No full version of this essay has been published. One insufficient aspect dealing with the parallels to Weiss but not with its position in Japanese youth revolt was published in a book by various hands in the 1990s.

Part 1 analyses how the Black Tent Theatre (BTT) played Satoh’s Dance of Angels in 1970-71 on the basis of the text and staging data available in translation and interviews with its prominent members. It was a counter-project to Weiss’s Marat/Sade, radically changed by the feedback with the mainly youth-revolt audience within an angura stance refusing the shingeki theatre, so that words interacted with music, noises, dance, and song in imaginary spaces emphasising body-centeredness in the tradition of political demonstrations, the repressed popular culture of the early 1900s, manga-like bold simplifications, and cinematic cuts. The consubstantiality between theatre and youth rebellion took the form of a part of the movement being self-deputised to become an organ for a criticism of the whole. Part 2 is a detailed interpretation of the play’s dramaturgic agents and their spacetimes as a metaphoric structure with four levels, visible both on the enclosed stage sketch and the depth graph. The differing agents (Birds, Angels, and Winds) represent power levels intimately shaped by a specific time sense and a relation to the threatening revolution. The play enacts not only a painful contingent defeat but also the collapse of the myth of predetermined, linear progression toward revolution, shared by the Old and the New Left. The ambiguous ending is left open.
Part 3 is about the historical lesson to be drawn from the BTT 1970-71 tour, whose audience is analysed. The values at stake centered on the horizon of revolution, thus the section “Disalienation and Politics: The Involution of Revolution,” discusses the BTT’s perceived analogies between the salvational monolithism of tennoism and Stalinism as opposed to self-management. The Dance of Angels performances aimed to articulate and unfold this syndrome in the youth movement, and especially its activist factions — many still engaged at the Sanrizuka protest or in violent city and university conflicts – as to its possibilities and costs. A further section analyzes the audience of their 65 performances and the BTT’s black diagnosis of a “Japanese passive dreaming.” This explains their incident with the Chûkaku faction’s, which severely criticized the play snippets performed as esthetic indulgence and irony about the revolution. A third section faces Satoh’s dream metaphor, oscillating between a view of Japanese political ontology as such and of the youth movement’s general failure to awaken the population. Satoh final question was whether the messianic time of a Revolution now sick unto the death could be reconciled to this dreaming Japanese “tennō time” of eternal return. To face it, he took over the thematics of Marat/Sade, expanded his syntactics of circles within a circle, but everted his semantics.  Half a dozen years after Weiss’s play, amid the failure of a great political upheaval, Satoh had even fewer certainties and lower hope than Weiss, but perhaps more experience and patience for a long analysis. His summation was: “1970 was the year when the traditional Old Left in Japan expired. It was also (in retrospect) the beginning of the end of the New Left.”
Part 4 is A Final Question for Us. It argues that the ruling Powers-that-Be, pivoting on the State apparatus, imply a huge and repetitive use of word formulae insofar as the Word guides latent or patent Violence. Whoever wishes to contest today these Powers must find new, liberating formulae in the wake of 1968 to spark the dissident imagination. At its best, the art of a Peter Weiss, Satoh Makoto or Akasegawa Genpei can be an exemplum of how to avoid the extremes of brutality for its own sake and “weak thought” words bereft of political force and power. Here we might need the concept of counter-violence as legitimate self-defence (see Suvin, “Words”).

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The Introduction by Prof. Gerry Canavan, the meritorious editor of the 1979 enlarged MOSF edition is here reproduced for the interest it has, and by his kind permission. The opinions are of course his.

“The Suvin Event”

Gerry Canavan

In “What Is an Author?” (1969), Michel Foucault proposes a category of authorship that goes beyond the creation of a single text: the “founder of discursivity,” who produces “the possibilities and rules for the formation of other texts.”1 Founders of discursivity establish both the theoretical template for the works that follow in the tradition they have called into existence, as well as setting the terms for what will not be included in that tradition, what will be thought of as beyond or outside or heretical to the newly created discourse. Foucault’s primary examples, Freud and Marx, suggest a heuristic that might partially distinguish this kind of foundational thinking, the widespread adoption of one’s name as an adjective, which might in turn prompt us to recognize other examples beyond the two he gives: “Nietzschean,” “Lacanian,” “Deleuzean,” almost certainly even “Foucauldian” itself. In contrast to the vision of “foundation” that one might find in the sciences – in which “the act that founds […] is on an equal footing with its future transformations” – the founder of discursivity becomes a “heterogeneous” origin point to which “its subsequent transformations” must situate themselves in relation.2 We do not seek to explain how, despite their apparent gaps in knowledge or incorrect calculations, Galileo or Newton really understood modern physics in its fullness after all – and yet this is precisely the apologetics that is characteristically performed on behalf of the founder of discursivity, whose apparent errors are always only the chance for a new reevaluation. The “inevitable necessity” of this “return to origin” sets discursivity apart from either science (in which foundations

  1. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?”, in Josué V. Harari,trans. and ed., Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (New York, 1979), p. 154.
  2. Ibid., pp. 155–156.

lose their validity in the face of new empirical observations or more robust theoretical paradigms) or religion (in which foundations are imagined to be unchanging sacred texts); in discursivity, the perpetual reexamination and revision of the founder “constitutes a effective and necessary task of transforming the discursive practice itself.”3 Discourses are vitalized by the continual return (with difference) to origins; this is how they are renewed, and how they adapt themselves to changing circumstances without falling into obsolescence or obscurity.

Darko Suvin’s publication of “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre” in December 19724 – alongside his co-founding of the journal Science Fiction Studies with R.D. Mullen the following year, and the expansion of “Poetics” into Metamorphoses of Science Fiction in 1979 – constitutes precisely this sort of foundational moment for the field of SF criticism. Of course SF studies did not begin with Suvin, nor did Suvin solve all its problems in a single move. But what Suvin did was establish a discourse, in this Foucauldian sense, that subsequent SF critics have needed to contend with, whether positively or negatively. Suvin’s work established contours for the subdiscipline that have come to structure not only SF criticism but the criticism of related speculative genres like fantasy, fairy tales, and horror, the scholarly approaches to which have been defined (usually with significant frustration) by Suvin’s totalizing rejection of them in Metamorphoses. Not all criticism of SF is Suvinian, by any stretch – but the field as a whole is Suvinian, or at least post-Suvinian, in the sense that reaction to his work by his disciples and by his detractors has framed four subsequent decades of the work in the field.

Suvin’s influence can be registered in the way his definition of science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement”5 has become ubiquitous in scholarly introductions to the field, which frequently introduce Suvin’s critical work before mentioning H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley,

  • Ibid., p. 156.
  • Darko Suvin, “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” College English 34.3 (Dec. 1972): 372–382.
  • MOSF (2016), p. 15.

Hugo Gernsback, or any other foundational author associated with the early production of SF texts. In a subfield famously devoted to squabbling over definitions and policing generic boundaries, Suvin’s definition has become a kind of consensus starting point, a place where we might at least begin to speak to one another. Suvin’s name appears in the first paragraph of the first chapter of Adam Roberts’s The History of Science Fiction; the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction and Blackwell’s A Companion to Science Fiction both wait until page two. This tendency can perhaps be especially recognized in those critics who will ultimately find themselves at odds with Suvin’s work; Rob Latham, the editor of The Oxford Handbook,for instance, devotes as much time to enumerating the shortcomings of the Suvinian approach to the genre as he does articulating what that approach entails, even as he admits Suvin’s “enormous influence” as “the signal accomplishment” of the heroic early period of SF criticism.6

Few texts embody this push-and-pull between influence and anxiety more fully than Mark Bould and China Miéville’s edited collection Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009),which examines the relationship between the SF genre and the leftist politics with which it is commonly seen to be in conversation (an understood affinity that exists, as we shall see, in large part precisely due to the critical interventions of Suvin himself ). Bould frames the book as a variety of responses to what he calls the “Suvin event” of 1972/1973: “From that moment on, SF theory and criticism have inhabited – not by any means always contentedly – the Suvin event horizon, or attempted to escape it.”7 The deliberate science fictional imagery – Suvin as supermassive black hole, scholars hopelessly caught in his orbit – is soon doubled; Bould writes that Suvin’s 1970s work “itself arrived like a novum, reordering SF theory and criticism around it, idiosyncratically and contingently wedding SF to Marxism.”8 And this too

  • Rob Lathan, ed. and introduction, The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (Oxford, 2014), pp. 2–3.
  • Mark Bould, “Introduction: Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet, from Nemo to Neo,” in Mark Bould and China Miéville, eds., Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (Middletown, CT, 2009), p. 18.
  • Ibid., p. 19.

is a book whose chapters are frequently in the “fighting to escape” mode of engagement with the Suvin event – perhaps nowhere more aggressively than in Miéville’s own afterword, “Cognition as Ideology,” which calls for a radical reconsideration not only of Suvin’s privileged categories of “cognition” and “utopia” but even a reversal of his preference for SF over fantasy! “Precisely to continue the project of theorising a conjoined SF and fantasy,” the afterword and book concludes, “SF, with its tendency to hegemonise the conversation, might have to be temporarily excluded”9 – a particularly revealing demonstration of the way that even a call to abolish Suvin altogether remains fully inscribed within the circuit of discursivity Suvin founded.

Suvin’s early work on SF, beginning with “Poetics” and culminating in Metamorphoses, is thus best understood not simply as a “Big Bang” for SF studies but as an ongoing and highly contested conversation in which even many of those who prefer non-Suvinian approaches to SF are, for better or worse, debating largely within the terms of the argument as he originally established them. Miéville’s call to replace “utopia” with “alterity”10 – or the orthogonal call of critics like John Rieder, Patricia Kerslake, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, and David Higgins to replace “utopia” with “violence,” “racism,” and “empire” as the critical categories at the heart of SF’s generic imagination – frequently replicate Suvin in form if not in content, using parallel strategies of allegorical and analogical reading to cut through SF’s surface disavowal of the real-world political order to which it responds (and frequently discovering, as in the case of the “imperial turn,” a submerged left critique of empire that is not all that far removed from the glimmers of utopia with which Suvin and closely related critics like Fredric Jameson, Carl Freedman, and Tom Moylan have been so concerned all along).

That pull – the pull towards optimism, towards utopia – remains the overwhelming call of Suvinian criticism of SF, which for Suvin is properly

  • China Miéville, “Cognition as Ideology,” in Bould and Miéville, eds., Red Planets, p. 245.
  • Ibid.

understood as a “fundamentally subversive genre”11 that is “wiser than the world it speaks to.”12 His early critical work positioned SF studies as a site where scholars interrogate notions of futurity and difference, and explore the possibility of radical historical change. As Tom Moylan has noted, in the early 1970s, when Suvin began his project, this work was in conversation with a spirit of world transformation nurtured by a political left that seemed, if only for a time, politically ascendant. Moylan links Suvin’s work to “the wider culture of opposition” of the period, a moment when “the Left […] was undeniably strong, when it held substantial cultural, if not political or economic, power” and “when scholarly work in sf and utopian studies (along with utopian sf itself ) developed in opposition to the reigning orthodoxies of academic literary studies.”13 Suvin’s work certainly draws energy from the optimism of that moment. But Suvin’s work seems quite able to escape this context as well, speaking directly to a contemporary cultural moment when unleashed turbocapitalism, neoliberal paralysis, renewed and vicious militarism, and foreboding ecological pessimism conspire against all hope for a better tomorrow. In fact in the contemporary moment it seems more urgent than ever to take up Metamorphoses’s excavation of the ethos that permeated SF, in all its media forms, across its two-hundred-year existence as a literary genre: a study of the survival and persistence of utopian thought in unhappy times. Suvin’s work traces the story of that persistence – and has also, through its wide influence, itself become part of the story of utopia’s continued, unlikely, and deeply necessary survival.

It’s unsurprising then that critical interest in Suvin has intensified, even as 1960s and 1970s hopes for utopian historical change have withered. As the world grows more and more science fictional – looking, one might say, more and more like the opening montage to some darkly dystopian SF

  1. MOSF (2016), p. 42.
  2. MOSF (2016), p. 50.
  3. Tom Moylan, Scraps of the Untainted Sky (Boulder, CO, 2000), p. 9. For an extended discussion of Metamorphoses in its original historical moment, as well as consideration of the role Suvin’s personal biography played in its development, see especially chapter two of Scraps.

film – SF studies is experiencing renewed renaissance in the academy, with Suvin still an inevitable and necessary reference in these conversations. Web of Science (a digital citation index) records twenty or more citations of Metamorphoses a year in articles since 2009, up from only 5 a year in 2005, while in 2014 ProQuest’s index of over 300 citations for Metamorphoses saw 117 dissertations citing the book between 2000 and 2009, and 91 in just the first four years since 2010.14 The ongoing influence of this text is all the more impressive given that Metamorphoses of Science Fiction has (until now) been out of print for several decades. Scholarly engagement with Suvin’s work has persisted through a online market whose price now regularly passes $100 for a used copy, or though library recall wars, or through illicit, blurry photocopies of the entire manuscript like the one I used in graduate school to write my own dissertation. All told hundreds of scholarly articles, dissertations, and books have cited Metamorphoses in recent years,the majority of these in the years since the book has been very difficult to acquire. When I polled the online discussion lists for the Science Fiction Research Association and International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts (the two primary organizations for the study of SF and related speculative genres) to gauge interest in this reprint, the result was overwhelming. Scholars told me it was “shocking” and “shameful” that the work was out of print, given its continued importance in the field; Benjamin Robertson of the University of Colorado Boulder perhaps best summed up the general mood of my inbox when he wrote: “Imagine if Watt’s The Rise of the Novel was out of print. That’s what having Metamorphoses of Science Fiction out of print is like.”

This rerelease, then, offers SF scholars a long-delayed opportunity for a collective return to origins, a chance to revisit Suvin in light of the years of SF criticism that have come since.

* * *

  1. My thanks to LeslieKay Swigart for providing me with these and other numbers demonstrating Metamorphoses’songoing relevance.

The theoretical intervention at the center of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction has already been mentioned: the defining of “SF” as “the literature of cognitive estrangement,” a superficially oxymoronic formulation that matches the paradoxical relationship between “science” and “fiction” in “science fiction.” This has always been a notoriously thorny problem for writers, critics, and fans of SF; indeed, as Gary K. Wolfe has suggested, the widely adopted move to use the initials “SF” has been motivated in part precisely by the desire to sidestep this issue altogether.15 Is science fiction mostly about “science,” or mostly about story? Is it an extrapolative genre offering us “tomorrow’s headlines today,” or an unrestrained flight of fantasy and goofy irreality (as in the ubiquitous ledes in popular journalism that proclaim the latest gadget “not science fiction, but science fact”)? Should we, as some have suggested, replace “science” with “speculative” to denote that not all (or perhaps not even most) of what is called science fiction has genuine investment in what actual real-world science tell us is true, preferring instead what it tells us is almost certainly not: time travel, FTL drives, mutant superpowers, and on and on? Suvin’s restatement of the oxymoronic relationship between “S” and “F” in his proposed conjuncture between cognition and estrangement does more than simply restate the problem: it is a judo-like embrace of this opposition that reorients SF around this very paradox, and in the process transforms both horns of the dilemma, opening the S of “science” into as much sapientia (wisdom) as scientia (knowledge),16 and remaking the “F” of “fiction” not so much as “falsity” but as “possibility,” or, even more precisely, as “theoreticity” – “fiction” better understood not as deviation from truth but as an alternative orientation towards it.

Suvin thus develops not simply a consensus definition of SF for SF studies (from which discussions, debates, and further differentiations can then proceed) but the larger critical apparatus that makes SF studies (as we have come to know it) possible. He also, in the process, produces a robust history for the genre that reaches back much further in time than the niche

  1. Gary K. Wolfe, “Coming to Terms,” in James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria, eds., Speculations on Speculation (Lanham, MD, 2005), p. 21.
  2. MOSF (2016), p. 50.

marketing practices of mid-twentieth-century publishers. Suvin’s SF includes within itself not only Verne and Wells (two natural starting points for the genre) but also More’s Utopia,Swift’s Gulliver, and pre-modern tales of faroff voyages to lost islands or cities on the Moon. Early in Metamorphoses Suvin even suggests both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the myth of Eden as at least quasi-science-fictional, proto-SF,17 a move which suggests SF as in some sense intrinsically related to the imagination of alterity, difference, and the unknown as such. Such stories are characterized by their interest in the figure of what Suvin calls the novum, the “strange newness” around which a “strange-covariant coordinate systems and semantic fields” might be organized18 – the imagination of which is an almost inescapable facet of human life.

It seems easy to understand what makes such visions of alternative worlds an example of “estrangement” – but what makes them “cognitive”? For Suvin it is precisely the fact that these historical, pre-modern reports of alternative worlds are supposed to be, and presented as though they are, “factual”: SF “takes off from a fictional (‘literary’) hypothesis and develops it with totalizing (‘scientific’) rigor.”19 Estrangement – which Suvin points out is indebted to both Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie and the famous Verfremdungseffekt of Bertolt Brecht – is the principle of difference that fuels the soaring imagination of science fictional difference, while cognition is the reality principle that adheres to our real conditions of existence and thereby keeps the imagination honest. SF thus operates precisely in the paradox of the realistic dream, the dream that is or might be (or could yet become) real. This complex interrelationship between cognition and estrangement produces a “feedback oscillation” that “moves now from the author’s and implied reader’s norm of reality to the narratively actualized novum in order to understand the plot-events, and now back from those novelties to the author’s reality in order to see it afresh from the new perspective gained.”20 Together cognition and estrangement

  1. MOSF (2016), p. 17.
  2. MOSF (2016), p. 18.
  3. Ibid.
  4. MOSF (2016), p. 88.

thus produce SF as something intellectually distinct from mere fantasy on the one hand) or nonfiction and mimetic “realism” (on the other): SF is a “dynamic transformation” of our history rather than a “static mirroring” of it, “not only a reflecting of  but also on reality.”21

A crucial correction here is required for those who have mistakenly taken Suvin’s use of cognition to be scientistic, or even a form of science fetishism. In fact what Suvin means by cognition is closer to the German word Wissenschaft, including “not only natural but also all the cultural or historical sciences and even scholarship,” crucially the Marxist intellectual tradition chief among them.22 Cognition in a work of SF requires not simply mastery of the “cold equations” of physics, chemistry, and biology but a full accounting of capital-H History as such, how the world got this way and how it might yet become different – if, that is, its attendant estrangement is to have any more weight than a mere dream. Carl Freedman, whose Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000) has been one of the most successful extensions of the Suvinian paradigm in recent years, has proposed that cognition be replaced with cognition effect to indicate that the most important aspect of the “cognitive” in “cognitive estrangement” is “not any epistemological judgment external to the text itself on the rationality or irrationality of the latter’s imaginings, but rather (as some of Suvin’s language does, in fact, imply, but never makes entirely clear) the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements being performed.”23 I would argue that the vision of cognition that Freedman elaborates is, in fact, what Suvin was always talking about in Metamorphoses: the central role of cognition in SF is not to facilitate squabbling over the rightness or wrongness about this or that limited scientific claim, but rather to facilitate our return from the science fictional estrangement back to the context of the world in which we all actually live and work and struggle.24

  • MOSF (2016), p. 22. 22              MOSF (2016), p. 26.
  • Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Hanover, NH, 2000), p. 18.
  • In an email to me while preparing this volume, Suvin described this role for cognition as an “epistemological poetics,” a formulation I find quite lovely.

Noncognitive estrangements, however stirring, interrupt that principle of return. Suvin’s rejection of fairy tale, fantasy, supernatural or occult narrative, and other modes of “noncognitive” estrangement has been an undeniably contentious part of the reception of his theorization of SF since the publication of Metamorphoses (and as such is the subject of one of the three additional essays included in this Classics edition). Suvin reserves special ire in the text for “science fantasy,” space operatic or psychic superman stories which masquerade as SF with regard to producing (a purely rhetorical) plausibility and suspension of disbelief but which are in fact indelibly hostile to either physical or socioeconomic reality. Such stories are “misshapen,”25 “organized around an ideology unchecked by any cognition, so that its narrative logic is simply overt ideology plus Freudian erotic patterns”;26 thus “SF regressing into fairy tale (for example, “space opera” with a hero-princess-monster triangle in astronautic costume) is committing creative suicide.”27 Suvin’s later, partial reconsideration of fantasy can be seen in “Considering the Sense of ‘Fantasy’ or ‘Fantastic Fiction’: An Effusion,” discussed below; however, a potential line of interest in fantasy can be seen even in his original discussion of fantasy in Metamorphoses. “The thesis could be defended,” Suvin writes, “that the fantasy is significant insofar as it is impure and fails to establish a superordinated maleficent world of its own, causing a grotesque between arbitrary supernatural phenomena and the empirical norms they infiltrate,” suggesting Nikolai Gogol’s “Nose” as one possible example of this “significant” fantasy done right (and Lovecraft as a version done very wrong).28 However, Suvin’s position (in both Metamorphoses and “Effusion”) is that most fantasy does not reach this level of reflexive sophistication, and that the mixing of genres implicit in the combined “Science Fiction & Fantasy” category frequently found in bookstores thus does severe disservice to SF.

But this is only one particular case of a ubiquitous issue running across SF publication, which is that for Suvin most work published under its

  • MOSF (2016), p. 84-85.
  • MOSF (2016), p. 85.
  • MOSF (2016), p. 21.
  • Ibid.

name (or under related names like “science fiction” or “speculative fiction”) is unworthy of serious critical consideration. In the original preface to Metamorphoses the number is said to be as high as 90 to 95 per cent “strictly perishable stuff, produced in view of instant obsolescence for the publisher’s profit and the writer’s acquisition of other perishable commodities” – though even this rejected mass is said to be sociologically significant given its influence and popularity. Only 5–10 per cent of SF is aesthetically significant, in Suvin’s view, a list that produces a stable of authors that, we have seen, is seen by many scholars as far too narrow a canon: “Lem, Le Guin, Dick, Disch, Delany, the Strugatsky brothers, Jeury, Aldiss, Ballard, and others.”29 In these authors we see the interplay between cognition and estrangement reaching its highest literary-aesthetic formulation, as well as the political valence of SF, and its historical affinity with a leftist, socialist politics, most fully and generatively produced.

The claim that the study of SF is indelibly inmbricated with the study of utopia is another provocative one, perhaps Suvin’s most radical intervention in the field (and also one that has been subject to significant reconsideration and revision by subsequent scholars). For Suvin, utopia and SF stand in close, quasi-science-fictional familial relationship to one another. He describes utopian fiction as “early and primitive branch of SF,”30 while suggesting that today the two genres stand in a daughter-mother and nieceaunt relation, each simultaneously parenting the other – and Suvin’s articulation of the mutual imbrication between science fictional futurity and utopian political speculation has certainly invigorated criticism in both fields. Suvin’s work has been nearly as influential in the field of utopian studies as in SF studies – particularly as so much utopian speculation and dystopian/apocalyptic warning in our moment is now, from a genre perspective, SF. In our time – with the world now fully mapped, and no hidden islands or isolated valleys yet lurking that might hold the secret of another sort of history – it is the imagination of the science fictional chronotope (the future, other dimensions, outer space) that yields the opportunity to

  • MOSF (2016), p. 1.
  • MOSF (2016), p. 73.

both imagine radical social difference and connect that radical difference to our own situation in the here-and-now. Cognitive estrangement constitutes precisely this twofold move: we transport ourselves to the other world (estrangement) so that we can better think about this one (cognition). Neither cognition nor estrangement is necessarily utopian in its own terms, by definition – however, cognition’s close relationship with leftist social and historical theory, when paired with estrangement’s irrepressible yearning for historical difference, somewhat inevitably produces utopian speculations, whether in positive form as eutopia (the good place) or in negative as dystopia (the bad place).

Similarly, as Moylan has persuasively argued in his own reading and extension of Suvin, the trope of the novum figures not only as the engine that “generates and validates” the diegetic milieu of the SF text, and not only as the “common denominator” between the SF text and the utopian text, but as the Archimedean point that allows us to evaluate whether a text “effectively intervenes in the author’s historical context.”31 We should, as Suvin says, judge the “degree of relevance” of a novum not on its fidelity to this or that physical law but on its relation to the ongoing struggle for liberation and justice. “A novum is fake,” Suvin writes, “unless it in some way participates in and partakes of what Bloch called the ‘front-line of historical process’ – which for him (and for me) as a Marxist means a process intimately concerned with strivings for a disalienation of people and their social life.”32 Likewise, so-called utopias that affirm existing injustices and inadequacies are unworthy of the name: “All utopias involve people who radically suffer of the existing system and radically desire to change it.”33 SF in the Suvinian mold speaks to that suffering, and to that radical desire. As Fredric Jameson (still another critic whose work on SF and utopia has importantly extended and transformed Suvin’s) has famously said, “history is what hurts”34 – and the intersection of cognition and estrangement in

  • Moylan, p. 48.
  • MOSF (2016), p. 99.
  • Darko Suvin, Defined by a Hollow,Ralahine Utopian Studies, Vol. 6 (Oxford, 2010), p. 30 note 11.
  • Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, NY, 1982), p. 102.

properly Suvinian SF thus directs its readers precisely towards that space of hurt, with hope it will be overcome.

These implications of Suvin’s study of SF suggest that the relationship between SF (as Suvin defines it) and the larger project of political leftism is in some sense unavoidable. When Karl Marx dedicates himself to “the ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be”35 – or, for that matter, when he projects the creation of a technologized future world of progress and plenty that has been freed from the class struggle corrupting our own – is it so strange to think he is writing SF? Carl Freedman, taking up the Suvinian perspective in an essay in Red Planets, has suggested as much. The interplay between cognition and estrangement, Freedman says, is not only the formal principle that produces SF but is also in some sense the buried logic of Marxism more generally, which seeks to destroy all the illusions that sustain our miserable world precisely in the hopes of someday creating a new and better one: “visionary transcendence is the necessary completion of astringent demystification.”36 A novum which fails to produce such a politically charged vision of genuine historical difference will be “of brief and narrow” relevance, precisely because “they make for a superficial change rather than for a true novelty that deals with or makes for human relationships so qualitatively different from those dominant in the author’s reality that they cannot be translated back to them merely by a change in costume.” This is the key not only to “aesthetic quality in SF but also to its ethico-political liberating qualities, its communal relevance.”37 What we ultimately long for in SF, Suvin argues, and what makes SF an important literary genre, isn’t its ray guns or its hyperdrives or its novel patent laws but its vision of a radically different social order that in the end is always

  • Karl Marx, “Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher: Marx to Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843,”
  • Carl Freedman, “Marxism, Cinema, and Some Dialetics of Science Fiction and Film Noir,” in Bould and Miéville, eds., Red Planets, p. 73.
  • MOSF (2016), p. 100.

a critique of our own very flawed one, alongside the dream of our flawed order’s supersession. “Significant SF” – that 5 per cent or 10 per cent worth celebrating – “is in fact a specifically roundabout way of commenting on the author’s collective context – often resulting in a surprisingly concrete and sharp-sighted comment at that.” But this “better vantage point from which to comprehend the human relations around the author” is simultaneously “a device for historical estrangement” and “an at least initial readiness for new norms of reality.” The most essential, and most radical, novum – the exhilarating dream that characterizes the very best of SF – is “dealienating human history.”38

* * *

Suvin’s definition, though having come to function as a kind of consensus starting point for literary critical discussions of SF, is certainly not without its critics, many of whom describe it as overly narrow, overly specialized, overly political, and (perhaps most problematically) not sufficiently in conversation with the self-identity of science fictional and speculative writing that had been developed by SF’s own writers, editors, and fandom. Gary Westfahl’s critique perhaps is emblematic: he says Suvin’s use of the term “science fiction” “must be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to replace […] the traditional concept of the genre” with “his own ideas.”39 Suvin, for his part, has conceded to some degree the legitimacy of this critique, writing in Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (1988)that “genre traditions are legitimately established in retrospect” and that his study “(as any other study) was normative in the sense of possessing norms of value induced from both the critic’s presuppositions and the texts […] and reapplied to texts.”40 Suvin’s calculated dismissal of most of the domain of SF in the name of a selected, curated, and privileged few is, unquestionably, the imposition of his values upon a larger field – though one might also

  • MOSF (2016), p. 101.
  • Gary Westfahl, The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction (Liverpool, 1998), p. 35 note 5.
  • Darko Suvin, Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (Kent, OH, 1988), p. xii, emphasis mine.

take Suvin’s point that this is what any critic does in the formation and articulation of aesthetic judgment.

Nor is Suvin’s definition so far out of step with the mainstream genre’s own definitions and aspirations. It was Ray Bradbury – a writer whom Suvin spends little time on in his work, and who he twice names within the pages of Metamorphoses as a frequent purveyor of “science fantasy” – who once provided a definition of science fiction that is largely identical to Suvin’s: “That’s all science fiction was ever about. Hating the way things are, wanting to make them different.”41 Isaac Asimov (a personal favorite author of my childhood, whom Suvin critiques within Metamorphoses for his “metaphysical gobbledygook”42), typically offered a much more bloodless definition of the genre: “Science fiction is that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings.”43 But when Asimov was pressed to elaborate, he would often describe the sense of futurity implicit in such “impact” in quite Suvinian terms: “SF teaches that there are numerous changes and that mankind by its actions can pick and choose among them. We should choose one which is for the better. That is the proper interpretation of the role of SF.”44 When Asimov said that there are only three science fictional scenarios – “what if, if only, and if this goes on”45 – we have utopia and dystopia (which is only ever utopia

  • Ray Bradbury, “No News, or What Killed the Dog?”, in Quicker than the Eye (New York, 1996), p. 163.
  • MOSF (2016), p. 37.
  • Qtd. in James Gunn, Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction (Lanham, MD,

2005), p. 163.

  • Earl G. Ingersoll, “A Conversation with Isaac Asimov,” in Carl Freedman, ed., Conversations with Isaac Asimov (Jackson, MS, 2005), p. 32. In the same interview, Asimov makes a claim about SF and social change that is perhaps even more directly Suvinian, noting that the “SF attitude” stands in opposition to those who “take for granted that things won’t change or that if they do they shouldn’t, and you should make every effort to restore the status quo” (p. 31). Asimov again asserts that change is inevitable, and thus we ought to devote ourselves instead to figuring out which changes are desirable and which are not.
  • Isaac Asimov, More Soviet Science Fiction (New York, 1982), p. 8. These three categories are frequently attributed to Robert Heinlein, but I could not find a definitive

in negative) as two of our three options, with the cognitive estrangement implicit in the radical difference of “what if ” almost always in practice producing a political charge as well. It would be very strange if it did not – if we were to imagine alternative worlds with literally no interest in the ethics, politics, economics, and hedonics of those times and spaces as compared to our own.

To draw a line from these thoughts to the more explicitly resistant politics of the authors Suvin tends to privilege, like Ursula K. Le Guin – who once said the “smear-word” of “internal émigré” deployed against Zamyatin by the Stalinists “is a precise and noble description of the finest writers of SF, in all countries”46 – or Philip K. Dick – who said he wrote science fiction as a “way to rebel”47 because “the world we actually have does not meet my standards”48 – and deliberately place political struggles over futurity at the heart of the generic imagination hardly seems like an overly aggressive rewriting of SF history. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a genre SF that acknowledged its articulation of radical change (estrangement) tempered by the reality principle of what is physically, biologically, and socially possible (cognition) that didn’t, in some way or another, charge itself with evaluating which alternative histories and potential futures were better or worse (utopia). Suvin’s definition has been so overwhelmingly influential because it names, clearly and succinctly, the two overlapping philosophical operations that really are at the core of the “speculative,” while leaving ample room for his intellectual descendants to quibble about the specific boundaries and limit-points of either term.

To object to Suvin’s definition of the genre on the grounds it diminishes or omits certain tendencies within the history of the field (for instance, the obvious presence of liberal and right-wing speculations alongside his

original source for the quote beyond the title of his 1940 novel If This Goes On. I have come to believe this is a popular misattribution and that the true source is Asimov.

preferred leftist, utopian SF, to say nothing of the militaristic, hypercapitalist, overtly racist, and deeply misogynistic fantasies that have been and frequently still are published within the genre49) is in this sense both trivially true and largely besides the point. Any proposed canon is always subject to debate; the loathed possibility of the construction of alternative and inferior canons is precisely the reason why one forms a canon in the first place! What Suvin proposes is a strategy of focusing on what he sees as the best of the genre first and foremost: “The genre has to be evaluated proceeding from the heights down, applying the standards gained by the analysis of its masterpieces.”50 And Suvin’s criteria for determining what qualifies for those lofty heights of SF is unrepentantly inscribed by contact with utopia, by the possibility of radical, and rational, world-transformation.

Criticism of Suvin’s method is thus in many cases precisely a dispute about the consequences of his strategy of hierarchization, as much as anything else. Such a strategy somewhat inevitably produces pushback in the name of saving this or that author (or this or that book, or this or that trope, or this or that sub-sub-genre) from the scrapheap – and indeed much of the criticism that presents itself in opposition to Suvin does so out of a desire to reject his dismissal of particular SF texts that do not meet his criteria, and/or to rescue fantasy and horror texts from second-class designation. But of course the formal and political principles that Suvin advances in Metamorphoses are only one of many possible versions of a core “SF canon” that might be formed, either using his definitions or finding some alternative; that task, and the inevitable incompleteness, over-specialization, and bottomless debatability of any such list once formulated, has always

  • On this point in particular, consult Suvin’s “Of Starship Troopers and Refuseniks: War and Militarism in U.S. Science Fiction,” in Darko Suvin, ed., Fictions annual no. 3, special issue on U.S. Science Fiction and War/Militarism (Pisa and Roma,

2005): 107–154. Reprint of Part 1 (“1945–1974: Fordism”), in Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox, eds., New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction (Columbia SC,

2008), pp. 115–144; Part 2 (“1975–2001: Post-Fordism, and Some Conclusions”), Extrapolation 48.1 (2007): 9–34.

  • MOSF (2016), p. 49.

a crucial component of SF as a collective intellectual project, both in and outside the academy.

That project of canon construction – the casting back from the present into historical forebears, assigning some importance and leaving others aside – actually constitutes the bulk of the work of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, especially in its second part, “History,” which has frequently been overlooked in favor of the more theoretical interventions of part one, “Poetics.” Suvin’s longue durée, four-hundred-year history of the genre finds unexpected progenitors, for instance, in the form of the pastoral, whose stirring “imaginary framework of a world without money economy, state apparatus, and depersonalizing urbanization” stands in relationship to SF “as alchemy does to chemistry and nuclear physics: an early try in the right direction with insufficient foundations.”51 Unsurprisingly, he places especially close emphasis on the genre’s relationship with More’s 1516 Utopia, tracing the work of SF first through that novel and then into trips to other imaginary isles and (even off-planet alternatives, as in the roman planétaire of Lucian and Cyrano.) Suvin’s history of SF also finds close affinity with Gulliver’s Travels,particularly in its closing voyages to the floating city of Laputa and the pseudo-paradisal country of the Houyhnhnms (the sentient horses) – as well as the distinctly science fictional ethos of its satiric commentary on the fallibility of human (or “Yahoo”) institutions. Swift is in fact an exemplary case of how even “extreme anti-utopian despair” can be transmogrified “into a critique of the anti-utopian world which it mirrors” in the hands of the science fictional imagination: “The more passionate and precise Swift’s negation, the more clearly the necessity for new worlds of humaneness appears before the reader.”52 And on the story goes, through Shelley, Poe, Verne, Wells, Twain, Bellamy, onward to the crystallization of science fiction as a discrete and recognizable literary genre in the early part of the twentieth century. The crucial turn here is the turn towards anticipation of possible futures, “aesthetically structured by a

  • MOSF (2016), p. 21.
  • MOSF (2016), p. 131.

‘positive’ scientific cognition.”53 This sense of anticipation can be located, Suvin argues, even in SF that seems to transgress the general rule, as in the quasi-Gothic Frankenstein, which recoils from revolutionary novum of the future in horror at what the French Revolution had wrought.54

  1. similar gap can be located in the time of Jules Verne, and especially his contemporaries and successors, whose work is discussed in a chapter called “Liberalism Mutes the Anticipation.” The period between Frankenstein and The Time Machine marks for Suvin an era when “any significant novum, in space as well as in time, grew untenable within liberal horizons.”55 Verne himself is presented as a genuine innovator producing significant SF, but most of his imitators are producing only “subliterature”56 – and on the whole the birth of liberalism coincides with the temporary squashing of SF’s capacity to imagine radical difference in favor of flattened continuations of the present. This antipathy is only the start of the mutual antagonism between liberalism and Suvin’s “significant SF,” an antagonism we can see quite clearly from our vantage point at (or after) “the end of history,” a time in which our own capacity to imagine alternative futures to capitalism has become deeply impoverished. This extended historical examination has important ramifications not only for Suvin’s later work but for the work of theorists working in a similar register, like Jameson and Slavoj Žižek – both of whom have been credited with the now-ubiquitous aphorism that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and Mark Fischer, whose theory of capitalist realism describes precisely contemporary liberalism’s corralling of all possible horizons for the future.57 At a 1997 meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies, Suvin argued that that the “most daring utopia” we might yet hope for today is no longer “Earthly Paradise” but only “the prevention of Hell on Earth,” articulating the possibility of an alternative future as a kind of desperate prayer: “May the Earth remain our habitable mother, rather than being
  2. MOSF (2016), p. 137.
  3. See MOSF (2016), chapter six.
  4. MOSF (2016), p. 89.
  5. Ibid.
  6. See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Blue Ridge Summit, PA, 2009).

pushed by greedy classes and imbecilitated masses (as today) the way of ecological catastrophe, and the ensuing great Migration of Peoples, the bitter State and corporation wars, the civil wars of constructed racism and ethnicity!”58 But all those crisis, our crises, were their crises too – class struggle, ecological devastation genocide, war – and Suvin’s assertion contra Thatcher that “there is no alternative – to utopia”59 finds its echo across the longer history of early SF as he first articulated it in the 1970s. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dawn of SF, the “increasing closure of liberal bourgeois horizons” produced a firce backlash, a “thirst for anticipations – fictional pictures of an excitingly different future”60 – produced, that is, a period of experimentation in and intense fascination with SF and its alternatives that is still reverberating today. When SF finally and fully erupts, Suvin argues, in the key turn-of-the-century texts of Bellamy, Morris, Twain, and especially Wells, it erupts as a blow against liberalism, against the world as it is, in an insistent, ecstatic cry that another sort of world than this must be possible. The history of SF’s utopian development inside and against liberalism that Suvin recovers here is thus highly relevant to the way we understand the ongoing metamorphoses of our own possible futures, as we contest the hopelessness of our own deeply troubled times.

  1. crucial component of this underrecognized portion of Metamorphoses is its wide international scope, anticipating later movements within an academy that has only just begun to catch up. Unlike much SF criticism, Suvin’s Metamorphoses reaches far outside the constraints of the narrow AngloAmerican publishing market, often bemoaning the possible traditions of SF that might have emerged had French, German, or Russian authors been more widely translated or read (as well as emphasizing important precursors to the contemporary SF genre in pre-modern Europe and in antiquity). Indeed, the book unexpectedly ends outside the Anglosphere altogether, first with a chapter on “Russian SF and Its Utopian Tradition” – an important part of the history of SF which contemporary SF studies has largely
  2. Suvin, Defined,p. 259.
  3. Ibid., p. 218.
  4. MOSF (2016), p. 193.

ignored – and second with a lengthy exegesis and celebration of the Czech writer Karel Čapek, who has received too little critical attention given his development of several crucial SF tropes (chief among them his co-creation of the term “robot” itself ). It is the unlikely and too-much-forgotten figure of Čapek who (“rather than Edgar Rice Burroughs or Hugo Gernsback”) provides the “missing link” between Wells and the present form of SF as “a literature which will be both entertaining (which means popular) and cognitively (which means also formally) avant-gardist.”61 In this way the too-neglected end of Metamorphoses speaks directly (if forty years early) to the current moment in SF studies, which has at last become very interested in the SF imaginary outside Britain and America.

* * *

This Ralahine Classis edition reissues Metamorphoses of Science Fiction as it was originally published while offering additional material that reflects Suvin’s own expansion, revision, and further consideration of the propositions advanced in Metamorphoses at later points in this career. These were selected, in consultation with Suvin himself, to indicate crucial ways in which his theory of SF has not only adapted to changing times but also in response to both his allies and his critics. Our hope is that the presence of these appendices will mark the extent to which “the Suvin event” remains vital and ongoing, even thirty-five years after Metamorphoses’s original publication.

The first essay originates in Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction, the book Suvin considers a companion to Metamorphoses (not sequel or successor so much as continuation). “Science Fiction, Metaphor, Parable, and Chronotope (with the Bad Conscience of Reaganism),” the thirteenth and concluding chapter from that book, originally published as an essay in 1984, takes up the thorny status of metaphor within SF, which inevitably arises in any discussion of the necessary dialectic between similarity and difference that manifests in the attempt to construct a science fictional world. This dialectic is matched by a new and equally difficult tension, that

  • MOSF (2016), p. 311.

between metaphor and the concept of narrative as such. Suvin’s answer is to read SF through the mode of the parable which (following Ricoeur) is the “conjunction” of “narrative form” and “metaphorical process.”62 SF parables work by establishing a chronotope (a time and space that is both internally coherent and always importantly distinct from our own), which is then transformed in some fashion on the levels of diegesis or interpretation (or both) by the unfolding of the narrative. The intersection of these levels of presentation is structured by their mutual and necessary incompleteness; in accordance with Marc Angenot’s articulation of the “absent paradigm,” we never grasp the full chronotope, the full narrative, or the full metaphor, but always rather have “the feeling that more is going on under the surface.”63 This gap is a constitutive part of SF, rather than a flaw to be corrected: Suvin writes that “SF, just as parable and metaphor, relates to a significant problem of the social addressee in indirect ways, through estrangement into a seemingly unrelated concrete and possible set of situations; thus “the strange new chronotopes” of SF “always signify human relationships in the writer’s here and now,” but not in reductive, ossific, or uncomplicatedly one-to-one relationships.64 These remarks thus become the occasion for a redemptive reading of the Cordwainer Smith and Genevieve Linebarger story “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul” in which the story’s particular weaknesses and Smith’s own bad habits as a writer do not detract from its articulation of one of the most important implications of SF today, that politics might yet be “salvation” even in the dire context of “the bad ethical conscience of Reaganism” (and, from our perspective, post-Thatcher and post-Reagan neoliberalism more generally). SF – as much through its gaps and its implicatures as through its careful and deliberate expositions and confabulations – becomes here a particularly vital instance in the formal interplay between “utopianism and ideology” that characterizes “all significant stories.”65 Suvin here inverting Bloch, he argues that SF directs us

  • “Science Fiction, Metaphor…” (2016), p. 363.
  • “Science Fiction, Metaphor…” (2016), p. 372.
  • Ibid.
  • “Science Fiction, Metaphor…” (2016), p. 377

through both its affirmative constructions and its dialectical negations to the exhilaratingly radical proposition that – even in the bad years of Reagan (or Carter, or Nixon, or Thatcher, or Bush, either one, or Blair, or Clinton, either one, or Obama, or Putin, or…) – “in the stories things sometimes turn out right because we might and all might still be right.”66

The second additional essay, “Considering the Sense of ‘Fantasy’ or ‘Fantastic Fiction’: An Effusion,” first published in Extrapolation in 2001, is the most radical revision of Metamorphoses of the three additions, and likely the most welcome to those critics who found Suvin’s hard line between SF and related speculative genres (especially fantasy) too difficult to maintain. “Let me therefore revoke, probably to general regret,” Suvin writes, “my blanket rejection of fantastic fiction. The divide between cognitive (pleasantly useful) and non-cognitive (useless) does not run between SF and fantastic fiction but inside each.”67 But this is not the occasion for a retraction or an apology, or even for a significant rewrite of the conclusions of Metamorphoses,but rather an opportunity for further thinking about why the genre divide seemed so definitive and insurmountable in that time (and why it persists today, reinscribed in myriad ways across academic and editorial practice). The result is a provocative and rich – and, undoubtedly, still quite controversial – revision of Suvin’s originary refusal of the fantasy and the fantastic, one that now admits certain types of fantastic texts (Samuel R. Delany’s, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s, or the pre-Disneyfied folk tales lauded by Marxist scholar Jack Zipes as the proto-utopias of suppressed communities) while still insisting that many or most or nearly all fantastic texts commit the sins of Howard’s Hyborian Age or Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or Lovecraft’s many nightmare cities: crafting a world defined by essences and capital-E Evils that cannot allow the possibility of progressive historical change.

Suvin’s extended engagement with his pro-fantasy critics opens a door, but not all that wide, and without excessive enthusiasm, insisting in the end that the cognitive estrangement associated with his proposed vision

  • “Science Fiction, Metaphor…” (2016), p. 378.
  • “Fantasy” (2016), p. 388.

of SF (now, perhaps, admitting some fantastic texts in) remains politically galvanizing in a way Fantasy generally is not:

I’d think SF appeals to social groups with confidence that something can at present be done about a collective, historical future – if only as dire warnings […]. To the contrary, in a situation where people’s entire life-world has in the meanwhile undergone much further tentacular and capillary colonization, Fantasy’s appeal is to uncertain social classes or fractions who have been cast adrift and lost that confidence, so that they face their own present and future with horror or a resolve to have a good time before the Deluge – or both.68

In either its “Heroic” or “Horror” modes, by and large Fantasy for Suvin forecloses intervention points in favor of melancholy and political paralysis. And while the appeal of this sort of depressive thinking is undeniable, he concedes, it is not what we need. The essay thus closes in a somewhat unexpected place: a celebration of the greatness of Franz Kafka, and his literary descendants, in whom we see a kind of “indirect parable” confronting “grim times” in term that cannot be said to be SF, or even to possess much utopian courage, but which at the same time seem utterly necessary as a response to the many disasters of modernity (perhaps something on the order of the primal scream that, for Adorno, constitutes the spirit of poetry after Auschwitz): “the nightmare from which we cannot awaken into a dream.”69 Kafka’s fantasy is worthy precisely because it does not translate us to some fantastic world of magic or of horror, but rather excavates the horrors that so deeply infuse our own.

Suvin himself slides against his own more hopeful tendencies as a critic into the role of “the bearer of bad news” in the final supplementary essay, “Circumstances and Stances,” written for PMLA in 2004.70 Suvin’s strident articulation of the anti-utopian forces that have conquered and corrupted the university (and knowledge production under capitalism more generally) has become only more relevant in the decade since its initial publication. The stirring short essay names our present world as a dystopia – a difficult

68           “Fantasy” (2016), p. 430. 69 “Fantasy” (2016), p. 439.

70    “Circumstances” (2016), p. 446.

proposition to refute – and then dares us to respond. Suvin argues here that knowledge, and the practices that structure knowledge production, cannot be held independently from the need to respond to the ongoing disaster of history; epistemology and politics do not function independently, as we pretend, but rather as a kind of double helix, each one patterning the other: “Thus our answers can be found only in feedback with potential action.”71

“Those who do not put an explicitly defensible civic cognition at the heart of their professional cognition,” he goes on, “at best adopt the dominant epistemology of the time when they were students, and at worst adapt their cognition to the new epistemology of the Powers-That-Be.”72 For the study of SF, or the study of utopian thought, or the study of literature, or for work across the humanities in the broadest sense, here then is Suvin’s charge to us in our collective moment of danger; now let us get to work.

Gerry Canavan

Marquette University

October 2015


Asimov, Isaac. More Soviet Science Fiction. New York, 1982.

Bould, Mark. “Introduction: Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet, from Nemo to Neo,” in Mark Bould and China Miéville, eds., Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Middletown, CT, 2009. 1–26.

Bradbury, Ray. “No News, or What Killed the Dog?”, in Quicker than the Eye. New York, 1996. 158–169.

Dick, Philip K. “The Lucky Dog Pet Store,” in Vintage PKD. New York, 2007. 123–135.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Blue Ridge Summit, PA, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?”, in Josué V. Harari, trans. and ed., Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ithaca, NY, 1979. 141–160.

  • “Circumstances” (2016), p. 448.
  • Ibid.

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

——. “Marxism, Cinema, and Some Dialetics of Science Fiction and Film Noir,” in Mark Bould and China Miéville, eds., Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction.

Middletown, CT, 2009. 66–82.

Gunn, James. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. Lanham, MD, 2005.

Ingersoll, Earl G. “A Conversation with Isaac Asimov,” in Carl Freedman, ed., Conversations with Isaac Asimov,Jackson, MS, 2005. 21–33.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, NY, 1982.

Latham, Rob. The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction. Oxford, 2014.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Surveying the Battlefield.” Science Fiction Studies 2 (Fall 1973).

Marx, Karl. “Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher: Marx to Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843.” letters/43_09.htm.

Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky. Boulder, CO, 2000.

Suvin, Darko. Defined by a Hollow (Ralahine Utopian Studies, Vol. 6). Oxford, 2010.

——. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven, CT, 1979. Reprinted herein.

——. “Of Starship Troopers and Refuseniks: War and Militarism in U.S. Science Fiction,” in Darko Suvin, ed., Fictions annual no. 3, special issue on U.S. Science Fiction and War/Militarism. Pisa and Roma, 2005. 107–54. Reprint of Part 1 (“1945–1974: Fordism”), in Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox, eds., New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. Columbia SC, 2008. 115–144; Part 2 (“1975–2001: Post-Fordism, and Some Conclusions”). Extrapolation 48.1 (2007). 9–34.

——. “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre.” College English 34.3 (Dec. 1972).


——. Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction. Kent, OH, 1988.

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

Liverpool, UK, 1998.

Wolfe, Gary K. “Coming to Terms,” in James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria, ed., Speculations on Speculation. Lanham, MD, 2005. 13–22.

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NEWER SF HISTORY: H.G. WELLS” (13.400 WORDS, 1972-78)

After a brief Introduction, two essays deal: 1/ with an overview of H.G. Wells’s SF, and 2/ with a depth probe of his general model for SF, adopted in most of it after him. The text is taken from a first pagination of the 1979 book MOSF and has mistakes. 

1/ This chapter 9 of MOSF discusses Wells’s SF, concentrating on 1895-1904. In it, the framework of staid bourgeois England is opposed by a horrible Novum: an alien superindividual form with superior power but equal ruthlessness as the violent imperial civilization. The novum can be a limited strange property or an entire strange world, but the menacing strangeness always refers to the future of Man. Sociopolitical conflicts are transferred into Darwinian biology. At the end the framework is shaken but no livable alternative is found. Wells’s later SF is also discussed.

2/ This chapter 10 of MOSF contrasts the models of The Time Machine (TM) and Morus’s Utopia. TM proceeds by way of a foreshortened Darwinian sociobiological seriation. The narration embodies this series as devolution that leads to extinction. The TM-Utopia comparison reveals that Power is the arbiter and fate in a long subsequent tradition of SF (and utopias) where Everyman succumbs to Non-existence – or is saved by a tacked-on happy ending.

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Two essays deal with: 1/ “Liberalism mutes the Anticipation”, and 2/ “Anticipating the Sunburst”. The text is taken from a first pagination of the 1979 book MOSF and has mistakes. 

1/ This chapter 7 of MOSF analyzes first Verne as “Communication in Quantified Space”, also Bulwer-Lytton, Butler, the Future War story, and others. Chapter 8 of MOSF discusses how the socialist sunburst was seen as “Dream, Vision – or Nightmare” in Bellamy, Morris, some others such as Jefferies and Flammarion, and then Mark Twain’s important A Connecticut Yankee. 

7.  Liberalism Mutes the Anticipation: 

The Space-Binding Machines

Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth.

William Blake

0. After experiencing the first railroad from Liverpool to Manchester, and either thinking that the train ran in grooves or being dazzled by the seemingly absolute stability and preordained course of wheels on rails, Alfred Tennyson incorporated this new industrial imagery into some significant contrasts in Locksley Hall:

Summer isles of Eden lying in dark-purple spheres of sea. There methinks would be enjoyment more than in this march of mind,

In the steamship, in the railway, in the thoughts that shake mankind.


Fool, again the dream, the fancy! but I know my words are wild, ……..

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,

Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change. [164–182]

These lines embody and explicate a very interesting intimate debate between, on the one hand, the personal, painful, escapist, and timeless dream of Edenic, half-Greek and half-Oriental islands – Tennyson’s recurring temptation of the Lotos Eaters – in a Homeric wine-dark sea; and on the other hand, the public and official beliefs of the “great world” of Victorian industrial capitalism exporting not only the products of Manchester, Pittsburgh, and the Ruhr but also the concomitant ideology of linear liberal progress.

Tennyson’s references to the “march of mind,” to the spacious ranging “forward, forward” (or “excelsior,” as Longfellow said), to the thoughts that truly shook mankind (we have not stopped shaking since) are a pregnant formulation of the orthodox liberal optimism of progress radiating by way of the steamship and the railway. His earlier lines, “Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails / Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with the costly bales,” could have been taken from the leading missionary of free trade, Richard Cobden:

Commerce is the grand panacea, which like a beneficent medical discovery, will serve to inoculate with the healthy and saving taste for civilization all the nations of the world. Not a bale of merchandise leaves our shores, but it bears the seeds of intelligence and fruitful thought to the members of some less enlightened community; not a merchant visits our seats of manufacturing industry, but he returns to his own country the missionary of freedom, peace and good government – while our steam boats, that now visit every port of Europe, and our miraculous railroads, that are the talk of all nations, are the advertisements and vouchers for the value of our enlightened institutions.1

Yet Tennyson’s concluding image of a linear, forward-going progress spinning down the grooves of change is ultimately ambiguous. Spinning is, after all, a cyclical motion, either round and round (as a top) or to and fro (as a distaff ), which always returns to the initial situation and point. Tennyson was in all probability, as witness the whole poem and his reference to “the great world,” thinking here of Earth’s motion simultaneously around its axis and “forward” – but since even this “forward” is a seasonal motion around the Sun, the ambiguity is only shelved, not resolved. We shall perhaps find the proper clue if we remember that Earth’s spinning round the Sun is a measure of time – the true space of liberal progress.

