Science Fiction Studies

#50 = Volume 17, Part 1 = March 1990

Off Base

Cecil D. Eby. The Road to Armageddon. The Martial Spirit in English Popular Literature, 1870-1914. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1987. 280pp. $27.50

To begin with, I must enter a strong protest on behalf of all the Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish inhabitants of the UK against Cecil Eby's constant use of "England" and "the English" throughout his Road to Armageddon. His book, I would also add, should carry a warning that much of the core material comes from other writers, and that it draws many of its facts and conclusions from British historians--Brian Bond's War and Society in Europe (1983), John Gooch's The Prospect of War (1981), my own Voices Prophesying War (1966), and so on over a substantial range of books to Corelli Barnett on The Collapse of British Power (1972).

Nevertheless, the discussion of the massive growth of imaginary wars of the future during the period 1878-1914 goes on in a partial vacuum. There is little reference to the real context of European antagonisms and alliances that once gave form and meaning to all these admonitory projections of victory or defeat. This weakness shows from the start. For instance, the second chapter, on "Paper Invasions," opens with a verse which has to do with the agitation of the late 19th century against a Channel Tunnel. Eby refers it to the "Music Hall Song, c. 1910," whereas in fact the passage in question belongs to a song that went around music halls in 1882, at the height of opposition to plans for such a tunnel. Again--and this is far more serious--the author of the The Battle of Dorking can in no way be dismissed as "an obscure army officer in the Royal Indian Civil Engineering College at Staines" (p. 13). Five minutes with the DNB, that repository of the great and eminent, would have revealed that Sir George Tomkyns Chesney was a major achiever in his time: selected from the elite corps of the Bengal Engineers to found the Calcutta Engineering College --an important development--he later on established and served as the first president of the even more prestigious Royal Indian Civil Engineering College, from which came the men who built the roads, bridges, and railways of the old Raj. This was hardly the career of an obscure officer.

As one reads on, the suspicion grows that these gaps between the facts and their interpretation are the consequence of an original decision which has shaped Eby's entire book. The last paragraph of his introduction presents what are presumably the guiding assumptions of his research program: "This book examines some selected areas of popular literature in Great Britain between 1870 and 1914 in order to isolate and interpret the tides of militarism and xenophobia which prepared the public for the Great War of 1914-18" (p. 9). As the author pursues his argument, he becomes so selective that he cannot see the wood for the trees. For instance, he turns to the various future-war stories by H.G. Wells in order to demonstrate his thesis of "militarism," and he traces their origins to what is his own view, that "Wells found the invasion genre irresistible" (p. 39). That, however, was not the way Wells's contemporaries saw The War of the Worlds, the first and the best of them. The reviewers placed him where he truly belongs--in the new literature of science, far away from the admirals and generals but not so far from Jules Verne, and speculating with great originality and ingenuity on the myriad possibilities revealed by the new biological sciences.

The reviewers were right. From the beginnings of Wells's SF--in the logical and imaginative projection of acquired characteristics in The Time Machine--that most inventive of writers made it a highly profitable business to push a hypothesis to a highly dramatic final disaster. Thus, the Time Traveler makes his fearful discovery of the Morlocks and the evolutionary conflict they represent and then hurtles onwards to the last days of Old Earth. That marvelous account of divergent evolution--not the invasion stories--was the seed idea for The War of the Worlds, as Anthony West shows very clearly in his biographical reminiscences about his father. In like manner, the sole failure among Wells's pre-World War I war stories, The World Set Free, found its starting point far away from the military, in the scientific writings of Frederick Soddy. Soddy had worked with Rutherford at McGill University on radioactivity, and his subsequent account of the atom and his conjectures about possible applications of atomic power gave Wells the information that gave the world his--and the--first use of the term atomic bomb in 1914.

