#44 = Volume 15, Part 1 = March 1988
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Handle with Care
Simone Vierne. Jules
Verne. Paris: Balland, 1986. 447pp. FF89.00
As well as her Rite, roman, initiation (1973), Professor Vierne is justly
well-known for her long-term pioneering work on Jules Verne--authorship studies, her 1972
thèse d'Etat, Jules Verne et le roman initiatique (published in 1973), prefaces to
Garnier Flammarion editions of the "Voyages Extraordinaires," and many other
distinguished efforts. Unfortunately, this latest volume--which appears in the Phare
series, devoted so far to Freud, Machiavelli, and Malraux --does not fully live up to what
might have been expected. The book, it is true, is written for a very general audience,
and thus originality is not necessarily an important criterion; but all the same, Jules
Verne shows signs of a certain haste. It is sometimes needlessly drawn out and
repetitious; allusions are dropped which the general reader cannot possibly fathom;
assertions are made but not followed up; and recent scholarship, especially of the
non-traditional variety, is under-represented (e.g., Delabroy's thesis). All this is a
shame, for there is a great deal of value in the book, especially for those new to the
subject. The style is elegantly straightforward, and the decision to complement each of
the six chapters with a selection of eminently-quotable extracts both from other works by
Verne and from the critical corpus is very effective.
After a chronology of Verne's life, Vierne provides a general introduction and then
proceeds to individual novels. Her commentary on Cinq semaines en ballon does
justice to the brilliant chapitre sur rien of the desert scene, to the English
and Scottish character types, to the role of the tree-refuge, and, more generally, to the
authentic poetry of much of Verne's writing, its unique combination of realistic and
symbolic levels. Her discussion of Voyage au centre de la Terre pins down much of
the intertextuality evident in the text, including the mythical substratum. Vingt
mille lieues and Le Tour du monde are dealt with adequately; but only a
tantalizing snatch is given about a first draft of part of L'Ile mystérieuse;
and Le Château des Carpathes, finally, could have been covered in a more
analytical fashion. One interesting detail from all this is that the extremely passionate
and lyrical "quotations" put into Aouda's and La Stilla's mouths were apparently
invented by Verne--although some evidence for this view of Vierne's she does not supply.
Ultimately, the most useful aspect of this book is its account of the reactions to
Verne. His persistent reputation for scientificité and authenticity originated,
it can be seen, in the contemporary critics, themselves often merely reproducing the
hand-outs of his publisher, Hetzel (whereas we can recognize that the authenticity is in
fact rarely more than extreme plausibility). Rimbaud's reaction in particular can be read
in his very Vernian Bateau ivre; and Zola, in a first article, also
quite liked Verne--but then subsequently attacked him ferociously, denying his
works even the quality of "novels."
The errors in this book include: "Forum de New York" for the Forum of
New York (p. 26); "Goalh's companion de Boston" for Youth's Companion (p.
100); "Ney Land" (p. 232); "Haarper' Bazar" (p. 385); "John
Clark" as author of 2001 (p. 427); and "Gallacher" (p. 444) for Gallagher.
It is also wrong to claim that Allotte de la Fuÿe was the first biographer of Verne (p.
35); that the North and East of France were "peu accessibles à l'époque" (p. 81);
that "les jeux de mots des romans...ne bravent jamais l'honnêteté" (p. 86; see Compère and Soriano); that Apocalypse Now is about the atomic bomb (p. 91); that
"ce n'est que par hasard que le cataclysme n'a pas lieu" in Sans Dessus Dessous (p.
98); that Verne quotes Wagner with admiration only before 1871 (p. 100); that wheat ever
multiplies in "progression arithmétique" (p. 303); that the Minard RLM bibliography
is still continuing (p. 394); and that the number of articles on Verne is "au moins
2000 à mon avis" (p. 443--it already exceeded 2600 in 1982). Very debatable as well, in
my view, are the claims that: "L'Eternel Adam" is purely and simply
"extrêmement pessimiste" (p. 90); that "Saknussem" (sic) ever really
reached the center of the Earth (p. 163); that my own thesis is "difficilement
accessible," probably formalist, and systematically Ricardolien (pp. 412-13); that time
can ever be totally "abolished" (p. 209); or that time's mythical and metaphysical
aspects are ignored by Verne (p. 426).
But I would not like to give the impression that this book is without considerable
usefulness. It's just that, to get from Jules Verne to Jules Verne, you need to
keep your wits about you. A manier avec précaution.
