Science Fiction Studies

#13 = Volume 4, Part 3 = November 1977

A.E. Levin

English-Language SF as a Socio-Cultural Phenomenon

Translated by Yuri Prizel; edited by D. S.

The subject of this essay is the evolution of English-language SF from its appearance up to the present decade. Since this has been and still is the most wide-spread phenomenon of its type in world literature, it can be used in order to elucidate not only general laws of conjectural or fantastic literature in the cultural system of contemporary capitalist society, but also a number of its more universal characteristics.  

I shall consider conjectural literature (the term "science fiction" will not be used at the moment) as a specific method of creating and transmitting meaning, i.e. as a well defined type of a cultural language which has appeared under the influence of a series of contemporary objective factors. Therefore I shall first concentrate on the sociocultural functions of conjectural literature, in order to describe later how these functions came to be embodied.

An adequate perception of conjectural literature is possible if one accepts an initial rule of its game: all the constructs created here are to be perceived as something external to the reality of our personal and social experience, as existing outside and independently of it. Of course, if this exteriority were absolute, if the conjectural aspects did not refer to this reality, conjectural literature would be no different from simple inventing and could hardly claim a significant role in culture. Conjectural literature is capable of creating and transmitting socially significant content because its images are at all times, at some very deep level, analogous to the images of reality found in social consciousness. This is the factor which permits the reader to replace elements from the models offered him with realities of his own experience, which is a necessary condition for significant perception of any literature.                

What assures such a possibility? By splitting up the unity of the world, by taking the reader beyond accepted limits, beyond known traits validated by his perceptions of empirical reality, conjectural literature reproduces in its models certain characteristics which are assumed to be essential for this reality, thus creating an analogy between its models and real experience. But the specificity of conjectural literature lies in the fact that these characteristics are expressed by "encasing" them in images which do not coincide with our customary ideas about the reality around us. This taking of models beyond the limits of the acceptable notions of what is and what is not possible is the chief device of conjectural literature. A writer employing this device founds his work on certain elements of his own knowledge of the surrounding world, while at the same time rejecting them, lending them an existence superficially alien to this world. The reader, on the other hand, interpreting the text on the basis of his own experience, might be able to perceive reality in a new light, to find in it analogs of those elements from which the conjectural model has been constructed. Thus the model itself is finally negated and "realized." Such a double negation can result in a synthesis of non-trivial knowledge, capable of enriching social consciousness.                

None of this has yet revealed the characteristics of conjectural literature as a specific literary system of the present century. The described method of literary modeling, the translation of human experience into the language of the conjectural images, is one of the oldest phenomena in history of literature. It appeared soon after the dissociation of the unified mythological world-view—let us recall, for instance, the Menippean satires. In modern times, conjectural, indeed SF, writers would include Cyrano de Bergerac, Swift, Voltaire, Mary Shelley, and many others. In order to understand contemporary conjectural literature, it is necessary to find in it specific characteristics not present in Antiquity or in the 17-18th centuries.               

This characteristic is as follows: Conjectural literature as a literary system has in our own century been constructed primarily on the basis of recognizing an independent value in its models. Conjectural literature now sees in its worlds not allegorical images of reality, not means for expressing some a priori accepted meanings, but primary meanings in their own right. This is precisely the watershed between conjectural literature as a specific cultural phenomenon of the 20th century and the numerous uses of conjectural subject-matter to express some previously accepted theme, practiced in earlier literature. No matter how wide the scope of possible correlations between the conjectural model and the world of human experience, these correlations are now not introduced into the model a priori as its raison d'être, but are recreated on the basis of understanding its inner integrity, the independent "unreal reality" which creates the self-contained logic of this model. Allegory presents us with an already known world, only turned "inside out"; conjectural literature creates a new one. This autonomous, non-subservient value of conjectural models is the main characteristic of contemporary conjectural literature.                

