Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction
Is science fiction literature?
Can it be judged by the usual literary criteria?
Such a statement requires not only justification but considerable elaboration. Written science fiction is, of course, literature, although science fiction in other media (films, drama, perhaps even painting or sculpture) must be judged by standards other than those applied to the written word.1 Concentrating on science fiction as literature, primarily as prose fiction, this paper will attempt to indicate some of the limitations critics encounter in trying to apply traditional literary criticism to science fiction. To be brief, the access of academic interest in science fiction that has occurred during the last few years has led to considerable difficulty. Not only do academic critics find themselves imprisoned by habitual (and unreflecting) condescension in dealing with this particular genre; quite often their critical tools, however finely honed, are simply not applicable to a body of work that - despite its superficial resemblance to realistic or naturalistic twentieth-century fiction - is fundamentally a drastically different form of literary art.
Fine beginnings have been made in the typology of science fiction by Darko Suvin2 of McGill University, who builds on the parameters prescribed for the genre by the Polish writer and critic, Stanislaw Lem.3 Samuel Delany, a science-fiction writer and theorist, has dealt with the same matters in a recent paper concerned largely with problems of definition.4
One very important point which emerges in the work of all three critics is that standards of plausibility - as one may apply them to science fiction - must be derived not only from the observation of life as it is or has been lived, but also, rigorously and systematically, from science. And in this context "science" must include disciplines ranging from mathematics (which is formally empty) through the "hard" sciences (physics, astronomy, chemistry) through the "soft" sciences (ethology, psychology, sociology) all the way to disciplines which as yet exist only in the descriptive or speculative stage (history, for example, or political theory).
Science fiction is not fantasy, for the standards of plausibility of fantasy derive not from science, but from the observation of life as it is - inner life, perhaps, in this case. Mistakes in scientific possibility do not turn science fiction into fantasy. They are merely mistakes. Nor does the out-dating of scientific theory transform the science fiction of the past into fantasy.5 Error-free science fiction is an ideal as impossible of achievement as the nineteenth century ideal of an "objective," realistic novel. Not that in either case the author can be excused for not trying; unreachability is, after all, what ideals are for. But only God can know enough to write either kind of book perfectly.
For the purposes of the aesthetics of science fiction, a remark of Professor Suvin's made casually at the 1968 annual meeting of the Modern Language Association seems to me extremely fruitful. Science fiction, said Suvin, is "quasi-medieval." Professor Suvin has not elaborated on this insight, as he seems at the moment more concerned with the nature of science fiction's cognitive relation to what he calls the "zero world" of "empirically verifiable properties around the author."6 To me the phrase "quasi-medieval" suggests considerable insight, particularly into the reasons why critical tools developed with an entirely different literature in mind often do not work when applied to science fiction. I should like to propose the following:
That despite superficial similarities to naturalistic (or other) modern fiction, the protagonists of science fiction are always collective, never individual persons (although individuals often appear as exemplary or representative figures).
That science fiction's emphasis is always on phenomena - to the point where reviewers and critics can commonly use such phrases as "the idea as hero."
That science fiction is not only didactic, but very often awed, worshipful, and religious in tone. Damon Knight's famous phrase for this is "the sense of wonder."7 To substantiate this last, one needs only a head-count of Messiahs in recent science fiction novels, the abrupt changes of scale (either spatial or temporal) used to induce cosmic awe in such works as Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, James Blish's Surface Tension, stories like Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" and "The Last Question," Arthur C. Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God," and the change of tone at the end of Clarke's Childhood's End or Philip José Farmer's story "Sail On! Sail On!" (The film 2001 is another case in point.)
