Science Fiction Studies

#2 = Volume 1, Part 2 = Fall 1973

Fredric Jameson

Generic Discontinuities in SF: Brian Aldiss' Starship

The theme or narrative convention of the lost-spaceship-as-universe offers a particularly striking occasion to observe the differences between the so called old and new waves in SF, since Aldiss' Starship (1958) was preceded by a fine treatment of the same material by Robert A. Heinlein in Orphans of the Sky (serialized 1941 as "Universe" and "Common Sense").1 Taken together, the versions of the two writers give us a synoptic view of the basic narrative line that describes the experiences of the hero as he ventures beyond the claustrophobic limits of his home territory into other compartments of a world peopled by strangers and mutants. He comes at length to understand that the space through which he moves is not the universe but simply a gigantic ship in transit through the galaxy; and this discovery--which may be said to have in such a context all the momentous scientific consequences that the discoveries of Copernicus and Einstein had in our own--takes the twin form of text and secret chamber. On the one hand, the hero learns to read the enigmatic "Manual of Electric Circuits of Starship," a manual of his own cosmos, supplemented by the ship's log with its record of the ancient catastrophe--mutiny and natural disaster as Genesis and Fall--which broke the link between future generations of the ship's inhabitants and all knowledge of their origins. And on the other, he makes his way to the ship's long vacant control room and there comes to know, for the first time, the shattering experience of deep space and the terror of the stars. The narrative then terminates with the arrival of the ship--against all expectation--at its immemorial and long forgotten destination and with the end of what some indigenous starship-philosopher would no doubt have called the "prehistory" of the inhabitants.

But this series of events constitutes only what might be called the horizontal dimension of the thematic material in question. On its basis a kind of vertical structure is erected which amounts to an account of the customs and culture that have evolved within the sealed realm of the lost ship. Both Heinlein and Aldiss, indeed, take anthropological pains to note the peculiar native religion of the ship, oriented around its mythical founders, its codified survival-ethic, whose concepts of good and evil are derived from the tradition of the great mutiny as from some primal disobedience of man, its characteristic figures of speech and ritualistic formulae similarly originating in long-forgotten and incomprehensible events and situations ("Take a journey!" = "Drop dead!"; "By Huff!" = "What the devil!" in allusion to the ringleader of the mutiny; and so on). With this anthropological dimension of the narrative, the two books may be said to fulfill one of the supreme functions of SF as a genre, namely the "estrangement," in the Brechtian sense,2 of our culture and institutions--a shocked renewal of our vision such that once again, and as though for the first time, we are able to perceive their historicity and their arbitrariness, their profound dependency on the accidents of man's historical adventure.

Indeed, I propose to reverse the traditional order of aesthetic priorities and to suggest that this whole theme is nothing but a pretext for the spectacle of the artificial formation of a culture within the closed situation of the lost ship. Such a hypothesis demands a closer look at the role of the artificial in these narratives, which takes at least two distinct forms. First, there is the artificiality of the mile-long spaceship as a human construct used as an instrument in a human project. Here the reader is oppressed by the substitution of culture for nature (a substitution dramatically and unexpectedly extended by Aldiss in the twist ending that we shall speak of later). Accustomed to the idea that human history and culture obey a kind of organic and natural rhythm in their evolution, emerging slowly within a determinate geographical and climatic situation under the shaping forces of events (invasions, inventions, economic developments) that are themselves felt to have some inner or "natural" logic, he feels the supreme influence of the ship's environment as a cruel and unnatural joke. The replacement of the forests and plains in which men have evolved by the artificial compartments of the spaceship is in itself only the external and stifling symbol of the original man-made decision (a grim caricature of God's gesture of creation) which sent man on such a fatal mission and which was at the source of this new and artificial culture. Somehow the decisive moments of real human history (Caesar at the Rubicon, Lenin on the eve of the October revolution) do not come before us with this irrevocable force, for they are reabsorbed into the web of subsequent events and "alienated" by the collective existence of society as a whole. But the inauguratory act of the launchers of the spaceship implies a terrible and godlike responsibility which is not without serious political overtones and to which we will return. For the present let us suggest that the estrangement-effect inherent in such a substitution of culture for nature would seem to involve two apparently contradictory impulses: on the one hand, it causes us obscurely to doubt whether our own institutions are quite as natural as we supposed, and whether our "real" open-air environment may not itself be as confining and constricting as the closed world of the ship; on the other hand, it casts uncertainty on the principle of the "natural" itself, which as a conceptual category no longer seems quite so self-justifying and common-sensical.

