Science Fiction Studies

#41 = Volume 14, Part 1 = March 1987



On June 14, 1986, Jorge Luis Borges succumbed to liver cancer. He was 87, and for a number of years had been in ill health (quite apart from eye problems, which had beset him for most of his adult life and left him completely blind since the late 1950s).                

Borges began receiving (well-deserved) international recognition in the 1960s as a consequence of his being co-winner (with Samuel Beckett) of the 1961 Formentor Prize (which provided for the translation of his work). For the better part of three decades previously, he was a librarian; and that was appropriate enough for the author of "The Library of Babel" and the man who once said, "I can't think of myself in a bookless world." Other details, however, sit less easily with the modestly selfcomposed and quietly assertive personality that comes across in most of the interviews with him (and not only, say, in the videotape aired on PBS about ten years ago, but even in the bumbled question-and-answer session with him at the 1983 MLA Convention in New York). We may not have much trouble reconciling the Borges who put Argentina on the international literary map with the man who learned ancient Scandinavian languages by having his mother read him grammar books about them, or even with the man whom Juan Peron proposed to make inspector of rabbits and poultry after relieving him of his librarial post or the man who left Buenos Aires in disgust at the time of the 1982 war with Britain and spent his remaining years in self-imposed exile in Geneva. But the Borges who married briefly at the age of 68 and then a second time a few weeks before his death, and even more the Borges who joined the cry of "lock 'em, horns" at football games during his year of residence at the University of Texas, is a different matter.                

Except as such features of his "voluble biography" (Auden's phrase) evince something of his passion and dedication, gorges's writings know nothing of them. Indeed, it is totally consistent with the stoicism of his elegantly simple literary manner that he should have kept his private tribulations and his personal anguish secret from the ficciones and essays by which he delivered himself to his contemporaries... and to the ages. That self-created Borges is the Borges remembered in "TlÔn, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "The Babylon Lottery," "Kaflka and his Precursors," and a multitude of other works of his that have had their impact on our style of perceiving the world, regardless of whether we can read a word of them in the—highly Latinate—Spanish original; and to these we can safely apply what Borges himself said of certain of H.G. Wells's "scientific romances": "they will be incorporated, like the fables of Theseus or Ahaseurus, into the general memory of the species and even transcend the fame of their creator or the extinction of the language in which they were written."

Gordon N. Ray died of a heart attack on December 15, 1986. Famous for his critical and editorial work on Thackeray and H.G. Wells, Ray was the person chiefly responsible for the University of Illinois' acquisition of Wells's literary archives in 1954. For 13 years, up until September of 1985, Ray presided over the Guggenheim Foundation.

Andrei Tarkovsky died in Paris late last December, a victim of cancer at the age of 54. His seven feature-length films include two SF masterpieces: Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1980), the latter an adaptation of the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic. According to the Montreal Gazette of December 30, 1986, he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship when he decided not to return to the USSR in 1984 after directing Nostalgia in Italy. His final achievement, The Sacrifice, was shot in Sweden in 1985 but has yet to be released.—RMP



Philip K. Dick in France

A three-day colloquium on "Philip K. Dick and Modern Science Fiction" was held at the Chateau de Morigny, just outside of Paris, in late June. Co-sponsored by the Eaton Library of the University of California at Riverside and the University of Paris-IV (Sorbonne), the conference brought together North Americans and French writers, scholars, and fans to talk and exchange ideas about the work of Philip Dick. There were more than 20 papers, with approximately one-third of them in English; most of the debate and discussion was in French. The ten North American participants were primarily academics (e.g., John Huntington, Frank McConnell, Eric Rabkin, and George Slusser); but the contingent also comprised writer Kim Stanley Robinson (whose thesis on Dick has been published by UMI Press) and Anne Dick (Phil's wife in the late 1950s and early '60s). Among the French were some of the major figures in the French SF community, including co-organizer (with Slusser) Jacques Goimard, the writer and critic Gérard Klein, and Gérard Cordesse, Marcel Thaon, Pascal Thomas, Daniel Riche, and the young novelist, Emmanuel Jouanne (who is also translating Radio Free Albemuth).                

