quarta-feira, 27 de agosto de 2014

A Short History of the Future by Paul k. Alkon

Everything must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase; and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindus give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise.

Mary Shelley, "Author's Introduction" to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

Definitions and Aesthetics of Science Fiction

Science fiction starts with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Its first critic was Percy Shelley. For his wife he wrote a preface that (as she explains in her 1831 introduction) was printed in the 1818 edition as though it were by her. If this ventriloquism betrays some hesitancy in launching a new kind of tale, Frankenstein itself displays such confident mastery that for almost two cen­turies it has rewarded the attention of readers and inspired writ­ers in a genre largely devoted to variations on its theme of the uses and abuses of science. Frankenstein's 1818 preface distin­guishes between its scientific plot and the more familiar action of Gothic fiction: "I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment."1 There is no mistaking the dis­missive tone of these references to "mere" stories of ghosts or magic. By printing this statement as her own, Mary Shelley endorsed what Percy Shelley understood: that Frankenstein's claim to originality is its rejection of the supernatural. Science fic­tion can only exist when it is possible to distinguish in this way between natural and supernatural as realms that very differently create "the interest of the story."

Paradoxically, however, neither Frankenstein's 1818 preface nor its 1831 introduction by Mary Shelley renounces the goal of inducing "terrors." Quite the contrary. Terror remains a desirable effect. It is only supernatural terrors that are to be avoided. Readers are to be frightened by natural means involving science. In suggesting that fear can be achieved by a new kind of plot, Frankenstein's preface and introduction stress both its claim to novelty and its affiliation to accepted Gothic forms subsumed under the label "ghost story." Although this identifies precursors, the affiliation is more than a matter of ancestry.

The affinities of science fiction and Gothic literature also reveal a common quest for those varieties of pleasing terror induced by awe-inspiring events or settings that Edmund Burke and other eighteenth-century critics called the sublime. A loom­ing problem for writers in the nineteenth century was how to achieve sublimity without recourse to the supernatural. In 1819 John Keats famously complained in Lamia that science was emp­tying the haunted air. The supernatural marvels that had been a staple of epic and lesser forms from Homeric times would no longer do as the best sources of sublimity. Although ghost stories and related Gothic fantasies were to prove surprisingly viable right through the twentieth century, perhaps because they offer respite from the omnipresence of technology, writers sought new forms that could better accommodate the impact of science. Epics were displaced by realistic novels of quotidian life. By 1800 even William Wordsworth could imagine a time when "the remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet's art as any upon which it can be employed."2 Only sixteen years after Frankenstein, Félix Bodin argued for the importance of futuristic fiction, works set in future time, for which he invented the term littérature futuriste in his brilliantly prophetic 1834 novel-cum- manifesto, Le Roman de l'avenir (The novel of the future).

Bodin eloquently urges writers to turn away from the past and present, and also from boring utopias, to find plots combin­ing interesting novelistic action with realistic visions of future social and technological possibilities such as aerial warfare and undersea voyages. He predicts that such works will become the epics of the future by finding new sources of the marvelous that are altogether credible, unlike the gods and other supernatural marvels in classical epics. Thus futuristic fiction alone, Bodin sug­gests, can appeal to our hunger for the marvelous while also remaining within the bounds of verisimilitude in a scientific age, thereby providing an artistically satisfying vehicle for rational speculation.3 He links the aesthetic issue of imaginative appeal with the moral question of how people may be aroused from indifference to their own futures. Bodin's 1834 manifesto articu­lating a poetics of futuristic fiction did more than anticipate tech­niques that have become one hallmark of science fiction. Underlying his advocacy of the future as a significant new arena for human imagination is an interest as keen as Mary Shelley's in finding new sources of the marvelous that will allow literature to retain its emotional power without turning away from science.

Science fiction ever since has been concerned as often to elicit strong emotional responses as to maintain a rational basis for its plots. Far from being mutually exclusive, the two aims can rein­force each other, as they do in Frankenstein and in Mary Shelley's own futuristic novel published in 1826, The Last Man, which describes a terrifying twenty-first-century plague that destroys the human race. The balance may shift along a spectrum from emphasis on ideas, technology, or alien encounters to emphasis on their emotional consequences. At the rational end of the spec­trum are novels like Hal Clement's classic Mission of Gravity (1954), which avoids depicting or eliciting emotion in favor of concentrating on the technical problems of human-alien relation­ships on a high-gravity planet with life forms based on a chem­istry different from our own and evolving culturally toward a society that can use scientific method. Works like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (1961) depict and surely aim to arouse strong emotions, among them fear, while also providing a scientific plot framework that raises philosophi­cal issues of creation and human identity very much in the tradi­tion of Frankenstein (1818). Films like the Aliens trilogy (1979, 1986,1992) retain a scientific framework of futuristic space travel that keeps them within the boundaries of science fiction while tipping the balance toward effects of Gothic terror: instead of evil spirits, malignant aliens must be exorcised. With so many works at this end of the spectrum it is no wonder that some critics invoke Frankenstein mainly for the procrustean purpose of identi­fying all science fiction as little more than a variant of the Gothic mode with spaceships and horrifying aliens substituted for the creepy old haunted castles favored by Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, and their successors to and beyond Stephen King in the line of pure Gothic.

