Science Fiction in the Wake of James Joyce
by Willis E. McNelly
To reflect in a very few minutes about the great literary loves of my life -- James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats, not to mention the subject for which I am being honored here today, science fiction -- is obviously impossible.
How can I explain, even briefly, for example, that my love of Joyce goes back some 60 years to when I was a senior at Amundsen High School in Chicago furtively reading a borrowed copy of "Ulysses"? Perhaps somewhere in the early years of high school I had heard that "Ulysses" had been approved for importation into the United States, finally being cleared of the charges of being an obscene book by Judge Woolsey's famous penetrating decision. Perhaps in some juvenile way, I also determined to find out what the alleged scurrilous parts of "Ulysses" were, and I've been searching unsuccessfully for six decades or more.
Can I confess, again even briefly, that I had been reading science fiction for a decade longer than that? After all, my father had been one of the charter subscribers to the old "Amazing Stories" back in the '20s, and copies were simply lying around the house. As an adolescent boy in the '30s, I might have been entranced by the suggestive covers of those garish old magazines -- the little green men from Mars, the brain in a test tube, or the traditional bug-eyed monster clutching the scantily clad girl.
Not incidentally, I must also point out here that this copy of "Ulysses," the old 1934 Modern Library Giant edition, the first American printing -- this very book, containing 768 dog-eared pages, two re-bindings later complete with underlinings and markings in various colors accumulated through fifty years of use, hundreds of readings and taught in dozens of classes and seminars, is the same book which my wife had purchased when she was in college, the same text she brought with her to our marriage nearly 55 years ago. Through her sensitive insights into those archetypal, ethical, and profoundly religious themes, themes which infuse Joyce, Yeats, and Eliot, as well as through her assistance and encouragement was I able to finish both my MA thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation. In the early years of our marriage she helped me come to see that all three of these giants were involved in the quintessential and always problematic human search for the grail of creativity and integrity. Having sung of "What is past, or passing, or to come," Yeats told his Connemara horseman to pass by and eventually settled for the "foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." Eliot, after shambling through the wasteland, turned to the great religious mystery of the Incarnation in "Little Gidding," the last of his "Quartets." And Joyce encompassed the universe though Molly Bloom's magnificent soul-filled affirmation of life with her ultimate, eternal acceptance, " . . . and yes I said yes I will Yes."
In the early days of working toward my Ph.D. at Northwestern University, my thesis committee wanted to know what subjects I had informally considered as dissertation topics. I mentioned several, ranging from expanding my MA thesis on T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" to updating J.O. Bailey's classic study of early science fiction, "Pilgrims Though Time and Space," and I added, "Perhaps something about Joyce." Something about Joyce, indeed! What effrontery!
Parenthetically, a few weeks later when I sat for my comprehensive written exams -- six hours a day for four days, by the way, which, thankfully, the committee let me take on a typewriter, probably because anyone who has been subjected to my scrawl for more than 100 words knows that they did it in self-defense, I being one of the Palmer method's most conspicuous failures -- I was near emotional and physical exhaustion when I opened the last exam paper to read, with both surprise and delight, the final three hour question: "Trace in some detail the development of science fiction since H. G. Wells and Jules Verne; cite authors and works in your answers." Something on that order, but a bit longer, as I recall.
I nearly broke into hysterical laughter when I read it, and Prof. Harrison Hayford, the noted Melville scholar who was proctoring me, said, "McNelly, stop laughing and answer the question." He told me later a bit sheepishly that I had mentioned authors that no one on the committee had even heard of -- writers like the then unknown Ray Bradbury, the neglected J. D. Beresford, the emerging Arthur C. Clarke, the brilliant creator of galactic epics Olaf Stapledon, the strange reclusive M. P. Shiel, and the arcane H. P. Lovecraft.
So science fiction stood me in good stead in my graduate years, but at that time I never really considered writing my Ph.D. dissertation about science fiction. After all, the great Professor Richard Ellmann had newly arrived on the Northwestern University campus, and he was the obvious adviser for someone who wanted to continue to work in the field of Joyce or Twentieth Century literature. I first met Dick one fall day in 1949 when he -- yes, he, the famous Richard Ellmann himself, fresh from the triumphs of "Yeats, the Man and the Masks" and "The Identity of Yeats," already well into his research into what later became arguably the greatest literary biography of this century, his monumental "James Joyce," . . . well, there he was, sitting in the crowded Northwestern gym, advising students during registration!
