Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature
Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature
Aliens, time travel, sorcerers, and dragons! The domains of Science Fiction and Fantasy literature are recognizable to many people, and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the messages and social commentary behind these icons captivated readers, and more recently critics. Science Fiction and Fantasy appear from the outside to be two distinct forms of literature, and yet the two genres share some similar characteristics and roots. This paradox has inspired much debate over the twentieth century, while the movement itself has grown into a booming publishing industry that shows no signs of slowing.
Critics and historians have widely different viewpoints about the origins of Science Fiction. Still, many have conceded that Mary Shelley's 1818 British novel Frankenstein was the first novel to explore the hypothetical implications of modern science. Most agree that Jules Verne's novels from his Extraordinary Journeys series, including Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, helped to define the genre. Although most of the early works were published in Europe, in the first half of the twentieth century, Science Fiction and Fantasy literature exploded in the United States, due in large part to inexpensive, genre pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories, which reprinted novels such as H. G. Wells's The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds,and to more expensive magazines such as Astounding Stories, which helped introduce influential new writers such as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.
Science Fiction and Fantasy literature inspired many related movements in film, television, and art, and profoundly influenced the development of science and culture in the twentieth century. In the early 2000s, the field remains dominated by American authors, many of whom continue to use their speculative creations to comment on current realities.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
Isaac Asimov was born January 2, 1920, in Petrovichi, U.S.S.R. (the former Soviet Union), and moved to the United States with his parents in 1923, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1928. Asimov was a voracious reader. His love of science led to a doctorate in chemistry from Columbia University and a subsequent post as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University's School of Medicine—a position he held for much of his writing career. Although he published more than 450 fiction and nonfiction books, making him one of the most prolific writers in history, Asimov is most remembered for his Science Fiction works, which influenced many writers in the United States during Science Fiction's golden age. Asimov has been credited with coining the term robotics and with creating "The Three Laws of Robotics," which made their first appearance in his early robot short stories, collected in I, Robot. Asimov died of heart and kidney failure on April 6, 1992, in New York City.
Ray Bradbury (1920-)
Ray Douglas Bradbury was born August 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois. During the depression, Bradbury's family moved to Los Angeles to find work. Bradbury began, like many other Science Fiction authors of the golden age, publishing his fiction in the fanzine he edited. In 1941, Bradbury published his first short story, and six years later, published his first story collection. With the publication of The Martian Chronicles, a series of interconnected short stories about the human colonization of Mars, Bradbury achieved enough critical success to break out of Science Fiction genre magazines into the more reputed mainstream magazines, which were off limits to most Science Fiction writers. In 2004, he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. He was given a special citation by the Pulitzer board in 2007 in recognition of his literary contributions. As of 2008, Bradbury lived and worked in Los Angeles, California.
Robert Heinlein (1907-1988)
Robert Anson Heinlein was born July 7, 1907, in Butler, Missouri. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who started writing Science Fiction in their youth, Heinlein did not enter the field until he had already worked as a naval officer and studied physics and mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles. As one of the Science Fiction writers for genre magazines during Science Fiction's golden age, Heinlein had a sophisticated writing style and raised the bar on Science Fiction literature and influenced many other writers. After working as an engineer in World War II alongside fellow Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Heinlein published several Science Fiction juveniles, or young adult novels, then he began a series of controversial novels, including Stranger in a Strange Land, his best-known work. Heinlein, considered by many to be the most influential figure in American Science Fiction, died of heart failure on May 8, 1988, in Carmel, California.
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)
The grandson of T. H. Huxley, a noted biologist and proponent of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, Aldous Leonard Huxley was born July 26, 1894, in Godalming, Surrey, England. Huxley originally intended to pursue a career in medicine, but an eye disease that led to temporary blindness prevented his doing so. Although Huxley wrote in several different fiction and nonfiction genres, his most famous work is Brave New World, a Science Fiction novel that draws on evolutionary theory to create a nightmarish vision of the future. Five years after the novel's publication, Huxley moved to Los Angeles, California, where he wrote more mystical works until his death on November 22, 1963, in Hollywood. Huxley died on the same day as his British contemporary C. S. Lewis and on the same day that U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Clive Staples Lewis, known to readers as C. S. Lewis, was born November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland. An atheist as a teenager, Lewis slowly came to renew his faith in Christianity then incorporated his beliefs into his writing. After attending Oxford University, Lewis taught English literature at Oxford for almost thirty years. During his tenure as a professor, Lewis, along with fellow Christian Fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien and others, founded the Inklings, a casual club that met to discuss the writers' works in progress. Although Lewis wrote nonfiction also, it is his fantastical writings that made him most popular. His seven-volume children's series The Chronicles of Narnia, a Christian allegorical Fantasy, has delighted generations of popular audiences, particularly children. Lewis died of heart failure in Oxford, England, on November 22, 1963, the same day as Huxley and U.S. president Kennedy died in the United States.
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft August 30, 1797, in London, England. The daughter of two well-known authors, William Godwin and Mary Wollstone-craft, Mary faced instability in her early years. Her mother died shortly after her birth, her father remarried, and she grew up in a chaotic environment with siblings from her father's two marriages, her stepmother's previous marriage, and her mother's previous affair. When she was fifteen, Mary met and fell in love with a friend of her father, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary had an affair with Percy, who was already married, and the two of them fled to Europe when she was seventeen, where Mary wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, which many critics consider the first true Science Fiction work. Following the suicide of Percy's wife, Percy and Mary were married. Four years after Frankenstein was published, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned. Mary Shelley lived for almost thirty years as a widow then died in London of a brain tumor on February 1, 1851, at the age of fifty-three.
J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, known to readers as J. R. R. Tolkien, was born January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. When he was four years old, Tolkien's family moved to England. After attending Oxford University, Tolkien taught English language and literature first at Leeds, then at Oxford. During this time, Tolkien, along with fellow Christian Fantasy writer C. S. Lewis and others, founded the Inklings, a casual club that met to discuss the writers' works in progress. Tolkien's passion for language and literary history culminated in his creation of Middle-Earth, a mythical world, modeled on northern and ancient literatures. Middle-Earth made its debut in Tolkien's The Hobbit, the prelude to his trilogy "The Lord of the Rings." Because of these works, Tolkien is considered by many to be the father of modern Fantasy stories. Tolkien died of complications from an ulcer and chest infection on September 2, 1973, in Bournemouth, England.
Jules Verne (1828-1905)
Jules Verne was born February 8, 1828, in Nantes, France. At age twenty, he left for Paris, where he studied law, intending to join his father's law firm. After passing his law exam, he struggled in Paris for several years, attempting to make a living off his writing. Although one of his plays was produced in 1850, it was not until 1863, after working as both a secretary for a theater and a stockbroker, that Verne's writing attracted the attention of Jules Hetzel, the magazine publisher who printed the majority of Verne's novels in serial form. The most famous novels are those that Verne called Extraordinary Journeys, including Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, which helped to establish Verne's reputation as one of the two founding fathers of modern Science Fiction (along with H. G. Wells). Verne wrote until his death on March 24, 1905, in Amiens, France.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007)
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. While serving in the United States Army in Germany during World War II, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and kept as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany. There he witnessed the Allied firebombing of the city on February 13, 1945, and was one of few survivors of the firestorm that killed an estimated 120,000 people. This experience earned Vonnegut a Purple Heart and, more importantly, gave him the basis for much of his fiction. Vonnegut dealt with war themes in many of his early novels, but it was not until the publication of Slaughterhouse Five: or, the Children's Crusade that Vonnegut told the full story of his Dresden experience through his characters. He died on April 11, 2007, in New York City.
H. G. Wells (1866-1946)
Herbert George Wells, known to readers as H. G. Wells, was born September 21, 1866, in Bromley, England. He won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London, where he studied under T. H. Huxley, the famous proponent of Darwin's theory of evolution and grandfather of noted Science Fiction writer Aldous Huxley. Although infatuated with his first-year studies with Huxley, Wells spent most of his remaining school years performing extracurricular activities such as founding and editing a college magazine. It was in this magazine that he first published "The Chronic Argonauts," which was later published as The Time Machine:An Invention, and which details a possible outcome of human evolution. This short novel, along with many of his other early novels, helped to define what he called the scientific romance and established Wells as one of the two founding fathers of modern Science Fiction (along with Verne). Wells died August 13, 1946, in London.
Brave New World
Huxley's internationally acclaimed work, Brave New World, first published in 1932, is a nightmarish vision of what could happen in the future if politics and technology supersedes humanity. Huxley's novel depicts a futuristic, supposedly ideal world in which there is no sickness, disease, or war. However, to achieve this ideal, people are mass-produced in test tubes; social classes are created through genetic manipulations that predetermine a person's intelligence and body type; and unwanted emotions are suppressed with soma, a hallucinogenic drug. In this inhuman system, an outsider born of natural means is considered a savage. Critics have noted Huxley's cynicism in the work and have examined it in context of life during the post-World War I era, when governments sought scientific and technological progress at all costs. The novel ranks with George Orwell's equally disturbing 1984 as one of the great dystopian works of Science Fiction literature.
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis's seven-volume Fantasy series, was originally published between 1950 and 1956. The series (which followed a different order than current editions) started with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a story about four English schoolchildren who find a portal to Narnia—a parallel Fantasy world—through a wardrobe. In Narnia, they learn they are there to fulfill a prophecy. In the process, they meet fantastical creatures, battle a witch, and witness the Christ-like death and resurrection of a lion named Aslan. Christian themes permeate the series. Since their publication, The Chronicles of Narnia have found a wide acceptance, especially among young readers. Some critics, however, do not care for the violence in the series, in which might sometimes makes right. Like the works of his contemporary and friend Tolkien, Lewis's books created a new world that inspired later writers.
Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus when she was in her late teens. The story was her entry in a writing contest with her lover, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the infamous poet Lord Byron, and John Polidori, who was Byron's doctor. Shelley's work, commonlyreferredtosimplyas Frankenstein,was published in 1818, and is widely regarded as the first true Science Fiction work for its reliance on scientific, rather than supernatural, action. The original novel differs greatly from the screen adaptations, which focus on the horrific aspects
- Brave New World was released as an audio book in 1998. It was published by Audio Partners and read by Michael York.
- Four of the books from Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series were made into award-winning television shows by BBC Television. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1988) was directed by Marilyn Fox. Prince Caspian (1989), The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (1989), and The Silver Chair (1990) were all directed by Alex Kirby. As of 2008, the series was also available as a boxed set.
- Director James Whale's classic, Frankenstein, was released as a film in 1931 by Universal Studios and starred Colin Clive as Dr. Frank-enstein and Boris Karloff as his monster. As of 2008 the movie was available on VHS or DVD from Universal Studios Home Video. The DVD contains many special features, including the original theatrical trailer, commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer, production notes, a documentary (The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster), and archival photos.
- Frankenstein has seen many permutations on film, including Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,releasedin1994 and starring Branagh and Robert De Niro. Humorous adaptations of the Frankenstein story include Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (1974) with Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, and Marty Feldman.
- The Hobbit, read by Rob Inglis, was released as an audio book from Recorded Books in 2001.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was made into a blockbuster hit movie and released in December 2001. It was directed by Peter Jackson and stars Elijah Wood as Frodo the hobbit. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was released in 2002 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. Together the trilogy won seventeen Academy Awards. As of 2008, these movies were available—individually or as a set—on DVD from New Line Home Video.
- The Martian Chronicles, adapted as a television miniseries in 1980, was directed by Michael Anderson, and featured Roddy McDowell as Father Stone, Darren McGavin as Sam Parkhill, and Bernie Casey as Major Jeff Spender. As of 2008, it was available on video from USA Video.
- Slaughterhouse-Five was released as a film in 1972 by Universal Pictures. Directed by George Roy Hill, it featured Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim. As of 2008, it was available on DVD from Image Entertainment.
- The Time Machine, which was released as a film in 1960 by Galaxy Films and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), was directed by George Pal and featured Rod Taylor as the time traveler. As of 2008, it was available on DVD from Warner Home Video. The DVD contains a behind-the-scenes documentary, The Time Machine: The Journey Back, hosted by Taylor, along with co-stars Alan Young and Whit Bissell.
- Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea was released as a silent film in 1916. It was directed by Stuart Paton and featured Allen Holubar as Captain Nemo. As of 2008 it was available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Walt Disney Pictures produced a movie version in 1954, starring Kirk Douglas as Ned Land and James Mason as Captain Nemo.
- Director Andrew Adamson embarked on a series of films that capture C. S. Lewis's magical series The Chronicles of Narnia. The first film, titled The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, was released in 2005. The second film, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, was released in 2008.
of the tale. The story details Dr. Frankenstein's scientific experiments intended to galvanize a corpse consisting of assembled body parts. The unnamed monster, lacking a soul, becomes an outcast of society and goes on a killing spree, finally fleeing to the Arctic North. When Shelley first published the novel in 1818, critics treated it as just another Gothic novel and failed to recognize the depth of the work. Since then, the work has enjoyed a serious critical and popular reception.
