Science Fiction Studies

#46 = Volume 15, Part 3 = November 1988

Raymond Williams

Science Fiction

First published in 1956 and never reprinted, this little-known brief essay by the late Raymond Williams is a pioneering example of the kind of criticism that SFS in particular exists to promote. It combines an ideological critique of the genre with some pithily individual observations and an avid curiosity about SF as perceived by a British observer 30 years ago. "Science Fiction" first appeared in The Highway, the journal of the Workers' Educational Association (vol. 48 [Dec. 1956]:41-45). We are reprinting the essay with the kind permission of Mrs. Joy Williams.--Patrick Parrinder

Fiction is a kind of fact, although it takes some people centuries to get used to it. To point out that its substance is imaginary, or fantastic, is no criticism of it, for that is the kind of fact it is: a thing man has thought or imagined, rather than observed or made. In practice we value fiction over a very wide range, from the obviously realistic to the evidently miraculous. When we look, then, at a contemporary phenomenon like SF, we must be careful not to dismiss it because it is fanciful, extravagant, or even impossible, for, on the same limited grounds, we could dismiss The Odyssey, The Tempest, Gulliver's Travels, or The Pilgrim's Progress. The facts of SF are fictional, and can only be assessed in literary terms.

Many of us know SF mainly from our children's comics, in which, for example, the inhabitants of the planet Phantos, tall purple bipeds with the heads of cows, led by the Super-Phant Gogol, are invading the planet Cryptos, whose inhabitants are a kind of dun biped sheep. Repulsion guns, aqua-detectors, artificial suns, and the suspension of gravity abound. Yet the literary bearings, here, are easy, for the space-gun is just a new kind of tomahawk, and the Super-Phant is our old friend the sheriff of Nottingham. If this were the whole of SF, it would not call for comment.

In fact, in SF written for adults, the Cowboy and Indian, Earthman and Martian type is now quite rare. Wells'[s] War of the Worlds keeps being filmed, under various titles, and with varying degrees of acknowledgment, but, in print, the subjects and emphases are now normally different. SF has been put to service in almost every kind of traditional story. There are the stories of war and banditry, like War of the Worlds or Mr E.F. Russell's A Present from Joe. There are stories of adventure and exploration, beginning perhaps with Poe's story of a flight to the Moon, The Unparalleled Adventure of one Hans Pfaal, and continuing through nearly all the stories of Jules Verne to a recent example like Mr. Arthur Porges' The Ruum. There is at least one ordinary murder story, Mr. John Wyndham's Dumb Martian, which is also a common kind of love story. Men from flying saucers have been used as a contemporary deus ex machina in an otherwise realistic story, such as Mr. Henry Kuttner's Or Else. There are humorous stories, like Mr H. Nearing's The Cerebrative Psittacoid, and trick stories like Katherine MacLean's interesting Pictures Don't Lie. Poe wrote a Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade using 19th-century scientific and technological wonders as a continuation of Sinbad: Scheherazade is strangled, for although the king believes in a sky-blue cow with 400 horns he will not believe in photography or the steamship. Earlier, Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, had added SF to the Gothic novel, and this horrific strain has been very widely exploited. Mr. C.L. Moore's No Woman Born is a recent "Frankenstein" type, and in the general field there is such a profusion of monsters from outer space or the ocean depths as to constitute an entire 20th-Century Bestiary. This element, from the giant octopus to the tiny alien voice at the base of the skull, is commonly present, also, in stories of a different basic type.

The types, and most of the examples, that I have given, belong, ordinarily, to the levels of magazine fiction, and are rarely of much literary interest. Traditional appeals have been exploited with new, or apparently new, material, and the result is neither much better nor much worse than the long line from Horace Walpole through Conan Doyle. The general level compares quite favorably with that of the detective story, and there are the same "literary" exercises in it, in which "style" is put in as a grade-jumping, artificial element: Mr. Ray Bradbury doing for SF what Miss Sayers or Mr. Michael Innes have done for crime. But these exercises in magazine fiction, whether decorated or not, are not, in my view, the really interesting things in SF. An octopus on Saturn is still an octopus, and a Phant is still a bandit: the interesting new things lie elsewhere.

There are three types of SF which, while varying greatly in the merit of particular examples, are, nevertheless, important to the critic as new modes or norms. These are what I will call, for brevity, Putropia, Doomsday, and Space Anthropology. I dislike, intensely, most of the examples of at least the first two of these modes, but then, in the magazine fiction, intensity of either like or dislike is very rare. These modes are interesting because they belong, directly, to a contemporary structure of feeling, whereas the rest of SF, for the most part, is merely the profitable exercise of a formula. So, I suppose, these modes will in turn become, are already becoming; but the trace of feeling is still on them, and this is determining.

By Putropia I mean the characteristic 20th-century corruption of the Utopian romances. Stories of a secular paradise of the future reached their peak, perhaps, in Morris's News from Nowhere, and since then have been almost entirely converted into their opposites: the stories of a future secular hell. Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, and Orwell's 1984 are the most famous examples, but there are countless examples among lesser-known writers. Mr. Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is at once articulate and representative. The title indicates the temperature at which book-paper will burn, and the central character is a member of the Fire Brigade charged with setting fire to all houses in which books are found. The fireman hero starts reading and secreting books, has his own house burned down, kills while resisting arrest, and is chased through the city by a[n] electronic Hound (which Sir Henry Baskerville would have recognized). He gets away to the country, where he meets a band of scholars turned tramps, who preserve literature by committing it to memory. Meanwhile, behind him, the city is bombed.