"What topics have you been considering, Mr. McNelly?" he asked when it came my turn for advisement. I mentioned the possibility of expanding my Eliot thesis on the "Four Quartets." I added, almost diffidently, that I had been working for a couple of quarters with Hayford in an independent study where we read "Ulysses" together as I attempted to explain all of the obvious Roman Catholic references to him.
"There. That's your dissertation," Ellmann said at once.
"But I'm not a theologian," I demurred,
"Don't be theological. Simply identify as many of the Catholic references as you can and show their artistic importance to 'Ulysses.'" Later I came to understand why Dick wanted the material because, with a Judaic background, his knowledge of Catholic dogma, ritual, or liturgical traditions was minimal.
For nearly fifty years I had read science fiction as pure entertainment. However when I began to teach the subject here at Cal State Fullerton, I started to examine this emerging genre in some detail and eventually published many critical essays about it. I quickly discovered the profound effect that Joyce, the fabulous artificer, word-smith of word-smiths, explorer of the unconscious, and great prophet and exemplar of the stream of consciousness technique had begun to have even on such sub-literatures as science fiction. Joyce was writing, you will recall, at the same time that Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, his contemporaries, had begun to explore the world of dreams and probe the unconscious. You may recall also that "Ulysses" ends as Molly drifts off to sleep and that "Finnegans Wake" is an extended dream. But you may not know that in a very rare chapbook called "Recollections of James Joyce" which is among the many Joyce books that I have presented to the Cal State Fullerton Library, Stanislaus Joyce maintained that before his brother's death in 1941, "Jim" was planning a novel to be called "The Awakening" in which the great Irish expatriate would return to a more conventional narrative method. One wonders . . . .
A few years later, at the opposite "scientific" extreme, Nobel Laureate and Joyce fan Murray Gell-Mann forever gave the world the word "quark" which he lifted from a line from "Finnegans Wake": "Three quarks for Muster Mark." Joyce lives, even in the interior of the atomic nucleus!
My aim today in centering on Joyce, however, is, to show how this great Irish writer has drenched the modern world with his modernist insights, his utilization of the stream of consciousness technique coupled with the genius of his immense literary background, leaving even science fiction in his "Wake" -- the pun is intended both here and in the title of this paper. Science fiction after all, presents us with alternate worlds, often with stories that are bizarre, strange, but sometimes also vaguely familiar. In the hands of a few SF writers, their creations enable us to return to our own world with a heightened vision and a renewed appreciation of its own inner mysteries. Novels like Frank Herbert's epic masterpiece "Dune," Ursula LeGuin's probing, gender-bending "The Left Hand of Darkness," or Brian Aldiss's very Joycean "Barefoot in the Head" are of course rattling good stories. However, at the same time they are cautionary, even admonitory, about, for example, our dangerous over-reliance on fossil fuels or our predilection to drug ourselves into oblivion with addictions ranging from alcohol, sex, power, consumerism or money. These superior science fiction novels often present worlds radically discontinuous from our own, but worlds which force us to return to confront our own planet and its difficulties with a clearer vision. They often give us unsettling insights as we seek to understand our own interior psychological disorders and thus force us to further develop our own cooperative evolution in consciousness.
But what is "Ulysses" about, after all? The mere paltry recitation of pedestrian events occurring to Leopold Bloom one late spring day nearly 100 years ago? A prosaic redaction? Hardly. Even in the simplest terms, it contains echoes or overtones of truly eternal aspirations. The dear dirty Dublin of 16 June 1904 may be dead and gone, and with "O'Leary in his grave," as Yeats put it, but it is truly an "ever-ever" land. Yet Leopold Bloom's personal search contains far more than his mundane tribulations. His triumphant return home to number 7 Eccles street in Dublin lays out for us all of the elements of our own lives, our eternal struggle for authenticity which alone makes life truly realistic. In the vital memorable conclusion of the novel, Molly's ruminations and her eternal affirmation become, then, our assent, our acceptance, our reception of what today is being defined as the nurturing aspect of all human natures, the eternal feminine or the intuitive soul.
