Science Fiction Studies

#4= Volume1, No. 4 = Fall 1974

Darko Suvin

Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil in the Age of Anticipation: A Chapter in the History of SF

Let's be realistic—let's demand the impossible. —Anonymus Sorbonensis, May 1968.

The really philosophical writers invent the true, by analogy.... —Balzac.

It seems most useful to define SF not by its thematic field, potentially unlimited, but by aspects that are always present in it. For any SF story these aspects are radically different agents (figures, dramatis personae) and/or a radically different scene (existential context, locus). To use a key term of the formalist critics, most successfully developed by Brecht, such radically different aspects of a narrative make it appear strange; implying the possibility of new technological, sociological, biological, even philosophical sets of norms, the narrative in turn estranges the author's and reader's own empirical environment. As opposed to "naturalistic" ("mimetic" or "mundane") fiction, which aims at holding the mirror up to nature, SF is an estranged literary genre. The reason for its existence is a radically different, strange and estranging, newness.

Since certain other genres use the attitude of estrangement, they are sometimes hybridized with SF and sometimes confused with it. The mythological tale sees fixed, supernaturally determined relations under the flux of human fortunes. This mythical static constancy is to SF an illusion, usually a fraud, at best only an arrested realization of the dynamic possibilities of life. Myth asks ahistorically about The Man and The World. SF asks, What kind of man?, In what kind of world?, and Why such a man (or indeed non-man) in such a world? Myth absolutizes apparently constant relationships from periods of sluggish social development. SF builds on variable processes from the great whirlpool periods of history, such as the 16-17th and 19-20th centuries. It is committed to a cognitive and critical approach which is blood brother to the scientific method; though SF could and did appear long before Descartes, this commitment is the rational kernel to the assertion that it is a "scientific fiction."

If SF is defined by the interaction of cognition and estrangement, if it is a literature of possible and reasonable wonder or cognitive estrangement, then— notwithstanding all sterile hybridizations—it is fundamentally different from the genres derived from myth: the fairy tale, the horror story, or what is now called heroic fantasy, which are all concerned with the irruption of anti-cognitive laws into the author's empirical environment or with worlds in which such laws hold sway. SF, on the other hand, shares with "naturalistic" fiction the basic rule that man's destiny is man—other humans (or psychozoa) and their devices and institutions, powerful but understandable by reason and methodical doubt and therefore changeable. In SF, then, the radically different agents and scenes are still agents and scenes of the human world.1

Historically SF arose from the blending of utopian hopes and fears with popularizations of the social and natural sciences in the adventure-journey, the "extraordinary voyage," with its catalogue of wonders that appear along Ulysses' or Nemo's way. Modem SF thus has its antecedents in such historical forms as the Blessed Island Tale, the utopia, the "planetary novel" of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Rationalist "state novel," the Romantic blueprint and anti-utopia, the Vernean "scientific novel," and the Wellsian "scientific romance." In spite of their differences, this sequence of types amounts to a coherent tradition (the writers in the line of, say, Lucian, Orle, Rabelais, Cyrano, Swift, M. Shelley, Verne, Wells, Zamiatin, Stapledon were aware of its unity).2 It constitutes a literature of cognitive estrangement or wonder, an SF genre with various sub-genres, all of which use the old rhetorical trope of "the impossibilities" (impossibilia) in a new and triumphant fusion with the equally old notion of the wished-for land or time; a genre in which autonomous worlds are opposed to the author's empirical environment either in explicit detail, as a "world upside down" (existentially in the Cockaigne tales, politically in the utopias, etc.), or in implicit parallel, as satirical or playful wonder testifying to radical other possibilities, or both. Its significant texts group themselves in distinct clusters, where different historical purposes developed the basic SF form into different sub-genres, from the oral tales and ancient classics, through the clusters of 1510-1660, 1770-1830, and 1880-1910, to the cluster of the last 35 years. In between, for this is a subversive tradition, it was driven underground (e.g., the oral literature and hermetical apocrypha of the Middle Ages), or into exile (e.g., French SF after the Fronde), or into the disreputable organs of sub-literature (e.g., the U.S. pulp magazines of the period between the wars). SF thus belongs—like many types of humor—to that popular literature which spread through centuries by word of mouth and other unofficial channels, penetrating into officially accepted literature only at rare favorable moments; when it did penetrate, however, it produced masterpieces which were sufficient to establish a tenuous yet potent intellectual tradition. Having been sustained by subordinate social groups, with whom it achieved and then lost historical legitimacy, this iceberg character of SF, only a fraction showing above the silent surface of officially recorded culture, is thus the result of class tensions.

If SF is historically part and parcel of a submerged or popular "lower literature" expressing the yearnings of repressed social groups, it is understandable that its major breakthroughs to the cultural surface should happen in the periods of sudden social convulsion, such as the age of the bourgeois-democratic and industrial revolutions, incubating in western Europe since More and Bacon, breaking out at the end of the 18th century, and continuing into the 19th. The imaginative horizon or locus of estrangement in SF shifts radically at this time. Hitherto located in a space existing alongside the author's empirical environment (i.e., an alternative island whose radical otherness and/or debunking parody put that environment into question), SF in the 18th century turns increasingly to a time into which the author's age might evolve. A wished-for or feared future becomes the new space of the cognitive imagination, no doubt in intimate connection with the shift from the social power of land to that of capital based on labor sold and profit gained in that time which—as the new slogan said—is money. In the 19th century, time finally froze "into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum, filled with quantifiable 'things' [and thus] it becomes space";3 and quantified natural science made social change in one lifetime the rule rather than the exception. In this essay we shall see that the high price of a success of the industrial revolution which was linked to a failure of social revolutions led SF from the radical blueprints and rhapsodies of Mercier, Condorcet, Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Blake, and Shelley to the Romantic recoil from harsh reality and internalization of suffering in Mary Shelley, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville.

