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Introduction to a Structural Analysis of SF - PHILIP K. DICK: A VISIONARY AMONG THE CHARLATANS

 No one in his right mind seeks the psychological truth about crime in detective stories. Whoever seeks such truth will turn rather to Crime and Punishment. In relation to Agatha Christie, Dostoevsky constitutes a higher court of appeal, yet no one in his right mind will condemn the English author's stories on this account. They have a right to be treated as the entertaining thrillers they are, and the tasks Dostoevsky set himself are foreign to them.

 If anyone is dissatisfied with science fiction in its role as an examiner of the future and of civilization, there is no way to make an analogous move from literary oversimplifications to full-fledged art, because there is no court of appeal for this genre. There would be no harm in this except that American science fiction, exploiting its exceptional status, lays claim to occupy the pinnacles of art and thought. One is annoyed by the pretentiousness of a genre that fends off accusations of primitivism by pleading its entertainment character and then, once such accusations have been silenced, renews its overweening claims. By being one thing and purporting to be another, science fiction promotes a mystification that, moreover, goes on with the tacit consent of readers and public. The development of interest in science fiction at American universities has, contrary to what might have been expected, altered nothing in this state of affairs. In all candor it must be said, though one risk perpetrating a crime laesae Almae Matris, that the critical methods of theoreticians of literature are inadequate in the face of the deceptive tactics of science fiction. It is not hard to grasp the reason for this paradox: if the only fictional works treating of problems of crime were like those of Agatha Christie, then to just what kind of books could even the most scholarly critic appeal in order to demonstrate the intellectual poverty and artistic mediocrity of the detective thriller? Qualitative norms and ' upper limits are established in literature by concrete works and not by critics' postulates. No mountain of theoretical lucubrations can compensate for the absence of an outstanding fictional work as a lofty model. The criticism of experts in historiography did not undermine the status of Sienkiewicz's Trilogy, since there was no Polish Leo Tolstoy to devote a War and Peace to the period of the Cossack and Swedish wars. In short, inter caecos luscus rex-where there is nothing first-rate, its role will be taken over by mediocrity, which sets itself facile goals and achieves them by facile means.

 What the absence of such model works leads to is shown, more plainly than by any abstract discussions, by the change of heart that Damon Knight, both author and respected critic, expressed in Science-Fiction Studies #3. Knight declared himself to have been mistaken earlier in attacking books by van Vogt for their incoherence and irrationalism, on the ground that, if van Vogt enjoys an enormous readership, he must by that very fact be on the right track as an author, and that it is wrong for criticism to discredit such writing in the name of arbitrary values if the reading public does not want to recognize such values. The job of criticism is, rather, to discover those traits to which the work owes its popularity. Such words, from a man who struggled for years to stamp out tawdriness in science fiction, are more than the admission of a personal defeat-they are the diagnosis of a general condition. If even the perennial defender of artistic values has laid down his arms, what can lesser spirits hope to accomplish in this situation?

 Indeed, the possibility cannot be ruled out that Joseph Conrad's elevated description of literature as rendering "the highest kind of truth to the visible universe" may become an anachronism-that the independence of literature from fashion and demand may vanish outside science fiction as well, and then whatever reaps immediate applause as a best seller will be identified with what is most worthwhile. That would be a gloomy prospect. The culture of any period is a mixture of that which docilely caters to passing whims and fancies and that which transcends these things-and may also pass judgment on them. Whatever defers to current tastes becomes an entertainment, which achieves success immediately or not at all, for there is no such thing as a magic show or a football game which, unrecognized today, will become famous a hundred years from now. Literature is another matter: it is created by a process of natural selection of values, which ; I takes place in society and which does not necessarily relegate works to obscurity if they are also entertainment, but which consigns them to oblivion if they are only entertainment. Why is this so? Much could be said about this. If the concept of the human being as an individual who desires of society and of the world something more than immediate satisfactions were abolished, then the difference between literature and entertainment would likewise disappear. But since we do not as yet identify the dexterity of a conjurer with the personal expression of a relationship to the world, we cannot measure literary values by numbers of books sold [...]

Translated by Robert Abernathy