SPECIAL ISSUE: ON HARD SCIENCE FICTION.
David N. Samuelson
Modes of Extrapolation: The Formulas of Hard Science Fiction
as science fiction has had a coherent existence, writers and critics have
debated its relevance to science. From Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, through Hugo
Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Jr., to Gregory Benford and J.G. Ballard, SF's
"hardness'' has been both help and hindrance to popular and critical
appreciation. In the last half-century, the label "hard SF'' has been applied to
tales in which scientific theories and technological applications get a
significant share of attention. Both friends and foes of hard SF acknowledge
that it bears some relationship to science, pure or applied, though they do not
agree on the worth of that core. Neither camp claims scientific "hardness'' as a
guarantee of literary quality, and some detractors of hard SF derive the label
from "hard to read,'' because it is badly written. Some essays from the 1983
Eaton Conference on SF and fantasy, collected in Hard Science Fiction,
approach the controversy from a post-structuralist position, denying any claims
of science to have a unique corner on truth. SF writers argued for scientific
content and accuracy; literature professors discounted them, seeing "hardness''
as mere rhetoric.
Rhetorical features of science do help characterize hard SF, since it uses
scientific findings and theories as measures of reality. Accurate but
unobtrusive science may not define the subgenre, but neither does a rhetoric of
hardness without scientific substance. In the best examples, the two interact
positively, demanding reader sensitivity to both as indicators of quality.
Writing and reading hard SF require a mind set that thrives on "hypotheticals,''
fantastic assumptions with theoretical justification in science, a seemingly
paradoxical yoking of fantasies to the oxen of science and technology.
agreement fails on what constitutes hard SF, confusion reigns about who writes
it. Some Eaton contributors emphasized Stanislaw Lem, C.S. Lewis, William Morris
and the 17th century geologist, Thomas Burnet, none of whom qualify in my view.
Hard SF has never existed in large quantities. Without some technical education,
it is difficult to write, and most scientists do not write fiction. In SF's
formative years, Verne, Wells, Gernsback and E.E. "Doc'' Smith at least had
technical training. During the "Golden Age,'' SF magazines published scientific
puzzle stories and tales invoking the vast universe. Few writers, however, wrote
hard SF before the '50s. The major body of evidence is less than 50 years old,
and more people seem to be writing it now than ever before.
who write hard SF regularly include Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford,
Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, Robert L. Forward, Larry Niven, Paul Preuss,
Charles Sheffield, and Vernor Vinge. More occasional visitors include Brian W.
Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, David Brin, John Brunner, Michael Crichton,
Gordon R. Dickson, Harry Harrison, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Fred
Hoyle, Frederik Pohl, Jerry Pournelle, Carl Sagan, and George Zebrowski. Besides
the classic and basically unclassifiable Olaf Stapledon, the essays following
propose Stephen Baxter and John Cramer; other plausible newcomers include Roger
McBride Allen, Michael Kube-McDowell, Michael McCollum, Allen Steele, and John
Whomever we include or exclude, hard SF is a largely Anglo-American and
masculine production. Stories of nuts-and-bolts technological SF from the Soviet
Union, reported by historians, are largely untranslated; similar American
stories seldom escape the pages of Analog, known to its detractors as
"the magazine with rivets.'' From Michelangelo to Le Corbusier, Continental
Europeans have embraced large architectural designs, but unearthly engineering
projects seem to excite mainly Americans, flushed perhaps with the successes and
failures of our national design of continually changing social engineering. C.J.
Cherryh may be the only woman to find writing hard SF congenial, but backgrounds
in science inform the fiction of Vonda McIntyre, Pamela Sargent, and Joan
Slonczewski. Doris Lessing, author of a half-dozen intellectual "space
fantasies,'' respects hard SF, though she lacks the technical education to write
Hard SF could not have spread without a growing receptive audience. Required
science classes in high school and college, news media reporting, and simply
living with technology have made readers progressively more conversant with
issues involving science. The broadening of SF itself correspondingly increased
the number of readers comprising a potential audience for the hard stuff.
Although of varying hardness, novels by Asimov, Clarke, Crichton, Heinlein,
Herbert, and Sagan even became best-sellers, a measure of popularity undreamed
in the Golden Age.
has influence beyond its numbers, moreover, flavoring other writers' work,
adding elements to the stew, as well as setting limits to speculation. A
prolific fictional inventor, Samuel R. Delany recognizes the need to rationalize
changes, even if only by implication. The work of Philip K. Dick reverberates
with technological change, dissolving the borders between humans and machines,
illusion and reality. Ursula K. Le Guin, rarely an exponent of hard SF, felt
obliged to rationalize "mindspeech'' and to recognize light as a speed limit.
Not just a variety of SF, hard SF is also a direction or tendency.
Defenders of hard SF often pose two contradictory arguments: that it is at the
core of the entire genre, and that it is always in danger of being abandoned.
The latter is certainly on shaky historical grounds and the sense that SF must
always be returned to a hard core may well be Golden Age nostalgia. The
innocence of early SF is lost, to be sure, but the belief that the past was
better is particularly inappropriate for this branch of SF. Compared with its
predecessors, the hard SF of the past decade or so makes this as close to a
Golden Age as we have ever had.
humanistic training makes me uncomfortable with the idea of historical
"improvement'' in the arts, except in an artist's apprenticeship. The discomfort
increases when I seem to be granting real existence over time to a group of
works united by a rhetorical abstraction, and taking a deterministic predictive
stance. It seems to me, however, that both external historical forces and its
own inner dynamic produce an ideal of hard SF continually in the making. Perhaps
never realized in the past or present, this "ideal type'' is always hoped for in
the future. In the history of hard SF, this may be the future.
recognizing the existence of hard SF, however, let alone its generating power,
scholars and critics largely fail to deal with either the science or the
rhetoric. Relatively ignorant of science, most of us are uncomfortable with it.
Those who study SF prefer to deal with Delany and Dick, Le Guin and Lem, whose
fictions are more congenial to literary concerns with subtle and plurisignifying
characterization, structure, and style. It is perhaps no coincidence that
literary critics, as specialists under fire both from outside and inside their
own discipline, also favor SF which at least implies the decline of Western
civilization. While I share many of their interests, I see attempts to restrict
SF to these unrepresentative examples as reductionist and short-sighted.
the flowers that smell sweetest inevitably severs them from their roots,
ignoring not only the soil but also the fertilizers that enabled them to grow
and blossom. Hard SF does not lack semiotic interest, but its codes and
conventions differ from those most of us as critics are trained to understand
and appreciate. Style tends to be more direct and limited in signification,
characterization more deterministic, standards of judgment for behavior more
Star Trek universe is a simple test case known and loved by millions. Its
narrative structures may be less subtle than those of the scientific problems
and the physical universe within its stories. Examples show rational thought and
technological civilization persisting into a future, and puzzles being solved in
an hour or two of screen time. Both premises, which suffuse much of hard SF, may
be unbelievably naive and ethnocentric, but they are not universal. Aldiss,
Benford, Bear, and Pohl show literary sophistication in their fiction, even as
they raise our eyes from the decline of the West to humanity's fragile hold on
survival, its glimmers of intelligence and self-understanding.
Considering how uncongenial most literary people find science, the Eaton
Conference was a reasonable start. Continuing debate in print, however, has
largely bypassed hard SF. As the accompanying bibliography makes clear, titles
seldom mention it by name. Under "hard SF,'' Hal Hall's 1987 reference
bibliography lists only Bainbridge and Dalziell, Bridgstock, and Benford's
``real world'' essay. Norman Spinrad, mentioning hard SF by name, sees it as
potentially solving the genre's identity crisis. By taking science seriously,
not just as a source of images, James Gunn's scholarly efforts have even earned
some critics' enmity, as Pierce points out in this symposium.
Other SF writers—Anderson, Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Lem, Pournelle and Niven,
Preuss—have written about writing hard SF. John Barnes recently explained his
use of forecasting, and Paul Park discussed science in his novels. Benford has
written on various elements of hard SF, including narrative voice, aliens, and
the transcendent "vision'' of science, while fending off ``regressive''
tendencies in fantasy and utopia. Other secondary materials—including John J.
Pierce's 3-volume thematic history of SF—discuss examples and exponents of hard
SF, largely assuming its value. Recent books about Asimov, Clarke, Clement,
Verne and Wells also highlight the science in their fiction.
matter of hard SF is inseparable from the role in SF of science. Samuelson's
1962 thesis and Westfahl's dissertation trace interest in the subject back to
the 1920s and 1930s, while scholars in the last two decades have produced books
on the presence in SF of physics, linguistics, robots, and computers, as well as
the "cyberpunk'' fad. There were even two "coffee-table'' books on the subject.
Close Encounters? Science and Science Fiction has a good short sketch of
the science in SF, while The Science in Science Fiction at least takes a
stab at being a reference volume.
the best models available for analyzing hard SF, however, virtually ignore it as
a subgenre. Bainbridge, Berger, Hirsch and Stableford explore the sociology of
SF and Ray Lynn Anderson examines the rhetoric of science in Asimov, Clarke and
Hoyle. Delany's theoretical work stresses codes and conventions involved in
reading anything as SF, basically relegating science to a storehouse of images.
Joanna Russ also argues SF's rhetorical need for scientific constraints. Albert
W. Wendland grapples with SF's gradations from conceptual to perceptual
world-building, while Gary K. Wolfe uses SF's icons to illuminate hard SF's
central issue: encounter with the unknown. Countering Wolfe on the space
station, Westfahl shows it typically standing for resistance rather than
accommodation to the alien.
Wendland and Samuelson in their dissertations, Carl D. Malmgren argues that SF
appropriates the world view of science; his typology goes further, moreover,
scrutinizing variations in characters, societies, settings, even science itself,
the last step allowing for him a theoretical place for science fantasy. Versions
of the scientific world-view form points of departure for other critics. Robert
Nadeau and Susan Strehle examine the role of physics in works by 20th century
writers outside SF. Katherine N. Hayles specifically applies field theory and
chaos theory to works by non-SF writers, although her more recent study mentions
by name Dick and Lem, along with Italo Calvino and William Gibson. Novels by
Aldiss, Delany, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., that nobody would call hard SF are Frank
Sadler's examples in looking for influences of 20th century science on SF.
a relatively short and mostly oblique list, this special issue adds four essays.
Gary Westfahl begins appropriately by exploring origins: when does the term
``hard science fiction'' emerge and what elements build reader perceptions of
who writes it? John J. Pierce defends hard SF for its unique literary
experience. A physicist and a practicing SF writer, Gregory Benford meditates on
the scientific underpinnings of his most popular novel, Timescape. My own
lengthy contribution is an excerpt from work in progress. In the context of
scientific principles from which the distinctive formulaic nature of SF arises,
it anatomizes an essential generic element specially emphasized in hard SF:
definitive study of hard SF has yet to be written; it may not even be possible
until SF is no longer written. The cutting edge is always somewhere between the
known and the unknown, the proven and the unproven, like the ``fantastic'' in
Tzvetan Todorov's conception, always threatening to resolve into the mundane or
the marvelous. Scientific and technological progress make mere reportage out of
SF "hypotheticals.'' Short-lived theories make once bright ideas only "alternate
history.'' Assuming science continues to progress in its approximations of
reality, the nucleus that is hard SF always moves out of grasp. Constantly
decentering the entire field, hard SF shifts the periphery, sparking ideas in SF
that may be less scientifically rigorous but often is more artistically
As long as science and technology bring changes, writers will try to capture and
bottle it in stories. We scholars and critics can only eat and drink what is put
before us, not create it before its time. We can, and I think should, however,
encourage writers to try out new recipes, knowing a few gourmets will put them
to the test.
On Hard Science Fiction:
This list of secondary citations for the introduction includes numerous essays
by Benford, Slusser and Westfahl and others tracing the science in SF debate
over the decades. For other references, see bibliographies in Samuelson 1962,
Westfahl 1986 and entries (sometimes misleading) on "science in literature'' and
"scientists'' in Hal Hall, comp., Science Fiction and Fantasy Reference Index,
1878-1975, 2 v. (Detroit: Gale, 1987).
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—————. "Science Fiction and Science, 1: Reality, Fiction, and Points Between.''
Destinies 1.1:292-308, Nov-Dec 1978.
—————. "Science Fiction and Science, 2: The Hardness of Hard Science Fiction.''
Destinies 1.2:248-62, Jan-Feb 1979.
—————. "Science Fiction and Science, 3: On Imaginary Science.'' Destinies
1.3:304-20, Apr-June 1979.
—————. "Science Fiction and Science 4: The Science Fiction in Science.''
Destinies 1.4: 304-20, Aug-Sept 1979.
—————. "Science Fiction and Science 5: Science Fiction and Reason.''
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—————, and Murray Dalziell. "The Shape of Science Fiction as Perceived by
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—————. ``Science and Science Fiction.'' Science Fiction: The Academic Awakening.
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—————. ``Teaching Physics with Science Fiction.'' Fan Plus 1:13-14, January
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————— (interviewed). Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary
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—————. "Nuclear Energy: Science Fiction's Metaphor of Power.'' SFS
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—————. "Science Fiction Critiques of the American Space Program, 1945-1958.''
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—————. "Islands in the Sky: Space Stations in the Universe of Science Fiction.''
Mindscapes: The Geographies of Imagined Worlds. Ed. George E. Slusser and
Eric S. Rabkin. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989. 211-25.
—————. "The Mote in Gernsback's Eye; A History of the Idea of Science Fiction.''
Dissertation, UC Riverside, 1986.
—————. "On the True History of Science Fiction.'' Foundation: The Review of
Science Fiction 47:5-27, Winter/Spring 1990 [adapted from 1986
—————."'Small Worlds and Strange Themes': The Iconography of the Space Station
in Science Fiction.'' Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction 51:38-63,
—————. "Words of Wishdom: The Neologisms of Science Fiction.'' Styles of
Creation: Aesthetic Technique and the Creation of Fictional Worlds. Ed.
George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Williams, Norma. "Science in Science Fiction.'' Australian Science Fiction
Review 5:10-13, December 1965.
Williams, W.T. "Science in Science Fiction: Alien Biology.'' Listener
(December 24, 1964), 1001-4.
Wolfe, Gary. The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction.
Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1979.
John J. Pierce
The Literary Experience of Hard Science Fiction
The air of the Nebula was, as always, stained blood-red. A corner of his mind
tried to measure the redness—was it deeper than last shift?—while his eyes
flicked around the objects scattered through the Nebula above and below him. The
clouds were like handfuls of grayish cloth sprinkled through miles of air. Stars
fell among and through the clouds in a slow, endless rain that tumbled down to
the Core. The light of the mile-wide spheres cast shifting shadows over the
clouds, the scattered trees, the huge blurs that might be whales. Here and there
he saw a tiny flash that marked the end of a star's brief existence. (Baxter
Rees lives in a universe where the
gravitational constant is a billion times that of the universe we know. Only, he
doesn't know that, any more than he knows why time is measured in shifts—one
legacy of a starship that came to grief in this strange cosmos, leaving the crew
and the passengers and their descendants to eke out an existence in what is, by
Earthly standards, a living hell. We ourselves would never want to live there,
but we are fascinated by what it would be like to live there. Rees' universe
doesn't exist, but Stephen Baxter convinces us, in Raft (1992), that it could.
