Science Fiction Studies

#9 = Volume 3, Part 2 = July 1976


Utopias Imagined and Utopias Attempted

Kenneth M. Roemer. The Obsolete Necessity: America in Utopian Writings, 1888-1900. Kent State University Press, 1976, xiv+239, $10.00.

Charles Pierce LeWarne. Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915.

This most recent of a growing number of works about Utopia is one of the best. Dealing with perhaps the most important dozen years in the history of American utopian writing, it is, as the author points out, neither a literary study, nor a social history of actual utopian communities, but "primarily an attempt to examine 160 American fictional and non-fictional utopian, anti-utopian, and partially utopian works...." Starting from eminently clear goals: "to make the utopian authors' ideas and attitudes more accessible," "to evaluate the relevancy of specific utopian reforms and utopian speculation in general," and "to see what the utopian works can tell us about American culture, past and present," Professor Roemer's measured and careful interpretation of the works with which he deals reaches a high level of competency.

The book is logically organized. Thus, the first chapter attempts to respond to the question of why in the last decade of the nineteenth century a form of writing present from the beginnings of American history should so suddenly, as demonstrated by both popularity and numbers of publications, achieve so influential a role. The quite simple answer is that, in that time of turbulent transition, the world Americans had been promised appeared more than ever threatened by machines, by crime, by political and economic struggle. At the same time as various reform movements gained strength there was always the possibility that some unifying vision might provide the means to eliminate the bad elements, preserve the good, and bring order out of chaos. Such visions were the stock of utopian writers, and, because they were reasonably representative of their time, an investigation of what they had to say can tell us much about American society at the end of the nineteenth century.

The next three chapters examine the basic assumptions about how to achieve an American utopia. The utopian writers were especially concerned with questions such as when and where will "The Change" occur and can human nature be changed. For the most part the answers were now, in America, and yes, the individual may be "converted, led, whitewashed and conditioned." In responding now they saw possibilities of both catastrophe and paradise, often coming out of violence, and their descriptions of the manner in which utopia might be reached frequently alluded both to destructive forces--floods and volcanoes were popular images--and to the powerful Christian symbolism of Resurrection. In responding in America these writers differed from their predecessors, who had generally set utopias in far-off places away from the known world, and almost inevitably located their utopias in the United States. (As Roemer points out, this was so even when the utopia was on a distant planet or an imaginary island since these places were analogies for an ideal America.) Although a partial reason for thus locating utopia was the traditional American faith in virgin--unoccupied--land either as a powerful stimulus to begin anew or as a necessary condition for the founding of model communities, two modified versions of these expectations, that of exploring ways of reclaiming the land from the evils to which it had been subjected and that of transforming model communities into activist movements that would eventually reform the continent, were equally influential. In responding yes, human nature can be transformed, they suggested several possibilities for achieving this goal: at one end of the spectrum was sudden, individual, inward conversion; at the other was a gradual process dependent upon man's ability to manipulate his environment and predetermine the characteristics of human nature; and between these extremes were glorification of a culture hero who inspires mass conversions and implied dominance by a preferred group and elimination or neutralization of others to produce the desired traits.

Following examination of these basic assumptions are four chapters concerned with analysis of what utopia would be like, once attained. In turn, Professor Roemer looks at problems of economic reform--chiefly aimed at replacing economic inequality; moralistic outlook--usually favoring a genuinely Christian society; technological advances--not always intrinsically good; education--generally a life-time experience, universal, free, and utilitarian; and changing sex and family roles--much disagreement among those who advocated the conventional Victorian family as ideal, those who advocated a structure that freed women from economic dependence upon men, and those who proposed elimination of both economic and social functions of the family.

