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 blaspheme. The triviality of his motives is an important feature of the myth. There is scarcely a theme in science fiction, from robots and space travel to a world devastated by a bomb or some terminal epidemic disease, which doesn’t reflect this fascination with the results of our careless intelligence, and of course the invasion of the earth by alien beings looks suspiciously like Frankenstein’s problem in interplanetary disguise. Even stories about carnivorous plants and fungi tend to attribute sinister intentions to these growths, so that they too are instances of minds become threatening.
Darker science fiction expends a lot of ingenuity in demonstrating what the future will look like if we are not intelligent enough—the title of C. M. Kornbluth’s story “The Marching Morons” is evocative in this respect—and generally the inventiveness of much science fiction enacts the theme of cleverness itself, so that the writing becomes an example of what it is about. This is so much the case, I think, that any really ingenious piece of writing, whatever its subject, veers toward science fiction.
The technology in science fiction is often a pretext, the ship that steers us off into the orbit of other worlds, provinces of an interstellar anthropology. But even there, in the silence of those infinite spaces, something like the spirit of technology still presides, a sense of intellectual gadgetry. These other worlds are devised rather than developed, they are theorems rather than places, and this is not the expression of an incidental failing in a lot of science fiction writers, but an essential aspect of the genre. Its thin characters and sketchy locations, the general lack of texture and density in its portrayed planets, are flaws only if we are looking for the complication of life which fiction so often provides. If we are looking, in Scholes’s phrase, for “some projected dislocation of our known existence,” then these flaws help to lighten our baggage for us, become the agents of a transparency which allows us to see through the text to the bones of its ingenuity. A good science fiction story always sounds good in summary, because it depends not on a seen universe or a recollected emotion but on a radical thought.
Science fiction is not really imaginative literature at all, since its aim is not to render experience, either probable or fantastic, but to construct possibilities. It is “the literature of cognitive estrangement,” as Darko Suvin weightily puts it. It takes us out of our world in order to show us our world in a new, glinting light, and it is here that science fiction meets up with modernist literature and modernist criticism, because it sees its stories not as imitations of life but as hypotheses about life, speculations in the form of narrative.
The difficulty with Suvin’s theory, as with Kingsley Amis’s earlier view (science fiction’s “most important use” was as a means of “dramatizing social inquiry” and “providing a fictional mode in which cultural tendencies can be isolated”), lies in its moral seriousness, to coin a phrase. Amis prefigured (in 1960) and Suvin (in 1972) reflects the growing academic interest in science fiction, which can also be seen in Scholes’s book and Fiedler’s anthology (as well as in Fiedler’s science fiction novel, The Messengers Will Come No More), in 150 or 1,000 (counts differ) courses in science fiction currently being given in American colleges and universities, in the arrival of a Cliff Notes trot for science fiction, and in the existence of an interesting scholarly journal called Science Fiction Studies. I have no wish to complain about this, since I am all for taking any form of literature seriously. But I do want to suggest that such seriousness exacts a price.
It forces us, first, to discount or devalue the ordinary, blatant escapism of so much science fiction, which is simply high adventure up among the stars. The science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, is virtually indistinguishable from his Tarzan stories, even in the matter of plant life (“The trees of the forest attracted my deep admiration as I proceeded toward the sea. Their great stems, some of them fully a hundred feet in diameter, attested their prodigious height, which I could only guess at, since at no point could I penetrate their dense foliage above me to more than sixty or eighty feet”—this is a landscape on Mars).
And the science fiction of E. E. Smith is a game of cops and robbers on a grand scale and with advanced equipment (“The fate of all Civilization might very well depend upon the completeness of his butchery this day….” “But when we cut our generators in that other tube we emerged into our own space. How do you account for that?”). If we read “Xodar listened in incredulous astonishment,” or “After the Aldebaranian girl had had her breakfast,” or “Hari Seldon—born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Era; died 12,069,” or “A ‘thwok-thwok’ of ornithopter wings sounded high to the right” we are not estranged from anything, and still less is there any cognition taking place. We are off on a cozy trip to a harmless exotic kingdom. These odd names and objects and planets, these unreal dates, guarantee a pleasant torpor in the reading mind, the opposite of the “slight discomfort” or the “residual uneasiness” which Amis sees as the characteristic effect of science fiction.
A great deal of science fiction is not uneasy at all but boyishly optimistic about human prospects, a naïve expression of the indomitable human spirit which takes off into space with the enthusiasm of Huck Finn going fishing. Even James Gunn, himself a writer of science fiction and a person engaged in providing what he calls a “consensus history” of the genre, objects to the “dismal view of man” displayed by writers like Aldous Huxley and Nevil Shute, and calls on Faulkner and Dylan Thomas as patrons of an unflagging desire to survive:
Man, science fiction says, will not surrender peacefully; he will struggle to the end, studying how to live under water, on a frozen or a flaming Earth, in outer space, on the most hostile worlds.
He will not, in other words, go gentle into that good night, and he sounds about as estranged as Winston Churchill. This may not be the sort of science fiction that intellectuals like, but it is the sort that science fiction fans read, and I don’t think we can dismiss it as “space opera” and let it go at that.
Our seriousness, secondly, tends to deny a crucial element in science fiction: its gratuitousness. It is often called a form of utopian writing, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia.” But a utopia is usually morally motivated, designed to improve the world we live in; just as fantasy is usually psychologically motivated, rooted in a distaste for the world as it is. Science fiction often seems not to be motivated at all, to be an acte gratuit of the rational mind, to rise from a restless, pointless juggling ingenuity, the waking sleep, as Leslie Fiedler suggests, of robots that can’t be switched off. Like Victor Frankenstein, science fiction indulges in a wild and idle intellectual curiosity, and it is the combination of wildness and idleness and intellect that we enjoy. Its patron saint is the pure scientist, the model of a man who finds out things he doesn’t need to know. This may be heroism, criminal folly, or a complete waste of time, depending on what he finds out, but there is a recklessness about the venture in any case, a sense of the intelligence engaged in a gratuitous athletic exploit.
This is not to say science fiction is not full of messages and moralizing, merely that such things are probably more important to the writers of science fiction than they are to its readers. Frederik Pohl’s and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, for example, published in 1953, projects an America where oil is so scarce that taxis have been replaced by pedicabs; where the air is so bad that everyone is issued with free soot plugs; where the coffee contains an addictive ingredient that hooks people for life. The country is run by two rival advertising agencies, which bear more than a passing resemblance to two twentieth-century political parties, and the president is merely a figurehead. When Congress is convened, he has the State of the Union message read to him. This is all prophetic enough, and clearly a cautionary point is being made. But the careful, comic precision of the details offers a pleasure which has very little to do with either the prophecy or the point. Science fiction is a literature of ideas where having the ideas is what counts.
In Dreams Awake, edited by Leslie Fiedler, Dell, 400 pp., $1.75 (paper).↩
In Dreams Awake, edited by Leslie Fiedler, Dell, 400 pp., $1.75 (paper).↩