Shh? Do you hear it?
Coming closer, coming near, it
is a day of celebration
or should be, cross the nation!
What is science fiction? What is speculative fiction?
I can imagine readers sighing when they read those questions, because, as important as these questions are, opening that discussion often leads to battle lines being drawn. We get caught up in defending our definitions of SF and, along the way, in naming the first real work of SF. When we open that argument, too often it ends up being unproductive. Therefore, I propose to sidestep the question entirely, and address the issue from another direction, one that is both openly silly and, I hope, productive.
Silly is good, silly is fun
silly is better if you're not the only one
asking the questions, enjoying the jokes
and if you know it's all a big hoax.
It's a silly argument; I'll solve it for you.
How, you might ask? I'll change the question, that's what I'll do.
I'll break it in parts, part one and part two.
I'll explain them both, for me and for you.
If we pile all the claims for what SF should be/can be/is, together in one grand pile, we get something like this:
Speculative fiction is a literature of change that contains the novum, the alternate society, the utopia, the forgotten land, the strange beast, the sense of wonder, the exploration of new worlds, variation on a familiar theme, extrapolation of the influence of technology, the eruption of the fantastic into a mundane existence, the metaphorical embodiment of the past or the unspoken (magical realism, those two), the hero's quest, the scientist who gets out of hand, the gothic structure, the roots of romance, play with what it means to be human, even what it means to tell a story, geez, is there a single science fiction author who dealt with all of these things? Even most of them? Wells? Heinlein? Maybe.
But I'm going to suggest there's another answer. It's a name that might surprise you, but it's a name that should be enshrined at the top of the speculative fiction pantheon, as the father of science fiction. No, he wasn't the first SF writer historically, but for many of us in the English-speaking world, his fantastic vision was the first speculative fiction we encountered. He is the first SF writer experientially.
His name was Theodor Geisel, but we know him better as Dr. Seuss. March 2, 2004 will be his 100th birthday. If there were any justice in this world, Dr. Seuss would be here for it. He'd burst back into the world, in a swirl of wondrous chaos, unexpected, disruptive, and glorious, like the Cat in the Hat. (I'm waiting. Doc? The door's unlocked.) Sigh. Until he gets here, I offer you this homage to the wonder that is Seuss, an appreciation of all that he did, a whimsical yet serious suggestion that we re-cast science fiction with Seuss at the center, and some suggestions for further action, not unlike the seed passed on to the reader at the end of The Lorax.
Become the Seuss: Geisel, the Man
The dust cover of my copy of Seuss's first book, 1937's And To Think That I Saw That on Mulberry Street (which bears, coincidentally, a "Happy 50th Birthday" sticker), bears a telling anonymous blurb. It begins, "Dr. Seuss, whose pictures of strange humans and stranger animals have startled and delighted the American public may make you think he is himself an alien creature, is, in reality, a healthy and sane man whose real name is Theodor Seuss Geisel."
How wonderful! How science fictional! To have your publisher have to defend your status as a human being, and deny suspicions that you are really an alien. And how clearly false: no matter how factual Geisel's existence was, Dr. Seuss was just as real. Like Frankenstein's monster, the good doctor was created from materials at hand (Geisel's middle name), but the impetus was youthful necessity. While at Dartmouth, Geisel served as editor of the Jack-O-Lantern, the college's humor magazine -- until he and his friends got busted for throwing a party that broke school rules (not unlike a certain Cat I know). To keep contributing to the magazine, Geisel used his middle name as a pseudonym.
But that's just the name. Where did Dr. Seuss come from? Well, his rhyming roots might be found in his childhood; when she was young, his mother had sold pies in the family bakery by making up rhymes to charm the customers. Education helps; after Dartmouth, Geisel went on to Oxford, where he met Helen Palmer. Palmer, whom Geisel eventually married, suggested he cartoon for a living. Geisel spent fifteen years in advertising, eventually transitioning to illustrating children's books, then to writing his own.
I should note, however, how varied and inclusive the talents and influences that shaped Dr. Seuss were: childhood training in an oral tradition, formal education at an Ivy League school and Oxford, an apparently innate talent for doodling (Geisel had no formal artistic training), recognized and given focus by a loved one who shared his interests. Palmer was also an author, and published works such as Do You Know What I'm Going to Do Next Saturday? which the New York Times rated one of the best juvenile novels of 1963.
