“Don’t tell anybody, but science fiction no longer exists.”
Matthew Cheney, The Old Equations, Strange Horizons
Welcome to the SF Café, in the ghetto of Genre, in the city of Writing, in the Republic of Art. We call it the SF Café because only the letters S and F survive, but you can still see the full name today, The Science Fiction Café and Bar, traced in the grime, outlined in the negative shadow of those clean spaces left where the letters have fallen away. It may look a bit shabby from the outside and there’s surely some weird shit in the window that makes you wonder what the fuck is going on inside. But let’s step through the door right now, and step through the decades too, to see it as it once was, the shining formica of the counter-top, the sleek silvery steel of the coffee machine and soda fountain, the bakelite and plastic of the trappings, the decor all bright white and brilliant red, shining, gleaming, with the Fifties promise of futurity. This is the SF Café as it was in the Golden Age, when Old Man Campbell owned it.
Emphasis on the was.
Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that I’m parking my arse in a booth in the SF Café, opening up my laptop and tapping out a grandiose proclamation on the “death of science fiction” as a start-point. It’s just that the SF Café is a whole other scene to what it once was, and from where I’m sitting I’d be a fool to say that what I’m talking about is science fiction, when that S, it seems to me, as often as not, simply stands for “strange.”
There are three flavours of definition for science fiction, you see — empty, open and closed. The first two are flavours I’m OK with, the latter… not so much. Where all that’s left is the two figurae of the label sf, the definition is empty. What is sf? It is, as they say, whatever I point to when I say, sf. Nuff said.
In the open definition, we take a laissez-faire approach. We might characterise science fiction as a family of works which do this or that, but we’re happy to admit that those features (whatever they might be) are neither essential nor unique to the genre; there are works which might be science fiction and might not. Hell, when we call it a genre, what we really mean is just… a field of fiction. Like indie music, right? Which could be anything from Arcade Fire to Adam Green, Zero 7 to the Zutons.
In the closed definitions of Science Fiction, that thumbnail descriptor becomes a stamp of commercial or literary identity, carved with clean edges — hence bold and in capitals. If the openly defined science fiction is a genre like indie music, Science Fiction is a Genre like the good old-fashioned Rock’n’Roll of the 50s and 60s. This is a family of fiction marked out by conventions that are largely unique and essential to it; clear boundaries are set over what is or isn’t Science Fiction.
Down in the ghetto at the SF Café, we do like to argue over what is or isn’t Science Fiction. The jukebox here has all those bands on it — because the clientele is pretty mixed these days — but there are a fair few customers who furrow their brows and frown sullenly when Adam Green comes on. Cause that just ain’t Rock’n’Roll. Old Man Campbell really wouldn’t have approved.
A Basic Definition of Science Fiction
The first problem with the closed definition? There’s more than one. There are many definitions of Science Fiction. They are all right… for someone. They are all wrong… for someone. Here’s a rather basic one as an example:
Science Fiction is a pulp genre which combines Romantic character types, plot structures and settings with a Rationalist focus on scientific theories and conjectures, requiring a degree of rigour in the extrapolation of its hypothetical conceits. Science Fiction is scientific romance or Hugo Gernsback’s scientifiction, taken to its logical conclusion:
“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.”
This is science fiction as fantasia (fabrication, necessarily strange and necessarily affecting) bound firmly to futurology (speculation, necessarily scientific and necessarily plausible). Old Man Campbell was pretty strict about what was on the menu at the SF Café.
“To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation of the known must be made. Ghosts can enter science fiction, if they’re logically explained, but not if they are simply the ghosts of fantasy. Prophetic extrapolation can derive from a number of different sources, and apply in a number of fields. Sociology, psychology, and para-psychology are, today, not true sciences; therefore, instead of forecasting future results of application of sociological science of today, we must forecast the development of a science of sociology. From there the story can take off.”
