Science Fiction Studies

# 17 = Volume 6, Part 1 = March 1979



The March 1979 Science Fiction Studies is the first issue of the journal to be published in Montreal, Canada, instead of in Terre Haute, USA, and by a partly new editorial team. Since we have always believed that our enterprise should be, as Rabelais (one of our patron saints) said, self-interpreting - i.e. accompanied by its own critical comment - we would like to take a quick look at the road we have been travelling.            

No account of this journal is possible without the acknowledgement of Richard Dale Mullen's leading position in it. For the last 9 months, four of us have struggled to prepare the Montreal publication, and only now, when our private lives have been more or less gulped down by its gargantuan appetites, can we properly appreciate the magnitude of this labor. True, he had part-time help from Indiana State University in the form of a staff member, and he had a co-editor; nonetheless - on top of co-editing and of his own wide-ranging but characteristically modest essays on SF, usually disguised as reviews of reprint series - the whole enormous task of taking care of subscriptions, printing, proofreading, etc., was squarely on his shoulders: without Dale there would have been no SFS. His very rare combination of unequaled knowledge of English-language SF - from More to the present day - with scrupulous scholarship and critical judgement was and is (as can be seen from his witty and sad note in SFS No. 12) at the opposite pole from fans oohing and aahing over their reading nostalgias in academically-acceptable disguise. It is largely due to him that SFS has gone in for editing as an active art of two-way communication with our contributors and eschewed mailbag status. His quondam co-editor, in particular, wishes to record here that through their collaboration, including the not infrequent disagreements over this and that, he has been privileged to undergo an uncommon learning experience in creative meticulousness and creative tolerance. We shall attempt to continue in the same key, and we are very glad that Dale Mullen has consented to remain our Editorial Consultant and - we hope frequent contributor.            

The new editorial board has four members, of whom Charles Elkins will, primarily for practical rather than hierarchical reasons, function as the associate editor in charge of book reviews and of a new teaching rubric (on which more later). The board of editorial consultants has also been slightly revamped, mainly by the inclusion of new members. The present composition is still, alas, unavoidably lopsided, but we do now have a more international (in particular more Canadian) flavor, and we have been fortunate in persuading to join us as new consultants some of the most interesting people in and around SF criticism on both sides of the ocean, including such well-known SF writers and critics as Samuel Delany, Gérard Klein, Rafail Nudelman, and Pamela Sargent, and such authorities in literary and cultural history and theory as Raymond Williams. Although we have had indispensable financial support in 1978 from McGill University, for which warm thanks are due to Vice-Principal Dr. Walter Hitschfeld and Principal Dr. Robert Bell, our long-term financial situation is still precarious and fraught with question marks. We are doing what we can to attract public and/or private financial support, but it is ultimately the suggestions, contributions, and support of our readers which will make or break us. We therefore appeal to all those who would not like to see SFS wilt to give us their active help right now - by ideas about bettering the journal and finding finances for it, by suggestions and contributions, and above all by asking their institutional libraries, colleagues, and nearby bookstores to subscribe. A very welcome first step was taken by the SFRA Executive Committee in June 1978, which decided that SFS will henceforth be included, at a substantial discount, in the membership dues. We welcome our new readers and ask them to let us know their opinions about this and the following issues, whether negative or positive, whether on what was or what was not (but might have been) printed, whether on a matter of small detail or of general policy. Even if and when we might disagree, your expression of concern will be a precious signal to us to think again; for we still believe a creative democracy and democratic creativity are not impossible.            

