Science Fiction Studies

#89 = Volume 30, Part 1 = March 2004

Peter Fitting

Narrating Utopian Space

Phillip E. Wegner. Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. xxvi + 297 pp. $55 hc; $22.50 pbk.

Wegner’s Imaginary Communities is a very important study of some of the canonical texts of the literary utopia, one which offers the reader a different approach for understanding both individual works and the utopian tradition. My entry to Wegner’s study is through what he calls the dual “pedagogical function” of the narrative utopia. The first, “teaching its audiences how to think of the spaces they already inhabit in a new critical fashion” (17), is a familiar concern for utopian scholars, often summed up in the concept of estrangement. Following the model of More’s Utopia (1516), the other component of utopian pedagogy is that of the construction of an imaginary alternative to the author’s world. But here Wegner leads us into a complex elaboration of the notion of utopian description—many of whose components are familiar, but which have not been assembled in such an interesting and rewarding fashion before.

Recognizing the centrality of description to the narrative utopia—however obvious this may seem—Wegner contends that description is not necessarily static. In approaching the utopia from this angle, he argues for the reversal of the traditional privileging of character and temporality in the study of the novel, to call instead for the primacy of space in the understanding of utopia. The first move in this “relational-spatial” approach, as suggested by his title, lies in his linking of the influential notion of the “imagined community” (a concept that has been developed to explain contemporary nationalisms) to the imaginary worlds of the literary utopia. Following Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism [1991]) and others, he argues for the “reality” of the fictional communities portrayed in utopias:

[T]hey are not real in that they portray actual places in the world; rather they are real ... in that they have material, pedagogical, and ultimately political effects, shaping the ways people understand and, as a consequence, act in their worlds. In short, narrative utopias serve as a way both of telling and of making modern history, and in this lies their continued importance for us today. (xvi)

He also relies on Henri Lefebvre’s influential spatial model (in The Production of Space [1991]): “any socially produced historical space is constituted by a dialectically interwoven matrix of [three domains]: ‘spatial practices’ [or the ‘perceived’], ‘representations of space’ [or the ‘conceived’] and ‘spaces of representation’ [or the ‘lived’]” (14). In these terms, the narrative utopia’s pedagogical function should be seen as operating on the second of these levels (which Fredric Jameson, following Lefebvre and Kevin Lynch, calls “cognitive mapping”1), “where the pedagogical practices take place that enable us to inhabit, make sense of, orient ourselves within, and act through any particular space. This is the domain of architecture, urban planning, nation building, and social engineering—and I want to argue here, of narrative utopias” (15).

This leads Wegner to distinguish between the well-known designation of literary description as mimesis (“the passive attempt to mirror a world already constituted”) and (following Roland Barthes and others) semiosis. Using the latter category, we can see that the “unfolding of the narrative utopia is thus to be understood as a performance, a mapping or travel itinerary” (16). Thus “in forms like the narrative utopia, description itself serves as what in other contexts we think of as action or plot, so that social and cultural space and communal identity slowly emerge before our eyes” (xviii).

In such a spatial context, the “questions these works address are crucial ones: If our social and cultural space is now global, what will be the nature of the communities, the subjects of history, that will operate within it? How do we imagine such a space?” (xvii). His readings explore the question of how we use the narrative utopia to make sense of our world, and how it functions as a representational act. In opposition to an approach that sees the fictional utopia and its imaginary world as a completed whole, Wegner (following Bloch) argues that it is “incomplete and coming into being”:

That is, the present, its concerns, desires, and contradictions, rather than being the end of the representational practices of the narrative utopia ... serves as the very raw material from which the narrative performance will generate something original. These productive performances are what made these works so electrifying for their contemporary audiences, confronting them with all the shock of the new. In this book, I want to recapture some of this energy and excitement and thereby help us, too, to begin again to think of the possibilities of the new. (xix)

This way of considering the utopia as a kind of praxis leads to a dialectical series of readings, alternating between the theoretical (as it “attempts to clear a space for a new kind of relational-spatial study of literary texts”), and the historically specific. In so doing, Wegner moves beyond a formalist or taxonomical discussion of the utopian genre to raise questions about “the ways each text in the genre engages with its predecessors and in its particular remaking of the generic institution in response to its particular historical context”:

[M]y approach to genre sets aside the impossible goal of describing definitively the set of necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in the genre—which would be nothing less than a quest after ontological essences—and instead explores how such a critical self-awareness defines the genre’s existence. Like all such institutional beings, genres exist in time, and thus genre provides a means of reviving a kind of historical thinking, stressing the relationship between cultural texts located in different times and places, unavailable in many contemporary critical reading strategies. (xix)

The readings proper begin with the constitutive text of the genre, Thomas More’s Utopia. In subsequent chapters Wegner explores Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star and Jack London’s The Iron Heel (both published in 1908), and in an unusual and enlightening pairing, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974); and finally George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). To give an idea of how these readings are conducted, I think that it is useful to describe them in some detail, although my own account is vastly simplified.