1. RADICAL RHAPSODY. When time is the ocean on whose further shore the alternative life is situated, Jerusalem can be latent in England:

I will not cease from mental strife,  

Nor shall by sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem 

In England's green and pleasant land.

Blake's Preface to Milton fuses a strong collective activism with the Biblical tradition of such future horizons: "Jerusalem is called Liberty among the children of Albion" (Jerusalem §54). In the Bible, old Hebraic communism—the desert tradition of prizing men above possessions—intermittently gives rise to expectations of a time when everyone shall "buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isaiah) and when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation...but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid" (Micah), even to "a new Heavens and a new Earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind" (Isaiah). Christ's communism of love was resolutely turned toward such a millennium. Throughout the intervening centuries, heretic sects and plebeian revolts kept this longing alive. Joachim Di Fiore announced a new age without church, state, or possessions, when the flesh shall again be sinless and Christ dissolved into a community of friends. By way of the 17th-century religious revolutionaries this tradition led to Blake. His age witnesses a new, lay prophetic line from Babeuf and Shelley to Marx, fusing poetry and politics and inveighing against the great Babylon of class-state, "the merchants of the earth" and "the kings of the earth who have committed fornication with her" (Revelations). As of then, the future is a new existential horizon corroding what Blake calls the "apparent surfaces" of the present, etching it in as unsatisfactory. As in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, "the great succession of ages begins anew."

Apart from insignificant precursors, SF anticipation began as part and parcel of the French Enlightenment's confidence in cognitive progress. Its "drawing-room communists" Mably and Morelly drew up blueprints transferring Plato's argument against private property from heavenly ideals into nature's moral laws. At the conservative end of the oppositional political spectrum, MERCIER's hero, who wakes up in Year 2440 (1770),4 dwelt in the first full-fledged utopian anticipation: in it progress had led to constitutional government, moral and technical advances (e.g., a phonograph with cries of wounded is used to educate princes), and a substitution of science for religion. The noblest expression of such an horizon was CONDORCET's Sketch...of The Progress of Human Mind (written in 1793) which envisaged a turning point in human history—the advent of a new man arising out of the "limitless perfectibility of the human faculties and the social order." Perfected institutions and scientific research would eradicate inhumanity, conquer nature and chance, extend human senses, and lead in an infinite progression to an Elysium created by reason and love for humanity. Condorcet tried to work hard toward such a state within the Revolution, just as did "Gracchus" BABEUF, in whom culminates the century of utopian activism before Marx. Equality, claimed Babeuf, was a lie along with Liberty and Fraternity as long as property (including education) is not wholly equalized through gaining power for the starved against the starvers. An association of men in a planned production and distribution without money is the only way of "chaining destiny," of appeasing "the perpetual disquiet of each of us about our tomorrows." For a great hope was spreading among the lower classes that the just City was only a resolute hand's grasp away, that—as Babeuf's fellow conspirators wrote in The Manifesto of the Equals—"The French Revolution is merely the forerunner of another Revolution, much greater and more solemn, which will be the last." Even when Babeuf as well as Condorcet was executed by the Jacobins and the revolution taken over by Napoleon, when anticipatory SF turned to blueprints of all-embracing systems eschewing politics, it remained wedded to the concept of humanity as association. This applies to Blake as well as to Saint-Simon and Fourier.

These two great system-builders of utopian anticipation can here be mentioned only insofar as their approaches are found in and analogous to much SF. In a way, the whole subsequent history of change within and against capitalism has oscillated between Saint-Simon's radical social engineering and Fourier's radical quest for harmonious happiness, which flank Marxism on either side. Henri de SAINT-SIMON anticipated that only industry, "the industrial class" (from wage-earners to industrialists) and its organizational method are pertinent in the new age. The "monde renversé" where this "second nation" is scorned must be righted by standing the world on its feet again. This full reversal means, in terms of temporal orientation, "the great moral, poetic, and scientific operation which will shift the Earthly Paradise and transport it from the past into the future," constituting a welfare state of increasing production and technological command of the whole globe by a united White civilization. This "Golden Age of the human species" is to be attained by "a positive Science of Man" permitting predictive extrapolation. Saint-Simon is the prophet of engineers and industrial productivity, usable equally for a regulated capitalism or an autocratic socialism. The Suez Canal as well as Stalin, and all SF whose hero is the "ideologically neutral" engineering organizer, from Verne to Asimov, or Bellamy to the feebler, utopian Wells, are saintsimonian.

