Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Noted: Lloyd Arthur Eshbach on "logical developments"

Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, in his Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era, relates an anecdote dating from, keep in mind, the height of the Depression. The struggle is eternal; does this sound familiar?
         I recall I was present at a Philadelphia conference — I think it was in 1937 — when Donald A. Wollheim read a speech written by John B. Michel which was a strong and obvious pitch for communism. A lengthy discussion followed and after it had gone on interminably I finally stood up, was recognized by the chairman, and voiced my protest against the insertion of politics into science fiction. I received a round of applause, which showed what most fans thought about the proceedings, and the discussion ended.
         It is interesting to note that among the feuding fans were Sam Moskowitz, Donald A. Wollheim, David A. Kyle, Robert W. Lowndes and Fred Pohl, all of whom later made science fiction their profession, either as editors, agents, authors or all three. Years later I visited Wollheim in his home and in the course of conversation mentioned that turbulent period. Wollheim smiled and shook his head. "That was a long time ago."
Imagine an alternate history in which that had gone differently. Or, rather, imagine an alternate history in which that could have gone differently.

Much later on, talking about Erle Melvin Korshak of Shasta Press, Eshbach puts both a fact and a perspective on that fact into one very telling parenthetical:

He began reading science fiction in 1934, regularly getting issues of Astounding Stories and Wonder Stories from an older cousin after he had finished reading them. (The cousin later became an oil geologist, a logical development for a Depression teenager who started on science fiction magazines.)
For all its beauty, sf has reactionary roots that go deep. And though I will defend the literary virtues of the early pulp years to the death, the damaging propaganda value of a field that can make anti-left mystification and going to work for the oil companies "logical" at the height of the Depression cannot be overstated.

Don't forget, too, that these people saw themselves as a progressive vanguard, pointing the way to the shining future (in some horrifying ways, they were right). What might sf be making logical now?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Shuffling tropes

[With spoilers, for those who care.]

There is a moment in "Palm Strike's Last Case" — the novelette by Charlie Jane Anders that opens C.C. Finlay's guest-edited issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction — where a man, Luc, awakens from cryosleep twenty years later than the rest of the colonists who had made the century-long journey with him to the exoplanet Newfoundland. Something went wrong with his cryo-module, "the wake-up system failed," and only now has someone managed to construct a new one. In this moment Anders evokes, without having to linger on, the oddly multiple senses of loss attendant on such a moment: Luc knew going into cryosleep that he was leaving his Earth life behind, but to wake up to this truth (though he never believes it fully until the end of the story, if then) is something else entirely; not only this, but in missing twenty years he has lost the chance at anything but the most tenuous connection with the rest of colonists, the colony, and the planet itself.

The moment is one of loss specifically; more generally, it is one of disjuncture. I haven't written about it much here, but early on in my self-conscious project of trying to read sf with an actively critical eye (which predates this blog by a year or two) I hit upon "disjuncture" as a word to describe what is for me a central aspect of the sfnal experience. It is there in Joanna Russ's identification of "the Dislocated Protagonist" and "the Dislocated Reader"; it is there in older American magazine sf's traditional refusal (or, in some people's bizarre jargon, "failure") to attend to received notions of narrative progression and unity. There has always been a counter-current, a concerted attempt to smooth over sf's disjunctures in favor of seamless surfaces like those of so-called "mainstream literary fiction," * and ever since the artistic and sociopolitical explosions of 1970s sf were contained by the backlash of the 1980s, this counter-current has been in the ascendant. Today, with few exceptions, it has practically a stranglehold on the sfnal imagination.** Considering this, it is at least refreshing to read a story such as this that builds itself around multiple disjunctures, and that, though it exhibits some signs of wanting to smooth them over (e.g., that peculiarly orderly use of flashbacks that is so unfortunately common in much contemporary writing in and out of sf), in most ways steadfastly refuses to do so.

*Probably best exemplified early on by the critical work of Damon Knight and James Blish — though oddly enough at least the latter's fiction is often driven by such disjunctures (I think particularly of A Case of Conscience, which is as great a novel as it is precisely because it tears itself apart so frequently).
**All of this is why I was so inclined to defend Sandra Newman's admittedly clumsy Guardian article against what I saw as misreading and over-hasty denial.

