Science Fiction Studies

#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987


Professor Kagarlitsky: An Update

In SFS No. 32 (1984), I reported on Julius Kagarlitsky's dismissal from his chair at the Lunacharsky Theatrical Institute in Moscow. Since then this noted scholar has been unable to travel abroad. Although he was initially given permission to attend the International H.G. Wells Symposium in London in July 1986, that permission was withdrawn at the last moment. This action on the part of the Soviet authorities was reported in the Times Literary Supplement and elsewhere.                

It may be a reflection of the new spirit in evidence in the USSR that Professor Kagarlitsky was able to come to London for a 10-day visit in April 1987. He came at the invitation of the Wells Society (of which he is a Vice-President) and with the assistance of the British Council and the Soviet Writers' Union. At a well-attended meeting, he read the paper he had intended to give at last year's symposium, and held his listeners spellbound with an extempore account of Wells's reception in the USSR, ranging from pre-revolutionary times to the circumstances surrounding his collected edition of Wells in Russian and his critical book The Life and Thought of H.G. Wells (1966).

Though he cannot resume his academic post, Julius Kagarlitsky remains fully active as a writer and scholar. He has completed a fictionalized biography of Wells (to be published next year) and a review of recent Wells studies scheduled to appear in Voprosy Literatury. He is currently finishing a major work on Charles Dickens. There seems no reason why he should not be in a position to accept further invitations to visit the West and to renew his many friendships within the SF community. -- Patrick Parrinde, rUniversity of Reading

O'Neill Revisited

I would like to add a small footnote to Robert Crossley's interesting discussion (in SFS No. 41) of Land Under England by Joseph O'Neill.                

It is only very nearly true, as Crossley claims, that the novel has been "overlooked for decades." In fact, Harry Harrison and I reprinted it in our SF Master Series, published by New English Library. It appeared in February 1978, together with the Introduction, specially commissioned, by Anthony Storr, which I see Overlook Press have now reprinted (without permission of the author).                

A small amount of space is devoted to O'Neill's novel in my Trillion Year Spree. He is certainly to be recommended to anyone studying utopian or dystopian subjects—or indeed, the question of family psychology, an aspect of the matter which Crossley found no occasion to enter into. -- Brian Aldiss, Oxford, England


Scholars and Pedants

I was glad to see Kim Stanley Robinson's lively reply to the condescending, and quite unfair, review by Merritt Abrash (in SFS No. 37) of his book The Novels of Philip K. Dick. Robinson stated what was clear to me from the beginning: his book is a work of scholarship, and in the best sense of the word. I recently had occasion to read the book very carefully, in preparation for a conference on Dick I coordinated with Jacques Goimard last June in Paris. This book kept me, no Dick "specialist," very much afloat in the heady waters of a French academic conference. To call such a book, as Abrash does, a "failure of scholarship," is plain wrong, and makes me wonder what scholarship is for anyway.                

I wish, first of all, to come to Kim Robinson's defense, to show why his book is sound, and even exciting, scholarship. But second of all, I want to address the larger issue behind this review, and this exchange. For what should be the nature of SF "scholarship" in general? How should it be operating, and what should it be doing? I sense, in the condescending tone of the review, an a priori rejection of Robinson's work, perhaps because he is a writer. He has excellent academic credentials, notably a PhD in literature from U.C. San Diego. And he is a very good writer too. As both, somehow Abrash has difficulty dealing with him. But if Abrash represents the "scholarly community" of SF, I wonder if this is the sort of community it needs. The dispute, as with everything in academia, is over territorial imperative. But the territory of SF is simply too big to allow us to exclude the writer who is also a critic. There is room enough for all.                

Abrash stacks the deck against Robinson from the first line: he, the reviewer, "got a kick" out of the book; for Robinson writes "engagingly," indeed even has "evident high regard" for Dick's work. He writes well, his heart's in the right place, but (so it seems) he is not a scholar. The phrase Abrash keeps using is "respectable scholarship." Are we to assume that, in order to be respectable, such a scholar cannot at the same time be "engaging," that we cannot enjoy his writing? Apparently correct. And of course (horror of horrors) he cannot be a "fan"—that is, have "high regard" for the author he writes about. Abrash's approach is clear. Dick is now entering the canon, so we must apply the apparatus of "serious" scholarship to him.               

