Science Fiction Studies

#65 = Volume 22, Part 1 = March 1995

Notes and Correspondences

A Note for the "Quirks & Quarks" (Moods and Facts?) Dept.

He’s a real Nowhere man,

Sitting in his Nowhere land,

Making all his Nowhere plans

For Nobody....

—The Beatles, The Yellow Submarine album.

I have a mild objection at a point in Professor Carol McGuirk’s "NoWhere Man: Toward a Poetics of Post-Utopian Characterization" (SFS 21:141-54, July 1994). I would probably dissent from some of her dichotomies (on her own logic the polarization of cognition vs. vision/revelation seems unsustainable), but I find the article illuminating and thus enjoyable. I’m the more puzzled by her interpretation of my novum as being concerned "well nigh exclusively" with ideas (her Note 1). Nay, I protest—ANY narrative element can become a novum if properly sustained and validated. My whole professional life long I’ve fought against "ideas" divorced from texts, raisins taken out of a cake. And when Prof. McGuirk says that Sturgeon and Cordwainer Smith are not mentioned in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, I reply "of course— the book ends at Wells and Čapek." (By the way, our common beloved William Blake is mentioned! Now that poses an interesting question I’d like to share with Prof. McGuirk: did he have visions or cognitions?) But I do regret that this erudite critic has not remembered that my third book on sf, Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction, culminates—by design—in a Conclusion advancing from Dante to precisely Cordwainer Smith (his wife’s and his story "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul"). I would have hoped that my aversion to scientistic pseudo-extrapolation would have been obvious from Metamorphoses, but at any rate, I took the discussion of the Smith story as the occasion to spell out at some length that all worthwhile sf achieves its cognition and estrangement by way of parable. A parable is quite elastic enough to encompass "vision." So, I have no generic problem with C. Smith (though I do have quite some problems with his Episcopalian ideology for reasons ably hinted at in the McGuirk article, and some further ones with his occasional purple overwriting—both converge, e.g., in the character of Helen’s mother).

If further proof is needed, your readers may be interested to hear that I have two non-sf essays forthcoming at the end of this year which will be germane to this little McGuirk-Suvin discussion. One, in Theater Journal, is on Japanese Noh plays, and its title is "Revelation vs. Conflict"—maybe this suffices. The other, in Eco’s journal, Versus, is a theoretical denial of the opposition emotion/reason and of the exclusive role of concepts within cognition. So, I remain an impenitent historical and dialectical materialist (never was Marx more apposite than now that we are rid of the USSR!), but I am not nor have I ever been a member of the rationalist and/or empiricist party. —Darko Suvin, McGill University.

On Darko Suvin’s Good-Natured Critique. First, I should say that Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses is mentioned in my article not for purposes of attack but because it is still the premier work of theory in our field. We all start there.

When working on "Nowhere Man" and re-reading Metamorphoses, I was struck by the number of American sf writers (though not Cordwainer Smith, Theodore Sturgeon or Frank Herbert) that Suvin brought into the discussion. A check of the index of Metamorphoses has confirmed this: nine references each to Le Guin and Heinlein, eight to Asimov, five to van Vogt, three to Dick, two to Ballard, Blish, Kornbluth, and Bradbury, and single references to Disch, Farmer, Leinster, Russ, Sheckley, Simak, and Zelazny. So many popular American writers do figure in the discussion in Metamorphoses. I was not suggesting any deliberate exclusion of Smith, however—or any deliberate effort at canon formation. I was just noting a pattern visible in most critical studies of sf.

I was indeed unaware of "SF as Metaphor, Parable and Chronotope," the concluding chapter of Positions and Presuppositions (Kent State UP, 1988). Here Suvin meticulously anatomizes the workings of metaphor and imagination in sf: "If we do not confine cognition to analytical discourse only but assume ...that it can equally be based on imagination, then metaphor is not an ornamental excrescence but a specific cognitive organon" (189). Nonetheless, Suvin emphasizes that metaphor functions in sf finally to facilitate "the emergence of a ‘more radical way of looking at things’" (Suvin, quoting Ricoeur, 191). And in Metamorphoses, the novum must be "validated by cognitive logic" (63).

"Validated" and "logic," not "cognition," may be the key words on which we differ. I see visionary stories as evasive parables; these are puzzling Escher images, not the clear, instructive parables of Matthew (used by Suvin as a paradigm of parabolic writing in "SF As Metaphor"). Biblical parables instill faith; visionary parables instill doubt.

