Science Fiction Studies

#4= Volume 1, No. 4 = Fall 1974



  • Peter Fitting. Two New Books from France (Van Herp's Panorama de la science fiction and  Sadoul's Histoire de la science fiction moderne)
  • Alice Carol Gaar. Two New Books from Germany (Barmeyer, ed., Science Fiction: Theorie und Geschichte and  Rottensteiner, ed., Polaris 1: Ein Science Fiction Almanach)
  • Peter Ohlin. The Dilemma of SF Film Criticism (John Baxter, Science Fiction in the Cinema, J.P. Bouyxou, La science fiction au cinéma,William Johnson, ed. Focus on the Science Fiction Film)
  • Franz Rottensteiner. Some German Writings on SF (Gotthard Günther. Überwindung von Raum und Zeit; Gotthard Günther. Die Entdeckung Amerikas und die Sache der amerikanischen Weltraumliteratur; Martin Schwonke. Vom Staatsroman zur Science Fiction: Eine: Untersuchung über Geschichte und Funktion der naturwissenschaftlich-technischen Utopie; Hans-Jürgen Krysmanski. Die utopische Methode: Eine literatur- und wissenssoziologische Untersuchung deutscher utopischer Romane des 20. Jahrhunderts; Amhelm Neusüss,ed. Utopie: Begriff und Phänomen des Utopischen; Jörg Hienger. Literarische Zukunftsphantastik; Vera Graaf. Homo Futurus; Michael Pehlke and Norbert Lingfeld. Roboter und Gartenlaube: Ideologie und Unterhaltung in der Science-Fiction-Literatur; Manfred Nagl. Science Fiction in Deutschland: Untersuchungen zur Genese, Soziographie und Ideologie der phantastischen Massenliteratur; Hermann Buchner. Programmiertes Glück: Sozialkritik in der utopischen Sowjetliteratur; Heinz Bingenheimer. Transgalaxis: Katalog der deutschsprachigen utopisch- phantastischen Literatur 1460-1960; Friedrich Leiner and Jürgen Gutsch, eds. Science Fiction)
  • C.R. La Bossière. The Scarlet Empire: Two Visions in One
  • R.D. Mullen. The Sunken World: Also Two Visions in One
  • R.D. Mullen. Eight Dime Novels
  • R.D. Mullen. The Hyperion Reprints of the "Classics" of SF (Robert Paltock. The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins. 1751; W.H. Rhodes. Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and SketchesPercy Greg. Across the Zodiac;  George Griffith. The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror &Gustavus W. Pope, M.D. Journey to Mars. The Wonderful World: Its Beauty and Splendor: Its Mighty Races and Kingdoms: Its Final Doom;   L. Frank Baum. The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale founded on the Mysteries of Electricity and the optimism of its devotees. It was written for boys, but others may read it; Robert W. Chambers. In Search of the Unknown; Gabriel de Tarde. Underground Man; William Wallace Cook. A Round Trip to the Year 2000; Garrett P. Serviss. A Columbus of Space & The Second Deluge; George Allan England. Darkness and Dawn;  Victor Rousseau. The Messiah of the Cylinder;  Milo Hastings. City of Endless Night;  Harold Lamb. Ray Cummings. A. Merritt. The Metal Monster; Karel Capek. The Absolute at Large; Philip Wylie.Stanley G. Weinbaum. Olaf Stapledon. Darkness and the Light).

      Two New Books from France

      Although Pierre Versins' Encyclopédie (see SFS 1:180-81) is still the most substantial work in French on SF, it has been followed by two books of considerable import: Jacques Van Herp's Panorama de la science fiction (Verviers, Belgium 1973, 432p) and Jacques Sadoul's Histoire de la science fiction moderne (Paris 1973, 414p).

      Jacques Van Herp's Panorama begins with a notarized declaration by the author and Pierre Versins that the resemblances between their two books are the result, not of any sharing of manuscripts, but of more than ten years of exchanging information, and of a "concordance of tastes and opinions." This is an important warning, for like Versins' Encyclopédie, this study is a history of SF through the ages, with an emphasis on works written prior to the 20th century. SF, according to Van Herp, is not a genre, but an attitude which may be found in poetry, theatre and essays as well as in novels, and which is based on the notion of hypothesis, "the study of what could be" (p 18):

SF was born in Europe, created and developed by Europeans, raised from the beginning to heights it took a long time for writers across the Atlantic to attain. Its destiny resembles that of the cinema which was invented, created and perfected in Europe. But because of the 1914 war, Hollywood became pre-eminent and, for thirty years, had people convinced that it was THE cinema. In similar fashion, American SF was anticipated by European SF which came to maturity long before the former and was at times as audacious and as frantic. But because of economic factors it remained embryonic. Then in 1950 came the shock of works from the USA. If European SF deserves to be called "infantile" it is that SF which has been written since 1950, following the bad example of American SF. (pp 19-20)

The first half of this study is a 200-page survey of "les grands thèmes," which the author divides into twelve chapters, including looks at "thinking machines," "the race which will replace us," "modified man," "the immortals and the resurrected," "artificial and doctored lives," and "the twilight zone"--this last being six pages on "texts inspired by neurology, psychopathology, experimental psychology [and] metaphysics" (p221). The first of his longer chapters, "A la conquête de l'espace et du temps," deals with space travel, from Lucian, through Kepler, Cyrano de Bergerac, and the 19th century, to Gernsback and the USA:

It's a fact: the generation of 1930 in America overdid it. A thousand light-years in two bounds, the inhabitants of Eldorado planets who surpass men in every domain, the conquest of a galaxy in six months--and, nevertheless, one pitiful Earthman, alone, is able to overthrow an Empire. (As an American he brings with him democracy, chewing-gum, gadgets and strip-tease. Bradbury's work can only be understood as a reaction against this attitude.) No more science, but the classic love story and lots of adventure. The American public, saturated with scientific dissertations and badly disguised engineers' reports, wanted action. And it wanted the stars. (p 47)

In his second chapter, "Dans les corridors de l'espace-temps," Van Herp points out that although the time machine is a recent invention, time travel is an eternal theme, a meditation on man's ability to change his destiny. He distinguishes four categories: voyages to the past and to the future; political fictions and "uchronies," the fourth dimension, and parallel worlds. For each category titles are listed and various works are described, but there is rarely any effort at a comprehensive survey and there is always an emphasis on "who did it first": "the Americans think they invented this genre... But the parallel universe is not a recent invention...It comes directly from the philosophy of the Middle Ages and from Averroes " (p 77).