But Mary Shelley achieved far more than a variation on well- known themes. She and Percy Shelley were right to deny so emphatically any equation of her novel and the "mere" ghost stories that served as one but only one inspiration for it. Frankenstein's preface and introduction provide accounts of that famous rainy summer of 1816 near Geneva when she, Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Lord Byron amused themselves by reading ghost stories and then accepted Byron's challenge to try their own hands at this form. Of the four who thus started in emulation of supernatural tales, only Mary Shelley finished a narrative, although she deviated from her literary models because science too caught her imagination. Reminiscing about that summer in the 1831 introduction, she tells of trying to imag­ine "a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart" (Frankenstein, ix). She also recounts listening to a conversa­tion about Erasmus Darwin's biological experiments, about gal­vanism, and about possible ways of creating life by reanimating a corpse or else manufacturing "component parts of a creature" that might somehow be endowed with vitality. Not surprisingly, there followed a vivid nightmare of just such a creature contem­plated by its "horror-stricken" creator. From this dream Mary Shelley says she woke "in terror" with "a thrill of fear" that soon gave way to realization that here at last was the starting point for a tale that could frighten others just as she herself was fright­ened: "I began that day with the words [now opening chapter 5 of Frankenstein] ' It was on a dreary night of November/ making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream" (Frankenstein, xi). For Mary Shelley it is the dream of science, not the sleep of reason, that produces monsters. The imaginative genesis of Frankenstein, as of so much science fiction, is thus in the transition from contemplation of scientific possibilities to writing a story that preserves something like the effects of a dis­turbing dream, while grounding those effects in plots that do not depend on supernatural events.

Neither, however, do such plots necessarily command belief even as possibilities, much less as probabilities. Frankenstein's 1818 preface confronts the inescapable illogic often necessary to justify science fiction's solution (or evasion) of the difficult prob­lem of achieving adequate verisimilitude. Percy Shelley starts by insisting that the artificial creation of life central to Frankenstein is not impossible according to "Dr. Darwin and some of the physio­logical writers of Germany." Here is the fundamental gambit of all science fiction: appeal to the speculations of real scientists as an impeccable source of what follows in the fictional narrative. The very next sentence, however, warns readers not to suppose that the author gives "the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination." What saves this startling about-face from simply undermining the tale altogether is the ensuing observa­tion that a plot based on Victor Frankenstein's animation of the monster "however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordi­nary relations of existing events can yield" (Frankenstein, xiii). Percy Shelley realized that the key issue for Mary Shelley's new kind of tale is not whether its scientific premise is believable—it was not—but whether a story based on such a premise can achieve a valuable "point of view to the imagination." The role of science in Frankenstein, as in so much subsequent science fiction, is not so much to consider scientific realities as to afford a unique vantage point for contemplation of the human condition.

We may now accept this slippery proposition more easily thanks to our familiarity with tales of time travel, faster-than- light spaceships, antigravity devices, and similar impossibilities that have become established science fiction conventions. The genre's grand paradox, clearly articulated in the preface to Frankenstein, is that while a scientific premise is important, belief in its possibility is not. The science in science fiction may but does not have to be its main concern or even its claim to verisimilitude. Allusion to science more often, as in Frankenstein, serves a crucial enabling role: it allows for perspectives not other­wise attainable. This is the great leap away from Gothic.

Why science can allow perspectives not duplicated by tales of the supernatural based on elves, ghosts, magic, or the like, is a question that I shall for the moment defer as resolutely as Percy Shelley avoids it in the preface to Frankenstein. Here I will only remark that this question has become more insistent in the latter part of the twentieth century as science fiction once more con­verges on the forms of supernatural tale from which Mary Shelley dissociated it. The differences between science fiction and fantasy, though clear at either extreme, are becoming increasingly blurred at the boundaries. This recombining of gen­res is partly a consequence of post-Hiroshima disillusionment with the products of science and rationalism. As we retreat from Enlightenment certainties, our genres too lose their clarity. A more fundamental cause is twentieth-century acceleration of sci­entific innovation, which validates Arthur Clarke's dictum that to outsiders—and with respect to real science most of us are out­siders—a sufficiently advanced technology would be indistin­guishable from magic. This aphorism has in turn gained rele­vance from the blurring within late-twentieth-century science fiction of the boundaries between natural and supernatural, as, for example, in the voodoo and other godlike entities that haunt the cyberspace of William Gibson's Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.4 What matters for the early history of sci­ence fiction is Mary Shelley's realization and Percy Shelley's endorsement of the notion, however paradoxical, that valuable new perspectives can be achieved by recourse to science even if it is incredible science.