John W. Campbell
Note the use of the term prophetic by both, with its complex of connotations quite at odds with the grounding in science — religion and rapture, voices and visions, the conjuring otherwise known as fantasy (defined, for the moment, not in terms of literature but in terms of psychology: the sustained fancy; the ludic or oneiric imagining; from the Greek phantasia; a making visible). The relationship of sf and fantasy will be a theme here. More than a few readers will doubtless bristle at my use of the f-word. (To be fair, I’m not that fond of it myself, its meaning similarly confused by a mixture of empty, open and closed definitions.) But until we can get stuck into it, we are unfortunately stuck with it.
Anyway, the point is this: up to and during the Golden Age, born of the simple fact that futurology resulted in arguable fantasias, there was a tight-knit relationship between Rationalism and Romanticism which kept the form aesthetically coherent and commercially viable. Atom bombs and satellites, microwaves and mechanisation — the future looked exciting, rich with the all-important sense-of-wonder. So this new Genre emerged for the Rocket Age, a popular form which, like the other pulp forms, had its own set of rules, its clear boundaries, a form which was delineated in steel and formica, bakelite and plastic, in Old Man Campbell’s Science Fiction Café and Bar, in the world of nuclear power and space flight just around the corner.
That bold new Science Fiction didn’t come from nowhere, of course, but as long as we’re talking in closed definitions, let’s not pretend that it’s existed from the dawn of time.
The Birth of Science Fiction
Here’s a rather more contentious honing of that definition, situating the aesthetic form in its historical context:
Originally coined as a substitute for the more unwieldy labels of scientific romance or scientifiction, the term Science Fiction properly applies to a short-lived pulp genre of the early to mid 20th Century utilising Romantic character types, plot structures and settings but sourcing its fantasia in Rationalist futurology. This pulp genre existed for a few decades at most before its practitioners exploded the rigid proscriptions and prescriptions of the original form.
Trust me, I know this definition invites irate challenges. Just how short-lived is short-lived? If we are defining this form as pulp are we excluding works published outside this commercial environment? Where do Jules Verne and H.G. Wells sit in relationship to this Science Fiction? What of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley? Don’t these writers fit the open definitions of science fiction that have accreted to the coinage? And if so are we denying them a seat in the SF Café if we say they’re not Science Fiction? Isn’t this too narrowly limiting our scope?
It’s certainly a narrower view than that of Brian Aldiss who, in his TRILLION YEAR SPREE, positions science fiction as an outgrowth of the Gothic, tracing it back to Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN as point of origin. Which is a fair argument, just one I disagree with. Aldiss is not simply co-opting a classic in a grasp for literary credibility, the common accusation of science fiction’s detractors whenever this sort of case is made — his analysis is a valid attempt to trace the roots of this mode of writing — but there’s a substantial disjunct between the creepy aesthetic of this novel and the sense-of-wonder permeating Campbellian Science Fiction. FRANKENSTEIN might be science fiction, but it is not Science Fiction.
No, the Gottischromanzen Kaffeehaus sat on a different block entirely from where the SF Café now stands, so to speak. Its blasted shell still sits there, in fact, haunted by vampires and nihilists, the first casualty in the Culture Wars that created the ghetto of Genre; but the SF Café is a different scene with a different vibe, with a few goths but a damn sight more geeks in the host of freaks that frequent it.
The Culture Wars? you say.
Let’s jump back a few centuries, to the period when the Enlightenment was radically reshaping our notions of literature. In the Republic of Art, in those days, coming out of the Renaissance, you had two rival aesthetics, one attaching itself to this new scientific outlook called Rationalism, idealising reason, and the other grounded in the flip-side world-view of Romanticism, idealising passion, each defined partly in relation to the past (Classical Greece on the one hand and Dark Ages Europe on the other) but largely in relation to each other. One day, into this worldscape, into the city of Writing, a strange figure rides. He dismounts, strides into the Tall Tale Tavern, where poets and storytellers sit recounting grandiose nonsenses, endless episodes of Chivalric Romance like AMADIS DE GAUL. With a bitter biting grin, Cervantes slams his DON QUIXOTE down upon a wooden table and begins, his savage satire crafting a Rationalist endeavour quite distinct from the Romances of his peers — an endeavour that will come to be known as the novel.