The other sense in which the artificial plays a crucial role in the spaceship-as-universe narrative has to do with the author himself, who is called on, as it were, to reinvent history out of whole cloth, and to devise, out of his own individual imagination, institutions and cultural phenomena which in real life come into being only over great stretches of time and only as a result of collective processes. Historical truth is always stranger and more unpredictable, more unimaginable, than any fiction: whatever the talent of the novelist, his inventions must always of necessity spring from extrapolation of or analogy with the real, and this law emerges with particular force and visibility in SF with its generic attachment to "future history." This is to say that the cultural traits invented by Aldiss and Heinlein always come before us as signs: they ask us to take them as equivalents for the cultural habits of our own daily lives, they beg to be judged on their intention rather than by what they actually realize, to be read with complicity rather than for the impoverished literal content. But this apparently inevitable failure of the imagination is not so disastrous aesthetically as one might expect: on the contrary, it projects an estrangement-effect of its own, and our reaction is not so much disappointment at the imaginative lapses of Aldiss and Heinlein as rather bemusement with the limits of man's vision. Such details cause us to measure the distance between the creative power of the individual mind and the unforeseeable, inexhaustible fullness of history as the collective human adventure. So the ultimate inability of the writer to create a genuinely alternate universe only returns us the more surely to this one.

So much for the similarities between these two books, and for the narrative structure which they share. Their differences begin to emerge when we observe the way in which each deals with the principal strategic problem of such a narrative, namely the degree to which the reader is to be held, along with the hero, in ignorance of the basic facts about the lost ship. Now it will be said that both books give their secret away at the very outset--Aldiss with his title, and Heinlein with the initial but retrospective "historical" motto which recounts the disappearance of the ship in outer space. Apparently, therefore, we have to do in both cases with an adventure-story in which the hero discovers something we know already, rather than with a cognitive or puzzle-solving form in which we ourselves come to learn something new. Yet the closing episodes of the two books are different enough to suggest some significant structural distinctions between them. In Heinlein's story, indeed, the lost ship ultimately lands, and the identity of the destination is not so important as the finality of the landing itself, which has the effect of satisfying our aesthetic expectations with a full stop. Of course, the book could have ended in any one of a number of other ways: the ship might have crashed, the hero might have been killed by his enemies, the inhabitants might all have died and sailed on, embalmed, into intergalactic space like the characters in Martinson's poem and Blomdahl's opera Aniara. The point is that such alternate endings do not in themselves call into question the basic category of an ending or plot-resolution; rather, they reconfirm the convention of the linear narrative with its beginning (in medias res or navigationis), middle, and end.

The twist ending of Aldiss' novel, on the other hand, turns the whole concept of such a plot inside out like a glove. It shows us that there was a mystery or puzzle to be solved after all, but not where we thought it was; as it were a second-degree puzzle, a mystery to the second power, transcending the question of the world as ship which we as readers had taken for granted from the outset. The twist ending, therefore, returns upon the opening pages to transform the very generic expectations aroused there. It suddenly reidentifies the category of the narrative in a wholly unexpected way, and shows us that we have been reading a very different type of book than the one we started out with. In comparison with anything to be found in the Heinlein story, where all the discoveries take place within, and are predicated on the existence and stability of the narrative frame, the new information furnished us by Aldiss in his closing pages has structural consequences of a far more thorough-going kind.

