Science Fiction

views updated May 14 2018

Science Fiction


Believing that films were strictly for entertainment, Golden Age film producer Sam Goldywn is reputed to have said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." Notwithstanding a handful of so-called social problem films, Hollywood films do tend more toward the innocuous than the politically confrontational. Science fiction films, though, are often notable for their idea-driven narratives; social commentary, although not always profound, is a frequent element of sci-fi. It is not unusual for even low-budget, low-concept science fiction films to "send messages" about human nature or the relationship of humans and machines. Their lessons may be conveyed with all the subtlety of a Western Union telegram, but there is no denying that good science fiction films try harder than other genres to ask "deep" questions: Why are we here? What is our future? Will technology save or destroy us?

Though science fiction films vary widely in their politics and aesthetics, they share some key recurring elements. Stories often center on space travel, encounters with alien life-forms, and time travel. Settings are often futuristic and dystopic. Technology is notably advanced (in many futuristic societies) or absent (in post-apocalyptic societies destroyed by technological forces such as atom bombs). Spectacular sets, costumes, and special effects are common, though by no means de rigueur.

With its frequent focus on alien monsters and fantastic special effects, science fiction overlaps with two other genres, fantasy and horror. Indeed, some movies simultaneously embody both horror and science fiction, such as The Thing (1982), Planet of the Vampires (1965), The Fiend Without a Face (1958), and Alien (1979). It is futile to split hairs debating whether a film is truly science fiction, since so many movies mix elements of SF with horror and fantasy. It makes more sense to consider science fiction (like most genres) as existing on a continuum, where some films are mostly science fiction, and others contain only a few science fiction elements. As a rule of thumb, it is helpful to remember that pure fantasy films, such as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), or pure horror films like Dracula (1931) tend to emphasize the power of magic and the supernatural, while pure science fiction films, such as The Andromeda Strain (1971), emphasize both the power of technology and scientific innovation and the power of the rational human mind.

Though science fiction films have a history of criticizing technology, they themselves frequently depend on the most advanced technological innovations. Stanley Kubrick's (1928–1999) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for example, presented a very sophisticated 3-D simulation of outer space and spacecrafts. The film famously opens with apes using bones as tools, thus taking the first step toward evolving into humans. A bone tossed up into the air visually segues into a spinning spacecraft in the year 2001. With its spectacular visual celebration of scientific advancement, the film might initially appear to be pro-technology, but its villain is a murderous computer, HAL. Humankind's greatest technological achievement becomes its undoing, paralleling the earlier technological breakthrough, the bone, which was used by one ape to murder another. Evolution is presented, on some level, as devolution. For many viewers, however, 2001's spectacular effects blunt its negative presentation of HAL; it is hard to interpret such a technologically sophisticated film as offering an unalloyed critique of the dangers of technological achievement.

Arguably, some of the best science fiction critiques of technology are in lower budget films such as Mad Max (1979) and A Boy and His Dog (1975), where wars have desolated the planet. Paralleling Kubrick's apes in their primitive ferocity, survivors are forced to make do with whatever technology they can scrounge up. The Omega Man (1971) is a post-apocalyptic film in which most of humanity has been destroyed by germ warfare. The hero is technologically sophisticated, while his brutal foes use primitive weapons and are explicitly opposed to technological advances. The movie is unique for being both post-apocalyptic and pro-technology. Other post-apocalyptic films, such as On the Beach (1959), deemphasize technological critique in favor of a focus on psychological realism and social analysis. Whether overt or more subtle, most science fiction films include some consideration of the positive or negative implications of technological and scientific achievements.


Mary Shelley's (1797–1851) Frankenstein (1818) is often cited as a crucial literary antecedent to sci-fi films. The novel is of particular interest because of its portrayal of creating life from non-living materials and, equally importantly, because of Shelley's investigation of the ethical ramifications of the human (specifically male) creation of life. Later science fiction narratives about robots, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and cloning clearly owe a debt to Shelley, though few if any authors have surpassed her intense exploration of the sublime natural world. Shelley's legacy can also be found in her tender description of the monster, who is tormented by his own nature. It is here that we find the roots of films in which "unnatural" beings—the replicants of Blade Runner (1982) and the scientist-turned-monster of The Fly (1958, 1986)—question the validity of their very existence. Shelley is one of the few female writers whose ideas have obviously impacted science fiction film; though there are numerous popular feminist authors—such as Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929) and Octavia Butler (1947–2006)—and women, in general, are avid science fiction readers, but as a film genre sci-fi has generally targeted a male demographic.

Many credit Jules Verne (1828–1905) as the true creator of modern science fiction, though one can also trace the genre's roots farther back to seventeenth-century imaginary voyage literature, and even further back to Thomas More's Utopia (1516). Verne's nineteenth-century French novels celebrated technological achievement, describing travel beneath the sea and to the moon in language indicating that he believed such fantastic voyages could actually take place. Verne based his writing on research, which lent a nonfiction quality to his work. He clearly influenced French director Georges Méliès's (1861–1938) technologically optimistic films of the early 1900s, and later films based on his books, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), offered visual celebrations of futuristic machines. Dystopic films such as Soylent Green (1973) and The Terminator (1984) reacted against this earlier celebratory vision, while many more recent science fiction films, such as Independence Day (1996) and George Lucas's (b. 1944) Star Wars franchise, have shifted back towards Verne's vision of technology at the service of humankind.

A number of books by prolific British author H. G. Wells (1866–1946)—such as The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), War of the Worlds (1898), and The Shape of Things to Come (1933)—have been made into films. Wells's War of the Worlds tells the story of a catastrophic alien invasion; with their superior weaponry, the aliens destroy much of the planet until they are finally defeated not by human ingenuity but by their own lacking immune systems: they are killed by earthly bacterial infection. The 1953 film version drains the story of its pessimism, turning it into a Christian allegory. The beleaguered humans hole up in a church and upon emerging and discovering the sickly, fading invaders declare a triumph for God and the human spirit, an ending which no doubt would have appalled Wells, who died a confirmed atheist. Orson Welles's 1938 radio adaptation stays closer to the tone of the original but is less famous as a successful adaptation than as a scandalous event. A number of listeners who tuned into the middle of the program thought that aliens actually had invaded New Jersey, and panic ensued. H. G. Wells himself was heavily involved behind the scenes in the production of Things to Come (1936). The movie pictures a post-apocalyptic world in which primitive technophobic masses are dominated by elite hi-tech rulers who value the state over the individual. Considered a landmark in cinematic design because of its futuristic sets, the film has been read both as a warning about fascism and as a celebration of fascism. The latter seems more plausible, given Wells's own support of the idea of rule by a technocratic elite, which he conceptualized as "liberal fascism."

Many of the sci-fi authors who had some influence on films were first published in American pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories, which appeared in the 1920s. Comics such as Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century and Flash Gordon built on the popularity of the pulps, and the comics were translated to film in the serial shorts of the 1930s and 1940s. Though these futuristic adventure films did not explore the serious themes of science fiction, they did provide some of the character types and visual iconography that would surface in post-war sci-fi cinema. George Lucas tellingly mocks the optimism of the serials by opening his own dark THX-1138 (1971) with a cheery Buck Rogers theatrical trailer.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), who wrote hundreds of books, published most of his early work in pulp magazines. Though little of his fiction has been directly translated to film, his conceptualization of the Three Laws of Robotics (see his collection I, Robot [1950]) has been influential. Frustrated by reading endless stories of robots gone amuck, Asimov postulated that: 1) A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Filmic robots (or computers) are frequently built on these principles, but something, of course, goes tragically wrong (for example, in West world, 1973), thus propelling the narrative. On television, Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data has been described by some SF readers as an Asimovian robot because of his built-in ethical system, though there are episodes where he does not strictly adhere to the Three Laws.

Robert Heinlein (1907–1988) was one of the earliest sci-fi authors to realistically portray near-future space travel; his novel Rocketship Galileo (1947) was the inspiration for Destination Moon (1950), a showcase for special effects pioneer George Pal (1908–1980). Heinlein was also an innovator in military science fiction; Starship Troopers (1959) is widely criticized (and also praised by fans) for its picture of a future society in which only those who have volunteered for military service are voting citizens. While Heinlein presented his complex sociological world as positive, Paul Verhoeven's (b. 1938) breathtakingly nihilistic film (1997) explicitly reveals the fascism of the story's universe. Heinlein is also notable for having imagined inter-universe travel and the idea of "world-as-myth" (there are multiple universes, all as real as our own, and our own universe may even be a fiction created by another universe). This complex motif is more likely to show up on television programs such as Star Trek: The Next Generation (and also, with great success, on the fantasy program Buffy the Vampire Slayer) than in films. Importantly, though Heinlein's books were rarely translated to film, he was the first to write bestsellers—such as Stranger in a Strange Land (1960)—that were of interest to non sci-fi fans. Although science fiction films were seen as marginal "kid's stuff" for years, and only gained true legitimacy with Kubrick's 2001 in 1968, Heinlein should be seen as having laid the groundwork for the mass popularization of science fiction as a genre.

Since the 1980s, cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have also found readers in the mainstream fiction market. Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) (which popularized the word "cyberspace") portrays a world in which distinctions between humans and computers are irrevocably blurred, and the existence of a true self is open to debate. Often described as "post-modern," the themes of cyberpunk have appeared in films such as Ghost in the Shell (1995), Akira (1988), Robocop (1987), and The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003).

Science fiction films were scant before the 1950s. Méliès's Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), an exploration story in the Verne tradition, is usually considered the first sci-fi production. Méliès pictures a rocket ship of scientists who fly to the moon, are attacked by its primitive inhabitants, the Selenites, and return to Earth. The film is notable for its special effects (elaborately hand-painted sets and props, cleverly simulated underwater shots taken through a fish tank) and for its colonialist narrative of the natural superiority of the white, rational scientist over the barbaric, violent people of foreign lands.

After Méliès, the most important pre-1950s sci-fi director is Fritz Lang (1890–1976), who made Metropolis (1927) and Woman in the Moon (1929). While Méliès's vision of lunar travel was fanciful and lacking in scientific detail, Lang was more interested in technical minutiae. For Woman in the Moon he consulted Germany's leading rocket expert, Hermann Oberth, and created an elaborate launching sequence for a multiple stage rocket. This vision was much closer to how actual rockets would later be launched than the depiction in films before and after, which showed rockets being shot off ramps or by guns. Lang also gave viewers the first filmic depiction of a crew floating in zero gravity. Metropolis is frequently debated as a schizophrenic proor anti-Nazi text, though, as film historian Tom Gunning convincingly argues, the film's politics, like its convoluted narrative, are impossible to neatly decipher Me one way or the other. The film was written by Lang's wife, Thea Von Harbou (1888–1954), who later joined the Nazi party. In Metropolis, a futuristic city is powered by laborers who toil on machines beneath the surface. The film's powerful visual design—clearly echoed in Blade Runner—combines gothic and medieval elements with futuristic skyscrapers. An allegory of social power, the film literalizes social relations through topography by putting the powerful above ground and the powerless beneath. Like so many science fiction films that have followed it—Escape from New York (1981), Brazil (1985), Dark City (1998)—Metropolis is a film in which the city is as much a character as any of the flesh and blood protagonists.


Starting with Destination Moon, the 1950s saw an explosion of sci-fi. This increase can be attributed to several factors. In the post-World War II years the American film industry floundered following a legal decision that dismantled its longstanding monopoly on production, distribution, and exhibition. At the same time, suburbanization and the baby boom kept people at home, away from the old downtown movie theaters, and television stole much of the film audience. To lure viewers from the small screen to the big screen, many Hollywood films were produced in wide-screen formats. As well, they were also increasingly shot in color and featured gimmicks such as 3-D. Science fiction films, along with horror films, had stories that were perfect for exploiting color, 3-D, and other attention-grabbing devices. The spectacular nature of science fiction and horror pictures was seen as appealing to "immature" tastes, which meant these films could be marketed to the newly conceptualized teenage market. Universal-International became well known for making some of the more prestigious science fiction films of the era, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). At the same time, science fiction and horror became the preferred genres of a newly emerging low-budget independent movement, of which Roger Corman (b. 1926) (Monster from the Ocean Floor [1954]; The Wasp Woman [1960]) was the most important figure.

