Review of The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Nonfiction Reviews


Review of The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction

Dennis Wilson Wise

Waugh, Robert H. The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction. Hippocampus Press, 2019. Paperback. 236 pg. $20.00. ISBN 9781614982463.

Robert H. Waugh’s latest collection of critical essays is an odd book—a throwback, really, to bygone days filled with humanist values and New Critical precepts. Virtually absent from The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction is historical context. Authorial biography fares a little better, but only just. Yet no matter how deeply readers look, they’ll not find any critical terminology, no theories or critical topics, from the last thirty years. In a way, this makes sense. The oldest essay in this collection hails from 1985, the second oldest from 1990. To be fair, Waugh significantly revised both essays—though not his third reprint, an article from 1997—for The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction, evidently in a sincere (if uneven) attempt to make this book read as a book rather than as a disjointed collection of essays. Still, this stylistic facelift leaves the articles’ core arguments untouched—and it shows. In neither case do Waugh’s revisions, despite a few updated citations, address major recent works or trends in SF criticism. Likewise, although Waugh’s nine other non-reprint chapters forego any dates of composition, they too exude the faintly musty aura of Rip van Winkle. These essays are formal, intelligently written, and sometimes even charmingly learned, but they nonetheless retain the terms and methodologies of our New Critical forebears. The real connecting thread in The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction, far from the “heroism, grandeur, and tragedy” stated in the introduction (7), is Waugh’s resurrection of close reading for imagery, quest functions, literary influence, source hunting, thematic oppositions, and aesthetic form and structure—especially aesthetic form and structure, in fact—in isolation from broader historical and cultural concerns.

Still, we should be careful not to dismiss a book too quickly simply because it stubbornly evades several decades of mainstream academic criticism. Sometimes, the old can teach us what the new no longer remembers it has forgotten. Yet, alas—in The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction, Waugh never once defends his critical methodology. Like a rhinoceros barreling on heedless of the new landscapes through which it travels, Waugh sets forth his arguments without much regard or interest for how other contemporary academic critics might see his approach. This leaves his collection a significant problem of audience. On one hand, the refusal to engage contemporary trends in SF studies—even if only to defend his own approach—means that relatively few academics will find his discussions particularly helpful to their own research. On the other hand, I suspect Waugh’s style remains much too formal to hold much appeal for general lay readers, a core audience for Hippocampus books, though he occasionally adds a few lively autobiographical touches. Waugh for instance, sounding very much like Frederik Pohl, mentions on his first page how “suddenly science fiction became an article of faith for me, a genre to which I became devoted” (7). Yet this passion seeps only infrequently into the collection. At the end of the day, The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction remains too traditional a book, too beholden to the great span of time over which its essays were written, to attempt a more reader-friendly (and more contemporary) autoethnographic style.

As mentioned already, Waugh’s introduction states his subject as “heroism, grandeur, and tragedy” in certain select SF writers (7). This is a noble claim, but also an attempt—a thin one—at imposing thematic unity upon the volume. Only a fraction of Waugh’s essays specifically deal with heroism, grandeur, or tragedy. Still fewer do so as their main focus. For example, on Waugh’s second page, he briefly outlines the “order of parts that occur in Greek tragedies,” but he undercuts himself almost immediately by admitting, “I will not press this nomenclature in my analyses of these books” (8). And, indeed, Waugh does not—almost another seventy pages pass before Waugh finds reason to cite the structure of Greek tragedy again, and then merely in passing (on page 77). Likewise, Waugh’s emphasis on SF itself is another thin attempt at unity, something to help along a pithier title for his book. Obviously, texts like David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone (1959), and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories are all fantasy, not SF. Waugh attempts to sidestep this objection by calling these writings “Gothic”-style texts (7), but the Gothic mode itself, of course, maps imperfectly onto SF. But even if Waugh’s arguments rarely study the nature of the tragic within his chosen texts, his selection of texts showcases more clearly his preferences as a reader. Perhaps unsurprising in one who has written two previous non-fiction collections on H. P. Lovecraft, Waugh generally prefers fiction that imagines the infinite minuteness of humanity within the universe. For Waugh, this creates a sense of cosmic loneliness and a tragic falling off from older, more anthropocentric visions of humanity—a sense reinforced by German philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

After this introduction, Waugh dives straight into the essays. The first three concern David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. In “The Drum of Arcturus in Lindsay’s Strange Music,” the oldest reprint, Waugh presents a convoluted argument that tries explaining the novel’s structure through an analogy with movements in music. Although Waugh presents so many qualifications that his proposed structure risks losing its usefulness, he nevertheless denies A Voyage to Arcturus to be an allegorical novel (23)—perhaps this chapter’s most interesting and counterintuitive claim. Next, Waugh turns to the séance in Lindsay’s first chapter. Here, he detects certain resonances—but few apparent direct influences, he hastens to add (28)—between A Voyage to Arcturus and Goethe’s Faust II (1832). The third of Waugh’s Lindsay essays presents his speculations on the names of various characters. This chapter best represents one of Waugh’s most idiosyncratic critical tics—namely, that names generally mean something. Sometimes, Waugh finds a good example. Other times, Waugh allows his undeniable erudition to get the better of him. In Lindsay’s novel, for instance, Waugh links the name of Lindsay’s psychic medium, Backhouse, to the Dutch painter Lodolf Bakhuysen—although what, if anything, hangs upon this identification remains unclear.