Treated in less detail are views of government, the arts, international relations, law, food, clothing, language and mass communications, and leisure. In all of these areas the most persistent characteristic is, as Roemer correctly points out, an ambivalence towards change: "Almost everything about the present had to be changed, but the ultimate goal of all change was world without change." Although this concern for simplicity and unity produced a group of reformers blinded to the possibilities of human enrichment that might be found in this world of change, this very "awareness of the fragmented meaninglessness of much modern living" foreshadowed quite similar attitudes in our own time. In the last of the chapters dealing with utopia achieved the perfect city of the future is examined as an overview of the utopian culture. All that was best and perhaps all that was worst in the utopian ideal are found in these immense and lovingly constructed metropolises. In their desire to combine the best of the city with the best of the country the utopian writers frequently used technology on a vast scale to create rigidly organized and orderly communities. As a result of their preoccupation with unity and coherence they created urban landscapes of glass and steel, but their pyramids, rectangles, beehives, circular cities, and parks carefully planned down to the last blade of grass were populated by citizens pledged to the ways of cooperation and order which were seldom to be found in the chaotic cities of their own day.

In his final chapter, Roemer suggests that these utopian works are an index to late-nineteenth century American culture, to a time when things seemed to be coming apart because traditional perspectives and values seemed to be out of touch with day-to-day realities. Yet, though they were fearful of letting go traditional values, the utopian writers were willing to accept the need for change, and, if they were nationalistic, charged with a sense of urgency, and often naive and limited, they were still able to see not only the good but also the fearful possibilities of some of the utopian ideas they presented. Today, says Roemer, we find the good of these utopias unlikely of achievement and we fear even more the bad. Nevertheless, speculating about bringing the good life to everyone is certainly better than "drifting from expedient to ad hoc buoyed only by piecemeal reforms and fragmented values that are out of touch with much of our everyday experience." To study these works is to learn more about ourselves.

The book concludes with fifty pages of notes and bibliography which complement the text proper. In the notes are found both detailed documentation of sources and references to additional items of interest. The bibliography includes excellent listings of selected bibliographies and secondary sources and a thorough, year-by-year, annotated listing of utopian, anti-utopian, and partially utopian writings published in the United States from 1888-1900, certainly the best of its kind to date.

This is a good book, a carefully written and thoroughly comprehensive study of an important period in our nation's history. There are, as always in this less than perfect world, a few typographical errors; for example, "Counsul-General" (p 143), "New Leat Mills" (p 195), and the garbled Eddy-Flory entry (p 209). A more serious error is ascribing authorship of The Legal Revolution of 1902 to William Stanley Child. (Here the fault is not Roemer's, but mine, for he obviously accepted my Arno reprint designation of Child as the author; as the Library of Congress has pointed out, I placed too much trust in a cataloguer's decision which was in turn based on insufficient evidence.) But I note these errors less as carping criticism than to point out how excellent a study this book really is.

There are numerous high points of accomplishment such as the discussion of why these American writers were so much more concerned with the path to utopia than their European predecessors and contemporaries, the analysis of Mark Twain's ambivalent attitude about progress in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the examination of the perils of placing technological power in the hands of the wrong man in W.N. Harben's The Land of the Changing Sun, and above all those sections throughout the book in which what these frequently less than literary writers had to say about an ideal society is related to the concerns of our own time. It is thus a work that points the way to further study, some of which Professor Roemer has already completed and published elsewhere. But there is room for much more, of value, and perhaps others will now follow his example.

Charles Pierce LeWarne. Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915. University of Washington Press, 1975, x+325, $12.50.

No one will read this study for entertainment, but anyone interested in utopian ventures will find it difficult to continue further investigation of the field without having read it. The book discusses a small number of communitarian settlements in Washington state during the period around the turn of the century. These experiments resulted from a renewal of interest in communitarian ideals, following the several decades of dormancy which had succeeded the activity of the first half of the 19th century. Although many panaceas for grievances of the time were in evidence--single tax, Christian socialism, anarchism, and other fermentative movements--LeWarne believes that this revival flowed most directly from the efforts of Laurence Gronlund, Edward Bellamy, and Julius A. Wayland, who, though "not the only exponents of socialism...[had a] distinctly American ideology" that was of significance.

