SFNF: The Science Fiction Novel

The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism is, like Of Worlds Beyond, another slim volume of essays. It was published by Advent (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/advent_publishers, stylized as Advent:Publishers), like Fantasy Press an SF small press, that specialized in critical and bibliographical material, in 1959, and consists of four talks given at the University of Chicago in 1957, by Robert A. Heinlein, C.M. Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, and Robert Bloch, lightly updated for the book. There’s no assigned editor, though SFE says it was edited, anonymously, by Earl Kemp (who the next year compiled a book called Who Killed Science Fiction?, a remarkable work for revealing the angst of SF fans at the changes, in a field of literature all about change, in science fiction of the time).

While no editor is credited on the cover or inside the book, an introduction by Basil Davenport is credited even on the front cover. (He was an academic and occasional anthologist; http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/davenport_basil.) This introduction is remarkable in being rather rude: Davenport spends several pages objecting to several conclusions of the book’s contributors. He admits that this is a bit untoward, but confesses he can’t help himself – that the book is a good one because it invites reader reaction, and argument. I won’t address his objections to the essays themselves, but I will note this remarkable paragraph, p13:

As for defending the unpopular, one of the most striking developments in science fiction since the days of The War of the Worlds [by H.G. Wells] or The Skylark of Space [by E.E. Smith, Ph.D.] has been the realization that men and Martians need not necessarily exterminate or enslave each other. Story after story of encounters with alien races offers the same lesson, that to be different is not necessarily to be evil. And I can think of at least two stories in which the toleration which we are learning to accord the hypothetical is claimed for homosexuals, those aliens in our midst; one of these stories seems to me the most moving and persuasive plea in that regard that I have ever read.

The arc of moral progress! I’m guessing he’s referring to Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 story “The World Well Lost.” But onward to the talks/essays themselves.

Heinlein’s talk, delivered 8 Feb 1957, is called “Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues.” He begins by trying to define “science fiction,” and cites previous takes on the term by Damon Knight and Theodore Sturgeon, and then a longer take by Reginald Bretnor, one that involves a three-fold awareness of the scientific method, the body of knowledge collected through that activity, and considering the effects of both of these on human beings. Heinlein then considers borderline cases, such as Sinclair Lewis’ novel Arrowsmith (about current medical research), then considers fantasy as a contrast the science fiction. (Aside: among his examples of fantasy, p19b, are “any story based on violation of scientific fact, such as space ship stories which ignore ballistics…” Star Wars, anyone? What would Heinlein think?) After several pages his case is that fantasy is impossible, and science fiction is not, while at the same time allowing time travel and faster then light travel into the SF camp – because, key point, these are not facts, merely “currently respected theory.”

He then lays out all possible fiction into six groups:

Realistic Fiction

  1. Historical fiction
  2. Contemporary-scene fiction
  3. Realistic future-scene fiction

Fantasy fiction

  1. Fantasy laid in the past
  2. Fantasy laid in the present
  3. Fantasy laid in the future

Mainstream fiction is 1 and 2 in the first group; class 3 there is only science fiction; but that a great deal of fake “science” fiction is found in class 3 in the fantasy section.

He then goes on to examine additional examples that might challenge this scheme, and what strikes me most about these paragraphs, and similar ones in other essays, is how many titles and authors presumably familiar to readers at the time are now utterly forgotten. Frank G. Slaughter? Maxwell Griffith? Vincent McHugh?

As if moving down a checklist of topics to discuss, Heinlein then considers whether SF is prophecy. No, but it can seem to be, by virtue of following the news; and he then provides backgrounds for two of his own stories that were seemingly prophetic, “Waldo” and “Solution Unsatisfactory.” “As a ‘prophecy’ I was taking as much chance as a man who predicts tomorrow’s sunrise.” Another example: speculation on space suits led to the development of actual space suits. He mentions a number of scientists who write science fiction, then takes apart a passage from The Saturday Review (the kind of outsider perspective that David Langford would head with “As Others See Us”) concerning rockets and atomic power their depiction in “this somewhat crude form of entertainment”… The statement is entirely “unadulterated tosh,” says Heinlein.

Concerning literary merit, how should SF be judged? By the same standards as any other field of fiction. How does SF measure up? Not very well, he admits. It’s more difficult to write SF because of the demands of background and plausibility, that can’t rely on shorthand familiarity with the reader the way westerns or history stories can.

As a result, he notes, there isn’t a great volume of good SF. He runs down another list of titles and authors, and here again, John S. Martin? Susan Ertz? Others of course remain famous: Kornbluth, Asimov, Orwell, del Rey, Clement, Wells.

Of what use is science fiction?

It is the most alive, the most important, the most useful, the most comprehensive fiction being published today. It is the only fictional medium capable of interpreting the change, hand-long rush of modern life.

P41. While “serious” literature is “a retreat to the womb in the face of a world too complicated and too frightening for their immature spirits.” He dismisses Miller, Sartre, Joyce, et al as the “ash-can school of realism” and goes on, “In any case, I, for one, am heartily sick of stories about frustrates, jerks, homosexuals and commuters who are unhappy with their wives—for goodness sake! Let them find other wives, other jobs—and shut up!” – a passage I quote as much to suggest what Heinlein thought ‘mainstream’ fiction of the day was apparently mostly about.

He bewares of “anti-science fiction” in which science and scientists are things to be feared and blamed for problems – “Its childish, screaming, afraid-of-the-dark hysteria is easy to spot.”

Where does SF go from here? Only a slow increase in amount and quality, “We should not expect it ever to become mass entertainment, as it is directed primarily at the superior young person and secondarily at his thoughtful elder.”

While the four talks/essays in this book all ostensibly address the same topic – how science fiction novels function as social criticism – they all answer as if asked quite different questions. Heinlein discussed SF in general and never addressed its social function, except in the broadest terms. C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism” justifies its title by taking the subject to mean whether any works of science fiction have had actual impact on society compared to… Don Quixote, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Babbit, and a couple others. Well, no. He digresses through a passage from Moby Dick to claim that the reason for this ineffectiveness is that SF is too inward. P55: “In science fiction the symbolism lies too deep for action to result, that the science fiction story does not turn the reader outward to action but inward to contemplation.”

And then explains the failures of Gulliver’s Travels to actually “accomplish” anything. And moves on to, of all people, Dr. E. E. Smith and quickly excoriates his Skylark stories as childish power fantasies. Smith’s later series, the Galactic Patrol, regresses to infancy; humans in these stories “are responsible for propitiating their wise protectors who give them magic amulets; they are responsible for avoiding their terrible and omnipotent assailants. All other activity is meaningless, a mask, a system of levers leading to the only great source of good and evil. Humans beings are, in short, about eighteen months old.” (Not much potential for social criticism there.)

He considers works by Wilson Tucker and Olaf Stapledon and then comes to Orwell, whose 1984 he admires greatly despite the fact that it didn’t actually do anything to combat tyranny. Kornbluth goes on to explore two symbolic layers of the book, one literal – Winston Smith’s life as compared to the author’s boyhood – and one unconscious – how Room 101 itself and certain language in the novel as symbolizing “torment and destruction in the womb” p71. Both claims strike me as remarkably plausible and insightful (having just reread the book last year).

He grants some small effect had by Pohl’s and his own The Space Merchants (even as he admits that if asked to rewrite it, it would come out differently).

And then he ends on a note that echoes Heinlein: he denigrates the “menace” or “monster” story – his example is Matheson’s The Shrinking Man – that trade in fear, whose characters are irrational, that appeal only to readers’ terrors and fright, whose targets are scientists and intellectuals.

Number three is Alfred Bester’s “Science Fiction and the Renaissance Man” and it’s almost embarrassingly out of place among the other three. It reads like a transcript of an after-dinner speech met to keep the audience in stitches, with regular one-liners – example: “Put any man at loose ends and he invariably starts to write a book. As a matter of fact if you put a man in jail he also starts to write a book. I don’t know if this parallel is significant, but I do know that there are many authors I’d like to see in jail.” Bada boom – and repeated digressions about the hectic pace of his job as a radio script writer, or about the nature of men vs. women. I’ll summarize the points he makes that do speak to the topic.

