The Struggle of Science Fiction as a Serious Literary Form: A Literal Escape into Reality
What is it that prevents the most serious of literary critics to write about the complexities of science fiction? There is a very shallow pool of published science fiction critique and that which I have found is mostly written by science fiction authors trying to argue the importance that science fiction literature has in society. Critics continue to write about authors like Ernest Hemmingway, Harper Lee and Sylvia Plath, who have had their due credit recognized the world over and yet science fiction, a genre that has worlds of knowledge to be studied and analyzed, waits for higher attention in the academic setting. How does one argue a strong case in favor of science fiction if traditional literary critics are too preoccupied with the more popular literature to give it the serious attention that it needs? A closer look at the first science fiction works can shed some light onto this question.
The earliest science fiction belongs to British and French authors, such as Mary Shelly and Jules Verne. By the literary community, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, is not generally accepted as science fiction because it was first published in 1818, a time before the science fiction genre is even born. Instead, Frankenstein is classified by some as gothic literature and sometimes associated with the Romantic Movement, giving the story credit enough to be included in British literature and gothic studies (Fox, "Romantic and Gothic Representation in Frankenstein").
Brian Aldiss argued that Frankenstein should be considered the very first true science fiction story, because unlike stories of it’s time that dealt with fantastical elements, the central character turns to modern scientific experiments in the laboratory to achieve fantastical results, like bringing back life into the dead (Aldiss 78). This differs from much of the Science Fiction written in the 1800’s, which focused less on the science in the story and more on exploration of uncharted territories. Individual characterization is still moving the story forward, but one can see the affects that the creation of the monster has on everyone who is near and dear to Victor Frankenstein.
Science fiction like Frankenstein also shares a relation to medieval literature, in that both forms are considered to be didactic (Russ, "Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction"). This is to say that both forms of literature are written with the purpose to teach the reader a lesson or experience something they may or may not come understand in their own lives. In his book Future West: Utopia and Apocalypse in Frontier Science Fiction, William H. Katerberg writes, “I have examined…that it (science fiction) has to speak to people’s experience of the present and the fears, expectations, and hopes about the future, for themselves and for their descendants” (Katerberg 209). Concepts like fear of death and the desire to live are common elements that were instilled in science fiction since its birth. These themes are clearly represented in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, for a man who has once experienced death, is brought back to life and is afraid of experiencing death again.
There are also lessons to be learned from explorative science fiction, and it should not be held in any less regard compared to stories like Frankenstein that deal with work being conducted in the laboratory. Explorative science fiction does more than question the ethics of physical human development through science. Through explorative science fiction the reader’s world is expanded as it was for explorers like Lewis and Clarke. Jules Verne is considered to be the godfather of science fiction and primarily focuses on new and unexplored frontiers. While fantasy authors had written stories of traveling to exotic locations, Jules Verne focused on the plausibility of the vehicles that would take the characters to their newfound locations.
In his book De la terre a la lune, (From the Earth to the Moon), Jules Verne is the first to write about modern rocketry and even trajectories. Although the science behind Jules Verne’s space vehicle is outdated, some of the concepts like multi sections on his rocket could be adapted as multi stages for rockets that were later developed in the twentieth century (Westfahl 26). Jules Verne would later go on to write Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, inventing the idea of the first submarine. Jules Verne’s fictional manned moon mission and underwater voyages would help inspire scientists to question the possibility of making these fantastical voyages into a reality.
In 1914 English author H. G. Wells released The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind. The book was about a bomb so powerful, that it could destroy entire cities through a series of chain reactions. Wells called it the atomic bomb. Wells was no stranger to the latest study of the power that radio active elements held, and through imagination he was able to conceive a very possible scenario that inspired scientists in the late 1930’s and 40’s to develop his “fictional bomb” into a reality (Rhodes 24). Not only does Wells focus on the technological aspect of the atomic bomb, he also dives into the complexities that the bomb has on the individual. To hold that kind of power in the hands of a human is worthy of serious discussion. It is an object so small and yet it can affect the lives of everyone living on the planet.
Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, became interested in space after reading H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds when he was just sixteen. The story inspired him so much that he would later write, “On this day I climbed a tall cherry tree at the back of the barn… and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars,” (Stern). In 1926, Robert Goddard launched the first liquid fueled rocket. Goddard never saw his dream of spaceflight come true because he died in 1945, but his inspiration for making the first liquid fueled rockets still lives on in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Without the inspiration of science fiction literature the passion behind the science like Goddard’s attempts of reaching space, may have never been ignited. Authors like H.G. Wells, Jules Vern and Mary Shelly were the first in a long line of science fiction authors who would inspire some of the most incredible moments in the twentieth century, such as the first manned moon missions, the possibilities of medical technology and soon to be missions to Mars. While science fiction has been accepted into popular culture as a form of entertainment, there is a need for deeper literary critique of science fiction because it is arguably the influence of history before history is even written.
The first science fiction authors would create the material that would allow so many postmodern authors to explore the complexities that objects like rockets and the Atomic bomb would have on the lives of people living in the fear of the Cold War. Respected postmodern literature focused more on the psychological effects that the atomic age had on individual characters, while science fiction authors focused on how the technology affected society as a whole. Some of the most respected science fiction is written post World War II, because the authors focused more on realities that were already in the process of forming.
In John Steinbeck’s book Travels With Charley: In Search of America, he writes a chapter that helps the reader understand the effect the atomic bomb had on the lives of people who never experienced its destructive force first hand, and how his trip across America is directly affected by that fear. While trying to get to the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Steinbeck is taken on a detour through an evacuation route and writes, “My head was spinning. I had lost all sense of direction. But the signs-“Evacuation Route”-continued. Of course, it is the planned escape route from the bomb that hasn’t been dropped. Here in the middle of the Middle West an escape route, a road designed by fear” (Steinbeck 100).
While Travels With Charley is a book that needs further critique, Steinbeck has enough literary acclaim to be discussed in an academic writing class for an entire semester. When analyzing a book, most critics will look into the events that inspired the author to write the story. As it is with Wells’ atomic bomb, a chain reaction begins that continues to grow generations later, allowing new authors to build on a previous author’s ideas because eventually science fiction becomes a reality. It is debatable that the atomic bomb itself would have become a reality as soon as it did without the inspiration of H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free, and had that material not been written, would authors like Steinbeck be writing about the fear of the world they lived in?
The most famous of the science fiction authors during the postmodern era is arguably George Orwell. Orwellian science fiction novels have found a strong place in popular literary critique because his stories focus primarily on the politics of the era. Two major governments were trying to spread their ideas around the world by the use of military force and censorship, Russia’s communism and the United States’ democracy. While popular authors of the era like Jack Kerouac were writing stories about how the political differences were affecting the individual, George Orwell was writing about how the spread of political differences were affecting the collective, which is a science fiction concept.
George Orwell’s book 1984 was published in 1950, just as the Red Scare was heating up in the United States. The story is about Winston Smith, a low ranking member of the dominant political party in the nation of Oceana. The people are so oppressed under their government that there are cameras even in their own apartments so Big Brother, the nations leader, can watch their every move. Winston questions the party’s tactics in private and writes about his worries in an illegal journal he has purchased. By expressing his thoughts and ideas freely in his journal he is influenced to experience more illegal practices like sex with of love and the joining of the Brotherhood, a movement secretly trying to bring down Big Brother. In the end, the movement betrays Winston, as Big Brother created the Brotherhood in order to find any opposition to the major party. Winston is then brainwashed into being a faithful member of the party again.
As a science fiction author George Orwell was writing about a future that could be if current political events took a turn for the worse. 1984 is mostly a critique on Soviet Russia, but it also shows what could happen if their ideas of censorship were adopted into a democratic society. The story serves as an early warning as to what limiting the spread of ideas can do to a society (Berman 85). The American media caught on quickly to these ideas, as the United States Government was investigating or throwing anyone in jail that was thought to be a communist or socialist sympathizer, many of whom were popular authors of the time.
In 1953 Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, a vision of American society to where books become outlawed and the only ideas that people have come through the television controlled by government censorship. Fahrenheit 451 received more critical acclaim than Bradbury’s story The Martian Chronicles; a scenario in which the atomic bomb makes the Earth so unlivable that humans must colonize Mars. Concerning Ray Bradbury’s cold war novels he had this to say, “The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 come from the same period in my life, when I was warning people. I was preventing futures,” (Bloom 89). Both Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles were very possible outlooks on what the future could hold if events continued to go as directed.
