Science Fiction Studies

#58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992

Notes and Correspondence

We are pleased to announce that our board of editorial consultants, hitherto European and North American, now includes a Japanese scholar, Takayuki Tatsumi of Keio University, Tokyo.

And we are pleased to learn that Istvan Csicery-Ronay, Jr, has received the 1991 SFRA Pioneer Award for his article in SFS #55 (November 1991), "The SF of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway."

On Rottensteiner on Lovecraft in SFS #56. I am grateful for the large amount of space allotted to the review by Franz Rottensteiner of my book, H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West in SFS. While I was interested in Rottensteiner’s thoughtful review, it contains several misconceptions and some actual errors of fact which may be worth correcting.

Rottensteiner is in general not impressed as to Lovecraft’s "complexity" as a philosopher. In the first place, I made no such assertion: I said at the outset that Lovecraft was not a professional philosopher (i), that he was in fact an "amateur" (6). What I do claim (and what Lovecraft asserted frequently) is that Lovecraft’s fiction is an outgrowth of his philosophy and that his philosophy is therefore worth detailed study, which it has not heretofore received. I will go further to say that Lovecraft wrestled with philosophical issues far more vigorously than most laymen do, even most creative writers.

Rottensteiner claims that "Lovecraft scholars have failed to establish what books HPL actually had in his own library." But I myself compiled such a listing more than a decade ago (Lovecraft’s Library: A Catalogue, Necronomican Press, 1980); this work is so well known to informed Lovecraftians that its existence is now taken for granted, and I use it throughout my volume. If Rottensteiner had consulted this listing, he would have known that Lovecraft was entirely capable of reading Latin, as he had dozens of Latin texts in his library. (He also made a verse translation of the first 88 lines of Ovid’s Metamorphosis at about the age of ten.)

One of the means Rottensteiner uses to denigrate Lovecraft as a philosopher is by a sort of "guilt by association": Lovecraft is said not to have read the "major" philosophers and to have been influenced by thinkers not now held in high esteem. It would seem to me, however, that the merit of a philosopher ought to rest upon the keenness of his thought rather than the number of eminent predecessors whom he can parrot. But Rottensteiner is in error when he says that "Every important [political] thinker from Plato onwards seems to have eluded HPL." Since Rottensteiner knows nothing about the sources of Lovecraft’s political views save what is written in my book, he has no grounds for this assertion. If I wished, I could have trotted out the influence of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Burke, and any number of other political thinkers who would presumably have passed muster with Rottensteiner; I decided not to do so because Lovecraft’s political awareness only emerged toward the end of his life, when contemporary events compelled him to give a great deal of thought to the political, economic, and social problems engendered by the depression. Plato wouldn’t have helped much in this situation.

Rottensteiner is also entirely mistaken when he states that "The principal source of HPL’s racism seems to have been The Color Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn (1905) by one William Benjamin Smith." This is a deliberate misreading of my work, since I made it abundantly clear that Lovecraft’s racism was (a) derived initially from familial influence, (b) fostered by his readings in 19th-century philosophy and anthropology, namely T.H. Huxley, Nietzsche, and others, and (c) modified by later readings and experience. I singled out the Smith book because Lovecraft dedicated his early poem "De Triumpho Naturae" (1905) to it. Rottensteiner’s review, incidentally, repeatedly fails to note the degree to which Lovecraft’s philosophy developed over time; he quotes many passages out of context and without any indication that such views were significantly altered later in Lovecraft’s life.

Much of Rottensteiner’s review is vitiated by a serious methodological error: he interprets remarks found in Lovecraft’s stories as the unvarnished views of Lovecraft the philosopher. Hence Rottensteiner seizes upon the notion (in the stories) of "forbidden knowledge" and infers from it that Lovecraft himself had such a belief and was therefore hostile to the pursuit of knowledge. This is such a tissue of nonsense and misconstrual that I hardly know where to begin correcting it. The notion of forbidden knowledge is found only in the stories, and is used there as a metaphor for cosmic insignificance (since much of this knowledge pertains to mankind’s inconsequence in the cosmos) or for the limitations of the human mind. What we find in Lovecraft’s letters is something like this: "The fact remains that [truth] does interest me, as it has interested thousands of other men....Truth-hunger is a hunger just as real as food-hunger." I shall leave it to readers to determine whether Rottensteiner is correct in believing that "Lovecraft was no great friend of truth." It is true that Lovecraft did express some reservations on the psychological effects of truth and knowledge, as when he remarked that "To the scientist there is the joy of pursuing truth which nearly counteracts the depressing revelations of truth"; this statement may not please a dogmatic positivist like Rottensteiner, but I can establish that it is a well-considered and self-consistent view on Lovecraft’s part, and a view that several other "major" thinkers have held.

