Science Fiction Studies
# 8 = Volume 3, Part 1 = March 1976
Notes, Reports, and Correspondence
On the Le Guin Issue. I have just read the Ursula Le Guin articles in SFS #7, as well as Barbour in SFS #3, Watson in SFS #6, the Ketterer-Le Guin exchange in SFS #6, Scholes’ Structural Fabulation, and the notes and stories in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (W12Q). And I’ve reread the ending of LoH. SFS #7 did what it was intended to do: it got me working. I don’t see how a critic could be other than helped by such a profusion of fine work. And it’s clear that the Le Guin opus stands up to such close critical analysis—warrants it.
There is, however, one aspect of the criticism that I am uneasy with. Or perhaps it is twofold. I see the critic imposing limits, boundaries, upon the artist—generically (arguing that SF is more viable than fantasy) and philosophically (those works are best which most closely approach political anarchy). I’d like to elaborate.
Suvin, while acknowledging the near perfection of the Earthsea trilogy, writes, "But there is a price to pay for the pitiless simplification inherent in even the best heroic fantasy." The criticism becomes more pointed: Ged is the "artist-creator" whose "lonely sin can only be irresponsible playing with a world whose sole arbiter he is." (Scholes uses the same metaphor of the price paid with fictional best-sellers like Airport, pp. 21-22.) Watson’s remarks on the "paranormal" in his discussion of LoH are analogous: the "effective magic" of Earthsea is like the "effective dreaming" in LoH -- both are extreme instances of "conjectural mental powers," which include telepathy (mindspeech) and precognition (foretelling). Systematically, it follows to reject the fantastic paranormal elements in works otherwise responsible. I think S.C. Fredericks is making the same point that I am when he objects to David Ketterer’s "attempt to turn fantasy into the antithesis of science fiction," which he says "smacks of an a priori value judgment that has little to do with the writers...."
The second preconception is political. Suvin refers to Le Guin’s "SF of collective practice." And, yes, the preface to DBR in W12Q notes the appeal of anarchy, "the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories." But to judge every work in terms of fulfilling political principle is another a priori system. True, it does permit a "progress" theory for viewing Le Guin’s work; and Le Guin does admit the "progress" of her "style ... away from open romanticism" to "something harder, stronger, and more complex" (W12Q). But this is a progress of style, not political philosophy.
I acknowledge the importance of the various critical approaches to political and personal harmony demonstrated in Nudelman, Watson, Jameson, Suvin, et al. I can see more clearly now in VTE the description of a perfect meld, where every root is a cog (a shevek) in a world without "Other" and whose message, "I will you well," marks it as the ultimate planet of good will. But I’m afraid of being so preoccupied with the becoming that I’ll miss what is: For example, what might already be a perfected anarchy in the Ekumen (a "body mystic") in LHD. Or how the Aldebaranians are from an infinite dreamtime, a world of the always, but whose Beatles record message is analogous to the message from World 4470 in VTE—that we need a little help from our friends in the here-and-now. TD doesn’t get to be better than LoH because the best George Orr has produced is only a slight push in the direction of a "state of laissez-faire" (§11). To think that is to miss the naiveté of Heather’s question at the end of LoH: "I thought you could change the world. Is this the best you could do for us-this mess?" And yet I wonder if LoH is faulted just because it does describe a messy world and not the clean sparseness of an Anarres.
There is one last related point. When Suvin concludes the Le Guin articles with what cannot we hope for, from her, in the future arising out of such a past," I can’t help but think that the critic can never be satisfied with what is. Must I be disappointed eventually with LHD and TD if Le Guin never does any better? The product of an incomplete genius? But—catch_22—if she does better, it’s at the expense of the earlier works. Maybe, late in her career, Ursula Le Guin will do as Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote, did, and write LHD, "not another LHD—which is easy—but the LHD itself." Then we critics will have a time. —Anthony Walk.
Linguistics and SF. Myra Edward Barnes’ book, Linguistics and Language in Science Fiction-Fantasy (reviewed by Jack Williamson, SFS 2.291-92), is certainly important in giving lengthy attention to concerns of more importance to science fiction than even she claims, but is marred by many errors and is valuable chiefly for raising certain subjects, rather than for what it says about them. A few examples will help to prove this point.
The author’s knowledge of linguistics as a whole is suspect: she states on page 13 that "there is no area of specialization called ‘theoretical linguistics."’ But this field of study does exist, and is listed as such since 1969 in the PMLA Annual Bibliography, and as "Linguistic Theory" and "Communication Theory" prior to that. Noam Chomsky, for one, would argue that the field begins as a separate subject with Descartes in the seventeenth century. It is worthy of note (and not accidental, I believe) that most of Barnes’ references on language are to introductory textbooks and popularizations.
