Science Fiction Studies

#11 = Volume 4, Part 1 = March 1977


Peter S. Alterman

The Surreal Translations of Samuel R. Delany

Abstract.-- Delany’s novels Dhalgren, Empire Star, The Einstein Intersection, Nova, and Babel-17 all address the relationship between experience and art. In every case, art is able to order experience, bringing pattern and order to chaos. As Delany uses language, the order of realism uneasily depends on the chaotic subjectivism of a perceiving narrator. His prose seeks to render the texture of the chaotic universe by actualizing the literary metaphors with scientific theory, organizing chaos into intelligible, translatable forms. For Delany, artistic creation attempts to derive order from the chaos of experience—to reconcile the demands of the artist’s subjective perspective with the requirements of form. In Delany’s prose, neither the subjective nor the objective is given primacy. Just as metaphor is solidified by fact, experience is ordered by the effect of art upon the raw material of the mind. These novels are arenas in which life and language confront one another and come together to form a dialectic of literature. Delany’s SF capitalizes on the tension between scientific theory and linguistic potential.

Martin Bickman

Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: Form and Content

Abstract.-- The inter-relationship of form and content should be evident in any fine work of literature, but science fiction writers have traditionally had difficulty in this area. Masters like Clarke, Asimov, and Herbert can tell a story skillfully, but seldom see the possibilities of literary form beyond those of direct narrative. On the other hand, experimentalists such as (at various times) Harlan Ellison, Brian Aldiss, and John Brunner have been so concerned with technique that the results have been sometimes more audacious than successful. This article conducts a close reading of The Left Hand of Darkness to suggest some of the ways form and content can be wedded in SF in a functional, organic and aesthetically meaningful way.

Gérard Klein

Discontent in American Science Fiction

Abstract.-- Around the middle of the 1960s, there was a sudden veering in English-language SF: turning from a general (if not invariable) optimism, it became as a rule quite pessimistic and sober. Science fiction during the 1940s and 1950s zoomed through vast galactic prospects in very far futures, but during the 1960s, it increasing dealt with the near—even the very near—future, and confined itself to Earth. The authors became preoccupied with delivering a serious and responsible message. For about ten years, with the notable exception of Ursula K. LeGuin, writers sought to achieve credibility by describing the near future in very dark colors. According to a frequently expressed but somewhat naive view, SF had passed from the stage of tumultuous teenage dreams to an adult stage, manifest in a focus on human sufferings.

Discussing Roger Zelazny, Norman Spinrad, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, John Brunner, and T. J. Bass (among others), this essay explains the failure of SF’s early optimism as an illustration of this hypothesis: the real subject of a literary work is the situation of the social group to which the author belongs. SF writers in the 1960s as a social group were in danger, and aware of it. They had become aware that technology could not be controlled through their will or activities as a group. Like an individual who has an illogical tendency to make of his own death a universal event, this threatened group of SF writers, too, had a tendency to confuse the dissolution of their authority over technology with the disappearance of civilization, and even—in a genre as haunted as SF by megalomania—with the end of history and all humanity.

Russell Letson

The Faces of a Thousand Heroes: Philip José Farmer

Abstract.-- Farmer’s work exhibits a fascination with the great hero, both the fictional figure and the historical man. The Riverworld series features the explorer-adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton as well as other fictional and historical characters who qualify as heroic despite their secondary roles. The historico-fictional world of the Rivervalley, however, is less epic in its proportions than Farmer’s wholly fictional creations and continuations: the universes of the World of Tiers, Wold Newton, and various non-cycle stories give us the neo-Amerindian figures of Roger Two-Hawks and Kickaha, the neo-Tarzans Ras Tyger, Grandrith, and John Gribardsun, and the borrowed figures of Doc Savage/Doc Caliban, Sherlock Holmes, and Phileas Fogg, to name a few. These heroes coexist in Farmer’s fiction with two other classes of central character: the ordinary man who must act the hero and the ordinary man who is transformed into a superhero. Farmer’s supermen go beyond the stylized heroes of space opera and adventure formula. Having shown the heroic or even divine capacities of ordinary men, Farmer turns back to look at the dark side of the hero, rejecting the simple, clean, romantic optimism inherent in much of the adventure formula. Nonetheless, throughout his fiction, especially the Riverworld and Tarzan recreations, runs the certainty that heroism is possible in spite of human flaws.