--William Butcher University of Buckingham
Richard Hauer Costa. H.G. Wells. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne,
1985. xx + 177pp. $13.95.
Robert Crossley. H.G.
Wells. Starmont House, 1986 [rpt. 1983 ed.]. 79pp. $7.95 (paper)
By the very fact that Twayne has issued a revised H.G. Wells, one is reminded
of how much has happened in Wells studies since Richard Hauer Costa originally produced
his survey in 1967; and, indeed, in the updated index, bibliography, and acknowledgments,
Costa cites some 25 new books about Wells. Pity he does not make better use of them. He
does remedy some of the holes in the 1967 text. The discussion of Wells and feminism has
been expanded, and there is a head-on effort to gauge the Wellsian and Jamesian types of
"central intelligence" by comparing them in Britling and The
Ambassadors. But very little has been added or altered as regards the Wells of the
1920s, '30s, and '40s, where the survey was --and remains --the scantiest. What has not
been remedied at all (indeed, has in some ways been exacerbated) is bad organization,
with attendant repetitiousness, and factual unreliability.
For present purposes, I shall consider mostly the revised text. Rather than
assimilating the old text to the requirements of the new findings, Costa typically retains
the major sections of the original nearly verbatim and then at remote and arbitrary
junctures interpolates the results of recent criticism. In large part because of this
untidy and repetitious procedure, the book has fattened by maybe 30%. For example, the
discussion of Wells's early SF is barely altered (occupying chapter 3 in the 1967 edition
and chapter 2 in 1985); but then eight chapters later, without warning, comes a new
section, "The Science Fictionists: The Time Machine," which is subheaded
disjunctively under "Suvin," "Parrinder," "Philmus," and
"Huntington," and which alludes to the chapter 2 discussion only in passing. The
all-new chapter 8, "Wells and Science," is another unexpected add-in. It explicates
the science connection in Wells's opus by reference to the recent critics, Roslynn Haynes
and (again) John Huntington; but the eighth chapter (out of 11) would be much too late for
the basic question of Wells and science were it not that the subject has already been
broached in the aforementioned chapter 2. This sort of postscriptum procedure makes the
book a chore to read.
Unreliability is a bad problem. The book being a frankly derivative summary survey of
Wells and his critics, factual accuracy is particularly important. I made a partial check
of quotations and quickly turned up over 100 errors in the quotations themselves, the page
references, or the attributions, and the majority of them were carried from the first
edition. Too many slips are symptomatic. A survey may be derivative, but it ought not to
be erroneously derivative. That last sentence is Richard D. Mullen's from a 1967 review
(in Riverside Quarterly) that decisively memorialized Costa's remarkable
ignorance of the contents of The Holy Terror (taken as a sample of his general
ignorance of the later Wells) and his evident erroneous understanding of his second-hand
source, whatever it was, which he had not acknowledged. Actually, the source turns out to
be Antonina Vallentin (apparent from verbal echoes), and it is true that Costa condenses
her remarks to the point of inanity. The stinger, though, is that the "revised"
(1985) Holy Terror discussion reads exactly as before. After that nothing is
surprising, but I shall add four other curious inaccuracies. The Philmus-Hughes
bibliography of Wells's early science journalism is said to list over 200 items (p. 10),
when in fact it lists fewer than 100; William Bellamy's Rieffian psychological analysis of
Wells at the fin-de-siècle is said to account for the "exhilaration" of Wells's short stories (p. 31), when in fact Bellamy's analysis sets out to account for
"images of malaise"; Huntington is said to chronicle all of Wells, "The whole
performance" (p. 107), when in fact Huntington halts at about 1905--except for the
elaboration of a single phrase that he borrows from The Work, Wealth, and Happiness of
Mankind; and Philmus is said to have stated that the Time Traveler brings back a
wilted flower "from the one hundred twenty-first century" (p. 146), when in fact Philmus mentioned that century in another connection, did not relate it to the wilted
flower, and would have been about 690 millennia in error if he had.
