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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“Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”

This week’s reading for the Deep Ones over at The Weird Tradition newsgroup on LibraryThing —

Review: “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”, Vernon Lee, 1896.Yellow Book

Vernon Lee was a name unknown to me as was the name behind the pseudonym, Violet Paget.

Based on this story, I think it’s a name I’ll keep in mind.

Lee wrote travel works and on art. About the latter, my favorite literary critic, Brian Stableford, said,

Vernon Lee never saw her supernatural stories as central elements of her literary endeavour–they were always diversions from more serious work–but they have lasted far better than her essays on art, most of which now seem relentlessly dull as well as maddeningly unfocused.

I’m not going to summarize this story. It’s 55 pages in its original form, and, as you might expect from a writer on art, it’s filled with long descriptions, but Lee makes them strongly evocative. Continue reading ““Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady””

Year’s Best SF 5

This one mentions a work by Tom Purdom, one of this blog’s pet projects.

Raw Feed (2001): Best SF 5, ed. David G. Hartwell, 2000.Best SF 5

Everywhere“, Geoff Ryman — On first reading, this seems like a pleasant enough, poignant story about a young boy dealing with his grandfather’s death in a utopian future. (As Hartwell notes in the introduction, Ryman is not an author associated with utopias.) Through means never really explained (alternate time tracks in different dimensions of an 11 dimension universe? editing of a life in another dimension?) the sf equivalent of a soul is shunted off to “everywhere”, seemingly to live a past events again. I’m not sure how desirable that would be. I’m also not sure how utopian it is to live in a society of abullients who need a computer to suggest the next recreation activity. Nor will I grant Ryman the hypothesis that a great deal of the world’s problems stem from being not knowing what they next want to do with themselves. Granted, that is a major problem in some people’s lives. More frequently, I suspect, people know what they want to do but can’t, for a variety of reasons, do it. Even assuming a benevolent computer who could surveil you (and not abuse the gathered data), it’s still a creepy idea to be so completely and accurately modeled as to have a electronic nanny suggest the next playtime activity. Ryman recycles an old utopian notion of everybody taking their turn at certain undesirable jobs for “readies” unconvincingly depicted as an alternative to antique money.

Evolution Never Sleeps“, Elisabeth Malartre — This is essentially a hard science, rational, plausible version of all those fifties’ monster sf movies or the revenge of nature films popular in the seventies. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds (as the characters point out, it’s scary because the reason the birds become menacing is never explained, formerly benign creatures becoming threatening) and the suggested title for the movie version of events here is “The Attack of the Killer Chipmunks”. A researcher discovers that chipmunks have began to hunt in packs and become a formidable predator of creatures larger than them. As the title points out, there’s absolutely no reason that the process of evolution has stopped working on current lifeforms. Malartre also points out (and I assume it’s true given that she’s a biologist) that true herbivores are rare. Most animals will eat meat if given the opportunity and that meat is easier to digest than plant food. At the end, it’s clear this new breed of chipmunks is willing to attack man. [Incidentally, this version of the story accidentally omitted the author’s ending. Malartre sent me the ending, but I don’t know what I did with it. And, no, we’re not buddies. She put a notice in Locus that readers could request the ending from her.] Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 5”

“Future Wars, 1890-1950”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds concludes.

Review: “Future Wars, 1890-1950”, Brian Stableford, 1983.Opening Minds

Interesting look, inspired by I. F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984 (I reviewed its second edition), at the history of British future war stories from “The Battle of Dorking” (1871) on with particular emphasis on the influence of World War One on inter-war science fiction. By doing this, he is addressing a weakness he perceives in Clarke’s survey.

The “jingoism” of the British stories was unique, but American future war stories shared “the myth of a war to end war”. It shows up in works like Frank R. Stockton’s The Great War Syndicate (1899) and Stanley Waterloo’s Armageddon (1898).

World War One, of course, turned out to be nothing like anything imagined.

As it did with so much, the war changed British science fiction and imbued it with a pessimism unfelt in the American science fiction pulps that started in the inter-war period. Continue reading ““Future Wars, 1890-1950””

“Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts”

The review series on the essays in Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.

Review: “Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts”, Brian Stableford, 1984.Opening Minds

Stableford looks at two attempts to prophecy the future.

The first is Karl Marx’s theory of communism and future social and economic developments.

The second is science fiction though, as Stableford notes, only “some of its early apologists – especially Hugo Gernsback” ever claimed to be prophetic. Still, a lot more hands and a lot more perspectives have went into trying to imagine the future in science fiction rather than Marxism.

I have not read enough Marx and none of his critic, Karl Popper, to comment on the accuracy of Stableford’s interpretation of either. He uses Popper’s criticisms to comment on science fiction’s abysmal record of prognostication.

I think Stableford is right in dismissing Popper’s claim that Marx confused law and trends. Marx’s “laws” are what others would simply call trends and predicting the future based on trends is done by a lot more people than just Marx’s disciples. Continue reading ““Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts””

“The Plausibility of the Impossible”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s essays in Opening Minds continues.

Review: “The Plausibility of the Impossible”, Brian Stableford, 1989.Opening Minds

Stableford examines why particularly implausible ideas still hold sway over our minds when we read fantastic fiction.

In a science fiction context, he specifically mentions time travel, faster-than-light travel, and ESP. However, he is really talking about all fantastic literature.

In particular, he talks about how, despite what science has shown, it is very hard for us not to think in terms of Cartesian duality: that is there is a mass of matter, the brain, and we, our thoughts, emotions, and dreams, exist separately from that matter. That’s what our experience in the world and our inner world tell us despite the empirical evidence against it.

In playing off his discussion in “The Concept of Mind in Science Fiction”, he specifically talks about how this makes stories of extrasensory perception and ghosts carry not only an emotional plausibility for us but an empirical one – at least as defined by our experiences if not work in the lab. Continue reading ““The Plausibility of the Impossible””

“The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.

Review: “The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”, Brian Stableford, 1980.Opening Minds

In this long essay, Stableford presents a taxonomy of man-made catastrophes presented by science fiction.

The sense that humans could compete with nature in creating catastrophes started in the latter part of the 19th century.

There were works hostile to the growing effects of technology like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and William Morris’ News from Nowhere, but they didn’t present notions of true catastrophe at the hands of man’s machinery. Stableford claiming that Richard Jefferies After London (1872) left the reasons for a pastoral, medieval like England being created as “deliberately unspecified” doesn’t quite jibe with my memory of that novel.

While he doesn’t nominate it as the first work of man-made catastrophe, he notes that Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column had a world wrecked by the capitalist system. (And, I suppose, I should clarify that catastrophe does not equal a literal doomsday or human extinction.) Continue reading ““The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe””