Science Fiction Studies

# 17 = Volume 6, Part 1 = March 1979


Peter Fitting

The Modern Anglo-American SF Novel: Utopian Longing and Capitalist Cooptation

The aim of this paper is to explore the interplay between ideology and utopian longing in the modern SF novel. Western SF is, on the one hand, a form of ideological production, one of the ways in which capitalism speaks itself and determines our ways of perceiving reality, one of the ways through which the real problems and conflicts present in society are transformed into false problems and imaginary resolutions. On the other hand, SF is also an important contemporary manifestation of what Ernst Bloch, for instance, has referred to as “utopian longing", humanity's continued striving for an "adequate future”1 a tradition which took on new force and direction in the bourgeois world following the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which were attended by the belief in the possibility of cognitive progress. Yet this blending of "utopian hopes and fears with the popularizations of the social and natural sciences "2 was followed, in the mid-19th century, by a sense of failure and gloom. Nonetheless, 20th-century SF is crucially determined by the combination of these anticipations of liberation with the possibilities of science and technology; SF can be seen as a contemporary focal point for the struggle between, on the one hand, the artistic manifestation of the desire for an alternative, emancipated world "in , which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”3 and, on the other, capitalism's ability to preempt and coopt each new eruption of the emancipatory desire. This is the reason why science has been more and more frequently turned against the utopian impulse, and why the positivist tradition has become, in present-day capitalism, a major repressive force. This is how Fredric Jameson describes the phenomenon in his account of Herbert Marcuse's new understanding of utopia:

Where in the older society (as in Marx's classic analysis) Utopian thought represented a diversion of revolutionary energy into ideal wish-fulfillments and imaginary satisfactions, in our own time the very nature of the Utopian concept has undergone a dialectical reversal. Now it is practical thinking which everywhere represents a capitulation to the system itself, and stands as testimony to the power of that system to transform even its adversaries into its own mirror image .'. . . For Marcuse, it is the Utopian concept - "the attempt to draft a theoretical construct of culture beyond the performance principle" which henceforth embodies the newest version of a hermeneutics of freedom.4

SF has, of course, been defined in a variety of ways. When it is situated within certain literary traditions for thematic fields, without taking into account its social and historical context, its contemporary significance is obscured. SF has been defined as well as the literature of "cognitive estrangement"5 ; but this definition, despite its merits, limits SF to a form of knowledge, to an understanding of the present. SF is, certainly, a continuation of various literary traditions; it does use many traditional themes; and, at its best, it is the educational, cognitive literature Darko Suvin defines it to be. But such definitions do not deal with the historical specificity of the SF of the last 35 years in its Anglo-American form, nor with its effect upon its readers. As I shall attempt to show in the following paper, the specific characteristics of modem SF lie in its combination of utopian impulse and ideological containment within several distinct thematic configurations of the future and of science.               

In the traditional novel, the utopian impulse is manifest in what the Hegelian Lukács described as a yearning for totality, for some lost sense of wholeness which the novelist attempts to restore to a fragmented reality - a longing which is familiar to us in the fictional evocations of a nostalgia for some earlier, lost age. In SF this longing is often associated with the future. But the emancipatory thrust of SF, its ability to imagine alternatives, is often blunted and deformed. Charles Grivel has shown that the predominant ideological functioning of the French novel in the late 19th century lay in the mystification of the reader's awareness of his deforming, alienated reality; a reduction, Grivel argues, of social antagonisms to personal conflicts.6 Ideological recuperation in the SF novel, on the other hand, lies not only in this familiar reduction of the social to the personal, but also in the displacement of the personal/social dimension to science. Character has traditionally been the central focus of the novel, but SF reverses the usual foreground-background structure of the traditional novel: characters are moved into the background, while objects, the products of technical application of the laws of nature, occupy the foreground.7

1.1. Modern SF begins in 1937, when Campbell assumed the editorship of Astounding Science-Fiction. Its birth was a part of the changing nature and role of the US scientific community on the eve of the Second World War.8 SF was at that moment a literary genre which expressed the views of a group without power - scientists and engineers - who felt that science and technology were far more important in shaping history than was generally admitted. Whether in Campbellian SF9 or in the scientific community itself - as reflected in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and particularly in the figure of Robert Oppenheimer - the ideological delusion involved was that science and technology were the privileged solution to the world's ills.                

This first period (the 1940's) corresponds to the success of Astounding -as can be seen in many of the works of the period, beginning with Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and his Foundation novels. The nine stories of I, Robot (1940-1950) relate the different stages in humanity's development and utilization of robots, from the first robot helper to the installation of giant robot computers to manage the Earth's economy. These stories are known primarily for Asimov's formulation of the "Three Laws of Robotics" and the puzzles posed by quirks in robot behavior based on the Three Laws. But the stories center on human distrust of robots, an obvious metaphor for human fears regarding science and its powers; and two of the stories deal explicitly with the question of technological solutions to human problems, by way of a robot politician ("Evidence") or a future in which the machines ("the vastest conglomeration of calculating circuits ever invented . . . robots within the meaning of the First Law") are "in complete control of [human] economy," an outcome which is shown to be both necessary and good ("The Evitable Conflict").

