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March 2003
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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by James Sallis

The Evolution of the Weird Tale, by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2004, $15.

H. G. Wells: Traversing Time, by W. Warren Wagar, Wesleyan University Press, 2004, $34.95.

Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction, by Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce, Kent State University Press, 2004, $34.

Conversations with Ray Bradbury, edited by Steven L. Aggelis, University Press of Mississippi, 2004, $48 hc, $20 trpb.

LAST weekend as I sat listening to a fine guitarist, a man bent close to me and said what I first took to be "jam." Confused, I looked up at his straw hat, unruly hair, four-day stubble. An invitation? Offer of breakfast? Quote from Alice? Slowly I realized: this was a musician with whom I've played on several occasions, and he was saying, not jam, but my name. Shaking hands, I told him I hadn't recognized him. "I know, I know, I'm reinventing myself," he said.

"Be sure to apply for the patent," I cautioned.

Today I'm thinking how many times sf has reinvented itself in the years I've been reading it, and what in all that time has remained solid and forever recognizable at its heart. What its patent covers.

I came up in the cusp, traces of the old pulp still much in evidence, Galaxy and F&SF transforming the field, major figures like Sturgeon, Heinlein, and Leiber still writing. Years later, a writer myself, I'd form enduring friendships with many writers, new wave and old school, and as editor of New Worlds, alongside Ballard's and Aldiss's work would publish Bug Jack Barron, "Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones," and "A Boy and His Dog."

Meanwhile, out there, outside the circus tent, sf was busily changing hats, mugging, and quite possibly having false papers drawn up for travel.…

This past year I've donned a new hat myself, as teacher. There's nothing like teaching to bring you to verbalize and question concepts long taken for granted, and in speaking about science fiction week after week, its history, its current writers, how one writes it and the many pitfalls of doing so, I've come anew to wonder at science fiction's place both in literature and in popular culture.

Many of my concerns and self-interrogations are reflected in the latest crop of books not of, but about, science fiction.

*     *     *

Well-known as the editor of major collections of supernatural stories by Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and others, for The Weird Tale (1990), and for biographies of Lord Dunsany and Lovecraft, S. T. Joshi has not taken over a critical niche so much as he has created one — built the chair from scratch, as it were. And though he's a great fan of the golden period of supernatural fiction, which he sets at 1880-1940, his reading ranges widely, as the chapters here, running from Robert W. Chambers and W. C. Morrow to Rudyard Kipling, Frank Belknap Long, and splatterpunk, demonstrate.

Despite its title, The Evolution of the Weird Tale is a miscellany, collecting reviews from such specialty publications as Studies in Weird Fiction, American Supernatural Fiction, and Necrofile, and introductions penned for the various collections Joshi has edited. The critic, he holds, occupies a central function in the establishment of a literary canon, both as antidote to popular appeal and as arbiter of taste. "My critical method is explicitly judgmental, as I consider it an essential component of the critic's function to pass an informed judgment upon the merits or demerits of a given work of literature, or of the author's work as a whole."

Canonization of the weird tale seems clearly what Joshi aims for, nor can one doubt his high ideals and expectations. Yet, while I suspect that Joshi would refuse even at gunpoint to admit that all is, finally, a matter of taste, his work here abounds with personal opinion often poorly supported by accompanying argument and excerpt. He is at his best in the introductions, laying out the arc of a writer's career, giving it form, illuminating the whole and shining light into odd corners. Sections on Fritz Leiber, Lovecraft, and Dennis Etchison are of considerable interest. Less rewarding, and indeed questionable, are those on Rod Serling — influential, yes, but finally the author of simplistic moral tales — and Poppy Z. Brite, a fine, complex writer for whom Joshi seems to have a distinct and unfounded distaste.

*     *     *

One of the great pleasures of reading biography, criticism, and literary journalism lies in coming across books that allow us to rediscover familiar writers: to discover how much our "familiarity" derives from assumption, hearsay, and misremembering, to learn how little we actually knew, and to see these writers afresh.

H. G. Wells: Traversing Time is such a book, not "a volume of meticulous literary criticism" (as its author states in the prologue) but more an extended essay, a personal tribute to "the work and thought of the human being who has done more than any other to illuminate the world for me — and, I suspect, for thousands of others." W. Warren Wagar has published widely on Wells, including three earlier books. "I have devoted the greater part of my life to the study of H. G. Wells and to explorations of the human prospect in a Wellsian spirit," he tells us in the book's concluding personal epilogue.

