Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The sfnal impulse and literary form, through time

Recently I happened to read, in a row, L. Timmel Duchamp's essay "For a Genealogy of Feminist SF: Reflections on Women, Feminism, and Science Fiction, 1818-1960" (available in The Grand Conversation and, under a different title, online) and Algis Budrys's essay "Paradise Charted" (available in Outposts: Literatures of Milieux). In their juxtaposition, a tangential notion that occurred to me while reading Duchamp's essay was reinforced in reading Budrys's. None of this is new, particularly, but after happening to read these two essays back to back it struck me with a renewed urgency:

That all the so-called "literary" features and structures, which should more properly be called novelistic, those forms of plot (rising action, climax, etc.) and character (interiority, psychological verisimilitude or whatever the given time period's equivalent, etc.) that lying English teachers and faux literary critics and crappy "how-to-write" manuals proclaim "universals" (typically with the claim that "Homer used them," which then just makes people hate Homer, trying as they do to read him for something that just isn't there), all these things are historically speaking peripheral to sf's nature.

This is true whether you subscribe to Budrys's narrative of (mostly male) sf's history or Duchamp's narrative of what she calls (feminist and other women's) sf's "genealogy." (I find both to be in their way essential; whether they need to be held simultaneously but separately in the mind in tension with one another or somehow synthesized I am not yet sure--I take the latter to be Duchamp's position, though I could be mistaking her.) I'll start with Budrys.

As he would have it, the thing we call sf (which he quaintly calls "stef"), though prefigured in the work of the usual 19th century suspects (Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne), really takes off with Hugo Gernsback and (eventually) Amazing Stories. This is a common enough story, but what distinguishes Budrys's telling of it is that he emphasizes the primacy of current technological fact to Gernsback's enterprise. Gernsback's publications started out as magazines of technological fact, articles about electrical engineering and so forth; he only started putting "fiction" in mostly as filler--which ended up being so popular as to spawn its own magazines. But even as it achieved primacy the point of the fiction was still to expound technological fact.

Budrys points out that this early Gernsbackian form of sf ("scientifiction," Gernsback's first attempt at a name) is

dependent for its attractions on a very short-lived condition--the eye blink in which technologies have been discovered but have not yet been institutionalized. Further, in order for scientifiction to offer any diversity at all, there is a requirement that several varying technologies arrive at this stage simultaneously.
That is to say, scientifiction writers turned for inspiration to technologies that dedicated technologists like themselves were aware of as cutting-edge, and extrapolated slightly to envision them as societally pervasive wonders--which many of them, according the fundamental needs of capitalist expansion (though Budrys does not mention capitalism), soon would become. As this "eye blink" does not leave much room for exploration, scientifiction quickly reached a crisis.

In the face of this crisis, it was for writers like E.E. Smith* and after him John W. Campbell to develop something new: "superscience fiction." As Budrys has it, they did this through two major changes to the "scientifiction" form: first, they expanded the range of technological speculation far beyond what was currently possible (envisioning travel to distant galaxies and so forth), and second, they grafted the story structures--the plots--of the pulp magazines onto what had previously been "stories" constructed out of individual explorations of a single technological conceit at a time, strung together "like beads, to the number desired." Budrys describes what Smith (and some lady), Campbell, and their followers did as not just an evolution or a tweak but a "radically new form"--after all, speculating that someday soon people might have this new television thing in their homes is one thing, while proposing that someday one might spend the afternoon in the Andromeda galaxy is a wholly other, not just larger, thing; and a pulp storyline in which one event is causally linked to the one before and after it is not an "improvement" on the sequence of discrete marvels but something else altogether.

*Who, Budrys says, "had rewritten a manuscript by a lady acquaintance and hit upon a new style." Budrys feels no need to go into any detail about this lady acquaintance or what her contribution to the Skylark series may have been. John Clute's entry on Smith in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia names her as "Mrs. Lee Hawkins Garby," and sardonically describes her as "a neighbor seconded to help with feminine matters such as dialogue" before never mentioning her again. No doubt fandom's historians know more about this than I do, but it's interesting how contradictory these two accounts of Garby's contributions manage to be in such little space. Make note of these passing, "insignificant" details.