Is this hard science fiction?
Is it literature? Well, that opens a
whole can of worms!
Hard SF isn't the prevailing literary
fashion, even within `"genre SF''—that body of fiction published as `"science
fiction'' in magazines and specialty book lines. On the one hand, Star Trek
spin-offs, Dragonrider novels, and the like head the best-seller lists.
On the other, the most critically-admired works are from the `"metaphorical''
school of Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick, and, perhaps, even Ursula K. Le Guin.
Whatever else can be said of a work like Raft, it is safe to predict that it
will never show up in any literary canon —"conservative'' or "radical''—any more
than it will be a runaway commercial success.
Hard SF will always be a minority
taste. When Robert A. Heinlein started writing SF for the `"slick'' magazines
after World War II, he realized from the outset that he would have to minimize
the science to reach a wider audience (10).1 When he finally did
reach a mass book-reading audience, it was with Stranger in a Strange Land
(1961), which stressed social and religious satire—Heinlein himself denied
that it was SF at all (260). Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) doubtless caught
up non-SF readers more for its Great Thoughts than for its ecology—as
demonstrated by the sequels it spawned. Even Isaac Asimov, when he hit the
best-seller lists with a series of belated Foundation/Robot novels, stressed
social issues rather than hard science. Hard SF may become the stepchild of its
own genre: it simply isn't the best way to make a living. Ask Stephen Baxter—or
even Hal Clement.
Hard SF also seems to remain a
stepchild of SF scholarship. Some critics, it seems, not only don't want to read
hard SF, but don't want to read about it. Robert A. Collins, for example,
faulted James Gunn's The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for, among
other things, a bias toward hard SF: in particular, he was irritated by Poul
Anderson's "Alien Worlds'' entry because it failed to discuss the "'metaphorical
uses' [of created worlds], which interest me more than the so-called
'scientific' ones.'' Collins cites Michael Bishop's "Rogue Tomato''2
as the kind of SF that should have been covered under "Alien Worlds'' (12).
Although Collins may rightly believe
that metaphorical SF was slighted in the Gunn encyclopedia, it is hard SF that
is slighted elsewhere. David G. Hartwell, in his introduction to The World
Treasury of Science Fiction, felt it necessary to defend an esthetic that
once was taken for granted by genre- SF writers and fans:
I do not, of course, deny the metaphorical
level of SF texts. I simply state the obvious, which somehow seems to have been
lost in several decades of critical discussion: in a work of science fiction,
the reader must grant the premise that whatever is stated as the case is literal
and true. For instance, in Gerard Klein's ``Valley of Echoes,'' the reader must
believe that we are two hundred years in the future, exploring the planet Mars,
not merely in some surreal landscape that embodies a metaphor for the human
As Hartwell granted, this esthetic is
limited almost entirely to American SF; elsewhere in the world, the kind of
fiction exemplified by the Golden Age at John W. Campbell's Astounding
seems to have been taken "as some kind of joke or as a repository of imagery to
be used for purposes other than SF'' (xvii). Of course, Hartwell's memory may be
selective. Was there ever really any hard science in the work of A.E. van Vogt,
a major contributor to Astounding? We have all heard or read anecdotes
about what passed for science in much of the earlier genre SF at Hugo
Gernsback's Amazing Stories. Perhaps there has always been hard SF and
soft SF, and the debate between them goes back at least as far as the
differences between H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.3
Still, we all know what kind of genre
SF Hartwell is talking about, and we also know that it hasn't travelled well
abroad. Yet attitudes may be changing. Lem's most recent SF novel, Fiasco, is
certainly closer to hard SF than any of his previous work (perhaps something was
lost in their translation, but are we really to believe in the mimoids composed
of neutrinos in Solaris, or the mix of oxygen and methane in the
atmosphere of the world his astronauts visit in The Invincible?), even as
it also retains the satirical edge of Lem's previous work. In its cosmic vision
and its speculation on the evolution of advanced civilizations past our
understanding, Fiasco has much the same feel as such contemporary
American hard SF as Gregory Benford's Across the Sea of Suns and Great
Benford, indeed, has raised the
literary status of hard SF. But, paradoxically, he has not necessarily led us to
appreciate the esthetic of hard SF as such. We could argue that in Timescape,
for example, the appeal is not so much the scientific invention—a means of
sending messages into the past in order to alter history and thus prevent a
disaster in the present—as the characterization of scientists and the politics
of science. Against Infinity involves the transforming of Ganymede, but
the center of the novel is a retelling of William Faulkner's "The Bear,'' in
which the alien called Aleph serves a metaphorical function. In The Artifact,
the mini black hole is the maguffin for an international suspense thriller. Do
we admire Great Sky River more as hard SF or as a heroic saga writ large?
Benford's novels are all hard SF, of course, but they are other things as well.
Can hard SF be literature if it is not also these other things? Is there a
literary experience characteristic of hard SF in and of itself?
We are all familiar with arguments to
the contrary. We have even come to cringe at the mention of Hugo Gernsback, who,
as Brian W. Aldiss once put it, reduced SF to "stories built like diagrams, and
made clear like diagrams, and stripped of atmosphere and sensibility'' (211). We
can only chuckle at much of the hard SF of the Golden Age: for example, George
O. Smith's Venus Equilateral stories, with their outdated technology
(gigantic vacuum tubes and the like) inspiring rapture in cardboard characters.
Nor do we have to look to the past for the embarrassments of hard SF: Robert L.
Forward's Martian Rainbow is a recent case in point. We don't expect
War and Peace from Forward, surely, but here he proves he can't even write a
good techno-thriller. The politics of the novel (a general setting himself up as
religious overlord of Earth) are so crude that we are reminded of Ray Cummings'
Tarrano the Conqueror (1930)—those of us who can remember back that far!
Forward fills his narrative with chunks of scientific exposition, until it
resembles a lumpy porridge. And because he can't make his story work with the
actual possibilities of terraforming Mars, he brings in a deus ex machina
(literally: magical robots left by aliens of Christmas past). On the evidence of
Martian Rainbow, we might well conclude that Forward should have stuck to
writing technical articles, and that there is no point to discussing the art of
hard SF because there simply isn't any.
Why discuss Forward at all, if he is
such a poor writer? We have all seen much better hard-SF novels about Mars, such
as Allen Steele's The Labyrinth of Night (which is also a much better
political thriller, and even a far better tale of magical aliens). Because
Forward is also the author of Dragon's Egg, a novel that won the praise
of, among others, Frank Herbert, Hal Clement, and Isaac Asimov as an example of
hard SF at its best, he is thus a test case.4 If Dragon's Egg
is really hard SF at its best, and Martian Rainbow is hard SF at its
worst, what's the difference? Its no use pretending that the human side
Dragon's Egg is any better. It isn't: Forward's astronauts therein are cut
from the same cardboard as those generals, scientists, and technicians in
Martian Rainbow. We simply don't notice them, because they aren't the story; the
story is the cheela, the creatures Forward makes us believe could
actually live on the surface of a neutron star.
Like any number of hard-SF novels,
Dragon's Egg includes an appendix in which the author explains the
scientific basis for his literary invention. It is all very speculative science,
of course, but science itself is based on speculation: theories are advanced and
then tested against reality. We have no way of testing Forward's theory against
reality, but we trust him as both scientist and hard-SF writer not to knowingly
contradict the known possibilities of the universe we inhabit. If Dragon's
Egg were a fictionalized essay like its appendix, however, would we read it
in the same way we actually read it as a novel? Make no mistake about it: if we
appreciate Dragon's Egg at all, we appreciate it as a literary
exercise—and this in spite of its obvious literary faults. (Forward is said by
Lester del Rey to have needed considerable editorial help in order to produce an
When we read scientific articles or
textbooks, we are like Sergeant Friday on Dragnet: we want "Just the
facts, ma'am.'' We get more than just facts, to be sure, from the more
imaginative writers of science like Stephen Hawking or Stephen Jay Gould
(Forward isn't in their league, either). When we read SF, however, we are still
reading fiction, and expect the imaginative experience of reading fiction. C.S.
Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism (1961), even suggested that
literature should be judged by how it is read, and though his judgments are no
more infallible than those of any other critic, he is (to my mind, at least)
right on the mark as to how we experience literature.
In science fiction we experience the
creative imagination of the author—a particular kind of imagination. It is not
necessarily, certainly not entirely, the metaphorical imagination of Jorge Luis
Borges or Italo Calvino. Neither is it necessarily, and certainly not entirely,
that of the "cognitive estrangement'' that has figured in so much critical
discussion of SF since Darko Suvin advanced the theory some twenty years ago.
There is nothing wrong with either kind of imagination, or the kinds of works
that express it, or the kinds of criticism that interpret them. It is plain to
see that Philip K.'s transformation into a giant tomato, in Bishop's "Rogue
Tomato,'' is a metaphorical device. We don't need to be told that both the
Bureaucracy and the Forest it seeks to exploit, in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's
The Snail on the Slope (1980), are estranging devices, intended to
make us see our own world in a new light. But what are the cheela supposed to
represent? According to the theory that metaphors are the essence of literature,
they must represent something, or what good are they?
No doubt we could find something if we
tried hard enough. In The New York Review of Science Fiction, Damien
Broderick argues that the seemingly incomprehensible aliens of Philip Mann's
The Eye of the Queen "resemble a child's idea of human adults,'' while the
more comprehensible alien invaders of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's
Footfall are metaphors for the Soviets (1). But for true aficionados of hard
SF, such explanations diminish their reading experience rather than enhancing
it. If those aliens in Footfall exist only for the sake of a tired allegory
about the Cold War, they hardly seem worth the trouble Niven and Pournelle have
taken in creating them. SF critics certainly mean well in advancing such
interpretations; they are, in fact, often praising SF in the only way they know
how. One recalls the legal arguments about the redeeming social values of
sexually explicit works: Fanny Hill is thus given a Significance that
would baffle John Cleland; it can't be just good erotica.
The literal reading of SF seems to have
few defenders, but one of them is no less than Samuel R. Delany, whose argument,
though surely familiar to all of us, bears repeating here:
Such sentences as "His world exploded,''
or "She turned on her left side,'' as they subsume the proper technological
discourse (of economics and cosmology in one; of switching circuitry and
prosthetic surgery in the other), leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy
metaphor, abandon the triviality of insomniac tossings, and, through the
labyrinth of technical possibility, become possible images of the impossible. (Triton
Delany denies that SF is true
literature: "Literature's philosophical arguments tend to be about the subject,
the human consciousness, rather than about the way the real world functions.
Science fiction is a critique of the object rather than a critique of the
subject—or of the subject in terms of the object'' ("Teaching to Learn'' 74).
Yet he also argues that "the science-fictional enterprise is richer than the
enterprise of mundane fiction'' (Triton 340), and he clearly means richer
in a literary sense.
Delany may not have read Dragon's
Egg, and he might not care for it any more than other critics sensitive to
literary style, which he regards as inseparable from content (The
Jewel-Hinged Jaw 35ff).6 Nevertheless, Forward's novel conforms
to his theory that the essence of SF is the "technological discourse'' that
enables the SF writer to create "possible images of the impossible.'' By
outlining the entire evolution of life on his neutron star (the Cheela begin as
plants, using crystal-supported canopies extending above the hot crust as the
basis of heat engines to supply their food/energy needs), Forward sets up a
memorable scene later in the novel. It develops that the cheela, in extreme
circumstances, can revert to the plant stage—and that this even has a
rejuvenating effect. Swift-Killer, a warrior explorer, discovers this by
accident; and planetary dictator Soother-of-All-Clans later seeks to extend her
life—and power—by going through such a metamorphosis deliberately. But she is
too old and too sedentary; she has too little muscle tissue to draw on to build
a crystalline structure for her canopy. Nevertheless, things seem to be going
Then it happened. The tip of one of the
weakened spikes broke as it attempted to tighten the skin. Soother's-First was
horrified to see a jagged point of dragon crystal sticking up out of the torn
fold of skin. The skin held for a while, and the scientists attempted to build a
mound up against the side of the body to support the damaged section, but before
the support could be arranged, an adjoining spike gave way under the unequal
tension, and in a rapid series of sharp cracks and loud crashes, the remainder
of the twelve-pointed skeleton broke and fell to the crust. (381)7
We do not particularly like Soother,
yet Forward has done his work so well that she seems real to us, and we feel a
genuine terror at her fate. This is in spite of the fact that Forward's prose,
here and elsewhere in Dragon's Egg, is not distinguished: nobody can
mistake it for that of a Delany or a Zelazny, or even that of better hard-SF
writers like Benford.
What is going on here? We are
participating in a literary experience, but it isn't the kind of literary
experience we have been taught to appreciate. What befalls Soother is a
terrifying event, rather than a metaphor, and the feelings it evokes are
those of a literal event. Cognition, as Suvin calls it, is certainly involved:
it is the novum (again as Suvin calls it) that allows us to accept the
reality of the scene. Yet we do not feel estranged from that reality; instead,
we feel caught up and even entranced by it. That is what always happens in the
best hard science fiction, and a better term for the esthetic effect of hard SF
may be cognitive engagement. Forward uses the novum to engage us
in a fascinating new reality, rather than to estrange us from a familiar one,
and it is a distinctly literary reality that he creates. We do not read
Dragon's Egg as we would a technical paper: whatever faults we may find
with his clumsy style and characterization, we can still admire Forward as the
creator of a unique fiction. It is precisely because Martian Rainbow
offers nothing so unique (anyone writing hard SF about Mars must, of necessity,
cover much the same scientific ground), and because Forward makes the error of
trying to write the kind of human and political drama for which his limited
talents in no way suit him, that we cannot forgive the same faults in that
We find the same esthetic in other
examples of hard SF that do not aspire to be literary in the prevailing sense.
In John E. Stith's Redshift Rendezvous (1990), the human side of the plot
is pure cornball, and Stith's characters as such are nothing to write home
about. Yet we are caught up in a story that could take place only in the
fascinating reality of a subspace where the speed of light is so low we can
actually see the illumination spread to the far corners of the starship cargo
hold when the lights are switched on. We trust Stith to have worked out all the
logical consequences of his invented reality, but when we read his novel it is
the literary experience of that reality we are looking for. The same principle
applies to Baxter's Raft, in which we share the experiences of a hero who
is at one point exiled to a labor camp on the hulk of a dead star: in Baxter's
invented universe it is possible to live and work—albeit not very comfortably—on
such a world. Neither Redshift Rendezvous nor Raft offers any
significant psychological insight, political message, or metaphor about the
human condition. Neither is "literature'' as usually recognized. Yet each of
these is a highly literary work in its own way.
