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The Heavy Fantastic

The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

by Ursula K. LeGuin, edited and with introductions by Susan Wood
Putnam’s, 270 pp., $9.95

Fantastic Worlds: Myths, Tales and Stories

edited and with commentaries by Eric S. Rabkin
Oxford University Press, 478 pp., $15.95

We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.” The rhetorical phrase that provides a title for Ursula Le Guin’s essays, notes, and speeches about fantastic fiction becomes less plausible the longer you look at it. “We”—you and I and Ursula Le Guin—do live almost all of our waking lives in real or artificial daylight, and if half the world is always dark, that affects us very little. And then much poetry and a good deal of fantasy uses the language of rational and logical discourse, which is I suppose what Ms. Le Guin would call the language of day. Very little fantasy uses that language of the night which speaks “from the unconscious, to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious,” to quote her definition of great fantasies, myths, and tales. It is not a mere literal quibble to insist that there is no such thing as the language of the unconscious, and that the Grimm brothers and Hoffmann and Poe and Cabell and Tolkien use the language of day. They may use it, more or less deliberately, to suggest symbols, myths, and archetypes, but the interest of those symbols and archetypes is that they refer back to the real world, the world of daylight in which we live.

Such would be a rational view: and the first thing to make clear about most exponents and practitioners of fantasy fiction nowadays is that they do not accept it. They are Manichaeans in reverse, believing that darkness and fantasy are good, daylight and realism dull or worse. Le Guin, whose aphorisms tend to the mystically gnomic, tells us that “those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians.” (Listen to dragons? Who, even in a fairy tale, did that?) Professor Eric S. Rabkin, in his commentaries on a new anthology of fantastic writing, is franker. The real world, he tells us chattily, is a messy place where dust accumulates and crime often pays and true love doesn’t conquer. Let’s take the trip to fantasy, then, to worlds that “are not merely different from our own, but alternative to our own.”

So we’re all aboard in Fantastic Worlds for a journey that takes in the writers mentioned already, plus stories and snippets from Genesis, Greek myth, Br’er Rabbit, fairy tales, Carroll and Thurber, Lovecraft and Le Fanu, Bierce and William Morris, Hawthorne and Kafka. Thurber? Yes, Walter Mitty finds a place under “Fantasy,” and although there is no doubt that Walter Mitty fantasizes he seems an odd companion for Hoffmann and Poe in the same section. Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” is an explicit moral allegory about the danger of seeking perfection, Kafka’s “The Judgment” an exercise in self-analysis based on the writer’s extraordinary relationship with his father. If such stories are to be categorized, as in this volume, as “Science Fiction” and “Modern Fantasy” it might seem that pretty well everything could find a place under the great umbrella of fantasy, but not so. Professor Rabkin, back in our messy real world, sees that some differentiation has to be made in fiction between fantasy and realism.

Professor Rabkin is one of those academics who use language to obscure rather than clarify and who hope that their clichés will turn into aphorisms if nursed in a big enough seedbed of words. When he wants to say that he has traced the origins of fantasy fiction he writes: “Having located the technical stimulus for the affect we associate with the fantastic in the interactive process by which a reader engages a text,” and when conveying the fact that lots of fiction blends realism and fantasy he is not content with a simple phrase or two, but proposes to “express these observations by a spatial metaphor, conceiving of narratives as arranged along a continuum stretching from Realism on the left to Fantasy on the right.” No sooner said than done. Our continuum has ten points, so let’s put The Ambassadors and Germinal right up there on the left. (“If James is a 1, Zola is probably a 2, and vice versa.”) How about Jane Austen? She’s “much more fundamentally alternative to our real world than a novel of Realism.” Call her a 3, and Dickens (“yet more thoroughly alternative”) is a 4. On the right are fairy tales, myths, Poe’s horror stories (an 8 for “The Black Cat”), and other alternatives to reality. Lewis Carroll is way out there in total Fantasy with a 10. Stories and writers of the reader’s choice may be numbered to taste in what can hardly fail to be the parlor game of the season.

