Groff Conklin’s Criticisms of Shelley’s Frankenstein

While reading the introduction to Science Fiction Thinking Machines (1954), I was shocked by Groff Conklin’s criticisms of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

Even since the days of that ineffably dull and moralistic epic Frankenstein and probably before, the idea of an intelligent machine, or automaton has fascinated writers of imagination. . . . There were many other stories of automata, but for the most part they were literary failures much as Frankenstein is, for our modern taste. (x)

Granted, Conklin wrote this during the height of his anthologizing and while science fiction magazines were still a publishing phenomenon. The kinds of stories written at that time were certainly different than Shelley’s Frankenstein, but was it so different that an editor like Conklin went out of his way to criticize a work that all of the works that he may like definitely owed a measure of gratitude? Was “our modern taste” that adverse to Shelley’s groundbreaking work from 1818?

It could be that my modern taste is mutually exclusive with that of Conklin’s. I’ve read Frankenstein several times–beginning at my time at Georgia Tech–and I always enjoy picking it up to read again. I revel in Frankenstein’s hubris, and I feel the creature’s lament on his tragic condition. It is a wonderful novel that should not be disregarded as a “ineffably dull” or a “literary failure.” If you haven’t read it before, I cannot give a stronger recommendation for you to do so.

Book Review Leads to Criminal Libel Charge –

As a regular reviewer of fiction and non-fiction books, I find this news story in The New York Times a little disturbing:

In a little more than a week, a court in Paris will decide whether a law professor in New York committed criminal libel by publishing a book review.

You will want to read the short news story linked below to unravel what is taking place with the trial, but it suffices to say here that it is an international affront to the right of free speech, which includes one’s right to critically evaluate the speech/writing of others. I will report how the trial turns out as soon as I hear. It bears repeating that I will vigorously defend my right to free speech here and in other venues.

via Book Review Leads to Criminal Libel Charge –

Stanislaw Lem’s “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans”

In Science Fiction Studies #5 (1975), Stanislaw Lem wrote an article, translated from the Polish by Robert Abernathy, describing, analyzing, and challenging the work of Philip K. Dick (up to that point). Titled “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans,” it is a rich essay that has much to say about Dick’s work and the work of the critic.

Lem says that Dick, like other science fiction authors, takes from the “warehouse which has long since become their common property,” or what Damien Broderick later theorized as the SF mega-text (57). One of the themes that Dick relies on is the catastrophe, but unlike most other science fiction authors, the catastrophes in Dick’s fiction occur for unascertainable reasons, i.e., the uncovered causes are deferred to the end. The common denominator in all of Dick’s fiction is a world beset by an unconstrained and monstrous entropy that devours matter and even time. Following his instincts, as Patricia Warrick would later say of Dick that he is understood intuitively, Lem says of Dick that he does not go in for rational explanations, but instead, confounds both the plot and the conventions of the science fiction genre itself. Of this, Lem demonstrates that genres have conventions, but those conventions were formed by previous breaking of convention to make the genre thus. Dick does this to science fiction, changing it to meet his own needs and creativity. Coupled with his genre breaking is the fact that Dick is a bricoleur, though this is not the word Lem uses, but it is very much what he is describing. Lem describes Dick’s work as something offered for sale at a “county fair,” having been made from a variety of concepts and ideas, but making the new creation solidly his own. Dick is not a futurologist, but rather representing the very idea of futureshock in his stories. Dick is not an extrapolator who changes one thing and leaves all the rest unscathed. He shows how civilization goes on, progress forward, but having been changed radically by the events presupposed in his stories. He acknowledges that history cannot be rewound. The fusion of the natural with the artificial, a point also raised by Warrick, Leo Marx, and Sharona Ben-Tov, means that there can be no more talk of a return to nature. In this, Dick does question progress, but not by chucking the concept. Instead, he complicates it, and again, confounds it. For Dick, our technological labyrinth prevents us from returning to nature–again, connections with Warrick, Marx, and Ben-Tov. Lem conjectures on this as something beyond the scope of Dick’s work, but nevertheless should be taken into account. He thinks about how the “irreversibility of history, leads Dick to the pessimistic conclusion that looking far into the future becomes such a fulfillment of dreams of power over matter as converts the ideal of progress into a monstrous caricature” (64). It is this carrying Dick’s ideas further in his criticism that Lem attempts to practice the very thing Dick practiced in his writing. And most importantly, in his short engagement of the novel Ubik, Lem, a good structuralist, avoids the author’s interpretation of the work, and instead considers how the thing ‘ubik’ and its combination of the old and philosophical with the modern and consumer culture resulted in such a powerful metaphor and not a futurological or technical artifact (66).

Two other things that I would like to leave with you from this essay is Lem’s idea about the relationship of the critic to a work–as defender rather than prosecutor–a way that I have tried to work in my own scholarship and reviews: “I think, however, that the critic should not be the prosecutor of a book but its defender, though one not allowed to lie: he may only present the work in the most favorable light” (60).