The freshness and originality that Wegner brings to his readings of these canonical texts lies in his reading strategy. In reviewing and discussing previous readings, he is reacting to earlier critics’ interest in seeing the text in its historical context; while in his readings, rather than the de rigueur description of the utopian features of the text, he addresses the question of how the novel functions as a political intervention in a contemporary situation, and how it attempts to “resolve” existing social contradictions—in the sense that Levi-Strauss wrote of myth as the imaginary resolution of real social contradictions (36). This will involve, as we shall see, paying careful attention to a text’s absences and contradictions. Thus, in considering More’s Utopia, he begins by carefully reviewing earlier interpretations, most importantly Louis Marin’s celebrated Utopics (1984), in order to go beyond them:

[T]he brilliance of More’s text lies in its mapping of the relationship between these twin dimensions of an emergent modernity, of the reflux movement between universalization and particularization, of the de- and re-territorializations of social desires. Thus, in addition to the abstracting and universalizing tendencies so effectively articulated by Marin, what we see suddenly exploding forth in More’s work is a radically new and deeply spatialized kind of political, social, and cultural formation—that of the modern nation-state. (49)

His account of earlier readings is set within the framework of More’s own historical moment, particularly in terms of seeing the text as an attempt to “resolve” contemporary problems (most notably that of crime). At the same time, Wegner explores spatial issues raised by Utopia, linking the creation of King Utopus’s new nation-state to the parallel emergence of England: “Indeed, England represents the place where the possibility of ‘nationness’ first takes root.... To put it another way, More’s Utopia helps usher in the conceptual framework or representation of space of ‘nationness’ within which the particularity of each individual nation can then be represented” (55).

He proceeds in similar fashion in his reading of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, beginning again with a careful review of explanations of the work that situate it in its historical circumstances, including analyses that see it as inspired by “anti-modern longings” and nostalgia for a lost past (74), as well as those which see it as an anticipation of twentieth-century “authoritarian regimes” (82). He looks too at some of the replies and sequels to Bellamy’s celebrated text, including Arthur Dudley Vinton’s Looking Further Backward (1890). Wegner’s focus is on trying to understand the text as a political intervention: in Bellamy’s case, as the author’s solution to the current crisis of the “nightmare of industrializing America.” Bellamy blamed this crisis on both capitalists and the laboring classes, “for social disorder also manifested in the strikes, work stoppages, and lay-offs.... The chaos had transformed the present world into a nightmare where the possessing classes suffered from anxiety about the future, and the dispossessed experienced even more material hardships” (66). Wegner shows how, in the context of contemporary political organizing and labor unrest, Bellamy’s “project of national reconstruction” rejects any possibility of “collective struggle” (68). Interestingly enough, it is the very absence “of any description of a factory or workplace” that Wegner uses to explain Bellamy’s textual strategy, an absence or forgetting “which signals the nature of the social morass that Bellamy hoped to avoid in his new society: the problem of the modern industrial laborer” (78).

In another context, as is the case for Morris, the effacement of alienated labor, or work as exchange value, might have pointed toward the emergence of a socialist society.... Instead, the neutralization of the place of work in the text clears a narrative space in which will appear a different, and very modern, social formation: what, for want of a more precise term, has been described as the new “consumerism” associated with an emerging segment of the American middle class. (78)

Wegner then returns to the question of the “forgotten” working class and to Bellamy’s alternative to social revolution, to argue that this “solution” is explicitly tied to a philosophy of forgetting, of starting anew without the burdens of the past. Forgetting, then, is essential. “And yet, what process could induce such a ‘forgetting’ in the great masses of the population, the members of the Industrial Army who I have already suggested remain a marginal presence in the emergent middle-class vision of the text?” (96-97). The answer, and the responsibility of a sector of the intelligentsia then, is education; or more specifically, a “‘meritocratic’ educational structure, one that enables the maintenance of distinctions between the ‘professional classes’ and the rest of the industrial labor force”:

The new educational apparatus thus would play a crucial role in suturing these publics [workers and corporate leaders] into a unified national body, while at the same time providing a central “opportunity” for intellectuals in the emergent national culture—a role into which West, as a history professor, is then inserted. (97)

In the following chapter, Wegner looks at two well-known dystopian works that “emerge in response to the major political crisis unleashed by the Russian Revolution of 1905”: Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star and Jack London’s The Iron Heel. Unlike Bellamy’s full-blown description of a utopian world, both of these authors “ultimately relegate the narrative elaboration of the utopian space ... to the margins of the text” (100); or more sombrely, “in their very efforts to imagine the spaces and organizations of struggle appropriate to the new century, both works would contribute to the ebb of the tide of revolution” (101). If Bellamy avoided discussing the problem of the transition to the utopian society of 2000, in these two works the difficulties of the transition mean that this crucial moment, along with its utopian aftermath, will be deferred indefinitely.
Following Bellamy’s elaboration of the central role of a new class fragment, another way of tracking the growth of the utopia in the twentieth century lies in attempts to think new subjects for the evolving nation-states.

If the narrative utopia first emerges as a way to think, to cognitively map, or to produce a “representation of space” of the autonomous nation-state—and thereby simultaneously to teach its readers to think of themselves as new kinds of subjects—then with the “disappearance” of that autonomy ... there emerges a representational crisis within the genre. Leonid’s “failure” thus initiates in Red Star a very different project of utopian figuration, one that will be pursued all the more vigorously in The Iron Heel. Both texts launch the search for a new “subject of history,” a collective agency or a particular communal “organization of enjoyment,” that could replace the national community, and serve as the mediator in the difficult passage between the fragmentary present and the unity of a global future. (113)

If the almost mystical ending of Red Star suggests a passage from future utopian possibility to the “otherworldly place of the religious paradise,” London’s The Iron Heel takes a different path in following the author’s “shaken confidence in the near imminence of a transformed human future” (116). The absence in this text which drives Wegner’s reading (like that of the workplace in Looking Backward) is that of any “representation of the space of this expanded social totality, either in its Oligarchic or utopian form” (119). Again Wegner reviews the earlier critics, and again, citing approvingly “one of the more careful readings of The Iron Heel,” he builds on this interpretation:

[Alessandro Portelli] provides a suggestive catalogue of the contradictory desires at play in the text, contradictions which ultimately thwart London’s efforts to represent a general overturning of the capitalist world order. This said, however, I would like to advance an alternative reading of the play of absences in London’s narrative. (125).