Why is it that Fahrenheit 451 is chosen to read in a variety of classes over The Martian Chronicles when both books were written with the same intentions, to prevent future problems? Even Bradbury suggests a deep kinship between the pieces showing the necessity to understand the value that both works have in literature. Literary critics heavily focus on Fahrenheit 451 because it describes a scenario that was in the process of happening during the Cold War. It is much easier for a critic to deconstruct an idea that has already been put into practice like censorship, than for them to critique something as speculative as leaving this world to go to Mars when we had no plans at the time to send a man into our own Earth’s orbit.
The exploration of unknown frontiers may be too difficult for literary critics to want to make a connection to. The science fiction that receives the most credit is that which deals with the psychology of science. Postmodern literary authors produced some of the most profound looks into the human psyche. Literary criticism bloomed during the Cold War as colleges became widely open to the liberal arts and it was safe to study books that questioned authority. The most daring authors were those who wrote against censorship during the Cold War and the more famous they were, the more influence they would have on the society they lived in.
By the 1960’s American’s were becoming free from the red scare, finally giving authors the freedom to express their critique of how the United States was handling the spread of Communism with less fear of being put into prison. The threat was still there, just not as prevalent. One can only wait so long for the bomb to drop before it becomes a normal part of life. Steinbeck expresses this sentiment through the character of his dog in travels with Charley. Steinbeck writes, “He wasn’t involved with a race that could build a thing it had to escape from. He didn’t want to go to the moon just to get the hell away from it all. Confronted with our stupidities, Charley accepts them for what they are-stupidities,” (Steinbeck 100). It was much easier for Steinbeck to give a political critique through his dog, because dogs could not be held accountable for their thoughts.
Steinbeck knew the United States government was watching closely. Thomas Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s son, said the United States government harassed John Steinbeck for his opinions on Cold War politics, so much that the FBI launched an investigation into his life. When the FBI could not find any wrongdoing on Steinbeck’s part they used the IRS to audit his taxes every year of his life just to annoy him (Steinbeck, "John Steinbeck, Michael Moore, and the Burgeoning Role of Planetary Patriotism").
This kind of intrusion into the lives of authors during the Cold War era was all too common. If the United States Government could prevent ideas from spreading that were contrary to the support of democracy, then credit must be given to the science fiction authors who predicted these events. This is one of the reasons why novels like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 have been given the critical attention in the academic world that they deserve. Naturally authors will pay attention to other authors who share their same struggles, and for a time science fiction authors were able to share a harmonious relationship with popular authors of the Cold War era. It has much to do with when the literature is released. This would only last so long.
Perhaps tales of alien abductions and space operas like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon have overshadowed the most serious science fiction. The misinterpretation of what science fiction is often turns people away from the genre. With the advent of film we now live in a very visual world, and the first adaptations of books to movies were not at all very accurate. Take Marry Shelly’s Frankenstein, considered by many to be one of the very first science fiction stories written. In 1931 the famous film version of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, gives the idea of an over the top mad scientist who is driven by a rage of passion to create this monster. The story went from being a serious tale behind the science of bringing a human back to life, to a monster movie aimed at enhancing the entertainment value over the science. Instead of an intelligent human being in a scarred body we are left with a monster barely intelligent enough to use his own limbs to walk straight.
This same discredit to science fiction literature happened again in the mid to late 1950’s.
With the beginning of the Space Race there also followed an overabundance of B movie themed science fiction films that lowered the interest in good science fiction stories. The films were more interested in the idea of making aliens into monsters rather than understanding the nature of an advanced species intelligent enough to travel across the stars. Atomic fallout created giant ant-like looking monsters and even Japan, the only country to ever fall victim of an atomic bomb, gave the world Godzilla (Booker 140). This resulted in blending science fiction with fantasy. Yes the Space Race was in full swing but the audiences wanted science fiction to be entertaining, not complicated.
It was now difficult to convince the world that science fiction was not just a form literary of escapism. The reality is that the science behind the fiction should bring audiences closer to the issues that are in the process of affecting their lives. Arthur C. Clarke is one of, if not the most respected science fiction authors in history. Regarding science fiction and escapism Arthur C. Clarke writes, “There's no real objection to escapism, in the right places... We all want to escape occasionally. But science fiction is often very far from escapism, in fact you might say that science fiction is escape into reality…” (ESA, "Space-in-Bytes: Science Fiction-Science Fact”). Here Clarke argues that science fiction has more to do with reality than popular fiction does because it deals with real scientific concepts that are affecting the masses.
