Thanks to the Greeks, we can distinguish tragedy from comedy in drama. […] When we come to deal with such forms as the masque, opera, movie, ballet, puppet-play, mystery-play, morality, corn-media dell’arte, and Zauberspiel, we find ourselves in the position of Renaissance doctors who refused to treat syphilis because Galen said nothing about it.
1. A View from the Mountain: Taxonomy and a System
1.0. As Northrop Frye has rightly remarked, “just as there is nothing which the philosopher cannot consider philosophically, and nothing which the historian cannot consider historically, so the critic should be able to construct and dwell in a conceptual universe of his own.”1 For the purposes of constructing the universe of this discussion, I take it (1) that no field of studies and rational inquiry can be investigated unless and until it is at least roughly delimited; (2) that there exist literary genres, as socioaesthetic and not metaphysical entities; (3) that these entities have an inner life and logic of their own, which do not exclude but on the contrary presuppose a dialectical permeability to themes, attitudes, and paradigms from other literary genres, science, philosophy, and everyday socioeconomic life; (4) that the genres pertinent to this discussion are naturalistic fiction, fantasy, myth, folk tale, pastoral, and science fiction. I am assuming that these four axioms will be justified by their cognitive yield, by the light that they might throw upon the field of inquiry. Should this assumption prove justified, it would go a long way
- Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York, 1966), p. 12.
toward indicating that the basic and possibly central task of SF theory and criticism at this historical moment is the construction of a heuristic model or models for “Science Fiction” – which is also the hypothesis of this chapter.
A heuristic model is a theoretical structure based on analogy, which does not claim to be transcendentally or illusionistically “real” in the sense of mystically representing a palpable material entity, but whose use is scientifically and scholarly permissible, desirable, and necessary because of its practical results. An example might be the construct according to which the molecules of a gas behave like minuscule elastic billiard balls in random motion. Though very little may be known or indeed knowable about what gas molecules are “really” like, both at the time this construct was promulgated and now it was certain beyond reasonable doubt that they were not elastic billiard balls of a microscopic size. Yet this heuristic model was among the decisive factors in the development of the whole discipline of thermodynamics. It had immense theoretical and practical consequences, among others a giant step forward in human understanding of natural and perhaps even social processes. It seems therefore unnecessary to reopen the debates of the medieval nominalists and realists about the “real” existence of entities such as SF or any other genre; such debates hinge on a pseudoquestion. An acceptable heuristic model or set of models for a literary genre is as necessary for its understanding, for the setting up of standards pertaining to it, as the theory of ideal gases was for its time and discipline. In other words, however fragmented, laborious, or foolhardy this particular endeavor of mine might be, the critical community concerned with SF will have to evolve a theory of the genre which can serve as a framework for its history and criticism. Anyway, poets – including the poets among SF writers – have often reminded us that what the positivistic or philistine mentality considers foolhardy is, in Gorky’s words, “the wisdom of life.”
1.1 Conscious of the monsters and incubi lurking just beyond my path, and averting piously my eyes from the bleached bones of the pioneers fallen by its side, I proceed to recall my starting point, the identifications which I worked out for the aforementioned genres in the preceding chapter. I brought forward some arguments for their delimitation, which I shall here supply with further argumentation and subsume under the following taxonomic system:
Fiction is differentiated from other verbal structures by the presence of a fable, plot,or narrative,through which the writer endeavors to illuminate human relations to other people and the universe. (At this point the normal poetological distinctions of epic, dramatic, and lyric fiction could ensue, based on the different stresses in the relationship of the narrator and the characters or world of the fable, but such distinguishing does not fall within my scope in this book. I will assume it – as well as certain other distinctions, such as that between verse and prose – as given or at least as for practical purposes discernible in literary theory from Aristotle to Brecht, Frye, and Barthes, and in the literary practice which preceded the setting up of theories. My presentation has in mind at the moment epic prose – novels and stories – only, though for all I know the resulting heuristic model or models might have a wider scope.) Fiction, then, can be divided according to the manner in which men’s relationships to other men and their surroundings are illuminated. If this is accomplished by endeavoring faithfully to reproduce empirical textures and surfaces vouched for by human senses and common sense, I propose to call it naturalistic fiction. If, on the contrary, an endeavor is made to illuminate such relations by creating a radically or significantly different formal framework – a different space/time location or central figures for the fable, unverifiable by common sense – I propose to call it estranged fiction. The normative trend of fiction after Boccaccio and Shakespeare has been naturalistic in the above sense, though this does not at all hold true for earlier stages of literature in our civilization nor in other civilizations.
The world of naturalistic fiction has thus a straightforward relationship to the “zero world” of empirically verifiable properties around the author. The ideal of Tom Jones, The Red and the Black, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, The Idiot, Huckleberry Finn,or Intruder in the Dust is to create a significant statement about the human condition by holding a mirror to nature. In naturalistic fiction, as in the zero world, physics stands in no significant relation to ethics. It is the activity of the protagonists, interacting with other equally unprivileged figures, that determines the course of narration and outcome of fable. In naturalistic fiction, the basic rule is that man’s destiny is other humans and man-made institutions. In such a model, relating ethics to physics (Hollywoodian happy-end, say) signifies a descent into sentimentalism, into what is properly called sub-literature.
