Science Fiction Studies

#45 = Volume 15, Part 2 = July 1988


The Utopian Imagination

Tom Moylan. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, NY: Methuen, 1987. 256pp. $39.95

The strengths and weaknesses of Moylan's book both stem from the strong ideological framework which he uses to evaluate the four works he concentrates on: Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Russ's The Female Man, Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and Delany's Triton. Moylan draws on feminist and Marxist analysis to develop a theoretical approach which, in many respects, is appropriate and goes to the heart of the issues in utopian literature. Readers may be put off by the rigidity of his judgments and also by a sometimes tortuous jargon. It is worthwhile, however, to persevere, for Moylan's is a thoughtful and significant account of the current state of utopian writing.

He distinguishes three stages in the evolution of the genre: the early "totalizing blueprints," works which set in stone every detail of the perfect society, leaving little or no room for maneuver or change; the dystopias like Huxley's Brave New World and Zamyatin's We which attack present social systems for their centralization of power, suppression of the individual, mass production, and materialistic values, but offer no viable alternatives to these abuses; and finally, the utopias featured and praised by Moylan as "critical utopias." These are critical in a dual sense: they oppose existing social institutions and values and, at the same time, they achieve the "critical mass" (in its physics sense) "required to make the necessary explosive reaction." This last is the essential basis upon which Moylan will praise or condemn a work or aspects of it: Does it provide a visible means by which change can be effected?

This is refreshing in some ways since the perception of utopias as quaint and vaguely attractive but hardly realistic leaves their attack on social abuses without impact--"toothless," as Moylan has it. And certainly the 20th-century obsession with dystopia has contributed to a sense of powerlessness in the face of forces which operate beyond the control of individuals or even beyond the control of group opposition. But perhaps the pessimism of a Huxley, which persisted even to his final utopia, Island, could be seen in the context of his historical experience: two world wars, economic depression, and the Holocaust. Mass production and the centralization of power were part of an economy of heavy industry which was being eclipsed even as Huxley wrote. Yet he could not foresee how such a monolithic force as the military-industrial complex could be prevented from evolving into a nightmarish totalitarianism. It is similar to the perception of the 19th-century railroad barons that the final word in transportation had been achieved. Another utopian, H.G. Wells, was one of the first (as early as 1901) to predict a revolution in transport due to the internal combustion engine and asphalt roadways. No force in human society is ultimate or uncontrollable.

This realization is part of the milieu in which Moylan's radicalism was incubated. The many oppositional movements of the late 1960s and '70s rejected their society, its values and abuses of power: centralized and hierarchical with an emphasis on performance and competition, discriminatory in terms of race and sex, abusive of the environment.

The utopian, especially feminist, literature which sprang to life around these issues is what Moylan calls "critical." It has several defining characteristics. It is militant, often portraying the necessity of violent opposition to the status quo; it portrays multiple options rather than a fixed blueprint; it is achieved through human will and action rather than as the result of fate or natural accident; it is a continuing process with problems and challenges still to be resolved. By portraying a utopia's problems--the many different forms a society with alternative values may take--and by emphasizing the need for politically conscious dedication to change, these utopias attempt to be seen as a more realistic and achievable option than any of their forerunners.

The imaginative scope and flexibility of their authors is quite staggering. Like good SF writers, they exploit a skillful manipulation of humanity confronting the challenges of travel through time, or space, or both. More than this, they demonstrate a consciousness of the dynamic relationship between the individual and society, and perhaps more strikingly, between the present and the future. The result is a forced expansion in the imagination of the reader so that alternative values can be contemplated--an act of political consciousness-raising. Indeed, all of the works reviewed by Moylan force the reader to rethink the most basic assumptions about the relationships between science, society, and the individual at every level--sexual and economic, temporal and spatial.