All of the above does not mean, of course, that conjectural literature is homogeneous. Emphasizing the main communicative goal of a literary system indicates only the basic frame of reference from which specific works will be evaluated. Conjectural literature developed so fast largely because it demonstrated its ability to transmit quite diverse meanings. Very often one can find in it traits of the grotesque, of parody, of utopia, but all the additional aspects and meanings are subservient to the specific principle of the autonomous value of the conjectural work. Moreover, relatively "pure" SF (e.g. Clarke's Childhood's End or Simak's City) is only a small fraction of conjectural literature.

As an illustration I shall examine Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. This novel, written in the early 1930s, has had a great influence on the developing system of conjectural SF literature. It interests us not only because it is one of the outstanding works of the genre, but also because, having been written still outside of a specific literary system, it nevertheless—by virtue of realizing the author's communicative goals—recreates the main characteristics of that method of modeling which became typical for SF in the following decades.1               

Huxley's intention was a literary polemic with the utopian novels of H.G. Wells. Huxley chose a grotesque anti-utopia denying the value of "machine" civilization, and based his model on extrapolating a series of tendencies already noticeable in contemporary (to him) life. This did not simply lead to a utilization of conjectural devices but to the construction of an integral world, a profound study of whose inner logic justifiably became the author's new goal. This is what makes Huxley's novel a work of conjectural literature.               

In fact, many elements of the novel's structure would seem to be superfluous and even alien, were it not perceived as primarily a work of conjectural literature. The reader's perceiving of the text as belonging to a specific literary trend, the actualization of perceptive mechanisms characteristic for precisely this trend, is the most important condition for an adequate understanding of its meaning. For instance, the numerous technological descriptions and sociological discussions in Huxley's novel seem simply unnatural if one views it only as a parody. The same can be said about the final argument between the novel's main hero and World Controller Mustafa Mond, very important for the novel's meaning. This is actually a philosophico-sociological modelling of different variants of evolution for human culture, and it lays bare many tragic contradictions in this process. The whole plotline of the Savage, which is a kind of "model within a model," is a search for an alternative solution, and thus does not fit into a satirical anti-utopia. The very "anti-machineness""of the book, the theme of "predatory things of our times,"2 dangerous not because they might malfunction but, on the contrary, because they realize their technological capabilities only too impeccably, would also become hopelessly banalized if seen simply as a refutation of Wells's ideal. It should be noted that precisely this aspect of the novel was least of all appreciated by its early readers: after all, the traditional interpretation of the man vs. machine conflict connected it only with the machine's deviations from its assigned functions (the theme of Frankenstein in Mary Shelley, the monsters of Dr. Moreau in Wells, the Machine in E.M. Forster). The non-triviality of Huxley's model is much more evident today—it is sufficient to refer to the lessons of ecological crisis.

Of course, taking into account the polemical horizon of the novel also helps to appreciate certain of its aspects. But these aspects are today interesting primarily for the literary historian, since the rather numerous parallels with Wells's novels were relegated in the novel to a modest role.3 When the novel was published, Wells was known and read in his homeland much more than after World War 2, and the allusions to him were easily recognized as additional carriers of the anti-Wells theme. For the contemporary reader they are virtually imperceptible; for him, the foreground is occupied by Huxley's conjectural model.                

Such examples could be multiplied. Thus, Isaac Asimov's cycle of robot stores, so popular in the USSR, uses as its main theme the collision between two different modes of thinking—human and robotic. The theme itself is, of course, not new (it had already been used by Swift); treated in a traditional manner it could have resulted in a satirical allegory, like Gulliver's Travels, or a moralistic fable. Asimov, however, creates a series of models whose "initial conditions" are based on the existence of two incompatible psychotypes, and then explores the inner logic of the created situations. This absence of a priori givens, this freedom of logical alternatives creates new artistic possibilities.

