Never let Never Let Me Go go

We covered a lot of ground in our Ishiguro session, and I don’t feel a need to tie up any of the loose ends we left in interpreting the novel. Is it a humanist novel in some sense? What judgment or attitude are we supposed to form towards Kathy H.? I think the novel is very clearly designed to make these hard questions to answer; Ishiguro’s literariness is visible above all in a total commitment to ethical and aesthetic ambiguity, manufactured by means of every narratological trick in the book. I certainly recommend both Walkowitz and Robbins on the novel as surprising readings that suggest how Ishiguro inverts the classic realist tradition he appears to belong to (to e.g. the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy).

Omnivorousness, and the readings on it, needed more time than we had, so the rest of this post provides some glosses and commentary. Peterson and Kern’s article gives a sense for why the concept was introduced in the first place: the empirical falsification of the “snob” or “highbrow/lowbrow” model of cultural stratification, which expects that high-socioeconomic-status people like high-status cultural objects and low-status people like low-status objects. From the neoliberal era on, high-status people rarely or never profess an exclusive taste for legitimate or “high” arts and culture. But class distinction in cultural preferences didn’t end; instead, the difference is between those who have wide taste and those who are narrow. In particular, high-status people increasingly express preferences for formerly low-status arts and culture. In literary studies this transformation is visible, in just the same era, in the increasing academic interest in “popular culture” and formerly despised genres—including SF. Academia, however, tends to lag cultural trends, which is why there is plenty of highbrow literary taste for genres like detective fiction and SF well before there are college courses or a body of scholarly articles on them—and why such genres are much less central to the English curriculum than they are to the reading habits of most avid readers today.

I imagine some of you had to set Lizardo and Skiles aside last week, but their essay is well worth your time. It’s important to see how sociological theory proceeds, if only to clarify to yourself how another discipline does Theory differently. It’s easy to bounce off the surface; the sociological convention of highly impersonal and abstracted writing, which works in that discipline as a sign of objectivity and rigor, will disappoint your expectations for style. But persist. The essay is very good of its kind, and it does things literary theory never does: it confronts its every proposition with the available empirical studies, and it tries to produce further empirical tests for itself. Also, because sociologists have much less investment in the value of the aesthetic, they are free of the defensiveness which tends to get in the way of literary theory on this subject.

Lizardo and Skiles’s core claim, they tell us, is that “omnivorousness emerges as an empirical manifestation of the operation of the aesthetic disposition under contemporary macro-level conditions” (269). This responds to the widespread belief in the sociological literature that the omnivore phenomenon rendered outdated Bourdieu’s account of the aesthetic in Distinction. For many in the social sciences, Bourdieu was (incorrectly) understood to have put forward a “highbrow/lowbrow” model for explaining the aesthetic disposition. Lizardo and Skiles are concerned to recuperate Bourdieu’s theory of the aesthetic in relation to the emergence of the omnivore. The omnivore is an aesthete who can be aesthetic about many things. They propose that this capacity is rooted in the early acquisition of the disposition: “We advocate for a conception of omnivorousness as a phenomenon generated by the iterative application of a habitual disposition by members of those class fractions most likely to have developed and perfected it as a skill” (266). The omnivore is opposed both to the resolute lowbrow and the narrow highbrow, both of whom betray their lack of fluency in appreciating things aesthetically.

Lizardo and Skiles go into some detail on how hierarchies of legitimacy in the arts interact with the omnivorous disposition. The emergence of omnivorousness by no means does away either with hierarchies within the arts of with the tendency of cultural processes to reinforce social status. What may be harder to take on board is our own implication in this theory. It’s easy to deny that I am a cultural snob: I like all kinds of stuff and I don’t look down on people who like yet other kinds of stuff too. That feels like an unimpeachably democratic sentiment, but the theory of omnivorousness holds that it is no such thing, that it is rather produced and reproduced by the current dynamics of our class society. In our society, the capacity to appreciate widely—in literature, in media, in food, in music, and so on…—is unmistakably a cultural status marker. It pales in importance next to economic status, but it is still a form of status. Most provocatively, even the cultural taste for racial, ethnic, and national diversity could be understood not as a kind of democratization or even as pluralism but as a manifestation of omnivorousness. (I think we could add to Lizardo and Skiles that one way omnivorousness functions as a status signal is when it is seen as an ethically worthy from of inclusiveness.) Consider Ishiguro’s own conflation, in his Nobel lecture, of generic diversity in literature with other, demographic kinds of diversity (“we must become more diverse”).

Do not make the mistake of thinking that these remarks reduce manifestations of omnivorousness to mere attempts to “one-up” other people aesthetically. A careful reading of Lizardo and Skiles (or Bourdieu) will correct this error. I don’t think Ishiguro has a snobbish bone in his textual body. But as a literary writer, his craft, and his achievement, are predicated on a disposition to appropriate objects of popular culture in a particular way: aesthetically. This disposition, and its interaction with the circuits of publication, are what differentiate his use of the SF genre from the uses made by the other writers we have so far considered.

Heir to the Zahn seminar—but scroll down for Catskills’s Lagoon post

I’m still catching up. A couple of lingering thoughts on Zahn. Catskills, by contrast, is right on time with her Lagoon post—pleased read that, which fortuitously also has Star Wars on its mind.

We never did pick up our initial conversational thread in our Zahn session on games and play. One way to think about the totality of Star Wars is as a set of rules for play, with each new entry in any medium being recognizable by adhering to the rules—or by modifying them in ways that the players accept, or by inviting players into a contest over rule-modification. This is how I understand the fact that Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game was an important source for Heir to the Empire (Guynes, 147). What makes Star Wars into a sprawling transmedia narrative is that there are many ways for players to join in the game, and many ways for play to be extended. In this metaphor, it’s important to remember that George Lucas and Lucasfilm, despite their outsize legal and economic power, are players rather than referees, and there is no game without the other players. The problem of “continuity” is not simply one of regulating consistency across the narrative but of ensuring that, precisely, the game can continue to be played. That doesn’t preclude radical changes in the rules and indeed in who commands the dominating positions (Disney now). Nor does it preclude surprising and fluid shifts in the legal and commercial Death Star that defends the cycle as intellectual property (see my favorite of the films, Star Wars Uncut).

