Science Fiction Studies

# 11 = Volume 4, Part 1 = March 1977

Scott Sanders

Invisible Men and Women: The Disappearance of Character in Science Fiction

Science Fiction is the home of invisible men and women. One is hard put to name half a dozen memorable characters from all the annals of the genre, to recall any science-fictional protagonist who hangs in the mind with the weight of Raskolnikov, say, or Ahab, or Quentin Compson. Critics weaned on the traditional novel frequently use this weakness of characterization as a bludgeon for attacking the genre. Even sympathetic commentators concede the point, and either apologize for it or move quickly on to discuss the genre's strengths. Thus David Ketterer writes that apocalyptic literature—which by his definition includes most science fiction —"involves a certain magnitude or breadth of vision which militates against an interest in detailed characterization."1 Kingsley Amis argues that science fiction must deal in stock figures because it ponders our general condition rather than the intricacies of personality. Theme replaces character as the organizing principle of the genre, he maintains, a view summarized in his terse formula, "Idea as hero."2 Whether you read traditional exponents of science fiction such as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, or the new academic critics gathered in Thomas Clareson's volume, SF: The Other Side of Realism (1971), you will only discover versions of the same circular argument: character is neglected because something else—such as ideas or situation or plot—commands the writer's attention.                

But why should such a genre arise and flourish in our century, a genre stressing theme rather than character, abstraction rather than personality? The answer, I believe, is sociological. Science fiction reproduces the experience of living in a regimented, rationalized society, within which the individual has become anonymous: persons are interchangeable, relating to each other through socially-defined roles; actions are governed by procedure, and thus do not characterize the actor; emotion is repressed in favor of reason; the individual is subordinated to the system. A literary form which ignores personality in its representation of vast impersonal forces mirrors our sense of the anonymity of individuals within mass society.3 Thus I do not believe that weakness of characterization in science fiction is the accidental consequence of attention to other things. On the contrary, I would argue that in the 20th century science fiction as a genre is centrally about this disappearance of character, in the same sense in which the 18th- and 19th-century bourgeois novel is about the emergence of character.               

"Character" was the focus of the bourgeois novel, at a time when the individual was the kingpin of liberal ideology, and when the economic system was still primitive enough to make such an ideology convincing. During the nineteenth century the middle classes of Western Europe and America were still persuaded that the individual was an autonomous creature, the true unit of value, capable of determining his own destiny. This faith was progressively eroded by the growth of cities and industries, which dwarfed the individual, by the spread of bureaucracy, by the impact of technological advances, by war, and by the acceleration of social change. The working classes never fully accepted the notion of the autonomous individual since it was false to their experience of society. This skepticism was reflected in the literary forms most popular among the working class, especially melodrama and romance, in which character was subordinated to plot.4               

Belief in the autonomous individual — belief in what D.H. Lawrence called "the old stable ego — of the character" — was likewise abandoned in the modernist novel, writers such as Lawrence and Joyce and Gide retreating further and further inward in search of a layer of the self which remains free of social domination. In this respect science fiction parallels developments in the twentieth-century mainstream novel. While such writers as Kafka, Musil and Beckett have recorded the dissolution of character under the pressures of recent history, science fiction as a genre begins by assuming that dissolution, and explores the causes. Science fiction deals, in other words, with the same social and intellectual developments whose intimate effects on personality have been explored in modernist fiction; the two literary modes examine the outside and inside of the same phenomenon.                

We find the paradigm of this split between fiction of the inside and fiction of the outside in the famous dispute between Henry James and H.G. Wells over the scope of the novel. James urged Wells to leave off his social preaching and explore instead the subtleties of personality. Wells replied that close scrutiny of character is only possible when the social frame remains constant. In his own time, Wells argued, the acceleration of social change had made the frame itself part of the picture.5 James's method of examining consciousness eventually led, in the works of such novelists as Woolf and Beckett, to the shell-shocked furthest reaches of modernism. Along that path the self risks dissolving in its own juices. The method of Wells led to macroscopic studies of society, and eventually, in the science fiction of writers such as Zamyatin and Orwell, to nightmares of anonymity within a technological world. Along that path the self risks dissolving in the system.                