Eby's failure to place individuals and events in their true historical context has at times the effect of obscuring the causes and links which are central to a full understanding of the works that he deals with. He opens a major discussion of future-war fiction, for example, by pointing to the time when "France forged her alliance with Russia in 1894" (1893?), and he sees that alliance quite rightly as a major factor in promoting a new wave of imaginary war stories. "It is hardly coincidence," he says, "that in 1893 there appeared The Great War of 189-: A Forecast, an ambitious attempt by Whitehall to show how England [sic!] would fare in the event of a world war in the future" (p. 22). Unfortunately, though, Eby has confused the two states of the story in question, thereby missing an important point. The origins of The Great War of 1892, as the first serial was called, go back to the beginnings of the Franco-Russian rapprochement of 1889, and especially to the entente cordiale which the two countries signed in August 1891, after the historic visit of the French fleet to Kronstadt in July. That was an unmistakable signal of potential dangers for the British, and it was a clear opportunity for the editor of the new illustrated magazine Black and White, who was then casting about for means of increasing his sales. What better than "a tale of the next great war"? He accordingly commissioned his team of established and expert writers--soldiers, sailors, diplomatic correspondents--and in January of 1892 he presented the new serial to his readers in the language of the day: "The Editor of Black and White, considering that a forecast of the probable course of such a gigantic struggle will be of the highest interest, has sought the aid of the chief living authorities in international politics, in strategy, and in war; and in the present number appears the first installment of a suppositious record of this future war." (The story, by the way, proved to be most successful in boosting the sales of Black and White, and it also did well when it came out in 1893 as an illustrated book under the revised title by which alone Eby cites it.)

If Eby's reference to "an ambitious attempt by Whitehall" means that The Great War was inspired by the British government--that it emanated from sources in the War Office or the Admiralty--then it would be most interesting to see the evidence for that claim. Everything about the story--the topic, the journalistic enterprise, the well-known contributors--were the unmistakable characteristics of the many war projections that flourished everywhere in the excitable, jingoistic European press from the 1890s onwards. Nor was the style of "the Great War" the invention of Admiral Colomb, one of the contributors, as Eby surmises. It is to be found well before the 1890s; indeed, it was used to characterize the multi-power struggle against Bonaparte.

As Eby moves on from his account of the imaginary wars, he widens his range to include those aspects of British life which he believes will demonstrate his thesis of militarism and xenophobia--the Boy Scouts, Public Schools, Peter Pan, Georgian Poetry, Rudyard Kipling, and so on. But all this piling up of instances, it seems to me, represents the victory of searching over researching. Like the Mechanical Hound for ever on the quest in the Ray Bradbury story, Eby homes in on everything that triggers his sensing system. There is, for example, the case of Baden-Powell and the Boy Scout movement. Taking his information from the somewhat biased account of Thomas Pakenham (not Packenham, as he is called on p. 259), Eby presents an ignoble, self-seeking Baden-Powell during the siege of Mafeking. There are other, and very different views of the man; but it seems that the worst is good enough for Eby. From this, the narrative goes on to the foundation of the Boy Scouts, an event of some significance in the social history of the 20th century; and here Eby draws attention to Baden-Powell's alleged eagerness to provide thousands of the young "with protomartial habits of discipline and organization" (p. 70). But the fact is that Baden-Powell resolutely opposed all who sought to turn the scouts into a feeder supply for the armed forces. He insisted that the object of his movement was "to develop among boys a power of sympathising with others, a spirit of self-sacrifice and patriotism, and generally to prepare them to become good citizens." The world endorsed that objective, and the Scouts spread across the globe. As Calvin Coolidge saw the matter in 1926, the Boy Scouts were able to bring together in a single generation the different foreign elements that made up the United States--a process that would otherwise have taken three generations of education and legislation. Does that count as militarism?

In the last analysis, The Road to Armageddon is, I think, a tendentious and unbalanced book, superficial and partial in its views and without any sensible orientation. Take the question of militarism, for instance. Eby could never have presented so uniform a thesis had he considered the highly effective work of the journalist W.T. Stead in spreading the views of Ivan Bloch on the dangers of a future war. Again, had he looked into the widespread reception of Norman Angell's The Great Illusion (1912), he would have found general discussion of the most unmilitaristic sentiments. (Perhaps that is why Angell was given the Nobel Peace Prize?) Finally, had Eby done the obvious and looked outside his chosen British context, he would have discovered that the Europeans were all engaged in anticipating predicting and describing la guerre qui vient, or der nachste Krieg. In those far-off days before August of 1914, war seemed to be a fact of nature, an affair of alliances, something that could never interfere greatly with the normal round of civilized life. In the usual way of human beings, the Europeans of the pre-1914 period failed to foresee how their precious technologies would transform the conduct of warfare. In our own epoch of "evil empires," do we know any better?