For all his rational organizing, Saint-Simon had forsaken 18th-century Rationalism by answering the Swiftian question "What is man?" in terms of economic life rather than of "nature" and "natural rights," even if he then retreated to positing three separate human natures or psychophysiological classes—rational, administrative, and emotive—whose representatives would form the ruling "Council of Newton," the college of cardinals of his "New Christianity." Charles FOURIER based a radically humanized economy entirely upon a complex series of desires. Civilization "thwarted and falsified" them whereas it could and should have increased the gratification of all passions—sensual, collective (desires for respect, friendship, love, and a reconstituted family), or "serial" (desires for faction, variety, and unity). It is a world turned inside out (monde à rebours) in which the physician has to hope for "good fevers," the builder for "good fires," and the priest for "the good dead"; in which family means adultery (and Fourier enumerates with glee 49 types of cuckold), riches bankruptcy, and work a constraint; in which property ruins the proprietor, abundance leads to unemployment, and the machine to hunger. Against this Fourier elaborated a method of "absolute deviation" which was to lead to a world where both work and human relations would be a matter of "passionate attraction." Men and their passions are not equal but immensely varied, like notes in the harmonic scale, colors in the spectrum, or dishes at a gastronomic banquet, and have to be skillfully composed in a "calculus of the Destinies." Corresponding to the potential harmony of the "social movement" are series of animal, vegetable, geometric, and cosmic relationships. Thus there will be 18 different creations on Earth in this passional cosmology; ours is the first and worst, having to traverse five horrible stages from Savagery down to Civilization before ascending through "Guarantism" (the economico-sexual welfare state of federated productive associations or phalanstères) to Harmony. At that point humanity will have cleansed the Earth of sexual and economic repression, illnesses, nations, the sundering of production from consumption, and the struggle for existence; and the Earth—itself a living being in love with another bisexual planet—will respond by melting the polar ice, turning the oceans into something like lemonade (all this elaborately justified by physics), and producing useful "anti-beasts" such as the anti-lion, as well as new senses for men. The blessed life of Harmony and the succeeding 16 creations (the last one seeing the end of the globe) will turn the procedures of class and power inside out: courts and priests will be Courts of Love and priesthoods of sex; armies will clean, plant, and reconstruct; work will become play and art, and "abnormality" the mainspring of society. Fourier's shattering interplay of maniacal poetry and ironical dialectics, rooted in the deep longings of the classes crushed by commerce and industry, in a genuine folk imagination with its immense strengths and foibles, will reappear in garden cities and kibbutzin, communes and "retribalization." In his exemplary scenes and characters—such as Nero becoming a respected butcher in Harmony, much like Rabelais's King Anarch—he is himself writing warm SF. It will be followed in the rare but precious visions fusing relativist sociopolitics, erotics, and cosmology in SF, from Shelley through Stapledon to Le Guin.

Blake's and Shelley's imaginations, in spite of their dissimilar traditions, often run astoundingly parallel to this contemporary of theirs. They too rejected the orthodox division of man into body versus soul and of society into classes, as well as the merely given "human form." BLAKE championed Man's individual and collective "imaginative body" rising as a giant into a projected free fulfillment simultaneously economic, sexual, and creative. The hypocritic and cruel civilization of Church, Army, Palace, and Merchant, with its principle of selfhood, creates jealous possessiveness over children and women, shame of sexual love, and slavery to hunger and toil. Money, the cement of this fallen society, murders the poor by stunting and the rich by corrupting their imaginative needs, thus engendering sterility. Therefore Blake sang the American and French revolutions in his Promethean "Orc cycle" of the 1790s—from The French Revolution, America, and Europe to The Four Zoas—which announced the end of post-Genesis history and the advent of a new divine Man in a realm of freedom (a term Marx too was to use). Revolution is identical with imagination and life, and absolutely unavoidable; but if its beginning is in politics, its end is in a joyous Joachimite Jerusalem where the body personal and the body politic shall have been redeemed. However, as the American and French experiences turned to bourgeois rule and aggressive conquests, and as English repression grew virulent, Blake's earlier work remained unpublished and unfinished. Orc aged into his Rationalist sky-god antagonist Urizen, and Blake came to stress timeless religious apocalypse and pragmatic compensation through art in place of the imminent passage through the Earthly Paradise of sexuality and benevolent nature to the Eden of creativity. His fantasies of cosmogonic history read like a gigantic inventory of later "far out" SF, from Stapledon and E.E. Smith to Arthur Clarke and van Vogt. But as different from their impoverished strainings into cosmic sensations, even the most opaque pseudomythology of the later Blake retains the estranging principle of "twofold vision" which sees the unfallen world within the fallen one, and the cognitive orientation of an "Innocence [that] dwells with Wisdom." In his last year, amid the bread riots, he persisted in his Biblical communism: "Give us the bread that is our due and right, by taking away money, or a price, or tax upon what is Common to all in thy Kingdom."

SHELLEY, younger than Blake and from a higher social class, and irrevocably opposed to Christianity, which he saw as tyranny, marked the orienting of revolutionary toward political parable and vision rather than mythical form, toward Hellenic, Shakespearean, and scientific rather than Biblical or Miltonic traditions. His first major work, Queen Mab (1813), is an embattled vision of humanity's past, present, and future which draws on contemporary natural sciences, the philosophes such as Condorcet, and their English systematizer William Godwin for the future ideally perfectible society. Godwin's Political Justice, invoking Plato, More, and Swift's Houyhnhnms, pleaded for the equalization of property so that men could change their character, abandon war and monogamous family, and finally become immortal by the control of mind over matter. Shelley fleshes out such a Rationalist anarchism in his anticipation of a harmonious Earth rejoicing in the perpetual Spring of a fertile and gentle Nature, where "All things are recreated, and the flame / Of consentaneous love inspires all life" (§8:106-08). In the notes to Queen Mab, Shelley develops his views both on labor as the sole source of wealth, which could be reduced to two hours daily, and on the change of Earth's aids and the speeding up of the mind's perception to vanquish time by "an infinite number of ideas in a minute." Such horizons, as well as the poem's forceful attacks on the ruling political tyranny, capitalist selfishness and corruption, and church and religion, made Queen Mab, in spite of legal persecution, the bible of English working-class radicalism from Owenites to Chartists and beyond.

Queen Mab is the concluding chord in the great sequence of societal and cosmic anticipations accompanying the democratic revolutions in America and France. From Diderot and Condorcet to Blake and almost all the European romantics, two generations shared the expectation of an imminent millennium of peace, freedom, and brotherhood:

Not in Utopia—subterranean fields—  

Or some secreted island,

 Heaven knows where!

