Science Fiction Studies

#37 = Volume 12, Part 3 = November 1985


Thematic Reductions

Carl B. Yoke & Donald M. Hassler, eds. Death and the Serpent: Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy ["Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy," No. 13.] Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 235pp. $35.00.

Robert Reilley, ed. The Transcendent Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction Fantasy. ["Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy," No. 12.] Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 266pp. $35.00.

The price of these books indicates their publisher's rather sober expectations about sales; one guesses that libraries subscribing to the series are intended to finance the enterprise. As for serious students of SF, not to mention ordinary fans, they will hardly want yet another avatar or two of "The Theme of X in SF." Since the essays are about X rather than SF, they necessarily denature the SF into a source of statements about X, so that Jack Vance's To Live Forever, for example, is read as "a treatise on the social dynamics of immortality" (p. 186). What admirers of Vance's artistry--to pursue this example--learn from this essay is merely how banal are his ideas when thus transformed from symbolic forms within an aesthetic whole into the doctrinal units of a treatise: "In a world where eternal life is possible, there will be social change and adaptation. Human culture will flex and bend adapting to life's new conditions. There will be a feedback in those adaptations, and society will end up influencing the way immortals live. Some of that influence may be negative...." (p. 186). And so on. Serious students of religion and death will perhaps look at these books, but they will not look at them long; with a few self-defining exceptions, SF's overt ideas about the big problems of life are relentlessly sophomoric, while those who write essays about such ideas in SF are not apt to rise higher than their subject matter. On the other hand, the essay writers do end up with titles for their personal bibliographies; the editors get their names on books in exchange for very little editorial work (a perfunctory introduction, a bibliography, an index--that's about it); the publisher recoups his investment; librarians get work to keep them busy; everyone but the reviewer is happy.

Insofar as Death and the Serpent turns out to have a thesis common to many of its components, it would be that immortality is very problematical. Essays to this effect deal with Olaf Stapledon, Robert Heinlein, Roger Zelazny, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, James Gunn, and Jack Vance, as well as a few less standard authors rescued from their comfortable oubliettes. There is also the obligatory feminist essay, "Immortal Feminist Communities of Women," which concludes its sequence of commented plot summaries (the method favored by most contributors to both books) by observing that "the four novels portray men as subhuman and women as female men" (p. 45), and by complaining that the female characters portrayed in such contexts are insufficiently individualized. A more problematical but also less honest conclusion is offered in the next essay, "Merlin in Modern Fantasy": namely, that "Merlin survives by virtue of his identification with the forces of good that struggle with evil, of knowledge that struggles with ignorance" (p. 55). But since this comes a page after we have been told of "two fantasies that cast Merlin in a malevolent role" (p. 54), and four pages after a discussion of the "spiritual ambiguity" of the Merlin in That Hideous Strength, and since there is no mention at all of the vicious old gasbag who is the Merlin of Connecticut Yankee, one wonders.

That is only an extreme case of an unfortunately generic lack of rigor, playing tennis without the net: the choices of theme, of specification, of authors and works to be studied, are arbitrary or even haphazard, both in the collection as a whole and in most of the individual essays. The result is a sort of inconsequential jumble that hardly represents even "the theme of X in SF"--it is rather various aspects of X in some works of SF by some authors.

The same can be said of The Transcendent Adventure, except for its somewhat more rationalized presentation, with a group of generalizing essays preceding the ones about individual authors. Many of these last are also treated in Death and the Serpent, in rather similar terms but with enough differences of pointing to make one wonder why one essay on, say, Roger Zelazny has left out what is in the other. In one book we read, "The main thing Zelazny shows about immortality in This Immortal is that the successful immortal, such as Conrad, who not only stays alive but does something satisfying with his life, does so by avoiding confinement within a set of rules or preconceptions" (p. 138). In the other we are told, "Conrad is the modern day equivalent of a king....Like the sacrificed divine king who restores fertility to the land, Conrad's symbolic death and rebirth heralds the rejuvenation of the radioactive Earth, and its rebuilding for and by Earthmen" (p. 214). The latter's context is religion, the former's is immortality, but each is equally about the other. Perhaps one should read This Immortal instead, a thought that recurs mutatis mutandis throughout one's reading of both anthologies, even though neither is quite lacking in rewarding passages. Here, too, I offer examples rather than a list: Robert Crossley's "The Elves of J.R.R. Tolkien and Sylvia Townsend Warner" in Death and the Serpent is outstanding in two senses of the word, while Nancy Topping Bazin's "The Evolution of Doris Lessing's Art from a Mystical Moment to Space Fiction," in The Transcendent Adventure, joins her subject in a profundity untypical of the collection. But one does not expect profundity after reading the editor's definition of religion: "a set of explain the source of order in the universe" which usually "postulates some power beyond human understanding as the source of order" and which "provides means by which believers can relate to the power or source of order." The best criticism of this definition is implicit in the editor's comment: "One can easily see that physical science can be included within the scope of this definition of religion" (p. 3). One can only speculate about what kind of an anthology would have resulted from a more religious definition, taken, say, from Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy, with its mysterium fascinans et tremendum; this would exclude almost all SF qua treatise, but not perhaps SF as art.

--Howard Kaminsky Florida International University

Cybernetics and Science Fiction

David Porush. The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction. NY: Methuen, 1985. 244pp. $29.95 (cloth), $10.95 (paper)

Cybernetics has become a popular, if not well understood, concept in recent years, and in The Soft Machine David Porush succeeds not only in explaining cybernetics, but also in showing its applications first to language itself and then to modern and post-modern fiction. The book is dense, but accessible; perhaps this is Porush's greatest achievement: he addresses in straight-forward, jargon-free language several of the sophisticated issues involved in semiotics, information theory, and contemporary literature.

Porush seems to possess a sound grasp of at least the conceptual issues involved in information theory, Gdel's Incompleteness Theorem, and quantum theory, and he does a good job of showing how various writers throughout the century have manifested these concepts in their language and fictional structures. Cybernetics is fundamentally linked to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and to information theory, which in turn is related to entropy. Because he believes that AI has replaced the machine as the cultural metaphor of our times, Porush looks at the evolution of AI as a metaphor and structuring device in 20th-century fiction. Along the way, he explains the distinction between mere machinery and AI; the nature of information theory and its relationship to entropy and to language systems; relationships among feed-back loops, noise, and self-consciousness; and the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Gdel Incompleteness Theorem. He does all this within the context of discussing how the writers seek to maintain, assert, and defend their humanity in an age increasingly dominated by ever more intelligent, self-sufficient, self-learning machines.