Wegner argues that “The Iron Heel repeats the historical trajectory traced in The Communist Manifesto, adopting it to the particular conditions of the early-twentieth-century United States” (132). Marx’s method was to “simplify” contemporary class antagonisms into “two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (132). London employs a similar “simplification” to describe society some fifty years later, but with rather different results, since—as various critics have pointed out—Everhard’s organization is made of people “from a number of different social strata” (137). In a fascinating bit of historical contextualization, Wegner explains London’s ambiguous representation of the working class in terms of a third important event in 1905 (along with the dual failures of the Russian revolution and of London’s lecture tour), “the opening of an insurmountable fissure ... between the radical and reformist elements of the American labor movement” (137), between the IWW and the AFL. He tracks these themes in some of London’s other writings to show that despite The Iron Heel’s apparent sympathy for the more radical IWW, there is a strong current of aversion for the “bestiality” of the “unskilled urban working class” that overlays or stems from his well-known “nativist and racist sentiments”—a dislike for both “left and right versions of working-class politics” that leads him “to jettison the Marxist emphasis on the centrality of the working class” and to move away from politics to a form of literary naturalism (140).

At the same time, Wegner sees in this “negation of the place of the working class” a more personal motive at work: “by erasing the working class from the narrative world, London can assure that he could never fall back into this condition” (142). Not “falling back” is an important theme in much of London’s work, and can be seen as well as a form of “social mobility.” Indeed, Wegner insists that the revolutionary vanguard portrayed in the novel (often in contradictory terms) is “another figure for the new, urban middle-class strata,” although this group is “not precisely the same as the professional-managerial bloc that emerges in Bellamy’s Looking Backward” (144). Nonetheless, the ending of London’s novel “holds open at least the possibility of the ‘task’ that the very logic of his narrative made it impossible for him to represent” (146).

In the following chapter, Wegner turns first to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, to “reclaim” this novel “for utopia,” in opposition to the critical commonplace that regards it “as one of the first and most successful of the twentieth century’s anti-utopias: the sub-genre of the narrative utopia that takes as the target of its critical estrangements ... the desires and programs of the very generic institution from which it emerges” (147-48):

Taking as one of its most important tasks the unveiling of the limitations of the older generic logic that binds the utopia to what is now understood to be a constricting and false social totality, Zamyatin’s We turns the reflexive gaze of the utopian form back in on itself and, in so doing, transforms the representational “failures” of Bogdanov’s Red Star and Jack London’s The Iron Heel—their inability to represent a space that would stand as the utopian other of the present global social totality—into an aesthetic and even a kind of political victory. (153)

In its challenging of conventional wisdom about Zamyatin’s classic, this is one of the boldest and most provocative readings in the book. Following the approach laid out in earlier chapters, Wegner proceeds by carefully situating the work in its time and the author’s own involvement and then disillusionment with the Soviet revolution, as well as the work’s relationship to earlier Russian writing (particularly that of Dostoevsky). Wegner continues by observing a series of oppositions in the text: that of the city and the country, first of all, whose two poles are significant for “the consciousness of a society in the midst of the liquidating upheavals of social modernization” (151). Wegner reviews the fortunes of the theme of modernization, and the varied appreciations of Taylorization in his interpretation of Zamyatin’s One State, before turning to a second dichotomy, that of happiness and freedom. Citing Bloch, Wegner refuses to privilege one over the other: “there can be no human dignity without the end of misery and need, but also no human happiness without the end of old and new forms of servitude” (159). In Wegner’s terms, the brilliance of Zamyatin’s work lies in its incorporation of both poles of these dichotomies, reading the novel as showing the “dystopian propensity when either possibility is taken as an end in itself” (163).

To more fully exploit the potential of these four “interwoven figures” (freedom/happiness, city/country) in reading the novel’s utopian possibilities, Wegner turns to a combinatory scheme derived from A.J. Greimas’s “semiotic rectangle.”2 This generates two further utopian possibilities, in addition to the opposition worlds of the Mephi and the One State, as both D-503 and I-330 move beyond their initial positions. At the novel’s end, the operation and “death of the self” of D-503 figure the foreclosure of utopian possibilities—a closure which is reiterated in the state’s demand that all its citizens undergo the “fantasectomy” procedure, a development that may explain why so many critics consider the work an anti-utopia. On the other hand, I-330’s rebellion—and she remains defiant even in death—offers, according to Wegner, a fourth utopian possibility: “nothing less than the reemergence of the historical condition preceding the existence of One State—an unsettled and open-ended condition that bears a striking resemblance to that of Zamyatin’s own historical present” (165). Using the analogy of the impossibility of a final number, I-330 insists that there can be no final revolution (“There is no final one; revolutions are infinite” [168]), and invokes instead the image of “infinite revolution.” Thus in this reading, the “way ‘beyond’ the situation of social closure does not lie in the simple ‘return’ to a state of ‘freedom’ represented by an impossibly idealized primitive garden [the world of the Mephi], but in overcoming those social contradictions ... that prevent the emergence of a wholly and unexpectedly new situation” (169):