More significantly, science and technology are also presented as beneficial and critical forces in Asimov's Foundation trilogy (which also appeared in Astounding between 1942 and 1947). The Foundation uses scientific techniques to map and predict human behavior ("psycho-history": an alloy of psychology, statistics, and theory of history), thus shortening the imminent galactic Dark Ages through strategic interventions in the development of various worlds. Again, this represents an imaginary resolution in which the combination of utopian longing and science has been debased in an inadvertent foreshadowing of the recent political interventions of US imperialism. The world's difficulties are presented as susceptible to scientific solutions while the utopian impulse has been suffocated in the characteristically American abuse of science through subservience to an apparatus of control. Asimov's psycho-history is designed not to bring about a different, better world, but to preserve the already existing society from external threats. The possibility of real change and the reality of history are denied through the Spenglerian cyclical model of history and through the return to a future in which the ethics and economics of capitalism have been maintained. And this colonization of our future is not simply Asimov's response to the threat of Fascism, but also to the threat of alternative social structures -the "Communist menace" - insofar as psycho-history can be understood as Asimov's answer to dialectical materialism. 10

1.2. In the first type of classical Anglo-American SF, then, there is an explicit resolution of human problems through the application of technology, a resolution which displaces those problems from the socioeconomic to the technological sphere. But the optimism that attended this privileging of science, the faith in a specifically scientific resolution of human problems elaborated in the late 1930's and 1940's ended at Hiroshima and with Oppenheimer’s disgrace, when the US scientific community realized that their idealistic dreams of political power were illusory. In SF, disillusionment was expressed in the anti-scientific fictions of the 1950's. This category includes many of the best known works of the period, from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1951, 1953)11 and James Blish's Case of Conscience (1953, 1958) to Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1950, 1953) and Walter Miller Jr.'s Canticle for Leibowitz (1955, 1959).                

The modification of my first type of SF had already been taking place in the stories of Clifford Simak published as City (which also appeared in Astounding from 1944 to 1951). These stories trace the final centuries of human life on Earth and its replacement by alternate forms of intelligent life, including dogs which establish a "peaceable kingdom," Venusian "lopers," and other, more negative forms, from the mysterious, inhuman mutants to the regimented, hierarchical ant society which will dominate the Earth in the year 14,000. While human ideals are shown to be meaningful and life giving, humans themselves, according to Simak, are flawed because of their manual dexterity, which leads them to seek technical solutions to problems, and because of their innate aggressivity. The dogs, genetically improved by humans (with grafted vocal cords and artificial lenses) will take over from a humanity which has lost its raison d'étre; and when these intelligent animals confront some of humanity's old problems they will find new, non-violent and non-technical, solutions. Simak is one of the first writers to link science with "innate aggressivity"; at the same time, he nonetheless advances an emancipatory alternative to the alienating and repressive aspects of contemporary life through a transcendence of what he considers human nature to be. But if Simak's work can be read as the continuation of the utopian impulse, akin to the utopian visions of the English philosopher W. Olaf Stapledon, the rejection of technology will become, in the SF on the 1950's, a rejection of the utopian possibility itself.12

A distinction must be made at this point between anti-technological and anti-utopian SF. Anti-technological SF, as exemplified by City, rejects the privileging of technological solutions to human problems which was characteristic of the first type of SF outlined above. Anti-utopian SF, on the other hand, couples with that negation of science and technology a denial that it is possible to reconstitute the social and economic order, to eliminate the inequitable distribution of our resources and the domination and exploitation grounded in the class structure of our society. This denial is justified by raising objections such as the flawed character of "human nature," the problem of freedom, and so on.13

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is anti-technological but not anti-utopian. In this near future where firemen find and burn books, the average city dweller alternates between wall-sized television screens and suicide attempts, while the government wages an ever-expanding war. The novel ends with the nuclear destruction of the city - for Bradbury technology itself is the cause of modern alienation - and with the hero's escape and discovery of the nomadic "book people." Bradbury's negation of capitalism and the attendant utopian longing is articulated not in terms of the future, but in terms of a return to an earlier pre-industrial world. But in other novels of the 1950's, particularly in Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz and Blish's Case of Conscience even this nostalgic form of utopian hope is refused, and human suffering and conflict are blamed solely on human nature.

In Canticle, Miller uses the theme of a new Dark Ages; but in complete opposition to Asimov's Foundation, science is not the means of salvation, but the cause of perdition. As the novel begins, the Earth is recovering from a nuclear holocaust. In the desert, an isolated monastery has set itself the task of preserving the few remaining and now incomprehensible writings from the pre-holocaust period - for in the immediate aftermath of nuclear destruction, the ravaged population, in a Luddite frenzy, hunted out and destroyed books and scientists. Centuries later, when a new Renaissance dawns, scientific knowledge and morality again part company. And in the novel's final section, the reconstructed nations of the world again attack each other with nuclear missiles. The ending is, nonetheless, ambiguous: some members of the monastery escape in a spaceship with the books, while at the monastery we witness the awakening of an ambiguous new woman, "preternaturally good," "without Original Sin." Here utopian longing is clearly identified with science and is just as clearly condemned by emphasizing flawed human nature. The hope for cognitive progress is explained by reference to the serpent's words in the Book of Genesis account of the original fall: "For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes will be opened, and you shall be as Gods" (Canticle ch. 2:20). The belief in the possibility of a new Eden of Earth is thus but a temptation of the devil - a familiar religious view which is explicitly demonstrated by the title of a work by the Christian theologian Thomas Molnar: Utopia: The Perennial Heresy.               

Similarly, Blish's Case of Conscience raises and then attempts to repress even more firmly the utopian impulse. In this novel, the misery and frustration of the over-crowded "shelter society” on a future Earth are juxtaposed to the harmonious world of Lithia. But Lithia in all its alien perfection, is shown to be a Satanic creation; an interpretation which is confirmed by the upheavals caused by a Lithian visitor to Earth - a visit analogous to C.S. Lewis depiction of the scientific emissary of Satan, Weston, who goes to a new Eden (on Venus) to tempt a new Eve (in Perelandra, 1944; US title, Voyage to Venus). This depiction of the utopian impulse as a temptation of the devil is a specifically religious response to human hopes for a better world "here below." Yet the deferral of hope from this world to a Christian heaven (as in Canticle) is in Blish perceived as somehow inadequate: at the end of Case of Conscience, the Earth's inhabitants riot, destroying their dehumanizing "shelter society."

