Science Fiction Studies

#29 = Volume 10, Part 1 = March 1983





Charles Elkins

Great Expectations

E.F. Bleiler. Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982. 623 + xv p. $55.00.

David Cowart and Thomas L. Wymer, eds. Twentieth Century American Science fiction Writers [Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8]. 2 vols. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. xxvi + 652 p. $124.00 per set.

Curtis C. Smith, ed. Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers. NY: St Martin's Press. 1981. 642 + xviii p. $65.00.

A list of all the editors, advisors, and contributors involved in the preparation of these three reference works would constitute a fairly complete Who's Who in SF criticism and scholarship today. Those connected with their preparation-- including this reviewer (I wrote two essays for the Bleiler volume and served on the Advisory Board for Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers)--have waited with interest to assess the final products and to see how each compared with the other two. It is safe to say that by whatever criteria one chooses to measure success or failure, the results are mixed. Moreover, if one includes Tuck's, Reginald's, Centento's, Currey's, and Nicholls' reference works, one is tempted to say, "Enough is enough." We will not be needing anything similar for quite a while.

In terms of sheer breadth of coverage, the vote must go to Smith's Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, which treats "more than 600 writers of science fiction." Cowart and Wymer's two volumes, designed to cover only 20th-century American writers, have 91 essays, and Bleiler's compilation 76. While Bleiler and Smith give some space to non-English-speaking writers, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on British and American authors. Depth is harder to measure. Many of the essays in the Smith volume are less than 1000 words. The Cowart- Wymer volumes divide writers into major and minor figures. (The criteria for making this division are never stated.) Minor authors are given about 2000-3000 words, major ones 10,000 or more. The essays in the Bleiler volume are generally consistent in length: about 5000 words for each SF writer.

Reflecting differences in purposes, these volumes also vary in their organization. The Bleiler text is organized historically, beginning with "Early Science Fiction" (Mary Shelley, H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, Garrett P. Serviss, etc) and including sections on "Primitive Science Fiction: The American Dime Novel and Pulp Magazines," "Mainstream Georgian Authors," "American Science Fiction: The Formative Period," "The Circumbellum Period," "The Moderns," and Continental Science Fiction" (represented by three writers: Verne, Capek, and Lem). The two-volume Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers is organized alphabetically, as is the Smith volume.

The audience envisioned for all three volumes is similar. All are designed for the "general reader." All give some biographical information, a bibliography of the author's major works, plot summaries of the most significant titles, and some indication of their author's general thematic concerns. The Bleiler and the Cowart-Wymer volumes supply bibliographies of bibliographies and selective bibliographies of other secondary material. The Smith volume claims to "list all books, including non-science fiction works," and includes a "signed critical essay" by each author who responded to an invitation to say something about his or her work. Often the Cowart-Wymer as well as the Smith also locates manuscript materials.

All this is useful for the general reader. Particularly helpful are the bibliographies of minor and lesser-known SF authors, about whose works no standard bibliographies or checklists are readily available. Those in the Bleiler and the Cowart-Wymer volumes, by my spot-checking, seem reliable, if not as inclusive as Smith's. Despite the latter's claims to bibliographic comprehensiveness, on the other hand, users would do well to avoid depending upon the bibliographies in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers: some are genuine disasters. John Clute's review in Foundation (June 1982, pp. 64-70) points to a number of bibliographical problems in several of the entries: omissions of pseudonymous works and otherwise incomplete listings; the recording of titles that were never published as if they had been; a confusion of generic categories; and a lack of consistent criteria for ascribing a given work to a certain author; and so on.

What about the entries themselves? In the case of the Bleiler volume, the editor required "biographical information, comments on important stories, historical position, evaluation, bibliography, and whatever else was needed to provide an introduction for a new reader or a full survey for a regular reader of science fiction" (p. xv) and otherwise gave contributors the "freedom to develop their ideas." However, given the "required data" and a 5000-word limit, there is not much more that can be done beyond trying to relate the biographical data to the author's creative development and abstracting some thematic and stylistic elements in a discussion of the major works. Hence, despite the freedom, most of the essays read pretty much the same. This is not necessarily a fault; almost all of them provide a good introduction to the SF writer under consideration.

