Robert Scholes's essay, Damon Knight's letter, and, obliquely, Robert M. Philmus's dialogue, ends here with the contribution by Mack Reynolds and the final reply by Franz Rottensteiner (James Blish chose not to exercise his right to reply). The editors, finally, asked Fredric Jameson to sum up the discussion and comment on it. We hope that, for all its meanders, this debate—if taken as a whole—will have clarified what can legitimately be meant by the concepts in its title and their interactions. —DS.
MACK REYNOLDS. WHAT DO YOU MEAN—MARXISM? While I agree that most SF writers are woefully ignorant about Marxism and hence have handicaps when dealing with socioeconomic subjects, I am afraid that the charges made have been too sweeping. One of the difficulties with Franz Rottensteiner's and also H. Bruce Franklin's contributions is that they don't tell us exactly what they mean by Marxism. A century after Marx and Engels did their work, the term has become somewhat elastic. One of the reasons for this is that the founders of scientific socialism never drew a blueprint of the new society. Marx's work was largely a critique of classical capitalism, and he never finished it. It gives one who wishes to call himself a Marxist a great deal of leeway.
I hope that Rottensteiner and Franklin do not equate Marxism with any of the so-called communist parties, including that of the Soviet Union, the various Trotskyites, the Maoists, the Castroites, or the Titoists, not to speak of Allende's alleged Marxism in Chile. I would briefly define socialism as a society replacing capitalism in which the means of production are democratically owned and operated by and for the people and in which the state has been replaced by a democratically elected government whose main task is to plan production. Now I have travelled extensively in all the "communist" countries of Europe save Albania, where they wouldn't let me in, and in none of them found such Marxian socialism. And I have read of none of it in China, Cuba, or any of the other "communist" countries. The nearest thing to it, perhaps, is Yugoslavia—and that's not very near. Certainly, the state has not withered away in any of them, as called for by Marx and Engels. Indeed, it has been strengthened beyond anything known in the capitalistic West at this time.
I was born into a Marxian Socialist family. I am the child who, at the age of five or six, said to his parent, "Mother, who is Comrade Jesus Christ?"—for I had never met anyone in that household who wasn't called Comrade. While still in my teens, I joined the Marxist Socialist Labor Party and remained, very active, in it for many years, though I have since resigned, believing their program inadequate in the modern age. I have been a life-long radical and, so far as I know, have read everything written by Marx that has been translated into English, along with a great many other socialist classics. I have even taught the subject and lectured extensively in colleges, over radio, etc. In short, I think I am competent to handle the Marxian viewpoint, even though at present day I think much of Marx's work has become antiquated. (Much of the program presented in the Communist Manifesto  has already been adopted by capitalist society.)
I began writing on a full-time basis in 1949. Early in the game I realized that I was much too shaky in the physical sciences to deal with them adequately, so I began specializing in stories with social-science themes, especially socioeconomics. Since 1949 I have sold some forty books and several hundred shorter works. I have been translated into at least nine languages, including German. I would estimate that at least half my stories are based on political-economy themes. I simply can't understand Mr. Rottensteiner reading much SF without running into at least some of these, including some that "endorse a Marxist view of change," for example, "Ruskies Go Home!" (F & SF Nov 1960), soon to be published in enlarged form by Ace as Tomorrow May Be Different, which foresees a future in which the Soviet Union has realized all its goals and has become the most affluent country in the world. If you are interested in an attack on the Soviet Union from the Marxian viewpoint, try "Freedom" (Analog Feb 1961), in which a new Russian underground is attempting to overthrow the "communist" bureaucracy to form a new government more in line with the teachings of Marx. Or read "Utopian," in Harry Harrison's The Year 2000 (Doubleday 1970), in which a Marxian Socialist is thrown forward by a time-travel gimmick into the world he has worked for all his life. Believe me, I could go on and on. (Mercenary from Tomorrow and Time Gladiators have been published in German by Moewig. Both are attacks on capitalism and its present-day trends; both call for the institution of a more advanced society.)
Others have listed some of the other English-language writers who have written from the Marxist viewpoint, including Jack London (who once belonged to the same SLP I did) and Olaf Stapledon, so I won't go into this, though I'll mention the fact that two of my SF writer friends fought in the International Brigades in Spain. I didn't, though I was in the age group, for I had already become disgusted with the Stalinists, as my friends later did in the course of the civil war.
I was surprised to see Mr. Franklin refer to George Orwell as an anti-Communist propagandist. Of course, it's a matter of what you mean by communist, Orwell might have been anti-Soviet Union, and so am I, but he wasn't anti-Marxist. Only by calling the Soviet Union a communist country does that accusation hold water.
Marx and Engels (the names cannot be separated) used the terms socialism and communism interchangeably, in spite of the manner in which Soviet writers have used them since. And, going by their teachings, the Soviet Union is by no means communist, or socialist. The most apt label I can think of is "State Capitalism," since they retain all the aspects of capitalism save that ownership of the means of production is in the hands of the state (the Communist Party) rather than in private hands.
