Thursday, October 4, 2012

Noted: Samuel R. Delany on sf and utopia

What follows is an essential passage from Samuel R. Delany's "Critical Methods/Speculative Fiction," originally published in 1971 in Quark/1, the first in a series of four anthologies edited by Delany and Marilyn Hacker. I quote it as it appears in the Wesleyan University Press edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction.

I will no doubt be referring back to this regularly. As is so often the case with Delany, brief but useful excerpt or summary is made impossible by the extended interweaving of his arguments, and so I present this section of the essay very nearly unelided so that those who wish can refer back to it when I allude to it in the future, so that all of its resonances can be cast over my own arguments. (I am not at all averse to this kind of stealing!)

The entire essay is valuable and provocative, tracing unexpected paths of influence on the formation of the genre,* discussing the mutability of "human nature," and setting forth the most explicit and full account of Delany's view that sf and poetry are very similar enterprises (another topic I surely will be revisiting). All three of these strands then lead into this extended consideration of sf's relationship to utopian literature, which concludes the piece.

*In the process I think unfairly demoting the importance of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, both of whom after all were regularly reprinted in early issues of Amazing; the then-available English translations of the latter in particular I think were probably vital to the formation of sf's early style as distinct from other pulp modes. I would say that, rather than Wells and Verne having had little influence on genre sf, they had a type of influence which was not what either of them would have expected, nor was it what most people claim it was.

The primary accomplishment of this passage is of course the liberation of sf criticism from utopian standards and history (a liberation which has only intermittently been recognized in the forty years since), which is key to a deeper understanding of the genre. And it is no contradiction to be fascinated, as I am, by the application of this passage to the astounding body of sf-influenced but nevertheless still utopian literature that began appearing in the second half of the twentieth century (many but not all of which came from the feminist movement): Delany's own Triton (aka Trouble on Triton), Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, the works of Mack Reynolds, Margaret Atwood's science fiction, many of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels, and so forth--all of which, despite their steadfastly utopian aspects, participate in the complex interplay Delany describes here and thus, in their very different ways, become something more than utopian literature.

Please apply [sic]s as necessary to examples of the "universal" man and he. Very soon after writing this essay Delany was to stop following that sexist practice.

...SF became able to reflect, focus, and diffract the relations between man and his universe, as it included other men, as it included all that man could create, all he could conceive.

Already, how much more potentially complex a template we have than the one left us by Victorian Utopian fiction. The Utopian fictions of Butler, Bellamy, Wells, as well as the later Huxley and Orwell, exhaust themselves by taking sides in the terribly limiting argument: "Regard this new society. You say it's good, but I say it's bad." Or, "You say it's bad, but I say it's good."

Auden has pointed out in his collection of essays The Dyer's Hand and then gone on to examine in his cycle of poems Horae Cononicae that this argument is essentially a split in temperaments...

There are, and always will be, those people who see hope in progress. Auden calls their perfect world New Jerusalem. In New Jerusalem hunger and disease have been abolished through science, man is free of drudgery and pain, and from it he can explore any aspect of the physical world in any way he wishes, assured that he has the power to best it should nature demand a contest. There are, and always will be, people who wish, in Auden's words, to return to Eden. He calls their perfect world Arcadia. In Arcadia, food is grown by individual farmers, and technology never progresses beyond what one man can make with his own hands. Man is at one with nature, who strengthens him for his explorations of the inner life; thus all that he creates will be in natural good taste; and good will and camaraderie govern his relation with his fellows.

To the man who yearns after Arcadia, any movement to establish New Jerusalem will always look like a step toward Brave New World, that mechanized, dehumanized, and standardized environment, where the gaudy and meretricious alternate with the insufferably dull; where, if physical hardship is reduced, it is at the price of the most humiliating spiritual brutalization.

In the same way, the man or woman who dreams of New Jerusalem sees any serious attempt to establish an Arcadia as a retreat to the Land of the Flies, that place of provincial ignorance, fear, disease, and death, where humans are prey to the untrammeled demons of our own superstitions as well as any caprice of nature: fire, flood, storm, or earthquake...

Modern SF has gone beyond this irreconcilable Utopian/Dystopian conflict to produce a more fruitful model against which to compare human development.

