Science Fiction

Science Fiction in Perspective


What is this thing called science fiction?

Even science fiction writers can't agree. Few subjects arouse as much discussion with as little resolution as the exact definition of a literary genre that has been a visible phenomenon for the last 50 years. Or 100 years ago, or 2,000—they can't agree on that, either.

Part of the trouble arises from science fiction's origins. Unlike detective fiction, consciously invented by Edgar Allan Poe in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," science fiction did not spring full grown from the brows of Jove. Rather, it evolved gradually from elements of the travel tale, "fantastic" fiction and utopias.

Science fiction became a distinct genre only by degrees, much as mammals evolved from reptiles. By the time anyone tried to give it an intellectual rationale, much of the classification was by hindsight. And efforts to create definitions that would encompass predecessors, transitional stages and borderline cases were as futile as would be attempts to define reptiles, mammals—and platypi—as one category.


Another factor is the recent interest in science fiction on the part of literary critics. What was once popular fiction, often derided as "pulp trash" devoid of intellectual content, is now being promoted as "serious literature"—subject to the condition it conform to current preconceptions of "literary" values. A great deal of soul-searching is going on among those who have most to do with shaping the future of science fiction, and some reject definitions in order to encourage imitation of "mainstream" fiction in the guise of science fiction.

Readers tend to assume that "literary" values are well-established, and imagine rows of bookshelves filled with "classics" from Homer on. Yet critical fashions come and go, and Literature actually consists of works that have survived all such changes in fashion.

Most "literary criticism" seems more ideological than literary. Each generation or movement of critics sets up arbitrary standards for the content of Literature—proper subjects, proper attitudes for authors to take towards them—and judges works of fiction by their conformance to those extra-literary standards.

Consider the case of Henrik Ibsen. His plays were damned as degenerate by one generation of critics, hailed as revolutionary by another, dismissed as anachronisms by yet another. Today they are grudgingly accepted as pioneering. Yet through it all, audiences have been moved by them. Perhaps that is the only true test.

C.S. Lewis proposed a new standard of criticism that does much to clear the air, long clouded by successive attempts to judge literature by standards of Victorian morality, Marxist dialectics, Freudian psychology and other constructs. Why not, he asked, in "An Experiment in Criticism," evaluate fiction by the kind of reading it invites?


Lewis distinguished between the reading of the "unliterary," who care nothing about esthetic values, and that of the "literary," who do. The "literary" love reading for its own sake, and take it seriously: "The first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison."[1]

Such readers can respond, and respond again on re-reading, only to an esthetic power inherent in the work—what science fiction writer Lester del Rey calls passion:

"The foremost requirement of art is passion—not compassion, which is a poor, condescending thing, but a burning passion of some kind which affords an inner illumination. This passion must not only go into the work, it must come out, to affect the reader and evoke a strong emotional or intellectual response."[2]

Subject and treatment are not the criterion of literary merit, del Rey stresses. "The ability to transfer passion through his medium is the unique and subtle skill of the artist. Without it, intent means nothing. A bad artist is not an artist at all, but a self-deceiving fool."[3]

All fiction is vicarious experience—this applies equally to plot, characterization, theme, setting, mood and other elements. Lewis suggests persuasively that the need for such experience is the primary motivation for reading literature at all:

"We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows, Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is, 'I have got out.' Or from another point of view, 'I have got in;' pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside."[4]


We must keep in mind that any kind of fiction can be literature—it all depends on how well it is written. For much of the soul-searching in science fiction circles nowadays is based on the false premise that science fiction is mere "genre" fiction, as opposed to "real" literature—that conforming to current ideological standards of subject and treatment.

Yet much "classic" literature is genre fiction, although it may not usually be thought of as such. WUTHERING HEIGHTS is a love story, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT a detective story, THE CRUEL SEA a war novel, THE OX BOW INCIDENT a western, and so on.

Science fiction, then, is as legitimate as any other kind of fiction, and so are its literary possibilities. Most science fiction isn't great literature, but neither is most of anything else. This having been made clear, let us look at science fiction in terms of the kind of experience it deals with.

The imagined experiences in science fiction are those which have not happened yet, but might—given certain altered conditions in our physical and/or social environment that, without the present or future inventions or discoveries of science, would be either impossible or unimaginable.

Science fiction, thematically, is the literature of man in relation to change, and its emphasis thus contrasts sharply with that of mainstream fiction. E.M. Forster, for example, thought literature must be something static, even if the human condition might be something changeable in the long run. Writing in 1927, he argued:

"We may harness the atom, we may land on the moon, we may abolish or intensify warfare, the mental processes of animals may be understood; but all these are trifles, they belong to history not to art. History develops, art stands still."[5]

What Forster meant was that novelists of the future would always be writing about the same constants—birth and death, love and hate—as those of the past and present. In a sense, he may be right—human nature changes slowly, if at all. Yet how can we be sure? And in any case, his argument is irrelevant to science fiction.