Hence the science fiction novel offers an extension and restatement of the central problem with which the modernists wrestled—namely, the fragmentation and anonymization of the self in modern society—although science fiction usually presents that concern in a displaced form. The primacy of system over individual appears formally in the genre in the subordination of character to plot; in the use of stereotypical figures; in the preference for technical and discursive (and therefore anonymous) language. The threat to identity appears explicitly in tales of social engineering and machine domination. It appears implicitly in the figures of androids, robots and zombies, in the specters of totalitarian computers, in the celebration of supermen and superwomen as the only rebels in a world of drones, in the themes of invasion and possession, in the tales of apocalypse. In the following essay I will examine these various expressions of the disappearance of character in science fiction, drawing most of my examples from the period since 1945, the period in which social pressures towards anonymity have grown most intense.

1. The nightmare of losing one's identity within a totalitarian society haunts the protagonists of our century's most famous speculative fiction, from the numbered citizens of Zamyatin's We (1920) and the hapless supplicant of Kafka's The Castle (1926), to the furtive rebels of Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and Orwell's 1984 (1949). These fictions transpose into the future (or, in the instance of The Castle, into a fabulous non-time) images of repression with which we are painfully familiar from the history of this century. Zamyatin could turn for models of his dystopia to the early experiments in social engineering conducted by the Bolsheviks; Huxley, to the militarization of England during the Great War, and again during the strikes in the twenties and during the Depression; Kafka, to the rusting machinery of the Hapsburg bureaucracy. Orwell could model his dystopia upon several actual societies, Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy and Stalin's Russia being only the most spectacular expressions of a totalitarian impulse which also surfaced in Spain during the nineteen-thirties, in Britain during the Second World War and in the United States during the chilliest days of the Cold War.                

The crushing of the self by the system, the denial of individuality, is nowhere more savagely illustrated in our recent history than in the Second World War, especially the concentration camps, and is nowhere more painfully recorded than in the literature of the holocaust. Memoirs such as Elie Wiesel's Night (1958) and novels such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (1962) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn describe the camps as places where identity is stripped away and humans are reduced to knots of hunger and fear. We find in these records of historical experience many of the images which recur in post-war science fiction: arms tattooed with numbers, heads shaved, bodies bundled in uniforms; spies and guards prowling among listless inmates; barbed-wire, machine-guns and dogs maintaining order. The documentary film by Resnais, Night and Fog (1955), through its pictures of warehouses stuffed with human hair, buckets heaped with gold fillings, pits choked with the bulldozed carcases of nameless victims, records the ultimate anonymity of the furnaces and mass graves.                

As their architects proudly declared, the camps were factories of death, embodying the same ideals of precision and efficiency which Leni Rieffenstahl celebrated in her film of the Nuremburg rallies, Triumph of the Will (1934-36). Those endless rows of identical soldiers goose-stepping past the camera, those high-angle shots of faceless multitudes ranked like wires to a printed circuit, those boots stamping in unison, all dissolve the individual into the collective. The rallies themselves were a physical expression of the mental conformity which every dictator seeks. Goebbels declared that all Germans must think with one mind, and through the use of terror and mass propaganda he did his best to achieve that goal. In such a state, soldiers and common citizens enjoy little more individuality than prisoners.                

No one familiar with the history of our time should be surprised, therefore, that visions of totalitarian futures have become a staple of science fiction since the Second World War. We find such visions in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1954), where a ruling party reminiscent of those described by Huxley and Orwell burns books for fear of subversive knowledge; in Philip K. Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers" (1967), where a drugged populace cringes beneath the omniscient gaze of the Great Benefactor, a thinly-disguised alter ego of Mao Tse-tung; and in Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), where several autocracies share dominion over the planet Urras, rivalling each other in methods of repression. (In the same novel Le Guin projects an alternative planet, Anarres, organized along the lines of anarcho-communism, which, though preferable to the tyranny of Urras, offers equally grave challenges to identity.) Often writers provide social explanations for the rise of their fictional tyrannies, the most common ones, understandably, being war and over-population. Thus Isaac Asimov in The Caves of Steel (1953) and Brian Aldiss in Earthworks (1966) present us with societies which have been totally regimented in response to population growth. Living has become communal, land has been collectivized and authority centralized. Robots, because of their greater productivity, are honored more highly than humans, who must skulk on the ragged borders of starvation. Similarly, in the film Soylent Green (1973), another vision of an over-populated future, individuals have been overwhelmed by collective pressures. Scene after scene portrays anonymous crowds, waiting for medical care or heaped on stairways for sleep, crowds bristling from the scoops of government trucks sent to quell a riot, crowds of the dead reprocessed for food.                

