Science Fiction Studies

#19 = Volume 6, Part 3 = November 1979


  • Samuel R. Delany. The Order of "Chaos" (Joanna Russ. And Chaos Died)
  • Carlo Pagetti. 25 Years of SF Criticism in Italy (1953-1978)
  • Patrick Parrinder. Delany Inspects the Word-Beast (Samuel R. Delany. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and The American Shore)
  • Robert M. Philmus. In Search of Orwell (Robert A. Lee. Orwell's Fiction; Jeffrey and Valerie Meyers. George Orwell: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism; Jeffrey Meyers, ed. George Orwell: The Critical Heritage; Christopher Small. The Road to Miniluv: George Orwell, the State and God; William Steinhoff. George Orwell and the Origins of 1984)


Samuel R. Delany

The Order of "Chaos"

Joanna Russ. And Chaos Died. With a new Introduction by Robert Silverberg. Boston: Gregg Press, 1978. xi + 189 p. $10.

The first two pages of this hardcover reprint of And Chaos Died present the protagonist, Jai Vedh, as a quietly despairing modern man with a nearly psychotic desire to merge with the universe. Moreover, it is suggested that this essentially religious desire is a response to the meaninglessness and homogeneity of every day life. There is a vacuum inside him; and when, on a business trip in a spaceship that has taken him off the surface of Old Earth ("on which every place was like every other place, " p. 9), he senses the great vacuum of space itself about the ship, the real vacuum and the psychological vacuum become confused. Propelled by his desire for mergence,

on the nineteenth day he threw himself against one of the portals, flattening himself as if in immediate collapse, the little cousin he had lived with all his life become so powerful in the vicinity of its big relative that he could not bear it. Everything was in imminent collapse. He was found, taken to sick bay, and shot full of sedatives. They told him, as he went under, that the space between the stars was full of light, full of matter -- what was it someone had said, an atom in a cubic yard? -- and so not such a bad place after all. He was filled with peace, stuffed with it, replete; the big cousin was trustworthy.

Then the ship exploded. (p. 10)

The place Jai Vedh comes to, along with the philistine captain of the exploded spaceship, is the first of Russ's SF utopias. Noting the January 1970 publishing date on the original edition, and thus inferring 1968/1969 as the most probable time of composition, we may be tempted to read this particular utopia as a kind of arcadian fall-out of that decade's ecological crusade. A more sensitive reader of SF will, however, notice its sources in SF works that substantially predate that crusade: the nameless planet of telepaths takes its form from Clarke's Lys (the more ruralized companion city to mechanical Diaspar in The City and the Stars, 1953) and from the world in Theodore Sturgeon's "The Touch of Your Hand" ( 1953). What characterizes this particular SF image is not rural technology, but advanced technology hidden behind a rural facade; not human communication in good faith, but ordinarily invisible communicational pathways (some form of ESP); and it is always left and then returned to. (This pattern, almost unchanged, is still present today in stories like John Varley's "The Persistence of Vision," 1978.) What the inhabitants of Russ's "Lys" can teach Jai Vedh to accomplish is precisely that merging he so longs for: moreover they can straighten out the social-vacuum/ physical-vacuum paralogism around which his psychotic episode in the spaceship was constituted. (Where are SF's Lacanian critics!?) They can teach him to perceive, and influence, matter directly at a distance. The results look very much like ESP. Health lies -- implicitly -- in merging with something (matter) rather than nothing (vacuum). Jai Vedh's conquest of matter-at-a-distance makes playing with vacuum simply a game: rescued from utopia and returning to Earth with his telepathic mentor and love, Evne, he actually removes part of the ship's wall and exposes himself to the vacuum.

It's no big deal.

He is ready to face the social vacuum directly.

