Science Fiction Studies

# 18 = Volume 6, Part 2 = July 1979

Jörg Hienger

The Uncanny and Science Fiction  

 Translated by Elsa Schieder

Although the fantastic and, in the majority of cases, thrilling events described in SF are presented as natural occurrences, some SF stories play with the fear of the supernatural—a supernatural which is, to be sure, outside and not above all reason, and which is thus felt to be uncanny rather than divine or holy. An uncanny effect is easily achieved when the fantastic event restores faith in prescientific attitudes banished by rational people to the realm of superstition. The investigation of the "mental games" which I conducted in the first part of my book1 has shown that events of this sort frequently enter into SF. In order for them to be felt as uncanny, however, this characteristic alone is not enough. Should it be made clear from the outset that occurrences formerly perceived as supernatural are possible, but have a natural cause, we will not even feel it to be uncanny when people are possessed by an alien spirit, forfeit their own identities or — as in Richard Matheson's I am a Legend (US 1954) — turn into vampires. Similarly, when reading Henry Kuttner's Dark World (US 1946), in which, not only a vampire, a medusa, and a werewolf, but also all kinds of magicians and soothsayers appear, we do not begin to shudder; the "dark world" is an analogue of Earth in another time/space, the fabulous creatures are presented as mutants, and there is at least an intimation of a scientific-sounding explanation for the witchcraft. The uncanny effect also fails to appear when the characters affected by the occurrences, but not the reader, lack the key to an explanation for an event that is outside the realm of what is possible according to human experience. It is understandable that Joseph Schwartz in Asimov's Pebble in the Sky (US 1950) almost loses his sanity after his dislocation in time. The reader, however, informed of the connection between the fantastic incident and a physical experiment, retains his equanimity; he knows that the incident has a natural cause, even though the specific nature of this cause remains unknown.

Of course, even without a rational explanation, phenomena that would be extremely uncanny in empirical reality can lose their uncanniness in a fictitious world. As Freud has said in his essay "The Uncanny":

The world of the fairy tale . . . has from the outset departed from the bounds of reality and openly accepted animistic convictions. Wish-fulfillments, secret powers, the omnipotence of thoughts, the animation of the lifeless — all quite common in fairy tales — are here unable to bring about the uncanny effect, because, for the creation of an uncanny feeling, . . . a conflict of opinion is necessary about whether the apparently unbelievable is not, after all, really possible. The very presuppositions of the world of the fairy tale obviate this question.

In addition to this type of fictional fantasy, there is, according to Freud, a second type which also excludes the uncanny:

The poet may also have created a world which, while less fantastic than that of the fairy tale, still differs from the real one in that it includes higher spectral beings, demons, or ghosts of the dead. All the uncanny which these figures could produce is lost insofar as the presuppositions of this poetic reality hold . . . We suit our judgment to these fictional realities and react to spirits, spectres, and ghosts as if they were fully warranted beings, as we ourselves are in material existence.2

SF belongs to neither of these two types of the fantastic because it is based on the question of whether the existence of the fantastic is possible. It thus creates a conflict of opinion which can be resolved only by a natural explanation or the suggestion of explicability — i.e., only in favor of a rational world-view and against the feeling of uncanniness.

Despite the explicability of the event, a horrific effect can, no doubt, still be achieved in SF so long as the reader is placed entirely into the experiential perspective of a person who is unexpectedly confronted with the gruesome consequences of a fantastic event. Although the possibility of technically reproducing an individual is hinted at from the beginning of Philip K. Dick's "Imposter" (in A Handful of Darkness, UK 1955) for example, the reader must still find it shocking when at the end the hero, toward whom the narrator has engaged our sympathies, discovers the terrible truth that he is himself a counterfeit. But not every terrible and shocking occurrence has an uncanny quality. Not all horror stories are weird tales. Terror can also be unleashed by a danger to life and limb which a person knows is threatening himself or others like him. The terror changes its quality and becomes actual horror in the face of unusual moral baseness or physical repulsiveness. It is indispensable for the infamous and the repulsive to be unusual: when they become the rule, horror turns into indignation or is blunted. The artful horror story therefore creates an atmosphere of normality before the infamous or the repulsive is allowed, little by little or all at once, to reveal itself.

