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.↩︎

The New Parable of the Sower Covers are 🔥🔥

What do we make of the creative decision to limit the cover art for the latest printing of Parable of the Sower and its graphic novel adaptation to a fiery color scheme? Perhaps this shared, yet narrow color palette might help us to think about two elements of Parable‘s reception: its “unreadability” and, relatedly, the increasing urgency of its nearly (if not already) realized vision.

Debbie Notkin’s review in Habakkuk, she concludes with what she sees as a guiding proverb among dystopian science fiction writers: “It’s not depressing; it’s cautionary.” She describes Parable as “the Pandora’s box myth come true, with the tiny Hope carefully stowed at the bottom of the chest of troubles” (8). But despite this final assessment of the novel, Notkin also says the “detailed realism” of Parable creates “an atmosphere so real it’s sometimes almost unreadable” (8).

Notkin is certainly not the only one who feels this way. Damian Duffy, one of the co-authors of Parable‘s graphic novel adaptation, explained that as he was making his way through Butler’s writings, he came to Parable but could not finish it because he was “frightened horribly” (19:14). In the same interview, Duffy explains that he read Kindred—a novel he classifies as “horror” due to its addressing of chattel slavery—in one sitting (41:00,19:00). In this context, as well as Notkin’s, what do we make of Parable of the Sower‘s perceived “unreadability”?

At one point in the interview Duffy and John Jennings (the other co-author of the graphic novel adaptation) talk about the prescience of the novel and the “added level of tension” of writing about wildfires in California and presidential infringement upon civil liberties while watching the news and certain Twitter feeds (56:11). Jennings even says that many of the color palettes for the graphic novel were drawn from simply driving around his Southern California residence and taking pictures (56:45). Does our temporal and circumstantial proximity to the world Butler constructs make the novel more or less readable?

This immediacy of the world Butler constructs in Parable led John Warner to this conclusion in his 2018 review of Parable of the Sower: “I would like to still be able to read Parable of the Sower as a cautionary tale, but that time has passed. Now it’s a requiem.” And while it’s tempting to focus on the prescience of Butler’s vision in Parable, Warner argues, “Butler wasn’t clairvoyant. She merely saw the present more acutely than most.”

Given the various accounts of science fiction’s relationship to the future (e.g., Gernsback, Bova) and whether such a relationship is an essential part of (the) science fiction (author’s work), what do we make of Warner’s comments about Butler and the present?

Finally, since it’s not nice to talk about race, religion or the end of the world at parties, does Butler’s “Genius” way of scientifictioning provide a potential example of how one might snag and snub cultural capital?

Habakkuk 3:3: http://www.fanac.org/fanzines/Habakkuk/Habakkuk0303.pdf

Interview with Damian Duffy and John Jennings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gk_ez3DMO6U

Warner’s review: https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/ct-books-biblioracle-1021-story.html

An accidental, oblique response to AG’s comments on “outsides”

I’m thinking about the different uses of maps in The Dispossessed and Parable of the Sower. In TD, the small round maps at the start of the novel do very little to help a reader conceive of the world Le Guin crafts. They tell us so little about Urras, Anarres, or their populations. In seminar, we talked about how those maps signal genre, the overlap of fantasy. In Parable, mapping offers the opposite. The route markers serve as literal and figurative shelter, the roads give us access to a navigable story. I am biased, of course, as someone who has traveled the length of the California coast by unconventional conveyances, but I think for any reader with a digital or analogue map of the coast, Butler’s cartographic references make concrete the fabulated narrative. Her maps make the world real, navigable.

Last week, Diana talked about how Gibson’s dystopian futures offer no outsides, no hopeful kernel of possible alternative worlds. Butler, like Le Guin, looks star-ward for optimistic alternatives. Butler gives us lots of hope, but much more than Le Guin’s moonscape, “Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. Worship,” Butler declares through Lauren, “is no good without action. With action, it’s only useful if it steadies you, focuses your efforts, eases your mind” (219). Is Le Guin’s Anarres a kind of worship? Is Parable a more useful text?

