Compiled by Bob Denham
Some of the books of science fiction, broadly defined, that Frye read include:
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
_____. The Martian Chronicles
Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics
_____. T zero
Arthur C. Clarke, The City and the Stars
_____. Childhood’s End
_____. Rendezvous with Rama
_____. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Mark Clifton, The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton, ed. Barry N. Malzberg and Martin H. Greenberg
Samuel Delany, Neveryóna, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities
James De Mille, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder
Philip Jose Farmer, The Fabulous Riverboat
_____. The Dark Design
_____. The Magic Labyrinth
_____. Gods of Riverworld
Frank Herbert, the “Dune” series
Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud
R.A. Lafferty, Past Master
M.K. Joseph, The Time of Achamoth
Ursula LeGuin, the “Earthsea” Series (vol. 1, A Wizard of Earthsea)
_____. The Left‑Hand of Darkness
_____. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters
Stanislaw Lem, The Chain of Chance
_____. The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age
_____. The Invincible
_____. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
_____. “The Seventh Sally”
Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz
Edward John Pratt, The Great Feud
George E. Slusser, George R. Guffey and Mark Rose, ed. Bridges to Science Fiction.
John Taine, three unnamed stories
Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision
H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau
Colin Wilson, The Mind Parasites
_____. The Philosopher’s Stone
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids
_____. Midwich Cuckoos
Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness
_____. The Guns of Avalon
_____. Isle of the Dead
_____. Nine Princes in Amber
_____. Sign of the Unicorn
Frye owned copies of:
Ray Bradbury, The Golden Apples of the Sun
_____. The October Country
Thomas D. Clareson, ed. SF: The Other Side of Realism: Essays on Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction
Arthur C. Clarke, The Foundations of Paradise
Samuel Delany, Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand
H. Bruce Franklin, Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century
Alexei and Cory Panshin. The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence
Mark Rose, Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction.
John Wyndham, Jizzle, The Kraaken Wakes, The Seeds of Time, Trouble
John Wyndham writing as John Beynon, The Secret People, Stowaway to Mars (formerly Planet Plane)
John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes, The Outward Urge
Roger Zelazny, Dream Master
Which of these books he may have read is uncertain. The copies in his library are not annotated.
In 1969 Frye and Ray Bradbury had been seated together at some unidentified faculty dinner. Bradbury asked Frye for two of his books, which Frye mailed to him. Bradbury wrote on 16 March 1969, thanking Frye for the books and saying that he hoped they could “meet again some day under quieter auspices, and not have to discuss the pros and cons of such 1968 vaudeville miseries as HAIR.” With his letter, Bradbury sent Frye several of his own books, prompting this present reply.
Dear Mr. Bradbury,
I am just taking off for your part of the world again, but your books have just arrived and I did want to thank you for them. I am quite familiar enough with your work to know that the statement quoted from Isherwood in one of the introductions, that yours is a very great and unusual talent, is a simple factual statement.
What follows are the references Frye makes to science fiction here and there throughout his writing.
What we have said about the return of irony to myth in tragic modes thus holds equally well for comic ones. Even popular literature appears to be slowly shifting its centre of gravity from murder stories to science fiction—or at any rate a rapid growth of science fiction is certainly a fact about contemporary popular literature. Science fiction frequently tries to imagine what life would be like on a plane as far above us as we are above savagery; its setting is often of a kind that appears to us as technologically miraculous. It is thus a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency to myth. (Anatomy of Criticism, CW 22, 46)
From Wagner’s Ring to science fiction, we may notice an increasing popularity of the flood archetype. This usually takes the form of some cosmic disaster destroying the whole fictional society except a small group, which begins life anew in some sheltered spot. The affinities of this theme to that of the cosy group which has managed to shut the rest of the world out are clear enough, and it brings us around again to the image of the mysterious newborn infant floating on the sea. (Anatomy of Criticism, CW 22, 189)
I’ve just been reading an admirable piece of science fiction: [John Wyndham’s] “The Day of the Triffids.” Catastrophe blinds all the human race except the merest handful of survivors—Flood archetype. Brought on by human folly—Atlantis archetype. (The writer is intelligent enough to note both). Heroine makes her appearance being whipped. Harem (two extra girls) introduced, but censored out. Little girl often picked up—erotic archetype censored out. The flood archetype is the transference of an infantile fantasy: suppose everybody died except me & the people I could boss, or at least play (i.e. work) with. The comfortable good [?] & the world shut out feeling, the sense of holiday, turns up early when they loot a Picadilly flat: I don’t know if this kind of erotica, which turns up in the dismissal of catechumens theme in ghost stories (Turn of the Screw) has a name, but it’s linked with the regression to the family unit which is a part of the Flood archetype. Several important things have to be worked out. (Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism,” CW 23, 246)
It will be seen from this that his [E.J. Pratt’s] apprenticeship was a lengthy one: he was over forty when Newfoundland Verse appeared in 1923. Although he wrote many fine lyrics, he was primarily a narrative poet, and chose themes that required a good deal of scholarly research, not only into historical sources but also into vocabulary and phrasing. With The Witches’ Brew (1926) he developed both his sense of narrative structure and the broad humour that made it easy for him to swing from light to serious verse with no essential change of style. Titans (1926), perhaps his best known work, consists of two narrative poems, The Cachalot, a fine description of a whale hunt, and The Great Feud, a fantasy in a vein that would now be called science fiction. (“Edwin John Pratt,” CW 12, 380–1)
The theme celebrated in science fiction, of nature’s eventual revenge, seems to be less frequent in Canadian poetry, although E.J. Pratt, in a late poem called The Good Earth, notices in passing that the death wish in man himself is partly a form of that revenge. (“Haunted by Lack of Ghosts,” CW 12, 479)
It is perhaps worth noticing that the best piece of science fiction in Canadian literature, James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, not published until 1888 but written much earlier, describes a society dedicated to the opposite of all normal human ideals, to darkness, death, poverty, and pain. (“National Consciousness in Canadian Culture,” CW 12, 506)
The foreground of our discussion has been what may be called an exercise in hypothetical futurology, speculations beginning with the question, what would happen if? The science fiction writer John Wyndham said that that question was where all his writing began, and this conference has a certain affinity with science fiction. But in the background is a much wider and more suggestive question, connected with the fact that Canada seems to have moved from a prenational to a postnational phase of existence without ever having been a nation. (“A Summary of the ‘Options’ Conference,” CW 12, 532)
But for Innis communication was something more like the challenge to an author of science fiction: if there is too little left to discover in one world, explore another. Or, as e.e. cummings would say, there’s a hell of a good universe next door: let’s go! (“Introduction to A History of Communication,” CW 12, 585–6)
The nightmare of a conspiracy which has retained one element of science, the element of predictability, and used it as a means of imposing a permanent tyranny in society is one of the commonest themes of recent fiction, especially science fiction, where sometimes (e.g., in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) the cause of freedom is represented by the artist. This completes the interchange of functions that begins with humanism, where the elements of the myth of freedom are seen as perverted into a conspiracy to betray freedom, which only the artist is left to defend. (The Critical Path, CW 27, 62–3)
Educators today appear to be as ignorant as ever, but their victims are less helpless. They have been educating themselves, partly through the film, with its unparalleled power of presenting things in terms of symbol and archetype, and partly through the oral tradition of popular contemporary poetry. (Again, a generation ago, such a phrase as “popular contemporary poetry” would hardly have made sense.) As a result many students have begun to think of poetic imagery and symbolism as a relatively normal form of thought and speech.
Along with this, and partly as a result of the influence of science fiction, there has grown up a new tolerance for schematic patterns in thinking, of a kind that, as we saw earlier, is deeply congenial to poetry. Astrology, Tarot cards, the I Ching, maverick writers like Velikowski or Gurdjieff, all have their student following; and even more orthodox thinkers can make use of schematic constructs, such as the “culinary triangle” of Lévi‑Strauss, that they could hardly have got away with a generation ago. Then again, folk singers often make a quite uninhibited use of mythological, even Biblical, imagery. A line from an early ballad of Bob Dylan’s, “There are no truths outside the garden of Eden,” may make the central thesis of this essay more intelligible to some of its readers: certainly it makes Paradise Lost easier to teach to students familiar with it. This allusiveness is all the more remarkable in that while critics tend increasingly to read poetry by its symbolic “underthought,” folk singers and other poets with a listening audience have to make a surface of explicit statement a part of their communication as well. (The Critical Path, CW 27, 99–100)
We thus have, among other things, new forms of social activity which are really improvised symbolic dramas. An example that I witnessed recently was the extraordinary sleepwalking ritual of the “people’s park” crisis in Berkeley in the summer of 1969. Here a vacant lot with a fence around it became assimilated to the archetype of the expulsion from Eden, dramatizing the conflict of the democratic community and the oligarchical conspiracy in a pastoral mode related to some common conventions of the Western story. A student editorial informed us that the lot was “covered with blood” because, like all the rest of the land in North America, it had been stolen from the Indians (murder of Abel archetype). The expelling angels in this symbolism were (as in Blake’s version of it) demonic, and the police, with their helmets and bayonets and gas masks, were endeavouring, with considerable success, to represent the demonic in its popular science fiction form, of robots or bug‑eyed monsters from outer space. (The Critical Path, CW 17, 100)
In the nineteenth century the conception of evolution suggested certain analogies in human life that gave us a new form of typological thinking. This was because evolution was interpreted purely from the human point of view. Evolution, as we see it, did the best it possibly could when it finally produced us, and whatever more it can do it can do only through us. Hence the kind of typology symbolized by science fiction and by all the forecasts of the future based on present technology: everything we can do now is a type of what we shall be able to do in the future. I spoke a moment ago of the manic-depressive insanity of these and similar attitudes as they shuttle wildly from dreams of unqualified progress to nightmares of unqualified disaster. (Creation and Recreation, CW 4, 72–3)
Most of our verbal culture, in books and magazines and newspapers, in movies and radio and television and comic books, is geared to the expanding rhythms of marketing. It flows out from the big distributing centres, New York or London or Hollywood, into smaller and more remote communities. To keep things simple I shall speak mainly of books, and, for the most part, of books of fiction.
