The icon of the wasteland in my favorite book of SF criticism
This 1979 book is a great accompaniment to the Library of America’s new science fiction volumes.The Known and the Unknown: The iconography of science fiction, Gary K. Wolfe: ”The icon of the wasteland”
What, then, are we to make of this body of holocaust literature, of tales in which civilization is suddenly ended by some outside agent and must attempt to rebuild?…
The answer, I think, is somewhat complex. One persistent theme in much science fiction is the theme of alienation: the alienation of humanity from an unknown universe, which must be overcome through appropriation of that universe into the known; the alienation of humanity from its own origins as a result of that appropriation and the technology required to accomplish it; the alienation of humanity from the very technological environments it has constructed in order to resolve its alienation from the universe. This dialectical cycle can be carried out through such images of transformation as the mutant or the rebel, figures who recur in force in the literature of the holocaust. But these images of transformation also affect the environment in which man lives: by moving outward from a potentially stagnant center, mankind continually transforms and redefines the antimonies of known and unknown and creates a new arena for its activity of appropriation until, in many science-fiction works, a point is reached where extrapolation merges into mysticism, and the only device of closure left is an eschatological one, where reason gives way to vision…
Where is the mainstream literature of the Atomic Age?
I am looking for first-rate literature from the 1950’s that proves Robert Heinlein wrong, literature that takes stock of the post-Hiroshima, technological culture that emerged in particularly in the U.S. in the 1950’s. Popular culture in the 50’s clearly acknowledged the arrival of the atomic age, when Einstein and Oppenheimer were household names and everything from advertising to consumer products to childbirth was now supposedly going to be guided by scientific principles.
As far as I can tell, the canonical great works of the late 40’s and 50’s completely ignore this. I’m a fan of William Gaddis, Flannery O’Connor, and Nabokov, among others, but none of the works of these authors seem able to rebut the charge against mainstream literature made by Robert Heinlein below. Such literature doesn’t necessarily need to engage in the science boosterism favored by Heinlein… I’d be happy to find even an ironic treatment.
[Reginald Bretnor] sees [science fiction] as a field of literature much broader than that most often termed “main-stream” literature—or “non-science fiction,” if you please—science fiction being that sort in which the author shows awareness of the nature and importance of the human activity known as the scientific method, shows equal awareness of the great body of human knowledge already collected through that activity, and takes into account in his stories the effects and possible future effects on human beings of scientific method and scientific fact…
In contrast to science fiction thus defined, non-science fiction—all other fiction including the most highly acclaimed “literary” novels—at most shows awareness of the by-products of scientific method already in existence. Non-science fiction admits the existence of the automobile, radar, polio vaccine, H-bombs, etc., but refuses to countenance starships and other such frivolities. That is to say, non-science fiction will concede that water is running down hill but refuses to admit that it might ever reach the bottom … or could ever be pumped up again. It is a static attitude, an assumption that what is now forever shall be.
The mythification of reason
Science fiction deliberately uses the terms and structures of scientific thought to create mythic patterns, and the belief that underlies these patterns is a belief not so much in supernatural beings as in the supernatural power of rationality itself.
Evidence of this gradual mythification of reason can be detected in embryonic form in some of the earliest direct precursors of modern science fiction… [E]even before Mary Shelley sent her eminently reasonable monster forth on the landscape, we see the supernatural universe giving way to the rational universe in the works of Ann Radcliffe, who, despite her carefully orchestrated interplay of immanent landscapes and shady characters - the full complement of Gothic trappings - was careful to provide rational explanations for the supernatural events in her narratives… The hideous unknown in her novels is always brought safely into the known, leaving us with a landscape infused not with chaotic powers that transcend human understanding, but only with the fears and apprehensions of the real characters who inhabit it. The marvelous made mechanical is also evidence in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus (1818)… Reason becomes the agent that unveils the unknown; the mystery - in this case the mystery of the creation of life - is revealed as susceptible to rational exegesis.
To an even greater extent, Edgar Allen Poe delighted in constructing wildly irrational situations and characters and then demonstrating to the reader the underlying logical or scientific sources of this construct.
- Gary K. Wolfe, The Known and the Unknown: the iconography of science fiction (1979), p. 6-7
A.E. van Vogt, Cosmic Jerrybuilder (and that’s not a compliment)
Damon Knight nails what’s wrong with A.E. van Vogt’s science fiction:
In general, van Vogt seems to me to fail consistently as a writer in these elementary ways:
1. His plots do not bear examination.
2. His choice of words and his sentence-structure are fumbling and insensitive.
3. He is unable either to visualize a scene or to make a character seem real.
By glib use of quotations, and, I think, still more by a canny avoidance of detailed exposition, van Vogt has managed to convey the impression that he has a solid scientific background. A moderately diligent search of his writings, however, will produce such astonishing exhibitions of ignorance…
…by means of his writing style, which is discursive and hard to follow, van Vogt also obscures his plot to such an extent that when it falls to pieces at the end, as it frequently does, the event passes without remark.
In Search of Wonder (Chicago, 1967), p. 60-61
The staying power of satire in 50’s science fiction
This really ought to be considered one of the 20th Century’s great opening lines in fiction:
As I dressed that morning I ran over in my mind the long list of statistics, evasions, and exaggerations that they would expect in my report.
- Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953), now out in a beautiful new Library of America edition.
This edition, along with the NYRB Classics volume of Robert Sheckley Stories demonstrates that the social satire of early 1950’s science fiction clearly has staying power.
Samuel Delany’s Temple of Literature, at The Big Other:
“If one tried to construct the Temple of Literature from only the fifty “pillars” below, it would collapse spectacularly. Nevertheless, here is a contingent group of titles that, to paraphrase Christopher Higgs, if I hadn’t read and reread over the years, I wouldn’t be myself. How much that is worth, I’m not sure.”
It’s a great list, but for me the list is not complete without Gravity’s Rainbow… although maybe for Delany that book is uncomfortably close to the outstanding Dhalgren, which was written at the same time. I’d also replace Fitzgerald with Joseph Conrad, and…
Sci-Fi Golden Age was really post-Campbell
Gary Wolfe on the Golden Age of science fiction:
It’s no surprise that Silverberg—whose own distinguished career as a science fiction writer began in the 1950s—should conclude that the 1950s was “the real Golden Age,” which saw “a spectacular outpouring of stories and novels that quickly surpassed both in quantity and quality the considerable achievement of the Campbellian golden age.” Not only was the short fiction of this era more diverse and ambitious than almost anything seen before, but for once it was realistic for a science fiction writer to think in terms of the extended, unified narrative that the novel as a form permitted.
Great stuff on sci-fi, marketing, and dystopias in The New Yorker:
It is a key element in literature ranging from science fiction to literary theory that as the barriers of individual consciousness degrade we absorb a kind of shared cultural consciousness full of corporate junk. In this version of dystopia, advertising becomes more pervasive, consumer culture supplants traditional culture, and language itself, from place names to common nouns, is subsumed by the things we buy and sell.
Much science fiction posits a future dominated by a de-facto corporate state, wherein traditional government is either totally absent or entirely subservient to the power of a single giant company. In such a scenario, all elements of public life become branded by the people in charge: the logo of the corporate state is stamped on every available surface, language is bent to reflect the new idea of omnipotent economic forces, and marketing, both conventional and based on new technologies, becomes the central agent of control exercised by the powerful over the masses. This vision appears in many genres: in the science-fiction writing of Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein, in comic books, in more sci-fi action films than you can name, and, perhaps most essentially, in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson.
And don’t forget, before Philip K. Dick and William Gibson were Kornbluth and Pohl with The Space Merchants