On this understanding, Star Wars itself forms a cultural subfield in Bourdieu’s sense: a network of competitive and collaborative relations with a specific hierarchy organized according by the ability to legitimately and authoritatively produce and circulate Star Wars stories. As Somtapian pointed out in seminar, like some religious subfields, the Star Wars field uses scripture as one of its tools for producing and measuring authority, and this gives rise to a whole ancillary apparatus for choosing authoritative promulgators of scripture (“canon”).

Saying subfield is useful because it lets us think about capital conversion. Zahn’s pre-existing standing as a recognized SF writer (Hugo for best novella, 1983–the same year Butler won one for her story “Speech Sounds”) is converted into his ability to produce an authoritative continuation of the Skywalker saga. It also probably contributes to his ability to produce, in Heir to the Empire, a bestselling novel which finds an audience far wider than earlier Star Wars tie-in stories.

Another kind of SF capital is also being invested in the development of Star Wars: this is the pulp SF magazine heritage and one of its most stereotypical subgenres, the space opera. So far we have mostly seen Gernsbackian pulp as something to despise (Le Guin, Gibson); for Lucas, pulp is an object of calculated nostalgia. Heir is interesting for the way it converts the films’ pastiche of pulp into something that is reasonably up-to-date as a 1993 SF novel, by toning down the most melodramatic aspects of the films and supplying a wealth of plausible detail about New Republic politics, space-battle tactics, galactic cultural variation, and so on.

DFarin put it very well in seminar: in Heir, continuity with the films is the illusion of continuity. It is in many ways a radical departure, stylistically, from Star Wars as it existed before, at times even adversarial or parodic about the films (the cloned Dark Jedi, the Dagobah cave playing reruns, the Force-negating ysalamiri) but the familiarity of characters and settings knits things together well enough. Zahn is also careful to insert some highly familiar catchphrases from the films: “‘Why,’ she [Leia] murmured, ‘do I suddenly have a bad feeling about this?’” (122). This use of leitmotive may even have something to do with his attested habit of listening to John Williams’s scores while he writes: yet another stock of SW capital to draw on.

Incomplete final remarks on Butler

A very belated and short retrospective on our second Butler discussion; I feel that the several abstracts on Butler have did a lot to point out lines for continued thinking about Parable.

I do want to underline the sheer virtuosity of Butler’s accomplishment in making Lauren’s West Coast survivalism into a plausible response to a plausible near future. This has something to do with the technique of Butler’s realism—its rich detail, its methodical attention to the needs of day-to-day existence—and something to do with Lauren’s persuasive voice in her journal. It’s useful, I think, to compare a journalistic account of a society in collapse—like Patrick Cockburn on Syria—to sharpen your sense of what is fictional about Butler’s narrative of a group of plucky individualists striking out on their own.

In seminar I sensed some resistance to entertaining the proposition that readers like the editors of Octavia’s Brood have to read Butler against the grain to conscript Parable, or the figure of “Octavia,” for a politics of “progressive change.” In particular, they seem to me to have a very different idea of what it means for Butler to be a black woman writer than she herself has (either in her fiction or in her interviews and essays). And the kinds of inexorable change and adaptation Butler’s novel is so interested in are clearly very different from US progressive politics. If I am right, the later readers’ reading of Butler needs to be analyzed not as an intellectual error but as a product of a distinctive reading situation: one in which, first of all, the genre of science fiction has a moral and aesthetic value which is quite distinct from the kinds of value ascribed to it by the institutions of fandom or the marketplace—and which is more typical of the kinds of worth attributed to literature on the post-1970 college or university campus. Once again, then, it is a matter of converting among forms of capital.

Butler, interstitial

There are just a couple of things left over from our first session on Butler that I wanted to note here before our second session.

I underlined that Butler’s career as a writer of SF was partly enabled by a new set of institutional forms for producing SF writers: the Clarion Workshop, together with formal SF instruction available at colleges and universities.1 These forms are a slightly belated version of the much wider transformation of U.S. literature by the writing workshop from the end of World War II onwards. Mark McGurl’s celebrated book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009) argues that the MFA program shapes the whole of post-1945 literature, not by imposing any particular style but by disseminating a specific range of norms and concerns to specific populations. McGurl’s focus is on literary writing, with genre fiction as the “outside” of the system, but SF is (marginally) present within the higher-education creative writing system from 1970 on. One index of the difference is that Butler, of course, received no credential for her studies, no MFA in SF; her highest earned degree was an associate’s.

What I now want to emphasize, because it is less obvious, is that the state was therefore central to Butler’s trajectory, to her acquisition of the cultural capital necessary to become an SF author—that is, to produce and publish her work, to become known, etc. Butler’s remarkable autodidacticism depended on and flourished in the framework of public schools, public libraries, and Pasadena City College, CSU-LA, and UCLA: which is to say she had some access to every tier of the California public higher education system in its golden age. And before all this comes the public library system: I mentioned in seminar her essay, written shortly after Parable of the Sower, on public libraries: it can viewed in this scan of Omni 15, no. 10 (August 1993) on the Internet Archive. Butler understood very well what the existence of robust public cultural institutions meant for someone of her race and class position:

Public libraries in particular are the open universities of America. They’re free; they’re accessible to everyone; they may offer special services to shut-ins, to children, even to nonreaders….

I’m a writer at least partly because I had access to public libraries. (3)

And she also understood what the Reaganite and post-Reagan dismantling of these institutions meant for society. To interpret the social vision of Parable, I think we need to consider what it means that Butler imagined these functions of the state being completely subtracted, and what Lauren and Earthseed propose in their place.

On the matter of Butler’s identities, I think we will have much more to say in seminar. By way of footnote from last time, here is a recording of the Freedom Singers singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the 1963 March on Washington, to help give some more sense of what Butler is touching on in the scene of Lauren’s preaching. Butler would have been 16 in August 1963. By the time of Parable’s publication the high point of the Civil Rights movement was thirty years in the past.

