Science Fiction Studies

# 5 = Volume 2, Part 1 = March 1975

Roy Arthur Swanson

Nabokov's Ada as Science Fiction

In his "first collection of public prose," entitled Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov catalogues his loathings: "stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music" (3).1 He loathes dictatorships (149) and Freudians (passim) as, perhaps, respective examples of oppression and stupidity. He identifies Van Veen as "the charming villain" of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle and says, "I loathe Van Veen" (120). In an equally declarative but less subtle sentence, he states, "I loathe science fiction with its gals and goons, suspense and suspensories" (117). Although criticism, as an object of loathing, is not a part of his catalogue, Nabokov's antipathy to criticism in general is strongly evident in Strong Opinions, which title does not keep him from asserting that he is "immune to any kind of opinion" (173). Against all this, one has to risk Nabokov's contempt and his charge of stupidity in drawing up a critique to buttress one's opinions that Nabokov subscribes to Van Veen's concepts of time and that Ada may be viewed as science fiction.

One may begin by noting that, in 1969, the year of Ada's publication, Nabokov was at least undecided whether he agreed with Van Veen "in all his views on the texture of time" (143) and that two years later he was still willing to admit that his "conception of the texture of time somewhat resembles its image in Part 4 of Ada. The present is only the top of the past, and the future does not exist" (184).

With regard to science fiction, Nabokov does express "the deepest admiration" for H.G. Wells; and he names as special favorites five of Wells's stories, all of which had been identified, generically, as science-fiction works well before Ada came to be written. The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, and "The Country of the Blind" (175). Against his identification of these works as "romances" instead of SF it would be pointless to argue: the works are, quite clearly, SF romances, In any case, he speaks elsewhere of Aleksey Tolstoy as "a writer of some talent," who "has two or three science fiction stories or novels which are memorable" (87).

Additionally, the fiction-writer Nabokov is himself, as a lepidopterist, also a scientist; and he is of the opinion, to which he is nonetheless presumably immune, "that in a work of art there is a kind of merging between...the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science" (10). Poetry, in his strong opinion, "includes all creative writing," and he has "never been able to see any generic difference between poetry and artistic prose" (44). Concurring with these opinions, we could label almost all of Nabokov's narrative art as SF; but to do so would be specious and would obscure the point that Nabokov loathes, not SF, with which he clearly has an affinity, but routine SF.

Finally, one may follow the lead given in Nabokov's comment that "Every original novel is 'anti-' because it does not resemble the genre or kind of its predecessor" (173). Ada, for all its attention to "Antiterra" and to anagrammatic satire (for example, "Osberg" for "Borges"), is not an "antinovel"; but it is "anti-": it does not resemble SF, but it may be studied as being of that genre or kind, especially if the study centers on that SF element which, for the sake of convenience, we may term "eversion." The term would denote a double reversal or a turning-inside-out; and Ada's eversions of time, earth, and sexual gender can be called, respectively, "transtemporality," "transterrestriality," and "transsexuality."

The first sentence of the novel is an eversion of the first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenin;2 in Nabokov's words, "the opening sentence of Anna turned inside out" (285). Throughout the novel things are turned inside out. The dominant eversions are those of time, the planet Earth, and sexual gender. Time is turned inside out, so that much of the present becomes the past: the mid-20th century and the late 19th century are anachronistically confused. The planet Earth appears now and then as Antiterra, on which the eastern and western hemispheres are transposed, so that Asia and North America are turned into each other, producing Amerussia, and on which the inhabitants speculate upon the actual existence of Terra, just as inhabitants of our world now speculate upon the reality, or actual existence, of Heaven or of extraterrestial life: "they are all in heaven or on Terra," Marina Veen muses in nostalgic reference to old roomy limousines and professional chauffeurs (257/§1:38).3 The male is turned outwardly into the female: Adam becomes the female Ada, and Eve becomes the male Ivan (Van Veen). Eversions of this type are common in science fiction.

In science fiction eversion is itself one form of a constant for which the best term would be "version," that is, "a turning." Other forms, then, would be conversion, inversion, obversion, reversion, and the like—that is, a turning into, upside down, over, back, and so forth. "Version" is initially a change of perspective and ultimately a change, or even a loss, or possibly even a creation, of function. In Samuel Butler's Erewhon, for example, the reactions to sickness and crime are reversed to produce what has proved to be a prophetic change of perspective. Archibald Marshall toys with perspective in his utopian work, Upsidonia (1915). The androgyny in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is a conversion of humanoid life from an investiture in two sexes to a hermaphroditic investiture in one. The material and anti-material worlds (the universe and the para-universe) in Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves reflect speculative inversion; in one respect, the universe's advantages in energy intake are inversely proportional to those of the para-universe. The time travelling and time "warps" of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Andre Norton's Operation Time Search, or various of the Star Trek episodes on television, are perversions or reversions of time. In works like these, the shiftings of physical and psychological perspectives predispose readers (or viewers) to contemplate the function, or, to use Sartre's term, the essence of the human being. "Version" is one of the distinctive features of speculative fiction, and of science fiction especially.

Broadly speaking, serious science fiction offers analogies to the first man and the last man from the paleontology and teleology of humankind; and it may compound this challenge to academic thinking, as Ada does, by everting the analogies or by subjecting them to other forms of "version."

