C. M. Kornbluth—The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social CriticismIn 1957, C. M. Kornbluth participated in a lecture series at the University of Chicago featuring leading SF writers. Their presentations were later gathered in The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (1959), from which this piece is taken.
My topic is the Science Fiction novel as Social Criticism. I might be happier discussing the Science Fiction Novel as Fun for One and All, or the Science Fiction Novel as Psychotherapy for the Neurotic Author, but there is a job to be done and I am willing to do my best with it. In doing this job I've tried to use the methods of modern literary criticism, so what follows may sometimes sound wild, impudent and vulgar. This is because modern literary criticism sometimes is wild, impudent and vulgar; anybody who wants to keep his dignity had better avoid criticism and stick to scholarship. I should also warn you that I'm going to make a lot of mistakes, and I say this not as a display of becoming modesty but as a prediction, I've gone out on a number of limbs, deliberately, because my intention is to stimulate discussion rather than to terminate it.
Out on Limb Number One, I suggest that the science fiction novel is not an important medium of social criticism. Let us look at some novels of social criticism which did things, and ask ourselves whether any science fiction novel ever remotely matched their records of performance.
Imprimis, Don Quixote: a mundane tale about a lunatic, a fat little man, innkeepers and other real people wandering through a real, contemporary Spanish landscape. The professors tell us it blasted away the pretensions of chivalry in one great gale of laughter, ending an ancient social system and way of thought.
Item, Uncle Tom's Cabin: another mundane, contemporary story about real people in a contemporary situation. Whether or not Mr. Lincoln said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, "So you are the little lady who started this great war," nobody denies that her book played a part in history.
Item, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. I'm afraid I can't avoid repeating Sinclair's rueful comment, "I aimed at the nation's heart and hit its stomach." This is perfectly true, and he hit hard. His mundane, contemporary novel about immigrant life in Chicago directly caused a sweeping revision of American law and practice in the processing of meat. God knows how many lives, and how many millions of man-hours of illness, have been saved by this book.
Item, The Good Soldier Schweik, by Jaroslav Hasek. This contemporary novel about a most uncommon common soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army is supposed to have helped bring down the Austro-Hungarian Empire, playing the same sort of role as Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Item, Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis showed middle-class America the tragic emptiness of its life without culture, and lived to see that middle-class life strikingly transformed. I don't pretend that you and I live in a golden age of culture, but we do have everywhere today our readers of books, our listeners to music, our thinkers and appreciators where before we had—Babbitts.
Another great book stands somewhere outside the canon: Gargantua and Pantagruel, by François Rabelais. Drastic social criticism it certainly is, but I do not know whether anybody claims it ever converted a single soul from Calvinism or monastic dourness to delight in the senses and the intellect. I do know that there are idiots at large who are capable of arguing that the book is a science fiction novel; if anybody tries to embroil me in such an argument I will punch him in the nose.
There is a curious fact about five or the six books I've mentioned. Each has added a word to the permanent international vocabulary: "quixotic," "Simon Legree," "schweikism" (heard more often in Europe than here, but not quite unknown in America), "babbittry" and "gargantuan" (mostly misued). This little touchstone is by no means a bad test of the influence of a book. Living words like "odyssey," "scrooge," and "romeo" are living witnesses to the power of literary works they derived from.
Some of the amateur scholars of science fiction are veritable Hitlers for aggrandizing their field. If they perceive in, say, a sixteenth century satire some vaguely speculative element they see it as a trembling and persecuted minority, demand Anschluss, and proceed to annex the satire to science fiction. This kind of empire-building has resulted in an impressive list of titles allegedly science-fictional going back to classic times or for all I know earlier. Assume they are all veritable science fiction. Most of these works are of no importance. Not one of them has been influential to a degree remotely comparable with the mundane books I've cited so far. The books I've cited have measurably done things; there is general agreement by sane men that they started wars, they caused revolutions, they got laws passed, they changed customs and attitudes. No science fiction novel has done anything like this, even though science fiction contains a high percentage of explicit and implicit social criticism. After a digression I will climb out on Limb Number Two and tell you why I think this is so.
The digression is into a chapter from Melville's Moby Dick. It is Chapter XL, called "Midnight, Forecastle." Ahab is not present, Ishmael takes no part, Moby Dick is not mentioned and the mates are no more than offstage voices. For six pages sailors lounge about off watch, sing a little, dance a little and talk. There is a near-fight between two of them, but it is broken up when a mate calls for all hands to reef sail; a squall has blown up. The chapter ends.
From this description it would seem that Melville's ostensible purpose was to add to the reality of the Pequod, to fill corners of the picture with corroborative detail, to further the suspension of disbelief. But an attentive reading reveals something more. A Dutch sailor speaks: "Grand snoozing tonight, maty; fat night for that. I mark this in our old Mogul's wine " A subtle onomatopoeia pervades the speech; note the predominance of long, drawling vowels and diphthongs and open-ended consonants. Then a French sailor speaks: "Hist, boys! Let's have a jig or two before we ride to anchor in Blanket Bay. What say ye? There comes the other watch. Stand by all legs! Pip! little Pip!" The vowels are mostly short, most of the consonants are stopped; the effect is of a string of firecrackers; the contrast with the speech of the Dutch sailor is as strong as it can be.
