Science Fiction Studies

#26 = Volume 9, Part 1 = March 1982


Bedford Vindicated: A Response to Carlo Pagetti on The First Men in the Moon

Despite his praise of H.G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon (FMM) as "the epitome of a formal structure which admits different solutions," Carlo Pagetti in his article, "The First Men in the Moon: H.G. Wells and the Fictional Strategy of his 'Scientific Romances"' (SFS, 7 [1980]:124-34), has missed an essential point in the structuring of Wells's story. This point is that the structure is largely integrated with Bedford's character. Whereas Pagetti's formalist tendencies stress the use made of various fictional strategies first by Wells the author (pp. 126-27) and concomitantly by Bedford as a mediocre bourgeois consciousness (p. 129), I see Bedford as actually two consciousnesses; one is the narrator Bedford and the other is the "bourgeois Everyman." The bourgeois Bedford--the primary hero—goes through his adventures under the eye of the narrator Bedford. Having been through these experiences, the authorial Bedford is the final product, the synthesis of bourgeois Everyman and romantic adventurer. The subtlety of Wells's structuring is even more apparent when we consider the implications of his ending, where we see that it is Bedford, not Cavor, who has a vision of reality. This interpretation of the ending is critical in my position contra Pagetti, as will be pointed out in a moment. Finally, we must remember that in this story communication is a major theme at the most obvious level; Cavor tries to communicate with the Selenites and then with Earth (both unsuccessfully). But Bedford successfully tells his story, that is, communicates fact and fantasy, science and romantic vision.                

There is both external and internal evidence that a psychological development is the intended center and controlling strategy of FMM as well as Wells's other early romances. In the Preface to the 1933 collection of his romances, Wells says that the "invention" of fantastic stories is nothing in itself: "...the living interest lies in their non-fantastic elements," in their "human sympathy" (The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells [London: Gollancz, 1933], p. vii). The thing that makes "such imaginations interesting" is that they become "human"—that they allow us to look "at human feelings and human ways from the new angle that has been acquired" (p. viii). Wells had earlier stated that all his fiction, romance and novel alike, had for their purpose the depiction of the fundamental human dilemma of the modern world, namely, "that human beings are now in violent reaction to a profound change in conditions demanding the most complex and extensive readjustments in the scope and scale of their ideas" (The "Atlantic Edition," 5 [1925]:0:ix—hereafter cited as Works). This psychological interest is evident in Bedford's development. He begins with a crude exploitativeness, progresses through a radical disjunction between his inner psyche and his cultural self (in chapter 19), and concludes with a unified vision.                

Pagetti takes Cavor as a symbol of failure in communication brought about by the inability of traditional literary and social forms to handle the new content of science. "lt can only be interpreted as a negation of and terminus for the communicative process itself. It represents the defeat of reason and of writing by the new and terrible forms of reality which can no longer be described—at least not by the means which the author-narrator has at his disposal..." (Pagetti, p. 132). However, if we shift our perspective to Bedford, we do not have to accept so pessimistic an interpretation. Instead, we read in Bedford's statement of his dream vision a full closure of the quest-romance theme that vindicates the hero's final vision after he successfully completes the cycle of his adventure. This sense of closure is lacking in the earlier romances—in The Time Machine, for example, where the scientist-hero never can return home, and in The Invisible Man, where the adventurer dies.                

The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War of the Worlds are variations on the theme of radical scientific alienation. The scientists Moreau and Prendick remain alienated to the end, while the most alienated of all Wells's scientific intelligences, the Martians, emphasize, like the Selenites, an essential opposition between the scientific intelligence and ordinary human affairs. Until just before the end, Cavor shares this unresolved alienation. Then, as the ending shows, he tries to close the gap.

                `Cavorite made as follows: take—- —— '
                There followed one word, a quite unmeaning word as it stands—`uless.'
                And that is all.

