- "Mythic," "Realist," and SF:A Zero-Sum Game
More essays were submitted FOR this issue of Modern Fiction Studies than have been submitted for any other special issue. The competition was, as they say, spirited. To all who contributed, our thanks. Almost the whole issue might have been filled with essays on LeGuin, and a surprising (to me) number of essays concerned Wells. Equally surprising, there were none on Herbert. The dozen pieces that follow are neither a cross section, nor a balance, nor a hobby horse. But they do suggest the wide range of critical interests and the breadth of the category Speculative Fiction.
The first three essays have to do with genre, but Petzold, Crossley, and Ruddick see sf in astonishingly different ways. In the middle of the issue Beauchamp, Hull, and Johnson present the thematic studies that are criticism's main course; the orderly division of subject-to-be-examined implies a confidence in the staying power of sf criticism. Tomorrow is another day, and other essays will be written. Szporer and Greene show us alien landscapes in which sf can be both weapon and mask and in the process reveal dystopias outside the narrative world. Collins and Olsen poke at the borders of sf, casting new light with new categories. Dickinson says important things about an sf master and in the process reminds us that not all works need criticism.
When we asked Gary Wolfe to do the essay-review for this special issue of Modern Fiction Studies, I knew the review would be good. But I didn't expect to find in his essay a special bonus for me. He says so many "editor" things, and says them so well, that I can do something else. All of his generalizations strike me as perceptive, many of them seem [End Page 3] wise, and some are no doubt true. You may wish to turn to his essayreview before reading the rest of this issue. He is hereby publicly thanked not only for a splendid job but for giving me room to play at a speculative essay that may give readers, both those who know sf and those who do not, a context for placing Speculative Fiction in the critical enterprise.
So, before you settle in to read the extraordinarily various essays that constitute this issue, you are invited to consider a zero-sum thought experiment, a game between two literary epistemes—into which a third will eventually intrude. The game will settle nothing at all; in fact, I hope it may help to unsettle some things that ought not to be settled quite yet.
In the game, "Mythic" and "Realist" constitute (1) competing narrative strategies (for example, as in a tale by Milton versus one by Joyce) and (2) polar interpretative strategies (as in a reading by Northrop Frye versus one by Georg Lukács). How long has the game been going on? Perhaps forever. Galileo got caught in it. But at the moment that concerns us—the point at which Speculative Fiction enters the game—"realist" fiction had achieved normative status. (When? Sometime after the death of Arthur and before the birth of Gernsback.) As "realist" was valorized, "mythic" was pushed to the margin (or syncreticized). When Frankenstein's progeny stumbled on stage, a host of unverifiable beings that had once wandered freely enough in "mainstream" literature had been banished. Some transphysical and metaphysical beings and forces maintained a furtive existence in various narrative ghettos (for example, in folk and fairy tales, tales of wonder and terror, and children's stories), but they were not to be taken "seriously."
Cosmic purposiveness left the mainstream game with the metafolk. The significant level in "realist" fiction is always local: local cause and effect operate within cosmic chance, unimpeded by gods and demons. Although what happens locally does not matter in the great scheme of things because there is no great scheme, the freeing of the individual character from god and devil and the wonderful multiplication of creative perception (in both narrator and character) make up for a dissolved gonos and an infinitely receding teleos. For those who missed the "mythic" episteme, who longed...