- Visions and Re-Visions: [Re]constructing Science Fiction
Visions and Re-Visions is a wide-ranging study of science fiction that presents an intriguing, if controversial, theory about the nature and history of the genre. Robert M. Philmus elaborates on his premise in his introductory and concluding chapters, while devoting much of the book to studies of individual authors that seek to link their works to each other and to generic precursors and successors.
Philmus's thesis is that science fiction is a particularly 're-visioning' genre, meaning that science-fiction texts depend more heavily than those of other genres on intertextual associations, above all 'pretexts.' He argues that that dependence can be seen clearly in the genre's reliance on scientific and other non-fictional texts; such antecedents lead to the [End Page 178] genre's place in the more general category of the 'literature of ideas.' Science-fiction writers are also in constant dialogue with other writers in the field, engaging in re-visioning the works of such early masters as Jonathan Swift, Olaf Stapledon, and, above all, H.G. Wells. Philmus extends his idea to individual authors, claiming that science-fiction writers also re-view their previous works, modifying earlier novels either by changing the texts or writing new novels that challenge their preceding visions.
Philmus takes upon himself the challenge to demonstrate that science fiction is more intertextual, and its authors more re-visionary, than those in any other genre – that, in fact, its degree of re-visioning defines the genre. Many science-fiction authors do allude to their pretexts/pretexts; Philmus cites examples from the works of Brian Aldiss and John Wyndham, among others. He does a good job of demonstrating the way his chosen authors – especially Wells and Italo Calvino – resurrect and transform (sometimes in damaging ways, as he claims in Calvino's case) their earlier writings. Certainly authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, and Philip K. Dick return again and again to favourite themes and techniques, although Philmus acknowledges he is dealing with Dick's most uncharacteristic novel, Man in the High Castle.
But can the same not be said of writers in other genres? Philmus's attempt to define the genre by its intertextuality leads him sometimes to treat common images in an author's corpus as generic markers; for example, Wells's frequent references to 'ghost'-like figures become evidence of science fiction's roots in the ghost story. His thesis leads him to discuss works that are not science fiction, like some of Karel Capek's novels, or would not be universally accepted as science fiction, like Jorge Luis Borges's surrealist texts. More importantly, it leads him to make a highly debatable claim: that Wells, rather than Mary Shelley, is the first author of what can truly be labelled science fiction, solely because he represents the earliest example of science-fiction re-visioning.
Philmus is at his best when he abandons the sometimes questionable effort to generalize about the genre and engages in closely argued analyses of certain texts or sub-genres. His chapter on utopian literature, dealing with Jonathan Swift, Evgeny Zamyatin, and George Orwell, presents important – albeit sometimes overstated – distinctions between utopian, anti-utopian, and dystopian literature. His study of The Time Machine shows the novel itself to be a time machine, as it forces us to become conscious of the relativity of time – and much else. Other chapters offer excellent discussions of C.S. Lewis's science-fiction trilogy, Borges's paradoxical stories, and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Indeed, the book becomes more illuminating as it progresses, as later chapters devote less attention to theories of influence (whether producing inspiration or Bloomian anxiety) and more to interpretation. [End Page 179]
The book's greatest flaw is its turgid style. The text is slowed down by convoluted syntax and obscure words or pedantic coinings: 'ensuant,' 'surrogational,' 'motival,' 'vehiculates,' and 'commentorial.' Philmus often alters quotations unnecessarily, such as changing pronouns: 'the[ir].' He seems addicted to parentheses, making far too many parenthetical statements...