Science Fiction Studies

#50 = Volume 17, Part 1 = March 1990

Fredric Jameson

Critical Agendas

George E. Slusser & Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Aliens: The Anthropology of Science Fiction. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. xxi + 243pp. $26.95.

George E. Slusser, Colin Greenland, & Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Storm Warnings: Science Fiction Confronts the Future. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. xi + 278pp. $26.95.

Giuseppa Saccaro Del Buffa & Arthur O. Lewis, eds. Utopie per gli anni Ottanta: StudiInterdisciplinari sui temi, la storia, i progetti. Rome: Gengemi editore, 1986. 825pp. 48,000 Lire.

Two new Riverside volumes confirm the pre-eminence of the Eaton conference. These volumes are always richly satisfying, giving us, as Flaubert used to say, something to eat and drink on every page, and raising the liveliest state-of-the-art issues, without undue anti-intellectualism, about their respective topics--Aliens, and SF as dystopian anticipation. These are of course two of the great, but only distantly related, thematic attractions of SF in general; so the relatively accidental juxtaposition of the two volumes may also offer the occasion for wondering what the connection is, in reality or in our collective psyches, between these two equally fascinating but distinct themes.

Aliens gets fair marks on the first thing a symposium of this kind is supposed to do--namely, to direct us to rare and unusual works that we may never have heard of before. Whether Alexei Tolstoy fits this description I tend to doubt. But we also meet unfamiliar stories by Terry Carr and Robert Silverberg; Greg Benford alerts us to an unfamiliar story by himself; there is a Hungarian novel (A Thousand Years on Venus, by Gyorgy Botond-Bolics); a welcome recommemoration of J.-F. Rosny the Elder, a wonderful sampling of dragon iconography by George Slusser, works unknown to me by Attanasio, James Morrow, and Barry B. Longyear (I hope they are not all made up!), Rachel Ingalls' Mrs. Caliban, and a rich sampling of UFO "documents" and news reports by George Guffey. There are also the obligatory reconsiderations of the classics: The Tempest, Zamiatin, Weinbaum, Sturgeon, Stapledon, and van Vogt's Slan (along with a new classic: Gibson's Neuromancer!), a remarkably comprehensive review of Wells's aliens by John R. Reed (one of the most valuable pieces here), a less satisfactory discussion of Dick by Frank McConnell (who at least has the best "idea" for an essay in this book--on dolls as aliens), an excellent article on robots by Noel Perrin; and the usual references to a wide variety of 1950s' North American monster movies.

The first thing book reviewers are supposed to do, however, is to complain; and so I will begin by complaining about the absence of my own favorite aliens from this list. The reader will find nothing about the Moties and very little about Lem (whose "doublers," in Eden, might currently be more interesting than the by now famous sentient Ocean named Solaris). The extraordinary flora and fauna of Star Maker surely deserve (but don't receive) attention along with the ubiquitous Odd John. We are treated over and over again to the tiresome devils of Childhood's End, but nobody does anything with Rama, surely one of the most glorious projections in all recent SF. Le Guin gets short shrift (even though The Lathe of Heaven remains one of the most interesting meta-alien texts). Nobody mentions my candidate for Dick's "best" alien, the slimemold Lord Running Clam, in Clans of the Alphane Moon. As for movies, surely David Bowie (in The Man Who Fell to Earth, only cited twice in passing) is a good deal more interesting and relevant to the topic than Kubrick's Hal from 2001. And if we're talking about dragons, where are Delany's extraordinary breed?