But in the very world, which is the world    

Of all of us—the place where, in the end,

We find our happiness, or not at all!

—Wordsworth, The Prelude §11:140-44.

But the revulsion from the results of the revolutions "was terrible," observed Shelley in the Preface to The Revolt of Islam (1818): "Thus, many of the most ardent and tender hearted...have been morally ruined by what a partial glimpse of the events they deplored appeared to show as the melancholy desolation of all their cherished hopes. Hence gloom and misanthropy have become the characteristics of the age in which we live, the solace of a disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the willful exaggeration of its own despair." The shift of SF location from space to the present or immediate future, we can now see, was arrested and re-channelled either back into timelessness or into the staking out of anticipation in distant futures. These alternatives develop into different, twin but opposed, genres and atmospheres. A fantasy more tenuous, internalized, and horrific than that of the later Blake emerges as a new shudder and genre in Romantic melodrama, tale, and narrative poem. (In particular, Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, using both scientific observations and the polar voyage as metaphor for the breakdown of human relationships in an alienating society, had a profound effect on Mary Shelley and Poe, and through them on much subsequent SF.) On the other hand, Shelley is (together with Fourier) the great poetic forerunner of the SF extrapolative anticipation saved from arid political or natural-science didacticism by also being a parabolic analogy. In the hands of poets, whether in verse or prose, such analogy, simultaneously collective and intimate, has cosmic pretensions over and beyond sociopolitical (later also technological) anticipation.

The Revolt of Islam itself is an "alternative history," the account of a loving pacifist-revolutionary couple who are defeated politically but not ruined morally because they keep faith with their personal love as well as with the future vision of "divine Equality" (§5:3). Laon and Cythna must die in this "Winter of the world," but "Spring comes, though we must, who made / The promise of its birth" (§9:25). Parallel to the satirical comedy Swellfoot the Tyrant, a sarcastic political travesty of King Oedipus as beast-fable, Shelley's culminating statement comes in Prometheus Unbound (1820). This "lyrical drama" is a delicately tough parable in which Prometheus stands for Humanity that created evil in the shape of its oppressor Jupiter, but also for intellect and intellectuals as champions of the oppressed. In order to escape the fate of the French Revolution, or of Blake's Orc, Prometheus renounces hate in spite of the torments by Furies, who stand for the forces of court, church, war, commerce, and law, but also for ethical torments and despondency: political and ethical tenor are convertible in this multiply woven "fable." Jupiter is thereupon toppled by Demogorgon (the subterranean and plebeian titanic Necessity of nature and society, associated with subversive volcanic and earthquake imagery), who has been contacted by Prometheus's bride Asia, standing for Love or overriding human sympathy. Necessity, Love, and Hercules (Strength and armed insurrection) liberate Prometheus, and thus bring about the transformation of society to "Fortunate isles," a renewed life where evil and ugly masks have been stripped off all nature, and man remains

Scepterless, free, uncircumscribed, but man

Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,

Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king

Over himself; just, gentle, wise....


In the final act, even this Earthly Paradise is after "an hundred ages" superseded by Time stopping in a full unfolding of human psychic and cosmic potentiality. The universe too becomes Promethean, and the newly warmed and habitable Moon sings a paean of praise to redeemed Earth in a lyrical finale of surpassing power, imbued with the peculiarly Shelleian "Liquid splendour," often in images of vivifying electricity.

Shelley's expressionist lyricism, using poetic abstraction as an "intelligible and beautiful analogy" with the most precise apprehensions of mind and nature and their most sensitive historical oscillations, gives poetry the power to comprehend all knowledge. Politics, cosmology, and natural sciences such as chemistry, electricity, and astronomy are potential liberators of humanity, equally based on labor and Promethean thought:

Our toil from thought all glorious forms shall cull

To make this Earth, our home, more beautiful,

And Science, and her sister, Poesy,

Shall clothe in light the fields and cities of the free!

Revolt of Islam §5:51:5.

And humanity cannot be whole again (he resolutely agreed with Mary Wollstonecraft) until the state is abolished where "Woman as the bond-slave dwells / Of man a slave; and life is poisoned in its wells" (Ibid. §8:13). Parallel to this poetry of cognition, Shelley's estrangement is the most delicate yet vigorous personal emotion at the sight of life enslaved, approaching it always "with a fresh wonder and an insatiable indignation";5 e.g., the line "Hell is a city much like London" (Peter Bell the Third §3:1) is quite Swiftian. Often at the limits of the expressible—"With thoughts too swift and strong for one lone human breast" (Revolt of Islam §9:33)—Shelley's insight into scientific and political thought as strife and sympathy between man, planetary nature, and time, makes Prometheus Unbound "one of the few great philosophical poems in English."6 The opus culminating in this poem—strongly imbued with political anticipation, Lucretian cosmic and anthropological speculation, and utopian romance such as Paltock's Peter Wilkins (1750) and J.H. Lawrence's feminist Empire of the Nairs (1801)—is proof that SF can be supreme poetry, and vice versa.

2. ROMANTIC RECOIL. Although MARY SHELLEY was the daughter of two radical writers, Godwin (mentioned above) and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus even while her husband was preparing himself for Prometheus Unbound, yet in this revealingly flawed hybrid of horror tale and philosophical SF she expresses with considerable force the widespread recoil from Promethean utopianism, the "disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the willful exaggeration of its own despair," which was to become a dominant tendency in subsequent English-language SF. The novel's theme is twofold: Frankenstein's creation of artificial life is the vehicle for a parable on the fate of an alienated representative individual—his Creature (called "monster" only twice, I think, in the entire book). A series of paradoxes and contradictions emerges from the opposition of these two themes and characters.