However, estranged fiction can quite legitimately postulate that circumstances around the hero – according to the basic “literary contract” making up a particular estranged genre – either are or are not passive and neutral. One, larger group of estranged literary genres, which embraces various kinds of myths and their later descendants – fantasy and folktale – is indeed defined by a contract inverse to that of naturalistic fiction: their world is actively oriented toward the hero. The folktale (Märchen,later fairy tale) world is oriented positively toward its protagonist; a folktale is defined by the hero’s triumph: magic weapons and helpers are, with the necessary narrative retardations, at his beck and call. Inversely, the fantasy world is oriented negatively toward its protagonist; a fantasy is defined by the hero’s horrible helplessness. Both fantasy and folktale derive from mythology: the folktale from the victorious-hero myth and the fantasy from the tragic myth. Thus, in the folktale and the fantasy, ethics coincides with physics – positive (hero-furthering) in the first case, and (hero-denying) in the second. In the tragic myth ethics compensates the physics; Oedipus, Osiris or Christ have to fail because of the empirical world they live in, but the failure is then ethically exalted and put to religious use, usually by postulating a metaphysical world beyond the empirical one in which the narrative finds its true, compensatory ending. Parallel to that, in the “optimistic” myth of Perseus, Saint George and other light-bearing heroes, ethics not only coincides with hero-furthering physics but also supplies a systematic cosmosociological framework to normalize the coincidence.
The literary genres in which physics is in some magical or religious way determined by ethics, instead of being neutral toward the hero or the total human population of the presented world, deny the autonomy of physics and can properly be called metaphysical. But not all estranged genres enter into such a contract with their reader. Notably, the pastoral and SF worlds offer no assurances as to the outcome of their protagonists’ endeavors. (Phenomena such as the sentimentalized Baroque pastoral or the “new maps of hell” of American SF represent particular, limited historical and ideological uses which do not necessarily flow out of the basic contract of the genre but are superadded to it.) Together with some prefigurations in the pastoral, SF is thus a metaempirical and non-naturalistic, that is, an estranged, literary genre which is not at the same time metaphysical. On the contrary, SF shares with naturalistic literature, naturalistic science, and naturalistic or materialist philosophy a common sophisticated, dialectical, and cognitive epistemé.
The genological system discussed above can be presented schematically by using the two parameters or binary oppositions of naturalistic/ estranged, and cognitive/noncognitive:
|“realistic” literature||SF (& pastoral)|
|sub-literature of “realism”||metaphysical: myth, folktale, fantasy|
1.2. In order to test the above taxonomy, let us introduce a new basic parameter of time and see whether the system can make sense of it. Naturalistic literature ranges through all empirical times. Though concentrating on the present, it has, parallel with the rise of historical sciences and dialectical philosophy, evolved the historical novel and drama, and it can even to some degree (admittedly not to the same degree as non-naturalistic literature) deal with the future in the form of hopes, fears, premonitions, and dreams, as in the psychological novel beginning with, say, Stendhal and Dostoevsky. Carelessness about precise time location or restriction to a one-dimensional point-consciousness in the present – both of which do not critically question prevailing anthropological modes of behavior – is the mark of the subliterature of mainstream “realism,” from Renaissance street-ballads to contemporary kitsch. The metaphysical genres shun historical time: myth is located above time, folktale in a conventional grammatical past which is really outside time, and fantasy in the hero’s abnormally disturbed, historiosophically dislocated present into which irrupts a “black” timelessness or another extrahistorical time. Inversely, SF shares the omnitemporal horizons of naturalistic literature, ranging through all possible times. Though concentrating on the cognitively plausible futures and their spatial equivalents, it can deal with the present and the past as special cases of a possible historical sequence seen from an estranged point of view – since any empirical historical point or flow can be thought of as one realization among practically innumerable possibilities. The scheme from 1.1. sub specie temporis would thus look like this:
|sub-literature of “realism”||myth, folktale, fantasy|
It is not surprising to anybody who has read Marx, Hegel, or Augustine of Hippo that naturalistic in the temporal sphere means historical. It is more interesting to note that temporal cognition is allied to a free movement back and forth in time. Myth in its timeless suffering or bliss, folktale in its world apart allied to the empirical world by a grammatical past, and fantasy as the present lifted out of time into black transcendency – all share the impossibility of such a humanizing movement. Out of their several shortcomings they have, as is known, made tremendous virtues; yet the limitations remain.
2. An Ecological Jungle Trip: Symbiosis, Parasitism, Mimicry, and Sundry
2.0. So far my analysis has been conducted on a level which, no doubt, was abstracted from actual historical literary genres but one which endeavored to treat them as ideal types or pure heuristic models. In actuality, a particular work, literary opus, trend, or school is almost never entirely pure. Literary genres exist in historically precise and curious ecological units, interacting and intermixing, imitating and cannibalizing each other. To understand what one really has in mind when talking about SF, it is necessary to continue the analysis on the level of actual happenings in the noncanonic literature or paraliterature of this century. Only such a path, descending from the clear mountain sights and its wide horizons into the luxuriant and steamy jungle of literary genres, and supplementing an aerial survey with actual botanizing in the field, has a chance of leading to useful results.
