Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Chandler Davis Collection

      I haven't posted for a couple days, primarily because of the beginning of the school year.  I often forget the little social rituals that open up that process, parties, meetings, demos.  In addition, I visited Santa Cruz over the weekend, which led to this essay being published much later.  As much I love my imagined micro public community, I would prefer spending time with Don, Erin, Katy, Jo, Evan, and Kim.  After that, I suspect that life is going to get pretty busy with getting the dissertation in gear, October 7th organizing, and teaching.  In any case, I leave those thoughts there.  After all, I'm not trying to create a private journal, but am interested in becoming part of that peculiar group of strangers in communication, the public.

      Around the same time that I received my copy of Damon Knight's history of The Futurians, I began reading a related book, the collected writings of science fiction author and blacklisted mathematician, Chandler Davis.  Unlike Knight's text, It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Davis is actually in print.  I thought it might be an interesting change of pace to write about a book that's still in print, rather than only being available in limited quantities.  The text was released this year by an imprint of the feminist science fiction press, Aqueduct Press, Heirloom books.  The material on Aqueduct's blog emphasized the book's status as the first material that the press had put out by a man, but I was more excited to find more material exploring the history of the sub-culture, particularly the way that Davis saw his position as a political radical related to his involvement in science fiction fandom.

     The early material contained in the book allows us to see that many of the conversations and controversies that occur between science fiction fans on the web have longer histories than that format allows.  In particular, the collection includes a memo directed towards the amateur press association makes a set of arguments about the representation of the other.  Davis attempts to set up a set of guidelines to avoid racist and chauvinistic representations within fiction produced by members of the association.  The practical guidelines that the memo end with are reductive at this point, but the attempt points to the similar engagements conflicts represented by the 'racefail' conflict on one hand, as well as the conscious organizing on the part of the Carl Brandon Society to "increasing the awareness and representation of people of color in the genres and in the community."

     Davis' critique of the practice of stereotyping in pulp literature has the same concern as contemporary commentators within science fiction, that is, the role of fiction in reproducing the reader's prejudices.  It represents a long running perspective within the subculture that runs from the Futurians to a multiplicity of current formations.  At its heart is a concern about the responsibility of the author.  As Davis notes, "Remember that the large majority of your readers--the large majority--either discriminate or are discriminated against; keep that in mind all the time.  Then write a story that satisfies your conscience."  (Davis 60)  The author should then use the forms of cognitive estrangement within the genre to challenge the prejudices of his or her time.  Davis' practical suggestions focus on not putting racial or ethnic groups into casually expected roles, or similarly in the roles women play in pulp literature.  There is a clear parallel to the later critiques that Joanna Russ has on the genre, expressing disappointment in a genre that both has such radical potential and such conventional notions of gender within that potential.

     Just as significantly, the interview with Lukin gives a lot of anecdotal material about fan culture of that time, most of it not all that surprising, but nonetheless adding detail to our understanding of some of the key personalities.  In particular, one gets a better sense of the key editors of the period.  Most significantly, there is a lot of material on Campbell, dealing with his politics, his racism, and his anti-semiticism.  (for instance, Judith Merril took on her pseudonym Merril to get her work by Campbell) But it also deals with the common practice of editors to simply change stories without consulting the writer.  This practice went beyond Campbell to the practices of Horace Gold, and even former Futurian, Frederick Pohl.  The material really points to the complex negotiations that occurred between radicals within the subculture and those operating within a more conventional political framework.  Science fiction (the subculture) simultaneously allowed for heretics at a time of the red scare, but that involvement meant a constant ideological and aesthetic negotiation with often conservative institutions.

     In addition to that, the text includes a number of other engagements made by Davis related to his complex role within the academy, both within it and outside of it during his HUAC enforced exile from the academy.  These essays deal with the effects of the red scare, the responsibilities of academics, as well as an interesting defense of the new left.  Personally, the material on the red scare is the most interesting of the material.  Davis' essay, "...From an Exile" written in 1960 along with the retrospective speech, ""Shooting Rats in a Barrel": Did The Red Hunt Win" given in 1995 and the interview material with editor Josh Lukin allow for a fuller understanding of the full impact that the somewhat mislabeled 'McCarthyism' had on the academic and political life of the country, erasing a series of ways of thinking and acting.  More significantly, Davis presents this without the kind of romanticism that one can find in material of this sort.  (I am primarily thinking of the Woody Allen film, The Front)  It is constantly considering the period from the standpoint of the political, rather than the sentimental.  The other essays are also material that one would hope that more potential academics would take a look at, as that most of their concerns are those of the present, and not simply the past.  (After all, the war in Afghanistan could not occur without the technical expertise of the university.)

       Davis' short stories remind me quite a bit of the material Judith Merril.  Both have a similar interest in using science fiction to explore the contemporary problems of their time, the cold war, contemporary gender relations, etc.  The common thread that I see between the two is concern with the everyday.  Both move away from pulp concerns with spaceship adventures and use the genre's engagement with futurity to think through our relationship to corporations, romantic relationships, etc.  "Last Year's Grave Undug" is a considerably darker engagement with the possible impact of nuclear war than Merril's Shadow on the Hearth, although both are concerned with the politics of survival.  "It Walks in Beauty" shows an interest in exploring the performativity of gender that links it both to Merril's narratives as well as C.L. Moore's "No Woman Born."  As a whole, the stories are fun, but they feel a little dated in the way that Merril's work often feels.  It might arise out of that sense of ideological engagement with current events that seems to be driving both authors, but that probably needs to be developed a bit more.

          Finally, Lukin provides a lot of useful information to contextualize the material contained here, linking it to Davis' origins in the Popular Front and its collapse in the cold war, his marxist intellectual and political commitments, as well as the thread of feminism that runs through that.  From a personal standpoint, it was fascinating watching Lukin work through the period that I am currently working on, and occasionally frustrating.  It was real exercise in the narcissism of small differences, as I would have drawn on slightly different sources and would have quoted Gramsci in a slightly different manner to get at very similar positions. I'm sure Nietzsche probably has a catchy epigram on the phenomenon.  All of this is quite irrelevant to the useful work that Lukin provides the reader, though.

     As a whole, this book links up with the recent feminist cultural studies work on the subculture provided by Helen Merrick's recent book also published by Aqueduct, as well as the more formally academic books written by Justine Larbalstier.  My genuine hope is that this indicates the direction in which the publisher is moving in, and not for simply professional reasons.  It's a genuinely interesting history, and the more material that I read about it, the more complex and interesting the topic becomes to me.  (As a last note, from a purely commodity standpoint, I am also very fond of Aqueduct's obvious reference to the old Penguin design work on the cover.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Robert. If you like Davis's "Critique & Proposals," you might be interested in looking at this Delany essay on a similar topic.