Hard and soft sf do provide us with clearly didactic parables: utopia is inherently didactic. I argue only that we should not overlook such hesitant but expressive postutopian anti-teachers as Cordwainer Smith. It’s as if Paul Linebarger thinks we have already absorbed enough marvels "validated by cognitive logic" and perversely insists on refreshing us with a little ineffable bewilderment, just for a change. Smith is at once fatalistic/tragic and euphoric/playful. I do not think we can total his sum; we can only remain attentive to his (meaningful) contradictions.

Even in Suvin’s generative extended reading of Smith’s "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" in "SF as Metaphor," there is a movement towards certainty (in asserting what the story means) that troubles me. This collaboration by Paul and Genevieve Linebarger is read by Suvin as boiling down to a reactionary celebration of America and tradition—in the heroine’s name (Helen America) and in many other features persuasively analyzed by Suvin. Commenting on Captain Grey-No-More’s ardent address to dying Helen as "my boldest of people," Suvin brilliantly speculates that "the passage is not ...bad grammar but the introduction of a conscious interference between ‘people’ as individuals and as a collective, between Helen and America (both of which designations, after all, constitute her name)" (211).

But aren’t the Linebargers being ironic, if not downright sarcastic, in such rapturous invocations? Unconsciously hoping for death because of the joke her mother has made of her very existence, awkward Helen pilots a shipful of frozen stiffs—sleeping would-be colonists. This studious, rather morose young woman is as ill-named by the rhapsodic title—"The Lady" designates her as a stylized figure, a princess on a tapestry—as by her tasteless and overbearing late mother. None of her names rings true: even "Helen" is all wrong. (Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?)

Smith’s obsession with certain motifs (the Soul, Providence, redemption, "true love," the Greater Good) does not, I think, necessarily correlate with any final affirmation of the traditional religious codes that also employ these images. In the case of "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul," the parable seems to me intractably ambiguous (which is not to say that it is incoherent). Helen’s story is about faith AND doubt, redemption AND death. Nor is Smith the first Romantic to use metaphor in this equivocal way: for Keats, too, the visionary image moves not towards certainty or dialectic synthesis but towards negative capability: the interplay of figure against ground, as on the Grecian urn, doth "tease us out of thought,/As doth eternity."

In "SF as Metaphor," Suvin calls metaphor "a dialectical corrective of all analytic language.... If metaphor is such a dialectic necessarily refers, among other things, to what a given culture and ideology consider as reality.... [Metaphor] redescribes the known world and opens up new possibilities of intervening into it" (189). That sf metaphor at some point must clear a reality check-point suggests that finally the image must travel out into our own world, inciting readers to action ("intervening" in the "known world"). This is also what Bakhtin requires of "artistic language usage" in his writings on narrative and style. As I said in "NoWhere Man," hard and soft sf meet this condition, but I do not think visionary sf should be held to it. It is as though this fiction is disdainful of the "real world"—the polis celebrated as the center of virtue in eutopian sf, and the center of corruption in dystopian sf. Cities used to have walls, and they still have city-limit signs: visionary sf simply refuses to "place" itself in any such sphere of topographical definition. In Cyril Kornbluth’s perceptive observation: "The SF story does not move us outward to action but inward to contemplation" (qtd. in my essay, 148).

To conclude: I was certainly wrong to assert that Suvin has slighted sf imagery and characterization: "SF as Metaphor" is one of the best essays I have read on these topics. Perhaps we disagree on the need for the novum to be "validated" by cognitive "logic." When the story’s images are held to such a test, rhapsodic styles (such as Smith’s and Sturgeon’s) may be seen as wasting time, even as "purple prose." Odd that we give high modernists such as Joyce and Woolf (who often overwrite, and have their reasons) so much more space for experiments in imagery than we give to writers of speculative fiction. Is it because critics are still wincing over American sf’s pulp heritage?

Years ago, I remember copy-editing a midlist sf novel that repeatedly used the phrase "he glowered redly." Now that’s bad. Smith’s literate purpleness, by contrast, creates its texture through multiple allusions (to symbolist poetry, Chinese culture, Christian ideology, etc). He does often replace the remedial action usually undertaken by human heroes with a promise of a miracle or messiah. "E’Telekeli"—entelechy, or perfection moving of itself—saves the oppressed Underpeople (humanity, too) in Norstrilia, but he is able to do so because he is not human but part Daimoni (alien) and part eagle. If Perfection—or Providential intervention by the Other—is just around the corner and ready to help us, better for human beings to sit tight and wait. This is intrinsically unprogressive, to be sure. But usually Smith includes images that contradict this promise of redemption—as in Norstrilia, with the social Darwinism of the planet Norstrilia itself: people there are on their own and had better look sharp if they wish to avoid being invaded (or euthanized by their own government). I am suggesting, then, that Smith is seldom pointlessly "purple." And in many cases his stories are not as unilaterally reactionary as a survey of his plot-lines might at first suggest. There is this undercurrent of contradictory images—and, often, a mocking inflection—that suggests subversiveness, ironic intent.

