Science Fiction Studies

# 8 = Volume 3, Part 1 = March 1976

David Ketterer

Science Fiction and Allied Literature

A paper was presented at the 1974 SFRA conference entitled, "The Rocket & the Pig, or Henry Adams Revisited, or Science Fiction Vindicated, in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow."1 My knowledge of this paper derives from the conference program only; I was not present. However to judge from its title the argument must have that Gravity’s Rainbow is a work of SF, indeed a superior example of the genre. Earlier the same year Gravity’s Rainbow appeared amongst a list of books nominated for the newly-conceived Jupiter award—an award reflecting the evaluations of teachers of SF, an academic seal of approval, so to speak. Clearly a patent element of aggrandizement is at work here on the part of certain apologists for the genre. To be able to lasso a winner of the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize nominee for the SF corral is one way of combating the tendency of unfriendly critics to dismiss as juvenile the entire field. Unfortunately, having struggled through the 700-odd pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, I can testify that it is not a work of SF in any real sense. Furthermore in my opinion it is not a particularly good book marred as it is by a kind of elephantiasis analogous to that displayed by the SF apologists of whom I am speaking. But that is by the way. The issue at hand is the sloppy critical approach which types works related to SF as, in fact, examples of SF. Gravity’s Rainbow, like The Education of Henry Adams, is a work which may be seen as related to SF.

Pynchon’s book is not an isolated example here. Mark Adlard, a British SF writer, comes close to calling Dante’s Divine Comedy SF.2 We are encouraged by Kingsley Amis to read The Tempest as SF.3 Darko Suvin believes much of Blake’s work to be SF.4 Peter Nicholls, the editor of Foundation, is at work on a history of science fiction which begins with the epic of Gilgamesh and along the way makes references to The Dunciad, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Hard Times.5 Surely, while all these works may contain science-fictional elements and to lesser and greater degrees have something in common with SF, they are not themselves examples of SF. And, although what is and what isn’t SF can be a matter of definition, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by expanding the definition of science fiction in order to include such cases. What is needed here is a new and larger category which would include both SF and the works which somehow insist upon being related to it. And in that context what is required is not so much an all-encompassing definition of SF as various defining distinctions between the different gradations of SF. Such a pluralistic approach is all the more necessary since we may be approaching a stage in the development of SF where an author’s work may best be understood on its own terms rather than as an example of a particular genre.

1. I have proposed in New Worlds for Old that SF is best understood as an aspect of an encompassing tradition of what may be called apocalyptic literature.6 Apocalyptic literature is conceived as one part of a tripartite circular sequence which also includes fantastic literature and mimetic literature. It is characterized by the creation of radically different other worlds which, by virtue of a reading convention, exist on a literal level in a credible relationship (credible whether on the basis of a religious faith or rationality) with the everyday world in the reader’s head, thereby occasioning the destruction of that everyday world during the reading process. This admittedly somewhat inelegant formulation has the advantage that, while covering SF, it would also include works which appear to be related to SF. The distinction between apocalyptic literature and mimetic literature is reasonably clear cut—mimetic works attempt by way of certain conventions to reproduce the world of everyday experience. The distinction between apocalyptic literature and fantastic literature is apparently trickier to appreciate but it depends similarly upon an author’s intention and ability to signal certain reading expectations. It is the intention of the apocalyptic writer to create a world which exists in a credible relationship with the putative real world; it is the intention of the fantastic writer to create a world which exists in an incredible relationship with the putative real world. The intentionality here does not altogether signal itself by way of subject matter. It is to be experienced or not experienced, as the case may be, through what Samuel R. Delany calls the level of subjunctivity, the glue between the words.7 A writer can signal a desired level of subjunctivity both directly, by simply calling his work fantasy, SF, gothic romance or whatever, and indirectly by adopting a particular style. Herein lies the real distinction between SF and fantasy or, for that matter, the ultimate distinction between fantastic literature and mimetic literature.