The social vacuum is manifested in individuals who, now that Jai's newly acquired ESP allows him to look inside them, are also "empty." On the rescue ship, this is Mrs. Robins, who, when she discovers Jai and Evne in her cabin, assumes they have been sent there to perform sexually for her while she rides a sort of masturbation machine that apparently works something like an exercycle: "She had enormous breasts, two wells of silicone jelly, enormous buttocks, a faked, crowded waist, dyed eyes, dyed hair, and no uterus" (pp. 98-99). It is hard not to read this hysterical absence, in the midst of such artifically implement fleshy abundance, as somehow comparable to the vacuum formerly inside Jai. And readers of Derrida's Of Grammatology will not be surprised to learn she has a "tiny" and "feeble" voice, the depletion of breath, the diminution of voice being the classical image used to signify inauthenticity. Indeed, this is the place to note that the entire symptomatology of the novel, by which the author signals authenticity/inauthenticity, sickness/health, good/evil is by and large a received and uncritical one. Her subsequent novels will mount a massive critique on precisely that symptomatology; but that must wait for a discussion of her work as a whole.

Before the ship lands, Evne (whose initial response to Mrs. Robins was to throw up) teleports herself to Earth. Jai Vedh, in bewilderment and fear of the officers around him, follows her -- and lands on the other side of the world. Though he wants to find her, the thrust of all his subsequent actions is only toward survival.

What kind of world is this Earth? Its surface seems to be mostly parks and recreational grounds. Much of life goes on below, and the subterranean aspect suggests the texture of life itself has somehow become oppressive. A generalized material sufficiency has lead to leisure and a certain amount of violence in the search for meaning -- a vision we can recall from Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon (1941) and will see again in Varley's "The Phantom of Kansas" (1976). There are security booths scattered about, where citizens can take refuge from this public violence when it gets out of hand.

At the climax of the novel, Jai Vedh and a new found friend, a fourteen year old boy named Ivat (who roams the streets with a hunting bow: when Jai breaks it, Ivat replaces it from a street-vending machine that dispenses deadly weapons to anyone who wants them), visits a kind of bacchanal, where rapine, murder, mutilation, and wanton destruction reign among a populace who are, by and large, so drugged they can hardly read their own physical sensations: one man, set on fire in a doorway, burns to death only aware of a peaceful drowsiness. Another, who has just pushed a nail into his remaining eye, exclaims in a "pleased" voice: "Ulch, I heard a 'ulch'," (p. 13), which the surrounding crowd takes up as a listless chant.

This huge destruction-party balances -- and mirrors -- the huge celebration party on the nameless utopian planet which climaxed the novel's opening movement. The first was a "celebration" of "healthy" people which left Jai himself -- because of their play with gravity and the shape of matter in the physical world -- disoriented, frightened, and confused; the last is a "celebration" of "sick" people which leaves Jai with a sense of his own power and autonomy. He makes love to a mildly half-witted girl to prove it.

The brief concluding section of the book, which Silverberg in his introduction characterizes as a "dreamlike epilogue," rather abruptly reveals why Evne and her people allowed themselves to be discovered by the Earth people in the first place: they have come to teach all of Earth how to be telepaths. They arrange a conference in which the terms are to be set up with the Earth leaders; but the Earth people, terrified, bomb them at the last minute. However, Jai, Evne, and the others simply teleport back to the nameless planet -- leaving behind some instantly constructed charred bodies so the Earth people will think they have been destroyed. Back on utopia, they continue their ideal existence. And they have brought young Ivat with them, cured of the madness Jai inflicted on him at the end of the bacchanal in response to a "love"-inspired murder attempt.

And Chaos Died, Silverberg notes, is hard reading: "The manner of its telling makes it a difficult book to read, the way the design of a ski-slope makes it a difficult place for a contemplative stroll" (p. viii). From the statements that follow, it seems Silverberg assumes that the difficulty is stylistic. I think he has mislocated it. The difficulty is in the narrative structure itself. At no time does Jai, the protagonist, think about any of the concerns in the novel as an explicit problem he wishes to solve and to which a sizable proportion of his subsequent actions would be directed.

When a writer does employ such a convention, immediately a vast amount of mental house-keeping is facilitated for the reader. When we read a novel employing such a narrative convention, certain actions are immediately subordinated to certain others; primary, secondary, and even tertiary levels are established almost at once. The novel is much easier to read.