2.1. The relationship of SF to naturalistic literature, usually to the species of adventure-journey,is by now relatively clear and can be dealt with briefly. It is a relationship of filiation, best evidenced in the work of Jules Verne: SF has historically had one of its roots in the compost heap of such juvenile or popular subliterature, and in order to develop properly it has had to subsume and outgrow it – the quicker the better for its generic affirmation. It found congenial or congeneric elements in the cognitive and marvelous bias of the voyage extraordinaire and its catalogues of wonders seen along Ulysses’ or Captain Nemo’s way. The sea haunts this filiation, the island story is its microparadigm or root situation, and locomotion the connecting thread of its narration. All the marvelous interstellar SF voyages and quests in Heinlein, Blish, Van Vogt, and a thousand others, the Nietzschean, Columbian, or Sindbadian poetry of navigation – navigare necesse, vivere non necesse – belong here. Such voyaging is an honorable, though in retrospect one can scarcely fail to note that it is an initial (and for the reader initiatory), function of SF. It acts much in the way that a true long voyage does in the zero world, dialytically – estranging the reader from familiar and usually contemptible shores, dissolving his umbilical connections with old and firm earth (or Earth), preparing him to accept the marvelous beyond seven seas or galaxies. When unduly prolonged, this adolescence of SF means arrested development. It should be kept in its proper humbly useful place in the ontogenetic development of the reader as well as in the phylogenetic development of the genre.
In close proximity to the didactic aspect of the journey is the popular science compost heap which can be found next to the adventure-journey heap in the early phylogenetic stages of SF from technologically developed countries. Verne used both, adding a dash of puzzle in the manner of Poe and a barrelful of Saint-Simonian romanticism. Unalloyed, or alloyed with the baser metal of subliterary conflict and sentiment, this leads no further than to a primitive technological or at best technocratic extrapolation, as evidenced in Bacon’s New Atlantis,then in Gernsback and the “SF reservation” between the two world wars. A hybrid results that is neither good fiction nor interesting science; it is dislodged the first time the shapers of public and publishing opinion happen to read Wells – or, indeed, a good straightforward essay of scientific popularization, which has from the time of Friedrich Engels and Thomas Huxley been immeasurably more exciting and less reactionary than Ralph 124C 41+. Of course, it usually takes those shapers a generation or two to acquire the necessary taste in reading. In the meantime, the Gernsbacks keep SF alive at the cost of starving, stunting, and deforming it; comparing The Iron Heel with the output in the United States between the World Wars, one strongly suspects the cost is too high.
2.2. In 2.1. it was discussed how older paradigms of marvelous voyage, popular science essay, and individualist subliterature (the Western and the sentimental story) interfere with the formation of an autonomous SF paradigm or model if their grip is not loosened quickly. Unfortunately, a majority of what is published as SF is still in that prenatal or, better, regression-to-womb stage: it is simply the Western or some kindred sub-literary species masquerading its structures – generally for venal and ideological reasons – under the externals of SF: rockets, ray-guns, monsters, or in the last dozen years their slightly more sophisticated equivalents. Usually the symbiosis of popular science and juvenile adventure finds it impossible to mimic SF without regressing into their homologue of the fairy tale,with its victorious hero, foiled villain, damsel in distress, and quaint helpers or marvelous helping objects. Such sub-Vernean or Gernsbackian SF does not change the fairy tale structure but only the motivation of its devices: it pretends to explain away the supernatural by reassigning it to natural science and noble scientists (who are energetic and sentimental if young and in love with, absent-minded if old and fathers of, the eternal feminine). However, the science is treated as a metaphysical and not physical, supernatural and not natural activity, as gobbledygook instead of rational procedure. From Ralph, Buck Rogers, and the post-Stapledonian supermen to Asimov’s psychohistory (which has at least the advantage of identifying the proper field of modern destiny, social relations), such metaphysical gobbledygook vitiates some of the best-known SF works. Neither cognitive nor magical but shamefacedly passing off a juvenile idea of magic for cognition, equating the photon rocket with the flying carpet and global social destinies with the victory of the third son, such a mimicry is like the newly fashionable pop wines: a hyping-up of the old grape juice into the new wine. In the perfectly just world of taste and poetic creativity, this procedure reaps the reward of hypocrisy: fairy tale readers rightly prefer the classics, sophisticated SF readers disbelieve the fairy tale. Inversely, in the very imperfectly retributive world of social taste and commercial SF, such a procedure breeds generations of readers with juvenile taste, unable to develop the standards by which to judge SF (not to mention empirical human relations).