Obviously these "innovations" were, like most, both for the better and for the worse; in the latter column, Budrys mentions the white supremacy, colonialism, and genocidal urges standard to this new form, as well as the naked flattering of the egos of underemployed engineers inherent to it; while in the former he makes the sweeping, but somewhat compelling, claim that the form opened up the field to the potential, if not immediately the achievement, of capital-a Art. But regardless of the pros and cons, something new had been born, and it is difficult to argue that much of what we have now is radically different from it. The speculation may (at times) have become better, more subtle, more interesting; the racial and (ahem) gender politics may (at times) have become less wholly distasteful; the population in need of ego stroking may have changed and (at times) become open to criticism; Art, whatever it is, may (at times) have been better achieved; and influences more "respectable" than the pulps may (frequently) have been brought to bear. But for the most part the form itself remains intact. This, again, is both for the better and for the worse; I would argue that somehow, however unlikely, through a combination of skill and lack of it, awareness and lack of it, choice and accident, art and economics, these early superscience writers (and their immediate followers, when Campbell became an editor and refined things enormously--say it again, for better and for worse) created a form with potential just as enormous as its limitations, and if the limitations have been struck up against far more often than the potential fruitfully explored, well, that's pretty much just life.

But the point is that, when Gernsbackian scientifiction reached a point of crisis, artists responded, for reasons at least as much historically and economically contingent as artistically, by grafting on aspects of pulp fiction's previously alien aesthetics.* And though the consequences of this historical moment are still with us, there was nothing inevitable or necessary to sf about the specifics of the changes (interestingly, Budrys tells us that during Campbell's years as an editor he "explicitly stated that producing stories was just one of the things you could do with [sfnal] ideas," though as an editor he of course focused on story-production). Indeed, I am quite certain that others, people whose names we will never know as we know Campbell's and Smith's (, responded to scientifiction's crisis in their own, wholly different ways--ways that may have been no less artistically essential, but which did not suit the exigencies of the market, the audience, the time, or even just the particular editors, and therefore never saw publication.** The nature of these responses will most likely be forever unknown. But their existence strikes me as being just as inarguable as the existence of life on planets in other solar systems, life that we are even less likely ever to become aware of but which nevertheless must exist.

*In talking about Gernsback's earliest magazines, Budrys goes so far as to say they were "mistaken" for pulps.
**Signs of a similar invisible revolution can be seen at the turn of the 50s in the immediacy with which the new magazines
Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy were able to fill their pages with a kind of sf that Campbell would never have published, at least not in quantity, but which people clearly must have been writing anyway.

The aptness of the segue may be illusory, but this seems a good time to switch gears and discuss Duchamp's essay, which deals heavily in literatures almost as invisible as my hypothetical alternate scientifictional revolution: I refer, of course, to feminist and other women's writing--their speculative writing in particular.

Duchamp's fundamental argument is that the history of women's science fiction has been marginalized and decontextualized by, respectively, "malestream" sf histories (such as Budrys's, though she does not refer to him) that relegate women's contributions to "one chapter or one section of a chapter" (or indeed a footnote!), and feminist critics who discuss women's sf in the context of other women's literatures but not in the context of the field in which it was produced, "with the effect of denying the particular terms and context of their production." "I find it telling," she writes,

that both malestream sf critics and feminist critics have been steadily creating--albeit for probably different reasons--what might be called a gynohistory for sf.... The effects of this approach have been, in the instance of the male critics, to restrict women to the status of token, honorary members of the clubhouse, and, in the instance of the feminist critics, to imply that the end products--the texts--have nothing to do with the clubhouse or their authors'--and often readers'--relations to the clubhouse.
This simple observation leads in the essay to an exceptionally subtle analysis, one which essentially tears down to rebuild our reasons for doing literary history, questioning all the assumptions that essays like Budrys's, fascinating and frequently revelatory as they can be, never even realize they are making. The implications are enormous, and the challenge to critics of both persuasions is intense.* If all goes well I plan soon to write in greater detail about the essay in a post I've long been wanting to write on the histories and pre-histories of sf and what they can say to us. For the moment, though, I want to refer to it for one specific point, one which Duchamp is not enormously interested in exploring in her essay but which intrigues me. Bear with me a moment while I get there.

*She names Justine Larbalestier as a critic who has managed to reach a "more interesting construction of the history of women in sf...which I would describe as an integrated approach that looks for women's presence in the clubhouse and the impact that presence has had in the clubhouse's history." Larbalestier: added to the reading list.