FRANZ ROTTENSTEINER. IN REBUTTAL. It seems to me that many of the contributors to your symposium answer points that I did not make. I did not, for instance, particularly point out that Blish did not invent the notion that SF uniquely prepares the reader for change; in fact, I think that priority here is of no importance, and I could have discussed dozens of other writers instead. I wrote about Blish's essay simply because I happened to be reviewing George Hay's book, and because his essay provided me with a springboard to say some things I had wanted to say for some time.
I also do not ask of SF writers that every one (or even one) of them be a Darwin, Freud, or Marx, nor do I hold that no intellectual achievement smaller than theirs counts; I should be quite content if SF writers managed to incorporate intelligently in fiction what greater men thought first. But obviously there is an ocean between Mr. Blish's (or Mr. Knight's) notions of what constitutes intelligence in a writer, and my own.
Contrary to Ms. Le Guin's belief I did not say a word about the potential of the SF form; and it need hardly be pointed out that my anger would be totally inexplicable if I weren't aware of the abyss between the potential of the form and its actual state.
I have also been accused of not knowing Stapledon or Jack London's The Iron Heel, and only wonder that nobody threw old Bellamy at me. There were, of course, a couple of Anglo-American writers with socialist convictions, Upton Sinclair, for instance, who wrote a few utopian stories, or, in more recent times, Thomas McGrath with a novel like The Gates of Ivory, the Gates of Horn (tellingly published by "Masses & Mainstream Inc."), but I was speaking about the SF field, the mass-produced SF of today, and what have these isolated men to do with the condition of American or British SF?
I even know Mack Reynolds, and have read about one-third to one-half of his stories, and while I don't question the honesty of his political convictions, I am afraid that I have a very low opinion of his judgment, and I have always thought his "social SF" to be just another brand of the variety cops-and-robbers, at times undistinguishable from the work of his ideological opposite, H. Beam Piper. Nominally though, he may indeed deal with Marxism, much in the same manner as van Vogt has dealt with "general semantics."
Mr. Knight's second proof of my factual wrongness is just funny. I don't see how I, not being the happy possessor of a time machine, could possibly have known the "recent work" of such eminent writers as Richard E Peck or Dave Skal when I wrote my review of George Hay's book—in February 1971. I believe that some of the writers mentioned by Damon Knight were then still unpublished. Apparently Mr. Knight was unable to find even one story dealing with "real problems" (and so far as I know we haven't yet reached a consensus on what a "real problem" is; I didn't define the term in my polemics) before the revolutionary advent of Messrs. Bryant, Peck, Platt, etc. I could well name him some authors and stories that deal with what I would consider real problems—but I do not think that those rare instances are statistically relevant.
FREDRIC JAMESON. IN RETROSPECT. Quite as frequently as those about SF, debates about Marxism often turn out to be sham disputes in which each party means something else by the term at issue; it is therefore not surprising that, compounded, such an exchange gives us a feeling that the participants have jumped on their hobby-horses only to ride off in all directions. It is not, for instance, helpful to find Robert Scholes confusing communism (or socialism) as a type of socioeconomic organization with Marxism as a system of thought, even though I welcome his appreciation of the critical power of the latter. I would want to go on to make a more fundamental distinction than this, however, and to suggest that we must first of all make up our minds whether we are talking about the writer of SF, and the usefulness of Marxism to him, or about the reader and the critic, and the way in which a Marxist approach can sharpen their understanding of SF works which exist already.
Rottensteiner and Franklin, for instance, are speaking primarily to the writers of SF, and suggesting that their work will improve in power and in relevance if they come to some awareness of the things that Marxism has to teach us about the world we live in. I would agree, of course, although I don't imagine anyone feels that Marxist convictions could be a substitute for what is called talent, nor would they deny that works either innocent of Marxism or hostile to it might be interesting ones (Mr. Blish mentions Shiel, and one of Rottensteiner's points is obviously that there are lots of examples in American SF). Yet this second qualification then clearly shifts the argument to reader and critic, and the attitude they are to take to already existing works of SF. Before I turn to this question, I would simply add a final word on prescribing to the creative writer: the idea is probably not as shocking any more as it was during the fifties, when the critical establishment worked hard to foster the notion that literature was "autonomous" and that the best writers were those "whose minds were too fine to be violated by an idea" (T.S. Eliot's tribute to Henry James). Still, one of the basic emphases of Marxism has always been on the primacy of the situation itself—on the unique requirements of a given historical moment and a given socioeconomic conjuncture; this means that even a militant writer would recognize that the nature of the work to be produced has to vary according to the needs of its public. In a middle-class country like the U.S., effective political writing will be very different from what is wanted in a peasant society in the process of building socialism and learning to read. Even that kind of assessment, moreover, does not begin to answer the question of the effectiveness of SF itself as opposed to other types of militant literature. In the Soviet Union, for instance, it seems that great SF has served the positive and utopian function of keeping the basic goals of socialism alive (see for example Efremov's Andromeda), while in a country like our own we would expect a militant SF to serve that far more negative, critical, destructive purpose which Scholes has underscored.