This precarious assembly of influences, as unlikely as the contraptions found in many a Seuss book, was then honed by fifteen years of steady production in a commercial environment. This is no small consideration when seeking a father of science fiction; Dr. Seuss was trained in a version of the pulp factories, where he learned to produce both quickly and well, and always to seize attention quickly, which he did in his many books. Now add one more factor: Seuss was repeatedly challenged with explicit genre constraints, just as SF writers are. Green Eggs and Ham (1960) grew from a bet with Bennet Cerf, who challenged Seuss to write a book in 50 words or less, and his other easy readers turned the genre on its head in a similar fashion.
Behold the Seuss: The Books, The Speculative Qualities, and An Appreciation
Geisel wrote and illustrated more than 60 books as Dr. Seuss. He also wrote another dozen or so under the pseudonym Theo LeSieg. He also collaborated on a few others. I'm sure you have your favorite Seuss books, and your favorite Seuss memories. When I mentioned to friends at a party that I was writing this article, there was a general "Oh!" which was followed by cries of "The Lorax!" "The Sneetches!" "God, do you remember? . . ." When I mentioned the article at a local meeting of children's book writers, a similar explosion occurred, but with different titles; easily two dozen books were named in these two casual interactions. That's a lot of favorites.
Now add the sales figures: over 200 million copies of Seuss books were sold by the time he died in 1991 -- and over 20 million since then, in more than a dozen languages. And think for a minute about what these books were, what they did, and when they were written (and under what constraints).
As a writer who is also a teacher, I'm probably most impressed by The Cat in the Hat. I've read a lot of pedagogical material, and it is usually dull, moralistic, and badly written. If you add another constraint, such as writing at a specific vocabulary level, the results are often baffling to children and excruciating to adults. "See Dick run. Run Dick run." Ye gods. Kill me now.
Now take another look at The Cat in the Hat. Published in 1957, it was the flagship for Random House's highly successful Beginner Books series. It uses a handful of basic vocabulary words (only 223 words total) -- but through the innovation and energy he brought to the rhyme and illustration, Dr. Seuss made a book that deserves repeated rereadings, and has spawned dictionaries, sequels, and movies.
Now take a look at Cat as speculative fiction. The two kids are trapped inside by circumstances (rain), and the Cat (the novum that critic Darko Suvin suggests is central to spec fic) simply explodes into their world, eventually introducing Thing 1 and Thing 2 -- things unclassifiable, supposedly servants (golems or robots, anyone?), but wild and disruptive.
Okay, Cat may work better as fantasy, but what about The Lorax? Published in 1971, it begins with an image: mysterious eyes peering between boards at a strange little creature. The story itself begins a few pages later, with a lonely figure moving through a decidedly gothic landscape (gray-green, with shadows, darkness, and the skeletons of unhealthy trees visible). A boy finds the site of a mystery, where the Lorax used to be, until "someone" lifted the Lorax away. The boy asks the "old Once-ler," who tells a story, and it turns out to be his own story: he was an industrialist who came to this land full of Truffula trees (a place, in Seussian fashion, colorful, lively, and rich with multiple species). The industrialist tells of how he cut down the Truffula trees to knit "a Thneed," a new, multi-purpose garment that everyone wants. However, as soon as the first thneed is done, the Lorax appears. He speaks for the trees, because they have no voices. The industrialist ignores the Lorax's warnings. He markets the thneeds, they sell like hotcakes, and this leads to mass destruction of the forest.
New machines are invented to cut down the trees, and, as the forests are destroyed, the other species sicken, and flee or die. As they do, the Lorax repeatedly appears to explain what's happening, but to no avail, until the last tree is cut down, and the environment destroyed and the Lorax disappears, leaving only the word "Unless." That word hangs in the Once-ler's mind over the years, as does the single Truffula seed remaining; he passes both on to the boy listening, who stands in for the reader. Both concepts (of ecological preservation specifically, and of considering consequences in general) pass on to the reader. I find this a more effective cautionary tale about eco-disasters than most of the novels written on the subject.
