Essays and Criticism
The Similarities and Differences Among Science Fiction and Fantasy Works
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 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...
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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...
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Science Fiction: Metaphor, Myth or Prophecy
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...
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