This is the rhythm of what is usually called mass culture, or popular culture. Such phrases don’t imply any value judgment, because mass culture exists on every level of merit, from the best to the worst. But economically it is the direct descendant of the migrating folk tales I mentioned, and like them it is highly conventionalized. The great bulk of it falls into certain obvious categories: there are detective stories, science fiction, romances, westerns, fantasies and so on: any good bookstore will provide the labels. In many of these categories there is much first-rate writing, and no book can remain on a best-seller list for long unless it is written with a good deal of professional expertise. But we nearly always know the kind of thing it is: if we pick up a book on the detective rack, we know the type of story that is going to be inside, and similarly with romances and historical tales. Knowing that we are going to read something highly conventionalized doesn’t seem to put us off: on the contrary, we’d feel cheated if we didn’t find the conventions observed. Books where the conventions are very clear remind us a good deal of games: each game of chess or tennis will be different, but there is a controlling set of rules that remains the same for every type of game. In the book trade this means that there will always be a constant pressure to turn out the predictable and highly professional product, whatever its category. (“Language as the Home of Human Life,” CW 7, 584)
Just as the social life of the time grows into Defoe’s fiction, so its intellectual life grows into Gulliver’s Travels. The Newtonian universe and the researches of the Royal Society were not simple advances in knowledge—nothing is ever that—but also new modes of sharpening the conflict between civilization and its discontents. All the nightmares of science fiction about the destructiveness of technology and the death wish lurking in much of its progress are anticipated in Swift’s Laputa, especially in such episodes as the Lindalinian rebellion. (“Nature Methodized,” CW 17, 21)
Here again the cycles of history have qualified our certainties. Marxism was a minority movement in England in Morris’s day, but it has expanded now to the point where Morris’s interest in it shows a good deal of prescience. Similarly, the late romances fell stillborn from his press and were destined apparently to remain so indefinitely. But within the last quarter‑century or so there has been a quite unexpected development in the area often (and very inaccurately) called “science fiction.” Some of the best‑selling works in this area are Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, Zelazny’s Amber trilogy, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. The frequency of the trilogy form is doubtless due to the sensational success of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and these works are routinely compared to Tolkien in the blurbs, although Eddison’s trilogy of Memison books was in the field earlier than Tolkien. Morris wrote no romance that was formally a trilogy, but some of them are long enough to have been arranged in that form. In any case the genre itself seems clearly to have begun with Morris, apart from the fact that Morris was at least one significant influence on Tolkien.
What is noticeable about the contemporary books is that they are romances that deliberately revert from science fiction hardware, however much of it they incidentally incorporate, back to hand‑to‑hand duelling with the equivalents of swords, back to plots and intrigues of a kind that would hardly be out of place in a Jacobean drama. The political situations are regularly drawn from models of the past: corrupt empires holding on to power but being threatened by revolts, younger sons of aristocratic families forging reputations for themselves through heroic achievements like destroying monsters. Bernard Shaw’s comment is not far off the mark, either for Morris himself or for his successors. Works in this genre are historical romances in which both the history and the geography have been invented, and the settings are as arbitrary as those indicated in Morris’s “world’s end” titles. In this same so‑called science fiction area are other romances that are retellings of traditional tales and myths, like the Mabinogion stories in Evangeline Walton, which remind us of Morris’s other interest in collecting and retelling so many of the great stories of the past. Once again Morris has proved to be profoundly prescient, whatever our opinion of the books themselves. Many commentators on Morris assume that his preoccupation with romance and his socialist interests formed a schizophrenic contradiction in his mind. But when both have turned out to be so central in our own cultural environment we cannot help wondering about this assumption, even if we draw the inference that our world is schizophrenic too. (“The Meeting of Past and Future in William Morris,” CW 17, 310–11)
Velikovsky illustrates in particular a perennial urge to explain myths that finds a curious satisfaction in aligning ancient stories with contemporary interests. In the seventeenth century, fossils and similar geological phenomena were being used to demonstrate the veracity of the Genesis account of the flood. In an age of science fiction Ezekiel’s vision of a chariot of “wheels within wheels” seems more relevant if what he saw was a spaceship from another planet; and an age of drug cults and popular occultism feels attracted by the notion that Jesus and his disciples were devotees of the agaric mushroom, or that Moses produced such miracles as bringing water out of a rock through his training in Egyptian magic, which would naturally have included dowsing. I am not dismissing such explanations: one should doubtless keep an open mind about them, though an open mind, to be sure, should be open at both ends, like the food pipe, and have a capacity for excretion as well as intake. (The Great Code, CW 19, 62)
[On the Paradiso] viii: dance theme, announced in vii, 7, developed here. Dante has no sense of rising into Venus (13): he’s simply there. Of course writing poetry in the Middle Ages was what ethologists call a displaced activity of a frustrated lover, but the reference to Dante’s own poetry (37) & the homage paid to him here make one wonder if this top of Beulah isn’t his real home. Beatified version of the whirlwind of lovers in hell: “dun giro e d’un girare e d’una sete” [with one circle, with one circling, and with one thirst, 35]. Also of the concealing flame, compared to a silkworm’s chrysalis (54): slight pun, or at least assonance, in “seta” [silk]. Note the space-ship feeling of the geography: there’s science fiction here too. (Notebooks of the Bible, CW 13, 409)
[T]he suffering servant is spoken of as an individual, and the “we” represents the society that has rejected him. But the point is, that even in the act of rejection, the individual is the identity of the society that has rejected him.
This identification probably goes back to the ritual described in Frazer’s Golden Bough. Whether it was actually a ritual at the very beginning of human society or whether Frazer was writing a piece of science fiction doesn’t really matter. But in the original rite as he describes it, the central figure of the community is regarded as both divine and human. (“Symbolism in the Bible,” CW 13, 494)
When I wrote the Anatomy, science fiction was not yet in the centre of popular literature, but I knew that it would be very soon, because it would revive Romantic and eventually mythical formulas. (“Northrop Frye in Conversation,” CW 24, 944)
Frye: For Blake, you have to think of God as at the bottom of creation, trying to rebuild it, and as working through man to that effect.
Cayley: The four levels are still there?
Frye: They’re still there, but they’re upside clown. The world “up there” is the world of science fiction, of outer space. It’s a symbol of alienation. There’s nothing there except infinite resources for killing you. Then below that comes this very unfair world of ordinary experience, where the predators are the aristocrats. Below that is the world of frustrated sexual and social desire, the world of Marx’s proletariat, of Freud’s repressed consciousness. And below that again is the creative power of God, which works only through man as a conscious being. (“Northrop Frye in Conversation,” CW 24, 956–9)
Mickleburgh: Could you conceive of a state where we get completely surrounded by communication media and messages that would utterly insulate us from reality?
Frye: Oh yes, I think that’s quite a possibility. And, of course, when communication forms a total environment, nothing is being communicated.
Mickleburgh.: What happens then?
Frye: What happens then is that you’re simply in the world of Narcissus. Everything is simply echo and reflection, and there isn’t any communication in the sense of a conveying of information from A to B any longer.
Mickleburgh: This would be the ideal synthetic world of Big Brother, I suppose.
Frye: Oh, yes, but it could also be the complete fantasy world that you read about in some science fiction satire, where people go around with their heads insulated in a continuous radio and television program, where they’re simply pure solipsism and completely removed from society. (“The Only Genuine Revolution,” CW 24, 164)
Frye: Well, all literature keeps on using the same formulas over and over again.
Cook: Consciously on the part of the artist, or . . . ?
Frye: Well, it’s rather better if it’s not too conscious on the part of the artist. I’m looking now at romance, for example, which begins in late Classical times. Wherever you go it’s always by shipwreck, and the heroine’s virginity is always being threatened, but she always wins through somehow or other. If you read science fiction it’s a spaceship wrecked in a different kind of hostile territory but the story-teller’s tactics are exactly the same. (“Impressions,” CW 24, 296)
ECO: Do you think . . . there is a link between the theme of desire and the return of the fantastic?