Mack Reynolds seems to me to shift the focus of this particular debate by suggesting that Marxism "gets into" SF, not by way of the author's political intent or conscious ideology, but rather by the nature of the literary materials he uses, which Reynolds designates, in the occurrence, as "socio-economics." This is, I suppose, a useful fallback position: we may argue at length over whether a book like The Space Merchants is genuinely radical, or ultimately merely liberal, in its effect on the audience, but if we limit ourselves to the question of raw material, then the innovative nature of that particular novel—compared, e.g., to space opera—becomes unmistakable. The same holds true for a story like Ballard's "Subliminal Man," yet Franklin's example strikes me as most unfortunate in another sense and raises issues which will ultimately lead into our second theme, namely the need of ideological criticism in the reading of SF. For every reader of Ballard knows that the lush and diseased, apocalyptic world of that great writer is the very opposite of a committed literature, and that it is by sheerest accident that his private obsessions (entropy, illusion, the shrinkage of space itself towards some deathly center) happened, in "The Subliminal Man," to have intersected with a piece of genuinely sociopolitical raw material. Ballard's work is one immense attempt to substitute nature for history, and thus a kind of dizzying and ecstatic feeling of inevitable natural eschatology for that far more troubled sense of collective historical death which someone so steeped in the British colonial experience must of necessity feel. That part of Ballard we surely cannot recuperate by attaching it to "socioeconomics" (and I hope I have not given the impression—following Mr. Reynolds—that Marxists wish to limit SF to this kind of material exclusively; I for one would be sorry to lose the very distinctive work of a writer like Larry Niven); we must therefore envisage a different kind of approach, some deeper kind of reading which makes the relationship between Ballard's talent and his concrete experience of history more accessible and visible to us.
At this point, of course, we have already shifted from prescription to description, from the question of what kind of SF the writer ought to produce to that equally urgent one of the way in which the reader of SF ought to use that corpus of existing works which already surrounds us. Here a Marxist critic clearly has several tactical options: he may feel that a work is likely to exercise some particularly pernicious effect ideologically, and in that case, he will want to denounce it by making it clearer to a relatively unforewarned audience what the particular work is really up to. Such culture criticism, however, will inevitably single out recent works, and works, moreover, which have had enough popular success to be worth taking on. It is unlikely, in other words, that at the present day Marxists will want to denounce the undoubted ideological ambiguities of H.G. Wells with the same passion they would bring to, say, Heinlein. Criticism like this forms a public by forcing it to be a little more lucid about its enthusiasms, and by reminding it of the sometimes sorry connections between some of its favorite products and the culture industry from which they issue, by furnishing concrete demonstrations of the various ways in which such products can reinforce the status quo and discourage political action and meaningful change.
So no Marxist critic would want to rule out the option of some really negative and destructive criticism of misleading and ideologically pernicious works (although I would tend to agree with Suvin in wondering whether Farmer as a writer deserves Rottensteiner's attack, and with Franklin in wondering whether, if he does, the attack is really critical enough). But perhaps it would be helpful to people who, like Mr. Philmus, find themselves locked in the sterile antithesis between analysis and evaluation (or criticism and interpretation), to point out that not all so-called ideological analysis need be of this wholly negative kind.
Indeed, SF more than most types of literature relies heavily on conceptual schemes (which is to say, on ideological materials) for its construction of future or alternate universes: the term extrapolation is of course simply another word for this process, whereby elements of our own world are selected in accordance with this or that abstract concept or model. John Brunner's recent works may indeed serve as a textbook illustration of the dependence of SF plots on what are essentially ideological choices; for he seems to have decided to furnish us with a series of "near futures" based on systematically varied extrapolations, Stand on Zanzibar offering a near future seen through the lens of the genetic theme, The Sheep Look Up providing an alternate version in terms of ecology. (Total Eclipse may then be seen as kind of finger exercise in which Mr. Brunner's genetic theme, ingeniously combined with an older economic determinism, is projected into the classical SF tradition of space travel and alien contact...) Such works might then be seen as functioning somewhat like Zola's "experimental novel," giving us a kind of small-scale experimental model of various versions of what classical Marxism calls "ultimately determining instances," now genetic, now ecological, now technological, etc. But the reader would have to be aware of the nature of the experiment, which otherwise is scarcely an innocent one ideologically. Now it is true that Mr. Brunner mentions the intent of his "genetic determinism" somewhere along the way: "'We're all Marxists now' is a common cry among the world's intellectuals... But today's commonplace is often tomorrow's fallacy, and arguments from biology are increasing both in scope and precision. J. Merritt Emlen...puts forward the view that modem genetic theory can provide more subtle interpretations of human behavior than is generally realized," etc. (Stand on Zanzibar, Context 15). But one wonders whether this is enough to be make the reader aware of the quite systematic effort Brunner has made, in organizing Stand on Zanzibar, to put across this viewpoint, which of course involves the substitution of "natural" and "Scientific" considerations for political and historical ones.
