restricted access Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe, and: Science Fiction Roots and Branches: Contemporary Critical Approaches, and: Science Fiction in the Real World (review)
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Reviewed by
Donald R. Burleson. Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1990. 181 pp. $23.00.
Rhys Garnett and R. J. Ellis, eds. Science Fiction Roots and Branches: Contemporary Critical Approaches. New York: St. Martin's, 1990. 210 pp. $35.00.
Norman Spinrad. Science Fiction in the Real World. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990. 250 pp. $24.95 cloth; pb. $14.95.

In classic, periodic form the most positive points in this review will be saved for the end, with some favorable comments sandwiched in the middle for a somewhat useful book; but the Donald Burleson book here at the top is such a travesty of criticism that I find it useless—except for fun. The book analyzes thirteen stories from Lovecraft, who is a major fantasy writer and who often uses images of the primordial ooze in nature as well as a lush, inflated prose style. Unfortunately, Burleson seems to have mirrored both characteristics, to have produced a book of academic ooze in the strangest style. The problem is his total conversion to the poststructrualist "ludic" assumptions about indeterminacy of meaning with none of the grace in writing that might result in a truly ludic study. He pontificates in the most humorless and pompous manner as in the following sentence with peculiar echoes of Dickens, "Language is far more unstable and mysterious, far more given to radical undecidability, far more elusive than has previously been thought." Just prior to this, Burleson had assured his reader how "eternal" his faddish readings are in an equally silly sentence that is prissy about the permanence of impermanence, "Deconstruction is an unsettling way of thinking, but, I do not fear to predict, it is here to stay." It is as though Burleson sets out to parody himself as academic reader almost in the manner of Swift having Partridge insist that he is not dead. Burleson seems to be a silly Partridge here whereas genuine poststructuralist insight needs the control and wisdom of a Swift.

Several of the essays in the collection edited by Rhys Garnett and R. J. Ellis are also based on the theory and methodology loosely grouped together as "deconstruction;" but there are other fine pieces in their book, and, regardless of methodology, the most impressive are those that speak with an authentic voice about their subjects and that tell us something useful about literature. The most highly "technical" reading, or deconstruction, of a text in the book is by Robert Philmus on Le Guin's The Dispossessed; and despite a certain preciousness of his own in style, Philmus does tell us some useful things about time in that novel. Other essays, such as those by the Claresons on Wyndham and Darko Suvin on William Morris, follow the more conventional methods of historical accounting and thematic description and are sensible and useful. There is a wonderful translation of an essay by Stanislaw Lem on Wells that is penetrating and authoritative—more on the author's voice below. Garnett and Ellis try to provide an overall political deconstruction of what they call the capacity science fiction has to challenge power relations in our society. Their own essays then, and the feminist pieces by Marleen Barr, Jenny Wolmark, and Anne Cranny-Francis, contribute to the clear sense of modernity in this collection which suggests what all of the contributors seem to agree on: modern fantasy and science fiction is a genuine literature for our time, totally in tune with the critical understanding of our time.

These critical understandings are militantly academic, even territorial, and my own commitment to the decorums and traditions of the academy makes me [End Page 339] as territorial as any toward the special voice of the professional belletrist in writing criticism. But, finally, I think the important factor is the authority and authenticity of voice so that when a Burleson sounds so silly and pompous it does not matter that he is a card-carrying critic compared to Norman Spinrad, who is a mere popular writer of science fiction novels and stories (like Lem above). In other words, I was not prepared to like Spinrad's foray into the academic world with a strictly...