Sign of the Unicorn
“So with a kind of madness growing upon me,” Wells’s Time Traveller said, “I flung myself into futurity.” Robert Scholes’s suggestion in Structural Fabulation—the initials, you will notice, are S and F—is that we should fling ourselves in the same direction. “I am asserting,” he asserts, “that the most appropriate kind of fiction that can be written in the present and the immediate future is fiction that takes place in future time.” Scholes thinks some of us may find his book too polemical, but really it is just too rhetorical, an assembly of rickety simplifications and overstatements. Admittedly it began life as a series of lectures, but that excuse will go only so far. Scholes is distinctly too eager to advise us. Those who read no one but Jacqueline Susann and Leon Uris and Arthur Hailey are in Scholes’s view “dangerously uninformed” about reality. “To live well in the present, to live decently and humanely, we must see into the future” (Scholes’s italics). It seems more likely that to live at all in the future, we need to see into the present.
Scholes’s argument is an old one, already implicit in Wells, and it constitutes science fiction’s favorite alibi. The genre prepares us for drastic change, helps us to meet our sudden tomorrows. Materially, if we take the hard line—after all, Jules Verne put men on the moon long before our astronauts got there. Morally, if we take a softer line, as James Gunn does in Alternate Worlds. For him the function of science fiction is not so much to foresee the crises of the future as to “dramatize their human implications and consequences.” But there is a fallacy even here. Apart from a few lucky exceptions, science fiction is not set in the future at all. Its future is a metaphor for a radically altered present, and it is the altering that matters, the speculative rearrangement of familiar elements.
Science fiction is a version of romance which relies on technological allusions, indeed which is so much about technology that it can sometimes dispense with the allusions. It is the dream of men “torn by love and fear of a technology they could scarcely understand, much less control,” as Leslie Fiedler rather luridly puts it in an introduction to a recent anthology of science fiction stories, In Dreams Awake. Less luridly, it is the fiction of a culture caught up in its own cleverness, confronted with the results of its own ingenuity and intelligence, and it is for this reason that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein presides over the genre.
Science fiction is Victor Frankenstein’s monster, peering back at its creator with “yellow, watery, but speculative eyes,” a mirror in the house of intellect, raised not by pride or passion or the urging of the gods, but by curiosity and the capacity for invention. Frankenstein is not Faust, he is not driven by an all-consuming desire, not even the desire to …
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Busy Work November 13, 1975