I do want to register some hesitation, however, about any gesture of “placing” Butler in African-American cultural history in this way, if it ends up constricting our reading, or worse, making us misinterpret Butler by assuming that there is a singular and self-contained African-American culture into whose history all black writers can be inserted in the same way. Consider that Butler’s publishing career is roughly contemporary with Toni Morrison’s, who in 1993 won a Nobel Prize. Butler’s comment to Charles Rowell about her early career is notable:

I was asked by the Washington Post to review two books: one was Claudia Tate’s Black Women Writers at Work, a book of interviews, and the other one was Confirmation, a huge anthology of black women writers edited by Amina and Amiri Baraka. After I went through the two books, I wondered why I was not in them….I guess the more exposure I got, the more people realized, “Oh, yeah, she’s black.” (Rowell, 65–66)

This comment slyly and self-consciously indicates Butler’s social distance from the core of African-American literature and the actors who made it, in the very decades of her early career, a significant university subject, a significant aspect of American literature, and, in fact, a form of cultural capital. Butler’s work only comes to function as this kind of cultural capital belatedly, and, she hints, on the basis of an identification she regarded ambivalently (“I’ve never allowed a picture on the back of any of my books”).2 As I hope we will discuss, this discomfort seems hardly to register with many of her most enthusiastic readers.


  1. Equally important to Butler were the emergent institutions of feminist SF: she was a guest of honor at WisCon 4 (1980), and her early interpersonal SF network from Clarion in 1970 included a number of feminist SF pioneers.↩︎

  2. The social distance is also a literal, geographical distance from the Eastern seaboard and Chicago, the two home bases of black cultural activism.↩︎

Beyond (but not outside) “Burning Chrome”

At the very start of our discussion of Gibson’s stories, we touched on the difficulty of the stories (perhaps especially “Burning Chrome”). This opacity is, among other things, a mark of Gibson’s affinity both for science fiction’s “New Wave.” Stylistic difficulty or technical sophistication of any kind signals an affinity for the more self-consciously literary, “advanced” currents in SF, the elements that seek to place the best SF alongside experiments in consecrated Literary genres; in the 1980s, these experimental currents, visible across the arts, could plausibly be called “postmodernism.” Mark McGurl’s The Program Era renames the body of writing that includes Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and latterly David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers “technomodernism,” a label which already hints at a potential affinity with science fiction, which however is always limited by the forces that maintain the boundary getween “genre fiction” and the Literary.

Compare Sterling’s preface:

Gibson’s extrapolative techniques are those of classic hard SF, but his demonstration of them is pure New Wave. (xiii)

This comment attempts to split the difference, crediting Gibson with affinities for both “classic” and advanced SF. Actually, Gibson’s writing (unlike Sterling’s) bears very little resemblance to “hard” SF, which is rather his complement or rival on the field of 1980s SF. Gibson’s own view of the “extrapolation” idea of SF is plain in “Time Machine Cuba”—or, for that matter, in “The Gernsback Continuum.”

But to return to style: Gibson’s distinctive texture at the level of the sentence as well as his flamboyantly tangled plots mark him out in the field of SF. These are just as much his signature as the “cyberpunk” thematics of computer hackers, machine-human fusion, the grimy but not post-apocalyptic near-future setting, etc. And in fact, as his career goes on, Gibson gradually abandons many of these thematics, writing novels set nearer and nearer to our present, while keeping his stylistic signature. (After nine novels Gibson reboots and goes for a more emphatically SF setting in the time-travel novel The Peripheral [2014]). On the style, I think we caught many of the important effects but didn’t say enough about the significance of the proper name: Ono-Sendai, Zeiss Ikon, Cyberspace Seven…or the first sentence of “Johnny Mnemonic”:

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for. (1)

The appearance of “Adidas” here is a Gibson trademark (ha ha): brands, actual and imaginary, are absolutely central to the way he conjures a world. Branding, too, can create forms of cultural capital, and no one is more self-conscious than Gibson about the way a literary style can also be a brand. Or a genre. Remember that on the first handout I gave you, I included this line of Gibson’s:

I am, by trade, a science-fiction writer. That is, the fiction I’ve written so far has arrived at the point of consumption via a marketing mechanism called “science fiction.” (“Rocket Radio,” Rolling Stone, June 15, 1989: 87.)

Gibson is highly self-conscious about marketing labels and his own imbrication in the system of production and consumption of cultural goods, and he endows his coolest protagonists with the same self-consciousness. This self-consciousness is among other things a mode of consumption: “not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for.” Indeed, coolness in Gibson is never separable from an ironic self-awareness of the limitations of irony as a way of freeing oneself from a cultural and economic system. (This argument is a riff on Lee Konstantinou’s reading of later Gibson in Cool Characters: Irony and America Fiction [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017]).

I think many of you were responding to these attitudes in our discussion of Gibson’s way of representing the capitalist system—that is, as a system which appears to have no “outside,” since it is capable of absorbing and repurposing any form of subversion, whether individual resistance or global-scale organized crime, as just another variety of production, trade, and (especially) consumption. I sensed that our seminar was making an individious comparison to Le Guin’s explicit representation of a whole non-capitalist world.

It’s certainly true that Gibson begins publishing in an era where capitalist global dominance seems much more assured than it had fifteen years before, and where the radical hopes of the counterculture seemed of the have come to nothing. Gibson’s biography is relevant, inasmuch as he literally did go to California after leaving high school in Virginia in 1968, joining in the mind-alteration phase of the counterculture, before ending up in Canada and out of the reach of the Vietnam draft. Biographically, if you are looking for what lies outside of Reaganite capitalist imperialism in William Gibson, it is: Vancouver. (That’s only a joke, of course; cf. Gibson’s Spook Country [2007]. But I think Gibson’s novels, starting with Neuromancer, would surprise many of you with their tendency to imagine world-altering change as already in progress.)

It seems to me our discussions all semester have been bedeviled by questions about the outsides of institutions and systems. Science fiction as an “outside” to consecrated literature. Fandom as an “outside” to credentialed literary evaluation. A New Wave as an “outside” to conventional, putatively repressive SF. And then, in imagination: an “outside” to capitalism itself: the Venus of The Space Merchants, the Anarres of The Dispossessed. This metaphor has the tendency to cement a belief that resistance, change, or even just difference can only be found in the outside. It underestimates the degree to which any complex social system is constituted by opposing forces and elaborate internal differentiations. It also overestimates the significance of “outsides” with respect to what goes on “inside.” Le Guin’s Dispossessed, in a remarkably cold and pessimistic way, affirms the radical limitations of the capacity of even a fully constituted non-capitalist “outside” to act on a capitalist inside, and postpones to an unnarrateable future any process of systemic change.

