- Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and: Storm Warnings: Science Fiction Confronts the Future, and: Imprisoned in a Tesseract: The Life and Work of James Blish
As Michael Collings, one of the most prolific recent critics of the genre, emphasizes in his Preface, efforts of academics to broaden the scope and the appeal of work on what some prefer to label "fantastic fiction" have been intense in the Eighties. Far too often, however, these efforts have tended more to the "clubbable" and social than to the scholarly. Modern academics, especially those working on science fiction and fantasy, are apt to forget that Dr. Johnson not only talked a lot but also worked long hours in the garret—and with a tortured sense of reality that always feared "diseases of the imagination" or wishful thinking. In the lead essay from the collection of papers delivered at the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic held in Florida in 1983, Brian Attebery makes the distinction that fantasy awakens desire rather than satisfies any exigencies in reality; and although his theoretical writing is usually hardheaded, I cannot help but sense the aura of the poolside party and the clubbability of like-minded fans (or fanatics) placing a definite restriction on Attebery's essay as well as on the others in this collection. The contributions are still conference papers. There are too few of them. There is not enough development; and, finally, I think, the assumptions about fantasy remain too complacent, not examined enough.
Attebery's piece, for example, short as it is, represents essentially an attack on Wells in favor of undeveloped bows to modern conservatives such as the Inklings Lewis and Tolkien. But the alignment of Christianity with fantasy is a horrendous historical mistake going back, at least, to the Enlightenment. In spite of Wells's puckishness, it has proved a much better experiment for hope and desire to align themselves with some modicum of hardheadedness, such as exists in science fiction, rather than to curl complacently back in upon themselves. There is not enough reality itself, if one defines that as scholarly development, nor respect for reality in this thin volume of enthusiasm for the fantastic.
The Eaton Conference, which has flourished during roughly the same recent time period as the Conference on the Fantastic, must be a more sober meeting of minds if one can judge from the essays collected from their 1984 conference at the Eaton Collection of the University of California, Riverside, in conjunction with a London meeting also honoring Orwell's ominous year soaked in reality. There are more essays here, and more of them are developed as essays rather than left to remain conference discussions. My preference for what is valuable in this collection over the proceedings from the other conference, however, comes down to matters of importance, depth, and meaning for our time. A number of essays here, notably those by Frederik Pohl, who is himself a rigorous writer of hard science fiction, Colin Greenland, and John Huntington, explore the many and varied reactions to Orwell's message for our time. Furthermore, many of the essays not about 1984 or other Orwell texts address the theoretical possibilities, often toyed with in modern science fiction, for hardheaded extrapolation from [End Page 325] plausible realities. Stanislaw Lem, in particular his key novel Solaris (1961), provides grist for this finely ground, and grounded, work in a long piece by Bradford Lyau, echoed in a later essay by Kenneth Bailey. As with the fans of the fantastic, the question is miracles; but for the scholars and for the subjects they write about at the Eaton Conferences, miracles must...