It is unfortunate that there are aspects of Moylan's handling of these works which contravene some of the very values he praises: their multiplicity of options, their firm dedication to diversity. The same theoretical framework which so lucidly catalogues social abuses can become intolerably stifling when applied with the rigidity that Moylan at times displays. Le Guin, for example, is criticized by Moylan at many levels whenever The Dispossessed deviates from Marxist-feminist dogma. Her hero is male instead of female. The very idea of a single hero and not an oppositional coalition controverts and offends Moylan's collectivist ideology. The women in the novel include anarchists, socialists, and ecologists but "no female characters ...who are activists in any type of directly feminist movement" (p. 113). Le Guin portrays her utopian community, battling a hostile environment, as a society of scarcity which goes against the idea of post-scarcity set out by Marx. For these reasons Moylan judges her work to be "flawed" (p. 120). As for The Female Man, "Never does it establish an accepted 'healthy' or 'correct' hierarchy of perception" (p. 85). It is common among Marxists to criticize a work for not being what it was never intended to be in the first place.

Consider, too, what Moylan has to say about Woman on the Edge of Time. Here he cites a debate in the novel concerning the politics of art. One of Piercy's characters argues for a tendentious art, getting at the political and economic sources of oppression; another observes that not every work of art can tell the whole truth and that to expect it to do so shows evidence of a "slogan mentality," of a fondness for "holy words." Moylan praises Piercy's ability here to show the two sides, "avoiding the extremes of political hack and individualistic indulgence" (p. 153). Yet he immediately goes on to settle the debate himself by saying that "since Luciente is a major character second only to Connie, her comments in the text tend to carry more weight than those of the minor character, Bolivar" (ibid.) The "winner," Luciente, is of course the political hack. Moylan has done what he just praised Piercy for avoiding. It seems that there is a "'correct' hierarchy of perception" after all.

Despite the rigidity and despite the jargon, Moylan does an admirable job of elucidating the issues, documenting the genealogy and setting the context of these critical utopias, which themselves do no less than force a re-evaluation of human society. Whether or not we agree with the tactics, the categorizations, or even the language, the value of the book is beyond question. It forces a vision of, and commitment to, change, without which we abandon the future to Fate and Divine Providence, as was often the case in the 19th century, or to a sense of powerlessness in the face of impossible odds or irresistible forces, as seems to be the case in the 20th. These are blinds which lead to complacency and decay at best, and at worst to deplorable abuses of power. This is at the core of Moylan's observations that utopian blueprints and dystopias fail to generate that critical edge which forces us to continually challenge the values and goals which are the soul of any society. The critical voice keeps society self-conscious and dynamic, keeps it alive.

Moylan's book is an important contribution to the utopian debate, a debate which has seen many faces over the centuries as it reflected its various historical contexts. A new utopian generation with a new vision is on the scene, and Moylan has gone a long way in promoting an interest in and understanding of this more virulent strain of the utopian seed.

--Brian Garvey Neptune, NJ

Thematic Explorations

C.N. Manlove. Science Fiction: Ten Explorations. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1986. x + 249pp. $22.50

C.N. Manlove, a Reader in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, undertakes to show "how the deceptive surface of exciting adventures and exotic settings [in SF] may actually contain complex patterns of imagery and significance that give such works unsuspected unity and artistic power" (p. 4). He has selected a work by each of ten authors, the great and the near-great: Asimov, Pohl, Aldiss, Herbert, Silverberg, Farmer, Clarke, Simak, Wolfe, and Attanasio.

Academicians and aficionados alike plunge eagerly into such a volume, which will give SF its due as "real" literature worthy of scholarly examination. Certainly the task of selecting which authors will receive this deserved attention must have been a difficult one. Manlove has generally selected well. One might ask, however, why Attanasio and Wolfe, excellent as they are, rather than Delany, Zelazny, or Dick? According to the rationale he offers, Manlove has selected "a cross section of SF: some are intellectual, some fantastic; some quite near in terms of possibility, others very remote; some scientific, some semi-mystical" (p. 3).

