Science, the Paranormal, and Science Fiction
John Cheng. Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2012. viii + 384 pp. $45 hc.
Jeffrey J. Kripal. Mutants & Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011. xx + 370 pp. $29 hc.
When Hugo Gernsback established science fiction as a literary genre in 1926, he had no doubt about the scientific nature of his enterprise. Sf would unite scientific facts and theories with imaginative extrapolation, thereby healing the breach between science and the imagination that had arisen within institutionalized science during the nineteenth century (see Daston). The new genre was to be the handmaiden of modern science, much in the way that contemporary logical positivists redefined philosophy as an adjunct to the sciences. Echoing Gernsback’s view, Jack Williamson wrote in a 1928 guest editorial for Amazing Stories Quarterly that “scientifiction … takes the basis of science, considers all the clues that science has to offer, and then adds a thing that is alien to science—imagination. It lights the way. And when science sees the things made real in the author’s mind, it makes them real indeed” (435). Imaginative speculation frequently eclipsed scientific verisimilitude, however. Many interwar readers and writers had little scientific background and were equally enthralled by the “weird” or the “pseudo-scientific,” two terms that vied with “science fiction” as genre labels during the 1920s and 1930s. Yet science fiction was not merely an oxymoron, for contemporary editors insisted in their editorials, and readers in their letters, that the genre was distinguished by its fidelity to science. What, then, was the relation between science and fiction within science fiction?
The two books under review address this question: it is central to the historian John Cheng and implicit in the work of Jeffrey Kripal, a scholar of comparative religion. Neither foregrounds the answers proffered by previous scholars, which, like the genre itself, have covered a spectrum from the “hard” to the “soft” when it comes to the role of science in science fiction. Representative of the former is Darko Suvin, who emphasizes the “cognitive” or fundamentally rational bias of the genre. Taking a more centrist position, Adam Roberts argues in The History of Science Fiction (2007) that science fiction has manifested a tension between a magical/religious and a scientific viewpoint since the seventeenth century, as well as an open-minded attitude toward definitions of science similar to that promoted by Paul Feyerabend: “To the extent that SF enters into the discourse of ‘science’… the best way of theorizing this is as a Feyerabendian proliferation of theories rather than a notional uniformity of ‘truth’” (18). At the other extreme are Alexei and Cory Panshin and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. The Panshins present science fiction as modern myth, which uses the language of science to evoke transcendent states of wonder: “science fiction is irrational, extraordinary, elusive, wonderful, never completely to be known” (1). Csicsery-Ronay argues that sf writers are playing with science rather than emulating its distinctive methods: “Even in the hardest of hard sf, sf’s science is always figurative. It is an image of science, a poetic illusion disguising its illusionary status…. Exaggeratedly rationalistic theories ignore sf’s fundamentally playful performance of scientific thinking” (111-12).
Cheng’s and Kripal’s works suggest that the answers to this complicated question must be found within historicist explorations of science fiction rather than though formalist approaches. Their studies are attentive to historical contexts as well as the active roles played by editors, writers, readers, and professional communities in defining “science” and its relation to science fiction. Cheng indicates that this relation is mediated through social negotiations and institutional structures, and he offers an empirically rich account of science fiction in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. Kripal follows two narrative strategies: he provides an historicist account of different themes, writers, and works, and also an idealist framework that identifies “mystical themes and paranormal currents” as the nourishing fount underlying both science fiction and superhero comics. Taken together, these stimulating studies are in accord with Roberts’s argument that the genre embraces multiple understandings of “science” as well as the creative interplay between religious and magical outlooks and scientific modes of understanding.
John Cheng’s Astounding Wonder is a wide-ranging, meticulously researched account of the emergence of science fiction as a genre in the United States during the interwar period. Thanks to the ideological aims of editor Hugo Gernsback (which were no less pronounced than his pecuniary motivations), early science fiction was imbued with a social mission to propagate the wonders of science and anticipate—even foster—its future development. But the elaborate institutional and social milieu of science fiction that Cheng brings to life was never under Gernsback’s control, even though many of its adherents accepted Gernsback’s optimistic vision of science as progressive and participatory. Cheng examines the intersecting and at times competing aims of pulp magazine publishers, editors, writers, and readers on the development of the genre, situating them within broader understandings of American science and society.
