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The Similarities and Differences Among Science Fiction and Fantasy Works

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With the introduction of pulp genre magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories in the 1920s, modern Science Fiction and Fantasy stories were lumped together, with no attempt to define or separate each genre. Although many critics have since tried to define each genre, no consensus has been reached, and Science Fiction and Fantasy are often referred to as one field. This is true in the popular sphere as well. Orson Scott Card (who is a Science Fiction and Fantasy writer himself) notes in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, “in most bookstores, fantasy and science fiction are lumped together in the same group of shelves, alphabetized by author with no attempt to separate one from the other.” However, one can make a possible distinction by examining the specific ways that Science Fiction and Fantasy writers use general ideas and techniques shared by both genres. By exploring the general similarities between Wells’s The Time Machine and Tolkien’s The Hobbit— two works that helped to define the modern Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, respectively— these specific differences can be identified.

The first general similarity between the two genres is in their views of science and technology. Both genres tend to take a negative view toward science and technology. In fact, much of Fantasy literature is, by its very nature, anti-technology. Fantasy authors like Tolkien often stage their tales in a rustic environment that hearkens back to a preindustrialized past and is generally derived from a nostalgic blend of human history and mythology. In some Fantasy, however, the feelings against industrial progress are more pronounced. Take this passage from The Hobbit, in which Tolkien is discussing the goblins, one of many evil races in the book: “It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once.” By associating this evil race with troublesome machines—a clear sign of industry—Tolkien is implying that technological progress itself is evil. It is particularly telling that Tolkien wrote this story as humanity was gearing up for World War II, during which a number of killing machines were invented. As Michael Wood notes about Tolkien’s works in New Society:

The enemy is science, or rather the complacency of science, the self-satisfaction of people who think they can explain everything, who have no time for myths, for forms of truth which will not fit within a narrow rationalism.

Unlike The Hobbit, the anti-technology view in The Time Machine is not apparent at first. In the beginning of the novel, the time traveler is hopeful about science and technology as he displays the model of his time machine to his assembled guests—who use scientific arguments to discuss the prospect of time travel. Says the medical man, one of the time traveler’s guests, “if Time is really only a fourth dimension of Space, why is it, and why has it always been regarded as something different? And why cannot we move in Time as we move about in the other dimensions of Space?” Later, when the time traveler has returned from his journey into the future, he explains to his guests what he had hoped to find there. “I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything.” But as the time traveler soon sees, human society has evolved from upper and lower classes into two separate species, both of which have regressed physically and mentally to the point...

(This entire section contains 1711 words.)

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where they have lost their humanity. The time traveler, a man from the nineteenth century, possesses more knowledge than these distant descendants, a fact that taints his view of the inevitable future.

In his history of Science Fiction, Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss discusses the sense of despair inherent in The Time Machine: “Its sceptical view of the present, and its pessimistic view of the future of mankind—and of life on Earth—challenged most of the cosy ideas of progress, as well as the new imperialism, then current.” Wells set the pace for many other Science Fiction writers, who imparted this dual idea of initial hope and crushing despair into their own works.

Another area in which general parallels between Fantasy and Science Fiction can be drawn is in the setting. Both Science Fiction and Fantasy works usually involve a setting that is something contrary to the writer’s current reality, an “other” reality. The majority of Science Fiction works, like The Time Machine, take place in a future reality, which is often drastically different in either a distinctly positive or negative sense. As Aldiss notes, “Utopianism or its opposite is present in every vision of the future. There is little point in inventing a future state unless it contrasts in some way with our present one.” In Wells’s case, the future world his time traveler encounters is a nightmarish future Earth, where the ape-like Morlocks, the descendants of the working class who dwell underground, tend the pretty but naïve Eloi like crops. The reader, like the time traveler, is drawn to detest the Morlocks, who feed on the Eloi.

While many Science Fiction “other” realities take place in the future, Fantasy works like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth are constructed as part of the mythical past. Here, Tolkien also portrays a nightmarish vision of Earth, although his is much richer than Wells’s portrayal. While Morlocks served as the detested race in Wells’s novel, Tolkien offers trolls, goblins, and the imaginary beast that is found in much mythology and Fantasy—the dragon. The dragon is especially nasty in The Hobbit. After Bilbo narrowly escapes being burned from the fire that the dragon spews from its mouth, Bilbo hides where the dragon cannot get to him or his dwarf companions. The dragon, Smaug, in a fit of rage, instead takes out his fiery anger on the nearby Lake-Town, the inhabitants of which have done nothing to the dragon. Tolkien describes Smaug’s many destructive passes over the town, then gives Smaug’s next thought: “Soon he would set all the shoreland woods ablaze and wither every field and pasture. Just now he was enjoying the sport of townbaiting.” Fortunately for the town members, a bird carries Bilbo’s news of the dragon’s weakness to the town, and the dragon is slain.

A third area in which general similarities can be found between Science Fiction and Fantasy is the use of the quest, or journey, as a narrative structure. In journey stories, a protagonist travels to somewhere else, has an adventure, and is transformed. In Science Fiction, many of these stories have followed the trend set by works like Wells’s The Time Machine, in which the traveler is a willing participant. In fact, in the time traveler’s case, he travels on his journey through an invention of his own making. At the end of his first adventure through time, the time traveler has indeed changed. He has seen the bleak, far future, which saddens him, but he refuses to give up. In the end, he makes another journey, to an age not quite so far in the future, where he can try to warn people before they make the same mistakes that lead to the future he has seen. However, at the end of the book, after three years, the time traveler has still not returned, and Wells ends the book on an ambiguous note. The reader never finds out the conclusion of the time traveler’s journey, or how it ultimately transforms him.

