Lawrence Durrell's "Science Fiction in the True Sense"'

WILLIS E. McNELLY



-Lawrence Durrell: Balthazar

To consider Lawrence Durrell as a science fiction writer may strike many readers as preposterous. After all, is not The Alexandria Quartet the great symphony or epic of modern love? Was not Durrell's position in modern letters secured by The Black Book and confirmed by Monsieur? And is not Durrell a poet of exquisite sensibility whose evocations of the Mediterranean mystique are drenched with sun-lit ambience?

These questions demand an affirmative answer, to be sure. Durrell is all of these things-and more. While many of Durrell's admirers would object strenuously to his being tarred by the brush of space opera, any assessment of the Irish novelist's role in shaping the course of modern fiction must include some consideration of the doubledecker novel Tunc and Nunquam,' now titled, significantly, The Revolt of Aphrodite.

Upon their original publication in 1968 and 1970, these two books received mixed reviews. While the popular press such as Time or Newsweek commented favorably upon Durrell's verbal dexterity, almost as if it were some arcane sleight-of-hand, serious critics have generally ignored the volumes and compared them unfavorably with the Quartet. Indeed, the two collections of critical essays about Durrell published in the last few years contain nothing about either Tunc or Nunquam, and recent issues of journals such as The Journal of Modern Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, and so on, barely mention the works. It seems that the critics, disappointed because The Revolt of Aphrodite was not another Alexandria Quartet, consigned the novels to the limbo of the great ignored.

Yet is this critical ignorance-if I may play upon words-justified? I think not, and I submit that a serious consideration of the themes, material, and symbolism in both Tunc and Nunquam may place them at the center of the Durrell canon, as important, significant works, if not great ones.

What then, is The Revolt of Aphrodite about? For those who have not yet read this double-decker novel, a brief sketch of the plot line may be necessary. The hero, Felix Charlock (another of Durrell's first-person narrators), is a distinguished scientist and inventor. His fertile brain, for example, has produced a typewriter that presents beautifully typed material when it is spoken to. In other words it types what it is given orally. Charlock's power of invention is prodigious. As a result he is induced to join the Merlin Company, headed by the enigmatic Julian Jocas and Julian's sister, Benedicta. Merlin is a corporation so widespread in its operations and so subtly powerful that it controls us all. Merlin gives Charlock everything, but at the expense of his freedom. Eventually Charlock, now married to Benedicta, is induced to recreate Iolanthe, a famous movie star, now dead, who was secretly beloved by Julian. Charlock and Merlin reconstruct Iolanthe as a bionic robot, but she seems, in her new condition, to be far more human than her once-live original. Indeed, the resurrected robot Iolanthe strives for freedom, and finds it, ironically, only in death. Her and Julian's Fall-the word deserves the capital letter-provides Charlock and the other employees of the firm with the freedom they were otherwise unable to achieve, and at the end Felix, the creator-inventor, destroys the old covenant which had bound Merlin's employees, and hence all mankind.

Such a brief sketch may do disservice to Durrell's complicated metaphor, but does indicate the few paces east or west that Durrell has stepped. And in taking those steps he has moved into the ambiguous area of science fiction, unconditioned by our so-called "real" position in space and time.

Robert Scholes has recently addressed some of the problems faced by writers like Durrell, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, and Doris Lessing in their attempt to utilize what might be called "science fiction devices" as part of their artistic material. In Structural Fabulation (Notre Dame, 1975) he avers that science fiction offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet a form that returns to confront our world in some cognitive way. All of us, including Scholes, are of course aware that, under the guise of science fiction, much junk is still being written and that the ghost of Buck Rogers still haunts the Scrooges of sf publishing houses and the imaginations of literary critics. But those same academic critics often fail to realize that sf writers deliberately alter our world so that we may look upon it more clearly, or to recognize how they accomplish that alteration.

Let me give one example before examining Durrell's metaphor in The Revolt of Aphrodite. Ursula Le Guin's two most recent works, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), are remarkable novels indeed. Both were generally ignored by the tastemaking critics of the New York book-reviewing cabal, to their discredit, but both nonetheless demand serious critical attention. Contemporary writing does not yet realize how seriously it is in her debt and how seriously she must be considered.

The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of an earth envoy, Genly Ai, to an ice-age planet, Gethen, known as Winter, that has developed a viable civilization. Combining mythic elements and deeply philosophical-religious themes, Le Guin centers her attention upon the Gethenians who have evolved into a single ambisexual humanoid species, with each individual possessing both male and female genitals, and sexual congress possible only during times of estrus or "kemmer." Thus one person in its lifetime may be both a mother and a father. Gethenians are perfect androgynes. The Earth Observer comments: "[On earth] a man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience" (p. 94, my italics).'

Ms. Le Guin's thesis enables her to comment upon human sexuality in a way not permitted by our two-sex species. If a contemporary writer wishes, for example, to discuss the role of the animus in the female or the anima in the male, he does so with extreme difficulty, always fearful of the precipice of homosexuality. No such problems plague Le Guin. Indeed, her ambisexual species enables her to center upon the human-ness, the humane-ness, of humanity. Our world is deliberately altered so we may look upon it more clearly.

An analogous theme informs The Dispossessed, with the metaphor of political ideology-merely suggested in The Left Hand of Darkness -substituted for the metaphor of sexuality. Twin planets circle a sun. One, Urras, is an extreme analog of both our own Western, free enterprise, laissez-faire civilization and a powerful, dehumanizing communism. The other, Annares, only recently inhabited by discontents from the mother world, has developed a pure socialist, pacifist Anarchy, an utopia but an ambiguous one. The two worlds exist virtually without intercourse, and while Urras resembles Earth and Earth governments carried to an ultimate extreme, it is sufficiently different to permit us to distance ourselves from ourselves. The novel is a rich piece of utopian or anti-utopian speculation, made more real by the familiar-unfamiliarity of its construction. The hero, Shevek, a mathematical genius bred on the new world and totally committed to its ethical Anarchy, attempts to bridge the apparently inseparable political-philosophicaleconomic gulf between the two planets. He visits the old world, is charmed by it, but refuses to be corrupted by its venality, whether that venality stems from either capitalism or communism, extended. During his visit he gradually discerns that his home utopia has its ugly side, the denial of personal freedom while it espouses its principles. Whether considered as metaphor, myth, or utopian speculation, The Dispossessed is an important book.

In both of these novels, as we have seen, Le Guin extends her metaphor of human reality into space. It is obvious, however, that Ms. Le Guin's works are not space operas in any sense of the word. She builds her conjectural realities to examine contemporary human problems. Her worlds are clearly and radically discontinuous from our own, but they circle about human problems and confront them cognitively. So also with Durrell. In both Tunc and Nunquam Durrell is asking some important but complicated questions about contemporary society, not the least of which is "When is a being human?" In effect, he asks, if you have a being who follows an ethical system as high or higher than any developed throughout civilized history, is that being not human? If flesh can no longer feel, why cannot simulated fleshwires, transistors, mini-computers-begin to feel ?

In asking these questions, Durrell is, unconsciously, I am sure, echoing scores of science fiction writers of the last several decades, most notably Isaac Asimov, who have asked almost identical questions. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, dating back to the early 1940's, perhaps deserve quoting here:

1. A robot may not injure a human being, nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.'

In a remarkable series of stories and novels, Asimov has consistently asked, implicitly and often explicitly, what the difference is between his positronic robots and human beings. Often the so-called humans suffer by comparison. His robot heroes, such as R. Daniel Olivaw, always act by a set of ethical standards as high-usually higher-than those of his human counterparts. When, then, is a being human?

Tunc and Nunquam both deal with the same questions, but with some significant variations. The only robot as such is the recreated bionic Iolanthe. Her memories, preserved intact through recordings and other inventions of Charlock's, are now contained in Durrell's version of the positronic brain, still another invention of Charlock and the Merlin firm. She awakes to humanity, with no realization that she has been recreated and no memory of her death. Sheltered from the world for obvious reasons, her self-education changes her from screen harlot (she had been the one-time mistress of Charlock) with a street urchin background to an educated, caring, loving being. On the other hand, the only "robot" is the ostensibly human Julian Jocas, head of the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient Merlin corporation. His ethical standards are those of unenlightened self-interest. Julian's god is business and the pound sterling, and Julian is its prophet. An enigmatic, almost unseen figure throughout the book, Julian is at once cruel, vindictive, virtually satanic: the end of business always justifies any means used to achieve it. Once one has joined the Firm-again note the capital letter-one can never simply quit the Firm. The Firm gives everything except freedom. When Charlock, for example, even though married to Julian's sister Benedicta, attempts to resign, his attempted escape is thwarted, and he is jailed in a company-controlled asylum. Benedicta herself, wavering between sanity and insanity, is gradually revealed to have been used, abused, loved, and raped by Julian who symbolizes the black magic of Merlin. Evil, which Durrell seems to equate with civilization, corrupts even the Blessed.

Durrell's metaphor slowly becomes obvious. Merlin represents the condition of mankind-an existential, sordid, ugly, unmodified hatred and selfishness. And there is seemingly no escape from the Firm. From hatred there is only the redemption permitted by love, perhaps only salvific love. To this end, from personal redemption, even of Lucifer-Julian, Durrell proceeds to the generalized salvation of the members of the Firm (mankind) as Charlock burns their contracts at the novel's end to set them free. Once again, freedom for mankind has come only from death or at least a refining, purgatorial fire. But whose death? With great irony, Julian's and lolanthe's.

How did the diabolic Julian, the omnipresent but rarely seen Julian, the inhuman, calculating, machine-like Julian-I am tempted to call him a classic robot-change to become a redemptive figure or at least to perform a redemptive act? And how did Iolanthe, whose depth of character when she was alive was minimal, now a mass of wire, energized crystals, and electric charges, transcend her bionic nature? Durrell's answer seems to be the existentialist one that freedom to live is also the freedom to love, and that both imply the freedom to die. Julian, the robot, has loved, if that is the proper word, only the images of Iolanthe on celluloid. The "real" Iolanthe is incarnated in her transistorized flesh, but she transcends it to become more truly alive than ever before "in life." Her essence, and here I am not hesitant to call it her "soul," is human.

To seek the source for this concept in Durrell, we must turn to one of his most neglected works, A Key to Modern British Poetry. Given lip service by the critics, this book illustrates, in its praise of Georg Groddeck, Freud, Joyce, and Einstein, most of the theories embodied in the space-time continuum of the Quartet and Tunc and Nunquam. Groddeck, according to Durrell, thinks in terms of liberation of the psyche, linking religion, art, and science. Groddeck believes in what he calls "The It."

The sum total of an individual human being, physical, mental and spiritual, the organism with all its forces, the microcosmos, the universe which is a man, I conceive of as self unknown and forever unknowable, and I call this "The It," as the most definite term available without either emotional or intellectual associations. The It-hypothesis I regard, not as truth-for what do any of us know about absolute Truth?-but as a useful tool in work and life; it has stood the test of years of medical work and experiment and so far nothing has happened which would lead me to abandon it or even to modify it in any essential degree. I assume that man is animated by the It which directs what he does and what he goes through, and that the assertion "I live" only expresses a small and superficial part of the total experience "I am lived by the It..."

How does this relate to The Revolt of Aphrodite? If "It-ness" be equated, as I think it can, with essence or even with soul, both Julian and Iolanthe lack the quality; Iolanthe achieves It-ness only in her bionic state, and Julian acquires it only after Iolanthe teaches him how to love. We should note carefully here that Groddeck insists that the It is not a thing-in-itself; that it is rather a way of seeing, bearing, as Durrell indicates, "a close resemblance to the Chinese Tao concept, which manifests itself in endless dualities. The It is a Way, not a Thing" (p. 78-79).

Durrell has prepared us for this concept earlier in A Key to Modern British Poetry with his analysis of space, time, and poetry. Citing Einstein, T.S. Eliot, and Sir James Jeans, Durrell writes: "It is important to realize that Einstein's theory joined up subject and object, in very much the same way as it joined up space and time. Now what is important to us here are not the equations--even if we understand them-but the symbolic act of joining what is separated" (p. 26).

To fuse the mind-body, spirit-flesh dichotomy, then, is one of Durrell's aims. However, for Durrell the ego is a mere mask which deludes the human being into thinking he was responsible for what he was. Until the person sheds the ego and acquires the It, he will not be human.

