Gordon. Science-Fiction Film Criticism
(Vivian Carol Sobchack. The Limits of Infinity:
The American Science Fiction Film; Frederik Pohl and Frederik Pohl IV. Science
Fiction: Studies in Film)
M. Philmus. Science Fiction and Alienation
(Mark Rose. Alien Encounters. Anatomy of Science Fiction)
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Science-Fiction Film Criticism
Vivian Carol Sobchack. The Limits of Infinity: The American Science Fiction Film.
Cranbury, NJ: A.S. Barnes, 1980. 246p. $14.50.
Frederik Pohl and Frederik Pohl IV. Science Fiction: Studies in Film. NY:
Ace, 1981. 346p. illus. $6.95.
Here are two additions to the relatively scanty shelf of books on SF film; Sobchack's
valuable study is directed to the film scholar and the Pohls' rather more dispensable book
is meant for the fan of SF literature and film.
The Limits of Infinity is an excellent contribution to the study of American
SF film as a genre. Whereas the Western and the Gangster film have earned critical respect
and attention in the past 15 years, the SF film is still all too often dismissed as
"trash" or confused with horror or other fantasy films. Until now, the major
work on SF film has been John Baxter's Science Fiction in the Cinema (NY:
Paperback Library, 1970), which makes a distinction between SF literature and SF film:
"Science fiction supports logic and order, SF film illogic and chaos. Its roots lie
not in the visionary literature of the Nineteenth Century, to which science fiction owes
most of its origins, but in older forms and attitudes, the medieval fantasy world, the era
of the masque, the morality play and the Grand Guignol" (Baxter, p. 10). Baxter
considers SF film to be anti-science and its themes to be "the loss of individuality
and the threat of knowledge" (p. 11).
Sobchack takes issue with Baxter's assumptions. First, she notes that "not all SF
literature is prescience and not all SF film is anti-science" (p. 21). Instead, there
is a spectrum of attitudes in both the literature and the films, and Baxter is confusing
SF with horror. Sobchack finds it useful to view horror and SF as two ends of a spectrum.
Both genres involve an interaction between magic, science, and religion, because all three
modes attempt to describe and confront the unknown. What separates the genres is "the
dominant emphasis given to either the sacred or the profane" (p. 58), with SF film
emphasizing the empirical method of science, while sometimes still acknowledging the
realms of magic and religion (Kubrick's 2001 is a good example).
Sobchack makes some useful distinctions between the Monster of the horror film, who is
always anthropomorphic and sympathetic because he represents the darker side of man, and
the Creature of the SF film, who is simply a thing without a soul and creates large-scale
social chaos. "Ultimately, the horror film evokes fear, the SF film interest"
Sobchack also dismisses the stereotype that SF film is inherently anti-intellectual
because it must appeal to a mass audience. She notes that both SF literature and film are
fictions in which ideas are secondary. Both tell stories which may provoke the reader or
the viewer to draw abstract conclusions. Invoking Sturgeon's Law that "90% of everything
is crud," she asserts that the number of bad SF films indicates nothing about
the potentiality of the medium--they are simply more visible and more long-lived than the
number of bad SF novels and stories.
The remainder of her book is a detailed study of the iconography and use of language,
music, and sound effects in American SF film: the look and sound which characterize the
genre. Unlike the Western or Gangster film, in which such icons as the railroad or the
automobile have a constant (because historically determined) meaning, the iconography of
SF film shifts in value from film to film. The spaceship, for example, can be a positive
image in Destination Moon, a negative one in 2001, and a neutral piece
of equipment, like a car, in The Angry Red Planet. The same is true for the
robot, which changes shape and meaning from one film to the next. Sobchack concludes that
SF film because it presents a universe which is unfixed and constantly changing, results
in a "plasticity of objects and settings" (p. 87) which differentiates it
fundamentally from the relatively static world of other American film genres.
Sobchack also finds an interesting visual tension in all SF film, which must strive for
believability by linking the alien and the familiar, the unknown and the known. Big-budget
SF films, she claims, are "visually optimistic" since "the infinite is
introduced and made finite, the unknown is made familiar" (p. 110). Low-budget SF
films, on the other hand, are visually pessimistic since the opposite process takes place,
and the familiar is made to appear alien. Shochack is particularly good at analyzing the
process of Refamiliarization in some 1950s' SF films, such as Them and It
Came from Outer Space, whereby terrestrial landscapes like the desert are made to
seem suddenly alien and threatening to human existence.
Sobchack further speculates that the usually banal dialogue of the American SF film may
sometimes be a deliberate way "to create credibility and lend a documentary
quality" in the face of the incredible happenings in the plot (p. 154). She laments
the pretentious talkiness into which SF film often descends when it tries to sound
"serious" and contrasts that with the deliberate paucity of dialogue in 2001.
Finally, she finds most SF film music unadventurous but believes that, as if to
compensate and add to the credibility of the stories, such films have made very creative
use of synchronized sound effects originating from the images.
In her conclusion, Sobchack emphasizes the visual and aural tension between the known
and the unknown as the essence of American SF film, and the reason for both its success
and failures. "Images and language, flights of imagination and retreats into
banality, seem always in contradictory combination....the aims of the American SF film are
by nature grandiose and paradoxical. The American SF film finally attempts to achieve the
impossible-- it attempts to limit the infinite" (pp. 223-24). In its concern with the
iconography of the SF film and the tension between the known and the unknown, Sobchack's
study seems complementary to Gary K. Wolfe's recent study of SF literature, The Known
and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Kent OH: Kent State UP, 1979).
The main drawback of Sobchack's study is that, since SF film moves so fast, her book
was already dated when it appeared. Although published in 1980, it only covers American SF
film from 1950 to 1975. The book seems to have been completed in 1975 and lain in a drawer
for years (the bibliography, while extensive, only goes up to 1974). Some brief footnotes
about and photos referring to Star Wars and Close Encounters have been
hastily added in an attempt to update it, but these additions are insufficient.
The Pohls' Science Fiction: Studies in Film (an odd title; shouldn't it be Studies
in SF Film?), however, is very much up to date: it covers both European and American
SF film from Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902) to Lucas's The Empire
Strikes Back (1980). Unfortunately, it says little that is new. In The Limits of
Infinity, Sobchack notes the lack of true criticism of SF film; what we get instead
are picture books and histories stuffed with plot summaries, skimming over the surface of
the genre. The Pohls' book is yet another superficial history of the field.
Frederik Pohl, the distinguished SF writer and editor, and his son, a filmmaker, seemed
to feel that, considering the enormous and growing popularity of SF film in the last five
years, the time was ripe for a new survey of the field from the point of view of an expert
on SF literature. But Pohl merely perpetuates Baxter's argument that SF film is mostly
irrational, antiscientific stuff, "sci-fi" instead of true "SF."
"Sci-fi pleases the senses and stimulates the glands. But if is not likely ever to
stir the intellect" (p. 267). As Sobchack demonstrates, this sterotype is tired and
The first half of the volume is a rapid, selective history of SF cinema from the
beginnings to 1936 and Things to Come. The second half covers the films from 1950
to the present (strangely, they decided there were no SF films worthy of the name made
between 1936 and 1950) and concludes with a chapter on how SF films are made and an
appendix on special effects. There are footnotes but no bibliography or index. The most
annoying feature of the book is the frequent inserts, containing film credits and
selections from reviews and interviews, some useful and some not. This spliced-in material
constantly interrupts the flow of the text.
The book is over-heavy on fannish trivia: How much did Karloff's Frankenstein makeup
weigh? How big was King Kong? It is written in a breezy style sometimes bordering on
vulgarity: The Invisible Man was "Wellsian rather than socko" (p. 72)
and Orwell wrote 1984 "as a buck-hustle" (p. 139). (Some of the same
tendency to vulgarity flaws Frederik Pohl's novels also.) Most of the book consists of
plot summaries and capsule evaluations of the merits and demerits of particular films.
Nevertheless, there are numerous errors in the summaries. For example, the Master of
Metropolis is named "John Fredersen" not "John Masterman" (at least he
was in the version I saw), and Fredersen at the end shakes hands with the foreman of the
workers, not "the leader of the workers' revolt" (p. 43). On the contrary, the
foreman tries to stop the revolt; what he leads is the mob's burning of the robot Maria.
And Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five was a prisoner of war assigned to work
in Slaughterhouse Number Five, not "in the pens located at #5 Slaughterhouse
Street" (p. 214). The radio signal in On the Beach is not caused by "a
broken electrical connection, blown in the wind" (p. 140) but by the random tapping
of a morse key by a Coke bottle caught in a window blind. Aside from these errors, many of
the plots are scrambled by their condensations.
This is not entirely to condemn the book. The authors provide a compendium of useful
information (and some not so useful) for the person interested in the field and eager to
know more. Their knowledge of SF literature enables them to pinpoint all the logical
absurdities in the premises and plots of many of the films. Their judgments of individual
films are generally sound. Moreover, they are particularly good at demystifying special
effects and explaining the business aspects of film--how SF films actually get made
(mostly by committee, and through financial considerations). Nevertheless, unlike the
Sobchack volume, the Pohls break little new ground in the study of SF film and so have
little to offer the scholar or critic of such films.
Robert M. Philmus
Science Fiction and Alienation
Mark Rose. Alien
Encounters. Anatomy of Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA & London:
Harvard University Press, 1981. 216p. $12.95.
It seems safe to predict that Alien Encounters will be greeted with nearly
universal acclaim. The book recommends itself for a number of reasons, extrinsic as well
as inherent. Some years ago Mark Rose edited the "Twentieth Century Views"
volume entitled Science Fiction (1976), but he established his reputation as an
interpreter of Elizabethan literature, particularly of Shakespeare and Spenser. Students
of SF who suffer from the feeling of ghettoization that still afflicts many writers in the
genre will therefore undoubtedly welcome this work of his as one more sign that SF
criticism is continuing to make its way toward academic respectability. They will be
pleased, too, by Rose's syncretic approach to critical theory and by the eclecticism (in
the loose sense of the word) of his textual examples. Drawing upon a good many of his
predecessors, he fashions their ideas into a compelling synthesis that is at the same time novelly his own; and in the process, he deals not only with authors who usually come in
for critical attention--principally Verne and Wells, Zamiatin and
Čapek, Asimov, Heinlein,
and Clarke, Dick, Lem, and Delany--but also with the likes of Sheckley, Ellison, Sturgeon,
Silverberg, Cordwainer Smith, and others whom academic criticism has by and large skimped.
(By the same token, his relative silence about Le Guin will probably elicit more sighs of
relief than expressions of disapproval, though his neglect of her opus turns out to be as
unwarranted as it is surprising.) Furthermore, his prose style has the clarity and
oftentimes the elegance that "Filling the Void: Verne, Wells, and Lem" exhibits
(see SFS No. 24). Not all of his close readings come up to the standard that Rose sets
there; but at least one, his analysis of "The Mask," is a tour de force perhaps
even more dazzling in its illumination of Lem's long short-story than anything found in
that essay (a slightly different version of which appears as the third chapter of the
present study). Finally, and most importantly, Alien Encounters provides an
excellent introduction to its subject without being, in any pejorative sense, elementary:
Rose's delineation puts the theoretic substance of his book within the grasp of the
neophyte while appealing to the specialist as a suggestive outline.
Rose hints at his central thesis in the title Alien Encounters, but he does
not immediately engage in any direct exposition of it. He devotes his opening chapter
instead to certain broad considerations about the nature of genre as they bear
specifically on SF. He proposes, first of all, that "it is...useful to think of [a
genre] as a tradition, a developing complex of themes, attitudes, and formal strategies
that, taken together, constitute a general set of expectations" (p. 4). Although he
takes cognizance of those histories of SF which would locate its beginnings in Lucian, if
not Plato, his own view is that the "genre complex" characteristic of SF starts
to emerge clearly only in the latter half of the 19th century; so that "in labeling,
say, Frankenstein as science fiction we are retroactively recomposing the text
under the influence of a generic idea that did not come into being until well after it was
written" (p. 5). His argument in this regard has some resemblance to the one Andrzej
Zgorzelski advances in "Is Science Fiction a Genre of Fantastic Literature?"