The popularity of sci-fi films at that time was strongly linked to mounting nuclear anxieties and the Cold War. Movies like Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955) pictured nature run amuck with giant irradiated insects. In splitting the atom, these films show, humankind has released forces it can neither control nor understand. Though humans are responsible for the advent of giant, murderous bugs and other animals, these films do not posit any means for humans to take responsibility for their actions. Nature takes revenge on the atomic age in the bug movies, even if American military forces usually win a temporary

b. Jack Arnold Waks, New Haven, Connecticut, 14 October 1916, d. 17 March 1992

Jack Arnold began as a Broadway stage actor and broke into the film industry as a director of short subjects before moving on to feature films in 1953. In science fiction films of the 1950s, alien attacks were often thinly veiled metaphors for Communist invasion. Jack Arnold's films deviated from the formula by combining aesthetic subtlety with ambitious ideas about humanity's place in the universe.

It Came from Outer Space (1953) tells the story of alien replacement of human bodies. The film was shot in 3-D, but Arnold avoided the typical ham-handed approach to the technology, using it more to stage in depth than to make objects fly at the camera. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Revenge of the Creature (1955), notable for their underwater photography, were also restrained 3-D ventures. Both emphasize that the creature may be murderous, but that this comes from his nature, not from cruel motivations. Humans, conversely, are driven by ignoble impulses. In Revenge, Arnold uses 3-D to great thematic effect when the Gill Man looks directly at the camera, then falls toward the viewer. It turns out this cardboard advertisement for the creature—3-D, a marketing gimmick, is thus employed to critique marketing hype.

In The Space Children (1958) an alien telepathically forces children to sabotage a super-weapon the military is developing. At first this seems like a standard Cold War parable, with the alien standing in for the Russians, but a twist ending reveals that children all over the world have been similarly manipulated, resulting in global disarmament. The film closes not on an anti-Russian note but rather with a strong pacifist message. Tarantula (1955), conversely, is probably the least politically complex of Arnold's films. The film is most remarkable for its avoidance of the evil scientist stereotype, and for its eerie use of the desert as a mysterious primordial landscape.

Arnold is best known for The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Exposed to a radioactive cloud, the protagonist begins to slowly shrink, and as his size diminishes so does his manly self-confidence. No longer a breadwinner, and reduced to living in a dollhouse, he is attacked by the family cat and presumed dead, but is actually trapped in the basement. The movie then takes an innovative aesthetic turn: the second half has no dialogue and is narrated by a voice-over monologue. The hero's Robinson Crusoe-style tale of survival culminates in the heroic murder of a spider with a sewing needle. He ultimately makes peace with his diminished stature, realizes he is visible to God, and shrinks away into oblivion. Here, Arnold shows that good science fiction, at its base, is not really about worlds beyond but about worlds within.

The latter part of Arnold's career was spent working in television, directing episodes of such series as Gilligan's Island (1964), Wonder Woman (1976), and The Love Boat (1977), taking his penchant for the stories of the fantastic in a different direction entirely.


It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Space Children (1958)


Baxter, John. Science Fiction in the Cinema. New York: Barnes, 1970.

Biskind, Peter. Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Jancovich, Mark. Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s. Manchester, UK and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996.

Lucas, Blake. "U-I Sci-Fi: Studio Aesthetics and the 1950s Metaphysics." In The Science Fiction Film Reader, edited by Gregg Rickman. New York: Limelight Editions, 2004.

Reemes, Dana M. Directed by Jack Arnold. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988.

Heather Hendershot

victory shortly before the closing credits. In contrast to later, post-Watergate sci-fi films, the giant bug movies often glorify the military and the government.

b. Steven Allan Spielberg, Cincinnati, Ohio, 18 December 1946

Steven Spielberg, one of Hollywood's most prominent filmmakers, has won his highest honors—including two Academy Awards® for Best Director (1994 and 1999) and one for Best Picture (1990)—for movies not connected with science fiction. However, he is perhaps best known by audiences for his innovative sci-fi films.

By the 1970s, science fiction had developed into one of the most politically progressive genres, and SF films were frequently critical of environmental destruction, government corruption, and commercialism. Steven Spielberg changed that, starting with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in which peaceful aliens come to Earth to return previous abductees and take away new volunteers. Whereas many movies before it had combined state-of-the-art special effects with anxieties about technological developments, Close Encounters celebrates technological accomplishment with a childlike awe. The film justifies the hero's abandonment of his family for the sake of the higher goal of communing with aliens.

In E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), a friendly alien stranded on Earth befriends a little boy. The one moment of true menace in this feel-good movie occurs when police draw their guns to search for the alien, but Spielberg digitally eliminated the guns from the twentieth anniversary rerelease in 2002. E.T. is notable for its innovation in product placement; after Spielberg used Reese's Pieces™ as a plot point, sales skyrocketed. With Jurassic Park (1993), which featured sophisticated computer-generated imagery, Spielberg created a lucrative franchise centered on dinosaurs run amuck in an amusement park; like George Lucas, he had found that films could make as much or more money on toys, videogames, and fast-food tie-ins than could be made at the box office. Though not friendly like Spielberg's aliens, the rapacious carnivores of the three Jurassic Park films function as catalysts for mending broken human relationships.

Spielberg's more recent science fiction films have also labored to mend the family. Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001) is about a robot boy who wants to become real and be reunited with his upper-class adoptive mother. The environment has been destroyed by global warming and children can be borne only by government license, but these plot points are incidental to the film's focus on the nature of love. Only when robots are cruelly destroyed is there a hint of the dystopian impulse that fueled so much previous science fiction. In Minority Report (2002) Spielberg again nods to this earlier tradition. It is a tightly crafted futuristic thriller in which people are arrested for "pre-crimes," misdeeds that powerful psychics have foreseen. Spielberg adds family melodrama to the mix, ending the bleak film on a false happy note when the protagonist is reunited with his wife, who quickly conceives a child. In Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds (2005) family relationships are again central.


Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler's List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001), Minority Report (2002), Munich (2005), War of the Worlds (2005)


Brode, Douglas. The Films of Steven Spielberg. Revised and updated. New York: Citadel Press, 2000.

Friedman, Lester D., and Brent Notbohm, eds. Steven Spielberg: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. 3rd ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. The original edition, published in 1980, does not include Spielberg.

McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Silet, Charles L.P., ed. The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Heather Hendershot

The alien invasion films of the 1950s range in attitude from war-mongering to pacifist. In The War of the Worlds (1953), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and Invaders from Mars (1953) the aliens are purely destructive forces. In others, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Space Children (1958), humans assume the worst about the aliens, who have actually come not to destroy the

world but to save it. The Day the Earth Stood Still offers a particularly strong peace message: an alien warns that humans must stop developing weapons or the aliens will be forced to destroy Earth, not out of animosity but simply to keep Earthlings from destroying the universe. Cautionary tales crafted in response to Cold War anxieties, alien invasion and monster films clearly state that humans have painted themselves into a corner. Ishirô Honda's (1911–1993) Godzilla (1954) presented a particularly dark picture of nuclear anxiety: the prehistoric dinosaur Godzilla invades not from outer space but from beneath the sea, leaving the ocean to terrorize humans after his habitat is destabilized by nuclear testing.

There are two basic approaches to the use of monsters in science fiction. In the bug movies and many alien invasion films the monster is an exterior force that attacks the world. In the second approach, the monster is among us, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, 1956), infiltrating society. Taken to the extreme, monsters become indistinguishable from non-monsters. David Cronenberg's (b. 1943) films, which combine elements of horror and sci-fi, take this approach as far as possible by exploring the idea of monstrosity within the "normal," non-alien person, in particular expressing terror of the reproductive female body. In Videodrome (1983), for example, the protagonist retrieves a gun from a vagina-like opening in his own stomach. In these films the monster, a not-so-subtle stand-in for the voracious id, springs from within, not from a distant galaxy. Though this approach is not fully developed before Cronenberg, the roots of it are seen as early as 1956's Forbidden Planet, in which the monster appears to be exterior but is actually powered by the uncontrollable desires of humans.


Though some 1950s films contained anti-war messages, science fiction turned much more sharply to the left in the 1960s and 1970s, addressing issues such as corporate corruption, government duplicity, and ecological destruction. In 1971's Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, nuclear anxieties have receded, Godzilla has become heroic, and the Smog Monster is the product not of the military but of the private corporations that have dumped toxic chemicals into Tokyo Bay. In Silent Running (1972), humans have destroyed all of the natural vegetation on Earth, and the only trees left are in giant greenhouses floating in space. The story is set in motion when the protagonist is ordered to destroy the greenhouses and return to Earth.

The film portraying the greatest ecological disaster is surely Soylent Green, in which the greenhouse effect has made Earth into an inferno and overpopulation is extreme. Only the rich have access to fresh food, while the rest of the population is forced to eat government-produced wafers that turn out to be made of dead people. The only thriving business is a posh suicide service, which is affordable for poor people because their bodies are needed to feed the living. High-class hookers are furnished with apartments. In fact, prostitutes are literally called "furniture," and though the protagonist (Charlton Heston) briefly connects emotionally with one piece of furniture, the film offers no hope that love or family can assuage the agony of this dystopian world. Pointedly, the film opens with the murder of Joseph Cotton, an actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and ends with the suicide of Edward G. Robinson, another star of that era. In this cruel world, there is no room to respect old heroes. The new era is embodied by the sweaty, virile Charlton Heston. Symbolizing neither old Hollywood nor the method actor of the 1950s, this swaggering dimwit is the star of the future.

In addition to tackling ecology, science fiction films of the 1960s and 1970s reacted to two important social movements of that era, civil rights and feminism. In Planet of the Apes (1968), American astronauts land on a planet run by apes who have enslaved humans. The apes see humans as inferior beings with no rights, and the police apes are significantly darker than the rulers and scientists. These darker, armed apes can easily be read as symbols of the black power movement, and their domination of men (whites) as positive or negative, depending on the politics of the viewer. To drive home the film's civil rights subtext, in one scene fire hoses are turned on unruly humans. Years later in The Brother from Another Planet (1984)—which is, with John Carpenter's (b. 1948) They Live! (1988), one of the few progressive science fiction films of the 1980s—a humanoid black alien slave fleeing white alien bounty hunters crash lands in New York City and takes up residence in Harlem. Taking a more literal approach than Planet of the Apes, John Sayles uses his black alien character to probe race relations in contemporary America.

Though criticism of racially motivated injustice has been allegorized in a number of science fiction films, the genre has been less progressive in its response to the feminist movement. In Demon Seed (1977) a woman is raped by a computer. In Logan's Run (1976), sexual liberation and the hippie credo "never trust anyone over thirty" have created an amoral and totalitarian society; "free love" is clearly shown as a destructive force. In A Boy and His Dog, a sexually uninhibited woman is eaten. The men of The Stepford Wives (1975) replace their troublesome, outspoken wives with docile robots devoted to housecleaning and sex-on-demand; this male

chauvinist fantasy is presented in the most negative terms, and many viewers have interpreted the film as feminist. In what is probably the most overtly feminist science fiction film, Born in Flames (1983), women unite to seize media control after a failed peaceful revolution. Though less overtly feminist, Liquid Sky (1982) is notable for its critical representation of sexual relations; aliens come to Earth looking for heroin but instead get hooked on the pheromones released by the brain during orgasm. In extracting the pheromones they kill the orgasmic individual, but the film's heroine survives each attack because her lovers are callous (or are simply rapists) and care nothing about her sexual satisfaction.

