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The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science: Collected Essays on SF Storytelling and the Gnostic Imagination
Frank McConnell, edited by Gary Westfahl
McFarland, 232 pages

The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science: Collected Essays on SF Storytelling and the Gnostic Imagination
Frank McConnell
Frank D. McConnell, born in 1942, first distinguished himself in the 1960s as a graduate student in English at Yale University, where he studied under noted scholar and writer Harold Bloom and received his Ph.D. in 1968. After teaching at Cornell University, he was hired as professor of English at Northwestern University in 1971 and quickly made a name for himself with an outpouring of books and articles on an amazing variety of topics, including William Wordsworth, H.G. Wells, film, and contemporary American novelists. In 1977, for the first of four times, he served on the committee that awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. In 1982, he became an English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and largely shifted to more lucrative and creative endeavors, including a regular column on the media for Commonweal magazine, book reviews for several major newspapers, and four detective novels. He also began presenting a series of brilliant and wildly amusing papers about science fiction at the annual J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature now published as The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science. Frank McConnell died suddenly on January 17, 1999.

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A review by Paul Kincaid

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There are very few academic critics of science fiction whose style is immediately identifiable. There's a critical language to be used that mitigates against an individual style, there's an amassing of supporting evidence and a careful laying out of a case and all sorts of other reasons, though as often as not it simply comes down to the fact that most academics are not good writers. But you could probably give me, sight unseen, a page from one of Frank McConnell's papers and I would know instantly from whom it came. No-one else, I think, in the world of sf academe threw off papers with such bravura flair, such a cavalier disregard for the minutiae of critical disputes, such a range of references, such a love of good puns and bad jokes. A Frank McConnell paper at an academic conference was the next best thing to a stand up comedy routine, and yet the ideas that crowded his papers would invariably make one rethink one's entire attitude to the genre.

I say this without ever having had the good fortune to see McConnell in action. He died in 1999 at the early age of 57, but for more than a decade he was the star of the Eaton Conferences. Year after year he would turn up with a paper built around the theme of that year's conference, often taking him into new conceptual areas, and woe betide the poor delegate scheduled after him. Now the 12 papers he delivered at the Eaton Conferences, from his first in 1982 until the one read out on his behalf in 1999, along with four other essays on related themes, have been brought together in one book. Bulked out with memoirs from friends and colleagues (the two are indistinguishable), it makes for a fascinating introduction to one of the liveliest minds in sf criticism.

The collection unexpectedly reveals one of the virtues of academic conferences. In 1991, the theme of the Eaton Conference was food in science fiction. McConnell hated the theme, felt there was nothing really to say on the subject. But he pursued the idea, and the result ("Alimentary, My Dear Watson", his titles are a delight) changed the way he looked at science fiction. There is, he decided, "precious little food -- food, that is, as an object of desire -- in science fiction" (112, his italics); as opposed to mystery fiction, his other great love, which is replete with the pleasure of food. This led him to the perception that science fiction is a Gnostic literature, a literature, in other words, that is characterised by a disgust at the body and an urge towards the intellectual, the ideative, the transcendent. This was an idea that he would then expand in subsequent papers on topics such as death ("You Bet Your Life") and disease ("The Missionary Physician"), both subjects that allow the examination of science fiction's relationship with the messy, everyday realities of the human body.

Actually the suggestion that "Alimentary, My Dear Watson" was the occasion for a sort of damascene conversion to the cause of Gnosticism is a myth inherent in the supporting matter surrounding these papers, but isn't really born out. McConnell's interests were multifarious, and it is clear that among them was a deep and abiding interest in religious studies. Among other things, he edited a book on The Bible and the Narrative Tradition, and his papers are peppered with allusions drawn from religion. Gnosticism in relation to science fiction is mentioned in the very first essay gathered here, and crops up again several times before that so-called turning point. So, at best, the key essay of 1991 was a formalisation of ideas that had already been taking shape for at least the previous decade.

What is interesting is that they were taking shape alongside an equally strongly held but seemingly contradictory view of science fiction. The identification of the genre with the Gnostic imagination suggests that there is something distinctive about it, something that is not shared by other genres or literatures. Yet at the same time, he argued passionately that there was nothing exceptional about science fiction, that what matters in any consideration of it is storytelling, which can and should be examined seamlessly across all genres.

What is at issue here is not science fiction itself, but rather a general view of genre. On the one hand there is nothing exceptional about any individual genre, on the other hand science fiction is exceptional. Clearly the two do not sit comfortably with each other, and the unexceptional storytelling notion is more to the front in the early papers here while the exceptional Gnostic idea comes to the fore in the later essays; but neither is entirely absent at any point. I'm not sure that McConnell ever thought there was a contradiction in the two positions, but some of the liveliest and most cavalier moments in these papers come when he is skating adroitly between the two.

For my part, I find the cross-genre nature of storytelling convincing but uninteresting, since it reveals nothing particularly startling or new about the character of literature. On the other hand, I think McConnell's notion that sf is a Gnostic literature is interesting but unconvincing. Unconvincing in that it is not true of all science fictions, unless one were to argue that a work as thoroughly celebratory of the messiness of the body as, say, Dhalgren, cannot, therefore, be science fiction. But it is undoubtedly interesting, since it says something new and revealing about large swathes of the genre. Admittedly, I think that the dread of the body displayed by certain branches of hard sf is more autistic than Gnostic, but still it is a commonplace that much of our literature expresses an urge to leave behind the dirty, febrile ambiguity of the human body and its quondam relationships and surroundings, replacing them with the transcendent shiny-chrome certainties of the future, the distance of space, the singularity, or some digital existence. Putting a religious reading upon this urge seems out of place in a literature that is so often seen as an expression of secular rationalism, yet it does make a great deal of sense about some of the grander, space operatic tendencies of the genre.

The conflict here is that this religious reading of the character of science fiction is applied best to those core strands of the genre, hard sf and space opera in particular, that are most enamoured of a mechanistic view of the universe. The two are so at odds that McConnell's ideas have not, to my knowledge, been taken up widely by genre scholars in the ten years since his death. Perhaps this belated collection will not only introduce readers to one of the most entertaining voices in genre criticism, but will also remind scholars of one of the more idiosyncratic but insightful approaches to their subject.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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