The book is weak in its knowledge of previous work on language in science fiction: Barnes deals first (as far as modern fiction is concerned) with descriptive linguistics, presented in the form it had twenty years ago, and suggests its utility by noting that "it would be interesting to take examples in the Elvish language" in Lord of the Rings, 1. such as the poems ... and the long phrases with English translations .... and using the English translations for comparative purposes, attempt to establish a descriptive outline of Elvish lexicon, morphology, and syntax" (p. 42). She appears not to know that many have already begun this task; the interested reader may consult the publications of The Mythopoeic Society, including Mythlore, Mythril, and especially Parma Eldalamberon, the journal of the Mythopoeic Linguistic Fellowship. A science fiction novel giving an excellent introduction to the field methods of descriptive linguistics, one not cited by Barnes, is Chad Oliver’s The Winds of Time.
From descriptive, she turns to historical linguistics, and especially in this section she misunderstands the scholarship she brings to bear an science fiction. When commenting on L. Sprague de Camp’s story, "The Wheels of If," she thinks that some Indian words in the story show some of the sounds resulting in English from the operation of those sound changes collectively called Grimm’s Law. Since the words don’t show al the changes involved, she concludes "it seems that Grimm’s Law has entirely bypassed" the world of "The Wheels of If" (p. 56). There are two flaws here: first, the story presents a parallel universe resulting from a decision made in 664 A.D. Although Barnes is correct in noticing that English would have been much different if the Norman Conquest had not taken place (as it did not in the story), she errs in saying that Grimm’s Law was affected, since those sound changes had been completed well over a thousand years before the birth of Christ. She misrepresents what the effects of the changes were, and clearly demonstrates that she does not grasp its effects in English: her statement about the law bypassing the world of the story is contradicted by the few sentences she quotes. Second, although she faults de Camp for not showing all of the effects of the changes in those few words, it would be a stunning coincidence it an American Indian language showed any effect whatsoever, since Grimm’s Law operated only within a dialect of Indo-European.
Besides misunderstanding, there are errors of omission. She discusses semantics exclusively in terms of Korzybskian "General Semantics," which is more of a cult than a serious discipline, and in any event is only a small part of the work currently being done under the heading of semantics.
Finally, were are errors of fact. She is wrong in thinking that finalize is included for the first time in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (p. 87); even the work she refers to contains four selections intended in part to lay that fallacy to rest.
The directors of Barnes’ dissertation must bear a large share of the blame for these problems and many others like them, but whatever their genesis, they illustrate that there is no substitute for expertise in the field one writes about. Anyone interested in language in science fiction will have occasion to use this book, but it must be used with the greatest of caution. —Walter E. Meyers.
On Le Guin’s "American SF and the Other." In SFS #7, devoted to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, there is one featured essay that does not concern itself with the featured subject: Le Guin’s own little polemic on "American SF and the Other." Her primary theme is the underlying racism, and by extension sexism, that pervades the history of genre SF in the US. She presents her case in generalizations so broad that she appears to be almost as ignorant of the field as Susan Sontag. (Perhaps she only wishes to demonstrate her willingness to judge an artform by its least worthy examples?) We are told that "SF has been incredibly regressive" because of "all those Galactic Empires," which sprawl over unbelievable interstellar distances. "All those planets—with 80 trillion miles between them!" she declares, not realizing that 80 trillion miles is precisely 13 and a third light years—only about three times the distance to Alpha Centauri, hardly room for a "Galactic" Empire. If this misconception is largely irrelevant to her main argument, it is nevertheless typical of the critical rigor demonstrated throughout.
"In the old pulp SF," she proclaims, "the only good alien is a dead alien–whether he is an Aldebaranian Mantis-Man or a German dentist." (I do marvel at the persecutions suffered by this poor German dentist—was he, perhaps, once given to prying gold fillings from the jawbones of his neighbors?) Weinbaum, Kornbluth, Sturgeon, and Cordwainer Smith are awarded tokens of virtue for helping SF "to inch its way out of simple racism"; even so, she claims a great currency for this defect, citing exactly one contemporary example:
This sarcastic annotation doubtless qualifies for the Worst Misreading To See Print In 1975. It is so far beside the point, so much beyond the obvious intent of the author, that any perceptive reader of the story must wonder if Ursula Le Guin maybe read some unrevised early manuscript copy of the work. Or else one must wonder about Ursula Le Guin, and how she reads.
There’s more, of course; she hardly stops with an accusation of "simple racism": "It is interesting that the female character in the same story is quite brainless; her only function is to say Oh? and Ooooh! to the clever and resourceful hero." I have no wish to prepare a brief for the general integrity of Larry Niven’s fiction; I am not his most ardent fan, not by a long shot. Yet I think that even a hurried glance at the story in question would show that he goes to some pains to make his heroine an intellectual match for the "clever, resourceful hero." There is the matter of the brightness of Jupiter as a check on the validity of their surmise, which occurs to her before it occurs to the narrator. As the story unfolds, the reader discovers that the heroine realized the import of the brighter Moon at least as quickly as the hero. And so forth.
