Clareson's Latest Collection
Thomas D. Clareson, ed. Many Futures, Many Worlds: Theme and Form in
Science Fiction. Kent State University Press, nd , ix+303,
$5.50 pb, $12.50 hb.
In his introduction to this volume, Thomas Clareson says that he wants to "provide
the reader with an appreciation of various of the critical methods by which science
fiction may be explored" (p ix). On the surface these fourteen essays--eight of them
newly published here, six reprinted or revised from earlier periodical publication--are as
miscellaneous as you could wish. But underneath that surface variety I can only
distinguish three critical approaches, which might be called (1) topical, (2) generic, and
To start with the first and most familiar of these approaches, we can group together
those five essays which focus upon some special topic--computers, Greek myths, lost
worlds, to name a trio. In conception, such essays fall into the pattern of "Monks in
Chaucer" or "Flowers Among the Pre-Raphaelites." Clareson's own essay,
"Lost Lands, Lost Races," surveys the "lost world" novel that
flourished in Britain and America between about 1870 and 1930. We see the formula being
woven by H. Rider Haggard, worn threadbare by his imitators, and then being re-dyed and
refurbished by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although Clareson hints at a few of the social
implications of this formula (response to the disappearance of the frontier, urban
fascination with the primitive), he spends most of his time cataloguing examples, and very
little time considering why this type of novel should have arisen in this period, or why
it should have become so popular. For example, to what extent is the "lost
world" motif a commentary on imperialism, then at its height? Is the erotic image of
the pagan princess--vividly documented by Clareson--a device for turning colonial peoples
into passive subjects of a masculine empire?
Two essays focus on machines, particularly robots and computers. Carolyn Rhodes
compresses her theme into her title, "Tyranny by Computer." Examining such
novels as Vonnegut's Player Piano, Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, and Ira
Levin's This Perfect Day, she shows that the cybernetic revolution has
consistently been treated as a source of dread in science fiction of the last thirty
years. But she never looks up from the texts themselves to consider the events that were
shaping this dread--the cybernetic revolution itself, the regimentation of society during
the Second World War, the reign of McCarthyism, the social trends described by Reisman in The
Lonely Crowd or by Whyte in The Organization Man. Patricia Warrick does
occasionally look up from her texts to the social process in her article, "Images of
the Man-Machine Intelligence Relationship in Science Fiction," and this is one of
several reasons why her contribution makes that of Rhodes seem superfluous. Warrick offers
a compact guide to the vast literature of automata, robots and computers, ranging all the
way from the inevitable Frankenstein to Stanislaw Lem's glittering Cyberiad.
She pays attention to the actual--as well as the fictional--history of computer
technology, and thus helps us to see the fiction as a creative response to social reality.
Those writers who interest her most, including Zelazny, Ellison and Delany, have passed
beyond the machine-as-object-of-dread syndrome to imagine cybernetics working changes in
human consciousness and character, to imagine even some creative symbiosis between humans
The essays by S.C. Fredericks on "Revivals of Ancient Mythologies in Current
Science Fiction and Fantasy" and by Beverly Friend on "Virgin Territory: The
Bonds and Boundaries of Women in Science Fiction" are both well-informed and
well-argued examples of the topical approach. Fredericks explicitly says that he is not
treating myth as a mode of thinking--which would have required an ideological
approach--but rather that he is examining the "revivifications" of specific
myths, or myth-systems, in selected authors. Zelazny, Delany and John Gardner (for Grendel)
receive his most extended analyses, the latter example reflecting the fuzziness of
boundaries between science fiction and other contemporary forms of narrative. I for one
would be interested in seeing Fredericks make use of his encyclopedic knowledge of
mythology and science fiction to consider why myths have become so prominent a part of the
genre, and in what ways--if any--the modes of thinking characteristic of science fiction
resemble those of mythology. Beverly Friend offers a long-overdue indictment of the sexism
which has been an integral part of science fiction from the beginning. In personal and
forceful language, she calls up for us the dominant images of women as robots, as damsels
in distress, as mindless luggage toted about by male scientists. Some of the most
outrageous examples are drawn from members of the pantheon such as Asimov and Heinlein. In
the 50s and early 60s male writers such as John Wyndham and Theodore Sturgeon were capable
of transcending sexual stereotypes in their fiction, she tells us. But they were rare
examples, well within the margins of experimental error. More recently, of course, the
strongest challenges to those sexual stereotypes have been offered by women writers,
including Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin, both of whom Friend discusses perceptively.
