No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, July 01, 1995

The Detached Retina -- Brian Aldiss

"Science fiction seems to offer an elusive something ... a sense of looking at things and finding the familiar strange ... for this it needs the SF writer's gift, a detached viewpoint, a detached retina. Perhaps ordinary readers are not comfortable with detached retinas. As Delany pointed out, you have to train yourself or be trained to appreciate the tropes of SF."

The Detached Retina is a collection of essays drawn from Aldiss' critical work over the last fifteen years. Their provenance ranges from book introduction to obituary; their degree of detachment is similarly varied. There's an open letter to Salvador Dali, and essays on futurology and psychology. There is a great deal of incisive criticism, and a recurring defence of his own works - both fiction and non-fiction - which, whether intrusive or not, is seldom bland.

"The past is rich in life ... it's the future that's dead, stuffed with our own mortality" writes Aldiss. His view of current trends in science fiction is not particularly optimistic. He bemoans the trend towards the impersonal and the massive - "towards humans as machines" - and ties this into the social context of much science fiction - "our SF culture springs from nations with most power, so power is naturally a prevailing theme". Cyberpunk offers a renaissance of human individuality, which 'seems to extend to infinity - but within the limits of the machine". In his introduction to Decade: The Sixties (written in 1977), he posits that the Sixties was the decade when science fiction "began to stand outside itself and look at itself". The relentless forward march of technological progress was shoved out of the way to make space for experimentation and hedonism. There's a distinct sense that this was a Good Thing, and that things have been in decline ever since. Considering that this essay was written from a vantage point of only eight years, one can't help wondering what changes Aldiss would have made, had he not considered that it should "stand as it was when first published".

There are several indications that, on occasion, he despairs of much modern SF. "The nutritive content has been fixed to suit mass taste," he writes. "Nowadays, the world ... has to be saved by a group of four or five people which include a Peter Pan figure, a girl of noble birth, and a moron ... the prescription thus incorporates an effigy for everyone to identify with. In the old days, we used to destroy the world, and it only took one mad scientist. SF was an act of defiance, a literature of subversion, not whimsy." (Old days? Does he mean Good Old Days?) On occasion, one can't help feeling that Aldiss is comparing the worst of the new with the best of the old - a comparison which does no favours to either side of the balance.

At one point he writes, "(SF) should be about the future. And of course about human beings. When it gets involved with telepathic dragons, I'm lost." This is an example of Aldiss at his most irritatingly dismissive. Quite aside from the slur on McCaffrey (who, at least in her earlier works, was playing the good old SF game of 'what if?', and examining human-alien relationships) it's a horribly anthropocentric viewpoint. Human beings? What about 'people'? Where does this leave the work of writers like Stephen Baxter and Gwyneth Jones, who write intelligent SF with alien protagonists? Aldiss is often scathing about 'formula fantasy' (and, indeed, formulaic SF) and its practitioners. The Detached Retina deals mainly with science fiction, and with non-genre fiction that shares some SFnal tropes. However, In 'One Hump or Two' (the text of a lecture given at the IAFA Conference of the Fantastic) he makes some salient points about the differences between US and UK fantasy: "(the) spiritual aspect is largely absent in American fantasy and at least flickeringly present in the English stuff ... Did the 1980s yield in the US anything so ... full of ancient power as Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood?" In part, according to Aldiss, this may be attributable to our 'buried past': "we have Stonehenge, you have Scientology". But, in the end, the two have largely merged. Aldiss manages to dismiss fantasy, post-Tolkien, as "a giant step forward for womankind to the Age of Le Guin and Earthsea and Anne McCaffrey and her dragons". With this aggravating summation, Aldiss dismisses recent fantasy and female writers in one fell swoop. Female writers? I'm sorry; there's half a page on feminist utopias. And an essay on Anna Kavan; not a familiar name, but at least a female name.

And, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley - 'Science Fiction's Mother Figure'. This essay is perhaps the weakest in the book. It starts out as a defence of Aldiss' view - first aired in Billion Year Spree (BYS), his 1973 critical overview of science fiction - that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel. And, on the subject of Shelley and her monstrous 'child', Aldiss is informative and entertaining. "She captured the Irrational," he writes, "dressing it in rational garb and letting it stalk the land." He explains the social and political context of Shelley's writing lucidly, drawing comparisons between Shelley and earlier utopian writers, and discussing her little-known novel The Last Man. But where the essay falls over is in its second half - "a more personal view". This concerns itself less with Aldiss' personal view of Shelley, and more with his reaction to the critical slamming of BYS. We already know (from several iterations of the same phrase) that he regards the work as "an asset to scholars ... carte blanche not to have to study texts a million miles from the real thing". (The 'real thing', of course, as defined by Aldiss.) While his defence of the book's tenets is scholarly - if occasionally repetitive - Aldiss tends to react personally to mention (and non-mention) of his work. Describing del Rey's omission of his fictional works in The World of Science Fiction, Aldiss magnanimously remarks that "this particular instance can perhaps be ascribed to jealousy". And he is "grateful" to be mentioned in the Clute-Nicholls Encyclopedia of SF. He defends BYS on both the critical and the personal fronts; the first is certainly justifiable, the second perhaps less so. One of the few flaws in this collection is Aldiss' tendency to self-reference: discussing Amis' Something Strange, he writes (apropos of nothing) that "it bears a family resemblance to my story 'Outside'". P.D. James' The Children of Men "bears an astonishing accidental resemblance to my 'Greybeard'". While few would deny that Aldiss is one of the seminal figures of SF, it hardly becomes him to remind us of the fact.

There are proper places for self-reference, and in that respect Aldiss doesn't let us down. His obituaries of James Blish and Theodore Sturgeon are affectionate and revealing. In his discussion of SFnal style, it's only fitting that he writes of what he knows; his own. The autobiographical pieces - 'A Personal Parabola' and 'The Adjectives of Erich Zann' (a painful, and extremely funny, piece on Lovecraft) - have a fascinating intimacy, reminiscent of his fiction.

And there is creativity along with the criticism - the 'Rough Guide to Utopia', for example. The Detached Retina is often amusing and, just as often, contentious. Aldiss covers an immense ground, only occasionally stopping to mark out a piece of his own territory. Scholarly, witty and perverse at times; a book which deserves the adjective 'thought-provoking'.

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