In Nabokov's Ada human concepts, notably those of the first and last man and woman, are everted. The sense of this may be that man (the species) creates himself in his own concepts, that he gains an understanding of his own concepts by turning them inside out, that he uncreates himself by this turning-inside-out, and that he is ultimately survived by his own concepts, which, in themselves, are not destroyed by eversion. Myths, for example, are concepts; in Samuel R. Delany's The Einstein Intersection (1967), myths survive the humans who have conceived them, not only myths like that of Orpheus and Eurydice or that of Theseus and Phaedra but also myths like those of Elvis Presley and "the great rock and the great roll" (§2). Ada everts myth and fact, or mythos and logos, and, in doing so, establishes that they are one and the same. Etymologically, both mythos and logos have the same meaning, namely, "word." In Ada, the words "thank God" become "thank Log" (33, 43/§1:4, 6), as they do now and then in the writings of Robert Graves and Anthony Burgess. In one passage, Van is said to have "wondered what really kept him alive on terrible Antiterra, with Terra a myth" (452/§3:1). Antiterra, as logos, and Terra, as mythos, are one and the same; they differ only as concepts. Classical myths hover about and intrude into the lives of the characters in Ada; and myths of the 1960's emerge in phrases like "blue suede shoes" (306/§1:42), "a musician called Rack" (313/§1:42) (pronounced "rock"), and "the rock and the roll" (492/§3:5), or in a prose collage of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (193-194/§1:31). Physically, a human being may be survived by the child that he or she conceives. Psychologically or spiritually, a human being may be survived by his or her own concepts. The childless Ada and Van are survived by their concepts of their love on earth and in time. Nabokov's conspectus is that each human being is psychologically both male and female and is both physically human and spiritually divine: each human being is a Tiresian solipsism, or, to use the words reported in Strong Opinions, an "indivisible monism" (124; cf. Ada, 314/§1:42, "man, by nature a monist").

The progenitor of Ada and Van is D. Veen, which name can be read as both "divine" and "Duveen,"4 man as spiritual and man as materialistic. We combine "divine" and "Duveen" by combining Walter Dementiy (Demon) Veen with his eversion, his cousin Walter Daniel Veen: Demon is daimon, or "spirit"; Daniel is identified as "a Manhattan art dealer" and as Van's "art-collecting uncle" (4, 588/§1:1, §5:6). Demon Veen is, in the novel, associated with air; his paramour and cousin-in-law Marina with fire; his second-cousin Lucette with water; and Ada and Van, his illegitimate children (by Marina), with earth.

The association of characters with elements is made by the narrator in reference to the deaths of three specific characters: "Three elements, fire, water, and air, destroyed, in that sequence, Marina, Lucette, and Demon. Terra waited" (450/§3:1).5 Terra had already claimed Aqua, Van's putative mother. When Van was thirteen, she had taken an overdose of sleeping pills in an Arizona gulch, where she was found, survived by her suicide note, lying "as if buried prehistorically, in a fetus-in-utero position" (28-29/§1:3). But Terra waits again, this time to claim Van and Ada. The explicit association of Marina and Lucette with the elements by which they die reverses their appropriate- name identification with elements: the name "Marina," like that of Marina's twin sister Aqua, identifies "water"; and the name "Lucette" identifies "light" or "fire." The name "Demon," as "spirit," remains appropriate to "air." The names "Ada" and "Van" contextually identify "earth." Van is to be equated with earth by his Letters from Terra, the novel which is to be taken as "literature from Van," in keeping with his nom de plume Voltemand (an anagram for "Van told me"). To identify Terra, or earth, as Ada, we must attend upon Ada as the eversion of the Adam who was formed of the earth and resident in Eden; Ada's Eden is Ardis Park, an anagrammatical "Paradise."6 An added word-play, on the androgynous Norse deity Vanadis, can be detected. This old name for the fertility goddess Freya is a compound of "Vanr," the name of a male fertility god, and "dis," meaning "goddess." Fertility deities, like the bearded Aphrodite, or Venus of Cyprus, are necessarily earth deities. The androgynous Venus and the androgynous Vanadis are mythological cognates anagrammatically rehearsed in the names "Van," "Ada," "Ardis," and "Veen." The concepts of God the Father, of man the collector, and of the elemental universe of Classical myth (air, fire, water, and earth) are here all incorporate in human beings and, by inference, in each human being.

Nabokov also reminds us that "Ada" is the Russian word for "hades" or "Hell"; e.g., "teper' iz ada ('now is out of hell')" (29/§1:3). Paradise and Hell are implicit in the human being; and the human being in this novel is the composite of Ada and Van on and as everted earth. Ada says that she will be with Van "in the depths moego ada, of my Hades," that is, in herself. "As lovers and siblings," she tells Van, "we have a double chance of being together in eternity, in terrarity. Four pairs of eyes in paradise" (583-84/§5:6). Van and Ada are a schizoid John Shade, the poet of Nabokov's Pale Fire: the Russian equivalent of "John" is "Ivan," and "Shade" is not only referent to an inhabitant of Hades but also an anagram of the word "Hades." John Shade is mentioned, and quoted, shortly after Ada utters the words just cited (585-586/§5:6), and we are presently informed that, if Ada and Van "ever intended to die they would die, as it were, into the finished book, into Eden or Hades, into the prose of the book or the poetry of its blurb" (587/§5:6). They have conceived the book as a means of understanding themselves. Self-understanding is, figuratively at least, a form of suicide in which one is survived by the very means by which that understanding has been gained. If Ada and Van die into the book, they will be survived by the concepts they have spawned.

