Science Fiction Studies

#31 = Volume 10, Part 3 = November 1983


A Memorial to Robert Plank

Robert Plank died of a heart attack on July 15, 1983. He had been in poor health for some time (which didn't keep him from working), but had recovered sufficiently to travel to California just before his sudden death. He was not one to seek the limelight, being a rather quiet personality, and this may have contributed to the fact that most of the SF reference works save for scholarly bibliographies ignore his considerable contribution to SF scholarship. His major work in literary criticism is undoubtedly the book The Emotional Significance of Imaginary Beings: A Study of the Interaction Between Psychotherapy, Literature, and Reality in the Modern World (1968), a far-ranging and erudite investigation of the "father figures" in SF, the aliens superior to mankind, be they benevolent or malevolent. The volume was published in Springfield, Illinois by Charles C. Thomas, a highly respected publisher, but unfortunately one specializing in books for practitioners of medicine, and this fact maybe prevented the book, surely one of the most profound monographs on an SF motif, from reaching its proper audience. Dr Plank often spoke of his plans for a sort of sequel to the earlier volume, on the "son figures," the artificial beings in SF, but this wasn't to be; and essays such as "Quixote's Mills: The Man-Machine Encounter in SF" (SFS No. 2) are all that remain of those plans.                

His preoccupation with SF arose from his interest in utopian literature, in man's nobler aspirations (an interest that found expression in a little study of the controversial utopist Josef Popper-Lynkeus [1838-1921], Der Plan des Josef Popper-Lynkeus [1978], written in collaboration with his friend Frederick P. Hellin, and unfortunately available only in German), and he wrote essays on SF long before the general academic interest in SF started. He published in professional journals such as the International Record of Medicine, American Imago, and American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, but also in the Partisan Review ("Lighter than Air, but Heavy as Hate: An Essay in Space Travel," Winter 1957, reprinted in Leslie Fiedler's anthology The Art of the Essay [1958] ). Later, he was among the earliest contributors to Extrapolation and SFS, but also wrote for fanzines like the Riverside Ouarterly (where one of his most penetrating essays, on the "Omnipotent Cannibals" in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, appeared). His first works on SF were much influenced by the early Viennese psychoanalysts, and he especially drew attention to Hanns Sachs's "Die Verspätung des Maschinenzeitalters" (1934, in Imago), and Victor Tausk's "Uber die Entstehung des 'Beeinflussungsapparates' in der Schizophrenie" (1919), and he found that SF was morphologically similar to schizophrenic manifestations, a view that he thought did not apply to later SF. With the early psychoanalysts he shares the clarity of style, and like them he was formed by a deep grounding in European literature, especially German literature (aside from Goethe and Schiner, he treasured especially Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and Carl Spitteler).                

Dr Plank, whose doctorate was in the law, not medicine, was born in Vienna in 1907. To escape Hitler's tyranny, he emigrated in 1938 to the US, where he studied psychiatric social work at the University of California at Berkeley, and then became a social worker in San Francisco and in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was also Adjunct Associate Professor for the Psychology of Literature at Cæ Western Reserve.                

I first met him in Vienna when, as a young student, I attended a lecture he gave on SF during one of his regular visits to Europe. Over the next 20 years, I felt privileged that he let me translate and publish (in my Quarber Merkur and elsewhere) a number of his essays, and later reprint some of them in various anthologies. I was also happy to have a hand in the publication by the prestigious German publisher Suhrkamp of his latest book manuscript, and one that meant very much to him: George Orwell's Guide Through Hell. (This study of 1984 will appear in German early in December, most likely well before its American publication by the Borgo Press.)                

1984 will undoubtedly see a spate of books and articles on Orwell, but as ever, Dr Plank didn't choose well-trodden paths. He approached his subject from angles that may be less central in the overall plan of 1984, its dystopian nature and political implications: rather than considering the degree of foresight it shows, he analyzes the relationship of Dostoevskys "Great Inquisitors to Orwell, the significance of so seemingly slight a matter as Winston Smith's curious paperweight, and the role of the "rat torture." What he admired most in Orwell was his fierce honesty and love of truth, his hatred of lies and the deformation of language that seems to be the hallmark of the tyrannies of this century— something Dr Plank felt Orwell had in common with the uncompromising fighter for truth and indefigatible polemicist from Vienna, Karl Kraus, and a quality that Dr Plank himself possessed. Of course, it would be hard to imagine two Viennese Jews, two humane beings, as far apart in temperament as the acerbic Kraus and the mild-mannered, gentle Dr Plank. But what unites them (and Orwell) is their commitment to literary and cultural values, and their uncompromising fortitude where truth is at stake—and their love for language as the infallible indicator of truth. Deform language, and all other evils will follow.                

I am proud to have known Robert Plank, and to have had a part in publishing much of what he wrote.  —Franz Rottensteiner


A Plea for the Interdisciplinary

I read with interest Donald M. Hassler's review of Philosophers Look at Science Fiction (SFS No. 30). It is the second review of the volume I have encountered (the first was in the SFRA's Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review, March 1983). Although the opinions on the volume differ, both reviewers seem less than familiar with philosophical methods and somewhat put out that the philosophers were unfamiliar with basic methods and tools in literary research. Having a bit of training in both areas, I would like to suggest that perhaps those interested in research into SF as a valuable genre of literature might wish to consider the organization and execution of interdisciplinary efforts to understand the nature, goals, and methods of inquiries in each of the disciplines involved. The relevant disciplines may include more than literature, history, and philosophy. But some effort of this sort seems necessary if SF scholarship is to advance in more than fragmented ways.               