The notion of generic expectations3 may now serve as our primary tool for the analysis of Starship--the same time that such a reading will define and illustrate this notion more concretely. I suppose that the reader who comes to Aldiss from Heinlein is impressed first of all by the incomparably more vivid "physiological" density of Aldiss' style. In spite of everything the title tells us of the world we are about to enter, the reader of Starship, in its opening pages, finds himself exploring a mystery into which he is plunged up to the very limits of his senses. In particular, he must find some way of reconciling, in his own mind, the two contradictory terminological and conceptual fields which we have already discussed under the headings of nature bind culture: on the one hand, indications of the presence of a "deck," with its "compartments," "barricades," and "wooden partitions," and on the other hand, the organic growth of "ponic tangle" through which the tribe slowly hacks its way as through a jungle, "thrusting forward the leading barricade, and moving up the rear ones, at the other end of Quarters, a corresponding distance" (§1:1). Such an apparently unimaginable interpenetration of the natural and the artificial is underscored by a sentence like the following: "The hardest job in the task of clearing ponics was breaking up the interlacing root structure, which lay like a steel mesh under the grit, its lower tendrils biting deep into the deck" (§1:1). Such a sentence is an invitation to "rÍverie" in Gaston Bachelard's sense of the imaginative exploration of the properties and elements of space through language; it exercises the function of poetry as Heidegger conceives it, as a nonconceptualized meditation on the very mysteries of our being-in-the-world. Its force springs, however, from its internal contradictions, from the incomprehensible conflict between natural and artificial imagery, which arouses and stimulates our perceptual faculties at the same time that it seems to block their full unfolding. We can appreciate this mechanism more accurately in juxtaposition with a later book by Aldiss himself, Hothouse (1962),4 in which a post-civilized Earth offers only the most abundant and riotous purely organic imagery, the cultural and artificial with few exceptions having long since vanished.

This is not to say that Heinlein's book does not have analogous moments of mystery, but they are of a narrative rather than descriptive kind. I think, for example, of the episode near the beginning of "Universe" in which Hugh and his companion, lost in a strange part of the ship, sight a "farmer":

"Hey! Shipmate! Where are we?"

The peasant looked them over slowly, then directed them in reluctant monosyllables to the main passageway which would lead them back to their own village.

A brisk walk of a mile and a half down a wide tunnel moderately crowded with traffic--travelers, porters, an occasional pushcart, a dignified scientist swinging in a litter borne by four husky orderlies and preceded by his master-at-arms to clear the common crew out of the way--a mile and a half of this brought them to the common of their own village, a spacious compartment three decks high and perhaps ten times as wide.

One thinks of Rabelais' narrator climbing down into Pantagruel's throat and chatting with the peasant he finds there planting cabbage; and it ought to be said, in Heinlein's defense, that the purely descriptive intensity of Aldiss' pages should be considered a late phenomenon stylistically, one which reflects the breakdown of plot and the failure of some genuinely narrative gesture, subverting the classical story-telling function of novels into an illicit poetic one which substitutes objects and atmosphere for events and actions. On the other hand, it is true that what characterizes a writer like Aldiss--and in the largest sense the writer of the "new novel" generally--is precisely that he writes after the "old novel" and presupposes the latter's existence. In an Hegelian sense one can say that such "poetic" writing includes the older narrative within itself as it were canceled and raised up into a new type of structure.