The narrator of Earthworks, one in a long line of science-fictional rebels against authority, sounds the complaint which is echoed by all the citizens of these regimented dystopias: "in me grew that weary sense of lack of identity that was itself an identification" (§7). We hear the same dread of anonymity voiced by a character in Fahrenheit 451, who laments that

We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. [§1]

Conformity, homogeneity, loss of identity: these are the obsessive fears in each of the tales I have mentioned. We can readily link such fears to the experience of totalitarianism, since all of these fictional dystopias reproduce the grisly outlines of historical tyrannies. But the dread of anonymity also takes on subtler forms in post-war science fiction, forms whose links to our social experience are less clear but no less strong.

2. While society as a whole grows more rationalized, the experience of living within it grows more alienated. In proportion as the complexity of social organization increases, the power of the individual to comprehend or affect the world dwindles. The reigning institutions of modern society—technological production, bureaucracy, cities, mass media—so regiment and fragment the social world that the individual is thrown back upon his island of subjectivity in search of meaning and coherence. In response to this fact, as I have already suggested, modernist writers have burrowed ever deeper into the self, while writers of science fiction have projected images of the self as a puppet, a robot, an automaton. The characters in much science fiction written since the war are manipulated creatures; they are citizens of an administered world.                

In his Foundation trilogy (1942-49), Asimov presents us with an entire cosmos administered according to impersonal laws which are incomprehensible to those caught up in the historical process. Although various human agencies conspire to shape history, the real shaping influences, the trilogy assures us, are "the deeper economic and sociological forces" that "aren't directed by individual men."6 Perhaps drawing upon the crudely deterministic versions of Marxism which served as a scarecrow during the 30s and later during the Cold War, Asimov invented for the purposes of his novels a new discipline called psycho-history:

Without pretending to predict the actions of individual humans, it formulated definite laws capable of mathematical analysis and extrapolation to govern and predict the mass action of human groups. [§2:3]

Hari Seldon, the greatest of psycho-historians in the trilogy, succeeds in explaining history by dissolving psychology into physics, by treating humans as if they were elementary particles:

He couldn't work with individuals over any length of time; any more than you could apply the kinetic theory of gases to single molecules. He worked with mobs, populations of whole planets, and only blind mobs who do not possess foreknowledge of the results of their actions. [§1:3:2]

Governments, armies, multi-national corporations, insurance companies, and all large institutions do in fact treat individuals as if they were elementary particles, statistically defining humans in terms of markets, services, life-expectancies.                

New disciplines with titles such as motivation research and behavior modification—lumped together under the catch-phrase, human engineering—have arisen in response to the desires of advertisers to manipulate customers, industrialists to manipulate workers, politicians to manipulate citizens. The behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, whose theories have influenced American schools and prisons, has argued consistently since his Walden Two appeared in 1948 that the notion of individual freedom of the will must be abandoned. All human behavior can be—and in his utopian scheme, should be—manipulated from without. Of course historians and psychologists have searched in vain for the mathematical laws which Asimov invokes; yet whether such laws exist in reality or not, within Asimov's fiction they express the individual's sense of being manipulated by forces which he cannot resist or understand. Whatever name is given to the governing influence—the laws of history, the aliens, the computer, the government, Big Brother—the psychological root of the matter is the same.                

There is another common motif in post-war science fiction which seems to contradict this vision of an administered society, and yet which registers the same feeling of the self's isolation and impotence: this is the spectre of ungovernable social and technological change. All those encounters with mutants, with aliens, with berserk computers and self-propagating monsters speak of a fear that the material world, and the creatures who populate it, have slipped the reins of reason and grown strange to us. One of the most vivid examples of this motif is offered by Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain (1969), in which an extraterrestrial form of matter, lethal and benign by turns, mutates and multiplies faster than even the most highly trained scientists can cope with. In the film version of this tale, the experts watch in helpless bewilderment as images of the self-transforming Andromeda strain flash into incomprehensible new forms upon a screen.                

Computers carry on a similar self-transforming mutation in the film, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), two machines speaking to each other in mathematical language which, like the Andromeda strain, bewilders the experts who are supposedly in control of the phenomenon. Gathered about the computer printers, the scientists watch helplessly as the cybernetic dialogue accelerates into mathematical spaces where no human can follow. Monsters of other sorts commonly propagate themselves in post-war science fiction, multiplying as ruthlessly as dandelions. For example, every shred of tissue hacked from the Carrot Man—who is the featured monster in a film entitled The Thing (1951)—will, if nurtured with human blood, produce a new mobile vegetable. The aliens in Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1954), who duplicate human bodies and then discard the originals, work through their town of victims with the accelerating pace of a chain reaction.               

In numerous other fictions written since August of 1945, mutants and aliens confront us with threatening images of transformed humanity. Of course creatures with two heads and glowing eyes play upon our fear of nuclear weapons; berserk computers play upon our fear of machinery; mysterious poisons, upon our fear of ecological catastrophe. But mutation also represents a leap, a change so radical and swift that ordinary people cannot accommodate it. Long before Hiroshima, H.G. Wells arranged to have his Martians bring a red weed with them when they invaded earth in The War of the Worlds (1898). Once loosed on England, this weed spread with a frenzy to blanket the countryside and choke the streams. Only the authorial intervention of Wells called a halt to this maniacal vegetation. (After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, weeds in fact did grow rampant over the ruins, crazed by radiation.) In each of the examples I have sketched, the object of the mutation — Andromeda strain, computer language, carrot man, and so on — is less important than the fact of mutation. The effect of all these encounters with frenzied growth and accelerating change is to enforce the sense of living in an age in which social and technological processes have escaped human control. In face of a world grown reckless, as in face of an administered society, the individual suffers impotence and anonymity.                

Writing about the "Situation of the Writer in 1947," Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the violent global events of the previous two decades had forced upon himself and his contemporaries a keen awareness of historicity:

From 1930 on, the world depression, the coming of Nazism, and the events of China opened our eyes. It seemed as if the ground were going to fall from under us, and suddenly, for us too, the great historical juggling began.7

The form of that awareness, according to Sartre's description, is similar to the view of history I have been tracing in post-war science fiction:

our life as an individual which had seemed to depend upon our efforts, our virtues, and our faults, on our good and bad luck, on the good and bad will of a very small number of people, seemed governed down to its minutest details by obscure and collective forces, and its most private circumstances seemed to reflect the state of the whole world. All at once we felt ourselves abruptly situated.8

During the past three decades, many writers of science fiction have felt themselves situated in just this fashion. Even though their tales are usually displaced in time or space, and thus appear to evade history, they convey by form and theme the historical awareness of which Sartre speaks: manipulated by "obscure and collective forces," the self dissolves.

3. Wordsworth looked forward to a time when poets could embrace machinery in their writings as readily as they had always embraced stars and flowers and trees. He would be disappointed on this score with all of modern literature except science fiction, for in science fiction alone has machinery—and technical invention generally—become a dominant source of imagery. The significance attached to machinery within the genre has shifted in response to our experience of technology in modern society. During the thirties and early forties, when technology seemed to offer the firmest hope of escaping the Depression and defeating fascism, writers of science fiction generally honored inventors, scientists, and their creations. In its crude form this attitude was expressed as a fascination with gadgetry, in its sophisticated form as a vision of society modeled on the laboratory. Precedents for each manner of honoring science—as a collection of ingenious devices or as a habit of mind—could be found in Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, respectively. The early tales of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon display this generally benign view of science, and of science's technical offspring, machines.               

Since 1945, however, machines have increasingly become the objects of dread in science fiction. Just as the Second World War provided writers with models for totalitarian nightmares, so it revealed the powers of destruction lurking in technology. Death had been mechanized on a fantastic scale, not only in the concentration camps, but in the bombed cities, in the submarined oceans, in the jungles and plains of four continents. No one who has recognized the effects of atomic weapons (recorded, for example, in the documentary film, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, and in John Hersey's report, Hiroshima), can preserve an unmixed faith in the benevolence of human invention. Since the war, weapons have become more devastating, automation has cheapened labor, devices such as the automobile have transformed and often degraded our environment, and industrial pollution has begun poisoning all life on the planet. Taken together, these social developments help explain why machines, once the objects of fascination, have become objects of dread in post-war science fiction. In particular, machines have focused the dread of anonymity, because they are indifferent to human personalities, whether in the factory or in war.               

Before computers were more than a gleam in the eyes of technicians, writers such as John Campbell in "Twilight" (1934) and E.M. Forster in "The Machine Stops" (1909) imagined entire civilizations given over to the control of machinery, in the face of which individuals withered into anonymity. As long ago as 1916, D.H. Lawrence wrote in "The Industrial Magnate" chapter of Women in Love about the mining industry as a vast machine which annihilates the personality of all who work within it.9 More recently, in Michael Frayn's A Very Private Place (1968), machine-dependence has been pushed so far that humans actually become captives inside their apparatus. The ruling families dwell in mechanical castles, dealing with the enslaved classes through projected images, enjoying (or perhaps suffering) a narcotized existence. Hermetically sealed inside their machines, cut off from nature and each other, they are prodded into every sensation from orgasm to meditation by chemicals.                

Since the onset of the cybernetic revolution in the 1940s, computers have provided writers with a symbol for rationalized society, the electronic wizards frequently taking on the dictatorial powers of human autocrats. In Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Player Piano (1952), for example, a computer presides over every detail of society, from marketplace to kitchen sink, becoming a kind of mechanical fate which is as impersonal and inescapable in its operation as any fate ever conceived by theologians. As a result of automation, challenging work has been transferred to machines, humanity has been divided between a managerial elite and the disenfranchised masses, the countryside has been depopulated, and life has been given over to the consumption of trinkets lacking all human purpose. Individuals have been reduced to the status of ciphers in the books of corporations and in the memory-banks of the computer. The scenario is a familiar one, both inside science fiction and outside, in industrialized society. Arthur Clarke carries the rule of the computer to its logical extreme in The City and the Stars (1957), where a whole society, from skyscrapers to fingernails, is projected by a central machine. Individuals are assembled atom-by-atom from the personality patterns stored in the memory-banks; each is given a life-time of one thousand years and then retired again into the computer. Until a freak emerges, who becomes the familiar rebel-against-conformity, every last detail of society, every least human gesture, is foreordained by the machine.                

Totalitarian computers, and the threat to identity which they symbolize, have become as commonplace in films as in novels. Television viewers are familiar with maniacal machines from Star Trek, and viewers of film from such productions as 2001 (1968) and Colossus. In the latter film, Americans turn over control of their military system to an invulnerable computer, which links with its Russian counterpart and proceeds to govern the world, subordinating all human existence to its own cybernetic ends. A computer named HAL (an acronym removed one alphabetical notch from IBM) usurps power over a spaceship in 2001, dispatching one-by-one the humans with whom it was designed to cooperate. Both films are typical of the genre in the mesmerized attention they pay to the running of machinery. Cameras dwell upon dials, switches, tape reels and data displays. Gadgets contrived at great expense by the special effects crew perform modernistic functions. Humans become the appendages of machines, dancing like men entranced through procedures which are more important than the characters themselves. A good deal of science fiction cinema is about machinery and procedures, rather than about the fates of characters (a fact generally reflected in film budgets), registering our own experience of subordination to impersonal systems in factory or office or university.                

Like Player Piano and The City and the Stars, both films pit a lonesome hero against the mechanical wiles of the computer, just as Orwell and Zamyatin pit rebels against their autocrats. The parallel is an exact one, because the totalitarian computers, while of course reflecting the dominant machinery of a cybernetic age, also stand for the governmental and technological system as a whole. The individual confronts the computer as he confronts any bureaucracy: it obeys rules he cannot fathom, manipulates him in ways he cannot appeal, speaks a procedural language he cannot understand.