Now we are able to formulate the difference between SF and its literary neighbors, with whom it shares certain formal similarities. Thus, SF works often resemble fairy tales (folktales). However, an analysis of their respective communicative goals shows immediately that the fairy tale takes its reader into a world of pure conventionality. The "impossible possibilities" of SF become in it simply impossibilities. The world of a fairy tale is not a transformation of the real world but a sort of parallel universe, constructed entirely according to its own plan and existing in its own space. As was noted by Vladimir Propp, the fairy tale has its own, very rigid internal structure, on the basis of which a given and prior ethical plan is realized; thus, it differs fundamentally from SF. The fairy tale does not actively create independent worlds, it simply takes certain aspects of empirical reality and constructs from them a parallel universe by exchanging these aspects with their opposites: if in the real world justice is unattainable, in fairy tales it always triumphs; if in this world man is powerless before nature, in fairy tales he masters it. The fairy-tale world does not permit free variation, it is simply an antithesis of reality. A fairy tale does not become a work of SF even if the flying carpet is replaced by a proton rocket, for the communicative goals are different.               

Equally, one should not confuse SF and utopia. The main communicative goal of the latter is to give the readers an ideal version of their world, purified from everything foul and governed by truly moral laws. It is not really important whether the author sets his hopes on slave labor or on "superelectronic" technology—much more important is the fact that utopia, like fairy tale, does not create a model which is independent from reality, but constructs on the basis of initially accepted assumptions a specimen and a goal, a final point of harmony and ideal.

All this leads to a very important conclusion, namely that SF as a literary system can appear only when backed by very definite conditions of general culture: it is unthinkable until a culture comes to recognize the variability of its forms and the multiplicity of its evolutive paths, until it has freed itself from shallow teleologism (be it belief in a divine plan or unquestioning faith in automatic progress) as well as from conceptions which claim that the human condition is chaotic and unknowable, until the recognition of man's active responsibility for his historical path has penetrated deeply enough into social consciousness. SF is, of course, not obliged to tell about the future, but in its essence it is fertilized by the multitude of possibilities possible only in the future and meaningless without it. Thus the very nature of SF implies some rather rigid conditions for its coming about.                

Here it is important to note that the rapid development of empirical sciences, backed up by the visible results of a suddenly accelerated technological progress seemed to guarantee mankind's future progress. Therefore, the attitude toward technology in such forerunners of 20th-century SF as Verne and Wells is certainly positive. For them, technological progress contains no contradictions: it can give negative results only as a consequence of malicious acts of certain individuals (as Verne seems to have been convinced in his later novels, such as For the Flag or The Begum's Fortune) or as a result of social antagonisms (Wells). The objective contradictoriness of technological evolution, foreseen so clearly by Marx, is not noticed by these writers.                

Technological fetishism, so evident in industrial countries, became one of the main factors influencing English-language SF. A powerful stratum of social consciousness saw in technology that demiurge of changes to come which formerly used to be seen in God, Reason, or History. This was the belief of a large majority of that scientific and technological intelligentsia whose numbers and influence have been growing rapidly since the second half of the 19th century. Remaining within the limits of bourgeois ideology, this group felt at the same time a certain "uniqueness" and sought a form of self-expression, including the literary. It is from the members of this group and the strata gravitating toward it that SF recruited its first authors.                

All this had very important consequences. From its very inception SF reflected the cultural orientation toward science as the main stimulus of progress. This reflection took place not only on the surface but also in the depths, because SF reproduced a number of aspects of science as a definite method of cognition. Later I shall examine this in more detail; now the important fact is that 20th-century science has created a sufficiently high level of credibility, validating as it were in advance, to its readers, the creation of conjectural models. An SF work might contain incidents clearly contradictory to common sense, might distort our customary logic, might count demons and spirits among its characters—for the reader it will no longer be a fairy tale because in the context of his perception he will be able to interpret such "impossibilities" as symbols of certain realities of his existence. Such symbolization is one of the most powerful methods available to SF for finding analogies which permit the projection of its contents onto empirical experience. It is only to be expected that the dominant characteristic of this symbolization will be logical interpretation, leaning on the innovations that scientific and technological progress brings to mankind.                