This is my first-time reading Parable. I read Kindred this summer and I’m struck by a continuity between the two texts: the grab-pack. “We should make emergency packs,” Lauren tells Joanne. “Money, food, clothing, matches, a blanket,” the things that make Lauren’s survival plausible also serve as convenient plot devices—for both the text and the character, they make all sorts of things possible that might be a real slog otherwise (58). I wonder if these grab-packs might be doing something else, too: from the early pages of the book, they generate a kind of anxious hopefulness for the reader: leery, threatened, but tangible—accessible. Which, it seems to me, is representative of a central affective project of the book.

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.

in good company: collections, curations, (sub)categorizations

“Johnny Mnemonic” was first published in the May 1981 issue of Omni Magazine, 5 years before Burning Chrome’s publication. Ben Bova’s “First Word” at the beginning of the issue sketches a picture of SF’s role in relation to other disciplinary/generic ways of thinking futuristically: 

Here at Omni magazine, science fiction has been an integral part of our editorial ‘mix’ from the very beginning. Because Omni is ‘the magazine of tomorrow,’ our aim is to examine the future in every way that we can with feature articles, columns of subjects as diverse as television and astronomy, interviews of the world’s thinkers – and with science fiction. In fact, science fiction allows us to present dimensions of the future that cannot be seen in any other way. (6)

Bova privileges SF as particularly apt for playing out scientific/technological futures: “Writers use [SF] as a computer simulation laboratory.” He ends by emphasizing how “useful” SF can be. Thinking back to Galaxy and the ways its editorial materials identified a “mature” SF field/readership (and its paucity of ads + the overwhelming majority of its pages devoted to SF stories/serial chapters), what are the effects of situating SF as one “legitimate” experimental mode of thinking futuristically amongst others? How does encountering SF amidst articles on astronomy, the environment, space, etc. change the reader’s engagement or disposition towards the fiction? 

A few pages later, Gibson’s story is specifically introduced alongside (following!) the issue’s other fiction piece by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is given a comparatively extensive introduction, mentioning his “four decades” of prolific publishing “in magazines as disparate as The New Yorker and Weird Tales,” his “remarkable novel Fahrenheit 451” and other works that “won him international acclaim,” and the recently published “volume of his 100 best [stories], published by Knopf” (8). Clearly the more established writer, Bradbury provides the coattails for Gibson to ride — or it’s at least presented that way: “Accompanying Bradbury’s story this month is William Gibson’s [JM]” (8). Of course, this makes sense since Gibson had not published nearly as much as Bradbury, but the editorial uses (and “usefulness,” for Bova perhaps) of writers with more cultural capital seems worth consideration. We might also look to the (fan-made) “SF table of elements,” where each element is an SF writer (126, page 78 of the pdf). 

Brief additional considerations! :

How does a short story collection signal another kind of curated set? How does it position a single author within the field? One Publishers Weekly review calls Gibson’s writing in Burning Chrome “old, worn and tired….This weak collection of 10 short stories seems to have been rushed out to cash in on Gibson’s current popularity” (103-4). 

Publishers Weekly (1993) includes “A User’s Guide to SF Subgenres.” Gibson is listed under “cyberpunk,” with other subgenres including “epic fantasy, military science fiction, Elves-in-the-real-world (aka Elf-punk), Hard Science Fiction, Space Opera” (55). How do we think of subgenres as cultural fields, and how does this kind of organization/categorization negotiate “walls” around SF(s)? 



guide to sf subgenres

publishers weekly gibson 1

publishers weekly gibson 2

Walls, participation, change

Are there still novelist-fans like the Voxers? But maybe it’s a better question to ask what exactly it is that the Voxers are fans _of_. But they aren’t fans—they are “participants.” In what? At least, in 1993, in the _New Yorker_it doesn’t seem to matter: the Voxers are more of a spectacle than anything else. They are something to be seen and wondered at—they are so different. Is Gibson also different? I was really surprised by the way he was described at the end of the piece. Gibson “lives in Vancouver [. . .] but he grew up in southwestern Virginia, and still drags his vowels when he talks. And according to the Voxers, he is ‘ “so sweaty’” and “’spent’”—it seems to me that Gibson’s effort, at least as represented in this short piece, is to hold worlds—MindVox, West Virginia, “off East Seventy-second Street”—together.

Is this an extension of Le Guin’s wish for smashed/fallen walls around SF?

