Science Fiction Studies

#106 = Volume 35, Part 3 = November 2008


  • Janis Svilpis. The Science-Fiction Prehistory of the Turing Test

    Thomas F. Bertonneau.

    Sacrifice and Sainthood: Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s Short Fiction

    Abstract. -- Walter M. Miller, Jr., best known as the author of A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), wrote a body of short stories in the late 1940s and early 1950s that fully matches the later novel in its style, acuity, and thematic richness and which, in anticipating the theological topicality of Canticle, suggests that Miller’s authorship might profitably be understood in the context of the postwar literary and intellectual movement known as Christian Existentialism. In its analyses and judgments about human nature generally and about the character of secular modernity in particular, Miller’s short fiction shows many convergences and points of contact with the work of contemporaneous mainstream fiction writers such as Pär Lagerkvist and Mika Waltari, as well as with the philosophical discourse of thinkers such as Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl, both Christian Existentialists by self-declaration. Like Lagerkvist and Waltari, like Wahl and Marcel, Miller sees a correlation between secularity and ideology, viewing the latter as a scientistic substitute for religion marked by dogmatism concerning its own pronouncements and intolerance concerning religious—or any other—dissent from the prescriptions of its supposedly reasoned agenda. Thus, the technical dictatorship in Miller’s “I, Dreamer” (1953) shows kinship with the dogmatic utopia of Akhenaton’s Egypt in Waltari’s The Egyptian (1945). A further, deeper link between Miller and the Christian Existentialists has to do with their common debt to Gustave Flaubert, whose “ Legend of St. Julian Hospitator” (1877) is the precursor-text for Miller’s disturbing novella Dark Benediction (1951).

    Alec Charles

    War without End?: Utopia, the Family, and the Post-9/11 World in Russell T. Davies’s Doctor Who

    Abstract. -- This essay explores the ideological positioning of Russel T. Davies’s reinvention of the classic British TV series Doctor Who. Davies’s program has announced in its themes, settings, and allusions an unusually direct engagement with contemporary politics: specifically, the repercussions of the Al-Qaeda strikes of September 11, 2001. Like American television’s Heroes and Battlestar Galactica, the new Doctor Who argues against the totalizing strategies advanced by both sides in the war on terror, denouncing violent modes of pseudo-utopian fundamentalism in favor of pluralist and personal solutions to global problems. Yet it has also remained aware of its own protagonists’ potential to succumb to such forms of fantaticism. Exploring in detail the reimagined Doctor Who’s first four seasons (2005-2008), the essay shows how the series investigates, juxtaposes, and perhaps eventually reconciles two concepts central to its narrative: utopia and family.

    Ria Cheyne

    Created Languages in Science Fiction

    Abstract. --The language of science fiction has been the topic of many critical discussions, but the “alien” languages that appear in sf texts have received significantly less attention. I propose a new approach to these languages, setting up a crucial distinction between “constructed” languages (those designed for real-world use) and the “created” languages appearing in fictional texts. Utterances in created languages are polyvalent, allowing authors to communicate with readers on multiple levels; and created languages themselves have a wide variety of functions, from characterization to speculation about linguistic science. I develop the motives behind, and functions of, language creation in sf, suggesting directions for future scholarship.

    Robert Crossley

    Mars and the Paranormal

    Abstract. -- The parallel emergence of modern Martian studies and psychical research in the later nineteenth century led to a strange fusion of the literary imagination and spiritualist practices. Both Percival Lowell and Camille Flammarion were drawn into this association, the latter far more committedly than the former. The turn-of-the-century case of the Swiss medium Hélène Smith, who claimed to have traveled to Mars and learned the Martian language, is a celebrated instance of the link between Mars and the paranormal, but the phenomena of telepathy and astral projection also make their way into such sf narratives as Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars (1912), Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930), and Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938). The extent and significance of the role of the paranormal in early sf can be most fully grasped in less well known narratives by Henry Gaston, Flammarion, George DuMaurier, Louis Pope Gratacap, Mark Wicks, Sara Weiss, J.L. Kennon, and J.W. Gilbert. Collectively, these narratives reveal the persistence of the problematic issue of the interweaving of science (or pseudoscience) and romance in the fashioning of fiction about Mars.

    Simon Spiegel

    Things Made Strange: On the Concept of “Estrangement” in Science Fiction Theory

    Abstract. -- The concept of “estrangement” has been central to sf criticism ever since Darko Suvin defined the genre as creating the effect of “cognitive estrangement.” By going back to the theories of Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht, I will show how Suvin, in his approach, intermingles formal, fictional, generic, and receptive aspects of estrangement. Contrary to Suvin’s assessment, it is not sf’s primary formal operation to render familiar things strange, but to make the alien look ordinary, a process I call naturalization. In sf, estrangement mainly happens on a diegetic level, when a marvelous element is introduced into an apparently realistic world.

    Janis Svilpis

    The Science-Fiction Prehistory of the Turing Test

    Abstract. -- Alan M. Turing’s test for machine intelligence (1950) involves a science-fictional dialogue in which a computer or an alien communicates with a human, who judges whether it is intelligent. Dialogues of this kind were already part of science fiction by the mid-1930s, and an analysis of Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) demonstrates how nuanced they could be. Robot stories of the late 1930s and early 1940s exhibit sophisticated variations. The mechanism for this development was pulp science fiction’s reader-editor- author feedback system, which identified failed attempts to recycle old story ideas and prompted more imaginative treatments of those ideas.

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