As a Starmont pamphlet, Robert Crossley's H.G. Wells surveys exclusively the
SF, a much less ambitious undertaking than Costa's, which is further simplified by
limiting discussion to Wells's five SF classics (The Time Machine, The Island of
Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon)
and a rather spotty run-down of the short stories. Granted these disclaimers, Crossley
offers much in little. The core of individual readings of the SF, in the above order, is
preceded by a sketch of Wells's life to age 30 and a concise account of Wells's
development after 1900 as a movement from the "pure fantasy" of the SF to the
"applied fantasy" of the action-oriented works that followed. So even though those
works lie beyond Crossley's scope, he shows the SF as opening a path to them. The
individual readings themselves are thematically unified in terms of continuing religious,
political, and social motifs; but, at the same time, Crossley's approach is at bottom
literary and aesthetic, as indicated by his rarely equaled interest in Wells's
characters-as-characters and his attention to Wells's use of language. The latter involves
generous and often un-shopworn chunks of quotation. Also, Crossley's own style is fluent
and strikes off teachable if sometimes glib critical phrases. A few examples: as already
noted, fantasy may by "applied" or "pure" (p. 13); Wells, with Samuel Johnson,
would "regulate imagination by reality" rather than, with Henry James, build "a
house of fiction," because Wells's was "a documentary imagination" (pp. 16-17); the
Time Traveler is in part "profoundly Morlockian" (p. 26), and in the cannibalism of
his future, "politics shall become flesh" (p. 28); and so forth. Altogether, this is
a fresh, readable guide to Wells's most famous SF, and, at the same time, it is
knowledgeable, unobtrusively at home with the recent secondary literature (i.e., as of
1979, the date of composition; and the 10 pages of primary and secondary bibliographies,
usefully classified and annotated, have been brought up through 1984).
Science is Crossley's blind spot--I think less from a humanistic or aesthetic than from
a religious standpoint. He minimizes the science Wells knew by treating T.H. Huxley's
influence as purely philosophical, as if Huxley never taught the dissection of a rabbit,
and by encapsulating all of Wells's science in the fact that "he left school
with a mediocre record and got various undistinguished jobs teaching science to
preadolescent boys" (p. 13), as if Wells had not later taken the B.Sc. with first-class
honors in zoology, taught adults (one of whom he married), and written or collaborated on
two biology texts. Then, turning to the fiction, Crossley tends to equate science with the
pseudo-scientific patter that accompanies time travel, invisibility, or anti-gravity, and
by dismissing the patter, to undercut the claims of science upon Wells's science fiction.
In turn, the vacancy thus opened up tends to promote religious themes stepping in, not
necessarily an implausible displacement: it is 15 years since the Mackenzies connected the
evangelical Christianity of Wells's youth with the apocalyptic aspects of Darwin
(especially Huxley's Darwin). Crossley's religious glossings make good (if only partial)
sense. He notes Wells's frequent biblical language and comments on the creation scenes by
Moreau and on the lunar surface, the transformation scenes in The War of the Worlds,
and the first (Adamic) and last (contra-Adamic) men scattered through the SF. In a word,
Crossley seems to miss the point that Wells uses the vistas opened by science to dwarf the
"eternities" of religion and to create out of religious language and imagery an
ironic comment on religious anthropomorphism.
In spite of this caveat, Crossley's H.G. Wells excels as an introduction
intended for a wide audience, including non-specialists of all sorts.
--David Y. Hughes University of Michigan
Something to Think About
Joseph Sanders. E.E.
Smith. [Starmont Reader's Guide No. 24.] Mercer Island, WA: Starmont
Press, 1986. 96pp. $7.95 (paper)
This monograph deals with the problem of why good men write bad books and why sensible
people read them-- or, to be precise, those are two issues that must be faced when dealing
with such monuments of the Semi-Precious Metal Ages of SF as Doc Smith. I suspect that few
men over 30 who read SF during their adolescence (I cannot speak for the women) did not
enjoy Doc Smith's books--and that few would now admit to rereading, let alone enjoying,
them. The "Skylark" and "Lensman" series, along with the work of Edgar Rice
Burroughs, Edmond Hamilton, Ray Cummings, Robert E. Howard, and others of their generation
and publishing niche, comprise the literary acne of SF&F, a painful and embarrassing
adolescent memory. What Sanders must manage, beyond the basic Starmont imperative to
deliver biographic and bibliographic data, is to remind those of us who have forgotten
what it was that might have appealed to us in those tales of iron men in wooden prose.
One fairly common answer must be: "Nothing. We were, after all, immature,
tasteless, and probably neurotic. Any lingering fondness for the stuff is evidence that we
never quite managed to grow up." This is pretty much Brian Stableford's position in two
brief critical pieces on Smith's work ("The Skylark Series" and "The Lensman
Series" in Survey of Science Fiction Literature, ed. Frank Magill, 1979), where
the best he can say is, "The Skylark books are aesthetically and
intellectually vacuous, and can no longer offer the same kind of revelatory
consciousness-expansion that they once did" ("Skylark," p. 2094). Smith's space
operas were popular in their own time, Stableford says, partly because they offered
marvels new to that time; they manage to remain popular thanks to a "constant supply
of new naive readers" ("Skylark," p. 2095), for whom the "innocent brutality"
of Smith's work is therapeutic rather than dangerous.