Yet ideological analysis can also shed light on the purely artistic structure of such a work. If, indeed, one subjects the plot structure of the overrated Stand on Zanzibar to close examination, it becomes clear that its three sub-plots come from wholly different and unequal generic traditions. The New York section, with its overpopulation and its riots and its berserk and homicidal rampages, stems directly from the classic near-future line of books like Make Room, Make Room! The episode on Yatakang, on the other hand with its totalitarian Asiatic dictatorship and its oppressed scientists, far from being SF, is simply classic espionage melodrama, even to the final reversal (become a commonplace in the works of writers like Le Carre) in which it turns out to be the "free world" rescuers who are in reality the more evil of the two adversaries. Meanwhile, the picture of the backward and peaceful African nation with its wise and kindly ruler and its mutating human species (shades of Arthur C. Clarke!), springs right out of the long SF preoccupation with superhuman and future powers. The first point to be made about such an analysis is that these three stories don't really go together, since each one demands a completely different kind of reading (a different type of generic reception, if you excuse the jargon), while their juxtaposition involves awkward shifting of intellectual gears. Such a view goes a long way towards accounting for what is unsatisfactory about the book (and another part of the explanation would underscore Brunner's unequal manipulation of the three traditions—expert in the first, relatively realistic plot, and full of wit and inventiveness in his projection of future media, his spy story is perfunctory and uninventive, while the whole African episode is so frankly bad as to make one squirm).
The other point to be made is that these three plots correspond to an underlying political and ideological scheme and, once unveiled as such, offer quite unacceptable political stereotypes: they amount, indeed, to nothing but the most conventional and shopworn images of the First, Second and Third Worlds respectively, and perpetuate the picture of an advanced world in which the problems are decaying cities and crime in the streets (all resulting, mind you, from overpopulation), of a second sphere of old-fashioned communist dictatorship, and finally of the enviably precapitalist and archaic rhythms of those pastoral and tribal societies of the Third World, over which the first two worlds are bound to struggle.
Thus what is wrong with Brunner's book aesthetically is a direct consequence of what is wrong with it ideologically; and it would seem to me that if such demonstrations were more systematically practiced (of the best, not of the worst, contemporary SF) they might well be more effective in persuading the writers of SF to reexamine their philosophical positions than the relatively terroristic threats of Mr. Rottensteiner.
I would conclude by basing the necessity of ideological analysis on the very nature of SF itself: for me it is only incidentally about science or technology, and even more incidentally about unusual psychic states. It seems to me that SF is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself, comparable in its emergence as a new genre to the birth of the historical novel around the time of the French Revolution. Thus, I am perhaps not so far from the position of James Blish, provided his deliberately neutralized word "change" is replaced with the substantive one of history (which may involve stasis, or imperceptible transformation, as well as the rapid change he himself tends to associate with science and technology). If this is the case, then, surely we have as readers not been equal to the capacity of the form itself until we have resituated SF into that vision of the relationship of man to social and political and economic forces which is its historical element.
Arthur C. Clarke and All Those Awards. The fact that Rendezvous with Rama has won not only the two major awards for best SF novel of 1973 but also three other recently established awards certainly calls for comment of some kind. As an old-fashioned materialist almost as much irritated by psi as by spiritualism, and as co-editor of a journal that has in its first volume published two essays on Clarke's mystical novels, I am especially pleased that he has had this success with a novel that represents his other (and I think better) side, and I wish that some one of the scholars concerned with SF would submit to SFS an article on the rational novels and stories that would have made Clarke a major figure in SF even if he had never written his Stapledonian works. — RDM.
SF Criticism in Romania. Special issues have been devoted to SF by the Cluj cultural weekly Tribuna and the prestigious Bucharest monthly Viata Romanesca. Of its sixteen newspaper-size pages, Tribuna #51 (1973) devotes about ten to articles and interviews on SF, and most
of the rest to SF itself. The special issue of Viata Romanesca, the organ of the powerful Union of Writers, carries in its 192 pages ten
major essays on SF by Romanian critics, three by foreign ones (diplomatically one each from France, USA, and USSR), and a number of notes and reviews, as well as some SF stories. From these two special issues one can also learn that
Romanian fandom publishes by now two fanzines—in Bucharest and Timisoara—and that already in 1972 the various SF clubs or "circles" met in a national convention. Any future survey of Eastern European SF criticism would have to mention a number of very able Polish academics, and the great interest in Hungarian circles evidenced by the special issue of Helikon (#1, 1972), the comparative-literature journal of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, devoted to SF. Still, the number of indigenous critics in Romania, and the level of the major contributions in issues such as the Viata Romanesca one—which is thoughtful and well-informed, if sometimes a bit starry-eyed when faced with exotic Anglophone achievements—bear out the remark in my Introduction to Other Worlds, Other Seas that in the Warsaw Pact countries—besides the Soviet Union and the always exceptional Lem— the only significant national body of SF as well as a parallel body of knowledgeable criticism of SF existed in Romania. —DS.
