Science Fiction Studies

#39 = Volume 13, Part 2 = July 1986



  • Paul Brians. Dealing with Nuclear Catastrophe (H. Bruce Franklin, ed. Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories About Nuclear War: Walter M. Miller, Jr, ed. Beyond Armageddon: Twenty-One Sermons to the Dead.)
  • John Huntington. Rethinking Wells (John Batchelor. H.G. Wells; J.R. Hammond, ed. The Man with a Nose and the Other Uncollected Short Stories of H.G. Wells; William J. Scheick. The Splintering Frame: The Later Fiction of H.G. Wells)


Paul Brians

Dealing with Nuclear Catastrophe

H. Bruce Franklin, ed. Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories About Nuclear War. NY: DAW, 1984. 287pp. $2.95 (paper).

Walter M. Miller, Jr, ed. Beyond Armageddon: Twenty-One Sermons to the Dead. NY: Donald I. Fine, 1985. 387pp. $18.95.

Over the years there have been anthologies of stories about ecocatastrophe, about the end of the world, and about the last man on Earth; but until recently, no single volume focused specifically on nuclear war. With the revived interest in the theme come these two collections, well calculated to meet the demands of the classroom teacher and general reader alike.

Each has its strong and weak points. The strongest point of the Franklin anthology is its introduction and notes. Franklin knows the SF field intimately, particularly as concerns short stories, and does a fine job of providing interesting background for each of his selections. Even more important, he provides an introductory essay on "Nuclear War and Science Fiction" which is an outstanding historical survey, ranging far beyond the works he has chosen for inclusion in his anthology. Most of it is devoted to the origins of the theme, beginning with H.G. Wells's The World Set Free. Franklin carefully links events in the history of the Atomic Age with the SF of each period. He does not confine himself to a discussion of the short stories: he also mentions many of the most significant novels dealing with nuclear war. This essay alone is worth the price of the volume.

Walter M. Miller, Jr, by contrast, provides little in the way of information about the stories he presents in Beyond Armageddon, and his introductory "Forewarning" is a rambling essay on his views concerning nuclear war, including his peculiar notion that proliferation of atomic weapons is a path to peace. The author of A Canticle for Leibowitz does note that his own nuclear-war fiction, like that of most other SF writers, underestimated the horror of what he chooses to call "megawar."

Neither editor is completely consistent in confining his selections to his chosen theme. Several of Miller's stories are not about nuclear war, and one of the longest in the Franklin volume, Mikhael Yemstev and Eremei Parnov's "Everything But Love," concerns exposure to radiation, and refers only occasionally to the development of the atomic bomb. It is good that Franklin tried to include authors from the Communist world, but the fact is that depictions of nuclear conflict as such are taboo there. (The only exception of which I am aware is the Strugatskys' book available in English as Prisoners of Power, which is set on an alien world, and whose primary theme is not nuclear war.)

Both anthologies contain Norman Spinrad's classic 1960s' rock-inspired story, "The Big Flash." They also share Ward Moore's overrated "Lot," in which the protagonist fleeing an atomic attack abandons his stereotypically obnoxious wife and sons to go off with his sexy 14-year-old daughter (in a sequel he has a child by her). Miller seems to think that because the father in this story abducts his daughter rather than being seduced by her like the biblical Lot, feminists will prefer Moore's story.

Franklin prints three seminal stories whose historical importance cannot be denied even if they are not masterpieces of writing: Chandler Davis's "To Still the Drums," Theodore Sturgeon's "Thunder and Roses," and Judith Merril's "That Only a Mother." The latter two are readily available elsewhere, however, and are not strong selling points for the collection. Of his remaining stories, the most interesting are Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (also widely available) and "Akua Nuten (The South Wind)" by an author with a Canadian-Indian heritage, Yves Thériault. Someone should translate the rest of the collection from which the latter story--Si la bombe m'était contée--which depicts the responses of various peoples to the bomb. If the rest of its contents are as well done as this portrait of a native's reaction to the destruction of the white man's world, it would be a worthwhile project.