The strength of Sanders' study is that it is a sympathetic response to Smith's work,
one with a sense of the history of the field and of its audience. Its weakness is that it
is sometimes too sympathetic, so that readers who do not share Sanders's feelings about
the subject will likely leave without satisfying answers to some of their questions about
the continuing importance of Smith in SF. Sanders does offer a good portrait of E.E. Smith
the man. He was, by more accounts than this one, decent and industrious, intellectually
and athletically active, and ethically sensitive enough to get himself fired from a
munitions plant job in a dispute over quality control. His outdoorsy, Western upbringing
(which Sanders uses to explain some of Smith's gaudy, exaggerated dialogue) and his
day-job career as a doughnut-factory chemist make him sound like something out of an old Saturday
Evening Post story, and there is something appealingly of the period about Smith's
But the real question is: What kind of writer was Smith--where did those books
come from and why did (and does) their audience enjoy them? Sanders shows how Smith
worked, how he grew as a writer (I can already hear the opposition grumbling at that last
verb). In the case of the "Lensman" books especially, we see how the series
developed, changed, accreted; and we get some sense of what the appeal must have been as
the four original serials (Galactic Patrol, 1937; Gray Lensman, 1939; Second
Stage Lensman, 1941; Children of the Lens, 1947) appeared in Astounding,
each topping its predecessor (vide the "Riverworld" series for a similar
effect). That Smith's ambitions for his space operas were large and their effects
consciously worked at there can be little doubt; Sanders shows that the core of the
"Lensman" series was conceived as a single large adventure, each new serial opening
out onto a wider and wilder picture of who the galactic bad guys really are. Such planning
makes Smith less the stereotypical pulpster, following up on a popular success with more
of the same, improvising feverishly to top each climax with a bigger one.
With the addition of First Lensman (1950; written from scratch to fill a gap)
and Triplanetary (1948; revised and patched in from a 1934 serial), the series
became a different kind of work from the serials. First, the reworking of Triplanetary
changed the way later generations of readers would experience Smith's saga by giving
away at the start the mystery of who stands behind the forces of evil rather than
revealing the layers of Boskone's organization a layer at a time. Second, the presentation
of the series as a single multivolume work reinforced the impression that the author's
intentions went beyond ephemeral pulp adventure; the specially-bound set issued as The
History of Civilization (1955) may seem an example of fannish exuberance or authorial
pomposity, but there is a kernel of serious purpose at the center of the title and
packaging. Sanders argues that Smith was concerned with "the moral struggle for
contact/ growth" (p. 60), the need to develop one's own powers and to recognize the
humanity of other thinking creatures (including women). In this view, the heroes and
villains are synechdochic representatives of their societies, of Civilization and Boskone,
and we know Civilization through, say, Kimball Kinnison rather than through a clear
portrait of his culture.
It is in explanations such as this that Sanders has the most trouble. Having handled
the objection that Smith's picture of a future Civilization is sketchy (indeed, what we
see looks remarkably like 1938 America) by saying that "Smith's lack of interest in
the masses of society is balanced by his very strong interest in the individual" (p. 46),
he must deal at once with the fact that Doc was not known for his characterization either.
Here I think Sanders may be trying too hard to defend Smith against all comers, and I am
not sure that case can be made without apologizing for Doc's limitations at least a
little. I reread Gray Lensman before starting this review, and even after
reviewing Sanders's argument that Smith's nearly-perfect heroes are hard to believe
because their lack of ambivalence and weakness is "alien to most human experience"
(p. 47), it still seems to me that Smith simply lacked the skill to pull off such
portraits, and perhaps had not thought too deeply about what a moral, intellectual, and
physical superman might be like.
In the end, Sanders makes as good a case for Smith as one can, and if he cannot
completely answer the Stablefordian critique, he does balance it. Critical response to
Smith and to space opera in general, I suspect, is less a matter of substance than of how
one feels about works that do not transcend adolescence. It may indeed be difficult or
impossible to revisit the scenes of teenage wonder without noticing that the backdrops are
painted flats and that the wires holding up the spaceships are visible, but a complete
devaluation of such works also devalues their audiences, and that is something that we
should think about.