One hundred and fifteen years after the publication of Frankenstein that notion was endorsed too by H. G. Wells remi­niscing in a preface to the 1933 edition of his early scientific romances. After characterizing the tales of Jules Verne as deal­ing "almost always with actual possibilities of invention and dis­covery," Wells remarks that his own stories, unlike Verne's, "do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream."5 Here again is the idea of striving for the vividness of a dream by means of an apparently scientific premise. Frank­enstein is among the works that Wells retrospectively classifies in this preface as like his own. Jules Verne toward the end of his career was equally careful to distinguish his technique from that of H. G. Wells. Interviewed in 1903, two years before his death, Verne remarked of Wells, "We do not proceed in the same man­ner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on very scien­tific bases. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon­ball, discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ca c'est très joli . . . but show me this metal. Let him produce it."6 Verne makes a valid distinction here despite his apparent confusion of Wells's The First Men in the Moon with a story about travel to Mars. Wells and Verne were right to disclaim identity of method although Verne, for reasons that I discuss in chapter 3, does himself less than justice in claiming for his stories no more than the virtues of scientific accuracy according to the science of his day. Nor, for that matter, did Wells do his attention to science full justice in the self-deprecatory mood of his preface to the 1933 edition of his youthful science fiction tales, although he was right to call them "romances" and distinguish them from Verne's oeuvre in the matter of scientific precision. Verne in his way, no less than Wells and Mary Shelley in theirs, uses science as a springboard to creation of powerful myths allowing novel points of view to the imagination.

Science fiction might indeed be defined as the narrative use of science to create myths allowing novel points of view to the imag­ination—adding, to be sure, the caveat that such a definition is normative rather than descriptive since not all science fiction suc­ceeds in creating such myths, much less in creating myths so powerful as those established by the genre's masterpieces from Frankenstein through Nineteen Eighty-Four and beyond. But even thus qualified, this definition neither covers all works commonly termed science fiction nor does it suggest all the aesthetic consid­erations necessary for understanding as well as judging their artistry. Nor do any other definitions so far proposed.

The term science fiction was coined in an obscure 1851 text, William Wilson's A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject, and then forgotten. The phrase gained currency only after Hugo Gernsback reinvented it in 1929 to replace his less graceful neolo­gism "scientifiction" as a description for the project of Amazing Stories, the magazine he founded in 1926. Its announced aim was to stimulate fiction that would continue what Gernsback saw as the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. Gernsback's success in largely creating as well as naming the twentieth-century pulp realm of science fiction is legendary, as is the subsequent growth of that form outside its early confines. But there is still no consensus on how to define the genre despite—or more likely because of—its twentieth-century prolif­eration. One must live on some other planet to escape close encounters with avatars of science fiction widely recognized as such, definition or no definition.

From literature the genre has expanded into movies, televi­sion, comic strips, advertising, and other aspects of contempo­rary life. Common habits of thinking have become science fictional because the borderline between art and reality blurs as we confront a world that so often reminds us of science fiction. We contemplate its echoes in images of real space travel while sitting before our television screens watching shuttles take off and land or while turning over the old albums showing pho­tographs of our astronauts visiting the moon. We try to cope with proliferation of high-tech weaponry that threatens to anni­hilate our planet while seeming to future-shocked sensibilities like an importation from films like Star Wars, after which some of the weapon systems are named. Warnings of ecological disasters ahead remind us of doomsday novels in the tradition of The Last Man. Upon finishing books like Neuromancer that teem with futuristic cyborgs, we may read a sober estimate that as of 1990 "about 10 percent of the U.S. population are cyborgs, including people who have electronic pacemakers, artificial joints, pros­thetic limbs, and artificial skin."7 We favor such architecture as the Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel that can serve equally as an exterior setting of "New Chicago" for a recent television series called "Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century" and as Fredric

Jameson's prime illustration of the postmodern space that we increasingly inhabit in the late twentieth century.8 Vehicle names take us back and forth from the real world to science fiction as we contemplate warships named Enterprise, Star Trek's space­ship of that name, and the American space shuttle Enterprise. Less than a century after Jules Verne honored Robert Fulton's 1801 submersible Nautilus by giving its name in 1870 to Captain Nemo's submarine, the U.S. Navy paid splendid homage to Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as well as to Fulton's ship by naming our first nuclear-powered submarine the USS Nautilus in 1955. Conflation of present objects with sci­ence fiction's iconography of the future creates the sensation of life as science fiction. Such allusive interchanges reveal a twentieth-century mentality in which a broadly conceived notion of science fiction is among our fixed mental reference points. The polysemy of the term science fiction, reflected in the inability of critics to arrive at agreement on any one definition, is a measure of science fiction's complex significance for our times.

Inevitably, then, our view of science fiction's past is colored by awareness of its many present roles in and outside of literature. So are the competing definitions. Their disparity reflects the impossibility of neatly accounting for everything science fiction, in its widest sense, now does to shape our worldview. Their dis­parity also reflects difficulties in describing a genre that was hardly consolidated when its material transcended the written word. Without falling into the teleological fallacy of seeing everything in the past as leading only to ourselves and our pre­occupations of the moment, any history of science fiction must consider not only the emergence of its prototypes as they were regarded by their authors and contemporaries, but also those reciprocal relationships by which later developments forever change our view of earlier works. Frankenstein exemplifies this process. Widening agreement that it is science fiction's beginning place reflects increasing awareness after 1945 that in it Mary Shelley embodied what now seems the central myth for an age wherein the unparalleled creativity of science threatens the world with unprecedented disasters. Victor Frankenstein's dan­gerous monster turning on its creator has become the twentieth century's archetypal emblem. When Hiroshima was destroyed, Frankenstein irrevocably became science fiction.