When a writer does not employ this convention, the reader is bereft of this prestructured organization. All data are equal until they link up with other data that put them into a pattern: it is harder reading, and more demanding. It is intriguing to note, then, about the SF audience, that in the 8 years it has been in print, And Chaos Died has sold almost half again as many copies as Russ's first novel, Picnic on Paradise, a far more conventionally organized novel with a clear narrative problem, that is certainly an "easier read" than Chaos and has been available two years longer.

For a while now I have been aware that Joanna Russ's SF represents a certain embarrassment for anyone approaching the genre with broadly critical intent. Critics of Anglo-American SF find themselves drawn to two seemingly unarguable positions:

1. The worth of SF cannot be present in any literarily worthy style. Most SF is appallingly written, therefore its worth must be sought at the level of a grosser narrative resolution.

2. The worth of SF cannot be present in any rigorous presentation of social ideas: most SF is governed by a political-ethical system which one hesitates to call fascist only because any functioning fascist group would have to be a great deal more in touch with the complexities of the world even to exist, much less to oppress others. Therefore SF's worth must be present elsewhere than in the ideological system(s) educible from it.

But if these two positions are the case, what is a critic to do with a writer like Russ whose prose style from the beginning has been rigorous, deeply felt, richly envisioned, all its riches governed not only by verbal economy but by a psychological economy as well that marks her sentences with a pace and precision one associates with a John Hawkes, a Vladimir Nabokov (Russ's former teacher and one of the dedicatees of Chaos), or a Djuna Barnes of the Spillway stories? What does one do with an SF novel that describes a spaceliner thus: "The Big One was obviously one of those epoxy-and-metal eggs produced by itself -- the Platonic Idea of a pebble turned inside out, born of a computer and aspiring toward the condition of Mechanical Opera" (p. 43). The irony of that "obviously" could occasion pages of explication de texte. To fully appreciate such a sentence, one must be able to call up the ghost of the Walter Pater phrase it lightly mocks ("All art aspires to the condition of music") as well as the pulp-horror diction ("The Old One...") it mocks as lightly.

What does one do with an SF novel like The Female Man, which demands its politics be taken seriously, and presents those politics without naivete or bombast, but rather through a whole host of distancing devices that make it an "epic novel" in almost exactly the way Brecht used the term "epic theater"? What do we do with SF in which occur passages such as:

This book is written in blood.

Is it written entirely in blood?

No, some of it is written in tears.

Are the blood and the tears all mine?

Yes, they have been in the past. But the future is a different matter. As the bear swore in Pogo after having endured a pot shoved on her head, being turned upside down while still in the pot, a discussion about her edibility, the lawnmowering of her behind, and a fistful of ground pepper in her snoot, she then swore a mighty oath on the ashes of her mothers (i.e., her forebears) grimly but quietly while the apples from the shaken tree above her dropped bang thud on her head:


This is a contemporary writer working at the highest level of rhetorical risk, where the political clichés of blood and tears must be re-dared, in a garden at once Edenic and Newtonian, regalvanized by honesty and irony.

What one does if one is a critic committed to the position that the worth of SF is present in neither its style nor its ideas is to become rather tongue-tied; and certainly one hesitates to locate it as the focus for mature attention seeking out such worth.

When René Girard analyzes the way Camus, in The Fall, criticizes both his youthful romanticism and his own "bad faith" that lead him to the failures of psychological veracity and sociological mimesis in The Stranger's presentation of crime and punishment (René Girard's "Camus's Stranger Retried," in To Double Business Bound), we are ready to accept it because Camus comes to us already valorized as a thinker. Russ's We Who Are About To ... presents the same kind of critique of her early novel Picnic on Paradise. The Female Man mounts a similar critique of And Chaos Died (as her most recent novel, The Two of Them criticizes The Female Man in its turn). But SF is supposed to be a variety of entertainment, not an expression of thought. So once more we are unprepared.

If SF criticism is to accomplish anything at all, it must face embarrassments such as Russ's work head on.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)   Back to Home