Science fiction enabled readers to come to terms with the effects of science and technology in their own lives, often in paradoxical ways. Science itself, Cheng acknowledges, has many valences and is a mixed practice, an “intertwined complex of uncertain circumstances and social interactions” (106). By focusing on popular attitudes toward science in the interwar period, he finds that it could be understood as simultaneously authoritarian and democratic, progressive but potentially dystopian, encouraging individual participation while manifesting an impersonal, objective character that undercuts individual agency. Cheng traces such tensions in sections devoted to the cultural economy of magazine publishing, important themes in the literature (robots, aliens, time-travel), the emergence of fandom, and the rise of rocket enthusiasts (who were more successful at building bridges between science fiction and professional science than they were at constructing functional rockets).
Cheng demonstrates that, on the one hand, interwar science fiction presented no consistent view of science. Hugo Gernsback maintained that science was objective, factual, democratic, and progressive; as he argued in editorials for Amazing Stories, sf was a didactic literature, one that brought established science to the public and extrapolated future scientific and technological discoveries from contemporary findings. Yet even Gernsback published outlandish scientific romances alongside his preferred form. Other publishers, editors, and readers had their own conceptions of the genre that affected what was published and defined as science fiction: thus Abraham Merritt’s fantasy “The Moon Pool” (1918) was acclaimed by readers as science fiction when it was later reprinted in Amazing Stories. Sf stories were not absent from Weird Tales, just as “weird” tales populated the pulps avowedly dedicated to science fiction, including Amazing Stories. As Cheng observes, “Science fiction shared with other pulp fiction … a general fascination with the ‘weird.’ A fraught combination of difference and danger, the weird’s excitement drew from revealing unknown qualities of people, things, and places to surprise and shock readers…. Science fiction’s special contribution to this delicate tension was to add a measure of science and technology” (162).
On the other hand—and this is a major contribution of Cheng’s work—there was a tacit understanding of science held by many science fiction fans that was often reflected in the published fiction and discussed in the letters pages of pulp magazines. Science was reified as natural and progressive rather than as contingent and social. Fans tended to equate it with technology and also identified it with isolated empirical facts. Science was understood to be an anonymous, objective, impersonal, and evolutionary entity that could be relied on to adjudicate all arguments impartially; its social construction was disregarded. Readers equated “science” with “fact” and often praised or censored stories based on their fidelity to established facts, regardless of the larger liberties the stories took with basic scientific principles. (As Arthur C. Clarke insisted, “Absurd science—yes. False science—no!” [qtd. in Cheng 94]). Cheng finds that fans appreciated the “infodumps” that later critics often condemned as inartistic; contemporary readers requested them and could find them more compelling than the plots. This ahistorical, positivist conception of science encouraged readers to adopt Gernsback’s understanding of science as a democratic and participatory enterprise. As long as they knew the “right” facts, readers were emboldened to challenge scientific experts. Nevertheless, “those criticisms were corrections and clarifications of accepted knowledge, not challenges to their larger paradigms or conceptual frameworks” (106). In this respect, Cheng finds, “progressive” science fiction was actually conservative.
In a fascinating chapter on rocket science, Cheng analyzes the tension between the new genre’s democratic, participatory conception of science and the concrete realities of changing scientific practices, which were becoming more exclusive during and after the Second World War. The American Interplanetary Society (AIS) was founded in 1930, largely by the sf community, with the aim of promoting the development of rockets. Theirs was not an anomalous ambition. Amateur participation in scientific discoveries was still possible during the interwar period, although it was being challenged by the emergence of “Big Science,” the integration of research and development by government, industry, and universities that would characterize the postwar period. As the AIS received public recognition for its promotion of rocketry, its members began to adopt the culture of exclusive expertise and sober research that characterized institutional science. They curtailed their more speculative ideas and experiments, distanced themselves from “that Buck Rogers stuff” by renaming the AIS the “American Rocket Society” (ARS) in 1934, and stressed technical expertise over amateur enthusiasm as a criterion for membership. This was a different way of imagining science from that of the pulp magazines, and it succeeded in gaining scientific legitimacy for its members: some were hired by the government and corporations during World War II and the ARS itself was absorbed into the new aerospace industry after the war.
