Science Fiction Studies

#53 = Volume 18, Part 1 = March 1991


George Slusser

Le Guin and the Future of Science-Fiction Criticism

Bernard Selinger. Le Guin and Identity in Contemporary Fiction. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988. 196pp. $39.95.
Elizabeth Cummins. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Columbia: South Carolina UP, 1990. 216pp. $22.95.

At a moment when the production of academic books on SF seems to be slowing down, two full-length studies on Ursula Le Guin appear. To be sure, Selinger's, with copyright date of 1988, is not exactly hot off the press (indeed, with the recent demise of UMI's Research Press, it may no longer be available). But Cummins' book is brand new. Selinger, writing in the Studies in Speculative Fiction series, presents Le Guin, initially at least, as an SF writer; and Cummins is arguing throughout that many of Le Guin's major novels, including Always Coming Home, are SF. In which case, questions come to mind. Why, out of a field of so many SF writers, do critics choose Le Guin so often? Even more important, why, in contrast to many other SF author-studies, are books on Le Guin written the way they are? If, as Cummins and Selinger admit, Le Guin is an SF writer, why does neither critic pursue the implications of that assertion? Why, indeed, do they put her in contexts and engage in modes of discourse tending to deny her that status (along with its implications)? (Selinger, in fact, studiously avoids the issue of Le Guin's relation to SF altogether.) The answers that these two books suggest may shed significant light on the present nature of academic SF criticism generally.

Increasingly, Le Guin's work has become attractive to academic scholars of SF seeking to "legitimize" their field of study. This is seen in the fact that there are easily three times as many articles on her work in the field's specialized journals than on any other major figure, Heinlein and Asimov included. No wonder then, given this mass of criticism, that she has been noticed by the literary establishment at large and elevated to the status of "modern" writer per se. But almost never is she elevated as an SF writer, but rather in spite of her SF. Thus Harold Bloom, in the introduction to his 1986 volume of Modern Critical Views on Le Guin, can claim with characteristic eloquence that "Le Guin is the overwhelming instance of a superbly imaginative creator and major stylist who chose (or was chosen by) 'fantasy and science fiction.'" It never occurred to me to ask, when I wrote my Milford study of Le Guin's work in 1976, whether she, or any other writer I studied, chose or was chosen by SF. Despite the diversity of writers like Heinlein, Ellison, Bradbury, Clarke, and Le Guin, they were somehow accommodated by the form. It seemed then--and still seems now--that the task of SF criticism was to explore this "somehow." Academic SF criticism, however, appears intent on going in a different direction, and in sifting the field for writers to be claimed for the "great tradition." Bloom in fact, though hardly an SF critic, offers an example. Responding to Le Guin's own loaded statement that Philip K. Dick is SF's "own homegrown Borges," Bloom replies: "After reading Dick, one can only murmur that a literary critic is in slight danger of judging Dick to be 'our Borges' or of finding Dick in the same cosmos as Kafka, the Dante of our century." Judging from aspects of the two books in question here, it is Bloom's "murmur," rather than the cry of people like myself, that is being heard today as critics in this rebaptized context of "speculative fiction" take up Le Guin's work...and that of other SF writers.

Elizabeth Cummins, as the dust jacket of her book tells us, is a past officer of the Science Fiction Research Association and regularly teaches courses on SF. She is therefore, specifically, an SF scholar and critic. Her Le Guin book, however, appears in a series entitled "Understanding Contemporary American Literature" and supervised by Matthew J. Bruccoli, longtime editor of that notorious canon-enforcing organ The Dictionary of Literary Biography. This is a series that devotes entire volumes to individual writers like James Dickey, Denise Levertov, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon...and a volume apiece to "Chicano Literature" and "Contemporary American Science Fiction." This is the publishing context of Cummins' book on Le Guin. And the arithmetic is clear: this single volume, by itself, bears equal weight with the one on all other contemporary SF combined.

If we ignore the implications of its publishing context, Cummins' book is a thorough and well-organized introduction to Le Guin's work, in a general sense, such as it exists to date. The book is likely to be faulted for its "theoretical" thinness; but I found the unobtrusiveness, or absence, of theory a positive asset. The discussions of Le Guin's individual works are detailed and generally lucid, and are very cogently arranged in four groups or "worlds": Earthsea, the Hainish World, Orsinia, and--the most challenging category--the West Coast. Through her description of these places on Le Guin's fictional map, we get the sense of a single and dynamic literary personality evolving in different and yet complementary directions. And we see the American writer at work. Following the fantasy landscape of Earthsea and the cosmic vistas of the Hainish cycle, we have the Orsinian tales: "Though they suggest some of the most horrendous events in Western culture, the tales remind the reader that history is not only great events and rulers' decisions; it is also decisions of the individual to attain freedom to think, to write, to define oneself, to choose one's home or lifework or partner." This is a nice description of a particular, national strain of libertarian individualism. But it also, to my mind, describes the world-view of SF writers as disparate as Dick and Heinlein. Still, I would have wished that Cummins had explored more closely both the relationship of Le Guin's Orsinian vision to her own SF and to the American SF tradition in general.

