Science Fiction Studies

# 8 = Volume 3, Part 1 = March 1976


Robert Galbreath

Introduction to the Ketterer Forum (See SFS 6:130-46).

At the 1974 annual meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association, no work of criticism was more widely discussed and debated than David Ketterer's New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature, even discounting the session specifically devoted to evaluating it. Several factors converged to generate so , much attention: the book's recent publication, its availability in paperback and hence a wider audience, the presence at the meeting of Ursula K. LeGuin, whose The Left Hand of Darkness figures prominently in Ketterer's analysis and was itself very likely the single work of fiction most often mentioned in the conference papers. More important, no previous contribution to science fiction criticism had attempted to place science fiction in so broad a context of "mainstream" literature, critical sophistication, and sensitivity to imagery. Equally to the point, Ketterer showed no reluctance in proposing controversial critical contexts and readings of individual fictions which sparked often vigorous dissents in the corridors and meeting rooms of the conference. Indeed, since the three most substantive issues or themes raised during the conference were Academe, Androgyny, and Apocalypse, it is not difficult to appreciate that Professor Ketterer's book was literally inescapable.                

Reproduced in SFS #6 are the main features of the session on "David Ketterer's New Worlds for Old: Assessments of Apocalyptic Criticism," which I had the pleasure of organizing and chairing: critical analyses by Professors Canary and Fredericks of several of the major structures of Ketterer's work, Ursula K. LeGuin's reaction to his treatment of The Left Hand of Darkness, and Professor Ketterer's response to his critics. Since Professor Ketterer was on sabbatical in England at the time, his reply was taped ahead of time; as he notes, there was an element of shadow-boxing in this cumbersome arrangement which allowed for misunderstanding and missed points all around. For the purposes of publication, Professor Fredericks has substantially revised his paper and Professor Ketterer has reworked his remarks in the light of the full texts by the other participants and the tape of the entire session.                

While science fiction authors have reacted to Ketterer's book with dismay and even bafflement-witness Ms. LeGuin's deeply felt protestation and Theodore Sturgeon's review1-many academic teachers and critics of science fiction, including Professors Canary and Fredericks, have been impressed by Ketterer's demonstration that science fiction is no less suited to the methods of rigorous critical inquiry than the classics. It remains true, however, there there is far less accord on such matters as Ketterer's conception of apocalyptic literature, his perception of a peculiarly close link between American literature and science fiction, and his reading of individual works.                

Readers will, of course, determine for themselves the relative merits of the criticisms raised here and Professor Ketterer's replies to them. It is not out of place, however, to offer some general observations on several of the larger issues emphasized in the exchange. To begin with, any assertion of the peculiarly American nature of science fiction needs to be rigorously demonstrated. While Professor Ketterer should not be criticized for not writing a book on American cultural history, he offers as his demonstration little more than a series of suggestions that certain characteristics of science fiction are to be found in American literature generally: the slighting of characterization, an awareness of cyclical process, a quality of wonder, the common roots in the romance (pp. 20-22).2 The discussion is simply too brief to be persuasive. Of more interest is his contention that "the American experience has provided science fiction with its major analogical model" (p. 26), that of the discovery or revelation of new worlds (geographical, astronomical, intellectual) which severely disrupt one's accepted world view, followed by a transformation of one's perception of reality and self.                

This dual process of destruction and transformation is accurately described by Professor Ketterer as "apocalyptic." Several critics to the contrary notwithstanding, apocalyptic is not exclusively destructive and Professor Ketterer does not emphasize the negative connotation. With more justification, Professor Canary regards Ketterer's treatment of the apocalyptic component of the American experience as inadequately documented. Reference to the broader range of scholarship on apocalyptic and millennialistic facets of American culture would indeed lend resonance to Ketterer's discussion.3 The "handful of references" (Canary) to America as a New World could easily be enlarged. Ketterer now offers us some additional examples, to which I would also add, almost at random, D.H. Lawrence's experience of the New World in terms of personal rebirth and Aldous Huxley's apocalyptic references to the New World in his Heaven and Hell.4 Canary's real point, however, is not documentation but doubt concerning the uniquely apocalyptic nature of the American experience. From the viewpoint of European intellectual history, it is apparent that the Scientific Revolution and the "discovery" of China were as. apocalyptic as the New World in their cultural impact from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. It is also unlikely that apocalyptic thinking has been any less prevalent in European culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than in America.5 We need to know, therefore, if a special relationship obtains between apocalyptic thought and the development of British, French, German, and East European science fictions. In promising us a coda article on the apocalyptic forms of world literature, Ketterer makes it clear that apocalyptic literature is confined neither to the New World nor to science fiction. He may be quite right in sensing a significant relationship between apocalyptic and science fiction, but it would be premature to regard this bond as a largely American phenomenon. The New World as an analogical model for science fiction is highly suggestive; as the locale for a peculiar convergence, it is much less convincing.                

Professor Ketterer's category of apocalyptic literature itself has been criticized as unduly vague and unworkable. In his response here, he states that his tripartite division of literature into "mimetic" (realistic), "fantastic" (including fantasy), and "apocalyptic" (including science fiction) forms is simply a logical classification of the possible relationships between fictional worlds and the real world, and as such is "surely beyond argument." Classification, however, depends on the perception of significant differences in the data at hand. Our critics do not agree that such significant differences are in fact present. I find it especially difficult to separate "apocalyptic" from "fantastic" on the basis of Ketterer's contention that the fictional worlds of the former category stand in a "credible" relationship to the real world, while the latter do not. Credibility too is ultimately subjective. As Professor Canary indicates, a criterion of credibility which can encompass rational extrapolation, analogy, and religious belief can make anything seem believable, Dune or Middle-earth or the Book of Revelation.                

