Frank McConnell, The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science

Frank McConnell, The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science: Collected Essays on SF Storytelling and the Gnostic Imagination, ed. by Gary Westfahl (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 2009). xii+212 pp. £28.95 hb. ISBN 978-0-7864-3722-1.

The J. Lloyd Eaton conferences on science fiction and fantasy have been held annually at the University of California, Riverside since the late 1970s. Each year’s conference has a distinctive theme, and in 1999 it was the ‘two cultures’ of literature and science. This was the occasion of the title-essay of the present volume, read in Frank McConnell’s absence as he was critically ill in hospital; he died at the age of 56 on the day his paper was due to be delivered. Twelve of the sixteen essays in this collection are based on McConnell’s remarkable series of contributions to the Eaton conferences. BSLS members should perhaps be warned that only the title-essay directly addresses what the author, with a characteristic shudder at the academic cliché involved, calls ‘the discourse of science’. But the book as a whole makes compulsive—I would even say compulsory—reading for anyone concerned with the teaching of popular literature and popular culture.

Frank McConnell was once told by the chairman of a literature department he subsequently left that he ought to ‘think very seriously whether you want people to regard you as a generalist’. At that time an orthodox academic career lay at his feet—a former student of Harold Bloom’s, he had published a well-regarded monograph on Wordsworth’s Prelude—and the chairman doubtless meant to offer a kindly warning. (It’s what we now call ‘mentoring’.) But to McConnell, who had never before heard the term ‘generalist’, the words were a revelation. He went on to write on a range of subjects including film, Biblical narrative, and contemporary fiction, and began offering courses on science fiction which became so wildly popular that, at Santa Barbara where he taught for two decades, his annual enrolment was between six hundred and eight hundred students. In his spare time Frank wrote detective novels—to the dismay of at least one senior colleague, they were published under his own name—and the Penguin edition of one of these that he gave me in 1989 is a treasured possession. Among the tributes to Frank printed as an epilogue to The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, I was particularly struck by one from the long-time organiser of the Eaton conferences, George Slusser, who writes that ‘he taught many of us that there is life in the academic profession. He also taught us that there is courage, that no topic is unworthy of serious attention, that there are no boundaries to an inquiring mind’.

It is true that being a generalist has its dangers. McConnell’s most successful academic book is probably his definitive study of The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells (1981). Nevertheless, my first, unforgettable, encounter with him was at a conference in Champaign, Illinois in 1986, when he burst upon a small group of Wells specialists with the announcement that ‘I’m the guy who edited that critical edition of The War of the Worldsand I fucked it up!’ It was true, alas, and we all knew it. He had published the edition with Oxford some years earlier, unaware that he had taken as copy-text a version of Wells’s novel which had been lightly abridged and bowdlerised for use in schools. A reviewer in Science-Fiction Studies had pointed out his mistake at great and unforgiving length. Frank, it was evident, had taken scholarly humiliation in his stride, but it may have played a small part in foregrounding the broad metaphysical themes that crop up almost obsessively in his later writing: the inhospitable nature of the universe, the centrality of death to human existence, and the necessity of storytelling to give meaning to our lives and to keep up our spirits. He concludes one essay, on ‘Death and the Storyteller’, with the tale of the man who falls from a fiftieth-floor window and is heard to say, as he passes the thirteenth floor, ‘Well—so far, so good’.

In the epilogue, Bruce Kawin describes Frank McConnell as ‘a closet Catholic and an honorary Jew’. Not only was he immensely learned in both traditions but his whole intellectual stance was that of a uniter of opposites, a lumper and joiner rather than a splitter. He treated academic boundary-drawing with a lordly impatience, boldly dismissing the pigeonholing, classifying habit of mind which he traces back to Aristotle: necessary though it is, it is also uncreative and petty. In terms of science fiction criticism, as an anti-Aristotelian he is the opposite of Darko Suvin (who is not mentioned in this volume). As for poetry and science, they are merely ‘two dialects of the same language’, two versions of what Wallace Stevens called ‘the poem of the mind, in the act of finding/ What will suffice’; but no sooner has he said this than he asserts that both poetry and science are pervaded by the distinction between what C. S. Lewis called the astrological and the alchemical outlooks. (The fact is that intellectual discussion turns us all into splitters, not lumpers, whether we like it or not, and McConnell is no exception.) The astrologer assumes the world to be decipherable but essentially unalterable; the alchemist assumes that the world can be manipulated according to the demands of his own quest for selfhood. It is the alchemist whom McConnell describes as the ‘gnostic’, the embodiment of humanity’s perpetual attempt to transcend material conditions, and in a brief discussion of modern physics he calls Einstein ‘the definitive gnostic of the age’. McConnell himself is simultaneously on the side of the gnostics and called upon to play the impartial commentator, or academic umpire, holding the ring between gnosticism and materialism. Not only does he regard science fiction as characteristically gnostic, but he contrasts it with detective fiction, and he does so through their characteristic attitudes to food. Food and sex are immaterial, ‘either a sacrament or an excrescence’, in science fiction, but they are omnipresent in detective fiction with its commitment to flesh-and-blood realities. When in doubt as to what your detective should do next, McConnell advises budding writers, you should buy him (or her) a meal.

As for the tone of these essays, McConnell is a master at raising academic hackles. Himself no mean theorist, he is scathing about theoretical pretensions. High-cultural allusions sit side by side with references to baseball novels, TV series, and comic strips to buttress his arguments. Few other academics have earned the right to quote Wilde’s dictum that ‘Books are well written, or badly written. That is all’ with any conviction, but for McConnell this is the reality that teachers of literature cannot bear very much of, himself included. His essays have the limitations of the conference-paper format which he describes so beautifully—‘the gossamer out of which [they] are woven’, he says, is one of ‘quotations, allusions, evasions, and deferrals’—but anyone who wants to see the duty of giving conference papers transformed into an art should read and study this book.     

Patrick Parrinder, University of Reading