The emphasis on phenomena, often at the complete expense of human character, needs no citation; it is apparent to anyone who has any acquaintance with the field. Even in pulp science fiction populated by grim-jawed heroes, the human protagonist, if not Everyman, is a glamorized version of Super-everyman. That science fiction is didactic hardly needs proof, either. The pleasure science fiction writers take in explaining physics, thirtieth-century jurisprudence, the mechanics of teleportation, patent law, four-dimensional geometry, or whatever happens to be on the tapis, lies open in any book that has not degenerated into outright adventure story with science-fiction frills.8 Science fiction even has its favorite piece of theology. Just as contemporary psychoanalytic writers cannot seem to write anything without explaining the Oedipus complex at least once, so science fiction writers dwell lovingly on the time dilation consequent to travel at near light-speed. Science is to science fiction (by analogy) what medieval Christianity was to deliberately didactic medieval fiction.
I would like to propose that contemporary literary criticism (not having been developed to handle such material) is not the ideal tool for dealing with fiction that is explicitly, deliberately, and baldly didactic. (Modern criticism appears to experience the same difficulty in handling the 18th century contes philosophiques Professor Suvin cites as among the ancestors of science fiction.) Certainly if one is to analyze didactic literature, one must first know what system of beliefs or ideas constitutes the substance of the didacticism. A modern critic attempting to understand science fiction without understanding modern science is in the position of a medievalist attempting to read Piers Plowman without any but the haziest ideas about medieval Catholicism. (Or, possibly, like a modern critic attempting to understand Bertolt Brecht without any knowledge of Marxist economic analysis beyond a vague and uninformed distrust.)
An eminent critic (who knows better now) once asked me during a discussion of a novel of Kurt Vonnegut's, "But when you get to the science, don't you just make it up?" The answer, of course, is no. Science fiction must not offend against what is known. Only in areas where nothing is known - or knowledge is uncertain - is it permissible to just "Make it up." (Even then what is made up must be systematic, plausible, rigorously logical, and must avoid offending against what is known to be known.)
Of course didactic fiction does not always tell people something new; often it tells them what they already know, and the re-telling becomes a reverent ritual, very gratifying to all concerned. There is some of this in science fiction, although (unlike the situation obtaining in medieval Christianity) this state of affairs is considered neither necessary nor desirable by many readers. There is science fiction that concentrates on the very edges of what is known. There is even science fiction that ignores what is known. The latter is bad science fiction.9
How can a criticism developed to treat a post-medieval literature of individual destinies, secular concerns, and the representation of what is (rather than what might be) illuminate science fiction?
Science fiction presents an eerie echo of the attitudes and interests of a pre-industrial, pre-Renaissance, pre-secular, pre-individualistic culture. It has been my experience that medievalists take easily and kindly to science fiction, that they are often attracted to it, that its didacticism presents them with no problems, and that they enjoy this literature much more than do students of later literary periods.10 So, in fact, do city planners, architects, archaeologists, engineers, rock musicians, anthropologists, and nearly everybody except most English professors.
Without knowledge of or appreciation of the "theology" of science fiction - that is, science - what kind of criticism will be practiced on particular science fiction works?
Often critics may use their knowledge of the recurrent and important themes of Western culture to misperceive what is actually in a science fiction story. For example, recognizable themes or patterns of imagery can be insisted on far beyond their actual importance in the work simply because they are familiar to the critic. Or the symbolic importance of certain material can be mis-read because the significance of the material in the cultural tradition science fiction comes from (which is overwhelmingly that of science, not literature) is simply not known to the critic. Sometimes material may be ignored because it is not part of the critic's cognitive universe.