While there were a number of interesting overviews as well as explications of specific works, the central focus of the conference lay in the interchange between the French and the North Americans about how the reading and interpreting of Dick's fiction were mediated through the question of differing receptions of Dick's work in France and the US. There was general agreement that recognition and popularity had come for his work much earlier in France than elsewhere—indeed, during the 1970s, the French considered him to be the preeminent SF writer, at least until his visit to Metz in 1978. The details of Dick's popularity in France were spelled out by Roger Bozzetto, and then reflected upon by Klein, who spoke as an editor involved in the translation and publication of many of Dick's novels since the 1950s. The discussion of the causes for this popularity, and the explanations for the differing receptions of his work in France and North America, provided a fascinating and revealing thread to the discussions. Central to these debates were the "socio-historical" explanation of Serge Clément (with regard to the relatively recent arrival of consumerism in France and the impact of May '68) and the "psycho-historical" analysis of Marcel Thaon. In explaining the special French affinity for his work, critics pointed to Dick's increasingly political themes in the late 'SOs and also to the well-known French appreciation of the "schizophrenic" dimension of his work during the late 1960s. This latter point was spelled out by Thaon in his opening address, in which he discussed the tension between schizophrenia and paranoia in Dick's life and work, and then argued that this opposition could be seen as well in the different reception of Dick's work in France compared to the US. Despite Hiroshima, American SF readers are marked by the "paranoid" belief in science's ability to know the world, while the French, for various historical reasons, are not. In explaining Dick's reception in France and the specificity of his work, other critics referred to his "realism," to Dick as a "prophet of libertarianism," as a "modernist," a "post-modernist," an "existentialist," a"gnostic," and even a "pataphysician." This comparative focus was also important to the discussion of the place of his writing in the context of modern SF (Gérard Cordesse: particularly in the session devoted to the impact of his work on a new generation of American and French writers (particularly since his death), and in papers on the American "cyber-punks" (Daniel Riche) and on a new generation of French writers (Emmanuel Jouanne).                

The conference concluded with Anne Dick's reading of excerpts from her as-yet-unpublished account of her years with Phil in Marin County (1958-62). This provided interesting ammunition for the various sides in the ongoing secondary debate at the conference about Dick's intentions and the uses and abuses of biographical criticism, particularly in questions about: his unconscious or conscious use of various philosophers (e.g., Heidegger); the role of Gnosticism in his later work and the related question of how seriously or how literally he or we care to take his later "mystical" novels; and even his sanity (a debate on which broke out at the end of the conference following Rabkin's hotly-contested claim that Dick was no longer sane towards the end of his life).                

Many of the French essays will be appearing in the special Dick issue of Science Fiction edited in Paris by Daniel Riche. Some of them may also appear in translation, together with a selection of English-language presentations, in a future Special Issue of SFS (this, if it materializes, will probably not appear until 1988). -- Peter Fitting, University of Toronto


Whose "Failure of Scholarship"?

I would like to respond to Merritt Abrash's review of my book The Novels of Philip K. Dick, a review entitled "A Failure of Scholarship."               

In his review, Abrash claims to identify "inadequate scholarship in four areas." The first he calls "errors of fact," and he lists three. In discussing The Man in the High Castle, I said that Baynes pays for his actions in San Francisco with his life, because in his last scene he returns to Germany and is picked up by men he suspects are from the SS. Then while discussing Ubik I said that the people kept in half-life were injured or dying, and might even be cured. I may be wrong about the possibility of curing them, but Abrash is also wrong when he claims that they "are consistently referred to and physically dealt with as irreversibly dead." If that were true, people would not keep calling them on the phone.                