Fahrenheit 451 is characteristic of books of this type in that, under the emblem of a story of the future, it presents not so much an observation, but a current form of feeling, related primarily to contemporary society. Here the "myth" is the defense of culture, by a minority, against the new barbarians. In 1984, the "myth" is the struggle between clean and unclean intellectuals, who determine the future without reference to the dumb "proles." The form of feeling which dominates this putropian thinking is, basically, that of the isolated intellectual, and of the "masses" who are at best brutish, at worst brutal. The stories are defended as an extension of obvious contemporary tendencies, and it is here that the SF element--telescreen, electronic agent, videophone--most crudely operates. These things, which are properly the extension of existing tendencies, serve as a form of external realism, offering to authenticate and persuade, within which the subtler, and more questionable, version of extension can appear to establish itself. For while atomic war, organized lying, political persecution, and the burning of books exist, as facts, on our side of the worlds of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, they are distinguished by being human, and social, activities, and are thus subject to a different order of calculation. The tendencies to adulterate or destroy civilization are evident enough, but their extension is subject to a different process from that which will give us the telescreen. The extension of social tendencies is a doubtful process, and any substantial writing of this kind will commonly be rooted in an actual and developed world rather than in the given, unconnected future, the fixed distortion, which the SF convention, confident in its authenticating gadgetry, here so misleadingly allows. I am not disposed to modify this adverse criticism by the fact that the apparent values of such works are liberal and humane. The gentle reader, and the consciousness of the writer, are certainly, by these terms, assuaged. But the tone of all such work that I have read, from Huxley to Mr. Bradbury, bears its own, and different, witness. The psychological strains of the isolation from which the myths are endorsed can be seen, very clearly, in much of the actual writing. The preoccupied realization of various extremes of cruelty and disgust is the finally dominant feeling-tone. It is said that these things are warnings; but they are less warnings about the future, or even about television, than about the adequacy of certain types of contemporary feeling which are rapidly becoming orthodox. I believe, for my own part, and against this central myth, that to think, feel, or even speak of people in terms of "masses" is to make the burning of the books and the destroying of the cities just that much more possible.

Putropia, however, stops a little short of Doomsday. Doomsday is the immensely popular genre which, with considerable ingenuity and variety, disposes of life altogether. There are catastrophes which stop just short of this, and move into putropia. Mr. John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids is an example. Here, the great majority of human beings are struck suddenly blind, and the Triffids--locomotive stinging plants, sources of vegetable oil, developed by Russian scientists--take over. The sighted minority has to decide whether to try to save the blind masses, who, characteristically, have taken to drink and so on, or to abandon them, to regroup the few who can see, and start making a better society. The myth is satisfied, of course, by the choice of the latter alternative, which has an apparent rationality once the SF convention has created the appropriate circumstances.

Doomsday used to have a God; it has none now. The Solar System burns itself out, after an atom bomb has been dropped on a strange rock which is an extra-planetary device of the same kind (Mr. van Vogt's Dormant). The universe contracts to virtually nothing, and color, light, and finally life vanish (Mr. Philip Latham's The Xi Effect). The former, perhaps, is to be rationalized as a warning against combined science and war, though the burning-out is described with brio, and not, I think, without pleasure. The latter is the familiar nightmare of mechanism; nobody does anything wrong, but we are finished all the same. More significant, I think, than either, is Mr. John Christopher's The New Wine, in which the human race is suddenly, by deliberate scientific intention, made fully proficient in telepathy. A hundred years later, life is almost over, for when people can see and know each other as they really are, they prefer to die. Mr. Eliot, operating from the same form of feeling, might have been well advised to put The Cocktail Party into SF, for the sake of external credibility. With him, however, some at least of the traditional sanctities and renewals are retained, as counter-process. SF, by its definition of an arbitrary discontinuity, can dispense with these, and, selecting the tendencies that suit its purposes, and extending them, make an end of the human complexity.

Much SF is really anti-SF. An unbearable personal tension, or a particular sterility in social thinking, at once use and make a villain of a large part of man's organized attempt to know and to control. Humanism is discarded in the very affirmation of the familiar contemporary myths of humane concern. Man, in many of these stories, reaches his lowest point; even Faust was eagerly damned. The convention powerfully supports this. Not only catastrophe, but social breakdown, is a donnée. Under new adversity, man and society at once break down (with a few favored exceptions), but the evidence for this is not from the record; it is, rather, unconsciously from the writer's feelings, consciously from the convention of the thrilling story, which needs trouble; (the central character of an adventure story is usually so criminally careless that he would not survive a day of real danger, but this makes for trouble, and for more story, and so here, with the unacknowledged underlying aim). I conclude myself from this kind of SF (look at the logic of extending tendencies) that we are all still in the caves.

I have left until last my recommendation of Space Anthropology. The old traveler's tale dealt in men with heads in their chests. In deep space, as I have observed, we find beasts and ghoulies and articulate vegetables, but these are the pre-history of the form. There are several moderate stories, and a few good ones, which consciously use the SF formula to find what are essentially new tribes, and new patterns of living. Some tribes are dull, like Mr. Ray Bradbury's Martians--passionless blue balls--in The Fire Balloons. Passionless blue balls we have at home. But the Lithians, in Mr. James Blish's A Case of Conscience, are a beautifully imagined tribe, in spite of being erect eight-foot reptiles. Here, for once, among the limitless claims of SF, we find a work of genuine imagination, and real intelligence. Reading all fiction is like that: after the long susurrus, at last a human voice, but here far away, among the galaxies.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home