Science Fiction Studies

#3 = Volume 1, No. 3 =  Spring 1974

Stanislaw Lem

The Time-Travel Story and Related Matters of SF Structuring

Let's look at a couple of simple sentences which logic, by virtue of a "disconnected middle" or by virtue of a tautology, asserts are always true, and let's investigate whether there can be worlds in which their veracity ceases. The first will be the ever real disjuncture: "John is the father of Peter or John is not the father of Peter." Any logician would acknowledge that this disjuncture satisfies at all times the requirement for truth since tertium non datur, it is impossible to be 40% father and 60% non-father.

Next, let's work with a complex sentence: "If Peter has sexual relations with his mother, then Peter commits incest." The implication is a tautological one since, according to the semantic rules of language, to have sexual relations with one's mother is tantamount to committing incest. (Our conjunction is not a complete tautology since incest constitutes a concept broader than sexual relations with a mother, referring rather to relations with any person of such close kinship. We could bring the sentence to a perfect tautology, but this would necessitate complexities which would in no way alter the essence of the matter and merely make the argumentation more difficult.)

To simplify matters we shall investigate first the impact of changes on the veracity or falsity of the statement "John is the father of Peter." We should point out that what is involved here is a truly causative biological relation to the birth of a child, and not the ambiguous use of the designation "father" (since it is indeed possible to be a biological father and not be a baptismal father, or conversely, to be a godfather, but not a parent).

Suppose John is a person who died three hundred years ago, but whose reproductive cells were preserved by refrigeration. A woman fertilized by them will become Peter's mother. Will John then be Peter's father? Undoubtedly.

But then suppose the following: John died and did not leave reproductive cells, but a woman asked a genetic technician to make up in laboratory a spermatozoon of John from a single preserved cell of John's epithelium (all the cells of the body having the same genetic composition). Will John, once fertilization is complete, now also be Peter's father?

Now suppose the following case: John not only died, but did not leave a single bodily cell. Instead, John left a will in which he expressed the desire that a genetic technician perform the steps necessary to enable a woman to become the mother of a child of John, i.e. that such a woman give birth to a child and that the child be markedly similar to John. In addition, the genetic technician is not permitted to use any spermatozoa. Rather, he is supposed to cause a parthenogenetic development of the female ovum. Along with this he is supposed to control the genic substance and direct it by embryogenetic transformations in such a way that the Peter born is "the spit and image of John" (there are photographs of John available, a recording of his voice, etc.). The geneticist "sculptures" in the chromosomal substance of the woman all the features John craved for in a child. And thus, to the question "Is John the father or not the father of Peter?" it is now impossible to give an unequivocal answer of "yes" or "no." In some senses John is indeed the father, but in others he is not. An appeal to empiricism alone will not in itself furnish a clear answer. The definition will be essentially determined by the cultural standards of the society in which John, Peter's mother, Peter, as well as the genetic technician, all live.

Let's assume that these standards are fixed, and that the child realized in strict accordance with John's testamental instructions is generally acknowledged to be his child. If, however, the genetic technician either on his own or at the instigation of others made up 45% of the genotypical features of the child not in accordance with the stipulations of the will, but in accordance with an entirely different prescription, it would then be impossible to maintain that John, in agreement with the standards of a given culture, either is or is not the child's father. The situation is the same as when some experts say about a picture reputed to be a work of Rembrandt: "This is a canvas by Rembrandt" while others say: "This is not a canvas by Rembrandt." Since it is quite possible that Rembrandt began the picture, but that some anonymous person finished the work, then 47% of the work could be said to originate from Rembrandt, and 53% from someone else. In such a situation of "partial authorship," tertium datur. In other words, there are situations in which it is possible to be a father only in part. (It is also possible to achieve such situations in other ways, e.g., by removing a certain number of genes from a spermatozoon of John and substituting another person's genes for them.)

