Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Style as means

I’d like to address a subject (maybe an anxiety) that I suspect will recur throughout the semester, given the number of students who raised it during our first session: whether science fiction qualifies as good literature. I found the stories assigned delightful, of course, and entirely successful in what each set out to achieve conceptually; still, there’s no doubt that neither easily (nor the Zelazny, in my opinion, plausibly) clears the bar usually set for “good” prose. Yet in reading them I began to suspect that a number of their questionable narrative or stylistic choices were actually quite useful to their ends—that science fiction, in other words, might be bad on purpose.

Take the hard-boiled prose of “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” punchy and punch-drunk at once. Zelazny was certainly heedless of the usual proscriptions; for instance, I count seven one-line paragraphs on page 70 alone. Worse, by my lights, is the nearly total absence of description of Mars, Martian architecture and Martians, which requires the reader fill in the gaps between dialogue with his own projections (or, more likely, the readymade tropes of earlier sci-fi, as demonstrated by the original cover above). Arguably, the decision stands as a kind of literary analogue to the imagery first responsible for obsessive belief in Martian life, mentioned by Prof. Montez during our last session: like a first, fuzzy telescopic view of the planet’s surface, there is no more detail available than necessary to arouse speculation.

I’d go further, however, to argue that the weak description is locally justified as a means to the story’s ends. What little representation of the Martian temple there is, for instance, explicitly serves to ground the later imposition of Judaism: “The Matriarch’s quarters were a rather abstract version of what I imagine the tents of the tribes of Israel to have been like. Abstract, I say, because it was all frescoed brick, peaked like a huge tent, with animal-skin representations like blue-gray scars”; abstract, we can say, so that the reader’s own vision of the tents of ancient Israelites may be more easily overlaid (61). As it happens, the notion that one might wish to write at a purposeful remove from a foreign culture is itself offered in the text, by no one in particular: “‘Go, Gallinger. Dip your bucket in the well, and bring us a drink of Mars. Go, learn another world—but remain aloof, rail at it gently like Auden—and hand us its soul in iambics’” (66). (Truly, that line has no speaker—it might as well be Zelazny addressing himself.) Likewise, the reader is encouraged to imaginatively participate in the miscegenation—which, paradoxically, is valued as the preservation, despite its despoiling, of the Martian line—insofar as Zelazny exclusively offers him details compatible with human ideals of feminine beauty. Probably white, come to think of it: “Her shoulder was bare now, and her right breast moved up and down like a moon in the sky, its red nipple appearing momently above a fold and vanishing again” (71, emphasis mine). Even the eyes of the cover’s alien are Oriental at best; their lips too perfect to need lipstick.

So far, so conventional for colonialist sci-fi. While I haven’t room to engage with “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” extensively, I believe its comparatively heavy-handed plottedness has equal internal justification. If our volume’s editor is correct and one of Dick’s purposes was “to shift focus from outer to inner space,” the choice to reveal new details in the narrative during clinical procedures perfectly executes the maneuver according to the experimentalist logic of sci-fi. Seeking mastery over the subject, a technician examines him in order to share results with his audience, which includes us: “‘Once you’ve surrendered yourself, . . . [w]e’ll attempt to determine your absolute, ultimate fantasy wish’” (121). The technique is science’s, the object fiction’s.


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