After reviewing 18th and 19th-century uses of the machine as metaphor, as well as Swiftian and other attacks on the inhumanity of the mechanistic view, Porush introduces the work of Raymond Roussel as representing the epitome of the machine metaphor. He begins the (second) chapter by remarking that "[a] positivistic science breeds a positivistic art" (p. 24), and then goes on to reveal how Roussel embodies in his fiction the assumptions of positivism, whose roots rest in the highly deterministic Newtonian view of a clockwork universe. Not only does positivism lend itself to determinism; it also assumes that, theoretically at least, absolute certainty and the absolute elimination of ambiguity are possible goals worthy of aspiring to. Roussel has created a sterile, fictional world of perfect efficiency, in which even art itself is reduced to identifiable, component parts which a machine pieces together by formulae. The computer-like device that generates works of art seeks to exclude all contingencies and accidents. Porush argues that Roussel, though sensitive to the sterility of such devices, reflects them in his own formal structuring and use of language. "Roussel attempts to do for art what cybernetics was to attempt to do for science three decades later. He tries to erase the boundary between the human and the machine by showing that one has made the other redundant, once the human imagination has devised and set in motion that machine" (p. 36). Ultimately, though, Porush exposes Roussel's highly intricate literal and artistic machinery as being solipsistic: filled with extraordinary technical virtuosity and a vast network of internal relationships but with few, if any, external references. Roussel's passion for closed, deterministic, clearly defined systems separates him and other "modernist" writers (I would quibble with Porush's terminology here; he seems to use the term more in the architectural sense than in a literary one) from the post-modernist writers who reflect Heisenberg's world-view more than Newton's.

From the discussion of Roussel and positivism, Porush moves to their successors. First, however, he discusses cybernetics at some length, linking it directly to information theory. His account here is among the most useful in the book, for he explains the concepts clearly, with some sophistication.

The pivotal concept that gives cybernetics its philosophical as well as scientific power is its definition of the relationship between the triad of terms information, uncertainty, and entropy. Information theory proposes an algorithm for quantifying uncertainty in terms of probabilities, thereby attacking directly the irritant: the Heisenbergian view that any statement we can make about nature is probabilistic....Just as in thermodynamics there is an inevitable tendency for organization and usable energy to decrease in favor of randomness and unusable energy (entropy), so in information systems there is an inevitable tendency for messages between parts of the system to be degraded by disorganization.

However, the relationship between thermodynamic and informational entropy is more than an analogy. Since all systems are comprised of matter, energy, and information (as the solution to the Maxwell demon puzzle implies) and every physical channel has a certain measurable capacity to transmit information...the amount of information delivered by such a channel in a system is proportional to the amount of thermodynamic entropy that results from the transfer....

Entropy in information science...designates the initial conditions of variability--the amount of uncertainty--which are the necessary preconditions out of which information arises. Information is simply a measure of the probability that a given signal or element will be selected from among a set of differentiated elements, a set of alternatives. Therefore, information is proportional to the amount of variety (entropy) in the original set....The more random the assortment of potential signs or elements in a code, the more information a choice from among those alternatives communicates. Information is maximized when all the possible signs are equiprobable (randomly distributed or varied) since this implies a state of maximum uncertainty or maximum entropy. (pp. 56-57)

Though Porush does not explore them directly, there is a suggestion of rich relationships between information theory and semiotics and deconstruction theory. Porush avoids those theoretical structures of discourse; nevertheless, he has much to say about language as an information system subject to entropy. He points out that the more redundant an element in a code is, the less information it will carry. Redundancy, however, reduces ambiguity; so a neat, inverse relationship follows: the more information a message carries, the less redundant it is; hence the more ambiguity, or uncertainty, it possesses. "The message most difficult to communicate is the one with the most information" (p. 59).

Language and other information systems are affected by yet another principle of quantum theory. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle insists that the act of observation affects the nature of the event. Applied to language, this means that the significance of the information communicated depends upon the listener or reader. We distinguish between noise and information by defining noise as that portion of a signal that is "unwanted," unintended by the sender. Noise is what positivists wish to eliminate. However, noise and information have identical mathematical descriptions; they have no structural difference. They are distinguished solely by the perception of intent on the part of the transmitter. And Porush points out that this intent exists largely apart from the message itself. A cryptographer who sends a message to his agent by mailing him a copy of Othello has a different intention and meaning than a literary critic who gives the same text to a student. In each case certain bits of code come forth as meaningful information and others as noise. The human circumstances determine which is which. Thus, "one man's information is another's noise....[W]e cannot talk about information in real situations apart from the intention of the sender and the capacity, or expectations, or understanding, of the human receiver or audience. In other words, information and nonsense can only be distinguished by their context" (p. 66).

Porush proceeds by applying these understandings about information systems in general and language in particular to several "post-modern" writers. The second half of the book therefore involves an analysis of how the authors incorporate these understandings thematically and structurally as they address relationships between humans and machines. Beginning with Kurt Vonnegut, who treats some of these issues but generally does not make them major elements in his overall fictional structures, Porush goes on to discuss other writers who have absorbed the premises of cybernetics more fully and who formulate their own responses to such a world- view. The writers he considers include William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Samuel Beckett, John McElroy, and Donald Barthelme.

The title of Porush's book comes from Burroughs' novel, The Soft Machine. Porush argues that Burroughs, seeing society as a mechanized system of thought control, exploits the inevitable gaps or "noise" in the system to rebel against it. He does this linguistically as well as through other devices. In The Ticket That Exploded, for example, Burroughs acknowledges that language is a weapon used against its victims: "The word is now a virus....Modern man has lost the option of silence" (Porush, p. 103). A literary-guerrilla, Burroughs tries to achieve the "writing of silence" by achieving "the absence of code through cancellation of the message" (ibid.) ultimately turning language against the machine that wields it so tyrannically.

Porush's discussions of Barth and Pynchon are particularly provoking from this perspective. Both authors (Pynchon especially) possess some knowledge of science and cybernetics, so their applications of cybernetics seem more deliberate and more intricate than, say, Vonnegut's. Porush argues that "Pynchon has designed a mechanism in the form of elaborate systems and metaphors whose purpose is to make the reader aware of that special place beyond systems and codes and information where our humanness resides. His work is not a positivist's rat-maze, but a particle physicist's cloud chamber, where normal commonsense expectations about the mechanics of the universe break down" (p. 113). Porush goes on to elucidate some of the more meaningful applications of quantum physics and information theory within Pynchon's overall scheme of things.