The rich mapping in We of these utopian Possible Worlds can also be read as a powerful figure of the complex historical conjuncture out of which the text itself emerges. However, only when all the narrative’s multiple spaces are set into place can we begin to grasp the manner in which Zamyatin’s text responds to the concrete possibilities illuminated by the then-still-active conflagration of the Soviet revolution. Zamyatin does not judge the revolutionary process to be a failure, nor does he reject the modern world and advocate a retreat to an idealistic anarchic individualism. Rather, the existential crisis of D-503 can be read, in part, as an attempt to come to grips with the historical crisis emerging in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. Leading out from this explosive rupture in the historical continuum, Zamyatin maps two potential roads. Along the first lies the One State, where the revolutionary struggle collapses into a process of rationalized modernization undertaken with the confines of a bureaucratic nation-state.... [The second is] the road of the “infinite revolution”—an explosive continuation and dialectical expansion of the process of social transformation begun in the Soviet Union. (171-72)

In the next part of this chapter, Wegner points to Zamyatin’s legacy in the utopian revival of the early 1970s and in particular in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Le Guin, in fact, described We as “the best single work of science fiction yet written,” (qtd. 173) and Wegner suggests that Zamyatin (along with Robert Oppenheimer) was one of the models for Shevek. Reviewing the many critiques of Le Guin’s celebrated novel, Wegner again turns to Greimas’s semiotic rectangle, seeing at a first level four utopian possibilities in the primary opposition of Urras and Annares, as well as a secondary opposition of Terra and the Hainish: “Thus, if the world of Terra is the embodiment of an experience where hope has been completely negated, then that of the Hainish represents its endlessly lived, and relived, possibilities” (177-78). In this way,

Zamyatin’s and later Le Guin’s re-authorings thus both succeed, on the one hand, in radicalizing the genre, [by] eliminating any teleological residuum that would suggest any particular representation of space, especially that of the utopia of the imagined national community, might stand as the ultimate goal of modern history. Moreover, both texts offer a powerful narrative realization of what Bloch calls the “concrete utopia,” maintaining a specific horizon ... that enables both a critical perspective of the present and a sense of direction in which to move in the future. (180)

Wegner is nonetheless disappointed by their postponement of “the project of developing a particular figuration of a radically new kind of space” (181). He ends this chapter by citing Gramsci’s critique of the concept of “permanent revolution,” and his call for an alternative: “a ‘war of positioning,’ a careful step-by-step building up of an alternative hegemony” (182).

In his final chapter, Wegner turns to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, defending its “continuing relevance” in terms of its “early figuration ... of one of the most central and hotly debated issues of our own present: that concerning the relationship between the processes of globalization—especially in the forms of a US corporate, cultural, and consumer hegemony, and new media technologies—and the persistence and even resurgence of nationalist particularisms” (184). Again Wegner reviews and discusses Orwell’s oeuvre and the historical conjuncture, along with the many readings of the novel, in order to examine the contradiction between the author’s lifelong commitment to socialism (or at least to “some uniquely English socialism”) and this “full frontal assault on the systemic and systematizing discourse of the utopia” (185). This begins with Orwell’s rejection of the utopia of H.G. Wells (“Wells,” Orwell wrote, “is too sane to understand the modern world” [186]). In composing his anti-utopia, Orwell adopted some of the elements of Zamyatin’s We, and Wegner spends much of this (his longest) chapter carefully describing the differences between the two works. These differences mean that, however much they both “share a vision of the truly nightmarish situation as one in which history itself has ended,” there is no longer any possibility for change in Orwell’s work.

Wegner turns to Karl Mannheim’s four “ideal types of the utopian mentality” (taken from his 1936 Ideology and Utopia) to discuss Nineteen Eighty-Four as a “conservative utopia.” He juxtaposes Mannheim’s categories to Hayden White’s provocative rereading of these categories in Metahistory (1990) to argue that the similarity in We and Nineteen Eighty-Four lies in their rejection of “the liberal utopia and its ‘progressive’ time sense: the utopia for Zamyatin represented by the figure of the One State, and for Orwell by what he understood to be Wells’s vision of history” (195). But the two works “again diverge dramatically in the consequences each draws from this critique of modernization,” for in We “the critical assault on the ‘liberal utopia’ was undertaken with the ultimate aim of opening up the possibility of an alternative path ... [while Orwell] finds himself unable to imagine even the possibility of another form of human existence” (196).

Another step in this analysis is to understand just what Orwell objects to in modernization, which Wegner now casts in aesthetic terms. Orwell seems to be defining modernization in terms of an emerging mass culture that will be used as an instrument of control, while nostalgically regretting the disappearance of some more “authentic” and specifically English “cultural past”: “We can thus begin to see that for Orwell the aesthetic object is an image of an authentically English past, while its negative other, American mass culture, represents those contemporary forces that have destroyed this idealized moment of national cultural autonomy” (212).

Again, one part of the novel’s negotiation of these issues lies in the role of the intellectual, although here Wegner describes it in more negative and bleak terms, relating it to Orwell’s celebrated essay “Inside the Whale” (1940). Nineteen Eighty-Four addresses what Orwell considered the “two dangerous potential roles for the intellectual ... the extremes of ‘passivity’ and ‘commitment’” (222). The first extreme is represented by the workers at the Ministry of Truth, “who possess the skills to produce ‘culture’ but who nevertheless willingly embrace the established norms of Oceanic society”—for instance, “Smith’s friend and colleague Syme” (223). The figure of the committed political intellectual, on the other hand, is filled by O’Brien. At the same time, in another essay—“Why I Write” (1946)—Orwell “imagines a third option ... that of the intellectual who can ‘make political writing into art’” (224). This mediatory position is taken by Winston Smith himself who, through his writing in his diary, stands as a figure of resistance. Yet paradoxically, as a solution to the dilemma of the question of the intellectual, this third position has taken on a very different significance, serving as “a significant boon to efforts in both Great Britain and the United States to discredit any form of intellectual political activism” (227).