Of course in calling Frankenstein science fiction, as Mark Rose observes, "we are retroactively recomposing that text under the influence of a generic idea that did not come into being until well after it was written."9 This procedure is common (though not always remarked) in the history of literary genres. Plato's Republic, for example, is seen as a forerunner of utopian forms because we regard it today in the light of all those speculative fictions closely or distantly modeled on Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516). Such realignment depends on "conceiving genre as a social phenome­non, as a set of expectations rather than as something that resides within a text" (Rose, 5). Thus defined, genre is constituted by read­ing conventions that allow or compel attention to focus on a set of textual features which thereby acquire special prominence—and perhaps special consequences—for particular readers. A compli­cated text may offer several generic options that are not mutually exclusive. Accordingly it can play a role in the history of more than one genre, as Frankenstein certainly does no less than many other texts I discuss in this book, although I am concerned here only with their role as science fiction.

Among the most useful definitions of science fiction are those which take into account the new ways of reading it has fostered. Samuel Delany argues that science fiction is distinctive by virtue of the degree to which it focuses attention on disparities between our universe—of discourse no less than of daily life—and that evoked by a narrative: "with each sentence we have to ask what in the world of the tale would have to be different from our world for such a sentence to be uttered-—and thus, as the sen­tences build up, we build up a world in specific dialogue, in a specific tension, with our present concept of the real."10 This is a way of reading much encouraged by science fiction. But every form of fantasy, allegory, utopia, and satire, after all, is in some kind of dialogue with our notions of reality. To specify essential differences between these forms and science fiction—with which they may coexist in the same work—Darko Suvin has argued influentially for taking science fiction as the literature of cogni­tive estrangement.

By this, Suvin means literature that not only defamiliarizes aspects of the ordinary world that we inhabit, but that does so in ways inviting awareness (cognition) of the principles governing those features of life that we are invited to regard as unfamiliar— as though we were, perhaps, alien anthropologists visiting this planet to study it, taking nothing for granted beforehand. Cognition is involved whenever the defamiliarized subject is understood on a more rational basis as a contingent phenome­non whose conditions, if known, may be subject to control or even alteration rather than simply unquestioning acceptance. Suvin's example, borrowed from Bertolt Brecht, is Galileo's abili­ty to look at a swinging chandelier with sufficient detachment to see its movement as strange enough to require an explanation, which he then provided in stating the laws governing pendulum motion. Awareness of these laws, in turn, allows a measure of control over such motion and application of it to new purposes. Suvin concludes that science fiction is "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interac­tion of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment."11

By stressing cognition as a consequence for readers of narrative defamiliarization achieved via depiction of an alternative envi­ronment, Suvin's definition of science fiction distinguishes between it and such forms as myth, folk tale, and fantasy that neither so insistently call into question our sense of the world as it is nor by doing so invite readers to adopt a critical outlook with strong affinities to scientific method. As this definition implies, and as Mary Shelley clearly intuited in turning to science and not the supernatural as a basis for Frankenstein's plot, it is invocation of a rational worldview implied by affinities with the scientific method that allows science fiction, even when based on incredi­ble science, to serve purposes distinct from those of more tradi­tional fantasy. The question that Percy Shelley avoided in Frankenstein's 1818 preface and that I deferred is thus answered. This definition allows for continuities with related forms that may approach science fictional effects. It too is a normative rather than merely descriptive definition, since most science fic­tion fails to elicit radical new understanding of our own world. As in other genres, only the best work fully realizes the form's potentialities. The virtue of definitions like those proposed by Delany and Suvin is their emphasis on the interaction of readers and texts rather than on theme and technique as the primary ele­ments of genre.

To focus on content, usually with emphasis on how promi­nently science (or what looks likes science or was once taken for science) figures as a theme is to cast a very wide net that usually retrieves more bits and pieces than whole works and that lumps together very different specimens. The best of such definitions is Pierre Versins's concept of science fiction as the novelistic litera­ture of rational conjecture. This notion allowed Versins to under­take a magnificent feat of book collection and bibliographical organization that led first to his indispensable Encyclopédie de l'Utopie, des voyages extraordinaires, et de la science fiction (Encyclopedia of utopias, extraordinary voyages, and science fic­tion), then to establishment in 1976 of the Maison d'Ailleurs (House of Elsewhere): a science fiction museum at Yverdon-les- Bains, Switzerland, which now houses the original Versins col­lection of some twenty-five thousand volumes, adds to it, hosts conferences, and provides researchers with Europe's most exten­sive library of early science fiction and related literature. Whatever lacks an element of rational conjecture is ruled out of this enterprise, which thus excludes most but not all outright fantasy—depending on how rigorously one defines what is rational. The chief virtue of this definition is inclusiveness, as witness the size of the Versins collection and the corresponding scope of his encyclopedia. Both are treasure troves for those con­cerned with various more narrowly defined genres, especially utopias and imaginary voyages, that have contributed to the rise of science fiction. But to accept every narrative with some ele­ment of rational conjecture as science fiction is to acknowledge its larger cultural role while clouding awareness of its distinct lit­erary identity and its ways of incorporating related forms. This Versins understood very well. In the introduction to his Encyclopédie he concedes that "novelistic rational conjecture is a point of view on the universe, including mankind, and neither a genre nor a form."12 But to write a history of conjecture about the universe, even if confined to novelistic conjecture, would be a formidable task.

