The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction

The big critical work on the Masterclass reading list, this. so as you can see from that schedule I’m taking it chapter by chapter; the aim not to review it so much as to annotate it with my thoughts. Per the comments, I’m going to post about the first and last sections, and get through as much of the rest as possible. But first: as the book itself has a preface, so I give you a prefatory post.

(1) What the book does and does not attempt, as set out in its preface: “The main purpose of this book is to inspire better ones, not to have the last word” may be fairly standard boilerplate, but we also get:

  • “My greatest challenge has been to design arguments that will account for both refined artistic examples of sf and the popular commodity forms of “sci-fi”.”
  • “My goal is to understand science fictionality as a way of thinking about the world, made concrete in many different media and styles, rather than as a particular market niche or genre category”

We also get this: “My ‘beauties’ … are perhaps cognitive attractions, intellectual gravitational fields that draw our attention. They are perhaps mental schemes, through which we organize our thinking. They are perhaps tools for thought, so well made that we admire their design at the very moment we are using them.” And I’ll try to take them in that spirit.

(2) The table of contents:

  • Preface
  • Science Fiction and This Moment
  • First Beauty: Fictive Neology
  • Second Beauty: Fictive Novums
  • Third Beauty: Future History
  • Fourth Beauty: Imaginary Science
  • Fifth Beauty: The Science-Fictional Sublime
  • Sixth Beauty: The Science-Fictional Grotesque
  • Seventh Beauty: The Technologiade
  • Concluding Unscientific Postscript: The Singularity and Beyond

I should also note, perhaps, that if you want to play along at home it looks like you can read a decent chunk of the book via Google Books. And there’s what looks like a very early version of some of the thinking that went into the book in this SFS article, from 1996.

(3) Resources. Or, mostly, reviews.

(Roger Luckhurst also has a review in SFS, but that won’t be online for another seven months or so. Curses!)

Reading List: “The Second Inquisition”

The first time I read this story (first published, according to the book I have it in, in 1970 in Orbit 6; I’ve seen 1968 and 1969 in other sources, but since the Locus Index to SF Awards has it nominated for a Nebula in 1971, I’m sticking with 1970), it was as the final story in The Adventures of Alyx, which inevitably shaped how I approached it:

The collection’s final story, “The Second Inquisition” (1970) changes setting, tone and style yet again — in the process making clear exactly how much control Russ has over those elements of her writing — relocating to 1925, and the narrative of a young woman still living with her parents. She describes an unusually confident visitor who is staying with them, who seems fairly clearly to be one of the tall, indefinably mixed-race people of Picnic on Paradise‘s time, and who sure enough turns out to be a time traveller, one of a number of agents trained by Alyx and engaged in a temporal conflict. It’s a story that picks up on one of the most moving exchanges in Picnic in Paradise, when Alyx is trying to convey to one of the civilians what the world she comes from is like, and what time travel feels like to her:

“Think of that, you thirty-three-year-old adolescent! Twenty-six and dead at fifty. Dead! There’s a whole world of people who live like that. We don’t eat the way you do, we don’t have whatever it is the doctors give you, we work like hell, we get sick, we lose arms or legs or eyes and nobody gives us new ones, we die in the plague, one-third of our babies die before they’re a year old and one time out of five the mother dies, too, in giving them birth.”

“But it’s so long ago!” wailed little Iris.

“Oh not it’s not,” said Alyx. “It’s right now. It’s going on right now. I lived in it and I came here. It’s in the next room. I was in that room and now I’m in this one. There are people still in that other room. They are living now. They are suffering now. And they always live and always suffer because everything keeps on happening. (127-8)

This works on several levels: it conveys the shock of transition which Alyx experienced, moving between times; it is metafictionally true, in that just before and just after this exchange we are indeed reading about the people in those other rooms; and of course it’s a reminder that geographical inequality in the real world, today, is as significant as the temporal inequality Alyx is describing. This last is, I think, reinforced by the collection’s overall trajectory from stories about a world that is remote and separate from ours, to stories about a world that is directly and intimately linked to us.

The first four Alyx stories all end with the same line, or a variation on it: “But that’s another story.” “The Second Inquisition” ends with the narrator isolated, having witnessed extraordinary events and a glimpse of a world from which she is excluded, in favour of having to live in reality. “No more stories,” she says, echoing the finality of Stormbringer rather than the ongoing tapestry of The Broken Sword. The sadness of it contrasts with the upbeat expansiveness of all the other endings, but it works better. And there is a sense, too, that the stories say all that Russ wanted them to say. Others — Mary Gentle, Samuel Delany – may have found other routes into the same seams of ore, but I think Russ got the gold she wanted from this mine, and was ready to move on to others.

Reading it alone is a different experience. I think I liked it more this time (not that I disliked it before). My thoughts were much more shaped by the epigraph — John Jay Chapman: “If a man can resist the influences of his townsfollk, if he can cut free from the tyranny of neighbourhood gossip, the world has no terrors for him; there is no second inquisition” — and a sense that the story is in dialogue with the conventions of fiction I don’t really know, suburban American early/mid-twentieth century fiction. I wasn’t, for instance, sure whether The Green Hat was a real book or an invented one; it turns out that it’s real, and you can read a foreword to a 2008 edition of the book here, which gives a bit more context to the narrator’s reaction in “The Second Inquisition”: it’s the very opposite of her constrained, small-town life.