Or consider The Sneetches (1961). In this story, there are "Star-Belly Sneetches" and "Plain-Belly Sneetches." The Sneetches, who look like ostriches crossed with pears, albeit with more expressive faces than either, are a society divided by prejudice: the Star-Belly Sneetches look down on the Plain-Belly Sneetches, and exclude them. Enter Sylvester McMonkey McBean, the Fix-it-Up Chappie. Driving a hybrid of an amphibious assault vehicle, Santa's sleigh, and a tinker's wagon, McBean seems like a frontier huckster, only his technology works: if Plain-Belly Sneetches pass through his machine, they come out as Star-Belly Sneetches. Problem solved! Except that the original superior race is scandalized, and so pays more to pass through McBean's Star-Off Machine, which removes their stars. The Sneetches pay more and more, and they pass through the machines repeatedly, until no one can sort the races and everyone is completely broke.
McBean leaves, chortling in superior satisfaction over having fooled the Sneetches. His final words are "You can't teach a Sneetch!" Perhaps not, but the Sneetches can learn; the story ends with recognizing the foolishness of prejudice. A gadget story that teaches a moral lesson about race? Published in 1961? With wonderful rhymes and likeable drawings, and displacing the moral lesson into alien races, so that readers can learn without wincing? Using a capitalist product (mass-produced literature) to critique consumption? Fracturing the lessons learned in the story, so that they depend on the social/ideological position of the characters? This is a children's book? No. This is what science fiction should be.
If I Ran The Circus (1956) contains a boy dreaming grand dreams, in a fairly Heinleinesque fashion (big plans, sure to succeed, handling it himself, but with the occasional, comic help from good-natured adults). When this boy, young Morris McGurk, plans a circus, it would contain "horn-tooting apes from the Jungle of Jorn," one of many mysterious lands invoked in the book, and the least of the marvelous alien creatures created. Some of these even slip into the meta-fictional, such as the Juggle Jott, who juggles question marks, commas, and a dot.
Want more reasons to think of Seuss as the father of SF? In quick succession, and no particular order, I offer the following examples:
The plots of hard SF often revolve around those who know physical laws of the universe better than those around them. Those in the know use this knowledge to solve problems and/or outsmart their competitors. . . as does Thidwick, the moose who gives Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose (1948) its title. Pursued by hunters, weighed down by the menagerie of other animals he's carrying (don't ask -- read!), Thidwick remembers that his antlers are due to fall off; this superior knowledge of natural cycles allows him to escape.
Would you prefer your SF as a critique of current social ills? Turn then to The Butter Battle Book (1984), in which an arms race between the Zooks and the Yacks threatens both sides. (And in which Seuss builds some glorious contraptions along the way!)
Would you prefer Borgesian play with language itself? Consider On Beyond Zebra (1955), in which young Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell learns that there are many letters beyond "Z" and that learning them opens up a whole new world. New symbols, new creatures. . . new reality.
Would you prefer a meditation upon the nature of existence, as some metaphysical science fiction offers? Turn then to Happy Birthday to You! (1959) It's mostly a book of celebration -- but it's laced with suggestions to consider the uniqueness of identity, and the potentials for non-existence.
How about the sort of geometrical mindplay that underpins Ted Chiang's "The Tower of Babylon"? You can lay the groundwork for such play, and such a tower, in the creatures found in If I Ran the Zoo (1950) (think of the deer with interlocking horns) or If I Ran the Circus (1956) (again deer, this time "Through-Horns-Jumping Deer"). More purely, consider The Shape of Me and Other Stuff (1973), which uses silhouettes to consider the uniqueness of each shape -- and treats the human body as one shape among many.
Clearly, I'm having trouble stopping. Recounting Seuss's speculative wonders is as exhausting and as slippery as trying the tongue twisters in Oh Say Can You Say? (1979) -- and as much fun. I'm almost resentful -- why do I have to stop? What about Horton, with the who-he-heard in the tiny world that recycled the trope from The Girl in the Golden Atom? What about Bartholemew Cubbins and the marvelous Oobleck, which looks amazingly like magic snot? (SF theme: disruption of the natural order, cautionary tale warning against.) Why do I have to stop?