The point I want to draw from all this has nothing to do with personal taste, however. It is a symptom of the cardinal weakness of the present symposium that, appearances to the contrary, aliens are not taken seriously in it--and this, despite two very interesting opening papers. The first, by Larry Niven, spells out some excellent natural and scientific reasons why, even if there are more sentient life-forms in the universe than has recently been supposed by disappointed searchers, they might not be in any good position to contact us. That does set the mind going in the right direction, on the objective preconditions for life, intelligence, civilization, travel and communication. In the other essay, Benford then reminds us in the most timely fashion that when we are in the mood for aliens, we don't want to find ourselves served up with Symbols, let alone inner figments of various kinds of psychological projections of the Forbidden Planet variety (though it is true that Forbidden Planet also involved some real, if extinct, aliens and their civilization as well). The philosophical interest of the representation of aliens in SF does not lie in their "meaning"; indeed, if any progress at all has been made in recent literary criticism and theory, it is towards the utter discrediting of the analysis of literary works in terms of messages and symbols--that is, pictures bearing little meanings inside them that someone has to explain. Instead, we want the feel of alien geography, of the agricultural layout of the Moties, and of the plants and machinery of Eden; indeed, we want these things even more badly than we want descriptions of the inhabitants, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. But this is not to be taken as the usual fanzine diatribe against "lit-crit" (here, only McConnell, himself a "perfesser," indulges in this outworn pastime), or as the traditional ("humanist"?) appeal to experience and realism or referentiality. Rather, the philosophical interest of SF lies precisely in the representational experience itself, and in the question of the limits of our capacity to represent and tangibly to imagine alien beings by definition radically different from us and the very opposite of our own projections.

Unfortunately, the papers in this volume tend to take the easy way out by stampeding in the direction of the "alien in our minds" (Niven's title, and a misnomer for his paper but very much in the spirit of what follows). Here, too, some interesting work gets done: Eric Rabkin has a pertinent discussion of telepathy (to which I'll return); and Michael Beehler alerts us (drawing interestingly on both Freud's uncanny and Kant's sublime) to the exclusionary strategies always triggered by the theme (he oddly ties all this into modernity itself, something one wants to have more fully explained). Pascal Ducommun has well-chosen words in further fulfillment of Benford's topic (how aliens get represented in the first place). The very interesting question of why "supermen," or at least more "advanced" aliens, have to avoid mating is splendidly dispatched by Joseph D. Miller. Clayton Koelb assimilates the internal theme to the ancient Platonic discussions of inspiration and madness. Leighton Brett Cooke touches on the relationship between aliens and human racism, while Slusser develops a subtle and elaborate theory of dragons as a kind of interface between consciousness and its "others"--i.e., the otherness of the various internal and external realities and forces which human consciousness must inevitably confront.

But I'm still not satisfied; surely we read SF to get away from psychology and not to mire ourselves more deeply in it. The revelation of the projective nature of our aliens may come with powerful hermeneutic force as an interpretation and a demystification--this is what happens most canonically in the now classical discovery that Wells's Martians (as Reed again reminds us) derive from an early article on the evolutionary future of "Man" himself!--but the interpretative effect only works if you had taken Wells's Martians to be non-psychological in the first place and if the discovery does something to a previously existing, more "representational" reading of The War of the Worlds.

This can lead us on to the other feature of interest in Aliens: namely, what it tells us about current hermeneutic or interpretative fashions. I've already mentioned the survival of some fairly traditional criticism in terms of symbols or meanings. There are some historical or genre pieces. Zoe Sofia treats us to an extraordinary collection of Freudian motifs, which, by way of patriarchy, she relates to US imperialism as that expresses itself through SF film: this is about as political as anything gets in this collection (here I might add that Zoe's suggestion that Australia is a marginal Third World-type country may not carry conviction for all readers). I am also surprised at the degree to which a certain passion for dichotomies still survives: there are, the editors tell us, "two major attitudes toward the alien encounter...the excorporating and the incorporating encounter" (p. x). Slusser's essay in particular, as rich in references as it is, is locked into this left lobe/right lobe logic (by way of J.D. Bernal's mysterious doctrine of "dimorphism"). But until these "dichotomies" get combined with changing historical circumstances that block or confirm, cause or release, them, my own experience suggests that classification systems of this binary type end up being rather sterile and frustrating.