--I.F. Clarke Milton-under-Wychwood, Oxon

Secrets of the Pulp Canon

John Huntington. Rationalizing Genius: Ideological Strategies in the Classic American Science Fiction Short Story. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1989. 216pp. $37.00 (cloth), $15.00 (paper)

The stated goal of John Huntington's new book is to "interpret a thirty-year period of SF by careful and prolonged analysis of a few important texts" (p. 9). The first task he sets himself is to locate a sample small enough for intense study, adequately insulated from his own criteria of selection (that might otherwise predetermine the outcome of his analysis), and broadly representative of American SF from 1934 through 1963. He believes that he has discovered such a critic's equivalent of the La Brea pits in Volume I of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame (SFHF), the 1970 anthology of stories chosen by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Huntington is an exceptionally sensitive and adroit reader who focuses a fine moral consciousness. So whether or not one accepts the large claims he makes for this book, his explication of particular texts alone makes it a useful work. For example, his expose of "The Cold Equations"--that purported paragon of disinterested rationalism--as a misogynist fantasy should be required reading for anyone interested in the subliminal appeal of "hard" SF. Indeed, he elucidates brilliantly the subtle and insidious contradictions inherent in the "technophilia" running through many of these favorite stories of the "Golden Age." Huntington offers splendid insights into various fictive encounters with aliens and women, probing deep into the ideological, psychological, and cultural content of the iconography of "genius."

Yet attempting to analyze American SF from the mid-Depression through the first stages of the Vietnam War by exploring the stories and novellas in one anthology obviously presents some formidable perils. To be sure, the collection chosen for study is undeniably a fine choice. Not only were the stories selected by vote of several hundred authors of SF, but this volume has been quite influential on the subsequent study of the genre, evidently having been adopted in more courses than any other SF anthology. Nevertheless, it does not adequately represent the range of American SF during the three decades of Huntington's analysis. Certain facts about the anthology, not discussed by Huntington, depreciate its significance as a representative work.

According to my count, half the stories in SFHF were either published in Astounding Science-Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell or (in one case) written by Campbell himself. Huntington accurately records Campbell's extreme "technophilia" (p. 181), but does not take account of the fact that he rigidly enforced his own ideological perspective on stories appearing in the magazine or that he nurtured and developed his own coterie of authors, quite a few of whom were among the voters who selected the tales to be included in the anthology. Thus SFHF's first volume tends to represent that part of American SF most possessed by technology and most directly aimed at an audience equally absorbed in its cult. Between the Civil War and the Depression, and after World War II, SF had a much wider readership (being frequently published in slick magazines and by regular trade presses) and far more complicated ideology than one might infer from SFHF. And by virtually ignoring not only SF movies but also novels--not to mention much previous scholarship and criticism in the field--Huntington ends up vastly overstating the significance of that anthology within the genre and American culture.

The problem is compounded by Huntington's inattention to both the shifting historical context and the lives of the authors, leading to a kind of New Critical obsession with "the text" while at the same time suggesting that much broader cultural implications can be derived from the explications. This all tends to undermine even Huntington's adroit readings of particular texts. For example, by divorcing Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God" from its own subgenre (extending back at least as far as Fitz-James O'Brien's "The Diamond Lens" [1858]) and from the author's other fiction, Huntington understates the story's critique of the cult of the lone scientific genius. The usefulness of his fine reading of Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons" is limited by a failure to contrast it to a far more influential--and quite contradictory--vision: Pohl and Kornbluth's satiric masterpiece, The Space Merchants. Since he insists on resolving "the story's riddles on the basis of the text alone" (p. 103) together with reader responses from his students and himself, Huntington finds Judith Merril's "That Only a Mother" thoroughly "ambiguous in its actions and its political conclusions" (p. 104), failing to recognize that this 1948 story, together with Merril's 1950 novel, Shadow on the Hearth, in fact forms part of a coherent anti-nuclear-bomb movement in the life of its activist author and in post-war American culture. (From that perspective, the husband--who designs atomic bombs for a living and who may be about to strangle his own baby--can hardly be seen as an embodiment of "rationality" [p. 104].)

Rationalizing Genius makes no claim to be original research, and although theory is invoked in the preliminary chapters discussing the basis of its own methodology, it makes no theoretical breakthrough. The book's achievements come essentially from Huntington's qualities as a reader. Still it is worth repeating that these are impressive. Reading with exceptional alertness, precision, and ethical sensibility, he revitalizes the dynamic contradictions in the stories he explicates while deftly sketching the main ideological superstructure of SFHF. Whether or not that anthology is as revealing as a La Brea pit, Huntington has certainly dissected some of the more characteristic features of the beasts from SF's so-called Golden Age preserved within its pages.

--H. Bruce Franklin Rutgers University, Newark

Dancing Gracefully But Cautiously: Ursula Le Guin's Criticism

Ursula K. Le Guin. Dancing At the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. NY: Grove Press, 1989. 306pp. $19.95

Ursula Le Guin's second collection of non-fiction is, to use her image, a carrier bag of critical essays, reviews, and poetry. With reviews in a separate section, the work is organized chronologically. Oddly, the pieces are keyed according to content: feminism, social responsibility, literature, and travel. This system is meant to further the goal Le Guin announces in her introduction: "to subvert as much as possible without hurting anybody's feelings" (p. vii).

