The Invisible Mr. Polly

Posted on January 22, 2013

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invisible mr pollyHG Wells and the aesthetics of science fiction

I remember reading somewhere as a teenager that some of HG Wells non-science fiction works, for instance, The History of Mr. Polly were the literary equals of works like The Time Machine, First Men in the Moon, War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr. Moreau.  I vowed to read some of it.  I even checked The History of Mr. Polly out of the library one time, kept it around until its due date, then returned it.  But nearly five decades after making that vow to myself, I still know nothing about Mr. Polly.

Tsk.

HG Wells is one of those science fiction writers who can lay claim to a prose style.  Many in the genre are journeyperson tale-tellers, a respectable, often undervalued accomplishment.  But HG Wells could wrap that tale in laudable prose.

Philip K. Dick could also do that.  Arthur C. Clarke could manage it in the short form, but his novels are so frothy and thin that they threaten to float away, and his dialogue is execrable.  Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury are also both masters of the short form, with Ellison grittier, Bradbury more poetic.  Harlan is also a master of the film script, although Ray’s poetry doesn’t always translate readily to the screen.  Isaac Asimov wrote better novels than Clarke, but ultimately his writing fell into the serviceable-for-the-purpose category.  Samuel R. Delany wrote as well as anybody everywhere, but sometimes he left out the plot.  Robert Silverberg was a serious writer whose work seemed to gain substance with time.  Ursula K. LeGuin successfully mastered short form and long, and showed equal comfort in writing fantasy, a transition that many science fiction writers are unable to make.  (Larry Niven, I’m looking at you.)

All of which is merely to say that I have always paid attention to the conventional notions of what good writing is when reading science fiction, as much as I have for any other genre.  Why then would HG Wells’ work outside of his “scientific romances” have been of so little interest to me?  Isn’t good writing just good writing?

Yes and no, depending upon what you mean by “good” writing, or what you confine that definition to.

You see, equating mainstream and science fiction works for literary quality begs a question.  That question is, are we to assign no merit to a speculative imagination?  HG Wells invented or perfected many or most of the science fiction themes.  His Time Machine is a masterpiece of dystopian imagination.  Can we really extract Wells’ compelling vision from our judgment of his work?

I remember reading a book by the literary critic Lionel Trilling on the works of EM Forster.  Trilling’s assessment of Forster’s work in the areas of science fiction and fantasy, which Trilling otherwise failed to discuss at all, was that Forster must have gotten too hung up on the Greek myths, etc.  Fantasy was a failing.

Obviously, if Trilling were to have looked at HG Wells seriously—which is unlikely, I admit—he would have said that Wells’ imagination marred his literary career.  I myself am not inclined to think so.  In fact, the reason that I have failed to catch up on Mr. Polly is because I fundamentally think the opposite. 

The idea of reading HG Wells without his speculative imagination informing it, is like reading HG Wells with some of his genius extracted and put to the side.  Whatever for?  Sorry, Mr. Polly.

Now I realize that a taste for imagination is not universal.  Some people are offended to be introduced to too much of it, as Lionel Trilling was.  And not all imaginative work is all that imaginative, meaning that there are hacks in that corner of culture as well.

But the ability to see beyond the mundane?  That’s a real skill.  That a person may have no taste for it means nothing.  Some like classical.  Others like jazz.  Some like reggae.  Others like blues.  I don’t like all music, but I like those.  Sometimes you can mix them up, but other times they’re best as they are.

Consider blues and jazz.  Put them in the same bag and some people are going to say, “Oh well, jazz is the more sophisticated.”  It’s true that jazz musicians are among the most accomplished and intellectual of musicians.  Many of the iconic blues folk, on the other hand, had little or no grasp of musical theory.  But the trouble is that jazz values don’t really translate that well into the blues.  The focus on technique central to jazz musicianship calls on a different part of the brain than that having to do with emotional communication.  That’s why jazz blues burns cool to warm and pure blues burns warm to smokin’.  Jazz technique is no substitute for feeling-tone, and it’s still the blues musicians who rule the blues.
Add imagination2

Science fiction has always been a good place to go for storytelling, and for disciplined acts of imagination.  Sometimes that’s what science fiction is about.  Expecting to find something else there, a character study, for instance, where the story doesn’t merit it, is to ask for something that may just get in the way of the story as it was intended.  Sometimes character is central to a story, but that doesn’t inherently make such stories better stories, merely better suited to the tastes of people who think that’s what stories are about.  You can have a taste for character development, just as a person can have a taste for jazz.

But it doesn’t mean putting these things in the mix solves any literary issues, any more than adding jazz values to blues solves any musical issues.  It can contribute, or it may merely undermine the power of an artistic work which has its own aesthetics and merits.

Thousands of pundits have claimed that the blues is a simple form, ignoring the fact that almost no one outside of the form has mastered it.  That’s because, I suggest, they fundamentally don’t understand the form.

Similarly people have criticized science fiction, a form which has its own coterie of specialists, for lacking or failing some of their own notions of literary merit.  Those same people ignore or simply talk past the acts of imagination central to the genre.

I suggest that they fundamentally don’t understand the form either.

Posted in: science fiction