In fantastic journeys—many of which follow the ages-old storytelling form of the heroic quest—the journey’s beginning, end, and outcome are clearly defined. The protagonists in Fantasy stories do not always choose to begin their journeys. In The Hobbit, Bilbo does not ask for his quest to rescue the treasure hoard from the dragon. At the beginning of the tale, Bilbo is happy with his quiet life in the Shire, and does not want anyone to change that. It is only with the intervention of the wizard Gandalf that Bilbo is called to go on the quest. Gandalf asks Bilbo outright to do it, but Bilbo refuses: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” Gandalf leaves but, unbeknownst to Bilbo, the wizard marks Bilbo’s front door to indicate that he is available as a burglar-for-hire for a group of dwarves.

After the dwarves start to arrive and Bilbo’s world begins to tumble, Gandalf reveals his stunt. At this point something happens that makes Bilbo change his mind about going on the journey. His “Took” side, the adventurous line of his ancestors, gets offended when the dwarves say he could not handle the adventure. As Tolkien writes about Bilbo, “He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce.” For a hobbit, who is constantly thinking about food, this is a brave admission and is one of the first signs that Bilbo has “more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself,” as Gandalf puts it to the dwarves.

Throughout the quest, Bilbo slowly begins to trust his instincts and risks his life to save the dwarves from being eaten by giant spiders, imprisoned by elves, and finally, consumed by their own greed while trying to hoard the dragon’s treasure. Bilbo does indeed undergo a transformation, proving himself worthy of Gandalf’s prophetic praise. Unlike Wells’s time traveler, the transformation is a distinctly positive one, and the book ends on a clear upbeat note.

The debate about what constitutes Science Fiction as opposed to Fantasy has been going on for more than a century. Although no consensus has been reached, many publishers label certain books as belonging to either the Science Fiction or Fantasy field, and fans generally know when they are reading one as opposed to the other.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.


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One of the major theoretical projects of the second wave of feminism is the investigation of gender and sexuality as social constructs. . . . The stock conventions of science fiction—time travel, alternate worlds, entropy, relativism, the search for a unified field theory— can be used metaphorically and metonymically as powerful ways of exploring the construction of ‘woman’.

(Sarah Lefanu . . .)

Women’s science fiction, or feminist science fiction, is a more recent development than the genre as a whole, but today constitutes one of the most exciting and most vigorous aspects of the mode, in terms both of actual SF texts and of criticism. It is also, following on from the previous chapter, a development that dates primarily from the 1960s, one that has grown up in dialogue with the more maleoriented SF of the Pulps and the Golden Age. Examining some of the features of women’s SF writing, then, allows us to interrogate many aspects of New Wave (the experimental, avant-garde movement in SF that started in the 1960s) and more recent developments in the mode.

After exploring various aspects of the representation of gender concerns in SF, this chapter will close with a reading of Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. But it is worth noting at the beginning how contentious Le Guin’s position is within the body of female SF, as a means of pointing up that ‘female SF’ is not a straightforwardly or narrowly single quantity. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the acknowledged classics of SF; it won, for instance, both a Hugo and a Nebula award, the two most prestigious awards in SF publishing. But much of the feminist criticism of Le Guin is rather cold, sometimes dismissive, and occasionally outright hostile. Critic Sarah Lefanu finds Le Guin’s writing fatally limited, too character-based to be SF at all, and not very well realised as character studies either. Of the characters in The Left Hand of Darkness Lefanu asks ‘how realistic are [they]? Who remembers what they look like? or what they say? Or feel?’ Lefanu prefers SF writer Joanna Russ. Joanna Russ herself thought The Left Hand of Darkness a failure, though an honourable one. Jenny Wolmark’s Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism omits Le Guin altogether, and the critic Susan Bassnett, whilst conceding that Le Guin has been ‘ex- tremely popular and successful’ for ‘both adults and children’, none the less points out in Lucie Armitt’s edited collection Where No Man Has Gone Before that she ‘has not always been treated very kindly by those critics who have actually considered her work’. There is a great deal of valuable criticism of SF from a feminist or women’s writing point of view. In order to understand why as talented a writer as Le Guin has received such a poor showing in that criticism, and why her novels are so consistently judged in terms of her representation of gender, we need briefly to put her work into context.

One of the reasons why feminist criticism of SF has a radicalism that seems almost old-fashioned when compared with the subtler, more complex feminisms that characterise criticism as a whole is that women are a relatively recent arrival in the realm of SF writing itself. ‘Golden Age’ SF, the argument goes, was almost exclusively male; it was written by men, purchased by men or boys; its conventions were shaped by the passions and interests of adolescent males, that is to say its focus was on technology as embodied particularly by big, gleaming machines with lots of moving parts, physical prowess, war, two-dimensional male heroes, adventure and excitement. From the dawn of SF through to the end of the 1950s the female audience for SF was tiny, and those women who were interested in reading it did so with a sense of themselves as alienated or at least sidelined spectators. This is to skim swiftly over the surface of a large and complicated subject here, so a certain crudity of generalisation is inevitable; but it cannot be denied that the Golden Age readership of SF was predominantly, even overwhelmingly male; whereas the audience for SF today, particularly in America, is in the majority female. There are two things that account for this shift.