All that suggests to me we will need to think harder about alternatives to mental maps that only have an inside and outside. Pierre Bourdieu’s theory provides one possibility, by allowing us to think about overlapping and nesting social fields, each constituted by struggles over specific forms of capital. But I’ll just leave you with a pointer to Erik Olin Wright’s typology of four “strategic logics of anticapitalism,” summarized in How to Be an Anticapitalist Today, Jacobin, December 2015. Onwards to Butler, who will not provide an escape from a single one of these problems.

Le Guin: closure forbidden

Our brief discussion of Le Guin’s prizes generated some interesting leads, including some possible interpretive lines to follow in The Dispossessed. I want to make sure we also take note of some more basic aspects of the significance of prizes for SF. The excerpts I asked you to read from English’s Economy of Prestige (telegraphically summarized by the three excerpts on the handout from class) give you a framework for thinking about the institution of the prize.

Most fundamentally, a prize both indexes and creates a specific form of cultural value: the existence of the Hugo and the Nebula institutionalize the idea that SF has its own special scale of quality, to be judged by those who know it, and SF is to be compared, in the first instance, to other SF. The inauguration of the Hugo at the 1953 Philadelphia Worldcon is thus one of the indicators of the crystallization of SF as a genre. But—and this is English’s most central point about prizes—the existence of this scale of value by no means implies consensus about valuation; just to the contrary, he shows that the main engine of prize culture is controversy, disagreement, outrage, skepticism.

The Nebula exemplifies prizes’ “logic of proliferation”: one prize gives rise to more, either as competitors in the definition of the same form of value or as founders of a new, differentiated form. One SF “best” is not enough after thirteen years: the Nebula provides a second, marked off by the difference that it is chosen by pros (the SFWA) rather than fans (Worldcon). Actually, it is the Hugo, as a pure audience-popularity contest, that is exceptional in the world of literary prizes; there is no fan vote for Best Literary Novel that parallels the Pulitzer or the National Book Award or the Booker. (Maybe the MLA should institute one as a publicity stunt.) The Hugo builds on the SF pulp tradition of reader ranking; think of Campbell’s “Analytical Laboratory.” Gunn alludes to earlier, failed attempts to create an SF writers’ professional association in the 1950s (introduction to Nebula Ten, x); at first, the fan institutions reabsorbed them. Comparing the list of Hugos and Nebulas in the 1950s and 1960s, which are extremely similar, you can see why differentiation might have been hard. Why, come the 1960s, the SFWA was able to take off, is a question to which I do not have a ready answer, though I have some guesses: look at Le Guin’s ambivalent relation to fandom (communicating as prophet, or by ansible). That ambivalence has everything to do with the new type of professional SF author she exemplifies: college-educated, attracted to dissident or vanguard social currents (counterculture, feminism, anarchism), committed to “literariness” as much as to genrehood and profoundly uncomfortable with, yet dependent on, the “genre ghetto.” Put another way, Le Guin comes to SF with a very different amount and composition of cultural capital than the writers we read before her.

This difference, I think, ties in with a different set of novelties in Le Guin that our discussion touched on: her quasi-anthropological narrative account of culture on Anarres and Urras, together with the significance she accords to the sciences of society as much as to the natural sciences in The Dispossessed (as elsewhere). The question of which of these sciences is to have pre-eminence is thematized by Shevek’s choice between “pure” physics (which turns out not to be pure at all) and political activism (which turns out to be a commitment to Odo’s social theory), and, of course, the novel has it both ways, or avoids the question. But to have raised the question at all is to have moved a long way from the committed technicity of Asimov and Campbell. There are also real differences between The Dispossessed and The Space Merchants, even if both could be read as critiques of consumer capitalism that resolve their contradictions with a spaceship. I would phrase the difference as follows: Le Guin’s novel simulates a convincing social and cultural whole encompassing forces of both stasis and change, whereas the earlier one selects only those details that contribute to the hyperbolic effects of satire.

One other thread we didn’t tug on at all, but which should at least be mentioned in this context, is the Cold War allegory of The Dispossessed. The obvious translation of US/USSR/Vietnam into A-Io/Thu/Benbili may not get us all that far, but Le Guin’s favored thematic of freedom (and its opposite, the prison) has a Cold War dimension. On Urras, Shevek is in hock to Ioti Big Science: a pure theoretician, he is nonetheless part of a large state-governed infrastructure linking universities and the military. On Anarres (which temporarily takes the Soviet spot in the allegory here), Shevek plays the role of an Andrei Sakharov confronting Lysenkoism. But science here may function largely as a stand-in for Le Guin’s own profession as an author. Whereas US cultural diplomacy made much of the freedoms of American writers and artists compared to the contraints of communist censorship (and still does), Le Guin was also acutely sensitive to the power of censorship exercised by the market:

We are not a totalitarian state; we continue to be a democracy in more than name—but a capitalist, corporate democracy. Our form of censorship rises from the nature of our institutions. Our censors are the idols of the marketplace.1

It is no accident that Le Guin’s strongest examples of failings in Anarresti society relate to censorship, above all in the case of the dissident artist Tirin.


  1. “The Stalin in the Soul,” in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Susan Wood (New York: Putnam, 1979): 213.↩︎

Le Guin and a missing decade

The 1960s, like the 1940s, are abridged from our chronological progress. Since Le Guin is in many senses produced by the 1960s, it is good to have a general sense of what the years immediately before The Dispossessed were like for science fiction. Our discussion didn’t get to the short essays by J.G. Ballard or Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology, but I meant for these texts to serve as a kind of bookmark for the current of renovation or avant-gardism that marked 1960s SF. Ballard’s “Which Way to Inner Space?” (1962) is a manifesto of the British New Wave, appearing in the signal periodical of that movement, New Worlds. Ballard calls for “experimental enthusiasm” in SF, and it’s clear he has in mind a formal as well as a thematic transformation of the genre. Despite the fact that Le Guin’s planets are indeed alien worlds, it is worth considering how Ballard’s motto, “The only truly alien planet is Earth,” might apply to them.

We looked briefly at Ellison at our first meeting. The full introduction is amusingly self-conscious about positioning itself as the cutting edge of American SF, identifying past practice as reined in by “taboo” and proclaiming his own vocation for rupture (“The millennium is at hand”). As with Ballard, Ellison criticizes the rigidification of genre conventions, and he wants to blur the lines between high-cultural experimentalism and SF novelty, celebrating “the smartass kids who write ‘all that literary stuff,’ who take the accepted and hoary ideas of the speculative arena and stand them on their noses.” The tactic here is to insert a new generation of SF writers into the countercultural current of “The Sixties.”

Le Guin, not nearly as flamboyantly countercultural as Ellison, is nonetheless associated with this transformation, not least because she appears in Ellison’s sequel anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions (New York: Doubleday, 1972). As further evidence of her affiliations, I assigned those pages from Khatru, hoping your eyes would be caught by her own appearance in those pages: to demonstrate, first, her (somewhat distanced) involvement in a feminist SF fandom, and, second, her sense of her own position:

My first sf editor was Cele Goldsmith Lalli (f)
My agent is Virginia Kidd (f)
My editor at Atheneum is Jean Karl (f)
My editor at Harper has been Victoria Schochet (f)
My editor in the Children’s Department at Gollancz is Joanna Goldsworthy (f)

Now, Don Wollheim bought my first three novels, and Terry Carr (whom I first addressed, by the way, in 1964, as “Dear Miss Carr”) asked for LEFT HAND, and buys far-out stories; as does Damon [Knight]; and John Bush of Gollancz is a brave editor who’s taken some very long chances on me. I don’t feel the men are agin me, Campbell would have been, because I was agin him; Charles Scribner was, because he’s agin science fiction; and I’m sure that there are always some men who as Quinn observes go around sniggering, but wotthehell? If a turd wants to snigger, let it. But all the same that list of five up there is kind of interesting. I wonder how many professional men would have five professional women so centrally involved in their career? (Khatru 3–4 (November 1975): 77.)

Like the SF Studies essay, Le Guin here emphasizes her difference from a previous era of SF, identified with Campbell (“I was agin him”). More complexly, Le Guin tries to have it both ways with respect to the question of women SF writers: sharing in a feminist consciousness of discrimination among publishers and noting the significance of “professional women” to her own career; yet also unable, by dint of her own success, to adopt the position of embattled marginality more easily occupied by other writers and readers in the Khatru forum.

From the perspective of publishing history, Le Guin’s comment is revealing as well: her early publications were with Wollheim (the onetime Futurian) and Carr, pioneers of SF paperback publishing at Ace Books, and in SF magazines (Goldsmith, her “first sf editor,” gave Le Guin her first SF publication in Fantastic in 1961); but her subsequent work appears under increasingly literary imprints: Atheneum, Harper. (And Scribner too, for that matter, which published The Lathe of Heaven in 1971.) Which all suggests one reason why Le Guin is so insistent on the importance of breaking down the “walls” separating SF from the literary mainstream.

Pohl & Kornbluth: retrospect

What Galaxy isn’t

We didn’t get to spend much time thinking about the broader media and cultural field the novel emerges in. I think that might have helped fill out our understanding of Galaxy’s pitch for distinctiveness as an “adult,” serious science-fiction magazine. First, the heyday of the pulps was over; most titles had folded in the Depression or the War. By 1950, another print medium for science fiction had a wide readership—the comic book. On purely thematic criteria, superhero comics would obviously count as SF. But comics were understood—as the pulps had often been understood—to be primarily juvenile reading, and I suspect that some of Gold’s desire to proclaim Galaxy’s maturity is an attempt to stake a claim for a different audience than the comics.

The other, even more significant print development is the emergence of the paperback book, which it is traditional to date to 1935 in the UK (founding of Penguin by Allen Lane) and to 1939 in the US (founding of Pocket Books by Robert de Graff). The newcomers become increasingly significant to the publishing industry after the war, with a new readership created by postwar prosperity and the vast expansion of higher education instigated by the G.I. Bill. According to the book historian Beth Luey, “If paperback publishers were revolutionary in the 1940s, by the mid-1970s it was difficult to distinguish them from the rest of the industry.”1 Paperbacks covered a wide cultural range—Penguin started with simultaneous detective and literary lines—and, for the first time, make it possible for SF to enter book form as SF. On the one hand, the move from magazine to book makes possible a new legitimacy; on the other, the distinctiveness of Literature is immediately reasserted by the institutionalization of “genre fiction,” which, in my view, emerges in the effort to fix genre distinctions within the paperback format. One sign of this is the transfer of the epithet “pulp” to certain kinds of paperbacks.

The upshot is that book-publication channels are, in the 1950s, now available to SF, but they remain marked for genre; the magazines also continue to be quite important. Some of the “maturity” proclaimed by Galaxy (and in plenty of other places) has to do with a new interplay between magazine and book for SF. Not by accident does Galaxy introduce a book review section (“Galaxy’s Five-Star Shelf”). New possibilities of publication also, I think, explain the significance of the banner over the table of contents: “ALL ORIGINAL STORIES / NO REPRINTS!”2

Pohl’s career

A new media landscape for SF means new opportunities (and contraints) for individuals, especially individuals who can act as mediators between producers and distributors. Pohl’s career exemplifies this. You might have noticed that when Gold introduces Pohl and Kornbluth for the first part of Gravy Planet, he says that

Frederik Pohl is 32, a bit over six feet, about 165 pounds, tied to a literary agency that bears his name and keeps him from making his rightful contribution to science fiction.3

Pohl was probably the first person to be a specialized SF agent, and he got book deals for writers like Asimov at the paperback houses. He also acted as a mediator by editing: a year after “Gravy Planet,” Galaxy’s “Five-Star Shelf” carries a review of Star Science Fiction, ed. Pohl, and published by the new paperback house Ballantine, which tells an important story:

Here, friends, is science fiction’s World of Tomorrow in publishing: an original 35-cent paper-backed anthology of 15 first-rate short stories never before published in any form, magazine or book! True, it’s not “reading tapes,” such as we old s.f. fans have been promised in the W. of T., but it’s the next best thing.

Ballantine Books can be congratulated on selecting an editor who knows good science fiction, too. Mr. Pohl has chosen well….

If your newsdealer doesn’t have it, make him get it for you.4

This cannily recognizes that the paperback is the true future of SF publishing, as against the hokey Gernsbackian idea of reading tapes. And in fact the paperback anthology is just as important as the paperback novel in putting SF into book form. (Notice that the paperback initially had the same point of sale as the pulps: newsdealers rather than bookstores.) Here Pohl, the person who “knows good science fiction,” acts as a crucial intermediary, and of course the list of authors in the anthology testifies to Pohl’s personal connections. Furthermore, his own editorial credentials would allow him to succeed Gold as editor of Galaxy in 1961.

This may seem to confirm the line of discussion we had in seminar when we remarked that Galaxy seemed to signal a newly professionalized kind of SF writing: SF can be career for Pohl. But it’s important to keep in mind John Cheng’s insight about the constant traffic between the “Way of Life” and “Goddamn Hobby” versions of fandom. For Pohl is also characteristic in emerging, like Asimov, Heinlein, and all the rest of their cohort of SF writers, from the very core of SF fandom, and staying part of it throughout his life: he was a founding Futurian and an early member (as you know from Cheng) of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association. The 2013 obituary on his very rich blog, now only available via the Internet Archive, notes that “Mr. Pohl was among the members of what came to be known among science-fiction fans as First Fandom.”

Space Merchants vs. Moby-Dick

That was a fun discussion, which I won’t belabor here except to remark that Herrera’s solitary library has a biographical resonance: Pohl was a high-school dropout who said in an autobiographical essay, “The Brooklyn Public Library was, I think, the best thing that ever happened to me.” To be crude about it, there is some of Pohl the working-class autodidact in Herrera. To be less crude, his exteriority to formal education partly I think accounts both for the reverence accorded to legitimate literature in The Space Merchants and for its failure to align with highbrow consensus, indicated by a taste for Elinor Wylie alongside Keats and Swinburne.5 But the running theme of Mitch’s cultivated speech and facility with writing gives a much more up-to-date version of what the linguistic capital of literature consists in: not a feeling for literary “greats” but a capacity to participate effectively in the large-scale management of consumption by manipulating textual symbols. Like so much else in the novel, there is an unresolved contradiction here.

We didn’t pause at all over the collaborative authorship of The Space Merchants. Can you name a single “legitimate” work of literature written in collaboration since the Early Modern period? There are some interesting twentieth-century avant-garde experiments, but otherwise this kind of collobration, which is a recurrent feature of SF, is quite unusual. I put on the handout from class a passage from Pohl’s blog describing his collaboration with Kornbluth (in possibly idealizing terms). It seems to me that the norm of literary authorship forbids collaboration of this kind (but, notice, collaborative writing is the norm in corporate organizations). Pohl and Kornbluth reached it by dint of the Futurians and the hothouse of an adolescent radical milieu. More contradiction.

Space Merchants in reception

We didn’t take up in discussion the remarks on the reception of the novel posted by talk-talk-talk. Those are worth taking a little time over; think about how he found them and how they should be interpreted. I particularly direct your attention to the reprinting history in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, which shows you some of the life of an SF “classic”: much-translated and much-reprinted. On the handout I cited Kingsley Amis’s use of the novel as a kind of litmus test for the special qualities of SF; Luckhurst quotes Amis’s 1960 judgment that it was the “the best science-fiction novel so far.”6

Aside on crime

We talked a bit in seminar about the possibility of moving among genre-fiction genres like SF and crime, and I asserted that this was likelier in the earlier days of “fiction factory” pulp composition than in the 1950s. I think I shouldn’t be so sure. It turns out Pohl himself wrote detective stories during an interregnum after his discharge from the Army after WWII; before that he did a stint at the pulp magazine publisher Popular Publications in 1942, in which he worked editorially on mystery and other genre pulps too.7 In the other direction, a well-known hard-boiled thriller writer, John D. MacDonald, also published stories in SF magazines (including Galaxy) and three SF novels. But I do think the tendency of the literary field was and is to encourage single-genre specialization for authors who are identified with “genre fiction.” Literary authors get a pass.


  1. Beth Luey, “The Organization of the Book Publishing Industry,” chap. 2 in A History of the Book in America, vol. 5, The Enduring Book: Print Culture in Postwar America, ed. David Paul Nord et al. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 2009), 47.↩︎

  2. Galaxy 4, no. 3 (June 1952): 1.↩︎

  3. “Random Notes,” Galaxy 4, no. 3 (June 1952): 3.↩︎

  4. Groff Conklin, review of Star Science Fiction, edited by Frederik Phol [sic], Galaxy 5, no. 3 (June, 1953): 120–12.↩︎

  5. There’s a bit about Wylie at the Poetry Foundation website, which describes how her fortunes fell as the high modernists’ rose.↩︎

  6. Amis, New Maps of Hell, 124. This book is, by the way, a “classic” of SF criticism. It’s not easy to cite earlier ones, and Amis was a significant literary figure in the UK at the time, associated with “The Movement” and so able to leverage some of cachet to make claims for the lowbrow material of SF. I don’t love it, though it has very engaging moments and makes usefully broad claims for the genre.↩︎

  7. Michael R. Page, Frederik Pohl (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 36, 27. This short monograph—in the same “Modern Masters of SF” series as Gerry Canavan’s book on Butler, which I’ve assigned some of later on—is rich with biographical detail.↩︎

Give Luxembourg its due

Our discussion of the “aspirational” qualities of the SF pulps has stuck with me. Let me elaborate it by starting with an admission. My throwaway remark about Gernsback’s origins was a lazy error: he was from Luxembourg, immigrating to the U.S. at age 19.1 (Wikipedia teaches me that in later life he received the Order of the Oak Crown from Grand Duchess Charlotte.) One key historical landmark for any discussion of stories about aliens in this period is the transformation of the U.S. immigration regime in 1924, when Congress drastically limited immigration and set national quotas along racial lines, excluding most Asians. Asimov, brought to the U.S. from the U.S.S.R. as a small child in 1923, immigrated at the tail end of a period of relative openness. The distinct social status of immigrants and “white ethnic” Americans in the U.S. racial regime is often part of the dynamics of early SF subculture, and needs to be factored into any consideration of exclusivity or openness.