Concerning science fiction Clarke goes on to write, “It's a fiction which does concern itself with real issues: the origin of man; our future. In fact I can't think of any form of literature which is more concerned with real issues, reality” (ESA, "Space-in-Bytes: Science Fiction-Science Fact”). Instead of escaping into the lives of other characters, as most literature does, in Clarke’s literature he tries to wake up the reader into the reality that they themselves are living in, or could be living in very soon. It is through this method that science fiction serves, not only as good literature, but also as a warning to all those who read it.
Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey approaches some of the most debated ethical questions of its time. The novel is based off of a previous story, The Sentinel, he had published in 1951. The Sentinel did not gain much attention at the time of its release because it dealt with topics to premature for critics to understand. The success of science fiction has more to do with when it is released and less to do with what is foretold.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a story of how man evolved through the help of an unknown alien race. These aliens leave behind various monoliths, objects that allow for an accelerated jump in the evolution of man. The first is found on Earth during a time when human ancestors share more ape like qualities. This is when the first acceleration in evolution happens. The next monolith is found on the moon in 2001 and that monolith leads man to a signal that is being broadcast from the planet Saturn. The spaceship constructed to take astronauts to explore this signal is controlled by the computer Hal, who is programmed with the most realistic artificial intelligence. The mission goes wrong when Hal feels threatened that the crew will jeopardize the mission he was sent to do. Hal Succeeds in killing off all of the crew but one, David Bowman, who finally disconnects all of Hal’s systems. David Bowman reaches the monolith in a small shuttle pod and decides to go through it. The result is the next advancement in human evolution in which David Bowman is transformed into a “Star Child,” a new immortal entity that can travel through space. Upon his return to Earth David finds that world is at the brink of nuclear war. He detonates an orbiting nuclear warhead and must make a decision of what to do next with his newly given powers.
2001: A Space Odyssey was released in the height of the Cold War. Man was just one year away from landing on the moon and the public finally understood the themes of the perils of technology through nuclear war, possibilities of space exploration and the debate over how life evolved on Earth. If the story is released too early it is Arthur C. Clarkes first interpretation, The Sentinel, and if it is released too late, it has less influence on a societies decision to pursue the possibility of a future unknown. It is difficult to see why literary critics can give praise to popular authors who write about ideas that are revolutionary or ahead of their time, when they will not give the same praise and attention to science fiction authors who write stories that primarily focus on possible futures, by using real science and current problems to support their stories.
Concerning the role of science fiction in society Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind. Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories. Two-thirds of 2001 is realistic — hardware and technology — to establish background for the metaphysical, philosophical, and religious meanings later,” (Combs 147). Clarke wanted audiences to understand that true science fiction was not to be taken as entertainment. Science fiction should be written with the intention of spawning a discussion worthy of serious thought.
One of the difficulties that literary critics may have with critiquing science fiction literature is that it has to do with science. In her 1975 article, “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction,” Joanna Russ argues, “A modern critic attempting to understand science fiction without understanding modern science is in the position of a medievalist attempting to read Piers Plowman without any but the haziest ideas about medieval Catholicism” (Russ, "Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction"). If a critic cannot understand the science behind the story, they just may never understand why the story has relevance in fiction.
Enter Carl Sagan; Cornell Universities top astrophysics professor, an advisor for NASA from its inception in the 1950’s and one time science fiction author of the novel Contact. If there was one person in this world that could bring the understanding and plausibility of science fiction to anyone is was Sagan. He is the author of non-fiction science based books like Cosmos, which help explain the most difficult scientific concepts to the common person. It only took one attempt at writing literature for Sagan to write a well-respected novel. In Contact, Sagan shows very clearly that he understands how to balance the weight of the characters along with the technology.
Contact is the story of radio astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway. While Ellie is well respected for her knowledge of radio astronomy, she is criticized because she focuses her time on finding funding for the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. Her theories of extra terrestrial life come true when she receives a deep space radio message from Vega, a star located in another part of our galaxy. Encoded in the message are blueprints for building a transport. Because of religious opposition, a suicide bomber destroys the first transport. A second transport is built with the help of an eccentric billionaire and Ellie, along with four other international scientists, are taken to the other side of the galaxy to get a glimpse at what the future may hold for humanity.
