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The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism is a collection from Judith Merril, comprising a selection of her non-fiction writing on books from 1956 to 1969. (Extra points to Aqueduct Press for including a free electronic version of the book when you get a print copy!)

It’s sometimes difficult to pick out an overarching theme in collections such as these. Book reviews, editor introductions, essays… they’re tied together only by genre. Merril refers to this genre as s-f, standing for science fantasy, but in practice the majority of the books she writes about are science fiction. Even so, this is an extremely broad field: science fiction has only ever been thinly limited. There’s a wide variety of stories, and Merril (a fiction writer herself) touches on Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Brian Aldiss,… There’s not the same diversity of authors that we would expect a collection of more contemporary reviews to contain (the focus is primarily on American and British writers, with a very occasional foray into other nationalities), but even so, one cannot expect the reviewed stories to be cookie cutter. A Canticle for Leibowitz is not Dune, and Flowers for Algernon is different again. Science fiction is not a static genre, is what I’m saying—and Merril agrees.

If there is that overarching theme here, it is I think Merril’s long, quiet exploration of what exactly science fiction is. Any definition, as seen by the examples above, has to be elastic; open to accommodating a wide variety of stories, whether they’re set at sea or in space, on another planet or amid the smoking ruins of this one. And open, too, to different types of science,… “the interest of the better s-f writers has shifted steadily since the war years toward the field of human behaviour,” she writes in her introduction to the 1958 volume of SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy. “You will find rocket ships and alien planets in these pages, as well as robots, mutated monsters, and strange inventions; but the science under examination here is not primarily physics or chemistry. It is biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, politics, economics—people” (pp. 26-27).

But “people” as subject are also people as object: the intended audience, for example, a small fraction of which encompasses other science fiction writers. And part of Merril’s exploration of what science fiction is concerns the changes that science has wrought on the reading public—and the writing public, for that matter. In her “Books (December 1966)” column, Merril begins “Our ancestors were afraid of magic; we are afraid of the word” (p. 226), which she means as representative of “that class of phenomenon and experience which we can neither explain nor explain away” (p. 226) by cause and effect or the scientific method. I don’t know many hard sci-fi fans who don’t scoff at horoscopes, for example—and I’m including myself in that description! Over the past few hundred years science and technology have had almost exponential impacts on much of our shared culture. So much so that even ideology is changed, and the first instinct for interaction is altered. My great-grandmother of a thousand years ago might have seen something unexplainable and immediately parsed it in superstitious terms; as a scientist my own instinct is quite different. And similarly, the modern understanding of myth is likewise different from what it was. No longer is myth, for example, a primary means of understanding the physical world. (Does anyone these days really believe that thunder is controlled by a very large god with a very large hammer?)

Still, Merril argues, myth is useful as a representation of the collective unconscious. As a connective tissue of stories, if you like, but as stories change, and the people telling them change, the myths change along with them. Consider the effect of science on mythological metaphor, Merril states. “The sabretooth has succeeded Cerberus as a symbolic figure; the browsing brontosaurus evokes more responsive overtones (or innertones?) than Cyclops brooding in his cave; the eternal exile comes to mind more readily in blank-faced, body-bristling space armor than in the Greek or Roman draperies of either Odysseus or the Wandering Jew” (p. 230).

Mythic representation of the unconscious aside, the change that science has wrought on literature is palpable, Merril argues, over smaller scales. It dates. In some ways this is perfectly obvious—stories presenting Venus as an Earth-like planet that humans can live and walk upon, for example, tend to date to the time before we discovered Venus was no such place. That scientific knowledge itself moves on is one thing, but Merril points out that reaction to advances in science, the change in human behaviour, is equally dating. She comments, on rereading Murray Leinster’s “The Mole Pirates” (from 1934) that the story “starts out vaguely wrong for today’s reader, because an invention of this sort is being developed privately and displayed to the press with no security protection” (p. 259).

A consciousness of change—social, scientific, and political—is present in Merril’s criticism, though she’s often sceptical of how much this change is represented in the works she is reviewing. She comments, for instance, that (with some notable exceptions) “American genre writers have kept whatever thoughts they were having on the Revolutions (Youth, Sexual, Black, Psychedelic, et al.) pretty much to themselves” (p. 277). I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of recognition. Not at this specific, 1960s America-centred complaint—Merril is clearly more familiar with the science fiction of the time than I am—but at the feeling behind it. Science fiction doesn’t take place in a cultural vacuum. It’s not enough simply to show technological advancement, because science itself doesn’t occur in such a vacuum. Humanity changes in any number of ways alongside its changes in scientific understanding, and each of these changes informs the other. Trying to pin scientific development to a static social or political environment produces stories informed more by nostalgia than reality.