2.3. The more ambitious reader and writer cannot for long be satisfied with such pap. Yet trying to find a fresh tack in the cruel world of instant obsolescence, SF often veers from Scylla to Charybdis. A further step down into pseudo-sophistication – correlative, no doubt, to a marked decadence of cultural taste in bourgeois society and its literary markets – is the parasitism of Gothic, horror, and weird fantasy upon SF. Such fantasy is characterized, as I have said, by the irruption of an anti-cognitive world into the world of empirical cognition. One can understand some readers’ panic flight from a science which produces nuclear bombs, napalm, and nerve gases, from a reason which justifies class societies in mutual balances of terror, condemning two-thirds of the world to hunger and disease, and the remaining third – “hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère” – to the boredom of a nine-to-five drudgery relieved by flashes of TV commercials. Maybe such readers ought to have an escapist enclave of swordand-sorcery or Cthulhu cosmologies – I cannot say. But surely SF, built upon the premise that nature is neither a childishly wicked stepmother (“As flies to wanton boys are we to gods / They kill us for their sport”) nor inscrutably alien to man – surely SF cannot allow its contract with the reader to be contaminated by the Great Pumpkin antics of fantasy. Even more perniciously than is the case with the bland fairy tale structure, the black ectoplasms of fantasy stifle SF completely. Its time shrinks to the point-consciousness of horror, gloom, and doom, its daydreams turn into an inchoate nightmare, and under the guise of cognition the ancient obscurantist enemy infiltrates its citadel. Fossilized fragments of reasoning are used to inculcate irrationality, and the social energy of readers is expended on Witches’ Sabbaths instead of focusing it on the causes for our alienating, murderous, and stultifying existences: the power structures holding back the hominization of the sapiens, the true demonology of war and market breeding pride and prejudice. At its best, in Swift and Cyrano, in Jack London and the dystopian “new maps of hell,” in Lucian and Wells, in the great utopians and Zamyatin, SF has with different degrees of precision, but with unerring precision of orientation, focused on these power structures, on such demonology. It is at its worst, at its most alienated and alienating, when it honors the parasitism and vampirism of fantasy.
2.4. There has also been a great deal of talk about affinities between SF and the mythological tale. Though also a story about supernatural events involving superhuman figures, as different from other metaphysical fiction (folktale and fantasy), the events and figures of this genre form a systematic whole, a mythological edifice of tales whose norms are supposed to have supertemporally (timelessly or continuously) determined man’s basic relations to man and nature. Obviously, all religious systems are in this sense mythological. On the contrary, plays and stories are neither myth nor ritual but fictional literature, although myths and rituals may underlie their forms, plots, and sometimes their characters. For example, Murray has convincingly shown that the forms of Attic tragedy derive from Dionysian sacrificial rituals, and Cornford has done an analogous job for Attic comedy.2 The Hellenic tragic characters derive primarily from Homer, but through
- Gilbert Murray, “Hamlet and Orestes,” in his The Classical Tradition of Poetry (New York, 1968), and “Excursus on the Ritual Forms preserved in Greek Tragedy,” in Jane Ellen Harrison, Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion – Themis (New York, 1966); F. M. Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy (Gloucester, MA, 1966). See also other anthropological works by the Cambridge School that, as far as literary studies are concerned, culminate in George Thomson’s elegant Aeschylus and Athens (New York, 1968).
him from other sacrificial rituals, which is why Homerian themes fitted so well into the mythic pattern of tragedy. Thus, fiction can be formally or morphologically analogous to myth, but it is not itself myth. It uses mythical morphemes for nonmythic and – except in folktale, fantasy, and subliterature – for anti-mythic ends. “Myth and literature are separate and autonomous entities, though any specific myth text can and should be considered as folk-literature.”3 However – and this is in itself highly important and largely justifies the attention that modern scholars have devoted to myth – bearing in mind the caveats and distinctions discussed earlier, it should be acknowledged that important aspects of literature (primarily, many basic and possibly most significant plots) are mythomorphic. What a writer like Faulkner or Kafka creates is not a myth but a personal fictional statement formally analogous to myth in a radically different and indeed incompatible cosmological or ideological context. In other words, a realistic parable such as The Bear or an SF parable such as The Metamorphosis,although it uses a mythological bestiary as well as the mythological pattern of trial and death with or without resurrection, is in its message and final impact very different from, often diametrically opposed to the religious myth expressing a collective static vision. Kafka and Faulkner are – they cannot but be – historical writers.
Obviously, SF will be as mythomorphic in some basic patterns as other fictional genres are. Beyond that, SF shares with myth the fictional estrangement, the “outer limits of desire” as Professor Frye aptly formulated it,4 and its formal closeness to myth will extend beyond plots to many characters and situations. But all attempts to transplant the metaphysical orientation of mythology and religion into SF, in a crudely overt way as in C.S. Lewis, Van Vogt, or Zelazny, or in more covert ways in very many others, will result only in private pseudomyths, in fragmentary fantasies or fairy tales.5 As I mentioned in my first chapter, myth absolutizes and even
- Stanley Edgar Hyman, “The Ritual View of Myth and the Mythic,” in Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Myth (Bloomington, 1970), p. 151.
- Frye, p. 136.
