Eric S. Rabkin’s Science Fiction Lectures

As a consumer of the Great Courses lectures, I’ve looked at Eric S. Rabkin’s Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works for a few years. But somewhere in the back of my mind I had the idea — maybe from paging through something he had written, that he was a dry writer full of tedious literary theory.

I was mostly right.

However, amongst all the Freudian references (how can anyone still use the old fraud’s theories for any literature written before he published his work?), post-modernism, and symbolism (does no one see that the surface details of a story can be worth studying?), there are some things of value. Maybe even enough to justify its current selling price of $29.95.

For me the deck didn’t really get cleared for service until lecture six, “H. G. Wells: We Are All Talking Animals”. The idea is proposed that The Island of Dr. Moreau is told by an unreliable narrator. (Personally, I see it as Wells’ unintended satire on the folly of blank-slatism. The flesh, in other words biological drives and identity, can not be molded by the surgery of Moreau’s mini-island state.)

It’s sort of a semi-arid spell to lecture 14, “Mary Shelley: Grandmother of Science Fiction”, where Rabkin puts forth the idea, I think plausible, that Frankenstein is about the dangers of putting yourself outside of the human community. Doctor Frankenstein choses to exile himself. His creation has no choice.

“Hawthorne, Poe, and the Eden Complexion” among other things talks about how Poe used the rhetoric of science (passive voice, precise and objectively quantified details) and romanticism.

“Wells — Industrialization of the Fantastic” actually convinces me that there are several Christian symbols in The War of the Worlds. (We are increasingly entering an age where people have to have even basic biblical allusions explained. In my English major days, a professor rightly said every one of us should have read the King James Bible so we knew the sources of allusions and phrases. If you were studying medieval lit, you had to read large chunks of the Catholic Vulgate.)

“The History of Utopia” actually mentioned in passing a couple of titles I hadn’t heard of and made Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We sound more interesting than it is (though it’s an important predecessor to more famous dystopias). However, I don’t buy the assertion that Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was a response to Thomas More’s Utopia.

“Science Fiction and Religion” is a good (and too brief) look at an important topic.

“Asimov and Clarke — Cousins in Utopia” provoked the thought that Judaism was a more important influence on Isaac Asimov than I thought. His Three Laws of Robotics (which he actually credited to John W. Campbell, Jr.) is rather rabbinical. And I certainly agree that Asimov was a believer in technoutopia. That seems to me a manifestation of the Jewish belief they should work to perfect the world. The theme of machines to beneficially manage our affairs is there in Asimov’s robot stories. But (and Rabkin doesn’t mention this) Asimov’s essay “By the Numbers” endorses the idea of rule by impersonal, bureaucratic computers.

“Cyberpunk, Postmodernism, and Beyond” is very wrong-headed. The influence of the spy and noir genres — John Le Carre and Dashiell Hammett– seem as important to William Gibson as postmodernism not to mention the fact that Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17‘s opening paragraph is rather similar to Neuromancer (and Gibson is a Delany fan). Claude Shannon’s information theory and digital technology, the idea that information can be easily recorded, edited, combined, analyzed, and synthesized, I contend is more important than literary theory to cyberpunk. On the other hand, Rabkin does make the intriguing observation that the plot and images of Neuromancer closely follow T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

Briefing, Scolding, Questioning

Cheap Science Fiction Reference Books

More than a few of the bloggers I read and regular visitors to this site (sometimes the same crowd) like old science fiction and might find old reference books on science fiction interesting. I’m talking about books from publishers like Greenwood Press — expensive and really only intended for libraries.

Well, enough time has passed that libraries are starting to get rid of them. Their loss might be your gain.

In the past year, I’ve picked up all but one of John J. Pierce’s critical works. (He’s still working on the subject and posts infrequently on his blog.)

And, when I was in the bookstore selling off a seven volume history of the Prussian Empire, I came across another: Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, ed. E. F. Bleiler from Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. It was all of $10.

There are articles on various authors from a variety of scholars. Some are expected: John Clute, Peter Nichols, Brian W. Aldiss, Malcolm Edwards, and Bleiler himself. Brian M. Stableford has several, but I have many of his lit-crit collections from Wildside Press, so many of these are not new to me.

Other names I either didn’t expect in this context or are new to me: John Scarborough, James L. Campbell, Sr, John R. Pfeiffer, Willis E. McNelly, Robert E. Myers, Charles L. Elkins, Ronald D. Tweet, L. David Allen, Chris Morgan, Gardner Dozois, John B. Ower, Richard Finholt, John Carr, L. David Allen, Marilyn J. Holt, and Susan Wood. Colin Wilson shows up not only with the expected essay on H. P. Lovecraft but also A. E. van Vogt.

As for subjects, all are defensible and familiar except for the name Luis Philip Senarens covered by Bleiler. Favorites of mine omitted are James Gunn and Charles Harness, but I think that’s defensible.

Fritz Leiber

Speaking of Bleiler, the modern incarnation of his old employer, Dover Books, has started a series called “Doomsday Classics“. One of the reprints is Fritz Leiber’s The Night of the Long Knives.