Nabokov touches upon the long-standing idea that the quest for Heaven is actually a quest for the fullness of life on Earth: one is in Hell without knowing it, like Marlowe's Faustus or Pär Lagerkvist's Tobias, and cannot adjust to Hell until the Kingdom of Heaven is discovered within one's heart; with this discovery comes the realization that the Kingdom of Heaven is Hell-plus-love; the discovery cannot be made so long as one externalizes, or extraterrestrializes, Heaven and Hell, to do which is to extraterrestrialize Earth—to view Terra as Antiterra. In this context Nabokov proves to be closer to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. than to other writers. Like Vonnegut, he turns human existence inside out in an effort to show people what they are looking for; and his vehicle of eversion, like Vonnegut's amounts to science fiction, given the definition of science fiction as the extrapolative and/or analogical paleontology and teleology of humankind.

Vonnegut, interestingly, shares Nabokov's distaste for science fiction. His professed loathing of science fiction is the subject of the opening essay in his first collection of public prose, which is parenthetically subtitled "Opinions." He berates some of the "boomers of science fiction" for being "crazy enough to try to capture Tolstoy."7 Others, to be sure, are crazy enough to swing their nets at works like Ada and The Sirens of Titan.

It is probably coincidence that the dog Kazak in The Sirens of Titan (1959) has the same name as the title of a palindromic poem by Nabokov (see Strong Opinions, 293; the word itself is Russian for "cossack"); and it may be coincidence that Vonnegut and Nabokov develop similar themes in similar vehicles, however different the exterior appearances of those vehicles. The coincidences at least warrant a brief digression on Vonnegut.

Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan opens with this sentence: "Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself." The novel then explores times prior to this stipulated present when mankind, "ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being, looked outward," when only "the human soul remained terra incognita" (§1). Mankind is the malcontent, Malachi Constant. In being "pushed ever outward"—to Mars and Mercury, for example—he becomes a machine, a thing that is unknowing and unknown: he becomes Unk, who mates with Bee (or Being) and conceives a son, Chrono (or Time). He finds his self, tentatively, during a brief return to Earth, only to be pushed outward again—this time to Titan, a moon of Jupiter. On his final return to Earth he finds his paradise in himself as he sits on a bus-stop bench on the outskirts of Indianapolis; moments later, he dies. He had managed to learn that, without love and friendship, which are found only in the human heart, he was a mere robot. He had known that the name "Malachi Constant" meant "faithful messenger"; but he had not known to whom he was faithful or whose messenger he was; he had not known his self, that is.8 On Titan he had met his eversion, the faithful messenger Salo of Trafalmadore, a machine that became human through love and friendship. The name "Salo" is, alter-egoistically, an anagram of "also" and an attenuated eversion of "Malachi Constant." The Trafalmadorians could be the completion of that Darwinian evolution of machines which Butler projects in the "Book of the Machines" section of Erewhon.

Vonnegut claims to be contemptuous of people who are "scrogging the universe." He deplores mankind's outward push and its destruction of inner being. The attraction of the Sirens is the attraction of anticipation, the attraction of the future, the false revelation that draws mankind out of its own humanity. Likewise Nabokov: through revelation, says the narrator of Ada, sick minds identify "the notion of a Terra planet with that of another world and this 'Other World' [gets] confused not only with the 'Next World' but with the Real World in us and beyond us" (20/§1:3). Vonnegut intimates that the quest for a God beyond and outside of mankind is the quest for a God that is utterly indifferent and a surrender to the "Universal Will to Become" or to "Mankind's wish to improve itself." By either coincidence or design, Vonnegut takes issue with Heidegger, who propounds an attunement to Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) which consists in transforming Dasein (Being There) into Sein zum (Being Toward), that is, a doctrine of living for the future.

Dasein itself is a state of unknowing; it is the haphazard status of manipulable objects.9 Vonnegut and Nabokov create a science fiction which intimates that people achieve subjectivity, not through mere Being There or through Being Toward, but through consciously being what they have learned they are and through love. Malachi Constant comes to understand "that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved" (Sirens, Epilogue). Van Veen tells Ada, whose name as a homonym of "ardor" is the antonym of "apathy" or "indifference," that the hopeless fallacy of an imagined hereafter is that "you cannot bring your friends along—or your enemies for that matter—to the party" (586/§5:6).

Van insists that "to be" means to know one "has been." He dismisses the future as sham time. "Life, love, libraries," he says, "have no future." There are, according to him, only "two panels" of Time: "The Past (ever-existing in my mind) and the Present (to which my mind gives duration and, therefore, reality)" (559-560/§4). In The Sirens of Titan Vonnegut dismisses the future by purging the solar system of the future's immaterial force in the form of Winston Niles Rumfoord, who admits that futurity is no more than a perpetuation of past and present: "Everything that ever was always will be, and everything that ever will be always was" (§12).10

When Vonnegut speaks of "the thrill of the fast reverse" (§10), and when he makes it patent that Unk's passing his intelligence test amounts to his turning his space ship upside down as the only means of egress from the caves of Mercury, the nature of "version" in science fiction is illustrated. Nabokov, his admiration of Wells's The Time Machine notwithstanding, objects to "Technology Fiction" in which relativity is exploited for the purpose of depicting time travel (see 543/§4); yet he illustrates science fiction "version" when he says, in the character of Van,