The first was the establishment, slowly at first but then, as it gained in popularity and sales, more rapidly, of a body of SF novels written by women and read in large part by women. This is something that happened particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, and there are three names associated with the success of this new mode. They are: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton and Ursula Le Guin. Bradley has written dozens of novels set on a planet called Darkover, the chronicles of which span the world’s history from a pre-technological, medievalised culture to a spacefaring technological one. Andre Norton’s series of Fantasy novels set on what she calls the Witch World provided the first, and one of the most popular, reworkings of the Tolkien style of Fantasy Epic from a female point of view. Ursula Le Guin has not written an on-going series of novels in the SF idiom, as have these other two, but her novels have included some of the most acclaimed works in SF, not only The Left Hand of Darkness but also The Dispossessed and her Fantasy sequence Earthsea. For our purposes the interesting thing about all three of these writers is the way they began by writing male-centred, technological SF derived heavily from the Golden Age conventions, but as their confidence, and audience, grew, each of them shifted her perspective to female- centred studies that explored concerns more crucial to her own life. Marion Zimmer Bradley is one example of this. One of her earliest Darkover books, Star of Danger, has a ‘Boy’s Own’ plot about two young lads travelling through a wilderness area of the planet, undergoing a series of adventures whilst on the run from a bandit chief. There are no major female characters in this novel, and virtually no women of any sort. More than this, the protagonist, Larry Montry from Earth, falls under the spell of the unreconstructed machismo of Darkover culture. He meets a young nobleman of that world, Kennard Dalton, after bravely fighting off a gang of toughs. Triumphing in this fight wins Larry respect. Darkovans, or at any rate male Darkovans, find it incomprehensible that people on Earth rely on the police to sort out their difficulties: on Darkover, if an individual is wronged it is that individual’s duty to obtain retribution. Earth’s is ‘a government of laws’, but, says Kennard proudly, ‘ours is a government of men, because laws can’t be anything but the expression of men who make them’. At no point in the novel are the masculinist prejudices of the Darkovian world challenged, or even mentioned without a sort of starry-eyed respect. But a later Darkover novel, Stormqueen, is more women-oriented, and marks the feminist evolution of its author’s sensibilities. It is set several hundred years before the Darkover of Star of Danger, in an age before the technologies of space flight have reached the planet, and it is far more explicit about the perils so macho a society involves for the women who live in it. One character, about to make a sort of marriage of convenience to a powerful noble, explains to her son that ‘life is not easy for a woman unprotected’. Without this unwanted marriage, the alternative would be an effective concubinage; ‘for me there would be nothing but to be a drudge or a sewing woman’. As the novel progresses, the main character reveals telepathic capacities, known as laran, and the book explores the compensations that laran offers to women in a brutal and oppressive society. Bradley has talked about her shift of interests. In the introduction to The Best of Marion Zimmer Bradley, a collection of her short fiction published in 1985, she said her ‘current enthusiasms . . . are Gay Rights and Women’s Rights—I think Women’s Liberation is the great event of the twentieth century, not Space Exploration. One is a great change in human consciousness; the latter is only predictable technology, and I am bored by technology’.

This emphasis on the affective, the personal, rather than the technological was also the reason for the second significant catalyst from the 1960s, one that introduced a large body of female fans to SF, fans that had previously been put off by the masculinist ‘boys and their toys’ posturings of Golden Age books. This catalyst was the TV series Star Trek. Indeed, although its importance is often underplayed, it seems clear to me that Star Trek brought more women to SF than all the other authors mentioned so far put together. It remains a cornerstone of female SF fandom. The success of this syndicated show in the late sixties, particularly amongst a female audience, brought hundreds of thousands of women to the genre. And this was a success based less on the technological or maleego strands of the show, and had more to do with the way Star Trek represented, in the first instance, human interaction and the social dynamic as being at the heart of the SF story; and, in the second instance, and less obviously, because Trek, unusually for a 1960s US TV show, was interested in representing difference. The encounter with the alien is at the core of Star Trek, and of most SF; and questions of difference, of alien-ness and otherness, were also powerful and relevant to the female perspective on the old patriarchal world. This is why the show built up, and maintains, so large a female audience. Nor is this female audience merely a body of passive viewers; there is a vigorous and wide-ranging body of fanzines and even fan-authored novels based upon the Star Trek universe. As Henry Jenkins has exhaustively demonstrated, ‘Star Trek fandom is a predominantly female response to mass media texts, with the majority of fanzines edited by and written by women for a largely female readership’.

It was this issue of difference, where ‘alien’ becomes an encoding of ‘woman’, that featured prominently in the work of the 1970s new wave of radical female SF writers. This was a much more populated era of women’s SF in terms of the number of women writing SF. But there are three names that crop up again and again in the criticism, so I mention them here: Octavia Butler, Marge Piercy and Joanna Russ. Russ is perhaps the most often cited. Her most famous novel, The Female Man, presents a four-fold perspective of women’s experience of the world, including a women-only utopian realm called Whileaway. Russ is one of the most committed feminist writers and critics, and The Female Man has received a great deal of respectful criticism. But Gwyneth Jones is surely right when she judges this novel a relative failure compared with some others of Russ’s fictions. It is set partly on the planet Whileaway where there are no men, only women, and the utopian possibilities of this world are contrasted with the trajectories of female existence on other possible worlds where women are oppressed to one degree or another. Russ has written about all-female societies elsewhere, most notably in the story ‘When It Changed’, but, as Jones points out, the female society in that story is ‘not unreasonably idealised’. The women have the faults and strengths of ‘the whole of humanity’. By the time of The Female Man the all-woman world ‘has been got at. Its inhabitants have become female characters in a feminist science fiction, their vices and virtues bowdlerised and engineered precisely to fit the current demands of sexual politics.’ Russ’s novel is effectively hijacked by a feminist agenda: ‘When It Changed is feminist fiction, The Female Man is feminist satire’.