When Gernsback names Wells, Verne, and Poe as progenitors of “scientifiction,” he is not only situating the genre but also instituting some more or less respectable literary forebears to set it apart from the rest of cheap fiction. In the paratext he supplies for “The New Accelerator,” Gernsback makes sure we know that “H.G. Wells has achieved a wonderful reputation in the field of serious writing as well as of fiction…There is a picturesqueness about his language which attracts, as it is distinctively the English of the mother country” (Amazing Stories 1, no. 1 [April 1926]: 57). But I want to caution you that gestures of aspiration and pretension (like Gernsback’s spurious “F.R.S.,” which he dropped by the fourth issue) are not signs of status: they are signs of the desire for status, or perhaps imitations of that desire. Betraying the desire is most often evidence of a self-conscious lack of status. The emphasis on Wells’s “distinctive” English is partly an excuse for reprinting a 25-year-old story which shows its age; but partly it makes a virtue of necessity, by calling attention to the superior cachet, in a U.S. context, of the literary English Wells writes—inscribed in the allusion to “the mother country,” which was not Gernsback’s own. (Consider that most English accents still sound “refined” or “fancy” to most U.S. American ears, or just go listen to a recording of that son of St. Louis, T.S. Eliot.) By contrast, most of the writing in Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, and similar early pulps is notably unlike the kind of writing we recognize as stylish or refined—or, to put it more simply, it is often bad writing. But the badness is functional, reflecting an intended audience which does not particularly want displays of style and lacks the cultural capital to value them and which allows the magazine to draw on writers who themselves lack this cultural capital. The writing is primarily a vehicle for the thrilling, wondrous, or otherwise scientifictional content, whereas, in self-consciously stylish writing like, say, Hemingway’s or Faulkner’s, the content is practically a vehicle for technique.

On the handout from seminar, I included passages to exemplify the bibliographer Frederick Faxon’s highbrow distaste for “what the public reads.” Professional librarian discourse in the period was particularly exercised about the difference between what some people wanted to read and what they ought to read. Other highbrow cultural critics sometimes followed the same track. But you should know that in general pulps came in for less disdain than the biggest-selling commercial print culture with a basically middle-class orientation. A great deal lies “between” the lowly world of the pulps and the upper air of high culture; actually most of the marketplace of print culture is taken up by this “middle,” exemplified by The Saturday Evening Post or Collier’s. (A good overview of magazine formats at the time is provided by R.D. Mullen, “From Standard Magazines to Pulps and Big Slicks: A Note on the History of US General and Fiction Magazines,” Science Fiction Studies 22, no. 1 [March 1995]: 144–156.) Nonetheless, legitimate literary discourse about the pulps responds to the expansion of literacy; its scorn for what is on the newsstands is a symptomatic response to the inability of genteel cultural institutions to control the burgeoning mass-culture industries.

With Campbell and Astounding I think we can observe a stylistic shift, reflecting the dissemination of a literary “plain” style of which Hemingway is the icon and apotheosis. Though there are rarely great flourishes of style in Asimov or his Astounding contemporaries, the idiom is, to my eye, much closer to a widespread literary norm. As I was trying to hint in seminar, I think this has something to do with the growing prevalence of secondary education (and beyond) in the period. That doesn’t mean the writing is securely “literary,” but the anxious and often ludicrous editorial gestures of Gernsback are replaced with the brusque assurance of Campbell; if you didn’t catch it on your skim through the August 1938 issue, take a look at his editorial on “Power” (111). Yet the same editorial shows that Astounding, like Amazing, remains a magazine which explicitly aims to please its readership by directly assessing its desires.

I also discern a shift in the deployment of technical and scientific literacy. Compare Willy Ley’s elaborate exposition of literal rocket science in the August 1938 Astounding with the congeries of factoids and speculation that Gernsback’s magazines can offer. For all that a “positronic brain” is no less fantastical than the size-increasing gadget in “The Man from the Atom,” Asimov can present a much more convincing imitation of technical precision, elaborating it not only in static description but in the unfolding of the plot as Donovan and Powell must resolve problems with their engineers’ ingenuity. This imitation deploys both Asimov’s actual (university-imparted) scientific knowledge and his knowledge of the idiom of SF, which he has gained from reading the magazines themselves.

I hope this says enough to confuse the issue of cultural capital for you. In summary we are dealing with at least the following forms of knowledge used in some status-signaling and social-selection processes—forms of what Bourdieu would call embodied cultural capital:

  1. Primary-school literacy (the kind that allows you to read a magazine or perhaps write a letter back)

  2. High-school literacy (the kind that allows you to command a plain idiom fairly consistently)

  3. Command of prestigious registers of the language (the kind that is heard to be especially authoritative or refined)

  4. Technical education and training (the kind that lets you explain how natural processes or machines work, or to operate them yourself)

  5. Command of the idioms of science fiction magazines themselves (the kind that you get by consistently reading the magazines and by responding “correctly” to judgments from editors, or from other readers and fans)

These are only starting points…in turning to Galaxy and to Pohl and Kornbluth, you will see even more clearly how other, quite distinct forms of know-how are put in motion in order to produce SF that can be circulated as new and distinctive.


  1. Mike Ashley, The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950, vol. 1 of The History of the Science-Fiction Magazine, rev. ed. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), 28. When I first posted this on the blog I cited the earlier edition of Ashley’s magazine-history from the 1970s, but there is somewhat more biographical detail in the revised edition. Only the first volume of this edition is available via HathiTrust Emergency Access, however, whereas you can get three volumes of the earlier one. Either edition is a very useful reference on SF magazines, though it seems to me that it is mainly addressed to collectors and fans rather than scholars.↩︎

Parting words on Wells

These are my summary remarks about last week’s discussion—scroll quickly past to the three excellent posts below.

