| Science Fiction: Ten Explorations
Kent State University Press, 1986
Science fiction, for long spurned as the sub-literary product of cranks and escapists, and read and ardently defended only by cultists of the genre, has over the past decade in America at least established for itself a wider acceptance in academic circles and certainly a much larger world-wide readership, to the point where some see it as taking over the role of the realistic novel. The reason for the expansion of the readership is doubtless the increased vogue for the fantastic generally, together with a heightened awarenes of the dynamic process of scientific discovery and the contingency of our frail and threatened world. But the reasons for science fiction's having become academically respectable are rather different. It has done so largely by being seen as a metaphor, myth or projection of our world.
It was always the case that the literary establishment was just willing to give a place to such works as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or Wells's Time Machine or Huxley's Brave New World, because these were seen to be visions of dangerous features of our own society and selves, whether in the dangers of unfettered science, the repression of the unconscious or the destruction of individuality. But now this stance is hardening into dogma. Science fiction we find is only really worth considering when it tells us something about ourselves. Even some science fiction writers, eager to break out of the laager of the genre, maintain that their fantastic worlds are really heightened pictures of our own. 1 The 'New Wave' science fiction in the 1960s was in large part an attempt to escape from adventure-yarn science fiction to a more complex and referential literature, which among other benefits would bring the genre in from the cold of the disreputable. In this it has certainly succeeded. But if one looks at the writers and works repeatedly put at the forefront of consideration, one finds that they are generally the most extrapolative and satiric, and certainly the most evidently intellectual and sophisticated — writers such as Olaf Stapledon, Stanislaw Lem, Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick; particularly 'meaningful' works by other authors, such as Clarke's Childhood's End, James Blish's A Case of Conscience, Pohl's The Space Merchants. And one finds that the science fiction medium, the images of other worlds and beings, the strange narratives and laws, are often either ignored or reduced to being carriers — albeit commendable — of some deep meaning that tells us more about our condition. 2
There can be no wish finally to disparage this form of reading. It is good that science fiction should be able to carry this power, that it should be able to hold its own in literary potency with other more hallowed genres. But it does seem the case that the 'fictional' element, the element of invention, is receiving less than its due. And it is worth recalling that science fiction's readership enjoys the medium of fantastic worlds as much as — perhaps more than — any burden of 'significance' the works may carry. The very existence of the science fiction creation supposes that our world is only one among many: why should we so obstinately seek to haul it back to our world alone? This book is directed to restoring attention to the fictional element in science fiction. We need to get back to the creative impulse behind much science fiction and to the strangeness of the worlds it puts before us. We need to recognize that such themes as it may generate within itself can have more immediately to do with the reality of its own world than with that of ours. This is in effect a plea for a renewed awareness of the alien in science fiction, the alien as the indestructible this-ness of the worlds it makes, rather than as a projection only of our fears or hopes. 3
The book has another if perhaps lesser aim. All too often criticism of science fiction has devoted itself either to talking about science fiction in general terms only, or has considered individual works only briefly as they relate to a single motif pursued across the entire genre. When it comes to actual literary analysis many commentators falter, give plot summaries with occasional comment, talk at length about the meaning of a text rather than the way that meaning is carried, or turn to the more evidently discussible sorts of text already mentioned to provide often arcane readings. In short, and to be very blunt, there is precious little in the way of extended and plain literary criticism of science fiction, certainly not of book length since David Samuelson's Visions of Tomorrow ( 1974). And this is actually parallel to the larger concern of this book: just as critics refuse to attend to the individuality of science fiction's worlds and look away from them to ours, so they find it hard really to talk about the books as literature. It is not easy to do either of these things, it is true: but they must be done if science fiction is to be given its full due as literature.
The authors we shall be considering are most of them household names in science fiction — Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Brian Aldiss, Frank Herbert, Robert Silverberg, Philip José Farmer, Arthur C. Clarke, Clifford Simak; and of the books themselves all but three have won science fiction awards, and several of them — Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Herbert's Dune, Farmer's 'Riverworld' series and Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun — are among the modern giants of the genre. Only a few of them have been extensively analysed before. With most of them we shall be exploring what is often a fairly resistant surface, finding a way of both appreciating and understanding the peculiar idiom of each work. For each is peculiar, each world sheerly different from that of the others. Together they could be said to form a cross section of science fiction: some are intellectual, some fantastic; some quite near in terms of possibility, others very remote; some scientific, some semi-mystical.