At this point we can be sure that Melville is up to something, that this dialogue is not mere stenography. He is showing us two types of mankind; why? The effect becomes stranger as we read on; Pip complains that a jingler has dropped off his tambourine, and a Chinese sailor calls to him: "Rattle thy teeth, then, and pound away; make a pagoda of thyself." This is not naturalistic speech and we must by now admit that a new quality has crept into the passage. A stenographic, naturalistic explanation no longer suffices. This new quality is considered desirable by modern criticism. It has been called ambiguity, multiordinality, plurisignation, and symbolism. I shall call it symbolism. Now, once we admit the presence of the symbolic quality in Chapter XL we must admit that Melville's characters are acting out the ostensible melodrama against the backdrop of the forecastle, but that another higher drama is being performed simultaneously by whatever it is they symbolize.
Continuing to read, we find that this sailor then turns his thoughts to women—the Tahitian sailor to the "holy nakedness of our dancing girls"; the Sicilian sailor complaining "Tell me not of it!" and then going on to invoke "fleet inter-lacings of the limbs—lithe swayings—coyings—flutterings! lip! heart! all graze " Most pathetic of all is the reverie of the nameless Manx sailor who it seems never knew any woman but prostitutes and is now too old for them; but who nevertheless misses their company; for they come obsessively into his mind. He watches the sailors dancing to Pip's tambourine and says to himself: "I wonder whether these jolly lads bethink them of what they are dancing over. I'll dance over your grave, I will—that's the bitterest threat of your night-women, that beat head-winds round corners. O Christ! to think of the green navies and the green-skulled crews! Well, well; belike the whole world's a ball, as you scholars have it; and so 'tis right to make one ball-room of it. Dance on, lads, you're young; I was once."
I think we know by now whom the sailors symbolize. They represent every soldier, sailor and wanderer who was ever far from home and its comforts; they are everybody who ever feared and suffered the great basic experiences of privation, impotence and mortality.
At a great price bought Melville this freedom. He attained symbolic quality in this passage by very hard writing and self-discipline. If he had not carefully built up to it, the wild and improbable cry of the Chinese sailor would evoke only a laugh instead of the eerie feeling, "all this is doubly meaningful." Every writer of contemporary or historical fiction must tame his imagination and think almost as the world thinks, or he is lost. Nobody will take seriously a writer who asserts that Michigan Boulevard is in New York City, or that the second president of the United States was Julius Caesar.
But the science fiction writer is born free. More than any other writer (except the writers of fantasy and dreams) he "makes it all up out of his own head." There is, for instance, no street map now in existence of Fort Worth, Texas, for the year 1995. The person writing about Forth Worth of 1995 is thus perfectly free to make its streets 250 feet wide. Let us say that, in the absence of a Bureau of Vital Statistics report for Forth Worth as of 1995, he populates the city with adults nine feet tall. Nobody will stop him, nobody can stop him, and he may even be paid for doing it. The question is, why should he? What are these nine-foot-tall Texans striding along streets 250 feet wide? What's the good of them? The answer is, of course, that they are ambiguities, multiordinalities, plurisignations, symbols. They are symbols of 1958 Texans, achieved at the stroke of a pen, without hard writing. The science fiction writer churns out symbols every time he writes of the future or an alternate present; he rolls out symbols of people, places, things, relationships, as fast as he can work his typewriter or drive his pen.
What's the good of it? It makes us think. The nine-foot-tall Texans of 1995, ostensibly, make us think of the Texans of 1958 and their customs and values. A symbol makes us think about the thing which it symbolizes. If I felt like adding to the confusion of the terminology I would call a symbol an "idol," for the functions of the symbol and the idol are the same.
Science fiction then should be an effective literature of social criticism—but I have said that it is not. I will climb onto Limb Number Two in an attempt to explain why it is not. I believe that in science fiction the symbolism lies too deep for action to result, that the science fiction story does not turn the reader outward to action but inward to contemplation. I think the unwitting compact between the writer and reader of science fiction goes, "We are suspending reality, you and I. By the signs of the rocket ship and the ray gun and the time machine we indicate that the relationship between us has nothing to do with the real world. By writing the stuff and by reading it we abdicate from action, we give free play to our unconscious drives and symbols, we write and read not about the real world but about ourselves and the things within ourselves."
Bearing in mind this hypothesis that the relationship between science fiction writer and reader is deeper than we had previously supposed, I will survey some science fiction novels containing explicit and implicit social criticism.
The earliest English science fiction novel which is still part of the living literature contains a high concentration of explicit social criticism. I am speaking of Gulliver's Travels. You will find it almost invariably is one of the volumes of those mail-order sets of classics, and it must be one of the volumes which do not let the average reader down. Gulliver reads well and easily to this day. It's a very funny book, full of good jokes and scatology, and its dominant attitude is the over-popular thesis that people are no damn good.
It has another puzzling asset which seems to have guaranteed its immortality. The image of giant Gulliver among the Lilliputians, and especially the image of Gulliver bound by the little people, strikes a chord in most readers. Perhaps many people cherish an unconscious image of themselves as giants chained by pygmies, and Gulliver Bound evokes this image. Perhaps the symbolism is double, and there is identification with the pygmies as well, with the pygmies symbolizing one's childhood and/or feelings of inferiority. Gulliver Bound is, at any rate, the trademark of the book. No illustrated edition of it omits a picture of this scene, the comic-book versions make great play of it, and it was emphasized both in the American cartoon movie and the Russian puppet movie versions.