My thanks to Darko Suvin for his response, and for letting me know about "SF as Metaphor." One final matter, responding to Professor Suvin’s query about Blake. The poet’s wife Catherine knew him better than anyone else, and she thought his visions were real enough: "I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise."—Carol McGuirk, Florida Atlantic University.

Postscript. Have academic readers of SFS ever noticed how closely the ritualized, turbulent meeting of the Scanners in Smith’s "Scanners Live in Vain" resembles a really awful Faculty Senate meeting? I wonder what was going on at Johns Hopkins circa 1950?—CM.

Dear Elizabeth Hewitt. I have read with interest your article in the November SF Studies regarding Pam Zoline’s story and New Worlds. It is a pleasure to see attention paid to the brilliant "Heat Death." One reason why Zoline has been neglected is generic: genres pay attention only to those who are most productive. The churning out of copy is unduly important—and of course it leads to attenuation of ideas. Also, high production is a reinforcer of generic walls; thinking of new approaches, possibly new thematic constructions, hinders speed of output. Zoline has written too little.

And, of course, her name is associated with the "New Wave." I’m destined forever to defend something to which I never reckoned to belong, but, for all their faults, the writers clustered round Moorcock tried to escape from the old Men’s Adventure formulae of the past, with conquerors blundering about on dummy planets; because they saw that as the only way in which the dramatic and shifting presents (plural designedly) of the sixties could be truthfully explored. The exhilarating creative impulses of that time could not be contained within the boundaries of a (let’s say) Poul Anderson novel. So to defend the New Wave was—or felt like—defending freedom of speech and creative fire.

I have suffered from that defense ever since. A small part of that story leaks into a collection of essays, The Detached Retina, I have appearing from Liverpool UP next spring (and possibly also from Syracuse UP). There’s also a reference to Zoline’s story. Incidentally, congratulations on your homework. I see from your bibliography that you have even read the Greenland work on the New Wave. It’s authoritative and impartial. Greenland was the first English person to obtain a degree in sf. Please permit me to suggest an item missing from your list: The Mirror of Infinity, A Critic’s Anthology of Science Fiction, edited by Robert Silverberg. My edition is London 1971; there was a New York edition that year or maybe earlier. In that volume, I introduce the Zoline story.

The question of how far the "ghetto" walls extend, or whether they are crumbling, is related to what we consider the function of sf. Of course it is intended, like all fiction, to amuse. And it is in some ways a flight simulator for new ideas. I like to think—admittedly against much contrary evidence—that it is something of a creative refuge. For all its limitations, of which we are keenly aware, the sf world, or the magazine sector at least, permits writers the ease of writing to what they consider suitable length, from short-short through novellas, novelets, to serials and trilogies. I seem constantly to be making similar noises on TV and radio over here. I would add another factor, which I see also as a plus, though like a comet it trails a sparkling tail of minuses. It’s this: sf writers get to see their readers in a way all ordinary novelists do not, or do only rarely. Sometimes, they even get to see the academics who criticise their works. . . .

Since the end of the Space Age, since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and all that therein was, sf has temporarily lost its cutting edge. Asimov’s "vast and solid shore," which you quote, has suffered coastal erosion. For this reason it has slid into fantasy and horror. Boundaries cannot usefully he defined as long as sf lives and changes, because new talented writers will continually shift the goal posts (including their own, if at all possible).

I knew Pam Zoline quite well. She was (is?—I’ve lost touch) as much an artist as a writer. Her illustrations grace the pages of New Worlds. You mention (299) Sarah’s dream of writing "a new novel that would refurbish language." That was Pam’s dream; she wanted to rewrite the Great American Novel in her own terms. But then she actually went back to the States. . . .