But after invoking this figure of the "serious" scholar to humble Robinson, can Abrash prove he is not one? The answer is no. He takes Robinson's study to task in four areas, and in none of these areas, as Robinson in his reply makes crystal clear (see SFS No. 41), are his arguments convincing. The first three are quibbles: Robinson makes "factual" errors; he ignores the short stories (the title of the book is "the Novels of Philip K. Dick"); his coverage of the novels is "thin." Robinson responds to all these points in great detail, so I need not repeat him. I wish to add only one thing. Robinson's goal, within space limitations, is to give a balanced sense of Dick's overall accomplishment as a novelist. He divides his work into periods, and singles out in each one or two representative novels to discuss at length. I found his choice fascinating, for it reflected a knowledge of the writer's work, not a bow to the canon. The problem in dealing with a sociologically "interesting" writer like Dick is over-selectivity, focussing on this or that work because it speaks to the ideological affinities of the scholar. Instead of this, Robinson aroused my interest in good, but often ignored, works: The Penultimate Truth, Galactic Pot Healer, Clans of the Alphane Moon.

The fourth area is Robinson's scholarship. And here the charge is serious. It is all the more serious in that it is based on almost no evidence. Or on hypothetical evidence: what Robinson should have done, had the documents existed to do it with. He tells us that Robinson ignored other scholarship on Dick, and should have cited all kinds of articles, whether pertinent or not. He should have had an "exhaustive" bibliography. These demands are curious, given the nature of the critical apparatus on Dick as it exists today. There is some secondary material on Dick. But as Abrash must know, when Robinson wrote his study the primary sources remained largely unexplored. His book is the product of extensive research using unpublished manuscripts and papers. He compared texts at various stages of development, exploring the genesis of works. For this reason, Robinson's is a pioneering study. There is evidence of this on every page of it. But Abrash is silent on this scholarly aspect, as if he did not even see it.                

Robinson gives an eloquent defense of his method:

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.

Abrash would probably reply: yes, this is fine for a critic, but a scholar must do more. But what can he mean by "scholar"? In regard to Robinson's study he ignores primary source scholarship. And he brushes aside critical acumen and method (everywhere obvious in the book) as clever and diverting, but not solid. And there is the key word. Abrash is evoking, against the amateur critic, the august weight of scholarly tradition. It does not seem to bother him that, in this case is hardly any tradition at all. He tells us that himself when, absurdly. he damns Robinson's book by comparing it unfavorably to a series of studies that had not, or had not yet, been written.                

A fixation on secondary sources blinds Abrash then to the very primary nature of Robinson's book. But why this fixation? It goes against the very nature of the job to be done in SF scholarship. SF is, if anything, a vast and protean field of texts and writers. It is a field of ever-shifting boundaries, and one just beginning to be explored and mapped. Much bibliography and scholarship of the "spadework" variety is being done here, much of it done with the excitement and despair felt when working with new and ever-changing things. Series like the Starmont House and Borgo Press monographs, on the scholarly end, attest to this activity. But these works of scholarship are generally not reviewed, or reviewed with indifference. Abrash's review of Robinson is strident. Why?                

If Abrash's tone of academic snobbery is any indication, he is seeking, by his appeals to scholarly "tradition," to set Dick apart from the SF horde, as an author worthy of academic study. By which he can only mean application of the full apparatus of that study to Dick, even where it is not applicable or does not yet exist. The only way I can explain his attack on Robinson is that Robinson violates, in his eyes, the purity of such an approach. After all, Robinson is a writer, and perhaps even a fan. This must explain his enthusiasm, and his willingness to dirty his hands with primary sources.                

Academics like Abrash seem concerned with elevating a handful of writers, by fiat, to respectable status. By respectable, they mean scholarship-worthy. The goal no doubt is to create a self-sustaining system. And some writers, like Delany and Le Guin, are willing to help the scholar out by producing "metafiction," writing that enters the loop at the secondary level, in order to generate tertiary references. But should this be called scholarship? Dick left no metafictions, only fiction, and a lot of that. Robinson studies it and puts order in it. Abrash rejects this in favor of some sort of canonical fantasy, where he multiplies a handful of articles into a "tradition" so as to surround the writer with an instant scholarly apparatus, hence with an academic raison d'être.               

For Dick, Abrash would imitate the accretions that have grown up around figures like Cervantes and Shakespeare. But SF has no Shakespeares yet, and we cannot invent them with the wave of a wand. For to wish to do so is to forget to build the base. That base should not be a tomb. Gregory Benford warns us, as critics and scholars of SF, of the danger of "embalming Wells and entombing Le Guin." An Abrash, erecting his monument of scholarship around Dick, is entombing him. In this narrow space, a scholar like Robinson is no longer free to "concentrate on his own thoughts"; he cannot praise his subject, he must bury him in footnotes. The problem is serious: not to see the primary nature of scholarship is not to see the primary object of scholarship, which is SF as a whole. SF texts are being produced in ever vaster numbers and (in terms of past literary production) with unprecedented speed. This is not the academy, it is empirical reality. A Proteus is out there, and to wrestle it we need more scholars like Robinson, scholars not afraid to dig in with both hands, and to shape recalcitrant material into their own visions of order and judgment. -- George Slusser, University of California, Riverside