In the centuries that follow, that novel takes a curious course. The Romantic aesthetic is brought back into play, as writers attempt to fuse the two aesthetics, to create a Rationalist Romance; the Gothic Romance and the Victorian Social Realist novel make fuckee-fuckee in the minds of unashamed synthesists. In the dialectic between the two aesthetics then, in the interzones where they collide and collude through the medium of individual texts — where the author isn’t purely allied one way or the other but playing out the conflict in their writing — there emerges this synthesis of Rationalist thesis and Romanticist antithesis that we might call “protomodern.” In that long period up to 1900 or just beyond we get the roots of every contemporary Genre. We get Samuel Richardson, Ann Radcliffe, Emily Brontë, Jane Austin (roots of Romance). We get Sara Coleridge, George Macdonald, Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbitt, Kenneth Grahame (roots of Fantasy). We get Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, H. Rider Haggard (roots of Adventure). We get Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, M.R. James (roots of Horror). We get Ernest William Hornung, Arthur Conan Doyle (roots of Crime & Mystery & Thriller). We get Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells (roots of Science Fiction).
None of these writers are Genre in the modern sense because Genre in the modern sense doesn’t yet exist — the walls of the ghetto have not yet been built — but a slow drift of writers uptown or downtown does begin to gradually reshape the city of Writing, a distinction emerging between Gothic (romantic) “Popular Fiction” and Realist (rationalist) “Literature”. Some of these writers find themselves on one or other side of that boundary, drawn to the Gottischromanzen Kaffeehaus downtown or the Social Realist Tea Room uptown, but many of them live and work in that dynamic interzone between the two. They become formative of multiple Genres, these writers, because they work in multiple modes, but remain acknowledged as part of the canon of “literary” classics. The class divide and notions of “commercialism” haven’t yet wholly degraded the debate. The Culture Wars are only just beginning.
The literary “variety” journals in the UK, most notably the Strand, capture the last days of this protomodern period perfectly, publishing many of the writers named above alongside poets and short story writers of any and every mode. Ghost stories, detective stories, all sorts of strange fiction pervades the protomodern periodicals. Much of it is noteable for its sensationalism, the way it exploits a sense of the incredible, and the sense of desire and dread that attaches to it, with events that breach the laws of nature. Even in Dickens the importance of melodrama and the aesthetic of the grotesque cannot be understated. If these works don’t sit in Genre they are clearly using the techniques of Genre, the effects derived from stepping outside the mimetic strictures of Social Realism.
It is in these journals, among the tales of mystery and adventure that the embryo that will become Science Fiction gestates, resembling Sherlock Holmes and Allan Quatermain as much as Victor Frankenstein.
Then the steam train of modernity hits and leads to mass-production and mass-marketing, greater literacy and a corresponding shift in class demographics. Through the last half of the 19th century we see the penny dreadfuls and dime novels burgeoning. With the turn of the new century, suddenly we start to see magazines and imprints dedicated to specific forms. From the early 1900s through to the 30s or 40s, there’s a boom that utterly reshapes the territory. It’s a totally evolutionary process — expansion, diffusion, isolation, specialisation — that leads to the pulp Genres we have today (and a few that are now all but defunct). A process of formulation sets in within all of those Genres, of course. Marketing to readers on the basis that there’s a discrete audience for “more of the same” means codifying “the same”, defining what each Genre is, or should be, in terms of conventional tropes of character, background and plot structure. That’s a big part of the distinction between genre and Genre, actually.
The fallout of this is the Culture Wars. Because all of these fictions are based on the reactions invoked in the reader when confronted with the incredible, anything which uses the same underlying techniques, which invokes the same reactions, is suddenly perceived as being not simply a work of this or that Genre (Gothic, Mystery, Adventure, etc.) but as having a certain quality which identifies it as Genre (that quality being, to all intents and purposes, sensationalism), a quality which also intrinsically allies it with “Popular Fiction” rather than “Literature” (since “Literature” is that fiction careful to mediate its sensationalism with intellectualism, the distanced narrative of the observer, commentator, critic).