1.3. In these novels of the 1950's we see, then, the negation of the first, "scientific" type of SF, a condemnation, of what is seen as the false and dangerous claims of science; in the last two examples this is accompanied by a repudiation of utopian longing. But the complete rejection of this hope is ideologically unacceptable, for it far too explicitlv negates the underlying optimism of "the American Way of Life." In this sense, the Asimovian type of SF was an accurate reflection of the American way of confronting problems - by refusing to see that some problems were caused by the capitalist structure of society itself and by imagining instead that these problems could be resolved through technology. The negation of this type of SF in, the 1950's is incomplete, for no new solutions are offered for human suffering and conflict. And in the last two examples discussed, these negative conclusions themselves were already contradicted, however unsatisfactorily, by the ambiguous endings. The 1950's witness the appearance, then, of a third phase where this implicit negation of capitalism is recaptured and defused through a rechannelling of the utopian impulse into another kind of imaginary resolution. For insofar as "human nature" was the illusory obstacle to utopia in the second phase (whether through innate aggressivity or Original Sin), the SF of the late 1950's takes as its central theme the concept of a changed human nature. This is effected by depicting various parapsychological possibilities, particularly, telepathy.                

Within this vision of transcending human nature - already present in Simak's City - there are two directions: the possibility of utopia and its denial. Clarke's Childhood's End presents, human transcendence within a denial of utopia. Significantly, his novel begins with an evocation of the Space Race. But scientific research ends with the arrival of the Overlords who institute a new Golden Age in which humanity turns from competition and drudgery to what is soon perceived by some as an empty kind of leisure. Clarke's vision, however, involves transcendence: The Overlords are not the bringers of utopia, but witnesses to the death of Earth, midwives to the birth of a new telepathic entity. That entity will join in a larger Overmind which roams the universe seeking to join to itself other races ready to forego the physical world and individual identity. Science and cognitive progress  are explicitly rejected as steps towards a higher state: the intellectually and scientifically advanced Overlords are repeatedly described as sterile, while, human efforts, as embodied in the utopian experiment at New Athens - a device analogous to the Cyprus Experiment in Huxley's Brave New World - , are cruelly denied. Only the children are capable of transcendence; in the course of their transmutation they forget friends and family, lose their humanity and identity, and finally abandon the material realm itself. This thinly disguised Christian transcendence is only a misanthropic restatement of the anti-utopian, anti-scientific quietism of the preceding novels of Bradbury, Blish, and Miller.                

But in two other well-known works of the 1950's, telepathy is the key to a specifically human transcendence: in John Wyndham's The Chrysalids (1955; US title Rebirth) and in Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (1952, 1953). All of the novels mentioned so far, from I, Robot through Childhood's End, deal with the themes of science and the future in terms of the larger social context - humanity at large is somehow always in question. But in the utopian version of this new type of SF - a permutation of the original scientific model - human problems will be solved and the possibility of human progress reconstituted by improved interpersonal communication. After the original reduction of human problems to technical ones, this is the development of a new false problem - that of a "breakdown in communications" and the illusory belief that improved communications would, by itself, lead to understanding and cooperation on a world scale.                

In Wyndham's post-cataclysmic world a rigid, hierarchical, agricultural society has slowly emerged from the rubble. Based on the Old Testament accounts of the Flood and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the surviving humans on Labrador have developed a religious explanation for the "Tribulation." Mutations - which, according to the alternate, scientific perspective of the novel, form part of a natural process of reclamation of the devastated lands - are seen as sinful, Satanic temptations which must be ruthlessly destroyed, whether in the community's crops or in their children. Yet Wyndham describes the emergence within this static, authoritarian society, of a new and undetected mutation in a few of the children - a telepathic ability which grants the children a more meaningful sense of community, while it also forces them to flee the society which tries to destroy them.                

Wyndham's argument for the desirability and necessity of change, where telepathy - improved communications - is the obvious "next step," is made even more explicit in Sturgeon's More Than Human, in which children and social outcasts form a new collective entity in the midst of our present society. Sturgeon's Homo Gestalt is another variation of the use of telepathy as a symbol for the transcendence of the "human condition." As opposed to Clarke's inhuman suppression of the self and to Wyndham's brutal dismissal of the pretelepaths, Sturgeon's vision of the future development of our species emphasizes human emotions and ideals in a utopian metaphor for new collective alternatives to capitalist bourgeois individualism. And Sturgeon's novel concludes with the invocation of an even larger collectivity of which Homo Gestalt was only a "cell among cells": "here was the Guardian of Whom all humans knew - not an exterior force, nor an awesome Watcher in the sky, but a laughing thing with a human heart and a reverence for its human origins . . ." (ch. 3:20).

2. The preceding three-part model of the SF of the 1940's and 50's is no longer appropriate to the changed conditions and writing of the last eighteen years. For this model was intended to explain what I understand to be the dominant currents in SF in its "classical" period, and to illustrate my definition of SF as a specific balancing of ideology and utopian impulse through a study of the con-figurations that obtain in the use of the themes of science and of the future. To do this, I have tried to follow the SF of the 1940's and 50's through three stages. In the first, the concept of progress - the utopian impulse - was allied with a conception of science which obscured rather than clarified the concrete dimension of human suffering and conflict. The reaction to this first configuration again obscured the concrete: it blamed science for humanity's "false hopes" while showing that, because of human nature, any real progress was impossible. Even when the utopian impulse reasserted itself, in the novels of telepathy, human problems were shifted to the private sphere. And by the late 1950's, despite the optimism of works like The Chrysalids and More Than Human, SF seemed to have reached an impasse.                

