Science Fiction Studies

#95 = Volume 32, Part 1 = March 2005

Spaceman in Homespun

E.E. “Doc” Smith. Skylark Three. Bison Frontiers of Imagination. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2003. ix + 247 pp. $12.00 pbk.

At the end of his chatty, reminiscence-filled introduction, Jack Williamson remarks that Doc Smith “was slow to adapt to changes in the field and his later works were not so well accepted. Over the years his reputation has waned and waxed again, as generations of new readers rediscover his inspiring dream of future human greatness. We must imagine before we can act, and Doc should be remembered among the pioneers that did the imagining” (ix).

He’s right.

First of all, we forget how timid much early sf was. The early magazines may have seemed far out to mundane readers, and fans may have been attracted by the thought of reading amazing and astounding stories full of thrilling wonder. On the other hand, as Frank Cioffi’s Formula Fiction: An Anatomy of American Science Fiction (Greenwood, 1982) points out, many early stories used minimal extrapolation. The anomaly at the heart of the story had to be not so much resolved as dismissed by the end. Smith’s Skylark of Space (1928) helped sf to develop the confidence to get into action as fast as possible and keep going. A trip to the moon was a major event in much early sf; in Skylark, the heroes test their space ship by zipping around the moon offstage while they’re preparing for an interstellar jaunt. If space opera, dealing with humans who must confront vastness, has become an especially vital area of modern sf, then Doc Smith deserves credit for helping readers—and prospective sf writers such as Jack Williamson—to imagine how far they could go.

Smith also deserves credit for respecting the magnitude of ideas. It’s difficult to appreciate in our time of bloated trilogies and endless series by hacks determined to wring every word out of a notion, but some ideas do require extra length and multiple restarts. We saw how Asimov looked at the Foundation Trilogy and decided that there was more story to tell. It’s not greed that keeps Larry Niven writing about Ringworld or Fred Pohl returning to the Gateway universe. Considering that sf is based on willingness to see new angles of old situations, it’s not surprising that a writer might look at the conclusion of a story and decide that more could be done. It’s quite possible that most sf stories don’t ever want to be over. Doc Smith was one of the first to appreciate this fact. The Skylark of Space had a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, and so does Skylark Three (1930). But Smith couldn’t stop there; he added Skylark of Valeron (1934) and returned to the series at the end of his life with Skylark DuQuesne (1965). For most of his career, remember, Smith was writing when there was no hope of the stuff appearing in real books, when “professional science fiction writer” was a contradiction in terms. He wrote because he couldn’t stop thinking of new ideas and their consequences: bigger machines, more powerful rays, longer journeys to strange worlds.

In these and other ways, Smith contributed usefully to sf’s development. His own development, though impressive, was limited. The Skylark novels represent a type of sf that Donald Rumsfeld would enjoy. I’m not trying to damn with faint praise. Smith was not a narrow chauvinist; his humans from Earth are willing, even anxious, to respect any aliens who can acknowledge that other intelligent beings deserve to exist. On the other hand, hero Richard Seaton ruthlessly exterminates egocentrically intolerant beings who are so dangerous to others that they can’t be allowed to live. Smith also realized that Dick Seaton jumped to conclusions and needed to be restrained by his friends. Seaton’s hunches are always correct, however, though he sometimes needs help in working them out in detail. Today, it’s hard to believe in someone like this, at least as a hero, but Seaton sincerely represents the early twentieth-century American faith that nerve and native ingenuity could surmount all obstacles, that we could make the world safe for democracy—and that perhaps, in WWI, we already had.

People should keep Smith’s considerable talents and limitations in mind while reading Skylark Three. Unfortunately, one other thing they’ll have to realize is that this is not the 1930 text that so impressed Williamson. When specialty publishers began resurrecting sf serials from the pulp magazines after WWII, Doc took the occasion to rewrite his novels. Skylark Three was revised in many ways. For example, the serial contained an epilogue that made continuation of a suspenseful narrative impossible, as it describes a ceremony centuries later, in which Richard Seaton, the 1469th of Earth, becomes Chief of the Galactic Council. Doc had to ignore this inconvenient conclusion when he wrote the next Skylark novel, so he simply omitted it from the 1948 Fantasy Press edition that is reproduced here. Choosing the 1948 text is defensible, but failure to note the fact suggests that the University of Nebraska either doesn’t recognize the difference or doesn’t care, a shoddy way for a scholarly publisher to handle any literary text

—Joe Sanders, Shade Tree Scholar

A Deserved Homage.

