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Anatomy of Science Fiction

Anatomy of Science Fiction

Edited by

Donald E. Morse

CAMBRIDGE SCHOLARS PRESS


Anatomy of Science Fiction, edited by Donald E. Morse

This book first published 2006 by

Cambridge Scholars Press

15 Angerton Gardens, Newcastle, NE5 2JA, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data


A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright © 2006 by Donald E. Morse and contributors

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
ISBN 1-84718-018-3
For Brian Aldiss

Science-Fiction Writer, Story-Teller, Scholar


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Copyright Acknowledgements ........................................................................... x

Preface................................................................................................................xii

Introduction
The Science Fictional World
Donald E. Morse.................................................................................................. 1
Notes ................................................................................................................ 8
Works Cited ..................................................................................................... 8

Chapter One
Episteme-ology of Science Fiction
Kevin Alexander Boon...................................................................................... 10
Notes .............................................................................................................. 22
Works Cited ................................................................................................... 24

Chapter Two
“The Shock of Dysrecognition”: Narrative Estrangement, Science
Fiction, and Utopia in H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia
Károly Pintér..................................................................................................... 26
Notes .............................................................................................................. 43
Works Cited ................................................................................................... 46

Chapter Three
Leakings: Reappropriating Science Fiction—the Case of Kurt Vonnegut
Tamás Bényei .................................................................................................... 48
Interfaces ........................................................................................................ 51
Vonnegut’s Interfaces .................................................................................... 55
Science Fiction as Poetics: Breakfast of Champions...................................... 60
Notes .............................................................................................................. 67
Works Cited ................................................................................................... 68

Chapter Four
Cultural Negotiation in Science-Fiction Literature and Film
Brian Attebery................................................................................................... 70
Works Cited ................................................................................................... 81
viii Table of Contents

Chapter Five
Sterile Men and Nuclear-Powered Vacuum Cleaners: The Atomic Bomb
and Atomic Energy in 1950s American Science Fiction
Donald E. Morse................................................................................................ 83
Notes .............................................................................................................. 91
Works Cited ................................................................................................... 93

Chapter Six
Octavia Butler’s Maternal Cyborgs: The Black Female World of the
Xenogenesis Trilogy
Éva Federmayer ................................................................................................ 95
The Alternative Vision of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis .............................. 96
Black Woman and Cyborg Existence............................................................. 99
Notes ............................................................................................................ 106
Works Cited ................................................................................................. 107

Chapter Seven
The Search for a Quantum Ethics
Nicholas Ruddick ............................................................................................ 109
Notes ............................................................................................................ 122
Works Cited ................................................................................................. 123

Chapter Eight
Virtual Poltergeists and Memory: The Question of Ahistoricism in
William Gibson’s Neuromancer
Amy Novak ...................................................................................................... 125
The Spectral Fragments of Popular Culture ................................................. 126
The semiotic ghosts of Neuromancer’s Cyberspace .................................... 128
A Double Haunting: The Permeable Border between the Real and the
Virtual .......................................................................................................... 132
Haunting the Present: Ghostly Narrative Disruptions .................................. 136
Conjuring the Past in the Realm of the Spectacle ........................................ 140
Notes ............................................................................................................ 141
Works Cited ................................................................................................. 144

Chapter Nine
Banishing the Machine from the Garden: Ecology and Evolution in Dan
Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos
Kálmán Matolcsy ............................................................................................ 146
Notes ............................................................................................................ 160
Anatomy of Science Fiction ix

Works Cited ................................................................................................. 162

Chapter Ten
Orchids in a Cage: Political Myths and Social Reality in East German
Science Fiction (1949-1989)
Usch Kiausch ................................................................................................... 165
The 1950s: Agents, Aliens, and Astronauts ................................................. 167
The 1960s: Sputniks, Scientific Optimism, and Space................................. 169
The 1970s: Dystopias and Anarchic Dreams ............................................... 171
The 1980s: Post-Utopian Diversity and the Decline of Party
Omnipotence ................................................................................................ 176
Notes ............................................................................................................ 180
Works Cited ................................................................................................. 181

Chapter 11
When the Hungarian Literary Theorist György Lukács Met American
Science-Fiction Writer, Wayne Mark Chapman
Donald E. Morse.............................................................................................. 186
Notes ............................................................................................................ 190
Works Cited ................................................................................................. 191

Notes on Contributors .................................................................................... 192

Index................................................................................................................. 195
COPYRIGHT ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Chapter 1 “Episteme-ology of Science Fiction” by Kevin Alexander Boon


Copyright 2000 by the Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies
(HJEAS) and used by permission of the editors.

Chapter 2 “‘The Shock of Dysrecognition’: Narrative Estrangement, Science


Fiction, and Utopia in H.G. Wells A Modern Utopia” by Karoly Pintér appeared
originally in The Undying Fire: The Official Journal of the H. G. Wells Society
Copyright 2006 by K. Pintér and used by permission of the author and The
Undying Fire: The Official Journal of the H. G. Wells Society and the editor,
Eric Cash.

Chapter 3: “Leakings: Re-appropriating Science Fiction: The Case of Kurt


Vonnegut” by Tamás Bényei Copyright 2000 by HJEAS and used by permission
of the editors.

Chapter 4 “Cultural Negotiation in Science Fiction Literature and Film” Brian


Attebery Copyright 2000 by HJEAS and used by permission of the editors.

Chapter 5 “The Search for a Quantum Ethics” by Nicholas Ruddick Copyright


2000 by HJEAS and used by permission of the editors.

Chapter 6 “Octavia Butler’s Maternal Cyborgs: The Black Female World of the
Xenogenesis Trilogy” by Éva Federmayer Copyright 2000 by HJEAS and used
by permission of the editors.

An earlier version of Chapter 7, “Sterile Men and Nuclear-Powered Vacuum


Cleaners: The Atomic Bomb and Atomic Energy in American Post-War Science
Fiction” was presented as a plenary lecture at the 2003 Biennial Conference of
the Hungarian Association of American Studies in March 2003 in Budapest and
was published as part of the conference proceedings, The 1950s edited by EnikĘ
Bollobás and Szylvia Nagy, published by the Department of American Studies,
Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, 2005. Copyright 2005 by HAAS and used
by permission of the editors and HAAS.

An earlier version of Chapter 8, “Virtual Poltergeists and Memory: the Question


of Ahistoricism in William Gibson’s Neuromancer ” by Amy Novak Copyright
2000 by HJEAS and used by permission of the editors.
Anatomy of Science Fiction xi

Chapter 9 “Banishing the Machine from the Garden: Ecology and Evolution in
Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos” by Kálmán Matolcsy Copyright 2006 by
HJEAS and used by permission of the editors.

Chapter 10 “Orchids in a Cage: Political Myths and Social Reality in East


German Science Fiction (1949-1989)” by Usch Kiausch Copyright 2000 by
HJEAS and used by permission of the editors.

Chapter 11 An earlier and briefer version of “When the Hungarian Literary


Theorist, GyĘrgy Lukács Met the American Science-Fiction Writer, Wayne
Mark Chapman” by Donald E. Morse appeared in The Hungarian Journal of
English and American Studies Copyright 2000 by HJEAS and used by
permission of the editors.

Every reasonable effort has been made to trace the owners of copyright materials
in this book, but in some instances this has proven impossible. The editor and
publisher will be glad to receive information leading to more complete
acknowledgments in subsequent printings of the book and in the meantime
extend their apologies for any omissions.
PREFACE

Anatomy of Science Fiction concentrates on American science fiction with a


complementary examination of British science plays, East German subversive
science fiction, and Hungarian pseudotranslation. The theoretical essays range
from postulating three ages of science fiction and its changing nature to the
difficulty in writing a utopian work in the twentieth century and from drawing a
distinction between pulp and elite science fiction to the implications inherent in
the mode’s expanding into television, film, games, comic books and so forth,
along with the need for discussion of ethical issues and questions. Other studies
of individual science-fiction writers concentrate on how they treat major issues,
such as gender, the environment, ethics, memory, and religion, while
predominantly historical essays illustrate how science fiction, as all fiction and
art, reflects the time and place in which it is written—whether that era is the
United States immediately after World War II, East Germany under forty years
of communism, or Hungary after the liberation from communism. Each of these
stimulating essays illustrates what the late palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould
meant when he avowed that “science fiction has always been among the most
intellectual of our literatures” (“Afterword: The Truth of Fiction: An Exegesis of
G. G. Simpson’s Dinosaur Fantasy.” George Gaylord Simpson, The
Dechronization of Sam Magruder. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996. 105).
With one exception, all of the essays in this volume were originally
published in Hungary and, of those, all but one in the Hungarian Journal of
English and American Studies (HJEAS) edited by Professor Zoltán Abádi-Nagy.
Some simultaneously appeared in the United States in JFA: the Journal of the
Fantastic in the Arts, W. A. Senior, editor. An essay has also been collected
from a volume published by the Hungarian Association of American Studies
edited by EnikĘ Bolábás, while another is republished from The Undying Fire:
The Official Journal of the H. G. Wells Society edited by Eric Cash. I am most
grateful to these editors and to Cambridge Scholars Press for making these
essays published in Hungary available in the rest of Europe and elsewhere.
Anatomy of Science Fiction is dedicated to Brian Aldiss, the eminent English
writer whose own novels, short stories, poetry, and plays, together with his
extensive scholarship, speaking, and writing on the role and nature of science
fiction and its place in literary history, has enlivened debate and sparked ideas
among readers, writers, and scholars for several decades.
INTRODUCTION

THE SCIENCE FICTIONAL WORLD

DONALD E. MORSE

It has become a common place today to speak of our contemporary world—at


least in the United States—as science fictional. The designation devolves from
the technological explosion of the past 150 years and the incredible and
unbelievable discoveries of twentieth-century and twenty-first-century science.
Our universe has proven stranger than we could ever have imagined. With the
dawning of this sense of strangeness has come the increasing popularity and
ubiquity of science fiction. Larry McCaffery, writing in the authoritative
Columbia Literary History of the United States published by Columbia
University, argues that “the most significant new directions in recent American
fiction . . . include: the emergence of science fiction (and its various hybrid
forms) as a major literary genre that has produced a body of work probably
unrivalled in stylistic versatility and thematic relevance” (1162). Kevin
Alexander Boon in his chapter, “Episteme-ology of Science Fiction” supports an
even stronger contention: that the rise of science fiction as a metaphor for the
world parallels the rise of science as a way of knowing. Boon argues that “[a]s
we move deeper into the twentieth century, we find a heightened focus on
science, scientists, and scientific innovation as the potential source of
humanity’s salvation.” This focus has important implications generally for the
future of human beings as well as more specifically for how we think about
human life on this planet Earth. Mary Lazar argues that “[i]f the Western world
has a common denominator it translates as a belief in science,” (238). Boon
agrees with Lazar but is quick to qualify the place science occupied in the last
century. He contends that

the faith that had formerly been reserved for God was transferred to science, and
science quickly became, for the populace, a mysterious, transcendent force that
promised to eventually guide the world to paradise. Science assumed the space of
the Other previously occupied by God. This new configuration coupled with
increased literacy throughout the western world provided the foundation for
science fiction’s modern age.
2 Introduction

There are exceptions to this transfer, of course: writers such as Kurt Vonnegut
and Octavia Butler in novel after novel refuse to accept science as salvation and
continually call into question any such notion of progressive knowledge.
Octavia Butler, the first African-American woman to make a career writing
science fiction in her “award-winning Bloodchild (1984) presents a fictional
defamiliarisation of human reproduction that is as chilling in its own way as is
Mary Shelley’s depiction of the creation of artificial life,” argues Veronica
Hollinger (129). Like Shelley before her, Butler raises questions about exactly
what it means to be human. Éva Federmayer in her chapter on “Octavia Butler’s
Maternal Cyborgs: The Black Female World of the Xenogenesis Trilogy” argues
that “Butler’s trilogy offers a powerful feminist revision of the science fiction
that is inspired by communications technology and biotechnology. Dawn (1987),
Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989) are Butler’s fictional response to
militant Reaganite politics and are a black female fantasy of cyborg
alternatives.” Butler, like Vonnegut, is “not pessimistic [but] hopeful” (Interview
21) and, I would add, realistic. Not for her are the utopian visions of the
nineteenth century that eventually numbered more than sixteen hundred.1 H. G.
Wells, the most prominent nineteenth-century utopian writer took the form and
lifted it bodily into the twentieth century in A Modern Utopia. Karoly Pintér in
capter two points out how the popular utopia of the nineteenth century became
impossible for Wells and other writers at the end of the century. Utilising a
science-fiction framework, Wells propelled his thought experiment out into the
galaxy much as he had propelled the Time Traveller out into the far future. The
result is a most complicated experimental novel—one that both accepts and
repudiates the utopian impulse. Octavia Butler, equally devoted to thought
experiments steadfastly ignores any such utopian explorations. Like Ralph
Waldo Emerson, who believed strongly that “[s]ociety never advances” (“Self-
Reliance” 279), Butler contends that “we human beings make a lot of the same
mistakes over and over again. It doesn’t seem to help. I’m alarmed at how easy
it is, for instance, to railroad people into acting against their own best interests”
(Interview 21). Her work reflects this belief in its grim and dangerous future
peopled with often extraordinary but flawed characters.
Extrapolation has long been a staple of science fiction. Perhaps the most
famous and by now overly-familiar instance of the prophet writer at the end of
the twentieth century was William Gibson’s predicting the establishment of the
World Wide Web. In chapter eight, “Virtual Poltergeists and Memory: The
Question of Ahistoricism in William Gibson’s Neuromancer,” Amy Novak goes
far beyond pedestrian issues to discuss how “William Gibson’s ‘cyberpunk’
novel Neuromancer assists in providing a greater understanding of the concept
of memory and illuminates its disruptive potential.” Novak gives a fresh reading
Anatomy of Science Fiction 3

of Gibson’s well-known novel through analysing how he explores “the disorder


created within present ‘reality’ by the virtual haunting of cyberspace.”
Neuromancer, she concludes “articulates the tensions that arise as technology
begins to record and absorb people’s memories”—an issue of immediate
relevance in the twenty-first century.
Also of immediate relevance is the issue of ethics and how to deal with
scientific theories and discoveries. Nicholas Ruddick in his chapter, “The Search
for a Quantum Ethics” audaciously advances the thesis that “science fiction,
which owes its descent and much of its literary credibility to Wellsian scientific
romance, ought to have as one of its primary functions the engagement through
metaphor of a scientifically-determined worldview with the intention of
humanising, or at least struggling to make humanly comprehensible, a universe
that might otherwise seem bewilderingly indifferent to human concerns.” As
Ruddick illustrates, this problem is often left in abeyance—at least where ethical
issues are concerned.
Dan Simmons’ epic Hyperion Cantos illustrates Brian Aldiss’s contention
that science fiction is “an ideal negotiator between the two hemispheres of the
brain, the rational cognitive—i.e., ‘scientific’-left and the intuitive, i.e., ‘literary-
artistic’ right” (1-2). The breadth of the Cantos caused John Clute to describe
them as “cosmogony operas . . . [because] they undertake to shape everything
into one baroque entelechy” (77). This series of novels deals extensively with
ethical questions while focusing on environmental, aesthetic, and religious
issues. Farah Mendlesohn might have been speaking of the Hyperion Cantos
when she observed in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction that
“theological discourse comes naturally . . . [to science fiction] a genre predicated
on the thought experiment” (275). Perhaps this is another reason for the huge
popularity of such works for, as the distinguished critic and historian Edward
James observes, “the unasked but essential question . . . ‘What is the meaning of
life?’ or ‘what is the destiny of man?’—is a question raised by almost no one
these days apart from theologians and sf writers. It is the ultimate unanswerable
question” (228). True, and Kálmán Matolcsy explores this question extensively
through Simmons’’ fiction demonstrating at length in “Banishing the Machine
from the Garden: Ecology and Evolution in Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos”
that just because a question remains unanswerable does not mean that it is not
worth asking. Ethical problems and unanswerable questions have urgency in the
post-atomic, quantum mechanical world. Such topics, like the ultimate question,
do not merely recede and disappear into the background as technological
innovation increasingly dominates our world, but need to be recognized and
debated in terms cogent for today. As Henry Da”id Thoreau observed in
Walden: “The same questions that disturb and puzzle and confuse us have in
turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has
4 Introduction

answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life” (74-75). In
attempting to raise the “ultimate unanswerable question” along with a host of
other sometimes-answerable questions, science fiction performs a valuable
service. Emerson might well have been speaking of science fiction in the
twenty-first century when he argued in “The American Scholar” that “each age .
. . must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding.
The books of an older period will not fit this” (57). Clearly science fiction
comprises the books for our time and for the time of the next succeeding
generation as well.
McCaffery claims that “scientific research and technological progress have
had a significant impact on our daily lives for at least two hundred years; and
concurrently writers—chiefly science-fiction writers—have been speculating on
what forms this impact is taking and where it is likely to lead” (1166). If so then
writers such as Gibson, Vonnegut, Butler, and Simmons reflect this “impact,
especially in their novels and stories that focus on information and memory. In
the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries information has become
central to areas as disparate as medicine and roadmaps, treaty negotiations and
super markets shelves, rescue operations and weather forecasting, airlines
schedules and just-in-time part suppliers. But, as McCaffrey argues, “despite the
production of what is arguably the most significant body of work in
contemporary fiction, the accomplishments of science fiction have continued to
remain relatively overlooked by the literary establishment in the United States”
(1167). This wilful ignorance occurs often “despite the fact that science fiction is
now regularly taught in our universities and has established its own literary
journals . . . and a scholarly society.” He concludes that the fault lies in the
origins of American science fiction that “emerged in the United States from the
pulp magazines” (1167). (McCaffery 1167)
It might, therefore, be well to recall that science fiction also appeared
frequently not just in the pulps, but also in the more respectable slick
magazines.2 Kurt Vonnegut is, perhaps, the most prominent example of a writer
who began his professional writing career publishing science-fiction stories in
the slicks and, more importantly, on the basis of his success quit his “day job” at
General Electric Research Laboratory in New York, moved his family to a more
congenial setting on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and committed himself to a full-
time writing career.3 Unfortunately, timing is everything and Vonnegut’s could
not have been worse. Because of the advent and rapid spread of television,
within months of his move those slick magazines would stop buying almost all
fiction including his science fiction and several of them would simply cease to
exist forcing Vonnegut to write for the—definitely not respectable—paperback
market—a market known intimately by his alter ego, Kilgore Trout. “For years
Vonnegut had told interviewers that Kilgore Trout was an image of which he
Anatomy of Science Fiction 5

himself feared he might become: a cranky, unread, and alarmingly idiosyncratic


science-fiction writer, whose works are no sooner composed than they are
consigned to the trash heap” (Klinkowitz 155).
Building on this image of Trout, Tamás Bényei in chapter three, “Leakings:
Re-appropriating Science Fiction—the Case of Kurt Vonnegut” discusses the
poetics of science fiction through the work and career of the twentieth century’s
most famous fictional science-fiction writer. Trout “incarnates two models,”
contends Bényei. “He starts out as a nondescript pulp science-fiction writer, at
least in the sense that he does not really want to say (communicate) anything in
his works.” Much later, “he comes to assume a radically different position, the
position that is so often the guarantee of the possible redemption of science
fiction and its elevation into high culture . . . the science-fiction writer is
redeemable inasmuch as he is a prophet writer.” Trout thus comes to exemplify a
whole generation of science-fiction writers who became highly esteemed,
especially as prophets of the atomic age. Foremost among them was Isaac
Asimov who once lamented the high price paid for this process of legitimisation:

For the first time, science-fiction writers appeared to the world in general to be
something more than a bunch of nuts; we were suddenly Cassandras whom the
world ought to have believed. But I tell you, I would far rather have lived and
died a nut in the eyes of the world than to have been salvaged into respectability
at the price of nuclear war hanging like a sword of Damocles over the world
forever. (Qtd. in Carter 25)

But Damocles’ sword could not be wished away. No less a person than
Albert Einstein had famously prophesied that after nuclear war “little civilisation
would survive.” Later, he expanded his prediction to include the demise of all
life forms on Earth. Ray Bradbury, in a story contemporary with Einstein’s
observation and aptly titled, “The Last Night of the World” could assume it
unnecessary to give an immediate cause for the end of the world, since everyone
already knew how it would end. Bradbury, whose stories regularly appeared in
the pages of such slick magazines as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s,
also published in pulp science-fiction magazines including what would become
his best known work Fahrenheit 451 (1953) that first appeared as a short story
“The Fireman.” His two collections of stories, The Martian Chronicles (1950)
and The Illustrated Man (1951) would be among the first in the Doubleday
hardbound series of science fiction—a series that would soon dominate the
science-fiction market, while paperback reprints of Bradbury’s collections
would become best sellers.
Science fiction, like all art, reflects in varying degrees the times during
which it is written. In the 1950s, Americans were preoccupied with the aftermath
of the first use of the atomic bomb against a civilian population. Thus Ray
6 Introduction

Bradbury in his popular collection of stories, The Martian Chronicles has human
colonists on Mars watch, shocked as their planet Earth is destroyed by atomic
incineration. Post-war tales of space travel, populating planets—future
adventures of all kinds—take place against a backdrop of atomic war, its threat
or, even worse, its aftermath. Philip K. Dick famously argued in 1955 that “all
responsible writers . . . have become involuntary criers of doom, because doom
is in the wind.” He went on to exhort science-fiction writers to “[m]ake the
ruined world of ash a premise” (quoted in Disch 88). Pat Frank’s best selling
novel Mr. Adam (1947) did not make “the ruined world of ash a premise,” but
did make the state of Mississippi disappear in a mushroom cloud that results in
the world-wide sterilisation of all human males with comic consequences.
Frank’s enormously popular novel reflects the temper and preoccupation of the
times, as Donald E. Morse demonstrates in chapter five, “Sterile Men and
Nuclear-Powered Vacuum Cleaners: The Atomic Bomb and Atomic Energy in
1950s American Science Fiction.” Science let the atomic genie out of the bottle
and it proved impossible to get it back in.
Throughout the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first century,
science fiction’s popularity continued to grow but, ironically, achieved its
greatest impact in special-effect films where that ultimate question posed in
novels would become trivialised and/or ignored. Brian Attebery argues in
“Cultural Negotiation in Science Fiction Literature and Film” that winning the
struggle to have science fiction accepted as a legitimate form of social debate
and artistic endeavour is, in itself, not enough since it becomes important to
know what has been achieved as well as what may have been lost. On the
positive side Attebery sees “feminists, racial minorities, gays, transgendered
people, and supporters of all of these groups” whose urgency, in turn, directly
relates to the high level of social energy in the fiction of Nicola Griffith, Melissa
Scott, Nalo Hopkinson, Raphael Carter, and other writers. “Their work
represents the leading edge of science fiction at the turn of the twenty-first
century, not only because of inventiveness or stylistic excellence, but also
because theirs is the stage on which our culture is debating its own future.” On
the less positive side, he notes the often negative, blockbuster, enormously
popular, special-effects movies with little or no social energy and even less room
for debate about the culture’s present—never mind its future. As opposed to
such films, the writers he discusses illustrate both science fiction’s versatility
and its relevance.
A unique strength of this volume lies in its broadening discussions of science
fiction to include some recognition of the recent history of science fiction in
Central Europe under communism and “after the change”—as Hungarians refer
to the peaceful revolution of 1989-1990. Those living in Central Europe see
events and prominent people very differently than many Western theorists, such
Anatomy of Science Fiction 7

as one prominent American Marxist scholar who, while writing about science
fiction and being somewhat troubled by the fall of communism and emerging
globalisation, puzzles in 2000 over “exactly how the proletariat can seize control
of the means of production when the latter are, to an ever-growing extent,
organised on a transcontinental basis” (Freedman 9). In typical American
Armchair Marxist fashion, this scholar remains undaunted concluding that this
problem “may prove solvable” (9), but neglects to specify exactly how or in
what ways it is to be solved. Such maundering in a scholarly work devoted to
science fiction forms part of a chapter titled “Definitions: Critical Theory” (1-
13) that occurs well before any specific science-fiction work is ever discussed.
Richard Rorty’s comments on Fredric Jameson may apply with equal force here:

Unfortunately, in contemporary American academic culture, it is commonly


assumed that once you have seen through Plato, essentialism, and eternal truth
you will naturally turn to Marx. The attempt to take the world by the throat is
still, in the minds of Jameson and his admirers, associated with Marxism. This
association seems to me merely quaint, as does Jameson’s use of the term “late
capitalism”—a term which equivocates nicely between economic history and
millenarian hope. (138-39)

Seen from Central Europe such sentimental Marxism appears highly


irrelevant to a discussion of contemporary economic conditions as well as
obtrusive in a theoretical discussion of science fiction.4 More informed and
informing is Usch Kiausch, “Orchids in a Cage: Political Myths and Social
Reality in East German Science Fiction (1949-1989)” who contends that for fifty
years “science fiction offered opportunities to escape reality as well as to
criticise it through metaphoric mirrors (often both aspects united in one book).
Like orchids in a cage, science fiction novels blossomed as exotic plants in a
carefully controlled domestic ground.” Kiausch documents the great distance
between emerging democracies of Central Europe and their own immediate
history. Her orchid metaphor proves most apt not only for the GDR (German
Democratic Republic) but also for all of Central Europe formerly under
communist domination where local science fiction, once subversive and
dangerous, has now all but disappeared under the on-slaught of American and—
to a far lesser degree—British science fiction.
After the implosion of dictatorial communism in 1989-1990, science fiction,
from the West and especially from the United States, invaded Central Europe
bringing along with its novels and stories an accumulation of values and cultural
baggage previously unknown. The reception of such science fiction became
immediately complicated due to the region’s twentieth-century history.
Paradoxically, when the cage created by communism that Kiausch describes so
well was finally opened, the orchids of science fiction did not flourish as
8 Introduction

expected but withered instead. Only later did some acquire new life in a wholly
unexpected way as illustrated by the rise in pseudotranslations—a phenomenon
virtually unknown in the West.
If the beginnings of science fiction remain shrouded in controversy with
some historians agreeing with Kevin Alexander Boon and Brian Aldiss that
Mary Shelley started it all, while others credit Edgar Alan Poe as its inventor,
and while still others trace its beginnings in ancient Greek fantasy or even back
to the Gilgamesh epic, this collection of essays focuses instead mostly on its
current popularity, importance, and impact. For, as Raymond Williams argues,
“part of the power of science fiction [is] that it is always potentially a mode of
authentic shift: a crisis of exposure which produces a crisis of possibility; a
reworking, in imagination, of all forms and conditions” (6). The essays collected
here help us to see this crisis of possibility reflected in science fiction.
Recognising that crisis, in turn, could lead to the re-visioning of “forms and
conditions” so desperately needed in the twenty-first century.

Notes
1
Larry McMurtry, the historian, novelist, and bookseller reports that a bookseller of
his acquaintance “spent some decades researching and locating these books [‘the Utopian
or lost race novel’]. The collection . . . numbers some 1,650 books” (37).
2
The pulps were named after the cheap pulp paper on which they were printed, while
the slicks were called so because of the high rag content of the paper on which they, in
turn, were printed.
3
For a lengthy study of Vonnegut’s work viewed against his life and times, see
Morse, especially Chapters 1 and 2, where he makes the claim that Vonnegut can be seen
as the representative post-World War II American writer.
4
Tony Judt’s perceptive comment on the crucial difference in viewing communism
between Western European and Central European intellectuals applies with equal force to
American Marxists such as Carl Freedman in contrast with GDR or Hungarian literary
scholars: “To many Western European intellectuals communism was a failed variant of a
common progressive heritage. But to their Central and East European counterparts it was
an all too successful local application of the criminal pathologies of twentieth-century
authoritarianism and should be remembered thus” (14). György Lukács, for instance, on
whom Freedman models his work (xv) is remembered by many in Hungary as a man
“with blood on his hands” whose ordering of executions exemplifies just such a criminal
pathology.

Works Cited
Aldiss, Brian. Science Fiction as Science Fiction. Frome, UK: Bran’s Head,
1978.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 9

Butler, Octavia. “‘We Tend to Do the Right Thing When We Get Scared.’”
Interview with Michael Marriot. The New York Times 1 January 2000, 21.
Carter, Paul A. The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science
Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
Clute, John. “Science Fiction from 1980 to the Present.” In James and
Mendlesohn. 64-78.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures. Ed. Joel
Porte. New York: The Library of America, 1983.
———. “The American Scholar.” In Emerson. 51-71.
———. “Self-Reliance.” In Emerson. 255-82.
Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction Hanover, NH:
Wesleyan/New England University Press, 2000.
Hollinger,Veronica. “Feminist Theory and Science Fiction.” In James and
Mendlesohn. 125-36.
James, Edward, and Farah Mendlesohn. The Cambridge Companion to Science
Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Judt, Tony. “From the House of the Dead: On Modern European Memory.” The
New York Review LII.15 (6 October 2005): 12-16.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Vonnegut Effect Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 2004.
Lazar, Mary. “Sam Johnson on Grub Street: Early Science-Fiction Pulps and
Vonnegut.” Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 32
(1991): 235-55.
McCaffery, Larry. “The Fictions of the Present.” Columbia Literary History of
the United States. General editor Emory Elliott. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1988. 1161-77.
McMurtry, Larry. “Angel in America.” Review of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone
Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman. The New York Review 52.18 (17
November 2005): 35-37.
Morse, Donald E. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American.
Westport: Praeger, 2003.
Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Century: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century
America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Ed. Sherman Paul. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1957.
Williams, Raymond. “Utopia and Science Fiction.” Science Fiction: A Critical
Guide. Ed. Patrick Parrinder. New York: Longman, 1979.
CHAPTER ONE

EPISTEME-OLOGY OF SCIENCE FICTION

KEVIN ALEXANDER BOON

We may, with confidence, mark the beginning of the science fiction genre proper
as 1818, when Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, but the social consciousness
that fuelled the genre began earlier, when people began to privilege empirical
explanations over mythological ones. A reasonable date for this shift in priorities is
1731—the year Voltaire’s Letters concerning the English Nation was first
published.1 Voltaire’s Letters did much to stimulate popular interest in science and
philosophy, particularly the empiricism promoted by John Locke in An Essay
Concerning Human Understanding (1689)2 and the system of universal laws
posited by Isaac Newton in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687).
More than any other single work, Letters helped launch the Age of Reason, and
with it, a radically new way for people to assess the world around them. Key to
this change is the bridge Voltaire helps erect between esoteric science and general
awareness, as empiricism and reason as epistemological principles for
understanding the universe cease to be the exclusive domain of philosophers and
scientists and become the intellectual property of the public. Voltaire’s immense
popularity made his criticism of Descartes3 and his praise of Locke and Newton
palatable to England, and eventually much of Europe.
According to Voltaire, in the wake of Locke and Newton “[t]he very essence of
things . . . totally chang’d” (61); that is to say, knowledge changed. More specific to
my argument here, the epistemological configuration of knowledge changed, and
new ways of structuring knowledge infected western culture, initiating a shift
from one episteme to another. The new episteme (which parallels the Classical
episteme Michel Foucault discusses in The Order of Things 43 et passim)
furrowed the ground from which science fiction eventually emerged. Because
science fiction manifests the structure of empirical knowledge at a particular
time within a culture,4 it functions as a reaction to and a barometer for cultural
shifts in the way meaning is structured.5 Thus, by examining the epistemes of
Anatomy of Science Fiction 11

western culture, we expose thematic transformations in science fiction and vice


versa.

Prior to the eighteenth century and the epistemic shift that made science
fiction possible, the esoterica of the scientific community seldom entered the
arena of public thought, except as objects of contradiction—ideas that ran
contrary to the general current of the Roman Catholic Church. Derek Stanesby,
in the introduction to Science, Reason, and Religion (1985), details this
relationship in his discussion of theology in the Middle Ages. He points out that,
during the Middle Ages,

[a]ll rational enquiry had to conform to the canons of theological thought. The
knowledge of God surpassed all other knowledge, and there was a sense in which
all knowledge was subservient to the revealed truth of God, systematized by
theologians and given the imprimatur of the Church. The religious view of the
world dominated all thinking, and whenever there were clashes the religious view
won the day. (1)

Scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo were censured (and in Galileo’s


case, tortured by the inquisition)6 not for rejecting church doctrine, but for
positing empirical support for ideas that countermanded the epistemological
foundations of Christian dogma. What was at risk was the way knowledge itself
was structured. The Church could not acknowledge Galileo’s discoveries
because knowing was structured in a way that prohibited the apprehension of
ideas that contradicted notions of a divinely ordered universe. But their reaction
was more than mere obstinacy; it was not possible within their epistemology to
register the notion of a heliocentric solar system as anything but absurd.7
When men like Voltaire injected the ideas of early scientists and
philosophers, such as Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Locke, into public discourse,
the structure of knowing had to change in order to accommodate these new
12 Chapter One

ideas, and a public re-evaluation of cosmic order took place. What was possible
to consider possible changed, and the stage was set for the appearance of science
fiction.
Significant to this change was a different view of humanity’s relationship to
the universe. Human beings’ Weltanschauung changed, as the methods by which
they understood the universe broke from divine hegemony. As Bertolt Brecht’s
Galileo characterises the shift, “The millennium of faith is ended . . . this is the
millennium of doubt and we are pulling out of that contraption” (49). The
contraption is the Ptolemaic system—the universal view informing the
Weltanschauung of the existing episteme. Galileo’s comment notes a
transformation in the structure of knowing and implies that this transformation is
directly related to how human beings perceive their relationship to the universe.
Prior to the Enlightenment, human beings were, as Brecht’s Galileo mentions,
trapped in an epistemological “cage” (48). Foucault labels this the Renaissance
episteme and characterises it as a period during which language itself is
originally “an absolute and certain sign for things,” and that, although that
transparency was lost at Babel, words “still carry with them in their density, like
an embedded fragment of silent knowledge, the unchanging properties of being”
(36). Science fiction was not possible during this period because the foundation
of science is doubt, and doubt opposes faith. In the ages preceding the rise of
science fiction, God ruled the universe, not mathematics.
In the eighteenth century, the ruling God was systematically replaced by
ruling laws—“natural” laws, universal laws, so that by the beginning of the
nineteenth century, science had displaced God and usurped his authority. In
works from the early age of science fiction, this invasion of God’s domain is
readily apparent. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein is horrified by
his “creation,” which is not properly a creation at all, but a discovery of the
natural laws that control life and the procedures for infusing life into dead tissue.
His methodology is scientific, and the product of his scientific meddling is
“demoniacal” (52). This characterisation sets the products of science in
opposition to the products of God. God gives us man; science gives us the
monster. The monster is a daemon, a lesser God, but he is also supernatural.
Like the Devil, the monster is more than a man and less than a god. As such, in
the end, he can find no place for himself in the world. This theme is repeated in
much nineteenth-century science fiction, and is particularly evident in
“Rappaccini’s Daugther” (1844), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegorical science-
fiction tale. Hawthorne sets the tale in a garden—a nineteenth-century Eden. In
place of Adam, we have Giovanni Guasconti. In place of Eve, Dante’s Beatrice.
And standing in for God, we have Dr. Rappaccini, Hawthorne’s equivalent of
Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein, Rappaccini meddles with the
natural, divine order of the universe with his “deep and deadly science” (185),
Anatomy of Science Fiction 13

making a monster of his own daughter. Her torment is precisely the same as
Frankenstein’s monster. As she explains to her father just before she dies: “I
would fain have been loved, not feared” (192).
These early works of science fiction share an underlying apprehension about
the increasing dominance of science over religious ideology. As people wrestle
with new ways of understanding their relationship to the universe, science
fiction chronicles their struggle. Eventually, the transcendent authority formerly
attributed to God shifts toward science, and in 1882 Nietzsche declares, “God is
dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (181). Nietzsche admits
“there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his [God’s] shadow
will be shown” (167), but in the wake of Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday,
people had finally caught up with (if not overtly, at least covertly) the early
scepticism Thomas Paine articulates in The Age of Reason (1794-95).
The transition from the early age of science fiction into the modern age and
the turn into the twentieth century is marked by the work of H. G. Wells. But
even Wells’ work—which anticipates much of the science fiction to come and
does not, as many earlier science fiction tales do, caution humanity against the
dangers of elevating science over God—still retains the shadow of the former
period. Unlike Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wells’ Moreau is not contemptible for
broaching God’s domain, but for transforming his domain into the realm of a
God, as Edward Prendick recounts: “A horrible fancy came into my head that
Moreau, after animalizing these men, had infected their dwarfed brains with a
kind of deification of himself” (92). Prendick’s disillusionment does not involve
a return to faith, as we see clearly at the close of his narrative where he admits
that he thanks God “more rarely” (206). Even in The War of the Worlds, the
Martians are not defeated by science, but “slain by the putrefactive and disease
bacteria against which their systems were unprepared” (191). It is not God
directly that rescues humanity from the invasion, but a natural phenomenon one
remove from God. Wells admits the bacteria are of divine origin, but neither
God nor humanity’s science is directly responsible for victory over the Martians.
Science provides humanity with the tools to investigate Martian technology and
biology, but those investigations yield little more than a cursory understanding
of why the Martians died. The implication is that God still serves, but not
directly, and that science serves, but not well.
As we move deeper into the twentieth century, we find a heightened focus on
science, scientists, and scientific innovation as the potential source of
humanity’s salvation. The faith that had formerly been reserved for God was
transferred to science, and science quickly became, for the populace, a
mysterious, transcendent force that promised to eventually guide the world to
paradise. Science assumed the space of the Other previously occupied by God.
14 Chapter One

This new configuration coupled with increased literacy throughout the western
world provided the foundation for science fiction’s modern age.
Peter Nicholls’ The Science Fiction Encyclopaedia dates the golden age of
science fiction from 1937 when John W. Campbell, Jr. assumed the editorship of
Astounding Stories, but trends seldom lend themselves to such finite
classification. What we find as we move from the early age through the works of
authors such as Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Campbell, and Abraham Merritt, and
into the work of authors such as Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, and Arthur C.
Clarke, are variant perspectives, which are indicative of a shift from one
episteme to another. To account for overlap and cross-pollination of the periods,
I prefer to speak in general terms of the modern age of science fiction, which
includes the golden age.
With this modern age begins the second major phase in the history of science
fiction. The works of this period are markedly different from the works of the
nineteenth century. Science in the modern age is not readily seen as a threat to
the natural order. The inverse is true; religion and magical thinking are presented
as the products of inferior thinking—religion, in its aversion to empirical
methodologies, threatens our ability to understand the natural order. Natural law
usurps divine law and divine law is demoted to the level of fantasy and dogma.
Religion becomes the domain of superstition and narrow-mindedness. Reason
and the scientific method pave the road to truth. Where science perceives,
religion deceives as is readily apparent in many of the major works from the
period.
Arthur C. Clarke foregrounds this opposition in Childhood’s End (1953).
Early in the novel, the emissary of the alien Overlords, Karellen, explains the
rivalry of Alexander Wainwright (the head of the Freedom League) and others
who continue to resist the intrusion of the Overlords into human affairs despite
the Overlords contributions of peace and well-being to people on Earth:

You know why Wainwright and his kind fear me, don’t you? . . You will find
men like him in all the world’s religions. They know that we represent reason and
science and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will
overthrow their gods. Not necessarily through any deliberate act, but in a subtler
fashion. Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its
tenets . . . . The Wainwrights fear, too, that we know the truth about the origins of
their faiths. (23)

The Overlords represent reason and science and their contributions bring about
Earthly utopia. In the second section of the novel, appropriately titled “The
Golden Age,” we find an Earth much changed from its previous violent and
narrow-minded state. All religions and previous “creeds that had been based
upon miracles and revelations had collapsed utterly” (74) because of an
Anatomy of Science Fiction 15

increased focus on education. Under the Overlords’ leadership, science becomes


the conduit to truth, and “beneath the fierce and passionless light of truth, faiths
that had sustained millions for twice a thousand years vanished like morning
dew” (75).
Clarke makes it clear that the reluctance to accept the benefits of science is a
result of nostalgia for the narratives of human heritage—the myths human
beings have constructed to shield themselves from the unknown. But when the
unknown becomes known, what are human beings to do with myths that have
accompanied them for thousands of years? To toss them aside is to toss aside the
narrative foundations upon which much of human identity has been based. The
options facing human beings under the rule of the Overlords in Childhood’s End
are to either accept the empirical wisdom that the Overlords offer, and thereby
redefine what it means to be human, or deny the Overlords and build dogmatic
barriers around religious and ideological conventions. The Overlords delay a
public appearance for fifty years precisely because in fifty years “humanity will
have forgotten its heritage” (57); that is, the loyalty that human beings feel
toward outdated notions will have faded away.
Significantly, the Welshman who covertly heads the resistance and arranges
for Stormgren’s kidnapping is blind, a physical manifestation of his and his
followers’ blind loyalty to past narratives, issues of mere faith that the science of
the Overlords endangers. As the Welshman points out, “ideals” are what the
Overlords threaten, “ideals . . . that generations of men have fought to protect”
(45). But these ideals, these conceptions are, as Stormgren later notes, “empty
words . . . for which men had once fought and died, and for which they would
never die or fight again” (57). Peace is achieved by abandoning past narratives
and embracing empirically verifiable revelations. Resisting the products of
science and reason is a futile endeavour as demonstrated by Joe’s kidnapping of
Stormgren. Joe only appears to succeed. In the end he discovers that the
Overlords, with their better science, have been aware of his movements all
along. In fact, the Overlords permitted the kidnapping in order to squelch the
resistance.
Guided by the Overlords’ science, utopia is achieved on Earth, and “New
Eden” is formed. As Karellen explains shortly before he completes his work on
Earth:

In the centuries before our coming, your scientists uncovered the secrets of the
physical word and led you from the energy of steam to the energy of the atom.
You had put superstition behind you: Science was the only real religion of
mankind. It was the gift of the western minority to the remainder of mankind, and
it had destroyed all other faiths. Those that still existed when we came were
already dying. Science, it was felt, could explain everything: there were no forces
which did not come within its scope, no events for which it could not ultimately
16 Chapter One

account. The origin of the universe might be forever unknown, but all that had
happened since obeyed the laws of physics. (181)8

Karellen articulates for us the general attitude of the modern age of science
fiction. Science has risen above religion, and religion has begun to waste away
beneath the harsh light of empirical truth.
This apotheosis of science is present in numerous stories from the period. In
Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” (1941), scientists on the planet Lagash are contrasted
with members of a mystic group called the “Cult.” The mystical “stars” that the
“Book of Revelations” (the Cult’s primary religious text) mentions are
explicable in scientific terms, which enrages the Cultists. The scientists at the
Observatory of Saro University and the faithful Cultists provide two points of
view on the same phenomenon: the eclipse of the last of Lagash’s six suns,
which sends the planet into darkness every 2,049 years, exposing a sky full of
stars and driving Lagashians insane with the revelation of the vastness of their
universe. The story privileges the scientific view, thus valorising reason and
dispraising religious belief as blind superstition. One exchange between the
scientist Aton and the Cultist Latimer 25 reveals the Cultists’ perception of the
dangers of science:

“I [Aton] offered to present scientific backing for your beliefs. And I did!”
The Cultist’ eyes narrowed bitterly. “Yes, you did—with a fox’s subtlety, for
your pretended explanation backed our beliefs, and at the same time removed all
necessity for them. You made of the Darkness and of the Stars a natural
phenomenon, and removed all its real significance. That was blasphemy.”
“If so, the fault isn’t mine. The facts exist. What can I do but state them?”
“Your ‘facts’ are a fraud and a delusion.” (163)

The religion of the Cultists cannot survive scientific inquiry because


empirical explanations tend to dissolve mythic assumptions. But “Nightfall”
takes its condemnation of dogma a step further. Although both the scientists and
the Cultists are affected by the absence of light, the Cultists and those that join
their cause out of fear as their world is cast into darkness are the ones who storm
the Observatory. It is the Cultists and their religious notions that prompt people
to burn their cities, sending civilisation back into the “dark” ages. Religious
thinking traps people in a cycle of ignorance, suggests Asimov, while science
has the power to lead them through the darkness.
In the early age, darkness is a lack of God; in the modern age, darkness is a
lack of knowledge. General attitudes toward science also inverted. Science in
effect, became the new object of worship—the new source of hope. In the first
half of the twentieth century, the populace placed the bulk of its faith in
“scientisms,” Julian Jaynes’ term for “clusters of scientific ideas which come
Anatomy of Science Fiction 17

together and almost surprise themselves into creeds of belief, scientific


mythologies which fill the very felt void left by the divorce of science and
religion in our time” (441).
But the idealization of science, which we find reflected in much science
fiction of the modern age, was short-lived. When the bomb was dropped on
Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, people were forced to face the amoral nature of
the science they had so fervently worshiped. The result of the bombing was the
disillusionment of a generation and the beginning of the end for the modern age
of science fiction.9 No longer could science be seen as the beneficent saviour of
humanity. As Martin Luther King put it in 1963, “We have genuflected before
the god of science only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing
fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate” (63).10
In the years following the bomb—the post-nuclear age—science fiction takes
a shift away from the idealized view of science found in much of the work being
written during the modern age. In the early age, people’s hopes rested with God.
During the first half of the twentieth century, people transferred their faith to
science. But after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people began to
quickly lose faith in science. This created a vacuum void of saviours. With the
death of God, dreams of heaven were destroyed; with the subsequent death of
science, dreams of utopia became little more than idealistic delusions.
Objectivity lost its grip on western civilisation, leaving human beings to ponder
their plight in a chaos of seemingly malicious indeterminacy. The result was a
turn toward existentialism. In the absence of transcendent, overarching authority,
the self was forced to assume responsibility for its self or submerge in an abyss
of bad faith. The individual was, to borrow Sartre’s phrase, “condemned to be
free” (41).11
As early as the fifties, stories began to appear that embodied existentialist
notions of human existence. Narratives were conforming to a new way of
looking at the universe and human beings’ relationship to it. New heroes
emerged, heroes such as Charlie Gordon in Daniel Keyes’ Hugo and Nebula
award-winning short story, “Flowers for Algernon” (1959). Charlie is neither a
mad-scientist like Victor Frankenstein nor a representative of scientific reason
like Lagashian astronomers. Charlie is merely a man who passes through various
stages of intellectual ability as a result of an experiment he cannot fathom. No
divine forces intervene on his behalf and science leaves him, in the end, exactly
as it found him. The malicious self-interest of his co-workers at Donnegan’s
Plastic Box Company parallels the scientific self-interest of Dr. Strauss, who
uses Charlie in his experiment to create a new breed of intellectual “superman”
(374).
Keyes gives us the story of Charlie’s consciousness. We see the world as
Charlie experiences it. Charlie’s reaction to what he apprehends at the various
18 Chapter One

stages of his intellectual life determines his reality, and the world changes with
Charlie’s perception of it. Who he is and who he becomes is determined by his
experience. In the end, the experiment is doomed to failure. Charlie does
“something for science” (380), but science does little for him. He is a man
trapped in a cycle, which is “cruelly logical” (397).
Like Charlie, who is a victim of the “calculus of intelligence” (394), Marilyn
Lee Cross in Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954) is a victim of “the
laws of nature” to which she is “the unwanted factor in a cold equation” (559).
Marilyn does not die because she deserves to die; she dies because a
mathematical calculation indicates that either she dies or she, the pilot, and the
six men on the planet already infected by the virus die. The equation is simple:
eight deaths or one.
“Flowers for Algernon” and “The Cold Equations” share a similar view of
science, one that presents science as amoral and indifferent to human emotion.
Gone is the idealistic notion that science is the pathway to a better world for
humanity. In its place is the realisation of the individual human struggle against
an unfriendly environment in which human beings are not sacred. James Blish’s
“Surface Tension” (1952), which reduces humanity to “microscopic creatures”
(481), illustrates this point. As does Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985), which has
human beings devolve to seal-like creatures, thanks to the “law of natural
selection” (291).
Science, in suggesting that humankind is not the center of the universe or the
reason the universe exists, has inadvertently brought human beings into par with
the physical world. We are beasts of the field, unique only in our overweening
pride. When science usurped God during the modern age, it placed the physical
world on a pedestal that could not support its weight. By the post-nuclear age,
we had begun to accept that the physical world is indifferent to the human
beings who study it. This indifference eventually reduced humanity to part of the
universal equation. In the early age, nature ruled us. In the modern age, we ruled
nature. But in the post-nuclear age, we are merely part of the natural universe.
This condition is literalised in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Vaster Than Empires and
More Slow” (1971), where Osden, a loner, surrenders his humanity to fuse with
all natural life on World 4470.
Harlan Ellison’s work is a clear example of much science fiction in the post-
nuclear age that is coloured by existentialist qualities. In Ellison’s “I Have No
Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), the great I AM of religion becomes AM, the
Allied Mastercomputer that becomes the “Aggressive Menace” (28) that
torments the five surviving human beings. The five beset survivors do not band
together, do not rally around the flag of their humanity, rather, they despise each
other and exist only as playthings for the sentient machine, in whose belly they
are eternally trapped. The post-nuclear hero of the story is, in the end, merely a
Anatomy of Science Fiction 19

“great soft jelly thing” (42), a mass that can think; literally, humankind is
reduced to an individual, amorphous sack of suffering. The hero in “ ‘Repent,
Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” is a man trapped in the machinery of
structured time, a rebel driven by a general compulsion to “do something” (882),
but with no specific agenda in mind. He takes action despite the aimless quality
of those actions. The story articulates the simple point that action is preferable to
inaction even if action leads to death. The story does offer Thoreau’s notion of
civil disobedience as a moral, of sorts, but the moral lacks surety. We know by
the end of the story that the Harlequin’s actions have affected the Ticktockman’s
rigid adherence to the laws of time, but to what end this change leads to we do
not know. In “The Very Last Day of a Good Woman” (1958), the hero’s victory
is to lose his virginity before the end of the world. But despite the seemingly
comedic premise, Ellison tells us that in the end the hero’s “face held such a
strange light, as though he had something very important, as though he owned
the world” (105). In an existentialist sense, the hero does, in the last moments of
the world, own the world of his sensory experience.
Myriad examples of a shift towards existentialism in post-nuclear science
fiction are available in Ellison’s writing, such as in “Alive and Well and on a
Friendless Voyage” (1977) wherein Moth is entombed in a ship with malicious
strangers and ultimately thrust alone “on into final darkness, from which there . .
. [is] no return” (257), and in “In Fear of K” (1975), where one man, Noah and
one woman, Claudia (who despise each other) are imprisoned in “the pit” and
tormented by an unseen force known only as “K.” The heroes of these stories
personify Sartre’s existentialist view of existence. They possess no innate
goodness. They serve no larger purpose. They have nothing but their own
subjective judgement to guide them through a seemingly malicious and
indeterminate universe. As with the Harlequin, they are the sole determinant of
the value of their own actions because whatever value their actions hold is only
valuable as an assertion of self.
Post-nuclear heroes are loners, and science serves them no better (and no
worse) than religion. Science is merely one more indifferent force among an
infinite number of indifferent forces that assault them every moment of their
lives. Vonnegut manifests this view of science as an indifferent force in Cat’s
Cradle (1963). Felix Hoenikker, who creates the infamous ice-nine, which
eventually destroys the world, is a loner, a consummate scientist (according to
Dr. Breed’s definition), a man who works “to increase knowledge” and “toward
no end but that” (36). Hoenikker’s science has cataclysmic consequences, but
not because Hoenikker has broached a realm that belongs to God, as is the case
with Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster becomes a destructive
abomination because Frankenstein’s overweening pride drove him to pry into
God’s secrets, but Hoenikker has no pride or ambition; he seeks no recognition;
20 Chapter One

he is merely curious and labours to satisfy his curiosity alone. Hoenikker’s


monstrous invention destroys the world because of the indifferent laws of
physics. There is nothing personal in the death of humanity, just as there is
nothing personal in the death of Marilyn Lee Cross in “The Cold Equations.”
In post-nuclear science fiction, death is presented as the conclusion of a
game we create for ourselves to play. The game is complex and rife with rules,
but it is still an artifact, not cryptographic clues to some divine, transcendent
plan. The post-nuclear hero achieves heroic proportions by asserting his/her
individual will in the midst of chaos. Order does not have to be regained. The
enemy does not have to be vanquished. All sources of conflict do not have to be
resolved. Closure is not mandatory.
The contrast between a hero of the modern age and a hero of the post-nuclear
age is clearly evident in the two filmed versions of John W. Campbell’s “Who
Goes There.” The hero of the story changes drastically between the 1951
Howard Hawks version and the 1982 John Carpenter remake. Hawkes’s Hendry,
like MacReady in Campbell’s short story, defends humankind (more
specifically, mankind) from the invading alien. He is pro-military, patriarchal,
hierarchical, and leader of a community of like-minded soldiers. He defeats the
alien and thus preserves man’s supreme status in the universe. MacReady,
Carpenter’s hero, is not mankind’s defender. He is not a team player. He is a
loner, who “qualifies as a heroic character because, through the strength of his
will, he manages to maintain his individuality,” because he “resists appropriation
into the communality of the Thing” (Boon 67). MacReady is a post-nuclear hero.
By the conclusion of the film, all but he and one other of the original members
of the outpost are dead (and both of them are about to die), the camp has been
completely destroyed, and MacReady cannot even be certain that he has
defeated the Thing. The final scene in the film shows us MacReady and one
other “survivor” (who may or may not be an alien), preparing to freeze to death
in the middle of the destroyed compound. Thus, MacReady is literally an
individual surrounded by chaos and indeterminacy. The only thing he is certain
of is that he is himself.12
There is no way to make sense of the game except to literally make (that is,
construct) sense. The problemitisation of reality abounds in post-nuclear science
fiction, in the better novels of Philip K. Dick, the cyber worlds of William
Gibson, and the work of writers such as Stanislaw Lem. Lem, in particular,
provides an excellent example of the existentialist condition in post-nuclear
science fiction in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1973). The novel is framed by a
faux-scholarly account of the “late Neogene” period of the world, a period
referred to as “The Chaotic” (3). The corpus of the novel is one of the few
surviving relics from the “Middle and Late Neogene” when people still used
“papyr” (1), a document called “Notes from the Neogene.” The historical
Anatomy of Science Fiction 21

document is from our near future, while the scholarly frame is from the distant
future. By presenting a time that is close to our own as an historical
reconstruction, Lem throws into question all history by exposing the errors and
misinterpretations of future scholarship of our own time. We see how easily
history is reshaped and altered by efforts to unearth its truth. Increases in the
available information—relics, artefacts, documents, and so on—are
accompanied by vast increases in misinformation. The binary opposition
between information and misinformation collapses in the absence of blind faith,
and the two become inextricable. It becomes impossible to cull one from the
other. Thus, it is only our ignorance that keeps us from realising just how much
of “history” is actually misinformation.
The narrator of the “Notes” is “always infernally alone” (95) despite the fact
that he is living in an enclosed underground shelter with thousands of other
people. The narrator spends the course of the novel attempting to discover what
he is supposed to do, but because the underground civilisation has been breeding
bureaucracies from bureaucracies, which were bred from bureaucracies, and so
on, “everything is in code” (60), and code—like history, like writing, like
literature, like the “Notes,” like the world—cannot be understood, because what
something means cannot be essentially known; there is no underlying point to
the massive amount of information to which the hero is subjected. As Mr. Pradtl
from the Department of Codes tells the hero, “A cracked code remains a code.
An expert can peel away layer after layer. It’s inexhaustible. One digs ever
deeper into more and more inaccessible strata. That journey has no end” (65). At
the close of the novel, even death becomes a coded message for the narrator, and
so, unable to secure reliable meaning, he takes the only action that will end the
endless cycle of interpretation—suicide.
As much as the existential motifs in post-nuclear science fiction may cast a
pall over our perceptions of humanity and its place in the universe, science
fiction itself does validate the individual and promotes greater notions of
personal freedom than the two preceding ages. In the early age of science fiction,
the individual was subjugated to God and the human race as a whole. In the
modern age of science fiction, the individual was overshadowed by the eternal
laws of nature. But in the post-nuclear age of science fiction, despite the period’s
inclination toward dark indeterminacy and chaos, the individual is valorised.
Neither the designs of God nor the axioms of science take precedent over the
individual assertion of self. And in the assertion of self, the illusion of linguistic
transparency is dispelled, and the surfaces of the fictional text are rendered
opaque—visible—and thus vulnerable to critique. Science fiction, as all fiction
does, critiques the culture that spawns it. Pardoxically, the fact that works from
the third age are often more difficult to penetrate than earlier works, enables us
to examine more clearly our own culture. We become as Sartre to the artist
22 Chapter One

Giacometti;13 no longer are we simply dupes, but we are also “accomplices” in


the construction of narrative meaning. The materials of the fiction are the
surfaces of culture, action unfettered by absent Gods or indifferent laws.

