Science Fiction Studies

#52 = Volume 17, Part 3 = November 1990


  • Gary K. Wolfe. Writers as Critics (James Blish. The Tale that Wags the God; Norman Spinrad. Science Fiction in the Real World)


Gary K. Wolfe

Writers as Critics

James Blish. The Tale that Wags the God, edited by Cy Chauvin, with an introduction by John Foyster and a bibliography by Judith L. Blish. Chicago: Advent, 1987. 290pp. $15.00.

Norman Spinrad. Science Fiction in the Real World. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1990. xvi + 234pp. $24.95 (cloth), $14.95 (paper).

In the not-too-distant past, readers of SF seeking detailed critical discussion of current writing in the field had precious little to choose from. A few magazines and fanzines provided opportunities for concerned writers to speculate on the state of the art, but for the most part this commentary-- usually wrapped around book reviews--was as ephemeral as the periodicals themselves. Advent Press deserves considerable credit for having preserved in book form the critical work of two writers, Damon Knight and James Blish, as part of an ongoing series that for a long time was nearly all we had in the way of SF criticism in book form. More recently, Southern Illinois University Press has also earned our gratitude for issuing collections of critical essays and reviews by Algis Budrys and now Norman Spinrad.

The Spinrad collection differs from the others in that it represents the outlook of a younger generation of SF writers and contains essays written in the mid-to-late '80s, when the controversy over the New Wave had long subsided and was being replaced by the controversy over cyberpunk. Furthermore, Spinrad was writing after the field had generated a considerable body of both academic scholarship and what Budrys calls "in-house criticism," so that the audience for intelligent commentary about the genre had expanded far beyond aspiring writers and dedicated fans. In form, Spinrad's essays (all but two of which appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine between 1985 and 1988) most resemble Budrys' review-essays in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction--which unfortunately we must still wait to see in book form. Given this historical distance, it is interesting that Spinrad's concerns--the economic pressures on genre writers, the role of the SF community in the production of its fiction, the unstable relationship between SF and the "mainstream"--are much the same as those of the earlier critics whose essays first appeared as far back as the early 1950s.

While neither Knight, Blish, nor Budrys set out to construct a coherent theory of the genre (at least not in their magazine essays), they did establish the principle that there is such a thing as the craft of SF--a particular kind of craft which is neither exempt from the standards of other kinds of fiction nor entirely limited by them--and that someone was watching (and was armed). Knight's In Search of Wonder (1956; 2nd edition 1967, but primarily covering the decade of the 1950s) and Budrys's Benchmarks (collected in 1985 but first published in Galaxy between 1965 and 1971) focussed on the SF novel; and they retain much interest not only for their first-hand views of books which later became "classics," but also for their attention to lesser works that helped define a crucial period in the genre's evolution. Blish, with The Issue at Hand (1964), took a more difficult and less traveled path: he chose to focus on magazine SF, looking for signs of genius or disease at what was for decades the very wellspring of the field. He also discusses novels, more so in his second volume More Issues at Hand (1970); but it is in his painfully forthright demolition work on otherwise forgotten stories by authors such as Charles E. Fritch or Arthur Zirul that we learn most about what makes an SF story succeed or fail.

At the time of Blish's death in 1975 (according to Cy Chauvin in his preface to The Tale that Wags the God), he had planned on completing two additional volumes: one on SF scholarship, the other on critical reactions to various modern art-forms (including music, fantasy, and SF). The former volume, alas, never made it to the revision stage, and none of it survives except in the Blish papers at Oxford. (It would have been particularly enlightening to see first-hand what Blish had to say about Moskowitz, Suvin, Merril, et al., particularly given his habit of uncompromising directness.) The second volume, which seems to have been conceived in much the same spirit as Tom Wolfe's various attacks on contemporary art-forms and critical credulity, does survive in part in this volume--in essays on James Branch Cabell, SF, and modern music. Chauvin has rounded out the volume with seven other essays, an interview between Blish and Brian Aldiss, and a useful and thorough bibliography by Judith Blish.

Blish's earlier volumes with Advent led to his deserved reputation as the field's premier "technical" critic, commenting on everything from punctuation to verb usage to narrative structure. Many of his insights, dressed up in proper academic garb, could pass for modern deconstructionist criticism. While Blish's concern with matters of form and technique is still much in evidence, The Tale that Wags the God is generally much broader in scope and more ruminative than the Issues at Hand volumes. It is as comprehensive an overview as we are likely to get of Blish the essayist and lecturer, the erstwhile musicologist and scholar of Joyce and Cabell.

The first five essays in this volume cover various aspects of modern SF and its tribulations, and some of them seem a bit old hat by now. "The Function of Science Fiction" first appeared in 1970 (and will be familiar to many readers from its 1971 appearance as the introduction to Harry Harrison's anthology The Light Fantastic). The essay repeats the now-familiar litany of mainstream writers who have attempted SF, argues that SF can be a form of thought-experiment and a kind of modern mythology, and drags in some heavy artillery from the likes of Susanne Langer, Simon O. Lesser, and Michael Polanyi to show how the concerns of SF reflect the concerns of the best minds of our age. None of this seems at all fresh anymore, but the clarity of Blish's reasoning and his insightful side comments on the success of novels such as Rosemary's Baby make the piece worth reading. Two complementary essays follow, on the science in SF and the arts in SF; and here Blish's insights seem to gain value over time. "The Science in Science Fiction" rightly observes that most of what passes for "hard" SF is more technology fiction than SF, and concludes that "the most important scientific content in modern science fiction are the impossibilities" (p. 45). "The Arts in Science Fiction" covers territory that is still too rarely explored, and seems to derive from the difficulties Blish had in assembling stories for an anthology on this theme (New Dreams This Morning, 1966). Blish focusses not only on the portrayal of art and artists in SF (in the process identifying a disturbing strain of philistinism), but on the impact of various arts, including the literary, on SF narrative itself.

The most ambitious piece in the book in terms of theory--one bearing the Joycean title "Probapossible Prolegomena to Ideareal History"--is unfortunately something of an embarrassment. Blish's critical sensibility was such that he never seemed taken in by the various technocratic and dianetic movements that from time to time have threatened to possess SF like so many adolescent demons, but he would not give up his Spengler. As a basis for fictional extrapolations (as in the "Cities in Flight" novels), Spengler can function as well as any other extended conceit (van Vogt as well as Blish made superior entertainments out of what must for them have seemed like a real-life version of Asimov's psychohistory). But as a means of explaining how SF came to be and where it is going, these swashbuckling theories take a decided turn to the bizarre--like using Velikovsky to explain why your basement is flooded. Despite the usual assortment of sharp insights on specific aspects of the problem, Blish ends up here with what is probably the most eccentric definition of SF on record--"the internal (intracultural) literary form taken by syncretism in the West" (p. 80). But then again, everybody's basement has a hobbyhorse.

The second section of Blish's Tale moves away from theoretical considerations and includes appreciations of Poul Anderson and James Branch Cabell, a fascinating account of dream-literature (which carries over into the Cabell essay in a peculiar but oddly persuasive comparison of his The Nightmare Has Triplets with Joyce's Finnegans Wake), and an impassioned attack on the excesses of modern music which originally appeared in Playboy in 1964. The latter essay has nothing particularly to do with SF, but it does reveal Blish's sophisticated love of music and stands in a kind of ironic contrast to the essay on the arts in SF (written eight years later; it is important to remember while reading this book that the pieces are not arranged chronologically). While he there castigated Heinlein and others for their provincial views on abstract art and the recurrent notion that all "serious" music is program music, in the earlier essay he finds himself totally unable to cope with the radical annihilation of traditional forms in the work of composers such as John Cage. Like many of SF's standard-bearers, Blish seems to lose patience with other art forms somewhere around the end of modernism.

The third section of the book concerns Blish himself. The longest piece in Tale, "A Science Fiction Coming of Age," is a moving but unsentimental autobiographical essay which will be of great value to any student of Blish-- although his tone throughout is decidedly uncomfortable. The final selection is a 1973 conversation with Brian Aldiss in which Aldiss draws out some very useful comments about the "Cities in Flight" and "After Such Knowledge" series. It provides a nice coda; each author seems genuinely fond of the other, and neither quite knows what to make of the fact that, as Aldiss says, "we're household words--in a limited number of households!" (p.184).

Judith Blish's bibliography seems as complete and orderly as anyone would want, with works organized alphabetically under a dozen headings and with reprints listed under the main entries. The sections include not only stories and novels, but criticism, reviews, articles and interviews, introductions, poetry, and "Star Trek" books. (The individual stories in those books are not listed as separate entries in the short-story section. And one other note of caution: the bibliography is separately indexed from the essays, so that while the title and name indexes in the back of the book appear to refer to the whole volume, the actual index to the essay portion appears 100 pages earlier, starting on p. 185.)

In retrospect, The Tale that Wags the God may be of more interest to more students of SF--and particularly of Blish--than the Issues at Hand volumes. While it lacks the documentary excitement of those earlier essays, which chronicled SF's ongoing struggle towards coherence during a crucial period, it provides us with a much clearer overview of Blish the writer and the critic--and gives us further reason (as if we needed it) to lament the things that never got said.

Blish might not have known quite what to make of a title like Spinrad's Science Fiction in the Real World, since for him SF was the real world: there was no substantial body of academic or mainstream criticism to serve as foil; and the production, marketing, distribution, and reception of SF texts was pretty much predictable from year to year. When Blish wrote his essays, a "breakout" book meant abandoning the field altogether in the manner of Michael Shaara; today it can mean reaching the bestseller lists on more or less purely SF terms, as Isaac Asimov, Piers Anthony, and Philip Jose Farmer have demonstrated. The mainstream adulation accorded a Le Guin or a Lem, or the strangely mutating reputation of Philip K. Dick, would have seemed equally unlikely. The "real world" of Spinrad's title alludes to all of these things and more: he is not simply reminding us of the economic and psychological pressures on the working writer as opposed to the idealized textual analysis of the academics, but of the various "worlds"-- of media, mainstream fiction and criticism, and cultism--that threaten to distort our understanding of the genre as it is actually practiced. He makes his points with considerable grace and elegance.

Spinrad organizes his collection into five broadly topical sections, covering questions of critical standards and genre, media, movements or "modes," psycho-political questions, and individual authors. His first essay, "Critical Standards," establishes the approach which he uses more or less consistently throughout the book: raising a major question about the genre and then constructing his analysis of it by means of a fairly detailed examination of one or two symptomatic books or authors. In this first case, he is responding to Luc Sante's much-bemoaned attack on SF which appeared in Harper's in 1986. His illustrative texts are Carol Hill's The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer and Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home, and what he is illustrating is that the former novel is failed SF and the latter deteriorated SF. Both have earned praise from mainstream critics, Spinrad argues, because the very sloppiness that keeps them from succeeding as SF gives them enough distance from the genre to be acceptable to the critical establishment.

So far, it sounds like Spinrad is well on his way to repeating the hidebound and specious argument that SF is just too complicated for the mainstream reader--it gets beat up because it's bright and nerdy. But in his second essay, he reverses his field and presents the case that SF often fails to meet its own potential by reverting to the easy, formulaic solutions that Spinrad terms "sci-fi." His examples here are Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Walter Jon Williams' Hardwired, and his own first novel, The Solarians, each of which he believes failed its own tragic premise by lapsing into sci-fi at a crucial juncture. The Card novel in particular attained great popularity and won the Hugo and the Nebula awards; so it appears that while failed SF can win praise from mainstream critics, another kind of failed SF can win equal praise from the SF community itself. The matter is complicated further in Spinrad's third essay, in which he considers both genre writers who have attempted "breakout" novels (such as George R.R. Martin) and "outsiders" who have moved in on genre materials (such as Russell Hoban, Margaret Atwood, and even Norman Mailer--whose Ancient Evenings Spinrad views as a straightforward and successful fantasy novel). His general conclusion from all this seems to be that SF has come to represent a kind of global, future-oriented world-view that can inform mainstream fiction directly (as it does with Moorcock's Byzantium Endures), and that this aspect of the genre is too often ignored not only by mainstream writers and critics (who, lacking a grounding in the genre, cannot even see that Ancient Evenings is a fantasy), but by SF writers themselves.

The second section of SF in the Real World consists of two essays, one on the graphic novel and one on movie adaptations of SF texts. Spinrad shares the enthusiasm of Harlan Ellison and others concerning the aesthetic potential of the graphic novel, and even excitedly claims that we may be witnessing the birth of an entirely new art-form, comparable to the invention of prose fiction, theater, or television. While I understand Spinrad's admiration of the work of Frank Miller, Philippe Druillet, and Alan Moore, and appreciate the need for a certain degree of advocacy in trying to call attention to an underrated form, this is exactly the sort of sententious proclamation that comes around to haunt critics in later years. Spinrad's attempt to provide historical lineage leaps wildly from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the opera to the invention of photography before settling down into a pretty well-reasoned argument on the importance of E.C. Comics to the recent evolution of graphic narratives, but such things as the collage novels that Max Ernst assembled in the 1920s or the contributions of a George Herriman rate no mention at all. Spinrad's account of the SF movie boom of the late '70s and early '80s is more restrained, but already seems slightly dated: the SF movie and TV revolution has turned out to be more short-lived than it seemed in 1985, when the essay was written. The bulk of the essay consists of well-reasoned but more or less predictable accounts of the failure of films like 2010 and Dune, and the unexpected success (in Spinrad's eyes) of Blade Runner.

Spinrad is at his strongest as a critic in the third section of the book, which he titles "Modes of Content: Hard SF, Cyberpunk and the Space Visionaries." The title is a bit misleading, since two of the three essays that follow go to great pains to demonstrate, far better than anyone else has done, that hard SF and cyberpunk are not solely questions of content, but that their parameters can also dictate structure and, to some extent, style. His essay on hard SF is the first I have seen to treat that subgenre as it is currently practiced, and not solely as some artifact of John W. Campbell, Jr's editorial policies. He begins by asking the perfectly reasonable but generally ignored question of why authors such as Ballard, Pohl, and the cyberpunks are excluded from hard SF despite their careful adherence to scientific detail, while writers who freely make use of impossibilities such as faster-than-light travel or spiritual transcendentalism (in the case of Arthur Clarke especially) are included. His conclusion is the same as Blish's in Tale--namely, that what passes for hard SF is for the most part technology SF, and that primacy of hardware is more important than scientific verisimilitude. He illustrates this with excellent discussions of novels by Harry Harrison, Sakyo Komatsu, Greg Bear, and Michael Crichton, and ends by demonstrating brilliantly how the self-imposed strictures of a real hard SF writer--Gregory Benford--can move his fiction in the direction of greater depth and power.

The essay on the cyberpunks is in some ways an extension of the discussion of hard SF, and would be even more persuasive had Spinrad included in the volume a general essay on the New Wave (which haunts the volume, but never quite comes in for extended treatment on its own terms-- possibly because the original magazine appearance of these essays in what was more or less a book-review column may have demanded that they focus on relatively current works). Spinrad sees cyberpunk as a kind of forced-mating of Ellisonian or New Wave street sensibilities with the hard-edged technosphere of more traditional hard SF--the mutant offspring of what seemed in the '60s to be a very unfriendly divorce. But the self-identified cyberpunk movement itself is only the central manifestation of a broader tendency towards high-tech romanticism which Spinrad calls "neuromantic" (after William Gibson's novel Neuromancer). "Neuromantic" started out as Spinrad's preferred term for the cyberpunks; when it utterly failed to catch on, he apparently decided to resurrect it for this broader, less-defined movement in modern SF. Thus he gives himself leave in this chapter not only to discuss Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and John Shirley, but also Greg Bear, who thinks he isn't a cyberpunk.

The third essay in this section, on space colonies, seems a little out of place in that it is the only discussion of a particular SF icon in the volume. In some senses, however, it serves as a continuation of the cyberpunk discussion, since nearly half of the essay is given over to a discussion of how the cyberpunks have appropriated the image for their own purposes. Useful as this is as a case-in-point illustration of the previous essay, this is not the strongest essay in the book; nor does it help that it ends with a totally unnecessary piece of poetic piddle.