The 1960's were a period of turmoil and change for SF as for American society at large. The boom of the early 1950's had suddenly ended - there had been some 40 different SF magazines in 1953 and by the end of 1957 there were only 10 - and the reactions to the scientific stance of Astounding (as well as the public's own distrust of the optimistic claims for science) were increasing: science fiction as such was in decline. The walls of the SF "ghetto" - the closely knit community of writers and readers - were crumbling as the central importance and popularity of the magazines declined. Until the late 1950's the magazines had been the primary outlet for SF writing and exchanges (through letter columns, editorials, and reviews). But now there was an increasing amount of publishing outside the magazines, and these new outlets were reaching a new and different readership whose interests and literary backgrounds extended beyond the traditional horizons of SF.                

The decline and resurgence of SF between 1957 and 1965 has been explained in various ways. The successful launching of the first Soviet satellite (in 1957) triggered a revival of interest in science and science studies in the US while coinciding with (or hastening) the decline in SF. According to some, it was the reality of space flight which rendered SF obsolete. From my perspective, it is also clear that the final phase of the first model - the "spontaneous” development of telepathy - was a dead end, an alternative which took any possibility for change or improvement out of human hands.

2.1. The early 1960's were a time of increasing tensions within US society during which the utopian impulse was reinvested in the concrete, in a surge of emancipatory activity - in the collective actions of blacks, women, and other oppressed groups, in the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, and in the Student Movement and the Counter Culture - which challenged the smooth functioning of US capitalism. This decomposition of America's carefully constructed image of itself has been frequently described in terms of a "breakdown in values." And in the mid-1960's some critics began to write about SF, because it was a genre outside the literary norms and conventions of the Establishment, as the locus for a creative search for viable new myths. 14 In retrospect, the exploration of new value systems in SF writing seems most apparent in the New Wave search for new literary techniques and in the popularity of mystico-religious themes. Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) is the most famous example of the latter. This novel was to become one of the cult books of the 1960's and did much to attract new readers to SF. The novel begins as a wry critique of the foibles of 20th-century homo americanus, in which the satirical technique of the foreign visitor who naively observes and comments on society is combined with Heinlein's familiar rugged individualism. But the account of the Martian-raised human's rescue and education gives way to escapism as the hero founds a new religion based on the communal sharing of minds, bodies, and money and using the magical properties of the Martian language.                

Although this may not be what Judith Merril meant when she began writing about SF and "New Mythologies ," Heinlein's interest in new religions is a by-now familiar phenomenon which does characterize one response to the contemporary sense of crisis: the belief that the present sorry state of affairs is due exclusively to the bankruptcy of the established moral and ethical values of our society, a bankruptcy which can only be resolved on the individual and spiritual level. But the SF of the 1960's which participated in the Counter Culture vogue for alternate value systems and lifestyles was part of a larger mystification of the sociopolitical dimensions of our crisis. Like the Counter Culture itself, this was a negation of the repressive features of capitalism that ultimately had to fail insofar as it diverted emancipatory energies from the public and political spheres to the merely individual and private.                

At the same time there was another, similar kind of SF in which the reaction to our crisis took the form of an equally mistaken and unrewarding search, not for new moral and spiritual values, but for a new aesthetics - the search for new literary forms and techniques adequate to dealing with what was perceived as the changed reality of the 1960's. SF of this type sought to resolve external conflicts by transforming them into aesthetic subjects and problems. The British writer J.G. Ballard is symptomatic for this, and an examination of his work, from the Drowned World (1962) and the Crystal World (1966) to his "condensed novels" of the late 60's, when he abandoned SF altogether, may make it possible to understand the importance and interdependence of New Wave and New Mythology in SF.                

In Ballard's disaster novels, the sense of crisis and impending catastrophe is transposed from the realm of history to that of nature. The responsibility for the cataclysm, as well as the possibility of doing anything about it, are effectively removed from the domain of human activity. In Drowned World, the Earth has lost some of the outer layers of the ionosphere; temperatures have risen, and this in turn has altered plant growth and melted the polar ice caps, flooding much of the planet whose geographical features have reverted to the tropical lagoons of the Triassic Period. While the remaining humans cluster in UN enclaves at the poles, Ballard's hero is drawn to the disaster zone, an inner response to the cataclysm which is explained on several different levels. Biologically, this response is a kind of devolution triggered by the genetically encoded memories of the Triassic; spiritually, it represents the promise of Nirvana contained in this devolution; and aesthetically, it finds its correlative in the author's florid descriptions of the terminal landscape.                

These attitudes are even more explicit in the Crystal World, where the aesthetic and spiritual significance of the cataclysm lies "in the transfiguration of all living and inanimate forms . . . . the gift of immortality a direct consequence of the surrender by each of us of our own physical and temporal identities." (ch. 14) In Crystal World, the Earth - indeed the entire universe - is undergoing a process of crystallization in which time is replaced by space, as beings and objects are metamorphosed into radiant, iridescent jewels. Ballard's hero is again drawn to the disaster area. But here, even more explicitly than in Drowned World, human problems will be solved not through resistance, but through an acceptance of the aesthetic and reconciliatory dimensions of the cataclysm. The hero is a doctor who, in the beginning, tries to help the victims of crystallization; but in the end, he suggests that the hospital send all its patients into the crystallizing forest. The novel is set in Africa, but both the hero's emotional problems and the larger racial tensions of the African continent are understood finally as aesthetic problems - as "problems of lighting" - contrasts which will be reconciled and transcended in the transfigured crystal world.                