In "Les mondes défunts et les mondes cachés," the author studies at length the myth of Atlantis, both in fiction and non-fiction, before turning to lost continents, lost civilisations, and the hollow earth. And in a shorter chapter, "Les cités futures," he discusses anticipations, utopias and anti-utopias.

The two other major thematic groupings are "L'anticipation militaire" (future wars and invasions) and "Les fins du monde" (various accounts of the end of the world). In this thematic survey, the author's efforts at finding historical antecedents for SF themes (and the full development of those themes in French SF of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), result in a rambling, baroque catalogue of titles and plot résumés. There are few attempts at synthesis or an investigation of the larger significance of the thematic groupings, nor any systematic attempt at organizing the seemingly haphazard thematic categories. And there are some glaring lacunae: there is, for example, no discussion of other worlds, whether anthropologically or geographically, no reference to telepathy or to the theme of first contact.

The second section of this Panorama--"Les genres"--seems even more arbitrary than the first. "Works may be classified," the author writes, "from the perspective of the particular approach of the author to the subject as well as from a thematic perspective" (p223); and under the former he mentions "engineering SF," "humorous SF," "La S.F. du délire" ("frenzied SF which dares anything," as for example, The Worm Ouroboros!) and "La S.F. d'endoctrinement" (Poul Anderson and Murray Leinster, "where every deception is allowed which magnifies American civilisation," p234). There are only three chapters in this section: "Le Space Opera et l'Heroic Fantasy," a very substantial chapter on "La science fiction mythologique: Merritt et Lovecraft" and a quick look at "Les juvéniles." Space Opera, according to Van Herp, has two poles, Burroughs and Hamilton. In the latter, "the combat spreads over at least a galaxy, mankind confronts a hostile, alien race and the destiny of the universe is in the balance" (p237). The Burroughs type is more pictorial, "the anachronistic, baroque world of the first adventures of Flash Gordon" (p238). Turning to Merritt and Lovecraft, the author describes "poetic fiction" as that genre where "beings, things, machines are touched by an aura which transfigures them, giving them a mysterious life of their own"; a quality which is lacking in most SF and which is combined with mythology in the fictions of Merritt, Lovecraft and the Belgian Jean Ray.

In a very brief third section, "Les écoles," Van Herp looks at U.S., French and Soviet SF. American SF began with Hugo Gernsback, the disgruntled inventor of a rather silly anti-torpedo device who turned to publishing as an outlet and who openly borrowed everything important from Jules Verne: "as in many areas, the Americans invented nothing, but utilizing to the maximum the home market, were able to industrialize and perfect their production" (p276). Van Herp's anti-American bias seems to reveal a frustrated sense of outrage that a culturally backward country should go on receiving all the credit, even in France, when so many superior works in French are overlooked. He admits, however, that the best French SF seems to have been written in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Finally, in the section "Problèmes," the author begins with the question of attitudes towards science in SF, but his answers seem tentative and superficial. In the next chapter, "Science fiction et occultisme," he sets out to reveal the "unconscious influence of occultism in SF," but he spends four pages defining "occultism" and only one reviewing its influence, in the themes of living matter and the mad scientist. Again, in the chapter "Science fiction et religion" the author approaches the question from a rather superficial point of view, informing us for instance that SF is written by believers and non-believers alike whose ideas may or may not influence their work. And the chapter, "Science fiction et morale" provides him still another opportunity to display his own limitations and prejudices. American SF, he writes, tends to reflect a conventional morality in which an American's civic duties consist in "consuming" and in being "stool-pigeons" (p346). This chapter also includes a discussion of eroticism: Americans like Farmer think they have pioneered eroticism in SF, but the French were writing erotic SF novels more than fifty years ago. And he goes on to explain why American SF is only now dealing with sexuality.

There is regrettably no index and therefore no way of finding particular authors or works, but there is a long bibliography which includes references to articles and to numerous reviews in the French SF magazine Fiction. Once the reader accepts this work's blatant pro-French and pre-20th century stance, it is, like the Versins' encyclopedia, an interesting and entertaining look at the European pre-history of SF.

Van Herf's biases are in sharp contrast to Jacques Sadoul's Histoire de la science fiction moderne whose major drawback, for this reader, lies in its dull and confining objectivity. The work is divided into two parts, "le domaine anglo-saxon" and "le domaine francais," and the proportions--300 pages for the USA as opposed to 100 pages for France--reflect a very different attitude from that of Van Herp. "SF is a branch of the literature of the imaginary," writes Sadoul, "which also includes fantastic and supernatural literature" (p16). Without assigning strict limits, he states that the distinguishing feature of SF lies in the treatment of the material, but that he will include both Lovecraft (whose "demons are manifestly extra-terrestrials") and Tolkien (a "parallel universe") in his history. He very briefly surveys the genre prior to the 20th century before turning to his subject, modern SF: "a genre of European descent which took root in the USA where it has flourished more than anywhere else" (p21).