And I would like to quote at length, Lem’s concluding paragraph, in which he gives a honest, gracious, and thoughtful tribute to Dick’s writing. Lem says:

The writings of Philip Dick have deserved a better fate than that to which they were destined by their birthplace. If they are neither of uniform quality nor fully realized, still it is only by brute force that they can be jammed into that pulp of materials, destitute of intellectual value and original structure, which makes up SF. Its fans are attracted by the worst in Dick–the typical dash of American SF, reaching to the stars, and the headlong pace of action moving from one surprise to the next–but they hold it against him that, instead of unraveling puzzles, he leaves the reader at the end on the battlefield, enveloped in the aura of a mystery as grotesque as it is strange. Yet his bizarre blendings of hallucinogenic and palingenetic techniques have not won him many admirers outside the ghetto walls, since there readers are repelled by the shoddiness of the props he has adopted from the inventory of SF. Indeed, these writings sometimes fumble their attempts; but I remain after all under their spell, as it often happens at the sight of a lone imagination’s efforts to cope with a shattering superabundance of opportunities–efforts in which even a partial defeat can resemble a victory (66-67).

I am also under that spell and happily on the battlefield, a little the worse for wear, but with kit in hand. At least, I thought I was on a battlefield until I realized that I was sitting at a desk in front of a computer wildly typing away on this very blog. I suppose the battlefields, like ontologies, can change unexpectedly and for inexplicable reasons.

Image of Lem at the top of the post is from the Wikimedia Commons, details here.

The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction


I just received my copy of The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction today. After browsing through the entire volume, I’m amazed at how much amazing work is packed into this single volume by such a broad swath of the science fiction scholar community. I can see this anthology being useful in an SF survey course or as a companion for any scholar who wants a quick and thorough introduction to a particular field of study within SF scholarship.

SFRA 2008 – Thursday

Thursday morning, I met up with Melissa, and we ventured to downtown Lawrence along Massachusetts Street.  We visited a British store with every kind of tea imaginable except Harrod’s Breakfast Blend, a French store with German chocolate, which I bought, and Milton’s for huge stacks of French toast and a delicious latte.

Returning to the Holiday Inn Holidome, the first panel I visited was “Teaching Science Fiction I.”  Brian Attebery argued for a new theory of SF in his paper, “Teaching Parabolas.”  His idea is that earlier theories of SF are too one-dimensional (e.g., Suvin’s novum, Wolfe’s icon, and Cawelti’s formula).  Brian brought these together in his formulation of “parabolas,” which shares a root with parable or the teaching story, and contains these three characteristics:  “1) formula-like, 2) open ended, and 3) gestures toward social, philosophical, or scientific application.”  In the classroom, he says teaching SF in this way helps students realize that connections are more than coincidences.

In the same panel, Jim Davis talked about his experiences teaching a historically based SF course, Michael Page gave a history of teaching SF that builds on the histories in the 1996 Science-Fiction Studies special issue on teaching, and Steven Berman offered some great strategies for teaching SF in online courses.

After a short break, I joined Timothy J. LeBeau and Janice M. Bogstad on the panel titled, “Postcolonial Science Fiction.”  Timothy presented first on “Religion and Postcolonial Geographies.”  He argued that writers were mapmakers, and claimed that “no map is innocent.”  He had some compelling ideas on McDonald’s River of Gods, Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Harrison’s Light and Nova Swing.  However, I can’t say that I totally agree with his contention that River of Gods perpetuates the India of Forrester, Orwell, and Kipling.  I see River of Gods as an SF complement or perhaps, supplement to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

I was next up to bat, and I presented my paper, “Digital Nomads:  Revealing Critical Theory’s Real Life Potential to Our Students,” which is about:

Critical theory is an important aspect of upper-level undergraduate coursework, but its introduction and application often hinge on literature and culture-at-large rather than on the real world significance for our students.  This disconnects students from the possibilities and potential of critical theory.  In this essay, I argue that Science Fiction facilitates bridging students’ real world lives with theory through a pedagogical example, which explores the interconnections between Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theorization of micropolitical nomadology, Mike Resnick’s Ivory:  A Legend of Past and Future (2007), and our students’ online lives.  The theory underlying this approach is that students’ will be more engaged with and empowered by theory that means something beyond the classroom setting.

I think it was well received, and I got a couple of good questions including a real, but well-intended, curveball from Richard Erlich.

Janice presented her paper, “A Colonialist/Postcolonial Reading of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age,” last.  This paper was part of a larger project that she’s working on concerning the descriptions of China and its immediate surroundings as a liminal space.  She drew on Homi Baba’s concept of a “third space,” which doesn’t favor Western models of hierarchies and oppositions, to explore some of the things going on in Stephenson’s novel.  I’ve written on The Diamond Age for a MA class, so I was excited about Janice’s take on the novel.