Thus, ironically, and perhaps contrary to his desires, Orwell the “socialist” thinker created one of the most powerful tools for the systematic assault on socialism, while the persona of the “good” intellectual that he presents both in Nineteen Eighty-Four and in the example of his own life—the autonomous thinker, the “man who tells the truth,” celebrated by Trilling—served as a model for what Thomas Hill Schaub calls the new “conservative liberal” intellectuals who, like Trilling himself, played such an important role in shaping the American intellectual climate of the post-war moment. Thus, even more ironically, in the hands of these conservative liberal intellectuals, the anti-Americanism of Orwell’s critique, if not its assault on mass and media cultures, vanishes as well. (227)

This study focuses not on eu-topias but on the larger utopian tradition and on the intersections between eutopia, dystopia, and the anti-utopia. Wegner’s approach is valuable for its constant reading of the works under consideration into their historical context, and into the utopian tradition, as a genre that also evolves in reaction to the historical context. To do this, he shows how each work negotiates its own contemporary moment, as well as expressing the author’s own fears and hopes for a different future. As I have tried to show, these explications sometimes challenge accepted readings, most explicitly in the case of Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. These stimulating challenges to conventional wisdom extend to an examination of how we read utopias, and he makes a very convincing argument that some of us have been doing the utopian form a disservice by acquiescing to the received wisdom that it is a static form weighed down by the descriptions of imaginary societies.

At the same time, this book offers us a particularly rich and fruitful method of reading, by focusing on the texts as political interventions in contemporary debates, and by using a variety of strategies—most notably in looking at the work’s absences and contradictions (but also making use of Greimas’s semiotic rectangle)—to tease out deeper meanings. In its approach, then, Wegner’s Imaginary Communities should be situated within the rich tradition of Marxist critical theory as applied to science fiction and utopia, best exemplified through the work of Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson, and continued in the work of scholars such as Carl Freedman and Tom Moylan.

My reservations or criticisms of this important new book are more in the order of regrets, and lie with the book’s own absences—most specifically a concluding chapter—and I would like to have seen more of a follow-up to his call for “a ‘war of positioning,’ a careful step-by-step building up of an alternative hegemony” (182). How does he see such a strategy in terms of utopian writing? And I would, of course, like to hear more about the new utopian developments mentioned in the introduction: in particular, how does Kim Stanley Robinson’s “important new utopian trilogy” fit in? I understand that there are limits to the size of a book and what I am asking for is probably another book, but one that he is certainly capable of writing.

1. See Jameson’s “Cognitive Mapping.” In turn, his concept was based on Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, a study of how people construct a mental idea of their city.
2. This concept was first introduced to SFS readers in Jameson’s “After Armageddon.”

Jameson, Fredric. “After Armageddon: Character Systems in P.K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney.” SFS  #5, 2:1 (March 1975): 31-42.
─────. “Cognitive Mapping.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 347-57.
Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

Joe Sanders

Oh Yeah? Who Says So?

Orson Scott Card, ed. Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century. New York: Ace, 2001. 422 pp. $24.95 hc.

Matt Hills. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge, 2002. 237 pp. $22.95 pbk.

Gary Westfahl and George Slusser, eds. Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 182 pp. $63.95 hc.

The title of Orson Scott Card’s anthology will upset two groups of readers before they even glance at the book’s contents. Some will reject the idea that any sf stories could deserve to be called “masterpieces.” Other will bristle at the idea of a middle-brow writer like Card daring to select stories to represent the best sf.

Assuming that most readers of this review can value sf but also are willing to debate the merits of particular stories, let’s look at Card’s table of contents. The first section, “The Golden Age,” contains the following: “Call Me Joe” by Poul Anderson, “All You Zombies” by Robert A. Heinlein, “Tunesmith” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., “A Saucer of Loneliness” by Theodore Sturgeon, “Robot Dreams” by Isaac Asimov, “Devolution” by Edmond Hamilton, “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke, “A Work of Art” by James Blish, and “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” by Ray Bradbury. In the section labeled “The New Wave,” we find “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison, “Eurema’s Dam” by R.A. Lafferty, “Passengers” by Robert Silverberg, “The Tunnel Under the World” by Frederik Pohl, “Who Can Replace a Man?” by Brian W. Aldiss, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, and “Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven. Finally, “The Media Generation” contains “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin, “The Road Not Taken” by Harry Turtledove, “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick, “Face Value” by Karen Joy Fowler, “Pots” by C.J. Cherryh, “Snow” by John Crowley, “Rat” by James Patrick Kelly, “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson, “A Clean Escape” by John Kessel, “Tourists” by Lisa Goldstein, and “One” by George Alec Effinger. A good list. If a few stories seem noticeably weaker than the rest, at least there’s nothing as embarrassing as The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’s inclusion of Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” (1938). Actually, considering the price of college textbooks these days, Masterpieces would be a reasonable choice for an introductory sf course—supplemented, to be sure, by a few novels and by xeroxed copies of additional stories by Wells, Phyllis Gotleib, Michael Bishop, Geoffrey A. Landis, Roger Zelazny, Alfred Bester, and the like. A problem may be coming into view here. Nobody but Card would accept this anthology exactly as it stands. To show the nature of good sf, each of us would in effect re-edit Masterpieces by adding some pieces and by showing personal disagreement with some editorial choices. Of course, the stories we added and the stories we winced at would differ from person to person. Is this inability to reach consensus a problem? And if so, is it Card’s problem or ours? Card at least has had the nerve to stand up and declare what he thinks are the masterpieces of twentieth-century shorter sf. This could open a discussion of why we admire some stories more than others.

