Science Fiction Studies

#30 = Volume 10, Part 2 = July 1983


Post-War Developments in Science-Fiction Criticism: A (West) German View

Reimer Jehmlich. Science Fiction. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1980. ix + 170 pp. DM 37.50

Reimer Jehmlich's book is a concise but hardly a first or an all-encompassing attempt at giving an overview of the intricate network of SF research, its most important exponents, tendencies, and results. By and large his represents a historical survey of the critical reception of SF since the Second World War. Science Fiction examines heterogenous points of view in SF research, giving attention primarily to West German publications--and hence presuming that SF is now regarded in West German academic circles as a field of serious study. The author puts great emphasis on the exemplary relevance of SF for and its critical reception in literary studies. At the same time, he argues that SF must be dealt with in relation to "canonic" literature and that SF criticism can evolve only through a connection with other literary research. Moreover, the author is concerned with pointing out the failings and desiderata of SF research in its present state; and he inclines towards proposing specific tasks for future research rather than furnishing a redefinition of SF.

Jehmlich begins with a discussion of the problematics of delimiting and hence defining the genre. He suggests that the well-sounding definitions such as Darko Suvin's (in "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre") or Stanislaw Lem's (in Fantastyka y Futurologia) are esteemed too highly inasmuch as they account for only a fraction of SF. But though believing that 99% of SF is excluded by those definitions, Jehmlich does not supply much in the way of an alternative. Instead he focuses on the reasons for the lack of a consensus on what SF is. This he attributes to the nature of the genre; to disagreements about whether to take "quality," "average," or "low" SF as the basis of definition; to the commercialization of the genre; to a terminology which produces fragmentation (also along nationalistic lines; witness the German terms that have been applied to SF: Science Fiction, Utopia, Zukunftsroman, Wissenschaftliche Fantastik, etc.); and to the bibliographical problems that feed, as well as feed upon, definitional confusion. Nevertheless, Jehmlich does not hesitate to quote statistics about the publication of SF as if there were general agreement on what counts as such.

Though inconsistent at times, Jehmlich's approach to this "controversial" genre and its critical reception contributes to the discussion of how traditionalistic influences in dealing with the unconventional and the interdisciplinary create obstacles in the form of a fetishism of methods and "Fachegoismus" (i.e., individualistic compartmentalizing). These last-mentioned tendencies become clear through Jehmlich's short history of SF criticism, both fan and academic. According to him, the motive for norm-creation lies in the perception that much SF criticism displays a lack of literary standards and thus unwittingly tends to trivialize the genre and cut it off from "mainstream" literature. So, too, he thinks that many critics make the error of being ahistorical in their approach--that by concentrating on synchronic analyses, they arrest any progress of critical understanding. He does see reasons for hope in such developments as a greater attention to primary texts and an increasing consciousness of the problematics of the genre and of the methodologies applicable to it. But he also sees little in the way of the sort of exchange of information common among scientists: SF analyses still tend to begin at ground zero, as if the critic were the first to be saying something about the genre or a particular work belonging to it. He thus underlines once more the need for transforming, if not revolutionizing, academic practices, the need for critical production not totally determined by presently institutionalized habits of thought.

Though he does make reference to "pioneer" contributions in the field, Jehmlich mainly concerns himself with reviewing developments in post-World War Two SF criticism, especially in West Germany. Above all he stresses the evolution of critical methodologies as exhibited by German critics, who, in his terms, seem to be polarized between "bourgeois" and Marxist perspectives, but who also appear to be attaining more and more clarity in their theorizing and a heightening consciousness of the problematical (here he cites Martin Scher and Horst Schrder as examples). On the other hand, Anglo-American research has, in Jehmlich's opinion, remained much more obscure and unorganized despite its tendency to focus on specific themes and questions: generally the analyses take a global approach and are methodologically conventional. (He does, however, make SFS an exception to the rule that SF criticism in English is weak in its theoretical underpinnings.)

Jehmlich limits his diachronic review to SF criticism available in German or English. Indeed, he hardly refers to French or Italian research at all and barely acknowledges Soviet and other East European publications--something which contradicts his stated intention of systematically examining the critical history of the SF genre. None the less, he pleads for international exchange, terminological clarification, and a clear typology of heterogenous definitions. The research goal he sets for SF criticism involves an internationally co-ordinated historico-critical Gesamtdarstellung (i.e., collective enterprise), whose aim would be to take SF out of its "ghetto" and integrate it with "mainstream" literature. Warning of the dangers of critical atomisation or stagnating dogmatism, he demands the kind of analysis oriented towards "textual reality" and attempting to reveal--and go beyond--what properties of content and form typify SF as they manifest themselves in the "deep structure" of SF texts.