Thomas J. Remington

Three Reservations on the Structural Road

Abstract.-- All those who take science fiction seriously are indebted to Robert Scholes for lending his stature to the cause of SF, placing his considerable prestige on that side of the literary lists. Nonetheless, there are three major problems with Structural Fabulations (1975), Scholes’s "prolegomena to the serious reading of what we loosely call ‘science fiction’" —problems readers should consider before accepting the book’s views, however exciting. Despite its virtues, Structural Fabulation condescends to science fiction, oversells it, and badly misrepresents it.

Scott Sanders

Invisible Men and Women: The Disappearance of Character in Science Fiction

Abstract.-- Kingsley Amis argues that SF must deal in stock figures because it ponders our general condition rather than the intricacies of personality. Theme replaces character as the organizing principle of the genre, a view summarized in his terse formula: "Idea as hero." But why should such a genre arise and flourish in our century—a genre stressing theme rather than character, abstraction rather than personality? The answer is sociological. Science fiction reproduces the experience of living in a regimented, rationalized society, within which the individual has become anonymous: persons are interchangeable and actions are governed by procedure (and so do not characterize the actor). Emotion is repressed in favor of reason; the individual is subordinated to the system. A literary form that ignores personality in its representation of vast impersonal forces mirrors our modern sense of the anonymity of individuals within mass society. In the twentieth century, science fiction as a genre is centrally about this disappearance of character, in the same sense that the eighteenth and nineteenth century bourgeois novel was about the emergence of character. Discussing a broad range of texts, canonical and popular (including, among the latter, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Philip K. Dick’s "Faith of Our Fathers," LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, Aldiss’s Earthworks, and Clarke’s The City and the Stars), this essay argues that identity is problematic in science fiction because it has become problematic in modern society.Gorman Beauchamp

Gorman Beauchamp

Themes and Uses of Fictional Utopias: A Bibliography of Secondary Works in English

This bibliography concentrates on those critical works in English that treat of the general history, generic features, ideology, uses and themes of fictional utopias and dystopias; it makes no attempt to cope with the criticism dealing with even the most important individual utopists. Even within this delimitation, however, the amount of commentary is formidable and grows apace. While no claim, then, is made to completeness, the bibliography attempts to provide a general overview of the range of scholarship devoted to fictional utopias. The line demarcating these utopias from other sorts of melioristic movements and projects that are usually termed utopian is not always easy to draw and is by no means clearly observed in many of the studies discussed below. Therefore, while the emphasis will fall upon the fictive, it will occasionally be necessary to venture into other, tangential areas of utopianism— political theory, for instance, or futurology. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I will mean by utopia a fictive society depicted as substantially nearer to perfection than actual historical ones, usually because it is more "rationally" ordered.

Bibliographies. An exhaustive bibliography of both utopian fiction and criticism is being compiled by Lyman Tower Sargent; when published, it should prove invaluable for scholars in this field. Otherwise the most extensive bibliography of utopian criticism is Biesterfeld: while the commentary is in German, it covers the scholarship in most Western European languages, but it is not always accurate either in its categorization or data. Other useful bibliographies are found in Egbert and Parsons (pp 62-66, 462-67) and Gibson and Patrick. Bibliographies of modern utopian fiction can be found in Gerber and in Negely and Patrick. The most comprehensive bibliography of American utopias is to be found in Roemer, but because of the limited focus of his study, see also Forbes and Parrington. A brief checklist of dystopian fiction is provided by Lewis (1961).