There are other things to like, such as the story's attentiveness to ecosystems, human and otherwise, including both parasitism and symbiosis (and the difficulty in distinguishing the one from the other); but this leads me to my first real complaint (well, first in this essay, anyway; by this point in the story I already had my second complaint, which I will address in a moment). Much of the story hinges on the colonists' inability to grow crops in Newfoundland's soil, which had been rich at first but quickly became toxic; eventually Luc, a geo-engineer, figures out that it is because the colonists had nearly eradicated an insect-like creature they had thought was a pest, eating the plants, but which turns out to play a vital symbiotic role in the local ecosystem, detoxifying the soil so that the plants can grow in the first place. Anders sets up a resonance (a trivial and tiresome one, but not so much so that it singlehandedly destroys the story) between this and the drug manufacturers and dealers that have sprung up in the colony, who have a relationship with the rest of the (starving and hopeless) colonists that straddles the line between parasitism and symbiosis, and whom Luc, in an attempt to continue his pre-disjuncture life (on which more to come), wishes to eradicate. It is in the context of this latter aspect of the story that Anders, in a flashback to a conversation between Luc and the Earth-bound Josiah, introduces what you might call The Parable of Chairman Mao and the Sparrows. Criticizing Luc's simplistic crime-fighting methods (yeah...like I said, more in a bit), Josiah says:

It's like, during the Great Leap Forward, Mao sent every peasant in China out to kill sparrows, on the theory that sparrows were eating seeds and reducing the harvests. But once the sparrows were all gone, turned out they had been eating locusts, which had been eating the grain. It was an ecosystem. When all the sparrows were gone, everybody starved.
Now, it is important to remember that the list of similar cases is almost literally endless. The casualties of modern rationalization are countless, so it is important to ask why Anders chose this particular parable-from-life out of myriad options. No doubt if asked she would say she chose it because it is a particularly clear example of "pests that turned out to be essential," that like her story but in reverse it has to do with the relationship of insects to crops, maybe that sparrows are nicely poetic. All of these for me are reasons why the parable is much too on-the-nose to carry any weight. Far worse than this, though, it is yet another case of how The Horrors of Communist Central Planning are still and always the go-to example for this kind of problem — despite the fact that now, right now, it is the very real and very current horrors of global capitalist central planning that are destroying the entire world. Mao's simplifications caused a lot of destruction, it's true; but those of the stockholders, the profit margin, and the invisible hand have caused and are right now causing a great deal more. In the face of this, it is difficult to interpret the continued, overwhelming tendency, especially among people from countries that have been capitalist for as long as capitalism has existed, to raise the spectre of the Red Menace yet again, yet again, and yet again, as anything other than dangerously obfuscatory propaganda — whether conscious or not. (There is also the issue that Anders for the most part avoids asking for whose benefit this kind of "symbiosis" exists, but enough.)

My second complaint has less globe-spanning implications, but since we are dealing here with fiction (which is of limited political use at best) and it is a more "purely literary" complaint — and since it is more pervasive throughout the story — it is probably much more serious. This complaint is that everything in the story, good and bad, the positives I have identified and those I have not, the negatives I have identified and those I have not, all are subsumed to the tedious "trope"-shuffling that has if anything an even tighter stranglehold on contemporary sf than the smoothing-over tendencies I identified earlier. This is what happens when a field of literary endeavor finds itself at a certain age, weighed down by its past, having long ago closed off the possibilities that it had once been in the process of opening up for itself (I refer here once more to sf's backlash against its 1970s), and so gives itself over wholeheartedly to postmodern genre theory (as genre triumphalism) without stopping to ask at what price its renewed self-confidence comes.

The trope-shuffling is telegraphed by the story's title, with "Last Case" clearly invoking the "back for one last case" clichés of another field (in the game of trope-shuffling you get extra points for bringing in "tropes" from other "genres"). It then quickly establishes itself as the answer to the squee-bait question "What if one of the grimmer versions of Batman became a terraformer on an exoplanet?" (I could also see it as a movie pitch: "It's like The Dark Knight meets Survivor — in space!!" or something) — for Luc, geo-engineer by day, is also...a crime-fighting superhero (by night!), with a supervillain arch-nemesis he suspects may have followed him to Newfoundland.

This foundational silliness infects everything in the story, most egregiously so in the gleeful grimness of its violence. It seems to me that to create a character like Luc's son Rene solely in order to give him a particularly horrible death solely in order to give Luc a "motivation," is far more morally bankrupt in a story such as this, that seeks to impress us with its grown-up self-consciousness, than it is in the much more naïve early comics that such story elements originated in — not to mention that to fetishize this kind of personal pathos in the face of the worldwide catastrophe the story hints at strikes me as not far removed from certain tendencies in today's blockbuster movies that have come in for a lot of justified criticism lately.