Gulliver's Lilliput is a queerly inconsistent place. It is Utopia and Anti-Utopia in the same realm. The court of Lilliput is a scathing parody of the English court in the minutest detail. At the English court, did the courtiers bow, scrape and intrigue to gain membership in three knightly orders whose symbols were bands colored red, blue and green? Very well; in the court of Lilliput the courtiers for hours on end jumped over or crawled under a stick held by the king. Their rewards were silk threads colored blue, red or green—these are symbols of symbols! And pejorative symbolic action may reach an all-time high-water mark in the closing paragraphs of Chapter Five of the Voyage to Lilliput. Therein, Gulliver ostensibly extinguishes a fire in the royal palace by urinating on it. The proof that this is actually a symbolic statement of his opinion of the English court lies in the horror and revulsion with which his ostensibly prudent, good-hearted action is received by the empress.
The inconsistency I referred to is this: the schools of Lilliput are everything. Swift thought schools should be and, in England, were not. Bad court, good schools. I will label this a flaw and move on.
There are a great many coined words in the book, and Damon Knight has recently applied to science fiction Kenneth Burke's doctrine that through an author's coined words and puns a critic can gain clues to his conscious and unconscious attitudes and intentions. I have tried this method of inquiry on the Travels with no success. The Lilliputian rank of admiral is galbet, which suggests a portmanteau of gallows and gibbet, which is not especially elucidating. An exception being the name of the flying island: Laputa. Which is simply Spanish for "the whore" as Swift well knew; indeed he devoted a dead-pan half page of fake etymology to supplying an alternate meaning of the word. I suspect that Swift may have coined his words out of tags of Hebrew, Greek and other languages I don't know. The Lilliputian speech, for instance, gives a weird impression of oscillating between Hebrew and Japanese.
The voyage to the flying island of Laputa is of special interest, for it is the closest of the voyages to modern science fiction. Laputa is gadgety and populated by scientists. It criticizes by extrapolation a social trend toward wild-eyed "projects." It contains Swift's celebrated and astonishingly accurate guess at the existence and location of the two satellites of Mars, which were invisible to the telescopes of his day. There is another interesting guess embodied in the few phrases describing the language of the Laputans. Their speech is said to be mathematical, and to an extent musical. "Mathematical speech" is, I think, defensible as a stab of Boolean algebra—maybe as much of a stab as the young Leibnitz' characteristica universalis. In each case the speculator said approximately as follows: "Perhaps language and thought can be put on a mathematical basis." And then in 1854 Professor George Boole did exactly that, with earthshaking consequences that will not be fully appreciated in your lifetime or mine.
Typically, Swift disapproved of this mathematical speech. The Voyage to Laputa is not merely science fiction; it belongs to the sub-category of anti-science fiction. Swift pours his contempt on the scientists of the flying island for neglecting practical affairs, for being all thumbs away from their drafting boards, and ignorant of anything outside their specialties.
In summary, does Gulliver's Travels have much more than the interest of a peep-show, or an overheard family quarrel? Does it contain elements of beauty, awe or tragedy? It does not. The meanness of Swift and his time is announced on the first page, where in less than one sentence he describes Gulliver's courtship and marriage as follows: " being advised to alter my condition, I married Miss Mary Burton, second daughter to Mr. Edmund Burton, hosier, in Newgate Street, with whom I received four hundred pounds for a portion."
What is Swift's answer to the great problems of mankind? It is that they should return to primitive virtue, symbolized by horses—the Houyhnhnms. This is the cheap and erroneous doctrine of the noble savage which we get also from Rousseau and which can be disproved by examining any aboriginal culture at all. It is curious that Swift's symbol for primitive virtue should be the horse, and I would like to suggest that there may be an element of atonement in his choice. We have pretty much forgotten that our not very remote ancestors practiced cruelties on animals which would be unthinkable today. Children amused themselves by torturing animals because they were taught they had no feelings. Horses were tamed and trained by savage abuse. There must have been exceptions, but not until 1853 did the English cavalryman Lewis Nolan, and in 1858 the American farmer John S. Rarey, widely publish systems of horse-training by kindness and rewards. The world was ready for Noland's and Rarey's systems, and horsewhips formerly used for training the animals were thriftily set aside for use on editors or those who spoke lightly of one's sister's virtue. Perhaps Swift glorified the horse in attempt to make up for the countless cases of whipping, starving and overloading he must have witnessed.
Gulliver's Travels was a rousing, emphatic "success." Did it accomplish anything? No. Perhaps it raised a few titters at the absurdity of English court life or the thoroughly misunderstood activities of the Royal Society. This is not an achievement comparable with the achievements of The Good Soldier Schweik or Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Jungle. It did add a word or two to the international vocabulary—"lilliputian" and "yahoo." Mostly it contributed to the unconscious of its millions of readers. It turns its readers inward, not outward.
I shall take up next social criticism in the science fiction novels of Dr. E. E. Smith. I chose his work deliberately because it represents a major area of science fiction, the large-scale interplanetary story. He was one of the earliest writers to work that vein and one of the most successful. Most science fiction readers know and enjoy his books. They are, in a word, important—too important to ignore.