It may be he made a hasty attempt to spell useless when his fate was close upon him. Whatever it was that was happening about that apparatus, we cannot tell. Whatever it was we shall never, I know, receive another message from the moon. For my part a vivid dream has come to my help, and I see, almost as plainly as if I had seen it in actual fact, a blue-lit dishevelled Cavor struggling in the grip of a great multitude of these insect Selenites, struggling ever more desperately and hopelessly as they swarm upon him, shouting, expostulating, perhaps even at last fighting, and being forced backward step by step out of all speech or sign of his fellows, for evermore into the Unknown—into the dark, into the silence that has no end. (Works, 25:266-67; italics added)               

Unless Bedford's statement is to be interpreted as nonsense and delusion— which is a highly implausible reading—it clearly shows a reaching out from his original bourgeois pragmatism to a complex intuition wherein vision has become reality. The turning point from bourgeois to visionary (in a favorable sense) occurs during Bedford's return to Earth, when he experiences a violent separation from his mundane self and realizes a psychic entity apart from his biological heritage and his social conditioning. The "`mixed' character of the narrative," therefore, arises not primarily from a more or less conscious selection of narrative strategies by Wells (or by Bedford-as-persona) but—more organically—from the complexity of Bedford's character development. This development is marked by Bedford's change from obtuse bourgeois to sensitive visionary and also by a continuing interaction between narrator and developing self (the hero) in Bedford. This interaction gives an overall ironic tone to the story reminiscent of Wells's beloved Swift, and also gives occasion for the variety in narrative techniques as one or another strategy best fits an occasion— adventure, romance, Gothic horror, satire, comedy of manners, and so on, as Pagetti has listed them.                

Below this aesthetic surface of psychological change and interaction lies scientific theory, which is both cause and analogue in its relationship to the narrative structure. During the 1890s, we recall, Wells had formulated a Natural/Artificial dichotomy in human nature, an opposition which Wells, like Huxley, saw as reflecting the battle between the natural process and the human process (Paleoithic and Civilized).* In FMM he created one of his most successful symbols of this dichotomy, the anti-gravity formula, Cavorite. Anti-gravity (savor, scientist, intellect) is contrasted with gravity (Bedford, earth-bound bourgeois). Cavor's attempt to identify with and communicate with the Selenites turns out to be wrong. Bedford's earthly identity turns out to be the right principle, if we are to take Cavor's final message as a pronouncement on this issue. Furthermore, the difference between Earth gravity and Moon gravity is emphasized to the point where we are made to see not only physical differences but, more importantly, psychological and social ones between Bedford and Cavor as earthlings and the Selenites. Gravity works in conjunction with evolution to produce distinct characters and antipathetic species.                

By using the Earth's gravity as a symbol of primary force and identity, Wells moves rapidly toward a successful union of literary reality and the real world, with considerably more success than in most of his more overtly didactic novels. There seems to be resolved in Wells's own mind the deep alienation induced by science. It is the form of science, its skepticism, its constant questioning, that makes for instability and, when used as an analogue to literary form, as in The Time Machine, produces a stultifying unrest. Such formalism, even scientific formalism, must always be subject to the simplest fact, as he says in his Experiment in Autobiography (NY: Macmillan, 1934, p. 181).                

Bedford therefore is important as a foil to Cavor and Wells's other early scientists because he returns to Earth with his pragmatism nearly intact: "Even if one has been to the moon, one has still to earn a living" (20:210). The fact that Cavor finally accepts his earthly identity leads directly into Wells's view that scientistintellectuals must accept their duty to their earthly fellows. Wells states this theme of responsibility of the intellectuals in Anticipations (1901; see Works, IV:253) and after that never stops repeating it. When Bedford receives Cavor's message that "I was mad to let the Grand Lunar know—" and his failed attempt to send the Cavorite formula, it is clear that Cavor has come round to Bedford's point of view. The lines that Pagetti identifies—the comedy of manners, the satire, the Gothic horror, the philosophical novel, and the didactic novel—all come down to a single point of focus: Bedford and Cavor talk the same language at the end. The psychological closure is complete in that the two heroes move each in the direction of the other, Bedford from bourgeois pragmatism toward vision, Cavor from impractical vision toward earthly pragmatism.                

This vindication of Bedford and the natural (modified by scientific vision, of course) carries into Wells's next major piece of SF, The Food of the Gods, where, as McConnell notes, there is apparent Wells's "belief that fierce individualism, if redirected and creatively rechanneled, could be the salvation rather than the bane of the race."** In The First Men in the Moon Wells made perhaps his most important attempt toward describing the limits and the problems of integrating the natural and the artificial and so to produce a synthesis of the practical and the visionary.—John Milstead
* "Human Evolution: An Artificial Process," Fortnightly Review, n.s. 60 (Oct. 1896): 590-95; rpt. in H.C. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction, ed. Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), p. 217.
** Frank McConnell, The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells (NY: Oxford, 1981), p. 164.

