Locus Online

notes on science, fiction, and points in between
8 Dec 1997

Disch Does Di Fate
Thomas M. Disch, a distinguished writer who does not suffer the embarrassments of sf gladly, reviews Vincent Di Fate's Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art in the 7 Dec 1997 Los Angeles Times Book Review. Disch not unreasonably considers the book in the larger context of the fine arts, and finds both it and its subjects wanting. Some excerpts:
[After quoting Bradbury's introduction] Bradbury is probably correct in supposing that he speaks (or sees) for the majority, who admire any picture that is a magic window offering a high-resolution view of something for which they feel fondness, curiosity, or reverence. The ''sense of wonder'' is what sci-fi fandom claims as the genre's special territory; this corresponds in the visual arts to the Sublime, which in painting has been expressed either as eye-popping landscapes or heroic nudes. These two channels continue to be favored by the artists Di Fate celebrates.

However, judging by his brief account of the history of science fiction art, ''Infinite Worlds,'' Di Fate is as innocent of earlier versions of the Sublime -- indeed, of any non-sci-fi art painted before 1930 -- as any American third-grader. He's heard rumors of Da Vinci, seen some reproductions of Bosch, and that's about it for the past, until the premiere of the movie ''Rocketship X-M'' in 1950. In his own way, he (and most of the artists whose work the book reproduces) seem as authentically primitive as Grandma Moses or the Sienese School of the 13th century.

An honest appraisal of the pleasures and embarrassments to be obtained from the sub-Michelangelo side of sci-fi art with its pornographic elements would have to take into account the degree to which the artist equivocates or luxuriates in its eroticism. Frazetta and Vallejo have been commendably up front in this regard, and their ever-escalating prices among collectors reflect that. But the most audacious and successful of science-fiction illustrators is represented in ''Infinite Worlds'' by only one postcard-sized reproduction of a monster with a head more blatantly phallic than that of Joe Camel. This is the work by one of the few artists about whom Di Fate is snide: the Swiss H. R. Giger. Giger did not illustrate other people's stories but was the inventor of his own nightmarish fancies, a designer of aliens (including the Alien of cinematic fame) whose every bone and internal organ is a pornographic pun. Giger's vagina-dentate monsters of the 1970s and 1980s are unveilings of the secret identity of the bug-eyed monster of earlier pulp magazines. A book of science fiction art without a selection of Giger's images is like a book about Dutch art with no mention of Rembrandt.
(Given Disch's well-known sardonic regard for the sf genre, it's a toss-up whether the persistent use of the abbreviation 'sci-fi' in the review is his, or the copy-editor's.)

Reason Not to Say ''Sci-Fi'' #217
Perhaps the main reason many readers and writers of science fiction disdain this abbreviation is that it has become so devalued in popular culture -- synonymous with cheap sensation, subliteracy, and pseudo-scientific irrationality. Here's an example from the 1 Dec 1997 Los Angeles Times, from an essay (by one Jon Zelazny) defending the movie ''Starship Troopers'' against apparent illogic:

The story's own logic tells me that it was the Earth government that screwed up; their snazzy anti-meteor satellite failed, and Buenos Aires was destroyed. The government needed a scapegoat. They've been fighting skirmishes against the natives in faraway colonies, so they announce that the bugs ''propelled'' the meteor all the way across the galaxy to hit the Earth.

Even by sci-fi standards, even by Hollywood action movie standards, this is patently ridiculous...
''Even'' by sci-fi standards...?

The Book Biz
Slate this week has an essay in its section The Gist about the state of current book publishing. The piece aptly summarizes the effects of conglomeratization among publishers, the runaway cycle of mega-advance bidding wars, and the reasons sales and profits are declining despite the proliferation of chain superstores. Some numbers: last year 212 hardcovers sold more than 100,000 copies, a record; 1.06 billion books were sold in 1996, compared to 710 million in 1960; nonbookstores (department stores, grocery stores, etc.) sell 53% of all books.

Is This Why We Read?
A recent review in Salon, of The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literay Taste, and Middle Class Desire by Janice A. Radway, offers this take on the characteristic differences between the motivations of male and female readers:

...she sees that the Club's often contradictory ideology -- which simultaneously presented books as realms of utilitarian, technocratic discourse (coded male) and intensely absorbing, transformative pleasure (coded female) -- offered its consumers opportunities for liberation as well as constriction.

Mad Scientists
Meanwhile, on Nov. 19th Slate posted an essay by Arthur Allen about the image of ''mad scientists'' in popular culture and how it is changing: no longer deranged, they are ethical, proclaims the heading. The essay covers the film Gattaca, recalls Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, and even mentions a current SF novel:

The misgivings of scientists are particularly shrill in Frameshift, by Canadian sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer. It's a purple premise: The Treblinka death-camp guard Ivan the Terrible has adopted a new identity in California as the chief actuary for a health-insurance company. When a French-Canadian scientist working in the genome project at Berkeley stumbles onto a series of murders in which Ivan is implicated, he thinks he's found a neo-Nazi plot to eliminate the genetically challenged. But it turns out Ivan's goals are more banal: His company is bumping off clients whose genetic profiles indicate big future medical bills.
Books by Robin Cook, Fay Weldon, and Nancy Kress (Beggars in Spain) are also discussed.

Taxing Writers
An ongoing controversy this year in Los Angeles -- home of the Hollywood film and television industry -- is whether writers should be subject to home occupation business taxes. New city laws went into effect last January to legalize home-based work by changing zoning laws, but the new laws required home-workers to pay city business and professions taxes. This sparked outrage from various entertainment and literary groups, who protested that their work does not entail added traffic to or from their homes or other strains on city services. A federal lawsuit was filed by the Writers Guild of America West, and dismissed; a state suit is pending possible modifications of the city statutes. There are about 5000 screenwriters registered in the city, of whom half make no money through scripts in a year. The required city tax of $175 would apply to them all.

Sublime Passion
SF has its movements and trends and so do other genres, perhaps none so deliberately engineered as the new kind of romance novel being introduced by Harlequin. The new Steeple Hill line publishes inspirational Christian novels in which the focus is on God and sex is subsumed by faith. As the Los Angeles Times describes (14 Nov), kisses are described in Steeple Hill romances, but the action stops there; characters overcome past hurts through their relationship with God, and learn to love again. Inspirational books are one of the fastest growing markets, with sales of 118 million in 1995 projected to rise to 133 million in 2000.

Mary Shelley Unearthed
AP reports, 10 Nov, of the discovery of a long-lost children's story by Mary Shelley, author of the classic SF progenitor Frankenstein. Called ''Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot'', the story had been mentioned in the author's journal in 1820, but had never been found until now. The discovery consists of 39 pages in the author's handwriting. It was found by a couple in a chest at their home in the Tuscany hills of Italy, and has been authenticated by experts. The story, written two years after the publication of Frankenstein, concerns a boy who runs away from his presumed parents in southwest England and is adopted by an old fisherman.

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© 1997 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.