Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed
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Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed

Sherryl Vint

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eBook - ePub

Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed

Sherryl Vint

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From its beginnings in the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to the virtual worlds of William Gibson's Neuromancer and The Matrix, Science Fiction: A Guide to the Perplexed helps students navigate the often perplexing worlds of a perennially popular genre. Drawing on literature as well as example from film and television, the book explores the different answers that criticism has offered to the vexed question, 'what is science fiction?' Each chapter of the book includes case studies of key texts, annotated guides to further reading and suggestions for class discussion to help students master the full range of contemporary critical approaches to the field, including the scientific, technological and political contexts in which the genre has flourished. Ranging from an understanding of the genre through the stereotypes of 1930s pulps through more recent claims that we are living in a science fictional moment, this volume will provide a comprehensive overview of this diverse and fascinating genre.

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In the not-too-distant future, workers of the mechanical guild who maintain the complex conveyer-belt system of “roads” that serves millions of pedestrian commuters plan a strike, but a wily supervisor realizes this is the work of one easily removed agitator. The true core of workers is dedicated to public service and a quasi-military ethos of service to the country’s (economic) needs. The strike is averted and transportation rolls on.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a battle wages between the evil Galactic Empire and the freedom fighters of the rebel alliance. A young man from an isolated rural community discovers that he is a secret prince of this empire, the long-hidden son of the evil ruler’s lieutenant; he joins the resistance, redeems his father, and overthrows the empire to restore the republic.
A young woman finds herself confronted with three alternative versions of herself, doppelgangers that prove to be genetically identical but radically different in personality and physical stature, due to their different experiences. One comes from a world of only women, another from a world where men and women are in open war, and yet another from a world still shaped by 1930s gender roles. Our protagonist is a professional woman negotiating 1970s feminist desires and cultural backlash.
Are all of these stories science fiction (sf)? Readers familiar with the genre will recognize the first narrative as Robert Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll” (1940), the second as the basic narrative structure of episodes IV–VI of the Star Wars franchise (1977–83), and the last as Joanna Russ’s novel The Female Man (1975). Although radically different, each of these texts might be considered the “centre” of some understanding of science fiction. Heinlein’s story details the technological feat of the roads and the social innovation they produce, all the while celebrating technocratic values of rational management and a social hierarchy based on the “meritocracy” of genius. Heinlein is considered by some one of the genre’s greatest writers, recipient of the first Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA), and this particular story was nominated by the same group as one of “the greatest science fiction stories of all time”1 by its inclusion in the first Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970) volume. Lucas’s epic saga shares many features with space opera published in the earliest sf pulps—thrilling space battles, heroic masculinity, stunning technology, and imperiled women—but also relies on the trope of destiny and a mysterious force, features associated more with fantasy than with sf. Nonetheless, at least in terms of sf film, it is difficult to overstate Star Wars’s influence in reshaping and re-energizing the genre. Finally, Joanna Russ is perhaps the most important feminist writer of sf, her work as author, critic, innovator, and activist key to challenging (and changing) gender stereotypes in the genre. The Female Man is considered by many to be the most important feminist sf novel, and it is also crucial to the aesthetic reshaping of the genre in the 1960s and 1970s in ways similar to contemporary innovations in postmodern fiction.
Although the term “science fiction” might seem self-evidently to offer up a group of images, icons, themes, and narrative formulas easily equated with the name, the genre is notoriously difficult to define. The name science fiction and the long-established tradition of regarding certain writers who dominated American sf in the 1940s—Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon—as representing the Golden Age of the genre privileges sf’s relationship to scientific extrapolation and rationalist logic. From this point of view, media adventure spectacles such as Star Wars have the props of sf, but lack the underlying engagement with ideas that this fan community has considered to be the genre’s core.2 Yet even before Star Wars launched a lucrative cycle of Hollywood blockbuster sf films that continues to this day, the genre always had a media presence in Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, comic strips, and associated merchandise, alongside its main commercial form in 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines. Similarly, Joanna Russ’s philosophical, polemical, and intertextual story of women’s struggles under patriarchy further challenges the boundaries of the genre, using sf techniques to reconfigure social rather than technological regimes. Which is the “real” sf, or, if they are all equally but differently sf, what is this genre?