Let us take as an example the well-known story "Something for Nothing" by Robert Sheckley. A philistine receives from somewhere a miraculous gift—a box which can fulfill all his wishes; he is driven almost frantic by the avalanche of possibilities open to him, loses all self-control, and as a result finds himself enslaved by the owners of the dangerous gift. At first glance we might conclude that this is merely a fairy tale with a not too profound moral. But at a closer look a new, more ominous meaning is revealed—science is capable of unloading upon men an abundance which will enslave them, demanding in payment an unheard-of obedience to the powers creating the abundance, powers probably capable of destroying both man and his newly acquired wealth. At the end of the story man finds himself imprisoned by the future—another symbol, for is this not precisely what happens in a civilization which has made consumption its highest ideal, and for its sake keeps wasting its resources in the ever accelerating race of unrestrained technical evolution? The seemingly innocuous tale becomes a thought-experiment of sorts, developing along rather severely logical lines.   

Returning to our main theme, we can conclude: it is not surprising that conjectural literature attempts not only to utilize references to concrete ideas, results or hypotheses of science, but also to include some structures of logico-discursive modeling of reality among its devices. In this sense it may indeed be called science fiction; in the same sense we may claim that it derives, on certain levels, both from literature proper and from science.

It is customary to date the beginning of SF with 1926, when Gernsback started the magazine Amazing Stories, the first specialized periodical of its kind; its first period continued until the end of the 1930s. The purely literary quality of most works in this first period was not too high, but it became very important in terms of future development: it was then that SF grew conscious of its right to independent existence and started creating the systematizing literary bases that became later important factors in its development. Let us dwell on this in more detail.                

How did the United States fare at the beginning of the second quarter of the twentieth century? 1926 was notoriously a time of "prosperity" and a feeling of power and security, an age of optimism, a seemingly visible demonstration of greatness of the American way of life. 1950 was a time of atom scares, military failure in Korea, McCarthyism, anti-Soviet hysteria. These 25 years incorporate hitherto unseen changes on every level of American society. The essence of these changes is well known; what interests us is that they led to attempts—especially by scientists-intellectuals and by students—to reevaluate many of the traditional myths of American mass culture. They also led to a feeling that the hitherto seemingly unshakeable foundations of life were unstable; consequently, such changes led, in certain strata of collective psychology, to a desire to preserve traditional myths and even to spread them—if only in imagination—to other times and spaces, and in other strata—to a desire to transcend tradition and rethink the qualitative changes taking place in our world. Both these divergent vectors of social mood had something in common, namely the desire to broaden the limits of the existing situation in order to either build barriers against changes in alternative thought-models, present and future, or, on the contrary, to study their possible consequences. Thus conservative, escapist, critical, and other moods, all created at that time a favorable soil for the development of SF.                

Another factor is equally important. The first quarter of this century saw revolutionary changes in the foundations of basic sciences, from physics to biology. A vast pool of ideas and information was created, and applied disciplines could start utilizing it. Telephone, radio, automobile, electricity, aviation—all these had already changed life a great deal, and the perspectives seemed to be fascinating and paradoxical. Hence a widespread desire to absorb some of the knowledge available only to a chosen few. This new demand could not be satisfied by "scattered" information available through mass communication, and the age of TV had not yet arrived. Popularizing writings were not yet sufficiently widespread, and anyway they would have needed an audience with a certain degree of preparation. The need for emotional sympathy and emotional contact with the scientific context of the times, the need for social consciousness not only in science per se, but in its visible results as well—all these also aided the development of a new literary system.                

Historically this was the first function of SF to be realized, and it came about in the 30s. It saw the growth of technology-cum-adventure-oriented SF, combining elements such as the detective, adventure, and western story with 20th-century technological dreams. With all its numerous weaknesses, the SF of the 30s can be seen in retrospect as an experiment of sorts, developing the possibilities of the new literary system in, so to speak, a "pure" form: the conjectural subject-matter was still a goal in its own right, not supplemented by any additional communicative goals. SF was not yet attempting to say anything about the real world, satisfied with the imaginary one which it was creating. This maximum freedom of constructing conjectural situations permitted American SF to develop at its very inception a most valuable arsenal of devices, which proved to be very fruitful in its further development; it was in the 30s that SF adopted such themes as Space Colonists, Interstellar Contact and Cosmic States, Alien Intelligence, etc. Even its most widely used device of Time Travel, discovered by Wells, was fully developed during this period.                