The more rigorous kind of allegory where a relationship with the putative real world is to be sought on the subsurface level of translated meaning rather than on a surface level of scene and incident would belong, on that surface level, in my fantastic literature category. The categorization allegory, of course, involves the introduction of a parameter other than that which distinguishes the relationships between fictional worlds and the assumed real world. What is important is the relationship between semantic levels. Likewise with parody, where what is most relevant is the relationship between one literary world and another, a new parameter is required.

The term "speculative fiction" has been used somewhat confusedly, both as an alternative and more dignified interpretation of the initials SF and as a means of drawing attention to the wider possibilities of SF, seemingly in effect those possibilities that exist within the range of the apocalyptic imagination. On the one hand, the sense that SF exists within a larger and "nobler" literary structure is acknowledged, but on the other, SF itself is made to disappear. Why not then modify this usage and speak of science fiction—for such an animal does indeed exist and analysis can reveal its evolving forms—within the larger context of speculative literature? What is to be gained by apparently calling speculative literature apocalyptic literature? Well, for one thing the label speculative literature is often used to cover works of fantasy as well as SF and thus blurs what I consider to be a vital distinction. At the same time, if the variously faceted definition of apocalyptic literature which I have elaborated in New Worlds for Old is in any way convincing, I believe it allows for a much clearer mapping of the relationships between SF and its encompassing literary structure than does the term speculative literature. But in addition and of paramount importance, the apocalyptic concept acknowledges the sense of reality both physical and ultimately mystical which characterizes SF. To take my paradigm example in New Worlds for Old, it is surely much more convincing to speak of Edgar Allan Poe as an apocalyptic writer rather than a speculative writer. Perhaps, however, the term speculative fiction could be retained to describe those works on the bordering areas between SF and other aspects of the apocalyptic imagination or, indeed, of the fantastic and mimetic imaginations.

It should be apparent by now that this essay is very much a coda to New Worlds for Old. Partly in order to sharpen the focus of that book I largely limited my treatment of the classic, i.e. non science-fictional, apocalyptic imagination, to American literature. At the same time I hoped to point to the centrality of the apocalyptic imagination in American literature and thereby explain the peculiarly American nature of the SF genre. Of the major forces which have led to the development of SF—the new astronomy and the New World during the Renaissance, Darwinism and the Industrial Revolution during the nineteenth century—I believe that the New World concept was of primary importance. Clearly the era of geographical exploration in the seventeenth century provided a concrete analogue or "objective correlative" for the concurrent intellectual revolution. It is no accident that three early works of importance to the history of proto-SF, More’s Utopia, Bacon’s New Atlantis and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, all display evidence of a New World awareness. Likewise, Verne and Wells pondered the significance of America.8 And in terms of influence, Poe is to Verne what Hawthorne almost is to Wells.

However, my present concern is that larger subject implied but not treated at length in my book, the relationship between science fiction and those examples of the apocalyptic imagination which do not belong to the American literary tradition. What follows is a more or less chronological inventory, suggestive I hope and certainly not definitive, of literary forms, texts and writers of formal significance which I conceive as either existing exclusively within the confines of apocalyptic literature or alternatively capable of apocalyptic expression. Works of the apocalyptic imagination radically change and improve our understanding of a present reality, indirectly by presenting other worlds in space and time thus placing the present in a wider material context, or, more directly, by presenting other worlds out of space and time, thus placing the present in a transcendent visionary context. Such works effect the same transformation with most immediacy by devising new ontologies and radically reinterpreting aspects of the present—the nature of man, the nature of reality or the nature of an outside manipulator. When applied to individual works these distinctions coexist and overlap bewilderingly. But in the order given, they accord approximately with the chronological development of apocalyptic forms which I wish to survey here.