Every time the story seems to be trying to break itself free from its limitations, every time it seems to be using its self-awareness to try to stop doing what it's doing, it turns out instead that it's just slamming itself back into its box even harder.

The light of the first moon draws shadows under her eyes, while a second moon sneaks up on her, illuminating her hair and her rought jacket. She looks as if she's in the middle of one of those rite-of-passage moments where you surrender some of your illusions on the way to adulthood. Something is breaking forever inside her. He has no idea what he's supposed to do about this.
She "looks as if she's in the middle of one of those rite-of-passage moments"...and she is. Nothing exists outside of the constraints of generic narrative. Events either adhere to "tropes" or they do not occur. Story is life, life is story; there is no difference between living and telling.

"Trope," in current usage, means at base a concept shorn of context in the interest of making it as interchangeable as a part on an assembly line. The colonization of an exoplanet, once a notion heavily bound up in a specific, if you will, ecosystem of ideas (or maybe better a set of such ecosystems), can be lifted out of that ecosystem and placed anywhere you like. The tragic death of a loved one and resulting quest for vengeance, ditto; et cetera. (None of this is to say that contexts are fixed, or cannot be changed — merely that one must attend to them.) The trope-shufflers, too, make no distinction between those tropes that were once interesting or worthwhile ideas and those that were not, nor do they attend to the contexts which once determined these differences. They see this practice as a triumph of personal freedom — "I can do anything I want!" "Tear down the walls!" — but to shuffle these tropes around, to mix and match them, even to "subvert" them as people are so fond of saying, not only treats that which is not interchangeable as if it were, it also reinforces, reifies them in their most dishonest form. The removal of things (in the broadest sense of the word "things") from their context is the original and ultimate act of violence; and though the scales are obviously not at all comparable it is fundamentally the same kind of intellectual error that leads to such catastrophes as that of the sparrows.

Trope enthusiasts of the world, quit it! You have nothing to lose but your chains. The correct answer to the question "What if Batman were a terraformer on an exoplanet?" is "Oh, good grief."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

To take sf as seriously as those who distrust it

A lot of people write, and write about, science fiction without ever asking what science is, or what fiction is. Some also, or instead, call it speculative fiction, and though they tend to recognize a bit more that just what speculation is needs explaining, they seem always to know already how to explain it, and at any rate they are usually no more curious as to the nature of fiction. Others speak of imaginative fiction, without wondering what an image is, while others identify the fantastic, as though "it" were something simply there to be identified. People write, and read, stories set in the future, disregarding simultaneously both that this is an unreal conceptual construct and that it is something decisively other than the present.

Sometimes it seems to me that (some of) sf's outsiders and skeptics (if not enemies outright) take its premises far more seriously — and understand these premises better — than its own practitioners and readers. Steve Mitchelmore, in two posts I will probably never stop linking to, asks, through Michael Holland and Maurice Blanchot, what it would mean for sf to "think the totality of what it imagines." Blanchot himself, in an obscure essay on sf ("The Proper Use of Science Fiction"), asks a similar question in, surprisingly, more prosaic terms: "How can the advent of a world that is radically alien, a future that is absolutely futural, be communicated?" Gabriel Josipovici in What Ever Happened to Modernism? suggests that "Modernists look with horror at the proliferation in modern culture of both fantasy and realism...[n]ot out of a Puritan disdain for the imagination or the craft of letters, but out of respect for the world," drawing the connection between (here) fantasy and realism that sf's partisans too often fail to see: that both tend carelessly to rely on obscuring, as Josipovici has it elsewhere in the same book, the fact "that living and telling are not the same thing at all" — and that they do it in largely identical ways.

This post is about concerns that are always on my mind, but its immediate inspiration was my seeing Blanchot, in The Space of Literature, quote Pascal: "What vanity is painting which wins admiration for its resemblance to things we do not admire in the original!" My response on reading this, or rather part of my response, was to think: there are infinite ways to disagree, with varying degrees of vehemence, with Pascal's assessment of this as "vanity", but the phenomenon, the relationship between painting and that which it "resembles" that he identifies here is of the utmost importance, and demands the serious attention of anyone who cares about art, whether or not the art they care about seeks to resemble "things we do not admire in the original." In staking out a position opposed to a certain kind of art, Pascal takes that art more seriously on its own terms than most of its supporters.