Clement's Mission of Gravity is
rightly recognized as one of the classics of hard SF. Yet Clement wrote a
sequel, Star Light, which was quickly forgotten. The science was just as
good in the second novel, but Clement was unable to recreate the literary
excitement of the first. The reason is pretty obvious: the world Clement offers
in Star Light is simply a dull world—and a dull world makes for a dull
story. All sorts of amazing things happen on Mesklin, but practically nothing
could happen of Dhrawn. The difference between the two worlds, and the stories
they inspire, is the result of a literary rather than a scientific
failure. Yet even a fairly conventional world can be redeemed by the literary
excitement of hard SF. Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman (1989), for
example, is set on what seems at first a generic fantasy world of wizards and
dragons. In the course of the story, however, we realize that the "wizards'' are
really just ordinary men using the secrets of science, as in Fritz Leiber's
classic Gather, Darkness (1950), to awe the masses and that the
"dragons'' are only natural creatures. In the sequel, The Outskirter's Secret
(1992), we learn that this world is threatened with disaster: something has gone
wrong with what we can understand is a long-range terraforming project. But the
protagonists in the story can't read the clues as we do, because they don't know
the science we do: can they and will they discover the truth in time, and will
they be able to do anything about it? We experience suspense, an element as old
as fiction—but it is a suspense that derives entirely from our knowledge of
Hard science fiction may be a quite
limited literary form, but the fact that it can create its own kind of literary
experience—even when it has no other claim to literary value—shows that it is a
valid literary form, and worthy of respect in its own right. Were it
given this respect, we might have the experience of more works that, like
Dragon's Egg, succeed as hard SF, however much they may be lacking in other
virtues. We would still have Benford, in any case, but we might not be
frustrated by lesser talents overreaching themselves: for example, John Cramer
in Twistor (1990). This is simply an old-fashioned adventure story that
takes too long to get going, seemingly because Cramer (doubtless having read
Benford) thinks he has to devote the first half of the novel to academic
politics and the like—which he just can't do as well as Benford—to be taken
We should try to remember that art,
like gold, is where we find it—not necessarily where we look for it.
1. In 1947-48 Heinlein published four space-adventure stories in The Saturday
Evening Post, the biggest of the big slicks and the best-paying magazine
market, as well as a few in other magazines that paid better than the genre
pulps. The Post had earlier published an occasional SF story by such
writers as Rudyard Kipling or Steven Vincent Benét, but Heinlein was the first
writer from the SF community to appear in its pages.
2. First published in 1975, this story appears in several anthologies as well as
in Bishop's Blooded on Arachne (NY: Pocket Books, 1983).
3. An oft-told story; see, for example, Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, H.G.
Wells: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1973), 117.
4. Dust-jacket blurbs on the Ballantine/Del Rey hardcover edition, NY, 1980.
5. Personal conversation with Lester del Rey, based on his knowledge of the
handling of Forward's novel at Del Rey books.
6. Delany's argument that style and content are the same thing may seem
unanswerable. A writer must choose the right words, and each word contributes to
the meaning of the text. Only, how does the writer know which are the right
words, unless there is some conception (content) of the work that comes before
the words? Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, has an intriguing
theory about the process of writing that seems to bear on this question (she
makes an analogy to the Holy Trinity, in which the Father is the original
conception of the work, the Son the finished work, and the Holy Ghost the
intermediary). But without getting into arcane theories, consider this: Is
there, or is there not, any content in common between two translations of the
Bible in different styles?
7. Chapters in Dragon's Egg aren't numbered, but the quote is from one
titled "Interaction,'' which is the sixth, and in the fourth subchapter thereof
("Time 14:28: 11 GMT Monday 20 June 2050'').
Aldiss, Brian W. Billion Year Spree. NY: Doubleday, 1973; Schocken Books,
1974. Same pagination.
Baxter, Stephen. Raft. NY: Roc, 1992.
Broderick, Damien. ``Reading SF as a Mega-text.'' New York Review of Science
Fiction 47:1,8-11, July 1992.
Collins, Robert A. Editor's note. SFRA Newsletter 163:11-12, Dec. 1988.
Delany, Samuel R. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science
Fiction. Elizabethtown, NY: Dragon Press, 1977.
—————. "Teaching to Learn.'' Unsigned interview. Locus, 361:5,74-75, Feb.
—————. Triton. NY; Bantam Books, 1976.
Forward, Robert L. Dragon's Egg. NY: Ballantine/Del Rey, 1988.
Hartwell, David. The World Treasury of Science Fiction. Boston: Little,
Heinlein, Robert A. Grumbles from the Grave. NY: Ballantine/Del Rey,
Time and Timescape
Shortly after finishing my doctoral thesis
in 1967, I began doing research at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, and
resumed my hobby of writing fiction. It had never occurred to me to intertwine
the two. Yet as I read recent papers on tachyons, hypothetical faster-than-light
particles, I realized that they plainly had a science-fictional feel. In a
stroke, my rigorous habits of thought as a physicist mingled with my
speculative, artistic aspects. It was my first experience with how hard SF could
emerge from the experience of "doing'' science.
In Newton's worldview, time ticked off in an absolute way, and space was
measured by a rigid universal framework. This image ruled until the late
nineteenth century. H.G. Wells, always a quick study, caught the shifting winds
and jury-rigged a new analogy which equated time with space—made it a fourth
dimension, which a traveller could navigate.
Einstein shattered immutable time,
combining space and time into a single continuum. The velocity of an observer
served to rotate time into space, so that events which seemed simultaneous to
one person would not look so to another who moved with a different speed. None
of this was readily apparent to us, because we all move very much slower than
light, which is thought to be the ultimate speed limit.
That limit separated two realms which
could never interpenetrate, because approaching the barrier from lower speeds
took ever-greater energy. Nothing precluded particles moving faster than light
if they started out that way. The light barrier was weirdly symmetric, too.
Particles moving infinitely fast have zero energy, just like particles with no
velocity on our side of the barrier. Infinity mirrors zero.
Einstein's theory allowed these eerie faster-than-light particles, as he himself
knew. Nobody paid much attention to their theoretical possibility until the
early 1960s, however, when Gerald Feinberg introduced the name "tachyons''
("fast ones'' in Greek); by contrast, ordinary matter such as us is made of slow
ones, "tardyons.'' The last time I saw Gerry (he died in 1992) he reminded me
that the idea had appealed to him because of James Blish's story, "Beep'' (1954;
later expanded into The Quincunx of Time, 1973). That tale concerns a
faster-than-light communicator (a "Dirac transmitter,'' which he used in later
fiction). It works fine, except that the engineers can't eliminate a beep at the
end of each message. It turns out that, stretched out, that beep contains all
messages from all future times—because, as Blish knew, anything which travels
faster than light can be used to send messages backward in time.
Demonstrating this demands space-time
diagrams and a fair amount of physics. You can see it qualitatively by noting
that a tachyon covers more space than time in its trajectory, so in a sense it
has a net debit in its favor—"time to burn.'' Several physicists had confronted
directly a problem Gerry left for others—the familiar grandfather's paradox.
Most physicists believed then (and
still do) that this paradox rules out tachyons or any other such
backward-in-time trick. Some tried to maintain that tachyons could still exist;
as Richard Feynman pointed out, a particle traveling backward in time can be
redefined as its own antiparticle (made of anti-matter) moving forward in time.
This "reinterpretation principle'' would set everything right: apparently
anti-causal events would merely be reinterpreted by other observers as perfectly
This seemed to me a bold finesse from
an empty hand. When this ploy appeared in the scientific literature I discussed
it with two friends and we wrote a quick paper refuting it. Published in
Physical Review D in 1970 (p. 263) under the title "The Tachyonic
Anti-Telephone''—see, even in dry old Phys Rev you can have fun with
titles, if you try—it remains the only scientific paper I have written without a
single equation in it; the argument was logical, not really technical.
We argued that notions like cause and
effect could not be so easily made relative. The Feynman argument worked for one
particle but not if you used two or more. With a minimum of two, whoever sent a
signal could sign it, clearly establishing the origin.
We regarded the whole thing as rather
amusing, so we discussed an example in which Shakespeare sends his newest work
backward to Francis Bacon. At the time Bacon was a leading contender for the
"true'' Shakespeare among those who thought that a mere country boy could not
have penned such masterpieces. "If Shakespeare types out Hamlet on his tachyon
transmitter, Bacon receives the transmission at some earlier time. But no amount
of reinterpretation will make Bacon the author of Hamlet. It is Shakespeare, not
Bacon, who exercises control over the content of the message.''
He can simply sign it, after all.
Behind all the mathematics in the earlier papers lurked this simple, fatal idea.
Still, I rather liked tachyons. My two
coauthors were David Book and William Newcomb. Newcomb was the grandson of the
famous Simon Newcomb, an astronomer who wrote the infamous paper showing why
airplanes could not fly. When he happened to mention this over a beer, my alarm
bells went off. Was I signing onto a similar blinkered perspective, to be cited
with ridicule generations later?
So I mulled the matter over, with one eye cocked at the steady stream of papers
about time. Could tachyons actually exist? I was urged on by a report from
Australia in 1972 that two experimenters had observed a tachyon. Their particle
detectors, carried aloft in a balloon to catch cosmic rays, had found that a
single event occurred at about 2.5 times light speed. I read their paper with
astonishment. Dozens of papers followed, proposing theories for tachyons. Other
experimenters tried to duplicate the Australian results—and failed. In the
twenty years since, nobody has seen any such event, and statistically they
should have. The Australian data was probably wrong.
Still, I wondered how tachyons—which
Einstein's special theory of relativity clearly allowed—could fit into the world
as we knew it. I essayed an approach in a novelette in Epoch, an
anthology of the mid-1970s. Then over five years I wrote a novel, Timescape
(published 1980), exploring the simplest situation I could imagine—discovery of
tachyons, and the first attempts to probe their properties and use. Rather than
the convenient Wellsian traveler, I used scientists as I knew them, warts and
all, doing what they would—trying to use the new discovery to communicate
something they cared about.
But how to deal with the paradox? I had
always rather liked another theory which resolved the multiple-outcome property
of conventional quantum mechanics. This interpretation of quantum events
supposes that when a given particle, say, passes through a hole in a wall, it
can go in several directions. The wave-like property of matter says that the
same experiment, repeated many times, will give a pattern of impacts on a far
screen. The density of impacts corresponds to the probability that a single
particle would follow that trajectory and make that impression. But a single
particle's trajectory can't be predicted precisely—we can only get the
Enter a fresh view, due to Hugh Everett
of Princeton in the 1950s. Everett said that all the possible outcomes predicted
by the probability analysis of quantum mechanics are separately real. This means
that every time a particle passes through a hole, the entire universe splits
into many possible outcomes.
Envision separable worlds peeling off
from every microscopic event. In our world, the particle smacks into the wall
and that specific outcome defines our world forever more. Other worlds
simultaneously appear, with a slightly different impact point. Every event
generates great handfuls of other worlds—a cosmic plentitude of astronomical
extravagance. I've often wondered whether Everett was influenced by such SF
stories as Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time'' (1934). Certainly he influenced
later SF writers, including the Larry Niven of "All the Myriad Ways'' (1963).
The Everett view was fun to think
about, and logically defensible, but nobody really believed it. But I found it
handy. (Writers are magpies.) I said in my novel that the Everett interpretation
didn't really apply to every event. Instead, I reserved the Everett picture for
only those events which produced a causal paradox. If a physicist sent a tachyon
backward in time and it had no grandfather-killing effects, no problem. If it
did, though, then the universe split into as many versions as it took to cover
all the possibilities. So you could indeed send some grandfather-killing message
(or anything else that made a paradox), and grandfather would die. But not in
the universe you were doomed to inhabit. Instead, another universe would appear,
unknown to you, in which dear old grandfather died, alas, and you never happened
at all. No paradox, since the tachyon which killed gramps came from another
universe, from another you.
This seemed nifty enough to furnish a
solution to my novel, but I did not take it seriously enough to actually work up
a formal quantum field theory. I published the novel and was astonished at its
success. I thought it was quirky, somewhat self-indulgent and, in its
fascination with how it feels to do science, obviously destined for a small
audience. Yet this rather private novel has been my most successful. It has been
cited in several books about causal problems and some scientific papers. Quite
pleasant for a hard SF writer.
Meanwhile, the problem of time continued. Einstein's special relativity applies
to regions of space-time which are "flat'' in the sense that gravity is not
significant. Except for introducing the finite speed of light, the theory feels
Newtonian. George Bernard Shaw, in a tongue-in-cheek toast to Einstein, put it
Newton was able to combine a prodigious
mental faculty with the credulities and delusions that would disgrace a rabbit.
As an Englishman, he postulated a rectilinear universe because the English
always use the word ``square'' to denote honesty, truthfulness, in short:
Einstein's general theory stitches
together small regions of locally flat spacetime into a quilt of truly warped
structure. Powerfully curved spacetime plays hob with causality. One of
Einstein's close friends, Kurt Gödel, produced a model (from Einstein's field
theory) for a universe which spins so fast that time and space get radically
twisted. Zipping around such a universe can return you to the place and time of
your departure. The mathematics, coming from the famous author of Gödel's Proof
in mathematical logic, was impeccable.
Could this happen? Many hoped not. With a sign of relief they noted that there
is no evidence that our universe rotates. So Gödel's case simply doesn't apply
But then in the 1960s several theorists
showed that local rotation of stressed spacetime near black holes could do
similar tricks. Spin a black hole fast enough and the rotation offsets the
gravitational attraction, effectively stripping the guts of the hole bare. The
bowels of the beast are not pretty, with exotic zones such as negative spacetime.
From such regions a traveler could do as Wells' did, slipping backwards in time.
Worse, he might reach a naked singularity, where all physical things (mass,
density, gravitational attraction) became indefinitely large.
Mathematics cannot handle
singularities, so mathematicians would rather that they be decently clothed. No
one has been able to produce suitable garments except by the lo-and-behold
method. When I last discussed this with Stephen Hawking, in 1989, he admitted
that he suspected that we could merely invoke the clothing of singularities as a
rule, beyond proof.
Of course, he pointed out, to explain
why we don't see time travelers as everyday visitors, notice the requirements.
To make a reasonable time machine with a rotating black hole would take just
about the mass of a small galaxy. Generally, time travel seemed to require vast
public works projects.
Since then there have been other ideas,
such as making quantum "wormholes'' stable and large—all quite large orders. So
we now have several ideas of how to make such a machine, though we can't afford
one right now.
But why should this matter? If a time
machine is ever built, in principle we should be receiving visitors now. Yet we
haven't seen any. Why?
An adroit answer provided by Larry
Niven supposes that there is nothing at all illogical about time travel, but we
must remember that causality still works going forward in time. Every
paradox-producing message or traveler sent back will change the conditions back
at the origin of the time machine.* Remember Ray
Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder'' (1952), in which a dinosaur-hunting expedition
bagged its quarry, but accidentally trampled a butterfly with a boot—a striking
image. They returned to find the politics and language of their era had shifted.
Imagine that people keep using such a
time machine until an equilibrium sets in between past changes and future
reactions. The simplest steady-state in which no changes occur is one in which
no time machine exists any longer. Events conspire—say, science falls forever
into disfavor, or humanity dies out—to make the time machine erase itself.
This "Niven's Law'' follows directly
from a basic picture from wave mechanics. Suppose time signals behave like
waves. Looping into the past and back to the future, a wave can interfere with
itself. Picture ocean waves intersecting, making chop and froth as they cancel
here, reinforce there.
Quantum mechanically, even particles
can act like waves, so it makes sense to speak of time loops as channels for the
propagation of waves of probability. The wave amplitude gives the probability
that a particle will exist. A loop which brings a wave back to exactly cancel
itself means that the entire process cannot occur—probability zero at the very
beginning, where the trip starts.
This picture actually comes from the history of quantum mechanics. One can
predict the energy levels of hydrogen by thinking of its electron as a wave
propagating around a circle, its orbit about the nucleus. Only certain
wavelengths of the wave will fit on the orbital circumference. This quantizing
condition yields the values of energy the electron must have.
Several scientific papers have explored
this interest in quantum effects as the key to time travel—a welcome change from
the gargantuan gravity machines I've already mentioned. In Timescape I tried to
finesse the paradoxes by combining special relativity (tachyons) and quantum
mechanics. Then the fashion in time machines had shifted to general relativity
(Frank Tipler's rotating cylinders, as used by Poul Anderson in The Avatar
), and then to quantum mechanics (wormholes). What about uniting general
relativity and quantum mechanics—a much harder job.
Imagine my surprise when in November of
1992 I came upon a paper in Physical Review D, where our old tachyon
paper had appeared. Titled somewhat forbiddingly `"Quantum Mechanics Near Closed
Timelike Lines,'' it constructs a theory for effects in highly curved space-time
which contains causal loops—"closed timelike lines,'' in the jargon. It was
written by David Deutsch, who has been studying these matters for a decade at
Oxford (not Cambridge, the site of the experiments in Timescape).
"Contrary to what has usually been
assumed,'' Deutsch says, ``there is no reason in what we know of fundamental
physics why closed timelike lines should not exist.'' In twenty pages of quantum
logic calculations, he shows that no obstacle to free will or even grandfather
murder really exists.
It's all done with the Everett
interpretation. In quantum cosmology there is no single history of space-time.
Instead, all possible histories happen simultaneously. For the vast
preponderance of cases, this doesn't matter—the ontological bloat of an
infinitude of worlds has no observable consequences. It's just a way of talking
about quantum mechanics.
Not so for time machines. Then a
quantum description requires a set of `"classical'' (ordinary) space-times which
are similar to each other—except in the important history of the paradox-loop.
The causal loop links all the multiple histories.
Think of unending sheets stacked on end
and next to each other, like the pages in this magazine. Timelines flow up them.
A causal loop snakes through these sheets, so the parallel universes become one.
If the grandson goes back in time, he crosses to another time-sheet. There he
shoots granddad, and lives thereafter in that universe. His granddad lived as
before and had grandchildren, one of whom disappears, period.
Quantum mechanics always furnishes as
many linked universes as there would be conflicting outcomes; it's quite
economical. In this view, "it is only ever an approximation to speak of things
happening 'in a universe'. In reality the 'universes' form part of a larger
object...which, according to quantum theory, is the real arena in which things
happen.'' Cosmic stuff, indeed.
Just now, writing this three months
after Deutsch's paper appeared, I opened Timescape and tracked down my
old thinking. "When a loop was set up, the universe split into two new
universes.... The grandson reappeared in a second universe, having traveled back
in time, where he shot his grandfather and lived out his life, passing through
the years which were forever altered by his act. No one in either universe
thought the world was paradoxical.''
I framed my fictional theory this way
because it seemed at least a plausible escape hatch from the genuine problems of
time machines, using quantum logic. But my deeper motivation was to capture the
eerie sense of having altered the past, the age-old dream . . . but for someone
If you know this, then such an act is
the ultimate altruism: you cannot then benefit in any way from usefully
adjusting the past (or suffer, either). Someone exactly like you does benefit
(yes, a twin; and I wonder how much my being an identical twin has led to my
interest in these ideas)—but you will never see him, and cannot know this except
in theory. Most of all, I was struck in writing the closing pages of the novel
with that glimpse of vistas unknown, whole universes beyond our grasp, times
untouched. To me that is the essential SF impulse. Much critical attention paid
the book (such as Susan Stone-Blackburn's, who contributed a critical summary to
the new Bantam edition of the novel) lauds its characterization, perhaps because
the scientific content and metaphors are less obvious and not traditional.
To me, though, beyond the book's puzzles and plots lurks its central driver: a
sense of unchanging immensity, the timescape glimpsed with the flitting
attention of a mortal being. This touches on the often-invoked emotions behind
much hard SF—awe and thinly veiled transcendence. They are the core passions of
Clarke and Stapledon.
In most of my writing I do try to
portray humans as they really are, because I am uncomfortably aware that real
science is done by people with dirt under their fingernails. In hard SF there is
an inevitable tension between conventional short-focus realism and the impact of
the larger landscape (humanity foregrounded against the universe) that is
central to hard SF's ideology and affect.
The usual hard SF protagonist is an
Everyman, who believes in reason and his/her ability to fathom the unknown. Hard
SF is not about ironic distance or individual failure, though that may play a
part in a particular hard SF work. Still less is it about the symptoms of
narrative exhaustion which some term post-modern—pastiche, borrowing, self-aware
recycling of genre materials, and the rearrangement of conceptual deck chairs on
a cultural Titanic. Titles like Mission of Gravity, Gateway, and
Childhood's End are about the great ol' up and out.
It was quite strange to read Deutsch's
neatly couched arguments in Physical Review D. There is a certain
wrenching sensation in having anticipated the qualitative aspects—not the
thickets of equations; Deutsch's quantum logic calculations I find quite
daunting—of a theory which seems to open the way to actual use of time machines,
if we should ever devise them.
Will we? Perhaps. But hard SF is not
about exactly predicting the future. It is about the beauty of a small,
reasoning reed, which can see past its own mortality and wonder at the vistas
beyond. Its essential drama lies in that huge leap of scale.
23 February 1993
Niven, "The Theory and Practice of Time Travel,'' All the Myriad Ways
(NY: Ballantine, 1971), 110-23.
Ruins: The Geopolitics of Urban Decay and Cybernetic Play1
For better or for worse, "cyberpunk'' no longer needs much introduction. Used as
commonly and casually as its cousins "cyborg'' and "postmodernism,''
"cyberpunk'' has become a widely accepted term for describing a specific kind of
cultural production found in music, film, and fiction in 1980s America.2
A fusion of high-tech and punk counterculture characterized by a self-conscious
stylistic and ideological rebelliousness, cyberpunk can perhaps best be defined
as a reinterpretation of human (and especially male) experience in a
media-dominated, information-saturated, post-industrial age. Debate now centers
less on what cyberpunk is than on what its value has been, with opinions ranging
from Istvan Csicsery-Ronay's sardonic criticism of cyberpunk as ``the vanguard
white male art of the age'' (267) to Veronica Hollinger's sympathetic reading of
cyberpunk as an exploration of post-humanist subjectivity.3
In spite of cyberpunk's dominance
within SF during the 1980s, the consensus among both SF writers and critics is
that cyberpunk as a movement is essentially over. Many of the central core of
cyberpunk authors, including William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John
Shirley, and Bruce Sterling, have turned to other projects. At the same time,
although cyberpunk is still being written here and there, it is difficult to
detect anything like a coherent group of second-generation cyberpunk writers.
Nevertheless, however passé it may be as a self-conscious literary movement,
cyberpunk continues to exert considerable influence on science-fiction writers,
though in diffuse and often contradictory ways.4 At one extreme,
cyberpunk has begun to function as an excluded "Other'' against which many
writers shape their fiction. Such is the case with such popular writers as Kim
Stanley Robinson, Sheri Tepper, Connie Willis, and Pat Murphy, who, consciously
or unconsciously, write against the grain of cyberpunk and in some cases
seemingly in direct opposition to it. At the other extreme stand writers like
George Alec Effinger, K.W. Jeter, Pat Cadigan, and Emma Bull, who persist in
finding the themes and images of cyberpunk vital imaginative terrain, however
clichéd, or downright repugnant, those themes and images may now appear to
While Effinger, Jeter, Cadigan, and
Bull, who admittedly are in the minority among current SF writers, might be
considered as representing no more than the last gasp of a dying sub-genre, it
seems suggestive that in their work the cyberpunk sensibility has found a
dynamic afterlife. Although no new movement with the same kind of shared vision
and unified goals has replaced cyberpunk, given the ever-growing fragmentation
of our postmodern world any such shared vision in SF, or in any other cultural
arena, is perhaps an out-dated possibility.5 Instead, cyberpunk now
seems to represent a storehouse of themes and images that are open to recycling
in works that are not, strictly speaking, cyberpunk. Just as punk music has
faded from the current music scene, but lingers on in modified form in
industrial dance music, so cyberpunk has been productively reappropriated by
recent science-fiction writing that is to all appearances not explicitly
classifiable as part of the genre of cyberpunk.
In light of this dispersion of
cyberpunk themes and images across the field of recent SF, I would like to look
again at one of the chief claims made about cyberpunk, especially by advocates
like Sterling. It is frequently argued that cyberpunk's most significant
contribution has been its development of a new dystopian realism that takes a
long, hard look at the near-future. As with so much of what is said about
cyberpunk, this claim both is and isn't true. Science-fiction writers have long
felt a social responsibility to imagine better futures, but as Andrew Ross
observes, "this sense of utopian responsibility was slowly eroded in the Cold
War period by the dominant dystopian and fatalistic visions of nuclear
annihilation'' (142). The New Wave movement of the 1960s and the work in the
1970s of writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Samuel
Delany, and Suzy McKee Charnas opened space for new kinds of critical utopian
writing, but the genre of (primarily feminist) utopian writing gradually
dissolved in the 1980s, in part under the pressure of its own self-criticism and
in part for political reasons (see, for example, Peter Fitting's discussion
["Decline'']. At the same time, SF's tradition of dystopian near-futures found
in the work of writers such as John Brunner, Philip Dick, Cyril Kornbluth, and
Frederik Pohl also began to lose oppositional power, and hence effectiveness as
a critique of the present, as images of a bleak, eco-dystopian future became, as
Ross puts it, "the 'official' look of the future in popular culture'' (144)
played out in the 1970s in innumerable films, television shows, and works of
fiction. This is the moment when cyberpunk enters. Inspired by punk culture's
anti-utopian "no-future'' look, cyberpunk saw itself as, among other things,
accurately depicting a realistic near-future earth. Rejecting what it viewed as
the out-dated and now rather quaint fascination of traditional science fiction
with aliens, outer space, and far-future millennia, cyberpunk claimed to present
us instead with a world that is recognizably our own, one that seems to be lying
in wait for us just around the corner. Cyberpunk, it was said, was not concerned
with utopian imaginings of a distant future. Nor (though this was said less
often) was cyberpunk particularly concerned with critiques of the present in the
guise of dystopian near-futures (as were Brunner et al.). Instead, cyberpunk
promised a long, cold look at the future soon to be upon us.6
One way cyberpunk has tried to stake
out its difference from its predecessors is by spurning nuclear annihilation as
a grounding device for its narrative representations of the future. In a recent
New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Get the Bomb Off my Back,'' Bruce
Sterling, echoing his earlier contention that one of the salient features of
cyberpunk is "its boredom with the Apocalypse'' (Introduction to Burning
Chrome xi), argues that SF writers in general are no longer preoccupied with
the notion of a nuclear holocaust. According to Sterling, cyberpunk in
particular has abandoned this long-familiar topos, seeking instead to come to
terms with a different, more realistic future. In spite of the obvious appeal of
Sterling's claim, with its promise of liberating us from one of the deepest
anxieties clouding our collective unconscious, the geopolitics of most cyberpunk
stories appear nearly as post-apocalyptic as the SF classics of the Cold War
era. Granted that the near-future cyberpunk postulates has come about through
technological developments (though surprisingly often with the help of nuclear
or natural agents such as an atomic war or an earthquake), the physical settings
of most cyberpunk stories nonetheless look strikingly like the setting of any
post-holocaust story: blighted, rubble-strewn, broken-down cityscapes; vast
terrains of decay, bleakness, and the detritus of civilization; and the nearly
complete absence of a benign or beautiful nature. This is a topography familiar
to us from innumerable 1980s tech-noir films like Robocop, Blade Runner,
Total Recall, or The Terminator, in which destitute urban landscapes
littered with abandoned factories, barbed wire fences, and burnt-out buildings
provide the ominous background against which the action takes place. Deny it
though Sterling might try, cyberpunk typically operates with the assumption that
some kind of catastrophe has occurred that has led to much the same kind of
eco-wasteland as did the bomb in earlier generations of SF stories. Cyberpunk,
in other words, seems to be just as dependent on the aesthetics of disaster as
was an earlier generation of SF stories.
There is a difference, however. The distinction—and this may be what Sterling is
aiming at—lies in cyberpunk's attitude towards both its apocalypses and their
outcomes. As Martha Bartter has pointed out, early post-holocaust science
fiction usually presented atomic war both "as obvious disaster and as secret
salvation'' (148) that performed an act of urban renewal by razing inhumane
cities and providing a place (albeit a hostile one) where select groups could
come together as communities and flourish. These stories tended to recreate
either the frontier or the village as the ideal human setting, finding in
preindustrial forms of social interaction appealing myths for resolving the
crises of twentieth-century urban industrialism. In either case, the external
world was cast as a hostile and threatening place, inimical to human survival,
but acting as a catalyst for social betterment.
Cyberpunk, in contrast, attaches zero
value to its apocalypses: they are neither good nor evil, they simply are
(or rather have been, since they invariably occur at some time before the
story opens). The destructive event, whether nuclear war or natural or man-made
disaster, that results in an altered landscape takes place out of sight at some
point before the narration begins and has little moral or epistemological
impact. The typical cyberpunk reaction to these off-stage cataclysms is in fact
profound indifference. In the quintessential cyberpunk novel, Gibson's
Neuromancer, for example, the Sprawl—a huge, sprawling, urban zone
that stretches down the eastern sea-board of the US—is in some unexplained way
the product of rampant urban growth that is set against the desolation of the
central and western regions of the United States, which have by some unexplained
means been turned into the howling wasteland that we see in Mona Lisa
Overdrive. All our attention is focused on the bustling Sprawl and diverted
away from both the wastelands and what might have caused them. In Gibson's work,
and in other cyberpunk stories, disaster is taken for granted; it is a kind of
white noise in the background, humming behind all the action.
Simultaneously with this neutralizing
of the apocalypse as a critical event in human history, cyberpunk transforms the
negative space of the external environment into a positive zone. Still ruined,
it is now converted into a site where interesting things happen and where humans
flourish, as the throbbing vitality of Gibson's Sprawl and Chiba City
demonstrate. The decayed urban zone provides cyberpunk with a playground where
outlaws and outsiders can seize the main chance, adapting and surviving in a
ruined cityscape, ultimately discovering an escape to the most important zone of
possibility—the new frontier of cyberspace.
In the remainder of this essay, I would
like to look at the way cyberpunk's geopolitics has been taken up by three
recent SF works—K.W. Jeter's Farewell Horizontal, Emma Bull's Bone
Dance, and Pat Cadigan's Synners. (Of the three, Synners fits
most easily under the rubric of cyberpunk, while the other two are instances of
the adoption of particular cyberpunk themes and images within stories that are
not themselves explicitly cyberpunk.) My method will be to read these three
novels against three post-holocaust stories in order to show not only how
cyberpunk and cyberpunk-inspired writings have been unable, despite Sterling's
manifesto, to break entirely with earlier representations of human action within
a post-apocalyptic environment, but also, and more importantly, how the decayed
yet vitalized cityscape of cyberpunk does differ from the physical worlds
of post-holocaust SF. At the end of the essay, I will briefly consider some of
the implications of the dispersion of this particular feature of cyberpunk—its
geopolitics— across other fictional and cultural fields.
In traditional post-holocaust stories
such as Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959), Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A
Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), or even Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker
(1980), the nuclear landscape always seems filled with a sense of radical
emergency. Paranoia, mutants, xenophobia, fear of the disappearance or mutation
of the body (and the consequent disintegration of the self), and despair about
the hopelessness of post-atomic rubble mark these stories, even when they
celebrate human ingenuity.7 As Jeff Porter has suggested, these
stories often find themselves ``limited to narrow choices between dispossession
and revival,'' between fatalism and survivalism. Whichever path they take,
traditional post-apocalyptic narratives play out their human struggles within a
hostile and alienating ecology, an ecology that to a large extent defines their
Alas, Babylon, set in central Florida, chronicles the efforts of a small band of
survivors under the leadership of Randy Bragg, a former liberal lawyer, to build
a self-sufficient community out of the ruins of civilization produced by a
nuclear war that is taking place as the story is being told. Frank's narrative
is a striking example of nuclear disaster viewed as urban renewal and of human
survival as a kind of social Darwinism. Nuclear disaster is seen in the novel as
a neo-Deluge, a quasi-natural event, that wipes the earth clean of the effects
of human civilization. As one of the characters remarks:
Nature is proving Darwin's law of natural
selection. The defective bee, unable to cope with its environment, is rejected
by nature before birth. I think this will be true of man. It is said that nature
is cruel. I don't think so. Nature is just, and even merciful. By natural
selection, nature will attempt to undo what man has done. (§9:194)
Frank wastes little time describing the
destruction that is occurring as a result of the nuclear war, concentrating
instead on the efforts of Bragg's valiant band to rebuild a community. Though
horrifying desolation surrounds them and all of the major cities of Florida have
been destroyed, the suggestively named Fort Repose remains isolated from the
atomic debris, a safe haven of pastoralism in the midst of ``the end of
civilization as we know it'' (§5:109). Though word comes through on the radio
that ``Washington has been atomized'' (§6:127), this is of little concern to the
residents of Fort Repose who are more worried about how to cope with the loss of
electricity, clean drinking water, and other comforts of middle-class existence.
In fact, the obliteration of cities everywhere is seen less as a disaster than
as a chance to start over, to make a new and better beginning. The librarian at
Fort Repose muses that ``it was strange...that it should require a holocaust to
make her own life worth living'' (§8:167). In Frank's story, the environment is
divided into two distinct spaces: the bombed or contaminated zones of former
cities and the unscathed rural and suburban outposts. In the former, humans have
been wiped out, seemingly with good riddance; in the latter, they have been
handed the opportunity to build new and better lives based on what are seen in
the novel as simpler, more natural values. Crucially, however, outposts such as
Fort Repose can only be imagined against the background of widespread
destruction, against a landscape inhospitable to humans, against a holocaust
that burns a clean space for the rebuilding of a better humanity (seen in
Alas, Babylon as a kind of idealized, middle-class, suburban lifestyle).
A Canticle for Leibowitz
inhabits the space left unexamined by Frank, the blasted nuclear landscape
hostile to human life. In Miller's story no pastoral pockets of humanity escape
unscathed and equipped to refashion a purer version of suburban life. Miller's
story opens in a wind-swept desert, over which lone pilgrims (like Brother
Francis) wander avoiding robbers, howling wolves, and scattered populations of
monsters. Shimmering noon-day heat beats down on once great highways now reduced
to mere tracks through the desert. Mounds of rubble mark the sites of former
buildings from which stones have been plundered to build new habitations (such
as the abbey). Brother Francis' discovery of a Fallout Shelter in which he finds
the Memorabilia demonstrates the novel's typical attitude toward the ruins: "The
ruins above ground had been reduced to archaeological ambiguity by generations
of scavengers, but this underground ruin had been touched by no hand but the
hand of impersonal disaster. The place seemed haunted by the presences of
another age'' (§2:29). In the midst of a harsh, blasted landscape, the ruins of
former cities take on a mystical feel, infused with the breath of a lost
civilization that Brother Francis and the other surviving monks devote their
lives to resurrecting and rebuilding, trying to discover in the remnants and
rubble of the past answers for the future.
The environment is full of brooding
evil, threatening human endurance on every side. Survivors huddle together in
scattered enclaves where their existence is marked by perpetual labor and the
struggle for survival. The desert is vast and ominous; the remnants of humanity
must struggle mightily to survive. Tellingly, the search for knowledge that
ultimately succeeds in Miller's book results in another holocaust, millions of
corpses, and "new ruins'' (§29:318). In Canticle, the quest to rebuild
human civilization ultimately fails and there is, finally, no escape from the
hostile environment except to leave earth for an alien planet, as some of the
survivors do in the end. Terra, the natural habitat of humankind, proves by
humankind's own doing permanently inhospitalis.
In Riddley Walker, a powerfully
complex and richly imagined post-holocaust story, the feel of the setting is
remarkably similar to that of Canticle, though we are now in rainy England
rather than the arid southwest USA. Killer dogs roam in packs, green rot grows
on the rubble of former civilizations, Riddley's people dig for old iron at
Widders Dump and talk about lost cleverness, boats in the air, and pictures on
the wind. In Hoban's novel, a hunting-gathering culture living in shelters made
of "baskit and gunge with a thatch roof'' (§12:101) clings to half-forgotten,
garbled remnants of a pre-holocaust world and searches for both a language and a
meaning lost with the bomb's blast in the Bad Time. The bomb's aftershocks have
included the destruction of most of the artifacts of civilization and the death
of most people. In Riddley's words: "Every 1 knows about Bad Time and what come
after. Bad Time 1st and bad times after. Not many come thru it a live'' (§1:2).
This post-bomb world is a ruined, more
primitive than pastoral, scene that has been literally bombed back to the dark
ages. People shelter in woods and small enclaves as best they can, foraging for
food. The continual rain is the dominant symbol of a hostile nature, as Riddley
makes clear: "Raining agen it wer nex morning. Theres rains and rains. This 1
wer coming down in a way as took the hart and hoap out of you'' (§11:71).
Riddley's quest, his journey to Canterbury in search of answers, "connexions,''
and the "Littl Shyning Man,'' takes him through broken buildings and broken
machines littering the countryside, but leads him to no real answers and no real
knowledge. He remains alienated from his surroundings, which offer him no help
in his quest but rather threaten him at every turn with physical danger and,
just as importantly, inescapably depressing bleakness. Hoban envisions a
post-apocalyptic landscape in which any rebuilding of civilization seems an
impossibility and in which the best humans can do is endure.
I hope my all too brief discussion of
these three novels gives some sense of the range and variety of post-holocaust
SF, as well as a feel for their standard geopolitics. In these stories, the
physical world, destroyed by the atomic bomb's blast, is hostile and forbidding,
a no-man's land where humans must struggle to survive, but where struggle can be
a purifying experience. The physical world here is unfriendly, unyielding, and
unforgiving. Most of all, as the product of humanity's vile and destructive
behavior, the physical world must be battled against in the re-building of a
better society; it is no partner in the reconstruction of civilization, however
much it may provide the impetus for such reconstruction.
In contrast the typical cyberpunk or
cyberpunk-inspired setting, though resembling the blasted landscapes of
post-holocaust stories, has a rather different feel. Cyberpunk rewrites the
typical post-holocaust narrative movement from pessimism to optimism back to
pessimism so compellingly played out in Canticle—the assumption that the
worst will happen, linked to belief that good can come of it, followed by fear
(or certainty) that the worst will happen again. In cyberpunk angst and
ambivalence are replaced by acceptance of the ruined state of the landscape;
destruction of the natural environment and decay of the urban zone are givens
that are not lamented but rather accepted. There is no reflection on the past
that caused the apocalypse and little on the future that lies beyond it. More
importantly, the cliché of a pre-technological future nostalgically modelled on
an idealized version of the past is foreign to cyberpunk, which inhabits not an
anti- but a resolutely and genuinely post-industrial future.
Farewell Horizontal (1989) is K.
W. Jeter's most obviously mainstream SF novel, yet, crucially, it is infused by
a cyberpunk-inspired treatment of setting. Ny Axxter, a free-lance graffix
artist who implants biofoil ikons into the chests of Neanderthalish gang
members, leaves the safety of life "on the horizontal'' to attempt life "on the
vertical'' on the outside of Cylinder, a building that constitutes his known
world. Inside Cylinder live the horizontal dwellers, the factory drudges and the
privileged, wealthy few. Outside live the outlaws, the freelancers, the warrior
gangs such as the Havoc Mass and the Grievous Amalgam. Outside, on the vertical,
people ride motorcycles across cable networks and wear microchip implants that
let them plug into dimples in Cylinder's surface, tapping into the computerized
economic and information net, Ask & Receive.
The milieu Jeter imagines here, the
physical world represented in its entirety by Cylinder, would at first glance
seem far removed from cyberpunk's deteriorated near-future urban environment. We
learn that at some indefinite time in the past, some sort of nuclear holocaust
took place that resulted in the sealing off of certain sectors of Cylinder and,
we can imagine, in the isolation of those humans who now live in or on Cylinder.
There is nothing beyond, beneath, or above Cylinder except air and clouds, and
no speculation, until the very end of the novel, by any of the characters, about
what lies beyond Cylinder. In the post-war world of Jeter's novel, what an
architect would call the "built-environment'' swallows up the whole terrain.
There is no natural world, no habitat, no living space beyond Cylinder except
for the clouds, the air, freefall, the zone of the gas angels—there are no
trees, no mountains, no oceans, not even any cities, only the building, which
becomes in its solitude the quintessential representation of urban and rural
life simultaneously, an entire city (or even nation) on and within one
Life on Cylinder is divided into two
distinct locales. For the outsiders sleeping in slings and tents lashed to the
wall, riding their motorcycles up and down the wall, life is dangerous:
"Vertical was tough. Anybody could fall off the wall. One way or another; either
the big step, right down into the cloud barrier below, or...back the other way,
inwall to the horizontal'' (§1: 24). Yet, life on the outside is preferable to
life on the horizontal, which is viewed as unending subjugation of the
individual mind and body to the demands of machines and production. As Axxter
Sleeping next to some plastics extrusion
machine for four hours...and then punching out widgets for the next twenty, over
and over, until there was nothing left in your head except the platonic ideal of
a widget. You might as well be a widget then; the transformation into object
would be complete. (§8:125)
To live on the inside is to give up on
being fully human. To live on the inside is to participate in a blue-collar
version of the kind of mindless, conformist existence lived by Gibson's
sararimen, who are, like Jeter's "widgets,'' mere cogs in the corporate
In spite of its dangers, the outside of
Cylinder is, like Gibson's Night City, an outlaw zone of possibilities for those
who dare to live there, and especially for those who probe and question the
forces that control it. Similarly, as in Neuromancer, or better yet, in
Count Zero where Bobby begins his adventures and his transformation into
a console cowboy by venturing outside of his narrowly circumscribed and
blinkered life in a vast high-rise housing project and exploring the subversive
activities and hidden life taking place all around him, not to interrogate the
environment is seen as a failure of the imagination and of adaptation. As one
character complains to Axxter, trying to urge him to take risks and explore his
environment: "'Like this building, cylinder itself.... You live in it, or on it,
but you never think about it. It's obviously constructed, a thing put together,
but you never wonder why, or by whom''' (§14:205).
In Farewell Horizonal, as in the more explicitly cyberpunk stories of
Shirley, Rucker, Gibson, and Sterling, the people who live on the margins,
independently, by their wits and in defiance of official forces, are seen as
living up to their fullest potential. With the help of the gas angels, who float
freely around Cylinder buoyed by large gas-filled sacs on their backs, Axxter in
the end exposes a conspiracy involving the warrior gangs in cahoots with both
the media-information service and the corporate powers. In a scenario familiar
to us from countless cyberpunk stories, the underdog ultimately triumphs, finds
meaning for his own life, and undermines the power of repressive and malevolent
authorities. For Jeter, there is nothing alienating or hostile about the
environment except when humans unthinkingly surrender themselves to it, trading
their freedom for security. Even though Cylinder, as the totality of the
landscape in Farewell Horizontal, seems at first glance far removed from
cyberpunk's decayed urban landscapes, in the end it amounts to much the same
thing. Axxter's final plunge off of Cylinder into the clouds at the close of the
novel can be read as penetration into cyberpunk's ultimate zone of
possibility—the non-corporeal reality of cyberspace. In this sense, Cylinder
functions as a pared-down, stylized, abstract, and even symbolic version of
cyberpunk's typical urban ruins. Cylinder may not look the same as Gibson's
Sprawl, but it feels the same.
The setting of Emma Bull's Bone
Dance (1991), though different in many ways and drawing more obviously on
the cyberpunk model, represents a similar kind of ruined cityscape full of
potential. Located in a Louisiana town vaguely resembling Hong Kong, the City is
a collage of gleaming highrises for the rich and powerful; streets teeming with
bicycle cabs, food hawkers, junk stalls, and grill carts; and stately abandoned
buildings where the marginalized such as the protagonist Sparrow live.