Abrash then claims I made three errors in one sentence: I said, "Hamilton lost his job because he was once slightly involved with socialists." Mr Abrash comments, "It was his wife who seemed to be considerably involved with Communists." But I was describing the situation from Hamilton's perspective; and I think it may be said that if a man's wife is considerably involved with Communists, he is thereby slightly involved with them. My three errors are reduced to one—I said socialists instead of Communists.                

So much for my "factual errors." I hope it is clear that these three objections do not make much of a case for inadequate scholarship.                

Abrash's second area of inadequate scholarship consists solely of the fact that he does not like one of my reasons for not discussing Dick's short stories. The disagreement does not lie in the area of scholarship at all.               

Abrash next complains that I have not given enough "coverage" to some of Dick's novels, especially Dr Bloodmoney. It is true that many of Dick's novels could have volumes of criticism written about them, but I wanted to discuss all the novels as part of an investigation of Dick's artistic development, and I chose how much emphasis to give each book partly in accordance with how much it could tell us about that artistic growth. In any case, this is not a matter of "inadequate scholarship," but of an emphasis reflecting the constraints of the project I chose.                

The fourth area, "most significant" of them all, concerns my "use—or lack of use—of other scholarship about Dick." Mr Abrash terms this use "frequently erratic and occasionally inexcusable," and criticizes the bibliography, the appendix on Dick criticism, and the absence of any mention of four articles. This is his most serious criticism, and must be dealt with in detail.               

First, the bibliography. There are different kinds of bibliographies. One kind attempts to list every critical piece on the subject under discussion. Another, much more common, lists only the sources cited in the text. My bibliography is of the latter kind.               

My appendix on Dick criticism is titled "Short History of Scholarship on Philip K. Dick." Abrash condemns it for lacking a completeness that it specifically declines to attempt.                

Abrash goes on to complain that I made no reference to a few specific articles. And of course I did not refer to all of the essays on particular themes in Dick's own work; I mentioned only those I could put to use. Abrash says that there are at least three analyses of the Taoist/I Ching elements in High Castle; does that really mean it is poor scholarship to analyze the book from other viewpoints? I don't think so. If earlier criticism can be put to use, then it should be; if not, one should concentrate on one's own thoughts. A critic should not list other critics' observations just to prove they have been read. And bringing up opinions irrelevant to one's project merely to "refute" them, as Abrash suggests one should do, is bad practice and a waste of space.                

Returning to the main point of Abrash's fourth area: although it is true that I omitted mentioning some articles on specific aspects of Dick's work, it is emphatically not true that I slighted the Dick criticism that existed when I wrote my book. On the contrary, all of the major Dick critics, the critics who have shaped our understanding of his work as a whole—Suvin, Lem, Jameson, Fitting, Pagetti, Aldiss, Taylor— appear in my book, and have their insights described, evaluated, and used. Also there are many articles by other writers referred to more briefly. In short, my scholarship in this matter of earlier criticism is full and, I hope, reasonably discriminating and helpful.                

After completing the description of his four areas of inadequate scholarship, Abrash devotes two paragraphs to what he perceives as the strong points of my book. He lists "SF and technological change; the dystopian quality of Dick's early novels; use of psychic phenomena in SF; the significance of reality breakdown in Dick's novels; the function of cultural trivia in Dick's Martian landscapes; the employment of varying numbers of point-of-view characters; and the VALIS trilogy generally." He also mentions "discussions of the relationship between SF and metaphor, and of Dick's inversion of the basic conventions of the SF genre," and "ingenious generalizations about periods of Dick's writing."               

Now these, it seems to me, are significant issues, and there are a lot of them. But Abrash devotes not another word to them—he does not discuss them at all. And his quick acknowledgment of them comes in a paragraph that begins,"AII these shortcomings make it likely that The Novels of Philip K. Dick will drop from sight as new studies of Dick appear—Rickman, Warrick, Fitting, Jakubowski, and Anne Dick (his third wife) are known to be working on same." As Abrash has not read these studies (three of which have been announced as biographies), the suggestion that my book will be superseded by them seems a bit premature.                