This study is, as the author states, only a first step: a rather dull listing of dates, authors, and stories; the bare bones of a history. He proceeds chronologically, dividing American SF into seven periods: 1) "Foundation," 1911-1925; 2) "Crystallization," 1926-1933; 3) "Mutation," 1934-1938; 4) "Harvest," 1939-1949; 5) "Proliferation," 1950-1957; 6) "Recession," 1958-1965; and 7) "Resurrection," 1966-1971. Each chapter corresponds to a period: he surveys, magazine by magazine, the important stories, stopping to present a biographical sketch or the synopsis of a story. There are few judgements or opinions, apart from statements that a story is "important" or "classic" and with only a few exceptions, as, for instance, when he writes that Ubik was Dick's last important novel: "[afterwards] the drugs had begun their destructive effects" (p248). In writing about the different magazines, Sadoul mentions that Campbell and Astounding were seminal forces in the shaping of SF, but makes only the barest indication of what this direction consisted: "for him Science was the essential, to which must be added another pole of interest: forecasting the future. Campbell thought that the role of SF was to predict the civilisation of tomorrow in a realistic, plausible and of course scientific manner" (p135). Gold's editorship of Galaxy is described only as a "particular style he imposed on his authors" (p188), while Boucher's influence is mentioned only once, as responsible for "the more literary development of recent SF" (p277). Although this work is a history, there is almost no discussion of what produced the various developments and changes in SF. In sum, it might be argued that as questionable as the thematic approach to SF may be, it at least provides some cohesive focal point, some way of juxtaposing various works, their development and mutual influence, their relation to reality and their relative merits. Brian Aldiss' history of SF suffers from some of the same failings--it is at times a simple catalogue of authors and titles--but Aldiss at least gave his work some direction by attempting to show the genre's evolution from its 19th century origins.

Sadoul's section on French SF is marred by the same flaws, for although he cannot rely on the magazines to lead him through the two major periods, "Yesterday" (1905-1950), "...and Tomorrow" (1950-1972), he presents us with the same weary listing of authors, titles, and synopses--less boring, perhaps, in that the English-language reader may be less familiar with those names and titles. This book is accurate, well-indexed and attractively illustrated--Sadoul is a well-known fan and magazine collector and he has published an album of illustrations from American SF magazines, Hier, l'an 2000 (Paris 1973). But it is useful only as a reference book and most of its usefulness will disappear if and when the promised index to Versins' encyclopedia is published. (If there were an index in the present edition of Versin, I would not have made the error that I did in the last issue of SFS, in saying on p181 that "there is no listing for England.")

-- Peter Fitting

Two New Books from Germany

In these two volumes--Eike Barmeyer, ed., Science Fiction: Theorie und Geschichte (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1972); Franz Rottensteiner, ed., Polaris 1: Ein Science Fiction Almanach (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1973)--critics from North America and Western and Eastern Europe analyze the weaknesses, strengths, themes, and potentialities of SF. Having already appeared in English, seven of the twenty-one essays in Barmeyer and three of the four in Rottensteiner will not be discussed here: James Blish, "Future Recall," in The Disappearing Future, ed. George Hay (L: Panther 1970), pp 97-105; Evgeni Brandis and Vladimir Dmitrevsky, "In the Land of Science Fiction," Soviet Literature No. 5 (1968), pp 145-50; Michel Butor, "Science Fiction: The Crisis of its Growth," Partisan Review 34(1967):595-602, reprinted in SF: The Other Side of Realism, ed. Thomas D. Clareson (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press 1971), pp 157-65; Michael Kandel, "Stanislaw Lem on Men and Robots," Extrapolation 14(1972-73): 14-24; Stanislaw Lem, "Robots in Science Fiction," in SF: The Other Side (see Butor), pp 307-25; Darko Suvin, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," College English 34(1972-73):372-82; Malgorzata Szpakowska, "A Writer in No-Man's Land," Polish Perspectives 14,x(1971):29-37--all the preceding in Barmeyer, the following in Rottensteiner--Stanislaw Lem, "SF: A Hopeless Case--With Exceptions," SF Commentary No. 35-37, 1973; Robert Plank, "The Place of Evil in Science Fiction," Extrapolation 14(1972-73):100-11; Franz Rottensteiner, "Kurd Lasswitz: A German Pioneer of SF," in SF: The Other Side (see Butor), pp 289-306.

Three of the critics in Barmeyer discuss the nature and potentialities of the utopian novel. After reviewing its background and basic meaning, Werner Krauss concludes that it retains nothing more than the charm of childhood memories. In contrast, Hans-Jürgen Krysmanski foresees a continuation of the tradition through avant-garde forms which refine the older method by portraying futuristic possibilities. To Martin Schwonke, the utopian novel has moved from the paradigm stage to that of critical speculations upon the sufficiency of the individual. One should next read Frank Rainer Scheck's essay on the anti-utopian reaction, which he sees as a product of the conservative, petty-bourgeois fear of technology and its potentialities for power and change.

Darko Suvin has two articles in the Barmeyer volume. The first, having appeared in English, is listed above; the second is an essay on Soviet SF and traces its development from the rationalist political novel of the 18th and 19th centuries through the modern period. The most important works of the 20s were by Mayakovsky and Zamyatin. Sputnik and destalinization began the new period which included Yefremov's classical utopia and works of Dneprov, who introduced cybernetic SF into Russia. Suvin pays special attention to the Strugatsky brothers, today the most significant authors. Centered on heroes with utopian ethics, their works combine SF with politics and philosophy, thus bridging the gulf between the scientific and humanistic modes.