The two essays that make up the fourth section of the book, "Psychopolitics and Science Fiction," address an issue that has long concerned Spinrad in his fiction as well as his criticism: the militaristic power fantasies that seem inherent in SF's most basic narrative structures. He tells the story of how he nearly bludgeoned readers with irony in The Iron Dream--only to find the novel placed on the American Nazi Party's recommended reading list. He takes on David Drake, Gordon Dickson, Orson Scott Card (again; Ender's Game seems to really bother Spinrad), and Frank Herbert, whom Spinrad sees as having constructed a genuine epic tragedy out of the archetypal SF power myth in the first three "Dune" books, only to dilute his own achievement with subsequent volumes in the series. This is perhaps the most important moral (as opposed to literary) topic that Spinrad takes on, though his discussion of it suffers somewhat from his not taking the opportunity to focus more forcefully on some of the key earlier works that helped to define the debate, especially works by Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman. Furthermore, the idea of SF as power fantasy is anything but new; and here, as elsewhere, Spinrad fails to take into account the work of other critics and writers who have addressed the problem (with the exception of Joseph Campbell, whose Hero with a Thousand Faces is everybody's source for everything). What Spinrad does accomplish is to outline a generic SF plot (which he calls "The Emperor of Everything"), show how a talented writer like Alfred Bester can subvert the inherent assumptions of this plot in The Stars My Destination, and then chillingly describe how a combination of general market forces and the inchoate influence of SF tradition and fandom can force even a talented writer like Card back into the mold.

The final section of the book consists of individual essays on the careers of Theodore Sturgeon, Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick. The discussions of Sturgeon and Dick are the most passionate and deeply felt pieces in the whole book, describing writers trapped by a combination of genre ghettoization and their own obsessions--in Sturgeon's case, an obsession with craft (which Spinrad feels was ill-served by the posthumous publication of Godbody); in Dick's, an obsession with the illusory nature of reality itself, which became a preoccupation with the phantoms of his own paranoia. The accounts of Vonnegut and Ballard are mirror-images of the same story: an author begins his career writing recognizably genre SF, gains critical acceptance from the mainstream, and moves further from the core of SF. Only the outcomes are radically different: Vonnegut becomes a hugely successful writer of bestsellers, self-indulgent and self-imitative, and increasingly haunted by the ghostlike presence of his fictional SF writer, Kilgore Trout (whom Spinrad equates with Sturgeon, while denying that Sturgeon could ever have become such a hack). Ballard, on the other hand, manages to bring off one bestseller, but continues to experiment and develop his art in such a way that he begins to lose his American SF market as well as the mainstream market, for a time even having difficulty getting his books reprinted in the US.

Spinrad's essay on Philip K. Dick is by far the most personal writing in the book, an account of a friendship as well as a career. His main goal here seems to be to rescue Dick from the clutches of academia and to argue in particular that The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is: (a) not part of the so-called Valis trilogy, (b) solid evidence of Dick's clarity of thought and aesthetic control at the end of his life, and (c) to be counted among Dick's masterworks. Spinrad makes no bones about his assessment of Dick as "by far the greatest metaphysical novelist of all time" (p. 210), and takes pains to remind us that the apparent delusions of Dick's last days were perfectly in keeping with the Zeitgeist of his counter-cultural environment.

Spinrad concludes his book with a personal manifesto detailing his own feelings as an SF writer and calling for a kind of criticism that both recognizes the commercial constraints on the genre and attempts to apply rigorous literary standards. It is a rather ambitious call to action, and he probably expects too much from criticism in terms of how it can actually help to redefine SF or its standing in the "real world," but it is not a standard that Spinrad himself has failed to live up to. Like Blish before him, Spinrad knows well the imperatives of craft and the imperatives of the marketplace, and his book can do much to teach the rest of us how and why these forces come in conflict.

Ideally, I would like to have seen Spinrad rework some of this material into a more unified whole, filling in gaps in such areas as the New Wave and perhaps truncating some secondary discussions of matters such as the L5 society. Like the Knight, Blish, and Budrys volumes, this collection does not disguise its magazine origins; but Spinrad's concerns are so consistent throughout that the book very nearly achieves coherence as an extended argument. There are, to be sure, minor annoyances (more likely the result of faulty proofreading than of sloppiness on Spinrad's part). The text is rife with typographical errors, and a couple of garbled names (Mark "Halperin" for Helprin, Leslie "Fielder" for Fiedler) even make it uncorrected into the index. But for the most part, Science Fiction in the Real World is a worthy heir to the traditions begun by Knight, Blish, and Budrys, and the first major critical work to cover SF during the 1980s.

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