The alternative of separate literary, historical, and philosophical inquiries may leave each with less than the critical mass necessary to capitalize upon the progress of the past decade. There is room for and profit in the work of each discipline, and each produces results useful to the others. However, the goals and methods of each mode of inquiry may strike uninitiated readers as alien, incomprehensible, and perhaps even a bit silly. Only by in-depth acquaintance with each mode of inquiry can we appreciate both the results and the means by which they were obtained, and only then can we use them properly, respecting their limits as well as seizing upon their opportunities.                

Literary scholarship, besides bringing to bear relevant external facts, feels most comfortable teasing from literary works natural interpretations from which emerge productive insights into a myriad of dark areas. As we so often hear these days, the work begins with a text. Many areas within philosophy do not begin with a literary text, but have other goals for which SF and fantasy supply numerous special examples. Perhaps only in common historical interests do the fields come together upon common ground, but even then our differences of focus and emphasis are likely to produce as many misunderstandings as they are apt to yield mutual progress.                

These very rough characterisations of disciplinary differences cannot truly enlighten the methods of inquiry used by each field and its numerous sub-specialities. They can only indicate that there are important differences that nonetheless do not diminish the significance of individual results and findings. However, if we are to fairly appraise and utilize the findings of disciplines other than our own, then we must find some format for exchanging the methodological insights that underly our work. Indeed, an increased self-consciousness of method might well benefit each of us within those modes of inquiry we regularly use and take for granted.                

I hope in these broad notes lies the germ of a useful idea. Until we take interdisciplinary studies beyond the sharing of results into the understanding of the methods that produce those results, I fear we shall only be polite to potential allies from other areas of scholarship, and then not indefinitely so. As a team with individual specializations and in-depth mutual understandings, we might do so much more.—L.B. Cebik            


Conferences on Orwell

Over the next 12 months or so, there will be as many conferences and symposia devoted exclusively or in significant part to 1984 as the most ardent lover of Orwell could desire.                

Since announcing (in SFS No. 27) what is presumably the first of these gatherings (in Antwerp, November 11-13, 1983), we have received detailed information about another. Next year's Lloyd Eaton Conference, to be co-ordinated with one sponsored by the SF Foundation of North East London Polytechnic (whence Foundation emanates), will go by the title "1984: The View from Two Shores." Together the two will examine, from their distinct cultural settings and standpoints, the issues raised by the coming and going of 1984, and particularly: (1) the nature and limitations of speculation about the future in fiction, especially in SF; (2) the tensions in that literature between science's fundamentally open-ended vision and the necessity of an ending that utopian/dystopian fiction imposes; and (3) the changes (if any) in the fictional shape of things to come that may have derived from the (myth of?) the westward displacement of the speculative base from urban Europe to the New World.                

For the US segment of the conference, to be held at the University of California's Riverside Campus, April 14-15, 1984, papers or proposals should be sent before December 15th to George Slusser/University Library/POB 5900/Riverside, CA 92517; for the conference in London, July 2-6, 1984, they should go before March 15th to Colin Greenland/Science Fiction Foundation/ North East London Polytechnic/Longbridge Road/Dagenham, Essex RM8 2AS/England.                

Prior to that joint effort, Northern Illinois University will host "George Orwell: Unresolved Contradictions," a two-day affair to take place on March 23-24th; another two-day session at Cornell, "Utopia and Its Discontents: Zamyatin, Orwell, and Mayakovsky—The View from 1984," will partially overlap with Riverside (it is scheduled for Ithaca, NY on April 13-14th); yet another, bearing the rubric "1984: Vision and Reality," is planned for May 4-óth at Ohio State University; and yet another, "1984: Then and Now," will transpire on October 19-20th at the State University in Fayetteville, NC. Information on whom to contact about any or an of these can be found in the latest (September) issue of PMLA.
Just for good measure, Natalie Datlof and Alexej Ugrinsky have sent us a call for papers, and also for display copies of appropriate books and monographs, for the Orwell conference they are running at Hofstra University on October 11-13, 1984. Anyone interested in submitting materials or proposals should write to them by June 1st at Hofstra's University Center for Cultural & Intercultural Studies/Hempstead, NY 11550.—RMP


Call for Papers on "the Post-Catastrophe Theme"

As part of Greenwood Press's continuing series, "Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy," I will be editing a book on the post-catastrophe theme entitled From the Ashes Comes the Phoenix. Essays for this volume will fall into two broad categories: (1) Theme Studies, treating various general topics such as: the role of technology in post-holocaust worlds, the role of magic in post-holocaust worlds, medieval patterned societies in post-holocaust worlds, the myth of the re-made world, mutants in postholocaust worlds, post-holocaust novels before Hiroshima, etc.; (2) Specific Author and Novel Studies, treating the post-holocaust theme in a particular author (e.g., J.G. Ballard), a particular work (e.g., Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, Weinbaum's The Black Flame, Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc.), or a series of fictions (e.g., Saberhagen's Broken Land books or Anthony's Battle Circle books).                

I am inviting you to submit a proposal (of approximately 250 words) that will give me an idea of what you intend to write about. I will accept the best ideas that seem appropriate to the themes of the collection, on a first come, first served basis. I would like to complete the proposal stage by November 15, 1983. Final manuscripts will be due July 1, 1984. Those whose finished essays appear in this book will receive a copy of the volume and 25 offprints of their contribution.

Please send your proposals, or inquiries, to me at Regional Campuses/101 Merrill Hall/Kent State University/Kent, OH 44242.—Carl B. Yoke                                                                                                                                                                                    

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home