Science Fiction Studies

#44 = Volume 15, Part 1 = March 1988


Albert I. Berger

Theories of History and Social Order in Astounding Science Fiction, 1934-55

Abstract.--American SF writers have always confronted a dilemma with roots in three contradictory circumstances surrounding its existence as commercial literature. SF is about change, yet most of the writers who produced it were adherents of at least the mythology of US political and economic values, and believed that these ought not to change. SF is supposed to extrapolate plausibly from known science, yet the writers wrote for magazines that initially placed no commercial value on serious extrapolation or speculation. And the modern science of the 20th century-- the physics of Einstein and Heisenberg--could place serious scientific limits, like the "universal speed limit" represented by the speed of light, on the range of the adventurous imagination so necessary in commercial SF.

The most important SF editor, John W. Campbell, Jr, and many of his most influential writers did try to resolve some of these contradictions in their own fashion, and extrapolated theories of history and social order from the concept of entropy articulated in the Second Law of Thermodynamics--theories that emphasized the inevitable decay of existing societies (within, of course, the immediate context of the worldwide Depression and growing international conflict that existed as they wrote). Campbell himself (as "Don A Stuart") drew an explicit analogy between entropy and social order in "Twilight" and "Night," which, along with his later trilogy, "The Teachers," established the outlines of a world-view that will later appear in more developed form in the fiction published in ASF by Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, and--most significantly--Robert A. Heinlein.

The common threads that run through the increasingly self-conscious ASF stories dealing with issues of history and social order are: a belief that scientific and technological development is the prime mover of human history unless thwarted by irrational, emotional human fear; an expectation that the vast majority of human beings will succumb to such fear--and to their own self-indulgence; an assumption that only a narrow elite of the rational and courageous will refuse to succumb, and that they will be able to choose only between self-exile and authoritarian rule in governing their relations with the majority; a theory that elite control is the only way in which human society can develop with stability, in combination with a pessimistic attitude regarding the possibilities of such stable development over any extended period of time.

Such ideas provided--implicitly, but also essentially--a brief for authoritarian forms of political rule. And even at that, their exponents were unable to resolve some of the paradoxical consequences of scientific and technological developments first identified by Campbell in his "Stuart" stories.

Arthur B. Evans

Science Fiction vs. Scientific Fiction in France: From Jules Verne to J.-H. Rosny Aîné

Abstract.--SF needs to be theoretically distinguished from its generic "cousin" Scientific Fiction. As an early example of the latter, Jules Verne's novels are structurally different from most SF. Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires were intentionally geared towards the pedagogical implantation of factual scientific knowledge. And the narratological blueprint of each "roman scientifique" in this series strongly reflects this intent. By examining diachronically the place and function of such "scientifically didactic discourse" in the works of certain French authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Verne, d'Ivoi, Le Rouge, Robida, and Rosny Aîné, one can discern a palpable evolution in the narrative recipes used. On the one hand, the deductive (and often reductive) passages of scientific pedagogy become progressively muted and supplanted by inductive hermeneutic structures which serve to enhance fictional verisimilitude. On the other, textual referentiality increasingly grows "oblique" and non-mimetic, more frequently affecting the reading process itself. It is through an investigation of these narratological phenomena that one can best differentiate scientific fiction from science fiction as well as witness the historical transmutation of the former into the latter.

Katherine Fishburn

Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell: Science Fiction or Psycho-Drama?

Abstract.--Although Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell anticipates many of the techniques and ideas found in her SF series, most critics do not regard it as SF per se, treating it instead as a kind of intellectually demanding and sophisticated psycho-drama. This psychologically-oriented reading is suggested in part by the resemblance between Briefing and R.D. Laing's accounts of schizophrenia and by Lessing's own reluctance to identify what she believes its genre to be. Inviting though it appears, a psychological interpretation nonetheless fails to account adequately for the novel's multiple, co-existing, and often conflicting realities. Because of the limitations of the genre, reading Briefing as psycho-drama also reduces the dialectical tension between text and reader that is central to the meaning of this complex novel. Reading it as SF, on the other hand, helps to account for the multiple realities by asking us to accept them as literally real; and this maintains the novel's dialectical structure. Unlike a psychological reading, an SF reading of Briefing challenges our understanding of reality itself, thus requiring a fundamental change in the way we view the world. Although this challenge to our world-view is perhaps most explicit in CANOPUS IN ARGOS, it is also an important component of Briefing--as an SF reading demonstrates.

Jean-Marc Gouanvic

Rational Speculations in French Canada, 1839-1974

Abstract.--The years 1979-80 can be considered crucial ones for Québec SF, for that is the time when a virtually complete system of "literary communication" (in S. Schmidt's sense) came into being in tandem with the gradual professionalization of SF writing and a movement towards its legitimation and acceptance. The focus of the present essay, however, is largely on the preceding period, on the years between 1839 and 1974; and its emphasis falls on four major currents in speculative fiction, or SF avant la lettre: the Enlightenment in Québec, with N. Aubin as its spokesman; the ultramontanism of J. Tardivel; the utopianism of Plour just prior to the Quiet Revolution; and the discovery of American SF, whose first notable Québec exponent is M. Gagnon. In considering the important exemplars of these four currents, a pattern of transformation can be observed which leads to Québec SF as it is today--this through a process of secularization and of a taking charge of future possibilities, notably by the means that science and technology afford.

[Norbert Spehner's response, and Jean-Marc Gouanvic's reply, appear in SFS 45 (July 1988).]

Donald M. Hassler

Some Asimov Resonances from the Enlightenment

Abstract.--Complexity and resonance in the SF of Isaac Asimov may be greater than some of his recent critics have allowed. Since his intellectual debts seem to derive most directly from the 18th-century Enlightenment with few of the nuances added by more modern thinkers, it is easy to miss the depth of meaning in his work. Two of his most well-known sets of images, his laws of robotics and his notions about history in the FOUNDATION stories, illustrate these debts to the Enlightenment. And although Asimov has continued to produce new stories which further develop these images, I, Robot and the FOUNDATION trilogy are his first full treatments of paradoxes concerning free will and determinism as well as the 18th-century discovery of both the vastness and the order of history itself. Moreover, for Asimov all dilemmas such as these drive him toward higher levels of generality. He may often appear simplistic to critics because he wants to be general.

With regard to the Three Laws of Robotics, the energy with which a large number of permutations are derived from their simple "neutrality" seems similar to the paradox in what William Godwin calls "Necessity." Individuals who are convinced of the necessary determinism implied by such laws work even harder with the illusion of free will, according to Godwin; and Asimov's stories seem to echo this paradox. Also, similar to Susan Calvin and the other roboticists in I, Robot, the actors in the FOUNDATION  trilogy play their roles more vigorously precisely because the Seldon Plan claims to have predetermined the outcomes. But more importantly in the latter collection, Asimov seems fascinated with the vastness and strangeness of history itself. This general set of images or themes in the FOUNDATION trilogy represents what Asimov calls a "mystical generalization" that paradoxically--and in a Godwinian way, I suggest--brings him back from mere abstraction to produce human-centered fictions.

Carl R. Kropf

Douglas Adams's HITCHHIKER Novels as Mock Science Fiction

Abstract.--Reviewers of Douglas Adams's novels have accurately noted that his works do not conform to any of the usual definitions of SF. One useful way of discussing these works is to regard them as examples of mock SF, analogous in form and function to the mock epic. Adams's novels employ many of the conventional plot devices of SF--exotic hardware, strange life forms, narrow escapes. But at every turn the conventions are used to frustrate rather than fulfill the reader's normal expectations of what should happen in the genre. For example, Adams's hero, Arthur, is a bungler who repeatedly escapes death by improbable chance instead of through the usual resourcefulness of questing hero of conventional SF. More importantly, Adams's novels as mock SF defy reader expectations in two significant ways. First, they depict a universe governed solely by chance and improbability whereas conventional SF affirms our belief that nature is governed by knowable, consistent scientific laws. Second, the HITCHHIKER books deny closure whereas conventional SF, by definition, provides ideational closure. The result is that Adams's novels offer a universe unamenable to rational explanation, and hence precisely reverse the premise that governs conventional SF.

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