Greater attention to science fictional modes of reading rather than textual themes results in sharper focus on distinctive gener­ic features, more attention to the aesthetics of entire works, and establishment of a manageable canon. A case in point is Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Its affinities with science fiction have long been acknowledged. But there is disagreement on the nature of those affinities. Some propose it as no more than an honorable ancestor, listed mainly to provide the family tree with an air of respectability. Others agree with Darko Suvin's sugges­tion that Gulliver's Travels, not Frankenstein, is science fiction's very archetype.

For those who define science fiction mainly in terms of how far scientific concepts explicitly enter its subject matter, Gulliver's voyages to Lilliput (the land of little people) and to Brobdingnag (the land of giants) are adventure-fantasy no matter how much they may have been inspired by invention of the microscope and telescope. Swift's consistently presented details of size relation­ships in the first two voyages merely foreshadow the techniques of science fiction in portraying alien environments with verisimilitude. Gulliver's third voyage is science fiction, but only while he is on the magnetically controlled Flying Island of Laputa, in Lagado at the Grand Academy with its mad scientists, and among the long-lived Struldbruggs. The fourth voyage with its account of the land of rational horses is a variety of utopia. In this view, Gulliver's Travels as a whole lacks generic unity but is no worse for that. Insofar as it is science fiction it is deplorable for the very cleverness of its attack on science, but no more deplorable than any other kind of antiscientific rhetoric. Swift gets credit—from Isaac Asimov, among others—for being the first English writer of true science fiction but is found reprehensi­ble for his hostility to science and his lack of faith in the idea of progress.13 Partly on account of taking these negative attitudes as a rhetorical stance, the third voyage, despite its virtues as pio­neering science fiction, seems the weakest. Swift remains the foremost English satirist, but Gulliver's Travels is relegated to the remote past of science fiction.

For those who define science fiction in terms of reader response, Swift is our contemporary. The eighteenth century is in active dialogue with the twentieth century. In Gulliver's Travels, Suvin eloquently insists, "Swift created the great model for all subsequent SF. It is a wise interweaving of utopias taking on anti-utopian functions and anti-utopias as allies of utopi­anism: of satire using scientific language and technological extrapolation as a grotesque; of adventures in SF countries, artifi­cial satellites and aliens, immortals and monsters, all signifying England and the gentle reader. All the later protagonists of SF, gradually piecing together their strange locales, are sons of Gulliver, and all their more or less cognitive adventures the con­tinuation of his Travels" (Suvin, 113). In this view Gulliver's Travels becomes a unified work with all of its components— imaginary voyage, utopia, anti-utopia, fantasy, and satire—sub­ordinated as parts of a coherent whole because amid their vari­ous purposes they all help sustain cognitive estrangement. Other effects may predominate locally. But Gulliver's Travels propels readers through varying degrees of strangeness and correspond­ing arousal of cognitive estrangement to an appropriate climax (not simply a conundrum for critics) in the fourth part.

Gulliver's last voyage, rather than the third voyage, becomes the most powerful science fiction in Gulliver's Travels because, of all the creatures Gulliver encounters, the Houyhnhnms are the most genuinely alien—the most shockingly different. Neither in their shape, their mentality, nor their social forms do they recall humans, that is to say, our world—as do the Lilliputians, the Brobdingnagians, and even the mad scientists of Laputa and Lagado. The Houyhnhnms are truly other. Their appearance, their well-ordered society, their honesty, and above all their refusal to love or hate as we do drives Gulliver mad—and too often drives critics in the same direction by their endless dispute over Swift's intentions. When Gulliver's Travels is taken as science fiction there is no need to enter that hopeless debate. Rather than asking the unanswerable question of whether Swift intended readers to accept the Houyhnhnms as Gulliver does for a model in all things, we may take the evident difficulty of doing so—we can hardly become talking horses devoid of emotion—as a mea­sure of Swift's success in making readers look at humanity from a radically estranged perspective. For any thinking person that perspective in turn is an invitation to assess the springs of human behavior instead of just taking note of the myriad forms of human folly satirized en route to Gulliver's final lodging in the stable where he prefers to live among his horses rather than with his wife and family. Heightened awareness by contrast with the Houyhnhnms of what we are, rather than identification of any explicit utopian proposal from Swift of what to do about our shortcomings, can be taken as a satisfactory outcome of reading Gulliver's Travels.