Considering the sheer amount of Asimov's fiction, one can argue for a choice of any of the classic robot books or, with equal cogency, for the "Foundation" trilogy. Manlove has chosen the latter; and as with all chapters, he begins with an overview of the work. He likens Asimov's universe to a large city, with Trantor as the hub and various other planets as slums and suburbs. Manlove resists the temptation to recall that Asimov himself is a product of the metropolis and would, therefore, tend to view the galaxy in analogous fashion. He identifies duality as a central theme of the trilogy--duality precipitated by creating two Foundations. Stories contained within the larger trilogy, suggests Manlove, point up other dualities: significance and insignificance, choice and necessity, centrality and peripherality. Asimov skillfully opposes free will, as exemplified by the Mule, and preordination, the Seldon Plan. In a "postscript" (p. 31), Manlove examines Foundation's Edge, Asimov's sequel to the trilogy. Manlove concludes superficially that Asimov's urge is "the need to make life coherent...yet...he does not force coherence in any desperate way...." (p. 34).

Manlove selects Alternating Currents (1956) for examination because he feels this work of Pohl's was "laying the ground for his terser, more satiric works" (p. 35). As valid as this reasoning may be, one might wish that Manlove had chosen the award-winning Gateway or the classic Space Merchants (with C.M. Kornbluth)--also because Alternating Currents, a collection of short stories written between 1949 and 1955, does not seem to lend itself to Manlove's critical style. He summarizes each story and attempts to isolate a central theme in each. His conclusion--that Pohl's major theme is that people are trapped in situations beyond their control--is unconvincing.

Midchapter, Manlove begins to isolate recurrent motifs in Alternating Currents which may or may not occur in later works. "Much of Pohl's later fiction," he says, "could be said to deal with exposure rather than enclosure" (p. 42), a notion he attempts to illustrate as follows:

'The Merchants of Venus' (1972), Gateway (1977), Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), and Heechee Rendezvous (1984) are about a civilization of aliens nicknamed 'Heechees' who have left tunnels containing some of their artifacts on Venus and tunnels plus Heechee space ships on an asteroid; initially the urge is to open ('expose') the tunnels, but increasingly through exposure to risk (Gateway) the purpose becomes to discover the Heechee themselves. (p. 42)

The logic here seems tortuous at best--a problem that perhaps could have been lessened by the selection of something other than Alternating Currents.

Continuing in his attempt to tie Pohl's works together, Manlove observes that "[s]ubmission may be better but is not always nobler" (p. 44) and "[r]ebellion does not go away in Pohl's stories save in death" (p. 45). He cites tales of alienation yet argues that in many of Pohl's stories "the protagonist is in relative harmony with society" (p. 47). Rather than reconsider his thesis, Manlove retreats in disarray, by stating that "it is remarkable how consistently Alternating Currents is different from others of Pohl's collections" (p. 47). Manlove concludes with an accolade that could have better served him for a central thesis:

In some ways...[Pohl] is like Pope; in others, particularly in this juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange, or his carrying a situation to its logical limit, or in the interplay between serious and comic in his stories, his method recalls that of the metaphysical poets: but ultimately these likenesses serve only to point more precisely to his own individuality. (p. 56)

Manlove does much better with Aldiss's fevered Hothouse (1962) and its major themes and symbolism. He isolates the motivation of Gren, the development of self in unique identity, as central to the book. He selects excellent illustrative passages to support his arguments. He keeps tight rein on his interpretation of this "New Wave" author, treading carefully through Hothouse in contrast to his seeming senseless flailing about in his analysis of Alternating Currents. He closes this chapter musing that Hothouse "remains, still enticing interpretation" (p. 76). As if amplifying this statement, Manlove adds an "Afterword," which could well have been included in the body of the chapter, suggesting other meanings, other possible themes.