The name science fiction was popularized3 by Hugo Gernsback to describe the pioneering new fiction he wished to cultivate in the magazines he founded, Amazing Stories (first published in 1926) and Science Wonder Stories (first published in 1929, and where Gernsback shifted his terminology from “scientifiction” to “science fiction”). Some date the emergence of the genre to these specialty pulps and Gernsback’s efforts to create a literary form suited to the technological age. Others note that Gernsback merely codified—some would argue commercialized and compromised—an already existing literary form that included fantastic voyages, utopias, disaster fictions, tales of invention, and scientific romances. Thus, part of the difficulty of defining sf is that there is no consensus on when, precisely, it began. Some critics strive to apply the label, once coined, back in time as far as possible, seeking to posit this kind of speculative imagining as a long-standing part of Western cultures. Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (c. 1600; pub. 1632), about a lunar voyage, was written in part to experiment with the idea of how the earth’s motion would look from the moon; it is sometimes nominated as the first sf, but occult rather than scientific forces propel Kepler’s traveler. Other critics note the similarities between sf and the utopian tradition launched by Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), or draw connections to satires of imaginary voyages such as Gulliver’s Travels (1726). One of the most influential nominees for first sf is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), a novel that not only gave us many of genre’s staple preoccupations, such as the limits of scientific understanding and humanity’s relationship to created beings, but also firmly placed its innovations in the realm of science rather than the supernatural.
Noting the importance of this shift in Shelley’s work, Paul Alkon argues that sf “might indeed be defined as the narrative use of science to create myths allowing novel points of view to the imagination” (7). This conceptualization helps negotiate one of the difficulties in describing sf: the genre’s name implies some special relationship to science, but when one looks closely at most of what passes as sf, much of it has only a tentative relationship to scientific fact. Instead, sf is a cultural mode that struggles with the implications of discoveries in science and technology for human social lives and philosophical conceptions. The genre is interested in real science, to be sure, but it is equally concerned with mythologies of science, as Alkon notes, with the dialectic between “our perceptions of science” (85) and the way its innovations have been changing material and social worlds since the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Some fans describe their love of the genre in terms of the “sense of wonder” it provokes in them, an affective response that some critics have linked to the aesthetic experience of the sublime. Yet whereas gothic literature, which also counts Frankenstein as an ancestor, participates in the natural sublime as theorized by Burke and Kant, much sf might better be understood in terms of what David Nye has called the technological sublime. Nye argues that the Romantic concept of the sublime—that feeling of awe and terror as one is overcome by the spectacle of the infinite visible in nature—shifted in the early twentieth century and developed a new and specific form in the United States. No longer associated with the wonders of God’s creation or man’s insignificance in the face of a powerful Nature, it focused instead on objects of technology, such as railroads, bridges, skyscrapers, and factories. Rather than inspiring a feeling of mixed fear and awe in the face of human limitations, the technological sublime instead divides “those who understand and control machines [from] those who do not”: it is a “sublime made possible by the superior imagination of an engineer or a technician, who creates an object that overwhelms the imagination of ordinary men” (60).
Science fiction participates in both promoting this myth of technological mastery and transcendence, and deflating it. It provides the language, images, and concepts that celebrate our cultural preoccupation with science and technology, and that express our anxieties and fears regarding how they are changing our world and our selves. We might think of the myths of sf as ways of providing imaginary solutions to the real contradictions and tensions of a world in which science has displaced religion as the hegemonic explanatory discourse, a world in which the products of technoscience are ubiquitous in everyday life. Gary Wolfe argues that the icons of sf perform this kind of cultural work when they become detached from “particular fictional contexts and gai[n] currency in the popular culture at large” (88). These icons of sf—motifs such as alien encounters, robots and other created beings, travel through time or outer space, apocalyptic or perfected futures, posthuman descendants, and Artificial Intelligences—mark a work as science fictional. Yet it is clear that no simple tally of their presence will help us get closer to defining the genre: no single work will contain all of these icons, and it is impossible to create an exhaustive list of all the icons the genre might generate. Instead, it is more productive to think of the cultural work performed by such icons, their role in imagining a world that is in some way different from the one we take for granted and their power to create mythologies that help us grasp the experience of human life in a world dominated by scientific thinking.
Genre definitions
Sf is often described as a genre that has the power to literalize metaphor, to build worlds that capture something true yet unrepresentable in the literary mode of realism. It is thus unsurprising that the genre was formulated and named in the twentieth century, a period marked by rapid and substantial technological change: increased urbanization, aided by new transportation networks such as the system of highways, widespread motor vehicle ownership, and commercial air travel; the electrification of cities and homes, transforming domestic space through innovations such as artificial refrigeration and other home appliances; the discovery of antibiotics, vaccines for diseases such as rubella and polio, and immunosuppressant drugs that transformed medical practice and individual health; the increased mechanization of war from the poison gases of World War I to the remotely guided missiles of contemporary warfare; the space program, which put Americans on the moon and transformed our imaginative relationship to our planet through an image of the world from space; and the IT revolution in personal computing, which changed not only the nature of work but also leisure through personal electronic devices and social media. Science and technology shape our lives in ways both extensive and intimate, from the public cultures of big science and global economies to the private lives of family structures and personalized media environments. Although sf does not predict the future as is sometimes claimed, it is the mythological language of technoculture and thus it plays a central role in producing the future through the dreams and nightmares it offers for our contemplation. In 1970, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock suggested that contemporary Western cultures were experiencing trauma related to the rapidity of technological and social change, and we might see sf as a cultural site where we work through this shock of the new. The genre is thus a way of thinking about and experiencing a reality that is itself slightly askew and not merely a particular configuration of settings, plots, and images.