Tennyson’s lines are thus an especially compressed and apt introduction to the convertibility of quantified space and time for the Victorian liberal mind. However, a prolific novelist will naturally be able to show the implications of these ambiguous and antinomic historical horizons

1 Richard Cobden, quoted in David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century (1815–1914) (London, 1964), p. 29.

more fully. In the case of an SF novelist, who operates by definition at the “outer limits of desire,”2 these implications can be shown in a magnified and explicated form, seen in a parabolic mirror – as happened for the culmination of palaeotechnic liberalism in the work of Jules Verne.

1.   Communication in Quantified Space:  Verne’s roman scientifique

It would be instructive to compare two excellent reports on Vernean studies, written 13 years apart by Mark R. Hillegas and Marc Angenot, to see the extraordinary, qualitative jump in Verne’s reputation as a writer not only symptomatic but – for all his drawbacks – aesthetically worthwhile as well.3 The major names and currents of French criticism – Michel Butor and Roland Barthes, structuralists and neo-Marxists, psychoanalysts and archetype hunters – all discovered him more or less simultaneously, independently, and with equal enthusiasm after 1960. He was of course always known as one of the founding fathers of SF. He created a specific early and basic variant of it, the roman scientifique (novel of science), and gained a permanent popularity for the genre among a mass readership, mainly but not exclusively juvenile. As the overall title of his shelf-full of novels – Extraordinary Voyages: Known and Unknown Worlds – indicates, he refurbished the oldest tradition of SF, that of the marvelous voyages of tribal legends, antiquity, and the Middle Ages, for new purposes in the age of industrial adventure. However, precisely because the French Second Empire, in its increasingly desperate attempts at adventure in Italy, the

  • Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism,p. 136.
  • Mark R. Hillegas, “A Bibliography of Secondary Materials on Jules Verne,” Extrapolation 2 (December 1960): 5–16; Marc Angenot, “Jules Verne and French Literary Criticism,” Science-Fiction Studies 1 (Spring 1973): 33–37, supplemented by his second survey of the same title, Science-Fiction Studies 3 (March 1976): 46–49.

Crimea, and Mexico, collapsed much sooner than its British (and in our days the US) parallel, a sensitive French writer like Verne can be discussed in terms of a changing cognition of historical horizons for such industrialized promenades around the map – in terms of the paradoxically unstable yet appealing mirage that I propose to call “utopian liberalism.”

The utopian aspect of Verne is an echo and deformation of several strong French traditions, mainly the saintsimonian one. Saint-Simon’s crucial place in the development of “forward-going” horizons has been indicated in the preceding chapter.4 Rather than adopting his orientation toward “[shifting] the Earthly Paradise from the past into the future,” however, Verne in his exemplary microcosms developed the saintsimonian universal communication involving large human collectives that is the obverse and complement of the quantified convertibility between time and space:

The symbols and instruments of the saintsimonians’ collective will to power will be that which physically breaks down the barriers between the peoples […] and permits their quicker linking. […] The “utopia” of physical communication bringing about the internationalization of ideas will take a most tangible form: ships, vehicles, locomotives.5

Indeed, in spite of saintsimonian ascendencies, it is significant that Verne, often referred to as the prophet of future gadgetry, did not in fact write any anticipations (except for a very few late stories to which I shall return). His works are not extrapolations in time but ostensibly factual, newspaper-style reports about parallel universes or alternate time-tracks in which Professor Lidenbrock had just a few months earlier journeyed under the Earth, Nemo under the sea, and the Columbiad trio around the Moon. These reports are neither a Swiftian open satirical conspiracy calculated to estrange the reader from his environment, nor a Poean hoax playing upon his gullibility

  • For Saint-Simon, see Ernst Bloch (Bibliography II), Max Beer (Bibliography III A), and works by Ansart, Cole, Desanti, Durkheim, Engels, Leroy, Manuel, and Volgin in Bibliography IV A. For the parallels between Saint-Simon and Verne all students are indebted to the pioneering hints of Kirill Andreev and the study by Jean Chesneaux (Bibliography IV B).
  • Dominique Desanti (Bibliography IV A), p. 56.

toward a magically omnipotent science. Verne transferred Walter Scott’s, Dumas père’s,and particularly Fenimore Cooper’s exotic otherwhen into an alternative and extraordinary but strictly natural “otherwhere” – the voyage, equally as believable as but more glamorous than the everyday Europe or North America where it begins and ends. Its time is exactly measured and wholly filled by the traversing and mapping of space. “The whole history of the Carboniferous period was inscribed on these walls” (chap. 20), comments the narrator of his first SF novel Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), which is also a descent into the depths of geological past. Later, the subterranean travelers encounter an immense “plain of bones” constituted by 20 centuries of animal generations: “There, on three square miles perhaps, the whole history of animal life was gathered, scarcely written on the too recent grounds of the inhabited world” (chap. 37). Quantified time translated into quantified space constitutes the book of Nature, which is decoded and claimed for knowledge by the act of motion through it that permits the reading of its hidden information. The key for decoding, the instrument through which human imagination seizes upon Nature, is pre-Darwinian measuring and classificatory natural science: geology, geography, astronomy, or zoology. That is why “novels of science” can be written, but also why they do not contain any new principles or theories. Only that can be discovered which is already known to be there – as for example the trail to the center of the Earth or the poles – and has now to be verified by physical proximity and scanning, conducive to imaginative absorption by the reader. Only the possession of a sure compass and guide permits the basic Vernean pursuit of orientation and mapmaking, so that his enduring fascination with the magnetic pole reactualizes Sinbad’s magnetic island in terms of a nineteenth-century metaphor for human cognition. Two of the major plot entanglements of the subterranean voyage are caused by the loss of the guiding thread (the Hans-Brook) in the granite labyrinth and by the reversal of the compass in one of Verne’s recurrent electromagnetic storms. But all the numerous scientific dilemmas (that, for instance, about Earth’s inner heat), red herrings, puzzles, and cryptograms are – as in Poe’s ratiocinative tales but not as in Pym – finally clarified and solved. The voyage is in fact a spatial equivalent of the process of reasoning necessary for solving the initial riddle. In that sense, Verne’s SF draws its excitement from the prestige of the mid-nineteenth-century scientific method by which Cuvier reconstituted a mastodon from one bone, and in turn popularizes it.

The world of Verne’s early books is, accordingly, more interpolated into than extrapolated from the imaginative space of textbooks of exotic geography, zoology, mineralogy and similar, which he quotes at great (and by now wearisome) length. Yet the voyagers are not only verifying the plenitude and solidity of this “positive” material universe – which is in Verne identical with what pertains to the Earth. They are also voyaging toward one of its privileged points – the center of the Earth, the poles, the Moon – or on the privileged circular line of Fogg’s civilized and Nemo’s subversive circuit. Verne’s SF is in a way the triumph of imaginative cartography, of the great measuring adventure of mankind which succeeded in quantifying the planisphere, the flow of time, and human relationships. All his heroes, from Nemo through Cyrus Smith to Kaw Djer, assume at moments of crucial conflict the characteristic Napoleonic (perhaps one should say Byronic) stance of surveying the battlefield with folded arms and fixed gaze.

This geometric imagination has clear limitations. Verne’s voyages fill in the white spots of already sketched space. In From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and All Around the Moon (1870) the Moon is never reached; the same is true, with one exception, of all the privileged cartographic points in other novels. Verne’s innovations (the subterranean Mediterranean and “lava lift,” the Moon projectile and the Nautilus, the human timebinding machine Phileas Fogg, Robur’s airplane and all-purpose vehicle, Servadac’s comet) may be stimulating technical dreams but they are infirm scientific extrapolation, on the one hand just one step beyond existing blueprints and on the other tending toward the inexact or even the grossly unscientific (humans could survive neither the lava lift nor the firing of the Columbiad). But all these innovations are vehicles of an epic of communication for the age of industrial liberalism. In the two Moon novels, the four logical stages of such a new epic – the conceiving and the creating of technical means for the extraordinary locomotion, its vicissitudes, and the delirious discussions fostered by it – are systematically orchestrated to culminate each in one strong set scene: Barbican’s speech, the casting of the Columbiad, the space and time point of zero gravity, and the oxygen intoxication (already used in Verne’s story “Dr. Ox” to symbolize the acceleration of life by scientific progress). Though technology is used to verify the Moon map, its main function is to induce enthusiasm for the extraordinary locomotive adventure which vanquishes measurable space and time. The movement at a breathless pace is the soul, the exhilaration of covering ground the supreme passion, and the various vehicles practically the heroes of Verne’s plots.

However, all his plots describe the neutralized trajectory of the Moon “double novel”: they are a momentary escape from and final return to bourgeois normality. The whirl around the globe is the obverse of a longing for the still point of repose; even the limited novum of the wondrous means of locomotion is destroyed or otherwise repudiated at the end of each story. Verne’s voyages and plots approximate a circle, the figure which reconciles dynamics and statics, the geometrical locus of a movement that never violates a preestablished track. Hythloday, Gulliver, Frankenstein, or the Time Traveller are profoundly changed by what they learn during their travels. For Verne, space does not harbor a hierarchy of values but a quantified grid convertible to quantified time through speed (see Around the World in 80 Days). His voyagers are swept up in a movement where, as in Cartesian analytic geometry and kinetics, only bodies, forces, and obstacles to motion (which also serve for narrative retardation) exist. Conversely, his world is a sum of discrete points or objects the only possible relationship of which is distance or a collision course. People too have become equivalent to physical molecules and energies, able to communicate only by movement through space and time. As in Robinson Crusoe,Verne’s great model, his characters are constantly menaced by the doom of dehumanizing solitude on their individual psychic islands, as it were. “Only connect” could have been Verne’s slogan – for example in the emblematic episode of Axel’s losing his way in Journey to the Center of the Earth. In this individualistic world it is impossible to find the unexpected, the fundamentally different – say a new mode of life – even under the globe, on the Moon, or in time. The estrangement of Verne’s early voyages is limited to a transient pleasure in adventure, and the cognition to adding one technical innovation or bit of locomotive know-how (as the Moon projectile) to an unchanged world. His “novel of science” can be compared to a pool after a stone has been thrown into it: there is a ripple of excitement on the surface, the waves go to the periphery and back to their point of origin, and everything settles down as it was, with the addition of one discrete fact – the stone at the bottom of the pool. Both the pleasure in adventure as such and the pedagogic addition of one new bit of information at a time are suitable for – and were aimed at – a childish or juvenile audience of pre-teens. As an introduction to SF in an industrial age, Verne’s best stories work very well at that boy-scout level of a group of male friends in an exciting mapping venture.

And yet there is more to Verne than a closed world validating its own certainties: there is also a longing to escape from it. The distant spaces, and especially the sea, allow his characters to manifest their individualities far from the regulated dullness of bourgeois respectability. Verne’s vivid eccentrics are individualists escaping the Individualistic metropolis. In utopian and indeed folktale fashion he wants the privileges of industrial productivity without the relationships of production and the political institutions in which it came about. He accepts the tenet of the steam, iron, and coal “palaeotechnic” age, that value lies in movement; but instead of its orientation toward a future of infinitely expanding Manchesters, Pittsburghs, and Ruhrs, he inclines toward clean electricity and movement in an ultimately circular space, toward traveling rather than arriving. He wants the power of marvelous machines but only for a kind of ship with a crew of friends, or at least loyal followers, which leaves the sooty factory and its class divisions behind – exactly as the Moon projectile, escaping social as well as physical gravity, leaves the explosive Columbiad on Earth. Verne’s furthest venture into such waters, where escapism blends with subversion, is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870):

The world, so to speak, began with the sea, and who knows but that it will also end in the sea! There lies supreme tranquillity. The sea does not belong to tyrants. On its surface, they can still exercise their iniquitous rights, fighting, destroying one another, indulging in all other earthly horrors. But thirty feet below its surface their power ceases, their influence dies out, their domination disappears! Ah, Monsieur, one must live – live within the ocean! Only there can one be independent! There I acknowledge no master! There I am free! [chap. 10; trans. A. Bonner]

The frequent Romantic identification of sea with freedom is not only explicitly recalled in this outburst of Captain Nemo’s but incarnated in him. This “Nobody,” a disdainful Byronic political pirate, scientist, and visionary hoists a black flag with a capital N: he is a Napoleon turned heroic Unknown Avenger from popular literature, alone as Prometheus against the whole civilized order. He lives sheltered and supplied by the sea, a shepherd of its flocks and guardian of its treasures, the tutelary genius of a fully furnished world which is simultaneously on Earth and as foreign to terrestrial life as a different planet would be. In Nemo’s – and in Lidenbrock’s – travels Verne comes much nearer to outer-space SF than in the two Moon novels. In both cases the exciting and yet almost dreamlike ease of travel is allied to electricity, which is for Verne a Shelleyan, libidinous “soul of the industrial world” (The Clipper of the Clouds,chap. 6). Nemo and his electrical submarine Nautilus are perfectly adapted to the sea, “mobile in the mobile.” Within it, this great anarchoindividualist’s violent desire has for the nonce produced a parallel and rival microcosm – a potent weapon against the oppressors but also museum, gallery, concert-hall, and library stocked with the spacious works of freedom: “poetry, fiction, and science from Homer to Hugo, from Xenophon to Michelet, from Rabelais to George Sand.” Civilization is the Frankenstein of the Nemo/Nautilus “monster,” that ally and avenger of the Third World, of the national liberation movements in the wake of the French Revolution, against the imperial powers. The strong Romantic leanings of Verne, a lover of caverns, tempests, volcanoes, polar zones, and old castles, come in this novel very close to a revolutionary liberalism. Within his politically ambiguous opus, Nemo is an exceptionally sympathetic and lucid achievement, an Odysseus with both superior technology and liberating aims, redeeming the novel’s boring ichthyological passages. Nemo the “superman” is Verne’s only hero to plant his flag on the pole, though even he comes perilously close to immobilization and asphyxiation (the contrary of oxygen inebriation) as punishment for this encroachment on the still point of the whirling globe, the Faustian moment of blissful arrest. Verne’s major voyages are either directed toward a privileged point, or they approximate a girdle around the Earth as in The Children of Captain Grant and Around the World in 80 Days (which became his most popular book because it presented a safe encyclopedia of means and adventures of speeding locomotion). Only Nemo – even if he is at the end sucked into the Maelstrom – manages to combine this great circle with the attainment of Earth’s axis and navel, for which the heroes of Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras – like those of Frankenstein – had striven in vain.

Nemo’s rich character also combines the traveler, rescuer, scientist, and explorer monomaniacs of Verne’s above four novels. In each of Verne’s tales, his protagonist is a passionate incarnation of the theme. Lidenbrock, the energetic German professor of transcendent crystallography, is a Hoffmannesque incarnation of geology; Barbican, Nicholl, and Ardan are embodiments, we are told, of Science, Industry, and Art, but (one would have to add) also of projectile-making, iron plate, and aerial voyaging in high spirits, and of Yankee, Scotsman, and Frenchman; Fogg of Anglo-Saxon coolness and chronometric precision in traversing time and space. Verne’s “humours” characterization and his alternation of thrill and exposition is straight out of the operas or boulevard vaudevilles of Second Empire Paris, and so is his scenery, be it the outdoors of electric tempests or the indoors of the upholstered Moon projectile or the Nautilus. The trio of main characters, Verne’s “three musketeers,” usually takes the roles of resolute explorer, loyal companion, and more or less comic servant (Lidenbrock, Axel, and Hans; Nemo, the not wholly loyal Arronax, and Conseil with Land for added tension; Barbican, Ardan, who becomes a second protagonist, and Nicholl usurping the place of Marston). But as important as any persons are the machine-vehicles that often steal the limelight as objectivizations of the theme and of its protagonist. The protagonist and the SF concept (the machine-vehicle or some other islandlike microcosm) are therefore linked by the strongest secret sympathies within a cluster of correspondences at the center of which is the story’s theme or “element.”6 The Moon projectile, the elevation out of gravity, and the ejected trio; Nautilus, the sea, and Nemo; Fogg, chronometry, and the spectrum of means for swift locomotion; Robur, the air, and The Albatross; Schulze, the asphyxiating cold, and the supercannon factory – they all form homogeneous symbolic systems.

  • Michel Butor (Bibliography IV B), pp. 48 ff.

Around them are distributed the supernumeraries: crew, wayside acquaintances, dastardly enemies (usually dark-skinned, but this too is reversed in Nemo’s system). Finally, there is the “sublime father,” the representative of providence (Nemo in The Mysterious Island,Antekirtt in Mathias Sandorf).

Table 1

BookTheme, “Element,” or Semantic FieldSF Concept = Microcomic NovumProtagonist
Journey to Center of the EarthGeologyUnderground worldLidenbrock
Moon NovelsSublation of gravityMoon projectileTrio
20,000 LeaguesSea = freedomNautilusNemo
Around the World in 80 daysChronometryEnsemble of palaeotechnic means of locomotionFogg
Mysterious IslandColonization of natureEmblematic islandCyrus Smith
500 Million of the BegumAsphyxiating coldSuperfactory for supercannonsSchulze
Clipper of the CloudsFlight as scientific powerAirshipRobur

With unimportant exceptions, the cast is an all-male one. The whole libido in Verne’s ultimately sterile world is invested in machines instead of in women. The phallic connotations of Nautilus or the Columbiad ejection are unmistakable, but so is their fruitlessness. Finally, in The Carpathian Castle (1892), the opticoelectrical machine resurrects or replaces the image of the woman. The lively machine integrates man into space, it allows him to be in harmony with nature, to move his individual microcosm through it and closer to other people, and thus to communicate with them. These “clean” machines or mechanisms “do not produce surplus value”7nor consume

  • Chesneaux, p. 43 (his italics).

human labor, since they tap the miraculous electricity. Along with women, the working class is also absent from Verne’s world of boyish innocence. Discoverers and dastards face each other like noble and ignoble savages, translated from Cooper’s forests into a space validated by science.

A clean technology, worldwide communications, science and art ruling the world – the whole outlook represented by Barbican plus Ardan or by Nemo has a strong kinship with saintsimonist utopianism. In his most optimistic parable, The Mysterious Island (1875), Verne presents the rise of a fraternal community fertilizing nature by applying scientific knowledge. The voyage has been reduced to a rudimentary framework, the favored microcosm is an island instead of a ship (but the two are in Verne, as in SF generally, largely interchangeable, both being analogs to the author’s world), the SF concept is resolutely sociological as well as technological, and the all-embracing theme is man’s scientific colonization of Nature, including but superseding simple communication. This novel is Verne’s “recapitulation of race history”8 and a culmination of his opus. Its mysterious island is privileged because, like Crusoe’s, it is a figure of our globe, to the point of possessing mutually incompatible geographic zones. Cyrus Smith, Verne’s supreme “knower” and source of energy, is that saintsimonian ideal: an engineer, communicator, and organizer who is “man of action at the same time as man of thought” (part 1, chap. 1), in fact “a microcosm, a composite of all human knowledge and intelligence!” (part 1, chap. 9). He is flanked by two loyal seconds, a hunter-cum-artist and a teenage heir gifted for recognizing the classes of Nature, and by two comic servants, one white and one black. To complete this vertical chain of being, there is also a dog and a tamed orangoutan (loyal companion and comic servant in the animal realm); and at its demonic and angelic ends a repented criminal and the dying Nemo are eventually discovered. This island crew starts out with its know-how, two watches (which Cyrus uses for the Promethean gift of fire by means of their curved glasses, and for surveying space), a single sliver of steel, and a single grain of wheat. It progresses through gathering and hunting to pottery, metallurgy, and a series of increasingly  sophisticated tools

  • Kenneth Allott (Bibliography IV B), p. 77.

and techniques. With the help of a hidden and providential Nemo, and in a cooperative, though strictly graded, exploitation of Nature, they increase and multiply their possessions, eventually attaining a wholly cultivated island home, truly civilized since it can boast roads, bridges, a lift, boat, and electric telegraph line.

But this program of – as the saintsimonists said – all by steam and electricity, “[substituting] for the exploitation of man by man […] the harmonious action of man on nature,”9 has problematic blind spots and ambiguities for a parable on history. First of all, it is a colonization unhampered by aborigines, which allows it to progress, in Vernean ease, as a cross between a holiday and a utopian colony. Yet the colonists’ ambition (like Ardan’s more lighthearted reason for traveling to the Moon) is to valorize and then annex the island to the USA. The building of the Columbiad had proceeded on territory recently “cleared” of Indians in the Seminole wars; equally, after the volcanic earthquake which destroys the island, Cyrus Smith (the Yankee Everyman as imperial conqueror of space) and his companions use Nemo’s saved treasure to found a vague utopian colony in Iowa (equally cleared of the Sioux). Sympathy with enslaved peoples is, in Verne as in Saint-Simon, limited to Whites – from the Quebecois and the Irish to the Greeks; the colored races are either bloodthirsty beasts or natural inferiors, so that Nab in The Mysterious Island is even given an instinctive affinity to the orangoutan! Nemo, Verne’s sympathetic rebel, is in this novel retracted: he dies alone and mellowed, and Smith’s judgment on him is that for all his heroic qualities he was wrong in “fighting the necessary progress” (part 3, chap. 16). Second, this is a human history without the lower class: of the two manual workers in the novel, the White is a seaman and the Black devotion personified. Third – even more strictly than usual – not a single woman appears in the novel. This history has no future, and Verne had to employ a whole series of somewhat weary plot tricks to destroy the colony without destroying the sense of the colonists’ work.

  • The Doctrine of Saint-Simon (New York, 1972), p. 29; the quote is considered to be by B. P. Enfantin.

For this thematic culmination is also the point at which Verne’s enthusiasm flags and his writing starts to slip badly. The adventurous Second Empire had ended in ignominious defeat; the ensuing Third Republic had begun with the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune and continued in a welter of corrupt factions; free competition in the major bourgeois countries was giving way to trusts and monopolies; the boom in colonial annexations dividing the globe among imperial powers was on: the precariousness of liberal enthusiasm was becoming quite manifest. At this very time finance capital was fast ascending to power at the expense of SaintSimon’s privileged industry and industrial capital, and was inaugurating the full panoply of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism.”10 With startlingly close parallelism, Verne’s horizon grows more and more gloomy after the mid-1870s, and his marvelous inventions – both vehicles and communities – more and more malignant and destructive, prisons instead of harmonies. The menacing potential of science – seen already in Dr. Ox, the mutilated artillerists of the Gun Club, or Nemo – is no longer neutralized by, respectively, farce, peaceful international cooperation in exploring the universe, or political justice. Instead, the irascible but selfless eccentrics and explorers change into power-mad inventors or – historically more farsighted – into willing scientific tools of mad militarists. The petty feuds of Barbican and Nicholl or Florida and Texas, once soothed by the dreams of communication and peaceful colonization, explode into nightmares of world dominion and a total war of faction against faction, each against each. In The Begum’s Fortune (1879) the asphyxiating Teutonic hell of SteelCity with its ballistic MIRVs is still vaguely balanced by a roseate, hygienic France-Ville. But the formerly exemplary America of freedom and progress is now seen as a plutocratic microcosm tearing itself apart (Milliard-City in Propeller Island,1895). Equally, Robur, the conqueror of the air, instead of founding an “aerial Icaria” has to recognize that “science should not overtake the morals” in a civilization of selfish and opposed interests (The Clipper of the Clouds,1886); and when he reappears in the still shriller and feebler Master of the World (1904) he has changed from “the science of the

  1. See V. I. Lenin’s 1917 booklet of that optimistic title.

future” to a madman, whose Promethean vehicle for all elements is – as all other novelties in the later Verne – destroyed by Providence. Verne’s racism narrows to French chauvinism, and his confident alliance of science with commerce and finance changes to a condemnation of the sterility of gold and money. Both fuse in the cosmic flight of Hector Servadac,in which Anglophobia and anti-Semitism have to figure as substitutes for the euphoria of the Moon voyage. The fraternal exploitation of nature by men has turned to a discord which amounts to the end of Verne’s world. In three interesting posthumous works, The Survivors of the “Jonathan” (bp. 1909), The Eternal Adam (bp. 1910), and The Barsac Mission (bp. 1919), he retracts the saintsimonian optimism of The Mysterious Island. The Survivors of the “Jonathan” (translated in two books as The Masterless Man and The Unwilling Dictator)is Verne’s most explicit political parable, and it is situated symbolically on the furthest shore of the world, an island halfway between the lost freedom and progress of the Americas and the privileged but dangerous point of the South Pole. There, a cargo of suffering and ill-adjusted humanity from a wrecked ship all officers of which have been swept overboard is subjected to the equally pernicious enticements of state socialism, egalitarian communism (both professed by failed intellectuals), and usurious capitalism. The childlike workers would have gone under but for the intervention of a mysterious and noble anarchoindividualist, the Kaw-djer, who ultimately discovers that political leadership demands violence and retires embittered to a lighthouse at the end of the inhabited world. Though full of clichés, this novel at least manifests an interest in different political horizons together with a disbelief in their success. The Eternal Adam,Verne’s only significant anticipation, opts therefore for a cycle of eternal return. The leading scientist of a future civilization discovers to his horror a receding vista of lost civilizations, including an account of the end of ours in cataclysm and savagery. The story conveys the realization that, as Valery will put it, “we civilizations, we also know now that we are mortal” – quite a feat for the erstwhile bard of technologically conquered space. Finally, Blackland in Mission Barsac (also translated as City in the Sahara)is Verne’s most developed anti-utopian city (though the text might have been rewritten by Verne’s son), astoundingly similar to a Nazi concentration camp plus war factory, with its segregated quarters, slavery, super-weapons, and megalomania, even to a rival SA and SS. As in Steel-City, there is a rare appearance of the cowed industrial proletariat, which here even participates in an uprising, and a strong stress on the scientist’s social responsibility. All three works look thus into a threatening future rather than a cheery present – a fitting final chord to Verne’s SF at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Thus Verne’s initial dream of space can be seen as a flight from uncertain time, and his fascination with filling in the interstices of geography and science as leading to a subtle reification. Time and Nature have to be strictly mastered, for they threaten to run down to the cold immobility of those poles and interplanetary spaces which attract and imperil Verne’s voyagers. But the obsessive control over time, which enabled Fogg to vanquish space as well as the aptly named threat of Fix and to gain the warmth of Aouda, has in Schulze (in 500 Million…) become a bearer of thermodynamic death. In Verne’s first phase the energetic hero always taps a saving electric or volcanic energy; in the second, Prometheus turns into Luciferian blasphemer and energy into destruction. Verne’s world is not quite mechanical, it is thermodynamic. Both communication and colonization mean civilized conquest of space, which is a decrease of entropy. On the contrary, the destruction or perversion to destructive ends of the vehicles and embodiments of civilization, from means of locomotion to cities and colonies, is in his post-1875 writing the mark of entropy, of insidious Time, culminating in Time’s deadly reign in The Eternal Adam. From Journey to the Center of the Earth to The Mysterious Island,decoding or understanding space led to a happy end; understanding time leads to a dead end. Though Verne is not a writer of anticipations, he lived in the age of anticipation and could turn his back on it only for a brief historical moment and at the price of seeing time as the deadly enemy. In that he was a representative writer of the positivist epoch. Rejecting the radical rhapsodists and the introverted Romantics, the Victorians thought of themselves as realists. The great scenes of Verne’s SF – Axel’s dream or the vision of prehistoric man in Journey to the Center of the Earth,the saintsimonian poetry of rapid motion (as in the Moon novels and the Nautilus), of creative labor (as in the casting of the Columbiad), or of discovery (as in Nemo’s underwater forest or in the congealing of the supercooled sea even in the second-rate Servadac)all fuse science or nature with the mysterious liberating excitement brought by a “real” novelty. Yet his work is pervaded first by a rhapsodic Romanticism channeled toward exotic space, and later by a dread of time that breaks out from beneath the positive certainty. Verne accepts from the enthusiasts of “utopian socialism” what can be accepted by a Christian liberal – a common denominator of individual affirmation within social engineering that one must paradoxically call “utopian liberalism.” The fact that this contains something for everybody who shares the dreams and fears of an industrial society explains Verne’s wide popularity. But it also situates his “novel of science” halfway between the science-oriented middle class’s11 saintsimonian utopianism at the beginning and anti-utopian gloom at the end of the nineteenth century. Creatively, this precarious balance lasted only a dozen years, so long as that class could still conceive of science and liberal capitalism as wholly concordant. After Verne, in his imitators all around the world that balance disintegrated into its components of subliterary adventure, gadget popularization, and pretentious ideology. But while it lasted Verne’s work itself, in spite of its long slack stretches, gave shape to some of the most persistent because most threatened mirages of his age: the joy of human contact by way of mastery over nature, its mapping, and intimate penetration; the binding of time and its translation into energetic motion and civilized expansion by means of wondrous machines. In the second phase, he substituted for spatial wonder some sensitive prefigurations of the dark forces menacing the liberal society. Verne’s steady vision made him the Balzac of space-machines, as his vehicles and colonies can be called. With his twenty-odd SF books, he is the first systematic novelist initiating dynamic plotting and the overview of a fully furnished world in SF – “what a style; nothing but nouns,” remarked Apollinaire admiringly of him.12 Verne revived the subterranean and interplanetary journey and introduced technology into the heart of utopianism. He turned SF

  1. A homologous analysis for twentieth-century Anglo-American SF by Gérard Klein, “Discontent in American Science Fiction,” Science-Fiction Studies 4 (March 1977): 3–13, offers interesting parallels to Verne’s trajectory as well as the best sociological hypothesis for its causes so far to be found in SF criticism.
  2. Quoted in Marguerite Allotte de la Fuÿe (Bibliography IV B), p. 66.

toward a juvenile audience, but drew into this audience readers of serious periodicals interested in scientific puzzles, thus setting up the basic equation for SF consumption in the ensuing 100 years (including fan mail and fan visitors). Perhaps most importantly, he presented this specialized reading public with the joy of free movement outside the compartments of Victorian society. The bard of palaeotechnics was ambiguously – as every significant writer – also the bard of its alternatives: electricity, wide-open spaces, peace, fraternal utopian colonies.

In all these respects Verne is one of the shapers of modern SF, and an important link in as well as modifier of the chain of its development. He was himself acutely aware of that chain and how he was continuing it. Apart from his wide though superficial scientific gleanings, the allusions or outright lectures in many of his novels show that he knew practically the whole tradition of significant SF before him, his taste in books being similar to Nemo’s. In the two Moon novels, for example, he details the entire tradition of both beliefs and romances about the Moon, from Thales through Cyrano to Poe, in whose honor the scene is set in Baltimore. Poe, of whom he wrote a study, was an omnipresent though superficial influence on his puzzles and their solutions, his polar voyages, and his characterization (compare the Gun Club members and Poe’s Man Who Was Used Up). Another major influence was Cooper – not only his Leatherstocking Tales but also the sea stories and the utopian romances with their black pattern of discovery and retraction. Biblical associations are common. Swift can be felt in the conflict of the Starbordians and the Larbordians of Propeller Island,and Verne seems to have known not only German Romantics but also Hawthorne. He followed attentively his contemporaries, even those who were learning from him, and appears to have used E. E. Hale’s Brick Moon (1872) satellite story for Servadac,Villiers and Robida for The Carpathian Castle,and Wells’s Invisible Man for a later attempt on the same theme. As for his direct influence, a whole school of Verneans lasted well into the twentieth-century – from his collaborators Laurie-Grousset and Michel Verne to writers like D’Ivoi, Graffigny, Le Rouge, or the ingenious writerdesigner Robida (La Guerre au 20e siècle,1883, and La Vie électrique,1893) in France, Kraft and Dominik in Germany, Jókai in Hungary, Salgari in

Italy, and countless other imitators as far away as Russia and Japan. Also evident are the debts to Verne of many inferior English-language works of adventure SF, from the early 1870s through E. D. Fawcett, Max Pemberton, George Griffith, Conan Doyle, and the dime novels to E. R. Burroughs and the Gernsbackians. Perhaps most curious is the case of Wells, who fought so furiously against being “the English Verne” that in some cases he apparently undertook to go Verne one better – so, for example, in the underground life of Cavor’s Moon and in the Time Traveller’s depths of time as compared to the descents in Journey to the Center of the Earth or Les Indes Noires,but also in his whole program of meeting a different life as opposed to Verne’s shying away from it. Directly and through Wells, Verne is thus behind all modern SF dealing with the conquest of space and social engineering.

2.    Communication Breaks Down

2.0. Verne’s popularity stands in startling contrast to the conspicuous lack of popularity of other SF between Frankenstein and the 1870s, despite the quality of some texts. Powerful social pressures on writers, running the full gamut from exile through lack of social recognition and finances to internalization of despair and resignation, “impeded any success for forms with an intense speculative drift or a strong utopian and social-satire element.” Verne’s genius made a virtue of the resulting very limited “narrative recipe,” with its elements of verisimilitude, positivistic popularization, closed world with circular plots, and taboos on such radical novums as extraterrestrials, mutations, and different sexual practices. But such limitations were in effect an interdict by the bourgeois aesthetic practice of the times against a simultaneously far-reaching and hopeful imagination, against “dreams of expanding universes … or of the happiness of metamorphoses.”13 As the

  1. For the quotes and the general argument in this paragraph I am indebted to Marc Angenot’s allowing me to read in manuscript his pioneering essay “Science Fiction

lines from Tennyson quoted at the beginning of this chapter imply, only fools were supposed to believe in the “dream” or the “fancy” of a change that would not be identical with the “ringing grooves” of railways carrying Victorian gentlemen and the products of capitalist industry into the world.

  • It is understandable, then, that the main body of SF published in the age of Verne shows an equal uneasiness about strange novelties which might imply a radically different horizonof human relationships in the future, or indeed a radical alternative in the present. On the outskirts of capitalism, in Russia, two seeming exceptions (which will be discussed more fully in chapter 11) confirm the rule. Reacting against the overt pressures of blatant police repression, Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (bp. 1905, 42 years after magazine publication) was a prefiguration set in an alternative present but issuing into a utopian, classless future that is its fulfillment. This imaginative but not escapist attempt of bridging timehorizons or diverting the flow of time is a revealing contrast to Verne’s only momentarily diverging present, bereft of any such future and reduced to finding its pathos in the actual adventures of momentary deviation, validated by “positive” knowledge, while they were happening and so far as they went. A confirmation of the correspondence between the location of an SF tale and its historical horizon is to be found in Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (1877), which acts out a fruitful tension between his skepticism about the feasibility of, and his heartfelt longing after, a salvation within history. The dream of this tale is a framework for what is clearly spelled out as a parallel universe standing for ours. The ensuing complex balance permits Dostoevsky for the nonce to use simultaneously a twin, parallel history and an orientation toward the future recovery of lost innocence.
    • Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) opts for a subterranean location. Yet the Romantic system of correspondences between depths, warmth, energy, and femininity is in this apostate from radicalism and admirer of Frankenstein presented with mingled fascination

in France Before Verne,” now in Science-Fiction Studies 5 (March 1978): 58–66 – all quotes in this paragraph are from ibidem, 64–65.

and horror. Sympathy and will came for Bulwer, because of their associations with revolution and communism, to represent a power for evil as well as for good. The addition of a banalized version of the occult, quasi-magnetic fluid permeating men and all nature – the vril – completes the basic givens of and explains his ambiguous attitude toward the incompatibly different mode of life in the novel. While the novel contains incidental sallies into sub-Swiftian satire on Darwinism and American democracy, Bulwer is mainly preoccupied with and uneasily indecisive about the scientific power, the collective social organization using technics instead of a “separate working class” (chap. 26), and the sexual emancipation of the Vril-ya. His device of a menaced protagonist was adopted by Wells and has since become the staple of anti-utopian SF. However, the subterranean place is neither the classical Hell, nor Holberg’s excuse for satire, nor Verne’s exhilarating Mediterranean, but an omnium gatherum of demonic menace, neutral device, and matriarchal womb – or Owen (and even Fourier), Paltock, and Tory occultism in mindless admixture. Wanting to touch all bases, such demagoguery ends finally with no score. But obversely, at the time of publication it had a great success with the mid-Victorian reading public and – together with Verne, Erewhon,and the “future war” vogue – ushered in a revival of publishing interest in an SF suggesting but also warning against the significant novum and presenting an individualistic – usually sentimental and horrific – melodrama alongside new gadgetry. One of the most interesting variants of a Bulwerian ambiguity toward the horrible but fascinating topsy-turvy country is James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (bp. 1888), which self-consciously fused it with the marvelous-voyage tradition from More to Poe’s Pym. A positive evaluation of the radical break implicit in a reasonable country of female parthenogenesis is allied to an equal indecisiveness about relating to and communicating with it in Mary Bradley Lane’s Mizora (bp. 1890), located in a warm, hyperborean “Symmesian hole.” The same location is used in William Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atvatabar (1891) more in the vein of Haggard (and of some Bellamy) than of Bulwer. The “lost race” tale is here turned into a semioccultist yoking together of supergadgetry, feverish sentimentality, and spiritual “magnicity.” The baroque exuberance of this fine piece of eccentric Victoriana, with its holy locomotives, zoophytes, mass eroticism, and mass slaughter, teeters between the naive and the ridiculous, and reveals more frankly than Bulwer some of the central libidinal wishdreams impelling these writings.

  • Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) is a somewhat more lasting text because it at least approaches a sketch of the country where ulterior motives of Victorian society are explicitly unveiled. However, Butler too uses a Vernean yet undiscovered country “over the range,” on the traditionally upside-down antipodes. The diverse cognitive discussions in the text – the interchanging of illness and crime, Unreason and Reason, or religion and banking – are not only mutually incompatible expositions, they also hesitate between Swiftian bite and middle-class propriety, mildly diverting paradox and cynical justification. The fable of the Unborn has a certain Platonic charm, but what survives today is the application of Darwinist evolution to machines that could enslave man (beginning with the timemachine of the watch), prefiguring as it does the discussion of reification and of machine consciousness in cybernetics. A generation later, Butler’s sequel Erewhon Revisited retracted even such partial estrangement, as well as his own satire on the rise of religion, by its final horizon of a saving annexation to England. It is as if the anxious limitations of Trollope’s intervening venture into SF, The Fixed Period,had mediated between Butler’s two novels.
    • Finally, under the immediate stimulus of 1871, the momentous year of the German victory over France and the Paris Commune, the “future war” tale blossomed forth. Though precursors can be found as far back as the anonymous The Reign of George VI 1900–1925 (1763), Mary Shelley’s Last Man,Louis Geoffroy, and the pseudonymous “Herrmann Lang”’s  The Air Battle (1859) in which the southern hemisphere and dark races rule Europe, it was immediate political anxiety that prompted George T. Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871). The sensational echo, the imitations, rejoinders, and alternatives it provoked, first from other military and political gentlemen and then from popular writers jumping on a rolling bandwagon, resulted in the publication of hundreds of books before 1914, ringing changes upon political lineups, the ruthlessness of the enemy, and the unpreparedness but speedy victory of one’s own gullible country.14 Their hallmark was crass Anglo-Saxon, Gallic, or Teutonic chauvinism, escalating to the “yellow danger” racism, and location in a shockingly imminent future well within the implied middle-aged reader’s life expectancy. Though decisive super-weapons were often resorted to, these tales evidence a general inability to imagine the real economic, technological, and psychological aspects of the coming world war.15 The rise of the “future war” tale demonstrates how politics can directly bring about a new literary form, how SF can be effectively used as a factor in international and domestic politics, and how bourgeois expertise could imagine a genuine future location only as awful warning – here (as different from Verne’s Eternal Adam) meretriciously combined with uplifting finale. The only justification of the sub-genre is that Wells transmuted it in The War of the Worlds – by fusing it with the “fall of civilization” subgenre – into a reflection on the whole historical epoch of liberalism and thus into significant SF.
    • As we saw in considering Verne, any significant novum, in space as well as in time, grew untenable within liberal horizons. The hesitant groping toward new horizons that ensued will be discussed in the next two chapters. What remained was mostly subliterature, popularizing past writing paradigms a generation or two after they were exhausted; examples include the US post-Civil-War dime-novel series of the “Frank Reade Jr.” or the “Tom Swift” variety, set mostly in a Never-never Far West and destined to have a strong influence on modern SF. There also remained a few eccentrics swimming against the current. Among those who are the
  • The fundamental but certainly incomplete bibliography appended to I. F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War, 1763–1984 (Bibliography IV B) lists about 300 book titles in English, French, and German. Including titles from the United States, and with fuller data on European titles, the number, I would guess, would easily surpass 500. This does not even attempt to take into account the numerous serials in boys’ magazines, etc.
  • Clarke, p. 90, notes that the only writers who came anywhere near seeing the possible scientific changes in a future war were Robida, Doyle, and Wells (who foresaw not only the tank but also poison gas and the atom bomb). The latter is the only one who, to my knowledge, identified the psychological correlative of total warfare, and nobody saw the economic ones.

true progenitors of significant modern SF is Edwin A. Abbott. In his tale Flatland (1884) the location in other geometrical dimensions is the bearer of analogies to human class perception, conceiving, and behavior; its brief sketches show how strictly scientific cognition and even popularization can ascend to philosophical parable. Some other writers of the time – among them Edward Page Mitchell in the United States, whose stories touched upon a menacing android, a future of racial equality, visiting the past, invisibility, and a gracious plant intelligence-dealt with themes which were to flower in Wells and after him.16 The most interesting of such marginal people was Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam, a symbolist whose Cruel Tales had already sometimes hovered close to SF. His L’Ève future (1886) grafts onto a defiant Romanticism of the Hoffmann and Poe kind a concern with wondrous possibilities of modern science, personified in Edison and the “electrohuman” or “android” woman he fashions for a disenchanted Byronic or Baudelairean Lord. The Shelleys’ and Verne’s electricity has here literally become the soul or Promethean spark animating an artificial, metal and plastic creation. But for all its intelligent guesses about radiant matter in vacuum, “photosculpture,” color movies, and human electro-magnetism, the interest of Villiers’s novel lies in its twofold theme: how to find a nonphilistine Beauty in the world and how to determine the difference between a “real” but insensitive woman and an “illusion” whose behavior is more intelligent and generically more human than that of the original “bourgeois goddess.” The possibility of androids is suggested by the stereotyped behavior and ideas of people in the world of propriety and self-interest. “Chimaera for chimaera,” why should not an openly and purely artificial being, incarnating the best of human knowledge and genius, constant, sexless, and immortal, be preferable and indeed more real than such people are? And could not an ideal love be felt for such a humanized being, a “machine for manufacturing the Ideal,” rather than for the false humans?

  1. Though two of Mitchell’s SF stories were published in an anthology in 1884, their first book collection seems to be the one by Sam Moskowitz as The Crystal Man (Garden City, NY, 1973), who also supplied a pioneering but hyperbolic introduction on the man and the themes of his work.

In a divergence from Verne, this alternative present of pessimistic idealism does not evade but passionately hates the future in which the steam-boiler and egotistical aridity have suppressed the old values. Hadaly, the “future Eve,” is both the logical end-product of bourgeois reification or standardization (satirized also in some of the “cruel stories,” for example, “The Heavenly Ads”) and a rich countercreation named after the Ideal. A strong dose of misogyny, amounting at times to a kind of sexual racism, leads paradoxically to the concept of a Platonic, superhuman yet womanshaped, soul-sister as the worthy companion of man in his terrestrial exile. The novel teeters between the sublime and the ridiculous, with many a passage of exclamative sentimentality and shrill preaching, and ends with the usual twist into timeless – supernatural and even occult – fantasy and the destruction of the novum. Yet it not only contains splendid scenes of a Decadent, Salammbô-like otherwhere, like Edison’s underground realm of electricity with its artificial birds and flowers, it also uncovers the psychological source of many seemingly erotic but in fact asexual robot tales; and at its nucleus there is an incipient modern discussion of free will, creations with different types of logic, the burden of consciousness, and mass production of “ideals.” Puzzles of identity, role playing, and semantics appear in Villiers amid long stretches of philosophical and technical monologues. Thus, for all its impurities, The Future Eve carries the discussions of Frankenstein or “Rappaccini’s Daughter” into the age of Verne and Butler, envisaging their fascination with machines and final anti-utopian distrust of bourgeois progress as an existential problem of human sensitivity and intelligence. More than the Nemo/Nautilus centaur, or even Frankenstein’s Creature, the melancholy Hadaly, a union of spirit and scientific hardware, is the liveliest space-machine of the century.

3. Muted and transferred from time to space, the novum turned malevolent there too. Verne’s spinning world of progress spun finally into a cheerless cycle of eternal return. Communication was turning into a nightmare of Butler’s grinning statues and rigidifying orthodoxies, Bulwer’s collective superwomen, or the exchange of high explosives in future wars. In “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After” the hesitant Tennyson swung toward the disenchanting result of the century’s original if ambiguous promise:

Gone the cry of “Forward, Forward,” lost within a growing


Lost, or only heard in silence from the silence of a tomb. Half the marvels of my morning, triumphs over time and               space,

“Forward” rang the voices then, and of the many mine was    one.

Let us hush this cry of “Forward” till ten thousand years        have gone.


But the denial of the future led to such stifling closed worlds and so acute menaces that it eventually provided the basis for rehabilitating the possibility of a brighter anticipation in the dawning of socialist hope with Bellamy and Morris.

8.  Anticipating the Sunburst: 

Dream, Vision – or Nightmare?

The great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than the furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, – that we manufacture there everything except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.

John Ruskin

Is the Earth so?

Let her change then.

Let the Earth quicken.

Search until you know.

Bertolt Brecht

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music: – do I wake or sleep?

John Keats

1. The gloom and recantation of SF – including utopian or social-sciencefiction – writers from Mary Shelley and Herman Melville to Jules Verne and Villiers de l’Isle Adam was part of the increasing closure of liberal bourgeois horizons. Yet at the same time the thirst for anticipations – fictional pictures of an excitingly different future – rose sharply (one assessment puts their frequency from 1871 to 1916 at 35 times the pre-1870 rate of publication).1 SF is as a genre potentially and even intrinsically oriented toward humanity’s furthest horizons, and therefore in quite aesthetic terms (that are, of course, inseparable from ethical and cognitive ones) not fully developed in the timeless, cyclical, or merely catastrophic realizations discussed in the

  1. Calculated by me from Ian Clarke (Bibliography I).

last two chapters. Consequently, the radical alternative of a socialist dawn found an even more congenial soil and erupted even more strongly in it than in the contemporary political surge in Germany, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. In addition to its thematic and ideological appeal this alternative had the merit of solving the racking dilemmas brought into existence by the time of the radical Romantics – of movement forward versus the closed circle, wish versus realization, freedom versus brotherhood, skepticism versus belief, individual versus society. A whole century had dealt with these dilemmas by ingenious or feeble evasions within a spatial symbolism, and had in plot-endings washed its hands of the cognitive reason for the story’s existence. Therefore the SF narrations from Frankenstein to Villiers and most of Verne culminated in destructions and murders as the logical end and outcome of the quantitative, individually anguished Faustian quest – as opposed to the qualitative, collectively subversive Promethean quest of earlier utopian and SF writers, from More and Cyrano to Percy Shelley. Even Goethe felt he could avoid such an outcome only by tacking on to his Faust a religious happy-ending incompatible with the initial wager that validates the plot. The socialist vision of a classless millennium on Earth was thus a solution to both the ideational and the formal problems of nineteenth-century SF. It flourished for a brief time in Bellamy and Morris, the absence of its open horizon explains Mark Twain’s impatience and despairing failure in A Connecticut Yankee,and at the end of the century it provided one of the basic ingredients for Wells’s ambiguous synthesis.

1.1. In Looking Backward 2000–1887 (1888) Edward Bellamy started not only from the widespread Victorian observation that, as Disraeli put it, the rich and the poor were “two nations,” but also from the observation that “[the] working classes had quite suddenly and very generally become infected with a profound discontent with their condition, and an idea that it could be greatly bettered if they only knew how to go about it.” Bellamy was willing to show them how, for it was “[not] only the toilers of the world who are engaged in something like a world-wide insurrection, but true and humane men and women, of every degree, are in a mood of exasperation, verging on absolute revolt, against social conditions that reduce life to a brutal struggle for existence […]” (chap. 1). In Equality (1897), a sequel which set out to plug the gaps left by the first novel, he added to these sources of discontent the ruin of prairie farmers by capitalist mortgages, the degradation of women fostered by economic exploitation, the recurrent economic crises of the last third of the nineteenth century, and the concentration of three-quarters of all national wealth into the hands of 10 per cent of the population. Bellamy’s utopianism was the point at which all these deep discontents (which in the decade of the Chicago Haymarket trial ran the whole gamut between bankrupt smaller businessmen and the industrial workers who participated in the almost 6,000 strikes per year) intersected with the earlier utopian-socialist tradition of American religious and lay associationism and with the experiences of the nineteenth-century socialist movement. As a spokesman of the American “immense average of villagers, of small-town-dwellers,” Bellamy believed in “modern inventions, modern conveniences, modern facilities”2 – in Yankee gadgetry as a white magic for overcoming drudgery. This perspective differed from the Populist revolt, which inveighed in the name of the smallholder against the financial trusts of Wall Street enslaving the countryside by means of railways. Bellamy accepted the trusts as more efficient and – following their own logic-condemned only their private character as economically too wasteful and politically too dangerous to tolerate. Instead of this corporate tyranny, his practical streak of “Yankee communism, or, to be more precise, ‘Associationism’3 “led him to envisage “the nation […] organized as the one great corporation […], the sole employer, the final monopoly […] in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared” (chap. 5). Bellamy’s new frontier, replacing the West traversed by the irreversible rails, is the future. It offers not only better railways, motor carriages, air-cars, telephones, and TV, but also a classless social brotherhood of affluence which will make these means of communication generally accessible and will socialize all other upper-class privileges such as culture. Comfort and security are the ends of Bellamy’s utopia, and economic reorganization the means. In this pragmatic socialism, unhappiness is ethical waste: Looking

  • W. D. Howells (Bibliography IV C), p. ix and vii.
  • Daniel Aaron (Bibliography IV C), p. 95.

Backward shows forth “the economy of happiness.”4 That is brought about by universal high education, universal industrial service from the twentyfirst to the forty-fifth year, equal and guaranteed income (in nontransferable yearly credits) for every citizen including the old, children, and the sick, a flexible planning adjusting workloads and production according to demand, and a highly developed system of public bestowal of honors. Government is reduced to the operations of the Great Trust or – since the economy is run on the lines of universal civic service analogous to the military service – the Industrial Army. In it, every citizen rises through the ranks as far as his capacity will carry him. The generals of each guild or industrial branch are, however, not appointed from above but chosen by all the retired members or alumni of the guild, and so on up to the head of the army who is president of the United States. Doctors and teachers have their own guilds and regents outside this army, and a writer, artist, journal editor, or inventor can be exempted from it if a sufficient number of buyers sign over a part of their credit to support him. The sequel in Equality clarifies that economic equality gives free play to the greatest possible expansion of individuality, that there is a reservation for Thoreau-like objectors to “work out a better solution of the problem of existence than our society offers” (chap. 5 – possibly the first use of this recurring escape hatch of later utopias), that the population of the cities has drastically shrunk, that all tools are electrically powered and garments made from disposable paper, and so on.

Bellamy’s economic blueprint is integrated into the story of Julian West, who wakes from a mesmeric sleep begun in 1887 into the year 2000, is given information about the new order by Dr. Leete, and falls in love with Leete’s daughter Edith. Further, all this is a “romantic narrative” (Preface) by an anonymous historian writing in the festive year 2000 to instruct his readers in the contrasts of past and present, by looking backward. This system of mirrors and receding vistas in time is memorably reactualized in the nightmarish ending when Julian dreams of awakening back in the capitalist society of 1887. He meets its folly and moral repulsiveness with

  • Unlocated quotation, apparently from Bellamy’s diary, in Aaron, p. 97.

an anguished eye which supplies to each spectral place and person a counterpossibility. This utopian estrangement culminates in the hallucination about “the possible face that would have been actual if mind and soul had lived” which he sees superimposed upon the living dead of the poor quarter; the lesson is that living in this nightmare and “pleading for crucified humanity” might yet be better than reawakening into the golden twentyfirst century – as, in a final twist, Julian does (chap. 28). Looking Backward – intimately informed by Bellamy’s constant preoccupation with human plasticity, with memory and identity (concerns of his Dr. Heidenhoff’s Process [1880] and Miss Ludington’s Sister as well as a number of his short stories), with brute reality and ideal possibility – reposes on a symbolic balance of time horizons. Its plot is, in fact, Julian’s change of identity. In two of Bellamy’s later SF stories, “The Blindman’s World” and “To Whom This May Come” (1898), the improvident Earthmen, sundered from their neighbors and self-knowledge, are contrasted to worlds of brotherhood and transparency where men are “lords of themselves.” Julian West, the idealistic and insomniac rich idler with a revealing name, becomes an apostate from such a life in the West of 1887 through his education into a citizen of 2000, which is effected through a healer’s reasonable lectures and his daughter’s healing sympathy and intercession. The construction of a social system for the reader is also the reconstruction of the hero. This innovation in the utopian and SF tradition uses the radical-democratic paradigm which (as was noted in chapter 6) began with the American Revolution, for a positive answer to Shakespeare’s and Swift’s challenge that changing the world entails changing the “nature” of men. On the other extreme from Frankenstein,such a dialectical malleability is also an epoch-making pointer to future SF.

