Science Fiction Studies

# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978


  Henry James in Outer Space

Strother B. Purdy. The Hole in the Fabric: Science, Contemporary Literature, and Henry James. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977, 228p, $11.95.

Purdy thinks that all good writers should now write SF, and devotes a chapter to explaining why. Unfortunately, his assertion turns out to mean that (1) we live in a relativistic universe, (2) any writer who uses this notion metaphorically becomes an SF writer, and (3) Henry James wrote relativistic fiction before anyone else.

Purdy's method is to take a contemporary novel or play, discuss it with some intelligence but limited understanding, inexcusably ignore everything written on it by other scholars that might have helped him out of his difficulties, and then compare it unfavorably to some work of Henry James that seems, to this reader at least, totally irrelevant. The classic case is a seventeen-page sub-chapter entitled "The Awkward Age and Lolita."

Henry James is as good a father of the contemporary novel as any other, but he is certainly not the only one; in fact, he had little influence on any of the authors analysed here: Nabokov, Vonnegut, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet. Moreover, in spite of Purdy's lengthy analysis of The Turn of the Screw, it is impossible to read this work as SF.

In fact, Purdy is hopelessly muddled. His notion of science is ludicrous, consisting of relativity theory, a bit of Goedel, and maybe some Heisenberg; in short, only those few bits of familiar theory that explore extreme limits of cosmology and sub-atomic physics. And his SF, like his science, consists only of time-travel, atomic bombs, and parallel worlds.

After Henry James, Purdy devotes the most time to Nabokov, especially Ada which Purdy sees as SF in the Jamesian mode and consequently discusses for nearly forty pages. Purdy's ignorance of his author, other criticism, and science is particularly striking here. On the side, Purdy compares Ada to James' Sense of the Past (an uncompleted novel), and consequently compares Nabokov to James in the following outrageous sentence: "Both men developed outstanding reputations as novelists before turning into the side lane of science fiction, and neither mastered any science to make the turning, but rather bent some of the material developed by the lesser, fully 'scientific' writers to their purposes." That Nabokov not only knows science but is a published research scientist totally escapes Purdy, and obviously so did the many pages of Ada devoted not to what Nabokov calls "physics fiction" but to the evocation of the natural sciences of botany and entomology.

Purdy writes as well as one can while spinning arabesques about his own ignorance. His study is confused, dated, limited, self-serving, uninformed, sloppy, and of interest to no one but other James scholars, who will probably find it trivial.

--Charles Nicol

The Legendary Dr. Asimov

Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. Isaac Asimov. Writers of the 21st Century Series. Taplinger Publishing Co., 1977, $10.95.

"Isaac Asimov is one of the most varied men of our time -- biochemist, popularizer of science, and legendary science fiction writer" claims the dust-jacket of this second volume in the so-called "Writers of the 21st Century" series. Whatever claim to validity that logically and syntactically suspect bit of puffery may have, it isn't borne out by the contents of the book, which contains nine essays, a fairly exhaustive bibliography of Asimov's science fiction, a biographical sketch, and a thorough index, and so belongs in a school library anyway.

Asimov the raconteur is represented in an afterword disclaiming any "deep meanings" ("methinks he does protest too much") before it swallows its own tale, a nice piece of filler by the Good Doctor. Asimov the scientist has all but dematerialized, legitimately perhaps for a book aimed at a science-fiction audience, but not for the reason the editors offer. Since less than 1/6 of his books are science fiction, and Asimov as talker and writer has shown up virtually everywhere in popular culture, to say that it is Asimov the SF writer "that most Americans think about when they encounter the name" is a bit disingenuous.

The real subject is the "legendary science fiction writer" and this book seems at least partly devoted to keeping the legend alive, assisting the Good Doctor's own exploitation of it in recent years by means of his extensive autobiographical annotations of his early fiction and even his earlier reading! Such a legend can win Hugo awards as sentimental gestures years after one has earned his fame. Looking too deeply into the disparity between the legend and the writer might lead to a book too negative to be saleable, however enlightening a look it might be into that corner of the world where Asimov's SF is most appreciated.

Asimov's popularity has been high for years and continues to be, making him a natural, along with Clarke and Heinlein, for the first three volumes of this shelf of distinctly mid-twentieth- century purveyors of fantasy rationalized by references to 19th- and 20th-century science and pseudo-science. Both in and out of science-fiction circles Asimov does represent a positive attitude toward science and technology, once the hallmark of Campbell's Astounding (where Asimov learned his trade), now one polar extreme of a vast spectrum of "speculative" literature.

With respect to that attitude, Asimov has repeatedly made himself perfectly clear, both in his fiction, which is rarely equivocal, and in his writing and talking about science fiction. But there are some basic differences between what he says and what he does, which many of the contributors to this volume don't seem to have noticed. They take at face value his assertions that science fiction concerns the effects of science and technology on human beings, that those effects are reflected in continuous change, and that preparations for the future makes science fiction the only relevant writing in the world today, although those dicta don't fit much science fiction, and patently don't apply to Asimov's own.

