Seattle: Aqueduct Press; 2016; $22.00 tpb; 360 pages
Like many other fields, science fiction is being reminded that the women were here all along. There were always some writing for the prozines (cue James Blish grumbling about “Tony Boucher’s gaggle of housewives”), and by the ’60s Bantam was telling us on the back of other paperbacks that WOMEN (in this case Margaret St. Clair) are writing sf, and it was strange and wonderful. Along with the writers, women began to direct the shape of the field then. From 1958 to 1965, Cele Goldsmith edited Amazing and Fantastic for the Ziff-Davis magazine factory. She proceeded to discover and publish Ursula K. Le Guin, Thomas M. Disch, Roger Zelazny, et al., and when her employers’ needs changed, she went off to Modern Bride Magazine, presumably with the same aplomb and skill.
And there was Judith Merril. She wrote widely appreciated fiction. (NESFA Press has given us Homecalling, her collected short stories, and Spaced Out, an omnibus of the three novels she wrote with C.M. Kornbluth.) She also was part of the sf culture and lifestyle, known for her freedom from Mrs. Grundy. (In a famous incident, she was praised at a Hugo banquet for anthologizing other writers. Dr. Asimov, in front of a microphone he may or may not have known was live, muttered, “Euphemisms, always euphemisms.”) But most of all, she was a great critic and anthologist.
I grew up reading sf, and much of it was, as we were warned, Buck Rogers Stuff. But I didn’t find that fun, and so I sought out the kind that provided me with material that was Good to Think With. There was Galaxy and some Ballantine Books, and every year there was a collection of the “Year’s Best” from Judith Merril. One thing I liked about those is that she did not merely comb the usual prozines but wandered afield, finding material in The New Yorker, Good Housekeeping (Do they still publish any kind of fiction?), and other unlikely sources. One imagined some of them pondering whether the reprint fee was worth the sci-fi cooties.
The Merril anthologies gave me concepts and images I still use. “The Public Hating” by Steve Allen was a plotless vignette in which a stadium is filled by a mob that stares at a public enemy left alone in the middle of the playing field and hates him to death. “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” (spell it backwards) was an imagined study by one Horace Mitchell Miner that was not all that good itself but gave a useful term for considering the tribe we live in with the lightly veiled condescension of the anthropologist. For more story value, there was an Inner Space tale, “All the Sounds of Fear,” which all by itself inspired me to hunt down the battered paperbacks of its author (Harlan Ellison) in the used book stores (you remember used book stores) and then read his new books as they appeared.
Judith Merril is being remembered and reprinted. Her posthumously published memoir, Better to Have Loved (Wesleyan, 2002), begins fascinatingly and informatively but unfortunately gets sketchier and sketchier after a while and peters out completely (rather like Harry Harrison, Harry Harrison, except that Harrison got further). Judith Merril: A Critical Study by Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont (McFarland, 2012) gives much appreciative discussion and valuable biographical material and asserts that the structure of the memoir is not a matter of age progressively running the author out of spoons but a deliberately fragmented means of communicating a nonlinear message. (Criticism is often a form of creative nonfiction.) Now Aqueduct Press has compiled a collection of her essays and reviews.
We are given the title The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism, which at first seems just toxically cute but may be a symbolic warning that the book has significant chunks removed to the detriment of understanding. What I hold in my hand is a 350-page codex taken from a larger e-book, which is automatically available to purchasers of the physical text. I suppose that for every book, there is the ideal version in the author’s mind and the mere reality that is all we have access to, and perhaps we are fortunate to have the intermediate stage that the e-book offers, but I am an old guy who is used to reading lengthy texts on slices of dead tree, and I like it that way. Therefore, all I can tell you about is the physical book. I have no knowledge of the economic conditions that led Aqueduct Press to do it this way and will stipulate that it was necessary if we were to have a physical book at all, but I do find some of the results annoying.