To remark the absurdities of the continuum is not to deny that a single basic idea links most modern fantasy and SF: the idea that by exploitation of these “alternative worlds” a writer reaches some kind of freedom debarred to those who use the language of day. I say “modern” because that is what Messrs Le Guin, Rabkin, and other exponents of fantastic fiction are really on about: they give lip service to fairy tales and myths of the past (particularly if like Rabkin they can evolve theories that the story of Little Red Riding Hood is about her fear of approaching puberty, an idea marginally less valuable in relation to the story’s lasting mythic qualities than the psychiatric classification of Stalin as anally sadistic is to his career as tyrant in the Soviet Union), but what most deeply concerns them is the nature of modern fantastic writing.

As Ursula Le Guin says in the introduction to one of her books. “The pursuit of art…by artist or audience, is the pursuit of liberty.” What she means by liberty, however, is not what would be meant by those in Russian labor camps or Chilean prisons, but rather “the pure pursuit of freedom and the dream.” It was a mistake, she thinks, for her to have succumbed, in The Word for World is Forest (1976), to “the lure of the pulpit,” and she would probably go along with James Branch Cabell’s witty remark that art is a criticism of life only in the sense that a prison break is a criticism of the penitentiary. It should be added that Le Guin, like a number of other SF fiction and fantasy writers, is a political liberal who has taken part in demonstrations against the atomic bomb and the Vietnam war. Nevertheless, she regards SF and fantasy stories as more or less powerful and haunting dreams. Such tales are, she insists, a view in and not out: that is, they explore the individual psyche and not the external world.

It may well be that fantasy fiction looks in and not out, but Le Guin shows an inadequate sense of reality when she suggests that it is possible or desirable to keep your ethics separate from your imaginative writing, to protest against a war in the daylight world while hoping to attain perfect freedom from political concerns in the language of the night. Concentration on a “pure” art dealing with “alternative” worlds offers to the writer a kind of “freedom” which is likely to be used in an authoritarian way. Indeed, she recognizes this, in saying that much SF presents “the domination of ignorant masses by a powerful elite—sometimes presented as a warning, but often quite complacently…. Competitive free-enterprise capitalism is the economic destiny of the entire Galaxy.”

The origins of fantasy fiction in English are similar to the origins of the detective story, and they go back to the same writer: Poe. It seems to me an overstatement to call Poe the father of science fiction in the sense that he was certainly the father of the detective story, since the chief concern in what is called his science fiction is the attempt to make the untrue appear plausible. In this he succeeded more than once. His “Balloon Hoax” appeared in a New York paper as a veritable account of the Atlantic being crossed by balloon, and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was taken as a description of a genuine mesmeric experiment upon a dying man. Other stories are full of apparently factual detail designed to deceive, where the modern SF tale makes no such pretense. “By the year 2130, the Mars-based radars were discovering new asteroids at the rate of a dozen a day,” to take an opening typical of SF in a book by one of its most respected writers, Arthur C. Clarke. In creating imaginary worlds, H.G. Wells rather than Poe is the father of SF.

It is true, however, that Poe’s imagination was fired by the scientific theories and discoveries of his time, as many SF writers have been inspired by technological developments in the twentieth century. What Poe did, and what technically minded SF writers have done, is to popularize such achievements, elaborate on them, and speculate sometimes ingeniously about the possibilities they contain. The widespread interest in new technology, especially among the young, means that the SF industry has flourished, in magazines, books, TV, and the cinema.

At this point it seems desirable to try to separate fantasy of a Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, or Figures of Earth kind from SF, with which it has little connection. Le Guin says reprovingly that definitions are for grammar, although she concedes that “of course fantasy and science fiction are different, just as red and blue are different,” which is not very helpful. It seems to me broadly true (exceptions are easy to think of, I agree) to say that SF is about imagined futures while fantasy is about imagined pasts. It is true also that fantasies are for the most part written with a regard for the resources of language, and with some individual feeling, where much SF gives the impression of having been composed by a computer programmed to take the color out of prose. A story by Cabell or E.R. Eddison, whatever its other qualities, will be written with a verbal ingenuity that SF writers very rarely attempt. Add that there is also about many of the most highly regarded writers of fantasy a complacent coziness (Tolkien) or an equally complacent cynicism (Cabell), both of which are quite absent from SF, and it will be seen that there are few points at which the two kinds of fiction touch each other.