Although there had been a few scattered utopian experiments in Washington from its earliest settlement, the first significant modern communitarian colony was the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony at Port Angeles, begun in 1887 and officially dissolved in 1904. LeWarne deals with this colony and then in turn with Equality (1897-1907), Freeland (1899- ), Burley (1898-1913), and Home (1896-1919), concluding with a few words on the semi-revival of communitarianism in the 1960s. Between these two limits he describes in detail the goals, the leaders, the people, the trials, the successes, the dreams of these colonies. Although these attempts failed, their influence both in Washington and throughout the nation was significant. Thus, since most of the colonies recruited to the state many persons who remained and raised families, persons who were liberally inclined in their thinking, reading, and associations before they arrived, the atmosphere of Washington was generally more hospitable to radical views and activities than might otherwise have been the case. Many of the colonists both during and after their stay in the colonies became active in socialist politics, and some were elected to public office. Others, leaving both the colonies and Washington, became prominent in other areas and in similar enterprises. Publications printed in the colonies had some influence throughout the country, and some of the writers and editors of these periodicals continued in journalism elsewhere after leaving the colonies.

If one may generalize in regard to the fate of these experiments, it would be that the noble and idealistic hopes of their beginnings failed in the face of human weakness and concluded in acrimony and litigation. In fact several of the colonies were ordered into receivership by judges, and the actual liquidation took up to a dozen years to accomplish. It some cases there was no absolute end. Thus, it is not really clear when Freeland as an experiment ceases (that may be because it was never a colony in its narrowest sense but simply a gathering of like-minded radicals who sought to retain the socialist entity outside the confines of a regimented communal existence), and there are still a few descendants of the original settlers living in the area as is the case in Burley and in Home. This is a chapter in American history, a study of which reveals as well as any other might, the difficulties of putting the foundations under one's dreams. Human nature, both within the experiment and without, with its characteristics of petty jealousy, ambition, suspicion, and fear was, in the end, the real cause of failure. Yet these were noble experiments from which much of value can be learned.

LeWarne has presented one of the most thoroughly documented studies of a specific phenomenon that has been published in recent years. The notes and bibliography are thorough and extensive, and there are some excellent illustrations, mostly contemporary photographs. It is clear that if there are documents, published or unpublished, bearing on these colonies which he has not examined, there could not be much of value in them. In addition, he has interviewed survivors whenever possible--almost fifty of them. His conclusions are well substantiated by the evidence. No serious utopian scholar can afford to ignore this highly competent contribution.

--Arthur O. Lewis

Fantasy versus Science Fiction

C.N. Manlove. Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. Cambridge University Press, 1975, viii+308, $18.95.

These five studies in post-Romantic "fantasy," with their admirable readings of the various texts, will be invaluable to anyone working on any of the five subjects: Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863), George MacDonald's Phantastes and Lilith (1858,1895), C.S. Lewis's Perelandra (1943), J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (1946-59), each viewed in the light of the author's life and the main body of his work. The thoroughness of Mr Manlove's preparation for the reading of the texts themselves is comparable to that of David N. Samuelson for Visions of Tomorrow. But chapters 1 and 7, the "Introduction" and "Conclusion," are less satisfactory, which is to say that the book is more rewarding in its particulars than in its generalizations. In the second paragraph of his introduction Mr Manlove gives us for "fantasy" a dichotomizing definition: A 1fiction 2evoking wonder and 3containing a substantial and irreducible element of 4the supernatural 5with which the mortal characters in the story or the readers become on at least partly familiar terms [superscripts added]. He then takes up the parts in the order 1, 4, 3, 2, 5. When he comes to the 4th part, he expands it, utterly without notice, into supernatural or impossible worlds, beings or objects. Having completed his partition, he "repeats" his definition, with the 4th part expanded, as if completely unconscious of any revision. Although this confusion can be set down to a simple proof-reading error, the error itself--his forgetting to replace the original second paragraph with the revised version--may with some confidence be ascribed to his preference for the first form of the definition, his unhappiness at having to struggle with defining the impossible, a concept on which there is simply no consensus.

