Visions and Re-Visions: (Re)constructing Science Fiction by Robert M. Philmus

Liverpool University Press, 2005, £50
reviewed in Interzone 203, April 2006

The parentheses in the subtitle give the game away. This is a trick that postmodern critics have developed to suggest multiple readings of what is being discussed. It is a valid tool, but one that Philmus abuses; there are pages here where there seem to be nearly as many parentheses as there are words, and some uses – the repeated formulation ‘a(nother)’, for example, where decisive use of ‘a’ or ‘another’ would not send the argument in noticeably different directions – seem at best petty.

The trouble is that Philmus seems to be using excessive postmodern techniques to advance an argument that is positively medieval. The scholastics of the middle ages saw perfection in a golden age of antiquity, and believed that all a new writer could do would produce a pale copy at best. Philmus appears to have a similarly monolithic view of science fiction. The title, from T.S. Eliot, (and the pun is another over-familiar postmodern technique) promises visions and revisions, but the book has little room for vision. We come away believing that all science fiction is echoes or reaction against something that has gone before (he talks variously of pretext and pre-text). Every science fiction writer begins their career by responding to his or her predecessors, then spends the rest of their career effectively rewriting their first books.

To an extent, this is trivial. The idea that science fiction is an ongoing conversation has been common currency to my knowledge since the 1970s at least. To the extent that it is non trivial, that science fiction is defined by and best understood by re-visioning, I remain unconvinced. By focussing solely on the notion of science fiction as ‘re-vision’ one loses sight of all the other things it might be, as literature, as satire, as thought experiment, whatever. Science fiction is many, not one, and our view of the literature needs to accommodate its varieties at least as much as its similarities.

But I could be wrong. I use ‘seems’ a lot in this review because this book (actually a collection of essays published between 1972 and 1998, but extensively rewritten to form one argument) is not written for clarity. It is not the extensive use of technical language, anyone familiar with academic criticism will be able to make their way slowly through this; but a fondness for words like ‘vehiculate’ when far plainer alternatives are readily available and generally preferable has an obscuring effect. (And if academic nicety rather than pretentiousness dictates that a passing reference to War and Peace should be to its Russian title (though not in Cyrillic), why does a similar nicety not give Tristram Shandy its proper title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?) Nor does the structure of the book help: a sequence of chapters that takes us from Wells to Lem, Capek, Stapledon, Lewis, Vonnegut, Borges, Calvino, Le Guin and Dick follows no readily apparent pattern, not even chronological. And reserving his theoretical position for the Afterword rather than laying it out at the beginning does little to clarify things either.