As a scientist and writer, Herbert W. Franke defends SF's generic relationship to science and technology. He asks both that the writers improve their literary techniques and that the humanists reorient their thinking toward more realistic approaches to the world's problems. In contrast, Jürgen von Scheidt in his Jungian-Freudian analysis reduces the technological SF novel to an adult fairy tale which has its source in regression and compensation. But he does grant the importance of speculative fiction as a form of visionary literature which illuminates to some extent the universal mystery. Robert Plank's stimulating essay discusses the development from aliens type A (mirror of human foibles) to aliens type B (popularized by Wells and now an important part of our general intellectual orientation), who possess greater psychic powers than men and are often crucial to a change in human destiny. Identifying them as variations on the father figure, Plank asks, "Will there be a Type C--a brother figure?" This seems to me to be an especially valuable result of the critical study of SF. Eike Barmeyer points out that the fear of strange beings reveals the basic human desire for direct communication, a motif whose extreme case is total communion. He refers to the near impossibility of communication between dissimilar beings (as in Lem's Solaris --though I think there is evidence of the beginnings of communication at the end of that novel), and ends with the ultimate development of communication from group-mind to cosmic-mind (as in Stapledon's The Star Maker). Similarly, Curtis C. Smith identifies as Stapledon's hero a humanity which is the instrument of an unnamed and unknowable mentality.

In an essay on the history and ideology of the pulp magazines Ronald M. Hahn demolishes vigorously the claim that SF has no truck with political ideology. Appropriate quotations from Perry Rhodan's adventures, Heinlein's novels, the Lensmen series, etc., display obvious traces of fascism, racism, feudalism, militarism, and imperialistic chauvinism. In his valid description of the less reflective works Hahn finds that they prize the status quo, superficial amusement, and the expansion of a reactionary ideology (in contrast with the great utopian writings of the past). After comparing the novels of Wells and Verne, Hans Joachim Alpers notes that the essential importance of both lies in their use of the possible extensions of reality rather than of subjective prophecies or presentations of an ideal world.

The last two pieces in the book are by Franz Rottensteiner: a bibliography essential to those who want to do research in the field, and a hard-hitting critical essay--itself an example of the forthright criticism he calls for. He is unimpressed with the New Wave and with the reworkings of old myths, a process he considers crude, inelegant, and boring. But along with his criticism of Ellison, Spinrad, Zelazny, and Delany he praises Thomas M. Disch and J.B. Ballard for penetrating style and interesting atmosphere. Rottensteiner suggests finally that the answer to the question on the potentialities of SF depends on the ability of gifted writers to handle futurological problems without simplifying the theoretical niveau of modern science.

Rottensteiner states the purpose of his "Almanac" Polaris clearly. It should present a selection of early and modern SF, especially by European writers, and critical essays, and this the first volume contains stories by Lem, Lasswitz, Gérard Klein, Fitz-James O'Brien, and Vladimir Colin, as well as essays by himself, Lem, Plank, and Szpakowska, all calling for a sense of ethical responsibility and maturity on the part of those who produce SF in any medium. The only one of these that has not appeared in English is Malgorzata Szpakowska's analysis of Lem, which suggests that Lem is concerned with the structure of the given world at least as much as with "literature." In his view, science and technology have brought us to the point where we can choose the biological make-up of humanity. This fact reforms the existential condition of man: there are now no constants, only variables. SF should fill the present void with the creation of values. Therefore, its flight into the sphere of empty game or of trickery is extremely irresponsible and an offense against aesthetics and morality. SF has before it a task which science cannot assume--of giving answers as to the purposes of technological development. Szpakowska concludes that Lem has displayed a tendency to move into the realm of philosophy, possibly out of despair over today's SF.

-- Alice Carol Garr

The Dilemma of SF film criticism

Writers on SF films--such as John Baxter, Science Fiction in the Cinema (International Film Series 1979), Susan Sontag, "The Imagination of Disaster," in her Against Interpretation (1965), J.P. Bouyxou, La science fiction au cinéma (Paris: Union Generale d'editions 1971), and the various contributors to Focus on the Science Fiction Film, ed. William Johnson(Prentice-Hall 1972)--confront a basic problem: not only is the genre as difficult to define as that of written SF, but there seems to be a consensus that it is drastically different in its use or abuse of elements that have come to be recognized as standard in SF. Instead of a more or less scientific exploration of a hypothetical problem in some kind of future space (social, technological, historical, or cultural), the films have decidedly apocalyptic tone. They seem to deal with the themes of loss of individuality and the threat of knowledge, most neatly combined in a scientific experiment gone wrong and thereby unleashing a monstrous force upon the world (cf Baxter, p. 11); as Susan Sontag's famous essay suggests, the SF film is characterized by the imagination of disaster.

There may be various reasons for this difference. For one, there is a literary tradition for SF going back to the Renaissance and beyond, whereas the cinema in its two modes, the documentary and the fictional, has a very short tradition consistently stressing the effects of the marvelous and strange, not only explicitly as in Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902) but also implicitly as in the documentary shock effect of Lumière's train charging into the station. Secondly, the socioeconomic conditions of the marketplace for the two products are different. Nearly all writers venturing into Hollywood are struck by the budgetary pressures on the "aesthetic" object (cf Robert A. Heinlein's "Shooting Destination Moon" in Focus) and, like Pierre Kast, find that "the childish socioeconomic structure of film production gives rise to childish films" (Focus, p. 69). The marketplace conditions for SF writing, within the history of pulp magazines and paperback publishing, might have been somewhat similar, but the difference in financial scope means a qualitative increase in the pressures toward "childishness."

Perhaps the most important reason suggested is that the difference between SF writing and SF cinema might be inherent in the two media. Sontag, for example, suggests that the film medium is necessarily strong on the immediate representation of the extraordinary and its sensuous elaboration but weak on science, whereas language is eminently suited for the abstract play of ideas but cumbersome when it comes to direct description. John Baxter, similarly, argues that an SF film is an intellectual impossibility, usually succeeding as cinema in proportion to the degree in which it fails as SF; the resulting compromise leaves us with a sensuous medium which can provide us with the poetry of the atomic age, but is separated from the traditions of either cinema or SF. Many film makers and novelists echo these assumptions about the nature of the two media: Alain Renais, among others, contrasts the concrete descriptive immediacy through which an image reveals anything and everything, with the subtle exploratory power of words through which an SF writer is perfectly free not to describe the monster, or whatever, in detail (Focus, p. 166).