Importantly, Bull's landscape, like Jeter's, is not particularly threatening,
but rather replete with opportunities for those who know how to move through it,
find hidden resources, and adapt to its conditions. Bull's description of where
Sparrow lives offers a glimpse of this emphasis on clever adaptation and
Home was a corner of the seventh floor....
The back stairs were nearly rotted away.... The lobby elevator was ruined.... I
was the only tenant above the third floor, because I was the only one who knew
where the service elevator was, and that it worked. (§2.1:52)
Tapping into stolen electricity, living
a hidden life out of the eye of the authorities, Sparrow carries on his/her
business. Significantly, Sparrow and others like him/her live an expansive, not
a constricted, existence that is enabled, not hindered, by the ruined cityscape.
In Bull's story, as in Farewell Horizontal, the protagonists are free
from restraints, go wherever they wish to go, cross forbidden zones, and through
their ability to live on the fringes finally possess more power than the
In Bone Dance, as in many
cyberpunk stories, physical space is, however, ultimately less important than
mental space. Like the cyberspace of Gibson's works or Sterling's "net,'' this
mental space counters, and represents an evasion of, the ruined physical world.
Sparrow, we learn, is a cheval, a neutered human deliberately constructed to
survive the war that has taken place before the novel opens and provide a bodily
shell for Voodoo Horsemen to inhabit. At the end of the story, in a mental
battle of two minds within one body that privileges interior mental space over
exterior physical environment, s/he must fight off a Horseman who wishes to
possess the body Sparrow now inhabits. In this mental battle it is made
abundantly clear that whatever impact the external environment has on human
life, it pales in comparison with the significance of interior space. Mind
matters much more than body here.
Like Bone Dance, Pat Cadigan's
Synners (1991) is a post-paranoia novel that plays with the disappearance
of the body, derives pleasure from debris, and goes even farther in making
interior space more central than exterior space, perhaps not surprisingly given
that it is securely within the genre of cyberpunk. Most cyberpunk stories invest
urgency in virtual reality—whether in cyberspace or, in the case of Cadigan's
novel, the net. Through this emphasis on virtual reality, the sense of emergency
associated with traditional holocaust science fiction's quest for survival in a
hostile environment is exorcised in the creation of a new, more important,
interior space. Typically, the attitude towards external reality is nonchalant,
off-hand, accepting. This nonchalance comes across vividly in Synners in
Cadigan's description of the Mimosa, the Manhattan-Hermosa strip that was
part of the old postquake land of the
lost. [Gina] wasn't old enough to remember the Big One.... The kids who shanked
it on the Mimosa didn't remember the quake, either. For all they knew, the old
Manhattan Pier and Hermosa Pier and Fisherman's Wharf had always stretched out
over dry sand, just to shelter the space cases who squatted under them. (§2:7)
Once again, some sort of holocaust has
wrecked buildings, homes, and various urban structures, but once again all the
destruction seems unimportant. There is no longing here for a pre-holocaust
landscape, but rather acceptance of the present situation. There is no sense
that the present debris is blighted, but rather that it has a function, serving
as a usable and hospitable habitat for those who can adjust to it and modify it
to their needs.
Stealing data, working for the
media-conglomerate Diversifications making videos, tapping into the traffic and
information net, Gridlid, Gabe, Sam, Virtual Mark, and Gina typify the
characters who can succeed on the fringes, a part of the electronic and social
underground. Just as compelling, however, are the computer simulations like Art
Fish, who along with a dematerialized Virtual Mark ultimately takes over the
net, and Gabe's interactive virtual-reality creations, Marly and Caritha, with
whom he has exciting virtual adventures. External reality matters less and less
as the net and virtual reality become more real. As one character says, "'We're
not in our natural habitat anymore. We've become denizens of the net'''
(§32:386). Physical space gives way to virtual space, dissolving the body into
the realm of data. In Cadigan's novel, the embodied and the disembodied, the
synthesized humans, the simulated humans, and the human humans, all ultimately
become equivalent. Crucially, this meshing of humans and computer simulations in
cyberspace affords an alternative way of envisioning human response to a
post-apocalyptic environment and represents the logical conclusion of
cyberpunk's treatment of urban ruins.
In these stories that adopt the
geopolitics of cyberpunk, we encounter what are essentially nuclear landscapes
without the crisis (the struggle for survival) and the climax (the bomb).
Indeed, crisis and climax are largely irrelevant to cyberpunk (an irony given
that 1980s Reaganite America saw the resurgence of the most intense moments
between the Soviet Union and the US since the Cuban missile crisis). Instead, in
Pynchonesque fashion, cyberpunk regards the zone, the decayed cityscape, as a
place of possibilities, a carnivalesque realm where anything goes and where
there are no rules, only boundaries that can be easily transgressed. Stripped of
the modernist ethical values that dominated Cold War SF, cyberpunk and the
recent SF that takes up its stance have wholeheartedly endorsed Baudrillard's
observation that "the triumph of simulation is as fascinating as catastrophe'' (Fatal
Strategies 74). Whereas in earlier science fiction humans had, with few
exceptions, to journey to outer space to find such a zone of possibility, in
cyberpunk this zone is here, in the cyberspace of the data net and the human
mind, and entry into that zone is encouraged, not hampered, by a milieu of urban
In other words, while in earlier
post-holocaust stories the ruined landscape was a sign of alienation, a locale
inhospitable to humans that had to be fought against in order to accomplish
anything good, in the cyberpunk sensibility the landscape and the alienation are
converted into positive values. Part of the cyberpunk story is in fact about
becoming at home with alienation, staged in a landscape of decay. The typical
protagonists of the cyberpunk world are quintessentially alienated individuals,
but their alienation is refigured as positive since they are alienated against a
banal, corrupt, and homogenizing post-industrial society; correspondingly, the
physical milieu they inhabit, wrecked though it is, offers them a playground of
creative possibilities. Indeed, these protagonists could agree with Baudrillard
that "We are no longer in the drama of alienation, we are in the ecstasy of
communication'' (Fatal Strategies 67). In cyberpunk and in many of the
stories that pirate its themes and images we see an exuberant playing out of
this shift from alienation to ecstasy. Faced with "a world completely rotten
with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene,
poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence'' (America
23), which is how Baudrillard describes contemporary America, the cyberpunk
sensibility has reacted with acceptance—and even excitement— rather than
Another way of viewing the
cyberpunk-inspired attitude towards blighted landscapes and its privileging of
virtual space is as a response to what the architectural critic Kenneth Frampton
describes as our contemporary urban "Megalopolitan development—the freestanding
high-rise and the serpentine freeway.... a bürolandschaft cityscape: the
victory of universal civilization over locally inflected culture'' (17. While
Frampton would propose ways of reshaping the "universal placelessness'' (24) of
the alienating cityscapes we have inherited as a result of modernist
architectural practices, uncontrolled population growth, ecological
despoliation, and the rampant spread of capital and technology, cyberpunk takes
another route. Embracing the seemingly alienating environs of late
twentieth-century urban life, cyberpunk finds in them resources that lead,
crucially, to the new space of virtual reality.
An acceptance of the decay of the
physical world—especially the urban environment—seen not as a frightening
specter but simply as home, the place where we live (Cylinder, the City, the
Mimosa), coupled with a fascination with simulated, interior space—the world of
cyberspace or virtual reality—may be one of the enduring themes of cyberpunk. It
is this at-homeness in urban ruin as well as this privileging of imagined over
real space that marks cyberpunk as different from earlier generations of science
fiction, rather than, as Sterling claims, simply the refusal to employ such
topoi of traditional SF as the nuclear holocaust.
How should we then react to the
tendency of recent SF stories such as these to adopt a cyberpunk-like
geopolitics? One response might well be to deplore this tendency, since from one
perspective cyberpunk's attitude towards the external world can seem
distressingly apolitical and apathetic, representing in fact a typical 1980s
evasion of responsibility (this has been argued, for example, by critics like
Ross and Fitting ["Lessons'']). In this view, cyberpunk can be blamed for
accepting the worst ecological trends of our present life as the status quo and
passively acquiescing to continued environmental destruction. Cyberspace, in
this view, is projected as a fantasy realm of rebellious escape that derives its
glamour from its contrast with the decadently decayed physical world around it.
SF that takes up the cyberpunk attitude towards decay would be, of course,
equally implicated in these escapist fantasies. As Ross puts it: "the cybernetic
countercultures of the nineties are already being formed around the folklore
of technology—mythical feats of survivalism and resistance in a data-rich
world of virtual environments and posthuman bodies'' (88). Cyberpunk's
complacency towards eco-disaster can be seen as a pessimistic assessment of
where we are headed coupled with an optimism about continued human survival: the
physical environment may be blasted, cyberpunk says, but that doesn't really
matter since we can always escape into cyberspace. In this reading, cyberpunk
offers an eerie echo of earlier post-holocaust stories with their survivalist
mentality and their search for a new frontier.
It is possible, however, to see the
geopolitics of cyberpunk in a more positive light and in a way that accentuates
its difference from earlier post-holocaust stories without denying what it
shares with them. A useful way of formulating this difference is as part of a
larger cultural shift from modernism to postmodernism. As Brian McHale argues in
his Postmodernist Fiction, one of the ways in which postmodernism differs
from modernism is in its replacement of the modernist preoccupation with
questions of epistemology with a new ontological imperative. Cyberpunk's
geopolitics corresponds well with the ontological imperative at work in
postmodern fiction, especially fiction inspired by Thomas Pynchon. In
Gravity's Rainbow, for example, the collapse of the Third Reich is set in an
occupied Germany that, as McHale describes it, sounds very like the zones of
Neuromancer: "former national boundaries have been obliterated, the armies
of victorious Allies are jockeying for position, entire displaced nations are on
the move, spies, black-marketeers, and free-lance adventurers dodge back and
forth across the ruined landscape'' (45). For McHale, what it interesting about
this description is not its historical accuracy, but rather the way the collapse
of regimes and national boundaries'' becomes "the outward and visible sign of
the collapse of ontological boundaries'' (45); Pynchon's zone becomes for McHale
paradigmatic of "the heterotopian space of postmodernist writing'' (45). From
this perspective, cyberpunk's zones can be similarly seen as having primarily an
Although cyberpunk has internalized the
idea of nuclear war, perhaps as we all have, it has turned nuclear war's most
familiar metaphor—the wasteland—not into a pretext for a searching scrutiny into
the formative features of our culture, but into a new strategy for pursuing
unfamiliar post-industrial modes of being. In the eighties, environmental
disasters like acid rain, Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, Bhopal, global warming,
Love Canal, ozone depletion, and so on, confronted the public with images of the
future in slow decay, images that not surprisingly found themselves linked in
the popular imagination to fears of nuclear annihilation. Both sets of images
led to the same future—one of diminishing possibilities or of outright
obliteration. The position of human beings in this future was one of
displacement— crowds hurrying from sites of disaster and lone survivors
wandering in the wilderness. Cyberpunk's genius was to put a new slant on these
scenes of displacement, ordinarily a condition of oppression or alienation, but
now reformulated as the breeding ground for a new mode of being. For cyberpunk,
displacement is not a form of alienation as it is in Cold War SF or in most
modernist fiction in general, but a strategic move toward a new ontology of
computer domains, a state of being defined by the weightlessness of data and the
disembodiment of digital nonspace. Willed, voluntary displacement into a ruined
urban cityscape of the kind found in cyberpunk, rather than flight from ruin,
helps prepare the way for an ontology of digitally defined realities.
Cyberpunk proposes, then, a
relationship between the pleasure of debris and the disappearance of the body.
Ruined cities become a metaphor for the disintegration of the body as well as a
way of valuing cyberspace, which is, after all, an escape from the constraints
of the physical world. Internalizing nuclear war, as Baudrillard often says, is
part of the transition to post-industrial, cybernetic disembodiment. The ruined
city is for this reason the appropriate place to leave the body behind;
operating as a kind of cemetery space, the urban ruins of cyberpunk signify a
transfer of interest from physical exterior to electronic interior. Inhabiting a
ruined environment becomes an objective correlative to entering a disembodied
Although it must be admitted that
cyberpunk's complacency about eco-disaster remains troubling, as does its
refusal to use its dystopian near-futures as a way of critiquing the present,
that is not the whole story. The continued appeal of cyberpunk's geopolitics—and
its value—lies precisely in cyberpunk's attempt to use the physical world as a
metaphorical bridge to emerging technologies and the post-industrial world in
which they participate. Though SF may eventually be able to move "beyond the
ruins'' once those new technologies are fully with us, for the present, still
exploratory moment, cyberpunk's destroyed yet vital cityscapes provide a useful
way of mapping what lies in store.
1. This article is a revised version of "Beyond the Ruins: Urban Decay and
Cybernetic Play,'' a paper delivered at the March 1992 meeting of the
International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts held in Ft.
2. For a useful, often overlooked, survey of cyberpunk in popular culture,
particularly in music, see Mark Dery's "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Cybers''
and "Cyberpunk: Musical Visions of a Frightening Future,'' both published in
3. Within recent SF criticism, the trend is towards less sympathetic readings of
cyberpunk, such as, for example, Nicola Nixon's "Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground
for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?'' in which she argues that
cyberpunk is "in the end, not radical at all,'' but rather with its "slickness
and apparent subversiveness conceal[s] a complicity with 1980s conservatism''
4. It is worth noting that cyberpunk continues to capture the interest of
critics as well, in equally diffuse and contradictory ways, with the term
"cyberpunk'' turning up not just in SF studies but in film criticism, studies of
science and technology, and cultural studies in general. Critics tend to fall
into one of two camps: those who see cyberpunk as a conservative, even
reactionary movement spawned by the Reaganite 1980s, and those who see it as a
ground-breaking investigation of new technologies and their impact on human
identities and behaviors. Samuel Delany's question in the title of a recent
essay—"Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?''—seems to be the driving force
behind much recent criticism of cyberpunk.
5. It is also debatable to what extent the original cyberpunk writers
constituted a coherent movement. Gibson for years has insisted that "cyberpunk''
is a mislabeling that lumps together some very different writers, and Darko
Suvin may be correct in seeing cyberpunk more as a marketing tool used by "a
couple of expert PRmen (most prominently Sterling himself)'' (50). Still, enough
shared features exist for critics to have little difficulty talking meaningfully
about cyberpunk as a distinctive sub-genre of SF.
6. Despite cyberpunk's claims, it seems most accurate to say that cyberpunk
differs from both its utopian- and dystopian-minded predecessors in imagining a
new dystopian realism essentially empty of cultural critique. Hence, cyberpunk's
claim for the newness of its imagined future is for this reason only partially
accurate-cyberpunk does take a dystopian look at the near-future, but that look
is less long and hard (and critical) than it usually admits.