On the other hand, Bellamy immediately retreated from this discovery. Just as Julian is the mediator between two social systems for the reader, so Edith Leete – the descendant and, as it were, reincarnation of Julian’s fiancée from 1887 – is the steadying emotional mediator in his passage to a new world, a personal female Christ of earthly love and brotherhood. Bellamy’s is an ethical socialism, abhorring violence and hatred. The “sunburst” of a new order, “when heroes burst the barred gate of the future” (chap. 20), is validated equally by economics, ethical evolution, and Christian love; unethical economics was for him unworkable. Such a millenary horizon makes for a fundamental, qualitative change: the future brings a different, purified space and man. The friendly house of Dr. Leete stands on the burnt-down remnants of Julian’s house and on top of his underground shelter, which have to be excavated as a feat of archeology for the twentyfirst century. For Julian, the Leete household is the hearth of spacious, reasonable, clean, classless Boston of the year 2000, and Edith is not too far from an image of his favorite writer Dickens, the cricket on the hearth. The hard-headed civic pragmatism is only the obverse of a soft-hearted petty-bourgeois romance or “fairy tale of social felicity.”5

This fairytale character is most evident in Bellamy’s sanguine expectation of a nonviolent, imminent, and instantaneous abandonment of private capitalism by universal recognition of its folly. With telling effect he extrapolated bourgeois rationality, ethics, and institutions to a logical end-product of universal public ownership. But this consistent pedagogic starting from the known signifies a sanitizing of capitalism to ensure the freedom, equality, brotherhood, and abundance of the Rationalist or Jeffersonian dreams. Bellamy remained limited by such ideals, which form an important part but by no means the final horizon of a socialist future. It is perhaps unfair to judge his fascination with the army as a model of rational organization by the normative ethical reaction toward armies today, since he acquired it in Lincoln’s days and translated it into peaceful and constructive terms, just as Fourier did. Further, any self-respecting utopia before automation had to ensure its working by a certain harshness for recalcitrants (and Bellamy – possibly learning from Morris – clearly evolved toward greater openness and participatory democracy in Equality,where all officials are subject to recall). Nonetheless, even there he continued to stress a hybrid of state mobilization and “public capitalism” (chap. 22); neither did he modify his patronizing dismissal from Looking Backward of “the more backward races” (chap. 13) and political efforts by narrow-minded workingmen, nor, above all, his faith in technocratic

  • Edward Bellamy, “How I Came to Write Looking Backward,” The Nationalist (May 1889): 1; reprinted in Science-Fiction Studies 4 (July 1977): 194.

regimentation within economic production as opposed to ideal classless relations outside them, all of which strike an alienating note in the tradition of Saint-Simon and Cabet rather than that of Fourier or Marx. That note is out of harmony with his basic libertarian preoccupations, and introduces into his romance a cold and static element.

But if Bellamy is a pragmatist who is not comfortable when depicting sweeping processes of change, he is at his strongest in the shrewd treatment of the economics of everyday life – of dressing and love, the distribution of goods, the cultural activities – and in the brilliant passages on making democratic supply and demand work outside a capitalist framework, for example, in organizing a journal or in solving brain-drain between countries. On such occasions, Bellamy is quite free from a State Socialism regulating everything from above. When contrasting such warm possibilities with the irrationality and dead-end character of private competition, his clear and attractive, though sometimes pedestrian, style rises to little parabolic inserts of great force, as the initial allegory of the Coach, the parables of the Collective Umbrella and of the Rosebush, or (in Equality)the parables of the Water-Tank and of the Masters of the Bread. All such apologues, exempla, and parables come from a laicized and radical pulpit style, openly displayed in the sermon on the sunburst from Looking Backward. It is within this New England oral and public tradition, from the Bible and the Platonic dialogues and not from the genteel literature of Gilded Age mandarins, that Bellamy’s rhetoric arises as an imposing and sometimes splendid accomplishment of its kind. Such addresses were primarily meant for middle-class women, and Julian’s sentimental intrigue as well as the whole ethical tone of Looking Backward addressed itself to them, and generally to that part of the educated classes which felt insecure and unfree in bourgeois society. Thus Bellamy’s homely lucidity made his romance, with all its limitations, the first authentically American socialist anticipation tale.

Bellamy’s success can – as always in significant SF – be expressed in terms of a creative fusion of various strands and traditions. These were not only literary, but reached back to the hundreds of religious or lay utopian communities which had been tried in the young United States. Though all of them finally collapsed as utopian communities under the violent pressures of an inimical environment, their legacy to American horizons from Hawthorne to our day has been larger than commonly assumed. An attenuated lay vision of the glorious City had now and then crossed from the oral and hortatory into the written fictional tradition, in works such as Mary Griffith’s feminist, abolitionist, and technological anticipation “Three Hundred Years Hence” (1836), Edward Kent’s and Jane S. Appleton’s future city of Bangor in Voices from the Kenduskeag (1848), and several descriptions by Edward Everett Hale culminating in “My Visit to Sybaris” (1869) and How They Lived in Hampton (1888). Though Howells exaggerated when he claimed for Bellamy “a romantic imagination surpassed only by that of Hawthorne,”6 Bellamy did interfuse such narratively helpless precursors – to whom one should add Fénelon, Cabet, and contemporary British anticipations by E. Maitland (By and By,1873), H.C.M. Watson (Erchomenon,1879), W.D. Hay (Three Hundred Years Hence,1881), or P.C. Wise (Darkness and Dawn,1884) – with an effective Romantic system of correspondences. In particular, he seems to have drawn on a number of important elements from John Macnie’s The Diothas (1883), such as a utopia with an industrial army, love with a descendant of the nineteenthcentury sweetheart named Edith like her ancestress, or the use of radio.7 But, most importantly, Bellamy was the first to go all the way with such a lay millenarianism. Therefore, his ending, which refuses the easy alibi of it all being a dream – a norm from Mercier and Griffith to Macnie – marks the historical moment when this tradition came of age and changed from defensive to self-confident. The new vision achieves, within the text, a reality equal to that of the author’s empirical actuality. This claim translates into historical cognition Hawthorne’s psychological fantasy and, especially, the long sleep of Irving’s Rip van Winkle, itself cognate to folktales such as the Sleeping Beauty or the Seven Sleepers (Hawthorne and Irving are the only U.S. authors in Dr. Leete’s library). Bellamy links thus two strong American

  • Howells, p. xiii.
  • Arthur E. Morgan’s refutation, in his Plagiarism in Utopia (Yellow Springs, OH, 1944), of Bellamy’s supposed plagiarism from The Diothas seems both unconvincing and unnecessarily fond of the shibboleth of “originality,” exactly as pertinent to literary value as bourgeois copyright law, and particularly inapplicable to SF, including utopian fiction.

traditions: the fantastic one of unknown worlds and  potentialities, and the practical one of organizing a new world – both of which avail themselves of powerful biblical parallels while translating them from religion to economics. His materialist view of history as a coherent succession of changing human relationships and social structures was continued by Morris and Wells, and thence was built into the fundaments of subsequent SF. The same holds for the plot that educates the reader into acceptance of the strange locus and its values by following the puzzled education of a representative protagonist. Modern SF, though it has forgotten this one among its ancestors, builds on Looking Backward much as Dr. Leete’s house was built on Julian’s ruins and on top of the hermetically sealed sleeping chamber under its foundations.

Particular traits from Bellamy’s other works also drew from and returned into the SF tradition. The Flammarion-like cosmically exceptional blindness of C.S. Lewis’s Earthmen and E.R. Burroughs’s transferal by spirit to Mars are also found in “The Blindman’s World,” and the despotic oligarchy as the alternative to revolution in Wells and London has a direct precursor in Equality. Most immediately, the immense ideologico-political echo of Looking Backward reverberated around the globe through numerous writers of sequels, rebuttals, and parallels. Bellamy had hit exactly the right note at a time of widespread search for alternatives to ruthless plutocracy, and between 100 and 200 utopian tales expounding or satirizing social democracy, state regulation of economy, a Populist capitalism, or various uncouth combinations thereof were published in the United States from 1888 to the first World War. Though none of them approached Bellamy’s coherence, the most notable were Ignatius Donnelly’s melodramatic Caesar’s Column (1890) and Howells’s politely satirical discussions in A Traveller from Altruria (1894). In Britain the echo was to be felt down to Wells, and in Germany it resulted in at least two dozen utopian and anti-utopian tales. But the perfect complement to Looking Backward was written by William Morris.

1.2. As so many other utopias, Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) was a direct reply to Looking Backward. Reviewing it, he had denounced Bellamy’s “unhistoric and unartistic” temperament which “makes its owner (if a socialist) perfectly satisfied with modern civilization, if only the injustice, misery and waste of class society could be got rid of ” and whose ideal of life “is that of the industrious professional middle-class man of today, purified from [the] crime of complicity with the monopolist class”; whence it follows “that he conceives of the change to socialism as taking place without any breakdown of that life, or indeed disturbance of it.” Morris especially objected to Bellamy’s stress on both technological and social machinery that leaves the impression “of a huge standing army, tightly drilled,” to the corresponding “State Communism” as opposed to direct participatory democracy, and to the reduction of labor instead of its change to work as pleasure, work blended with an art which “is not a mere adjunct of life […] but the necessary and indispensable instrument of human happiness.”8

Accordingly, it is direct, sensual relationships of men to each other and to nature, a different civilization where useful work is pleasure, that provide the fundament of News from Nowhere. It adopts the frame of Looking Backward,which begins with the narrator falling asleep and waking up in the future house built on the place of his own, and ends with his terrible return to his own time. But from the very beginning, Morris’s story is a counterproject to Bellamy’s. It is presented neither as a safe retrospective from the year 2000 nor as the voice of a lone member of the upper class, but as one privileged voice and vision of the future among several others possible and held within the socialist party of which Morris was a member, and in whose periodical News from Nowhere was published serially. The whole story is informed by the tone of a man displaying his personal vision for consent to potential comrades in bringing it about, and yet very aware of its distance in the future. This approach blends collective validity and personal heartbreak. It is much richer than the easy Christian Socialist resolution of Julian West’s private anguish by means of a resurrected bride, for it takes into full consideration both the collective difficulty of arriving at and the personal impossibility of

  • William Morris, “Looking Backward,” The Commonweal,22 June 1889; reprinted in Science-Fiction Studies 3 (November 1976): 287–90, together with Morris’s also pertinent introduction to his Kelmscott Press edition of More’s Utopia.

setting up an abode in the promised classless land: the narrator William Guest – Morris’s persona – is in the position of Moses walking through a vision of Canaan. Therefore, the story does not, as does that of West, progress through sallies from a safe individual hearth. It retains the obligatory outlining of the future in the Mercier-to-Bellamy tradition – here a ride from Hammersmith to the British Museum, that repository of collective memory; but it adds two further and historically new elements. First, it introduces an account of the revolution that brought the future about; though today this account may seem still too naive and optimistic, it is of a different order of credibility than the sudden wholesale social conversions depicted by previous writers up to and including Bellamy. Second, the bittersweet rowing up the Thames shows what the future might have meant to the author-narrator personally. Together with the ubiquitous guide Dick, the average Nowherean, Guest’s main partner in the first part of the story is Old Hammond, the custodian of history, and in the second part Ellen, the incarnation of the “pleasure of life” of the future present.

The narrator’s vision is also a dream. Not only can it naturalistically be considered a dream in his nineteenth-century Hammersmith bed, it is also a wish-dream. Reacting against the capitalist use of machinery that polluted the life of man and the Earth and created ugliness and misery, Morris began with the Pre-Raphaelite tradition of art as daydreaming. However, in its refusal to look deeper into the basic problems of reality such an art became nonetheless the complement of reality, as green complements red, and thus directly dependent upon it – pretty where actuality is ugly, sweet where it is bitter, brightly shaped where it is amorphous and sooty, a pastoral where it is an ulcer of slums:

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,

Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,

Forget the spreading of the hideous town;

Think rather of the pack-horse on the down, And dream of London, small, and white, and clean, The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green… .

[Morris, The Earthly Paradise]

Steam-age capitalism was ruthlessly transforming towns into “an extension of the coal mine”9 and the countryside into the spoils for the railway that already Thoreau complained about, and developing the war of each against each into global imperialisms. In a technique similar to More’s, News From Nowhere is primarily a counterproject to that life:

The hope of the past times was gone. […] Was it all to end in a counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap, with Podsnap’s drawing-room in the offing, an a Whig committee dealing champagne to the rich and margarine to the poor in such convenient proportions as would make all men contended together, though the pleasure of the eyes was gone from the world […]? [Morris, “How I Became a Socialist”10]

At this high point of the paleotechnic world, any sensitive artist might have wished with Guest “for days of peace and rest, and cleanness and smiling goodwill” (chap. 1). For its “realities were money, price, capital, shares: the environment itself, like most of human existence, was treated as an abstraction. Air and sunlight, because of their deplorable lack of value in exchange, had no reality at all.”11 On the contrary, News from Nowhere presents an airy and sunny environment, where only direct interhuman relations are clearly envisaged. In contrast to the capitalist gospel of toil, work as playful human necessity stands at the novel’s moral center. In contrast to the Victorian starvation of the mind and the senses, the novel’s figures are perhaps the fullest and least self-conscious Epicureans in modern English literature. And in contrast to the terrible anxieties of blood-and-iron progress, the novel’s subtitle is “An Epoch of Rest.”

There is accordingly a strong element of mere escape in News from Nowhere. With disturbing implications for a utopian romance, Morris overreacted into a total refusal to envisage any machinery, technological

  • Lewis Mumford (Bibliography IV A), p. 159 – but see his whole chapter 4.
  • All of Morris’s essays cited in this chapter in parenthesis by title are to be found in Political Writings of William Morris,ed. A. L. Morton (New York, 1973), an indispensable companion to his novel; in particular, the essay “The Society of the Future” (1887) is the nearest thing to an ideological nucleus of News from Nowhere.
  • Mumford, p. 168.

or societal. This amounts to leaving his future society without any economic or organizational basis. As to the economy, a “force-barge” with an undisclosed new energy is the only exception to a turning away from and indeed dismantling of technology in Nowhere. People who are so minded can collect together to draw on the universally available “power” (energy) in workshops, but this is used only for handicrafts; for the rest, England is now a garden. Morris makes some telling points about the “never-ending series [of ] sham or artificial necessaries” (chap. 15) imposed by the capitalist world market that necessarily enslaved colonial countries as a counterpart to the corruption of consumer taste. But to reject resolutely not only useless forms of technology and industrial organization but technical productivity and inventiveness in general while keeping the population stable and affluent, as News from Nowhere does, is self-defeating. Any utopographer has the right to fashion his Land of Heart’s Desire; but he has a corresponding obligation to make it an at least arguable alternative possibility.

It could be argued that the gap left by Morris’s disgust with modern economics might today be filled in by an imaginative reader supplying his own economics, based on the possibilities of automation and other ways of “post-industrial” productivity which Morris could not know about – though his vision assumed that humanity would somehow evolve “immensely improved machinery” (chap. 15) for irksome tasks if only basic problems of social organization were solved. Unfortunately, the absence of sociopolitical organization in Nowhere is a gap that cannot be argued away and denies it the status of a utopia. True, there is a classical Marxist glimpse of “communes and colleges” (chap. 5) run by participatory democracy. However, overcompensating for Bellamy’s state apparatus and clear lines of power, News from Nowhere omits all machinery for determining priorities between communes or any other basic units. Yet all production, including very much an automated one, requires – as long as it is not simply magical – coordination and a (however truly participatory) system of vertical decision making. As Bellamy astutely countered in his review of Morris, “[no] degree of moral improvement [will] lessen the necessity of a strictly economic administration for the directing of the productive and distributive machinery.”12 News from Nowhere sacrifices human productivity in order to get rid of Statism and technocracy.

But if it is not a utopia, and much less prophetic anticipation, News from Nowhere is the finest specimen of Earthly Paradise story in modern literature. As I argued in chapters 3 and 5, the Terrestrial Paradise – a place of this-worldly fleshly contentment, magical fertility, happiness, health, and youth – is a wish-dream that does not focus on economic and sociopolitical organization; it is a magical parallel world akin to folktale and pastoral yet of collective import as an alternative community to be striven for. Morris’s tale has almost all of these elements. The weather and the people are (perhaps a shade monotonously) perpetually summery, the salmon are back in the Thames, and Shelleyan consentaneous love inspires all breasts (though there is just enough exception to keep it from being too saccharine). Liberated from grim capitalism, the world has entered upon its “second childhood” (chap. 19), very similar to an idealized version of the fourteenth century and characterized by a childishly unspoiled enjoyment in artful work not sundered from play: all its people look younger than they would in our civilization. Above all, the dryness of the usual utopian panoramic sweep is avoided by Morris’s fashioning the second part of the story as a personal working out of the new country, as a glimpse of the narrator’s alternative – happy and wholesome – life. His journey up the magical waters of the fertile Thames, signposted with references to a range of legends from the Grimm Brothers tales “from the childhood of the world” (chap. 16) to Tennyson’s Lotos Eaters, shows Morris’s rich and contrapuntal use of the Romantic fairy tale. The newly fertile land and happy relationships in the future England are the result of a metamorphosis from the ugly Victorian past – still inscribed in Guest’s clothes, looks, and memories – to the clear and colorful beauty of the Nowherean present, a metamorphosis analogous to Andersen’s ugly duckling reborn as a beautiful swan. Under the spell of his rejuvenating journey toward the sources, the narrator also moves toward the happiness felt in his childhood.

  1. [Edward Bellamy,]”News from Nowhere,” New Nation,14 February 1891, p. 47, quoted in Sylvia E. Bowman et al. (Bibliography IV C), p. 94.

Nonetheless, “shades of the prison-house” are inescapably upon the narrator-protagonist: he personally can only testify to, not accomplish for himself, the metamorphosis that brings happiness. The tension between the report about collective happiness and the personal melancholy of the guest-reporter in that Earthly Paradise – for him truly a Nowhere – refuses a Bellamy-type sentimental happy ending. The crucially more mature resolution is not one of ethical salvation, as in Looking Backward,but one of political strife. We are back at Blake’s great oath not to let “the sword sleep in my hand” until Jerusalem is built “in England’s green and pleasant land.” But here such a strife is translated from Blake’s arena of a single mind to public political struggle, as personal compensation for and collective justification of Guest’s visit and departure;

… Ellen’s last mournful look seemed to say, “No, it will not do; you cannot be of us; you belong so entirely to the unhappiness of the past that our happiness even would weary you. […] Go back and be the happier for having seen us, for having added a little hope to your struggle. Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.”

Yes, surely! and if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream, [chap. 32]

For this dream is, finally, to be understood in the tradition of the medieval genre of the same name, in which the convention, as in Langland or Chaucer, is that the author relates the dream as a non-naturalistic analogy – often using the fable or other allegorical means – to public problems of great personal import. Morris had already used this convention in his SF story about the peasant revolt in the Middle Ages, A Dream of John Ball (1888). Its narrator, double horizon of defeat and yet victory, historical assumptions, and time scheme combined with color imagery (night and moon opposed to “the east crimson with sunrise”) prefigure the fuller use in News from Nowhere. But just as A Dream of John Ball was not an Individualistic historical novel, so the later work is not to be taken for positivistic prophecy but for the figure or type of a fulfilment that could or should come. In that roundabout, dialectical way News from Nowhere and its “ideal of the old pastoral poets” can, through its nucleus of frank and beautiful human relationships to other humans and to nature, be reintegrated into anticipatory utopianism. Its Earthly Paradise is an analogy to the classless socialist day. Its collective dream, “if others can see it,” will finally also be a vision reinserted into history. Staying within the bourgeois – or indeed WASP – existential horizons, Bellamy had pursued the everyday need for security to its logical conclusion and ended up with the socialist dawn as an order of things, a societas rerum. Reneging on the bourgeois existential horizons but opposing to them unrealistically idealized preindustrial – indeed bohemian – horizons, Morris pursued the arrested timeless moment, the visionary dream (in all the above senses) of Earthly Paradise to its logical conclusion and ended up with another aspect of that same dawn: creative and therefore beautiful human relations, a societas hominum. Between them, they covered the technical premises and sensual horizons of that dawn: each lacks what the other has. For a brief but still significant historical moment – which extended to Wells, London, and Zamyatin – the discussion about darkness and dawn became one inside the international socialist movement.

Dawn or sunburst, a favorite image of that whole movement, is here particularly appropriate because of close correspondences among people, vegetation, and the seasons of day and year. Morris’s narrator went to sleep in a wintry night, when the young moon portended renewal; he wakes up, “by witness of the riverside trees,” in a bright morning of spring or summer. The sunlight denotes happiness, as the moonlight throughout the story reminds the narrator of the past times. Colors too are connected with the opposed tempers and historical epochs, “the sombre greyness, or rather brownness, of the nineteenth century” versus “the gaiety and brightness” of the twenty-first (chap. 19). Mankind has again become a part of nature, “men and women [are] worthy of the sweet abundance of midsummer” (chap. 21), and the river-side trees are emblems as much as witnesses to it. The representative denizen of the future, Ellen, sums it up in her cry: “O me! O me! How I love the earth, and the seasons, and weather, and all things that deal with it, and all that grows out of it […]” (chap. 31). She is the ideal partner or anima of Morris, who characterized himself in “How I Became a Socialist” as a man “careless of metaphysics and religion, as well as of scientific analysis, but with a deep love of the earth and the life on it, and a passion for the history of the past of mankind.”

The arrested moment of Earthly Paradise is conveyed by a series of pictures, one of Morris’s basic stylistic devices. The vision in News from Nowhere sharply etches in colors and shades, time and place – especially the topography of London and the Thames valley – but it is most attentive to the sensual nuances of behavior and movement of humans through a nature produced by their hands’ work. The beautiful bridges, the gardenlike banks of the Thames, the haysels, and the old house that grows out of the earth are of the same stuff as the nut-brown maids “born out of the summer day itself ” (chap. 21), flowers in the green countryside. Yet this pictorial, at times somewhat picturesque vision is ever and again clouded by the dreamlike melancholy and alienation of the beholder. The bemused and never quite sunny narrator does not fully fit into the bright day of the pictorial narration. He comes from the wrong, moony or night side of the dawn, and he finally has to step outside the picture frame and fade from the Earthly Paradise. Yet, in their turn, the translucent characters, scenery, and style all harmonize with the yearning of the narrator in an “identity of situation and feeling.”13 Nowhere and William Guest are two polar aspects of Morris the author – the healing, achieved hope and the wounded, hoping subject. Both the subject and his hope are in some ways marked by PreRaphaelite narcissism and thus very much at odds with modern taste. But the sensual immediacy and clarity of their interaction render with great fidelity and economy a genuine poetry of human beauty and transience. The characters are ranged along a graduated spectrum which extends from the clouded narrator to Ellen, the personification of sunshine loveliness. Nearest to Guest are Old Hammond with his knowledge of, and the “grumbler” with his eccentric penchant for, the old-time unhappiness, while the fulcrum of the narration is occupied by Dick and Clara. Since this is “a land of fellowship rather than authority, there are no fathers: a generation is always skipped.”14 But all characters are mirror-images of the narrator (Old Hammond) or of the landscape, and all elements of the story a system of stylistic mirrors which would easily become tedious were it not for the

  1. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780–1950 (Bibliography IV C), p. 234.
  2. Tom Middlebro’ (Bibliography IV C), p. 10.

fundamental existential estrangement and opposition between Nowhere and England, the twenty-first and the nineteenth century, light and soot, summer and winter. The narration glides in a leisurely manner among these clarifying mirrors, progressing from Guest’s first immersions into the Thames of the future and the deurbanized London to the explanation of history, the beauty of the river journey, and – since he cannot be in at the fruition – his final expulsion from the harvest celebration.

The horizons of News from Nowhere are a variant of Marxism, with a bias toward Fourier’s passionate attraction for work and pleasure but without his systematization. Human history is seen as a dialectical development from tribal communism, or from Morris’s beloved Middle Ages, through capitalism to classless society, “from the older imperfect communal period, through the time of the confused struggle and tyranny of the rights of property, into the present rest and happiness of complete Communism” (chap. 27). The chapter “How the Change Came” extrapolates from the experience of French revolutions and English working-class agitation, such as the Bloody Sunday demonstration of 1887, a first approximation to realistic revolution in SF. There are also shrewd hints about the transitional period after the revolution. True, the resulting life, in which mathematics is an eccentric foible on a par with antiquarian novels and education is left to haphazard communion with the society of people and things, is in many important aspects a multiplication ad infinitum of ideals from Morris’s arts and crafts circle. However, if he sees life somewhat too exclusively as a Pre-Raphaelite work of art, at least Morris went to the logical end of his generation’s demand that life should become a work of art. He took it seriously, that is, literally and collectively, and tried to depict its realization. If the attempt was not wholly successful because of Morris’s well-founded but one-sided distrust of science, still the further horizons of such life are open-ended. Like any Golden Age or Eden in or after Morris’s favorites Homer, Hesiod, and the Bible, this is a static society. But in Morris’s scheme of history it is explicitly an epoch of cleansing rest, which might well evolve further.

1.3. News from Nowhere is an alternative not only to what Morris felt as mawkish bourgeois novels and as the technocracy of Looking Backward. In the spectrum of SF it is also an alternative to both of the contemporary basic variants of the “post-catastrophe tale” – W. H. Hudson’s merely escapist and idiosyncratic pastoral and Richard Jefferies’s embracing of “hard” barbarism and primitivism. Jefferies’s After London (1885) introduced a fall of civilization patterned after that of the Roman Empire, which results in a return to the barbarian – part feudal and part slave-owning – social order. In his novel the reasons for the catastrophe are unclear – possibly economic, perhaps cosmic – but in such works reasons are as a rule secondary to the middle classes’ sense of impending doom and wish-dream of a new start. The reassertion of wild life which Jefferies renders with peculiar intensity, the legends about “the ancients” and their knowledge, the poisonous site of the old metropolis, and the new geopolitics superimposed on old maps subsequently became the staple of a whole range of SF. Hudson’s mellifluous A Crystal Age (1887) introduced the other timeless simplification of pastoral, here recomplicated by changed sexual behavior in a beehive-type matriarchal family. In a reversal of Bulwer, the fever of sexual passion is equated with the individualist civilization, but it is again both a sign of sickness and indispensably sweet to the protagonist. Both of these works have some elements similar to Morris’s, since they totally reject the present and the city. Morris read After London before he wrote his book and was stimulated to “absurd hopes”15 by its picture of deurbanization. But his romance is a third way, transcending the opposition between Bellamy’s ethicoreligious pacification and Jefferies’s politicogeological devolution, as well as that between escapism a la Hudson and naturalistic sentimentality. Guest and his hosts are obscurely conscious of meeting “as if I were a being from another planet” (chap. 9); but he is also the link between the universes of darkness and sunlight, and Morris overcomes the one-sidedness of these various traditions by a blend of verisimilitude and Earthly Paradise, by a future sunlight constantly contrasting with our darkness – as befits a dawn.

Finally, Morris’s underlying view of world and man is simply and beautifully but inexorably materialistic. Though there is no immortality in Nowhere – the only feature of Earthly Paradise not incorporated – death and sorrow, as in the episode of the jealousy killing, do not destroy but

  1. Quoted (from Morris’s letter to Mrs. Burne-Jones of 28 April 1885) in A. L. Morton (Bibliography II), p. 204.

confirm the paradise. For in this view the individual is bound up with his fellows and nature in an existence that has wholly eradicated the social and cosmic alienation of man. Morris “seems to retire far from the real world and to build a world out of his wishes; but when he has finished the result stands out as a picture of experience ineluctably true.”16 In Bellamy’s romance the new vision evolved systematically out of facets of the old; his “colder” political stance is accompanied by a closed and often oppressive narrative structure. In Morris’s romance the new vision as a whole is incompatible with the old; its open and airier structure is homologous to his warmer, nonregimenting politics. As we have seen, Bellamy’s vision achieved therefore within his book a reality equal to that of the author’s empirical environment; but Morris’s achieved an “ineluctable” reality superior to that of the old civilization. That is why his narrator, tragically marked by the old, must in the end be extruded from the vision.

Let us compare one representative feature: Dr. Leete’s private room in the communal dining house stands for Bellamy’s general treatment of the public whole as a sum of rationalized and sanitized private elements, no doubt spatially transposed and regrouped but qualitatively unchanged. It is a dining room for a monogamous family and its private guests, just as the speech, furniture, dress, maidenly blushes, and the like – in short, the whole lifestyle of the future Bostonians – is for all practical purposes simply extrapolated from the style of “their cultured ancestors of the nineteenth [century]” (chap. 4). On the contrary, Morris’s dining rooms harbor truly communal feasts, open to the abundant fertility of nature, and with a large cast of erotically sympathetic and open “neighbours” who transmit information to the narrator by asking him curious questions rather than simply lecturing him, and us, as affable but omniscient teachers. The Hammersmith Guest House, likewise erected on the site of the narrator’s nineteenth-century dwelling, is its temporal extension not into a safer private home, as in Bellamy, but into a collective entity that has done away with the pernicious sundering of private and public, indoors and outdoors, beauty and utility. Morris’s dining place is a fusion of an idealized fourteenth century and

  1. C. S. Lewis (Bibliography IV A), p. 54.

classical antiquity, open to the garden and river glimpsed beyond: but the improved architecture, food, and flowers have a counterpart in men and women who age at less than half the Victorian rate. For all the borrowings from the past, such a sweeping biological improvement is the measure of the qualitative difference between Nowhere and any, however “cultured,” nineteenth-century lifestyle.

Furthermore, the whole narrative of Looking Backward progresses as a retrospective series of West’s topographical and ideological sallies into the new Boston from the individual, monogamous hearth of the Leetes and under their reassuring guidance. Any unaccompanied personal venture from this safe cocoon immediately provokes in West a “horror of strangeness” (chap. 5), an existential or indeed existentialist nausea that is – most revealingly – quite as violent in the supposedly safe new Boston of the future as in the nightmare of returning to the competitive old Boston of the past. This microcosm, consisting of a very restricted number of spaces and characters, imparts a strong agoraphobic aura to Bellamy’s millennium: it harbors a panic fear, for which only the closure of space, of ideas (State Socialism), and of the narration itself can provide a remedy. The underlying metaphoric cluster of his book is one of static healing, whereas in Morris’s book it is one of dynamic observation during a journey. That is why, though Bellamy came within an ace of returning his narrator to the nineteenth century to work in his own epoch for his new vision, and furthermore made it clear that this would have been the ethically proper course to follow, it was left for the libertarian communist Morris, with his less hidebound readership, to actually effect this large step. The supreme sacrament of acceptance into Bellamy’s society is a mystically subromantic marriage into which the narrator once and for all escapes, in a sentimental happy ending of ethical – rather than political – salvation. Quite homologously, Bellamy’s fear of existential openness unshielded by a personal savior or vertical hierarchy is also the motivation for his ideological stance, for example, that in favor of strict industrial organization and against a forcible political revolution: in utopian writings, politics are based on the author’s simultaneously deeply personal and deeply classbound psychology. Thus Morris’s novel not only more than doubles the number of characters (two main women and two main guides instead of one each in Bellamy – plus a great number of subsidiary characters instead of the lone Mrs. Leete and some disembodied voices and faces); it also enriches the times, spaces, and overall complexity of their relationships. In brief, Morris transcends Bellamy’s model of fraternity under the “fatherhood of God” (chap. 26) and of lay elders (the alumni, the father-figure of Dr. Leete) in favor of the youthful, self-governing, and as it were parthenogenetic model of potential lovers. Where Bellamy opts for a psychological repression of selfdetermination, equally of the workers at their working place and of sexual relationships (demurely identical to those in the contemporary sentimental novel), Morris opts for an extension of sympathy or libido to the whole of the gardenlike nature, a sinless Earthly Paradise. The supreme sacrament of acceptance into his society is, therefore, not sentimentality but the actual journeying and working together, as far as is realistically feasible.

This is not to belittle the achievements of Bellamy or to ignore the gaps in Morris. Both writers are deeply committed to an anguished distancing from nineteenth-century capitalism and to a different life. However, following the main US tradition, Bellamy’s “scheme was arithmetic and comfort,”17 and it resulted mainly in a sentimental dream and a tight and earnest embracing of security,where anguish is discharged upon a series of personal mediators, whereas Morris’s journeying results mainly in a painterly vision and an attempt at direct creativity,which, being openended, is inseparable from a possible anguish to be resolved only in selfdetermined practice or praxis. Yet, in other ways, the dreams or visions of Bellamy and Morris can also be treated as complementary: there is, finally, no need to make an exclusive choice between them. The paradox of Looking Backward being both more limited than and yet complementary to News from Nowhere is finally the paradox of Christian Socialism itself, simultaneously committed to the patriarchal vertical of the “fatherhood of God” and to the libertarian horizontal of the “brotherhood of Man.” Such conflicting Protestant and middle-class abstractions are resolved by

  1. Emerson’s note (in Journals 5: 473–74, quoted in Vernon Louis Parrington [Bibliography IV A], 2:349) on the Brook Farm project.

Morris: radically careless of the fatherhood, he explores the meaning and price of brotherhood in terms of an intimate neighborliness.

Accordingly, it is not discrete scenes of estrangement and parables that stand out in News from Nowhere,as they do in Bellamy. Learning from him, Morris also provides a few such scenes: the phantasmagoric vision of Bloody Sunday superimposed upon the sight of the orchard leading to “the Parliament House, or Dung Market” (chap. 7); the shocking final recognition of the dark cloud and the servile men of the nineteenth century. But it is the tone of the whole vision-dream – the book-length parable of new human relations in a society of “wealthy freemen” (chap. 14), beauty, and “free exercise of the senses and passions of a healthy human animal, so far as this [does] not injure the other individuals of the community” (Morris, “The Society of the Future”) – that remains with the reader. It is the historical horizon, the spectacle of people who “pass [their] lives in a reasonable strife with nature, exercising not one side of [themselves] only, but all sides, taking the keenest pleasure in all the life of the world” (chap. 9), in counterpoint with a Marxist “optimistic tragedy” borne by the narrator bereft of such a life, that gives News from Nowhere its bittersweet, tensile strength. Within a well-defined, deep but narrow sensibility, its dialectics of consciousness and unconsciousness establishes an Earthly Paradise more real and more human than the reader’s tawdry actuality. If Morris’s romance harkens back to almost animistic elements, it does so as the crown of a plebeian tradition of legends and folktales. Morris could have claimed for himself, in Fourier’s phrase, that unlike the best political economists who wanted to throw light on the chaos, he wanted to lead out of it. Though News from Nowhere only partly escapes the weakness of utopias – their abstractness – it fully shares their strength, which lies “in the ineluctable and the absolute.”18 And even the abstractness is overcome in Morris’s late essays, his crowning and truly utopian works such as “How We Live and How We Might Live,” “The Society of the Future,” “How I Became a Socialist,” and “Communism.” In them he even accepted the

  1. Ernst Bloch (Bibliography II), 1:679; from here, 1:677, is also the paraphrase of Fourier’s dictum.

cognitive necessity of (as he wrote in “Communism”) “time [teaching] us what new machinery may be necessary to the new life.” This is Morris’s final marriage of art with history.

Morris bequeathed to SF several key elements. He endowed Bellamy’s suffering narrator in the new country with philosophical and poetic value. He transferred a believable revolution from political tracts into fiction, fathering a line that stretches from Wells’s The Sleeper Wakes through Jack London, Alexei Tolstoy, G. B. Shaw and Robert A. Heinlein to the flood of SF revolts in the last 40 years. His utopian pastoral or Earthly Paradise has had less success than Jefferies’s neobarbarism or Hudson’s titillating escapism, though it can be felt as the endangered alternative from Wells’s Eloi to C. S. Lewis’s Venus or Le Guin’s New Tahiti (in The Word for World Is Forest). But his dialectical, tragic, and victorious Epicurean socialism remains the mature horizon of all SF drawing upon hopes of an open future for human beings and for the Earth. No one has yet surpassed Morris in his intimate understanding that “times of change, disruption, and revolution are naturally times of hope also” (“The Hopes of Civilization”). No one in nineteenth-century SF, and few outside it, conveyed this understanding in such lucid and warm prose.

2.1. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) can be compared in very revealing ways with Looking Backward (and News From Nowhere)responding as it does to the same acute social dilemma which powered the anticipation stories. It too is “a philosophical fable which sets forth a theory of capitalism and an interpretation of the historical process that has brought it into being.”19 Twain too confronts two historical epochs by means of a narrator-commentator from the author’s epoch, a stranger to the epoch he is strangely projected into and which finally ejects him (in Bellamy this ejection is then reversed, proving to be a dream, as it is in a way in “Twain’s” postscript). But instead of finding himself in a bright future, Twain’s Hank Morgan arrives in the darkest Middle Ages. Bellamy’s story was presented as a new type of hortative historical romance written in and in praise of an estranged utopian future; Twain’s is presented

  1. Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain’s Fable of Progress (Bibliography IV C), p. 39.

as a donated manuscript, but it uses the old historical and exotic novel for subversive SF purposes, which include a bitter debunking of Scott’s, Cooper’s, and Tennyson’s sentimentality toward feudalism and savagery. Shifting the standpoint from Bellamy’s utopian future to a common-sense Yankee present, this new type of epoch-collision looks backward at the author’s past instead of at his present. But the backward glance discovers in both cases a dark dystopia: “In Bellamy’s analysis contemporary America, a Yankee phenomenon, was as benighted and brutalized as Athur’s England. The American labourer was scarcely better off than the chained slaves, in A Connecticut Yankee,driven to market in London.”20 However, Twain’s Hank has to live in the midst of that brutalized epoch, not merely to judge it at leisure. Unlike Bellamy’s hero, who is accepted into the security of a changed and better world, or Morris’s hero, who finds in the new, future world enough tragic optimism to return fortified for his struggle inside and against the old, past world, Hank sets about changing his adoptive bad old world. An outsider activist, he intervenes in the affairs of the sixth century in the name of the nineteenth.

However, the nineteenth-century values in the name of which he intervenes are deeply contradictory and finally frustrating. On the one hand Hank is an engineering foreman, a convinced democratic ideologue, radical to the point of Jacobin terror: “When he snatched up the banners under which the middleclass was forcing the nobility to disgorge, he was eloquently sincere; his flaming calls to revolt against self-appointed masters are great statements of that right […] [to] self-respecting manliness and political equality.”21 On the other, he is a thoroughgoing bourgeois Individualist and businessman – as he says, “just another Robinson Crusoe cast away on an uninhabited island, with no society but some more or less tame animals, and if I wanted to make life bearable I must do as he did – invent, contrive, create […]” (chap. 7). Hank starts his reforms as “the Baconian utilitarian and progressive, the Whig bourgeois”22 – by opening a patent office;

  • Justin Kaplan (Bibliography IV C), p. 16.
  • Louis Budd (Bibliography IV C), p. 144.
  • Roger B. Salomon (Bibliography IV C), pp. 30–31.

his idea of creation is patterned after his patron saints “Gutenberg, Watt, Arkwright, Whitney, Morse, Stephenson, Bell,” the patent-office giants of the capitalist industrial and communicational revolution (chap. 33). His next enterprises are special schools, somewhat chillingly called Man-Factories, and frontier-type sensational newspapers accepting and dispensing political and economic patronage; then come factories, “iron and steel missionaries of my future civilization” (chap. 10). Hank Morgan reenacts thus the historical ascent of the bourgeois class both politically and paleotechnically, and he memorably typifies its Yankee variant – a blend of political radicalism, go-getting commercialism, profitable showmanship, and technological gadgetry, issuing finally in ruinous stock market speculation. But he also shares the historical fate of the Yankee bourgeoisie as felt by Mark Twain in the Gilded Age: a separation from the laboring people.

The first part of A Connecticut Yankee is taken up with Hank’s orientation at the court of Camelot. It concentrates on hearty lampooning of Malory’s and Tennyson’s Arthurian styles and ideologies and on Hank’s use of scientific knowledge as a burlesque magic superior to that of his rival Merlin. Having become on the strength of that magic “Sir Boss,” a reformist prime minister to Arthur, Hank travels through the country on an obligatory knightly mission. In this second part there is added to the burlesque of knight-errantry and miraculous religion and to technical spoofs a democratic indignation at the oppressive laws of feudalism. In the third part the Yankee and the king travel incognito in the style of Harun-alRashid, plumbing the depths of slavery and demoralization in the country. This is the crucial juncture for a supposedly radical and a quasi-historical novel. Wanting to overthrow the Dark Ages, the Yankee has to find out whether the people would follow him. This hegemony had in fact been the historical achievement of the bourgeoisie up to “the ever-memorable and blessed [French] Revolution.” But Hank cannot achieve this alliance, because Twain quite realistically does not believe in it any more: “I knew that the Jack Cade or Wat Tyler who tries [a revolution] without first educating his materials up to revolution-grade is almost absolutely certain to get left” (chap. 13). It is difficult to see how Hank could proceed with this education since he is continually envisaging the people as commodities or animals, a view endorsed by the author as he focuses on the snobbery, pusillanimity, and finally mob lynchings of an environment reminiscent of the antebellum South with its chain gangs and poor whites. The Yankee had fulminated against a class training that blinds the people. Yet he comes to act as a manufacturer, tamer-trainer, or indeed a being of superior race among “human muck” (chap. 43). These are hardly becoming roles for a democrat setting the stage for freemen. Faithfully the author shows us that, in spite of all his sententiousness, the Yankee in the end “gets left” high and dry by a receding tide of history. Not seeing beyond the ebb of bourgeois democracy and revolutionism, it is Mark Twain as much as Hank Morgan who concludes that “there are times when one would like to hang the whole human race and finish the farce” (chap. 31).

The indignation of the first half of A Connecticut Yankee against feudal and church oppression was closer to Swift than to the lukewarm iconoclasm of Erewhon. But Swift’s satire had been so savagely efficient because he kept the authorial distance from Gulliver subtly flexible and yet precisely controlled, correlative to a radical pessimism about what Twain himself was to call the damned human race. In this second half of the novel, Twain’s attempt to do the same in relation to Hank fails. This narrative cannot sustain Swift’s singleminded control over a comicosatirical narrator, who travels within a didactic, estranged country, because A Connecticut Yankee oscillates between commitment to a historical ideal and horror at its workings in history. Early on the novel affirms the progressive theory of history that emerged from the heyday of bourgeois revolutions and a positive hero upholding it. But this came to clash with Twain’s increasing alienation from the effects of the industrial revolution as appropriated by the bourgeoisie and his consequent pessimistic theory of human nature, and the book was left without a moral and political core – which is fatal equally for satire and utopia. Sundered from the people, all the Yankee can do is train a small band of elite technocratic enthusiasts, whose program is opposed to the Arthurian Age as the Yankee Gilded Age exploitation of the frontier, or of any new market, is to Southern slavery: “Look at the opportunities here for a man of knowledge, brains, pluck, and enterprise to sail in and grow with the country. The grandest field that ever was; and all my own; not a competitor …” (chap. 8). Their main trump – historically exact again – is science and technology.

Twain’s attitude to technological progress oscillates into confusion and despair in strict parallel to his attitudes toward its historical bearer, the middle class, and especially the technics-committed Yankee bourgeoisie. Hank’s superior know-how is shown first as spoofs, ambiguously magical tricks used as a joyous means to power. The degradation of science and technology to the role of magic, a fundamentally different attempt at controlling nature, leads to their becoming a juggernaut and, finally, means which turn into their own end – the end being mass carnage. The Yankee’s societal counterconstruction ends in an Armageddon, prefigured in the book’s volcanic and explosive imagery.

Though Twain’s stance as outsider does not do justice to the liberating possibilities of science, it enables him to pass a shrewd judgment on its historical sociopolitical uses. Sundered from the artisans and peasants, “Jack Cade or Wat Tyler,” Baconian science is able only to destroy impartially the upper classes and its wielders. Finally, even this potent means is only a theatrical “effect” of Barnumian proportions, effecting no social change. The new Crusoe-type, Individualistic civilization collapses under the interdict of an omnipotent Catholic Church that we have never really seen in A Connecticut Yankee,yet that pops up as a diabolus ex machina,a fit antagonist for the lone Protestant Great Man or Whig Robinson Crusoe. As Twain’s superficial treatment of Arthur’s court – culminating in the faceless knights of the final battle – testifies, feudalism was not a believable antagonist in the American 1880s. Nor was – at a time when Twain was defending the young trade unions and Howells was agonizing over the judicial murder of the Chicago anarchists – a robber-baron bourgeoisie a believable protagonist. Indeed, as Howells noted, “there are passages in which we see that the noble of Arthur’s day, who battened on the blood and sweat of his bondsmen, is one in essence with the capitalist of [1889] who grows rich on the labor of his underpaid wagemen,”23 and

Hank’s progress through England ends in an almost Dickensian, or indeed

  • W. D. Howells, review in Harper’s (January 1890), p. 320, quoted in Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer (Bibliography IV C), p. 146.

Blakean, horrible London. Thus the book collapses in a rather perfunctory mixture of shadow-boxing and savage despair, pronouncing “a curse on both parts.”24

This devolution of the story’s hopes for a plebeian progressivism is also embodied in its language. In the comical, confident beginning of the novel, Hank’s “machine-shop lingo collides with the Maloryese of the Age of Chivalry.” By the end, it has become clear that the Yankee’s “language [is grounded] in clichés and conventional syntax, [and] its character emerges by means of exaggeration and calculated vulgarity,” that it is an artificial vernacular of an artificial democrat, only “masquerading as burly, rough talk.” This means that it attains neither consistently precise satire nor consistently wholehearted burlesque, but that in final analysis it remains “a show,an act […] not necessary to the action, but simply decoration […] [nothing] more than one of Hank Morgan’s effects.”25

Twain’s liberal utopianism seems to have followed a course quite parallel to Jules Verne’s – a writer whose interest in mapping and clean communications he shares in this book with its providential telephone wires and industries without a working class. Twain’s fabulation relies, as does Verne, on the bedrock of popular melodrama and farce, or on travelers’ tales (such as balloon travel in Tom Sawyer Abroad,1894). As it did with Verne, the dimming of liberal horizons turned Twain toward a cyclical theory of history (compare his Papers of the Adam Family [bp. 1962] and Verne’s Eternal Adam)and superdestructive weaponry, which together account for the breakdown of a class society rent by antagonisms in A Connecticut Yankee as in Verne’s Propeller Island. On the other hand, Twain was quite alien to any idea of a new social system going beyond the bourgeois-democratic one. Though he privately much admired Bellamy’s sunburst of a wholly different state of affairs, he could creatively envisage it only as the glare of Armageddon, of the “fifty electric suns” by whose light the final Battle of the Sand-Belt is fought, with its ominous hint of our atomic bomb brighter than a thousand suns. In Twain, as in the Mary Shelley-to-Verne

  • Kaplan, p. 19.
  • James M. Cox (Bibliography IV C), pp. 203, 215, 213, and 219.

tradition, the only novelties are destructive ones; in opposition to the socialist tradition, culminating in Morris, the imagery of moon and sun, eclipse and displacement, leads to catastrophe instead of millennium, to violent nightmare instead of vision and dream of restful dawn.

However, Twain is much more profoundly distressed than Verne by the closure of progressive horizons. This distress issues in a deep ambivalence toward not only the values but the reality itself of the opposed epochs. The dreamy Arthurian Britain may be the antebellum South of slavery, but it has likewise a pastoral, childhood freshness. Obversely, the energetic Yankee represents the capitalist North of the nineteenth century both as political liberator and industrial destroyer. In the end, Twain’s hero therefore sheds his representative, allegorical class traits and takes a double refuge: first from the sixth century – where the original “white Indians” have turned into sophisticated stock exchange scalpers – into the ultimate reality of private life and family, and then from the nineteenth century into dreams of such a privatized sixth century. Finally, in the “plague on both your houses” situation, when annihilation has disposed of both sides, Hank becomes adrift in time and withdraws into a dreaming wholly outside the catastrophic history. Indeed, there is a hint that he is not quite certain which is a dream, the sixth or the nineteenth century. For all his genuine radical leanings, Mark Twain is to be ranged on the other side from Bellamy and Morris across the watershed of hope. This historical position led even so powerful a writer to a formal dead end.

Thus, while there are richly burlesque or satirical as well as generously indignant passages in A Connecticut Yankee,its final horizon of havoc and sterility is what makes it both memorable and indicative for a long-lasting historical moment. The activist-hero battling against the age will recur in SF, from the pages of Wells and London to innumerable later time travelers and political plotters. But Twain was the first in SF to face directly, without theological or biological myths, how “in bourgeois society […] the past dominates the present,”26 and the first to analyze rather than merely

  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Selected Works in One Volume (New York, 1968), p. 48.

present the obscure forces of history that rise from the past not only to overwhelm the Promethean progressive hero from the outside, but also to hollow him out from the inside. Hank’s career could be called “Prometheus Re-Bound” or “the making of Victor Frankenstein,” for it shows how the bearer of Promethean progress turns into the absurd causer of historical catastrophe. Twain thus revived for the modern novel the central ideological dilemmas of the age of anticipation, which would be developed in twentieth-century SF because they would remain the most sensitive historical problems. For example, the motif of outside intervention or exporting of revolution into an “underdeveloped” country will recur up to the Strugatskys and Le Guin, and the concomitant or obverse motif of the lone hero becoming adrift in time will accompany the devolution of history from Wells to Vonnegut and Sheckley.

A Connecticut Yankee does not handle such seminal motifs and types in a fully satisfactory way. Its “juvenile fantasy” treatment of the “collision between superstition and modern technology”27 and of politics reduced to a duel between the lone protagonist and the world crops up, increasingly, as a cliché of space-opera and other “degree zero” SF. Perhaps the causally and formally central failing of A Connecticut Yankee,the one that made its structure analogous to juvenile fantasy, was the absence of what one might call a political economics of existence from Hank’s social changes. It remains completely unclear whether and how the laboring people that the Yankee meets on his peregrinations have benefited or will benefit from his despotic industrialism or State capitalism. The ads displayed on knights imply a market economy, other passages imply unpaid distribution; but the technical problems of political economy are not so important as the fact that nobody in the novel even poses the question how people would receive their sustenance in a post-Arthurian industrialized system, or who would determine its amount and distribution channels. This is one of the sorriest blind spots in the center of the imaginative picture that Twain has bequeathed to practically the whole of subsequent English language SF, born of the selfsame “New Deal” hope which took its name from a phrase

  • Smith, Mark Twain: Development,p. 166.

in this text. But finally, by the same token, this novel shows the necessary collapse of Twain’s own and all such private fantasies, and provides the means by which to identify them as a flight from history. A Connecticut Yankee’s function as yardstick for the tradition it set in motion is also an indication of the novel’s importance.

Many other SF fragments show Mark Twain’s concern with the grimness of the coming times in which America’s uniqueness would fall prey to the general fate of imperialist power – a suspicion that grew into certainty after the 1898 Spanish-American War for the “open door” to Latin America and East Asia. Twain returned frequently in his fragmentary sketches to the image of a future dictatorship – monarchist, technological, or theological – in the United States, establishing in this way too a central theme for SF. Had these fragments been completed and published, he would have beyond a doubt stood instead of Wells as the major turning point in the tradition leading to modern SF, and instead of Stapledon as the inventor of fictional historiography. But even without these fragments there is sufficient evidence that strange places and states fascinated him, as witness “The Curious Republic of Gondour,” “The Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins” (progenitors of the mutant twins that recur from Heinlein to Dick), or “From the London Times of 1904” (where even extraordinary technology cannot prevail against bourgeois law). The gloomy historical horizons were transferred to the theme of other dimensions of life that might perhaps be as real as ours in a number of SF stories culminating in the fragmentary masterpieces of “The Great Dark” (bp. 1962) and “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes” (bp. 1966). In the former, Edgar Allan Poe’s eerie exotic voyage combines with Fitz-James O’Brien’s life in a drop under the microscope as the setting for a multiple inversion of normal parameters such as size, duration, and memory; the story would have constituted a haunting parable of man’s insecurity in the itinerary of life. In the latter, the microbic microcosm becomes the scene of what approaches a consistent satirical epic. More importantly, in this late, testamentary text the satire often leaves behind the hesitations caused both by Twain’s earlier illusions and by his self-censorship in order to respect the propriety his bourgeois readership demanded, and rises to truly Swiftian bitterness and relevance. It is the mark of Twain’s stature that he was the first SF writer able to respond to the cruel times by exploring Swift’s implicit query “What is Man?” in fully explicit, destructive terms. Nonetheless, the completed Connecticut Yankee,which joins life’s cruel and insecure itinerary to the movement of history, remains Twain’s major contribution to SF. The deep existential distress and even epistemological puzzles of the individual in high capitalism were already acknowledged in – were indeed the motive force of – Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias, but they were there superseded by the security or the beauty of human relations in the new community. By disjoining the individual hero from the bright communal novum while continuing to uphold the absolute necessity and value of the utopian supersession, Twain situated his novel at the wellspring of the preoccupation that was to dominate the next century of significant SF, from Wells and Zamyatin to Lem and Dick.