Of the other names mentioned, Octavia Butler, as a writer both female and black, has an especially acute perspective on issues of ‘alien as other.’ Her Xenogenesis series is examined in Chapter 4 of the present study. Marge Piercy’s feminist utopia Women on the Edge of Time is often contrasted with The Left Hand of Darkness as a ‘successful’ version of a world without gender. Another name worth introducing at this point, although not one that seems immediately appropriate in a discussion of SF written by women, is James Tiptree Jr. Despite having the first name James, Tiptree has the distinction of having created one of the most celebrated fictional expressions of the constructions of gender, in a short story called ‘The Women Men Don’t See’. This tale is narrated by a man called Fenton, rather old-fashioned but basically decent, whose blindness to the actual conditions of what it means to be a woman, as opposed to his vague sense of what he thinks women are about, is the key point of the story. Indeed, the triumph of Tiptree’s narration is the way it captures so precisely the idiom of a certain sort of male consciousness, whilst also using only that blinkered male point of view to delineate the women as separate characters. The story opens on a small aeroplane flying down to Mexico.

I see her first while the Mexicana 727 is barrelling down to Cozumel Island. I came out of the can and lurch into her seat, saying ‘Sorry,’ at a double female blur. The second blur nods quietly. The younger one in the window seat goes on looking out. I continue down the aisle registering nothing. Zero. I would never have looked at them or thought of them again.

The plane crashes, and the narrator and the two women are forced to fend for themselves. But the story takes a striking turn when space aliens encounter them in the jungle. ‘They are tall and white . . . stretching out a long white arm toward Ruth . . . the arm stretches after her. It stretches and stretches. It stretches two yards and stays hanging in the air. Small black things are wriggling from its tip. I look where their faces should be and see black hollow dishes with vertical stripes.’ The narrator’s response is a male one: full of terror he fires his gun at the aliens. The women are more pragmatic. They announce they are going to leave the planet with them. ‘For Christ’s sake, Ruth, they’re aliens,’ yells Fenton. ‘I’m used to it,’ Ruth replies. Ruth’s point of view is that the aliens are just as men were on Earth, and that women are used to the marginal existence: ‘we survive by ones or twos in the chinks of your world machine’. The aliens themselves, with their weird technology and their satellite-dish faces, seem to embody a particular, technological metaphor for maleness; just as their spaceship, a piece of technology, is no more of a ‘world machine’ than the machinery of patriarchy. Women’s marginal role in this machine-system manages to reverse the woman-as-alien motif. From the perspective of Ruth, a space alien is not more alien than a man.

This is a story, though, celebrated for more than literary reasons. To quote Edward James:

Robert Silverberg commented that this [‘The Women Men Don’t See’] was ‘a profoundly feminist story told in an entirely masculine manner,’ and a few pages earlier in his introduction to the collection which included this story he remarked: ‘It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.’ It was not just the writing, but the lifestyle. Silverberg noted how Tiptree in a letter had admitted to having worked in a Pentagon basement during the war and to having subsequently ‘batted around the jungly parts of the globe.’

As James points out, this whole affair is especially involving to ‘those interested in the difference between “masculine” and “feminine” writing (like Le Guin and Silverberg himself)’, because, of course, James Tiptree Jr was a woman called Alice Sheldon, a fact which finally emerged in 1977. The embarrassment of the more chauvinist SF writers, such as Silverberg or Heinlein, at this admission was met by the delight of the more feminist critics and authors; it seemed to crystallise the ingrained sexism of assumptions governing different sorts of writing, as well as emphasising how alive this issue was. In the fiery heat of 1970s-style feminism, this was a crucial issue.

The Tiptree situation in some senses harked back to an earlier age. I have talked of the 1960s as the time when female SF really increased in popularity, yet, as Sarah Lefanu has noted, the situation was not quite as clearcut as that:

Science fiction is popularly conceived as male territory, boys’ own adventure stories with little to interest a female readership. This is true of the heyday of magazine science fiction, the 1930s and 1940s, but even then there were women writers, like C L Moore and Leigh Brackett.

The difference, she points out, is that such women more often than not ‘assumed a male voice and non-gender-specific names to avoid prejudice on the part of editors and readers alike’. Women who wished to become involved, as writers or readers, had to assume a certain masculine identity, to become what we might call (after Russ’s novel), Female Men. The Tiptree experiment in a sense focused exactly these prejudices, but at a more gender-aware time.

What Tiptree does, as Le Guin, Butler and Russ have also done in their various ways, is precisely to use the SF encounter with difference to focus gender concerns. An essay by Russ that was first published in the SF magazine Vertex in 1971 is often cited by feminist critics of SF as a classic articulation of these issues. In that essay, Russ declared that ‘one would think science fiction the perfect literary mode in which to explore (and explode) our assumptions about “innate” values and “natural” social arrangements.’ But whilst ‘some of this has been done’, Russ points out that ‘speculation about the innate personality differences between men and women, about family structure, about sex, in short about gender roles, does not exist at all’. The essay is called ‘The Image of Women in Science Fiction’; Russ says she chose that title rather than ‘Women in Science Fiction’ because ‘if I had chosen the latter, there would have been very little to say. There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women’. It can be argued that now, thirty years later, the situation is not quite so bleak as it was then. But there is still a sense in which the SF contact with the alien remains a powerful medium for expressing female perspectives.

Source: Adam Roberts, “Gender,” in Science Fiction, Routledge, 2000, pp. 91–100.

Science Fiction: Metaphor, Myth or Prophecy

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A provisional and, I hope, uncontroversial definition of science fiction might run as follows: sf is a distinct kind of popular literature telling stories that arise from actual or, more usually, hypothetical new discoveries in science and technology. The science and technology must be convincing enough to invite a certain suspension of the reader’s disbelief: this is how sf, as a creation of the later nineteenth century, differs from earlier fiction in which themes such as space travel and encounters with extraterrestrials were presented in a merely fantastic or satirical light. The present essay will propose a broad evolutionary model for the development of science fiction, comprising a prehistorical and at least three historical stages. The points of transition are those at which the genre can be seen to shift from one kind of discourse to another. In all science-fiction stories, scientific and technological innovation has consequential effects, causing changes at the level of the social structure, of individual experience, and in the perceived nature of reality itself. As sf has developed not only has its stock of imagined alternatives continued to multiply, but their status has changed from what I shall call the prophetic to the mythic and to the metaphorical. At present there are signs that the ‘metaphorical’ phase of science-fictional discourse may be breaking down, just as its predecessors did.