Science Fiction serves to recall the institutional and methodological constraints that SF criticism has labored under more than it reveals possible new directions. As an account of the "state of the art" of SF criticism, it is nevertheless useful: at the least, it reminds the reader of SF's present critical status.

--Angela Habermann

Poul Anderson, Technocrat and Bard

Adolfo Morganti. Poul Anderson, tecnocrate e bardo. Pescara: "L'Altro Regno," 1981. 42pp. L. 3000

The first in a series of monographs sponsored by the publishing house "L'Altro Regno" and devoted to exhibiting the wide range of Italian SF criticism is Adolfo Morganti's concise study of Poul Anderson, which concentrates exclusively on the well-known "heroic fantasies" by the prolific Scandinavian-American author. Surveying various works, both in prose and in verse, Morganti dwells on the "poetic" excellency of Anderson's writings, which in technique and inspiration earn them a place alongside those of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Celtic-Germanic sagas of the North European Middle Ages.

The mythical recreation of a fantastic universe where fairy queens and elves share the spotlight with fearless explorers and incorruptible merchants is seen by Morganti as the result of a dualistic Weltanschauung: Anderson, in his view, hovers midway between an optimistic belief in the powers of technocracy and an overt disavowal of the positivistic ineluctability of progress in favor of a "cyclic notion" of history (p. 21) based upon a revaluation of "myths," "traditions," and "rituals" as the primeval societal links uniting a community. Quoting mainly from the Italian translations of The Queen of the Air and Darkness, The Broken Sword, and No Truce with Kings, Morganti effectively points out the ideological implications of their dualistic vision, which makes Anderson praise, on the one hand, the political perdurability of medieval feudalism, while, on the other (e.g., in Three Hearts and Three Lions), portraying the latest advances in modern science as well as the innate goodness of parliamentary democracy (this through the character of the 20th-century engineer Holger Carlson as "transferred" to the body of the legendary Danish knight Oggeri).

Again, Morganti is keen on showing the basic contradiction which seems to be not only at the root of Anderson's heroic fantasies but at the core of contemporary, mainly American, SF as well: "In most SF, the 'scientific' essence reduces itself to an extreme defense of the ideology which has generated present Western society, and the evils of today are pretty much shrouded in a golden veil, enlarged to a cosmic level, and dished out as the `norm' for humanity" (pp. 18-19; my translation). Anderson, by maintaining throughout his works a dualistic tension between these two "commonplace" of SF--i.e., the spiritual depth and poetic beauty of a magical and mythological past as opposed to a heavily industrialized, technological, and militarized present--brilliantly achieves that critical ambivalence between the "technocrat" and the "bard" which, according to Morganti, constitutes the peculiar fascination of this author.

With the analysis of two-recurring themes that underline such an interpretation-- woman and warfare--Morganti concludes his intelligent and well-informed essay by suggesting that, through Anderson, we are confronted with "a child of these unfortunate times," torn between a faith in the rationale of science and a belief in the "voice of millennia, the intuition of the archetype, the beauty of Symbol and Myth" (pp. 38-39).

--Paola Galli Mastrodonato

Trial Reading

Nicholas D. Smith, ed. Philosophers Look at Science Fiction. Chicago: Nelson-Hall 1982. 215pp. $20.95 cloth, $10.95 paper

About the time this book first appeared in the Fall of 1982, I read the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (Notre Dame UP, 1981), which stresses the teleological importance of narrative. That book brought home to me the point that the stories we tell seem to hold significance for the student of ethics; and I was therefore eager to read the essays which Nicholas Smith gathered from among academic philosophers who had become interested in SF and who had presented their views at meetings of the Science Fiction Research Association and elsewhere. Furthermore, as a branch of narrative at the cutting edge of change, SF invites both interdisciplinary and innovative study, which I believe ought to be stretched to its methodological limits.

In their nicely elaborated introduction to the book, Smith and Fred D. Miller, Jr. do emphasize the methodological self-consciousness of this collection, though they seem to assume too naive an audience. Nevertheless, much SF is philosophic and epistemologically or methodologically driven. We want to know how we know. Similarly, philosophers themselves experiment with method in order to triangulate the truth. This book stands out, then, in two ways from the usual collection of academic essays on literary matters. It does not read like a text printed from a literary journal, and it raises questions about SF that literary scholars often ignore.