Anthologies. The best anthology of utopian literature is Negley and Patrick; the Manuels provide a representative selection from French utopias: both contain valuable introductions to the readings. While initially conceived as an anthology, Berneri's excellent study developed into a dialogue, posing her anarchist views against extensive excerpts from the entire range of utopian writing. Richter's collection is a mishmash of snippets from fictional utopias, communal experiments and criticism.

Definitions. Most studies of utopias make a stab of sorts at defining their subject—some accomplished in a sentence, others occupying pages. The variety of these definitions is demonstrated in two articles devoted exclusively to this problem, those of Suvin (1973) and Sargent (Extrapolation, 1975), both of whom subsequently advance definitions of their own (though Sargent's is largely an extension of Suvin's). Both essays are rewarding, if not entirely convincing. Less rewarding and convincing is Stupple's attempt to define anti-utopian literature as a genre, an attempt attenuated by a host of arbitrary criteria. Suvin (1974) has examined the filiation of utopias and science fiction, declaring utopia "a sub-genre of SF."

General Surveys. The pioneering efforts of Mumford (1922) and Hertzler (1923) to trace the history of utopias from Plato and the prophets to the (then) present are still valuable, but rather elementary (a good deal of summarizing) and dated: history has altered and deepened our perspective on utopia. Even more dated and less valuable are Bloomfield and Ross, although the former has a quaint period charm about it. A thematic rather than a chronological approach is adopted by Walsh and Gerber. Of all the studies of utopias, I would be most reluctant to part with Walsh's: it is engaged, sensitive and eloquent. He traces the declension from utopian dream to dystopian nightmare with a subtle balance that allows equal claim to the promise and the danger in seeking the "perfect" society. Gerber's study, ostensibly limited to late 19th and 20th century English utopias, is, in fact, much more wide ranging in its scope and analyzes many of the essential features of utopianism, though he includes in his discussion many works of straight science fiction. Elliott provides a more purely "literary" assessment of the utopian genre, relating it to satire and the Saturnalia. Here again, however, is to be found a wealth of insight into many aspects of utopianism and dystopianism, admirably erudite and elegantly presented. Hansot sets out to distinguish the "classical" from the modem utopia, the former characterized by the quest for static perfection, the latter committed to the idea of progress. While her thesis seems sound enough, her working out of it is rather laborious—rigorous but leaden—and a number of her specific points strike me as arbitrary or strained.

Of the briefer surveys, Northrop Frye's in the Manuel collection (1966) remains the best introduction to the varieties of literary utopias, impressive in its range and sound in its judgments. Although attempts to trace the development of utopias from their beginnings into tomorrow, all in a few pages, run the obvious risk of superficiality, Lopez-Morillas fares better than most: an intelligent and discriminating piece. Similar in intent, though less skillful in execution, is Grunwald. Utopia as a mode of social criticism has been dealt with extensively, but most profitably by Lodge, Finley and Goodheart. While all these are valuable studies, Goodheart's is perhaps the most original in its stress on the interaction of utopian ideals with what he terms "the irony of history."

Specific Surveys. Recently Ferguson has chronicled the utopias, quasi-utopias and would-be utopias of antiquity, from Homer to Augustine. Despite his impressive command of the material, this is a confused and cluttered work, in which any vaguely melioristic impulse—from Alexander's conquests to Spartacus' revolt—is dragooned into service as a utopia. Indeed, Ferguson's volume reads more like notes for a history of ancient utopias than like a completed project. Baldry's earlier study of the subject also suffers from some definitional imprecision, but is still more cohesive and intelligible.               

Morton (1952) provides a concise, sympathetic analysis of English utopias from a Marxist perspective; while this slant works in his favor most of the time, he becomes predictably shrill when confronting the dystopias of Huxley, Orwell, etc. In a later piece (1966), Morton seeks to demonstrate the thesis that "it is impossible to go very far with the writing of a history of utopianism without realizing that what one is really, writing about is the history of a special aspect of the bourgeois revolution." Like Morton, Raghavacharyulu assays the whole range of English utopias in his interesting, if not unusually original, monograph. Child's article describes four centuries of English utopias, without much of a thesis and less discrimination, while Clarke's focuses on those of the 19th century, arguing that they reflect the decline from optimism at the century's beginning to pessimism by its end. Liljegren focuses on the utopias of the 15th and 16th centuries, with particular stress on their relation to the travel literature of the time.