But his argument is only superficially cogent. A film maker like Eisenstein based his whole aesthetics on the assumption that he could indeed express anything on film. His proposal, at one time, to film Marx's Das Kapital indicates that he found the more subtle levels of abstraction and emotion simply a challenge to bring out the neglected power of cinema as a narrative medium. The complex relationship between sound and image, description and narration, in, say, a Bresson film, suggests that the distinctions between the two media are by no means easy to define. And Kubrick himself, according to Arthur C. Clarke -- The Lost Worlds of 2001 (Signet 1972), p. 189--has declared that if something can be written, he can film it, a point that Clarke seems willing to concede him, at least if constraints of time and money are removed.

These questions raise the important issue of the relationship between SF and words. For it makes a difference if one assumes that the genre of SF is a purely literary one, and thus can be translated into another medium only under great stress, or if one argues that the genre is not confined to literature but can--like, say, the pastoral--be used in different modes and media. In fact, most definitions of SF are designed to accommodate primarily prose narratives: there is comparatively little SF in poetry or drama, and what little there is frequently takes its place among other works not in SF but in "mainstream" literature.

Given the generic confusion in the area, it is hardly surprising that most writing about SF films is vague or arbitrary on definitions and weak or inconsistent in aesthetic judgments. A writer like J.P. Bouyxou, for example, because he rejects the reactionary politics that he sees as a necessary consequence of the socioeconomic basis of the movie industry, ends up with such a tight definition of the SF film--as an exploration of a parallel world--that he can find only a limited number of films to fit the genre (pp. 23-24,147,416), and those films seem much less SF than simply examples of an avant-garde aesthetic (an aesthetic, by the way, which in this case seems based on the logical, if absurd, notion that all film by definition is a narrative generated by technological means, and thus a kind of science fiction). Baxter's opinion on the intellectual impossibility of the genre and on its specific sensuousness makes him particularly disposed to appreciate the pale grey flatness of, say, Jack Arnold's films (It Came from Outer Space, 1953, The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957), their skillful use of the medium and its devices, such as the exploitation of the frame as stage, and the creation of tension by character rather than style. Truffaut has argued that it is this stress on the texture of everyday life that is important in grade Z films (Focus, p. 48), but Baxter's approach prevents him from going beyond this perception to a more clearly defined aesthetic criterion for why a given SF film is better than any other.

The problem with much of this kind of writing is that a formal analysis rapidly finds itself in a dilemma. In order to judge the significance of formal phenomena that otherwise would not have much aesthetic validity, the critic begins to assess their typicalness as evidence of a sociocultural pop mythology, and what started out as a formal analysis quickly turns into a kind of pseudo-allegorical interpretation of prevailing patterns of audience behavior. This is certainly true of Sontag's essay, which moves from the aesthetics of destruction in formal terms towards a thematic allegory in which the imagery of disaster is seen as the sign of an inadequate response to the human condition in the 20th century and indicates a morally neutralizing complicity with the abhorrent. In many ways this movement is contrary to the whole character of Sontag's critical stance; that she should follow it when writing about SF films seems indicative.

In many ways, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a touchstone for the dilemma of SF film criticism. Thematically, it clearly belongs to the genre; yet all those more or less formalistic categories devised to validate the genre to date--to make, say, a film like Godzilla (1955) an object of interest--seem ludicrously out of place with 2001. Consequently, SF fans find it impure, while film fans with aesthetic predilections find it naive and pretentious. Baxter sees it as a space-age documentary which--since film as a medium is less precise than words--is beautiful but whose point is soon forgotten or lost. Bouyxou finds in it a "documentary frigidity" except for the "decorative extravagance" of the Jupiter trip. Harry Geduld, on the other hand, viewing the film in a tradition that goes back to Méliès, finds that it is curiously anti-humanist and that it takes its own pretentiousness with deadly seriousness (Focus, p. 146). Michel Ciment finds that "Kubrick has conceived a film which in one stroke has made the whole science-fiction cinema obsolete," and recognizes that "what makes any critical approach to 2001 unusually difficult is the film's specifically visual quality, which sets it outside all the familiar categories of the cinema" (Focus, pp. 135, 140).

Ultimately, of course, the polarization of opinion into those who want to keep their pleasures simple, their genres pure, and popular tastes clearly removed from the celebration of kulchur, and those who grudgingly admit that the popular taste occasionally achieves something of lasting significance, seems futile. The importance of Kubrick's achievement is surely not that he brought a kind of metaphysical pretension to a "trivial" genre, or that he developed a popular genre with a visual virtuosity that takes it beyond its generic value (although he may have done both things). Rather, his film is important because it brings to bear on this genre all the economic, technological, and aesthetic resources of a major undertaking--and at the same time presents an analysis of the aesthetic-social conditions of design underlying such an undertaking, in terms of perceptual strategies, cultural habits, or expressive conventions. In other words, it is simultaneously an SF film and a cinematic commentary on the rules or constraints that govern our present conception of such films (and of SF itself). As Michel Ciment hints, the projection into the future of the moment when scientific exploration reaches its boundaries and encounters a science beyond space and time (i.e. magic) becomes an analysis of the scientific and cultural conditions that govern our present description of the world. That description, the shapes, colors, forms, textures, rhythms of everything from weightless toilets to interplanetary communication problems, is explored with almost limitless virtuosity by Kubrick. In this way he has turned to his advantage what Guy Gauthier describes as one of the most puzzling paradoxes of SF, namely, the fact that the artist's imagination can reach out ahead of science within certain limits, "but not ahead of art, that is ahead of itself" (Focus, p. 98). It is Kubrick's self-conscious awareness of all these conditions that takes his film beyond the traditional genre distinctions, and indicates the directions of the criticism we now need. It is not enough simply to group together certain works on the basis of more or less vague thematic similarities. Surely any attempt to come to terms with SF as a genre will at least either have to place it within the larger tradition of literary history, or contemplate it, ahistorically, as one of many cultural forms (such as pastoral, utopian literature, myths) available at any given moment to the artist. Similarly, SF films can only be understood and analyzed either in the context of the history of cinema itself, or, alternatively, as one of many narrative modes imaginatively and socially available in the medium. The analysis of the complex interactions of such points of view has barely begun.