The early Smith books, the "Skylark" stories, present us, in the realm of social criticism, with a strange blend of naive Marxism, a fascistic leader-principle, and despair of democracy. All this is implicit in the books, of course; I do not for a moment suggest that Dr. Smith was on a soap-box voicing a reasoned-out creed. Nevertheless he wrote what he wrote, and it's legitimate to examine it.
In the "Skylark" books the Earth was rapidly coming under the sway of a vast and villainous steel corporation—ultimately, a Marxist concept. Sympathetically-portrayed alien cultures were shown to be under rigid military discipline analogous to the Spartan. One democratic planet could be so because the intelligence of its inhabitants was enormously advanced beyond the Earthly standard—a pessimistic negative reply is implicit here to the question of whether mankind is capable of self-government.
Some might think it would be best to dismiss these attitudes as mere plot devices, notions that were floating around during the Depression which Dr. Smith hadn't really chewed before swallowing, techniques which had not yet been revealed to the world in their pragmatic fullness as practiced in Germany, Italy and Russia. A steady, clear-eyed look at ancient Sparta would have revealed it as a ghastly tyranny incomplete and unworkable without its murder gangs who marked down for death any peasant showing a spark of initiative or leadership; but scientists and engineers used to be notorious for their lack of broad culture, a situation which now seems to be rapidly changing. We might say that people just weren't interested in democracy in those days before it was threatened, that they accepted it as they accepted the air they breathed. We might compare the "Skylark" attitudes with the supremely fuzzy contemporary statement of H. P. Lovecraft on one of his fictional pre-human races: "Their government was a kind of socialistic fascism."
All this, no doubt, is perfectly true. The fact of its truth however does not rule out the possibility that another explanation is also true. Besides the economic and cultural reasons for the lack of interest in these vital problems of mankind, there may be a psychological reason.
In our search for light, let us as before examine the symbols. Dr. Richard Seaton did not really exist and his voyages did not really happen; the words about them are therefore not a naturalistic report of a real event. What then are the words about? What does Seaton symbolize?
Let us find out what love means in the world of Richard Seaton. It is non-sexual, we find; a mild cuddling is as far as Seaton goes with his wife. They do not have children; children are had by elderly creatures who give the impression of being perpetually in formal evening dress. Dorothy Seaton is a girl, and therefore debarred from any share in the world's real work. Dorothy Seaton is equipped with a doctorate in music and a Stradivarius which, if memory serves, her daddy gave her. However, she plays schmaltzy, alt Wien tearoom numbers which no Doctor of Music ever hooded in the real world could conceivably perform.
I suggest from this that there is very little fundamental material in the "Skylark" universe which is congruent with adulthood. I suggest that there is much fundamental material in that universe congruent with the attitudes and emotions of a boy seven or nine years old tearing off down an alley on his bike in search of adventure. The politics of this boy are vague, half-understood, overheard adult dogmatisms. His sex-life is a bashful, inhibited yearning for unspecific contact. His cultural level is low; he has not had time to learn to like anything seriously musical. Around the corner there lurks the impossibly malignant black-haired bully who may be all of twelve, and his smart little toady. But Dicky Seaton has a loyal pal, Marty Crane, and together they will whip the bully and toady in a fair, stand-up fight.
What are these wild adventures of Seaton and Crane, then? These mighty conquests, these vast explorations, these titanic battles? They are boyish daydreams, the power of fantasies which compensate for the inevitable frustrations of childhood in an adult world. They are the weakness of the Smith stories as rational pictures of the universe and society, and they are the strength of the stories as engrossing tales of Never-Never Land. We have all been children.
Armed with this concept of the Smith hero as a child, I turned eagerly to the study of his later series, the "Galactic Patrol" books. I was curious to learn whether the Smith hero has grown up or not.
Many things in the "Galactic Patrol" universe are more adult than their equivalents in the "Skylark" universe. Womankind has been admitted to the human race. Procreation occurs as a consequence of love. A brilliant gallery of sympathetically-presented extra-terrestrials atones in full for the old "Skylark" doctrine that the less human an entity looks, the more likely it is to be villainous. But all this is misleading; Seaton and Crane have not grown up. They have grown back.
They have become incredibly powerful because they were good and someone rewarded them with a magic amulet. Social criticism? Well, there is a great deal of crime and vice in their world, but no human being is responsible for it. The crime and vice, the "badness," are successfully combatted in the end, but human beings are not responsible for that either. There are dirty politics and clean politics—but human beings are not responsible for them.
Well then, for what are human beings responsible? They are responsible for propitiating their wise protectors who give them magic amulets; they are responsible for avoiding their terrible and omnipotent assailants. All other activity is meaningless, a mask, a system of evil levers leading to the only great source of good and evil.
Human beings are, in short, about eighteen months old.
I will leave it up to you to conclude what slimy, amorphous, evil-smelling ultimate villains of the Lensmen universe symbolize, pointing out that their name "Eich" is identical with a cry of disgust which might be uttered by the mother of an infant under certain circumstances.