Indeed, science fiction centrally concerned with the status and potentialities of women is
among the most socially-aware fiction now being written, for the simple reason that our
attitudes toward women are intimately linked to our attitudes toward nature, toward
intuition, toward spirit--all those dimensions of existence traditionally ignored by the
Four essays illustrate the second approach, which I have called generic criticism. In
each case the writer is pondering the boundaries of science fiction, perhaps with an eye
to marking them more closely, as Steven Kagle does in "Science Fiction as Simulation
Game," or with an eye to erasing them, as Samuel Delany does in "Critical
Methods: Speculative Fiction." Kagle's article, which elaborates on the analogy
implicit in his title, stresses the active role the reader must take in playing the
"game" of science fiction. But it is not at all clear how or if this
game-experience will carry over into the reader's life, a benefit which Kagle claims.
Delany writes as a maker of fictions, and therefore like T.S. Eliot or Flaubert or Tolstoy
in analogous situations, he naturally offers an apology for his own kind of writing. This
apology involves stressing the continuities between speculative fiction (his choice of
title over science fiction) and other kinds of intellectual constructs. For example, he
argues that critics have propounded simplistic lineages of literary influence within the
genre, while writers themselves have been deeply affected by everyone from Shaw to
grandmothers, by everything from nuclear technology to Hittite folklore. Novelists always
recognize that purely literary genealogies are nonsense, but critics, trained to read
literature, and drawn by taste to certain kinds of writing, persist in constructing those
lists of influences. Delany also claims that the impulse behind science fiction is closer
to that which animates poetry than to that which animates other kinds of narrative
fiction. True perhaps for Delany--and for others such as Bradbury, Ballard, Clarke,
Zelazny--this claim seems patently false for writers as diverse as Le Guin and Brunner.
Thomas Clareson's other essay, "Many Futures, Many Worlds," a kind of
introductory digest of typical stances within the genre--utopian, dystopian, absurdist,
etc.--shows little awareness that the same stances have recurred in most other writing of
this century. Stanley Schmidt also concerns himself with distinctive qualities of the
genre. His essay, "The Science in Science Fiction," examines the various ways in
which scientific speculations have been integrated into stories, stressing, in the
process, John Campbell's profound influence on the genre. Like Delany, Schmidt writes in
part as an apologist for his own kind of fiction, the sort of fiction generally associated
with Astounding and Analog. As a consequence he can find little to say
about most recent science fiction, except that it makes scant use of science.
The five remaining essays in the collection all display the third critical approach,
which I have called ideological. One of these essays, "The Philosophical Limitations
of Science Fiction," by Patrick G. Hogan, Jr., I group here out of courtesy to its
title, rather than its argument. Indeed, after three readings I cannot decipher what the
argument is; it seems an essay in search of a thesis. Hogan is interested in the
contributions both philosophy and science fiction might offer for our speculations about
the future of earth: that much is clear, and that is about all that is clear.
The other four essays in this group I call ideological because they pay careful
attention to the structure of ideas, values, and attitudes in the texts which they study.
These are the most original and most valuable articles in the book, I believe, because
they reach beyond the level of subject-matter or topic, beyond the level of generic
paradigms, to the deep structure of science fiction--epistemology, philosophy of history,
world-view, cosmology. At this level we begin to see connections between science fiction
and the myriad other ways we have tried, during the past hundred years, to make sense of
our world and ourselves. Thomas Wymer, for example, argues persuasively in his essay,
"Perception and Value in Science Fiction," that the development of the genre has
recapitulated, on the level of epistemology, the shift from an Enlightenment to a Romantic
world-view. An analogous shift from empiricism to relativism, or even subjectivism, has
also taken place in twentieth-century physics, and in modernist literature generally. Thus
Wymer enables us to gauge the broader cultural significance of certain fundamental trends
in the ideology of science fiction.