4. While loss of identity is represented on the social level by totalitarian computers, it is commonly represented on the individual level by the figures of robots, cyborgs, androids and zombies. These automatons are the husks of human beings, devoid of feeling and free will, mere contraptions for the carrying-out of functions which are programmed from the outside. In his famous robot stories of the 1940s, Isaac Asimov maintained a clear distinction between automatons and humans; but since that time other writers have shown themselves less confident that any such distinction exists. Thus Alfred Bester in "Fondly Fahrenheit" (1954) melds an android and its master into a composite homicidal creature which speaks by turns in the voice of man, of machine, and of a collective "we" which embraces them both. The humans who staff the army of Mars in Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan (1961) have radios implanted in their skulls, by means of which they may be controlled from without. They thus fulfill to perfection the ideal of mindless unanimity and precision after which merely human armies strive in vain. The title character of Michael Crichton's novel, The Terminal Man (1972), combines the depersonalizing metaphors of robot and computer, for his brain becomes a computer terminal, and the character himself becomes a monstrous hybrid of human desires and mechanical powers.                

Cyborgs erase all distinctions between man and machine, wedding organic and mechanical parts in the same creature. As the technology of transplants and prosthetics has grown more sophisticated, cyborgs have increased and multiplied in print and on the screen. For example, two American television series, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, popular during the mid-1970s, have explored at melancholy length the exploits and dilemmas of government cyborgs. In V. (1963) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973), two mainstream novels which draw heavily upon science-fictional motifs, Thomas Pynchon uses the figure of the cyborg (together with a talking computer and radio-controlled characters) to symbolize the dehumanization which he hears screaming at him from the history of our century.                

Androids, which are robots designed to look like humans, enforce the man/ machine comparison even more strongly. Superficially, androids may be said to reflect existing machinery: motorists on American highways will occasionally meet with a mechanical flagman, exact to the details of blue shirt sleeves rolled up to bare sinewy forearms, tirelessly waving its red signal. But on a deeper level androids also express the dread of mechanization and anonymization. Subject to external control, lacking a past, immune to feeling, unable to strike or revolt, anonymous and interchangeable—androids and their mechanical kinfolk exactly suit the needs and express the fears of an industrialized and bureaucratized society. When Norman Mailer went to Texas and Florida to view the first moon shot, an extravaganza he describes in Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), he saw engineers and astronauts as just mechanical figures, priding themselves on their subordination to the space program, on their functions, on their anonymity.                

Androids are indistinguishable from the figures of human beings, so common in post-war science fiction, who have been possessed by some alien power. Instead of using electrodes and wires, these invaders possess the minds of humans by means of mysterious rays, or crystals embedded in brains, or by genetic duplication. Whatever the means of possession, the effect is the same: humans are turned into automatons. A classic example of this scenario is provided by Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (1951), in which aliens establish control over their victims by attaching themselves parasitically to the base of the skull. In Finney's The Body Snatchers, which Don Siegel later made into a grisly movie (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1955), aliens duplicate their human host cell-by-cell, then substitute the depersonalized replica for the original. Like androids, the transmuted creatures mimic the human originals, but they lack all emotion, obey a collective will, and devote themselves conspiratorially to spreading their control from house-to-house, town-to-town."It's a malignant disease spreading throughout the whole country," complains the cinematic doctor, the last human holdout in a town possessed by the aliens.                

Exactly the same elements—invasion, possession, conspiracy—are displayed in the Cold War image of communism. The automatons resemble those monitory figures of communists portrayed by the popular media in America during the fifties and early sixties. In Red Nightmare, for example, filmed by Warner Brothers in 1962 for the Department of Defense, the central figure dreams that his town is taken over by the communists. After the transformation, everyone, including the hero's wife and children, looks exactly as before, but now each one lacks emotion, obeys party orders, and devotes himself single-mindedly to the state. A scene at the town square in which a Soviet officer lectures to the zombie-like citizens ("When the moral fiber of America weakens, you will seize control.") exactly parallels a scene in The Body Snatchers, where newly-transformed automatons are sent out to spread their disease to others.                

Still the grimmest literary treatment of the loss of identity through social pressures is that offered in 1984 by Orwell, who had contemporary Britain and America in mind as well as Stalin's Russia. In the showdown scene between Winston Smith, the rebel-against-the-system, and the inquisitor O'Brien, the dread of anonymity is described in terms parallel to those we have found in the literature of invasion and possession: "We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back," O'Brien declares.

