Quotations, like statistics, are stupid things: phrases sans context become bricks that can be thrown at whatever obstacle stands in our way. The one-line plea for peace becomes a bludgeon; the thoughtful fragment is deployed as militant slogan.
We live in a culture defined by deracination: political careers rise and fall on a single quotation, amplified by friends and opponents; hip-hop depends upon quotation; so does blogging. Today it hardly matters who first uttered the quote or what meaning they intended—what counts are the mosaics we shape from a brittle world of sharp-edged, flying fragments.
I read Gary Westfahl's Science Fiction Quotations—and perhaps this was just a bad idea—searching for such a mosaic. What, I wondered, would a compilation of 2,900 quotations from science fiction and fantasy writers reveal about the collective mind of speculative fiction? Alas, I'm not sure that I made any new discoveries, but others—perhaps you, dear reader—may fare better with that quest in Science Fiction Quotations. Even short of a major revelation, this is a collection well worth having on the bookshelf for any fan, writer, or scholar.
In his introduction, Westfahl is careful to delineate the parameters of his project. Quotations—which are organized into subject categories such as "History," "Time Travel," and "Folly and Stupidity"—can come from anyone who has ever written a word of science fiction, with quite a bit of fantasy thrown in, after the year 1800. Quotability, Westfahl takes pains to point out, is not a measure of literary accomplishment. "One author may prefer to pause periodically and ... allow characters to drift into extended conversations that have little to do with the story—resulting in a rambling, sloppily written story that happens to yield several memorable quotations. ... Another author may be intent solely upon telling the story as effectively as possible, with every word dedicated to that goal." (Introduction, page xix)
This results in some curious phenomena. Yes, there's no shortage of the Grand Old Men—Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov—and, not surprisingly, the unambiguously utopian writers—e.g., James Hilton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson—frequently appear, pipe in hand, with bon mots on the perfectibility of all things. However, one is surprised to see certain authors, stories, or films pop up with disconcerting regularity—Edgar Pangborn's somewhat-obscure short story "The Children's Crusade" appears a startling 13 times ("The world is sickened of attempts to save it")—far more than, say, all of the works of Samuel R. Delany, who is cited only eight times; Michael Swanwick's classic story "Ginungagap" is cited a very generous five times ("Death was a black wall"); and various Star Trek films and series are cited no fewer than 46 times ("He's dead, Jim"), though perhaps this is just a function of quantity, not quality.
I won't bother to quibble about what Westfahl might have included, but didn't. Sure, it seems to me that he might have included more of my favorite writers—Delany, for example—but I readily concede the authority of the research and thought he put into the project, and agree with his assertion that there's little correlation between quotability and talent.
However, I would argue with some of what is included. Why, for the love of God, are there so many quotations from Richard "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" Bach, who is cited an awful nineteen times? Is Bach really more quotable and relevant than, for example, Gene Wolfe, author of tens of thousands of pages of work, surely quotable, whose words appear in Westfahl’s book a relatively piddling fourteen times? Is Bach really that representative as a science-fiction writer? Do homilies like, "The only things that matter are those made of truth and joy" really belong a book of science-fiction quotations? The answer, for me, is no; others may disagree. In the Introduction, Westfahl mentions how he was forced to prune seventy thousand words of quotations for his book to fit in the space available; I'd argue that twenty or thirty thousand more wouldn't have hurt.
My favorite category might be "Surrealism" (pp361-3), which starts with the classic you-are-in-the-future quote from Robert Heinlein's "Beyond This Horizon"—"the door dilated"—and goes on to cite a striking range of dreamtime fragments:
"The door deliquesced"—Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
"I know what you're thinking, but here, on Venus, the bathroom is as much a place for social gatherings as any other room in the house."—A. Bertram Chandler, "Coefficient X"
"'Damn,' he said, looking at Bob and Janice. 'Knew I should have taken Invisibility in college."—Robert Sheckley, "The King's Wishes"
"He could not argue with an angry bed."—Philip K. Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer
"The proper Pope for our times is a robot, certainly."—Robert Silverberg, "Good News from the Vatican"
"Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place with this huge apartment building during the previous three months."—J.G. Ballard, High-Rise
"She would never forgive herself for not being there when her son was born."—Sheila Finch, Infinity's Web
And so on and so forth.
What does it all mean? Does it add up to anything? Do any themes emerge that cut across Westfahl's categories? If I had to put my finger one quality that seems to unite all the minds one encounters in Science Fiction Quotations, it would be a feeling of alienation from quotidian life that yields all manner of disjointed, outsider perspectives. The "Surrealism" quotes illustrate this point well, but casual estrangement from consensus reality is present in sections on "Beauty" ("It was her scars that made her beautiful," writes Mary Gentle); "The Body" ("The body was meat," writes William Gibson); and "Marriage," wherein James Stevens-Arce's hurt husband asks of his recently dead wife, "You mean you’d rather be dead than be with me?"
"Science fiction is an argument with the universe," writes critic Farah Mendlesohn in Science Fiction Quotations' section on "Science Fiction." It may well be the truest quote in the book.
Jeremy Adam Smith is a writer and publishing consultant living in San Francisco. His poetry, fiction, and criticism have appeared in Fourteen Hills, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Pindeldyboz, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Interzone, Wired, and numerous other publications. Jeremy's previous publications for Strange Horizons can be found in our archive. To contact Jeremy, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.