BOOKS IN REVIEW
E.F. Bleiler. Science
Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century
to the Present Day. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982. 623 + xv p.
David Cowart and Thomas L. Wymer, eds. Twentieth Century American Science fiction Writers
[Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8]. 2 vols. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. xxvi +
652 p. $124.00 per set.
Curtis C. Smith, ed. Twentieth-Century
Science-Fiction Writers. NY: St Martin's Press. 1981. 642 + xviii p.
A list of all the editors, advisors, and contributors involved in the preparation of
these three reference works would constitute a fairly complete Who's Who in SF
criticism and scholarship today. Those connected with their preparation-- including this
reviewer (I wrote two essays for the Bleiler volume and served on the Advisory Board for Twentieth-Century
Science-Fiction Writers)--have waited with interest to assess the final products and
to see how each compared with the other two. It is safe to say that by whatever criteria
one chooses to measure success or failure, the results are mixed. Moreover, if one
includes Tuck's, Reginald's, Centento's, Currey's, and Nicholls' reference works, one is
tempted to say, "Enough is enough." We will not be needing anything similar for
quite a while.
In terms of sheer breadth of coverage, the vote must go to Smith's Twentieth-Century
Science-Fiction Writers, which treats "more than 600 writers of science
fiction." Cowart and Wymer's two volumes, designed to cover only 20th-century
American writers, have 91 essays, and Bleiler's compilation 76. While Bleiler and Smith
give some space to non-English-speaking writers, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on British
and American authors. Depth is harder to measure. Many of the essays in the Smith volume
are less than 1000 words. The Cowart- Wymer volumes divide writers into major and minor
figures. (The criteria for making this division are never stated.) Minor authors are given
about 2000-3000 words, major ones 10,000 or more. The essays in the Bleiler volume are
generally consistent in length: about 5000 words for each SF writer.
Reflecting differences in purposes, these volumes also vary in their organization. The
Bleiler text is organized historically, beginning with "Early Science Fiction"
(Mary Shelley, H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, Garrett P. Serviss, etc) and including
sections on "Primitive Science Fiction: The American Dime Novel and Pulp
Magazines," "Mainstream Georgian Authors," "American Science Fiction:
The Formative Period," "The Circumbellum Period," "The Moderns,"
and Continental Science Fiction" (represented by three writers: Verne, Capek, and
Lem). The two-volume Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers is
organized alphabetically, as is the Smith volume.
The audience envisioned for all three volumes is similar. All are designed for the
"general reader." All give some biographical information, a bibliography of the
author's major works, plot summaries of the most significant titles, and some indication
of their author's general thematic concerns. The Bleiler and the Cowart-Wymer volumes
supply bibliographies of bibliographies and selective bibliographies of other secondary
material. The Smith volume claims to "list all books, including non-science fiction
works," and includes a "signed critical essay" by each author who responded
to an invitation to say something about his or her work. Often the Cowart-Wymer as well as
the Smith also locates manuscript materials.
All this is useful for the general reader. Particularly helpful are the bibliographies
of minor and lesser-known SF authors, about whose works no standard bibliographies or
checklists are readily available. Those in the Bleiler and the Cowart-Wymer volumes, by my
spot-checking, seem reliable, if not as inclusive as Smith's. Despite the latter's claims
to bibliographic comprehensiveness, on the other hand, users would do well to avoid
depending upon the bibliographies in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers: some
are genuine disasters. John Clute's review in Foundation (June 1982, pp. 64-70)
points to a number of bibliographical problems in several of the entries: omissions of
pseudonymous works and otherwise incomplete listings; the recording of titles that were
never published as if they had been; a confusion of generic categories; and a lack of
consistent criteria for ascribing a given work to a certain author; and so on.
