#54 = Volume 18, Part 2 = July 1991
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Science, Fictive Science, and Science Fiction: Bleiler's
Everett F. Bleiler, with the assistance of Richard J.
Bleiler. Science-Fiction: The Early
Years. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1990. 8x11, xxvi+998. $75.00.
This is the book for which I have been waiting most of my life. Written by our
preeminent authority on popular fiction, it is the most valuable bibliographical work yet
published on its subject, and is not likely to be superseded, for who other than Everett
F. Bleiler would do the reading necessary for "A full description of more than 3,000
science-fiction stories from earliest times to the appearance of the genre magazines in
1930" (sub-title)? The Introduction (in addition to setting forth the criteria that will
be discussed below) includes a six-page listing of some 550 "Motifs of Science-fiction,"
followed by a list of 16 "'sentences' or basic plot patterns into which motifs are
fitted." The final section of the Introduction is "A Brief History of Early
Science-Fiction in Terms of Story Clusters." The bulk of the book consists of 2475
articles on novels, magazine stories, and story-collections with sub-entries that bring
the total number of stories discussed to the claimed "more than 3000." The listing is by
author, and each article or group of articles is prefaced by a note on the author. A
chapter entitled "Background Books" discusses 13 works dealing with Atlantis, the hollow
Earth, the canals of Mars, etc. The thousands of items in the "Motif and Theme
Index" begin with "Abaris. Reached secondary moon. 2455," end with "Zulus. 973, 1439," and
include such things as Antigravity (four main entries with a total of 18 subheads and 168
references) and Women (nine main entries, 61 subheads, 246 references). There are also, in
addition to the author and title index, a date index that begins with "380-348 B.C.?,"
and a magazine index demonstrating that SF appeared as a matter of course in magazines of
all types, albeit in none other as frequently as in the Munsey pulps. (One disappointment:
the magazine index often if not always fails to note US appearances of stories by British
authors that appeared also, though not necessarily first, in UK magazines.)
Since no claims are made as to completeness, it would perhaps be wrong to criticize the
book on that score unless one could name important works that have been overlooked. Two
unimportant omissions that I have happened to notice are Garret Smith's "'You've Killed
Privacy!'" (Argosy-Allstory, July 7, 1928) and Donn Byrne's "Through 'HELL' to
Peace" (Smart Set, September 1914). The omission of the first is puzzling, but
that of the second is understandable, since it is unlikely that anyone would search for SF
in either the work of Donn Byrne or the files of Smart Set. (As said above,
Bleiler's book is unlikely to be superseded, but we might expect (or at least hope for) a
supplement dealing with additional stories.
FICTION ACCORDING TO SUBJECT-ATTITUDE
|Relation to "reality"
Genres, forms, fiction types
|1. Accept reality as it is with perhaps a selection of data.
fiction. Social realism. Some labor
fiction. Comedy of manners. Genre fiction:
sports stories, Western stories, war fiction, detective stories, romances, sea stories, etc. Ethnographic fiction
| 2. Accept
reality as it is, but heighten and exaggerate certain aspects.
|| Non-supernatural "fantasy." Hero fiction. Some
labor fiction. Some pornography. Utopias. Tendenzliteratur. Conte cruel.
reality as it is, but add similar material, perhaps with some
exaggeration or heightening.
|| Fantasies of history in general. Imaginary
wars. Historical novels. Adventure fiction. Lost race fiction (often with
some supernaturalism). Life in the future.
|4. Accept reality as it is, but with a pretense of substituting
based on various possible assumptions.
||Absurdist fiction. Some allegories.
|5. Qualified acceptance of reality, with not
so much rejection as readjustment of
adding extensions with certain subject matter.
|| The quasi-scientific portion of
|6.Rejection of reality
in favor of direct contradiction, involving a principle of contranaturalism.
|7. Rejection of reality in favor of a substitute, often defective
||Occult fiction. Much eccentric fiction.