Symbolic regression to infancy, by the way, is not at all unusual in science fiction, and neither is it the end of the line. Dr. Smith's characters have a penchant for climbing into spherical space ships or pear-shaped space ships. His heroic wearers of the Galactic Patrol lens at one time had their headquarters inside an armor-plated hill where they were safe from everything.
Let us contrast the Smith novels with Wilson Tucker's The Long Loud Silence. This is an alleged science fiction novel of social criticism in that it is a violent tract against biological warfare. It is the type of novel which says: "I will show you what will happen if you don't listen to me and do as I say." It does not have thick symbolic content; its land is our land, its people are us, transposed only a few years and one insane decision into the future. The book concludes with a stark, enormous deed of cannibalism. This takes us back to the animal, before the human being became human enough to define the first and basic crimes—cannibalism general, within the family incest and unregulated parricide. If these three acts, common in the animal world, had not been prohibited, the family, group life and ultimately civilization would have been impossible. The prohibitions seem to be fairly recent as the life-span of the human race goes; the Greek tragedies were largely concerned with the terrible consequences of parricide and incest even when committed unwittingly; the badness of unwitting cannibalism within the family recurs through the Elizabethan drama, and to our own day in a novel by Evelyn Waugh.
Tremendous power is latent in these symbols, and Tucker brilliantly taps it in the scene of his book. He shows us creatures reduced to eating human flesh and therefore non-human; it is all the more horrible that they are capable of speech and reason.
I will cast aside a part-time principle that biographical information has no place in literary criticism to examine an interesting alternative to Tucker's published ending. Originally he had his protagonist eat his erstwhile mistress, which is pure familial cannibalism. His editor persuaded him to have the two join forces instead to commit cannibalism on stray human beings who crossed their path. I think the editor was wise. We are left not with the substance but with the shadow. We have the taste of familial cannibalism in our mouths, but if we were fed the actual thing we would vomit it out—that is, reject the reality of the book.
I suspect The Long Loud Silence is a book of social criticism which might have had the effect of an Uncle Tom's Cabin or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. It has no inherent defect which could have kept it from sweeping the country, bringing home to citizens and voters the realities of bacteriological warfare, and forcing our leaders to take steps toward lessening the probability that the book will become true. It is legitimate to ask why it was ignored by the nation.
It was ignored because publishers think of their books in rigid categories. Tucker's book fell into the category "science fiction." Books in the category "science fiction" get no promotion or advertising to speak of, they get misleading jacket blurbs, and a sale of five thousand copies is considered a realistic target. The idea is to sell it to the science fiction readers, clear expenses, make a little money on the paperback reprint, pat the author on the back and tell him to go write another book, boy, we love your stuff.
We happy few who have read The Long Loud Silence must agree that it is enormously effective social criticism, saying much about man and his society. It makes us think; it makes us want to act. In this it contrasts strongly with the books of Dr. Smith. I suggest that this is because Tucker's book is mature where Dr. Smith's books are not. Tucker is writing about adults in situations analogous to those you and I encounter, real situations, social situations, social problems with social answers. Dr. Smith is writing about children whose problems, where they exist, are not social problems. The problems in the books of Dr. Smith are person-to-person and one-thing-at-a-time. There is no sense of a social webwork of relationships and interactions.
Now you may object that I proclaimed from Limb Number Two that science fiction is too deeply symbolic to evoke action from the reader, yet here I am saying that only an accidental habit of the publishing trade kept The Long Loud Silence from evoking action. I am not much of a one for those interminable arguments about what is and what isn't science fiction, but this once I'll join in and say that Tucker's novel, though set a few years in the future, is not science fiction. Perhaps in my zeal I am setting up a vicious-circle fallacy here, but I doubt it. Point to the things that mean science fiction and what do we see? Vast spaces, strange inventions, great voyages, heroes incredible, villains satanic, monsters, strangeness. We do not find these things in Tucker's book, and I maintain that he has not written a science fiction novel but a first-rate contemporary novel about a war and its aftermath.
Let us look next at the science fiction books of Olaf Stapledon. In his works I find an obsessive master theme of personalities merging, flowing together, to form something greater than the sum of its parts. In Odd John this was the pooled mind of the superchildren, with a physical parallel in their lonely island away from everybody. In Last and First Men it was the Martian invaders who could merge physically and mentally, and it was the group mind of the human race in communion. In Starmaker it was the group mind of the interstellar travelers and it was also "the supreme moment of the universe." This occurred when every mind in the cosmos merged and through this coalescence managed to achieve what has always been regarded as the supreme good, knowledge of God.
Does anybody think of Stapledon as a social critic? I believe not, and yet he intended to be; he tried to be. He wrote down a detailed indictment of contemporary life in The Last Men in London, and nobody reads it. He does it more briefly in part of Last and First Men, and Basil Davenport rightly omits this part from his one-volume edition of Stapledon's works. He writes a book called Waking World urging sanity on us all, and we will have nothing to do with it. Perhaps he sensed this rejection; the later book Sirius, resorting to the ancient method of The Golden Ass to examine mankind through the eyes of an intelligent animal, is bitter, almost savage.
There is part of Stapledon which we reject and part which we embrace. We embrace his bigness, his daring to write in billions of years. We embrace his wonderful fertility of invention which fills the planets of his universe with strange but plausible beasts and men. We embrace his piercing, endless quest for meaning. We embrace his obsession with coalescence; that is the stuff religious ceremonies, Nuremberg Party Days, sales pep meetings and family reunions are made of; we all of us at one time or another yearn to flow together.