Rottensteiner is seriously in error when assessing Lovecraft’s place in weird fiction and science fiction. "HPL’s decision to write weird fiction was..., because of the basic nature of the genre, at least rhetorically, a decision for the supernatural, and eo ipso a decision against science." This is a titanic misunderstanding of Lovecraft’s revolutionary role in weird fiction and his significant relation to science fiction. It was Lovecraft who effected a bridge between weird and science fiction when he repudiated the supernatural as the basis for his work: "The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, and matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible and mensurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt—as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity?" His later tales are a systematic expression of this idea.

I hardly think an answer is required to Rottensteiner’s ridiculous claim that Lovecraft’s work "was revolutionary enough to have been met with distrust in popular fiction, but not revolutionary enough to be accepted by the avant-garde"—as if these are the only poles of aesthetic expression! As a matter of fact, Lovecraft was taken up by the French Surrealists in the 1950s as a significant precursor of their movement.

On the whole, Rottensteiner’s entire review seems fueled by a bizarre hostility to Lovecraft on the flimsy grounds that he fails to conform to Rottensteiner’s own views on many issues. What is strange about this is that, if Rottensteiner looked at Lovecraft with a less biased eye, he might find Lovecraft actually more in consonance with his own views than he imagines. I would urge Rottensteiner to read more of Lovecraft’s letters, and to read his stories with greater care and sophistication, and he might come away with a very different impression.—S.T. Joshi, Senior Editor, Literary Criticism, Chelsea House Publishers.

In Response to S.T. Joshi. It had already been brought to my attention that my doubts about the extent of Lovecraft’s reading were unfounded, and perhaps I relied too much in this respect on Joshi’s (generally valuable) book. Still I cannot help wondering why Lovecraft’s Library is not listed in the bibliography of his book, as one would think it to have some bearing on the subject matter. Which of all the books HPL read, either in his library or borrowed, actually formed him, and which made no impression on him? And I cannot help feeling that the nearer he came to the present, the less sure he was in his judgment. And whether we speak of complexity or "keenness" of thought, to have fostered one’s racism by Nietzsche, for instance, seems to be a perhaps all-too-common but nonetheless serious misunderstanding, certainly not one indicative of "keenness."

As for the rest, I am still not convinced that Lovecraft was always consistent in his philosophical views or in how they are reflected in his fiction. He developed during his life, I understand, and perhaps some of the patterns to be found in his fiction do not occur in his other writings; but that seems at least to indicate that he did not feel strongly enough about a scientific world-view to refrain from using rhetoric and devices clearly of an antiscientific nature. They may be highly effective in his fiction, but still I think they do not sit too well with his professed beliefs. Perhaps I have been too harsh with Lovecraft, but I cannot help continuing to have the impression that many Lovecraftians are not content with granting HPL the strengths he undoubtedly had, but also try to elevate him to something "higher" which he isn’t quite.—Franz Rottensteiner.

On Three Matters in SFS #57. First, on the passage quoted on page 263 from Emanuel J. Mickel on his new translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Mickel’s translation may indeed be better than Walter Miller’s; I haven’t seen it and I am not fluent enough in French to compare them. But Miller’s edition—first published by Washington Square Press in 1965 before being used as the basis for the annotated edition—is a complete translation, as Miller’s introduction and a comparison of any page to the Mercier version makes clear. I don’t know where Mickel got the idea that Miller translated only the "omitted" parts and recycled Mercier’s translation for the rest without making any changes whatever.