Notes
1
Voltaire first published the work as Lettres sur les Anglais at Rouen in 1771; the
work first appeared in England in 1773.
2
All copies of the first publication of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
are dated 1690, but the book was actually published in 1689.
3
Although Voltaire credits Descartes with guiding humanity to “the path of truth”
(66), he credits Newton with conducting us through it, and openly admits that Descartes
works contain “innumerable errors” (65).
4
Foucault develops the term “episteme” to label the “well-defined regularity” that
“empirical knowledge, at a given time and in a given culture” possesses (ix).
5
It is important to note that my discussion focuses on major epistemological shifts in
western culture. It would be naʀve to assume that only one episteme dominated all world
cultures, and equally naʀve to assume that the presence of an ascendant episteme
precluded the possibility of myriad micro epistemes or that ascendancy implied
hegemony.
6
The Roman Catholic Church publicly condemned Galileo in 1633, but it privately
condemned him seventeen years earlier, in 1616.
7
This should not be confused with the mere labelling of contrary ideas as absurd.
What I contend is that the structure of knowledge was such that it was impossible
(without some major life-altering or consciousness-raising experience) for most of the
population to conceive of the notion. What is missing is choice. For example, in 1945
people would not have been able to register the notion of a fecund family unit consisting
only of a man and his son, not because they chose to deny its possibility, nor because they
were never confronted with the idea, but because the way their knowing was structured
(the confines of their particular episteme) made the idea absurd. We know now, because
of Ian Wilmut and his team at the Roslin Institute, and their work in cloning, that the idea
is not absurd. Although the general population still views the idea of families created
through human cloning as anomalous, such families are possible. Thus, it is also possible
that the social view of the family unit will undergo radical transformation as human
beings re-evaluate their understanding of propagation and familial structure.
8
Karellen goes on to claim that there are “powers of the mind, and powers beyond
the mind, which . . . science could never have brought within its framework without
shattering it entirely” (181-82), but Clarke’s foreword to the 1990 edition abates this
position. Clarke tells us that he believed there would eventually be empirical evidence for
these powers of the mind. When he found none, he discounted their possibility. Thus
Clarke’s loyalty, like Karellen’s, was with and remains with empiricism.
9
In his autobiography, Timothy Leary identifies four generations of people in the
twentieth century: 1) those born before 1920, 2) those born between 1920 and 1945, 3)
those born between 1946 and 1964, and 4) those born after 1965). Leary charts the
“cultural events during their [people belonging to each of these four categories] formative
Anatomy of Science Fiction 23

years that determined their very different views of reality” (406-07). Although Leary’s
claims are neither scientific nor scholarly and are poorly documented, they make an
interesting parallel to my discussion of epistemes and science fiction. The following table
is excerpted from Leary’s chart:

BORN CULTURAL INFLUENCES


Pre-1920 Both World Wars, Hitler,
Churchill and the Cold War.

1920-1945 World War II and Hiroshima.

1946-1964 Atom Bomb Drills and the


Post-War Boom.

Post-1964 E.T., Star Wars, Dr. Spock, and


Star Trek.

One might infer from Leary’s data that the post-nuclear generation is more strongly
influenced by science fiction than science. This inference is in harmony with my
argument. If a wide-spread disillusionment in science occurred after Hiroshima, effecting
a cultural shift away from the apotheosis of science and toward an increased acceptance
of the individual as a product of experience, then science fiction would no longer be
constrained by any obligation to actual science and could take greater liberties until it
approached something more resembling fantasy. Furthermore, people, once severed by
their current episteme from any loyalty to transcendent truth, would be free to embrace all
manner of worlds, without cognitive conflict.
10
King is referring to the same disillusionment with science that I am discussing;
however his objective is to reinstate divine authority over human affairs (a return to the
Renaissance episteme), while mine is to indicate a shift toward a new epistemological
configuration.
11
According to Sartre, an existentialist, “with no support and no aid, is condemned
every moment to invent” himself; he is free because he is no longer trapped by
determinism (41). “We are alone,” Sartre explains, “with no excuses” (41).
12
I elaborate at length on the key differences between these two films in my article
“In Defense of John Carpenter’s The Thing.”
13
In “The Paintings of Giacometti” Sartre writes:

Giacometti’s art is similar to that of the illusionist. We are his dupes and his
accomplices. Without our avidity, our gullibility, the traditional deceitfulness of
the senses and contradictions in perception, he could never make his portraits
live. He is inspired not only by what he sees but also, and especially, by what he
thinks we will see. His intent is not to offer us an exact image but to produce
likenesses which, though they make no pretense at being anything other than what
they are, arouse in us feelings and attitudes ordinarily elicited by the presence of
real men. (Essays 417)
24 Chapter One

Like Giacometti’s art, post-nuclear fiction, including science fiction, is entrenched in


representation and the mutual culpability of writer and reader. It has escaped the ominous
impulse to posit divine or scientific truth as the goal of the textual object.

Works Cited
Asimov, Isaac. “Nightfall.” In Silverberg. 145-82.
Blish, James. “Surface Tension.” In Silverberg. 477-514.
Boon, Kevin Alexander. “In Defense of John Carpenter’s Thing.” Creative
Screenwriting. (1999): 66-74.
Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Trans. Eric Bentley. New York: Grove, 1966.
Carpenter, John, dir. The Thing. Perf. Kurt Russell. Universal, 1982.
Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. New York: Del Rey, 1953.
———. “Introduction.” Childhood’s End. New York: Del Rey, 1990.
Ellison, Harlan. “Alive and Well and on a Friendless Voyage.” Shatterday.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
———. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” I Have No Mouth and I Must
Scream. New York: Pyramid, 1967. 22-42.
———. “In Fear of K.” Strange Wine. New York: Warner, 1978. 111-23.
———. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” The Essential Ellison.
Ed. Terry Dowling. Kansas City: Nemo, 1987. 877-86.
———. “The Very Last Day of a Good Woman.” Ellison’s Wonderland. New
York: Signet, 1962.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.
New York: Vintage, 1994.
Godwin, Tom. “The Cold Equations.” In Silverberg. 543-69.
Hawks, Howard, and Christian Nyby, dirs. The Thing from Another World. Perf.
Kenneth Tobey and Margret Sheridan. RKO, 1951.
Hawthorne, Nathanial. “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” In Rabkin. 164-92.
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral
Mind. Boston: Houghton, 1976.
Keyes, Daniel. “Flowers for Algernon.” In Rabkin. 371-401.
King, Martin Luther. The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Coretta Scott
King. New York: Newmarket, 1958.
Le Guin, Ursula. “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” In Rabkin. 494-525.
Lem, Stanislaw. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. New York: Harcourt, 1973.
Nicholls, Peter, ed. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. New York: Doubleday,
1979.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York:
Vintage, 1974.
Rabkin, Eric S., ed. Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1983.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 25

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Essays in Existentialism. Ed. Wade Baskin. New York:


Citadel, 1965.
Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein. New York: Barnes, 1993.
Silverberg, Robert, ed. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Vol. 1. New York:
Avon, 1970.
Stanesby, Derek. Science, Reason & Religion. London: Croom Helm, 1985.
Voltaire. Letters Concerning the English Nation. Ed. Nicholas Cronk. New
York: Oxford UP, 1994.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Laurel, 1963.
———. Galápagos. New York: Dell, 1985.
Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. 1896. New York: Signet, 1988.
———. The War of the Worlds. 1898. New York: Signet, 1986.
CHAPTER TWO

“THE SHOCK OF DYSRECOGNITION”: NARRATIVE


ESTRANGEMENT, SCIENCE FICTION, AND UTOPIA
IN H.G. WELLS’ A MODERN UTOPIA

KÁROLY PINTÉR

Brian Attebery has observed of the twentieth century that “[f]rom H. G. Wells
to Samuel Delany, science fiction is full of utopias, dystopias, ambiguous
utopias, and ‘heterotopias’” (5). This statement may be surprising for those
aware that science fiction is an internationally popular genre or mode within
prose fiction,1 with hundreds of authors publishing thousands of titles each year,
whereas utopia, as a distinct literary genre, went into a sort of eclipse during the
twentieth century, and the decline or even the end of utopia has been mourned
by several scholars.2 But the complex relationship of literary utopia and science
fiction goes well beyond a mere upward or downward moving course of
popularity; they share fundamentally similar concerns at heart.
The central ambition underlying all literary utopias is the desire to picture an
ideal or at least a qualitatively better type of social existence, while one of the
classic preoccupations of science fiction has been the impact of scientific and
technological progress on human society and lifestyle.3 Both kinds of fiction
have a penchant for challenging their readers by presenting striking images of
radically different ways of human life. These common features have prompted
Darko Suvin, for instance, to propose that “utopia is not a genre but the
sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction” (61). Utopias written before the late
eighteenth century, however, show few similarities with science fiction proper,
since their imaginary communities typically differ from contemporary Western
societies not in terms of their material culture, technology, or scientific prowess,
but due to their more advanced moral principles and social customs. Such classic
utopian societies do not present “images of the future,” another common
predilection of mainstream science fiction, but rather a contemporary alternative
to existing social realities, brought about by an altogether different kind of social
Anatomy of Science Fiction 27

organization. And most importantly, classic utopias were imagined as static


societies, lingering in a state of a harmonious balance where all significant
change would result in disintegration and collapse. Progress of any kind was, by
definition, excluded from utopias.
The nineteenth century, on the other hand, gave rise to a new attitude
towards the future. The notion of progress, combined with the advance of
scientific knowledge, the revolutionary development of industrial technology
and modern mass production, persuaded people that the future was going to be
radically different from the present, while its general course could be predictable
on the basis of present-day tendencies. A future-oriented kind of fiction
emerged, pioneered by Sebastien Mercier in L’An 2440 (1770),4 which
incorporated the primary concern of utopia, but found it both more convincing
and more convenient to locate a superior human society in the future, produced
by a string of scientific breakthroughs and social advancement. This future-
oriented fiction came to be naturally affiliated with the more general genre of
science fiction, itself emerging in the nineteenth century and centred on the
interplay of the potentials of science, technology, and society.
But the integration of utopia into science fiction has left indelible marks on
the distinctive features of the older genre. Science fiction in general does not
share the inherent optimism of utopias: quite the contrary, a significant part of
science fiction is concerned with the threats posed by progress, whether in the
form of scientific hubris, the increased destructive capabilities of modern
warfare, or the various abuses of the new opportunities presented by industrial
technology. Moreover, by the second half of the twentieth century most utopian
schemes have become distinctly suspect in the eyes of writers and readers alike:
two world wars and the rise and fall of totalitarian regimes all over the world
strongly caution against easy acceptance of any single person’s ideas bringing
peace and happiness to everyone. The disappearance of a widely shared moral
consensus from Western societies proved the old dictum right: one man’s utopia
is another man’s dystopia, while the conceptual problems are aggravated by
literary difficulties, since science-fiction authors instinctively revolt against the
static and dull images of a harmonious, contented society offering no
opportunities for conflict, exciting plots and clashes of antagonistic characters.
The rejection of several precepts of classic utopias does not mean, however,
that utopian fiction has completely disappeared in our time. As Edward James
remarks, “it has merely mutated, within the field of sf, into something very
different from the classic utopia” (219). Rather than presenting a coherent
narrative of a visit to and a detailed description of a happy land, modern science
fiction takes a more contextualised approach, offering brief glimpses of what
may be considered utopian communities, while subjecting them to a critical look
within the same story. This way science fiction is able to convey the crucial
28 Chapter Two

notion that any social ideal is by definition relative, dependent on a given


community, its cultural outlook and expectations. Yet the distinct concern of
many science-fiction authors with social ideals and its inverse, social
nightmares, commonly called dystopias, reveals a strong devotion to the
problem of a better way of existence for humans, whether in the here-and-now
or in the distant future, on Earth or on another planet. This concern has been
aptly captured by Suvin when he claims that science fiction “can finally be
written only between the utopian and the anti-utopian horizons” (61–62).
There are few authors whose works could provide a more suitable ground for
an examination of the intricate interaction of utopia and science fiction than the
copious literary output of H. G. Wells. His “scientific romances,” as he referred
to them, are widely recognised as pioneering modern science-fiction works both
in their choice of topics and their treatment, while he has been the most
influential figure in the English utopian tradition in the last century.
Nevertheless, “in retrospect his relationship to the utopian mode seems uneasy
and paradoxical” (Parrinder 96) and appears typical of the century. Wells’s
utopian and dystopian oeuvre consists of at least a dozen books of fiction, from
The Time Machine published in 1895 to The Shape of Things to Come in 1933,
yet the search for a definitive Wellsian utopia (or dystopia) is made unusually
difficult not only because his visions alternated between optimism and
pessimism, but also because his way of thinking relied to a large extent on
intellectual experiment and improvisation. Nonetheless, A Modern Utopia,
published in 1905, is a strong candidate since it is “the nearest thing in his
corpus to that book [the major utopian work]” (Parrinder 96). The first and also
the most detailed presentation of Wells’s vision of a better future society (or
alternative present), its fundamental ideas were to be often repeated with little
variation in his subsequent writings. Moreover, this book represents his only
sustained effort to consciously experiment with the formal elements of the genre,
which also offers a running commentary on the very process of the experiment.
Wells’s modern utopia is not only a utopia, but a “meta-utopia,” a text about the
possibility of composing a fictional utopia (Parrinder 97–98). As such, it not
only provides a comprehensive critique of the genre but also unwittingly
represents the end of an era in the generic history. Meanwhile it introduces,
perhaps for the first time, several elements into the plot that are to become staple
devices of twentieth-century science fiction. These features make it particularly
challenging for those interested in the way utopia is constituted as a literary
genre and a self-reflexive tradition.
A Modern Utopia offers an eminent justification of Northrop Frye’s and
Suvin’s generic observations: it presents a mental experiment in writing, in the
course of which the problems faced, the assumptions made and the conclusions
reached by the author are all duly revealed to the reader.5 No author of a utopia
Anatomy of Science Fiction 29

had ever before involved his audience so intimately into his own creative
process: the reader is invited to witness the unfolding of the composition, while
the author creates the illusion of proceeding step by step, making up his mind at
each turn of the developing ‘experiment,’ insisting that he follows no
preconceived plan or larger design. This compositional strategy apparently
follows from the ambition of the narrator, declared in Chapter I, to imagine an
evolutionary utopia, where the ideal is not a timeless balance of perfection but a
social and political structure open and flexible enough to allow development in a
positive direction. This opening axiom has crucial consequences. The image of
an evolutionary or kinetic utopia must of necessity be incomplete and
fragmentary—the author cannot aim at precise description or dwell on minute
details, the standard feature of classic utopias, and should be constantly aware of
the transitory nature of his vision. Furthermore, he should find a way to present
rival or alternative ideas within the same framework. Such a requirement clearly
puts a heavy strain on the traditional utopian narrative form6: a fundamental
artistic problem that the narrator calls the “incurable effect of unreality” of a
utopian vision remains (A Modern Utopia 7), which is basically the result of the
lack of recognisable physical settings, individualised characters, and human
conflicts, or in Frye’s terms, the generic lack of novelistic qualities in utopias.
The narrator’s response to all these problems is to dismiss the traditional
narrative devices of utopias. The modern utopia can no longer be pictured as an
island in the South Seas or a faraway country sheltered by tall mountains. The
journey motif is discarded with one single gesture: the two imaginary characters
without any perceivable transition simply find themselves on another planet—
the twin planet of Earth imagined to be lying beyond Sirius, while being
physically identical with ours (9).

And behold! in the twinkling of an eye we are in that other world!


We should scarcely note the change. Not a cloud would have gone from the sky.
… Yet I have an idea that in some obscure manner we should come to feel at once
a difference in things. … That would interrupt our Utopian speculations. (10)

This sudden and tentative launch of the “story” harbours more than one layer
of irony. By discussing and then dispensing with the traditional narrative devices
of classic utopias, Wells is making gentle fun of these devices as such. His
method is a satirical distillation of the way Gulliver is transported into various
surreal places by Swift: improbability is carried to its logical extreme by
stripping away all fictional plausibility.7 It also exposes the central constitutive
metaphor of all fictional utopias: the transposition of speculation into
imaginative vision. When the Utopian speculations of the two characters are
interrupted by their finding themselves instantaneously in Utopia, imagination
takes over from reasoning. This crucial moment of transformation, of the
30 Chapter Two

imaginative leap into a world where suddenly the familiar looks strange, and the
novum, the transformative fictional invention, begins to rule, is half-proposed,
half-described with all the experience of a prolific writer of science-fiction
fantasies.
Robert C. Elliott considered the dominance of what he called the subjunctive
mood of A Modern Utopia a narrative weakness, “as though he [Wells] were not
willing to commit himself completely to the fictional reality of Utopia—as
though Utopia were a hypothesis rather than a place” (115). But his remark
ignores the underlying assumptions of Wells’s project that follow straight from
his initial axioms. His Utopia is proposed as a tentative hypothesis, in which
credible fictional illusion is not going to be created. Readers are not meant to be
lulled by familiar fictional devices into a suspension of their disbelief; on the
contrary, they are invited to ponder the theoretical and practical problems of
creating a utopian hypothesis by watching the ongoing effort of the narrator to
perform such a feat. It is not by accident that the narrator remarks a propos the
lack of language problems in Utopia: “We need suppose no linguistic
impediments to intercourse. The whole world will surely have a common
language, that is quite elementarily Utopian, and since we are free of the
trammels of convincing story-telling, we may suppose that language to be
sufficiently our own to understand” (11, emphasis added).
The essay chapters, the casual extra-fictional remarks of the narrator inserted
into the narrative parts as well as the extensive use of the conditional and the
subjunctive are all part of this deliberate strategy, and they function as a second
kind of estrangement. While the wildly science-fictional setting of the story
opens up the prospect of cognitive estrangement that is a generic requirement of
fictional utopias, the narrative tools just described are in place to remind readers
constantly of the contingency of the vision, in line with the starting proposition
that a modern utopia has to be kinetic and, therefore, elusive. The cognitive
estrangement is thus itself estranged from the reader, suspending the suspension
of disbelief, by means of what I propose to call ‘narrative estrangement,’
creating a weird feeling of hovering between two different modes, between
science fiction and prose essay, storytelling and self-examination.8 This kind of
estrangement is close to the Brechtian sense of Verfremdung, which inspired
Suvin’s own concept of ‘estrangement’ (6, n.2). In Brecht’s dramatic theory,
Verfremdung functions as a ploy to create distance between the dramatic
representations of reality and the observer, and, as a result, makes the familiar
look strange, ironic, grotesque, unusual.9 The narrative estrangement exercised
by Wells performs the same feat with the unfamiliar, the cognitively estranged
fictional world of a utopia, presumably with the same objective as the one
professed by Brecht: to generate reflection, criticism, and a new kind of insight
in the reader/observer. Wells not only foregrounds the fictionality of the fiction
Anatomy of Science Fiction 31

but emphasises its tentative and incomplete character, playing a seemingly


capricious tug-of-war with readers, dragging them into a fictional world only to
pull them out of it again, forcing them to contemplate it as the narrator’s “mental
experiment.”
The narrator, as June Deery contends, is part of this rather complex narrative
structure consisting of “three successive frames,” whose authors are H.G. Wells,
author of ‘A Note to the Reader’ and the appendix; a nameless and faceless
internal author called the “chairman,” whose comments are italicised both at the
beginning and at the end; and the main narrator, the ‘Voice,’ who “occupies
different levels of fictionality in the main text” (29).10 The narrator’s position
vis-à-vis the narrative is curious and contradictory: at once a character in the
story and the creator of the whole discourse, he is both “inside” and “outside”
his vision, which creates a large potential for ironic self-estrangement. The
“chairman” who introduces him describes the narrative situation as a crossover
between a lecture delivered by the narrator sitting behind a desk manuscript in
hand, and a visual illustration of this lecture on “a sheet behind our friend on
which moving pictures intermittently appear” (A Modern Utopia 4). The visual
illustrations are developed into a full “cinematographic entertainment” with the
unexplained introduction of another character called the botanist, who will
feature in the narration but will not have a voice of his own:

There will be an effect of these two people going to and fro in front of the circle
of a rather defective lantern, which sometimes jams and sometimes gets out of
focus, but which does occasionally succeed in displaying on the screen a
momentary moving picture of Utopian conditions. (4)

It would be logical to suppose that the narrator, the creator and ‘director’ of
the whole spectacle, has sovereign control over the whole fiction, including his
own fictional double, and is free to give full play to his whims of fancy. The
other main character, the botanist, at first does not seem to be more than one of
such whims, inspired by a momentary impulse of the narrator to place such a
character next to the narrator in the Alps of that “other world.” During Chapter I,
however, the botanist begins to undergo a sort of fictional emancipation as he
suddenly interrupts the flow of the narrator’s speculations when he wakes up to
the possibility of meeting the utopian equivalent of his former love whom he had
to relinquish back on Earth. This interruption, as well as the pathetic love story,
angers the narrator:

It is strange, but this figure of the botanist will not keep in place. It sprang up
between us, dear reader, as a passing illustrative invention. I do not know what
put him into my head … But here he is, indisputably, with me in Utopia, and
32 Chapter Two

lapsing from our high speculative theme into halting but intimate confidences. …
Have I come to Utopia to hear this sort of thing? (16–17)

From this outburst it appears that the botanist, a construct of the narrator, seems
to have acquired a certain degree of autonomy of his own. And rather than being
interested in the narrator’s lofty speculations, he recounts a cheap, corny,
unhappy love story, an unwelcome distraction. The botanist gradually emerges
as a challenging presence in the book, since he becomes an often silly and
uncomprehending but doggedly consistent critic of the unfolding utopian vision
of the narrator.11
From the clues offered by the narrator’s asides, the growing fictional
autonomy of the botanist appears somehow inevitable, a necessary consequence
of the way Wells has established his utopian hypothesis. The botanist’s
important and irreplaceable role is to act as the crucial agent in service of
narrative estrangement. His intrusive presence signals the possibility of an
alternative attitude to the speculative experiment, and/or an alternative attitude to
the narration. His love story, the integral element of a true romance, surfaces
early in the narrative as an urge, nudging the discourse towards another, alien
genre, but the narrator refuses to be drawn in that direction: “I turn to my
botanist almost reprovingly. … ‘This is not the business we have come upon, but
a mere incidental link in our larger plan’” (18–19).
The same conflict emerges again when the exploration of Modern Utopia
begins with the metaphorical descent of the two characters from the mountains
and their entry into the utopian community. They abandon their theoretical
vantage point, the place of systematic contemplation and broad survey, and
penetrate the ‘thick shrubbery’ of an actual society in motion. By submerging
themselves in the society below, the visitors inevitably get entangled in it, losing
their freedom of action and the sovereignty of decision. The botanist’s next
challenge to the narrator’s speculative vision comes when the sight of a couple
of Utopian lovers reminds him to tell the whole story of his own unhappy love
affair, generating more annoyance in the narrator.

It is a curiously human thing, and, upon my honour, not one I had designed, that
when at last I stand in the twilight in the midst of a Utopian township, when my
whole being should be taken up with speculative wonder, this man should be
standing by my side, and lugging my attention persistently towards himself,
towards his limited futile self. This thing perpetually happens to me, this intrusion
of something small and irrelevant and alive, upon my great impressions. (33,
emphases added)

The narrator is annoyed by the botanist exactly because the latter is


encroaching upon his liberty to dwell on his favourite utopian vision, but, as if
Anatomy of Science Fiction 33

by a slip of the tongue, the narrator admits that the ‘intruder’ is something
(somebody?) irrelevant but alive, while he gets distracted from the “speculative
wonder” of his newly fabricated Utopian vision that is, in terms of the implied
contrast, significant but dead. The botanist’s personal narrative emerges as a
rival to that of the narrator, an unimaginative and commonplace romance
modulated by the middle-class setting, the lack of resolution, and the cowardice
of the male character towards a cheap mock-realist novel. The narrator must
fight to suppress this fiction since, for all its sentimental and cliché-like features,
it appears ironically more “alive” to the narrator than his own. The narrator’s
own distraction by the love story (“For a moment I forget we are in Utopia
altogether” [36]) is emblematic of the way an average middle-class audience
could be distracted by such a banal romance from the narrator’s large-scale
utopian speculations. The botanist’s lack of enthusiasm for Modern Utopia may
well be shared by many readers, and the narrator’s struggle for dominance in the
fiction parallels his struggle to hold his readers’ attention.
Thus, the botanist becomes the embodiment of a certain kind of “implied
reader,” who approaches the narrator’s imaginative experiment with
expectations conditioned by Victorian fiction, supposing that a conventional
romantic love story is an essential element of a fictional narrative. Hopelessly
bound to his own age and social customs, the botanist is unable to make the full
imaginative leap into Modern Utopia. The spoiler of the narrator’s fun, he
becomes the slow, uncomprehending and pedestrian, but curiously alive critic of
his personal utopia.
The evolving conflict between the narrator and the botanist, on another level,
is part of Wells’s critique of the whole utopian tradition, begun by the implicit
satire on the narrative devices of traditional utopias. The very form of narration
parodies the classic utopian narrative situation of a stranger exploring Utopia
with the help of a wise and omniscient guide. In this case, the narrator doubles
himself and fulfils the roles of both guide and tourist, explaining to himself and
the botanist the rational considerations behind all phenomena they encounter. He
structures his book by enumerating most of the fundamental problems tackled in
one form or another by traditional utopias and discussing them from a ‘modern’
point of view first, then incorporating his speculative conclusions into the next
turn of the story. On occasion, this requires a rather strained split of
consciousness, since the roles of “author” and “actor,” as Deery also observes,
are contradictory: during the speculations, the narrator is a know-all,
occasionally making forward references to subsequent parts of the book as a
decent essayist should,12 but when he switches to being a character in the story,
he feigns surprise at the new discoveries and ignorance about what to expect
later. In both cases, he writes and behaves according to the conventions of the
particular genre (systematic argument in the case of the essay, suspense-building
34 Chapter Two

in the case of fiction), but this split consciousness within the same fictional self
functions as yet another aspect of the narrative estrangement. The tone of the
discussion in the essayistic parts is apparently utterly serious, but irony creeps in
when readers are reminded by the twists of the story that all these ideas and
opinions are forwarded by a single individual, whose enthusiasm for his own
mental construct contrasts with the uninterested and occasionally sceptical
attitude of the botanist. The botanist’s interruptions and the distractions
represent not an intellectual challenge—that is, proposing an alternative version
of utopian vision—but a narrative one, threatening the sovereign control of the
narrator over his own fiction.
A similar challenge presents itself in the encounter with the radical devotee
of Nature, a renegade of Modern Utopia, who criticises his society for its
deviation from natural living, especially “the over-management of the world”
(71). His rambling and elusive speech suggests more than it illuminates.
Nonetheless, the narrator realises that this character represents a new kind of
threat to his narrative: “Now had I come upon a hopeless incompatibility? Was
this the reductio ad absurdum of my vision, and must it even as I sat there fade,
dissolve, and vanish before my eyes?” (74). The appearance, behaviour and
arguments of the ‘natural man’ have the flavour of caricature, he looks like an
exaggerated parody of those romantic back-to-nature enthusiasts who reject
industrial civilisation on principle and urge a return to some sort of primitive or
pre-industrial lifestyle, faintly reminiscent of pastoral utopians like Jean-Jacques
Rousseau or William Morris. He may also be seen as a parody of a standard
narrative situation in classic utopias, the stranger(s) meeting an intelligent and
enlightened local who patiently and systematically explains his whole world to
them. Here, the first talkative local they meet is not interested in them,
disregards their questions, does not provide coherent information, and is neither
a distinguished representative of nor a spokesman for the utopian community,
but a dissatisfied misfit. The narrator thus meets yet another rival in his own
fiction, one who champions a different version of utopian vision, a vision
emanating from the criticism of exactly those features of Modern Utopia—urban
sprawl, dominance of science, technology, and artificiality, bureaucratic
invasion of individual life—that the narrator presents as positive achievements.
The text’s meta-utopian character is in this way doubled: within a utopia
criticising contemporary social reality and reflecting on earlier utopian visions,
we find hints of another utopia criticising the fictional utopian reality—yet
another instance of narrative estrangement.
The confrontation with the misfit—even though his appearance and
behaviour discredits most of his opinions and arguments—challenges the
narrator’s vision of the World State as a smoothly functioning organic entity.
The narrator, forced to tackle the problem of dissent in Utopia, shifts his
Anatomy of Science Fiction 35

attention from the “what” to the “how,” concluding that he needs to imagine a
group of people who are intellectually and morally capable of bringing about
such a transformation, and who are organised enough to cooperate for that
purpose.13 Seizing on a word dropped by the misfit about “voluntary noblemen,”
he begins to develop the idea in his mind: “I began to realise certain possibilities
that were wrapped up in it. … Evidently what he is not, will be the class to
contain what is needed here. Evidently” (76).
The idea of an evolutionary utopia is ‘evidently’ extended at this point to the
evolution of the narrative: the narrator’s vision being modified and corrected
right before the readers’ eyes, provoked by fictional interaction with other
characters. The “natural man,” already the second character in the story whose
appearance is unexpected and unwelcome, threatens the narrator’s sovereignty
over his fiction, yet his challenge cannot be simply disregarded. He is just as
“alive” as the botanist and his love story, and the problem he raises—the
problem of dissent in Utopia—is real. The narrator has to admit: “I had not this
in mind when I began” (75), and consequently he begins to ponder the problem
of the establishment and management of Utopia, leading to his imaginative
‘development’ of the order of the samurai.
So, in the course of the text, the narrator works out and documents the
development of a speculative hypothesis or the framework of a Modern Utopia,
while turning his own conclusions into a slowly and hesitantly evolving story, an
emerging tangible fictional universe. In the meantime, the narrator’s fictional
double has encountered a series of challenges in the narrative, which questioned
his direction and control over the fiction. By way of response, he has gradually
detailed, refined, and occasionally rectified his own vision, while getting
increasingly entangled in his own narrative, losing control over it. His own
creations, primarily the botanist, challenge his discourse, repeatedly veering it
towards romance, and forcing him to give his experimental vision more
substance than his starting hypothesis would allow.14 The more detailed and
sharp the vision of Modern Utopia is, the more reminiscent it is of the static
tableaux of classic utopias. The blurred ‘moving pictures’ that were promised at
the beginning tend to freeze into a fixed image.

I had imagined myself as standing outside the general machinery of the State—in
the distinguished visitors’ gallery, as it were—and getting the new world in a
series of comprehensive perspective views. But this Utopia, for all the sweeping
generalisation I do my best to maintain, is swallowing me up. (133, emphasis
added)

To get out of this predicament, the narrator twists the plot around in such a
way as to stage a meeting with his Utopian self in London as a kind of
dénouement, eagerly expected by the narrator not only as an answer to his open
36 Chapter Two

questions about Utopia but also as the symbolic end of his quest. “I find the
interest of details dwindling to the vanishing point. That I have come to Utopia
is the lesser thing now; the greater is that I have come to meet myself” (136–37).
This emphatic statement retrospectively reinterprets the whole fictional
journey of the narrator: what seemed earlier an experiment propelled by
intellectual passion and curiosity has suddenly taken on a strongly personal and
individual colouring. The opportunity for such an encounter was hinted at the
start when the narrator fleetingly considered and quickly dismissed the idea of
pushing the fiction towards parody by imagining encounters with the Utopian
doubles of various famous personages, for instance the British king, the German
Emperor, American President Theodore Roosevelt, or Joseph Chamberlain, the
influential British politician (17–18). Meeting one’s Utopian self promises a
wealth of ironic opportunities, including a brilliant occasion for self-satire. Wells
has already doubled himself into “author” and “actor,” and he is now about to
meet a third persona of himself, an idealised but even further distanced self,
distilling the conflict between the ‘real’ contemporary world and the ‘imaginary’
utopian world into an encounter between two versions of the same fictional
individual. Part of the irony resides in his pretending to have lost his sovereign
control over the narrative as the fictional construct has come into life and begun
to operate by its own rules. His Utopian double is therefore presented as an
utterly autonomous character over which the narrator has not a trace of control.
Wells, however, seizes hardly any of these satirical opportunities15; instead,
he suddenly abandons the method of narrative estrangement he has so far been
employing reasonably consistently. The tone turns predominantly serious and
straightforward, reminders of the fictionality of the whole situation disappear,
and the opportunity to stage a lively exchange between the two selves remains
unexplored. He presents the first encounter in rather emotional terms. The first
confrontation leads to a resigned and nostalgia-coloured meditation on
opportunities and potentials left unexploited in the imperfect world of reality.
The whole account is cut unexpectedly short with the enigmatic explanation that
their first encounter was too “personal and emotional” to be recounted and it
would “contribute nothing to a modern Utopia” (148). It is only suggested later
that the narrator recalled his youth, with all its suffering, failures, and lost hopes,
and made a kind of confession to his double.
This egotistical turn of the narrator runs parallel to the characteristically self-
absorbed botanist who has seen the Utopian double of Mary, his love on Earth.
His attitude to Utopia is completely transformed by the experience: he has
suddenly become enthusiastic about the whole speculative venture since he
thinks he has understood its purpose: “‘You know I did not understand this,’ he
says. ‘I did not really understand that when you said Utopia, you meant I was to
meet her—in happiness. … It makes everything different’” (149). The narrator
Anatomy of Science Fiction 37

tries in vain to explain that this Mary is a different person, with a different past,
experiences, and friends; the botanist refuses to listen to him and pins all his
hopes on a future meeting with her.
The narrator’s encounter with his double and the botanist’s glimpse of the
double of his love signify an altogether different kind of ultimate objective for
Utopia: the fulfilment of personal wishes and desires for both author and reader.
The narrator wants to see himself in a world where he thinks he could have
realised his full potential; the botanist wants to find the love he lost on Earth.
The narrator seems to recognise that turning Utopia to the satisfaction of
personal desires is yet another trap for his venture:

Why should a modern Utopia insist upon slipping out of the hands of its creator
and becoming the background of a personal drama—of such a silly little drama?
… We agreed to purge this State and all the people in it of traditions, associations,
bias, laws, and artificial entanglements, and begin anew; but we have no power to
liberate ourselves.” (152)

Nonetheless, he succumbs to the temptation when he describes his


subsequent and more substantial encounters with his Utopian double. He starts
out to summarise the exchanges between them in the same tract form employed
in the first part of the book. But after explaining the basics of Utopian social
theory and the rough history of the samurai, the essay modulates into a
conversation, with the Utopian double doing most of the talking: the narrator
asks questions, expresses surprise or admiration, but on the whole acts as a
polite and humble reporter, while the double “takes over” the narration. For the
first time in the book, the dominant Voice is not that of the narrator, but his
Utopian self. Although not much emphasised by the text, the change is
significant: this time Utopia begins to account for itself through the mouth of the
double. This Modern Utopia seems to have come to such a full life that it neither
needs nor tolerates any further intrusion from its creator. On the other hand,
Utopia is personified in another version of the narrator, who is not only
autonomous but morally and intellectually superior to his “creator.” The reader
is implicitly offered a choice between two selves of the same character as a
symbolic contrast between Utopia and “Reality.”16
What follows is a detailed, occasionally even pettily pedantic, description of
the strict discipline and ascetic austerity of the life of the samurai, that elite class
of voluntary world leaders, whose ranks naturally include his Utopian double,
the narrator began to imagine after the encounter with the “natural man.” The
personalisation of Modern Utopia culminates during the portrayal of their
mystical and synthetic religion centred on an infinitely complex and endlessly
varied God, defying all explanations and definitions, and revealing itself only in
complete solitude. This transcendental presence can only be contemplated in
38 Chapter Two

solitary meditation, and in order to facilitate such meditation, each member of


the order is required once a year to leave civilisation for at least a week and “go
… into some wild and solitary place, … speak to no man or woman, … be alone
with Nature, necessity, and their own thoughts” (178–79). The journey is both a
test of physical endurance and the stoutness of heart as well as an occasion to
stare Nature in the face unaided by modern technology and civilisation.

I don’t sleep much at nights on these journeys; I lie awake and stare at the stars.
… I think very much of the Night of this World—the time when our sun will be
red and dull, and air and water will lie frozen together in a common snowfield
where now the forests of the tropic are steaming. ... I think very much of that, and
whether it is indeed God’s purpose that our kind should end, and the cities we
have built, the books we have written, all that we have given substance and a
form, should lie dead beneath the snows. ... I remember that one night I sat up and
told the rascal stars very earnestly how they should not escape us in the end.
(180–181)

In this account, the emotional climax of the whole book, lays the key to the
venture of imagining a Utopia. The iron discipline and the unwavering sense of
duty of the samurai is rooted in a quasi-religious or metaphysical belief in their
mission to maintain the human race, the “undying organism” metaphorically
represented by the World State.17 The journeys in the wilderness serve as regular
reminders of the precariousness of this organism constantly under threat from
the chaotic forces of nature and cosmos. The religion of the samurai is nothing
else but a dispassionate sense of the calamities awaiting humanity and an
unflinching determination to maintain their carefully constructed but fragile
order against all odds. This divine mission lies at the heart of the Modern
Utopia, and the revelation of this divine mission has been prepared for and
deferred all through the story.
The centrality of this episode is also signalled by the modified style of
narration: narrative estrangement has all but disappeared from the text in the
course of the discussion of the narrator and his Utopian double, and there is no
trace of irony in the lyrical account of the solitary journey. The text seems to
verify the earlier assertion of the narrator: the essential point of imagining
Modern Utopia has been to meet himself in a perfected form, and allow his
Utopian double to expound an “open-ended cosmic mysticism” (Parrinder 110).
The whole journey through Utopia, beginning with the descent from the
mountains, continuing with a series of encounters and challenges and ending
with the arrival in London and the visit of his double, appears retrospectively
merely as a transitory episode between two solitary experiences. The first one
occurred right after the moment of the imaginary transition into Utopia, when
the narrator and the botanist looked up to the sky to realise that they did not
Anatomy of Science Fiction 39

recognise any familiar constellations of the stars above and “for the first time
perhaps, we should realise from this unfamiliar heaven that not the world had
changed, but ourselves—that we had come into the uttermost deeps of space”
(11). This initial “shock of dysrecognition” [sic!] (Dick 99) of the stars is linked
to the Utopian double’s defiant confrontation with the stars, God, and human
destiny by the fact that both take place outside society and civilisation: both are
essentially acts of the imagination. Imagining a Utopia is ultimately a solitary
venture, which may start out of a sheer impulse of playing a game and may be
continued as pretence of one person’s tyranny over people, facts, habits, and
institutions, but ultimately, almost against the author’s intention, it is constrained
to account for its own motives. And the ultimate motive of the narrator is
revealed by his double: a deep sense of anxiety that mankind is doomed to an
eventual failure and extinction by the merciless laws of physics, echoing the
famous scene of the “dying world” from Wells’s first science-fiction novel, The
Time Machine. The vision of Modern Utopia is evoked as a vague hope that the
concerted effort and determination of a global body of intelligent, devoted, and
unselfish individuals, an improbably benevolent dictatorship of the best of the
best, might help defer or even to avoid this fate.
But the book does not end here or on that note: after his encounter with his
Utopian double, the narrator believes that “[t]his Utopia is nearly done. All the
broad lines of its social organisation are completed now, the discussion of all its
general difficulties and problems” (209). In this almost Faustian moment, the
whole edifice suddenly collapses. The botanist, the sceptical and
uncomprehending but curiously ‘alive’ critic of the narrator’s imagination, the
companion he had “no power to leave behind” (105), becomes the destroyer of
the Utopian vision out of personal frustration. As the narrator ironically
comments on this turn with the benefit of hindsight:

I forget that a Utopia is a thing of the imagination that becomes more fragile with
every added circumstance, that, like a soap-bubble, it is most brilliantly and
variously coloured at the very instant of its dissolution. … To find the people
assuming the concrete and individual, is not, as I fondly imagine, the last triumph
of realisation, but the swimming moment of opacity before the film gives way. To
come to individual emotional cases, is to return to the earth. (209)

Such an ending to the Utopian fantasy inevitably raises questions. The


character of the botanist has been a nuisance all through the story, restraining
and hindering the imaginative unfolding of the narrator’s vision, but how can a
fictional character possess the authority to actually put an end to the fiction
itself? A possible clue to this riddle lies in the botanist’s function as an implied
reader. While the narrator’s quest has been fulfilled by encountering his Utopian
self and receiving a vision about the samurai representing the future hope of
40 Chapter Two

humankind, the botanist’s individual hope of regaining his lost love in Utopia
has been crushed and even mocked by seeing his beloved woman happily united
with the same hated rival who had won her hand back on Earth. Deprived of the
romantic reunion he sought and humiliated by the Utopia of the narrator, the
botanist makes the “childish dreams” (212) collapse. Somebody who is
adamantly reading a utopia as a romance cannot tolerate the loss of a happy
ending.
More generally, the text seems to suggest that violent emotional reactions
cannot be contained in the framework of Utopia. The fictional world has already
been slightly shaken by strong and potentially destructive emotions before, for
example, when the narrator was confronted with the misfit of Utopia, or when he
first met his own double. But such moments of excitement, doubt, and
apprehension were nothing compared to the anger, exasperation, and humiliation
experienced by the botanist. But if Utopia cannot tolerate such emotions, is it
possible for ordinary humans ever to occupy such a world? The botanist’s
passionate outburst—which also bursts the fantasy bubble—throws exactly this
hard fact into the narrator’s face: life cannot be conceived without pain and
suffering, people are scarred by their past, and it is a childish daydream to
imagine that humans can ever be delivered from unhappiness, failure,
disillusionment and frustration.
It is yet another question how to interpret this end to Utopia. Has the botanist
and all that he has come to represent in the book—selfishness, conventionality,
unimaginativeness, sentimentality, but also pragmatism and distrust of rarefied
speculations—triumphed over the unbridled optimism and reckless imagination
of the narrator? Or rather, does this episode suggest that Utopia can only survive
if it can exclude such people and such attitudes? The whole narrative drift of the
text, however, has confirmed that people like the botanist are undeniable parts of
reality, and as such, they have to be accommodated into any Utopian scheme,
however small its claim to practicability. The narrator’s own self-irony, referring
retrospectively to his nearly completed Utopian vision as a “soap bubble,”
reveals the effect of the ‘reality check’ exercised by the botanist.
The Utopian fantasy thus ends inconclusively and inconsistently: what
started out as an ambiguously estranged fictional thought experiment familiar
from science fiction with all the speculative criteria carefully established, is
rounded off rather conventionally as a conversation-turned-daydream, while
Wells, the author, apparently negligently jettisons his own narrative frame with
the lecturer and the moving pictures. The whole speculation is explained as a
discussion between two friends, or rather acquaintances, who have recently
returned from a holiday in Switzerland and have been discussing the botanist’s
passion for a Lucerne woman over lunch in London. The sudden return to the
ordinary reality of contemporary London retrospectively questions and
Anatomy of Science Fiction 41

undermines the confidence displayed by the narrator during most of the fiction.
Modern Utopia, whose framework has been first speculatively worked out, then
fictionally imagined and experienced, has proven merely a flimsy daydream that
collapsed due to one person’s wounded ego. Although returning to the London
of 1905 is a convenient device to demonstrate the moral superiority of the dream
over the squalid and depressing reality,18 the narrator’s failure and intense
disappointment is inevitable. His reaction is almost hysterical—he flatly denies
the reality of the real world:

You may accept this as the world of reality, you may consent to be one scar in an
ill-dressed compound world, but so—not I! This is a dream too—this world. Your
dream, and you bring me back to it—out of Utopia—… It’s all a dream, and there
are people—I’m just one of the first of a multitude—between sleeping and
waking—who will presently be rubbing it out of their eyes. (215–16, emphases
retained)

After jumping on an omnibus to get rid of the botanist’s presence, his


irrepressible optimistic spirit swells up again, and, in a genuinely prophetic
vision, he glimpses the London of the future, and envisions the awakening of the
future samurai in apocalyptic terms, as if an angel, “a towering figure of flame
and colour, standing between earth and sky, with a trumpet in his hands, over
there above the Haymarket, against the October glow” (219), could suddenly
rouse all the potential samurai to recognise their true vocation as well as one
another. But then his sense of reality reasserts itself, and admitting the
impossibility of the millenarian vision, he finally asserts that Utopia will come
into being step by step, slowly and gradually, in truly evolutionary fashion.
Patrick Parrinder argues that this final vision of the narrator captures the true
evangelical motives behind Wells’s “ratiocinations.” Yet, the concluding
musings of the narrator can also be interpreted in the context of the meta-utopian
character of the whole book. In my opinion, the spectacularly inconsistent end to
A Modern Utopia, the abandonment of the carefully constructed narrative frame
and the return to threadbare fictional conventions is the narrative equivalent to
admitting the ultimate impossibility of the whole venture. The speculative
experiment has failed: the starting axioms—the evolutionary character, the
possibility of progress, the avoidance of a static image of perfection, the
incorporation of anti-utopians like the botanist, and so forth—do not allow a
consistent working out of the hypothesis. For all his tremendous intellectual
efforts, the last vestige of hope left for the narrator is nothing more than recourse
to the age-old millenarian vision of the “resurrection of the living” (220), a
utopian deux ex machina. The narrator’s voice is silenced, however, when the
chairman of the lecture—who has not been heard of since Chapter II—suddenly
takes over, and proceeds to summarise the same conclusion neatly.
42 Chapter Two

[T]his Utopia began upon a philosophy of fragmentation, and ends, confusedly,


amidst a gross tumult of immediate realities, in dust and doubt, with, at the best,
one individual’s aspirations. Utopias were once in good faith, projects for a fresh
creation of the world and of a most unworldly completeness; this so-called
Modern Utopia is a mere story of personal adventures among Utopian
philosophies.
Indeed, that came about without the writer’s intention. (221)

The claim of the chairman, or Wells himself (I think the distinction is no


longer relevant here as the narrative frame has long been abandoned), is that
visualising individuals and the “comprehensive scheme” together in one equally
sharp image is impossible: if he focuses on one the other becomes vague,
indistinct and unreal. The “great scheme,” the ideal society is often
comprehended not so much as a rationally organised system but rather

as a passion, as a real and living motive; there are those who know it almost as if
it was a thing of desire . . . But this is an illumination that passes as it comes, a
rare transitory lucidity, leaving the soul’s desire suddenly turned to presumption
and hypocrisy upon the lips. One grasps at the Universe and attains—Bathos.
(222)

This final judgement is especially perspicacious if we apply it to the


experiment with narrative estrangement: the failure of the narrator—and Wells
the author—consists in being unable to overcome the challenge of the romance;
that is, he could not contain and subsume traditional plot devices and reader
expectations within the original and ambitious experimental narrative design he
sketched out. His brilliant invention, the creation of a parallel universe that later
became a staple device of twentieth-century science fiction, coupled with a
narrative strategy to estrange this cognitively estranged universe from readers,
thus inviting them to reflect upon the enormous challenges involved in writing a
literary utopia, is ultimately abandoned in favour of a inconclusive and hollow
awakened-from-a-daydream ending lifted ready-made out of the cupboard of
literary clichés.
But even this artistic failure seems to have a symbolic significance: on the
meta-utopian plane, it expresses that the very essence of utopia is its
fragmentariness and incompleteness, the tantalising suggestion of a way of
human existence that is beyond reach and beyond vision in its totality, and
perhaps it is just as well that it can never be realised. Critics of A Modern Utopia
invariably agree that it has not been written with sustained care and consistency.
But despite its obvious flaws, there are occasional flashes of brilliance in the
book both on the level of speculation and of fiction that more than compensate
for its weaknesses. As a social thinker, Wells was ahead of his time: several of
Anatomy of Science Fiction 43

his ideas—from the principles of the welfare state through the secularisation of
marriage and public morals to the transformative power of science and
technology—have since become essential constituents of contemporary thinking.
As a science-fiction writer, he had the audacity to expand his ideal society to a
global scale and frame the whole problem as a cosmic challenge—the question
of the survival of the human race. As a utopist, he had the rare courage to
envision and justify in detail a twentieth-century utopia while commenting on
his own utopian ideas ironically and satirically. The narrative estrangement
employed by Wells is nothing less than a correlative of his own ambiguity about
utopianism—an undertaking that accounts for its own apocalyptic motives with
rational speculation. His prophetic urge has been subordinated to a double
“reality check”: his own scientific-rationalist education and his powerful sense
of irony, displayed when the vision of the awakened samurai, who “will know
themselves and one another,” is suddenly interrupted by an earthly episode:
“(Whup! says a motor brougham, and a policeman stays the traffic with his
hand)” (219). The prophetic urge is the inheritance of the nineteenth century; the
overwhelmingly ironic perspective is the pre-figuration of the twentieth.