A Response to Damon Knight. I cannot share Mr. Knight's conviction that it would be very interesting or very difficult to find out why crude efforts are so popular in the SF field (see SFS 1:220). Knight apparently is of the persuasion—which strikes me as naive—that there is a definite correspondence between literary quality and popularity, and that the popularity of bad work is therefore an unusual and difficult problem. Whereas I think that while there certainly is a positive correlation with such factors as readability, story-telling or day-dreaming, there is no such positive correlation between the total literary quality of a story and its popularity. Indeed, I am convinced that a very high literary quality would be quite detrimental to popularity, that mediocrity is the safe road to success in SF, and that good work can become really popular only if it also has strong virtues of old-fashioned story-telling (such as Le Guin's work). The results of the various popularity contests and Mr. Knight's own criticism seem to be ample proof of this. What Mr. Knight seems to want now is not criticism but market research. I for one certainly see noreason why I should travel to the U.S.A. justin order to find out why an unimportant writer is relatively popular. And before asking the readers, a critic should ask himself. If I followed logic, the most interesting critical problem in SF just now would be "Perry Rhodan"—for this series is really so much more popular than Farmer's work, besides being so much worse. —Franz Rottensteiner
Wells, Verne, and Science. Darko Suvin's note on "Wells and Earlier SF" is remarkable for its pleasing ecumenicism. There is indeed a strong appearance that Wells was a fulcrum in the development of SF: a writer whose work is at once the premier culmination of voluminous older traditions in SF, both "low-brow" and "high," as well as the inception of a new, modern form, which eventually divides again into "low" and "high" forms, mainly along commercial class-lines.
Of course, the pulp SF magazines of the 30s derive more from Verne than Wells, as a rather direct result of Gernsback's propagandistic intentions—which fought a losing battle against the dominant veins of pulp adventure drawn from Haggard, Burroughs, etc. Poe's scientific gothicism, and Mary Shelley's gothic scientism, for all their chronological primacy, are distinctly minor threads in early pulp SF, notwithstanding the viewpoints and preferences of such critics as Aldiss and Ketterer (ignoring,
for the nonce, Weird Tales and Lovecraft). The
Wellsian influence was mainly submerged within this sea of cross-currents, and stories of a
basically Wellsian character emerged intermittently at best, only gradually coming into their
own as a major literary force—at first in Astounding under Campbell, more clearly later
on in Galaxy under Gold.
Meanwhile, in the upper echelons of literary endeavor, Wells became the major touchstone (and often the major inspiration) for SF
writing from Olaf Stapledon through Aldous
Huxley and George Orwell. By the late 40s and
50s, there was a c confluence of the two Wellsian
streams in the magazines, but not in the mainstream of "serious" modern fiction, where SF cropped up only as an occasional sport, even into the 60s. In the middle 60s, mainstream
writers began to raid the SF idiom for "fresh"
expression, while some of the writers who worked within the idiom proceeded to raid the
avant-garde (mainly of the past) in self-conscious attempts to "arrive" in the manner of
their outer-world confrères. (Earlier, Ray Bradbury had arrived because he outdid all others in the department of self-consciously florid
metaphors.) All the while, from Ballard to Vonnegut, these literary climbers kept Wells
just in sight, out of the corners of their eyes.But in the process, their view of him became rather distorted (not to mention their impression of the nature of SF since Wells). One consequence, I think, is a tendency to see the early Wells as some kind of proto-surrealist who had little interest in the plausibility of his constructs, while Verne is cast as the hyper-accurate scientific writer.
I hope that somewhere I may find who it was that first christened Wells the "English Jules Verne." Verne reacted one way to that epithet, and Wells in another. As Suvin implies,Wells was certainly rankled by the phrase. He
felt his stories as somehow finer than Verne's
work. Verne, however, thought the comparison too laudatory; he must have felt Wells a tremendous threat to what he apparently conceived to be his private literary preserve. "But show me this metal!" cried Verne sarcastically of Wells's hypothetical Cavorite, asserting that Wells was "not very scientific." And so Wells, in a manner very like his denial of literary intent to Henry James, accepted the criticism, and made of it a silk purse, an aesthetic: his scientific explanations, he admitted, were merely ploys to make the impossible momentarily acceptable, after which the consequences were developed in a realistic, humanized fashion. As well, an atmosphere of recognizable characters and ordinary life helped him to "domesticate the impossible" for his readers. Only one impossibility was allowed per story; the writer of fantasy must maintain "a rigid exclusion of other marvels" from any one narrative, lest he made the singularly marvelous seem dull, and the whole story silly, by association with a profusion of fantastic details. "Nothing remains interesting where anything may happen."