Yet the point I want to make is that the Aldiss material determines generic expectations in a way in which the Heinlein episode does not. The latter is merely one more event among others, whereas Aldiss' pages programme the reader for a particular type of reading, for the physiological or Bachelardian exploration, through style, of the properties of a peculiar and fascinating world. That such phenomenological attention is for the moment primary may be judged by our distance from Complain, the main character, who in this first section of the book may be said to serve as a mere pretext for our perceptions of this strange new space, and in fact to amount, with his unaccountable longings and rages, to little other than one more curious object within it, which we observe in ethnological dispassion from the outside. Indeed, the shifting in our distance from the characters, the transformations of the very categories through which we perceive characters, are among the most important indices of what we have called generic expectation. This concept may now perhaps be more clearly illustrated if we note that the opening pages of Starship (roughly to the point in §1:4 where Complain is drawn into Marapper's plot to explore the ship) project a type of narrative or genre which is not subsequently executed. Hothouse, indeed, provides a very useful comparison in this context, for it may be seen as a book-length fulfillment of the kind of generic expectation aroused in this first section of Starship. Hothouse is precisely, from start to finish, a Bachelardian narrative of the type which Starship ceases to be after Complain leaves his tribe, and is for this reason a more homogenous product than Starship, more prodigious in its stylistic invention, but by the same token more monotonous and less interesting formally.

For the predominant formal characteristic of Starship is the way in which each new section projects a different kind of novel or narrative, a fresh generic expectation broken off unfulfilled and replaced in its turn by a new and seemingly unrelated one. Such divisions are of course approximative and must be mapped out by each reader according to his own responses. My own feeling is that with the onset of Marapper's plot, the novel is transformed into a kind of adventure story of the hostile-territory or jungle-exploration type, in which the hero and his companions, in their search for the ship's control room, begin to grapple with geographical obstacles, hostile tribes, alien beings, and internal dissension. In this section, lasting for some twenty pages, the reader's attention is focussed on the success or failure of the expedition, and on the problems of its organization and leadership.

With the discovery, in the middle of the night, of the immense Swimming Pool (§2:2)--a sight as astounding, for the travelers, as the Europeans' first glimpse of Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile--our interest again shifts subtly, returning to the structure of the ship itself, with its numbered decks through which the men slowly make their way. The questions and expectations now aroused seem once more to be of a cognitive type, and suggest that the mere certainty of being in a spaceship does not begin to solve all the problems we may have about it, and in particular does not explain why it is that the ship, thus mysteriously abandoned to its destiny, continues to run (e.g., its generators still produce electricity for the lighting system).

But the result of this new kind of attention to the physical environment is yet another shift in tone or narrative convention. For the unexpected appearance of hitherto unknown beings--the Giants and the army of intelligent mind-probing rats--seems to plunge us for the moment into a story line of almost supernatural cast. With the rats in particular we feel ourselves dangerously close to the transition from SF to fairy tale or fantasy literature in general, and visions of the Nutcracker or even the comic-book variety. (This new shift, incidentally, is proof of the immense gulf which separates SF from fantasy and which might therefore be described in terms of generic expectations.)

With the entry, in §3, of the explorers into the higher civilization of the Forwards area, Marapper's plot proves a failure, and once again a new generic expectation replaces the earlier one: with the enlargement of the focus, we find ourselves in the midst of a collective-catastrophe novel, for now we have a beleaguered society struggling for its life against real and imagined enemies--the Outsiders, the Giants, the rats, and the lower barbarians of the Deadways. Once again the generic shift is signaled by a change in our distance from Complain, who from a mere team member is promoted to romantic hero through his love affair with Vyann, one of the political leaders of the Forwards state. Our new proximity to and identification with Complain is reinforced by his discovery that the chieftain of the barbarian guerilla force is none other than his long-missing brother (a discovery which perhaps sets in motion minor generic expectations of its own, recalling last-minute denouements of the Hellenistic story a la Heliodorus, or family reunions in orphan or foundling plots, as in Tom Jones or Cymbeline).