Frye: Science fiction is almost entirely based on the theme of the dream of flight, so that there is, without question a link to the desiring self. (“Four Questions for Northrop Frye,” CW 24, 446–7)
Reid: In Italy the intellectual tradition, as well as the popular consciousness, are pervaded by history, as a kind of obsession. Can your system be considered a-historical or anti-historical?
Frye: No, I do not think so. My system begins and ends with history. Anatomy of Criticism had to be in part a history of literature, and I have conceived it as a history of the various genres and literary traditions as well as of their transformations. These traditions and genres are continually renewed, especially vis à vis the function of the class structure of society in which these transformations take place. This seems to be a naive conception of literature but it is not so. When I stated that the ironic stage of literature would lead to a stage of myth and later of romance I did not know anything of Tolkien and other contemporary writers. In the “ironic” stage there is a mistrust of norms, traditions, and literary myths. In the “mythic” stage, structure is usually explicitly used by writers and a new freedom flourishes and leads to a new stage of romance where fable and science fiction prevail.
Reid: What will be the new tendencies at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s?
Frye: I think that the neo-romantic period in which we live with personalities like Ginsberg and Tolkien is very different from the first half of the century, dominated by such giants as Joyce, Pound, etc. Now literature has become more democratic and collective. Poetry is often sung and read in public, something that was inconceivable during the first half of the century. Today there is a literary conscience.
Reid: Doesn’t this lead to a new and perhaps dangerous form of irrationality like the one analysed by Lukács at the beginning of the century?
Frye: I do not think the danger stems from cross currents but from the modern techniques of propaganda, from charismatic leaders and from/ or from totalitarian ideologies. The most important thing is that man discovers himself anew and constantly renews himself. Therefore literature plays a role of primary importance. (“Identity and Myth, CW 24, 459–60)
I read detective fiction, science fiction, popular fiction a good deal. The lectures I gave at Harvard as Professor of Poetry were very largely on popular fiction. I’m interested in popular writing because it preserves the same formulas that more serious literature does. (“Back to the Garden,” CW 24, 651)
Interviewer: Why does an obliterated environment cause “imaginative dystrophy?”
Frye: Because there is no sense of rapprochement between a human community and the environment of that community. You’re getting a self-contained community which never gets outside itself like those science fiction stories where people spend years travelling to the nearest star inside a spaceship. (“Nature and Civilization,” CW 24, 906–7)
Ciglar-Žanic: Can you predict a cyclical return of romance to its original state in the high mimetic mode?
Frye: I have already mentioned Tolkien, but there is also the great popularity of science fiction. In the ’50s I saw that science fiction would be one of the main forms of popular romance and that was what happened. Form a kind of technological romance of the type written by Jules Verne and others, it transformed itself into a kind of philosophical form of the type practiced by Lucian. “Schools of Criticism (II),” CW 24, 1083).
I am old and on the shelf now, and much that is going on I no longer understand. I’m reading Samuel Delany, an sf [science fiction] writer interested in semiotics, and he begins with a sentence from Julia Kristeva I can no more understand than I could eat a lobster with its shell on. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from masticating and ruminating such sentences, but I’d like to think (or perhaps only my ego would) that my greater simplicity came from a deeper level than the labyrinth of the brain. (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 61–2)
I’m at the stage again, I hope, at which I can use individual papers to clarify my views on this book. (It now has a working title: “Words with Power.”) My next assignment is a lecture in a series associated with the name of Thomas More. I see two frames of reference. One is the vague term “science fiction,” which means (a) technological fantasy or hardware fiction (b) software or philosophical fiction. The former descends from Bacon’s New Atlantis, the latter from More’s Utopia (which produces either the Eutopia or the Dystopia). . . . In the science fiction area, there’s a very significant link with More in R.A. Lafferty’s Past Master. (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 178)
Now two transitions I’m less clear about: one to Poe & the technological imagination (also, eventually, Moby Dick) the other to Narcissus. When Blake opened FZ [The Four Zoas] with the fall of Tharmas he came at once to the Spectre of Tharmas and his “self-admiring raptures.” Something to do with the Deluge myth & the whole theme of demonic parody as holding up a perverting mirror to the apocalypse. I don’t know what to do with science fiction. (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 323)
The Hermes-Prometheus cycle: network communication imagery from De Quincey on; contraction and expansion imagery in Eureka and elsewhere; choice and chance in Mallarme; fantasy and reality in science fiction and elsewhere. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 436)
Hart Crane and others of his generation talked a good deal about absorbing the machine as a part of modern poetic consciousness. But not much absorption took place: however, there’s science fiction in prose. What’s its tradition? Is it cosmology, the machinery of the universe? (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 441–2)
It’s becoming clearer, for the moment, that Prometheus is the demonic level turning Atlantean, Eros the “fallen” level turning into the complementary-nature one, Adonis the paradisal one turning into ordinary experience, and Hermes the astronomical one turning into the divination one. Science fiction and such would go mostly in Hermes. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 445–6)
I’m still looking for leads in modern literature: Calvino’s science fiction skits, Cosmicomics and t zero illustrate two things. One is the extent to which the discovery of the DNA molecule has accentuated the imagery of ecriture, the code written or imprinted at birth. Another is the extension of my principle about identity to evolution. That is, I’ve said that the clearest example of a metaphor is one’s feeling of identity with one’s self at the age of seven, even though no material particles are in common. The panorama of evolution suggests the continuity of this identity from the first forms of life. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 448)
I suppose I should drive myself through Childhood’s End: anyway I want some science fiction that will show the Hermes construct with beings from outer space as the new gods (I know about von Daniken, but I want something more imaginatively genuine). (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 494)
Well, I must see what Stevens says: I think he’s the brightest hope, though Mallarme and some of the science fiction patterns (Solaris) have to be examined too. The paradox of nothing. One can only get out of the prison of Narcissus by raising the level of consciousness: maybe religion today has to pass through the Oriental meditation techniques. But then I’ve always insisted that works of art are also objects of meditation no less than mandalas. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 526)
The next chapter, “Adonis Revived,” corresponds to prophecy, and I haven’t a clue to what it will be about. I suspect it has to do with the revival and renewal in life, more especially in the cycles of nature. Here, perhaps, is my use of Spengler, if he gets in; perhaps too this is the place to introduce something that may not get into Chapter Two. This is the extent to which mythical history shrinks to actual history and then grows to myth again through science fiction or whatever. In my graduate course I talk about the Geoffrey of Monmouth intrusion into English history, about Ariosto, about the use of the Trojan War in English literature, and these are separate bits of information: maybe they could be integrated into a single vision that starts with my cycle in the epic stuff, fastening on Virgil, whose starting-point renewed theme and descend halfway through makes him a fascinating figure. Maybe Rabelais goes here too. Well, the Grail romances may be, as Waite suggests, a mythical history with its own kind of authority—though this seems to be verging on the next chapter. Anyway, my hunches about the Tolkien trilogy as a genre (Eddison before him, then Frank Herbert, Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin and others) which is within the Ariosto conventions may go here. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 574)
Anyway, the metaphor of travel is very central: in Dante it’s theoretically possible to travel to the presence of God: the impossibility of placing the body anywhere near the sun, of getting to even the nearest of the stars: that seems to be an imaginative crux. So the time in the worlds below that would have to have some connection with time warps: science fiction tries to play around with such notions, but in my view doesn’t get imaginatively very far. We’re still in the Ariosto, or possibly the Cyrano de Bergerac, stage. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 576)
It seems to me that the notion of “travel” in either time or space, the central assumption of science fiction, is a false metaphor derived from the quest-theme of literature. I first began to grasp this point when I was reading that anti-Gnostic science fiction story of Mike Joseph’s. He said that the notion of travelling in time was like crossing the Atlantic with a motorcycle: you can travel on motorcycles and you can cross the Atlantic, but you can’t do the one to accomplish the other. He said we could travel only through the mind, and this seems to be the general science-fiction assumption now. But I wonder if the notion of “travelling” isn’t equally fallacious for space, an attempt to put the natural body where only the spiritual body can go.
