Science Fiction/Fantasy

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Phillip E. Wegner

Darko Suvin defines science fiction as a 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” (1979, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, 7—8). Science fiction estranges or denaturalizes the world that currently exists, showing its apparently immutable foundations to be contingent and changeable. If high modernist fiction accomplishes this through formal experimentation (see FORMALISM, MODERNISM), science fiction does so through the portrayal of “other” worlds: the future, different planets, or a version of our own world into which has been introduced a novum or new element in the form of an event, alien, or technology. (Each of these worlds corresponds to one of Mark Rose's four coordinates of the genre: time, space, monster, and machine; 1981, Alien Encounters.) However, unlike both older fantastic literatures and modern fantasy, science fiction portrays worlds bound by the scientific, historical, or “cognitive” laws of our own.

Although significant precursors are to be found in the gothic novel, nineteenth-century utopias and dystopias, and Jules Verne's “voyages extraordinaires,” it is the great “scientific romances” of H. G. Wells—in particular The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898)—that establish the genre. Wells's work also demonstrates science fiction's critical potential, as The Time Machine uses its allegorical capacity to attack Great Britain's contemporary social inequities, while The War of the Worlds unveils the brutalities of European colonialism.

Thus, science fiction, as an original narrative form, is as modernist as film, the two coming together early on in Georges Méliès's (1861—1938) pioneering Voyage dans la lune (1902, A Trip to the Moon). There is also an interesting parallel between the two forms, as both have two distinct modernist moments. The first occurs for science fiction in the early twentieth century, in the work of writers who acknowledge their debt to Wells while also expanding the genre's possibilities. Significant figures from this first modernist efflorescence include the Russian and Soviet writers Alexander Bogdanov, Aleksey Tolstoy, Evgeny Zamyatin, and Andrei Platonov; the Czech novelist and dramatist Karel Imageapek, whose play R.U.R. (1920) introduced the term robot; and the British authors E. M. Forster, Olaf Stapledon, and C. S. Lewis.

This first wave was interrupted in the late 1920s by the Soviet Union's growing intolerance for artistic experimentation and the rise in the U.S. of popular “pulp” magazine fiction. Examples of the latter include the “space operas” of E. E. “Doc” Smith and Philip Francis Nowlan (the creator of Buck Rogers), and the fantasy of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan and John Carter of Mars) and Robert E. Howard (Conan). These works presented tales set in intergalactic space, exotic worlds, or the imagined past, and offered their readers simplistic moral visions, with the critical estrangements of earlier modernist science fiction kept to a minimum. The heyday of pulp science fiction occurred under the editorships of Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, the latter, in the 1930s, inaugurating science fiction's “Golden Age.” Writers Campbell brought to prominence—among them Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and A. E. Van Vogt—remain some of the genre's best known. Campbell demanded a more rigorous grounding of science fiction in contemporary scientific knowledge—and thus created the basis for the subgenre of “hard” science fiction exemplified by writers such as Arthur C. Clarke and Hal Clement in the 1950s and today by Gregory Benford and Kim Stanley Robinson—as well as a more careful exploration of the implications of their estranging hypotheses. Moreover, most of these writers expressed a deep faith in the possibilities of science, rationality, and technology, values shared by much of the genre's early audience.

The conclusion of WWII saw the emergence of a new generation of writers—among them Alfred Bester, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Walter Miller, Jr., and Cordwainer Smith—whose confidence in science and technology was far less sure. Following the 1949 publication of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the early Cold War period also witnessed the resurgence of the sociopolitical subgenre of dystopia, exemplified by Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (both 1953). Meanwhile, the genre's attention increasingly turned to the social and psychological impact of modernity and to the development of complex character psychology, giving rise to “soft” science fiction. The single most important writer to emerge from this context was Philip K. Dick, whose rich visions of near future worlds, especially in the series of novels that begins with Time Out of Joint (1959) and culminates with Ubik (1969), would influence both the subsequent development of the genre and popular culture as a whole.