- See Harry Levin, “Some Meanings of Myth,” in Henry A. Murray, ed., Myth and Mythmaking (Boston, 1969), pp. 111–12.
personifies apparently constant motifs from periods with sluggish social dynamics, and claims to explain the eternal essence of phenomena. On the contrary, SF claims to organize variable spatiotemporal, biological, social, and other characteristics and constellations into specific fictional worlds and figures. Mathematically speaking, myth is oriented toward constants and SF toward variables.
On a different level of fictional structuring, however, is the treatment of religious beliefs or mythic situations as historical material. When such mythic elements are – by transposition, as it were, into the demystifying key of SF – extracted from a mythological paradigm and fitted into an SF one, what results is perfectly legitimate, often first-class SF. As always, the critic will in any particular instance have to rely on his literary tact and sense of measure to pierce this intricate double mimicry and parasitism, to decide with which type of interaction between SF and myth he is faced. To mention only two favorites of mine, Stapledon and Walter Miller, Jr., I believe that at a certain point (say in The Flames) Stapledon crosses the divide into pseudomyth, that is, into fantasy, and that Miller does the same at the resolution of A Canticle for Leibowitz with the character of Mrs. Grales. At such points the ideological attraction to myth as world view and not as formal pattern got the best of the SF writer.
3. To Greener Fields and Pastures New: The Extrapolative and the Analogical Models of SF
3.0. I would like now to try emerging from the jungle into the cultivated territory of selected SF, and analyze what look to be its two main species or models, the extrapolative and the analogical one.
3.1. SF written from, say, the period of the French Revolution on (though not necessarily in preceding epochs) has come to be considered as starting from certain cognitive hypotheses and ideas incarnated in the fictional framework and nucleus of the tale. This extrapolative model – of Mercier’s L’An 2440,London’s Iron Heel,Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes and Men Like Gods,Zamyatin’s We,Stapledon’s Last and First Men,Yefremov’s Andromeda,Pohl and Kornbluth’s Space Merchants,or Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit – seems based on direct, temporal extrapolation andcentered on sociological (that is, utopian and anti-utopian) modeling. This is where the great majority of the “new maps of hell” is taken to belong for which postwar SF is justly famous, in all its manifold combinations of sociotechnological scientific cognition and social oppression (global catastrophes, cybernetics, dictatorships).
Yet already in Wells’s Time Machine and in Stapledon, this extrapolating transcended the sociological spectrum (from everyday practice through economics to erotics) and spilled into “billion-year” biology and cosmology. The ensuing radical estrangements can, no doubt, be anticipated in a chronological future, but they cannot, scientifically speaking, be extrapolated. By this token, futuristic anticipation reveals that extrapolating is a fictional device and ideological horizon rather than the basis for a cognitive model. It is thus dubious – as will be discussed further in chapter 4 – that significant SF could be simply extrapolation. Nonetheless, whatever its ostensible location (future, “fourth dimension,” other planets, alternate universes), the self-understanding of much SF – as shown in the historical section of this book – was uneasily futurological. Being written in a historical epoch dominated by anticipatory expectations, this SF demanded to be judged by the “scientific” import of the tale’s premises and the consistency with which such premises (usually one or very few in number) were narratively developed to their logical end, to a “scientifically valid” conclusion.
SF could thus be used as a handmaiden of futurological foresight in technology, ecology, sociology, and so on. Whereas this may at times have been a legitimate secondary function the genre could be made to bear, any forgetfulness of its strict secondariness leads to confusion and indeed danger. Ontologically, art is not pragmatic truth nor is fiction fact. To expect from SF more than a stimulus for independent thinking, more than a system of stylized narrative devices understandable only in their mutual relationships within a fictional whole and not as isolated realities, leads insensibly to the demand for scientific accuracy in the extrapolated realia. Editors and publishers of such “hard” persuasion, from U.S. pulp magazines to the Soviet Agitprop, have been inclined to depress the handmaiden of SF into the slavey of the reigning theology of the day (technocratic, psionic, utopian, catastrophic, or whatever). Yet this fundamentally subversive genre languishes in straitjackets more quickly than most others, responding with atrophy, escapism, or both. Laying no claim to prophecies except for its statistically probable share, SF should not be treated as a prophet: it should neither be enthroned when apparently successful nor beheaded when apparently unsuccessful. As Plato found out in the court of Dionysius and Hythloday at Cardinal Morton’s, SF figures better devote themselves to their own literary republics, which, to be sure, lead back – but in their own way – to the Republic of Man. SF is finally concerned with the tensions between Civitas Dei and Civitas Terrena,and it cannot be uncritically committed to any momentary city.
3.2. The analogic model of SF is based on analogy rather than extrapolation. Its figures may but do not have to be anthropomorphic or its localities geomorphic. The objects, figures, and up to a point the relationships from which this indirectly modeled world starts can be quite fantastic (in the sense of empirically unverifiable) as long as they are logically, philosophically, and mutually consistent. The analytic model can thus comprehend the extrapolative one, but it is not bound to the extrapolative horizon.