It is true that a periodisation of science fiction along these lines will strike some readers as being offensively schematic and dogmatic: my only excuse is that it may be a stimulus to further thought. Earlier critics to whom I am indebted, notably Darko Suvin and Mark Rose, have given their own versions of the ‘philosophical history’ of the genre—a philosophical history being a deliberately simplified model, or a hypothesis to be borne in mind when constructing a detailed empirical history. My model tries to foreground the relationship of sf to the physical sciences, while in the background there is a developing argument about scientific epistemology, and especially about the relationship of science to narrative discourse or, as we say, fictions.

Most early or ‘proto’ science fiction was the product of writers who stood at some distance from the science of their time and set out to mock, satirise, discredit, or at best to play with it. I am thinking here of Lucian, Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac, Swift, Voltaire, Mary Shelley, and Poe. Poe comes the nearest to generic science fiction, though his imitations of scientific discourse can never be taken at face value. His cosmological essay ‘Eureka’ can claim to be a remarkable example of prophetic insight, since its alternately expanding and contracting universe is taken very seriously by some modern cosmologists. But ‘Eureka’ is also a vast leg-pull, an exercise in teasing absurdity comparable to the same author’s ‘Philosophy of Composition’ with its satire on literary theory. In each case, Poe sets out to debunk Romantic irrationalism by showing that the mysteries of creation (whether human or divine) are susceptible of a blindingly simple, logical explanation; but the explanation collapses under its own weight, leaving both the mystical and the mechanical outlooks in ruins.

To move from proto-science fiction to the first stage of the genre itself is to move from sophisticated irony and satire to something which at first sounds very much cruder—the mode of literary prophecy. Poe gave one of his most obviously parodic stories the title ‘Mellonta Tauta’, Greek for ‘these things are in the future’, but the writers of prophetic science fiction speak of future things and mean what they say. Or rather, since it is a question of literary prophecy—that is, prophecy openly making use of fictional devices—they appear to mean it. There is, as it turns out, an intricate relationship between literary prophecy and parody or irony, which perhaps accounts for Poe’s crucial influence on Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The use of future dates in fiction will illustrate what I have in mind, since every future date is a virtual not an actual date, even though some should be taken much more seriously than others. At one extreme, Poe’s character Pundita in ‘Mellonta Tauta’ writes her long, gossipy letter from the balloon ‘Skylark’ on 1 April 2848; at the other, Arthur C. Clarke sets the opening chapter of Childhood’s End in 1975, but once that date has passed he writes a new opening chapter for the revised edition of the novel. Both editions carry Clarke’s well-known prefatory statement to the effect that ‘The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.’ George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was made all the more ominous by its naming of a future year which rapidly became part of the political discourse of the Cold War period, even though ‘1984’ was arrived at by reversing the last two figures of 1948 in which the novel was written; in any case, the book begins with the clocks striking 13, a manifestly satirical touch. What are we to say, then, of a date such as Wells’s 802 701 AD in The Time Machine? Wells’s story is, as he himself said in one of his letters, ‘no joke’, and the narrative logic just about manages to account for a date so unthinkably far in the future (provided that we do not inquire too closely). The result is prophetic science fiction, not in the sense of an accurate forecast, but of the story’s power to convince us of aspects of the future beyond or behind the ostensible fictional vehicle: it is, in effect, a kind of oracle.

From Verne and Wells to Gernsback, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Pohl we have a genre shaped by writers who are almost missionaries for science, and whose fiction proclaims that it has something to divulge about the future. The writers of prophetic sf are futurologists who nevertheless recognise that, in what Frederik Pohl has offered as ‘Pohl’s Law’, ‘The more complete and reliable a prediction of the future is, the less it is worth.’ Characteristically, prophetic sf writers not only claim scientific authenticity for their visions but seek to promote what Wells called the ‘discovery of the future’ by means of essays, journalism and popular science writing as well as fiction. They celebrate and warn their readers about things to come. Taken literally and in detail, their prophecies are undoubtedly false, but then every true terrestrial prophet is also a false one. What prophetic sf writers do know about the future is that (to adapt George Orwell’s comment on Wells) it is not going to be what respectable people imagine. And this implies that prophetic science fiction will be in trouble once its predictions of scientific and technological advance have started to become respectable and commonplace.

While many of Jules Verne’s best-known titles speak of travel in spatial dimensions, Wells’s titles often refer to travel in time, or rather to space-time. Verne’s archetypal hero is Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus; Wells’s is the Time Traveller. The Wellsian model of prophetic science fiction presupposes a Positivistic space-time continuum in which natural diversity is accounted for and brought under the rule of universal laws such as those of evolution and thermodynamics. Though living matter is extraordinarily plastic, the universe is a closed system of matter and energy without supernatural interference or any possibility of regeneration from outside. Space and time were bound together from the late nineteenth century onwards by the measurement of the speed of light and by the concept of the light-year. The future, like outer space, was waiting to be discovered, even though the future would be partly moulded by human choices. Within the ‘classical’ space-time universe which Wells called the ‘Universe Rigid’, the scope for human freedom of action faces severe constraints. According to Sir James Jeans, the sun is ‘melting away like an ice-berg in the Gulf Stream’, and humanity ‘is probably destined to die of cold, while the greater part of the substance of the universe still remains too hot for life to obtain a footing. . . . [T]he end of the journey cannot be other than universal death’. Prophetic science fiction explores both the mysteries and the certainties of this scientific, material universe.