At length, in the apocalyptic chaos with which the novel ends, the fires and melees, the invasion of the rats, the breakdown of the electrical system and impending destruction of the ship itself, we reach the twist ending already mentioned. Here the supernatural elements are, as it were reabsorbed into the SF (one is tempted to say, the realistic) plot structure, for we discover that the Giants and Outsiders actually exist and can be rationally explained. The mechanism of this final generic transformation is a physical enlargement of the context in which the action is taking place: for the first time the inner environment of the ship ceases to be the outer limit of our experience. The ship acquires an outer surface, and a position in outer space; what has hitherto been a complete world in its own right is now retransformed into an immense vessel floating within an even larger system of stable and external coordinates. At the same time, the very function of the ship is altered, for with the momentous final discovery, the endless, aimless journey through space proves to have been an illusion, and the inhabitants discover themselves to be in orbit around the Earth. It is an orbit that has been maintained for generations, so that the discovery returns upon the past to transform it as well and to turn the "tragic" history of the ship into a sort of grisly masquerade. So at length we learn that the main characters in the story, the characters with whom we have identified, are mutants administered "for their own good" by a scientific commission from Earth, a commission whose representatives the ship-dwellers have instinctively identified as Giants or Outsiders.

Thus in its final avatar, Starship is transformed, from a pseudo-cosmological adventure story of explorations within the strange world of the ship, to a political fable of man's manipulation of his fellow man. This ultimate genre to which the book is shown to belong leads our attention not into the immensities of interstellar space, but rather back to the human intentions underlying the ghastly paternalism which was responsible for the incarceration within the ship, over so many generations, of the descendants of the original crew. If my reading is correct, the twist ending involved here is not simply the solution to a puzzle confronted unsuccessfully since the opening pages of the book; rather, the puzzle at the heart of the work is only now for the first time revealed, by being unwittingly solved.

This revelation has the effect of discrediting all our previous modes of reading, or generic expectations. Over and above the story of the characters and of the fate of the ship, one is tempted to posit the existence of a second plot or narrative line in that very different set of purely formal events which govern our reading: our groping and tentative efforts to identify, during the course of the reading, the type of book being read, and our ultimate solution to the puzzle with the discovery of its social or political character.

Such a description will not surprise anyone familiar with the aesthetics of modernism and aware of the degree to which modern writers in general have taken the artistic process itself as their "subject matter," assigning themselves the task of foregrounding, not the objects perceived, not the content of the work, but rather the very act of aesthetic reception and perception. This is achieved on the whole by tampering with the perceptual apparatus or the frame, and the notion of generic discontinuity suggests that in Starship the basic story-line may be varied as much by shifts in our receptive stance as by internal modifications of the content. One recalls the well-known experiment, in the early days of Soviet film, in which a single shot of an actor's face seemed to express now joy, now irony, now hunger, now sadness, depending on the context developed by the shots with which it was juxtaposed. Indeed the very notion of generic expectation requires us to distinguish between the sense of the individual sentences and our assessment of the whole to which we assign them as parts and which dictates our interpretation of them (a process often described as the "hermeneutic circle"). Aldiss' Starship confirms such a notion by showing the results of a systematic variation and subversion of narrative context; and that such a structure is not merely an aesthetic freak, but stands rather in the mainstream of literary experimentation, may be demonstrated by a comparison with the structure of the French nouveau roman, and particularly with the stylistic and compositional devices of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose work Aldiss has himself ranged in the SF category, speaking of "L'Année dernière à Marienbad, where the gilded hotel with its endless corridors--énormes, sompteux, baroques, lugubres--stands more vividly as a symbol of isolation from the currents of life than any spaceship, simply by virtue of being more dreadfully accessible to our imaginations."5

What Aldiss does not say is that such symbols are the end-product of a whole artistic method or procedure: in the narrative of Robbe-Grillet, for instance, our reading of the words if, sapped at the very base: as the narrative eye crawls slowly along the contours of the objects so minutely described, we begin to feel a profound uncertainty as to the very possibilities of physical description through language.6 Indeed, what happens is that the words remain the same while their referents shift without warning: the bare names of the objects are insufficient to convey the unique identity of a single time and place, and the reader is constantly forced to reevaluate the coordinates of the table, the rocking chair, the eraser in question, just as in Resnais' film the same events appear to take place over and over again, but at different times and in different settings. Such effects are quite different from what happens in dream or surrealist literature, where it is the object itself that is transformed before our eyes, and where the power of language to register the most grotesque metamorphoses is reaffirmed: thus in Ovid, language is called upon to express the well-nigh inexpressible and to articulate in all their fullness things that we doubt our real eyes could ever see. In the nouveau roman, on the contrary, and in those SF works related to it (e.g., the hallucinatory scenes in such Philip K. Dick novels as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), it is the expressive capacity of words and names that is called into question and subverted, and this is not from within but from without, by imperceptible but momentous shifts in the context of the description.