My aim was to compose a kind of novella in the form of a treatise on the Texture of Time, an investigation of its veily substance, with illustrative metaphors gradually increasing, very gradually building up a logical love story, going from past to present, blossoming as a concrete story, and just as gradually reversing analogies and disintegrating again into bland abstraction. [562-63/§4; emphases added]

Nabokov reverses analogies of Time and he reverses analogies of Travel, but he does not construe time and travel as an analogue of space-time. He explains in Strong Opinions that the metaphors "in the Texture-of-Time section of Ada...gradually and gracefully...form a story—the story of a man traveling by car through Switzerland from east to west" (122). The movements from past to present, from east to west, and from concretion to abstraction are reversed and turned inside out, but not as metaphors of anything like a space-time continuum.

The entire novel goes from past to present and from present to past, not by way of time travel, but through what we may call "transtemporality" or "metachronism," a complex form of anachronism in which the present can antedate the past. For example, Ada's mother, Marina, is following a typewritten shooting script in the making of a color movie, of which she is the star (197, 203/§1:32). The movie has the Fitzgeraldian title, The Young and the Doomed (see, e.g., 424/§2:9); it is to be completed and released in 1890. The typescript would be a possibility at this time, although the front-stroke typewriter was not in practical use before 1897; but the very first one-reel motion pictures did not appear until 1903, and the historic cinematograph of Louis and August Lumière was not a reality until 1895, the year before the presentation of Thomas Armat's vitascope at Koster and Bial's music hall in New York. The advent of color movies belongs to the mid-1930's. Nabokov appears to have reversed the late 1880's and the mid-1940's (cf. 580/§5:5: "1940 by the Terranean calendar, and about 1890 by ours"); but the appearance is somewhat deceptive in that the generation preceding that of Ada and Van is inclusive of what Van, in a reference to early photography and as a pun on "enlightenment," calls "The Twilight before the Lumières" (399/§2:7; see also 43/§1:6).

To follow Nabokov in his reversing of time-analogies, we may, with this movie-making episode, picture time as a pocket, the opening of which is 1840 (or the past), the outside bottom of which is 1940 (or the "future"), and the inside bottom of which is 1890 (or the present). The "future" and the present, then, are simply the obverse and reverse of the same cloth; and time consists exclusively of past and present, its material or texture being the cloth. Nabokov here not only turns the pocket inside out but he also turns it upside down.

The movie scene is being filmed at a "pool-side patio," again a setting that is more 1946-ish than 1888-ish, especially if one recalls the pool-side musical-play rehearsal in the 1946 color movie Night and Day (with Cary Grant, Alexis Smith, and, among others, Eve Arden). Ada, Lucette, and the eighteen-year-old Van are present, and, as they move away from the pool, Van "out of charity for the sisters' bare feet...changed his course from gravel path to velvet lawn (reversing the action of Dr. Ero, pursued by the Invisible Albino in one of the greatest novels of English literature)" (203/§1:32). In this accolade to a science-fiction work, the Dr. Kemp of Wells's The Invisible Man becomes Dr. Era in a double anagrammatic play.11 With a double reversal of letters, the English word "order" becomes "Dr. Ero"; and the names "Ero" and "Kemp" provide an anagram of the Russian phrase po merke, which means " measure" or " order" in a phrase like "made to order."

"Order" is a concealed pun on "Ardor" and also on "Ardis," which, as will be noted below, means "the point of the arrow"; and "arrow" is a homonym cf "Ero." There is also a temporal double reversal in this passage, not unlike that of the 1840-1890-1940 eversion already noted. Van reverses Dr. Ero's action; but Van's action (in 1888) antedates the action of Dr. Ero (or Dr. Kemp), insofar as The Invisible Man was published in 1897. If Van, as the "author" of this third-person narrative, is writing in the 1960's, as indeed he is, then we have a parallel 1888-1897-1966 eversion. The last date is for the year during which Van redictated his memoirs to Violet Knox, who, with Ronald Oranger, her husband-to-be, edits the memoirs which survive Van and Ada (578/§5:4). (The "epilogue" to Ada is written by Van in his ninety-seventh year, that is, in 1967. Characteristic of the novel itself, this "epilogue" is actually the "true introduction" [567/§5:1].)

Transtemporality, or the eversion of time, also accounts for Van's anachronistic "quoting" in 1922 from Martin Gardner's The Ambidextrous Universe, published in 1964: "'Space is a swarming in the eyes, and Time a singing in the ears,' says John Shade, a modern poet, as quoted by an invented philosopher ('Martin Gardiner' [sic]) in The Ambidextrous Universe, page 165 [sic]" (542/§4; for date, 536/§4). John Shade, the poet invented by Nabokov in his 1962 novel, Pale Fire, is quoted by the very real Martin Gardner on page 168 of The Ambidextrous Universe. An uninformed reader, however, would not learn from Gardner's Pale Fire quotation or from his note on page 177 identifying the quotation that John Francis Shade is a fictional character. Gardner makes no mention whatsoever of Shade's inventor, Vladimir Nabokov. The eversion, or double reverse, here is as follows: first, the dates 1922-1964 are turned inside out; second, citation is turned inside out: the composition in 1922 of Texture of Time, the book within the novel Ada, involves a reference to Pale Fire, the poem within the 1962 novel of that name, as cited in The Ambidextrous Universe, the 1964 work which is cited in Ada as antecedent to Texture of Time.