To do so it relies, above all, on the spaceship, an ethereal version of Jules Verne’s submarine enabling the science fiction hero to travel across the space-time universe at just below (or, in many cases, far above) the speed of light. The spaceship as dream-vehicle gave way, in the mid-twentieth century, to the technological realities of NASA and Cape Canaveral (though sf writers have felt constrained to keep several jumps ahead of NASA’s transport technology). At much the same time, a fundamental change in cosmology led to the general adoption of the expanding-universe theory according to which, far from inhabiting an entropic steady-state system, everything is perpetually getting farther away. Where Sir James Jeans in his best-selling account of The Mysterious Universe had been preoccupied with an apocalyptic future event, the ‘Heat-Death of the Universe’, physical speculation now came to centre upon a founding moment in the past, the Big Bang which initiated universal expansion. Science fiction has been deeply affected by this switch of attention from the end of everything to its beginning.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, the reaction against prophetic science fiction began in the work of ‘space fantasists’ like David Lindsay and C. S. Lewis. Lewis wrote that the best sf stories were not ‘satiric or prophetic’ but belonged to what he called ‘fantastic or mythopoetic literature in general.’ In the post-war decades, Lewis’s view of sf gradually took precedence over Heinlein’s much narrower conception of it as ‘Realistic Future-Scene Fiction.’ Soon science fiction began to repeat its ‘prophetic’ material and also to borrow quite consciously from modern fantasy (it had always had fantastic elements, of course), leading to a general shift from the prophetic to the mythopoetic mode. (At the same time, earlier science fiction had to be reinterpreted in accordance with the new paradigm, so that Bernard Bergonzi, for example, would describe Wells’s science fictions as ‘ironic myths.’) I would count Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, James Blish and Walter M. Miller among the mythopoetic writers, but the earliest major sf novelist in this mode was probably Olaf Stapledon. Admittedly, his position is ambiguous. Last and First Men is in many ways a standard work of prophetic sf, with its chronological tables and its narrator addressing us from the far future. Stapledon’s preface to Last and First Men, however, states that his ‘attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting’ is an ‘essay in myth creation’, not a prophecy. His later book Star Maker, where the hero’s journey through the space-time cosmos leads to a vision of creation imbued with post-Christian mysticism, is straightforwardly mythical. From the Sixties onwards, it became commonplace to speak of science fiction as a ‘contemporary mythology’, a phrase which hints at the hostility to science which is (it seems to me) latent in Stapledon’s writings, as well as being explicit in Lewis. The sf critic Patricia Warrick defines myth as a ‘complex of stories which a culture regards as demonstrating the inner meaning of the universe and of human life’; here the body of scientific knowledge and speculation is reduced to the level of scriptures and stories, so that ‘scientism’ as it is now known takes its place alongside other competing belief-systems, just as some Americans want to give creationism the same weight as evolutionism in the teaching of biology.

Where Warrick claims that the scientific model of the universe itself functions like a myth, Ursula Le Guin sees mythmaking as the special province of writers and artists. Le Guin argues on Jungian grounds that storytelling connects scientific methods and values to our collective dreams and archetypes; it is science fiction, not science itself, that deserves the title of a ‘modern mythology.’ In practice, once science fiction became consciously mythopoetic it began to indulge in generic self-repetition and a growing carelessness towards scientific facts. The imaginary Space Age universe crossed by magical faster-than-light spaceships and full of lifelike robots and contactable intelligent aliens has remained a staple of sf (and of the popular consciousness of science) long after it ceased to resemble a plausible scientific future. From a collection of increasingly commonplace prophecies SF had become a nostalgic theme-park of futures past.

But then in the 1960s, as Brian Aldiss claimed, ‘SF discovered the Present’, and the future was increasingly regarded as a metaphor for the present. Aldiss and Le Guin, among others, have frequently asserted that the genre’s portrayal of the future of space travel, alternative societies and alternative life-forms is at bottom metaphorical. Much of New Wave and feminist science fiction is apparently metaphorical rather than prophetic or mythopoetic in intent. By 1970 the academic study of sf had begun, so that we can track the redefinition of science fiction as metaphor through academic theory as well as through the pronouncements of practising novelists. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer had argued that myth and metaphor were radically linked, and in a writer such as Le Guin, and in an early theorist such as Robert M. Philmus, there is a kind of slippage from myth to metaphor. On the other hand, Darko Suvin rejects talk of the artist as mythmaker and offers a fully worked-out theory of sf as a metaphorical mode: its stories, he says, are not prophecies but analogies or parables. The redefinition of science fiction as metaphor coincided with the politicisation of sf and its criticism in the Sixties and Seventies, though in my view it has served a primarily contemplative rather than an activist politics. The envisioned alternatives of metaphorical sf are fantastic and utopian possibilities, parallel worlds serving what Sarah Lefanu has called ‘interrogative’ rather than predictive functions. An interrogative or dialogical function is precisely what has traditionally been claimed for the literary genre of utopia. Metaphorical theory views science fiction not as an alternative to utopia (which is how the prophetic writers from Wells to Heinlein had seen it), but as one of the contemporary forms of utopian writing. This understanding of science fiction as a metaphorical mode is still dominant today, but its limitations have become increasingly evident. The metaphorical theory of the genre redefines sf as ‘speculative fiction’ or ‘speculative fantasy’, but it cannot in the long run explain why these speculations should be based on science.

Each of the three phases of science fiction I have outlined can be roughly correlated with a set of contemporary philosophical or metaphysical assumptions. Each set of contemporary assumptions constitutes an ideology or Weltanschauung exerting a gravitational pull on the fiction that comes under its influence. In this sense, prophetic science fiction belongs with Positivism and scientific materialism; science fiction as myth implies either neoChristianity or a pragmatic cultural relativism drawing on psychoanalytical and anthropological insights; while science fiction as metaphor tends to imply a post-structuralist ‘conventionalism’ or ‘anti-foundationalism’ denying or downgrading the referential aspects of fiction. In this view, statements no longer have a truth content, so that it would be absurd to judge imagined futures by their potential correspondence with any ‘real’ future. Prophetic sf is a propaganda device which is meaningful only in relation to the discursive present in which it arises.