When SFS was begun in 1973, its founders had the ambition to open up SF criticism to a number of new points of view, to broaden its horizons, and to break with the comfortable purring of anecdotal and thematic commentary inherited from the Golden Age (or Tin Age) of SF and its fandom. SF criticism at the time was in the throes of a familiar cooptation tendency: a marginal group, rather critical toward established hierarchies and values, unconsciously veers toward reproducing in its own field the Establishment's ideological assumptions and forms - consensual creation of a standard reduced history, setting up of a canonic corpus and an official pantheon, passwords, disbarments, and excommunications. A wrongly conceived quest for legitimacy and acceptance was beginning to assimilate SF to the "mainstream" and SF criticism to "high lit" criticism (and to its second-rate critical assumptions and approaches to boot). SFS assumed that it was better - even though incomparably more difficult to try and locate SF in the complex network of actual cultural and societal history with its dynamics of conflicting forms, motifs, and world views.            

The critical opening that SFS wanted to effect can be summarized in three ways:

            1 . An opening on the history of SF including ancient forms of cognitive estrangement. From the Hellenistic period to 19th century, the imaginary voyage, the Land of Cockayne, the fictional utopia, the alternative satire, and other narratives of rational conjecture are, in our view, both formally contiguous and historically ancestral to present forms of SF, and therefore contribute to illuminate them- by analogy or by contrast.            

We were determined not to approach such early SF in the state of mind of a lover of ruins. For us, the century-old history of utopian thought is still vivid; its underground tradition still influences today's literary production and in particular most of the highest achievements in SF. Moreover, we considered extremely provincial and narrowminded those bogus, shoddy, and forgetful "Histories" of SF whose "Antiquity" is represented by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, "Renaissance" by Hugo Gemsback from Modern Electrics to Amazing Stories, and "Classicism" by the so-called Golden Age of the 1940's. They only serve to confirm the maxim that those who forget history are condemned to relive it.

            2. An opening on other cultures and literary traditions, in order to question the hidden chauvinism of Anglo-American SF criticism. We have tried to diffuse critical information about contemporary Slavic, Germanic, and Romance SF till the time when we will be able to deal with Japanese or Chinese texts! This attempt to reach a truly cosmopolitan (or indeed internationalist) perspective has fortunately coincided with the book market's discovery of foreign SF writers: most importantly Italo Calvino, Stanislaw Lem, and the Strugatski brothers, as well as Klein, Merle, Franke, Abé, etc. At the same time, foreign "classics" such as Defontenay, Rosny the Elder, Lasswitz, Witkiewicz, became available in translation - and it was even discovered with amazement that others, such as Jules Verne, were available in English only in clumsy, inaccurate, and bowdlerized versions.

            3. An opening on the various methodologies of contemporary literary theory genre morphology, narrative semiotics, Freudian and Marxist criticism. This ambition may have seemed ambiguous. Were we simply trying to give SF, coming out of its ghetto, an institutional, "academic" recognition? To offer it a small jump seat in the Great Hall of Canonic Literature? Fan critics sometimes suspected SFS people of being a kind of frogmen of the academic establishment, sent to spy out the shores of SF before their annexation is attempted. On the contrary: in this second half of the 20th century, the mandarin concept of Literature is sinking and we are not eager to refloat it. To us, it has simply been a matter of "taking SF seriously" - as has been said many times in the pages of the journal. What was meant by this "seriousness"?            

Anecdotal (not to say gossipy) and thematic (not to say paraphrastic) SF criticism was for a long time all there was, and it was in our opinion, incapable of a true critique. Hence this paradox: SF fans and critics went around saying that SF is the "only 'alive' literature today," "the literature of the future"; but outdated, irrelevant, and - in fact - discrediting concepts were used to describe it.            