I must hasten to add that such forms and functions do not always produce happy results. The book contains 13 pieces plus the introduction to them in fewer than 200 average-size pages of text. The essays themselves are for the most part cryptic, even blunt, analytic, and to my ear almost innocently arrogant. Philosophers seem to know what they want to accomplish and go at it directly, without some of the graces and circumlocutions of historians or literary scholars. Monte Cook may represent the best example of this cryptic, analytic approach. His two essays ("Tips for Time Travel" and "Who Inhabits Riverworld?") set out to debunk what might be called images or groups of images; and he does enlighten the reader about a lot of untenable notions in SF. But sneaking in a familiar second-person manner of address that at best is self-possessed and analytic, he at times sounds condescending. Cook's tone and rhetorical approach to the literature is the dominant one of the book.

Fortunately, the method bends back on itself in "The Absurdity in Sartre's Ontology: A Response by Ursula K. Le Guin," the essay in which Wayne Cornell observes that "Le Guin would have us return to nature[,] ... to... the way things really are, nameless but not absurd" (p. 151). Writers do reach for a presence that may not be nameable. Philosophers, on the other hand, are driven by analysis that often seems to reduce more than it enhances. The MacIntyre book that I mentioned above took the direction of the ethical rather than the analytic philosopher; but here the only essays that touch on ethics (in addition to Cogell's) seem to be two that also contain disturbing arrhythmias found too commonly among these philosophers. Robert E. Myers chooses to include some technical jargon that borders on the barbaric ("the Operational-Behavioral/ Functional-Mechanical mode"); and Robert G. Pielke discusses Heinlein in a manner that could benefit from what I would call "literary positioning." Again, however, these are academic philosophers writing, not literary scholars; and the methodological alienness is important.

My major caveat has to do with a matter implicit especially through the analytic essays and stated explicitly by Smith in his short preface: the tendency to associate philosophy itself with a John Campbell type of positivism. "Most science fiction," Smith avers, ''assumes that the universe is orderly, that this order can be exposed and exploited by rational endeavor.... These assumptions also lie behind much of philosophy" (p. x). But what of the other speculative possibilities, and what of a somewhat less solemn notion, that of play? The only relief from the narrow-vision positivism of the reductive and analytic philosophers (notwithstanding the slight seasoning of ethics) comes in the closing piece by Justin Leiber, "Fritz Leiber and Eyes." This essay is playful, biographically informative, and definitely literary in nature; and just as definitely, it is one of the few exceptions to the ruling presumptions of Philosophers Look at Science Fiction.

How valid the philosophizing in the Smith collection is something for philosophers themselves to decide. On the whole, the volume does strike me as having an interdisciplinary and challenging newness; but I found it a trial in another sense of that word as well. Which, however, is not to say that I would not like to see the method tried again.

--Donald M. Hassler

Promiscuous Futurology

Chris Morgan. Future Man. NY: Irvington, 1980. 208pp. S16.00

The author, who contributed a chapter on alien encounters to Robert Holdstock's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1978), has produced a handy, though unsophisticated, survey of some three score books about the future. Though most are recent, his sources range back to H.G. Wells's Anticipations (1901) and J.B.S. Haldane's Possible Worlds (1940) and stop short of Megatrends and Jonathan Schell. His favorite futurists are Alvin Toffler and Herman Kahn. Morgan is an enthusiastic if undiscriminating bibliophile whose gleanings include matter on evolution, androids and automation, biofeedback, cloning, orbital colonies, dream studies, energy and the environment, ESP, industrialization and the "Less Developed Countries," population and longevity, telepathy, and so on.

Morgan seems to have read up on these things mainly from the point of view of an avid SF fan. In the meandering course of his discussion, he alludes to dozens of works in the genre, concentrating on those of Wells, Stapledon, Clarke, Heinlein, and Silverberg, while mentioning many lesser writers. Indeed, the notorious inaccessibility of the future has urged him to move freely among SF, social satire, and serious prediction in search of interesting and imaginative notions.

Morgan makes no claim to original thinking or investigation, and his unpretentious effort to gather so much in the way of miscellaneous predictions will be useful to many, although some readers will tire quickly of his tendency to muse raptly at the typewriter. A darting sample:

Telepathy would mean instant communication, perhaps over long distances. It could put an end to all misunderstanding and loneliness. It might make crime and violence identifiable at an early stage, enabling them to be controlled. Lack of privacy could be a problem, depending on how easy it became to read the thoughts of others and whether any barriers (mental or physical) could be erected to prevent this.

Not to worry, Chris. The barriers are firmly up.

--Richard Dwyer

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