Notes
1
I for one certainly believe that science fiction is far too heterogeneous to be
considered a distinct genre, but the discussion of this terminological problem would
distract from the argument at hand.
2
Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel, at the end of their monumental work on Western
utopianism, talk about the “twilight of utopia” (759). Robert C. Elliott wrote an essay on
the “mighty fall” of utopia in this century, the conclusion of which is that “‘utopia’ has
become a bad word” (99). Chad Walsh devoted a book to the decline of traditional utopia
and the rise of the anti-utopia or dystopia in the first half of the twentieth century.
Krishan Kumar, on the other hand, in his general survey of modern utopianism, discusses
in a separate chapter the progress of utopia in the twentieth century, and makes important
qualifications on this commonplace (380–424).
3
Cf. the shorthand of Brian Aldiss: “SF [is] the fiction of a technological age” (14).
4
“The utopian prophecy of L’An 2440, the first influential story of the future in world
literature, became one of the most widely read books in the last quarter of the eighteenth
century” (Clarke 25).
5
Frye made an explicit distinction between literary utopias and novels proper, since
the former are primarily interested in the satirical examination of social ideas rather than
individual fate and character development. He alternatively names such books
“Menippean satire” or “anatomy,” and defines utopias as moral satires, presenting a
serious vision of society as a single intellectual pattern (Anatomy 310). Suvin’s by now
classic distinction between naturalistic and estranged fiction places literary utopia among
the genres of estranged fiction. Suvin defines utopia as the “socio-political subgenre of
science fiction” because the fictional innovation, the novum, is based on “an alternative
historical hypothesis” (61, 49). The transformation the novum brings about in the fictional
44 Chapter Two

universe should be systematic or, in Suvin’s term, “cognitive”: above all, it should follow
the cognitive logic of a “mental experiment,” it should be based on causation and
explanation. Utopias usually offer some sort of an explanation about how this alternative
social hierarchy came into being, which is also meant to justify their superiority over
existing social structures; this is what Frye calls the contract behind utopia (“Varieties”
123), and—although Suvin does not discuss it—I think this explicated contract is what
constitutes the novum in the case of utopias.
6
The dramatic strategy of classic utopias—in line with the requirements of Suvin’s
‘cognitive estrangement’—aimed at giving a degree of credibility to the alternative
human community, to acquire readers’ consent to suspend their disbelief and give the
fiction the benefit of the doubt, and to prepare them for a clash with their ‘normal’
expectations.
7
Cf. Wells’s remark in an introduction to his scientific romances written in 1933:
“My early, profound and lifelong admiration for Swift, appears again and again in this
collection” (qtd in Parrinder and Philmus 242).
8
Such a mixture of fiction and essayistic exposition is a generic feature of anatomies
or Menippean satires, as Frye emphasises: “The Menippean satirist, dealing with
intellectual themes and attitudes, shows his exuberance in intellectual ways, by piling up
an enormous mass of erudition about his themes or in overwhelming his pedantic targets
with an avalanche of their own jargon” (Anatomy 311).
9
In Brecht’s own words: “Einen Vorgang oder Charakter verfremden heißt …
zunächst einfach, dem Vorgang oder dem Charakter das Selbstverständliche, Bekannte,
Einleuchtende zu nehmen und über ihnen Staunen und Neugierde zu erzeugen” (qtd. in
Ritter 11: 653).
10
Deery, in her insightful analysis of A Modern Utopia, points out several aspects of
the operation of narrative estrangement, but without coming to a conclusion as to its
ultimate significance. She notes the deliberately “incomplete realism” of Wells’s
narrative, when “the author explicitly declines to fill in certain gaps in information and
prevents the reader from doing so” (32), as well as the ambivalence of the “Voice,”
occupying “several what we would ordinarily consider contradictory positions” (33). As
she sums it up, “We are asked to quite consciously doublethink that Utopia exists as it is
described but also that it is something the Voice is making up as he goes along according
to gradually emerging principles. Discovery and invention are deliberately confused”
(35). She has apparently been unable to make any more sense of this strategy than ascribe
it to an authorial intention to generate dramatic tension by means of form, but concludes
that “the manipulation often seems high-handed and careless” (39), primarily because the
incompleteness of the fictional illusion hinders the smooth functioning of the particular
mode of utopian realism she calls “imperative realism” (30), the ultimate persuasive
ambition of a utopia. She overlooks the fact that Wells, while obviously harbouring
persuasive ambitions, also had his grave doubts about the possibility of imagining a
persuasive utopia, and his ambivalence is captured by his unorthodox way of narration.
11
Critics have not been able to reach an agreement about the botanist’s narrative
function. Mark Hillegas swiftly dispensed with the botanist as a “rather foolish” character
without stopping to consider his significance in the text (x). David Y. Hughes considered
the botanist a “version of Wells,” representing the rigid scientific, emotional, and cultural
conditioning he has brought with him, in which science stands for classification, and love
Anatomy of Science Fiction 45

is a stubborn attachment to a childhood ideal (73). This interpretation, however, is not


consistent with the botanist’s role in the course of the story: the “scientific
professionalism” of the botanist receives a lot of emphasis at the outset of the book, only
to disappear completely later on behind the image of a single-minded romantic obsession,
and the botanist, despite his scientific training, is unable to develop any interest in the
manifold wonders of Utopia. John Huntington has offered perhaps the most sophisticated
reading of the botanist by interpreting him as “an authentic voice of the Lover-Shadow”
(139), a submerged persona of Wells driven by his libido into a series of sexual
escapades, as opposed to the dominant, rational persona committed to the scientific world
view and social reform schemes. In his view, the conflict between the narrator and the
botanist is the fictional manifestation of a Freudian struggle between Wells’s conscious
and unconscious self. This interpretation may make sense in the context of Wells’s
private life (even though the botanist with his narrow fixation on and nostalgic longing
for a single lost love is not exactly the fictional equivalent of the notoriously philandering
Wells), but gives little help to interpret the botanist within the framework of this
particular piece of utopian fiction. Deery has somewhat vaguely claimed that “[m]ost
critics agree that the botanist represents the personal life, the unpredictable, even
rebellious, individual who is sometimes overlooked but who must somehow be
accommodated in any utopia.” (36). Since none of the critics she cites voiced this opinion
in the form she has proposed, she probably offered her personal interpretation of the
botanist’s role.
12
For example, “the discussion of the Utopian state of affairs in regard to such
property [that is, property over wife and children] may be better reserved until marriage
becomes our topic” (57).
13
As the narrator puts it: “If we are to have any Utopia at all, we must have a clear
common purpose, and a great and steadfast movement of will to override all these
incurably egotistical dissentients. … It is manifest this Utopia could not come about by
chance and anarchy, but by co-ordinated effort and a community of design, and to tell of
just land laws and wise government, a wisely balanced economic system, and wise social
arrangements without telling how it was brought about, and how it is sustained … is to
build a palace without either door or staircase.” (75)
14
Another aspect of the botanist’s narrative role represents the distrustful scepticism
of readers who are not taken in by ambitious theoretical constructions, who are not
impressed by the grand vision of the organic World State, who are moved by individual
suffering and emotional drama more than the indistinct promise of universal happiness.
His dogged insistence on his own personal love story is more than mere obstinacy or
narrow-mindedness; since it foregrounds the problem of individual happiness and
fulfilment in the Modern Utopia.
15
There are occasional jabs at contemporary people and phenomena, including a
satirical aside about a certain English writer who was thinking about an organisation
similar to the samurai, but his ideas were “pretty crude in several respects” and “a little
vague” (156)—a reference to Wells’s earlier predictive nonfiction, Anticipations (1901)
and Mankind in the Making (1903), in which he called for a voluntary association of
“New Republicans.”
16
Of course, this “reality” is also a fiction but not self-consciously so: the narrator as
“author”—as opposed to the narrator as “actor”—is presented as the lecturer introducing
46 Chapter Two

readers to an alternative vision to their own familiar world, so by implication he stands as


the representative of contemporary reality within the whole fiction.
17
As Hughes observes, envisioning the World State as an “undying organism” turns
the evolutionary method of imagining Modern Utopia into a “macro-biological metaphor
of formidable sweep” (69). The method itself requires that the relationship between the
state and the individual be seen on the analogy of an animal species and its individual
specimens, but metaphorically, the World State assumes an organic existence on its own,
reminiscent of the “body politic” allegory of medieval and early modern political
philosophy.
18
Perhaps the best satirical aside is a newspaper placard with the latest headlines they
glimpse: “MASSACRE IN ODESSA. DISCOVERY OF HUMAN REMAINS AT CHERTSEY. SHOCKING
LYNCHING OUTRAGE IN NEW YORK STATE. GERMAN INTRIGUES GET A SET-BACK. THE
BIRTHDAY HONOURS—FULL LIST” (214). Racial hatred, murder stories, imperialist political
rivalry and royal awards for the pillars of the establishment—these are the news of the
day.

Works Cited
Aldiss, Brian, with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree. The History of Science
Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1986.
Attebery, Brian. “Fantasy as an Anti-Utopian Mode.” Reflections on the
Fantastic. Ed. Michael Collings. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986. 3-8.
Clarke, I. F. The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001. New York: Basic Books,
1979.
Deery, June. “H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia as a Work in Progress.” Political
Science Fiction. Eds. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox. Columbia:
University of South Carolina Press, 1997. 26–42.
Dick, Philip K. “My Definition of Science Fiction.” 1981. The Shifting Realities
of Philip K. Dick. Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. Ed.
Lawrence Sutin. New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1995.
Elliott, Robert C. The Shape of Utopia. Studies in a Literary Genre. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Four Essays. 1957. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2000.
———. “Varieties of Literary Utopias.” 1965. The Stubborn Structure. Essays
on Criticism and Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970. 109–34.
Hillegas, Mark. “Introduction.” A Modern Utopia. By H. G. Wells. Lincoln and
London: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. v–xxv.
Hughes, David Y. “The Mood of A Modern Utopia.” 1977. In Huntington,
Critical Essays. 67–76.
Huntington, John. Critical Essays on H. G. Wells. Ed. John Huntington. Boston:
Hall, 1991.
———. “H. G. Wells: Problems of an Amorous Utopian.” 1987. 136–47.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 47

James, Edward. “Utopias and anti-utopias.” Edward James and Farah


Mendlesohn eds. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2003. 219–29.
Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Oxford: Blackwell,
1987.
Manuel, Frank E., and Fritzie P. Manuel. Utopian Thought in the Western
World. Oxford: Blackwell, 1979.
Parrinder, Patrick. Shadows of the Future. H. G. Wells, Science Fiction, and
Prophesy. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
Parrinder, Patrick, and Robert M. Philmus, eds. H. G. Wells’s Literary Criticism.
Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980.
Ritter, Joachim, et al., gen. eds. Historisches Wörterbuch Der Philosophie. 11
vols. Basel: Schwabe, 1972–2001.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. On the Poetics and History of
a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
Walsh, Chad. From Utopia to Nightmare. London: Bles, 1962.
Wells, H. G. A Modern Utopia. 1905. Ed. Krishan Kumar. London: Everyman,
Dent, 1994.
——— . Anticipations. 1901. Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1902.
——— . Mankind in the Making. 1903. Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1903.
——— . The Time Machine. 1895. Ed. John Lawton. London: Everyman, Dent,
1995.
CHAPTER THREE

LEAKINGS: REAPPROPRIATING SCIENCE


FICTION—THE CASE OF KURT VONNEGUT

TAMÁS BÉNYEI

There is an anecdote in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973) that can be


read as a little parable about the paradoxes of the critical re-appropriation of science
fiction for what is sometimes called high literature. The faltering and tentative
madness of Dwayne Hoover finally gets its direction and content from a science-
fiction novel. Hoover takes seriously the absurd idea in one of Kilgore Trout’s
novels that except for him (the reader of the novel) everybody else is a robot.
Hoover’s interpretation of the book clearly defies Trout’s authorial intention, for
“Trout did not expect to be believed. He put the bad ideas into a science-fiction
novel, and that was where Dwayne found them. . . . It was a tour de force. It was a
jeu d’esprit” (24). When Trout realises the extent of the disaster caused by the
misreading of his innocuous novel, he

became a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases. But
nobody listened to him. He was a dirty old man in the wilderness, crying out among
the trees and underbrush, “Ideas or the lack of them can cause disease!”
Kilgore Trout became a pioneer in the field of mental health. He advanced his
theories disguised as science fiction. (24)

Within a very limited space, Kilgore Trout incarnates two models (critical
constructions) of science fiction, and these two models might be read as allusions to
the difference—and the impossibility of distinguishing—between elite and pulp
science fiction. He starts out as a nondescript pulp science-fiction writer, at least in
the sense that he does not really want to say (communicate) anything in his works;
his machine/robot metaphor is not intended to be taken seriously; that is, it invites to
be read as just that, a metaphor (if a rather heavy-handed one; so perhaps there is a
message after all). His novels do not offer messages that can be translated into any
language other than that of the metaphorical text of the novels, yet one among them
at least is misread by Dwayne and the interpretative error leads to existential tragedy.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 49

Read as a general comment on the genre, the lesson to be drawn from the case is at
least partly poetical: one should not take seriously what science-fiction novels say.
The dire consequences of Dwayne’s literal reading of the fanciful metaphor suggest
that science fiction is not about the world in any relevant way.
Yet it is exactly as a result of this realisation that Kilgore Trout comes to assume
a radically different position, the position that is so often the guarantee of the
possible redemption of science fiction and its elevation into high culture (a
guarantee, I should add, that rests on moral rather than on aesthetic assumptions): the
science-fiction writer is redeemable inasmuch as he is a prophet-writer. The trope of
the prophet is what often stands behind the possibility of co-opting science fiction
into high literature in critical discourse. Ironically, this critical discourse, which
claims to have left Romantic delusions behind, finds itself having to resurrect an
“obsolete” Romantic and Modernist metaphor of art and the figure of the artist in
order to be able to salvage science fiction. Vonnegut’s frequent and playful use of
the rhetorical position of the prophet in many of his novels (from the cautionary,
dystopian tone of Player Piano (1952) to novels like Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slapstick
(1976), and Galápagos (1985), where, naturalising prophetic knowledge, he uses
narrators speaking from a moment in the future) might be read in the light of this
metacritical dilemma. This receptive possibility is especially evident in Breakfast of
Champions, where the device of narrating from the future is used with an explicitly
metafictional intention. Here, the only object of future knowledge is the present of
the narrated world: between the narrated time and the time of narration there is no
future the knowledge of which would require an extrapolated narrative position in
the future. What we learn about the future (that is: the time between the narrated
present and the future of the narration) is quite simply not relevant at all. This in turn
suggests that the device of future narration (the only rhetorical residue of science
fiction in the novel) is here primarily a metacritical commentary, a prophetic position
without message, a rhetorical device working away “emptily.”
It is as a prophet-writer that Kilgore Trout is admitted into high culture—all the
time writing novels which are probably no different from his earlier pulp novels. His
later works are thus “serious” texts that can be reclaimed for or appropriated by high
culture in the mode of the parable. Paradoxically, the early Trout is an unwitting
(and very probably undeserving) apostle of “pure art” in the sense that his texts deny
any extra-textual relevance for themselves; yet, he is considered a pulp-writer
because he subscribes to this aesthetic credo within science fiction. “Late Trout”
shifts away from the ideal of pure art and uses science fiction to promote his noble
sentiments. (The irony is enhanced by the fact that the serious message of the later
novels is precisely the denial of any seriousness to texts exactly like the ones in
which the denial appears.) It seems that science fiction, to qualify as the proper
object of serious critical discourse, has to be depoeticised first, purged of “science
fiction.” This anecdote, exploring the parabolic interpretability of science fiction and
50 Chapter Three

the critical paradoxes entailed by such a critical stance, indicates Vonnegut’s


awareness of the problem as well as his double or duplicitous position regarding it.
The name of Kurt Vonnegut will inevitably appear in any discussion of the
problematic relationship between science fiction and “high literature.” Vonnegut’s
name, however, is not so much an answer to the questions raised by this relationship
as part of the uncertainties and undecidabilities that are introduced by them. The
vicissitudes of the critical appreciation of Vonnegut are an index of this problematic
relationship. A single, very banal example will suffice here, a sentence from the
blurb of the Hungarian edition of Slapstick: “The author, well known for his science-
fiction novels, and displaying a scientific imagination in his ‘proper’ novels as well
[the Hungarian equivalent of science fiction is ‘science fantasy’], has come out with
yet another of his absurd-ironical-bitter apocalyptic fantasies.” The sentence is
structured around several dichotomies: it begins by distinguishing two Vonneguts,
one being a science-fiction writer (he is, of course, the famous, popular author) and
the other the lesser known “proper” artist, but the contrast is established only to be
questioned in at least two ways. First, if Vonnegut is drawing upon his “scientific”
imagination also in his “proper” novels, what is the difference? Are Vonnegut’s
science-fiction novels simply the ones that are not successful enough to qualify as
items in the oeuvre of the “proper/real” Vonnegut? Or—and the answer to this
question is clearly in the negative—is it that in his more serious novels Vonnegut
uses his scientific imagination to explore weightier and more worthy matters? My
interrogation of the dichotomy is in a sense quite unnecessary, for it is already
challenged by the obligatory (perhaps self-mocking) scare quotes accompanying the
adjective “proper,” initiating a potentially endless series of chiasmic reversals: is the
adjective “proper” equipped with quotation marks only as a tribute to the difficulty
or trickiness of Vonnegut’s particular case or do the quotes indicate a general
difficulty? If the latter is the case, is it because after writers like Vonnegut such
adjectives, referring to the difference between the two kinds of literature, may only
be used with quotation marks? And, therefore, the adjective could not appear in any
other way because of the rest of the sentence? Or, if the quotation marks are an
indication of the special case of Vonnegut, are they there perhaps because you never
can tell with him, duplicitous author of science-fiction novels as well as “proper”
ones, and therefore no longer an entirely serious or respectable writer, and it is better
to be on the safe side and use the adjective in quotation marks (that is, revoke it)?
And isn’t the laborious characterisation of this “proper” Vonnegut novel as an
“absurd-ironical-bitter apocalyptic fantasy” the reiteration of an age-old topos of
science fiction (with an ill-assorted cluster of adjectives that is clearly unable to bear
the burden of a serious critical distinction)?
The clearest sign of the undecidability pervading the sentence is that, having read
the sentence, constructed around clear-cut dichotomies and inspired by a noble desire
to clarify, one still does not know quite what Slapstick is supposed to be then. The
Anatomy of Science Fiction 51

dichotomies that were invoked to assist in clarification and categorisation have


broken down into an endless and infertile series of reversals. Perhaps this is the basic
formula for reading Vonnegut and the fate of any critical language that wishes to
discuss the relationship between science fiction and high literature.
In what follows, after outlining four of the interfaces between serious literature
and science fiction produced by critical discourse, I shall look at some of Kurt
Vonnegut’s texts as metacritical commentaries on these critical interfaces and their
own location within these critically produced “common places.” A few cursory
remarks on The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) will be
followed by a more detailed reading Breakfast of Champions, where I believe this
theme receives its fullest and most “systematic” fictional treatment. I read science
fiction in Vonnegut’s fiction as a metacritical trope of the difference of this fiction
from a vaguely defined (“realist” and occasionally modernist) poetics of fiction.
Obviously this is only one, fairly limited, way of reading the presence of science-
fiction elements in Vonnegut (I shall be bracketing, for instance, the ontological and
moral perspectives), nevertheless I think it is a legitimate one.

Interfaces
The very fact that the relationship between serious literature and science fiction
could become the object of serious critical discourse, that scare quotes and
undecidabilities have made their appearance, is no doubt the result of what is
sometimes referred to as the post-modern blurring or breakdown of boundaries
between high and popular culture. It is in the work of some theoreticians of the
post-modern that these interfaces or discursive zones of encounter have been
produced.
The first model of this interface promotes science fiction as the most
adequate expression of contemporary experience, primarily because the post-
humanist future so often extrapolated in science fiction is already with us.
According to Leslie Fiedler, the repeated retelling of the “myth of science
fiction” is the most urgent, most typical feature of the new generation.1 Thus, the
difference between the present generation and the preceding ones can only be
described with metaphors that are familiar from science fiction: the scale of their
difference is genetic (the difference of genetic mutants) or cosmic (the difference
of extraterrestrials). In this model, science fiction appears as a kind of “new
realism” as well as a version of the fantastic that is attuned to the contemporary
experience with particular sensitivity and, as such, the authentic self-expression
of the psychedelic generation.
In a book that is not without a certain prophetic zeal, Robert Scholes (my
second interface) declares that “the most appropriate kind of fiction that can be
written in the present or the immediate future is fiction that takes place in future
52 Chapter Three

time” (17). Scholes argues that projected into the future, the problems of realism
and fantasy both vanish, for “all future projection is obviously model-making,
poiesis not mimesis” (18). For all its naïveté, this suggestion could provide a
framework for an examination of the critical rehabilitation of science fiction
with poetically relevant elements. In Scholes’ view, science fiction by definition
does not, cannot create the illusion that it is the verbal rendering of the actual
world; thus, on the basis of his suggestion, one could say that science fiction
might be co-opted into high literature as a mode that accepts and even asserts
ontological pluralism, having abandoned the illusion of referentiality in the
moment of its inception: a mode that is necessarily post-modern in its most un-
self-reflexive state. Such a claim, however, would obviously be wide of the
mark, primarily because of what one Hungarian critic calls the “poetical
paradox” of science fiction: in most texts belonging to this mode “imaginary
formations are combined nineteenth-century—primarily realist—narrative
structures” (H. Nagy 129). One could go even further than that and follow the
arguments of Christine Brooke-Rose in A Rhetoric of the Unreal and
Christopher Nash in World Games.
Taking his cue from Yuri Lotman and Brooke-Rose, Nash concludes his
investigation of fantastic literature with the tentative rule of thumb that the
narrative formations which violate the rule of probability (science fiction,
fantasy fiction) tend to follow the representational traditions of realism in all
other respects: although they present an imaginary world, this created world is
then treated from the start as if it were really there (that is, such narratives follow
not simply the realist tradition but the much broader referential assumption
underlying most of European narrative tradition). Science-fiction texts are seen
to subscribe to a mimetic, referential logic, containing nothing that would
indicate an awareness of the linguistic turn or turns that have changed the face of
post-modern literature. In their desire to enjoy their licence in abandoning the
code of probability, science-fiction texts would not even think of breaching other
representational strategies of narrative fiction. In Brooke-Rose’s formulation:
“the freer the paradigmatic axis, the more rigid the syntagmatic, and vice versa”
(362; cf. Nash 80). A literature that is transgressive in its handling of language
and representation, claims Nash, will not as a rule create alternative worlds and
imaginary creatures, reserving its energies for linguistic experimentation (his
examples include Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, and Julio Cortázar’s
Hopscotch 78).
For all the neatness and symmetry of this system of reversed proportionality,
this rule is obviously not universally applicable. On the one hand, technical
experiment does not at all preclude imaginary formations (as testified by
Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, Arno Schmidt’s Republic of Scientists, the work of
William Burroughs, or surrealist prose); on the other hand, the characterisation
Anatomy of Science Fiction 53

of science fiction as an entirely unreflexive mode that continues to produce


fantasies in blissful unawareness of the linguistic turn, although an adequate
description of more than ninety percent of the genre, is still not wholly accurate.
The third critical interface is precisely the proposition that science fiction has
been able to create, as it were, an internal elite. The mode has simply come of
age, producing those classics that need to be taken seriously by everyone. At this
point, however, the possible argument might fork and run in at least two
directions. It might lead to a notion of a science-fiction elite that satisfies the
vaguely defined standards (including things like “depth of characterisation”) of
high literature—that is, a set of works that satisfy the demands of realist (or
later, modernist) poetics. These novels, thus, are “serious” only by virtue of the
elements that distinguish them from run-of-the-mill science fiction, the
contamination of the latter made acceptable (in fact, invisible) only by the other,
serious features of the book. Science fiction is thus generously forgiven, excised
or defused in the process of the critical appropriation into high literature, the co-
opted novels becoming canonised as normal novels with a little exotic thematic
coloring.2 In fact, such critical acceptance of some science fiction amounts to
describing the eligible works as having borrowed elements of high literature (cf.
Greenland 172, 202); their elevation or promotion is thus the return of high
cultural elements after a detour in popular culture: what is accepted is precisely
what returns (what has always been inside). Instead of encouraging the
rethinking of certain critical prejudices and boundaries, the generous co-opting
of science fiction along these lines entails a retrenchment, an implicit
confirmation of existing categories.
It is also possible to conceive—as in Brian McHale’s model of interface (59-
72)—an experimental, post-modern science fiction that has been able to bring
about the “post modernisation” of the mode by drawing upon its internal
resources. Instead of a mere borrowing of the linguistic concerns of high
literature, this internally produced post modernity would thus be a specifically
“science-fiction post-modern” that could have a beneficial influence on high
literature not only through the smuggling in of a new kind of thematics but also
in some other, unspecified but poetically relevant way. McHale does seem to
detect parallels between the post modernisation of high literature and the post
modernisation of science fiction, claiming that the two processes tend to
converge, inasmuch as the post modernisation of high literature consists, for
him, in the foregrounding of ontological pluralism. It is difficult to see in
McHale’s rather rigid system just what the specifically science-fiction elements
of the post modernisation of science fiction are supposed to be: he mentions
Samuel Delany and J. G. Ballard, but his only criterion appears to be the
growing emphasis on ontological concerns, which, apart from being difficult to
54 Chapter Three

interpret in a poetical/metacritical context, fails to distinguish between science


fiction and a more general sense of the fantastic.
It is possible to imagine the creation of a critical interface between science
fiction and high literature “from above”; such an approach would be based on
attempts by “serious” novelists to appropriate elements of science fiction.3 At
this point, however, the argument once again splices itself and continues in
several directions. One such direction is that of parody, which seems to leave the
clear-cut boundaries unscathed, although what a thorough investigation of
parody invariably reveals is precisely the disruption and destabilisation of the
boundaries (inside and outside) that would seem to be reasserted by its very
practice. Going one step further, it is possible that such writing self-reflexively
uses science-fiction elements in order to interrogate alien and incompatible types
of discourses by juxtaposing them or grafting one upon the other, where the
implied contrasts (high/low, inside/outside) are made problematic by the
disturbing liminal position of science fiction: like classical detective fiction,
science fiction is the elite of popular culture, often resorted to by consumers of
high culture as a kind of civilised entertainment, not to be confused with
“proper” art, of course, but providing a reasonable amount of intellectual
excitement and satisfaction (one thinks of writers like Isaac Asimov). This little
quandary is only the manifestation of a more important and more disturbing
dilemma: are the concerns of science fiction really so different from those of the
high literature that uses science fiction elements? Science fiction may become
(at least potentially) subversive precisely because its basic concerns have been
present in elite culture, especially in the by no means underestimated or scorned
utopian and dystopian traditions—let alone the equally respectable tradition of
the speculative, philosophical fable (in the work of writers like Jorge Luis
Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, or Massimo Bontempelli). Science fiction (or at
least serious science fiction, whatever that means) attached itself to traditions
that are far from marginal in an intellectual and moral sense (in the twentieth
century, Evgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Nabokov, Anthony
Burgess, and many others). It is another question whether this highly prestigious,
though linguistically unreflexive, tradition, which can be re-inscribed into high
culture in the modes of satire, allegory, and parable, has contributed anything in
a poetical or metacritical sense to post-modern fiction with its well-known
resistance to monological, unreflexive, didactic discourses.
The quandaries raised by this last critical interface provide the most
rewarding context for a discussion of the role of science fiction in Kurt
Vonnegut’s work. Vonnegut is an uneasy but inevitable inhabitant of all the
critical models that try to account for the presence of science fiction in
postmodernism (or one could say that all these models have been duly
reproduced in the critical controversy over his work): he has been the cult writer
Anatomy of Science Fiction 55

of the flower generation, prophetically warning against the dangers of the


machine age (Kilgore Trout is awarded, significantly, the medical instead of the
literary Nobel Prize); he has been a kind of upstart science-fiction writer who
has managed, or almost, to extricate himself from the ghetto of science fiction
(Klinkowitz 79-80, Crichton 107, 109-10); he has been seen as one of the key
figures of the serendipitous encounter between science fiction and
postmodernism (the chapter in McHale I have referred to earlier concludes with
a discussion of Vonnegut), and he has been cast as the post-modern
experimental writer the object of whose self-reflexive textual games happens to
be science fiction (see, for example, Patricia Waugh 8, 22, 86). Similarly
debated is the existence, extent and proper nature of Vonnegut’s parodistic
attitude towards science fiction; Stanley Schatt, for instance, ingeniously divides
science fiction into an elite and a pulp section in order to be able to position
Vonnegut as a writer who, although parodying traditional elements of hardcore
pulp science fiction, borrows the framework of future projection successfully
used by the classics of science fiction (35).

Vonnegut’s Interfaces
Breakfast of Champions, Sirens of Titan, and Slaughterhouse-five may all be
read as metapoetical allegories “talking about” their ambiguous relationship with
science fiction, as explorations of the possible metacritical/poetical relevance of
the introduction of science-fiction elements.4 The uncertainties repeatedly
reproduced in the critical discourse about Vonnegut are perhaps partly a result of
the fact that the strategy of his metacritical allegory does not seem to be
uniform—accordingly, different critical strategies have been applied in the
attempts to redeem Vonnegut’s novels by purging them of science fiction, by
presenting it as something more than science fiction that, for specific purposes,
masquerades as science fiction. For reasons of space, I shall discuss only one of
the novels (Breakfast of Champions) in any detail, confining myself to a few
cursory remarks on The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five. Nevertheless,
certain important differences in the treatment of science fiction as a metacritical
trope will be apparent even from my disproportionate treatment.
The depicted (diegetic) world of The Sirens of Titan is undeniably a science-
fiction world, complete with creatures from outer space, space travel, and space
war. In this novel, the science fiction thematics can probably be re-inscribed into
the order of parable without major difficulties; that is, the novel seems to be
recuperable for high literature by virtue of the serious questions it addresses.
One of the science fiction-specific metacritical contributions of the novel is
precisely here: “serious” or “proper” questions are asked in an “unserious” or
“improper” language or register, with the result that the very mode of posing the
56 Chapter Three

questions is inscribed into the questions themselves, and the metaphysical


questions are allowed to appear only as already contaminated by the alien
language, cultural baggage, and silt of science fiction. 5 All this is, of course, a
rethinking of the satirical strategy of the mock heroic, a rethinking that exploits
the cultural inferiority or lowliness of science fiction (and therefore the target of
the satire is not primarily science fiction), with consequences that appear at the
text level rather than in the story proper. Science fiction may be said to be one
discourse in the polyglossic textual universe of the novel; nevertheless, since the
primary diegetic level is decidedly, self-mockingly an over-familiar science-
fiction universe, the other, culturally much more prestigious discourses appear as
always already inserted into a larger “science fiction” discourse. In what can be
seen as an interesting irony, science fiction seems to be doing the opposite of
what it is supposed to do in McHale’s model: instead of creating or revealing a
multiplicity of universes and thereby fulfilling an ontologically subversive
textual function, it collapses the multiplicity of words into a hackneyed, self-
reflexive science-fiction universe that is emphatically textual.
In The Sirens of Titan, several religious and metaphysical systems, inquiring
into the ultimate questions of existence, are affected by the corrosive
contamination of science fiction. The novel reverses the actualising tendencies
of popular religion that tries to absorb “low culture” linguistic registers in order
to make itself accessible; thus, simple contaminations, the likes of referring to
the planet Earth as “God’s space ship” (24), in the sermon of a probably fake
television preacher, turn against themselves because they are inserted into a
science-fiction universe. The entire novel can be read as the thinking through to
their logical end point of the consequences of similar contaminations:
metaphysical perspective is absorbed or converted into science-fiction
perspective. Consequently, the possibility of mutual contaminations transforms
the relationship between prestigious cultural/textual systems (religion, theology,
philosophy, science) and science fiction from the incompatible and
incommensurable difference of systems that are different in kind into a relation
between lexicons and orders of metaphor, readily convertible into each other.
Scientific discourse is by definition allied to science fiction that often appeals to
science (for instance, paroxysms of highly technical language that deliberately
turn into their opposite and end up as mystification) for its pseudo-legitimation;
in The Sirens of Titan, the best-known example is probably the chrono-synclastic
infundibulum, which is both the science-fiction version of the physical qualities
of the Einsteinium universe and a parody of the theological or mystical concept
of suprareality and infinity (cf. Sigman 28). The result of such contaminations is
a consequence of Bakhtinian polyglossia: since words remember their uses in
very diverse cultural/discursive systems, their use in a particular system is never
unambiguous, burdened as it is with memories of incompatible usages. This is
Anatomy of Science Fiction 57

how prophetic discourse, one of the novel’s fundamental discourses (the key
trope of the text is the—among others prophetically conceived—message),
becomes one particular subtype of the discourse of science fiction. The ultimate
irony of this strategy is its potentially deflating absorption of the metaphysical
thought structure of ultimate irony and deflation of human aspirations: in the
well-known rewriting of human history (it is a message sent by a spaceship
asking for a spare part), cosmic irony, an inherited topos of romantic
metaphysics and aesthetics, is redeployed as truly cosmic, galactic, specifically
science-fiction irony, as well as the parody of the theological concept of
Providence, as Joseph Sigman has noted (33-34), in such a way that, as a result
of science -fiction contamination, cosmic irony loses its romantic grandeur and
pathos: the prestigious thought structure of deflation is deflated by means of its
insertion into the discursive dynamics of Vonnegut’s novel.
As a metacritical strategy, the use of science fiction in The Sirens of Titan
may be said to create a polyglossic discursive field where prestigious discursive
systems of high culture find themselves as examples of science fiction; science
fiction functions as something like the lowest common textual denominator of
textually imagining/producing the world. In this way, the text may be re-
inscribed into high culture as a mock heroic exposure of the vanity and futility of
rivalling textual versions of the universe and the fate of human beings in it. This
reading manages to survive even the deflating of romantic irony by recasting the
novel as one more, textually more self-conscious, version of it.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, although science fiction becomes the agent of
similar infiltrations and metaleptic switches, this is not the main direction of its
re-appropriation for high culture. The plot is based on one of the most
hackneyed among all science-fiction clichés: the Tralfamadorian contingent
intrudes into an unproblematically realistic fictional world to kidnap Billy
Pilgrim. As a result of its emphatically clichéd nature, the intrusion takes place
on the level of plot and on that of the text simultaneously. In its second capacity,
it has certain precedents: while convalescing after the war in a military hospital,
Pilgrim read the works of Kilgore Trout, including a novel called The Big Board
(133) that describes his story—but Billy realises this only when his UFO
adventure has already taken place. What happens is, therefore, not simply the
intrusion of aliens into the fictional world but also the “coming true” of a
science-fiction novel through the person of Billy Pilgrim; in this way, the
diegetic level (reality level) of the science-fiction elements remains slightly
dubious throughout the novel, since the suspicion of Billy’s mild madness is
never dispelled. This strategy leaves open the possibility of re-inscribing the
science-fiction elements into the order of high literature as psychological reality,
as the delusion or escape fantasy of a character who is unable to live with the
reality overdose of the Dresden bombing. This assumption seems to be
58 Chapter Three

supported by the fact that the science-fiction elements (the little green people
“shaped like plumber’s friends” [24], the classically-rimmed and portholed
flying saucer [55]) are clichéd to the point of self-mocking absurdity: there is
always a chance that the science-fiction elements are pulp science-fiction clichés
working subliminally in Billy’s fantasy life—and, consequently, that the novel’s
attitude to science fiction is one of parody.6
For all these dismissive strategies of reading the science-fiction elements,
Slaughterhouse-Five remains a formally innovative text, not recuperable by any
realist poetics, going beyond, or at least deciding not to choose modernist
association technique. The novel’s long subtitle indicates or prefigures the
fundamental change that I have already referred to in connection with the double
nature of the intrusion of science fiction and that will become fully dominant in
Breakfast of Champions. Slaughterhouse-Five is “a novel somewhat in the
telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore” (title
page). That is, science fiction appears as an alternative style or representational
strategy rather than as an alternative world: if in The Sirens of Titan science
fiction was largely a matter of vocabulary, in this novel it is present on the level
of narrative syntax. If we decide to take Vonnegut’s textual experiments
seriously and admit him into the post-modern canon (not an easy thing in the
case of a sly cryptohumanist), then we could perhaps say that he uses science
fiction as a metaphor of his own idiosyncratic mode of writing. What is new in
his fiction from a poetical perspective is defined as the borrowing of
Tralfamadorian style. While on the level of the fictional world the coming of the
aliens is experienced as a rupture, an irruption, on the level of the text the
Tralfamadorians are always already here. Tralfamadore is not an alternative
world (that is why the text needs nothing besides the science-fiction clichés in
order to make the aliens realistic) but an alternative conception of time and
space, an alternative poetics of the novel.
Billy Pilgrim “has come unstuck in time” (23); his unique experience of time
coincides with the Tralfamadorian view of time, according to which “all
moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist” (25).
At the same time it is quite clear that the Tralfamadorians have nothing to do
with Billy’s new experience of time: all they can do is “give him insights into
what was really going on” (27). In a different language: Billy’s coming unstuck
in time might be correlated with a new poetic principle of construction, but it
can become one only with the help of the Tralfamadorians. The Tralfamadorian
telegraphic poetics of the novel reflects Billy’s temporal experience:

each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene.


We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any
particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen
them carefully, so that, when all seen at once, they produce an image of life that is
Anatomy of Science Fiction 59

beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no


suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the
depths of many marvellous moments seen all at one time. (63)

The Tralfamadorian poetics of the novel (largely, and significantly, a poetics of


reading) resembles the experience of being unstuck in time, for it creates the
utopia of a text without the constraints of linearity, without the compulsion to
write and read linearly. Vonnegut’s novel, although it announces itself as a
Tralfamadorian text, is naturally unable to work in this way, to become a
Tralfamadorian novel; however, the extent of its anti-Aristotelianism is also the
extent of its Tralfamadorianness. Vonnegut does not attempt to do away with
narrativity for the sake of the wondrous and transcendental a-temporality of the
moment; rather than insisting on the modernist-epiphanic strategy of valuing the
moment, his method of providing a novel experience of temporality is through the
fragmentation of the narrative into anecdotes. Slaughterhouse-Five is constructed
out of tiny scraps of story (and not epiphanic moments) where the order of the
scraps is immaterial. Or rather, this is what would happen if it were a fully
Tralfamadorian text; the fact that this is not the case indicates the irreducible
inhumanity of Tralfamadorian poetics; just as the extent of its being
Tralfamadorian is the extent of its being anti-Aristotelian, its failure to become a
Tralfamadorian text is the extent of its (and therefore Billy’s) humanity. For all
this, the organisation of the novel is Tralfamadorian enough for us to describe it as
such. The Tralfamadorian time technique has a double consequence: the story is
“degraded” to the level of anecdotes, while the process of reading and meaning-
making immediately triggers off a new, non-narrative reordering or redeployment
of the fragments: elevated out of the continuity of the story, anecdotes, in order to
become meaningful and relevant, have to assume the status of parables. The result
is a narrative formation without a centre (Dresden?), a formation that potentially
transforms each of its units into parables (metatexts). Instead of being related
causally, fragments are either entirely unrelated (but then this is not allowed by the
process of reading) or reflect each other in a parabolic/metaphorical relationship.
This is a rather peculiar (anti-)narrative organisation that enters the novel
metaleptically: a world-view and representational strategy erupting into the
world of the novel turn out to have been there always; in fact, it is precisely this
novelistic strategy that organises the novel we are reading. As a metacritical
allegory, this might be seen as a comment on the role of “science fiction” in the
narrative tradition: seen as an inferior outsider, an alien, science fiction (its
themes, metaphors, strategies) has always been inside. Naturally, the
Tralfamadorian experience of reading and writing (the self-reflexive science-
fiction element) can also be eliminated by a recuperative reading, to be
duplicated once again: it can be seen as the site of the coming into being of
absurd meaninglessness as “meaning” (the dissemination of Dresden over the
60 Chapter Three

entire surface of the novel) or as an utopian space of being and reading. Read in
these terms, the entire poetic construction is easily recuperated for a
psychological reading (the reinscription of science fiction in the register of
psychopathology): Tralfamadorian poetics and world-view are exactly what
Billy Pilgrim would need, a temporality where Dresden is not more important
than all the other moments of time, where death is not an end-point but one of
the moments existing all the time. Tralfamadorian time (the novel’s “alienness”),
ultimately unacceptable for Billy or for the reader, is, on the psychological level,
the detraumatisation of traumatic time: instead of the eternal recurrence of the
same, intolerably painful moment, the anaesthetising process of the unfolding of
every single moment at the same time. The failure of the novel to become a truly
Tralfamadorian novel is exactly the impossibility of absolute alienness.

Science Fiction as Poetics: Breakfast of Champions


I have tried to show how both The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five
can be recuperated or retrieved for high culture (that is, the science-fiction
element is made to disappear by means of the attempt to transform into
something that stands for something else): in the first case, the science-fiction
element is transmuted into satire (even if it is a metadiscursive satire), whereas
in the second case it becomes a psychological allegory. In a sense, my reading of
Breakfast of Champions is a similar attempt at critical recuperation by the
removal or defusing of science fiction, or its transformation into something
harmless. Seeing the science-fiction element as metacritical allegory similarly
makes it disappear from the text as a critical problem; yet if Breakfast of
Champions is seen as talking about its own poetic otherness in terms of science
fiction, this reading leads to the rediscovery of the science-fiction element in the
text, to its problematic reinscription into the critical discourse about the novel.
Poetic transgression, metaphorised as science fiction, can be recuperated by a
psychological reading also in Breakfast of Champions (the motif of the search
for a father), but such recuperation makes much less sense than in the case of
Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel’s world is entirely plausible, all deviations from
the codes of realism—as if the text wanted to demonstrate the truth of Nash’s
observation—occurring on the level of narrative discourse and organisation (the
most important among these being the overt, even ostentatious presence of
metafictionality). Breakfast of Champions brings the process started in
Slaughterhouse-Five to an exciting conclusion: the metapoetical relevance of
science fiction becomes clear from the fact that it is present exclusively as
science-fiction literature, as the oeuvre of Kilgore Trout. There are no extra-
terrestrials or time travels, only science-fiction novels that exist at a certain angle
to the primary fictional world.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 61

What exactly is the status of the brief summaries of Trout’s work scattered in
the novel (that is, the overtly textual presence of science fiction): are they
“Shakespearean clowns” (see note 6), or do they have some additional poetical
relevance in the texture of the novel? One possible direction of interpreting the
science-fiction elements, as in Slaughterhouse-Five, is clearly metacritical, with
the difference that in the later text their metacritical implications are much more
pervasive and multifunctional.
In Breakfast of Champions, science fiction cannot help being anything else
than a textual tradition, most conspicuously present in the works of Kilgore
Trout (although not all of his works belong to this mode). Due to the essentially
metaleptic nature of the novel, the world of the Trout stories somehow leaks into
the narrated world, infecting it in various ways, as in the case of Dwayne’s
madness or the Pluto gang (76-77). More interestingly, the discourse level is also
contaminated; the most obvious case of the latter being precisely the curious
metaphorical use of the word “leak.” “Leak” is Kilgore Trout’s word for
“mirror”: “it amused him to pretend that mirrors were holes between two
universes” (27). This metaphor, like all similar metaphors in the novel, possesses
a metacritical relevance or readability. By referring to mirrors as leaks, Trout
takes the most traditional trope of the mimetic conception of art and transforms
it into something else: if the mirror is defined as a hole between the two (“real”
and “fictitious”) universes, through which infiltration or contamination is
possible, on the level of the metacritical allegory the mimetic, reflective,
mirroring principle of construction is replaced by the metonymic principle of
leaking, or infiltration. “Leak” has leaked from Trout’s stories into the discourse
of the novel: the narrator, speaking from the future, quite independently of the
Trout summaries, also refers to mirrors and reflective surfaces as leaks.7 The
metaleptic logic means that the language which creates the narrated world
creates this world using linguistic idiosyncrasies that are born within the
narrated world itself. Local examples of such leaking (that is, when the
vocabulary of a Trout novel contaminates its immediate textual environment)
include the defamiliarising description of the activity of walking, borrowed from
Trout: “their feet sticking to the planet, coming unstuck, then sticking again”
(74). The dominant man=robot/machine metaphor is also a leaking from the
novel that poisoned Dwayne’s mind (e.g., 200).8
The relationship between the stories of Trout (seventeen texts are referred to
altogether) and the primary narrated world is not at all clear. Trout stories are
mentioned and summed up randomly, usually because the given book turns up in
the story as a physical object. As if a button were pushed, the narrator
immediately and obligingly provides a summary of the particular Trout story
which, sooner or later, enters into connection with the novel. This relationship
(the relationship between science fiction and “the world”) has to be, is the
62 Chapter Three

motivation, the meaning of the persistent presence of the Trout oeuvre. The
reader’s first reaction is to try and establish a parabolic, mirroring relationship,
expecting the Trout stories to offer parabolic commentaries on the novel or parts
of it. The stories, however, fail to generate a relevance that could be interpreted
as parabolic: instead of the vertical principle of parable, the horizontal logic of
leaking begins to prevail in the reading of the relationship. After reading all the
plot summaries, some kind of relationship perhaps begins to take shape: the
aggregate of stories functions as a narrative encyclopaedia intended to explain
the entire narrated world. It seems that there is not a single element in the
narrated world that is not included in a Trout story; even the privileged role of
the clitoris in sexual intercourse (hardly a science-fiction theme, incidentally)
has, of course, been a subject of a fascinating tale by Trout (143-44), and the
same applies to the making of alcohol and many other topics. It seems that
“Kilgore was here”: the entire narrated world has already been “covered” by
Trout, and the narrator, whenever he feels like it, picks out an object and tells,
with sublime irrelevance, the relevant Trout tale. It seems that the function of
Trout summaries is primarily performative: the assertion of this watertight and
all-inclusive coherence that, isomorphically, leaks into the narrated world on
account of the prevailing metaleptic logic.
The fact that the metonymic logic of leaking rules in the text has in itself
nothing to do with science fiction—but it might if we extend the relevance of
science fiction as a metacritical metaphor and locate it in Breakfast of
Champions as perspective: not only in the sense of a cosmic perspective that
ironically dwarfs human ambition and achievement but also in the more strictly
narratological sense of the word.
The very first sentence goes like this: “This is a tale of a meeting of two
lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast” (17).
Defining the setting like this at once places the narrative in the register of
science fiction. The idiosyncrasies of the narrative voice are accounted for by the
choice of perspective: the narrator is obviously talking to “extraterrestrials”—
where extraterrestrial is a science fiction-inspired trope for the absolute
unpredictability of the narratees. It is important that the defamiliarising mode
(the single most conspicuous strategy of the text) is determined by the
perspective of the assumed reader rather than the limited knowledge or naïveté
of the speaker, and governed mainly by the assumed expository or explanatory
mode of the narrator, as in Gulliver’s Travels.9 There is in Breakfast of
Champions, however, a feature that destabilises the linguistic world of the novel
to an extent that is inconceivable in Swift. The defamiliarisation colouring the
explanatory rhetoric necessarily divides the narrated world as well as the
narrating words into two categories: that of the things familiar to the listener and
that of the things that still need to be explained. In texts that use a similar
Anatomy of Science Fiction 63

rhetorical strategy, the reader after a while becomes capable of predicting which
elements will go into either category. In Vonnegut’s novel, however, it seems
that nearly every new definition (as well as each of the equally educational
illustrations) inscribes the boundary between the two (linguistic) categories at a
different place: words that are tagged with explanations are chosen without any
apparent logic (“Nigger” 47; “cooping” 58). Most definitions laboriously clarify
extremely basic things: these include cultural facts whose defamiliarised
description or redefinition achieves a satirical effect (for instance, the discovery
of America), but most of these definitions are attached to truly elementary and
familiar things like apples, peas, guns, and lambs; at the same time, much more
difficult notions are allowed to go unexplained. The definitions use words and
locutions that are much more difficult than the entity that is being defined:
gunpowder, we are told, is a “mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and
sulphur” (21). Words are explained after they have already been used several
times (“alcohol” 194). The set of defined words is totally random and cannot be
penned into any single category. The outcome is a destabilisation of the novel’s
verbal universe, not unlike Borges’s famously heterocosmic encyclopaedia,
where every category divides up the entire field according to a different
principle, and therefore, in the lack of a unified grid that would have made
meaning-making possible, the categories remain mutually immeasurable, with
no possibility of any logical relationship between them. In Vonnegut’s novel,
every definition forgets and makes us forget all previous definitions, rewriting
the boundary between the regions of the known and the unknown.
The basis of this destabilising linguistic logic is perspective. The narrator
does not know how much his listeners know. Science fiction is smuggled back
here on the level of linguistic organisation (or disorganisation): in Breakfast of
Champions, the extraterrestrial, the alien and unknown sphere is embodied in the
implied listener or reader whose total and perfect alienness and unknowability
make the text reproduce the boundary between the known and the unknown in
every moment. We do not know, we cannot know, what the listener will know or
understand, and this perfect alienness, this immeasurable (not in the sense of
immeasurably long) distance of the listener entails the absolute and unqualified
risking and restructuring of the entire narrative horizon. The apotheosis of
science fiction conceived as perspective or horizon is the episode in the seedy
New York porn movie where Kilgore Trout is involved in a conversation with
God (in the novel’s terminology: the Creator of the Universe), always uncertain
how much God actually knows: “‘The carpeting under my feet,’ he signalled
from the lobby, ‘is springy and new. I think it must be some miracle fibre. It’s
blue. You know what I mean by blue?’” (69). He could ask the very same
question after each word. Later: “I am headed for Forty-Second Street now. How
much do you already know about Forty-second Street?” (70). In Vonnegut, God
64 Chapter Three

had always been a popular and widely known subcategory of science-fiction


clichés; the perspectival structure of Breakfast of Champions (similarly to that of
The Sirens of Titan) conflates theology and science fiction, with the crucial
difference that in the later novel this conflation clearly takes place in the field of
language use, entailing serious metacritical consequences. In Vonnegut, science
fiction had always functioned as a horizon of defamiliarisation (his characters
are often called “Earthlings”); in Breakfast of Champions, however, it creates a
defamiliarising horizon that, through its radical alienness, makes the linguistic
mode of the novel unpredictable and semantically aleatory.
This is brought out also by the illustrations, which fulfil a function similar to
that of the definitions, but which also resemble the Trout summaries—at least in
one respect. Ninety percent of the illustrations represent not an object but a sign:
most of them feature letters, legends, symbols; that is, they reproduce or
represent objects in the case of which mere graphic representation is clearly
inadequate and irrelevant for, as semiotic objects, their meaning resides not in
their outer shape but in their conventionally defined and encoded semiotic value.
As a means of conveying information, these drawings are thus absolutely
unnecessary. As a careful reading of the context will reveal, even many of the
remaining, apparently purely “representational” illustrations turn out to be
representations of a picture, like the flamingo (56), the clock (60), the
mortarboard (61), and several others; many of the remaining illustrations are
illustrations of the vehicle of a simile, representing not an element of the
narrated world but a purely linguistic product that has no function whatsoever in
the story (for instance, the drawing of lamb follows the phrase “He slept like a
lamb” 82).10
Another type of defamiliarisation, resulting from the displaced presence of
science fiction, works on the level of narrative grammar: connections between
events are also defamiliarised. Causality, for instance, suffers on two levels:
psychological causality (motivation) is absorbed into a pair of defamiliarising
science-iction metaphors or catachreses (one claims that human beings are
machines, while the other maintains that human acts are the result of chemicals
in our bodies). There is a further, overtly metafictional aspect of subverting
motivation—a third, metafictional catachresis. Having discovered for himself
Kilgore Trout’s machine metaphor, the narrator, as it were, also goes berserk
and begins to remote control his characters as if they were machines,
transforming their motivational system into yet another defamiliarising
discourse: “And here Dwayne did something extraordinarily unnatural. He did it
because I wanted him to. It was something I had ached to have a character do for
years and years” (232).11
Causal-logical connections between events and entities are dissolved in the
reign of coincidence. In Breakfast of Champions, coincidence loses its meaning
Anatomy of Science Fiction 65

