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Science fiction

displaced, The Time Machine, When the Sleeper Wakes, Lensman, Billion Year Spree, Frankenstein

is a term used in two broadly conflicting senses, and no single definition, for this reason, has ever satisfied any student of the form. The first is ostensibly descriptive and refers to a body of literature defined as science fiction by those Americans who invented the term in the 1920s, and who published what they called scientifiction or science fiction in pulp magazines dedicated to the form. Within a few years of the creation of the term a cohesive subculture had evolved, composed of writers, editors, reviewers, and fans; stories and novels written within this sub-culture shared certain intrinsic assumptions as well as distinctive linguistic and thematic codes. This complex of ideas, and not just the fictional texts which initially gave rise to it, came to be called science fiction. The second of the two senses is prescriptive, and is restricted to texts. There can be no doubt that it is the first of these two senses which continues to dominate most writers of the form and the markets to which they must sell their works. However, American science fiction in 1930, as written by authors like E. E. Smith, M. Leinster, E. Hamilton, J. Williamson, J. W. Campbell Jr and others, was principally a body of tales set in the future: this was the great innovation of the form.

Throughout the nineteenth century, hundreds of texts were published which later prescriptive definitions of the form have plausibly designated as science fiction, because in one way or another their settings or scientific assumptions were displaced from the normal world. But almost invariably these displacements were horizontal, through space rather than time; and if a story were set at some future date, that future world was usually seen either as substantially identical with the present, or as a mirror in which the present could be regarded in utopian or dystopian form. Even the futures promulgated in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895) or When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) can be seen, in this sense, as reflective (see Utopia and Anti-Utopia). This was all changed with the American pulp writers two decades later. With a fine disregard of didacticism, writers such as Smith, in his Lensman sequence, created future environments for tales of adventure and exploration. The effect of this liberation of futuristic fictions from the constraints of allegory was, in literary terms, explosive. From it derives the kinetic vivacity of early American science fiction, the love of new inventions for their own sake, the readiness to believe in superheroes, and the leap into space itself. From this freeing of the future derives the characteristic flavour of American science fiction: its ease with scale, technology, and gear; its richness of narrative device; and its secret impatience with reason. For writers like R. A. Heinlein, I. Asimov, A. E. Van Vogt, and T. Sturgeon, who came to maturity in the 1930s and 1940s, the naïve tradition into which they had been born seemed both all-encompassing and natural; and for many readers, the work of this generation of writers remains the only genuine science fiction. So compelling a myth of origin, shaped as it was by writers still alive, called for definition. In 1952, for instance, Asimov suggested that science fiction was ‘That branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings’. K. Amis wrote of the genre in 1960 as ‘That class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extraterrestrial in origin.’ H. Ellison in 1971 defined it as ‘Anything that deals in even the smallest extrapolative manner with the future of man and his societies.’

In 1973, in Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss broke new ground by arguing that science fiction began neither with American pulp magazines nor with H. G. Wells, but with M. Shelley's Frankenstein (1818); Aldiss defined the form as a child begotten upon Gothic romance by the industrial and scientific revolution of the early nineteenth century. Whether or not this argument was entirely plausible, it was undeniably influential in its undercutting of earlier claims that science fiction derived from an early twentieth-century American blend of populist rhetoric and positivism. More abstract was Darko Suvin's definition from 1979; science fiction was ‘A literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework (or ‘Novum’) alternative to the author's empirical environment.’ However, Suvin's definition significantly failed to encompass American science fiction, in which the framework is almost always alternative to our world, but in which estrangement tends significantly to be absent. In 1987, K. S. Robinson described science fiction as ‘an historical literature. … In every sf narrative, there is an explicit or implicit fictional history that connects the period depicted to our present moment, or to some moment of our past.’ See also Apocalyptic Literature.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: William Sansom (William Norman Trevor Sansom) Biography to Dr Seuss [Theodor Giesel] Biography