Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1470
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally presented as a lecture at the Eaton Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy at the University of California, Riverside, in 1980.]
[In trying to determine the relationship between fantasy and science fiction, fantasy] honors the emotive side of the self, what I call the nighttime perspective. The extreme alternative is literature devoted to the exercise of the daytime powers of the intellect. Here my quintessential specimen is John Campbell's "Who Goes There?" The dramatic situation is much like that of [The Invasion of the] Body Snatchers, but the art teaches us a very different response. Again, an alien thing capable of swallowing humans and making perfect replicas has gotten loose. Some members of the population have already been processed; some have not. How can the thing be stopped?
The scientists of "Who Goes There?" respond, not with screams (or at least the first screams are immediately frowned upon and regretted as counterproductive), not with pell-mell running, but with a cool, scientific determination to gather data, learn the physical properties of the monster, and thus control it…. [The] data produce hypotheses that are systematically tried, the results are used to form better hypotheses, and finally a test is devised to discriminate human from nonhuman. The test is applied to all members of the population, the monsters among us are killed, and the danger is thwarted.
I have tried to suggest by my dry prose the tone of all this—more like a dissection than a drama. The nightmare is very present—in fact, Campbell stresses that the monster looks just like a bad dream—and this likeness allows Campbell to state his theme, the theme of all works of this genre: that the nightmare is not best met by running, screaming, and shouting, but by logic, the scientific method, and hard, unsentimental sense. Those who respond with emotionalism are gently locked up so that cooler heads may get on with the job at hand.
Campbell's people are quite aware that they live by the scientific method and that in the method lies their salvation. Listen to them discuss the likelihood of their comrade Connant's having been swallowed, in Connant's presence:
"What about Connant in the meantime?" Kinner demanded….
"He may be human—," Copper started.
Connant burst out in a flood of curses. "Human! May be human, you damned saw-bones! What in hell do you think I am?"
"A monster," Copper snapped sharply. "Now shut up and listen…. Until we know—you know as well as we do that we have reason to question the fact, and only you know how that question is to be answered—we may reasonably be expected to lock you up."
Connant realizes his incarceration is the logical course, and he submits. Time and again Campbell's people are put into situations that invite an emotional response in this way, and we witness them rejecting the emotional response for a more constructive alternative…. "Fantasy" sees reason as an inflexible commitment to normalcy as the only reality; "science fiction" sees reason as the ultimate flexibility—if the data say you may be a monster, you may be, however much like Connant you look.
And in Campbell's world reason does not fail us, because the universe is thoroughly reasonable. When it becomes apparent that there is a monster on the loose, Campbell's people gather for a lecture from Blair, the biologist, and he says it plainly: "This isn't wildly beyond what we already know. It's just a modification we haven't seen before. It's as natural, as logical, as any other manifestation of life. It obeys the same laws." And the implication is carried as much by Campbell's tone as by his plot: if we know our biology well enough, we need not fear. Fear, like all other emotional responses, is counterproductive to the business of understanding and controlling the universe. "Who Goes There?" is not really scary. Readers who come looking for a monster-movie "kick" feel as though they walked in on an anatomy lesson. Campbell's characters are not emotionally engaging, and he does not want them to be. They strike us as the ultimate engineers—dull in the face of wonders. (pp. 162-64)
"Sense of wonder" is a conventional phrase describing a basic science fiction energy, but I am suggesting that Campbell's mode—which I will call for the moment "science fiction," in quotation marks—trains us in the opposite point of view: far from encouraging us to wonder at alien experience, it suggests we move through wonder as quickly as possible and get down to work, analyzing the alien with the same dispassionate curiosity we would give to any other new lab specimen. If we assume that "science fiction'" strives to maximize wondrousness, we shall often think it misfires. "Who Goes There?" seems to squander opportunities for awe. But the monster is not a mind-trip; it is a problem in chemistry. Those who are sensitive to the wondrousness are useless to others who are trying to get a complex task (saving the world) done in a short time.
Written science fiction has always advertised itself as "astounding," "amazing," and the like, yet it has always been populated by heroes who, like the heroes of "Who Goes There?" are strong because they are immune from the debilitating power of imagination…. "Science fiction," purveyor of wonders, paradoxically celebrates the soul who can gaze at wonders and not be too stirred.
For these reasons Terry Carr has called science fiction "the most rigorously rational form of literature we have ever had." People unfamiliar with science fiction and familiar only with its reputation for wondrousness often give the title "most rational" to detective fiction in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, but wrongly. Holmes and his descendants are indeed dedicated to the principle that all worldly experience can be fully known via the rational intellect—that any human experience, no matter how apparently "fantastic," is capable of rational analysis. But literature from Campbell's perspective is the Holmsian principle taken a logical step further: any experience, whether in a far galaxy or on another spacetime continuum, is obedient to the laws of logic and science and is therefore fully knowable by the scientific method. We see Holmes' methods effective out beyond the Dog Star, as well as in London's back streets.
"Who Goes There?" and its genre, then, are more than an alternative to Body Snatchers's endorsement of the nighttime response; they are an indictment of it. They are antifantastic—a polemic against the notion of fantasy per se, as Body Snatchers is a polemic against reason's claim to all knowledge. Campbell argues that the fantastic is never really fantastic at all when fully known—it is only the familiar laws of nature repackaged. The sense of fantasy, in these terms, is a juvenile indulgence of our emotional selves. Campbell asks us to grow up.
Two kinds of art instruct us to respond with two different parts of ourselves, the emotive and the rational, and each kind sees responding to the alien with the other side of the self to be counterproductive. And the status of objects in the two universes is correspondingly different. In "fantasy," objects have primarily figurative status, whereas in "science fiction," the thing is a thing, a literal object. And again, each genre presents the alternative as a fundamental error: in "fantasy," people often have to be taught that the object is an externalization of their internal reality—it is, in short, a metaphor—whereas, in "science fiction," to see the object as a projection of the self is next to madness. (pp. 164-65)
"Who Goes There?" is constructed to disabuse us of any tendency to read figuratively; the work of art teaches us how to read it best. The monster is purposely made to look as much like a metaphor as possible; it looks like a conventional nightmare, and its way of operating perfectly matches the central myth of our paranoid age: I am surrounded by things that look like people but really are not, and they are trying to steal my soul. Campbell's people are thus invited to misinterpret the monster as a metaphor, a manifestation of their emotive selves. But it is not. The monster is an external, objective fact—those who lose sight of that go quickly mad. For Campbell, the fundamental act of sanity is to recognize that the furniture of the world does not represent anything beyond itself. "Science fiction," however densely populated with mind-boggling products of the imagination, is paradoxically the most extreme form of realistic art there is. (pp. 165-66)
Jack P. Rawlins, "Confronting the Alien: Fantasy and Anti-Fantasy in Science Fiction Film and Literature," in Bridges to Fantasy, George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, Robert Scholes, eds., Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, pp. 160-74.∗