For example, in H.G. Wells's magnificent novella, The Time Machine, a trip into the 8000th century presents us with a world that appears to be directly reminiscent of Eden, a "weedless garden" full of warm sunlight, untended but beautiful flowers, and effortless innocence. Wells even has his Time Traveler call the happy inhabitants of this garden "Eloi" (from the Hebrew "Elohim"). Certainly the derivation of these details is obvious. Nor can one mistake the counter-world the Time Traveler discovers below-ground; a lightless, hellish, urban world populated by bleached monsters. But the critic may make too much of all this. For example, Bernard Bergonzi (I suspect his behavior would be fairly typical) overweights Wells's heavenly/demonic imagery.11 Certainly The Time Machine's pastoral future does echo a great deal of material important in the Western literary tradition, but it is a mistake to think of these (very obtrusive) clusters of Edenic-pastoral/ hellish imagery as the "hidden" meaning of Wells's Social Darwinism. On the contrary, it is the worlds of the Eloi and the Morlocks that are put in the employ of the Social Darwinism, which is itself only an example of mindless evolution, of the cruelty of material determinism, and of the tragic mindlessness of all physical process. The real center of Wells's story is not even in his ironic reversal of the doctrine of the fortunate fall (evolution, in Wells's view in The Time Machine, inevitably produces what one might call the unfortunate rise - the very production of intelligence, of mind, is what must, sooner or later, destroy mind). Even the human devolution pictured in the story is only a special case of the iron physical law that constitutes the true center of the book and the true agony of Wells's vision. This vision is easy to overlook not because it is subtle, indirect, or hidden, but because it is so blatantly hammered home in all the Time Traveler's speculations about evolution and - above all - in a chapter explicitly entitled "The Farther Vision." As Eric Bentley once remarked, "clarity is the first requisite of didacticism."12 Didactic art must, so to speak, wear its meaning on its sleeve. The Time Machine is not about a lost Eden; it is - passionately and tragically - about the Three Laws of Thermodynamics, especially the second. The slow cooling of the sun in "The Farther Vision" foreshadows the heat-death of the universe. In fact, the novella is a series of deaths: individual death (as exemplified by Weena's presumed death and the threat to the Time Traveler himself from the Morlocks) is bad enough; the "wilderness of rotting paper" in the Palace of Green Porcelain, an abandoned museum, is perhaps worse; the complete disappearance of mind in humanity's remote descendants (the kangaroo-like animals) is horrible; but the death of absolutely everything, the physical degradation of the entire universe, is a Gotterdämmerung earlier views of the nature of the universe could hardly conceive - let alone prove. As the Time Traveler says after leaving "that remote and awful twilight," "I'm sorry to have brought you out here in the cold."
Unless a critic can bring to The Time Machine not only a knowledge of the science that stands behind it, but the passionate belief that such knowledge is real and that it matters, the critic had better stay away from science fiction. Persons to whom the findings of science seem only bizarre, fanciful, or irrelevant to everyday life, have no business with science fiction - or with science for that matter - although they may deal perfectly well with fiction that ignores both science and the scientific view of reality.
For example, a short story of Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Masters" (in Fantastic, Feb. 1963), has as its emotional center the rediscovery of the duodecimal system. To criticize this story properly one must know about three things: the Arabic invention of the zero, the astounding importance of this invention for mathematics (and hence the sciences), and the fact that one may count with any base. In fact, the duodecimal system, with its base of 12, is far superior to our decimal system with its base of 10.
A third example of ways science fiction can be mis-read can be provided by Hal Clement's novel, Close to Critical. The story treats of an alien species inhabiting a planet much like Jupiter. Some psychoanalytic critic, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, once treated material like this (the story was, I think, Milton Rothman's "Heavy Planet") as psychoneurotic, i.e. the projection of repressed infantile fears. And certainly a Jovian or Jovian-like landscape would be extremely bizarre. Clement's invented world, with its atmosphere 3000 times as dense as ours, its gravity three times ours, its total darkness, its pine-cone-shaped inhabitants, its hundred-foot wide "raindrops" that condense at night and evaporate each morning, can easily be perceived by the scientifically ignorant as a series of grotesque morbidities. In such a view Close to Critical is merely nightmarish. But to decide this is to ignore the evidence. Clement's gas-giant is neither nightmarish nor grotesque, but merely accurate. In fact, Mr. Clement is the soberest of science fiction writers and his characters are always rational, humane, and highly likeable. The final effect of the novel is exactly the opposite of nightmare; it is affectionate familiarity. The Jovian-like world is a real world. One understands and appreciates it. It is, to its inhabitants, no worse and no better than our own. It is, finally, beautiful - in the same way and for the same reasons that Earth is beautiful. Close to Critical evokes Knight's "sense of wonder" because it describes a genuinely possible place, indeed a place that is highly likely according to what we know of the universe. The probability of the setting is what makes the book elegant - in the mathematical sense, that is: aesthetically satisfying. If there is anything grotesque in Clement's work, it is in the strain caused by the split between idea-as-hero (which is superbly handled) and the human protagonists, who are neither interesting, probable, nor necessary, and whose appearance in the book at all is undoubtedly due to the American pulp tradition out of which American science fiction arose after World War I. The book suffers from serious confusion of form.