Though science fiction films of the 1980s were generally conservative in their representations of the family and women. James Cameron's (b. 1954) The Abyss (1989) offers a perfect example of the punishment and rehabilitation of the outspoken "bitch" wife, while the Ripley character from the Alien series is clearly a product of feminism. First introduced in Ridley Scott's (b. 1937) Alien (1979), and reappearing in Aliens (1986) and two more installments in the 1990s, this powerful female character challenged previous representations of women in science fiction (and horror and action) cinema. Earlier women of science fiction were most often docile romantic leads, or occasionally resourceful like Patricia Neale's character in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Ripley, though, was consistently strong and smart. The third Alien film even took a pro-choice stance: denied a metaphorical abortion of the alien growing inside of her by the powerful men who control the corporate future, Ripley deliberately plunges to her death to defeat them.


Critical writing on science fiction films is generally traced back to Susan Sontag's 1965 essay "The Imagination of Disaster," which argued that sci-fi fantasies "normalize what is psychologically unbearable," the real Cold War specter of "collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning" (p. 112). Sontag contended that, "the interest of the films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naïve and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation." What was novel here was that Sontag took the films seriously as manifestations of cultural consciousness; at the same time, she poked fun at their hackneyed dialogue and was dismissive of low-budget productions.

In 1980 Vivian Sobchack's The Limits of Infinity laid out a rigorous taxonomy of the key audiovisual elements of science fiction. In 1988 the book was rereleased as Screening Space, and a new chapter was added applying postmodern theory to the new wave of science fiction that followed in the wake of 1977's Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sobchack is also well known for her essay "The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film," which uses psychoanalytic theory to consider the repression of sexuality in sci-fi and the apparent asexuality of most of the male heroes.

First published in 1985, Sobchack's essay was reprinted in Annette Kuhn's 1990 anthology Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, a seminal volume that marked the growing scholarly interest in science fiction films. The volume included essays by J. P. Telotte, Barbara Creed, and Scott Bukatman, who would publish the influential Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction in 1993. As Telotte aptly explains in Science Fiction Film, in Terminal Identity Bukatman examines films such as Metropolis, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Blade Runner, and Tron (1982) and "suggests that the genre 'narrates the dissolution of the very ontological structures that we usually take for granted,' and that in the wake of this 'dissolution' it offers striking evidence of 'both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen"' (p. 56).

Kuhn's volume also reprinted an important essay by Constance Penley, "Time Travel, Primal Scene and the Critical Dystopia," which had first appeared in 1986 in a special issue of the feminist journal Camera Obscura. Penley took Freud's primal scene as a template for understanding time travel in the mainstream Terminator as well as in Chris Marker's avant-garde classic La Jetée (1962, remade as Twelve Monkeys by Terry Gilliam in 1995). The emergence of feminist interest in science fiction was a striking turn of events, as the genre had long been considered the terrain of male fans, geeks, and cultists. If Blade Runner could almost single-handedly take credit for the postmodernist turn in science fiction criticism, it was in large part the "monstrous-feminine" (as Barbara Creed put it) of Alien that inspired feminist interest in science fiction films in the 1980s and 1990s. Alien included not only the first female action hero but also a monster explicitly marked as female, whose motivation was not world domination, as in the classic "bug-eyed monster" movies of the 1950s, but rather procreation. (A similar maternal twist had appeared in a 1967 Star Trek episode, "The Devil in the Dark.")

The early twenty-first century critics most interested in science fiction can be split into two camps. New media theorists are less interested in science fiction as a genre per se than they are in theorizing the cultural impact of new digital technologies. Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999), for example, is of interest for its blurring of the boundaries between digital representation/gaming and reality. The other dominant strain of critical writing comes from authors doing ethnographic research on fan cultures. This research, again, is not always genre specific. Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture included significant work on Star Trek fans, and he continued the topic with Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek, co-authored with John Tulloch.


In THX 1138, a gently amplified female voice tells the tranquilized population to "buy now, buy more." Lucas's tepid critique of capitalism is ironic, of course, since a few years later he would reinvent toy licensing, famously taking a salary cut in exchange for the merchandising rights for Star Wars. Star Wars was an innocuous film with no well-known actors and an inflated special effects budget—a film doomed to fail, most people reasoned, because everyone knew that science fiction was only for nerds. Of course, this was really an adventure movie set in outer space, and it had wide appeal not only to nerds but also to the cooler set who had never been interested in science fiction. The film was followed by two sequels.

The third, Return of the Jedi (directed by Richard Marquand, 1983), was a feel-good movie, while the second, The Empire Strikes Back (directed by Irvin Kershner, 1980), was darker and more compelling. As a character in Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) explains, "Empire had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader's his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that's what life is, a series of down endings. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets."

Following Star Wars, the 1980s saw the decline of the politically engaged science fiction film. In keeping with the wider political landscape of the Reagan years, much 1980s sci-fi turned to love and family values (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982; Enemy Mine, 1985; Starman, 1984). Though there were exceptions, like The Terminator, films such as The Last Starfighter (1984) celebrated spectacle more than ideas. Notably, The Running Man (1987) was a spectacular action movie, but within its visual excess lurked a critique of the gaudy, exploitative nature of television culture.

Beginning with Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), science fiction became increasingly violent, and began to merge with the action film. Whereas low-budget science fiction had been common in the 1950s, 1990s films like Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), and Men in Black (1997) wore their immense budgets on their sleeves and were more about awing spectators with technological prowess than provoking thought. Similarly, the return of the Star Wars franchise with Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999) and Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones (2002) disappointed many fans who would have liked more character development and fewer video-game sequences. Notwithstanding the turn towards a big-budget action aesthetic, social critique has not completely disappeared from science fiction: The Day After Tomorrow (2004) revisited the ecological themes of the 1960s and 1970s; Gattaca (1997) recalled the nightmares of totalitarian biological control of the 1970s, merging them with contemporary fears about genetics; and Code 46 (2003) merged the old theme of population control with a timely critique of globalization.

Though there seems to be more interest in idea-driven science fiction films in the twenty-first century, such as the first Matrix installment, most fans of the genre would agree that since the 1990s the most provocative sci-fi narratives have emerged not in theaters but on television in series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994), Babylon 5 (1993–1999), and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999). In keeping with the genre's literary roots, fans of such programs have produced thousands of their own works of fiction, as well as videos, which are widely available

on the Internet. Women have been in the forefront of fan fiction, producing some of the earliest Star Trek writings and creating "slash," homoerotic stories originally focused on Star Trek characters. Though the technology of digital effects has driven the move toward sci-fi-as-action-cinema, the technologies of television and the Internet have enabled the cultivation of the genre, so that in the early twenty-first century the most creative science fiction is found not on the big screen but on TV and computer screens.

SEE ALSO Cold War;Disaster Films;Fantasy Films;Feminism;Genre;Horror Films;Special Effects


Bell, David, and Barbara M. Kennedy, eds. The Cybercultures Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Kuhn, Annette, ed. Alien Zones: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. London and New York:Verso, 1990.

——, ed. Alien Zone II. London: Verso, 1999.

Penley, Constance, et al., eds. Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Redmond, Sean. Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New York: Ungar, 1988.

Sontag, Susan. "The Imagination of Disaster." Gregg Rickman, ed. The Science Fiction Film Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, 2004.

Telotte, J. P. Science Fiction Film. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Tulloch, John, and Henry Jenkins. Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Dr. Who and Star Trek. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Heather Hendershot

Science Fiction

views updated Jun 27 2018


From its beginnings as a literary genre science fiction has displayed ambivalence toward the ethical implications of scientific discovery and technological development. As a form of literature devoted in large part to evoking the potential futures and possible worlds engendered by mechanical innovation, science fiction (SF) has emerged over the last century as the preeminent site within Euro-American popular culture where the social consequences of modern technology may be explored creatively and interrogated critically.

As Brooks Landon has argued, SF "considers the impact of science and technology on humanity" by constructing "zones of possibility" where that impact can be represented and narratively extrapolated (Landon 1997, pp. 31, 17). Landon's understanding of the genre builds on James Gunn's definition of SF as the "literature of change," a mode of writing that investigates the outcome of technological progress at a level "greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger" (Gunn 1979, p. 1). This broad focus on the promises and perils of techno-scientific transformation requires a degree of concern, however implicit, for its moral repercussions, and the best SF has not shrunk from ethical engagement.

From Frankenstein to Brave New World

If, as several critics have argued, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1816) was the first true SF novel, the genre's founding text provides a paradigm of moral ambivalence toward the processes and products of scientific inquiry. Driven by an urge to unlock the secrets of nature, Victor Frankenstein is at once the genre's first heroic visionary and its first mad scientist. Indeed, these roles are inseparable: Frankenstein's bold commitment to unfettered experimentation makes him capable of both wondrous accomplishment—the creation of an artificial person endowed with superhuman strength and intelligence—and blinkered amorality. Unable to contain or control his creation, whose prodigious powers have been turned toward destructive ends, Frankenstein comes to fear that he has unleashed "a race of devils ... upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror" (Shelley 1982, p. 163). Frankenstein, through its many cinematic incarnations, has bequeathed to contemporary popular culture an enduring myth of science as an epochal threat for humanity and a source of moral corruption.

Throughout the nineteenth century the maturing genre continued to manifest that dualistic response: on the one hand limning a world transformed by the relentless advance of modern science and industry and on the other hand depicting the corrosive effects of that transformation on traditional values and forms of life. Jules Verne's popular series of "Extraordinary Voyages," with their celebration of the wonders of technology, represented the former trend, whereas H.G. Wells's darker and more skeptical series of scientific romances, beginning with The Time Machine (1895), epitomized the latter response. Although Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) contains a kind of mad scientist, Captain Nemo, he is more a misunderstood genius than a figure of Frankensteinian evil, and his futuristic submarine, the Nautilus, is more a marvel of invention than a lurking monster. That powerful machine may inspire fear, but this is the result of ignorance rather than intrinsic threat. By contrast, the eponymous character in Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is a power-mad fanatic whose creations, a horde of human-animal hybrids, clearly descend from Frankenstein's fiendish invention. Twisted parodies of natural forms, they point up the moral limitations of experimental science: Moreau's brilliance can mold a beast into a human semblance, but it cannot endow the result with virtue or a functioning conscience.

Emblematic though he may be of the ethical predicament of modern science, Dr. Moreau, like Victor Frankenstein, is just one man, and an isolated one, exiled on his island. In the twentieth century SF began to explore the possibility that individual overreaching might be generalized, wedding scientific novelty with industrial mass production to generate in the ironic title of Aldous Huxley's novel, a Brave New World (1932). Huxley's satirical vision of a future in which babies are grown in vats and emotions are managed technocratically by drugs and the mass media offers a wide-ranging indictment of a regimented society from which morality has been purged in favor of a coldly instrumental scientism. A triumph of scientific and social engineering, filled with technological marvels, that false utopia is ethically atrophied and spiritually void. Huxley's depiction of the dystopian implications of techno-scientific development in the capitalist west were echoed in Yvgeny Zamiatin's We (1924), which projected a future socialist Russia dominated by a grim totalitarianism. Though capable of tremendous feats of industrial engineering, this regime dehumanized its citizens, ruthlessly suppressing their artistic impulses, their sexual drives, and their moral aspirations.

A similar vision of simultaneous technological achievement and moral impoverishment is offered in Karel Çapek's R.U.R. (1920). That popular play coined the term robots to describe the mass-produced workers who, like Frankenstein's monster, finally rebel against their creators in an orgy of destruction. Çapek's robots, like the test-tube babies in Huxley's novel, are actually synthetic humans rather than the clanking machines their name implies. More conventional mechanical creatures figure in SF texts of the 1920s and 1930s, the most famous being the humanoid robot in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), a sinister automaton used to manipulate and control the masses. In all its varieties the artificial person, following in the wake of Frankenstein, continued to provide a potent icon of moral ambivalence within the genre: Physically and intellectually superior creatures that symbolize at once the titanic capacities of modern technology and the potential perfectibility of humanity, they are ultimately soulless, wholly lacking in moral will.

An American Affirmation

Not all SF produced during that period was equally pessimistic, however. In the United States a more technophilic strain developed, associated with popular pulp magazines whose titles—Amazing, Astounding, Wonder—suggest their wide-eyed enthusiasm for technological innovation. However, despite the celebratory tone of much of that material, a more cautionary note sometimes was sounded; indeed, the best pulp SF carried forward the ambivalence toward the moral implications of scientific progress that the European tradition had pioneered.