Perhaps "Inconstant Moon" is emotionally shallow; it may be vaguely unsatisfying for a number of other reasons. But racist? Sexist? Neither by intent nor effect can it be so construed; the real ugliness lies in the eye of the beholder, who must have a whipping boy to serve her earnest ideological declarations. The specific merit of the story is not the issue; it is not my purpose to defend the story, or Niven, from any and all specious attacks. The issue here is the difference between justifiable criticism (however specious!) and offhand slander. Ms Le Guin proffers the one for the other, and the editors of SFS accept and publish it; I hope someone, somewhere, can still tell the difference.—Alex Eisenstein.
In Response to Mr Eisenstein. Though I feel no inclination to retract or apologize for anything I said, I have to sympathize with Mr. Eisenstein’s irritation at my polemic. It was intended to be irritating and overstated; because it was delivered at an ad hoc sort of talk, at the beginning of one of those panels on Women In Science Fiction, at a conference in Bellingham, Washington, in 1974. I was trying to get a good, non-genteel discussion started. When SFS asked to print the piece, I labeled it clearly as I have just described it, but the explanation was dropped by an editor or printer. It’s a pity, because a certain intemperance of style appropriate to a panel discussion comes out as cold belligerence in print. I prefer my belligerence hot. —Ursula K. Le Guin.
A Norwegian Time Journey. One of the more pleasant pastimes of the SF critic is to trace down the origins of certain themes. Recently we were doing an anthology for the series we edit (Lanterne science fiction, Gyldendal) with time and time travel as its central theme (Nazar 1: Timeglass, 1975).
Certainly this theme may be linked with themes in myth and folklore—for instance the seven sleepers by Efusus (an early example of suspended animation) or fairytales where time runs much more swiftly in the mountain dwellings of the trolls than outside in human society.
Our comment is not, however, aimed at these deep roots, but rather to the issue of the first time travel in fiction. August Derleth suggested in Far Boundaries (1951) that this was an anonymous short story in Dublin Literary Magazine of 1838, "Missing One’s Coach: An Anachronism." The narrator falls into sleep, and slips some thousand years into the past where he has a conversation with Bede Venerabilis. The time travel is used, as so often, just as an excuse to bring a historical person into focus.
L. Sprague de Camp (Science Fiction Handbook, 1953) and Damon Knight (A Century of Science Fiction, 1962) both adopted Derleth’s suggestion. Not so the French critic Pierre Versins. In Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires et de science fiction (1972) he points to the French author Restif de la Bretonne, who as early as 1802 let one of his characters, the Duke of Multipliandre, visit the future. In the novel Les posthumes France is a much transformed nation; Paris is once more just a village, there are two capitals (one for the summer and one for the winter)—in fact Multipliandre voyages all of 100,000 years into the future, where the society is composed of wise men with an average life span of 700 years.
However, even an earlier example may be uncovered. The Norwegian dramatist and poet, Johan Hermann Wessel (1742-85) is mainly remembered for his witty verse and one comedy—a parody named Love Without Stockings (Kierlighed uden Strømper, 1772). He was living in Copenhagen, where he for a short while studied (Norway was at that time united with Denmark and did not have a university of its own), but mostly just survived.
In 1781 he wrote and published a comedy called Anno 7603. This comedy was never staged, and has been half-forgotten—even excluded from his collected works, which still are in print. In this comedy, a friendly fairy transports the young couple Leander and Julia into a future where the men occupy the roles of women and vice versa—the women fight as soldiers, flirt with the boys, drink and sing bawdy songs. Actually the literary merits of the play are doubtful, but it has over the centuries gained value as a curiosity.
It gives us some small satisfaction to note that Wessel beat Restif de Bretonne with some 11 years. —Bing & Bringsvaerd.
The Authorship of Symzonia. The story told in William Stanton’s The Great United States Exploring Expedition (University of California Press), surely one of the best books of 1975, begins with the campaign of Captain John Cleves Symmes to win public and governmental support for a polar expedition to test his hollow-earth theory, but omits any reference to the novel Symzonia (1820) by "Captain Adam Seaborn," which seems to be universally regarded in SF circles as a document in the campaign (see SFS 2:18182). To my query on this omission, Professor Stanton has responded as follows: "In an earlier draft of my manuscript I did mention the Seaborn book as well as others ... centering on the hollow earth theme. But there is a vast amount of amusing trivia ... connected with Symmes, and the manuscript had to be sharply reduced for publication .... I am as certain as I can be that Symmes was not Seaborn. Symmes wrote only lectures, communiques, and letters-to-the-editor. Moreover, he was in dead earnest. Seaborn’s banter would only have puzzled him." Since Professor Stanton seems to be the only scholar who has read both Symzonia and all of Symmes’ own writings, his opinion on this matter is certainly of considerable weight. The authorship of Symzonia, then, together with its reception (it was reviewed in a number of journals) and its literary relationship to Symmes’ work, is a subject that remains to be investigated. —RDM.