Porush similarly remarks that "the genius of Barth's fictions is in their clever use of the very devices which indicate those limitations [the mechanical limits of language and fiction], paradoxes, ambiguities, blanks, and other glosses on phenomenological silence--inside the machine where they illustrate the incommensurability of the structure of the text and the experience of meaning" (p. 154). Within this context, Barth offers love as a solution. His character Ambrose Mench suggests in Letters:

If one imagines an artist less enamored of the world than of the language we signify it with, and yet less enamored of the language than the signifying narration, and less enamored of the narration than of its formal arrangement, we need not necessarily imagine that artist therefore forsaking the world for language, language for the process of narration and those possibilities for the abstract possibilities of form.

Might imagined as thereby...enabled to love the narrative through the form, the language through the narrative, even the world through the language. (Porush, p. 155)

In general, Porush's insights into the post-modernist fiction are perceptive and useful. They dwell upon the ways the writers have absorbed the principles of cybernetics and how they have applied those principles to the experience of living in the post-modern world. Naturally, these readings are not exhaustive, nor is cybernetics the only avenue by which to approach Burroughs, Barth, Beckett, Barthelme, Pynchon, and the others. But it can be a productive approach, and Porush employs it effectively to shed light on a number of issues in modern literature and thought.

--Richard A. Schwartz Florida International University

A Narrow View of Fantasy

Don D. Elgin. The Comedy of the Fantastic: Ecological Perspectives on the Fantasy Novel. ["Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy," No. 15.] Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 204pp. $29.95

The 15th in Greenwood Press's series of specialized studies in fantasy and SF takes as its starting point the notion of "literary ecology" propounded by Joseph Meeker in 1974. Meeker's idea--that literature reflects and influences attitudes towards ecology and nature and that the comic mode may be opposed to the tragic in terms of how it places humanity within an ecological system rather than above it--here becomes the basis both for a general argument that fantasies involving secondary worlds have gained popularity by promoting the healthier comic view of nature, and for specific discussions of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Herbert, and Joy Chant.

Like too many recent critics of fantasy, Elgin is unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the considerable body of critical literature which discusses the implications of characters interacting with an invented environment. One gets no clue from this book that Manlove, Irwin, Rabkin, or even Chesterton ever thought about these things. Instead, one gets a rather reductionist, neo-conservative view which argues that fantasy arose out of the failure of the tragic perspective, that it provides a healthy alternative to the "effete and exhausted" traditions of modern fiction (Finnegans Wake, for example, is an "unmitigated disaster" [p. 141]), and that in order to work properly it must have a "secondary world" (which is why Charles Williams is judged a failure). ''What is important is the system, the continuance of the system," Elgin writes in regard to Tolkien, "for only if the system continues can life continue" (p. 50)

Elgin's perspective provides some interesting and insightful readings of Tolkien and Lewis and especially Joy Chant, who has been too little treated in critical literature. It is less successful with Williams, who persistently violates rules necessary to Elgin's argument (an "English country town inhabited by the incarnation of the ancient simply unbelievable" [p. 111]). The approach might seem most promising in regard to the considerable body of SF which has addressed ecological themes, but Elgin seems decidedly uncomfortable with Herbert. After repeatedly insisting that the "Dune" series is not SF, he finally condemns it for its failures as fantasy--and then adds that these failures might become strengths if the books were treated as SF!

Elgin's study contributes what is probably a much-needed perspective on the study of fantasy, but his narrow approach to the genre and even narrower focus on a few well-known authors suggests that there is more to be done here.

--Gary K. Wolfe Roosevelt University

Arthurian Legend and Science Fiction

Raymond H. Thompson. The Return from Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction. ["Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy," No. 14.] Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 206pp. $29.95

From this useful and concise (but comprehensive) survey, one gets the impression that there is as much literature being written today around the figures of King Arthur and his retinue as there was at any time, including the highest Middle Ages. Raymond Thompson, professor of English at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, here looks over some 162 novels and 34 short stories written between 1882 and 1983. A good portion of these fall into categories beyond the purview of SFS, including: retellings in modern English of medieval versions, like John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur (1976); realistic fiction with modern settings, like Walker Percy's Lancelot (1978); and historical fiction set, like Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, in the Dark Ages, or, like Jim Hunter's Percival and the Presence of God (1978), in the romantic High Middle Ages.

But two of Thompson's categories are pertinent. The first, SF proper, is very brief. Before taking up the one novel of real merit in this genre, Thompson glances at such works as Andre Norton's Merlin's Mirror (1975), which explains the powers of the mage and the Lady of the Lake as the product of a highly superior extraterrestrial technology, seen as magic by the people of the Earth. Also receiving mention are a juvenile novel by Gordon Dickson, Arthur Landis's Camelot trilogy, a novel of John Phillifrent's, and one short story each by Theodore Sturgeon, Vladimir Nabokov, and J.F. McIntosh.

Thompson devotes the bulk of his discussion here to Port Eternity (1982) by C.J. Cherryh, an award-winning author whose talent lies in portraying the effects of stress upon personality. In this novel, a private spacecraft with a crew of both ordinary people and their "made people" servants--cloned and imbued in jest by their owner with the stock personae of Arthurian characters--finds itself marooned in another dimension and threatened by aliens. In this crisis, as the clones revert to type, the humans are hard pressed to untangle illusion from menacing reality. Thompson's comment typifies his better evaluations:

The aching loss of Arthur's glorious realm is balanced by the heroic achievement of those who strive against all odds to hold back the dark for awhile. Their lives become an inspiration to those who follow, 'something brighter and more vivid than ourselves.' In Port Eternity the humans rise above their limitations....When the battered human survivors, with what little strength they have left, limp painfully toward their mighty enemies, they are stepping into legend. Moreover, by conquering fear and doubt, they triumph. Their enemies become friends. From this point of view they have, in fact, become their heroic predecessors, resting in Avalon, waiting to inspire others by their example. (pp. 82-83).

Also treated in this section are five "science fantasy" novels, in which magic unaccountably operates within a secondary world whose existence is given some sort of "scientific" explanation. Besides Andre Norton's Witch World (1963), Thompson comments on Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953), Roger Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon (1972) and The Courts of Chaos (1978), Clive Endersby's Read AII About It! (1981), and John Brunner's Father of Lies (1968), none of which uses Arthurian borrowings as more than a convenient device to advance the plot.