The terror takes on another quality again if its object is not only threatening or morally or physically shocking but, in addition, defies all reason and thus produces an uncanny effect. A threat to reason which is felt to be uncanny can, of course, also take place even when there is no threat to life and nothing horrible happens. It does not even need to stem from an event but may spring out of a frame of mind which is itself often dependent of the overall atmosphere. The feeling that one is going insane is extremely uncanny; likewise the objectless horror that may steal upon a person at night or in weird places. Nevertheless, in all these instances, there is present the (not necessarily confirmed) expectation that something is about to happen that will overthrow our reason.

It may be objected that uncanny effects are possible even without a threat to reason. In point of fact, an indisputably natural danger can be uncanny as long as the threatened person and the observer (or only the latter) correctly or incorrectly believe in the nearness of such a danger but do not know whether, where, when, and in which form the blow will fall. In this case, the source of the uncanny feeling is not a threat from the rationally unknowable but an as yet insufficiently known threat. However, we need not concern ourselves with this simplest form of the uncanny, which is resolved simply through the passage of time: it is a form often associated with the adventure story and as such frequently appears in SF too. Our interest is to be focused on the uncanny that is characteristic of an event belonging exclusively to the fantastic in SF, i.e. Of an event which, according to hitherto existing human experience and science, may be considered existentially impossible.

In SF, the sufficient condition for the irruption of the uncanny is fulfilled by the presence of three prerequisites. First, a fantastic happening must, for a shorter or longer period of time, remain incomprehensible to all those affected. Second, the viewpoint of the narrator must be identical to that of his characters or one of the characters must be the narrator. Third, the unexplained occurrence must awaken a doubt as to its fundamental explicability. That just two of these conditions are insufficient is shown, e.g., by Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (UK 1957). For a long time astronomers are unable to satisfactorily explain the threatening cosmic phenomenon; and the reader receives no (or almost no) premature hint from the narrator, but only finds out step by step along with the scientists what the fearful heavenly appearance portends. But it is clear from the beginning that, while the cloud is at most forcing a revision of the scientific world-view, it is not jeopardizing the belief in the possibility of scientific research into natural phenomena. This belief is not to be jeopardized, if for no other reason than because the Black Cloud is not only discovered by scientific means but can also be measured and subjected to predictions immediately after its discovery. Its mass, its speed, and the probable moment of its arrival in the solar system can be established immediately. The specialists have taken up this dark matter and, owing to their energetic efforts at an explanation, the uncanny feeling cannot arise.

The effect is entirely different when an unprecedented phenomenon is at first observed only by people who prefer to doubt their sanity rather than to believe in the monstrous evidence of their senses, and who, afraid of becoming a laughing stock, keep secret what they have seen or, at most, share it with a trusted friend under the seal of secrecy. Many stories about alien invasions begin in this fashion.

In Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (US 1955), the narrator, a doctor in a small California town, becomes professionally embarrassed when several patients claim that a father, an uncle, a spouse, or a teacher — although in no way different in appearance or behavior — is in reality an alien. That it is a delusion is accepted implicitly by the narrator until, in the house of an acquaintance, he spots lying in the cellar, as smooth and unscarred as an infant's body, the naked and lifeless body of an adult, whose well-proportioned face is similar to a half developed photograph: it lacks individual traits. However, during the course of the night it begins to acquire the facial features of the inhabitant of the house; and in the same night, the narrator discovers a second similar monstrosity in the house of his girlfriend. This time there lies in the basement a female form which looks like an unfinished version of the woman he loves. Apparently, the townspeople who complained that their fellow citizens were counterfeits, were not deceived; what is now revealed as reality is far more incomprehensible than a psychiatrically inexplicable mass psychosis among the sober townspeople.