  • Another way out of such an existential distress was to transfer utopian yearning out of material history, into an incongruous physicoreligious heaven, as did Camille Flammarion. In the last third of the nineteenth century he tirelessly ground out a great number of nonfictional books ranging from astronomical and geographic popularizations to arguments for a scientifically proved psychic life after death. Some of his other works – Lumen, Rêves étoilés,or Uranie – were an indigested mixture of reincarnation on planets of our solar system or of distant galaxies and supposed validation of the spiritual forces entailed by the marvels of modern cosmology and electricity, in which regard they were not unlike writings of the contemporary occultist wave in Britain and the USA, from Bulwer to Mrs. Blavatsky and thence to bestsellers like the novels of Marie Corelli. Flammarion’s rather frenzied anti-materialism vented itself in pet peeves against such indignities as material food-taking and in insufferable passages detailing (literally) ethereal love encounters. Having written the first modern survey of literature on imaginary worlds, Les Mondes imaginaires et les mondes réels (1865), he blithely pillaged that whole tradition from Cyrano through Grainville and Fourier to Defontenay for bizarre figures and incidents of life on other planets which he inserted into his long lectures and tirades. The life forms were either anthropomorphic or only slightly changed – by being flying creatures, or androgynes, or by having 17 heavenly senses (including, of course, electric, ultraviolet, and psychic ones) – or they could be quite different: asexual, phosphorescent, telepathic, vegetable, or mineral. This was heady brew for Victorians and had an immense influence throughout the world by the 1880s. For late nineteenth-century fantasy and SF it functioned as a repository of ideas and topoi – much as Stapledon was to function for the SF after 1930, but without his intelligence and tragic humanism. Flammarion’s variations on Kant’s idea that the physical and moral perfection of psychozoa is proportional to the planet’s distance from the Sun contributed to a spate of spiritualist or utopian ideals being reached by interplanetary voyages to Mars, Jupiter, or Saturn as brainless as his were but more straightforwardly fictional, as in Robert Cromie’s A Plunge Into Space (1890) or John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds (1894). When an at least partially consistent picture of new social institutions was accompanied by satire of Earth customs, the result was slightly better, as in the anonymous presentation of cooperative and progressive Politics and Life in Mars (1883) or Robert D. Braine’s attempt at mixing Flammarion with Plato in Messages From Mars (1892?). The nearest Flammarion himself got to coherent books of fiction – which was not very near – was in his La Fin du Monde (1893, translated as Omega),which included again an anthologic review of possible endings of the world and anticipations of a slightly technocratic future ending after ten million years in an ice-death of the human race, whose souls, however, flit on to better things on Jupiter. The book is a good example of the strange feedback between Flammarion and Verne, in which the former stressed “far out” psychic phenomena and the latter a near time and space but, by the last quarter of the century, both shared a similar pessimism toward the horizons of mundane history.
    • Some writers in the 1880s and 90s paralleled or echoed Bellamy’s and Morris’s concern with a better political social future; the intelligent antirevolutionary account of the collapse of an oppressive State Communism in W. A. Watlock’s The Next ’Ninety Three (1886) or the pleas for women’s equality in George Noyes Miller’s The Strike of a Sex (1883?) and in the rather melodramatic Gloriana of Lady Florence Dixie (1890) can be adduced as examples with a certain interest. But in the dramatically expanding production of SF – which, for example, doubled in Britain each decade, from approximately 45 book publications in the 1870s to some 90 in the 1880s and 170 in the 1890s – the great majority of works up to Wells remained immature. To take an example from the United States, the two poles that Mark Twain attempted to fuse in Connecticut Yankee can be seen sundered and impoverished in the shallow optimism of Stockton and the monotonous horrors of Bierce. Frank Stockton wrote several Vernean technological adventure tales. The Great War Syndicate (1889) transferred the future war subgenre to the United States. A capitalist syndicate, hired by the American government, wins a war by means of superweapons, including a tremendous rocket missile, whereupon the vanquished Britons join in an Anglo-American domination of the world – a revealing story by a popular writer. Ambrose Bierce is a weightier writer in the psychofantastic tradition of Poe, on the borders of SF and fantasy. Some of his stories, such as “The Damned Thing,” motivate invisible beasts and similar horrors rationally, while “Moxon’s Master” (both 1893) returns the Frankenstein theme to mechanical automata, paving the way for the countless bloodthirsty robots of Gernsbackian SF. Stockton’s shallow politics and jaunty plots as well as Bierce’s deep ontological fears and haunting moods have one common denominator with A Connecticut Yankee: the omnipresent violence. Only Wells was to render justice to this increasingly menacing atmosphere, which belied the hopes for a pure classless dawn.
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After a brief Introduction, two essays deal with: 1/ “The Alternative Island,” from Morus to the planetary novel, and 2/ “The Shift to Anticipation,” i.e. from space to time, from the French revolution up to Wells. The text is taken from a first pagination of the 1979 book MOSF and has mistakes. 

1/ This chapter 5 of MOSF analyzes “The Sociopolitics of Happiness: More’s Utopia and its SF Context”, mentioning also its roots in Hellenic and medieval writing; “The Dissociation of Play and Truth: Rabelais to Bacon”; a section on the satirical planetary romance of Cyrano and Swift, and its lesser followers, and an overview of the fantastic voyage from Marivaux through Voltaire and Diderot to the great Restif. 

2/ This chapter 6 of MOSF is divided into “Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil”. The first part analyses the blueprints of Saint-Simon and Fourier, the poems by Blake and more at length Percy Shelley. The second part analyzes Mary Shelley’s two novels, some minor writers, the opus of Poe, and Melville’s “The Bell Tower”. 

Introduction to Older SF History

Let’s be realistic – let’s demand the impossible.

Anonymus Sorbonensis (May 1968)

The history of science fiction, as the genre is defined in the first part of this book, gives rise to a number of significant and fascinating problems, which can in the present state of our knowledge be rather identified than resolved. One problem is the appearance of what seem to be temporal groupings or clusters – periods with a noticeably higher frequency of SF texts, separated from each other by gaps with a statistically significant lower frequency of SF texts. I am, alas, incompetent to even enter into tribal and extra-European narrative traditions (such as the Chinese one) and their independent but rich histories.1 But the Euro-Mediterranean tradition alone, of which this second part wishes to give a partial and abbreviated overview, consists – so far as we can now tell – most probably of six clusters: the Hellenic one (from folk myths and legends reactualized in Aeschylus and Aristophanes to Plato, Theopompus, Euhemerus, Hecataeus, and Iambulus), the Hellenistic-cum-Roman one (from Virgil to Antonius Diogenes and Lucian), the Renaissance-Baroque or Columbus-to-Louis-XIV one (ca. 1500–1660), the cluster of the democratic revolution (mainly 1770–1820), the fin-de-siècle cluster (ca. 1870–1910), and the modern SF cluster in the last 50 years or so. In the meantime, in periods of absolutist practice and world view – be they Ptolemaic or Newtonian – the subversive tradition of SF was driven underground (for example, the oral literature, apocrypha, and heretical writings of the Middle Ages) or into exile (French SF between the Fronde and the Encyclopedists; or the “lowbrow” and juvenile magazines and novels of the century after Frankenstein, from which

Verne, the utopias grouped around Bellamy, and Wells emerge as volcanic

1                      See Simon in Bibliography III A, and Bauer, Chesneaux, and Nuita in

Bibliography III B.

106                                                                                                          HISTORY

archipelagos from an ocean). Not all of this is quite clear, because SF (if one agrees to this name for the genre grouping alternative historical worlds) has been a suppressed and neglected, often materially and most always ideologically persecuted tradition: it is hardly an accident that except for conservatives such as Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Plato its first two clusters survive only in fragments and references, or that from Kepler, Francis Godwin, and Cyrano to Mark Twain its texts often had to be published posthumously.

Thus both modern and older SF are only now beginning to be identified in scholarly bibliographies, and it is possible we will fend out that its historical frequency is perceptibly higher. Nonetheless, I do not believe that new data will substantially affect the basic cultural hypothesis of a coherent literary tradition of SF as part of a popular literature that (like many forms of humor and “obscenity”) spread through centuries by word of mouth and other unofficial channels, and penetrated into officially accepted, normative, or “high” Literature and Culture only at favorable historical moments. (For example, evidence is emerging about the possibly high incidence of utopias and marvelous voyages in the period 1660–1770, but when these works were not rendered more or less harmless by the author’s timidity, as in the cases of Paltock or Fénelon, they were forbidden by the authorities, as in the cases of Foigny or Vairasse.) However, those works which did break through the surface of officially recorded and recordable “higher” culture almost by definition had to be significant; their resonance and echoes were certainly sufficient to establish an apparently tenuous yet potent and lucidly self-conscious intellectual and formal tradition. Plato, Lucian, More, Rabelais, Swift, Diderot, Verne – writers who succeeded in breaking through because of superior personal talent, or cunning and luck in finding an interstitial political time and social space in which to go public, or (usually) a combination of both factors – are therefore not merely among the fountainheads and transmitters of that tradition. Even more importantly, in view of the largely suppressed SF tradition, the achievement of each such major writer not only has to but also legitimately can indicate and stand for the possibilities of a largely mute inglorious epoch. (In this book, the first two European clusters will be dealt with only obliquely, through their effect on the Renaissance.) No doubt this perverts somewhat what “really happened” in cultural and literary history, but no more so than any historical investigation, dealing, as

Introduction to Older SF History                                                                              107

it must always, with a choice from whatever data have survived rather than wie es eigentlich gewesen (how it really was). An ideal history – especially a history of culture – would have to be a geology, interested perhaps as much in the hollows produced by absence of data as in the fullnesses produced by their presence, or a geography of the ocean depths as much as of the visible islands. I confess that this book is not such an ideal, although I propose to suggest how SF, sustained by subordinate social groups with which it achieves and loses cultural legitimacy, is like an iceberg showing only a fraction above the silent surface of officially recorded culture, and how the islands limn not only themselves but also the oceans from which they grow.

It could be argued that SF always fuses the old rhetorical trope of “the impossibilities” (impossibilia) with the equally venerable notion of the wishedfor country into a new and fertile form in which autonomous worlds are opposed to the author’s empirical environment and its norms; and that, historically, at least the initial impulse for SF comes always from the yearnings of a repressed social group and testifies to radically other possibilities of life. Nonetheless, the different historical functions and purposes in the various clusters have molded the SF tradition into different subgenres. Its central watershed is around 1800, when space loses its monopoly upon the location of estrangement and the alternative horizons shift from space to time (however this shift might be curbed by ideological hesitations about a truly different future). Some reasons for the shift to anticipation have been brought forward in chapter 4, and its meaning will be further discussed from the beginning of chapter 6 on.

5. The Alternative Island

The really philosophical writers invent the true, by analogy….

Honore de Balzac

1.  The Sociopolitics of Happiness: 

More’s Utopia and its SF Context

1.1. In the first part of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) a long discussion of England’s social ills culminates in Hythloday’s famous passage on the destruction of the medieval peasantry:

“Your sheep,” I answered, “which are usually so tame and so cheaply fed, begin now, according to report, to be so greedy and wild that they devour human beings themselves and devastate and depopulate fields, houses, and towns. […] there are noblemen, gentlemen, and even some abbots, though otherwise holy men, who […] leave no ground to be tilled; they enclose every bit of land for pasture; they pull down houses and destroy towns, leaving only the church to pen the sheep in […] [trans. G.C. Richards, ed. Edward Surtz]

This description, embedded in so acute an analysis of what nascent capitalism means to the people that Marx quoted it in Capital,is a masterpiece of indignant humanist sarcasm. The noblemen who rage like earthquakes razing entire districts, the holy men who are brutally indifferent to their spiritual flock and leave churches standing only as profitable sheep-pens, the land which is no longer communal tilling ground for a stable yeomanry but a private enclosure for rich landlords who throw tenants out onto the roads to beg and rob, and finally the erstwhile meek sheep which have now turned into man-devouring beasts – all this, couched in the careful verisimilitude of a traveler’s report from exotic countries, amounts to a picture of a world upside down being born in the shambles of the natural one. Rejecting all partial and reformist solutions to such radical evils, the second part of Utopia will therefore present a radically different model of sociopolitical life: a country that governs itself as a classless extended family. That country – whose punning name means a good place which is (as of now) nowhere – is an England recreated in a more perfect shape. It is an island of the same size and subdivision as England, but round instead of triangular; it has the same natural resources, pegged to an economy based on agriculture, but it is a just and happy country because it has abolished private property in land and other means of production. Instead of the monarchic pyramid in which power flows from the top down, it is, at least in principle, a democratic centralism that acknowledges no political elite, with a power pyramid established from the bottom up. Where Europe slavishly worships obscene war and gold, Utopia despises both; while it sometimes has to fight wars, it uses gold for chamber pots and slaves’ fetters. It lives a distributive, egalitarian, preindustrial communism; much like tribal societies, or medieval villages, monasteries, and guilds, it is federalist and patriarchal. Its organization is of a piece with its way of life, the best example being the network of mutually equidistant halls where daily meals are an occasion for pleasurable communion in both physical and spiritual nourishment. Hythloday’s review of such “laws and customs” in Utopia is a model of clarity and forcefulness, which answers the objections of his dialogue partners (including a “More” manipulated for self-protective irony) simply by taking to its logical end the gesture of pointing. It finds this “best state of society” based upon the pursuit of an ultimately ethical pleasure attainable only in a social order with a truly collective economy and culture. Happiness for each reached by economic justice for all is the final goal of a possible social organization – a startlingly subversive idea.

Utopia is thus the reaffirmation of a world consonant with human nature. This “new island” at the antipodes puts the upside-down monstrosity of European class society back on its feet: the estrangement is a dealienation. Yet a static human nature working itself out in a family model – both concepts taken from medieval Christianity – makes for a certain clogging rigidity of relationships in Utopia, in contradiction to its fundamental ideal of a higher Epicureanism. The Utopians possess slaves (criminals and war prisoners), an official religion (albeit mostly deistic and tolerant of all creeds but not – unforgivably – of atheists), and barbarous provisions against adultery. Also, the representative democracy is tempered by a permanent rule of the Elders, the family fathers, and of the learned. Together with a proper subsistence-economy concern for husbanding resources, this subordinates freedom to an egalitarian balance, enforced where necessary by stringent measures (for example, travel restrictions). For all its dry wit, there is an air of schematic blueprint, of groundplan without adornments, about More’s picture of Utopia. But finally, it is an open-ended narrative (the Utopians accept Greek learning and show interest in Christ’s collectivism), the first picture of an egalitarian communism with a relatively well-defined tolerance.

1.2. More’s Utopia subsumes all the SF forms of its epoch (and consequently fulfills the same function as Wells does for recent SF history). It fuses the permanent though sometimes primitive folk longings for a life of abundance and peace with a high-minded intellectual constructs of perfect – that is, communist-human relations known from antiquity on: it translates the Land of Cockayne and the Earthly Paradise into the language of the philosophical dialogue on the ideal state and of Renaissance discovery-literature as reinterpreted by More’s unique blend of medieval collectivism and Christian humanism. These forms have been discussed in chapter 3, but a brief recapitulation will point out the specificity of More’s synthesis.

Cockayne, the land of peace, sloth, and plentiful food – motifs well known already in antiquity, and constituted into a special country and topos in the Middle Ages – is already an inverted world which relates to earthly human needs, and like utopia proposes a strictly materialist solution. It can therefore be transformed into utopia by relying on human intervention instead of on a magical parallel world, and all utopias, beginning with More, will retain their abhorrence of human degradation by war, toil, and hunger. Next in the family of wondrous lands are the Islands of the Blessed at the limits of the ocean. Found already in tribal tales, Chinese and Mesopotamian legends, and Homer, such an Elysium was originally a place of magical fertility and contentment to which the blessed heroes were admitted in the flesh. In the Middle Ages such locations in far-off mountains (like the Himalayan Uttara Kuru, the echoes of which spread from China to Europe) or seas (for example, the Celtic legendary islands of sensual beauty) came to be conflated with the Earthly Paradise. It is situated in this world, and before rewritings for religious purposes its inhabitants were simply more perfect humans, endowed with happiness, health, youth, and immortality. Echoes of such folk legends are heard in Dante’s account of Ulysses’s final heroic voyage toward the Paradise Terrestrial, on which he is drowned by a jealous God intent on preserving his monopoly over the right of passage. In fact, Dante’s Comedy incorporates in its astrophysical and metaphysical universe almost all the SF elements transmitted to More through the Middle Ages, when – after Augustine of Hippo’s Civitas Dei – “the utopia is transplanted to the sky, and called the Kingdom of Heaven.”1 The Comedy subsumes discussions of several ideal political states, traditions of damned and blessed places, the search for the perfect kingdom, and Dante’s own superb vision of the perfectly just City of God.

More was well aware of such subgenres as the Earthly Paradise, but he rejected their location outside history and took at least the first major step toward instituting in the alternative island a historical rather than a magically arrested time. Bidding also “a curt farewell” to the mythical conservatism of a Golden Age of happy forefathers, he resolutely located Utopia in an alternative but humanly attainable present, momentous exactly because nonexistent among Europeans. As in Plato’s Republic (which looms large in the background of More’s work), human destiny consists of men and their institutions; but, in direct opposition to Plato, the just place can result from a heroic deed like King Utopus’s cutting off the “new island” from the tainted continent. Men’s norms and institutions are not the province of religion and magic but of sociopolitics, and time is measured in terms of creative work. That is why Utopia differs radically from Plato’s curious combination of caste society and ruling-caste communism. Plato’s dialogue develops an argument for a timelessly ideal (today quite anti-utopian) blueprint, set up in order to escape popular, monarchic, or imperfectly oligarchic government. More’s dialogue dramatically unfolds an actually

1     Lewis Mumford (Bibliography III A), p. 59.

present state of classless self-government. More lacks all sympathy for both Plato’s erotic communism and his caste system. As for the notion that a just state depends on a community of goods, More was much closer to the early Christian Fathers and peasant insurgents – like John Ball – who extolled communism than he was to Plato. Besides, this notion was so widespread in Hellenic literature before and after Plato that Aristophanes could mock in Ecclesiazusae (The Assemblywomen) a female attempt at instituting egalitarian communism without money and toil, and in The Birds a Cloudcuckooland where “everything is everybody’s” and things illegal in Athens or on Olympus are deemed beautiful and virtuous. All such references – characteristically surviving only in fragments or rebuttals – speak of a setup where:

… all shall be equal, and equally share All wealth and enjoyments, nor longer endure

That one should be rich, and another be poor.

[Ecclesiazusae,11.590–91, trans. Rogers]

Such an omnia sint communia is from that time forth the constant principle differentiating consistent utopian literature from the established society.

When Hythloday is introduced to “More” he is compared to Plato, but also secondarily to Ulysses, the hero of wondrous voyages to the island of Circe, that of the Phaeacians, and so on. The genre of imaginary voyage,as old as fiction, was the natural vehicle of the Earthly Paradise and utopian tales, though it often led simply to entertaining worlds whose topsyturviness was only playful and not also didactic. But it could also lead to just peoples in happy lands at the limits of the world, from Hyperboreans to Ethiopians, from Plato’s Atlanteans to Euhemerus’s Panchaeans (and in the Middle Ages from Mandeville’s Sumatrans to the subjects of Prester John). The most significant and nearest in spirit to More is a fragment by lambulus (ca. 100 B.C.) about the equatorial Islands of the Sun where the usual magically fertile nature enables men to live without private property and state apparatus, in a loose association of communities. In such joyous work as picking fruit each in turn serves his neighbor. They practice erotic communism, eugenics, and euthanasia (at the age of 150); the sciences, especially astronomy, are well developed but the liberal arts are more valued as leading to spiritual perfection. Writing at the time of the great Mediterranean slave and proletarian revolts, lambulus presents a plebeian Hellenic negation of the warring empires, the privatization of man, and the division of labor. His happy islanders live in the fields, under the open southern sun; and his account of their radical collectivism (found by a voyager-narrator later expelled for his harmful old habits) is the best that has even fragmentarily survived from the host of similar tales.

Such tales were renewed by the great geographic discoveries: Hythloday is also introduced as a participant in the voyages of that Vespucci who had lent his name to America and set Europe abuzz by describing the “perfect liberty” of the natives’ tribal communism and epicureanism. Thomas More transformed all such strange new horizons, with their potent dissolving effects on class society, into a systematic verbal construction of a particularized community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and personal relations are organized according to a more perfect principle than that prevalent in the author’s community (as I argue in chapter 3 that literary utopias should be defined). This estranged place is presented as an alternative history: whoever its author, however he twists utopian cognition, it always flows from the hope of repressed and exploited social classes, expressing their longing for a different but this-worldly other world. Sudden whirlpools in history which both further and permit its appearance in literature – the times of lambulus, More, Fourier, Morris, or indeed our own – have therefore the makings of great ages of SF. For utopias, being social-science-fiction, the sociopolitical variant of the radically different peoples and locations of SF, are the sociopolitical subgenre of SF.

More’s greatness resides thus not only in ethics or prose style. Utopia supplied the name because it supplied the logically inescapable Ur-model for later literary utopias: a rounded and isolated location articulated in a panoramic sweep showing its inner organization as a formal, ordered countersystem which is at the same time utopia’s supreme value. The coming about of the new order is explained by a new social contract; in More’s age, the contract-maker is usually a founding hero, but later it will increasingly be a democratic subversion – openly, as in Morris’s socialist revolution, or transposed into cosmic analogs as tenuous as Wells’s gas from a comet. Finally, though topographically closed, utopias are presented by a dramatic strategy which counts on the surprise effects of its presentations upon the reader: significant utopian writings are in permanent dialogue with the readers, they are open-ended – as in More.

2. The Dissociation of Play and Truth: Rabelais to Bacon

2.0. More conveyed “full sooth in game.” Francois Rabelais’s imaginative voyage through a sequence of wonderful places boisterously perfected such a fusion of urgent truth and witty play to deal with the full compass of earthly preoccupations and possibilities. But by the last books of his pentalogy on the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–1564) the joke had become grimmer and thinner. By the time of Campanella and Bacon, the formal exercise of utopia had dissociated intellectual gravity from plebeian play; in the process, “truth” itself grew increasingly ideological.

2.1. Gargantua’s and Pantagruel’s sallying out of Utopia to Paris and the ends of the world, and their insistence on the drink and food of the body as well as of the spirit, are emblematic of Rabelais’s integration of sensual with philosophic materialism, of folk chronicles about the deeds of enormous and valiant giants with an uproarious intellectual critique of the sum total of contemporary life. This critique is inescapable because it reaches from rational argument and farce to the colossal deployment of synonyms and neologisms, idioms taken literally and fields encompassed encyclopedically. Language itself is no longer god-given but a medium of human labor, enjoyment, and folly; it is formally presented as such in the SF parable of the congealed words in The Fourth Book. The sequence of events, too, bodies forth a gay and dynamic process of imbibing knowledge from the various provinces of reality passed in critical review – from war and education in the first two books, through marriage and sex in the third, to the wondrous and horrible islands of religion, law, and finance in the fourth and fifth books. The basic attitude of this work is “a gaiety of spirit” equated with the wine of the grape as well as the wine of learning and freedom, of friendliness and life itself. Such a draught is a blasphemous transubstantiation in which matter becomes its own conscious and cognitive enjoyment, substituting for service of the divine (divin) that of the vine (du vin). The folk enjoyment in gigantism is not separated from goodness and wisdom. Rather, matter is treated as not only the sole reality but also the supreme good, of which there can never be too much. Rabelais’s whole work is one huge navigation toward liberated matter and unalienated man. This cognitive “imaginary voyage” is the exploration of a dangerous freedom: “You must be the interpreters of your own enterprise” is the final conclusion.

Thus “pantagruelism” is the liberation of a human quintessence from the impure actuality, an unbridled creation of a new human nature scorning contemporary unnatural Europe – as when Pantagruel transforms the bad, aggressive king Anarch into a good though henpecked hawker of green sauce. It oscillates between sheer fantasy and simple inversion. The latter is seen in the anti-abbey or “free university” of Thélème, set against the old educational and monastic institutions. Formally, this is the most clearly utopian passage in Rabelais, though it is not his boldest creation but an elite assembly of young people noble enough to follow the inner-directed commandment “do what you will”. More importantly, “pantagruelizing” entails assimilating the whole reality of that age and regurgitating it transmuted by his laughing philosophy, just as Gargantua comprehended whole countries in his throat and regurgitated the narrator who visited them. To that end, Rabelais employs with a serene greediness all available SF traditions and all forms of delighted estrangement – Greek satire and medieval legends, marvelous voyages such as Navigatio Sancti Brendani,Plato and Villon, More and Lucian. Almost incidentally, he produced some episodes of SF that will stand as its constant yardstick.

2.2. Rabelais adapted the episode in Gargantua’s throat and the whole marvelous voyage in the second half of his opus from the classical tradition subsumed in Lucian of Samosata. In True Histories (ca. 160) Lucian laughingly settled the score with the whole tradition of vegetative myths, from the mythological tales themselves, through Homer’s voyages, to popular Hellenistic adventure romances. His narrator’s journey to various wondrous islands, flight to the Moon, Morning Star, and Sun, life inside a huge whale, in Cloudcuckooland, on the Island of the Blessed, and so forth is a string of model parodies, each translating a whole literary form into a critical, that is, cognitive, context. The island of vine-women is a parody of Circe’s and other islands of erotic bliss, the war of the Selenites against the Heliotes introduces aliens and combats more grotesque than in any romance or myth; but both are also models for later SF meetings and warfare with aliens. Lucian uses the mythical scheme of journeys based on the cycle of death and rebirth, darkness and day, closing and opening, for ironic subversion. Its spectrum ranges from ironic events, situations, and characters, through parodic allusions and wordplay, to direct sarcasm. For example, his tongue-in-cheek extrapolation of colonial warfare into interplanetary space is rendered utterly ridiculous by a farcically pedantic and scabrous description of the semi-human Selenites. Lucian’s whole arsenal of demystification amounts to a value system in which vitality is equated with freedom. Being confined to the country within the whale, with its oppressive fish-people, is Lucian’s equivalent of an infernal descent, after his flight through imperialist heavens. “Lucian the Blasphemer” presented the nonexistent “quite lightly, quite easily, as if he were an inhabitant of the Fortunate Isles themselves.”2 His humanistic irony embodied in aesthetic delight became the paradigm for the whole “prehistory” of SF, from More and Rabelais to Cyrano and Swift.

2.3. In More and Rabelais this tradition led to the “alchemical” procedure of creating a new homeland by a transmutation of the baser elements in the old country (England or the Touraine), so that Rabelais’s fictive narrator could call himself “abstractor of the Quintessence.” Actuality proved different: the marvelous countries became colonies, More died beheaded, Rabelais barely escaped the stake, knowledge and sense were again viciously sundered by religious wars and monarchist absolutism. In the profound crisis of the age, the first wave of the revolutionary middle class had separated itself from the people, and had been destroyed or absorbed by church and state. At the beginning of the seventeenth century this was clearly spelled out by the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, the heroic philosopher who had proclaimed an infinite universe with an infinite number of autonomous and equivalent worlds.

  • Ernst Bloch (Bibliography II), 1:507.

The new power cast a spell even over utopographers. Shakespeare allotted a conservative function to the wondrous place in the western seas by placing the educational island of The Tempest under the rule of monarchist magic; by dividing its servant-aliens into one representative airy, angelic if repining, goody and one earthy, sexually and politically libertine, subversive, in a word demonic, baddy; and by using it for a laboratory demonstration of the supreme necessity for vertical political order. To round things properly off, he also included in Gonzalo’s speech an Aristophanically unfair sideswipe at the older “contrary” utopianism of freedom: the new “commonwealth” is in a propagandistically disingenuous way made to fuse utopian, primitivistic, and downright silly traits, so that it could be only too flippantly refuted. When that speech does touch upon the central Morean contradiction of a vertically ordered, patriarchal freedom, the matter is not explored but used as a sleight-of-hand substitution for the virtuous simplicity of Montaigne’s cannibals; therefore, their happy primitive communism leaves a sour aftertaste in Shakespeare’s reversion of Caliban. Beyond this, The Tempest is an anthology of elements of and views on a new locus – with the exception of any sympathetic to egalitarian community, which is ruled a priori out of court in the travesty of the plebeians’ attempt at a bestial takeover. Hierarchy, the aptly named Chain of Being as sternly benevolent salvation from dystopian chaos, clearly prevails. Yet the Shakespearean tension of Christian humanism – and beyond that, of the poet in class society-produced also, in Miranda, a naively pure glance at the (if only potentially) “beauteous mankind” and “brave new world,” and in Prospero’s “revels” speech a melancholy adieu to even the grandest verticals of human society and life as “insubstantial,” transient stuff of space and time. True, the official ideology of Elizabethan morals and politics – indeed of politics as personal morals – colors all the supple and masterly estrangements occurring within the “sea-change” that affects in different ways all the dramatis personae on this new island with the only too familiar absolutist relationships. Nonetheless, and most importantly, the other pole of the Shakespearean tension created Ariel, the emblematic cosmic representative of the tempestuous and metamorphic island; the yearnings for self-governing freedom, to be repressed in a colonial island or civil society, were judged allowable at least for a pure spirit. The rich Renaissance lyricism hides a syllogism that already prefigures Swift’s dry Houyhnhnms: if only intelligent beings (psychozoa) were not men but possessed another nature, a radically different common-wealth “by contraries” – or the perfect anarchism of a fusion with nature – might be possible: and beautiful beyond our ken.

2.4. Disbelieving in a changeable human nature, utopographers had to cast about instead for better powers over it. Among a host of less consistent attempts, the nearest to More was Doni’s sarcastic “World of the Fools” (in I Mondi,1552), but even his plebeian egalitarianism succumbed to the pessimistic and static view of the age. Most memorably, in southern, Catholic Europe Tommaso Campanella reinstated astrology, that fantastic pseudo-science of absolutism, as the guiding principle of his City of the Sun (bp. 1623);3 and in northern, Protestant Europe Francis Bacon, in New Atlantis (bp. 1627), perspicaciously discerned a natural science acting as esoteric religion to be the wave of the future. Campanella, though formally prolonging Iambulus’s and More’s line, describes a perfect theocracy somewhere behind India, in the seas of the old caste empires and on an island so large it is almost a continent. The traditional utopian abolition of private ownership, along with stimulating ideas on dignifying labor and on education, is mystifyingly incorporated into a monastic bureaucratism with an impersonal, militaristic order that regulates all relations, from times for sexual intercourse to the placement of buttons, in strict and grotesque detail fixed by astrology. For the explosive horizontal of the Renaissance, Campanella substituted a dogmatic vertical that descends from the Sun of Power to men. More’s urbane talk between friendly humanists has in Campanella rigidified into a one-track exposition from one top oligarch to another.

Bacon’s “great instauration,” based on the rising force of capitalist manufacture and its technological horizons, was in the following three

  • Since in this unseemly and subversive genre it is not too rare that books get published much later than the normal few years after the known date of composition – as in the cases of Campanella, Bacon, Kepler, Godwin, and Cyrano – such book publication is in this work indicated by its date being preceded by “bp.”

centuries to prove more virulent than Campanella’s monastic nostalgia. For Bacon the social system is an open question no longer; rather, the key for transforming the world is a power over nature exercised by, and largely for, a politically quite conservative, quasi-Christian priestly hierarchy. The organized application of technology in New Atlantis is not a breakthrough to new domains of human creativity or even (except for some agricultural and biological techniques) of natural sciences; the only use mentioned for “stronger and more violent” engines is in artillery, for the old destructive purposes. Conversely, science becomes a patriarchal, genteel, and highly ceremonial religion, one that could be characterized – much as its later offshoot, Saint-Simonism, would be – as Catholicism minus Christianity. Scientists are a self-sufficient aristocracy of experts manipulating or “vexing” nature and other men; as against Plato, More, and Rabelais, their “science does not so much exude from wisdom as wisdom exudes from science,”4 and gold is not a sign of baseness but of permanent abundance in possessions and power. The very name of Bacon’s country aims to improve Plato both by correcting his account of Old Atlantis and by presenting a New Atlantis the old perfection of which has withstood not only political but even geological contingencies (the narration ends with an indication that its science can prevent earthquakes, floods, comets, and similar phenomena).

The major positive claim of New Atlantis is that it delivers the goods – abundance of things and years, and social stability – by employing the lay miracles of science. In Bacon’s historical epoch, even such a filling in of extant technical possibilities, without a radical change in human relationships, constituted a huge and euphoric program; the goal of the “research foundation” of Salomon’s House is formulated as “the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” But though this science is guarded by experts who can, interestingly enough, refuse to divulge dangerous discoveries, it is by its own definition ethically indifferent: nuclear bombs and gas ovens in concentration camps will be some of the “things”

  • Howard B. White (Bibliography III C), p. 106; see also passim, especially pp. 223–25 and 171–72.

possible to effect. New Atlantis is starry-eyed over inquiring into the “secret motions and causes” of fruits, winds, sounds, and clocks, yet it does not think of inquiring into motions and results with respect to the mother of the family, who is condemned to ritual seclusion, or to the population sundered from Salomon’s House. The work thus gives a foretaste of that combination of technology and autocracy which in fact became the basis of European empires at home and abroad. At this point in history, the utopian tradition fell under the sway of an upper-class ideology which staves off human problems by technocratic extrapolation, by quantitative expansion promising abundance within a fundamentally unchanged system of social domination. Bacon’s “science” thus turns out to be as mythical as Campanella’s astrology, though more efficient. As a verbal vision, New Atlantis, with its heavy-handed, propagandist insistence on a power hierarchy, on opulence, and on resplendent signs of public status, and with its stifling world which becomes interesting only when grandiose projects are enumerated, is in fact much inferior to the fanatic splendor of The City of the Sun. It is symptomatic of the quality of imagination in the ensuing age that this work (one of Bacon’s poorest) should have become the master of its thought. The “outrageous piece of ‘miraculous evangelism’” which founded New Atlantis, its stuffy ceremonials and barbarous human relations, completes the picture of this “curious alliance of God, Mammon and Science.”5

Thus the developing utopian tradition dragged into the open the latent contradictions in More’s crypto-religious constructing of Utopia. After the Rabelaisian flowering, Campanella and Bacon mark a reaction against Renaissance libertarian humanism; the logical next step was the end of utopia as an independent cognitive form. Official repression would have worked toward this in any case; but it would not have succeeded so swiftly and well had not the utopian camp been betrayed from within. Having lost a fertile connection with popular longings, utopia – with a few partial exceptions in the eighteenth century – disappears from the

  • First quotation from R. W. Chambers (Bibliography III C), p. 362; second quotation from V. Dupont (Bibliography III C), p. 146.

vanguard of European culture until Fourier and Chernyshevsky. Ironically, Bacon fought medieval scholasticism but inaugurated a new dogmatism of technocracy, and Campanella rotted for decades in papal prisons but announced a return to the closed, mythic world-model of Plato. History is cruel to “final solutions.”

3. Monsters and Satellites: The Satirical Defence of Man

3.0. Expelled once again from official culture, significant SF shifted from utopian seas to the planets, which were the forefront of attention after Copernicus and Galileo. This detour led to Swift and reclaimed the wondrous islands for an oblique, satirical defense of basically utopian values by way of a sharp critique of the authors’ anti-utopian actuality.

3.1. The “planet romance” (roman planétaire) presented a critical mirror to corrupted sublunary Earth by means of Lucianic islands in the sea of ether, mainly by means of the Moon. “Am I doing anything more monstrous [than Campanella, More and Erasmus] if, in a vivid description of the monstrous habits of our age, I transpose the scene from Earth to Moon for the sake of caution?” asked Kepler plaintively after his Dream (bp. 1634). In it, scientific speculation about other inhabited worlds turns into a vivid description of Selenite biology and civilization determined by such cosmographic factors as the search for water. Wells’s Cavor was to remember this first attempt at a scientific exobiology and cosmo-ethnology. Similarly, the hero of Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon (bp. 1638) finds giant Selenites whose social class depends on height and resistance to light, and who live in a kind of Earthly Paradise (at the time often located on the Moon) kept pure by deporting unsuitable babies to Earth. This subgenre produced in Savinien Cyrano’s two novels constituting The Other World (bp. 1657–62) a masterpiece of embattled wit.

Cyrano’s first narrative, The States and Empires of the Moon,plays on the opposition of “moon” and “world”:

… they [the Moon authorities] dressed me with great splendour as a mark of shame; they made me ride on the platform of a magnificent chariot, drawn by four princes who were yoked to it, and here is what they made me announce at every crossroads in the town:

“People, I declare unto you that this moon here is not a moon, but a world; and that that world down there is not a world but a moon. Such is what the Priests deem it good for you to believe!”[trans. Geoffrey Strachan]

A supple alliance of simple inversion (the dress and chariot) and sophisticated satire on the ideological use of language (the proclamation) is here used for a burlesque debunking of such earthly authoritarianism as the Inquisition’s against Galileo. The Moon is literally an upside-down world: in it, youth – the time when vitality is at its height – is revered instead of age, and noblemen wear bronze reproductions of genitalia in honor of creation instead of the sword, an instrument of destruction. This inclination to make love, not war, is of a piece with universal sexual rights of each to each and condemnation of warfare as dishonorable whenever one side has any advantage over the other. But Earth-bound criteria of truth are also demolished when confronted with the revolutionary vision that other planets of our Sun (and, by implication, of an infinite number of other stars) are inhabited by conscious beings: the universe has no privileged center. Sometimes Cyrano uses this cosmological, personal, and political declaration of autonomy for seriocomic exaggeration, as in the episode of the “thinking cabbage”; yet his high-minded vision of interdependent independences lends itself to witty association with a thoroughgoing materialist atomism in physics, amounting to a total rejection of the religious and absolutist world view. Even the extinction of individuality in. death is only one phase in the omnipresent metamorphoses of creative matter, and it is therefore met with joy instead of grief. This deep and intimate concern for natural sciences is integrated into a sequence of satirical intellectual adventures, into a quest for knowledge as freedom – poles apart from Bacon. To cite one example, the argument of an interlocutor on the Moon that all matter is pervaded by emptiness and has thus the freedom of movement permitting “all things to meet in every thing” is not only a brilliant “experimental though imaginary verification” of philosophico-scientific value,6 it also grounds Cyrano’s libertarianism in the very structure of the universe. To cite another, the Bible is satirized when the prophet Elijah arrives into Lunar Paradise by throwing a condensed magnet repeatedly upward from his iron chariot; but his flight also sketches some technical problems, such as braking during groundfall. Cyrano’s apparently whimsical yet profoundly consistent and dialectical use of innovating imagination, in both the boldness of its atheist philosophy of science and cosmology and its poetical wit, would remain unsurpassed until the nineteenth century.

As Cyrano rises from Earth he encounters beings with progressively more refined senses and therefore greater intelligence: the “demons” from the Sun, for example, can sensually comprehend magnetism and tides (gravity). Conversely, when he first encounters the quadrupedal Lunarians he believes them to be beasts, and for them his bipedal stance is monstrous. Monstrosity leads to rejection; rejection by the powerful leads to expulsion or imprisonment. Cyrano’s opus is built on an alternation of prisons – into which the unlucky narrator is continually clapped by various superstitious or power-hungry authorities – and escapes: ideologically and physically closed systems down here ruled by priests of all stripes are transcended by fantastic means in the direction of another world up there. The means range from light-heartedly or irreverently burlesque to technical: from dew, beef-marrow, and sacrificial odors (tending respectively toward the Sun, the Moon, and God) to the first SF use of multistage rockets. The flight from one world or existential situation to another is as a rule accompanied by some approximation to death (unconsciousness, for example) and results in what might be called debrutalization (rebirth, rejuvenation). Cyrano’s characters are often interchangeable; like his protean matter, they can split and recombine. The narrator himself changes roles and situations. His situations are “metaphors realised by true metamorphoses”,7 and his roles are manipulated with great skill to expose all the possible nuances of false and true monstrosity, as seen from both his side and that of the other races. This satirical technique hits its goal – the oppressive relations

  • H. Weber (Bibliography III D), p. 28.
  • Maurice Blanchot (Bibliography III D), p. 560.

prevailing on Earth – both by direct invective and by sarcastic praise, and it will be systematized to overwhelming effect by Swift. The alternation of microscopic and telescopic vision (which will be further developed in Gulliver’s Travels) is introduced by Cyrano in his discussion of the two infinites of greatness and smallness:

… there are infinite worlds within an infinite world. Picture the universe, therefore, as a vast organism. Within this vast organism the stars, which are worlds, are like a further series of vast organisms, each serving inversely as the worlds of lesser populations such as ourselves, our horses, etc. We, in our turn, are also worlds from the point of view of certain organisms incomparably smaller than ourselves, like certain worms, lice, and mites. They are the Earths of others, yet more imperceptible. […] [trans. Geoffrey Strachan]

And Cyrano continues this humorous yet implicitly serious vision (it led Pascal to panic vertigo) by ironically imagining a louse circumnavigating the world of a human head, among the tides of hair combed forward and backward.

Cyrano learned much from Rabelais, and the passage quoted above stems from that of the peoples in Gargantua’s throat. But repression weighed much more heavily on him, a member of the small and isolated, if highly talented, circle of libertines, freethinkers, and burlesque poets permanently threatened by sword and stake. In The States and Empires of the Sun his satire grows more caustic with greater elevation from Earth, but also much more allegorical and recondite. The Moon narrative kept the mannered sensibility under uneasy but effective control. But the murderously unsettled times made impossible the sovereign enjoyment signified by Rabelais’s giants; Cyrano himself died young of a mysterious accident, probably a political murder by clerical enemies. Even his charmingly whimsical yoking together of elements from disparate fields (ranging from the Apocrypha and folktales to the new philosophy understood as delight) and his characteristic paradoxes and sallies of wit show the tenuous-ness of his sociopolitical position between a browbeaten people and a triumphant obscurantism. His narrative moves through rapier flicks of ironic conceits or “points”; it is on a constant offensive defense, in permanent acute denial. Innocently sensual pleasure is forced to define itself as heresy, stressing what it is against rather than – as in Rabelais – what it is for. Cyrano’s great Epicurean tale, encompassing both sarcasm and tenderness, accommodating the fantastic and the comical along with the ironically cognitive, was the culmination and swan-song of libertinism. A monument of European mannerism and French prose, it is also a forgotten masterpiece of SF.8

3.2. Jonathan Swift drew on the tradition of the imaginary voyage – camouflaged into the newly popular form of real travel accounts from the South Seas – to the point of making it the basic form of Gulliver’s Travels (1726). After Lucian, More, Rabelais, and Cyrano, the satirical-cum-utopian tradition also had an offshoot in numerous contemporary pretended travels – such as Foigny’s A New Discovery of Terra Incognita Australis or Vairasse’s History of the Sevarambi,both dating from the 1670s and of lasting fame though often officially persecuted – which put political satire and reforms into the mouth of virtuous and expository natives. Swift ironically manipulates many elements found in this range of sober and tall-tale journeys, from isolated borrowings to the matter-of-fact tone and a protagonist constantly claiming travelog exactness. Into this framework he drew the folktale wonders of giants and dwarfs, floating and magnetic islands, monstrous or rational beasts, transforming them into precisely observed, scientifically justified, Rationalist possible islands; but simultaneously he used these islands for radical subversion of Rationalism, for direct and indirect ethicopolitical satire of the English and European civilization. This makes Gulliver’s Travels “at once science fiction and a witty parody

  • The thesis could be defended that only systematic repression has prevented Cyrano’s historical influence from being comparable to More’s or Wells’s. What happened to his writing is representative of the fate of a whole tradition: the posthumous publication of The States and Dominions of the Moon in 1657 was heavily censored and altered. An original MS was discovered only in 1861, another in 1908, and the first critical edition published in 1910. The MS of the States and Dominions of the Sun was stolen on his deathbed and never found: the published version is incomplete. The third part of this trilogy, The Spark,has never been found. The first complete edition of the two novels comprising The Other World,then, was published in 1921, the first popular edition only in 1959. In the meantime, Cyrano entered popular consciousness in Rostand’s crude bourgeois falsification of a long-nosed Gascon sentimentalist.

of science fiction.”9 Its basic concern is with the most radical anthropological question: What is Man? In order to suggest an answer it destructively recapitulates the development of SF.

In Lilliput, it is the tradition of enchanted islands of human dominion that is refuted. Where Gulliver – the average “gullible worm” of his civilization – is physically superior, he does not know how to control himself, his base vanity, and political snobbery, but grows as petty as his environment (which stands for the English court and politics). In Brobdingnag Swift employs the same basic device of materializing ethical qualities in order to refute the tradition of enchanted islands of lusty and benevolent nature. Where Gulliver tries to live up to lofty models, he is prevented both by his prejudices and by crushingly superior outside forces. Swift’s satire functions by always having it both ways: whether Gulliver be subject or object of satire, Swift’s spokesman or butt, the immoral European civilization is always subjected to many-sided ridicule. As we share the narrator’s terror when faced with the colossal Brobdingnagian life-forms, we feel helplessly delivered into their power; as we side with the magnanimous Giant King (especially in the overwhelming gunpowder discussion), we feel the preposterous, bloodthirsty vanity of this bourgeois Everyman, representative of “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth.” Further, the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians are men viewed through the two ends of that “pockets perspective” which turns up so often in Dr. Gulliver’s pockets. Vision too is both literal and cognitive: in the First Voyage, Gulliver is myopic, in the second he possesses microscopic sight and shrinks appalled from the craters in the breasts of giant court-ladies. Swift inverts the cheerful relativism of Cyrano’s infinite series of mites (not only the techniques of shifting satirical vision but also a number of situations in the Travels,including Gulliver in his cage, owe much to Cyrano); he has us look with disgust upon the corruption of the body politic in Lilliput, the land of man as paltry political animal, and of the body physical in Brobdingnag, the land of monstrous

  • Samuel Holt Monk, “The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver,” in Frank Brady, ed. (Bibliography III E), p. 70.

animals and dangerous bodies. By what Gulliver discovers in them and what they reveal in him, these terrifying islands function as a magnifying lens, a spyglass for Man’s moral and material pettiness.

The post-Baconian descriptive precision is inscribed and yet mocked in Gulliver’s very style. Right from the beginning it is “peppered with citations of numbers, figures, dimensions […] [and] approximates an ideal of 17th Century scientists: […] ‘so many things,almost in an equal number of words’.”10 The style is itself a cognitive instrument turned against its Baconian originators – the middle class in alliance with the despots, the optimistic Rationalists, the projectors, the Royal Society scientists. Their irrationality is sarcastically revealed by reducing it to the absurd in the most meticulously and pedantically rational manner.

In the Third Voyage Swift shows directly this dehumanized science, its lifestyle and consequences. Working against life, it sterilizes man’s relations to man and to nature. The Laputans – the first “mad scientists” in SF – have one eye turned “up to the zenith” of mathematical abstraction, and the other inward, as befits a subjective Individualism. They know neither man’s place in the world nor direct, sensual as well as cerebral, relations between people: they have no poetry, their food and clothes are shaped geometrically, women assiduously cuckold their husbands with strangers, and their science is useless or – still worse – useful to political tyranny (the marvelous flying island of Laputa is used for bombing rebels, a maneuver which, however, proves powerless against a united colonial people). To Swift, Rationalism had – by accepting the quantified world view, the bourgeois emphasis on counting, weighing, and measuring, and the resultant cosmology of mechanical balance, of bodies and motions in a “value-free” space – betrayed the true, communal, and value-imbued possibilities of human reason. The most comical examples in the Third Voyage, the Word Engine and the Thing Language, are taken from the fundament of Newtonian “natural philosophy,” mathematics, and from the social science most intimately impinging on human consciousness, linguistics. But the comedy is black; Swift’s critique is not simply moralistic but

  1. Robert C. Elliott (Bibliography III E), p. 199.

also epistemological. The Newtonian model’s absolutist pretension that its linguistic and mathematic formalizations have finally revealed reality and are therefore ends unto themselves, regardless of science’s practical incidence on human lives, is treated by Swift as a logical tool or whore (la puta) of political oppression. Indeed, the grotesque misery of Lagado – of a piece with and in fact the final consequence of the capitalist mercantilism directly stigmatized in book 4 – shows that this science is a road ta ruin for the whole society. Such alienated knowledge is sterile and obscene; it is symbolized by the project of extracting food from human excrement as well as by the smooth, opaque, and crushing “adamant” bottom of the flying island. Man as the scientific master over (instead of partner with) nature is refuted in these distorted islands of new knowledge; they are a retraction of Bacon’s New Atlantis, together with which they founded the tradition of modern SF as companion of modern science.

The frequent critical harpings on the incoherence of Swift’s Third Voyage overlook such an ideological consistency and gradation. The tour of the Academy of Lagado, for example, progresses from practical projectors through “advancers of speculative learning” to “political projectors,” who include experts in taxing and finding out conspiracies. Beyond Lagado, the probing into history and philosophy in Glubbdubdrib shows up modern knowledge as mere fashion and modern politics as decadent when compared to the ancient times, especially to the heroes of freedom from Brutus to More. The dialectics of this Voyage culminate in the nightmarish Immortals of Luggnagg: Swift’s supreme value, human life, turns into an obscene malediction when delivered to quantity (empty duration) without the qualities of youth and health. In a sarcastic eversion of the Baconian clerical elite assumed to constitute “a living treasury of knowledge and wisdom,” the reader is shown how infinite quantity becomes infinite disgust. The quantitative vision of nature, like all knowledge that is not applied to the happiness of people – all the science and politics that do not “make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before” – is thus a counsel of death, of the obscene death-in-life of the Struldbrugs.

The satire of Man’s politics, his body, and his intellect in the first three voyages leads to the great opposition of the disgusting Yahoos and the rational Houyhnhnms in the Fourth Voyage. The good old times of early Lilliput and the moderation of the Brobdingnag King culminate in the Noble Horses; equally, the abuse of reason for immoral ends in politics and science is offset in their reasonable and virtuous country. But here the question “What is Man?” becomes quite inescapable. The fashionable answer for Swift’s time was “the rational animal.” Accordingly, the European Everyman is placed between creatures who are not just optically and ethically different humans: the Houyhnhnms are rationality without humanity, and the Yahoos humanity without a prideful pretense to reason. Gulliver (and his reader) cannot in this voyage hold apart from the aliens encountered, he is coinvolved in the confrontation of reasonable and animal species in Houyhnhnmland; shockingly, it is the horses who are nobly reasonable and the Yahoo-men who are disgustingly ignoble and brutal. No doubt such a confrontation was known from Ovid through the sixteenthcentury vogue of conversations with temperate beasts that culminated in Cyrano’s quadrupeds and Sun birds. But all those writers condemned an unnatural human civilization; Swift takes to task human nature itself, the generic pride of man as such. The Houyhnhnms, living without knowledge of such abominations as money, government, war, laws, or lies, are an (at times faintly comic) ideal within a moral fable rather than a direct and perfect model. Indeed, being biologically different they can not be physically imitated by humans, as Gulliver’s ludicrous attempts make plain. Yet at the same time they possess a definite ethical superiority over a world where one is exposed to “the sight of a lawyer, a pick-pocket, a colonel, a fool, a lord, a gamester, a whore-monger, a physician, an evidence [police informer], a suborner, an attorney, a traitor.” Gulliver is consequently at the end, notwithstanding all his pitiful Rationalist literalness, much like Plato’s escapee from the cave of shadows: he has seen the truth but cannot communicate it to the purblind. Overridingly, the Noble Horses are the measure of what the Yahoos and men – worshipping power, gold, and excrements – are not.

Rejecting the constitution-mongering of so many middle-class “State novels” from Harrington to Fénelon, Swift – who was in a way the last of Renaissance humanists – looks back to More’s radical hostility against the encroaching capitalist and Individualist civilization. But in a much more corrupted age Swift’s is an integral monitory view which illuminates not only politics but also science and ideology. His narrator is “More’s Hythloday [dressed up] to look like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe,”11 whose fantastic findings recoil back on everyday English life like More’s – only more savagely. True, when he finally finds utopia, it is the inimitable life of another species. But the fact Gulliver’s Travels being published and thus reinserted into social practice turns its extreme anti-utopian despair into a critique of the anti-utopian world which it mirrors. The more passionate and precise Swift’s negation, the more clearly the necessity for new worlds of humaneness appears before the reader. Swift was living in the heyday of bourgeois ethics, of political arithmetics treating people as computable economic atoms (see his Modest Proposal,that unsurpassed masterpiece of fantastic essay as a radical pamphlet). At a time when capitalist empires begin to span the globe, when “all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind,”12 he defeated this totalitarianism by means of a sarcasm just as total. He might have detested man as a species, but parallel to such an ideology he also provided evidence for his indictment springing from a civilization where “the rich enjoyed the fruit of the poor man’s labour, and the latter were a thousand to one in proportion to the former.” What is seen through both ends of Swift’s spyglass in the first two voyages, in the distorted mirror of the third, and the inverted world of ethicobiological absolutes of the Fourth Voyage, is our own civilization, revealed as monstrous and inhuman, simultaneously comic and pridefully bestial. The resulting horrifying comedy is rendered in an apparently icily emotionless style of empirical realism which, turning the age’s basic vision against itself, gives Swift’s lucid bitterness its quite exceptional corrosive power. Using the parallelism of material and moral, Swift channels the tremendous energies of idioms and metaphors to his purpose. The rope-walking or crawling of

  1. John Traugott, “A Voyage to Nowhere with Thomas More and Jonathan Swift,” in Ernest Tuveson, ed. (Bibliography III E), p. 161.
  2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party,in their Selected Works in One Volume (London, 1968), p. 38.

politicians in Lilliput resurrects a dead cliché into visual and connotative concreteness, so that the inherent absurdity is imaginatively liberated to produce once more an estranging shock of recognition. The ideological and linguistic norms of European practice had glossed over, killed these metaphors, but by an uncompromising insistence on their plebeian signvalue Swift rediscovers their deep – political and philosophical – truth.