The largest category of Thompson's book is Fantasy, that genre having demonstrated the most dramatic growth since the mid-1950s. The account is divided into four subcategories, derived ultimately from Northrop Frye. Low fantasy, in which the supernatural intrudes inexplicably upon our ordinary world, is set off from three High varieties. These include Mythopoeic Fantasy, in which the struggle between good and evil is waged by supernatural powers, as in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength (1945); Heroic Fantasy, the most popular group; and Ironic Fantasy, where a gap is created between high expectations and real results, whether comic or bitter. Some of the best achievements of modern Arthurian literature lie here, from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) to the last efforts of John Steinbeck and T. H. White, and, most impressive of all, Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex (1978).

Thompson's survey is indeed useful, while his enthusiasm is restrained. His final word is this: "The compositions of Chrtien de Troyes, Wolfram van Eschenbach, the Gawain-poet, Malory and Tennyson fill the imagination with the Arthurian vision. No modern novelist has yet achieved their success, but many have explored serious issues with considerable thoughtfulness and skill, while some have written novels of impressive literary merit" (p. 178). A familiar judgment that haunts many studies of SF.

--Richard Dwyer Florida International University

A Visual Commentary on Frankenstein

Mary Shelley. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The Pennyroyal Edition as designed and illustrated by Barry Moser, and with an Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates. Berkeley: California UP, 1984. 254pp. $29.50

Since James Rieger's 1974 edition, the 1818 text of Frankenstein has been reprinted almost as many times as the more familiar revised version of 1831. Cases have been made for prefering either the 1818 or the 1831 text, and it is unfortunate that this handsome University of California Press edition does not provide any kind of justification for the decision to reproduce the three-volume 1818 text (with the attractive addition of lexies punctuating asterisks). Indeed, Joyce Carol Oates' "Afterword" contains no reference to the textual controversy. Instead, she eloquently accounts for the novel's mythic power and provides a sound interpretation of its "moral parable" (p. 246).

Most definitely a luxury item, the value of this edition depends essentially upon the reproductions of Barry Moser's sensitive and dramatic wood engravings. In Volume One, these are starkly reproduced in black-and-white; but Volume Two, the monster's own account, includes an extremely effective sequence of eight colored partial closeups of the monster's face (he is not depicted at all in Volume One and is never glimpsed entire). The color sequence, from a putrid green to a livid red, speaks for itself. So, too, does the placing of these portraits between two depictions of the "Alpine Landscape" (which take their place in a series of seascapes and untenanted Arctic, Rhenish, London, Orkney, and again Arctic scenes). (In Frankenstein's Creation, I argue in detail that the creature is as much a creation of the sublime Alpine environment as of Frankenstein's laboratory.) The unrelieved black-and-white illustrations return with Volume Three until the creature's face reappears as an icy-blue death mask, the blue of this final illustration recalling (in accordance with Moser's general principle of aesthetic balancing) the blue of the lightning in the "Stream of Fire" frontispiece, lightning responsible for "The Blasted Stump" illustration which opens Volume One and the "Blasted Tree" illustration which opens Volume Three.

While Joyce Carol Oates' comments are relatively routine, Barry Moser's visual commentary is startlingly original. In faithfully reflecting the gloom, pathos, terror, and tragedy of Mary Shelley's text, he provides a compelling conception of the monster that is quite different from, and deserves to eclipse, the more familiar Boris Karloff image.

--David Ketterer Concordia University

A Failure of Scholarship

Kim Stanley Robinson. The Novels of Philip K. Dick. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984. xii+ 150pp. $24.95

I got a kick out of this book. Robinson sees things in an original way, and for the most part writes engagingly. His evident high regard for Dick will appeal to anyone who, like me, considers Dick a profound commentator on both the daily conduct and the existential quality of human life. Along with insights into individual novels and ingenious generalizations about periods of Dick's writing, Robinson boldly undertakes to tie together all the novels--including the unpublished non-SF ones--stylistically and thematically. What more could a reader want? Respectable scholarship, which this book, full of interest though it is, lacks.

Robinson's book exhibits inadequate scholarship in four areas, which I will take up in ascending order of importance. The first comprises mistakes of fact. The Man in the High Castle does not say (pace Robinson, p. 41) that Baynes returns to Germany to his death. Nothing in Ubik supports Robinson's statement that "people injured or dying are kept in 'half-life' until a time when they can be cured" (p. 93); on the contrary, the half-lifers are consistently referred to and physically dealt with as irreversibly dead. In one sentence about the hero of Eye in the Sky, Robinson commits three overt errors: "Hamilton has lost his job working for the defense industry because he was once slightly involved with socialists" (p. 16). (It was his wife who seemed to be considerably involved with communists.) These factual errors do not affect Robinson's main themes but obviously detract from his scholarship credibility.

Next, Robinson is free to exclude Dick's short stories from his study; but not for the stated reason, that they exist in relation to the novels "as pencil studies do to oil paintings" (p. xi). This is a pointless analogy in regard to those stories which show little correspondence to any of the novels, and a mistaken analogy in regard to many of the stories which do correspond. "The Defenders" and "The Days of Perky Pat," for example, embody important elements of Dick's thinking quite beyond their "pencil sketch" relationship to The Penultimate Truth and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch respectively. Failure to consider the short stories also makes possible a remark as ill-conceived as that Dick--author of "Second Variety"!--"does not write about the military" (p. 35).

Third, there is a problem about the amount of coverage given to those works by Dick that Robinson does take into account. He writes that his objective was "a full-length survey of Dick's novels" (p. 133). A full-length survey of 42 novels in 120 pages (net) of text is a brave goal, but of course an unattainable one, especially since he digresses at intervals into the nature and history of SF. The resulting thinness of coverage is exemplified by Dr. Bloodmoney, a highly complex novel with numerous significant characters, which Robinson disposes of in one and one-half pages. It is characteristic of his mix of fertile intelligence and indifferent scholarship that he develops one valuable idea about Dr. Bloodmoney--the post-holocaust world as Jeffersonian pastoral--without referring to any other theme or even a single character in the novel. Since his book began life as a dissertation, which presumably did not err on the side of summary treatment, the fault may lie partly with what appear to be the rigid space limitations of all the UMI "Studies in Speculative Fiction" volumes (this is No. 9).