Victor Frankenstein's theme shapes a horror tale about the attitudes of modern "objective" science. It is not quite anti-scientific, but is recounted as an awful warning to Walton, the explorer of icy polar regions, not to pursue discovery unless solitary imagination is allied to warm fellow-feeling. Walton's "belief in the marvelous," though fed by Romantic poetry, science, and utopian travel dreams, merely hurried him "out of the common pathways of men" and rendered him friendless; parallel to this, Frankenstein has spurned the study of language and politics, recapitulating in his personal history the exclusion of "human sciences" from post-Baconian science. Just as Walton is ruthlessly prepared to sacrifice his crew and his own life for "the acquirement of knowledge" equated with dominion over nature in the name of an abstract mankind, so Frankenstein had quite scientifically concluded that "to examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death," and proudly gone about creating a human being with the aid of science instead of the traditional "divine spark" (bestowed by God or stolen from him by Prometheus) or the alchemical, magic elixir of life. For Percy (and presumably Mary) Shelley, electricity was vital energy imbued with natural human sympathy; Frankenstein used it instead with mathematics and charnel-house surgery. That his desire to break through the boundary between life and death boomerangs, in the Creature's killing all his dear ones and thus desolating his life, is in the best theological tradition; his horror and disgust when seeing his creature come alive would thus, as in a Gothic story, prefigure its behavior, just as its hideous looks would testify to its corrupt essence.

But the Creature's pathetic story of coming to sentience and to consciousness of his untenable position provides an almost diametrically opposed point of view. His theme is both the compositional core and the real novelty or SF element that lifts Frankenstein above a grippingly mindless Gothic story. Far from being foul within, the Creature starts as an ideal 18th-century "noble savage," benevolent and good, loving and yearning for love. His terrible disappointment and alienation is that of the typical Romantic hero—of, as he himself points out, Goethe's Werther or a Romantically justified Miltonic Satan—wandering through mountains and glaciers. In the Creature this outcast status is projected from historical practice into biological necessity: he is caught between his vital spark of freedom and the iron grip of scorn and persecution that arises from his racial alienness. We are back on the shores of Houyhnhnmland as seen by Godwin: for in the Creature a "sensitive and rational animal" (§24), less guilty than man, is again showing up human history, politics, psychology, and metaphysics. These are explained in the four books the Creature overhears being discussed during his strange education by proxy:

The strange system of human society was explained to me.... I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages; but without either, he was a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I?... I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man.... Was I then a monster...? (§13)

But the addition of "sensitive" to the 18th-century definition of man as a rational animal points to a great shift across the watershed of the failed democratic and the costly industrial revolution. Humanity is being shown up not only as irrational but also as cruel, in impassioned rather than satirical accents, by a suffering and wronged creature who wants to belong rather than be a detached and wondering observer. This shift exactly corresponds to the shift from far-off places to a present that should be radically transformed, from More's or Swift's static juxtaposition of islands and cities to the dynamic mutual pursuit of Frankenstein and his Creature across the extreme landscapes of lifeless cold and desolation, from behaviorist to sentimental psychology, from general human nature to historical human relationships. Life, the central category of the Romantics, "is opposed to being in the same way as movement to immobility, as time to space, as the secret wish to the visible expression."7

This hallowed status of sentient life and its genesis was threatened by a capitalist use of physical sciences which substituted "mechanical or two-way time for history, the dissected corpse for the living body, dismantled units called 'individuals' for men-in-groups, or in general the mechanically measurable or reproducible for the inaccessible and the complicated and the organically whole."8 This led to a growing relevance of and fascination with automata as puzzling "doubles" of man. Before Mary Shelley, such a semi-alien twin had been treated either as a wondrously ingenious toy (in the 18th century) or as an unclean demonic manifestation (in most German Romantics); in the first case it belonged to "naturalistic" literature, in the second to horror-fantasy. The nearest approximation to an artificial creature seen both as perfect human loveliness and (later) as a horrible mechanical construct was provided by Hoffman in The Sandman (1816). But even he oscillated between fiends and physics, and his Olimpia was seen solely through a dazzled observer. Mary Shelley's Creature is not only undoubtedly alive though alien, and fashioned out of human material instead of the inorganic wires of puppetry, he is also allowed to gain our sympathy by being shown from the inside, as a subject degradingly treated like an object. However, because of the "exaggerated despair" which Shelley accurately diagnosed, not only is human society monstrous in its dealing with the Creature, but he too is "objectively" a monster—living though unnatural, sentient and intelligent though inhuman.

Clearly, the two main themes and viewpoints of the novel contradict each other. The Creature is the moral focus of this parable, so that the reader cannot treat him as a Gothic monster merely vouched for by science instead of the supernatural. But vice versa, if one is to look at this as SF, important unresolved questions appear—and fundamentally, why did the Creature have to be hideous? Conceivably, though unconvincingly, the contrived accident of Frankenstein's creative haste might be discounted as just one more among the melodramatic contrivances and technical clumsinesses of this novel; even so, why should alienness have to be automatically equated with hideousness? The tenor and the vehicle of the parable are here startingly discrepant—a signal that some strong psychic censorship is at work. As Shelley suggested in the Preface to The Revolt of Islam, we are here dealing with a gloom and misanthropy rooted in the moral ruin of the revulsion from the French Revolution. The hypothesis that, just as in Blake and Shelley, the relationships in Frankenstein are symbolic both of individual psychology and collective politics explains the curious contradictions found in the novel. Frankenstein and the Creature are in some ways comparable to Freud's Ego and Id, but they are not reducible to such a Jekyll-Hyde relationship. The Creature is warmer and finally more intelligent than his creator, like Milton's Adam and Satan; nor can Freudism explain why the lower psychological class of Id must always be thought of as lawless and destructive. However, Frankenstein can be seen as an overhasty and half-baked Shelleyan intellectual, the Godwinian philosophe-scientist who "animates" the popular masses with "no kind of property" in hopes of a new and glorious creation, only to find—in a parable of the French Revolution—that persecution and injustice exacerbate them to the point of indiscriminate slaughter and that his Prometheanism has desolated his "most cherished hopes." This supplies an historical explanation for the Creature's only partly successful fashioning and the universal revulsion felt for it. It also clarifies why at the end Frankenstein can exclaim "I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed." In this view he was an improper Prometheus or revolutionary intellectual—a truly new one, with more patience and love, will be presented in Prometheus Unbound.