--Russell Letson St Cloud, MN
Harold Bloom, ed. Ursula
K. Le Guin. ["Modern Critical Views Series."] NY: Chelsea House,
1986. x + 274pp. $27.50
Chelsea House has not shown much interest in including SF authors in its "Modern
Critical Views" series--for which oversight, authors and scholars can be thankful.
Reputations are not aided by being bound up in Chelsea House boards, in spite of the
prestigious Harold Bloom serving as General Editor and as author of the introductions.
The Le Guin volume consists of 17 essays, arranged by date of publication (1974-85).
The "Editor's Note" does not indicate how the essays were selected, only that they
are the "most illuminating criticism" (p. ix). Essays were apparently chosen for
uncovering central themes or background sources; for discussing meaningful contexts for
Le Guin's work--genre, utopian literature, ethnology; and for examining, in depth, her
It is disturbing to consider how many significant aspects of Le Guin criticism are
missing--for example, Kathleen Spencer's study of Le Guin's fiction in light of Victor
Turner's concept of liminality and social structure, Marty Bickman's demonstration of the
unity of concept and structure in The Left Hand of Darkness, Kate Hayles'
examination of the ambivalence of androgyny in The Left Hand of Darkness, Tom
Remington's studies on the imagery of touch in Le Guin's work, M. Teresa Tavormina's
discussion of physics as metaphors in The Dispossessed, Peter Nicholls' early
review-article on the concept of death in The Farthest Shore. Also missing are
the more controversial essays by other SF authors who admire Le Guin, but urge her beyond
what they perceive as her limitations--Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Stanislaw Lem. There
are no essays which give the more personal side of Le Guin, such as those by Karl Kroeber
or Vonda McIntyre.
Perhaps one reason for the absence of this variety is that nearly two-thirds of the
essays were selected from the two best known and most readily available sources of SF
essays--the two North American journals devoted to SF. Seven essays in the Bloom volume
are from SFS, four are from books, three from Extrapolation, and one each from Mosaic
and Children's Literature; one is original to this volume. Two of the
omitted essays mentioned above, for example, were published in Foundation.
Another reason may be a lack of familiarity with Le Guin's entire opus. The last eight
essays in the volume are identified as focusing "in depth upon what would appear to
be Le Guin's principal achievements to date: The Left Hand of Darkness, The
Dispossessed and The Beginning Place" (p. ix). The consensus on The
Beginning Place is not that clear; nor does the volume give any consideration to Le
Guin's collection of short stories, The Compass Rose (1982), or to her most
recent novel, Always Coming Home (1985). In fact, neither of these works is even
listed in the chronology of Le Guin's life and work at the end of the Bloom volume.
The arrangement of the essays is chronological, yet there is no discussion, in either
the "Editor's Note" or "Introduction," of the history or development of Le Guin criticism. The book begins with essays by Ketterer (1974), Barbour (1974), and
Scholes (1975). Not only are the dates misleading (both Ketterer's and Scholes's essays
were first published a year earlier), but Eleanor Cameron's 1971 essay on A Wizard of
Earthsea, which discusses the anthropological, mythical, and Jungian elements in Le
Guin's fantasy, is noticeably missing.
All of these absences and oversights suggest a "factory-line" production of the
"Modern Critical Views" series. Unfortunately, there is even further evidence of a
carelessly produced volume. The note on Susan Wood, a contributor to the volume, is
written in the present tense; she died in 1980. The co-editor of SFS is listed as R.D.
Miller; R.D. Mullen, a thorough and careful editor himself, deserves better than this. The
volume's bibliography lists only 26 additional essays and books. How items were selected
for this "honorable mention" list is not indicated; its title, "Bibliography,"
is misleading since the list is so short; neither of the two previous anthologies of
criticism on Le Guin appears in the list (I mean De Bolt's and Olander and Greenberg's).
The most shocking indication of careless production is that all notes and references
that originally accompanied the essays have been stripped away. I cannot imagine an
audience that would find the Bloom volume's version of any of these essays useful or
acceptable--neither high school nor university students or libraries. The reader must find
an earlier published version of each essay to recover the original author's careful,
scholarly documentation. It is unconscionable that anyone would wish to foster among
students and scholars the idea that documentation can simply be deleted--and without
even mentioning that it was ever there. Nor should any scholarly book foster the idea that
critical essays are written without knowledge of colleagues' work. Furthermore, the editor
has not provided notes of his own on the publishing context of the articles. Thus, the
reader has no idea that Klein's contribution is the second part of an essay, the first
part of which was published in SFS No. 13 (1977), nor that Joanna Russ responded to its
sexism in SFS No. 17 (1979). Nor does the reader know that Ketterer's essay prompted
several written responses (in SFS No. 6  and No. 8 ) or that Barbour published
an addendum to his article in SFS No. 7. Nor does the reader know that Scholes's
discussion of the SF&F context of Le Guin's work rests on his identification and
definition of an inclusive genre called "structural fabulation."
