The Science-Fiction Novel Analysis

Roots of science fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Many individual works lie within the borderland between mundane and imaginative fiction, but there is one entire genre that occupies a curiously ambiguous position, a genre that depends on the use of the imagination to a considerable degree but that tries to make its imaginative products responsible in some way to a realistic outlook. The names given to this genre all have a somewhat oxymoronic flavor in common: “scientific romance,” “realistic romance,” and “science fiction.”

There are, as might be expected, two conflicting traditions in science-fiction criticism. One of these traditions stresses the close alliance between science fiction and other kinds of fantasy, and values the genre for its venturesome qualities. The other tradition emphasizes the responsibilities of the conscientious science-fiction writer in maintaining a firm base within scientific possibility and in the avoidance of any traffic with the occult. Brian Aldiss, in The Billion Year Spree (1973; revised as The Trillion Year Spree, 1986), suggests that science fiction is “characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode” and traces its ancestry from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Robert A. Heinlein, by contrast, contributes to the symposium The Science Fiction Novel (1959), introduced by Basil Davenport, a spirited defense of science fiction as a species of realistic fiction, likening the method of science-fiction writers to the scientific method itself.

Not unnaturally, adherents of these two views differ markedly on the issue of which texts should be labeled “science fiction” and which ought to be cast out as pretenders. Everyone agrees, however, that publishers and critics tend to use the label irresponsibly—on one hand, extending it promiscuously to cover stories that are “really” fantasy, and on the other hand, refraining from its use in respect of many prestigious works that, though “really” science fiction, might somehow be stigmatized or devalued if they were so named in open court.

Despite the fact that several different histories of science fiction have been compiled by adherents of different definitions, it is to the history and development of the genre that one is inclined to turn in the hope of discovering a reasonable analysis of the genre’s characteristics and relationships with other literary traditions. There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever of a coherent tradition of literary endeavor extending from Frankenstein to more recent science fiction. Although there were echoes of gothic freneticism in a few of the works produced in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when fiction recognizably akin to what today bears the label began to proliferate, most of it was very different in character.

One can recognize four main stimuli that encouraged writers in the late nineteenth century to produce more or less careful and conscientious works about imaginary inventions, future societies, and alien worlds. The first was the revolution in transportation, which brought the products of the Industrial Revolution into the everyday world of the middle classes in the shape of steam locomotives and steamships. This stimulated the growth of the novel of imaginary tourism, the greatest and most popular exponent of which was Jules Verne, author of Voyage au centre de la terre (1864; A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1872), De la terre à la lune (1865; From the Earth to the Moon, 1873), and Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1869-1870; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1873). Most of the early novels of space travel have a distinctively Vernian flavor and represent the more ambitious extreme of this particular subspecies. Examples include Across the Zodiac (1880), by Percy Greg, and A Columbus of Space (1909), by Garrett P. Serviss.

A second important stimulus was the discussion provoked by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Literary reconstructions of the prehistoric past became common, and so did speculations regarding the possible evolutionary future of humankind. The most famous examples are The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), by H. G. Wells, and The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911), by John D. Beresford.


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Growth of the science-fiction novel market

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

There is a certain irony in the fact that throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, the works produced in the United States labeled “science fiction” actually bear far less resemblance to commonly held notions of the nature of the genre than the unlabeled speculative fiction produced in Europe. This situation began to change, however, in the 1940’s. The dominant trend in American pulp science fiction from 1938 on—closely associated with the magazine Astounding Science Fiction and its editor John W. Campbell, Jr.—was toward a more sensible and more scrupulous development of hypotheses, while from approximately the same date the British literary community became gradually more aware of American science fiction. By the end of the 1940’s, the label was used widely in Britain by both publishers and commentators. One of the effects of World War II was that the United States and Britain were brought much more closely together in cultural as well as political terms. American science fiction began to be imported into Europe on a large scale, bringing with it a diffuse cultural context that affected the attitude of literary critics toward futuristic and speculative works.

Although virtually all the science fiction produced in Britain between the wars was in the novel form—cheap books being the main form of mass-produced fiction in Britain—this was not true of American science fiction of that period. American science fiction rarely achieved book publication before 1950, so longer works were produced mainly as magazine serials. Several pulp magazines boasted that they presented a full-length novel in every issue, but “full-length” in this context could mean anything between twenty...

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Dystopia, cyberpunk, and new genres

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Arguably, the main achievement of the science-fiction novel has been in helping people become more aware of the dangers posed by new technological developments. Science fiction has always been most effective in its alarmist and pessimistic moods, and its literary quality has been at its highest when its anxieties have run similarly high. Two science-fiction novels—Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)—may arguably be said to have had a greater impact on the popular imagination than any other literary works of the twentieth century. In its anticipation of social and environmental catastrophe, science fiction has been at its strongest; examples include A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), by Walter M. Miller, Jr.; The Drowned World (1962), by J. G. Ballard; Cat’s Cradle (1963), by Kurt Vonnegut; Stand on Zanzibar (1968), by John Brunner; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), by Philip K. Dick; This Is the Way the World Ends (1986), by James Morrow; and the work of ecofeminist Sheri S. Tepper, author of The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), The Margarets (2007), and many other novels.

Science fiction has also succeeded in emphasizing and popularizing hopeful possibilities. It is impossible to measure the contribution made by the imaginative stimulus of science fiction to the realized dream of reaching the Moon, but there can be no doubt that the inspiration of many rocket scientists originated from their reading of science fiction.

The use of science-fiction ideas as metaphors representing facets of the human condition has increased in scope. These developments, first seen in such novels as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside (1972), have helped open up new common ground between science fiction and the mainstream novel so that a profitable cross-fertilization of images and methods can take place. This influence can clearly be seen in such works as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Fay Weldon’s The Cloning of Joanna May (1989), two of the many novels that use science-fiction methods to explore the politics of feminism. Nicola Griffith won the Lambda Literary Award, given to the best lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender novel of the year, for her first science-fiction work, Ammonite (1993), and again for her second, Slow River (2005). Both feature strong lesbian protagonists. One of the few African American women writing in the field of science fiction was Octavia E. Butler, who used the genre to explore race, sexuality, religion, and other social issues. Her best-selling novel Kindred (1979) features a women who travels through time to meet her enslaved ancestors.

Science fiction is a uniquely changeable kind of fiction because it continually absorbs the implications of contemporary...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Aldiss, Brian W., and David Wingrove. The Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Victor Gollancz, 1986. Updated version of a history first published in 1973 (as The Billion Year Spree) provides a good introduction to the genre.

Barron, Neil. Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction. 5th ed. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2004. Library guide features critical essays as well as extensively annotated bibliographies of key texts. Includes a four-part history, a chapter on young adult science fiction, and a section on secondary literature and research aids.


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