Reflections on "Reflections on SF Criticism"

Samuel R. Delany remarks in "Reflections on SF Criticism" (SFS No. 25) "that, historically, far-future SF (space opera) developed in the pulps of the 1930s and '40s before near-future SF developed in the late '40s and early '50s."                

The question, "Is this assertion as loony as it sounds?" is not an easy one to answer. Since Delany does not give us a definition of "near-future SF," we must try to manufacture one. To begin with, let us agree that many SF stories (like most other stories) take place either in the recent past or in a sort of "floating present"—not the author's today or the reader's today either, but tomorrow, maybe, or next week. In this category we will put "The Crystal Egg" by H.G. Wells, "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" by Harlan Ellison, "Killdozer" by Theodore Sturgeon, etc. An unfortunate consequence of this first step is that we have already disposed of the prototypical space opera, The Skylark of Space by E. E. Smith, which takes place in the author's present, ca.: 1920, but never mind; let us press on.                

Now: what is the distinction between "near-future" and "far-future" SF? We had better not use any arbitrary number, such as 50 years, because authors are not always conscientious about dating their stories, and when they do, the dates are usually arbitrary. If these terms are to be useful in any way, we must adopt some other criterion. Let us say, then, that a "near-future" story is one in which society has been altered by some technological development, catastrophe, change in mores, etc., but is still recognizably our own; a "far-future" story is one in which so much time has passed that society has altered radically. Thus, for example, Theodore Sturgeon's "Thunder and Roses" is near, whereas E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" is far.               

We can now expand Delany's thesis somewhat as follows: for reasons to be explained, pulp writers of the 1930s and '40s were able to depict only distant and alien futures, whereas the pulp writers of the late '40s and '50s mastered the art of depicting closer and more familiar futures.                

By the criterion set forth above, the following stories published in the 1930s are near-future SF: "Into the Meteorite Orbit" by Frank K. Kelly; "The Battery of Hate" by John W. Campbell, Jr; "The Mad Moon" by Stanley G. Weinbaum; Galas, All Thinking!" by Harry Bates (with an excursion into the far future); and "Hyperpilosity" by L. Sprague de Camp; that is to say, 5 of the 18 stories reprinted in my anthology Science Fiction of the Thirties. Of the remaining 13, 2 are set in the past, 9 in the present, and 2 in the far future.                

Now, finally, we can return to the original question. Is Delany's assertion as loony as it sounds? Indeed it is; both the problem and Delany's solution of it are entirely the product of his brilliant and ethereal imagination. —Damon Knight

To point out that Damon Knight is far better acquainted with the history of the SF genre than I am is to belabor the obvious.               

He was there for much of it; I wasn't.                

And I'm enough of an empiricist to think that counts for a good deal in historical matters. Add to this that Knight is the parent of responsible SF criticism, and it seems good sense would suggest, in the face of it all, that I simply bow before his correction and withdraw my point—which was, after all, merely posed as a demonstration of principles that, as far as I can gather, he does not take exception to: i.e., that (1) SF is most fruitfully to be looked at as a reading protocol, as a way of making SF texts make sense (rather than as, say, a way of dismissing them as pointless nonsense or, more recently, as a way of dismissing them as some subjective psychological detritus of an ill-explained tendency to fantasize—this last of which bears a suspicious resemblance to the way many critics somehow manage to dismiss literature itself in the very process of extolling it. These two critical strategies comprise, after all, the two legs of the "literary history" of the SF genre, however one would like to rewrite it); and (2) that "a reading protocol must be established [las its inception] with broad, forceful, and comparatively obvious rhetorical strokes."                

I take Knight's point that the "broad, forceful, and comparatively obvious rhetorical strokes" that characterize early SF do not correlate in any simple and uncomplicated way with the distance into the future at which the SF story is set—and what's more, they never have, throughout the history of the SF genre as Knight is acquainted with it! (I also read in Knight's recrimination that I should have my wrist slapped for even suggesting that it did. Well, my wrist is stinging!) That's good to know; and it is good to be told it by someone of Knight's standing. The uncritical temporal model that controls the particular remarks which Knight refutes has been a hallmark of "vulgar" academic SF criticism certainly since the inception of SF studies as an academic discipline, and it is good to see it challenged on any occasion—even if it is the painful one of my own theoretical elaboration.                