In his essay on "Science Fiction as Fictive History," Robert Canary also
reflects on epistemological questions, arguing that the narrative strategies which science
fiction writers employ rely upon more or less conscious views of history. The three views
of history that he finds most prominent in the genre are linear, cyclical, and what he
calls "linear nonextrapolative." The first of these is implicit in most science
fiction which has been termed extrapolative; the second is the most common view of history
in treatments of the far future or galactic empires; the third posits a radical
disjunction between our present world and some alternate reality. John Brunner's Stand
on Zanzibar, Asimov's Foundation trilogy, and Delany's Einstein
Intersection serve Canary as illustrations of the three historical perspectives.
J. Norman King, I suspect, will irritate many science fiction enthusiasts by his essay
on "Theology, Science Fiction, and Man's Future Orientation," for he uses the
genre to illustrate concerns and perceptions that he has reached by other--mainly
theological--routes. But I find his example valuable, precisely because he is thinking through
science fiction to questions which bear a much more general significance for our lives. At
the outset he suggests how our thinking about ultimate questions--human origins, human
nature, human destiny--has been altered by scientific, philosophical, and social
developments during the last two centuries. One consequence of this period of intellectual
and material ferment has been a shift from past-oriented to future-oriented world views.
For an age which stresses "man's self-creation in the future" (p 241), as our
age does, science fiction is an ideal medium of exploration. Because King has grappled
with science fiction at the level of ideology, he can speak of standard themes, such as
man-machine relations, aliens, and mutations, with an awareness of their implications for
I have saved the best essay for last. Gary K. Wolfe's "The Known and the Unknown:
Structure and Image in Science Fiction" seems to me a model for criticism which seeks
to probe beneath the surface materials of fiction to fundamental structuring ideas and
values. Conceding his significant debt to Levi-Strauss, Wolfe treats the key polarity--so
familiar in science fiction--of known and unknown. Such "icons" as the
spaceship, the humanoid creature, and the city, Wolfe argues, mediate between the two
poles: the spaceship is a known microcosm, carrying its crew into the unknown; the
creature dwells in a non-human environment, yet appeals to animal levels within us; the
city, a synthetic world, shields us from the outside, from the natural, the unconquered.
At some point in each transit from the known world to the unknown, voyagers must pass
through a barrier, perhaps many barriers. One of the most interesting features of Wolfe's
argument is his examination of how these barriers--physical, metaphysical,
psychological--structure fictions as disparate as Clarke's The City and the Stars,
Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and the film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Throughout the essay, Wolfe insists on the connections between ideological structure and
the structure of ideas and relations in society: and that, it seems to me, is the most
illuminating critical approach presently available.
Among the methods you will not find represented here are the stylistic,
psychoanalytic, sociological, and semiological. I cannot judge to what extent these
omissions reflect Clareson's editorial choices--every collection of essays is blessedly
finite--and to what extent they reflect the state of science-fiction criticism. Fancy
methodology for its own sake is so much glorified scaffolding. But there is no reason why
our critical methods should not be commensurate, in complexity and sophistication, with
the fictions we are studying.
No Keys for Science Fiction
Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff. Clefs pour la science-fiction. With a preface by
Ray Bradbury. Paris: Seghers, 378p.
This book appears in a series of monographs all called "Clefs pour..."
("Keys for...") and mainly intended for university students. It represents a
theoretical survey of contemporary SF, international in scope, with a slight emphasis on
French writers. A second volume is announced with a preface by Roland Barthes: it will
discuss "SF's place within literature," "its ideological and
psychoanalytical functions" (?), and its "innermost nature." Although the
authors repeatedly state that "SF is one of the most important phenomena today"
(e.g. p 16), this first volume, in my opinion, is an example of what SF criticism should not
be (or perhaps one should say, should no longer be): full of factual, sometimes purely
anecdotic, data but methodologically and conceptually inconsistent and unclear.
