Pre-Modern Science Fiction

My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

Essay: Pre-Modern Science Fiction.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Gunn maintains there are two misconceptions about science fiction (hereafter, when I’m speaking, to be called “sf”) as of the year 1951: it’s pure escapism and it hasn’t changed its character since whatever ur-work you want to cite for the genre. (Gunn himself staked out the Epic of Gilgamesh in his The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells.)

Gunn notes, I think correctly, that pure escapism doesn’t exist. Using the example of Shakespeare and Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can’t even make the case that high vs. low art are correlated to “the possible effect on the reader’s life”. Tarzan and John Carter, as the Burroughs’ worshipping Castalia House crowd would note, can serve as moral exemplars.

But sf can be a peculiar form of escape. Gunn quotes Leo Margulies’ and Oscar J. Friend’s introduction to their anthology My Best Science Fiction Story:

Science fiction is the only literary escape which the bewildered citizen can seek that offers imaginative relief while keeping him in tune with the apparently insoluble problems confronting him and his fellows.

Gunn argues virtually any work has three elements, singly or in combination, which weaken its escapist effect: didacticism, aesthetics, and philosophy. (Why aesthetics would weaken as opposed to, on occasion, strengthen the escapist effect I don’t understand.)

For Gunn the key isn’t whether these elements are in sf but whether they are useful though that’s a subjective judgement. Gernsbackian (Gunn doesn’t actually mention his name at this point) use of sf to teach science “has been somewhat overstressed”. Sf “is not primarily concerned with aestheticism”.

It’s philosophy that is important in sf as a “medium of ideas”.

Like most of the sf critics who came after him, Gunn has to devote some time to definitions of the genre and its history though, obviously, he would extensively develop his views on both in his The Road to Science Fiction series and Alternate Worlds.

As historical markers, he lays down two approximate dates: 1830 and 1930. In between those two dates is sf’s romantic period. Post-1930 is the realistic period.

Pre-1930 works do not, for Gunn, have realism based on rationality. Here he quotes anthologist Groff Conklin’s definition of sf as a sub-branch of fantasy and sharing that relationship with utopian stories, supernatural stories, and fairy tales. Gunn disagrees saying it’s possible to do any of those other three types of story in a science fictional way. It’s just a matter of rationality (or, at least, the veneer of it) and explanation. (In my look at this thesis, I’m going to go light on the examples he uses. You can supply your own or read the actual thesis.)

Sketching out the thesis of his later Alternate Worlds which talked about the proto-science fiction genres of the traveler’s tales, utopias, and satires, Gunn says 1830 is about the time when the industrial revolution started to move fantastic narratives from “wonderful journey” or “wonderful machine” to something that seemed more probable, more possible.

Incidentally, gothics are not considered to contribute much to science fiction since

their mysterious events were presented almost always without explanation and were included entirely for their own sake.

I think Gunn is on weak ground here. After all, Ann Radcliffe’s spooky gothics always end (so I’m told, I’ve only read The Mysteries of Udolpho) with mysteries explained.

There is, it should be said, a distinctly American emphasis in this thesis. That’s understandable given what Gunn had access to and how sf developed. The genre really accelerated into consciousness as a separate genre in the pulps, and the pulps were predominately American. While Brian Stableford has shown how English and French works were significant in terms of philosophy and artistry and theme, they weren’t significant in influence. They were like the Vikings colonizing the New World. Few Europeans paid any attention until centuries later when Columbus arrived in the New World. (That’s my analogy.) Gunn himself tried to rectify this oversight with the last two volumes of his The Road to Science Fiction dealing specifically with stories not from Americans.

What the industrial revolution brought to the public’s mind was that things were going to change – for many people and perhaps keep changing. The machines and ideas that changed life weren’t isolated to the heads and labs of crank scientists who were going to come to a bad end. (That’s my bald statement, not Gunn’s.)

Before about 1830

there were isolated men writing isolated stories, inspired individually and more by external circumstances than by any consciousness of writing within a literary movement.

Then came the “elder statesmen of science fiction” – no names are given at this point but presumably he means Jules Verne and H. G. Wells – from about the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1920s.

A “brief third section of science fiction’s romantic period” was initiated in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.

That first phase of the romantic period was marked by Richard Adams Locke and Edgar Allan Poe, literary hoaxers. (Gunn mentions the Shaver mysteries as a “recent and horrible example” of hoaxes in sf.) Poe gets a bit of a short shrift as “running more to dark and mystic fantasy than to science fiction” though Gunn acknowledges Poe’s ratiocination started several trends science fiction picked up on.

Brian Aldiss, years after Gunn wrote his thesis, claimed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first sf story. Gunn certainly thinks she may have started a “significant pattern”, but it wasn’t a good one:

 … the theme of the mad, incautious, or unwise scientist who endangers individuals, a society, or a world through his experiments. With slight modifications, this trend produced a science that could contribute nothing in a moment of crisis. For humor it offered the inept, impractical, or absent-minded scientist.  … The patterns of thought that produced this literature were symptomatic of the attitudes of several generations impressed by the iniquities of early industrialism and sighing for the safe, sane, good-old-days.

To Gunn, the mad scientist is a distrust of knowledge and science, a continuation of the Faust theme that became a stereotype of this period of sf.

Shelley’s novel seems, particularly in its 1831 prologue about the benefits of selectively distorting reality that sf affords in order to better examine something, to be a strong contender as one of the first novels of that genre.

Curiously, Gunn thinks the second period of science fiction’s romantic period is characterized not only by the mad scientist but “world cataclysm”.

The causes were almost always external and unilateral: the machine that gets out of control; the sun which becomes a nova or grows old; the cloud of poisonous gas, sun obscuring dust motes, or meteorites which invades the solar system; the nomad planet which menaces the earth; the natural law which runs wild.

The practioners were a collection of famous and obscure names: H. G. Wells, George Allan England, Charles B. Stilson, Austin Hall, Homer Eon Flint, Garrett P. Serviss, and Julian Hawthorne.

Gunn doesn’t really see the “atomic cataclysm” story – common enough by 1951 that some magazines “placed an editorial ban on all stories involving the threatened destruction of earth” – as a continuation of this. The atomic apocalypse is caused by “internal and/or multilateral” factors, not universal law. It is human centered.

Predictably and validly, Gunn picks three authors of this period as epitomizing a John W. Campbell, Jr. classification system of genre stories:

  • The prophecy story – Jules Verne
  • The philosophical story – H. G. Wells
  • The adventure story – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Gunn argues those types still exist in modern sf, but they didn’t develop a “distinct philosophy” until the pulps.

The next post will talk about what Gunn considers the philosophy of modern science fiction and what makes it “modern”.

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