Every scholarly journal worthy of the name should display an intelligent tolerance towards opinions and methods, yet at the same time define criteria with precision and rigor. Our pluralism will in the future as in the past mean accepting all approaches to a set of texts, its production and consumption, that put their cards on the table, so to speak - i.e. all approaches that acknowledge themselves to be a historically limited heuristic choice and not a transcendental universal essence. On the other hand, it is a general rule in sciences that the object under scrutiny co-determines the methodological tools to be used for scrutinizing it. Therefore, other things being equal, some approaches can be more fertile than others. If SF today is a form of literature fit to refract the growing complexity of historical becoming, then it follows that it will be in most cases best served by a "totalizing" or encompassing critical approach, and that every superficial and a-historical compartmentalizing - be it hyperformalist, archetypal, anecdotal, impressionistic or "ideological" - will finally prove mystifying and inadequate. Nonetheless, other things are never equal: the proof of the critical pudding is in the eating, and we will try to be conscious of our inevitable editorial disbeliefs and to suspend them while reading the submissions. All of this constitutes the everyday problem of editorial work: we simply hope, taking one with the other, that SFS has had - and might continue to have - reasonable success in balancing these principles.

We will not try to measure how far SFS has been able to comply with the program sketched above in its first 6 years. In any case, in spite of what has been done, it seems to us that almost everything still remains to be done. What is most striking in SF criticism is the size and number of problems that have never been dealt with in a critical way. There are, for one -example, so many writers -both American and European - whose texts deserve an extensive analysis: let us mention only Barjavel, Blish, Boulle, Johanna and Günter Braun, Chan Davis, Disch, Jeury, Klein, Knight, Kuttner and C.L. Moore, Kornbluth, Leiber, Ward Moore, Norton, Oliver, Pohl. Russ, Russell, Sheckley, Shefner, Spinrad, the Strugatskis, Sturgeon, Tenn, Van Vogt, Varshavski, Watson, and Weinbaum among those almost totally neglected - and the list could go on. (Conversely, there seems to be an undue concentration of interest on a few writers: no doubt, John Brunner or Ursula Le Guin are worthy of such interest, but we must say frankly that, at least for SFS, an essay on them will have to be quite brilliantly new in order to get published - as was, e.g., the Bittner essay in our last issue.)            

For another and possibly even more pertinent example, we are growing increasingly skeptical whether the most illuminating mode of SF criticism is to deal with single writers. While being receptive to author-oriented textual analyses too, we are aware that a great variety of economic, sociological, philosophical, and aesthetic aspects that cut across the "authorial" compartments remain to be identified and studied thoroughly - we would hope interlocked rather than in isolation.

For a third example, SFS has so far not dealt with SF teaching. The reasons for not dealing with it earlier are simple. First, we did not see how we could meaningfully do so before clarifying at least in the sketchiest way possible and at least to ourselves what were the central values of SF and how should SF criticism go about discussing them. Only after such clarification could all this be applied in teaching, which is after all a translation of existing scholarship into pedagogy. Second, we could have - no doubt - gone in for transmission of empirical data about teaching (what teacher A was doing with book-set B). But such information exchange was already being conducted by Extrapolation, and we did not feel we, were in the business of setting ourselves up as a competitive duplicate to it: the more so, as we came to feel that the usefulness of such information was getting rapidly to its limits of yield. But we are now seriously thinking of introducing a rubric on teaching SF which will have a pronounced problem-oriented and methodological basis, while encompassing all data and facts we can lay our hands on. Under this title, we could deal both with the immediate problems of which texts to use and how to use them, and with such issues as: the significance of SF inroads into traditional academic disciplines; the multifarious effects of teaching SF within various disciplines, for various audiences, and employing various methodologies; the relationships between the possible functions of SF and educational factors such as the teacher, the classroom, or the socializing goals within given cultures - goals that often have more to do with keeping young people off the streets than with giving them genuine liberating knowledge. This rubric is now being prepared by Charles Elkins, and all those interested are encouraged to contact him.