True, after the first climax of the uncanny there ensues a period of seemingly coming to one's senses. In broad daylight, the monsters discovered at night have disappeared. A psychiatrist, who has up to now been forced to acknowledge his incompetence, suddenly has a plausible theory ready: it has all been, after all, an infectious delusion which can lead to significant changes in perception and to hallucinations. In addition, all the narrator's patients suddenly assure him that they themselves no longer understand how they could have fallen prey to the absurd thought that some of their own relatives and fellow citizens were in reality alien beings. But just this sudden return to normality arouses in the narrator a new suspicion, which is horribly confirmed. The number of counterfeit people has increased in the meantime. The psychiatric expert and the ostensibly recovered patients are now themselves of that gruesome company. Their distinguishing characteristic proves to be an indifference to ordinary human occupations and pleasures as well as a tendency toward isolation from the world outside the town. Stores and hotels yawn empty. Houses and gardens deteriorate. Contacts with the outside world die off. Roads leading to the town are torn up or blocked off. In the end, the narrator and his girl companion are the only real people left in the town, which has by now been taken over by the counterfeits.

After the uncanniness of the happening has reached this second and higher climax,3 there comes the explanation which is demanded by the rules of the game and the content of which has already been expected by the initiated SF reader. By metamorphosing into the inhabitants of Santa Mira, California, an extraterrestrial protean life-form has created a bridgehead for conquering the planet. The how of this process remains mostly incomprehensible; but the mere certainty that it is a natural process takes away its ghastly character. The narrator and his companion react accordingly. Though they had easily escaped the fate of their fellow citizens by fleeing from the affected houses, they were both paralyzed by terror. Now, although they have fallen into the power of the non-humans, they take the initiative and mount a counter-offensive. Along with faith in their reason, both the remaining representatives of the species homo sapiens also reassert their ingenuity and readiness to struggle, the distinguishing characteristics of humans in SF. By courage and luck, and without help from outside, they succeed in driving the alien life-form from Earth.

The typical SF-ending does not alter the fact that the major part of this tale has the character of a horror story. The same thing holds true for many other stories. This seems to favor the opinion that there is no hard and fast dividing line between SF and weird fiction: the pseudoscientific explanation of the uncanny is, supposedly, often only a concession to the reader who is inclined to be skeptical yet is at the same time fascinated by the uncanny, and who does not want to experience the pleasure of horror without the fig leaf of rationality. However, an important point is not taken into account by such an interpretation. The resolution of the horror at the end of a predominantly uncanny tale has a function similar to that of the disturbance of a closed society at the end of a predominantly satirical tale. In both cases stagnation turns again into movement. Like the social order which has become rigid and therefore perverted, the uncanny and therefore paralyzing condition proves to be transitory. As the temporary perversion of the social order is a danger with which one must reckon when progressing into new, fantastic phases of human history, so the temporary paralysis of reason is a threat to which people will have to adapt when coming into contact with to date unknown or superstitiously misunderstood possibilities of nature. Therefore horror stories also belong in the domain of SF as long as, at the end, a reactivated reason lays hold of — even though it may not necessarily completely clarify — the object of the horror, and the feeling of uncanniness is dispelled.

The limits of SF are reached and overstepped only when a story ends without this feeling. In Ray Bradbury's story "The Third Expedition" (in The Martian Chronicles, US 1951), the participants in the Third Expedition to Mars — their predecessors have vanished without a trace — discover near their landing site a small town which looks exactly like the captain's Illinois hometown had looked in 1996. Several untenable theories meant to make sense out of the uncanny phenomenon are considered. Has the spaceship perhaps landed on Earth instead of Mars? Does the town have something to do with the participants of the first two expeditions who wanted to create a second Earth on Mars? Did the trip through space become a journey through time? But then, among the town's inhabitants the crew members encounter dead people who were near and dear to them, and, in their hysterical happiness, the unbelievable is accepted without question. Those who died on Earth have received a second chance not in the beyond but on the neighboring planet, and their space-traveling relatives and loved ones have now rejoined them. Only during the night, while he is resting in the familiar bedroom of his youth after an evening spent in recollecting the past with his parents and his brother, who have been dead for a long time, does the captain chance upon the explanation which a reader acquainted with SF conventions has thought of from the beginning. On Mars there are indigenous intelligent beings with telepathic and hypnotic faculties, which they use to destroy invaders relying a technological superiority. Just like the narrator in Finney's The Body Snatchers, the captain finds, along with the explanation, the strength to defend himself; but he finds it too late. He does not succeed in creeping out of the room unnoticed because the "brother" beside him awakens. The captain can still cry out twice. But he does not reach the door.