None of these, however, conveys the real methodological shock of reading Aliens--which is to find that antiquated thing called "sociobiology" still alive and kicking, putt-putting up and down the byways of SF criticism and analysis as a kind of curious relic of the Reagan years. Sociobiology is a kind of yuppie Social Darwinism combined with a materialist hermeneutic of more philosophical than scientific interest. The hermeneutic is a form of radical defamiliarization, which I suppose is worth having in the absence of any Marxist or sociological, or even Freudian versions (with the exception, for this last, of the Sofia piece mentioned above): what it amounts to is a dizzying ascent above personal and existential life itself, to some "epicycle of Mercury" from which human acts and events are seen as little more than the genetic and evolutionary statistics about one kind of organism among others. That particular materialist perspective is good for us and therapeutic (and it is of course also true). It also occasionally has interesting interpretative results (as in Miller's gene-pool reading of Superman's chastity); but such interpretations generally turn out looking like at least one of the ideologies and inner points of view generated and projected by SF about itself. Sociobiology is in that (bad) sense itself a kind of SF; and to the degree to which its themes are so intimately related to those of its textual object of study, the hermeneutic offered is likely to be to that degree less powerful and effective because less "defamiliarizing." In any case these readings turn out to be relatively impoverished ones; and the great problem of sociobiology as a metaphysic --namely, how Mother Nature or the species goes about planting the signals for our collective protein-consumption or gene-pool invigoration within the conscious individuals we also are--never gets addressed here (or anywhere else for that matter).

But it is wrong to think, as Cooke (described in the notes as an "authority" on this ideology) suggests, that the bad press of sociobiology stems from its racism. On the contrary, his own illustration succeeds in demonstrating that Longyear's relatively sociobiological story can be a vehicle for as liberal and tolerant a message on the "racial question" as anything Hollywood has to offer. Indeed, mass culture, in its unconscious wisdom, suggests that the current prosperity and level of development of the superstate can very well accommodate black males (and even females) into its power elite--witness their obligatory presence on all the CIA teams and bureaucracies in the various recent paranoia entertainment genres.

No, Mr. Cooke, it wasn't the racism that was objected to in sociobiology as much as the sexism (a topic scarcely ventured into by any of the contributors to the present symposium): what is tiresome about it is the yuppie mimicry of the various traditional North American forms of male or patriarchal behavior. On the other hand, since the thing itself came into existence as a reaction against the modern feminist movement generally, it is not surprising to find it reappearing within SF as a reaction against the great recent period of a feminist SF (from Le Guin onwards).

None of which would be of much significance if a kindred impulse did not also seem to animate the larger bulk of the other, non-sociobiological essays. This can be detected in the (to me) relatively impoverished reading of "aliens" here as indices of our own evolutionary future. That evolutionary mutation is, Rabkin argues, the deeper meaning of the motif of telepathy, and in part I believe him. I've already brought up the case of Wells himself; but surely the most interesting aliens are the ones who are not like us (or like our future either). This idea can, of course, serve as the aforementioned bridge between the two Eaton collections, and the deeper link between our fascination with aliens and our passion for the various SF visions of the future. I'm afraid, however, that I remain unconvinced.

But then why are we interested in aliens in the first place? I have postponed mentioning until now a provocative essay by John Huntington in which, exceptionally, the positive features of the friendly or benign alien are called into question. This is an excellent tack, which (however) leads on into the unpromising continent of Lem (often skirted here and never confronted as such), where the basic fact of life is the aliens' essential indifference to ourselves. What I would like to affirm, though, returning to Benford's terrain and the matter of alien representation, is that what most deeply engages the SF reader in such texts is not particularly alien "psychology" (whether a projection of our own or its inversion or something Lem-like and inscrutable), nor even physical appearance, so much as the matter of the alien environment and ecology as these determine and explain both that appearance and (above all) the phenomenon of alien social structure itself. This was the splendor of The Mote in God's Eye (even though biology crept in through the militaristic-imperialist back door), of Lem's Eden, and of Star Maker; and I am amazed to find it of so little interest to the contributors to the present volume. I can thus only laconically conclude this section by reaffirming the propositions that otherness attaches first and foremost to the mode of production; that social otherness comes first and primes all the other forms and facts of the "alien"; and that it is always by the prospect of radically different societies that we are as readers most deeply tempted.