The possibilities of the transformations mentioned above, which entail a change in the logical value of the disjunction—"John is the father of Peter or John is not the father of Peter"—lie, one may judge, in the bosom of a not too distant future. Thus a work describing such a matter would be fantastic today, but thirty or fifty years hence it might indeed be realistic. However the work by no means needs to relate the story of a definite, concrete John: Peter, and mother of Peter. It could describe fictitious persons in a manner typical of any form of literary composition. The relational invariables between father, mother, and child would not have at that time the fictitious nature they have in the present. The invariables that concern paternity are today different from those of a time when genetic engineering would be realized. In this sense a composition written today and depicting a given situation without a "disconnected middle" in the predication of paternity, may be considered a futurological prognosis or a hypothesis which may prove to be true.

For a real tautology to become a falsehood, the device of travel in time is necessary. Suppose Peter, having grown up, learns that his father was a very vile person, viz. that he seduced Peter's mother and abandoned her only to disappear without a trace. Burning with the desire to bring his father to account for so despicable an act and unable to locate him in the present, Peter boards a time vehicle, sets out for the past and seeks out the father in the vicinity of the place where his mother was supposed to have resided at that time. The search, although very thorough, turns out to be in vain. However, in the course of establishing various contacts related to his expedition, Peter meets a young girl who attracts him. The two fall in love and a baby is conceived. Peter, however, cannot remain permanently in the past; he is obliged to return to his old mother, for whom he is the sole support. Having been convinced by the girl that she has not become pregnant, Peter returns to the present. He has not succeeded in finding traces of his father. One day he finds in one of his mother's drawers a thirty-year-old photograph and to his horror recognizes in it the girl whom he loved. Not wishing to impede him, she committed a white lie, and hid her pregnancy. Peter thus comes to understand that he did not find his father for the simple enough reason that he himself is the father. So, Peter journeyed into the past to search for a missing father, assuming the name of John to facilitate his search by remaining incognito. The upshot of this journey is his own birth. Thus, we have before us a circular causal structure. Peter is his own father, but, as against a superficial judgment, he did not commit incest at all, since, when he had sexual intercourse with her, his mother was not (and could not be) his mother. (From a purely genetic point of view, if we forget that—as is today believed—the causal circle is impossible, Peter is genotypically identical with his mother. In other words, Peter's mother for all practical purposes gave birth to him parthenogenetically since, of course, no man inseminated her who was alien to her.)

THIS STRUCTURE constitutes the so-called time loop, a causal structure characteristic of an enormous number of SF compositions. The composition which I described is a "minimal" loop, yet there is one still "smaller," created by Robert Heinlein in the story "All You Zombies" (1959). Its plot is as follows: a certain young girl becomes pregnant by a man who then promptly disappears. She bears a child, or more correctly, gives birth to it by Caesarean section. During the operation, the doctors ascertain that she is a hermaphrodite and it is essential (for reasons not explained by the author) to change her sex. She leaves the clinic as a young man who, because he was until quite recently a woman, has given birth to a child. She seeks her seducer for a long time, until it comes to light that she herself is he. We have the following circular situation: one and the same individual was in time T1 both a girl and her partner since the girl, transformed into a man by surgical intervention, was transferred by the narrator to time T1 from a future time, T2. The narrator, a time traveller, "removed" the young man from time T2 and transferred him to time T1 so that the latter seduced "himself."

Nine months after time T1 the child was born. The narrator stole this child and took it back in time twenty years, to moment T0, so he could leave it under the trees of a foundling home. So the circle is completely closed: the same individual comprises "father...... mother," and "child." In other words, a person impregnated himself and gave birth to himself. The baby, born as a result of this, is left behind in time, bringing about in twenty years the growth of a girl who has in time T1 sex with a young man from time T2. The young man is she herself, transformed into a man by a surgical operation. The fact that a sexual hermaphrodite should not be able to bear a child is a relatively small hindrance, since the puzzling situation of a person's giving birth to himself is considerably "more impossible." What we are dealing with here is an act of creatio ex nihilo. All structures of the time-loop variety are internally contradictory in a causal sense. The contradictoriness, however, is not always as apparent as in Heinlein's story.