The SF writers working under [John W.] Campbell, and even more so with Horace Gold, began to cluster their new and wonderful objects into the same story, or novel. And whole new systems and syndromes of behavior began to emerge. Damon Knight, in In Search of Wonder, notes Charles Harness's The Paradox Man as the first really successful "reduplicated" novel--where an ordered sarabande of wonders refract and complement each other till they have produced a completely new world, in which the technological relation to ours is minimal. Now the writers began to explore these infinitely multiplicated worlds, filled with wondrous things, where the roads and the paintings moved, where religion took the place of government, and advertising took the place of religion, where travel could be instantaneous between anywhere and anywhere else, where the sky was metal, and women wore live goldfish in the heels of their shoes. Within these worlds, the impossible relieves the probable, and the possible illuminates the improbable. And the author's aim is neither to condemn nor to condone, but to explore both the worlds and their behaviors for the sake of the exploration, again an aim far closer to poetry than to any sociological brand of fiction.

As soon as the Wellsian parameters are put aside, far more protean ones emerge from modern SF almost at once:

In the most truly Utopian of New Jerusalems, sometime you will find yourself in front of an innocuous-looking door; go through it, and you will find yourself, aghast, before some remnant of the Land of the Flies; in the most dehumanized Brave New World, one evening as you wander through the dreary public park, sunset bronzing fallen leaves will momentarily usher you into the most marvelous autumn evening in Arcadia. Similarly, in either Arcadia or the Land of the Flies, plans can be begun for either Brave New World or New Jerusalem.

SF has been called a romantic and affirmative literature. J.G. Ballard has gone so far as to point out, quite justly, that the bulk of it is rendered trivial by its naively boundless optimism. But we do not judge the novel by the plethora of sloppy romances or boneheaded adventures that make up the statistically vast majority of examples; if we did, it might lead us to say the same of all areas of literature, novel, poetry, or drama; with no selection by merit, I'm afraid in a statistical listing, expressions of the vapidly happy far outnumber expressions of the tragic on whatever level. As any other area of art is judged by its finest examples, and not by the oceans of mediocrity that those high points rise above, so SF must be judged. There are threads of tragedy running through the works of Sturgeon and Bester (they can even be unraveled from Heinlein), not to mention Disch, Zelazny, and Russ, as well as Ballard's own tales of ruined worlds, decadent resortists, and the more recent fragmented visions of stasis and violence. And one would be hard-pressed to call the comic visions of Malzberg, Sladek, and Lafferty "naively optimistic."

If SF is affirmative, it is not through any obligatory happy ending, but rather through the breadth of vision it affords, through the complex interweave of these multiple visions of human origins and destinations. Certainly such breadth of vision does not abolish tragedy. But it does make a little rarer the particular needless tragedy that comes from a certain type of narrow-mindedness.

Academic SF criticism, fixed in the historical approach, wastes a great deal of time trying to approach modern SF in Utopian/Dystopian terms--works whose value is precisely in that they are a reaction to such one-sided thinking. It is much more fruitful if modern works are examined in terms of what they contain of all these mythic views of the world...

It is absurd to argue whether Asimov's Foundation series represents a Utopian or a Dystopian view of society; its theme is the way in which a group of interrelated societies, over a historical period, force each other at different times back and forth from Utopian to Dystopian phases.

In The Stars My Destination, the Jaunt Re-education program is clearly a product of New Jerusalem. Equally clearly, the Presteign Clan, with its four hundred ninety-seven surgically identical Mr. Prestos, is from Brave New World. And they exist side by side in the same work. Gully, though he has been uniformed by Brave New World, begins as an unformed lump of elemental violence, ignorance, and endurance from the Land of the Flies. Robin Wednesbury's home in the re-established forests of Greenbay, insulated from its neighbors, with her collection of books and records, exists in Arcadia. Gully/Caliban implodes into it with violence and rape; and Robin and Arcadia survive to both help and hinder him as the novel goes on. This sort of optimism, emblematically as it is handled, is far more true to life than the Victorian convention that equates "dishonor" with death...

Because all four visions are offered in the best modern SF, no single one is allowed to paralyze us with terror or lull us into muddle-headed euphoria.

In serious SF criticism that insists upon the thematic, I would like to see an examination of how all four of these visions sit in concert in given works. And I would like to see an end to the lauding (or dismissal) of works because they do (or do not) reflect only one.

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