Only Parrington has attempted the enormous task of writing a comprehensive account of American utopias. While his study is admirably informative in many respects, it contains odd lacunae and rather uneven emphasis, as well as being analytically comatose and stylistically lame. Roemer's recent study, while more limited in its scope (1888-1900), is far superior in execution. He has managed to synthesize material from 166 novels of the period into a thematically coherent volume that enlightens without engulfing: surely no easy task. Rhodes treats four major American utopists as exemplars of native political ideals, in his rather pedestrian pamphlet. Of the shorter studies, Forbes' account of the amazing surge of utopias in America in the last two decades of the 19th century is still useful for distinguishing the common characteristics and impulses of some of the more important works; but Martin's chapter, though more exclusive, is also more up-to-date and better conceived, a model of lucid analysis. Lokke's rambling commentary on the "American utopian anti-novel" is filled with interesting information about some of the lesser known examples of the genre, while Blotner's chapter on "the novel of the future" deals intelligently if briefly with the more overtly political utopias—and dystopias—of the 20th century.               

Little in English seems to have been written about utopias in other languages. The Manuels' introduction to their selections from French utopias are probably the best criticism in English of that literature, although the criticism in French is extensive. Kratzmann has examined the German "technological utopias" of the early decades of this century (mostly Wellsianesque science fiction), but started no trend; again, however, there is a vast amount of criticism in German. Reeve has dealt with utopian socialism in Russian literature and Gilison with the Soviet image of utopia, but the former is rather superficial and the latter has little to do with literature. Suvin (1971) offers a richly informative survey of Russian utopian science fiction of the last two centuries. Chesneaux provides a useful introduction to the utopian thinking of the Orient and Islamic worlds, but the piece suffers from an indiscriminate mingling of fiction, philosophy, fable, etc.

Utopias of Escape. Mumford has subdivided utopias into two types—those of escape and those of reconstruction. While most seriously intended utopias are reconstructive, the escapist utopias have a venerable tradition and an importance of their own. They tend to be manifest in poetry and folk art as the Golden Age, Cockaigne, Schlaraffia, etc. Baldry's lecture on ancient utopias, for instance, is concerned primarily with the escapist variety. The massive studies of primitivism in antiquity by Lovejoy and Boas and in the Middle Ages by Boas both contain a wealth of information and example of this phenomenon. The Manuels, in two lengthy essays (both 1971), trace the history of the Golden Age and related motifs over the centuries, with their usual breadth and lucidity. Of related interest are Cohn's exemplary study of the millenarian movements of the Middle Ages and the studies by Giamatti and Levin of the earthly paradise and Golden Age motifs in the Renaissance. The German Schlaraffia is treated most extensively in Ackermann, who marshalls examples from all European literatures to demonstrate the imaginative persistence of these lands of the heart's desire. Cockaigne is treated sympathetically in the first chapter of Morton (1952), but is dealt with rather too harshly by Bullough, who views it only as a slob's paradise and an object of satire. Hertzler (1940) provides a concise summation of the importance of the Golden Age myths.

