Gustave Doré: Sinbad the Sailor (1865)
New Wave SF (i)
The Power of Speculative Fiction
- "The Story of Sindbad the Sailor" (1995): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 303-49.
- Jerome W. Clinton, "Madness and Cure in the 1001 Nights" (1985): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 485-99.
A porter, Sindbad the Landsman, recites some verses at the gate of a house. He is asked to come inside where he sings the couplets again. The lord of the house is called Sindbad the Sailor, and he proceeds to tell the story of his seven voyages.
– Adapted from The Arabian Nights (2013-15)
Stanislaw Lem: Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (1984)
Explorations of Inner Space
What is SF (an acronym variously decoded as ‘Science Fiction,’ ‘Sci-Fi,’ or – increasingly nowadays – ‘Speculative Fiction’)? There are many possible answers.
According to veteran SF/Fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin (returning to those comments I quoted from in the lecture notes for weeks 2 & 5):
Science Fiction can be seen a brilliant modern development of fantasy to use the imagination within the parameters of the rationally possible, or at least the plausible.That’s one good way to distinguishing it from either Fantasy proper, or (for that matter) Magic Realism. Whether these genre distinctions are as important as the continuities between these various genres is, however, is a matter for debate.
Kingsley Amis (1922-1995)
Here’s another attempt, from British novelist Kingsley Amis’s pioneering study of the genre, New Maps of Hell (1960):
Science-fiction interests do not coincide with those of ordinary fiction, though on occasion the two sets will overlap very considerably. The sense of curiosity involved, for instance, is different in each case; science fiction's is more intellectual, if that word can be used without implying any superiority, and it will not always appeal to… that human warmth which we are right to look for in ordinary literature. … To notice that popular music uses the same elements of harmony, tone colour, and the rest as serious music, does not lead us to demand that it use them in the same way or else go into liquidation (Amis  127)
Kingsley Amis, ed. The Golden Age of Science Fiction (1981)
This tells us what not to expect in SF, but doesn’t really leave us much the wiser on what we are likely to encounter there. Amis, who bases his discussion firmly on the pulp magazine tradition started by Hugo Gernsback in the 1920s, brought to its apex in the so-called ‘Campbell era’ of the 1940s and 1950s, makes an obvious analogy between pop and classical music. Fifty years later, with a much greater proliferation of styles and approaches available in both music and literature, this simple dichotomy between the ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ no longer works quite so well.
Let’s try again, then, with another definition, this time edging more to the ‘speculative’ side of SF:
Have you ever noticed that when something unusual turns up, you are immediately confronted with a moral problem? For instance, if you were to find yourself in the unusual position of Alice in Wonderland, who was able to make herself large or small at will, nothing would be easier than to rob the Bank of England. You would simply have to go in small, say about the size of a pin, and come out extra large, through the skylight or somewhere, with a few million pounds in your pockets. Moral problem: shall I become a burglar? Or if you found yourself in the unusual position of the Invisible Man, by ... Mr. Wells, nothing would be easier than to introduce yourself into the boudoirs of your acquaintances, in order to earn a handsome competence by discovering their secrets. Moral problem: shall I become a blackmailer? (White 94)
So T. H. White, probably more familiar to modern readers for his Disney-adapted children’s book The Sword in the Stone (1938), than for this one, the charming Lilliputian fantasy Mistress Masham's Repose (1947).
This brings us much closer to a working definition of SF. As a genre, it presents us with new, ‘unusual’ environments or attributes – such as the ability to change one’s size or become invisible (whether through magic or science isn’t specified) – and then proceeds to examine the human and ethical questions raised by such novelties.
What both writers have in common is an emphasis on the ratiocinative and – for want of a better word – intellectual characteristics of the form, whether seen as predominantly Scientific, Fantastic or Speculative in outlook. Perhaps, then, that is its distinguishing tone: an emphasis on the logical rather than the emotional side of things?
