Science Fiction Studies

#3 = Volume 1, No. 3 =  Spring 1974



Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (US: Oxford, 1973, 335p; also UK: Chatto & Windus, perhaps with different pagination), is a mammoth survey of these complementary themes and locations in English literature, with all their connotations. Whatever one's proximity to or distance from Dr. Williams's clearly enunciated and superbly sustained viewpoint, it is one of those studies that will henceforth be a must for every student of English literature and of the country vs. city theme in human history. For the critic of SF, it has a particular twofold relevance. First, it shows the strengths of a methodology which does not sunder literature from history and present day life: Williams's constant procedure is to compare the images, brasses, symbolical systems, ideologies and value-judgments induced in the readers by a body of literature with the total documentation of the historical reality of its age, as known from other records. In other words, even such a genre as Pastoral is not simply a "secondary world" but a structure whose elements have been obtained by careful selections from historical reality and which presents an idealized, elegiac, etc., version of certain aspects and values from such a historical reality. This approach could be a very useful corrective especially for studies of SF, which often generates the optical illusion of dealing with hermetically closed worlds of its own as a pure game, without relevance to important facets of our common and increasingly inescapable historical reality.

Second, Dr. Williams--a man with an exquisitely English feeling for roots and traditions who is yet open to winds of change--deals directly with SF in some places. His comment on Thomas More--whom I think he misreads as the ideologist of an "upper peasantry," equally inimical to the capitalists and to the poor--is among the least satisfying pages of the book. But he is illuminating on Blake's "new way of seeing the human and social order" (ppl48-50--surely it's time that we claimed for Blake an SF relevance as great as More's); he has written what are, so far as I know, the best pages on Richard Jeffries, putting into perspective for us his seminal After London, the first "post-catastrophe" story in SF (pp l9l-196); and at the end of the book, he has a chapter on "The City and the Future" (pp272-278), in which he proceeds from Morris and Wells not only to Forster, Huxley and Orwell, but also to Campbell, Aldiss, Clarke, Blish, and Damon Knight's anthology Cities of Wonder. Though Dr. Williams has here only touched on some of the most prominent aspects of urban SF, his chapter is a useful capsule presentation of such aspects, and a welcome acknowledgement from one of the most exciting scholars and critics of the last 20 years that a survey of any major national tradition of modern literature from the Renaissance to our day cannot be written without taking SF into account. -DS.


The title of David Ketterer's book--New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (Anchor/Doubleday, paperback $2.95; Indiana University Press, hardback $10.95; 1974; same pagination)--incorporates an effective double meaning. In the more literal sense it refers to those writers (both mainstream and SF) who exemplify the "apocalyptic" mode of literature, meaning that literature which involves a symbolic transformation of our nominal, lived reality--or Old Worlds--into visionary New Worlds: "Apocalyptic literature is concerned with the creation of other worlds which exist, on the literal level, in a credible relationship with the 'real' world, thereby causing a metaphorical destruction of that 'real' world in the reader's head" (p l3; author's italics). At the same time the title anticipates the author's unique reading of science fiction vis-a-vis the traditions of mainstream American fiction, which constitutes a New World literature with its own peculiar emphasis on visionary and prophetic trends of thought.

So, apart from explications of individual works, this book offers a new theory and a new comparative method which deliberately abandons idea oriented criticism that looks to a Verne or van Vogt as typical or even exemplary authors (see pp x and 182). The aesthetic component in literature and evaluative criticism remain important to Ketterer (ppl25 and 260), and throughout he is concerned with the texture of language and images beyond one-dimensional plots, themes, and ideas. Representative image studies are those of arabesques in Poe, sexual innuendo in Lem's Solaris, and spirals in Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.

Another of Ketterer's innovations consists in developing an entire new critical framework around the religious heritage of America. The Biblical, Prophetic, and Millennial elements in New World thought are as influential for science fiction as the materialistic, pragmatic, empirical, and scientific side of American experience. This in turn leads Ketterer to countenance a recent trend that regards SF as a "new mythology" on the one hand and as a secular displacement of the religious consciousness on the other (see pp 76 and 333 respectively.).