Thus, if Swift is – quite literally – reactionary, his is a radically conservative or “Tory anarchist”13 reaction against the shameless perversions of knowledge, optimism, and dominion brought about by Individualism. If he is the opposite of a didactic utopian, he is a bitter ally of utopia. Though the reader leaves Gulliver alienated in his stable within the larger alienation of England, the values implicit in his travels remain. In such a thorough review of the human condition, it is significant that Swift’s sarcasm stopped short of the Giant King’s pacifism and the fighting solidarity of Lindalino, of the women and illiterates who prevented the introduction of “thing language” in Balnibarbi – in brief, of the ethics and politics associated with Brutus and More. One should not give to these glimpses of a common body politic a significance which the Travels themselves will not sustain; but historically that unscathed hope is a signpost for subsequent SF. It will have to deal with Swift’s discovery that man’s body, this battlefield of vitality and putrefaction, is his truth. After Gulliver’s Travels,it is impossible to believe in a merely institutional, static utopia which does not face the nature of man. The new Heavens and new Earth demand a new Man, and the following age, from Blake and the Shelleys to Morris, will explore this dialectical feedback. Swift himself remains the great and desperate champion of an integral Man against the terrible pressures of Individualist monstrosity. Only somebody who deeply cared about man’s potentials could have been so outraged at his Yahoodom. By this utopian outrage, in his imaginary voyages and marvelous islands, Swift created the great model for all subsequent SF. It is a wise interweaving of utopias taking on anti-utopian functions and anti-utopias as allies of utopian-

  1. George Orwell, “Politics vs. Literature,” in Denis Donoghue, ed. (Bibliography III E), p. 354.

ism; of satire using scientific language and technological extrapolation as a grotesque; of adventures in SF countries, artificial satellites and aliens, immortals and monsters, all signifying England and the gentle reader. All the later protagonists of SF, gradually piecing together their strange locales, are sons of Gulliver, and all their more or less cognitive adventures the continuation of his Travels.

3.3. Swift (and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) stimulated an outburst of fantastic voyages in England and France. The Moon had already been used for crude political and economic satire in Defoe’s Consolidator and the pseudonymous Voyage to Cacklogallinia. For the first time since the Renaissance, muted utopian themes appear on the stage, culminating in Marivaux’s plays The New Colony (bp. as late as 1878), The Island of Slaves (1723), and The Island of Reason (1727). The playful imagination of these pieces, for all the compromises inherent in public harlequinades, at times touched the most sensitive nerve of the period between Molière and Beaumarchais – the striving for class and sexual equality. Holberg’s Niels Klim (1741) laicized the subterranean voyage for satirical purposes. The voyages to planets culminated in Voltaire’s civilized irony of Micromégas (bp. 1752), which brought the gigantic planetary visitors to Earth in order to explode yet again, after Cyrano and Swift, more directly and obviously than they did, the Rationalist notion of the great heights mankind was supposed to have finally scaled. But the writings of almost all the major French philosopher of the eighteenth century – Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and Voltaire’s Eldorado in Candide,Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage (1772) and Sade’s island of Tamoeé in Aline and Valcour – incorporate some utopian passages for mental experiment, contrast, and satire; more than 1000 editions of such writings were published before the French Revolution. The imaginary voyage had become so popular that it could be parodied by “lying voyages” such as Münchhausen’s. A recurrent figure was, from Montaigne’s Cannibals to Rousseau’s primeval communists, the savage whose natural nobility confounded the hypocrisy of Christian Europeans; Denis Diderot’s Tahiti may be seen as only the most consistent, complex, and charming indictment of the bad European life seen against the sexually, ideologically, and economically free island life far away. One of the most interesting alliances of lower-class literature and such libertarian ideology was Nicolas Restif ’s Flying Man (La Découverte australe,1781), in which the Rousseauist hero invents wings in order to fly away with his upperclass beloved to some yet unspoiled Earthly Paradise, there to enjoy a new social and natural deal. He later flies with her and their children to the Antipodes and settles down as king of one of the marvelous countries (of giants, beast-men, and the like) they visit. This naive, often crude blend of imaginary voyage, technology, and utopianism, cosmic eroticism and folk evolutionism, escapism and plebeian revolt, indicates the vast possibilities of a popular romanticism. But its development was unfortunately cut short by the collapse of the democratic revolution in the nineteenth century.

6.  The Shift to Anticipation: Radical Rhapsody  and Romantic Recoil

In futurity

I prophetic see… William Blake

0.1. If SF is historically part of a submerged or plebeian “lower literature” expressing the yearnings of previously repressed or at any rate nonhegemonic social groups, it is understandable that its major breakthroughs to the cultural surface should come about in the periods of sudden social convulsion. Such was the age of the bourgeois-democratic and the industrial revolutions, incubating in western Europe from the time of More and Bacon, breaking out at the end of the eighteenth and in the nineteenth century. The high price of industrial revolution as a result of the repeated failures of the political ones caused in SF too a shift from the radical blueprints and rhapsodies of the revolutionary utopians in the epoch of the French Revolution to the Romantic internalization of suffering. The inflection is visible in Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, while Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the US Romantics are already on the other side of this ideological shift. The irresistible march of palaeotechnic steam and iron machinery at the middle of the nineteenth century, along with the concomitant growth of the proletariat, prompted SF to examine more directly the machine’s potentialities for human good and evil. At last, at the Victorian peak of bourgeois exploitation of man and nature, SF turned, more or less sanguinely, toward the horizons of a new revolutionary dawn.

0.2. However, this age was not simply a major social convulsion comparable, say, to the Reformation. The instauration of capitalist production as the dominant and finally all-pervasive way of life engendered a fundamental reorientation of human practice and imagination: a wished-for or feared future becomes the new space of the cognitive (and increasingly of the everyday imagination, no doubt in intimate connection with and dependence from the shift from the social power of land to the power of capital (see chapter 4, 2.4.). In SF the horizon within which the novum is developed was originally a space existing alongside the author’s empirical environment, which is thrown into question by the radical otherness and/ or debunking parody conveyed by the alternative location. As we saw in in chapter 5, the space was an as yet unknown island beyond the fabulous seas; or (probably an even earlier paradigm) a valley beyond the mountain ranges, if not indeed a subterranean enclosure; or finally an extrapolated planetary island in the ocean of ether (Moon and Sun from mythological tales and Lucian to Cyrano and Verne, other planets from the eighteenth century on). In its Renaissance heyday, this ideal alternative was informed by the wish that the “normal” space might, by a homeopathic magical infection, begin metamorphosizing into a configuration of more humane or humanized actuality, into – as More’s title said – the best state of the commonwealth and the new island of Utopia. The alternative space was aesthetically structured by a central but static philosophical (rather than natural-science) cognition.

By the eighteenth century, in the increasingly activistic dynamics of hope and fear, SF begins turning (first in the technologically and ideologically most advanced bourgeois nations, England and France) to a time into which the author’s age might evolve. This turning, that cuts decisively across all other national, political, and formal traditions in culture, has so far not been adequately explained. The frequently articulated thesis that it occurred faute de mieux,because the white patches on the map of the globe which might validate a different microcosm were fast disappearing, is unconvincing. Not only did many white patches remain right up to the development of a viable aviation (and they were abundantly used by SF as late as Wells and E.R. Burroughs), but there was at hand the whole tradition of planetary novels and subterranean descents. Clearly, the deeper reasons have to do with the quantification of everyday, economically based practice – the enthronement of commodity fetishism and money as the universal yardstick for life values – as well as of the “natural” sciences. For the first time, capitalist technology had united the globe, though in a discordant unity undreamt of by the reasonable cosmopolitanism of the Stoics or Renaissance humanists, and pregnant with the most destructive collisions of nations and classes. The same technology had made mass social change in one lifetime the rule rather than the exception. This turning point in history is thus the one at which each succeeding generation becomes itself a turning point. In SF as well, after an interlude of revolutionary anticipation that was, from Condorcet to Percy Shelley, focused on prophetic visions of immediately attainable human possibilities and validated by a dynamic philosophy of humanity, the alternative time came to be situated in an anticipated future, and SF finally grew to be aesthetically structured by a “positive” scientific cognition. It is against this norm that we must understand all subsequent nineteenth-century SF, which gradually spread through more nations as capitalism, technology, and the reacting expectations of a radically better or at any rate different future themselves spread through the contracting world, and as “world literature” in Goethe’s sense loomed on the cultural horizon. This holds true even when the anticipatory norm seems to be – but is in fact not wholly – transgressed, as in Mary Shelley and Jules Verne.

1. Radical Rhapsody

[The poet] beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.

P. B. Shelley

1.0. When Time is the ocean on whose farther shore the alternative life is situated, Jerusalem can be latent in England:

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

Blake’s preface to Milton fuses the stronger collective activism and the Biblical tradition of such future horizons: “Jerusalem is called Liberty among the children of Albion” (Jerusalem). In the Bible, old Hebraic communism – the desert tradition of prizing men above possessions – intermittently gave rise to expectations of a time when everyone shall “buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah) and when “nation shall not life up sword against nation […] but they shall sit every man under his vine and under fig tree; and none shall make them afraid” (Micah), even to “a new Heavens and a new Earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind” (Isaiah). Christ’s communism of love was resolutely turned toward such a millennium. Throughout the intervening centuries heretic sects and plebeian revolts kept this longing alive. Joachim Di Fiore announced a new age without church, state, or possessions, when the flesh should again be sinless and Christ dissolved in the community of friends. By way of the seventeenth-century religious revolutionaries this tradition led to Blake. His age witnesses a new, lay prophetic line from Babeuf and Shelley to Marx, fusing poetry and politics and inveighing against the great Babylon of class-state, “the merchants of the earth” and “the kings of the earth who have committed fornication with her” (Revelation). As of Blake’s time the future is a new existential horizon corroding what he calls the “apparent surfaces” of the present, etching it in as unsatisfactory. As in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, “the great succession of the ages begins anew.”

1.1. Except for some insignificant precursors, SF anticipation began as an integral part of the French Enlightenment’s confidence in cognitive and social progress. Its “drawing-room communists” Mably and Morelly drew up blueprints transferring Plato’s argument against private property from heavenly ideas into nature’s moral laws. At the conservative end of the oppositional political spectrum, Sébastien Mercier’s hero, who wakes up in Year 2440 (1770 and 1786), dwelt in the first full-fledged utopian anticipation: in it, progress had led to constitutional government, moral and technical advances (to wit: a phonograph playing recorded cries of wounded is used to educate princes), and a substitution of science for religion. The noblest expression of such a horizon was Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès l’espirit humain (Sketch […] of the Progress of Human Mind,written in 1793), which envisaged a turning point in human history – the advent of a new man arising out of the “limitless perfectibility of the human faculties and the social order.” Perfected institutions and scientific research would eradicate inhumanity, conquer nature and chance, extend human senses, and lead in an infinite progression to an Elysium created by reason and love for humanity. Condorcet tried to work toward such a state within the Revolution, just as did François “Gracchus” Babeuf, in whom culminates the century of utopian activism before Marx. Equality, claimed Babeuf, was a lie along with Liberty and Fraternity so long as property (including education) is not wholly equalized through gaining power for the starved against the starvers. An association of men in a planned production and distribution without money is the only way of “chaining destiny,” of appeasing the “perpetual disquiet of each of us about our tomorrows.” For a great hope was spreading among the lower classes that the just City was only a resolute hand’s grasp away, that – as Babeuf ’s fellow conspirators wrote in The Manifesto of the Equals – “the French Revolution is merely the forerunner of another Revolution, much greater and more solemn, that will be the last.” Even when Babeuf as well as Condorcet were permanently silenced and the revolution was taken over by Napoleon, even when anticipatory SF turned to blueprints of allembracing ideal systems eschewing politics, it remained wedded to the concept of humanity as association. This may be seen in Blake as well as in Saint-Simon and Fourier.

1.2. The latter two great system-builders of utopian anticipation can here be mentioned only insofar as their approaches are found in and analogous to much SF. In a way, the whole subsequent history of change within and against capitalism has oscillated between Saint-Simon’s radical social engineering and Fourier’s radical quest for harmonious happiness, which flank Marxism on either side. Henri de Saint-Simon anticipated that only industry, “the industrial class” (from wage-earners to industrialists), and its organizational method are pertinent in the new age. The “monde renversé” where this “second nation” is scorned must be righted by standing that world on its feet again. This full reversal means in terms of temporal orientation “the great moral, poetic, and scientific operation which will shift the Earthly Paradise and transport it from the past into the future” (Opinions littéraires, philosophiques et industrielles),constituting a welfare state of increasing production and technological command of a whole globe by a united White civilization. This “Golden Age of the human species” is to be attained by “a positive Science of Man” permitting predictive extrapolation. Saint-Simon is the prophet of engineers and industrial productivity, applicable equally to a regulated capitalism or an autocratic socialism. The Suez Canal as well as Stalin, and all SF writings in which the hero is the “ideologically neutral” engineering organizer – from Verne to Asimov or from Bellamy to the feebler, utopian Wells – are saintsimonian.

For all his rational organizing, Saint-Simon had forsaken eighteenthcentury Rationalism by answering the great Swiftian question “What is Man?” in terms of economic life rather than of “nature” and “natural rights” – even if he then retreated to positing three separate human natures or psychophysiological classes (rational, administrative, and emotive) whose representatives will form the ruling “Council of Newton,” the college of cardinals of his “New Christianity.” Charles Fourier went much further, basing a radically humanized economy entirely upon a complex series of desires. Civilization “thwarted and falsified” them whereas it could and should have increased gratification of all passions-sensual, collective (desires for respect, friendship, love, and a reconstituted family), or “serial” (desire for faction, variety, and unity). It is a world turned inside out (monde à rebours)in which the physician has to hope for “good fevers,” the builder for “good fires,” and the priest for “the good dead;” where family means adultery (and Fourier enumerates with witty glee 49 types of cuckolds), riches mean bankruptcy, work is constraint, property ruins the proprietor, abundance leads to unemployment, and the machine to hunger. Against this Fourier elaborated a method of “absolute deviation” which was to lead to a world where both work and human relations would be a matter of “passionate attraction.” Men and their passions are not equal but immensely varied, like notes in the harmonic scale, colors in the spectrum, or dishes at a gastronomic banquet, and have to be skilfully composed in a “calculus of the Destinies.” Corresponding to the potential harmony of the “social movement” are series of animal, vegetable, geometric, and cosmic relationships. There will accordingly be 18 different creations on Earth in this passional cosmology; ours is the first and worst, having to traverse five horrible stages from Savagery down to Civilization before ascending through “Guarantism” (the economicosexual welfare state of federated productive associations or phalansteres)to Harmony. At that point humanity will have cleansed the Earth of sexual and economic repression, illnesses, nations, a production sundered from consumption, and the struggle for existence; and the Earth – itself a living being in love with another bisexual planet – will respond by melting the polar ice, turning the oceans into something like lemonade (all of this elaborately justified by physics), and producing useful “anti-beasts,” such as the anti-lion, as well as new senses for men. The blessed life of Harmony and the succeeding 16 creations (the last one sees the end of the globe) will turn inside out the procedures of class power: courts and priests will be Courts of Love and priesthoods of sex, armies will clean, plant, and reconstruct, work will become play and art, and “abnormality” the mainspring of society. Fourier’s shattering interplay of maniacal poetry and ironical dialectics, rooted in the deep longings of the classes crushed by commerce and industry, in a genuine folk imagination with its immense strengths and foibles, will reappear in garden cities and kibbutzim, communes and “retribalization.” In his exemplary scenes and characters-witness Nero becoming a respected butcher in Harmony, much like Rabelais’s King Anarch – he is himself writing warm SF. In spite of the important modifications, this will be reproduced by the rare but precious visions fusing relativist sociopolitics, erotics, and cosmology in SF, from Blake and Shelley through Defontenay and Stapledon to Le Guin and Delany.

1.3. Blake and Shelley too rejected the orthodox division of man into body versus soul and of society into classes, as well as the merely given “human form.” Blake, championed Man’s individual and collective “imaginative body” rising as a Brobdingnagian giant into a projected free fulfillment simultaneously economic, sexual, and creative. The hypocritical and cruel civilization of Church, Army, Palace, and Merchant, with its principle of selfhood, brings about jealous possessiveness with regard to children and women, shame in sexual love, and slavery to hunger and toil. Money, the cement of this fallen society, murders the poor by stunting and the rich by corrupting their imaginative needs, thus engendering sterility: the prophetic revolutionary or “Reprobate” is the creative counterauthority to the official “Elect,” and his followers constitute the “Redeemed.” Therefore, Blake sang the giant American and French Revolutions in his Promethean “Orc cycle” of the 1790s – from The French Revolution, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, America,and Europe to The Four Zoas – which announced the end of post-Genesis history and the advent of a new divine Man in a realm of freedom (a term Marx too would use). Revolution is identical with imagination and life, and absolutely unavoidable; but if its beginning is in politics, its end is in a joyous Joachimite Jerusalem where the body personal and the body politic will have been redeemed. The world as historical process is experienced and indeed co-created by poetic vision. However, as the American and French experiences turned to bourgeois rule and aggressive conquests, and as English repression grew virulent, Blake’s earlier work remained unpublished and unfinished. Orc aged into his Rationalist skygod antagonist Urizen; Blake came to stress timeless religious apocalypse and compensation through art instead of the imminent passage through the Earthly Paradise of sexuality and benevolent nature to the Eden of creativity. His fantasies of cosmogonic history read like a gigantic inventory of later “far-out” SF, from Stapledon and E.E. Smith to Clarke and Van Vogt. But unlike their impoverished strainings into cosmic sensations, his estranging of Newton’s world model converts it into a richly (if confusingly) metamorphic creation. Even the most opaque pseudomythology in the later Blake retains the estranging principle of multiple vision which sees the unfallen world within the fallen one, and the cognitive orientation of an “Innocence [that] dwells with Wisdom.” In his last year, in a time of bread riots, he persisted in his biblical communism: “Give us the bread that is our due and right, by taking away money or a price, or tax upon what is Common to all in thy Kingdom.”

1.4. Percy Bysshe Shelley was separated from Blake by the crucial impact of the French Revolution – visible in utopian literature, for example, in the vigorous political and agrarian democracy of several works by Thomas Spence (Description of Spensonia,1795) – and by an upper-class education. Both these factors set him irrevocably against Christianity, which he identified as tyranny; his poetry marks the gradual reorienting of the revolutionary imagination toward political parable and historical vision rather than religious myth, toward Hellenic, Gnostic, and scientific rather than biblical and Miltonic traditions. From his youth he had apparently constructed a cosmic, scientific, and political anticipation for himself in which chemical philosophy would synthesize food as well as dot oceans with and transmute deserts into gardens, electricity would unlock the secrets of nature, and balloons ensure the abolition of slavery in Africa (all themes that were to pass into SF through the adventure popularizations of Verne). His first major work, Queen Mab (1813), is an embattled vision of humanity’s past, present, and future that draws on contemporary natural sciences as well as philosophes like Condorcet and their English systematizer William Godwin for the future ideally perfectible society. Godwin’s Political Justice – invoking Plato, More, Mably, and Swift’s Houyhnhnms – pleaded for property to be equalized so that men could change their character, abandon war and the monogamous family, and finally become immortal by control of mind over matter. Shelley fleshes out such a Rationalist anarchism in his anticipation of a harmonious Earth rejoicing in the perpetual Spring of a fertile and gentle Nature, where “All things are recreated, and the flame / Of consentaneous love inspires all life.” In the notes to Queen Mab,Shelley develops his views on labor (reducible to two hours daily) as the sole source of wealth, as well as on the inexorable change of the Earth’s axis in “a perfect identity between the moral and the physical improvement of the human species” and the speeding up of the mind’s perception to vanquish time by “an infinite number of ideas in a minute.” Such horizons, along with the poem’s forceful attacks on the ruling political tyranny, capitalist selfishness and corruption, church and religion, made of it, despite legal persecution, the bible of English working-class radicalism from the Owenites to the Chartists and beyond.

Queen Mab is the concluding chord in the great sequence of societal and cosmic anticipations accompanying the democratic revolutions in America and France. From Diderot and Condorcet to Blake and almost all the European Romantics, two generations shared the expectation of an imminent millennium of peace, freedom, and brotherhood:

Not in Utopia – subterranean fields – Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!

But in the very world, which is the world Of all of us – the place where, in the end, We find our happiness, or not at all!

[Wordsworth, The Prelude]

But the revulsion from the results of revolution “was terrible,” observed Shelley in the preface to his Revolt of Islam (1818):

Thus, many of the most ardent and tender-hearted […] have been morally ruined by what a partial glimpse of the events they deplored appeared to show as the melancholy desolation of all their cherished hopes. Hence gloom and misanthropy have become the characteristics of the age in which we live, the solace of a disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair.

The shift of SF location from space to the present or immediate future – that is, to a radically alternative historical turning, fusing the present with the future – was (we can now see) arrested by a politically caused “moral ruin,” and rechanneled either back into mythical timelessness or into the staking out of anticipation in distant futures. These alternatives develop at that historical moment into different – twin but opposed – genres and atmospheres. A fantasy more tenuous, internalized, and horrific than the later Blake emerges as a new shudder and genre in Romantic melodrama, tale, and narrative poem. In particular, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner,using scientific observations and the polar voyage as metaphor for the breakdown of human relationships in an alienating society, had a profound effect on Mary Shelley and Poe, and through them on much subsequent SF. On the other hand, Percy Shelley is (together with Fourier) the great poetic forerunner of the SF anticipation saved from arid Victorian political or natural-science didacticism by also being a parabolic analogy. In the hands of poets, whether in verse or prose, such analogy, simultaneously collective and intimate, has cosmic pretensions over and beyond sociopolitical (later also technological) anticipation; rather than extrapolation, it is an alternative.

The Revolt of Islam itself is a not quite focused “alternative history” about a loving pacifist-revolutionary couple who are defeated politically but not ruined morally because they keep faith with their personal love as well as with the future vision of “divine Equality.” Laon and Cythna must die in this “Winter of the world,” but “Spring comes, though we must pass, who made / The promise of its birth.” Parallel to the satirical comedy Swellfoot the Tyrant,a sarcastic political travesty of Oedipus Rex as beast fable, Shelley’s culminating statement comes in Prometheus Unbound (1820). This “lyrical drama” is a delicately tough parable or dialectical allegory in which the notions (whether lyrical images or dramatic personae) flow into each other in iridescent and eddying metamorphoses, aesthetically and philosophically no less breathtakingly novel and daring than consistent. The characters are therefore subversive, self-renewing processes rather than fixed correspondences. Subject to this caveat, Prometheus may be said to stand for the Humanity that created evil in the shape of its oppressor Jupiter, and also for intellect and intellectuals as champions of the oppressed. In order to escape the fate of the French Revolution or of Blake’s Orc, he renounces hate, in spite of torments by Furies, who stand for the forces of court, church, war, commerce, and law and also for ethical anguish and despondency: outer political and inner psychological tenor are convertible in this multiply woven “fable.” Jupiter is thereupon toppled by Demogorgon (the subterranean and plebeian titanic Necessity of nature and society, and also subversive imagination, associated with volcanic and earthquake imagery), who has been contacted by Prometheus’s bride Asia (Love or overriding human sympathy). Imagination, Love, and Hercules (Force both as strength and as armed insurrection) liberate Prometheus and bring about a renewed peaceable life on “Fortunate isles,” where evil and ugly masks have been stripped off all nature and man remains

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, – but man:

Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,

Exempt from awe, worship, degree; the king Over himself; just, gentle, wise; – but man:

Passionless? no: […]

Nor yet exempt, tho’ ruling them like slaves, From chance, and death, and mutability….


In the final act even this Earthly Paradise is after “an hundred ages” superseded by Time stopping in a full unfolding of human psychic and cosmic potentiality. The universe too grows Promethean, and the newly warmed and habitable Moon sings a paean of loving praise to redeemed Earth in a lyrical finale of surpassing power, imbued with the peculiar Shelleian

“liquid splendor,” often in images of vivifying electricity. The cosmic drama ends in such a libertarian, gravityless, “uncircumscribed” counterpart and counterproject to Dante’s mystic rose of light and musical harmony at the end of Paradiso.

Shelley’s expressionist lyricism, using poetic abstraction as an “intelligible and beautiful analogy” with the most precise apprehensions of mind and nature and their most sensitive historical oscillations, gives poetry the power to comprehend all knowledge. Politics, cosmology, and natural sciences such as chemistry, electricity, and astronomy are potential liberators of humanity. They are equally based on labor and Promethean thought:

Our toil from thought all glorious forms shall cull,

To make this Earth, our home, more beautiful,

And Science, and her sister, Poesy,

Shall clothe in light the fields and cities of the free!

[The Revolt of Islam, canto 5]

And humanity cannot be made whole again (he resolutely agreed with Mary Wollstonecraft) as long as “Woman as the bond-slave dwells / Of man, a slave; and life is poisoned in its wells.” Loving women are equal, if not indeed privileged, bearers of human redemption in all of Shelley’s major poems.

Parallel to such poetry of cognition, Shelley’s estrangement is the most delicate yet vigorous personal emotion at the sight of life enslaved, approaching it always “with a fresh wonder and an insatiable indignation”1 – a line such as “Hell is a city much like London” (Peter Bell the Third)being quite Swiftian. Often at the limits of the expressible, “With thoughts too swift and strong for one lone human breast,” his insight into scientific and political thought as strife and sympathy between men, cosmic nature, and time makes of Prometheus Unbound “one of the few great philosophical poems in English.”2 In it, outwardly exploding love overwhelms gravity, setting humanity off on its cosmic voyage, world without end. This antigravity is “[in terms of space] the pull of the void itself, in terms of time it is

  1. H. N. Brailsford (Bibliography IV A), p. 158.
  2. Carl H. Grabo (Bibliography IV A), p. 198.

the future, which is also an absolute emptiness, waiting for man to ‘invent’ it.”3 With it culminate the tensions and resolutions of the cosmico-political revolutionary utopianism in Shelley’s opus, strongly imbued with political alternative, Lucretian cosmic and anthropological speculation, humanized science, and indeed utopian romance from works such as Paltock’s Peter Wilkins (1750) and J. H. Lawrence’s matriarchal Empire of the Nairs (1801). In their texture and structure, Shelley’s significant poems “are microcosmic revolutions which help ‘quicken’ the unborn worlds whose outlines they reflect and describe.”4 Though the integral revolutionary and utopian optimism of Shelley’s is a lone, soon-quenched blaze halfway between the cosmic voyages of Rabelais or Cyrano and those of the Leninist “storm and stress” of 1915–25 (Mayakovsky’s or Krleža’s, for example),5 it is a proof that SF can be supreme poetry: and vice versa.

2. Romantic Recoil

Forward, forward, ay and backward, downward too into the abysm….  – Alfred Tennyson

2.1 Mary Shelley was the daughter of two prominent radical writers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern

Prometheus (1818) as her husband was preparing to write Prometheus Unbound. Yet in this revealingly flawed hybrid of horror tale and philosophical SF she indicated with considerable force the widespread recoil from Promethean utopianism, that “disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair” which was to become a dominant tendency in subsequent English-language SF. The

  • Christopher Small (Bibliography IV A), p. 239.
  • Gerald McNiece (Bibliography IV A), p. 135.
  • See on Mayakovsky chapter 11, and on Krleža my essay “Voyage to the Stars and Pannonian Mire,” Mosaic 6 (Summer 1973).

novel’s theme is twofold: the unfolding of Frankenstein’s hubris in creating artificial life is intertwined with a parable on the fate of an alienated representative individual – his Creature (called “monster” only twice, I think, in the text). A series of paralogisms and contradictions emerges from the opposition of these two themes and characters.

A comparison of Mary Shelley’s stance to the radical Romanticism of her husband can best identify the main contradictions. Both Victor Frankenstein’s resolve to “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (chapter 3), and Walton’s parallel resolve to discover (for the Romantics practically a synonym of “invent” and “create”) the unfrozen, warm geographic and magnetic pole, the hyperborean utopia of “a country of eternal light” and “a land surpassing in wonders and beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe” (Letter 1), represent favorite, permanent, and passionately held ideals of Percy Shelley. True, in such a philosophical romance, the discoverer-inventor’s desire to learn “the secrets of heaven and earth […] the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man” (chap. 2) might be punished by the Powers That Be. But a suffering Prometheus would remain as unbowed as Lucifer in Paradise Lost,romantically reinterpreted after the image of all the subversive poets, philosophes,and scientists, all the utopian enthusiasts in the spectrum that runs from Rousseau through the “philanthropic” revolutionists (notably the Illuminati who hailed from the same university of Ingolstadt where Frankenstein studies and fashions his creature)6 and through Condorcet to Byron. No doubt: the central grandiose event of the age, the French Revolution – the awful course, consequences, and lessons of which shaped both Shelleys and guided all the other influences on them – was a burning disappointment. But for Percy Shelley it had at the same time “created and nourished hopes that could never die,” and his programmatic passion became to discover the causes of and remedies to the corruption within

  • On the Illuminati and their importance for the Shelleys’ understanding of the French Revolution see the persuasive indications of McNiece, pp. 22–23 and 96–99.

men and society that had led to its failure.7 Obversely, though sharing his anguish at that failure and his belief that one major cause for it was hateful violence on both sides, Mary Shelley was nearer to her father in stressing the supreme necessity for civil order, and therefore the unacceptability of sudden radical change and the proneness of the lower classes and fanatic intellectuals to bloodshed. The Promethean inventor was for her possible and impressive, but his invention was from the outset doomed to failure. Such a “fit of enthusiastic madness” (chap. 24), transferred from the ideal realm of artistic shaping and marvelous voyage of discovery to actual philosophico-scientific intervention in everyday social life, grew for her into a blasphemous horror tale, one related to Walton as an awful warning not to pursue discovery by solitary imagination, which will inevitably sunder him from warm fellow-feeling. As he was rendered friendless by Romantic poetry, science, and utopian travel dreams, so too had Frankenstein spurned languages and politics, recapitulating in his personal history the exclusion of human values from the “objective” post-Baconian science. Just as Walton is ruthlessly prepared to sacrifice his crew and his own life for the advancement of knowledge, which he equates with dominion over nature in the name of an abstract mankind, so had Frankenstein quite scientifically concluded that “to examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death” (chap. 4) and proudly gone about creating a quasi-human being with the aid of a merely analytical science. Of the two traditional Promethean pursuits of animating and shaping man, he had succeeded in the first but failed in the second: Prometheus pyrphoros,the subversive thief of the “divine spark,” had unaccountably become divorced from Prometheus plasticator,the artist-molder of human clay. As in some horror tales of blasphemous alchemists and their elixir of life (Godwin’s St. Leon,for example), the resulting creation is sterile and indeed demonically destructive of all values. When the Promethean overreacher finally acknowledges the Tightness of Jovian power and its values, he turns into a rightly punishable Faust. What Orwell would expose as brainwashing, Mary Shelley shows as just expiation.

  • McNiece, p. 41.

However, if Frankenstein’s Creature is sterile, it is living; if botched, it is suffering. For Percy Shelley, electricity was vital energy imbued with natural human sympathy, while the “calculating faculty” or principle (Defence of Poetry)the calculation of mechanical and social power – informed both unimaginative technology and the ideology of private profit. Mary’s Frankenstein, on the contrary, used electricity precisely with mathematics and charnel-house dissection, as a quantifying rather than qualitative tool. His theme is in the tradition of the Gothic story, in which the universal horror and disgust at his creature would simply prefigure its behavior and its hideous looks testify to its corrupt essence. Yet the Creature’s pathetic story of awakening to sentience and consciousness of his untenable position as a subject (for whom “he” is used right from the moment of animation) provides an almost diametrically opposed point of view. His theme is both the compositional core and the real SF novum that lifts Frankenstein above the level of a grippingly mindless Gothic thriller. The objective eye looking at empirical surfaces, that orthodox organ of things as they are, is balanced by the inward sympathy with the Creature’s subjective feelings. Far from being foul within, he sets out as an ideal “noble savage,” benevolent and good, loving and yearning for love. His is not the Individualistic quest of superior discoverer-geniuses like Frankenstein and Walton, but a humbler and more basic search for human solidarity and communion. His terrible disappointment and alienation is that of the typical Romantic hero – as he himself points out, of Goethe’s Werther or the Romantic Lucifer – wandering outcast through the icy landscape. Mary Shelley’s very important contribution was to find an objective correlative for her characteristic ideological oscillation between Shelleyan rebellion and Godwinian protesting quietism by transferring this outcast status into the strategic halfway house between orthodox theology and radical politics: into biological necessity. The Creature is caught between his vital spark of freedom and the iron grip of scorn and persecution that arises from his racial or species alienness.

The aspect in which the Creature is a representative of suffering Mankind oppressed by a hidden and at least indifferent (if not evil) Creator is still astoundingly alive as well as directly on the axis of the main, heretic SF tradition that links Swift to Wells. We are back on the shores of

Houyhnhnmland as seen by Godwin: a “sensitive and rational animal” (chap. 24), less guilty than man, is again demystifying human history, politics, psychology, and metaphysics, as, for example, in the Creature’s bizarre education by proxy that recapitulates in brief the Romantic world view:

The strange system of human society was explained to me. … I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of those advantages; but without either, he was considered […] as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I? I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. […] Was I then a monster […]? [chap. 13]

However, the More-to-Diderot tradition of “contrary” SF is not only continued by the Romantics but also undergoes a metamorphosis at their hands. The addition of “sensitive” to the definition of man as a rational animal that (as is discussed in the preceding chapter) dominated Swift’s whole epoch points to a great shift across the watershed of the failed democratic and costly industrial revolutions. Humanity is now being shown up not only as irrational but also as cruel, in impassioned rather than satirical accents, by a suffering and wronged creature who wants to belong rather than by an enlightened and wondering observer. This shift corresponds exactly to the shift from far-off spaces to the present that should be radically transformed, from More’s or Swift’s static juxtaposition of islands and cities to the dynamic mutual pursuit of Frankenstein and his Creature across the extreme landscapes of lifeless cold and desolation, from behavioral to sentimental psychology, from universal human nature to mutual relationships of men and women in society. Life, the central category of the Romantics, “is opposed to being in the same way as movement to immobility, as time to space, as the secret wish to the visible expression.”8

This hallowed status of sentient life and its genesis was threatened by a capitalist social practice – including ever more prominently a use of physical sciences – that substituted “mechanical or two-way time for history, the dissected corpse for the living body, dismantled units called ‘individuals’

  • Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London, 1970), p. 278.

for men-in-groups, or in general the mechanically measurable or reproducible for the inaccessible and the complicated and the organically whole.”9 Among other consequences, this led to a growing preoccupation and fascination with automata as puzzling “doubles” of man. Before Mary Shelley, such a semi-alien twin had either been treated as a wondrously ingenious toy (in the eighteenth century) or as an unclean demonic manifestation (in most German Romantics). In the first case it belonged to “naturalistic” literature, in the second to horror fantasy. The nearest approximation to an artificial creature seen as perfect human loveliness but later revealed to be a horrible mechanical construct was provided by E.T.A. Hoffmann in The Sandman (1816). But even he oscillated between fiends and physics, and his Olimpia is seen solely through the perceptions of a dazzled observer. Mary Shelley’s Creature is not only undoubtedly alive though alien, fashioned out of human material instead of the inorganic wires of puppetry, and unmistakably this-worldly, he is also allowed to gain our sympathy by being shown from the inside, as a subject degradingly treated like an object. However, because of the “exaggerated despair” which Percy Shelley accurately diagnosed, it is not only human society that is monstrous in its dealing with the Creature, but he too is “objectively” a Monster: sentient and intelligent though inhuman, animated creature without animating harmony, starting out like a newborn baby yet from no woman born – the intolerable paradox, in brief, of living and unnatural.

In a book pervaded by the pathetic if again paradoxical sympathy between man and inorganic nature, both the thermo-dynamic metaphors and the compositional metonymies meet in the body and its psychophysiology (that is to say, again in biology). The devastation of feeling has a correlative in the icy landscape and isolated characters; the ever narrowing imaginative vortex plunges through the three narrations from the North Pole into the inner warmth of the Creature and his observation of the family sentiments, at whose center lies the feminine and Mediterranean

  • Lewis Mumford (Bibliography III A), p. 50.

warmth of the Safie story,10 only to reascend back into the killings, masculine loneliness, and final coldness of death at the top of the world. The hidden marvelous voyage of (not merely in) the text is a double inversion of Dante’s or Milton’s descent in that, first, the chthonic warmth of the Earth’s center is positive and vivifying, a deep and consoling “maternal nature” (chap. 9), and second, the protagonists are barred and driven away from this Earthly Paradise into the outer darkness of mutual pursuit, misery, and commiseration, into the Coleridgean hell of dazzling icefields: “For Mary Shelley, there are only lost paradises.”11

Frankenstein’s relationship to his Creature remains thus unclear: their two themes and viewpoints contradict each other. If there is a moral focus to this parable outside of vaguely Christian melodramatics, then the Creature is that focus, so that the reader cannot treat him as a Gothic Monster, merely validated by science rather than by demonology. But conversely, if one is to look at this novel as SF, a whole cluster of fundamental but unresolved cognitive questions appears: and centrally, why did the Creature have to be hideous or the Creation botched? Frankenstein’s unmotivated creative haste might conceivably (though I do not think so) be put down to Mary Shelley’s technical clumsiness: even then, why should alienness have to be equated with hideousness? The tenor and the vehicle are startlingly discrepant – a signal that strong psychic censorship is at work. Yet the vitality of the parable shows that Mary Shelley’s personal history and imagination fused here with the passions and nightmares of a whole social class – the intelligentsia in capitalism, oscillating between radical titanism and conservative

  1. I am indebted to Marc A. Rubenstein’s stimulating insights (Bibliography IV A) into the “maternal” metaphoric system hidden in the novel and opposed to its “masculine creation,” even where I largely disagree with the uses he puts them to. See also James Rieger (Bibliography IV A), pp. 79–81, 156, et passim, who rightly refers to

Symmes, Poe, and the Hollow Earth theory. In fact, Frankenstein is structured as a Maelstrom the vivifying center of whose spiral can only be tantalizingly approached before the reader-voyager is symmetrically spewed out. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (see chapter 7) is an optimistic counterproject belonging to the same morphological family, and explicating (probably by way of Poe) a number of Frankenstein’s structural implications.

  1. Jean de Palacio (Bibliography IV A), p. 41.

recuperation. Both of these positions are viewed in the wavering light of Mary Shelley’s central ambiguity: the interfusion of an understanding sympathy with a guilty horror at the subversive novelty, the radical Other. As in Percy Shelley, “new chemistry is but old alchemy writ legibly; both are ciphers for politics.”12 Victor Frankenstein and his startling creation are a scientific cipher for an overhasty radical intellectual at the time of the French Revolution animating (like the Ingolstadt Illuminati, so well known to the Shelleys) the “[hardly adequate] materials” (chap. 4) of the broad popular forces. The philosophe-scientist who awakens and animates these victimized masses with “no kind of property” in the hope of a new and glorious creation finds that persecution and injustice exacerbate them to the point of indiscriminate slaughtering. Such a hypothesis, in which the novel is the emblematic selfawareness of a wavering and guilt-ridden rebellious intelligentsia looking at the implications of the French Revolution, can solve he unexplained (and as far as I can see otherwise unexplainable) cruces of the Creature’s unsuccessful fashioning and the universal revulsion felt for it. Mary Shelley’s reservations about the effects of revolutionary animation went much further than her husband’s and amounted almost to a guilty retraction. The frozen whiteness, for example, which is for Percy Shelley the element of a tyrannical Jupiter (as with Blake’s Urizen or Nobodaddy), is in Mary returned to the scene where the overreachers who attempted to break through the “ideal bounds” of natural and divine order “and pour a torrent of light into our dark world” (chap. 4) get their pathetic but finally appropriate deserts. The perversion of their utopian dreams results in a gloom and misanthropy that, as Percy suggested in the preface to The Revolt of Islam,was rooted in the moral ruin and revulsion from the French Revolution, as a consequence of which “misery has come home, and men appear […] as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood” (chap. 9).

This also explains why both Frankenstein and the Creature decline from great expectations and naive optimism to self-devouring, mutually obsessed, and community-destroying loneliness. If there is little logic of events in the plot, there is a logic of feelings, which can alone unify the not

  1. Rieger (Bibliography IV A), p. 29.

quite compatible aspects of the Frankenstein-Creature relationship. This relationship is, incongruously, one of creator and creature, of two biological aliens, and finally of a soon repentant intellectual animator and a soon exasperated plebeian force. Frankenstein and the Creature may also be in some ways comparable to Freud’s Ego and Id, but they are not reducible to such a Jekyll-and-Hyde constellation. Just as in Blake and Percy Shelley – or in The Tempest – the relationships in Frankenstein body forth a collective rather than private psychology. The Creature is warmer and finally more intelligent than his creator, like Milton’s Adam turned Satan; nor can Freudianism explain why the lower class of Id, that plebs of the psyche, must always be deemed destructive and lawless. Indeed, a more revealing parallel is (with all due reservations) to be found in the Creature’s exchanging an admiring, Miranda-like naive and benevolent wonder at humanity for a Calibanic rampage of slaughter: the ideal Godwinian anarchist finds he can become a social being only by perpetuating society’s most cruel norms. H.G. Wells was to describe his novel of the indifferent creator painfully fashioning monstrous creatures, The Island of Dr. Moreau,as a theological grotesque (see chapter 9). Frankenstein’s peculiar historical position and advantage is that on the one hand its biology partakes of a political as well as a theological grotesque, while on the other its pioneering scientific horizons proved more potent than Blake’s or even Percy Shelley’s heretic but archaic abstractions. Biology, the Romantics’ central science in a spread that runs from Shelley’s electric fluid to Goethe’s Ur-plant, can in its “objective” version disjoin ethical ideals, such as compassion for the Creature, from living reality, such as that of his crucial ugliness: “I compassioned him, and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened, and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred” (chap. 17). Biology is thus the privileged form of pseudo-scientific critique of revolutionary utopianism: “if Prometheus, in the romantic tradition, is identified with human revolt, is the monster what that revolt looks like from the other side?”13

  1. M. K. Joseph (Biliography IV A), p. xiv.

Not that Mary Shelley was a Social Darwinist avant la lettre (although once outside Percy’s magnetic field she soon reverted to a staunch upholder of bourgeois law and order). In fact, the paradoxes of a novel based on the principle of human sympathy yet also guilty of a racism which betokens total failure of sympathy14 could find a resolution only in the peace of universal death. The Creature’s fiery self-immolation on the ice can finally reconcile action and suffering, warmth and coldness, revolt and consolation, and return the uncouth product of masculine creation into the womb of maternal nature, to the entropic rest of the ultimate generic anti-utopia of

  1. A very curious feedback system between fiction and social history, that confirms the position of Frankenstein’s Creature within what one might call the Caliban Complex of bourgeois imagination, with particular reference to England’s tropical colonies and its darker races, can be found in the fact (which I take from McNiece, pp. 29 ff.) that Percy Shelley read very carefully Bryan Edwards’s History of the West Indies and its lengthy account of the savage Black and mulatto revolt in San Domingo in 1791, attributed by the author to incitement to “subversion and innovation” by visionary intellectuals and politicians from Paris, and replete with strongly imagined scenes of mass murder and cruel butchery as the inevitable result of “the monstrous folly of suddenly emancipating barbarous men” (both quotes from Edwards). Mary must have either read or at least known of it, since Percy’s reading is recorded in her journal for 1814–15. Reinforced by absorption into Frankenstein’s Creature as seen by right-wing simplification, the same ideology reappeared in Canning’s 1824 speech in the House of Commons against freeing Black slaves in the Antilles (which I take from Palacio, pp. 649–650). In spite of its length, the pertinent fragment must be quoted: “In dealing with the negro, Sir, we must remember that we are dealing with a being possessing the form and strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child. To turn him loose in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passions, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance [i.e. Frankenstein]; the hero of which constructs a human form, with all the corporeal capabilities of man, and with the thews and sinews of a giant; but being unable to impart to the work of his hands a perception of right and wrong, he finds too late that he has only created a more than mortal power of doing mischief, and himself recoils from the monster which he has made.”

  For Mary Shelley’s political slide after the 1820s, see Palacio pp. 194 ff., 218 ff., 230 ff., et passim, and on Frankenstein’s conservative aspects Christian Kreutz (Bibliography IV A), pp. 144–152.

Death. This final horizon will recur in Wells’s Time Machine and, as I argue in chapter 10, a whole wing of subsequent SF. In it, as in Mary Shelley’s revocation of the radical rhapsodies, it is possible to initiate a revolutionary novum but not to curb its destructiveness. The pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness ends in misery, bondage, and death as the novum, in a supposedly inevitable Faustian hubris, oversteps the familiar, “natural” boundaries of order. Mary Shelley’s faithful transcription of this central antinomy of bourgeois practice is much superior to any orthodox demonology, as well as to any Panglossian optimism that (in SF, say, from Godwin to Asimov) blandly denies the existence of such antinomic evil. But it is also cognitively inferior to a dialectic which she herself adumbrates at the end of the novel, when Frankenstein can acknowledge that his Promethean creation of life has, in the best demonic tradition, boomeranged into death for all his dear ones, and yet can still exclaim: “I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.” In this view he was an improper Prometheus or bearer of the novum – a truly new one, with more patience, love, and success, was to be presented in Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.

Mary Shelley’s other SF novel, The Last Man (1826), is a renewed reversal of the perspectives in Prometheus Unbound. It first fashions a somewhat rosewatery romance out of the political liberation of Percy’s poem, and then reverses its cosmic optimism by sending upon mankind a plague that leaves the sole survivor finally even more isolated, but also more privatized, than Frankenstein or his Creature. The shift of the locale into the historical future (the “tale of the future” becomes six times more frequent after 1800)15 both enlarges the loneliness of the desert island tale to inescapable planetary proportions and translates the apocalyptic or simply melodramatic fantasy tale into a black SF anticipation. Mary Shelley’s novel canonizes a tradition adumbrated in several works which followed the debacle of eighteenth-century hopes and often posited a new ice age (Cousin de Grainville’s prose epic Le Dernier homme translated as the “romance in futurity” Last Men,Byron’s poem “Darkness,” and others) by imparting a realistic believability to their topoi of lone landscapes and 

  1. My calculation, based on data to be found in Ian Clarke (Bibliography I).

ghostly cities. This makes The Last Man a precursor of the SF biophysics of alienation which extends from Poe and Flammarion to The Time Machine and beyond. But the more complex Frankenstein remains her permanent contribution, claiming for SF the concern for a personalized working out of overriding sociopolitical and scientific dilemmas. It compromised with horror fantasy by treating them largely in terms of a humorless if not hysterical biology, thus announcing the legions of menacing aliens and androids from Melville, Wells, and Čapek on. Yet even the inconsistent sympathy and responsibility for the Creature which are established in the novel transcend the contrived coincidences, sensational murders, and purple patches of the novel and indeed of most SF writing on this theme (not to speak of Hollywood movies, which as a rule revert to one-dimensional Gothic Monsters). The sense of urgency in Frankenstein,situated in an exotic present, interweaves the characters’ intimate reactions with their social destiny, an understanding for Promethean science with a feeling for its human results, and marries the exploratory SF parable with the (still somewhat shaky) tradition of the novel. This indicated the way SF would go in meeting the challenge of the cruel times and of Swift’s great question what was human nature – to be answered in terms of the human body and of social history.

  • However, the way proved long and thorny. A number of scattered SF writings in Europe appeared in the second third of the nineteenth century with the revival of utopian expectations and Romantic dreams on both slopes of the watershed constituted by the failed 1848 revolutions. In Russia Odoevsky wrote a mild anticipation, The Year 4338 (discussed in chapter 11). In France Louis Geoffroy’s Napoléon apocryphe, 1812–1832 (1836) and Charles Renouvier’s aptly titled Uchronie (1857 and 1876) introduced into the novel the “alternative history” that was to reach a bittersweet consummation in the twentieth century with and after Anatole France’s Penguin Island and On the White Stone. Emile Souvestre disguised a sermon on the immorality of mechanical progress, which had destroyed the old pieties and would therefore be destroyed by God, as possibly the first systematic anti-utopian anticipation in Le Monde tel qu’il sera (The World as It Shall Be,1845); and Etienne Cabet set a treatise expounding authoritarian collectivism and thinly disguised as fiction in the fittingly regressive spatial location of Voyage en Icarie (1840); both were only less insipid than Lamartine’s dream of a petty-bourgeois European confederation translated as France and England (1848). The most significant echo of warm, Fourierist utopian enthusiasms was C. I. Defontenay’s Star (1854), which used a revived interest in the planetary novel – marked already by Restif ’s Les Posthumes (1802) – for a vivid description, in prose mixed with verse, of a whole solar system with different humanoid species, their physics, politics, and ethics. A utopian humanism and sensibility, which even supplied samples of Starian literature, vivifies Defontenay’s narration of their history, which includes a cosmic exodus and return. This work is a lone masterpiece not to be equaled before Stapledon and C. S. Lewis, if not the 1960s. The publication dates of two books written in the same period by exiled workers testify in mute eloquence to the repressive reasons for Defontenay’s loneness and such cosmic flights: the Chartist John Francis Bray’s A Voyage from Utopia (bp. 1957) attempted to merge Swiftian techniques with radical socialist propaganda; and the Fourierist anarchist Joseph Déjacque’s L’Humanisphère (partial bp. 1899, full 1971) gives a vituperative and rhapsodic vent to his visions of sexual, religious, and sociopolitical libertarianism in 2858. Charles Henningsen’s voluminous romance Sixty Years Hence (1846), echoing Byron and the Shelleys in its avenger-hero and critique of an extreme plutocracy, though in prudence published anonymously, had a somewhat better fate, probably because of the sentimental and scientific melodrama it deftly fused with politics and economics.
    • In the United States, too, utopian writings – popular since the secularization of the first colonizing impulse – showed some signs of reviving. But such attempts at utopian colonies as Cabet’s Icaria or the Brook Farm venture failed, and the detachment from – indeed hostility toward – the everyday world increased among North American writers of the midnineteenth century. Living in the country in which the bourgeois way of life progressed most rapidly, these writers recoiled from its optimism most thoroughly. Instead of treating the wondrous novelty in terms of Prometheus, the revolutionary, they came to treat it in terms of Faust, the overreacher who sold his soul to the Devil. Already Goethe had adopted Faust as symbol of the permanent dynamism borne by the bourgeois, and Mary Shelley had substituted him for the Greek Titan midway through Frankenstein. The most prominent of the SF recoilers who followed them were Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. The first often used allegorical fantasy, the second a more or less imaginary voyage, and the third both. In some cases, admittedly marginal to the ensemble of their work, such narratives bordered on or passed into SF.

One of the strong American literary traditions was that of the world supplying moral symbols for the writer, and in particular of the adventurous voyage as an inner quest. It flowed from various updatings of Pilgrim’s Progress,beginning with Joseph Morgan’s Puritan allegory The History of the Kingdom of Basaruah (1715), and into the Enlightenment world vision explicated in Joel Barlow’s Columbiad (1787), a not quite felicitous precursor of Queen Mab. This tradition approached SF in the degree in which it adopted a consistently this-worldly novum, as in Brockden Brown and Washington Irving (whose History of New York contains a satirical SF sketch, midway between Voltaire and Wells, of Lunarians dealing with Earthmen as Whites did with Indians). Fenimore Cooper also wrote two crotchety and rather perfunctory novels satirizing upstart politics, the better of which, The Monikins (1835), at times rises to bitter socioeconomic lucidity. The tradition culminated in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings as the working out of hypotheses with a symbolically collective rather than individualist character. In short, “there was no major 19th-century American writer of fiction, and indeed few of the second rank, who did not write some SF or at least one utopian romance.”16

Hawthorne usually equivocates between the natural and the supernatural, so that the hypnotism and other controlling influences are never cognitively dominant in his major romances. Even in the stories that hinge on the scientist-artist, the somewhat melodramatic allegory suggests that his Faustian urge is unnatural – at worst criminal, as in “The Birthmark,” and at best useless except for his inner satisfaction, as in “The Artist of the Beautiful.” Only in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1846) is Hawthorne momentarily prepared to envisage an alternative world and person on their own

  1. H. Bruce Franklin, Future Perfect (Bibliography IV A), p. x.

merits. Though Beatrice is not given as spirited a defense as Frankenstein’s Creature, she is at least an innocent and wronged Alien and exercises considerable passionate attraction (analogous to and probably as a parable for the Fourierist ideas which Hawthorne was to renounce as senseless and wicked after his Brook Farm experience, itself comparable to a poisoned Eden). But finally, her father’s revolutionary countercreation is dismissed in an ending more akin to exorcism than to SF.

2.4. On the contrary Edgar Allan Poe took to an exemplary extreme both the autonomy of his imaginary worlds and the isolation of the individual who does not relate to a coherent community but to some metaphysical principle. Poe was economically more exposed to a consistently capitalist society that was finding the artist unnecessary except as a leisure-time entertainer for marginal social strata. History and community meant to him merely a rapidly expanding “dollar-manufacture,” a hateful democracy or mob rule, so that his typical protagonist – raising the stakes in comparison with the revolts of the first Romantic generation – ignores almost all human interactions, not only in politics and work but also in sex and knowledge. Science, technology, and all knowledge have become Mephistophelean instead of Promethean powers, fascinating but leading only to dead-ends and destruction; “Poe confronts and represents, as few authors before him, the alienated and alienating quality of the technological environment.”17 Therefore he constructed a compensatory fantasy world connecting an exacerbated inner reality directly to the universe. But this fantasy is a kind of photographic negative of his environment. Feeling is dissociated from the intelligence and will that had normally acted upon a socially recognizable reality, and a subjective timelessness (indeed a dream time or nightmare time) or instant apprehension of horror efface any objectively measurable or progressing duration: personality and consciousness are here disintegrating. In the actuality “time-keeping had merged with record-keeping in the art of communication.”18 Poe was with Mary Shelley the first significant figure in this tradition to make a living by writing for periodicals (both of them

  1. David Halliburton (Bibliography IV A), p. 247.
  2. Mumford, p. 136.

even wrote stories to fit an illustration in a yearbook or magazine, as did many authors of later SF); accordingly, he concentrated on the obstacles to communication. Communication is for Poe a maze of masks, hoaxes, and cryptograms, typified in the manuscript put into a bottle, falsely sent or mysteriously received, revealing truth ambiguously if at all.

Most of Poe’s tales exist within the horizons of terror, of flight “out of space – out of time” (“Dream-land”); they are horror-fantasies pretending to a private supernatural reality that is in fact based upon prescientific lore. In this light, Poe is the originator of what is least mature in the writing commercially peddled as SF – an adolescent combination of hysterical sensibility and sensational violence, a dissociation of symbol from imaginative consistency of any (however imaginary) world, a vague intensity of style used for creepy incantation. His protagonist is often “the perpetual American boy-man” with a somewhat hysterical urge “to express himself […] above, or away from, or beyond our commoner range of experience”; T.S. Eliot, acknowledging his “very exceptional mind and sensibility,” has even suggested that Poe’s intellect was that “of a highly gifted young person before puberty.”19 Though this may not be fair to Poe, who at his best knew how to present his limitations with ironic distancing, it accurately pinpoints the emotional age of his imitators in the no-man’s-land of fantasy passed off as SF, from the work of Haggard and Lovecraft to Bradbury and Beyond.

Three groups of Poe’s works have a more direct claim to attention in this overview: those marginally using some SF conventions, those using SF for comic comment or ideological revelation, and those dealing with cosmological speculations. The first group comprises the poem “Al Aaraaf,” the dialogues “Eiros and Charmion” (which mentions for the first time the destruction of Earth in a conflagration caused by a comet) and “The Power of Words,” and the tales of oceanic descent culminating in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). Pym appropriates the extraordinary-voyage tradition for a metaphysical (and, in the Tsalal episode, passably racist)

  1. First quotation Edward H. Davidson (Bibliography IV A), p. 214; second quotation T.S. Eliot, “From Poe to Valéry,” in Eric W. Carlson, ed. (Bibliography IV A), pp. 212–13.

quest for purity in the unknown, presents an interesting use of correspondences between the world and the protagonist, and possibly ends with the Pole being an entrance to the hollow Earth popularized in the pseudonymous Symzonia (1820). The second group used contemporary popular SF interests for anticipations like balloon flights across the Atlantic or – in the wake of George Tucker’s A Voyage to the Moon and Richard Locke Adams’s celebrated “Moon Hoax” – to the Moon, and suspended animation (in “The Unparallelled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” “The Balloon Hoax,” “Some Words With a Mummy,” “Mellonta Tauta,” “Von Kempelen and His Discovery”); but again, it transmuted them into hoaxes and satires of present-day certainties of progress. “The Man That Was Used Up” (1840) in this group is the first tale about a man almost totally composed of artificial organs. The most substantial among these stories, “Pfaall” (1840) and “Mellonta Tauta” (bp. 1850), are most strongly science-fictional. The interplanetary flight prepared by an amateur inventor in his backyard, the verisimilar flight perils and observations, and the glimpses of grotesque yet kindred Aliens in “Pfaall” gave the cue to much later space-travel SF. More subtly, so did the future inventions, political satire, and barriers to understanding of the reader’s times in “Mellonta Tauta” (as also, retrospectively, in “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade”) to later time-travel SF. The three “mesmeric tales” culminating in the scientifically motivated horrors of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (bp. 1850), whether used for revelation of Poe’s cosmology or tongue-in-cheek sensationalism, are ancillary to his fantastic system of correspondences. This third group is subsumed under Eureka (1848), Poe’s crowning piece of essayistic SF, which explicates the highly heretical, complex web of analogies and conversions by which, in Poe, life does not end with death, sentience is not confined to organic matter, cosmogony is analogous to individual sensibility and creativity (as in “The Power of Words”), and the universe is God’s coded monologue. Such mechanistic metaphysics leads finally to solipsism: whatever the writer can imagine is as good as created, and conversely all that is created is imagined. No wonder Poe appealed to later lonely writers.

In fact, Poe’s influence has been immense in both Anglo-American and French SF (the latter has yet to recover from it). Though his ideology and time-horizon tend to horror-fantasy, the pioneering incompleteness of his work provided SF too with a wealth of hints for fusing the rational with the symbolical, such as his techniques of gradual domestication of the extraordinary and of the “half-closed eye” estrangement just glimpsing the extraordinary. With Poe, the tradition of the moral quest became urbanized, escapist, and unorthodox. His influence encompasses on the one hand the mechanical marvels of Verne and the dime-novels, and on the other the escapist strain in some of the “hardest” U.S. SF, for example, Robert A. Heinlein’s time-traveling solipsism. Both are blended in the Wellsian grotesque tradition, from some of Wells’s cumulations of believable terrors to, say, the symbolical tales of James Blish or Damon Knight. Poe’s notes stressing verisimilitude, analogy, and probability for the wondrous story made him also the first theoretician of SF.

2.5. Herman Melville’s whole opus is “a major contribution to the literature of created societies,”20 for he took the Faustian quest more seriously than Hawthorne and less necrophilically than Mary Shelley and Poe. Mardi (1849), though somewhat formless, is an iconoclastic “extraordinary voyage” among islands of unsatisfactory mythologies, politics, and philosophies that blends memories of Polynesia with elements from Rabelais. “The Tartarus of Maids,” a revulsion against sexual physiology masked as a burlesque alternative, is on the margins of SF by virtue of its sustained parallel between organic creation and paper production (just as Frankenstein’s uncouth creation is in some ways analogous to the novel, Frankenstein). Most interestingly, in “The Bell-Tower” (1856), the “practical materialist” merchant-mechanician protagonist “enriched through commerce with the Levant,” rising as a new force in a feudal society, and raising his tower with the clock and the “state-bell”, is a potent symbol for rising capitalism and the emblematic U.S. Liberty Bell. But his bell has been cast with an admixture of workman’s blood, and the automaton created by him to be the bell’s ringer, the “iron slave” who represents the servitude of Negroes and all workers, finally slays his master. The complex – even if not always congruous – religious, sexual, and political symbolism makes this the nearest that mid-nineteenth-century narrative prose SF came to a Blakean

  • Franklin, p. 135; see also his stimulating discussion of “The Bell-Tower,” ibidem.

approach. The American SF story continued to be well represented into the second half of the century, especially by some of Fitz-James O’Brien’s tales, which culminated in the somber story of microscopic fatality and elective affinity “The Diamond Lens” (bp. 1881). But he was killed in the Civil War, and the ensuing Gilded Age was not propitious to sustained SF, which revived only with Bellamy.

3. And so the period that opened with universal anticipations of liberation, with Blake’s and Percy Shelley’s rhapsodies, found its central expression in the anguished immediacy of Frankenstein’s costly failure and ended in the symbolic gloom of representative writers from what began as liberty’s first and last frontier but turned out to be a Liberty Bell fracturing because it was cast with an admixture of toilers’ blood. As Wordsworth precisely noted: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes despondency and madness” (“Resolution and Independence”). These words can be seen as a characterization of the age more than of the poets it molded, turning them from Shelley’s unacknowledged legislating to Melville’s passionate witnessing.

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Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia: Some Historical Semantics, Some Genology, a Proposal, and a Plea (1973) (9300 words)

For if the matter be attentively considered, a sound argument may be drawn from Poesy, to show that there is agreeable to the spirit of man a more ample greatness, a more perfect order, and a more beautiful variety than it can anywhere (since the Fall) find in nature. […] it [Poesy] raises the mind and carries it aloft, accommodating the shows of things to be desires of the mind, not (like reason and history) buckling and bowing down the mind to the nature of things.

Francis Bacon

“Utopia,” the neologism of Thomas More’s, has had a singularly rich semantic career in our time. Having at its root the simultaneous indication of a space and a state (itself ambiguously hovering between, for example, French état and condition)that are nonexisting (ou)as well as good (eu),it has become a territory athwart the roads of all travelers pursuing the implications of the question formulated by Plato as “What is the best form of organization for a community and how can a person best arrange his life?”1 And have not the urgencies of the situation in which the human community finds itself made of us all such travelers? Utopia operates by example and demonstration, deictically. At the basis of all utopian debates, in its open or hidden dialogues, is a gesture of pointing, a wide-eyed glance from here to there, a “traveling shot” moving from the author’s everyday lookout to the wondrous panorama of a far-off land:

But you should have been with me in Utopia and personally seen their manner and customs as I did… [More, Utopia,book 1]

1 Laws 3, 702b. See Plato, The Laws,trans, with introduction by A. E. Taylor (London, 1960), p. 85.

… it was winter when I went to bed last night, and now, by witness of the river-side trees, it was summer, a beautiful bright morning seemingly of early June. [Morris, News from Nowhere,chapter 2]

We should both discover that the little towns below had changed – but how, we should not have marked them well enough to know. It would be indefinable, a change in the quality of their grouping, a change in the quality of their remote, small shapes. […] a mighty difference had come to the world of men. [Wells, A Modern Utopia,chapter 1]

Morris’s abruptly beautiful trees can be taken (as they were meant to be) for an emblem of this space and state: utopia is a vivid witness to desperately needed alternative possibilities of “the world of men,” of human life. No wonder the debate has waxed hot whether any particular alternative is viable and whether it has already been found, especially in the various socialist attempts at a radically different social system. In the heat of the debate, detractors of this particular set of alternative conclusions – often shell-shocked refugees from it – have tried to deny the possibility and/or humanity of the utopian concept as such. Other imprudent apologists – often intellectuals with a solid position within the defended system – have taken the symmetrically inverse but equally counterutopian tack of proclaiming that Civitas Dei has already been realized on Earth by their particular sect or nation, in “God’s own country” of North America or the laicized Marxist (or pseudo-Marxist) experiments from Lenin to Castro and Mao. Historians have transferred these debates into the past: were Periclean Athens, Aqbar’s India, Emperor Friedrich’s Sicily, Münzer’s Muhlhausen, the Inca state, or Jeffersonian U.S.A. utopian?

Such fascinating and tempting questions cannot fail to influence us in an underground fashion – defining our semantics –in any approach to a definition of utopia. But I propose to confine myself here to a consideration of utopia as a literary genre. No doubt this is not the first point about utopias – that would pertain to collective psychology: why and how do they arise? – nor is it the last one – that would pertain to the politics of the human species and perhaps even to its cosmology: how is Homo sapiens to survive and humanize its segment of the universe?

Such a politico-eschatological question has understandably arisen out of twentieth-century heretic reinterpretations of the two most systematic bodies of thought about man in our civilization: the Judaeo-Christian one (in spite of its usual pat transfers of the answer into the blue yonder of otherworldly post-mortems) and the Marxist one (in spite of Marx’s and Engels’s scorn of subjective theorizing about ideal futures in their predecessors, the “utopian socialists”). Ernst Bloch’s monumental philosophical opus, culminating in Hope the Principle,has reinterpreted utopia (as have some theologians such as Martin Buber and Paul Tillich) as being any overstepping of the boundaries given to man, hence a quality inherent in all creative thought and action. In a narrower and more academic version, a similar reinterpretation of “utopia” as any orientation that transcends reality and breaks the bounds of existing order, as opposed to “ideology,” which expresses the existing order, was introduced by Karl Mannheim.2 But all these horizons, interesting and even inspiring as they are, are beyond my scope here. I propose that an acknowledgment that utopias are verbal artifacts before they are anything else, and that the source of this concept is a literary genre and its parameters, might be, if not the first and the last, nonetheless a central point in today’s debate on utopias. If this is so, one cannot properly explore the signification of utopia by considering its body (texts) simply as a transparency transmitting a Platonic idea: the signifiant must be understood as well as the signifié. Thus, especially at this time of failing eschatologies, it might even be in the interests of utopia (however widely redefined) if we acted as physiologists asking about a species’ functions and structure before we went on to behave as moralists prescribing codes of existence to it: perhaps such codes ought to take into account the makeup of the organism? And since discussions of utopias are an excellent demonstration of the saying that people who do not master history are condemned to relive it, the physiological stance will have to be combined with an anamnesic one, recalling the historical semantics (in sections 1 and 2) of utopia while trying to tease out its elements (in section 3) and genological context (in sections 4 and 5).

2 See Tillich (a representative essay from which is reprinted in Manuel, ed.), Buber, Bloch, and Mannheim – all in Bibliography II; also the rich anthology on the concept of utopia: Neusüss, ed. (Bibliography II).

1.   Historical Semantics: Antediluvian

The first point and fundamental element of a literary definition of utopia is that any utopia is a verbal construction. This might seem self-evident, but it is in fact just beginning to be more widely recognized in the vanguard of “utopology.” The Oxford English Dictionary,for example, defines utopia in the following ways:

1. An imaginary island, depicted by Sir Thomas More as enjoying a perfect social,  legal and political system.

……………… .

         b. transf. Any imaginary, indefinitely remote region, country, or locality.

……………… .

2.  A place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.

……………… .

         b. An impossibly ideal scheme, esp. for social improvement.

Obviously, the OED – whose latest examples come in this case from the turn of the century – has not yet caught up to the necessity and practice of defining utopia as a literary genre.3 If we nonetheless look for clues in the above four definitions, we shall see that the first one pertains to More’s “depiction” of a locus which is, for the OED,defined by two aspects: (1) “imaginary” removal from the author’s (and presumably the reader’s) empirical environment; (2) sociopolitical perfection. The first aspect is then isolated in the semantic practice leading to definition 1b, and the second in the practice leading to 2, which is further treated derisively by hardheaded pragmatists or ideologists of the status quo in 2b. From all this a definition of utopia as a literary form should retain the crucial element of an alternative location radically different in respect of sociopolitical conditions

3 See the stimulating discussion, with more lexicographic material, in Herbrüggen (Bibliography II); also further French, German, and Spanish material in Rita Falke, “Utopie – logische Konstruktion und chimère,” in Villgradter and Krey, eds. (Bibliography II).

from the author’s historical environment. However, this element must be valorized in the context of a literary-theoretical approach.

Only in OED 1 is there even a discreet mumble about the utopia being an artistic artifact, hidden in the ambiguous “depicted” (about which more later). All the other definitions refer to its qualities of perfection, remoteness, or impossibility. This ontological equating of utopia to England, Germany, or any other empirical country was an accepted nineteenth- and early twentieth-century way of defining it. I shall adduce only a few definitions from some better-known and more helpful works pertaining to such a way of thinking, which might well-regardless of their actual year – be called antediluvian:

  • Utopias […] are ideal pictures of other worlds, the existence or possibility of which cannot be scientifically demonstrated, and in which we only believe. [Voigt, 1906]
  • More depicted a perfect, and perhaps unrealizable, society, located in some nowhere, purged of the shortcomings, the wastes, and the confusion of our own time and living in perfect adjustment, full of happiness and contentment. [Hertzler, 1923]
  • an ideal commonwealth whose inhabitants exist under perfect conditions. [Encyclopedia Britannica,accepted by Berneri, 1950]4

All of the above definitions or delimitations consider utopia simply as a Platonic idea and proceed to examine its believability and readability. Hertzler (2) is the most effusive and prolix among them: the definition of utopias in general on which her whole book is predicated, is effected by a definition of More’s work prefaced with the statement that this definition isolates the distinctive characteristic applicable to all “imaginary ideal

  • These definitions can be found in the following books (whenever in my quotes the subject and predicate are missing, “utopia is” is implied): Voigt, p. 1; Hertzler, pp. 1–2; Berneri, p. 320 (all in Bibliography II). A number of very useful approaches to utopia are not referred to here, as they were not found cognate to a primarily literary-theoretical viewing; a still greater number were found of little use except for a history of “utopologic thought.”

societies.” The vagueness (“perhaps,” “some nowhere”) and non-sequiturs (More depicted a society purged of “the confusion of our own time”) make Hertzler a very good example – though greater offenders could be found in the antediluvian age – of the uselessness to our endeavors of most surveys of “utopian Thought” as being idealistic and ideological. All the above definitions, moreover, do not (except by vague suggestions inherent in “commonwealth” or “society”) distinguish between various religious “ideal pictures of other worlds” and utopias. This echoes the (once?) widely-held unexamined premise that utopias are really lay variants of paradise. Now if this is true, it is so only in the sense which would make a counterproject out of a variant. Whereas it remains very important to pursue the historical underground continuation of absolutistic religious and mythological structures (especially those drawn from the Islands of the Blessed and Terrestrial Paradises) in Plato, More, or a number of other utopian writers, it should seem clear that there is little point in discussing utopias as a separate entity, if their basic humanistic, this-worldly, historically alternative aspect is not stressed and adopted as one of their differentiae genericae. “A wishful construct has been explicated, a rational one, that does not possess chiliastic certainties of hope any more, but postulates the possibility of being constructed by its own forces, without transcendental support or intervention,” observes Bloch even about More’s Utopia.5 What is literally even more important, such a construct is located in this world. Utopia is an Other World immanent in the world of human endeavor, dominion, and hypothetic possibility – and not transcendental in a religious sense. It is a nonexistent country on the map of this globe, a “this-worldly other world.” No doubt, there is the pragmatic, Macaulayan sense of utopia being anything intangible and impossibly far-off, as opposed to immovable property in one’s own property-owning environment (“An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia”)6; this sense would also englobe all Heavenly and Earthly Paradises. But from any point of view except that of a

  • Bloch, p. 607.
  • Quoted in the OED; see Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Lord Bacon,” in his Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems (Albany, 1887), 2:229.

property-owner and pragmatist, religion is, as Ruyer notes, counterutopian. It is directed either towards Heaven (transcendence) or towards Middlesex (bounded empirical environment): in either case it is incompatible with a non-transcendental overstepping of empirical boundaries.7 The telos of religion is, finally, eternity or timelessness, not history. On the contrary, just as the satire is an impossible possible – what is empirically possible is felt as axiologically impossible; it should not be possible – utopia is a possible impossible. Subversion and rhetoric embrace in a paradoxical sociopolitical revaluation of the Petrarchan “icy fire” impossibilia – a “positive adynaton” in Barthes’s term.8

Thus, chemin faisant,we have found that the (still not too precise) element of historical alternative enters any definition which would leave utopia intact as a literary genre and object of exploration. We have still to pursue the metaphors adopted as a first try at untying the embarrassing knot of utopia’s being a concept and belief and yet, at the same time, obviously a (literary) artifact – a “picture” (2 and 4) or a “description” (4 and 5):

(4) A. Nom donné par Thomas Morus au pays imaginaire qu’il décrit dans son ouvrage: De Optimo reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (1516), et dans lequel il place un people parfaitement sage, puissant et heureux, grâce aux institutions idéales dont il jouit.

B. Se dit par extension de tous les tableaux représentant, sous la forme d’une description concrète et détaillée (et sou-vent même comme un roman), l’organisation idéale d’une sociéte humaine. [Lalande, ed. of 1968, but text goes back at least to 1928]

  • Name given by Thomas More to the imaginary country which he describes in his work De Optimo reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (1516), and into which he collocates a people that is perfectly wise, powerful, and happy, thanks to the ideal institutions with which it is provided.
    • Said by extension of all pictures representing, by means of a detailed and concrete description (often even as a novel), the ideal organization of a human society.]
  • Ruyer (Bibliography II), p. 31; see also Schwonke (Bibliography II), pp. 1–3, in whose book this is a basic theme, and Gerber (Bibliography I), pp. 6–7.
  • Barthes (Bibliography II), p. 122.

(5) la description d’un monde imaginaire, en dehors […] de l’espace et du temps historiques et géographiques. C’est la description d’un monde constitué sur des principes differents de ceux qui sont à l’oeuvre dans le monde réel.9 [Ruyer, 1950] [the description of an imaginary world, outside […] of historical and geographic space and time. This is a description of a world based on principles that differ from those underlying the real world.]

“Description” is derived etymologically from “writing,” but in an archaic and ambiguous sense which, as it were, echoes the derivation of writing from drawing. Above it is clearly employed within the semantics pertaining to painting: “il décrit […] il place” (in 4a. placing pertains to the way a landscape painter would arrange his figures); and “tableaux représentant, sous la forme d’une description” is a classic witness for my thesis (4b.). Even (5), which is more abstract than the previous definitions, continues its discussion in the immediately following line by contrasting such descriptions to those of a nonutopian novelist, who “lui, place des personnages et des aventures imaginaires dans notre monde.”10 Utopia, as well as “our world,” is a scene for dramatis personae and actions; the metaphor of author as puppeteer (stage manager), never far beneath the metaphor of author as painter (scenographer), has here come nearer to the surface.

Such a dramatic metaphor, linked as it is to the “all the world’s a stage” topos, is potentially much more fruitful – since drama fuses painting and literature, temporal and spatial arts – and very appropriate for this dialogic form. Unfortunately, it has not, to my knowledge, been taken seriously in defining utopias. Thus such attempts at acknowledging the artificial character of utopia have remained half-hearted. They have failed because they did not acknowledge that it is a literary artifact. This is crucial because the problems of “depicting” a radically different (5) because perfect (4) imaginary world are in a literary artifact quite distinct from the problems

  • These definitions can be found in Lalande (Bibliography II), p. 1179 – and see the whole discussion on pp. 1178–81 – and Ruyer, p. 3. See also the definition of Dupont (Bibliography III C), p. 14, which is transitional between the first group of definitions and this one. All the translations in this book, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.
  • Ruyer, p. 3; italics added.

of a “tableau,” which exists in an arrested moment of time and in a synoptic space. A picture may perhaps approximate the status of a mirror of external reality (though even the mirror reverses). In literature, a concrete and detailed “description” or, better, verbal construction is not, in any precise sense, a “re-presentation” of a preexisting idea which would be the content of that representation or description (where would such an idea preexist? with the Zeitgeist?).Literary texts cannot be divided into body and soul, only into interlocking levels of a multifunctional body, which is a human construct out of verbal denotations and connotations. Only within such a context can the definition of its thematic field – practically identical from (2) to (5) – become a valid part of a literary definition. The imaginary community (the term seems preferable to the ambiguous “world”) in which human relations are organized more perfectly than in the author’s community can be accepted as a first approximation to identifying the thematic nucleus of the utopian genre.

One further point should account for my substitution of “more perfectly” in place of the “perfect” in (2) to (4). Though historically most of the older utopias tried to imagine a certain perfection, after Bacon’s New Atlantis and Fénelon’s Télémaque (not to forget Plato’s Laws)a suspicion ought to have arisen that this is not inherent in the genre. That suspicion should have grown into a certainty after Saint-Simon and Morris. By the time Wells wrote his celebrated first page of A Modern Utopia distinguishing between static and kinetic utopias, the laggard academic and literary critics of the genre found their work done for them. Since then we have had no further excuse for insisting on absolute perfection, but only on a state radically better or based on a more perfect principle than that prevailing in the author’s community, as a hallmark of the utopian genre.11 As for

  1. See the analogous argument in Walsh (for the titles in this note see Bibliography II), p. 25. The position of utopia midway between the corruptible world of class history and ideal perfection is quite analogous – as will be discussed in section 4 of this chapter – to the position of Earthly Paradise in religious thought; see for example the definition of Athanasius of Alexandria:

  The Terrestrial Paradise we expound as not subject to corruption in the way in which our plants and our fruits get corrupted by putrefaction and worms. Nor is

the “author’s community,” this phrase can be left conveniently plastic to embrace whatever the author and his ideal readers would have felt to be their community – from city to nation to planet.

2.     Historical Semantics: Postdiluvian

In the last twenty years, at least in literary criticism and theory, the premise has become acceptable that utopia is first of all a literary genre or fiction. The Cold War “end of ideology” climate might have contributed to this (it can be felt, for example, in the disclaimers in the Negley-Patrick book discussed below), but more importantly, it has been part of a deeper epistemological shift in literary scholarship – a belated recognition that, as Frye wrote, the literary critic “should be able to construct and dwell in a conceptual universe of his own.”12 I shall again adduce only a few definitions as characteristic examples for works of this period, after the deluge of two world wars and two cycles of worldwide revolutions:

(6)  There are three characteristics which distinguish the utopia from other forms of literature or speculation:

  1. It is fictional.
  2. It describes a particular state or community.
  3. Its theme is the political structure of that fictional state or community….

it, on the other hand, wholly incorruptible, so that it-would not in future centuries decay by growing old. But if it is compared with our fruits and our gardens, it is superior to all corruption; while if it is compared to the glory of the coming Good, which eye hath not seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man comprehended, it is and is reputed to be vastly inferior.

 Athanasii archiep. Alexandrini, Opera omnia quae extant… (Paris, 1698) 2:279, quoted in Coli, p. 39. The insistence on utopia as wholly “ideal” can still be found in Herbrüggen – see note 13.

  1. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism,p. 12.

Utopias are expressions of political philosophy and theory, to be sure, but they are descriptions of fictional states in which the philosophy and theory are already implemented in the institutions and procedures of the social structure. [Negley and Patrick, 1952]

  • … the literary ideal image of an imaginary social system (Staatsordnung).

[Herbrüggen, 1960]

  • the utopian novel is the literary manifestation of a playful synopsis of man, society, and history in a variable, image-like (bildhaft) thought model possessing spatio-temporal autonomy, which model permits the exploration of possibilities detached from social reality yet relating to it. [Krysmanski, 1963]
    • la description littéraire individualisée d’une société imaginaire, organisée sur des bases qui impliquent une critique sous-jacente de la société réelle.13 [Cioranescu, 1972] [the individualized literary description of an imaginary society, organized on bases which imply an underlying critique of the real society.]

Negley and Patrick (6) seem to have been the first expressly to enunciate a differentiation between the utopia of political scientists and Geisteswissenschaftler (“expressions of political philosophy and theory”) and that of the literary critics and theorists (“fictional states,” theme and ideas “implemented”). Their pioneering status is evident in certain uneasy compromise with the older conception which they are abandoning.14 But as well as their use of the by-now dead metaphor of describing (which in a proper context it would perhaps be pedantic to fault), their failure to elaborate what exactly fictional implementation entails and their de facto concentration in the book on sociopolitical ideas and structure unrelated to the literary structure leave their definition somewhat isolated and without consequences. But their useful and influential book at least indicated the horizons of studying what they called in their preface, in a mixture of conceptual styles, both “utopian thought in Western civilization” (old style) and also, somewhat shamefacedly, “the literary genre of the utopists” (new style).

  1. These definitions can be found in the books by Negley and Patrick, pp. 3–4; Herbrüggen, p. 7; Krysmanski, p. 19; and Cioranescu, p. 22 – all in Bibliography II.
  2. No doubt, there were earlier implicit or incidental suggestions that fictional utopia was primarily a literary genre, e.g. in Dupont – in spite of his definition and title – and in Frye, Anatomy. But the voices of these, and possibly of other, precursors fell on deaf ears.

On the other hand, Herbrüggen (7) starts boldly and happily by identifying utopia as literary, but then leaves it dangling in intense vagueness by calling it not only “imaginary” but also the “ideal image.” Later in this work, he has many just and stimulating things to say about its delimitation from other genres. In particular, he has been a pioneer in drawing some structural consequences from defining utopia as possessing a literary mode of existence. However, a number of his parameters, including his definition, seem to fit More (his particular paradigm), or indeed a utopian program, better than they would an ideal-typical utopia.

Krysmanski’s (8) sociological exploration of German “utopian novels” of the twentieth century (which ought rather to be called science fiction, as I shall argue in section 5) set itself the laudable aim of discovering and fully defining “the specific nature of the utopian novel”: his definition is the conclusion of a chapter with that title. Unfortunately, for an analysis of a “literary manifestation” (Erscheinungsform)it is far too little conversant with fundaments of literary theory and criticism. One’s sympathy and tolerance lie with his Aristotelian basic approach, striving for a definition which must be precise and comprehensive, in which case technical jargon is almost impossible to avoid. Nonetheless, it is not only the Teutonic and Mannheimian “sociology of knowledge” nature of the jargon which makes one pause, it is primarily the arbitrariness and vagueness of the elements of the definition, which seem to prove that modern definitions can be every bit as prolix-cum-insufficient as the antediluvian ones. It may be useful to draw our attention to the elements of playfulness, of simultaneous viewing or synopsis (Zusammenschau)of man, society, and history, or of an exploration of possibilities. But why “manifestation of a synopsis” (the German is still worse: “Erscheinungsform der […] Zusammenschau”)? Why “variable,” “image-like,” and “spatio-temporal autonomy” – is not every Denkmodell such? And the final clause evidently pertains to science fiction in general, being too wide for utopia, which is bound up with the (here missing) “more perfect community” concept.

As for Cioranescu’s book devoted to “utopia and literature,” a work full of stimulating and provocative statements, I shall return to later. At this point, it might suffice to point out with relief how neat and with unease how overgeneralized his definition is (9). Are not Paradise, an Island of the Blessed, or satirical SF covered by it as well? And, not to boggle at minor maters, just what is “the real society”?

3.    A Proposed Definition: Utopia as Verbal Construction

The historico-semantical discussion of the preceding two sections has come up with the following elements for defining utopia: a radically different and historically alternative sociopolitical condition; an alternative locus; an imaginary community in which relations are organized more perfectly than in the author’s community; the fictional or, more clearly, “verbal construction” character of any such condition, location, or community; the particular or individualized character of any such construct as opposed to general and abstract utopian projects and programs. I shall now commit the utopian imprudence of proposing after the above critique a construct or definition of my own:

Utopia is the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community, this construction being based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis.

I have indicated earlier in general outline the importance to be allotted to the element of verbal construction. This can be fully demonstrated only in particular analyses of utopian works. But its relevance can be seen even in a general answer to the question: what type of verbal construction? As Frye has pointed out, utopia belongs to a narrative form and tradition which he calls anatomy (or Menippean satire) rather than to the novel. The anatomy deals less with illusionistic “people as such than with mental attitudes” and at its most concentrated “presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.”15 Our critical judgments should take this into

  1. Frye, pp. 309 and 310.

account; in particular, there is no point in expecting from a characterization and plotting which are more allegorical than naturalistic the qualities and criteria induced from the psychological novel, from Prévost to Proust or Richardson to Henry James.16 To take one example, the conclusions of Gerber’s interesting book on twentieth-century utopias (or rather SF) are vitiated by his assumption and definition of utopia as a novel.17 To take another, Elliott has aptly complained about one of the dominant interpretations of More’s Utopia:

We are given no sense […] that these questions exist, not as abstract political, religious, or philosophical propositions, but as constitutive elements in a work of art. What is wanted instead of the Catholic interpretation of communism is an interpretation of Utopia that will show us how the question of communism is incorporated into the total structure of the work.18

Further, some basic structural characteristics of utopia seem to flow logically from its status as a discourse about a particular, historically alternative, and better community. Since such a discourse will necessarily present an opposition which is a formal analogy to the author’s delimited environment and its way of life, any utopia must be (1) a rounded, isolated locus (valley, island, planet – later, temporal epoch). Since it has to show more perfectly organized relationships, the categories under which the author and his age subsume these relationships (government, economics, religion, warfare, etc.) must be in some way or other (2) articulated in a panoramic sweep whose sum is the inner organization of the isolated locus; as Barthes remarks about Fourier (and some other writers), the syntax or composition

  1. The famous quarrel between James and Wells – available in Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray, eds., Henry James and H.G. Wells (Urbana, IL, 1958) – which resulted in a draw rather than in the vindication of the psychological novel the Jamesians saw in it, is a clear example of the collision between the “anatomic” or allegorical and the “novelistic” or individualistic orientations.
  2. Gerber, final two chapters, and in particular pp. 121–22. See the critique by Elliott

(Bibliography II), p. 104 and the whole chapter “Aesthetics of Utopia.” 18            Elliott, pp. 28–29.

of elements is identified with creation in such works.19 Since not only the elements but also their articulation and coordination have to be based on more perfect principles than the categorization in the author’s civilization (for example, the federalist pyramid from bottom up of More’s Utopia as opposed to the centralist pyramid from top down of More’s England and Europe), (3) a formal hierarchic system becomes the supreme order and thus the supreme value in utopia: there are authoritarian and libertarian, class and classless utopias, but no unorganized ones. (Morris’s reticence about organization and hierarchy in News from Nowhere places that work halfway between utopia and Earthly Paradise; see chapter 8). Usually the installation of the new order must be explained – a contract theory, as Frye observes, is implied in each utopia (King Utopus, the socialist revolution, gas from a comet, etc., being the arbiters or contract-makers). The utopian contract is necessarily opposed to the dominant contract-myth in the author’s society as the more reverent “contract behind the contract,”20 a human potential which existing society has alienated and failed to realize. Lastly, utopia is bound to have (4) an implicit or explicit dramatic strategy in its panoramic review conflicting with the “normal” expectations of the reader. Though formally closed, significant utopia is thematically open: its pointings reflect back upon the reader’s “topia.” I have already hinted at that in section 1, and one critic has even conveniently found a threeact dramatic structure in More’s Utopia.21Whether this is exact or not, there is no doubt that an analysis of ideational protagonists and settings in Burkean “dramatistic” terms is here appropriate.22 For example, utopia is invariably a frame-within-a-frame, because it is a specific wondrous stage, set within the world stage; techniques of analyzing the play-within-theplay could be profitably employed when dealing with it. The varieties of

  1. Barthes, p. 9; this whole discussion is indebted to Barthes’s book, though I do not wholly share his horizons.
  2. Northrop Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” in Manuel, ed., p. 38.
  3. Edward Surtz, S.J., “Utopia as a Work of Literary Art,” in Edward Surtz, S.J., and J.H. Hexter, eds., The Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven, 1965), 4: cxxvcliii, especially in the chapter “Dramatic Technique, Characterization, and Setting.” 22 E.g. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York, 1957).

the outer frame – usually some variant of the imaginary voyage23 – have been readily noticeable and as such the object of critical attention; less so their correlation of say, the humanistic symposium of More or the socialist dream-which-might-be-a-vision of Morris with the experience in the inner frame. Even on the stylistic and not only compositional level, such a strategy should be fruitful: “l’écriture,” remarks Barthes of Fourier, “doit mobiliser en même temps une image et son contraire [the writing must mobilize at the same time an image and its opposite].”24 Finally, “verbal construction” as a definitional element bypasses, I hope, the old theologizing quarrel whether a utopia can be realized, whether in fact (according to one school) only that which is realizable or on the contrary (according to another but equally dogmatic school) only that which is unrealizable can be called utopia. Neither prophecy nor escapism, utopia is, as many critics have remarked, an “as if,”25 an imaginative experiment or “a methodical organ for the New.”26 Literary utopia – and every description of utopia is literary – is a heuristic device for perfectibility, an epistemological and not an ontological entity. “L’utopie est un jeu, mais un jeu sérieux. L’utopiste a le sens des possibilités autres de la nature, mais il ne s’éloigne pas de la notion de la nature [Utopia is a game, but a serious game. The utopian author envisages the other possibilities of nature, but he does not let go of

  • Historically this is especially significant in antiquity and Renaissance, when most utopias and imaginary voyages were combined, but it does not have to persist as an explicit combination. See the excellent survey of Gove (Bibliography III A), much in need of newer follow-ups.
  • Barthes, p. 115.
  • See Hans Vaihinger, Die Philosophie des Als Ob (Leipzig, 1920) or The Philosophy of As If  ”,trans. C. K. Ogden (New York, 1924). The verbal mode appropriate to this is the subjunctive: see Elliott, p. 115; Samuel R. Delany, “About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy Five Words,” in Clareson, ed., SF (Bibliography I); Michael Holquist, “How to Play Utopia,” in Jacques Ehrmann, ed., Game, Play, Literature (Boston, 1971), particularly illuminating in his discussion of utopias as a literature of the subjunctive in “hypothetical or heuristic time,” p. 112; and Claude-Gilbert

Dubois, “Une architecture fixionelle,” Revue des sciences humaines 39, No. 155 (1974): 449–71.

  • Bloch, p. 180.

the notion of nature]” argued Ruyer in two chapters which remain among the best written on the “utopian mode.”27 He referred to utopian subject matter as “les possibles latéraux [the lateral possibilities]” and compared the utopian approach or view to the hypothetico-deductive method in experimental sciences and mathematics (for example, non-Euclidean geometries). If utopia is, then, philosophically, a method rather than a state, it cannot be realized or not realized – it can only be applied. That application is, however, as important as it has been claimed that the realization of utopia is: without it man is truly alienated or one-dimensional. But to apply a literary text means first of all (wherever it may later lead) to read as a dramatic dialogue with the reader.28 Besides requiring the willingness of the reader to enter into dialogue, the application of utopia depends on the closeness and precision of his reading.

4.      Comment: Utopia as Historical Estrangement

I have thus far worked upon certain premises, among them that scholarly inquiry is possible only when oriented towards, and by, an at least approximately delimited and defined field and that valid definitions in literary studies – as in anything – are historical and not transcendental, or “contextualist” and not “essentialist.” Proceeding further, it is necessary to add that the basic diachronic way to define the context of a work of art

  • Ruyer, chapters 1 and 2; the first quotation is from p. 4 and the later one p. 9; Ruyer acknowledges the stimulus of an observation by Lalande, p. 1180. Unfortunately, the analysis of actual utopian characteristics and works in the rest of Ruyer’s book is much less felicitous.
  • Some of my conclusions are very similar to those of Harry Berger, Jr., in his more synoptic, seminal introductory discussion of the “other world” in “The Renaissance World: Second World and Green World,” The Centennial Review 9 (1965): 36–78. Regret fully I must add that I believe his particular argument about Utopia – that More differs radically from Hythloday – to be wholly unconvincing.

is to insert it into the tradition and system of its genre (meaning by that a socioaesthetic entity with a specific inner life, yet in a constant osmosis with other literary genres, science, philosophy, everyday socioeconomic life, and so on). Understanding particular utopias really presupposes a definition and delimitation of their literary genre (or, as we shall see, subgenre), its inner processes, logic, and telos. What is, then, the distinctive set of traits of the literary genre “utopia,” its differentia generica?

I have argued in my first two chapters for a division of prose literature into naturalistic and estranged genres. The literary mainstream of the individualistic age endeavors faithfully to reproduce empirical textures, surfaces, and relationships vouched for by human senses and common sense. Utopia, on the contrary, endeavors to illuminate men’s relationships to other men and to their surroundings by the basic device of a radically different location for the postulated novel human relations of its fable; and I have proposed to call literary genres which have such a different formal framework “estranged.” One should insist on the crucial concept of a radically different location, of an alternative formal framework functioning by explicit or implicit reference to the author’s empirical environment. Without this reference, nonutopian readers, having no yardstick for comparison, could not understand the alternative novelty. Conversely, without such a return and feedback into the reader’s normality there would be no function for utopias or other estranged genres: “the real function of estrangement is – and must be – the provision of a shocking and distancing mirror above the all too familiar reality.”29 No-place is defined by both not being and yet being like Place, by being the opposite and more perfect version of Place. It is a “positive negation,” a “merveilleux reel,”30 the standing on its head of

  • Ernst Bloch, “Entfremdung, Verfremdung,” Verfremdungen,1 (Frankfurt a. M., 1963), English as “Entfremdung, Verfremdung: Alienation, Estrangement,” trans. Anne Halley and Darko Suvin, in Erika Munk, ed., Brecht (New York, 1972), p. 10. For “estrangement,” see the discussion and references in my first chapter (Shklovsky and Brecht), as well as Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung.
  • “Positive negation” is the term used in Mikhail Bakhtin’s fundamental Tvorchestvo

Fransua Rable… (Moscow, 1965), English as Rabelais and His World (Bibliography

II), p. 403; but see also this whole book for a rich and persuasive account of folk

an already topsy-turvy or alienated world, which thus becomes dealienated or truly normal when measured not by ephemeral historical norms of a particular civilization but by “species-specific” human norms. Utopia is thus always predicated on a certain theory of human nature. It takes up and refunctions the ancient topos of mundus inversus: utopia is a formal inversion of significant and salient aspects of the author’s world which has as its purpose or telos the recognition that the author (and reader) truly live in an axiologically inverted world. It follows, as has been increasingly recognized in modern investigations (and as has been mentioned in passing in section 1), that the explicit utopian construction is the logical obverse of any satire.31 Utopia explicates what satire implicates, and vice versa. Furthermore, there are strong indications that the two are in fact phylogenetically connected in the folk-inversions and “saturas” of the Saturnalias, whose theme was sexual, political, and ideological reversal, in fact total existential “reversal of values, of social roles, of social norms.”32 The best argument in favor of that can be found in the ontogenesis of individual works, in – to stick to utopias and cognate estranged genres – the most prominent titles of the tradition which runs from Lucian’s True Histories and More’s Utopia through Fourier, Bellamy, Morris, Wells, and Zamyatin to modern SF. A guess could even be hazarded that the significance and scope of writings in this tradition can be gauged by the degree of integration between its constructive-utopian and satiric aspects: the deadly earnest blueprint and the totally closed horizons of “new maps of hell” both lack aesthetic wisdom.

However, besides satire (which can be, like utopia, both a mode and a genre) the estranged literary genres comprise several which are differentiated from utopia by not situating what Aristophanes calls their topos apragmon in the field of an alternative historical hypothesis. The most relevant ones are, in ascending order, myth, fantasy, folktale, Cockayne, and Terrestrial Paradise.

humor as the source for inverting and negating a dominant, upper-class feeling of reality. “Merveilleux réel” is an expression of Barthes’s, p. 101.

31 See Frye, Anatomy,pp. 309–12; Lalande, p. 1180; Negley and Patrick, pp. 5–6; and especially Elliott, chapter 1, “Saturnalia, Satire, and Utopia.” 32 Elliott, p. 11.

I have tried to deal with myth in my earlier chapters, and I can only repeat that, although it is also shaped as a specific form of estrangement, myth is diametrically opposed to a historical approach.33 Conceiving human relationships to be fixed and supernaturally determined, myth claims to explain phenomena by identifying their eternal essence; conceiving human relationships to be changeable and maternally determined, history attempts to explain phenomena by identifying their problematic context. From a historical point of view, myth itself is a historical phenomenon and problem, an illusion when not a fraud. Literature is, in fact, never truly a myth (though mythological tales are literature) but only, in certain cases, formally analogous to mythical structure or mythomorphic. Thus, for example, the myth of the Golden Age can have many formal analogies and elements in common with utopia, but utopia is its opposite:

… man’s effort to work out imaginatively what happens – or what might happen – when the primal longings embodied in the myth confront the principle of reality. In this effort man no longer merely dreams of a divine state in some remote time; he assumes the role of creator himself.

A characteristic of the Golden Age […] is that it exists outside history, usually before history beings: in illo tempore.34

Folktale and fantasy,being morphological and ideological descendants of fragmented mythology (in the case of fantasy privatized to boot), can be regarded in a similar way. Neither of them pretends to be historically oriented or in historical time. Both take place in a context of supernatural laws oriented towards the protagonist, whereas for humanistic historiosophy – including utopia – nature is neutral and man’s destiny is man.

Somewhat closer to utopia is Cockayne (Cuccagna, Schlaraffenland), a widespread folk legend of a land of peace, plenty, and repose, probably

  • See also Ruyer, pp. 4–6. For all my admiration of Professor Frye’s insights, here I obviously disagree with the horizon and main terminology of his work – and in particular with his classifying Dante’s Paradise and Purgatorio as utopian, in Manuel, ed., p. 34.
  • Elliott, pp. 8–9.

refurbished by the student-poets of goliardic and “prandial” libertinism.35 This legend is interesting here because the land where roasted fowls fly into your mouth, rivers flow with cream or wine, and sausages with a fork stuck into them run around crying “eat me, eat me!” is obviously an inverted image of the hunger, toil, and violence in the authors’ everyday lives. Cockayne is already an inverted parallel world that relates, if not yet to a historical hypothetical possibility organized into institutions, then at least to everyday human needs and not to transcendental doctrines:

La fiction paralléle, la préoccupation pour le destin de l’homme et la solution strictement matérialiste sont les trois traits fondamentaux qu’ont en commun l’utopie et la pays de Cocagne….

Le matérialisme ainsi entendu ignore les restrictions mentales et transcende la matière pour la transformer en divinité tutelaire et en providence.36

[The parallel fiction, the preoccupation with human destiny and the strictly materialist solution are the three fundamental traits which utopia and Cockayne have in common….

Taken thus, materialism ignores mental restrictions and transcends matter in order to transform it into patron deity and providence.]

Clearly, as Cioranescu notes, this does not jibe with the fundamental utopian context of a neutral nature: but utopia wishes to achieve by cognitive means and in a context of hypothetically inflected history what the legend of Cockayne achieved in a pure wishdream outside the terrible field of history. While still a folktale, Cockayne can be readily transferred to the vicinity of utopia by allying its dream to a cognitive context, as in Rabelais.

The Earthly Paradise may be even nearer to utopia. Outside official Christianity, it is as a rule not transhistoric, but can be reached by an

  • See Bakhtin’s chapter “Banquet Imagery,” especially pp. 296–98, and Morton (Bibliography II), pp. 15–27. For some further references to Cockayne see Ackermann, Bonner (both in Bibliography III B), Boas, pp. 167–68, Patch, pp. 51 and 170–71 (both in Bibliography II), Gatz, pp. 116–21, Grauss, Manuel and Manuel (all in Bibliography III B), and note 36.
  • Cioranescu, pp. 57 and 59, but see his whole passage on pp. 55–62, which presents the best analysis of Cockayne I know of. For connections with satire see also Elliott, pp. 16–17.

ordinary voyage. It is divided from other lands by a barrier, which makes it usually an island in the sea – an Island of the Blessed, as the Greek tradition from time immemorial has it and as many other writings, anonymous or famous, also know it, to wit, the Celtic blessed island or Dante’s Paradiso Terrestre in the western sea.37 Often, especially in versions unaffected by religious rewriting, the inhabitants are not disembodied, but are simply more perfect people. The implied critique of the author’s environment is explicated in a whole group of “other world” tales.38 The magical or folktale element is clearly present in the perfect climate, the freedom from cares and strife, and often in the arrested time on such blessed islands (so that a return from them entails instant aging or turning to dust). And yet, the proximity of utopia of Terrestrial Paradise in its unbowdlerized versions is impressively indicated by a tale such as that of the Guarani Land-Without-

Evil. That land, also called the House of Our Ancestress,

is difficult to reach, but it is located in this world. Although […] it entails paradisiacal dimensions (for instance, immortality) – the Land-Without-Evil does not belong to the Beyond. […] One arrives there […] [not only] in soul or spirit, but in flesh and bones. […] [It] is thus a world at once real and transfigured, where life continues according to the same familiar model, but […] without misery or sickness, without sins or injustice, and without age.39

  • A general survey on ideas about the Golden Age, Eden, and Paradise is to be found in Manuel and Manuel, who, however, fail to make the crucial distinction between heavenly and earthly paradise. On Greek tales see Bonner, Lovejoy and Boas, the comment in Bloch, chap. 36 (all in Bibliography II), and a number of works from Bibliography III B, especially Gatz, Finley, Pöhlmann, Rohde, and Winston. For medieval tales and beliefs about localized “other worlds” see Boas, Coli, Graf, “II Mito del Paradiso Terrestre,” Patch (all in Bibliography II), and a number of works from Bibliography III B, especially Curtius, Graus, Kampers, Peters, and Westropp; Coli, p. 130, and Patch, p. 135, comment on the accessibility and material reality of Eden for medieval minds. See also Giamatti (Bibliography II) for Renaissance echoes.
  • See Patch, p. 128, and Coli, p. 130.
  • Mircea Eliade, “Paradise and Utopia,” in Manuel, ed., pp. 273–75. For paradises located on Earth see also Boas, pp. 154–74, Graf, pp. 15 and 24, and Coli, p. 91; and for the arrival in flesh at Earthly Paradise the Hellenic testimonies in Lovejoy and Boas, pp. 25–30 and 290–303, where further bibliography can also be found.

Is such a country outside history, as Eliade thinks? It is certainly outside empirical or known history, but it is at the same time an alternative, hypothetically possible, and supremely desirable history on Earth. All the above qualifications could be applied to utopia, not only in my proposed definition but according to most of the quoted definitions too. It lacks only More’s great discovery of focusing on sociopolitical institutions and norms as a key to eliminating misery, sickness, and injustice. The usual utopian answer, communal ownership, is here preserved (the Guaranis did not need to attain it) by means of what Bloch calls a “medical utopia” (search for immortality, eternal health, and youth). If not utopia, this is a fraternal genre: an early and primitive branch of SF.

5.    Comment: Utopia as a More Perfect  Organized Community

Finally, the relationships of utopia to other genres of what I have in the earlier chapters called “cognitive estrangement” – SF, pastoral, and nonfictional works – should also be discussed.

This will account for the necessity of all my definitional elements between “verbal construction” and the final clause. Just like Cockayne, the pastoral is akin at least to libertarian utopia in its rejection of money economy, cleavage between town and country, and state apparatus. But just like Cockayne, it is primarily a unomia,a land without formalized institutions, without organized superstructures of community life.40 If Cockayne is the land for sensualists, Earthly Paradise for heroes, and pastoral for swains (shepherds as philosophers, poets, and lovers), utopia is the land for naturalistic human figures just slightly larger (more virtuous) than everyday nature.

  • Cioranescu, pp. 60–61.

The definitional element of a particular community is necessary, as observed in section 3, in order to differentiate utopia from general beliefs, programs, and unlocalized projects. However, as soon as the blueprints and beliefs become localized and approach a narrative (as in much of the writing of utopian socialists), there is little delimitation provided by any definition of utopia I can think of. The usual escape clause is that utopia is belles lettres or fiction, while Saint-Simon or Fourier are lettres or nonfiction. But that distinction, though sufficiently normative in the eighteenth-century to allow Swift to base the formal framework of Gulliver’s Travels on playing with it, is historically a fugitive one. What was the Guarani legend of Land-Without-Evil or Columbus’s letter on finding the Terrestrial Paradise beyond the Orinoco for the authors, fiction or nonfiction? And for us? What is, for that matter, the Bible – theology or “literature” in the sense of fiction? The term “literature” has always wavered between a populist or sociological inclusive extreme (everything published in printed form) and an elitist or aesthetical exclusive extreme (only those “belles” works worthy of entering into a normative history of “literature”). In brief, the eighteenth-nineteenth century escape clause does not seem to me to work any longer, since it deals in subjective values and intangible intentions. Suppose it were found that the Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage had been written by Bougainville instead of Diderot – would it cease to be utopian? And if Fourier had published his vision of anti-lions and a sea of lemonade with Jules Verne’s editor, would it thereby become SF? We are beginning to move in the Borgesian world, where the same text has opposite meanings according to the intention of the author. This is good satiric fun, but any literary theory which can be built upon such premises would have to reject most that we now dignify with such a name. The same dilemma applies to ethnological reports: if literature is not defined by being right or wrong but by illuminating human relationships in certain ways and by certain means, I see no way of delimiting Lévi-Strauss’s sequence on myths from fictional literature or belles lettres. Reports on the perfect Inca empire, it has been argued, had inspired More. This is probably inexact, but such a report, especially if related at second hand, would have been generically indistinguishable from the Utopia (although, among other things, surely less witty). If I have argued all along in this chapter for utopia as literature, it is precisely because of such a breakdown in the philosophy of literature. The resulting inchoate mass should at least be judged by taking into account the whole text and not arbitrary essences abstracted from it: as imaginative, though not imaginary.41

The definitional element of quasi-human refers to such communities as those of Swift’s Houyhnhnms, Stapledon’s Eighteenth Men (Homo sapiens being the First Men), or the numerous aliens and cybernetic intelligences of modern SF.42 It connotes that utopias are in a strange and not yet clarified way an allegorical genre akin to the parable and analogy. In the parable or analogy, the premises do not have to be realistic as long as the upshot is clear. Thus, utopia is always aimed at human relations, but its characters do not have to be human or even outwardly anthropomorphic. Their relationships and communities, though, will make sense only insofar as they can be judged as similar or dissimilar to human ones.

The element of community differentiates utopias on the one hand from “robinsonades,” stories of castaways outside of an alternate community.43 On the other hand, this terminology tries to steer a middle course in the debate which seems to have raged in Mitteleuropa between State worshippers and Kantian or anarchist individualists among critics, an echo of which is heard in Krysmanski’s Solomonic solution of a “synopsis” of man, society, and history. The “anarchists” (for example, Berneri) stressed the moral behavior of individuals, the “archists” the normative power of institutions. Too narrow an interest in governmental apparatus leads to the deadly boredom of eighteenth-century Staatsromane in the narrow sense – say, certain works extolling constitutional monarchies in the South Seas. Too wide a sense of utopia, which with Bloch would embrace medical, biological, technological, erotic, and even philosophical wish-dreams, leads to incorporating Don Juan and Faust, the Theses on Feuerbach and

  • Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” p. 32.
  • See e.g. Robert Boguslaw’s discussion of men as “operating units” in The New Utopians (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1965), passim, which effects a witty juxtaposition of Utopias and “system design.”
  • See Brüggemann (Bibliography II), especially pp. 187–89.

The Magic Flute,into utopia: a somewhat overweening imperalism. The middle course suggested in what is, I hope, my prudent use of “community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle” (see section 3), focuses on the sociopolitical concern with justice and happiness, on the “radical eudemonism” of utopia’s “detailed, serious discussion of political and sociological matters.”44 And if utopia is not a myth valid for all eternity but a historical genre, the acknowledgement of its context in the adjunct “than in the author’s community” seems mandatory – most utopias would not be such for most of us today without that adjunct, since one man’s perfection is another man’s (or class’s) terror.