Dystopias. Dystopianism is the predominantly 20th century reaction against utopianism: a dystopia is a satirical depiction of the sort of world the utopian mentality, coupled in most cases with advanced technology, might create in the future. The only book-length study devoted exclusively to dystopianism is Hillegas; while indispensable on the subject, it nevertheless tends to overstress the influence of Wells in the development of the genre, while underplaying other sources. Of the multitude of briefer studies, Woodcock's is perhaps the most important in revealing the essential nature of the dystopian impulse, although he deals only with "the big three": Zamiatin, Huxley, and Orwell. Howe, commenting on the same writers, establishes the historical context that generated the dystopia and notes its formal narrative characteristics. Rahv takes Orwell as his subject, but offers some penetrating insights into the dystopian world-view. Weber, more comprehensive in the range of literature he discusses, stresses the sometimes submerged basis for the dystopian's rejection of utopianism—religion. The interaction of utopian theory with modern history that gave rise to the specter of a new form of totalitarianism is examined by Kessler, while the finality of this futuristic totalitarianism is the subject of both Beauchamp (1973) and Weinkauf (1975). Stevick, however, argues that "every anti-utopist, in his own way, chooses to back away from finality": that is, offers some loophole in the imagined society's "perfection." But this loophole is probably the novelist's narrative necessity, as Howe argues, not his philosophical stance. Passmore, in his book on the perfectibility of man, has an important and wide-ranging chapter on the dystopians, while Knox loses whatever point he sets out to make on the subject amidst a ponderous display of pretentiousness. Science fiction has increasingly become the vehicle for dystopian fears and forecasts. Amis and Lundwall comment rather generally on this development, which is explored in more detail by Hillegas (1961) and Sargent (1972).                

The dystopian phenomenon is also discussed in many of the works on utopianism: e.g., Morton (1952), Walsh, Gerber, Elliott, Molnar, Kateb, Lopez-Morillas, Grunwald, Beauchamp (1975) and Goodheart.

Psychology and Utopia. The psychology of both the utopist and the utopian provides an important approach into the literature. The assumption made by most utopists holds that human nature is infinitely malleable and can thus be molded into whatever design is thought socially desirable. Skinner, himself the most noted of contemporary utopists, reiterates this assumption in a series of articles on utopias (1955, 1967) that serves as an apologia for his behaviorism. He professes to find it strange that "Freud sparked off no utopian vision," but Beauchamp (1975) argues that Freud's views on the irreconcilable conflict between man's instinctual nature and the constraints of society are inimical to utopianism and, in fact, provide the psychological substructure for dystopianism. Indeed, Freud as an anti-utopian has recently received detailed treatment by Kalin, who poses his social pessimism against Marx's optimism. Also, though most utopists have assumed the plasticity of human nature, Sargent has shown (Political Theory, 1975) that among the multitude of American utopias there are exceptions to this rule—utopias that accept the fixity of human nature as a given. Manuel, in an essay in his collection (1966), offers perhaps the completest taxonomy of utopian psychological responses: like all his writing, this piece is enormously learned and intellectually fecund.                

Plank has described the psychological factors that determine the geographical settings for utopias, and Gondor has used her work with psychologically disturbed children to probe the impulse to fantasize ideal worlds in which the creator exercises total control; this piece, read in conjunction with Holquist's on the game element in utopianizing, provokes some interesting speculation on the appeal of utopias. Of related interest, Weinkauf (1969) demonstrates the pervasiveness of the Edenic motif in utopias, adducing a vast number of works to support her thesis that utopianizing is an attempt to regain the lost paradise.

Progress, Science and Technology in Utopia. The classical utopia springs from the head of its creator Athena-like, perfected; it contains, therefore, no possibility of progress. Concomitantly, technology plays a minor role, if any. Only when the technological innovations of the 17th century gave birth to the Idea of Progress does the possibility of a progressive (or in Wells' term, kinetic) utopia begin to emerge. Bacon in the New Atlantis heralds this new union, and the subsequent fate of utopia became inextricably tied to technology. The relation between progress, science and technology is outlined in Bury's classic work, and is rehearsed, without much addition, by Tsanoff. The initial impact of science on Renaissance utopias is examined by Adams, Bierman and Hall.                

The most comprehensive study of science in utopia is that of Eurich, an exhaustive and finally exhausting volume. Less weighty and systematic, but with its own valuable insights is Dubos' series of lectures on the same subject. The relevance of traditional utopian social planning to technological problems—past, present and future—is examined in Sibley's brief but thoughtful study. Boguslaw also relates the concept of utopian social modeling to the theory and practice of contemporary systems designers, a tour de force that reads more easily than its subject might indicate. Walsh (1961) briefly notes the negative role assigned to science by dystopian novelists, and Bowman undertakes a more detailed analysis of the nexus between utopia and the machine. A balanced, if rather bland, discussion of the relation of utopias to the modern technological problematique is offered by Muller.