For instance, every so often, there is a bracketed ellipsis telling us that we are missing something. A few items have been deleted and summarized such as a tribute to her friend, Theodore Sturgeon, that sounds as if it might have been enjoyable to read; many of the sections have interstices, and sometimes one wonders if she is referring to text we can no longer see. (Unlike Brother Langford in a recent issue, I will mention only once that this book desperately needs an index and does not have one.)
The reviews are particularly annoying because they lack a consistent format. The first (March 1965) begins with a list of five books, which are not reviewed in that order, followed by three more reviews with headers giving author and title. That one tells us more than we usually get. Usually a review starts in medias res with a phrase such as “This book...,” and we are eventually told, in the later body of the text or in a footnote, what this book is. Readers of the paper version apparently do not need to know the name of the Brian W. Aldiss collection reviewed in February 1967, though we get the names of some of the stories in it. (It was Who Can Replace a Man?)
Merril gave much consideration to the question of defining “science fiction,” and seeing it all here reminds me that I have come around to the view, promulgated by some of my favorite writers (Karl Popper, Samuel R. Delany, et al.), that defining is not a terribly interesting activity. Delany suggests giving examples rather than trying to frame a verbal cage in which to capture the specimen, and one of the great things about Judith Merril was the way she expanded her definition to include excellent examples from the “mainstream” and other genres that appealed to many of us in the same ways labeled sf did.
But those are minor complaints, and I found much to enjoy. (I presume there’s even more in the e-book.) I was particularly fascinated by the reviews in which a brilliant and imaginative mind follows the course of sf through what I consider its most interesting phase (1965–1968).
To give you an idea of where we are starting, that first review begins with five old pros (Isaac Asimov, Fritz Leiber, Murray Leinster, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon) followed by three promising newbies (Cordwainer Smith, Robert Silverberg, Keith Laumer). A review that perhaps typifies the breadth of her vision compares and contrasts Gordon Dickson, Fred Hoyle, and William S. Burroughs.
Her voyages outside the sf community are particularly productive. She discovers Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, falls in love with it, notes that the first person to translate him into English was her friend and mentor, Anthony Boucher, and wishes he had translated all of Ficciones when it was new so that it would have gotten into sf’s bloodstream sooner. She picks up Giles Goat-Boy, a lengthy and decidedly nonmimetic work by academic fave John Barth, and discusses it in thoughtful depth in a review that it shares with the graphic novel Barbarella.
And she discovers England. I seem to recall someone expressing displeasure at a book review column that begins with lengthy chit-chat about the climate in London. Perhaps it was me. The important part is that she is discovering British writers, most of all J.G. Ballard, whom she considers “the first conscious and controlled literary writer s-f has yet produced.” The review resembles what the fiction writer is alleged to consider the ideal criticism, thousands of words of closely reasoned adulation, and it makes the case for him thoroughly and eloquently. (But it does not persuade me to like Ballard’s first three novels. Nothing can.) There was also much new and different sf being done over here, and she selectively praises Samuel R. Delany, Thomas M. Disch, R.A. Lafferty, and Dangerous Visions.
Her last review (it is followed by an appreciation of Fritz Leiber) looks at John Brunner. She’s been dealing with him throughout, enjoying The Day of the Star Cities and The Whole Man, but not so much The Long Result (because of her distaste for Message Fiction). And here comes the big one: Stand on Zanzibar. One phrase from her review, “Brunner conducts himself brilliantly,” appeared on the cover of the first Ballantine paperback, but her view is more complex and nuanced. She is dissatisfied with the characterization but says, “In a sense Brunner has written the first true science fiction novel.” We are obviously on the threshold of something strange and different. And here the book ends.
At around the time she stopped reviewing, she grew so disgusted with the Vietnam War and other aspects of U.S. culture that she moved to Canada, where she spent the rest of her life. She had one more gift for us: She donated all the books and magazines in her own collection to the Toronto library, to begin what she called the Spaced Out Library. (It has since been given her name.) All in all, she was a multifaceted, major figure in our field, and it is good to see her getting the recognition she deserves.
Arthur D. Hlavaty lives in Yonkers, New York.