Frederic Brown writes about a man who travels into the past in order to punish his grandfather for tormenting his grandmother. In the course of an altercation he kills his grandfather before his father has been engendered. Thus the time traveller cannot then come into the world. Who, therefore, in fact killed the grandfather, if the murderer has not come into the world at all? Herein lies the contradiction. Sometimes an absent-minded scientist, having left something in the past which he has visited, returns for the lost object and encounters his own self, since he has not returned exactly to the moment after his departure for the present, but to the time-point at which he was before. When such returns are repeated, the individual is subject to multiple reproduction in the form of doubles. Since such possibilities appear to be pointless, in one of my stories about Ion Tichy (the "7th Journey"),2 I maximalized "duplication" of the central character. Ion Tichy's spaceship finds itself in gravitational whirlpools that bend time into a circle, so that the space-ship is filled with a great number of different Ions.

The loop motif can be used, for instance, in the following ways: someone proceeds into the past, deposits ducats in a Venetian bank at compound interest, and centuries later in New York demands from a consortium of banks payment of the entire capital, a gigantic sum. Why does he need so much money all of a sudden? So that he can hire the best physicists to construct for him a thus far nonexistent time vehicle, and by means of this vehicle go back in time to Venice where he will deposit ducats at compound interest... (Mack Reynolds, "Compounded Interest" [1956]). Or another example: in the future someone comes to an artist (in one story to a painter, in another to a writer) and gives him either a book dealing with painting in the future or a novel written in the future. The artist then begins to imitate this material as much as possible, and becomes famous, the paradox being that he is borrowing from his own self (since he himself was the author of that book or those pictures, only "twenty years later").

We learn, further, from various works of this sort how the Mesozoic reptiles became extinct thanks to hunters who organized a "safari into the past" (Frederic Brown), or how, in order to move in time in one direction, an equal mass must be displaced in the opposite direction, or how expeditions in time can reshape historical events. The latter theme has been used time and again, as in one American tale in which the Confederate States are victorious over the North (Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee [1952/1953]). The hero, a military historian, sets out for the past in order to investigate how the Southerners gained victory near Gettysburg. His arrival in a time machine, however, throws General Lee's troop formations into disarray, which results in victory for the North. The hero is no longer able to return to the future, because his arrival also disturbed the causal chain upon which the subsequent construction of his time machine depended. Thus, the person who was supposed to have financed the construction of the machine will not do this, the machine will not exist, and the historian will be stuck in the year 1863 without the means to travel back into the original time. Of course here also there is an inherent paradox—just how did he reach the past? As a rule, the fun consists in the way the paradox is shifted from one segment of the action to another. The time loop as the backbone of a work's causal structure is thus different from the far looser motif of journeys in time per se; but, of course, it is merely a logical, although extreme, consequence of the general acceptance of the possibility of "chronomotion." There are actually two possible authorial attitudes which are mutually exclusive: either one deliberately demonstrates causal paradoxes resulting from "chronomotion" with the greatest possible consistency, or else one cleverly avoids them. In the first instance, the careful development of logical consequences leads to situations as absurd as the one cited (an individual that is his very own father, that procreates himself), and usually has a comic effect (though this does not follow automatically).

EVEN THOUGH a circular causal structure may signalize a frivolous type of content, this does not mean that it is necessarily reduced to the construction of comic antinomies for the sake of pure entertainment. The causal circle may be employed not as the goal of the story, but as a means of visualizing certain theses, e.g. from the philosophy of history. Slonimaki's story of the Time Torpedo3 belongs here. It is a bedetristic assertion of the "ergoness" or ergodicity of history: monkeying with events which have had sad consequences does not bring about any improvement of history; instead of one group of disasters and wars there simply comes about another, in no way better set.

A diametrically opposed hypothesis, on the other hand, is incorporated into Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (1952). In an excellently written short episode, a participant in a "safari for tyrannosaurs" tramples a butterfly and a couple of flowers, and by that microscopic act causes such perturbances of causal chains involving millions of years, that upon his return the English language has a different orthography and a different candidate not-- liberal but rather a kind of dictator-- has won in the presidential election. It is only a pity that Bradbury feels obliged to set in motion complicated and unconvincing explanations to account for the fact that hunting for reptiles, which indeed fall from shots, disturbs nothing in the causal chains, whereas the trampling of a tiny flower does (when a tyrannosaur drops to the ground, the quantity of ruined flowers must be greater than when the safari participant descends from a safety zone to the ground). "A Sound of Thunder" exemplifies an "anti-ergodic" hypothesis of history, as opposed to Slonimski's story. In a way, however, the two are reconcilable: History can as a whole be "ergodic" if not very responsive to local disturbances, and at the same time such exceptional hypersensitive points in the causal chains can exist, the vehement disturbance of which produces more intensive results. In personal affairs such a "hyperallergic point" would be, for example, a situation in which a car attempts to pass a truck at the same time that a second car is approaching from the opposite direction.

