# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Henry James in Outer Space
Strother B. Purdy.
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
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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