Much of the SF associated with the New Wave belongs to this category; and the "speculative" nature of much of this writing lies not in the exploration of new social and human possibilities, but in the discovery and uses of various modernistic literary techniques (as exemplified in Ballard's acknowledged debt to the Surrealists, or in Judith Merril's frequent inclusion of surrealist writers in her "Best of the Year" SF anthologies of the late 1960's). At the same time, as in Ballard's resolution of racial conflict in Crystal World, much New Wave writing moves from the aesthetic resolution of various problems to the literary exploitation of controversial topics, most evident in Harlan Ellison's "revolutionary" anthology, Dangerous Visions (1967). The significance of SF's discovery of the avant-garde is perhaps best summed up in the words of Roland Barthes, writing in 1956 on the French a

The avant-garde is always a way of celebrating the death of the bourgeoisie, for its own death still belongs to the bourgeoisie; but further than this the avant-garde cannot go; it cannot conceive the funerary term it expressed as a moment of germination, as the transition from a closed society to an open one; it is impotent by nature to infuse its protest with the hope of a new assent to the world: it wants to die, to say so, and it wants everything to die with it.15

Finally, within this first category of the SF of the 1960's - that of a search for new values - there is a third type of false solution which resembles the earlier scientific model: a revival or continuation of the earlier belief that human problems are above all scientific problems. In the 1960's, this imaginary scientific resolution coincides with the discovery of ecology.               

A first example is Frank Herbert's best-selling Dune (1965) which is dedicated to "dry land ecologists." In his portrayal of Paul Atreides and the desert world of Arrakis, Herbert balances a description of the ecology of Dune with an account of the "historical" forces which have led to a galactic crisis. The novel is the story of Paul's revenge for the death of his father as well as an ecological puzzle in which the reader gradually pieces together the reality of Dune. But behind the events lie neither historical forces nor individual will. There is, rather, biological determinism, "the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes," which has brought Paul and the Fremen together to bring about that mixing of genes in the only possible way, "the ancient way, the tried and certain way that roils over everything in its path: jihad." (ch. 1:22) History and the possibility of human endeavor and change are again reduced to "natural" forces; while ecology is, in this novel, an illusory scientific justification for a kind of wish-fulfillment analogous to that offered by the machines which gave Van Vogt's Gosseyn (in the Non-A novels of the 1940's) the ability to transcend time and space and his own death, or by the Martian language which gave Michael Valentine Smith and his followers unlimited powers in Stranger in a Strange Land.               

Like Heinlein's novel, Dune is not the elaboration of some new science, but another instance of fraudulent New Mythology, the contemporary diversion and reinvestment of the utopian impulse in the yearning for false security offered by messiahs and dictators. The real meaning of that type of security is evident in the transformation of Paul's lieutenant, Stilgar: "Paul saw how Stilgar had been transformed from the Fremen naib to a creature of the Lisan al-Gaib, a receptacle for awe and obedience. It was a lessening of the man . . ." (ch. 3:11) Dune is, in fact, a denial of the utopian possibilities of science, for the ecologist Kynes had given the Fremen both a dream and a practical means for the gradual transformation of their hostile and barren world, and this utopia is lost when the Fremen accept Paul as their Messiah.                

Other, more recent examples of ecological SF can be found in the works of John Brunner, particularly Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and The Sheep Look Up (1972). These immense novels are skillfully constructed and carefully researched forecasts of the bleak future which awaits us if we continue to ignore the ominous warnings of scientists and futurists about the consequences of our abuses of the biosphere. In Stand on Zanzibar Brunner juxtaposes, through a mosaic technique, various characters, countries, and plots to create a depressing vision of a near future in which overpopulation has become the world's major problem. There is one ray of hope (analogous to the "spontaneous' emergence of telepathy in some of the novels of the 1950's) - a "peace gene" which, if successfully synthesized, could counter man's innate aggressivity and allow him to come to terms with the problem of overpopulation. While this ending can scarcely be taken seriously, the basic point of the novel seems to lie in its tour de force quality as the technical solution of an artistic problem: how to encompass and articulate in a single work the diversity and range of the coming catastrophe?                

The Sheep Look Up is without even the minimal optimism of Zanzibar as it focuses on the USA and the inevitable results of a continued ignoring of ecological imperatives. Again the crisis is situated in the pseudo-scientific context of the pop neo-Malthusianism of the 1960's. Brunner’s dire predictions resemble the forecasts of the Club of Rome and the recent discussions of "Lifeboat ethics."16 In Brunner's account of twelve months in the final collapse of a USA ravaged by pollution, malnutrition, and disease, there is no place for resistance or hope. In the final scene the United States are burning, which provides a solution to the ecological crisis as outlined in the final pages of the novel: "We can just about restore the balance of the ecology, of the biosphere ... if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species." Like the destruction of the hateful city in Fahrenheit 451, the destruction of America would cleanse the world ....

2.2. There were other writers in the 1960's who used SF to criticize US society by means of a more thorough and explicit identification of the social and political nature of capitalism. This tradition had begun in the pages of Galaxy magazine in the 1950's with the masterpiece of Pohl and Kornbluth, "Gravy Train" (1952; published as a novel in 1953 as The Space Merchants), a satirical look at a USA under the control of competing advertising empires. In the 60's the critique of capitalism reappeared in the writing of some of the young US New Wave writers - in works such as Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration (1968), Joanna Russ's Picnic on Paradise (1968), and Norman Spinrad's BugJack Barron (1969).                