This Bakhuysen example is far from isolated in Waugh’s collection, and a few more are worth citing. In James Tiptree Jr.’s Brightness Falls from the Air (1985), we are told, the character name for Star / Sharon Roeback recalls the “erotic moments in the Song of Solomon” (199). For another example, Waugh reports as meaningful the name Hilvar in Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956), since it is an “imperfect anagram” of the name Alvin from the same book (111). This is not exactly wrong, I suppose, but it’s weak. Likewise, the misspelling of Akeley’s name in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931) leads Waugh into confidently asserting that, “if misheard… [this name is] phonological cousins” with Whateley’s name in “The Dunwich Horror” (216, emphasis added)—a rather tenuous connection at best, though certainly both names share the last syllable in common. Yet the most egregious example occurs in Waugh’s discussion of Childhood’s End (1953). Here, he brings up the name of Earth’s alien colonial administrator:

Karellen’s name teases us the most, referring clearly to a carillon, a parallel to that voice calling out over Jan in his dreams. A Christmas carol may also lay in his name; but with a slight change of accent the name becomes Carolyn—and the name of George’s mistress is Carolle. (98)

In other words, if we deliberately change Karellen’s name slightly (which no character in the novel ever does), it almost resembles the name of a minor character who has no impact on the plot. This insinuation ultimately means nothing.

I mention this critical tic about names that almost-but-don’t-quite resemble other names, not exactly to disparage Waugh’s tendency toward free association, but to indicate something of the old-fashioned humanism that underlies The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction. Waugh, after all, hardly limits his free association to names. Anyone reading this collection should prepare themselves for a scholar steeped in classical and Biblical learning, not to mention the “traditional” Western literary canon. Waugh also knows German fluently, a point he likes to show off; he also knows enough Latin to get by. No fewer than five epigraphs introduce readers to his collection, ranging from Joyce to Shakespeare to Einstein. Waugh subsequently finds further occasion for allusions to Mathew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, St. Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, Epictetus, Hegel, Dante, Goethe, Snorri Sturluson, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, John Barth (from The Sot-weed Factor [1960]), Thomas Pynchon (from Mason & Dixon [1997]), and more. At this point, given all I’ve said already, it seems almost unkind to point out the gendered and Western cultural homogeneity of all these authors, but there it is.

Still, these constant literary allusions do enliven Waugh’s frequent New Critical analyses. In chapters 4 and 5, respectively, he first discusses the music-like “aesthetic form” (53) of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937), then tackles the “archetype of the mountain-climber” (70) in several Stapledon novels. The next two chapters belong to Arthur C. Clarke. The former discusses Childhood’s End as a novel of lament built around certain imagery and themes, the latter various oppositions that structure The City and the Stars. Chapters on Mervyn Peake and William Gibson follow before Waugh devotes three separate chapters to Fritz Leiber. Here, I should highlight “The Word in the Wilderness” as deserving special praise; one section of this long essay (specifically pages 155 through 160) contains a remarkably lucid description on Leiber’s highly literate fantasy style—a style, according to Waugh, rich in “terms of rhetoric, vocabulary, and allusions, which consistently makes use of comic devices” (160). The last of these three chapters puts Leiber’s The Big Time (1958) in tandem with Tiptree’s Brightness Falls from the Air. Both novels are considered by Waugh as “neo-Aristotelian drama[s]” (192).

Finally, Waugh rounds out his collection with a chapter called “The Deeps of Eryx.” Nominally, this chapter concentrates on a little-known short story Lovecraft co-wrote called “In the Walls of Eryx” (1936), but Lovecraft’s other short fiction occupies half the chapter, evidently in Waugh’s hopes for taking this last opportunity to reinforce his initial claims about a “tragic tradition” in science fiction (208). Unfortunately, too many potential threads have been dropped already—too many opportunities for more significant arguments missed. To cite just one instance, Waugh briefly links (or more accurately implies a link) between Stapledon and Gibson by citing Stapledon’s “agonistic attitude toward the body” (75) against Neuromancer’s (1984) implicit Gnosticism, which holds the material body in contempt, yet Waugh somehow neglects to mention A Voyage to Arcturus as written by someone who literally believed in the gnostic Demiurge. To be sure, Waugh certainly knows this about Lindsay’s text, but I suspect incorporating that knowledge into a coherent, thesis-driven claim about SF and the body would have required too drastic a revision to individual essays whose essential organization he had already considered set. Waugh therefore attempts a patchwork solution that leaves readers the hard work of drawing the most interesting potential connections.

Overall, The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction will likely not launch any new research programs. Probably its prime usefulness lies in quotable snippets on authors whom various academics might be researching. Nonetheless, as far as modern New Criticism goes, Waugh applies his chosen methodology with competence and care, even if The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction might have been better left a collection of disparate essays rather than a purportedly unified monograph. More importantly, Waugh keeps the conversation going on a number of important SFF authors, some more neglected than others. This point holds especially true for Waugh’s three chapters on Leiber—a writer whose place within modern fantasy’s history even scholars of the genre fail to appreciate properly.

Dennis Wilson Wise is a lecturer at the University of Arizona, and he studies the links between epic fantasy and political theory. Previous articles have appeared in journals like Tolkien Studies, Journal of the Fantastic in the ArtsGothic StudiesLaw & Literature, Extrapolation, and more. Currently, he’s assembling a critical anthology, now under advance contract from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, called Speculative Poetry and the Modern Alliterative Revival. Wise is also the reviews editor for Fafnir, which in 2020 became the first academic journal to win a World Fantasy Award.


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