Science Fiction Studies

#52 = Volume 17, Part 3 = November 1990



Martha A. Bartter

The (SF) Reader and the Quantum Paradigm: Problems in Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

Abstract.--In every age, the prevailing "world-view'' organizes cultural assumptions so thoroughly that they become invisible. Only when they change are they widely noticed. Readers of SF are experiencing such a change in world-view today--the third in recent history. From the Newtonian universe of absolute space and time, we moved to the relativistic universe in which space and time are functions of each other, energy and mass are interchangeable, and the relative position of the observer makes a difference. This Einsteinian universe has had considerable influence on literature. But we now find ourselves assimilating a third world-view, the most difficult literary world-view yet proposed: the radical uncertainty of the quantum universe.

That quantum mechanics makes a difference to science is obvious. That it makes a difference to literature is less so. Yet the principles of uncertainty, simultaneity, and universal attraction do show up in post-modern fiction. Despite Einstein's protest that "God does not play dice with the universe,'' writers like Samuel Delany seem to produce literature, based on quantum mechanics, which does just that. The resulting works provoke admiration, protest, and bafflement from readers. An exploration of the quantum structure of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand constitutes a way of reading it that may unpack some of Delany's enigmas. 

Raimund Borgmeier

Objectives and Methods in the Analysis of SF: The Case of Science Fiction Studies

Abstract.--The articles in the first 15 volumes of SFS are worth examining as examples of the kind of work that is being done and can be done in the field of SF. There is a decided emphasis on theoretical questions, which are dealt with through a wide variety of approaches. The history of the genre is less prominent as a research topic, though some attention is paid to SF's prehistory and early history. A broadening of perspective becomes most noticeable in the interest in Utopia and the awareness of other media.

All in all, the articles in SFS realize the "critical opening'' that the editors in 1979 identified as the journal's principal aim. But in spite of editorial intentions, a great many of the essays in SFS are still concerned with single SF authors (Ursula Le Guin foremost among them). Even so, SFS is striking for its internationalism, and at the same time demonstrates that the study of SF texts can stand comparison with work in other areas in point of its literary-critical and scholarly value. 

Carlo Pagetti

In the Year of Our Lord Hitler 720: Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night

Abstract.--Swastika Night is in many ways the 1930s' equivalent of The Man in the High Castle. It is not simply Burdekin's focus on the problematics of history, of reconstructing the past, that brings her closer to Dick than to Huxley or Orwell, but also her promotion of values which still do not have the ideological currency of 1984's or Brave New World's. This estranged fiction of hers anticipates Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in its depiction of a future wherein the triumph of Nazism has meant the brutalization of women (as well as Jews) for being an "inferior race.'' It is in that context that von Hess, Herman, and Alfred attempt to piece together the fragments of history and thereby recover the historical "truth'' that the Night of the Swastika would deform. Yet even Alfred, the most sympathetic of these (would-be) "heroes,'' sadly fails to make the values that women represent integral to himself--the values of pacifism and non-domination that alone promise a possible end to the Night of the brutal violence of male aggression.

Roger Bozzetto

Kepler's Somnium; or, Science Fiction's Missing Link

Abstract.--The search for the origins of a literary genre is an endless exploration. The sources of SF can be traced, in relation to the imaginary voyage, to Homer and Lucian and, for utopian fiction, to Plato and Thomas More. But both imaginary voyages and utopias remain either pure fantasy or non-narrative conceptual games. With Kepler's Somnium, a new speculative format was inaugurated: he demonstrated the consequences of an astronomical theory, complete with analogical reasoning and verifiable mathematics, within the framework of a fiction which served as a kind of polemical platform for his philosophical and scientific arguments. Taking into account the historical conditions prevailing at the time of this work, Kepler was obliged to invent a complex narrative form which was simultaneously open-ended (with its addition of appendicized notes) and multi-framed (with the intervention of a supernatural narrator to render its message credible)--a narrative form that was clumsy, difficult to read, and with no direct posterity. Nevertheless, utilizing this new speculative format invented by Kepler, both Godwin and Cyrano de Bergerac --who more skillfully integrated the "new'' knowledge into their linear narrative models--began to develop its potentialities into the first "classical'' SF. In Kepler's Somnium, therefore, we have the first example of "hard'' SF and what might be called a generic "missing link'' between Lucian and More on the one hand and the SF tradition on the other. 

[A response by David Lake, and Robert M. Philmus's response to Lake, appear in SFS 53 (March 1991).]

H. Bruce Franklin

The Vietnam War as American SF and Fantasy

Abstract.--American SF helped engineer and shape America's war in Indochina, which then profoundly reshaped American SF. Indeed, the Vietnam War cannot be fully comprehended unless it is seen in part as a form of American SF and fantasy. Straight out of American pulp, comic book, and movie SF came fantasies of techno-wonders and super-heroes that guided the decisions of political and military leaders. A paradigm of the American self-images that helped shape the war might be Buck Rogers--as he uses his manly skills and 25th-century technology to lead the good fight against the Mongol hordes --sporting a Green Beret.

Although the decision-makers' customary discourse expressed these fantasies in a language of ostensible realism and practicality, comparison with SF about the war unmasks their content. One key policy-maker even published a story in Astounding which exposes the roots of the dominant ideology. But shortly after the Tet offensive in 1968, there appeared--in the form of rival advertisements opposing and supporting the war--a roster of SF writers who, incarnating fundamental contradictions between Campbellian and New Wave SF, would participate in the transformation of American SF by and through the war.

Some of the greatest achievements of New Wave SF--such as Kate Wilhelm's "The Village,'' Norman Spinrad's "The Big Flash,'' and Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest--use fantasy to expose the menace of being possessed by unexamined fantasizing; and more specifically, they employ the conventions of SF to dramatize the treacherous infantile SF being enacted in Vietnam. The extreme forms of alienation engendered by the war were transmuted into SF by a number of Vietnam veterans, including Joe Haldeman, whose The Forever War caricatures the technophilia in the heart of "Golden Age'' galactic combat fiction.

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