SCIENCE FICTION SCIENCE FICTION  Ambitious study of the history of the SF/Fantasy genres from a Humanistic perspective. In Six parts and with a Bibliography too. PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4 PART 5 PART 6   BIBLIOGRAPHY


'They say you don’t really appreciate Shakespeare until you have seen and heard it performed in the original Klingon', (a regular fan quotation  line from the 6th Star Trek movie) but eccentric extremists aside, just how seriously should Science Fiction be regarded as art and literature? Is it’s central generic theme not the very nature and possible future of the Human race? Reading University in the U.K. now offer an M.A. in Science Fiction studies. Is the genre finally gaining academic respect? Should it ever have lost respect in the first place? Surely a literature so concerned with the future of the human race deserves better attention from us? That is the issue at the heart of this ambitious essay. In this first chapter, I shall try to define the genre.

Many SF writers, Gene Rodenberry, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnigutt Jnr, etc, have directly declared themselves Humanists, and their work frequently reflects Humanist and humanitarian concerns.

Defining SF is difficult. To some, (the more cynical critics, rather than the fans) it's bug eyed monsters, or BEMs death rays and mad scientists, but precious little else. This ignores the fact that many SF works are academically recognised classics; Frankenstien, The War of The Worlds, Brave New World, 1984.

At its best, science fiction is highly speculative Fiction, taking current trends in scientific and philosophical thinking, to explore, in an allegorical and entertaining way, the future fate of humanity as a whole. It is usually at its worst when it tries deliberately to be prophetic, as H.G. Wells tried to do in his later, inferior SF genre works. SF shouldn't be read as Nostradamus is read.

Science fiction can be optimistic, or pessimistic; utopian, as with Aldous Huxley's Island, or often, and usually more successfully, in commercial terms dystopic, as with 1984, and its brutal observation, "If you want a picture of the future, think of a boot stamping on the human face - for ever".

As Brian Aldiss, perhaps the best sci-fi theorist writes;

"Science-fiction remains alive as the literature most suited to our progressing and doom-threatened century, the literature most free to take aboard new perspectives, new manifestations of the zeitgeist".

SF takes ideas developed in science, astronomy, physics, and the social sciences, philosophy, religion, and psychology, to speculate on the future implications of what night become of us; what will we evolve into? Will any aliens we visit in our spaceships of the future be friendly or hostile? What if they come to us?

In a future increasingly dominated by science, what will become of religion, and belief? SF explores the future of religions as a social force; rising and falling in numbers of converts, and power. Walter M. Miller's under-rated, haunting "A Canticle For Leibowitz' depicts a post nuclear war world where ,after the survivors have deliberately killed the intelligent people and proudly, barbarically declared themselves stupefied, the medieval monks who survive lovingly collect together libraries from what remains of the past. One monk spends fifteen years making an illuminated picture of a circuit diagram he has no comprehension of, only to lose it to looters later on. This is a pro religious work, as much about the need for knowledge as the survival of the Church in times of suffering.

Religion may also be presented as a test; a quest for God, a task to be performed before enlightenment is given or proved denied, or non-existent. Transcendence, or lack of it is a frequent motif in SF. The quantum Leaps in evolution depicted in 2001, A Space Odyssey show this aspect of religion. Walter M. Miller, C.S. Lewis, (a leading theologian), and Philip Jose Farmer, are among the few leading SF writers to adopt a pro-religious position. SF is much more often blasphemous towards religion; Kurt Vonnigutt depicts religions as cruel and conspirational hoaxes on humanity. In at least two stories; Michael Moorcock's Behold The Man, and Gore Vidal's Live From Golgotha, time travellers mess up the crucifixion story. Moorcock has his time-traveller discover Jesus is a retard being shamefully hidden from the people of Nazareth by his parents;

"The figure was misshapen. It had a pronounced hunched back, and a cast in its left eye. The face was vacant and foolish. There was a little spittle on the lips. 'Jesus?' It giggled as its name was repeated. It took a crooked lurching step forward. 'Jesus' it said. The word was slurred and thick. 'Jesus'. "That's all he can say' said the woman, 'He's always been like that'. 'God's Judgement' said Joseph".

Dismayed, the traveller takes on the identity of the guise of the Gospel Jesus and willingly gets crucified.

Vidal goes further, and tries to send live crucifixion footage to a modern TV audience, but turns Jesus Japanese in the process. Both works invoked outrage; Vidal was called The Antichrist by evangelist, Oral Roberts; but far from being insulted by the title, he now calls himself Gore Vidal, AC. (For Antichrist).

A common declaration in SF is that men create their own gods. SF is full of all powerful manufactured future entities that mankind loses control of. In the famous short story

'Answer' by Frederick Brown, a super computer is asked the ultimate question, is there a God? The computer replies '’Now there is a God". Douglas Adams also asks a computer, Deep Thought, in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, for the answer to life, the Universe and Everything; the answer given is simply; ‘forty-two’, but Deep Thought has miscalculated. Adams, as well as introducing an electronic prayer monk who thinks the universe is pink, makes many digs at God; One race he created believes The Universe was sneezed into being by the Great Green Arklesieziure; this race fears the coning time of the great white handkerchief.

