The emergence of the “modern” novel in the eighteenth century, with its emphasis on narrative realism and its intimate involvement with the affairs of everyday life, is correlated with a gradual separation between mundane and imaginative fiction, a crucial breaking of categories that was later to be represented by such distinctions as that between “realism” and “romance.” There have always been problems in defining the boundary that marks this categorical break, as there have always been problems in defining exactly what is meant by the term “novel,” but from the end of the eighteenth century onward writers and critics have been aware of some such fundamental distinction and convinced of its propriety.
Roots of Science Fiction
Many individual works lie within the borderland between mundane and imaginative fiction, but there is one entire genre that occupies a curiously ambiguous position, a genre that depends on the use of the imagination to a considerable degree but that tries to make its imaginative products responsible in some way to a realistic outlook. The names given to this genre all have a somewhat oxymoronic flavor in common: “scientific romance,” “realistic romance,” and “science fiction.”
There are, as might be expected, two conflicting traditions in science-fiction criticism. One of these traditions stresses the close alliance between science fiction and other kinds of fantasy, and values the genre for its venturesome qualities. The other tradition emphasizes the responsibilities of the conscientious science-fiction writer in maintaining a firm base within scientific possibility and in the avoidance of any traffic with the occult. Brian Aldiss, in The Billion Year Spree (1973; revised as The Trillion Year Spree, 1986), suggests that science fiction is “characteristically cast in the Gothic or post- Gothic mode” and traces its ancestry from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Robert A. Heinlein, by contrast, contributes to the symposium The Science Fiction Novel (1959), introduced by Basil Davenport, a spirited defense of science fiction as a species of realistic fiction, likening the method of science-fiction writers to the scientific method itself.
Not unnaturally, adherents of these two views differ markedly on the issue of which texts should be labeled “science fiction” and which ought to be cast out as pretenders. Everyone agrees, however, that publishers and critics tend to use the label irresponsibly—on one hand, extending it promiscuously to cover stories that are “really” fantasy, and on the other hand, refraining from its use in respect of many prestigious works that, though “really” science fiction, might somehow be stigmatized or devalued if they were so named in open court.
Despite the fact that several different histories of science fiction have been compiled by adherents of different definitions, it is to the history and development of the genre that one is inclined to turn in the hope of discovering a reasonable analysis of the genre’s characteristics and relationships with other literary traditions. There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever of a coherent tradition of literary endeavor extending from Frankenstein to more recent science fiction. Although there were echoes of gothic freneticism in a few of the works produced in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when fiction recognizably akin to what today bears the label began to proliferate, most of it was very different in character.
One can recognize four main stimuli that encouraged writers in the late nineteenth century to produce more or less careful and conscientious works about imaginary inventions, future societies, and alien worlds. The first was the revolution in transportation, which brought the products of the Industrial Revolution into the everyday world of the middle classes in the shape of steam locomotives and steamships. This stimulated the growth of the novel of imaginary tourism, the greatest and most popular exponent of which was Jules Verne, author of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1872), From the Earth to the Moon (1873), and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1873). Most of the early novels of space travel have a distinctively Vernian flavor and represent the more ambitious extreme of this particular subspecies. Examples include Across the Zodiac (1880), by Percy Greg, and A Columbus of Space (1909), by Garrett P. Serviss.
A second important stimulus was the discussion provoked by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Literary reconstructions of the prehistoric past became common, and so did speculations regarding the possible evolutionary future of humankind. The most famous examples are The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), by H. G. Wells, and The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911), by John D. Beresford.
The same period saw a revitalization of speculation about the possibilities of social and political reform by virtue of increasing awareness of the extent that technology might encourage—and perhaps even compel— dramatic changes in the social and political order. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) became a runaway best seller in the United States and provoked numerous replies in kind, including News from Nowhere (1890), by William Morris, and Caesar’s Column (1890), by Ignatius Donnelly. Whereas Morris’s novel was one of many offering an alternative manifesto for the future utopia, Donnelly’s was the first in what was later to become a thriving tradition of dystopian works developing the hypothesis that the world was getting worse and not better and that technology would help to secure its damnation.
The last important stimulus that proved prolific in this period was the anticipation of war in Europe and the fascination of exploring the potential of new weapons. George Griffith, in The Angel of the Revolution (1893), presented a dramatic image of war fought with aircraft and submarines, and this too became a continual preoccupation in the work of H. G. Wells, the most eclectic imaginative writer of the period, reflected in such works as The War in the Air, and Particularly How Mr. Bert Smallways Fared While It Lasted (1908) and The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind (1914). The perception by readers and writers that these disparate literary subspecies had something fundamental in common sent critics and publishers in search of a category label. The one most widely used at the time was “scientific romance.”