Tolkien's The Hobbit was first published in 1937. The story details the adventures of Bilbo, a hobbit (an imaginary creature that exists in Middle-Earth, Tolkien's mythical past world), who has a number of adventures involving other fantastical beings, including dragons, goblins, wizards, elves, and talking animals. The story also introduces a magical ring, which Bilbo finds and which features prominently in Tolkien's sequel trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Since the publication of the four-volume series, critics and popular readers alike have been fascinated by Tolkien's imaginative tales and literary artistry. The four-volume epic influenced many later Science Fiction and Fantasy writers and also inspired a cult following.
Although Asimov was not the first to write about robots, he revolutionized the way of writing about them. In his early robot short stories, originally published in Science Fiction magazines in the 1940s, Asimov defined and demonstrated the "Three Laws of Robotics":
One, a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. . . . Two . . . a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. . . . Three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Asimov's robot stories were collected in 1950 in one volume, I, Robot, which brought him widespread critical acclaim, mainly for the "Three Laws," which were accepted and used by many other Science Fiction writers. Critics praised the ethical example that Asimov set with the laws, which were so influential that many assumed they would be used as a basis for future robotics design and production.
The Martian Chronicles
The Martian Chronicles, a short story collection first published in 1950, made Bradbury famous, and was one of the first Science Fiction works to garner positive critical attention. Although many critics regard Bradbury as one of the best living Science Fiction writers, Science Fiction purists note that much of his Science Fiction work, including The Martian Chronicles, which features a Mars blatantly different than what science has revealed—is really Fantasy. The stories detail repeated efforts made by humans to colonize Mars and feature space travel, robots, and other scientific scenarios. However, it is the emotional depth, not the scientific setting or plot, that distinguishes the work. The chilling blend of future reality and Fantasy in the story collection earned Bradbury respect from critics and popular readers alike. Unlike many of his pro-science contemporaries, Bradbury is against too much scientific and technological development at the expense of humanity, a fear that he expresses in The Martian Chronicles.
Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five draws on his experiences as a witness to the 1945 Allied fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden. Vonnegut's main character, Billy Pilgrim, escapes the horror of these memories by traveling through time and space to visit the planet Tralfamadore. It is here that he relives the good moments in his life. Whenever he is faced with the horrors of war, Pilgrim remarks, "so it goes," a seemingly impartial phrase that resounds in the reader's mind, creating a feeling that death is inevitable. Originally published in 1969, the book was a hit with its Vietnam-era audience, who identified with the war issues the novel raised. The novel was well-received by critics, which was rare for a Science Fiction novel at the time. Although Vonnegut does not like to be called a Science Fiction writer, novels like Slaughterhouse Five have helped bring positive critical attention to the Science Fiction field.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, first published in 1961, was Science Fiction's first bestseller. With its controversial exploration of human philosophy, religion, and sociology—as opposed to technology—it was a striking departure from his previous novels and from other Science Fiction novels. In the book, Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians, returns to Earth and experiences human culture as an outsider. With demonstrations of his paranormal powers given to him by the Martians, he becomes a messiah-like figure and inspires the establishment of a religious movement. The novel embraces the supernatural and so is perhaps Fantasy, but it caused a major upheaval in the Science Fiction world, and greatly influenced future Science Fiction writers. It was received with enthusiasm by members of the 1960s counterculture, who recognized and emulated its message of free love. It was not loved by early critics, many of whom labeled Heinlein a fascist for his radical ideas.
The Time Machine: An Invention
The first of many Science Fiction novels that would make him famous, Wells's The Time Machine: An Invention, commonly referred to simply as The Time Machine, was published in 1895. Wells drew on the evolutionary theory he had studied to tell of a future, more than 800,000 years hence, in which humans have evolved into two separate species. The attractive and ignorant Eloi, descended from humanity's upper class, become food for the working-class, ape-like Morlocks, who live underground. The time traveler who witnesses this then travels thirty million years into the future, witnessing the death of the Sun and the subsequent death of life on Earth. Critics in Wells's time regarded The Time Machine as a brilliant work, and later critics and popular audiences agree. Although both Wells and Jules Verne are considered fathers of modern Science Fiction, Wells and his unique literary inventions like time travel have generally been considered more influential.
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea
Verne's novels in his Extraordinary Journeys series, particularly Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, have delighted international audiences for more than a century. First published in 1870 in serial form in a French magazine, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea details the adventures of Captain Nemo on the submarine Nautilus. Although many regard Verne as a predictor of scientific inventions, most of his futuristic ideas—like the submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea—were extrapolated either from history or from reading current scientific research. Many of Jules Verne's books, including Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea,were inaccurately translated into English from Verne's native French. Consequently many outside the Science Fiction field regarded Verne as just a children's writer until subsequent translations revealed the literary depth of his works.
Science and the Supernatural
Science Fiction often reflects the time in which it is written. So it is that in the early twentieth century, when society was still heavily focused on technological innovation through science and industry, stories were often exploratory in nature. These stories were usually dominated by natural sciences like physics and astronomy, which often manifested themselves plot devices like spaceships or evolution. These plot devices were often incorporated into tales about humanity's future or alien races on other worlds. In the more metaphysical 1960s, however, books like Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land experimented with pseudosciences (theories or practices
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- There is no commonly accepted definition for what determines a hard science from a soft science, although many use these terms. Research some of the many sciences that Science Fiction authors have written about. Write a short report that divides your research into what you think are hard and soft sciences.
- One of the common beliefs about Science Fiction authors is that they intend to predict the future, and some works have been criticized when they have not accurately done so. Find three technologies that were correctly predicted by Science Fiction authors. Compare the fictional accounts with the real technologies, and write a paper explaining how and why each technology has had either a positive or negative impact on society.
- Many Fantasy authors begin their tales by creating a map of the imaginary world they are creating. Draw a map detailing an imaginary world of your own creation and label all of the major geographic features—mountains, forests, bodies of water, and towns. Write a three-page description of your world, describing its inhabitants, history, politics, and economics.
considered to be without scientific foundation). A good example is when Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land protagonist, a human given paranormal abilities by the Martians, is first asked to demonstrate his telekinetic powers: "'Mike, will you please, without touching it, lift that ash tray a foot above the desk?' . . . The ash tray raised, floated above the desk."
Many Science Fiction purists prefer stories that employ "hard" sciences, and some maintain that pseudoscientific elements like telekinesis marks a work as Fantasy. The same is generally true of magic, which is often incorporated into Fantasy works such as Tolkien's The Hobbit. When Gandalf, the wizard, is surprised by goblins, he uses his magical powers to defend himself: "there was a terrible flash like lightning in the cave, a smell like gunpowder, and several of them fell dead." In the imaginary realm of Fantasy, however, wizards are not the only ones with magical powers. Sometimes objects contain special powers as Bilbo discovers when he finds a mysterious ring: "It seemed that the ring he had was a magic ring: it made you invisible!" Bilbo's supernatural power to turn invisible is not only interesting, it also serves as an important plot device in the novel.
Of all of the themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, the manipulation of time has been one of the most frequently used. Most Science Fiction or Fantasy stories take place in another time, either the past or the future. In some cases, as in Wells's influential novel The Time Machine, the protagonist travels in a machine, which physically takes him either backward or forward through time, the fourth dimension. Says the time traveler, "I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are excessively unpleasant."
Other forms of traveling through time, such as near-light-speed space travel, are more physically pleasant for the traveler. Following Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, Science Fiction writers have created a host of spaceships capable of traveling near the speed of light. Theoretically, as a ship like this approaches the speed of light, time will slow down for the ship's passengers, so that they will age less quickly than those who remain at the point where the ship started. Joe Haldeman demonstrated the potential emotional and psychological ramifications of this technology in his book The Forever War, in which elite soldiers retain their youth by traveling at near-light-speeds throughout the universe, chasing an elusive enemy.
In the book's conclusion, the soldier protagonist, Mandella, finally returns to his planet of origin, where he finds out that "the war ended 221 years ago." An even bigger surprise is that Man-della's lover, a fellow soldier who was separated from him by space and time during the war, left a note for him 250 years ago. However, the note includes detailed instructions on how his lover is manipulating space and time to try to meet him while they are both still alive and young.
So I'm on a relativistic shuttle, waiting for you. All it does is go out five light years and come back . . . very fast. Every ten years I age about a month. So if you're on schedule and still alive, I'll only be twenty-eight when you get here. Hurry!
However, some Science Fiction and Fantasy writers avoid the issue of time travel altogether and choose to simply begin their stories in the future or past.
Salvation and Destruction
From the very beginning of Science Fiction, many writers have expressed one of two diametrically opposed ideas concerning the development of science and technology: It will save humanity or it will destroy it. Many of the works that have received favorable criticism or which reign as "classics" fall into the latter group. Perhaps it is because of their darker qualities that these works stand out from the others; Science Fiction has always been strongest when it issues warnings. Readers need look no further than Verne and Wells. Verne's Extraordinary Journeys novels tell predominantly positive tales about man's use of the machine to explore and conquer the unknown. However, it is Wells and his dark tales of scientific progress gone bad that most later Science Fiction writers claim is the stronger influence. This focus on dark, sometimes apocalyptic visions had its heyday in the years after World War II, following the advent of the atomic bomb, when the end of civilization was a distinct possibility.
One of the most chilling expressions of the global destruction idea takes place in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Throughout the novel, a genius child trains, using military war simulation games in space. At the end of the story, after he has successfully completed a simulated mission in which he obliterates the alien enemy's home planet, both Ender and the reader learn the last battle was real. Without his knowledge, Ender has coordinated an interstellar attack on the aliens' home planet. The sense of despair in Ender, as he comes to realize how the military tricked him into launching a weapon with a destructive power exponentially greater than nuclear weapons, is almost palpable: "they were real ships that he had fought with and real ships he had destroyed. And a real world that he had blasted into oblivion." This is the dark stuff of which some of the best Science Fiction is made.
Utopia and Dystopia
A utopia is a literary form that features an idealistic imaginary society. In most cases, these ideals are unattainable. The author writes about this imaginary place not because he or she hopes to achieve this ideal but because the author hopes to inspire debate about the issues expressed in the work and so bring about social change. In Science Fiction, writers have in turn commented on the unattainable quality of utopias by writing dystopias— visions of a future society that, in striving to achieve an ideal, instead becomes a nightmare. The two most famous Science Fiction examples of dystopias are Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. Susan Storing Benfield examines elements of utopian society, such as property, gender roles, and governance, present in Ursula Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed.
In Huxley's bleak future, the dystopian society has achieved its goal of eliminating sickness, disease, and war, but in the process it has sacrificed much of what makes humanity human. People are genetically engineered to fit into a certain social class and follow a uniform way of life, and any abnormal or creative behavior is suppressed through drugs. In one of the final scenes, after a human born of natural means attempts to stage a revolt against the system, he meets with one of the world government leaders, who explains why they have sacrificed many human interests, including religion, for technological progress: "Call it the fault of civilization. God isn't compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice."
At least in Huxley's vision, the brainwashed citizens themselves are happy. Not so in 1984.In this society, fear and paranoia are what motivate the citizens to conform to the government's demands. Politics rule, and people are wise to remember, as many posters in the society state, "Big Brother Is Watching You." The book's protagonist, Winston Smith, is unfortunate enough to attempt a revolt against Big Brother, which results in Smith's being mentally and physically destroyed by the totalitarian regime.
Science Fiction by its very nature incorporates some form of scientific description in its tales. In some works, such as Asimov's I, Robot stories that examine the use of robots in human society, the science is meticulously explained as an integral part of the plot. Asimov writes, "Inside the thin platinum-plated 'skin' of the globe was a positronic brain, in whose delicately unstable structure were enforced calculated neuronic paths." This robot brain, like a human's, fits "snugly into the cavity in the skull of the robot." Throughout the stories, the robots' "thinking" processes feature prominently in the plot.
Other Science Fiction stories, however, incorporate minor descriptions of technologies that are not central to the story's plot. For example, in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, the human ambassador sent to the planet Gethen, which is light years away from his planet, demonstrates how he can communicate across the distance nearly instantaneously with his ansible communicator. "The principle it works on . . . is analogous in some ways to gravity. . . . What it does . . . is produce a message at any two points simultaneously." The king to whom the ambassador shows the device is not impressed and does not pay much attention to this technology. Nor do Le Guin's readers. Although the communicator is an interesting device, the real story in the book is the lack of gender bias due to unique biology that Le Guin creates for her alien society.
One of the most important choices Science Fiction and Fantasy authors make when creating stories is the setting. Because most Science Fiction and Fantasy works involve "rules" established through generations of other writers— such as Asimov's famous "Three Laws of Robotics"—the choice of a setting can introduce potential constraints. While writers sometimes bend or break those rules, deviating from them requires the formulation of a convincing and compelling alternative.