Maybe not extension, but definitely evolution. In his piece on “New Wave Science Fiction,” Dana Jennings cites Bruce Sterling on the new new wave: “the real Cyberpunks will get sick of the idea of Cyberpunk, and they’ll move on and leave it to the hacks. And they’ll subvert the field in their own way.” This seems really different from AussieCon, where the walls come down but the community stays…I guess the same? Sterling seems to both expect and value change (we can think about this in conversation with the letters in _Aurora_).

For seminar, I’d like to think about the different kinds of cultural capital that show up in these sources—from the implied reader of the _New Yorker_ in ’93, to the knowledge of MindVox in ’93, to the status of professional writer.

I’d also like to think about scales of community in SF. We saw this all the way back in the Rieder, but this week after Le Guin really pushes us to be more specific about community and genre.

Gender and The Dispossessed

This seems like a reasonable place to talk about gender in /The Dispossessed/. There’s lots we could talk about around gender in the book, but the thing I’ve been thinking about the most is Shevek’s sexual assault of Vea in chapter 7. Why did Le Guin include this scene? Are we meant to believe that Urras is so corrupt that having been there only a few months, Shevek becomes capable of rape? Or, does sexual assault, like fist fighting, fall into the category of individual violence rather than systemic violence, on Anarres? Le Guin goes out of her way to explain that Shevek and Bedap discuss their sexual pairing carefully (172), but leaves us in the dark about whether or not heterosexual couples engage in this kind of negotiations (in fact, her formulation implies that this kind of negotiation is exceptional).
It certainly seems like Anarres hasn’t totally overcome gender inequity—Shevek’s resentment of his mother seems to me one indicator of this—but imagining that it has, would that mean that sexual assault could be understood as an interpersonal problem only? And that Shevek, evidently fine with interpersonal violence, assaults Vea because he underestimates the systemic consequences of sexual violence on a world with much more pronounced gender inequity?

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.

A novel encyclopedia

In the 7th printing of the SF fanzine Maya the Dispossessed was reviewed by Christopher Priest (the guy who wrote the novel the Prestige, the basis for that Christopher Nolan movie where David Bowie plays Nikola Tesla and Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play like everybody else.) He lauds Le Guin for her serious engagement with political theory and physics, her fully fleshed out worlds, her characters, her plot, but at the end of his praise he writes “For all this, though, the Dispossessed is not a great novel. It is an extraordinarily good one in many respects, but . . . there are two major failings. . . narrative drive, and emotion.” His complaint is essentially about the book’s scale, he elaborates “it (the book) is like a landscape photographed though a wide angle lens. . . there is too much for the eye to see. . . A single image, correctly chosen, can sometimes convey more real and pertinent information about a landscape than a panoramic view.”

In this visual metaphor we can situate this critique from the early reception of the Dispossessed within the discourse of the gaze. Le Guin, Priest claims, is too discursive; she does not do enough to aim our attention and thus her novel is not “great.” The gendered coding of this critique I think can be put in conversation with Le Guin’s “American SF and the Other.” There’s also a lot of material in Maya 7 that indicates a kind of precarity felt by SF fandoms at this moment, and I think it would be useful to read Priest’s formal preference here in relation to these conditions.

In Maya 08 we can see fan letters responding to this review. They indicate the extent of Le Guin’s stature within SF fan communities in the early 70’s. Many of those that wrote in had read multiple books by Le Guin and other reviews of her work. One of the few women that wrote in offered a first hand account of a lecture Le Guin gave and Le Guin’s rude treatment during the Q&A that followed.

Also within Maya 7 we find an article where the editor expresses anxiety about academia’s interest in SF, showing concern that the authority carried by academics would materially upset the fan community’s place as a site of discourse within the ecosystem of SF. In Maya 8 we also have letters responding to that piece, including one response from an academic.



some downsides of the imagination

In “A Response, by Ansible, from Tau Ceti,” Le Guin writes about her distaste of critical approaches to The Dispossessed that reduce “fiction to ideas,” ideas that the reader is guided to understand as the “methodical,” “didactic intention” of fiction.  Le Guin defies the critical tendency to treat her novel as programmatic, as her  “treatise” and not fiction, an exaggeration of the political and philosophical bend to her writing that, she admits, causes her to overcorrect and “speak[] of composition as a pure trance state.” Although Le Guin rejects the binary of aesthetics vs. political/social theory, I’m curious how she exactly views the relationship between her work and the political. Her writing is like an “imaginary house” that is “fundamentally aesthetic and which, in being so, fulfills an intellectual or rational design,” suggesting that any political or social program her writing depicts is secondary to the architecture of the aesthetic house. In other words, her novels are didactic, though she’s not the one doing the teaching; that role is left to aesthetic form, which is significant insofar as it eschews the solidity of dictates and leaves open the doors of the “imaginary house.” 

These emergent lessons of aesthetic form help us make sense of the freedom Le Guin finds in “nameless things” and “writ[ing] of the imagination”: they represent change without the directedness of “the idea of progress,” pointing to “other ways of being…of a larger reality.” Reality itself, then–the reality of social and political worlds, and the reality of realism and literary prestige–is not sufficient for freedom. Freedom is found outside of (cultural) capital and market commodity, i.e., the world as it exists. While this perspective is one that animates my own love for and belief in SF, I wonder if the rules of the game have changed.

To illustrate this, I compare what Le Guin writes in “A Response” to what she says in her 2017 interview. In 2014, Le Guin states, “I still read everything as novels, including history, memoir, and the newspaper”; in 2017, she modifies her view of nonfiction when she writes, “there’s an indifference toward factuality that is encouraged in a lot of nonfiction. It worries me…” (“Writing Nameless”).  In the former example, Le Guin suggests that she reads nonfiction with an awareness of a “novelistic ‘thickness of description’ that prevents simplistic, single-theme interpretation,” however, three years later, she appears to critique just such an “indifference toward factuality.” Now, I acknowledge the fundamental difference between writing with this “indifference” as opposed to reading with it, but if freedom is an aesthetic act of distantiation that engages the “symbolic elements that are not fully accessible to rational thought,” then freedom, on either end, is a subversion of factuality (“A Response”).  What would lead Le Guin to such a revision? What does it mean when politics begin from a location “not fully accessible to rational thought”?

“clear and whole,” or Nothing Like That: Shevek’s Theory

Last week, Delainy asked us to consider Le Guin’s “indirect reportage:” a stylistic mode within the novel that obfuscates or omits details as scenes develop (121). He brings his reader to the moment in which Shevek at last arrives at his “great theory,” claiming that Le Guin’s overly abstruse, possibly “mystical,” presentation of the scientific discovery “feels… wrong” (121-2).

Where is the science in Shevek’s theory? Le Guin’s partially-hidden physics seems like a departure from the mechanistic construction of Wells’ time machine and Asimov’s robots: though not exactly offering D.I.Y. instructions, there was an articulated accessibility between inventor/assembler and their audience/reader. Shevek’s science, however, is explicitly and necessarily obscured: though he (ostensibly) arrives at a theory of simultaneity, he does so only by accepting its “unprovability” (280). A paradox emerges in his physics when he determines that “he had been groping and grabbing after certainty, as if it were something he could possess” (280). Though he “had been demanding a guarantee” of the certitude of his theory, he now comes to determine that such a guarantee would counterintuitively limit it, “would become a prison” (280). It is through this lack of certainty—a lack of the full, proven, entire understanding of the universe—that Shevek arrives at his totalizing temporal theory of that very universe.

The cyclical logic of this, as Delainy points out, is intentional and, for him, frustrating. Yet, there seems to me something more at work here than a simple omission or oversight of detail. Near of the end of the novel, the so-called “alien” Terran ambassador repeats to Shevek (this time, of his theory of freedom): “I don’t understand—I don’t understand” (350). It is a moment that underscores both the incomprehensibility of the science in the novel, and the fractured, inter/intra-planet solidarity that renders individuals indiscernible to each other. The Dispossessed expresses interest in the obfuscation of certain, solid understanding (of physics, of reality, of others), and it does so not only by stylistically engaging in this “indirect reportage,” but interrogating how these omissions operate beyond science and into every level of society.

Coach Delany

Delany’s meticulous (and corrective) exegesis of The Dispossessed came across like a demanding coach reviewing a film breakdown of a once-in-a-lifetime sports play. The outcome of the play was great and worthy of an eternal highlight reel, but Coach Delany reserves praise for the end, after detailing the sloppiness of its development. And all of this coming from a deep love of the player (Le Guin) and the game (SF).

Right out of the gate, Delany made his high expectations known, expectations specifically tied to science fiction as a genre. After reading Delany’s discussion of the first paragraph of The Dispossessed, I was left wondering: would most science fiction critics—published or otherwise—place this much weight on a single adjective like “uncut” (109)? I’ll take Delany at his word when he says that “[t]he weaving through various textual moments of the image ‘stone’. . .gives a fihe novelistic density,” but I am curious as to how such weaving makes for good science fiction (112)?

On another (soon-to-be-ralated) note, does the “problem of jealousy” sneak up on us, not through the “copulation triangle” of Shevek, Bedap and Takver but via Takver’s “uneasiness” about Shevek’s relationship to his work (120)? Before Takver’s “jealousy” is made known, we are presented with this intimate scene: “Gradually the sunlight entered, shifted across the papers on the table, across his hands on the papers, and filled the room with radiance. And he worked” (187). And while the gender-reversed parallel of Takver to Odo’s husband sharpens this note of jealousy, Le Guin’s description of the way Shevek and Odo relate to their work is much more interesting and, in my view, very much in the “spirit” science fiction: “The usage the creator spirit gives its vessels is rough, it wears them out, discards them, gets a new model” (188).

Do we think Le Guin’s use of images such as “vessel” and “model” work for science fiction? Do these images “call up something real and important about the ironies, cruelties, and frailties of the human machine?” (Delany 145). I hope so, because I want her to win a few more points.

If we have to live on Urras can I at least get an otter?

“In general, American SF has assumed a permanent hierarchy of superiors and inferiors,” writes Le Guin (“American SF” 210). I continue to be interested in the programmatic elisions of science fiction, the things it keeps inaccessible by design. This week, especially, I’ve been thinking about SF utopias (though, at this time I have not done more than skim the Jameson or the Delaney, and both I think will probably influence me here). A philosopher friend asked recently if we could come up with examples of utopias on TV/in movies—not utopias later revealed to be dystopias— for a class she is teaching. Some people argued that the Star Trek Federation is utopian (although there was plenty of dissent around that), as well as The Great British Bake Off and NYC in Sex and the City, but mostly it seems like we’re always hoping the utopia is revealed to be a big lie.
What is special about the utopianism of Le Guin’s Anarres, to me, is the way it enacts corrections in front of us, in a way that makes the world much more permeable. “One of the most significant potentialities of SF as a form,” writes Jameson, “is precisely this capacity to provide something like an experimental variation on our own empirical universe” (270). But there’s implicit hierarchical thinking built in to these experimental variations (that place is better than this). A book is always already a kind of utopia, a walled in closed system, one which excludes the reader. UKL’s world is permeable not just in the way it takes as its object a non-hierarchical world-system in a state of continual adjustment, but also in the way UKL disposes us notice elisions and exclusions in our art and literature (I’m thinking particularly about Shevek’s conversations with Salas, and Bedap’s description of Tirin’s experience around pp 171 in my edition, and the many places UKL talks about universities both on Annares and Urras). This invitation to challenge the text as we read it, as well as the many places where Annares works imperfectly, frustrates the ranking impulse, and the exclusionary thinking that comes with utopian dreaming.

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.↩︎

Galaxy + Gravy = maturity

The editorial materials in Galaxy strategically position the magazine in relation to other SF magazines/publishers and interpellate/define their readership. In the first issue (Oct 1950), the editor’s note, “for adults only,” interpellates an exclusively “mature” readership (2). This performance/proof of “fanciness” extends to a discussion of the materiality of the magazine itself: it “is dressed in Champion Kromekote, an expensive and unusual coated paper” (3). The ads differ from the “get-rich-quick” variety; here, they are advertising contests and further reading that would encourage continued engagement/belonging with(in) Galaxy. SF stories are only rarely interrupted (if it is an interruption at all) by notices for “a genuine science fiction contest” (60). The first issue advertises “new books by leading science fiction writers” (139) and the back cover reminds us of where Galaxy and the leading, authentic, mature mode of SF it represents stand in relation to other SF, the kind that “you’ll never see…in Galaxy!” (164). There’s a consistent effort to establish Galaxy as a “mature,” “genuine,” “advanced” incarnation of the genre, apart from other SF spaces/communities/publications.