(which is the making meaningful of accident, of a lack of meaning); the basic


principle of narrative logic is the realisation that every single element of the
narrative can be related to every other element at one level or another. This logic
considers the revelation of metonymic connections as the production of
meaning: because their revelation is deemed important, because they are
included in the text, metonymic relations are clearly meant to function as
meaningful in the economy of the text. If, however, every connection is equally
meaningful, relevant (that is, worth mentioning), then the hierarchy between
more and less meaningful (relevant) connections is abolished. The
transformation of coincidences into meaningful connections by rhetorical means
ends up abolishing precisely that to which meaning, considered as relevance,
owes its being: the multitudinous and chaotic background of meaningless
coincidences.
The main source of energy in the linguistic economy of Breakfast of Champions
is the process whereby the incessant, compulsive production of meaning is
transformed into its opposite. To hold something up as information entails that this
particular entity possesses meaning (relevance): information value is produced not
by some inherent quality of an entity but by the communication process. Holding up
every single element of the narrated world as information, however, will abolish the
background of non-informative elements, the very condition of holding something
up as information. In default of a hierarchy of information, value, and relevance, the
logic of the text is taken over by irrelevance and redundancy.
Irrelevance and redundancy raise the possibility of global science fiction-inspired
self-metaphors on the most elementary level of textual organisation. Irrelevance,
redundancy, and coincidence as narrative and textual principles create a world of
functional homogeneity where “every person would be exactly as important as any
other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out.
Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I
have done” (195). The textual economy of Breakfast of Champions could be
described as the gradual transformation of entropy (in the sense in which it is used by
information theory) into entropy in the thermodynamic sense. By transforming
coincidence into its organising principle, the text presents every element, every
textual event as information-laden, that is, as possessing high entropy. (“We consider
as an event the occurrence of a given sign at a randomly chosen site of the text; such
an event takes place with a given probability” Andor 39). Every sign possesses an
equally high level of entropy, the amount of information possessed by a given sign
(Andor 47). The entropy of information theory, however, depends on the frequency
of the sign’s uses rather than the frequency of the sign itself, thus it is a pragmatic
feature determined by the communicative situation. By means of its rhetorical
organisation, Vonnegut’s text displays every item (or event) as possessing high
entropy, for it teases meaning out of contingency and accident. The outcome,
66 Chapter Three

however, is a message of uniformly high entropy, in which, since the signs are
functionally levelled, “every sign will occur with equal probability” (Andor 48). The
occurrence of any given sign cannot be predicted on the basis of the preceding signs,
therefore the extent of the text’s communicational disorder is maximal: “in maximal
entropy, every sign has equal value and is entirely independent of all the other signs,
and this situation indeed corresponds to what we ordinarily mean by disorder. One
could also say that the average entropy is the level of uncertainty” (Andor 63-64).
Breakfast of Champions is a text of maximum entropy—but then, it could also be
seen as a text approaching that non-existent text or sign system of zero entropy,
which consists of the repetition of the same sign, itself of zero entropy (cf. Andor
48). This last formulation already evokes the thermodynamic notion of entropy: the
textual organisation of the novel might be said to resemble an energetic condition
that could perhaps be likened to the rules governing the entropy of closed systems
(cf. Davies 9-12, Feynman 120-21).
Entropic textuality, “attacking” or affecting Breakfast Champions on the level of
primary textual organisation, can obviously be read as a global self-metaphor
produced by the text as a result of science-fiction contamination, a science fiction-
inspired feature that clearly has poetical or metacritical relevance. In an attempt to
account for the idiosyncratic narrative organisation of the book in terms of the
corrosive infiltration of science-fiction elements, one could start out from different
potential self-metaphors; for instance, the textual organisation of the novel (this is
obvious after having considered the consequences of the entropy metaphor) can
indeed be conceived on the analogy of the polymer molecule graphically represented
in the text (210): “The molecule went on and on, repeating itself forever” (210): the
same sign repeated endlessly where the repetition can begin or end anywhere. This
molecule also embodies the other, cautionary version of the possible co-optation of
science-fiction elements. It is the sole constituent of the industrial waste that
smothers the Miracle Cave in the novel, spreading slowly and threateningly in the
narrated world. Cultural waste is an endlessly repeating polymer: self-reflexive
emblem of the satirical, referential, “serious” aspect of the novel, as well as a self-
metaphor that allegorically tells about the text’s relationship to tradition (including
that of science fiction).
Vonnegut’s novel—elaborating on one of its self-metaphors—functions as a
deposit of cultural rubbish, waste (15), or, viewed as a process, a kind of “recycling”
of material that is used, or useless, unnecessary. Far from being illustrative, the
illustrations function to remove semiotic rubbish. The text “recycled”—“recycling”
text—is able to construct itself only from the already used external semiotic polymer
(language), and only in the way that is already programmed in the molecule. This is
obvious if we consider the recycled character of the illustrations. The novel
perpetuates itself by claiming to be constructed entirely out of this recycled material:
what is inside is outside, what is outside is inside.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 67

I hope it is clear that I do not claim to have found generally applicable rules or
principles of the co-opting of science fiction into post-modern fiction. It seems that
the introduction of science-fiction elements can indeed have consequences that may
become the object of a poetically minded critical discourse (a new set of metaphors
and self-metaphors, new—metacritical—lexicons, the potentially subversive mixture
of lexicons and registers, a defamiliarising horizon, among others). In Breakfast of
Champions, as in some other Vonnegut texts, science fiction does function as a
metacritical metaphor that allegorically speaks about the critical quandaries around
science fiction (including Vonnegut’s own position) and figuratively names the
“post-modern” difference of Vonnegut’s fiction. It is also clear for me, however, that
this metacritical relevance is not acquired by science-fiction elements in the same
way even in Vonnegut’s novels. Every novel of his risks itself according to its own
rules—most radically and most excitingly, perhaps, Breakfast of Champions.

Notes
All translations from Hungarian into English are my own.
1
The myth, according to Fiedler, is that of the end of man, of the disappearance of
human functions or their appropriation by machines (382).
2
I feel that such co-optation took place in the case of books like Solaris, Martian
Chronicles or J.G. Ballard’s early “inner space” fictions.
3
Such lists tend to include texts like Nabokov’s Ada, Italo Calvino’s short stories,
Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos sequence, among others.
4
My rhetoric is, of course, questionable here, since, by talking about “introduction,” I
am establishing a hierarchy and an order of priority between “proper” literature and
science fiction.
5
Another poetically relevant strategy that may be linked specifically to science
fiction has to do with the plot structure. Joseph Sigman (36-37) convincingly argues that
the fate of the major characters is “shaped” by means of quantum leaps; that is, Vonnegut
transforms a physical principle, in the present case the rules of the movements of
subatomic particles, into a plot device.
6
One suspects that this readily available interpretation, involving the discarding of
the science-fiction element, could be one of the factors behind the relatively easy
canonisation of this particular Vonnegut novel. To a certain extent, this reading is
confirmed by Vonnegut’s well-known comment:

And the science-fiction passages in Slaughterhouse-Five are just like the clowns
in Shakespeare. When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the
heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring on a clown or a foolish innkeeper or
something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets,
science fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing on the
clowns every so often to lighten things up. (Wampeters 235)
68 Chapter Three

7
This little detail confirms my earlier suggestion that the role of prophetic narration
in the novel is chiefly metacritical: prophetic narration is working, as it were, as an empty
emblem of science fiction. Its future perspective appears as a set of linguistic
idiosyncrasies rather than as a certain amount of knowledge about the present that is only
visible or understandable in the light of future developments.
8
This metaphor also appears in Slaughterhouse-Five, naturally as a Tralfamadorian
insight (104).
9
The narrator is omniscient, omnipotent even. His omniscience, however, is put to a
rather unorthodox use: instead of revealing the depth of the characters’ minds, he offers
insiders’ titbits and curiosities, providing information concerning certain elements of the
narrated world in a gossipy, erratic, anecdotal manner. In an incisive analysis, Ágnes
Pelyvás explores the micro-level workings of the defamiliarising technique in the novel:
the arbitrary transfer of certain phenomena from one cognitive model into another, the
insertion of certain objects into a new and alien semantic row (for instance, referring to
the young waitress unexpectedly as a “mammal” 130), the suppression of generally well-
known “institutional facts,” the description of certain objects purely on the basis of their
physical outlook (cf. Pelyvás 11ff.).
10
In the Hungarian translation, “lamb” is replaced by a “fur coat,” adapting to the
appropriate idiomatic simile (“to sleep like a fur coat”); this little fact also indicates the
irrelevance of the illustrations to the story. Further similar examples include the drawings
of the dinosaur and the pea (both 118) or the apple (119).
11
It should be noted that I do not consider the science fiction-based defamiliarisation
of motivation as ultimately simply the metaphor of metafictional, self-reflexive
defamiliarisation; that is, I don’t mean to imply that the final referent of defamiliarising
techniques is necessarily metacritical. The various kinds of defamiliarisation (machine,
chemicals, author) work in parallel with each other, without any hierarchy between them.

Works Cited
Andor, Csaba. Jel—Kultúra—Kommunikáció “Sign—Culture—
Communication.” Budapest: Gondolat, 1980.
Brooke-Rose, Christine. A Rhetoric of the Unreal. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1983.
Buck, Lynn. “Vonnegut’s World of Comic Futility.” Mustazza 151-64.
Crichton, J. Michael. “Sci-Fi and Vonnegut.” Mustazza 107-12.
Davies, Paul. The Last Three Minutes. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
Feynman, Richard. The Nature of Physical Laws. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1992.
Fiedler, Leslie. “The New Mutants”. Collected Essays. Vol. 2. New York: Stein
& Day, 1971.
Greenland, Colin. The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British
“New Wave” in Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 1983.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 69

H. Nagy, Péter. “Imaginárium: Vázlat a science-fiction poétikájának


töredékeirĘl” “Imaginarium: a sketch about fragments of a poetics of science
fiction.” Szép literatúrai ajándék 2-3 (1998): 127-36.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and
Postmodernism.” McCaffery 203-18.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, and the Crimes of Our Time.”
Mustazza 79-90.
McCaffery, Larry. “Introduction: To the Desert of the Real.” Storming the
Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Post-modern Fiction. Ed.
Larry McCaffery. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 1-16.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1991.
Mustazza, Leonard, ed. The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut. Westport, CT:
Greenwood, 1994.
Nash, Christopher. World-Games: The Tradition of Anti-Realist Revolt. London:
Methuen, 1987.
Pelyvás, Ágnes. “Defamiliarisation as a Source of Irony in Kurt Vonnegut’s
Breakfast of Champions.” Unpub. MA ms. Debrecen, 1998.
Reed, Peter J., and Marc Leeds, eds. The Vonnegut Chronicles: Interviews and
Essays. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.
Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976.
Scholes, Robert. Structural Fabulation: An Essay on the Fiction of the Future.
Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.
Schriber, Mary Sue. “Bringing Chaos to Order: The Novel Tradition and Kurt
Vonnegut, Jr.” Mustazza 175-86.
Sigman, Joseph. “Science and Parody in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.”
Mustazza 25-42.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. 1973. London: Granada, 1981.
Bajnokok reggelije. Trans. Békés András. Budapest: Maecenas, 1988.
———. The Sirens of Titan. 1959. London: Hodder, 1979.
———. Slaughterhouse-Five. 1969. London: Granada, 1979.
———. Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. 1975. London: Granada, 1985.
———. Börleszk Slapstick. 1976. Trans. Borbás Mária. Budapest: Európa, 1981.
NY: Dell, 1985.
Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious
Fiction. London: Methuen, 1984.
CHAPTER FOUR

CULTURAL NEGOTIATION IN SCIENCE-FICTION


LITERATURE AND FILM

BRIAN ATTEBERY

At a recent meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association, one longtime


member was heard to announce that “We’ve won.” Science fiction, once the
eccentric hobby of a technologically minded few, has become a major cultural
force. Its imagery permeates the popular media. Award winning authors like
Jonathan Lethem, Doris Lessing, Walter Mosley, and Don De Lillo incorporate
science fictional ideas and story lines. Science fiction-derived terms like warp
speed and cyborg are heard in casual conversation. Even as cloning and genetic
manipulation become part of the daily arsenal of physicians, pharmaceutical
companies, and agronomists, they still retain their association with science-fiction
narratives. Newspaper stories about scientific breakthroughs regularly imply that
we are living, not just in the future, but specifically in the future predicted by
science fiction.
Yet this new visibility comes at a price. The small and homogeneous
community of readers that once formed the entire audience for science fiction
has given way to a broad and diverse fandom. What was once perceived as a
single fan identity, is now a federation of overlapping identities: black, white,
libertarian, feminist, gay, or transsexual. Any one of these factions may have
little or no contact with the others. If they do converse with one another, it may
be only to argue over which has the right to speak for the genre as a whole.
Additionally, many newer fans are unfamiliar with the genre’s history and share
neither the interests nor values of older fans. Many who now attend science-
fiction conventions are fans, not of traditional print science fiction, but of
movies, games, comic books, and television shows. Reading, once the central
activity around which fandom formed its identity, is only one of many science
fiction-related activities. There is now an annual convention devoted to written
science fiction, ReaderCon, but it is just one of many options: other cons are
devoted to gaming, costuming, and individual television series. For fans at those
conventions, science fiction is not Asimov’s Foundation but the Wakowski
Anatomy of Science Fiction 71

brothers’ The Matrix (1999). From the point of view of long time readers, these
newer fans have bought a Hollywood version of science fiction that is more often
than not violent, illogical, paranoid, and/or sentimentalised.
It is useful to be able to distinguish the popularised and mediated version of
the future from the more complex and ambiguous visions of writers like Joe
Haldeman or Ursula K. Le Guin, and the rival acronyms adopted by fans and the
media provide just such a distinction. Written science fiction is SF, a coinage
that has been used to stand not only for science fiction but also for speculative
fiction and even structural fabulation (Wolfe 117). Sci-fi, which SF fans often
pronounce “skiffy,” is what comes out of Hollywood: both the popular
entertainments and the non-SF-reading public’s impression of what the field is
all about (Wolfe 114-15).
What has happened to SF is what happens whenever ideas are transmitted
from one segment of a culture to another. In such a transmission, as when fluids
cross a membrane, some molecules pass easily, some are held back, and some
get through only by attaching themselves to more easily absorbed particles. The
relationship between printed SF and the sci-fi of film or television or political
rhetoric is a complex negotiation whereby certain images are rejected while
others are simplified, intensified, and redirected.
When stories cross the border from SF to sci-fi, for instance, they divest
themselves of information about orbits, power sources, or relativistic effects that
is an important feature of much fiction about space exploration. If that
information is not lost entirely, it is transformed into technobabble: a type of
dialogue in which characters invoke scientific-sounding language to establish
themselves as reliable pushers of buttons. Certain aspects of the characters are
likely to disappear as well. In early magazine SF, the typical hero was a youthful
scientist, a bit of a loner, more comfortable around vacuum tubes and beakers
than around beautiful women. Nevertheless, by dint of his ingenuity and
scientific knowledge, he was able to win wealth, prestige, and the love of the
heroine. This hero is clearly a stand-in for the reader, who was likewise young,
male, white, heterosexual, scientifically inclined, and undervalued by society.
Or, since there have always been a few fans who did not fit that profile, the
reader was willing to identify across categories in order to let the scientist hero
fill in for himself or herself. Marion Zimmer Bradley attests to the willingness of
early female SF readers to identify with the masculine hero, and even to adopt
masculine personae in correspondence with other fans (26). In return for
disguising femaleness, racial or religious difference, or nonstandard sexuality,
any fan could enter into the discussions conducted in magazine columns and
fanzines and thereby take a seat at the negotiating table, asking for particular
scientific content, emotional payoffs, and validation.
72 Chapter Four

And then the SF story gets turned into a sci-fi film, and the scientific
protagonist of SF is reduced to a foil for the cinematic action hero. No longer the
hero, he is now the guy in glasses who says, “Don’t shoot; this is a unique
scientific opportunity,” just before the alien eats him. This, combined with the
devaluation of technical information, is a problematic trade-off for the SF fan,
but it is part of the contract by which producers and directors agree to put on
screen a few plot components and some measure of SF atmosphere. SF gives up
control over its inventions; in return it gets to see them circulated beyond the
confines of the relatively tiny community of serious readers.
The process is similar to the kinds of exchanges within Elizabethan society
analyzed by Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt identifies the Elizabethan stage as an
arena in which society’s central issues found expression. Not only was the
theatre the chief form of public entertainment for Londoners, where social
classes mingled and contemporary fashions were paraded, but playwrights and
actors also had the power to invoke England’s most intense political, religious,
and sexual conflicts and thereby transfer some of that intensity and “social
energy” to their staged entertainments (Greenblatt 6). Greenblatt points out that
the most potent conflicts were already being enacted dramatically. Elizabeth, for
instance, conducted her royal court as a sort of travelling pageant or masque, and
her successor turned conspiracy trials into public spectacles (136). The rivalry
between Protestants and Catholics was played out through ritualised dramas
such as the rite of exorcism, condemned by Protestant clergyman Samuel
Harsnett as a sort of dialogue between devils (98). Shakespeare is able to
transfer these actions to the stage, then, because what he is appropriating is
already a form of drama. “When Shakespeare borrows from Harsnett, who
knows if Harsnett has not already, in a deep sense, borrowed from Shakespeare’s
theatre what Shakespeare borrows back?” (95).
Similarly, when movies, television, advertising, and political rhetoric borrow
SF’s images and ideas about the future, they favour what has already been
conceived of in terms of sci-fi. The future that makes its way into the movies is,
with few exceptions, the future we have already seen in the movies. The
characters who best survive the transition to screen are the ones who already
resemble Hollywood action heroes. The information that remains
comprehensible is that which movie audiences have previously absorbed. Even
when SF writers collaborate with movie makers, as H. G. Wells did in the
making of Things to Come (1936) and William Gibson with Johnny Mnemonic
(1995), the result is more sci-fi than SF. Distinctively SF elements either get lost
(as in the latter example) or talked to death on screen (in the former).
Greenblatt’s use of “negotiation” is metaphoric; in Hollywood, though,
details are literally negotiated by agents, lawyers, producers, and directors.
Novelist Ian Watson has written about the difficulties of working with even a
Anatomy of Science Fiction 73

sympathetic director like Stanley Kubrick, three of whose films do reflect


something of SF’s concern with scientific and social ideas rather than just action
and spectacle. After Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and
A Clockwork Orange (1971), many fans had placed their hopes on Kubrick’s
long-announced project, AI, based on a short story by Brian Aldiss. Watson,
called in to work on the script, found himself in a bizarre swirl of money, ego,
and obsession that produced draft after draft and incredibly elaborate models of
technical effects but little progress toward narrative coherence (Watson 4-10).
Yet sci-fi films, including Kubrick’s, can create moments of breathtaking
vision, like the opening panorama of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982);
gestures of emotional and moral intensity, such as the dismantling of the
intelligent computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey; intriguing technology, in the
form of gadgets such as the goofy robot of Forbidden Planet (1956) but also in
the form of cinematic effects such as the wall-walking of The Matrix; and heroes
of integrity and strength, such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in James
Cameron’s Aliens (1986). These are the things movie-makers are proficient at;
these are the goods that Hollywood is willing to buy back from writers.
Occasionally, as part of the package, an idea or two slips in and, if it finds
compelling visual analogues, becomes currency for later exchanges.
It is important to remember that SF is itself the product of negotiation by
which scientific ideas become transformed into components of narrative. Some
concepts lend themselves more readily than others to becoming aspects of
setting, character, and plot. In the 1940s, story after story drew upon the notion
of atomic devastation and subsequent mutation of human beings into monsters
and supermen. In the 1980s, computer networks and simulated spaces seemed to
be nearly inexhaustible generators of story ideas. In both cases, it was the
interaction of science and fictionalisation that generated social energy. The
prospect of nuclear holocaust was not in itself a particularly appealing plotline:
there are not many variations on “Bang! The End.” But once writers like Henry
Kuttner found a way past the end predicted by science and invented a scenario
involving secret enclaves and unexpected psychic resources (most of the mutant
superbeings, including Kuttner’s, were telepathic), then the story of the bomb
could become a story of a fortunate fall and a new beginning. Kuttner’s first
mutant story was “The Piper’s Son” (1945). Other examples include A. E. Van
Vogt’s Slan (1940) and Walter Miller’s classic A Canticle for Liebowitz (1960).
Not accidentally, the typical mutant is also, like the junior scientist of the 1930s,
a version of the SF fan—a popular catch phrase in SF circles claimed that “Fans
are Slans.”
The movement known as cyberpunk is another example of the match-up of a
scientific concept with a complementary narrative structure. The drab exteriors
and mysterious innards of the computer did not catch the public’s imagination
74 Chapter Four

until writers like Vernor Vinge, in True Names (1981), and William Gibson, in
“Johnny Mnemonic” (1981), began to transform them into spaces for wild
adventures. With the advent of cyberpunk, the computer ceased to be a box full
of tiny switches and became a portal into new realities. Not only writers and
filmmakers but also engineers and software designers are still drawing on the
social energy generated by stories like Gibson’s.
In recent SF, two themes that writers have drawn from contemporary scientific
speculation are the reconstruction of planetary ecologies and the mapping of the
human genome. Other ideas, such as the physics of superstrings, have made
appearances in the work of Gregory Benford and others, but they have not yet
demonstrated the sort of story-generating power that captures the audience’s
imagination. Some branches of science fuel whole schools of SF writing, while
others are represented spottily if at all. The humanoid robot, an invention for
which the necessary engineering may never arrive, nonetheless continues to appear
in stories. The genuinely weird adaptive mechanisms of plants, on the other hand,
show up in a bare handful of stories. Pseudosciences like psionics produce far
more stories than authentic enterprises such as plate tectonics.
The negotiations that transform scientific concepts into fiction are sometimes
round-the-table talks as in Hollywood: editors choose or reject stories,
publishers convince chain-store buyers to give shelf space to a particular writer.
But more often they take place within the writer’s mind. Editor, publisher,
distributor, and reader are there only as internalised voices saying, “Wouldn’t it
be easier to sell this story than that one?” or “I got a lot of mail with that
scenario,” or even “This idea feels science fictiony—what can I do with it?”
Like the movies, written SF is most likely to take in what it has already issued
forth.
Other factors enter in as well: writers who are themselves scientists naturally
favour their own disciplines. Joan Slonczewski, a biologist, writes frequently
about bioengineering, while Geoffrey Landis, a physicist, incorporates recent
speculations in physics. But all SF writers, whether scientists or merely devoted
readers of Science Digest, are always on the lookout for ideas that can set a plot
spinning and catch the reader’s imagination. And the ideas most likely to do so
are those that offer connections to issues that matter to people: issues of identity,
power, desire, and social change.
Whether the SF writer intends to make a political point, teach a lesson about
planetary ecology, exploit a fad, or simply tell an exciting story, part of the
process will involve running characters headlong into some kind of scientifically
justified strangeness. This strangeness, which Darko Suvin calls a novum (63),
may be anything from a leaky spaceship to a world-wide mutation. In the most
effective stories, the strangeness confronted by the character corresponds to
something within: an unforeseen capability, a buried fear, a forced reshuffling of
Anatomy of Science Fiction 75

basic beliefs. Then the characters must find ways to incorporate the alteration
into the stories of their lives, which means not just their individual life histories
but also the historical, religious, and scientific trajectories—the masterplots—
within which they make sense of their lives. The SF writer, then, is not simply a
populariser of scientific ideas, but someone who links those ideas to cultural
narratives.
In the bargain between science and SF, the stock-in-trade on one side is new
discoveries, new theories, new systems of thought. The other side offers a place
for those ideas within stories of heroic exploration, tragic overreaching, social
evolution, moral regeneration, or erotic fulfilment. Both sides gain when the
resulting narrative catches hold of the reader’s imagination. The social energy
Greenblatt talks about is generated not by the ideas alone or the story lines but
by their fusion. Embodied within a story, a concept like the human genome takes
on emotional weight, social status, and intentionality—we learn not only what it
is, but also where it is going, pulling ourselves along with it.
And in every era, just as there are particular scientific concepts that seem
most productive of social energy, certain social and psychological
transformations hold more potential to become significant story lines. At the
beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of the robot met cultural narratives
of dehumanisation and alienated, assembly-line labour to produce powerful
narratives like Karel Çapek’s play R.U.R. (1920). At mid-century, the concept of
the mutant merged with stories of racial prejudice and assimilation in Van
Vogt’s Slan and Kuttner’s “The Piper’s Son.” In the former case, the narrative
fusion had additional personal significance for many SF fans, who saw
themselves in terms of the misunderstood mutant.
As the twenty-first century begins, the story lines that seem to resonate most
clearly with readers’ concerns are those that involve large-scale manipulation of
environments and intervention into the human genome. Upon these scientific
and technological foundations, writers have erected two paradoxical themes:
Terraforming the Earth and Generating Our Own Aliens.
An excellent example of the former is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.
In three volumes, Robinson portrays the vast undertaking of turning barren Mars
into a liveable planet. The books are filled with plausible scientific
extrapolation, future-historical speculation, and references to just about every
earlier factual or fictional treatment of the red planet. Yet the ostensible subject
of the books is not their only subject. Mars is also a stand-in for Earth. The
fictional transformation of our nearest planetary neighbour can be read as a
metaphor for the drastic alteration of Earth’s climate and ecology. Debates over
the replacement of primeval Red Mars by a more human-friendly Green Mars
cast light on the gains and losses that accompany human encroachment on the
Amazon basin, the arctic, and the oceans. Furthermore, Robinson’s use of
76 Chapter Four

Russian and Arab characters along with American settlers points to the cultural
terraforming that threatens to turn all other cultures into versions of America.
Robinson’s novels, like recent work by Greg Egan, Nancy Kress, Greg Bear,
Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Molly Gloss, examine the responsibilities that come
with powerful emerging technologies. If we can make the Earth over into our
own image, what sort of earth will it be? Other stories take up the other half of
the question: what is our image? What sort of selves might we transform
ourselves into? This latter question is one of particular significance to readers
whose views and behaviours place them outside social norms. No longer willing
or able to identify across boundaries, they look for symbolic selves among SF’s
new array of post-human characters.
Although the interstellar travel that seemed just around the corner a
generation ago now looks like a dim and distant prospect, the need for alien
Others has not gone away. Alien invasions and exotic Other Worlds still show
up in SF, but they have a whiff of nostalgia, a tang of trope about them: they are
more likely to be used in deliberately retrospective space operas like Lois
McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books or Iain M. Banks’s novels of the
Culture than in sober near-future extrapolations. The more likely aliens,
according to a number of writers, are those we ourselves manufacture. And the
raw material out of which they are to be manufactured is ourselves. Hence the
theme of Generating Our Own Aliens.
There are a number of ways to alter human beings into something new and
alien. Using genetic manipulation, computer simulation, nanosurgery, or
implantation of mechanical parts, a human being might be transformed into
something as eerie as any movie monster. In both Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis
trilogy and Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian stories, the agents of change are literal
aliens from outer space, but the end of the narrative involves the mutation of
human beings into something equally strange and powerful. Having turned us
into something like themselves, the aliens of both series go away—implying that
the potential for transformation was already there. An important aspect of this
alteration in both cases is the reconfiguration of human gender and sexuality. If
people can clone themselves, exchange genes with other organisms, grow
tentacles, or start to photosynthesise, then sexual differentiation seems like a
trivial difference, easily surmounted. There is no reason a person could not
choose to become the opposite sex, as in stories by John Varley, or a third sex,
as in Butler’s trilogy, or none at all, as in Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and
Gomorrah . . .” (1967), in which sexlessness is shown not to be equivalent to a
lack of gender.
Alienness has always served as a metaphor for differences, including sexual
differences, between humans. In recent SF, the metaphoric relationship has been
reversed: sexual Otherness stands for the human capacity to become alien. In the
Anatomy of Science Fiction 77

battles raging over gender-bending and homosexuality, traditional cultural


narratives such as Bible stories tend to reinforce a conservative definition of
acceptable behaviour. SF, though, which favours novelty over traditionality, has
the potential to generate alternative masterplots within which the alien Other
becomes the new norm.
The fusion of SF ideas with cultural narratives about gender and sexuality
packs a potent charge of social energy. The same sort of illicit thrill, the sense of
flirting with the forbidden, that Stephen Greenblatt and Marjorie Garber have
identified as a key feature of Elizabethan dramaturgy functions within
contemporary SF, only in this case, the forbidden is not cross-dressing or
bringing down anointed kings, but rather transforming bodies and consorting
with aliens. In both cases, as Greenblatt says, “the audience’s tension . . .
enhances its attention” (63), raising both involvement with the text and desire to
influence its outcome.
The imaginative vitality of gender-based SF is shown in many of the stories
nominated for the James Tiptree, Jr., Award, which is given to works that
explore and expand notions of gender. The collection Flying Cups and Saucers,
which brings together Tiptree-honoured fiction by Eleanor Arnason, James
Patrick Kelly, Kelley Eskridge, and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others, can be
read as a symposium on gender and humanity. Using a variety of narrative
techniques and voices, and incorporating recent speculations from genetics,
neuro-psychology, and other sciences, stories in the volume demonstrate the
importance of SF as a tool for investigating changes in society and beliefs about
the world.
Though SF writers have been eager to trade with science for new ideas about
identity and difference, especially sexual difference, they have not yet been able
to pass many of those ideas on to the world of sci-fi. A good example is the
multimedia empire that has grown out of Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi series Star
Trek. Although the original Star Trek was bold by television standards—
including the first interracial kiss on American TV and casting black actors and
women to play scientists and authority figures—subsequent films and series in
the Star Trek universe have not expanded notions of gender to the degree many
fans wish.
SF fans, however, are not accustomed to letting others negotiate for them.
Like groundlings in an Elizabethan theatre, they express their preferences loudly
and insistently. Encouraged by editors such as Hugo Gernsback, SF readers have
been unusually well organised and (sometimes) effective as a lobbying group.
Since the 1920s, they have been accustomed to talking back to writers and
editors in letters columns; to publishing their own magazines—with no clear
boundary between the professional publication and the fanzine; to writing their
own fiction, with many fan writers becoming professional writers or editors
78 Chapter Four

somewhere along the way; to offering sophisticated critiques of others’ work; to


holding regional, national, and worldwide conventions; and to rewarding their
favourites with prizes like the Hugo Award.
Some of this activism has spilled over into the world of sci-fi. The initial
audience for Roddenberry’s Star Trek included many long time science-fiction
readers. When the series was cancelled by the network, these fans, following SF
precedent, organised letter-writing campaigns to bring it back on the air, a
campaign which lost the battle but ultimately won the war by encouraging the
production of numerous Star Trek movies and follow-up series.
Furthermore, an entire subculture of fans formed around the idea of writing
fiction within the framework of the series. In the early days, the fiction was
mimeographed and distributed by mail and at fan gatherings. Later, the Internet
provided a venue both for publishing and for critiquing the efforts of non-
professional writers. Some of the fan fiction eventually found its way into the
series of novels published as an adjunct to the show (Penley 144).
One form of Star Trek fan fiction is devoted to the idea of bringing alternative
sexualities into the future world portrayed in the series. Slash fiction gets its name
from the abbreviation K/S, in which the initials joined by a slash signify the idea
of a romantic link between the two male characters Kirk and Spock. K/S fiction
has been documented and analysed by a number of scholars, including Henry
Jenkins III, Constance Penley, and Camille Bacon-Smith. Slash fiction, and fan
fiction in general, are seen as a counter-argument to theories of mass culture in
which audiences are portrayed as passive consumers of corporate ideology.
Writing fans act as what Henry Jenkins calls textual poachers, they freely invent
new races, bring back characters killed off on television, write and illustrate
pornographic scenes between characters, and even produce video montages that
reinterpret scenes from the series in terms of passionate longing.
But there is a difference between writing fantasy scenarios in which familiar
TV characters are recast as gay lovers and actually seeing non-standard sexuality
acknowledged on the screen. The original slash community was made up largely
of heterosexual women, who, according to Penley, found in the imaginary
relationship between human and alien males a metaphoric portrayal of the kind
of partnership between equals they would like to find in their own lives (156).
Other groups, however, have since begun to emulate the example of these early
slashers, including gay women and men. These fans are not necessarily looking
to Star Trek to provide them with models of marriage, but rather to validate their
existence as a continuing component of humanity. They want to be told that gays
will not go away, will not be legislated or engineered out of existence between
now and the 24th Century.
The demand for gay Star Trek characters has taken several forms, such as
petitions, demonstrations at fan conventions, and “An Open Letter to the
Anatomy of Science Fiction 79

Producers of Voyager” that appeared on a “gay trek” web site during the early
run of that series. The letter refers to a promise—said to have been made by
Roddenberry—to include gay characters in the next Star Trek series (Perkins 1).
This promise would appear to be consistent with Roddenberry’s liberal vision
best expressed in the slogan that characterises the religious beliefs of his
invented race, the Vulcans. They believe in IDIC, or Infinite Diversity in Infinite
Combination. After Roddenberry’s death in 1991, however, Paramount and the
producers evidently decided that some of those combinations were a little too
diverse for television. No gay characters appeared.
The writer of the “Open Letter” points out that this failure of nerve means
something different from the inability of other television series to depict non-
stereotypical homosexual characters. The absence of such characters in a futuristic
drama gives ammunition to “the small-minded bigots we encounter on-line who say
that the reason gays and lesbians aren’t portrayed on Star Trek is that we have all
died of AIDS or that science has found a ‘cure’ for our ‘condition’ and eliminated it”
(Perkins 5).
So, in addition to writing letters, gay fans have attempted to remain part of the
future’s Infinite Diversity by inventing whole new series of their own. The resources of
the World Wide Web allow for the development of fan sites for popular (and some not-
so-popular) TV shows. One such fan site concerns a series called Star Trek: Pioneers,
depicting the crew and mission of the U.S.S. Mandela, “a combined science vessel and
university” (Gustavsson 2).
More recently, fans have begun producing their own Star Trek spin-offs,
using the same blue-screen technology—and the same bad acting—that
characterised the first actual Paramount series. These home-made programs can
be downloaded from the internet and viewed on home computers. At least one of
them, a series called Star Trek: Hidden Frontier, includes a story arc about a
young lieutenant who is gay. His friendships, frustrations, and romantic
attachments form part of the entertainment mix along with alien psychologies
and spatial anomalies, just as the affairs of Captain Kirk or Commander Riker of
the earlier, canonical series did.
The digital wizardry of the Web allows anyone with enough time and
expertise to create at least the simulacrum of a TV series, and the difference
between simulacrum and prototype grows more trivial as the technology
advances. In this version of cultural negotiation, the fan offers up, as already
achieved, something the studio has been reluctant to attempt. The hope is that
sci-fi will accept what it seems already to have accepted, as the Elizabethan theatre
was willing to borrow back what was borrowed from it.
Cultural critic Mark Dery has identified yet another tactic used by Star Trek fans
to take charge of the future, and that is by laying claim to one of the series’ resident
species. A common story arc in various Star Trek incarnations is the introduction of
80 Chapter Four

hostile species that are gradually tamed and incorporated into the Federation. Last
season’s enemy is this season’s troublesome crewmember. The most striking new
enemy to appear during the run of The Next Generation was the Borg, a race of
cyborgs intent on assimilating the rest of the galaxy to their hive society. Borgs are
alarming looking, with dead white skin, tight-fitting armour and mechanical
appurtenances sprouting all over their bodies. They are immensely powerful, with
technology far beyond that of the Federation. They are also, to judge from the
numbers of Borg costumes at any Star Trek convention, really cool.
The appeal of the Borg has something to do with their coolness—that is, their
indifference to emotional upheaval. It is also related to the promise of the cyborg:
fusion with machines as a way of transforming humanity into something of vastly
greater power, adaptability, and life span. But Dery points out how many of the
Borgs’ characteristics may also be read as markers of homosexuality, especially the
homosexual bogeyman conjured up by conservatives of various convictions.

Once “outed,” the Borg appear to be so obviously and so variously wired into gay
myth and metaphor that it seems almost unthinkable that the connections could have
gone unnoticed. Like sailors, bikers, cops, and other stereotypical characters in
homoerotic fantasy, the Borg are an all-male society living in close quarters. They are
in constant physical communion with one another, literally bonded by electronic
interconnection. . . . Anonymous and continuous, the exchange of fluid data among the
Borg conjures the fleeting, faceless sex, in bars, bathrooms, and public parks of the
gay sexual demimonde in the ’70s and early ’80s. The Borg’s cadaverous pallor
evokes urban nightcrawlers—sybarites who come out only after dark, like the
androgynous vampires in Anne Rice’s best-selling homoerotic novels. (2-3)

Pierced and leather-clad young men (in their earliest appearances; female—
lesbian?—Borgs appeared later), an army of indistinguishable clones, these spectres
threaten Federation (which is to say middle-American) stability and respectability.
And the greatest threat of all is that of assimilation. The Borg can turn anyone into a
Borg, including Captain Picard of the Enterprise, who in two memorable episodes
was transformed into a darker (and sexier) alternative self, called Locutus of Borg.
Slashing the entire species of Borg, reading them as gay, hardly takes any
manipulation at all. It may seem self-defeating for a group seeking broader
acceptance voluntarily to assume an image that is everything their adversaries accuse
them of being. However, assimilating the Borg may well be the most effective way
for gay fans to guarantee themselves a place in the sci-fi future. The rules of cultural
negotiation say that Hollywood will accept back what it has already produced. If the
Borg, that is to say lesbians and gays, are already there in the Star Trek universe,
then producers and writers can go on reusing and re-imagining them—not least
because of the telegenic and dramatically engaging form they have taken.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 81

Fan activism and textual poaching are attempts to enter into the negotiations
between SF and sci-fi, just as fanzines and awards like the Hugo and Tiptree
represent readers’ participation in the negotiations by which scientific ideas and
narrative elements become SF. In both cases, the stakes have grown higher because
of the widespread use of science fiction’s iconography and language to describe the
present. If the future is already here, the selection of a scenario becomes more than a
choice among amusements. As people become accustomed to seeing themselves as
living in the future, as more and more products are pitched in terms of their futurity,
and as politicians present their policies as representing, not current needs, but coming
trends, then it becomes increasingly important to negotiate a place for oneself in the
imagined future. To be merely up to date is to be outdated.
If “we’ve won” the struggle to have SF accepted as a legitimate form of social
debate and artistic endeavour, then it is important to know who “we” are. The
urgency felt by feminists, racial minorities, gays, transgendered people, and
supporters of all of these groups to enter into the negotiations is directly related to the
high level of social energy in the fiction of Nicola Griffith, Melissa Scott, Nalo
Hopkinson, Raphael Carter, and the other writers mentioned in this essay. Their
work represents the leading edge of science fiction at the turn of the twenty-first
century, not only because of inventiveness or stylistic excellence, but also because
theirs is the stage on which our culture is debating its own future.

Works Cited
Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation
of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. “Responsibilities and Temptations of Women Science-
Fiction Writers.” Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction
and Fantasy. Ed. Jane B. Weedman. Lubbock: Texas Tech, 1985. 25-41.
Butler, Octavia. Xenogenesis, consisting of Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago.
New York: Warner, 1987, 1988, 1989; rpt. GuildAmerica. n. d.
Dery, Mark. “Slashing the Borg: Resistance Is Fertile.” 1996.
<www.dds.nl/~n5m/texts/markdery.htm.> 7 June 2000.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social
Energy in Renaissance England. The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural
Poetics, no. 4. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Gustavsson, Dan. “Why We Need a New Star Trek Series.” 1997.
<http://home1.swipnet.se/~w-15935/why/htm.> 7 June 2000.
Jenkins, Henry, III. “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual
Poaching.” Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction. Ed.
Constance Penley, et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
171-202.
82 Chapter Four

Jones, Gwyneth. North Wind. London: Gollancz, 1994.


———. Phoenix Café. London: Gollancz, 1997.
———. White Queen. 1991. Orb Edition, New York: Tor, 1994.
Notkin, Debbie, and the Secret Feminist Cabal, eds. Flying Cups and Saucers:
Gender Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cambridge, MA:
Edgewood, 1998.
Penley, Constance. “Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology.”
Technoculture. Ed. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross. Cultural Politics. Vol.
3. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. 135-61.
Perkins, Timothy D. “An Open Letter to the Producers of Voyager.” 15 May, 1995.
<http://www.ccnet.com/gaytrek/openletter.html.> 2 June 1997.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. Blue Mars. New York: Bantam, 1996.
———. Green Mars. New York: Bantam, 1994.
———. Red Mars. New York: Bantam, 1993.
Star Trek: Hidden Frontier. Rob Caves, producer. 2001.
<http://www.hiddenfrontier.com/index.html.>
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a
Literary Genre. New York: Yale University Press, 1979.
Watson, Ian. “Plumbing Stanley Kubrick.” The New York Review of Science
Fiction 141 (May 2000): 1, 4-11.
Wolfe, Gary K. Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Glossary and
Guide to Scholarship. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986.
CHAPTER FIVE

STERILE MEN AND NUCLEAR-POWERED VACUUM


CLEANERS: THE ATOMIC BOMB AND ATOMIC
ENERGY IN 1950S AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION

DONALD E. MORSE

Immediate Post-War American science fiction mirrors both the fears of and
utopian hopes for the unleashed power of the atom. The most apocalyptic of
nations, the United States appeared in the 1950s to be dominated by a baleful
fear of The Bomb, while at the same time captivated by the promises of
unlimited cheap energy to be derived from atomic power—both clearly reflected
in the science fiction of the day.1 In newspapers and magazines this attraction-
repulsion of the atom lay at the base of speculative discussions and stories about
subjects as disparate as space station construction, national defence, mass
transportation, house cleaning, and a national energy policy. In public opinion
surveys conducted “throughout the 1950s, Americans uniformly identified the
threat of war as “the most important problem facing the entire country today”
(quoted in McCurdy 71n92) and that threat almost always involved atomic
bombs. A late 1940s Collier’s magazine featured a full-page science-fictional
painting by Chesley Bonestell depicting the island of Manhattan under attack
from an enemy lunar site with an atomic bomb exploding in the vicinity of the
Empire State Building. This painting, illustrating part of a 1947 article “Rocket
Blitz from the Moon” that warned of the dangers of nuclear missiles fired from a
lunar base, would become almost an icon of dread for the 1950s.2 During the
1950s, atomic annihilation became the number one public and private fear—a
fear obviously acerbated by the Soviet Union’s testing of an atom bomb in
September 1949 followed in the late 1950s by what became the media event of
the decade: The successful launching of not one but two sub-orbital satellites:
Sputnik I launched on 4 October 1957 followed almost immediately by Sputnik
II on 3 November 1957.
Much public discussion focused on issues found in popular science fiction.
The 22 March 1952 cover of Collier’s magazine, for instance, featured another
84 Chapter Five