While there have been other critical routes to a similar conclu­sion, looking back to see Gulliver's Travels as a pioneer in the literature of cognitive estrangement allows specification not merely of its satiric targets but of its continuing vitality as a pro­totype for science fiction that invites consideration of why as well as how human society so often goes wrong. But this is also true of Frankenstein despite its narrower range of topics. Whatever the starting point of science fiction, social criticism has been a prominent feature of the genre. A key difference between Gulliver's Travels and Frankenstein is the centrality—for readers as well as within the plot—of Mary Shelley's allusion to science, symbolized by Victor Frankenstein's creation of artificial life. Although it enriches our understanding of relationships between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries to appropriate Gulliver's Travels for science fiction thanks to its alien encounters that induce an estranged reconsideration of ourselves, recent history has even more fully underscored the significance and mythic force of Frankenstein's focus on science.

Contexts and Precursors

The scientific experiments that led to Mary Shelley's creative nightmare, and thence to science fiction, were among new devel­opments that were altering the conditions of human life more drastically, and above all more rapidly, than ever before. A cente­narian born in the year of Frankenstein's publication to a world of sailboats, balloons, horse-drawn carriages, slow experimental locomotives and steamships, semaphore signals, stage shows, and mesmerism would have departed a planet amused by cine­ma, treated for its worries by psychoanalysis, divided by a world war of unprecedented ferocity, and linked by an intricate net­work of fast steamships, railroads, airplanes, telephones, telegraphs, transatlantic cables, and radios. When H. G. Wells took stock and tried to forecast twentieth-century developments in his 1901 opus Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, he concluded that the most conspicuous feature of all history prior to the nine­teenth century was the very slow pace of change: "Consider, for example, how entirely in sympathy was the close of the eigh­teenth century with the epoch of Horace, and how closely equiv­alent were the various social aspects of the two periods."14 Although Wells exaggerates similarities persisting over some two thousand years, it is nevertheless revealing that a founder of sci­ence fiction should so stress this particular point. Nor was he wrong to do so. The novelty of rapid change no less than its sig­nificance had deeply impressed thoughtful people contemplat­ing an era that began by applauding Frankenstein and ended by avidly buying Wells's The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), Tales of Space and Time (1899), and The First Men in the Moon (1901). The nineteenth century offers abundant evidence to support those who define science fiction most simply but with perfect accuracy as the literature of change.

To an author of tales about invasion from Mars and travel to the moon writing sober Anticipations two years before Orville and Wilbur Wright flew at Kitty Hawk, change was the grand fact of the modern world. It was change, moreover, most con­spicuously manifested via "mechanical and scientific progress." Throughout the book of prophecy that features those words in its title, Wells specifies "the enormous development of mecha­nism which has been the cardinal feature of the nineteenth century" (Anticipations, 66). The symbol of this era, Wells sug­gests, should be "a steam engine running upon a railway" (Anticipations, 4).

Improvement of locomotion via the steamship and railroad marked for Wells a decisive break with the previous condition of civilization. Only the Roman corn ships offered anything compa­rable, but they were in his view hardly of equal magnitude or consequences. Even more drastic breaks with the stay-at-home past clearly lay just ahead via the development of aviation. Humanity's perennial dream of flight had been achieved by the Montgolfier balloon in 1783, to be followed by intermittent mili­tary applications, experiments with dirigible airships, and persis­tent work toward what in prospect no less than in retrospect seemed the inevitable achievement of heavier-than-air flying machines. Wells did not foresee much development of passenger aircraft but like many others imagined with an odd mixture of gloom and relish the potentialities of aerial warfare. In 1899 he ended When the Sleeper Wakes with a vivid scene of combat between a fighter plane and troop transports. From this it was an easy leap to space flight. Nor was Wells alone in appreciating the imaginative appeal as well as the social impact of fast travel, and indeed of all kinds of travel. For science fiction, "getting there" has always been half the fun and perhaps more than half of the necessary inspiration.

The literary consequences of the nineteenth century's trans­portation revolution are striking in a list of only a few of Jules Verne's "voyages extraordinaires" by which he helped to found science fiction: Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863); Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864); From the Earth to the Moon (1865); Around the Moon (1870); Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870); Around the World in Eighty Days (1873); The Steam House (1880); The Giant Raft (1881); The Clipper of the Clouds (1886); Propeller Island (1895); and The Aerial Village (1901). Whether all of these count equally as science fiction matters less than the prominence of transportation as a link connecting more or less realistic adventure narratives to tales of space flight, air ships, and futuristic submarines. Travel writing since long before Homer's Odyssey had been appealing whether recounting real voyages, imaginary voyages, or combinations of fact and fancy. Explorers sailing in the wake of Columbus very much stimulat­ed the literature of voyaging after 1492. But it was only in the nineteenth century that actual possibilities of locomotion at last outpaced the literary imagination and turned it in new direc­tions.