2. There are a number of genres or forms which developed early and depend for their interest largely upon the fact that outside of a localized area, the rest of the world was as unknown as the surface of the moon or Mars. Most histories of SF nod respectfully in the direction of the imaginary voyage and generally specify the Odyssey. The cosmic voyage is a perfectly natural development of the imaginary voyage. I see no essential formal difference between these two narrative structures. The affinity between the pastoral and SF has been noted by Darko Suvin and should receive some treatment in any scholarly approach to the history of SF.9 There are various points of contact. The town/country duality like the male/female duality only needs to be taken literally in terms of contrasting worlds for all manner of science-fictional possibilities to become evident. Thus the proliferation of planet-cities and planets named Eden. At the same time, the centrality of the technology theme in SF invokes the pastoral by way of dialectical necessity. Furthermore, the strategy of the pastoral, as made familiar by William Empson, whereby the complex is transposed into the domain of the simple is one much imitated by writers of SF.10 The pastoral, like utopian fantasy, is of course a form of satire and obviously that kind of satire which functions, as so much of it does, by creating an imaginary society which provides a distorted mirror image of man’s own society, blends easily with SF giving rise to the dystopia theme.

To the extent that SF is future history, pre-history or alternative history, there are areas of overlap to be explored with myth (including the pastoral myth of an ancient Golden Age), legend and historical fiction—all forms concerned with other times. The more unknown, unauthenticated is the nature of the time past that is described, the more the work concerned may operate within the context of the apocalyptic imagination. But any successful realization of an historical society or situation will involve communicating a sense of scope, an awareness of trans-individual forces and a philosophical sense of the process of history similar to that required in sociological or large canvas SF. Fredric Jameson goes so far as to claim that "SF is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself, comparable in its emergence as a new genre to the birth of the historical novel around the time of the French Revolution."11 It is unquestionably true that the writer of historical fiction, like the writer of pastoral, utopian and dystopian fiction, and much of SF generally, is to a greater or lesser degree presenting a temporally removed society in order to comment on his own times. A historical subject will frequently present itself as offering suggestive parallels.

As for that apocalyptic tradition which deals in visionary worlds out of space and time, exhibit A (corresponding to the Odyssey as an example of other worlds in space and time) is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Milton’s Paradise Lost with its Heaven, Hell and Eden belongs in both of the other world camps. The visionary tradition culminates with the work of Blake, Shelley and the other Romantics. Since, as I believe, the overall thrust of SF, its outer edge, is visionary or mystical, one might legitimately expect the SF genre to be capable of comparable literary achievements. M.H. Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism describes what I understand to be the area of relationship between SF and Romantic poetry when he stresses the Romantic obsession with apocalypses of mind.12 A good example of the more detailed kind of comparison which might be attempted is provided by Christopher Small’s study of the connections between Frankenstein and Prometheus Unbound.13 The relationship between the gothic novel generally and SF is well known and has recently been emphasized by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree.14

Actually Frankenstein is perhaps the paradigm example of another important connection, that between SF and the natural sublime, if for the moment we can agree with Aldiss in typing Frankenstein as SF. Perhaps the best study of the sublime for present purposes is Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory which chronicles the development of the natural sublime as distinct from the rhetorical sublime described by the pseudo-Longinus.15 While Longinus did regard the power of forming great conceptions as essential to the achievement of the sublime it was not until the new astronomy and the new geology of the seventeenth century precipitated a new sense of the vastness of space and time that natural analogues were found for those sublime emotions previously associated directly with the deity. Mountains and oceans, once regarded as fallen disfigurements of the originally smooth surface of the mundane egg Earth were suddenly appreciated as evocative of the sublime emotions of terror and religious awe. But mountains and oceans were only terrestrial equivalents for that sublime horror and awe to be more accurately experienced by a consciousness of the immensities of interstellar space. Thomas Burnet in his extraordinary The Sacred Theory of the Earth, a work which occupies a pivotal position in the aesthetic history of the sublime, captures the essence of the natural sublime in the following passage:

The greatest Objects of Nature are, methinks, the most pleasing to behold; and next to the Great Concave of the Heavens, and those boundless Regions where the Stars inhabit, there is nothing that I look upon with more Pleasure than the wide Sea and the Mountains of the Earth. There is something august and stately in the Air of these things, that inspires the Mind with great Thoughts and Passions; we do naturally, upon such Occasions, think of God and his Greatness: And whatsoever hath but the Shadow and Appearance of INFINITE, as all things do have that are too big for our comprehension, they fill and overbear the Mind with their Excess, and cast it into a pleasing kind of Stupor and Admiration.16

The relationship between all this and SF should be obvious although it has only recently been pointed out in print by Wayne Connelly in an article entitled "Science Fiction and the Mundane Egg."17 What is to be regretted, of course, is that the rhetorical abilities of most SF writers are not equal to the occasions which SF offers for the experience of sublimity. The measure of excellence here is Paradise Lost which displays in an exemplary manner many instances of the sublime.