"SF does not exist as a unified genre": this statement represents the
authors' main thesis. However, since the notion of genre itself is never circumscribed,
the thesis remains an intuitive assumption reminding us of the traditional and commonplace
gambit that "SF cannot be defined," which is usually the preamble to twenty
pages of whimsical attempts at definition.
"SF today has absolutely nothing in common with that of the 'Golden Age'" (p
12): the less justified the assumption, the more categorical and emphatic it becomes.
A first "unified" definition appears on page 13: SF is "a branch of
imaginative literature, together with fantasy and fairy tale (le marveilleux)."
Such a distinction (inspired by Jacques Sadoul, we are told) does not prevent the authors
from later on discussing Lovecraft, Merritt, C.L. Moore, Tolkien, Moorcock, or Jean Ray as
SF writers (p 91 et passim).
However, all things considered, their own definition will read as follows: "SF is
an experimental literature of the Possible" (p 14), "experimental" being
apparently self-evident to them, and "the Possible" referring to
"everything that is not reality" (sic, p 14).
Unavoidably the reader experiences here a feeling of discomfort: off-handed and
assertive, the text does not seem to justify its theoretical seriousness. Some further
examples: "For the literary critic, there is no such thing as a history of SF"
(p 18). What critic? Where? "Jules Verne is without any doubt at the inception of
what is called scientific anticipation" (p 18). Is there any actual
anticipation in Verne? The best critics, such as Huet, Serres, Chesneaux, doubt it
strongly; and what about the recent work on an SF tradition prior to Verne?
"H.G. Wells is quite probably the source of most of today's main SF themes";
"Wells discovered [inaugure] the themes of Time Travel, Space Travel, and
Contact with Alien Civilizations." There is really no need to refute such misleading
half-truths. "With the exception of Rosny, Robida or Renard, European writers in no
way contributed to the genre's development" (p 21). Why only three exceptions, and
what about the Germans and the Russians, if no other Frenchman is to be retained?
And this, about the United States: "The history of this country is much too
recent: it cannot engender myths, or [?] turn itself towards the past" (p 220). Alas
for Melville! Alas for Mark Twain! Alas for Hawthorne!
The legends and stereotypes of the average anecdotic "history" of SF are
remembered and developed by the Bogdanoffs with, here and there, a journalistic pathos
inspired by the Reader's Digest: "Whether leftists or rightists...,
hyperrealists or impressionists..., serious or joyous, young or old, rich or poor, all SF
writers constitute a heterogeneous but strongly united world..." (p 27). More
specific statements are not exempt from the same bombastic irresponsibility: "Le
Guin's The Dispossessed...: A good example of contemporary revival of
Golden-Age-type SF" (p 25)! Nevertheless, as far as sheer data are concerned, the
Bogdanoffs' study is rich, varied, and well informed. The problem lies in erratic
value-judgments, conceptual poverty, and lack of methodology.
The book is divided into four main parts.
I. A more or less intuitive synthesis (but based on relevant data and statistics when
available) of external sociology of SF, in France and in the States: production,
royalties, distribution, readership, critical feedback....
II. Schools and Genres. The "schools" are, in fact, countries: there is an
American school, a French school, an English school, etc. And there are seven autonomous
genres determined by a) the theme, b) the literary technique: first, mythological SF (e.g.
Zelazny): second, space opera (with two main trends: E.R. Burroughs and E.E. Smith);
third, heroic fantasies or sword and sorcery, beginning with William Morris; fourth, hard
science fiction (e.g. Larry Niven); fifth, politics fiction (e.g. Aldous Huxley); sixth,
the New Thing (e.g. Dick's Ubik), to be distinguished from: seventh, speculative
fiction (Le Guin, Spinrad, etc. ad libitum). One doubts one's eyes and thinks of
Borges' zoological categories "found in a Chinese encyclopaedia."