Our discussion of the Eloi and the Morlocks got into a bit of a snarl last time, I think mainly because Wells just doesn’t provide a consistent, stable allegory. As we remarked, the Traveller is fallible in his social-biological theorizing and a bit of a brute in general. 802,701 AD is definitely no idyll, but it’s totally unclear whether Wells really means to celebrate struggle and violence as the sources of creativity and change or whether he means to satirize this view. I like Luckhurst’s suggestion that the novel’s incoherence arises from Wells’s investment in the adventure plot over the futurological schema. Notice that the latter builds on Wells’s intellectual-scientific cultural capital, whereas the former only places him on a much more ambiguous spectrum ranging from “mere” entertainment to quasi-serious anti-realism. It’s not the last time these tensions will trouble our discussions.

There’s nothing like the classroom for discovering textual issues. The Time Machine has a complex textual history. We found chapter-numbering discrepancies: it turns out this is because many of you have reprints of the 1924 Atlantic Edition text, for which Wells consolidated the 16 chapters of 1895 into 12. There are more consequential differences among the early versions, including the first two book publications (Holt in New York and Heinemann in London); these are discussed by Bernard Bergonzi in “The Publication of The Time Machine 1894-5,” Review of English Studies n.s. 11, no. 41 (February 1960): 42–51. (The Project Gutenberg text I smugly suggested for quick searching has no bibliographic information, but appears to be based on the 1895 London text—rather curiously, or perhaps indicatively, it is one of the very first Gutenberg books, created in 2004.)

Before beginning his bibliographic discussion, Bergonzi makes this striking remark: “It is generally agreed that H. G. Wells’s first novel, The Time Machine, is a finer artistic and imaginative achievement than any of his later fiction” (42). And he closes the essay by asserting that Wells’s attention to revision testifies to “an artistic scrupulosity almost rivalling that of James himself” (51). You can see how Wells had fallen foul of academic literary-critical standards by 1960, though Bergonzi himself devoted a monograph to him the next year. All this tangle suggests that it is not simply to place Wells as an author in hierarchies of status, especially in the early phase of his career represented by The Time Machine. His appearance in the New Review in particular puts him on the high end of the periodical status-spectrum in British writing in the 1890s; on this spectrum see Peter McDonald, British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880–1914 (Cambridge, 1997).

It would be twenty-five more years before Woolf would consign him to the artistic rearguard with Arnold Bennett for his “materialism” and putative didacticism. Still, as I was trying to suggest towards the end of seminar with my vague question about technique, the The Time Machine does not self-consciously foreground representation, perspective, and cognition in the way that, say, Conrad’s or James’s writings of the same time do; and it does, very conspicuously, satirize artistic decadence and aestheticism in the mode of Oscar Wilde. And it was these tendencies rather than Wells’s that would come to mark the most advanced literary culture in English in the early decades of the twentieth century. It feels like reading Wells against the grain (doesn’t it?) to talk about his “artistic achievement.” Yet The Time Machine has clearly been available for many kinds of readerly appropriation.

I got a note about a discussion of “The Outline of History at 100” by the H.G. Wells society this Friday 9/25 at 2 p.m. E-mail for videoconference details.

Reception research: starting points

Reception and circulation in their broadest senses leave traces all over the historical record, but the richest medium for reception history is the periodical. Magazines and newspapers that take note of fiction are a good place to look for responses to particular stories or books as well broader discussion of writers or trends.

Big nineteenth-century periodicals databases have some coverage into the early twentieth century:

After that, things get trickier. Some major newspapers’ twentieth-century runs are available digitally in ProQuest Historical Newspapers, for example:

All of these, of course, regularly review books and cover literature from their distinctive positions. With some fiddling you can do a search across all of these at once from the ProQuest Database Select page. Many other magazines and periodicals are included there or in other big databases. As you get closer to the present, current-news databases start to capture some periodicals of interest. Start from the Libraries’ master database list or search the catalogue for particular titles.

One magazine is a particularly useful resource for US reception history: Publisher’s Weekly. We have access to a digitization of (almost) the whole run. Issues are served page-by-page (there’s no index to individual articles).

Gale’s Book Review Index is much less useful than one would hope but it is worth a try. Also from Gale is the Literature Resource Center, which is a grab-bag of digitized reference works and usually not very useful except as a basic biographical reference, but occasionally something interesting turns up.

JSTOR is focused on scholarly journals but of course scholarly reception is reception too, and often scholarship supplies information or references about circulation and reception.

Digitized versions of individual bound volumes of periodicals can be searched in HathiTrust if you can locate them. There is no simple way to search across the whole run of a periodical or across multiple texts.

But you can take the problem from the other end and do a full-text search of the whole HathiTrust database. That is the richest search of books as well as a way to catch the kinds of periodicals that ended up getting scanned as bound volumes. A full-text search of HathiTrust for a book title or author name is likely to yield many many false hits, but if you can find ways to narrow down (by publication date, etc.) you can often find likely possibilities. Then if you are lucky you will be able to see some or all of the book in question. HathiTrust and the increasingly tumbleweed-strewn Google Books overlap largely but not entirely, and Google will offer you previews of many copyright books that HathiTrust hides. For that matter, an ordinary Google web search often turns up things that no other technique will.

More specialized SF resources

(This list is largely the work of Suzanne Boswell.)

  • Pulp Magazines Project: We will make considerable use of this database of digitized early-twentieth-century pulps early on in the semester. When it comes to reception, try looking a few issues after the publication of a story to see whether reader letters or editorial comment registers a response.

  • The Internet Speculative Fiction Database: Remarkable bibliographic database of science fiction (aimed at fans and collectors). Particularly useful for tracing reprinting histories. Often links to cover images as well.

  • fanac.org: This site is devoted to the preservation and distribution of information about science fiction and science fiction fandom. It hosts a large archive of digitized fanzines, as well as reports on conventions. Authors’ appearances in the archive are indexed in the name cross-reference.

  • Locus magazine reviews: a major review outlet for SF, starting in 1968, with reviews available online from 1997. Scans of earlier reviews ought to be requestable by interlibrary loan.

  • Fanlore: a wiki about fandom, written by fans; not exclusively about SF. Significant coverage of SF awards (Hugos, Nebulas), fandom controversies old and new, etc.

  • File 770: a long-running fanzine which Suzanne suggests as a particular rich resource for contemporary fandom.

Caution

As in all digitized searching, it is very important not to overinterpret the presence or absence of search results in itself. You need some kind of comparative baseline in order to assert that something was popular or was ignored in some segment of the field.