Yet there is a way in which the characteristic material of SF enjoys a privileged relationship with such effects, which seem to be common to modernist literature in general. One would like to avoid, in this connection, a replay of the well-worn and tiresome controversies over literary realism. Perhaps it would be enough to suggest that, in so-called realistic works, the reference to some shared or "real" objective outside world serves the basic structural function of unifying the work from without. Whatever the heterogeneity of its materials, the unity of the "realistic" work is thus assured a priori by the unity of its referent. It follows then that when, as in SF, such a referent is abandoned, the fundamental formal problem posed by plot construction will be that of finding some new principle of unity. Of course, one way in which this can be achieved is by taking over some ready-made formal unity existing in the tradition itself, and this seems to be the path taken by so-called mythical SF, which finds a spurious comfort in the predetermined unity of the myth or legend which serves it as an organizational device. (This procedure goes back, of course, to Joyce's Ulysses, but I am tempted to claim that the incomparable greatness of this literary predecessor comes from its incomplete use of myth: Joyce lets us see that the "myth" is nothing but an organizational device, and his subject is not some fictive unity of experience which the myth is supposed to guarantee, but rather that fragmentation of life in the modern world which called for reunification in the first place.)

Where the mythological solution is eschewed, there remains available to SF another organizational procedure which I will call collage: the bringing into precarious coexistence of elements drawn from very different sources and contexts, elements which derive for the most part from older literary models and which amount to broken fragments of the outworn older genres or of the newer productions of the media (e.g., comic strips). At its worst, collage results in a kind of desperate pasting together of whatever lies to hand; at its best, however, it operates a kind of foregrounding of the older generic models themselves, a kind of estrangement-effect practiced on our own generic receptivity. Something like this is what we have sought to describe in our reading of Starship.

But the arbitrariness of collage as a form has the further result of intensifying, and indeed transforming, the structural function of the author himself, who is now felt to be the supreme source and origin of whatever unity can be maintained in the work. The reader then submits to the authority of the author in a rather different way than in the conventions of realistic narrative: it is, if you will, the difference between asking to be manipulated, and agreeing to pretend that no human agency is present in the first place.

It would be possible to show, I think (and here the works of Philip K. Dick would serve as the principal exhibits), that the thematic obsession, in SF, with manipulation as social phenomenon and nightmare all in one may be understood as a projection of the form of SF into its content. This is not to say that the theme of manipulation is not, given the kind of world we live in, eminently self-explanatory in terms of its own urgency, but only that there is a kind of privileged relationship, a pre-established harmony, between this theme and the literary structures which characterize SF. To restrict our generalization for the moment to Starship itself, it seems to me no accident that the fundamental social issue in a book in which the author toys with the reader, constantly shifting direction, baffling the latter's expectations, issuing false generic clues, and in general using his official plot as a pretext for the manipulation of the reader's reactions, should be the problem of the manipulation of man by other men. And with this we touch upon the point at which form and content, in Starship, become one, and at which the fundamental identity between the narrative structure previously analyzed, and the political problem raised by the book's ending, stands revealed.