Cowart and Wymer's two volumes follow the format of the DLB series. They supply information about the author's date and place of birth, education, and marital status, and list the awards that he or she has won. Then comes an essay which the editors claim "both synthesizes the best of the existing body of scholarship and breaks new ground by providing original critical assessments of a group of authors who have made significant contributions to twentieth-century fiction but about many of whom little or no criticism exists beyond book reviews in specialty magazines" (p. xiii). Most of the essays are a combination of biography, plot summary, and critical evaluation. The essays are "original" in the sense that they were written for these volumes, but there is little "new ground" broken. What is more curious--given the biographical emphasis of this series--is the lack of new biographical information on these authors. Spot checks revealed no information in these essays that was not readily available in the most cursory of previous biographies. Indeed, the lack of biographical information on many of the authors is noticeable. As Colin Greenland points out (in the same issue of Foundation in which the review by Clute appears): "the average contributor to Twentieth-Century American SF Writers offers quite a lot of literary but very little biography indeed" (p. 70).

Each article in the Curtis Smith volume begins with an equivalent of a Who's Who entry: it includes the author's mailing address or the address of his or her literary agent, followed by a bibliography of primary sources. The essays vary from about 1500 words for major authors such as Asimov and Le Guin to a couple of hundred words for lesser-knowns. Like those in Bleiler and Cowart-Wymer, the essays here are for the most part thematic studies by way of plot summaries. Given the limitations of space, many are quite good, especially those of Douglas Barbour, Donald Hassler, Walter Meyers, David Samuelson, Roger Schlobin, Darko Suvin, Gary Wolfe, and Carl Yoke. These transcend mere plot summary and provide a unified assessment of the writer's work and her or his contribution to the genre.

Each of these reference works has its good points. In terms of consistency and balance, I think Bleiler's volume is the best. It is clearly the best-edited, both in terms of mechanics and cognizance of its audience. It is a no-frills reference work designed to be read by anyone with a high-school education. The essays are generally thorough and give the reader a good grounding in the life and major works of each author, and none of the contributors posits an audience familiar with the heady intricacies of phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypes, structuralism, or deconstruction. There is a minimum of quotation, and the critical apparatus is seldom distracting. Finally, in its historical account of the development of SF, the book gives their due (or perhaps more than their due) to some lesser-known SF writers--e.g., M.P. Sheil, Garrett P. Serviss, S. Fowler Wright, and David Keller.

Many of the authors not covered in Bleiler are found in Cowart-Wymer: but with a $124 price tag, those two volumes are clearly designed for libraries. They are very handsome indeed, and with their photographs of most of the authors treated, their photographed pages of many of the authors' draft manuscripts, and their pictures of both the dust jackets of classic SF novels and the front covers of several SF pulps announcing some classic SF short story, they are a pleasure to peruse.

Despite all of its bibliographic flaws, Curtis Smith's is probably the most useful of the three reference works. It contains a great deal of information on an extraordinary number of writers, many of whom might be unknown even to knowledgeable scholars and critics in the field. Used with caution, this is a valuable reference work; and given the outrageous cost of books these days, its $65.00 price tag seems modest.

All three of these reference works bear a genetic resemblance to a modern encyclopedia: all, that is, rely on a large number of contributors who were paid by the article. Yet it always happens that a few of those contributors wind up getting a disproportionate share of the contents. This is not necessarily bad. Four out of the 25 contributors listed in the Bleiler volume, for example, account for 30 of its essays, or 40 per cent of the total; but those four are seasoned and respected critics of SF. On the other hand, the choice of who would write what for the Cowart-Wymer volumes does raise a question. Of the 77 critics represented there, 11 (or 14 per cent) are either from the University of South Carolina (Cowart's academic affiliation) or from Columbia, South Carolina (where that university is located), and since it is difficult to believe that expertise in SF criticism and scholarship has preponderantly gravitated to that one state and that one university one suspects that the selection of critics in this case was largely a matter of geographical convenience.