This attitude is especially visible in pulp SF depictions of artificial persons, such as Isaac Asimov's influential series of robot stories, published during the 1930s and 1940s and eventually gathered into his book I, Robot (1950). A large part of Asimov's purpose in the series is to overcome popular anxieties about mechanical beings as uncontrollable Frankenstein's monsters; to this end he develops an ethical code—"The Three Laws of Robotics"—that, hardwired into his robots' brains, ensures their virtuous behavior as protectors and servants of humanity. However, much of the narrative suspense of the stories lies in the various contraventions of the laws, with disobedient robots taking advantage of conflicts within the moral norms governing their operation. Clearly, if left to their own devices (i.e., if not programmed with ethical precepts), the robots would, as in Çapek's play, turn against humanity or at least refuse to accept their own servile status. Another pulp writer, Jack Williamson, pursued the logic of Asimov's Three Laws as moral safeguards to their reductio ad absurdam in his story "With Folded Hands" (1947), in which robots take their charge of protecting human beings from harm so seriously that they prohibit all risk taking, mandating comfort and safety through a regime of moralistic totalitarianism.

Still, within American pulp SF these moments of doubt about the ethical consequences of technological advancement were far outweighed by a resolutely affirmative vision of the overall role of science in reordering human life. John W. Campbell, Jr., who became the editor of Astounding in 1937 and presided over what has come to be known as SF's Golden Age in the subsequent decade, was famous for championing scientific literacy within the genre and embracing technocratic solutions to social problems. In the pages of Astounding and other SF pulps scientists and engineers emerged as an intellectual elite; as John Huntington has argued, a "myth of genius" (1989, p. 44) predominates, with readers encouraged to identify with superior, powerful technocrats whose expertise and pragmatic skill presumably transcend ethical doubts and hesitations. The writers most closely associated with this upbeat vision were Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Sprague de Camp, all of whom were trained scientists.

In Heinlein's collection The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950) an entrepreneurial genius single-handedly pioneers space travel as a commercial venture, bypassing government control. The ethical-political complications surrounding this move into space are neatly evaded by associating moral questioning with bureaucratic inertia, a collective stagnation the confident capitalist transcends through bold individual action. De Camp's classic alternative-history novel Lest Darkness Fall (1941) contains a similar portrait of intrepid genius as a technologically adept time traveler from the twentieth century visits ancient Rome, deploying his expert knowledge to forestall the Dark Ages.

Such sweeping visions of techno-scientific accomplishment seemingly untroubled by ethical qualms were characteristic of much Golden Age SF, although, as Asimov's robot stories showed, a lurking anxiety about the potential perils of technological breakthrough could not be dispelled entirely.

The Return to Questions

That lingering subtext rose to the surface in American SF during the 1950s as the global repercussions of the atomic bombings that ended World War II began to be perceived fully. New SF magazines such as Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction emerged as rivals to Astounding, and the stories they featured began to question, if not openly reject, Campbell's staunch commitment to the technocratic ideal. Although Astounding had published stories dealing with the coming dangers of atomic energy such as Lester Del Rey's tense novella "Nerves" (1942), which described an accident in a nuclear power plant, those tales generally had depicted enlightened engineers steadily learning to master the technology. After the horrors of Hiroshima and in the throes of a looming confrontation between rival superpowers armed with high-tech weapons, American SF began to doubt not only the moral competence of technocrats in their stewardship of the atomic age but also the very capacity of humanity to avert its self-destruction.

Still, as Paul Brians has argued, science seldom was blamed for that awful crisis: "Many science fiction writers understood that the power of the new weapon threatened civilization and perhaps human survival, but they placed the responsibility for the coming holocaust on the shoulders of politicians or military men and argued that science still provided humanity's best hope for the future" (Brians 1987, p. 29).

Nonetheless, by showing the likelihood as well as the catastrophic effects of global war, tales of nuclear holocaust strongly suggested that humans lacked the ethical resources needed to control this powerful new technology. For example, Judith Merril's novel Shadow on the Hearth (1950) focuses on the personal costs of atomic devastation for one typical American family, whose moral strength, although admirable, is insufficient in the face of a breakdown of civilized order. On a broader scale A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller, Jr., depicts a postholocaust culture governed by a Catholic Church unable to forestall, because of to the inherent sinfulness of human nature, a cyclical repetition of nuclear disaster.

At the same time such stories were appearing popular SF films began to deal with the nuclear menace, offering a series of alarmist portraits of the imagined effects of atomic radiation that ranged from giant mutant insects (e.g., Them [1954]) to The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Even the most optimistic cinematic handling of the postwar atomic threat, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), in which an alien representative of a cosmic civilization intervenes to prevent global war, suggests that human beings, if left to their own devices, are not fit to govern their planet or themselves.

During the 1960s and 1970s that downbeat attitude, in which humanity's technological reach is seen to escape its moral grasp, gained strength as a new generation of writers began to challenge the technophilia of their pulp forebears. The technocratic legacy of Campbell was interrogated skeptically, and in some cases definitively rejected, by what came to be known as SF's New Wave, a loosely affiliated cohort of authors, many writing for the British magazine New Worlds, who began to question if not the core values of scientific inquiry the larger social processes to which they had been conjoined in the service of state and corporate power. New Wave SF arraigned technocracy from a perspective influenced by the counterculture discourses of that period, such as student activism, second-wave feminism, anticolonial struggles, and ecological causes and in the process developed a more radical ethical-political agenda—as well as a more sophisticated aesthetic approach—than the genre had featured previously. As a result the New Wave established a crucial benchmark for modern SF's engagement with the serious moral issues surrounding science and technology.

New Wave stories with feminist, ecological, or anti-war agendas were often dire in their predictions of future developments, but their critiques of technocracy were guided by implicit ethics of gender equity, natural balance, and nonviolence. Often those different agendas were wedded, as in Ursula K. Le Guin's short novel The Word for World Is Forest (1976), in which the brutal military occupation of another planet directly involves the devastation of its physical environment by hypermacho men, and Thomas M. Disch's Camp Concentration (1968), which explores the roots of high-tech warfare in the flaws and insecurities of masculinity. The work of Alice Sheldon, most of it published under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr., also probes the nexus of gender hierarchy and militarist and ecological violence, seeming at times to endorse a despairing sociobiological vision in which male sexuality expresses itself through technologically augmented aggression.

The New Wave's ethical idealism thus often was tempered by pessimism, a grim assessment of the dystopian futures portended by out-of-control technology. A key New Wave theme involved the extrapolation of contemporary urban problems to hypertrophied extremes as humans find themselves immured in vast concrete prisons of their own making. Novels such as David R. Bunch's Moderan (1971) and Robert Silverberg's The World Inside (1971) present such grim portraits of claustrophobic environments that they verge on the Gothic: In these texts the universal triumph of technology predicted and celebrated in Golden Age SF has culminated in a brutal cityscape where beleaguered, stunted spirits struggle to preserve the tattered shreds of conscience and dignity. In the work of the British author J. G. Ballard the modern city emerges as a psychic disaster area. His controversial 1973 novel Crash, for example, depicts a denatured humanity bleakly coupling with machines, with the enveloping landscape of metal and concrete having unleashed a perverse eroticism that seeks fulfillment in violent auto wrecks. SF films of that period, such as THX 1138 (1971), contained similarly harsh indictments of regimented megalopolises that have co-opted or paralyzed ethical judgment.

The Future of Humankind

Long-standing anxieties regarding high technology were amplified during that period by the new science of cybernetics, which claimed that no meaningful distinctions could be drawn between humans and complex machines. The emergence of so-called artificial intelligence posed a challenge to humanity's presumed supremacy, and SF took up that challenge largely by emphasizing the moral superiority of human beings over their intellectually advanced creations. Ernst Jünger's The Glass Bees (1957), for example, derives its satirical power from a pointed contrast between the eponymous robots, who dutifully pursue their assigned tasks, and the skeptical narrator, whose ethical questioning suggests a cognitive and spiritual autonomy denied to mere machines, however skillful or complex.

The work of the British author Arthur C. Clarke, such as his story "The Nine Billion Names of God" (1953), had long engaged the possibility that humanity might have spawned its betters in the form of powerful information machines. In 1969 Clarke collaborated with the director Stanley Kubrick to produce the popular film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a sentient computer, the HAL 9000, displays at once its cognitive power and its ethical limitations, conspiring to take over an interplanetary mission, only to be foiled by human pluck and ingenuity. 2001 established a cinematic trend in which the super-computer emerged as an instrument driven by an urge to domination, as in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).

If computers threatened to supplant human mental functions, sophisticated new forms of artificial persons seemed poised to replace humanity entirely. Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) deals with this imminent danger as its policeman protagonist hunts down a group of renegade androids, synthetic duplicates that are indistinguishable on the surface from normal people. However, there is a crucial difference, and it is essentially an ethical one: Androids are incapable of genuine empathy for others. The moral quandary in the novel is that humans are seldom empathetic; moreover, the protagonist's job requires that he be efficient and ruthless—"something merciless that carried a printed list and a gun, that moved machine-like through the flat, bureaucratic job of killing" (Dick 1996, p. 158)—making him as coldly unfeeling as the androids he seeks to slay. Thus, even when a bright moral line seems to distinguish humans from machines, a technocratically regimented social system serves to obscure if not efface it.

Androids was filmed by Ridley Scott as Blade Runner (1982), a film that effectively captures the novel's morally ambiguous tone while pointing forward to subsequent "cyberpunk" treatments. The movie's bleak urban milieu, populated by cynical humans and idealistic machines, offers essentially the same fraught moral landscape that would be featured in novels such as William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), in which artificial intelligences and other cybernetic entities seem more deeply invested with values such as freedom and autonomy than do the human characters.

Cyberpunk fictions of the 1980s and 1990s by Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and others brought to a potent climax the trend toward ethical ambivalence that has marked SF's engagement with new technologies. Extrapolating the social futures portended by the proliferation of computers and their spin-off appliances, cyberpunk displays a humanity so morally compromised by high-tech interfaces—including powerful "wetware," machinic implants that radically alter the body and mind—that the capacity for ethical judgment has perhaps been lost. Yet even amid this spiritual collapse cyberpunk's antiheroes manage to salvage scraps of the decaying moral order, as occurs when the protagonist of Neuromancer refuses the quasisatanic lure of cybernetic immortality, affirming the finitude of the mortal self as an enduring ethical center, preserved somehow against the sweetest blandishments and the sternest threats of technology.

For nearly 200 years science fiction has provided windows onto futures transformed by modern science and technology. In that process it has shown both the resiliency and the limitations of ethical consciousness in confronting these potentially overwhelming changes.


SEE ALSO Asimov, Isaac;Brave New World;Frankenstein;Huxley, Aldous;Science, Technology, and Literature;Utopia and Dystopia;Zamyatin, Yevgeny Ivanovich.


Asimov, Isaac. (1950). I, Robot. New York: Gnome Press.

Ballard, J. G. (1973). Crash. London: Jonathan Cape.

Brians, Paul. (1987). Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895–1984. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.

Bunch, David R. (1971). Moderan. New York: Avon.

Çapek, Karel. (1923 [1920]). R.U.R.: A Fantastic Melodrama. New York: Doubleday.

Clarke, Arthur C. (1953). "The Nine Billion Names of God." In Star Science Fiction Stories, ed. Frederik Pohl. New York: Ballantine.

De Camp, L. Sprague. (1941). Lest Darkness Fall. New York: Holt.

Del Rey, Lester. (1942). "Nerves." Astounding Science Fiction 30, no. 1 (September 1942): 54–90.

Dick, Philip K. (1996 [1968]). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey.

Disch, Thomas M. (1968). Camp Concentration. London: Hart-Davis.

Gibson, William. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace.

Gunn, James, ed. (1979). The Road to Science Fiction #2: From Wells to Heinlein. New York: Mentor.

Heinlein, Robert. (1950). The Man Who Sold the Moon. Chicago: Shasta.