Edgar Allan Poe (after M. C. Escher)
Edgar Allan Poe (often referred to as the Father of Science Fiction, though Mary Shelley could probably claim priority there – if not displaced in her turn by such earlier antecedents as Lucian of Samosata and Jonathan Swift) claimed, in his classic 1846 essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ that it’s all a matter of proportion:
Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone – whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone – afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect. (Poe 13-14)Note how carefully Poe distinguishes between ‘incidents’ and ‘tone.’ ‘Ordinary incidents and peculiar tone’ would equate with the close examinations of everyday life which we tend to expect from mainstream (realist) fiction. By ‘peculiar tone’ I take it that Poe means the individuality of character which makes a banal set of incidents interesting and revealing to the reader – what Amis refers to as the ‘human warmth which we are right to look for in ordinary literature.’
The ‘converse’: peculiar incidents and ordinary tone, would – by contrast – be a good characterization of traditional SF: the early novels of H. G. Wells, for instance, where ordinary people are put in extraordinary settings and situations: The Invisible Man (mentioned above by T. H. White), for instance – or The Time Machine. In both these cases the personalities of the narrator and the various other characters in the story are very much secondary to the interest of the actual events and otherworldly settings.
‘Peculiarity both of incident and tone’ is also mentioned by Poe as a possible template for an effective story, and with the growth of the (so-called) ‘unreliable narrator’ in late nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction, both the nature of the incidents and how we are told about them can be equally foregrounded: as in Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’, where readers – and critics – are forced to focus alternately on the ‘peculiar incident’ of the ghostly appearances of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and on the ‘peculiar tone’ of the excessively intense narrator, the unnamed Governess of the two children.
This latter paradigm has, over time, come to predominate over the previous one, as SF readers grew increasingly blasé and familiar with the bizarreries of alien cultures and celestial mechanics. Stanislaw Lem, the great Polish master of SF (and author of Solaris), described the situation of this later, ‘new wave’ of SF writers in his essay on Philip K. Dick: ‘Visionary Among the Charlatans’ (1985):
While [Dick's stories] stand out from the background against which they have originated, it is not easy to capture the ways in which they do, since Dick employs the same materials and theatrical plots as other American writers. From the warehouse that has long since become their common property, he takes the whole threadbare lot of telepaths, cosmic wars, parallel worlds, and time travel. In his stories terrible catastrophes happen, but this, too, is no exception to the rule; lengthening the list of sophisticated ways in which the world can end is among the standard preoccupations of science fiction. But where other science-fiction writers explicitly name and delimit the source of the disaster ... the world of Dick's stories suffers dire changes for reasons that remain unascertainable to the end. People perish not because a nova or a war has erupted, not because of flood, famine, plague, drought, or sterility, not because the Martians have landed on our doorstep; rather, there is some inscrutable factor at work that is visible in its manifestations but not at its source, and the world behaves as if it has fallen prey to a malignant cancer, which through metastases attacks one area of life after another. (Lem 112-13)Other writers in this later mode, ‘peculiar’ both in incident and tone, would include the British prophet of ‘inner space,’ J. G. Ballard, as well as the more gender-focussed fictions of Ursula Le Guin (particularly her Hugo and Nebula award-winning 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness).
SF, then, is a complex thing: complex in its derivations, its tonal possibilities, and the range of its interests. One could say, though, that a typical SF novel or story is a means to an end to a much greater degree than a more conventional, ‘mainstream’ product. Poe may wish only to produce a ‘vivid effect’ – of whatever kind – but Amis sees it as essentially ‘intellectual’ in its focus, while White sees it mainly as a way of facilitating ethical thought experiments.
The lack of literary finesse often complained about in SF novels and stories – generally by people who haven’t read very many of them – comes therefore both from their lack of attention to such fripperies as prose style (though it would be hard to find clearer, more elegant prose than Ursula Le Guin’s, or, for that matter, a greater feat of imaginative projection than Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz). But it also comes from the genre’s roots in twentieth century pulp magazines, with their low payrates and consequent need to accentuate mass appeal.
The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (1960)
Critical Skills (ii)
Writing fiction involves thinking laterally, that is, sideways – following through an idea by thinking in terms of connections, so as to create characters; it involves thinking structurally, that is, vertically, to make a coherent narrative with enough upward drive to go until it stops; it also involves thinking in terms of images as well as words.
– Angela Carter (1976)
A workshop for general discussion of your critical assignments, before their date of submission next week.