What about the entries themselves? In the case of the Bleiler volume, the editor
required "biographical information, comments on important stories, historical
position, evaluation, bibliography, and whatever else was needed to provide an
introduction for a new reader or a full survey for a regular reader of science
fiction" (p. xv) and otherwise gave contributors the "freedom to develop their
ideas." However, given the "required data" and a 5000-word limit, there is
not much more that can be done beyond trying to relate the biographical data to the
author's creative development and abstracting some thematic and stylistic elements in a
discussion of the major works. Hence, despite the freedom, most of the essays read pretty
much the same. This is not necessarily a fault; almost all of them provide a good
introduction to the SF writer under consideration.
Cowart and Wymer's two volumes follow the format of the DLB series. They supply
information about the author's date and place of birth, education, and marital status, and
list the awards that he or she has won. Then comes an essay which the editors claim
"both synthesizes the best of the existing body of scholarship and breaks new ground
by providing original critical assessments of a group of authors who have made significant
contributions to twentieth-century fiction but about many of whom little or no criticism
exists beyond book reviews in specialty magazines" (p. xiii). Most of the essays are
a combination of biography, plot summary, and critical evaluation. The essays are
"original" in the sense that they were written for these volumes, but there is
little "new ground" broken. What is more curious--given the biographical
emphasis of this series--is the lack of new biographical information on these authors.
Spot checks revealed no information in these essays that was not readily available in the
most cursory of previous biographies. Indeed, the lack of biographical
information on many of the authors is noticeable. As Colin Greenland points out (in the
same issue of Foundation in which the review by Clute appears): "the average
contributor to Twentieth-Century American SF Writers offers quite a lot of
literary but very little biography indeed" (p. 70).
Each article in the Curtis Smith volume begins with an equivalent of a Who's Who entry:
it includes the author's mailing address or the address of his or her literary agent,
followed by a bibliography of primary sources. The essays vary from about 1500 words for
major authors such as Asimov and Le Guin to a couple of hundred words for lesser-knowns.
Like those in Bleiler and Cowart-Wymer, the essays here are for the most part thematic
studies by way of plot summaries. Given the limitations of space, many are quite good,
especially those of Douglas Barbour, Donald Hassler, Walter Meyers, David Samuelson, Roger
Schlobin, Darko Suvin, Gary Wolfe, and Carl Yoke. These transcend mere plot summary and
provide a unified assessment of the writer's work and her or his contribution to the
Each of these reference works has its good points. In terms of consistency and balance,
I think Bleiler's volume is the best. It is clearly the best-edited, both in terms of
mechanics and cognizance of its audience. It is a no-frills reference work designed to be
read by anyone with a high-school education. The essays are generally thorough and give
the reader a good grounding in the life and major works of each author, and none of the
contributors posits an audience familiar with the heady intricacies of phenomenology,
psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypes, structuralism, or deconstruction. There is a minimum
of quotation, and the critical apparatus is seldom distracting. Finally, in its historical
account of the development of SF, the book gives their due (or perhaps more than their
due) to some lesser-known SF writers--e.g., M.P. Sheil, Garrett P. Serviss, S. Fowler
Wright, and David Keller.
Many of the authors not covered in Bleiler are found in Cowart-Wymer: but with a $124
price tag, those two volumes are clearly designed for libraries. They are very handsome
indeed, and with their photographs of most of the authors treated, their photographed
pages of many of the authors' draft manuscripts, and their pictures of both the dust
jackets of classic SF novels and the front covers of several SF pulps announcing some
classic SF short story, they are a pleasure to peruse.
Despite all of its bibliographic flaws, Curtis Smith's is probably the most useful of
the three reference works. It contains a great deal of information on an extraordinary
number of writers, many of whom might be unknown even to knowledgeable scholars and
critics in the field. Used with caution, this is a valuable reference work; and given the
outrageous cost of books these days, its $65.00 price tag seems modest.
