“Opening Minds”

The review series on the entries in Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature continues with a look at the titular essay.

Review: “Opening Minds“, Brian Stableford, 1976.Opening Minds

Science fiction has, of course, long had a problem defining itself or now, with the blended genre crowd, wondering if it should define itself at all.

I say it should and that a definition is possible, but I’m not going to get drawn into that argument now.

Once you have a definition, the understandable tendency is to put writers on a spectrum of purity from defenders of the faith to those beyond the pale. I’m sure there are attempts to do this on more than just one-dimension. Stableford’s spectrum isn’t there as a genre purity test but to define two approaches to writing science fiction.

Others have created such continuums of genre purity. Brian Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree put writers on the critic/daydreamer spectrum defined by H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, respectively. Stableford also uses Wells and the much more obscure Albert Jarry.

Both were of similar ages with Wells born in Britain in 1866 and Jarry in France in 1873. Both men started having work published in the 1890s. Both contemplated a scientific career before turning to literature.

Jarry, however, died in 1907 while Wells lived until 1946.

Wells, of course, stands for the hard science fiction aesthetic (though Jules Verne pointed out his stories were more scientifically plausible than Wells, and the latter agreed). Wells said, in the introduction to his collection of science fiction stories, that the writer of fantastic tales needed to “domesticate the fantastical hypothesis” for their readers. The technique was to crack open the reader’s mind a bit with careful rhetoric and gradual movement from the reader’s world to Wells’ world. If successful, the reader’s mind would be opened to new vistas of thought.

The modern writers of ‘hard’ science fiction — almost all graduates of the Campbell school — take their brief from Wells. Writers like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, and Hal Clement pose their hypotheses, and pursue the implications thereof with ruthless discipline. Those who have written critical manifestos championing this kind of science fiction (Heinlein, Blish, and others) stress the realistic qualities of SF, its determination to stay within bounds of scientific possibility. All imaginative exercises which fail this rigorous standard are relegated to the status of ‘fantasies’.

This outlook is attacked these days as “hard sf” claiming an earned plausibility that’s really just a standard suspension of disbelief, for all kinds of things, granted by the reader. Thus the list of hard science fiction ideological hypocrisy includes faster-than-light travel and, maybe, generation starships to name two examples. Space opera is as inherently unrealistic as some epic fantasy in a secondary world. (Listen to the Coode Street Podcast for numerous examples of this.)

Others pile on that not only is hard science fiction not really realistic but its pretense to plausibility dulls the stories presented in that framework. (And, for that, check out Castalia House.)

Stableford doesn’t address either of those two arguments (and neither were that common when he wrote the essay). He wants to look at another approach to opening minds: — Abert Jarry’s.

Jarry wasn’t into subtle rhetorical methods, the insinuation of the fantastic into the reader’s quotidian world. His technique to open minds was rhetorical dynamite.

He invented the idea of “pataphysics”, “the laws governing exceptions”. Jarry proposed that the “exceptions” were really the common laws of the universe of which our scientific laws are but special cases. (From this description, I suppose you could include the inclusion of special case Newtonian physics into relativity as a real-world example.)

He wrote two “neo-scientific novels”: The Supermale, a novel of transcendence, and The Exploits and Opinions of Faustroll, Pataphysician which Stableford describes as “a chaotic mass of ideative inspirations drawn from scientific texts and symbolist poetry”.

Stableford cites as examples of Jarry’s literary successors as R. A. Lafferty, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, A. E. van Vogt, and Barrington J. Bayley. (I have neither the knowledge and certainly not the time and energy to propose any current writers to add to that list.)

While Stableford doesn’t really explore what these authors or Jarry have added to science fiction’s utility as defined in his “SF: The Nature of the Medium“, he doesn’t think that Wells and Jarry pursued different ends. They both wanted to expand imaginations, open minds, and provoke reconsiderations of the natural and social worlds.

In the actual realm of science, he sees Wells as matching the careful experimenter and confirmer of theories and Jarry the imaginative leaps that can motivate scientific inquiry. Science needs both types, and sometimes scientists come along who do both.

Likewise with science fiction. Authors exist on both extremes and some operate in both modes.

Left unstated and undefended is how necessary and how much each contribute to whatever utility in dealing with the world now and in the future each approach provides via science fiction.

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