Certainly the various qualities involved in the sublime experience are readily obtainable in SF. Joseph Addison in his Pleasures of the Imagination (1712) emphasized the importance of the uncommon while Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) stresses the value of obscurity because it excites fear of the unknown, specifically as related to the ideas of infinity and eternity. According to Burke, astonishment "is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree" but terror is the ruling principle of the sublime.18 He claims that "the English astonishment and amazement, point out ... clearly the kindred emotions which attend fear and wonder."19 We have all, I am sure, heard of a magazine devoted to SF called Amazing Stories. A number of critics have concerned themselves with the importance of the power theme in SF. Burke argues that it is an awareness of the power implied by sublime phenomena which produces the emotion of terror. As I have suggested, perhaps the best example of this range of sublime qualities in SF, if it is SF, is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The monster is almost a projection of the qualities inspired by the book’s Alpine setting, the same setting which so affected Burnet and many of the other testifiers to mountain glory.

The experience of a transcendent reality which in temporal terms can only be described as a kind of everlasting present does, of course, change our lived present reality in an immediate manner, very different from the way in which that reality is transformed by an awareness of other worlds in space and time. But radically new philosophical frameworks might be said to work on transforming a conventional reality even more directly. For the remainder of this paper I shall be concerned with kinds of literature which, because of their originality, effect analogously profound reinterpretations.

3. Peter Nicholls is fond of proclaiming that SF has less to do with physics than with metaphysics. My own approach supports this sense that SF is ultimately concerned with probing the nature of reality conceived on a universal scale. The term "metaphysical" might be applied to most of the writers that I would describe as apocalyptics—Dante and Goethe for example—but students of literature are more likely to think of the work of Donne and various other seventeenth-century poets. There appears to be as much doubt about the appropriateness of the label metaphysical poetry as the label SF, but that is not the only reason why it may be worthwhile looking for affinities between the two forms. Certainly metaphysical poets did make use of metaphysical ideas at a time when such ideas were undergoing a fundamental revolution. The metaphysical themes to be found in much SF, particularly the novels of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem, aim at being similarly disturbing and are often given similarly witty and playful expression. That balance of passion and thought which many critics have argued is the essential characteristic of metaphysical poetry is surely something to be aimed at in SF as is that "associated sensibility" which saw no disjunctions between art, science and religion. By means of logical rigour and a realistic precision of imagery, both metaphysical poetry and SF hope to give expression to the new and surprising. Of course, all literature which acknowledges in its world view the important role played by science and technology might be considered in some sense sympathetic to SF but, in order for such literature to be considered apocalyptic, developments in the sciences must be in some way correlated with the sense of a radically changed world. Such a correlation provides a basis for Donne’s Anniversaries and allows one critic, Sonia Raiziss, to speak of Donne’s "apocalyptic mood."20 If my argument for the importance of the apocalyptic tradition in American literature is acceptable, it is not surprising that the revival of interest in metaphysical poetry began in America. Nor is it surprising that one of Donne’s satiric works—Ignatius His Conclave, which appeared shortly before the satiric "Anatomy of the World" in the Anniversaries—occupies a significant place in the history of SF.21

Work needs to be done on the literary hoax form and SF. In particular, it would be useful to untangle the conundrum of ontological issues involving the question of fiction and reality to which the topic gives rise. This article provides me with an opportunity for at least clarifying the problems. Sam Moskowitz has pointed to the importance of the newspaper hoax (e.g., Locke’s "Moon Hoax" and Poe’s "Balloon Hoax") in the development of American SF.22 (The further connection between the "tall tale" and the hoax provides an additional argument for seeing a peculiarly American quality in SF; Mark Twain is the paradigm example of the tall tale to SF line of development.) In New Worlds for Old, I disbar a number of Poe pieces from the category "straight" SF because they were originally conceived as hoaxes. The question which I evade in the book is whether or not a science-fictional hoax can be formally distinguished from a work of SF which is not conceived as a hoax or indeed a work of SF which has the unintentional effect of hoaxing its readers or listeners—I am thinking of the Orson Welles broadcast version of The War of the Worlds.