If I could work out some of the implications of this I’d have a clue to, I think at the moment, the Adonis chapter. Also I’ve been reading, more or less at random, in science fiction for varieties of the parallel-world conception which seems to me a possible exit from the present up-down mythical universe dilemma. Reincarnation is now being trumpeted as practically established scientifically: it isn’t, and I still think there’s a fallacy buried in it somewhere, but there’s probably a pattern it fits. I read the four volumes of Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverrun” series, but they were a bust. Now I’m reading Zelazny’s two-volume “Amber” series, which at least has better patter. They seem to me a development of the Eddison series, where the ideal world is conceived as an archaic one, reminding me of Lawrence’s proposal that if men wanted to fight they should repudiate modern hardware, get into armor and have a good old heroic hack. Eddison isn’t quite as silly as that sounds, but his fantasy world is simply the old chivalric-romance one back again. We seem to be in an age of neo-Ariosto. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 607–8)
Meditation through art: science fiction visualized travelling to distant galaxies through space warps before man had actually even got on the moon. (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 658)
After the rise of Copernican astronomy and Newtonian physics, the starry sky becomes a less natural and a more perfunctory and literary metaphor for the spiritual world. The stars look increasingly less like vehicles of angelic intelligences, and come to suggest rather a mechanical and mindless revolution. This shift of perspective is of course already present in a famous passage in Pascal, but it does not make its full impact on poetry until much later. A deity at home in such a world would seem stupid or malignant, at best a kind of self-hypnotized Pangloss. Hence the variety of stupid sky-gods in Romantic poetry: Blake’s Urizen, Shelley’s Jupiter, Byron’s Arimanes, Hardy’s Immanent Will, perhaps the God of the Prologue to Faust. Blake, the closest of this group to the orthodox Christian tradition, points out that there is more Scriptural evidence for Satan as a sky-god than for Jesus. Even more significant for poetic symbolism is the sense of the mechanical complications of starry movement as the projection or reflection of something mechanical and malignant in human nature. In other words, the Frankenstein theme of actualizing human death-impulses in some form of fateful mechanism has a strong natural connection with the sky or “outer space,” and in modern science fiction is regularly attached to it. At the same time poets in the Romantic period tend to think of nature less as a structure or system, set over against the conscious mind as an object, and more as a body of organisms from which the human organism proceeds, nature being the underlying source of humanity, as the seed is of the plant. (“New Directions from Old,” CW 21, 319)
It is instructive to notice, too, how strong the popular demand is for such forms as detective stories, science fiction, comic strips, comic formulas like the P.G. Wodehouse stories, all of which are as rigorously conventional and stylized as the folk tale itself, works of pure “esemplastic” imagination, with the recognition turning up as predictably as the caesura in minor Augustan poetry. (“Myth, Fiction, and Displacement,” CW 21, 417)
Most Utopia-writers follow either More (and Plato) in stressing the legal structure of their societies, or Bacon in stressing its technological power. The former type of Utopia is closer to actual social and political theory; the latter overlaps with what is now called science fiction. Naturally, since the Industrial Revolution a serious Utopia can hardly avoid introducing technological themes. And because technology is progressive, getting to the Utopia has tended increasingly to be a journey in time rather than space, a vision of the future and not of a society located in some isolated spot on the globe (or outside it: journeys to the moon are a very old form of fiction, and some of them are Utopian). (“Varieties of Literary Utopias,” CW 27, 194)
H.G. Wells divides society into the Poietic, or creative, the Kinetic, or executive, the Dull, and the Base. This reads like an uncharitable version of the four Indian castes—particularly uncharitable considering that the only essential doctrine in Wells’s Utopian religion is the rejection of original sin. Wells’s writing in general illustrates the common principle that the belief that man is by nature good does not lead to a very good-natured view of man. In any case his “samurai” belong to the first group, in spite of their warrior name. The Utopias of science fiction are generally controlled by scientists, who, of course, are another form of priestly e1ite. (“Varieties of Literary Utopias,” CW 27, 201)
We do find in fact a type of Utopian satire based on the theme of cyclical return: contemporary civilization goes to pieces with an appalling crash, and life starts again under primitive conditions like those of some earlier period of history. The best story of this type I know is Richard Jeffries’s After London, but the theme enters the Robert Graves book referred to earlier and is a common one in science fiction (for example, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and some of John Wyndham’s stories, especially Re-Birth). And even in the nineteenth-century industrial Utopias, with their clicking machinery and happy factory crowds and fast-talking interpreters, an occasional one, such as W.H. Hudson’s A Crystal Age, takes a different tone, and reminds us that ideals of peace, dignity, and quiet are too important to be squeezed into a few intervals of bustling routine. (“Varieties of Literary Utopias,” CW 27, 209–10)
Bernard Shaw remarks that if William the Conqueror had been told by a bishop that the moon was seventy-seven miles from the earth, he would have thought that a very proper distance for the moon, seven being a sacred number. This is an excellent example of mythological thinking in a place where it has no business to be. Dante uses all he can get of the science of his own day, and many passages in the Commedia, such as the early cantoes of the Purgatorio, where Dante and Virgil are looking at a different set of stars on the other side of the earth and discuss what time it would now be in Jerusalem, are pure science fiction. But still Dante’s universe was held together by the Scotch tape of symmetrical correspondences, such as the correspondence of the seven planets with the seven metals that they were supposed to engender in the ground. There is not much left of Dante’s science today, but the feature that makes his science obsolete is also one of the features that make his poetry as contemporary as it ever was. (“The Times of the Signs,” CW 27, 336–7)
The formulas of Scott are very close to the formulas of the late Classical writers of the Second Sophistic, Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, Longus, who also called their romances by such names as Ethiopica or Babyloniaca in order to claim some affinity with the historian. The same romance formulas reappear in contemporary science fiction, where the mythical shape is projected on the future rather than the past.
(“The Rhythms of Time,” CW 27, 368)
This twofold focus of reality, inside and outside the mind at once, is particularly important when we are reading what is called fantasy. Stanislaw Lem’s story of a kingdom created from robots, The Seventh Sally, raises questions that have tormented us for centuries, about the relation of God or the gods to man, about the distinction between an organism and a mechanism, about the difference between what is created and what has come into existence by itself. And in Ursula Le Guin’s story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, the science fiction setting does not make the central situation less relevant to our own lives; we have all asked ourselves how far it is possible to be happy in a society based on making other people miserable. It is these fantastic stories in particular that lead us to another critical principle. A story presents us with what is technically an illusion, something that did not happen or could not happen. But whatever reality may be, one of the most direct and intense ways that we can grasp it is through the deliberate illusions of literature. (“Meaning,” from The Practical Imagination, CW 18, 190)
Whatever a machine may do, qua machine it has no will to do it. Leave an automobile in a garage unused, and it will rust away to nothing without the slightest sign of impatience. And so far no computer has exhibited a will to compute until it’s plugged in by a human being, and I do not see how it can acquire such a will unless computers in the future come equipped with DNA molecules and genetic codes impelling them to fight every moment for their own survival and reproduction. We may notice in passing that when science fiction stories depict computers beginning to use their own powers for their own ends, like the computer HAL in 2001, the effect is frightening, as it is intended to be, but the computer has nonetheless turned into a fellow creature. However sinister when in power, there is a genuine pathos in his destruction. (“Literature as a Critique of Pure Reason,” CW 18, 233–4)
In Romantic thought the superiority of the organism to the mechanism is a central principle: there being no visible organism in the skies, the upper world becomes increasingly a symbol of alienation, as it still is, for the most part, in science fiction. (“The Survival of Eros in Poetry,” CW 18, 263)
Question: When you define the myth of freedom in isolation from the myth of concern, you say that it would be totally incoherent, valuing detachment in and of itself. But can’t we imagine science as an isolated myth of freedom without any myth of concern to attach it to a culture? In fact, don’t we imagine science that way all the time in the nightmares of science fiction?
Answer: The myth of freedom by itself would minimize the sense of social concern and therefore ultimately would minimize the sense of social function. A poet or a novelist working hard to express what he sees in the world in his own terms would still resent very much being told that what he was doing had no relevance to society. In science that problem hardly exists psychologically. Certainly in fields like nuclear physics or in genetics the immediate relevance of the science to the concerns of society is pretty obvious. In societies that have pushed the myth of concern as far as it will go—the European Middle Ages in certain respects, China during the Cultural Revolution, and the Soviet Union—the arts have been made to serve as instruments of the social and political programme. In the past there were efforts in this country to say that certain things are American and certain things un‑American, but those voices of concern were never representative voices. The representative voice of concern spoke for democracy and certain rights of the individual.