That Mr. Aldiss is well aware of the ultimate political character of his novel is evident, not only from his Preface, but also from occasional reflections throughout the book. But it seems clear from his remarks that he understands his fable--which illustrates the disastrous effects of large-scale social decisions upon individual life--to have an anti-bureaucratic and anti-socialist thrust (bureaucracy being the way socialism is conceived by those it threatens). "Nothing," he tells us, "but the full flowering of a technological age, such as the Twenty-fourth Century knew, could have launched this miraculous ship; yet the miracle was sterile, cruel. Only a technological age could condemn unborn generations to exist in it, as if man were mere protoplasm, without emotion or aspiration." (§3:4). And his Preface underscores the point even further: "An idea, which is man-conceived, unlike most of the myriad effects which comprise our universe, is seldom balanced.... The idea, as ideas will, had gone wrong and gobbled up their real lives." We glimpse here the familiar outlines of that most influential of all counter-revolutionary positions, first and most fully worked out by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the French Revolution, for which human reason, in its fundamental imperfection, is incapable of substituting itself and its own powers for the organic, natural growth of community and tradition. Such an ideology finds confirmation in the revolutionary Terror (itself generally, it should be added, a response of the revolution to external and internal threats), which thus appears as the humiliation of man's revolutionary hubris, of his presumption at usurping the place of nature and traditional authority.

But this reading by Mr. Aldiss of his own fable is not necessarily the only interpretation open to us. I would myself associate it rather with a whole group of SF narratives which explicitly or implicitly raise a political and social issue of a quite different kind, which may be characterized as belonging to the ethical problems of utopia, or to the political dilemmas of a future in which politics has once again become ethics. This issue turns essentially on the right of advanced civilizations or cultures to intervene into the lower forms of social life with which they come into contact. (The qualifications of higher and lower, or advanced and underdeveloped, are here clearly to be understood in a historical rather than a purely qualitative sense.) This problem has of course been a thematic concern of SF since its inception: witness H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, patently a guilt fantasy on the part of Victorian man who wonders whether the brutality with which he has used the colonial peoples may not be visited on him by some more advanced race intent, in its turn, on his destruction. In our time, however, such a theme tends to be reformulated in positive terms that lend it a new originality. That the destruction of less advanced societies is wrong and inhuman is no longer, surely, a matter for intelligent debate. What is at issue is the degree to which even benign and well-intentioned intervention of higher into lower cultures may not be ultimately destructive in its results. Although the conventions of SF may dramatize this issue in terms of galactic encounters, the concern clearly has a very terrestrial source in the relations between industrialized and so-called underdeveloped societies of our own planet.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, a safe liberal anti-colonialism, analogous to the U.S. condemnation of the decaying British and French colonial empires, seems to have been quite fashionable in American SF. In one whole wing of it, interstellar law prohibiting the establishment of colonies on planets already inhabited by an intelligent species became an accepted convention. However, the full implications of this theme, with a few exceptions such as Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), were explored only in the SF written within socialist horizons, in particular in the works of Stanislaw Lem and in the Strugatsky Brothers' It's Hard to be a God (1964).7 In Western SF, this theme is present mainly as a cliché or as an unconscious preoccupation, and manifests itself in peculiarly formalized ways. So I would suggest that visions of extragalactic intervention, such as Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, belong in this category, as well as many of the intricate paradoxes of time travel, where the hero's unexpected appearance in the distant past arouses the fear that he may alter the course of history in such a way as to prevent himself from being born in the first place. In all these traits of Western SF one detects the presence, it seems to me, of a virtual repression of the ethico-political motif in question, although it should be made clear that it is a repression which SF shares with most cultural and artistic activities pursued in the West. Indeed, such unconscious concealment of the underlying socioeconomic or material bases of life with a concomitant concentration on purely spiritual activities, is responsible for the ways of thinking which classical Marxist theory designates as idealism. It amounts to a refusal to connect existential or personal experience, the experience of our individual private life, with the system and suprapersonal organization of monopoly capitalism as an all-pervasive whole.