This definitive statement, however, was
written in 1933, for the preface to The Scientific Romances (In US as Seven Famous Novels, 1934). There is little doubt that this essay is largely an outgrowth of the mutual displeasure that exercised Wells and Verne: the second paragraph begins with a straightforward denial of any similarity to Verne's work, followed by a subtly lefthanded examination of Verne's raison d'être.) The observations therein certainly contain a large measure of truth, but ust as surely, they do not embody the whole truth. The cozy frame of The Time Machine does much, perhaps, to "domesticate" the marvelous device, but none of it can domesticate the Eloi, the White Sphinx, the Morlocks, or the notions at the heart of the story—one a dimensional speculation, the other bio-social and fundamentally unrelated to the first. Contrary to the elder Wells's pronouncements, his early science journalism indicates that he viewed his speculations as much more than mere fantasy. Consider, for example, the closing lines of "The Extinction of Man": "If some poor story-writing man ventures to figure this sober probability in a tale, not a reviewer
in London but will tell him his theme is utterly impossible. And when the thing happens, one
may doubt if even then one will get the recog-nition one deserves."
Even now, Wells has not received the recognition he deserves. His scientific rigor is disregarded or impugned; the monstrous Ozymandian lie of Verne is still abroad, beclouding the exquisite construction of Wells's scientific speculations. To be sure, he was not particularly strong in physics; but his nodding acquaintance with it was a damn sight more intimate thanVerne's.
Much of the criticism of how Wells used the scientific knowledge of his period depends for its continued currency on outright misreading of Wells's text! Even Darko Suvin perpetuates one such—without, I am sure, any consciousness of doing so. For me, it is the most
irritating, because this particular dead horse has
now been beaten into hamburger. The obfuscation here is that Cavor's sphere is propelled by antigravity. Suvin does not give a name to his assumption, but it seems fairly implicit as
the source of his own confusion over the workability of Cavorite: "Cavor's sphere...as described would, it seems, immediately fly off from any center of gravitational attraction regardless of
Wells's shutters"! This would be valid if indeed Cavorite were a mass-repelling substance, because then the total repulsive force would depend on the total mass of Cavorite contained by the sphere, independent of the substance's physical distribution. But this is simply not the case—not "as described"! Cavorite is a compound that insulates ordinary matter from gravitational attraction—it is, in Wells's phrase, "opaque" to gravity. This is not the same as "a metal that does away with the laws of gravitation" (Verne's words). Nor is the sphere built of Cavorite, as Verne would have it, but rather
the shutters only are coated with this material.When closed, they cover the entire surface of the sphere, cutting it off from Earth's gravity, but not from Earth's rotational energy, which heaves it into space. Thereafter, one or more shutters open toward the Moon allows that body to attract the vehicle. (With the shutters open, of course, the vehicle has its normal weight and will not move from its resting place.)
The rest, as we say in the trade, is orbital mechanics—we may assume that Cavor is mathematically competent for the task, as Wells does. Of course, if it were Verne, he would give us a lot of figures, most of which would be wrong.
Wells is by no means perfect, but his "scientific credibility" has had (and still has) an undeservedly bad press. Cavorite may well be impossible to create but it is the kind of impossibility that cannot be easily demonstrated—whereas Verne's cannon could have been demolished on paper at the time he wrote. If Cavorite could exist, its effects would be as Wells describes. —Alex Eisenstein
In Response to Mr. Eisenstein. I am in sympathy with a number of Alex Eisenstein's points, such as the one about the development of post-Wellsian pulp and non-pulp SF traditions, about Wells's ping-pong game with Verne across the
decades, etc. However, I would not think Wells cared very much for physics except insofar as he realized that the scientifically ignorant but by-science-impressed reader of his "scientific romances" had to be hoodwinked into believing that the Time Machine, Griffin's invisibility, or Cavorite were possible, or at least not manifestly impossible. Wells's heart, and the raison d'être of his early SF, was in menacing sociobiological and cosmological evolution. Thus the vague non-sequiturs about the fourth dimension in The Time Machine seem to me quite subordnate to—in fact not much more than plausible motivation for—the Time Traveller's sequence of horrific visions. If one takes them in that way, it could be argued that this sequence (rendered possible by the device of the Time Machine) is the one novelty in that story, as are the Selenites in The First Men in the Moon. I will, however, readily acknowledge that, whereas Wells's discrimination between a story in which anything is possible and one that keeps the marvelous under strict control seems to me basic for any theory of SF as different from fantasy, his insistence on one impossibility per story seems to me theoretically unclear and in need of further discussion (perhaps one general idea manifesting itself in a number of structural elements might fill the bill?).