People in the sf world tend to be very dismissive of sf's skeptics, writing them off en masse as snobs; oftentimes this is the case, but it is important to recognize those times when it is not. In my writing on this blog it is my aim, no doubt seldom achieved, to take sf as seriously as those who, with reason, distrust it — and if possible, to convince those who immerse themselves in it to do the same.

Monday, July 7, 2014

reading Russ: "Innocence" (1955)

reading Russ table of contents

Though I can’t quite place where, I'm almost certain that I’ve seen not only people writing about Joanna Russ but Russ herself as well say that it didn’t occur to her, early on, that she could write science fiction — that she had always read it, but that it wasn’t until 1959’s "Nor Custom Stale" that she realized she could do it herself.* I know I’ve seen people, and I would have sworn her, saying that writing science fiction at Cornell seemed impossible. So imagine my surprise when I first read "Innocence" and discovered that her first published prose work — appearing originally in The Cornell Writer of May 1955 — is nothing if not science fiction. So much so, in fact, that it was republished in almost identical form** twenty years later in the February 1975 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

*That she was only twenty-two in 1959 should have suggested to me that this lateness is exaggerated at best, but somehow it didn’t.
**The later version has some minor changes in punctuation, one or two of which create mildly interesting changes in effect but most of which are insignificant; two definite articles are added where their previous absence was slightly awkward; and two sentences toward the end are excised, in what I suspect was an editorial decision whose sole purpose was to make it fit on the page; the story is better with these sentences but their loss does not make any large impact.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the story could be reprinted twenty years later at all. February 1975 was the same month that The Female Man appeared; one assumes that the completion of We Who Are About To… had to have been somewhere around this same time. This was the period I might hesitantly call her "peak" — only in the sense that by then she had figured out what she needed to do in her writing, and illness and time constraints had not yet slowed that writing to a trickle (or stopped it entirely, as they eventually would). But had I not known that “Innocence” was where she started, had I just come across it in F&SF, I would have had no trouble believing that it belonged to this period. Which is not to say that it’s some lost (or at least never collected) masterpiece; it’s a quick, lightweight piece (this post is about four times its length), almost like a joke, though it does have a seriousness to it; it's very good, but minor. What surprises is that it has none of the awkwardness that permeates the poetry and the other two Cornell-years stories (which I will be covering in another post, if at all), and to my eyes at least none of the writing-to-received-notions-of-acceptability that destroys those two other stories; meanwhile, many of the concerns that the later Russ would devote much of her life to are already present here.

I must be the last one in the world, because nobody else understands. Siegfried, for instance — well, his name was something like that. He had learned nothing but facts from his cradle and that made him very proud. He was a big, fair man and he drove us from here to there among the stars.
Already in these opening lines of her first story the troubling of the authoritative status of the speaker — which I am accustomed to think of as a concern that grew over the course of Russ's writing life — is here, strong (as is the humor that for Russ always accompanies it: his name was "something like" Siegfried, indeed). The narrator never quite comes out and says what "nobody else understands," but it becomes clear that what is meant is storytelling: Siegfried, or whatever his name is, proud in his facts, listens to what for the narrator is "just a story for diversion," but cannot understand:
      "Did you get that out of a book?" I shook my head. "Then you must have been there."
      "No, of course not," I said.
      He came back again to hear more. Then he said "It must be in the past. I've never seen a place like that and I've been all over the galaxy, you know."
And so forth. And here we begin to see, intimately tied to the foregrounding of the act of telling, another of Russ's characteristic concerns, albeit less explicit here: the pedantic literalism, and obsesssion with a certain narrow kind of expertise, of men. The narrator's gender is never specified, and while the introductory blurb that accompanies the F&SF version casually refers to "a story-teller of the future and his audience," the difference in status between the two is so clear, and for me at least so clearly tied up with a subtext of sexual power imbalance and potential violence ("He told me how innocent I was and how I ought not to be let out alone") that it is difficult for me not to read the narrator as a woman. The story hints at other reasons for the power imbalance, as in the sentence immediately following the description of Siegfried, prototypically Aryan, as "big and fair": "I was a passenger — that's all — and dark as a mole, but he was polite and made nothing of it." This suggests both a class difference between passengers and pilots*, and a privileging at some unspecified level of formality of certain types of appearance over others.** This alone, though, does not for me account for the type of tension in the story; and when by the end the narrator is referring to Siegfried as "the stupid hero" it seems clear to me what is going on here, even if it was not necessarily yet clear to Russ herself.