Nor is that the only problematic aspect of putting together a volume of this kind. Suppose that someone is given an assignment and the editorial staff later decides that the piece submitted is inappropriate. It then falls to the editor or some editorial assistant, frantically trying to meet a publication deadline, to come up with something at the last minute. Nor is this a purely hypothetical possibility. On the contrary. it occurs frequently enough to be a very real editorial headache. One can acknowledge an editor`s expertise as an SF scholar and talents as an SF critic and still have doubts about how much one person can he expected to know or do. Take, for instance, Everett Bleiler's article on Poe in the Scribner's book. In it, Bleiler extends the idea that [Poe's] stories have very little in common with what is indisputably accepted as science fiction" (p. 11) by saying:

The most that can be said is that Poe's fiction as a whole influenced Jules Verne, who admired Poe greatly. But the elements that Verne took over were not always those of science fiction. Poe was not a great innovator or pattern creator in science fiction like Wells, nor a historically important specialist like Ray Bradbury or Robert A. Heinlein. He was a writer, a few of whose stories, in retrospect, can be uncomfortably squeezed, with crumpling and edges sticking out, into the genre we now call science fiction. (pp. 17-18)

Yet if Poe was so peripheral to SF, what is he doing in Bleiler's volume? What "elements" did Verne take over that were "of science fiction"? The word "always" suggests that Verne took over a great many "elements.") I am not suggesting that Bleiler is wrong; but I am arguing that further explanation is called for and that perhaps finer distinctions need to be made. (These distinctions are in fact made by David Ketterer in his article on Poe in Nicholls' The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. pp. 464-65. which Bleiler refers to, and in Ketterer's The SF Element in the Work of Poe: A Chronological Survey," (SFS. 1 [1974]:197-213), which he doesn't cite.)

Again, the Bleiler volume will serve for highlighting another problematic side to the encyclopedic enterprise. Are Verne, Capek, and Lem, one wonders, the only writers of SF outside the English-speaking world worth mentioning, or did it simply prove too difficult to find critics with the linguistic expertise to deal with (as yet) untranslated authors? (Perhaps some of the more notable omissions in this area--e.g., of Calvino--will be made up for in a companion volume that Scribner's is planning, tentatively entitled Fantasy and Horror Writers.)

Some related problems of coverage beset the Cowart-Wymer volumes. Not only do the editors of these not specify their criteria for differentiating major from minor authors; their distinctions in practice seem purely arbitrary. For instance, they afford Zenna Henderson, with four novels to her credit, about the same amount of space as Damon Knight, whose bibliography runs to 53 titles. And why do they give that much attention to Henderson while ignoring Gregory Benford altogether? Furthermore, this confusion of standards appears in a different form in the selection of topics for appendices. Some of the appended articles themselves--Brian Attebery's, Gary Wolfe's, and Ina Rae Hark's--are quite good; but, as Greenland observes, a list of the titles ("The New Wave," Science Fantasy," "The Iconography of Science-Fiction Art, "Paperback Science Fiction," "Science-Fiction Films," "Science-Fiction Fandom and Convention," Science-Fiction Fanzines," "Science Fiction Writers of America and the Nebula Award," "Hugo Awards and Nebula Awards," "A World Chronology of Important Science-Fiction Works (1818-1979)," "Selected Science-Fiction Magazines and Anthologies," and "Books for Further Reading") betrays some uncertainty of identity." (Cowart and Wymer evidently were not uncertain, however. about what they did not want: in rejecting as being inappropriate for their intended audience the piece on "Trends in SF Criticism" that I contracted to do, they objected not to its style but to its content.)