This could happen because there were well-developed forms awaiting the catalyst that would change their shape. A utopian scheme of travel to a better society, based in turn on the conven­tional framework of a returned traveler recounting his adven­tures, provides the basis for Gulliver's Travels, as for so much later science fiction in the Swiftian mode. Another precursor of sci­ence fiction, of which indeed Gulliver's Travels is also partly an example, is the Robinsonade, so called after Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), which tells the story of a man stranded in an alien environment who must cope with its dangers and opportunities while wrestling with the problems of isolation by bringing to bear the spiritual, intellectual, and material resources of the civilization from which he came. Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (Persian Letters) of 1721 effectively inaugurated the idea of bringing foreign observers to Europe to provide a defamiliariz- ing account of it rather than sending Europeans to strange places elsewhere. Voltaire's Micromégas (1752) takes this notion in a more science fictional direction while also engaging in Swiftian dramatization of relativity by bringing to earth for commentary on our society giant inhabitants from the star Sirius and the plan­et Saturn. Like Swift's huge king of Brobdingnag, they of course find humanity not only small but petty. Even the space voyage had become a staple of travel literature by the eighteenth centu­ry, used most beautifully as well as to the most telling satiric effects by Cyrano de Bergerac in L'autre monde (The Other World), first published in 1657 as Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune (Comic History of the States and Empires of the Moon). To this established tradition of imaginary voyages Verne and kindred science fiction writers stimulated by the transportation revolu­tion brought new heights of realism, zest, and relevance in deal­ing with the modes of travel.

But more is involved than mere fascination with present and future transport for its own sake as an engineering marvel. Many of Verne's vehicles, as Arthur Evans has remarked, are mobile utopias in miniature: cozy havens within which travelers ventur­ing through dangerous environments experience a better life than they had while at rest.15 In other ways too, science fiction travel in the Vernian tradition provides new vantage points for utopian or dystopian commentary on life at home in the reader's city. Equally important, the appeal of such tales for readers and writers alike was enhanced by their provision of ways to cope mentally with the rapid urbanization that was a claustrophobic result of better transportation. Verne provides grand models of escape from the city into what readers if not his protagonists may regard as more pastoral arenas such as outer space and the ocean's depths. Dystopian portraits of the megalopolis itself, so familiar now in works like Neuromancer and Blade Runner, have as one model Wells's oppressive future city in When the Sleeper Wakes. In Anticipations he observed also that railroads had led to the crowding together of people in cities whose gigantic size was for the Western world "entirely an unprecedented thing" (Anticipations, 34). The megalopolis is a characteristic feature of modern times to which science fiction from Jules Verne forward is an equally characteristic response.

The other great nineteenth-century transformation identified by Wells in Anticipations is the intellectual revolution foreshad­owed in 1798 by Thomas Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population and precipitated in 1859 by publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The hornet's nest of controversy stirred up by Darwin's alternative to the biblical account of creation has not even yet quieted down, and it is therefore more familiar now than the uproar created by Malthus's no less relevant warning that population increase will lead to catastrophe if not severely checked. But to Wells writing in 1901 it seemed that "probably no more shattering book than the Essay on Population has ever been, or ever will be, written" because it rendered futile "all dreams of earthly golden ages" that might be achieved by "social reconstruction" without dra­conian population control; and because it helped inspire Darwin's research, thus setting "such forces in motion as have destroyed the very root-ideas of orthodox righteousness in the Western world" (Anticipations, 288-89). To Wells looking back on the period during which he and others brought science fiction to prominence, the undoubted material benefits of better trans­portation that had been accompanied by the more dubious fea­tures of inescapable urbanization and increasing secularization were matched psychologically not by sanguine confidence in further progress but by "shattering" anxieties about the loss of religious certainties. It is clear enough, although Wells does not spell this out, that such pessimism creates fertile ground for the growth of literary forms like science fiction that can effectively address the philosophical issues no less than the material condi­tions accompanying the new anxieties.

Wells understood the other scientific currents that contributed their share to nineteenth-century anxiety. Proliferation during the seventeenth century and afterward of the microscope and telescope led to better but hardly reassuring understanding of our place in the grand scale of things. These instruments also stimulated wider acknowledgment of the relativity of those very scales by which size is measured. New theories of astronomy removed our planet and its inhabitants from the center of the universe while identifying too its vast inhuman size. Telescopes allowed contemplation of an apparently endless vista of stars beyond our solar system. To this immensity Blaise Pascal, in his Pensées (Thoughts) of 1670, eloquently articulated an uneasy reac­tion, which has echoed in science fiction ever since: "The silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me."