*A notion that would be immediately familiar to the average sf reader of the time, though maybe not to the average Cornell Writer reader — which is perhaps why the F&SF version replaces the dashes setting off "that's all" with subtler commas.
**If I understand the racial and gendered language of the white American 50s, "dark as a mole," especially in contrast to "big and fair," more likely indicates a white woman or
possibly white man with brown hair and eyes than any man or woman of color.

It is intriguing, too, both in this story considered on its own and in the context of Russ's later work, that these two issues, the concerns with telling and with male stomping-about, are tied up with yet a third: the denial of death. As soon as he hears about this (totally made-up) place the narrator describes, with "Grassy hills around central fountains where jets of water shine," with "yellow flames that they used for beauty, to look transparent against stone," a place which "still exists," though it is "very old," Siegfried is obsessed with literally, physically finding it. At first it seems merely to be the way that men's curiosity can turn quickly into the demand for conquest — and it is this — but late in the story he confesses another, closely related reason:

"You know," he said in a low voice, "I think I might not die there. See, that's how I feel. That's what you've done."
Where the narrator is content that things — real and imagined — simply be what they are (or are not), Siegfried demands they be given him on his own terms; where the narrator is clear about what stories are and do (though still irresponsible with them, as I will discuss in a moment), for Siegfried these issues are, and must remain, mystifed. Both of these are illusory forms of mastery over the world — and both are necessary to Siegfried's effort to distance himself from death. Later this false mastery, in these three aspects (storytelling, male domination, denial of death) and others, will be one of Russ's central concerns — most explicitly in We Who Are About To..., but in many other works as well.

It occurs to me that "Innocence" is in a way the inverse of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Quest of Iranon," one of his so-called "dream cycle" stories that reads, as many of them do, like a wordier, more sentimental version of a Kafka parable.* (Russ's story too, in addition to being sf, is clearly cast in the parable mold). In that story Iranon is a beautiful young man driven by vivid memories of the idyllic city Aira, which he is certain is his home, where he is a prince; in certain ways, though, his memory of Aira is vague, and he spends his life in search of it. His obsession with it, and his retention of its (uncomplicatedly sketched-in) poetic values in the face of the utilitarian values of the world he sees around him, keeps him young even as those around him age and die — until, eventually, he discovers that Aira never existed, that it was simply a story he made up when he was a child on the streets; realizing this, he becomes an old man and dies. Though "Iranon" has points of interest, and though at the time he wrote it Lovecraft seems to have viewed it as something of a breakthrough, he himself later recognized it, correctly, as being overly "mawkish".** The innocence of youth and the enchantment of story, though common themes in Lovecraft, are far more simplistic and idealized here than in most of his work; and though he is right to try to evoke a sense of loss in the face of adult (and modern) knowledge and disenchantment, the story is so certain of its values and so heavily rigged in their favor that it feels almost smug in its sentimentality. "Innocence", precisely by undoing this confidence in its own premises, seems almost a corrective to these problems.

*I am not an expert on Lovecraft's convoluted print history and have no idea if Russ could plausibly have known the story at this point, though we know definitively that later on at least she was interested in the dream cycle stories, and that she read some Lovecraft as a teenager. At any rate my interest is not in tracing influence per se so much as noting that even this early on her work is already in considerable sympathy with Lovecraft's — though, as would always be the case, pointing in quite a different direction.
**I take this information from S.T. Joshi's brief introduction to the story in its appearance in
The Complete Fiction. Whether "mawkish" is Lovecraft's word or Joshi's paraphrase is unclear.