But that doesn’t happen in Masterpieces. Card spends little time explaining the merits of his choices. Instead, his story introductions are admirably concise and factual, and his brief general introduction barely pauses to sneer at what he elsewhere (in the introduction to his 1998 anthology Future on Ice, for example) has labeled the “li-fi” literary establishment: critics and teachers. He just states that the stories here are ones that he loves and believes will “appeal to a wide audience of readers and not just a small group” (3). Since there’s no arguing about love, there doesn’t seem to be much room for discussion.

Considering how I’ve had to argue against critical introductions in some of the texts I’ve taught, Card’s take-it-or-leave-it approach is something of a relief. Yet it’s also frustrating. Speaking as a reader who went on to become a book reviewer (sometimes maybe a critic too when the stars were right) and also a classroom teacher of composition and literature, I miss an opportunity to discuss choices, to evaluate judgments about the quality of an anthology’s contents. I’m not talking about squaring off for a fight, much less airily dismissing all other positions, but Card doesn’t see anything between these extremes. He seems to believe that most academics came to sf after being infected with the li-fi virus, so that even those who read and write about the stuff can’t keep themselves from applying inappropriate Literary standards to it. If he’s right, there’s no point in trying to talk with people who can’t love sf or who love the wrong things for the wrong reason.

I think, however, that Card is mistaken. I remember, as a young undergraduate, realizing that there was no real difference between the satisfaction of reading fantastic and non-fantastic literature. Each could be as straightforward as its subject permitted, each could be stimulatingly complex, and each could tell the truth. The question was how successfully each piece of writing handled its chosen material. I remember being pleased, a few years later, to find Henry James saying much the same thing, but I’d probably have taught the same works in the same way even without James’s Literary validation. I suspect that’s true of most sf readers who also are part of the hyper-educated academic clique that Card dislikes: we too do what we do for love.

Matt Hills’s Fan Cultures is an attempt to consider the advantages and disadvantages of loving something that’s not quite aesthetically respectable. Hills is not writing about sf fandom, and his primary focus is on fandoms clustered around non-print media—TV, movies, music, etc. Still, a lot of that material has fantastic themes, and Hills’s analysis of fans and their observers seems solid. Actually, Hills spends less time talking about the fans themselves than about how they’ve been perceived. Most of his book is a summary, apparently exhaustive and written in sociological jargon that will make you want to pound your head (or Hills’s) on the table, of what other sociologists have had to say about fans. His main point is that scholars almost universally fall into an attitude of disparaging the others, whoever they are. They are obsessive, while we are dedicated; they are hung-up on in-group politics, while we consider the judgments of our peers; and so on. Hills manages to suggest, within his wry sociological survey, that academia is a kind of fandom too, with its own irrational, unquestionable mores. This makes it very difficult for sf academics to approach fans objectively. The groups can’t avoid getting territorial as they fight for possession of a subject. When it comes to sf, academics wish the infantile fans would go off somewhere and read their Star Trek novelizations. Fans reply to pompous academic seriousness with the slogan “Get sf out of the classroom and back in the gutter where it belongs!” Actually, Hills notes, the frequent use of religious imagery in discussing fan concerns (a “cult” TV program, for example) suggests that the reason we have so much trouble seeing other groups dispassionately is that we have invested our identities in the tribe we joined. What’s going on is an expression of Faith. There can be only one totem; supposing the existence of another seems to diminish the absoluteness of the set of values that gives our lives meaning. Hills gently suggests that it’s possible to be a member of more than one group. He believes, for example, that one can be simultaneously an absorber of commercial media and a processor and creator of independent reactions. Considering what looks like one of fandom’s least dignified amusements, he speaks approvingly of fan costuming/role playing as “opening an irresolvable space for playing, spectacularly and physically” with the ideas of “self” and “other” (168). Playing with different roles can be healthy. On the other hand, committing to one position, however comfortable it may seem at the moment, is dangerous. Hills is careful not to chastise academics too severely. He is primarily concerned with clearing the ground, sweeping aside some of the unthinking, self-protective condemnation of fans by academics and of academics by fans, so that serious, sympathetic examination can follow.

If we try to apply this dispassionate approach to the people who gravitate toward fantastic literature, we begin to suspect that fans and academics may be especially prone to distrust each other because they’re so much alike. Being a reader at all is enough to identify one as strange in the eyes of the non-reading majority, and anyone who reads weird stuff appears especially weird. It has sometimes seemed to me that we academics must have gone through the same adolescent alienation that we fans did; by making it through college and into teaching, though, we acquired a few more social skills and found a somewhat prestigious perch from which to look down at the students and deans who don’t appreciate us. But how are we to account for the antics of those disreputable misfits who claim to care about the same stuff we value? Especially if some of them claim to have as much detailed, expert knowledge as we do—or claim even more knowledge? They must be different from us, and we must be better. At this point, the struggle for territory begins, accompanied by the attempt to hide lore in private jargon so it won’t be accessible to the other, rival tribe.

Compounding the misunderstandings and failed communications between sf fandom and sf academics is the fact that they’re not only two tribes; the schisms each divide into smaller and even smaller groups. (It would, in fact, be tempting to try to bring them together by starting a unified crusade against those icky comics readers, if I weren’t part of that group too.) And our resentment against some small group claiming authority in our subject-territory is as nothing to our sense of injury when a larger group claims authority over us or even dismisses us and our concerns as unworthy of serious discussion. It’s hard to find words to express exactly what’s gone wrong, how it happened—and what we should do to improve the situation.

