- 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)
BOOKS IN REVIEW
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
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
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
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
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
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 Batchelor. H.G.
Wells. Cambridge, London, &c.: Cambridge UP, 1985. 188pp. $10.95
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.
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
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.
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