Science fiction, like medieval painting, addresses itself to the mind, not the eye. We are not presented with a representation of what we know to be true through direct experience; rather we are given what we know to be true through other means - or in the case of science fiction, what we know to be at least possible. Thus the science fiction writer can portray Jupiter as easily as the medieval painter can portray Heaven; neither of them has been there, but that doesn't matter. To turn from other modern fiction to science fiction is oddly like turning from Renaissance painting with all the flesh and foreshortening to the clarity and luminousness of painters who paint ideas. For this reason, science fiction, like much medieval art, can deal with transcendental events. Hence the tendency of science fiction towards wonder, awe, and a religious or quasi-religious attitude towards the universe.
Persons who consider science untrue, or irrelevant to what really matters, or inimical to humane values, can hardly be expected to be interested in science fiction. Nor can one study science fiction as some medievalists (presumably) might study their material - that is, by finding equivalents for a system of beliefs they cannot accept in literal form. To treat medieval Catholicism as irrelevant to medieval literature is bad scholarship; to treat it as somebody else's silly but interesting superstitions is likewise extremely damaging to any consideration of the literature itself. But non-scientific equivalents for the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the intricacies of genetics - or whatever a particular science fiction story is about - will not do, either. Science bears too heavily on all our lives for that. All of us - willy-nilly - must live as if we believed the body of modern science were true. Moreover, science itself contains methods for determining what about it is true - not metaphorically true, or metaphysically true, or emotionally true, but simply, plainly, physically, literally true.
If the critic believes that scientific truth is unreal, or irrelevant to his (the critic's) business, then science fiction becomes only a series of very odd metaphors for "the human condition" (which is taken to be different from or unconnected to any scientific truths about the universe). Why should an artist draw metaphors from such a peculiar and totally extra-literary source? Especially when there are so many more intelligent (and intelligible) statements of the human condition which already exist - in our (non-science-fiction) literary tradition? Are writers of science fiction merely kinky? Or perverse? Or stubborn? One can imagine what C.P. Snow would have to say about this split between the two cultures [ed: See his important "The Two Cultures" piece (.pdf)]13a.
One thing he might say is that science fiction bridges the two cultures. It draws its beliefs, its material, its great organizing metaphors, its very attitudes, from a culture that could not exist before the industrial revolution, before science became both an autonomous activity and a way of looking at the world. In short, science fiction is not derived from traditional Western literary culture and critics of traditional Western literature have good reason to regard science fiction as a changeling in the literary cradle.
Perhaps science fiction is one symptom of a change in sensibility (and culture) as profound as that of the Renaissance. Despite its ultra-American, individualistic muscle-flexing, science fiction (largely American in origins and influence)13 is nonetheless collective in outlook, didactic, materialist, and paradoxically often intensely religious or mystical. Such a cluster of traits reminds one not only of medieval culture, but, possibly, of tendencies in our own, post-industrial culture. It may be no accident that elaborate modern statements of the aesthetic of the didactic are to be found in places like Brecht's "A Short Organum for the Theatre."14 Of course, didactic art does not necessarily mean propaganda or political Leftism. But there are similarities between Samuel Delany's insistence that modern literature must be concerned not with passion, but with perception,15 Suvin's definition of science fiction as a literature of "cognitive estrangement,"16 George Bernard Shaw's insistence on art as didactic, Brecht's definition of art as a kind of experiment, and descriptions of science fiction as "thought experiments."17 It is as if literary and dramatic art were being asked to perform tasks of analysis and teaching as a means of dealing with some drastic change in the conditions of human life.
Science fiction is the only modern literature to take work as its central and characteristic concern.
Except for some modern fantasy (e.g. the novels of Charles Williams) science fiction is the only kind of modern narrative literature to deal directly (often awkwardly) with religion as process, not as doctrine, i.e. the ground of feeling and experience from which religion springs.
Like much "post-modern" literature (Nabokov, Borges) science fiction deals commonly, typically, and often insistently, with epistemology.
It is unlikely that science fiction will ever become a major form of literature. Life-as-it-is (however glamorized or falsified) is more interesting to most people than the science-fictional life-as-it-might-be. Moreover, the second depends on an understanding and appreciation of the first. In a sense, science fiction includes (or is parasitic on, depending on your point of view) non-science fiction.
However, there is one realm in which science fiction will remain extremely important. It is the only modern literature which attempts to assimilate imaginatively scientific knowledge about reality and the scientific method, as distinct from the merely practical changes science has made in our lives. The latter are important and sometimes overwhelming, but they can be dealt with imaginatively in exactly the same way a Londoner could have dealt with the Great Plague of 1665 ("Life is full of troubles") or the way we characteristically deal with our failures in social organization ("Man is alienated"). Science fiction is also the only modern literary form (with the possible exception of the detective puzzle) which embodies in its basic assumptions the conviction that finding out, or knowing about something - however impractical the knowledge - is itself a crucial good. Science fiction is a positive response to the post-industrial world, not always in its content (there is plenty of nostalgia for the past and dislike of change in science fiction) but in its very assumptions, its very form.
Criticism of science fiction cannot possibly look like the criticism we are used to. It will - perforce - employ an aesthetic in which the elegance, rigorousness, and systematic coherence of explicit ideas is of great importance.18 It will therefore appear to stray into all sorts of extra-literary fields, metaphysics, politics, philosophy, physics, biology, psychology, topology, mathematics, history, and so on. The relations of foreground and background that we are so used to after a century and a half of realism will not obtain. Indeed, they may be reversed. Science-fiction criticism will discover themes and structures (like those of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men) which may seem recondite, extra-literary, or plain ridiculous. Themes we customarily regard as emotionally neutral will be charged with emotion. Traditionally "human" concerns will be absent; protagonists may be all but unrecognizable as such. What in other fiction would be marvelous will here be merely accurate or plain; what in other fiction would be ordinary or mundane will here be astonishing, complex, wonderful. (For example, allusions to the death of God will be trivial jokes, while metaphors involving the differences between telephone switchboards and radio stations will be poignantly tragic. Stories ostensibly about persons will really be about topology. Erotics will be intracranial, mechanical [literally], and moving.)19
Science fiction is, of course, about human concerns. It is written and read by human beings. But the culture from which it comes - the experiences, attitudes, knowledge, and learning which one must bring to it - these are not at all what we are used to as proper to literature. They may, however, be increasingly proper to human life. According to Professor Suvin, the last century has seen a sharp rise in the popularity of science fiction in all the leading industrial nations of the world.20 There will, in all probability, be more and more science fiction written, and therefore more and more of a need for its explication and criticism.
Such criticism will not be easy. The task of a modern critic of science fiction might be compared to the difficulties of studying Shakespeare's works armed only with a vast, miscellaneous mass of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, a few remarks of Ben Jonson's, some scattered eulogies in Richard Burbage, Rowe's comments on Othello, and a set of literary standards derived exclusively from the Greek and Latin classics - which, somehow, do not quite fit.