But thus are critical theories refined.                

Granted Knight's point, I propose a critical question, then, for the readers of this journal, including Knight. What do the characteristic rhetorical figures of early ('20s, '30s, early '40s) SF comprise in terms of a complex semiotic system, a system clearly in excess of its various ideological reductions, as clearly in excess of its various aesthetic reductions, a system obviously powerful enough to help promote, at least in part, the revision of the very code (i.e., the reading protocol) with which it, itself, was apprehended? This question is of primary importance to the discipline of SF studies, if only because, as Knight has pointed out, a simple and uncritical temporal model (by whatever critical attitude it manifest itself, from "SF is about the future" to "SF is bad because it is not about the future accurately" to "Futurity is a totalizing aspect of the interpretative codes by which we respond to the SF text"—this last being the particular manifestation of that uncritical temporal model I was ensnared by in the midst of the very gesture with which I saw myself as repudiating it!) just doesn't cover the historically demonstrable case.                

If SF is important in the history of Western writing, Western reading, Western thought—if SF is a rich and rewarding area in which to engage in the study of aspects of our thought that can be explored nowhere else, then we cannot depend on the simple and uncritical questions—"What does the SF text say? What does the SF text mean?"—but must ask the more sophisticated questions—"By what rich, creative, and historically sensitive codes, conscious and unconscious, have SF readers made the SF text say the various things that it has? By what rich, creative, and historically sensitive codes, conscious and unconscious, has the SF text been readable to its most sophisticated readers?"—readers among whom, readers of this journal will agree, Knight occupies a pre-eminent position.                

At the same time, I point out that Knight's generation read the SF text very differently from, say, Dozois's generation (q.v. Algol, Autumn 1981). What persists between these generational readings, highlighting (and highlighted by) what is different between them, becomes the continuity of our genre, within which the discipline of SF studies is finally lodged, and from within which the great readers of our discipline must conscientiously expand it.                

My thanks to Knight for pointing out a certain "lunacy" in my approach to the SF text; I will try to make sure my remarks in the future are more firmly grounded.—Samuel R. Delany                                                                                               

Science Fiction and Teaching in Québec

For several decades now SF has enjoyed recognition in US academe. This is not the case in francophone areas. In France, and in Québec as well, the trend towards acknowledging "paraliterature" as a pedagogic tool or medium, or even as a language-learning device, is very recent.                

The tradition of "dossiers" or textbooks designed for the teacher is older in France than in Québec, and it has taken different forms in each country. But whatever the pedagogic practice, one should distinguish courses which occasionally make use of SF (which, e.g., take up Huxley's Brave New World along with a dozen other novels, such as Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Michel Butor's La Modification) from those centered on the study of the SF genre. Significantly, the tendency today is in the direction of the latter. This, I think, can be attributed, in large part, to two phenomena: first, there is an ever greater demand from students for SF; and secondly, that demand can ever more easily be met by young teachers who have studied SF in their university careers.                

Initial attempts to present SF to teachers and/or students are coming from France. There is, in particular, the work of Christian Grenier, Pierre Ferran, and Marguerite Rochette.* The Centre de Documentation of Limoges (France) has recently begun publication of so-called "dialivres," novelly conceived to convey various SF themes visually as well as descriptively in that they include slidepresentations of those themes as treated in the verbal text. The latest of these "dialivres" is Quatre thèmes de la science fiction (Limoges: C.R.D.P., 1980; Four Themes in SF: viz., women, extraterrestrial beings, machines, and cataclysms and ends-of-the-world). The author, well-versed in SF, gives a panorama of SF in a vivid and carefully documented manner; the slides consist of reproductions of works by Paul, Siudmak, Barlowe, Moebius, Soyka, Kvater, Vincent, Caza, etc.                