Huntington, John. (1989). Rationalizing Genius: Ideological Strategies in the Classic American Science Fiction Short Story. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Huxley, Aldous. (1932). Brave New World. New York: Doubleday.

Jünger, Ernst. (1960 [1957]). The Glass Bees. Translated by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Mayer. New York: Noonday.

Landon, Brooks. (1997). Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. New York: Twayne.

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1976). The Word for World Is Forest. New York: Berkley.

Merril, Judith. (1950). Shadow on the Hearth. New York: Doubleday.

Miller, Walter M., Jr. (1960). A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Lippincott.

Shelley, Mary. (1982). Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in 1816 by Lackington, Allan and Company, London.

Silverberg, Robert. (1971). The World Inside. New York: Doubleday.

Verne, Jules. (1870). Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Paris: Hetzel.

Wells, H.G. (1896). The Island of Dr. Moreau. London: Heineman.

Williamson, Jack. "With Folded Hands." Astounding Science Fiction 36, no. 2 (July 1947): 6–45.

Zamiatin, Evgeny. (1924). We. Translated by Gregory Zilboorg. New York: Dutton.


Blade Runner. (1982). Directed by Ridley Scott. Distributed by Columbia Tristar Pictures.

Colossus: The Forbin Project. (1970). Directed by Joseph Sargent. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

The Day the Earth Stood Still. (1951). Directed by Robert Wise. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.

The Incredible Shrinking Man. (1957). Directed by Jack Arnold. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Metropolis. (1927). Directed by Fritz Lang. Distributed by Universum Film, A.G.

Them. (1954). Directed by Gordon Douglas. Distributed by Warner Brothers.

THX-1138. (1971). Directed by George Lucas. Distributed by Warner Brothers.

2001: A Space Odyssey. (1969). Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Science Fiction

views updated May 08 2018


Like a rapacious and relentlessly predatory science fictional entity assimilating all it encounters (the Star Trek Borg come to mind), science fiction in the early twenty-first century is an unstoppable expansive force that is certainly not limited to one particular genre. Science fiction literature, once ghettoized and marginalized, is pervasive and ever more rapidly garnering respect.

PMLA, America's most distinguished literary criticism journal, published its first science fiction issue in May 2004. Stephen King received the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Philip K. Dick once dismissed as a pulp science fiction writerbecause of his works' emphasis upon paranoia regarding government, technology, and personal relationships and its attention to what constitutes reality itselfhas been lauded as creating the most emblematic fiction of the turn of the twenty-first century. Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude was applauded as one of the most important novels published in 2003, and Star Trek was recognized as the most enduring cultural mythology of the second half of the twentieth century.

The attention lavished upon King and Dick especially exemplifies why science fiction is pervasive and ever more rapidly gaining respect. The National Book Foundation's decision to recognize King's achievements signaled an end to the discrimination popular genre writers automatically suffered. Dick precisely envisioned the world of the early twenty-first century, a world that did not inherit flying cars, but which endures such Dickian devices and themes as implanted memories, commercialized personalities, dislocation, and disintegrating realities.

Literary theory reflects the newfound status science fiction garners. Carl Freedman, in Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000), proclaims that science fiction, one of the most theoretically informed areas of the literary profession, is a privileged genre for critical theory:

I maintain that science fiction, like critical theory, insists upon historical mutability, material reducibility, and utopian possibility. Of all genres, science fiction is thus the one most devoted to the historical concreteness and rigorous self-reflectiveness of critical theory. The science-fictional world is not only one different in time or place from our own, but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes. (p. xvi)

In a 1999 essay for the New York Times titled "Black to the Future," Walter Mosley positions science as one of the most exciting emerging directions in contemporary American fiction; he explains that the newly free black imagination joins with science fiction to create a new force to counter racism. N. Katherine Hayles' How We Became Post Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (1999), in response to science fiction's aforementioned pervasive presence within reality, declares that people are now more than simply human. Posthumans inhabit a brave new postmodern world in which science fiction infused reality ever more increasingly blurs the old comfortable distinctions between the real and the unreal. Via an overview of the development of science fiction literature and science fiction theory from the 1970s to the start of the twenty-first century, this entry will explore how we and our world became science fictionally post real.

Edward James's Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (1994) offers one of the best descriptions of science fiction's historical progression; his ideas form the basis of the historical survey given here. The American New Wave influenced the most innovative science fiction writers of the 1970s (including John Crowley, Joe Haldeman, Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon, and John Varley). The New Wave can be defined as the 1960s generational shift away from the classic writers who began to write before World War IIsuch as Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon. The New Wave, an attempt to bring science fiction into the literary mainstream by emphasizing style rather than scientific accuracy, consisted of experimental works emphasizing psychology and soft sciences. New Wave writers shared the notion that the world is not improving, expressed a distrust of science and technology, and thought humans unworthy of valorization.

American New Wave writers (Robert Silverberg, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel Delany, for example) wanted to improve upon rather than reject classic pulp science fiction. The word pulp refers to the inexpensive paper used to produce pulp magazines as well as to the characteristics of the fiction the magazines published. Action, romance, heroism, exotic settings, adventures, and positive endings characterize pulp science fiction stories. Pulp science fiction began with The Argosy in the 1890s and proliferated until the 1930s in such magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories (created by Hugo Gernsback, the father of pulp science fiction and namesake of the Hugo Award), and Astounding. Astounding editor John W. Campbell insisted upon hard science as a basis for story acceptance; hence, classic pulp science fiction can be understood as a juxtaposition of science fiction, monster stories, and hero pulp stories. Such clichéd science fiction tropes as Bug-Eyed-Monsters and little green men emerging from the spaceship that lands on the White House lawn epitomize classic pulp science fiction.

During the 1970s, new subgenres arose from the combination of New Wave ideas engaging with the older traditions classic pulp science fiction represents. Larry Niven, the exemplary writer of hard science fiction, emphasized technology, physics, and space exploration. Women writers (such as Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon), in contrast, focused upon such soft sciences as psychology and sociology and produced pure literary experimentation. Much of the soft science fiction written during the 1970s was fantasy, not science fiction. (Critics have generated multitudinous arguments regarding the distinctions between science and fantasy. The rule of thumb is that texts about what can be realized are science fiction and those about what cannot be realized are fantasy. Future generations, for example, might travel in a Star Trek starship, which in the early twenty-first century exists only in science fiction; unlike the protagonists of the fantasy Alice in Wonderland, they will never experience close encounters with a watch-wearing white rabbit.) The rise of both women's science fiction and fantasy rooted in the 1970s, two of the most important developments in the history of science fiction, continues into the twenty-first century. Feminist science fiction provides blueprints for social change, which enable us to rethink and reformulate patriarchal social domination.

Joanna Russ, the most important representative of the rise of 1970s feminist science fiction, is best known for The Female Man (1975), a startling, brilliant feminist novel which presents four female protagonists who inhabit four alternative worlds. Ursula Le Guin's equally important The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) is more inspired by anarchism than by feminism. Delany's Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976) echoes Le Guin's political emphasis and builds upon Russ's feminist breakthroughs. Tiptree/Sheldon's feminist short stories (such as "The Women Men Don't See"1973) are important contributions to the feminist and soft science fiction surge characterizing the 1970s. In international science fiction, the first English translations of the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem began to appear in the 1970s (for example, Solaris [1961, translated 1970] and The Invincible [1964, translated 1973]).

The new New Wave called cyberpunk dominated the 1980s. Cyberpunk is derived from the words cybernetics and the 1970s rock term punk. Cyberpunk arose in response to a discrepancy characteristic of the 1980s: the glaring difference between the gleaming pristine future cities traditional science fiction portrays and depressing real-world urban landscapes. Cyberpunk fiction, which portrays people dwarfed by machines in a technological world and alienated from nature, contributes a rethinking of the military-industrial complex's hegemony. Pat Cadigan, best known for Synners (1991), has been called the "Queen of Cyberpunk." William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) epitomizes cyberpunk in its portrayal of seedy and dark urban environments in which protagonists literally enter cyberspace.

In 1990, the U.S. president George H. W. Bush announced an intention to place people on Mars by 2019, inspiring some science fiction writers to focus upon Mars; such works as Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), Blue Mars (1996), and The Martians (1999) reflect this focus. Ben Bova's Mars (1992) and Paul J. McAuley's Red Dust (1993) are other noteworthy novels about Mars. In addition to Robinson, Nicola Griffith and Gwyneth Jones were important writers who debuted during the 1990s. Attention to politics, ecology, feminism, and extraterrestrial soft science fiction dominate the science fiction written during this decade.

The surge in black science fiction, reflected in Walter Mosley's "Black to the Future" and Sheree R. Thomas's anthology Dark Matter (2000), was the most important development in science fiction at the beginning of the new millennium. Mosley's Futureland and work by Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due, and Stephen Barnes build upon the tradition of black science fiction literature Delany and Octavia Butler pioneered. Darko Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (1979) is the most significant critical work about science fiction published since the 1970s. Suvin famously defines science fiction as

a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment. (pp. 78)

In concert with Suvin, Robert Scholes defines fabulation as "fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way." Marleen S. Barr, in Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction (1992) defines feminist fabulation as feminist fiction that offers a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the patriarchal world we know, yet returns to confront that known patriarchal world in some feminist cognitive way. There is an intergenerational science fiction critical lineage between Suvin's and Scholes's corollary definitions and Barr's "feminist fabulation" that brings their influential definitions to bear upon feminism and postmodernism.

In the manner of their marked influence upon imaginative science fiction, feminism and postmodern are integral to science fiction criticism. Brian McHale in Postmodernist Fiction (1987) states that science fiction "is to postmodernism what detective fiction was to modernism: it is the ontological genre par excellence (as the detective story is the epistemological genre par excellence ), and so serves as a source of materials and models for postmodernist writers." While McHale reads postmodernism in terms of science fiction, Larry McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction (1991) reads science fiction in terms of postmodernism. Scott Bukatman's Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993), a compendious study of contemporary science fiction, positions techno-culture as the focus of the discussion about the relationship between postmodernism and science fiction. Donna J. Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" (1985) links postmodernism and technoculture to the feminist analysis of science fiction.

Barr's Future Females: A Critical Anthology (1981) was the first essay collection devoted to feminism and science fiction. Sarah Lefanu's In The Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (1988), which followed Barr's Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory (1987), asserts that

the plasticity of science fiction and its openness to other literary genres allow an apparent contradiction it makes possible, and encourages (despite its colonization by male writers), the inscription of women as subjects free from the constraints of mundane fiction; and it also offers the possibilities of interrogating that very inscription, questioning the basis of gendered subjectivity.

The 1990s saw the appearance of Jenny Wolmark's Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism (1994), which analyzes the "shared theoretical moments" between feminism and postmodernism; Russ's To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (1995), which collects her most important essays; and Jane Donawerth's Frankenstein's Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (1997), which places Frankenstein as integral to science fiction written by women. In 2000, Barr, in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, collected the work of young feminist science fiction theorists who analyze science fiction's relevance to disenfranchising patriarchal master narratives and social institutions. Brian Attebery's Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (2002) carries the torch of feminist science fiction criticism into the new century. Race and queer theory are discussed in Elizabeth Anne Leonard's edited collection Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic (1997), Daniel Leonard Bernardi's Star Trek and History: Race-ing toward a White Future (1998), and Samuel Delany's Shorter Views: Queer Thought and the Politics of the Paraliterary (2000).

Two aforementioned scholars, Freedman and Hayles, respectively explain that science fiction is crucial to the entire enterprise of producing critical theory and that at the start of the twenty-first century human beings hold being posthuman in common with science fiction protagonists. As both the scholarly works about science fiction and science fiction literature itself indicate, the boundaries between literature and life drawn in terms of fixed definitions of what constitutes the real and the science fictional are becoming increasingly blurred. We might, sooner than we expect, find ourselves on the cusp of telling Scotty to beam us up.

See also Dystopia ; Futurology ; Genre ; Technology ; Utopia .


Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Barr Marleen S. Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

. Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

. Future Females: A Critical Anthology. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1981.

. Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Bernardi, Daniel. Star Trek and History: Race-ing toward a White Future. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Delany, Samuel. Shorter Views: Queer Thought and the Politics of the Paraliterary. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Donawerth, Jane. Frankenstein's Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Haraway, Donna J. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." In her Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1985.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

James, Edward. Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London: Quartet Books, 1988.

Leonard, Elizabeth. Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

McCaffery, Larry. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987 Mosley, Walter. "Black to the Future." New York Times Magazine, November 30, 1998, p. 32.

Russ, Joanna. To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Scholes, Robert. "The Roots of Science Fiction." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Science Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by M. Rose. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Wolmark, Jenny. Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism, and Postmodernism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Marleen S. Barr

Science Fiction

views updated Jun 08 2018

Science Fiction


Science fiction consists of stories, often set in the future and off the planet Earth, that emphasize scientific, sociological, and especially technological innovation. While a writer might imagine what could happen to, say, an Irish Catholic politician who felt attracted to his brothers American Episcopalian wife in the 1960s, a science fiction writer might imagine what could happen to an implant formed from the mental software of a human male and the hardware body and brain of a human female. Similarly, while Henry James (18431916), in Daisy Miller (1878), imagines a nineteenth-century American heiress involved with a European suitor, the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), speculates about a human male who comes to know a hermaphrodite humanoid, a Gethenian, who sometimes turns male or sometimes female, depending on its emotional circumstances (the Gethenian often remains neuter if no suitable partner is around). James concentrated his attention on Daisy Miller, her commanding father, her suitor, and so forth, while taking the social, cultural, and biological background for granted. Le Guin, in contrast, imagined a world without gender and in consequence (or she so thought) without war, examining it through the eyes of her human visitor.

Science fiction has been said to begin with Mary Shelleys Frankenstein (1818) or with Jules Vernes From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) or even as far back as Platos Timaeus (c. 300 BCE), his imagined version of Atlantis. However, science fiction as a distinct literary genre, with specialty magazines such as Amazing Science Fiction and Astounding Science Fiction, dates from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Its golden age of the 1950s and 1960s was driven primarily by technological speculations about the future, whether set primarily on Earth or spreading throughout the galaxy (with science fiction heroes typically confronted by rapacious aliens). Early readers of science fiction were often budding engineers and natural scientists. Writers and characters were mostly male. Isaac Asimov (19201992), although he began publishing science fiction stories in his teens, became a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, eventually publishing over five hundred books. (He was fired from his tenured professorship, not for writing science fiction but for publishing factual science texts for the general readerpopularizations). Many of Asimovs stories concerned robothuman interactions. His Foundation series sketched the psychohistory of a vast galactic civilization, loosely paralleling the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of the modern era.

Robert Heinlein (19071988) and Fritz Leiber (19101992) created theories of time travel that have fascinated philosophers and physicists (e.g., if you kill a butterfly in the age of dinosaurs, will this event cascade into a future in which intelligent dolphins dominate the world, or will the future conserve reality by resisting change?). In Gather, Darkness! (1943), Leiber anticipated a postWorld War III dark age of theocracy in which a religious government maintains control using technology concealed as supposed miracles, only to be challenged by revolutionary forces that clothe their technology as witchcraft, thus making it real to the thoroughly medieval mind-set of the populace. Heinlein produced a version of Platos Republic, titled Space Cadet (1948), in which he imagined a future where an intelligent elite has engineered a world government that the populace believes to be a democracy. Later, during a period of opposition to the U.S. war against Vietnam (19571975), the patriotic Heinlein lost trust in intellectuals and wrote Starship Troopers (1959), in which warriors ruled politically. Paradoxically, Heinlein also then wrote Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), from which American hippie readers enthusiastically co-opted the term grok for intimate understanding (as in free lovemaking), although they misconstrued Heinleins underlying libertarian attitude. In retrospect, some see Heinlein as typifying male chauvinist science fiction. Paradoxically as well, his first novel in manuscript, For Us, The Living, written in 1939, describes a man who clashes with, and eventually accepts as wholly justified, a 2086 future in which women have social and career equality with men (this rejected manuscript was not published until 2004, after Heinleins death).

In the late 1960s, science fiction began to draw more female authors and readers. A readership consisting of budding engineers and scientists gave place to social science and humanities students, while technological innovation, space war, and abstract ideas gave way to psychological and stylistic experimentation. The quietly egalitarian 1950s work of such science fiction writers as Judith Merril (19231997) and Katherine Maclean gave way to Joanna Russs brilliantly feminist Female Man (1975), Ursula LeGuins novels, and Alice B. Sheldons (19151987) many short stories (published under the pen name James Tiptree Jr.). There were also crossover figures such as Kurt Vonnegut (19222007), who began his career in science fiction and then smoothly switched to a broader mainstream readership. Doris Lessing established her reputation as a mainstream writer but has also written much that is science fiction in content terms. In 1976 Octavia Butler (19472006) published Kindred, whose contemporary African American protagonist time travels to the antebellum South. Butlers Exogenesis series explores issues of sexual identity, sexuality, and power, blurring lines between science fiction and other literatures. Butlers work won her a coveted MacArthur Fellowship in 1995. In the 1980s and 1990s, Orson Scott Card dazzled the science fiction community with Enders Game (1985), Speaker for the Dead (1986), and Xenocide (1991), infusing traditional science fiction with computer gaming and winning a large youth audience. A practicing Mormon who has complained that science fiction did not take religion seriously, Card has also written explicitly scriptural stories.

The term mainstream was adapted by the middle of the twentieth century to distinguish literature from specialized, not-quite-literary genres such as science fiction, horror stories, romance fiction, spy stories, and crime fiction (bookstores often arrange their shelves in accord with this distinction). At the same time, however, this breakdown can seem increasingly dubious. For one thing, older books tend to migrate to the literature shelves. Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, H. G. Wellss The Time Machine (1895), and Vernes From the Earth to the Moon will be found there, along with Fyodor Dostoyevskys Crime and Punishment (1855) and Edgar Allan Poes (18091849) horror stories. Graham Greene (19041991), who made his mark as a crime and espionage writer, is now wholly included in the literature sections of libraries and bookstores. Classics sections may include not only Poe, Wells, Greene, and Dostoyevsky, but also Arthur Conan Doyles (18591930) Sherlock Holmes detective stories and Leguins and Lessings writings, alongside such long-celebrated literary giants as Ernest Hemingway (18991961) and William Faulkner (18971962). Moreover, the centrality and celebrity once granted literary figures now generally envelops only writers, stars, and producers of movies and television. Quite simply, story writers such as Mark Twain (18351910) and O. Henry (18621910) were the most famous, most widely enjoyed, and best-paid professional entertainers of their day. Even as late as 1952, the issue of Life magazine that carried Hemingways The Old Man and the Sea sold over five million copies in two days. Arguably, Hollywood and television comprise the only mainstream today.

SEE ALSO Fiction; Le Guin, Ursula K.; Literature


Heinlein, Robert. 2004. For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs. New York: Scribner.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1969. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker.

Leiber, Fritz. 1950. Gather, Darkness! New York: Pellegrini and Cudahy. Originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in May, June, and July 1943.

Russ, Joanna. 1975. The Female Man. New York: Bantam.

Justin Leiber

Science Fiction

views updated Jun 11 2018


In the period following the Civil War (1861–1865), American writers worked in several of the common forms of science fiction. On one hand, they wrote fiction that focused on the growing technological and scientific development; on the other, they dealt with the social consequences of this new knowledge. Some also used science and technology merely as props in tales of romantic adventure.


America has contributed substantially to the development of science fiction, a literary genre that seems at home in industrialized, scientific cultures. In the nineteenth century, every major American fiction writer of canonical stature wrote works that could qualify as science fiction, given a definition broad enough to include utopian visions. The contribution of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) is of such magnitude that it is difficult to imagine the shape of science fiction without his influence, and he stands with Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells as an architect of the genre.

Writers of the post–Civil War period also had their influence, practicing varieties of the genre that are still recognizable to modern readers. Then as now, "hard" science fiction, focusing on scientific facts and real feats of engineering, occupied one end of the spectrum while a "softer" form based on social developments occupied the other. The early twentieth century saw the appearance of heroic science fiction, a form in which larger-than-life heroes fight monsters and save princesses on alien worlds.


In at least one case, somewhat "hard" science fiction comes from a surprising source, Mark Twain (1835–1910), who is often identified with the rural settings of his best-known work. But Twain had an avid interest in science and the newly emerging technologies and it is not surprising that this interest should find its way into his writing.

His story "The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton" (1878), introduces the telephone, a device Alonzo, who is unable to read his own clock, uses to call his aunt to learn the time of day. While on the line, he manages to speak to his aunt's houseguest, a young lady—Rosannah—with whom Alonzo is soon enthralled. What makes the story science fiction is that Alonzo's call is long-distance, reaching from frozen Maine to his aunt's home in rainy and gloomy San Francisco—which comes as a surprise to the reader. Telephones were available for home installation in 1878, but long-distance calling was not available until 1915. The science fiction element makes it possible for people on opposite ends of America to become acquainted and interested in each other. Within weeks—time to exchange photographs—the pair's conversations flower into full-blown love.

Although we first see the positive possibilities of the new technology, events take a disastrous turn. Rosannah's former suitor, taking exception to the loss of her attention, sets out to foil her new romance. Illustrating the ills that might attend a telephone-only relationship, the disappointed suitor, disguising his voice as Alonzo's, speaks to her in a way that cools her interest in Alonzo. She never wants to speak to him again. But, as readily as they are parted, the two lovers are reunited by telephone, and, in another surprise development for the reader, they are married by telephone, though Rosannah by this time is in the Hawaiian Islands while Alonzo has never left Maine. The power of the new electrical device to transcend space and time and affect personal relationships is clearly illustrated. In this instance, however, Twain stops short of spelling out the social implications. He puts most of his energy into the literary forms he handles with confidence, parody and burlesque, which he applies here to Victorian courting practices, drawing on the strength of his comedic talent rather than his vision of the future.

Readers of today may be surprised that Mark Twain was aware of the awesome dimensions of time and space as they were newly described by science. "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" (published in two parts in 1907 and 1908), which he was working on as early as 1868, would strike even twenty-first century readers as astounding. In this dream tale, the recently deceased Captain Stormfield is on his way to his final destination, about which he assumes the worst. As it turns out, however, he arrives in heaven. The cognitive issue is immediately broached when we learn that the departed Captain Stormfield is traveling at 186,000 miles per second, the scientifically calculated speed of light. In fact, this particular piece of data introduces the novelty at the heart of the story, the awesome scale and diversity of existence in a universe in which humankind occupies only one very small corner. So vast is the universe that a slight navigation error delivers Stormfield at the wrong heavenly gate, billions of miles from the one he should have entered by. Heaven is fathomless, and souls from all parts of the universe are pouring in by the millions. The celestial clerks he encounters have never heard of San Francisco, or California, or, for that matter, America. When he finally identifies his point of origin as the "World," the clerk scoffs: "There's billions of them." At that point, he gives up his place in line to "a skyblue man with seven heads and only one leg" (Twain, Science Fiction, p. 26). When the clerks finally locate Earth on a map, they find that it is designated as "the Wart." As might be expected, Mark Twain is mindful of the humorous potential of the material.

Even his bona fide science fiction masterpiece, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), avoids directly confronting the catastrophic potential of technological know-how wedded to rampant capitalism. Instead, Twain transplants this development to the medieval era, where Gilded Age readers could observe the disastrous consequences without being directly threatened by them. This science fiction device—time travel—allows him to entertain with broad humor (depicting medieval peasants perplexed by modern technology) while presenting a bleak social vision in which, according to contemporary accounts, his readers had less interest.