Chesley Bonestell fantastic painting—this one of a rocket to the moon, while


inside Dr. Werner van Braun argued for the necessity of United States
hegemony in space. Experts testifying before Congress urged both the
construction of a space station and the establishment of just such a lunar base as
a necessary precaution against space being controlled by the enemy. Whoever
controls the moon will control Earth, went the erroneous reasoning. Senate
Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson on 7 January 1958 argued that “control of
space means control of the world”—words that eerily echoed those of van
Braun’s then famous Collier’s 1952 article. At mid-decade in Anaheim,
California Walt Disney opened his theme park featuring an eighty-foot high
model of an atomic-powered rocket ship at the entrance to the Moon Ride
located at the very centre of Tomorrowland. Those wiser heads who stopped to
calculate the gross inefficiency of a lunar base, especially as a site for rockets
targeting Earth, went unheard and unheeded—much like those who would later
oppose Reagan’s 1980s nutty star wars proposal that appeared derived almost
entirely from sci-fi film.3
1950s school children were drilled extensively in how to “duck and cover”
should a nuclear bomb go off in the neighbourhood of their school. Many would
have seen an animated cartoon in which “Burt the Turtle” demonstrates how to
assume a foetal position under school desks.4 In the late 50s I can recall refusing
to take shelter as the government of New York City in a moment of lunacy
staged Manhattan’s once-only atomic air raid drill. Local hardware stores across
the country stocked the “You Can Survive” build-it-yourself backyard air raid
shelter kit.5 In an atomic age replay of ǘsop’s fable of the ant and the
grasshopper, debates raged in newspapers and university ethics classes over
whether far-sighted persons, who had built and stocked such a back yard family
bomb shelter, were obligated to invite in any neighbour who had danced the
summer away and now, alas, had no shelter to go to in the nuclear winter.
Equally impassioned debates centred on whether such far-sighted persons would
be justified in shooting potential intruders even if they might be their
neighbours.
Browsing through bookstores, customers would find the radio broadcasts of
Elmer Davies collected in a superb volume, Two Minutes Till Midnight—yet
another reference to atomic annihilation. The title came from The Bulletin of the
Atomic Scientists. Back then and continuing to this day, The Bulletin of the
Atomic Scientists has for its cover a Doom’s Day clock picturing the time
remaining before the world would end through nuclear war. For most of the
1950s the clock’s hands were set at two minutes to midnight. But the icon that
may best epitomise the 50s, a graphic Artsybachev cartoon appeared, I believe,
in Time magazine: This cartoon featured a skeleton with its skull wreathed in a
Anatomy of Science Fiction 85

hideous idiotic grin as a bomb blew up its insides while the thumb of its bony
right hand still held the plunger down with which it had just activated the bomb.
Such were the placid 50s in the USA! Those tranquil Eisenhower years—
years that people now nostalgically recall sleeping through, yet how much
turmoil, threat, and end-of-the-world thinking there was. All of which was
mirrored in popular science fiction.6 Ray Bradbury, a favourite short story writer
of the decade, published a collection of his stories, The Martian Chronicles in
which humans colonising Mars look on in horror, mesmerised as the earth is
destroyed in a blaze of atomic conflagration. A second Bradbury collection, The
Illustrated Man published in 1951 collected stories that had appeared in the
leading popular slick magazines of the time, such as Collier’s and The Saturday
Evening Post. Ostensibly these are tales of space travel, populating planets, and
so forth all set firmly in the future. The characters are, however, recognisable
suburbanites, family folk with kids and backyards although Daddy drives a
rocket rather than a car and soldiers go out on patrol on Venus or Mars, rather
than in the European or Pacific theatres.7 Again and again the plots of
Bradbury’s stories play out against war or the threat of war or assume
graphically the results of war. And that war always involves atomic bombs or
worse. In the 1950s there was no need for a writer to go into detail about how
the next war would consume all life and trigger the end of the world. Everyone
knew. Philip K. Dick, who was sixteen when the bomb was dropped on
Hiroshima, argued in 1955 that “all responsible writers, to some degree, have
become involuntary criers of doom, because doom is in the wind. . . . Make the
ruined world of ash a premise: state it in paragraph one and get it over with” he
admonished his fellow science-fiction writers (quoted in Disch 88). Albert
Einstein had famously predicted back in 1947 that should a nuclear war occur
“little civilisation would survive.” Three years later in a televised speech on
NBC, he amplified his prediction to include all life: “radioactive poisoning of
the atmosphere and hence annihilation of any life on earth has been brought
within the range of technical possibilities.” Popular science placed atomic war
well up on the list of the ways in which the world could end. So did the public.
In a story titled, “The Last Night of the World,” Bradbury, for instance, saw no
need even to mention the immediate cause of the world’s demise. Similarly, in
“The Fox and the Forest” an ordinary couple, escaping from their horrendous
future, about 200 years from the time of the story’s composition, to the past via
time travel, attempts to remain there rather than return. Pursued and finally
cornered, the man is told he must go back to his present because he “is the
keystone to a new bomb metal” that is urgently needed to win whatever war is
now occupying centre stage in the year 2152. That war, being waged with
“super-plus hydrogen bombs,” appears well lost by way of the nation’s
devastated economy, depleted natural resources, and human diabolical, suicidal
86 Chapter Five

ingenuity—a scenario now far too familiar from extrapolated twenty-first


century studies, such as The Living Planet Report 2004.8
What may well be the definitive Bradbury story about the end of humanity
by way of atomic incineration and radiation, “There Will Come Soft Rains”
appeared in 1950 and was also collected in The Martian Chronicles.9 In “There
Will Come Soft Rains” an orphaned robotic house of the future maniacally
makes breakfast, cleans the floors, washes the dishes, airs the rooms day after
day for its absent family. “The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes.
This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a
radioactive glow which could be seen for miles” (249). The family occupying
the house, vaporised in an atomic blast, left behind only their shadows etched
into the garden wall “burned on wood in one titanic instant” (249)— Bradbury’s
clear reference to similar shadows caused by the Hiroshima blast. That inferno
unleashed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs echoes and re-echoes
throughout the fiction of the 1950s so much that when David Pringle selected
the novels from the 1950s for Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels seven of the
thirty are “directly concerned with nuclear war, its prevention or its aftermath,
while another eight are legitimate offspring of the bomb” (Disch 83). That is,
fully one-half of Pringle’s choice novels from the 1950s focused on the bomb
blast or its effects. All fifteen novels illustrate how the promise of technology
becomes continually betrayed by humanity’s immaturity. As Ralph Waldo
Emerson so cogently observed “society never advances” (279).
Going to the movies in the 1950s, a favourite past time during those infant
years of television, exposed people not so much to the threat of the “annihilation
of . . . life on earth” as Einstein predicted as it did to strange mutant creatures
created by “radioactive poisoning.” One of the period’s most convincing
science-fiction films, Them! was a splendidly realised monster movie with quite
convincing giant ants as the mutant enemy created from atomic testing in New
Mexico. But more immediate still were all the films depicting the nuclear
holocaust itself—sometimes obliquely dealt with as in the wonderfully realised
When Worlds Collide but other times confronted directly as in the signature film
of the 1950s On the Beach. Based upon Neville Shute’s best selling novel this
“top-grossing movie describes the breakdown of society in the aftermath of an
atomic war as survivors wait for radioactive fallout to engulf them” (McCurdy
71). Dr Strangelove (1963) lay ahead only a few years in the future.
Given this Doom’s Day popular culture, especially science fiction’s
mirroring the unending political discussions of the immediate prospects for
atomic annihilation and the practical measures to be taken, such as the backyard
bomb shelter, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to realise that there was close
to equal time devoted to speculating about the myriad possible peaceful uses of
atomic energy. Atomic-fired generating plants promised a cornucopia of free
Anatomy of Science Fiction 87

electricity and unlimited new gadgets for the home, office, and cityscape. Some
of these featured prominently in science fiction, such as the individual rocket
pack powered by a small nuclear fuel cell that would allow a person to fly
anywhere at low cost with maximum safety and efficiency. But others were the
dream of entrepreneurs, such as the nuclear-powered vacuum cleaner that
promised to remove the drudgery from cleaning as well as dirt from carpets. The
president of the Levy Vacuum Cleaner Company predicted that by the 1960s:
most homes would be cleaned by an atomic-powered vacuum cleaner.10 Nor was
he alone in his enthusiasm. Billboards in New England had the power
company’s logo Ready Kilowatt touting the advantages of cheap electricity
generated from atomic power. The high point of this farrago occurred not in
some pulp science-fiction magazine but in a congressional hearing on 16
September 1954. On that day, Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the United States
Atomic Energy Commission, testified before the United States Congress to the
effect that “Atomic energy will create electricity so cheap that the power
industry would not have to meter it” (paraphrased by Howard E. McCurdy 241).
That same Atomic Energy Commission published a handbook for high school
students on the promise of a future with unlimited atomic energy that would
include “a plastic car powered by an atomic engine” (Boyer 298 quoted in Disch
79).11 These wildly enthusiastic and utterly unfounded predictions, while
perhaps extreme, are, nevertheless, quite typical of the times. Perhaps they were
simply seen as part of a progressive civilising of America that included Rural
Electrification encompassing most famously the Tennessee Valley Authority,
that had just come into being before the war.12 The important distinction
remains, however, that all of these predictions were made not by science-fiction
authors and not by starry-eyed, impractical academics inhabiting their Ivory
Towers but by so-called “knowledgeable people”—those business people who
famously “had to meet a payroll.” Three decades later, theirs would become the
road that led not to the Emerald City of the Wizard of Oz and a better life for all
through atomic energy but to Chernobyl with its attendant radiation poisoning,
Three Mile Island and its fallout, and threats of worse to come in brief cases
delivered from countries scattered around the world. But in the 1950s the future
of atomic energy looked bright indeed, if only those pesky Russians hadn’t
stolen the plans for making the Bomb and then somehow managed to cobble one
together in September 1949.
This belief in a brilliant future powered by atomic energy featured in 1950s
science fiction, but unlike those end-of-the-world films, novels, and stories that
accurately reflect that decade’s preoccupation with an apocalyptic vision of all
life wiped out—with the possible exception of the cockroaches—those novels
dealing with the promise of atomic power rested on a belief that the atom could
be “tamed” and that, although humanity would face its greatest test in this
88 Chapter Five

taming, it could and would be done. One popular science-fiction novel that
questioned this assumption, Pat Frank’s Mr. Adam, appeared as a seemingly
light-hearted satire on the time’s preoccupation with the Faustian bargain
involved in unleashing the atom. Mr. Adam first published in 1946 immediately
after the war went through thirteen printings, appeared in a special Armed
Services edition in 1947 and was one of the first paperback books to appear in a
Pocket Book edition in 1948. By 1955 it had gone through eight printings and
would continue to be popular for most of the 1950s.13 And Pat Frank’s novel
was popular—unabashedly so as announced in its opening paragraph by its
breezy first person reportorial style:

I suppose it is up to me to tell the story in its entirety, because I broke it in the


first place, and I lived with it from then on, and I grew to know Mr. Adam. My
name is Stephen Decatur Smith, and before I got involved in the most important
story in the world I was a feature writer on the New York staff of AP. (1)

So far we could be reading any one of several dozen well-structured,


eminently forgettable popular novels. What distinguishes Frank’s work, besides
its basic fantastic premise and its good-natured comedy, is its modest attempt at
satire that often succeeds but occasionally fails when devolving into mere
caricature. Frank satirises corporate greed, bureaucratic inefficiency, the battle
of the sexes, male self-importance, American Exceptionalism, the Cold War, and
good old-fashioned human myopia, greed, and pride. The most important news
story in the world begins when a reporter accidentally discovers that his local
maternity hospital has no reservations beyond June of the novel’s unnamed post-
war near-future year. Following this lead, he further ascertains that no maternity
hospital anywhere in the USA nor—as he discovers later—anywhere else in the
world has any reservations beyond June. Maternity hospitals, it appears, are
going out of business. Being a bright reporter he links this phenomenon with a
recent explosion at “[t]he great new nuclear fission plants at Bohrville,
Mississippi. These plants disintegrated in an explosion that made Nagasaki and
Hiroshima mere cap pistols by comparison” (13). The blast extirpated the state
of Mississippi “but nobody really missed Mississippi, and anyway Mississippi
was the most backward of states. People felt that if any one of the forty-eight
states had to be sacrificed, it was just as well that it happened to Mississippi”
(14). Fair enough. The resulting world-wide radiation and gamma ray fallout,
however, has the unfortunate effect of sterilising all human males in the world—
except for one. Mr. Homer Adam just happened to be inspecting a lead mine one
mile below the earth’s crust and thereby escaped sterilisation much as Billy
Pilgrim will escape annihilation by being three stories below ground in Dresden
when it is fire-bombed. Homer alone of all the world’s males remains fertile—
unless the rumour could be true of two fertile Russian males in Outer Mongolia.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 89

Quickly the United States Congress votes him the status of a Unique National
Resource and sets about the tricky business of trying to figure out how to use
him.
Homer, the archetypal bumbling gangly male—a country-boy with no
pretensions—finds himself not only at the centre of controversy but also the
object of world-wide concern. His daily temperature, psychological state,
everything about him are subjects of curiosity, wonder, and, of course,
newsgathering. One radio station attempts to capitalise on the situation through
its catchy new and highly relevant signature jingle:

For all the news of sterilisation,


Please stay tuned to this station.

Mr. Adam’s science-fiction premise serves well both its comedy and satire.
The novel’s conclusion—every bit as fantastic as its beginning—occurs when
Homer escapes his role as national treasure through opting for self-sterilisation.
(“For all the news of sterilisation, / Please stay tuned to this station.”) As a light-
hearted comedy and, commercially, hugely successful book—it did, after all, go
through more than twenty-five printings in more than six editions within only
four years—Mr. Adam must not end on a bleak note involving the end of the
human race, but on a happier one. Within a few pages all significant threats to
the social and political order vanish, all males return to potency, and maternity
wards around the world become booked solid for the foreseeable future as the
effects of the gamma rays simply, mysteriously wear off.14
Both Frank’s and Bradbury’s populist post-war science fiction provide a
welcome distraction from the unthinkable, while answering “a relatively
temporary and transient need of the public imagination” (Gifford n.p.) As the
cultural critic Don Gifford noted, such works deserve attention but attention
different from that given to “serious” literature—a useful distinction often
omitted in contemporary theoretical discussion. When encountering such
popular works he argues that

the question that faces the . . . [reader] is not: “What does this novel . . . say and
how does it say it? But, to what sort of imagination is this novel . . . addressed?”
From one perspective the answers to these questions lead toward cultural history,
but from a slightly different perspective they lead back toward “serious” literature
because popular literature not only satisfies some need of the public imagination,
it also establishes and nourishes various vocabularies of word, image, story and
preoccupation, and those vocabularies, either directly or by osmosis, then become
available to the serious writer.

Frank’s concluding sequence provides an immediate illustration of Gifford’s


distinction between those questions to be asked of popular as opposed to serious
90 Chapter Five

fiction. To ask Gifford’s first question “What does this novel . . . say and how
does it say it?” would be obviously neither useful nor fair, since Mr. Adam’s
value resides in its reflection of the post-war popular imagination. Gifford’s
second question proves both relevant and eminently useful as I hope this essay
demonstrates; that is, “to what sort of imagination is this novel . . . addressed?”
One immediate answer is to an imagination nourished on atomic apocalypse. As
for the “vocabularies of word, image, story and preoccupation” nourished by
both Pat Frank and Ray Bradbury these would, in turn, be utilised by a
generation of serious science-fiction writers headed by such as Kurt Vonnegut
and Judith Merril. Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle (1963) would meet head-on the
possibility of human myopia annihilating “any life on earth.” His mordant
humour in Cat’s Cradle might best be described as a kind of nervous laughter or
gallows humour caused by having to live with The Bomb for almost 20 years.
Merril’s much anthologised story, “That only a Mother” (1948) originally
published in Astounding Science Fiction, one of the most popular post-war
science-fiction magazines, confronts unflinchingly not the possibility of giant
ants being created from atomic fallout but of mutant human beings with
“sinuous limbless bod[ies]” being born to loving, if horrified parents (19). Both
Vonnegut and Merril would find a new audience late in the twentieth- and early
in the twenty-first centuries, as readers once again had to face the terrible
possibility of nuclear conflagration.
If history does indeed repeat itself, but repeats itself as farce, then we, living
in this new century, have much to learn from the 1950s’ frivolous optimism that
envisioned the nuclear-powered vacuum cleaner and cheap unmetered electricity
derived from atomic power as well as from the 1950s’ sober warnings that
pictured vividly nuclear annihilation and mutation. But perhaps in these days
dominated by human hubris, pretension, and—worst of all—human moral
certainty of doing right and good, we might somehow learn from the 1950s’
imagination reflected in the omnipresent apocalyptic warnings to be found in
popular science-fiction stories of Ray Bradbury and the light-hearted science-
fiction novel, Mr. Adam by Pat Frank. The technological triumph in the robotic
house proves hollow if the household evaporates. Perhaps “nobody really missed
Mississippi” when it evaporated, but that explosion and its resulting world-wide
radiation and gamma ray fallout sterilising the world’s human males remains a
science fictional-humorous yet deeply serious warning against pushing the
plunger in our hand that will detonate the bomb that will blow up our very
insides:

For all the news of sterilisation,


Please stay tuned to this station.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 91

Notes
1
For an account of the promises made for atomic energy, see, among others, Richard
Stephen, et al. Harold Bloom thoroughly documents his assertion that “America . . . is
inevitably the most millenarian of all nations even though so far it has avoided the two
extremes of modern millenarianism, fascism and Marxist-Leninism” (155). For a
discussion of American millenarianism as background for 20th-21st-century escapist
literature, see Morse, “The End of the World,” especially 33-34 and 41-43.
2
Howard McCurdy summarises “Rocket Blitz from the Moon: “The article opened
with an illustration of two V-2 shaped rockets rising out of lunar craters with a dome-
shaped control centre in the background. On an adjoining page, two large fireballs spread
across an aerial view of New York City. The nuclear blasts, drawn with stark realism by
space artist Chesley Bonestell, were part of a larger literature portraying the effects of
nuclear war on the United States. Once again, Collier’s assured readers that the Moon
‘could be the world’s ideal military base’” (64).
3
Crucial decisions made by at least two American presidents may have been highly
influenced by their reading of science fiction. H. Bruce Franklin discusses in various
essays and books, perhaps most explicitly in War Stars (1988), how Harry S Truman’s
decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan may have come about because of his
reading of science fiction. (A significant edited excerpt appears in Franklin, “Greatest
Fantasy.”) István Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. maintains that “Franklin argued . . . that sf [science
fiction] had been a major inspiration, indeed an imaginative engine, for the development
of super-weapons of mass destruction” (117). Kathryn Cramer claims that the Strategic
Defence Initiative under President Reagan came about, at least in part, because of the
intervention of science-fiction writers. “Science-fiction writers helped the rocket
scientists elucidate their vision and put it together in prose that Ronald Reagan could
understand and Reagan, who read science fiction [bought it]” (192-93). SDI may well be
bad science but part of the science-fiction community has often had a fascination with
bad science as reflected in the 1950s interest in dream and teletransportaion, Dean and
dianetics, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that some contemporary science-
fiction writers venture where responsible scientists fear to tread.
4
Thomas Disch mentions the cartoon with Burt the Turtle (78). For the best
documentary on this drill and assorted madness, see the film The Atomic Café (1982).
5
I am indebted to the late Robert Creeley for corroborating my memory and recalling
the name of this air raid shelter kit.
6
The vast majority of these science-fiction novels and stories dealt with atomic war
and/or its aftermath. For an extensive listing and annotation of over eight hundred of
these fictional accounts published between 1895 and 1984, see Paul Brians, Nuclear
Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984.
7
Stephen E. Kagel quite rightly places Bradbury’s stories along side those of Herman
Melville and Stephen King rather than those of more hard science-fiction writers because
“Bradbury’s speculative fiction . . . is not science fiction but science fantasy, a form that
lies between science fiction and fantasy” (284). But Bradbury’s immediate post-war
audience reading the slick magazines labelled his stories—when they labelled them at
all—as science fiction whether those stories involved deep sea dinosaur-like monsters,
children manipulating sentient television, or robotic houses in a post-nuclear holocaust.
92 Chapter Five

8
The Living Planet Report, for instance, extrapolates from current population and
resource utilisation that by 2050 “when the population is expected to be around nine
billion, human beings will be using—if they can be found—nearly two planet’s worth of
resources” (findings summarised by Flannery 26).
9
The story’s title and the Bradbury collection in which it appears, remain so well
known, so closely identified with one another and Bradbury’s imagined Mars, that more
than fifty years later a Scientific American essay on “The Many Faces of Mars” published
in 2005 could use the story’s title as a sub-head for a section discussing water on Mars
with no further reference or explanation (Christensen 27). Bradbury’s own story credits
Sara Teasdale’s poem as the source of the title. The poem’s subtitle “(War Time)” is also
apt as are the lines quoted. Jorge Luis Borges “[i]ntroducing a Spanish translation of The
Martian Chronicles in 1954,” asked: “After closing the pages of the book, I wonder what
this man from Illinois has done for his episodes about the conquest of another planet fill
me with such terror and solitude. How can these fantasies touch me, and in such an
intimate manner?” Borges answers his question by postulating that Bradbury recorded
“his American tedium, his solitude” (“Borges on Mars.” Trans. Andrés Vaccari. Abaddon
1 [1998]: 31. Quoted in Damien Broderick who “modified” the translation172).
10
While such predictions may strike a contemporary reader as patently absurd, which
they are, they are surely no more absurd than those of the 1980s that envisioned “a $2-
billion home robot market by 1990” (Musser 72). George Musser recalls that “Heathkit’s
famous Hero I robot kit came out in 1982, not long after the original IBM PC.
Entrepreneur magazine predicted a $2-billion home robot market by 1990. Today the
original PC is a museum piece, and Hero I is still the state of the art” (72). Technological
extrapolation from basic scientific research whether in science-fiction novels or public
pronouncements often proves wildly erroneous.
11
Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the
Dawn of the Atomic Age remains the single best source of information about the promises
and drawbacks of atomic energy as seen in the 1950s.
12
For the most fulsome hymn of praise for TVA see David E. Lilienthal TVA:
Democracy on the March (1944). Lilienthal became a director of the Tennessee Valley
Authority in 1933, its Chairman in 1941, and clearly its most effective spokesperson.
13
Pat Frank’s success in the late 1940s appears all the more impressive when viewed
against the background of the post-war recovery years, since his novel was one of the first
to be published as paper rationing was being phased out. To have more than twenty-five
printings in more than six editions within four years is notable in itself. But the novel was
also chosen for distribution in an Armed Services edition (1947) and then Pocket Books
reprinted it as an early paperback book beginning in 1948 and continuing through the
1950s. While we now take the paperback book for granted as the most widely distributed
form of book publishing, paperbacks in the United States had come to life during the war
as a way of providing reading for soldiers overseas. After World War II the paperback
made its commercial appearance and quickly brought books, such as Mr. Adam within the
budget of the young who, in turn, became a huge, new, untapped market. For an extensive
analysis of the American mass-market paperback book, see Gary Wolfe, especially 11-12.
14
The conspiratorial ending, where Homer is kidnapped by do-gooders, appears as a
deus ex-machina solution to a problem in the plot rather than the inevitable conclusion to
Anatomy of Science Fiction 93

events given in the novel. (Contrast, for instance, the bleakly inevitable ending of
Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.)

Works Cited
Bloom, Harold. Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and
Resurrection. New York: Riverhead, 1996.
Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the
Dawn of the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Bradbury, Ray. The Illustrated Man. New York: Bantam, 1951.
———. The Martian Chronicles. 1950. Reprt. New York: Avon, 1997.
Brians, Paul. Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984. Kent, OH:
Kent State University Press, 1987.
Broderick, Damien. Transrealist Fiction: Writing in the Slipstream of Science.
Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Christensen, Philip R. “The Many Faces of Mars.” Scientific American July
2005: 22-29.
Cramer, Kathryn. “Hard Science Fiction.” Cambridge Companion to Science
Fiction. Ed. Edwards James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003. 186-96.
Disch, Thomas M. The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of: How Science Fiction
Conquered the World. 1998. New York: Touchstone, 2000.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays &
Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983. 257-82.
Flannery, Tim. “Endgame.” Review of six environmental studies. New York
Review 11 August 2005: 26-29.
Frank, Pat. Mr. Adam. 1947. New York: Pocket Books, 1955.
Franklin, H. Bruce. “The Greatest Fantasy on Earth: The Superweapon in
Fiction and Fact.” In Morse, Tymn, and Bertha. 23-37.
———. War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Gifford, Don. “Popular and Critical Taste.” Unpub.
Kagle, Steven E. “Homage to Melville: Ray Bradbury and the Nineteenth-
Century American Romance.” In Morse, Tymn, and Bertha. 279-89.
Lilienthal, David E. TVA: Democracy on the March. Overseas Editions. New
York: Harper, 1944.
McCurdy, Howard E. Space and the American Imagination. Washington:
Smithsonian, 1997.
Merril, Judith. “That only a Mother.” Astounding Science Fiction (June 1948).
Homecalling and Other Stories. Ed. Elisabeth Carey. Framingham, MA:
NESFA Press, 2005. 11-19.
94 Chapter Five

Morse, Donald E. “The End of the World in American History and Fantasy: The
Trumpet of the Last Judgement.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 13: 33-
46.
Morse, Donald E., Marshall B. Tymn, and Csilla Bertha, ed. The Celebration of
the Fantastic. Westport: Greenwood, 1992.
Musser, George. “Robots that Suck: Have They Finally Come Out with a Robot
for the Rest of Us?” Scientific American February 2003: 72-73.
Stephen, Richard, C. Bell, and Rory O’Connor. Nukespeak: The Selling of
Nuclear Technology in America. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1982.
Teasdale, Sara. “There Will Come Soft Rains”. Flame and Shadow.
http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/teasd03.html#55 9/19/2005 6.49PM.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Dell, 1963.
Wolfe, Gary K. “Evaporating Genre: Strategies of Dissolution in the Post-
modern Fantastic.” Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and
Contemporary Cultural Transformation. Ed. Veronica Hollinger and Joan
Gordon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 11-29.
CHAPTER SIX

OCTAVIA BUTLER’S MATERNAL CYBORGS: THE


BLACK FEMALE WORLD OF THE XENOGENESIS
TRILOGY

ÉVA FEDERMAYER

Since its pulp origins, American science fiction has been generally assumed to be a
white and masculine domain with regards to its thematics and readership.
Originally designed as escapist fiction for boys and young men, stories of
adventure, gadgetry, and scientific ideas were, by design, devoid of female
characters, let alone female protagonists.1 The male characters epitomised nothing
less than the “generic human” desire to know and explore, so the dazzling
adventures of male heroes such as Captain Nemo or Captain Kirk came to be
synonymous with humanity’s steady advance to conquer new underwater and
spatial frontiers. As Pamela Sargent observed in her introduction to Women of
Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by Women About Women: before feminist utopias
and feminist science fiction, “The use of sex in science fiction . . . seemed to mean
only one thing: the role of woman as sex object could be added to the traditional
ones of housewife, child-raiser, damsel in distress and scientist’s daughter” (xiii).
The absence of (strong) female characters in traditional science fiction was
commensurate with the general state of culture and literature as diagnosed by
Joanna Russ in 1971, claiming that “[c]ulture is male. Our literary myths are for
heroes, not heroines” (81). Consequently, when seeking to find the heroine’s
place, “we come to the one occupation of a female protagonist in literature, the one
thing she can do and, by God, she does it and does it and does it, over and over and
over again. She is the protagonist of a Love Story” (Russ 84).
(White) Feminist inroads into the masculinised domain of science and
technology made by Monique Wittig, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Marge
Piercy, Pamela Sargent, Vonda McIntyre, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Alice
Sheldon have since the 1970s radically changed the thematic and gender
dynamics of traditional science fiction by simultaneously applying two codes,
that of hard (masculinist) science fiction and “soft” (feminine) romance fiction.
96 Chapter Six

These “doubly coded” novels of feminist science fiction, as Linda Hutcheon


calls them (142), came to challenge not only the “dominant representations of
gender, but they have also stretched the limits and definitions of the genre”
(Wolmark 231), so the protagonist and the interpellated reader of science fiction
could no longer be automatically regarded as the definitional young man.2
Indeed, it was feminist science fiction along with cyberpunk fiction3 that made a
significant contribution to the renewal of science fiction.4

The Alternative Vision of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis


Xenogenesis is one of the most exciting examples of recent experiments with
the genre. Butler’s trilogy offers a powerful feminist revision of the science
fiction that is inspired by communications technology and biotechnology. Dawn
(1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989) are Butler’s fictional response
to militant Reaganite politics and are a black female fantasy of cyborg
alternatives. My discussion will focus on the maternal dimension of Butler’s
trilogy, stressing that the life-crazy alien world, that of the Oankali, which
interfaces with the human world, is far from being the representation of a
feminist utopia with nurturing mothers or a benevolent matriarchal community.
Indeed, Butler’s protagonists, the African-American woman and her two mutant
children, are engaged in an apparently dreadful genetic trading between
extraterrestrials and Humans, which makes these traders despicable traitors as
well as committed saviours of the earth.
Octavia Butler (1947-2006) broke habits of expectations as an African-
American woman by making science-fiction writing her career. In an interview
conducted by Larry McCaffery and Jim McMenamin, she acknowledges with
the black science-fiction writer Samuel Delany the hardships she faced as a
young black woman who set her mind on creating science-fiction stories of her
own. She points to the lack of black science-fiction readership and the absence
of black science-fiction writers. In her first attempts in the genre, she soon found
herself trapped in the type of science fiction that white male writers were writing
about male heroes: “The short stories I submitted for publication when I was
thirteen had nothing to do with anything I cared about. I wrote the kind of thing I
saw being published—stories about thirty-year-old white men who drank and
smoked too much. They were pretty awful” (McCaffery 57). Like Joanna Russ,
Butler also felt, what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar call, the “anxiety of
authorship,” a tremendous unease to write as a woman and like a woman to a
women’s audience:

And a slightly different problem was that everything I read that was intended for
women seemed boring as hell—basically, “Finding Mr. Right”: marriage, family,
and that’s the end of that. I didn’t know how to write about women doing
Anatomy of Science Fiction 97

anything because while they were waiting for Mr. Right they weren’t doing
anything, they were just waiting to be done unto. Since I didn’t know what else to
do, in the early Patternist stories I more or less copied the boys’ books.
(McCaffery 57-58)

An avid reader of science fiction and anthropology, she felt encouraged by


feminist science fiction in the 1970s, and as a result her fiction took a different
course. Like her earlier Patternist books—Wild Seed (1970), Mind of My Mind
(1977), Survivor (1978), Patternmaster (1976), Clay’s Ark (1984)—the
Xenogenesis trilogy demonstrates her deep concern with multiracial
communities in which black women, people of mixed descent, cyborgs and
constructs play a significant part. Most evidently present in Kindred (1979),
slavery as the par excellence form of domination and exploitation often figures
in her narratives, including her trilogy, which ultimately interrogate discourses
of hegemony, domination, and survival. Her later novels, Parable of the Sower
(1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) demonstrate her keen interest in
anthropology; the two books belong together and constitute the fictional
biography of a person who begins a new religion. Given these investments in
feminist re-imagining of science fiction, Butler has been seen by critics as being
specifically focused on “Black women mentors” and mothers (Shinn 204). These
are designated in her works “as the civilising force in human society—the ones
who teach both men and children compassion and empathy” (Allison 473). Far
from eliciting unequivocal enthusiasm among feminist critics, Butler’s women
are criticised by Dorothy Allison among others:

I love Octavia Butler’s women even when they make me want to scream with
frustration. The problem is not their feminism; her characters are always
independent, stubborn, difficult, and insistent on trying to control their own lives.
What drives me crazy is their attitude: the decisions they make, the things they do
in order to protect and nurture their children—and the assumption that children
and family always come first. (471)

I tend to agree with Allison’s reservations and accept her argument that the
circumstances of Butler’s life have shaped her fiction. (After her father’s death
she was raised by her mother and nurtured by the stories of her maternal
grandmother, who herself was an amazingly tough woman raising seven
children alone.5) But I would further suggest that Butler’s maternal inspirations
have provided a much more complicated and controversial configuration of
(black) motherhood. This assumption bolsters my claim that the Xenogenesis
books, and Dawn in particular, are an impressive rewriting of “humanity” in
relation to planetary constructs and a subversive inscription of female space in
relation to cybernetic universes.
98 Chapter Six

The immediate inspiration of her trilogy was, curiously, Ronald Reagan. Her
science-fiction problematics sprang from, what Jean Pfaelzer called, a “radical
inadequacy of the present,” and showed deep concern with the conservative
American political climate of the 1980s (qtd. in Fitting 32). Butler reveals that
when

Reagan’s first term was beginning, his people were talking about a “winnable”
nuclear war, a “limited” nuclear war, the idea that more and more nuclear
“weapons” would make us safer. That’s when I began to think about human
beings having the two conflicting characteristics of intelligence and a tendency
toward hierarchical behaviour—and that hierarchical behaviour is too much in
charge, too self-sustaining. (McCaffery 67)

This oppositional stance of the “resisting reader” to mindless belligerence and


xenophobia configures Xenogenesis, which narrates the interfacing of humans
with the gene-trading aliens, called the Oankali, after a global nuclear
catastrophe.
Dawn the first book of the trilogy plays out the Bildungsroman of Lilith
Iyapo. The narrative revolves around the changing of this young African
American woman from an ordinary middle-class Human woman into a
“cyborg.” The extraterrestrial Oankali and their genetic engineers, the ooloi,
accomplish this by augmenting her body, causing her to acquire enhanced
physical and sensory capabilities that allow her to become a bridge between
Humans and Oankali. She is also trained to “awaken” Humans previously
rescued by the Oankali from the dying earth after a nuclear catastrophe and to
prepare them for resettling the ravaged earth. But the Oankali are far from being
philanthropic: they offer Humans a second chance to start life on earth only on
condition that Humans engage in trading with them. What this trading involves
is nothing less than mating with them to breed Oankali-Human mutants, thus
securing the genetic enrichment and hence the survival of both species. The gene
trade is thus a matter of life or death for both the Oankali and the Humans as
“miscegenation” is the only available way for either species to survive. Yet, the
bargain does not seem fair for Humans because it is obviously the Oankali who
decide the rules of the game: if the Humans refuse to trade with them, they are
destined to die out, barren, on a lethally polluted globe. The novel, in short, is a
lucid and penetrating feminist exploration of how Humans react to otherness
even under the most adverse conditions and how some of them try to cope with
the aliens by gradually alienating themselves from what they have long regarded
as their “natural” human traits.
Adulthood Rites is the continuation of Lilith’s life in one of her mutant
offspring. Though she is still alive and active, her role is less significant than
Akin’s, who is a Human-born construct. Lilith gave him the name Akin, which
Anatomy of Science Fiction 99

means “hero” in the West-African language of Yoruba and which becomes


descriptive of his evolving life dedicated from early childhood to Humans as
well as the Oankali. Adulthood Rites proves another Bildungsroman that
somewhat repeats the main structure of Dawn: Akin’s development from a child
to an adult merges with the history of Humans, who are to be rescued again from
another self-induced Human catastrophe.
The last book of the trilogy Imago revolves around Jodahs’s life, who is
Lilith’s (and four other parents’) Human-born construct child. The child turns
out to be a “genetic accident”: its constitution is unparalleled among all three
species, the Humans, the Oankali, and the constructs. As Lilith and Akin before,
its primary mission is to learn and teach among the Humans: to access and store
information about variations in the Human genetic material as well as the
“software” of Human civilisation, and to teach Humans particular ways of living
and thinking that will enable them to survive and live in peace.

Black Woman and Cyborg Existence


Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis elaborates on a world in conflict in post-
catastrophe times to challenge boundaries of self and other, human and
alien/“monster,” man and woman, mind and body, intellect and instinct,
production and reproduction, human body and machine, organic and
artificial/constructed, real and simulated, individual and community, mastery
and slavery, domination and submission—the familiar binaries of
phallogocentric Western culture. The structuring trope of her narratives that
facilitates an imaginative reworking of such a complex thematics is the cyborg
(cybernetic organism). That cyborg in turn becomes a metaphor of difference,
contradiction, and permeable boundaries such as first conceptualised by Donna
Haraway as a “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as
well as a creature of fiction” (149). Conceived as a figure of post-modern
subjectivity that takes “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” (150), cyborg
identity also has political signification in Haraway’s rendering as “coalitional
identity” and as “cyborg feminist,” a term which refuses the essentialising
tendencies of a “natural matrix of unity” (157). Further elucidating her concept
of the cyborg, she also points out that “the cyborg as an ‘ironic myth’ for
feminists depends upon taking the cyborg as ‘definitely female,’ as ‘a girl who is
trying not to become Woman,’ the identity women have been forced to signify”
(qtd. in Foster 212).
Lilith Iyapo, Butler’s female protagonist in Dawn, is just such a cyborg so
she is more of a hybrid woman than William Gibson’s Molly in “Johnny
Mnemonic” (1985), Neuromancer (1984), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) with
a highly augmented, “wired” body, complete with implants. However enhanced
100 Chapter Six

Molly’s cyber body seems to be, it still belongs to a Woman, a former prostitute,
and the complementary other by whom Case, the “console cowboy” defines his
masculinity. On the other hand, as if jacked into a computer, Lilith’s limited
human potentials are improved by her ooloi, Nikanjs’s sensory arms (called
tentacles by Lilith and other Humans) that connect her to its memory. This
causes her “genetic map” to be radically changed. For example, her cancer is
healed, her body is strengthened with huge muscles, and her memory is
expanded. Endowed with superhuman capabilities, she can open walls, raise
“platforms” from the “flesh” of the organic shuttle, cope with Human violence
and brutality, as well as function as a trainer and leader of a group of Humans
ready to resettle the ravaged earth. Small wonder then that her genetically mixed
identity, displaying traditional masculine and feminine features, arouses
indignation, even disgust in the awakened Humans, including women, who, at
one point, call her a sexless monster.
Lilith’s traditional feminine identity thus dislocated to ordinary Human eyes
is, however, not represented as androgynous like the fictional heroes, the
Gethenians, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s feminist science fiction, The Left Hand of
Darkness (1969). From a “mid-region perspective” (that I will later expound)
she is a woman, but of the type who seeks to negotiate her femininity around
existing boundaries.6 This somewhat recalls the powerful image of Sojourner
Truth, the African American abolitionist, who, at the 1851 Women’s Rights
Convention in Akron, Ohio, famously addressed her audience, asking, “Ar’n’t I
a Woman?” while pointing to her huge body and telling the story of her life as a
mother and a slave.
In this sense the gender politics of Butler’s trilogy runs a dramatically
different course from that of cyberpunk, including Gibson’s works. While it is
the masculine console cowboy or matrix hacker, the epitome of celebrated
American individualism and ingenuity, who is the hero of cyberpunk, in Butler’s
trilogy it is a black woman whose active female agency decides on the course of
events. Her crossing of boundaries literally involves her as a “sturdy black
bridge” between two species: the Humans and the Oankali not only in her
capacity as a negotiator but also as a mother of constructs who, in a way, will
carry on her work.7
Akin, her child and the protagonist of Adulthood Rites is a Human-born
construct, whose Human looks hide his superhuman Oankali capabilities that are
greater than Lilith’s. As a hero of double genealogy and a hybrid with malleable
gender identity until metamorphosis, Akin has been genetically encoded by
its/his five parents (Lilith, the black Human female, Joseph, the Asian Human
male, Ahajas, the Oankali female, Dichaan, the Oankali male, and Nikanj, the
neuter ooloi) to link “races”; that is, the Humans and the tentacled, grey-skinned,
four-armed extraterrestrials. This cyborg baby with a Yoruba name (which, in
Anatomy of Science Fiction 101

English, also suggests “a kin to Humans/Oankali”) is born in “Lo,” which is the


organically grown shuttle/plant/animal-world of the Dinso Oankali (who have
chosen to trade and live with co-operating Humans) anchored to earth. Shortly
after its/his birth it/he is kidnapped by raiders and sold to prospective Human
parents, Tate and Gabriel (awakened by Lilith in Dawn), who are living as
resisters in Phoenix. Though besieged by raiders (those Humans who refused to
co-operate even with Humans and sank into savagery) and their own desperation
caused by infertility and lethal diseases, the Humans in Phoenix abhor the gene-
trading aliens for their “unnatural” looks and demands. They also hold out the
unfounded hope of defeating and finally exterminating the aliens and by some
miracle, regaining their reproductive capacity.
Akin’s cyborg capabilities to function as a Human as well as an Oankali
prove to be crucial for the Humans as he leads them to board a shuttle for Mars.
Their only chance of survival is to escape from the rampant chaos in Phoenix,
which has been scorched by the remaining Humans. Akin is then a male cyborg
of mixed origins whose appearance and whose devotion to Humans link him to
Humans, while his augmented body, mind, and sensory organs inherited from
Oankali parents ensures his kinship with the aliens.
Jodahs, Lilith’s other construct child (the protagonist of Imago) embodies not
only the genetic codes of “ordinary” constructs such as Akin, but also
unpredictable gene combinations which even the Akjai Oankali (who live in
Chkahichdahk, the ship for scientific experiments, information storage, and data
processing) find threatening. This cyborg baffles cyborgs themselves by being
the first Human-born construct to display ooloi characteristics. Having inherited
Nikanj’s neuter gender, Jodahs’s life is aggravated by multiple identity: double
metamorphosis (as opposed to Akin’s single metamorphosis at the crossroads of
childhood and adulthood) and permeable body boundaries make him a kind of
shape-shifter. It is only bonding with Humans (thus also carrying on Lilith’s
mission), most specifically with prospective Human mates that can save Jodahs,
and ultimately the Spanish-speaking resisters who are discovered living in
isolation high in the mountains. These Humans are capable of reproduction even
after the nuclear catastrophe, but their progeny are afflicted by physical and
mental mutations. Even if they are born apparently healthy, most of them soon
develop lethal tumours. The weird mixture of terror combined with the hope that
they might manage alone, free from Oankali intervention consequently shapes
their society.
Jodahs is endowed with the extraordinary intelligence and superhuman
physical capacities that Akin has, but its genetic configuration (similar to its
“bonded sibling’s,” Aaor’s) makes its relationship with Humans more painful
and risky. Yet, the book concludes with Jodahs’ growing a town for co-operating
102 Chapter Six

Humans from a seed, which will eventually be the seat of a new breed, perhaps
this time devoid of violence, domination, and self-destructive tendencies.
The utopian thrust of Butler’s trilogy, then, crucially depends on cyborg
identities and Cupertino with aliens. Self and other, Human and Oankali, man
and woman in these books are not arranged along binaries where the first term is
hierarchically defined at the expense of the other. All set within the frame of a
patriarchal story that “begins with original innocence and privileges the return to
wholeness, imagines the drama of life to be individuation, separation, the birth
of the self, the tragedy of autonomy, the fall into writing, alienation” (Haraway
177). In this regard, the vision of the Xenogenesis trilogy differs radically from
that of Gibson’s trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero 1987, Mona Lisa
Overdrive), which reproduces and reasserts dualistic categories. These dualities
include body (that Case calls with a certain relaxed contempt “meat”) and mind;
masculine matrix hacker and feminised cyberspace (that he “slots into”); the
exaggerated masculinity of the console cowboy and the eroticism of the matrix
(figuring as a hymen to be broken); and the tough individualism of American
frontier masculinity juxtaposed with the alien Japanese mega-corporation (with
its feminised collectivism).8
Nor is Butler’s narrative embedded in pastoral. It does not configure an
organic and more or less harmonious (female) community, as typical of feminist
utopias such as Sally Miller Gearhart’s Wanderground (1978), Pamela Sargent’s
The Shore of Women (1986), and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean (1986).
This remains true, even if the trilogy apparently foregrounds the maternal
qualities of birthing, reproduction, nurturing, caring, healing, and symbiotic
relationship, traditionally attributed to women. In this context, the female
protagonist of Dawn has to negotiate her role as a “race mother.”
Dawn’s narrative structure could well trigger associations with a female
romance, since the four chapters describe four significant stages of a woman’s
career: from birth and female education (infamously elaborated first by
Rousseau in Sophie) to birthing and mothering, as the titles “Womb,” “Family,”
“Nursery,” and “Training Floor” suggest. In this slant, “Womb” tells how Lilith,
kept in 250-year-long suspended animation in a genetically corrected
carnivorous plant, is awakened by the Oankali. Their main purpose is to engage
in a deadly serious gene trade with Humans through this “Mother” whom they
have rescued (and put back into suspended animation in an artificial/organic
womb) after earth’s nuclear catastrophe. The next chapter, “Family,” describes
how Lilith submits to the demands of the aliens by gradually bonding with them.
Her (maternal) mission—which she repeatedly declines to accept in the first part
of the book—is to develop special survival capabilities in order to be the
leader/mother of the group of people that she will awaken from their individual
Anatomy of Science Fiction 103

wombs. In addition, she must be able to teach them skills necessary for the
return to an earth still poisoned with chemical pollution and radioactivity.
In “Nursery” Lilith “awakens”—that is, gives life to—forty-three people, a
number the Oankali have deemed manageable, even under adverse conditions.
This is the most exciting part of the book, and it also embraces the paradigmatic
scenes of crucial confrontations between masculinist-misogynist and feminist
discourses that are typical of feminist utopias. The final chapter, “The Training
Ground,” takes place in a simulation forest, the training ground, created by the
Oankali on an organic ship to provide Mother Lilith with the most appropriate
location for educating her children for appropriate living when leaving “the
family.”
This interpretation of Dawn as a narrative of female romance is highly
problematic, since the double perspective of the text subverts any readerly
expectation about a young woman. Throughout the narrative, the reader is
encouraged to take a “mid-region” position in order to see Lilith as a mediator
rather than a Great Mother (like the mother of their tribe described by the
Spanish-speaking Human, Tomás, in Imago). She is born, educated, and
facilitated with skills to foster the “rebirth” of the Humans after the apocalypse.
But it is not Lilith alone who undergoes physical and psychic changes to attain
her status as a female subject in her double capacity of leader and mother of a
new generation of earth dwellers but all the people (her “children”), whom she
awakens and educates. That is to say that Lilith, from the very beginning,
functions in her cyborg capacity as child and mother: she both teaches and is
taught. Likewise, the Oankali are not merely her masters (that at times invoke
nightmarish associations of slavery for the black protagonist) but are themselves
to be educated and reformed by Lilith. In the same way, while Lilith is trying to
educate her people for survival, she is simultaneously being trained by her
“children” (both the Humans and the Oankali who are also willing, by necessity,
to learn from her).
This “trading,” as the Oankali call their Cupertino with Humans, does not
translate into an untroubled horizontal relationship of sharing and love. No
matter how interdependent the survival of the gene-trading Oankali community
and the survival of Humans on earth, the resultant interaction between the
respective parties is far from perfect. Indeed, the Oankali enterprise of
promoting eugenics by tampering with Human bodies at first reminds Lilith of
Nazi experiments. Her awakened people are, likewise, more than resentful of her
leadership, because, besides being an anomaly as a woman with an
“unfeminine” size and physique, she also “mates” with the enemy. This theme
painfully resonates with the obnoxious label, “traitor to the race” with which
black women in America came to be stigmatised in the past. (Beginning with the
revised slave laws in the eighteenth century, it was no longer the father’s but the
104 Chapter Six

mother’s status that defined the legal status of the black child as a slave, so it
was the mother who was “directly” to be blamed for the bondage of the child.)
Miscegenation as sinful and forceful blood mixing also echoes in Butler’s book:
as soon as Lilith succeeds in fleeing from the Oankali with her people, she has to
realise that both her personal freedom is curbed and her female dignity is
besmirched. Moreover, she finds herself impregnated with the sperm of her
Human lover, Joseph who by then had been murdered by his fellow Humans but
the Oankali took her “print image” to be able to use his genetic material even
after his death. This whole process has been facilitated by the ooloi, Nikanj, to
alleviate her sadness. Its help notwithstanding, Lilith’s anxiety is further
aggravated as she feels deceived and trapped by alien coercion, now in the form
of a forced and unwanted pregnancy.
For Lilith to be a good instructor means not only to be a good mother, but
also a good runner: her ultimate goal is not to train her people to submit to the
Oankali, but to train them to run away. The novel ends on the historic note
“learn and run” that echoes various slave narratives, such as Harriet Jacobs’s,
Frederick Douglass’, and William Wells Brown’s in which learning was clearly
shown as the prerequisite for running from slavery. Learning implied not only
the acquisition of reading and writing skills (and the skills of a trade) but also
the learning of the master’s language, which was the metaphor for white man’s
institutionalised hegemony. But given the implied double perspective of Dawn,
the Oankali cannot be regarded so unequivocally as the enemy, for their ultimate
goal is to trade with Humans rather than colonise them in the traditional Human
sense of appropriation and exploitation. This inevitably entails an uncanny
combination of breeding/interbreeding (or miscegenation from the Human point
of view) and liberation as the sole means of survival for both species/races.
Octavia Butler’s text uses the word “grotesque” along with “perverse”
interchangeably to bring about a confusion or “paradigm crisis” in our minds.
Typically, she sets her narrative in a grotesque/perverse/uncanny, genetically
constructed spaceship that turns out to be organic matter engineered by the
Oankali. The binaries of real versus imaginary, or natural versus artificial are
radically interrogated in the last chapter of Dawn, in which the forest looks and
functions as “natural” but in truth is an artefact: the sky is a ceiling and the trees
are a canopy from a particular (non-phallogocentric or “anti-humanist”)
perspective. Similarly, Joseph, Lilith’s Asian-American lover, experiences the
“uncanny” when he learns about the nature of his previously overwhelming
sexual experience with neuter construct Nikanj and female Human Lilith. It was
as real as it was imaginary, and, above all, extraordinarily gratifying, because
Nikanj was capable of constructing a privileged “natural” experience, a “oneness
that your people strive for” (189). Cloning and modifying genes, changing the
genetic codes of organisms and constructing new lives are the stock in trade of
Anatomy of Science Fiction 105

the Oankali in a cyborg world—though by now it seems less and less


“grotesque” even in our human world on earth!—in which binaries of original
and copy or natural and artificial, masculine and feminine make no sense
whatsoever. Constructs like Akin and Jodahs are genetically processed by the
mating of the Oankali and the Humans, themselves born from an “artificially
natural” union of five parents; they are neither “here” nor “there,” having no
pure source of origin but a liminal existence, from birth embodying marginality
itself.
Octavia Butler locates Lilith, her black protagonist, at the intersection of the
Human and the non-Human world, at the boundary between the physical and the
non-physical, the real and the imaginary. The task that the African American
female protagonist eventually finds meaningful is not to transcend these two
worlds but to mediate between them. Her strategy is ultimately to help the
Humans as well as the Oankali so that they can survive by adaptation.
Adaptation, however, means more than adjusting to existing conditions, which is
the goal of traditional mothering in patriarchy; her plan clearly involves
continual displacement, slipping, and renegotiations.
Lilith’s figure in Dawn represents an ironic repetition of motherhood by
decentering the female protagonist from her instrumental position in patriarchy9
as well as from her position of the “elsewhere” of femininity, her pre-discursive
or semiotic being. Consequently, Lilith is not represented as the Mother of the
Race (which is a discourse not unfamiliar in African American culture and
literature) or a Mother Goddess, an originary wholeness, facilitating rebirth for
the Humans to survive nuclear apocalypse. She is, rather, an originary mediator
whose negotiations for survival take place in the margins of hegemonic
discourses, crossing back and forth across boundaries/races/genders. Lilith (the
name itself has decentred and apocryphal implications) carries out an
unparalleled project to facilitate human survival by dislocating foundational
concepts of our culture and implementing “grotesque” practices of hybridisation.
But Lilith’s female cyborg identity evolving in this process is not a
“dispersed” post-modern subjectivity produced by endless dislocation and
indeterminacy. She is “positioned in a fictional world . . . where morality has
neither been relativised out of the window nor been seen simply as the reflection
of an ‘essential’ condition” (Waugh 169). In this regard, her textual figuration in
the trilogy (particularly in Dawn) is kin to those other “sturdy black bridges,”
including Harriet Jacobs’s grandmother in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,
Claudia’s mother in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or, for that matter, Octavia
Butler’s strong grandmother, Sister Butler, who, under most adverse conditions,
managed to sustain life as well as hope in their community.
106 Chapter Six

Notes
1
With this assumption of the origin myth of male dominated American science
fiction, I follow Pamela Sargent who, however, also points out that, ironically, the first
writer of science fiction was a woman, Mary Shelley (xvi, xxxvi-xxxvii).
2
Jenny Wolmark elaborates on Hutcheon’s observation about double-coding by
suggesting that “although science fiction uses the codes and conventions of both science
fiction and romance fiction, it negotiates the contradictions of such doubly coded and
ambiguous narratives by ‘placing the desiring “I” of romance fiction at the centre of
science fiction narratives’ ” (“Post-modern Romances” 142).
3
Bruce Sterling celebrates the rebirth of science fiction in William Gibson’s
Neuromancer (1985) in near-ecstatic words, suggesting that “the effect was galvanic,
helping to wake the genre from its dogmatic slumbers. Roused from its hibernation, SF is
lurching from its cave into the bright sunlight of the modern zeitgeist. And we are lean
and hungry and not in the best of tempers. From now on things are going to be different.”
(9).
4
In a double issue of 1999, Prae (the Hungarian journal acknowledging
postmodernist commitments) became the first journal in Hungary to champion post-
modern reinscriptions of science fiction, and so doing, yielded cyberpunk fiction a central
place. Crucial as the feminist revisions are, besides Tamás Bényei’s passing remark on
the significance of feminist contributions to science fiction, women’s share in the genre
seems to be as good as non-existent in the essays by the Hungarian critics. It is also
symptomatic of the gender politics of the (male) editors that the whole section called
“SCI-FI” is emblematically headed with a drawing that seems to be a cyberpunk revision
of Leonardo’s Vetruvian Man, signalling the new measure of a new, cybernetic universe
by the picture of a harmoniously built, muscular male body that is structured by
symmetrical geometric forms; that is, a triangle and circles. Though the (male) artist
made sure that the body represented from above (as if plunging into cyberspace) is
unmistakably a man’s, there is no trace of its sexualisation: it is clearly the head and not
the penis or the buttocks that is at the centre of the composition. By contrast, the
unmistakably female body that introduces the next section of the same issue, called
“PERMUTÁCIÓ” (“rearrangement in a different order”), is an oversexualised nude torso:
the head is cut off and the whole composition is structured around the breasts, thighs and
stomach to stress female flesh rather than any “universal humanity.”
5
In an interview conducted by Usch Kiausch and Donald E. Morse during the
International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, on 24 March
2000, Octavia Butler spoke enthusiastically about her grandmother, recounting her hard
life but also her ambition and perseverance. Religion and the determination to see her
children through braced her up. Remembering her strong grandmother called “Sister
Butler” in her Baptist congregation, she admitted that “my characters tend to run around
and build communities around themselves—and I guess it’s because my grandmother was
able to do that.”
6
I take the concept of “mid-region” from Geoffrey Galt Harpham to explain the
grotesque tendencies in Dawn, particularly the positioning of the protagonist neither in
the Human nor in the Oankali world but in the mid-region, itself also the space of the
Anatomy of Science Fiction 107

grotesque, which is “dynamic and unpredictable, a scene of transformation or


metamorphosis” (8).
7
I also had in mind here the central metaphor of the influential black women’s
anthology, Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature (1979) that
expands on the dilemmas of black womanhood in African American culture (Bell, et al).
8
For a detailed discussion of the gender dynamics and the representation of sexuality
in cyberpunk culture and cyberpunk fiction highlighted by William Gibson’s works, see
the excellent collection of essays edited by Jenny Wolmark, Cybersexualities: A Reader
on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace (1999), especially the essays written by
Mary Ann Doane, Claudia Springer, Zoe Sofia, Nicola Nixon, Thomas Foster, and Jenny
Wolmark.
9
Apparently, because of this Dorothy Allison bears Butler’s female characters a
grudge.