The disjunction of science from its social circumstances manifested in the interwar pulp magazines had mixed consequences. According science an autonomous and authoritative agency, it subtly undermined the participatory, egalitarian ethos readers celebrated. It also led to uncritical celebrations of science as progressive: dystopian scenarios of mad scientists or machines run amuck were readily resolved by the individual actions of heroes, effacing the social and ethical dilemmas of science initially raised by the stories themselves. Further, interwar science fiction’s fetishization of isolated facts over integrated schema meant that many readers failed to understand science’s systematic character, encouraging scattershot speculations rather than informed extrapolations. Cheng concludes that interwar readers and writers were likely to have been aware of the general “scientific method” promoted within schools and by public intellectuals such as John Dewey, “based in reasoning and a characteristic method for observation, reflection, and testing” (100). They were less cognizant of the socially mediated aspects of science, however: “In this sense interwar science fiction was itself a particular fiction of science. It did not entertain the making or fashioning of science as much as it evoked a science that was factually open and still already made, already fashioned” (107-108).
Cheng traces the conservative effects of this ahistorical, celebratory approach to science, which never questioned its social origins or consequences. In addition to relying on the individual agency of a story’s protagonist, writers drew upon normative categories of gender and race to handily resolve the tensions that science and technology generated in the real world. The advent of labor-saving machinery such as robots need not threaten traditional notions of masculinity, for example. Helpless women were always available to be saved by the protagonist, thereby reaffirming his virility and reconciling masculinity with technological progress. Other dystopian representations of science could be blamed on the evil schemes of aliens, which Cheng argues were modeled disproportionally on Asian Americans, widely targeted within the United States as an “alien race” meriting exclusion. Even time-travel stories were enlisted to represent science as an evolutionary, natural force, and science fiction as its prophet. Despite the lip service given to Einstein’s theory of relativity and its non-Euclidean postulates, interwar time-travel stories tended to be linear, emphasizing progress and underplaying the contingencies of history.
Cheng’s interpretations are often sophisticated, supporting his wider claims about the popular imaginings of science within the pulps. But interwar stories do come to mind that challenge such tidy formulations. The progressive nature of science, for example, is belied in some of the stories that John W. Campbell wrote as “Don A. Stuart,” and “aliens” could be represented as truly different from accepted human conventions (see, e.g., P. Schuyler Miller’s “Tetrahedra of Space,” 1931). Whether these are merely the exceptions to the rule requires further consideration. Certainly interwar pulp sf could be conservative in many ways: racism, imperialism, and sexism are often overt. Yet Cheng never addresses narratives that presented alternatives to the status quo, which in turn encouraged readers to practice counter-factual ways of thinking; the practical effects of Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement” are largely absent in his account. In addition to the stories, forms of cognitive estrangement could appear in the magazines’ letters pages, where readers, writers, and editors at times challenged normative views and even advanced radical opinions. For example, David Lasser, the editor of several of Gernsback’s sf pulps during the early 1930s, was an active member of the Socialist Party, and his political views may have crept into some of the editorial summaries of the stories he published as well as responses to letter writers. (These were unattributed, but some of the ones that I have examined had a progressive orientation suggestive of Lasser’s hand.)
Cheng’s analysis of the interwar idealization of empirical facts separated from a comprehensive explanatory framework helps explain why the sf community was more willing to entertain the paranormal than were many professional scientists. As he notes, readers welcomed the serialization of Charles Fort’s compilation of anomalous “facts” in Astounding Stories in 1934, which the editor deemed “superscience.” Although Cheng does not explore how the genre’s tacit understanding of science may have shaped its attitude toward paranormal experiences, his framework is useful for analyzing the complicated relationship between science fiction and the paranormal. Many readers were drawn to the paranormal, but they also upheld the naturalistic and critical paradigm of the “scientific method,” challenging stories that took excessive liberties with facts or blurred the lines between reality and fiction. This was the case when editor Ray Palmer published Richard Shaver’s stories in Amazing Stories between 1945 and 1947. Shaver believed that malign beings, living in underground caves, had been manipulating human life for millennia, and presented this incredible “truth” under the guise of fiction. In editorial remarks Palmer supported Shaver’s insistence on the veracity of his claims, although he did not necessarily subscribe to all of Shaver’s bizarre details or interpretations. Many sf readers were outraged by the poor science and ridiculous assertions of the “Shaver Mystery.” Some organized a boycott of the magazine that may have been instrumental in the sudden termination of Palmer’s tenure as editor.
Palmer’s openness to esoteric interpretations of the Shaver Mystery attracted a host of new readers to Amazing Stories who were expressly interested in the occult but skeptical about the “scientific method.” Shaver and Palmer had inadvertently exposed an invisible, unstable boundary that divided science fiction from esotericism. The paranormal was acceptable to many sf writers and readers as long as it was cast in a scientific idiom and understood as an interesting subject for speculation. When it could not be supported by scientific rhetoric, violated too many known facts, or was simply asserted to be true, it passed into the domains of fantasy, hoax, or delusion. (Like the Shaver Mystery, the pseudoscientific claims of Immanuel Velikovsky were also rejected by numerous sf writers, according to Michael Gordin: “Among the most persistent and hostile critics of Velikovsky across his entire career were the luminaries of science fiction” ).