 I didn't have to get very far into Professor Slusser's letter to realize I was in bad trouble. Not a chance of getting away with anything; the man can see right through me. My intentions, tactics, even fixations are a wide open book to him. He pins down my approach, what I evoke, what I'm concerned with, what my goal "no doubt" is, what I "would imitate" for the image of Dick, even what I would "probably reply" to Robinson. He knows the explanation for my seemingly inexplicable "attack" on Robinson. He even detects that my crediting Robinson with originality, insights, fresh thinking, and engaging writing is actually a condescending and snobbish way of humbling him; and as for my statement that "I enjoyed his book and learned things from it"—well, how insulting can a reviewer get?                

All this puts me at a serious disadvantage, of course, since I don't have the extrasensory talents necessary for grasping the motives and mental operations of a total stranger on the basis of one short document. How persuasive can I expect to sound when Slusser knows all about my hidden agenda and I don't know a thing about his? I'd better just let my review speak for itself regarding his specific remarks, and restrict myself to merely pointing out a few puzzlements I find in his letter.                

For instance, I don't understand why he takes such a narrow view of the nature of scholarship. Of course the primary sources are of great importance—that's so obvious that it wouldn't occur to me to say anything about a scholar using them unless that use was noteworthy either for its methodology or for the fundamental nature of the findings, neither of which I felt applied in Robinson's case. But my main problem is with Slusser's determination to extol primary sources to the detriment of secondary ones. Aren't both types necessary in thorough scholarship? Doesn't a good scholar take into consideration any sources, whether primary or secondary, which may illuminate his or her subject? Robinson evidently thinks secondary sources are pretty important, since his book contains about 40 references to them, many in the form of quotations. Some of these make points which do not agree with his own, so his statement quoted approvingly by Slusser—which justifies scholars in ignoring opinions that cannot "be put to use"—seems to be theory rather than practice. Yet Slusser calls this proposal for shortchanging secondary sources "eloquent." I guess I'm at a loss to understand why competent use of primary sources justifies inadequate and subjective use of secondary ones.               

I also don't understand how Slusser can give such high praise to scholarship examining development of texts and "exploring the genesis of works" and still defend Robinson's omission of Dick's short stories. Several of Dick's novels draw characters and themes from the short stories, and in some cases—two of which I mentioned in my review—the way the characters and themes are treated in the stories illuminates their meanings in the novels. Doesn't that make such stories elements in the genesis of those particular novels? Isn't "The Defenders" a significant primary source for plot and thematic aspects of The Penultimate Truth? I would have expected Slusser to deal with Robinson rather sternly in this matter, instead of avoiding the question through a literal reading of the book's title.                

I felt it was worth bringing up these puzzlements because to me they suggest confusion and inconsistency in Slusser's ideas about scholarship, which after all is the central issue in his letter. However, there is one point on which I entirely agree with him (and Robinson). He is angered that the book review was called "A Failure of Scholarship." I don't blame him, and in fact never called it that. Someone at SFS attached the heading to the review without consultation. I could hardly consider the scholarship a failure and still say that "a lot of Robinson's points are either convincing or constructively provocative" (amazing how many favorable remarks slipped past my inveterate hostility!).                

My actual words were that the scholarship was "inadequate" and that the book suffers from a "lack of what might be called scholarly judgment." I came to those conclusions by measuring Robinson's work against traditional scholarly standards of accuracy, breadth, and informed consideration of differing views. Scholarship may include more than that, but it certainly doesn't include less. -- Merritt Abrash, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute


Calls for Papers

"Literature and Science" is the theme of the 16th Annual 20th-Century Literature conference to be held at the University of Louisville, Feb. 25-27, 1988. Those interested in reading a critical paper, poetry, or fiction should submit a ts. by Oct. 15, 1987  (papers must be accompanied by a 250-word abstract). For further information, write: Marcia W. Dalton, Dept. of Classical & Modern Languages, University of Louisville, KY 40292.

SFS would like to publish a special issue on Francophone SF. We are looking for essays that deal more or less broadly with any aspect of SF in French (in any medium) and/or with relations between French and English SF. Potential essayists should send one copy of an abstract to SFS's Montreal address and another to the guest editor of the issue: Dr George Slusser/ The Library/ PO Box 5900/ University of Californian Riverside, CA 92517. The deadline for abstracts is Jan. 15, 1988.

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