restricted access Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy, and: The End of the World, and: The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction (review)
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Reviewed by
George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, eds. Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1983. 209 pp. $19.95.
Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds. The End of the World. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1983. 219 pp. $19.95.
Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich, eds. The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 1. Westport: Greenwood, 1982. 284 pp. $29.95.

We might expect three more works from the growing list of science fiction criticism from Southern Illinois and Greenwood Press to rehash old ideas. Instead, these volumes are innovative. The most general and theoretical of the three is Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy, gathering essays from the Eaton Conference. As is usual in such a collection, the essays vary in quality. Gerald Prince, for example, admits that he has not read much science fiction; nonetheless, he proceeds to make generalizations about the degree of "newness" in the genre. Other essays, such as Robert Hunt's on Atlas Shrugged, make dubious and inflated claims about the works they discuss. But the more successful essays see science fiction as reflective of broader social trends. Bruce Franklin in "America as Science Fiction" discusses, among other things, the New York World's Fair of 1939 as a kind of science fiction. Susan Gubar, in "She in Herland: Feminism as Fantasy," not only makes extensive comments on Haggard and Gilman but considers feminism itself as a kind of fantasy; and by fantasy she means a broad, ennobling power of the sort mentioned by Eric Rabkin, who concludes in another fine essay that "it is by well made fantasy that homo sapiens shapes the world." In his essay on Jules Verne, Mark Rose characterizes science fiction broadly as containing the tension between materialism and spiritualism.

Two essays should be singled out: Gary K. Wolfe's "Autoplastic and Alloplastic Adaptations in Science Fiction: 'Waldo' and 'Desertion'" and Leslie Fiedler's "The Criticism of Science Fiction." The former is the best essay on science fiction fandom that I have seen. Wolfe suggests that what science fiction fans find attractive in the genre is that it provides images of autoplastic and alloplastic adaptations of deformed people to their environments, the classic case being Heinlein's character Waldo using mechanical hands to cover his own [End Page 462] weakness (hence the term "waldoes"). Wolfe concludes that such themes show that science fiction provides more than escape, and that:

[Science fiction] is not exclusively a literature about mechanization and technological appropriation of the universe, that its roots do not necessarily lie in fantasies of power and subjugation, that it does not serve its readers wholly as a means of escape or as a device for intellectual game-playing, that it is not antihuman.

Instead, says Wolfe, the works he has discussed provide "structural models of integration."

Fiedler's essay, also, is arresting, if only in that it allows us by indirection to find direction out. In the science fiction community there has been a longstanding disagreement about the worth of science fiction's growing respectability. The slogan "let's get science fiction back in the gutter where it belongs" has made the rounds of the conventions. Now here is Fiedler to tell us that science fiction never left the gutter after all. Even the best science fiction differs from mainstream literature in its effects, he says, and must accordingly be judged by different standards: "If, therefore, Stapledon [for example] moves . . . us, it is not . . . as Joyce, Proust, Mann, Kafka . . . move us." Rather, Stapledon—like other science fiction—is "sub or para literature." Fresh from books on freaks and on Olaf Stapledon, Fiedler would lump science fiction with the previous two. In Stapledon, though, Fiedler picks a poor example to make his point, as recognition of Stapledon's (conventional) literary quality is growing. Coordinates is on the whole a valuable book, but Fiedler reminds us that latecomers to academic science fiction criticism have often presumed to be instant judges. In fact, claims of science fiction exceptionalism have become old fashioned.

To illustrate the point...


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