A rare few actual scientists have written SF. Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan, and Arthur C Clarke are among them. Isaac Asimov wrote many books on popular science and culture that are as respected as any of his SF works. Nevertheless, no science fiction book should be looked on as a physics text book. SF is entertainment first and foremost. Fantasy Fiction, or science fiction without hardware, technology and robotics, often simply replaces scientists with wizards; and magicians; robots with dragons; spaceships with flying horses.

At it’s best Fantasy Fiction gives us a whole panoramic epic myth comparable to anything produced by Homer or Virgil, though there are many writers in the genre who are not equals of Tolkien, Raymond Feist or David Eddings. There are bad fantasies, just as there is a lot of awful Science Fiction (Read Jose Farmer’s Jesus On Mars or any science-fictional work by L. Ron Hubbard for examples of the worst the genre has to offer.)

Fantasy fiction is not in any way inferior to Science Fiction, or Speculative Fiction, as it may often be referred to. In fact it shows great social scientific skill and cultural wisdom to wield archetypal images of wizards, witches, and demons convincingly. Though there are purists who read one to the exclusion of the other, I see little difference between the social and moral aims behind Science Fiction and Science Fantasy. Many people dismiss poor SF works as mere fantasies, and too technical works as Science Fiction. SF is often used as a term of abuse even within the overall genre.

Then there is Hard SF and soft SF. Hard SF writers go into great technical detail about their spaceship propulsion drives, and in effect, try to make the details as feasible, plausible, and realistic as possible. Their aim is to effectively leave the reader with a feeling that their machinery could actually be built one day. Soft SF writers will simply use a spaceship as a means of going from one planet to the next adventure, and describe the apparatus merely when necessary to the tale being told. Hard SF runs into the danger of lacking narrative and character as the long descriptions of some new form of energy-mater converter take over the author’s imagination. SF is at its best when it is focused on character, and social study, rather than techno-babble.

Science fiction writers are often proud of their art and puritanically prefer not to dabble in other forms of writing. The best are just as capable of any kind of writing. Wells is just as well known for writing Kipps, as he is for The War Of The Worlds, of course. Kurt Vonnigutt simply states that he writes fiction. He refuses to be seen as an SF writer, He sees his work as literature which just happens to have some technology references. Iain M. Banks is noted for writing none SF works as Iain Banks, and only adding his middle name initial in his SF works. He likes to think he has two separate audiences. At SF conventions, his fans are invariably as interested in his general fiction, such as The Wasp Factory and Whit, as they are in his SF, while many academic, snobbish literary critics gloss over his equally polished and accomplished SF works, such as Excession, and Consider Phlebas.

Bad SF is swamped with cliched multi-headed aliens and technological gadgetry at the expense of simple human story telling, making it inaccessible. Readers still have to relate to the ideas SF presents us with. In all its alien landscapes, multi-sunned worlds, journeys to he centre of the Earth, and fantastic voyages in the bloodstream in shrunken submarines, SF is at its best when telling us about ourselves; our world, here and now, even if describing a world millions of light years away, where everyone has five heads.

Harsh critics Say SF puts old stories in new settings. The film Star Wars has been called a space western, replacing Indians with Tie-fighter space pilots. In fact it's a perfect fusion of several existing genres; there's a love story of the commoner and the princess, a battle against the wicked step father figure, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker's Father; there is the religious Mysticism of the Jedi beliefs concerning 'The Force', a holistic energy linking all things, living and dead, that Jedi's tap into. (Jedi Trainer, Yoda, is modelled very closely on The Buddha). It is a war film, with its epic space dogfight battles. Star Wars is SF at its cinematic best, fusing Fantasy and Science fiction in a terrific blending, so we get traditional fairy tale as well as technically futuristic, open to wide interpretations, and possibilities. It works first and foremost, however, because we care about the people involved.

The first rule of writing (irrespective of genre) is to write about your own personal experiences. This may seem impossible in SF, as no SF writer has been to Jupiter, or fought a dragon, but SF writers do draw heavily upon personal experiences. Kurt Vonnigutt drew heavily upon the fact that he witnessed the wartime bombing of Dresden by the allied forces. Arthur C. Clarke had the benefit of working for NASA. Stephen Donaldson created fantasy hero Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever after witnessing work in leper colonies (The hero of the novels is a leper).

Writers of SF are no different to writers in other mediums of expression. They ask where we came from, and what will become of us. SF writers know the joys of love and the pain of separation and loss, and grief. They use that in asking the most directly challenging, and philosophically important questions of all, concerning the nature and meaning of what it is to be a human life form, and what that means for our future generations. So, where does SF gain its insight into the nature, essence and possible future fate of the human race? For that, we must trace the genre back to its origins.

 © Copyright. Arthur Chappell