By contrast, Jack London (1876–1916) is more concerned with using science fiction as a means to make his readers directly confront social issues. For example, "The Enemy of All the World," published in 1908, is set in 1933 to 1941. While London pays lip service to technological gadgetry, he focuses primarily on the predictable actions of human beings. A disgruntled genius, in an attempt to realize the fantasy of ultimate power, sets out to destroy everyone who has offended him. The agency of destruction is a technique he has discovered by which he can deliver an electrical charge to any location he chooses, thus making it possible to explode rounds of ammunition in firearms that others are holding or ignite explosives stored aboard ships or anywhere else. Eventually, the evil culprit is captured and executed, and the secret of his deadly invention dies with him. As much as this aspect of the story captures the reader's interest, the story's thematic strength lies in London's treatment of the events leading up to the genius's disgruntlement. He is refused medical treatment by his family, persecuted by the press for statements that they misinterpret, unjustly beaten by a man who suspects him of cheating with his wife, and falsely imprisoned for murder. London implies that the injustices that society inflicts on the unfortunate may have negative repercussions for that society.

In "The Scarlet Plague," London depicts an epidemic, the Scarlet Death, that in the year 2013 will all but wipe out humanity. While he expends some effort to explain the technical aspects of the plague, his interest is in the behavior of the human species, seen without romantic bias. As the plague begins to decimate the population, panic and chaos produce extraordinary selfishness as well as great heroism and sacrifice. But it ends in death to all but the one in a million who, irrespective of social class, are immune. The insight of the oldest survivor is that civilization will rise again, then fall once more, just as past civilizations have come and gone one after another. He accepts the fact that human nature is flawed and will never achieve perfection. In fact, the technologically advanced civilization that has just collapsed was far from perfect. Similar to what we see in The Iron Heel (1907), the ruling property owners have established a new nobility that holds itself far above ordinary workers. In one major scene, the brutish chauffeur of a powerful family is now the lord and abusive master of a woman who was once heir to one of the great fortunes. Culture, the story suggests, can preserve social relationships for the moment, but in the long run, nature will wipe the slate clean.

In The Iron Heel, London systematically works out the class conflicts of the world to come. It is a grim future in which worldwide capitalism beats down organized labor (though we are told that ultimately labor will prevail). The science of the story is not drawn primarily from the hard sciences that underlie technology; rather, London bases his projections on the behavioral and social sciences—the "soft" sciences—and in doing so anticipates the utopian visions that mark the rest of the twentieth century.


Ambrose Bierce (1842?–1914), known for his bitter irony and cynicism, was not immune to the allure of science fiction. He wrote a number of stories for straightforwardly sensational purposes—ghost and horror tales—and on at least a few occasions ventured into reasoning about the inexplicable, which led him to science fiction.

"Moxon's Master" (1910) is a remarkably timely story given the current interest in artificial intelligence. In arguing with a friend (the narrator of the story), Moxon presents a series of definitions, theories, and examples to assert that we cannot preclude the possibility of a thinking machine. The story comes to a disastrous conclusion when a chess-playing automaton, enraged at losing a chess match, attacks and kills his creator, Moxon. What Moxon has been arguing in theory, he has, to his misfortune, brought about in fact, the creation of machines that think (and also become angry). While the purpose of the story is to entertain the reader through mystery and terror, Bierce does not take the more direct route to these effects, that is, he does not invoke the supernatural. By appealing to science, he places the terror in our world of possibility, not in a supernatural world of impossibility. In so doing, he enhances the terror of the story.

Bierce used a similar strategy in "The Damned Thing" (1893), in which a seemingly supernatural creature mauls and kills a human being. The reader learns, however, that the creature may not be super-natural; it may simply exist in a part of the color spectrum that human beings cannot detect. Thus, the story raises the fear that dangers lurk in the completely real, but totally unperceivable, domain outside human sensory perception. Bierce's use of scientific explanation to increase the terror—an approach drawn from Poe, among others—remains one of the standard techniques of science fiction.


Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950) is the science fiction writer who found the most receptive audience during this period, and it is therefore instructive to consider the nature of his ideas. In A Princess of Mars (1912), the first of his ten Martian tales, his hero, John Carter, travels to his destination in a most unscientific fashion (essentially, he wishes himself there). Burroughs's Mars—known by the Martians as "Barsoom"—is consistent with many of the "facts" available at the time. In the late nineteenth century, the Italian astronomer G. V. Schiaparelli (1835–1910) reported seeing through his telescope a Mars covered with "canali," by which he meant channels, or natural waterways, but many readers saw the word and envisioned constructed waterways, Martian "canals." No amount of later correction could dispel the popular mis-conception. Between 1896 and 1911, the American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855–1916) added to the misunderstanding by publishing a series of books—with titles such as Mars as the Abode of Life (1908) and Mars and Its Canals (1906)—building on the notion that intelligent life on Mars could have been responsible for planetwide engineering projects by which an ancient race fought to preserve a dwindling water supply. This is the world Carter finds, a dry and ancient planet that is losing its atmosphere and whose life forms (some of them intelligent) are threatened with extinction.

Because there is less gravitational pull, John Carter finds—with scientific plausibility—that his leaping ability is far greater on Mars than on Earth. (Mars's gravitational pull is about one-third that of Earth.) Thus Carter has a strength and speed advantage because Martians are "muscled only in proportion to the gravitation which they must overcome." Burroughs populates the planet with the confidence of a trained zoologist (or exobiologist). Carter notes that "a multiplicity of legs . . . is a characteristic feature of the fauna of Mars. The higher type of man and the one other animal, the only mammal existing on Mars, alone have well-formed nails, and there are absolutely no hoofed animals in existence there" (p. 18). Writing with certitude, Burroughs convinced many readers of the concrete actuality of his alien world. When over-whelmed by the absence of facts, however, he appeals to the miraculous technology of a climate machine, which is his explanation for the presence of a breathable atmosphere on what is, scientifically considered, an oxygen-depleted Mars.

Burroughs usually did not pursue careful scientific reasoning, and the direction he took made for a popularity and fame that he might not otherwise have achieved. His themes are power, domination, and sub-mission, with some references to love, honor, and revenge. The plots are driven by flight, pursuit, capture, and recapture. While these narratives may serve as dark allegories, they are not the science-based visions that science fiction promises.

In the end, it was Burroughs's intellectually vacuous science fiction that captured the attention of the general population. To this day, nonspecialist readers have to be reminded that Mark Twain, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce even wrote stories that could be classified as science fiction.

See alsoMystery and Detective Fiction; Ghost Stories and Gothic Fiction; Pseudoscience


Primary Works

Bierce, Ambrose. Ghost and Horror Stories. Edited by E. F. Bleiler. New York: Dover, 1964.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars. 1912. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

London, Jack. The Iron Heel. 1907. New York: Sagamore Press, 1957.

London, Jack. The Science Fiction Stories of Jack London. Edited by James Bankes. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1993.

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. 1889. Edited by Bernard L. Stein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Twain, Mark. The Science Fiction of Mark Twain. Edited by David Ketterer. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984.

Secondary Works

Alkon, Paul K. Science Fiction before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Franklin, H. Bruce. Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1974.

Steve Anderson

Science Fiction

views updated May 23 2018

Science Fiction

Science fiction is the genre of stories and film in which a significant element of the plot depends on the laws of mathematics and the physical sciences, or on the use of technology as currently known or as developed in a credible way. Stories in which natural laws are suspended or violated fall into the realm of fantasy rather than science fiction. Most science fiction plots take place in the future, on a fictional planet, or posit the use of a new technology. They explore the best and worst case scenarios that could result from the application of technology or from a variation in the natural world, though remain based on scientific laws as we know them. Though it seems that science fiction is based on science and the material world, most modern works are character based; science fiction explores human life and action within the context of a fictional but possible world. This fictional world allows the author clearly to explore issues in a context that is contrived, thus without the myriad mitigating or confounding factors the real world might present.

The genre of science fiction can be traced back to nineteenth-century novels such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Jules Verne's novels of the 1860s and 1870s (Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ). However, the term science fiction was not widely used until the 1930s, when a group of pulp fiction magazines featuring stories based on the premises of modern science was established. Beginning with Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories (after whom the Hugo award in science fiction writing is named), the format was soon copied by several other American and British publications ( John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, Science Wonder Stories ). Among writers in Britain, a genre called scientific romance grew in the years following World War I with such writers as Olaf Stapledon, J. D. Beresford, H. G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley. In the United States, science fiction remained primarily magazine based until the rapid rise in the production of paperback books in the 1960s, which moved the genre from a predominance of short stories to novels. The science fiction novel emerged as a distinct literary genre in the second half of the century, exemplified in the works of writers such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Kurt Vonnegut.

As the public became sensitized to the effects of science through the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, the development of the digital computer, and new advances in biotechnology, science fiction also became a staple for radio (Orson Welles's 1938 radio production of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds ), television (The Jetsons, The Twighlight Zone, Star Trek, The X-Files ), and film plots (Fritz Lang's Metropolis [1927], Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove [1964] and 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968], Ridley Scott's Blade Runner [1982] and Alien [1979], Steven Spielberg's E.T. [1982], and George Lucas's Star Wars [1977]). Although science fiction novels continue to be popular and widely published, a larger contemporary audience is reached through film and television, mediums that make it easy for audiences to suspend disbelief and that appeal to our highly visual culture. The plots of science fiction films tend to be more adventure- and special-effects-based and less introspective than the written literature, though there are notable exceptions, such as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Popular themes in today's science fiction, regardless of the medium, include intelligent computers or robots, alternative worlds, travel to other planets, encounters with other life forms, the future evolution of the human race, and the ravages of atomic destruction or biochemical warfare. Science fiction has also spawned several subgenres in the late twentieth century, including cyberpunk, stories that take place in a virtual world sustained by computers and dominated by multinational corporations (William Gibson's Neuromancer [1984] and Scott's film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968]); ecoscience fiction, stories set in either an ecological utopia or distopia (Vonnegut's Galapagos [1985], Spielberg's Jurassic Park [1993], John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up [1972]); and feminist science fiction (Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness [1969], James Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See" [1973] and "The Screwfly Solution" [1977]).

Themes related to religion

The early science fiction pulp magazines were devoted primarily to adventure stories in which the exploration of religious themes or any explicit reference to religion was taboo. However, as science fiction moved into the mediums of novel and film, these strictures fell away. Modern science fiction deals extensively with religion, at times explicitly, at other times through the exploration of metaphysical systems, the nature of humanity or of social structures, the question of mystical powers, or the nature of moral decision making.

A number of science fiction novels have dealt directly with the nature of God. In A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), Marie Corelli explores the idea of God as an electrical force. H. G. Wells explores the nature of a finite or an unknowable God in God the Invisible King (1917) and The Undying Fire (1919). Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (1818), one of the earliest books in the science fiction genre, takes as her premise the question of human usurpation of the prerogatives of God. Stories that examine what it feels like to be God or to have godlike powers of omniscience, omnipotence, or the ability to create life forms range from short stories such as Edmond Hamilton's "Fessenden's Worlds" (1937) and Frank Russell's "Hobbyist" (1947), to novels such as Frank Herbert's The God Makers (1972) and Stanislav Lem's Solaris (1961). The idea of humans who create a god or computers that develop godlike powers is raised in Frederic Brown's "Answer" (1954), Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" (1956), and Martin Caidin's The God Machine (1989). Many stories raise the possibility that a more advanced civilization would seem godlike to human beings. Philip K. Dick explores the question of beings with godlike powers in Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970) and the Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964). Stories that posit an evil or incompetent god include Lester Del Ray's "Evensong" (1967), James Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World (1978), and Philip K. Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers" (1980). John Varley questions the basic requirements for being a god in his Titan series (1980).

The nature of humankind is so common a theme in science fiction that it has been used as a definition of the genre. Brian Aldiss writes in Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1986): "Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science)" (p. 25). Almost all science fiction works deal implicitly, if not explicitly with the question of what it means to be human. Common plot vehicles include confrontation by an alien race or by intelligent computers, the challenges of disaster or of a dystopian world, and ethical decision making under limited conditions.

The question of not only what human beings are but what we might ultimately become is explicitly dealt with in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Human transformation into a mystical or spiritual form is also examined in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Philip Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1955). The evolutionary ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are explicitly foundational to George Zebrowski's The Omega Point (1972) and appear implicitly in Clarke's Childhood's End. Clarke also examines what it means to be human from the perspective of Buddhism in The Fountains of Paradise (1979).