The story still strikes me as extremely well observed, perhaps particularly when it comes to the narrator’s (never-named) mother, and her terribly depressing subservience to the narrator’s father: and lines like, “again she produced a bright smile” (173) seem very potent, very aware that the ostensibly happy family is an act of performance. (Which chimes interestingly with the historical setting, perhaps.) According to this interview, there’s a fair amount of autobiography in the story, and a link to Russ’s other work that I at least didn’t spot:

Delany: … It’s also a poignant sympathy for the young that manifests itself in many stories. But in particular, The Second Inquisition, the story of the young lesbian girl in The Female Man, just wring your heart out. They certainly wring my heart out. Is there any special relationship in terms of your own life?

Russ: Yes, I think so. I was discovering maybe a little later than that, but also in that time, discovering what they call the child within. And I discovered that I have one. I think everybody does. This is not a separate personality, it’s a kind of different personality, and she insists that she is the empress of the universe. Then if she gets in trouble she comes and hides behind me, and I have to take care of it.

Delany: Your descriptions of the young woman in The Second Inquisition… I’m trying to remember the epigraph in that story… something like if you can survive the opinions of the people in the small town in which you live, you can survive anything… is what I took away from it.

Russ: I put a lot of autobiographical detail in that story: the town, the backyard, the little sort of couch or swing they sit on, stuff like that. The dance. All comes from stuff I’ve seen or lived through.

Delany: And stuff that feels incredibly real and has that ring of truth, or as once I described it in critical writing, it’s not the ring of truth, it’s a whole gong of truth.

Then, of course, there’s the mysterious visitor, on which I’ll steal Nic’s thoughts from here:

She is apt to casually challenge the assumptions the family holds about her, about women, and about the world. She holds long conversations with the girl (our narrator), who is, not surprisingly, smitten – especially when it emerges that the woman is a time-traveller (a relative of Alyx, or a protegee), and a time war erupts into the middle of the quiet family home. The violence comes as both a shock and a liberation to the narrator, who has been reading HG Wells avidly: adventure has found her, and one she can participate in. But then, just as abruptly and unexpectedly as she arrived, the traveller leaves – turning down the narrator’s inevitable plea (“‘My dear, I wished to take you with me. But that’s impossible. I’m very sorry'”).

The (apparent) contradictions represented by the visitor are present in the narrator’s first descriptions of her — “seemed to be kind of a freak”, “rough”, “gracefulness of a stork”, “great, gentle height” — and, if not smoothed out by the end of the story, at least contextualised. It’s telling, I think, that the way in which Russ reveals that the visitor is a time traveller is through a comment on changing social standards: “Your body will be in fashion by the time of the next war” (167); she represents that change, the instability of what is presumed to be a stable “normal”.

That Russ makes us work to really understand the story behind the story of “The Second Inquisition” reinforces the claustrophobia of the story, I think. It certainly doesn’t seem to me, as some would apparently have it, evidence of that most nebulous of things, a lack of editing, although it does incorporate paradox — not a surprise in a time-travel tale, except here the paradox is literary. We’re told that the visitor is the great-granddaughter of the founder of TransTemp (which from other stories, we take to be Alyx); but the closing “no more stories” links the tale to the other Alyx adventures, and suggests that the narrator of this one is the narrator of the others, that she creates Alyx. Gary Wolfe’s reading of the story, in his essay in On Joanna Russ, emphasises this side of the story, following discussion of The Green Hat:

None of this has much directly to do with science fiction, of course, but it has a great deal to do with the kinds of fantasies available to young girls in the popular mainstream fiction of the day. In contrast to The Green Hat is a novel that the narrator reports finding on the visitor’s bed: Wells’ The Time Machine, which leads to a very different sort of discussion. [… ] The narrator, as a reader, seems to have reached a crucial point of discovery familiar to many science fiction readers: namely, that the genre as expressed by Wells invites intellectual speculation rather than fantasies of manners. […] When the narrator asks the mysterious visitor if she herself is a Morlock, the visitor agrees wholeheartedly. This odd exchange between narrator and visitor, which begins with the narrator telling us that she is in fact “talking to the black glass of the window” and ends with the comment, “it was a pit she was not really there”, seems to invite us to read it as a construct of the narrator’s own imagination, an imagination that may be evolving into that of a science fiction writer. (16-17)

Reading List

I’m attending this year’s SFF Masterclass (for which there are a few places left, apparently, so you can still apply), and just received the reading list from this year’s tutors. Last time I attended, I managed to blog some of the reading; this time around I’m going to try to be a bit more ambitious, in part because, with only five weeks to go, putting a schedule up here is (I hope) going to keep me focused. Feel free to read along at home! Short Story Club fans will notice that there’s some short fiction in the mix although not, alas, much that’s readily available online.

The schedule, then:

And as much of the rest of Seven Beauties as I can fit in. [Note: I haven’t been able to keep to the original schedule, but I’m still adding links as I go…]