As is usually the case in SF, a theme defined by a certain devised structure of occurrences (in this instance pertaining to a journey in time) undergoes a characteristic cognitive-artistic involution. We could have demonstrated this for any given theme, but let's take advantage of the opportunity at hand. At first, authors and readers are satisfied by the joy of discerning the effects of innovations still virginal as far as their inherent contradictions are concerned. Then, an intense search is begun for initial situations which allow for the most effective exploitation of consequences that are potentially present in a given structure. Thus, the devices of chronomotion begin supporting, e.g., theses of history and philosophy (concerned with the "ergodicity" or non-ergodicity of history). Then, grotesque and humorous stone like Frederic Brown's "The Yehudi Principle" (1944) appear: this short story is itself a causal circle (it ends with the words that it began with: it describes a test of a device for fulfilling wishes; one of the wishes expressed is that a story "write itself," which is what just happened).

Finally, the premise of time travel serves frequently as a simple pretext for weaving tales of sensational, criminal, or melodramatic intrigue; this usually involves the revival and slight refurbishment of petrified plots.

Time travel has been used so extensively in SF that it has been divided into separate sub-categories. There is, e.g., the category of missent parcels that find their way into the present from the future: someone receives a "Build-a-Man Set" box with "freeze-dried nerve preparations," bones, etc.; he builds his own double, and an "inspector from the future," who comes to reclaim the parcel, disassembles instead of the artificial twin, the very hero of the story; this is William Tennis "Child's Play" (1947). In Damon Knight's "Thing of Beauty" (1958) there is it different parcel—an automaton that draws pictures by itself. In general, strange things are produced in the future, SF teaches us (e.g., polka-dotted paint as well as thousands of objects with secret names and purposes not known).

Another category is tiers in time. In its simplest form it is presented in Anthony Boucher's "The Barrier" (1942), a slightly satiric work. The hero, travelling to the future, comes to a state of "eternal stasis," which, to protect its perfect stagnation from all disturbances, has constructed "time barriers" that foil any penetration. Now and then, however, a barrier becomes pervious. Rather disagreeable conditions prevail in this state which is ruled by a police similar to the Gestapo (Stepper). One must be a slightly more advanced SF reader to follow the story. The hero finds his way immediately into a circle of people who know him very well, but whom he does not know at all. This is explained by the fact that in order to elude the police he goes somewhat further back in time. He at that time gets to know these very people, then considerably younger. He is for them a stranger, but he, while he was in the future, has already succeeded in getting to know them. An old lady, who got into the time vehicle with the hero when they were fleeing from the police, meets as a result her own self as a young person and suffers a severe shock. It is clear, however, that Boucher does not know what to do with the "encountering oneself" motif in this context, and therefore makes the lady's shock long and drawn out. Further jumps in time, one after another, complicate the intrigue in a purely formal way. Attempts are begun to overthrow the dictatorial government, but everything goes to pieces, providing in the process sensationalism. Anti-problematic escapism into adventure is a very common phenomenon in SF: authors indicate its formal effectiveness, understood as the ingenious setting of a game in motion, as the skill of achieving uncommon movements, without mastering and utilizing the problematic and semantic aspects of such kinematics.

Such authors neither discuss nor solve the problems raised by their writing, but rather "take care" of them by dodges, employing patterns like the happy ending or the setting in motion of sheer pandemonium, a chaos which quickly engulfs loose meanings.

