Locus Online



24 Jun 1998

Lethem on SF
Jonathan Lethem has an essay about SF, Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction, in the Winter 1998 Voice Literary Supplement. Lethem's thesis is that SF's merger with serious literary fiction in the early 1970s was derailed by the mainstream's increasing acceptance of the imaginative and surreal (in the work of writers like Barthelme, DeLillo, and Pynchon) and by the dumbing down of genre SF with the success of ''sci-fi''. Some excerpts:
The new-wave SF of the '60s and '70s was often word-drunk, applying modernist techniques willy-nilly to the old genre motifs, adding compensatory dollops of alienation and sexuality to characters who'd barely shed their slide rules. But the new wave also made possible books like Samuel Delany's Dhalgren, Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, and Thomas Disch's 334, work to stand with the best American fiction of the 1970s—labels, categories, and genres aside. In a seizure of ambition, SF even flirted with renaming itself "speculative fabulation," a lit-crit term both pretentiously silly and dead right.


Which brings us to today. Where, against all odds, SF deserving of greater attention from a literary readership is still written. Its relevance, though, since the collapse of the notion that SF should and would converge with literature, is unclear at best. SF's literary writers exist now in a twilight world, neither respectable nor commercially viable. Their work drowns in a sea of garbage in bookstores, while much of SF's promise is realized elsewhere by writers too savvy or oblivious to bother with its stigmatized identity. SF's failure to present its own best face, to win proper respect, was never so tragic as now, when its strengths are so routinely preempted. In a literary culture where Pynchon, DeLillo, Barthelme, Coover, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, and Steve Erickson are ascendant powers, isn't the division meaningless?


Among the factors arrayed against acceptance of SF as serious writing, none is more plain to outsiders than this: the books are so fucking ugly. Worse, they're all ugly in the same way, so you can't distinguish those meant for grown-ups from those meant for 12-year-olds.

And this paragraph is especially pertinent, with everyone thinking about movies lately:
It's now a commonplace in film criticism that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg together brought to a crashing halt the most progressive and interesting decade in American film since the '30s. What's eerie is that the same duo are the villains in SF's tragedy as well, though you might want to add a third name—J. R. R. Tolkien. The vast popular success of the imagery and archetypes purveyed by those three savants of children's literature expanded the market for "sci-fi"—a cartoonified, castrated, and deeply nostalgic version of the budding literature—a thousandfold.

Ebert on Classics
Film critic Roger Ebert posted diary entries for five days in early April on Slate while attending the ''Conference on World Affairs'' in Boulder, Colorado.
"What Is a Classic?" was a panel at which we agreed that in modern America, hardly anyone knows and fewer care. Wendell Harris, emeritus professor of English from Penn State, observed sadly that we do not have a generally shared American culture. Sayre Sheldon of Boston University, president of Women's Action for New Directions, read the titles on the current New York Times fiction list and asked who thought each title would be remembered as a classic. Toni Morrison did well. Robert Parker didn't do badly. Jingalu, a 25-year-old aboriginal artist from Australia with wonderful curls spilling down her back, wondered if traditions such as the aboriginal initiations into manhood and womanhood could be called classics. We thought perhaps they could, since they're an art form passed down through the generations as bearers of style and values. Paul Kolsby, the playwright and actor, read a list of things that are classics and turned it into a comic performance. I said I didn't want to know anyone who didn't know who Dr. Johnson was. Accused by an audience member of being an exclusivist snob, I amended: I didn't want to know anyone who was not at least willing to know who Dr. Johnson was.
On another topic, the very next paragraph:
Then to Macky Auditorium for Cinema Interruptus. We will take eight hours to go through Dark City using a stop-action laserdisc player. Many of those who saw the movie yesterday agreed with me that it is a visionary achievement. I predicted that, like Blade Runner, it will pass directly from box office disappointment to cultural touchstone, without passing through the intermediate stages of success.

(Here's Ebert's four-star review of Dark City.)

Disch on TV
Thomas M. Disch, in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, makes the following useful point about TV that just as easily applies to movies:
TV is a visual medium. This might seem too obvious to mention, but it's something that writers, when they assess the content of a TV program, seldom bear in mind. If you want to see how a TV series works, watch one installment with the sound off. I learned this valuable lesson from my Aunt Aurelia, who explained that the special appeal of the soap operas she watched every day in her retirement years was not the complicated plots (which she couldn't always keep track of) but the way all the characters were so well dressed and lived in such tastefully decorated homes. She watched the soaps as once people went to the opera--not for the sake of the story, which was often preposterous or unseemly, but to see what people were wearing.
And on another topic is this apt description:
What the New Wave offered was science fiction without spaceships.

Gellhorn on Wells
The New Yorker for June 22 & 29 has a selection of letters from Martha Gellhorn -- war reporter, novelist, and Hemingway's third wife -- that include these characterizations of H. G. Wells:

From a letter to Victoria Glendinning, Sept. 22, 1987:

I knew so many of the people you write about and sometime I must tell you about me and Wells. The old fool asked me to marry him in 1935 when he was older than God and I was just twenty-seven. I've never told anyone; it seemed so ludicrous. I thought he was a bore, too.
Another letter to Victoria, 8 days later:
Now, that Gip Wells [George Philip, H. G. Wells's son by his second wife, Catherine]. He showed me what Wells had written and it seems that Wells had saved my letters. I said to Gip, read them and if you think those are love letters then you never had any or wrote any. I know my love letters all right. I also told Gip that his papa now had destroyed himself in my memory by claiming me as a love affair. Why the hell would I sleep with a little old man when I could have any number of tall beautiful young men? My letters, sent to me by Gip, are good, amusing--I wrote letters instead of seeing people, like now; and especially when I was married because I was loneliest then. Gip had to admit that they were not love letters. I found it disgusting that Wells needed to add my scalp, and refused to play. Before I thought he was mostly a bore, but a serious man; and I could write to him about my endless preoccupations with the history our time. Now I find that, since almost everyone is dead, I am hard up for anyone to whom to write when the news suffocates me with anger or grief or both.
(Wells was 69 in 1935; he died in 1946. Gellhorn died in February 1998.)

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