7. For the full range of the different types of post-holocaust SF, which lack of
space forces me to gloss over, see Paul Brians' detailed survey of the depiction
of nuclear war in science fiction between 1945 and 1959. Brians finds most of
these post-WWII attempts to deal with the reality of the bomb "neither
scientifically accurate nor artistically satisfying'' (253).
Bartter, Martha A. "Nuclear Holocaust as Urban Renewal.'' SFS 13:148-58,
#39, July 1986.
Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. London & NY: Verso,
—————. Fatal Strategies. Ed. Jim Fleming. Trans. Philip Beitchman. NY:
Brians, Paul. "Nuclear War in Science Fiction, 1945-59.'' SFS 11:253-63,
#34, November 1984.
Bull, Emma. Bone Dance. NY: Ace, 1991.
Cadigan, Pat. Synners. NY: Bantam, 1991.
Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. "Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism.'' Mississippi
Review 16: 266-78, 1988.
Delany, Samuel. "Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?'' Mississippi
Review 16:28-35, 1988.
Dery, Mark. "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Cybers.'' Keyboard January
—————. "Cyberpunk: Musical Visions of a Frightening Future.'' Keyboard
May 1989: 75-81.
Fitting, Peter. "The Decline of the Feminist Utopian Novel.'' Border/Lines
7/8:17-19, Spring 1987.
—————. "The Lessons of Cyberpunk.'' Technoculture. Ed. Constance Penley
and Andrew Ross. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
Frampton, Kenneth. "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an
Architecture of Resistance.'' The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern
Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay Press, 1983. 16-30.
Frank, Pat. Alas, Babylon. 1959. NY: Bantam, 1960.
Hoban, Russell. Riddley Walker. NY: Summit, 1980.
Hollinger, Veronica. "Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism.''
Mosaic 23:29-44, 1990.
Jeter, K.W. Farewell Horizontal. NY: Signet, 1989.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. NY: Methuen, 1987.
Miller, Walter M., Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. NY: Harper and Row,
Nixon, Nicola. "Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the
Boys Satisfied?'' SFS 19:219-35, #57, July 1992.
Porter, Jeff. "Narrating the End: Fables of Survival in the Nuclear Age.''
Journal of American Culture (forthcoming).
Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of
Limits. NY: Verso, 1991.
Sterling, Bruce. "Get the Bomb Off my Back.'' NY Times, 13 October 1991,
sec. 4: 15.
—————. Introduction. William Gibson. Burning Chrome. 1986; NY: Ace, 1987.
Suvin, Darko. "On Gibson and Cyberpunk SF.'' Foundation 46:40-51, Fall
Consciousness Evolution and Early Telepathic Tales
SF critics shape our collective sense of SF traditions by deciding what
matters—not only in canon formation, but also in our perspective on the
canonized works. In the short history of SF criticism, there has been little
attention paid to science-fictional presentations of psychic powers, which focus
on wonders of the mind rather than material wonders. The neglect is partly
because critics have been interested in other things, but partly also because of
widespread conviction among us that nothing matters—nothing
is real—except the material universe. Faster-than-light technology, having been
rationalized by earlier writers, is largely accepted in SF worlds, but most
critics continue to regard ESP as puerile wish fulfillment. When consensus
reality is limited to things, any futuristic technology appears more credible
than futuristic powers of mind, even if both violate currently accepted
As a group, SF critics share a
conviction of the value of SF, which puts us on the margins of the academic
community. On the other side of campus, parapsychologists are similarly
marginalized. The most interesting, and arguably the most important work in any
field is on the margins, but credibility depends on a firm connection to
something acknowledged as safely central to the discipline. Work at the
intersection of two margins—like SF and parapsychology—is risky. SF critics have
generally regarded science- fictional speculation about psychic powers as
immaterial or foolish, trivial or even pernicious to the extent that it hampers
our efforts to establish academic credibility for the study of SF. Nevertheless,
the subject deserves attention. "No other single theme within the science
fiction world has been as controversial as ESP,'' Larry Niven observes in The
Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (204), and this alone seems an
excellent reason to subject the theme to serious scrutiny.
When critical attention has been
focused on telepathy in SF, the conventional or metaphorical functions of
telepathy have most often been emphasized.1 Science-fictional
depiction of human psychic powers is most problematic for SF scholars when
spiritual and scientific discourses are blended. There is resistance to granting
such texts a central place in the genre because the origins of such stories are
associated with religion and magic, and the SF tradition is positioned against
both, identifying its territory as the theoretically explicable and rational,
not the irrational or supernatural. It is the way in which a locus of these
competing discourses can be traced in the depiction of human psychic powers
throughout the history of SF that interests me.
Considerable instability of descriptive
terminology for the subject has been inevitable, both because of tensions
between the competing discourses and because of the lack of serious attention to
the subject in SF scholarship. Though I have used "psychic powers,'' to this
point because of its venerability in SF circles, I prefer the term "psi,''
because it is more economical, more current, and less wedded to the notion that
"power'' is the main attraction of paranormal abilities. It is the term commonly
used now in parapsychological discourse to encompass both ESP (extrasensory
perception—telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition) and PK (psychokinesis). "Psionics,''
associated with electronics, is appropriate for only a subset of the pertinent
SF. "Psi'' also has the merit of lending itself to a more economical term for my
subject than "science fiction that depicts psychic powers.'' "Psience fiction''
appeals to me for its whimsy as well as its economy. ("Psi fiction'' is even
more economical and perhaps more likely to suit strictly solemn SF scholars, but
it leaves room for `mainstream' fiction that depicts psi, like Patrick White's
Most SF theory resists a serious study
of psience fiction; either it is openly hostile to conceptions of psi or its
mappings are opaque to matters of interest in psience fiction, which speculates
about the nature of mind, not about the material universe. There have been
exceptions. David Ketterer reminded us in New Worlds for Old of Samuel
Delany's assertion that "virtually all the classics of speculative fiction are
mystical'' (18) and created an SF typology that makes room for the
philosophically-oriented SF that extrapolates from what we know "in the context
of our vaster ignorance'' and offers a radically new perspective on humankind
(17, 38). A more recent study that provides a useful theoretical framework is
Carl Malmgren's Worlds Apart, which gives considerable attention to SF
that critiques prevailing scientific assumptions and methods, challenging
"natural'' law. In his analysis of science fantasy, published earlier in SFS,
Malmgren defends a subgenre that has been generally scorned by SF critics on
precisely the ground that piques my interest in psience fiction: "By reversing
natural law or empirical fact, science fantasy questions their absoluteness and
givenness; by asserting the primacy of an invented and counternatural world, it
questions the nature of reality; by taking on the principles and conventions and
facts which we take for granted, it tends to broach ultimate philosophical
questions.... But most of all, because it stands poised between two opposing
ways of conceiving the world, it addresses itself to the question of
epistemology'' ("Towards a Definition...'' 274).
A study of psi in SF immediately evokes
such questions: Are there legitimate avenues of knowledge other than the five
senses and logic? What implications does the fact that psi has been neither
proved nor disproved have for an SF typology that distinguishes the fantastic
from "realistic'' SF, and distinguishes extrapolative SF from analogical? If
some people's experience includes events such as telepathic communication or
precognitive dreams, and others' experience does not, is it appropriate to
define reality in terms of the more limited experience? (Pondering such
questions tempts me to think that "hard'' science should have been called
"easy,'' because it has developed by limiting itself to what can be physically
I think in terms of four types of
psience fiction, which correspond quite closely to the four types Peter
Lowentrout outlined in a groundbreaking article on metaphysical psi fiction, "Psi
Fi: The Domestication of Psi in Science Fiction.'' My first type defends the
reality or at least the possibility of psi and grounds psi in some aspect of
current scientific thought that may, on further investigation, provide psi with
scientific respectability. The second also accepts psi's credibility, but it
advances a counterscientific theory that amounts to a critique of scientific
philosophy and methodology. The third simply uses what has become conventional
in SF as means to another end, as a device. The fourth employs psi principally
as metaphor without much concern for theorizing it. The cognitive component of
the first two categories particularly interests me, especially when they are
combined in a text in which the scientific and metaphysical discourses interact.
I discuss early examples of such
fiction here to demonstrate that psience fiction has been an essential part of
SF since the middle of the 19th century, though critics have often divided it
from "real'' SF and classed it as supernatural fantasy or even considered it
just an aberration of the Golden Age attributable to the influence of John W.
Campbell, Jr. At every stage of its development SF has included texts in which
the discourses of science and metaphysics intersect in the depiction of psi.
Psience fiction was born of a
conjunction between popular and scientific interest in the psychic phenomena
associated with mesmerism, later called hypnotism, and the equally widespread
interest in the theory of evolution. The combination added up to speculation
about consciousness evolution, which is what much psi fiction is. If mind is
real, then consciousness evolution is no more far-fetched than physical
evolution and powers of mind no more far-fetched than technological powers. In
his l894 Lowell Lectures, titled The Ascent of Man in response to
Darwin's The Descent of Man, Henry Drummond suggested that humanity is
evolving towards spirituality and that "telepathy is theoretically the next
stage in the Evolution of Language'' (234). Darwin may have demolished
confidence in humanity as a product of divine creation, but he also provided a
basis for belief that humanity was on its way to something better. We may not
have been created halfway between beasts and angels, but perhaps we were halfway
on an evolutionary path that would bring us to a more perfect form of
communication than speech. Drummond's statement illustrates a resistance to
separation of moral or ethical concerns from the scientific view of human
development which also characterizes early psience fiction.
Thought transference is the psi
phenomenon that figures most frequently in SF through the last third of the 19th
century. It is also the one that the Society for Psychical Research, founded in
1882 by a group that uneasily combined spiritualists and Cambridge scholars,
settled on as its most promising line of inquiry (Inglis 370). This was because
many of the most surprising revelations produced by people in a trance state,
whether they were mediums or subjects of hypnotists, could be accounted for by
thought transference—or telepathy, a term introduced about 1886 by classicist
F.W.H. Myers, a founding member of the SPR (S. Braude 7; Drummond 234).
The two factions of the SPR expressed the same tension between scientific and
spiritual impulses that characterizes early psience fiction. What SPR
spiritualists and scholars had in common was resistance to religious orthodoxy
and a preference for an empirically-based approach to knowledge. Historian Ann
Braude says that "for those no longer convinced by the 'evidences' of
Christianity, Spiritualism provided 'scientific' evidence of religious truth.
Initially, it required people to believe nothing. Rather, it asked them to
become `investigators,' to observe 'demonstrations' of the truth of Spiritualism
produced under 'test conditions' in the seance room'' (4). However, the primacy
of the spiritualists' desire to demonstrate the existence of life after death
separated them from the scholars, and from the earliest days of the SPR, when
Cambridge professor Henry Sidgwick became its first president, the scholars
dominated the society. Its declared purpose was to make "an organized and
systematic attempt to investigate the large group of phenomena designated by
such terms as mesmeric, psychical, and spiritualistic,''3 and its
voluminous publications document most of the early work in parapsychology.
Intellectual tensions between society factions led to the mass resignation of
most of the spiritualists in 1887 (McClenon 7).
Though determined rationalists have
long struggled to create a convincing boundary between the occult and the
scientific, the boundary is problematic. There have always been respected
scientists and philosophers—as well as writers of fiction—who have ventured
serious exploration of the other side of rationalism. The New Age movement that
emerged in the late 1960's is just the most recent phase in "a persistent
tradition that...blossomed heartily as a product of 18th-century scientific
enlightenment.... As science has grown, so has the metaphysical/occult
community. Metaphysicians rejoiced in science's critique of Christianity,
celebrated its dominant ideas of natural law and evolution, and from scientific
affirmations, built a new alternative spiritual vision capable of interacting,
and even contributing, to the fullness (from the occultists' viewpoint) of
scientific knowledge'' (Mellon et al. 3-4). So it is not surprising that psi was
embedded in SF when it emerged as a distinct genre in the 19th century.
In his introduction to The Science
Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Harold Beaver also alludes to this intimate
relationship between the psychic and scientific. He describes the early 19th
century as a time when technological marvels abounded, with a parallel boom in
psychic marvels. "Into the vacuum left by Descartes and Newton flooded every
form of transcendentalism.... Had not natural forces been harnessed? So too
would supernatural .... Mysticism, spiritualism, hypnotism, mesmeric trances,
galvanic resuscitation, phrenology, flourished'' (ix).
The reported phenomena were of great
interest to Poe, whose aim, Beaver says, was to be "the comprehensive theorist,
and seer, of the electromagnetic age'' (viii). Mesmerists were healers who
theorized a link between the invisible action of magnetism and the invisible
connection between mesmerist and patient. Poe wrote three stories about
mesmerism in 1843-44: "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,'' "Mesmeric Revelation,''
and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,'' taking details of mesmeric
processes and effects from Townshend's Facts in Mesmerism (Lind 1086).
The precise, detailed descriptions of his detached narrators add credibility to
Poe's weird tales, which combine scientific and gothic elements. "A Tale of the
Ragged Mountains'' tells of "a very distinct and strongly marked rapport,
or magnetic relation'' (100) between doctor and patient. The doctor can put his
patient to sleep at will, for instance, even when the patient is unaware of his
presence. The patient returns from a walk in the mountains with a strange story
of having suddenly entered another life and died there. He was experiencing the
death of a friend of his doctor's twenty years earlier, about which the doctor
was writing at home as his patient was experiencing it in the mountains.
Telepathy is certainly a factor in this story, though there are complications
unaccounted for by simple telepathy. No theory is advanced for telepathy in "A
Tale of the Ragged Mountains,'' but "Mesmeric Revelation'' supplies the
rationale. Its mesmerist-narrator explains that in mesmeric trance the external
sense organs are repressed and unknown channels of keenly refined perception
enhanced. There are gradations of matter, with the finer pervading the grosser.
Our sense organs are adapted to the grosser matter which forms the body, but in
the trance, the finer grade of external things is perceived directly. Stuart
Levine observes in Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman that there was no real
conflict for Poe between the scientific outlook and the mystical, because he
felt that mysticism was literally true and founded on physical fact (135).
The more remarkable effects of
mesmerism—telepathy and clairvoyance— were verified by some members of the
scientific community and dismissed by others, widely published in popular
journals, discussed and speculated about. This made mesmerism an ideal subject
for SF, not only because it invited speculation about characteristics of human
beings and the nature of their relationship to each other and their world, but
because it posed a challenge to the scientific establishment. As Bruce Franklin
rightly asserts, the most important SF is "the literature which, growing with
science, evaluates it and relates it meaningfully to the rest of existence''
(96). Franklin doubtless means the rest of material existence, but Beaver points
out that Poe evaluates "scientific method and technological achievement, by
confronting both with a vision of life...in its widest spiritual dimensions''
(xiv). He keeps the material and the spiritual, the rational and the "magical,''
tied firmly together.