Part One begins with a theoretical justification of the term "apocalypse," followed by a trial comparison between William Blake's America, A Prophecy and Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon. Although St. John's Book of Revelations plays some role in the scheme of interpretation because it envisions man and his world transformed, yet Ketterer's definition is more dependent upon recent critics Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticism, emphasizing apocalypse as a positive, heavenly vision), Ihab Hassan (The Literature of Silence, stressing the negative, chaotic aspect of apocalypse), Frank Kermode (The Sense of an Ending, explicating the temporal rhythms of the apocalyptic process), and R.W.B. Lewis' seminal essay, "Days of Wrath and Laughter," in Trials of the Word.

Part Two encompasses a substantial reassessment of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe as "marginally science fiction," including Poe's cosmology in Eureka, followed by a major essay on Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness in light of Northrop Frye's correlation between the ironic mode of literature and the archetypal mythos of winter: "Le Guin's book effects a philosophical apocalypse ... by presenting a radically different image of man, by pointing to the existence of a previously unsuspected outside manipulator, and ... by radically altering man's vision of human reality" (p8l). Ketterer then turns to utopian and dystopian narratives insofar as they impinge on his theme of satirical, philosophical, or visionary transformations of present realities. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward is used to explore the thesis that utopian fiction necessarily fails to present a credible alternate reality and must degenerate into fantasy, a non-credible alternate reality, or in the role of devil's advocate, suggests itself as, in fact, a dystopia: "While science-fictional dystopias abound, there are no genuinely science-fiction utopias" (pll8). Conversely, Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X, Jack London's The Iron Heel, Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are all regarded as successful, if quite distinctive, literary formulations of the actual transformation of reality.

Part Three constitutes over one half of the book, and is given over to what the author considers the most "philosophical" of apocalypses--the present world viewed in other terms, with a subsidiary issue in the redefinition of man himself. The two major works are Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland ("Confrontation with mysterious phenomena leads Brown to distinguish between aspects of experience that can be explained with reference to either internal or external factors and between those aspects of experience that cannot presently be explained with reference to internal or external factors" [pl79]) and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris ("A clear line between man and reality... is hard to draw. We can't finally know to what extent any interpretation of reality, however far out, is preferable to man's phenomenological or anthropomorphic limitations" [p2O3; cf pp 185, 187, 202]). To the extent that Ketterer interprets Lem in terms of a phenomenology of knowledge, Solaris is an especially significant instance of science fiction as an epistemological literature: e.g., "science fiction is not primarily valuable as prediction; rather, it teaches an adaptability and elasticity of mind in the face of change" (p25).

Ketterer shifts naturally enough to phenomenological universes and their limitations. Works on time-travel for close analysis include Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (the revelation is that "the sixth century does not displace the nineteenth century in any real sense, nor does the nineteenth century displace the sixth century, because there is no essential difference between them" [p225; cf p2l3]) and John Boyd's The Last Starship from Earth. Subsequent chapters deal with the parallel-world theme in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle and two instances of the "new wave" style in Brian Aldiss' Report on Probability A and Barefoot in the Head ("Stone Age sensibility and mental equipment ... cause us to retread circular patterns of behavior and thus avoid a genuine confrontation with the new" [p258]). The final section of the book then deals with the apocalyptic implications of the alien manipulator theme, particularly in two substantive interpretations of Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, which points to "the unreliability of experience as a guide to truth" (p286), and Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan, a work of visionary and religious nature (p332) and the only work for which Ketterer explicates elements derived from Graeco-Roman mythology.

I have mentioned only those novels that Ketterer explicates definitively. A number of other authors and their works come in for briefer, but no less interesting, consideration. The book is well indexed, and although there is no bibliography the footnotes are more than an adequate guide to Ketterer's authorities (especially on mainstream American literature) and to further reading. Finally, I can draw no more reasonable generalization about this exciting new book than that it represents an apocalyptic transformation of science-fiction criticism, too. I believe this work will generate anew the controversy over the uniqueness and significance of science fiction, the philosophical implications of change, and the role of the religious vision in a secular age.

--S.C. Fredericks


Twenty years after editing Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, Reginald Bretnor has organized and edited a new collection, Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow (Harper & Row, $8.95). The essays are original with this book and, although written to fill Bretnor's own table of contents, highly eclectic; generally, they may be said to congratulate SF as being science, prophecy, and mythology rolled into one, although several authors expressed doubts that SF was fulfilling its potential in all these areas.