Why we are tempted by visions of the future, including "storm warnings" about it, may seem more obvious--thereby concealing even greater mysteries. The volume called Storm Warnings, however, compared with Aliens, is something more of a mixed bag, or perhaps I should say, two mixed bags, one inside the other, since the symposium includes the inevitable mini-symposium on Orwell's 1984, which names the year of the conference itself (this section of the book has already been reviewed in SFS No. 46). The collection does not succeed in excluding the twin potential extremes of indulgence in SF writing: namely, the aimless sounding off on current events (by way of offering a home-made "extrapolation" of the future) and the equally desultory trip through a long string of thematically related SF novels that have little else in common. The more interesting tendencies of Storm Warnings, however, turn on the central issue of foretelling the future, a topic which also has two poles or extremes: the historical one, of how this has been done, and the contemporary or "future-shock" version of how we do it now.

It is pleasant to find some valuable contributions to the historical register: Paul Alkon's discussion (by now included in his own useful book, Origins of Futuristic Fiction) of Felix Bodin's Novel of the Future (1834), Marie-Hélène Huet's splendid essay on the future as past in Jules Verne, and also Huntington's predictably stimulating piece on Orwell. Alkon wants to argue the semi-autonomy of the history of forms, or, in plain Orwellian English, the emergence of modern SF from the inner variations and experimentation of the novel form, and not from "modern times," the bourgeoisie, technological innovation, and other such extrinsic forces. Alkon is right as well as wrong; but it would involve a lengthy (and very interesting) theoretical discussion to show how both kinds of determinants, inner and outer, need to be registered in the most appropriately complex model of the genre's history. Huet notices a simple but telling thing-- namely, that all Verne's novels take place after the supreme S-F event, which they assume to be well-known but forgotten ("during the year 186_ the whole world was singularly moved by a scientific experiment without precedent..." etc.). She may go a little too far (in a Blanchotesque way) in attributing this essential oblivion of the immediate past to all SF, but her contribution exhibits the complexities of the tense-structures of SF in a more stimulating fashion than do the mere typologies we find in some other contributions here. The Huntington article, which goes into the James Burnham background in its quest for the origins and content of "Emmanuel Goldstein's" Theory and Practice of Oligarchic Collectivism, I will return to later. As for the other pole, that of future-shock, we get ten types of prognostication in Gary Kern's essay, which then shades off into 19th-century Russia and the horrors of the media in the US today.

For me, though, the most interesting strand or tendency in this volume involves the re-emergence of generic considerations (most notably with Orwell). Before saying something about that, however, we must note the contribution of Benford, who as usual punches through the consensual theme of the conference with his own distinctive preoccupation (no less appropriate, I may add; indeed, its absence from the rest of the discussions is rather noteworthy). Benford not incorrectly assumes that "storm warnings" and dystopias have something or other to do with Utopias themselves and the Utopian imagination. He thereupon delivers himself of a violent diatribe against the latter's more sinister, repressive, and totalitarian features, preparing a list of five stereotypical "regressive" features of Utopias: they (1) repress difference, (2) don't change (3) are against modernity and technology, (4) are authoritarian, and (5) enforce behavior by internalized guilt. (These might have been endorsed by the aforementioned James Burnham and perhaps by Orwell himself, and would have been the hottest theoretical item of any 1950s' right-wing journal, although they are somewhat shopworn today.) He then launches into a rather offensive, personal attack on Le Guin, which he himself inadvertently unmasks and discredits by revealing that in fact it is feminism and feminist Utopias that are at issue here and that are responsible for all the noxious features listed above (probably because, as he puts it, women like families better than men do: perhaps this is a sociobiological "idea"?).