All three of these reference works bear a genetic resemblance to a modern encyclopedia:
all, that is, rely on a large number of contributors who were paid by the article. Yet it
always happens that a few of those contributors wind up getting a disproportionate share
of the contents. This is not necessarily bad. Four out of the 25 contributors listed in
the Bleiler volume, for example, account for 30 of its essays, or 40 per cent of the
total; but those four are seasoned and respected critics of SF. On the other hand, the
choice of who would write what for the Cowart-Wymer volumes does raise a question. Of the
77 critics represented there, 11 (or 14 per cent) are either from the University of South
Carolina (Cowart's academic affiliation) or from Columbia, South Carolina (where that
university is located), and since it is difficult to believe that expertise in SF
criticism and scholarship has preponderantly gravitated to that one state and that one
university one suspects that the selection of critics in this case was largely a matter of
Nor is that the only problematic aspect of putting together a volume of this kind.
Suppose that someone is given an assignment and the editorial staff later decides that the
piece submitted is inappropriate. It then falls to the editor or some editorial assistant,
frantically trying to meet a publication deadline, to come up with something at the last
minute. Nor is this a purely hypothetical possibility. On the contrary. it occurs
frequently enough to be a very real editorial headache. One can acknowledge an editor`s
expertise as an SF scholar and talents as an SF critic and still have doubts about how
much one person can he expected to know or do. Take, for instance, Everett Bleiler's
article on Poe in the Scribner's book. In it, Bleiler extends the idea that [Poe's]
stories have very little in common with what is indisputably accepted as science
fiction" (p. 11) by saying:
The most that can be said is that Poe's fiction as a whole influenced Jules Verne, who
admired Poe greatly. But the elements that Verne took over were not always those of
science fiction. Poe was not a great innovator or pattern creator in science fiction like
Wells, nor a historically important specialist like Ray Bradbury or Robert A. Heinlein. He
was a writer, a few of whose stories, in retrospect, can be uncomfortably squeezed, with
crumpling and edges sticking out, into the genre we now call science fiction. (pp. 17-18)
Yet if Poe was so peripheral to SF, what is he doing in Bleiler's volume? What
"elements" did Verne take over that were "of science fiction"? The
word "always" suggests that Verne took over a great many "elements.")
I am not suggesting that Bleiler is wrong; but I am arguing that further explanation is
called for and that perhaps finer distinctions need to be made. (These distinctions are in
fact made by David Ketterer in his article on Poe in Nicholls' The Science Fiction
Encyclopedia. pp. 464-65. which Bleiler refers to, and in Ketterer's The SF Element
in the Work of Poe: A Chronological Survey," (SFS. 1 :197-213), which he
Again, the Bleiler volume will serve for highlighting another problematic side to the
encyclopedic enterprise. Are Verne, Capek, and Lem, one wonders, the only writers of SF
outside the English-speaking world worth mentioning, or did it simply prove too difficult
to find critics with the linguistic expertise to deal with (as yet) untranslated authors?
(Perhaps some of the more notable omissions in this area--e.g., of Calvino--will be made
up for in a companion volume that Scribner's is planning, tentatively entitled Fantasy
and Horror Writers.)
Some related problems of coverage beset the Cowart-Wymer volumes. Not only do the
editors of these not specify their criteria for differentiating major from minor authors;
their distinctions in practice seem purely arbitrary. For instance, they afford Zenna
Henderson, with four novels to her credit, about the same amount of space as Damon Knight,
whose bibliography runs to 53 titles. And why do they give that much attention to
Henderson while ignoring Gregory Benford altogether? Furthermore, this confusion of
standards appears in a different form in the selection of topics for appendices. Some of
the appended articles themselves--Brian Attebery's, Gary Wolfe's, and Ina Rae Hark's--are
quite good; but, as Greenland observes, a list of the titles ("The New Wave,"
Science Fantasy," "The Iconography of Science-Fiction Art, "Paperback
Science Fiction," "Science-Fiction Films," "Science-Fiction Fandom and
Convention," Science-Fiction Fanzines," "Science Fiction Writers of America
and the Nebula Award," "Hugo Awards and Nebula Awards," "A World
Chronology of Important Science-Fiction Works (1818-1979)," "Selected
Science-Fiction Magazines and Anthologies," and "Books for Further
Reading") betrays some uncertainty of identity." (Cowart and Wymer evidently
were not uncertain, however. about what they did not want: in rejecting as being
inappropriate for their intended audience the piece on "Trends in SF Criticism"
that I contracted to do, they objected not to its style but to its content.)