The lowest form of analogic modeling is that in which an extrapolation backwards is in fact a crude analogy to the past of the Earth, from geological through biological to ethnological and historical. The worlds more or less openly modeled on the Carboniferous Age, on tribal prehistory, on barbaric and feudal empires – in fact modeled on handbooks of geology and anthropology, on Spengler’s Decline of the West and Dumas père’s Three Musketeers – are unfortunately abundant in the foothills of SF. Some of this may be useful adolescent leisure reading, which one should not begrudge; however, the uneasy coexistence of such worlds with a superscience, which is supposed to provide an SF alibi, largely or wholly destroys the story’s cognitive credibility. The E.R. Burroughs-to-Asimov space opera, cropping up in almost all U.S. writers right down to Samuel Delany, belongs to the uneasy territory between inferior SF and non-SF – to forms that, as I argued earlier, mimic SF scenery but are modeled on the structures of the Western and other avatars of fairy tale and fantasy.
The purest form of analogic modeling would be the analogy to a mathematical model, such as the fairly primary one explicated in Abbott’s Flatland,as well as the ontological analogies found in a compressed overview form in some stories by Borges and Lem. A somewhat more humane narration with a suffering protagonist is to be found in, say, Čapek’s Krakatit or Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness,and even more clearly in Kafka’s Metamorphosis or In the Penal Colony and Lem’s Solaris. Such highly sophisticated philosophico-anthropological analogies are today perhaps the most significant region of SF, indistinguishable in quality from other superior contemporary writing. Situated between Borges and the upper reaches into which shade the best utopias, anti-utopias, and satires, this semantic field is a modern variant of the “conte philosophique” of the eighteenth century. Similar to Swift, Voltaire, or Diderot, these modern parables fuse new visions of the world with an applicability – usually satirical and grotesque – to the shortcomings of our workaday world. Departing from the older rationalism, a modern parable must be open-ended by analogy to modern cosmology, epistemology, and philosophy of science.6
The analogic model of SF falls, however, clearly within cognitive horizons insofar as its conclusions or import is concerned. The cognition gained may not be immediately applicable, it may be simply the enabling of the mind to receive new wavelengths, but it eventually contributes to the understanding of the most mundane matters. This is testified by the works of Kafka and Twain, Rosny and Anatole France, as well as of the best of Wells and the “SF reservation” writers.
6 I have attempted to analyze some representative examples of such modern SF parables in chapters 10 and 12 of this book, à propos of Wells’s Time Machine and Čapek’s War With the Newts,in my afterword to Stanisław Lem, Solaris (New York, 1971 and 1976), enlarged into a parallel to US and Russian examples in “Stanisław Lem und das mitteleuropäische soziale Bewußtsein der Science-fiction,” in Werner Berthel, ed., Stanisław Lem – Der dialektische Weise aus Kraków (Insel Almanach auf das Jahr 1976) (Frankfurt a. M., 1976); and in essays on Philip K. Dick and Ursula K.
Le Guin, reprinted in Mullen and Suvin, eds. (see Bibliography I).
4. The Jungle Explorer: Medicine Man or Darwinist
4.0. Thus far I have not explicitly referred to the theory and practice of SF criticism, since it is impossible to discuss an intellectual activity before its field has been determined. The field of SF criticism is SF, and this truism becomes significant when we pause to consider how little agreement there is about the basic parameters of SF. Having discussed them, in the remainder of this chapter I would like to essay some remarks on SF criticism. They will have to be as disjointed, tentative, and unsystematic as that criticism, since the basic lesson one can draw from the history of literary criticism is that it is difficult for criticism to be more significant than the works it criticizes.
4.1. Beyond the necessary but subsidiary critical activity of reviewing and chronicling, it seems that the most fashionable critical approach to SF is that of mythical analysis. In order to comment upon it, I shall have to try to disentangle the main meanings of this protean and tantalizing term.
Few writers considering myth in the last third of a century have failed to lament the divergent and indeed incompatible meanings given to this term in different professional and ideological fields of discourse. Though everyone – including myself – has to try to group these meanings for purposes of an overview, it is sometimes difficult to escape the conclusion of a philologist that there are as many interpretations of myth as there are critics. In ethnology “myth” is indistinguishable from “legend” or “folklore.” Cultural historians “employ ‘myth’ with the quite separate meaning of a popularly accepted cluster of images.”7 The term can also be loosely used to mean “tale, fantasy, mass delusion, popular belief and illusion, and plain lie”; an essay as early as 1947 reduced this confusion of tongues to the absurd by adopting the title of “The Modern Myth of the Modern Myth.”8
But, cutting a long story short, it seems to me that the literary theoretician
- Richard M. Dorson, “Theories of Myth and the Folklorist,” in Murray, ed., p. 84.
- First quotation from Hyman, in Sebeok, ed., p. 153; see also, for a psychologist’s attack on loose definitions of myth, Henry A. Murray, “The Possible Nature of a
has presently to deal with three principal views of the field: that of Cassirer and his followers, that of literary scholars who consider all literature to be some kind of myth – a view most ably and influentially formulated by Northrop Frye – and that of a third group which would insist, as I argued earlier (see note 2), that literary artifacts are not myths and yet that many of them are significantly marked by genetic and morphological connections with myths.