As concerns Cavorite, in particular, I am afraid that, though I have perpetrated six years of science studies and obtained a European degree equivalent to the M.Sc., I still do not understand how rolling up the steel sections of Cavor's sphere "after the fashion of a roller blind" (FMM §3) would fully prevent the anti-gravity effect. Cavorite is not an anti-gravity force but a substance "impervious to gravitation" (§3), and in §2 we get a careful explanation of how which
everything above a sheet of it laid on the ground (such as the roof and the air up to the limits of the atmosphere) would instantly become weightless and fly off into space. I don't see how one could shield Cavorite from itself: a force can become neutralized but a substance cannot. Therefore, even when fully rolled up as a window-shade (say into three circles around the sphere which could be called its tropic of Cancer, tropic of Capricorn, and Arctic circle), the gravitation between the Earth and those (say) three rows of rolled-up Cavorite blinds around a room-sized sphere will still be cut off. It would seem to me that the same effect which made the experimental sheet of Cavorite fly off into space would lift the sphere too—regardless of the fact that most of the sphere would be subject to gravity—after the fashion of a very rapid balloon uplifted by the effect of the weightless air above the rolled up (but still sizable) blinds. Thus, contrary to Alex Eisenstein, I do not think that if Cavorite could exist, its effects on the sphere would be as Wells describes them. I am
not sure about all this, and perhaps a physicist reader of SFS could enlighten us further. (But let me quote a relevant passage from "A Scientist Looks at Science Fiction," by J.H. Fremlin, Professor of Applied Radioactivity, University of Birmingham, U.K., published in Alta: The University of Birmingham Review, 2, ix (1969):134, "[Cavorite] contradicts the Laws of thermodynamics. To cover the space ship with Cavorite 'blinds' would require as much
mechanical work as would be needed to remove the space ship to an infinite distance from Earth and their removal would liberate enough energy to turn the whole ship into a gas much a propagandist: propaganda must somehow be
hotter than the surface of the Sun.") Until then I would be inclined to treat Cavorite as so much entertaining and stimulating mumbo-Jumbo, exactly like the Time Machine, Davidson's eyes, the New Accelerator, or other pseudo-scientific devices introduced by Wells in order to validate new visions. These visions and not the devices are, to my mind, what makes Wells's writings SF. The devices themselves were, apparently, taken over and readapted by Wells from subliterary SF—and I still think The History of a Voyage to the Moon, with its totally logical counteraction of earth-repellent power is a good bet for being the source of Cavorite.
None of this precludes a search for further sources, and, perhaps most important, a study of how Wells transmogrified them. Let me use this occasion to add another note about probable sources for Wells's catastrophes in "The Star" and In the Days of the Comet. It seems to me that these stories refer back not only to Poe's holocaust in "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" or to Flammarion's La Fin du monde (1893) but also—and I think primarily—George Griffith's refashioning of Flammarion in Olga Romanoff, and to Kenneth Folingsby's (pseud.?) Meda: A Tale of the Future (1892),
which introduces an earth changed for the better by a comet which altered the composition of atmospheric gases. (Also, Meda's future Britons of small size and with large heads may well have given some pointers to Wells's early aliens. As for Olga Romanoff, it was the Griffith novel I had principally in mind—with a subsidiary role for The Angel of the Revolution—when speak ing about the debts Wells's The War in the Air owes to him; but perhaps the name of Griffin testifies to that even earlier.) —DS.
Four Complaints. Science-Fiction Studies is most welcome, especially any Lem, which I turn to avidly. I have asked our library to subscribe.
But I have some complaints.
First, Ursula Le Guin, for all her insight, is too kind a reviewer. She picks a rather obvious piece of satire as the best in View From Another Shore—a very necessary but still rather uneven book. And I would like to say that what is so "Russian" about the Strugatskys is that they know what feudal conditions are like. Americans have never known; Russians knew well into the 20th century what a backward peasantry and the terrific gap between classes meant. It is this realism that informs Hard to Be a God. It is truly a splendid book.
Second, I have a bone to pick with Robert
Scholes. In talking about the ideology of This Perfect Day and The Sheep Look Up he neglects the quality of the books. Levin's brainless behemoth doesn't, I think, intend the mildness Scholes finds in it; it's just diluted Huxley, period. And Brunner (who writes much better)
makes what I consider the elementary error of a propagandist: propaganda must somehow become a source of energy, not just a collection of horror stories. Sheep is energy-sapping, depressing, and apathy-making. Either we must have
the energy of agit-prop (like Waiting for Lefty) and hence some success within the novel, or at least anger and the will to fight, or we must have analysis—the reason for Brecht's famous "cooling-off" effect. It's to make one think. Neither Levin (consider the biology in the book!) nor Brunner (who at least gives one a whole, accurate novel) provides either energy or real social analysis. In fact, they're both bad books; Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! which is infinitely simpler and less urbane is nonetheless a better book on the subject, far more alive, and more communicative of hope simply through its own dramatic energy. The very melodrama helps.
Third, I agree with Damon Knight. (no complaint).
Third, Reginald Bretnor's anthology of essays is a bad book by and large. There are a few good essays, which your reviewer mentions.