In the last two decades any literary form that has become popular has been thought worthy of academic attention, and SF is no exception. Theories proliferate, an aesthetic is constructed, the subject becomes a university course, theses are written. The process operates particularly in the United States, and in a smaller way has been applied to the crime story. The level of the writing is often regarded as unimportant. That level is well expressed in two stories to be found in a new British SF magazine, Ad Astra, among the computer star charts, the comic strips, and the discussions of a laser death ray and of “The Necromicon Revealed.” “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” by a well-known American SF writer, is about Superman’s sexual difficulties, and the need for artificial insemination of any possible mate because he would crush her to death during copulation:

First we must collect the semen. The globules will emerge at transonic speeds. Superman must first ejaculate, then fly frantically after the stuff to catch it in a test tube. We assume that he is on the Moon, both for privacy and to prevent the semen from exploding into vapor on hitting air at such speeds.

Enough? Try “The Brador Elgae”:

I had just poured myself two fingers of Drachos when she appeared in the capsule I’d rented on the old part of the planet. She was certainly some beautiful doll, I can tell you.

One sees what Le Guin means when she says that 95 percent of SF is trash, although she adds, “like everything else.” One can agree with her that the search for garbage is too easy, and that in looking at a popular literary form one ought to deal with writers who are taking it seriously. Among them Le Guin herself would certainly be counted, and so would the veteran Arthur C. Clarke. They represent the two chief varieties of SF, one based on the use of scientific detail, or SF detail, which is not quite the same thing (Clarke), and the other on imaginative conceptions of future societies (Le Guin).

About a typical book of Clarke’s like Rendezvous With Rama (1970) it is hardly possible to say more than that if you like this kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing you like. What kind of thing? Well, reflections like that of Commander Norton in the spaceship Endeavour as he contemplates landing on the “ten million million tons” of Rama. “Landing a five-thousand-ton spaceship at the center of a spinning disc was the least of Commander Norton’s worries…. [He] did not relish the thought of his ship slithering across the polar plain, gaining speed minute by minute until it was slung off into space at a thousand kilometers an hour when it reached the edge of the disc.” Nobody could enjoy that, agreed. Rama, a “giant spaceship or artificial asteroid,” proves to be inhabited by “biots” (biological robots) whose “patterns, or templates, were stored in some central information bank” and then “manufactured from available raw materials—presumably the metallo-organic soup of the Cylindrical Sea.” The metallo-organic soup, of course.

Mr. Clarke drives me to facetiousness as irresistibly as Commander Norton feared his spaceship might be forced to slither across the polar plain, but still I hope the point is made. There are hundreds of SF writers who differ from Mr. Clarke not in the quality of their writing but only in the inferiority of their galactic conceptions. This kind of SF is all mechanical marvels and spinning worlds and metallic glitter. It has not the least concern for the interplay of character or the nature of our own societies, and the people described are as empty of human characteristics as the biots of Rama. If you like pictures of worlds that might exist, not this year or next year but sometime or never, then—this is the kind of thing you like.

Ursula Le Guin offers a very different cupful of fantasy. She has been strongly and I think not happily influenced by Tolkien, particularly in her “Earthsea” trilogy,* but she is sensitive to the nuances of language, and against her own stated viewpoint is often concerned with the political and ethical aspects of art. Her imagined worlds reflect back on our existing planet, and she is able to interest us in the fate of her people. She uses the form she has chosen, at times for suggesting ethical truths, at other times for having fun, and she is a highly imaginative writer, fertile of ideas. The limitation of her enjoyable fictions is that the ideas which seem to come to her so easily often fail to carry her through to the end of a story.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), for instance, introduces us to a society in which the people are androgynous. Very good, and very good also is the creation of the planet Winter, where conditions are sub-arctic at best, and a visitor comes dressed for the Ice Age. The hard life of Winter gives a particular flavor to the book. At a royal celebration a cold wind blows up Portland-Palace Street, and when the king appears “his white figure and the great arch stand out a moment vivid and splendid against the storm-darkened south.” Later, on a journey of escape taken overland, “needles of icy air blew in through the vents” of the tent, and “an impalpable dust of snow-motes fogged the air.” Throughout this romance of betrayal the writing is vivid and economical. At the same time there are loose ends, like the little black electric car introduced in the opening chapter and the concept of shiftgrethor or social authority, which don’t have any importance in story. Shiftgrethor is not much more than a name, where (for example) Newspeak is vitally important to Nineteen Eighty-Four. The concept of androgyny also gets rather lost, although it is the occasion for a few not very funny jokes, like “My landlady, a voluble man.”

Such criticisms do not apply to Le Guin’s finest book, The Dispossessed (1974), a parable about freedom and power which is very far from a pure pursuit of freedom and the dream. On Anarres, formerly the Moon, there is anarchism of a primitive, although technically sophisticated, kind. The world of Anarres was founded by Odo, now regarded as a saint, who with a million followers left Urras for a new life on the climatically hostile Anarres. On Anarres money is not used, personal possessions do not exist, eating, living, sleeping are done in common except for sexual purposes, and the idea of communal life is so strong that solitude is seen as disgrace. On the world of Urras there is an abundance of goods, far greater technical skills, conspicuous consumption—and a lower class kept in grinding poverty.

A physicist named Shevek makes the trip by spaceship from Anarres to Urras, and is at first overwhelmed by the new world’s power. wealth, and beauty. In the end, however, he decides that “there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery.” The statement of an opposite view is given to Keng, another alien to Urras, who says that in spite of all errors and inequities it is what a world should be, full of hope and vitality. The story may sound didactic, but it is not, and the various elements are beautifully dovetailed into the whole. The creation of Anarres society, with its unspoken taboos that limit theoretical freedom, is worked out in great detail, and Shevek’s shock at discovery of the existence of toilet bowls (in Anarres the place for evacuation is called the shittery), servants, and other luxuries of the rich is the occasion of fine unstrained comedy. This novel would look distinguished in the presence of any fiction published in the last decade. If much SF were on this level, then there would be force in Ms. Le Guin’s plea that it should be reviewed along with other fiction, rather than kept in a ghetto labeled Sci Fi. But in fact The Dispossessed is part of the 5 percent SF that is worth reading, and if the rest were sent out with other novels most of it would not be reviewed at all.

In this and many other respects SF resembles the modern crime story, whose practitioners also sometimes complain of the poor reviewing treatment they receive. But the hard truth is that crime stories and SF are in general production-line and not custom-made articles. They are written in a series of clichés about crime and detection, or about mechanical marvels, with none of the care, tenderness, and joy in the work that a real author brings to a real book. There is an endless market for them, as there is an endless market for TV crime and SF series, but they are trash in a sense that an ambitious first or fifth novel is not trash, but simply a more or less worthy failure.

Both SF and crime stories can please by their ingenuity, as Jack Finney’s clever story “The Third Level” (which is discovered at Grand Central Station, with time fixed at 1894) in the Rabkin anthology pleases particularly by a trick ending worthy of O. Henry, but the attractions of such a story, like those of a locked room mystery, are still not quite on the level of fine literature. I find Agatha Christie’s plots fascinating, the details in most SF stories boring, but what pleases me in the one and not the other has little to do with literary quality. Writers of real talent and originality, like Le Guin and Brian Aldiss in SF, Ross MacDonald and patricia Highsmith in crime, are rarities. Academics who blur such distinctions, who encourage their students to write theses about Nick Carter or the development of SF comic strips, are doing a disservice to the cause they have at heart, the cause of showing that “popular” literature may be worth serious consideration. And this is in fact the case.

Both SF and crime fiction are forms in which, partly because their writers are bound by different conventions from those touching other authors, certain social and ethical problems can be stated more easily than in the “straight” novel. Many of the realities of the war in Vietnam were so far removed from the “ordinary” life we know that novelists dealing with the war’s moral problems have tended to do so glancingly, like Robert Stone in the brilliant Dog Soldiers. The questions about society at home raised by such public violence abroad may be put more directly through a view of private violence and individual crime. A crime story based on the Manson case, a work of SF taking a bleaker view of human motives than Le Guin does in The Dispossessed, can open up issues of power and responsibility which “straight” novelists have found difficult to contemplate using realistic conventions. (What is the guilt of Manson compared with that of Lieutenant Calley?) Several of Patricia Highsmith’s books suggest implications about the accepted moral order that are particularly effective because they conceive of people to whom crime comes naturally.

One shouldn’t, of course, claim too much. Only a tiny minority of writers, either in SF or crime fiction, attempt to use these popular forms for what should unambiguously be called moral ends. There is also some work that is redeemed from the commonplace by its writers’ ability sometimes to touch our delight in mystery or in wonder, even though the rest—Le Guin’s 95 percent—is as forgettable as “Baretta” or Star Wars.

  1. *

    This consists of: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan(1971), and The Farthest Shore(1972).

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