One of the central points in Duchamp's essay is that where standard literary historians speak of "influence" and "predecessors" and, indeed, "history," she finds it more useful and relevant to speak of "genealogies"* and a "conversation." In this context, she considers feminist sf in part as the most recent interlocutor in a "long, often disjunct conversation" that includes any number of works predating the emergence of what we now think of as sf, works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (which, refreshingly contra the delightfully unnamed Brian Aldiss, she explicitly says she has no interest in nominating the "first" sf novel), Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, and an isolated scene of markedly speculative conversation between women characters in Menie Muriel Dowie's decidedly non-sf novel Gallia. (This insistence on extra- and pre-sfnal dialogue may seem to contradict the above summarized observations about feminist sf's place in the field, but it actually sits quite comfortably alongside it in her analysis.)

*"Genealogy, in the sense that thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze use the word, is not interested in striking definitions or discovering origins but in retracing a way through discontinuities that convention--viz., whatever current story most people are repeating about the past in question--would see as set in stone."

As these examples indicate, her primary focus is on the 19th century, which we normally think of as a period of novelistic ossification; indeed, those of us who are for one reason or another skeptical of "the novel" as a form often speak witheringly of "the traditional 19th century novel." Duchamp argues persuasively against the received notion of the century in both literary and social terms, describing it as a "hotbed of revolutionary ideas and movements." I think both Duchamp's perspective and the one she's arguing against have their merits, but regardless, what struck me about the examples she gave was how very non-novelistic they are, despite their position in a supposedly naïvely novelistic era. Herland is of course a utopia, a genre decidedly different from the novel no matter how much we may speak of "the utopian novel," and while Frankenstein and Gallia are both novels, the aspects of them that Duchamp singles out as sfnal are precisely those that fundamentally trouble their status as novels: in Gallia it is a non-event, an unplotty pause in which characters speculate ("in a drawing room staring out the window watching the boys go by," a setpiece which I can only imagine has won the scene zero admirers among standard male critics) about possibilities wholly outside of the milieu in which the novel has placed itself, and in Frankenstein it is those elements which critics, even feminist critics, who insist on reading the book as "a Gothic novel" miss (or consider a muddled distraction): its didactic presentation of "a passionate argument pitting two approaches to science against one another--virtually the same argument one still encounters in the pages of academic feminist journals."

As I've said, Duchamp's focus is on the 19th century, but she does significantly mention one very much older work: Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies, a prose work predating the emergence of the novel form by a couple of centuries. It is interesting to me that she mentions it (in the context of non-existent communities that women who have felt isolated in patriarchal society have "invented...inside their own heads--or on the page" before, sometimes, managing to bring them into actual existence), because when I read it recently I was struck by a very sfnal feel to it, a sense that it was laboriously pulling the past into the future through the bottleneck of the present, that it was so interested in the past and its constructed metaphorical "city" (which as Duchamp indicates can be read as a utopia) because of the way these constructs make it impossible to accept the things of the present as givens. As I read I was unsure if I was feeling this way because it is a feminist work--for feminism is always speculative to some degree by its nature as a deeply radical stance--or because it is a medieval work, as I recalled Joanna Russ's and Darko Suvin's comments to the effect that sf is closer to medieval literatures than to any contemporary one (I am not nearly familiar enough with medieval literature to judge this for myself).

One thing that Duchamp's integration of Christine de Pisan and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (along with other feminist writers of utopias) into the genealogy of feminist sf does is to assert the relevance of the utopian tradition, or parts of it at any rate, to contemporary sf in a way that for me overcomes Samuel R. Delany's otherwise very damning objections to it. Or perhaps that's not quite right--because I do think Delany's objections still by and large stand: the traditional utopia is, compared to sf at the heights of its potential, a fundamentally limited form, and not one fruitfully to be compared with sf. The difference, though, is that I do not think he takes into account the complexity and sophistication of specifically feminist utopias, which are very different, on the most basic level, from men's utopias in that women as a class have never, at least in literate societies, been able to write with the position of assumed authority required to present the different but static societies typically presented by utopian literature.

Men who write about "ideal" societies can be written off as dreamers, as fascists, what have you, but it will always be a rejection of the content of the writing, not its existence. But women who do the same--indeed, women who write at all--have to justify themselves from the very beginning--and there is simply no way to avoid the fundamental objection that most men will have to their very participation in the exchange of ideas. As Miriam frustratedly observes (just before switching from Mendelssohn's pleasing Songs Without Words to a Beethoven sonata that will force her into gratifyingly "inelegant" positions at the piano) in The Tunnel, the fourth novel in Dorothy Miller Richardson's Pilgrimage, men

had each a set of notions and fought with each other about them, whenever they were together and not eating or drinking. If a woman opposed them they went mad. He would like one or two more Mendelssohns and then supper. And if she kept out of the conversation and listened and smiled a little, he would go away adoring.
Fighting with one another over their (our) sets of notions is something men expect of one another; but from women it is only to be Mendelssohns and supper and listening and smiling. For a woman to do anything else requires either a promise to be wholly unthreatening (which returns her to the world of listening and smiling) or a vehement assertion, from the very beginning, of her authority. This assertion takes many different forms: for example, I suspect that this is one reason for Shelley's constant citations to Milton, Dante, her male contemporaries, and especially the Greeks (whose language she had to teach herself) in Frankenstein and even more markedly in the astonishing Mathilda.