(SFS, 6 :296-303); and like him, Rose preponderantly emphasizes the dynamics of
genre. But in contrast to Zgorzelski's single model of those dynamics, Rose's two
facilitate a distinction between processes internal to a genre and the results of generic
interaction: in effect, Rose analyzes the more or less unitary scheme that Zgorzelski
adapts from Ireneusz Opacki so as to differentiate intra-generic from inter-generic
development. As Rose explains the matter, a new genre comes into being by filling the
theoretical space created by the (logical) opposition between two already-existing
"genre complexes"--in the case of SF, the "space between the opposed forms
of the new realism [of the late-19th-century novel] and 'pure' fantasy" (p. 20)--and
then undergoes a three-phase process of modification internal to it, the outcome of which
may also be a new genre (or so Rose seems to imply, p. 23). The first phase comprises
fictions which serve to establish the elementary conventions, commonplaces, and formulae
of the genre (for SF, the likes of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and
Wells's The Time Machine); the second, fictions which reinterpret or
"reshape" those conventional details (e.g., Asimov's Foundation series
vis-à-vis, say, the rudimentary stories of an E.E. Smith: p. 12); the third, fictions
which are generically self-conscious in a different way, which "interiorize" the
generic material, often by "treating...[it]...as metaphor rather than literal
fact" (p. 15), and at the same time indicate their awareness, so to speak, of the
limits and limitations of the genre, often by subverting its "general set of
expectations" (Rose cites Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and, with
reservations, Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe"; but the fundamentals of
this phase are far better illustrated in Wells's Star Begotten--on which, see
William Scheick's "Toward the Ultra-Science-Fiction Novel...," SFS, 8
:19-25--and its complexities more surely exemplified in Lem's opus--e.g., in Solaris,
as Rose subsequently proves by his reading of that work).
Thinking of these two models of Rose's in terms of intersecting and concentric circles,
respectively, does not do justice to the dynamics of genre that he repeatedly insists on
here, but it may nevertheless serve a purpose. A topological representation of the primary
phase of a genre as the innermost of three circles, encompassed by a secondary phase and
that in turn by a tertiary, would graphically call attention not only to the supersessiveness of these phases (and hence to their logical sequentiality) but also--as
Rose otherwise points out--to their co-existence: i.e., first-phase SF does not
necessarily disappear with the emergence of the secondary developments for which it is
prerequisite; in fact, all three phases may be found in a single work, such as Wells's The
First Men in the Moon.
That Rose's conception of genre owes much to Tzvetan Todorov is evident from the first
of his two models. Yet his manner of deriving "theoretical genres" by logical
opposition differs from Todorov's in one crucial respect. Todorov "deduces" them
in a literary-historical vacuum as replacements for what he calls "historical
genres." Rose, by contrast, educes them from an antagonistic arrangement of those
selfsame empirically-recognizable entities--and thus avoids the Platonic abyss between
ideal categories and literary actualities that Todorov opens up in his Introduction
la littérature fantastique (for a fuller discussion of which, see my critique,
"Todorov's Theory of 'The Fantastic': The Pitfalls of Genre Criticism," Mosaic,
13, nos. 3-4 :71-82). Indeed, Rose's quasi-Hegelian method for dealing with
genres is persuasive enough to make his systematizing of them seem incomplete. His own
remarks about the transformation of romance from Spenser on, when conjoined with his claim
that SF "begins as a way of reexteriorizing romance" (p. 15), suggest that SF
cannot be exactly located within the confines of the late 19th century. A generic map
adequate to the purpose, however, might well be plotted on the basis of oppositions
analogous to the one on which Rose concentrates and extending back at least to the
Rose acknowledges that his particular application of this generic scheme of his amounts
to a reworking of Thomas Clareson's notion of SF as "the other side of realism."
Nevertheless, his contention that SF appropriates the void between the realistic novel and
fantasy has perhaps even more in common with the tendency of an essay that Rose does not
refer to: Patrick Parrinder's "News from Nowhere, The Time Machine, and the
Break-up of Classical Realism" (SFS, 3 :265-74). Parrinder there makes Rose's
abstract point in terms of concrete texts; by demonstrating that Wells "revises"
Morris's vision just as Morris had "revised" the London of Dickens's Our
Mutual Friend, he indicates how the opposition of "fantasy" to
"classical realism" generates SF as a tertium datur. On the other hand,
the latter idea, if Parrinder means to imply it, is clearly perceptible only from the
standpoint of Alien Encounters. The possible congruity, in other words, instances
the power of Rose's book to promote a reconfiguring of previous critical findings.
That power becomes all the more striking once Rose takes up his principal thesis.
Having defined SF generically as a species of romance mutually opposed to realism and
fantasy, he proceeds to identify as its characteristic paradigm the human confrontation
with the alien. This proposition has the force of a self-evident truth. It plainly
designates the common denominator of an otherwise diverse and disparate genre; and it
variously applies not only to the meaning of the SF of, say, Stapledon, Lem, and Le Guin
but also to the matter of the generality of "space operas" and "pulp"
SF. As a generalization, it obtains for most SF from Wells's on, but also for fictions
which, according to Rose, the modern reader retrospectively reconstitutes as SF--e.g., Frankenstein,
Gulliver's Travels, and Cyrano's L'Autre monde. Even so, the proposal might
not impart immediate conviction were it not congruent with a good deal of the theorizing
about SF in the last decade. Any number of articles in this journal have moved toward a
similar conclusion: witness, as the latest example, the essay by John Rieder that appears
earlier on in these pages. The resemblance between Rose's argument and that propounded by
Peter Fitting in his contribution to the "Symposium on Alien" (SFS, 7
:285-93) is uncannier still, and all the more so because--again, working
independently of one another--they have come up with cognate diagrams to illustrate their
respective cases (see Alien Encounters, p. 38).