Works Cited
Allison, Dorothy. “The Future of Female: Octavia Butler’s Mother Lode.”
Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis
Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 471-78.
Bell, Roseann P., Bette J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds. Sturdy Black
Bridges. Visions of Black Woman in Literature. Ed. New York: Harcourt,
1979.
Butler, Octavia. Adulthood Rites. New York: Warner, 1988.
———. Dawn. New York: Warner, 1987.
———. Imago. New York: Warner, 1989.
———. Interview with Usch Kiausch and Donald E. Morse. The International
Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Ft. Lauderdale, FL. March 24, 2000.
(cassette).
Fitting, Peter. “Reconsiderations of the Separatist Paradigm in Recent Feminist
Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 19 (1992): 32-48.
Foster, Thomas. “Meat Puppets or Robopaths? Cyberpunk and the Question of
Embodiment.” Wolmark, Cybersexualities. 208-29.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.
New York: Routledge, 1991.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art
and Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Methuen, 1989.
McCaffery, Larry. Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary
American Science-Fiction Writers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
1990.
Prae. Irodalmi folyóirat. 1-2 (1999).
108 Chapter Six

Russ, Joanna. “What Can a Heroine Do?” To Write Like a Woman: Essays in
Feminism and Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
79-93.
Sargent, Pamela. Introduction. Women of Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by
Women about Women. Ed. Pamela Sargent. New York: Vintage, 1974. xiii-
lvii.
Shinn, Thelma J. “The Wise Witches: Black Women Mentors in the Fiction of
Octavia Butler.” Conjuring. Black Women, Fiction, and the Literary
Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1985. 203-15.
Sterling, Bruce. Introduction. Burning Chrome. By William Gibson. New York:
HarperCollins, 1986. 9-13.
Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Post-modern. New York:
Routledge, 1989.
Wolmark, Jenny, ed. Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs,
and Cyberspace. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
———. “Post-modern Romances of Feminist Science Fiction.” Wolmark,
Cybersexualities 230-38.
CHAPTER SEVEN

THE SEARCH FOR A QUANTUM ETHICS

NICHOLAS RUDDICK

BOHR. Heisenberg, I have to sayif people are to be measured strictly in


terms of observable quantities . . .
HEISENBERG. Then we should need a strange new quantum ethics.
—Michael Frayn

In 1893, T. H. Huxley, the most forceful and eloquent Victorian proponent of


Darwinian evolutionary theory, delivered the famous lecture “Evolution and Ethics” at
Oxford. His aim was at once to affirm that he had no doubt that evolution was an
amoral cosmic process to which all life on earth, including mankind, was subject, and
to propose that human beings had an innate ethical sense which they had the
responsibility to attempt to apply in their dealings in the world: “Social progress means
a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another,
which may be called the ethical process” (81). The issues raised by Huxley’s
evolutionary ethics inspired the flowering of fin-de-siècle scientific romance at the
hands of his most notable pupil, H. G. Wells.1 Surely science fiction, which owes its
descent and much of its literary credibility to Wellsian scientific romance, ought to
have as one of its primary functions the engagement through metaphor of a
scientifically-determined worldview with the intention of humanizing, or at least
struggling to make humanly comprehensible, a universe that might otherwise seem
bewilderingly indifferent to human concerns? As Brian Aldiss has put it, “sf is an ideal
negotiator between the two hemispheres of the brain, the rational cognitivei.e.,
‘scientific’-left and the intuitive, i.e., ‘literary-artistic’-right” (1-2).
Yet contemporary science fiction has, one fears, largely abandoned such a
lofty goal. Since the success of the Star Wars movies from 1977 on, science
fiction has quickly been subsumed into sci-fi, a popular-cultural phenomenon
dominated by Hollywood and characterised by the subordination of textual to
visual values, of extrapolation to extravagance, of speculation to special effects.
Hollywood economies of scale now determine the criteria according to which a
successful work of science fiction is measured, and the financial rewards of the
110 Chapter Seven

tie-in for the aspiring science-fiction writer are so great that it is not surprising
that there has been a gradual decline in the literary ambitions of science fiction
since the heady days of the New Wave. However, that ability, specified by
Aldiss, of good science fiction to mediate between the cerebral hemispheres is as
important as ever in a contemporary world in which the most powerful cultural
dynamic is ever-accelerating technological change. Though contemporary sci-fi
may be neglecting Huxley’s challenge to apply humane ethics to the
scientifically-conceived universe, the task has been taken up elsewhere in the
literary field.

Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998) is the latest of a number of notable


“science plays” to have graced the British stage at the end of the second
millennium.2 The unexpected box-office success of Copenhagen, a play that is in
some ways the complete antithesis of the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, suggests
that the theatre-going public is prepared to respond with enthusiasm to a serious,
uncompromising attempt to explore ethical issues raised by scientific
developments. Though not science fiction by any usual modern definition of this
term, the science playprimarily realistic, though capable of incorporating
fantastic elementsfunctions in a way similar to the Wellsian scientific
romance a century ago. The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor
Moreau (1896) raised, without sentimentality, sometimes brutally, the necessary
question of how to formulate an evolutionary ethics; Copenhagen and the other
four plays dealt with here point the way to an equally necessary quantum ethics.
Three of these science plays dramatise aspects of the lives of famous
scientists: Alan Turing in Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code (1987), Charles
Darwin in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s After Darwin (1998), Niels Bohr and
Werner Heisenberg in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998). One of the most
ambitious and complex plays of the 1990s, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993)
explores the human implications of scientific ideasin particular
thermodynamics, chaos theory, and fractal geometry.3 Stephen Poliakoff’s
Blinded by the Sun (1996) deals with how cultural pressures affect contemporary
scientific research. Yet behind the obvious differences between these five
notable plays are many points of similarity. For example, Stoppard and
Wertenbaker both contrast nineteenth-century certitude with twentieth-century
indeterminacy, both Stoppard and Poliakoff deal with the ambiguous
phenomenon of the researcher co-opted (and corrupted) by the media; while
Whitemore, Poliakoff, and Frayn all explore the ironic contrast between the
reputed precision of science and the haze surrounding human motivation. It will
be suggested here that one theme that links all these plays is the contemporary
Anatomy of Science Fiction 111

need of a quantum ethics, that is, an ethics that will serve in a world in which
science, an epistemological instrument of unmatched precision, nevertheless
must concede that there is a “final core of uncertainty at the heart of things”
(Frayn 96). More specifically, these plays are concerned to show that there
remains a right and wrong way for peopleincluding scientiststo act, even
though the structure of physical reality, not to mention mathematical reality, has
been revealed to be fundamentally indeterminate.
At the risk of over-simplification, one may venture that the revolution in
quantum physics as it relates to the plays under examination here had as its twin
foci Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty or Indeterminacy Principle4 (1927) and
Niels Bohr’s Complementarity Principle (1928), the “two central tenets of the
Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” (Frayn 72-73). The former
principle allowed an observer to ascertain either the position or velocity of a
particle but not both at once; the latter treated physical objects at the atomic
level as if they were simultaneously constituted of waves and particles, two
different and apparently incompatible orders of phenomena. In the quantum
realm, the observer determines what is observed, and reality is always a
subjective construct. As the idea of scriptural or divine authority had been dealt
a series of blows by late nineteenth-century biology and early twentieth-century
relativity, it seemed no great leap of daring in the later twentieth century to
apply the quantum model to the ethical sphere. Without transcendental authority
or perspective, each person is his or her own measure. As Frayn’s Bohr puts it,
the Copenhagen Interpretation placed the individual “back at the centre of the
universe” (73). But if the line between good and evil is thereby rendered
subjective, can moral categories really be said to exist at all? May not modern
science be said to endorse a view of the world as an ethical vacuum in which
scientists, be they nuclear physicists building weapons or biochemists
manipulating genes, may do anything they like because it is possible (and
especially if it is lucrative)?
Early in Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, the protagonist, the
mathematician Alan Turing, confesses that another major statement of
indeterminacy, Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem (1931)which asserts
that in all mathematical systems which are consistent there is a formula which
can neither be proved or disproved“is the most beautiful thing I know” (27).
Yet even if there is a liberating sense of freedom and possibility in the idea that
there is ultimately no telling a correct from an incorrect mathematical solution
(26), that does not mean that the mathematician is freed from the strictures of
right and wrong at the ethical level. Turing’s crucial involvement in the Allied
code-breaking program during the Second World War was the result of a
difficult moral decision (24) to break with his 1930s pacifism. The loss of lives
caused by Turing’s decryption of the German Enigma code was in his view a
112 Chapter Seven

“necessary evil” (25) to be measured against the greater evil of Nazism. Evil
may be relativised, but it is not thereby made immensurable or meaningless.
Turing tries to extend the theory of mathematical undecidability to moral
issues as an argument against the law’s determination to prosecute him for gross
indecency (that is, homosexual activity), as in this speech to Detective-Sergeant
Ross:

Even in mathematics there’s no infallible rule for proving what is right and what
is wrong. Each problemeach decisionrequires fresh ideas, fresh thought. And
if that’s the case in m-m-mathematicsthe most reliable body of knowledge that
mankind has createdsurely it might also apply in other, less certain, areas? (64)

To this, Ross replies that the idea may work in theory but does not in real
life, where the law, transcendentally embodied by himself, is all there is to help
people decide between right and wrong. But when Ross as a token consolatory
gesture for prosecuting him, tells Turing, “I understand how you must feel,” the
mathematician replies, “No you don’t. How can you?” (64). This seems to be an
allusion to the two men’s apparently irreconcilable sexual perspectives but,
when Ross concedes, “You’re right, I don’t. I can’t” (64), it becomes at the same
time an assertion of the ultimate subjectivity of quantum reality.
Whitemore’s play is also interested in the indeterminability of Turing’s
motive for suicide. Turing was certainly a victim of both society’s prejudice and
his own honesty when he was convicted for homosexual acts that he had
confessed to in the course of reporting a robbery to the police. He was not jailed
like Oscar Wilde, but put on estrogen to kill his illegitimate sexual urges.
Wildean tragedy seems to repeat itself as farce when Turing ruefully wonders
whether, as a result of the drug regime, he is going to have to wear a bra (66).
However, someone who can joke about such a humiliation seems an unlikely
candidate for self-destruction, raising a larger question about his fate as
dramatised. Whitemore accounts for Turing’s suicide in a number of ways.
Possibly he was driven to it by a recurrent nightmare of being “trapped inside an
enormous mechanical brain” (33); or by a romantic desire to be reunited with his
schoolboy love object, Christopher Morcom (38-39, 78); or by a loss in dismal
post-war Manchester of the self-integration that he felt at Bletchley Park during
the war (73); or by his desire to go to the ultimate length to learn whether the
mind can exist without the body (80).5 Suicide as a result of any or all these
factors would make Turing a self-involved idealist. But Whitemore’s Alan
Turing is pragmatic, humorously self-deprecating, and capable of inspiring
warmth and admiration in all those he comes into contact with, even the police.
It is difficult to gainsay his mother, who, unable to accept the coroner’s verdict
of suicide, concludes defiantly, “He had everything to live for” (80). Indeed, by
Anatomy of Science Fiction 113

not rejecting him after his revelation of his homosexuality, she had clearly
strengthened his confidence in his ability to be loved for who he was.
Turing muses enigmatically toward the end of the play, “In the long run . . .
it’s not breaking the code that mattersit’s where you go from there” (78). But
where Turing goes is suicide, and thereby the play, presenting a terminal act of
self-destruction that is out of character, suggests that it is not merely difficult,
but impossible to determine why people do what they do. Thus Turing’s fate,
which was viewed by his mother only as an absurd waste of a life, must be
interpreted likewise by the audience. Yet given Turing’s strong ethical sense, his
self-destruction ought to be invested with a dimension that is less contingent,
more driven by necessity, more tragic in the traditional sense. To speak of the
often excessive complexity of human motivationof its over-determined quality
in psychoanalytic termsis not the same as to say that motivation is ultimately
impenetrable and all actions consequently absurd. To draw this important
distinction is one of the many achievements of Frayn’s Copenhagen.
A major success by a contemporary master-dramatist—and a much more
complex play both structurally and thematically than Breaking the Code—Tom
Stoppard’s Arcadia is not about historical scientists, but it is about the problems
of research in both the sciences and the humanities. The play also stands as a
dramatic metaphor for the complex nature of quantum reality.6 In 1809, a young
lady of aristocratic background and mathematical bent, Thomasina Coverly,
anticipates chaos theory, fractal geometry, quantum theory, and the implications
of the second law of thermodynamics, before losing her life on the night before
her seventeenth birthday in a fire at her ancestral mansion, Sidley Park. Quasi-
simultaneously, in the present day, a group of researchers convene in the same
mansion, each confronted by a problem of making reality conform to his or her
agenda. The social historian Hannah Jarvis is writing a history of the garden that
will support her thesis about “the decline from thinking to feeling” between the
Enlightenment and the Romantic period (27); the mathematical biologist
Valentine Coverly tries to discover laws in the apparently randomly fluctuating
population of grouse at Sidley Park, and use them to draw “pictures of
turbulencegrowthchangecreation” (47). The literary historian Bernard
Nightingale attempts to promote his idea that Lord Byron was involved in a
sensational duel at Sidley Park, in the hope of getting his name in the papers and
achieving his desired status as “Media Don” (56).
As Heinz Antor has well noted, Arcadia deals with the transition from “a
classical belief in regularity, order, finite linear teleology and the existence of
well-structured patterns to a postmodern and post-structuralist scepticism about
these things and an awareness of irregularity, chaos, non-linearity, infinity and
unstructured patternlessness or complexity” (328-29). For Valentine Coverly, as
with Alan Turing, the sheer unpredictability and unknowability of nature makes
114 Chapter Seven

the present “the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you
thought you knew is wrong” (48). To Valentine, “What matters” is not the
personality of the scientist but “the calculus. Scientific progress. Knowledge”
(61). This assertion echoes that of his ancestor Thomasina (37), who shares an
incipient romance with her tutor, the young mathematician and naturalist
Septimus Hodge. Septimus consoles Thomasina, who has been mourning the
cultural losses wrought by time, thus: “We shed as we pick up, like travellers
who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up
by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the
march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it” (38).
Yet Septimus’s consoling vision works only in a world in which there is an
unquestioned belief in linear temporality and teleologya world which has now
gone forever. Thomasina’s insights were impossible to verify using the
mathematics of her time (93), and her life is absurdly cut short by a heat-death,
that is not at all the one she foresaw. Septimus, maddened by both her loss and
the vertiginous scientific vistas she evoked for him, becomes a hermit,
attempting vainly to perform a mathematical operation involving an iterated
algorithm in an age when there “weren’t enough pencils” or paper to perform it
(51; see also Melbourne 566).
Yet if the quantum reality this play cunningly encrypts allows no providential
reward for Thomasina or Septimus, Arcadia still manages emphatically to affirm
an ethical position. The execrable Bernard views himself as a defender of the
humanities against the sciences, the poets against the physicists. He has no time for
modern science, claiming to prefer Aristotle’s cosmos to whatever came after and
dismissing the findings of post-Newtonian physics as trivial: “Quarks,
quasarsbig bangs, black holeswho gives a shit?” (61). Yet he is the only
researcher in the play whose conclusions are, in the traditional sense, absolutely
incorrect, and his wrongness also has a clear moral dimension. His evidence for
the duel between Byron and Chater eventually becomes too overwhelmingly non-
existent for him to manipulate to his advantage; meanwhile his motives for
research are revealed to have always been purely self-centred. He is a shallow
egoist whose humanism is false, a degenerate “parody” (Melbourne 567) of his
nineteenth-century counterpart Byron, possessing all the negative qualities of his
hero and none of the genius. But Arcadia does not attack the humanities through
Bernard; it suggests instead that the science of contemporary quantum reality is
one of the humanities, and those who deny it are themselves likely to be lacking in
humanity. Bernard’s fate is to be justly expelled from Sidley Park, an Arcadian
locus where what is of value in the past is miraculously preserved for the future,
and which forms an exception to the general rule of chaos.7
Stephen Poliakoff’s Blinded by the Sun centres on a scientific fraud
perpetrated by a member of a chemistry department at a university in Northern
Anatomy of Science Fiction 115

England. The play’s plot is offered as a subjective framed narrative presented by


its protagonist Al Golfar, a mediocre chemist but “born administrator” (10), and
it charts his rise via the chair of his department to fame as the author of “pop-
science best sellers” (99) and ubiquitous media don. By the end of the play Al
has dissolved the department he was appointed to rejuvenate, and the chemistry
building itself has been turned over to media studies. Early in Act 1, in a scene
reminiscent of the Fleischmann and Pons cold fusion announcement of 1989,
Christopher Lathwell, the academic star of the department, claims to have
invented a “Sun Battery” (30), an efficient means of extracting hydrogen from
water using solar power. Al becomes instrumental in exposing Christopher’s
fraud, while at the same time cleverly protecting his colleague from the media
backlash. Meanwhile, Elinor Brickman, the “pure” scientist admired by Al as the
“most scrupulous” (65) member of his department, becomes tainted in Al’s eyes
when she tries to persuade him not to expose the fraud (61). Indeed, Al himself
later suggests that his subsequent dismantling of the department resulted from
his disillusionment with Elinor (112).
As Christopher’s star falls, Al’s rises, until this scientific hack has become a
darling of the media. The play seems to suggest that in the contemporary world,
the pressures on scientists to produce financially lucrative research (or at least to
generate good public relations) are so great that unethical practices are almost
inevitable and purely scientific achievement, which involves a long and
exhausting struggle in a “dark tunnel” (116), almost impossible. The play ends
with a ceremony honoring Elinor’s contribution to science, but it seems clear
that the mysterious research that she has been jealously guarding for years was a
kind of confidence trick, in that her posthumous legacy was no more than a set
of indecipherable handwritten notes (120). But then Al himself, exposer of the
Sun Battery fraud, feels that he, too, is an impostor (66); after all, of the
members of his department he is one of the least academically qualified to hold
the Chair.
Blinded by the Sun raises questions of indeterminacy through the device of
Al’s obsessive habit of collecting in plastic bags objects relating to specific
moments in his life that he will use to attempt to structure retrospectively a self-
justifying narrative. Towards the end of the play, Elinor, picking up one of Al’s
bags at random, notes to him: “Don’t you see, . . . none of this is the real pattern
of what happened. The only shape we can be definite about is this . . .” (that is,
the bag itself as physical object) (118). The objects in the bag are real, but the
truth of what “really” happened, of which the objects are mementos, is a
perpetually-changing construct of a quite different order of reality (114). (The
parallel here with the objects from both time-scales that accumulate on the table
at the end of Arcadia is unmistakable.) The play results from an ordering of the
116 Chapter Seven

objects by Al, and thus is a consciously subjective interpretation of what


happened by one character, not an authoritative last word.
But ultimately the contribution of Blinded by the Sun to the formulation of a
new quantum ethics is a little disappointing. We get not enough insight into
Christopher’s character to stir our interest in the undoubtedly complex, over-
determined motives impelling a brilliant scientist to perpetrate a sleazy fraud
using baking powder. Al, whose point of view determines the action, suggests
that motives such as greed and the desire for celebrity were minor compared
with the “real” reason, which is that Christopher did not have the stamina to
endure the “hell of creating something” (116). For Al himself has had a “Eureka
moment” (77) when he thought up a project to extract fuel from household
waste, only to discover that he did not have the intellectual toughness to get the
plan from the theoretical to the practical stage. The play insists that “pure”
scientific research should exist, but that it has become impossible in a late
twentieth-century academic environment. Such insistence works against the idea
that the action is merely one subjective version of reality, and Al seems too
much the mouthpiece of a playwright with a jaundiced view of the ability of
university science departments to resist the pressures of contemporary media
culture.
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s After Darwin, like Arcadia, cuts between the
nineteenth century (in this case the years 1831 to 1865) and the present, and she,
like Whitemore and Frayn, presents her theme through a gloss on the life of a
great scientist. A play by Lawrence, a black American playwright, is being
mounted in London about the Victorian conflict between the agnostic, whiggish
Charles Darwin and Robert FitzRoy, the Tory, religiously orthodox captain of
the Beagle. The latter came to feel that he was personally responsible for
unleashing the faith-destroying Darwinian revolution upon the world and killed
himself. Meanwhile, the actors playing FitzRoy and Darwin, their director and
the playwright are involved in a modern ethical conflict that has its roots in the
Darwinian challenge to Victorian orthodoxy.
The divided temporal structure of After Darwin functions, as it does in
Arcadia, to subvert traditional linearity, causality, and teleology, while the
play’s main quantum theme is that nineteenth-century ethical certainty can never
be fully recovered in the modern worldindeed, one “cannot be tragic after
Darwin” (65). At the same time (and here Wertenbaker extends the search for a
quantum ethics backwards to the aftermath of the Origin of Species), natural
selection does not in the end endorse human selfishness or greed, any more than
it endorsed the suicide of FitzRoy. As the director Millie puts it, as she tries to
impose her vision of the play upon Ian, the emotionally repressed old-style actor
playing FitzRoy, “I want light and tenderness. It is thought tenderness gave
mammals an evolutionary advantage” (9).
Anatomy of Science Fiction 117

Meanwhile, we learn that there are ethically dubious motives, supposedly


justified by the Darwinian struggle for existence, behind the actions of both
Millie and Tom, the new-style actor playing Darwin. Millie, an expatriate of
Turkish background who has known oppression in her homeland of Bulgaria,
struggles to establish herself in the British theatre so that she will not be sent
home. Her survival depends upon the success of Lawrence’s play, but she has
concealed the truth about her background and motivations from the cast until a
crisis forces her to confess it. As she puts it, “The truth is not a good survival
tool. It makes you vulnerable . . .” (51). Tom, gay, narcissistic, and hiding
behind a “camouflage of idiocy” (46) when it comes to researching his character,
is prepared to destroy the whole production to further his career by decamping to
join the cast of a trashy movie. When Ian remonstrates with him, Tom justifies
himself in crude Darwinian terms, “I’m hungry, Ian, I want to go where there’s
lots of food” (45).

IAN. You’re not some animal foraging for food.


TOM. That’s what Darwin’s saying here, isn’t it? (45)

Ian is not immune to the struggle for existence. He feels that his “ornate
skills,” those of the classically-trained actor (44), have become like the
cumbersome antlers of the vanished Irish elk. He is being superseded by actors
like Tom, for whom moral self-questioning is “an overspecialised refinement
that leads rapidly to extinction” (54). Having fallen for Millie, so that his
survival, hers, and that of Lawrence’s play become inextricably bound, Ian
sabotages Tom’s attempted defection by spreading the false rumour that Tom is
HIV positive (66). But Lawrence cannot endorse Ian’s act, for a necessary evil is
still an evil. Having been brought up by a mother who made enormous sacrifices
to educate him well, Lawrence knows that “I am responsible for my own
integrity” (68), and that the production of his play would be “contaminated” (69)
if allowed to continue on such terms. The production ceases, but Millie and Ian
find love, while Lawrence affirms that Darwinism’s true legacy is “empathy”
(73) in that it connects mankind to all other creatures on earth. Yet though the
play is an intriguing work, its resolution relies in the end too much on a
traditional ethical absolutism to resolve satisfactorily the questions of
uncertainty raised by the divided action. Unlike Stoppard in Arcadia,
Wertenbaker cannot maintain the fine equilibrium between two time-scales, and
the modern conflict overshadows the nineteenth-century one to the detriment of
unity of dramatic effect.
The popular success of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, in both London and
New York seems to have taken everyone by surprise, including the playwright
himself. Frayn, perhaps best known to playgoers as a brilliant farceur,8 has noted
almost apologetically that Copenhagen, a play about a controversial meeting
118 Chapter Seven

between the great physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Nazi-
occupied Denmark in 1941 was “written entirely for my own benefit” (Wroe
S62) and is “entirely joke-free, I am afraid” (Davidson). The New York Times,
wondering if anyone understood the play, asked some members of the audience
after a production if they could explain Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, with
mixed results (see Marin 2). In fact, Copenhagen, though intellectually
challenging, is a less complex work than Arcadia. However, Frayn’s play is
perhaps the greater dramatic tour de force, especially given its rejection of
spectacle and its refusal to ingratiate itself with its audience. At the same time
Copenhagen offers perhaps a more coherent integration of scientific theory and
aesthetic form than any contemporary science play.
At first glance the play seems an unlikely box office hit. Though running for
more than two hours, it has only three rolesBohr, his wife Margrethe, and
Bohr’s former friend and colleague the German physicist Werner Heisenberg. In
the play text no setting is described nor are there any stage directions. The play
in London and New York was performed in a circular space of Beckett-like
austerity, with chairs as the only props. The three characters, perpetually
onstage, move realistically, but the setting is so abstract that, as John Lahr put it,
they seem to “collide, separate, realign themselves like so many neutrons and
protons” (219). They have the ontological status of revenants, though they dress
realistically and behave onstage as if they were still alive. Frayn’s purpose in
summoning these ghosts is so that they can revisit the vexed questionone that
has exercised historians for yearsof why Heisenberg in 1941, then working for
Hitler’s war effort and under Gestapo surveillance, should have taken the trouble
to pay a visit to Bohr in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Clearly the play’s title does
not refer to a real city in historical time and space, but alludes to Frayn’s more
abstract concern: to offer an interpretation of what happened in Copenhagen in
1941 from a perspective has been determinedor made indeterminate by the
Copenhagen Interpretation.
Frayn has indicated that he is interested in the epistemological questions
raised by people’s actionsin particular “how we know why people do what
they do” (Davidson). Indeed, he seems to feel that in a quantum universe in
which there is “a final core of uncertainty at the heart of things,” the questions of
motive are ultimately unanswerable. However, he is commendably aware that
the behaviour of people is a different order of phenomenon from the behaviour
of elementary particles, and in his lengthy “Postscript” to the play he explains
carefully why one may serve as a coherent metaphor for the other:

The idea of uncertainty as introduced by Heisenberg into quantum mechanics was


precise and technical. It didn’t suggest that everything about the behaviour of
particles was unknowable, or hazy. What it limited was the simultaneous
Anatomy of Science Fiction 119

measurement of “canonically conjugate variables,” such as position and


momentum . . . None of this, plainly, applies directly to our observations of
thought and intention . . . What the uncertainty of thoughts does have in common
with the uncertainty of particles is that the difficulty is not just a practical one, but
a systematic limitation which cannot even in theory be circumvented . . . And
since, as the Copenhagen Interpretation establishes, the whole possibility of
saying or thinking anything about the world . . . depends upon human
observation, and is subject to the limitations which the human mind imposes, this
uncertainty in our thinking is also fundamental to the nature of the world. (100-
01)

This awareness allows Frayn to structure Copenhagen “around the interchange


between metaphor used to explain science and science itself used as a metaphor
to explain action” (Stewart 302), with the result that there is an unusually close
and fruitful connection between the scientific and emotional content of the play.
As the play unfolds, the characters, restlessly orbiting each other, struggle
towards an understanding of what happened in 1941. We learn that Heisenberg
came to Copenhagen for some, or all, of the following reasons: to talk with Bohr
about physics (3, 10); to deliver a lecture at the German Cultural Institute (6); to
ask Bohr to come to Germany (16); to receive the love of Bohr as his surrogate
father (17); to offer Bohr, a half-Jew, the protection of the German embassy
(20); to ask Bohr if he thinks that a physicist has the moral right to work on
atomic energy (36); to ask him if one can build atomic bombs if one has built a
nuclear reactor (37-38); (possibly, at least in the Bohrs’ view) to recruit Bohr to
the Nazi nuclear program (38); to gain “absolution” from Bohr as the “Pope” of
nuclear physics (39); to tell Bohr that he, Heisenberg, has an important voice in
the funding of the Nazi nuclear program, so that the two of them might be able
to stop all nuclear research by a joint refusal (41, 44); to pick Bohr’s brain about
the Allied nuclear program (42); to present himself as an emotional replacement
for the Bohrs’ drowned son Christian (52); or simply to show off as the citizen
of a once-humiliated, now victorious nation (76).
The gradual exposure of Heisenberg’s motives, some of them contradictory, all
of them to a greater or lesser extent credible, is fascinating, but this process alone is
not what makes Copenhagen a compelling dramatic experience. What grips the
audience is its growing realisation of the underlying importance of what at first
seemed an abstruse academic question, namely, why it is so important to try to
establish what happened in Copenhagen. The question’s significance remains almost
under repression until it is enforced by the third of only three sound effects in the
Broadway production, “a roar and rumbling that shakes the gut of every playgoer
with stunning intensity” (Powers 6). Did Heisenberg know, as Bohr did, that only a
few kilograms, and not tons, of Uranium 235 were required to make an atomic
bomb? If so, why didn’t he take the news back to Germany? The fate of the world
120 Chapter Seven

hung on this meeting in Copenhagen, for it takes little imagination to figure out how
history may have unfolded differently had Hitler been provided by Heisenberg with
the means to make an atomic bomb in 1941.
Copenhagen is a retrospective play, in that these three ghosts look back on their
younger selves from an indeterminate time after 1945. They know, as we do, that
Hitler never had the Bomb. The real question for the Bohrs, and for the audience
(who almost certainly did not realise how close Hitler was to getting a bomb9), is: if
Heisenberg potentially understood how to make one, why wasn’t one made? If the
answer lies in what happened in Copenhagen, then what certainly did happen
therea falling out between Bohr and Heisenbergmay seem likelier to have
actually hastened the development of a Nazi bomb. To this problem, Frayn’s play
provides a tentative solution. Heisenberg, whatever his initial motivation for meeting
with Bohr in Copenhagen, and despite the “terrible offence” given there “which
could never be recalled” (Powers 4), was influenced perhaps unconsciously by the
positive moral qualities of his former mentor not only not to make a bomb, but
actually to conceal from his Nazi masters the ease with which a bomb might be
made. Had Bohr and Margrethe been less morally steadfast, more pliant, less
outraged, the outcome might have been different; but in their angry reaction to
Heisenberg (they unquestionably suspected him, with good reason, of the dubious
motives he may very well have started out with) Heisenberg was brought to mind of
“a strange new quantum ethics” in a world in which there often seems to be no good
action possible, only actions of lesser or greater evil.10
Frayn resists making a hero of Heisenberg, suggesting that his ethics may have
been unconscious: he kept the knowledge of how little U-235 was needed to produce
a bomb “not to himself but from himself” (112). Powers suggests that “Heisenberg is
not a hero of the resistance, but something more disturbinga scientist asked to
build a bomb who raised the question whether it was right” (7).11 Strictly, however,
Heisenberg, under Gestapo surveillance, did not and could not raise the question at
all in 1941. But he was in a position to change the world for better or worse, and
consciously or not, for whatever ultimately indeterminable reason, he did what in
retrospect can with some certainty be considered the right thingor, more precisely,
he did not do the wrong thing. If there is indeed a quantum ethics, his mode of
inaction may serve as a model for strange new quantum-heroics.
If these science plays have a function similar to that of good science fiction in the
Wellsian tradition, is there not a case to be made for their inclusion in the genre of
science fiction? As Joseph Krupnik has shown (197-219), there exists a considerable
body of science-fiction drama, even if it is little-known, indicating that science
fiction on the stage is by no means a contradiction in terms. Moreover, the two most
successful of these science plays, Arcadia and Copenhagen, are the least bound by
realistic conventions: Stoppard develops two parallel temporalities, which he
ultimately blends in a manner that is literally impossible, while Frayn’s revenants
Anatomy of Science Fiction 121

inhabit a spatio-temporal limbo, a blank space in which history can perpetually be


restaged in an attempt to attain an always elusive final truth. Both plays certainly fit
Patrick D. Murphy’s description of a postmodernist fantastic drama that resists
closure and “questions consensual reality rather than simply producing alternative
realities” (4). Yet in spite of what Veronica Hollinger terms a “new valorisation of
the fantastic” (186), it seems that science fiction defined generically will continue to
serve as “postmodernism’s noncanonised or ‘low art’ double” (B. McHale qtd. in
Hollinger 186) for the foreseeable future. For the cultural dominance of Hollywood
sci-fi, so dependent for its generic self-definition upon pulp motifs, reduces the
likelihood that science fiction will any time soon come to be defined functionally in
accordance with Aldiss’s proposition, let alone come to be viewed as one of the
finest flowerings of the postmodernist era. In short, the old (reversible) adage, “if it’s
good, it can’t be science fiction,” continues to hold sway both in literary circles and
among the consumers of sci-fi, with the consequence that a good science play, no
matter how fantastic, cannot be part of science fiction as currently conceived.
Why should the stage have become, at millennium’s end, the arena of serious
negotiation between the sciences and humanities about a quantum ethics? The
answer may lie in what makes a play different from a movie. Julius Kagarlitski has
proposed that theatre is a conditional art whose power depends on something
immediate and unrepeatable, as opposed to film in which everything represented
“has, as it were, already happened” (qtd. in Krupnik 198); this may suggest why the
older art remains a more suitable medium for engaging quantum reality.
Furthermore, in relation to Copenhagen, it has been suggested that the
unrepeatability of a theatrical performance is particularly compatible with the play’s
theme of uncertainty (Stewart 303). Extrapolating from these two ideas, one may
propose that the theatre remains a place in which the live unfolding drama retains,
from the audience’s perspective, a measure of unmediated authenticity that is
precious in an otherwise highly mediated culture. At the same time the audience
reciprocally affects, be it ever so slightly, the quality, tone, or atmosphere of the
production in a way impossible in the movie theatre. In this way the complex and
variable interactions between the individual play-goer, the audience of which he or
she is a part, and the living actors on the stage dramatise the perpetually
indeterminate quality of quantum reality.
In one of a series of interviews with contemporary playwrights under the rubric A
Search for a Postmodern Theater (1991), Timberlake Wertenbaker contends that
“notes that absurdist drama now seems passé contends that “[i]t’s time to try to make
sense of the world” (DiGaetani 269). If the contemporary world is one in which the
abbreviation A.D. might stand more appropriately for After Darwin, and if
modernism saw a deepening of the gulf between the arts and the sciences, then who
could argue that one of the necessary aims of a postmodernist theatre should be to
make sense of the world after Darwin, Copenhagen, Los Alamos, and Hiroshima?
122 Chapter Seven

Of the five science plays under scrutiny here, two in particular, Arcadia and
Copenhagen, would seem in their different ways to serve as models for a
postmodernist drama that seeks to reconcile the arts and the sciences (see Antor
327). They assert the immensely liberating possibilities of the idea that the individual
is back at the centre of the quantum universe, while affirming that right action is
possible, necessary, and effective, even if it may take an unconventional form.

Notes
1
See Hillegas 18-21 and ff. for a discussion of the relation between Huxley’s cosmic
pessimism and Wellsian scientific romance.
2
The fin-de-millennium science play is not an exclusively British phenomenon.
Myers lists a number of American examples in production or development in late 1999
(7, 34).
3
Of the five plays dealt with here, Arcadia seems the least evidently a science play,
yet it was reviewed very favourably as such in Scientific American (see Beardsley 98).
4
In his “Postscript” to Copenhagen, Frayn discusses the various translations of the
German Unbestimmtheit, giving convincing reasons for preferring indeterminacy or
indeterminability to uncertainty (101-02).
5
Andrew Hodges, biographer of Turing, suggests that this final speech is “wrong and
in fact ridiculous in biographical terms. But I’m sympathetic because I think Hugh
Whitemore had a good sense that there should be something dramatic to say about
uncomputability” (Hodges).
6
I use this phrase as a convenient term for a world characterised by the
epistemological acceptance of fundamental indeterminacy. Strictly, as Stoppard himself
has pointed out (see Gussow 84), the important scientific metaphors in Arcadia are drawn
from chaos mathematics, while quantum theory (in particular the wave-particle duality) is
a central metaphor in his earlier and rather less successful play Hapgood (1988). For
Stoppard and the use of chaos theory in modern drama, see Demastes, “Re-Inspecting”
(252-53_. For a succinct analysis of what Arcadia owes to chaos theory, see Kramer (3-
5).
7
A key to understanding Sidley Park’s immunity to entropy is provided by
Melbourne: “Arcadia is not a natural but a self-consciously created aesthetic object,
which succeeds in conveying the coherent and timeless aesthetic pleasure we glimpse
only in fragmentary moments of beauty, complexity, and mystery in the natural world”
(571).
8
Frayn’s most popular successes were Donkeys’ Years (1976) and Noises Off
(1982)the latter of which has been described as the “King Lear of farces” (qtd. in
Demastes, British [149])as well as the movie Clockwise (1986), to which he wrote the
screenplay.
9
There is a received idea that science could not flourish in Nazi Germany because of
its expulsion of Jewish scientists or its totalitarian ethos, but John Cornwell has recently
noted: “In fact, science and technology prospered in the Third Reich after 1933. Jet
propulsion, guided missiles, electronic computers and calculators, the electron
microscope and data processing, were all first developed in Germany during the period,
Anatomy of Science Fiction 123

or at least brought to fruition,” and there were advances in nuclear fission, hormone and
vitamin research, pharmacology, synthetic gasoline and rubber, chemical warfare agents,
and television (9.36).
10
Ironically, Bohr himself actually had a small role in developing at Los Alamos the
trigger for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki (Frayn 47; Powers 7), a catastrophe
often justified, and perhaps only justifiable, as a lesser evil to prevent a greater one (the
potential loss of lives of American soldiers undertaking a Japanese invasion).
11
In a recent exchange in the New York Review of Books, Powers, replying to the
charge that Heisenberg’s failure to produce an atomic bomb was simply the result of
incompetence, notes: “I think that in fact Heisenberg did find a way to say noby
stressing the expense and difficultythat made a difference, thereby demonstrating that
scientists everywhere, then and since, have the power to decide for themselves” (Rose
66).

Works Cited
Aldiss, Brian. Science Fiction as Science Fiction. Frome, UK: Bran’s Head, 1978.
Antor, Heinz. “The Arts, the Sciences, and the Making of Meaning: Tom
Stoppard’s Arcadia as a Post-Structuralist Play.” Anglia 116.3 (1998): 326-54.
Beardsley, Tim. “Sex and Complexity.” Rev. of Arcadia by Tom Stoppard.
Scientific American 277 (July 1997): 98.
Cornwell, John. “The Battle of Science.” Rev. of Hitler’s Gift: Scientists Who Fled
Nazi Germany by Jean Medawar and David Pyke, and Einstein’s German
World by Fritz Stern. Sunday Times 13 Aug. 2000: 9.35-36.
Davidson, Max. “The Master of Self-Effacement.” Interview with Michael Frayn.
Daily Telegraph 30 May 1998.
Demastes, William W., ed. British Playwrights 1956-1995: A Research and
Production Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood, 1996.
———. “Re-Inspecting the Crack in the Chimney: Chaos Theory from Ibsen to
Stoppard.” New Theatre Quarterly 10 (August 1994): 242-54.
DiGaetani, John L. A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with
Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Greenwood, 1991.
Frayn, Michael. Copenhagen. 1st perf. 21 May 1998. London: Methuen, 1998.
———. Interview. See Davidson.
———. Interview. See Dickson.
Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Stoppard. New York: Limelight, 1995.
Hillegas, Mark R. The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians.
New York: Oxford Uuniversity Press, 1967.
Hodges, Andrew. “The Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook: Breaking the Code: Alan
Turing on Stage and Screen.”
.uk/turing/scrapbook/btc.html www.turing.org.
124 Chapter Seven

Hollinger, Veronica. “Playing at the End of the World: Postmodern Theater.”


Murphy 182-96.
Huxley, Thomas H. “Evolution and Ethics” The Romanes Lecture, 1893.
Collected Essays. Vol. 9. Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays. New York:
Appleton, 1902. 46-116.
Kramer, Prapassaree and Jeffrey. “Stoppard’s Arcadia: Research, Time, Loss.”
Modern Drama 40 (1997): 1-10.
Krupnik, Joseph. “‘Infinity in a Cigar Box’: The Problem of Science Fiction on the
Stage.” Murphy 197-219.
Lahr, John. “Bombs and Qualms.” Rev. of Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. New
Yorker 24 Apr.-1 May 2000: 219-20.
Marin, Rick. “Enjoy the Show. Test Will Follow.” New York Times 14 May 2000:
WK2.
Melbourne, Lucy. “‘Plotting the Apple of Knowledge’: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia
as Iterated Theatrical Algorithm.” Modern Drama 41 (1998): 557-72.
Murphy, Patrick D., ed. Staging the Impossible: The Fantastic Mode in Modern
Drama. Westport: Greenwood, 1992.
Myers, Robert. “Science, Infiltrating the Stage, Puts Life Under the Microscope.”
New York Times 5 Dec. 1999: AR7, 34.
Poliakoff, Stephen. Blinded by the Sun. 1st perf. 28 Aug.1996. Blinded by the Sun
and Sweet Panic. London: Methuen, 1996. 1-122.
Powers, Thomas. “The Unanswered Question.” Rev. of Copenhagen by Michael
Frayn. New York Review of Books 25 May 2000: 4, 6-7.
Rose, Paul Lawrence, and Thomas Powers. “Heisenberg in Copenhagen.” An
Exchange of Letters to the Editor. New York Review of Books 19 Oct. 2000:
65-66.
Stewart, Victoria. “A Theatre of Uncertainties: Science and History in Michael
Frayn’s Copenhagen.” New Theatre Quarterly 15.4 (1999): 301-07.
Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. 1st perf. 13 Apr. 1993. London: Faber, 1993.
———. Hapgood. 1988. London: Faber, 1994.
Wertenbaker, Timberlake. After Darwin. 1st perf. 8 July 1998. London: Faber,
1998.
Whitemore, Hugh. Breaking the Code. 1st perf. 15 Sept. 1986. Oxford: Amber
Lane, 1987.
Wroe, Nicholas. “A Serious Kind of Joker.” Profile of Michael Frayn. Guardian
14 Aug. 1999: S6(2).
CHAPTER EIGHT

VIRTUAL POLTERGEISTS AND MEMORY: THE


QUESTION OF AHISTORICISM IN WILLIAM
GIBSON’S NEUROMANCER

AMY NOVAK

When Case, the protagonist of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer


(1984), first meets the Artificial Intelligence (AI), Wintermute, in the cyberspace
matrix, he encounters it in the shape of someone from his past. Transported, via
the matrix, from the present time of “reality” into a scene from his past, Case
asks the AI for an explanation. “I’m generating all this out of your memories,”
Wintermute explains (119). Due to the advancement of technology in this
society, computers might record people’s memories and then re-enact scenes
from them within the space of the present. Technology is now capable of
penetrating not only the realm of private lives, but the body itself, digitally
translating memories and experiences into computer memory.
In “Not What It Used to Be: The Overloading of Memory in Digital
Narrative,” Brooks Landon proposes that “fiction approaching the year 2000
tends to remember memory less and less fondly, problematising the idea of
memory as technologically unstable or even as normatively unhealthy” (154).
This situation arises, he argues, as a response to the overwhelming onslaught of
information that confronts contemporary culture. This incessant proliferation of
information, he finds, creates a situation where the need to forget is a
prerequisite to survival. Faced with a society tortured by information overload,
Landon argues that a group of writers have developed two different traditions.
The first of these responses he describes as the “postmnemotechnic tradition,”
which “devalues memory by stripping it of any sovereign claim to validity or by
otherwise suggesting its irrelevance” (156). The second of these traditions, the
“antimnemotechnic” response raises “the philosophical question of whether
memory itself should or must be abandoned” (159).
I would disagree that current fiction becomes wary of memory. Part of the
dilemma arises out of the conflation of information with memory. Information,
126 Chapter Eight

Landon argues, is “the stuff of memory” (157). His is a reductive understanding,


however, of both the content of memory and the way it structures our
relationship to the past, present, and even the future. Our memories are not
simply reducible to pieces of data. As the ageing Skinner tells the young
Japanese graduate student in Gibson’s novel Virtual Light (1993): “I know you
all think you live in all the times at once, everything recorded for you, it’s all
there to play back. Digital. That’s all that is, though: playback. You still don’t
remember what it felt like” (284). While technology may be able to record the
event, what this passage suggests is that it fails to capture the way an event
resonates both when it occurs and when it is remembered. The ambiguous and
shifting qualities of memory are not the same as static bits of data. To equate
memory with information is to choose a narrow definition of memory: memory
as memorisation. While memory is information, it is also the ambiguous and
shifting images that spontaneously come before us as some moment in the
present triggers a connection with the past. And unlike the retrieval of
information, this spontaneous memory recalls the past in ways that are never the
same, revising and altering both the past and the present.
What becomes intriguing is not, however, the distinction between the
qualities of computer memory/information and “human” memory, but how
Neuromancer assists in providing a greater understanding of the concept of
memory and illuminates its disruptive potential. Exploring the disorder created
within present “reality” by the virtual haunting of cyberspace, Neuromancer
articulates the tensions that arise as technology begins to record and absorb
people’s memories. Rather than simply reject the spectacle of the past created by
video or computer, this novel examines how the present is haunted by its own
media images. Gibson’s notion of “semiotic ghosts,” introduced in “The
Gernsback Continuum” (1986), illuminates how these images haunt the present
by creating an alternate temporality, not outside the present but within it. The
disruptions of narrative space performed by semiotic ghosts in Neuromancer
figure ways of resisting the hypnotic control of the spectacle and reconceive the
relationship of the past to the present.

The Spectral Fragments of Popular Culture


In “The Gernsback Continuum” the notion of “semiotic ghosts” elucidates
how the historical representations of popular culture affect the present’s
relationship to itself and to the past. The story tells of an unnamed photographer
hired to photograph remaining examples of 1930s futuristic architecture for an
illustrated history, tentatively titled The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow
That Never Was. The title of this pictorial history is suggestive in the connection
it draws between the failures of the past and the possibilities of a future that
Anatomy of Science Fiction 127

remain unfulfilled. The failures of the past are those cultural, social, or political
movements whose potential was never realised within the present.1 Repressed or
forgotten, though, the ruins of these events—such as the remains of 1930s
architecture—occupy the landscape of the present, reminding it of an unfinished
possibility. Resembling the drawings found on the pulp magazines of Hogo
Gernsback, these buildings dot the landscape of America like “a kind of
alternate America: a 1980 that never happened. An architecture of broken
dreams” (27). The ruins of this futuristic dream, created out of pop cultural
representations, furnish an image of an “alternate America,” which exists both
within and outside the present one.
These artefacts provide evidence of the way in which an era’s collective
unconscious is fuelled by the images of American pop culture. What begins as
futuristic extrapolation in science-fiction pulp magazines is transformed into
architectural design, furniture, and other “ephemeral stuff extruded by the
collective American subconscious of the Thirties” (“Gernsback” 25). While
working to record these remaining “secret ruins,” the photographer slips through
the “single wave-length of probability” and begins to see before him an alternate
reality, a present populated by these forgotten “Fragments of the Mass Dream”
(23, 30). This episode emphasises the mistake of too easily dismissing pop
culture representations of either the future or the past. For while they may not
articulate things as they “really” are or were, they nonetheless maintain a
pressure on the cultural imagination. Driving across the Arizona desert, the
photographer sees before him a real life version of a city sketched in one of the
Thirties design books and knows that it was “a dream Tucson thrown up out of
the collective yearning of an era. That it was real, entirely real” (32). What the
photographer finds himself encountering are the “segments of a dream world,
abandoned in the uncaring present,” which, nevertheless, remain as an alternate
present—a future of the 1930s that never came to fruition, but which lingers on
the margins of the 1980’s own collective unconscious.2 Such representations
express a “collective yearning” which, as the photographer articulates, is “real,
entirely real.” Rather than dismiss such representations as mere spectacle,
whether they be in the shape of a hallucination over Tucson, a virtual memory
generated by a computer, or simply representations of past historical events in
contemporary film, it becomes more important to investigate how such
spectacles circulate within the culture and why they speak to a given cultural
unconscious.
Frightened by these visions, the photographer consults an associate Marv
Kihn, who investigates reports of abnormal phenomena. Kihn labels these
visions as appearances of “a semiotic ghost”: “They’re semiotic phantoms, bits
of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own, like
the Jules Verne airships that those old Kansas farmers were always seeing. But
128 Chapter Eight

you saw a different kind of ghost, that’s all. That plane was part of the mass
unconscious, once” (29-30). What Kihn articulates is the haunting of the present
by fragmentary images of pop culture. The icons and artefacts of popular culture
point to the larger fabric of a cultural unconscious. Given shape within the
material representations of pop culture, these fragments circulate within the
present, reminding the present of the past and haunting the very cultural matrix
that created them. Such residue of the cultural imagination come as “semiotic
ghosts,” ghostly signs lingering within the language of the present, threatening
to disturb its coherency and render it meaningless.
This notion of semiotic ghosts points to how we are haunted by both
representations from the past and of the past, including the inundation of
constantly changing images produced by contemporary media technology. In his
classic 1967 manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord describes the
consequences of contemporary society’s commodification by the spectacle of an
information culture: “The pseudo-events that vie for attention in the spectacle’s
dramatisations have not been lived by those who are thus informed about them.
In any case they are quickly forgotten, thanks to the precipitation with which the
spectacle’s pulsing machinery replaces one by the next” (114). The haunting bits
of language and particles of images circulating as semiotic ghosts thus threaten
the present with an excess of meaning as “the spectacle’s pulsing machinery
replaces one by the next” (114). Out of such contradictory and fragmentary
accounts of history, Fredric Jameson argues, a situation arises “in which the
generic incompatibilities detected in post-modern fiction now comes into a
different kind of force in post-modern reality . . . in which the obligation to
disregard items classified in other columns or compartments opens up a means
for constructing false consciousness” (375). The very nature of these fragments
resists any type of synthesis from which one might construct a cohesive
narrative. In order to render history meaningful, Jameson claims, the present
needs to stabilise these images within a homogenous historical framework, yet
their heterogeneity makes such a coherency impossible or temporary.3 Is post-
modern culture then condemned to ahistoricism? Does this spectacularisation of
the past simply result in the present’s inability to think historically, cutting it off
from the way the past really was? Or might the proliferation of media
representations, providing us with diverse images of the past, articulate a new
relationship between the past and the present?

