Musings on Science Fiction: A Literary History
In this post I’d like to offer a quick review of the book Science Fiction: A Literary History edited by Roger Luckhurst, as well as discuss two interesting themes that stuck with me after reading it. I started reviewing this book a while ago, and wrote a few posts about it at that time: The Definition of Science Fiction, The Definition of Science Fiction: Part 2, and The Future Folded into the Present. And while I finished the book then, I didn’t write more about it at the time. So here we go!
The History of Science Fiction
Like anything else, the history of science fiction is not linear. Rather it has multiple origin and branching out points. A Literary History does its best to track these points while offering an extensive list of sci-fi stories from all periods that I can add to my list (and that you can add to yours!) Each chapter discusses a different era of science fiction in chronological order, starting with “scientific romances” and “imaginary voyages” in the 1600s. While in my own list I offer Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a starting point for the genre, others argue that science fiction actually began with Thomas More’s Utopia, or with Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here. I’ve added both to my reading list.
The book breaks up the history of science fiction into the following eras:
- Early Forms of Science Fiction (starting in the 1600s)
- 1870-1914 – The Scientific Romance
- 1900-1949 – Utopias and Dystopias
- 1918-1939 – Pulp Science Fiction in the Interwar Period
- 1945-1965 – Post-War Sci-Fi, The Golden Age
- 1960-1976 – The New Wave of Sci-Fi
- 1976-2000 – Environmentalism, Social Justice, Cyberpunk
- After 2001 – New Paradigms, The Singularity
Two things struck me the most while reading Science Fiction: A Literary History. The first was the degree to which it seems that history repeats itself; and the second was how science fiction has always been a reaction to the zeitgeist of its day.
I’ve read before that science fiction shouldn’t be seen as trying to predict the future, since most of the time it’s reacting to the present. And this book certainly argues for that point. In each period/decade of science fiction, the authors of the various chapters illustrate how sci-fi authors were taking inspiration for their stories by the actual goings on of the day, reacting to them, and drawing them out to their natural conclusions Black Mirror style.
In the rest of this post, I’d like to discuss the idea of history repeating itself that I mentioned above and the fact that sci-fi authors react to the present rather than predict the future. Overall, I would highly recommend Science Fiction: A Literary History to anyone wanting a comprehensive overview of the genre.
History Repeats Itself: Technological Anxiety & The Restless Pace of Innovation
As mentioned above, the first thing that really struck me about this book and the history it delineates was how even the earliest forms of science fiction were reacting (both positively and negatively) to the immense technological and cultural changes taking place starting in the 1600s. The first sci-fi stories were mainly adventure stories, exploring earth, space, and time, and usually had a utopian or positive bent.
“The imaginary voyages of the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries can perhaps be best understood as a fictional expression of the dominant ideologies of their historical eras. Emulating the travelogues of early European explorers, these narratives also reflect the rise of modern science – the profound religious and cultural revolutions sparked by the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and others – as well as the significant social impact (both positive and negative) of the emerging Industrial Revolution.” – Arthur B. Evans, Science Fiction: A Literary History, “The Beginnings: Early Forms of Science Fiction.” The British Library, 2017. Page 15.
I’ve used the same language of “reflecting” in my post about why I love science fiction. These stories can serve as a mirror, reflecting us back to ourselves by placing the characters in unfamiliar situations. And by placing ourselves in such a state of Otherness, we can learn quite a lot. But that’s a theme for another post.
At the time of the Industrial Revolution, the techno-anxiety with which we are still wildly familiar began creeping in, and some authors came to strongly criticize the pace of innovation. The Industrial Revolution shrank space and time in new, profound ways, causing a new kind of anxiety among the ordinary person.
“The Electric Life contains embedded in its plot a discernible critique of the hectic pace (‘freneticism’) of daily life controlled by ever-more-rapid-and-efficient mechanical systems.” – Evans, page 27.
In his chapter, Roger Luckhurst continues this theme. We learn that the Atlantic Telegraph cable was laid in 1886, while the Pacific cable was laid in 1903. Meanwhile, standard time zones were first proposed in 1884.
