mass culture and its cheap mythology of technological triumph. On the other hand, scholars of North American literature, in Italy at least, seem to be more open-minded (or, if you want, less selective). This is true not only of those familiar to readers of SFS, Alessandro Portelli and myself, but also of Ruggero Bianchi (University of Turin) and Franco La Polla (University of Bologna). By the same token, however, their fascination with contemporary and post-modernist forms of culture pushes these critics towards folk-music and urban experience (Portelli), avant-garde theater (Bianchi), or TV and cinema (La Polla).

On the whole, and more so than within the Anglo-American academic circles, SF emerges from Italian criticism of it as a rich cognitive mine. This is especially evident in the interdisciplinary context of the travel narrative explored in a special issue (March 1984) of Il lettore di provincia, edited by Bruno Pompili (Professor of French Literature, University of Bari). Among the contributors happily joining forces, we find V. Fortunati on Paltock's Peter Wilkins, B. Pompili on Defontenay's Star, B. Brunetti on the beautiful Cancroregina by Tommaso Landolfi, A. Catalano on Calvino's Cosmicomics, C. Pagetti on P.K. Dick.

The one magazine in Italy wholly devoted to SF criticism is La città e le stelle, for which I am editorially responsible. Five issues have, with much travail, appeared so far, the last of them devoted exclusively to SF criticism. For better or for worse, La città e le stelle is certainly the one place where university-based critics proceed with their investigation of SF. Here I would particularly single out friends and colleagues both at Pescara's Università Gabriele D'Annunzio (D. Guardamagna, L. Marchetti, F. Marroni, O. Palusci, N. Vallorani, S. Valori) and elsewhere in Italy (Laura Di Michele, Naples; Alessandro Monti, Turin; Fernando Porta, Salerno).

It is outside the academic field that we must look for other signs of vitality. There, too, for reasons which sometimes seem in contrast to the academic highbrow attitude, but which are equally limiting, SF is considered a minor subgenre. Consider the views of one of our best writers and literary journalists, Oreste Del Buono, who has a strong and active experience with comics, detective fiction, cinema, and TV, but maybe not as strong a grasp of SF as a literary genre. Del Buono, in his Introduction to the Italian translation of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, proclaims: "Suvin supports the idea that SF is of noble origin, but, sad to say, SF, like most widely-distributed subgenres produced by the publishing trade, has coarse if not ignoble origins" (p. vii). The real starting point is, for him, Gernsback's popular science and fiction, and, later on, the American pulp magazines of the '20s and '30s. For Del Buono, SF deserves no more than a merely sociological approach, and Suvin's opus deals with an imaginary SF, not with the "real" one: "Gernsback's SF is not really the SF to which Suvin has erected a monument. There appear to be almost no links between the two. Yet the only historical SF there is, is the coarse movement which was organized and publicized by the Luxemburg electrical engineer among fanatics like himself" (p. xiv). In a witty but clearly unsatisfactory conclusion to his Introduction, Del Buono invites his readers to consider The Metamorphoses as an SF novel in itself, written by an SF hero: "Try seeing Professor Darko Suvin as a character in or rather a hero of SF, one of those improbable heroes whose boundless passion for SF leads them to choose a difficult or practically impossible task and who, amazingly, reach their incredible goal" (pp. xiv-xv).

The translation of Suvin's Metamorphoses, printed in Italy by the highly reputed publishing house "Il Mulino," has been a major event on its own, as witnessed by the lively debate raised by reviewers for Alfabeta, L'Indice, and Tuttolibri. Other critical books on SF have been recently translated into Italian: Patricia S. Warrick's The Cybernetic Imagination in SF (as Il romanzo del futuro. Computer e robot nella narrativa di fantascienza [1984]), and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Language of the Night (as La fantascienza e la signora Brown [1985]). Works such as Robert M. Philmus's Into the Unknown will, I hope, be translated in the future, thus allowing a fresher and less conservative look at the link between utopia and SF and at the crucial role played by Wells's "scientific romances" (which I tried to emphasize again in a recent monograph of mine: I Marziani alla corte della Regina Vittoria [1986]).