And his social criticism? We sweep it under the carpet. This is easy enough to prove if you move in science fiction fan circles; you have only to ask some fans whether they think of Stapledon as a social critic or not, and they'll say they don't. Fans fairly represent Stapledon's relatively few readers.
We come next to a book which has had many more readers than anything Stapledon wrote, 1984 by George Orwell. I believe the same situation exists with respect to social criticism versus science fiction values in 1984 as in Stapledon's books, that is, that the science fiction values swamped the social criticism. I can imagine a program of depth interviews and opinion polls which might prove my belief, but without a grant from the Ford Foundation I can't go beyond imagining it.
I can prove that Orwell was consciously, deliberately, writing 1984 as propaganda--and I say propaganda without apologies. There is nothing evil about the thing itself, and unless social criticism is also propaganda, it is mere whimpering. Toward the end of his life Orwell knew exactly who he was and what he was doing. His essays tell us that everything he wrote was polemical and political. He did novels and he also did the odd jobs he thought should be done which nobody else was doing. He did critical studies of comic postcards and boys' newspapers in a spirit of deliberately humorless intensity. He wanted to find out what these media had to say about the English working class and what their implications were for his primary tasks of combatting tyranny and establishing socialism. He delved into the structure of the English language and wrote an essay on how to write about politics without being nonsensical; this to him was also related to combatting tyranny and establishing socialism. We may take it for granted that he wrote 1984 to help combat tyranny and establish socialism.
The second part of his program was little noticed, which was an old story to Orwell; his earlier books, Animal Farm specifically, said that the rulers of Russia were no damned good; that the final proof of this was you could hardly tell the Russian rulers from the rulers of Germany and England. Nobody seemed to notice this; they merrily went ahead and used the book as a stick to beat Russia with.
Now, has 1984, with its enormous circulation, done anything to combat tyranny? Lacking that Ford Foundation grant I mentioned, I can only say that I think it did not. Call me Procrustes and let's move along.
The book is an almost arrogantly good novel. The prose is the prose of a man with an English public school education, and I have noticed that these old Eton and Cambridge boys can write rings around anybody unfortunate enough not to have attended a public school and an ancient university. The book has a structure; a beginning, a middle and end, balanced and proportionate. It has fully realized characters and, as it "should" be in a novel, these are protagonist, antagonist, heroine, comic relief (that's Parsons) and spear-carriers. It is an added pleasure to read a book that matter-of-factly accepts formal limitations and works within them at high intensity. The reporting could not be improved on; Orwell selects the relevant detail every time, knows the importance of trivia, bangs sense-impressions at us until we see, hear, taste, feel and smell the world of 1984.
Orwell is the writer in a hundred thousand who notices and remarks that not only the taste but the texture on the tongue of coffee with sugar is different from the texture of coffee with saccharin.
The book is unusual in that it is written on one literal and two symbolic levels, one apparently semi-conscious and the other I think wholly unconscious. On the semi-conscious level 1984 is almost an allegory of growing up in middle-class England. We know from Orwell's long essay "Such, Such Were the Joys" that he did not think his childhood was an easy one, and this could readily be inferred also from 1984. We have only to think of Winston Smith as a boy and of the inquisitor O'Brien and his father for many things to fall kaleidoscopically into a sudden new design.
Sexual activity is forbidden to Winston Smith as it is to a boy under pain of dire punishment.
There are no laws or clear-cut rules of conduct for Winston Smith to obey; he, like a child, may transgress without meaning to. He must not only do what is right, he must be good.
The uncanny O'Brien always knows what Winston Smith is thinking. (When I was a small boy my mother used to privately report my misconduct of the day to my father when he came home; he would then pretend to "read it on my forehead.")
O'Brien is large and powerful; Winston is small and weak.
O'Brien practices incredible brutalities on Winston in the name of "education"; Winston believes this and continues to like O'Brien. At any moment during the torture one expects the inquisitor to say "This hurts me more than it hurts you," but that would have given the game away.
And in one damnably strange passage, O'Brien says to Winston: " is there anything that you wish to say to me before you leave? Any message? Any question?" At this point Winston's mind should be boiling with a thousand questions about the mysterious Brotherhood he has just joined, but he asks none of them. What he does ask is: "Did you ever happen to hear of an old rhyme that begins Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's?"
"Again O'Brien nodded. With a sort of grave courtesy he completed the stanza:
"' When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch.'"
Tell me a story, Daddy.
This symbolic level, the level of boyhood, I have described as semi-conscious. The many parallels between Winston Smith as an adult in London and Eric Blair (Orwell's real name) as a schoolboy at "Crossgates" described in "Such, Such Were the Joys" could hardly have escaped the creator of them both. To Winston Smith, O'Brien's "face seen from below looked coarse and worn, with pouches under the eyes and tired lines from nose to chin." This is just how young Eric sees adults, almost word for word. Young Eric confusedly believes that every adult is in league with the school's headmaster and will drop everything to report him if he misbehaves—paralleling the Thought Police and the swarming amateur informers. Young Eric suffered from the school's squalor and lack of privacy, and what Winston Smith desperately wants is just a little cleanliness and a room of his own with no spying telescreen. It is clear that Orwell deliberately drew on recollections of childhood for 1984, and we should note that he explicitly equipped Winston Smith with a complicated feeling of guilt about his mother. I sense, however, both in his essay and the novel a failure to come to grips with the relationship between father and son. In the essay his memories of his father are unbelievably meager—father was just an irritable man who always said "Don't!" Similarly Smith's father is curiously absent from his consciousness.