Is this mere psychological flim-flam? I think not, for it is the growth of the It and the consequent reconciliation of opposites that Durrell carefully traces in the Quartet and Tunc and Nunquam. "Anthropologists tell us," he says, "that the sources of art lie in our immortality-wish and our fear of death" (p. 5). Of course, and as Durrell also observes, "In some cases birth and death would seem to be almost interchangeable terms" (p. 4). Art's only message is to remind us that we are dying without having properly lived. Life, then, is all. Not the life of the pound sterling or the Firm, or even in Charlock's case, the life of invention, but life which seeks the It regardless of the form into which it incarnated. But the It eventuates the Other, Tao-like, and the Other becomes It and the It becomes the Other. Iolanthe achieves It in a thing-form, the bionic robot. Julian, neither It nor Other, but rather Adversary, becomes Other and hence It, only when enlivened by Iolanthe's love. Hitherto, with Julian, mission and futility had brothered each other. Now, after being loved, Iolanthe mothers Julian and Julian fathers Iolanthe. Together they create. And in creating, they die. And in dying, they give life. In their death is their beginning and in their beginning is their end.

What has all this metaphysics to do with Durrell as a science fiction writer? Is he nothing more than a pseudo-metaphysician who dabbles with pseudo-physics? Here we must return to our notion of "science fiction in the true sense," as distinguished from space opera. Is Durrell's world one that could not have been constructed in any other narrative shape, a technical device that is certainly a distinctive characteristic of science fiction; and is that world clearly and racially discontinuous from the one we know, and does it confront our own in some cognitive way?

I have already indicated some of the ways that Durrell confronts our world cognitively. That his vision is radically and clearly discontinuous from ours requires little in the way of citation. After all, despite the experiments of modern science, we cannot either create life or simulate it to the hundred demical point accuracy of the recreated robotic Iolanthe. A robot is still clearly fictional and is several lightyears beyond the state of the art of modern science.

Then could some other form of fictional construct have accomplished the same purpose, a purpose that we may safely take to be the examination of the nature of the human in a mechanistic world? To be sure, Durrell could have re-invented Iago or Chillingworth or Claggart, and in a sense he has done that with his creation of Julian. But his step in creating the robot Iolanthe is bold indeed. Authors for centuries have been contrasting the human with the inhuman, but to confront the human with the non-human is a quantum leap forward. I suspect, moreover, that Durrell feels that mankind has been so inured to the human-inhuman tension that his thesis required the boldness, the extravagance of what might be termed the "non-human human." These tensions present a clash of mystiques in a way hitherto only suggested by the human-inhuman dichotomy. He creates Iolanthe, in other words, so that we may distance ourselves from humanity in order to observe it more readily, without the prejudices inherent in the very word "human."

On the other hand, Durrell runs the risk of our confronting Iolanthe with unstated or even "un-created" anti-robot prejudices, a problem also faced by such diverse writers as Elmer Rice in "The Adding Machine," Karl Capek in "R.U.R.," and Isaac Asimov in The Caves of Steel. It is this risk that Durrell is willing to face, if only to allow himself the luxury of passionate non-involvement, or of involved passion. He plumps firmly on the side of the human in whatever form that human is incarnated, and to do so he requires science fiction. Sf permits him the freedom to speculate about humanity that our "reality," however defined, does not.

In the hands of an artist like Durrell, then, science fiction becomes one more artistic device to enable him, as Joyce put it in another context, to forge the uncreated conscience of the race, the human race.


Willis E. McNelly teaches at California State University, Fullerton.

' The phrase "science-fiction in the true sense" is used by Durrcll in his headnote to Balthazar. The material about Ursula Le Guin in this article has been considerably revised from my article "'Sci-Fi': The State of the Art," America, Nov. 8, 1975, Vol. 133, No. 14.


'All citations from Nunquam

Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand ol Darkness (New York, Ace, 1970), p. 94.

Isaac Asimov, The Rest of the Robots (New York, Doubleday, 1964), p. i.

Lawrence Durrell, A Key to Modern British Poetry (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1952), p. 74. Other references to A Key are found in the text of the article. arc from the paperback edition (New York, Pocket Books, 1971).