Yet, finally, it cannot be denied that sociopolitical perfection, though I believe it historically crucial in our epoch, is logically only a part of Bloch’s spectrum, which extends from alchemy through immortality to omniscience and the Supreme Good. All cognition can become the subject matter of an estranged verbal construction dealing with a particular quasi-human community treated as an alternative history. This “cognitive estrangement” is the basis of the literary genre of SF. Strictly and precisely speaking, utopia is not a genre but the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction. Paradoxically, it can be seen as such only now that SF has expanded into its modern phase, “looking backward” from its englobing of utopia. Further, that expansion was in some not always direct ways a continuation of classical and nineteenth-century utopian literature. Thus, conversely, SF is at the same time wider than and at least collaterally descended from utopia; it is, if not a daughter, yet a niece of utopia – a niece usually ashamed of the family inheritance but unable to escape her genetic destiny. For all its adventure, romance, popularization, and wondrousness, SF can finally be written only between the utopian and the anti-utopian horizons. All imaginable intelligent life, including ours, can be organized only more or less perfectly. In that sense, utopia (and anti-utopia) is first of all a literary genre; but finally, as Bloch notes, it is a horizon within which humanity is

  • First quotation from Barthes, p. 86, second from Elliott, p. 110.

irrevocably collocated. My main point is that without a full, that is, literal and literary, analysis we are bound to oversimplify and misconstrue those horizons. For any sane understanding of utopia, the simple basic fact to start from remains that it is not hypostasis of the Holy Ghost, the Zeitgeist,or whatnot, but a literary genre induced from a set of man-made books within a man-made history.

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SF and the Genological Jungle (1973) (7700 words)

Thanks to the Greeks, we can distinguish tragedy from comedy in drama. […] When we come to deal with such forms as the masque, opera, movie, ballet, puppet-play, mystery-play, morality, corn-media dell’arte, and Zauberspiel, we find ourselves in the position of Renaissance doctors who refused to treat syphilis because Galen said nothing about it.

Northrop Frye

1. A View from the Mountain: Taxonomy and a System

1.0. As Northrop Frye has rightly remarked, “just as there is nothing which the philosopher cannot consider philosophically, and nothing which the historian cannot consider historically, so the critic should be able to construct and dwell in a conceptual universe of his own.”1 For the purposes of constructing the universe of this discussion, I take it (1) that no field of studies and rational inquiry can be investigated unless and until it is at least roughly delimited; (2) that there exist literary genres, as socioaesthetic and not metaphysical entities; (3) that these entities have an inner life and logic of their own, which do not exclude but on the contrary presuppose a dialectical permeability to themes, attitudes, and paradigms from other literary genres, science, philosophy, and everyday socioeconomic life; (4) that the genres pertinent to this discussion are naturalistic fiction, fantasy, myth, folk tale, pastoral, and science fiction. I am assuming that these four axioms will be justified by their cognitive yield, by the light that they might throw upon the field of inquiry. Should this assumption prove justified, it would go a long way

  1. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York, 1966), p. 12.

toward indicating that the basic and possibly central task of SF theory and criticism at this historical moment is the construction of a heuristic model or models for “Science Fiction” – which is also the hypothesis of this chapter.

A heuristic model is a theoretical structure based on analogy, which does not claim to be transcendentally or illusionistically “real” in the sense of mystically representing a palpable material entity, but whose use is scientifically and scholarly permissible, desirable, and necessary because of its practical results. An example might be the construct according to which the molecules of a gas behave like minuscule elastic billiard balls in random motion. Though very little may be known or indeed knowable about what gas molecules are “really” like, both at the time this construct was promulgated and now it was certain beyond reasonable doubt that they were not elastic billiard balls of a microscopic size. Yet this heuristic model was among the decisive factors in the development of the whole discipline of thermodynamics. It had immense theoretical and practical consequences, among others a giant step forward in human understanding of natural and perhaps even social processes. It seems therefore unnecessary to reopen the debates of the medieval nominalists and realists about the “real” existence of entities such as SF or any other genre; such debates hinge on a pseudoquestion. An acceptable heuristic model or set of models for a literary genre is as necessary for its understanding, for the setting up of standards pertaining to it, as the theory of ideal gases was for its time and discipline. In other words, however fragmented, laborious, or foolhardy this particular endeavor of mine might be, the critical community concerned with SF will have to evolve a theory of the genre which can serve as a framework for its history and criticism. Anyway, poets – including the poets among SF writers – have often reminded us that what the positivistic or philistine mentality considers foolhardy is, in Gorky’s words, “the wisdom of life.”

1.1 Conscious of the monsters and incubi lurking just beyond my path, and averting piously my eyes from the bleached bones of the pioneers fallen by its side, I proceed to recall my starting point, the identifications which I worked out for the aforementioned genres in the preceding chapter. I brought forward some arguments for their delimitation, which I shall here supply with further argumentation and subsume under the following taxonomic system:

Fiction is differentiated from other verbal structures by the presence of a fable, plot,or narrative,through which the writer endeavors to illuminate human relations to other people and the universe. (At this point the normal poetological distinctions of epic, dramatic, and lyric fiction could ensue, based on the different stresses in the relationship of the narrator and the characters or world of the fable, but such distinguishing does not fall within my scope in this book. I will assume it – as well as certain other distinctions, such as that between verse and prose – as given or at least as for practical purposes discernible in literary theory from Aristotle to Brecht, Frye, and Barthes, and in the literary practice which preceded the setting up of theories. My presentation has in mind at the moment epic prose – novels and stories – only, though for all I know the resulting heuristic model or models might have a wider scope.) Fiction, then, can be divided according to the manner in which men’s relationships to other men and their surroundings are illuminated. If this is accomplished by endeavoring faithfully to reproduce empirical textures and surfaces vouched for by human senses and common sense, I propose to call it naturalistic fiction. If, on the contrary, an endeavor is made to illuminate such relations by creating a radically or significantly different formal framework – a different space/time location or central figures for the fable, unverifiable by common sense – I propose to call it estranged fiction. The normative trend of fiction after Boccaccio and Shakespeare has been naturalistic in the above sense, though this does not at all hold true for earlier stages of literature in our civilization nor in other civilizations.

The world of naturalistic fiction has thus a straightforward relationship to the “zero world” of empirically verifiable properties around the author. The ideal of Tom Jones, The Red and the Black, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, The Idiot, Huckleberry Finn,or Intruder in the Dust is to create a significant statement about the human condition by holding a mirror to nature. In naturalistic fiction, as in the zero world, physics stands in no significant relation to ethics. It is the activity of the protagonists, interacting with other equally unprivileged figures, that determines the course of narration and outcome of fable. In naturalistic fiction, the basic rule is that man’s destiny is other humans and man-made institutions. In such a model, relating ethics to physics (Hollywoodian happy-end, say) signifies a descent into sentimentalism, into what is properly called sub-literature.

However, estranged fiction can quite legitimately postulate that circumstances around the hero – according to the basic “literary contract” making up a particular estranged genre – either are or are not passive and neutral. One, larger group of estranged literary genres, which embraces various kinds of myths and their later descendants – fantasy and folktale – is indeed defined by a contract inverse to that of naturalistic fiction: their world is actively oriented toward the hero. The folktale (Märchen,later fairy tale) world is oriented positively toward its protagonist; a folktale is defined by the hero’s triumph: magic weapons and helpers are, with the necessary narrative retardations, at his beck and call. Inversely, the fantasy world is oriented negatively toward its protagonist; a fantasy is defined by the hero’s horrible helplessness. Both fantasy and folktale derive from mythology: the folktale from the victorious-hero myth and the fantasy from the tragic myth. Thus, in the folktale and the fantasy, ethics coincides with physics – positive (hero-furthering) in the first case, and (hero-denying) in the second. In the tragic myth ethics compensates the physics; Oedipus, Osiris or Christ have to fail because of the empirical world they live in, but the failure is then ethically exalted and put to religious use, usually by postulating a metaphysical world beyond the empirical one in which the narrative finds its true, compensatory ending. Parallel to that, in the “optimistic” myth of Perseus, Saint George and other light-bearing heroes, ethics not only coincides with hero-furthering physics but also supplies a systematic cosmosociological framework to normalize the coincidence.

The literary genres in which physics is in some magical or religious way determined by ethics, instead of being neutral toward the hero or the total human population of the presented world, deny the autonomy of physics and can properly be called metaphysical. But not all estranged genres enter into such a contract with their reader. Notably, the pastoral and SF worlds offer no assurances as to the outcome of their protagonists’ endeavors. (Phenomena such as the sentimentalized Baroque pastoral or the “new maps of hell” of American SF represent particular, limited historical and ideological uses which do not necessarily flow out of the basic contract of the genre but are superadded to it.) Together with some prefigurations in the pastoral, SF is thus a metaempirical and non-naturalistic, that is, an estranged, literary genre which is not at the same time metaphysical. On the contrary, SF shares with naturalistic literature, naturalistic science, and naturalistic or materialist philosophy a common sophisticated, dialectical, and cognitive epistemé.

The genological system discussed above can be presented schematically by using the two parameters or binary oppositions of naturalistic/ estranged, and cognitive/noncognitive:

                                                NATURALISTIC                      ESTRANGED

“realistic” literatureSF (& pastoral)
sub-literature of “realism”metaphysical: myth, folktale, fantasy



1.2. In order to test the above taxonomy, let us introduce a new basic parameter of time and see whether the system can make sense of it. Naturalistic literature ranges through all empirical times. Though concentrating on the present, it has, parallel with the rise of historical sciences and dialectical philosophy, evolved the historical novel and drama, and it can even to some degree (admittedly not to the same degree as non-naturalistic literature) deal with the future in the form of hopes, fears, premonitions, and dreams, as in the psychological novel beginning with, say, Stendhal and Dostoevsky. Carelessness about precise time location or restriction to a one-dimensional point-consciousness in the present – both of which do not critically question prevailing anthropological modes of behavior – is the mark of the subliterature of mainstream “realism,” from Renaissance street-ballads to contemporary kitsch. The metaphysical genres shun historical time: myth is located above time, folktale in a conventional grammatical past which is really outside time, and fantasy in the hero’s abnormally disturbed, historiosophically dislocated present into which irrupts a “black” timelessness or another extrahistorical time. Inversely, SF shares the omnitemporal horizons of naturalistic literature, ranging through all possible times. Though concentrating on the cognitively plausible futures and their spatial equivalents, it can deal with the present and the past as special cases of a possible historical sequence seen from an estranged point of view – since any empirical historical point or flow can be thought of as one realization among practically innumerable possibilities. The scheme from 1.1. sub specie temporis would thus look like this:

                                                        HISTORICAL                       ESTRANGED

“realistic” literatureSF
sub-literature of “realism”myth, folktale, fantasy



It is not surprising to anybody who has read Marx, Hegel, or Augustine of Hippo that naturalistic in the temporal sphere means historical. It is more interesting to note that temporal cognition is allied to a free movement back and forth in time. Myth in its timeless suffering or bliss, folktale in its world apart allied to the empirical world by a grammatical past, and fantasy as the present lifted out of time into black transcendency – all share the impossibility of such a humanizing movement. Out of their several shortcomings they have, as is known, made tremendous virtues; yet the limitations remain.

2.    An Ecological Jungle Trip: Symbiosis, Parasitism, Mimicry, and Sundry

2.0. So far my analysis has been conducted on a level which, no doubt, was abstracted from actual historical literary genres but one which endeavored to treat them as ideal types or pure heuristic models. In actuality, a particular work, literary opus, trend, or school is almost never entirely pure. Literary genres exist in historically precise and curious ecological units, interacting and intermixing, imitating and cannibalizing each other. To understand what one really has in mind when talking about SF, it is necessary to continue the analysis on the level of actual happenings in the noncanonic literature or paraliterature of this century. Only such a path, descending from the clear mountain sights and its wide horizons into the luxuriant and steamy jungle of literary genres, and supplementing an aerial survey with actual botanizing in the field, has a chance of leading to useful results.

2.1. The relationship of SF to naturalistic literature, usually to the species of adventure-journey,is by now relatively clear and can be dealt with briefly. It is a relationship of filiation, best evidenced in the work of Jules Verne: SF has historically had one of its roots in the compost heap of such juvenile or popular subliterature, and in order to develop properly it has had to subsume and outgrow it – the quicker the better for its generic affirmation. It found congenial or congeneric elements in the cognitive and marvelous bias of the voyage extraordinaire and its catalogues of wonders seen along Ulysses’ or Captain Nemo’s way. The sea haunts this filiation, the island story is its microparadigm or root situation, and locomotion the connecting thread of its narration. All the marvelous interstellar SF voyages and quests in Heinlein, Blish, Van Vogt, and a thousand others, the Nietzschean, Columbian, or Sindbadian poetry of navigation – navigare necesse, vivere non necesse – belong here. Such voyaging is an honorable, though in retrospect one can scarcely fail to note that it is an initial (and for the reader initiatory), function of SF. It acts much in the way that a true long voyage does in the zero world, dialytically – estranging the reader from familiar and usually contemptible shores, dissolving his umbilical connections with old and firm earth (or Earth), preparing him to accept the marvelous beyond seven seas or galaxies. When unduly prolonged, this adolescence of SF means arrested development. It should be kept in its proper humbly useful place in the ontogenetic development of the reader as well as in the phylogenetic development of the genre.

In close proximity to the didactic aspect of the journey is the popular science compost heap which can be found next to the adventure-journey heap in the early phylogenetic stages of SF from technologically developed countries. Verne used both, adding a dash of puzzle in the manner of Poe and a barrelful of Saint-Simonian romanticism. Unalloyed, or alloyed with the baser metal of subliterary conflict and sentiment, this leads no further than to a primitive technological or at best technocratic extrapolation, as evidenced in Bacon’s New Atlantis,then in Gernsback and the “SF reservation” between the two world wars. A hybrid results that is neither good fiction nor interesting science; it is dislodged the first time the shapers of public and publishing opinion happen to read Wells – or, indeed, a good straightforward essay of scientific popularization, which has from the time of Friedrich Engels and Thomas Huxley been immeasurably more exciting and less reactionary than Ralph 124C 41+. Of course, it usually takes those shapers a generation or two to acquire the necessary taste in reading. In the meantime, the Gernsbacks keep SF alive at the cost of starving, stunting, and deforming it; comparing The Iron Heel with the output in the United States between the World Wars, one strongly suspects the cost is too high.

2.2. In 2.1. it was discussed how older paradigms of marvelous voyage, popular science essay, and individualist subliterature (the Western and the sentimental story) interfere with the formation of an autonomous SF paradigm or model if their grip is not loosened quickly. Unfortunately, a majority of what is published as SF is still in that prenatal or, better, regression-to-womb stage: it is simply the Western or some kindred sub-literary species masquerading its structures – generally for venal and ideological reasons – under the externals of SF: rockets, ray-guns, monsters, or in the last dozen years their slightly more sophisticated equivalents. Usually the symbiosis of popular science and juvenile adventure finds it impossible to mimic SF without regressing into their homologue of the fairy tale,with its victorious hero, foiled villain, damsel in distress, and quaint helpers or marvelous helping objects. Such sub-Vernean or Gernsbackian SF does not change the fairy tale structure but only the motivation of its devices: it pretends to explain away the supernatural by reassigning it to natural science and noble scientists (who are energetic and sentimental if young and in love with, absent-minded if old and fathers of, the eternal feminine). However, the science is treated as a metaphysical and not physical, supernatural and not natural activity, as gobbledygook instead of rational procedure. From Ralph, Buck Rogers, and the post-Stapledonian supermen to Asimov’s psychohistory (which has at least the advantage of identifying the proper field of modern destiny, social relations), such metaphysical gobbledygook vitiates some of the best-known SF works. Neither cognitive nor magical but shamefacedly passing off a juvenile idea of magic for cognition, equating the photon rocket with the flying carpet and global social destinies with the victory of the third son, such a mimicry is like the newly fashionable pop wines: a hyping-up of the old grape juice into the new wine. In the perfectly just world of taste and poetic creativity, this procedure reaps the reward of hypocrisy: fairy tale readers rightly prefer the classics, sophisticated SF readers disbelieve the fairy tale. Inversely, in the very imperfectly retributive world of social taste and commercial SF, such a procedure breeds generations of readers with juvenile taste, unable to develop the standards by which to judge SF (not to mention empirical human relations).

2.3. The more ambitious reader and writer cannot for long be satisfied with such pap. Yet trying to find a fresh tack in the cruel world of instant obsolescence, SF often veers from Scylla to Charybdis. A further step down into pseudo-sophistication – correlative, no doubt, to a marked decadence of cultural taste in bourgeois society and its literary markets – is the parasitism of Gothic, horror, and weird fantasy upon SF. Such fantasy is characterized, as I have said, by the irruption of an anti-cognitive world into the world of empirical cognition. One can understand some readers’ panic flight from a science which produces nuclear bombs, napalm, and nerve gases, from a reason which justifies class societies in mutual balances of terror, condemning two-thirds of the world to hunger and disease, and the remaining third – “hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère” – to the boredom of a nine-to-five drudgery relieved by flashes of TV commercials. Maybe such readers ought to have an escapist enclave of swordand-sorcery or Cthulhu cosmologies – I cannot say. But surely SF, built upon the premise that nature is neither a childishly wicked stepmother (“As flies to wanton boys are we to gods / They kill us for their sport”) nor inscrutably alien to man – surely SF cannot allow its contract with the reader to be contaminated by the Great Pumpkin antics of fantasy. Even more perniciously than is the case with the bland fairy tale structure, the black ectoplasms of fantasy stifle SF completely. Its time shrinks to the point-consciousness of horror, gloom, and doom, its daydreams turn into an inchoate nightmare, and under the guise of cognition the ancient obscurantist enemy infiltrates its citadel. Fossilized fragments of reasoning are used to inculcate irrationality, and the social energy of readers is expended on Witches’ Sabbaths instead of focusing it on the causes for our alienating, murderous, and stultifying existences: the power structures holding back the hominization of the sapiens, the true demonology of war and market breeding pride and prejudice. At its best, in Swift and Cyrano, in Jack London and the dystopian “new maps of hell,” in Lucian and Wells, in the great utopians and Zamyatin, SF has with different degrees of precision, but with unerring precision of orientation, focused on these power structures, on such demonology. It is at its worst, at its most alienated and alienating, when it honors the parasitism and vampirism of fantasy.

2.4. There has also been a great deal of talk about affinities between SF and the mythological tale. Though also a story about supernatural events involving superhuman figures, as different from other metaphysical fiction (folktale and fantasy), the events and figures of this genre form a systematic whole, a mythological edifice of tales whose norms are supposed to have supertemporally (timelessly or continuously) determined man’s basic relations to man and nature. Obviously, all religious systems are in this sense mythological. On the contrary, plays and stories are neither myth nor ritual but fictional literature, although myths and rituals may underlie their forms, plots, and sometimes their characters. For example, Murray has convincingly shown that the forms of Attic tragedy derive from Dionysian sacrificial rituals, and Cornford has done an analogous job for Attic comedy.2 The Hellenic tragic characters derive primarily from Homer, but through

  • Gilbert Murray, “Hamlet and Orestes,” in his The Classical Tradition of Poetry (New York, 1968), and “Excursus on the Ritual Forms preserved in Greek Tragedy,” in Jane Ellen Harrison, Epilegomena to the Study of Greek ReligionThemis (New York, 1966); F. M. Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy (Gloucester, MA, 1966). See also other anthropological works by the Cambridge School that, as far as literary studies are concerned, culminate in George Thomson’s elegant Aeschylus and Athens (New York, 1968).

him from other sacrificial rituals, which is why Homerian themes fitted so well into the mythic pattern of tragedy. Thus, fiction can be formally or morphologically analogous to myth, but it is not itself myth. It uses mythical morphemes for nonmythic and – except in folktale, fantasy, and subliterature – for anti-mythic ends. “Myth and literature are separate and autonomous entities, though any specific myth text can and should be considered as folk-literature.”3 However – and this is in itself highly important and largely justifies the attention that modern scholars have devoted to myth – bearing in mind the caveats and distinctions discussed earlier, it should be acknowledged that important aspects of literature (primarily, many basic and possibly most significant plots) are mythomorphic. What a writer like Faulkner or Kafka creates is not a myth but a personal fictional statement formally analogous to myth in a radically different and indeed incompatible cosmological or ideological context. In other words, a realistic parable such as The Bear or an SF parable such as The Metamorphosis,although it uses a mythological bestiary as well as the mythological pattern of trial and death with or without resurrection, is in its message and final impact very different from, often diametrically opposed to the religious myth expressing a collective static vision. Kafka and Faulkner are – they cannot but be – historical writers.

Obviously, SF will be as mythomorphic in some basic patterns as other fictional genres are. Beyond that, SF shares with myth the fictional estrangement, the “outer limits of desire” as Professor Frye aptly formulated it,4 and its formal closeness to myth will extend beyond plots to many characters and situations. But all attempts to transplant the metaphysical orientation of mythology and religion into SF, in a crudely overt way as in C.S. Lewis, Van Vogt, or Zelazny, or in more covert ways in very many others, will result only in private pseudomyths, in fragmentary fantasies or fairy tales.5 As I mentioned in my first chapter, myth absolutizes and even

  • Stanley Edgar Hyman, “The Ritual View of Myth and the Mythic,” in Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Myth (Bloomington, 1970), p. 151.
  • Frye, p. 136.
  • See Harry Levin, “Some Meanings of Myth,” in Henry A. Murray, ed., Myth and Mythmaking (Boston, 1969), pp. 111–12.

personifies apparently constant motifs from periods with sluggish social dynamics, and claims to explain the eternal essence of phenomena. On the contrary, SF claims to organize variable spatiotemporal, biological, social, and other characteristics and constellations into specific fictional worlds and figures. Mathematically speaking, myth is oriented toward constants and SF toward variables.

On a different level of fictional structuring, however, is the treatment of religious beliefs or mythic situations as historical material. When such mythic elements are – by transposition, as it were, into the demystifying key of SF – extracted from a mythological paradigm and fitted into an SF one, what results is perfectly legitimate, often first-class SF. As always, the critic will in any particular instance have to rely on his literary tact and sense of measure to pierce this intricate double mimicry and parasitism, to decide with which type of interaction between SF and myth he is faced. To mention only two favorites of mine, Stapledon and Walter Miller, Jr., I believe that at a certain point (say in The Flames) Stapledon crosses the divide into pseudomyth, that is, into fantasy, and that Miller does the same at the resolution of A Canticle for Leibowitz with the character of Mrs. Grales. At such points the ideological attraction to myth as world view and not as formal pattern got the best of the SF writer.

3.    To Greener Fields and Pastures New: The Extrapolative and the Analogical Models of SF

3.0. I would like now to try emerging from the jungle into the cultivated territory of selected SF, and analyze what look to be its two main species or models, the extrapolative and the analogical one.

3.1. SF written from, say, the period of the French Revolution on (though not necessarily in preceding epochs) has come to be considered as starting from certain cognitive hypotheses and ideas incarnated in the fictional framework and nucleus of the tale. This extrapolative model – of Mercier’s L’An 2440,London’s Iron Heel,Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes and Men Like Gods,Zamyatin’s We,Stapledon’s Last and First Men,Yefremov’s Andromeda,Pohl and Kornbluth’s Space Merchants,or Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit – seems based on direct, temporal extrapolation andcentered on sociological (that is, utopian and anti-utopian) modeling. This is where the great majority of the “new maps of hell” is taken to belong for which postwar SF is justly famous, in all its manifold combinations of sociotechnological scientific cognition and social oppression (global catastrophes, cybernetics, dictatorships).

Yet already in Wells’s Time Machine and in Stapledon, this extrapolating transcended the sociological spectrum (from everyday practice through economics to erotics) and spilled into “billion-year” biology and cosmology. The ensuing radical estrangements can, no doubt, be anticipated in a chronological future, but they cannot, scientifically speaking, be extrapolated. By this token, futuristic anticipation reveals that extrapolating is a fictional device and ideological horizon rather than the basis for a cognitive model. It is thus dubious – as will be discussed further in chapter 4 – that significant SF could be simply extrapolation. Nonetheless, whatever its ostensible location (future, “fourth dimension,” other planets, alternate universes), the self-understanding of much SF – as shown in the historical section of this book – was uneasily futurological. Being written in a historical epoch dominated by anticipatory expectations, this SF demanded to be judged by the “scientific” import of the tale’s premises and the consistency with which such premises (usually one or very few in number) were narratively developed to their logical end, to a “scientifically valid” conclusion.

SF could thus be used as a handmaiden of futurological foresight in technology, ecology, sociology, and so on. Whereas this may at times have been a legitimate secondary function the genre could be made to bear, any forgetfulness of its strict secondariness leads to confusion and indeed danger. Ontologically, art is not pragmatic truth nor is 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 the demand for scientific accuracy in the extrapolated realia. Editors and publishers of such “hard” persuasion, from U.S. pulp magazines to the Soviet Agitprop, have been inclined to depress 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 straitjackets more quickly than most others, responding with atrophy, escapism, or both. Laying no claim to prophecies except for its statistically probable share, SF should not be treated as a prophet: it should neither be enthroned when apparently successful nor beheaded when apparently unsuccessful. As Plato found out in the court of Dionysius 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 momentary city.

3.2. The analogic model of SF is based on analogy rather than extrapolation. Its figures may but do not have to be anthropomorphic or its localities geomorphic. The objects, figures, and up to a point the relationships from which this indirectly modeled world starts can be quite fantastic (in the sense of empirically unverifiable) as long as they are logically, philosophically, and mutually consistent. The analytic model can thus comprehend the extrapolative one, but it is not bound to the extrapolative horizon.

The lowest form of analogic modeling is that in which an extrapolation backwards is in fact a crude analogy to the past of the Earth, from geological through biological to ethnological and historical. The worlds more or less openly modeled on the Carboniferous Age, on tribal prehistory, on barbaric and feudal empires – in fact modeled on handbooks of geology and anthropology, on Spengler’s Decline of the West and Dumas père’s Three Musketeers – are unfortunately abundant in the foothills of SF. Some of this may be useful adolescent leisure reading, which one should not begrudge; however, the uneasy coexistence of such worlds with a superscience, which is supposed to provide an SF alibi, largely or wholly destroys the story’s cognitive credibility. The E.R. Burroughs-to-Asimov space opera, cropping up in almost all U.S. writers right down to Samuel Delany, belongs to the uneasy territory between inferior SF and non-SF – to forms that, as I argued earlier, mimic SF scenery but are modeled on the structures of the Western and other avatars of fairy tale and fantasy.

The purest form of analogic modeling would be the analogy to a mathematical model, such as the fairly primary one explicated in Abbott’s Flatland,as well as the ontological analogies found in a compressed overview form in some stories by Borges and Lem. A somewhat more humane narration with a suffering protagonist is to be found in, say, Čapek’s Krakatit or Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness,and even more clearly in Kafka’s Metamorphosis or In the Penal Colony and Lem’s Solaris. Such highly sophisticated philosophico-anthropological analogies are today perhaps the most significant region of SF, indistinguishable in quality from other superior contemporary writing. Situated between Borges and the upper reaches into which shade the best utopias, anti-utopias, and satires, this semantic field is a modern variant of the “conte philosophique” of the eighteenth century. Similar to Swift, Voltaire, or Diderot, these modern parables fuse new visions of the world with an applicability – usually satirical and grotesque – to the shortcomings of our workaday world. Departing from the older rationalism, a modern parable must be open-ended by analogy to modern cosmology, epistemology, and philosophy of science.6

The analogic model of SF falls, however, clearly within cognitive horizons insofar as its conclusions or import is concerned. The cognition gained may not be immediately applicable, it may be simply the enabling of the mind to receive new wavelengths, but it eventually contributes to the understanding of the most mundane matters. This is testified by the works of Kafka and Twain, Rosny and Anatole France, as well as of the best of Wells and the “SF reservation” writers.

6 I have attempted to analyze some representative examples of such modern SF parables in chapters 10 and 12 of this book, à propos of Wells’s Time Machine and Čapek’s War With the Newts,in my afterword to Stanisław Lem, Solaris (New York, 1971 and 1976), enlarged into a parallel to US and Russian examples in “Stanisław Lem und das mitteleuropäische soziale Bewußtsein der Science-fiction,” in Werner Berthel, ed., Stanisław Lem – Der dialektische Weise aus Kraków (Insel Almanach auf das Jahr 1976) (Frankfurt a. M., 1976); and in essays on Philip K. Dick and Ursula K.

Le Guin, reprinted in Mullen and Suvin, eds. (see Bibliography I).

4.      The Jungle Explorer: Medicine Man or Darwinist

4.0. Thus far I have not explicitly referred to the theory and practice of SF criticism, since it is impossible to discuss an intellectual activity before its field has been determined. The field of SF criticism is SF, and this truism becomes significant when we pause to consider how little agreement there is about the basic parameters of SF. Having discussed them, in the remainder of this chapter I would like to essay some remarks on SF criticism. They will have to be as disjointed, tentative, and unsystematic as that criticism, since the basic lesson one can draw from the history of literary criticism is that it is difficult for criticism to be more significant than the works it criticizes.

4.1. Beyond the necessary but subsidiary critical activity of reviewing and chronicling, it seems that the most fashionable critical approach to SF is that of mythical analysis. In order to comment upon it, I shall have to try to disentangle the main meanings of this protean and tantalizing term.

Few writers considering myth in the last third of a century have failed to lament the divergent and indeed incompatible meanings given to this term in different professional and ideological fields of discourse. Though everyone – including myself – has to try to group these meanings for purposes of an overview, it is sometimes difficult to escape the conclusion of a philologist that there are as many interpretations of myth as there are critics. In ethnology “myth” is indistinguishable from “legend” or “folklore.” Cultural historians “employ ‘myth’ with the quite separate meaning of a popularly accepted cluster of images.”7 The term can also be loosely used to mean “tale, fantasy, mass delusion, popular belief and illusion, and plain lie”; an essay as early as 1947 reduced this confusion of tongues to the absurd by adopting the title of “The Modern Myth of the Modern Myth.”8

But, cutting a long story short, it seems to me that the literary theoretician

  • Richard M. Dorson, “Theories of Myth and the Folklorist,” in Murray, ed., p. 84.
  • First quotation from Hyman, in Sebeok, ed., p. 153; see also, for a psychologist’s attack on loose definitions of myth, Henry A. Murray, “The Possible Nature of a

has presently to deal with three principal views of the field: that of Cassirer and his followers, that of literary scholars who consider all literature to be some kind of myth – a view most ably and influentially formulated by Northrop Frye – and that of a third group which would insist, as I argued earlier (see note 2), that literary artifacts are not myths and yet that many of them are significantly marked by genetic and morphological connections with myths.

4.1.1. Cassirer treats myth as a kind of symbolic vision correlative to the mythopoeic mode of consciousness, “mythopoeia” meaning the world view and forms of expression characteristic of a hypothetical early stage of culture “when language is still largely ritualistic and prelogical in character.” In this view, myth “is simply a basic way of envisaging experience and carries no necessary connotation of storytelling.”9 Rather, all creative, poetic, metaphoric thinking is “mythical.” To this it must be briefly objected that metaphor is feasible only when some cognitively defined terms with fixed meanings are available as points of comparison, and that as far as literature is concerned poetic metaphor and language begin exactly where mythology ends. In the best mythical fashion, if poetry springs from the mother-soil of mythology, it does so only by spurning or destroying its parent. Finally, if everything (including science, philosophy, the arts, and all other aspects and motives of social practice) is myth or mythopoeia, if in myth, as Cassirer says, “everything may be turned into everything,”10 then this term loses all usefulness for distinguishing literature from anything else, let alone for any distinctions within literature itself. Historically hypothetical, philosophically idealistic, and aesthetically useless, Cassirer’s hypothesis for all its influences in the American cultural climate after World War II (for example, Susanne Langer) cannot contribute to our present needs.

‘Mythology’ to Come,” in Murray, ed., p. 303. The second quotation is the title of Donald A. Stauffer’s essay in English Institute Essays 1947 (New York, 1948).

  • P [hilip] W [heelwright], “Myth,” in Alex Preminger, ed., Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, 1965), pp. 538–39; see Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven, 1962) and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms,vol. 2 (New Haven, 1955).
  • Cassirer, Essay,p. 81.

4.1.2. At the opposite extreme – but les extrèmes se rejoignent – is the position which preserves the autonomy of literary studies but affirms that myth is story and any story is myth. It possesses a heroic paradigm in Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Though mentioning the secondary sense of myth as “untruth,”11 and of “myth in the narrower and more technical sense” as stories about “divine or quasi-divine beings and powers,”12 and then discussing a mythical phase or context of literary art which is primarily concerned with “poetry as the focus of a community,”13 Frye concentrates on a Cassirerian “mythical view of literature” which leads “to the conception of an order of nature as a whole being imitated by a corresponding order of words.”14 This is based on his belief, explicated in the section subtitled “Theory of Myths,” that “in myth we see the structural principles of literature isolated.”15 If structural principles are to mean isolatable formal narrative patterns, this is acceptable as a basis of discussion subject to historical verification. However, if they are also meant to subsume the motivation of a literary work, what the Theory of Literature calls “the inner structure of psychological, social, or philosophical theory of why men behave as they do – some theory of causation, ultimately,”16 then I do not see how myth can contain the structural principles of all literature or be the “total creative act” which could account for all basic components of the final impact or message of all literary modes and genres.

In other words, among many brilliant insights in Anatomy of Criticism there is one about mythical patterns not only being formally analogous to basic patterns in other literary modes – which one would a priori expect in the imaginative products of the same human species – but also being more clearly identifiable in supernatural stories “at the limits of desire”17 than

  1. Frye, p. 75.
  2. Frye, p. 116; see also, on “the mythical or theogonic mode,” pp. 120, 33–36, et passim. 13 Frye, p. 99; see the whole section, pp. 95–99.
  3. Frye, p. 118.
  4. Frye, p. 136.
  5. René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (Harmondsworth, 1973), p. 207 et passim.
  6. Frye, p. 134.

in stories cluttered with surface naturalism. However, there is an essential difference between this and treating the fourfold seasonal mythos of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter as the basic organization of all literature and indeed all verbal structures imaginable, including science and history.18 Here the formal similarity has been left behind, and literature has (by way of a semantically redefined mythos) been identified to myth tout court,since its original meaning of superhuman story has not been abandoned.19 Unfortunately, this is the most easily vulgarized and therefore possibly the best-known part of Frye’s book. Logically, literature and verbal structures in general are finally reduced to a central unifying myth, adumbrated in Milton and Dante but fully manifest in the Bible, which is a “definitive” myth.20 All writing, one might therefore expect, has in the past aspired to and will in the future be confined to variations on smaller or larger bits of the Christian myth of salvation. Obviously such a conclusion will finally be shared only by those who acknowledge the hegemony of a cyclical theory of history and a closed cosmology – that is, by anti-utopians. Therefore, this brilliant work can persuade us that much literature is morphologically informed by patterns which we might perhaps call mythical. However, “mythical” then proves to be simply shorthand for “basic narrative patterns which are seen at their clearest in some myths.”

4.1.3. For, when we have rendered unto myth what is of the myth, we must recognize that finally, for a cognitive pursuit such as literary theory and criticism, myth as an instrument is fairly limited. Philosophically, myth is an evasion of precise distinctions and of full intellectual commitment: a myth is not true or false but believable or unbelievable, vital or dead. On its own grounds it is irrefutable, for as soon as it is queried as to its truth it is not treated as myth but as historical cognition or formal hypothesis. In other words, it seems to me that Frye has rendered a signal service to poetics by his formal hypothesis, but I find myself unpersuaded by his

  1. Frye, p. 341 et passim.
  2. Frye: redefining mythos,pp. 134–40 and 158 ff.; retaining the meaning of superhuman tale, e.g., p. 317.
  3. Frye, pp. 120–21; also p. 315, 325 et passim.

historical premises and his semantical gliding between myth as a historical genre, mythos as a formal paradigm, and both of them as a “structural principle or attitude.”21 I am unable to accept the conclusion that “in literary criticism, myth ultimately means mythos,a structural organizing principle of literary form,”22 which does not differentiate between the formal and structural functions of myth.

As distinct from Cassirer and the Cassirerian aspect of Frye, it seems to me that myth cannot constitute a useful theory of history in general, and artistic or literary history in particular. Myth is parascientific and sometimes prescientific in its interpretations of nature and society. Although some among its numerous configurations are statistically bound to become precursors of scientific ones, it is essentially an insufficiently critical human experience which, for all its ideological and artistic uses, cannot be dignified as anything more than a first significant step on the human way to a cognition of reality. Speaking of the myth’s “unity of feeling,” Cassirer rightly concludes that its pragmatic function is to promote social solidarity through feelings of cosmic sympathy at the time of social crisis.23 Myth embodies and sanctions authoritarian social norms and the basic institutions which determine the life of each member of a certain collective authority-structure. It is intrinsically – whatever its surface innovations in this age where every new car fashion is “revolutionary” – a conservative force, a guarantee of the status quo (say of the mass existence of private cars). In the forceful words of David Bidney:

To my mind, contemporary philosophers and theologians, as well as students of literature in general, who speak of the indispensable myth in the name of philosophy and religion, and anthropologists and sociologists who cynically approve of myth because of its pragmatic social function, are undermining faith in their own disciplines and are contributing unwittingly to the very degradation of man and his culture which they otherwise seriously deplore. Myth must be taken seriously as a cultural force but it must be taken seriously precisely in order that it may be gradually superseded in the interests of the advancement of truth and the

  • Frye, p. 310.
  • Frye, p. 341.
  • Cassirer, Essay,pp. 79–84.

growth of human intelligence. Normative, critical, and scientific thought provides the only self-correcting means of combating the diffusion of myth, but it may do so only on condition that we retain a firm and uncompromising faith in the integrity of reason and in the transcultural validity of the scientific enterprise.24

Thus, the literary scholar and critic, building his autonomous and yet rational conceptual world, must honor myth, in the Frygian “narrow sense” of stories about superhuman beings, as both occasionally fetching folk poetry and a reservoir of literary forms. At the same time, the critic – and in particular the critic of SF – must, I believe, abandon the belief that he has done much more than his formal homework when he has identified Yefremov’s Andromeda as containing the myth of Perseus or Delany’s Einstein Intersection and Verne’s Chateau des Carpates as containing the myth of Orpheus. He is still left face to face with the basic questions of his trade, namely, is the myth or mytheme transmuted (1) into valid fiction; (2) into valid science fiction? “Mythical analysis” as a self-sufficient critical method collapses at this point; as an ideology it remains a contributing factor to the Babylonian confusion of tongues, a particularly lethal quicksand region on the path to SF.

4.2. Finally, it might be possible to sketch the basic premises of a significant criticism, history, and theory of this literary genre. From Edgar Allan Poe to Damon Knight and Stanisław Lem, including some notable work on the other subgenres from the utopias to Wells and some general approaches to literature by people awake to methodological interest, much spadework has been done. If one may speculate on some fundamental features or indeed axioms of such criticism, the first might be that the genre has to be and can be evaluated proceeding from its heights down, applying the standards gained by the analysis of its masterpieces. We find in SF, as we do in most other genres of fiction, that 80 to 90 per cent of the works in it are sheer confectionery. However, contrary to subliterature, the criteria for the insufficiency of most SF are to be found in the genre itself. This makes SF in principle, if not yet in practice, equivalent to any other “major” literary genre. The second axiom of SF criticism might be to demand of SF a level

  • David Bidney, “Myth, Symbolism, and Truth,” in Sebeok, ed., p. 23.

of cognition higher than that of its average reader: the strange novelty is its raison d’être. As a minimum, we must demand from SF that it be wiser than the world it speaks to.

In other words, this is an educational literature, hopefully less deadening than most compulsory education in our split national and class societies, but irreversibly shaped by the pathos of preaching the good word of human curiosity, fear, and hope. Significant SF denies thus the “two-cultures gap” more efficiently than any other literary genre I know of. Even more importantly, it demands from the author and reader, teacher and critic, not merely specialized, quantified positivistic knowledge (scientia) but a social imagination whose quality of wisdom (sapientia) testifies to the maturity of his critical and creative thought. It demands – to conclude the botanical marvelous voyage of this chapter – that the critic be a Darwinist and not a medicine-man.

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Estrangement and Cognition (1972) (4850 words)

1. Science Fiction as Fiction (Estrangement)

1.1. The importance of science fiction (SF) in our time is on the increase. First, there are strong indications that its popularity in the leading industrial nations (United States, USSR, United Kingdom, Japan) has risen sharply over the last 100 years, despite all the local and short-range fluctuations. SF has particularly affected such key strata or groups of modern society as college graduates, young writers, and the avant-garde of general readers appreciative of new sets of values. This is a significant cultural effect which goes beyond any merely quantitative census. Second, if one takes the minimal generic difference of SF the presence of a narrative novum (the dramatis personae and/or their context) significantly different from what is the norm in “naturalistic” or empiricist fiction, it will be found that SF has an interesting and close kinship with other literary subgenres that flourished at different times and places of literary history: the classical and medieval “fortunate island” story, the “fabulous voyage” story from antiquity on, the Renaissance and Baroque “utopia” and “planetary novel,” the Enlightenment “state [political] novel,” the modern “anticipation” and “anti-utopia.” Moreover, although SF shares with myth, fantasy, fairy tale, and pastoral an opposition to naturalistic or empiricist literary genres, it differs very significantly in approach and social function from such adjoining non-naturalistic or metaempirical genres. Both these complementary aspects, the sociological and the methodological, are being vigorously debated by writers and critics in several countries, evidence of lively interest in a genre that should undergo scholarly discussion too.

In this chapter, I will argue for an understanding of SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement. This definition seems to possess the unique advantage of rendering justice to a literary tradition which is coherent through the ages and within itself, yet distinct from nonfictional utopianism, from naturalistic literature, and from other non-naturalistic fiction. It thus makes it possible to lay the basis for a coherent poetics of SF.

1.2. I want to begin by postulating a spectrum or spread of literary subject matter which extends from the ideal extreme of exact recreation of the author’s empirical environment1 to exclusive interest in a strange newness,

 The first version of this essay emerged from a lecture given in Spring 1968 in J. M. Holquist’s seminar on fantastic literature in the Yale University Slavic Languages and Literatures Department. I have derived much profit from discussions with him, with the late Jacques Ehrmann, my UMass colleague David Porter, and my McGill colleagues Irwin and Myrna Gopnik, over and above a number of persons mentioned in my general acknowledgements. The final version owes much to Stanisław Lem’s Fantastyka i futurologia (see Bibliography I), which considerably emboldened me in further pursuits within this protean field, even where I differed from some of Lem’s emphases and conclusions. Notes to all chapters are supplemented by the bibliographic sections to be found at the end of the book.

1 A benefit of discussing the seemingly peripheral subject of “science fiction” is that one has to go back to first principles, one cannot really assume them as given. One must ask, for example, what is literature? Usually, when discussing literature one determines what it says (its subject matter) and how it says what it says (the approach to its themes). If we are talking about literature in the sense of significant works possessing certain minimal aesthetic qualities rather than in the sociological sense of everything that gets published at a certain time or in the ideological sense of all the writings on certain themes, this principle can more precisely be formulated as a double question. First, epistemologically, what possibility for aesthetic qualities is offered by different thematic fields (“subjects”)? The answer given by the aesthetics prevalent at the moment is: an absolutely equal possibility. With this answer the question is booted out of the field of aesthetics and into the lap of ideologists, who pick it up by our default and proceed to bungle it. Second, historically, how has such a possibility in fact been used? Once one begins with such considerations, one comes quickly up against the rather unclear concept of realism (not the prose literary movement in the nineteenth century but a metahistorical stylistic principle), since this genre is often pigeonholed as nonrealistic. I would not object but would heartily welcome such labels if one had first persuasively defined what is “real” and what is “reality.” True, this genre raises basic philosophical issues, but it is perhaps not necessary to face them in an initial approach. Therefore I shall here substitute for “reality” (whose existence independent of any observer or group of observers I

a novum. From the 18th to the 20th centuries, the literary mainstream of our civilization has been nearer to the first of these two extremes. However, at the beginnings of a literature, the concern with a domestication of the amazing is very strong. Early tale-tellers relate amazing voyages into the next valley, where they found dog-headed people, also good rock salt which could be stolen or at the worst bartered for. Their stories are a syncretic travelogue and voyage imaginaire,daydream and intelligence report. This implies a curiosity about the unknown beyond the next mountain range (sea, ocean, solar system), where the thrill of knowledge joined the thrill of adventure.

From Iambulus and Euhemerus through the classical utopia to Verne’s island of Captain Nemo and Wells’s island of Dr. Moreau, an island in the far-off ocean is the paradigm of the aesthetically most satisfying goal of the SF voyage. This is particularly true if we subsume under this the planetary island in the aether ocean – usually the Moon – which we encounter from Lucian through Cyrano to Swift’s mini-Moon of Laputa, and on into the nineteenth century. Yet the parallel paradigm of the valley, “over the range” (the subtitle of Butler’s SF novel Erewhon) which shuts it in as a wall, is perhaps as revealing. It recurs almost as frequently, from the earliest folktales about the sparkling valley of Terrestrial Paradise and the dark valley of the Dead, both already in Gilgamesh. Eden is the mythological localization of utopian longing, just as Wells’s valley in “The Country of the Blind” is still within the liberating tradition which contends that the world is not necessarily the way our present empirical valley happens to be, and that whoever thinks his valley is the world is blind. Whether island or valley, whether in space or (from the industrial and bourgeois revolutions on) in time, the new framework is correlative to the new inhabitants. The aliens – utopians, monsters, or simply differing strangers – are a mirror to man just as the differing country is a mirror for his world. But the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is also a transforming one, virgin womb and alchemical dynamo: the mirror is a crucible.

do not at all doubt, in fact) the concept of “the author’s empirical environment,” which seems as immediately clear as any.

Thus it is not only the basic human and humanizing curiosity that gives birth to SF. Beyond an undirected inquisitiveness, which makes for a semantic game without clear referent, this genre has always been wedded to a hope of finding in the unknown the ideal environment, tribe, state, intelligence, or other aspect of the Supreme Good (or to a fear of and revulsion from its contrary). At all events, the possibility of other strange, co-variant coordinate systems and semantic fields is assumed.

1.3. The approach to the imaginary locality, or localized daydream, practiced by the genre of SF is a supposedly factual one. Columbus’s (technically or genologically nonfictional) letter on the Eden he glimpsed beyond the Orinoco mouth, and Swift’s (technically nonfactual) voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubbdrib, Luggnagg, “and Japan” represent two extremes in the constant intermingling of imaginary and empirical possibilities. Thus SF takes off from a fictional (“literary”) hypothesis and develops it with totalizing (“scientific”) rigor – the specific difference between Columbus and Swift is smaller than their generic proximity. The effect of such factual reporting of fictions is one of confronting a set normative system – a Ptolemaic-type closed world picture – with a point of view or look implying a new set of norms; in literary theory this is known as the attitude of estrangement. This concept was first developed on non-naturalistic texts by the Russian Formalists (“ostranenie,” Viktor Shklovsky) and most successfully underpinned by an anthropological and historical approach in the work of Bertolt Brecht, who wanted to write “plays for a scientific age.” While working on a play about the prototypical scientist, Galileo, he defined this attitude (“Verfremdungseffekt”) in his Short Organon for the Theatre: “A representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.” And further: for somebody to see all normal happenings in a dubious light, “he would need to develop that detached eye with which the great Galileo observed a swinging chandelier. He was amazed by that pendulum motion as if he had not expected it and could not understand its occurring, and this enabled him to come at the rules by which it was governed.” Thus, the look of estrangement is both cognitive and creative; and as Brecht goes on to say, “one cannot simply exclaim that such an attitude pertains to science, but not to art. Why should not art, in its own way, try to serve the great social task of mastering Life?”2 (Later, Brecht would note that it might be time to stop speaking in terms of masters and servants altogether.)

In SF the attitude of estrangement – used by Brecht in a different way, within a still predominantly “realistic” context – has grown into the formal framework of the genre.

2. Science Fiction as Cognition (Critique and Science)

2.1. The use of estrangement both as underlying attitude and dominant formal device is found also in the myth,a “timeless” and religious approach looking in its own way beneath (or above) the empiric surface. However, SF sees the norms of any age, including emphatically its own, as unique, changeable, and therefore subject to a cognitive view. The myth is diametrically opposed to the cognitive approach since it conceives human relations as fixed and supernaturally determined, emphatically denying Montaigne’s “la constance même n’est qu’un branle plus languissant.” The myth absolutizes and even personifies apparently constant motifs from sluggish societies. Conversely, SF, which focuses on the variable

  • Viktor Shklovsky, “Iskusstvo kak priem,” in Sborniki po teorii poèticheskogo iazyka,2 (Petrograd, 1917). In the translation “Art as Technique,” in Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, eds., Russian Formalist Criticism (Lincoln, NE, 1965), ostranenie is rendered somewhat clumsily as “defamiliarization.” See also Victor Erlich’s classical survey, Russian Formalism (The Hague, 1955).

 Bertolt Brecht, “Kleines Organon für das Theater,” in his Gesammelte Werke,16 (Frankfurt a. M., 1973), translated in John Willett, ed., Brecht On Theatre (New York, 1964). My quotations are from pp. 192 and 196 of this translation, but I have changed Mr. Willett’s translation of Verfremdung as “alienation” into my “estrangement,” since “alienation” evokes incorrect, indeed opposite, connotations: estrangement was for Brecht an approach militating directly against social and cognitive alienation. See Ernst Bloch, “Entfremdung, Verfremdung: Alienation, Estrangement,” in Erika Munk, ed., Brecht (New York, 1972).

and future-bearing elements from the empirical environment, is found predominantly in the great whirlpool periods of history, such as the sixteenth-seventeenth and nineteenth-twentieth centuries. Where the myth claims to explain once and for all the essence of phenomena, SF first posits them as problems and then explores where they lead; it sees the mythical static identity as an illusion, usually as fraud, at best only as a temporary realization of potentially limitless contingencies. It does not ask about The Man or The World, but which man?: in which kind of world?: and why such a man in such a kind of world? As a literary genre, SF is fully as opposed to supernatural or metaphysical estrangement as it is to naturalism or empiricism.

  • SF is, then, a literary 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.

Estrangement differentiates SF from the “realistic” literary mainstream extending from the eighteenth century into the twentieth. Cognition differentiates it not only from myth, but also from the folk (fairy) tale and the fantasy. The folktale also doubts the laws of the author’s empirical world, but it escapes out of its horizons and into a closed collateral world indifferent to cognitive possibilities. It does not use imagination as a means of understanding the tendencies latent in reality, but as an end sufficient unto itself and cut off from the real contingencies. The stock folktale accessory, such as the flying carpet, evades the empirical law of physical gravity – as the hero evades social gravity – by imagining its opposite. This wish-fulfilling element is its strength and its weakness, for it never pretends that a carpet could be expected to fly – that a humble third son could be expected to become king – while there is gravity. It simply posits another world beside yours where some carpets do, magically, fly, and some paupers do, magically, become princes, and into which you cross purely by an act of faith and fancy. Anything is possible in a folktale, because a folktale is manifestly impossible. Furthermore, the lower-class genre of folktale was from the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries on transformed into the more compensatory, and often simplistic, individualist fairy tale. Therefore, SF retrogressing into fairy tale (for example, “space opera” with a hero-princess-monster triangle in astronautic costume) is committing creative suicide.

Even less congenial to SF is the fantasy (ghost, horror, Gothic, weird) tale, a genre committed to the interposition of anti-cognitive laws into the empirical environment. Where the folktale is indifferent, the fantasy is inimical to the empirical world and its laws. The thesis could be defended that the fantasy is significant insofar as it is impure and fails to establish a superordinated maleficent world of its own, causing a grotesque tension between arbitrary supernatural phenomena and the empirical norms they infiltrate. Gogol’s Nose is significant because it is walking down the Nevski Prospect, with a certain rank in the civil service, and so on; if the Nose were in a completely fantastic world – say H. P. Lovecraft’s – it would be just another ghoulish thrill. When fantasy does not make for such a tension between the supernatural and the author’s empirical environment, its monotonous reduction of all possible horizons to Death makes of it just a subliterature of mystification. Commercial lumping of it into the same category as SF is thus a grave disservice and rampantly socio-pathological phenomenon.

  • The pastoral,on the other hand, is essentially closer to SF. Its imaginary framework of a world without money-economy, state apparatus, and depersonalizing urbanization allows it to isolate, as in a laboratory, two human motivations: erotics and power-hunger. This approach relates to SF as alchemy does to chemistry and nuclear physics: an early try in the right direction with insufficient foundations. SF has much to learn from the pastoral tradition, primarily from its directly sensual relationships which do not manifest class alienation. This lesson has in fact often been absorbed, whenever SF has sounded the theme of the triumph of the humble (Restif, Morris, and others, up to Simak, Christopher, Yefremov, etc.). Unfortunately, the baroque pastoral abandoned this theme and jelled into a conventional sentimentality, discrediting the genre; but when pastoral escapes preciosity, its hope can fertilize the SF field as an antidote to pragmatism, commercialism, other-directedness, and technocracy.
    • Claiming a Galilean estrangement for SF does not at all mean committing it to scientific vulgarization or even technological prognostication, which it was engaged in at various times (Verne, the United States in the 1920s and 30s, USSR under Stalinism). The needful and meritorious task of popularization can be a useful element of SF works at a juvenile level. But even the roman scientifique,such as Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon – or the surface level of Wells’s Invisible Man – though a legitimate SF form, is a lower stage in its development. It is very popular with audiences just approaching SF, such as the juvenile, because it introduces into the old empirical context only one easily digestible new technological variable (Moon missile, or rays which lower the refractive index of organic matter).3 The euphoria provoked by this approach is real but limited, better suited to the short story and a new audience. It evaporates much quicker as positivistic natural science loses prestige in the humanistic sphere after the world wars (compare Nemo’s Nautilus as against the United States Navy’s atomic submarine of the same name), and surges back with prestigious peacetime applications in new methodologies (astronautics, cybernetics). As I will argue in chapter 7, even in Verne the “science novel” has a structure of transient estrangement, which is specific to murder mysteries, not to a mature SF.
    • After such delimitations, it is perhaps possible at least to indicate some differentiations within the concept of “cognitiveness” or “cognition.” As used here, this term implies not only a reflecting of but also on reality. It implies a creative approach tending toward a dynamic transformation rather than toward a static mirroring of the author’s environment. Such typical SF methodology – from Lucian, More, Rabelais, Cyrano, and Swift to Wells, London, Zamyatin, and writers of the last decades – is a critical one, often satirical, combining a belief in the potentialities of reason with methodical doubt in the most significant cases. The kinship of this cognitive critique with the philosophical fundaments of modern science is evident.
  • Note the functional difference from the anti-gravity metal in Wells’s First Men in the Moon,which is an introductory or “plausibility-validating” device and not the be-all of a much richer novel. Devices of plausibility are further discussed in chapter 4.