But in a rather different fashion, the most interesting SF of the 1960's is to be found among the 19 novels written by Philip K. Dick during this period.17 There is constant reference to the oppressive features of capitalism in his novels, but in a very different vein from the above examples. Rather than satire or critique, each of his novels shows a lived experience of attempted escape through his characters' struggle to maintain and comprehend a fragmented and disintegrating reality. Although the following comments apply, I think, to all his novels, I will mention three of his best known works: Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1966), and Ubik (1969). In each of these novels there is, juxtaposed to the given "reality" of fictional world within the novel, at least one other "reality": in Man in the High Castle, the alternate reality of a 1950's USA in which Japan and Germany have won the Second World War is contrasted with the "reality" of an SF novel in which the US won; in Three Stigmata, the "reality" of the novel as perceived by various characters is undermined and replaced by drug-induced hallucinations; and in Ubik, a group of characters struggles against the "temporal regression" of their 41 reality" - a struggle which apparently takes place in an artificially maintained "half life" following their deaths in an explosion. Despite the bizarre nature of these condensations of the situation in these novels (which is certainly typical of all of Dick's work), each work is the account of a struggle for understanding and meaning, the narrative of the characters' desperate attempts to distinguish illusion and reality - a search which, in each case, proves futile. The utopian dimension of these novels lies, I think, in Dick's continued rejection of a fictional resolution to the dilemma confronting his characters - which is, in fact, recognition that nothing short of the actual transformation of the world itself could resolve human conflict and alienation. His recurrent depiction of the characters' agonizing experience of an illusory and disintegrating reality is not only the psychological correlative of our everyday experience of alienation, but a powerful representation of the workings of ideology itself. The centering of his novels around the "problem" of reality is an artistic realization that our own "reality" is, in many ways, an imaginary construct: that "reality" is an unconscious, ideologically determined conditioning and shaping of our needs and perceptions which conceals and deforms the real causes of human suffering and conflict while it creates in us "repressive instinctual needs and values," “permeated with the exigencies of profit and exploitation."18                

Dick's unending production of imaginary and illusory realities is a monument to the force of "negative thinking," for the alternatives he holds out elude escapism and cooptation because of his characters' continual return to confrontations with the present in the midst of this frustrating search for understanding. His heroes cannot accept the illusory escape offered them. They always seem to return, with varying degrees of hope and despair, to an existentialist commitment to struggle, just as the Martian colonists in Three Stigmata return from their drugged fantasies to the reality of life in Chicken Pox Prospects. The "interoffice memo" which serves as the epigraph to the novel sums up that attitude: "I mean after all; you have to consider we're only made out of dust. That's admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn't forget that. But even considering, I mean it's sort of a bad beginning, we're not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we're faced with we can make it. You get me?"

The central theme of Samuel Delany's The Einstein Intersection ( 1967), in which strange mutated beings roam a post-holocaust Earth, is myth itself - the tenacity of the old myths and the necessity of "working through" them so that new values and meaning appropriate to a changed reality can be created. The novel ends with the destruction of the old myths, but in subsequent novels Delany does not seem to have moved very far towards the elaboration of new “myths." And in the overrated and self-indulgent Dhalgren (1975) he seems to have come to resemble Ballard, a young master in the technical appreciation and aesthetic exploration of the rubble of ruined cities. Yet his latest novel, Triton (1976), is much more interesting insofar as his ability to experiment with and imagine what might loosely be called different "living arrangements” is gradually being extended from interpersonal to societal dimensions.                

Finally, within the context of SF's generic ability to provide a place for imagining utopian alternatives, the critique of capitalism and specifically of sexism has produced some of the most significant SF of the last ten years as exemplified by the work of Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ.19 Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness (1969) signaled a return to social speculation in which the imagining of alternate societies grows out of an examination of the social and political structures of the authors own world. Le Guin's story of an emissary from a future federation of intelligent worlds and his mission to the planet Gethen, where he tries to persuade two nations to accept membership in the Ekumen, uses an alien setting to examine human sexuality and sexism. There are serious weaknesses to Le Guin's analysis of human sexual bipolarity, particularly insofar as it "explains” human conflict. As the Ekument "Investigator" states (ch. 7), the ambisexuality of the Gethenians has resulted in a world in which, "there is no division of humanity into strong and weak, protective/ protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive." Because, as this outside observer explains in her report, ambisexuality has "little or no adaptive value," it seems likely that the Gethenians were an experiment perhaps with the object of eliminating war: "Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? .... The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive ... seem not to be very aggressive." As Fredric Jameson has argued "Gethenian physiology solves the problem of sex" by an "excision of the real," by doing away "with everything that is problematical about it,"20 in much the same way that the description of Gethen's arrested political development is, according to Jameson, "an attempt to imagine something like a West which would never have known capitalism": "It becomes difficult to escape the conclusion that this attempt to rethink Western history without capitalism is of a piece, structurally and in its general spirit, with the attempt to imagine human biology without desire which we have described above; for it is essentially the inner dynamic of the market system which introduces into the chronicle-like and seasonal, cyclical, tempo of precapitalist societies the fever and ferment of what we used to call progress. The underlying identification between sex as an intolerable, wellnigh gratuitous complication of existence, and capitalism as a disease of change and meaningless evolutionary momentum, is thus powerfully underscored by the very technique - that of world reduction - whose mission is the utopian exclusion of both phenomena."21 Despite these criticisms, Left Hand of Darkness is significant because it has expanded the framework for understanding and modifying human behavior; it is important not for its answers, but for the range and imagination with which the questions are posed.                

In more recent works - Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) and Russ's Female Man (1975) - the authors have elaborated two explicitly utopian worlds. Le Guin's "ambiguous utopia" of Anarres, the moon to which the anarchists have emigrated, is a harsh and inhospitable world where the struggle for survival provides the common purpose holding this society together. And yet, after 170 years of isolation from the mother world of Urras, the anarchist ideals have slowly been undermined by the gradual reemergence of hierarchy and privilege. Russ's world of Whileaway, on the other hand, is a less industrialized future Earth without men, an extremely practical and unsentimental utopia. Both women have reservations about the utopian project itself, and these works are important, not as literal models for the future, but insofar as they use utopian horizons for an analysis of the possibilities and shortcomings of their own society. The transition to the utopian world raises other questions, and in this regard Russ seems more realistic than Le Guin: the latter's Odonians have an available moon on which to construct their utopian society; Russ's Whileaway is finally revealed as having arisen not through reform nor through chance (the Whileawayan’s belief that a plague had killed all the men) but through violence in a literal war between the sexes. Each utopia is juxtaposed to a critical portrait of our own society: whereas Russ's recreation a contemporary US is limited by her feminist perspective (which, like Le Guin's explanation in Left Hand that human aggressivity is rooted in sexual bipolarity, denies the primacy of social and economic contradictions in the emergence and development of sexual exploitation22), Le Guin's Urras is a caricature of the Earth's "three worlds" (US/USSR/ Third World).23               

My defence of these variants of utopian horizons will raise disagreements in those who disagree with the limited nature of their critique of contemporary society as well as from those who find these utopias too timid and restrictive -those for whom utopia lies beyond the hardships of Annarres or the pragmatism of Whileaway. But their importance lies in the revival of utopian thought itself, in the willingness and ability to again envisage emancipatory alternatives.