Such a state of affairs is a result of the distinctly "ludic" or playful position of writers; they go for an effect as a tank goes for an obstacle: without regard for anything incidental. It is as if their field of vision were greatly intensified and, simultaneously, also greatly confined. As in Tenn's story, the consequences of a "temporal lapse" in a postal matter are everything. Let us call such a vision monoparametric. At issue is a situation which is bizarre, amusing, uncanny, logically developed from a structural premise (e.g., from the presupposition of "journeys in time," which implies a qualitative difference in the world's causal structure). At the same time such a vision does not deal with anything more than that.

This can be seen readily from an example of "maximal intensification" of the subject of governments in time or "chronocracy," described by Isaac Asimov in his novel The End of Eternity (1955). "The Barrier" showed a single state isolating itself in the historical flow of events, as once the Chinese attempted to isolate themselves from the disturbing influences by building the Chinese wall (a spatially exact equivalent of a "time barrier"). The End of Eternity shows a government in power throughout humanity's entire temporal existence. Inspector-generals, traveling in time, examine the goings on in individual epochs, centuries, and millenia, and by calculating the probability of occurrences and then counteracting the undesirable ones, keep in hand the entire system—"history extended in a four-dimensional continuum"—in a state of desirable equilibrium. Obviously, presuppositions of this sort are more thickly larded with antinomies than is the scrawniest hare larded with bacon. While Asimov's great proficiency is manifested by the size of the slalom over which the narrative runs, it is, in the end, an ineffably naive conception because no issues from philosophy or history are involved. The problem of "closed millenia," which the "tempocrats" do not have access to, is explained when a certain beautiful girl, whom an inspector falls in love with, turns out to be not a lowly inhabitant of one of the centuries under the dominion of the tempocracy, but a secret emissary from the "inaccessible millenia." The time dictatorship as a control over the continuum of history will be destroyed, and a liberated humanity will be able to take up astronautics and other select suitable occupations. The enigma of the inaccessible millenia is remarkably similar to the "enigma of the closed room" found in fairy tales and detective stories. The various epochs about which the emissaries of the chronocracy hover also recall separate rooms. The End of Eternity is an exhibition of formal entertainment to which sentiments about the fight for freedom and against dictatorship have been tacked on rather casually.

WE HAVE already spoken about the "minimal time loop." Let us talk now, simply for the sake of symmetry, about the "maximal" loops.

A.E. van Vogt has approached this concept in The Weapon Shops of Isher (1949/1951), but let's expound it in our own way. As is known, there is a hypothesis (it can be found in Feynman's physics) which states that positrons are electrons moving "against the tide" in the flow of time. It is also known that in principle, even galaxies can arise from atomic collisions, as long as the colliding atoms are sufficiently rich in energy. In accordance with these presuppositions we can construct the following story: in a rather distant future a celebrated cosmologist reaches, on the basis of his own research as well as that of all his predecessors, the irrefutable conclusion that, on the one hand, the cosmos came into being from a single particle and, on the other, that such a single particle could not have existed—where could it have sprung from? Thus he is confronted with a dilemma: the cosmos has come into being, but it could not come into being! He is horrified by this revelation, but, after profound reflections, suddenly sees the light: the cosmos exists exactly as mesons sometimes exist; mesons, admittedly, break the law of conservation, but do this so quickly that they do not break it. The cosmos exists on credit! It is like a debenture, a draft for material and energy which must be repaid immediately, because its existence is the purest one hundred percent liability both in terms of energy and in terms of material. Then, just what does the cosmologist do? With the help of physicist friends he builds a great "chronogun" which fires one single electron backward "against the tide" in the flow of time. That electron, transformed into a positron as a result of its motion "against the grain" of time, goes speeding through time, and in the course of this journey acquires more and more energy. Finally, at the point where it "leaps out" of the cosmos, i.e. in a place in which there had as yet been no cosmos, all the terrible energies it has acquired are released in that tremendously powerful explosion which brings about the Universe! In this manner the debt is paid off. At the same time, thanks to the largest possible "causal circle," the existence of the cosmos is authenticated, and a person tums out to be the actual creator of that very Universe! It is possible to complicate this story slightly, for example, by telling how certain colleagues of the cosmologist, unpleasant and envious people, meddled in his work, shooting on their own some lesser particles backwards against the tide of time. These particles exploded inaccurately when the cosmologist's positron was producing the cosmos, and because of this that unpleasant rash came into being which bothers science so much today, namely the enigmatic quasars and pulsars which are not readily incorporated into the corpus of contemporary knowledge. These then are the "artifacts" produced by the cosmologist's malicious competitors. It would also be possible to tell how humanity both created and depraved itself, because some physicist shot the "chronogun" hurriedly and carelessly and a particle went astray, exploding as a nova in the vicinity of the solar system two million years ago, and damaging by its hard radiance the hereditary plasma of the original anthropoids who therefore did not evolve into "man good and rational" as "should have happened" without the new particle. In other words, the new particle caused the degeneration of Homo sapiens— witness his history.