Admittedly, it is tendentious to assert that theoretical defences of sf as a metaphorical mode imply a conventionalist view of reality. To do so they must argue not merely, in Le Guin’s words, that ‘all fiction is metaphor’ but that all knowledge and description is so too. Darko Suvin’s influential theory of science fiction is critical at this point, since Suvin in his best known work insists on a rigorous distinction between cognitive sf and supposedly non-cognitive fantasy. According to Suvin, not only is sf a mode of metaphor, but ‘true’ metaphor is by definition cognitive—so that sf’s cognitive status is established with all the force of a syllogism. The theoretical defence of this assertion is to be found in Suvin’s Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction, where he elaborates on the more programmatic and manifesto-like statements to be found in his earlier Metamorphoses of Science Fiction.

In Positions and Presuppositions Suvin quotes Paul Ricoeur’s aphorism that ‘Metaphor is to poetic language as model is to scientific language.’ The equivalence is already suspiciously neat, and if poetic language and scientific language are both regarded as cognitive, then metaphor approximates to model. This is plausible to the extent that scientific theorising involves elements of metaphorisation and analogy or model-building; but Suvin describes not only scientific models but metaphors in general as ‘heuristic fictions’ which have a cognitive function. His intention, undoubtedly, is to turn post-structuralist scepticism inside out by arguing for the cognitive potential of all human creativity whether poetic or scientific, rational or emotional, or conceptual or non-conceptual. But in his discussion of sf as ‘Metaphor, Parable and Chronotope’ it is no longer clear to what extent so-called knowledge, or cognition, relies on a truth content.

Like other theorists of metaphor, Suvin relies on an apparently commonsense distinction between the properties of the ‘true’ or ‘full-fledged’ metaphor (equivalent to Cassirer’s ‘genuine “radical metaphor”’) and low-grade or dead metaphors. This is crucial for the cognitive theory of metaphor, since all modern linguistic theorists agree on the ubiquity of metaphor. Nietzsche’s assertion that in language itself there are no literal terms, only metaphors in various states of decay, has been echoed not merely by Derrida and de Man, but by a Positivist theorist such as I. A. Richards, who has described metaphor as the ‘omnipresent principle of language.’ If we say that all language also has a cognitive function we have, no doubt, stumbled upon a truth of sorts, but it is a truth that undermines any claim for a special cognitive status for scientific language, let alone for science fiction. Suvin’s well-known view of science fiction as a literature of ‘cognitive estrangement’ implies a neat pyramid of discourse with ordinary language at the bottom and cognitive (scientific) thought at the apex; but the linguistic theory of metaphor leads us to view language as a seamless fabric with a repeated pattern in which theories, models, analogies, and ‘ordinary’ language are constantly changing places relative to one another. To say that sf, or any kind of fiction, is metaphorical is then to say nothing worth saying at all. Suvin, though well aware of this danger, has difficulty in extricating himself from it.

Fully-fledged metaphors or heuristic fictions, he argues, must fulfil the criteria of coherence, richness and novelty. Consciously or unconsciously, these three conditions seem to echo the scholastic triad of integritas, consonantia and claritas, proposed by St Thomas Aquinas and familiar to modern readers from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For Aquinas and for Stephen Dedalus, however, these were the requirements for beauty, not for truth or cognitive value. Suvin considers and rather perfunctorily rejects a fourth criterion, that of reference to reality, on the grounds that it is already implicit in the requirements for richness and novelty. Just so did Dedalus argue that claritas was the same as quidditas, the ‘whatness’ of a thing. This is an economy too far, since it amounts to saying, like Keats’s Grecian Urn, that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. Suvin then distinguishes between metaphor as such, and narrative fictions which he regards as extended metaphors; the latter, he says, should be capable of verification or falsification, though the point is left undeveloped. Given the ‘difference between brief and long writings’, the criteria for distinguishing ‘runof- the-mill from optimal SF’ are analogous to those for low-grade versus true metaphor. It is evident from this that Suvin no longer sees sf as a special kind of narrative exhibiting cognitive estrangement; rather, all worthwhile and, as he puts it, liberating human thought and creativity is (a) cognitive and (b) estranged. The purpose of such creativity is, to quote from a more recent essay, to ‘redescribe the known world and open up new possibilities of intervening into it.’ Perhaps, however, a verified or validated narrative (or metaphor, or scientific model) is no longer usefully analysed simply as an instance of metaphor. We should regard it, instead, as containing an actual or potential truth statement.

If sf’s only distinguishing feature is that it serves ‘interrogative functions’ by means of its portrayal of analogical models or parallel worlds, then it is destined to disappear as a separate form, becoming in effect a subdivision of the novel of ideas. It is quite possible that the century of science fiction is over and that this form of expression born of late nineteenth-century scientific materialism has now run its course. (On the other hand, cultural history is littered with the premature obituaries of artistic forms.) The immediate cause of the genre’s disappearance would be that science fiction understood as a metaphorical mode no longer has any necessary connection or concern with contemporary scientific developments.

If science fiction as metaphor is more or less played out, then it may be time to examine whether and under what conditions a return to science fiction as prophecy is possible. The genre’s popular media image is still one of lurid anticipation and comic-book futurology, even though the sf community finds this embarrassingly naive and politically distasteful. Nothing is more guaranteed to excite the derision of the sf critic than the fact that Wells is still admired for predicting the tank and the atomic bomb, Clarke for the communications satellite, and Capek and Asimov for their robots. Some of the most plausibly prophetic recent science fiction is to be found in J. G. Ballard’s scenarios of the end of the Space Age—but Ballard is famous, or deserves to be famous, as the one writer of his time who dared to contradict the commonplaces of respectable technocratic prophecy.