3. The thematic configurations of science and the future have developed, as I have tried to show, over two fairly distinct periods. In the first, the optimistic vision of the late 1930's and 1940's - according to which human problems could be solved through technics - was also a repudiation of the desirability of a fundamentally different social order. This faith in science was followed, in the aftermath of Hiroshima, by disillusionment and rejection of science, and then by a denial of even the hope of a world without war or scarcity. This surge of antiutopianism focused on the essentially flawed character of human nature; like the religious world view of the inhabitants of Labrador in The Chrysalids, this was a view grounded in the belief that the very hope for change or an end to suffering in this world was "sinful." Thus the utopian impulse reemerged in the 1950' s as a transcending of human nature - but a transcending accomplished not through human design (through science and technology), but accidentally (through mutation) or as part of some "higher plan" (as in Childhood's End: compare also the "teaching machines" in Clarke's scenario for the film 2001 [1968]).                

In the early 1960's the immediacy of existing social conflicts and the pressure for change broke through the apathy, complacency, and ideological self deception of US society. This led also to the birth of a new SF in the 1960's. The outbreak of emancipatory activity was matched, in a first phase, by various forms of ideological rechannellings of the utopian impulse, a cooptation with at least three different forms which I discussed under the heading of "New Mythology": 1) the primarily aesthetic preoccupations of the New Wave; 2) the appeal to exotic new religions with their promises of immediate answers and gratification; and 3) the new science of ecology. But the 1960's also generated a SF which was, at its best, both critical and utopian - works in which the original recognition of the role of science and reason in human emancipation are reaffirmed. The hero of Le Guin's The Dispossessed is a physicist whose theoretical work will lead to the development of an instantaneous communication device which will make possible a league of worlds (the Ekumen of Left Hand of Darkness). Although this seems to suggest that problems in communication are at the heart of human conflict and suffering, Le Guin goes beyond the accidental or divine solutions of the 1950's SF: the ansible is a human invention, the product of human thought and design and thus an important symbol of humanity's growth and self-liberation.                

I will not venture to predict what future developments might take place in SF writing. But it is worth observing, first of all, that SF has traditionally articulated the possibilities which science and technology hold as instruments for transforming the world; and secondly, that books like The Dispossessed do promise to supply a new basis for the utopian longing for emancipation that has always been - more or less - a fundamental impulse behind and inside SF.


1. Cf. among his few works translated into English, Ernst Bloch, Philosophy of the Future (US, 1970).               

2. Darko Suvin, "Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil in the Age of Anticipation," SFS 1 (1974): 256.               

3. Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, "Manifesto of the Communist Party" in Basic Writings of Marx and Engels, ed. Lewis Feuer (US, 1959), p. 29.               

4. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (US, 1970), p. 111; Jameson is referring specifically to Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (US, 1955). Marcuse's position, and my own definition of SF, are grounded in the liberating possibilities of science: "Utopian possibilities are inherent in the technical and technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism: the rational utilization of these forces on a global scale would terminate poverty and scarcity within a very foreseeable future." An Essay on Liberation (US, 1969), p. 4. "Isit still necessary to state that not technology, not technique, not the machine are the engineers of repression, but the presence, in them, of the masters who determine their number, their life span, their power, their place in life, and the need for them? Is it still necessary to repeat that science and technology are the great vehicles of liberation, and that it is only their use and restriction in the repressive society which makes them into vehicles of domination?" - ibid. p. 12. For a more pessimistic exposition of the inherent limitations of science from within the same philosophic tradition, see Theodore W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (US, 1972).                

5. Darko Suvin, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," College English, 34 (Dec. 1972); 372-83. See also Marc Angenot's definition, "that group of narratives of conjectural imagination that describe a society axiomatically different from the empirical society around the author. The described state of affairs is estranged with a view to liberating the social imagination and promoting a rational criticism . . ." SFS 5 (1978): 58.               

6. Georg Lukics, The Theory of the Novel (UK, 1971); see also Lucien Goldmann, Towards a Sociology of the Novel (UK, 1975). Charles Grivel, Production de l'intérêt romanesque (The Hague, 1973).           

7. Andrew Feenberg, "Science Fiction of the Nuclear Age," Johns Hopkins Magazine, 28 (March 1977): 14.                

8. Feenberg, 13-22. In such an overview, an initial difficulty lies in the establishment of the corpus. I have based my study on the following selections of long stories and novels: 1) Jack Williamson's composite list of novels from his 1971 brochure "Science Fiction in College"; 2) the 1975 Locus poll, "All Time Best Novel" (No. 172, April 15, 1975); 3) the Hugo awards (begun in 1955 and given each year by the vote of fans at the World Science Fiction Convention); 4) the Nebula awards (given each year since 1965 by the Science Fiction Writers of America); 5) the SFWA anthologies, The SF Hall of Fame: 1, stories (ed. R. Silverberg, vs, 1970), 11A, novellas (ed. B. Bova, 1973), 11B, novellas (ed. B. Bova, 1973).                

9. Campbell's "best" editorials from Astounding were selected and published by Harry Harrison as Collected Editorials from Analog (US, 1966); see also Leon Stover's pro-Campbell history of SF, La Science fiction amiricaine (Paris, 1972).               