Alice K. Turner and Michael Andre-Driussi, eds. Snake’s-Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley. Canton, OH: Cosmos Books (<>), 2003. 405pp. $49:95 hc; $19.99 pbk.

After having finished Snake’s-Hands, I must admit I am not quite sure what I have just been reading, nor, in fact, how to review it fairly. Certainly, John Crowley deserves the homage that Harold Bloom gives his favorite contemporary writer in the preface, and Crowley’s fiction is clearly worthy of the “host of brilliant essays” by “eminent writers and critics” that the blurb advertises at full sales pitch. (There is no denying, by the way, that quite a number of the essays are brilliant and not a few of the writers and critics are eminent.) At the same time, I miss some sort of plain introduction by the editors, just to let me know why the various pieces are included, because they are not all brilliant, not all essays, and not all criticism.

Generally, the seven sections of the book each deal with one work. Thus, after Harold Bloom’s profusely positive preface, we find two items on The Deep (1975), one on Beasts (1976), six on Engine Summer (1979), four on Little, Big (1981), five on “shorter works and overviews,” eight on the Ægypt series (1987-2000), and one on The Translator (2002). Three bibliographies cover Crowley’s fiction, screenwriting, and selected non-fiction. Finally, there are some brief notes on the contributors.

Many of these selections are excellent. Adam Stephanides’s two pieces on Engine Summer are well-argued, offer interesting interpretations, and include good references (something which, unfortunately, cannot be taken for granted about the texts in Snake’s-Hands). The combination of solid scholarship and readability makes Brian Attebery’s “Time’s Great Work and Strange Turnings” a delight to read, and John Clute’s reviews of Ægypt (1987), Love & Sleep (1994), and Dæmonomania (2000) are not only good reviews; they are thought-provoking, critically fascinating, and make you want to read the books—again.

These are just a few examples of the many pieces well worth reading, and had all been like them, I would have little problem recommending this book whole-heartedly. Unfortunately, the collection tries to go in at least two different directions at once. On the one hand, a number of generally well-written critical texts are presented, analyzing and interpreting Crowley’s work. On the other hand, several items simply try to relate the contents of the stories. Examples of this are the timelines provided by the editors, for the Ægypt series and for “Great Work of Time” (1989), very useful if you need an overview of the stories but hardly critical essays despite the few notes appended to the end. Nor are Crowley’s original synopsis for Engine Summer and the interview with him about the Ægypt series critical material. Interesting, yes, but, at best, an example of the author interpreting, as well as, to a large extent, explaining his own work.

Several of the other contributions similarly give the impression of trying to give definitive explanations of Crowley’s fiction, as if there were correct answers. We are told where Crowley found the inspiration for this or from whom he borrowed that. I enjoyed reading those pieces, but at the same time, they seemed to close the stories rather than open them up. Occasionally, the author was invoked as an authority, as if literary interpretation were some kind of puzzle; once you are done, that’s it, let’s see how many points you’ve scored, how many allusions you’ve gotten right. Other contributions perform much the same analysis, but in a way that opens up the text. In his article on astrology and thematic structures in the Ægypt series, Don Riggs accepts the critical challenge of the rich and sometimes deceptive intertextuality of the novels. Riggs manages to use other literature to shed light on the novels (and create some shadows as well), but also uses the novels to shed light on the world outside. Originally a paper delivered at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in 2001, this article is one of the more intriguing pieces in the collection.

Another factor adding to the straggly feeling of the volume is that the selections do not share a common format for references (and some critics are fairly lax when it comes to giving references at all), and I do wish that references to the same work would not include conflicting information in different pieces. Also, even if there might not be such a thing as a perfect bibliography, some omissions are particularly glaring: while other reprint information is included, it is not mentioned that “Snow” (1985) made it into The Norton Book of Science Fiction in 1993, nor does it say that Little, Big was reprinted in the Fantasy Masterworks series in 2000. The latter strikes me as particularly peculiar, since its being out of print is repeatedly bemoaned by various writers.

Partly, of course, this might have to do with this being Snake’s-Hands’s second incarnation. About a third of the texts in this version were published in a staple-bound chapbook in 2001, and a number of them had been published elsewhere prior to that. In total, nine texts of about thirty had not been published (in print) before. (More than half of the previously published texts appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction between 1995 and 2002.)

Nothing of what I have said detracts from my enjoyment in reading Snake’s-Hands. The selections all added to my own reading experience of John Crowley’s wonderful work, and I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who has taken pleasure in his stories. They might not all be “brilliant essays,” but they are all good reading.