That probably accounts for the haziness in the latest collection of papers from the Eaton Conference, Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy. The title seems to suggest pretty clearly that canonization and marginalization are the responsibility of the academy, applied in this case against science fiction. Gary Westfahl’s introduction lists three areas of conflict, essentially describing the territory noted above: the established literary academy’s prejudice against popular sf, arguments within sf criticism (“while science fiction scholars are united by a willingness to defend their literature against criticism from outside, they are deeply divided on almost all other issues raised by its study” [2]), and conflict between university-trained scholars and the science fiction community (including hardcore fandom). Rather than a focus, this list gives conference participants an invitation to go off in all directions, and so they do. Susan Kray’s “The Things Women Don’t Say,” for example, asks “why science fiction and fantasy remain shackled by assumptions that men are already all they can be and that gender arrangements are immutable?” (46); this is a fair question but it’s concerned not so much with how written works are received by readers as with how stories get published or not—or with how writers think about their subjects before they write. In a similar vein, in the book’s concluding section called “Case Studies in Marginalization,” Elyce Rae Helford’s “(E)raced Visions: Women of Color and Science Fiction in the United States” argues the importance of Misha’s Red Spider, White Web (1990) but never quite demonstrates that the novel’s uncompromising vision rather than its difficult style is what kept it from attracting a mainstream American publisher.

Of the papers that deal with existing, published fiction, Tom Shippey’s extra-length lead essay, “Literary Gatekeepers and the Fabril Tradition,” uses a reading of Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) to suggest plausibly that sf troubles university-trained critics most deeply because they have accepted the notion that there can be no final, certain reading, while sf honors the non-subjective attitude of science. Thus the viewpoint of this overweening academy is “impossible to reconcile with the claims for truth-to-fact of much science fiction, and all serious science.... The deepest horror which such works now create ... stems from their perceived obedience to an authority outside ‘the text’” (15).

Shippey concludes that “science fiction is only subjugated in literary academia; and literary academia is subjugated in every other respect” in today’s world. “It is open to us to regard ourselves as on the margins of a marginal group (literary academia or, if one prefers, the MLA) or near the center of a much more central group, our fellow citizens as a whole” (21). If this essay had closed the book, it could have been soothing, reassuring us sf academics that we’ve already won the power to shape future reading lists. It is contradicted immediately, however, by Frank McConnell’s witty but sincerely alarmed “Seven Types of Chopped Liver: My Adventures in the Genre Wars,” a passionate appeal for teachers to recognize that they have a vocation (which he describes, semi-ironically, in religious terms, cf. Hills) to lead students past the distractions of critical fads and conventional authority in search of the Grail, “the radiance of Story” (35).

After that, the discussion of different authorities and the visions on which they’re based gets even more intense but rather muddled. I’ve already noted that some essays are acutely aware of how traditional culturally-dominant male attitudes control the sf canon. On the contrary, when Joseph D. Miller’s “Popes or Tropes: Defining the Grails of Science Fiction” confronts Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery’s The Norton Book of Science Fiction as if it were the only or at least the dominant college sf text, Miller sees the anthology as a counter-cultural artifact and concludes that it actually could encourage “the beginning of [sf’s] decline and absorption into the ranks of the mundane” (79), because “Le Guin and Attebery are guilty of reverse sexism and have included stories of little merit except perhaps for their ability to redress the presumed historical inequity of the underrepresentation of women in science fiction” (83); emphases added. George Slusser also uses The Norton Book of Science Fiction as his starting point in a critique of “Multiculturalism and the Cultural Dynamics of Classic American Science Fiction,” in which Slusser praises “Emersonian” individual characters who assert themselves and their dreams dynamically instead of waiting until everyone around them has achieved “equality.” Both Miller and Slusser make interesting points but stretch them too far. Miller’s statistical analysis of the proportion of male and female writers in Norton goes on into an analysis of award-winning published short sf by women vs. men, tabulation of stories by male authors that don’t belong in an anthology of “best” because they’re inferior to other work by the same author, stories that shouldn’t be in the anthology because they’re “mean-spirited,” and so on. In short, Norton’s contents must represent not the editors’ honest judgment but their scheme to give students a distorted first impression of sf. Miller goes on to describe several tropes that show sf’s positive, can-do attitude (as opposed to mainstream fiction) and concludes that we shouldn’t want to be accepted by the established authority: “the camp of the politically correct and fashionably realistic, blessed by the editorial papacy of the mundane” (87). Slusser would agree. He also loathes politically-correct multiculturalism and wants to believe that sf offers a clear antidote. The heroic image Slusser sets up does help us understand the appeal of the main character in Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (coll. 1950) but is less successful when applied to the heroine of Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988). Briefly, Slusser wants to imagine that Laura’s commitment has opened the possibility of “something new” at the conclusion of Sterling’s novel. What the novel shows, though, is the collapse of free possibilities into safe contentment as “People were embracing each other. Strangers, kissing. A mob flinging itself into its own arms” (348). Sterling is much more aware of the complexities and ironies of human behavior than Slusser is comfortable seeing.