The conclusion is obvious: do not buy this book and do not ask your library to buy this
book or any other volume in the "Modern Critical Views" series.
Bickman, Martin. "Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: Form and
Content," SFS, 4 (1977):42-47.
Cameron, Eleanor. "High Fantasy: A Wizard of Earthsea," Horn Book,
47 (1971): 129-38.
De Bolt, Joseph, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space.
Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1978.
Delany, Samuel R. "To Read The Dispossessed," in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (Elizabethtown,
NY: Dragon, 1977), pp. 239-308.
Hayles, N.K. "Androgyny, Ambivalence, and Assimilation in The Left Hand of
Darkness," in Olander & Greenberg, pp. 97-115, 228-29.
Ketterer, David. "The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula K. Le Guin's
Archetypal 'Winter Journey,'" Riverside Quarterly, 5 (1973):288-97.
Kroeber, Karl. "Sisters and Science Fiction," Little Magazine, 10
Lem, Stanislaw. "Lost Opportunities: Part II: The Left Hand of Darkness,"
SF Commentary, 24 (1971):22-24.
McIntyre, Vonda. Introduction to Le Guin's From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.
(Portland: Pendragon, 1973), pp. xiii-xviii.
Nicholls, Peter. "Showing Children the Value of Death," Foundation, 5
Olander, Joseph D. & Martin Harry Greenberg. Ursula K. Le Guin. ["Writers
of the 21st Century Series"] NY: Taplinger, 1979.
Remington, Thomas J. "The Other Side of Suffering: Touch as Theme and Metaphor in
Le Guin's Science Fiction Novels," in Olander & Greenberg, pp. 153-77, 234-36.
________. "A Touch of Difference, A Touch of Love," Extrapolation, 18
Russ, Joanna. "The Image of Women in Science Fiction," in Red Clay Reader 7
(Charlotte, NC: Southern Review, 1969), pp. 35-40.
________. "Review of The Dispossessed," Fantasy and Science Fiction,
Scholes, Robert. "The Good Witch of The West," Hollins Critic, 11
Spencer, Kathleen. "Exiles and Envoys: The SF of Ursula K. Le Guin," Foundation,
Tavormina, M. Teresa. "Physics as Metaphors: The General Temporal Theory in The
Dispossessed," Mosaic, 13 (1980):51-62.
--Elizabeth Cummins U. Missouri -- Rolla
Brian W. Aldiss, with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science
Fiction. NY: Atheneum, 1986. 511pp. $24.95
When Brian Aldiss's Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction
(1973) appeared over a decade ago, it announced itself as "th[e] first history of the genre"
(p. 2); and considering its scope, it was right to do so. In spite of its less than
rapturous reception by reviewers and critics at the time (a fact which an understandably
disgruntled Aldiss does not let readers forget in his introduction to the present revised
and updated edition) Billion Year Spree proved to be a valuable compilation of SF
history and (non-academic) criticism. That qualifying "non-academic" means that it
is both intelligent and readable, entertaining in a way that, unfortunately, many works
written for purely academic reception are not. This is the book I recommend to friends
when they want to know more about an area in which I am currently investing so much of my
Billion Year Spree is subtitled in a way which calls the reader's attention to
one of the earliest extant fantasies, the 2nd-century True History of Lucian of
Samosata. Aldiss's implicit alignment of his 1973 history with a text of pure
imagination gives to Billion Year Spree the kind of cachet such a work
requires: it seems prepared to admit its own subjective limitations as the history of a
literary genre which invites many differing perspectives. Even in this first edition,
however, Aldiss was quite prepared to defend his historical viewpoint against all
challengers. And in its present reincarnation, his history of SF is no longer
(ironically?) subtitled "true history"; it has become simply "the history of
science fiction." This much less flexible self-advertisement leaves Trillion Year
Spree open to the many criticisms which can be (and have been) leveled at historical
totalizations of any kind. Since this is a history which has been "designed to serve
in schools where SF is on the curriculum" (p. 23), it is important to keep such caveats
It is as if Aldiss and David Wingrove have decided to accept Sam Moskowitz's critically
naive assurance (recently expressed in his
"Five Steps to Science Fiction Sanity," Extrapolation,
27 :281-94), that there are "mountains of facts" available to be gathered
about SF and that the "assemblage" of these facts is "very likely to
give the right answers, just as placing all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into place
offers the complete picture" (Moskowitz: 291). From this perspective, Trillion Year
Spree proves to be a rather more irritating reading experience than its forerunner
because it seems even more insistent on its own ability to offer "the complete
picture." Since historical "facts" are precisely not like "the pieces
of a jigsaw puzzle"--who chooses them? which facts are available to which historian?
