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Science Fiction
Literature and Politics Today: The Political Nature of Modern Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. M. Keith Booker. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2015. p286-290.
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Science Fiction

Science fiction (SF) is a curious in-between genre, neither realism nor fantasy: “a form of the fantastic that denies it is fantastic” (Rose 20). The SF scholar Darko Suvin argues that SF is a 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” (Metamorphoses 7–8). With this, Suvin too highlights science fiction's equidistance from realism and fantasy. His first term, “estrangement,” taken from Bertolt Brecht , emphasizes the way these texts operate like their modernist contemporaries, “denaturalizing” the world that currently exists, showing its apparently immutable foundations themselves to be contingent and open to modification. Whereas modernist texts accomplish this through formal and linguistic experimentation, SF does so through the portrayal of “other” worlds (the future, other planets and their societies, or our own world with a dramatic new element—a visitor from the future or another place, a natural catastrophe, or a new technology—introduced into it). However, unlike other forms of fantastic literature, such as myth, folk tales, or modern fantasy, works of SF strive to portray this other world as one bound and limited by the same scientific or cognitive laws as our own. Many of the earliest efforts in the genre took great care to show how the imaginary world they were portraying was a reasonable extrapolation from the most cutting-edge scientific knowledge of their time.

The term “science fiction” grew out of the terns “scientific fiction” and then the even more cumbersome “scientifiction” and was coined in the 1920s by the editor Hugo Gernsback to describe the kind of fiction published in his magazine Amazing Stories—the first dedicated exclusively to science fiction. While the works published by Gernsback, as well as his own influential editorials, did a great deal to fix the contours of the modern genre, SF finds its origins in the later part of the 19th century. Gernsback's own early description of the genre acknowledges this source: “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells , and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” There are earlier important precursors to the genre. Suvin, for example, finds science-fictional elements in the tales of imaginary voyages by, among others, Lucian, Thomas More, François Rabelais, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Jonathan Swift, while Paul Alkon argues that Jacques Guttin's 1659 Epigone was the first fiction to be set in the future. This genealogy bears out science fiction's own place in the larger mode of the prose romance: like other romance genres—utopian fiction being one of the most significant for SF—science fiction is more concerned with the production of imaginary worlds or space than well-rounded characters (the latter being the provenance of the modern realistic novel).

Following Wells's establishment of the genre, there was a great outpouring of science-fiction visions in a number of different national contexts. This included the work of Russian and Soviet writers, such as Alexander Bogdanov, Alexei Tolstoy , Evgeny Zamyatin ; the Czech Karel Čapek , whose play R.U.R. (1920) gave the world the SF term “robot;” and the British authors E. M. Forster, Olaf Staple-don, and C. S. Lewis. Many of these writers acknowledge their reliance on Wells's Page 287  |  Top of Articlefounding fictions, while also expanding in strikingly new directions the formal and imaginative possibilities of the genre.

However, this first wave of SF “modernism ” was interrupted in the late 1920s as the genre moved into a new phase dominated by realism. The full flourishing of this “realist” age of magazine SF took place under the direction of another editor, John W. Campbell. Campbell's Astounding Science-Fiction inaugurated in the late 1930s what is referred to as science fiction's golden age. The writers Campbell brought to prominence—among them, A. E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Ron Hubbard, Murray Leinster, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein —remain some of the best known in the genre. Campbell demanded a much more rigorous grounding of SF in actual scientific knowledge (thereby creating the basis for the subgenre of “hard science fiction,” first defined in the late 1950s and exemplified by such writers as Arthur C. Clarke and Hal Clement, and today by Gregory Benford and Kim Stanley Robinson ), as well as a more careful exploration of the implications of their estranging hypotheses. Moreover, these writers expressed a tremendous faith in science, rationality, and technology as “the privileged solution to the world's ills” (Fitting 60), values shared by the genre's audience. Two examples of this are Van Vogt's story “Black Destroyer” (1939)—later reworked into the novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950), which was the basis for the SF film Alien (1979)—wherein an apparently unstoppable alien menace is finally overcome by humanity's superior knowledge of history; and Asimov's epic Foundation trilogy (published in book form in 1951–1953 by combining stories earlier published in Astounding), a future history in which a scientific elite plays a vital role in the movement out of an interplanetary dark age.