—Stefan Ekman, Lund University, Sweden

Wolfe Trap

Peter Wright. Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2003. xv + 237 pp. $29.95 pbk.

It is about time we had an extended and serious examination of Gene Wolfe’s work. It has been 18 years since my Starmont Reader’s Guide: Gene Wolfe (1986) was published, and since then Wolfe has produced a great many important works, among them the novel cycles The Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996), The Book of the Short Sun (1999-2001), and The Wizard Knight (2004; really a very long novel divided into two parts), as well as a number of fine short stories and even finer novellas: “The Haunted Boarding House” (1990; collected in Strange Travelers [2000]) and “The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun” (1992; collected in Innocents Aboard [2004]) stand out particularly.

Everyone seems to be agreed (from John Clute to Brooks Landon to Gary K. Wolfe) that Wolfe is one of the finest sf writers we have; but as glorious as his work is to read, it’s difficult to write about. Complex plot twists that form connections over vast terrains of chapters and volumes, combined with wide-ranging allusions and vocabulary reflecting myriad bodies of knowledge from ancient history to navigation, mean that few are brave enough to write analytically about his work. Michael Andre-Driussi has performed an invaluable service in such projects as his Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle (1994) for readers who want to move beyond the rush of words and action, beyond an intuitive grasp of Wolfe’s fiction, to something more communicable. Even so, it remains for scholars to use this foundational work and provide some thoughtful analysis.

Peter Wright has stepped bravely, but with only limited success, into the breach by writing a clear and serious analysis of Wolfe’s oeuvre. His book is divided into three sections (“Initiations,” “Investigations: The Urth Cycle,” and “Conclusions”) and eleven chapters, each named for one of Wolfe’s short fictions. Attending Daedalus provides very useful summaries of the complex action of The Book of the New Sun cycle, and a very helpful bibliography, especially of secondary materials (the primary bibliography is not exhaustive). While I disagree completely with Wright’s theses, I am happy to have this extended discussion of Wolfe’s writing and am reminded of how satisfying and useful the author study is as a critical exercise.

Wright generously notes in his acknowledgements his “gratitude to Brian Attebery, Joan Gordon, Gary K. Wolfe, and other delegates at the SFRA-25 conference in Chicago who challenged my stance and thereby helped me to consolidate my argument” (ix). Sadly, we were unable to dissuade him, and I find myself, after all these years (that conference was in 1994), still in disagreement. What is Wright’s argument? The book has three theses: that Wolfe intentionally obfuscates his meaning; that Wolfe’s intended meaning, permeating all of his work but most thoroughly worked out in The Book of the New Sun, is to explore the biological imperative of genetic transmission; and that all of Wolfe’s work after The Book of the New Sun is meant to provide a gloss on this purposely obfuscated exploration of the selfish gene.

The first thesis, that Wolfe deliberately obfuscates his meaning, seems, first of all, unhelpfully combative. At one point Wright says: “Wolfe’s intertextuality therefore enslaves the reader by coercing him or her into exploring a system of connectives” (44). Later, he describes Wolfe as employing a device (the use of a “subtextual story”) for “confounding the reader” (58). Enslaving, coercing, confounding: these words put the reader and the author in a hostile relationship from which it is difficult to imagine any understanding arising. Second, however, is the assumption of knowledge of authorial intent. Even if Gene Wolfe were to declare that he had indeed intended to enslave and confound his readers (an unlikely scenario), we’d have to take it with a grain of salt. Finally, the author’s intent is beside the point of the text we have to examine. Authorial intent is also at the heart of Wright’s second thesis, that all ideas in Wolfe’s fiction are subsumed to serve the higher theme of biological imperative. Never mind how unlikely it is that Wolfe would intend to subsume his spiritual themes to this theme, but it trivializes Wolfe’s numinous stories to reduce their explorations of memory, identity, and spirituality to mere metaphors for an aspect of evolutionary theory. As for the last thesis, Wright manages to dismiss as supernumerary all of Wolfe’s fiction after The Book of the New Sun. I find that unlikely in the extreme.

Let this book remind us of the value of clear writing, forceful arguments, and close study of literary texts, even though it must also serve as a warning against its peculiar critical hubris. Flawed as Attending Daedalus is, it is nevertheless helpful in itself, and helpful as a signpost toward what else remains to be done.—JG

Après moi ….

Sydney Fowler Wright. Deluge. Intro. and ed. Brian Stableford. Early Classics of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003. lviii + 330 pp. $24.95 pbk.