A few novels and short stories deal with explicitly Christian themes. The star followed by the magi forms the basis for Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" (1955). Richard Matheson's "The Traveler" (1952) and Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man! (1966) use time travel to examine the crucifixion of Jesus. While these are among the few stories that mention Jesus specifically, a figure whose advent and saving of a culture are messianic in nature is common and can be found in J. D. Beresford's What Dreams May Come (1941), L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout (1940), and Frank Herbert's Dune series (1965). The Apocalypse and the second coming of Christ have also formed a backdrop for much science fiction. C. S. Lewis wrote a trilogy in the form of science fiction that moves from a retelling of the story of the garden of Eden to the days before the second coming of Christ in which Merlin plays the role of messiah (Out of the Silent Planet [1938], Perelandra [1943], and That Hideous Strength [1946]). Walter Miller's, A Canticle for Leibowitz [1959] and Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle [1963] continue the apocalyptic theme, examining human behavior and the role of the church in worlds that have been or are being largely destroyed.

A number of science fiction novels posit a future theocracy, generally in a negative light. This is a particularly strong theme in feminist science fiction, and societies based on a version of Christian or Islamic fundamentalism are found in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986), Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Shattered Chain (1983), Sylvia Engdahl's This Star Shall Abide (1972) and Sheri Tepper's Grass (1990), The Fresco (2000), and The Visitor (2002). Feminist science fiction has also explored societies that follow a goddess based religion, a theme in Elizabeth Hand's Walking the Moon (1996), Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993), Marie Jakober's The Black Chalice (2000) and Suzette Elgin's The Judas Rose (1994). The effects of a theocracy are also explored outside of a feminist context, as in Lester Del Rey's The Eleventh Commandment (1962), John Brunner's The Stone that Never Came Down (1973), and Keith Robert's Kiteworld (1985).

With or without a theocracy, the priest or cleric is a fairly common protagonist. The strong religious grounding of such a character allows the author to examine human behavior in the light of challenges to one's religious or moral ground. Examples of clerical protagonists are found in James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1963), Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover Landfall (1972), Gordon Harris's Apostle From Space (1978), and Lester Del Ray's "For I am a Jealous God" (1973).

Science fiction is also an excellent vehicle for the consideration of moral questions. In Science Fiction: The Future (1971), Dick Allen describes the genre as "a form of literature that argues through its intuitive force that the individual can shape and change and influence and triumph; that [human beings] can eliminate both war and poverty; that miracles are possible; that love, if given a chance, can become the main driving force of human relationships" (p. 3). Ethical issues that are explored in science fiction include the appropriate use of technology, human relationships in the face of hardship, human responsibility in the face of new technologies, and the conflicts between disparate social groups or species. Many science fiction novels explore the conflicts that result when two societies with disparate ethical systems come in contact with one another. Examples include Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954), Spider Robinson's Night of Power (1985), and Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division (2000).


aldiss, brian w., with wingrove, david. trillion year spree: the history of science fiction. new york: atheneum, 1986. originally published as billion year spree. london: weidenfeld and nicolson, 1973.

allen, dick, ed. science fiction: the future. new york: harcourt, 1971.

cassutt, michael, and greeley, andrew m., eds. sacred visions. new york: st. martin's, 1991.

greenberg, martin h., and warrick, patricia s., eds. the new awareness: religion through science fiction. new york: delacorte, 1975.

reilly, robert, ed. the transcendent adventure: studies of religion in science fiction. westport, conn.: greenwood, 1985.

ryan, alan, ed. perpetual light. new york: warner, 1982.

noreen l. herzfeld

Science Fiction

views updated May 29 2018

Science Fiction

Astronautics is unique among the sciences in that it has its roots in an art form. For nearly 400 years space travel existed only in the minds of those faithful writers who kept the torch burning until engineers and scientists developed the technological ability to realize their dreams.

Early Space Fiction

No fiction written about space travel was written until it was known that there were other worlds to go to. This did not happen until 1610, when Galileo Galilei turned a telescope toward the heavens and discovered that what hundreds of generations had assumed were five wandering stars were in fact worlds. This discovery was immediately followed by a spate of speculation about what those worlds might be like, what kind of life might exist there, and, most importantly, how human beings might be able to travel to them. Most of this speculation took the form of fiction, but until the end of the eighteenth century those flights were the stuff of outright fantasy: Neither science nor engineering knew of any method by which a human being could leave the surface of this world, let alone travel to another one.

The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

The invention of the balloon in 1783 by the Montgolfier brothers changed all that. It was clear that a balloon could never carry anyone to the Moon, but that invention was a watershed in perception. People now knew that science and technology had the potential to make spaceflight possible; surely it was just a matter of time and imagination. Scores of science fiction novels were written about travel to other worlds. Unlike previous stories, however, those written in the nineteenth century were much more inclined to take into account the actual conditions of outer space and the planets.

Paramount among all of these works were the two space novels of Jules Verne:From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Round the Moon (1870). For the first time the problem of space travel was expressed in terms of a problem in engineering and mathematics: Verne scrupulously worked only with the science, technology, and materials available at the time when he wrote. As a result, he achieved a sense of realism that is still convincing. This realism was instrumental in inspiring an entire generation of young readers who decided to do everything they could to make Verne's dream come true. These readers included future scientists such as Hermann Oberth, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and Robert H. Goddard, without whose seminal work modern astronautics would have developed decades later than it did. Oberth, for example, said that he had never thought about space travel until he read From the Earth to the Moon. Verne's influence continued well into the twentieth century. The astronomer Robert Richardson said, "There can be no doubt that Jules Verne's Trip to the Moon with all its faults has exerted a powerful effect on human thought in preparing our minds for this greatest of all adventures."

Verne set a high standard for accuracy and believability that influenced the writers who followed him, and space fiction became much more realistic. Dozens of ideas that are thought of as products of modern space science were first proposed in the pages of early science fiction. The space station and the navigational satellite were invented by Edward Everett Hale in The Brick Moon (1869), the solar sail by G. Le Faure and Henri de Graffigny in 1889, the space suit in 1900 by George Griffith, the nuclear-powered spaceship by Garrett P. Serviss in 1910 and Arthur Train and Robert Wood in 1915, and the electromagnetic mass driver in 1930 by R. H. Romans. Even the countdown was invented by science fiction, first used in the 1929 film Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), by Fritz Lang.

The Modern Era

After World War II the influence of science fiction on the public perception of space travel shifted from the printed page to the silver screen. Although serious fans, including many scientists, preferred the written word, which was light-years ahead of Hollywood's version of science fiction, the image most Americans had of the future of space travel in that period was shaped by what they saw in movie theaters and on television screens. This was unfortunate because, with only a few exceptions, films and television lagged decades behind the literature.

While science fiction writers were working in the present day, Hollywood science fiction was more like what had been published in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. Films such as Flight to Mars (1951) and The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) made space travel seem silly and trivial. However, a few films made a sincere effort to combine realistic drama with real science, such as Destination Moon (1950),Conquest of Space (1955),Forbidden Planet (1956), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). More recently, there have been films such as Apollo 13 (1995) and Red Planet (2000). On television the sole exception was Star Trek (1966-1969). Although taking place in the far future, that series made a genuine attempt not only to keep within the bounds of science but to convey a sense of wonder about space travel.

The link between science fiction and the history of astronautics is complex. Science fiction has served as an inspiration. It also acts as a mirror of the technology of the time in which it is written. Jules Verne, for instance, chose a giant cannon over rockets for the launch of his spacecraft, primarily because of the primitive state of rocket technology in his time (he did use rockets to maneuver his spacecraft). Similarly, in 1910 Garrett Serviss recognized that the recently discovered phenomenon of radioactivity could be a potential energy source for space travel. Science fiction also acts as a gauge of public interest in astronautics, since most authors want to tell stories that incorporate subjects of interest to their readers.

see also Clarke, Arthur C. (volume 1); Goddard, Robert Hutchings (volume 1); Literature (volume 1); Oberth, Hermann (volume 1); S tar T rek (volume 4); S tar W ars (volume 4); Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin (volume 3); Verne, Jules (volume 1).

Ron Miller


Aldiss, Brian. Billion Year Spree. London: Corgi Books, 1975.

Di Fate, Vincent. Infinite Worlds. New York: Penguin Group, 1997.

Gunn, James. Alternate Worlds. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

. The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: Viking Penguin, 1988.

Kyle, David A. A Pictorial History of Science Fiction. London: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1976.

. The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Dreams. London: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1977.

Science Fiction

views updated May 14 2018


Science fiction is a literary genre that extrapolates from existing knowledge about the real world to speculate about alternative worlds. It always includes an element of the fantastic, since it aims to go beyond what is, to give a literary model of "what if?" Unlike pure fantasy or utopian literature, however, science fiction posits a rational exploration of as-yet inexplicable phenomena and unknown corners of the human psyche. In Russia the most important works of science fiction have usually been viewed as subversive to the regime in power because of their ability to model alternative realities, to evade censorship by displacing political allegories to the juvenile realm of cosmic adventure, and to tap into the Russian readership's persistent longings for a more just society.

The first, mid-nineteenth century works of Russian science fiction blend the rational utopianism of European models with the age-old Russian folk vision of communal justice and abundance for all. The idea that Western-oriented scientific and technological progress might be combined in Russia with egalitarian values, avoiding the evils of both autocracy and capitalism, is one of the strongest and most consistent strains in Russian science fiction. Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1862 novel What Is to Be Done? created a fictional model of this idea that inspired generations of Russian revolutionaries, including Lenin. Alexander Bogdanov's The Red Star (1908) depicts a socially and scientifically progressive society on Mars that is superior to existing earthly alternatives. In the decade following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, many stories extolled a cosmic revolution, anticipating the victorious spread of classless societies to other planets with the help of futuristic technology and radically evolved human consciousness. As late as the 1970s, the writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky countered official literary depictions of Soviet society with science fiction imaginings of alternative societies where rationality, science, and human freedom are not at odds.

A second, and opposing strain, is the dystopian vision of society dehumanized by the relentless rationalization of work, health, social, and spiritual life. Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We (1924, unpublished; 1989) is a brilliant philosophical satire depicting "mathematically happy" workers in the One State, where free will has been all but eliminated. Extrapolating tendencies from both bourgeois and socialist systems of conformity, We insists on the paramount value of individual free will. Zamyatin's novel, and later Western novels based on similar ideas (e.g., George Orwell's 1984 ) were banned in the Soviet Union. After 1957, the launch of Sputnik and the gradual relaxation of ideological restrictions inaugurated a new era of Soviet science fiction. In the immensely popular works of Ivan Yefremov and the brothers Strugatsky, Russian readers found a forum in which their authentic political and cultural aspirations were given a voicealong with an exciting plot. They offered richly imagined histories of the future to remind the reader of the outcome of ethical choices made in the present. Russian literature has often served as the conscience of the nation, and twenty-first century Russian science fiction continues the tradition of ideological engagement, by addressing such themes as contemporary social malaise and the search for a new, post-Soviet Russian cultural identity.

See also: chernyshevsky, nikolai gavrilovich


Fetzer, Leland, ed. (1982). Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction: An Anthology. Ann Arbor: Ardis.

Gomel, Elana. (1999). "Science Fiction in Russia: From Utopia to New Age." Science Fiction Studies 26(3): 435441.

Howell, Yvonne. (1994). Apocalyptic Realism: The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. New York: Peter Lang.

Suvin, Darko. (1979). "Russian SF and Its Utopian Tradition." In Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Yvonne Helen Howell

science fiction

views updated May 21 2018

science fiction Literary genre in which reality is subject to certain transformations in order to explore man's potential and his relation to his environment; these transformations are usually technological and the stories set in the future or in imaginary worlds. The birth of the modern genre is generally dated to the US comic strip Amazing Stories (1926). Until the 1960s, most science fiction involved adventure stories set in space. Some writers, such as Isaac Asimov, explored the paradoxes contained in purely scientific ideas; others, including Ray Bradbury, stressed the moral implications of their stories.


views updated May 29 2018

sci-fi / ˈsī ˈfī/ • n. inf. short for science fiction.

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