Things will happen to you from which you could not recover, if you lived a thousand years. Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves. [§3:2]

Here is the emotional focus of the invasion-anxiety: the self erased, hollowed-out, filled with alien spirit.                

During the years in which fictional invaders, whether from Mars or Russia, were turning ordinary folk into puppets, many people were suggesting that the denizens of Unidentified Flying Objects had invaded earth for the same nefarious purpose. Arthur Clarke drew upon the flying saucer cult in his Childhood's End of 1953, conquering the earth in the satanic persons of alien Overlords, who were themselves puppets of an Overmind. At the novel's climax all the children of earth, their features erased and their wills extinguished, are integrated into the collective existence of the Overmind. Individuality—along with the planet—dissolves. Flying saucer lore outside of novels and movies also commonly speaks of aliens as creatures who possess the minds of their victims, paralyzing their will, turning them into robots. John A. Keel's hyperbolic account of Strange Creatures from Time and Space (1970) may be taken as an illustration of this vast literature:

An invisible phenomenon is always stalking us and manipulating our beliefs. We see only what it chooses to let us see, and we usually react in exactly the way it might expect us to react.... The central phenomenon seems to have the ability to control the human mind.... Once you begin to understand how the many parts dovetail together you will discover that the 'invisible world' has exercised a peculiar influence over the affairs of men.... It is time for us to bring all of the nonsense to an end. Time to smoke out the real culprits and tell them we do not much enjoy having our blood sucked and our brains boggled.10

More recently Erich Von Däniken has suggested in Chariots of the Gods? (1970) that humanity is the fruit of an experiment in genetics conducted by aliens who visited earth long ago in UFOs. It is unlikely the culprits will ever be discovered in the thickets of prose cultivated by Keel and Von Däniken, or by any others who postulate an "invisible world." The world responsible for the paranoia, for the fear of external control, for the dread of anonymity is the real one in which we live, made up of those institutions which define modern society.                

Of course one could argue that all these tales of invasion and possession are merely symptoms of the Cold War anxiety about a communist takeover of America. But this anxiety itself has deeper social roots. We have projected onto the communists, onto flying saucer crews and aliens the distaste we feel towards our own rationalized society. The regimentation enforced by these fictional creatures is only an exaggerated version of the regimentation we experience in our present world. Towns possessed by some inscrutable collective will are nightmare versions of General Motors or the US Department of Education. The stress on conformity, the discrediting of emotion, the subordination of self to collective, are all characteristics of bureaucratic organization. Techniques of brainwashing, military indoctrination, government propaganda and commercial advertising give us reason to fear that our heads will be hollowed out, our thoughts controlled. By blaming alien powers for our loss of identity, we are able to protest against our social condition while seeming to uphold the status quo. To paraphrase the comic-strip character Pogo, we have met the aliens, and they are us.

5. Monsters and supermen are the psychological twins of robots. Just as the mechanical men symbolize conformity and anonymity, so the Abominable Snowmen, King Kongs and Creatures from the Black Lagoon, together with all the science- fictional heroes who are endowed with extraordinary powers, symbolize nonconformity and individuality. They are the eccentrics, defying laws both physical and social, insisting on their uniqueness. Dwelling on the night side of rationality, monsters are a fictional revolt against repression and regimentation. Thus an actor observes, apropos the monster from Tokyo Bay in Godzilla (1955), "It seems to me there are still forces in this world that none of us can understand." Whether wreaking havoc on Tokyo or New York or London, the monsters are enemies of order, at once the fleshly images of our own destructive impulses (the film Forbidden Planet of 1955 even features a "monster from the Id") and of our mutiny against a rationalized society.                

Superheroes present a more complex case than monsters. Batman and Superman, for example, cooperate with the law-enforcement agencies and identify with the middle-class. Defense of property and of governmental security are their chief occupations. On his deathbed Pa Kent instructs young Clark, alias Superman, to obey the authorities. But even such establishment heroes express our yearning for individuality. Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter, is literally a man in grey-flannel suit, unloved by women, invisible in the city—until he strips off his disguise to reveal himself as Superman. Disguise also enables Batman to hide himself by day in the figure of an aristocrat; by night he becomes a worker of miracles. The purest example of this wish-fulfillment is provided by the comic-strip character, Captain Marvel, who is the alter ego of a small boy. The child, small and helpless, need only say, "Shazam!" in order to be transformed into the muscular, famous, potent superhero. There is an obvious appeal in such figures for adolescents anxious to be adults. But there is also an appeal to the adult longing for an escape from anonymity and impotence.                