-- Peter Ohlin

Some German Writings on SF


German SF criticism can be said to have begun with the valiant, though notably unsuccessful attempt of the Karl Rauch publishing house in 1952 to start an SF series in hardcover. The four volumes published--Jack Williamson's The Humanoids, Campbell's The Incredible Planet, Asimov's I, Robot, and the anthology Überwindung von Raum und Zeit compiled by Dr. Gotthard Günther--were all accompanied by lengthy comments written by editor Günther. Employing a highly sophisticated philosophical vocabulary, they were much better than the books themselves. Günther is the author of an attempt to formulate a new metaphysics and of a book on the possible consciousness of machines, and has some reputation as a philosopher. Thus, German SF criticism characteristically began at the highest level of philosophical abstraction. For Dr. Günther, SF stories were mythic fairy tales, suggesting a new type of metaphysics appropriate for mankind's conquest of space. He didn't think that existing SF achieved that mythos, but was only a forerunner looking into the promised land, without being able to enter it, just reserving the space for a new "American fairy tale"--a fiction denying the philosophical axiom of the uniqueness of reality, and dealing with metaphysically extreme conditions of possible future experiences. He believed that SF ideas foreshadowed a new metaphysics by implicitly criticizing the Western philosophical tradition: the inviolability of the soul (Campbell's "Who Goes There?"), the belief that man is the peak of evolution (Simak's "Desertion"), the priority of theoretical reason or pure will (Weinbaum's "The Lotus Eaters"), the accuracy of notions of time (H. Beam Piper's "Time and Time Again") or of the relationship between thinking and reality (Van Vogt's "The Monster" or Lewis Padgett's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves").

Dr. Günther also summarized his theoretical basis for SF in Die Entdeckung Amerikas und die Sache der amerikanischen Weltraumliteratur (Düsseldorf & Bad Salzig: Karl Rauch Verlag 1952), a companion volume to his premature series. When the SF wave later reached Germany, it was in the form of first dime novels and still later pocket books. Criticism, however, came before the thing itself became generally known, the pioneering study being Dr. Martin Schwonke's dissertation, Vom Staatsroman zur Science Fiction: Eine Untersuchung über Geschichte und Funktion der naturwissenschaftlich-technischen Utopie (Stuttgart:Ferdinand Enke Verlag, 1957, Göttinger Abhandlungen zur Soziologie, vol. 2). Dr. Schwonke continued Günther's theorizing in thin air, "far above the valleys where the books are" (as Peter Nicholls put it in a review of another critic in Foundation 4). Dr. Schwonke is a sociologist, and this also set a pattern. Not one of the many existing German studies is interested in SF as literature or narration. Also conspicuous by their absence are biographies, bibliographies, and histories. Most writers on SF in Germany start from some abstract method and principle, where the literary artifacts considered are but a means to an end. They are summarized in capsule reviews and their ideas classified insofar as they support the thesis that the author set out to prove. In a recent article in the reputable German weekly Die Zeit ("Wissenschaftsmärchen. Der Science-Fiction-Boom in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland," No. 39, 29 September 1972), Krysmanski stressed again that the differences between good and bad SF don't matter much; only as an indicator of social trends and ideas is it worthwhile.

Schwonke sees a direct and linear development from the Staatsromane (17th-18th century "state novels") and utopias to modem science fiction, listing much the same authors and books that appear in many a history of SF: More, Campanella, Andreae, Bacon, Wilkins, Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac. For him SF is a manifestation of "Ver”nderungsdenken" (dynamic thinking). Schwonke opposes the idea that utopian thinking is a secularization of the eschatological idea of Eden, for man does not master nature according to the role ordained by God. Rather, he is a rebellious, autonomous creature for whom nature is but a resource to create something transcending nature. What utopian thinking shares with fairy tales is a tendency for wish-fulfillment, the desire for another and better world. Under the influence of the progress of science and technology, however, utopian goals have lost their previous importance: the act of creation itself, the ability to make something, has become essential in SF. The emphasis has shifted from the realization of the best world to change as such, to a mental experimenting with all possible alternatives, not only with desired or abhorred ones. Utopia develops into a much wider field of conjectural fiction: "The utopist, who was the constructor shaping the blueprint of the world in order to present it to mankind as a desirable goal, turns into the staff-strategist who prepares campaign plans for all contingencies that the future may hold in store."

This line of generalizing criticism was continued in Hans-Jürgen Krysmanski's Die utopische Methode: Eine literatur- und wissenssoziologische Untersuchung deutscher utopischer Romane des 20. Jahrhunderts (Köln und Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag 1963). Starting with a detailed discussion of eight important German utopian novels by Conrad, Kellerman, Hauptmann, Döblin, Hesse, Werfel, and Jünger, Krysmanski tries to arrive at a formulation of "utopian method." He perceives this to be vital nowadays in SF, which is discussed only marginally in his book. Heavily influenced by Raymond Ruyer's L'utopie et les utopies (Paris: P.V.F., 1950), Krysmanski like Schwonke defines utopia as a proving ground for new possibilities. He differs with Schwonke mainly in that he denies a direct line of development from the "state novels" to modern "progress-oriented thought," since SF often isn't directly concerned with the future, e.g. in the experiments with time and dimension. It is rather that the "doors of perception" (Huxley) have been opened in all directions; characteristic for SF is its non-directional, free-wheeling speculation, which also offers a chance for the utopian novel sensu stricto to fulfill its cognitive function. "Therefore SF must be interpreted as an impulse toward the utopian novel, as a vigorous application of utopian method which, when it includes in its experiments social themes, becomes indistinguishable from utopia." That is, utopia becomes a special case of SF.