It’s difficult to define the conception of freedom by itself because it really can’t exist by itself. It always has a social context of some kind, and it exists to diversify and make more flexible that context. It’s misleading in some respects even to use the word “freedom,” because the ability to set yourself free to play the piano or tennis or to paint pictures or anything of that kind is made possible by a repetition of habit and practice, so that genuine freedom and genuine necessity become the same thing. If you’re still exercising your free will as to whether to play the right notes on the piano, you still don’t know how to play the piano. For a painter like Cézanne, who is said to have cleaned his brushes after every stroke, it is clear that what he wanted to do and what he had to do were the same thing. On that level there isn’t very much argument about relevance to the needs of society. (“The Survival of Eros in Poetry,” CW 18, 283–4)
If one looks at the various long romances which have followed upon the sensational success of Tolkien, however, one finds a tradition developing which was quite obviously initiated by the prose romances of Morris (who was among other things a major influence on Tolkien himself). In such works as Frank Herbert’s “Dune” books, Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” books, and Ursula LeGuin’s “Earthsea” books, both history and geography have been invented, as in Morris; and while such stories are often classified as “science fiction,” there is relatively little interest in technological hardware. What emerges is a rather primitive type of romance, sometimes in the form of adventurous intrigue, sometimes reminding us of folk tales. So here again Morris committed himself to something almost totally ignored in his own time, and ignored with even greater enthusiasm later on, which has had an odd resurrection in our own day. Similarly, Morris’s cultural enthusiasm for the Middle Ages is often regarded as imaginatively inconsistent with his revolutionary attitude to his own time, but this also is nonsense, and the contemporary romances we have just spoken of often drift back into a kind of medieval ambience, even when they are close enough to conventional “science fiction” to avoid Morris’s antitechnological attitudes. Along with the flourishing of such romance we have a lively development of retold mythological themes: Arthurian, ancient Egyptian, Scandinavian, and others. So Morris’s curious compulsion, not merely to write stories but to retell all the famous stories of the past, seems to have some contemporary relevance as well. (“Myth as the Matrix of Literature,” CW 18, 302–3)
As we follow the spectrum leading away from the historical, we find ourselves in literature properly speaking, and at the end of the spectrum is fantastic romance, like the works of “science fiction” where the history and the geography have both been invented. There is no reachable extreme here either. A fantasy completely discontinuous with its social context would be impossible to write: nobody’s mind is capable of getting so detached from its social milieu. Even the writings of psychotic or similarly disturbed people are still bound to their surroundings, however off-course their interpretations. (“The Koiné of Myth,” CW 18, 313)
In the present day allegory survives chiefly in parody: thus Kafka’s The Castle is a kind of parody of the quest of the soul in The Pilgrim’s Progress; and science fiction romances allude, usually in the tone of parody also, to social and political trends on this earth. (“Allegory,” in the Harper Handbook to Literature, CW 18, 360)
The later Victorian William Morris marks a further development of romance. Morris collected a great number of traditional romances, which he versified or translated or adapted, most of them in the book called The Earthly Paradise. Later in his life he turned to a form of prose romance in which the setting, though vaguely medieval, was in fact purely imaginary, both the history and the geography being invented, as the titles suggest (The Wood Beyond the World; The Well at the World’s End, and so on). These stories were out of fashion at the time, but after a remarkable mid‑twentieth‑century success in somewhat the same idiom — Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings — a good deal of what is sometimes known as SCIENCE FICTION began to take on romance themes. A strange, magical, even miraculous setting seems appropriate enough when the setting is another planet, and what relation the story still has to our own experience contributes the allegorical dimension. (“Romance,” in the Harper Handbook to Literature, CW 18, 382)
Perhaps the most concentrated form of fantasy is the presentation of the imaginary ideal state known as the UTOPIA, where all activity is ritualized and where every individual fits perfectly into the social mould. And perhaps the most concentrated form of satire is what is now called the DYSTOPIA, the Utopian parody of a world turned by malice or cunning into a nightmarish hell, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty‑Four, Yevgeny Zamyatyn’s We, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ape and Essence. A good deal of SCIENCE FICTION is based on dystopian allegories (for example Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz), where the relation to the social pitfalls in contemporary technology is close enough for frightening plausibility in the fantasy. (“Satire,” in the Harper Handbook to Literature, CW 18, 384)
A corresponding metamorphosis of the verbal arts would probably come later, though some elements of it can already be glimpsed. In the Western tradition literature seems to have run through a cycle beginning with myth and romance and ending with an ironic realism which disintegrates into various forms of paradox, such as the theatre of the absurd. In our day we see many signs of the cycle being repeated: the retelling of the great myths, the reshaping of romance formulas in a science fiction setting, the revival of a primitive relation to a listening audience in rock and ballad singing. But nothing repeats exactly in history, and in any case the end of a cycle does not compel us to repeat the same cycle, but gives us a chance to transfer to another level. (“Literature and the Visual Arts,” CW 18, 407)
When the convention is big enough to include the entire work, we call it a genre, and this is the aspect of convention I shall be mainly concerned with. A genre establishes the identity of a work of literature in two ways: it indicates what the work is, and it suggests the context of the work, by placing it within a number of other works like it. Any large bookshop will illustrate the role of genre in reading by dividing its stock into sections labelled science fiction, detective fiction, romance, Westerns, and the like. Such divisions continue the role of convention in inviting the reader: if you want this kind of book, the label says, here is where you find it. (“Framework and Assumption,” CW 18, 423)
I notice too that in bookstores and publishing houses the categories of genre have been uninfluenced by critical theory. I glanced at a row of books by Carlos Castaneda recently, and saw that the earlier books were labelled “nonfiction” by the publisher and the later ones “fiction.” I dare say an interesting story lies behind that, but as the earlier and the later books appeared to be generically identical, the distinction was of little critical use.
There is a certain amount of snobbery among some readers tending to assume that a book is of minor importance if its genre is easily recognizable, like the science fiction and detective stories just mentioned. The detective story, in particular, is written in a convention that follows certain prescribed rules, and so resembles a game, like chess. That is nothing new in literature, though earlier rules-of-a-game conventions were usually smaller in range and mostly confined to verse. At present there is a widespread impression that flexible conventions are a mark of serious writing. The days are gone when Jane Austen could protest against the snob-phrase “only a novel,” and point out that a “novel” could be on the same level of seriousness as any book of sermons. But of course she had her conventions: there are no writers who are unconventional or beyond convention. Sometimes a writer may seem unconventional because his readers are accustomed to different conventions and do not realize it, or else assume that what they are used to is the normal way of writing. Such reactions to convention may vary from Samuel Johnson’s dictum, “Nothing odd will do long: Tristram Shandy did not last,” to the claim of a twentieth-century formalist critic that Tristram Shandy was the most typical novel ever written. (“Framework and Assumption,” CW 18, 424–5)
But on the whole nineteenth-century romance is significant for its content rather than its style. The ones we have mentioned are not Utopias or model societies, but they do for the most part construct self-contained worlds, like the Arcadia which follow the postulates laid down by the author and not by the social conditions of his time, and they explore unconventional areas of thought, experience, and behavior. Within the last two decades the significance of this type of fiction has become more generally accepted. The vogue of Tolkien, whose influences go back through Morris and MacDonald to medieval and earlier romance, is a conspicuous example: so is the immense development of science fiction, which, despite its name, is really a form of philosophical romance. It is sometimes said that fiction has lost its reading public: this kind of remark usually indicates that certain conventions have exhausted their possibilities and that others, not yet clearly recognized, are taking over. Fiction seems to be shifting its ground to a more explicit use of mythology and symbolism: in science fiction especially it is exploring new areas of experience, and the more romantic writing of the previous century is becoming more central in its tradition. (“Rencontre,” CW 10, 70–1)
It is certainly easier to read most Dickens, for example, as displaced fairy tale than as a transcription of Victorian life and manners; and the easier way is also the better critical method. Many adults today read the more serious works of literature for instruction, or the improving of the mind, as they do nonfiction, while for relaxation they turn to a purely conventional literary structure, such as a detective story, a “Western” pastoral, or a science fiction romance. There is nothing wrong with this, but so marked a cleavage between delight and instruction indicates that there may be something wrong with the literary education behind it. (“Articulate English,” CW 10, 241)
In the areas of literature which are exemplified in popular literature, like the sea story that I mentioned a while ago, we find that these stories are told over and over again. We, therefore, discover that these stories are in a family and that the relationships among this family of stories give a significance which the individual story does not have. And so we begin to get glimpses of that vast area of the human mind which operates in terms of consciousness and awareness of the outside world but is also motivated by forces of wish and desire and repugnance. That is why the romances that I mentioned, such as Alice in Wonderland or science fiction or the nineteenth-century romancers who were regarded by most of us as writing kitsch and yet have suddenly reappeared among our paperback reprints, have a certain importance: they are evidence of the fact that the imagination constructs hypothetical worlds. And in constructing hypothetical worlds it builds models that enable us to understand the relationship between what is there and what could or should be there or what should not be there. (“The Social Uses of Literature,” CW 10, 261)