Van is engaged with Texture of Time in 1922, and the work is presented as having been published in 1924. The first date is important because it links Nabokov's transtemporality to a second science-fiction element, which we may call "transterrestriality" or "metageism," the already mentioned eversion of Earth's eastern and western hemispheres.

We are to imagine "that 'Russia,' instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere" (17-18/§1:3).12 This figurative spatial transference produces Amerussia, an amalgam of not only spatial but also temporal complications "because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other" (18/§1:3). If we begin the "hundred years" with the birth of Ada in 1872, the "crossroads of passing time," as, say, the half-way mark, is 1922, the year in which Van started "a new life with Ada" (573/§5:3), and the year, to be sure, in which T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the crossroads point for modern poetry, was published. "Estoty" or "Estotia" is Russian for "Waste Land." The admixture of space to time and commixture of present and past in Eliot's Waste Land lend themselves to the science fiction of Nabokov's Estotiland. The preoccupation with space and time that Eliot carried into his Four Quartets (1943) informs much of the novel Ada, especially the metaphoric traveling by car in Part Four. Eliot's "point of intersection of the timeless/With time" is consonant with Nabokov's "crossroads of passing time," where, as Eliot says, the impossible union/Of spheres of existence is actual." Nabokov's "Ada or Ardor" corresponds to Eliot's notion that the apprehension of this point of intersection is "something given/And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,/Ardour" (see "Little Gidding" V). Nabokov makes a point of pointing out that "Ardis," in Greek, means "point," specifically "the point of an arrow" (225/§1:36). At Ardis Hall in 1888, Ada suffers the ardor of a girl who does not want to "lose her only true love, the head of the arrow, the point of the pain" (192/§1:31). Nabokov's arrow, incidentally, would fit the metaphoric bow of Heraclitus or that of the mythic Eros. Heraclitus conceived of world-order as eternal fire, and his bow was an analogy for the complementary character of opposing tensions. Eros, as we first learn in Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, has two arrows for his bow, one productive of love and the other of death. Heraclitus's order is rational burning, and Eros's ardor is an irrational burning.

Nabokov's allusions to Eliot's poetry and drama are numerous. So, for that matter, are his allusions to Shakespeare, Byron, Chateaubriand, Poe, Stendhal (e.g., "Ruby Black"), de Maupassant, Proust, and others, including Joyce, whose Finnegans Wake is cited by Ada in 1884, two years after Joyce's birth.13 The first allusion to Eliot is ironic: "Mr. Eliot, a Jewish business man" (5/§1:1); Eliot satirized Jewish businessmen in some of his earlier poems.

Among other of the more noticeable allusions are the following. Ada loses her virginity to Van in 1884 and makes love with him for the third time in 1888 (see 440/§2:11), a pivotal year in the novel and the year of Eliot's birth; she marries Andrey Vinelander in 1893 and is widowed in the Waste Land year of 1922. Chapter 38 of Part One is a Family Reunion scene set in 1888; the chapter, which alludes to Eliot by way of one of his play titles and, again, by way of his birth year, includes the "echt deutsch" phrase (261/§1:38) which Eliot uses in The Waste Land. Elsewhere there is mention of "the author of Agonic Lines and Mr. Eliot,"14 and of "old Eliot...and solemn Kithar Sween," in allusion to Eliot's character Sweeney and to Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes. The roles of "Sweeney" and Eliot are everted. Kithar Sween is accredited with having "produced The Waistline...and Cardinal Grishkin" (505-506/§3:7). "Cardinal Grishkin" would be a transformation of the Russian woman, Grishkin, in Eliot's "Whispers of Immortality."

Eliot's Waste Land entertains a movement in time from present to past and in space from west to east, from the mountains of the West, for example, to those of the East, from London to Jerusalem to India and the Orient. Nabokov's Ada shows these movements in reverse, and the presentation is evocative of science fiction in that the past is eversively moved to the present and the East is eversively moved to the West.

In many forms of literature time and space are juggled or fractured; but eversive movements of time and space are most commonly apparent in science fiction. The same observation applies, with some qualification, in the matter of sexual gender. Eversions of sexual gender are not peculiar to science fiction. Sophocles' and Ovid's Tiresias, T.S. Eliot's Tiresias, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers," Joyce's Bloom at Bella Cohen's—these and others like these are not characters in science fiction. In contrast, Ursula K. Le Guin's Estraven, Isaac Asimov's Estwald, and Nabokov's Ada-and-Van are science-fiction characters because they serve as analogies to the first and last man. To the terms "transtemporality" and "transterrestriality" we may now add this third, "transsexuality." The terms represent the three factors of the science-fiction product in Nabokov's Ada. The Greek-derived equivalent of "transsexuality" would be "metaphysitism"; and this overture of everted sex to metaphysics is somehow playfully in tune with Nabokov's relentless word-play. Turn a celibate male, like a Cardinal, inside out, and there is a sexy female, like the Red-Russian Grishkin, whose chair, according to Eliot, "even the Abstract Entities/Circumambulate," while "our lot," if we take it to be that of an uneverted Cardinal, "crawls between dry ribs/To keep our metaphysics warm."15