The problems for which the editor of Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers
may he held responsible are mainly of another order. Totally missing from that volume is
the critical apparatus of Bleiler's (unobtrusive as that is). In fact, there are no
references to secondary sources in Smith; and when the source of a quotation is
identified, no page or section numbers are provided. To be sure, the section on
"Foreign Language Writers," with its 35 entries, is far more comprehensive than
Bleiler's. But Smith's "Major Fantasy Writers" contains only five entries; and
well written though they are, these somehow seem out of place.
Some readers may find these criticisms of mine to be so much nitpicking. After all, not
every reference work must measure up to the standards of The Cambridge Bibliography of
English Literature, Evans's American Bibliography, or even the recent
efforts of Tuck, Reginald, Contento, or Nicholls. Besides, the volumes I am presently
considering have respective virtues which overbalance their limitations. Nevertheless, I
think that Clute's verdict on the Smith title applies to Bleiler's and Cowart-Wymer's as
well: "by now we had every reason to expect better."
Walter E. Meyers
Problems with Herbert
Timothy O'Reilly. Frank
Herbert. "Recognitions" Series. NY: Frederick Ungar. 1981.
216 p. $5.95 paper.
David M. Miller. Frank Herbert. Starmont Reader's Guide No. 5.
Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1980. 70 p. $3.95 paper.
Both Timothy O'Reilly's and David M. Miller's straightforwardly named books suffer from
the worst fate risked by anyone who writes criticism about a living author: having the
author add a major novel to the canon just after the publication of the study. Apparently,
neither O'Reilly nor Miller anticipated the publication of God Emperor of Dune in
1981. Thus in commenting on Dune, O'Reilly, for example, asserts that some things
in the novel "were left deliberately unfinished, to draw the reader's attention
deeper into the story and to keep him involved long after it was over" (p. 54). Some
of these unfinished parts were resolved in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune,
so it would not have been going far out on a limb to guess that still further works
in the series would follow. If O'Reilly and Miller are fortunate, Ungar and Starmont House
will give them the chance to revise their thoughts in second editions.
For the present, though, we have only these two critical works at hand. Each makes
additions to the exploration of the themes of Herbert, one of the most ambiguous of
current writers of SF. Any critic might be wary of Herbert's practice of turning the table
on his readers from book to book. The best known reader to suffer from table rotation was
John W. Campbell, Jr, who rejected Dune Messiah because the novel torpedoes the
heroic image of Paul Atreides so carefully built up in Dune. Through a study of
both published and unpublished material, O'Reilly demonstrates that Herbert's plan was
deliberate from the start, and that at least part of the inflation of Paul was engineered
by a design to make his subsequent deflation the more striking. Yet this is only one
example of the difficulty of pinning Herbert down.
Take a second example: Herbert often shows elite groups, with the Fremen of Dune chief
among them. They show marvelous adaptation to their environment, but little adaptability.
When they get what they want most--the greening of Arrakis--they change from vigorous to
indolent, from honest to devious, and from independent to sycophantic. Was their desire,
in retrospect, a good thing? Herbert was proclaimed ecology's apostle when Dune appeared:
here was the husbandry of resources on a planetary scale. But the restoration of Arrakis
is death for the sandworm, an endangered species more spectacular than the Fremen. By the
time of God Emperor, the sandworms have become extinct. Since the species is the
sole producer of the spice mélange that allows interplanetary travel, what seemed like
conservation on a planetary scale could have meant the destruction of society on an
It is very hard, therefore. to decide exactly what Herbert's statement is, especially
in the Dune books. Yet both O'Reilly and Miller make attempts. By both its length and the
scale of its research, O'Reilly's book becomes the foundation of future studies of
Herbert. Certainly the book demonstrates very clearly that Herbert employs a number of
very disturbing ideas. O'Reilly notes how harsh environments (submarine life, the desert
planet) produce a survival-of-the-fittest scenario, in which "strength lies in
adaptability, not fixity. Civilization...tries to create and maintain security, which all
too frequently crystallizes into an effort to minimize diversity and stop change" (p.