In this version, then, we created the cosmos only in a mediocre fashion, and our own selves quite poorly. Obviously a work of this sort, in whichever variant, becomes ironical, independently of its basic notion (i.e. the "self-creative" application of the "maximal time loop").

As one can see, what is involved is an intellectual game, actually fantasy making which alters in a logical or pseudo-logical manner current scientific hypotheses. This is "pure" Science-Fiction, or Science-Fantasy as it is sometimes called. It shows us nothing serious, but merely demonstrates the consequences of a reasoning which, operating within the guidelines of the scientific method, is used sometimes in unaltered form (in predicting the "composition percentage of paternity" we have in no way altered the scientific data), and sometimes secretly modified. And thus SF can be responsibly or irresponsibly plugged into the hypothesis-creating system of scientific thought.

The example of "self-creation" reveals first of all the "maximal proportions" of a self-perpetrating paradox: Peter gave birth only to himself, whereas in the universal variant, mankind concocted itself, and, what is more, perhaps not in the best manner, so that it would be even possible to use "Manichaean" terminology. Furthermore, this example at the same time demonstrates that the conceptual premise of essential innovations in the structure of the objective world presented is central to a science-fictional work (in the case of journeys in time, a change in causality is involved, by admitting the reversibility of that which we consider today as universally and commonly irreversible). The qualities of fictional material which serve a dominant concept are thus subject to an assessment based on the usefulness to this concept. Fictional material should in that case be an embodiment of a pseudo-scholarly or simply scholarly hypothesis—and that's all. Thus "pure" SF arises, appealing exclusively to "pure reason." It is possible to complicate a work with problems lying beyond the scope of such an intellectual game: when, e.g., the "Manichaeism of existence" is interpreted as due to an error of an envious physicist, then an opportunity for sarcasm or irony arises as a harmonic "overtone" above the narrative's main axis. But by doing this, we have forced SF to perform "impure" services, because it is then not delivering scientific pseudo-revelations, but functioning in the same semantic substratum in which literature has normally operated. It is because of this that we call SF contaminated by semantic problems "relational SF."

However, just as "normal" literature can also perform high and low services—produce sentimental love stories and epics—relational SF shows an analogous amplitude. As was noted, it is possible to interpret it allegorically (e.g., Manichaeism in relation to the creation of the cosmos)—and this will be the direction of grotesque or humorous departures from a state of "intellectual purity" which is somewhat analogous to "mathematical vacuity." It is also possible to overlay the history of creating the cosmos with melodrama, e.g., to make it part of a sensational, psychopathological intrigue (the cosmologist who created the Universe has a wicked wife whom he nonetheless loves madly; or, the cosmologist becomes possessed; or also, faced with his deeds, the cosmologist goes insane and, as a megalomaniac, will be treated slightingly in an insane asylum, etc.).

THUS, in the end, the realistic writer is not responsible for the overall—e.g., the causal—structure of the real world. In evaluating his works, we are not centrally concerned with assessing the structure of the world to which they nonetheless have some relation.

On the contrary, the SF writer is responsible both for the world in which he has placed his action, and for the action as well, inasmuch as he, within certain limits, invents both one and the other.