III. Themes, divided into "scientific themes" and "socio-psychological
themes," the latter superseding the former today. "Space travel" is a theme,
but "the galactic empire" is also a theme, and a "scientific"
one into the bargain. The "alternative universe" is another theme: why not an
eighth "genre," by the way? "Robots," "the lost country,"
and "alienation" are psycho-sociological themes: needless to say, the extension
of the notion varies. The Bogdanoffs seem to be convinced, just as Van Herp and Sadoul,
that the concept of theme is the be-all and end-all of SF criticism. Various summaries are
devised to illustrate the categories: did the reader ever notice how even the best
100-word summary of an SF novel makes it appear nauseatingly infantile? There must be a
reasons for that, which would tend to prove that the novel's theme is, by itself, not
necessarily its most important element.
IV. Other Media, i.e. comics and movies in a cursory way.
The book also has several appendices: an annotated index of SF writers and critics, a
glossary of common SF phraseology, lists of the Nebula and Hugo awards and the Apollo
awards (for France), and a general bibliography.
In sum: this study--although useful and within certain limits reliable for contemporary
French SF--is mediocre in every other respect. If the authors continue at this low level
of criticism, they should not be advised to publish a second volume.
Cawelti on Formula Stories
John G. Cawelti. Adventure,
Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture.
University of Chicago Press, 1976, viii+336, $15.00.
Raising several basic questions about the study of paraliterature, Adventure,
Mystery and Romance is an intelligent book, one much needed at this moment. John
Cawelti's casual tone and style of presentation should not lead one to assume the book is
not carefully conceptualized or precisely written. Its most obvious gap--particularly but
not only for readers of SFS--is the absence of a major section dealing with SF.
Nonetheless, its central issues are closely related to concerns of SF critique, and can be
adapted to them quickly. There are other absences as well, formulas in popular narrative
which, Cawelti explains, he could not deal with: soap operas, various kinds of romance, TV
sitcoms, superheroic comics, etc. These gaps, however, also highlight the vast amount of
material he does cope with in the course of his more than three hundred very useful pages.
Cawelti begins with a generalized analysis of the notion of literary formulas, and
relates these to--by differentiating them from--genres and archetypes. He goes on to set
formula beside artistry to evaluate the individuality/tradition issue and then, to follow
the tradition of specific formulas, he sets formula as a concept within larger cultural
contexts. He continues by providing a typology of literary formulas, primarily devoted to
the genres which give the book its title, but considers as well some aspects of melodrama
and horror-fantasies dealing with alien beings and states.
The most thorough and by far the longest section in the book deals with various aspects
of crime and detective fiction. Cawelti examines the most important moments in its history
through the various elements of Puzo's The Godfather. From its contradictions, he
works his way, through formula models, back to E.A. Poe, and forward again through Conan
Doyle to the "classical detective story" of Christie, Sayers, Carr, Tey, Marsh,
and Innes. The ratiocination of its detectives is then contrasted with the development of
the "hard-boiled" story by Spillane and the Black Mask writers
(Hammett, Chandler, Gardner). Attempts to explain evolution of formula within a changing
cultural context are almost always conducted in positivist categories. In a discussion
rich with consistently insightful tangents, he explains that the crime novel moved from a
nineteenth-century pattern of crime among intimates (among people of a known and
apparently settled society, often as small a group as a family) to early twentieth-century
stories of larger-than-life gangster heroes. These narratives usually included the
downfall of an individual who had sought wealth by illegal and immoral means; and the
obverse of it was often the tale of the detective who, in order to remain true to values
which had brought about the downfall of the gangster, found it necessary to turn his back
on financial success. The contemporary gangster prototype is the corporate criminal as
alternative hero, Cawelti explains, and returns to the Don figure of The Godfather,
along the way discussing the ancillary figure of the revenger.
The last of the book's major parts is a long look at the western. As distinct from
Cawelti's earlier and more synchronic study, The Six-Gun Mystique, here he
analyzes the evolution of a formulaic type. He begins with Cooper, works his way through
the dime novel, examines more substantially The Virginian and by way of Wister
the transformation of the western from mass pulp to a standard paraliterary genre, and
then strides across the last seventy years from Zane Grey and W.S. Hart through the movies
of John Ford to the extremes of Sergio Leone's quasi-American westerns and the anti-western
phenomenon of tracts such as Thomas Berger's Little Big Man.