If the story ended with this horrific effect, it would remain within the framework of SF. For, according to the conventions of SF, it is self-evident that man may encounter, in space or even one day on Earth, intelligent beings who possess some power which his ancestors ascribed to wizards and demons, that he must reckon with his possible physical annihilation at the hands of such creatures, and that he may perhaps be unable to even come close to comprehending the nature of the alien intelligence. Nevertheless, according to the same conventions, the incomprehensibility of the facts must not become an axiomatic incomprehensibility: the nonhuman intelligence may greatly surpass the human one, but it may not set it altogether aside by completely disqualifying rationality. So that there can be no doubt about the latter's invulnerability, the incomprehensible power must at least conform to some set of laws, which enables men to form plausible, even if unverifiable, theories about particular aspects of the phenomenon and to make this or that forecast which is confirmed by events. Even the most modest success in the intellectual endeavor to understand the monstrous, would show that the mentally outclassed homo- sapiens is still able to think adequately, within his mental limits, and that the impenetrable aspect of nature is not to be held as being of supernatural origin. The effort at understanding may be useless for all practical purposes, as in the case of the scientist in Heinlein's ''Goldfish Bowl" (in The Menace From Earth, US 1959) who cannot positively ascertain into whose power he has fallen and where he is, but who nevertheless develops ingenious hypotheses and arrives at the correct conclusion —namely, that his body, upon which he is writing a warning message for humanity, will be thrown into the ocean after his death. People do not understand the message, but the fished up corpse is proof for the reader that human intelligence can remain active even in the face of a terribly superior alien mind.

The death of the captain in Bradbury's story seems, more than ever, to furnish such a proof in that, to all appearances, it fully confirms the theory that the captain formulated after the temporary paralysis of his reason. Of course, this does not diminish the horror of his death. In fact, it is hardly possible to think of a greater horror than the transformation of those believed nearest and dearest into murderous monsters. That this is a very frequently recurring theme in SF I have substantiated elsewhere. But no matter how horrible the explanation of the frightful occurrences may be, it would end the uncanniness if, after the nighttime atrocity, there did not follow a final scene which cannot be explained by the captain's theory and which therefore becomes once again extremely uncanny.

The following morning a funeral procession with a coffin comes out of every house on the street on which the home of the captain's "parents" is situated. Weeping fathers and mothers, grandparents and siblings, go to the cemetery where the graves have already been dug. A brass band is playing. The mayor makes a speech. His face sometimes looks like that of the mayor and sometimes "like something else." The faces of the mourners are equally changeable: "Grandpa and Grandma Lustig were there, weeping, their faces shifting like wax, shimmering as all things shimmer on a hot day." the brass band, "playing 'Columbia the Gem of the Ocean'," marches back into town "and everyone took the day off."

Why this preservation of an illusion, the victims of which have already all been murdered? Do the Martian telepaths and hypnotists want to celebrate their victory with a macabre joke? But if everything on Mars that resembles the human world is only an illusion called forth by hypnosis, and in conformity with telepathically perceived human memories, then who, after the death of the men of the Third Expedition, actually has the illusion of the city, the cemetery, the weeping survivors, and the brass band? No answer is possible. Reality, like the faces of the mourning fiends, is "shifting like wax"; there is no more logic, not even the kind of twisted logic to be found in time-travel fantasies with their description of a fluid reality. This story of Astronauts is unlike so many others in that human reason neither undergoes a radical relearning process, nor is it worsted by a superior alien reason. Instead, the story completely disposes of rationality, and, as the invulnerability of reason is a strictly enforced ground rule of the fantastic in SF, Bradbury's tale can, at most, be allowed to pass for a borderline case between SF and weird fiction. If forced to make a choice, one would have to class is as the latter.