However, the invention of new worlds in SF is as rare as a pearl the size of a bread loaf. And so 99.9% of all SF works follow compositionally a scheme, one of the thematic structures which constitute the whole SF repertoire. For a world truly new in structural qualities is one in which the causal irreversibility of occurrences is denied, or one in which a person's individuality conflicts with an individual scientifically produced by means of an "intellectronic evolution," or one in which Earthly culture is in communication with a non-Earthly culture distinct from human culture not only nominally but qualitatively, and so forth. However, just as it is impossible to invent a steam engine, or an internal combustion engine, or any other already existing thing, it is also impossible to invent once more worlds with the sensational quality of "chronomotion" or of "a reasoning machine." As the detective story churns out unweariedly the same plot stereotypes, so does SF when it tells us of countless peripeties merely to show that by interposing a time loop they have been successfully invalidated (e.g. in Thomas Wilson's '"Me Entrepreneur" [1952], which talks about the dreadful Communists having conquered the USA, and time travelers who start backwards at the necessary point, invalidating such an invasion and dictatorship). In lieu of Communists, there may be Aliens or even the Same People Arriving from the Future (thanks to the time loop, anyone can battle with himself just as long as he pleases), etc.

If new concepts, those atomic kernels that initiate a whole flood of works, correspond to that gigantic device by which bioevolution was "invented"—i.e., to the constitutional principle of types of animals such as vertebrates and non-vertebrates, or fish, amphibians, mammals, and birds—then, in the "evolution of SF," the equivalent of type-creating revolutions were the ideas of time travel, of constructing a robot, of cosmic contact, of cosmic invasion, and of ultimate catastrophe for the human species. And, as within the organization of biological types a natural evolution imperceptibly produces distinctive changes according to genera, families, races, and so forth—similarly, SF persistently operates within a framework of modest, simply variational craftsmanship.

This very craftsmanship, however, betrays a systematic, unidirectional bias: as we stated and demonstrated, great concepts that alter the structure of the fictional world are a manifestation of a pure play of the intellect. The results are assessed according to the type of play. The play can also be "relational," involved with situations only loosely or not at all connected with the dominant principle. What connection is there, after all, between the existence of the cosmologist who created the world, and the fact that he has a beautiful secretary whom he beds? Or, by what if not by a retardation device will the cosmologist be snatched away before he fires the "chronogun"? In this manner an idea lending itself to articulation in a couple of sentences (as we have done here) becomes a pretext for writing a long novel (where a "cosmos-creating" shot comes only in the epilogue, after some deliverers sent by the author have finally saved the cosmologist from his sorry plight). The purely intellectual concept is stretched thoroughly out of proportion to its inherent possibilities. But this is just how SF proceeds— usually.

On the other hand, rarely is a departure made from "emptiness" or "pure play" in the direction of dealing with a set of important and involved problems. For in the world of SF it is structurally as possible to set up an adventure plot as a psychological drama; it is as possible to deal in sensational happenings as it is to stimulate thought by an ontological implication created by the narrative as a whole. It is precisely this slide toward easy, sensational intrigue which is a symptom of the degeneration of this branch of literature. An idea is permitted in SF if it is packaged so that one can barely see it through the glitter of the wrapping. As against conventions only superficially associated to innovations in the world's structure and which have worn completely threadbare from countless repetitions, SF should be stimulated and induced to deviate from this trend of development, namely, by involution away from the "sensational pole." SF should not operate by increasing the number of blasters or Martians who impede the cosmologist in his efforts to fire from the "chronogun"; such inflation is not appropriate. Rather, one should change direction radically and head for the opposite pole. After all, in principle the same bipolar opposition also prevails in ordinary literature, which also shuttles between cheap melodrama and stories with the highest aesthetic and cognitive aspirations.

It is difficult, however, to detect in SF a convalescence or outright salvation of this sort. An odd fate seems to loom heavily over its domain, which prompts writers with the highest ambitions and considerable talent, such as Ray Bradbury or J.G. Ballard, to employ the conceptual and rational tools of SF in an at times admittedly superb way, yet not in order to ennoble the genre, but instead to bring it toward an "optimal" pole of literature. Aiming in that direction, they are simultaneously, in each successive step, giving up the programmatic rationalism of SF in favour of the irrational; their intellect fails to match their know-how and their artistic talent. In practice, what this amounts to is that they do not use the "signaling equipment" of SF, its available accessories, to express any truly intellectually new problems or content. They try to bring about the conversion of SF to the "creed of normal literature" through articulating, by fantastic means, such non-fantastic content which is already old-fashioned in an ethical, axiological, philosophical sense. The revolt against the machine and against civilization, the praise of the "aesthetic" nature of catastrophe, the dead-end course of human civilization— these are their foremost problems, the intellectual content of their works. Such SF is as it were a priori vitiated by pessimism, in the sense that anything that may happen will be for the worse.