The comparison with "Iranon" helps me to understand what Russ is getting at with her use of the word innocence, which at first I found bewildering. Not only is it the title of the story, not only does the narrator early on, as I have quoted before, tell us that Siegfried finds her (for convenience I will use the female pronouns) so innocent that she "ought not to be let out alone", but the concept of innocence returns at the very end of the story. After Siegfried tells the narrator that he thinks he "might not die" if he can live in the city she describes, and particularly in the face of the accusatory "That's what you've done" (which this next passage immediately follows), she finally realizes the seriousness of the issues at hand and tries to undo the damage by at last giving the true answer to Siegfried's repeated demands to know where this city is (brackets indicate portions not present in the F&SF version):

      [He looked so earnest and bewildered that I couldn't look anything but frightened.]
      "It isn't anywhere," I said. "I made it up out of my head, every bit of it. It doesn't even exist."
      [He turned very calm.]
      "You've forgotten," he said, "Because you're a fool, but I'm going to get a ship and travel around and back and forth until I find it. I'm no fool. I'm going to find it." Then he went steadily out of the room.
      He did that, too; the stupid hero is out there now, between Antares and Deneb or somewheres — nobody has any sense. I must be the last one because nobody but me understands. Innocents! The universe is full of them.
It is, I believe, to the innocence of Iranon and those like him that Russ refers: but unlike the Lovecraft story, Russ's understands that the belief that all things can be treated in rationalized, "factual" terms (which understanding in "Iranon" is precisely the loss of innocence) in the face of a universe that cannot be so constrained (as Blanchot has it, "putting a term on the interminable") is itself a mirror-reversed form of this innocence — which, "Iranon" and etymology notwithstanding, is painful, and which, far from meaning "not guilty" as the now-common sense of the word would have it, can all too easily coexist with guilt in the sense of moral culpability.

But the guilty innocence here does not belong solely to Siegfried. Though the narrator understands what story is, what telling is, she does not include this understanding in her story (the one she tells Siegfried, that is, not the one she is telling us) and thus shares in the culpability for the distortion of the world that such telling enables. She correctly ascribes innocence to Siegfried, the "stupid hero", but she is unable to recognize her own. When Siegfried, as quoted above, tells her that she is too innocent "to be let out alone," she is right to chafe against the paternalism, but the way in which she denies the charge is telling: "That's not fair," she tells us; "I'm just not interested, that's all." My first several times through the story I found this "not interested" perplexing; it is difficult to read it in any terms other than the sexual, though even then it's hard to know quite what to make of it. And I do still think that there is a heavily sexual element to this story, but conceptualizing it also as a sort of mirror image of "Iranon" allows me to understand "not interested" as a confession, though not a deliberate one, of the narrator's own guilt: that is to say, despite all the knowledge that should lead her to a sense of her responsibilities as a storyteller, she nevertheless somehow fails to understand them — and in her failure to understand, in her lack of interest, in her innocence, she abdicates these responsibilities (whether she has taken them up again by the time she tells us the story is another question; I'm not so sure I know the answer). The deeply-felt need not to so abdicate will be central to Russ's practice as a feminist and as a writer of fiction, and it is fascinating to see it present so strongly, in so multifaceted a fashion, in so small and so early a work.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Noted: from Samuel R. Delany's "Dichtung und Science Fiction"

Also worthwhile: replacing "theme" with "trope" in this passage.
[T]he truth is...you will not find the key to science fiction in a survey of scientific, or even science fictional, themes any more than you will find the key to poetry in a survey of romantic, or poetic, themes. At best such a survey is a pretext for exposing new readers to a range of texts which will begin to familiarize them with the field's conventions, language, and semantic formalities. But to the extent that the pursuit of themes becomes a serious scholarly endeavor whose envisioned end is some goal of thoroughness, comprehensiveness, exhaustiveness, and critical mastery, the results will be more and more impoverished, the fruits more and more dessicated--less and less nourishing to the critical hunger for insight, resonance, and understanding. Themes only provide an intuitive, uncritical similarity within which true distinctions may be teased apart. But a theme itself has the same mental structure as a prejudice and must be treated, critically, with the same skepticism. Thematics--at least as we now know them--are useless for gaining any sophisticated insight into science fiction for the same reason thematics are inadequate to reveal the workings of poetics. For just as poetry may be about anything, in any number of ways, including science fiction, science fiction may be about anything, in any number of ways, including poetry.

Science fiction is no more a collection of themes than it is a collection of rhetorical devices. It is much better seen as a tension between subject and object it teaches us first to be sensitive to, then to expect--an expectation which it proceeds to exploit in as many different ways as there are different SF texts. It is a set of questions we expect to be answered about the relation of word and world, character and concept, fictive world and given world; and any given SF text can foil or fulfill those expectations in an infinite number of ways to produce exciting science fiction.

(To clarify: my feeling is that at this point the major sf discourse seldom even reaches the "inadequate" level of thematics because it is so busy concerning itself with "tropes", at least one step down the ladder of adequacy, instead.)