Bleiler does not include stories published new in the SF magazines, but he does
include, on the basis of their first appearance, those known to be reprints (of which, so
far as I know, there is no definitive list). There is one story in Amazing that
has puzzled me over the years: I had no evidence that it was a reprint but felt it too
expertly done to be by one of Gernsback's ill-paid recruits: "On the Martian Way" by
Capt. H.G. Bishop, which Bleiler lists in his six-page Addenda as published in 1907 in Broadway
Magazine, another periodical in which one would hardly expect to find SF stories.
Whether one writes science+ fiction always open, always hyphened, or open for
substantive and hyphened for adjunctive use, is a trivial matter. In recent years,
although some of us continue the grammatical variation, general usage has been
overwhelmingly in favor of the invariable open form, with the invariable hyphened form
seldom if ever been seen. Bleiler has now reintroduced the latter and lent it his
considerable authority. His argument is that SF cannot be defined by reference to science,
since the "amount of real science" in SF "ranges from moderate to none at all," and
that SF "is not a unitary genre or form" but instead "an assemblage of genres and
subgenres that are not intrinsically closely related but are generally accepted as an area
of publication by a marketplace. Science-fiction is thus only a commercial term. And since
English usage normally hyphenates compound words that mean other than their components, of
the two forms that are met, 'science-fiction' and 'science fiction,' the hyphenated form
is to be preferred" (xi). I have no problems with this argument (beyond wondering whether
a "commercial term" should be spelled on the basis of normal English usage rather than
commercial usage, which overwhelming favors the invariable open form), but choose to go a
different way with respect both to the trivial matter of hyphening and the important
matter of delimiting the field to which SFS is devoted--a way that leads me to reject both
any definition that excludes science as a necessary element of science fiction and any
argument that a definition of SF must be broad enough to cover everything labeled SF for
the marketplace. For publishers, editors, and professional writers science fiction
may be simply a commercial term; for me it is a literary term.
In current usage science fiction has two meanings: in addition to designating
a literary field, it is used to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, especially
with respect to technology, as in the exclamation, "But that's science fiction!" The
second usage is consistent with the fact we do not now (as was not uncommon in the 1920s
and '30s) speak of science stories and science novels as forms of science fiction;
instead, as is true of no other field, we speak of science-fiction stories and
science-fiction novels. Bleiler's statement that "science-fiction is not concerned with
[real] science as a crime story is concerned with crime, a sports story with sports, or a
spy story with spies" (xi), through true, is therefore irrelevant, for just as the plain
meaning of crime story is story about crime, so the plain meaning of science-fiction
story is story about science fiction; that is, about what Bleiler calls
quasi-science and I prefer to call fictive science. (It follows that the most accurate
designation of our field would be science-fiction fiction. Although I have just
discovered one use of "SF fiction" [see page 236 of this issue], I would not suggest
that we change our present practice, and so in the remainder of this review will, except
when quoting Bleiler, designate our field as SF.)
