Science Fiction Studies

#54 = Volume 18, Part 2 = July 1991





R.D. Mullen

Science, Fictive Science, and Science Fiction: Bleiler's Massive Bibliography

Everett F. Bleiler, with the assistance of Richard J. Bleiler. Science-Fiction: The Early Years. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1990. 8x11, xxvi+998. $75.00.

This is the book for which I have been waiting most of my life. Written by our preeminent authority on popular fiction, it is the most valuable bibliographical work yet published on its subject, and is not likely to be superseded, for who other than Everett F. Bleiler would do the reading necessary for "A full description of more than 3,000 science-fiction stories from earliest times to the appearance of the genre magazines in 1930" (sub-title)? The Introduction (in addition to setting forth the criteria that will be discussed below) includes a six-page listing of some 550 "Motifs of Science-fiction," followed by a list of 16 "'sentences' or basic plot patterns into which motifs are fitted." The final section of the Introduction is "A Brief History of Early Science-Fiction in Terms of Story Clusters." The bulk of the book consists of 2475 articles on novels, magazine stories, and story-collections with sub-entries that bring the total number of stories discussed to the claimed "more than 3000." The listing is by author, and each article or group of articles is prefaced by a note on the author. A chapter entitled "Background Books" discusses 13 works dealing with Atlantis, the hollow Earth, the canals of Mars, etc. The thousands of items in the "Motif and Theme Index" begin with "Abaris. Reached secondary moon. 2455," end with "Zulus. 973, 1439," and include such things as Antigravity (four main entries with a total of 18 subheads and 168 references) and Women (nine main entries, 61 subheads, 246 references). There are also, in addition to the author and title index, a date index that begins with "380-348 B.C.?," and a magazine index demonstrating that SF appeared as a matter of course in magazines of all types, albeit in none other as frequently as in the Munsey pulps. (One disappointment: the magazine index often if not always fails to note US appearances of stories by British authors that appeared also, though not necessarily first, in UK magazines.)

Since no claims are made as to completeness, it would perhaps be wrong to criticize the book on that score unless one could name important works that have been overlooked. Two unimportant omissions that I have happened to notice are Garret Smith's "'You've Killed Privacy!'" (Argosy-Allstory, July 7, 1928) and Donn Byrne's "Through 'HELL' to Peace" (Smart Set, September 1914). The omission of the first is puzzling, but that of the second is understandable, since it is unlikely that anyone would search for SF in either the work of Donn Byrne or the files of Smart Set. (As said above, Bleiler's book is unlikely to be superseded, but we might expect (or at least hope for) a supplement dealing with additional stories.


Relation to "reality" Use Genres, forms, fiction types
1. Accept reality as it is with perhaps a selection of data. Rational  Mainstream fiction. Social realism. Some labor fiction. Comedy of manners. Genre fiction: sports stories, Western stories, war fiction, detective stories, romances, sea stories, etc. Ethnographic fiction
2. Accept reality as it is, but heighten and exaggerate certain aspects. Rational Non-supernatural "fantasy." Hero fiction.  Some labor fiction. Some pornography. Utopias. Tendenzliteratur. Conte cruel. Propaganda fiction.
3. Accept reality as it is, but add similar  material, perhaps with some exaggeration or heightening. Rational  Fantasies of history in general. Imaginary wars. Historical novels. Adventure fiction. Lost race fiction (often with some supernaturalism). Life in the future.
4. Accept reality as it is, but with a pretense of substituting another reality, based on  various possible assumptions. Usually irrational Absurdist fiction. Some allegories.
5. Qualified acceptance of reality, with not so much rejection as readjustment of limits, adding extensions with certain subject matter. Rational  The quasi-scientific portion of science-fiction.
6.Rejection of reality in favor of direct contradiction, involving a principle of contranaturalism. Unrational Supernatural fiction.
7. Rejection of reality in favor of a substitute, often defective reality. Usually irrational Occult fiction. Much eccentric fiction.