The years following the conclusion of World War II saw the emergence of a new generation of writers—among them, Ray Bradbury, Clarke, James Blish, Walter Miller Jr., Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber, and Cordwainer Smith—whose confidence in the powers of science and technology was far less sure. The 1950s would also witness the resurgence within the genre of critical and dystopian fictions, exemplified by Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (both 1953). Meanwhile, more and more attention was paid within the genre to the social and psychological impact of modernity and to the development of complex character psychology, giving rise to what would be known as “soft” science fiction. The single most important writer to emerge from this context was Philip K. Dick , whose rich and diverse visions of near future worlds would tre-mendously influence both the later development of the genre and popular culture at large (a number of Dick's works have been adapted for film, beginning with Ridley Scott's Blade Runner in 1982, based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

The work of Dick and others helped set the stage for the emergence in the 1960s and 1970s of SF's high “modernist” moment (commonly referred to as the “new wave”). These years witnessed a revolution within the genre, as writers became more willing to experiment with form and to tackle subjects previously considered taboo. These works also reflected the growing political turbulence of the time and would offer brilliant critiques of the bureaucratic state, consumerism, the Vietnam War, environmental despoilage, gender and racial inequality, and a host of other Page 288  |  Top of Articleissues. As a result, the audience for the genre grew, encompassing many in the burgeoning radical youth movements. Some of the writers who rose to prominence as part of the new wave in the United States were Harlan Ellison, who also edited the landmark Dangerous Visions anthologies (1967, 1972), showcasing the work of many of these writers; Frank Herbert, whose novel Dune (1965) placed ecological concerns centrally within the genre's purview; Thomas Disch, whose Camp Concentration (1968)—along with Ursula K. Le Guin 's The Word for World Is Forest (1972) and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974)—is one of the great science fiction critiques of the U.S. war machine; and the prolific Robert Silverberg. Science-fictional elements also began to be more prominent in literary fictions, especially among such writers as William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon.

This moment also witnessed a new flourishing of SF production outside the United States. The British magazine New Worlds, especially under the editorship of Michael Moorcock, showcased many of the best of these writers, including Brian Aldiss, who would also write the great modernist history of SF (one that had little patience for the genre's hard realist predecessors), and J. G. Ballard. Meanwhile, John Brunner emerged as an important writer of dystopian fictions with contemporary political concerns, including the sequence Stand on Zanzibar (1968), The Jagged Orbit (1969), The Sheep Look Up (1972), and Shockwave Rider (1975). Moreover, some of the most important SF writers of all time emerged during these years from Soviet bloc nations, including Stanislaw Lem (Poland) and the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (USSR).

Finally, with the new diversity of the genre's audience, there would be an increasing diversification of the genre's producers. Although a handful of women—including C. L. Moore, Judith Merril, Leigh Brackett, and James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon)—did publish memorable works early on, it would not be until the later 1960s that women writers would take up a new prominence and centrality in the genre, often with works that dealt directly with issues of gender and sexuality; these writers include Anne McCaffrey, Le Guin, Joanna Russ , Marge Piercy, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Vonda McIntyre. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is exemplary in this regard, as it tells of a race whose sexual biology is radically different from our own, and who as a result lack our fixed gender divisions. Samuel R. Delany was another pathbreaking figure, as one of the first African American and later openly gay writers in the field. Delany would be followed by another major African American SF writer, Octavia Butler, whose Xenogenesis trilogy (1987–1989) and two Parable novels (1993, 1998) became some of the most discussed work in the genre. Writers of this moment, including McCaffrey, Le Guin, Delany, and later Gene Wolfe, also helped revitalize the genre of fantasy, sometimes—especially in the case of Wolfe's far future The Book of the New Sun (1980–1983)—blurring altogether the distinctions between fantasy and SF.