The tendency of adults to impose an adult mystique on children has been there from the beginning of time, and the tendency of children to produce the exact opposite of the adult mystique by way of response has been there from the beginning of time too. I think that our own day, as far as adults are concerned, has got to the end of a realistic cycle. We often raise the question of whether fiction has lost its reading public or not, and when a statement like that is made it usually means that fiction is changing its centre of gravity from one thing to something else. I think that we are moving from a reflection of an outside world to more and more a sense of the potential construct. That is what accounts for some of the things that I mentioned, things like science fiction or the cult of Tolkien or the revival of the nineteenth-century romancers, like George MacDonald and Rider Haggard and Bulwer-Lytton and others. As that happens, children naturally go into a realistic phase, as they went into a fantasy phase while their elders were realistic, just to make sure that the cycle will keep on turning and that life will always be interesting. (“The Social Uses of Literature,” CW 10, 263–4)
The revolution begun by Marconi, or at least symbolized by him, brings a general principle into culture. The more highly developed the technology, the more introversion it creates in society. The jet plane and automobile are more introverted than the train or the bus; the computer is more introverted than the floor of the stock exchange; the film is more introverted than the stage drama, and television more introverted than either. I remember, when the first radios came to my community, when the proud possessor of a radio would be the centre of a small group assembling in his parlor listening to the few stations that were intelligible through the static. Every boy in town was making a “crystal set” and exchanging information and instructions with other boys. But after the invention of the transistor, the radio became as portable and private as a wristwatch. About the time transistors appeared, I read a science fiction story in which, in some future nightmare-world, everyone walked around with their ears covered by machines that totally isolated them from the world outside them. A few years later this grisly fantasy became a matter of common observation on our streets. (“Convocation Address, University of Bologna,” CW 10, 343–4)
At least I think it’s good exercise to collect ideas about a work of visionary fiction that would perhaps show a modulation of science fiction (a form that fails to interest me much). Anyway, without committing itself to any given visionary system, it would elucidate how, so to speak, reality may be differently added up. It may not come to anything, but it’s a place for relaxing the censor. (“From Notebook 20: The Double Vision,” CW 25, 144)
A really great writer could achieve tremendous effect by localizing what science fiction (or some form of it) projects into distant space (or, as in Tolkien, distant time) as different aspects of life here and now. The key phrase is “a separate reality,” though I never finished that book either. I succumbed to the charm of Tolkien, like everyone else, but one Lord of the Rings is enough. I read Fowles’ Magus with the highest expectations, but finished it thinking he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. (“Notebook 28: Philosophical Romance,” CW 25, 148)
The other Waverley novels are formulaic fiction, like detective stories and science fiction. Not that that’s anything against them, except that, with a few exceptional developments like the two novels of Umberto Eco, they’re out of fashion. Bulwer-Lytton, Victor Hugo, Dumas, the Polish author of Quo Vadis, etc. etc. were some of the later examples—well, even War and Peace is founded on the convention. The formula is to insert a fiction or mythical narrative into a given historical setting: the past being irrevocable the historical novel is, like other myths, counter-historical, though in a very direct way. (“Notes for ‘Varieties of Eighteenth-Century Sensibility,’” CW 25, 248)
Re my question about science fiction in the 18th c.: I’m forgetting not only the Laputa section of Gulliver’s Travels but Peter Wilkins. (“Notes for ‘Varieties of Eighteenth-Century Sensibility,’” CW 25, 249)
Not only Scott but other formulaic fictional genres are taking shape: Mrs. Radcliffe and her detective story themes, etc. Wonder if there’s anything in science fiction corresponding to Cyrano de Bergerac in the previous century. Vathek is something else again. (“Notes for ‘Varieties of Eighteenth-Century Sensibility,’” CW 25, 250)
Since 1950 the same process has happened. These popular elements of literature have become much more prominent, with the rise of science fiction, with the rise of folk song and ballad writers. And there is a certain democratization going on, which again brings out some of the popular correlates. But we find that with all this social change the structural patterns of literature change far less than one would expect. The popular and primitive forms that turn up in these periods of transition usually come up with very much the same formulas as they did before, and that is one reason why the structural principles of literature are so astonishingly long lived, why it is that the structure and stock characters of comedy have changed very little since the time of Aristophanes, and the formulas of romance are the same now that they were in Greek times. That means that while there can be infinite variety in the individual work of literature the number of actual structural principles involved is very strictly limited. (“Reconsidering Levels of Meaning,” CW 25, 315)
[W]hen empires start building walls around themselves it is a sign that their power is declining, and “the great tradition” is now not much more than a tradition. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings came out in the mid‑1950s, to the accompaniment of a chorus of readers saying “of course I can’t read fantasy,” usually with an air of conscious virtue. The success of Tolkien’s book, however, indicated a change of taste parallel to the post‑Ginsberg change in poetry, towards the romantic, the fantastic, and the mythopoeic. Science fiction, which is really a form of philosophical romance, has taken on a new importance, and the mythical elements in Pynchon or Vonnegut do not revolve around a realistic centre, as they do in Ulysses. Romance, fantasy, and mythopoeia are the inescapable forms for a society which no longer believes in its own permanence or continuity. (“The Renaissance of Books,” CW 11, 146–7)
Technological development tends to make for increasing introversion in society: the plane is more introverted than the train, the television set more introverted than the theatre. The young people one sees on the streets with headsets clamped over their ears are acting out what was a science fiction nightmare a few years ago. And introversion, of course, increases the gap between social consciousness and the arts which is the real theme of this conference. “Introduction” to Art and Reality, CW 11, 170)
The first critical principle we notice is that the most obviously conventionalized fictions are the easiest to read. Popular literature is stylized and artificial to a very marked degree. In the detective story, the thriller, the Western, the adventure story, the science fiction, the kind of love story that depends on the formula that one critic has called the clinch‑tease, we know in advance the kind of story we are going to read, and the characteristic features of the convention, turning up at the right places, give an additional impetus to the narrative movement. We find the continuity of reading easier because of an exceptionally vigorous pacing supplied by the convention. Many such stories are accompanied by testimonials from reviewers who were unable to put them down until they had finished reading them. There is an analogy here to the kind of music often played at pop concerts, where a tonic chord is pursued for ten pages and beaten to a pulp for three pages more. (A Natural Perspective, 34. Rpt. in CW 28)
Milton seems to regard Galileo, most inaccurately, as concerned primarily with the question of whether the heavenly bodies, more particularly the moon, are habitable—as a pioneer of science fiction rather than of science. (The Return of Eden, CW 16, 74)
I quote this poetically licentious description of the Thames [The Faerie Queene, bk. 3, canto 9, st. 45] because it is so closely linked with Spenser’s conception of justice as the harnessing of physical power to conquer physical nature. In its lower aspects this power is mechanical, symbolized by the “yron man” Talus, who must be one of the earliest “science fiction” or technological symbols in poetry, and who kills without discrimination for the sake of discrimination, like a South African policeman. (“The Structure of Imagery in The Faerie Queene,” in Fables of Identity, 84–5. Rpt. in CW 28)
The imaginary society is a central theme in our century of what is so inaccurately called science fiction. There are two main forms of science fiction: a software philosophical fantasy descending from More’s Utopia, and a hardware technological one of which the ancestor is Bacon’s New Atlantis. The New Atlantis has no time for such subtleties as a non-Christian ideal state: Bacon simply sends a Bible floating on the sea to the shores of Atlantis before the story begins, so that they have already been converted to Christianity. Bacon is concerned almost entirely to describe the project he tried to interest King James in, an institute of scientific research and technological innovation. (“Natural and Revealed Communities,” in Myth and Metaphor, 301. Rpt, in CW 28)
[T]he great majority of social constructs in science fiction today are dystopias. I may single out one for an obvious reason: R.M. Lafferty’s Past Master, published in 1968. In this story we have a Utopian society in the future which seems to be equipped with everything it needs, including robots acting as thought police to hunt down everyone who objects to what is going on. The result is that the inhabitants of this society are dying like flies or committing suicide out of sheer boredom. The rulers, who have acquired the power to travel in time, reach back into the past and lift Thomas More out of the sixteenth century to serve as a rallying point for this moribund Utopia of the future. More at first is exhilarated to see a working model of the society he dreamed of, but before long it is obvious that he is regarded as only a stooge by his employers, who are determined to maintain him in that position. By the end of the story he has been sentenced to be beheaded. (“Natural and Revealed Communities,” in Myth and Metaphor, 302. Rpt. in CW 28)
In ancient literature generally, and in Greek literature particularly, the mythical is antithetical and the folktale periphery is primary. After Christianity this reverses itself, and then, of course, modulates into the state where realism is mythical and romance peripheral. Now that seems to be turning inside out again, which may be the needle of truth in the haystack of horseshit in Yeats’s Vision. Science fiction may conceivably be a primitive beginning of a new form of heroic epic; Beckett and similar types of literary nihilism the primitive beginnings of a new antithetical pessimism. These are silly words, or some of them are, but I think I know what the hunch is. If so, my Romantic overturn may be the annunciation Yeats was hunting for but didn’t find. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 183–4)
