Science Fiction Studies

#1 = Vol 1, Part 1 = Spring 1973



  • Robert M. Philmus. The Shape of Science Fiction: Through the Historical Looking Glass (J.O. Bailey. Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction; Roger Lancelyn Green. Into Other Worlds: Space-Flight in Fiction from Lucian to Lewis; Sam Moskowitz. Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction)

Robert Philmus

The Shape of Science Fiction: Through the Historical Looking Glass

J.O. Bailey. Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction. [Facsimile of original 1948 edition.] With a Foreword by Thomas D. Clareson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Roger Lancelyn Green. Into Other Worlds: Space-Flight in Fiction from Lucian to Lewis. UK 1958.

Sam Moskowitz. Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction. US 1963.

"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully."

"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: "my name means the shape I am .... With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."

In the study of a genre as such, Alice's doubt is an occupational hazard. Generic names must mean something. The problem SF poses in this regard is that its name is not, as it were, Humpty Dumpty but Alice. The name does not in itself and by convention evoke the "shape" and identity of what it designates; and because it does not, what science fiction designates must be identified--that is, stipulated. But stipulative definitions are open to the charge of being more or less arbitrary; and therein lies, in Humpty Dumpty's sense, the "glory"--meaning "a nice knock-down argument."

This is not to say that no consensus exists about what science fiction is and the shape or shapes it may assume. All three books whose reassessment here has been occasioned by the reprinting of J.O. Bailey's Pilgrims Through Space and Time undertake, at least in part, to define the shape of SF by examining the literary history of the genre, and all three agree, at least in part, on what works have a place in that history. Comparing the three books also reveals, however, that neither a general similarity in approach nor agreement on what specifically is to be approached suffices to guarantee similar conclusions about the shape SF has or should have. The differences arise from how the three authors variously arrange their material and what they choose to attend to.

With few exceptions, Sam Moskowitz organizes Explorers of the Infinite chronologically by author. Cyrano, Fitz-James O'Brien, Jules Verne, Frank Reade Jr., H.G. Wells, M.P. Shiel, E.R. Burroughs, A. Merritt, Karel Capek, Hugo Gernsback, H.P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, Philip Wylie, and Stanley G. Weinbaum have chapters named after them (as does Frankenstein). Within these chapters, at more or less appropriate chronological points, Moskowitz subordinates those whom, by implication, he considers lesser figures: Francis Godwin, Swift, George Griffith, Aldous Huxley, and so forth... (Stevenson, Bulwer-Lytton, Robert Cromie, Samuel Butler, Jack London, and E.M. Forster, among others, Moskowitz forbears to mention altogether).

Explorers offers rather uneven, though uniformly sketchy, thumbnail accounts of the SF Moskowitz deems important through the early 1950s. Preceding these synopses are often thumbnail biographical data on the author concerned. What relevance such data might have Moskowitz never makes clear, except insofar as his principle of organization implies that the shape of science fiction is to be found by investigating its shapers.

However questionable this thesis might be, his book conceals another still more questionable. In the chronological arrangement of Explorers, one begins to suspect a polemical purpose: an argument that SF "evolves" from primitive--hence less valuable--into modern, and higher, forms. That modernity is Moskowitz's chief criterion of value becomes evident in the very first chapter of Explorers when he patronizingly describes mid-seventeenth-century Europe as "not too long out of the Dark Ages" and, slowly freeing itself from "an appalling concretion of superstition and ignorance" (p23). The naive belief in epistemological progress which this sentiment betrays underlies Moskowitz's value judgments about SF as well; and as the criterion of judgment it surfaces on the very last page of his book, where he bemoans SF's "loss of direction and cessation of evolution as a literary type during the early 1950s."

If Moskowitz's assumptions about literary value are not conducive to a sympathetic understanding of SF that is not "modern," his misunderstandings are considerably aggravated by his intellectual irresponsibility. He would no doubt disclaim any pretentions to be a scholar, and assiduously avoids anything so pedantic as a footnote (or a bibliography, for that matter). Instead, he uncritically purveys the opinions he indiscriminately picks up from sources he does not bother to cite; and sometimes the result is that a point which, put judiciously, might be debatable, becomes, in his rendition, ludicrous. He avers, for example, that "Literally dozens of instances of borrowing from Cyrano can be detected in Gulliver's Travels. The most obvious are the Houyhnhnms, in which Swift put men in a very poor light by comparing them to birds and beasts. . ." (p30). This kind of reasoning resembles what a reviewer in TLS once called the Fluellen approach to literary comparison: "If you look in the maps of the 'orld," Fluellen tells Gower, "I warrant you sall find in the comparisons between Macedon and Monmouth, that the situations, look you, is both alike. There is a river in Macedon, and there is also moreover a river at Monmouth." (Henry V, ß4:7).

At other times Moskowitz's logic is equally cogent. Concerning The Time Machine he argues: it "is not used as a vehicle for presenting utopian concepts, since the civilizations described are decadent. It is not a warning story, since the period in which it is laid is long past the peak of man's future Golden Age. Nor is the slightest attempt made at satire" (pl34). The view here is not, one would suspect, derivative-- who else could have said such things? After reading remarks like those just quoted, one almost feels compelled to qualify Dr. Johnson's sentence as too lenient: this book is both good and original; but where it is good, it is not original, and where it is original, it is not good.

As an introduction to the history of SF, Into Other Worlds is much more satisfactory than Explorers. Green presents his material chronologically according to a cosmographical scheme, so to speak: he classifies the "space-flights" he discusses on the basis of their planet of destination. Within this framework he offers extracts from a number of early and not readily available texts, beginning with Lucian, along with some useful background information. His summaries gradually become more and more perfunctory as he approaches the twentieth century; and Out of the Silent Planet is one of the few works from which he quotes at length among the science fiction of the last hundred years or so.