For new experience we shall have, even if we also retain the old. Just as a limited number of elements may produce an unlimited number of compounds, so basic human emotions and motivations will be tested and find expression in entirely new situations. Change has become a constant factor in our existence—perhaps the most important one.

It was not always thus. The world may always have changed, but in the past so slowly as to be little noticed. Medieval man imagined Roman times as a backwards projection of medievalism (see Avram Davidson's fantasy on this subject, "The Phoenix and the Mirror"); the future he regarded as a forwards projection of the same—until the Second Coming.

Science fiction in the true sense did not emerge until the beginning of the 19th Century, when scientific and technological change began to have a major impact on man and society. True, there were elements of scientific speculation in satirical and utopian works centuries earlier—but only as subordinate elements. To call GULLIVER'S TRAVELS science fiction is as off the mark, albeit as plausible, as to call HAMLET a detective story.

As Robin Scott Wilson put it, "Swift didn't believe in science and technology, although it was growing up all about him; didn't believe that change in any significant dimension was occurring or could occur."[6] Early science fiction works—Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, Poe's "Hans Phaall"—retained trappings of gothic horror, satire, and so on. But with Jules Verne (FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON) and his successors, the experience of scientific and technological change came to be recognized as a subject worthy in itself of literary treatment.

Science fiction's preoccupation with man in relation to change dictates its approach to plot, theme, characterization and every other element of fiction. For while a future world may have familiar experiences in store as well as novel ones, there is no point in writing a futuristic story to communicate experiences that could be conveyed just as well by contemporary scene fiction.

In "The Roads Must Roll," for example, Robert A. Heinlein postulates a future America dependent on a nationwide system of moving roadways. The plot involves a crisis in the operation of those roadways, and the theme is the increasing vulnerability of a complex technological society to the demands of small groups of essential personnel. No doubt a lot of people in the same future world are eating, sleeping, making love, arguing with relatives and so on—just as they do today. But they have nothing to do with the situation on which a science fiction story depends.


Psychological insights are valued in literature. But in science fiction, these are not ordinary textbook examples, but insights into new situations—the psychological consequences of cloning (Ursula LeGuin's "Nine Lives"), the psychology of symbiotic relationships (Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon"), or the possibility of entire alien psychologies (Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey").

Social issues in science fiction are likewise dynamic and speculative, rather than static and analytical. How could society go wrong if certain trends continue (Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's THE SPACE MERCHANTS)? Or if latent ideas find expression (Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD)? What might be the impact of a major new discovery, say a life-extension drug, on society (John Wyndham's TROUBLE WITH LICHEN)? Could altering the course of social evolution become an applied science (Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION trilogy)?

Science fiction is essentially a romantic literature, within the parameters set by Ayn Rand for the romantic school as one "based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition."[7] There are exceptions—Anthony Burgess' A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is an example of a naturalistic science fiction novel. But in general, science fiction holds that "man can change himself and his environment."[8]

But in keeping with its thematic material, the romantic imagination in science fiction is something unprecedented elsewhere. If classical tragedy can be compared to a chess game, in which the human pieces are moved about according to their fated roles, the metaphysical romanticism of mainstream fiction—from Goethe to Rand—is comparable to a similar game in which the pieces have volition, but within the limits of the same board. Science fiction, by contrast, is comparable to fairy chess—in which human pieces have new powers, move on altered boards and can change the rules in the middle of the game.

Science fiction demands intelligence and adaptability, both of its heroes and of its readers. It can be a fascinating intellectual game, even when it lacks literary pretensions. In fact, it is the most intellectual sort of fiction being written today, for it deals seriously with vital issues about the future of mankind.

Yet it can also be a literary experience. Just as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers conceive equally ingenious mystery plots, but Sayers' novels infuse them with the values of literature, so too do the best science fiction writers convey artistic passion while sacrificing none of the genre's thematic essentials.

Science fiction has even evolved its own philosophy about man and the universe—but more on that anon.


[1] Lewis, C.S. "An Experiment in Criticism," Cambridge University Press, 1961, p.3.
[2] del Rey, Lester, "Art—or Artiness?" FAMOUS SCIENCE FICTION, Vol.2, No.2, Fall 1968, p.79.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Lewis, op. cit., pp.137-8.
[5] Forster, E.M., "Aspects of the Novel," Harcourt, Brace & World, 1927, pp.171-2.
[6] Wilson, Robin Scott, in introduction to "Wondermakers," a science fiction anthology edited by Robert Hoskins, Fawcett Publications, 1972, p.10.
[7] Rand, Ayn, "The Romantic Manifesto," World Publishing Co., 1969, p.81.
[8] Widely attributed to Damon Knight; original source unknown.