Bradbury's final scene is not only uncanny, but also comic. The fusion of these seemingly incompatible qualities is easily brought about because, in spite of their entirely different effects, a structural relationship subsists between comic and uncanny phenomena. Both rest on the incongruity between a prevailing order and one of its component parts which does not fit into it. The prevailing order is not seriously endangered but rather strengthened by a comic disparity since the disruptive force must be clearly inferior. Otherwise the conflict would take on satiric or even tragic proportions, and without a restoration of the proper relationships — either through actual events or through the mere recognition of the absurdity of the deviation — the comic effect will not be achieved. In contrast to this, in the uncanny incongruity the disruptive force is incalculably menacing. In this case we are not amused, as in the comic conflict, by the opposition between the being or behavior of the humans and the natural laws or conventions; it is the break in the continuity of natural law itself that frightens us. The clown who attempts to climb a ladder not leaning against any support, and who by his fall demonstrates the absurdity of his action as well as the validity of the laws of gravity, is comic. The ladder that without any means of support stays upright and is climbable, is uncanny - as long as it belongs to a reality in which the laws of gravity hold. But just on account of this presupposition, the uncanny object is also potentially comic. It is uncanny, because its existence forms an exception to a rule upon which we are unthinkingly accustomed to rely; comic, insofar as we have so little doubt that the reliability of the rule that we regard an irregularity as an anomaly which poses no serious threat to the norm and react to it as to many a human deformity which may provoke laughter as well as instill horror.

The potential comicality of the uncanny is, like the comic itself, perceived only by a distanced observer. In the fictional reality of a story it does not appear as long as the reader sees the uncanny phenomenon only through the eyes of the affected and threatened characters; and as we know, it is only through their eyes that he normally perceives it in SF, because its rule of explicability does not allow an event to be shown as objectively uncanny. It may be experienced as uncanny by the people affected, who cannot explain it, but by the reader only insofar as he has been placed into the experiential perspective of these people. Even Bradbury's Martian tale follows this rule until the death of the captain from whose viewpoint all the uncanny happenings have appeared. What happens afterwards is certainly much more uncanny, but since the increased uncanniness rests on the uncertainty as to who is really perceiving the events described, we now have no fixed angle of vision and we can discover the comic in the uncanny. It is uncanny that the world of the humans continues to exist on Mars although no rationally acceptable mode of its existence can be ascertained. It can no longer be an illusion. Still less is it reality. Furthermore, apart from its existential mode, it is senselessly perverse and therefore uncanny that murderers, observing small-town funeral ceremonies, weep for their victims although they gain nothing by this presence. But that the fiends continue, against all rhyme and reason, a pretense which has till now had its evil purpose is also, like every effort obviously directed into the void (not to be confused with unsuccessful efforts), extremely comic.

In the works of many SF writers one finds tales whose world is as pervasively comico-uncanny as Mars at the end of Bradbury's "The Third Expedition." The town of Peaksville in Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" (in Frederik Pohl, ea., Star Science Fiction Stories, US 1953) constitutes an excellent example: the inhabitants must without pause assert and, if possible, believe that everything is good, everything is very good, because the terrifying "Little Anthony" does not like dissatisfaction. The three-year-old thinks like a child, but his thoughts are omnipotent, and he can read the thoughts of others. Fortunately, he is usually busy with himself or with animals. But from time to time he takes notice of the humans around him. When someone whom he likes allows himself to feel dissatisfaction, it is to be feared that Little Anthony will do something horrible in his attempt to be helpful. When someone whom he does not like shows displeasure, his intervention promises to be even more terrible. And when someone like Dan Hollis, who at his birthday party drinks more than is wise, actually lets it be known that he dislikes Little Anthony himself, the unspeakable occurs. "Bad man," says the child, "and thought Dan Hollis into something like nothing anyone would have believed possible, and then he thought the thing into a grave deep, deep in a cornfield."

The child commits his gruesome actions in all innocence, and they are all the more gruesome because perpetrated by an uncomprehending child and because comprehending adults are forced to applaud. Since we discover that Peaksville had been a completely normal town before Anthony was born, the question of the possibility of the existence of such a horror arises. No answer can be discovered. This is why the infantile omnipotence, in conduction with the impotence of mature intelligence, is not only gruesome but also uncanny. And because we are informed about the gruesome absurdity with impersonal impartiality, and not from the viewpoint of one of the victims or from that of its originator, the incongruity of the whole thing is also comic. The uncanniness — though not necessarily also the comicality and certainly not the horror — would cease if, according to the ordinary SF proceeding, an overarching system were set up which explained the fantastic effect of the story as the result of a natural occurrence and put it in its proper place in a larger scheme of things. But in "It's a Good Life" such a system is missing. "Little Anthony" certainly reminds each connoisseur of the genre of many similar dangerous mutants who appear, alongside precursors of a more vital human species, in the supermen tales. But though Anthony possesses all the powers usually designated in SF as telepathy, teleportation, and telekinesis (and also has other powers far more amazing), there is no mention of these terms nor any talk about his genetic inheritance. The use of the customary terminology would suggest explicability.