The choice of a setting is also one of the indicators of the type of tale the story is intended to be—Science Fiction or Fantasy. Although there is much debate over what distinguishes the two genres, Card, in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, offers one possible definition based on his own experiences as a Science Fiction and Fantasy writer: "A rustic setting always suggests fantasy; to suggest Science Fiction, you need sheet metal and plastic. You need rivets." Especially since the New Wave of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which appeared in the 1960's with seminal authors such Heinlein and Harlan Ellison, a definition of Science Fiction and Fantasy by their settings is no longer so easily applied.
Science fiction had a profound effect on the development of motion pictures. From almost the very beginnings of film, Science Fiction movies have developed special effects, starting with the first real Science Fiction film, George Meĺiès's A Trip to the Moon in 1902.
Since then, Science Fiction films have had a hit-or-miss history, and many literary classics have been made into highly inaccurate adaptations that sacrificed plot for special effects. In 1926, Fritz Lang released his monumental Metropolis, a nightmarish vision of a potential future in which the city is large and impersonal and the working-class is intended to be replaced by a new race of robots.
In 1963, the British Science Fiction television series Dr. Who began its unprecedented, 26-season, 695-episode run. In 1966, Gene Rodden-berry's Star Trek debuted in the United States to little fanfare. Eventually, Roddenberry's characters and ideas inspired several related television series, a host of movies, countless book tie-ins, and a widespread cultural movement of sorts. The terms Trekkie and Trekker continue to be used to refer to ardent Star Trek fans. The 1999 film Galaxy Quest is a good-natured parody of Star Trek fandom.
With Stanley Kubrick's 1968 critically acclaimed adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Science Fiction films gained new respect. The release of George Lucas's original Star Wars trilogy in the 1970s and early 1980s helped to further revitalize the Science Fiction film and inspired widespread devotion reminiscent of the Star Trek phenomenon. Lucas went on in the early-twenty-first century to create several a popular trilogy prequel to the original Star Wars films.
In the 1980s and 1990s, several influential films were released. Blade Runner, a film loosely based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is one of few literary adaptations to film at that time. Both the film and author acquired a cult following as a result of the film. Original Science Fiction films of note during the last two decades of the twentieth century include Steven Spielberg's blockbuster E. T. (re-released in an updated version in 2002), James Cameron's Terminator movies, and the Science Fiction comedy film series Back to the Future. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Science Fiction films and television shows—many of which continue to create groundbreaking new special effects—are alive and well.
Science Fiction has its roots in the nineteenth century, a time when the world experienced an explosion in new inventions and an appreciation of science and scientific methods as a means of progress. With the advent of the daguerreotype (the precursor to photography) in the first half of the century, humans harnessed the power to record images quickly and accurately. This technology was further explored with the advent of motion pictures at the end of the nineteenth century.
As science and technology grew in popularity, its practitioners challenged established thought. With the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species in 1859, the idea of man as a being of singular importance in the universe is shattered. With the help of geologists who date the Earth as much older than suggested by the Bible, Darwin's theories propose that humans and apes share an ancestry.
The early years of the twentieth century introduced new transportation technologies both on land in the form of gasoline-powered automobiles and in the sky in the form of airplanes. World War I introduced new weapons technologies, including tanks that are first used on battlefields in 1917. These new technologies helped fuel the ideas behind Science Fiction and Fantasy literature, which exploded in the 1920s with Hugo Gernsback's publication of several Science Fiction and Fantasy pulp magazines— named for the cheap paper on which they were printed, although some used the term to indicate a lack of quality.
In 1926, American scientist Robert H. Goddard tested the world's first liquid-fuel rocket, the advent of which eventually triggered a race in the 1950s and 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop rockets for propelling weapons and space shuttles. On October 31, 1938, Orson Welles made media and literary history by dramatizing H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds on the radio. Because it was told in the style of a newscast, the broadcast convinced hundreds of thousands of listeners that the story of a Martian invasion was real, and widespread panic ensued as Americans jumped to the conclusion that they were under attack.
Also in 1938, John W. Campbell, an American editor, took the reins of the Science Fiction magazine Astounding Stories, which he later renamed Astounding Science Fiction. The magazine, which placed more emphasis on quality than other pulps, quickly distinguished itself and helped to nurture the careers of many talented, new Science Fiction writers. It effectively launched the golden age of Science Fiction, a period that lasted until a few years after the end of World War II.
When World War II began in 1939, the world experienced paper shortages that affected the publication of Science Fiction and Fantasy magazines. Publishers cut magazines that did not have strong circulations. Astounding Stories was one of the few that survived, and its issues, which contained stories from such successful authors as Heinlein and Asimov, helped to define modern Science Fiction. In 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two Japanese cities, effectively ending World War II.
In the 1960s and 1970s, amidst the New Wave of Science Fiction and Fantasy, a period marked by experimental writing in the field, more female Science Fiction writers began to publish under their own names. The predominantly male readership of Science Fiction works had not previously allowed for many works by women writers. Those women who were published often wrote under male pseudonyms or used intentionally gender-ambiguous pen names, such as C. J. Cherryh or Leigh Brackett. The publication of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969 was a direct response to the bias of the genre. In the story, a human ambassador visits a far world that has ideologically and biologically
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1900s: The Wright Brothers make their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, proving to the world that humans can fly.
- 1940s: German-born scientist Wernher von Braun develops the V-2 rocket for Adolph Hitler, envisioning it as a means for space travel. Hitler, however, uses the rocket as a weapon during World War II, so von Braun defects to America, where he shares his knowledge with American scientists—who follow von Braun's lead and begin to apply it to space exploration.
- Today: Having experienced both extraordinary success and tragic failure, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) continues to plan and send exploratory missions into space.
- 1900s: Einstein proves the existence of atoms.
1940s: The United States is the first to harness the power of the atom and demonstrates the awesome, destructive power of nuclear warfare when it drops atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II.
Today: After the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, many of the nuclear weapons from the world's former superpower fall into the hands of independent terrorist groups. In 2001, after an attack on the World Trade Center in New York City that launched a war on terrorism, the American public's fear shifts to biological weapons and suicide bombings.
- 1900s: In 1901, Italian physicist and inventor Guglielmo Marconi receives the first long-distance wireless message in Morse Code, which traveled from England to Newfoundland almost instantaneously.
1940s: Bell Labs makes the first demonstration of its transistor, which amplifies electric current in an efficient and cheap manner. The first transistors are used in telephones.
Today: With the advent of modern wireless technology, digital data from telephones and computers can be transmitted instantly to and from anywhere in the world by increasingly smaller devices that rely on microprocessors—computer chips that contain millions of microscopic transistors.
evolved to the point where gender issues are nonexistent.
The advent of the first computer, ENIAC, in 1946, had the greatest effect on modern society. Although Science Fiction writers had predicted that robots would become the most important technology in future societies, it was the computer that won out in the end. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as new technologies—most of them based on computer technology—are introduced, Science Fiction and Fantasy writers continue to react to them in their works, reworking themes that have been used in Science Fiction since the nineteenth century.
Science Fiction has always faced three problems from a critical standpoint: definition, history, and literary reputation. First, there is the two-part question of what is Science Fiction and how does it differ from Fantasy. As Frederick Andrew Lerner observes in his Modern Science Fiction and the American Literary Community, "the Science Fiction professionals themselves— writers, historians, and critics whose careers are closely associated with Science Fiction—have reached no consensus." Perhaps the only definition that everyone can agree on is that given by Harry Harrison in his article "The Term Defined": "The definition of science fiction is: Science fiction is."
Science Fiction is often referred to as a form of Fantasy. Critic Julius Kagarlitski maintains in his essay "Realism and Fantasy" that "all fantasy is 'scientific' in the sense that it is engendered by that type of thinking whose mission it was to determine the real natural laws of the world and to transform it." Kagarlitski also notes that "the history of fantasy is a very long one," unlike Science Fiction, which most critics agree has only been around for the last couple of centuries.
The problem of defining Science Fiction's history is steeped in controversy. Although some critics and historians claim that writings several hundreds of years old are Science Fiction, the leading argument—and the one that has seen the most acceptance—was offered by British Science Fiction author Brian Aldiss. In his book on the history of Science Fiction, Trillion Year Spree, Aldiss maintains that Shelley's Frankenstein is the first true Science Fiction work due to its reliance on scientific methods. "Frankenstein's ambitions bear fruit only when he throws away his old reference books from a pre-scientific age and gets down to some research in the laboratory," says Aldiss.
The arguments of definition and history are often laid aside, however, when it comes to discussing the literary merits of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Although some very notable authors like Wells and Verne wrote critically acclaimed Science Fiction works, it has taken a while for Science Fiction and Fantasy works to gain acceptance in the mainstream. This is due in large part to Gernsback and his publication of Science Fiction and Fantasy pulp magazines. The same magazines that helped increasepopular readership in the field, also served to distance critics.
With the works of specific writers such as Bradbury and Vonnegut the genre was able to transcend its pulp image and garner the positive attention of critics. Works such as The Martian Chronicles and particularly Slaughterhouse Five have also found favor with academia and are often taught in the classroom. Jack Williamson noted this trend in his 1974 article "SF in the Classroom": "From a standing start only a dozen years ago, Science Fiction has now become a popular and reasonably respectable academic subject."
This trend continues into the early 2000s. As for the mainstream critics, they tend to favor the types of stories they always have: the ones that transcend the genre of Science Fiction and illustrate more universal themes of humanity.
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette explores the similarities and differences among Science Fiction and Fantasy works, by examining three aspects of Wells's The Time Machine and Tolkien's The Hobbit.
With the introduction of pulp genre magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories in the 1920s, modern Science Fiction and Fantasy stories were lumped together, with no attempt to define or separate each genre. Although many critics have since tried to define each genre, no consensus has been reached, and Science Fiction and Fantasy are often referred to as one field. This is true in the popular sphere as well. Orson Scott Card (who is a Science Fiction and Fantasy writer himself) notes in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, "in most bookstores, fantasy and science fiction are lumped together in the same group of shelves, alphabetized by author with no attempt to separate one from the other." However, one can make a possible distinction by examining the specific ways that Science Fiction and Fantasy writers use general ideas and techniques shared by both genres. By exploring the general similarities between Wells's The Time Machine and Tolkien's The Hobbit—two works that helped to define the modern Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, respectively—these specific differences can be identified.
The first general similarity between the two genres is in their views of science and technology. Both genres tend to take a negative view toward science and technology. In fact, much of Fantasy literature is, by its very nature, anti-technology. Fantasy authors like Tolkien often stage their tales in a rustic environment that hearkens back to a pre-industrialized past and is generally derived from a nostalgic blend of human history and mythology. In some Fantasy, however, the feelings against industrial progress are more pronounced. Take this passage from The Hobbit, in which Tolkien is discussing the goblins, one of many evil races in the book: "It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once." By associating this evil race with troublesome machines—a clear sign of industry—Tolkien is implying that technological progress itself is evil. It is particularly telling that Tolkien wrote this story as humanity was gearing up for World War II, during which a number of killing machines were invented. As Michael Wood notes about Tolkien's works in New Society:
The enemy is science, or rather the complacency of science, the self-satisfaction of people who think they can explain everything, who have no time for myths, for forms of truth which will not fit within a narrow rationalism.
Unlike The Hobbit, the anti-technology view in The Time Machine is not apparent at first. In the beginning of the novel, the time traveler is hopeful about science and technology as he displays the model of his time machine to his assembled guests—who use scientific arguments to discuss the prospect of time travel. Says the medical man, one of the time traveler's guests, "if Time is really only a fourth dimension of Space, why is it, and why has it always been regarded as something different? And why cannot we move in Time as we move about in the other dimensions of Space?" Later, when the time traveler has returned from his journey into the future, he explains to his guests what he had hoped to find there. "I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything." But as the time traveler soon sees, human society has evolved from upper and lower classes into two separate
WHAT DO I STUDY NEXT?
- Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science through Science Fiction Films (1993), by Leroy Dubeck, Suzanne Moshier, and Judith E. Boss, uses scenes from classic and recent Science Fiction films to illustrate scientific principles of physics, astronomy, and biology, and details how the films either adhere to or violate these principles.
- Dick Jude's Fantasy Art Masters: The Best Fantasy and SF Art Worldwide (1999) features samples from some of the world's most acclaimed Fantasy and Science Fiction artists. The book also includes interviews with the artists, who reveal how they created some of their favorite creations and relate what it is like working in the industry.
- Blast Off! Rockets, Robots, Ray Guns, and More from the Golden Age of Space, by S. Mark Young, Steve Duin, and Mike Richardson, is a detailed exploration of the toys created during the 1930s through the 1950s. Published in 2001, the book examines the history of these unique collector's items, which include such memorable Science Fiction characters as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. It includes reprints of original advertisements, comic-strip and pulp-magazine art, and even original packaging and instructions from toys produced all over the world.
- Joseph Campbell's study of myth, titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), identifies one basic story that recurs throughout world's mythologies. Campbell's ideas inspired many later Science Fiction and Fantasy writers, most notably George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars films.