Second, on gender-neutral terms. I’m not familiar with Polish, but I do know that it is very close to Russian, in which the generic for human is chelovek (plural liudi, for "people"—I don’t know why), whereas a male is a muzhchina and a female a zhenzchina. As to whether the connotation of chelovek or its Polish equivalent may have shifted, I can’t say. One well-known Russian SF novel, Aleksandr Belyayev’s Chelovek-Amfibia (The Amphibious Person) is about a boy who has been fitted with gills to live underwater, while one of his short stories, "Chelovek kotorii ne spit" (The Person Who Doesn’t Sleep") is about a (male) Dr. Wagner. Does anyone know whether chelovek is used for titles of stories about females?

Third, on Nicola Nixon’s assault on cyberpunk. It’s the sort of criticism that annoys me even when I agree with it, because it revels so much in overkill. Pamela Sargent, among others, has complained of the near-exclusion of women as both writers and characters in cyberpunk, but Nixon can’t leave it at that: Gibson and Sterling and the rest all have to be shock troops of the Reagan counterrevolution and obsessed by the length of their dicks. Gimme a break! I wonder what she makes of Marge Piercy’s He, She and It, which proves that it is possible to write a feminist cyberpunk novel. (Not every one seems to like the book as much as I do, but that’s beside the point). Nixon condemns an entire subgenre as inherently sexist and reactionary. Well, hard-boiled detective fiction used to be a male preserve, too, and look what’s happening now.—John J. Pierce.

In Response to John J. Pierce. If I have launched an "assault" on the supposedly revolutionary politics of cyberpunk instead of lodging a more decorous, more tempered "complaint" like Sargent’s, I am profoundly unapologetic. Assaults are, after all, far more difficult to ignore than complaints. It seems that Mr. Pierce’s consternation about my rough treatment of the self-anointed bad boys of SF has prompted him to overlook the fact that my concern was to weigh promotion against practice in the cyberpunk of the 1980s and not to suggest that cyberpunk could never articulate feminist politics. I hardly think that Gibson and Sterling need Mr. Pierce to defend them.—Nicola Nixon.

Futures Past: A Visual Guidebook to Science Fiction History. Described by its editor, Jim Emerson, as "sort of a science fiction encyclopedia in magazine format," Futures Past is published bimonthly, with each issue devoted to a single year in SF history, beginning with 1926. Each of the first two issues contains (1) "A Chronology of the Past," listing events of some political or cultural importance and "A Chronology of the Future," listing SF events; (2) "Books of [the Year]," including magazine appearances of some novels not published in book form until much later if at all, with bibliographical data and plot summaries; (3) Films of [the Year]," with cast listings, plot summaries, and stills; (4) "The Magazine Rack," with comments on and illustrations from the issues of Amazing Stories and, in #2, Weird Tales; (5) reprints of or excerpts from articles and books on SF; (6) notes on various reference works and library collections; (7) some original articles by the editor or others.

All in all this project might best be described as a resource of first resort, a kind of haphazard annotated and illustrated bibliography providing leads to works of greater depth and substance. Although the editor has worked hard to ensure accuracy of information, it must be said that in a compilation of such miscellaneous material, derived largely from secondary sources, many errors are bound to slip in. The subscription price for six issues is $20 ($27 outside the US), which includes membership in the Science Fiction Resources Network, which is developing a data base on "Books, Films & TV & Radio, Magazines & Fanzines, Organizations, Research Libraries"; subscriptions may still begin with #1. Despite the caveat just made, the service offered seems worth the money, and I have therefore sent $20.00 to Futures Past, P.O. Box 610, Convoy, OH 45832.—RDM.

The Shiel Collections at Rollins and Houston. The A. Reynolds Morse Collection of M.P. Shiel has been donated to the Olin Library (Campus Box 2744), Rollins College, Winter Park, FL 32789, telephone 407-646-2676. The curator is Deborah Walk. There is also a collection of Shiel books and material at the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which also began with books first collected A. Reynolds Morse, who began collecting Shiel books and manuscripts many years ago, published a Shiel bibliography in 1948, and in 1979-83 a series of volumes, including a much expanded bibliography, a volume of essays on Shiel, and editions of the serial versions of a number of works by Shiel. In these two collections the life and work of M.P. Shiel is probably more completely documented than that of any other SF author (with the possible exceptions of Wells and Verne). JDS-Books, P.O. 67, MCS, Dayton, OH 45402, specializes in Shiel and Victorian and Edwardian history, fiction, and literature.

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