Science Fiction: A Literary History
British Library Publishing, 2018, 256 pp., $27.95
In 1903, the aging Jules Verne—famed French author of the 54 adventure novels in the Voyages extraordinaires series—was asked to compare his body of work to that of his upstart English competitor, H.G. Wells. Verne, who prided himself on the strict scientific accuracy of his tales of exploration and discovery, found the question offensive. “No, there is no rapport between his work and mine,” Verne snapped. “I make use of physics. He invents.” Verne cited his From the Earth to the Moon, which featured characters travelling to the Moon in an aluminum bullet fired from a giant cannon, contrasting it with Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, in which the lunar-bound spaceship is made of gravity-defying “cavorite.” Verne had based his space cannon on the latest technological discoveries of the time, even doing rough calculations on the necessary dimensions of the muzzle. He explained in an interview:
I go to the moon in a cannonball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli…. But show me this metal. Let him produce it.
In this put-down of one of the “Fathers of Science Fiction” by another, we see the future of the field. Long before anyone coined the terms “hard sci-fi” and “soft sci-fi” or used them as badges of pride or disparaging slurs, long before the “holy war” between old school pulp and the ’60s era New Wave, we have this demand from the cranky old school to the squishy new school: “Show me this metal.” Wells, whose social activism permeated his fiction, would no doubt claim that Verne was rather missing the point. But what becomes clear from a survey of science fiction’s history is that, if there’s one thing these authors love more than cosmic wonder and terror, it’s petty fights about what constitutes “real” science fiction.
Not, of course, that these science fiction fights aren’t proxies for fights about science or society itself. Science Fiction: A Literary History, recently published by the British Library and edited by Roger Luckhurst, chooses to forego defining the genre in order to discuss the sociopolitical stakes behind some of those “Whose Science? Which Fiction?” debates. Each of its contributors seems to have his or her own position on that definitional question, anyway. The eight chapters by different sci-fi scholars cover topics from “The Beginning, Early Forms of Science Fiction” to “New Paradigms, After 2001.”
I have my own heretical position on this, as I don’t believe science fiction is a genre at all. Reading Science Fiction: A Literary History didn’t convert me, as the authors languidly gesture toward a generic definition with phrases like: “The SF genre cannot be defined as a single, fixed conceptual object; it is a continually shifting matrix of megatexts . . . .” It all depends on what one means by genre, of course, but if categories like “comedy” and “tragedy” are genres, then it has something to do with how the story unfolds. Will it end in marriage? In death? Knowing that a given story is sci-fi doesn’t tell you much about its plot, only what sort of things might appear in it: alien beings, travels in time, world-shaking technology, and so forth. There are sci-fi subgenres, like the robot mysteries perfected by Isaac Asimov, but those are, generically, detective stories, for which Asimov’s puzzle-box robot ethics merely provide a complication. Science fiction is a category of universe in which stories can happen, not a category of story.
The best definitions of science fiction are evocative rather than exhaustive. Ray Bradbury, in the introduction to the 1974 collection Science Fact/Fiction, wrote, “Science fiction then is the fiction of revolutions. Revolutions in time, space, medicine, travel, and thought. . . . Above all, science fiction is the fiction of warm-blooded human men and women sometimes elevated and sometimes crushed by their machines.” Bradbury is onto something here: Revolutionary change, often but not exclusively technological, is one of the most vital subjects for science fiction. Confronting that change might be the core of the story, as in first-contact narratives from Wells’s War of the Worlds to Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (the basis of the film Arrival). Or the revolution might have occurred in the narrative’s past, with the story examining how and if people can live in their brave new world. This is often the set-up for novels of utopia and dystopia.