When Tolkien first came out a lot of people would say “I can’t read fantasy,” with an air of conscious virtue. But when he became popular it became evident that a tradition was behind him. The basis of this tradition was George MacDonald and William Morris, and while my enthusiasm for Tolkien himself was never white-hot, Morris was the man after Blake who most interested me, just as Spenser was the man before. But gradually it became clear that the whole tradition of what I call sentimental romance, Scott, Wilkie Collins, Sheridan LeFanu, even Rider Haggard, was involved. Now there’s a flourishing industry in reprinting works of “adult fantasy,” of which I’m availing myself. It’s also clear that the whole development of science fiction, and the kind of writing on the periphery of that (e.g. [Kurt] Vonnegut) attaches itself to sentimental romance, not to realism, and makes the tradition of the former important to grasp. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 191)
[T]he wall of the great tradition means that the barbarians without, the readers of romances and Westerns and detective stories and science fiction, are getting restless. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 192)
In English romance this night side is at first, down to about 1800, Italy, or, as I’ve said, Continental, Catholic and upper class. It’s still that in Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. But as the British Empire develops it becomes Africa (as in the Bronte imaginary world, with a South Pole modulation which runs from The Ancient Mariner to The Waste Land—note that The Flying Dutchman as an archetype doesn’t go behind Marryat), or Asia (the Indians and all that crap in The Moonstone), or Central America (a Rider Haggard story, The Woman in White, etc.). This night side of the map runs out in Rider Haggard—with jet planes it’s no use talking about mysterious cities buried in Africa—you have to go to outer space. Science fiction isn’t seriously concerned with science—it’s a form of philosophical romance, and is forced into outer space by technology, its relation to which is negative. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 201)
The romance (sentimental romance) tradition leads me to science fiction and Utopianism; so does William Morris. Those are my transitions to the second part of this study. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 204)
Romance, fantasy, science fiction (philosophical romance) are products of a time where there’s no belief in the continuity of permanence of society. But it’s not all negative: there’s the “proletarian” business too, the potentially revolutionary quality of romance. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 212)
Distinction of myth–gods and romance–heroes is important in the descent: in the recovery myth is flooded by romance. Science fiction of the Rama–Solaris type especially, also [Fred Hoyle’s] The Black Cloud. Going down, the problem is how much you can lose and still be “yourself” (Lear); going up is cumulative, except for the shat demonic and the false identity. Social exodus first, then the Eros climb. Alienation is minimal identity, a classical atom against the external world. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 260)
Rather an aimless story [Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen] in many ways, though interesting: meets a Persian girl who’s a Moslem and thinks the Crusades are silly, but nothing is done with her. Long story about a miner which evidently is allegorical of something. One curious flash: “Itself like a dream of the sun, the moon hovered over the dream-world brooding within itself; and it led nature, divided into countless separate entities, back to that mythical primeval age when every bud and germ still slept by itself, lonely and untouched, yearning in vain to unfold the obscure wealth of its own immeasurable existence.” This is the sort of thing George MacDonald got hold of. The miner finds fossils of primeval monsters, and says “Could these dreadful strangers, driven up by the penetrating cold, possibly sometime appear among us, while perhaps at the same time celestial guests, living, speaking forces of the constellations, might become visible overhead?” Science fiction themes. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 315)
I’ve gone back to this book again after many years, and one result is that I’m not going to go on saying that this book, or this part of the book, is to be about prose romance. The early examples are prose (Heliodorus, Longus, Achilles Tatius, the Christians, et al.), and the late ones (science fiction) will be too; but the main pillars will be Spenser (poetry), Scott (poetry as well as the novels) and Morris (both poetry and prose). (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 317)
I notice that in science fiction there’s a frequently repeated form of a trilogy (usually) in which a new world is created: Frank Herbert’s Dune books, [Isaac] Asimov’s Foundation, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea or something, [Roger] Zelazny’s Amber books, and a set by Philip Jose Farmer called “Riverrun,” hardly up to the others. These trilogies owe a great deal to the prestige of Tolkien, and are rather routinely and drearily compared to Tolkien in the blurbs. But the Eddison Memison books were in the field earlier, and Morris, though he wrote no trilogy as such, certainly wrote a lot of damn long books about some world at the end of ours.
What strikes me about these books is that they are romances that deliberately revert from science fiction hardware to a lot of hand-to-hand duelling with swords or their equivalents. What science there is largely conceived as a kind of magic. The political situations are regularly drawn on the models of the past: corrupt empires holding on to power but being threatened by revolts and the like. They’re historical romances in which the history (and geography) is invented. A lot of this is just the return of the myth–romance cycle I predicted in the Anatomy, and in fact a lot of these so-called science fiction fantasies are simply re-tellings of myths, like the Mabinogion stories in Evangeline Walton. But they raise the question that Morris raises: what’s the link between Morris’ medieval near-obsessions and his socialist interests that presumably are future-related? (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 319–20)
I also thought, much further back, of writing an article on the occult in Henry James. The thing most people seem to miss about him is the Cassandra figure (see my notes). But I don’t know that that really should be included in the article I’m thinking about now. Science fiction is something else again. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 329)
What I’d like to do is a study of Henry James taking The Sense of the Past to be the book he was aiming at all the time. This would mean special emphasis on The Turn of the Screw, The Sacred Fount, The Beast in the Jungle, The Jolly Corner (that pioneering study of the science fiction theme of parallel worlds), along with, perhaps, What Maisie Knew, In the Cage, The Awkward Age and The Other House. If I could get a grip on what he was getting at with his dislocations of time and identity and his juxtaposing of manifest and occult worlds, I think I’d have discovered a secret passage, like the one in The Phantom of the Opera, into the lower bowels of fiction. I suspect his curiously possessive attitude to that awful lout H.G. Wells was connected with a feeling that someone who seemed to have mastered both realistic and fantasy idioms could carry on from him. Not that I can’t see what was bothering Wells. (Notebooks on Romance, CW 15, 344)
Sometimes too, as frequently in Shelley and Poe, in Byron’s Cain, and elsewhere, the poet or hero is carried on a journey through the skies, usually in a “car” or other symbol of technological exuberance, which gives him a new (and occasionally, as in Byron, disastrous) knowledge. Out of this convention comes a good deal of modern “science fiction” with its ambiguous attitude to the mysteries of outer space. (A Study of English Romanticism, CW 17, 109)
Shelley’s Cenci, depicting Beatrice’s revolt against the sadistic onslaughts of her father, is revolutionary so far as it creates a dramatic sympathy for Beatrice, and ironic so far as it portrays her as involved in the evil she fights against. An almost equally remarkable example of Romantic irony is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This story is not, as it is often said to be, a precursor of science fiction: it is a precursor rather of the existential thriller, of such a book as Camus’s L’Étranger. The whole point about the monster is that he is not a machine, but an ordinary human being isolated from mankind by extreme ugliness, Blake’s “different face.” The number of allusions to Paradise Lost in the narrative indicate that the story is a retelling of the account of the origin of evil, in a world where the only creators that we can locate are human ones. Frankenstein hunts down his monster in the same way that moral good attempts to destroy the moral evil it has itself created: Frankenstein is quite as much a death‑principle as his quarry, and is surrounded by the vengeful spirits of the monster’s victims. (A Study of English Romanticism, CW 17, 122)
When the novel developed, romance continued along with it in the “Gothic” stories of “Monk” Lewis and his Victorian successors. William Morris is to me the most interesting figure in this tradition for many reasons, one of them being his encyclopedic approach to romance, his ambition to collect every major story in literature and retell or translate it. In the twentieth century romance got a new lease of fashion after the mid‑1950s, with the success of Tolkien and the rise of what is generally called science fiction. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18, 6)
In Greek romance the characters are Levantine, the setting is the Mediterranean world, and the normal means of transportation is by shipwreck. In science fiction the characters may be earthlings, the setting the intergalactic spaces, and what gets wrecked in hostile territory a spaceship, but the tactics of the storyteller generally conform to much the same outlines. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18, 6)
The Greek romancers, for all their coyness, are more primitive in this sense than Homer or Aeschylus; the Gothic romancers, like many of the poets contemporary with them, are primitive in a way that Pope and Swift are not, and so are the folk singers and science fiction writers of our own day as compared with Eliot or Joyce. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18, 24)
The prevailing conception of serious fiction is enshrined in the title of F.R. Leavis’ book The Great Tradition, a study of George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad which assumes that these writers are central in a hierarchy of realistic novelists extending roughly from Defoe to D.H. Lawrence. The assumption seems reasonable, yet when empires start building walls around themselves it is a sign that their power is declining, and the very appearance of such a title indicates a coming change of fashion on the part of both writers and readers. As soon as a defensive wall is in place, the movements of the barbarians on the frontiers, in this case the readers of romance, Westerns, murder mysteries, and science fiction, begin to take on greater historical importance. These movements assumed a more definite shape after the appearance of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the mid‑1950s. On the T.S. Eliot principle that every writer creates his own tradition, the success of Tolkien’s book helped to show that the tradition behind it, of George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll and William Morris, was, if not “the great” tradition, a tradition nonetheless. It is a tradition which interests me rather more than Tolkien himself ever did, but for a long time I was in a minority in my tastes. Over twenty years ago, in the remotest corner of a secondhand bookshop, I picked up a cheap reprint of William Morris’ The Roots of the Mountains. The bookseller remarked that the two little green volumes had been sitting on his shelves since the day he opened his shop in 1913. Fortunately he had some other stock that moved faster, but if the shop is still there it is probably featuring paperback reprints of William Morris romances in a series which, though still cautiously labelled “adult fantasy,” seems to be finding its public. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18, 30–1)
All four of these levels are symbolically ambivalent, and these ambivalences are of great importance in the structure of romance. In Chaucer, for example, the disasters and tragedies wrought by the conjunctions of the stars in The Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde make it clear that the heavens are for him, as for most science fiction writers today, much more a symbol of alienation than of divine presence. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18, 64)
A study of mirror worlds in romance might range from the Chinese novel best known in the West by the title The Dream of the Red Chamber to some remarkable treatments of the theme in science fiction, such as Arthur Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18, 72)
Doubles in time are, of course, much more complicated than doubles in space: the great pioneer work here is Henry James’ unfinished The Sense of the Past, and the doubles produced by some kind of “time machine” have been extensively explored in science fiction. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18, 78)
Technology, for capitalism and still more for Communism, seemed at one time to promise the kind of human ascendancy over nature that would accompany the final recovery of myth, but the poets have dragged their feet in its celebration. Blake, D.H. Lawrence, Morris, Yeats, Pound, are only a few of those who have shown marked hostility to technology and have refused to believe that its peaceful and destructive aspects can be separated. The poets see nothing imaginative in a domination of nature which expresses no love for it, in an activity founded on will, which always overreacts, in a way of life marked by a constant increase in speed, which means also an increase in introversion and the breaking down of genuine personal relationships. The great exception, the literary movement that was expected to seize on technology as its central theme, was assumed to be science fiction. But the way in which science fiction, as it has developed from hardware fantasy into software philosophical romance, has fallen into precisely the conventions of romance as outlined here is so extraordinary that I wish I had the time and the erudition to give it a separate treatment. Visions of utopias, or properly running communities, belong in its general area; but, in modern science fiction, anti‑utopias, visions of regression or the nightmarish insect states of imaginative death, must outnumber the positive utopias by at least fifty to one. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18, 118)
I’ve been reading a science fiction novel called The Mind Parasites, by Colin Wilson. Silly book in many ways, which is a pity, because its central idea is a genuine Promethean archetype, the Gospel driving out of the devils symbolized as malignant small creatures like insects (Beelzebub as lord of flies, the Q1 [The Faerie Queene, bk. 1] & P.L [Paradise Lost] 1, rats in Poe references; Lilliput, Wyndham’s Triffids, Tolkien). Note that the aeroplane or space ship escape theme occurs in Erewhon, Rasselas, and Medea. Wilson is interested in Blake, & links the parasites to a polypus. He says they are linked somehow with the moon: this doctrine of the sinister or lunatic moon recurs in C.S. Lewis, and he (Wilson) refers to Velikowski, Hörbiger, Gurdjieff, and other lunatics. Below consciousness, in the mind, there’s a paradisal “nursery” or child’s world of moral impulses. Below that is a deep sea, Blake’s heavens beneath Beulah, where the parasites are . As long as they’re there, we feel there’s a paradise at the bottom of which they are the Covering Cherub, but once they’re expelled we simply feel that our whole mind is ours—he compares this to the Israelites entering the Promised Land. Note how often in science fiction (Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, Hoyle, etc.) the theme of the ring of impregnable minds turns up: the comitatus that, as in Beowulf, deserts the descent but reforms in the ascent. Note that whether the “parasites” are giants or insects depends on perspective only: Blake’s Og & Sihon are also germs or viruses. As I say, the book is silly, but he does touch on significant themes. Descending into the mind & seeing all one’s memories there, not examining them closely because each is a world in itself, is described in language recalling Alice’s descent down the rabbit-hole. Of course this is really an Eros journey into the past; this is part of that difficult interchangibility principle. (Third Book Notebooks, CW 9, 215–16)
Other notebooks point out the Utopian relevance of Dante: the Purgatorio in particular shows the informing-vision aspect: life in this world, but in a symmetrical conceptual form. Note the affinity with science fiction. (Third Book Notebooks, CW 9, 15)
Distinction of science fiction vs. technological fiction: it’s the latter that becomes a bunch of Utopian fiction, starting with Bacon. Incidentally, the rationality imputed to Utopia-dwellers is simply the result of the literary convention used, which is that of a rational construct. (Third Book Notebooks, CW 9, 17)
I’ve been looking at three “science fiction” stories by John Taine. I read better stuff in The Boy’s Own Paper at the age of nine, but it isn’t their merits that interest me. They’re all elementary displacements of golden age, fall & flood (earthquake in him) archetypes. Wonder if all science fiction is. (Third Book Notebooks, CW 9, 46)
I wonder why I’ve always thought sentimental romance so central a hinge of the argument? S. r. [sentimental romance] begins with Scott & more particularly with the Germans (Hoffmann, Novalis). In America it runs through Poe, Hawthorne & Melville; in Britain through George Macdonald & William Morris to the Godly Church: Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, & Tolkien. I suppose Scholes’ Fabulators (?) is about them. It’s often considered a branch of science fiction, but it isn’t: it’s predominantly anti-scientific. The popularity of Tolkien has caused two other “trilogies” to be reprinted, Eddison’s [Zimiamvian trilogy] & Mervyn Peake’s [Gormenghast trilogy]. I’m reading [E.R. Eddison’s] The Worm Ouroboros, which I may not finish. S. r. [sentimental romance] is rooted in Gothic revival, in a continuation of naive romance in a different key. It’s endless, Boys’ Own Paper in formula (sexless adventures; no women; the fantasy world of elves, dragons, magic, hypostatized). But this is all in AC. Incidentally, the Mormon Bible, said to be derived from an obscure romance of the same genre, belongs here, as does Gurdjieff’s All & Everything. And of course there’s James Branch Cabell & M. P. Shiel, two authors I’ve always had difficulty reading. I’m not as fond of this stuff as I used to think I was. The W. O. [The Worm Ouroboros] is written in a silly yea-verily-and-forsooth gobbledygook that the bemused hack who wrote the introduction compares to Sir Thomas Browne. (Third Book Notebooks, CW 9, 316)
I’ve often said that if I understand the two Alice books I’d have very little left to understand about literature. Actually I think the Alice books, while they carry over, begin rather than sum up—a new twist to fiction that has to do with intellectual paradox & the disintegrating of the ego. Borges especially, along with some Kafka, FW [Finnegans Wake], some conspiracy novels like [Thomas Pynchon’s] The Crying of Lot 49, some elements in detective stories & science fiction, come down from this. In science fiction it’s the world within that’s really existing, & the world without is only a projection of it. At least, when the within isn’t interesting the without isn’t either. My one fiction idea (24 Preludes) also relates to this. My remark in the Beddoes essay, that fantasy is a “distinctively modern” quality, also relates to it. (Third Book Notebooks, CW 9, 329)
Two: Sentimental Romance (Scott, Wilkie Collins, Poe, Hawthorne, George MacDonald, LeFanu, William Morris, Tolkien, etc.). The formulas of popular fiction (detective story and science fiction formulas coming out of Poe and Collins, e.g.). (Third Book Notebooks, CW 9, 345)
Time travel is one of the major themes developed since by the aspect of science fiction that is really occult fantasy. Another and closely related theme, that of identity in parallel worlds, was also anticipated by James in “The Jolly Corner.” These two stories, The Sense of the Past particularly, seemed to me central to everything that had preoccupied James from the beginning about the social and psychological culture shocks that the two sides of Atlantic civilization contained for one another. It puzzled me, however, not that The Sense of the Past was unfinished, as its theme became almost unmanageably complex even for James as it developed, but that so crucial a story should take the form of what was really a ghost story. (“Henry James and the Comedy of the Occult,” CW 29, 351)
The critical study of poetry depends on a kind of holism, an assumption that the poem in front of us is a unity, in which every detail is accounted for by its relation to that unity. The assumption of wholeness, like the assumption of coherence in criticism, is heuristic, adopted for the sake of seeing what results from it. Theoretical objections to it are easy enough to bring up, but without it there can be no sense of direction in critical understanding. At the same time the wholeness is not the goal of the critical process, but merely a factor in it. So while there is nothing in the Keats passage that violates the unity of the poem, nevertheless it seems to burst through that unity to suggest different orders of existence, like the parallel worlds popularized in science fiction. (Words with Power, CW 26, 70)
A famous passage in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience tells us that the author came out of a trance induced by nitrous oxide with the feeling that
Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.
Of course different does not necessarily mean expanded, and the passage in itself might merely anticipate the science fiction conception of parallel worlds, previously referred to. But James goes on to say that where there is the experience of difference there is the possibility of expansion. It must be a very rigidly self-censoring person who has never felt any whisper of what is expressed by e.e. cummings as “listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door: let’s go.” (Words with Power, CW 26, 106–7)
Science fiction has also contributed various forms of doubles, notably the doubles created by travelling in time and those created by the conception of parallel worlds. Both these forms were anticipated by Henry James. In James’s unfinished Sense of the Past a twentieth-century man goes back a century or more in time, while his double moves from the earlier period into the hero’s twentieth-century setting which is the double’s future. In “The Jolly Corner” an American who has spent his life in Europe returns to America to confront himself as he would have been if he had stayed on that side of the Atlantic. (Words with Power, CW 26, 229)