The first sentence of Ada includes the assignment of the masculine patronymic "Arkadievitch" to "Anna Karenin." Nabokov has insisted that this is one of three blunders which were deliberately planted in the first paragraph of the novel and which were "meant to ridicule mistranslations of Russian classics" (Strong Opinions, 285). The effectiveness of the ridicule is all but nullified by the ugliness of the blemish; and the grotesquerie is perhaps best justified as a perverse contribution to the transsexuality that informs the "Adam (Ada) and Eve (Ivan)" theme of the novel, a theme implicit in a name like "Cardinal Grishkin" or in the presentation of Mlle Ida Larivière as the author of a work that was written by de Maupassant.16 When Nabokov says, "Antiterra happens to be an anachronistic world in regard to Terra—that's all there is to it" (Strong Opinions, 122), one must assume his dissimulation; and when he explains the perversion of a patronymic as a device of ridicule, one would do best to assume his simulation and to read his breach of taste as a thematic breach of sexual gender.

The sexuality in the novel includes marital relations, adultery, bisexuality, lesbianism, and incest. Dementiy and Daniel Veen are first-cousins, both born in 1838; Aqua and Marina Durmanov are twin sisters born in 1844. Dementiy, or Demon, marries Aqua in April 1869. Van is born illegitimately to Demon and Marina in 1870 and is apparently given to the mentally ill Aqua, in lieu of her stillborn six-month-old male fetus, "to be registered as her son Ivan Veen" (25/§1:3). Daniel Veen marries Marina in December 1871. The first child of this marriage, Adelaida, or Ada, born in July 1872, is actually the second illegitimate child of Demon and Marina; Daniel is her "putative father." Her sister Lucinda, or Lucette, born in January 1876, is the actual and legitimate daughter of Daniel and Marina. The fourteen-year-old Van deflowers his blood-sister, the twelve-year-old nymphet Ada, in 1884. Their subsequent life-long affair of death in love is interrupted by the marriage of Ada to Andrey Vinelander, that is, from 1893 to 1922, and it is complicated by Van's infidelities and by Ada's erotic affairs with Philip Rack, Percy de Prey, a certain Johnny ("a young star from Fuerteventura" [380/§2:5]), and with Ida Larivière and Lucette. Moreover, Lucette's unrequited love for Van ends with her suicide by drowning in 1901.

Transsexually, Lucette is the Byron who pursues Van as Augusta (Byron's half-sister). Van plays Gertrude to Marina's Hamlet in chapter 37 of Part One. In this scene Marina adds to the sexuality-catalogue by mentioning the pederasty of Van's uncle (i.e., Daniel), the incidence of "dreadful perverts in our ancestry," and the sodomy of one of her forebears (233-234/§1:37). But it is as the transsexual Adam and Eve that Ada and Van reflect the first and the last of humanity. Their Tree of Knowledge is "the glossy-limbed shattal tree at the bottom of the garden" (94, 95/§1:15) in Ardis Park.17 The Satan of this Eden of theirs takes the form of a mosquito, the female of the "Culex chateaubriandi Brown" (105/§1:17). They have no children, no issue other than their writings. Van, for example, is "pregnant" (325/§1:43) with Letters from Terra during the period (1888-1890) of Ada's "Very Private Letters" to him. Lacking physical progeny, Ada herself plays Cain to Lucette's Abel. "Adam and Eve" is a concept of human beginnings; everted to "Ada and Van," the concept completes a circle; and the circle is like that of the opening of a pocket which is turned inside out. The Veen-Durmanov line ends with Ada and Van, who compose "letters" during the same biennium and later collaborate on a book (Information and Form, published in 1957 [578/§5:4]), and who merge into a composite of the first and last human being, the Qayin (or Cain, or creature) who begins in earth, time, and love and is survived by his concepts of Antiterra (also known as Demonia), the Imperfect Present, and Sex.

Earth, time, and love are perennial subjects of fiction; but it is mainly in science fiction that these subjects are turned inside out as a means of showing Man that he is his own fullness, his own beginning and the agent of his own end. Such eversion is enjoyably exciting but unpleasantly precise. Vonnegut's Francine Pefko, tentatively identified in Cat's Cradle (1963) "as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind," complains that Dr. Horvath is "maybe talking about something that's going to turn everything upside-down and inside-out like the atom bomb" (§15). H. Lowe Crosby, the Ugly American in the same novel, complains of Philip Castle: "You can't say a damn thing to him that he won't turn inside out" (§69).18 Mr. Plunkett, Van Veen's tutor in sleight-of-hand, is shown to have cautioned Van that "secret pockets were useful but could be turned inside out and against you" (85/§1:13).

Eversion is, in science fiction, a means of communication; and in Ada it communicates, among other things, the very nature of a communication gap. We are led to consider that during the 1960's the great loss of subjective verbal contact between generations was brought about by the beginning of modern civilization's ability to extend communication through galactic space. The duration of this ability has been labeled the "L factor." This factor, as it is identified and outlined in Walter Sullivan's We Are Not Alone,19 poses the paradox that for civilizations which are technologically advanced enough to communicate across galactic space there is a tendency either to be destroyed by the technology that has made the communication possible or to be so changed by the technology as to lose interest in the communication, in either of which cases the L factor becomes a small number (indicating short duration of the ability). In Ada the Terra-Antiterra dichotomy represents the phenomenon of the 1960's, namely, the inception of the ability to achieve extraterrestrial communication: the beginning of the Space Age, which will be the period during which this ability is sustained. As the pocket of communication is turned outward, its contents of intraterrestrial communication are lost proportionately; as they disappear, Terra, relegated to nostalgia, becomes as fanciful a myth as the Estotiland on the late sixteenth-century map in the Zeno brothers' Scoprimento.20 The L factor in Ada is the "L disaster" (17/§1:3) or "Lettrocalamity" (147/§1:24) and the reaction to it is a prohibition of that electronic communication which extended verbal contact at the cost of subjective verbal contact.