One of the most interesting things Science Fiction: A Literary History reveals is how difficult it is to write utopias. Surely the point of the exercise is to paint a picture of a world readers might want to live in. And yet for every author’s utopia, there’s a coterminous dystopia for the reader with eyes to see. H.G. Wells painted a parallel world called Utopia in Men Like Gods, in which enlightened and technologically advanced humans live in harmony with one another and the natural world, whose climate they have adjusted to a uniform Mediterranean tranquility. The Utopians are intrigued to discover our Earth, in a sister universe “a little retarded in time” compared to theirs. Utopia’s many advances include a eugenics program, for Utopian science can “discriminate among births” to weed out the “defective people” such as the disabled, the criminally inclined, and even “the melancholic type” and those of “lethargic dispositions and weak imaginations.” In contrast to the marvelous moon-faring metal that Verne objected to, this program represents Wells’s practical rather than merely speculative ideas about getting to the world he imagined. Wells had an affair with American eugenicist Margaret Sanger, who shared his Utopians’ aim of culling undesirable populations. The protagonist of Men Like Gods, an Earthling named Mr. Barnstaple, leaves Utopia with a new-fired political imagination: “And suddenly it was borne in upon Mr. Barnstaple that he belonged now soul and body to the Revolution, to the Great Revolution that is afoot on earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until Old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” Other visitors have been less inspired. Aldous Huxley was so frustrated by Wells’s book that he began planning a parody. This idea evolved into his 1932 novel Brave New World, a classic dystopia about a eugenic technocracy.
Not every science fiction writer is working out an explicit political dream or nightmare. But the conflicts within the science fiction scene tend to take on political casts. One of the best chapters in the book is “The New Wave ‘Revolution,’ 1960–1976.” Rob Latham recounts how Harlan Ellison rebelled against the restrictive tastes of sci-fi magazine editors, setting out to revolutionize the field with an anthology called Dangerous Visions, “geared to smash every taboo inherited from the pulps.” Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, and even R .A. Lafferty contributed stories, and Ellison trumpeted the collection as a vanguard of the “New Wave” of science fiction. More conservative sci-fi fans were appalled by the sexually explicit and atheistic content of the anthology. Maybe they were right to be: Could any parodist of lame shock-value stories come up with something dumber than Theodore Sturgeon’s contribution, “a chatty brief for an incestuous utopia, ‘If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?’”
Some detractors excoriated the movement in censorious reviews and fiery speeches at sci-fi conventions. Sci-fi author Algis Budrys set himself up as the voice of the old guard when he condemned New Wave author Thomas Disch’s novel The Genocides as nihilistic, fatalistic, and derivative. Budrys objected to Disch’s portrayal of a band of post-apocalyptic survivors as “dumb, resigned victims,” calling the book an insult to the redoubtable spirit of Golden Age science fiction, “the school of science fiction which takes hope in science and in Man.” Budrys likely had politics in the back of his mind as he wrote this: His family had survived a kind of apocalypse by leaving Eastern Europe in the ’30s, when his father became the Consul-General for Lithuania stationed in New York. He would later become Consul-General for the Lithuanian government-in-exile as their homeland was occupied by first Nazi and then Soviet regimes. Budrys didn’t want to read bleak science fiction about abjection and victimization, but stories about keeping the flame of human achievement alive. Foes of the New Wave established a counter-movement to uphold “genuine,” hard sci-fi. They named it the Second Foundation, after an Asimovian secret society that carries the torch of civilization through a galactic era of barbarism. Ellison, never one to pass up a punch-up in print, greeted the challenge from the reactionary “old farts” of the Second Foundation with “You want a Holy War? Then get it on, baby, get it on!”