- Richard Rickitt's Special Effects (2000) gives a thorough history of special effects, which are used mainly in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and horror films. Rickitt examines everything from trick photography to computer-generated effects, using examples from early films, such as George Méliès's ATripto the Moon (1902), to more recent Science Fiction films, such as The Matrix (1999).
- Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics explores the history, philosophy, and mechanics of comics, which have been around for more than three thousand years and which have included notable characters from Science Fiction. Writing and drawing entirely in the form of a comic strip, McCloud illustrates the ideas that he discusses, using scientific concepts like space, time, and motion in the process.
species, both of which have regressed physically and mentally to the point where they have lost their humanity. The time traveler, a man from the nineteenth century, possesses more knowledge than these distant descendants, a fact that taints his view of the inevitable future.
In his history of Science Fiction, Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss discusses the sense of despair inherent in The Time Machine: "Its sceptical view of the present, and its pessimistic view of the future of mankind—and of life on Earth— challenged most of the cozy ideas of progress, as well as the new imperialism, then current." Wells set the pace for many other Science Fiction writers, who imparted this dual idea of initial hope and crushing despair into their own works.
Another area in which general parallels between Fantasy and Science Fiction can be drawn is in the setting. Both Science Fiction and Fantasy works usually involve a setting that is something contrary to the writer's current reality, an "other" reality. The majority of Science Fiction works, like The Time Machine,takeplace in a future reality, which is often drastically different in either a distinctly positive or negative sense. As Aldiss notes, "Utopianism or its opposite is present
‟BILBO DOES INDEED UNDERGO A TRANSFORMATION, PROVING HIMSELF WORTHY OF GANDALF'S PROPHETIC PRAISE. UNLIKE WELLS'S TIME TRAVELER, THE TRANSFORMATION IS A DISTINCTLY POSITIVE ONE, AND THE BOOK ENDS ON A CLEAR UPBEAT NOTE."
in every vision of the future. There is little point in inventing a future state unless it contrasts in some way with our present one." In Wells's case, the future world his time traveler encounters is a nightmarish future Earth, where the ape-like Morlocks, the descendants of the working class who dwell underground, tend the pretty but naïve Eloi like crops. The reader, like the time traveler, is drawn to detest the Morlocks, who feed on the Eloi.
While many Science Fiction "other" realities take place in the future, Fantasy works like Tolkien's Middle-Earth are constructed as part of the mythical past. Here, Tolkien also portrays a nightmarish vision of Earth, although his is much richer than Wells's portrayal. While Mor-locks served as the detested race in Wells's novel, Tolkien offers trolls, goblins, and the imaginary beast that is found in much mythology and Fantasy—the dragon. The dragon is especially nasty in The Hobbit. After Bilbo narrowly escapes being burned from the fire that the dragon spews from its mouth, Bilbo hides where the dragon cannot get to him or his dwarf companions. The dragon, Smaug, in a fit of rage, instead takes out his fiery anger on the nearby Lake-Town, the inhabitants of which have done nothing to the dragon. Tolkien describes Smaug's many destructive passes over the town, then gives Smaug's next thought: "Soon he would set all the shoreland woods ablaze and wither every field and pasture. Just now he was enjoying the sport of town-baiting." Fortunately for the town members, a bird carries Bilbo's news of the dragon's weakness to the town, and the dragon is slain.
A third area in which general similarities can be found between Science Fiction and Fantasy is the use of the quest, or journey, as a narrative structure. In journey stories, a protagonist travels to somewhere else, has an adventure, and is transformed. In Science Fiction, many of these stories have followed the trend set by works like Wells's The Time Machine, in which the traveler is a willing participant. In fact, in the time traveler's case, he travels on his journey through an invention of his own making. At the end of his first adventure through time, the time traveler has indeed changed. He has seen the bleak, far future, which saddens him, but he refuses to give up. In the end, he makes another journey, to an age not quite so far in the future, where he can try to warn people before they make the same mistakes that lead to the future he has seen. However, at the end of the book, after three years, the time traveler has still not returned, and Wells ends the book on an ambiguous note. The reader never finds out the conclusion of the time traveler's journey, or how it ultimately transforms him.
In fantastic journeys—many of which follow the ages-old storytelling form of the heroic quest—the journey's beginning, end, and outcome are clearly defined. The protagonists in Fantasy stories do not always choose to begin their journeys. In The Hobbit, Bilbo does not ask for his quest to rescue the treasure hoard from the dragon. At the beginning of the tale, Bilbo is happy with his quiet life in the Shire, and does not want anyone to change that. It is only with the intervention of the wizard Gandalf that Bilbo is called to go on the quest. Gandalf asks Bilbo outright to do it, but Bilbo refuses: "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" Gandalf leaves but, unbeknownst to Bilbo, the wizard marks Bilbo's front door to indicate that he is available as a burglar-for-hire for a group of dwarves.
After the dwarves start to arrive and Bilbo's world begins to tumble, Gandalf reveals his stunt. At this point something happens that makes Bilbo change his mind about going on the journey. His "Took" side, the adventurous line of his ancestors, gets offended when the dwarves say he could not handle the adventure. As Tolkien writes about Bilbo, "He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce." For a hobbit, who is constantly thinking about food, this is a brave admission and is one of the first signs that Bilbo has "more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself," as Gandalf puts it to the dwarves.
Throughout the quest, Bilbo slowly begins to trust his instincts and risks his life to save the dwarves from being eaten by giant spiders, imprisoned by elves, and finally, consumed by their own greed while trying to hoard the dragon's treasure. Bilbo does indeed undergo a transformation, proving himself worthy of Gandalf's prophetic praise. Unlike Wells's time traveler, the transformation is a distinctly positive one, and the book ends on a clear upbeat note.
The debate about what constitutes Science Fiction as opposed to Fantasy has been going on for more than a century. Although no consensus has been reached, many publishers label certain books as belonging to either the Science Fiction or Fantasy field, and fans generally know when they are reading one as opposed to the other.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Susan Storing Benfield
In the following essay, Benfield analyzes Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed for its commentary on utopias, dystopias, and the role of government.
Ursula Le Guin's brilliant science fiction novel, The Dispossessed, follows in the tradition of utopian and dystopian fictions dating back to Thomas More's Utopia and Plato's Republic, in which authors explore their hopes and fears for human society by creating imaginary polities. Le Guin's novel raises questions about the role of government and property in human society by presenting two contrasting worlds. At first, Anarres and Urras appear as ideal, versus defective, human societies. Over the course of the novel, Le Guin presents a more nuanced portrayal of the two: Urras, a planet with a range of governments similar to those of present-day earth, if more repressive, sexist, and class bound; and Anarres, an anarchistic breakaway society located on the Urras's moon.
Le Guin begins from the premise that the most important goal of governments and societies is to enable human beings to be as free as possible. This is clearly the standard by which she wants Anarres, her ambiguous utopia, to be judged. Although it is desirable for societies to
‟. . . LE GUIN PROVIDES A PAINSTAKING ACCOUNT OF WHAT A SOCIETY BASED ON THE ANARCHOSYNDICALIST IDEAS OF SUCH THINKERS AS PAUL GOODMAN MIGHT LOOK LIKE. SHE GOES BEYOND THE USUAL CATEGORIES OF UTOPIAN AND DYSTOPIAN FICTIONS."
eliminate unnecessary suffering, Le Guin stresses that suffering is an essential part of human life and that the elimination of suffering is neither a possible nor a desirable goal. Likewise, Le Guin demonstrates that equality is a problematic goal. Anarres's attempt to create a fair and egalitarian society is presented as a good thing, but Le Guin shows us how easily the pursuit of equality can turn into the suppression of difference. Le Guin has said that her goal in writing The Dispossessed was to examine what she regards as the most idealistic and interesting theory of government, that of anarchism.
Within the framework of her novel, Le Guin provides a painstaking account of what a society based on the anarchosyndicalist ideas of such thinkers as Paul Goodman might look like. She goes beyond the usual categories of utopian and dystopian fictions. Through her depiction of her Anarresti hero Shevek's reactions to Urras, she points out how narrow and incomplete our usual views of human motivation may be. For example, Shevek, who has grown up believing that people's primary motivations are internal, is amazed to see how hard Urrasti work for mere external rewards such as money. Le Guin examines what people would have to sacrifice to reach these anarchistic ideals. Her ambiguous utopia is, in the words of Marianne Moore, "an imaginary garden with real toads in it." Le Guin provides a vivid picture of those aspects of human nature that create hierarchies and bureaucracies even in the absence of formal government.
The novel is told from the point of view of Shevek, a physicist, the first person from Anarres to visit Urras in generations. Le Guin structures her novel by alternating chapters concerning Shevek's experiences on Urras with chapters providing an account of his growing up on Anarres. Through Shevek's observations of Urras, Le Guin paints a vivid picture of the abuses and inequities to which centralized government that is based on the protection of property is prone, as well as a somewhat Rousseauian portrayal of the suffering caused by the accumulation of power and property, even for their most successful accumulators.
At the same time, her account of Shevek's life on Anarres shows both the virtues and defects of this anarchistic society. Le Guin provides a convincing account of a society largely without formal government in which education and social sanctions regulate behavior. As Shevek observes the obvious limitations on the freedom of individuals on Urras, he begins to reflect on the more subtle, frequently internalized, limits on individual freedom in his world. He relives his own experiences and those of other creative individuals who are held back in their areas of endeavor by petty bureaucratic individuals who have accumulated power despite the lack of a formal power structure. One of his new acquaintances on Urras argues that she would prefer to cope with external tyranny rather than carry around a little tyrant in her head.
The novel opens with the image of a wall, which will prove to be a recurring motif. Here it is the low, unimpressive, but extremely important wall surrounding the Port of Anarres, which Shevek must cross to enter the freighter that will take him from Anarres to Urras. Le Guin describes it as a dichotomy: from one point of view, "It enclosed the rest of the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free. Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine." This wall, like other man-made barriers in the novel, signifies the obstacles that human beings create that limit freedom.
Shevek has a number of significant dreams about walls throughout the novel. As a young child, distressed by his mother's absence and rejection by his age-mates, who perceive him as different and egotistic, he is comforted when his father explains mathematical principles to him and shows him logarithmic tables. Soon afterward, he dreams of a wall, high and impassable, that prevents him from continuing a journey he must make if he is ever to come home. His father shows him "the primal number, that was both unity and plurality." The wall disappears, Shevek is suffused with joy, and he knows that he has come home. He remembers the joy, but later in his life, he frequently has painful, unresolved dreams about the wall. When, as a man, Shevek commits himself to changing his society and takes the first step that will lead to his journey to Urras, he says this: "Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I'm going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I'm going to go unbuild walls." Takver, his more practical partner, who sometimes speaks for the author, supports his decision but adds that "It may get pretty drafty."
Shevek is the first Anarresti to travel to Urras since the settlement and closure of Anarres more than a century and a half ago. Shevek is not breaking any law by going to Urras, because Anarres has no laws. However, he is violating a basic social custom and exposing himself to considerable danger. He narrowly escapes stones thrown by Anarresti who believe him to be a traitor. When Shevek leaves for Urras, he is on the verge of completing his general temporal theory, which will attempt to overcome the intellectual wall between two apparently contradictory ways of looking at time studied by physicists on Urras and Anarres, the sequency theory, and the simultaneity theory. His work has tremendous implications for travel and communication over interstellar distances. Thus, the complexity of time is an important subject of this book, making the organization of the novel's discussion of the events challenging. The events on Anarres precede those on Urras in a simple "sequentialist" chronology of Shevek's life. However, through her use of alternating chapters, Le Guin chooses to emphasize the complex interconnections of events. I first discuss Le Guin's treatment of Urras and then her treatment of Anarres, because dialectically and, in the larger scheme of Le Guin's universe, chronologically, Urras precedes Anarres. Le Guin provides a complex picture of Urras and shows that it has good aspects as well as bad. Nevertheless, she primarily uses her account of Urras to point beyond itself. On Urras we are shown the reasons that people would want something better, and these are the possibilities that Anarres represents: a society that would offer more human connection, more equality, and, above all, more freedom.
Although Shevek has had some success in unbuilding walls on Anarres and has passed through the wall between Anarres and Urras, once on Urras he finds himself surrounded by new walls, both literal and metaphorical. He is outraged when he finds the door to his cabin on the ship to Urras locked, as locked doors are virtually unknown on Anarres. Once on the planet, he perceives its luxurious vehicles and rooms as boxes. Shevek is nevertheless touched by the humanity of the people he meets. They are not the cold, selfish "propertarians" his education on Anarres has led him to expect. He is delighted by the opportunity to discuss physics with those who can really understand him. He reflects on the irony that only here "in the realm of inequity" has he met his equals. He is seduced by the natural beauty and complexity of Urras, which contrasts dramatically with the bleakness of Anarres, and he cannot help sometimes feeling at home there.