Green, like Moskowitz, has prejudices about SF which only become apparent in the course of reading his book. Green's biases about the shape SF should have evidence themselves in what he says, in what he ignores, and in his deviations from a cosmographical arrangement of his material. He has an antipathy for SF which demythologizes religious dogma or otherwise presents ideas which are incompatible with what might be called dogmatic ecumenical Christianity (à la C.S. Lewis). For this reason he has no sympathy for Cyrano: he judges the lunar Eden of The States and Empires of the Moon to be in bad taste and cannot find any positive philosophy in either of Cyrano's Voyages imaginaires. De Bergerac, he claims, "used his new worlds merely for the purpose of satirising the old, an unfortunate departure ... which was to influence the stories of journeys into other worlds for nearly two centuries" (p45). Predictably, he is hostile towards Olaf Stapledon, whose Last and First Men he describes as "the cosmic tragedy of a race of megalomanic materialists" (pl62). He endorses (pl18) the criticism of War of the Worlds advanced in Out of the Silent Planet while omitting Lewis' prefatory qualification that Wells provides more than a view of an alien universe. And, perhaps most absurd of all his judgments, he declares that Cavor's messages at the end of The First Men in the Moon "allow Wells to sketch one of his typical Utopias of scientific progress" (pl4l).

Green's bias against secular visions educed from more or less scientific ideas no doubt accounts for his ignoring most modern SF. As far as Into Other Worlds is concerned, twentieth-century American SF, for example, hardly exists. At the same time, Green singles out C. S. Lewis, along with David Lindsay, for a special place in his book. Instead of grouping Silent Planet with the space-flights to Mars, and Perelandra and Arcturus with the voyages to sundry other planets, Green reserves his last chapter for them alone. Moreover, he declines to comment on Lindsay's opus, for which he echoes Lewis' vague praise.

The inference from Green's book, then, is that SF should have a religious moral; or, lacking that, have no moral at all. He does not scruple about distinctions between SF and pure fantasy because such discriminations are not relevant from his other-worldly point of view.

Though neither acknowledges the fact, both Moskowitz and Green undoubtedly owe something to Pilgrims Through Space and Time--as do all other students of SF. Ideas about the shape of SF need to be informed by some knowledge of how the genre came to be what it is, of its history; and that knowledge is impossible without a bibliography. Bailey's most important contribution to the study of science fiction in English is bibliographical. Without help from sources now taken for granted like Everett Bleiler's Checklist of Fantastic Literature and Marjorie Nicolson's Voyages to the Moon (both published after Pilgrims), he arduously put together a list of titles which remains the basis of further bibliographical investigations.

This list (though not presented as such), annotated and arrayed chronologically under headings like "The Cosmic Romance" (with subcategories like "In Space...... In Time," "In Space-Time"), constitutes the first half of Bailey's study. The second half seeks to go beyond this kind of Dewey Decimal Classification by offering generalizations on the shape of science fiction in chapters entitled "Scaffolding: Structure, Narrative Method, and Characterization"; "Substance: Conventions and Content Patterns"; "Inventions and Discoveries"; and "Creeds."

Regarded as a source of bibliographical information, the first part of Pilgrims is remarkably thorough, considering that it was the first effort in that direction. While a few relevant works, understandably enough, escaped Bailey's notice, he did locate most of the pre-20th-century books that have a place in the history of SF (along with some, like Orlando Furioso, that perhaps do not). His summaries vary in point of adequacy; and he is more unpredictable than either Moskowitz or Green in regard to what aspects he selects to summarize. Whether he focuses on the vision or the invention usually depends on what category he assigns a book to. Occasionally his classifications are wilful (David Russen's Iter Lunare, for instance, is subsumed as a "Wonderful Journey"), but most often they are at least arguable.

Viewed as an annotated bibliography, Pilgrims is, unfortunately, not always reliable. Some of its errors--and not all of them are enumerated here--are simply factual and might have been emended before the text was reprinted. Among these are the assertions that Robert Paltock is the author of John Daniel (p21; authorship actually belongs to Ralph Morris) and that in Bishop Godwin's The Man in the Moone Domingo Gonsales ascends to the moon directly after "fleeing ... from brigands" (pl7; Gonsales says he is trying to escape the clutches of cannibalistic savages). Other misstatements of Bailey's involve serious misreadings: the French Voyage to the World of Cartesius does not, as Bailey avers, defend Descartes, it satirizes his theories (see pp20-21); Margrave, far from being "the hero" of Bulwer-Lytton's A Strange Story (p3l), is, according to Lytton, a villainous materialist; and " 'supernatural' visitations from non-Euclidean space," despite Bailey's implication (p7l), have nothing to do with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

As a critical study, Pilgrims suffers from a lack of connection. The cataloguing approach, which in the first half of Pilgrims discourages hypotheses about resemblances between SF and, say, the Gothic novel or satire, typifies the second half of Bailey's study as well. There he provides lists of things like "Optimistic Ideas" and "Pessimistic Ideas," "Points of View," "Endings," and so forth. To be sure, many of the generalizations Bailey offers are valid, and some of them are more than trivially true; but they are treated as discrete from one another, without any sustained attempt at giving them coherence as a unitary vision of the shape science fiction has.

While Bailey does raise questions about the substance of SF, none of the critics reviewed here examines seriously the meaning of SF or asks whether there may be meanings the genre is particularly and peculiarly qualified to express. In this sense they do treat SF as if it were a Humpty Dumpty, a shell. Or perhaps only fragments of a shell.  

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