The most provocative aspect of Cummins' book has to do in part with the sense that a "West Coast" vision is emerging in works from The Lathe of Heaven through "The New Atlantis" to Always Coming Home, but also with the statement that not only are all these works SF, but they are SF of a more radically alienating sort than anything else Le Guin has written. Cummins' detailed analysis of Coming Home is a fine piece of work, at all moments sensitive to a difficult text. I must admit that I had balked at reading this book. Cummins, however, not only explained the work and its place in Le Guin's opus in lucid fashion, but made me want to read the novel, which I did. I emerged from this experience with a renewed sense of Le Guin's excellence as a writer.

But I also emerged with numerous questions about why Coming Home should be called SF and how it is related to the SF tradition. Cummins may be instinctively right in claiming that the novel challenges the reader to consider it as SF; I wish, however, that she had pursued her initial insight, especially via comparisons between this huge, complex, and thoroughly uncompromising novel and other "indigestible" products of the SF tradition such as Heinlein's Number of the Beast. In terms of their world-view, or "ideology," the two works seem diametrically opposed to each other. But in relation to today's publishing industry, they are quite analogous, if only in the sense that they both defy all the "laws" of the fictional marketplace. For unlike any other current fiction I know, they draw upon a formidable array of literary and didactic devices almost certain to make them virtually unreadable today. There is something Tristram-Shandy-like about the elaboration of an increasingly subjective vision through a profusion of stories within stories and the objective-sounding layering of didactic essay upon essay. In light of such a comparison, SF is suddenly seen less as a genre than as a matrix or repository for such traditional forms as the roman tiroir, the Balzacian comedy, the massive cultural epics of Thomas Mann and Roger Martin du Gard. Had Cummins pursued some of the connections she suggested, she might thereby have given the reader a more specific sense of Le Guin's actual place in the SF tradition. Still, I am thankful for her making the suggestions--and thankful for the "neutrality", of her analysis as well. Given the "great writers" context of the series she is publishing in, she could, after all, have totally slanted her book the other way, abolishing even the mention of SF in connection with Le Guin's writing. She could have contented herself with snobbish allusions to the Dantes of our age. Even worse, she could have brought to bear one of the currently fashionable theoretical systems that are so adept at converting the traditional canon into their own particular canon--which is precisely the way Selinger treats Le Guin and SF. It is certain that SF criticism needs approaches that are theoretically solid. But they must be approaches that serve to organize and explicate the particular texts they deal with. Selinger's use of psychoanalytical theory doesn't do that. He tells me little about SF. Nor does he even do what Cummins offers to do: help the reader understand the particular writer Le Guin. Instead he overlays a cursory discussion of a few of her works-- arbitrarily chosen, it seems--with such a massive gloss of Lacanian and Kristevan jargon that the original text, like Swift's A Tale of a Tub, disappears under such arabesques.

This is a good example of the sort of exercise we see in woefully too many academic books today. It is writing that, chaining concept to concept in seemingly learned fashion, looks profound, but when challenged can only, like Plato's "dead discourse," say the same thing over and over, yielding up not absurd assumptions so much as none at all. "My name is nobody," it tells us; and yet this absence of name seems to give it the authority to name which writers are to be worthy of its "theory" and which are not. This is not canon-making, for that would be naming names. Instead what we have is the creation of a critical "hypertext," a thing that, by generating its own feedback, draws named texts into its erasure loop.

This method has proved especially fruitful in the case of living writers. Here the critic can throw his or her conceptual grid over the existing work in hopes that the writer in question will find this system so appealing that he or she will alter the forms of future texts in order to fit them into that system. This is apparently the relation developing between Delany and Reconstruction in the Nevron series. But what of Le Guin? Selinger's "reading" of Coming Home, for example, made me fear that she had indeed succumbed to this loop. But turning to her novel, I could see that this is patently not so.