The 40s saw substantial change in SF. Its maturing gradually brought it to the possibility of utilizing the new literary system for an understanding of the scientifico-technical and historical changes. Editors such as Campbell, Gold, and Boucher, leading writers such as Kuttner, Simak, Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon work in such a direction. At the same time SF rapidly increases in quantity (five magazines in 1938, twenty-two in 1941). After the war, SF develops socio-critical motives, it starts reacting rather seriously to socio-political conditions in the U.S. and in the world, in the works of Pohl, Bester, Tenn, Kornbluth, or—in the British branch—of Clarke, Wyndham, Russell.                

By the mid-50s English-language SF could already count numerous serious and profound works. For one thing, it gave birth to the new literary thematic field of the relations between man and complex technical systems. It was SF which saw here a new reality of the age of scientifico-technical revolution, and developed techniques for handling it which were later adopted by "mainstream" writing. SF works such as Nerves by Lester Del Rey or Marooned by Martin Caidin initiate the chain leading to Hailey's Airport and Wheels. Furthermore, during the McCarthy period SF at its best represented the antimilitaristic stand in American literature, coming out in defense of humanist and democratic ideals. How serious such a stand could be can be seen from "E for Effort" by Thomas Sherred, "Target Generation" and "Across the River, Across the Trees" by Clifford Simak, or The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The SF of that period recognized the complexity of cultural paths and the timeless value of humanist ideals.                

With all the means available to it, SF came out against intolerance and coercion, obscurantism and racism. It would be naive to accuse it of a lack of positive social ideals; it is impossible, however, to ignore its belief in Reason as the highest value of existence, a Reason constantly developing in the struggle against blind forces of nature and its own creations, a Reason which recognizes each of its states to be only a link in the eternal chain of changes, which does not fear the situation of tragic choice, and which preserves its dignity even in defeat. This liberated cosmic vision, this struggle, and these tragedies can be seen in such outstanding works as The End of Eternity and "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov, City by Clifford Simak, Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, in many short stories by Sheckley, Anderson, Bester, or Kuttner. We find here a respect for intelligent life in all its forms, a recognition of the right of each form to its own way of development—a recognition which does not glorify isolation or "cosmic exclusiveness": let us recall, e.g., the wonderful "Specialist" or "The Sweeper of Loray" by Sheckley. Brilliant satires on militarism and spy-mania such as "Allamagoosa" by Eric Frank Russell, "Report on the Burnhouse Effect" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., "Brooklyn Project" by William Tenn, and examples of social criticism rise at the time to an understanding of the profoundly antihumanist nature of bourgeois society. SF writers were able to perceive or feel the dangers of overpopulation, the tendency to increased social manipulation of personality, the very complicated problems of prosperity. By painting the horror of nuclear confrontation, SF helped to develop antimilitaristic tendencies. On the other hand, by preparing its readers for the inevitable swift socio-technical changes, it served as a kind of adaptation mechanism, helping the acceptance of these changes. As a summary, one can state that at its best English-speaking SF was a serious attempt to solve some very important human problems.

Let us now attempt to analyze the main principles of modeling which determine the originality of mid-century SF. First of all we must again emphasize the orientation toward logical interpretation of its symbolic constructs, and the selection of perspectives of technological evolution as the basis of this interpretation. Such an orientation is, however, not only heuristically positive, but it also has a series of weak aspects. The main weakness is, most probably, the fact that SF sees the ultimate cause of social evolution only in technological development, augmented at times by ethical factors. Social norms are taken as constants, not permitting any transcending of idealized existing—present or past—social relationships. Ideal models of relationships between individual and society have already been determined by the liberal humanist tradition, and any break with this tradition can be viewed only as regression. Of course, all this is true only for the progressive branch of American SF—for writers like, e.g., Robert A Heinlein, the ideal is seen somewhere in the misty distances of the winning of the West, when white settlers, Bible in pocket and gun in hand, were cleansing the Promised Land from the unworthy Native Americans. While speaking out against totalitarianism and coercion, even the most profound SF writers see them only as a result of distorting the norms of bourgeois society.                