Last, and most significant, Robinson's use--or lack of use--of other scholarship about Dick is frequently erratic and occasionally inexcusable. Some of the most important critical work is absent both from footnotes and bibliography. The bibliography, in fact, is merely a list of sources cited in the footnotes; an appendix entitled "Short History of Scholarship on Philip K. Dick" is a feeble alternative, overlooking everything in Extrapolation and Foundation. Even the bibliography and appendix combined do not amount to an acceptable listing.

More serious than these bibliographical peculiarities is Robinson's failure to take account in the body of his text of some major items of Dick scholarship. A section on "Robots and artificial humans" which makes no reference to Patricia Warrick's much reprinted article on precisely that aspect of Dick's work ("The Labyrinthian Process of the Artificial") is under a cloud from the start. Even worse is the failure of the ten-page analysis of High Castle to say a word about the Taoist underpinning which other studies of this novel and the novels generally (Hayles', Warrick's, Wingrove's) consider central to understanding it. A footnote obliquely indicates that Robinson has no use for the Taoism / I Ching approach, but here as elsewhere he does not seem to understand that scholarship calls for refuting, not ignoring, thoughtful opinions contrary to one's own.

All these shortcomings make it likely that The Novels of Philip K. Dick will drop from sight as new studies of Dick appear--Rickman, Warrick, Fitting, Jakubowski, and Anne Dick (his third wife) are known to be working on same. This would be regrettable, because a lot of Robinson's points are either convincing or constructively provocative. These include what he writes about SF and technological change; the dystopian quality of Dick's early novels; use of psychic phenomena in SF; the significance of reality breakdown in Dick's novels (although this section is short on examples); the function of cultural trivia in Dick's Martian landscapes; the employment of varying numbers of point-of-view characters; and the "Valis" trilogy generally.

Robinson's discussions of the relationship between SF and metaphor, and of Dick's inversion of the basic conventions of the SF genre, are stimulating although brief. His claim that Dick single-handedly "may have wrought as many changes in the nature of the genre as did all of the New Wave" (p. xi) sounds hyperbolic but is argued with surprising cogency.

Yet even these good points are dogged by the same lack of care and thoughtfulness that weakens the book as a whole. To support a major insight about how Dick creates fictional worlds in which the metaphors of our world become literal, Robinson chooses as an example the mechanical insect-like flying commercials in The Simulacra, which he relates to "people in America" saying " 'That commercial is a pest,' or 'that ad is really bugging me'" (p. 67). This is ingenious; but since that specific wording (which is essential for his point) is rarely spoken by people in America or anywhere else, the example succeeds only in raising doubts about the insight.

Similarly, after developing a plausible "big protagonist"/"little protagonist" relationship as an axis within many of Dick's novels, Robinson proceeds to damage his case by presenting two examples which actually contradict it. If the "big protagonist" is, as we are told, "extremely ambitious, ruthless and isolated...very often vulgar in the extreme," showing "tremendous insensitivity to other people" (p. 18), then Tagomi in High Castle and Joseph Adams in The Penultimate Truth are among the least likely of Dick's characters to fill the bill (only "isolated" is applicable in the slightest degree). Yet Robinson calls them the big protagonists of their respective novels. What a muddle!

So tight a mixture of strengths and weaknesses--often in the same paragraph--makes Robinson an unusual case. I repeat that I enjoyed his book and learned things from it. But the fresh thinking and genuine appreciation for Dick are offset by lack of what might be called scholarly judgment. The Novels of Philip K. Dick reminds me of a movie coming attraction, where not too much is asked of logic or consistency as long as a rapid sequence of intriguing images, presented in an attractive style, promises a fully satisfying feature to come. Unfortunately, this book is Robinson's feature, and does not measure up to what serious students of Dick have the right to expect.

--Merritt Abrash Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

[A response by Kim Stanley Robinson appears in SFS 41 (March 1987); an additional response by George Slusser, and Merritt Abrash's reply, appear in SFS 42 (July 1987).]

Packaging Le Guin for the General Reader

Charlotte Spivack. Ursula K. Le Guin. Boston: Twayne, 1984. xvi + 182pp. $14.95 (cloth), $5.95 (paper)

The review copy of this book came with a press release from G. K. Hall (Twayne's corporate parent) announcing a new paperback program, "the Best of Twayne." In order to make the several Twayne author series more accessible to "libraries with small budgets" and to "general readers, students, and teachers," the volumes on Steinbeck, Updike, and Hawthorne ("perennial backlist favorites"), those on William F. Buckley and Hitchcock ("the most popular current titles"), and those on Dickens, Le Guin, Fitzgerald, and Woolf will get "the wider distribution paperbacks can afford."

On first hearing this, Le Guin fans might be gratified that her name appears in the company of Dickens and Woolf; yet what does Le Guin share with Buckley here, other than a status as a commodity processed by the culture industry, one with enough exchange value to merit "wider distribution"? Indeed, this image of Le Guin's status as commodity comes into sharper focus when we look at the slick magazine settings of a couple of her recent stories: "The Evil Eye" appears in the September 1984 Seventeen, along with Nancy Reagan's best wishes on Seventeen's 40th anniversary; "The Visionary," a piece from Le Guin's work in progress Always Coming Home, appears in the October 1984 Omni, along with Ronald Reagan's words on how his version of the "traditional" American values will endure into the 21st century. One can only wonder if Le Guin's response to the ads in Seventeen and Omni would be similar to Shevek's reaction to the "things to buy, things for sale" on Saemtenevia Prospect, "the nightmare street" in Nio Essia on Urras.

The point of this wondering, however, is not to put Le Guin (or her agent) in the dock and charge her with selling out; rather, the point is to recognize the problematic moral/artistic/economic situation of a writer who has identified exploitation, alienation, and domination as "our central problem...our curse" (see Le Guin's essay "Is Gender Necessary?"), yet who must, if she wants to be read, send her words through channels that are part of the problem/curse. The Avon edition of The Dispossessed, a mass-market paperback (i.e., a commodity), gives the novel's critique of reification and bureaucratic domination a "wider distribution," and I am all for that. But wider distribution carries risks: corporate apologists are right about the "magic" of the marketplace; it has shape-changing powers that rival any power in Earthsea, and can transform a critique of commodity fetishism into a commodity. To get a feel for the reality of this magic, just read the Capra Press edition of The Visionary (Santa Barbara, 1984), then read "The Visionary" in Bob Guccione's Omni context. The Visionary and "The Visionary" are not the same text, even if they contain the same words.

