Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Boy Culture in the Nineteenth and a Half Century!

I've been reading H. Bruce Franklin's Future Perfect: American Science Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (revised edition, Oxford University Press, 1978), which turns out to be more of an anthology than a critical study. It's worth reading because of the commentary he supplies; he's written a good many books on various subjects, including Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction (Oxford, 1980), which is out of print but worth tracking down.

Franklin begins by suggesting what I agree is a "good working definition of science fiction": "the literature which, growing with science and technology, evaluates it and relates it meaningfully to the rest of human existence." He returns to that definition in the book's second section, on Poe, who has often been called the father of SF. Franklin treats him respectfully with appropriate skepticism, especially his program (in a "famous passage from his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales" [ 96]) for the writing of short stories:
The key word in Poe's argument, as his italics indicate, is "effect." The argument that fiction should be evaluated for its effectiveness, its success in achieving the objective correlative which the author desires, slides around the question of what it should effect. To say that the tale of terror is "effective" may not necessarily, in the long run, to praise it [97].
Franklin distinguishes two categories of science fiction in Poe's work,
the tale contrived like an electric coil to induce particular emotions in the reader and the tale contrived as a wheelbarrow to bring to the reader some scientific notion or knickknack. In the first, the science is merely a device; in the other, the fiction is merely a device [97].
Good enough, but Franklin goes still further:
Poe, then, may be the father not of science fiction but rather of what is so often associated with the term science fiction -- fiction which popularizes science for boys and girls of all ages while giving them the creeps [98].
He grants Poe more virtue than that, though, suggesting that Poe is better than his theory. I'm not so sure; I've never liked Poe myself, either as poet or storyteller. But Franklin makes a good point which connects to my own wariness of "extreme" horror movies in our day.
Yet surely those who find "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" of enduring value do not do so merely because they admire Poe for making a story which can horrify them. Would anyone who wants to be as horrified as possible turn to fiction? Or are horror stories merely safe escapes or releases from the terrors of the actual world? In 1854, the same year in which "The Facts in the Case of M. Waldemar" was published, appeared Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Douglass, who had been a slave boy in Poe's Baltimore, describes the incident which awakened him into consciousness of Maryland social reality, the whipping of his aunt, stripped naked to the waist and hanging from a hook, by his master, who keeps snarling "'you d____d b___h'" as he tortured her until she was "literally covered with blood":
The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.
The man who invented the horrors of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" preferred not to look at these other horrors. In fact he supported the slave system which produced them, as well as his own material comforts [98-9].
I'm not as sure as Franklin that Poe's fans don't necessarily admire him primarily for making a tale which can horrify them, though I would expect that his admirers value his tales for more than one reason. The fans of ultraviolent cinema seem to think that "effects" are all that matter, though. The late Thomas M. Disch, a poet, writer of sf and horror fiction, and swaggering leather boy, wrote a history of science fiction in which he attacked writers like Ursula Le Guin whose gore-and-creepy quotient didn't come up to his high standards. (Her feminism, he thundered, "is less overtly phobic of the male sex than that of Andrea Dworkin, but it is no less absolute. ... Ideology breeds nonsense and ... Le Guin's work has undergone a gradual PC ossification" [via]. Girl cooties, yuck!)

But I very much appreciate the questions Franklin raised here. He made me think again of the idea that Lawrence Block put into the mind of one of his characters, that the tears you shed while watching a movie aren't real tears, any more than the fear you feel while watching a horror movie is real fear. I have the same reservation about the genre that Franklin expressed: if you want to be horrified, why look to fiction? Something else is going on, but what? I'm certainly open to the idea that horror stories in any medium can point to some deeper (or at least other) meanings; I just don't know what they might be, because I haven't found any that work for me that way.