In order to understand the nature of another "inner barrier" of SF, one has to bear in mind that, like science, SF attempts to create its models in such a way that each one would be governed by a unique organizing principle, which would rationalize the entire construction as a whole. The knowledge contained in a scientific theory is closed within itself, science in its ideal form is free of context and contains in itself everything necessary for its understanding. A literary text, on the contrary, always must appeal very strongly to non-literary experiences of its reader, to the context of his comprehension: seemingly smallest details may be bearing an enormous load of meaning, since they are capable of evoking resonances in powerful layers of the reader's consciousness. But a writer constructing an SF model cannot, strictly speaking, call upon the readers' experience, he cannot count on their knowledge except for what is told them. Of course, the above should not be taken too literally—the analogies which assure projecting the model onto reality are not created in a vacuum. Nevertheless, the characteristics of a conjectural world, responsible for its uniqueness, have to be presented with sufficient obviousness and detail. After all, if a writer is using conjectural elements only as carriers of surface meanings, then the details of his model from the very beginning carry a double load: defining the surface uniqueness of the conjectural world, they become significant only as projections onto the reader's experience of reality which trigger mechanisms of reception based on that experience. In SF these mechanisms can be triggered only after immersion into the conjectural world as an independent entity. But precisely because of the supposed freedom of constructing such a world, its elements of significance must be at least sketched—otherwise the reader would simply have insufficient information. And here SF took, so to say, an extra-literary path: its models are created through a finite series of system connections, emphasizing rather rigidly all the significant elements.                

One very popular device, for instance, can be called the introduction of an unpredictable disruption into a standard situation. The scene of action is created by means of the most usual realities (for instance, a provincial town), on which an external, alien element is superimposed (an invasion from space, an unusual invention). The background, familiar to every reader, seems to be giving the author greater freedom of appeal to the readers' context-dependent level of perception. But by the very essence of the SF communicative goals, the author is interested only in the "distortions" of this background. These distortions must be introduced openly, independently of the context, because the author cannot count on the readers' ability to reproduce them independently. Thus we are faced with a very rigid plan, one which does not permit any conceivable deviation from the authorial model which rationalizes and explains the model as whole, This can be seen very clearly in two well-known novels by Simak: All Flesh Is Grass and They Walked Like Men: here the disruption is represented by the suddenly appearing representatives of extraterrestrial intelligence, and everything not directly connected with this developing conflict is very consciously cut off, while the conflict itself is shown in great detail.                

What follows from the above? It is obvious that the rationalizing plan would be difficult to preserve and to investigate if one were to make it too ramified. Therefore it is customary to vary only a small number of parameters. The most common one is the reductio ad absurdurn, when the varied parameters approach values which destroy the stability of the initial SF model. This creates the characteristic effect of warning—the reader sees that the unrestricted development of a certain trend might bring with it catastrophic results. The variable parameters can be any aspects of social life or technology: overpopulation (John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar), mind control (Robert Sheckley, "Academy"), advertising (Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants), etc. This can achieve a significant emotional influence, but the believability of such models is very low—they ignore the feedback factors which hinder too far-fetched deviations from equilibrium and cause qualitative changes in the system—changes which SF is "forced" to ignore. It is true that SF in a way does not attempt to be believable, it is satisfied to simply point out the dangers of certain social trends. Still, one can see a certain paradox here: SF can only warn against dangers which can be shown in extremely simplified models—after all, overpopulation can be understood by "homespun" methods as well.                

This conclusion can be generalized. English-language SF did give body to the expectations created by the scientifico-technological revolution, but it proved able to notice and develop only those aspects of future changes which already had their prototypes in social consciousness. Thus, it often spoke about overpopulation, but this theme dates back to the 18th century. At the same time, SF of the 1950s was unable to predict the ecological crisis, whose approach was already a close reality. SF writers have written a great deal about artificial intelligence, but they proved unable to present with any accuracy the qualitative uniqueness of even algorithmic thought-operations.                