3.  The World of the Science Fiction Genre 

(Concept and Some Functions)

3.0. As a full-fledged literary genre, SF has its own repertory of functions, conventions, and devices. Many of them are highly interesting and might prove very revealing for literary history and theory in general. I shall discuss some of these – such as the historically crucial shift of the locus of estrangement from space to time – in the chapters that follow. I shall not, however, attempt a systematic survey of such functions and devices, which would properly be the subject of another book, one that encompassed modern SF as well. I should only like to mention that all the estranging devices in SF are related to the cognition espoused, and that, together with the historical venerability of the genre’s tradition, this seems to me a second, methodological reason for according SF much more importance than is usual in academe. However, it might here be possible to sketch some determining parameters of the genre.

3.1. In a typology of literary genres for our cognitive age, one basic parameter would take into account the relationship of the world(s) each genre presents and the “zero world” of empirically verifiable properties around the author (this being “zero” in the sense of a central reference point in a coordinate system, or of the control group in an experiment). Let us call this empirical world naturalistic. In it, and in the corresponding “naturalistic” or “realistic” literature, ethics is in no significant relation to physics. Modern mainstream fiction is forbidden the pathetic fallacy of earthquakes announcing the assassination of rulers or drizzles accompanying the sadness of the heroine. It is the activity of the protagonists, interacting with other, physically equally unprivileged figures, that determines the outcome. However superior technologically or sociologically one side in the conflict may be, any predetermination as to its outcome is felt as an ideological imposition and genological impurity: the basic rule of naturalistic literature is that man’s destiny is man.4 On the contrary, in the non-naturalistic, metaphysical literary genres

4 In such cases as certain novels by Hardy and plays by Ibsen, or some of the more doctrinaire works of the historical school of Naturalism, where determinism strongly

discussed in 2.1. and 2.2., circumstances around the hero are neither passive nor neutral. In the folktale and the fantasy, ethics coincides with (positive or negative) physics, in the tragic myth it compensates the physics, in the “optimistic” myth it supplies the coincidence with a systematic framework.

The world of a work of SF is not a priori intentionally oriented toward its protagonists, either positively or negatively; the protagonists may succeed or fail in their objectives, but nothing in the basic contract with the reader, in the physical laws of their worlds, guarantees either. SF thus shares with the dominant literature of our civilization a mature approach analogous to that of modern science and philosophy, as well as the omnitemporal horizons of such an approach – aspects which will be discussed in the following chapters.

3.2. As a matter of historical record, SF has started from a prescientific or protoscientific approach of debunking satire and naive social critique and moved closer to the increasingly sophisticated natural and human sciences. The natural sciences caught up and surpassed the literary imagination in the nineteenth century; the sciences dealing with human relationships might be argued to have caught up with it in their highest theoretical achievements but have certainly not done so in their alienated social practice. In the twentieth century SF has moved into the sphere of anthropological and cosmological thought, becoming a diagnosis, a warning, a call to understanding and action, and – most important – a mapping of possible alternatives. This historical movement of SF can be envisaged as an enrichment of and shift from a basic direct model to an indirect model (both to be analyzed at greater length in chapter 2). What matters here is that the concept of a science fiction tradition or genre is a logical corollary of the recognition of SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement. It can be gleaned from my approach and examples that I think the literary genre which I am trying to define embraces the subgenres mentioned in 1.1, from Greek and earlier times

stresses circumstance at the expense of the main figures’ activity, we have, underneath a surface appearance of “naturalism,” an approach to tragic myth using a shamefaced validation for an unbelieving age. As contrary to Shakespeare or the Romantics, in this case ethics follows physics in a supposedly causal chain (most often through biology). An analogous approach to fairy tale is to be found in, say, the mimicry of “naturalism” in which Hollywood happy-end movies engage.

until today (the Islands of the Blessed, utopias, fabulous voyages, planetary novels, Staatsromane,anticipations, and dystopias – as well as the Vernetype romans scientifiques,the Wellsian scientific romance variant, and the twentieth-century magazine- and anthology-based SF sensu stricto). If the argument of this chapter holds, the inner kinship of these subgenres is stronger than their obvious autonomous, differentiating features. Some historical discussion of these kinships and differences will be attempted later on in this book; here I want only to observe that the significant writers in this line were quite aware of their coherent tradition and explicitly testified to it (the axis Lucian-More-Rabelais-Cyrano-Swift-M. Shelley-Verne-Wells is a main example). Also, certain among the most perspicacious surveyors of aspects of the field, like Ernst Bloch, Lewis Mumford, or Northrop Frye, can be construed as assuming this unity.

3.3. The novelty of such a concept shows most distinctly when one attempts to find a name for the genre as it is here conceived. Ideally this name should clearly set it apart from (1) nonliterature, (2) the empiricist literary mainstream, and (3) non-cognitive estrangings such as fantasy; furthermore (4) it should try to add as little as possible to the already prevailing confusion of tongues in this region. The academically most acceptable designation has been that of a literature of utopian thought. The concept is no doubt partly relevant, but fails to meet the first criterion above; logically, such an approach was usually taught and considered within the scope of either the history of ideas or political and sociological theory. Although I would agree that literature (and especially this genre) is most intimately involved with life – indeed, that the destiny of humanity is its telos – I think one should quickly add that literature is also more than an ideational or sociological document. Since this is the rationale for any systematic literary study and scholarship, I may not need to labor the point.

The only proper way of searching for a solution seems to require starting from the qualities defining the genre, since this would take care of the criteria 1 to 3 at least. Taking the kindred thesaurus concepts of science for cognition, and fiction for estrangement, I believe there is a sound reason for calling this whole new genre Science Fiction (sensu lato).

There are two main objections to such a solution. First, cognition is wider than science; I argued as much myself in 2.5. It is much less weighty, however, if one takes “science” in a sense closer to the German Wissenschaft,French science,or Russian nauka,which include not only natural but also all the cultural or historical sciences and even scholarship (cf. Literaturwissenschaft, sciences humaines). As a matter of fact, that is what science has been taken to stand for in the practice of SF: not only More or Zamyatin, but the writings of Americans such as Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Dick, etc. would be completely impossible without sociological, psychological, historical, anthropological, and other parallels. Further, an element of convention enters into all names (compare “comparative literature”), but it has proved harmless as long as the name is handy, approximate enough, and above all applied to a clearly defined body of works. The second objection is that the use of “science fiction” confuses the whole genre with the twentieth-century SF from which the name was taken. Given the advantages of the only term at hand fulfilling the above criteria, I would argue that this is at worst a minor drawback: nobody has serious trouble in distinguishing between More’s book, the country described in it, and the subgenre of “utopia.” The trouble begins with the variety of unrelated interdisciplinary and ideological interpretations foisted upon such a term; “science fiction” might perhaps escape the interdisciplinary part of that obstacle race. Furthermore, there are always advantages to acknowledging clearly one’s methodological premises. As both Lukács and Eliot would agree, any tradition is modified and reestablished by a sufficiently significant new development, from whose vantage point it can be reinterpreted. This is, I would maintain, the case with the mentioned ci-devant traditions, for example, of “utopian literature,” in the age of science fiction. If that is accepted, the new name is no drawback at all, but simply an onomastic consummation.

4. For a Poetics of Science Fiction (Anticipation)

4.1. The above sketch should, no doubt, be supplemented by a sociological analysis of the “inner environment” of SF, exiled since the beginning of the twentieth century into a reservation or ghetto which was protective and is now constrictive, cutting off new developments from healthy competition and the highest critical standards. Such a sociological discussion would enable us to point out the important differences between the highest reaches of the genre, glanced at here in order to define functions and standards of SF, and its debilitating average.5

4.2. If the whole above argumentation is found acceptable, it will be possible to supplement it also by a survey of forms and subgenres. Along with some which recur in an updated form – such as the utopia and fabulous voyage – the anticipation, the superman story, the artificial intelligence story (robots, androids, and so on), time-travel, catastrophe, the meeting with aliens, and others, would have to be analyzed. The various forms and subgenres of SF could then be checked for their relationships to other literary genres, to each other, and to various sciences. For example, the utopias are – whatever else they may be – clearly sociological fictions or social-science-fiction, whereas modern SF is analogous to modern polycentric cosmology, uniting time and space in Einsteinian worlds with different but covariant dimensions and time scales. Significant modern SF, with deeper and more lasting sources of enjoyment, also presupposes more complex and wider cognitions: it discusses primarily the political, psychological, and anthropological use and effect of knowledge, of philosophy of science,and the becoming of failure of new realities as a result of it. The consistency of extrapolation, precision of analogy, and width of reference in such a cognitive discussion turn into aesthetic factors. (That is why the “scientific novel” discussed in 2.3. is not deemed completely satisfactory – it is aesthetically poor because it is scientifically meager.) Once the elastic criteria of literary structuring have been met, a cognitive – in most cases strictly scientific – element becomes a measure of aesthetic quality, of the specific pleasure to be sought in SF. In other words, the cognitive nucleus of the plot codetermines the fictional estrangement itself.

5       A first approach to the sociology of SF may be found in the special issue of ScienceFiction Studies,November 1977, edited and with an introduction by me.

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FORMS OPEN TO LIFE (2013) (8,640 words)

Darko Suvin, interviewed by Federico Pianzola

FORMS OPEN TO LIFE (2013)                              (8,640 words)

[FP] In this conversation I would like to move from the general to the particular and although I am aware that you have implicitly or explicitly dealt with these topics over the years, I would like to raise these questions anew, asking them with regard to the present time and looking to the future.

In your career you have contributed to discussions in many fields of human knowledge, proposing interpretations and models in performance and literary studies, political theory, social theory, linguistics, and cognitive studies. I think your transdisciplinary work is thought-provoking and really valuable in each of the fields you entered but, following your example of constant awareness and critical attitude, I would like to ask you: on what ground and on the strength of what knowledge can humanists intervene in social and political issues? I am alluding to your claim: «No valid epistemology (perceiving, understanding, culture) without politics – and viceversa» (“Utopianism from Orientation to Agency” 260).


[DS] Well, we are living, in my opinion, in apocalyptic times: you see fascism rising in the whole Europe and beyond, you see a savage kind of capitalism making for exasperated conditions everywhere, especially among the intellectuals. So I am not sure I see a special role for humanists here, except if it were to bring to bear their specialist knowledge, insofar as they have it, on the huge problems happening already and growing at the speed of computer communication every day. As different from the 1930s or 40s there are no countervailing forces on the horizon that I can see at any rate, so we have to get enthusiastic about Bolivia or Venezuela because there is nothing to get enthusiastic about nearer to us… maybe about Iceland that voted for control of banks? What I am saying as gently as I can is that the background of your question is somewhat naïve: what can humanists do? Be antifascist, I guess.

That said, as a humanist I still believe we have some potential contribution to make, which is basically what Marx did and which I call «demystification», or «demythologisation», if you wish. If a myth is in force, once you examine it in terms of historical semantics, semiotics, narratology and all the other tools we have acquired in the last three hundred years, it is possible to see not only where it comes from, but who is using it, for what purposes, and to what profit. In that sense, if we ever find a movement that is willing to listen to us, we could do something, or if we could contribute to found such a movement – I mean a political oppositional movement. Otherwise, for example, Derrida in his book on Marx (Specters) – which I think is in some ways very important, not least for him, it is a change for the better in Derrida – talks about a «New International», and so far as I can understand the New International is Derrida and his disciples around the world holding lectures. Obviously this will not change too much, it will make for interesting readings for some hundreds of us…

What I am trying to say is that where I come from and with the experiences that I have had, having seen fascism at first hand, the real one, I now see that we have again fascism, a somewhat less open but not too much less, not in Hungary and in Ukraine, and certainly not in Croatia where war criminals are blessed by bishops, and so on. We have fascism, and in fact clerico-fascism, a syntagm people once thought was a product of propaganda but now you see they are holding up the world. Therefore, my answer would be: we can act as humanists only if we can contribute with our specialist knowledge to some kind of anti-capitalist movement, which will have to be also an antifascist movement, otherwise it is nothing.


[FP] You are thinking more about a militant attitude of humanists but I was also thinking about the role that humanist knowledge can have in debates in different fields. How can humanists have something to say, for instance, about the policies of scientific research, about bioethics? How can they intervene in debates about human rights?


[DS] To talk about human rights or bioethics when a sixth or more of the world population is starving is just hypocrisy. I do not want to participate in such dialogues. First you have to say: let’s nationalise the banks and feed the people! Only then we can have real debates. I do not see the point of all these intra-humanist dialogues, which possibly help our careers but otherwise help nobody.


[FP] So humanities are something like a closed system, in your opinion?


[DS] By definition every discipline is up to a point a closed system, and I have spent my all life talking against closed systems, first of all in politics, which I saw at first hand, and in teaching or research disciplines. This is why I went to Comparative Literature, because it is so ill-defined that it is practically an open system: you can do whatever you want, if you can get away with it. I am not thinking about what is called «letteratura comparata» in Italy, which is a purely bureaucratic dodge, I mean the ‘real’ comparative literature like it is done in France, the USA and a little bit in central Europe or Latin America. It was a way to talk about stuff which was not canonical, that is to say literature of other continents, plebeian literary forms like science fiction, movies – which are not literature at all but another sign system. And it was also very easy to have a cross dialogue with theory, which began in linguistics and then burgeoned into whatever we have seen in the last 60, 70 years, beginning with structuralism and semiotics and so on. In that sense, if there were a use for such knowledge then there would be a possibility to gain knowledge through professional interests and achievements of the so called ‘human sciences’.


[FP] You mentioned your defence of open systems, with respect to this I would like to refer to your work “On the Horizons and Epistemology of Science”, where you claim that ‘good science’ must be based on holistic understanding. I think this is precisely what you are pursuing in your work…


[DS] Well, «holistic» is a kind of stenography and abbreviation. It means going beyond what is considered canonical in your own discipline, looking for inspiration and knowledge at the meeting points of disciplines. I still believe Marxian thinking can and must be an open system. I have just written a book about the ex-, in a way ‘socialist’, Yugoslavia which I think is at the meeting point of politics and epistemology. In that sense you can use the tools of political science, the tables of statistics, the identification of social classes, debates about political parties, and so on. And you can say: has this anything to do with the alienation of people, with the dispossession of people? And how do people justify such a system: Yugoslav rulers, the so-called Communist Party or League? You can have an immanent critique of their discourse, which can use historical semantics à la Raymond Williams, or semiotics  somewhat less formal than Umberto Eco, and everything that we have learned in these last years. The talk about «socialist capital», for example, should have alerted somebody of some contradictions, which are possibly fertile and can be defended, but then you have to defend them, you cannot just presuppose them because you are in power, saying that if you dispose of the capital, then it is ipso facto socialist capital. This is an old Stalin trick. So, I do not say I am in favour of knowledge, I am in favour of using knowledge, I am in favour of people having and teaching knowledge. But I do think that we should very soon find our horizons closing down, first economically and then politically. Finally, if you wish in a police way, where what you want to say is called «terrorism» and then you get into jail. Therefore, if you want to go on talking as a humanist then you better find some allies, who will try to get you out of jail, or to get you published.

You might think I am exaggerating about jail, this happens only in poor countries – we shall see that in the near future, but certainly I am not exaggerating about getting published and distributed: who can get new stuff distributed today above three hundred copies? Yes, you can do an examination of Leopardi or Shelley and you can have that published, or you can publish your own book on demand (I have done it and sold thirty copies): but anything that would be usable for mass understanding and leading to action is strictly controlled. Furthermore, in our de-schooled world, the rulers have understood what, for example, Stalin never understood: that written words per se (without, say, images) are not so important. Stalin had the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, where the written word was important, but if you have the television, and the videos and the movies, then you can say whatever you want by means of written word, you will be read by three hundred people, and who cares? I am much more attuned today to the whole process of communication – which is: who says what, to whom, why, and for what effect – not simply to the central link in the chain, which is «what is being said». Because what is being said cannot be understood to any degree of precision without knowing who says it, in what situation and for what reason. This is very clear when you talk about a novel: it is always told by somebody. If Uriah Heep in Dickens (David Copperfield) tells you something, you know you should not believe that. But it is not always clear outside literary fiction. For instance, in the movies it gets to be much less clear, and in everyday discourse it gets to be even less clear. I am not sure we have enough tools for that, because the tools would have to be largely bastardised with politico-epistemological tools. And then of course you would be accused of doing politics and not humanistic work, of being ‘unprofessional’ – a very convenient bourgeois shibboleth.


[FP] This brings me to ask you about your epistemological approach: I think you have been coherent throughout your career, since the ’60s you adopted a constructivist approach, considering the context and the whole process of communication in understanding plays, novels, short stories, but also other communicative and social phenomena that you studied. You also argued for the necessity of abandoning the idea of an «All-Encompassing Truth», of «Monoaletheia» (“On the Horizons and Epistemology of Science”). Your models and theories, as well as your interpretations, reflect this urge. Drawing from one of your models (“On Cognitive Emotions and Topological Imagination”): it seems to me that your activity of rational conceptualisation is done in close connection with the conscious use of topological and analogical thinking.


[DS] I have always been fascinated by the concept of «model». For example, a «type» in literature is a model, a very particular kind of model (“Levels of Narrative Agents”). In some way all our theorisation proposes models, whether it knows it or not, which are abstract figures that can explain a lot of concrete things. They are not simply abstractions, as Platonic ideas, they retain some features of the particular that they propose to explain, they set up relationships and so on. A «type» should not have more than three or four traits. You retain the traits that you can see in everyday life: for example, Pantalone is a type from the «Commedia dell’arte», which is nice because it is so clear cut. He has three or four traits: he is «avaricious», he is «old» and he is «amorous». This leads one, more or less clearly, to epistemology, in the broader sense of a theory of cognition, not only as a theory of science. I have done nothing nearly as systematic as, for example, Meir Sternberg did (“Telling in time (II)”).1/ Einstein said that all his life he thought about two things: a man running on a train in the direction opposite to where the train was going, and a man falling in an elevator and trying to go up. If you think about it, they are one and the same thing, not two – they differ in presence or absence of gravity.

A fragment from the old poet Archilochus runs: «The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing». I have always liked more the fox. In a way I have always admired, for example, Roland Barthes, who started out as a “depth reader” in his wonderful Michelet and advanced from there to his perhaps most important work, Mythologies, and then became a structuralist, then became a semiotician, then improvised as a nipponologist, and in the end became something for which there is no name, I mean his work on photography with the topology of the punctum (Camera Lucida). Not that I would dare compare myself, in terms of importance, breadth or understanding, to Barthes, but I always admired him because you can see how he was forced by the political situation in France – the ideological situation between Gaullism and a very stupid form of Marxism – to invent for himself various ways to understand things. You could not believe the orthodox bourgeois stuff, which was the Gaullists, you could not believe the stupid Stalin stuff, which was the Communist Party, so what would you do? Well, you are on your own. Possibly with a very important background of predecessors.

My background is Marx and some people in that tradition – Brecht, Bloch, Benjamin and on – usually the kind of heretics considered at the margin of that tradition, but not really there. Well, I think Benjamin was really on the margin, but Brecht and Bloch to me are orthodox marxists, they are what I would like to see Marxism be. In that time there was a very important tradition that various of us had, and we also had a very favourable climate, that of the «Welfare State» – roughly from 1945 to 1973 – which was a direct consequence of the October Revolution. The terrible fright the Western capitalists took led them to say: let us introduce some panem et circenses. Before the masses turn to communism, the real one, let us give them a watered down kind of social stability, good salaries and the possibility of talking, as long as we have the army and television, and we will outmanoeuvre them. This has worked very well: until the capitalist rulers decided they were safe because the Soviet Union was failing, and so they did not need it anymore.

But in that period – in 1945 I was fifteen years old and beginning to think – everything was open, everything was questionable. The horizons were open. Fascism had been defeated. All of us tried to understand things in a context which was economically favourable, even in poor Yugoslavia – you did not have to pay to go to university, you received some financial help, it was not difficult to get published – in fact in socialism you got paid for it, because when you write you are working and so you got paid. On the other hand, we had the experience of two world wars. That is to say, you must think holistically to understand. Even the US Republican Party understood it: a famous book when I was young was One World by the Republican Party’s candidate Willkie, who ran against Roosevelt in 1944. That is: there is one world… and we have to dominate it. Everybody understood that we are in a holistic system, which became photographable when the first picture from the Moon was taken. This little blue planet in an infinity of darkness, blackness… this is holistic! Of course, it depends on what you mean by «holistic»: if it is just a mishmash of everything it does not mean anything. I take it to mean: relating it to other matters of importance to human destiny – what the Greeks called ananke, the fate. Which today is roughly the stock market or the killing drones.

What I am trying to explain is the context in which I was working: an extremely favourable context as opposed to the context beginning in the ’80s which became very unfavourable, both materially and morally. Whereas the one from, say, 1940s to mid -’70s was favourable both materially and morally. The rest is a matter of happy instances and personal preferences: I was always fascinated by theatre, also by movies but it seemed to me that the skeleton of what happens in movies could be found in dramaturgy, which is the way of writing drama and could be applicable to all performance genres. I wanted to make a theory of performance genres but I never managed to do it. I was fascinated by drama in theatre because there was potentially an intrinsically utopian element in theatre, where communication – I do not like the word «communication» but still – interaction, feedback happens between two groups of people. Those giving the message and those receiving or refusing the message and sending it back, subliminally but quite clearly for anybody who knows anything of theatre. For example, when an audience starts coughing too much, your message is not coming across. There is this direct face-to-face relationship, which has something utopian to my mind, in the positive sense.

My major conclusion from the history of my childhood is that we live between the horizons of utopia and dystopia, the ‘very good place’ and the ‘very bad place’. These are horizons which will never be achieved, and you should not pretend ever that you live in utopia, nor do we live today in a total dystopia, there are always possibilities and openings (this is called dialectics»). I was always very interested in this business of «utopia» and «horizon» and in what you could relate it to, where you could find it. For example, you could find it in theatre. I was a participant in the student theatre movement in Zagreb and Yugoslavia, and Europe, from the early 1950s to 1964. It was a very important movement, whose guiding stars were people like Brecht, Mayakovsky and Hikmet, and I have been trying for years to get people to write about it. It fed directly into the 60s’ youth revolt. It was important in France, in Germany – East and West – in Italy… It was done and written by young people, with little money, expressing themselves. With a lot of chaotic nonsense mixed in between, of course, because you were at the borders of possibility, you did not know, you were advancing into no man’s land. That is why I went into theatre.

I also began to be interested in theorizing this: first of all, what is drama? I participated for a long time in European student theatre, I became a theatre critic. Later I was hired by universities – first in Zagreb, then in the USA and then at McGill, where I stayed for a third of a century – but it was a little bit difficult to talk about theatre institutionally, except if you were in the theatre academy, but then you had to talk about how to help the actors – who were the students of the theatre academy – and I was not prepared to do that. I was thinking about what Aristotle writes in the Poetics, where there is not a single word about the actors. So I had to decide: do I want to be primarily a theoretician or a theatre critic? Moreover, the situation in North America was not really favourable to theatre criticism, as different from Europe. There were two or three theatre critics who dominated everything, in The New York Times and two or three other newspapers, and later on TV. There I started to write about drama and at some point, when I thought I had said some things historically about drama, I began writing about ‘topological’ matters, say, the interaction between theatre and audience, and how could this be explained by some depth psychological theories on aphasia and similar. Because theatre lives in a very strange situation: it is a kind of pharmakon, as Derrida would say (“Plato’s Pharmacy”), it is a poison. The audience is prevented from acting and this is poisonous, the normal impulse is to move. If you see the famous Lumière Brothers’ movie of the locomotive coming towards you, you want to get up. You are trained not to get up because this is a movie, but the first audiences did not know it and they screeched and fled – at least, we are told so, se non è vero è ben trovato. So, it is extremely unhealthy and poisonous to be shown the killing of Hamlet or the humiliation of Shylock and not to intervene. There are many anecdotes about Jews in the audience getting up and screeching: «anti-Semite!» to Shylock’s tormentors – the happenings were unbearable for them. But this is a breach of the basic contract the audience has with the theatre: we are not going to intervene on the stage. This poison can be turned, as a pharmakon, into a very valuable type of cognition, which is «we are showing you a story you would not have so clearly understood without us». For example, in King Lear the ruler is stupid, as usual, but he is more sinned against than sinful, as people around him are even worse. And at the end the ruler understands how he went wrong, and we do too (the same trick as in Brecht’s Galileo): of not believing in the Christian communism of love by his good third daughter. This would not be without interest today! This is based on fairy tales: the three daughters, and the two brothers in the Manichaean dialectics, and so on. It is a very potent brew and you would not have got it in any other way except by means of dramaturgy. I am very sorry that the many things I did have not allowed me to write a theory of theatre, or a full theory of narrative agents, except for a few sketches (“Levels of Narrative Agents”; “On Fiction as Anthropology”).

I did write a theory of science fiction because people wanted it. Yale University Press jumped at my book proposal: how do you refuse that? People had written about science fiction before me but no one had ever written a book at a big university press; I may also have had the first graduate course about science fiction or I may not, I do not remember. Science fiction was directly about other possible worlds – which is a kind of definition of «utopia», and which is why I tried to argue that science fiction has intrinsically something to do about being or not being a utopia. When I wrote this it was thought of as total nonsense. Utopia is something ideological in the 16th-17th century and science fiction something literary that begins with Jules Verne, as we all know. So, how do you relate this two? I have always thought – and that was a thing I learned from Braudel (“Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée”) – that «long duration» is a historical relationship, just as «short duration» is. Why? Braudel does not say why but I have got a hypothesis: because it is all happening in class society. This is the famous question by Marx: how can the sun of Homer shine on us? Why does Greek tragedy still talk to us? He has some fancy answers, which I do not share – because it was the youth of humanity and so on (Marx started as a bad romantic poet) – but the question is a very interesting one: how come we can read Homer? After all, the Homeric Greeks were one step up from savage warring tribes, much before modern civilization, if you take history seriously. If you say there is a ‘human nature’ which is the same in all the ages, and Caesar is the same as Eisenhower except that the dress codes were different, then there is no problem. But this is liberal nonsense, to say that people have a fixed stamp, which is basically a theological idea: where would this fixed stamp come from? If it came from nature then it is dynamic, because it came – as Darwin told us – from primates, and if it has changed from the Australopithecus to man then it can change again. And it changes in little increments, not all at once, so it can change all the time. Unless you share the liberal idea, this watered down version of monotheistic theology, then your only answer is that there are long duration class constants, such as «war». How do you understand Troy? That is no problem: they have had a war. Of course you must understand the differences too: the type of armament is different, and the emotions going with it are different too, but there is a value – as I say in my schematic system (“Levels of Narrative Agents”) – about which the protagonist and the antagonist fight. And that is a long duration system.


[FP] What I find very interesting is that in every discourse that you make, in every model that you sketch, I see that the focus is on processes and relations, and not on objects or fixed categories…


[DS] Well, I have been like this for a long time. Let me just give you the political situation. I was born in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was a dictatorship of one nation and class over the others. I then lived under the fascist Ustaše Croatian government for a few months, who wanted to kill me and did not manage. I then lived under the occupation of the Italian army, who were much nicer because except for the fascist camicie nere (black shirts) they did not go around killing people, unless they were in a battle. I then lived in Bari from ’43 to ’45 under the Anglo-American occupation of the supposedly ‘democratised’ South Italy. I then came back to Democratic Federative Yugoslavia, which was a kind of proto-socialist State and became proclaimed as Socialist Republic led by the Communist Party, with various contradictions inside the State, which I call «the plebeian search from below and the rule from above». I studied in the West: in Yugoslavia but also in Paris, in England and at Yale. I saw that at first hand. Then I had a fight in Yugoslavia and had to leave, first to the USA and then to Canada, which is a much more peaceful place. Well, how many systems are those? Seven, eight? Is it a constant? This is all in process! Some of them coexisted, some of them followed each other… so how do you believe in ‘fixity’? Only if you are very nostalgic or mentally retarded.

I am not even so sure that I like this dynamics so much. Dynamics has historically been introduced by the bourgeoisie – capitalism – and one great socialist, William Morris, wrote a book, News from Nowhere, whose subtitle is An Epoch of Rest. Let us have a little rest from all this progress and dynamics! «Rest» on a ‘high’ level, when nobody is hungry, nobody kills nobody, etc. So, philosophically speaking I am not sure I believe dynamics are the only model and the end of our modelling, however we do live in such an epoch and this has to be explained. Obviously not everything is like that: dynamics can only exist if certain things remain static, and other things change. Germany rules Europe, there is a war, then America and Soviet Union rule Europe. You have «ruling», you have «Europe»: these things remain. In other words, as theatre theory would say, the roles remain, the actors change. How do you explain these changes? Why was dialectics first invented in the Ionian cities when democratic tyrants fought the aristocracy? And why was it then reinvented by Hegel at the time of the French revolution? Because you have to explain contradictions. They cannot be explained by theology. Monotheistic theology has God and the Devil: that is fixity. Some other theologies are better in this regard, the Buddhist theology is better. That was another great lesson that I think my generation learned: something like dialectics (Hegel or Marx, or the new versions, whatever) has to be used in order to understand how the core of the Communist Party became a capitalist oligarchy in one month, as it happened in all Eastern Europe. This is a quality change, accruing from small quantities, but it was totally possible. Officially there are fixed categories – Communism, Capitalism – however there are contradictions. Contradictions are always two things which have a relationship, and the pulls of the relationship can shift. It is a kind of seesaw, as Brecht once said (Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses): some are up because some are down.

Basically I tried to put into some forms the relationships which were assailing me, and my whole generation – as pertaining to literature and theatre and some questions of modelling in culture. Probably each generation in history could be explained that way. As Althusser says, you are «interpellated» by certain things (“Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”) – I am not a great fan of Althusser but two or three things are quite nice. The idea of «interpellation» is one of the few fertile theological ideas – Althusser came to Communism from Christian youth and he has this background. There is a lot of stuff in Medieval philosophy which is collectivist and is quite usable today, I think. So you are interpellated, and my definition of the «intellectual» is: somebody who answers, who is answerable to some things, to some groups maybe but certainly to some matters. Some groups insofar as they are bearers of some things: ideals, values, whatever.


[FP] I am not surprised that you correlate this way of thinking, of creating models and explanations, to your historical background but I am very positively struck by the fact that your theories of utopia and science fiction became so popular. I dare say that nowadays in science fiction studies your model is the main stream.


[DS] Yes. It is also shot at, but at least it is there to be shot at. Yes, I have not seen anybody who went beyond that. One or two people thought they could fix it by little changes, but I doubt this. You either take it or you leave it. However, I think it is increasingly unpopular insofar as science fiction studies per se are increasingly downgraded in favour of Fantasy. And the Fantasy people dislike my theory, as well they should. Some of them are on the Left, to my surprise! There is a famous English ex-Trotskyist who is one of the best Fantasy writers I know of: China Miéville. We are in a new game. I still have some basic doubts about the potential of Fantasy. Let me put it this way: if you have two thermometers, the one of Fantasy going to 40 degrees and the one of science fiction going to 100 degrees, this does not mean that there cannot be bad science fiction, which is at 30, and good Fantasy which is at 35. Do you see what I mean? But I think the potential to go over 40 is not there.


[FP] Does it mean that you do not see a horizon of utopia in Fantasy?


[DS] It is a very watered down wishy-washy utopia, usually a cynical dystopia. Of course the horizon of utopia always exists, just as the horizon of dystopia always exists.

So the challenge to my theory does not come from theory, it comes from practice, which is that people read more Fantasy today. Television is full of Game of Thrones stuff – which is very well done. I look at it with some interest as long as I can stand it, which is about one or two hours (it is basically about sex and killing in a barbaric ruling class). The practice has moved on because the social bearer of science fiction, the readership, is no longer there or is there in a smaller, relict way. It was the young people of the middle class – students, high school kids and continuing when they grow up – who believed the system of the Welfare State could be changed for the better, onwards and upwards. Like in Star Trek. Well, the present generation of precariato [precariousness] does not believe it any more, quite rightly. Why should they? So what do they believe in? Vampires, lycanthropes… stuff which is obviously impossible, because their own life is impossible. So why should they believe in the possible? But then they are in a dead end (literally, with zombies).


[FP] And these are all ‘monsters’…


[DS] That is a nice part that I like. How do you dialecticise a monster? I have never understood this. Of course there can be a lycanthrope in love with you, so when he turns into a wolf he will have a tough time not trying to eat you up. There is a certain amount of sympathy there: can he contain himself and think of himself as a young man who loves this girl, or as a wolf who wants some fresh meat? It would be very interesting for me to see, for example, how the young man remembers that he is a wolf and sees the girl as fresh meat, that is, roughly as a slaveholder. But then you have to understand the economics and the politics of slaveholding, and you are in science fiction, you are not in Fantasy any more. Otherwise it is worth nothing, it is psychological driblets: he is sorry but he has to do it anyway because it is his instinct and so on. This is also a de-schooled generation: what the ’68 has wanted has come back to haunt us. They know nothing about science, they know nothing about history, they know only the momentary impact on you now. It is now. That is a very unhealthy psychological frame. Of course, we live now, but now comes from then and goes there. And it is of great help to the rulers, because if you live in now you cannot imagine anything else, except a monstrous form of now. You can tell me that Marx wrote a lot about vampires – for him capitalists suck the blood of workers, I wrote about this (“Transubstantiation of Production and Creation”) – there is a whole strand of Gothic imagery in Marx. However, I think Fantasy is a good servant but a very bad master, and it has now become the master. So I have strong doubts.

Can there be very good Fantasy? If so, how? I would love to write a big essay on Kafka, which is the most superior form of Fantasy that I can imagine. What are Kafka’s writings as a genre? It is not realistic, it is not science fiction… it is a kind of philosophical Fantasy. In the same room or topos with Borges and a number of Latin American and other people. Very idiosyncratic in his own way because he is a great writer, he is the Dostoevsky of Fantasy, so to speak. I deeply love much Kafka. Perhaps I do not like the most famous story, the Metamorphosis, I think it is secondary. The central image and predicament of the bug is very vivid, it could be filmed, but the relationship with the family, which is the raison d’être of the story, is not clear. However, I would really like to write about some other things in Kafka, including his novels but even better his short stories. Yet now I have just finished the book on Yugoslavia (Samo jednom se ljubi) and I have to finish my memoirs.

In sum, on my theory of science fiction: yes, you are right, there is no better theory on the horizon, though, on the other hand, science fiction is declining beyond the horizon, so to speak. It is very ambiguous.


[FP] With my question I also meant that it was surprising for me that a theory focusing on dynamics and processes was so widely accepted and used in a whole field of study. I mean, a constructivist epistemology is not easier to accept and deploy in scientific inquiry than «‘Objectivism’, for which reason means the analysis of a permanently delimited object within a single neutral – value-free and simultaneously eternally valuable – framework for inquiry» (“On Cognitive Emotions” 171).


[DS] First of all there was no establishment in science fiction studies before my generation. We created it, people like Bruce Franklin and me, and ten others, usually in the journal Science-Fiction Studies which I co-edited. So there was nobody to stop you. On the other hand, there was an interested and intelligent readership. Of course, they were intelligent young Americans mostly. Young Americans are spottily educated, they have always been, though in the ’50s much better than today. In the 19th century and up to the 1930s you had to have German to have a university degree in the USA, because science was in German. Well, that went by the boards when science started developing in the USA: what do we need that for? «History is bunk», as Henry Ford said, what do I need German or history, or whatever, for if I have mass production? And Ford was the prophet of the age.

Still, it was a favourable conjunction. There was a large amount of people ready to buy books of science fiction. Certainly half a million, possibly one million or more. In fact, Yale University Press sold almost three thousand copies of my book (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction). There were debates, conferences, symposia, and even prizes. And the English departments thought: maybe we should recognise this. I was hired at McGill for two reasons: because they needed someone in drama, and because the students were demonstrating – that was in ’67-’68 – and they also wanted science fiction, among other things. So at McGill they said: this guy can teach drama and he can also teach science fiction. We do not give power to students but we can give them science fiction. And the students were extremely disappointed when I came the first day in a suit and tie. I came from pre-1968 Europe where a university lecturer comes in a suit and tie. Then we got to be friends but they told me they thought: what kind of a marxist is that in a suit and tie? I was a kind of Berlinguerian marxist – there is this movie about Berlinguer now in Italy (Quando c’era Berlinguer) – even though I was a little in advance of Berlinguer: I would not have gone in for the compromesso storico [historical compromise]. Let us renew this approach that we have! Which is historical, materialistic and dialectical. It is the only approach that we have. Maybe someone will invent something better than Marxism but it has not been done in two hundred years, so let us use it while it lasts.

There was no establishment in science fiction to overthrow, there was tabula rasa. There were some fans and writers – like James Blish, Damon Knight… and I read them all – who were writing about science fiction, most of it valuable stuff. But there was no systematic, it was a kind of positivistic approach, which is ok because you have to begin with the positivistic «this is here and that is there» and then you can go on and do relationships. We were on virgin land, a kind of crew of Columbus. You think it is China but it is not China, it is something else but at least you have discovered something. Later people found out what I think it really is, which will turn out to be false in a hundred years again, and so on.


[FP] With respect to these comments about your epistemological approach, I would like to ask you about your work on narrative. Reading your articles and books I have found two different definitions of «narrative»: on the one hand, you conceive narrative as «a finite and coherent sequence of actions, located in the space-time of a possible world and proceeding from an initial to a final state of affairs. Its minimal requirements would be an agent, an initial state changing to a commensurate final state, and a series of changes consubstantial to varying chronotopes» (“On Metaphoricity and Narrativity in Fiction” 63). On the other hand, you interestingly claim that «in its long history, the sjuzhet has at different times managed to do without many elements or aspects: overt action, individuality of narrative agents, linear causality, etc. Yet I cannot imagine any narrative – epic or dramatic, to use familiar terms – that would not have some form of chronotope» (64). Moreover, in the later “On Cognitive Emotions and Topological Imagination” you slightly modify the first definition adding a coda: «unified by a plot with metaphoric tenor» (190).


[DS] Well, the first one is a formalist definition of narrative. As I said, I do think that we have to start with formalism, there is no other way to start. What would you like to start with? Simple ideology? Content? Re-telling? If you want to talk valuably about art, fiction, etc. you have to start with forms. In the book Victorian Science Fiction in the UK I tried to apply the method of my great friend Raymond Williams, who was in favour of a social theory of literature. A social theory of literature means: who talks to whom and why? And how, of course. If the how is not interesting we would not talk about this matter at all. All the artists have told us that why and how are two sides of the same hand. This is my most advanced approach to literature, in my opinion: a non-formalist approach. This was possible because the Victorians were extremely self-conscious. In England you find tons of handbooks with data, biographies of all the writers, where they studied, their families, where they came from… the data are there. And I found out that out of two or three hundred writers, three or four were from working class or artisan families; a few dozens were from upper class, but the rest was middle class. I do not believe in automatic determination from your class to the type of thing that you write, nonetheless obviously there is a relationship. I tried to apply the Williamsian theory to a corpus of 450 books I pieced together in the basement of the British Museum library. It took me eighteen months of my life to write that book: to find the corpus, to read it all, to write about it. Eleven months of a sabbatical year, plus three summers of two-plus months: it is too expensive. And it was supposed to be just the introduction to a survey of 20th-Century science fiction from Wells on, which I then never did. To do the same with two or three thousand books you would need an academy of science, a group of well-financed people, roughly of the same ideological horizon – the one we are talking about here: things happening in processes, etc. – but we do not have this. We do not have a well-funded, independent, progressive, cognitive organisation. We have a lot of totally non-independent and reactionary cognitive organisations, they are called «think tanks». Very few of them are anti-capitalist. It is one of the reasons for which the great experiment of the October revolution – including its consequences (Yugoslavia, China, etc.) – has failed. Because they did not have think tanks. They did not give the intellectuals independence and they did not give them a cognitive orientation.

I admire – by contraries – people like Meir Sternberg, Thomas Pavel or Lubomir Doležel, who dedicate their whole life to one thing, narrative theory, doing it well, and in the best cases, such that of Sternberg, they insist that it is relational. Although in order to make his point he may downplay the formalism a little too much, for my taste, but of course every pioneer has to make his point, he cannot be just. My relational horizon is not the same as Sternberg’s. When I wrote about science fiction theory, about ten years ago, I supplemented my old definition of utopia – «The semiotic construction of a particular community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, & relationships between people are organised according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community; this construction being based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis» – with a codicil: «the ‘perfection’ is judged from the point of view or within the value-system of a discontented social class or congeries of classes, of people who suffer of the existing system and think how to change it» (“Theses on Dystopia 2001” 188). Sternberg speaks with great effect and to great results about a kind of general reader, like in the case of unreliable narration conceived as an effect on the reader (“Reconceptualizing Narratology” 47). But where do the different readers that will believe or not the narrator come from? Have their response anything to do with social class, profession, age, gender? This is a too abstract model for my taste. I would like to see this correlated to actual readers. How do you read Dostoevsky today, is the Russian people really the incarnation of Christ? In the 17th century, how would monarchists and republican have read Andrew Marvell’s great ode on the beheading of king Charles (Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland)? Obviously very differently. Marvell was a Puritan fellow-traveller speaking about his enemy as magnanimously as Aeschylus spoke about the Persians (The Persians). This is the humanizing trait of poetry. Most probably Marvell as a Machiavellian politician would have voted for the beheading of the king, but he could also appreciate his chivalrous qualities. What I am saying is that, if I would have time to write a theory of literature, I would focus on the forms issuing from stances of such and such groups – which do not have to be full-grown social classes. This was pioneered by two people I would claim as my teachers, Lucien Goldmann and Raymond Williams, and I tried to write in this vein when I wrote about «types» (“Levels of Narrative Agents”; “On Fiction as Anthropology”). In that sense I would totally agree with a relational, as against a static, formalist approach. Relations cannot exist unless you have a form that relates to something. If you have chaos, inconsistency, relations occur only in unaccountable ways. Chaos relates in chaotic ways. It is one of my great regrets that I have not managed to do a theory of theatre, or a theory of narrative agents. We are all traversed by history, and shaped by it, and there is a price to pay for everything you do. The price is your time, the supreme price. The human body pays in its energy, its possibilities in time.

I guess I also had a very bad trait in terms of power: I do not like being a boss, even in the research field. As a Brecht poem has it, I did not like to command or being commanded, my communism is semi-anarchist. I have had relatively few PhD students, because usually your PhDs are in your research team. I did this once in my lifetime, I started a huge project but I immediately repented: too much paperwork. I want to sit down and think, and teach and talk. I do not want to organise things and fill forms, which were bad even then and today are horrible, I gather. I resigned from Science-Fiction Studies after seven years because I was tired, it was an awful lot of work, page-long airmail letters to contributors with comments and so on. Sternberg knows it very well but he remained stuck to Poetics Today much longer, he said 40% of his life was devoted to it (“Reconceptualizing Narratology” 44). 40% of my life between 1973 and 1981 was devoted to Science Fiction Studies, so when does one write? Never mind what some laughingly called «private life». If you look at my biography, I have been vice-president of fifteen things, I have never been the president of one of them. Perhaps it is not a good trait, it is anti-collectivistic, but when you start writing and thinking you realise that ars longa vita brevis: «The life so short, the craft so long to learn» (Chaucer).





1/ Mr Pianzola, an Italian young scholar, had before this just done an interview with my old acquaintance Meir Sternberg, editor of the important periodical of narrative theory Poetics Today in Israel, hence these references. The interview took place in Berlin, Summer 2013 (I think)



Works Cited


Aeschylus. The Persians.  Transl. J. Lembke and C. J. Herington. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.  Transl. B. Brewster. New York– London: Monthly R P, 1971, 127–86.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981.

—. Michelet.  Transl. R. Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1987.

—. Mythologies.  Transl. A. Lavers. London: Vintage, 2009.

Braudel, Fernand. “Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée.” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 13.4 (1958): 725–53.

Brecht, Bertolt. Saint Joan of the Stockyards [Slaughterhouses]. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969.

Chaucer,. Geoffrey. “The Parliament of Fowles.” Wikisource 22 Apr. 2011. Web access 14 July 2014.

Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in his Dissemination. Transl. B. Johnson. London: Athlone, 1981, 61–172.

—. Specters of Marx, the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International.  Transl. P. Kamuf. London: Routledge, 1994.

Marvell, Andrew. “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” in The Poems of Andrew Marvell. Ed. N. Smith. Edinburgh: Pearson, 2003, 267–79.   

Quando c’era Berlinguer. Dir. Walter Veltroni. BIM, 2014. Film.

Sternberg, Meir. “Telling in Time (II): Chronology, Teleology, Narrativity.” Poetics Today 13.3 (1992): 463–541.

—. “Reconceptualizing Narratology. Arguments for a Functionalist and Constructivist Approach to Narrative.” Enthymema 4 (2011): 35–50. Web access 14 July 2014.

Suvin, Darko. “On Cognitive Emotions and Topological Imagination.” Versus 68-69 (1994): 165– 201.

—. “On Fiction as Anthropology: Agential Analysis, Types, and the Classical Chinese Novel,” in J. Hall and A. Abbas eds., Literature and Anthropology. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 1986, 116–46.

—. “On the Horizons of Epistemology and Science.” Critical Quarterly 52.1 (2010): 68– 101.

—. “Levels of Narrative Agents.” Theory of Poetic Form: Proceedings of the X Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association. Ed. C. Guillén. New York: Garland, 1985, 227–32.

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

—. “On Metaphoricity and Narrativity in Fiction.” SubStance 48 (1986): 51–67.

—. Samo jednom se ljubi: radiografija SFR Jugoslavije. Belgrade: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2014.

—. “Theses on Dystopia 2001,” in R. Baccolini and T. Moylan eds., Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. New York & London: Routledge, 2003, 187–201.

—. “Transubstantiation of Production and Creation: Metaphoric Imagery in the Grundrisse.” Minnesota Review 18 (1982): 102–15.

—. Victorian Science Fiction in the U. K.: The Discourses of Knowledge and of Power. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1983.


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The Guardian, 20 November 2014 22.00 GMT


Ursula K Le Guin’s speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books aren’t just commodities’


To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience,[1] and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.

[1] Hannah Ellis-Petersen: Amazon and publisher Hachette end dispute over online book sales, The Guardian, 13. 11. 2014.


Darko Suvin


Ursula K[roeber] Le Guin, born October 21, 1929, is a US author of poetry, essays, and prose fiction. mainly in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and children’s or “young adult” literature. She has also written remarkable essays and ten collections of her sensitive verse — that have to my mind not received sufficient attention, and which I must slight here in order to speak mainly about what I can do in brief, her work in science fiction and Fantasy.

Le Guin’s work has been strongly interested in alternative worlds with different politics, natural environment, gender, religion, sexuality, and/or ethnography. In SF and Fantasy she belongs to the “warm current,” based on anthropological sciences and estranging ruling certainties. One of her critics has characterised it well as “identifying the present dominant socio-political American system as problematic and destructive to the health and life of the natural world, humanity, and their interrelations” (E. McDowell). The best known of her numerous SF works are the novels The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which I’m proud to say I spotted in a review as the best SF text of that remarkable peak year, and The Dispossessed (1974), which is to my mind – as I argued in a lengthy essay – the culmination and in a way end of the SF Golden Age 1960-74. Her most complex, and I think her own preferred novel is Always Coming Home (1985). She also wrote a number of brilliant short stories, my favourite being “The New Atlantis”: I have written about it as a coded parable of our times, and it is the highest praise I can imagine to say that this applies to all her works, no doubt in different ways and to a different degree. Her numerous forays into Fantasy fiction culminate in the Earthsea series, six novels that to my mind fall into two “trilogies,” one published 1968-72 and the other 1991-2001, of which the second uses a womanist point of view to largely take back the earlier one. Characteristically, when asked for her opinion on the Harry Potter novels, she said that she found the first Harry Potter book to be a “lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a ‘school novel'” but also found it “stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited”; a commentator said that “Rowling can type, but Le Guin can write.” See for more bibliographical info
Her youth was spent in Berkeley. Her father, Alfred L. Kroeber, a famous anthropologist and theoretician of culture of German descent, was professor of anthropology at the University of California, and her mother, Theodora born Cracaw, was a remarkable writer best known for her books The Inland Whale, a retelling of California Indian legends, and Ishi in Two Worlds, a biography of the last member of a California Indian tribe. Ursula Kroeber got a B.A. at Radcliffe College (the female wing of Harvard University) in 1951, and M.A. from Columbia University in 1952, in French and Italian literature. On ship in 1953 to study for a Ph.D. in Paris on a Renaissance writer, she met Charles Le Guin, a historian, whom she married. They settled in Portland Oregon in 1958 and have lived there since (three children).

For her 80th birthday a book of homage to her, which include some poems and stories was edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, with 40 contributors, most of them women authors in or around SF. All those of reading age when The Left Hand of Darkness was published adduce it as their eye-opener, but there are comments on a number of later novels too. The critical highlight for me was Eleanor Arnason’s piece, “7 Ways of Looking at Ursula K. Le Guin,” that asks in which areas would SF be diminished without UKLG. Her persuasive answer is: in feminist SF, in anthropological SF, in anarchism or systematic self-realization including Taoism, in realism, in description of aging, in style, and “in my own writing.” This encompasses a lot of terrain and it could be further developed, but I would certainly apply it to myself. (For an example, I learned from her splendid The Word for World Is Forest how gods – or if you wish divine heroes to be venerated by later generations — are made and usable in human history.)


Le Guin has won many significant literary awards. The speech which follows was pronounced in 2014, when she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It was preceded, significantly, by her resignation from the Authors Guild in 2009, protest its endorsement of Google’s book digitization project: “You decided to deal with the devil”, she wrote in her resignation letter. “There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.”
I shall try to analyse from my vantage point, no doubt coarsening and making blunter, her brief but rich and lightning speech at being awarded this prestigious prize, before a full house of writers, editors, and other people dealing with literature. It begins by breaking a lance for her comrades in the genres she is best known for, Fantasy and SF, the “imaginative writers.” The reason for this is, first, that we are witnessing the coming about of most difficult times, which means a serious peril for the freedoms not only of imagination but also action and I would say even survival of millions of people, including prominently the best minds of our generation. Such “visionaries, realists of a greater reality” are desperately needed to counteract a most dangerous society, generating a rising tide of blind panic amid quite destructive technological possibilities: to my mind, a nuclear war (we cannot know how limited or unlimited) is today quite conceivable, while the destruction of planetary ecology proceeds apace by a blind and frenzied capitalism. A second reason that imagination is the beginning of all wisdom is the endangering and erasing even of the memory of freedom, the damnatio memoriae of all the most rich and multifarious achievement of the age of Lenin and the Keynesian Welfare State, from bread and butter for almost everybody (in some privileged Northern parts of the world at least) to magnificent achievements of arts and science enlightening billions of people. In a way, thus, Le Guin’s speech is a call to revive truly liberating liberalism, that of J.S. Mill and Garibaldi for example, as against the fake “neo-liberalism” of today, that brings freedom only to profiteers at a huge cost in misery of billions. It is clear that we have to ”see through our present society” – that is, see what could be different from and what is hidden by it. (Let me add that all readers of Le Guin know that her cosmic vistas transcend present-day politics: they are shaped by an update of Daoism, and scathing about organised religion.)

Since she is speaking at and about a book award, Ursula Le Guin focuses then on “the difference between commodities for the market and [true, DS] literary activity,” or creativity. I shall not comment each sagacious part of her indictment: let me only say that I read this speech as a radical indictment of capitalism from the privileged option for the arts. If I should be accused of oversimplifying, I shall take leave to ask you what is the central feature, lever, and movens of capitalism? Obviously it is profit. And, Le Guin tells us: “often, profit is in conflict with the ultimate ends of art”! Gently, clearly, but inexorably, the finger has been pointed. Furthermore, capitalism is expressly named as a tyrannical force analogous to the divine rights of kings against which the 1776 revolution of Washington, Paine, and Jefferson was fought. At the end of her life, at the age of 85, a prominent intellectual writes as it were her ideological testament. What does she end it with? With the final recompense work can have, beyond (but of course including) nourishing the worker: which is Freedom. As the French revolutionaries said in the Marseillaise: Liberté, liberté chérie. This revolutionary liberalism shakes hands across centuries with socialism and anarcho-communism (as you can read at length in Le Guin’s masterpiece of The Dispossessed).

This, dear Reader, is a concise but precise Declaration of Independence of the Arts from Capitalism.

Lucca, September 2015



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