And as for "Finnegans Wake," we should remember that even the last and opening sentences run together to form a novel-length mandala and make it an eternal circular unity: " . . . the keys to given . . . alone, at last, along the . . . . riverrun from swerve of shore to bend of bay . . . brings by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."
Howth Castle and Environs? HCE? Even beginning Joyceans usually know enough to recognize that HCE is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, the hero of the "Wake" and that HCE really means Here Comes Everybody. His counter-part ALP, Anna Livia Plurabelle, the heroine, is Molly Bloom re-born, ever the eternal feminine, the human soul. The "Wake" then is truly a universal work, celebrating the myth of the eternal return. It encompasses the past, the present, and the future. In fact, it may well be the ultimate literary cosmology, suggesting the necessary communion and unity of all humankind.
But we should remember that as strangely familiar and unfamiliar as "Ulysses" is, or as fleeting but as clearly lucid as a cogent but half-remembered dream that the "Wake" can be, both novels present worlds which compel us to awaken and thus to examine our own destination and evolution in this millennial ending year.
To do so, we might examine some science fiction novels which have paid the homage of imitation to Joyce. Notable is James Blish's Hugo award-winning novel, "A Case of Conscience," a profoundly theological but scientifically-based novel concerning the relationship of good and evil on another planet named Lithia. To demonstrate the connection between science fiction and Joyce, Blish, himself a Joycean of no mean renown whose aim before his untimely death a few years ago was to prepare -- this is not a contradiction in terms or an oxymoron -- a typographically accurate edition of "Finnegans Wake," had centered his novel about one of the most perplexing sections of the "Wake," the infamous "Honophrious" section, a passage of two pages which even after a hundred readings becomes increasingly all the more dense, obscure, and puzzling. A passage whose ultimate question: "Has he hegemony and shall she submit?" can be solved only when we finally realize that Joyce omitted a mere comma! What a Joycean joke! Not one question, but two, with different answers.
Joyce's influence, not only in style, word usage, and content found another great exemplar in the curious confluence of place, people and circumstances that culminated in Brian W. Aldiss's remarkable tour-de-force, "Barefoot in the Head." Here Aldiss deliberately adopted the style of "Finnegans Wake," finding in its stylistic methodology and experimentation a means of indicating the effect that the "acid head" wars had had on the populace of Europe and Great Britain. The continent has been saturated, not with high explosives, but with long lasting psychedelic drugs. Perhaps we can visualize the effects! An entire continent stoned!
Both Aldiss and Ellmann were residents of Oxford and met quite accidentally once at a literary gathering. They became friends, cemented by the odd coincidence that both had known the present speaker rather well. I learned later that "Barefoot in the Head" was almost the only SF novel that Ellmann had ever read, aside from the orthodox standard works of H. G. Wells and a few others.
Other Joycean inspired works might include Robert Silverberg's "Dying Inside" a novel-length extended interior monologue, ending with a paraphrase of the concluding lines of Joyce's great novella, "The Dead." Certainly, given time, I should mention at greater length Philip José Farmer's classic Hugo-winning novella "Riders of the Purple Wage" with its Joycean final punch line, "Grandpa Winnegan's fake." Samuel (Chip) Delaney's thousand page novel "Dhalgren" owed so much to Joyce in both length and difficulty that one critic was prompted to cavil that it drove him to re-read "Finnegans Wake," a book he could understand. He said the same thing about Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," another putative science fiction novel.
To be sure, in the end it must seem as if all of these lesser writers are merely science fiction satellites revolving around the Joycean center. Some, like Aldiss, have their own inner glow, to be sure, but many of them, like the moon, shine only with the reflected light emanating from the great central Irish sun, James Joyce himself. Joyce's mind may have been an encyclopedia, crammed and stuffed with trivia and quadrivia as Joyce himself admitted in one of his triple and quadruple puns. Joyce may indeed have known literally everything about literature and could pun in a dozen different languages. He certainly knew everything from the dreams of Descartes and the intricacies of the Arian, Valentinian, and Nestorian heresies or the Hindu Upanishads to the corpus of Shakespeare or Homer - the extent of his knowledge was virtually endless.
But his intellect was a solar furnace, not a mere warehouse. Indeed, his mind was very like the sun where creation and destruction go on simultaneously, where mission and futility brother each other. And emerging from the center of that incandescent cauldron remains always and forever the fabulous artificer, James Joyce, the great genius of the Twenty-First Century.