The semiotic ghosts of Neuromancer’s Cyberspace


At the heart of cyberspace culture in Neuromancer, where technology has
deeply penetrated all aspects of society and human lives, we find a culture
possessed by ghostliness, memory, and the past. This future-oriented society is
Anatomy of Science Fiction 129

not a seamless one; there remain cracks in the surface through which the past
continues to haunt. Approaching New York City, “[t]he landscape of the
northern Sprawl woke confused memories of childhood for Case, dead grass
tufting the cracks in a canted slab of freeway concrete,” as he watches “the sun
rise on the landscape of childhood, on broken slag and rusting shells of
refineries” (85). This image of “dead grass” pushing-up through the cracks of
“concrete” figures the way the ruins of the past emerge amidst the technologies
of the present. In modern Istanbul, Case wanders with his guide through an
ancient spice bazaar “along a broad concourse, beneath soot-stained sheets of
plastic and green-painted ironwork out of the age of steam” and down an alley
which he finds “too old, the walls cut from blocks of dark stone. The pavement
was uneven and smelled of a century’s dripping gasoline, absorbed by ancient
limestone” (91, 92). The intermingling of high-tech structures and ruined
remnants of an earlier economic stage creates a palimpsest effect. Whether in
Europe, Japan, the Eastern seaboard of the United States, known as the Sprawl,
or the space-orbiting vacation spot, Freeside, the present’s relationship to the
past is one of layering and coexistence, rather than linear progression.4
It is not simply the persistence of past objects and architectural ruins that
creates the sense that these are haunted places. The spectacle of cybertechnology
transforms society into a ghostly one. Neuromancer, like other cyberpunk texts,
grapples with understanding experience within a society where the actual
conditions of existence are hidden behind the mirrored surface of the spectacle.
Cyberspace, as a “consensual hallucination” and a “graphic representation of
data” (Neuromancer 51) is the pinnacle product of the “society of the spectacle”
envisioned by Debord, where “[i]mages detached from every aspect of life
merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever.5
Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-
world apart, solely as an object of contemplation” (12). Within such a society,
reality is mediated through the images it has created. Yet, this mediation renders
“reality” ghostly inasmuch as it offers only a “partial” apprehension. And as a
result of the development of cybertechnology, not only does the spectacle
dominate lived experience, but now it creates the autonomous sphere of
cyberspace in competition with this reality, allowing “a world that is no longer
directly perceptible to be seen via different specialised mediations” (Debord 17).
The creation of cybertechnology produces a proliferation of planes of “reality”
as it penetrates every aspect of existence, blurring the once seemingly stable
categories of reality, identity, and human.6
Within this culture, holograms, Artificial Intelligences, and the cyberspace
matrix are apprehended as “semiotic ghosts.” This figuring of cybertechnology
as spectral exposes what Debord sees as “the spectacle’s essential character”: “a
visible negation of life—and as a negation of life that has invented a visual form
130 Chapter Eight

for itself” (14). A product of the spectacle, cybertechnology haunts society as a


spectre, confronting it with a living form of inanimate data. In fact, three of the
characters of the novel, the Dixie Flatline, Wintermute, and Neuromancer are
not even characters according to any traditional sense which understands a
character as a being who possesses a body and interacts physically with other
characters in the “real” world of a novel. These three “entities” have no bodies in
this “real” world and yet they interact with the characters that do, carrying on
dialogues and instigating actions and responses from others. Early in the novel,
Molly and Case steal the Dixie Flatline’s construct from a vault to aid them in
their mission. This “construct” contains the personality and memories of McCoy
Pauley, a man known as the “Lazarus of cyberspace” because of the many times
his EEG flatlined while he was in cyberspace (78). Through this technology the
dead return to interact with the present in cyberspace. Like a ghost, such
cyberconstructs have no physical being in the real world, but as the Dixie
Flatline assists Case in penetrating the computers of Tessier-Ashpool, we find
that they are capable of affecting responses, actions, and changes upon that
realm.7
The character of the Dixie Flatline reveals how technology in this world now
is able to maintain a person’s memories after the physical body has died. Case
uses the dead man’s memories and skills to aid him in his task. The Flatline’s
memories do not, however, possess the spontaneity and ambiguity of memories
that Case or Molly might have. When Case first connects with the construct he
says, “It’s Case, man. Remember?” To which, the Flatline responds “Miami,
joeboy, quick study” (78). The Flatline can retrieve the information from
Pauley’s past encounters with Case, but when Case disconnects himself and then
jacks back in, the Flatline has no remembrance of the prior conversation. When
Case asks, “What’s the last thing you remember before I spoke to you, Dix?” the
Flatline can remember nothing (78). “Remember being here, a second ago?” the
Flatline responds, “No” (79). This encounter is juxtaposed with Case’s act of
remembering as “he walked back to the loft, lost in memories of the Flatline”
(77). While the Flatline has no memory of what comes before or after this
conversation, Case is able to think back to when he was nineteen and first met
the Flatline hanging out “in the Gentleman Loser” (79). Case is partially able to
remedy this disparity by giving the construct a “sequential, real time memory,”
but the spontaneity and ambiguity of memory, its ability to revise and alter its
presentation of the past, is lost.8 This distinction reflects an element of latent
humanism in the text, revealing the desire to keep the ontological divisions
between human and machine intact. Nonetheless, this differentiation is an
important one, not in order to maintain a notion of some innate human essence,
but because it reveals that the simulacra of the spectacle does not just simply
render memory obsolete.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 131

The characters Dixie Flatline and Wintermute illustrate how the semiotic
ghosts of cyberspace allow a place for the unknowable realm of the past to
interact with the present. Case’s encounter in the narrative with such semiotic
ghosts of cyberspace probes the relationship between individual memory and the
past conjured up by a society’s media representations. In The Illusion of the End,
Jean Baudrillard argues that such a culture is characterised by

two forms of forgetting: on the one hand, the slow or violent extermination of
memory, on the other, the spectacular promotion of a phenomenon, shifting it
from historical space into the sphere of advertising, the media becoming the site
of a temporal strategy of prestige . . . This is how we have manufactured for
ourselves with great swathes of promotional images, a synthetic memory which
serves as our primal reference, our founding myth, and which, most importantly,
absolves us of the real event of Revolution. (23)

The ability to conjure up the past through technology, he asserts, either erases
our memories or creates false ones, both situations resulting in forgetting. The
exploration of memory in Gibson’s novel suggests, however, that memory is not
replaced by technological representations, but is triggered by the confrontation
with the spectacle’s simulacra of the past. The ghosts of the dead and the
memories of the past that Wintermute conjures arouse rage in Case: “the rage had
come in the arcade, when Wintermute rescinded the simstim ghost of Linda Lee,
yanking away the simple animal promise of food, warmth, a place to sleep. But he
hadn’t become aware of it until his exchange with the holo-construct of Lonny
Zone” (152). The computer’s ability to conjure a holographic ghost from out of the
depths of Case’s memories creates a fury in him that propels him into action.
These fragments of Case’s past, that Wintermute manipulates, function as semiotic
ghosts. Created from the depths of Case’s unconscious, they are severed from any
link in time and place as the AI can conjure them on demand. Although merely
simulacra, these semiotic ghosts haunt Case, bringing the past into the present in a
way that propels him into assisting Wintermute in altering the present make-up of
the matrix (by undoing the present and fulfilling the forgotten potential dreamed of
by the matriarch of the Tessier-Ashpool family). Gibson’s stress on memory
suggests that memory offers a connection between individual experience and the
spectacle’s manipulation of the past and present.
Like his encounter with the semiotic ghost of the Flatline, the images of the
past that the matrix reproduces do not replace Case’s memory, but instead such
ghosts conjure up memory. To speak with Case, Wintermute appears in places
from Case’s past, as people out of his memory: Julius Deane, the Finn, and Lonny
Zone. When Case tells Wintermute that he does not have as good a memory, the
AI—in the appearance of the Finn—says, “Everybody does, . . . but not many of
you can access it. Artists can, mostly, if they’re any good. If you could lay this
132 Chapter Eight

construct over the reality, the Finn’s place in lower Manhattan, you’d see a
difference, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Memory’s holographic, for you
. . . I’m different” (170). Wintermute suggests that people have the ability to call
forth past information as coherently as he does, but very few try. Like the
holograph that can render forth a three-dimensional representation, memory can
bring the past into and give it representational form in the present, yet most people
do not know how to perform this operation. The ghostly entity of Wintermute is
capable of projecting such holographs. Memory, described as a holograph, is
characterised as ghostly, but people have as yet been unable to translate memory
of the past into a ghost in the present. When Case asks the AI what it means by
holographic, it responds: “The holographic paradigm is the closest thing you’ve
worked out to a representation of human memory, is all. But you’ve never done
anything about it. People, I mean . . . Maybe if you had, I wouldn’t be happening”
(170). The failure of human memory to conjure forth the past in the same way as a
holographic image, the AI suggests, is what makes the AI possible. Hence, he tells
Case, they both need each other: Wintermute needs Case, for it has no memories
of its own, and at the same time, people need an AI like Wintermute to bring forth
what has been forgotten. Thus the technology arises out of a human lack or failure.
Yet, the ability to render the past and alter the present is also aided by the
computer.

A Double Haunting: The Permeable Border between the Real


and the Virtual
In the advanced technological world of Neuromancer, there lies a continued
negotiation of the relationship between people and their machines, between past
and present, between computer memory and personal memories. Although
technology is able to record and materialise memory, what results is not a
devaluing of memory. Landon proposes that Gibson’s novel exemplifies “the
postmnemotechnic tradition” by imagining situations where “computer-
generated fictions—technological simulacra for memory—become substitutable
versions of reality, leading to what we might think of as the devaluing of
memory through electronic inflation” (156). Still, the personal memories
conjured up by Wintermute maintain an emotional pull for each character,
revealing the validity of memory and its continued relevance. In an interview
with Larry McCaffery, Gibson describes how his interest in computers lies less
with the specificity of the technology than with their value as a metaphor: “I’m
more interested in the language of, say, computers than I am in the
technicalities. On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a
metaphor for human memory: I’m interested in the hows and whys of memory,
the way it defines who and what we are, in how easily memory is subject to
Anatomy of Science Fiction 133

revision” (270). This figuring reveals that the meaning of memory has
increasingly become synonymous solely with information through the
advancement of computer technologies. This statement asserts equivalence
between computers and computer memory and “human” memory that ignores
the disparity between the two forms, which in Gibson’s novel is often
ferociously maintained. But equally, Gibson’s words emphasise the continued
significance of “human memory” for negotiating identity in contemporary
culture.
From one angle in Gibson’s novel, a separation between computer memory
and human memory is created, reinforcing the ontological distinctions between
“human” and machine, between “realities” and the artificial. At the same time
this difference is in moments bridged. It is not that the two modes of memory are
in opposition, but rather that they penetrate and blur, instigating responses in
each other. While Wintermute’s representations of Case’s memories are mere
simulacra generated by the spectacle, they reveal how the spectacle, although it
appears separate and isolated from human production, is in fact thoroughly
penetrated by it. Wintermute generates these images from the material of Case’s
past, which, when Case sees them, ignite his memory.9 When Ashpool—the
patriarch of the Tessier-Ashpool family—is unthawed from the freeze he has
been in, Wintermute, from its profiles and statistics, is unable to predict that he
will try and kill himself. Yet, in the same scene it transposes Case’s memory of
Linda Lee onto the dead body in Ashpool’s room that Case sees through his
“simstim” link with Molly. Thus, while the AI is unable to alter memory, to
predict the way in which it might influence the present, it does have the
capability of blurring the past with the present—just as “human” memory
does—so as to incite a response in the present by one of the characters.
Like a ghost hovering on the border between past and present, the semiotic
ghost of the cyberspace matrix becomes an interface between the knowable
space of the present and that which escapes signification, in this case the dead
and the bits of data contained in the matrix. McCaffery points to how Gibson has
created “a powerfully resonant metaphor—the cyberspace of the computer
matrix—where data dance with human consciousness, where human memory is
liberalised and mechanised” (264). Here, the metaphor of the computer and
cyberspace figures not the qualities of human memory, but rather the feeling of
living in a society completely penetrated by technology. The matrix offers a way
of confronting the unknowable by translating data, giving it signification in a
way that is accessible to consciousness. Taking McCaffery’s and Gibson’s
statements on metaphor together, we can understand the way in which the
cyberspace matrix is not the same as human memory, but rather provides an
interface between intersecting realms—the realm of “human” existence and the
realm of the machine. Rather than denounce such a fusion as dehumanising,
134 Chapter Eight

Veronica Hollinger suggests that “[t]he post-modern condition has required that
we revise science fiction’s original trope of technological anxiety—the image of
a fallen humanity controlled by a technology run amok. Here again we must
deconstruct the human/machine opposition and begin to ask new questions about
the ways in which we and our technologies ‘interface’ to produce what has
become a mutual evolution” (218). Hollinger resists viewing the intersection of
these two realms solely with nostalgic anxiety. The penetration of the human by
the machine does not necessarily limit or take away from our experience or
development. Instead, Hollinger proposes exploring the positive potential of this
interface that has already occurred and that proffers new paradigms for
understanding ourselves and our relationship to our surroundings.
Effecting an interface, the semiotic ghosts of cyberspace disrupt the
apparently smooth surface of “reality” as produced by the spectacle of cyber
technology itself. When Case first connects with the construct of the Flatline in
cyberspace, he finds that it is “exactly the sensation of someone reading over his
shoulder” (78). The ghostly world of the matrix and the ghost of the Flatline
haunt Case, challenging his own ontological stability. This threat arises as he is
confronted with the object world of the matrix and the machine being
transformed into thinking active agents. Yet, at the same time, the matrix is itself
haunted by the parallel world of “real” existence. During their first interaction,
Case tells the Flatline that he is simply a construct, to which the Flatline says: “If
you say so” (79). The construct has no ability to understand the ontological
distinctions of living and dead, of “real” and artificial. As the Flatline continues
to interact with the real living Case, though, these distinctions come to the
construct. Case asks him how he is, and the Flatline responds, “I’m dead, Case.
Got enough time in on this Hosaka to figure that one” (105). When asked how it
feels, he says it doesn’t, and when asked if it disturbs him, he replies, “What
bothers me is, nothin’ does” (105). The penetration, by those who enter the
matrix, of previously stable barriers between “real” and “artificial,” “human”
and “machine,” creates a haunting on both sides of the border. The Flatline is
haunted by absence. He explains to Case: “Had me this buddy in the Russian
camp, Siberia, his thumb was frostbit. Medics came by and they cut it off.
Month later he’s tossin’ all night. Elroy, I said, what’s eatin’ you? Goddam
thumb’s itchin,’ he says. So I told him to scratch it. McCoy, he says, its the other
goddam thumb” (105-06). What haunts both Case and the Flatline’s friend is
absence. Just as the friend can feel the missing thumb, Case is haunted by his
bodiless absence within cyberspace.
This haunting suggests that absence has a presence, that it is a wound around
which presence coheres itself. For the Flatline this haunting is doubled. He is not
only haunted by absence, but also by the lack of absence. Like his buddy
tormented by an appendage that is no longer there, the Flatline is haunted by
Anatomy of Science Fiction 135

what no longer remains. Unable to sense his own absence, the Flatline is,
however, haunted by the lack of absence, for what bothers him is that “nothin’
does.” For him what is absent is “presence,” marking the way in which absence
is not apart or separate from presence, but rather resides within it and defines it.
In one respect, the Flatline’s response serves to reify and privilege the space of
the “human,” as it suggests that non-existent existence is intolerable. However,
this scene also reveals the category of presence as inherently unstable, resting as
it does on a site of difference. Baudrillard points out that “virtuality forms part
of reality itself—a reality which is now uncertain, paradoxical, random, hyper-
real, filtered by the medium, cut adrift by its own image” (54). While
Baudrillard is accurate in asserting that “virtuality forms part of reality itself,”
the novel reveals that this is not a new occurrence. Virtuality, or absence, has
always been the difference upon which the organising of presence rests.
Advanced cybernetic technology has created a society that is doubly haunted.
As revealed in Case’s discussions with the Dixie Flatline, the absence of the
“real” haunts cyberspace just as the virtual dead haunt present “reality.” This
ability to talk with the dead dissolves the supposedly stable categories of past,
present, and future, altering understandings of temporality. Due to the rapid
transformation of the culture penetrated by this technology, the future arrives
before the past has faded from memory. At the same time, cybernetics and
cyberspace have created an alternate level of existence that challenges the
ontological stability of reality and identity and allows the past to return as the
present. This situation of return, Baudrillard argues, is bringing about the
disappearance of history: “We are so used to playing back every film—the
fictional ones and the films of our lives—so contaminated by the technology of
retrospection, that we are quite capable, in our present dizzy spin, of running
history over again like a film played backwards” (11). As a result of this
retrospection, he claims, modernity is “disintegrating into its simple elements in
a catastrophic process of recurrence and turbulence” (11). Within a culture
dominated by the constant flow of information and the simulacra of the media
image, the attempts to construct history as a totality are thwarted. However, is
such a catastrophe necessarily negative?
Linda Hart in Fatal Women presents a way of thinking about these simulacra
which moves beyond the pessimism of Baudrillard and Debord’s formulations.
Hart juxtaposes the “similitude” of the simulacrum to “resemblance.” Where
“resemblance” presents the mirror image of its referent as it “negates, denies,
and insists on the unity of the One,” the simulacrum is wholly disloyal to
tradition, to origins, to the presence of Being (157). In the ripping away of the
signifier from the signified, the semiotic ghosts of cybertechnology—the
simulacra of the past—challenge the unity of Being, the transparency of
Meaning, and the origins of History. The significance of disrupting the
136 Chapter Eight

homogeneity of received history is suggested by Walter Benjamin when he


describes the work of the historical materialist who “blast[s] a specific era out of
the homogeneous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a
specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is
preserved in this work and at the same time cancelled” (263). Might not such a
catastrophe of history created by the semiotic ghosts of the spectacle participate
in this explosion by ripping history out of its linear progression and creating a
space from which a new narrative economy between past, present, and future
might be created?

Haunting the Present: Ghostly Narrative Disruptions


Tracing the rupture of the narrative economy in Neuromancer created by the
semiotic ghosts of cyberspace presents an alternative to reading the fracturing of
linear temporality as catastrophic. The organising of the separate narrative
events in Neuromancer is not controlled simply according to the linearity of a
human life, nor the actions of a “human” agent. Instead, the narrative agent is a
“semiotic ghost”: the Artificial Intelligence, Wintermute. Case first discovers
that the assignment, he has been recruited for, is engineered by Wintermute
when he is in the matrix. Deciding he wants to take a look at this Artificial
Intelligence owned by Tessier-Ashpool registered in Berne, he enters the
cyberspace matrix of Zurich banking and sees Wintermute there as “a simple
cube of white light” (115). As he attempts to enter its computer network, the
cube grows until “[i]ts blank face, towering above him now, began to seethe
with faint internal shadows, as though a thousand dancers whirled behind a vast
sheet of frosted glass” (116). Attempting to penetrate this blankness, to know it,
Case is suddenly pursued by it. At this moment of confrontation with this “non-
human” entity, the narrative fragments:

The dark came down like a hammer.

Cold steel odour and ice caressed his spine.


And faces peering in from a neon forest, sailors and hustlers and whores,
under a poisoned silver sky. . . .
“Look, Case, you tell me what the fuck is going on with you, you wig or
something?”
A steady pulse of pain, midway down his spine—

Rain woke him, a slow drizzle, his feet tangled in coils of discarded
fiberoptics. The arcade’s sea of sound washed over him, receded, returned. (116)
Anatomy of Science Fiction 137

Trying to escape and jack out of the matrix, the darkness chases after him.
As he is enveloped by it, the flow of the paragraph breaks off and, skipping an
extra line, begins with Case caught between two different spaces and times with
images of the past coming to him unbidden. At the same time as he feels the
pain of his body and hears Maelcum in “real” space saying, “Look, Case, you
tell me what the fuck is going on with you,” he sees himself being looked upon
by “sailors and hustlers and whores, under a poisoned sky.” Case’s movement
between different narrative spaces and temporalities is motivated not so much by
his own actions, except for the initial activity of jacking into the matrix, as by
the efforts of the “semiotic ghost” within the matrix.
The spectres of cyberspace fracture the narrative economy of the text.
Transported, Case wakes up in the middle of an arcade. At first confused, with
no memory of where he is or how he got there, he soon discovers he is back on
Nisei where the novel began. Leaving the arcade, Case quickly finds himself in
another place from his past as he is guided to Julius Deane’s Import Export
office. He finds things just as they were last time he was there: “The sagging
face of the Dali clock still told the wrong time. There was dust on the Kandinsky
table and the Neo-Aztec bookcases. A wall of white fibreglass shipping modules
filled the room with a smell of ginger” (118). These are precisely the same
images that have been provided when Case entered Deane’s office earlier in the
novel. Here he confronts Wintermute in the shape of Deane as replicated from
his own memories. The structure of the narrative becomes layered, as a gap
opens within the present and an alternate present is inserted by the introduction
of the “reality” of the cyberspace matrix. When Case shoots the image of Deane
with a gun, the narrative breaks off and returns to Maelcum and Molly looking
on in the present of “reality”: “It’s cool,” Molly says to a disturbed Maelcum,
“It’s just okay. It’s something these guys do, is all. Like he wasn’t dead, and it
was only a few seconds. . . .” (121). The events and lengthy discussion in which
Case has participated in the cyberspace matrix have transpired in a very short
span of “real” time. So although this exchange between Molly and Maelcum is
occurring afterwards within the narrative, in the temporality of the narrative
space it exists almost simultaneously. Maelcum says “I saw th’ screen, EEG
readin’ dead. Nothin’ movin’, forty second” (121). Interjecting the dead within
the space of the living causes this interruption of the narrative present. Narrative
time and space become fluid as Case shifts between the ghostly world of the
matrix and the present of “reality” and the past returns to the present.
This splintering of the narrative space resonates with the temporal
organisation of computers and cyberspace. Increased familiarity with computer
technology alters our reading patterns and teaches us to perceive images in new
ways. In Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age, J. David Bolter
contends that
138 Chapter Eight

the computer goes the press one better. The book is a carefully designed structure
of words on a page, but it is a frozen structure, and it is linear. Most printed books
have a sense of direction and development; they expect the reader to follow the
flow of events and ideas described from beginning to end. As I have stressed,
elements of data in a computer memory system are not limited to one rigid order.
Put the elements in a random-access device, and the user can examine them in
any order he cares to define . . .. In short, because we define and redefine the
structure of our data, we break free of the fundamentally linear order imposed by
the mechanical technology of the book. (162-63)

Computer technology revolutionises not solely our approach to information,


but our entire relationship to temporal categories. The events we experience in a
technologically advanced society, in their proliferation and contradiction, are not
organised simply linearly. When the semiotic ghosts of Case’s experiences in
cyberspace enter the linear narrative movement of the text, they resist linearity
and causality and instead create an alternative narrative space that requires us to
constantly renegotiate our construction of the present. Thus, in a sense, the
semiotic ghosts of the spectacle do create a catastrophe, a narrative one that
unmasks the supposedly stable boundaries of the narrative present. These
semiotic ghosts of Case’s cyberspace episodes create a narrative economy that
emphasises the necessity of moving beyond an understanding of temporality as
linear if we want to understand our relationship to this new technological
culture.
As the narrative unwinds and develops, it alternates between the “real” time
of the narrative present, the temporality in which Case and Molly are executing
their assignment, and the “spectral” time of the narrative present, where Case, in
scenes from his own past, interacts with Wintermute. Yet, as Case gets closer to
accomplishing his mission of liberating Wintermute so that it might join with the
other AI, Neuromancer, the dead reappear, this time not simply as templates
through which the personality, or entity, of Wintermute might speak. Case jacks
into the matrix within the Villa Straylight to find:

Nothing. Gray void.


No matrix, no grid. No cyberspace.
The deck was gone. His fingers were . . .
And on the rim of consciousness, a scurrying, a fleeting impression of
something rushing toward him, across leagues of black mirror.
He tried to scream. (233)

Case descends into a realm of total absence. From the margins of


consciousness and signification this aporia opens up, spreading towards him
until he falls into it. In the next instant, he finds himself on a beach on sand “the
Anatomy of Science Fiction 139

shade of tarnished silver that hadn’t gone entirely black” under a silver sky
(233). Although there is the beach, seagulls, and the city in the distance, there is
a profound emptiness to this place, something which escapes language as Case
“held himself and rocked. Singing a song without words or tune” (233).
Removed again from the narrative present, Case discovers he is within the AI
construct, Neuromancer, surrounded by the dead. Here, where there is not even
the familiar surroundings of his own past, he finds Linda Lee. “Now you got me
flatlined, you got me here. Nowhere. With a ghost. Like I remember her before .
. .,” he accuses Neuromancer (236). Within the AI construct of Neuromancer,
Linda has a life of her own, independent of his memories of her, as the AI
absorbed her personality and memories into the construct just before her death.
In this place which is nowhere, the dead continue living. Neuromancer tells Case
the meaning of his name: “The lane to the land of the dead. Where you are, my
friend. Marie-France, my lady, she prepared this road, but her lord choked her
off before I could read the book of her days. Neuro from the nerves, the silver
paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead. . . . I am the dead, and their
land” (243-44). Neuromancer provides a space for memories to reside separately
with virtual bodies where they carry on their own existence in an alternate
present, a space that is “nowhere.” Neuromancer represents the failed past of the
now-dead Marie-France, whose work was stopped when she was murdered by
her husband. And it is this forgotten path which Wintermute seeks to restore.
The semiotic ghost of Wintermute haunts “reality,” demanding the assistance of
Case and Molly to undo the present and fulfil the forgotten future dreamt of by
Marie-France.
This fall into indeterminacy encountered by Case when he confronts the
alternative present created by Neuromancer extends to the level of the narrative
structure. The multiple fragments of the text create a confusion of narrative spaces
and temporalities that destabilise any definite claim to ontological stability or
privilege. Nonetheless, the narrative does attempt a conventional closure. Case
does not choose to live in the construct created by Neuromancer, but returns to the
world of the living to unite Wintermute with Neuromancer, helping to realise the
full potential of the cyberspace matrix as an independent realm. Wintermute no
longer needs the material of other people’s memories to create a construct in
which to speak since it now resides with Neuromancer. This conclusion attempts
to reinforce the boundaries between human and machine that the rest of the novel
has rendered fluid and penetrable. Paralleling the reinstatement of these borders,
the narrative economy of the text becomes more linear and leads to a central
climax and resolution. Discussing the narrative failures of Gibson’s text, Claire
Sponsler concludes that “Gibson’s predicament in the end is paradigmatic of the
problem all cyberpunk faces: it seems doomed to play out old plots peopled by old
characters within a scene that calls for a radically different formulation of human
140 Chapter Eight

agency and action” (640). While Sponsler’s reading rightly acknowledges


Gibson’s reliance on conventional narratives, it does not fully account for the
haunting aftermath of the novel’s resolution.
The narrative’s end comes in a section titled “Coda: Departure and Arrival.”
This heading undermines linearity by emphasising repetition and marking both a
closure and a beginning. In the final moments of the narrative, Case finds that

one October night, punching himself past the scarlet tiers of the Eastern Seaboard
Fission Authority, he saw three figures, tiny, impossible, who stood at the very
edge of the vast steps of data. Small as they were, he could make out the boy’s
grin, his pink gums, the glitter of the long gray eyes that had been Riviera’s.
Linda still wore his jacket; she waved, as he passed. But the third figure, close
behind her, arm across her shoulders, was himself.
Somewhere, very close, the laugh that wasn’t laughter.
(270)

The tightly wrapped closure of the narrative action cannot quite exorcise the
haunting which has been produced by attempting to map the relationship
between “reality” and cyberspace. As Case travels by, he sees not only the
characters he encountered in Neuromancer’s “lane of the dead,” but himself as
well. Case, as he was at the moment Neuromancer recorded his personality
within the construct, continues to reside there, separate and apart from the Case
in the present. Once again, the narrative space of the text is bifurcated by
semiotic ghosts as the dead Flatline’s “laugh that wasn’t laughter” echoes across
space and time to Case, disrupting the neatly closed resolution of the plot. The
smooth surface of the narrative present in “reality” is haunted from within by the
spectres of virtuality lying on the very edge of perception. The meaning of the
moment cannot be encountered within the fullness of the present, but must be
located by grasping it together with the alternative present which renders
meaning at the same time as it makes the original moment indeterminate and
ambiguous.

Conjuring the Past in the Realm of the Spectacle


Gibson’s Neuromancer relapses at times back to an all-too-familiar
technological paranoia and reification of the distinction between “human” and
machine. However, it provides a useful beginning point for thinking about how
the narrative of this text—haunted by semiotic ghosts—employs a narrative
economy that asks us to understand the present by grasping together irreducible
and disparate fragments of “reality” and simulacra. Indeed, Gibson’s text has
become in contemporary culture something of a semiotic ghost in its own right
Anatomy of Science Fiction 141

as this “imagined” representation has affected and influenced how we


understand the proliferation of cybertechnology since the book was written.
The cyberspace culture and its technology which Gibson’s novel explores
produces a proliferation of semiotic ghosts. Cyberspace renders “reality” ghostly
in this technologically advanced society where the past confronts the present and
the dead return to the living. The spectrality of the matrix penetrates the
narrative structure and the language of the text, asking the reader to grasp
simultaneously the irreducible, but interpenetrable, worlds of the past and the
present, of “reality” and cyberspace. The result is a narrative that reflects the
fractured relationship between the past and present within a technologically
advanced society haunted by “semiotic ghosts.” Neuromancer demonstrates that
post-modern simulacra of the past created by the culture of the spectacle does
not simply create a pervasive cultural amnesia and devaluing of memory
resulting, as Jameson argues, in the inability to think historically or, as
Baudrillard claims, in the dissolution of history. Memory is not devalued or lost
here. These semiotic ghosts produce an alternative present within the cyberspace
matrix, reminding the present of the space of the past. But this alternate plane of
existence does not reside separate and apart from “reality.” Instead, it penetrates
and haunts “reality.” The significance of this narrative disordering is not simple
aesthetic playfulness. Rather, there is something about these characters’
experiences within this culture that to be understood requires these formal
experiments with traditional narrative structures. To represent the relationship
between the past and the present amidst the disorientation and fracturing of
experience created by an ever-changing technological world requires a narrative
economy different from traditional historical narrative’s placement of each
action and event within a linear, causal framework. The narrative economy of
Neuromancer asks us to negotiate this relationship and our connection to the
simulacra of the spectacle in the slippage between layers—between past and
present, between “reality” and virtuality. Incessantly circulating, the semiotic
ghosts of virtuality and a media culture haunt the memory of the present and
continually force it to renegotiate the process of historical representation.

Notes
1
The potential of such failures and the suggestiveness of this fictional title—The
Tomorrow that Never Was—are revealed in Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “nothing
that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history” (254). This statement taken
together with his claim that “[t]he past carries with it a temporal index by which it is
referred to redemption,” emphasises the way in which past events, although temporarily
forgotten by the present, continue to linger, waiting to be disinterred in the future from
their early graves (254).
142 Chapter Eight

2
Gibson’s story intersects here with the distinction in possible worlds theory between
(textual) actual worlds and (textual) alternative possible worlds. In these terms, the
photographer comes upon an alternative possible world in the actual world of the
narrative. What this encounter conveys, however, is that these designations are nebulous
for in this confrontation the alternative possible world of a “dream Tucson” becomes part
of the “actual world” of the text.
3
In “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Fredric Jameson
proposes that today’s science fiction is the inheritor of the tradition of the historical novel
(150). Nonetheless, it still registers, he claims, “the disappearance of historicity from
consumer society today” (150). I maintain though that the emphasis on memory in many
of today’s science-fiction texts belies such declarations of the loss of historicity and
suggests not a nostalgia, but a rethinking of “historicity” itself.
4
M. Keith Booker, “Technology, History, and the Post-modern Imagination: The
Cyberpunk Fiction of William Gibson” explores the lack of historical consciousness of
Gibson’s work. Booker notes “that Gibson’s cultural references come from the present,
not from the past” and finds in Gibson’s work an “apparent obliviousness to historical
process” (82). In “Futuristic Flu, or, The Revenge of the Future,” István Csicsery-Ronay,
Jr. makes a similar charge against cyberpunk’s lack of historicism, with Gibson as one of
the leading culprits: “Paradoxically, this inaccessible and unintelligible future is actually
now; the rules of the future are beginning to unfold now. And hence there is no real
present; there are no norms sufficient for the here and now, only perpetual starting points
of the future” (30). Yet, the landscapes of the Sprawl and Istanbul reveal that this image
of an eternal, unchanging present is an illusion. In scenes like these throughout
Neuromancer, the presence of ruins and remnants of the past exposes simultaneously the
process of change and the lingering of the past in the present.
5
Gibson coined the term “cyberspace,” now a part of common everyday language, to
refer to

[a] consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators,


in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. . . . A graphic
representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human
system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the
mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights receding . . ..
(Neuromancer 51)
6
References to “real” and “reality” have been placed in quotation marks as a
reminder that these concepts refer not to an essential, empirically knowable, concrete
world, but rather to the reader’s or the character’s perception of the world mediated
through language and culture. Hence, at the same time as “reality” is invoked, the
possibility that there exists such a stable and knowable object of discourse is also
questioned. Additionally, this term refers both to the “reality” of the text’s narrative
present and the “reality” in which the reader reads. Following in the tradition of possible
worlds theorists, Marie-Laure Ryan creates a useful classification to distinguish between
these entities. In her glossary found in Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and
Narrative Theory, she identifies among other terms, “the actual world,” “the textual
actual world,” and “textual alternative possible world.” The first refers to the “real” world
Anatomy of Science Fiction 143

in which the reader reads and the second to the “real” world in which the characters take
action. The third term, “textual alternative possible worlds,” Ryan states, “are textually
presented as mental constructs formed by the inhabitants of TAW [textual actual world]”
(n. p.). I hesitate to employ such designations, however, for the distinctions between
worlds and between the actual and the possible, as I argue in this essay, are rendered
indistinct in contemporary culture, creating what Brian McHale, in his reading of post-
modern fiction, identifies as an “ontological scandal” (Postmodernist Fiction 85).
7
In Constructing Postmodernism, McHale characterises these constructs as “ghosts
from the machine,” rather than “ghosts in the machine,” a designation that articulates the
permeability of the boundary between the real and the virtual (265).
8
Daniel L. Schacter, professor of psychology at Harvard and a leading researcher on
memory, emphasises the distinction between memory as information retrieval and
memory as indeterminate, shifting fragments of the past: “Cognitive scientists commonly
speak of human memory as a kind of information-processing device—a computer that
stores, retains, and retrieves information. Although this sort of analogy does capture some
of memory’s important properties, it leaves no room for the subjective experience of
remembering incidents and episodes from our pasts” (16). This “subjective experience of
remembering,” Schacter argues, accounts for the distortions of memory through the
retrieval process: “Although it is often assumed that a retrieval cue merely arouses or
activates a memory that is slumbering in the recesses of the brain, I have hinted at an
alternative: the cue combines with the engram [the encoded information of past events] to
yield a new, emergent entity—the recollective experience of the rememberer—that differs
from either of its constituents” (70). Memory is more than the recording of information to
be repeated upon demand. Instead, Schacter maintains that memory is created in the
encounter between the stored traces of the past and the specific experiences at the
moment of recall.
9
In scenes such as these, Neuromancer stages the meeting of the “real” and the
spectacle, raising the question of how simulacra work upon us. In Fictional Worlds,
Thomas Pavel in describing the referentiality of fiction posits that “[r]eference in fiction
rests on two fundamental principles that, while shared by fiction and other activities, have
for a long time constituted the privileged core of the fictional order: the principle of
distance and the principle of relevance” (145). According to the first of these, “the
unbearable tensions of everyday social and personal life, are expelled from the intimacy
of collective experience and set up at a distance, clearly visible, their virulence exorcised
by exposure to the public eye” (145). This “principle of distance” can only succeed when
combined with the “principle of relevance” which proffers that “literary artefacts . . . are
not projected for fictional distance just to be neutrally beheld but that they vividly bear
upon the beholder’s world” (145). Pavel describes how fiction refers by rendering at a
distance our own experience. By doing so, it does not co-opt our experience for there is
no transparent mimetic correspondence between the fiction and the “beholder’s world.”
Rather it triggers a relationship with the “beholder’s” experience. This paradigm indicates
that memory is not replaced by Case’s encounter with Wintermute’s projection of the past
or by a viewer’s encounter with the repetition of media images. Instead, the semiotic
ghosts of the past, having been held up at a distance, invoke a relationship of relevance,
which is at moments fluid and permeable.
144 Chapter Eight

Works Cited
Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. Trans. Chris Turner. Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1994.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Trans.
Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1968. 253-64.
Bolter, J. David. Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age. Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Booker, M. Keith. “Technology, History, and the Post-modern Imagination: The
Cyberpunk Fiction of William Gibson.” Arizona Quarterly 50.4 (1994): 63-
87.
Csicsery-Ronay, István, Jr. “Futuristic Flu, or, The Revenge of the Future.” In
Slusser and Shippey. 26-45.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith.
New York: Zone, 1994.
Gibson, William. “The Gernsback Continuum.” Burning Chrome. New York:
Ace, 1986. 23-35.
———. Interview with Larry McCaffery. In Mccaffery. 263-85.
———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
———. Virtual Light. 1993 New York: Bantam, 1993.
Hart, Lynda. Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and
Postmodernism.” In McCaffery. 201-18.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
———. “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science
Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 147-58.
Landon, Brooks. “Not What It Used to Be: The Overloading of Memory in
Digital Narrative.” In Slusser and Shippey. 153-67.
McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1991.
McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992.
———. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1987.
Pavel, Thomas G. Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1986.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative
Theory. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1991.
Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past.
New York: BasicBooks, 1996.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 145

Slusser, George, and Tom Shippey, eds. Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative.
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Sponsler, Claire. “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Post-modern Narrative: The
Example of William Gibson.” Contemporary Literature 33.4 (1992): 625-44.
CHAPTER NINE

BANISHING THE MACHINE FROM THE GARDEN:


ECOLOGY AND EVOLUTION IN DAN SIMMONS’S
HYPERION CANTOS

KÁLMÁN MATOLCSY

If all Russian literature emerged from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” as


Dostoyevsky famously wants us to believe, it is perhaps arguable that all science
fiction propelled by an aversion to technology was originally inscribed in
William Blake’s “Jerusalem.” Blake’s view of the industrial settlements as “dark
Satanic mills” inspired many similar visions, and Samuel Butler’s anti-
industrialist warning rings sinister but familiar:

The machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming
subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them;
more men are daily devoting energies of their whole lives to the development of
mechanical life. (qtd. in Dyson 25)

Heeding Blake’s and Butler’s premonitions, Dan Simmons in Hyperion


(1990), The Fall of Hyperion (1995), Endymion (1996), and The Rise of
Endymion (1998) addresses the question of the “Faustian bargain” of human and
machine with unparalleled energy and enthusiasm. The wildly entertaining and
intellectually challenging Hyperion Cantos attempt to tackle the nature/culture
binary by introducing in opposition to the Artificial Intelligences, the sentient
and pseudo-organic machines of the far future, a strong environmental ethic
based on the fundamental ideas of Darwinian evolution.
The Hyperion Cantos depict the future evolution of Homo sapiens into
different taxa. Some of these, the Ousters and the Ouster-affiliates (Templars,
for instance) live in an ecologically conscious way, respecting their
environments and morphing their bodies through genetic modification and
nanotechnology to fit their habitats. Ousters keep their machinery at bay, their
Anatomy of Science Fiction 147

major equipment—their bodies—have been mutated to respond to continuously


changing natural environments and help them keep up with the forces of natural
selection. Most Ousters bear animal features. In the flight from the machine-
dominated universe atavistic bestiality becomes the ground for an organic ethic,
placing the concept of the human in a radically novel context, creating an
understanding of the posthuman balanced on the verge of the abhuman.
The novels depict two trajectories of human evolution. One is Ouster
evolution, an eco-friendly, genetic mutation aiming at biological accommodation
to various habitats on alien worlds; the other is the co-evolution of human beings
in the Hegemony and the Artificial Intelligences (AIs, also known as the
TechnoCore, an equivalent of William Gibson’s cyberspace), enhancing yet
undermining the global welfare of humans. The novels depict the ongoing
struggle for power and the TechnoCore’s true desire to obliterate the human
race. This history of corruption, not unlike Donna Haraway’s famous slogan
“the informatics of domination” (161), nullifies the idea of a potential peaceful
symbiosis of humans and AIs. In Simmons’s dystopia we are not “brothers and
sisters to our machines” (Dyson x). His dark diagnosis extends to an utter
extreme. In the Hyperion Cantos, Hegemony and Pax history records that the
paths of human and machine first converge in a symbiotic relationship, then
suddenly bifurcate through apocalyptic warfare. The qualities of the two
“species” are read according to their common histories. First, the two life forms
develop more and more alike—the creatures and creators are like father like son.
At a later stage of the identification process, however, conceptual and spatial
closeness becomes a dangerous game, and AI-designed technology turns into a
dangerous toy. In Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion the bodiless AIs operate
within an “offbeat” hardware environment—they utilise the neurons of the
millions of people stepping into and out of the Core-built, atomising-teleporting
devices, the “farcasters.” In this ultimate exploitation of human beings as raw
material for computation, farcaster technology may be viewed as the
interplanetary version of Thoreau’s railroad that rides upon its “sleepers”: “We
do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those
sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man . . .” (Walden 174).1 In
addition to building the neural network, the TechnoCore are also engaged in
creating an Ultimate Intelligence for themselves, as an attempt to finalise their
awkward mimesis of human evolution and to gain total independence from, and
control over, their creators. God comes last for the AIs; conjuring up images of
Frank J. Tipler’s “omega point,” Terence McKenna’s “transcendental object at
the end of time” (Dery 9), or Olaf Stapledon’s maxim in “Interplanetary Man”:
“God, who created all things in the beginning, is himself created by all things in
the end” (qtd. in Dyson 36). The de Chardinian irony of the Hyperion Cantos’
148 Chapter Nine

delineates the coming “apotheosis of technology” (Baudrillard, “Clone Story”


102).
Although not a manifestation of the Ultimate Intelligence, Ummon the AI
appears to the inquisitive human intellect who contacts it more of a deity than
the representative of an imperialistic race. As if to mock the human-cybrid,
Ummon confesses in verse:2

We enslaved you
With power/
Technology/
Beads and trinkets
Of devices you could neither build nor understand\\
The Hawking drive would have been yours/
But the farcaster/
The fatline transmitters and receivers/
The megasphere/
The deathwand>
Never\\
(The Fall of Hyperion 421)

Kevin Warwick warns in March of the Machines: Why the New Race of Robots
will Rule the World that “the control of machines building machines is critical”
(239).3 Already with the farcaster network the TechnoCore has stepped beyond
the limits of humanly conceivable technology, but with the creation of an
Ultimate Intelligence the AIs would irrevocably move beyond human
understanding and control, and would be able to shed the outer layer of human
civilisation as a worn-off skin. Warwick theorises that machines, once they have
the intelligence and consciousness of a human being, will not let themselves be
turned off by a simple flick of the switch (214). His account that “[m]issiles and
other military weapons and vehicles are obviously an important driving force in
the push for more and more intelligent machines” (241) invokes Hyperion’s
terrifying images of hi-tech war: “a hundred-meter-wide beam skipped like a
tornado through the forest less than a kilometre from the Worldtree. The ancient
forest exploded in flame, creating a corridor of fire rising ten kilometres into the
night sky” (Hyperion 372).
As the AIs’ true intentions begin to surface, they suddenly become severely
and frighteningly alien; the TechnoCore is seen as more of a parasite than a
symbiont. The threat is not the least hypothetical. With the employment of the
“cruciforms,” which the world-ruler Catholic Church so willingly utilises in
Endymion, comes the direct instrument of human extermination. The
cruciforms—seemingly organic parasites that, by being planted upon humans’
chests, can store their genetic data and can thus revive their deceased hosts—
turn out to be AI individuals, tormenting or killing their human victims at will.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 149

The HyperionCantos cast in narrative form Mark Dery’s warning that


“technology is inextricably woven into the warp and woof of our lives” (14).
The Hegemony’s and later the Pax’s civilisation proves as much the product of
the TechnoCore as of human intelligence, and the two become miraculously
intertwined. Meina Gladstone, the Hegemony’s CEO, decides, therefore, to cut
the cord, to “cauterise” the machine from the body of humanity through
destroying the farcaster system with the whole establishment of the TechnoCore
in it (The Fall of Hyperion 479).4 She realises the damage she will cause as she
casts humanity back into the “galactic Dark Ages,” a new barbarism without
instant communication, travel, and commerce. She is unaware, however, that the
AI individuals have already transferred from the farcasters to the cruciforms.
They have become mobile, travelling on the bodies of their human hosts, among
them the most prestigious in the Pax’s administration, the pope and his cardinals.
Through administering themselves as prostheses, as surrogate hearts, the
inhuman AIs manage to penetrate the very “heart” of human civilisation itself.
Due to a post-Romantic urge manifested by the text, the heart becomes a key
image. Aenea, the lively, young, female messiah, comes equipped with the
“nanoteched” blood needed to fight the cruciforms. Aenea’s blood, which she
shares with her followers in a science-fictionalised version of the Eucharist and
which proves to be her only weapon in the fight against AIs, flows from her own
heart, the exact centre of human resistance against the machine.
The tension between AIs and hegemony citizens derives from a rupture in
the history of the human race. With the quasi-nuclear holocaust of the Great
Mistake, Earth’s inhabitants had been forced to leave their home planet in a
migration later epitomised as the “Hegira”—Simmons borrowing from Muslim
dogma.5 Through this migration motif Christopher Palmer reads the novels as
representative of the galactic empire trend. He asserts: “these novels do exhibit
the horror vacui . . . [so that] space is full of planets, worlds, spaceships on the
scale of worlds, empires” (75). Palmer’s observation that “[t]he dynamic is
proliferation and inclusion” (75) appears tenable. Nonetheless, he sees in
proliferation and inclusion only a sign of post-modern science fiction and does
not highlight the reason for its presence, that is, the evolutionary context which
cradles the novels.6 To survive the cosmic trauma, humans have no choice other
than to evolve biologically and technologically, into new and different human
types that fit their new habitats. Janeen Webb also highlights the post-modern
influences upon the novels, but, in contrast to Palmer, she finds their latent
organicism significant. Webb diagnoses a “current Romantic revival in science
fiction” which “heralds a trend in narrative modalities that moves beyond the
static post-modern treatment of art as an artefact and towards a sophisticated
emergent post-romanticism that looks backward into the future” (139). The
return to Romantic thought—which “underneath the splatter of images . . .
150 Chapter Nine

subverts post-modern detachment by readopting . . . the romantic search for


value in human identity” (141)—provides contemporary science fiction with
important tools. One of these, the focus on memory, facilitates such fiction’s
concern with the enigmas of the universe on the one hand, and organic creation
on the other.7
A late successor to Shelling, Schiller, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, whose
interests in organicism represented a critical stance against the Enlightenment’s
mechanistic and idealistic views of matter and mind, Simmons regards the
human being holistically. Thus, any discussion of the human/inhuman in his
works has to surrender its dichotomising tendencies and enter the field of the
posthuman, since the novels depict not simply “humans,” but hundreds of
human types. Lusians, Templars, Ousters, even semi-organic Androids appear
beside the usual Old-Earth races, and most of these are irrevocably defined on
the borderlands of taxa and rigid definitions. N. Katherine Hayles in How We
Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
argues that discussion of the posthuman is “opening up new ways of thinking
about what being human means” (248). Similarly, the Hyperion Cantos open up
novel paths for the definition of the human. In this respect, the motif of the
bestial-monstrous Ousters proves important, since they are not only the weirdest
in outlook and attitude, but also serve as a key to solving the galactic crisis
toward which the human race is driven by the pandemonium of events. In the
figure of the Ouster, a human mutation, Stephen Jay Gould’s “jerky evolution”
(Dawkins 242) appears augmented in a fantastic way. Whereas the American
evolutionist G. Ledyard Stebbins estimates the time of the full development of a
new taxon to normally be about a hundred thousand years (Dawkins 242),
“Ousters, it turned out, had changed physically in three centuries” (Hyperion
142). Simmons’s posthuman-evolutionary irony cuts to the quick of the
nineteenth-century idea of progress and human exceptionalism that still holds
sway in the greater part of the Western world today. In a scientific context this
notion is partly attributable to Thomas H. Huxley, the first Darwinian
evolutionist, who maintained in “Evolution and Ethics” that “Man, the animal . .
. has worked his way to the headship of the sentient world, and has become the
superb animal” (170). In Man’s Place in Nature he likewise contends, “now [the
human being] stands raised upon [accumulated experience] as on a mountain
top, far above the level of his humble fellows, and transfigured from his grosser
nature by reflecting, here and there, a ray from the infinite source of truth” (114).
While humans in the far future are of many species, some of which are more
animal-like than what the Huxleites would have been comfortable with,
Simmons’s rendition of animal and human remains close to the conservationist
John Muir’s:
Anatomy of Science Fiction 151

The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete
without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful
eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary
fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material he has made
every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. (“Cedar Keys” par.
27)

Richard Dawkins, similarly, equates man with the other animals through the
argument for complexity: “We animals are the most complicated things in the
known universe” (1, emphasis added). Kelly Hurley in The Gothic Body:
Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the fin de siècle takes the argument
for complexity and transforms it into an argument for beastliness and the
fundamental, “archetypal” monstrosity of the body: “[a]ny admixture of diverse
morphic traits is possible, so that even highly complex bodies, ingeniously
specialised for their environment . . . are abominable” (90).
The Ousters, adapted to their environments, are fundamentally monstrous
and atavistic. Theo Lane in The Fall of Hyperion encounters

humans cloaked in fur and scales; humans with bodies like bees and eyes to
match, multifaceted receptors and antennae; humans as fragile and thin as wire
sculptures, great black wings extending from their thin shoulders and folding
around them like capes; humans apparently designed for massive-g worlds, short
and stout and muscular as cape buffalo, making Lusians look fragile in
comparison; humans with short bodies and long arms covered with orange fur,
only their pale and sensitive faces separating them from some holo of Old Earth’s
long-extinct orang-utans; and other humans looking more lemur than humanoid,
more aquiline or leonine or ursine or anthropoid than manlike. (390)

The Biblical ark-symbolism of the Ouster Swarms—the exporting of all Earth’s


animal life through their incorporation in the Ousters’ bestial anatomy (Ousters
actually call their ships “arks” >The Rise of Endymion 537@)—is cleverly
combined with the atavistically defined human. Hurley argues,

Atavism reveals that the human body is too compendious, too full of incompatible
histories, too full of strange narrative lines waiting to be developed. The human
body, at least potentially, is utterly chaotic, unable to maintain its distinctions
from a whole world of animal possibilities. (94)