At the same time the magic of the market can do this to Le Guin's texts, the "pull of the market" will, as John Fekete noted when reviewing foe De Bolt's collection of essays on Le Guin, produce a "pressure to popularize" (SFS No. 23, p. 96). Virtually every word Le Guin has published in the last 20 years is in print, and some of her books have been through as many as 20 paperback printings: the pull and the pressure are strong. Responding to this pressure, the editors at Ungar commissioned Barbara Bucknall to write a book for their "Recognitions" series. Twayne also responded to the pressure, and commissioned Charlotte Spivack, who had done the Chapman volume for Twayne's English Authors Series and who teaches courses on fantasy, to do the TUSAS Le Guin volume.

The concerns Fekete raised when he reviewed De Bolt's book deserve repeating: like De Bolt's collection, Bucknall's and Spivack's books may "function chiefly as a means to the further appreciation and easy assimilation" of Le Guin and "prepare her for ready consumption." But will this, as Fekete fears, do Le Guin more harm than good? When Spivack enthusiastically appreciates Le Guin, as Bucknall does, is she doing Le Guin an injustice? (See Angenot's review of Bucknall in SFS No. 27.)I suspect the answers to these questions--questions which have to be understood in terms of the pulls and pressures in academic as well as commercial markets--will be as complex as the answer(s) to the question of whether Le Guin does her texts more harm than good by publishing them in Redbook, The New Yorker, Seventeen, or Omni.

Does Spivack offer an impoverished image of Le Guin's novels? Of course she does. No reader or critic can avoid that (not even the author can avoid that) short of republishing the texts. So, given the inevitable limitations on all criticism, given the limitations specific to books in the Twayne series, given the limitations specific to Spivack's own orientation and methods, how well does she succeed in achieving what she sets out to do? Spivack states her purpose clearly at the outset: to present an "analytical and critical" study which will "help the general reader understand and appreciate the range and quality" of Le Guin's whole achievement, which "transcends her acknowledged eminence" in fantasy and SF, and thus "establishes her as a major voice in contemporary American literature" (p. xi).

To carry out this ambitious program, Spivack opens with an introductory chapter on Le Guin's life, emphasizing her early exposure to myth and literature in her parents' home. Then, under the heading "intellectual background," Spivack points to Le Guin's "genuinely mythopoeic imagination" and identifies "three pervasive features" which are "central to an appreciation of Le Guin's fiction": cultural anthropology, Jungian psychology, and Taoism (pp. 4-5). Having set up these three "thought patterns" as a "rich intellectual substructure," Spivack then proceeds with a roughly chronological overview of Le Guin's fiction, essays, and poetry. This survey comprises ten chapters and is, in terms of the number of texts covered, the most complete of any study of Le Guin yet published. Spivack's book concludes, as do most Twayne author studies, with a critical summary and a sampling of the critical bibliography on the author.

Like Bucknall, Spivack discovered Le Guin via Earthsea. Her first formal criticism of Le Guin was, I think, a Jungian reading of that trilogy presented at the 1976 MLA convention. Not long after, she began work on her book for Twayne, completing it in 1982. Her initial orientation, it turns out, enables her to present a quite satisfactory reading of later Le Guin books like The Beginning Place (1980), but it also constrains her readings of other texts along the way. General readers who have just discovered Le Guin--and the probability is that they will discover Earthsea first--and who then turn to Spivack will be well served. Spivack's analytical and critical tools are appropriate and valuable for readers who share her taste for fantasy and who are temperamentally predisposed to respond to the psycho-mythic dimensions of Le Guin's texts. On the other hand, those who have been moved to read more Le Guin after discovering The Word for World is Forest or The Dispossessed may feel let down when they turn to Spivack. The social-political-economic-philosophical themes in Le Guin's "ambiguous utopia" do not come across loud and clear, for the circuitry in Spivack's methodological receiver is just not designed for clear reception of those signals.

Throughout her survey, Spivack's emphasis is on understanding (Verstehen) rather than explanation; appreciation, not critical judgment, is her primary goal. She does in fact offer critical commentary here and there, most of it judicious and accurate, but her presentation of Le Guin is controlled by her rhetorical address, her purpose being "to enhance the pleasure" and to "intensify a rewarding reading experience" for "the reader who wishes to read several of Le Guin's books" (p. 4). As she processes and packages her analysis and criticism for that relatively nave reader, for whom the act of reading is a pleasing experience, Spivack further limits herself.

Within all these limits, then--those inherent in the Twayne project as well as those of the critic--Spivack does indeed achieve a qualified success. Le Guin has many audiences, from the readers of the Whole Earth Catalogue to children's literature specialists, from readers of The New Yorker to readers of SFS, from apolitical fantasy fans to Marxist humanists. Spivack's effort to guide a novice Le Guin reader through some 21 books is not likely to satisfy all of Le Guin's audiences, but Spivack must be recognized for having written the only study of the whole range of Le Guin's writing, starting with the early stories in Amazing and Fantastic, through the Ace SF, the later SF, and the fantasy; touching the Orsinian fiction, the realistic juveniles, the essays and lectures, and the poetry; and continuing through Leese Webster and The Beginning Place up to The Compass Rose (1982). Thus Spivack's book largely supersedes the De Bolt collection as well as most of the essays (the five Jungian ones, anyway) in the Olander/Greenberg collection in Taplinger's "Writers of the 21st Century" series. Spivack shares every ounce of Bucknall's enthusiasm for Le Guin but has written a book which does much more than share enthusiasm, so Spivack supersedes Bucknall too. We can only hope that Spivack's readers will use her bibliography to pass on from being consumers of Le Guin to becoming connoisseurs, in the root sense of the word. Spivack, I am sure, shares that hope.

I would certainly recommend the book to a student who is looking for a guide through the whole of Le Guin, but I would caution the student to be on the lookout for Spivack's heavy reliance on Jung and Taoism, and I would warn the student, whose critical judgment is probably undeveloped, to read skeptically the special pleading in Spivack's valorization of the Earthsea trilogy: "these three books rank thematically and stylistically with great works of adult fiction" (p. 26). At the same time, I would point the student to Spivack's discussions of, among other texts, "The New Atlantis" and The Beginning Place, for Spivack by no means transforms them into commodities ready to be easily consumed and assimilated. She quite rightly emphasizes the complexity, the ambiguity, the openness of these texts.

What about students who read science fiction and ask for a guide to Le Guin? I would not send them to Spivack, at least not until I had pointed them to the essays in the SFS Le Guin issue (1975) and to the essays scattered throughout subsequent numbers of this journal and elsewhere. Although she is more often than not a helpful guide for the Le Guin beginner, Spivack does The Dispossessed as much harm as good and renders the book an injustice when she identifies the Hainishman Ketho as an Urrasti scientist and says that the Terran Ambassador Keng's passionate outburst at the end is "irrelevant" to the novel (p. 84). The dialogue between Keng and Shevek about time, history, hope, and the possibility of utopia is not merely not irrelevant; it is absolutely crucial to an understanding, hence appreciation, of the novel--which is Spivack's avowed goal. And to label the Anarresti social system as "the Taoist theory of anarchy" (p. 79) is to look at the mouth of a river and see only a bubbling mountain spring. True, some anarchists have found their spiritual headwaters in the Taoists; but anarchism has no substance apart from the lived experience of individuals in the capitalist or socialist states which followed upon the Industrial Revolution.

This is not to dismiss Le Guin's Taoism; it is there, and it is significant. What needs a place on the agenda of Le Guin criticism is a call for a more accurate appraisal of the place of Taoism in her work. It is as easy to undervalue Le Guin's Taoism as it is to overvalue it, guided by Le Guin's own remarks. For some, attempts to subsume Le Guin under Taoism are doomed to failure, for others Taoism explains nothing in Le Guin; for still others, it is the base, the sub-stance, the cantus firmus of all her work. As recently as 1982, in a lecture/conference at La Jolla, California, Le Guin was grounding utopian speculations in Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and was consulting the I Ching, asking it to describe for her "a yin utopia" ("A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be," Yale Review, 72 [1983]: 174). Unlike Philip K. Dick, Le Guin has not abandoned the I Ching. Yet this woman in a high castle was also listening to voices from Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor (via Robert C. Elliott's The Shape of Utopia), Milan Kundera, California Indians, American historians, Victor Turner, A. L. Kroeber, William Blake, Fritjof Capra, Paul Radin, Claude Lvi-Strauss, Austin Tappan Wright, and Coyote. Plenty of cultural anthropology here, plenty of Taoism, some utopian writing, but no Jung. Just Blake. And Coyote, who, of course, evades and eludes all categorizers.

All of this prompts some concluding observations. First, although Le Guin may elude categorizers, Spivack's critical categories will be one helpful guide in tracking Le Guin. The intimations I have about Le Guin's forthcoming Always Coming Home, gleaned from "A Non-Euclidean View" and from excerpts already published--"The Evil Eye," The Visionary, and "The Trouble with Cotton People" (Missouri Review, 7 [1984]: 86-95 -- lead me to believe that no other single piece of Le Guin criticism will serve as well as Spivack's to equip a reader to understand and appreciate Always Coming Home when it is published in its entirety. (This is not to say that Spivack's book, like a scientific theory, has predictive value; nor do I mean to suggest that Spivack offers the best tools for explaining and criticizing Always Coming Home. Instead, my point is that any new work from Le Guin will make more sense to those who know more of Le Guin, and Spivack covers more of Le Guin than anyone else.)

Second, along with reassessing the importance of Taoism in Le Guin, we need to look beyond what Jungian concepts can tell us about Le Guin's texts, and take a look at, say, the Romantic literary tradition. Always Coming Home takes its title from Novalis: "Wo gehen wir denn hin?--Immer nach Hause." And Blake, but not Jung, shows up with the Taoists and the cultural anthropologists in the picture Le Guin gives us of the stars in the night sky she sees from La Jolla, the world she seems to be in and on in the middle '80s. Novalis and Blake, the English and German Romantics, are upstream from both Jung and Le Guin. Le Guin didn't discover Jung until after she wrote A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, so it is at best inaccurate to say, as Spivack does, that the Earthsea trilogy "develops. . . symbols and archetypes [she means archetypal images] drawn from Jungian psychology" (p. 26). This is to mistake a tributary for waters from a source. Jung and Le Guin and The Beginning Place, however, are another matter. "Several elements in the story," writes Susan McLean, supporting Spivack's Jungian reading, "can be explained only by reference to Jungian concepts" ("The Beginning Place: An Interpretation," Extrapolation, 24 [1983]: 133). This may turn out to be the case with Always Coming Home. Whether it does or doesn't, a revaluation of Jung's importance for Le Guin criticism is in order. I for one would like to see a moratorium on further issues of the on-going unofficial series "Jungian Studies in Le Guin." (I say this as one who has helped create the glut.) As long as we're mapping sources and tributaries, we have to remember that "C. G. Jung's teachings in the field of psychology are not intelligible if they are not connected with Schelling" (Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious [NY, 1970], p. 204). How would Le Guin's texts read if we deposed Jung from his place in the conceptual triumvirate that administers Spivack's vision of Le Guin's themes, and replaced him with Blake, Novalis, Schelling, and other Romantics, English and continental?

Finally, as we map the intellectual currents in the whole course of Le Guin's work, we would do well to keep in mind the epigraph to The Beginning Place, gorges' question: "What river is this through which the Ganges flows?"

--James W. Bittner Iowa State University

Trying the Reader's Patience

Seth McEvoy. Samuel R. Delany. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1984. 142pp. $6.95 (paper)

This is a maddening book. There is so much that is incorrect, careless, awkward, fatuous, and misguided about it that the initial impulse is to throw it away in disgust. Yet there are significant things McEvoy gets right, sufficiently so that something would be lost if the book as a whole were discarded. The problem is that the valuable, the dubious, and the flat unacceptable are blended so thoroughly together, sometimes alternating sentence by sentence, that even the patience of Psyche would be hard put to sift the wheat from the chaff.

McEvoy's intentions were noble. This book was contracted and written for an audience ranging in age from high school freshmen through college sophomores (a fact which helps to explain, if not to justify, the grating "gosh, wow!" tone, as well as some of his more fatuous generalizations --e.g., "As any feminist will tell you, it is not easy to write about a fully-realized woman character" [p. 26]. It also explains the paucity of citations to academic sources, and in particular McEvoy's almost total neglect of Delany criticism.) To make it more accessible to his target audience, McEvoy wanted to write in simple, non-academic prose--certainly a justifiable goal, given the excesses of jargon and syntax the worst academic criticism is known to commit. However, McEvoy, who is not himself an academic but a freelance writer, computer programmer, and video game designer, has avoided not only the faults of academic criticism, but most of its virtues as well.

It would be easier to be patient with this book's stylistic infelicities if it were not larded with simple mechanical errors in grammar and spelling, not to mention errors of fact. I felt like a freshman composition teacher, scribbling awk and frag! irritably in the margins. And why could neither McEvoy nor anyone at Ungar be bothered to check the spelling of duchess (which has no "t" in it), or of James Branch Cabell's name, or the correct title of the Heinlein story cited here as "By His Own Bootstraps"?