Unfortunately, works of this sort have not had distribution in Québec. However, since 1975 the Centrale des Bibliothèques du Québec (CBQ: the Québec National Library) has been putting out bibliographical commentaries on SF (in its Bulletin de bibliographic, a journal published under the auspices of Québec's Ministry of Education). Indeed, it may be that the turning point of recognizing SF here has occurred with the publication of "Science-fiction et pédagogie," a special issue of Québec Français, the journal of teachers of French in Québec.** Moreover, as the publications of the CBQ just mentioned attest, SF has for some years now been making its way into the programs of the CEGEPs (Collèges d'Enseignement Général et Professionnel, something of the equivalent of junior colleges in the US except that in Québec they are prerequisite for university studies). But what has so far been lacking here is a movement favorable to SF in itself. For these pre-university courses in effect deal with all manner of "paraliterature" (detective fiction, spy novels, comics, SF, etc.); and it thus all too often happens that SF is given short shrift unless the teacher is especially motivated to grapple with it.                

Thanks to the audience for the journal Québec Français, it seems likely that SF will soon gain credibility among teachers here. It is also worth adding that SF is entering an auspicious period in Québec. The conventions that go under the name of "Boréal" have by now become a tradition: the third took place in Montréal in September, 1981; the fourth is slated for July, 1982 in Chicoutimi and will bring together participants from Belgium, France, Switzerland, and, of course, Québec itself. The magazines Solaris and Imagine...are going well, as is the series "Chroniques du Futur" from the publishing house of Le Préambule. And another well-known publisher, VLB, is about to start a new series devoted exclusively to SF. It would seem, then, that we are witnessing the establishment of SF in all its forms in Québec.—Jean-Marc Gouanvic
* Christian Grenier, Jeunesse et science-fiction (Paris: Magnard, 1972), 124pp.; Pierre Ferran, La Science-fiction (Cannes: Institut coopératif de l'école moderne, BT2, 1973), 37pp.; Pierre Ferran, ea., L'enseignement du francais par la science-fiction (Paris: Editions ESF, 1979), 156pp.; Marguerite Rochette, La Science-fiction (Paris: Larousse, 1975), 191pp.
** "Pédagogie: la science-fiction," in Québec Français, no. 42 (May 1981), pp.56-85: This special section, co-ordinated by Norbert Spohner, is one to which I myself contributed a sequel, entitled "Pour une pédagogie de l'imaginaire: la science-fiction," QF, no. 43 (Oct. 1981).

 Attention "Wellsians"

The latest issue of The Wellsian (Summer 1981), the first number of "the journal of the H.G. Wells Society" to be published under the editorship of Patrick Parrinder, contains articles on Wells as educationalist (J.R. Hammond), on Wells and Plato (M. Draper), on The Time Machine (P. Parrinder), and on The History of Mr Polly (C. Rolfe), plus a previously unnoticed letter by Wells on Henry James (reproduced and commented on by B. Bergonzi) and a review by D.C. Smith. A subscription is one of the benefits of membership in the H.G. Wells Society, the annual dues for which (£3,00) should be remitted to the Hon. General Secretary/The H.G. Wells Centre/ Dept. of Lang. & Lit./Polytechnic of North London/Prince of Wales Rd./London, NW5 3LB/England.                

The Society is also sponsoring a two-day conference on H.G. Wells and History in September of 1982. For further information, write to the above address or to Patrick Parrinder/English Dept./U. of Reading/Reading, RG6 2AA/England.

"Feminine Dimensions of SF": A Call for Papers

The 16th annual Comparative Literature Symposium at Texas Tech, to be held on January 26-28,1983, is entitled "Women Worldwalkers" and will be devoted to "Feminine Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy."                

Possible approaches and topics include: (1) the role of women in SF and fantasy literature; (2) women as artists/critics; (3) sex roles/psychic structures; (4) myths and archetypes; (5) community structures; (ó) power motives and hierarchies; (7) symbolization; (8) social criticism; (9) music, art, and poetry as form and as subject; (10) film; and (11) critical theories, definitions, or development of the genres.                

The deadline for abstracts (ca. 250 words) is April 15, 1982. Papers will be due on June 1st: they should be not more than 20 double-spaced typewritten pages. (Subject to the decision of an editorial board, those read at the Symposium will be published in its Proceedings.)                

For additional information, registration, or submission of abstracts and papers, write to Dr Jane B. Weedman/Comparative Literature Symposium/English Dept./ Texas Tech U./Lubbock, TX 79409.—JBW

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