Such writers proceed as if they thought that, should mankind acknowledge the existence of even a one-in-a-million or one-in-a-billion chance—transcending the already known cyclical pulsation of history, which has oscillated between a state of relative stabilization and of complete material devastation— such an approach would not be proper. Only in mankind's severe, resolute rejection of all chances of development, in complete negation, in a gesture of escapism or nihilism, do they find the proper mission of all SF which would not be cheap. Consequently they build on dead-end tragedy. This may be called into question not merely from the standpoint of optimism, of whatever hue and intensity. Rather, one should criticize their ideology by attempting to prove that they tear to shreds that which they themselves do not understand. With regard to the formidable movements which shake our world, they nourish the same fear of misunderstanding the mechanisms of change that every ordinary form of literature has. Isn't it clear what proportions their defection assumes because of this? Cognitive optimism is, first of all, a thoroughly non-ludic premise in the creation of SF. The result is often extremely cheap, artistically as well as intellectually, but its principle is good. According to this principle, there is only one remedy for imperfect knowledge: better knowledge, because more varied knowledge. SF, to be sure, normally supplies numerous surrogates for such knowledge. But, according to its premises, that knowledge exists and is accessible: the irrationalism of Bradbury's or Ballard's fantasy negates both these premises. One is not allowed to entertain any cognitive hopes—that becomes the unwritten axiom of their work. Instead of introducing into traditional qualities of writing new conceptual equipment as well as new notional configurations relying on intellectual imagination, these authors, while ridding themselves of the stigma of cheap and defective SF, in one fell swoop give up all that constitutes its cognitive value. Obviously, they are unaware of the consequences of such desertion, but this only clears them morally: so much the worse for literature and for culture, seriously damaged by their mistake.

—Translated from the Polish by Thomas H. Hoisington and Darko Suvin.


1The dates given in this essay are either for first publication whether in serial or book form or for serial/book publication.—RDM.

2"The Seventh Journey of Ion Tichy" is available in several Polish editions, such as Dzienni qwiazdowe (Cracow 1966); it has not yet been published in English.—DS.

3Antoni Slonimski, born in 1895, Polish poet and essayist; his Torpedo czasu (i.e., Time Torpedo) was first published in 1967.—THH.



The tautologies, falsehoods, and contradictions that characterize time travel ("time loop") stories in the popular American tradition are the focus of discussion. Among the stories critiqued are Robert A. Heinlein’s "All You Zombies" (1959), Mack Reynolds’s "Compounded Interest" (1956), Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1952/1953), Ray Bradbury’s "A Sound of Thunder" (1952), and Fredric Brown’s "The Yehudi Principle" (1944).The premise of time travel serves in such stories as a simple pretext for weaving tales of sensational, criminal, or melodramatic intrigue; this usually involves the revival and slight refurbishment of petrified plots. Time travel, in fact, has been used so extensively in SF that it has been divided into separate sub-categories, including the story of mis-sent parcels that find their way into the present from the future (William Tenn’s "Child’s Play" [1947]; Damon Knight’s "Thing of Beauty" [1958]); also, the tale about tiers in time, in which one encounters oneself in an alternative future (Anthony Boucher’s "The Barrier" [1942]). The most popular of all time-travel sub-categories is the anti-problematic escape into adventure, wherein authors neither discuss nor solve the logical problems and paradoxes inherent in "time loop" plots. Discussion turns finally to time-travel stories by Ray Bradbury and J. G. Ballard, whose irrational fantasies rid themselves of the stigma of cheap SF but at the same time (through their rejection of logic) in one fell swoop give up all that constitutes the cognitive value of such stories.

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