And There Arose a Generation Which Did Not Know …

Over at the Coode Street Podcast awhile back, Kristine Kathryn Rusch talked about an upcoming anthology, Women in Futures Past. Motivated by bizarre claims she would hear from writing students about women (or the lack thereof) in science fiction history, she has undertaken an educational mission.

But why does she have to? Why does this kind of ignorance exist among the most connected people in the world?

Back in the 1970s, when I started reading science fiction as a poor student in a backwater town in South Dakota, I knew about these authors — even if I couldn’t get my hands on their books. My high school library had The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In the post Star Wars years, I managed to pick up a cheap, but new, copy of Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by Robert Holdstock. It also mentioned women science fiction writers besides Ursula K. Le Guin. So did Baird Searles’ paperback A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction. So did James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction series.

I seldom, if ever mention, “diversity” issues. But even I bought, in the 1990s, three landmark anthologies on women in science fiction: Jean Stine and Janrae Frank’s New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow and Pamela Sargent’s two-volume Women of Wonder anthology.

Bought them and read them.

So why does the generation that grew up with huge amounts of data available with the twitch of fingers on the keyboard as opposed to a drive to the library or weeks long wait for loaned or purchased books know so little about this subject? Is the internet age or modern education destroying their curiosity?

The ignorance Rusch cites is among self-professed fans, neigh would-be writers.

I wish Rusch well on her project. If she has enough new material I don’t already have, I’ll probably buy the book.

I’m genuinely puzzled why it’s needed though. The digital age reducing the mental habitat of Arthur Koestler’s “library angels“? Overbooked schedules allowing less time for casual curiosity? Shortened attention spans? Still, we are talking about the age of the hyperlink.

I guess, as Merlin remarked in John Boorman’s Excalibur, “For it is the doom of man that they forget.”

The Reviewer as Anthologist

Matthew Carpenter is a doctor, a rheumatologist to be exact.

But, when he isn’t feeling up patients’ joints and checking out “sed rates”, he keeps an eye on modern Lovecraft literature. [Correction: his bio in A Lonely and Curious Country says he’s a radiation oncologist.]

When I was discovering that modern Lovecraft takeoffs could actually be good, I discovered him as an Amazon reviewer whose judgment and breadth of knowledge I could trust. He’s also a regular on Lovecraft eZine’s weekly talk show.

So, I was pleased to see he has turned his hand to editing a collection of Lovecraftian fiction: A Lonely and Curious Country: Tales from the Lands of Lovecraft.

A Thought for My Fellow Book Bloggers

In looking at the latest New York Review of Science Fiction, I see an article by Gregory Benford on “The State of Magazines, 2014”.

David Hartwell is quoted:

The bottom line is that there are literally thousands of published but less than truly excellent fantasy and sf writers now (never mind the self-published) who are desperate not to be judged in comparison with others, especially older and established writers. We all know that is scary. So they deny the existence of any rules, any boundaries, so they cannot be judged. My only answer is, judge them anyway.

Zanzibar and Niven Follow Ups

Three from Larry Niven:

Honest-to-goodness astrophysicist and science fiction writer (his novels look interesting) Mike Brotherton takes a close, mathematical look at Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star”.

While a bit too cranky and snarky for my taste, I do have to say James Nicoll has a point about some Niven stories when he says, “The point of stories like this is enjoying the process as Shaeffer slowly comprehends the depth of the crap into which he has stepped, not mere plausibility.”

The Zanzibar Parallax

Dr. Malthus has not retired, and John Brunner’s point, if not his timing, is still valid.

Lashing the Wind

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strengths.

Samuel Johnson

When I hear the word “trope”, I reach for my revolver.


Attention bloggers, podcasters, and reviewers:

Tropes are not themes. Tropes are not images. Tropes are not motifs.


Continue reading

A Versatile Blogger?

I spent the last half of February roaming the middle of America, from Minnesota to Mexico.

Catching up on my blog readin’ and writin’ after my return, I was surprised to see that Planetary Defense Commander nominated me for a Versatile Blogger Award.

versatile-blogger

Versatile? So that’s what they’re calling liberal arts grads who can’t concentrate on any one thing?

As for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award … well “inspiring” is not a word normally associated with me, so I will pass on that award.

Seven Trivial and Mildly Interesting Things About Me Continue reading

Writing, Manual Labor, and Immigration

Am I privileging high culture above Joe’s or Javier’s ability to feed his child? Absolutely. And from any view that sees humans as more than breeding-and-eating earthworms, try to prove me wrong.

— Ann Sterzinger

I’m becoming increasingly fond of Sterzinger’s cranky, stylish pieces on writing and publishing at Taki’s Magazine. Her latest is “More People, More Nonsense”.

Am I an Unlicensed Therapist?

At the Daily Telegraph is a curious piece about “bibliotherapists”.

… bibliotherapists will serve up suggestions suited to your particular tastes, guiding you to enchanting books you may not be aware of.

Perhaps here is an untapped revenue stream for all us amateur book reviewers looking to monetize our blogs for a bit more than the value of a few review copies.

The School of Life in London offers this service for ” £80 per consultation”.

I, of course, will entertain invitations from any one willing to form a cartel of book reviewers to corner this nascent but valuable market.