The problems for which the editor of Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers may he held responsible are mainly of another order. Totally missing from that volume is the critical apparatus of Bleiler's (unobtrusive as that is). In fact, there are no references to secondary sources in Smith; and when the source of a quotation is identified, no page or section numbers are provided. To be sure, the section on "Foreign Language Writers," with its 35 entries, is far more comprehensive than Bleiler's. But Smith's "Major Fantasy Writers" contains only five entries; and well written though they are, these somehow seem out of place.

Some readers may find these criticisms of mine to be so much nitpicking. After all, not every reference work must measure up to the standards of The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, Evans's American Bibliography, or even the recent efforts of Tuck, Reginald, Contento, or Nicholls. Besides, the volumes I am presently considering have respective virtues which overbalance their limitations. Nevertheless, I think that Clute's verdict on the Smith title applies to Bleiler's and Cowart-Wymer's as well: "by now we had every reason to expect better."

Walter E. Meyers

Problems with Herbert

Timothy O'Reilly. Frank Herbert. "Recognitions" Series. NY: Frederick Ungar. 1981. 216 p. $5.95 paper.

David M. Miller. Frank Herbert. Starmont Reader's Guide No. 5. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1980. 70 p. $3.95 paper.

Both Timothy O'Reilly's and David M. Miller's straightforwardly named books suffer from the worst fate risked by anyone who writes criticism about a living author: having the author add a major novel to the canon just after the publication of the study. Apparently, neither O'Reilly nor Miller anticipated the publication of God Emperor of Dune in 1981. Thus in commenting on Dune, O'Reilly, for example, asserts that some things in the novel "were left deliberately unfinished, to draw the reader's attention deeper into the story and to keep him involved long after it was over" (p. 54). Some of these unfinished parts were resolved in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, so it would not have been going far out on a limb to guess that still further works in the series would follow. If O'Reilly and Miller are fortunate, Ungar and Starmont House will give them the chance to revise their thoughts in second editions.

For the present, though, we have only these two critical works at hand. Each makes additions to the exploration of the themes of Herbert, one of the most ambiguous of current writers of SF. Any critic might be wary of Herbert's practice of turning the table on his readers from book to book. The best known reader to suffer from table rotation was John W. Campbell, Jr, who rejected Dune Messiah because the novel torpedoes the heroic image of Paul Atreides so carefully built up in Dune. Through a study of both published and unpublished material, O'Reilly demonstrates that Herbert's plan was deliberate from the start, and that at least part of the inflation of Paul was engineered by a design to make his subsequent deflation the more striking. Yet this is only one example of the difficulty of pinning Herbert down.

Take a second example: Herbert often shows elite groups, with the Fremen of Dune chief among them. They show marvelous adaptation to their environment, but little adaptability. When they get what they want most--the greening of Arrakis--they change from vigorous to indolent, from honest to devious, and from independent to sycophantic. Was their desire, in retrospect, a good thing? Herbert was proclaimed ecology's apostle when Dune appeared: here was the husbandry of resources on a planetary scale. But the restoration of Arrakis is death for the sandworm, an endangered species more spectacular than the Fremen. By the time of God Emperor, the sandworms have become extinct. Since the species is the sole producer of the spice mlange that allows interplanetary travel, what seemed like conservation on a planetary scale could have meant the destruction of society on an interplanetary scale.

It is very hard, therefore. to decide exactly what Herbert's statement is, especially in the Dune books. Yet both O'Reilly and Miller make attempts. By both its length and the scale of its research, O'Reilly's book becomes the foundation of future studies of Herbert. Certainly the book demonstrates very clearly that Herbert employs a number of very disturbing ideas. O'Reilly notes how harsh environments (submarine life, the desert planet) produce a survival-of-the-fittest scenario, in which "strength lies in adaptability, not fixity. Civilization...tries to create and maintain security, which all too frequently crystallizes into an effort to minimize diversity and stop change" (p. 50). Although the term "Social Darwinism" occurs in neither O'Reilly's nor Miller's book, they both articulate the presence of the idea in Herbert's fiction.