What is interesting in the Orwell material is not only that this writer has evidently lost his Cold War halo (the volume includes a refreshingly negative critique of 1984 by Frederik Pohl), but also--and above all--that many of the contributors have begun to wonder why Orwell's crude and paranoid caricature had the effect it did. Some interesting British contributions (by Elisabeth Maslen, Colin Greenland, and T.A. Shippey, who has a very good discussion of Newspeak somewhat burdened with a long digression on Le Guin) document its impact and relevance, while the Russells (W.M.S. and Claire) suggest some affinities with the apocalyptic tradition, a matter not irrelevant to Orwell's antisemitism.

Maslen and Huntington probe deeply into the formal possibility of the propagandistic resonance of 1984, she by way of a comparison with Doris Lessing's evolution, and he via an analysis of the semic ambiguities of the interpolated Goldstein "book," making the point that Orwell needed to distance 1984 from generic SF in order to leave open the possibility of just these more "impure" and non-SF effects. This insistence on genre marks a welcome change from the indiscriminate way in which some of the contributors lump a whole range of SF narratives together, above all obliterating their different modes ("has happened," "might happen," "could only happen in SF," etc., etc.). The function of a successful conference is generally to bring the participants to the point at which they all realize what they should have done in the first place and what a really successful conference on the topic in question would necessarily have involved. Maybe this one might have found its fulfillment in a more rigorous distinct focus on form and content: on modalities on the one hand, and the sociology of dystopias on the other.

More perplexing and chastening is the attempt to do justice to a volume like Utopie per gli anni Ottanta ("Utopias for the '80s"), a collection of papers from the first International Conference on the Study of Utopias, held in Reggio Calabria in 1983. Running to 800 pages, this is an altogether monumental resource, ranging from Utopian thought to Utopian practice and largely transcending Utopian discourse or the genre as such, with essays on everything from Utopian economics to city planning, from visual Utopias to linguistic ones, from science to art and philosophy, and--last but not least--from Italy to the US (these countries accounting for the bulk of the participants). Not surprisingly, historical studies loom largest here, and despite Anna Maria Battista's interesting introduction (in which the country of Machiavelli is said to be less "Utopian" than that of Brook Farm or the Shaker communities), much fascinating and unfamiliar Italian material is included: from various Neapolitan experiments to the establishment of the great poorhouses in the 18th century, which offer richer spatial plans than anything in Foucault or Jeremy Bentham. SF and literature are decidedly present, but somehow the stakes are raised and the issues sharpened when we arrive at literary and representational form after a long journey, if not through reality, then at least through the other disciplines. I particularly welcome the presence of the visual component--from urbanism and city planning (Lucio Bertelli argues that in the ancient world's Utopian thinking is essentially at one with the founding of new cities) to the imaginary plans and buildings of the 1960s, so rich in Italy, of which Egidio Mucci gives us a useful account.