Thus Marjorie Miller seeks to convince us that the Good Doctor is setting us serious problems to ponder, or better, to solve, when her own evidence seems to lead to the conclusion that he has been toying with SF conventions. Thus "Human Reactions to Technological Change," in Fern Milman's chapter, turn out to be static, background, posited reactions by social masses; they fit textbook examples taken from the past and are none of them "significant" changes from a midcentury viewpoint. And poor Donald Watt is saddled, voluntarily one assumes, with the attempt to defend the indefensible -- Asimov's characterizations -- concluding that a very few of them are almost human beings, the best perhaps being an alien.

Maxine Moore suggests that my problem, being trained in literature, is that I don't speak the same language as Asimov, that his "technical metaphors" operate in lieu of character conflict, and that I am not congenial to reductive materialism. But Asimov takes great pains to see that those "metaphors" ("equations"?) are clear in his fiction, perhaps clearer than in Ms. Moore's essay, and reductive materialism does not ruin Zola's appeal to me, or his ability to handle conflict situations. Patricia Warrick also seems to find high seriousness in Asimov's fiction, charting the "evolution" of artificial intelligence to defend the superiority of man to machine and advocate the development of "ethical technology." This is much easier to take in essay form (as it would be from Asimov himself) than it is in robot stories that range from jokes to bathos, however. And Donald Hassler tells me that behind Asimov's cheerful exterior lurks a longing for the "Golden" Age of Reason which informs Asimov's attitude toward man in his science writing and his juvenile reading, though he fails to show its relevance to Asimov's science fiction, or indeed to a world in which uncertainty and relativity have both physical and psychological meanings.

Two essays in this volume do attempt to grapple more closely with "the Asimov problem" (legend vs. reality, claim vs. practice). Charles Elkins, in an article adapted from its first appearance in SFS, dissects the Foundation series and comes up with a plausible reason for its popularity, paradoxically because of its sociological and artistic failures. And Joseph Patrouch, in the concluding chapter of his own book-length study of Asimov, points out a fundamental problem: Asimov doesn't take himself seriously enough as a writer of science fiction for all that he maintains the importance of the field. He avoids the things that concern him most, except in passing, and he is satisfied with the storytelling tools with which his native wit, intelligence and goodfellowship have provided him. Thus he fritters himself away on "puzzlers" and "brain-twisters," be they novels, robot stories, or the mysteries Hazel Pierce's essay surveys adequately and unpretentiously. Like Elkins and Patrouch, Pierce limits her scope and makes her theoretical framework explicit, which helps all three overcome a besetting sin of such a collection of essays, none of whose authors knew what the others would contain: repetitious plot summaries.

There are many things one could quibble with: occasional slips of incoherence that an editor might have caught, Hassler's failure to follow the ground rules and stay with Asimov's science fiction, Moore's straitjacketed definition of "hard" science fiction and the misdirection of the first half of her essay, the sloppy print job that at least my copy has in its first signature. But the major "flaw" is perhaps built into this kind of collection, if not endemic to the whole field of SF criticism: shallowness. To get beneath the surface, however, probably means we can't stay within the confines of Asimov's science fiction and his pronouncements about it, though Patrouch has done a pretty good job in his own book on Asimov the writer of fiction. The book does provide a few starting-points for serious study, if any is contemplated, and for that it's worthwhile, but I'm not sure how far we can go with artificial intelligence, Golden Ages, "technical metaphors," etc., without involving ourselves with authors who are more in control of their materials than the legendary Dr. A.

--David N. Samuelson

[A response by Donald Hassler appears in SFS 15 (July 1978).]

The Tymn-Schlobin-Currey Research Guide

Marshall B. Tymn, Roger C. Schlobin, L.W. Currey, eds. A Research Guide to Science Fiction Studies: An Annotated Checklist of Primary and Secondary Sources for Fantasy and Science Fiction. Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977, ix+165, $21.00.

Both as an expression of our need and out of friendly feelings toward the compilers I wish I could say that this is the book we have been waiting for, but it is not. It does list and annotate all or nearly all of the books and dissertations directly concerned with science fiction and fantasy. But though the single-subject books are classified by subject, the dissertations are merely listed by the name of the author, and the multi-subject books are analyzed only in the main entry. More important, it does not list magazine articles. If you want to study Le Guin, you will find two booklets listed under her name, but no cross references to such dissertations on Le Guin as may appear in the list of dissertations (at least one does), and no cross references to the essays on Le Guin that appear in the multi-subject books, and of course no references at all to the numerous articles on Le Guin that have appeared in magazines in the last few years.

In ploughing through the list of dissertations to see if I could find anything on Le Guin I noticed that David Hughes' important dissertation on The War of the Worlds is missing, but for all I know that may be the only such omission. But even if this book were fully exhaustive by its lights, it would be of little use to the student writing a term paper or the professor writing an article.

--R.D. Mullen

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