Some Motifs of Utopia. The fate of art in utopia has been treated by Elliott, Guerard and Stillwell, all of whom consider what social melioration entails for artistic creation; Guerard is the most sanguine that new and significant forms would evolve to reflect a human condition devoid of conflict, while Elliott and Stillwell are more dubious that such a condition would provide the material for great art. Beauchamp (1974) and Philmus are concerned with the fate of language, with the impact of utopian uniformity on modes of discourse. The role of women is examined by Sargent (1973) and Lewis (1973) recounts the role played by dreams in utopian narratives.

The Politics and Sociology of Utopia. Because of the palpably political nature of most utopian literature, extra-literary critics have often subsumed it under the more general category of utopian thought, so that, in such discussions, fictive works are intermixed with philosophical treatises, communitarian experiments, sociological panaceas, historical movements—and increasingly with such activities as urban planning and futurology. Since these discussions of utopian thought treat literary utopias as part of the larger phenomenon, some mention of at least the most important of them is included here.                

An excellent brief statement of utopian theory is Kateb (1968), a more balanced and inclusive piece than Mannheim's earlier article for the same encyclopedia. However, Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia is a classic statement of sociological utopianism. Its thesis is that political thinking can be divided into the ideological—the theory of the dominant class, designed to preserve the established order—and the utopian—the "orientation" of the aspiring classes who seek to alter or overthrow the status quo. A rich and provocative book, some of its shortcomings are noted by Judith Shklar in her essay on utopian political theory in the Manuel collection (1966); her own conclusion, however, that utopian thinking no longer has significance, is based on a radically Procrustean notion of what constitutes a utopia.                

The most formidable attack on utopian political thinking is that mounted by Popper whose works pose a fundamental challenge to all social architects who would remake society according to some rational ideal. All the major objections to political utopianism are propounded in these works, supported by Popper's vast erudition and analytic skill. Krutch has waged a "humanistic" attack on modern utopianism, particularly the psychologically deterministic brand embodied by Skinner, arguing—not always consistently—that it is bogus, for it ignores the autonomy of man, and dangerous, for it threatens to destroy that autonomy. Molnar attacks utopianism from a conservative, Catholic viewpoint, as a secular perversion of man's spiritual quest. Despite its intemperate tone, his book effectively raises many of the anti-utopian specters. By contrast, Kateb (1963) would lay many of these specters to rest. With an extensive knowledge of philosophy and political theory, as well as of utopian literature, he has made much the most effective defense of utopianism against its detractors.                

The most stimulating discussion of utopianism to appear since Popper's is that of Polak. No brief mention can begin to do justice to this vast, visionary work, which recounts the historical role played by utopian and eschatological faiths in shaping man's idea of the future. Without such a faith, Polak argues, man has no future—and at present he has no such faith. Polak pleads for transcendence of the future-despair of dystopianism. For all its interpretive flaws, this is a profoundly challenging book.                

Several essays in the Manuel collection (1966) treat of various other aspects of utopian political theory. Mumford, despite a rather too fanciful thesis about the origins of utopianism, nevertheless reveals much about the totalitarian mentality of most utopists. Crane Brinton discusses the problematic relationship between utopian theory and democracy, and Adam Ulam that between socialism and utopia. Tillich explores the dialectic between the positive and negative characteristics of utopia, pointing toward a transcendent synthesis of the two. In another essay in this volume, Polak again expresses his hope for a revival in utopian thinking. In this he is seconded by a leading anthropologist, Mead, and a leading sociologist, Moore, both of whom discuss the importance of utopian models for envisioning a better future. Finally, I should mention Passmore's superb study on the concept of man's perfectibility, that idea which has animated utopian thinking from the beginning.


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