“Perhaps even more significant was the visible transformation of everyday experience by technology. Steamships, newspapers, express trains, telegrams, and telephones compressed time and space, turning the globe into an interlinked network. Populations, cities, empires, tele-technologies, machines, and arms multiplied and accelerated at speeds that seemed at once exhilerating and potentially disastrous. Contemporary commentators on the late nineteenth century self-consciously regarded their era as one of restless innovation, a modernity that risked spiralling out of control. The future – its promises and cataclysms, seemed to be increasingly folded into the present.” – Roger Luckhurst, Science Fiction: A Literary History, “From Scientific Romance to Science Fiction: 1870-1914.” The British Library, 2017. Page 47.
As I’ve written before, this passage really stuck out at me when I first read it because it expresses the same sentiment that we grapple with today and that is the theme of this section. With a few minor changes to technology names, that passage could just as easily be about our techno-culture today, expressing a feeling of restless innovation that compresses space and time more and more, folding the future into the present (love that line!). What I find fascinating is that this aspect of the cultural zeitgeist has persisted from the Industrial Revolution until today. We still worry about the effects restless innovation has and will have.
Of course, the idea of restless innovation has both its proponents and detractors. If you’re like H.G. Wells, you’re enamored by the idea of rational scientists being in charge of companies and government. But if you’re like Aldous Huxley, you think probably not so much and write Brave New World.
It’s interesting to note that this worry seems to have produced a dialectic with the revival of Gothic horror during the 1800s: the more we observed and mapped the visible world, the more we hoped for an invisible world to exist as well. This was the crux of Romanticism. Again, I believe this sentiment is still with us today. In their 2011 book All Things Shining (which I haven’t read in its entirety yet), Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly write,
“The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.” – Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Free Press, 2011. Page xi.
Again, I haven’t finished that book yet, but the general sentiment is to bring back that sense of wonder and shining things with which we assumedly used to live, which isn’t that far a cry from hoping for an “invisible world”.
Back to restless innovation. Later on after the turn of the century, and especially after World War I, this anxiety would manifest in the form of dystopian novels.
“Although it had been coined by John Stuart Mill in 1868, the term ‘dystopia’ came to be used to describe speculative visions of the future that lacked the optimism of utopia’s ‘good society’. – Caroline Edwards, Science Fiction: A Literary History, “Utopian Prospects, 1900-1949.” The British Library, 2017. Page 81.
These dystopian visions express the fear of a forced utopia and how easily “utopian dreams” can morph into a “dystopian reality.” Unfortunately, we’ve seen this play out in real life with communism and other authoritarian governments. These stories tend to depict an over-reliance on technology, such as in 1984 and Brave New World, that isolates us from each other, again proving that our techno-anxiety is nothing new. Indeed, this worry is now very much mainstream, and perhaps always has been. In his 2019 book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport propounds digital minimalism as a philosophy of using technology, especially communication technologies, sparingly and with intention, since their advent very quickly took over our lives in unintended ways.
“These changes crept up on us and happened fast, before we had a chance to step back and ask what we really wanted out of the rapid advances of the past decade. We added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke one morning to discover that they had colonized the core of our daily life. We didn’t, in other words, sign up for the digital world in which we’re currently entrenched; we seem to have stumbled backward into it.” – Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Portfolio, 2019. Page 6.
One could certainly ask why we are generally prone to such misgivings about the rapid pace of innovation. Is it simply psychology and a fear of the unknown? Or is it perhaps an acknowledgement of human nature and our incredible capacity for destruction? Again, that’s a theme for another post but certainly worth thinking about.
By the 1930s, sci-fi engaged more with fascism and the idea of social engineering, thanks to Nazism. As mentioned, we get Brave New World by Aldous Huxley in 1932, and 1984 by George Orwell in 1949, as well as other anti-fascist novels around that time.
The techno-anxiety marched on and while some stories depicted socialist and classless societies, seemingly as a reaction to capitalism and the Great Depression, others tried to understand how fascism, totalitarianism, and its brethren could arise. This line of thinking has also become mainstream, taken up as it has been by Jordan Peterson.
After World War II, with another rapid expansion of science fiction, especially in the US, we see the rise of atomic and other future disaster stories as a reaction to the Cold War and “unfettered scientific advance.” Once again, we see that same anxiety reflected in our sci-fi that originally developed during the Industrial Revolution (though psychology being what it is, this anxiety has probably been around much longer). This is what I mean when I say that history really does repeat itself. Bursts of technological advance are met with anxiety about what it means and where it’ll take us. It seems that no matter where we are on the timeline, we’re always at least slightly worried about the rapid pace of technological and scientific advance and how best to utilize those advances. I’ve written about this idea of eternal progress and production in a previous post as well.