So far we have cruised the surface of the novel and taken a short submarine tour through its depths. I now invite you to join me in the bathysphere and descend to the ocean floor.
Let us consider a curious architectural feature of 1984 introduced to us in the following passage: " in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston's arm, [was] a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were somewhere in the recesses of the building."
The same devices can be found in the fictional future of Robert Heinlein. Heinlein, however, by analogy with a term out of mediaeval architecture and because of their function, calls them "oubliettes"—from the French verb oublier, "to forget." This is the sensible thing to call them. Orwell calls them the exact opposite of what they are. Perhaps on one level this harmonizes with the culture of the time—Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, War is Peace. Perhaps the name has another level of meaning, which I shall take up shortly.
Before I do, let us look at Room 101, the torture room in the Ministry of Love. I suggest that Room 101 is Orwell's unconscious symbol for the uterus. My reasons are:
Room 101 is obviously the first room in the numbering system; the starting place.
It is a room below ground in the center of a white, windowless pyramid named the Ministry of Love—female symbolism can scarcely go further than that.
The three numerals 101 displayed on a page constitute a naïve sketch of the female genitalia seen from below.
"Room" is a pun for "womb," underscored by the two "w" sounds which crowd along after it, as if to correct the "r" sound.
The uterine symbolism of Room 101, by the way, was perceived and exploited in the movie version of 1984—Winston Smith was delivered into the room by way of a cylindrical passage.
Now let us look at those slits protected by liftable skirts "for some reason nicknamed memory holes." I suggest that the illogical name is an unconscious pun for femaleness. "Memory" is close to "mammary." The first syllable, "mem," is the Anglo-Indian word for "lady," and Orwell was born an Anglo-Indian. And there is a whole cluster of childhood names for mother which are more or less close to "memory"—"mum," "mummy" and so on.
The memory holes and Room 101 have this in common: they symbolize torment and destruction in the womb. The question we must face is, why does the uterus symbolize for Orwell a place of torment where destruction and "the worst thing in the world" happens to everybody? The uterus is supposed to be the place of warmth and safety. I cannot help wondering whether Orwell's birth was a long and painful one, and whether his mother suffered a near miscarriage or two while pregnant with him.
We are now almost outside the area of literary criticism, but not quite. I believe that some readers may find 1984 meaningful and compelling or unreal and revolting on an unconscious basis of agreement or disagreement with the uterus as a place of torment.
I hope nobody will conclude that I am deprecating Orwell's work or character by discussing it in this fashion. I say this only because some time ago the critic Anthony West of the New Yorker wrote on Orwell. To his own satisfaction he traced most of Orwell's themes back to his unhappy school experiences. Unless I misread him, he concluded that because of this Orwell's work and even Orwell's manhood were so much the less. I regard this conclusion as a howling non sequitur. I think Orwell was a great writer and led as useful and noble a life as can be imagined for a twentieth century man.
Now, what about The Space Merchants, alias "Gravy Planet," by Frederik Pohl and myself? Apparently it is accepted as an outstanding example in recent science fiction of the department of social criticism called satire. The characteristic quality of satire in symbolic terms seems to be that it offers the reader a great quantity of symbols each of which is rather close to the object symbolized. As I leaf through the book I see that Pohl and I left virtually nothing in American life untransformed, from breakfast food to the Presidency of the United States. I see that with almost lunatic single-mindedness we made everything in our future America that could be touched, tasted, smelled, heard, seen or talked about bear witness to the dishonesty of the concepts and methods of today's advertising.
I don't claim any high literary merit for the book; if I were asked to rewrite it today it would come out a much less plotty job, and Pohl agrees with me on this. But it did have some effect. It stimulated thinking in a lot of places, some of them quite unlikely ones. There was a full page review, for instance, in The Industrial Worker, the organ of such I.W.W. members, or Wobblies, as survive. I have reason to believe it was read by a lot of people who do not normally read science fiction. It had a vogue in the New York City theatrical crowd, an actor has told me, and I know it was read by broadcasting men across the country. It was read, of course, by the hypersensitive advertising people. In their trade paper Tide a reviewer wanted to know whether it was supposed to be good, clean fun or the most vicious, underhanded attack on the advertising profession yet. (If he had asked me, I would have told him "Both.") It is not dead yet, either. A radio version has been given and it may one day appear as a musical comedy. It is too soon to write off The Space Merchants as just another science fiction book which has shot its wad and been forgotten. Naturally I hope that it will have some real influence on American advertising, and I do state that the probability of this is not, as of today, 0.0000.