Following the panel, I met up with Melissa and Andy Sawyer to get supper.  Melissa had heard about a BBQ joint called Biggs BBQ.  After a few wrong turns and calling tower control for an assist, we found delicious pork, ribs, and chicken awaiting us behind the Firestone on Hwy 59.  Having our fill of local food, we trekked back to the hotel for the evening’s roundtable.

The roundtable was on “Creating, Reading, and Teaching Science Fiction,” and it was populated by the conference’s centerfielders:  Brian Attebery, Jim Gunn, Marleen Barr, Karen Joy Fowler, Adam Frisch, and James Van Pelt.  It began with a film montage taken from Jim’s Science Fiction film series put out by Kansas University in the 1970s.  I had seen some of these when I was studying at the University of Liverpool.  They were introduced by a dapper Jim Gunn sporting a thin mustache, and there were interviews with Harlan Ellison and a discussion with John Campbell, Jr.  The montage featured Fred Pohl and others.  It was a great introduction to the following discussion.

Adam began with referencing my recent question put to the SFRA listserv on teaching SF in the writing classroom.  He outlined his own approach to teaching SF in a gateway course called, “Current Social Issues in SF, Literature, and Film,” which relies on students engaging 9 or 10 DVDs including Outbreak (pandemics), The Truman Show (panopticon/reality TV culture), and Brazil (paired with the first chapter of Geoff Ryman’s Air) with short stories in order to get them to identify, think about, and discuss important issues.

Marleen talked about categories and social issues.  She talked about her own SF trajectory and how feminist SF was an empowering thing, because it provided an imaginative space wholly populated by the category “female” (think:  Kenya–rule by blacks, Israel–rule by Jews, but no place in our world that’s only woman).  Also, she talked about the trouble with textism, or the discrimination against texts, in this context SF, which led her to pick up on something Asimov said in the intro video:  “we live in a science fictional world.”  If that’s true, “how can SF be marginal?”  “Why is Shakespear kosher?”  She called for an elimination of this kind of textism, particularly because of the importance and influence of SF in the modern world.  She shared with us how on 9/11 she watched the towers burn from her home in New York City, and she thought of herself in a SF film.  However, on a recent visit to Auschwitz, she felt beyond SF, in the unreal, and she relied on her SF background as a way to deal with the unreality of her experience at the death camp.

Karen, connecting to Marleen’s comments, talked about how Wiscon serves as a place where different texts were talked about as in no other place.  She went on talk about her own writing experience.  She’s not interested in problem solving, because that’s not interesting enough to take up in a novel.  Also, she feels that SF is a powerless literature beginning with cyberpunk, which she described by comparing Kim Stanley Robinson (pull us back from a break) and Neal Stephenson (suspicion of activism and the agent manipulating the world).  She feels that SF is becoming a “small beer press” thing.  Kelly Link et. al. are making greater fantastic leaps.  And she said, “in a world where Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of California–the tools of reality are not up to dealing with that.”

Jim Van Pelt talked about the challenges and difficulties of teaching SF to high school students.  His students don’t realize that they live in a world of wonder.  Instead, they live in an eternal present.  For them, SF is revolutionary, because it shows that the world can change and it’s based on the idea that things can, do, and will change over time.  This change also has a social, technological, and personal dimension, and it’s the latter that they also don’t realize.  For example, SF poses questions such as who are we, where are we going, and how should we behave when we get there?

Brian began by saying that we live in a Dick novel, not an Asmovian world.  In talking about SF, he said that it’s easy to get someone to say whether it’s good or not, but it’s hard to have someone say it’s important or not.  To see the importance of something, you have to teach someone to see it through your eyes–to give them a framework or a lens.  He sees teaching as this kind of intervention, which has three elements.  The first is teaching a cultural pattern–Nye’s “technological sublime.”  This is something that can change the world in inspiring ways such as recently reflected in cyberpunk.  The second is teaching the aesthetics of a genre and reading techniques for a genre.  This is something that has to be taught in order to help students answer questions such as how do you love something?  How do you read something?  What do you do when you read SF?  Other people?  Do they really?  How do we use a category to read something?  Etc.  The third element of his intervention is to get students to read a lot of SF in order to improve what they write in order to prevent new bad SF novels from getting published.

Jim Gunn added a story about running into Chip Delany at MLA.  Delany had gone around to a number of universities and discovered that many people didn’t have the ability to read SF–they didn’t have the background.  This highlighted the fact that there are protocols that we need to learn so that we read SF effectively.  Gunn uses Philip Jose Farmer’s “Sail On, Sail On” to guide students through a close reading in order to elevate the protocols from the page.  Also, he added that all reading has protocols, which is true from adventure stories to canonical literature of various eras.  For SF, you can throw out other ways of reading (e.g., adventure or literature) and you are left with the scientific kernel, which is necessary and sufficient for the story to be SF.

A lively discussion ensued after the panelists’ opening remarks.  As it wound down, I was getting tired after waking up early and putting in a full day of conferencing.  It was time for sleep and another day to begin…