The Worldview of Science Fiction
From The Science of Science-Fiction Writing, by James Gunn

Fred Pohl recalls that British writer John T. Philliphent once wrote to him that he had discovered that what set science fiction writers apart was that they used the science fiction method—but he died before he could say what the science fiction method was. So we are left groping for what distinguishes SF from other kinds of fiction and like the blind men fumbling around the elephant find ourselves dealing with one aspect or another but never quite encompassing the whole beast. Fred goes on to speculate that what his friend had come up with had something to do with the way in which SF writers look at the universe. There may be something to this.

Certainly SF, like science itself, is based on the assumption that the universe is knowable even though the greatest part of it may be unknown and may be destined to remain mysterious for the life of any of us, or, indeed, the life of all of us, by which I mean the human species. The knowable universe has no room for the supernatural, or those experiences that by their very nature can never be "known." To bring experiences of the transcendent or the ineffable into the natural world is to destroy one or the other. Thus we have a basic distinction between fantasy and science fiction and even, though, it is not immediately apparent, between mainstream fiction and science fiction.

I would like to suggest, however, that the worldview of science fiction can be narrowed even further. The relationship between science fiction and Darwin's The Origin of the Species long has been apparent. We know, of course, that modern science fiction began with H. G. Wells. Wells seems contemporary and everything before Wells seems quaintly historical, Mary Shelley, Poe, even Verne. The War of the Worlds can be updated, but Frankenstein or From the Earth to the Moon can only be produced as period pieces.

Shelley and Poe and Verne were influenced by blossoming science and an awareness that the world was being changed by it and by its child, technology, but Wells had the benefit of the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. At an obvious level, Darwin's theories of evolution were the most important elements in Thomas H. Huxley's career in biology, and his relationships with Darwin and the defense of his theories in debates across the English countryside are well known. Almost as well known is the fact that the young Wells spent his first year of college studying biology under Huxley and recalled it as a shaping influence, and the fact, as Jack Williamson demonstrated in his doctoral dissertation published as H. G. Wells: Critic of Progress, that the early (and most important) portion of Wells's SF writing was a coming to terms with evolution. Not quite so apparent is the fact that Darwin's theories underlay what we now point at as science fiction.

I've always felt that naturalism and SF have a lot in common—that SF, say, is fantastic naturalism, or naturalized fantasy, or simply that which hasn't happened yet, that we know of, treated naturalistically. Maybe it goes farther than that. C. Hugh Holman, in A Handbook to Literature, defines naturalism as "a movement in the novel in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, America, and England," and "in its simplest sense . . . the application of the principles of scientific determinism to fiction. . . . The fundamental view of man which the naturalist takes is of an animal in the natural world, responding to environmental forces and internal stresses and drive, over none of which he has control and none of which he fully understands. It tends to differ from realism, not in its attempt to be accurate in the portrayal of its materials but in the selection and organization of those materials, selecting not the commonplace but the representative and so arranging the materials that the structure of the novel reveals the pattern of ideas—in this case, scientific theory—which forms the author's view of the nature of experience. In this sense, naturalism shares with romanticism a belief that the actual is important not in itself but in what it can reveal about the nature of a larger reality; it differs sharply from romanticism, however, in finding that reality not in transcendent ideas or absolute ideals but in the scientific laws which can be perceived through the action of individual instances. This distinction may be illustrated in this way. Given a block of wood and a force pushing upon it, producing in it a certain acceleration: Realism will tend to concentrate its attention on the accurate description of that particular block, that special force, and that definite acceleration; Romanticism will tend to see in the entire operation an illustration or symbol or suggestion of a philosophical truth and will so represent the block, the force, and the acceleration—often with complete fidelity to fact—that the idea or ideal that it bodies forth is the center of the interest; and naturalism will tend to see in the operation a clue or a key to the scientific law which undergirds it and to be interested in the relationship between the force, the block, and the produced acceleration and will so represent the operation that Newton's second law of motion (even on occasion in its mathematical expression—F = ma) is demonstrated or proved by this representative instance of its universal occurrence in nature. In this sense naturalism is the novelist's response to the revolution in thought that modern science has produced. From Newton it gains a sense of mechanistic determinism; from Darwin (the greatest single force operative upon it) it gains a sense of biological determinism and the inclusive metaphor of the lawless jungle which it has used perhaps more often than any other; from Marx it gains a view of history as a battleground of vast economic and social forces; from Freud it gains a view of the determinism of the inner and subconscious self; from Taine it gains a view of literature as a product of deterministic forces; from Comte it gains of view of social and environmental determinism. . . ."

Most of the Holman's description of naturalism could be applied to science fiction with only a few reservations. The reason for this is partly because both are the products of modern science and in particular of the theory of evolution. Darwin produced naturalism and science fiction applied naturalism to the fantastic. In other words, science fiction takes the unusual, the remarkable event that has not happened, and presents it as part of the natural world. More important, the naturalistic story treats human beings as part of the natural world, as a product of their environment, and their failures and successes (primarily their failures) as a result of their environment rather than their characters or decisions, but as captured in that moment like fossils embedded in limestone. Science fiction, on the other hand, treats human beings as a species that has evolved as a result of environment but, and this is the crucial distinction from naturalism, as a species upon whom the evolutionary process is still at work.