The "L" is to be associated with the Twilight of the Lumières, as the darkness produced by enlightenment; with Van's Letters from Terra, as evidence of the mythification of Terra; and with Lucette's suicide-death by water, as an eversion of the Drowned Phoenician Sailor ritual.21 Aqua, before her suicide, had hit upon a method of transmitting speech by water; and this method brought about a simplification of the elaborate and expensive "hydrodynamic telephone" (hydrophones, dorophones, clepsydrophones, etc.) which had replaced the electronic telephones of the ante-L years.22 The Erewhonian-style outlawry of electronic machines induces a reverse nostalgia, and, as in Erewhon Revisited, "after great anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone by...our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum again" (17/§1:3). Aqua, who devises a means of communication, commits suicide, ironically, because she cannot communicate with her husband and family. This inability to communicate with one's own kind, as a concomitant of the ability to communicate beyond one's own kind, is the paradox of the L factor. Both Aqua and Lucette are denied love; ritual cleansing, in the form of Aqua herself and her water language and in the form of Lucette's drowning, is an attempt to restore the love-communication that has been wiped out by space-communication—or, to restore the Love factor that has been superseded by the L factor.

In Nabokov's science fiction, the communication gap is, analogically, a pocket turned inside out: by eversion the pocket is fully discovered, but its contents are lost; the full discovery of the pocket results in the loss of the pocket's function.

Since 1939, one of the more dramatic scientific theories of eversion has been the "black hole" in space, the best example of which is a collapsed giant star whose density or mass, following its collapse, becomes so great that its gravity prevents the escape even of light. If this collapsed giant star were one of a binary, or two-star, system, its gravity would turn its uncollapsed companion inside out by pulling away and to itself the layers of gases of which its "twin" is composed. (Two years after the publication of Ada, Cygnus X-1, hitherto taken to be a pulsar, was identified as a black hole, an invisible pocket turned against a star in the Cygnus constellation and turning that star inside out.) A black hole can be detected by astronomers only because of the bright star in its company, the same bright star which initially attracts attention to itself and away from its unseen mate. Nabokov toys cleverly with this bit of astronomy: Mr. Plunkett teaches Van, not only about secret pockets, but also about the sleight-of-hand expert who distracts his audience with mirrors and reflectors, "the cheater with bright objects around him" (173/§1:28).

Van meets such a cheater, one Dick, who is emptying the pockets of the French twins, Jean and Jacques. Van becomes Dick's "twin" by cheating Dick in the way that a black hole, devoid of "twinkle," cheats its twin: and Dick "did not 'twinkle' long after that" (173-177/§1:28). In the episode immediately following the chapter given over to Van's card-sharp curriculum and practice, Van, at the inn of Malahar, "some twenty miles from Ardis," finds that the "toilet on the landing was a black hole, with traces of a fecal explosion, between a squatter's two giant soles" (179/§1:29). Nabokov fills six pages of his text here with enough terminological suggestions of the black hole theory to satisfy any science fiction reader. Even "giant soles" is terminologically suggestive, inasmuch as soles is the Latin for "suns," which are stars. The section may be taken as a microcosm of the astronomical phenomena in question.

As literary devices, both paradox (as in the case of the L factor) and microcosm (as in the case of Nabokov's diminution of the black-hole theory) are forms of "version." A paradox is an assertion that turns itself inside out by self-contradiction. A microcosm is an analogical turning of the very large into the very small. The Greek term for "version" is "trope" (a turning). Tropes are turns of thought, figures of noesis (according to "Longinus"), conceits or concepts, and, in general, the speech of imagination or visionary dreams; Nabokov exemplifies his eversive use of them by stating, "Tropes are the dreams of speech" (416/§2:8).

It is safe to say that lengthier exegesis could disclose many more science fiction elements in Ada, including, for example, phrases like "Star Rats," "Space Aces," and "physics fiction," which are significant even in their adverseness because they tie in with "Space, the impostor" (338, 339/§2:2; 540/§4). But, in running its limited course, this essay has sought merely to establish that Ada may be viewed as science fiction because it exploits the science fiction element of eversion in the forms of transtemporality, transterrestriality, and transsexuality; because its science fiction parallels with Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan are striking; because it translates T.S. Eliot's notions of time and space into science fiction; and because to its analogies from paleontology and teleology it adds analogies from, for example, the science of astronomy.

The question here has been "Can Ada be viewed as science fiction?" If the foregoing argument in the affirmative is accepted, other questions must follow: Why does Nabokov make use of science fiction elements? Does he consider science to be, when unblended with poetry, a form of incest which transforms humans into insects, as his insect-scient-nicest -incest anagram indicates? (85/§1:13) Does he consider that science ruins the towers and breaks the bridges it has built precisely because it has found the means to build them, that science turns "real things" (facts, logoi) into "ghost things" (abstractions, fictions, mists, mythoi) precisely because it has achieved the means of discovering "real things?"23 These questions and others like them must lead to other essays, and those essays in turn to further studies, until the meaning of Ada disappears because it has been discovered, and until the novel, like its inbred agonists, is survived by its own concepts.