10. For some articles which address the same problems as the present one, see Charles Elkins, "An Approach to the Social Functions of American Science Fiction," SFS 4 (1977): 223-227; and Gérard Klein, "Discontent in American SF," SFS 4 (1977): 3-13; and specifically on Asimov, Elkins, "Isaac Asimov's Foundation Novels," SFS 3(1976): 26-36. All three are rptd. in R.D. Mullen and Darko Suvin, eds. Science-Fiction Studies: Second Series ... 1976-1977 (US, 1978).                

11. The first date in parentheses refers to magazine publication, the second to book publication. In many cases, the novel is an expanded version of the original story.                

12. Stapledon's most important novels are Last and First Men (1930), the extraordinary Starmaker (1937), and Sirius (1944). For an annotated bibliography of his work, see Curtis C. Smith, "The Books of Olaf Stapledon," SFS 1 (1974): 297-99.                

13. George Kateb, Utopia and Its Enemies (US, 1963), is a good study of the literary, philosophical, and political attacks made on utopianism. Mark Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare (US, 1967), is a valuable study of 20th century dystopian fiction. The "concern for freedom" as a literary response to the possibility of an alternate social and economic order is best illustrated in two anti-utopias, E. Zamiatin's We (1924) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). For a powerful critique of Huxley's anti-utopianism, see Theodore Adorno's "Aldous Huxley and Utopia," in his Prisms (US, 1976): 97-117.                

14. E.g. Judith Merril in the book review columns of the magazine Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1965-1969.                

15. Roland Barthes, Critical Essays (US 1972), p. 69. See also Bruce Franklin's assessment of the prevalence of disasters in the SF in the I 950's and 60's, "Chic Bleak in Fantasy Fiction", Saturday Review (July 15, 1972): 42-45. For some explanations of the avant-garde's role in the commodification of art in late capitalism which deny the negational or emancipatory function I -have been arguing, see R. Estivals, "L'avant-garde culturelle, le gauchisme et la société de consommation" in Actes du VIe Congrès de l’Association Internationale de Littérature Comparée (Stuttgart, 1975); and particularly the concept of "artificial negativity" in Telos 35 (Spring 1978) in P. Piccone, "The Crisis of One Dimensionality," 43-54 and Tim Luke, "Culture and Politics in the Age of Artificial Negativity," 55-72.                

16. For an explanation and critique of Garrett Hardin's widely publicized "Lifeboat ethics" see John Vandermeer, "Hardin's Lifeboat adrift," in Science for the People 8 (Jan. 1976): 16-19: "Metaphorically, each rich nation amounts to a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. The poor of the world are in other, much more crowded lifeboats. Continuously, so to speak, the poor fall out of their lifeboats and swim for a while in the water outside, hoping to be admitted to the rich lifeboat, or in some other way to benefit from the 'goodies' on board. What should the passengers on a rich lifeboat do? This is the central problem of 'the ethics of a lifeboat'." Garrett Hardin, "Lifeboat Ethics," Bioscience (Oct. 1974) as quoted in Vandermeer, p. 16. For an explanation and critique of the Club of Rome's 1972 report, The Limits to Growth and its subsequent 1974 report, Mankind at the Turning Point, see David Jhirad, Marian Lowe, and Paolo Strigini, "The Limits to Capitalist Growth," in Science for the People 7 (May 1975): 14-19, 34-37.                

17. Among the most significant of Dick's novels, I would include Time out of Joint (1959), Man in The High Castle (1962), Martian Time-Slip (1963), PenuItimate Truth (1964), Dr. Bloodmoney, (1965),Now Wait for Last Year (1966), Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1966), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) and Ubik (1969). For a complete bibliography of Dick's work, as well as a sampling of critical reactions, see the special number of SFS 2 (March 1975).                

18. Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (US, 1969), p. 17. See also his One Dimensional Man (US, 1964).                

19. 1 should mention as well the feminist and utopian fictions of Marge Piercy, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970) and Woman on The Edge of Time (1977) , as well as the anthologies of "SF stories by women and about women" edited by Pamela Sargent, Women of Wonder (1974) and More Women of Wonder (1977). Among feminist critiques of SF should be mentioned Joanna Russ's reviews over the past few years in Fantasy and Science Fiction, and two articles in Extrapolation: Beverly Friend, "Virgin Territory: Women and Sex in Science Fiction," 14 (Dec. 1972): 49-58; and Mary Badami, "A Feminist Critique of Science Fiction," 18 (Dec. 1976): 6-19.                

20. Fredric Jameson, "World Reduction in Le Guin: The Emergence of Utopian Narrative," in the special number of SFS devoted to Le. Guin, 2 (Nov. 1975): 226.                

21. Ibid, p. 228. The word "utopian" in Jameson's final sentence is used in the older, pejorative sense of "illusory" rather than in the way I have been using it.                

22. The two opposing views of the emergence and development of human sexuality and sexism are set out in Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (US, 1975), as opposed to Friedrich Engels, The Origin of The Family, Private Property and The State (1884) and Wilhelm Reich, Sex-Pol: Essays. 1929-1934 (US, 1972).                

23. Joanna Russ has written a very critical and searching review of The Dispossessed in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March 1975): 4144; see also her "The Image of Women in Science Fiction," in Images of Women in Fiction, ed. Susan Koppelmen Cornillon (US, 1972), pp. 79-94. Given her critique of Le Guin and the promise of The Female Man, it must be added that  Russ's latest novel, We Who Are About To ... (1977), was a keen disappointment. For some other approaches to the same theme see Pamela J. Annas, "New Worlds, New Words," SFS 5 (July 1978): 143-56, and Beverly Friend, "Virgin Territory," Extrapolation 14 (Dec. 1972): 49-58.

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