There is a trivial sense in which all scientific theories are predictive, since they assert that the regularities observed in the past will hold good in the future. But much of the most interesting scientific speculation focuses on unique (or apparently unique) events like the Big Bang, the Heat-Death of the Universe, or the course of evolution on Earth. For these events to appeal to the prophetic imagination they must have consequences in the future, and to appeal to the fictional imagination as we know it they must in principle be observable by human beings. The great advantage of the ‘classical’ space-time universe was the possibility of travelling around it and seeing things that had not yet happened, but even there what was directly observed would usually be a symbol or portent rather than the reality—like Wells’s solar eclipse at the end of The Time Machine?, or Clarke’s Rama.

The modern counterpart to Wells’s use of an eclipse to symbolise the heat-death of the sun would be a symbolic vision of the Big Bang, which is something that several writers have attempted. But where the end of the world naturally fits the prophetic mode, the beginning can perhaps best be represented as parody, as we see in Italo Calvino’s marvellous short story ‘All at one point’ (from Cosmicomics). ‘Naturally, we were all there’, Calvino’s narrator begins, ‘Where else could we have been?’. What follows is an all-too-human nostalgia exercise, the loss of a primal utopia of primitive communism (written, as it happens, by an ex-Communist). Other aspects of contemporary cosmological speculation apart from the Big Bang pose an enormous challenge to direct fictional observation, even of the symbolic kind. According to string theory, for example, the universe not only contains anti-matter and black holes but has ten dimensions, six of which cannot be observed. Its fundamental building-blocks are quanta which may be conceived as either matter or energy. Meanwhile, it seems that the best chance of finding traces of extraterrestrial life is not in outer space, but in tiny fragments of meteorite on the earth’s surface. Although men have been to the moon and landed a camera on Mars, and although some physicists now reckon that a time machine is theoretically possible, today’s universe apparently offers no more opportunity for physical exploration than the universe of 100 years ago. We can detect more of it, but we know far more about the difficulties of actually reaching it.

Scott Bukatman in his book Terminal Identity argues that the Space Age has given way to an Information Age in which technology has become largely invisible, and space has been interiorised. We think of the atomic nucleus as a kind of miniature solar system, while the invention of the microchip and the spread of personal computing have led to the notions of cyberspace and of microcosmic, invisible and virtual spaces. Nevertheless, we continue to model the informational universe on the physical universe. Not only was it an sf writer who invented the term cyberspace, but science fiction and computer journalism have invested very heavily in space-time metaphors, conferring on virtual space some of the sense of challenge and adventure formerly associated with outer space (just as outer space in its time was invested with the language of geographical exploration). Hence the ubiquitous ideas of the ‘net’ and the ‘superhighway’, and Bukatman’s pun on the word ‘terminal’, as in ‘Terminal Identity fictions’.

John Clute has written that ‘We no longer feel that we penetrate the future; futures penetrate us.’ Bukatman speaks of ‘our presence in the future’. The presence of the future has become a central paradox of postmodernist theory, as in Baudrillard’s essay entitled ‘The Year 2000 has already happened.’ It is not very enlightening to describe such pronouncements as metaphorical—more significant, perhaps, is that they seem to pivot unstably between the modes of prophecy and parody. The same might be said of the literary applications of chaos theory, which is described by its proponents as a new cosmology overturning the rigid assumptions of the thermodynamic and evolutionary spacetime continuum. Scientists see chaos as driving the universe towards a more complex kind of order, but at any particular time the world of nature is theorised as being like the British weather, ‘predictable in its very unpredictability.’ Speculative scientific developments such as chaos theory and string theory are described by John Horgan as ‘ironic science’—science which does not converge on the truth but which ‘resembles literary criticism or philosophy or theology in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, “interesting”, which provoke further comment.’ Ironic science must necessarily find its counterpart in ironic science fiction.

If sf must respond to the aspects of contemporary knowledge that I have all too superficially touched upon, it is also affected by its now entrenched status as an established, not a new, genre with a ready-made audience and an organised body of academic interpreters. If the more successful popular sf (and above all sf cinema) now inclines to irony rather than prophecy, it also apparently has no need to prophesy, being readily available as raw material for the production of a kind of criticism and theory which itself has prophetic pretensions. If the old sf writers were also futurologists, there is little need for today’s writers to double as cultural theorists, since literary critics will do the job for them. (Not only was cyberpunk instantly canonised, but if it had not existed cultural theory would surely have had to invent it, and some people have argued that cultural theory did invent it.) Popular sf no longer claims to be prophetic, but it feeds into the ‘SF of theory’ which does claim to speak prophetically or at least, with a parody of prophecy.

In The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells reminds us that ‘No one would have believed’ in the last years of the nineteenth century we were being watched by extraterrestrial intelligences: ‘And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.’ Since then we have had a century full of fictions of galactic imperialism, of colonies in space, and of meetings with (and massacres of) intelligent and interestingly-gendered extraterrestrials; but no one (I suggest) can take these fictions seriously any more. If science fiction is conceived as metaphor or as myth it does not matter too much if the same old stuff goes on pouring out, but for the fact of our great disillusionment. And early in the twenty-first century . . . ? Not, I hope, a new war of the worlds, but perhaps a new science fiction, prophetic or parodic, keeping one step ahead of the cultural theorists, exploring both mysteries and certainties?

Source: Patrick Parrinder, “Science Fiction: Metaphor, Myth or Prophecy?” in Science Fiction, Critical Frontiers, edited by Karen Sayer and John Moore, St. Martin’s Press, 2000, pp. 23–34.


Critical Overview