The supposedly realistic quality of these stories was prejudiced in several different ways. For one thing, the writers were primarily interested in the more melodramatic implications of the premises on which they worked, and this led them toward the production of highly colored thrillers rather than sober speculations about the role of science and technology in future human affairs. This was largely a matter of the markets for which the authors worked: The advent of scientific romance coincided with an expansion of literacy and a corollary expansion of the kinds of reading matter that were available. It became possible for the first time for a fairly large number of writers to make a living from their work, provided that they appealed to a wide audience, and most of the successful science-fiction writers belonged to this cadre of new professionals.
Second, and perhaps more important, a realistic approach had to be compromised by the use of literary devices. It was not possible for Jules Verne to describe the operation of a genuinely sophisticated submarine or for George Griffith to describe a workable airship. Both writers had to guess what kind of physical principles such craft would depend on. Both, not surprisingly, guessed incorrectly. Wells faced a more serious problem in The Time Machine when he wished to expose for contemplation the long-term future of the human race and the planet Earth. No matter how well based in evolutionary theory his images of the future might be, in order to embed them in a literary work he needed a means of transporting an observer to report back news of them, and that means could only be a pure invention. Spaceships, too, are used in much science fiction simply as a literary device for opening up the immense imaginative territories provided by an infinite range of alien worlds. Whereas Verne, in From the Earth to the Moon, was concerned with the spaceship as a vehicle, an artifact in its own right, Wells, in The First Men in the Moon (1901), simply wanted a way to get his characters to the Moon so that they could investigate the mysteries of Selenite society and provide an eyepiece for a serious exercise in speculative sociology.
Science fiction has no option but to rely on such literary devices; there is no other way to avoid the logical trap pointed out by Karl Popper in the introduction to The Poverty of Historicism (1957)—that it is by definition impossible to know today what new knowledge will materialize tomorrow. Writers attempt to conceal the arbitrariness of these devices by the use of scientific or pseudoscientific jargon, which creates an illusion of plausibility, but this is merely laying a carpet over a hole in the floor.
The imaginative realms to which the writers of scientific romance built literary highways were soon invaded by writers who were not in the least concerned with fidelity to scientific possibility, but who merely wanted new playgrounds to incorporate into their dreams. There grew up, especially in the United States, a tradition of exotic interplanetary romance founded in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of A Princess of Mars (1917). Burroughs was the first of many to exploit a rich new vocabulary of ideas in the service of a purely romantic fiction. He set his fantasies in an imaginary world inside the earth and in a variety of undiscovered islands on its surface, as well as on other planets. The closest British parallel is to be found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912), though the tradition has many affinities with the work of H. Rider Haggard.
When, in the 1920’s, Hugo Gernsback began publishing pulp magazines in the United States specializing in science fiction, he issued a prospectus that strongly emphasized fidelity to scientific fact and the careful exploration of technological possibility, but in his own and rival magazines exotic interplanetary romance quickly took over. The audience that supported the pulp magazines demanded thrillers, the more highly colored the better. Gernsback’s pretensions could not be maintained if the label “science fiction” was to be viable as a brand name for pulp fiction, and they were soon abandoned, although editorial propaganda continued to maintain a hollow pretense.
In Great Britain the situation was rather different. The literary marketplace was organized differently, and following World War I, cheap books displaced popular magazines to a large extent. The category label “science fiction” was not imported until 1945, and even “scientific romance” was not used freely or consistently. World War I had a tremendous impact on the attitudes of the nation, and postwar works of futuristic speculation were often desperately embittered. Their seriousness was rarely in doubt—many are grim stories of alarmism that try hard to impress the reader with the realistic nature of their forebodings.
There appeared a series of future-war stories looking forward to the possible self-destruction of civilization, the best of which are The People of the Ruins (1920), by Edward Shanks; Theodore Savage (1922), by Cicely Hamilton; and Tomorrow’s Yesterday (1932), by John Gloag. Anxiety about the fruits of progress also ran high, with many European writers producing bitter parables in which the lot of humankind is made worse by unwise meddling with the secrets of nature or by the appropriation by power groups of sophisticated technological means of maintaining their power. Key examples include The Absolute at Large (1927), by Karel Capek, and Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley.