It is more common for superheroes in science fiction to oppose the reigning order of things. Valentine Michael Smith, the psychic wonder who arrives from Mars in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), is typical of such subversive heroes. He challenges morals, political orders, and even physical laws. In the process he has appealed to millions of readers because he is an exception, a unique individual in a society of drones. In The Children of Dune (1976), Frank Herbert presents us with the subversive hero Leto II, who employs his considerable psychic and physical powers to revolutionize the ecology of an entire planet. More humble in their rebellion, the central figures in Player Piano and The City and the Stars revolt against totalitarian computers; those in 1984, We, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, against political tyranny; those in The Body Snatchers and Childhood's End against the regimented life imposed by aliens. Occasionally there are pockets of rebellion—the Spacers in Caves of Steel, the Travellers in Earthworks, the monks in A Canticle for Leibowitz, the sundry greenworlds and undergrounds—but these are marginal to the dominant society. Usually the search for identity is a lonely business, carried on against the current of history. The mutants who succeed humans in Clifford Simak's City (1952) epitomize this rebellion against conformity:

the mutants were a different race, an offshoot that had jumped too far ahead. Men who had become true individuals with no need of society, no need of human approval, utterly lacking in the herd instinct that had held the race together, immune to social pressures. [§5]

In all these rebellious figures, struggling to become "true individuals," fighting against "social pressures," we find revealed the central predicament of characters in science fiction.

6. Identity has become problematic to science fiction because it has become problematic in modern society. We are pushed toward anonymity by bureaucracies and technology, by the scale of life in cities, by the mass media, by the techniques of manipulation perfected by government and business. To borrow a term from Max Weber, these social phenomena are the bearers of certain structures of consciousness, chief among them being the fear of anomie, of external control, of invisibility. Through form and theme, science fiction dramatizes this fear. It makes no more sense to condemn the genre for its seeming neglect of characterization than to praise the modernist novel for its cultivation of the isolated ego. Both are preoccupied with threats to identity in the modern world. Mainstream writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Anthony Burgess and William Burroughs, drawing upon the formal experiments of modernism and the materials of science fiction, have hybridized the two seemingly opposed traditions, revealing the shared social concerns which bind them together.               

Like most significant issues in literature, the problem of identity in science fiction is not so much formal as historical. Its solution waits upon a solution to the problem of identity in society. Only when new forms of community arise, which allow for both cooperative living and richness of the self, only when technology is subjected to democratic control and humane purposes; only when cities are built on a human scale, when the machineries of government and business are dismantled and the powers which they now exercise are returned to citizens—only then will writers find it easy to imagine complex characters who are at peace with modern society. No one expects that day to come soon; many say it will never come. In the meantime, novelists must invent their own worlds, if they are to do justice both to society and the self, if they are once again to make their characters visible.


                1. New Worlds for Old (US 1974 xii+347), p 13.
                2. New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (US 1960 161p), p 137.
                3. Literature on the sociology of modernization is abundant. I have found the following texts especially useful: Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (US 1973); Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (US 1964); H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber (US 1946); and David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (US 1953).
                4. Martha Vicinus makes a persuasive case for this view of melodrama in The Industrial Muse (US & UK 1974).
                5. Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray, eds., Henry James and H.G. Wells (US & UK 1958). See especially Wells' essay on "The Scope of the Novel."
                6. The Foundation Trilogy (US ca. 1964), §2:7. In the same volume, his characters also speak of "The Goddess of Historical Necessity" (§2:3) and "the inevitable march of history" (§2:17).
7. What is Literature?, trans. Bernard Frechtman (US 1965), p 206.
8. Ibid., p 207.
                9. In many ways Lawrence's critique of industrialism and the "mechanical principle" prefigured the views which I have been tracing in post-war science fiction. I deal with this feature of Lawrence's thought at length in my D.H. Lawrence: The World of the Major Novels (US & UK 1974), §3.
10. (US 1970), pp 275, 277, 278.

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