In the Asimov and Aldiss chapters, Manlove alludes to Herbert's Dune, a work he subsequently discusses in some detail. Again, he outlines plot and isolates symbolism and central themes. He finds duality in the aridity and richness of Arrakis. He compares Dune to Hothouse, thus enriching both chapters and adding cohesion to his book. He gives only brief mention to the succeeding "Dune" books, leaving the reader to wonder why Herbert doesn't get the "Afterword" or "Postscript" that Manlove accords Asimov and Aldiss.

It comes as no surprise that the author of Modern Fantasy: Five Studies and The Impulse of Fantasy Literature does a creditable job of analyzing Silverberg's Nightwings. This chapter of Manlove's is perhaps his most unified and cohesive: he threads the plotline throughout it, like an old-fashioned clothesline, hanging his interpretation of themes and style like so many shirts and sheets. He identifies Silverberg's movement away from technology and his "fascination with manipulations of the flesh" (p. 118) as key themes. He skillfully analyzes Silverberg's Third Cycle geography as well as that author's realism and "scheme of spiritual development on the level both of the individual and the species" (p. 110). Manlove selects passages which are especially apt for illustrating his argument.

Unlike the Silverberg chapter, he again begins his examination of Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) and the "Ringworld" series with a plot summation and general discussion. He identifies "the dialectic between the formlessness of mystery and the limits of certainty" (p. 126) as the life of the book. Morality is discussed at length as Farmer/Burton contemplates the Ethicals responsible for creating Riverworld. "In a sense nothing has a purpose: it is enough that it is or is done for its own sake" (p. 134). This bizarre world is viewed dispassionately by Burton, who rejects inwardness and spirit. Manlove concludes that "the author's incidental pleasure in writing the Riverworld saga was in recreating the identities of figures lost in time" (p. 135).

Turning next to Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973, winner of all four major awards for SF in 1974), Manlove again offers plot summary and analysis. Here he suggests that the book is devoted to Rama and not to the process of exploring the mysterious space vehicle. Using carefully-selected passages, Manlove observes: "The very physical detail of the descriptions at once gives us a clear idea of what is there and defeats us. [Clarke] wants to put us so near in order to make us feel really far. The closer we get to the alien objects, the more we feel their alienness" (p. 151). Continuing to evince his fascination with themes of duality in the Asimov and Pohl chapters, Manlove suggests that Clarke has established a duality of emotion and intellect by contrasting the interest of humans in Rama and the indifference of Rama to its explorers. He closes the chapter with the observation that Clarke has opened our minds by placing the closed and ordered Rama world into a random universe.

The final three authors, Simak, Attanasio, and Wolfe, are represented by novels tending to have overtones of fantasy as well as SF. Manlove selects Simak's Shakespeare's Planet, Attanasio's first novel, Radix, and Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, a collection of four previous novels. As has been suggested, Manlove's penchant for fantasy, his primary focus, deprives the reader of an analysis of Simak's genuine SF, City, or Way Station. Moreover, the chapter on Attanasio's first novel could have been eliminated without any noticeable harm to the rest of the book. As for Wolfe, Manlove himself directs us to Colin Greenland's review in Foundation to ascertain "...whether [Book of the New Sun] is 'sword and sorcery' or 'science fiction'" (p. 237).

In discussing Wolfe's book, Manlove raises a question and gives an answer that could well be applied to his own text: "What then is the book about? There is no answer, but the lack of one is not from its absence so much as from the sense that it is just over one's shoulder or that it is too many things to pin into one" (p. 213). He does, however, try to "pin" his study together with the observation that in SF generally, and especially in the works he has chosen for analysis, we find two themes: the ontological question ("What is the self?") and the confrontation of dualisms. SF attempts to define the infinite, he suggests, as well as to focus consistently on the "uncertain- ties of identity and on dualities" (p. 222). His own attempt at definition, while not perhaps irreproachable, is certainly worth the reading.

--Sarah Pell Florida International University

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