To alarming awareness of the apparently unpopulated and mostly empty infinity beyond our solar system, geology added more immediately disquieting glimpses of the earth's age, imply­ing a past and also a future that might in effect be equally infinite rather than comfortably bounded by the biblical story of Creation at one end of time and Apocalypse at the other. While the interval between these events remained indefinite, it was nevertheless easily imaginable to those who accepted creation as a week's work and the universe as not much more than four thousand years old. Starting with Buffon's Epoques de la nature in 1779 such comfortably low estimates became increasingly unten­able, as did the first chapters of Genesis, which Charles Darwin threatened to dispose of altogether. Moreover, as Sylvia K. Miller suggests, the temporal infinity ahead no longer offered a sooth­ing prospect of duplicating the past but instead generated fear of the unknown: "The future was at one time predictable and rec­ognizable because all of history was seen as a cycle in which mankind would journey forth only to return to its origins, hav­ing destroyed prelapsarian innocence at the Fall only to recover it at the Apocalypse. Darwin and science in general seem to have broken this time circle and transformed it into an open-ended line."16 Wells unerringly and vividly identifies the most impor­tant consequence of all this: "In conjunction with the wide vistas opened by geological and astronomical discovery, the nineteenth century has indeed lost the very habit of thought from which the belief in a Fall arose. It is as if a hand had been put upon the head of the thoughtful man and had turned his eyes about from the past to the future" (Anticipations, 290; emphasis added).

This wonderfully Swiftian image of a giant hand turning humanity around to face its future epitomizes the change most important for science fiction. Not all of it, to be sure, is or need be set in the future. Neither Frankenstein, for example, nor Jules Verne's major novels are placed ahead in time. But without that possibility as a formal resource, and without an audience dis­posed to look ahead rather than to the past, science fiction could never have achieved anything like its full powers. The allegory of Animal Farm might have been the uttermost limit of even Orwell's genius if he had not been able to write Nineteen Eighty- Four. Had he lived three centuries earlier there would have been no precedents to encourage anything like such a work, nor any audience disposed to read it. Before 1659, when Jacques Guttin published Epigone, histoire du siècle futur (Epigone, a story of the future century), there were no secular narratives set in future time. Writers from antiquity to the Renaissance never tried future settings. If they ever considered the possibility, it did not interest them. But after Epigone broke the taboo there followed in the eighteenth century a significant number of similar efforts, starting in 1733 with Samuel Madden's Memoirs of the Twentieth Century. Most notable among these pioneering experiments with futuristic fiction is the first utopia set ahead in time rather than on some imaginary island: Louis-Sébastien Mercier's widely read L'An 2440 (The year 2440), a utopian vision of twenty-fifth centu­ry Paris published in 1771. Thanks in large part to Mercier's influential best-seller, the tale of the future became an estab­lished genre by 1850. As with the imaginary voyage and Gothic fiction, but even more crucially, the prior invention of futuristic fiction made possible the full development of science fiction. What brought this genre into being was, as for all literature, part­ly the inexplicable gift of genius displayed by the likes of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. It was partly the rich legacy of previous, especially eighteenth-century, formal experi­mentation. Above all it was the acceleration of intellectual and material change that resulted in turning humanity away from myths of its past to dreams of its future.


1.    Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (New York and Scarborough, Ontario: Signet Classics, New American Library, 1963), xiii; hereafter cited in text as Frankenstein. This conveniently available text reprints Frankenstein’s third edition, for which Mary Shelley provided her "Author's Introduction" and final revisions.
2.    William Wordsworth, "Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads," in Criticism: The Major Texts, ed. Walter Jackson Bate (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1952), 342.
3.    Félix Bodin, Le Roman de l'avenir (Paris, 1834), 15-32.
4.    See Paul Alkon, "Deus Ex Machina in William Gibson's Cyberpunk Trilogy," in Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative, ed. George Slusser and Tom Shippey (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 75-87.
5.    H. G. Wells, "Preface to The Scientific Romances," in H. G. Wells's Literary Criticism, ed. Patrick Parrinder and Robert M. Philmus (Sussex: Harvester Press; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980), 240.
6.    Robert H. Sherard, "Jules Verne Re-visited," in The Jules Verne Companion, ed. Peter Haining (New York: Baronet Publishing Company, 1979), 59-60.
7.    N. Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1990), 277; emphasis added.
8.    See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992), 39-44.
9.    Mark Rose, Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 5; here­after cited in text.
10.  Samuel R. Delany, Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Pleasantville, N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1984), 89.
11.  Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), 8, emphasis deleted; hereafter cited in text.
12.  Pierre Versins, Encyclopédie de l'utopie, des voyages extraordi­naires, et de la science fiction (Lausanne: Editions L'Age d'Homme, 1972), 7-8: "La conjecture romanesque rationnelle, c'est un point de vue sur l'univers, y compris l'Homme, et non un genre, ni une forme."

13.  See Jonathan Swift, The Annotated Gulliver's Travels, ed. Isaac Asimov (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1980), 144, 147, 154, 157,158,197.
14.      H. G. Wells, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (London: Chapman & Hall, 1902), 70; hereafter cited in text as Anticipations.
15.      Arthur B. Evans, "Vehicular Utopias of Jules Verne," paper presented at the Maison d'Ailleurs Utopia conference, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, 18-24 June 1991.
16.      Sylvia K. Miller, letter to the author.

In: Science fiction before 1900: Imagination discovers technology. Boston, New York: Twayne,1994, pp.1-21.

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