This was also the moment of the development of modern “heroic” fantasy, a subgenre that rejected science fiction's rationalism and can be characterized by a nostalgic longing for the distant past, the binary ethical imaginaries of older romance, and the presence of “noncognitive” wish-fulfillment devices such as magic. In this way, modern fantasy participated in a larger cultural reaction to the horrors of world war. The form's central practitioner was J. R. R. Tolkien, and his work encouraged later writers—such as Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, and, later, Gene Wolfe, Philip Pullman, and China Miéville—to further develop the genre. Moreover, the contemporary dominance of popular fantasy is evidenced by the bestselling novelist J. K. Rowling.

The work of Bester, Dick, and these others set the stage for science fiction's second “modernist” moment, a period often referred to as the New Wave. These works reflected the political upheavals of the time, and often offered critiques of state and corporate bureaucracies, consumerism, the Vietnam War, environmental despoilage, and gender and racial inequality (see RACE). New Wave writers in the U.S. would include Harlan Ellison, who also edited the landmark Dangerous Visions anthologies (1967, 1972); Frank Herbert, whose most celebrated novel, Dune (1965), placed ecological concerns centrally within the genre; Thomas Disch, author of the acclaimed dystopias Camp Concentration (1968) and 334 (1972); and the prolific Robert Silverberg. Science-fictional elements also began to be more prominent in “literary” fictions by writers such as William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut. The British magazine New Worlds, especially under the editorship of Michael Moorcock, showcased new works, including the experimental fictions of J. G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss. Meanwhile, John Brunner emerged as an important author of contemporary dystopian fiction. Major science fiction would again appear from the Soviet bloc, most prominently in the work of Stanislaw Lem (Poland) and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (USSR).

Finally, this period would see an increasing diversity among the genre's authors. Although a handful of women—including Leigh Brackett, Carol Emshwiller, Judith Merril, C. L. Moore, and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon)—did publish memorable fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, it would not be until the later 1960s that women writers would take up a new prominence in the genre, often explicitly thematizing gender and sexuality. Some of the best known of these writers are Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Suzy McKee Charnas, McCaffrey, Vonda McIntyre, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, and, most significantly Le Guin, whose masterpieces include The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), a tale of an alien race whose sexual biology and gender identities are radically different from our own, and The Dispossessed (1974), a work that heralded a full-scale revival of the literary utopia. Delany was another path-breaking figure, as one of the first african american and, later, openly gay writers in the field (see QUEER). Delany would be followed by other major African American science-fiction authors, such as Octavia Butler, whose Xenogenesis trilogy (1987—89) and Parable novels (1993, 1998) became some of the genre's most discussed, and more recently by the Canadian Caribbean novelist Naola Hopkinson.

By the end of the 1970s, the energies of the New Wave had been exhausted, and the subsequent conservative counter-assault created an environment less hospitable to science-fiction experimentation and dangerous visions. A significant change in the genre was signaled by the emergence of “cyberpunk” in the early 1980s. Although Bruce Sterling took on the role of the movement's spokesperson, it was William Gibson who emerged as its leading practitioner. Gibson's novel Neuromancer (1984) rejected both the optimism of the Gernsback—Campbell era and the radicalism of the previous generation. Moreover, in its celebration of new information technologies, its suspicion of Fordist welfare state policies, and its poaching from and pastiche of different genres, including noir fiction, cyberpunk was seen as exemplary of postmodern sensibilities. Other prominent writers associated with the movement include Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, and Neal Stephenson.

Many of the science-fiction writers who rose to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s—including Iain M. Banks, Terry Bisson, Butler, Orson Scott Card, Hopkinson, Gwyneth Jones, Ken MacLeod, Miéville, Robinson, Stephenson, and Sheri Tepper—signal a further eclecticism in the genre as they draw upon the resources of hard science fiction, utopias and dystopias, cyberpunk, and heroic fantasy. There has also been a resurgence among these writers of the critical political energies that were in abeyance in the heyday of postmodern cyberpunk, signaling another turn in the genre's rich history.

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Definitions of the Novel, Graphic Novel, Mythology, Time.


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11. Seed, D., ed. (2005), Companion to Science Fiction.

12. Wegner, P. (2002), Imaginary Communities.

13. Yaszek, L. (2008), Galactic Suburbia.