Some beginnings have been made in outlining an aesthetics of science fiction, particularly in the work of Lem and Suvin, but much remains to be done. Perhaps the very first task lies in discovering that we are indeed dealing with a new and different literature. Applying the standards and methods one is used to can have only three results: the dismissal of all science fiction as non-literature, a preference for certain narrow kinds of science fiction (because they can be understood at least partly in the usual way), or a misconceiving and misperception of the very texts one is trying to understand. The first reaction seems to be the most common. In the second category one might place the odd phenomenon that critics inexperienced in the field seem to find two kinds of fiction easy to deal with: seventeenth century flights to the moon and dystopias. Thus Brave New World and 1984 have received much more critical attention than, say, Shaw's late plays or Stapledon's work. The third category has hitherto been rare because academic consideration of science fiction has been rare, but it could become all too common if the increasing popularity of college courses in the subject is not accompanied by criticism proper to the subject. Futurologists, physicists, and sociologists may use science fiction in extra-literary ways but they are not literary critics. If the literary critics misperceive or misconceive their material, the results will be to discourage readers, discourage science fiction writers (who are as serious about their work as any other writers), destroy the academic importance of the subject itself, and thus impoverish the whole realm of literature, of which science fiction is a new - but a vigorous and growing - province.
1"Environments" and similar examples of contemporary art seem to lend themselves to science fiction. For example, as of this writing, an "archeological" exhibit of the fictional Civilization of Llhuros is visiting our local museum. Strictly speaking, the exhibit is fantasy and not science fiction, since the creator (Professor Norman Daly of Cornell University) makes no attempt to place this imaginary country in either a known, a future, or an extraterrene history.
2See particularly "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," College English 34(1972):372-82.
3For example, "On The Structural Analysis of Science Fiction," SFS 1(1973):26-33.
4"About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy-Five Words, Extrapolation 10(1969):52-66.
5At least not immediately. Major changes in scientific theory may lead to major re-evaluation in the fiction, but most science fiction hasn't been around long enough for that. I would agree with George Bernard Shaw that didactic literature does (at least in part) wear out with time, but most science fiction can still rest on the Scottish verdict of "not proven."
6Suvin (Note 2), p377.
7Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder (2nd edn 1967). The phrase is used throughout.
8From time to time what might even be called quasi-essays appear, e.g., Larry Niven, "The Theory and Practice of Teleportation," Galaxy, March 1969.
9A dictum attributed to Theodore Sturgeon, science-fiction writer, is that 90% of anything is bad.
10As of this writing, SUNY Binghamton is presenting a summer course in science fiction taught by a graduate student who is - a medievalist.
11Bernard Bergonzi, The Early H.G. Wells (1961), p52ff.
12Eric Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker (New York 1967), p224.
13Kingsley Amis emphasizes that 20th-century science fiction is predominantly an American phenomenon: New Maps of Hell New York 1960), p17 (or Ballantine Books edn, p17), q.v.
13aC.P. Snow's The Two Cultures" article (.pdf).
14In Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett (New York 1962), pp179-205.
15In a talk given at the MLA seminar on science fiction, December 1968, in New York.
16Suvin (Note 2), p372.
17This phrase has been used so widely in the field that original attribution is impossible.
18Suvin (Note 2), p381, as follows: "The consistency of extrapolation, precision of analogy, and width of reference in such a cognitive discussion turn into aesthetic factors...a cognitive - in most cases strictly scientific - element becomes a measure of aesthetic quality."
19In turn, James Blish's Black Easter (which I take to be about Manicheanism), Stapledon's Last and First Men (the Martian invasion), A.J. Deutsch's "A Subway Named Moebius" (frequently anthologized), and George Zebrowski's "Starcrossed" (In Eros in Orbit, ed. Joseph Elder, 1973).
20Suvin (Note 2), p372.
Originally published in Science Fiction Studies #6, Volume 2, Part 2 (July 1975)
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