Krysmanski, and to some degree Schwonke, have been sharply criticised in the introduction to Amhelm Neusüss's anthology Utopie: Begriff und Phänomen des Utopischen (Neuwied and Berlin: Luchterhand 1968, Soziologische Texte No. 44). Neusüss points out that the purpose of utopia wasn't and isn't just the construction of a different, but of a more humane world. He also maintains that realization is essential to utopia, whereas Krysmanski had treated it rather as an autonomous method of gaining knowledge in a speculative way. Neusüss also disbelieves SF could (as was claimed by Schwonke) serve as "prognostic orientation," that task having been taken over by futurology. Neither "prognostic orientation" not a mature expression of utopian hope, SF is restricted to dim myths and fairy tales of wish-fulfillment.

Jörg Hienger's dissertation Literarische Zukunftsphantastik (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1972) is in many respects the best German study of SF. Hienger offers much more detailed studies of individual stories than either Schwonke or Krysmanski, and he extracts from them an SF philosophy of change in convincing detail. The key quotation is from an Asimov essay ("Social Science Fiction" in Bretnor's Modern Science Fiction): "Either to resist change, any change, and hold savagely to the status quo, or to advocate change, a certain change, and no other change. Neither of these views is flexible. Both are static." SF offers a phantasmogoria of aimless changes, without distinguishing between desired and undesired changes. In SF, change itself is more important than its results. "Because the results of change are themselves subjected to change, it is, according to SF, an anthropocentric naivete to judge changes only from the viewpoint of aimed at or dreamed of changes. Of course, the march of events can temporarily further human aims and hopes, or thwart them. But on the whole the unceasing change of things existing, going beyond any goal reached, and making those given up as attainable suddenly appear in our grasp, has no intrinsic goal, and even less any transcendental goal" (pp. 178-179). This analysis, which is substantiated in chapter after chapter, examining some of the most important SF topics (such as "Future Without Goal," the cataclysmic story, "Experiments with Consecutio Temporum," "Individuals Divided and Multiplied"), seems to touch upon the essence of the Anglo-American SF. It should perhaps be added that this has very little to do with "open" or "closed" systems, and much more with philosophical depth or shallowness. The more modest, relativistic "social engineering" advocated by Popper in his The Open Society and Its Enemies is as absent from science fiction as are the holistic Marxist notions of change. (What Popper's attitude to SF concepts of change would be may be gauged from his caustic remarks in The Poverty of Historicism about people who think that they have discovered for the first time the problem of change, which is "one of the oldest problems in speculative metaphysics.") Hienger recognizes change as the essence of SF, but without seeing any special virtue in it, since "the simple concept that our world is changing, that the old is succeeded by the new, has of course never remained hidden from mankind" (P. 12). SF affirms a change without meaning, and thus may appear reactionary to progressive minds and radical to conservative ones. Hienger's reasoning yields some interesting insights, the most important of which is perhaps a distinction between dystopias by non-SF writers like Orwell, with their hopeless timelessness, and some dystopias by SF writers such as Vonnegut's Player Piano or Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which are true to the SF credo, offering perspectives of endless turns of history.

Rather less valuable than Hienger's book is Vera Graaf's Homo Futurus (Hamburg and Düsseldorf. Claasen, 1971), a Ph.D. thesis which can serve as a popular introduction to SF without offering new insights or deep interpretations. Graaf begins by neatly arranging the various definitions of the genre, says something about forerunners and the history of the field, magazines, editors and anthologies, fandom and publishing, and then concentrates on several main topics: cosmic visions and atomic dooms, future societies (stressing especially the "giant city" and the "frontier of space," quoting the theories of historian Frederick Jackson Turner), overpopulation, manipulation, evolution and mutation, robots, and the expansion of consciousness. A chapter on utopia and dystopia, which also covers the relationship between SF and myth, concludes the book.

In chapters arranged like a space-flight, two young scholars, Michael Pehlke and Norbert Lingfeld, stride over the ideological ground of science fiction in their book Roboter und Gartenlaube: Ideologie und Unterhaltung in der Science-Fiction-Literatur (Munich: Hanser, 1970). The subtitle about "ideology and entertainment" indicates the aim of the authors' spear-thrust. From the viewpoint of German leftist thinking, they evaluate SF as the defender of the eternal status quo and as a means of conscious and unconscious political indoctrination. False consciousness in the Marxist sense (i.e., a false understanding of the relations conditioned by economic production) is, according to them, the inherent cause for the inferior quality of SF. They put up Soviet SF as an alternative, but they do not analyze it, it just serves as the invisible background for their judgements. What to SF authors is "openness," a trying out of conflicting possibilities, is to them "that chaotic mess of various ideologies," diagnosed by the socialist philosopher Ernst Bloch as typical for the world view of fascism (p. 59). They deal mostly with writers like Asimov, Heinlein or Anderson, but also discuss the notoriously fascist German dime novel series Perry Rhodan. The book is well-written, and valuable as an exposition of a clearly stated ideological position. One cannot help noticing, however, that many of the authors criticized for their open or hidden ideological content are just as popular in the socialist countries as in the U.S.A., e.g., Isaac Asimov, or even some stories by Poul Anderson. Also, they do not seem to have read the English originals but only their defaced German translations.

Written on a similarly critical basis, but much more valuable, is Manfred Nagl's Ph.D. thesis Science Fiction in Deutschland: Untersuchungen zur Genese, Soziographie und Ideologie der phantastischen Massenliteratur (Tübingen: Tübinger Vereinigung für Volkskunde 1972, Untersuchungen des Ludwig-Uhland-Instituts der Universitat Tübingen, vol. 30), not the least for its wealth of material. Nagl discusses not just those books that can be found in any historical study of SF, but unearths a lot of forgotten German SF stories from 1780 to the present day and other European SF current in Germany, e.g., A jövö század regénye [The Novel of the Coming Century], 1872, by the popular Hungarian writer Mór Jokai. The author provides detailed and persuasive expositions of the psychological mechanisms at work in these works.