All this calls for a reasonable modesty in assessing what has so far been achieved; it also urges us to persevere in opening the journal to an ever widening compass of opinions and methods, providing that they see SF as a potentially cognitive genre (often hindered from realizing its potentialities by analyzable forces in a complex but manmade history). We do not believe that critics can remain bound by the consciousness of the author at hand, nor that they can fetishize "the text" at the expense of the crucial interface between the text and our common world. In fact, we see the central problem in paraliterary criticism as arising from the confrontation of aesthetic and/or political value judgements with the present situation of the book market and the film industry. In the US, both are exclusively profit-oriented, with their alienating narrative recipes which make for the overwhelming success of ideological constructs of the Three Laws of Robotics, Star Trek or Star Wars type. (Obviously the situation is somewhat different in the USSR and some other Warsaw Pact countries, but it is after all not fundamentally different. Only the kind of alienation has changed from profit pressures to direct bureaucratic pressures. This still leaves the SF critic of texts from those societies with the necessity of exploring contradictions in some ways different but also comparable to those we have just mentioned - though we concentrated, as we believe we had to, on the situation in capitalism where most of SFS contributors and readers live and work.)            

The SF critic should, no doubt, describe the empirical state of affairs, gathering as much information as he can on the production and consumption of these cultural commodities, describing in the most rigorous way the text's narrative features and their functions; but even the choice of his interests is conditioned by philosophical (and indeed political) value judgments. Every hyper-bestseller and every billion-dollar movie that invades the market brings a contradiction that can be described as the Star Wars syndrome: endless discussions among "specialists" who sometimes enjoyed the movies while sharing very good critical reasons to hate it. In the social sciences and humanities, there is no place for an external and truly objective observer. "The partial identity of subject and object" (Lucien Goldmann) makes it impossible to eliminate personal equations. It also implies that social contradictions are reflected in the observer's mind. The critic will not be able to describe a literary text in its entirety, with its significant rhetorical, ideological, and social interfaces, without having recourse to a network of methods sufficiently complex and rigorous to at least partly dissolve the blind spot of personal choices and ideological prejudices. To illuminate in such a way a given stylistic or ideological pattern does not necessarily amount to approving or disapproving, rejecting or praising; but on the other hand, any scientific or scholarly point of view contains, explicitly or not, immanent value judgments.            

The above axioms and preoccupations have not changed since SFS was created. No doubt we came up against various ideological, ethical, and aesthetic resistances. We feel nonetheless that studies in SF are still (we hope) open-ended, and that the journal has played - and can still play - a creative role in them.

In particular, we would like among other things to begin analyzing the present shape of the US book and film market. It is our impression that the bestseller mentality invading the market is a clear example of how the potentialities of this genre are coopted and sterilized by economic and ideological forces. This has already resulted in vastly overblown novels, poorly organized and without much else to show for itself except for reducing the level of SF to that of the bestseller reader. It has also resulted in a startling change of guard among new SF writers: where we had a number of overambitious writers in the 1960's, whose reach exceeded their grasp, now we have a number of underambitious writers, who do not reach as far as they could grasp (or so we hope). Dale Mullen has indicated that the present dull moment of SF is one of the reasons why he has retired from SFS editing; and truly, SF criticism cannot fail to be influenced by current SF. This is a disquieting outlook: and we would like to scan it more closely so as to be prepared.            

However, all of our fine plans and hopes will surely come to naught without your contributions. We would like to collaborate with our readers even more intimately than heretofore: e.g., please propose to us special issues - but then propose to us also a plausible co-editor for that issue; or please attack or defend an essay we published - but still better, write a better one and send it to us. Facing the Leviathans, we still have our typewriters.

Marc Angenot

The Absent Paradigm: An Introduction to the Semiotics of Science Fiction

Abstract.--The fact that an SF narrative lacks empirical referents does not necessarily distinguish it from narratives called "realistic." What characterizes SF semiotically is that it is a discourse based on an understandable syntagmatic structure built, at least in part, through illusory absent paradigms--i.e., neologisms, exolinguistics, etc.--where the reader is forced to invent, ex nihilo, contextual meaning. SF is thus conjectural and "utopian" (no-place) in two significant ways: in the estranged yet intelligible universe it offers to the reader, and in the mode of textual decipherment the reader uses to ultimately conceptualize such a universe. Following a brief explanation of the fundamentals of Saussurean linguistic theory, this essay attempts to provide the groundwork for a semiotic definition of SF and to demonstrate how it differs from "realistic" discourse. Such an investigation is indispensable for an understanding of the genre as a whole and for any consideration of SF relative to its social context.