And so it goes. Several essays here have interesting things to say about how the academy rejects the content of the authors’ preferred versions of sf, and Jonathan Langford’s “Why the Academy is Afraid of Dragons: The Suppression of the Marvelous in Theories of the Fantastic” aptly asks why critics justify fantasy that is disturbing and “subversive” while ignoring more optimistic world-building. But there’s more territorial bickering going on here than analysis of it. Back on the subject of sf’s status, Edward James’s “The Arthur C. Clarke Award and Its Reception in Britain” describes how—despite Clarke’s name and a nice little check attached—the award has not increased the prestige of winning sf writers, while writers such as Margaret Atwood, who already have a reputation outside sf, are downright ungrateful when they win. It’s somewhat amusing that this essay is in the section called “Mechanisms of Canonization” (as is Miller’s), since it shows how efforts to canonize works sometimes backfire. In the same section, Stephen P. Brown’s “Science Fiction Eye and the Rebellion against Recursion” explains how a semi-pro magazine unintentionally and briefly acquired some authority because it was willing to take on challenging topics and print pieces by and about challenging new writers. The last essay in the section, Arthur B. Evans’s “Authorities, Canons, and Scholarship: The Role of Academic Journals,” is in some ways the most interesting in the book because it has the most to say about how authority is determined within sf academia—or not. As an editor of Science Fiction Studies, Evans is qualified to talk about how academics establish the canon and maintain a critical consensus. But according to Evans, that’s not how it works. He mentions, for example, an SFS survey to identify the five or ten most “Unjustly Neglected Works of Science Fiction,” with the purpose of encouraging would-be contributors to submit critical essays dealing with the writers on the list. Wielding power as an established part of the academy, therefore, SFS should have begun receiving critical essays on the likes of Clifford D. Simak and David R. Bunch. It never happened. Later, SFS surveyed college and university teachers to find out what was being taught in sf courses. As Evans notes, “Much like our earlier efforts, however, this attempt to directly influence the academic sf canon appears to have failed” (99). Doubting whether there is any one center of power to canonize or marginalize works, Evans concludes that “authority” resides with the subjective judgment of the individual.

It appears, then, that we’re back where we started, with Orson Scott Card calling any story he loves a “masterpiece.” That still is genuinely frustrating to those of us who doubt whether it’s possible to form an indisputable canon of any body of literature that’s alive enough to engage readers personally—but who still also believe that discussion is valuable because it clarifies our understanding of what we’ve read and sharpens our attention for the next thing we read. It’s also frustrating, of course, to have the discussions limited because other people refuse to admit that sf could produce masterpieces. Emphasizing this frustration, the writers in Westfahl and Slusser’s collection offer plenty of anecdotes showing how sf academics have been treated unfairly in terms of hiring, publication, achieving tenure—or just in the daily disrespect they receive from their peers. I could supply other examples from personal experience, as most of us probably could. Almost half a century ago, Damon Knight concluded the introduction to his collected book reviews, In Search of Wonder (1956), by optimistically stating that sf had already convinced readers that sf is a noteworthy branch of literature, so that even the mainstream critics would catch on given enough time. Well, we’ve given them plenty of time, but they haven’t come around yet. Except—what do I mean “they”? Depending on how one looks at it, a particular group of readers can be seen as the academy or its victims, as marginalizers or as the marginalized. Perhaps that’s the real reason that Westfahl and Slusser’s collection (like this review) seems to be going around in circles.

So perhaps, if Hills is correct, this confusion and its attendant lack of communication can’t be clarified by argument about who’s right or who’s been abused. Repeatedly, Hills describes a sociologist trying to approach a fan group objectively but slipping into pejorative wording because those people act oddly, they’re unhealthily absorbed in their peculiar subculture, and they’re just so damn other. That works both ways, of course, just as it describes how anti-sf professors/critics look at us.

If we’re to have any hope of connecting the academy (above?) or the fans (below?), therefore, we need to proceed without arrogance and without an exaggerated sense of grievance. We also need to give up the jargon that makes an intelligent scholar like Hills virtually unreadable to anyone except a specialist deep, deep in his field. What can we do, then, as we work at discovering a common purpose?

I have a few ideas.

For one thing, we can emphasize discussions of particular works over general theorizing, so the natural human tendency to ignore whatever doesn’t fit our theories can be corrected by reference to the works themselves. We can, whether it matters to Card or not, examine stories in his anthology, seeing whether Cherryh is as deft in her use of the short-story format as Bisson; in other words, does “Pots” offer enough story for readers to respond to, as “Bears Discover Fire” does? Or, as I read it, does “Pots” feel like a Readers Digest condensed and recondensed novel? Looking at the stories first, without worrying about an eventual canon, which story seems to work better? While we’re getting a firmer grip on the sf that matters, essays on writers like Simak and Bunch actually could be valuable.

In addition, we can deliberately pick the locks on the vault of the academic Literary canon. To see Robert A. Heinlein in a larger context, for example, I’m working on a conference paper on the theme of responsibility/servitude to others in Citizen of the Galaxy and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. From there, it’ll be on to a paper on sex and family in Heinlein and George Bernard Shaw. Critical efforts like this could be useful to show how “our” best works stack up against “theirs.” The result will often be to sf’s disadvantage. But not always. The more we do this, and the more we do it well, the harder it will be for readers within the academy to ignore superior sf.

One more thing we can do, above all, is to keep cool. I originally planned to end this essay with rousing exhortations: Hang tough! Hold the flag high! Fight the good fight! Keep the faith! But now that attitude seems vulnerable to Hills’s shrewd observation that any way of life can become a way of intolerant, angry faith, turning apostles into crusaders. Instead of blood, sweat, and tears, let’s try patience and persistence. Perhaps Shippey and Knight are right after all, so that what we need to do is endure. Even if they’re wrong, what other course of action has any chance of saving our own souls while eventually converting the unbelievers? What else can we—in the largest, most inclusive sense of that pronoun—do that will let us keep trying to find the kinds of conversations we hungered for when we discovered we loved sf? In the end, it doesn’t matter what others say about sf; what counts is how much we’re able to see and share.

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