More importantly, why did he? Where is the good doctor, no, the great Doctor Seuss, now that SF needs him so? Now that we do? For that question, I have no answer.
But I do have a suggestion. Recast SF history and self-definition as the history of the individual reader, and put Seuss at the center.
I mentioned to the local children's librarian that I was writing this article, on Dr. Seuss and science fiction. Her face screwed up in revulsion. "Why?"
"Because he's the first source for most of us for wonder, and for playing with ideas."
She smiled and relaxed. "Oh yes! His work is full of those qualities."
They are, and in ways that the greater science fiction world would do well to learn from. The doctor's house has many mansions, and defining science fiction with Seuss at the center would make it large enough to hold all the tumbling contentious camps of SF. From New Wave to Golden Age, social critique to metaphysical, metafictional patterns, there is room for all voices in the grand circus of Seussafiction.
Are there conceptual weaknesses in putting Seuss at the center of SF? Sure. There are gadgets aplenty in Seuss, but no pure hard SF or exploration of outer space. There are many pleas for tolerance, but no explicit discussions of gender. In many ways, Seuss was a boy's writer, producing mostly boy heroes. I could make a bit of an argument for space travel, hard SF, and gender exploration being implicit in Seuss (the weapons and flying machines in The Butter Battle Book; Aunt Ida's many physical and technological activities in The Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary (1964)), but I won't insist on placing him at the absolute center of SF. Put him just a bit off center; he'd probably be more comfortable there anyway. And Seuss was a friendly fellow, and an agreeable sort; balance him with a couple author SF greats who were better known for their pseudonyms and who, alas, are also no longer with us -- Hal Clement and James Tiptree, Jr. -- and you've got the genre covered.
The Seussian Influence
But that's just logic, and while logic might tell us that a great author should be influential in a field, it doesn't necessarily tell us that he is. So how influential is Dr. Seuss? Well, how do you measure an author's influence? Let me suggest that influence can best be measured by a multi-faceted scale. Sales, certainly, but also external recognition, imitation and/or inspiration, and, I'd suggest, another way: by how many arenas a work or concept circulates in as currency, and what effects that circulation has on the original works.
If we measure influence in sales, the figures are on the table; over 220 million copies sold.
If we measure influence by external recognition, Dr. Seuss has won that, in glorious excess. From an honorary doctorate (Dartmouth), to Emmys (Grinch-related), Peabodys (for animated work), Caldecotts (for children's literature), Academy Awards, to other rarer awards, Dr. Seuss was showered with recognition.
If we measure influence by imitation and inspiration, that's everywhere too. Seuss changed the face of children's literature. Cartoonist Dan Pirraro, creator of Bizarro, has drawn homages to Seuss, including putting Seussian characters in his own cartoons. My current personal favorite cartoonist, Darby Conley, who draws Get Fuzzy has explicitly shown his cat character Bucky as less a "cat in the hat" than a "psycho in a chapeau." Filmmaker Tim Burton has mentioned Seuss as an influence. In Strange Horizons alone, several different SF writers have cited Dr. Seuss as an influence and/or an early favorite to read: Paul Di Filippo mentioned him as a favorite, and Andy Duncan and Pamela Dean as an influence. I submit that Seuss's influence is more prevalent in SF than these few names might suggest. Take a look at the Moties in Niven and Pournelle's Mote series, and tell me if you don't see them now as Seussian creatures grounded in a knowledge of biology -- or if Niven's description of the Monk's hand in "The Fourth Profession" doesn't sound like that alien is working with Grinch fingers. And what about his Puppeteers? For all that Niven did a fine job of describing their biology, they are designed to look and move like Seussbeasts.
But what about that more slippery measure of influence, a figure's currency to other fields? It is there, I submit, that the true importance of the Seuss is evident.
The most obvious recent translation of Dr. Seuss has been into movies. At first I shuddered to think of the young meeting Dr. Seuss first through Mike Myers or Jim Carrey, but then I realized that these would quickly pass, and would no more taint Seuss than, say, Total Recall tainted Philip K. Dick. The recent films are abominations -- take that as a given -- but their existence is useful, because of what they do and don't do. I'll use Ron Howard and Jim Carrey's Grinch as an example.