Mary Shelley's other SF novel, The Last Man (1826), is a renewed reversal of the perspectives in Prometheus Unbound. It retains and interestingly details its prospects of political liberation, but reverses its cosmic optimism by having mankind collapse in a plague which leaves the sole survivor finally even more isolated than Frankenstein or his Creature. The shift of the locale into the future (the "tale of the future" becomes six times more frequent after 1800) translates Mary's usual Gothic background into a black SF anticipation, already adumbrated in several works that followed the debacle of 18th-century hopes and often posited a new ice age (Grainville's poem Le dernier homme, 1805; the "romance-in-futurity" Last Men, 1806; Byron's poem "Darkness"; etc.). This makes The Last Man a precursor of the SF "physics of alienation" from Poe to The Time Machine and beyond. But Frankenstein remains her permanent contribution, claiming for SF the concern for a personal working out of overriding sociological and scientific dilemmas. It compromised with horror-fantasy taste by returning these dilemmas largely to biology, thus announcing the legions of menacing aliens and androids from Wells and Capek on. Yet the stress on sympathy and responsibility for the Creature transcends the sensational murders and purple patches of Mary's own novel and most SF writing on this theme (not to mention the Hollywood movies which revert to one-dimensional Gothic monsters). The urgency in Frankenstein, situated in an exotic present, interweaves intimate reactions with social destiny, enthusiasm for Promethean science with a feeling for its human results, and marries the exploratory SF parable with the (still somewhat shaky) tradition of the novel. This indicated the way SF would go in meeting the challenge of the cruel times, and of Swift's great question about man—relocated into body and history.

However, the way proved long and thorny. A number of scattered SF writings appeared in Europe in the 1830s and 1840s with the revival of utopian expectations and Romantic dreams. In Russia, V. Odoevsky wrote a mild anticipation, The Year 4338.9 In France, Souvestre disguised a sermon on the immorality of mechanized progress, which had torn down the old pieties and would therefore be destroyed by God, as possibly the first anti-utopian anticipation in The World as It Shall Be (1846), and Cabet disguised an authoritarian version of Fourier and Owen as fiction in A Journey to Icaria, (1840), both only less insipid than Lamartine's liberal United Europe of France and England (1843). As a last interesting echo of the 1848 wave, C.I. DEFONTENAY revived in Star (1854) the planetary novel with a vivid description, in prose mixed with verse, of a whole planetary system with different man-like species, their physics, politics, and ethics. A utopian humanism and sensibility, which created even samples of Starian literature, vivifies his narration of their history, passing through a cosmic exodus and return—a lone work looking forward to Stapledon. In Britain, J.F. Bray's A Voyage From Utopia,10 halfway between Owen and Bellamy, attempted to merge Swiftian techniques with radical egalitarian propaganda. Utopias in the U.S.A., which had been published since the turn of the century, also gave some signs of reviving. But tries at colonies such as Cabet's and the Brook Farm failed, and the distance from—indeed enmity to—the everyday world increased in the North American writers of the mid-19th century. Living in the country where the bourgeois way of life progressed most rapidly, they recoiled from its optimism most thoroughly, and came to treat the wondrous novelty not in terms of Prometheus the revolutionary, but in terms of Faust, the over-reacher who sold his soul to the Devil and whom Goethe had already adopted as symbol of the permanent dynamism accompanying the bourgeois. The most prominent of such recoilers were Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. The first often used allegorical fantasy, the second a more or less imaginary voyage, and the third both. In some cases, admittedly marginal to the ensemble of their works, their fictions bordered on or passed into SF.

One of the strong American literary traditions was that of the world supplying moral symbols for the writer, and in particular of the adventurous voyage as an inner quest. It flowed from various updatings of Pilgrim's Progress, from Morgan's History of the Kingdom of Basaruah (1715) to C.B. Brown, Irving (whose History of New York, 1809, has a satirical SF sketch, midway between Voltaire and Wells, of Lunarians dealing with Earthmen as Whites did with Indians), and Cooper (who wrote two rather bad satirico-utopian novels) and it culminated in Hawthorne's fiction as the working out of a hypothesis with a symbolically collective rather than individualist main character. In short, there was almost "no major 19th-century American writer of fiction, and indeed few of the second rank, who did not write some SF or at least one utopian romance."11 HAWTHORNE usually equivocates between the natural and the supernatural, so that the hypnotism and other controlling influences in his major romances are never more than an undercurrent. Even in the stories that turn on the scientist-artist, the somewhat melodramatic allegory suggests that his Faustian urge is unnatural—at worst criminal, as in "The Birthmark," and at best useless except for his inner satisfaction, as in "The Artist of the Beautiful." Only in "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1846) is Hawthorne prepared to envisage a counter-creation for a moment on its own merits. Though Beatrice is not given as spirited a defense as Frankenstein's Creature, she is at least an innocently wronged alien who exercises considerable passionate attraction—rather similar to the Fourierist ideas that Hawthorne was to renounce as senseless and wicked after his Brook Farm experience, itself comparable to a poisoned Eden. But finally, her father's revolutionary creation is dismissed in an ending more akin to exorcism than to SF.