  • He attributes success not so much to smarts but to charm, and cites Campbell, Gold, and various writers with strong personalities as having high CQs.
  • Science fiction only works in moments of leisure, calm, euphoria.
  • Which is why women aren’t into SF; they are realists, men are the romantics. He goes on about women’s magazines…
  • SF is about ‘big’ decisions that are abstract and not concerned with matters of daily life.
  • “A woman can come home ecstatic because she bought a three-dollar item reduced to two-eighty-seven, but a man needs more. … Life is enough for most women; most thinking men must ask why and whither.” (p89) (Remember this is 1957)
  • So SF has no purpose and no value. It’s for the modern renaissance man, “vigorous, versatile, zestful… full of romantic curiosity and impractical speculation.”
  • SF is no more serious than TV. Can it move us? No. Why? Because Americans care about ‘literary religion’, e.g. who really wrote Shakespeare, but have no similar feelings about science. SF is about situations; not people.

Moving on…

The best essay, the one that best explores the ostensible theme of the book, is by Robert Bloch, remarkable in that Bloch has never been considered an SF writer (rather, a fantasy and horror writer). His essay is called “Imagination and Modern Social Criticism.”

He recalls growing up bookish and how influential writers and speakers – Stowe, Twain, Rogers, Dreiser, Sinclair, Steinbeck – gave way, after World War II, to books that rather put forth “great and inspiring messages.” E.g., “those books about businessmen … which prove that big businessmen really do their best for the country, and like, the old saying has it, ‘What’s good for General Motors is good for the nation.’”

Leading to the current situation: the only place to find modern social criticism is in science fiction, “a form of writing so minor that most serious literary reviewers aren’t even aware of it.” (p101) How did this happen? Maybe SF gained importance following the atomic bomb. (A point echoed elsewhere.)

To explore this, Bloch says he chose 50 SF novels, at random, to reread, classify, and consider. He uses the traditional themes Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself, and Man Against Man. Only a few fit the first two categories; fully 35 fall into Man Against Man. (He lists them, by title, and again, most are familiar to me, but some draw blanks: Nutro 29? The Golden Kazoo? Highways in Hiding? P102-103.)

But then he observes that the dramatic premises of many of these books are mostly simplistic – good guys vs. bad guys. Cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. The common plot is the revolt against organized society, by a hero whom an adolescent reader is likely to identify. It’s significant that, unlike the current mainstream, SF sees the status quo as the villain. And again and again, we read about the Hero Who Saves the World.

(I might mention I got tired of this story fairly early on in my reading life – I think the breaking straw was Gordon R. Dickson’s novel Time Storm, in 1977 – and saw the recurrence of this theme in fantasy as a deterrent to that genre almost entirely. And found that short fiction, rather than novels, avoided such plot tropes. Is this what Thomas Disch meant by considering science fiction as a branch of children’s literature?)

Bloch goes on: These heroes are too important; they are presented as extraordinary men who immediately confront the “highest figures in the Hierearchy,” as John Carter does on Mars; in contrast to 1984, about ordinary people.

He boils down the clichés of future societies in SF.

  1. A totalitarian state
  2. An underground
  3. Forcible psychotherapeutic techniques
  4. How science will go along with the gag
  5. Economic incentives will remain supreme
  6. Angle-Saxon culture will continue to rule the world
  7. We will colonize and rule the natives of other planets
  8. The future holds little basic change
  9. Individualism is dead

As an example, he quotes at length his earlier review of Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, about a future society in which certain aspect of human nature – such as a culture of honor that allows people to gun down each other in the street over perceived slights – are depicted as inescapable aspects of human nature. Bloch takes issue with this premise, and to be fair, he notes, in other books Heinlein presents quite different theses.

Perhaps instead, Bloch suggests, we need not better government, but better citizens. He considers how the heroes of Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, are driven by revenge. What is good and evil? Most SF is no more discriminating on this subject than the crudest crime thriller (Bloch cites Mickey Spillane). Issues are solved by punches in the jaw and bullets to the gut. [[ Still true in 1960s Star Trek, as I’ve noted. And this general issue about the refinement of the human moral sense is, again, addressed in Steven Pinker. ]]

Bloch hopes for SF that doesn’t rely on Key Figures, heroes, but on intelligent, ordinary people. He gives some examples that do.

Against the more popularly-held notions in the science fiction field that technology will save the world, or mass-psychological conditioning will save the world, these few dissenters stand, affirming that only man’s spirit avails to save himself. They preach evolution rather than revolution, evaluation rather than revelation, individual right rather than individual might.

But SF needs an audience. And he notes that SF short fiction has wider latitudes to explore social issues. Yet, considering novel, as SF failed as social criticism? No; it provides a mirror of the very attitudes we need to reexamine and reflect upon.

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