Brian Aldiss’s talent for phrase-making has done as much disservice as service to science fiction over the years. This is particularly the case with his idea of the “cosy catastrophe,” which so elegantly summed up, and dismissed, the generation of British science-fiction writers before Aldiss’s own. It is hard to read the best works of John Wyndham or John Christopher and apply the description “cosy” to them. Worse, by so apostrophizing a decade of British science fiction, Aldiss gave the impression that it was a clearly defined era set apart from the general flow of British scientific romances. In fact, Wyndham, Christopher, and their contemporaries sat squarely in the middle of a well-established and continuing tradition that ran unbroken from Richard Jefferies’s After London (1885) through various novels by J.G. Ballard, Keith Roberts, and Christopher Priest, at least up to Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance (1997). The nature of the catastrophe, the tenor of the work, the survival strategies, even the highlighting of class distinctions, are all consistent.

This new edition of what is perhaps the most significant scientific romance published between the wars clearly illustrates that continuity. Brian Stableford, in a very good Introduction, points up the debt Fowler Wright owes to Jefferies, and, as might be expected, is excellent at placing this work within the context of the scientific romances of the period. If Stableford’s treatment of the influence that Deluge had in its turn is somewhat perfunctory, it is not hard to see how nature turning inexplicably against civilization, and a bunch of middle-class characters struggling to re-establish what they can amid the depopulated ruins, has found its echoes in Keith Roberts’s The Chalk Giants (1974), Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex (1977), and Richard Cowper’s The Road to Corlay (1978), among others. Deluge did not invent the uncosy catastrophe, but as the Midlands sink under the cold and implacable waves it is hard to think of a better exemplar of the form.

But let us pause at this point and consider this new edition (ah, Fowler Wright’s discursive style is catching, and he does have a talent for digression, often stopping the action at a crucial point in order to fill us in on the background of a minor character). We are told that this is the “definitive” edition, which is likely enough given that Fowler Wright made few textual alterations between editions. Footnotes point out where the name of a minor character was changed from one edition to the next, or where there has been a slight tidying-up of the text (“normally” corrected to “nominally,” for instance, though Stableford doesn’t specify whether this was his change or something that Fowler Wright had done at some point). But one later edition, and the text reproduced on the family web site, had significant cuts, and Stableford makes no note of where these cuts came, which is a pity. Other than that, the notes are all that is really necessary, though it has to be said that the text doesn’t need much in the way of explanations beyond pointing out who Jack Hobbs was, or noting that many place names are made up.

The Introduction—a succinct biographical sketch; an outline of Fowler Wright’s career with particular attention paid to the genesis of this novel, its success, and the subsequent decline of his literary reputation; and a placing of Fowler Wright within the context of British scientific romance—is all one might ask for. One might quibble that Stableford is clearly so close to and reliant on the Fowler Wright family that his impartiality on certain issues of character and career may be open to question. Moreover, where he notes, as he does frequently, that the given dates for articles or reviews are clearly wrong, he seems to make no effort to establish the actual date, or to check precise wording or context. But these are quibbles at most. Anyone coming to this Introduction is going to learn a lot that is valuable about the man and his work.

We learn, for example, that Fowler Wright was fiercely ambitious for social position, but always seemed to live on the ragged edge of financial disaster. He appears to have been bankrupted at least once and to have avoided bankruptcy on another occasion only because of the unexpected commercial success of Deluge in America. This is a portrait of the middle classes at their most anxious and most ruthless, and that is precisely what comes across in the novel. Like most members of the middle classes, Fowler Wright regarded the upper class with disdain, and the two representatives of that class who feature, briefly, in Deluge are idiotic wastrels. On the other hand, the working class (here indistinguishable from the criminal class) is nasty, brutish, and thick. The members of that class who feature in the novel are mostly enemies of our middle-class protagonists; they are inarticulate, driven exclusively by their lusts, and incapable of coherent planning. As for lawyers—Fowler Wright’s unhealthy financial status must have driven him into contact with those representatives of the upper middle classes on numerous unwelcome occasions—when they fleece the Earl of Hollowby they “would have considered it dishonest to charge him more than the rate agreed by the trade union to which they belonged” (152). By rendering the professional body of these legal thieves as a “trade union,” Fowler Wright is neatly putting them on a level with the working class.