To be sure, many SF stories fail to discuss explicitly the possibility of each fantastic event. They rely instead on the effectiveness of established conventions brought into play through the use of a correlative vocabulary. The cue words "overdrive" and "mutant " e.g., tell the initiated reader that superhuman powers and journeys made at speeds higher than that of light are not to be taken as supernatural occurrences. Bixby's story not only avoids any suggestion of explicability, it also refuses to allot the events in Peaksville a place in the realm of nature or the course of human history, and therefore ignores both of the basic principles on which, in SF, the rationality of the fantastic is founded. The end of the story expressly disappoints the expectations of an explanation. We learn that, as Anthony crept out of the body of his mother, the horrified doctor cried out, let him fall, and attempted unsuccessfully to kill him. The whimpering baby already knew how to defend itself. It moved the town out of the universe or destroyed the universe and let only the town survive, "nobody knew which." Peaksville is surrounded by nothingness, impossible to locate in time or space, provided by Anthony with a lead-colored sun and a climate in which the seasons change as unaccountably as the moods of the infant fiend. We are literally dealing with a bottomless world.

What is true of Bradbury's Martian chronicle, in which the happenings move into a comic-uncanny state, is especially valid for all stories which, like Bixby's "It's a Good Life," know no reality other than such an ambivalently created one. They all present a world in which we can no longer orient ourselves. They take from SF its subject-matter but do not belong to SF according to their basic axiom of presentation. Of course, it sometimes happens that a story only begins in this style and then, halfway through, changes its character and eliminates the uncanny by introducing a rational explanation. In so doing, it undergoes a break in style which a horror-tale built according to the pattern of Finney's The Body Snatchers avoids, because in it the uncanny is not presented as a quality of the fantastic object, but is only evoked through the way and manner in which the subject experiencing it perceives it. No break is created when something subjectively perceived as uncanny finally loses the uncanny effect as a result of objective observations. (I have already discussed why in this case no mixture of the gruesome and the comic comes about.)

A purely uncanny feeling, then, may establish itself as the temporary paralysis of reason in the face of an occurrence for which nothing in a person's prior experience and learning has prepared him or her. It may also continue throughout the larger part of an SF story — but certainly not to the end.


1. This essay, part of the chapter "Uncanniness and Comicality," is taken with the author's kind permission from pp. 219-30 of Professor Hienger's Literarische Zukunftsphantastik (Göttingen: Vandenhoech & Ruprecht, 1972), probably the most important single book on SF in general published in the German language so far.—DS.

2. Sigmund Freud, "Das Unheimliche," in his Das Unheimliche (Frankfurt, 1963), pp. 81-82.

3. See Peter Penzoldt's investigations into the "climax" and the "double climax" in the literature of the uncanny, in his The Supernatural in Fiction (New York, 1965), p. 1 595.



Although the fantastic and, in the majority of cases, the thrilling events described in SF are presented as natural occurrences, some SF stories play upon the fear of the supernatural--a supernatural which is, to be sure, outside and not above all reason, and which is thus felt to be uncanny rather than divine or holy (cf. Freud's Unheimliche). An uncanny effect is achieved when the fantastic event restores faith in prescientific attitudes banished by rational people to the realm of superstition.

In SF, the sufficient condition for the irruption of the uncanny is fulfilled by the presence of three prerequisites. First, a fantastic happening must, for a shorter or longer period of time, remain incomprehensible to all those affected. Second, the viewpoint of the narrator must be identical to that of his characters, or one of the characters must be the narrator. Third, the unexplained occurrence must awaken a doubt as to its fundamental explicability. In most SF narratives--in contrast to horror fiction, for example--the uncanny is ultimately dissipated by a cognitively rational explanation of the fantastic event before the end of the story.

This phenomenon is examined in a variety of SF works including Philip K. Dick's "The Imposter" (1955), Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1955), and especially Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1951).

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