Actually, all this is not surprising. Literature always turns to an image of the world based on generalized human experience, even if that includes certain facts of post-scientific knowledge. This enables literature to include and transform a great variety of things, but not those for which historical experience has not yet developed prototypes. Neither folklore nor poetry will ever be able to create, for instance, a negatively charged particle, because in their "sphere of activity" there are no analogs for it. The prediction of real consequences of the scientifico-technological revolution in all their depths and paradoxality also demands going beyond the limits of the images already extant in social consciousness. SF has expressed the very spirit of forthcoming changes and helped to prepare our social consciousness for the grandiosity of these changes; in doing this, it has already justified its existence. To demand more from it would have been naive.

The second half of the 1950s was a period of decline for English-language SF. The number of readers decreased, the number of magazines halved, new SF ideas almost stopped appearing, books became less interesting. Beginning with the 1960s, a new leader emerged: the so-called speculative fiction. At the same time British authors became more influential. The British "new wave" around New Worlds, edited by Michael Moorcock, became the ideological center of the movement to rejuvenate conjectural literature. What form was this rejuvenation taking?                

First of all, the evolution of conjectural literature was strongly influenced by the deepening crisis in bourgeois consciousness. Works by the "new wave" mirrored such aspects of this crisis as historical pessimism, rejection of progress, suspicion of reason, glorification of the subconscious and of instincts, appeal to the immutable and eternal human nature. Its main themes became the approaching end of the world, a glorification of licentiousness, the absurdity of the world and of human existence—all these often with a mystical and mythological coloring. The global pessimism of the "new wave" sometimes approached necrophilia, e.g. in J.G. Ballard. The range of conjectural devices did increase, primarily due to an utilization of mythological imagery, but in general conjectural literature moved further and further away from contemporary problems or, when it did attempt to turn to them, it manifested as a rule a total ideological helplessness. Even the most critical works of the period—A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch, "Black Is Beautiful" by Robert Silverberg—transferred social problems to a non-historical, non-class, abstract level. Logically speculative fiction has often exhibited outright escapism, presented as the most sublime wisdom. Such fiction does not need rationalism, and one should not be surprised that it rejected the principle of rational founding for its conjectural models. Technological evolution not only lost its earlier status as the demiurge of social change (this by itself could have been a sign of maturity), but the very possibility of rationally explaining these changes was rejected: knowledge based on mythological revelations was most often declared to be the one and only method of understanding existence suitable to human nature. The trust in history, for all its contradictions so characteristic for the best SF works of the earlier period, was replaced by an open fear of it. Probably this is why Stanislaw Lem called most of the 1960s SF a vulgar mythology of technical civilization, falsifying the cognitive, social, and political problems of its time.                

We should not, however, regard a return to the traditions of the 1950s as the way out. The flowering of "speculative fiction" followed logically not only from the crisis of the spiritual culture of bourgeois society, but also from a phenomenon one could call a cultural wearing-out of the very system of SF. The intensive popularization of science and technology (mainly via TV) deprived SF of its privilege to be one of the main links between the world of exact knowledge and the world of daily experience. The technological achievements themselves eventually lost their exclusive status, a mechanism of habituation was triggered, and traditional SF themes started evoking fewer and fewer emotions. The social consciousness became accustomed to the scientifico-technological revolution, and the need for SF as a means of adaptation decreased correspondingly. The increased level of popular-scientific literature made the inadequacy of conjectural devices quite evident. If it increases informativeness by increasing realistic exactitude and accuracy of details, SF crosses the limits of permissible stylization which allowed it to introduce conjectural elements in a natural way. Thus, The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton are no longer perceived as SF, although they definitely would have been twenty years ago. When critics called one of the most famous novels of the last decade, Frank Herbert's Dune, a handbook of environmental protection, they gave an obvious example for the shift in the evaluative frame of reference. Converging with good realistic literature, SF of this kind has to count with other norms of perception and change its communicative goals. This has led also to a return to purely instrumental uses of conjectural devices, used simply as carriers of externally assigned meanings. This returning to the situation "conjectural literature as a stylizing device" is very much in evidence now. I do not intend to decry this phenomenon (after all, it is a movement of conjectural literature toward "mainstream" writing), but one conclusion seems to be obvious: though "speculative fiction," striving to increase the freedom of constructing conjectural worlds, resulted in a degeneration of meanings created by it, the overcoming of this degeneration, i.e. an increase in contentual depth, proved possible only through moving away from the particular system of SF literature formed in the 1930s-1940s. Thus we see an obvious crisis of the SF system.4               