Joe Haldeman's "To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal" is a fairly routine essay on the theme of disarmament through nuclear blackmail of the sort that pops up again and again in thrillers, though less commonly in SF. Such fantasies seek to eliminate the threat of the bomb by the same means that nations use to create the balance of terror, and represent a striking failure of the imagination.

It is probably unfair to compare the quality of Franklin's stories with Miller's, for they both have their share of dross; but because Miller prints 21 to Franklin's 12, he presents more material of interest. High points include Robert Sheckley's moving twist-ending story "The Store of Worlds," Carol Emshwiller's "Day at the Beach," Edward Bryant's "Jody After the War," and J.G. Ballard's "The Terminal Beach," none of them as accessible as the Sturgeon or Merril stories discussed above. All of these stories focus on intimate human relationships, as does Canticle. A good deal of credit for the high quality of the selections in Beyond Armageddon must undoubtedly go to Martin H. Greenberg, whom Miller credits with much of the work on this anthology.

Miller notes that--despite his title--few SF writers other than himself have dealt with the theme of nuclear war from a religious perspective. He also points out how rarely SF deals with nuclear conflict as such, how often it is placed in the remote background of the narrative. Most well-known accounts of nuclear conflict as such are by mainstream or thriller writers. SF's future orientation and--until the mid-'60s--its bias towards happy endings explains a good deal of this avoidance. But the stories about the aftermath in Beyond Armageddon underline how well--at its best--SF can deal with the catastrophe which threatens all of us.

John Huntington

Rethinking Wells

John Batchelor. H.G. Wells. Cambridge, London, &c.: Cambridge UP, 1985. 188pp. $10.95 (paper).

J.R. Hammond, ed. The Man with a Nose and the Other Uncollected Short Stories of H.G. Wells. London: Athlone Press, 1984. 222pp. $19.95.

William J. Scheick. The Splintering Frame: The Later Fiction of H.G. Wells. [English Literary Studies No. 31.] Vancouver: University of Victoria, 1984. 134pp. Can.$6.00 (paper).

Wells's early scientific romances are by now familiar territory. But Wells was an extraordinarily prolific and varied writer, and there is always the hope that an exploration of his later work and of his work in other genres will shed new light on the early SF. The books under review represent three quite different approaches to such an exploration. Hammond's collection of stories gathers work that has been scattered and difficult to find. Batchelor makes a case for Wells's importance by summarizing the whole of Wells's literary career. Scheick, much the most critically ambitious of the three, attempts to change our perception of Wells's later work by arguing that its supposed lapses are techniques in a conscious artistic program.

The Man with the Nose brings together Wells stories not included in The Complete Short Stories (Dent, 1927). The stories come from all periods of Wells's creative life, though the majority are early. None of these stories will revolutionize our understanding of Wells or introduce a new dimension to SF, but at a more modest level, a number of them will be of interest to scholars of Wells. "The Loyalty of Esau Common" (1902), a fragment originally written as a companion piece to "The Land Ironclads," shows much more clearly than the more famous story the conflicts that were straining Wells's own loyalties and thoughts at this time. Esau Common, a gifted proletarian in a rigidly aristocratic and militarily traditional society, resists the temptation to defect to a more just and reasonable neighboring country which has modernized warfare. The story lacks a conclusion, perhaps because Wells himself could not find his way out of the tangle of issues it raises. And it is interesting to find in "The Queer Story of Brownlaw's Newspaper," a late story written after the publication of The Complete Stories, Wells elaborating further the kind of temporal-spatial anomalies he entertained in such early works as "The Story of Davidson's Eyes" or "The Plattner Story."

Though the basis for the selection of stories is strictly bibliographic (their only connection is that they are all "uncollected"), this is not a scholarly edition. The order of the stories is not chronological. A bibliography of first publications is given at the end, but it is minimal and unexplicated. Hammond's brief Introduction mentions each story but has little to offer about biography, bibliography, or literary criticism. Why many of these stories were not collected by Wells remains unexplained.