In the present instance--to restrict ourselves to that alone--it is our willful ignorance of the inherent structural relationship between that economic system and the neo-colonialistic exploitation of the Third World which prevents any realistic view or concept of the correct relationship between two distinct national or social groupings. Thus we tend to think of the relations between countries in ethical terms, in terms of cruelty or philanthropy, with the result that Western business investments come to appear to us as the bearers of progress and "development" in backward areas. The real questions--whether "progress" is desirable and if so which kind of progress, whether a country has the right to opt out of the international circuit, whether a more advanced country has the right to intervene, even benignly, in the historical evolution of a less advanced country; in sum, the general relationship between indigenous culture and industrialization--are historical and political in character. For our literature to be able to raise them, it would be necessary to ask ourselves a good many more probing and difficult questions about our own system than we are presently willing to do. I should add that this comparison between the formal capacities of Western and Soviet SF is not intended to imply that the Soviet Union has in any sense solved the above problems, but merely that for the Soviet Union such problems have arisen in an explicit and fully conscious, indeed agonizing fashion, and that it is from the experience of such dilemmas and contradictions that its best literature is being fashioned.

The thematic interest of Starship lies precisely in the approach of such a dilemma to the threshold of consciousness, in the way in which the theme of intercultural influence or manipulation is raised almost to explicit thematization. In this sense, it makes little difference whether the reader chooses to take Mr. Aldiss' own rather reactionary political interjections at face value, or to substitute for them the historical interpretation suggested above; the crucial fact remains that the political reemerges in the closing pages of the book. The structural inability of such material to stay buried, its irrepressible tendency to reveal itself in its most fundamental historical being, generically transforms the novel into that political fable which was latent in it all along, without our knowing it. So it is that en route to space and to galactic escapism, we find ourselves locked in the force field of very earthly political realities.


1The British (and original) title of Starship is Non-Stop; the book Orphans of the Sky was published in book form in 1963.

2See Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theater, ed. and tr. by John Willett (US 1964), especially ppl9l-93.

3Any reflection on genre today owes a debt--sometimes an unwilling one--to Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957); we should also mention, in the renewal of this field of study, the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians represented in R.S. Crane's anthology Critics and Criticism (1952). For a recent survey of recent theories, see Paul Hernadi, Beyond Genre (1972), and for the latest discussion of "generic expectations" E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (1967). On SF as a genre, the essential statement is of course Darko Suvin's "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," College English, December 1972; while the seminal investigation of the relationship between genre and social experience remains that of Georg Lukács (see for example his Writer and Critic ([970]), and The Historical Novel [new edn 1969]), or for a more general discussion, my "Case for Georg Lukács," in Marxism and Form [1972].)


4Published in US as The Long Afternoon of Earth.

5Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss, eds., Best SF: 1969 (US 1970), p217.

6I have discussed this phenomenon from a different point of view in "Seriality in Modern Literature," Bucknell Review, Spring 1970.

7This is a working hypothesis only, since the basic thematic spadework--as in so many other aspects of SF--has not yet been done. A bibliography of such writings should be compiled as a first step toward further investigation.



The narrative convention of the lost-spaceship-as-universe offers a particularly striking occasion to observe the differences between the so-called old and new waves in SF, since Aldiss’s Starship (1958) was preceded by a fine treatment of the same material by Robert A. Heinlein in Orphans of the Sky (serialized in 1941 as "Universe" and "Common Sense"). The two writers give a synoptic view of the basic plot: the hero ventures beyond his home territory into other compartments of a world peopled by strangers and mutants. He comes at length to understand that the space through which he moves is not the universe but simply a gigantic ship in transit through the galaxy. The narrative terminates with the arrival of the ship—against all expectation—at its immemorial and long-forgotten destination; with the end of what might be called the "prehistory" of the ship’s inhabitants. But this is only the horizontal dimension of the plot line. A kind of vertical structure is evident as well—an account of the customs and culture that have evolved within the sealed realm of the lost ship. I propose to reverse the traditional order of aesthetic priorities and to suggest that the "lost starship" plot is nothing but a pretext for describing the spectacle of the artificial formation of a culture within the closed situation of the lost ship. Such a hypothesis demands a close look at the role of the artificial in these narratives.

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