Science Fiction Studies

#49 = Volume 16, Part 3 = November 1989

Carl D. Malmgren

A Matter of "Boiling Roses"

George E. Slusser & Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction.Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. x + 252pp. $26.95.

This volume, the fifth in SIUP's "Alternatives" series, brings together 17 essays from the seventh J. Lloyd Eaton Conference on SF and Fantasy Literature, held at the University of California, Riverside, in 1985. As the title indicates, the conference was designed to address itself to genre theory, to explore the nature of SF and fantasy as separate genres, and to sketch out the forms of their interaction. In their "Introduction: Toward a Theory of Interaction," Slusser and Rabkin assert: "Whatever the state of genre theory, the present nature of literary forms reveals a pressing need to go beyond Aristotle." They note that SF itself is compounded of "two kinds of discourse: science and fiction" and that its pairing with fantasy engenders any number of hybridized forms, such as science fantasy, the fantastic, the uncanny, the marvelous, and so on. The possible permutations and interactions give these genres a privileged position "at the center of the generic field today" (p. vii). The volume, then, is intended to go "beyond Aristotle" by taking the first steps toward a "theory of interaction."

Slusser and Rabkin elaborate on the possible relations between fantasy and SF by dividing their anthology into three sections: "Discriminations," "Gestations," and "Fields." The first part contains "analytical" essays which try to discriminate between the two forms. The essays in the second part "examine the connection between fantasy and science fiction in terms of genesis rather than analysis" (p. viii). The third section purports to make the "transition from genesis to synthesis," giving us the "synthetic permutations within this field" (p. ix). As will be seen, this initial attempt to "map the complex configurations of fantasy and science fiction" (p. ix) is only partially successful. For one thing, the neat distinctions between analysis, genesis, and synthesis, when applied to individual essays, are seen to be sometimes arbitrary, misleading, or inaccurate. Also, as might be expected in a conference anthology, the essays as a whole vary widely in quality. Indeed, each section of the anthology is characterized by having at least a couple of strong essays, generally placed at the beginning and end of the section, several weaker but worthwhile pieces, and a couple of filler essays.

Part 1, "Discriminations," in some ways serves as a model for the volume. The initial essay, Robert Scholes's "Boiling Roses: Thoughts on Science Fantasy," is by far the best. In an ingratiatingly informal and nontheoretical way, Scholes tries to define that "oxymoronic monster named science fantasy" (p. 5) by examining the etymologies of the words "science" and "fantasy." In so doing, he is able to connect fantasy with the notions of other-worldiness, ethical frameworks, and intuitive knowledge. His discussion of "science" suggests the extent to which the discourse of SF is grounded in investigation and analysis, in empirical knowledge. Scholes's survey of the history of fantasy leads him to the conclusion that SF and fantasy were "forced to align themselves according to binary polarities offered by positivism: science or magic, extrapolation or escapism, this primary world transformed or a secondary world created" (p. 18). The essay ends with the idea that science fantasy may well be a form that positions itself beyond positivism, "beyond both the truth/fiction opposition of science and the good/evil opposition of religion" (p. 18).

The remaining essays in Part 1 are decidedly mixed, both in substance and quality. In a kind of "how-to" essay, Joseph Miller goes to lengths to show that parallel universes are "doable" in a purely S-F format. Michael McClintock tries to distinguish between fantasy and SF according to their respective reliance on sorcery and technology. Michael Collings argues rather convincingly that contemporary horror novels like The Wolfen and The Hunger have swerved from fantasy towards SF by means of the systematic and scientific "naturalization" of their horror actants. The worst of the essays is J. Timothy Bagwell's "Science Fiction and the Semiotics of Realism," which mistakenly claims that SF deals "with what is currently impossible," misreads Aristotle's preference for "impossible probabilities" rather than "unpersuasive possibilities" as rooted in a distinction between "plot and subject matter," and carries on a "semiotic" analysis of SF that is somehow ignorant of Benveniste's critical distinction between story and discourse. Part 1 ends with Roger Zelazny's "writer's view" of the difference between fantasy and SF--a short piece which drastically oversimplifies the history of estranged narrative forms and then imposes an inverted model of that history on American SF. Its main contribution to the ongoing process of "discrimination" is to link fantasy with the unknown and the unknowable, localized in the "dark areas" of our private universes (p. 57).

Part 2, "Gestations," presumably examines fantasy and SF in terms of the originary forces that generate or shape them. One anticipates here approaches to genre theory that stress the socio-cultural analysis of the relation of genres to the practices of editors and the logistics of the marketplace. And Michael Holquist's piece on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, while it does not deal with the intersection of fantasy and SF, locates the religious and transcendental impulse in Soviet SF in the philosophy of science articulated by Tsiolkovsky's mentor, Nikolai Fyodorov. But the remaining pieces seem only peripherally concerned with matters of genesis. Kathleen Spencer redefines the fantastic as a genre mediating between the mimetic and non-mimetic and between SF and fantasy and identifies one form the fantastic took in the 19th century, the "Victorian urban Gothic." Her essay is thus traditional genre analysis with an historical example. David Leiby's indifferent essay on the time-travel motif correctly notes that it may serve as a point of intersection for fantasy and SF, but drifts off into an unconvincing treatment of the literary "effects" that time-travel makes possible. Even more unsatisfactory is Michael Clifton's "Jewels of Wonder," which argues that fantasy and SF provide us with "contact with the unconscious," especially by means of gem and light imagery. Here is "new criticism" at its most trivial.

One can't help but suspect that "Gestations" brings together essays that resisted the tripartite classification-system created by the editors, a suspicion confirmed by the final essay, Frank McConnell's eccentric but suggestive "Frames in Search of a Genre." McConnell attempts, in a fashion reminiscent of Kermode's Sense of an Ending, to build a theory of fiction around an analysis of jokes and cartoons. He distinguishes between the one-liner and the shaggy-dog story in terms of their inherent view of the universe and then applies that distinction to the four- and three-frame cartoon, classical music and jazz, bridge and poker, and, eventually, SF and fantasy. McConnell generalizes like mad, but he writes with panache, and his essay is at once stimulating, provocative, and interesting.

The third section, "Fields," is by design the most innovative and ambitious, undertaking as it does "a field theory of literary interactions," one which focuses "neither on the nature of the forms in themselves, nor on their discrimination, but on conjunctions and configurations, on the shaping of architextual space itself" (p. viii). Unfortunately, the only piece that even takes on the notion of a "field theory" is the first one, Slusser's "The And in Fantasy and Science Fiction." This lengthy essay (37pp.), presumably a elaborate reworking of the conference presentation, is easily the most challenging and rewarding piece in the anthology. Beginning with the observation that SF and fantasy are invariably linked of late and that the very order of that linking suggests primacy in the generic sense (is it F&SF or SF&F?), Slusser insists on the instrumentality of the and, arguing that distinct literary forms such as realism, fantasy, horror, and SF can only be understood in binary sets of relation; the types are "merely designations, called into being by the nature of the shapes the and governs: products in a sense of the field of conjunction" (p. 134). Slusser is proposing a new way to look at genre:

Many theorists see genres creating their own formal space. I argue that all genres occupy the same space, one not determined by a noun, seeking to bestow on a shape the singular existence of a form, but by the conjunction and, connecting shapes as coordinate entities. In light of this and, genre theory itself, in its search to fix by naming, has itself inflected toward a sort of nominalism. The and, on the other hand, has, beyond genre, come to mark the place, the necessary field of literary activity....Through the presence of the and, forms become aware that they are binary. (p. 136)

According to Slusser, the binary oppositions that generate and inform these conjunctive pairs are thematic (in its abstract sense): openness vs. closure, exclusion vs. inclusion, disorder vs. order, mimesis vs. poesis. Slusser goes on to apply this "logic of fantasy" to a succession of paired forms, creating a model of literary relations that is at once synchronic and diachronic. Slusser's essay is opaque or obscure in places, and its wide-ranging examples (from Cervantes to 2001) do not always clarify, but it does present an innovative way of looking at genre as a field of activity. His essay resists summary and bears re-reading.

The same can not be said for most of the other selections in Part 3. Celeste Pernicone provides a personal and "homely" analysis of the difference between fantasy and horror, drawing on The Cat in the Hat, Curse of the Cat People, and Poltergeist. Brian Attebery supplies another imagistic reading of the overlap between SF and fantasy. Kathryn Hume demonstrates how Gravity's Rainbow incorporates motifs drawn from fantasy, SF, and mythology, without really shedding light on either the nature or meaning of Pynchon's text. In the final essay, "Science Fiction: Going Around in Generic Circles," David Clayton argues that "the only point of departure" for genre theory can be the individual text itself, that the critic must "strive for a strong reading of the individual text that would allow its generic dimension to appear" (p. 209), and then performs such a reading on Heinlein's Starship Troopers. The extended and sometimes labored reading reveals that SF can only thrive as a genre by resisting "generic constraints": "the more science fiction succumbs to generic constraints, the more it forfeits what makes it valuable as literature and turns into a mere consumer artifact" (p. 219). For Clayton, the very concept of genre acts as an "inertial force" on the writing of literature. The final essay in an anthology designed to go "beyond Aristotle," then, ends by simplistically equating genre with hackneyed literary conventions and then assigning to it an "ideologically specious role." Given the fact that Clayton began with a reactionary text, his conclusions are hardly surprising.

I don't want to give the impression that Clayton's essay is not worth reading, because it certainly is (as are a number of others in this volume), but "Going Around in Generic Circles" highlights a significant feature of this anthology. In general, the volume betrays an ambivalent relation to the very project its title announces--the assigning of generic names and the specification of generic features. Such activity is, at best, merely heuristic; at worst, simply reductive. It is, as the title of Scholes's piece suggests, a matter of "boiling roses."

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