Bleiler's argument for SF as "an assemblage of genres and subgenres" is made more
persuasive by his classification of "genres, forms, fiction types" on the basis of the
rationality of their relation to consensus reality in the admirable table reproduced on
page 268. For Bleiler the "three major components of science-fiction are the
quasi-scientific story, the lost-race story, and the future story" (xi). Three types are
explicitly rejected: "the scientific detective story, the story of prehistoric life, and
the story based on abnormal psychology," the first as "not fantastic enough, since it
deals with real scientific points (though perhaps in an anticipatory way) rather than
quasi-scientific," the second as "simply a form of historical fiction," and the third
as "simply a form of realistic fiction" (xii). Such stories, however, along with
utopias, imaginary wars, fantasies of history, etc., etc., may be counted as "science-fiction" if
"other elements" are present, the other elements presumably being
The most useful definition of SF is still Darko Suvin's "SF is distinguished by the
narrative dominance of a fictional novelty (novum, innovation) validated both by being
continuous with a body of already existent cognitions and by being a 'mental experiment'
based on cognitive logic" (Victorian Science Fiction in the UK, Boston, 1983:
86), which could be shortened to "SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance
of fictive science." Bleiler is of course quite correct in saying that "The word
has caused endless problems and will undoubtedly continue to do so" (xi), but if we can
agree on a usage that includes the social sciences, then utopias can be counted as SF if
the narrative is dominated by fictive social science. On this basis we would not say with Bleiler that Utopia and New Atlantis
"are not really science-fiction"
(vii). (Articles on these works, as well as others said to be not really SF, are included
in Science-Fiction: The Early Years as important historical influences on the
Suvin, in the book mentioned above, quotes me as having written: "The lost-race
concept is latently science-fictional in that it raises a what-if question: 'what would
happen to a civilized society isolated for centuries from the Ekumene?' [The trouble is
that in Haggard and his imitators] the community's economy is simply ignored, its
premodern technology is simply taken for granted, and its politics appears only in a
hierarchy of royalty, nobility, priesthood, and common people. In sum, the latent SF
remains merely latent" (95). On one lost-race story Bleiler and I are in partial
agreement. In SFS #16 (November 1978), in a survey of Haggard's works, the first sentence
in my entry for Allan Quatermain is "Haggard's first fully developed lost-race
romance and the chief model for all the many that followed from his or other pens"
(5:287). Bleiler's article begins: "The lost-race novel par excellence, setting up many
of the motifs and fictional patterns that became an integral part of the subgenre"
(318-19). The trouble is that, in the 1100 words that follow in Bleiler's excellent
account of the novel, I find nothing to contradict the second sentence in my note,
imaginary world is more ruritanian than marvelous." The culture of Zu-Vendi is said to be
"at about Classical Mediterranean level" and its politics that of "a feudal monarchy,
with perpetual internal strife and turmoil." No details are offered to indicate that this
fictive society differs from societies known to history because of its long isolation from
the Ekumene or, indeed, that it differs from known societies in any way more significant
than the ways in which Ruritania and Graustark differ from the actual societies of
turn-of-the-century Europe. Lost-race stories and utopias have much in common, but it is
the latter that demand, rather than merely allow, mental experiments based on cognitive
Bleiler's entries for H.G. Wells do not include "The Grisly Folk," which begins--
'Can these bones live?'
Could anything be more dead, more mute and inexpressive to the inexpert eye than the
ochreous fragments of bone and the fractured lumps of flint that constitute the first
traces of something human in the world? We see them in the museum cases, sorted out in
accordance with principles we do not understand, labeled with strange names. Chellean,
Mousterian, Solutrian, and the like, taken mostly from the places Chelles, La Moustier,
Solutre, and so forth where the first specimens were found. Most of us stare through the
glass at them, wonder vaguely for at that half-savage, half-animal past of our race, and
pass on. 'Primitive man,' we say. 'Flint instruments. The mammoth used to chase him.' Few
of us realize yet how much the subtle indefatigable cross-examination of the scientific
worker has been extracting from the evidence of these rusty and obstinate witnesses during
the last few years.
--and continues in this vein for several pages until, much as we move out of the wooden
O to the fields of France in Olivier's film of Henry V, we leave the museum for
the plains of Europe in the days when true men clashed with Neandertalers and eventually
killed them all. Since the world depicted in "The Grisly Folk" is envisioned on the
basis of science rather than history, it seems very odd to call it "historical fiction."
The basic real science in this story is that some of the human skulls and legbones in
question were quite similar to those of modern man, while others contemporary with the
first group differed to such an extent that it seemed probable that there had been two
subspecies, one ancestral to modern man and one that somehow disappeared from the face of
the earth. The physical difference between the two groups is real, but the theory that the
second group, the Neandertalers, disappeared without a trace is simply speculation. Even
more speculative are the theories that the Neandertalers were killed off in battles with
true men and that the legends of ogres and man-eating giants derive from memories of the
Neandertalers. Can we not say that such speculations are equivalent to quasi- or fictive
science and thus count stories of prehistoric life as science-fiction stories?
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