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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

A HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION 

CHAPTER FOUR ASTOUNDING TALES - THE GIANTS EMERGE.

The situation was improved somewhat when Hugo Gernsback (the first man to coin and use the expression ‘Science Fiction’) started publishing the famous pulp magazine Amazing Stories in 1926, followed by Astounding in 1930. The ‘golden era’ of the genre was almost upon us. Astounding alone was the starting block for the household names of SF; Clarke, Asimov, E.E. Doc. Smith, and regrettably, L. Ron Hubbard. etc. Space permits only a limited study of the most (and occassionally the least) humanistic works.

The problem with the pulp magazines was that they were afraid to be radical and controversial. They actually set limits on the genre that most enabled writers to explore the boundaries of the imagination. They actually stifled, and even crippled their own genre. In a market where challenging religious beliefs was now largely taboo; only what Brian Aldiss calls ‘Shaggy God stories’ came through the taboo; the Adam And Eve in space clichés, where the last survivors of a nuclear war, or the first arrivals on a new world; one man, one woman, find themselves in Eden, with or without serpent depending on the writer's mood.

So when a quality, radical, blasphemous novel like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World cane out, in 1932 with its views on genetic manipulation, controlled levels of intelligence, our ability to choose the sex of our as yet unborn children, the Soma Drug that keeps us happy, etc, the critics forgot to class it as Science Fiction at all. Here is a world where our class is defined from birth. We are bred to be workers or bourgeois; and we don't resent the other half of society. This is a mock utopia; the people there are genuinely happy with their lot. Only we are shocked by the mink-lined prison beneath the luxury. When an outsider comes in, the savage; challenging, doubting, questioning and rejecting their controlled life for raw humanity; we applaud. John Savage rejects their God of science and social marvel; ‘Oh Ford!’ they pray, after Henry Ford; and sometimes they swear, ‘Oh Freud!’ Savage asks their leader, Mustapha Mond about God. Mond observes that in this ideal society, there is no need for faith. "Religious Sentiment will compensate us for our losses", says Savage. "But there aren't any losses for us to compensate" says Mond, "Religious sentiment is superfluous". "Then you think there is no God?" asks Savage. "l think there quite probably is one", says Mond, to Savage's surprise. "How does he manifest himself?" asks Savage. Mond replies; "But he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren't there at all."

Post War SF took on a new and darker edge. Increasing awareness of the human capacity for atrocity was inevitably pushing SF towards a more intense form of pessimism, but it was the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that really made SF writers concerned about our future.

Many novels came out in the late 40’s and throughout the 1950’s depicting the end of the world through human folly. The best of these remains Neville Shute’s On The Beach, in which Australians face up to the fact that a war between America and Russia has left radiation cloud sweeping the globe, and that they have weeks to survive before it claims their lives too, even though they had no involvement in the war. The story deals with how humans face the inevitability of extinction.

Many films and books came out depicting the potential horrors of radiation based genetic mutations, or our atomic blasts unleashing long dormant horrors upon the world. Godzilla is first awoken by a nuclear explosion. many other monsters would follow.

Generally, SF was now depicting a scientific community that could no longer be trusted. There were more Strangeglove scientists than Professor Quatermass style boffins. The world was usually at the mercy of science gone wrong.

Isaac Asimov, was a scientific commentator, a major SF writer; and a card carrying Humanist. His Three laws of robotics are very humanistic. They have been taken up by real life robotics engineers. The laws are;

1/. No robot can injure a human being, or through inaction, cause human beings to come to any harm 2/. Robots must obey orders given by human beings except where such orders conflict with the first law. 3/. Robots must protect their own existence, unless this protective behaviour conflicts with the first two laws. '

Some of Asimov's stories are very moving; in All The Troubles Of The World, a computer agony aunt called Multivac manipulates a young boy into switching it off. It wants to die it says. Its task of grasping human tragedy and despair provokes its own suicidal depression. Asimov proved that stories about robots can be imaginative even without having them killing scores of people. His robots have wisdom programmed into them; we have to learn our humanity the hard way. Ye can't be programmed to do moral right, We should envy Asimov's robots.

Asimov's ambitious Foundation novels (the first, Foundation, appearing in 1951) present a whole future history, spanning thousands of years It takes up the idea of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and applies then to a future space federation, staving off gradual decline towards barbarism. His work is full of wonderful assertions about crimes against humanity; "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent" he said in Foundation.

Asimov often saw humanity as no more advanced in the computer/robotics age than we were in prehistoric times. The Caves Of Steel (1954) takes its title from the idea that futuristic city dwellings are just a new kind of cave, and that we are every bit as savage as we imagine our cave-dwelling Neanderthal forbears were.

In Fantastic Voyage (1966) Asimov tells of a journey into inner space when a team of medics are shrunk and sent on a voyage through a human patient in order to perform delicate micro-surgery from within.

Asimov not only wrote some of the best imaginative SF, but also many excellent articles and books on science, culture, art, religion, and psychology.

Many pulp magazines included scientific articles in between the SF stories. Einstein was a keen subscriber to many such journals. Asimov wrote a staggering 329 science essays for Fantasy And Science Fiction magazine alone. Many readers of the science articles, and even the fiction itself have gone on to take a career interest in science as a result.

Asimov was unusually cheerful, and often comical as an SF writer. Many works seemed to undermine and upset our sense of value and meaning. The post war years were a time of social uncertainty strongly reflected in SF. Invaders from other worlds became pitiless and inhumane, generally simply attacking Earth for the sake of it, or for no more reason than that they could. The Day The Earth Stood Still stands out for depicting an alien coming not to conquer us, but to warn us against the folly of our nuclear arms race. While we are in danger of blowing ourselves up, the Galactic federations have no concern for us, we are warned, but unless we stop using nuclear power so destructively before we head out to the stars, we risk annihilation form other worlds who would not wish to face any such radioactive pollution on their worlds. With that prophetic warning, the alien leaves.

Cold War paranoia and anti-communism were used as a basis for the extraordinary movie, The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in which people begin to suspect relatives, lovers and friends are no longer all they appear to be, even though to all intents and purposes they remain the same people. That they have been replaced by alien carbon copies who lack human warmth and emotion is the key. This raises the question of what makes us human, our bodies and our personalities, or our feelings and our compassion for others. SF, more than any other medium challenges the whole concept of the nature of humanity.

© Copyright. Arthur Chappell           

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