1(3) = Page 3 of Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, ©1973).

2"'All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike'"; cf. Tolstoy (in the Constance Garnett translation): "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

3(257/§1:38) = Page 257 of the First Edition of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (New York: McGraw-Hill, ©1969; identified as First Edition on title-page verso) or Part 1, Chapter 38 of any edition.

4Joseph Duveen, first Baron Duveen of Millbank (1869-1939), the famous English art-collector and dealer.

5If we were to read "destroyed" as both transitive verb and participial adjective, "Terra waited" would govern two understood infinitives, namely, "to destroy" and "to be destroyed." The passage, then, as both sentence and sentence fragment, would be poetic in its ambiguity: it would identify humankind and Terra with the elements of which both are composed; and, in identifying humankind with its terrestrial habitation, it would emphasize the terrestrial nature of humankind.

6One of the editors of Science Fiction Studies has reminded the writer that "'Ardis' is also the name of a wonder city in Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907), in which the future historian of the Age of Brotherhood writes his preface to the MS found from the revolutionary Ages. The wonder cities are modeled on the oligarchic retreats in Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)."

7Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (Opinions) (New York: Delacorte Press, 1974), p. 4.

8Cf. Robert Charroux, Forgotten Worlds, tr. Lowell Bair (New York: Popular Library, 1973), p. 354: "On the hypothesis that the universe is a vast living organism and that each planet is a part of that organism, we may assume that man has a great and unknown function, perhaps similar to that of DNA, the messenger of cellular life."

9Cf. Jerzy Kosinski's Being There (1971), the title of which novel relates to the manipulability of its main character, Chance the gardener, whose total susceptibility to externals renders him incapable of independent action.

10William Irwin Thompson, in Passages About Earth (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 128, takes The Sirens of Titan to be a fun-filled, if not comic, view of the kind of history now made popular by Robert Charroux (see note 8 above), Erich von Däniken, and other proponents of the "ancient astronauts" brand of science fiction posing as archaeology.


11Note that this paragraph ends with the words "Double take, double exposure."

12Cf. James Robert Enterline's definition of "the Grand Misunderstanding," in Viking America (point, cf. "Ardis"), and on the Hebrew term for a species of acacia, namely, shittah cf. the excremental association, "shit, shat," and Nabokov's choice of the word "bottom," shortly followed by the prospect of Ada's bare bottom). A North American variety of acacia is the locust (N.B. "the first cicada of the season") or pseudoacacia. The tree has been imported from "Eden National Park" in Iraq, where "no apple trees grow." In Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, borders of the legendary site of Eden, are now in confluence; that is, the two rivers of ancient times no longer flow separately into the Persian Gulf: their confluence at Qurna has produced one river, the Shatt-el-Arab (or Shat-al-Arab, or Shat[t]-el-Arab). Further, the above-mentioned ak denotes "thorn," which, taken with the Edenic "apple" permits an association with "thorn-apple," the Russian for which is durman (cf. "Durmanov").

18Cf. Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage (New York: Ace Books, 1968), p. 135: the author assigns to the space suits worn by his characters and to the space ship in which they live "an adaptation of the basic discontinuity principle"; he explains that the "discontinuity effect, as far as the Ship is concerned, grabs the universe by the tail and turns it inside out so as to get at it better." Note also that David Bowman's passage through the Star Gate in 2001: A Space Odyssey concludes with a universe turned inside out, as the eversion of the first man (Moon-Watcher) and the last man (Bowman) is completed.



19New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964; revised ed., Signet Books, 1966, pp. 246-253.

20See, for example, Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of Americo: The Northern Voyages A.D. 500-1600 (New York: Oxford, 1971), pp. 87-89, 609. Andrey Vinelander, as "an Arizonian cattle-breeder whose fabulous ancestor discovered our country" (588/§5:6), links Amerussia to the abortive Norse colonizations of North America and to the mediaeval cartographic confusions of Siberia/Alaska with Siberia/ Lapland.

21Cf. Eliot's The Waste Land IV ("Death by Water"), "Dans le Restaurant," and "Marina." There is also an "L-shaped bathroom" (144/§1:23), which anticipates the "black hole" toilet (see 179/§1:29) and thematically ties the L factor to the black-hole theory.

22(17-23/§1:3) Note the phrase used in answering the dorophone: "A l'eau!" (= "'Allo!" = "Hello!") (261/§1:38).

23Cf. Eliot's The Waste Land, lines 383, 427.



 In Strong Opinions, Nabokov says "I hate science fiction, with its gals and goons, suspense and suspensories." Yet he also expresses "the deepest admiration" for H. G. Wells, naming as special favorites such works by Wells as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, and "The Country of the Blind." He speaks elsewhere of Aleksey Tolstoy as "a writer of some talent" who "has two or three science fiction stories or novels which are memorable." Ada, for all its attention to"Antiterra" and to anagrammatic satire (Osberg for Borges), is not an anti-novel, though it is anti-. It may be studied as being of the genre of SF (even though it does not resemble SF), if the study centers on that SF element which I term "eversion." The term denotes a double-reversal or a turning-inside-out, and Ada’s eversion of time, earth, and sexual gender are here discussed, respectively, as "transtemporality," "transterrestriality," and "transsexual."

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