Where should a solution be sought? A large number of writers and critics (primarily the partisans of "speculative fiction") assume that conjectural literature is even now too burdened by the sin of science, that the departure from the traditions of the 50s has not been sufficient. They view the conjectural literature of the future as a means of studying extreme conditions of the human psyche and limit-situations of existence, when no customary laws are valid and the personality is alone with itself and with the world.                

There is also another point of view, insisting on a more complete fusion of SF and science. This conception was most clearly formulated by Stanislaw Lem (it is widely shared by many writers of the older generation in Britain and America, and a number of the younger writers):

it isn't possible to construct a reflection of the condition of the future with cliches. It isn't the archetypes of Jung, nor the structures of the myth, not irrational nightmares which cause the central problems of the future and determine them. And should the future be full of dangers, those dangers cannot be reduced to the known patterns of the past. They have a unique quality, as a variety of factors of a new type. That is the most important thing for the writer of science fiction. But SF has meanwhile built itself into a jail and imprisoned itself within those walls, because its writers have not seemed to understand that the salvation of the creative imagination cannot be found in mythical, existential, or surrealistic writings—as a new statement about the conditions of existence. By cutting itself off from the stream of scientific facts and hypotheses, science fiction itself has helped to erect the walls of the literary ghetto where it now lives out its piteous life.5

The program proposed by Lem is by itself quite justified. One cannot, however, ignore the real difficulties it has to face due to a definite limit to the possibilities of uniting logical-discursive and artistic structures, without which union the immersion of SF into "the stream of scientific facts and hypotheses" demanded by Lem is hardly possible. Crossing this limit will either make the entire conjectural element unnecessary, or it will destroy the artistic element of the work. From this point of view the lesson learned from the sober evaluation of such an experimental work by Lem himself as His Master's Voice is quite instructive.               

I have attempted to analyze the realistic possibilities and limitations of English-language conjectural literature. At the same time, its example led to an investigation of certain general laws of this type of literature. Of course, the development of conjectural literature in the antagonistic bourgeois society inevitably falls under the general rule pointed out by Marx—the hostility of capitalism to artistic creation. Thus the deepening spiritual crisis of bourgeois society affected—and it could not be otherwise—English-language SF. But, as for general and final evaluations of the perspectives of SF as a specific type of literature, they still seem to be premature.


                1. I am interested primarily in certain characteristics of the novel's system. For a more complete analysis of its contents, see V. Shestakov, "Sotsial'naia utopiia Oldosa Khaksli—mif i real'nost," Novyi mir No. 7 (1969).
                2. Allusion to the Strugatskys' novel of the same title (unaccountably published in the U.S. as Final Circle of Paradise [1976]), itself named from a line of Voznesensky's poem Oza.—D.S.
                3. As Huxley himself pointed out, the novel had been conceived originally as a parody on Wells's Men Like Gods—cf Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 2nd Series (US 1963), p 198.
                4. As for SF in socialist countries, it, too, is experiencing certain difficulties, but it is attempting to renew its stock of forms and devices while preserving at the same time a rational and humanistic view of life, historical optimism, and faith in man's capabilities.
                5. Stanislaw Lem, "Robots in Science Fiction," in Thomas D. Clareson, ed., SF: The Other Side of Realism (US 1971), p 325.

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