If Hammond is brief, Batchelor is broad. His H.G. Wells surveys the whole of Wells's work and observes occasional novelistic virtues. At his best, on the early scientific romances which have been most thoroughly discussed by previous critics, he analyzes major themes and techniques that characterize this early work. Batchelor has intelligent opinions, and generally the book reads well. But, finally, it succumbs to the traps endemic to such an introductory survey. It has an air of duty about it, as if Batchelor read a Wells novel each morning and wrote a page-and-a-half on it in the afternoon. Often he simply summarizes a book's plot and then grades it for characterization and style. Occasionally he will bring up another critic, usually to disagree. His immersion in Wells makes Batchelor alert to random similarities between various novels, but it makes any extended argument difficult to mount or to sustain. At one point the project seems to have lost all focus and boundary as Batchelor rambles through a three-page paragraph summarizing and criticizing four novels.

Insofar as Batchelor's book has a critical thesis, it is that Wells is a skillful and undervalued writer who must be rescued from his own sloppiness. To Wells's aggressively disorienting work Batchelor brings conventional taste. A typical line: "if the novel were written with anything approaching James's care it could have been a striking work of art. As it is, it shows the usual haste and inattentiveness but begins well, and has throughout sparks of liveliness" (p. 105). The aesthetic criteria of the Jamesian art-novel are here invoked without question. Batchelor can declare that "by anybody's standards The Passionate Friends is a solemn and boring book" (p. 114), apparently unaware of Nabokov's praise of it or that there might be other approaches than his own to its evaluation.

By contrast, William Scheick understands that Wells was not just a potential James who failed. Scheick challenges the accusations of "haste and inattentiveness" and accounts for the eccentricities of Wells's later work by positing a conscious restructuring of the novel form itself. He argues that Wells violates reader expectation in order to urge readers beyond their conventional responses and into an engagement with new possibilities. Such games of technique have the serious purpose of forcing the reader into a state of self-conscious reflection on the conventions of fiction. The violation of the reader's comfortable expectations will, we are told, "rouse" readers "to perceive a human dimension potentially rich in hope" (p. 118); "In the process of interacting [reader and text] mutually develop deeper meaning" (p. 31); "discontent generates cognitive processes in the reader" (p. 94).

Once such a plausible thesis has been proposed, however, one wants to be led towards some more precise understanding of the exact nature of this new thought. But Scheick, having from the start disclaimed any intention of dealing with Wells's concrete ideas, leaves us with the promise of insight without the insight. He twice invokes, without naming its author, Stanley Fish's term "self-consuming artifacts," but Scheick's analysis has none of the detailed discussion of specific ideas that characterizes Fish's readings. Instead of refining his thesis, he simply repeats it. In the last pages he is telling us, as if for the first time, that a Wells narrator "delights in misdirecting the reader in order to provoke thought" (p. 121).

In part because he wants to save Wells from the charge of failure, Scheick has to find in works that disappoint Wells himself something he can call an aesthetic success. He does this by remaining content with unexplicated phrases such as "deeper meaning." And he also plays his own somewhat Hegelian game whereby the more frustrating the novel is, the more reflection it generates. Given the vagueness of the ideas at work, he can argue that any disruption of ordinary expectations causes insight, and that the more clumsy the novel, the more successful.

We must acknowledge that Scheick's vagueness is in part a consequence of Wells's own. Wells is full of intuitions that some revelation is hand, that the next book will finally capture it. As he says in the Experiment in Autobiography, "I was feeling my way towards something outside any established formula for the novel altogether" (EA [NY:Macmillian, 1934], 7:5:418; emphasis added). And Wells is usually as frustrated as his reader at his failure to realize this fuzzy intuition. In Brynhild, using a language close to that of Scheick, Wells points to the potential fatuousness of his own broad goals. Rowland Palace, a successful, self-conscious, and pompous author, tries to explain to his wife, Brynhild, his motive for writing:

He said he wanted to release people. That was his aim.

'Release from what?' [asked Brynhild.]

'From all the clotted nonsense, new and old, in which they are--embedded.'

'And, dearest, what then?'