By "supernatural or impossible" Mr Manlove intends not a dichotomy but a subsumption: the supernatural is a species of the impossible, and the response of readers to the supernatural-or-impossible is different from their response to the possible. In one place he speaks of "Something which we know at the outset to be impossible...a system of angelic planetary intelligences like Lewis' Oyeresu or a stone which is a gateway to mystic union as in Charles Williams' Many Dimensions" (p 2), and in another he says "As soon as the 'supernatural' has become possible we are no longer dealing with fantasy but with science fiction" (p 3). But to me the gateway in Many Dimensions is no more impossible than the interstellar gateways of science fiction, and while I see no reason to believe in the existence of the Oyeresu, I also see none to believe in their impossibility: except for making a stone so large He can't lift it, nothing is impossible to an infinite God. The supernatural is subsumed by the impossible only in the mind of the unbeliever, and therefore must not be so subsumed in definitions that depend on the responses of believers as well as unbelievers. If there is a fantasy of the impossible, it must be regarded as different in kind from supernatural fantasy.

Mr Manlove needs a definition of the impossible only because of his prior determination that Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone are fictions of the same kind as Perelandra and Many Dimensions:

This phrase [supernatural or impossible worlds, beings or objects] is meant to cover whatever is treated as being beyond any remotely conceivable extension of our plane of reality or thought. Peake's Gormenghast, for instance, has no connection with our sphere of possibility: the author suggests no way in which it might be reached from our world, nor does he give it any location in time or space. Nothing 'supernatural' or magical by our standards is in fact present: the inhabitants of the castle are bizarre, and the ancient Ritual by which they govern their lives makes them still more odd, but they are none of them gods, angels or fairies, and there are no miracles. Only the existence of the realm itself is impossible or wholly 'other' in relation to ours, just as ours would be to it: the situation is one of two separate natures. In science fiction we find that such otherness is never present, however remote the location: for example, the planets described in Frank Herbert's Dune or the far galaxy in Asimov's Foundation trilogy are possible worlds in that they are set in our universe and describe the sorts of events and civilizations that conceivably could exist, whether now or in the future. [p 3]

What all this comes down to is the proposition that if the author neglects to tell us how to reach his fictive world or neglects to locate it in time or space, then that world is necessarily "beyond any remotely conceivable extension of our plane or reality or thought" and "impossible or wholly 'other'"--a principle that would move Asimov's "Nightfall" and many another story out of SF into "fantasy."

As a matter of fact there are a thousand things in the first two volumes of the trilogy to locate Gormenghast on our planet (e.g. the phases of the moon), in the northern hemisphere (the passing of the seasons and months), and in the 19th-century West if not indeed in 19th-century Europe (the names of the days of the week as well as the months of the Gregorian calendar, the clothes the people wear, the furniture in their homes, their domestic animals, their tools and vehicles, what they eat and drink, including the laudanum with which Sepulgrave soothes himself). To be sure, Gormenghast appears to be isolated from the rest of the world, but this is only a reflection of the degree to which the community is turned in upon itself (it is perhaps the purest example of "collective solipsism" in English literature), for the Gormenghastians enjoy all the comforts of 19th-century England, and if we were to imagine on the basis of what is not said that they have no international commerce, we would also have to imagine something else that is not depicted: an extraordinarily diverse and productive industry and agriculture.

The one apparently impossible thing in the trilogy occurs at the beginning of the third volume: Titus's riding out of Gormenghast into a great city technologically somewhat further advanced than any in our world--i.e. out of the near past into the near future. The science-fictional nature of Titus Alone might well cause us to ask whether the first two volumes would not be better described as SF than as "fantasy." The thing in, rather than absent from, these stories that makes the difference between England and Gormenghast greater than that between England and Ruritania or Graustark is the ancient Ritual mentioned by Mr Manlove, the apparently meaningless public ceremonies led by members of the royal family (who seem to have no other governmental duties) in which the people worship not God or even the State but instead their dimly remembered past. These ceremonies, and the relationships they imply between various segments of the social order, make Gormenghast a heterotopia, and if we need some location for it in the continuum, there is no reason why we should not posit an alternate time track in which, in at least some parts of Europe, the old religions died out but Christianity never took hold.

With respect to the possible/impossible we must make a tripartite distinction. First, we know pretty well what is possible in the here-and-now of the natural order viewed as unpenetrated by whatever powers may exist in supernature, the past or future, or outer space. Second, we do not and cannot know what is possible for mankind in the future or for psychozoa in other parts of the natural-order universe. Third, those of us who have never had a mystical experience, who have never seen a god, ghost, or fairy, who have never been visited by a time-traveler or extraterrestrial, do not and cannot know (however strong our opinions on the matter) that such beings are not among us here and now.