Bleiler does not include stories published new in the SF magazines, but he does include, on the basis of their first appearance, those known to be reprints (of which, so far as I know, there is no definitive list). There is one story in Amazing that has puzzled me over the years: I had no evidence that it was a reprint but felt it too expertly done to be by one of Gernsback's ill-paid recruits: "On the Martian Way" by Capt. H.G. Bishop, which Bleiler lists in his six-page Addenda as published in 1907 in Broadway Magazine, another periodical in which one would hardly expect to find SF stories.

Whether one writes science+ fiction always open, always hyphened, or open for substantive and hyphened for adjunctive use, is a trivial matter. In recent years, although some of us continue the grammatical variation, general usage has been overwhelmingly in favor of the invariable open form, with the invariable hyphened form seldom if ever been seen. Bleiler has now reintroduced the latter and lent it his considerable authority. His argument is that SF cannot be defined by reference to science, since the "amount of real science" in SF "ranges from moderate to none at all," and that SF "is not a unitary genre or form" but instead "an assemblage of genres and subgenres that are not intrinsically closely related but are generally accepted as an area of publication by a marketplace. Science-fiction is thus only a commercial term. And since English usage normally hyphenates compound words that mean other than their components, of the two forms that are met, 'science-fiction' and 'science fiction,' the hyphenated form is to be preferred" (xi). I have no problems with this argument (beyond wondering whether a "commercial term" should be spelled on the basis of normal English usage rather than commercial usage, which overwhelming favors the invariable open form), but choose to go a different way with respect both to the trivial matter of hyphening and the important matter of delimiting the field to which SFS is devoted--a way that leads me to reject both any definition that excludes science as a necessary element of science fiction and any argument that a definition of SF must be broad enough to cover everything labeled SF for the marketplace. For publishers, editors, and professional writers science fiction may be simply a commercial term; for me it is a literary term.

In current usage science fiction has two meanings: in addition to designating a literary field, it is used to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, especially with respect to technology, as in the exclamation, "But that's science fiction!" The second usage is consistent with the fact we do not now (as was not uncommon in the 1920s and '30s) speak of science stories and science novels as forms of science fiction; instead, as is true of no other field, we speak of science-fiction stories and science-fiction novels. Bleiler's statement that "science-fiction is not concerned with [real] science as a crime story is concerned with crime, a sports story with sports, or a spy story with spies" (xi), through true, is therefore irrelevant, for just as the plain meaning of crime story is story about crime, so the plain meaning of science-fiction story is story about science fiction; that is, about what Bleiler calls quasi-science and I prefer to call fictive science. (It follows that the most accurate designation of our field would be science-fiction fiction. Although I have just discovered one use of "SF fiction" [see page 236 of this issue], I would not suggest that we change our present practice, and so in the remainder of this review will, except when quoting Bleiler, designate our field as SF.)

Bleiler's argument for SF as "an assemblage of genres and subgenres" is made more persuasive by his classification of "genres, forms, fiction types" on the basis of the rationality of their relation to consensus reality in the admirable table reproduced on page 268. For Bleiler the "three major components of science-fiction are the quasi-scientific story, the lost-race story, and the future story" (xi). Three types are explicitly rejected: "the scientific detective story, the story of prehistoric life, and the story based on abnormal psychology," the first as "not fantastic enough, since it deals with real scientific points (though perhaps in an anticipatory way) rather than quasi-scientific," the second as "simply a form of historical fiction," and the third as "simply a form of realistic fiction" (xii). Such stories, however, along with utopias, imaginary wars, fantasies of history, etc., etc., may be counted as "science-fiction" if "other elements" are present, the other elements presumably being the quasi-scientific.