For a middle-class and middle-brow readership to whom intellectual status is important (and for whom the observation and commentary is equated with relevance and insight) those associations bring on a crisis of faith — should they really be reading this sensationalist pulp? Should they really be reading this… Genre? That negative reaction plays out in writing and publishing as writers and editors, readers too, fall victim to the same crisis of faith or simply to the market forces born of it. The battle-lines are drawn, tastes divided into Good and Bad. Soon there’s no fucking way you could publish a journal like the Strand and there’s no fucking way you could run a publishing imprint which had a similar diversity; before you know it that dialectic is reified in an uncrossable divide between high-brow Literature and low-brow Genre. The first great battle in the Culture Wars is this act of expulsion, of abjection, that outcasts sensationalism and creates Genre as an aesthetic territory in its own right, the walls of the ghetto raised around it.
Just at the point when Science Fiction is being born.
The Spirit of ’76
In the SF Café there are a fair few arguments over the music on the jukebox. There are those who hate punk rock (because they are idiots) and those who love it (because they are not idiots); even among the latter there’s a disagreement not unlike those arguments over the roots of science fiction. To wit: there’s no doubt that both The Velvet Underground and The Stooges were heavily influential to punk rock, but does this mean we should class them both as punk bands?
Put it this way: With The Velvet Underground, we have the far more complex sound of art rock and an attitude more that of the bohemian auteur than the suburban anarchist. Associating this band with the genre of punk at any deeper level than that of influence seems a pretty spurious claim. But The Stooges are a different matter. While they’re more generally considered a garage band, and a seminal one at that, the distinction between early 70s garage and mid 70s punk is largely a matter of labelling. Somewhere between The Sonics (Chuck Berry on strychnine) and The Ramones (The Beach Boys on speed), garage rock seamlessly morphs into punk. The Clash song, “Garageland” makes that lineage explicit, in fact, acknowledges the origins of punk in garage. So at what point does garage become punk?
We could just draw a line at the New York Dolls or the Sex Pistols, and say: punk starts here, and nothing before that, nothing outside the historical context of the New York or London punk scene circa 1976, can truly be considered punk. We could carry on from this and argue that Television were a punk band, regardless of their twenty minute instrumental tracks, regardless of the music’s stylistic intricacy, rich with syncopated guitars and complex rhythms, simply because they, unlike The Stooges, were part of this historical context, in the right place at the right time, playing CBGB’s in 1976.
But there’s a problem. If we examine the actual characteristics of the music — what it’s doing, how it works — and the attitude of insolent aggression that went along with it, The Stooges are way more punk than Television ever were. Listen to the confrontational shambles which is The Stooges last concert, recorded on the album Metallic KO. Listen to the fuck-you lyrics of “Cock In My Pocket”, Iggy’s hectoring of the audience, the stripped-down, ramped-up sound of a classic guitar, bass and drums combo playing (when they are actually playing) with energy in inverse proportion to their skill. Look at the cover where Scott Asheton in full Nazi regalia can be seen cradling an unconscious and bloody Iggy Pop. Not punk? If that isn’t in the spirit of ’76, fuck knows what is.
If we could dismiss these similarities with a claim that The Stooges were simply a formative influence upon punk, we could say the same of The New York Dolls, maybe even The Ramones. Malcolm Maclaren would have us believe, after all, that punk only truly came into existence with the Sex Pistols. Given that Metallic KO was recorded only a few years before the punk label became common currency, however, on the basis of shared characteristics alone, a simple widening of historical perspective could surely lead us to argue that The Stooges are not simply proto-punk but in fact embryonic punk, aesthetically every bit as punk as the bands that followed in the chaos of their wake but historically situated in a period of gestation, before punk proper was born and named.
This works for me. Hey, what’s the point in having your cake if you can’t eat it too?