How might the editorial framing of Gravy Planet amidst all of these status-claiming gestures be read in relation to the text’s own class/economic politics? In the July 1952 issue, the inside cover offers a self-description of Galaxy as “the aristocrat of science fiction magazines.” The blurb immediately preceding the second installation of Gravy Planet whets our mature readerly appetite: “A displaced person in a Utopia is worse off than in any other society…especially if he happened to help build it!” (108). Gold, in the issue’s editorial intro, again frames the story as Utopian: “the ideal society for an entrepreneur, as in Gravy Planet, is obviously not the same as that of a socialist or a hobo” (2). How do the glossiness and the correlating seriousness/legitimacy/value of Galaxy mesh with the allegory/satire/critique of advertising/Sales in the text? How might we isolate or consider those dispositions (allegory, satire, critique, etc.) as lenses for encountering the text, depending on where the SF “maturity” needle lands? 


At Boskone 28, which took place February 1991 in Springfield, Massachusetts, a panel convened to look back over “The Best SF and Fantasy of the 1980s.” The report on the panel notes that “authors considered to have “re-flowered” in 1980s were Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, and Frederik Pohl.” However, “Feeley,” one of the panel experts, “took exception to the latter, saying that Pohl had done twenty books in the 1980s, two each year like clockwork, but none of them achieved the greatness of his earlier works.”

I’m interested in the understanding of evaluation that runs through this statement. This is quality over quantity: maybe obvious, but a resurgence isn’t just an avalanche of titles. I want to tie this to another tidbit I found in a con report, this one from Readercon 9 in 1997. Apparently “GALAXY magazine ran a contest for the best amateur writer, but got nothing of value so awarded the prize to Fred Pohl and Lester Del Rey who wrote as a team under a pen name.” While I’m not clear on the timeline here, I didn’t want to leave out this helpful glimpse into the world of evaluation that runs from from magazines to publishers to conventions.

If Pohl wrote great books that got worse, the greatness of The Space Merchants was in fact highlighted in the mid 80s with its inclusion in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The Best 100 Novels. Reprinted at least three times in the 80s and twice more since, Pringle’s book seems like it could be a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to Pohl’s “resurgence.” Worth noting, however, that I couldn’t find information on isfdb to say exactly what what the Pringle might have done for reprints of the novel, except that the first St. Martin’s edition—still the publisher today—put out their house’s first and significantly-up-in-price edition of the novel around the same time Pringle’s book was published.







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.

Just 10¢ a Day Will Buy You an Understanding of SF Circulation

“It pays to read advertising,” some advertiser in Science and Invention claims, “it will save you time, money and effort. It will help you dress better, eat better, and live better” (404). Alongside stories of “scientifiction” and within the context of American technocratizing, here we find a mechanization of the magazine’s reader. With the help of industrialized corporations, you too can become your most fashionable, healthy, and fabulous self.

Though the language of this advert is not strictly in the genre of “self-help populism… met up with Mechanism,” the accompanying adverts that (over-)populate the pages of Science and Invention imply an automated self-improvement in the reader (Luckhurst 51). Throughout, adverts offer opportunities to “Master Electricity by Actual Practice,” “Be a Radio Expert,” and “Go to School at Home!” because “You Want to Earn Big Money!” (318, 406, 405). Oriented towards learning, these adverts offer a means to an end. Similar to America’s developing “mastery” of “recalcitrant Nature,” the engaged reader of Science and Invention likewise moves through standardized skill development to achieve a productive place in modern society (Luckhurst 51). Yet, at the same time as these adverts offer mastery of some skill, they claim how little effort is needed in the process. “I Will Train you at Home,” writes L.L. Cooke in an advert for electrician training, which is “Quick and Easy to Learn” (312). And the American Technical Society claims that “10¢ a Day will buy The Job You Want,” after submitting their “Self Betterment Coupon” (315).

These adverts (which iterate in Wonder Stories and Amazing Stories) characterize the interpolated SF pulp reader: he (and he is emphatically he) is ambitious and capable, busy—without time for extensive training—and intelligent—able to read through an eight-volume set of engineering guides (417). And he is also mechanized: exchanging minutes and cents for skills, promotions, and raises that all in some way relate to technological advancement. But does this imagined reader reflect reality? This week, as we think of circulation—here, focused on the interaction between a text and its audience—I would like to consider how the pervasive advertisement of the American SF pulp determines (or deters) its own readership.