Growth of the Science-fiction Novel Market
There is a certain irony in the fact that throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, the works produced in the United States labeled “science fiction” actually bear far less resemblance to commonly held notions of the nature of the genre than the unlabeled speculative fiction produced in Europe. This situation began to change, however, in the 1940’s. The dominant trend in American pulp science fiction from 1938 on—closely associated with the magazine Astounding Science Fiction and its editor John W. Campbell, Jr.—was toward a more sensible and more scrupulous development of hypotheses, while from approximately the same date the British literary community became gradually more aware of American science fiction. By the end of the 1940’s, the label was used widely in Britain by both publishers and commentators. One of the effects of World War II was that the United States and Britain were brought much more closely together in cultural as well as political terms. American science fiction began to be imported into Europe on a large scale, bringing with it a diffuse cultural context that affected the attitude of literary critics toward futuristic and speculative works.
Although virtually all the science fiction produced in Britain between the wars was in the novel form—cheap books being the main form of mass-produced fiction in Britain—this was not true of American science fiction of that period. American science fiction rarely achieved book publication before 1950, so longer works were produced mainly as magazine serials. Several pulp magazines boasted that they presented a full-length novel in every issue, but “full-length” in this context could mean anything between twenty thousand and fifty thousand words—almost never anything longer. For some thirty years after Gernsback’s founding of the first science fiction magazine in 1926, science fiction’s specialist writers devoted themselves first and foremost to the production of short stories and novellas. The long science fiction novel was virtually nonexistent in the United States until the 1960’s, though British writers regularly turned out works well over 100,000 words in length, including such epics as Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Resolution (1933).
This situation changed dramatically in the 1960’s, mainly because of the spectacular market success of the paperback book. Paperbacks surpassed magazines as the chief medium of popular fiction in the United States and achieved the same degree of success in Britain. Once this happened, it became inevitable that writers would switch their main effort into the writing of novels. The old pulp writers adapted—the most important among them being Campbell’s star protégés, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. The postwar generation of magazine writers adapted too, prominent among them being Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, Frank Herbert, John Brunner, Robert Silverberg, and Philip K. Dick. In addition, there emerged in the 1960’s many new writers who made their first impact on the literary scene as writers of science fiction novels, including J. G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Norman Spinrad.
Some novelists have tried to avoid the science-fiction label because they have considered it to carry a definite stigma by virtue of its longtime association with pulp fiction. These writers include Kurt Vonnegut in the United States and John Wyndham in Britain, both of whom wrote abundant work that would be covered by any conceivable definition of science fiction. The willingness of American mainstream writers to borrow from the imagery of science fiction and the increasing interest in the genre taken by American academics have helped to overcome this stigma. Science fiction is no longer written exclusively by specialist writers or read almost exclusively by specialist readers, and the situation of the genre within American culture is now much more similar to the situation that existed in British culture between the wars. It is likely, however, that the most serious science-fiction novels are not taken as seriously as they deserve because of the sheer number of exotic romances of various kinds that are also labeled “science fiction.” The category continues to shelter a great deal of rather crude blood-and thunder dream fantasy, which is frequently more evident to onlookers than is so-called literary science fiction.
Dystopia, Cyberpunk, and New Genres
Arguably, the main achievement of the science-fiction novel has been in helping people become more aware of the dangers posed by new technological developments. Science fiction has always been most effective in its alarmist and pessimistic moods, and its literary quality has been at its highest when its anxieties have run similarly high. Two science-fiction novels—Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)—may arguably be said to have had a greater impact on the popular imagination than any other literary works of the twentieth century. In its anticipation of social and environmental catastrophe, science fiction has been at its strongest; examples include A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), by Walter M. Miller, Jr.; The Drowned World (1962), by J. G. Ballard; Cat’s Cradle (1963), by Kurt Vonnegut; Stand on Zanzibar (1968), by John Brunner; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), by Philip K. Dick; This Is the Way the World Ends (1986), by James Morrow; and the work of ecofeminist Sheri S. Tepper, author of The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), The Margarets (2007), and many other novels.
Science fiction has also succeeded in emphasizing and popularizing hopeful possibilities. It is impossible to measure the contribution made by the imaginative stimulus of science fiction to the realized dream of reaching the Moon, but there can be no doubt that the inspiration of many rocket scientists originated from their reading of science fiction.
The use of science-fiction ideas as metaphors representing facets of the human condition has increased in scope. These developments, first seen in such novels as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside (1972), have helped open up new common ground between science fiction and the mainstream novel so that a profitable cross-fertilization of images and methods can take place. This influence can clearly be seen in such works as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Fay Weldon’s The Cloning of Joanna May (1989), two of the many novels that use science-fiction methods to explore the politics of feminism. Nicola Griffith won the Lambda Literary Award, given to the best lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender novel of the year, for her first science-fiction work, Ammonite (1993), and again for her second, Slow River (2005). Both feature strong lesbian protagonists. One of the few African American women writing in the field of science fiction was Octavia E. Butler, who used the genre to explore race, sexuality, religion, and other social issues. Her best-selling novel Kindred (1979) features a women who travels through time to meet her enslaved ancestors.