The final section, a short sketch of the best-seller as social melodrama from Uncle
Tom's Cabin to Jacqueline Susann and Irving Wallace, makes clear, as does Cawelti
himself in his conclusion, the large amount of analytical work still necessary to clarify
historical paraliterary forms.
In relation to both the detective novel and the western, Cawelti explains how the
superficially vast difference between Poe's Dupin and Spillane's Mike Hammer, between The
Virginian and Shane, hides an invariant structure and intention in the
underlying forms that hold each set of phenomena together as a recognizable unit which we
In a brief related comment, Cawelti explains that certain momentary best-sellers
disappear because they have not captured any sense of universality. This question of
universality is never really discussed here. Are there in fact such things as universals
in paraliterature (or in literature)? Is it ideal forms or material relationships between
narrative and social phenomena that lie at the base of all literary problems?--these are
the uncoped-with questions that haunt, even dominate, most critical analyses, and they are
not absent here. But since Cawelti has carefully chosen not to deal in traditional
literary terms with his several "formula stories," it is only at moments that
the questions of universality explicitly enter into his discourse. Or perhaps this
question could not be dealt with for paraliterature until a study such as Cawelti's has
To be sure, in the early pages Cawelti had raised a series of open questions concerned
with the source of the popularity of popular fiction and films, of popular entertainment
in general. What is this source? he asks. Is it simply a good story told well? that is,
are we dealing with artistry? or is it a story which embodies values and attitudes that
its audience wishes to see affirmed? or is it "some kind of psychological
wish-fulfillment, the most popular works being those which most effectively help people to
identify imaginatively with actions they would like to perform but cannot in the ordinary
course of events?" (p 22). Such questions, dealing with the relations between popular
fiction (story-telling in general) and the audience for these narratives, are perhaps the
initial ones to ask now. Cawelti can not and will not answer these in his book: "We
certainly do not know at present which, if any, of these assumptions is correct" (p
The most important reason not to answer his own question is for Cawelti a formal one.
He suggests one cannot deal with these relationships until one knows the nature
of what is being read. His book is an attempt to delineate some of the specifics of this
nature. But once the book is done we as readers and students of paraliterature are left
with a problem: what have these "formulas" grown out of? If they come from an
ideology, one accepted as a sort of common-sense, its contours have remained invisible,
because the study has never explained its pre-conditions. So it is a curious paradox that
Cawelti's analyses of specific incidents and situations as well as of literary traditions
keep pushing me, and (I get the sense, perhaps) him as well, towards the meta-analysis
which would explain his presuppositions. Not even in the conclusion, however, does his
analysis venture to step over into the discussion of such ideological alternatives or
oppositions. Yet these have to be explored if the cultural and social mesh of which the
text is a part is to be seen historically--in categories, that is, both larger than the
text's immediate cultural and social context, and related to distinctions which help
explain not only the specific nature of a popular text, but why the text has become
popular. For example, Cawelti takes from Raymond Durgnat the notion of a "network of
assumptions," follows Durgnat's analysis of how the same network can be exploited to
vastly different ends, and then adapts this concept to the popularity, over a period of
time, of John Buchan: "That Buchan is still enjoyed with pleasure by some
contemporary readers indicates that there are enough continuities between British culture
at the time of World War I and the present day to make it possible for some persons to
accept Buchan's system of probabilities and values at least temporarily for the sake of
the story. That Buchan is no longer widely popular, however, is presumably an indication
that much of the network of assumptions on which his stories rest is no longer
shared" (pp 32-33). Here is precisely the kind of analysis which, if followed up,
could lead to at least some preliminary understandings about the nature of popularity in
terms of relations between a text and its audience.
Of course, this should not be allowed to obscure Cawelti's considerable contribution
here; rather, it is a critique many parts of which could not have been formulated as
explicitly but for his study. Cawelti's work is excellent both in his specific analyses
and for long stretches of binding conceptualization. Suggesting that many of his large and
most of his small insights hint at more than he allows his explicit abstractions to
confront makes one hope for a sequel in which these dominating questions will be, if not
answered, at least asked and explored.
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