The literary hoax may take two forms—either the writer attempts to pass off a stylistic copy as an original or he attempts to pass off as factual a work of fiction. It only takes a moment’s reflection to realize that the second category is likely to overlap with SF. Unlike the forger, who operates for financial gain, the hoaxer wants to prove something about human gullibility. For anything significant to be proven by the second kind of hoax, the "facts" described must be in some way startling or amazing like the "facts" of SF. The almanac form, which purports to forecast the future, proved an early model for the science-fictional hoax. Under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, Swift published a hoaxical almanac entitled Predictions for the Year 1708. The question then arises, should exploded hoaxes be categorized as SF first and hoaxes second or vice versa? Do the formal characteristics of the SF hoax-documentary presentation, a pervasive irony or sarcasm, a particular "Level of subjunctivity," to have recourse to Delany’s concept again, its status as a "self -consuming artifact," to appropriate Stanley Fish’s category 23—suffice to distinguish it from SF proper? To take a specific instance, should George Adamski’s accounts of his adventures with flying saucers and Venusians be read as literary hoaxes, as factual reports or as SF?24 The hoax form strikes at the heart of the fact/fiction antithesis since, as employed by such writers as Poe and Twain, it carries the ultimate metaphysical implication that what we take to be reality is actually a hoax. It is by virtue of this characteristic that the literary hoax may be considered as an aspect of the apocalyptic imagination.

The Brechtian strategy of estrangement has received a good deal of critical attention and the importance of estrangement to science fiction has been explored by Darko Suvin.25 In this context I only wish to emphasize that an estranged technique is yet another formal means of exchanging new worlds for old, in Brecht’s case of replacing a false subjective view with a new objectivity and thereby effecting a radical transformation. This technique is as important an influence on the nouveau roman as on science fiction, and should be recalled when I come to speak of the relationship between the nouveau roman and SF.

It is rather surprising that the considerable affinity which exists between surrealism and SF has not attracted more attention. Certainly the surreal concept is frequently invoked in characterizations of particular works of SF. Brian Aldiss is partial to the surreal effect as is illustrated by the mix of fauna and technology in the generation starship gone to seed of Non-Stop. Michel Butor has pointed to descriptive passages in Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea which are directly comparable to the later writings of the self-proclaimed surrealists.26 Cordwainer Smith has produced a body of semi-surrealistic SF. But it is J.G. Ballard who more than any other writer has exploited that fertile area where surrealism and SF overlap.

Surrealism was a revolutionary movement dedicated to a new objectivity and the value of imagination (creative of bizarrely juxtaposed images) as a means of transforming our definition of reality, in order to allow for the existence of the marvellous. Important among the sources of surrealism is the gothic romance which fosters the suspicion that the world is dominated by forces not acknowledged by the rational mind. Unlike the Dada movement which preceded the development of surrealism and the work of Kafka and the absurdists which succeeded it, surrealism is founded upon an essential optimism. As I have argued in New Worlds for Old, the overall plot of science fiction is also optimistic.27 Both surrealism and SF aim at a mystical yet somehow material state of unity. The surrealists employed the iconography of apocalypse to convey a sense of expanded reality rather than a sense of desperation. André Breton, a founder of surrealism, writes in Le Seconde Manifeste du Surrealisme (1929), "Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and incommunicable, high and low, cease to be conceived as contradictions."28 The surrealist art of Salvador Dali which presents fantasy landscapes with a technique of photographic realism is comparable in approach and purpose to SF. If Dali’s world is real, as its surface texture would suggest, then our definition of reality must be radically altered. In Dali’s own words, "my whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialize the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialistic fury of precision -- in order that the world of imagination and of concrete irrationality may be as objectively evident as ... the exterior world of phenomenal reality."29 It should be noted that SF exploits both the discordant logically incoherent imagery of surrealism and the discordant but logically coherent imagery of metaphysical poetry.