In the fuzziness4 of its borders and the heterogeneity of its participants, sf is not that different from other genre categories. Recent genre theory, particularly that drawn from film and television, has emphasized that genre is produced by a process of evaluation and description, and is not a fixed object that can then be found in the world and studied by critics. In Film/Genre, for example, Rick Altman argues that genres are objects that come into being after the fact, as observers seeking pattern privilege some textual features over others. The marketing desire to reproduce characteristics that have sold well to the public, Altman suggests, is key to this process, and Gernsback’s proselytizing efforts on behalf of what he calls “A New Sort of Magazine”5 certainly fit into this model. Similarly, in Genre and Television, Jason Mittel argues that genres are cultural categories used by programmers, audiences, academics, marketers, and others; genre, then, is best understood not as a set of qualities intrinsic to specific texts, but rather as “a process of categorization that . . . operates across the cultural realms of media industries, audiences, policy, critics and historical contexts” (ix). These processes actively shape our experience of texts so categorized. Similarly, this book will explore sf as a genre that is always in process, something actively made (and often in competing ways) by a variety of stakeholders that include creative forces (authors, directors, artists), marketing imperatives (producers, network branding, editors), and audiences (fan-based and beyond). Thus we will explore this perplexing genre from a variety of points of view, seeking to arrive not at some totalized answer to the question of “what is science fiction,” but rather with a prismatic view that allows us to see multiple visions of sf simultaneously, each a partial and fragmented explanation of the genre, with the vision of the whole providing not a simple or singular image but rather multiple, and at times contradictory, possibilities, held in productive tension.
In “On Defining SF, or Not,” John Rieder explores what is at stake in these many struggles to define the genre. Rieder notes that what is important in seeing genre as a historical and mutable category—that is, seeing that what we call “science fiction” in 1940 looks rather different from what we call “science fiction” in 2014—is that this mode of framing sf asks us to attend to “how and why the field is being stretched to include these texts or defended against their inclusion” (194). This framing compels us to see genre as a social and political category as much as a formal and aesthetic one. Yet, as Rieder points out, this definition can tend toward tautology. Damon Knight once famously quipped, “science fiction is what we point to when we say it” (qtd in Rieder 192), but this convenient definition rather begs the question: who are “we,” and what is being sought in the pointing? Refusing models that privilege a single origin point, even if they then allow a wide range of offshoots to grow from this first seed, Rieder contends that histories of sf should be less interested in defending specific origins for the genre, and should instead embrace a strategy of “observing an accretion of repetitions, echoes, imitations, allusions, identifications, and distinctions” whose interpenetration demonstrates “the way that sf gradually comes into visibility” (196). Part of this work of making sf visible concerns its relations with neighboring genres, other unstable formations from which sf at times seeks to distinguish itself (such as the purging of science fantasy from “proper” science fiction under John W. Campbell’s editorial vision in the 1940s), or with which sf at other times seeks alliance (such as the affinities between New Wave sf and postmodern literature in their common interest in experimental form and metatextuality in the 1960s).
By labeling certain texts sf, Rieder explains, authors, critics, advertisers, or editors rhetorically intervene in the genre’s distribution and reception. They advocate its use by a particular community of readers, trained to read in a particular way. The result is that the act of labeling certain texts “science fiction,” and hence shaping the genre to particular forms and ends, is also an act that produces the genre’s communities of practice. Unique among popular genres, sf is characterized by a highly interactive relationship among its authors, readers, and fans, particularly in the early days of the pulp magazines when fiction labeled sf was largely read by only a small group of enthusiasts. The pulp magazines almost immediately began to publish letters columns, and Gernsback actively sought feedback from his readers about future publications (it is impossible to determine how much this was an expression of shared enthusiasm for the genre, and how much a marketing ploy designed to create a steady readership). Clubs to discuss sf followed and shortly thereafter began to produce their own publications, fanzines, which form the earliest sites of critical response to the genre and are the source of terminology that remains in use today (the most famous being “space opera,” coined by Bob Tucker in the January 1941 issue of Le Zombie). This close relationship between an enthusiastic group of fans and sf’s emergence in the magazines, however, can tend to obscure the fact that they are not the only people “practising” sf. Focusing on this version of the genre’s history to the exclusion of other possibilities, such as its instantiation in nonprint media, or the use of sf techniques in fiction published in other venues, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), produces a unified and yet only partial account of the genre. Rieder thus calls for sf critics to begin to pay attention not merely to “the choices writers make when composing texts or that readers make, or ought to make, in interpreting them” but further to “the practice of generic attribution” (204), from sites of both high and low culture, as part of the genre’s history and meaning. We will need to understand multiple communities of practice to grasp sf’s perplexities.
Gernsback’s new sort of magazine
We begin, however, with Gernsback and the community of practice that emerged from, yet also exceeded, his creation of the genre label as a marketing category. Gernsback announced that his magazine launched a new kind of fiction, but even as his description promotes sf’s uniqueness, he draws on existing publications to define the kin...

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Citation styles for Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed
APA 6 Citation
Vint, S. (2014). Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Vint, Sherryl. (2014) 2014. Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Vint, S. (2014) Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Vint, Sherryl. Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.