However, Shevek soon feels the claustrophobia of the walls closing in on him. He begins to suspect that he is surrounded not only by the walls of the beautiful, monastic university where he lives, but also by the more flexible walls that the government of A Io, the wealthy capitalist country that hosts him, keeps in place, even when he travels. He tries to learn about the other countries, such as communist Thu and underdeveloped Benbili, and about the lower classes of A Io, but he remains isolated. Shevek initially does not see that he is being controlled, because he is allowed to address groups of people and proselytize for anarchism. However, he eventually realizes that just as he cannot pierce his colleagues' wall of distant courtesy, his polite audiences do not really hear him. He feels that his hope of bringing Anarres and Urras together was foolish; he feels he is doubly isolated, unable to be a part of either world. After Shevek has been on Urras for some time, teaching at the university and working (without much success) on his general theory of time, he finds a note from Urrasti revolutionaries accusing him of betraying them and the hope that his world represents. At this point, he recognizes the walls that have been built around him, but he can find no way to break them down. He tries to talk to his servant Efor, the only member of the "unpropertied classes" with whom he has contact, without success.
Another wall that Shevek recognizes is Urras's inequality between the sexes. The position of women on Urras immediately makes Shevek uncomfortable. Urras is not the kind of violent, misogynous society common in feminist dystopian fiction; rather it is presented as a somewhat Victorian society in which both women and men are straightjacketed by rigid gender roles and sexual mores. Within the one household Shevek visits on intimate terms, that of his colleague Oiie, he is surprised to see Oiie, who speaks publicly of women in belittling terms, treat his wife with courtesy and respect, very much as an Anarresti man would treat his partner. In his own home, the stiff and secretive Oiie appears to Shevek as "a simple, brotherly kind of man, a free man." Although he is touched by Oiie's family life, it still seems to offer "a very small range of freedom."
When Shevek asks his colleagues about the absence of women in the academic and scientific world, they think he is requesting sexual services and offer without embarrassment to provide whatever he might like. When he explains that he was asking about female scientists, they are embarrassed; now he has mentioned something dirty. They assure him that women are naturally incapable of mathematics and abstract thought. When they ask him if they "let women study science" on Anarres, he is puzzled by the concept of "letting" people study something. When he tells them that his teacher Gvarab, whose work they have admired, was a woman, they are shocked, but they do not question their own presuppositions. Shevek pities these men because of their distorted view of women, which he sees as being caused by their need to possess others. He draws the connection, suggested by the title and echoing throughout the novel, between possessing and being possessed: "They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed." One of Shevek's colleagues attempts to counter what he perceives as Shevek's criticism of his attitude toward women with a platitude that ironically emphasizes his view of women as property: "a beautiful, virtuous woman [is] the most precious thing on earth."
On his next visit to Oiie's family, Shevek meets a beautiful, if not by Urrasti standards, virtuous woman, Oiie's sister Vea. His conversations with Vea are the most explicit discussions he has with anyone on Urras concerning life on the two planets. They discuss relations between men and women in the two societies, as well as the opportunities for freedom and the obstacles to it that each presents. Wealthy and glamorous, with a successful husband who is not around much, Vea appears to have the best that Ioti society offers women. Shevek pities but is intrigued by her. When he asks her whether Urrasti women are content with their inferior position, she becomes defensive and argues that women on Urras are not inferior because they run the men and control things without having to get their hands dirty.
Later, when they discuss freedom and sexual mores on Urras and Anarres, we see that Shevek's characterization of Vea as "restless, unsatisfied, and dangerous" hits the mark. She is attracted to Shevek and his society because they represent the freedom she desperately desires. She is excited by the thought that Anarres has rejected confining sexual mores, but she is deeply disappointed when Shevek explains that Anarresti society is an attempt to reach morality, not to throw it out. Vea objects, "I think you Odonians missed the whole point. You threw out the priests and the judges and divorce laws and all that, but you kept the trouble behind them. You just stuck it inside, in your consciences . . . You're just as much slaves as ever! You aren't really free." Vea's definition of freedom as a complete absence of inner or outer constraint is, as Shevek says, extremely dangerous. Distorted by the hypocrisy of her society, she sees concern for others as a pretense and civilization as an attempt to cover with pretty words the reality that life is a bloody fight in which the strongest prevail.
Despite her extreme position, Vea raises the important issue of internal versus external restraints on freedom. Vea refers to an Urrasti tyrant whose artifacts she and Shevek saw in a museum when she tells him that he and his countrymen have a Queen Teaea inside their heads who orders them around like the queen ordered her serfs. Shevek suggests that she belongs inside our heads, but Vea argues passionately that it is better to have her in a palace because then one can rebel against her.
When Shevek begins teaching on Urras, the circumstances of his Urrasti students and colleagues compared with those of their counterparts on Anarres cause him to contrast the types of freedom made possible by these two societies:
They were superbly trained, these students. Their minds were fine, keen, ready. When they weren't working, they rested. They were not blunted and distracted by a dozen other obligations. They never fell asleep in class because they were tired from having worked on rotational duty the day before. Their society maintained them in complete freedom from want, distractions, and cares. What they were free to do, however, was another question. It appeared to Shevek that their freedom from obligation was in exact proportion to their lack of freedom of initiative.
Shevek compares the privileged situation of academics on Urras with the complex web of cares and responsibilities he dealt with on Anarres. However, the lack of initiative and ability of his Urrasti students to think for themselves leads him to conclude that he was more free on Anarres: "He had not been free from anything: only free to do anything."
At a party given by Vea, Shevek makes an eloquent, if drunken, defense of Anarresti superiority, calling on the motifs of wall and prison: "[O]ur men and women are free—possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes, the wall." Frustrated by the incomprehension of his listeners, Shevek gets increasingly drunk, vomits, and passes out. The following morning, he recognizes his role in his own imprisonment. Just as he had tried to vomit up his guilt and self-disgust over his involvement in an imprisonment game as a child, Shevek believes that, the night before, he was trying to vomit up not only the alcohol he had drunk but "all the bread he had eaten on Urras." He tries to become a free man in the same way that he did when he decided to go to Abbenay and start the Syndicate of Initiative. Pushed into a similar corner on Anarres, he found that the way for him to act as a free man was to pursue the work he was individually called on to do, despite the expectations of society.
Likewise, at this point on Urras, Shevek decides that he won't do physics for the politicians; he will do physics on his own terms. He will complete the general temporal theory he came to Urras to complete. He will "assert by his talent, the rights of any citizen in any society: the right to work, to be maintained while working, and to share the product with all who wanted it." For eight days, Shevek works almost nonstop, completing his theory. Afterward, he falls into a feverish illness. Like his earlier illness in Abbenay, this illness and recovery signal the beginning of a new connection with the people around him. His servant Efor, who previously rebuffed his attempts to make personal contact, protects and takes care of him. Once Shevek is on the way to recovery, Efor talks to him openly, at last allowing Shevek some insight into his life and the lives of the unpropertied class, supporting Shevek's belief that brotherhood begins in suffering. Efor helps Shevek leave the university secretly and get in touch with Urrasti revolutionary leaders.
He learns what important symbols Anarres and he personally are for those who seek change on Urras. He speaks at a meeting of the masses in Capital Square that begins a general strike. He says many of the same things he said earlier, to the guests at Vea's party, to the handpicked audiences the Ioti government permitted him, but at last he is heard. Speaking "out of his own isolation, out of the center of his own being," he speaks the pain and inmost experiences of his listeners.
Brutally, he learns how limited freedom on Urras really is, how violent repression may lie beneath the surface of a society that claims, like A Io, to permit freedom of speech while actually being based on gross injustices. The Ioti police open fire on the crowd; Shevek barely escapes with his life. After three nights of hiding in a basement with a dying man, he is smuggled into the Terran embassy. He asks the Terrans to broadcast the equations of his theory of time, so that he can share the results of his work with all who wish to benefit from it, rather than allowing it to be used by the Urrasti to win wars or make money.
Shevek tells Keng, the Terran ambassador, that the Ioti government brought him to Urras, despite the danger that he would prove to be the spark to their political tinder box, because the government officials believe that the possession of his completed general theory of time would allow them to threaten Terra and Hain and the other star-faring powers with "the annihilation of space." They believe that Shevek's theory will allow their engineers to attain the instantaneous transferal of matter across space. Shevek tells Keng that although his equations will not accomplish that, they will make possible the development of the ansible, a device that will permit instantaneous communication between any two points in space. Keng, who has personal experience of the temporal implications of inter-stellar distances, immediately grasps the tremendous implications of such a device: "I could talk to diplomats on Chiffewar, you could talk to physicists on Hain, it wouldn't take ideas a generation to get from world to world."
This invention will do on a larger scale what Shevek sought to do on a small scale by coming to Urras. The Anarresti had cut themselves off; they refused to talk with the rest of humanity. Shevek sought to open up communication by coming to Urras. Keng expands on the degree to which the ansible will break down the barriers: "It would make a league of worlds possible . . . We have been held apart by the years, the decades between leaving and arriving, between question and response. It's as if you had invented human speech! We can talk, at last we can talk together."
At this point, his experiences have rendered Shevek deeply pessimistic. He believes that Urras has nothing to offer Anarres and that his journey has been wasted. Keng's broader perspective balances Shevek's hopelessness. She realizes that the defeat of the forces for change Shevek has witnessed is not necessarily permanent. She tells Shevek that Urras is not Hell: "I know it's full of evils, full of human injustice, greed, folly, waste. But it is also full of good, beauty, vitality, achievement. . . . It is alive, tremendously alive—despite all its evils, with hope." She has seen, on Terra, the worst consequences of human folly and greed, but she still has hope for the future. She believes that communication between the various human societies can lead to progress.
As we have seen, Le Guin uses the chapters detailing Shevek's experiences on Urras to point to the need for an alternative society, such as Anarres. In the chapters that take place on Anarres, she shows us many positive things about its society, but she also uses her account of Shevek's experiences from his childhood up to his decision to go to Urras to develop a critique of the shortcomings of Odonian society on Anarres. Shevek, a passionate Odonian, is reluctant to accept the criticisms of his free-thinking friends such as Bedap. However, Le Guin shows how problems within Anarresti society affect Shevek, beginning in childhood.
To begin with, the teachers in the nurseries and learning centers where Shevek spends most of his childhood are portrayed as mediocre individuals who strive to indoctrinate their charges rather than help them think for themselves. For example, they reject Shevek's early thinking about space and time as mere egotism. Shevek, at eight, tries to share his realization of Zeno's paradox, that a thrown rock can never reach the tree: "It doesn't matter how far it's gone, there's always a place, only it's a time really, that's halfway between the last place it was and the tree." The group leader's only reaction to Shevek's precocity and genuine interest in such questions is to eject him from the group for showing off.
Like the image of the wall itself, the expansion into the concept of imprisonment also becomes significant in Shevek's childhood. One of the critical incidents in his childhood concerns an experiment he and his friends conduct with the idea, so far outside of their personal experience, of prison. As eleven-year-olds, they read a biography of Odo, the woman revolutionary who developed the anarchistic philosophy on which the society of Anarres is based. When they have difficulty understanding Odo's long imprisonment, a traveling history teacher explains prisons to them "with the reluctance of a decent adult forced to explain an obscenity to children." They struggle to understand the notion of this kind of coercion. Why didn't the prisoners just leave? What does "locked" mean? How could they be "sentenced" to do work? What if they didn't want to? Why didn't the others stop the guards from beating a prisoner?
Tirin, the most creative of Shevek's friends, finds an enclosed space they can use as a prison. For him, imagining being immured is sufficient, but some of the other boys want to try it. The domineering Kadagv demands to be imprisoned first. He insists that they choose how long he is to stay there. When Kad emerges after four hours, cocky as ever, declaring it no big deal, the boys decide to provide him with food and leave him for two nights. They release him after thirty hours. Kad, disoriented and having suffered massive diarrhea, exits frightened and humiliated. Shevek vomits repeatedly after Kad's release and is deeply shaken. This episode gives Shevek insight into the experience of both prisoner and jailor and leaves him with a lasting horror of imprisonment that plays an important role in his subsequent critiques of both Anarresti and Urrasti societies.
Although Shevek is slow to criticize Anarresti society, he continues to feel painfully isolated by his differences from others as he grows into manhood. As a teenager, Shevek argues against Bedap and Tirin when they question Anarresti platitudes. They point out what will become a theme of these chapters—that although all Anarresti are supposedly free because no laws make them do things or prevent them from doing them, their society has some powerful methods of controlling the behavior and even the thoughts of its members.
When Shevek goes to study temporal physics with Sabul at the Institute of the Sciences in Abbe-nay, "the mind and center of Anarres," he finds that the only place he can do his chosen work and the colleagues with whom he must work are at the heart of what is wrong with Anarresti society. Although the original settlers were aware that "unavoidable centralization was a lasting threat, to be countered by lasting vigilance," this vigilance appears to have faded. Even in the absence of formal government and hierarchies, informal but often rigid power structures have grown up. Sabul turns out to be a type only too familiar to anyone who has spent time in academia, a petty, jealous mediocrity who has built his reputation by appropriating the work of others, with little ability except for bureaucratic manipulation and a knack for standing in the way of those more talented.