If Anna Balakian’s study Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute convinces, then surrealism is at least as successful as SF in bridging the gap between the worlds of science and art. She refers to the surrealist "spirit of cosmic adventure"30 which is today the province of the scientist and the technician. The surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire, born in 1880, "predicted the space age along with its challenge to the human imagination."31 The optimism, "force and vitality inherent in surrealism make of it the art-concept most in keeping with the productivity of the scientific age in which he flourished."32 With the post-Einsteinian rejection of linear chronology and "the principle of causality, the scientist with his tools of reasoning confirms the surrealist’s intuition that there can be a non-determinist understanding of reality."33 The old division between subjective and objective no longer applies. In describing the surrealist paintings of Tanguy, Anna Balakian speculates that "if man ever achieves his desire to be propelled on to other planets, what he will find ... must resemble the objects and landscapes devised by Yves Tanguy."34

I have referred in New Worlds for Old to an affinity between the fictional universes of Kafka and Borges and the universe of SF.35 Here I only want to underline the importance of Kafka. Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis" is Tzvetan Todorov’s concluding example in his structural analysis of the fantastic as a genre. Although Todorov’s fantastic is not my fantastic but exists in the border area between my apocalyptic and mimetic categories, his remarks regarding Kafka do provide support for my contention that supernatural fiction and SF operate within a common form. After noting that the "event described in ‘The Metamorphosis’ [Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an enormous insect] is quite as real as any other literary event," Todorov claims that "the best science fiction texts are organized analogously. The initial data are supernatural: robots, extraterrestrial beings, the whole interplanetary context. The narrative movement consists in obliging us to see how close these apparently marvelous elements are to us, to what degree they are present in our life."36 We are given to understand that Kafka and SF relate two apparently incompatible genres bordering on Todorov’s fantastic, the marvelous (which requires new laws of nature) and the uncanny (where the laws of reality remain unbroken). Todorov concludes that in Kafka and SF the generalized fantastic is the norm not the exception.

There is, finally, I believe, something to be gained by examining the strategy of the nouveau roman, a current manifestation of the anti-novel tradition in relation to SF.37 Based on the assumption that the naturalistic novel: deprived of its positivistic philosophical raison d’Ítre, can no longer be said to represent reality, indeed that the representation of reality is impossible, practitioners of the nouveau roman take pains to emphasize the unreality of their creations. The presentation, in extreme detail and with scientific precision, of the apparently external world as objects in consciousness, is a way of forcing the reader to see that the fictionality embodied in the material he is reading carries over into the world of consciousness which he inhabits. A truer reality is then at least implied by way of contrast as existing outside of the fiction and consciousness, a reality which is quite other than that experienced by the individual. It follows that the otherness of reality has some equivalence with the alien landscapes of SF, albeit most such landscapes are alien by convention and intentionality only. What I am suggesting is that SF writers might more successfully evoke the presence of the genuinely alien by exploiting the descriptive methodology of the "nouveau roman." After all, the matter of setting is of special importance in SF. The success of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris depends, I believe, largely upon his use of such a methodology in describing with intricate detail the varied structures thrown up by the "ocean" world. One might further hazard the suspicion that an awareness of the autonomy of literary language characteristic of the nouveau roman should assert itself whenever a writer works outside the purely mimetic tradition. Recently I had an opportunity to ask Brian Aldiss about his motivation in writing Report on Probability A where a style associated with the nouveau roman serves the ends of SF. He replied that this particular experiment resulted from his sense that the cool precise approach of such writers as Michel Butor and Alain Robbe-Grillet evoked a science-fictional quality, a way of looking at the world through alien eyes.

4. I would propose therefore, on the basis of both the foregoing survey and New Worlds for Old, that the most appropriate critical approach to SF is a comparative one. A chronological survey should include where appropriate, examples of and explanatory material concerning such matters as the pastoral, the imaginary voyage, utopian and dystopian satire (for example More’s Utopia and Pope’s Dunciad), historical fiction, metaphysical poetry, the literary sublime, romanticism and the Gothic Novel, Brechtian estrangement (Galileo would be the most appropriate example because the experience of estrangement applies to both form and content—Galileo’s objectivity revealed a truer reality), surrealism, Kafka consciousness and the nouveau roman. Then there are those important texts which cannot be classified as SF, but which bear some important relations to the nature of SF—Dr. Faustus, The Tempest and Gulliver’s Travels. Certainly the pervasive presence of the Faustian theme and the Prometheus myth in SF suggests that some attention be given to their existence in the very much broader tradition of world literature.

The main thread in such a chronological survey would of course be those works which are conceived as constituting the evolving tradition of SF including the evolving tradition of what might be called proto-SF (and here as I have indicated, where one draws the line is very much a matter of definition and personal choice). For example, once again, is Frankenstein best described as a gothic romance, proto-SF, or what? The purpose of the comparative approach is not so much to suggest that SF is worthy of attention because of the impressive literary materials which bear some relation to it but rather to suggest a potential fulfillment which SF may be capable of as a result of assimilating such materials.

It would be convenient at this point to instance some towering work of SF illustrating that this fulfillment is already in existence. Sadly this is not the case. Perhaps such an achievement would signal the death of SF as we know it. However since I began with reference to an acclaimed work which has been called SF but isn’t, let me conclude by drawing attention to a work which won the 1973 W.H. Smith award for fiction in England and which is genuine SF but doesn’t seem yet to have attracted that label. I am referring to Brian Moore’s novella Catholics, originally published in 1972. Moore tells of the fashionably liberal state of the Catholic Church at the end of the twentieth century and the mission of a church agent to bring into line a group of renegade monks off the coast of Ireland who persist in performing the traditional mass in Latin and attracting thronging congregations. This sophisticated, convincing and well wrought futuristic account of the role of faith in a faithless age did not rate high if at all among the contenders for a Nebula or Hugo Award for 1972. The cause of SF will not be helped by widening the category to include established works of relational status, but neither will it be helped by a shrunken obsession with rockets and ray-guns which allows such a fine example of sociological SF as Catholics to pass by unrecognized.


1. This paper was delivered by André Le Vot.

2. While noting that "The Divine Comedy was not serialized in the pulp magazines for technical and historical reasons which I imagine are clear to everybody," Adlard claims "I regard Dante as the supreme artist in those techniques I consider peculiar to the science fictional field." See "The Other Tradition of Science Fiction" in Beyond This Horizon: An Anthology of Science Fact and Fiction (Sunderland, 1973), p.10.

3. See New Maps of Hell (New York, 1960), p.3.

4. Suvin writes of Blake, "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." See "Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil in the Age of Anticipation: A Chapter in the History of SF," Science-Fiction Studies, I (Fall, 1974), 260.

5. A chapter of this history appears, under the title "Science Fiction and the Mainstream: Part 2: The Great Tradition of Prato Science Fiction," in Foundation, 5 (January, 1974), 9-43.

6. See New Worlds for Old. The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (New York and Bloomington, Ind., 1974).

7. See "About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy-Five Words," Extrapolation, 10 (May, 1969), 61-64.

8. Verne, in particular, was fascinated by America. Jean Chesneaux writes, "it is not by chance that in twenty-three of his novels, out of a total of sixty-four, the action takes place on American soil, either totally or in part, or that American characters play an important role." See Chapter IX, "The American Mirage and the American Peril," of The Political and Social Ideas of Jules Verne (London, 1972), p. 150. Wells wrote of The Future in America (1906) and The New America (1935). In his "Biographical Perspective" to The Crystal Man: Stories by Edward Page Mitchell (New York, 1973), Sam Moskowitz suggests that Wells may have derived ideas for his time machine and a scientific rationale for invisibility from the American, Mitchell, who got to those themes first in "The Clock that Went Backward" (1881) and "The Crystal Man" (1881). See pp. I xiii- I xv.