On the contrary, POE took to an exemplary extreme both the autonomy of his imaginary worlds and the isolation of the individual who does not relate to a coherent community but to some metaphysical principle. Poe was more exposed than Hawthorne to a civilization that was finding the artist unnecessary except as a leisure-time entertainer for marginal social strata. History and society meant to him merely a rapidly expanding "dollar-manufacture," a hateful democracy or Mob rule, so that his protagonist—raising the stakes in comparison with the revolts of the first Romantic generation—ignores almost all human interaction, not only in politics and work but also in sex and knowledge. Science, technology, and all knowledge have become Mephistophelean instead of Promethean powers, fascinating but leading only to dead-ends and destruction: "Poe confronts and represents, as few authors before him, the alienated and alienating quality of the technological environment."12

Therefore he constructed a compensatory fantasy-world connecting an exacerbated inner reality directly to the universe. But this fantasy is a kind of photographic negative of his environment. Feeling is dissociated from the intelligence and will that normally acted upon a socially recognizable reality, and a subjective timelessness (indeed a dream or nightmare-time) or instant apprehension of horror efface any objectively measurable progress of time: personality and consciousness are here disintegrating. In the actuality "time-keeping had merged with record-keeping in the art of communication."13

Poe, the first significant figure in this tradition to live from commercial work for periodicals (even writing a story to fit a magazine illustration, as often in present-day SF), concentrated on the obstacles to communication. To him it is a maze of masks, hoaxes and cryptograms, exemplified by the recurrent manuscript in a bottle, falsely sent or mysteriously received, revealing truth ambiguously if at all.

Most of Poe's tales existing within the horizons of terror, of flight from life and time, are horror-fantasies pretending to a private supernatural reality which is in fact based upon pre-scientific lore. In this light, Poe is the originator of what is least mature in the writing commercially peddled as SF—an adolescent combination of hysterical sensibility and sensational violence, and dissociation of symbol from imaginative consistency of any (even imaginary) world, a vague intensity of style used for creepy incantation. His protagonist is often "the perpetual American boy-man...[who] must, to express himself, go above, or away from, or beyond our commoner range of experience."14 T.S. Eliot, acknowledging his "very exceptional mind and sensibility," has even suggested that Poe's intellect was that "of a highly gifted young person before puberty."15 Though this may not be fair to Poe, who at his best knew how to present his limitations with ironic distancing, it accurately pinpoints the emotional age of his imitators in the No-Man's-Land of fantasy passed off as SF from Haggard and Lovecraft to Bradbury and further.

Three groups of Poe's works have a more direct claim to attention in this survey: those marginally using some SF conventions, those using SF for comic comment or ideological revelation, and the cosmological speculations. The first group comprises the poem "Al Aaraaf," the dialogues "Eiros and Charmion" (which mentions the destruction of Earth by a comet-caused conflagration) and "The Power of Words," and the tales of oceanic descent culminating in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). Pym appropriates the extraordinary-voyage tradition for a metaphysical (and in the Tsalal episode passably racist) quest for purity or the unknown, presents an interesting use of correspondences between the world and the protagonist, and possibly ends with the Pole being an entrance to the hollow earth popularized in Symzonia (1820). The second group features anticipations like balloon-flights across the Atlantic and to the Moon or suspended animation (in "The Balloon Hoax," "The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall," "Some Words With a Mummy," "Mellonta Tauta," "Van Kempelen and His Discovery") as hoaxes or satires on present-day certainties of progress; it includes in "The Man That Was Used Up" (1840) the first instance of a man almost totally composed of artificial organs. The most substantial among them, "Pfaall" (1840) and "Mellonta Tauta" (1850) are most strongly science-fictional. The interplanetary flight prepared by an amateur inventor in his back yard, the verisimilar flight perils and observations, and the glimpses of grotesque yet kindred aliens in the first story gave the cue to much later space-travel SF. More subtly, so did the future inventions, political satire, and cultural incomprehension of the reader's times in the second story (as also, retrospectively, in "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade") to later time-travel SF. The three "mesmeric tales" culminating in the scientifically motivated horrors of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845), whether used for revelation of Poe's cosmology or tongue-in-cheek sensationalism, are ancillary to his fantastic system of correspondences. Finally, Eureka (1848), his crowning piece of essayistic SF, explicates this highly heretical, complex web of analogies and conversions by which in Poe life does not end with death, sentience is not confined to organic matter, cosmogony is analogous to individual sensibility and creativity (see "The Power of Words"), and the universe is God's coded monologue. Such mechanistic metaphysics lead finally to solipsism: whatever the writer can imagine is as good as created, and conversely all that is created is imagined. No wonder he appealed to later lonely writers.

Poe's influence has been immense in both Anglo-American and French SF (the latter has yet to recover from it). Though his ideology and time-horizon tend to horror-fantasy forms, the pioneering incompleteness of his work provided SF with a wealth of hints for fusing the rational with the symbolical, such as his techniques of gradual domestication of the extraordinary, and of the "half-closed eye" estrangement just glimpsing the extraordinary. With Poe, the tradition of the moral quest became urbanized, escapist, and unorthodox. His influence encompasses on the one hand the mechanical marvels of Verne and the dime novels, and on the other the escapist strain in some of the "straightest" U.S. SF, e.g., Heinlein's time-travelling solipsism. Both are blended in the Wellsian grotesque tradition, from some of Wells's cumulations of believable terrors to, say, the symbolical tales of Blish or Knight. Poe's notes stressing verisimilitude, analogy, and probability for the wondrous story made him also the first theoretician of SF.