In the final paragraph, Abrash compares my book to a movie's coming attraction, saying that it is no more than "a rapid sequence of intriguing images." This ignores the overarching subject that structures my book, which is the account of Dick's development as an artist. I analyzed the tension between the realist and SF sides of Dick, from the parallel work of the '50s, to the dominance of SF in the '60s, to the triumphant return of realism in the '80s. The structure of my account is fairly obvious—hard, in fact, to miss.                

Taken together, all of these problems—omissions, distortions, the avoidance of substantive issues in favor of quibbles, the consistent and objectionable tone of condescension (my goals are "brave," my cogency "surprising," etc.) add up to an unfair review. Mr Abrash presumes to tell me what good scholarship is; I would like to return the favor. Respectable scholarship, when writing a review, means devoting nine paragraphs to discussing the substance of the book, and two to objecting to minor matters (and not the reverse ratio); it means striving for accuracy; and it means using a civil tone, as one among equals. All these qualities Mr Abrash's review lacks. In fact, it is not my book but his review that is the failure of scholarship. -- Kim Stanley Robinson, Zurich, Switzerland  


Upcoming Conferences (With a Call for Papers)

The topic for the SF&F section at the South Atlantic MLA Meeting (to be held in Atlanta, November 5-7, 1987) will be "Science Fiction and Literary Canons." Inquiries and proposals for papers should be directed to: Patrick A. McCarthy/ English Dept./ University of Miami/ Coral Gables, FL 33124. The completed papers themselves should be posted to the same address in time to be received on or (preferably) before May 1st.

The Ad Astra SF Society will be holding its seventh convention (in tandem with "Canvention 7," the annual Canadian National SF Convention) on June 12-14, 1987, at the Howard Johnson's Airport Hotel in Toronto. Guests of honor will include C.J. Cherryh and Elisabeth Vonarburg. For more information, contact Ad Astra/ PO Box
7276, Sta. "A"/ Toronto, Canada MSW 1X9.

The 12th annual meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies will be held in Media, Pennsylvania, October 8-11, 1987. If you wish to organize a panel or give a paper, please contact (by June 30th) the program chairman: Prof. Carol Farley-Kessler/ English Dept./ Penn State University, Delaware County Campus/ 25 Yearsley Mill Rd./ Media, PA 19063.


Some Words for Our Subscribers

Accompanying your renewals of late have been a larger than usual number of expressions of approval for SFS; and while this is to the credit primarily of our Contributors, we are nevertheless most grateful to those of you who have given us such encouragement.

Your kind words are especially welcome at this time, which continues to be more than usually stressful. One source of trouble we hope we can speak of in the past tense, now that we have found an affordable and reliable printer again (after dealings with others who quickly proved to be exorbitant or incompetent). That shift, however, occasioned the delay in publishing the Index for 1986 (at the very last minute, we found out that we had to cut four pages from our Lem issue if we didn't want to see four blank pages bound in, and the Index was the only possible candidate for omission). Our new printer's set-up has also necessitated a change you've already noticed: laminated covers.                

second problem area is not going to vanish; indeed, there are signs that it is becoming larger. Here we are referring to the efficiency of postal delivery, particularly as this involves Canadian and US government services and more particularly still where cross-border mail is concerned. As you may know, we make every effort to see to it that you receive SFS by the end of the month indicated on the cover at the latest; but the North American postal authorities are nullifying that effort to an increasing degree. Furthermore, the conspiratorially-minded might suspect that said authorities have conscripted a growing number of workers specializing in the art of separating envelopes from their contents. Given this situation, we would appreciate your additional allowance of time before you notify us that your copy of SFS has not arrived.—RMP

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