4.1.1. Cassirer treats myth as a kind of symbolic vision correlative to the mythopoeic mode of consciousness, “mythopoeia” meaning the world view and forms of expression characteristic of a hypothetical early stage of culture “when language is still largely ritualistic and prelogical in character.” In this view, myth “is simply a basic way of envisaging experience and carries no necessary connotation of storytelling.”9 Rather, all creative, poetic, metaphoric thinking is “mythical.” To this it must be briefly objected that metaphor is feasible only when some cognitively defined terms with fixed meanings are available as points of comparison, and that as far as literature is concerned poetic metaphor and language begin exactly where mythology ends. In the best mythical fashion, if poetry springs from the mother-soil of mythology, it does so only by spurning or destroying its parent. Finally, if everything (including science, philosophy, the arts, and all other aspects and motives of social practice) is myth or mythopoeia, if in myth, as Cassirer says, “everything may be turned into everything,”10 then this term loses all usefulness for distinguishing literature from anything else, let alone for any distinctions within literature itself. Historically hypothetical, philosophically idealistic, and aesthetically useless, Cassirer’s hypothesis for all its influences in the American cultural climate after World War II (for example, Susanne Langer) cannot contribute to our present needs.
‘Mythology’ to Come,” in Murray, ed., p. 303. The second quotation is the title of Donald A. Stauffer’s essay in English Institute Essays 1947 (New York, 1948).
- P [hilip] W [heelwright], “Myth,” in Alex Preminger, ed., Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, 1965), pp. 538–39; see Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven, 1962) and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms,vol. 2 (New Haven, 1955).
- Cassirer, Essay,p. 81.
4.1.2. At the opposite extreme – but les extrèmes se rejoignent – is the position which preserves the autonomy of literary studies but affirms that myth is story and any story is myth. It possesses a heroic paradigm in Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Though mentioning the secondary sense of myth as “untruth,”11 and of “myth in the narrower and more technical sense” as stories about “divine or quasi-divine beings and powers,”12 and then discussing a mythical phase or context of literary art which is primarily concerned with “poetry as the focus of a community,”13 Frye concentrates on a Cassirerian “mythical view of literature” which leads “to the conception of an order of nature as a whole being imitated by a corresponding order of words.”14 This is based on his belief, explicated in the section subtitled “Theory of Myths,” that “in myth we see the structural principles of literature isolated.”15 If structural principles are to mean isolatable formal narrative patterns, this is acceptable as a basis of discussion subject to historical verification. However, if they are also meant to subsume the motivation of a literary work, what the Theory of Literature calls “the inner structure of psychological, social, or philosophical theory of why men behave as they do – some theory of causation, ultimately,”16 then I do not see how myth can contain the structural principles of all literature or be the “total creative act” which could account for all basic components of the final impact or message of all literary modes and genres.
In other words, among many brilliant insights in Anatomy of Criticism there is one about mythical patterns not only being formally analogous to basic patterns in other literary modes – which one would a priori expect in the imaginative products of the same human species – but also being more clearly identifiable in supernatural stories “at the limits of desire”17 than
- Frye, p. 75.
- Frye, p. 116; see also, on “the mythical or theogonic mode,” pp. 120, 33–36, et passim. 13 Frye, p. 99; see the whole section, pp. 95–99.
- Frye, p. 118.
- Frye, p. 136.
- René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (Harmondsworth, 1973), p. 207 et passim.
- Frye, p. 134.
in stories cluttered with surface naturalism. However, there is an essential difference between this and treating the fourfold seasonal mythos of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter as the basic organization of all literature and indeed all verbal structures imaginable, including science and history.18 Here the formal similarity has been left behind, and literature has (by way of a semantically redefined mythos) been identified to myth tout court,since its original meaning of superhuman story has not been abandoned.19 Unfortunately, this is the most easily vulgarized and therefore possibly the best-known part of Frye’s book. Logically, literature and verbal structures in general are finally reduced to a central unifying myth, adumbrated in Milton and Dante but fully manifest in the Bible, which is a “definitive” myth.20 All writing, one might therefore expect, has in the past aspired to and will in the future be confined to variations on smaller or larger bits of the Christian myth of salvation. Obviously such a conclusion will finally be shared only by those who acknowledge the hegemony of a cyclical theory of history and a closed cosmology – that is, by anti-utopians. Therefore, this brilliant work can persuade us that much literature is morphologically informed by patterns which we might perhaps call mythical. However, “mythical” then proves to be simply shorthand for “basic narrative patterns which are seen at their clearest in some myths.”
4.1.3. For, when we have rendered unto myth what is of the myth, we must recognize that finally, for a cognitive pursuit such as literary theory and criticism, myth as an instrument is fairly limited. Philosophically, myth is an evasion of precise distinctions and of full intellectual commitment: a myth is not true or false but believable or unbelievable, vital or dead. On its own grounds it is irrefutable, for as soon as it is queried as to its truth it is not treated as myth but as historical cognition or formal hypothesis. In other words, it seems to me that Frye has rendered a signal service to poetics by his formal hypothesis, but I find myself unpersuaded by his
- Frye, p. 341 et passim.