Shevek learns Iotic, the language of A Io, the dominant country on Urras, although he is troubled by Sabul's insistence that he keep this knowledge secret. He reads the work of Urrasti physicists and is excited to learn that he can send letters to them on the freighters that travel between the worlds. However, he soon discovers that Sabul has put his own name as well as Shevek's on one of his most important essays. Shevek is only able to continue the work he wants to do by entering into a mutually exploitative relationship with Sabul, which violates his most basic beliefs about morality and human relationships. Doing this literally sickens Shevek. He becomes ill for the first time in his life and has to be hospitalized.
When he gets out of the hospital, Shevek makes a conscious effort to form connections with people. He finds to his surprise that, despite his sense of unacceptable difference, they welcome him. He reconnects with his boyhood friend Bedap. Although he is still reluctant to accept many of Bedap's ideas, Bedap helps him see the source of his problems more clearly. Bedap tells Shevek that he has come up against "the wall." He forces him to recognize that his difficulties with Sabul are part of a larger problem. Anarres has an entrenched power structure that resists change and sets arbitrary standards for creative intellectual work. For example, Bedap, a frustrated educational reformer, says that a month in Abbenay has shown him that he has no chance of accomplishing his goal of improving science instruction in the learning centers. He explains that Sabul and others like him get their power from "the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That's the power structure he's part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind."
Bedap argues that although the need for stability and expertise inevitably leads to the development of bureaucracy and hierarchy, Anarresti society has failed to use education to counter this authoritarian tendency: "We don't educate for freedom. Education, the most important activity of the social organism, has become rigid, moralistic, authoritarian. Kids learn to parrot Odo's word's as if they were laws—the ultimate blasphemy."
Bedap introduces Shevek to other creative individuals who have run up against this wall. Shevek continues to disapprove of them even as he admires their independence of mind. The most tragic example of this society's destruction of an exceptional individual concerns Tirin, Shevek and Bedap's brilliant but fragile childhood friend. Bedap tells Shevek that after he left, Tirin wrote a satirical play that was viewed as anti-Odonian. He was subjected to a brutal public reprimand from which he never recovered. Although he qualified as a teacher, he was assigned to a road-repair crew and eventually sent to an asylum. When Shevek finally meets Tirin again, he is a destroyed person, caught in a mental loop in which he compulsively rewrites the play that began his troubles.
Bedap also reintroduces Shevek to Takver, an acquaintance from their days at the regional institute, with whom he makes a commitment to lasting partnership. Through Shevek and Takver's relationship, Le Guin examines the issue of the compatibility of monogamy and family with freedom and the role of family in a society dedicated to the elimination of property.
In designing the social structure of Anarres, Le Guin takes a middle road between those utopian visions that embrace marriage and the family and those that reject them. She acknowledges that human desires are complex and that both sexual experimentation and monogamy may fulfill human needs. Anarres does not have any formal institution of marriage and does have nurseries in which children can be cared for full time or part time. Young Anarresti enjoy complete sexual freedom, yet a place exists for adults who choose to form permanent or semipermanent partnerships, and parents may choose to keep their children with them.
Although the anarchist philosopher, Odo, herself embraced the idea of fidelity, many Anarresti believe that the concept of such a commitment goes against the Odonian belief in nonownership and freedom. However, Odo argued that freedom is only made meaningful by choice and self-limitation: "if no direction is taken, if one goes nowhere, no change will occur. One's freedom to choose and to change will be unused, exactly as if one were in jail, a jail of one's own building, a maze in which no one way is any better than any other." Thus Odo saw the possibility of promise "as an essential element of freedom." Through Shevek's relationship with Takver, Le Guin shows the degree to which a committed, loving, long-term partnership made possible by monogamy offers something that some, if not all, human beings desire deeply, rather than being merely an inappropriate wish to possess another person, which could be socially engineered out of existence.
Unlike those utopian writers who suggest that social arrangements can solve the problems in human relationships that cause suffering, Le Guin suggests that the things human beings want are difficult to attain, and that even the best social arrangements can offer, at most, a greater likelihood of more satisfactory relationships. Le Guin suggests that Shevek and Takver share a relationship rate in any society, a profound and joyful commitment based on reality rather than romance. Le Guin indicates the degree to which others desire what they have by describing how, despite Shevek's and Takver's relative social self-sufficiency, others are drawn to them, "as thirsty people come to a fountain."
From his relationship with Takver, Shevek gets the strength and clarity he needs to defy society and pursue his own vision. Most of his conversations about the problems of Anarresti society take place with Bedap or other friends, but the crucial discussions in which Shevek realizes the actions he must take are with Takver. To Takver he articulates the significance of the reality that although people talk about refusing a posting as if it were an option, almost nobody ever does it: "[W]e're ashamed to say we refused a posting . . . the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience, instead of striking a balance with it. We don't cooperate—we obey. We fear being outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoizing. We fear our neighbor's opinion more than we respect our freedom of choice." To her, he articulates the answer—they must return to Abbenay together and start the Syndicate of Initiative. Likewise, when Shevek and the others in the syndicate are at a loss as to their next move, Takver tells him what, on some level, he already knows: that he must go to Urras. Their relationship is strong enough that he can leave without abandoning his family, even though there is a real possibility that he may be unable to return. His relationship with Takver provides a center from which he can journey while retaining the possibility of coming home.
The penultimate chapter of The Dispossessed deals with the events that lead up to Shevek's departure to Urras. In it we see the extent of the conflict that Shevek's new Syndicate of Initiative has brought Anarres. To the dismay of their opponents, who believe that this threatens the existence of Anarres, those in the syndicate have built their own transmitter and have initiated radio contact with the Urrasti. A proposal by Bedap to reconsider the terms of the Closure of Anarres and to allow some Urrasti claiming to be Odonians from the underdeveloped country of Benbili to come to Anarres is met with horrified predictions of the destruction of Odonian society on Anarres. Shevek argues that the aim of their society is freedom, not safety; they must therefore be willing to take risks for the ideals of their society to survive. The less dangerous possibility of sending an Anarresti to Urras is also raised, but this meets with an equally hostile response.
After this inconclusive meeting, Shevek finds out that the power structure has methods besides direct opposition to combat his syndicate. He receives an offer, brought to him by Sabul, of a permanent autonomous posting at the Physics Institute, with complete access to regular channels of publication for his work. At first, Shevek's friends interpret the offer as a sign of victory, but Shevek grasps that it is an underhanded attempt to separate him, its best known member, from the Syndicate of Initiative.
As Shevek's family gathers that evening, they finally share how much hatred and rejection they have all suffered, demonstrating that the fear of breaking social norms on Anarres is well founded. Shevek has experienced name-calling and physical violence. Takver is being forced out of a job she loves. Most heartbreakingly, their brave, vulnerable, eight-year-old daughter Sadik has been abandoned by her friends, excluded from games and subjected to increasingly spiteful vituperation from which the older children and adults in her learning center no longer try to protect her. This situation is untenable for Shevek, but he refuses to go back. With Takver's encouragement, he moves forward. Shevek accepts an invitation to visit Urras, in the hope that by doing so he can open a door that will let a little more of the fresh air of freedom into both worlds.
The Dispossessed ends with Shevek on his way back to Anarres. Le Guin leaves his arrival to our imagination. He travels not on an Urrasti freighter, but on The Davenant, a Hainish inter-stellar ship, run by people from the distant worlds of Hain and Terra. This delicate, beautiful ship reminds us of the existence of possibilities other than the antithesis between the austerity of Anarres and the opulence of Urras. Despite disappointed hopes, Shevek is happy. He senses that an important promise has been fulfilled. He is pleased with the news from Anarres, although there will be conflict and the outcome is uncertain. He will be met by large contingents of friends and enemies, but he has many more supporters now than he had before his journey.
Shevek takes another bold step and decides to allow Ketho, a Hainish crewmember, to disembark with him on Anarres. He claims the right to interpret the Terms of the Closure of Anarres for himself and decides that the exclusion applies only to Urrasti, not to all foreigners, as is commonly held on Anarres. He explains to Ketho that he can enter Anarres only as an individual, only on his own personal initiative, not as any kind of representative of a foreign government and that he takes his chances when he does so: "once you walk through the wall with me, then as I see it you are one of us . . . you become an Anarresti, with the same options as all the others. But they are not safe options. Freedom is never very safe."
Nonetheless, Shevek is optimistic about his own future and that of Anarres. The novel ends with the image of sunrise over Anarres. However, Le Guin gives us reasons for doubt as well as hope. There will be violence when Shevek lands. Presumably, given the statement about the numbers of friends and enemies, it will be premeditated and on a larger scale than the impulsive individual outbreaks hitherto experienced on Anarres. We remember the devastating violence after Shevek spoke to the crowd on Urras. Even if Shevek survives to lie down with Takver that night, will the dream of Anarres survive? Shevek and the syndicate have succeeded in their aim of stirring things up. Shevek's journey and his return have obviously caught the imagination of many people. Ketho's presence on Anarres suggests the possibility of further change and more contact with other societies. However, it seems probable that the opposition of the enemies of change would have hardened and organized. Once the course of events is determined by violence, even if favorably to the forces of change, where will it end? The trust on which a society based on mutual aid and cooperation rests might be irreparably damaged. Perhaps the best possible outcome would involve the kind of complex compromises that would require governmental structures to work out.
Thus, The Dispossessed ends with a question rather than an answer. Anarres has flaws too serious for it to be considered a utopia. However, it contains enough that is good and enough hope for a better future that it cannot fairly be described as a dystopia. The doctrine of permanent revolution, which Shevek articulates to both his Urrasti and Anarresti audiences, turns out to be in its own way anti-utopian. Shevek's words to the hopeful crowd on Urras, "You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution," are met with machine-gun fire. When he expresses similar views on Anarres, the context is more hopeful but also renders his statement more radical. Shevek articulateswhatheseesasthebasis of Odonian society: "The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible . . . Revolution is our obligation: our hope of evolution. The revolution is in the individual spirit, or it is nowhere . . . If it is seen as having any end, it will never truly begin." Shevek embodies this spirit. He sees what is good about his society. He understands the risks, for himself and his world, of continuing to pursue change. Yet he persists and is able to do so within the framework of Anarresti society. He sees his actions as fulfilling the fundamental values of his society. He is able to use Odonian methods; for example, he starts a new syndicate, the customary Anarresti way of doing things. He reinterprets the Terms of Closure rather than simply rejecting them.
Thus, Le Guin suggests that, although there are no utopian endpoints, the attempt to create social structures that allow for greater human freedom and fulfillment is difficult and dangerous but worthwhile. Any society, however well conceived, that perceives itself as that perfect endpoint will become destructive of freedom, a dystopia instead of a utopia. Le Guin makes clear throughout her novel that the goal must remain the cultivation of individual freedom. Any society that sets out to perfect human beings or to do away with pain and sorrow will also endanger people's capacity for joy, freedom, and humanity. Le Guin agrees with one of her more cynical characters that human beings are not infinitely malleable: "Human nature is human nature." As Shevek learns by experience, people on Urras and Anarres are not fundamentally different.
However, Le Guin suggests that we may tend to take too limited a view of human nature. She argues that the impulse to mutual aid and cooperation is as deeply rooted as the tendency toward competition and dominance. She does a remarkable, sometimes dizzying, job of forcing us to see from perspectives distant from our own. She turns the questions we ask about how a society based on voluntary cooperation could work on their head, by showing us the similar uncomprehending questions Shevek and other Anarresti ask about how a society based on competition and coercion could possibly succeed.
Source: Susan Storing Benfield, "The Interplanetary Dialect: Freedom and Equality in Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed," in Perspectives on Political Science, Vol. 35, No. 3, Summer 2006, pp. 128-34.
In the following essay, Parrinder examines scientific theories and metaphors used by authors of Science Fiction.
A provisional and, I hope, uncontroversial definition of science fiction might run as follows: sf is a distinct kind of popular literature telling stories that arise from actual or, more usually,
‟THE RESULT IS PROPHETIC SCIENCE FICTION, NOT IN THE SENSE OF AN ACCURATE FORECAST, BUT OF THE STORY'S POWER TO CONVINCE US OF ASPECTS OF THE FUTURE BEYOND OR BEHIND THE OSTENSIBLE FICTIONAL VEHICLE: IT IS, IN EFFECT, A KIND OF ORACLE."
hypothetical new discoveries in science and technology. The science and technology must be convincing enough to invite a certain suspension of the reader's disbelief: this is how sf, as a creation of the later nineteenth century, differs from earlier fiction in which themes such as space travel and encounters with extraterrestrials were presented in a merely fantastic or satirical light. The present essay will propose a broad evolutionary model for the development of science fiction, comprising a prehistorical and at least three historical stages. The points of transition are those at which the genre can be seen to shift from one kind of discourse to another. In all science-fiction stories, scientific and technological innovation has consequential effects, causing changes at the level of the social structure, of individual experience, and in the perceived nature of reality itself. As sf has developed not only has its stock of imagined alternatives continued to multiply, but their status has changed from what I shall call the prophetic to the mythic and to the metaphorical. At present there are signs that the 'metaphorical' phase of science-fictional discourse may be breaking down, just as its predecessors did.