It occurs to me as I sign off that I might send a copy of this letter to Dr. Mullen, to whom falls the duty of forwarding this letter to you at Johns Hopkins. The battle against mindless prejudice and Zoilism must never cease! With best regards, Brian Aldiss, Oxford

Wells in Italy.In the November issue (#64), Patrick Parrinder states that the Everyman Library editions "will be, in all probability, the only Wells editions that can be legally sold in Britain or any European country until the year 2017" (413). This is not quite correct, as the Time Machine Text for Italian Students, announced in SFS #62 (122-23) is now available in Italy. It is published by Cideb, Rapallo (Geneva), and is accompanied by a cassette recording of key passages; a 64-page "Teacher’s Book" is about to be printed too. In my previous letter I wrote that the volume would include three other short stories by Wells; these were withdrawn at the last moment. (Two of them have found a new home in another volume in the same series, with introduction and activities, cassette, and teacher’s book: The Marvellous and the Strange: Six Tales by Edgar Allan Poe and H. G. Wells, to be published next year. Jonathan K. Benison, Firenze.

Who’s Who in Czech and Slovak Science Fiction is the English for the title of a recently published booklet written in a mixture of Czech and Slovak. Despite its rather tacky cover, it is a very solid piece of work, with detailed entries on almost all the living writers, editors, translators, publishers, collectors, and fan organizers who have been active in Czech and Slovak science fiction during the last ten years. Entries range from the famous (Josef Nesvadba, Ondřej Neff) to the infamous (Dušan Slobodník, ultra-nationalist Minister of Culture in the first Meciar regime in Slovakia, who was earlier a literary critic) to the relatively unknown. The illustrations are taken from various fanzines and samizdat publications of the 1980s. Copies of this book and of the Czech sf newsletter can by obtained from Zdeněk Rampas at Nová Vlna, Letecká 6, 161 00 Praha 6, Czech Republic.—Cyril Simsa, Praha.

A Special Issue of The Literary Review. The Fall 1994 issue of The Literary Review (285 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940 USA) is devoted to Latin American science fiction and detective fiction, with Ilan Stavans (a contributor to SFS) as guest editor. It contains, all in English, sixteen fictions, two articles, and the first translation into English of "Epilogue," the article on Jorge Luis Borges (written by Jorge Luis Borges) in the Enciclopedia Sudamericana, Santiago de Chili, 2074.

Conferences in March. The following announcements (which should have been sent us before September 1, 1994) may actually reach a few of our readers in time to serve their purpose.

The 1995 Eaton Conference. The 17th Annual Eaton Conference, to be held in Riverside, California, on March 3-5, 1995, will focus on "Unearthly Visions: The Graphic Arts of Fantasy and Science Fiction." Confirmed guests include the following artists, authors, critics, editors (each actually two or more of the above): Harlan Ellison, Frank Kelly Freas, Gregory Benford, Lewis Shiner, Scott McCloud, Matt Wagner, Anthony J. Hicks, and T.M. Lowe, Sheila Fincg, Howard V. Hendrix, Frank McConnell, Marlene Barr, Arthur B. Evans (of SFS) and Donald M. Hassler (of Extrapolation). For registration and other information, contact George Slusser or Gladys Murphy, Rivera Library, University of California, Riverside, California 92521, telephone 909-787-3233, e-mail SLUS@UCRAC1.UCR.EDU.

The 1995 IAFA Conference. The Sixteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts will be held March 22-26 at the Fort Lauderdale Airport Hilton in Dania, Florida. Participants include Joe Haldeman, Peter Hunt, Pat Cadigan, Brian Aldiss. Contact Mary Pharr, Department of English, Florida Southern College, Lakeland, FL 33801.

CanCon ‘95 will be held in Ottawa May 12 to 14; it will include the 4th Annual Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Literature. For additional information write Can!Con, P.O. Box 5752, Merivale Depot, Nepean, Ontario, K2C 3M1, Canada, or e-mail, or telephone 613-596-4105.

An Exposition of Canadian Science Fiction will be held during the summer of 1995 at the National Library of Canada, 394 Wellington Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0N4. For more information, write or telephone 613-992-3052. It is promised that real people will answer the phone between 8:30 and 4:30 on weekdays.

Call for Papers: The 1995 SFRA Conference will be held June 22-25 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, with the cooperation of the University of North Dakota, whose multi-media facilities will be available for presentations. For questions or suggestions about registration, participation in panels, or proposed topics, contact B. Diane Miller. 1402 4th Avenue North, Grand Forks, ND 58203-3145; phone 701-775-5038; E-mail, Internet or GEnie d.miller14. The deadline for abstracts is May 1, 1995.
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