Nagl is sharply critical of Krysmanski and in particular Schwonke, whose philological-eclectic methods he attacks as sociologically indefensible. They concentrated only on a few works of higher quality, overrated them, and declared everything else, i.e. about 90% of SF, not to be SF proper. Being a folklorist, Nagl examines the representative mass of SF, and his interpretations follow the thinking of Theodor W. Adorno and Gershon Legman. Convinced that SF should be socially aware and progressive, he denies its descent from utopia, understanding it rather as a genre arising apart from utopia and in direct opposition to it, as a substitution for revolution and a literature of conformism, supporting and cementing existing social structures. Like Aldiss in his Billion Year Spree, Nagl puts SF into a larger context, but his context is not the wider world of literature, but rather the dim field of pseudo-science, crankhood, mysticism and popular superstition: all the books about hollow earths, Atlantis, Mu, Lemuria, the occult, secret knowledge and hidden powers, and the many pamphlets simplifying and distorting evolutionary ideas. There he perceives the true springs of SF, and lovingly traces the incorporation of those dubious ideas into SF. Small wonder then that he sees Nazi Germany as SF come true, the realization of all science-fictional dreams of fictional sciences, the crowning gothic horror of them all. He points out how this tradition was continued after World War II without a break, in particular in the fascist Perry Rhodan dime novels (about which Nagl has written an excellent analysis in the journal Zietnahe Schularbeit 22 [1969], No. 4/5, April/May 1969: "Unser Mann im All"). Perhaps Nagl has a somewhat simplified idea of the interaction between fiction and reality, but the examples he quotes are certainly horrible enough. The weakness of Nagl's method becomes most obvious when he discusses a writer like H.G. Wells, who appears in his book only as a highly skilled horror writer managing to use even the silence for shock effects ("the silence fell like a thunderclap," in The War of the Worlds). He is also unable to appreciate the genuine merit of limited scientific ideas, where they don't appear together with social sophistication. Science Fiction in Deutschland is a controversial, overloaded and jargon-prone book, but highly interesting, always stimulating and sometimes brilliant.

Less than brilliant is Hermann Buchner's Programmiertes Glück: Sozialkritik in der utopischen Sowjetliteratur (Wien, Frankfurt, Zürich: Europa Verlag, 1970). Philosophically naive in its generalizations, it nevertheless deserves some interest as a study of that neglected part of SF, the Soviet variety. Buchner knows only an insufficient sample of Soviet SF (principally Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Tertz [Siniavsky], Dneprov's Island of the Crabs and two novels by the Strugatskis, Hard to be a God and Monday Begins on Saturday), but despite this and a tendency to seek out anti-Soviet trends, he is stimulating when discussing particular works, especially the Strugatskis, whom he has translated quite well into German. In the opposite camp is Hartmut Lück, a student currently working on a thesis about Soviet SF. He is a believer in German leftism of the Chinese branch, and he judges all works of fiction according to how they conform to his dogmatic notions of the true path. Representative for his work is the article "Echo aus der Zukunft" (on Efremov's Hour of the Bull) in Sozialistische Zeitschrift für Kunst und Gesellschaft No. 8/9 (October 1971) or his article "Die sowjetische wissenschaftlich-fantastische Literatur" in the SF issue of the same periodical (No. 18/19, July 1973).

Among bibliographic items one must mention Heinz Bingenheimer's Transgalaxis: Katalog der deutschsprachigen utopisch-phantastischen Literatur 1460-1960 (Friedrichsdorf/Taunus: Transgalaxis, 1959-60). Although far from complete, not always reliable--it contains items that are neither SF nor fantasy--and ignorant of proper rules of bibliography, it is the only listing of its kind generally available.

SF has also entered the classroom. The textbook publisher Diesterweg has put out two volumes entitled Science Fiction, both edited by Friedrich Leiner and Jürgen Gutsch (Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich, 1972), the one offering SF stories, the other being a handbook for teachers with a capsule history of SF, notes on the authors and on SF publishing, quotations about SF (including a good listing of existing definitions), a list of recommended stories and a bibliography of secondary literature.

The current SF boom has resulted in a number of articles in the general press and in trade journals, mostly dealing with commercial aspects of the field, but occasionally also containing some criticism. For instance: "Welle mit Zukunft" in the magazine Der Spiegel (No. 11, March 6, 1972), "Die Lust am Spekulativen" by Ronald Hahn and Werner Fuchs in Buchmarkt No. 11 and 12, 1972, or a series of articles by Gert Heidenreich, Jürgen vom Scheidt, Anton Kenntemich, Hans Joachim Alpers and Manfred Bosch in Publikation No. 3 and 4 (March, April, 1972).

Although SF generally isn't taken seriously as literature in Germany, there are some reputable German critics with a great interest in it, most notably the brilliant writer Helmut Heissenbüttel and the critic Heinrich Vormweg (see, e.g., his "Gedankenspiel mit unbegrenzter Möglichkeit," Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 14/15, 1970, or "Wo die Zukunft schon begonnen hat," same paper, March 22, 1972). The great German newspapers will nowadays review SF books; but the only writers who get detailed attention are Vonnegut, sometimes Bradbury, and always Stanislaw Lem.

Mention should also be made of Science Fiction Times (ed. Hans Joachim Alpers, D-285 Bremerhaven, Weissenburgerstr. 6, Germany; DM 18 per year), a semi-professional magazine devoted to SF. It contains reviews, longer essays, notes on recent writings on SF, bibliographies of new books, and really covers all aspects of the SF field. It is the most valuable of several dozen magazines produced by the very active and numerous German SF fandom.

-- Franz Rottensteiner

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)  Back to Home