Science fiction, then, deals with people as if they were creatures as adaptable as the protoplasm from which they emerged. Change the conditions and humanity will change. The first premise of SF is that humanity is adaptable. To that premise, however, science fiction added another that naturalism never had: Although humanity is as much a product of its environment as the other animals, it possesses a quality that the other animals lack—the intellectual ability to recognize its origins and the processes at work upon it, and even, sometimes, to choose a course other than that instilled by its environment. In naturalism such recognition at best leads to sense of tragic loss.

One of the best statements of this SF worldview is contained in Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun—his 1950s Robot Novels. In The Caves of Steel people have become so accustomed to enclosure that they all suffer from agoraphobia; for them even the possibility of going outside the roofed city is unthinkable. The murder mystery that drives the action of The Caves of Steel is based upon the agoraphobia of its citizens, and a major factor in its solution is Lije Bailey's ability to think the unthinkable.

Moreover, a subplot of the Robot Novels involves the plans of some Spacers to push the short-lived, disease-ridden, agoraphobic Terrans into expanding into what will later become the Galactic Empire, but that depends upon Terrans conquering their agoraphobia and being able to set off in spaceships for distant suns. Bailey not only fights his own fears of open spaces in The Naked Sun, he organizes a group to help others do the same.

These two basic principles, it seems to me, create that difficult-to-define something by which we identify science fiction, and if it doesn't involve them we may feel that it is like SF but it doesn't quite have the right stuff. At least that is true of American SF. New Wave SF, for instance, tended to describe the environmental aspect of human behavior but, like naturalism, stopped at that. Or, rather, it assumed that people are moved more by obsession than rational choice, and that crippled their ability to cope with change. J. G. Ballard's stories and novels are good examples, with their characters paralyzed by change rather than adapting to it or moved to action by it. A good deal of non-English-language SF does not have the second premise (the ability to act other than the way one is conditioned to behave), either, and when I was researching stories to include in The Road to Science Fiction #6: Around the World I found a great many stories that involved the naturalistic recognition of humanity's evolutionary past but not as much of the human ability to recognize that fact and rise above it.

This is not to say that there is anything inherently right or wrong about belief in the power of rationality over conditioning. Most of the time people do behave as if they were programmed, but occasionally they act as if they had free will. American SF has focused on the few problem solvers who have done the most to change life and society, and thereby, according to American SF, people themselves. Other SF, Forster's "The Machine Stops," say, as opposed to Campbell's "Twilight," may have based its beliefs about people on the more common kind of behavior.

In "The Machine Stops," for instance, humanity has been reduced to total dependence on the machine and not only does not recognize that fact (except for one aberrant individual) but does not even notice when the machine begins to fail. In "Twilight" humanity has lost its curiosity because of the lack of competition, not because of the machine, but at the end a visitor to that far-distant future instructs a machine to create a curious machine, making it the inheritor of humanity's mission to ask questions of the universe.

Mainstream fiction seems to do without Darwin entirely. As a matter of fact, in a mainstream story the origins of humanity, if they enter at all, are more likely to be Biblical than evolutionary. If evolution enters, the story is transformed into science fiction.

Mainstream fiction's preoccupation with the present reflects an apparent desire to freeze reality in its current state, and a belief that everything that has happened or is likely to happen is of little importance except as it reflects upon the present. Mainstream's preoccupation with the reactions and reflections of individuals who have little influence in their own times and no historical influence suggests that reality is less important than the way people feel about it. To put it another way, the concentration by mainstream fiction on social interactions seems to incorporate the conviction that the most important, if not the only important, aspect of existence is the ways in which people relate to each other.

Science fiction, on the other hand, incorporates a belief that the most important aspect of existence is a search for humanity's origins, its purpose, and its ultimate fate. Mainstream fiction may seem more "real" because it reflects the reality that most people deal with in their everyday existence: the social world and our interactions with it and our feelings about it. But is the evolution of humanity less real because it is less quotidian?

The shape of mainstream fiction is dictated by its belief in what is important. It is dense with character not because that is what "good fiction" concerns itself with but because that is what mainstream fiction is about. Science fiction, which has often been criticized because of the thinness of its characterization, is similarly the result of SF beliefs. When one is concerned about the way in which people are the products of their environments and how one can free oneself to act in ways other than that one has been conditioned to do, the feelings of the characters about their situations, or even aspects of individual character or reactions to the general predicament, seem of little moment.

Similarly, mainstream fiction has minimized or discarded plot as "mere incident," while plot remains at the heart of science fiction. This suggests that for the mainstream what happens does not really matter; nothing new is going to occur, and the only proper concern is how character should react to repetition. Science fiction, on the other hand, exists in a world of change, and the focus is on external events: What is the change and how are humans (or aliens) going to respond to it?


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