[A response by Andrzej Zgorzelski, and Marc Angenot's reply, appears in SFS 21 (July 1980).]

Charles Elkins

Science Fiction versus Futurology: Dramatic versus Rational Models

Abstract.--It is now common practice for some thinkers, ranging from academics engaged in philosophical speculation about the nature of the future to professional futurologists, to argue that SF is a valuable adjunct to future studies. However, my thesis is that there are genuine problems in this relationship. These stem in part from the nature of "futurology," especially in its reliance on quantitative methodologies; but more significantly they stem from treating SF as functionally analogous to other futurological activities and valuing it accordingly. Specifically, difficulties arise when, in regard to the structure and function of models, the logical models (i.e., propositions), which futurologists employ in the present to "think about" change and organize "knowledge" for predicting future events, are not differentiated (as they must be) from the dramatic models (i.e., presentations) of SF which give form to the future and create attitudes for readers to use in organizing "action" in the present.

Futurology claims to use the scientific method for structuring knowledge about present and future scenes in which men and women will act. The futurist, insofar as he adopts the means and ends of science, formulates theories about the future which refer to and explain relationships known, in a currently existing world. The writer, insofar as he adopts the ends and means of art, neither formulates or explains. He creates. His dramatic, symbolic structures of SF (as of all fiction) are analogous not to statements hypothesizing and generalizing about phenomena, but to the phenomena themselves which the writer and audience experience. SF makes no propositions about the future in which its events are situated; it is a symbolic construct of a future. Furthermore, in terms of its social function, SF is capable not only of comprehending "future studies" but also of providing us with roles and scenes which integrate action in the present to embrace or escape a specific future.

[A response by Rafail Nudelman appears in SFS 18 (July 1979).]

Peter Fitting

The Modern Anglo-American SF Novel: Utopian Longing and Capitalist Cooptation

Abstract.--The aim of this article is to explore the interplay between ideology and utopian longing in the modern SF novel. Western SF is, on the one hand, a form of ideological production, one of the ways in which capitalism speaks itself and determines our ways of perceiving reality, one of the ways through which the real problems and conflicts present in society are tranSFormed into false problems and imaginary resolutions. On the other hand, SF is also an important contemporary manifestation of what Ernst Bloch, for instance, has referred to as "utopian longing," humanity's continued striving for an "adequate future"--a tradition which took on new force and direction in the bourgeois world following the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which were attended by the belief in the possibility of cognitive progress. Yet this blending of utopian hopes and fears with the popularizations of the social and natural sciences was followed, in the mid-19th century, by a sense of failure and gloom. Nonetheless, 20th-century SF is crucially determined by the combination of these anticipations of liberation with the possibilities of science and technology; SF can be seen as a contemporary focal point for the struggle between, on the one hand, the artistic manifestation of the desire for an alternative, emancipated world "in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" and, on the other, capitalism's ability to preempt and co-opt each new eruption of this emancipatory desire. This is the reason why science has been more and more frequently turned against the utopian impulse, and why the positivist tradition has become, in present-day capitalism, a major repressive force. SF authors discussed within this theoretical context include Asimov, Bradbury, Blish, Clarke, Miller, Simak, Wyndham, Sturgeon, Heinlein, Ballard, Ellison, Herbert, Brunner, Dick, Delany, and Le Guin.