There is an awful lot of superficial stuff, which your reviewer doesn't mention. (Where is Silverberg, Knight, Delany, Carr, Wilhelm, Sallis, et al.?) None of us is first-rate next to the standard Lem sets up, but there are degrees.
Fourth, about David Ketterer's book, New Worlds for Old. It's not Mr. Ketterer's book in particular, but two beefs I've long had about lit. crit—the first, that I earnestly believe NWFO or other conscience (perhaps Mr. K's own) standing over his shoulder and making him link SF to some "respectable" tradition, so that poor old Wieland comes in again and Melville
and whatever makes SF look harmless, ancient, respectable—and not itself.
The second point is related to symbol-hunt-ing, but not exactly linked to it. (For example, in "Wieland" even I can find two puns Mr. K didn't: "wee" land [tiny] and "we" i.e. "our" land—US = USA.) This sort of thing can go so far that it falls right through the (inevitably)
porous texture of any work and comes through
the other side. It becomes totally creative in the
Moreover, to find certain patterns in books—the novel, the human condition (only one?), the American experience (whose?) and so on is useful, sometimes. But in so much literary criticism a kind of eerie quasi-causality takes over, so that we end up believing Wieland, say, to have been written by The American Experience playing footsie with The Apocalyptic Imagination, and not by poor Charles Brockden Brown, who somehow gets lost in the shuffle. Untouched by human hands, you might say: ideas causing ideas, traditions giving birth to books, and none of it having anything to do with
real history, real economics, real politics or geography or people (who, after all, not only
write the stuff but buy it and read it). Just once,
Mr. K takes a stab at speculating why a convention has remained a convention, e.g. the pastoral garden as the Perfect Place, and can only conclude that somehow the garden has gained the status of a convention. As Stephen Marcus mentioned in The Other Victorians, no one seems to wonder what social or personal purposes conventions actually serve. Why do some "stick" and others not?
I should add that Mr. K's chapter on Vonnegut was excellent and his exegesis on Poe so
good that someone really ought to write those stories because Poe didn't. As Aldiss says in Billion Year Spree, Poe knows but can't say. My thesis is that some stories must be told in the arabesque way because they're too silly to
tell any other way. (Lovecraft is far worse inthis respect.) "In a moment of mental alienation...." Well!
But I must jib at his praise of John Boyd's The Last Starship from Earth, which (although
it lends itself well to K's thesis) is not even a
passable book. It's awful, in the pejorative
sense. The sophomoric nerd who tells the story
isn't the narrator; he's John Boyd, the author,
as a look at any other Boyd book can verify.
Mr. K has fallen through the book again and come out the other side with his own original creation.
What we need for literature is a lot less of
the Novel and The Tradition and The Imagination and The Human Condition and a lot more
of what really mediates between all these abstractions. Otherwise literary criticism is like
finding a correlation between the sunspot cycle
and the stock market (there is one, by the way;
the sunspot cycle correlates with a lot of things)
and instantly declaring a simple, causal relation between the two.
Joyce Carol Oates recently complained of
some article in which the symbolism of a narrative
was discovered by the act of finding the Old English root of a particular word—a root
whose meaning is no longer associated with the word—and this in a narrative written by someone whose knowledge of anything but 20th-century English is zilch. This is the worst possible extreme of the kind of thing I'm complaining about—it's acting as if the language wrote the novelist, not vice versa. In fact, it's magical thinking.
It's getting so that every time I see a definite article, I blench. Sorry, the definite article.
(For Boyd-watchers, Sex and the High Command is a good example of Boyding.)
I had said nasty, vicious things about Mr.
Ketterer's book in my earlier letter. Then realizing I'd read only the first 5 pp. (and blenching),
I read the whole book. It's not as bad as I thought, and some of it's quite good, but it's part of a bad school. Or so I believe and so write you. —Joanna Russ.
In response to Ms. Russ. Since Ms. Le Guin and Messrs.
Scholes, Nicol, and Ketterer can all defend themselves quite adequately, I will confine this
response to the statement that "someone really
ought to write those stories because Poe didn't,"
which could apply to Mr. Ketterer's essay in SFS #3 as well as to the Poe chapter in New Worlds. When the essay was first submitted to SFS, my reaction was similar to Ms. Russ's: i.e., I felt that many of the annotations just would not do, and so began an epistolary argument
with Mr. Ketterer that lasted for many months (and forced me to reread Poe)—an argument
which in the end went almost entirely his way. That is, although he accepted two or three of my
suggestions, in nearly all cases he persuaded me that what he had found in the tales was actually there instead of, or as well as, what I had found;
and though I would still annotate some of the tales in a somewhat different way (selecting
different details on the basis of a somewhat
different emphasis), I have no doubt at all as to
the legitimacy of each of his annotations—or, if
you will, that "those stories" are stories that Poe wrote. New Worlds for Old has come in for a good deal of discussion in the few months since its publication, some of it enthusiastic and someof it wrathful. Mr. Ketterer expects to reply to some of the adverse criticism in an early issue of SFS. —RDM.
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