Then there is McEvoy's contention, in the discussion of Babel-17, that "Delany proposes a new twist to the Whorf-Sapir theory of linguistics. The theory states, in general terms, that culture determines language, but Delany turned the theory upside down by saying that language can determine a culture" (p. 56). McEvoy has simply got it wrong. What he describes as Delany's reversal is, in fact, the original form of the hypothesis (though there are arguments for the opposite position as well): thus Delany has not reversed the theory at all, but simply exemplified it. If McEvoy's goal is to teach young readers about Delany's fiction, why could he not spend ten minutes with an encyclopedia to check his facts?

These errors are important not in themselves, but for what they say about McEvoy's attitude (and about Ungar's: I can't recall ever having seen so shamefully edited a text from a professional press). Such small carelessnesses, precisely because they are so easy to correct, suggest either a blatant unconcern with details or an inability to recognize the errors, neither of which attitudes jibes well with the role of teacher which McEvoy has adopted for himself. Such errors undermine the credibility of both author and text.

This is not to say that the book has no redeeming qualities. Since Delany, with his usual generosity, co-operated with this project to a truly amazing extent, the book includes considerable biography. Some of it consists of merely interesting trivia, like the fact that Delany journeyed through Europe with a man named Ron Helstrom (which suggests the source of Bron Helstrom's name, if not necessarily his personality). Some of it, however, contributes substantially to our understanding of Delany's fiction. For instance, in 1965 Delany and his wife, Marilyn Hacker, developed an intense relationship with a young man named Bobby Folsom, a fact which does much to illuminate Delany's concern with threesomes, like the spacer "triples" in Babel-17 or the complex interactions of Kid, Lanya, and Denny in Dhalgren.

In fact, in his discussions of Delany's early novels up through Dhalgren, McEvoy shows some genuine sensitivity to the connections between biography and fiction. He further emphasizes the importance of chronology in Delany's fiction by considering each novel from the point of view of the developing artist, as a problem in fiction-writing (or SF writing) to be solved, each new solution creating new problems in its turn. This, perhaps McEvoy's single most important contribution to Delany criticism, is not a common approach to this body of work, and is one I found genuinely useful.

One of my complaints about this book is less McEvoy's fault than Ungar's. The blurb on the back cover states that "Each of [Delany's] books, from The Jewels of Aptor to Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, is covered." However, the "coverage" devoted to recent works--which means all the novels from Triton on, plus the three volumes of Delany's criticism now available--takes up a total of ten pages, out of 130. It is true that Delany has published so prodigiously in the last several years that it is hard for critics to keep up with him, especially when delays of three years (as in McEvoy's case) between manuscript completion and publication are not unusual. But that hardly justifies treating Triton, which was published in 1976, as too "recent" for detailed examination; and even Tales of Neveron had been in print for two years when McEvoy finished his manuscript. The result is that we have yet another full-scale treatment of the first half of Delany's canon, plus what amounts to little more than an annotated bibliography of the exciting and rigorous work of the last decade, where some help in reading would be particularly welcome.

However, judging by what McEvoy says about Triton, which he considers a work of "failed" feminism, perhaps it is just as well he didn't say more about these later novels. While I had the distinct impression that McEvoy understands much more about Delany's early texts than he is able to communicate, he seems to be in over his head when he comes to the more complex recent ones.

Having said all of which, I am left in the same quandary I started in: What are we to do with this book? It is inadequate for the audience it was originally designed for (and I can't help feeling that any student sophisticated enough to understand Delany's fiction, let alone enjoy it, will be put off by the tone McEvoy has adopted); and more demanding audiences will be unable to finish even the first chapter, which unfortunately is by far the most egregious. Yet the generous helpings of biography and Delany's critical observations, many made either in interviews with McEvoy or in other unpublished forms and hence otherwise unobtainable, remain valuable. That's not much for $6.95; but then, even a meal at McDonald's costs nearly that. You'll have to decide for yourselves whether your dedication to Delany scholarship extends this far or not.

--Kathleen L. Spencer UCLA

A Guide to Farmer

Edgar L. Chapman. The Magic Labyrinth of Philip José Farmer. [The Milford Series, "Popular Writers of Today," Vol. 38.] San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1984. 96pp

Edgar Chapman's chapbook on Farmer bears most obvious comparison with Mary T. Brizzi's similar 1980 volume for the Starmont series, and generally comes out well in the comparison. For one thing, it is more current. For another, Brizzi's book consists largely of essays on indi- vidual works, whereas Chapman's offers a clearer overview of Farmer's development and offers more extended discussions of such often overlooked works as Flesh and more recent works such as Jesus on Mars. On the negative side, Chapman's book inexplicably omits any entries for Farmer titles from the index, making it difficult to locate his discussions of any particular work. (Similarly, Borgo's typesetter doesn't seem able to handle accents, rendering ludicrous the story of Farmer's changing his middle name from "José" to "Jose").

Beginning with a brief summary of Farmer's life and a discussion of the early impact of works like "The Lovers," Chapman devotes individual chapters to Farmer's use of the trickster figure, his reworkings of Tarzan and Doc Savage, his more mature works, and the "Riverworld" series. Along the way, he offers intelligent summaries of various works and keeps firmly in focus the popular sources of much of Farmer's writing.

As is often the case in volumes such as this, however, Chapman seems uncertain of his audience. In seeking to establish a critically viable mythic dimension in Farmer, he relies too heavily on throwaway citations to Northrop Frye, while at the same time overexplaining references to better-known figures (Newton was a "great physicist and a conservative Christian," for example [p. 10]). Like many SF fans, he condemns the "passive weaklings who appear in much modernist fiction," but does not hesitate to invoke Coover, Barth, and William Burroughs when it helps to establish Farmer's pedigree. He repeatedly refers to something called "the feminine principle," but never fully explores what this means in Farmer's work and at one point (p. 77) even claims that a feminist Farmer character "atones in part" for the sexism of earlier SF!

There is much of substance in this book, however; the rather densely printed pages of the Borgo format permit more text than the size would suggest. Those interested in Farmer should pay attention to this book; those who seek a guide to Farmer may find it invaluable. It does not provide a complete assessment of its subject, but that is hardly fair to ask of a slim volume such as this. Generally, Chapman has done an admirable job.

--Gary K. Wolfe Roosevelt University

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