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Darko Suvin. Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction. Kent: Kent State UP, 1988. 227 pp. $26.00.
Robert Crossley, ed. Talking Across the World: The Love Letters of Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller, 1913-1919. Hanover: UP of New England, 1987. 382 pp.

Darko Suvin's book is a collection of essays he wrote for periodicals, particularly for Science-Fiction Studies. Therefore, there are some duplications, and because most of the essays were written in the 1970s, the book is somewhat dated as well. Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction is incidental work by Suvin, necessarily of less importance than his massive and major Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. However, Suvin is easily the most important critic of science fiction, and Science-Fiction Studies by far the most important journal in the field. Incidental Suvin makes for worthwhile reading.

What Suvin has accomplished in science fiction criticism is paradoxical: on the one hand he argues science fiction's peculiar importance; on the other hand he cautions against fannish adulation. Suvin is a formalist and a balanced leftist who uses the word "ideological" in a pejorative sense. A commonplace of science fiction criticism is that defining science fiction is difficult. Suvin's definition has become a staple: science fiction's "necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment." By cognition, Suvin means "a central and informing concern for conceiving and discussing radically new views and understandings of human relationships and potentialities." Suvin believes that science fiction is potentially the best literary form in which to explore cognition, partly because what he calls "paraliterature" (or, more commonly, "subliterature") subverts and reverses the dominant literary forms, which are under the hegemony of Western imperialism.

Suvin acknowledges—indeed, stresses—that science fiction does not always live up to its potential, for paraliterature is often co-opted by the norms of the dominant literary forms. Suvin faults what he calls the "ideological critical fetishes" for many of science fiction's defects: the hatred of contradiction, worship of crass individualism, and the lack of a political perspective. One essay, "The Significant Context of SF," is a good pice to read Suvin whole. This is a dialogue involving "A," a science fiction fan, "B," a graduate student in literature, a sociological critic, and a leftist who would like to use science fiction in support of revolutionary change, and "C," a university professor in an English department and a formalist critic—obviously Suvin himself. Although sympathetic to many of B's points, C says that "SF cannot be your handmaid, but it could be your ally." For, C concludes, significant formalist science fiction "will permit us a better orientation in our common world; it will militate against class, nationalist, sexist or racist obscurantism. . . . SF at its best does its bit of such a production of man by man.' " At their best, Suvin's formalist and Marxist's critiques are extremely effective.

The only link between Suvin's book and Robert Crossley's is that Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) is one of the cognitive science fiction writers Suvin most respects. With Crossley's magnificent and important book, which is essential to understanding Stapledon, this important writer may finally be coming into his own. Author of such vast future histories as Last and First Men and Star Maker, [End Page 400] 400 Stapledon is surely the most ambitious science fiction writer who has ever lived. His aim is no less than to synthesize all human knowledge, to summarize all human history past and future, and to justify the Star Maker's ways to man. His sweep and even his style are Miltonic. Yet Stapledon has lived in the shadow of H. G. Wells the storyteller, and, especially after his death in 1950 until about 1970, his reputation was in almost complete eclipse. With now five full-length studies of Stapledon, one from Oxford University Press, and with an entire issue of Science-Fiction Studies devoted to Stapledon, this situation may well be changing. Robert Crossley, who is working on the official Stapledon biography, has now edited...


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