Recently I’ve been browsing through Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Rob Latham. So much good stuff! I’ve probably missed a few statements. But here’s what I found. If not noted, the author is probably Latham.
Editorial: A new sort of magazine
There is the usual fiction magazine, the love story and the sex-appeal type of magazine, the adventure type, and so on, but a magazine of “Scientifiction” is a pioneer in its field in America.
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. For many years stories of this nature were published in the sister magazines of Amazing Stories—Science and Invention and Radio News.
Poe, Verne, Wells, Bellamy, and many others have proved themselves real prophets. Prophesies made in many of their most amazing stories are being realized—and have been realized. Take the fantastic submarine of Jules Verne’s most famous story, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for instance. He predicted the present day submarine almost down to the last bolt! New inventions pictured for us in the scientifiction of today are not at all impossible of realization tomorrow. Many great science stories destined to be of an historical interest are still to be written, and Amazing Stories magazine will be the medium through which such stories will come to you. Posterity will point to them as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but in progress as well.
Preface to The Scientific Romances
H. G. Wells
These tales have been compared with the work of Jules Verne and there was a disposition on the part of literary journalists at one time to call me the English Jules Verne. As a matter of fact there is no literary resemblance whatever between the anticipatory inventions of the great Frenchman and these fantasies. His work dealt almost always with actual possibilities of invention and discovery, and he made some remarkable forecasts. The interest he invoked was a practical one; he wrote and believed and told that this or that thing could be done, which was not at that time done. He helped his reader to imagine it done and to realise what fun, excitement or mischief would ensue. Many of his inventions have “come true.” But these stories of mine collected here do not pretend to deal with possible things; they are exercises of the imagination in a quite different field. They belong to a class of writing which includes the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the True Histories of Lucian, Peter Schlemil and the story of Frankenstein. It includes too some admirable inventions by Mr. David Garnett, Lady into Fox for instance. They are all fantasies; they 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. They have to hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof and argument, and the moment he closes the cover and reflects he wakes up to their impossibility.
What do you mean: Science? Fiction?
Assuming [several named authors] to represent some general area of agreement on what we mean when we talk about “science fiction,” I believe it is possible to distinguish within the broad area certain distinct and more reasonably definable forms:
2. “Preaching stories”: primarily allegories and satires—morality pieces, prophecies, visions, and warnings, more concerned with the conduct of human society than with its techniques. These are the true “pseudoscience” stories: they utilize science (or technology), or a plausible semblance of science (or technology), or at least the language and atmosphere, in just the same way that the scientific treatise in disguise utilizes fiction. And let me point out again (rather more enthusiastically than before) that some first-rate writing has emerged from this sort of forced marriage. (Perhaps the difference between the work of a marriage broker and a shotgun wedding?) Stapledon’s Starmaker falls into this group, as well as Ray Bradbury’s (specifically) science fiction and a large proportion of both Utopian and anti-Utopian novels up through the turn of the century.
“all uses of SF as prophecy, futurology, program or anything else claiming ontological factuality for the SF image-clusters, are obscurantist and reactionary at the deepest level” (Positions 71).
The many deaths of science fiction: A polemic
Robert Heinlein’s definition of SF as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method,” allows him a “rigorous” future projection …
Clarke, I. F. The Pattern of Expectation: 1644-2001. New York: Basic Books, 1979.
Sees the genre as essentially extrapolative, emerging in the early modern period with the advent of predictive futuristic speculation.
About 5,750 words
Samuel R. Delany
Events that have not happened include several subcategories. These subcategories describe the subcategories of SF. Events that have not happened include those events that might happen: these are your technological and sociological predictive tales.
On the poetics of the science fiction genre
SF can thus be used as a hand-maiden of futurological foresight in technology, ecology, sociology, etc. Whereas this may be a legitimate secondary function the genre can be made to bear, any oblivion of its strict secondariness may lead to confusion and indeed danger. Ontologically, art is not pragmatic truth nor fiction fact. To expect from SF more than a stimulus for independent thinking, more than a system of stylized narrative devices understandable only in their mutual relationships within a fictional whole and not as isolated realities, leads insensibly to critical demand for and of scientific accuracy in the extrapolated realia. Editors and publishers of such “hard” persuasion have, from the U.S. pulp magazines to the Soviet agitprop, been inclined to turn the handmaiden of SF into the slavey of the reigning theology of the day (technocratic, psionic, utopian, catastrophic, or whatever). Yet this fundamentally subversive genre languishes in strait-jackets more quickly than most other ones, responding with atrophy, escapism, or both. Laying no claim to prophecies except for its statistically to be expected share, SF should not be treated as a prophet: neither enthroned when apparently successful, nor beheaded when apparently unsuccessful. As Plato found out in the court of Dionysus and Hythloday at cardinal Morton’s, SF figures better devote themselves to their own literary republics, which, to be sure, lead back—but in their own way—to the Republic of Man. SF is finally concerned with the tensions between Civitas Dei and Civitas Terrena, and it cannot be uncritically committed to any mundane City.