In this light, Jeffrey Kripal makes an intriguing claim in Mutants & Mystics: “The roots and effects of sci-fi and superhero fantasy are magical in structure and intent” (xv). He does not mean this in terms of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic; he means it literally: “What I hope to show is that what makes these particular forms of American popular culture so popular is precisely the paranormal, the paranormal here understood as a dramatic physical manifestation of the meaning and force of consciousness itself” (2; emphasis in original). Consciousness, he maintains, is not simply subjective, given the pervasiveness of common paranormal experiences: “The constant physical reflections of consciousness within paranormal experience … render any purely subjective reading both absurd and ridiculous” (328). He affirms the reality of the paranormal, although at times he insists that he is only recording reported experiences rather than accepting them at face value. “I am neither a denying debunker nor a true believer,” he states, “and anyone who reads me as either is misreading me” (5).
What one can assert is that Kripal is more credulous than skeptical when it comes to the paranormal, and irritated by those who dismiss it. Noting that critics have attributed Philip K. Dick’s and Barry Windsor-Smith’s alleged precognitive abilities to mental illness, drug usage, or neurological malfunctioning, Kripal asks plaintively, “Just how much of these men’s courage and honesty do we need to savage (or just politely ignore) in order to protect our little materialist worlds?” (291). He himself underwent a mystical experience in 1989 that has since influenced his inquiries, and he admits candidly that a reader’s acceptance of his arguments concerning the paranormal “will depend largely on whether or not he or she has experienced such things” (2).
Mutants & Mystics is not intended as an exhaustive history; there is no discussion of the interests in the paranormal of Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell, or L. Ron Hubbard, for example. Instead, Kripal examines how science fiction and superhero comics express “mystical themes” as well as “paranormal currents” (1). He divides these mystical themes into “mythemes” that reflect “the ancient history and universal structures of the human religious imagination” as well as more contingent cultural factors (5). These mythemes follow a linear progression and suggest a Hegelian story of consciousness coming to recognize itself and its powers through the fictions it prompts. Kripal devotes a chapter each to six of these mythemes: “Orientation” (the sacred viewed as “Somewhere Else,” such as Heaven, Hell, prehistoric worlds, foreign worlds); “Alienation” (the modern versions of this “Somewhere Else,” notably outer space); “Radiation” (a post-WWII mytheme that envisions life in terms of energetic forces rather than brute matter); “Mutation” (a corollary of “Radiation,” it stresses the always evolving nature of this force, evinced by possible paranormal powers in human beings); “Realization” (the dawning understanding that our individual egos are limited manifestations of this larger and transformative force); and finally “Authorization” (we cooperate with this force, acknowledging that we are part of it: “We can recognize that we are pulling our own strings, that the angels and aliens, gods and demons, are us” [28; emphasis in original]).
Through such thematic and archetypal analyses, Kripal hopes to support his thesis that science fiction is essentially magical, not grounded in any particular culture, time period, or religious outlook, let alone a specifically scientific world-view. For him, universal spiritual truths have been expressed in manifold ways at different times; in a modern age that values science, these truths will be inflected through scientific and technological representations. Science fiction and superhero comics are ideal vehicles to convey this Perennial Philosophy, and perhaps actualize it: “It appears that the paranormal often needs pop-cultural form to appear at all. The truth needs the trick, the fact the fantasy” (2).
Kripal uses these mythemes and their overarching “Super-Story” (26) to examine an eclectic range of sf texts and superhero comic books. Yet this detailed focus is only one dimension of the book. The other dimension, on “paranormal currents,” explores “the real-life mind-over-matter experiences of artists and authors that often inspire and animate these stories” (2). Here Kripal resorts to personal interviews, archival research, and contextual interpretations to detail the paranormal events affecting prominent sf and comics creators, including Ray Palmer, Philip K. Dick, Otto Binder, Whitley Streiber, John Keel, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Douglas Moench, and Barry Windsor-Smith.