Congruencies of that kind may conspire to make this theoretical aspect of Alien
Encounters seem déjà vu. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that
what Rose is saying has been said before, that he is merely refurbishing what has by now
become an old hat. When he insists on the "alien encounter" as the central paradigm
of SF, he is not simply reiterating that SF is a literature of alienation; and while
he unquestionably borrows more than a hint from Darko Suvin, his idea that "the human
in relation to the nonhuman" represents the "paradigmatic concern" of the
genre (p. 34) amounts to more than a restatement of the concept of "cognitive
estrangement." For one thing, Rose offers an almost tangible abstraction. For
another, his term has a resonance that Suvin`s lacks. Alienation, as Rose
presents it, can be apprehended literally, as the fictional confrontation with an alien;
but that literal understanding of the word readily gives access to its conceptual
complexities: one need only substitute the for a in front of alien to
enter the realm of Marx, Freud, and the Existentialists.
Rose, to be sure, does not complicate the term in precisely that fashion right away.
Instead, he parcels out discussion of its metaphoric significance among his subsequent
chapters. His treatment of the subject, though far from exhaustive, is comprehensive at
least in the sense that he touches upon its socio-historical, psychological, and
philosophical dimensions. He does so, by and large, in the manner not of a philosopher,
psychologist, or social historian, but of the historian of ideas, whose received opinions
Rose reformulates in ways that are often suggestive and always thoughtful as he analyzes
alienation in regard to its objects: the natural world, socio-historical processes,
mechanism, and self.
Rose considers those topics under the headings by which he anatomizes his generic
paradigm: "Space," "Time," "Machine," and
"Monster." He usually refers to the latter as "categories," and
sometimes he calls them "forms" (e.g., pp. 32-33); but in speaking of them as
"concepts" designed to get at "the internal thematic structure of the
genre" (p. 34), he identifies their true heuristic purport: as the nomenclators of
themes. Classification on that basis must always be a parlous business, since any given
fiction rarely contains one and only one theme. But in this case. Rose's thematic classes
are inherently arbitrary: to dissociate "space" from "time" in a
post-Einsteinian universe is not an easy task, and in the worlds of SF it is often harder
still to differentiate "machine" from "monster."
Rose might none the less have justified his choice of categories had he adopted the
plan implicit in his three-phase model of generic evolution. In fact, some such
organizational principle is detectable here, but his final two chapters show no traces of
it. The first works of SF that he takes up in his chapters on "Space" and
"Time" are Journey to the Center Of the Earth and The Time Machine.
"Machine," however, begins with a somewhat Clarkean "reading" of
Kubrick's 2001(compare the "Editorial" in SFS No. 22), and
"Monster" with a summary of Forbidden Planet; and in neither chapter
does Rose so much as mention a host of seminal texts that should have been cited under
those rubrics (not even Frankenstein).
The resultant loss of direction and momentum is one factor that impairs the book's
authority. Another--and this should not be underestimated--is the absence of rectified
margins (which someone at Harvard Press has explained was a matter of design, not of
niggling economy). But most importantly, Rose demands that his readers work hard to puzzle
out and put together his pieces of theorizing. Indeed, there is a certain inconclusiveness
about this study, and not only in its abrupt ending but throughout. No doubt the
inconclusiveness is to some extent deliberate. Someone who admires Lem as much as Rose
must to be able to write so movingly and with such insight about his work--someone,
moreover, who declines to include any kind of article in his subtitle, preferring to
hardly and boldly style his book "Anatomy of Science Fiction"--surely does not
mean to pronounce the definitive word on SF. But even so, the inconclusiveness of Alien
Encounters goes beyond deliberation. It would have been a better book had Rose pulled
his ideas together; and he could have done so without imperiling the tentative and
provisional status of his hypothesizing. As it is, Alien Encounters remains a
book that every student of SF should reckon with--and that some may in time improve upon.
[A response by Norman Kagan appears in SFS 28
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