This altogether more precarious sense of one's own authority, one's own position in one's society, I would argue is one factor that contributes to a much more complex utopian tradition than the "malestream" one, as women's utopias simply have to be more complex to survive the onslaught (not to mention, of course, that women's position in society tends to give many a more nuanced understanding of that society's function than is given to men). Duchamp discusses a work of 1870 by Annie Denton Cridge, called "Men's Rights; or, How Would You Like It?", which she describes as "a depiction of a sex-role-reversal society," but one which "mixes utopian conventions with the sort of detail one expects to find in science fiction." To me the most intriguing of these details is that Cridge's utopia is dynamic, that is to say, it changes--in some ways comes to be--in the course of its description:

Her first view of the sex-role-reversal society shows men as downtrodden household drudgers...but the scene soon changes, with technological advances and social restructuring lifting the heaviest of the men's burdens, reflecting Cridge's conviction that technology could make a fundamental contribution to women's emancipation.
Skeptical of this conviction as one might be, there is no doubt that such a dynamic utopia is in marked contrast to the traditional male utopia, one of whose primary hallmarks is precisely that it is static. And it is easy to see the links between this kind of dynamism and what we now tend to think of as feminist sf, that literature that emerged in the late 1960s into the 1970s, much of which was, as Duchamp points out, "all about creating communities."

What is my point? Specifically, it is that despite all their manifold differences in subject matter, social and ethical awareness, literary quality, and so on, there is an important structural similarity between these dynamic feminist utopias and Gernsbackian scientifiction: both are non-novelistic, not concerned with rising action and climaxes or probing the psychologically "accurate" depths of an individual human being; or in those cases where they are, they are free to be so concerned without the constraints of the novel, without its mystification, its pretenses and assumptions about the way life is that, when we manage to be aware of it, run counter to our experience of life. To be sure, both run the risk of replacing these mystifications with their own, but the point is that the novel's way of doing things is, as I said at the beginning, peripheral to these "predecessors" of sf, or earlier participants in the conversation which has recently become a part of sf.

It has long been my feeling that "sf," in any sense beyond its use as a marketing term, is...well, something else entirely. That it is not "another kind of novel" or "another kind of short story." The sf novel is rather the work of sf grafted to the novel; the sf short story is the work of sf grafted to the short story; and the sf poem, the work of sf grafted to the poem. Most of the time things are much more complex than this; one could say that, for example, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is the combination of the work of sf, the novel, the utopia, and the clinical study--with, of course, an infusion of new things which Piercy needed in order to say what she had to say. But however complex, however sui generis, it is difficult to imagine a work of sf that does not partake also in some other form*; even Stanislaw Lem, in A Perfect Vacuum and other books, and Clifford D. Simak, in the marvelous interstitial material in City, just grafted sf to the critical essay.

*I haven't read Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity or the preparatory worldbuilding notes that were published alongside it on its original appearance in Astounding but I wonder if those notes might approach a state of "pure" sf--which is not to be taken as a qualitative term. Anyway even here I tend to doubt it.

I don't mean to suggest that all this grafting is some sort of ad hoc hackwork mess, though frequently it is (not, to be clear, in any of the works just named). Nor am I proposing that there is some kind of Platonic idea, "the work of sf," floating around somewhere. Instead, I just mean to say that sf is...or, rather, that one way of looking at sf is as an impulse in the writer that seeks a form for its expression. Typically the form this takes is novelistic, because the novel is the predominant form of literature today, and because, as I examined in the first part of this essay, historically and economically contingent forces rewarded the early grafting of the pulp fiction form--easily transmuted into the novel for greater "respectability" later on--onto the sfnal enterprise. And there is nothing wrong with the sf novel as a form, or at least nothing more wrong with it than there is with the novel in general (and theoretically at least more room to evade these novelistic problems). But there is no reason beyond habit and, potentially, a sort of philistinism to expect it to take this form rather than another. And to read sf always as though it must have novelistic concern for plot and character and verisimilitude and so forth is very frequently to misread it.

No comments: