May. 11th, 2017

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Tom Shippey, Hard Reading: Learning from Science Fiction (Liverpool University Press)

Tom Shippey is, of course, the renowned Tolkien scholar, famous for his lucid explanations of what Tolkien was actually trying to do, and his robust denunciations of critics who carp at Tolkien from positions of cluelessness as to either his intent or achievement.

I knew that Shippey was also interested in SF, partly because he's edited collections of both the literature and of criticism, and because I knew of his interest in SF and fandom on a personal level. Once when I got to spend most of an afternoon in his company, he spent much of his conversation with me discussing Peter Weston (to whom this book is dedicated) and his fanzines, perhaps because I was the only person Shippey would be meeting on that trip who knew Peter Weston.

But this collection of essays, some of them dating back 40 years, is the first I've read of Shippey's own criticism in the field. And sure enough, he treats it just as he does Tolkien, explaining lucidly how SF works and chiding critics who don't get it. The first chapter, following the same principle of close reading pioneered by Samuel R. Delany in The Jewel-hinged Jaw, compares a sample opening scene in an SF novel (Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants) with a similar opening "man performing his morning ablutions" scene from a mainstream novel (Orwell's Coming Up for Air), and showing how the details in each give you information about the society you're in, but whereas Orwell's are designed to fix the character in a socio-economic context known to the reader, Pohl and Kornbluth are giving you new information ("depilatory soap"? "trickle from the fresh-water tap"?) and force you to store it in your mind until you've accumulated enough to form a picture of the society you're reading about. SF readers are used to reading this way. People who find SF unreadable don't.

Even better is a set of two chapters on a novel that forms an ideal topic for Shippey's approach. Usually when an established mainstream author writes an SF novel, the results are pretty dire, because they've wandered into a field they don't know how to write. But what happens when an author of high literary reputation who does know the SF field and its conventions writes an SF novel? Well, you get a competent SF novel. But what you also get is a large set of book reviews by literary critics who'd normally never touch SF, but who review this book because of its author's high literary repute. So Shippey has dug up all such reviews of Kingsley Amis's 1976 alternate-history novel The Alteration, and analyzed their near-universal and comprehensive Not Getting It.

In another essay, Shippey uses The Alteration to examine the rules and conventions of alt-history in general. In a third chapter he compares and contrasts it with "change the past" stories, literally drawing a matrix whose axes are the desirability of changing the past, and the possibility of actually doing so (given the opportunity to try). For instance, Lest Darkness Fall and A Connecticut Yankee both treat change as desirable, but in the one it succeeds; in the other it fails.

I really appreciated a chapter on magic in SF in the Unknown Worlds tradition, which treats it as a predictable, reliable science (actually more engineering). Shippey points out that this derives, directly or indirectly, from Frazer's The Golden Bough, which codified rules of magic from societies which consider them predictable and reliable. It's an entirely different view from one treating magic as religion. He contrasts this with stories in which whether, or how well, magic works depends on who's doing it (citing Earthsea, about which he has a whole separate chapter, as an example of this). But isn't it true even in our world that some people have the engineer's equivalent of a "green thumb" and others just don't?

Another place where I felt a little cautious came in a generally excellent chapter on cultural engineering in SF. Shippey discusses two stories by Poul Anderson and Winston P. Sanders (bashfully admitting in an introduction that he hadn't realized when writing the essay that they were the same person) showing that SF authors (at least this one) realize you can't just show up and engineer a culture around: if you try, there will be blowback and other disasters. (See also Le Guin's "The Word for World is Forest," which Shippey does.) What got me was a citation of John W. Campbell getting this point by writing an editorial in ASF in 1959 saying that American intervention in Vietnam would accomplish no good. Shippey commends Campbell for having the self-control to avoid crowing about this perspicacity ten years later; but I think it's far more likely that by ten years later, Campbell had changed his mind. I suspect that someone as right-wing as he would be unable to resist the temptation to be on the opposite side from the anti-war protesters.

Oh, there's much more in this book: a discussion of why 1984 doesn't really work, either as SF or as a novel; discussions of Jack Vance, Bruce Sterling, and Starship Troopers. I'd recommend it with enthusiasm for anyone interested in the thought that goes into SF literature.

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