When Joanna Russ was given the Pilgrim Award by the Science Fiction Research Association in 1988, there was great indignation among the (male) membership of SFRA over the blatant politicism of the award committee's decision. When Le Guin won the same award in 1989, the award committee's decision met with universal approval. Isn't Le Guin as politically committed a feminist as Joanna Russ? Yes; but as her concern with hurt feelings shows, she is not so aggressive a feminist. When Russ received the award, she wrote no acceptance speech; when Le Guin received it, she wrote hers in the persona of the organization's "Mad Great-Aunt Ursula in Oregon." By taking on the role she describes in "The Space Crone" (collected in this book of essays), Le Guin makes herself simultaneously independent of men and seemingly harmless to them. This stance illustrates both the strength and weakness of her criticism.

Let me look at the independence first. In such superbly insightful and useful essays as "Is Gender Necessary? Redux" (a revised version of an essay from her first critical volume, The Language of the Night [1978]), "Some Thoughts on Narrative," "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be," and "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction," Le Guin lets us see SF in new ways. In "A Non-Euclidean View," for instance, she asks us to rethink Utopia. "It seems," she says, "that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth" (p. 85). She suggests that we "go backward. Turn and return" (p. 85) instead, find a "non-European, non-euclidean, non-masculinist" utopia (p. 90). Where Utopia has been traditionally yang, she says, let us imagine an inward, "yinward," ideal: "dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold" (p. 90). This 1982 essay anticipates, as we would expect, her own Always Coming Home, as well as forming an exegesis for feminist utopian works from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) to Joan Slonczewski's A Door Into Ocean (1986).

Le Guin continues yinward in her "Carrier Bag Theory" (1986): " avoids the linear, progressive...mode of the Techno-Heroic, and redefines technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination, fiction can be seen as a far less rigid, narrow field" (p. 170). Here she has us re-evaluate both heroism and the novel. Why must the hero be aggressive, combative, and conquering and the novel defined by action and conflict? "I differ with all of this," she says. "The natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things," and "the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage" (p. 169). To imagine the novel as a vessel and its plot and characters suitably contained within that vessel is to imagine a kind of SF far from the SF of great men, great deeds, cataclysm, and war, where actions are right or wrong, people good or evil. Her rejection of binary, either/or, thinking frees Le Guin's criticism from predictability while offering us new and convincing ways to see the potentiality of SF. Just as modern historians examine the quotidian past, Le Guin offers the quotidian future.

Le Guin's harmless persona at first seems another strength of her writing. It is her kind reasonableness, after all, that allows her to regret, in her revision of "Is Gender Necessary?," the decision to use the masculine pronoun in Left Hand of Darkness: "if I had realized how the pronouns I used shaped, directed, controlled my thinking, I might have been 'cleverer'" (p. 15). Her gentleness suits the "peaceful, nurturant" yin of her literary theory. And it is her benign aura that allows the male bastions of SF to admit not only her but her feminist principles as well.

Feminists in SF, however--and this includes men who believe they are sympathetic with the movement--need to remember the difference between the reaction to Le Guin's Pilgrim Award and Russ's. Russ is certainly as perceptive a critic as Le Guin, with as great a body of criticism, but she doesn't pretend that her ideas are harmless. The subversion of Western notions of progress, heroism, either/or thinking, conflict, and conquest threatens the Western world's status quo: it is far from harmless. Infiltration rather than conquest may be the preferred non-Euclidean mode for change but it deserves the same respect for power as the Euclidian mode does. Gandhi and Thoreau didn't belittle the strength of their commitment. In adopting the role of our "mad Great-Aunt," Le Guin may weaken her case through self-deprecation. While Le Guin's harmless, charming persona better enables her ideas to infiltrate the consciousness of many, it may also make her easier to dismiss. In Le Guin's case, the SFRA could congratulate itself on its commitment to feminism; in Russ's, they showed how tenuous that commitment is.

Dancing At the Edge of the World contains beautiful, wise, moving, criticism which teaches both lay readers and scholars new ways to understand SF. But it does so cautiously. Le Guin does not dance as near the edge as she might; in skirting the danger of disapproval, she might sacrifice her grace, but she might gain power. Hurting feelings is not always a bad thing, and our great aunt might consider being a bit more stern with her nieces and nephews in SF.

--Joan Gordon Nassau Community College

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