In this light it is interesting that the hero of Deluge, Martin, is a lawyer, but, we are repeatedly told, an honest one. He has learned survival skills—such as how to handle a gun—from the working-class murderers he has defended; but at the same time, he is able to provide the intellectual leadership that the good members of the working class so need in this post-apocalyptic world. In a curious speech, when Martin first rejects and then accepts their request that he become their leader, he tells them that he dismisses out of hand all their conditions, all the things they want, and all the arrangements they have so far managed to work out. And yet, for all this arrogance, he is acclaimed by the mob. This is, in other words, a work riddled with class snobbery, though Fowler Wright tends to disguise it with sweeping pronouncements against all that we call “civilization.” We are told repeatedly how unpleasant, unhealthy, unwise, or plain wrong were all the things that now lie beneath the sea. At the same time, by the actions of his characters, it is clear that what must be preserved are middle-class values.
With one significant exception.

Reading between the lines of Brian Stableford’s introduction, it is clear that Fowler Wright was puzzled by the success of Deluge. He kept trying to replicate that success in later works, with ever diminishing returns. I suspect he believed his success had come about through the combination of his literary talents and his over-arching vision of a worn-out society swept away in a cleansing flood. I imagine the real reason for the success, however, was sex. Stableford presents a very believable scenario: would-be author S. Fowler Wright wrote a long, rambling, and possibly unfinished novel while commuting during and just after the First World War. It was from that unfinished novel that he would eventually extract the passages that became Deluge and its sequel, Dawn (1931). The timing is interesting. Although he did not see action in the war (he was 40 in 1914), Fowler Wright was recruited by the War Office and spent the war and its aftermath working on the procurement and production of munitions. If not himself a member of that lost generation, therefore, he was acutely aware of the war’s devastating effects. The despair that marks his work, the disdain for all that civilization represents, was a typical product of the post-war experience, and would have found a ready audience. But more than that, the rejection of all the values that had allowed the war to happen included a rejection of prevalent sexual morality. On the one hand, this resulted in the desperate fun of the Roaring Twenties; on the other, the sexual licence that plays such an important part in this novel. This is not overt sex: Fowler Wright ties himself in ever more baroque linguistic curlicues as he tries to avoid describing the human body or any form of sexual activity. Yet he strips his heroine, Claire, naked with obsessive regularity—though no one seems to remark on the fact of her nudity, as if she is somehow invisible without clothes. Serial rape is the overt threat from the brute working classes that drives the whole plot. And, in the end, Martin is allowed sexual freedom without guilt; in a world with far fewer women than men, both pre-lapsarian wife and post-apocalypse mistress choose to stay with him in an unlikely menage. Forget the millions of dead (most of whom we do not see), forget the hardships (no one here is really going short of any of the necessities); sexually, this is a very attractive proposition.

The plot of Deluge is quite simple and filled with coincidences. A minor tremor in the surface of the Earth causes much of the land surface to be drowned. Martin, his wife Helen, and their two young children survive the catastrophe but are separated. Helen and the children are rescued by Tom, a miner who was once acquitted of murder, thanks to Martin. Tom desires Helen but she is waiting for Martin to reappear. Martin, meanwhile, creates a safe place in an old railway tunnel. He meets Claire, an athletic young widow who has just swum thirty miles to reach this island. When Martin rescues Claire from rape by Bellamy and his gang of louts, the two become lovers. But Bellamy is determined to get the woman and lays siege to the tunnel. So superior are Martin and Claire that together they have already killed Bellamy and many of his gang before Tom coincidentally arrives to rescue them. Martin is immediately acclaimed leader of Tom’s little bit of sustained civilization, but unbeknown to them a rival gang has just set out to kidnap Helen. Eventually the plot brings Martin, Claire, and Helen together so that Helen and Claire can decide to share Martin, and a new sexual morality is born. Along the way there are plenty of exquisitely perceived vignettes of the reality of survival and the details of everyday life after the apocalypse; but these are mixed with an equal measure of splenetic invective against the routine horrors of modern civilization. (Fowler Wright includes just one footnote in this novel, which inveighs against the ineffectuality of speeding fines.)

In other words, it is a novel that can, by turns, delight and infuriate the reader. It is well written, in a languid, Victorian prose that can still rise to moments of melodramatic action. It is, on the other hand, probably not a novel that would be much read today: the stately pace would annoy many, and the coyness many more. If it deserves its reprint—and I believe it does—it is probably more for its historical value as an important milestone on the ongoing journey of British science fiction, than for any immediate literary relevance. H.G. Wells and other writers of his era produced works that continue to be read today; Fowler Wright, I suspect, belongs to that rather larger company of writers who are referred to today, but not read. This new edition is, I fear, unlikely to change that, but it will provide a pleasure for those of us who, for whatever historical or critical reason, do like to look back at the works that shaped the literature we know today.

—Paul Kincaid, Administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

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