Malmgren, Carl. Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.
A structuralist anatomy of the genre that divides work into extrapolative and speculative modes, with the former driven by prediction and the latter by visionary projection; offers one of the best analyses of the operations of “science fantasy” available.
Ideology and world view
Fredric Jameson provides a more sobering perspective, suggesting that the genre can be defined precisely by its inability to truly imagine the future. The anticipatory promise of SF can always be shown, in retrospect, to be a failure, with the genre historically mounting a series of fictive projections that never escape the orbit of the prevailing “political unconscious,” which both enables and constrains the prophetic imagination. Yet that does not mean the enterprise is pointless or quixotic since the mere fact that SF defamiliarizes present-day reality is a serious political function, potentially reorienting a reader’s experience of that reality in important ways. The future, for Jameson, can never be represented in an SF text, because writers are obviously limited to the worlds they know, but the possibility of simply grasping the nature of these limitations, however obliquely, is itself a significant political accomplishment of the genre. Since Jameson is a Marxist critic, his goal is the imagination of a world after capitalism, but even if SF fails in its attempts to project such a world, the failure itself can be powerfully instructive. At the very least, by purporting to gaze forward in time, SF can restore to readers a sense of their own historicity and of the evanescence and mutability of all “presents,” including their own.
Race and the legacy of colonialism
The following selection by Kodwo Eshun brilliantly shows how SF can, despite its origins in colonialist histories, be used to arraign the logics of empire. Crafted as an imaginary report written by a team of African archaeologists in a future where African states (today still subject to neocolonial pressures) have combined into a self-governing federation, the essay makes a compelling case for the construction of “counterfutures” that can speak to those whose cultures have been disenfranchised or expropriated by the forces of imperialism. These counterfutures would operate as all SF does: not by attempting in some supposedly disinterested way to predict the coming future but by intervening into present-day politics in order to articulate alternatives.
Further considerations on Afrofuturism
Science fiction might better be understood, in Samuel R. Delany’s statement, as offering “a significant distortion of the present” (Last Angel of History 1995). To be more precise, science fiction is neither forward-looking nor utopian. Rather, in William Gibson’s phrase, science fiction is a means through which to preprogram the present (cited in Eshun 1998). Looking back at the genre, it becomes apparent that science fiction was never concerned with the future, but rather with engineering feedback between its preferred future and its becoming present.
A subtle oscillation between prediction and control is being engineered in which successful or powerful descriptions of the future have an increasing ability to draw us towards them, to command us to make them flesh.
Taking its cue from this “dual nature” of the “critical and utopian,” an Afrofuturist art project might work on the exposure and reframing of futurisms that act to forecast and fix African dystopia. For the contemporary African artist of 2005, these projections of relentless social disaster contain certain conceptual implications.
The African artist that researches this dimension will find a space for distinct kinds of anticipatory designs, projects of emulation, manipulation, parasitism. Interpellation into a bright corporate tomorrow by ads full of faces smiling at screens may become a bitter joke at the expense of multinational delusions. The artist might reassemble the predatory futures that insist the next 50 years will be ones of unmitigated despair.
Afrofuturism, then, is concerned with the possibilities for intervention within the dimension of the predictive, the projected, the proleptic, the envisioned, the virtual, the anticipatory and the future conditional.
Biotic invasions: Ecological imperialism in new wave science fiction
Disch went on to celebrate the early novels of Ballard, especially The Drought, as prophetic visions of how a violated nature might take revenge on its heedless exploiters.
Alien/Asian: Imagining the racialized future
Stephen Hong Sohn
“Detained,” which first aired on April 24, 2002, as part of the Star Trek: Enterprise series (2001–2005). The episode revolves around the rescue of Captain Jonathan Archer (played by Scott Bakula) and Helmsman Travis Mayweather (played by Anthony Montgomery) from an unknown detention facility in which they awaken mysteriously. They are being held with a humanoid alien species known as the Suliban, who may or may not possess the ability to shapeshift.
Rick Berman, one of the co-executive producers of Star Trek: Enterprise, affirmed that the name “Suliban” drew inspiration from the Taliban; his decision to include references to the Taliban occurred after his visit to Afghanistan. The violation of civil liberties after 9/11, especially for Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, South Asian Americans, or anyone suspected of potentially being a “terrorist,” has generated numerous comparisons to the experiences of Japanese Americans after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Since this Star Trek episode was written four months prior to 9/11, the eerie prescience of Berman’s vision serves as an indicator that part of science fiction’s appeal is its ability to predict the future.