A Voyage To Arcturus
Russian Science Fiction
The distinctions between true science fiction and what is called fantasy literature are zealously guarded even by consumers of the magazines which publish both sorts of material. In general, science fiction appears to be more toughminded, and its aficionados tend to think of the fantasy product as being somehow intellectually inferior. And yet the evidence is strong that the same sort of people like both sorts of thing; it would be hard to tell whether a rather typical kind of anti-literary, know-nothing, do-it-yourself American intelligence, that of an engineer or a technician, would gravitate more towards one than another. (Nasty footnote on the two cultures: It is said that M.I.T. decided to start up a decent humanities program when a shockingly high percentage of a group of students interviewed declared that the book that had been most important to them was The Robe). Indeed, it is a moot point whether never having read anything good would make one prefer science fiction’s gimmickry or fantasy’s romantic corn.
The two genres are easily distinguished. Kingsley Amis has remarked that “while science fiction maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these; for a furniture of robots, space-ships, techniques and equations it substitutes elves, broomsticks, occult powers and incantations.” From another point of view it might appear that fantasy uses the traditional imaginative materials of romance and ghost-story, inheriting along with these a moral climate in which beauty is virtue, and an Unnatural Presence is. by and large. a Bad Thing. Fantasy is imaginatively “softer” than science fiction, and very often weaker, despite its literary sources—the mythopoeia of the English romantic poets, for example. Sometimes, in a writer like H. P. Lovecraft, there will be a conscious effort to create such a mythological cosmos. But in general, fantasy literature, unlike much good science fiction, never strays too far from the Victorian-Gothic world shadowed by latent sexuality, and shrilly defiant of science. In general, too, mood is favored over the structural gimmick of science fiction, just as, in the writing, image triumphs over idea. So that while, at worst, a science fiction story will be a bungled bit of slick-magazine drivel, creaking along on some traditional science fiction donnée invented by a writer back in the Thirties, a fantasy story will usually end up as a bad poem.
The sub-literary genre of science fiction has contributed to the history of the novel by providing models for Orwell, Eugene Zamiatin before him, Huxley and, more recently, William Golding. The legitimate projections of fantasy would perhaps be in the novels of Charles Williams, in the Tolkien trilogy, or in The Man Who was Thursday. Golding, as a matter of fact, seems to have more in common, in a book like The Inheritors, with this latter group: tragedy and its moral world, for example, are illuminated by means of the technical devices of science fiction, but for vastly different ends. The basic science fiction narrative and dramatic method involves projecting the reader directly into a hypothetical world, starting out in medias res with something like “Lopp looked up at the moons, decided it was time to leave, and turned on the m’zorgzabber” and allowing the donnée or gimmick gradually to dawn upon him. What Orwell and particularly Golding realized was that this discovery on the reader’s part about just what in heaven was going on, could be turned into a complicated kind of anagnorisis for very different purposes. A fictional counterpart of this is the use by Conrad, and Faulkner following him, of narrative murk, the device that causes the reader to keep flipping back through the previous twenty pages to find out if he’s missed an earlier reference. But here the effect is melodrama. In science fiction pure and simple, the effect is to allow the reader’s gradual doping-out of the puzzle to stand for the transition from naturalism to the world of the story: a coathook on which to hang his disbelief, in short. But in fantasy fiction, all that the fog of improbability can generate is something its contemporary authors can think of as “mood”.
A Voyage to Arcturus, first published in 1920 and written by someone its American publishers inadequately represent on the jacket as “David Lindsay, the English author” (this sounds like a prank of S. J. Perelman) looks at first like an inept borderline case. The opening is unquestionably that of fantasy kitsch (and having mentioned Perelman, I can’t help quoting the first sentence: “On a March evening at eight o’clock, Backhouse, the medium—a fast-rising star in the psychic world—was ushered into the study at Prolands, the Hampstead residence of Montague Faull.”) After a chapter of this Sax Rohmer-minus nonsense, we get some substandard science fiction, in which the story’s protagonist, Maskull, a companion named Nightspore and an interstellar visitor named Krag head toward one of the planets of Arcturus in a ship powered by the pull of light (a reciprocal of its pressure) and exceeding, one must assume, even its tractor in velocity.
But after landing on the planet Tormance and meeting its English-speaking humanoid inhabitants, Maskull, now alone, enters another literary realm. For a bit of ludicrous rubbish is transformed into a rather moving heroic poem, a prose romance deeply rooted in an English poetic tradition embracing Spenser, Milton and the Romantics. The world through which Maskull moves has a basically earthlike geography and its inhabitants are individuals rather than tribal groups or societies. They inhabit a spiritual universe apparently divided by a Manichaean struggle for sway between one Muspel and one Crystalman. As the protagonist journeys toward understanding of his predicament, acquiring new organs of perception at various stages of his journey, the inhabitants become more and more confusing about the nature of the two deities, or forces. This is no Charles Williams world, where the blacks and whites of eschatological light blot out the muted colors of the light of common day. Rather it is an original mythical landscape, loosely allegorizing states of human consciousness rather than ethical abstractions. One wonders what readers accustomed to science fiction or fantasy, in which you can always tell the good guys from the bad guys, will make of a journey among unfallen men over a landscape having more in common with parts of The Fail of Hyperion and The Four Zoas (Blake is, I think, an extremely strong influence here), with colors and shapes taken from Prometheus Unbound. The final resolution, in which the complex identity relations between Muspel, Crystalman, Maskull, Nightspore, and Krag are all resolved, is far from being a traditional Christian one.
I don’t think that such a book could have been written in the guise of science fiction after the Second World War. The genre developed to such a degree that the inept opening would have disqualified it, and the mixture of fantasy and science fiction would be considered passé. Not so in the Soviet Union, however. Robert Magidoff has compiled and Doris Johnson has edited an anthology of Russian science fiction stories that certainly include elements of both traditions. It is a little hard to judge some of these against Anglo-American standards, for we are given no dates of appearance of these tales. Nor is Mr. Magidoff’s introduction of much help on this or any score, being far less shrewd and ineisive than those of Issac Asimov (despite their unfortunate prose mannerisms) to a similar pair of anthologies available in Collier Books paper format.
There appears to be a chronological span from a story by Alexander Belyaev, which wouldn’t hold up very well against what was being written here in the late Thirties, through two excellent pieces by Ivan Yefremov, which could appear, mutatis mutandis, in any respectable American periodical (the ideology is troped in rather elegantly, and the appropriate American lib-lab material could easily be substituted). The most recent story in the collection is Dudintsev’s “New Year’s Fable,” which doesn’t belong there at all. But if one can guess about dates from the technological advances in the stories, the Russians seem to be closing the sophistication gap at last, with respect to this literary form anyway.
Science Fiction January 23, 1964