It seemed natural enough to ask that. She looked at him expectantly but all he did was to frown slightly and wave an arm.

'What would you?' he asked.

'But what would you?' she countered.

'Art, freedom, a sufficient life.'

Was he embarrassed at expounding the obvious or was he evading the inexplicable? Art, freedom, a sufficient life? She felt, but she did not know how to say, that these words meant nothing until they were defined. (Brynhild [NY: Scribner's, 1937], 4:37-38)

The problem depicted here is the reduction of ideas to aesthetic postures. As Robert Bloom argues, "what Wells develops with great force throughout his portrayal of Palace, is the reprehensibleness of Palace's engaging in universal, 'liberating,' criticism, yet having nothing --certainly nothing like a Wellsian program for the salvaging of civilization--to recommend in place of what he decries" (Anatomies of Egotism [Omaha, 1977], p. 94). But what in Wells is an ongoing creative challenge becomes in Scheick an aesthetic policy.

Scheick's use of metaphor in place of analysis compounds the vagueness of the argument. In his opening chapter, he establishes a group of complex thematic metaphors--the splintering frame, the fourth dimension, the spiral of time--which he will then reinvoke throughout the later discussion. The metaphor of the splintering frame allows him to confuse Wells's interest in the novel as a force in contemporary history with a concern with technique.

The metaphor comes from a passage in the Experiment in Autobiography in which Wells describes the evolution of the modern novel:

Throughout the broad smooth flow of nineteenth century life in Great Britain, the art of fiction floated on this same assumption of social fixity. The Novel in English was produced in an atmosphere of security for the entertainment of secure people who liked to feel established and safe for good. Its standards were established within that apparently permanent frame and the criticism of it began to be irritated and perplexed when, through a new instability, the splintering frame began to get into the picture.

I suppose for a time I was the outstanding instance among writers of fiction in English of the frame getting into the picture. (EA 7:5:416)

By the phrase "the splintering frame," Wells seems to be referring to the intrusion of issues from the real, "unfixed" historical world into the fictional canvas of the novel. He is explaining the inclusion in his own novels of specific philosophical and political debates, historical details, autobiographical references, and even passages by other people, such as "a reported speech by a distinguished contemporary" in Marriage (1912). In Scheick's more formalist reading, the "splintering frame" of "social fixity" hardly figures. Scheick turns the splintering frame into a metaphor referring to a conscious novelistic "technique" which entails at different times self-reference, discontinuous or ambiguous point of view, thwarted convention, and denied closure.

By his emphasis on "technique," Scheick has tried to defend Wells by the Jamesian values that Batchelor uses to find fault. Wells's fight with James was, we should remember, not over narrowly formal issues, but over large issues of the place of ideas and debate in art and the final importance or irrelevance of conscious technique. It has been usual, of course, to see Wells's vagueness and formal irregularity as deriving in part at least from his inattention to form and technique as he struggles to say something significant about the complexities and conflicts of real history. As Wells himself put it, "I had very many things to say and. . . if I could say one of them in such a way as to get my point over to the reader I did not worry much about finish" (EA 7:5:418).

To replace Wells's self-promoted picture of thoughtful and unpolished engagement with ideas with one of a Wells of "conscious artistry," Scheick has to simplify issues and their interrelations. Though he may warn us in his Preface that "the scholar must be most cautious in any attempt at codifying or systematizing Wells's ideas," Scheick develops an overall picture of Wells as a systematic writer of fixed principles inhabiting a neatly labeled historical situation. He at one point argues that in his last two decades Wells's "approach to the novel" was the same as that of such later postmodernists as Borges, Nabokov, Barth, Pynchon, and Barthelme. History, as Scheick depicts it, has its watershed dates--1912, the year (Scheick reminds us) that Virginia Woolf identified as the beginning of the Modern Age; the First World War; and 1920, the year Wells is supposed to have discovered the splintering frame novel. And, for Scheick, Wells writes in reaction to such reified abstractions as "the distrust of science during the twenties" (p. 20), "The Romantic admiration of language" (p. 117), "the formulae of fictional conventions" (p. 47). Such a schematic rendering of Wells and of his age may be useful as a beginning, but this book never gets beyond such simplifications.