There are several major differences between Carrey's Grinch and the book, or between Carrey's and the animated version Seuss created with Chuck Jones, and all of the differences cast light on what makes Seuss Seuss. For one thing, the Carrey version is topical and timely; it repeatedly refers to recent pop culture events. This makes for easy appeal; the movie will also date rapidly, unlike the timeless Seuss classic. Second, the movie psychologizes the Grinch, rooting his attitude toward the Whos in childhood trauma. This is contemporary pop psychology -- and it is 180 degrees away from how character was handled in any of Seuss's own works. In those works, character was a given, treated in an almost elemental or Shakespearean fashion. The Grinch, like Iago, is elementally malicious; he is because he is. Likewise, the Cat in the Hat is an embodiment of chaos. Seuss wrote for children, so they are both gentler than pure evil, or else gentled, but they are elemental characters akin to the id, not artifacts of pap psychology. Third, Carrey's movie sexualizes the Grinch, and the Whos. This seems a fundamental error, and a bit creepy. The Grinch and the Cat can cut loose so completely because they operate only in certain realms of the human psyche.
Finally, they make the story prosaic. Seuss's verse is a verse of joy, celebrating rhythm, enthusiasm, invention, sound, repetition, and all the joys of childhood and oral culture combined; his stories work by resonance and suggestion as much as they do by connotation. Carrey's Grinch works by connotation. It spells things out, and dumbs things down. When that is combined with the overt sexuality (the Whos are having a key party when the Grinch first shows up in Whoville), the cumulative effect is to raise the age of the film's target audience -- and lower its IQ.
Let it die. Go back and pull the grand animated films off the shelf, and celebrate the Seusscentenial that way. But don't think that this means you have to give up on live action Seuss. There is always The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, one of the grandest and most surreal movies ever made. Seuss contributed the script and the sets, and, while this movie was not a financial success at the time of its release (in 1953), it has remained a cult classic. In it, young Bart Collins tries to escape this mother's supervision of his piano practice and dreams his way into Terwilliker's Happy Hands Institute, where he is one of 500 boys to play a 500 seat piano. If you want to see live action Seuss, go here, and see humans climbing through Seuss doors and operating Seuss machinery. (And for an oddity, an Australian techno band has taken its name from the movie.)
The animated Seuss is easier to find, and love. There's the 1966 Grinch, with, as mentioned earlier, Chuck Jones -- and about two dozen more animated Seuss. Some, like Horton, are a bit Disneyfied; but some retain that wondrous anarchic play and sense that anything can happen that defines Seuss.
Comics, cartoons, movies, translations -- what's left? Seuss for the ear.
Dr. Seuss's wonderful lyrics adapt well to audio book format, or book and tape format. I remember shivering deliciously as I listened to the king's magicians chant their plans for creating oobleck in Bartholemew and the Oobleck.
And what about an entire musical? Try Seussical The Musical. Created by folks with fairly good credentials themselves (Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who had won a Tony, and Eric Idle, of Monty Python), it evokes a world in which, as the show's own publicity materials suggest, "anything can happen."
Finally, I'm going to suggest we measure Seuss's influence on the larger culture by one more scale that might sound odd at first: parody. Think for a moment about what gets parodied. For a parody to succeed, the work being parodied must be so well-known that it can be evoked with a few broad strokes. An audience has to be able to quickly recognize the work referred to, but also how the parody differs from and comments upon the original. To be parodied and survive, a work must be grand beyond question. A parody of a minor work corrodes it; a parody of a grand work pays homage. In high culture, Shakespeare's Hamlet may be the ultimate example. Say "To be or not to be," or just pick up a skull and say "Alas," and you've got Hamlet, as everyone from Mamet to Monty Python, Bart Simpson to Arnold Schwarzenegger has shown.
