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5 Science Fiction and “Literature”—or, The Conscience of the King At Oxford in 1894 the French poet Mallarmé began a lecture that quickly declared the now famous line, “On a touché au vers”: someone has been tampering with poetry. Today, some eighty years later, I had thought of beginning, “Someone has been tampering with science fiction.” But if I did, I would have to make some distinctions between 1894 and 1979 right off. For one thing, in 1894 the person who was doing (by far!) the most tampering was Mallarmé himself—along with a few poets who were comparatively closely associated with him (they came for coffee every Tuesday evening). The tampering I’m talking of is not coming from within science fiction . When I read writers who are just my juniors, in length of time published if not in age (John Varley, James Tiptree, Jr., Michael Bishop, Vonda McIntyre, Jean Mark Gawron, Suzy McKee Charnas, or Joseph Haldeman, to name the most random few), though of course I see local disagreements, a whole variety of different approaches to the world between them and me, between each of them and each other, I don’t sense any violent rupture between these newer writers and those writers who are my immediate contemporaries (Disch, Le Guin, Niven, Russ, Zelazny, to name another random few). Also, though most of us within the field no doubt feel the New Wave controversy of a decade or so ago is far too frequently exhumed, there’s at least one point about it that is all too seldom made and might well vanish if someone doesn’t record it. Again, there was obviously a variety of local differences. But even the term New Wave (first used for science fiction in 1966), which was applied to me often enough by 1968, gained its currency mainly in the mouths of a number of writers who apparently took a great deal of pleasure in standing up on platforms and saying, “Well, I guess I’m an Old Wave writer.” I can honestly say I never seriously referred to myself as a “New Wave writer” and the number of times I did it jokingly could be counted on one hand; and I think the same probably would go for the 62 starboard wine other writers who, from time to time, got lumbered with the term. Consider : The writer whom I personally heard say, most often and from the most platforms, “Well I guess I’m an Old Wave writer,” was Frederik Pohl, who was back then my most supportive editor at the now defunct magazines If and Worlds of Tomorrow. Today he is my most supportive editor at Bantam Books. Does this allow for differences? Yes. But it doesn’t speak of rupture. The tampering I’m talking about does produce a sense of rupture. Though there is much disagreement among writers of all generations about whether this rupture is a good or a bad thing, we all sense it. It is the tampering that comes from academia, from critics who have become “interested” in science fiction. Mallarmé came from Paris to Oxford to defend his own tampering and that of his fellow poets. I have barely recovered from a term as research fellow at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin (research topic: contemporary science fiction) and have limped back to the fold here . . . to defend academic tampering. “On a touché au vers?” Well, to quote Yale critic Paul de Man, “On a touché à la critique.” People have also been tampering with academic criticism recently. Myself, I’ve been tampering with SF criticism for all I’m worth. But the only way to launch a good defense of anything is first to separate out what’s definitely bad; when something doesn’t work and leads nowhere, covering it up doesn’t do anyone any good. We have to locate why this tampering is experienced as rupture and as encounter— and I don’t mean simple xenophobia. Having had a chance to teach science fiction at two universities in the last few years, as well as a chance to write my share of criticism and survey the present academic response to science fiction, I’m in a particularly good position to experience the rupture aspect—and yes, it is an experience! In 1975, when I was organizing a scholarly symposium on science fiction at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, I was extremely excited to have in...


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