Selinger is not writing about Le Guin and SF. As his title implies, he is using Le Guin as lead-in to a general discussion of "identity in contemporary fiction." Nor does the slippage stop here, for he goes on to equate the modern quest for identity with autism--and beyond that, with the artist's "refusal to enter the matrix of authorized speech" (4). Without wanting to be a mere literalist, it seems obvious to me that all of us, artist and nonartist alike, cannot refuse to enter this matrix unless we just don't want to communicate at all. This is simply inanity. But Selinger, Romantic that he is, sees here the inspired silence of insanity. Poetry, mysticism, and Le Guin's form, fantasy, are all modes of this insanity. To be sure, there is a clear "theoretical" line here, from Keats's "negative capability' to Sartre's "idiot de la famille." But never has theory revealed itself to be such fantasy. And never has an age been so in need of a Byron. For, if Selinger is an indication, we more than ever need to be reminded, as Byron reminded his generation, when speaking of Wordsworth's Betty Foy ("the idiot mother of 'an idiot boy'"), "That all who view 'the idiot in his glory'/Conceive the...[critic] the hero of the story."

Indeed, can we, LeGuin's readers, recognize her in Selinger's narrative? Would she recognize herself or her work in the following statement: "The artist is someone with no strong sense of identity and hence must constantly create and recreate variations on the rudimentary identity theme which was established in the earlier days of her existence" (7)? Were it not for the feminine article, I would not have known Selinger was talking about this particular artist at all. The same is true when I read his analysis of that most personal and stylistically demanding of her novels, Coming Home. Cummins' explication gave me precisely the opposite feel: of a strong sense of identity speaking through a controlled polyphony of fictional voices. She helps the text speak in its own voice, which is the basic task of criticism. Selinger, by contrast, lets everyone speak but the text--Derrida, Lacan, a host of theoretical voices, culminating with an absolute howler of a quotation, this from Alice Jardine: "This (re)union with the feminine is the endpoint of History--u-topia--where...God and his correlate the Subject are dead, money no longer circulates, and the phallus, as the ultimate metaphor in patriarchal culture, collapses into metonymic indifferentiation" (145). This, in relation to any Le Guin work I have read, is a stunning example of the figure that governs this brand of academic criticism: the emperor's new clothes.

In Selinger, we have a rhetorical exercise of very limited interest to readers of Le Guin...and of no interest whatsoever to the SF reader. In Cummins we have a well-written analysis of Le Guin's work. It is regrettable, however, that for the SF reader this book, too--if to a much lesser degree --is written in a historical vacuum. Selinger's book tells me that Le Guin has made it into the academic-theory loop. But its failure to grab Le Guin--her texts, when quoted, always seem to slip out of the theoretical noose--tells me that she is still a fiercely independent writer, a writer clearly unwilling to give in to the comfortable hermeneutics of such theorizing. Cummins' book, however, just as clearly shows me that Le Guin has entered Harold Bloom's "constellation" of modern writers--which for Bloom is a point of no return. To be fair, Cummins says, again and again, that Le Guin is still an SF writer; but Cummins seems ultimately unwilling to lead her reader back across the minefields of SF to us, the readers of the genre. Meanwhile, Le Guin constantly denies she has left SF behind. Since I incline to agree with her, I would like some concrete reasons from her critics for their not doing so. Reading Cummins' study suggested reasons to me, but left me to work them out.

If these two books on Le Guin are any indication, SF criticism has reached a major crossroad. Comparing Selinger with Cummins, we might say, with Yeats, that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." Those of Selinger's mind can dismiss SF altogether, fully convinced that it simply involves "the usual space ships, bug-eyed monsters, robots and mad scientists" (2). But in their reductive zeal they miss the richness of the SF field and its own system of interconnections just waiting to be explored. SF cannot be reduced to an iconic skeleton any more than Le Guin's rich work can. She gives us no space ships and bug-eyed monsters, but people with concrete names: Main and the Kesh--just as Heinlein gives us Luna City, and van Vogt the Silkies. Le Guin gives us precise prose rhythms. In the first line of Coming Home, for example, we read: "The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." And from the other side of the SF galaxy Gregory Benford, in his novel Timescape, answers, speaking of "all these unaccountable people, never loosening their grip on their hopes, and their strange human sense that no matter how the days moved through them, there always remained the pulse of things coming, the sense that even now there was yet still time." It is something like this antiphony that circumscribes SF as a field of texts wherein readers find themselves always coming home, back to the future. Le Guin still consciously inscribes herself in this field. And though light years may seem to separate her world-view, her style, her mindscape, from those of a Benford or Heinlein, the field still holds. Before seeking to take her out of that field, critics owe her--and SF--the courtesy of at least exploring the continuum and its fascinating interconnections.


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