Quite aside from being the father of modern science fiction, Wells was for at least two decades the most popular of British mainstream novelists. His work was greatly anticipated and widely, fervently discussed. The Outline of History sold millions of copies. Working simultaneously as romancer, mainstream literary novelist, and social philosopher, Wells published thousands of articles in newspapers and magazines, and at least 113 books. His lifetime ran from one year after the close of the U.S. Civil War to one year after World War II's end, "the astonishing span from cannonballs to atomic bombs," and every reverberation of the immense changes taking place in the world about him, every tremor, every seizure, surfaces in Wells's work.

"It would be difficult," Wagar writes, "to imagine another major literary figure of his generation so intensely conscious of human life on Earth as a process of change over long periods of time, both historical and geological, both past and future." Rooted securely in the chief intellectual concerns of his own time — socialism, world government, the role of science, imperialism – Wells's work seems on the one hand very much of his day and on the other, timeless.

One element that sets speculative fiction apart from most other fiction is its insistence upon not only depicting human life but also placing a frame around mankind's place in the universe, something virtually all Wells's books accomplish to great effect. And if art's purpose is to lift us out of the dailiness of our lives and make us see things anew, to direct us toward true vision, then his is high art indeed.

Wagar gives us an affectionate and wonderfully readable portrait of Wells, this man ever impatient with the present, who wanted "to go ahead of Father Time with a scythe of my own."

*     *     *

Some artists have a presence so pervasive that we take them wholly for granted; they're the floor we walk on.

Ray Bradbury, for instance.

Like many of my era, I grew up on this man's work, marveling at The Martian Chronicles not long after its 1950 publication, poring over The October Country in its original Ballantine edition, later, as a fledgling writer, poking at stories like "The Wind," "The Pedestrian," "The Veldt," and "The Homecoming" to try to see how he did it, where the magic came from.

As Harlan Ellison wrote in Again, Dangerous Visions, "I mean come on…can you ever really forget that thing that called to the foghorn from the sea? Can you really forget Uncle Einar? Can you put out of your mind all the black folk leaving for Mars.…Can you forget Parkhill in '—And the Moon Be Still as Bright' doing target practice in one of the dead Martian cities, 'shooting out the crystal windows and blowing the tops off the fragile towers'?"

Or the house in "There Will Come Soft Rains," going on about its business long after its occupants are extinct: preparing meals, clearing the table and cleaning itself, at last trying to put out the fire that takes its own life, one wall left standing, reciting a Sara Teasdale poem.

"There aren't many guys in our game who've given us so many treasurable memories," Harlan remarks, and over the past few months, in teaching science fiction, I've had the opportunity to return to many of those treasured moments.

Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction presents itself as "the first attempt to bring textual criticism to bear in an in-depth study of Ray Bradbury's authorship." Clearly the book's aim is high, intentions all to the good. And there's no doubt that it's well past time for serious study of Bradbury's work. But just as clearly, the book (570 pages, 128 of them devoted to critical apparatus) is intended for academics. The first page of its preface has ten variants of the word text (textual, textuality, intertextual). Shibboleth continues with references to masking, deconstruction, "the notion of authorship," and "the problem of literary genres." And, however adamant a Bradbury fan, the general reader is likely to be put off by sentences such as "Beyond this simple definition, Bakhtin saw carnival as a form of life and carnivalization as a dialogic process of literary meaning deeply implicated in the ideological clashes of its day." One begins to yearn for plain language, cum John Crowe Ransom: "In all the good Greek of Plato/I lack my roast beef and potato."

Conversations with Ray Bradbury is the latest in University Press of Mississippi's ongoing collations of interviews, bringing together sources ranging from Writers' Market & Methods (1948) to Playboy (1996) and The Onion (1999). As in other volumes of the series, many of the interviews collected here are standard newspaper stuff, brief and repetitious, while others are lengthy and biased toward specific topics such as screenwriting, Bradbury's use of science, or constant themes. "I am not so much a science-fiction writer as a fantasist, moralist, visionary," Bradbury says again and again in various ways. "I believe we are better than we think we are, and worse than we can imagine.… We will survive our worst attempts to hurt ourselves."

The finest comment on Bradbury's work comes not in an interview but in the editor's introduction, quoted from a review by Orson Scott Card of The Stories of Ray Bradbury in the Washington Post — something I read to all my students.

"It is not the characters he expects you to identify with. Rather, he means to capture you in his own voice, expects you to see through his eyes. And his eyes see, not the cliché plot, but the whole meaning of the events; not the scenes or the individual people, but yourself and your own fears and your own family and the answer, at last, to the isolation that had seemed inevitable to you."

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