What works of speculative fiction are grand enough to be parodied and survive? Star Wars, yes, though Jar Jar nearly ruined that. Star Trek is on the border; its fans at once make it grand and ridiculous, as did Shatner's scenery-chewing delivery. Now, how about written SF? For the most part, parodies work only for in-groups; no written SF has sufficiently broad currency to even be recognized. (Alice in Wonderland, perhaps.) How about Seuss? Yes, yes, yes, in glorious, loving, and surprising splendor. The many parodies of Dr. Seuss manage to capture the feeling of Seuss, even as they apply his work to everything from common problems, like "Spam-I-am," to other genres, as does Gene Ziegler's "What If Dr. Seuss Wrote Technical Manuals?," or to larger issues, like the wonderfully written "Dr. Seuss New Testament," or Nancy Renko's treatment of the 2000 presidential election "How Al Sore Stole the Election." (If you enjoy such parodies, you might visit The Doctor Seuss Parody Page.)
I can see that I've left out another half dozen areas where Seuss can be found: games, educational CD-ROMs, T-shirts -- see this site for Seuss and quantum physics, hats, and more, but I think I've made my case.
Now, does this Seussian splendor in itself prove that the good doctor is science fictional?
No, it does not. What it does suggest is that the larger society will lovingly embrace all those qualities that define science fiction (change, a sense of wonder, play with ideas), if they are presented with the skill and warm-hearted grace that define Dr. Seuss.
It also suggests we need to do two things. We need to tap the larger world on the shoulder, cough politely, and say, "That man you love so much? One of ours." And we need to set Seuss as the standard: can we make other explorations and social critiques as joyously appealing?
The Seusscentennial: What to do next?
Many of Dr. Seuss's book are organized as wild but circular flights of fancy. They start in the mundane, and range further and further afield, only to return things to their original state at the end. The external world is returned to its pristine state, and only two things remain from the story: the pleasure of reading it, and the transformation produced in the main character, and the reader, by having gone through such an adventure.
Therefore, I will close in the same way. It's fine with me if you get "nothing more" from this article than the pleasure of reading it and the nostalgic journey of remembering how much you enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss when you were younger.
But I hope I've convinced you to reconsider SF as Seussafiction, and to place the good doctor at or near the center of the genre's history.
If I haven't, I hope I've convinced you that something should be done to claim Dr. Seuss for SF, rather than leaving him as "merely" a writer of children's books. You might ask why this is necessary, when he's already received so many honors. Three reasons. First, because he deserves it, pure and simple. Second, because whom we honor says something about us, as well as paying respect to them. We need to recognize the road to science fiction begins with Seuss, or at least, he's the first vehicle to transport us there. And third, because of that librarian I mentioned earlier, the one who wrinkled her nose at the thought of science fiction. I for one want to be known for a sense of wonder, an inclusive ethics, a play with language, and a joy in ideas, rather than the things for which SF is still too often known. Seuss is our standard bearer; let us salute him.
And what do I want you to do with all of this? Well, I'd be happy if you just thought of Seuss and smiled. But you might read a book. Or you might share your favorite memories of Dr. Seuss here on the forum. Or you might send a card to Random House, to pass on to Dr. Seuss's widow. Or you might join me on March 2, 2004, as I celebrate Dr. Seuss's 100th birthday by writing a note to the Hugo folks, suggesting Dr. Seuss should be considered for a grandmaster status. I'll also be writing the Science Fiction Poetry Association, which gives out the Rhysling, because if Dr. Seuss isn't SF poetry, I don't know what is.
Yes, if I ran the SF circus, that's what I'd do.
And I invited you to do so too.
(And Doc? My door will be unlocked that night, if you want to slip back in. I know you don't need my help, but the invitation's open.)
Write a letter, send a card
Send an email; they're not hard.
It's the Doctor's hundredth birthday
Thank the Seuss and say
The S in SF stands for Seuss.
It makes things better, silly goose.
And if you think that goes too far
Still, accept him as a star,
And send the Hugo folks a note
To promise Dr. Seuss your vote
To become a grandmaster,
Immediately, if not faster.
Copyright © 2004 Greg Beatty
Greg Beatty attended Clarion West in the summer of 2000. He's had a number of short stories accepted since then (listed at his website). When he's not at his computer, he enjoys cooking, practicing martial arts, and having complex interpersonal relationships. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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