It is true that a periodisation of science fiction along these lines will strike some readers as being offensively schematic and dogmatic: my only excuse is that it may be a stimulus to further thought. Earlier critics to whom I am indebted, notably Darko Suvin and Mark Rose, have given their own versions of the 'philosophical history' of the genre—a philosophical history being a deliberately simplified model, or a hypothesis to be borne in mind when constructing a detailed empirical history. My model tries to foreground the relationship of sf to the physical sciences, while in the background there is a developing argument about scientific epistemology, and especially about the relationship of science to narrative discourse or, as we say, fictions.
Most early or 'proto' science fiction was the product of writers who stood at some distance from the science of their time and set out to mock, satirise, discredit, or at best to play with it. I am thinking here of Lucian, Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac, Swift, Voltaire, Mary Shelley, and Poe. Poe comes the nearest to generic science fiction, though his imitations of scientific discourse can never be taken at face value. His cosmological essay 'Eureka' can claim to be a remarkable example of prophetic insight, since its alternately expanding and contracting universe is taken very seriously by some modern cosmologists. But 'Eureka' is also a vast leg-pull, an exercise in teasing absurdity comparable to the same author's 'Philosophy of Composition' with its satire on literary theory. In each case, Poe sets out to debunk Romantic irrationalism by showing that the mysteries of creation (whether human or divine) are susceptible of a blindingly simple, logical explanation; but the explanation collapses under its own weight, leaving both the mystical and the mechanical outlooks in ruins.
To move from proto-science fiction to the first stage of the genre itself is to move from sophisticated irony and satire to something which at first sounds very much cruder—the mode of literary prophecy. Poe gave one of his most obviously parodic stories the title 'Mellonta Tauta', Greek for 'these things are in the future', but the writers of prophetic science fiction speak of future things and mean what they say. Or rather, since it is a question of literary prophecy—that is, prophecy openly making use of fictional devices—they appear to mean it. There is, as it turns out, an intricate relationship between literary prophecy and parody or irony, which perhaps accounts for Poe's crucial influence on Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The use of future dates in fiction will illustrate what I have in mind, since every future date is a virtual not an actual date, even though some should be taken much more seriously than others. At one extreme, Poe's character Pundita in 'Mellonta Tauta' writes her long, gossipy letter from the balloon 'Skylark' on 1 April 2848; at the other, Arthur C. Clarke sets the opening chapter of Childhood's End in 1975, but once that date has passed he writes a new opening chapter for the revised edition of the novel. Both editions carry Clarke's well-known prefatory statement to the effect that 'The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.' George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was made all the more ominous by its naming of a future year which rapidly became part of the political discourse of the Cold War period, even though '1984' was arrived at by reversing the last two figures of 1948 in which the novel was written; in any case, the book begins with the clocks striking 13, a manifestly satirical touch. What are we to say, then, of a date such as Wells's 802 701 AD in The Time Machine? Wells's story is, as he himself said in one of his letters, 'no joke', and the narrative logic just about manages to account for a date so unthinkably far in the future (provided that we do not inquire too closely). The result is prophetic science fiction, not in the sense of an accurate forecast, but of the story's power to convince us of aspects of the future beyond or behind the ostensible fictional vehicle: it is, in effect, a kind of oracle.
From Verne and Wells to Gernsback, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Pohl we have a genre shaped by writers who are almost missionaries for science, and whose fiction proclaims that it has something to divulge about the future. The writers of prophetic sf are futurologists who nevertheless recognise that, in what Frederik Pohl has offered as 'Pohl's Law', 'The more complete and reliable a prediction of the future is, the less it is worth.' Characteristically, prophetic sf writers not only claim scientific authenticity for their visions but seek to promote what Wells called the 'discovery of the future' by means of essays, journalism and popular science writing as well as fiction. They celebrate and warn their readers about things to come. Taken literally and in detail, their prophecies are undoubtedly false, but then every true terrestrial prophet is also a false one. What prophetic sf writers do know about the future is that (to adapt George Orwell's comment on Wells) it is not going to be what respectable people imagine. And this implies that prophetic science fiction will be in trouble once its predictions of scientific and technological advance have started to become respectable and commonplace.
While many of Jules Verne's best-known titles speak of travel in spatial dimensions, Wells's titles often refer to travel in time, or rather to space-time. Verne's archetypal hero is Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus; Wells's is the Time Traveller. The Wellsian model of prophetic science fiction presupposes a Positivistic space-time continuum in which natural diversity is accounted for and brought under the rule of universal laws such as those of evolution and thermodynamics. Though living matter is extraordinarily plastic, the universe is a closed system of matter and energy without supernatural interference or any possibility of regeneration from outside. Space and time were bound together from the late nineteenth century onwards by the measurement of the speed of light and by the concept of the light-year. The future, like outer space, was waiting to be discovered, even though the future would be partly moulded by human choices. Within the 'classical' space-time universe which Wells called the 'Universe Rigid', the scope for human freedom of action faces severe constraints. According to Sir James Jeans, the sun is 'melting away like an ice-berg in the Gulf Stream', and humanity 'is probably destined to die of cold, while the greater part of the substance of the universe still remains too hot for life to obtain a footing. . . . [T]he end of the journey cannot be other than universal death'. Prophetic science fiction explores both the mysteries and the certainties of this scientific, material universe.
To do so it relies, above all, on the spaceship, an ethereal version of Jules Verne's submarine enabling the science fiction hero to travel across the space-time universe at just below (or, in many cases, far above) the speed of light. The spaceship as dream-vehicle gave way, in the mid-twentieth century, to the technological realities of NASA and Cape Canaveral (though sf writers have felt constrained to keep several jumps ahead of NASA's transport technology). At much the same time, a fundamental change in cosmology led to the general adoption of the expanding-universe theory according to which, far from inhabiting an entropic steady-state system, everything is perpetually getting farther away. Where Sir James Jeans in his best-selling account of The Mysterious Universe had been preoccupied with an apocalyptic future event, the 'Heat-Death of the Universe', physical speculation now came to centre upon a founding moment in the past, the Big Bang which initiated universal expansion. Science fiction has been deeply affected by this switch of attention from the end of everything to its beginning.
In the 1920s and the 1930s, the reaction against prophetic science fiction began in the work of 'space fantasists' like David Lindsay and C. S. Lewis. Lewis wrote that the best sf stories were not 'satiric or prophetic' but belonged to what he called 'fantastic or mythopoetic literature in general.' In the post-war decades, Lewis's view of sf gradually took precedence over Heinlein's much narrower conception of it as 'Realistic Future-Scene Fiction.' Soon science fiction began to repeat its 'prophetic' material and also to borrow quite consciously from modern fantasy (it had always had fantastic elements, of course), leading to a general shift from the prophetic to the mythopoetic mode. (At the same time, earlier science fiction had to be reinterpreted in accordance with the new paradigm, so that Bernard Bergonzi, for example, would describe Wells's science fictions as 'ironic myths.') I would count Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, James Blish and Walter M. Miller among the mythopoetic writers, but the earliest major sf novelist in this mode was probably Olaf Stapledon. Admittedly, his position is ambiguous. Last and First Men is in many ways a standard work of prophetic sf, with its chronological tables and its narrator addressing us from the far future. Stapledon's preface to Last and First Men, however, states that his 'attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting' is an 'essay in myth creation', not a prophecy. His later book Star Maker, where the hero's journey through the space-time cosmos leads to a vision of creation imbued with post-Christian mysticism, is straightforwardly mythical. From the Sixties onwards, it became commonplace to speak of science fiction as a 'contemporary mythology', a phrase which hints at the hostility to science which is (it seems to me) latent in Stapledon's writings, as well as being explicit in Lewis. The sf critic Patricia Warrick defines myth as a 'complex of stories which a culture regards as demonstrating the inner meaning of the universe and of human life'; here the body of scientific knowledge and speculation is reduced to the level of scriptures and stories, so that 'scientism' as it is now known takes its place alongside other competing belief-systems, just as some Americans want to give creationism the same weight as evolutionism in the teaching of biology.
Where Warrick claims that the scientific model of the universe itself functions like a myth, Ursula Le Guin sees mythmaking as the special province of writers and artists. Le Guin argues on Jungian grounds that storytelling connects scientific methods and values to our collective dreams and archetypes; it is science fiction, not science itself, that deserves the title of a 'modern mythology.' In practice, once science fiction became consciously mythopoetic it began to indulge in generic self-repetition and a growing carelessness towards scientific facts. The imaginary Space Age universe crossed by magical faster-than-light spaceships and full of lifelike robots and contactable intelligent aliens has remained a staple of sf (and of the popular consciousness of science) long after it ceased to resemble a plausible scientific future. From a collection of increasingly commonplace prophecies SF had become a nostalgic theme-park of futures past.
But then in the 1960s, as Brian Aldiss claimed, 'SF discovered the Present', and the future was increasingly regarded as a metaphor for the present. Aldiss and Le Guin, among others, have frequently asserted that the genre's portrayal of the future of space travel, alternative societies and alternative life-forms is at bottom metaphorical. Much of New Wave and feminist science fiction is apparently metaphorical rather than prophetic or mythopoetic in intent. By 1970 the academic study of sf had begun, so that we can track the redefinition of science fiction as metaphor through academic theory as well as through the pronouncements of practising novelists. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer had argued that myth and metaphor were radically linked, and in a writer such as Le Guin, and in an early theorist such as Robert M. Philmus, there is a kind of slippage from myth to metaphor. On the other hand, Darko Suvin rejects talk of the artist as mythmaker and offers a fully worked-out theory of sf as a metaphorical mode: its stories, he says, are not prophecies but analogies or parables. The redefinition of science fiction as metaphor coincided with the politicisation of sf and its criticism in the Sixties and Seventies, though in my view it has served a primarily contemplative rather than an activist politics. The envisioned alternatives of metaphorical sf are fantastic and utopian possibilities, parallel worlds serving what Sarah Lefanu has called 'interrogative' rather than predictive functions. An interrogative or dialogical function is precisely what has traditionally been claimed for the literary genre of utopia. Metaphorical theory views science fiction not as an alternative to utopia (which is how the prophetic writers from Wells to Heinlein had seen it), but as one of the contemporary forms of utopian writing. This understanding of science fiction as a metaphorical mode is still dominant today, but its limitations have become increasingly evident. The metaphorical theory of the genre redefines sf as 'speculative fiction' or 'speculative fantasy', but it cannot in the long run explain why these speculations should be based on science.
Each of the three phases of science fiction I have outlined can be roughly correlated with a set of contemporary philosophical or metaphysical assumptions. Each set of contemporary assumptions constitutes an ideology or Weltanschauung exerting a gravitational pull on the fiction that comes under its influence. In this sense, prophetic science fiction belongs with Positivism and scientific materialism; science fiction as myth implies either neoChristianity or a pragmatic cultural relativism drawing on psychoanalytical and anthropological insights; while science fiction as metaphor tends to imply a post-structuralist 'conventionalism' or 'anti-foundationalism' denying or downgrading the referential aspects of fiction. In this view, statements no longer have a truth content, so that it would be absurd to judge imagined futures by their potential correspondence with any 'real' future. Prophetic sf is a propaganda device which is meaningful only in relation to the discursive present in which it arises.
Admittedly, it is tendentious to assert that theoretical defences of sf as a metaphorical mode imply a conventionalist view of reality. To do so they must argue not merely, in Le Guin's words, that 'all fiction is metaphor' but that all knowledge and description is so too. Darko Suvin's influential theory of science fiction is critical at this point, since Suvin in his best known work insists on a rigorous distinction between cognitive sf and supposedly non-cognitive fantasy. According to Suvin, not only is sf a mode of metaphor, but 'true' metaphor is by definition cognitive—so that sf's cognitive status is established with all the force of a syllogism. The theoretical defence of this assertion is to be found in Suvin's Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction, where he elaborates on the more programmatic and manifesto-like statements to be found in his earlier Metamorphoses of Science Fiction.
In Positions and Presuppositions Suvin quotes Paul Ricoeur's aphorism that 'Metaphor is to poetic language as model is to scientific language.' The equivalence is already suspiciously neat, and if poetic language and scientific language are both regarded as cognitive, then metaphor approximates to model. This is plausible to the extent that scientific theorising involves elements of metaphorisation and analogy or model-building; but Suvin describes not only scientific models but metaphors in general as 'heuristic fictions' which have a cognitive function. His intention, undoubtedly, is to turn post-structuralist scepticism inside out by arguing for the cognitive potential of all human creativity whether poetic or scientific, rational or emotional, or conceptual or non-conceptual. But in his discussion of sf as 'Metaphor, Parable and Chronotope' it is no longer clear to what extent so-called knowledge, or cognition, relies on a truth content.