I’m not the reviewer Merril is. When I do review, which isn’t on any regular basis, it’s primarily contemporary stories that I review—the stories being written in today’s world. One of the main reasons I do this is because these are the stories I most enjoy. I’m certainly not going to waste hours reviewing anything I think is boring, or a pile of junk; I’ve got better things to do with life. Much preferable is to find something new and exciting that I can’t wait to share, and that usually happens with books that broaden my own life experiences by exposing me to those experiences that are different from mine. Yet I think we can all see, from the past few years in fandom, that some people don’t always hold the same opinion. And so when Merril starts to talk about how she sees the disconnection between excitement (that science fiction staple, the Sense of Wonder) and reality, well, that’s when I really began to click with her.

We all read and review from our own positions of preference and preconception. Acknowledging these can be helpful. “I’ve pretty well decided,” says Merril, “that my own problem is not so much atrophied SoW as undeveloped SoN” (p. 256). By this she means Sense of Nostalgia. Merril continues: “Nostalgia, for me, is a sleepy sort of thing—maybe maudlin at a beery 3 a.m.—perhaps more sentimental in a lingering summer twilight—but either way associated with a low pulse-rate. It certainly is not what makes me read science fiction” (p. 258).

We tend to think of science fiction, especially, as linked to futurism and the potential for change; that the development of science, and of technology, is the primary characteristic of the genre. And for much of that genre’s history this may have been enough. But there is, I think, a tendency for reader nostalgia to deem that sufficient; to think that the perception of advancement alone is enough. And this clearly isn’t a new thing. While Merril acknowledges that science fiction was “ahead of the game” (p. 320) in the forties, in the sixties she doesn’t see the same overall trend. Exceptions exist, of course, but she writes in a book column of 1969 that “I suspect s-f readers were just a bit more astonished than subscribers to the Reader’s Digest when Roman Catholic priests and parishioners rebelled openly this fall against the Pope’s ruling on the Pill!” (p. 320). She suspects this because, despite the established presence of stories dealing with overpopulation, the reluctance to engage, within the story, with the presence of real-world inventions like the Pill and other forms of birth control is, in her experience, marked. If this is in fact the case, then it’s perfectly plausible that the perception of science fiction as a forward-thinking genre papered over the fact that in some ways, at the time, it simply wasn’t. Merril continues in this vein, commenting that “the bulk of s-f seems determined to continue examining the same-new things it first discovered in 1938” (p. 321) and “you are simply more likely to find the 'breakthrough concepts' in Esquire than in Analog (or Galaxy or even F&SF) these days” (p. 325).

The difficulty of reviewing a collection like The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism is that so much of it is focused on the (to me) relatively unfamiliar output of the 1950s and 1960s. Clearly it’s unreasonable to expect a reviewer such as Merril to be able to pick (often from books they may be assigned) which of those books will be judged by history as classics and which will fade away as ephemera or even rubbish. Later readers shouldn’t be expected to read through all the rubbish as well as the classics in order to glean something of value from the tenor of her criticism, though.

One way to connect with Merril’s criticism apart from this indiscriminate hacking through the publications of decades past is by linking past trends to those of today, and ferreting out repetition or sea changes in direction. And while I am loath to lump today’s issues of Analog or F&SF with the same criticisms Merril had regarding change and breakthough concepts, her overall point is one I’ve also considered.

Last year, I believe it was, I reviewed for Strange Horizons what I consider to be the finest science fiction book I’ve read in the past five to ten years. The Swan Book by Alexis Wright marries race relations and climate change in future Australia. It has nonetheless been almost completely ignored by science fiction reviewers—indeed it’s marketed as literary fiction, and nominated for literary prizes. The publishers and marketers I can forgive; the reviewers I can’t. And let’s be frank: science fiction in both short and long forms today is experiencing—and long overdue, if you ask me—a diversity boom, in character and subject and structure. We are all very pleased with ourselves. Too pleased, perhaps, for when we’re faced with the truly original and astonishing, like Wright,… well. The Swan Book is so ignored by the genre that should most madly be discussing it that in the realms of science fiction it might as well not exist.

And perhaps that’s what this collection will be most valuable for. Not the reviews in themselves, most of which are for books I’ve never read and frankly never will—but for the reminder that science fiction often considers itself a genre focused on change, and in congratulating ourselves too often on that fact we may well be immunising against it.

Merril might be seeing the 1930s as the nostalgia age she wishes 1960s s-f would detach itself from; these days the golden age I hear some people wistfully refer to is the same 1960s she often found so deficient.

I can only wonder what the reviewers of 2050 will be thinking of us.

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold close to fifty short stories to various markets, and several novellas, two poetry collections, an essay collection, and a climate fiction novel are also available. She attended Clarion West 2016 and was the Massey University writer-in-residence for 2020.
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