Fiction may deal with acknowledged reality (things we all know to be occurring here and now), with acknowledged unreality (things of a kind which we all agree are not occurring here and now but which might occur in the future or in other parts of the universe, e.g. regularly scheduled and public interstellar trade and travel), or with disputed reality (things such as are said to be occurring here and now by those who believe that gods, devils, extraterrestrials, and/or time travelers move among us). In putting extraterrestrials and time travelers with gods and devils, we are merely recognizing the fact that over the last two centuries a new mythology has arisen from science, pseudoscience, and science fiction--a mythology that makes possible belief/disbelief in material beings as powerful as the supernatural beings of the older mythology.

All fictions deal to a large degree with acknowledged reality. I would apply the term mytho-logical fantasy to those that deal also with disputed reality, and the term science fiction to those that deal also with acknowledged unreality (recognizing that the two can be blended, as in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land or Lewis's Perelandra). Since the terms realistic and naturalistic have long been applied to make distinctions among those fictions that deal only with acknowledged reality, I would prefer not to use either for distinguishing such fictions from SF and fantasy, and would suggest instead a term that has sonic currency in SF fandom: mundane fiction. --R.D. Mullen

Chatty Memoirs

Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, eds. Hell's Cartographers: Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers. Harper and Row, 1976, vi+246, $7.95. (Also UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975, same pagination, £3.50.)

I want very much to set down my thoughts and my experiences of life. I want to do so now that I have come to middle age and now that my attitudes are all defined and my personal drama worked out. I feel that the toil of writing and reconsideration may help to clear and fix many things that remain a little uncertain in my thoughts because they have never been fully stated, and I want to discover any lurking inconsistencies and unsuspected gaps.

So begins The Passionate Friends (1913), and so--or in much the same way--begins one or two of the other novels that Wells wrote in the first person, as well as Experiment in Autobiography, all in recognition of the classic motive for autobiography: not just to tell, but to learn, about oneself. Of the six contributors to this volume, only the first, Robert Silverberg, seems to have this motive in even a small degree:

At last to speak of one's self. An odd temptation, which mostly I have resisted, in the past, maintaining that I'm not ready to undertake a summing up, or that I'm in the midst of some intricate new transition still not fully understood, or that I'm bored with myself and talking about myself. Yet I have granted all sorts of interviews, and spoken quite explicitly, all the while protesting my love of privacy; the one thing I've never attempted is explicit written autobiography. I manage to hold all poses at once, esthete and man of commerce, puritan and libertine: probably the truth is that I have no consistent position at all. We'll see. [pp 7-8]

But the promise of the last sentence is not kept: Silverberg tells us what he already knew about himself before taking up the task, not what he learned (if anything) during the process, for otherwise the self-pity would not have risen to the surface as often as it does in these pages, and neither he nor we would have been as surprised as we were to learn that he was indeed "in the midst of" or on the verge of the "intricate new transition" recounted in "Postscript, 1975," to this piece (Algol, Winter 1976, pp 17-18). For his decision to abandon SF for a "period of rest and rehabilitation as a screenwriter" in Hollywood follows logically from his managing "to hold all poses at once," i.e. from his determination to reap all the reputed rewards of writing well--big money, fannish adulation, serious critical regard--however contradictory these might be.

The title of this review comes from the last of the six essays. When Aldiss began writing fiction his "intention was partly to write social novels":

John Osborne's play, Look Back in Anger, and Kingsley Amis's novel, Lucky Jim, embodied for me then much of the experience of my generation.... Laughter is very persuasive.

But there was a bigger persuader: the atomic bomb....

The new-born nuclear power was something greater than social life....

So I perceived, and have been trying to perceive more fully ever since, that my fiction should be social, should have all the laughter and other elements we associate with prosaic life, yet at the same time should be shot through with a sense that our existences have been overpowered (not always for the worse) by certain gigantic forces born of the Renaissance and achieving ferocious adolescence with the Industrial Revolution.