Like many of his contributors, Bretnor is in favor of "hard-core" SF: "Science fiction cannot and must not be divorced from science." His own essay is both provocative and irritating, since it includes an unnecessarily large number of attacks on everything in sight, especially Marxists, Freudians, the counter-culture, the bad pay of SF writers, and the supposedly good pay of teachers of SF courses. Fortunately, this collection also includes valuable essays dealing with the last two, the economics of SF publishing (Frederik Pohl) and the problems of SF teachers (Jack Williamson).

Two "hard-core" essays are equally solid: Poul Anderson demonstrates how to calculate the orbits and gravity of imaginary planets, and Hal Clement discusses the anatomy of extraterrestrial beings. Bretnor and other hard science advocates in this collection consistently invoke C.P. Snow's "two cultures," finding that SF is significant chiefly because it single-handedly and heroically bridges the gap. James Gunn, however, suggests that the two-culture concept is detrimental to SF, keeping it in a ghetto separated from "mainstream" fiction. He sees both of these divisions fading away, to the benefit of SF.

To Bretnor's credit, he unflinchingly brings in the opposition to science as well. Alexei and Cory Panshin flatly state that "modern SF is fantasy." While Ben Bova argues (not very convincingly) that SF has become a "modern mythology" by interpreting science for mankind, the Panshins argue that SF can provide this mythologic power only by developing a "Sensitive symbolic vocabulary that can be generally understood and that is capable of representing all aspects of the unconscious." For them, the promise of SF lies not in its mimetic nature but in its ability to provide a new "World Beyond the Hill."

All of these essayists hope to see SF evolve into even more powerful and imaginative forms, although they disagree as to whether this can be done by prophesying significant scientific futures, creating new worlds of fantasy, studying mainstream fiction for stylistic innovations, or providing deeper characterization (Anne McCaffrey, Gordon R. Dickson). Noting that "power rests in getting masses of people to accept your interpretation of events," Frank Herbert states this most clearly; Brave New World and 1984 are touchstones of modern SF not because they predict the future, create memorable characters, use mainstream style, or evoke the unconscious, but because they help define the way in which we look at the world.

--Charles Nicol.


I can remember the excitement I felt in 1939, first when reading of plans for Pocket Books, and later when a display rack with the first ten or fifteen titles appeared at a local newsstand: henceforth I would be able to buy books for 25¢ rather than 75¢ (the price of "popular copyrights") or 95¢ (the price of Modern Library books)--for me, a difference great enough to make the buying of books something it had never been before, a comparatively casual matter. Pocket Books, Inc., had the field to itself for a year or so, but Avon was established in 1941, the New American Library (as the US branch of Penguin Books) in 1942, Dell and Popular in 1943, and Bantam in 1945. Although Donald Wollheim's anthology, The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, appeared as early as 1943, SF was virtually unrepresented in the paperbacks until the 1950s.

The first Heinlein appeared in 1951, the first van Vogt in 1952, and the first Asimov in 1953, which was also the year in which Ballantine launched its distinguished line with The Space Merchants, and perhaps the year in which Ace began its exercise in quantity. Such facts can be discovered by perusing R. Reginald and M.R. Burgess, Cumulative Paperback Index 1939-1959: A Comprehensive Bibliographic Guide to 14,000 Mass-Market Paperback Books of 33 Publishers Issued under 69 Imprints (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1973, $24.00). The second volume, covering the 1960s, is planned for 1977.



The Fall 1973 issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination (Department of English, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Ga. 30303) contains articles by W. Warren Wagar on Wells, Peter Wolfe on Skinner's Walden Two, Robert O. Evans on Anthony Burgess, David Skilton on Trollope's The Fixed Period, Howard Fink on Orwell, Robert M. Philmus on Swift and Orwell, David Ketterer on "utopian fantasy," Sylvia E. Bowman on utopian views of man and the machine, and Darko Suvin on utopias as a literary genre--all in all, a very satisfactory collection. No price is given for the issue: "Copies will be sent to selected institutions, libraries, and individuals upon request," whatever that means.


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