The most useful definition of SF is still Darko Suvin's "SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance of a fictional novelty (novum, innovation) validated both by being continuous with a body of already existent cognitions and by being a 'mental experiment' based on cognitive logic" (Victorian Science Fiction in the UK, Boston, 1983: 86), which could be shortened to "SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance of fictive science." Bleiler is of course quite correct in saying that "The word 'science' has caused endless problems and will undoubtedly continue to do so" (xi), but if we can agree on a usage that includes the social sciences, then utopias can be counted as SF if the narrative is dominated by fictive social science. On this basis we would not say with Bleiler that Utopia and New Atlantis "are not really science-fiction" (vii). (Articles on these works, as well as others said to be not really SF, are included in Science-Fiction: The Early Years as important historical influences on the genre.)

Suvin, in the book mentioned above, quotes me as having written: "The lost-race concept is latently science-fictional in that it raises a what-if question: 'what would happen to a civilized society isolated for centuries from the Ekumene?' [The trouble is that in Haggard and his imitators] the community's economy is simply ignored, its premodern technology is simply taken for granted, and its politics appears only in a hierarchy of royalty, nobility, priesthood, and common people. In sum, the latent SF remains merely latent" (95). On one lost-race story Bleiler and I are in partial agreement. In SFS #16 (November 1978), in a survey of Haggard's works, the first sentence in my entry for Allan Quatermain is "Haggard's first fully developed lost-race romance and the chief model for all the many that followed from his or other pens" (5:287). Bleiler's article begins: "The lost-race novel par excellence, setting up many of the motifs and fictional patterns that became an integral part of the subgenre" (318-19). The trouble is that, in the 1100 words that follow in Bleiler's excellent account of the novel, I find nothing to contradict the second sentence in my note, "The imaginary world is more ruritanian than marvelous." The culture of Zu-Vendi is said to be "at about Classical Mediterranean level" and its politics that of "a feudal monarchy, with perpetual internal strife and turmoil." No details are offered to indicate that this fictive society differs from societies known to history because of its long isolation from the Ekumene or, indeed, that it differs from known societies in any way more significant than the ways in which Ruritania and Graustark differ from the actual societies of turn-of-the-century Europe. Lost-race stories and utopias have much in common, but it is the latter that demand, rather than merely allow, mental experiments based on cognitive logic.

Bleiler's entries for H.G. Wells do not include "The Grisly Folk," which begins--

'Can these bones live?'

Could anything be more dead, more mute and inexpressive to the inexpert eye than the ochreous fragments of bone and the fractured lumps of flint that constitute the first traces of something human in the world? We see them in the museum cases, sorted out in accordance with principles we do not understand, labeled with strange names. Chellean, Mousterian, Solutrian, and the like, taken mostly from the places Chelles, La Moustier, Solutre, and so forth where the first specimens were found. Most of us stare through the glass at them, wonder vaguely for at that half-savage, half-animal past of our race, and pass on. 'Primitive man,' we say. 'Flint instruments. The mammoth used to chase him.' Few of us realize yet how much the subtle indefatigable cross-examination of the scientific worker has been extracting from the evidence of these rusty and obstinate witnesses during the last few years.

--and continues in this vein for several pages until, much as we move out of the wooden O to the fields of France in Olivier's film of Henry V, we leave the museum for the plains of Europe in the days when true men clashed with Neandertalers and eventually killed them all. Since the world depicted in "The Grisly Folk" is envisioned on the basis of science rather than history, it seems very odd to call it "historical fiction." The basic real science in this story is that some of the human skulls and legbones in question were quite similar to those of modern man, while others contemporary with the first group differed to such an extent that it seemed probable that there had been two subspecies, one ancestral to modern man and one that somehow disappeared from the face of the earth. The physical difference between the two groups is real, but the theory that the second group, the Neandertalers, disappeared without a trace is simply speculation. Even more speculative are the theories that the Neandertalers were killed off in battles with true men and that the legends of ogres and man-eating giants derive from memories of the Neandertalers. Can we not say that such speculations are equivalent to quasi- or fictive science and thus count stories of prehistoric life as science-fiction stories?

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