But such matters are best reserved for discussion in fiction, rather than in a chatty memoir. [p 189]

Well, yes, if by "such matters" is meant the "gigantic forces" by which "our existences have been overpowered," and perhaps also yes if the "personal history" of an SF writer must be a "chatty memoir." But if the matters in question are the perceptions that led the writer to devote himself to one kind of fiction rather than another, then the place to discuss them is the autobiographical essay. But even so, Aldiss in his essay seems to stand at the opposite pole from Silverberg, concerned with the interplay between his mind and subject matter and thus with science fiction for its own sake rather than as a means of fulfilling his adolescent fantasies.

A year or so ago I wrote in a letter published in RQ--6 (1976):242-44--that "literary scholars have not yet learned to bring the full weight of their learning to bear on popular fiction," and I would now add that that SF writers ("the poor man's highbrows," to use Aldiss's happy phrase [p 3]) have not yet learned how to think and write about themselves, their motives, their craft. Silverberg speaks several times of the "dreadful facility" with which he wrote, and that I think is part of the problem: having been assigned an unaccustomed task, the great temptation was to avoid the difficulties and pains of self-examination and just write it off the top of the head. That Aldiss's essay is much the best in this book probably derives in large part from the fact that he was the only one of the six with any appreciable experience in autobiography (as, for example, in The Shape of Further Things, 1970).

Alfred Bester, Harry Harrison, Damon Knight, and Frederik Pohl were all in New York during the false dawn of the science-fiction boom, 1938-41, when a number of new magazines flourished briefly before succumbing to the war-time paper shortage. Very heaven it was to be young and a Futurian in that time and place, and Knight in "Knight Piece" gives us a running account of who talked with, celebrated with, slept with, quarreled with, wrote for, married, divorced, and published whom. But of what really happened in the hearts and minds of these prominent figures in the science-fiction movement we remain almost as ignorant as we were before this book was published.

Frederik Pohl. The Early Pohl.
Doubleday, 1976, vii+183, $5.95.

The best of Frederik Pohl, as in The Best of Frederik Pohl (Ballantine 1975) is very good indeed. And the young Pohl was a smart kid, the editor of a science-fiction prozine at 19 and within a few years the author or co-author of dozens, if not hundreds, of SF stories. The Early Asimov and The Early del Rey gave us all the early stories that had not been collected in certain books (see SFS 2:278-80); The Early Williamson gave us a selection of the stories that had made Williamson one of the most popular of the pre-Campbell writers (Ibid.); The Early Long gave us the best stories of Long's major period, which was only coincidentally an "early" period (SFS 3:94); the present book gives us a number of quite un-Pohl-like stories originally published under pseudonyms and hitherto buried in the pages of forgotten pulp magazines, where they should have been allowed to disintegrate with the paper. And in the introductory and intercalary portions of the book Pohl outdoes Del Rey and Long in blandness. Pohl bland? Yes, Pohl!

--R.D. Mullen

Fans and Pros

Cy Chauvin, ed. A Multitude of Visions. T-K Graphics (Box 1951, Baltimore, MD 21203), [1976; ©1975], iii+67, pb, $4.25.

This booklet contains four articles by SF writers (Blish, Le Guin, Lem, and Disch) and four by fans, all reprinted from fan Magazines. The best article in each category comes from SF Commentary: Lem on Dick's Ubik and Bruce R. Gillespie on the SF short story in the 70s. Blish, in an article revised just before his death, "The Arts in Science Fiction," gives us thoughtful and informative, though all too brief, survey of "the role of the arts in SF proper;...the effects of the arts on SF; and...the influence of SF on the arts." Le Guin writes briefly on the relationship of her fiction to various literary traditions, and Disch on "Representation in SF," which he approaches through "pain and anger, joy and fear" in an essay that suggests more than it says and makes me wish he had worked harder and longer at the task. The word for the three other fan writers is "promising": each attempts an ambitious analysis of an important SF writer--Sheryl Smith of Lafferty, Jeff Clark of Aldiss, Bob Richard of Blish--but does not quite bring it off.

--R.D. Mullen

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