MELVILLE's whole opus is a "major contribution to the literature of created societies,"16 for he had an ingrained tendency to expand almost any subject into an allegorical microcosm of its own, and he took the Faustian quest more seriously than Hawthorne and less necrophiliacally than Poe. Mardi (1849), though somewhat formless, is an iconoclastic "extraordinary voyage" among islands of unsatisfactory mythologies, politics, and philosophies which blends Rabelais with memories of Polynesia. "The Tartarus of Maids," a revulsion against industrial and sexual exploitation of women, with sexual physiology masked as factory organization, is on the margins of SF by virtue of its sustained parallel between production of babies and that of paper. Most interestingly, in "The Bell-Tower" (1856), the, "practical materialist" merchant-mechanician protagonist, "enriched through commerce with the Levant," rising as a new force in a feudal society and raising his tower with the clock and the "state-bell," is a potent symbol for rising capitalism and the emblematic American Liberty Bell. But his bell has been cast with an admixture of workman's blood, and the automaton created by him to be the bell's ringer, the "iron slave" who stands for all servitude from that of Negroes to that of workers, finally slays his master. The complex—even if not always congruous—religious, sexual, and political symbolism make this the nearest that mid-century narrative-prose SF has come to a Blakean approach. The American SF story continued to be well represented into the second half of the 19th century, as in some stories by Fitz-James O'Brien culminating in the somber tale of microscopic fatality and elective affinity, "The Diamond Lens" (1858). But O'Brien was killed in the Civil War, and the ensuing Gilded Age was not propitious to sustained SF, which would revive only with Bellamy.

Thus the period that opened with universal anticipations of liberation, with Blake's and Shelley's rhapsodies, found its central expression in the anguished immediacy of Frankenstein's costly failure, and ended in the symbolic gloom of representative creators from what began as liberty's first and last frontier but turned out to be a liberty Bell cracked by the blood of the toilers. As Wordsworth precisely noted: "We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes despondency and madness" ("Resolution and Independence"). This can be used as a characterization of the age more than of the poets it moulded, turning them from Shelley's unacknowledged legislating to Melville's passionate witnessing.


1I have discussed this approach to SF in "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," College English 34(1972):372-82, and "Science Fiction and the Genological Jungle," Genre 6(1973):251-73. For Bertolt Brecht's practice and theory of estrangement, see Brecht on Theatre, ed. and tr. John Willett (NY 1964), especially pp 96 and 192 (where Verfremdung, "estrangement," is wrongly translated as "alienation").

2For Lucian's influence down to Rabelais and Voltaire, see John E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship (Cambridge 1903-08) and Basil L. Gildersleeve, Essays and Studies (Baltimore 1908).

3Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Boston 1971), p 90, and the whole essay-chapter "The Phenomenon of Reification" on pp 83 seqq. For the epistemological shift from spatial to temporal imagination see also the insights in Capital and other writings by Marx, developed by Lukács as well as by Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung I-II (Frankfurt 1959) Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (NY and Burlingame 1963), and Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station (1940).


4All the dates in the body of this essay are for first book publication.

5H.N. Brailsford, Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle (L 1930), p 221.

6Carl Grabo, A Newton Among Poets (Chapel Hill 1930), p 198.

7Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (L 1970), p 278.

8Mumford (Note 3), p 50.

9Odoevsky's text, wiritten in 1837-39 as an epistolary novel, was never completed, presumably because of the dim prospects of its being published in Tsarist Russia, where only one fragment ever appeared (in the magazine "Utrennyaya Zarya" for 1840). It was first published in book form in 1926 (Moscow: Bibl. "Oronek").

10Bray's book was written in 1840-41. A year later, the pressures on this radical labor leader and Chartist induced him to emigrate to the USA, and the book was first published only in 1957 (L: Lawrence and Wishart).

11H. Bruce Franklin, Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century (NY 1966), p x.



12David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe (Princeton 1973), p 247.

13Mumford (Note 3), p 136.

14E.H. Davidson, Poe (Cambridge, Mass. 1957), p 214.

15T.S. Eliot, in Eric W. Carlson, ed., The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe (Ann Arbor 1966), pp 212-13.

16Franklin (Note 11), p 135.



As opposed to naturalistic (mimetic or mundane) fiction, which aims at holding the mirror up to nature, SF is an estranged literary genre. The reason for its existence is a radically different, strange and estranging, newness. Certain other genres use the attitude of estrangement and are sometimes hybridized with SF, or confused with it. The mythological tale sees fixed, supernaturally determined relations under the flux of human fortunes. This mythical constancy is to SF an illusion, usually a fraud. Myth asks ahistorical questions about The Man and The World. SF asks: What kind of man? In what kind of world? Why such a man in such a world? Myth absolutizes apparently constant relationships from periods of sluggish social development. SF is committed to a cognitive and critical approach that is blood brother to the scientific method. If SF is defined by the interaction of cognition and estrangement—if it is a literature of possible and reasonable wonder or cognitive estrangement—it is fundamentally different from genres derived from myth such as the fairy tale, the horror story, and heroic fantasy, all of which are concerned with the irruption of anti-cognitive laws into the author’s empirical environment. SF, on the other hand, shares with "naturalistic" fiction the basic rule that man’s destiny is man. In SF, then, the radically different agents and scenes are still agents and scenes of the human world. The essay discusses poetry by Blake and Percy Shelley, and fiction by Mary Shelley, Poe, Mercier, Grainville, DeFontenay, Melville, and others.

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