Science Fiction Studies

#26 = Volume 9, Part 1 = March 1982


John Dean

The Uses of Wilderness in American Science Fiction

Abstract .--SF alone in Anglo-Saxon literature has retained the wilderness as a viable, constant preoccupation for a general, intelligent reading audience. SF's wild planetary terrains of forests, oceans, deserts, and mountains, and the interplanetary regions of outer space, have kept alive the wilderness geography of physical challenge, emotional wonder, spiritual hope, and the exploration of the unknown. The wilderness theme has otherwise steadily diminished in the prevailing currents of American and English literature since World War Two.

This essay examines how the theme of wilderness is expressed in the SF works of Jack Vance, Thomas Disch, Clifford Simak, Ursula Le Guin, and Frank Herbert.

H. Bruce Franklin

America as Science Fiction: 1939

Abstract .--In 1939, the capitalist nations of the world were in transition between the Great Depression and World War II. The splitting of the atom had been accomplished the year before in Germany, Welles' Martians were invading New Jersey, and Superman had arrived to fight for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way.'' In this America of 1939, two very different visions of the future can be found: in Astounding SF and in the New York World's Fair, "The World of Tomorrow.'' In Astounding, the future is portrayed as rather bleak--technology does not bring greater happiness to the masses of humanity, and often produces the opposite. In contrast, the General Motors exhibit called "Futurama'' at the New York World's Fair presented a comforting model of America's technological future based on the ubiquity of the automobile, an ever-expanding system of highways, and the beneficence of the petroleum industry.

John Rieder

Embracing the Alien: Science Fiction in Mass Culture

Abstract .--The alien in science fiction is the projection of the Other. However, it is less the representation of a radical difference or unknown entity and more the depiction of a historically-determined figure who is an "outsider.'' In the examples analyzed in this essay where the historical context is that of Anglo-American capitalist societies, the alien is not essentially a metaphor for the industrial proletariat or the Third World; it incarnates certain characteristics of the bourgeois mind itself--it exposes certain secret, autonomous urges and drives of the bourgeois subject in dealing with his own interior experience. It reflects the self-alienation by which the body becomes the fundamental property of the individual.

From this perspective, the works of Mary Shelley, John W. Campbell, and George Lukas (Star Wars) are studied. The critical perception of alienation is an essential thematic component of Frankenstein. The treatment of this theme is more limited by ideology in "Who Goes There?'' but, in Star Wars, it is almost completely submerged by nostalgia.

To the extent that SF becomes more and more an object of mass culture, the allegory of alienation becomes more and more subordinate to the reified pleasures of consumerism.

[A Response by Damon Knight, with John Rieder's reply, appears in SFS 27 (July 1982).]

George Slusser

Heinlein's Perpetual Motion Fur Farm

Abstract.--Perhaps one of the most persistent dreams of modern scientific man living in the shadow of entropy is the creation of a perpetual-motion machine. Heinlein offers a curious answer to this general dilemma in his tale "By His Bootstraps" (1941). He gives us here a grim example of organic energy fueling a frictionless machine, a "perpetual motion fur farm.'' This essay examines the pervasiveness and significance of the perpetual-motion theme in Heinlein's works and its psychological, epistemological, and mythic dimensions.

Darko Suvin

Narrative Logic, Ideological Domination, and the Range of Science Fiction: A Hypothesis with a Historical Test

Abstract .--This study is based on a hypothesis which assumes that narrative presuppositions and patterns of verisimilitude are never implicit in the text but, rather, are always intertextual in nature. Of the different types of verisimilitude, one of them plays a hegemonic role in global society. An intertextual approach permits the analysis of narratives while avoiding both ideology as pragmatic manipulation as well as "influences'' considered in a vacuum. Applying Angenot's theories on the "absent paradigm'' and Wells' article "Fiction about the Future'' to the study of Victorian SF results in a wide range of classifications--from a relatively small base of optima to a wide spectrum of pessima (see chart). Optimal SF uses a coherent narrative logic; the interaction of the fictive world with the empirical world of the reader creates a zone of freedom for the imagination. Pessimal SF often reflects incoherence, banality, dogmatism, or narrative invalidation--i.e., where its intertextual reference involve banal, realistic fiction (adventure or romance novels) or more metaphysical genres (fantastic, horror). Among the various types, there is often contamination: "good'' SF narratives, while not optimal due to certain weaknesses, are located in an intermediate zone between optima and pessima. Narratives classified as pessima are ideological hegemonic; they neutralize the cognitive novum and invalidate the fictional paradigm of radical difference.

The cause of much of the deficiency in poor SF is the growing commodification of literature, already present in the first half of the 19th century. This phenomenon is discussed with reference to Tocqueville, Poe, and Walter Benjamin. In the production and merchandising of "mass" literature, the original, authentic signifier (use value) is replaced by the constant repetition of its circulation (exchange value) and results in sensationalism or faddishness. The model attitude for the new type of experience is not immersed into use-value continuities (Erfahrungen) but composed of point-like occurences (Erlebnise) based on empathizing into or feeling with the exchange-value or money-price of the sensually devalued things, a kind of gaming mentality. Fashion, gambling, quick turnover of money and commodities, time anxiety, newspapers dominated by ads, and finally written discourse as a commodity submitting to all their laws--all of them have a psychic common demoninator: customer experience of repeated shocks, wedded to a sense of excitement.

The second part of this article applies the theoretical premises outlined above to the science fiction published in the United Kingdom between 1848 and 1870: first the writings of Poe, eighteen other books of various narrative and ideological nature--political and social speculations (utopias and future histories), banal tales (Rowcroft and Lang) and, in a category by itself, Trueman's History of a Voyage to the Moon which is the culmination of British SF from Shelley to Abbott.

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