Although Contact is a fictional story, in reality it was an indirect way for Carl Sagan to write out his personal frustrations of finding funding for the program S.E.T.I. (The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). Sagan also used the book in hopes to reveal the possibilities of why the mission of S.E.T.I. could change the entire Universe as we know it. The story was actually written by Sagan as a screenplay first, but failed to find interest by major studios. In 1981, Simon & Schuster gave Sagan a $2 million advance to write the screenplay into a novel. At the time, "the advance was the largest ever made for a book that had not yet been written" (Davidson 342). Contact’s initial printing was 265,000 copies, but the popularity of the book quickly soared and in its first two years more than 1,700,000 copies were sold.
Was Carl Sagan’s Contact more widely accepted by critics because he was a scientist writing science fiction? It would be very difficult for a literary citric to blow off the influence of a novel that is written by an expert on the science behind the story. A respect for Carl Sagan was already established with his involvement in planning major NASA missions like the two Voyager space craft that have traveled farther than any spacecraft made by man and have been exploring our solar system since the late 1970’s. Sagan was also the foremost expert on what to do in the event that an alien civilization tried to contact Earth.
Sagan received the Locus Award in the category, best first novel, for his novel Contact, but it would be the last time Sagan would attempt to write fiction. Carl Sagan was already devout to science stating, “I found the science to be more subtle, more complex, more challenging, more full of wonder and having the additional, not inconsiderable, virtue of being true” (Gross, "Charles Hadden and Carl Sagan"). As a scientist, Sagan had difficulty accepting the inconsistencies of the science behind science fiction. One can go back and change a textbook but literature is forever engrained in history.
Still, Carl Sagan continued to show his support for the science fiction novel as an approach to reality. Carl Sagan worked closely along side director Robert Zemekis to develop the film version of Contact. Although Sagan died before the film was finished, his passionate argument for the science behind science fiction is depicted through the character of Ellie Arroway in the film version of Contact. The film itself was dedicated to Carl Sagan and the story serves as a testament to his work.
The most memorable scene in the story is when Dr. Arroway is told that her ideas for searching for extra terrestrial life sound less like science and more like science fiction. In return Arroway argues, “Science fiction. You're right, it's crazy. In fact, it's even worse than that, its nuts. You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an airplane, you know you get people to go in, and fly around like birds, it's ridiculous, right?” (Contact). Unknowns in science also face similar challenges that science fiction has in the literary world. Blowing off potential science due to lack of evidence could result in the loss of some of the most incredible discoveries, just as ignoring science fiction as a serious form of literature could result in the loss of expanding the literary realm.
In order to convince a panel to support funding for her research in alien transmissions, Dr. Arroway pleads with potential investors by saying, “Look, all I'm asking is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision. You know, to just sit back for one minute and look at the big picture. To take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history, of history (Contact).” This is a reminder to never stop seeking what seems to be unobtainable. There are possibilities in science fiction that the literary world cannot ignore.
If the complexities of science fiction continue to be viewed as the lesser form of literature by serious literary critics, does it require the need to be studied in other fields? When I asked my creative writing professor, (whom I will not name), at Utah Valley University why there were no upper division science fiction literature and writing classes offered to the students, she responded by saying that one must learn to write “good fiction” first in order to become a respected writer. She implied that science fiction was not good fiction and belonged to the ranks of lesser literature. For this reason she says that we do not learn to write genre in college, we only learn to critique ideas within literature, such as feminism and religion.
Serious interpretation of literature must evolve throughout time to have anything new to critique. Although science fiction has solidified itself as a genre, it is still relatively new compared to the rest of literature. As our understanding of the most difficult science changes through the scientific process, one can only hope that support science fiction literature will experience the same. Only through serious literary attention can the complexities of science fiction be revealed.
Concerning science fiction’s importance in literature Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself,” (Bradbury, "Science Fiction"). Science fiction stories focus not only on literary ideas like feminism, industrialism and the self, but also on a more wide variety of subjects like futurism, possible political oppression and the plausibility of ideas that one day could affect humanity as a whole. If anything science fiction has more to bring to academic literary studies than what is already included in the cannon because it pushes itself to think of what comes next.
My works cited page is a little messed up when I pasted it from Word but you get the idea.
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Contact. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, and James Woods. Warner Brothers, 1997. Film.
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Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. Print.
Russ, Joanna. "Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction." DePauw University. DePauw University, 28 Oct. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.
Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley: in Search of America. New York: Viking, 1962. Print.
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Westfahl, Gary. Space and Beyond: the Frontier Theme in Science Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Print.