Science fiction is a uniquely changeable kind of fiction because it continually absorbs the implications of contemporary advancements in technology with an alacrity that compensates for its lack of authentic powers of foresight. The rapid elaboration and microminiaturization of information technology, in parallel with the development for medical purposes of partially mechanized human cyborgs, inspired the “cyberpunk” movement in the 1980’s, spearheaded by such writers as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Michael Swanwick. This movement combined dystopian ideas of the disintegration of civilization with images of superhumanly enhanced individuals equipped with exotic weaponry and the ability to enter the hypothetical “cyberspace” in which computer programs operate. Cyberpunk proved controversial because more traditionally inclined writers of “hard” (or technophilic) science fiction such as Gregory Benford and David Brin were critical of the movement’s apparent moral nihilism (more reasonably regarded as moral skepticism). The emerging technologies of genetic engineering and hypothetical nanotechnologies (involving machinery whose microminiaturization has advanced by a further order of magnitude) subsequently began to feed into this kind of high-tech picaresque science fiction and made dramatic changes to the conceptual horizons of hard science fiction, as imagined in such works as Greg Bear’s Eon (1985) and Gregory Benford’s Tides of Light (1989).
In the meantime, however, the increasing popularity of horror and heroic fantasy fiction encouraged many writers to straddle genre boundaries in search of wider audiences. The vocabulary of ideas built up over the years by science-fiction writers became a key resource of horror writers such as Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, while an increasing number of modern sciencefiction stories were set in hypothetical alternative pasts rather than foreseeable futures—examples include James Blaylock’s Homunculus (1986), Brian Stableford’s The Empire of Fear (1988), and many novels by Harry Turtledove, including The Misplaced Legion (1987), set in the time of Julius Caesar, and Homeward Bound (2004), set during World War II. Hybrid works skillfully mixing science fiction and fantasy motifs, such as Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates (1983) and Three Days to Never (2006), also became increasingly common.
Given that science fiction is also a label under which religious fantasies such as James Morrow’s Only Begotten Daughter (1990) and his Godhead trilogy (Towing Jehovah, 1993; Blameless in Abaddon, 1996; and The Eternal Footman, 1999) are sometimes marketed, it has become more difficult than ever before to see where the boundaries of the genre lie or to dictate where they ought to lie. As long as contemporary scientific discoveries continue to transform the spectrum of possible futures at a rapid pace, it will be sensible to argue that the science-fiction novel can serve as an essential tool of psychological adaptation for those who find reasons for hope, as well as reasons for anxiety, in the advancement of science and technology.
After 1980, the “science fiction” label—often shortened to “sci-fi”—was applied primarily to films, television shows, and their spin-off merchandise, including long series of tie-in novels. Within the popular genre, text-based materials were increasingly marginalized, a process completed by the successful colonization of the major publishers’ science-fiction and fantasy lists by fantasy novels. Although works of serious hard science fiction continued to appear, it became increasingly common for them to be marketed individually as idiosyncratic items rather than as genre products.
The miniaturization of information technology facilitated by microprocessors has demonstrated that the future of space exploration rests with tiny machines that do not require the elaborate ecological support necessary to sustain humans in space. The image of the future as a gradual conquest of space, which obtained a broad consensus among science-fiction novelists of the 1940’s who survived the 1980’s, has in consequence been banished to the realms of fantasy, although “planetary romances” set on remote worlds remain an effective crucible for thought experiments in social design.
Intellectually respectable science-fiction novels that deal with extraterrestrial futures have been forced to treat humankind’s expansion into space in terms that are far more problematic, as in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, 1992; Green Mars,1993; Blue Mars, 1995) and in Stephen Baxter’s NASA trilogy (Voyage, 1996; Titan, 1997; Moonseed, 1998), or more far-reaching, as in Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1997). Those novelists who have accepted that the foreseeable future will be earthbound have become, by necessity, more preoccupied with the seemingly high probability that the twenty-first century will be beset by a complex, interlinked series of ecological and sociopolitical crises; notable attempts to plot hypothetical historical routes through these crises include David Brin’s Earth (1990), Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It (1991), Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and its sequel Parable of the Talents (1998), and Jack McDevitt’s Odyssey (2006). As the intellectually ambitious elements of science fiction are reabsorbed into the literary mainstream, abandoning the “sci-fi” marketing category to films, television shows, computer games, and toys, this will presumably remain the core activity of literary futurists.
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