Paul Di Filippo reviews Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences
Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences, edited by Gregory Benford, Gary Westfahl, Howard V. Hendrix, and Joseph D. Miller
(McFarland 978-1476669281, $26, 271pp, trade paperback) February 2018
Despite the flourishing of courses devoted to fantastika in the groves of academia, it seems to me that actually, in any given year, very few scholarly volumes emerge. Most of the non-fiction books–the candidates you see on the awards ballots, whether dedicated to contemporaneously studying or historically researching the genre–are produced by folks whose primary concern is something other than pure scholarship. These more numerous creators are working editors or working writers, fans or amateurs, not genuine scholars for their livings, although in many cases they are just as expert. But there’s a certain distinctive intellectual heft to be found in the pure quill stuff that’s lacking in the other selections. So whenever such a volume emerges, we should be keen to investigate it for its idiosyncratic insights.
And especially in the case at hand, where we have a book which emerges with a high-toned pedigree. The J. Lloyd Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy is an immense publicly accessible library of materials housed at UCI Riverside, and they also sponsor a biennial assembly where scholars deliver their findings. This new book gathers up some of the best such papers.
Diving right in with an “Introduction” from the four editors, we learn that the Eaton conference was founded in 1979 and, alas, for reasons not cited, seems to have come to the end of its lifetime. Thus this volume’s remit: to serve as a capstone and tribute by preserving twenty-two of the most outstanding papers (up to 1999), eighteen of them bearing new afterwords, thus commemorating the main accomplishment of these conferences: “science fiction criticism is now thriving and widely accepted.”
Let’s try to get at least a small sense of all the offerings in our limited space. Right out of the gate, we should note the wide variety of approaches, with some authors examining vast tracts of fiction, while others zero in on single tales. The chronological presentation of the contents also affords a nice roadmap of the critical field’s evolution.
“Science Fiction as Truncated Epic” by Patrick Parrinder examines the role of SF as a continuation of the classical epics of yore. It’s intriguing to apply his thesis to works that have followed, such as Banks’s Culture novels. SF’s handling of deep philosophical issue is taken up in “Dialogues Concerning Human Understanding: Empirical Views of God from Locke to Lem” by Stephen W. Potts, who has many interesting observations on Solaris and other pivotal books by Lem. Eric S. Rabkin, in “The Descent of Fantasy,” charts the utilitarian value of storytelling. “It is by well made fantasy that Homo sapiens shapes the world.”
The topic of media depictions of sex and female representation stimulatingly occupies Vivian Sobchack in “The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film.” Her afterword is meaty enough in its account of post-1982 films to be another whole essay. We next hear from three working stiffs from the literary salt mines. “Running Out of Speculative Niches: A Crisis for Hard Science Fiction?” is David Brin’s attempt to suss out the state of that rigorous art, circa 1983. Gregory Benford examines the possibilities of ever truly knowing the alien essence with “Effing the Ineffable.” Poul Anderson walks us through the techniques of worldbuilding in “Nature: Laws and Surprises.” And not to omit a fellow who intervened between Benford and Anderson: John Huntington, in “Discriminating Among Friends: The Social Dynamics of the Friendly Alien,” makes some very clever and useful distinctions between tales involving friendly aliens versus those featuring hostile aliens.
“In the Palace of Green Porcelain: Artifacts from the Museums of Science Fiction” by Robert Crossley is a stimulating look at how museums have been portrayed in SF. Joseph D. Miller delves into the importance of sheer language in “Just How Frumious Is a Bandersnatch?: The Exotic and the Ambiguous in Imaginative Literature.” Howard Hendrix scores some definite prophecies about the stratification of society and literature in “Making the Pulpmonster Safe for Demography: Omni Magazine and the Gentrification of Science Fiction.” And editor Westfahl very drolly trots out a catalogue of wacky foodstuffs from SF in “For Tomorrow We Dine: The Sad Gourmet in the Scienticafé.”
So long as we are talking about food, why not examine “Cannibalism in Science Fiction,” asks Paul Alkon, who of course does not omit the notable riffs from Stranger in a Strange Land. One of the more famous critics in our field, Fredric R. Jameson, plumbs the depths of George Bernard Shaw, an illustrious ancestor to the genre, in “Longevity as Class Struggle.” By now this anthology has reached the cyberpunk era, which gets a keen dissection from N. Katherine Hayles with “How Cyberspace Signifies: Taking Immortality Literally.”
The bardic Frank McConnell, lamentably since deceased, delivers wry observations in “You Bet Your Life: Death and the Storyteller.” “I realize I am getting rather thuddingly paradoxical here, sort of like G.K. Chesterton on a really bad day. It is just that I do not know any way to talk about death that is not, ultimately, paradoxical or even, when you break it all the way down, funny.” Marleen S. Barr argues for more wide-open perspectives regarding what is considered canonical in “Revamping the Rut Regarding Reading and Writing About Feminist Science Fiction: Or, I Want to Engage in ‘Procrustean Bedmaking.'” Her afterword too, like that of Sobchack, is exceptionally rich.
Somewhat anticipating themes from the “Maker” movement, Tom Shippey uses Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau to poignant purposes in “Literary Gatekeepers and the Fabril Tradition.” Comics come in for a deserved exegesis in “Flying to the Moon in the French Bande Dessinée,” by Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser, the latter figure a vital part of the whole Eaton milieu, now also no longer with us. This look at the graphical elements of SF is extended by Kirk Hampton and Carol MacKay as they examine “Shapes from the Edge of Time: The Science Fiction Artwork of Richard M. Powers.” H. Bruce Franklin spans millennia in a compact space as he looks at “The Science Fiction of Medicine.” And to close out, Carl Freedman takes a retrospective gander at the famous debate between C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis as they battled over the virtues of science versus the humanities in “Science Fiction and the Two Cultures: Reflections After the Snow-Leavis Controversy.”
Closing the covers on this fine assemblage of heavy-duty, eye-opening investigations into the nature and accomplishments of fantastika, we are left with a few observations. No one is pedantic or dull, thus refuting and confounding all the stereotypes about academic work. History is valorized and deemed essential to understanding the present. Everyone honors and loves the field. And the level of tendentiousness or dogmatism is exceedingly low. One gets the impression that the Eaton conferences placed a priority on truly listening to others and on collegiality and respect. Would that such a valuable vibe could be impressed on the current internet scene!