50). Although the term "Social Darwinism" occurs in neither O'Reilly's nor
Miller's book, they both articulate the presence of the idea in Herbert's fiction.
O'Reilly's study contains an unfortunate sentence, which some might think could
continue an old piece of bigotry. In talking about Herbert's education, O'Reilly says
"he was taught by Jesuits. An order whose political power and long-term vision
silently shaped a great sweep of world affairs, and who were once famed for their training
and asceticism, the Society of Jesus bears no small resemblance to the witches of the
Imperium" (p. 88). One may believe that the Jesuits were in Herbert's mind when he
created the Bene Gesserit without having to accept the nonsense of some sort of Catholic
Protocol of Zion.
Perhaps the scariest idea in O'Reilly's comments is his assertion that Paul's jihad, in
which millions are slaughtered, is inevitable. As O'Reilly phrases it, the jihad is a
species-wide demand. [Paul] must sacrifice his civilized abhorrence and submit to
biology" (p. 76). One hopes that O'Reilly's study might spur further examination of
this biological excuse for armed conquest.
O'Reilly does a good job of showing the often direct influence of the philosophies of
Heidegger and Jaspers throughout Herbert's works, and it is a pleasure to see the
consistent connections between ideas of the Dune books and novels like The
Santaroga Barrier, The Eyes of Heisenberg, and Hellstrom's Hive. But when
O'Reilly tries to find not just the same ideas but a clear and consistent attitude towards
the actions of the characters, he seems doubtful whether one exists. He states that
Herbert distrusts even the ideas most appealing to him, that Herbert is suspicious of
"easy answers," even that Herbert "may have been carried away by his own
pretensions" (p. 173). Yet, if it is true, as O'Reilly reads the Dune series,
that the story depicts "the arbitrary nature of human morality," then what moral
judgment can be made by and about the characters in those books? Paul's failure
to free the Imperium from his religion is not just tragic, as Campbell noted and O'Reilly
seconds; not just a failure, as God Emperor of Dune shows; but in the last
analysis, pointless. Indeed, in the prologue of God Emperor, Herbert seems to
have forced a happy ending by creating still another elite, the descendants of Duncan
Idaho and the Atreides.
The format of O'Reilly's Herbert is annoying: I hope I am not alone in
disliking the way Ungar's "Recognitions" series handles documentation. Since the
placement of notes at the foot of the page seems beyond the technical capacity of modern
publishers, I can live with gathering them at the end of the text. But I would surely like
to have a note-number, an asterisk, or what-have you in the text to tell me that there is
a note to what I am reading. In the Ungar series, notes are identified at the end of the
text by the page on which they occur and the first few words of the quotations. Some of
these quotations are indirect, so the reader does not even have quotation marks to
identify the end of the cited material. When reading the text, you cannot tell that a note
exists, and when reading the notes, you cannot tell where the note ends. O'Reilly is not
to blame; this decision was the publishers'; they have continued the least useful and most
imprecise documentation system I know of.
One minor point: the index gathers the page-references for "John W. Campbell,
Jr" under the heading for "Joseph Campbell." Indexing makes strange
Miller's Frank Herbert, at 70 pages, makes no pretense of being more than a
brief reading of the works prior to God Emperor. Some of the pages in my copy
were bound in upside-down in random order, but a razor-blade solved that problem. Miller's
book would have profited more from closer proofreading: for example, the name of the
planet Salusa Secundus is misspelled, and Landsraad is spelled as Landsraat throughout.
Sometimes Miller's guesses turn out to be wrong: he wonders if the name of Dasein (in The
Santaroga Barrier) is meant to suggest "daze-in," missing the fact that the
name is the German word for "existence," just as the name of another character
in that work, Jenny Sorge, means "sorrow" in the same language. Although Miller
has a number of interesting insights, O'Reilly's work offers much more in the way of
coverage, length, bibliography, and background for only two dollars more. Now if we could
just do something about those notes.
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