I am tempted, however, to take up a previous theme and to wonder whether, in Italy, anarchism is not somehow the equivalent of sociobiology in the US (at least insofar as it authorizes the repudiation, not just of Marxism, but more generally of Utopia itself). If one takes the position that the strength or prevalence of an intellectual movement stands in direct proportion to the situation it tries to correct or resist, subvert, or transform, then the popularity of anarchism in Europe (and particularly in the Latin countries) is clearly proportionate to the firm tradition in those countries of the absolute state, something which has no equivalent in Anglo-American experience. That the anarchists are worried about power comes as no surprise; that they should also be so committed to exchange and a market economy, however, argues a Friedmanite turn of thought which is no longer very radical at all. These various essays on anarchist economics (including a thoughtful but revisionist piece on labor by Carmen Sirianni, the author of an important book on the soviets) are all so lugubriously reasonable and cautious--so "realistic" compared, for example, to the wild extravagancies of visual movements like those of Archizoom or Super-studio--that one wonders what they are doing in a book on Utopias in the first place. Even the appropriate kickoff piece by Gillo Dorfles, which ingeniously posits a linguistic Utopia in the conception of a single unified conceptual language as poets and philosophers have so often dreamed or presupposed it, turns anti-Utopian in its call for what exists already-- namely, linguistic multiplicity. (We are, however, to understand that it is this multiplicity which is really Utopian, and indeed many of the contributors strike a blow for difference and break a lance against totalitarian uniformity and conformity, identity, and regimentation.) The problem is that not only the founding father, Thomas More, but also the great bulk of the Utopian tradition, seems to be ranged squarely in the second camp, busy devising ways and means to make people similar and to exclude deviant behavior. Few of the contributors face this dilemma--it might be more accurate to call it a real contradiction--head on; it would presumably involve giving up Utopia altogether (and swimming with the Zeitgeist of late capitalism) or returning to history and positing some fundamental shift in the structure of Utopias and in the situations to which they respond and react, something only a brief space-oriented article by Franco Buncunga contemplates doing. There is, however, an incisive essay on reactionary and nostalgic utopias and fantasies (by Lynn F. Williams); and the recent and still lively tradition of feminist utopias is well represented in six or seven essays (including a valuable survey by Carol Komerten of North American feminist utopias from 1880-1915).

On the whole, individual texts (very much including SF) get less satisfactory treatment here than general trends do; besides the essays on feminist utopias already mentioned, which range across such well-known figures as Russ, Charnas, and Monique Wittig, there is a stimulating but brief article by James R. Hartnett on the outlook of black people in current utopian discourse; a provocative reversal of Tempest criticism by William Prouty, who sees this text as decisively anti-utopian; and a fine theoretical comparison of Utopias with SF by Pierre-FranÁois Moreau, who suggests that Utopias are social, and SF individual, and that the former are organized around considerations of work, while the latter tends to be imagined in terms of the primacy of technology. This could serve as the axis of a whole new conference in its own right!

Philosophical issues do somewhat better, although one senses some fatigue with the classic Utopian texts themselves. Still, there are two monograph-length essays of great quality here: a review of recent historical research on Baboeuf and the Conspiracy of the Equals by Bruna Consarelli, and a long study of the relationship of Hegel and Marx to Utopianism by Peter G. Stillman. Another long study of the Icarian movement by Lillian M. Snyder is also valuable, as are essays on futurist and machine-oriented modernist currents by Giusi M.L. Rapisarda, on Simone Weil and on Catholic social teaching, by Sergio Bartolommei and Edward Wilson, respectively, on Utopian pedagogy in the US by Aaron H. Schectman, and on Luk·cs's early Utopianism in the only very recently published fragments on Dostoyevsky (this, by Elio Matassi, is truly pathbreaking).

The dissatisfaction one may sometimes (ungratefully) have with all these riches probably has something to do with the faintness of the "current situation" in them. Only Luigi Firpo, in his conclusions to the conference volume, evokes the new global system and the challenges it is bound to offer Utopian thought, particularly one more and more committed to regionalism, decentralization, and smallness. The Eaton volumes united North Americans with a certain ideological homogeneity; there we often enough sense the realities that provoked the thoughts and interpretations. If the Reggio Calabria conference so often seems backward-looking, this has nothing at all to do with the Utopian canon as such (although there is certainly no new or contemporary production present here--even the feminist ones enumerated above are essentially old stuff by now), but rather with the absence of any perspective for which the Utopian enterprise would remain vital and necessary. But surely, in the twilight of late capitalism's virtually global hegemony, with all its post-modern complacency, the Utopian imagination is very much on the agenda!

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