It seems easy to put the New Wave and the old school pulp adherents into political boxes: the upstart progressives vs. the nationalist old boys’ club. And the combatants sometimes framed their conflict in those terms, as when Ellison linked his sci-fi New Wave with the broader anti-establishment youth culture of the ’60s. But the debate has more interesting resonances in 2018. I often hear liberals of the Silicon Valley persuasion profess a pulp-worthy faith in the synchronicity of technological and social progress. Whereas social conservative commentators like Ross Douthat and Sonny Bunch echo New Wave anxieties about the fragility of human community in the face of social and technological engineering by megacorporations. The social science fiction of a New Wave-adjacent figure, Ursula Le Guin, brought anthropology, environmentalism, and questions of gender to the fore in works like The Left Hand of Darkness. Progressive sci-fi fans love her, for obvious reasons. But the crunchier brand of conservative also embodies a Le Guinian vision of integral systems imperiled by reckless exploitation. Erika Bachiochi, a legal scholar who argues for the importance of dependency and care in the human experience over unbridled self-assertion, in some ways channels Le Guin’s essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” a feminist rebuttal to the “Techno-Heroic” ideal. Bachiochi’s pro-life writing warns that technocratic, utilitarian culture tends to victimize women and marginalized groups like the disabled and the unborn.
Science Fiction: A Literary History is, at its best, a wonderful jumping off point for more exciting journeys. You’ll ultimately get more out of the books it points you toward than the volume itself. Follow the authors’ references and go read C. S. Lewis’s allegorically psychedelic Space Trilogy, or Connie Willis’s meticulously researched and life-affirming World War II time travel novel in two parts, Black Out/All Clear. Sadly, Science Fiction only nods toward the global reach of science fiction, spending most of its time and space on the United Kingdom and the United States. Russian utopias and dystopias that comment on the Soviet Union, like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, get the most attention of all non-Anglophone literature. And the fact that it is a “Literary History” leads it to present a science fiction realm that’s whiter and maler than the multimedia reality. Afrofuturism, for instance, gets short shrift, since visual and musical works (like Janelle Monáe’s oeuvre) fall outside the book’s purview. This highlights a broader concern: How useful can a literary history of science fiction be, when science fiction hasn’t been a primarily literary form for almost a century? Fritz Lang’s Metropolis came out in 1927. Monáe has positioned many of her songs and music videos, including her acclaimed 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, as part of an extended reinterpretation of Metropolis’s concepts. Her alter ego is an android liberator similar to the robotic Maria of Metropolis, except she is a hero rather than a deceiver. Science fiction is a huge part of contemporary culture, but no longer via the written word alone.
The final chapter, “New Paradigms, After 2001,” is an exception to the rule that these chapters are less interesting than the works they survey. I don’t want to read all of the depressing ecological fiction that Gerry Canvan profiles in this chapter, but his opening is a barnstormer:
We live in an era of obsolete futures and junked dreams. It has now been over fifteen years since 2001 with nary a monolith in sight, much less manned missions to Jupiter or increasingly malevolent computer superintelligences refusing to open the pod bay doors…. A century of science fiction predicted space missions, first contacts, robot uprisings, and nuclear wars that were all dated before now. To live in the twenty-first century is thus in a very real sense to live after the future—after the future we invented together, the one that never happened.
There is, indeed, a poignant belatedness to our present. We have more technology than we know what to do with, but no convenient cataclysm has plunged us into the rugged wish-fulfillment of the post-apocalyptic subgenre. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy, posits that the way forward for a decadent Earth is analogous to the process of taming Mars. One of his characters says it is absurd to be “twenty-first century scientists on Mars . . . living within nineteenth-century social systems, based on seventeenth-century ideologies . . . we must terraform not only Mars, but ourselves.” Even stories primarily concerned with technology offer a vision of what humans can or should be. We’re always terraforming ourselves. But into what? I don’t want to live in Wells’s Utopia, from which humans deemed “defective” have been purged.
If I’m right that science fiction is a category of universe in which particular stories can happen, and Asimov is right that those are the stories that deal with revolutions and their human costs, then we now live in a science fictional universe. Technological progress multiplies our possibilities, but also entrenches existing hierarchies and strip-mines our world of ecological, social, and spiritual resources. Mark Zuckerberg, the wunderkind who rose from the designer of an app for ranking women by attractiveness into the autocrat of the parallel world through which we receive all our news, is gearing up for new technological initiatives to reshape education and dating. Do you feel cyberpunk yet? Good. If we must terraform ourselves, let’s demand a say in what we become, and make it something warmer and humbler than anyone’s utopian dreams of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.