I have quoted Kripal’s own words extensively to avoid “misreading” his enterprise, much of which is boldly speculative. Readers who may have qualms about his archetypal approach or his qualified advocacy of the paranormal should nevertheless find this study of great interest, particularly in its more focused, historicist accounts of individual artists and works. It is illuminating on the thematic resonances between global religious thought and the development of science fiction, particularly since the nineteenth century. Kripal demonstrates the indebtedness of sf and comics creators to mesmerism, spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and New Age philosophies, such as the Human Potential Movement. (He has fascinating things to say, for example, about the parallel emergence and overlapping evolutionary concerns of Marvel’s X-Men comics, centered on Professor Xavier’s academy for mutants, and the Esalen Institute at Big Sur.) Kripal’s work reinforces Alexei and Cory Panshin’s thesis about science fiction as a secular literature of transcendence and Adam Roberts’s argument that sf expresses a tension between religious and scientific world-views. By situating science fiction within the history of religion, he provides a valuable and necessary perspective.
One wishes he had gone further, however. By focusing on the esoteric experiences of a handful of writers and illustrators, many of whom are either committed to belief in the paranormal or are largely partisans for it, Kripal never grapples with the more ambivalent attitudes taken toward mysticism, if not mutants, within the sf field. In addition to the Shaver Mystery and the Velikovsky Affair, many were dismayed when John W. Campbell promoted ideas they charitably labeled as “cranky,” such as Dianetics and Psionics. Readers and writers alike were usually happy to entertain outré ideas in an “as if” manner without necessarily believing in them; thus H.P. Lovecraft borrowed ideas and terms from Theosophy while remaining a complete skeptic. Kripal cites Arthur C. Clarke’s ongoing interest in the paranormal but never reveals that Clarke himself confessed to being “an almost total skeptic” by the 1990s due to the lack of scientific evidence for paranormal claims (McAleer 91). And while Kripal acknowledges the controversy over the Shaver Mystery in his wonderful account of Ray Palmer, he never addresses the tensions it exposed. He is too quick to accept Palmer’s own claims, asserting that Palmer “believed in God, an afterlife, a spiritual world, and paranormal powers: all such things were perfectly real for him” (103). Palmer was a notorious trickster, and it is difficult to make such categorical assertions about his beliefs. For example, Martin Gardner knew and liked Palmer, but nevertheless thought he had the “personality of a con artist” and that his “primary motive was simply to create uproars that would sell magazines” (213).
In the end, both of these books reveal that Gernsback’s aim of reuniting science with the imagination has been an incredible success—to such an extent that scientists are now more willing to acknowledge the imagination’s role in the scientific process than they had during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time, the limited tenets of the “scientific method” have also had an enduring role in science fiction’s development during the twentieth century. Csicsery-Ronay’s observation that sf plays with scientific ideas is correct, but Cheng’s work establishes that it has often done so with serious as well as ludic intent. For many, science’s critical, naturalistic, and empirical approaches matter, even if its findings and practices are at times misunderstood, ignored, or distorted for dramatic effect within the genre itself.
Nor need this rational, materialist outlook undermine spiritual perceptions and mystical apprehensions. Science fiction’s vaunted “sense of wonder” often corresponds to transcendent states of consciousness evoked by the sublimity of the cosmos or by intimations of an underlying order accessible to human reason. Kripal’s account rightly highlights the religious, mystical, and paranormal dimensions of the genre’s development. But he does not sufficiently address the skeptical outlook also intrinsic to science fiction, which has always had an ambivalent attitude toward the paranormal. The peculiar interplay of critical reason and expansive imagination represented by the genre promotes a double-minded consciousness that can access the numinous without necessarily believing in the “supernormal,” let alone the supernatural. It is precisely the skeptical side of this equation that renders some of Kripal’s qualified endorsements for the ontological reality of “paranormal currents” harder to accept. From the vantage point of the imagination, however, they are certainly fun to entertain.
Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008.
Daston, Lorraine. “Fear and Loathing of the Imagination in Science.” Daedalus 127.1 (Winter 1998): 73-95.
Gardner, Martin. “Who Was Ray Palmer?” The New Age: Notes of a Fringe-Watcher. New York: Prometheus, 1991. 209-22.
Gordin, Michael. The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Fringe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012.
McAleer, Neil. Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography. New York: Contemporary, 1992.
Panshin, Alexei, and Cory Panshin. The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. New York: Tarcher, 1989.
Roberts, Adam. The History of Science Fiction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1979.
Williamson, Jack. “Scientifiction, Searchlight of Science.” Amazing Stories Quarterly 1 (Fall 1928): 435.
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