As we continue our journey through sci-fi history, we learn that New Wave authors around the 1960s also dealt with “an abiding mistrust of technocratic agendas.”
“New Wave authors were much less likely than their pulp forebears to believe that modern technoscience was a panacea for social ills.” – Rob Latham, Science Fiction: A Literary History, “The New Wave ‘Revolution’, 1960-76.” The British Library, 2017. Page 173.
From the 1970s and 1980s onwards, with another burst of technological advance in the advent of personal computing and entertainment, such as CDs, the walkman, the internet, and more, we see life once again being reshaped and remolded by these devices, and then reflected in the emergence of the cyberpunk genre, such as with William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
“Cyberpunk reinvented SF in several ways, not only in the shift from earlier visions of technological transcendence via space travel towards the more intimate technologies of personal computers (ones that fused with their users), but also in its implacably pessimistic tone.” – Sherryl Vint, Science Fiction: A Literary History, “From the New Wave into the Twenty-First Century.” The British Library, 2017. Page 193.
As we head into the ’90s and early 2000s, cyberpunk morphs into the “singularity”, which argues that we’re reaching the end of the human era and entering, or perhaps have already entered, the era of super computers that run our lives.
Finally, Gerry Canavan asserts exactly the same thing in his chapter of the book, titled New Paradigms, After 2001.
“We’re in a mood of constant, uncontrollable change, the dread of a world that seems to be spinning out of control, and SF since 2001 in some sense is still struggling to catch up.” – Gerry Canavan, Science Fiction: A Literary History, “New Paradigms, After 2001.” The British Library, 2017. Page 209.
As you can tell, I find this theme absolutely fascinating. On the one hand all the technological advances since the Industrial Revolution have served us greatly and I’m certainly glad to have been born in 1988, grateful as I am for this incredible world and time in which I live. On the other hand, as I discussed in my recent post about why I quit social media, I too feel that inherited techno-anxiety and believe we should always ask, “What exactly are we doing? And what do we hope to gain?” Progress for the sake of progress isn’t really progress at all. There must be a point, after all, otherwise we stumble backwards into something that could have dire consequences.
Reacting to the Zeitgeist & Longing for a Simple Past
Each generation of sci-fi critiques its present culture. While there are many more quotations I could pull from A Literary History, I believe the above suffice to illustrate this. Of course, not all science fiction expresses a technological anxiety, but even outside that theme, the genre can usually be traced back to its historical context. We are all always products of our time and zeitgeist, so this is only natural.
One thing that I do find interesting though has to do with the memory of a zeitgeist. The techno-anxiety I talked about above produces, directly or indirectly, an interesting by-product, which I briefly mentioned above in the revival of Gothic horror and the emergence of Romanticism. Namely, when society and technology advance so quickly, a subset of the zeitgeist longs for a “simpler past”.
This idea has also been with us since at least the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, a book called Degeneration by Max Nordau was published in 1892, apparently describing how the current culture of the time was slowly degenerating. This counter-culture idea is also mainstream today with such conservative commentators as Ben Shapiro and his cohort at the Daily Wire, who promote traditional family and societal values (which of course is not in itself a bad thing).
What’s interesting to note, though, is that this “simpler past” never seems to have existed.
What I mean by that is that although as a society we have gone through more conservative periods and more liberal periods, subjectively more complicated times and then simpler times, there has never been a time or era that “made sense” to the people living through it. Social critics of each generation think it’s their generation that’s really declining, when in fact, it seems that sentiment has always been so.
This is perfectly exemplified in the film Midnight in Paris, in which Owen Wilson, a screenwriter, find himself transported back to the 1920s in Paris every night while on vacation there. It’s a “Golden Age” he longs for, but by the end of the film he realizes that those characters also long for what they regard as a real Golden Age earlier in time. This allure for the Golden Age, this nostalgia, seems to exists for everyone at all times. I’ve felt it. And I’m sure you’ve felt it too.
And perhaps it’s a push and pull that we need. Perhaps it’s just a factor of our psychology. Or perhaps it’s an indication of the tide of history, which always seems to repeat itself.
Luckhurst, Roger, editor. Science Fiction: A Literary History. The British Library, 2017.
Dreyfus, Hubert and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Free Press, 2011. Page xi.
Newport, Cal, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Portfolio, 2019. Kindle edition. Page 6.