O'Reilly's study contains an unfortunate sentence, which some might think could continue an old piece of bigotry. In talking about Herbert's education, O'Reilly says "he was taught by Jesuits. An order whose political power and long-term vision silently shaped a great sweep of world affairs, and who were once famed for their training and asceticism, the Society of Jesus bears no small resemblance to the witches of the Imperium" (p. 88). One may believe that the Jesuits were in Herbert's mind when he created the Bene Gesserit without having to accept the nonsense of some sort of Catholic Protocol of Zion.

Perhaps the scariest idea in O'Reilly's comments is his assertion that Paul's jihad, in which millions are slaughtered, is inevitable. As O'Reilly phrases it, the jihad is a species-wide demand. [Paul] must sacrifice his civilized abhorrence and submit to biology" (p. 76). One hopes that O'Reilly's study might spur further examination of this biological excuse for armed conquest.

O'Reilly does a good job of showing the often direct influence of the philosophies of Heidegger and Jaspers throughout Herbert's works, and it is a pleasure to see the consistent connections between ideas of the Dune books and novels like The Santaroga Barrier, The Eyes of Heisenberg, and Hellstrom's Hive. But when O'Reilly tries to find not just the same ideas but a clear and consistent attitude towards the actions of the characters, he seems doubtful whether one exists. He states that Herbert distrusts even the ideas most appealing to him, that Herbert is suspicious of "easy answers," even that Herbert "may have been carried away by his own pretensions" (p. 173). Yet, if it is true, as O'Reilly reads the Dune series, that the story depicts "the arbitrary nature of human morality," then what moral judgment can be made by and about the characters in those books? Paul's failure to free the Imperium from his religion is not just tragic, as Campbell noted and O'Reilly seconds; not just a failure, as God Emperor of Dune shows; but in the last analysis, pointless. Indeed, in the prologue of God Emperor, Herbert seems to have forced a happy ending by creating still another elite, the descendants of Duncan Idaho and the Atreides.

The format of O'Reilly's Herbert is annoying: I hope I am not alone in disliking the way Ungar's "Recognitions" series handles documentation. Since the placement of notes at the foot of the page seems beyond the technical capacity of modern publishers, I can live with gathering them at the end of the text. But I would surely like to have a note-number, an asterisk, or what-have you in the text to tell me that there is a note to what I am reading. In the Ungar series, notes are identified at the end of the text by the page on which they occur and the first few words of the quotations. Some of these quotations are indirect, so the reader does not even have quotation marks to identify the end of the cited material. When reading the text, you cannot tell that a note exists, and when reading the notes, you cannot tell where the note ends. O'Reilly is not to blame; this decision was the publishers'; they have continued the least useful and most imprecise documentation system I know of.

One minor point: the index gathers the page-references for "John W. Campbell, Jr" under the heading for "Joseph Campbell." Indexing makes strange bed-fellows.

Miller's Frank Herbert, at 70 pages, makes no pretense of being more than a brief reading of the works prior to God Emperor. Some of the pages in my copy were bound in upside-down in random order, but a razor-blade solved that problem. Miller's book would have profited more from closer proofreading: for example, the name of the planet Salusa Secundus is misspelled, and Landsraad is spelled as Landsraat throughout. Sometimes Miller's guesses turn out to be wrong: he wonders if the name of Dasein (in The Santaroga Barrier) is meant to suggest "daze-in," missing the fact that the name is the German word for "existence," just as the name of another character in that work, Jenny Sorge, means "sorrow" in the same language. Although Miller has a number of interesting insights, O'Reilly's work offers much more in the way of coverage, length, bibliography, and background for only two dollars more. Now if we could just do something about those notes.

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