which facts do not fit which theory and therefore are not considered? how much does taste
and personal history affect the choice of these facts? how can one separate historical
facts from traditionally received ideas which have solidified into "facts"?--all one
can ever hope to produce is "a" history, never "the" history, no matter what
one's subject happens to be. All this strikes me as somewhat ironic since Aldiss and
Wingrove express their agreement with James Blish's remark that Moskowitz's "sole
critical principle is one of infinite regress" (p. 440, n. 23). From this perspective, Trillion
Year Spree itself suffers from a certain critical backsliding.
As a consequence, I find myself somewhat less than completely reassured by the authors'
claim that Trillion Year Spree has been written "with as much neutrality and
freedom from favoritism or prejudice as its authors can contrive between them" (p.
23). I assume this is why the authors chose to exclude Aldiss's own work from their
history. Not only am I not convinced of the wisdom of such an exclusion, since Brian
Aldiss is one of the most important figures in the history of modern British SF; but it
holds true only insofar as the body of the work is concerned. The endnotes, while
attesting to research which is both relevant and wide-ranging (and which clearly
demonstrates the authors' familiarity with much of the critical work which has been
produced since the publication of the previous volume), also amount to a mini-history of
Aldiss's own work as SF writer, critic, and public figure. This hardly counts as complete
exclusion from the text.
The authors make it clear in their introduction that the critical framework of the
previous edition has remained unchanged. This framework was constructed upon several
theses, all of which are still operant in the present volume: (1) that SF is a literary
descendent of the Gothic mode; (2) that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the first
"real" SF novel; (3) that SF can be defined as "the search for a definition of
man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of
knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould"
(Billion Year Spree, p. 8). The reader can accept these contentions or not; what
counts here is the clarity with which Aldiss and Wingrove's framework is presented. I am
happy enough to concede Frankenstein to Aldiss: it is certainly as appealing as
any other starting point which has been suggested for SF and has much to recommend it as
at least a significant progenitor. As for historical roots and definitions, Aldiss's
arguments add much useful fodder to the critical debates surrounding these topics.
However, while Trillion Year Spree continues to offer ideas which are
intellectually challenging, its tone is often annoyingly self-congratulatory. For
It is hard to recognize now the confusion that existed then [at the time of Billion
Year Spree's publication]. Before my book appeared, there was no accepted idea of
when SF began. Some critics claimed it all started in a semi-juvenile pulp magazine in the
twenties, others that Homer wrote science fiction. Ludicrously enough, these were often
the same critics. Yet to have no understanding of this matter is to have no understanding
of the function and nature of SF. (p. 20)
This is not only arrogant; it is questionable. And its tone guarantees that it will
come under attack: to claim that one has set straight the entire literary community as to
the provenance of a particular literary genre seems to me to be like waving a red flag at
a breed of bull which is only too ready to involve itself in battles of this nature.