Like other theorists of metaphor, Suvin relies on an apparently commonsense distinction between the properties of the 'true' or 'full-fledged' metaphor (equivalent to Cassirer's 'genuine "radical metaphor"') and low-grade or dead metaphors. This is crucial for the cognitive theory of metaphor, since all modern linguistic theorists agree on the ubiquity of metaphor. Nietzsche's assertion that in language itself there are no literal terms, only metaphors in various states of decay, has been echoed not merely by Derrida and de Man, but by a Positivist theorist such as I. A. Richards, who has described metaphor as the 'omnipresent principle of language.' If we say that all language also has a cognitive function we have, no doubt, stumbled upon a truth of sorts, but it is a truth that undermines any claim for a special cognitive status for scientific language, let alone for science fiction. Suvin's well-known view of science fiction as a literature of 'cognitive estrangement' implies a neat pyramid of discourse with ordinary language at the bottom and cognitive (scientific) thought at the apex; but the linguistic theory of metaphor leads us to view language as a seamless fabric with a repeated pattern in which theories, models, analogies, and 'ordinary' language are constantly changing places relative to one another. To say that sf, or any kind of fiction, is metaphorical is then to say nothing worth saying at all. Suvin, though well aware of this danger, has difficulty in extricating himself from it.
Fully-fledged metaphors or heuristic fictions, he argues, must fulfil the criteria of coherence, richness and novelty. Consciously or unconsciously, these three conditions seem to echo the scholastic triad of integritas, consonantia and claritas, proposed by St Thomas Aquinas and familiar to modern readers from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For Aquinas and for Stephen Dedalus, however, these were the requirements for beauty, not for truth or cognitive value. Suvin considers and rather perfunctorily rejects a fourth criterion, that of reference to reality, on the grounds that it is already implicit in the requirements for richness and novelty. Just so did Dedalus argue that claritas was the same as quidditas, the 'whatness' of a thing. This is an economy too far, since it amounts to saying, like Keats's Grecian Urn, that 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'. Suvin then distinguishes between metaphor as such, and narrative fictions which he regards as extended metaphors; the latter, he says, should be capable of verification or falsification, though the point is left undeveloped. Given the 'difference between brief and long writings', the criteria for distinguishing 'run-of-the-mill from optimal SF' are analogous to those for low-grade versus true metaphor. It is evident from this that Suvin no longer sees sf as a special kind of narrative exhibiting cognitive estrangement; rather, all worthwhile and, as he puts it, liberating human thought and creativity is (a) cognitive and (b) estranged. The purpose of such creativity is, to quote from a more recent essay, to 'redescribe the known world and open up new possibilities of intervening into it.' Perhaps, however, a verified or validated narrative (or metaphor, or scientific model) is no longer usefully analysed simply as an instance of metaphor. We should regard it, instead, as containing an actual or potential truth statement.
If sf 's only distinguishing feature is that it serves 'interrogative functions' by means of its portrayal of analogical models or parallel worlds, then it is destined to disappear as a separate form, becoming in effect a subdivision of the novel of ideas. It is quite possible that the century of science fiction is over and that this form of expression born of late nineteenth-century scientific materialism has now run its course. (On the other hand, cultural history is littered with the premature obituaries of artistic forms.) The immediate cause of the genre's disappearance would be that science fiction understood as a metaphorical mode no longer has any necessary connection or concern with contemporary scientific developments.
If science fiction as metaphor is more or less played out, then it may be time to examine whether and under what conditions a return to science fiction as prophecy is possible. The genre's popular media image is still one of lurid anticipation and comic-book futurology, even though the sf community finds this embarrassingly naive and politically distasteful. Nothing is more guaranteed to excite the derision of the sf critic than the fact that Wells is still admired for predicting the tank and the atomic bomb, Clarke for the communications satellite, and Capek and Asimov for their robots. Some of the most plausibly prophetic recent science fiction is to be found in J. G. Ballard's scenarios of the end of the Space Age—but Ballard is famous, or deserves to be famous, as the one writer of his time who dared to contradict the commonplaces of respectable technocratic prophecy.
There is a trivial sense in which all scientific theories are predictive, since they assert that the regularities observed in the past will hold good in the future. But much of the most interesting scientific speculation focuses on unique (or apparently unique) events like the Big Bang, the Heat-Death of the Universe, or the course of evolution on Earth. For these events to appeal to the prophetic imagination they must have consequences in the future, and to appeal to the fictional imagination as we know it they must in principle be observable by human beings. The great advantage of the 'classical' space-time universe was the possibility of travelling around it and seeing things that had not yet happened, but even there what was directly observed would usually be a symbol or portent rather than the reality—like Wells's solar eclipse at the end of The Time Machine, or Clarke's Rama.
The modern counterpart to Wells's use of an eclipse to symbolise the heat-death of the sun would be a symbolic vision of the Big Bang, which is something that several writers have attempted. But where the end of the world naturally fits the prophetic mode, the beginning can perhaps best be represented as parody, as we see in Italo Calvino's marvellous short story 'All at one point' (from Cosmicomics). 'Naturally, we were all there', Calvino's narrator begins, 'Where else could we have been?'. What follows is an all-too-human nostalgia exercise, the loss of a primal utopia of primitive communism (written, as it happens, by an ex-Communist). Other aspects of contemporary cosmological speculation apart from the Big Bang pose an enormous challenge to direct fictional observation, even of the symbolic kind. According to string theory, for example, the universe not only contains anti-matter and black holes but has ten dimensions, six of which cannot be observed. Its fundamental building-blocks are quanta which may be conceived as either matter or energy. Meanwhile, it seems that the best chance of finding traces of extraterrestrial life is not in outer space, but in tiny fragments of meteorite on the earth's surface. Although men have been to the moon and landed a camera on Mars, and although some physicists now reckon that a time machine is theoretically possible, today's universe apparently offers no more opportunity for physical exploration than the universe of 100 years ago. We can detect more of it, but we know far more about the difficulties of actually reaching it.
Scott Bukatman in his book Terminal Identity argues that the Space Age has given way to an Information Age in which technology has become largely invisible, and space has been interiorised. We think of the atomic nucleus as a kind of miniature solar system, while the invention of the microchip and the spread of personal computing have led to the notions of cyberspace and of microcosmic, invisible and virtual spaces. Nevertheless, we continue to model the informational universe on the physical universe. Not only was it an sf writer who invented the term cyberspace, but science fiction and computer journalism have invested very heavily in space-time metaphors, conferring on virtual space some of the sense of challenge and adventure formerly associated with outer space (just as outer space in its time was invested with the language of geographical exploration). Hence the ubiquitous ideas of the 'net' and the 'super-highway', and Bukatman's pun on the word 'terminal', as in 'terminal identity fictions'.
John Clute has written that 'We no longer feel that we penetrate the future; futures penetrate us.' Bukatman speaks of 'our presence in the future'. The presence of the future has become a central paradox of postmodernist theory, as in Baudrillard's essay entitled 'The Year 2000 has already happened.' It is not very enlightening to describe such pronouncements as metaphorical—more significant, perhaps, is that they seem to pivot unstably between the modes of prophecy and parody. The same might be said of the literary applications of chaos theory, which is described by its proponents as a new cosmology overturning the rigid assumptions of the thermodynamic and evolutionary spacetime continuum. Scientists see chaos as driving the universe towards a more complex kind of order, but at any particular time the world of nature is theorised as being like the British weather, 'predictable in its very unpredictability.' Speculative scientific developments such as chaos theory and string theory are described by John Horgan as 'ironic science'—science which does not converge on the truth but which 'resembles literary criticism or philosophy or theology in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, "interesting", which provoke further comment.' Ironic science must necessarily find its counterpart in ironic science fiction.
If sf must respond to the aspects of contemporary knowledge that I have all too superficially touched upon, it is also affected by its now entrenched status as an established, not a new, genre with a ready-made audience and an organised body of academic interpreters. If the more successful popular sf (and above all sf cinema) now inclines to irony rather than prophecy, it also apparently has no need to prophesy, being readily available as raw material for the production of a kind of criticism and theory which itself has prophetic pretensions. If the old sf writers were also futurologists, there is little need for today's writers to double as cultural theorists, since literary critics will do the job for them. (Not only was cyberpunk instantly canonised, but if it had not existed cultural theory would surely have had to invent it, and some people have argued that cultural theory did invent it.) Popular sf no longer claims to be prophetic, but it feeds into the 'SF of theory' which does claim to speak prophetically or at least, with a parody of prophecy.
In The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells reminds us that 'No one would have believed' in the last years of the nineteenth century we were being watched by extraterrestrial intelligences: 'And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.' Since then we have had a century full of fictions of galactic imperialism, of colonies in space, and of meetings with (and massacres of) intelligent and interestingly-gendered extraterrestrials; but no one (I suggest) can take these fictions seriously any more. If science fiction is conceived as metaphor or as myth it does not matter too much if the same old stuff goes on pouring out, but for the fact of our great disillusionment. And early in the twenty-first century . . . ? Not, I hope, a new war of the worlds, but perhaps a new science fiction, prophetic or parodic, keeping one step ahead of the cultural theorists, exploring both mysteries and certainties?
Source: Patrick Parrinder, "Science Fiction: Metaphor, Myth or Prophecy?" in Science Fiction, Critical Frontiers, edited by Karen Sayer and John Moore, St. Martin's Press, 2000, pp. 23-34.
Aldiss, Brian W., with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Atheneum, 1986, pp. 39-40, 75, 118.
Asimov, Isaac, I, Robot, Bantam Books, 1991, pp. 44-45, 73.
Benfield, Susan Storing, "The Interplanetary Dialect: Freedom and Equality in Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed," in Perspectives on Political Science, Vol. 35, No. 3, Summer 2006, pp. 128-34.
Card, Orson Scott, Ender's Game, Tor Books, 1977, p. 208.
———, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Writer's Digest Books, 1990, pp. 4, 21.
Haldeman, Joe, The Forever War, Avon Books, 1974, pp. 225, 229.
Harrison, Harry, "The Term Defined," in Science Fiction: The Academic Awakening, College English Association, 1974, p. 39.
Heinlein, Robert A., Stranger in a Strange Land, Ace Books, 1987, p. 115.
Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World, HarperPerennial, 1989, p. 240.
Le Guin, Ursula K., The Left Hand of Darkness, 25th Anniversary ed., Walker, 1994, pp. 40-41.
Lerner, Frederick Andrew, Modern Science Fiction and the American Literary Community, Scarecrow Press, 1985, pp. xiv-xvi.
Orwell, George, 1984, Signet Classic, 1950, p. 5.
Ray Bradbury, http://www.raybradbury.com/ (accessed July 18, 2008).
Smith, Dinitia, "Kurt Vonnegut, Novelist Who Caught the Imagination of His Age, Is Dead at 84," in the New York Times, April 12, 2007.
Tolkien, J. R. R., The Hobbit, Ballantine Books, 1965, pp. 4, 18-19, 60, 62, 85, 248.
Wells, H. G., The Time Machine, Bantam Books, 1991, pp. 4, 21, 29.
Williamson, Jack, "SF in the Classroom," in Science Fiction: The Academic Awakening, College English Association, 1974, p. 11.
Wood, Michael, "Tolkien's Fictions," in New Society, March 27, 1969.
Alkon, Paul K., Science Fiction before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology, Twayne, 1994.
This book gives information on early Science Fiction works and how they were important in the beginning stages of the movement. The works are then placed in comparison with other literary works from their time period.
Asimov, Isaac, I. Asimov: A Memoir, Bantam Spectra, 1995.
Asimov's final collection of autobiographical essays contains many of his personal opinions and life stories. He discusses his views on such wide-ranging topics as science, society, other Science Fiction writers, and religion.
Disch, Thomas M., The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Touchstone Books, 2000.
This work contains historical information and critiques of various works and styles of Science Fiction literature. It gives an in-depth explanation of the different types of literature and gives blunt assessments of the work of the major authors from the field.
Hartwell, David G., Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction, Tor Books, 1996.
Hartwell's book is a great primer for anyone interested in learning more about Science Fiction. The book, written by a noted editor in the Science Fiction field, includes a critical overview of the field, recommended readings, and even a section on the business of Science Fiction publishing.
Roberts, Adam, The History of Science Fiction, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Roberts provides the first comprehensive history of science fiction, from the ancient Greeks to contemporary books and film. He also addresses works from outside the English-speaking world.
Roberts, Adam, and John Drakakis, Science Fiction, New Critical Idiom series, Routledge, 2000.
Roberts provides a great reference for Science Fiction novices, offering a brief history of the Science Fiction field, an explanation of the critical terminology, and an overview of the key concepts in Science Fiction criticism and theory.
Toffler, Alvin, Future Shock, Bantam Books, 1991.
Originally published in 1970, Toffler's classic book about how people either do or do not adapt to technological changes in a fast-paced, industrial society, is still relevant in today's information age.
Tolkien, J. R. R., The Silmarillion, Ballantine Books, 1990.
The Silmarillion is a good book for anyone interested in examining the origins of Tolkien's The Hobbit and "The Lord of the Rings" series. It gives background and historical information of this Fantasy world, as well as events that take place long before the beginning of Tolkien's four-volume Middle-Earth saga.
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