The one recent Italian critical study worthy of notice is that of Antonio Caronia, a faithful connoisseur of SF, well known as a brilliant journalist, and, in the past, a left-wing controversialist. His Il Cyborg, although indebted to Warrick's Cybernetic Imagination, shows a great deal of personal research, together with a heartfelt involvement with postmodernist French criticism (Baudrillard, Lyotard, etc.) and with Freudian psychoanalysis. Il Cyborg is full of clever insights, though these are not always developed, perhaps owing to the limited number of pages allowed to the author. Caronia emphasizes the transformation of the human body into a sort of hybrid compound, seeing this transfiguration as one of the peculiar aspects of SF. He also understands it as a renewal of the old literary theme of identity: the fundamental differences between human and machine, natural and artificial intellect, tend to disappear and to be replaced by a new emotional and physical identity. "The body of man is naked" and the body of the cyborg "could be an allusion to one of man's oldest dreams: that of immortality" (p. 113). In Il Cyborg, the analysis of specific texts by C.L. Moore and James Tiptree Jr., Pohl, and Dick, implicitly points once again to the limits of a certain kind of criticism, where more often than not examples and quotations are carefully avoided, in order to deal with a too-vague and all-encompassing crop of novels and authors.

Equally deplorable is the cyclical discovery of SF as a "new" field of research. Maybe one has to deny historical development and knowledge of the past in order to be "postmodern" and fashionable. This is the case with Antonio Fabozzi and Gianni Mammoliti in their article in Alfabeta; they have to read David Brin to declare that SF (literature and film alike, without any differentiation) is all about "transmutation"--is, indeed, "a new modern nightmare" metaphorically connected with terminal cancer and anthropological mutations.

Of course, problems of criticism arise not only in Italy and in the study of SF. What Roger C. Schlobin complained about concerning the study of fantasy literature a couple of years ago can be quoted here as a useful memento to all the discoverers of the no longer "new" maps of hell, inside and outside the university: "People write about fantasy as if they were the first ever to do so. They gallop over significant earlier work, and each study cavorts in an intellectual vacuum. It's as if the past never existed" ("The Scholarship of Incidence: The Unfortunate State of Fantasy Scholarship," Extrapolation [1984]: 335).


Caronia, Antonio. Il Cyborg. Saggio sull'uomo artificiale. Roma-Napoli: Edizioni Theoria, 1985. 127pp. L.7,000.

Del Buono, Oreste. "Introduzione all'edizione italiana" di Darko Suvin, Le metamorfosi della fantascienza. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1985. xv + 376pp. L.30,000.

Fabozzi, Antonio, & Gianni Mammoliti. "Transmutazione," Alfabeta, 85, (June 1986):28-29.

Fortunati, Vita. "Dall'utopia alla fantascienza: la metamorfosi di un genere letterario," in L'utopia e le sue forme, ed. Nicola Matteucci (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1982), pp. 255-269 [353pp. in toto,] L.20,000.

Le Guin, Ursula K. La fantascienza e la signora Brown. [Trans. of The Language of the Night]. Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1985.

Manferlotti, Stefano. Anti-utopia. Huxley, Orwell, Burgess. Palermo: Sellerio, 1984. 157pp. L.12,000.

Pagetti, Carlo. I Marziani alla corte della Regina Vittoria. Pescara: Tracce, 1986.

Pisapia, Bianca Maria, ed. I piaceri dell'immaginazione. Studi sul fantastico. Roma: Bulzoni, 1984. 340pp. L.24,000.

Pompili, Bruno. "Il viaggio e il suo racconto," special issue of Il lettore di provincia, 56, (March 1984), 107pp. L.4,000.

Suvin, Darko. See Del Buono.

Warrick, Patricia S. Il romanzo del futuro. Computer e robot nella narrative di fantascienza. [Trans. of The Cybernetic Imagination in SF]. Bari: Dedalo, 1984.

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