A Flash of Lightning
There’s a point to this: Does FRANKENSTEIN sit in the same relationship to Science Fiction as The Stooges do to punk, or is that relationship more analogous to that of The Velvet Underground and punk? The answer, it seems to me, is the latter. For all that it extrapolates from the scientific theories and experiments of its period, positing the monster as a patchwork of body-parts reanimated by scientific craft rather than magical skill, the novel is as commitedly Gothic as WUTHERING HEIGHTS or NORTHANGER ABBEY, infused with a tremulous fear of the uncanny, and informed by that horrorific mode of romanticism to such a degree that the rationalist attitude of Campbellian Science Fiction stands in stark contrast. The world that Shelley’s aesthetic inhabits is not the exotic alien planet of the pulps but the desolate wilderness of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare or Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, a world of storms and nightmares, mountains and icy wastes.
The reason I do not, with Aldiss, class FRANKENSTEIN as the birth of Science Fiction is that in its ultimately romantic stance it is far better understood as the death of Science Fiction. There is no lightning bolt in the novel bringing life to the monster with the electric vitality of science; that is a spurious invention of the movies. Rather the lightning in FRANKENSTEIN is there to paint the creature in sudden stark relief as a grotesque figure of utter horror:
“A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon, to whom I had given life.”
Mary Shelley, FRANKENSTEIN, Chapter 7
This is a lightning bolt that shatters any pretence of rationalism, that murders Reason, revealing the wilderness of Gothic nightmare and the monstrous form that stalks it. It is a lightning bolt that will one day sear right through the genre of science fiction, a shattering crack of irrationalism that will split it right in two. You can still see the crack in the wall of the SF Café where that seismic shock ran through it on the day the beatniks moved in with their garb as black as their European espresso.
But we’ll come to that.
Would Verne or Wells stand as better origin points? Is it not at least fair to talk of TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA or THE WAR OF THE WORLDS as SCIENCE FICTION? Again, these are understandable as science fiction, but are they Science Fiction? At the end of the day, these are both works which, like The Stooges with punk, fit the aesthetic criteria but sit outside the historical context; they are protomodern works, written in that distant time before the walls went up around the ghetto of Genre. They are clearly formative influences, taproots of Science Fiction, but they exist as experiments within their own genres, at a point when the term Science Fiction had not even been coined, and it’s inevitable that they will be widely viewed as such, just as The Stooges are most commonly viewed as a garage band, and for good reason. Ultimately if we want to understand the processes that shaped the field a narrower view of that historical context establishes a stronger foundation for our argument. So we’ll treat Verne and Wells as embryonic, situated in that period of gestation before Science Fiction proper was born and named.
That birth and naming begins with the pulps, with Gernsback’s scientifiction. In those early decades before the SF Café was even built there was not one Genre but a whole host of them, where the protomodern adventure story was gradually being transformed into the modern mass-market pulp narrative. One Nick Carter dime novel in 1886 begets Nick Carter Weekly which becomes Detective Story Magazine in 1915; that same magazine publishes Arthur Conan Doyle but it does so alongside the Shadow. The publisher, Street & Smith Publications (who bought Astounding in 1933, funny enough) also gave us comics like Doc Savage and Air Ace, Western magazines like Buffalo Bill Stories and True Western Stories. Edgar Rice Burroughs gives us Tarzan of the Apes in 1912 and John Carter in 1917, both via All-Story Magazine, which was to merge eventually with Argosy. Amazing Stories gives us Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon only being created derivatively as a rival.
This is our lineage. This is the history of the ghetto of Genre, into which Science Fiction was born, not in a flash of lightning but in the clatter of a printing press, a bastard of the pulps.
A Crack in the Wall
“The one theme that is really new is the scientific one. Death-rays, Martians, invisible men, robots, helicopters and interplanetary rockets figure largely: here and there. There are even far-off rumours of psychotherapy and ductless glands. Whereas the Gem and Magnet derive from Dickens and Kipling, the Wizard, Champion, Modern Boy, etc., owe a great deal to H. G. Wells, who, rather than Jules Verne, is the father of ‘Scientifiction’.”
