Science Fiction Studies

# 16 = Volume 5, Part 3 = November 1978


James W. Bittner

Persuading Us to Rejoice and Teaching Us How to Praise: Le Guin's Orsinian Tales

Abstract..-- In 1951, the year Ursula Kroeber began graduate work at Columbia in French and Italian literature, she invented an imaginary central European country and wrote her first Orsinian tale. The country’s name, Orsinia or the Ten Provinces, has the same root as its creator’s name: orsino, Italian for "bearish," is derived from "ursa," Latin for bear. In LeGuin’s dry explanation, "it’s my country, so it bears my name." I emphasize the early date of some of these stories to dispel any notion that Orsinian Tales is LeGuin’s attempt to extend the range of her talents beyond the boundaries of fantasy and science fiction. The opposite is the case. Orsinian Tales includes chunks of the bedrock that lies beneath LeGuin’s other, later, imaginary countries and worlds.

John M. Christensen

New Atlantis Revisited: Science and the Victorian Tale of the Future

Abstract..-- By the mid-nineteenth century, the Baconian dream of material progress seemed a reality; man’s dominion over the natural world had been enormously increased by achievements in the various sciences and the practical application of their methods and discoveries. Salomon’s House had a secure foundation in the New Atlantis of Victorian England, and as the province of empirical science was extended to include all aspects of life, the optimism of the positivists grew boundless. Darwin provided a central metaphor for his age, and virtually no mode of thought--social, political, religious, aesthetic--was untouched by the context of evolution. This concept (or rather the version of it popularized by social theoreticians such as G. H. Lewes and Herbert Spencer), afforded many a rationale for faith in endless progress through technological advance. It also generated a fictional vehicle for expressing anxieties about an increasingly urban industrial world and about the implications of evolutionary speculation itself. That vehicle was the quasi-utopian tale of the future.

Taken as a whole, the Victorian tale of the future is a pessimistic genre that reacts against the prevailing cultural positivism. Considering such pessimistic texts of the era as M. P. Sheil’s The Purple Cloud (1901), Fergus Hume’s The Year of Miracle (1891), Kenneth Flingsby’s Meda (1891), Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), W. H. Mallock’s The New Paul and Virginia (1878), H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), J. S. Fletcher’s The Three Days’ Terror (1901), Hume Nisbet’s The Great Secret (1895), and W. Laird Clowe’s The Great Peril (1893), this essay argues that most futuristic fantasies of this period appeal to the stock prejudices of the public. Society seems too complex for the average individual to comprehend or influence; it appears to be coming apart at the seams and somehow the "experts"--the scientists and technicians--are at fault.

[A response by David Lake appears in SFS 18 (July 1979).]


Stephen H. Goldman

John Brunner's Dystopias: Heroic Man in Unheroic Society

Abstract..-- Two points may be gained from a reading of Brunner’s Age of Miracles that carry implications for Brunner’s other work. Brunner does not assume a future of promise and glory for mankind: the optimism of a manifest destiny is not part of the world that Brunner creates. Instead, Brunner questions the future and man’s place in it. The second point is a consequence of the first. Since mankind has no manifest destiny, how is man to determine his place in the future? In Age of Miracles, the future of the human race is an open question, and the solution to that question depends on individuals. Three other Brunner novels are likewise concerned with this issue of heroic men in dystopian settings. Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider all suggest that human beings themselves must take responsibility for the human race.

Joanna Russ

SF and Technology as Mystification

Abstract..-- "Technology," as it finds its way into almost all the discussions of it I have participated in lately, is the sexy rock star of the humanities, and like the rock star is an obfuscation of something else. Talk about technology is also an addiction, as may be seen in the reception of such popular film and television series as Star Wars and Star Trek. (Star Wars generates only one desire--the desire for a sequel.) In popular and academic discourses alike, hiding behind that sexy rock-star, technology, is a much more sinister and powerful figure: the system that surrounds us. If you add the monster’s location in time (during and after the Industrial Revolution), it is clear what is being discussed when most people say "technology." They are politically mystifying a much bigger monster: capitalism in its advanced, industrial phase. Some years ago I read a technophilic book in which the author speculated delightedly about how many sex organs human beings might acquire via surgery. He was even "daring" enough (his own word) to propose that men be given female organs and women male organs. The male friend of mine who had recommended the book (another technophile) thought this an excellent idea. In this way, men and women would understand each other better, he said. Now it is clear to me that men’s and women’s misunderstandings, far from being due to the differences in their sexual organs or their experiences in sexual intercourse per se, are carefully cultivated in the service of sex-caste positions in a very nasty hierarchy. One cannot dissolve the hierarchy by giving people double or triple sexual equipment. Tinkering with the genitalia when the social structure is the problem is like the common science-fictional device of "solving" the quality of life by giving people immortality. The technology-obsessed--including those who read, write, and study SF--must study economics and political analysis.


Raymond Williams

Utopia and Science Fiction

Abstract..-- There are many connections between science fiction and utopian fiction, yet neither is a simple mode, and the relationships between them are complex. If we analyze the fictions that have been grouped as utopian we can distinguish four types: a) the paradise, in which a happier life is described as simply existing elsewhere; b) the externally altered world, in which a new kind of life has been made possible by an unlooked for natural event; c) the willed transformation, in which a new kind of life has been achieved by human effort; and finally d) the technological transformation, in which a new kind of life has been made possible by a technical discovery. (Dystopian narratives may be discussed by inverting these terms, the utopian paradise becoming dystopian hell, for instance.) Among the texts discussed in the light of Engels’s distinction between "utopian" and "scientific" socialism are Bacon’s New Atlantis, More’s Utopia, Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

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