- Frye: redefining mythos,pp. 134–40 and 158 ff.; retaining the meaning of superhuman tale, e.g., p. 317.
- Frye, pp. 120–21; also p. 315, 325 et passim.
historical premises and his semantical gliding between myth as a historical genre, mythos as a formal paradigm, and both of them as a “structural principle or attitude.”21 I am unable to accept the conclusion that “in literary criticism, myth ultimately means mythos,a structural organizing principle of literary form,”22 which does not differentiate between the formal and structural functions of myth.
As distinct from Cassirer and the Cassirerian aspect of Frye, it seems to me that myth cannot constitute a useful theory of history in general, and artistic or literary history in particular. Myth is parascientific and sometimes prescientific in its interpretations of nature and society. Although some among its numerous configurations are statistically bound to become precursors of scientific ones, it is essentially an insufficiently critical human experience which, for all its ideological and artistic uses, cannot be dignified as anything more than a first significant step on the human way to a cognition of reality. Speaking of the myth’s “unity of feeling,” Cassirer rightly concludes that its pragmatic function is to promote social solidarity through feelings of cosmic sympathy at the time of social crisis.23 Myth embodies and sanctions authoritarian social norms and the basic institutions which determine the life of each member of a certain collective authority-structure. It is intrinsically – whatever its surface innovations in this age where every new car fashion is “revolutionary” – a conservative force, a guarantee of the status quo (say of the mass existence of private cars). In the forceful words of David Bidney:
To my mind, contemporary philosophers and theologians, as well as students of literature in general, who speak of the indispensable myth in the name of philosophy and religion, and anthropologists and sociologists who cynically approve of myth because of its pragmatic social function, are undermining faith in their own disciplines and are contributing unwittingly to the very degradation of man and his culture which they otherwise seriously deplore. Myth must be taken seriously as a cultural force but it must be taken seriously precisely in order that it may be gradually superseded in the interests of the advancement of truth and the
- Frye, p. 310.
- Frye, p. 341.
- Cassirer, Essay,pp. 79–84.
growth of human intelligence. Normative, critical, and scientific thought provides the only self-correcting means of combating the diffusion of myth, but it may do so only on condition that we retain a firm and uncompromising faith in the integrity of reason and in the transcultural validity of the scientific enterprise.24
Thus, the literary scholar and critic, building his autonomous and yet rational conceptual world, must honor myth, in the Frygian “narrow sense” of stories about superhuman beings, as both occasionally fetching folk poetry and a reservoir of literary forms. At the same time, the critic – and in particular the critic of SF – must, I believe, abandon the belief that he has done much more than his formal homework when he has identified Yefremov’s Andromeda as containing the myth of Perseus or Delany’s Einstein Intersection and Verne’s Chateau des Carpates as containing the myth of Orpheus. He is still left face to face with the basic questions of his trade, namely, is the myth or mytheme transmuted (1) into valid fiction; (2) into valid science fiction? “Mythical analysis” as a self-sufficient critical method collapses at this point; as an ideology it remains a contributing factor to the Babylonian confusion of tongues, a particularly lethal quicksand region on the path to SF.
4.2. Finally, it might be possible to sketch the basic premises of a significant criticism, history, and theory of this literary genre. From Edgar Allan Poe to Damon Knight and Stanisław Lem, including some notable work on the other subgenres from the utopias to Wells and some general approaches to literature by people awake to methodological interest, much spadework has been done. If one may speculate on some fundamental features or indeed axioms of such criticism, the first might be that the genre has to be and can be evaluated proceeding from its heights down, applying the standards gained by the analysis of its masterpieces. We find in SF, as we do in most other genres of fiction, that 80 to 90 per cent of the works in it are sheer confectionery. However, contrary to subliterature, the criteria for the insufficiency of most SF are to be found in the genre itself. This makes SF in principle, if not yet in practice, equivalent to any other “major” literary genre. The second axiom of SF criticism might be to demand of SF a level
- David Bidney, “Myth, Symbolism, and Truth,” in Sebeok, ed., p. 23.
of cognition higher than that of its average reader: the strange novelty is its raison d’être. As a minimum, we must demand from SF that it be wiser than the world it speaks to.
In other words, this is an educational literature, hopefully less deadening than most compulsory education in our split national and class societies, but irreversibly shaped by the pathos of preaching the good word of human curiosity, fear, and hope. Significant SF denies thus the “two-cultures gap” more efficiently than any other literary genre I know of. Even more importantly, it demands from the author and reader, teacher and critic, not merely specialized, quantified positivistic knowledge (scientia) but a social imagination whose quality of wisdom (sapientia) testifies to the maturity of his critical and creative thought. It demands – to conclude the botanical marvelous voyage of this chapter – that the critic be a Darwinist and not a medicine-man.