Finally, the high level of generalization prevents Scheick from catching the real intricacy of Wells's fiction. Wells is a conscious artist, not in the aesthetic mode in which Scheick wants to place him, but in his ability to give shading, contour, and drama to his ideas. In the case of Star-Begotten, for instance, Scheick misses the ironic comedy of the whole novel. He is certainly correct to see it as a commentary on SF, what he will call "Ultra-SF," but he underestimates the ironic inconclusiveness of the novel. Star-Begotten describes how the idea that the human race is being genetically modified by cosmic rays directed from space by "Martians" takes hold of a group of intelligent, concerned men and women. At one point Scheick acknowledges that the novel offers no "certainty that an invasion is truly underway" (p. 83), but for most of his analysis he seems to forget this all-important ambiguity and treat the novel as if it were debating the narrower question of "whether the emerging new species of humanity is a fresh start or an evolutionary advance within Homo sapiens" (p. 82).

The essential ambiguity of the novel can be seen in the following passage. Keppel is explaining to Davis and Holdman Stedding what the mutant child might experience:

'As children, like any other children, they will have begun by taking the world as they found it and believing everything they were told. Then as they grew up they will have found themselves mentally out of key. They will have found a disconcerting inconsistency about things in general. They will have thought at first that the abnormality was on the side of particular people about them and not on their own. They would have found themselves doubting whether their parents and teachers could possibly believe what they were saying. I think that among these Martians, that odd doubt--which many children nowadays certainly have--whether the whole world isn't some queer sort of put-up job and that it will all turn out quite differently presently--I think that streak of doubt would be an almost inevitable characteristic of them all.'

'That doubt about the reality of what they are told? considered Davis.

'Children certainly have it. Even I. . .

Keppel glanced at him for one half instant. (Star-Begotten [London: Chatto & Windus, 19371. 8:145-46)

The irony here is that the evidence for a new mentality is also a common childhood fantasy. In the last intellectual pirouette, the evidence that Davis himself may be a member of the new species is at the same time a self-congratulatory gesture by which the bright child rationalizes why its special "genius" has not been recognized.

The whole of the chapter from which this passage comes sustains this ambiguity: the language with which the three men discuss the state of the world anticipates Wells's own postures later in Mind at the End of its Tether (1945), but it also has the pompous and broken grandiosity of drunken conversation and may remind us of Bedford and Cavor's discussions on the Moon. When Keppel denounces humanity on the grounds that "the creature hardly ever becomes adult. Hardly any of us grow up fully" (p. 174), he seems unaware that, like the paradoxes of sentences that declare their own falsity, his statement is self-deconstructing. A moment earlier, the men have defined humanity with the contemptuous phrase "Homo superbus" and, some- how, left themselves out of the category. Like Gulliver ranting against human pride, the satirist, by exemplifying the failure he denounces, becomes the refutation of his own position, and thereby its proof.

The issues raised by the ambiguity of Star-Begotten cannot be left abstract. The discussion of genetic change is not just an intellectual game; it takes place in the context of Nazi theories of racial superiority, biological discussions of eugenics and "the improvement of the race," and Wells's own long-standing dream of Men Like Gods who would finally band together in an open conspiracy to save the world. If Wells's art is intricate, it is so to a purpose in a world in which real decisions and actions are to be made.

Scheick's attention to Wells's sources can lead him to undercut his own main thesis about the importance of technique. In the interesting explication of Apropos of Dolores (1938) as an allegory of the dilemma facing Western culture, Scheick uses Spengler's morphology of civilization (robbed of its conservative pessimism and of its deeply essential fatalism) to explain that Dolores, a foolish, pampered, and tyrannical woman, is like "declining Western civilization," while Wilbeck, her husband, represents the rebirth of culture. The novel is very explicit about these matters, however, and it needs no spirit of garbled Teutonic Geistesgeschichte to tell us this. And by dwelling on the Spenglerian allegory, Scheick ends up disregarding the problems of ambiguity (did Wilbeck kill his wife?) and irony (which voice can we trust?) that distinguish this curious novel. When it does not suit his purposes, Scheick will ignore the splintering frame.