In Ketterer's analysis, credibility is not the only or even the primary means of distinguishing apocalyptic literature. An apocalyptic work must also somehow transform the mental world of the reader. Professor Ketterer struggles to formulate this criterion so that "apocalyptic" will be neither so broad as to include all literature (Professor Canary's charge) or so narrow as to become a momentary epiphany. "The notion of a serious radical transformation of reality," Ketterer states, must "consciously and continuously" inform a truly apocalyptic writing. (p. 37; Ketterer's italics). He continues: "What I am essentially talking about is, of course, a form of collective rather than individual epiphany, but an epiphany that is on such a total, lasting, and literal scale that the force of the revelation frequently invites that it be concretely rendered by means of apocalyptic imagery" (p. 38). Discounting both the dubious concept of a "collective epiphany" and the ambiguous function of consciousness, Ketterer's formulation bears a noteworthy resemblance to Jung's characterization of visionary literature-a literature "that derives its existence from the hinterlands of man's mind, as if it had emerged from the abyss of prehuman ages, or from a superhuman world of contrasting light and darkness."

Sublime, pregnant with meaning, yet chilling the blood with its strangeness, it arises from timeless depths; glamorous, daemonic, and grotesque, it bursts asunder our human standards of value and aesthetic form, a terrifying tangle of eternal chaos, a crimen loesae majestatis humanae. On the other hand, it can be a revelation whose heights and depths are beyond our fathoming, or a vision of beauty which we can never put into words.

The apocalyptic effect both of the experiences which give rise to the literature and of the literature upon the reader is clear: they "rend from top to bottom the curtain upon which is painted the picture of an ordered world, and allow a glimpse into the unfathomable abyss of the unborn and of things yet to be." Jung cites as examples of visionary literature not only Dante, the second part of Faust, Blake, Nietzsche, and Boehme, but also "in more restricted form" Haggard's She and Ayesha, Benoit's L'Atlantide, Kubin's Die andere Seite, and other fantasies.6                

Ketterer's apocalyptic mode, however, extends beyond Jung's visionary literature. Again, we are presented with a tripartite scheme, this time of apocalyptic literature into subclasses of (1) visionary apocalypse-transcendental new worlds that exist outside of time and space (paradise, hell, the supernatural realm), (2) satirical apocalypse-new worlds that exist inside time and space, including utopias and dystopias, and (3) philosophical apocalypse "which reveals the present world in new or other terms" (p. 38; Ketterer's italics). Although Ketterer frankly declares that it is the visionary (in a more general sense) rather than the satirical aspect of science fiction which most interests him, devoting the bulk of New Worlds for Old to the philosophical and visionary apocalypses, it is the satirical element which precludes a simple equation of his apocalyptic with lung's visionary literature. Yet the depiction of utopian literature and social-extrapolative science fiction as apocalyptic dilutes the usefulness of that term. With the removal of satirical apocalypse, Ketterer's argument would be strengthened. It would then be possible to demonstrate that much science fiction (and fantasy) makes use of visionary and philosophical apocalypses, and that to the extent it does, it participates in Jung's visionary mode. This is a far different proposition from that which claims that all science fiction, and no fantasy, is apocalyptic.                

Finally, I find puzzling Professor Ketterer's assertion in his response here that "apocalyptic literature is not to be read in terms of the biblical Apocalypse; rather the biblical Apocalypse is to be read as a notable 'Western' product of the apocalyptic imagination." just what is "the" biblical Apocalypse? The Book of Revelation is no doubt the most famous biblical Apocalypse, but it is scarcely the only one-one thinks immediately of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel. What is the apocalyptic imagination which antedates these biblical examples? Why shouldn't apocalyptic literature be read in the light of, say, the Book of Revelation? Such readings, as Professor Fredericks makes abundantly clear, need not be reductive.                

My comments are not intended to belittle Professor Ketterer's substantial achievement. I am indebted to him both for writing New Worlds for Old and for permitting it to be subjected to a critical dissection in his absence. His book is broadly conceived, richly informed, both provoking and provocative. By emphasizing the visionary, religious, and mystical dimensions of science fiction, he has helped to displace the stereotype of science fiction as social satire. His sensitivity to patterns of imagery is remarkable; his formulations of the "terminal beach" myth (pp. 76-77) and of the "basic" plot of science fiction (pp. 123-124) are stimulating. I have found the notion of philosophical apocalypse a useful tool in teaching courses on science fiction, visionary literature, and literature of the occult. Equally important, I believe this same concept may shed light on the psychological appeal and impact of science fiction on readers. Not least of all, if I may echo Professor Fredericks, New Worlds for Old has functioned as a philosophical apocalypse for me, expanding my awareness of the possibilities of science fiction criticism and deepening my appreciation of science fiction as literature. Liber librum aperit.


                1. Galaxy April 1974, pp. 118-21.
                2. All parenthetical page-references are to New Worlds for Old, published in 1974 in hb by Indiana University Press and in pb by Doubleday-Anchor, with the same pagination.
                3, For example, David E. Smith, "Millenarian Scholarship in America," American Quarterly 17 (1965): 535-49, and Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Notion: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago 1968).
                4. James C. Cowan, D.H. Lawrence's American Journey (Cleveland 1970); Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (1954, 1956; combined edn, Penguin ph 1959), pp. 71-72.
                5. Ketterer refers to M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (NY 1971), for the Romantic period; for the 20th century, see Franklin L. Baumer, "Twentieth Century Version of the Apocalypse," rpt in European Intellectual History since Darwin and Marx, ed. W. Warren Wager (Harper Torchbooks 1966), pp. 110-134.
                6. C.G. Jung, "Psychology and Literature," in The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature (Collected Works, Vol. 15), tr. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton 1966), pp. 90-91.

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