Arthur Clarke has complained of science fiction books like The Space Merchants that they are too ugly, that they should contain elements of love and beauty counterpoising the elements of ugliness and death. In this, as I have told him, he is perfectly correct. I think the book is flawed at least to that extent. What love there is in the book keeps turning into hate. There is a marked hostility to women throughout. This seems to be an unexpected and unwanted by-product of its collaborative authorship, since hostility to women does not turn up to that degree in my solo work or Pohl's. This essentially unrealistic concentration on the seamy side, I believe, made it impossible for us to bring off our happy ending. By the time the reader has gone through 178 pages of misery, animosity, squalor and violence, he is understandably reluctant to believe that on Page 179 everything can suddenly be patched up so that these savage creatures can live happily ever after.
There is some discussion in science fiction circles at this time about sadism in literature. I think a character in The Space Merchants can throw light on this subject. The arguments go as follows: Critic says, stop portraying ugly, meaningless violence in your stories; that is sadism and it breeds sadism. Writer replies: Ugly, meaningless violence is a part of life and I am portraying life.
The character Hedy, the skinny girl with the needle, might be described as a sadist's sadist. She is shown practicing sadism and getting a bang out of it. Yet there have been no complaints that I know of about her. I think this is because she is specifically labeled as a sick, deranged person. In this case the writers have been able to present ugly, meaningless violence and thus round out the reality of their story, and yet nobody seems to feel that sadism is being taught to or urged upon the predisposed reader. There is a poison label firmly pasted on the sadistic episode and it seems to have done its job.
I have mostly been discussing until now social criticisms with which I agree. There are also social criticisms with which I do not agree. They are implicit in the "menace" story and its subclass, the "monster" story. If I wanted to make some money in a hurry and didn't care how, I'd write a "monster" story. I am not referring to stories like "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr. That story is about maintaining integrity, working together, using brains and courage to solve the problems of survival in an indifferent world. I am referring to stories like The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson.
Such monster stories have nothing to do with integrity, courage or brains. Their stock in trade is fear. They take fear of women, fear of father, fear of sexual maturity, fear of blood and mutilation—and we all of us have them all; let nobody kid himself about that. They roll them up in one ball of muck and they hurl them into the reader's face.
Damon Knight has pointed out that characters in such stories do not act rationally—perhaps because if they did, their problems would dissolve. These books are not statements which may be proved true or false. They are exclamations telling us how the writer feels, and not what he thinks. Insofar as they are social criticism they are shrieks: "Everything is bad! I'm frightened by this rotten world! I can't do anything; it's all like a nightmare! Save me, somebody, save me!"
Apparently this wild shriek is deeply meaningful to many people, though not, thank God, to anything like a majority. The proof of this is in the Hollywood box office figures, for the shriek books get made into movies. They do pretty well, but they break no records. If the day ever comes when the shriek movie Is really a major type, right up there with, say, the pretentious Western, the implications for the future of our democracy will be bad.
I have borrowed some of my material on the "monster" science fiction novel from Chapter 22 of Damon Knight's book In Search of Wonder. I want, however, to record my disagreement with his suggestion that the fear in these novels is directed notably against the scientist and intellectual.
In this essay I have tried to show that science fiction novels, on the record, have not been measurably effective social criticism. I have speculated that the reason for this is a sort of embarrassment of riches—that nothing in the science fiction novel is what it seems, that there is no starting point for social change resulting from social criticism. As social criticism the science fiction novel is a lever without a fulcrum, a single equation with two unknowns. The science fiction novel does contain social criticism, explicit and implicit, but I believe this criticism is massively outweighed by unconscious symbolic material more concerned with the individual's relationship to his family and the raw universe than with the individual's relationship to society.
In closing, let me say that I would be delighted to be proved wrong in all this. Only with reluctance did I accept the conclusion that science fiction is socially impotent. If it is shown that I am mistaken, I will be the first to cheer at the added stature conferred on a genre of which I am fond.
During the question period that followed delivery of this lecture, some people raised a point which is often expressed as "How do you know you're not reading these things into a story instead of out of it." At the time I could have given only a rambling answer invoking Occam's Razor, the known complexity of the human brain and a general feeling of "rightness"; actually I evaded the question by saying that it is not compulsory to play the exciting game of modern criticism, and that anybody who does choose to play it must play by the rules.
I have since learned, however, that there is some experimental evidence for the existence of universal systems of unconscious symbols.
To put it briefly, Smith is hypnotized and told he is undergoing a complicated and fantastic experience. He is then told to dream about the experience and to describe the dream. Jones is then hypnotized and told to dream the dream suggested by Smith, which had no apparent similarity to the suggested "experience." Jones is then told to interpret the dream, and he does this by describing the "experience" suggested to Smith. The only communication of the "experience" from Smith to Jones is via the dream, which suggests that Smith and Jones, at least, share a set of unconscious symbols.
I am indebted for this information to Mr. Samuel Randlett of Fisk University. The experiment is described in "An Experimental Approach to Dream Psychology Through Use of Hypnosis," Farber and Fisher, in Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. 12, p. 202 (1943).In addition I want to thank the following people for opinions and suggestions about this work in various stages, without implying that they endorse any or all parts of what I say: Mary Kornbluth, James Blish, A. J. Budrys, Lester and Evelyn del Rey and Frederik Pohl. I owe special thanks to Damon Knight, who appears to be no less than the founder of psychological criticism of science fiction, for originally introducing me to this embattled and fascinating subject.