A similar reduction of complexity occurs when, in interpreting the end of The Croquet Player (1937), Scheick argues that the reader should react in "horror" at the narrator's final disinterest and his petty concern for croquet: "the horror," Scheick argues, "lurks in the Spirit of English civilization (suggested by the narrator's name George and his fondness for croquet)" (p. 77). While we should acknowledge the attack on complacency here, we should also remember that, after all, H.G.'s own name is George, that he was a fanatic lover of games (just as was his Mr. Britling), and that he even published a book on how to play games with lead soldiers (Little Wars, 1913). Batchelor also associates croquet "with genteel aggression and the pointless diversions of the stupid rich" (p. 103). But the novel cannot be reduced to such one-dimensional, positive stances. Both critics underestimate Wells's profound understanding of the attractions of resignation and distraction even as he champions action. Wells's ironic intelligence had always, from the very beginning, been attracted to such double moments. One might remember the interview of the tramp and the vagabond Angel in The Wonderful Visit (1895). Scheick has taken us toward an analysis of such difficult moments in Wells, but his critical machinery is not delicate or precise enough to measure Wells's complexity of tone. Wells is simply much more intricate than this innocent approach can quite comprehend.

Ironically, Scheick's thesis about the self-conscious aspects of Wells's late work may usefully refocus our understanding of the early works, which are, despite what Scheick will occasionally argue, far from "casual" and in which clearly "conscious artistry" and "finish" often predominate over "saying." One has only to think of the reference to Wells himself via the narrator of The War of the Worlds writing his papers on "the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed," or the games with frame and reality in such early stories as "The Triumphs of a Taxidermist" or "The Man Who Could Work Miracles." Scheick's book will be of interest to students of Wells's SF for its insistence that Wells, despite his concern for science and his desire to change the world, deeply enjoyed the arts of narration. After reading Scheick, one goes back to such early classics as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, or The First Men in the Moon alerted to the disconcerting tricks by which Wells renews old forms of adventure. This is not a new perception, but it is a valuable reminder.

Though we are currently contented with our appreciation of early Wells, all of Wells's work poses a problem for our critical understanding. He has always stood as a figure in some kind of opposition to the main aesthetic of the Great Tradition and High Modernism. Insofar as we can label him as one of the parents of SF, we may feel him safely honored, but we are then dignifying him for work he did not always consider at the center of his lifelong project. He has been praised by such major and varied writers as Orwell and Borges and singled out by such different critics as Pritchett and Williams. But in the wide world of literature, H.G. Wells remains often unread and ghettoized.

It is not enough simply to offer more work or to resurvey the career. And Scheick's thesis about Wells's use of formal discontinuity as a thematic device, though it may reawaken us to an aspect of Wells that has been generally overlooked, finally succeeds only in making Wells into a minor precursor of the greater postmodernists. If Wells is ever to be seen as the major writer many of us think he is, we will have to rethink and restructure our aesthetic priorities. The history of the literary canon is just such a sequence of restructurings. One thinks of how the later 18th century "discovered" folk poetry, or how T.S. Eliot renewed the intellectual-emotional meaning of Metaphysical Poetry, or how modern feminists have allowed us to see the real struggles of women's writings that had generally been dismissed. Just as readers accustomed to the elegance of Pope had to be taught to find beauty in a ballad, readers accustomed to the high-minded moral concerns of a James need to be shown how to see "art" in Wells's more concrete meditations on his society and the ways humans relate to each other in it. To properly appreciate Wells, we need to recognize more clearly than these books do that Wells's art cannot be adequately accounted for by conventional aesthetic values, that his is an aesthetic which finds value in specific political and historical ideas and issues. In order to influence the understanding and evaluation of Wells in any significant way, we are going to have to take on the detailed ideas and the explicit political stances to which Wells committed himself, which Hammond and Batchelor generally ignore, and which Scheick consciously avoids.

  moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home