If we’re excluding work published before Science Fiction was born, however, this doesn’t mean excluding work published beyond its cradle. George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, for example, sits outside the narrow context we are taking as our start point, outside the pulp magazines which were to Science Fiction as CBGB’s in 1976 was to punk rock. But to exclude a contemporaneous work like this from science fiction would be as foolish as to say a band could be considered punk if and only if they played CBGB’s. Embodying a convergance of the romantic tradition of (dark) fantasia and the rationalist tradition of (dystopic) futurology, Orwell’s novel shares so many of the features which identify the genre that to deny that it is not simply science fiction but Science Fiction seems… a bit obtuse.
Are we in danger here of opening ourselves up to that old accusation, that we are merely co-opting Orwell to a tradition in the hopes of gaining literary credibility for the field? If so, we have a fairly solid defence. Orwell was taught by Aldous Huxley at Eton, he was friends with Olaf Stapledon later on in life, he wrote of his admiration for and influence by Wells, and, in his 1939 essay “Boy’s Weeklies”, he reveals enough familiarity with the pulps to act as a well-informed genre critic, as the quote above demonstrates. Orwell was no stranger to the SF Café.
So what we have is someone who identified his own work as in the tradition of Wells, who recognised that same heritage in the pulps, who was able to distinguish Wellsian rationalism from Vernean romance, and whose novel features world governments, artificial language and other such hypotheticals. All things considered, to exclude NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR from the canon would just be thrawn, akin to a claim that ANIMAL FARM is not a fable because, well, it was published as a serious novel for adult readers. Such a distinction is no more than a spurious assertion that the two forms are mutually exclusive. ANIMAL FARM, as an allegorical animal story, fits a simple standard definition of the fable as an aesthetic form, and by its nature it demonstrates that, in the hands of a skilled writer, this aesthetic form is more than capable of achieving the depth of a serious novel for adult readers. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR is equally a demonstration that Science Fiction is not necessarily a romantic piece of fluff or a rationalist intellectual exercise, that a work of Science Fiction can, like an allegorical animal story, also be a serious novel for adult readers.
Still, the first crack in the wall of the SF Café appears at this point, as the closed definition of Science Fiction is opened up just a little to render the romance dispensible, in a step towards the rationalism of mimetic Social Realism. It is a step towards science fiction, towards the utopias and dystopias of literary history and the sociological thought-experiments still to come.
If we are taking our lower boundary after Verne and Wells then, but expanding our outer boundaries beyond the pulp environment to encompass, for example, Orwell, what then of the upper boundary? If our definition of Science Fiction situates it in a historical context as a short-lived genre, at what point are we claiming that it ceased to exist? And how so? And why?
The why and how are easier to answer than the when. As much as Science Fiction was born of a fusion of romantic and rationalist aesthetics, the conflict between the romantic ideal of the sublime and the rationalist ideal of the logical quickly fractured the Genre into, on the one hand, romantic “let’s pretend” stories where the futurology was merely a means to an end — a visionary technique for developing wild fantasias of exotic creatures and weird technology — and, on the other hand, rationalist “what if” stories where the futurology was an end in itself — where the drive of the narrative involves a logical working-through of the ramifications. Complementary exemplars of these two forms are Frank Herbert’s DUNE series on the one hand and Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION series on the other.
It was this fracturing of the genre into an artificial dichotomy of opposed forms that was to lead eventually to the self-destruction of Science Fiction as a clearly-defined genre. It is this clearly-defined Science Fiction that we can dismiss as no longer truly extant, Science Fiction as a class of fiction unified by dictates of form and composition rather than by the mere act of categorisation or approximate characterisation. For me it’s not a problem to say that this Science Fiction is dead; it doesn’t mean science fiction is anything of the sort.
Of course, that dichotomy between rationalism and romanticism is also at the heart of why I’m no great fan of even the open definition of science fiction — because this is what fuels the perennial argument within the field over the differentiation of that science fiction and the dreaded fantasy. Or Fantasy rather.
But that’s a topic for another day, another column.
- originally published 9/3/2009
Hal Duncan is a sodomitic Scots smoker who staggered drunkenly into the SF Café in 2005 with his debut, VELLUM, and now has various novels, novellas, short stories, poems and essays circling in print or the aether. Further scribblings and rantings can be found at www.halduncan.com.