In the current volume, the authors have "modified" Aldiss's original definition
of SF by changing two words: "man" has become "mankind" and "mould" has
become "mode." The latter change emphasizes Aldiss's contention that SF is a mode
rather than a genre; this change is advertised in the Introduction. Curiously, however,
there is no mention of the change from "man" to "mankind." I assume that this
is an attempt to excise the sexist language of the original ("science fiction is the
search for a definition of man...") through the use of a word which is more
"inclusive." But just as the use of "mankind" is a move in the right direction
which still remains less than acceptable, so Trillion Year Spree includes a
recognition which is also less than adequate of feminist presence in SF, in spite of the
few pages devoted to the subject in their final chapter. This aspect of Aldiss and
Wingrove's history indicates what I consider to be a significant weakness in their
approach: a lack of recognition of the inevitably political nature of so much of the
material in question. One example of the results of what I consider to be their
underplaying of the role of feminism in the development of SF should suffice: in chapter
3, "Honourable Ancestors: Good Places and Other Places," which includes a
consideration of utopian fiction in the development of SF, the authors conclude that
"Aldous Huxley's Island (1962)...may be among the last of the considerable
utopias until the world climate alters" (p. 74). Not only has this discussion not
mentioned Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915), which is introduced only in
the subsequent consideration of 19th-century SF; there is no acknowledgment at this point
that works such as Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) or Joanna
Russ's The Female Man (1977) may perhaps be worth at least as much attention as
Huxley's rather fatigued final effort at utopian fiction. Aldiss and Wingrove demonstrate
a subjectivity in their approach to the whole idea of utopian writing--which perhaps
accounts for their relative neglect of works by Piercy and Russ (not to mention Le Guin
and Delany) at this particular point in their history. They conclude that
a decline in the general belief in political systems; a profound questioning of the
effects of technology; even the retreat from so much as lip service towards established
religion; these are some of the factors which render unlikely the creation of utopias in
the immediate future. (p. 74)
Surely "a decline in the general belief in political systems," for example, is
itself a political attitude. And it is exactly these issues which are responsible for the
creation of works like Woman on the Edge of Time, The Female Man, The Dispossessed, and
Triton, all of which are considered important contributions to the field of
utopian fiction. This is only one example of the subjectivity at play in Trillion Year
Spree; if it were more openly acknowledged, perhaps the reader might feel more
tolerant about the occasional lapses from "fact" into personal approach. In
addition, the tendency to "fracture" discussions (Gilman's mention in chapter 4,
which we are then presumably expected to link to the discussion of utopian fiction in
chapter 3, is a case in point) in order to preserve the chronological continuity of the
book proves distracting at times and diffuses some critical arguments before they have
been fully developed.
Part of the problem is that Aldiss and Wingrove are not attuned to political content,
which is always an intrinsic aspect of SF, as of any other genre (or mode). Their
introduction of feminism as one of the "many ground swells" (p. 322) which came into
prominence during the 1970s is particularly revealing. It not only suggests the misguided
notion that SF was relatively free of ideological programming before the "New Wave"
insurgence of the late '60s; it reduces feminism to simply one of any number of political
axe-grindings--choose your own axe. Feminism thus takes its place in a list which includes
"ecology, computerisation, proliferation of nuclear power, psychoanalysis, [and]
sexual liberation." The constant use of words like "man" and "mankind"
throughout Trillion Year Spree is not only disturbing; it tempts me to conclude
that, since feminism has developed into one of the major forces involved in "the
search for a [re]definition of mankind," Aldiss and Wingrove have not taken to heart
their own definition of SF.
As "a" history of SF, however, Trillion Year Spree occupies the same
niche as its predecessor did a decade ago. It is an intelligent, entertaining, and
wide-ranging effort to impose form on the "mountain of facts" available to the SF
historian. While problems do arise in the final chapter, they are problems inevitable to a
work which sets out to encapsulate the current state of any literary movement. As in Billion
Year Spree, the present volume concludes in a rather diffuse and shapeless manner, as
it attempts (a noble attempt at an impossible task) to list as many contemporary writers
as the authors believe worthy of note. Inevitably (and this too is inherent in the
attempt), the reader will question certain inclusions and exclusions: the range is wide
but the choices, in the final analysis, depend upon less than completely objective
criteria. The penultimate chapter, on the other hand, contains what I consider to be a
series of necessary and cogent (re)evaluations of the current anomalous celebration of
such '50s' figures as Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and Clarke (in the chapter appropriately
titled "How to be a Dinosaur"), writers whose work represents SF for the average
contemporary reader while new directions in the genre tend to be overlooked. In addition,
some of the earlier chapters have been usefully expanded. The chapter devoted to the works
of H.G. Wells, "The Great General in Dreamland," is a case in point: Aldiss and
Wingrove include examinations of the impact of many of Wells's later works which were not
discussed, or were only mentioned in passing, in the earlier Spree.
In spite of its shortcomings (many, although certainly not all, of which are
unavoidable), however, Trillion Year Spree is an impressive undertaking, offering
as it does a wide range of intelligent information about the historical development and
current state of SF, entertainingly written, and exhaustively researched. The opposition
and debate which it inevitably invites is by no means a bad thing, since it should
stimulate many SF readers and critics to (re)define and clarify their own perceptions of
the genre (or mode).
--Veronica Hollinger Concordia University
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