The tremendous energies of this moment had largely been spent by the end of the 1970s, and the conservative counterassault of the 1980s created an environ-ment less hospitable to the kinds of formal experimentations and dangerous visions of SF modernism. The early 1980s also witnessed the next major development in Page 289  |  Top of Articlethe genre, with the emergence of “cyberpunk fiction.” Although Bruce Sterling took on the role of the spokesperson for the movement, it was William Gibson who quickly emerged as its leading author. Gibson's trilogy Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) transformed the genre and brought a new literary critical attention to it. Rejecting the optimism of the Gernsback-Campbell-era SF realism and equally cool on the radicalism of the pre-vious modernist SF, cyberpunk proved to be a perfect fit for the political climate of the Reagan-Thatcher era. Moreover, in its celebration of new information technologies, its suspicion of older Fordist and welfare-state policies, and its poaching from and pastiche of a wide range of genres and styles, including noir detective fiction, cyberpunk emerged as an exemplary form of postmodernism . Other prominent writers associated with the movement include Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, and Neal Stephenson, the latter's Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1996) representing some of the most interesting SF of the 1990s.

Many of the SF writers who rose to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s—including Sheri Tepper, Terry Bisson, Orson Scott Card, Butler, Stephenson, Robinson, Greg Egan, Ken MacLeod, Iain M. Banks, and China Miéville —represent a new eclecticism in the genre, as they draw on the resources of hard SF, utopian and dystopian fiction, cyberpunk, and fantasy, among other forms. The latter three of these are participants in the “British Boom,” in which, since the mid-1990s, numerous young British SF writers have injected new energies into the genre, typically from (left-leaning) politically informed perspectives. Other new young SF writers, including such figures as Paolo Bacigalupi from the U.S. and Cory Doctorow from Canada have written politically savvy works as well, dealing especially with such questions as the looming possibility of environmental collapse and the growing prominence of online life as a phenomenon in contemporary global cul-ture. In general, there has also been a resurgence among many of these writers of the critical political energies that were in abeyance in the heyday of postmodern cyberpunk, and they may yet signal a new stage in the genre's development.

Phillip E. Wegner

Further Reading

Aldiss, Brian. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. New York: Avon, 1986.

Alkon, Paul. Origins of Futuristic Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987.

Barr, Marlene S. Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993.

Booker, M. Keith, Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

Booker, M. Keith, and Anne-Marie Thomas. The Science Fiction Handbook. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Disch, Thomas. The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

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Fitting, Peter. “The Modern Anglo-American SF Novel: Utopian Longing and Capitalist Cooptation.” Science Fiction Studies 6.1 (1979): 59–76.

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 2000.

Jameson, Fredric. “Generic Discontinuities in SF: Brian Aldiss's Starship.” Science Fiction Studies 1.2 (1973): 57–68.

Jameson, Fredric. “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 147–58.

Jameson, Fredric. “Science Fiction as a Spatial Genre: Generic Discontinuities and the Problem of Figuration in Vonda McIntyre's The Exile Waiting.” Science Fiction Studies 14 (1987): 44–59.

James, Edward, and Farah Mendlesohn, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Jameson, Fredric. “The Space of Science Fiction: Narrative in A. E. Van Vogt.” Polygraph 2/3 (1989): 52–65.

Moskowitz, Sam. “How Science Fiction Got Its Name.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Garyn G. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003. 1127–35.

Moylan, Tom, and Raffaella Baccolini, eds. Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. London: Routledge, 2003.

Parrinder, Patrick, ed. Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001.

Pringle, David. Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. An English-Language Selection, 1949–1984. London: Xanadu, 1985.

Roberts, Robin. A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993.

Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981.

Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits. London: Verso, 1991.

Seed, David, ed. A Companion to Science Fiction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Slusser, George Edgar, and T. A. Shippey, eds. Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Suvin, Darko. Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1988.

Wegner, Phillip E. “The Last Bomb: Historicizing History in Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain and Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine.” Comparatist 23 (1999): 141–51.

Wegner, Phillip E. “Soldierboys for Peace: Cognitive Mapping, Space, and Science Fiction as World Bank Literature.” World Bank Literature. Ed. Amitava Kumar. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003. 280–96.

Westfahl, Gary. The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1998.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Wegner, Phillip E. "Science Fiction." Literature and Politics Today: The Political Nature of Modern Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, edited by M. Keith Booker, Greenwood, 2015, pp. 286-290. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6191600162

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