Horst Heidtmann

A Survey of Science Fiction in the German Democratic Republic

Abstract.--Since 1945, approximately 350 new SF titles have been published in the German Democratic Republic, 160 of these by German authors. This essay provides an overview of the four distinct periods of SF in post-war East Germany: the GDR foundation period of 1945-50 (where SF was viewed as bourgeois escape literature, but some translated Soviet SF nevertheless existed); the Cold War period of 1950-61 (where Stalinism and bureaucracy were the rule, but there were beginnings of local SF production); the period of German consolidation, 1961-71 (where SF finally became an established genre and, after 1969, the first American SF works are available in translation); and the period of liberalization after 1971 (where there has been a significant increase in both the quantity and quality of SF). Many East German SF authors, works, and themes are discussed from these four historical periods.

David J. Lake

The White Sphinx and the Whitened Lemur: Images of Death in The Time Machine

Abstract.--This essay examines the symbolism of Wells's use of imagery in The Time Machine--in particular the author's systematic use of color schemes--as a means to elicit powerful reader reactions.

Patrick Parrinder

The Alien Encounter: Or, Ms. Brown and Mrs. Le Guin

Abstract.--This essay discusses the theme of "alien encounters" (and the textual strategies used to create such fictional "defamiliarization") across a broad range of SF narratives: Cyrano, Swift, Voltaire, Clarke's Childhood's End, Blish's A Case of Conscience, Asimov's "Victory Unintentional," Leinster's "First Contact," Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" and "Valley of Dreams," Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, Lem's Solaris, and Aldiss's The Dark Light Years, among others. The title refers to two critical essays on the importance of character-creation by Virginia Woolf ("Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown" [1924]) and more recently by Ursula K Le Guin ("Science Fiction and Mrs Brown" [1976]).

SF, above all when it is concerned with exploring alien modes of being, differs from other kinds of fiction in its basic premise, which is that of approaching "man" through his contacts with the new and unknown. Yet a consideration of alien encounters involves the modification, rather than the wholesale abandonment, of the idea of rounded characterization championed by Virginia Woolf and lately by Ursula Le Guin. What is limiting about their declarations of loyalty to Mrs Brown is not the stress on characterization as such, but their belief that what is characterized most fully must always be the autonomous human beings of liberal individualism. In contrast, the priority of the SF writer should be developing the character of the alien in the fiction, not the human protagonists therein.

Antoni Smuszkiewicz

Space and Time in Contemporary Polish Science Fiction

Abstract.--This article proposes several typological categories of how "space and time" are characterized in different types of SF narratives: closed near vs. closed far, open near vs. open far, present/near future/distant future either explicitly or not explicitly described, etc. There is an evident tendency among contemporary Polish SF authors to place fictitious events in remote, closed spaces rather than in nearby, open spaces as their predecessors had done. Further, in its temporal dimension, modern Polish SF tends to prefer distant futures not explicitly described as its preferred fictional time-frame rather than near futures explicitly described. These narratological attributes closely parallel the evolution of SF in Poland since 1945: the progressive replacement of the traditional Verne-like didactic and popularizing SF narrative recipe (combining known scientific fact with literary fiction) with one which predominantly features remote regions of the cosmos and equally remote futures (focusing more on issues of modern humanity's confrontation with the unknown).

Darko Suvin

The State of the Art in Science Fiction Theory: Determining and Delimiting the Genre

Abstract.--This essay presents an overview of 38 works of SF criticism (mostly from the 1960s and 70s) that focus, in full or in part, on the definition of SF as a literary genre. They are discussed in the context of the need to develop a more systematic and narratologically-based theory for defining and delimiting SF in order to differentiate it, for example, from works of fantasy, extraordinary voyages, pastorals, supernatural fiction, mythical allegory, etc. The theory of cognitive estrangement--the presence in the narrative of a novum--is offered as a theoretical alternative to critical approaches which often attempt to define and classify SF in terms of its general subject matter, its motifs, its fictional time-frame, or its supposed plausibility. The essay concludes by saying that much progress has been made (especially in the last 15 years) in elucidating the purposes, limits, and devices of the SF genre, but that considerable work remains to be done.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home