9. See Suvin, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," College English, 34 (December, 1972), 376.

10. See Some Versions of Pastoral (London, 1935), passim.

11. See Jameson’s contribution, "In Retrospect," to the forum, "Change, SF and Marxism: Open or Closed Universes?" Science-Fiction Studies, 1 (Fall, 1974), 275. Also relevant is Robert H. Canary, "Science Fiction as Fictive History," Extrapolation, 5 (December, 1974), 81-95.

12. See Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York, 1971), passim. See also Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge, Mass., 1975).

13. See "Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary, and Frankenstein" (London, 1972), passim.

14. See especially Chapter I, "The Origins of the Species: Mary Shelley," in Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (New York, 1973), pp. 7-39. According to Aldiss, "Science fiction was born from the Gothic, is hardly free of it now" (p. 18).

15. See Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of The Infinite (Ithaca, 1959).

17. "Science Fiction and the Mundane Egg," Riverside Quarterly, 5 (April, 1973), 260-67.

16. The Sacred Theory of the Earth: Containing an Account of the Original of the Earth and of All the General Changes Which It Hath Already Undergone or Is to Undergo, till the Consummation of All Things (London, 1684). The quotation is taken from the sixth edition of 1726, vol. I, pp. 188-89.

18. See A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. I.T. Boulton (London, 1958), p. 57.

19. Ibid., p. 58.

20. See The Metaphysical Passion: Seven Modern American Poets and the Seventeenth Century Tradition (Westport, Connecticut, 1952), p. 9.

21. See Marjorie Hope Nicolson, "Kepler, the Somnium, and John Donne," Journal of the History of Ideas, 1 (June, 1940), 259-80; reprinted in Science and Imagination (Ithaca, 1956), pp. 58-79.

22. See the "Biographical Perspective" to The Crystal Man, pp. xi-xlvi.

23. See Self-consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (Berkeley, 1972).

24. See Inside the Spaceships (New York, 1955).

25. See "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," 374-375.

26. "Le point suprÍme et l’‚ge d’or" in Répertoire: études et conferénces, 1948-1959 (Paris, 1960), pp. 130-62.

27. New Worlds for Old, passim but especially pp. 102, 124, 149.

28. Quoted in C.W.E. Bigsby, Dada and Surrealism (London, 1972), p. 38.

29. Ibid., p. 69.

30. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute (London, 1972), p. 23.

31. Ibid., p. 45.

32. Ibid., p. 47.

33. Ibid., p. 246.

34. Ibid., p. 206.

35. New Worlds for Old, pp. 207, 210, 234-5.

36. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Cleveland and Lonclor 1973), p. 172.

37. For some sense of the connections between SF and the nouveau roman, see Fredric Jameson, "Generic Discontinuities in SF: Brian Aldiss’ Starship," Science-Fiction Studies, 1 (Fall, 1973), 64. For my overall sense of the nouveau roman, I am particularly indebted to Gabriel Josipovici, The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction (London, 1971).



 The issue at hand is the sloppy critical approach that classifies works related to SF—Gravity’s Rainbow, The Education of Henry Adams—as, in fact, examples of SF. Pynchon’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning novel is not an isolated instance. Mark Adlard comes close to calling Dante’s Divine Comedy SF. Kingsley Amis encourages us to read The Tempest as SF. Darko Suvin believes much of Blake’s work to be SF. Peter Nicholls is at work on a history of science fiction that begins with the epic of Gilgamesh. Surely, while all these works may contain science-fictional elements, they are not themselves examples of SF. And although what is and what isn’t SF may be a matter of definition, there is nothing to be gained by expanding the definition to include such cases. What is needed is a new and larger category that would include both works of SF and works that seem related to it. What is required is not so much an all-encompassing definition of SF as various defining distinctions between the different gradations of SF. Such a pluralistic approach is necessary because we may be approaching a stage in the development of SF where an author’s work may best be understood in its own terms rather than as an example of a particular genre.

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