Poe's touch of telepathy is not placed
in the context of consciousness evolution, but the first novel of psience
fiction, Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), connects evolution and
telepathy. Bulwer-Lytton, who engaged in extensive investigation of the occult,
believed, like Poe, that the 'supernatural' would prove to be natural. The
narrator of "The Haunted and the Haunters,'' one of his occult stories, tells
the reader, "My theory is that the Supernatural is the Impossible, and that what
is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of nature of which we
have hitherto been ignorant'' (249). Events support the narrator's conviction
that there is a living human agency responsible for the bizarre events he
experiences, just as a mesmerist is responsible for the experiences of his
patient. "Constitutional peculiarities'' would be the key to the event. And,
supposing it is true that a mesmerized patient can respond to the will or passes
of a mesmeriser a hundred miles distant,'' the response must be "occasioned by a
material fluid—call it Electric, call it Odic, call it what you will'' (249).
This story is occult fiction, and its human agent has magical powers, but its
relationship to Bulwer-Lytton's SF novel is significant. Enthusiasm for The
Coming Race and its substantial influence on subsequent SF are attributable
to the fact that it presents its psi powers not as magical or supernatural but
in terms of biological evolution and in conjunction with novel developments in
technology and social organization. Its psi powers have a technological
component, which makes them more tolerable to those who regard the depiction of
extraordinary psychic powers as puerile but are fascinated by the depiction of
By 1871, the impact of Darwin's theory
of evolution was being generally felt, which inspired speculation about
potential evolutionary development of humans as well as controversy over our
origins. Of course Origin of the Species provoked resistance from
vitalists for whom Darwin's purely mechanistic account of evolution seemed
deficient. The Coming Race reflects contemporary interest in evolution of
variant species, but it leaves room for vitalism.
The central novelty in The Coming
Race is vril, an "all-permeating `fluid' (§9:39) which, "applied
scientifically through vril conductors,'' allows the Vril-ya to exercise
influence over human minds, animals and plants (§7:32). The narrator is told
that "all the faculties of the mind could be quickened to a degree unknown in
the waking state, by trance or vision, in which the thoughts of one brain could
be transmitted to another and knowledge be thus rapidly interchanged.'' His
reply refers to the views of Lytton's contemporaries—and ours: that though
stories are told of such practices, they have fallen into contempt because of
impostures, the lack of systematic knowledge or practical application of
observed effects, and their tendency to produce superstitions among the
credulous (§7:32). But the Vril-ya have passed that stage and gained scientific
control of this power, under which are grouped such forces as electricity and
magnetism. Faraday's theory of correlation among various forces of matter is
cited to support the idea that vril is that ``unity in natural energic
In addition to being a means of
telepathy and inducer of various states of consciousness, vril is a healing
agency, but SF critics have generally been more interested in other effects of
vril, which controls the weather, powers the wings that enable the Vril-ya to
fly, provides their light, runs their vehicles and other machinery, and can
reduce either animate or inanimate matter to dust "like a flash of lightning''
The term "vril'' has been associated
with virility (Wolff, 333) and will (Clymer v). The operation of vril depends on
technological and biological factors, and on a psychic component. Bulwer-Lytton
often calls his vril mechanism a "wand,'' though he introduces it by the more
scientific word "conductor'' and also calls it ``staff,'' which belongs less
obviously to either the magical or the scientific discourse. The psychic
component is evident in that the power of the vril staff is "proportioned to the
amount of certain Vril properties in the wearer, in affinity or rapport, with
the purposes to be effected. Some were more potent to destroy, others to heal
etc. Much also depended on the calm and steadiness of volition in the
manipulator'' (§16: 82). There is a hereditary factor in the acquisition of
effective constitutional temperament, so that "a female infant of four years
belonging to the Vril-ya races can accomplish feats with the wand placed for the
first time in her hand, which a life spent in its practice would not enable [one
of another race] to achieve'' (§16:82). The Vril-ya hand has a nerve that is
absent in others, which developed slowly over generations, "commencing in the
early achievements and increasing with the continuous exercise of the Vril
power'' (§16:85). This is a conception of evolution more vitalist than
mechanical; it both supports Lytton's conception of magic (or psi) as natural
and gives the human will a part to play in the direction of evolution.
Written near the end of his life, The Coming Race is in a sense the
culmination of Bulwer-Lytton's portrayals of occult powers, now presented as
scientifically advanced. The style of the novel is not at all Gothic but rather
clinically descriptive, with touches of humor. In this form, and divorced from
association with Bulwer-Lytton's occult fiction by its anonymous publication,
the depiction of psi powers was apparently not perceived as a serious offense
against rationality. It may seem to belong in the category of psi with a
scientific rationale, but a close look at its connection with Bulwer-Lytton's
occult fiction makes placement in the counter-scientific category equally
Critical interest in The Coming Race
has been so resolutely divorced from its basis in psi that most commentators
don't even mention the telepathic or healing aspects of vril or its association
with magical control of others. They have simply treated it as futuristic
technology, interesting for its enormous destructive capacity and forecasting of
atomic bombs and lasers. But Edward Bellamy's 1889 story "To Whom This May
Come'' is unequivocally about telepathy, a trailblazer in its exploration of
effects telepathy might have on society, and in its suggestion that under
special conditions, evolution might distill ancient and genuine but sporadic and
unreliable human psi abilities into universal and reliable ones. (In SF history,
of course, Bellamy figures primarily for Looking Backward, which is not
Bellamy's shipwrecked narrator finds himself among a telepathic race evolved
from persecuted soothsayers and magicians who were shipped with their families
to Ceylon three centuries before the time of Jesus and wrecked on an uninhabited
island. Though superstition credited them with supernatural powers, they "were
merely persons of special gifts in the way of hypnotizing, mind-reading, thought
transference, and such arts'' (279). The evolution of their descendants, speeded
by breeding to improve the race's powers, "was a case simply of a slight
acceleration, from special causes, of the course of universal human evolution,
which in time was destined to lead to the disuse of speech and the substitution
of direct mental vision on the part of all races'' (279).
Mind reading, against which there are
no barriers, creates a utopia. The knowledge that one's thoughts are overlooked
by others acts as a check on unkind thoughts. From the impossibility of
concealment follows mental health. Justice follows necessarily from knowing the
whole person. The joy of being truly understood enhances friendship greatly.
Appearance is relatively unimportant, since they see beyond the surface to each
other's minds and hearts, and the ideal mate is easy to find. The chief benefit
is self-knowledge, from the many reflections of oneself one sees in the minds of
others. Death holds no fear, because their lives are "so largely spiritual that
the idea of an existence wholly so...suggests to them a state only slightly more
refined than they already know'' (291). Bellamy portrays evolution as progress
towards complete telepathic communication with attendant im-provement in
morality affecting personal and social relationships. I place the story in my
first category, scientific cognition, but the choice does depend on one's
opinion of the credibility of magicians' and prophets' psychic talents.
In Bellamy's story, the relationship
between technological progress and psychic progress is not an issue, but Albert
Bigelow Paine's 1901 novel The Great White Way suggests an inverse
relationship, a common theme in later psi fiction. The Great White Way is
primarily a novel of adventure, discovery, and romance. The telepathic
inhabitants of Antarctica are introduced only in the last third of the novel,
largely for the contrast between the adventurers' progressive, capitalist
American society and the Antarctic society of graceful, poetic telepaths who are
roused from their peaceful existence to violent defense against the threat of
Central to Paine's treatment of telepathy is Ferratoni, whose technical function
is to provide a wireless telephone to maintain contact between those who remain
on the ship at the edge of the Antarctic continent and those who venture on to
the South pole. Hardly a stereotypical technician, his character note is
ethereal sensitivity, and he explains the theory of his communication device in
terms of the harmonic vibrations of music. Telepathic ability, which he
develops, he likewise relates to harmonic vibrations which are characteristic of
thought, life, and soul, as well as sound. "The Great Truth'' which links them
all (§6:53) is similar to the idea that Bulwer-Lytton took from Faraday, but
Paine presents it in terms not of power, but of harmony. "The vibrations of the
thought awaken in the mind of another their echo, and men are made to know, and
may answer, without words.''
Ferratoni's lifelong attention to
vibrations accounts both for his techtological ability with electricity and
wireless telegraphy and for his attunement to others' thoughts. His telepathic
ability is not a gift but "a scientific attainment acquired by patient and
gradual steps'' (§20:180). He is the only one among the company who is able to
communicate with the Antarctic people, though his mental chords are not quite
attuned to theirs—it is "a poor connection'' (§28:237). The natives' own
development of telepathy is attributed to the long polar night, which "binds
them in closer sympathy'' (§29:243). Anger appears to disrupt the harmony needed
for mental communication (§34:287). Those few Antarcticans who entirely lack the
ability of "silent speech'' lack the ear for tune and melody as well (§31:256).
Paine gives little attention to effects of telepathy on society, though he
follows Bellamy in noting that ``concealment, ever the first step toward sorrow,
is impossible'' (§29:244) and that "in a land where there can be no concealment,
crime must languish'' (§31:255). He also mentions that death is not feared,
because "the disembodied intelligence still vibrates to many of those clothed in
the physical life'' before it passes out of range (255). In The Great White
Way telepathy is chiefly the sign of a direction of development opposite to
ours. The Antarcticans don't care for technology. They have no monetary system.
Their basic wants are supplied, and they chiefly value beauty. The novel has
been described as "a vehicle for an attack upon modern materialism'' (Barron
70), but the narrator's appreciation of the Antarctican society is heavily
qualified by his uneasiness about the drawbacks of a lotus-land. The novel is
not so much an attack on materialism as a rather uncertain intimation of its
Darwinian evolution provides no room
for choice. Paine, however, shows consciousness evolution in rather a different
light. The harmonies are there, and people do or do not tune into them,
depending on talent, values, and experience. When a whole society tunes in
instead of out, there is a marked difference from the direction our society has
All these psi fictions have both
scientific and counterscientific aspects. From Bulwer-Lytton's on, they suggest
that deliberate assistance of consciousness evolution is possible. Acknowledging
the centrality of scientific thought to our culture, they resist its limits,
critiquing science itself by affirming the reality of mind as an active force in
our world. They show that psience fiction has long been an integral and
significant part of SF, which thrives on the unknown at the margins of science.
To separate the psi story from "real'' SF is to falsify SF's history. To turn
critical attention to psience fiction, past and present, is to encourage the
study of SF not only as the fiction that explores the implications of scientific
discovery but also as the fiction that explores the limitations of scientific
1. Walter Meyers, for instance, in Aliens and Linguists, treats telepathy
as a device for communication with aliens, and Eric Rabkin in "Cowboys and
Telepaths'' treats it as a metaphor for alienation.
2. I am indebted to Janis Svilpis, R.D. Mullen, and Istvan Csisery-Ronay for
suggestions that helped me to formulate my observations on the connections
between the language and the problems posed for SF scholars by texts that treat
3. Quoted from SPR, 1882:3-6 by McClenon (6).
Barron, Neil. Anatomy of Wonder: Science Fiction. NY: R.R. Bowker, 1976.
Beaver, Harold, ed. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Penguin,
Bellamy, Edward. "To Whom This May Come.'' Franklin, q.v.
Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits; Spiritualism and Women's Rights in
Nineteenth-Century America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
Braude, Stephen E. ESP and Psycho-kinesis, A Philosophical Examination.
Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1979.
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Coming Race. 1871. Quakerstown, PA:
Philosophical Publishing, 1973.
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. `"The Haunted and the Haunters,'' The Works of Edward
Bulwer Lytton, Vol. VII. NY: Peter Fenelon Collier, n.d.
Clymer, Emerson M. Foreword to The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
Quakerstown, PA: Philosophical Publishing, 1973.
Drummond, Henry. The Ascent of Man. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1894.
Franklin, H. Bruce. Future Perfect; American Science Fiction of the
Nineteenth Century. 1966. Rev. ed. NY: Oxford UP, 1978.
Inglis, Brian. Natural and Supernatural: A History of the Paranormal from
Earliest Times to 1914. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977.
Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1974.
Levine, Stuart. Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman. Florida: Everett/Edwards,
Lind, Sidney E. "Poe and Mesmerism,'' PMLA 62: 1077-94, 1947.
Lowentrout, Peter. "Psi Fi: The Domestication of Psi in Science Fiction,''
Extrapolation 30:388-400, Winter 1989.
Malmgren, Carl. Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction.
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.
—————. "Towards a Definition of Science Fantasy,'' SFS 15:259-81, #46,
McClenon, James. Deviant Science; The Case of Parapsychology.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.
Melton, J. Gordon, Jerome Clark, and Aidan A. Kelly, New Age Almanac. NY:
Visible Ink Press, 1991.
Meyers, Walter E. Aliens and Linguists. Athens: University of Georgia
Niven, Larry. "Telepathy, Psionics and ESP.'' The Visual Encyclopedia of
Science Fiction. Ed. Brian Ash. NY: Harmony Books, 1977.
Paine, Albert Bigelow. 1901. The Great White Way. NY: Arno, 1975.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold
Beaver. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1976.
Rabkin, Eric S. "Cowboys and Telepaths,'' Fantasy Review 96:17-19, Nov.
Wolff, Robert Lee. Strange Stories and Other Explorations in Victorian
Fiction. Boston: Gambit, 1971.
"The Closely Reasoned Technological Story": The Critical
History of Hard Science Fiction
Abstract.--Several commentators in the 1950s visibly searched for a
way to describe SF that was especially attentive to science. P. Schuyler Miller, book
reviewer for Astounding/Analog, first used the term "hard science fiction"
in November 1957 and used it more frequently in the 1960s. By the mid-1960s, other
commentators were also using the term. Early references involved a relatively small number
of writers who emphasized scientific accuracy and explanation, but in the 1970s and 1980s,
the term expanded to include numerous writers not originally associated with hard SF. Hal Clement's "Whirligig World" states that the primary goal of hard science fiction is
avoiding scientific errors and suggests four strategies for doing so. Two of these --using
"gobbledygook" and speculating in areas where scientific knowledge is limited--are
rejected; the other two lead to forms of hard SF: microcosmic hard SF, cautious
predictions of near-future technology like Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust,
and macrocosmic hard sf, extravagant visions of alien environments like Larry Niven's Ringworld.
When the characteristics of hard SF are understood, it is clear that while the principles
behind hard SF were first articulated by Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell Jr, few if
any writers before 1950 meet the standards of hard SF. Instead, hard SF should be seen as
a development of the 1950s and 1960s, suggesting that versions of science-fiction history
treating the 1930s and 1940s as eras of science-dominated SF may need to be rethought.
Overall, examining the critical history of hard SF is valuable because it provides solid
grounds for firmly and usefully establishing the parameters of hard SF.
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