FROM THE STACKS SEPTEMBER 24, 2013
In honor of Banned Books Week, we'll be publishing our original reviews of frequently banned books. In 1969, a then relatively unknown Michael Crichton—who would go on to write some of the best-selling science fiction of all time—reviewed Kurt Vonnegut's latest novel, Slaughterhouse Five. In an ambivalent take, Crichton called it "hideous, ghastly, murderous—and calm."
A look at the bookstore shelves will prove it: science fiction is coming back. After a dry period in the early sixties, people are beginning to read it again, and write it. The renewed interest has carried into other fields as well, particularly television and films: "Star Trek" gathered a vociferous and cultish following; a paperback version of Fantastic Voyage sold more than a million copies; Stanley Kubrick's "2001" was the most expensive science fiction film ever made.
The diehard sci-fi addict will view all this with pleasure and a grim sense of vindication, for it has traditionally been true that one cannot acceptably admit to a taste for science fiction, except among scientists or teenagers. And these two groups share a strikingly low standard of literary attainment, and a correspondingly high tolerance for mangled prose.
Certainly the new ventures in films and television represent improvements over, say, Steve McQueen fighting “The Blob” or Buzz Corry of the "Spa-a-a-ace Patrol!" But this is not to say that science fiction is any better now, as literature, than it ever was. A look at the bookstore shelves will prove this, too: The vast majority of science fiction writing is abysmal. It is perhaps paradoxical that our most technologically advanced fiction should also be the most technically inadequate. Most science fiction writers cannot put together a literate sentence; only a handful can create a reasonable character; perhaps a dozen, at most, can sustain a simple plot.
There is no good explanation for the ineptitude of science fiction, as fiction. There is a commercial explanation (that the readers will put up with this stuff); there is a historical one (that science fiction has its origins in pulp fiction). And there is another: that science fiction represents, as a form, a subordination of all fictional elements to an idea—just as detective fiction represents a subordination of all elements to plot.
Only the commercial explanation, which is really no more than a simple observation of verifiable fact, holds water; the others are demonstrably wrong. For example, nearly all fictional forms have come from pulp, or its equivalent in previous generations. The majority of "classic" authors were very popular in their day. And when one surveys the great triad of pulp writing—science fiction, westerns, and detective fiction—from the early part of this century, the results are interesting. Westerns, being closest to the heart of American mythology, have been almost entirely absorbed by the ubiquitous tube. Detectives have done well in films, less well on television; in straight fiction their standards have been raised markedly, partly because "real" authors like Conrad and Graham Greene have dabbled in the form and partly because talented writers have been drawn to it—Raymond Chandler, David Cornwall, and Georges Simenon. But science fiction has remained impervious to such influences. It is still as pulpy, and as awful, as ever.
Nor can the argument that science fiction relies upon the idea over all other elements be sustained. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells between them laid out nearly all the problems, and all the gadgetry, which have since become science fiction staples. These authors are no longer widely read, not because their ideas are wrong—indeed, to an astonishing degree they are correct—but because their prancing romanticism, their treatment of ideas, has fallen out of favor.
Much of the resurgence represents a reissue of old names and old titles, from Asimov to Van Vogt, in the kind of publishing cycle that affects all fiction. But there is also new material with new origins and different sources of popularity. And all of it gives reason to believe that science fiction is about to undergo the kind of change that affected detective fiction 20 years ago.
Things have happened. Our world is changing rapidly, and as the pace of scientific development accelerates, there is a growing public tolerance for science fiction, a sense that nothing is too fantastic to be impossible. Since new developments produce new uncertainty and flux, readers look to science fiction for views of the future—sometimes, with the utmost seriousness. A number of science fiction writers are now employed as consultants to large corporations, where they are paid to predict future trends of business.
Furthermore, the drug experience has opened a new realm for writers in all fields, but perhaps for obvious reasons, it is most easily exploited by writers of fantasy and science fiction. The Hashbury hippies made a kind of bible out of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land; Leary and the Airplane grokked sister lovers and water brothers, and in time maybe others. Other science fiction writers, such as J. G. Ballard and Roger Zelazny, have joined the druggie panoply of literary heroes, which includes that old acid-head John Barth, that old juice-freak Malcolm Lowry, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Celine, Melville, Jorges Luis Borges, P. D. Ouspensky, and Hermann Hesse. Conspicuously absent are the old guard of the left wing, Huxley and Orwell; their books are found in the classroom, not the pad.
As a category, the borders of science fiction have always been poorly defined, and they are getting worse. The old distinction between science fiction and fantasy—that science fiction went from the known to the probable, and fantasy dealt with the impossible—is now wholly ignored. The new writing is heavily and unabashedly fantastical. The breakdown is also seen in the authors themselves, who now cross the border, back and forth, with impunity. At one time this was dangerous and heretical; the only person who could consistently get away with it was Ray Bradbury. Science fiction addicts politely looked the other way when he did books such as Dandelion Wine and the screenplay for John Huston's “Moby Dick.” It was assumed he needed the money.
Furthermore, many of the traditional science fiction preserves have been invaded by highly skilled authors, equipped to work on a very high level. Modern science stands as a vast and largely untouched reservoir of metaphor, but very recently a number of "real" authors have begun to draw upon it in various ways. One thinks immediately of Nabokov, Updike and Donleavy, and in a sloppy-effective way, Norman Mailer. (C. P. Snow, as the scientist-novelist most likely to employ the metaphors of science in the service of literature, has shown no inclination to do so, but continues to write about life in the thirteenth century.) It is inevitable that these skilled writers will destroy much of science fiction as a category, just as some of them have begun to put the sex-exploitation novel out of business by writing better novels about sex.
Invading a category is, however, much easier than leaving it. To leave the world of category fiction, with its special section in the book stores, its special reviewers and its special readerships, is both hazardous and difficult. Witness Georges Simenon, who has had extraordinary trouble gaining acceptance in this country as anything other than a detective writer. But the transition is being attempted, with at least one notable success.
Exhibit A: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. When I was growing up, everybody knew damn well what Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was. He was a science fiction writer. It said so, in the high school textbooks where his stories were reprinted. And what do you call Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan if not science fiction? Some years ago, he began to drift, but by then there was a new category, black humor, and Vonnegut got stuck into that one. The company was a little more reputable, but the category remained. He was doing God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Mother Night, and Cat’s Cradle. It seemed pretty blackly humorous, all right. And if he didn't have anything nasty to say about his mother, well, he'd get around to it. He was witty and he was grim, and that was enough.
However, with Cat's Cradle he began to get some attention. It came from varied sources: Conrad Aiken, Graham Greene, Marc Connolly and Jules Feiffer, to name a few. Greene called him one of the best living American writers. That sort of comment is guaranteed to make you an "in" writer. He was compared to Jonathan Swift.
This is not to say that he has been greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm by all critics. Reviews of his latest book, Slaughterhouse-Five, have dragged out the old complaints: Vonnegut is too cute, Vonnegut is precious, Vonnegut is silly.
We live in an age of great seriousness. We are accustomed to getting our art in heavy, pretentious doses. Anything funny is suspect, and anything simple is doubly suspect. Here we come to the second difficulty with Kurt Vonnegut. His style is effortless, naive, almost childlike. There are no big words and no complicated sentences. It is an extraordinarily difficult style, but that fact is lost on anyone who has never tried to write that way.
A funny, simple writer is in trouble nowadays. And Vonnegut doesn't make it any easier for you. He is cheerfully, exuberantly schizophrenic. The man who wrote a book with a stated moral, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be," has described himself by saying, "Imagine me as the White Rock girl, kneeling on a boulder in a nightgown, either looking for minnows or adoring my own reflection." The man who says "this is a hard world to be ludicrous in" admits "to have lived scenes from a woman's magazine"—and to have written those same scenes, in a woman's magazine.
"When you're dead, you're dead," he observes, but he also says, "My brand is Pall Mall. The authentic suicides ask for Pall Malls . . ." Of his writing, he has said, "I realize now that the two main themes of my novels were stated by my siblings; 'Here I am cleaning shit off of practically everything,' and ‘No Pain,' " This statement is as true as anything a writer has said of his work; it is also the reason why Vonnegut is so difficult to accept.
He writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves. Nobody else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelistic approaches. But Vonnegut, armed with his schizophrenia, takes an absurd, distorted, wildly funny framework which is ultimately anaesthetic. In doing so, his science fiction heritage is clear, but his purposes are very different: he is nearly always talking about the past, not the future. And as he proceeds, from his anaesthetic framework, to clean the shit off, we are able to cheer him on—at least for a while. But eventually we stop cheering, and stop laughing.
It is a classic sequence of reactions to any Vonnegut book. One begins smugly, enjoying the sharp wit of a compatriot as he carves up Common Foes. But the sharp wit does not stop, and sooner or later it is directed against the Wrong Targets. Finally it is directed against oneself. It is this switch in midstream, this change in affiliation, which is so disturbing. He becomes an offensive writer, because he will not choose sides, ascribing blame and penalty, identifying good guys and bad.
Mother Night, the clearest antecedent to Slaughterhouse-Five, begins by giving it to the Nazis. That's all right. Then Vonnegut gives it to the Jews, then the American right wing, then the left wing, then the Negroes, then the happily marrieds—and finally manages to reduce any social or political affiliation to total absurdity, while we look on with increasing horror. It is an astonishing book, very gentle and funny and quiet and totally destructive. Nobody escapes without being shown, in a polite way what an ass he is. (And interestingly, the left-wing political activists, who generally count Vonnegut among their number, all have somehow never found time to read this particular book.)
A Vonnegut book is not cute or precious. It is literally awful, for Vonnegut is one of the few writers able to lift the lid of the garbage can, and dispassionately examine the contents. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the author quotes his father as saying, "You never wrote a story with a villain in it." This may be true, but Vonnegut never wrote a story with a hero in it, either. In Slaughterhouse-Five he also says, "Nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting," and it is within this framework that he writes about an event that should qualify for all those adjectives— the firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut experienced as a prisoner of war in Germany.
There is every indication that this book represents, for Vonnegut, a final statement of his thoughts about this experience. He says so explicitly, just as he says the project is doomed to failure ("There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre"). The book also brings together characters and locales from other books—Howard W. Campbell, Jr., Eliot Rosewater, and Ilium, N.Y., giving the novel a faintly anthological flavor. The book is written in the brief segmental manner he developed in Cat's Cradle, organized as a collection of impressions, scattered in time and space, each told with the kind of economy one associates with poetry. It is beautifully done, fluid, smooth, and powerful.
There is also some business about a distant planet and flying saucers, but that does not make the book science fiction, any more than flippers make a cat a penguin. In the final analysis the book is hideous, ghastly, murderous—and calm. There are just people, doing what people usually do to each other.
The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong. The simplest way out of such a predicament is to say that everybody is wrong but the author. Any number of writers have done it, with good success. But Vonnegut refuses. He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties. His commentary on the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King is the same as his comment on all other deaths: "So it goes," he says, and nothing more.
One senses that underneath it all, Vonnegut is a nice man, who doesn't really like to have to say this, but . . .his description of one character might stand for all mankind in his view: "She had been given the opportunity to participate in civilization, and she had muffed it." And of himself, a comment by another character, the author-Nazipropagandist-pornographer-American spy Howard W. Campbell, Jr. "I speak gibberish to the civilized world, and it replies in kind." So it goes.