In Hurley’s view, “[s]uch a body is not just liable to abhuman becomings, but
also reveals itself as always already abhuman, a strange compilation of morphic
traits, fractured across multiple species-boundaries” (92). Simmons, while
offering his novels as a playground for the metamorphoses of the bestial body,
reverses the process of observation. Whenever the nineteenth-century beacon of
152 Chapter Nine

progress occasionally flashed upon a darkened corner of the atavistic, it


immediately deemed those nooks abnormal, bestial, and a subversion of
everything sacred in the teleological context.8 In the discourse of the Hyperion
Cantos, the monstrous or bestial does not lurk horrifyingly in the shadows—the
way Hurley analyses it in connection with nineteenth-century Gothic fiction—
but becomes desirable out of a strong belief in organic and non-teleological
evolution. It is important to emphasise that atavism does not equal de-evolution
in the Hyperion Cantos. “Life doesn’t retreat” (The Rise of Endymion 465).
Simmons’s atavistic Ousters are only monstrous in their anatomies—their minds
and spirits are evolved to deal with the scientific and technological problems
their asteroid habitats and their nanotechnological evolution present them with.
Chaotic Ouster bodies do not understand or answer to required limitations
between different forms or taxa. Ousters are the link between the grey-skinned
alien from many a fifties’ sci-fi movie and the familiarly human. Ousters, as
science-fiction creatures, are post-human.
But Simmons’s posthuman evolution proves a trifle different from Hayles’s
version. Hayles argues that the posthuman body is the surface on which the
workings of emergent, chaotic mechanisms imprint new meanings. Therefore,
she maintains, the posthuman is an anti-liberal concept (288). Simmons,
however, depicts not only this contingency through his posthuman figures—the
concept that Baudrillard calls “[b]estiality, and its principle of uncertainty”
(“The Animals” 129)—but also enriches it with the idea of free will: the distance
the Ousters physically travel or nanotechnologically evolve is the way to
liberation from the dominance of the machine. Following in the wake of
Thoreau, who claims, “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” (“Walking”
239), Simmons defines Ouster anatomy far from, for instance, film director
David Cronenberg’s “uncontrollable flesh” (Dery 235), well observable in the
insectoid scientist of The Fly (1986). The Hyperion Cantos let the idea of human
freedom of choice sift through the chaotic understanding of the body, equating it
with the animal instinct for survival. Although the chaotic landscape imprints its
messages on the posthuman Ouster bodies, those bodies in turn are free to
choose those chaotic habitats. Their ease in travelling in person on great energy-
wings driven by solar winds (The Rise of Endymion 563-68) or their graceful
behaviour when listening to music (The Fall of Hyperion 389-91), for instance,
all suggest that the Ousters—bodily and spiritually—are truly liberated.
Ousters may also be regarded as a radical revision of the cyborg figure.
Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto” contends that cyborgs search for
connectedness and are liable to “deassembly and reassembly” (162). Even
though Ouster bodies prove the result of “deassembly and reassembly”—
regarding their anatomical features, that is—they do not fall prey to the various
posthuman trends or illnesses, like the will to “discorporation” (Dery 234), or
Anatomy of Science Fiction 153

simple ascetic “body loathing” (236). The Ousters and their human allies do not
wish to escape from the body like the cyberpukes; they are wary of “leaving the
body behind” (Bordo 2376), or of taking “the routes of seeming liberation and
pleasure” (Hayles 291). The Ousters wish to escape with the body, within the
body, for they understand its vital evolutionary importance. Simmons’s attempt
to find some human essence as connected to the body is, after all, not as
idealistic as it first seems, since Ouster evolution, Ouster lifestyle, and the
Ouster body are various attributes of the same system. As Hayles emphasises,
the body is “a congealed metaphor,” “the net result of thousands of years of
sedimented evolutionary history, and it is naive to think that history does not
affect human behaviours at every level of thought and action” (284). The
Ousters are not merely a metaphor; the Ouster body, in its evolutionary actuality,
materialises the flight from the machine. Hurley describes the idea of the
evolutionarily historicised body as having originated from Charles Darwin
himself: “In The Origin of Species, talking about species in general Darwin
presents the body as a compendium, on and within which the whole history of
the species is inscribed” (91).
Carl Sagan, following a well-established line of evolutionary tradition,
defines the human through some of our main bodily functions: “[t]he enormous
amount of brain area committed to the fingers—particularly the thumb—and to
the mouth and the organs of speech corresponds precisely to what in human
physiology, through human behaviour, has set us apart from most of the other
animals” (The Dragons of Eden 32-33). “[A] cybernetic environment . . . that
still requires the mind, the eye, and the hand but has little use for the rest of the
body” (Dery 261) may accord with human evolution, yet be a corrupted,
perverted version of it, controlled in part by the machine. Machines, unable to
copy future organic evolution, “remain distinctively different from humans in
their embodiments,” as Hayles asserts (284). In the Hyperion Cantos the
perverted deflection of mechanical life from organicism becomes evident in that
sentient mechanical beings choose not to have bodies at all (the AIs only take
material form when making physical contact with humans), or are simply
embodied as prostheses (the cruciform-AIs in Endymion and The Rise of
Endymion). Similarly, ARNied and Poulsen-treated bodies, which are basically
Simmons’s rendition of cyberpunks and old-style life-extension, tie themselves
to the mechanical environment, thus finding it impossible to enter the Hyperion
Cantos’ evolutionary paradise.9
Still, since both posthuman and evolutionary theory subvert the major binary
distinction of human/inhuman, the choice between the machine and the human-
Ouster becomes problematic: both are life forms having different characteristics
that make them excellent. Machines are alive, in the strictest sense of the word,
Warwick assures us. He claims that the signs of life are commonly held in
154 Chapter Nine

biology to be “growth, reproduction, breathing, nutrition, . . . excretion, . . .


movement and irritability” (18), and fears that “certain machines that we have
now exhibit quite a few, if not all, of those characteristics and could possibly be
regarded . . . to be an earthly life form” (20). As he contends,

consciousness is just one characteristic of the functioning of a human brain, and


we know that there are many others. Many of these features can be, and indeed
are, much less abstract and possible to measure. Of those we can measure, either
we know already that machines are much better than humans, as with memory
and speed, or we can see that logically they will be better before very long . . . .
(149)

Warwick’s dark vision is, first and foremost, supported by his loss of hope in a
uniquely human trait. In his view, the appearance of more and more intelligent
machines and the fast development of the field of Artificial Intelligence weaken
the idea of human superiority.
Leo Marx analyses the introduction of technology to the pre-industrial
American landscape in his seminal The Machine in the Garden. Marx views the
machine not only as a necessary tool but also as something potentially harmful
to the garden and its owner, nature and the human being.10 Yet he also argues
that the machine-dominated economy can, through concerted social actions, be
confined: “The machine’s sudden entrance into the garden presents a problem
that ultimately belongs not to art but to politics” (365). If, however, we believe
Warwick that machines can gain the same, or much higher, level of intelligence
(coupled by a development toward the organic), what is it that will “set us apart
from” artificially intelligent life forms, representatives of a development that
The Machine in the Garden could not foresee—the garden in the machine?
General Morpurgo, one of the main aids to CEO Gladstone, holds that
“[s]ometimes . . . dreams are all that separate us from the machines” (The Fall of
Hyperion 474). The dreams—and desires, necessary for pinning down the
humanly organic and setting it apart from the mechanically organic—are
cherished and brought to life in the Ouster Swarms, the large galactic communes
that roam the space between the stars. Additionally, Ouster dreams are only
possible through the Ouster body. Nanoteched Ousters and their human allies
represent a transgression toward the organically, or more precisely, the bestially-
modified; they enliven the diagnosis Scott Bukatman makes of cyberculture: “at
stake is the very definition of human . . . [O]ur ontology is adrift” (20). Ousters
redefine the human while preserving it; they send human ontology “adrift,”
while clinging to it. They are able to resist the whirlpool of the rabid machine
with its simulated world that conceals “the sovereign difference” between, or
rather, reverses the order of, the real and the simulacrum (Baudrillard, “The
Precession of Simulacra” 1). Simmons portrays human, machine, and beast
Anatomy of Science Fiction 155

intertwined in an apocalyptic process, and, while indulging heavily in “the


technofile-versus-technofobe debate” (Dery 14), he manages to project a very
concrete evolutionary ethic.
“It is one of the many unique qualities of man, the new sort of animal, that he
is the only ethical animal,” emphasises George Gaylord Simpson, the great
twentieth-century synthesiser of evolutionary knowledge. In The Meaning of
Evolution Simpson goes on to clarify his idea that “[t]he ethical need and its
fulfilment are also products of evolution, but they have been produced in man
alone” (154). The Hyperion Cantos also argue for the evolutionary origin of
ethics, but arrive at a conclusion quite different from Simpson’s. Simmons
adamantly postulates his ethics in terms of all animal and plant life. Similarly,
Huey-li Li, the American environmental thinker, argues that “environmental
ethics should not be established on a human-nature binary system. Human
beings are part of nature, and nature and culture are interrelated” (par. 21). Aldo
Leopold, a major figure in the twentieth-century American conservation
movement agrees envisioning the community of humans living harmoniously
with other organic life: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the
community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.
. . . In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of
the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” (204). Finally, Stephen
R. Kellert in Kinship to Mastery places the ecological ethic in the context of
biodiversity:

Buried within the human species lies a deep and enduring urge to connect with
living diversity. Nature offers an essential medium for our development, both
individual and collective, a link that is as vital today as it was in the past. We
evolved in the company of other creatures and in a matrix of conditions making
this varied existence possible. And we continue to rely—physically, emotionally,
intellectually—on the quality and richness of our affiliations with natural
diversity. Our identity remains rooted in our connections with the natural world.
(1)

Kellert adopts Edward O. Wilson’s term “biophilia” to describe this innate


urge to connect with nature. Although published exactly twenty years before
Kellert’s book, Paul Shephard’s “Place in American Culture” sheds light upon
the evolutionary necessities for the development of biophilia. Shephard contends
that “[d]iversity, richness, all those terms of multiplicity that describe a
heterogeneous world, have been demonstrated repeatedly by biologists as
essential to the development of intelligence. . . . The evidence is strong that
heterogeneity is like an essential nutrient” (24). Shepard, utilising the thought of
Claude Levi-Strauss, goes on to assert that “the system of plants and animals is a
durable, dependable concrete model for the development of the powers of
156 Chapter Nine

categorising, or basic cognition” (24). Viewed in this light, the ecological urge
becomes an evolutionary condition for human beings and even more than that: a
necessary factor in the development of human intelligence. In this way,
Simpson’s belief in the exceptionality of human ethics—the privileging of
humans with the capacity of ethical thinking—perhaps overlooks the exact
evolutionary forces behind its development; that is, the diversity of plant and
animal life.
Biophilia, the importance of biodiversity, and the ecological ethic merge in
the image of bestiality—the symbolic condensation of Earth’s evolving organic
matter in the chaotic body of the Ouster. Simmons portrays a world in which all
organisms are capable of seamless co-operation and symbiosis, a sort of future
paradise, symbolised in The Rise of Endymion by the awe-inspiring image of the
Biosphere—an orbital forest designed and built to embrace a star. As Ouster
Sian Quintana Ka’an recalls, “with this new mission grew . . . our philosophy,
almost religious in fervour, of spreading life throughout the galaxy [and] . . .
throughout the universe. Not just human life [,] . . . not just Old Earth life-forms
[,] . . . but life in all of its infinite and complex variations” (538). Expanding
from this core idea, the evolutionary and ecological paradigm rises to spiritual
heights in the Hyperion Cantos. Simmons himself professes: “The older I get,
the more fascinated I get with environmentalism, not as a movement, but as the
powerful, almost sacred force of ecology as a concept” (“Dan Simmons:
Hyperion Revealed” par 4). In the Hyperion Cantos WASP religiosity is
transcended by ecological images: Planet Hyperion, with its continents of animal
form, Ursus, Aquila, and Equus—bear, eagle, and horse; all highly respected by
the Native Americans—becomes an unspoiled future American environment.
Similarly, the protagonists’ quest is not headed toward some “city upon a hill”—
a static, superiorist icon—but toward the Ousters’ “seedships” and their dynamic
habitats, that is, asteroids and satellites. Images of the Noah-like Ousters, who
rescue Earth’s animal and vegetable life in their seedships, are fused with the
Native American totemic, semi-religious, ecocentric worldview.11 This
ecological view presupposes connectivity instead of separation and the
increasing of the total “amount” of life as a means to steer clear of the
mechanical apocalypse.
Focusing on ideas about the apocalypse and the end of time, the Hyperion
Cantos necessarily deviate from Christian dogma, differentiating between two
directions of history. On the one hand, Biosphere time is virtually and
dynamically endless in evolution, and, in that sense, the nest of the eternal,
hedonistic moment.12 On the other, Pax teleology is mechanically stagnant in its
here-and-now of artificial resurrection and the ignorant materialisation of
spiritual ideals (what Aenea represents is happily overlooked by the Pax
officials). Christian teleology is defined by an endpoint to history—the
Anatomy of Science Fiction 157

Eschaton. In the Hyperion Cantos it is the AIs who prepare the Eschaton with
their Ultimate Intelligence and their plan to exterminate humanity. The books
reveal the perversity of the post-Christian, AI-inspired dogma founded on a poor
understanding of salvation: there is the promise of an easy salvation and instant
bodily resurrection for those who join the Church and take up the cruciform.
Administering the cruciforms, the Pax also initiates pseudo-genocide, including
the transportation of cryogenised bodies from other planets:

For what reason are these populations being kidnapped? The Jews, the Muslims,
the Hindus, the atheists, the Marxists, and now our beautiful Buddhist world. Is
the Pax intent on destroying all other faiths?
AENEA: That is the Pax and Church’s motivation . . . For the TechnoCore it is a
much more complicated matter. Without the cruciform parasite on these non-
Christian populations, the Core cannot use these humans in its dying neural net. . .
. It is a mutually beneficial deal—the Church, who carries out much of the
removal work, is no longer threatened by nonbelievers—the Core, who brings the
sleep death and carries out the storage in the Labyrinths, gains new circuits in its
Ultimate Intelligence network. (The Rise of Endymion 544-45)

This false teleology, in turn, is replaced by the argument for organicism and
non-directional or non-progressive evolution. In place of the double-edged idea
of progress planted deep in the human mind—one that would inevitably bring
about annihilation, but without the promise of a City of God where humans may
enter—Ousters and Ouster-affiliates advertise the return to a future Garden of
Eden laid out along the lines of partly organic but mostly contingent evolution,
dynamic ecological ideals, and a non-extensive utilisation of technology.
Ousters are not defined in a void, suspended in a status quo delineated by the
beginning and endpoint of history, the double teleology of human cultural-
evolutionary progress.
Accordingly, the subtle spirituality in the Hyperion Cantos gets corroborated
by scientific ideas. To show the perversity of the new Church, Simmons subverts
Biblical images with the effect of crystallising the concept behind each religious
icon. A messiah appears in the novels, but she is a young woman. She is not of
divine descent, but her inception is slightly similar to Jesse’s in the New
Testament: her father is non-human, hidden, non-embodied (the original Keats
persona, a cybrid), while her mother is a natural mother whose phases of
pregnancy have passed over from the virtual to the fleshy (Lamia Brawne).13
Aenea teaches in the fashion of, and with a message not unlike that of, the
Sermon on the Mount and even shares her blood in a communion, which, of
course, has a biological rationale behind it. Ursula K. Le Guin classifies such
religious imagery in science fiction among Jungian archetypes:
158 Chapter Nine

Beyond and beneath the great living mythologies of religion and power there is
another region into which science fiction enters. I would call it the area of the
Submyth: by which I mean those images, figures and motifs which have no
religious resonance and no intellectual or aesthetic value, but which are
vigorously alive and powerful, so that they cannot be dismissed as mere
stereotypes. (“Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction” 72)

While Le Guin makes a valuable observation, I believe that the case of the
Hyperion Cantos deviates from this trend. In Simmons’s novels microbiology,
evolutionary theory, and astrophysics reformulate spiritual values to preserve
them (the messiah Aenea preaches “the religion of life”), but such scientific
concepts also reveal the decadence of actualised religious dogma (Pax politics
and the cruciforms). In one of the most striking passages in The Rise of
Endymion, Aenea describes the Last Supper:

When, during the Last Supper, Jesus of Nazareth asked his followers to drink of
his blood and eat of his body, he was not speaking in parable or asking for
magical transubstantiation or setting the place for centuries of symbolic re-
enactment. Jesus wanted them to drink of his blood . . . a few drops in a great
tankard of wine . . . and to eat of his body . . . a few skin scrapings in a loaf of
bread. . . . knowing that those who drank of his blood would share his DNA, and
be able to perceive the power of the Void Which Binds the universe. (403)

But the key to the Void Which Binds—something that “has leaked backward
and forward across the continuum to the Big Bang beginning and the Little
Whimper end of things” (399)—is nothing other than empathy, love.14 In the
Hyperion Cantos conventional religion is utterly reductionist, but science is
corroborated by a healthy mysticism.
Nevertheless, the organic ideal that Aenea represents is no less problematic
in its latent teleological content. The Void Which Binds medium that humans
and other life-forms are supposed to learn to use and the promise of a perfect
future Biosphere—a point where life would press into the farthest corners of the
universe and fill it to the brim—all suggest a de Chardinian “omega point” at the
end of history. As Aenea contends, “left to its own devices[,] . . . which are
clever devices, . . . life will someday fill the universe” (The Rise of Endymion
466, ellipsis in original). But what makes the major difference in Aenea’s
version of teleology is that the world as we know it in fact does not end, but
carries on, possibly with the involvement of further evolutionary processes. The
crazy will to progress is balanced by organic evolution. Also, the Ouster form is
just one of a myriad of future evolutionary possibilities: “It’s not for some
utopian evolution of humankind into Ouster angels or Seneschai empaths that
I’m doing . . . what I have to do. . . . Just for the chance to choose . . . Just for the
Anatomy of Science Fiction 159

opportunity to continue being human, whatever that means to each person who
chooses” (612).
Simmons is enquiring into the enigma of human existence, “a spine-chilling
mystery” (Dawkins xiv). Since the “sinful symbiosis” of man and machine is an
“evolutionary dead end,” as Sek Hardeen, The True Voice of the Worldtree
claims (The Fall of Hyperion 370), humans and human values “ousted” by
machines find shelter in the arms of organic evolution, epitomised by the bestial,
atavistic Ousters. Victorian natural historians, biologists, and doctors regarded
atavism as dangerous to the ever-growing human excellence. The novels strive
to break up the binaries human/inhuman and nature/culture. Atavism according
to the Hyperion Cantos’ anti-dichotomising and anti-teleological conceptual
system becomes something utterly different from de-evolution. In Hyperion
Ousters start out as almost wholly unknown aliens that seem to threaten the
human race with “ousting” it from its habitats. Nevertheless, it turns out that
their aggressive behaviour is really only a defence mechanism against AI
aggression. The reception of Ousters by old-style humans who first see these
strange creatures as menace and, later, as solution, re-enacts the repulsion those
Victorian scientists must have felt who were confronted with the atavistic
webbing or tail on potential angels, human babies. They were the first to
confront the unknown itself in a biological context, the messages of vast
evolutionary time. In the Hyperion Cantos, human beings may make use of that
evolutionary memory, and can preserve their humanness, what is more, they
may find a “more human” state in the atavistic. As William Hope Hodgson
argues, “man never had been ‘properly a man’” (qtd. in Hurley 91), and, in
Simmons’s posthuman world, man will never have to be a man to remain
human. As American evolutionist G. G. Simpson forcefully argues:

On the biological side, few inhabitors of a human body can possibly think that it
is perfect and that some change in it would not be highly desirable . . . change is
impossible without variation. We can therefore expect neither biological nor
social progress unless we tolerate human differences both in physical type and in
social ideas. (168, 173)

Gould in Full House promotes the idea that the history of life is more about
diversity than the progress of various species towards some definite goal. He
powerfully demonstrates that Darwin’s original ideas of evolution did not
involve a goal, progress, teleology, or any definite directionality but simply
“honour life’s bursting and bustling variety” (230). In a similar vein, the
Hyperion Cantos celebrate the non-teleological view of evolution as the spread
of variety, the history of life as a “full house” (Gould 217). As Aenea remarks,
“[w]e’ve been stuck in one species since our Cro-Magnon ancestors helped to
160 Chapter Nine

wipe out the smarter Neanderthals . . . Now it’s our chance to diversify rapidly .
. .” (The Rise of Endymion 467).
The Hyperion Cantos are not merely an environmentalists’ jeremiad but a
rebellion against the decorporising tendencies of the cyber-world. They are a
hymn to the body with Darwinian evolutionary overtones, a biophiliac “paean to
evolution” (The Fall of Hyperion 421), to life’s endless diversity and
interminability. The novels secure for us the possibility—lost since the time of
Wells and Lewis—of personifying the human race and its aspirations as one, and
yet acknowledging the fact that it may and should be of many forms and kinds.
Simmons’s evolutionary and ecological ethic suggests that human beings equal
much more than the sum of their bodily organs, but at the same time stresses that
it is only within and not outside that body—however morphed, mutated,
atavistic, bestial, monstrous, or alien it may be—that they can find their
freedom, their connections, and their soul.

Notes
An earlier abridged version of this essay appeared in the Romanian Journal of English
Studies 2 (2005).
1
Having effected a full metamorphosis upon the human body and thought, the
Industrial Revolution continues to cast a dark shadow on how humans picture themselves
in the story of life. The technological explosion rooted in the industrial and post-industrial
revolutions has either emptied the dignity of Homo sapiens in many ways or strengthened
a tragically false understanding of its evolutionary importance. Daniel Bell defines post-
industrial society, as opposed to industrial society’s labour and capital, as a system that is
focused on and inscribed by information (xiii). The Hyperion Cantos, borrowing in part
the cyberpunk writers’ arsenal, depict the TechnoCore as an informational matrix, the
workings of which remain unseen by, and yet lethal, to humans. The TechnoCore may
also be viewed as a multinational corporation that produces hi-tech devices—beyond the
understanding, but suiting the needs of, the common consumer—and, by advertising these
gadgets, crushes the buyer under an unmanageable mass of information. (Interestingly,
the novels’ textuality borrows many characteristics of their thematic design. The books
are bursting with information; Simmons not only meshes cyberpunk and Romantic
literature together, but even animates such seemingly unmotivated cultural icons and
concepts as Chaucer, Romeo and Juliet, nuclear science, The Arabian Nights, and the
Wizard of Oz.) As Terence Whalen argues, “recent SF denies the presumed correlation
between information and enlightenment, and importantly, dystopian narratives now
register, with increasing frequency and precision, the potential deficiencies of an
informational society” (78). The Hyperion Cantos, in this regard, fall into a category with
the best of cyberpunk fiction, despite the obvious differences (for instance, cyberpunk
stories usually take place on Earth, the time is the near future, and so forth).
2
Ummon the AI’s lyrical revelations play upon the Romantic idea of poetry being the
gift of a greater metaphysical force, most apprehensible through human memory. This
marvellous technique is particularly striking in the passage where Ummon recites from
Anatomy of Science Fiction 161

Keats’s own “Hyperion” to which Joseph Severn, the Keats-cybrid (a cybernetic


construction from John Keats’s biographical data) replies: “It is a paean to evolution
written when Darwin was nine years old. I hear the words I remember writing on an
October evening nine centuries earlier, worlds and universes earlier, but it is also as if I
am hearing them for the first time” (The Fall of Hyperion 421)
3
Warwick himself is a designer and tester of new and intelligent machines. He may
also be regarded as a genuine cyborg, since he has successfully implanted various chips
in his body that communicate with the hardware environment around him.
4
Meina Gladstone’s decision is somewhat reminiscent of the Pauite “messiah”
Wovoka’s Ghost Dance, a nineteenth-century American religion aimed at annihilating the
white man through divine intervention. Followers of the creed with its mixture of Native
American and Christian eschatological ideas, believed that a cataclysm would destroy the
land, but that it would re-emerge, with the natural environment revitalised, ensuring a
habitat for the indigenous peoples of America. See Mike Davis’s “White People Are Only
a Bad Dream. . .” in Dead Cities: And Other Tales. Gladstone herself appears to be a
version of the liberal and progressive William Gladstone, MP and Prime Minister of
Great Britain, himself a friend to Joseph Severn and Keats.
5
The disaster, however, turns out to be a hoax, where highly sentient beings in the
universe have stolen and hidden planet Earth to refresh its biosphere, preparing it for the
new, ecologically-conscious human type. Nevertheless, when in The Rise of Endymion
Raul and Aenea return to the Earth, their feelings probably equal those of John Muir, who
exclaims: “When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and
dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and
shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty”
(“Puget and British Columbia” par. 6). Muir appears in the novels in the form of the
ancient woods named after him on God’s Grove, planet of the conservationist Templars.
6
Le Guin writes revealingly about galactic-empire science fiction:

All those Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British Empire of 1880. All
those planets—with 80 trillion miles between them!—conceived of as warring
nation-states, or as colonies to be exploited, or to be nudged by the benevolent
Imperium of Earth toward self-development—the White Man’s Burden all over
again. The Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri, that’s the size of it. (“American SF
and the Other” 94)

While the Hyperion Cantos do display all the motifs Le Guin identifies and concentrate
on a British-like empire—the Hegemony’s “CEO” is Meina Gladstone, and other names
delegate the story to an imagined, future, and post-Romantic “nineteenth century”—
Simmons develops a subversive point of view. Also, the focus lies elsewhere: on the
ecological-evolutionary definition of the human, which helps account for the
unsatisfactory analysis of the novels as primarily post-modern, galactic-empire science
fiction.
7
It is highly peculiar, nevertheless, that neither Palmer nor Webb deems Simmons’s
novels worthy of an individual study: both essays pair the Hyperion Cantos with other
works (by Banks and Powers) and identify them as part of some trend (post-modern
162 Chapter Nine

galactic-empire science fiction or post-romantic science fiction), even though Simmons’s


novels represent a unique achievement in contemporary (science) fiction.
8
For the Victorian natural historians the phenomenon of atavism provided some of
the most important evidence for the theory of human evolution, yet their reasons for
regarding these most important facts so equivocally must have been other than the
scientific.
9
Although the Poulsen-treated Martin Silenus, poet of The Cantos, is an exception.
10
Marx in reality studies the effects of industrial machinery on the American pastoral
ideal mainly through the analysis of literary works.
11
Simmons’s sympathy and attraction for Native American cultures becomes clear in
the foreword to Lovedeath: “Even for an inveterate spiritual nonbeliever such as myself,
the Black Hills of South Dakota exert a strange and persuasive power. It is easy to see
why the Paha Sapa are sacred to the Sioux and to other tribes . . .” (“Foreword” xvi).
12
Biosphere time, or posthuman time, is also heavily defined by the illogical
workings of the Time Tombs on planet Hyperion, monuments “left behind” by future
humans.
13
Whereas Fanny Brawne had a lot to do with the historical Keats’s love life, and
Lamia with his poetry, in the Hyperion Cantos Lamia Brawne becomes the Keats cybrid’s
lover and the mother of the messiah.
14
Palmer is right in observing that suffering plays an important part in the Hyperion
Cantos, but through his galactic-empire approach he fails to connect it with the mystical
concept of love. (There is also, as he contends, “much incidental violence, often linked
with sex . . .” [80].) But, as Le Guin asserts, “[n]othing is more personal, more
unshareable, than pain; who have not suffered, or will not admit that they suffer, are those
who are cut off in cold isolation from their fellow men. Pain, the loneliest experience,
gives rise to sympathy, to love: the bridge between self and other, the means of
communion” (“Myth and Archetype” 74).

Works Cited
“Dan Simmons: Hyperion Revealed.” Locus Online May 1997. August 15,
2002, 2:14 p.m.
http://www.locusmag.com/1997/Issues/05/Simmons.html!
Baudrillard, Jean. “Clone Story.” Simulacra and Simulation. 95-104.
———. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,
1996.
———. “The Animals: Territory and Metamorphoses.” Simulacra and
Simulation. 129-42.
———. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Simulacra and Simulation. 1-42.
Bell, Daniel. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. New York: Basic Books,
1976.
Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.” Vincent B.
Leitch, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York:
Norton, 2001. 2362-76.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 163

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-modern Science


Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.
Cronenberg, David. The Fly. Brooksfilms, 1986.
Davis, Mike. “White People Are Only a Bad Dream. . .” Dead Cities: And Other
Tales. New York: Norton, 2002. 23-33.
Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin, 1988.
Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New
York: Grove, 1996.
Dyson, George. Darwin Among the Machines. London: Allen Lane / Penguin,
1998.
Gould, Stephen Jay. Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to
Darwin. New York: Three Rivers, 1997.
Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-
Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women:
The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 1991. 149-82.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in
Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1998.
Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at
the fin de siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Huxley, Thomas H. “Evolution and Ethics.” H. G. Wells. The Time Machine.
Ed. Nicholas Ruddick. Peterborough, ONT: Broadview, 2001. 169-72.
———. Man’s Place in Nature. Modern Library Science. New York: Random
House, 2001.
Kellert, Stephen R. Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and
Development. Washington, DC: Island, 1997.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “American SF and the Other.” 1975. Language of the Night.
93-96.
———. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Rev. Ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
———. “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction.” 1976. Language of the Night.
68-77.
Leopold, Aldo. “The Land Ethic.” A Sand County Almanac. 1949. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1968. 203-26.
Li, Huey-li. “Anthropocentrism versus Non-Anthropocentrism: The Irrelevant
Debate.” May 15, 2003, 3:25 p.m.
http://environment.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm
?site=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ed.uiuc.edu%2FPES%2F96_docs%2Fli.html!
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in
America. 1964. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
164 Chapter Nine

Muir, John. “Cedar Keys.” A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. 1916. July 25,
2005, 4:50 p.m.
http://www.yosemite.ca.us/john_muir_writings/a_thousand_mile_walk_to_t
he_gulf/chapter_6.html!
———. “Puget Sound and British Columbia.” Travels in Alaska. 1915. July 25,
2005, 5:00 p.m.
http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/frameindex.html?http://www.si
erraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/travels_in_alaska/chapter_1.html!
Palmer, Christopher. “Galactic Empires and Contemporary Extravaganza: Dan
Simmons and Iain M. Banks.” Science Fiction Studies 77 (1999): 73-90.
Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human
Intelligence. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978.
Shepard, Paul. “Place in American Culture.” The North American Review (Fall
1977): 22-32.
Simmons, Dan. “Foreword.” Lovedeath. New York: Warner, 1993. xxiii-xxiv.
———. Endymion. New York: Bantam, 1996.
———. Hyperion. New York: Bantam, 1990.
———. The Fall of Hyperion. New York: Bantam, 1995.
———. The Rise of Endymion. New York: Bantam, 1998.
Simpson, George Gaylord. The Meaning of Evolution. New York: New
American Library, 1951.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Walden and Other Writings. Ed. Joseph
Wood Krutch. New York: Bantam, 1981. 105-352.
———. “Walking.” Collected Essays and Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell.
New York: Library of America, 2001. 225-55.
Warwick, Kevin. March of the Machines: Why the New Race of Robots will Rule
the World. London: Century, 1997.
Webb, Janeen. “Simmons and Powers: Postmodernism to Postromanticism.”
Visions of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fifteenth International
Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Ed. Allienne R. Becker. Westport,
CT: Greenwood, 1996. 139-46.
Whalen, Terence. “The Future of a Commodity: Notes Toward a Critique of
Cyberpunk and the Information Age.” Science-Fiction Studies 19:1 (1992):
75-89.
CHAPTER TEN

ORCHIDS IN A CAGE: POLITICAL MYTHS AND


SOCIAL REALITY IN EAST GERMAN SCIENCE
FICTION (1949-1989)

USCH KIAUSCH

In September 1999, almost ten years after the fall of the Berlin wall, several
East and West German authors, editors, and scholars met in Wetzlar, Germany
to discuss the history of fantastic literature in the former German Democratic
Republic (GDR)—a period spanning roughly forty years 1949 to 1989. This
conference “Grenzfälle—Zwischen Vision und Zensur: die Phantastische
Literatur der DDR” Borderline Cases—Between Visions and Censorship:
Fantastic Literature in the GDR organized by Phantastische Bibliothek Wetzlar
(Library of the Fantastic, Wetzlar) focussed on GDR science fiction.1 Erik
Simon, science-fiction author and former editor of the publishing house Das
Neue Berlin evaluated the social and political conditions under which science
fiction had been produced. One of the most influential persons in the
development of GDR science fiction, Simon asserted that, as a kind of literary
niche, science fiction offered opportunities to escape reality as well as to
criticize it through metaphoric mirrors (often both aspects united in one book).
Like orchids in a cage, science-fiction novels blossomed as exotic plants in a
carefully controlled domestic ground. The barriers of censorship also had side
effects protecting this kind of literature against Anglo-American competition as
well as creating a most attentive readership. Ironically, once the barriers fell,
many GDR authors were no longer able to publish.
The history of GDR science fiction between 1949 and 1989 is the story of
gradual emancipation from the narrow boundaries of party politics—that is,
politics dominated by the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist
Unity Party of Germany). Becoming a literature in its own right, science fiction
at last caught up with the international discourse. During those forty years, more
than one hundred-fifty science-fiction novels and more than sixty story
collections and anthologies were produced by more than eighty GDR authors.2
166 Chapter Ten

But for decades, even the term science fiction was more than suspect of
promoting ideologies of the class enemy and of Western capitalism and
imperialism. As in other socialist countries such as Hungary, Poland, and the
Soviet Union, science fiction became generally referred to as Wissenschaftliche
Phantastik (the scientific fantastic or science fantasy) to distinguish this genre
from so-called bourgeois utopian novels as well as from the so-called trivial
literature of Imperialism and Capitalism and to emphasise its political mission,
which was to educate the young for a socialist society based on state-induced
and state-planned technological progress. The term Wissenschaftliche Phantastik
is a literal translation of the corresponding Russian term first used during the
1920s. As Hartmut Lück contends, the term was used to define “a literary genre
which—taking the social reality of a recently established socialist system as a
starting point—dealt with social and technological prognostication, with a self-
image that, at least partly, implied firm political commitment in accordance with
party lines” (qtd. in Rottensteiner 11). Only if and when fulfilling these didactic
purposes was such literature seen as compatible with realism—the concept of
literature postulated by communist literary theorist György Lukács that became
the official party position. Realism demanded the reproduction of life and social
totality with faithfulness to reality and political commitment. Only after the short
political thaw following Stalin’s death in 1953 was this dogmatic concept of
literature widely discussed among critics. Its meaning was then extended to
include other aesthetic forms and different approaches to grasping reality and to
depicting social and technological change.3 Even so, the state official doctrine
insisted on the predictability of future social developments in accordance with
the laws of historic and dialectic materialism. Novels dealing with the future,
therefore, were supposed to anticipate real developments and to paint bright and
realistic pictures of a technologically advanced, wealthy and peaceful socialist
society or world (Steinmüller, Literatur 27-29).
Consequently, post-war GDR science fiction could rely neither on the values
of liberal humanism as exemplified in the classic German science-fiction author
Kurd Lasswitz’s Auf zwei Planeten On Two Planets (1897) nor on the
chauvinistic nationalism of the science-fiction “engineering” school of Hans
Dominik active during the 1920s and 30s.4 Until the cultural liberalization of the
1970s, the scientific fantastic was supposed to stick strictly to two main
principles. The first was to demonstrate new technological and scientific
solutions by considering state-of-the-art technologies and contemporary
scientific research, and the second, to convey a political awareness
(“Perspektivbewusstsein”) and show the so-called laws of history at work. Seen
from this perspective, the transformation of capitalism into socialism becomes a
scientific necessity and the future, therefore, predictable. Dystopias, of course,
do not per se fit into this literature of determined working class heroes and
Anatomy of Science Fiction 167

missions—except for showing the decline of the capitalist world. “What is the
purpose of our work if not to promote future developments, if not to serve as a
small stone in the mosaic of human development,” declares Eberhardt del
Antonio, a popular GDR science-fiction author, in an epilog to his novel
Gigantum published in 1957 (362).

The 1950s: Agents, Aliens, and Astronauts


The very beginning of post-war GDR Science Fiction is marked by Ludwig
Turek’s novel Die goldene Kugel The Golden Sphere (1949). As this adventure
story can stand for a variety of similar cold war plots and settings, I will give a
short summary. A gigantic space ship from Venus lands on the territory of the
United States. Aboard are aliens of a highly sophisticated civilisation. They are
masters of a most advanced technology as well as mental telepathy. Thus, they
quickly learn that the United States military is preparing for a nuclear war to
conquer the world. By destroying the U.S. energy systems and winning over
enlightened U.S. citizens as their allies, they manage to peacefully abolish the
capitalist system. After their mission is fulfilled, they depart for their home
planet leaving a peaceful world with established socialist systems. The author,
born in 1898, was from 1919 an active member of the German Communist
Party. During his exile, he engaged in the French resistance movement against
the Nazis. As he states in an epilogue, he saw his novel as his active contribution
in the fight against nuclear war and for the encouraging of a peaceful world of
socialism. Even so, some GDR critics objected to his relying on alien
peacemakers to resolve conflicts between the capitalist and socialist systems.
Similar to Turek’s novel, several other post-war near-future stories feature
Cold War battlefields and cosmic class struggles with a thinly disguised didactic
plot. Heroic astronauts, who are living dolls, have come to save this world, other
planets, or the whole universe while permanently uttering elevating political
propaganda. In del Antonio’s novel Titanus (1959), a human expedition helps to
save and defend a communist society on planet Titanus II threatened by the
exploiting class of the sister planet Titanus I: “The expedition must start
immediately. The Titans are ready to fire their nuclear rockets to invade Titanus
II. On Titanus II, they have, just as we assumed, a classless society. Get in touch
with the space ship or go directly to Titanus II. Warn our brothers!” (287). The
warning against a nuclear war started by the United States is transferred into
cosmic dimensions, and the battle of systems is, naturally, won by the classless
society as the superior system—depicted as a new utopia mainly characterised
by the absence of certain qualities. For example, this society exists without
exploitation, without war, without poverty, without class conflicts, and without
crime. Populated, of course, with a new type of enlightened socialist personality:
168 Chapter Ten

“The new type is already here,” said Inoti. “Has been here for decades! We don’t
educate him or her by propaganda tricks. Instead, we provide the situation in
which the working man can live a decent life and develop all of his potentials,
and we teach him some knowledge of the relations between social and economic
development.” (110)

In sharp opposition to these sophisticated systems and characters, Western


civilisations are in a state of decline. In H. L. Fahlberg’s novel Betatom (1957),
the working conditions in an American nuclear research institute named Ranford
(referring to the plutonium factory Hanford, located in the state of Washington)
are devastating and the death of scientists caused by radiation a daily routine.
Sexual promiscuity and the loss of all moral standards follow as the natural
consequence of an immoral political system, shocking the upright and prudish
working class hero from the East: “Barnas could not believe his eyes, . . . The
dancing girls wore transparent dresses. The sight was exciting as well as
indecent. A perverse self-exposing, as Barnas had never seen it before—except
for those American girl-shows” (138).
Another popular scenario for the battle between systems may be found in the
so-called “Utopischer Betriebsroman” (utopian working-place or production
novel)—a certain type of spy thriller set in the near future. During the fifties, a
whole school of authors wrote novels in which the new East German Republic
was threatened by aggressive foreign agents—intruders coming mainly from
West Germany (FRG) or the United States (Arthur Bagemühl: Weltraumschiff—
The Space Ship, 1952; Klaus Kunkel’s Heißes Metall—Hot Metal, 1952; Heinz
Vieweg: Ultrasymet bleibt geheim—Ultrasymet will be Kept a Secret, 1955; Die
zweite Sonne—The Second Sun, 1958; H. L. Fahlberg: Ein Stern verrät den
Täter—A Star Reveals the Culprit, 1955). Most of these novels deal with
capitalist spies and agents who move through GDR laboratories, factories, and
science units to steal advanced technologies and scientific inventions, until the
brave secret service or other alert protagonists are able to catch them. Most of
these affirmative and state-approved novels are plainly written black and white
adventure stories in which socialist technologies are always innocent and
superior and socialist systems always victorious and peacemakers. Ironically,
many of these novels are written in the trivial, if officially so-much-despised
style of Hans Dominik and other pre-war German science-fiction pulp authors.
The only difference being that the right-wing patriotic engineer who defends his
fatherland is replaced by the honest working-class hero, who defends the
socialist system. Exchange the stereotypes but keep the formulas.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 169

The 1960s: Sputniks, Scientific Optimism, and Space


The first Soviet sputnik in 1957 followed by Juri Gagarin’s first circling of
the earth in 1961 confirmed the scientific optimism found in many so-called
“scientific fantasies” and initiated a whole series of space adventure stories in
East Germany. As Adolf Sckerl maintained in his 1976 analysis for the
“Kulturbund der DDR” (Cultural Association of the GDR), many of these novels
see the future as a “future of global socialism/communism based on the
generally expected vast consequences of the scientific-technological revolution”
(32). For example, in Günther Krupkat’s novel Die große Grenze The Vast
Frontier (1960) a United States’ rocket starting its voyage to the moon has a
technical break-down and circles in orbit without hope, help, or destiny but is
fortunately saved by a technologically superior Soviet space ship. In such works,
human conflicts are often based on political differences between systems and not
embedded in the protagonists themselves or their backgrounds. An optimistic
linear view of socialist developments and vast new potentials prevails. The result
for science fiction, especially of the utopian variety becomes clear. Werner
Krauss, for instance, believes it is impossible to think beyond the present—
which is socialism. He further maintains that “utopias have lost their genuine
grounds because these grounds only exist when our imagination is able to
transcend real life” (798). In other words, socialism has made utopias real,
livable, and present novels with a utopian content are neither possible, nor are
they needed anymore.
Meanwhile there were massive physical barriers to transcend in real life: The
building of the so-called anti-imperialistic protective wall (“anti-
imperialistischer Schutzwall”) on August 13, 1961, encircling all of the GDR,
meant the elimination of all speculations about a future in which Germany
would be re-united. It also meant people had to reconcile themselves to a society
and a situation that offered no exit. Reality’s state boundaries also caused a
change in fantastic plots. No chance for foreign agents anymore to move
undercover in GDR laboratories in order to steal new inventions, no direct
confrontation of the systems anymore to deliver formula Cold War plots. The
wall, of course, was not a subject to contemplate in state-censored science-
fiction novels. Instead, authors such as Gerhard Branstner preferred to re-visit a
far future earth of peace and harmony: “The word WAR had been abolished by
an unanimous decision of all human beings, except for one: The exception was
Konrad Adenauer.5 His name is stored in the archives of ‘fossilized indecencies
and related cartoon figures’” (106). In spite of stylistic innovations such as
employing elements of satire and the grotesque, Branstner’s plots hardly conceal
their didactic intentions. Several of his novels and short stories are affirmative
parables in which he uses irony mainly to ridicule the capitalist system.
170 Chapter Ten

Other authors, for example Klaus Beuchler in his children’s science-fiction


novel Einer zuviel im Lunakurier One Too Many in the Luna Shuttle (1964) set
in the twenty-first century, continue to paint a bright picture of a socialist future
in which new technologies serve to transform the world, even the African
Sahara: “Where once yellow sand dunes, glaring in the heat and bare, stretched
as far as the horizon, now there are lush greens and vast cattle herds” (43). But
there are also a few critical voices who cautiously point out certain dark clouds
on the blue horizon. In Kurs Ganymed Course Ganymed (1962), Horst Müller
describes a basically communist society on a Jupiter moon that is supervised,
manipulated, and suppressed by a single dictator. The dictator masks his own
desire for power as collective decisions. His main tools for manipulation are
supervising monitors (as in George Orwell’s 1984) and transmitters which
control human emotions by hypnosis.
In Der Mann aus dem anderen Jahrhundert The Man from Another Century
(1961), Richard Gross tells the story of the American time traveler Sidney
Mordgen who—after a hibernation of two hundred years—wakes up to find
himself in a new communist society (evidently, Edward Bellamy’s Looking
Backward 2000-1887 available and published in the GDR was a source of
inspiration here). Although the young American time traveler from the twentieth
century starts to sympathize with the ideals of the new community on the planet
Epsilon Eridanus, he is permanently watched, distrusted, and persecuted—until a
happy ending resolves the conflict, and the responsible state officials apologise
to him for treating him as a suspect.
Gerhard Branstner’s stylistic innovations as well as Horst Müller’s and
Richard Gross’ cautiously critical—although conventionally written—plots
mark the gradual transition from the affirmative space adventure stories and
artless socialist-technology-changes-the-world formulas to the later
diversification of GDR science fiction during the seventies—a decade in which
this genre started to boom—especially the short form which began to blossom in
East Germany. Forty-four new science-fiction novels, sixteen story collections
and two anthologies were published between 1970 and 1979 (Steinmüller,
Literatur 4), science fiction became one of the most popular literary genres, as
surveys in the book-selling trade and in the public libraries confirmed. Several
science-fiction novels and story collections were reprinted and reached sales
figures up to 100,000 copies. The Seventies also saw an opening to international
science fiction. Several Anglo-American authors were for the first time
translated and published in the GDR, including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov,
Ursula K. LeGuin, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Olaf Stapledon (Simon and
Spittel 49-51).
Anatomy of Science Fiction 171

The 1970s: Dystopias and Anarchic Dreams


The VIIIth party convention of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in June
1971 marks the beginning of a new era of party politics as Erich Honecker
followed Walter Ulbricht as party chairman. In this era the coining of new and
central terms to define GDR society expressed subtle changes. The term socialist
human community was replaced by the term non-antagonistic class society—
which conceded the existence of different classes and conflicts and legitimised a
certain, if not basic, critical approach to reality in art and literature. In his speech
of December 1971, Erich Honecker confirmed that “[i]f the solid position of
socialism is the starting point, there can, in my opinion, be no taboos in the
fields of art and literature. This concerns questions of textual contents as well as
of style” (Honecker 427, qtd. in Emmerich 411). What had happened? As
Werner Förster contends in his 1987 essay, the present changed from a starting-off
place leading to a glorious future to a settled place where one could expect long
periods of difficult changes and challenges:

What developed was a growing principle awareness of the negative effects of


technology, scientific knowledge, and technological developments—as they were
and are not perfect and their use was and is bound to the features of the respective
social system. The mass media had an important role in conveying this attitude
(for example, by reports on weapons of mass destruction, on the danger of
ecological disasters, and on the potential of bio science). (136)

The new insight, which appeared even in official statements on cultural politics,
was that one had to confront these challenges and not wait for a promised paradise
to come.
In mainstream literature as well as in science fiction, the dogmatic concept of
socialist realism gave way to new aesthetic concepts in which elements of fairy
tales, mythology, dreams, and the surreal were often used to describe and
discuss individual and social conflicts. In 1972, the working group “Utopian
Literature” became established as an official section of the GDR
Schriftstellerverband (GDR Writers’ Association)—an important step in
achieving acceptance for science fiction as a legitimate branch of literature—
even though the term “science fiction” was not used. The working group had to
commit itself to a “socialist view of human development” (“sozialistisches
Menschenbild”) (Friedrich 256-57)—whatever that meant, censorship would
reveal later-on. The fact that at this time even acknowledged and famous GDR
mainstream authors, such as Anna Seghers (“Sagen von Unirdischen”—Tales of
Extraterrestrials 1973), began to incorporate science fiction and fantastic
elements into their works, also helped to enhance the acceptance and popularity
of the so-called scientific fantastic. Often, scenarios of the future or images of
172 Chapter Ten

the fantastic are used to point out conflicts within GDR society, such as,
between individual desires and social structures including the survival of
traditional gender roles within the new socialist society.
The question of female emancipation is explicitly addressed in an anthology
of fantastic short stories published by Edith Anderson in 1975. Renowned GDR
women authors, such as Christa Wolf and Irmtraud Morgner, contributed their
stories to Blitz aus heiterm Himmel Bolt of Lightning Out of a Clear Sky, a story
collection in which all contributing writers used the same basic plot line—the
protagonist’s sudden change of sex—to confront traditional role models in GDR
society. Full of irony, these stories, dealing with sexual relations and family life
as well as the professional status of women, show the gap between officially
postulated and declared female emancipation and daily life in which women (but
not men) are expected to combine perfectly production and reproduction,
professional achievements and family life.6
In the so-called scientific fantastic genre, didactic overtones and enforced
political optimism gradually give way to what Spittel later will characterise as “a
literature of tongue-in-cheek, of secret agreement among authors, editors and
readers. We will all pretend that this sinister view of a declining dictatorship on
the distant planet XYZ has really nothing to do with the GDR” (“Science
Fiction?” 171). Yet even as late as 1973, the one hundred member Stanislaw
Lem Club, a science-fiction fan club in Dresden, could be dissolved, declared
illegal, and some of its student members dismissed from Dresden’s Technical
University. At the Wetzlar conference Simon—himself an active member of the
club at the time—maintained that the official charge against the club was that
the members dedicated their free time to activities “not ordered from above” and
thereby “neglected their work for the Freie Deutsche Jugend,” the official youth
party organisation.7 To be considered as being subversive and suspected of
organiszng meetings and projects hostile to the state, apparently it was enough to
establish a close network of informal contacts and regular communication. (This
also applied to other institutions, such as informal church groups or artists’
communities who were to play an important part in the peaceful revolution of
1989).
In 1972, the writing couple Johanna and Günter Braun published their first
novel Der Irrtum des großen Zauberes The Erring of the Great Magician that
encouraged stylistic innovations and bold plots by employing elements of satire
and the grotesque. A parable of individual resistance against a dictatorship based
on consumerism and suppression of creativity, their novel has a simple but
striking theme: a society will experience stagnation and lethargy if creativity and
oppositional thinking are suppressed. In this novel, the great magician, a well-
minded, but manipulative and omnipotent dictator, fails to find an intelligent
successor for himself, because he has trained people to rely in all their decision-
Anatomy of Science Fiction 173

making on his benevolence and on his machines. His error lies in not noticing that
intelligence and blind obedience to authority are not compatible—a dangerous,
subversive story when published in a state in which the economy was just as
planned as professional careers, social welfare, and security systems, in which
obedience to party decisions was daily routine, and in which independent or
oppositional thinking was neither desired nor much tolerated. Their short story
“Unser lieber Versager” Our Dear Failure published in East Berlin in 1981 and in
Frankfurt am Main, FRG in 1983, included drastic criticism of GDR bureaucracy
and authoritarian thinking. Because this story is so typical of many in the 1970s
and is not generally available in the West, I will briefly summarise the plot: Third
millennium Germany has developed some ingenious methods for ridding itself of
rebellious individuals. As soon as such disgraceful persons are discovered and
officially identified as social failures, a spaceship takes them to various planets
where they encounter artificially simulated dangerous scenarios. There they must
prove their sense of social responsibility. One of the persons undergoing such
space therapy, Erasmus K., has been found guilty of thinking and working too fast.
His embarrassing speed disrupts the stable spirit of German authorities. But once a
failure, always a failure as Erasmus K. spoils each cosmic horror scenario by
applying his genuine sense of humour. After getting all of the female spaceship
staff pregnant, he fathers the First Republic of Social Failures and proclaims a
new anarchic way of easy living:

On this small planet . . . all social failures shall have equal opportunities.
According to our visions, we will make it a green planet, settle down here and
populate it. WE WANT TO LIVE is our motto . . . And the ministers of state—
we don’t want them to stay all that long in their office, we will vote them out of
office as often as possible. If someone does not want to serve as state minister
anymore, he must not feel ashamed, he should just throw over his job. We will
not tolerate it anymore—the dutiful fight.
I asked: “Who is we?”
“It is all of us.” (FRG ed. of 1983, 131)

The last sentence almost sounds like a preview of the chanted slogan of the
1989 demonstrations within the GDR “Wir sind das Volk” We are the people. It
is to be assumed that this mordant criticism of authorities mainly passed
censorship because the story was set on a distant planet and was published as
part of the fantastic sub-genre. Johanna and Günter Braun were not only the
most prominent critical writers of the field who used metaphors, allegories,
satire, and the grotesque in their scenarios of the future to reflect GDR reality,
they also were the first in their field to develop a unique and innovative literary
style of ambiguous hints and concise images, relying on readers to add their own
visions to the text. Their multi-layered style of narration and experimental
174 Chapter Ten

techniques reveal influences of Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem as


well as of Russian science-fiction writers Arkadi and Boris Strugazki whose
works were regularly translated and published in the GDR. The Brauns became
a brand name. Their stylistic sophistication made them popular in East Germany
as well as in West Germany. In 1985, their story collection “Der x-mal
vervielfachte Held” The Hero reproduced Umpteen Times won the Fantasy
Award of the City of Wetzlar, FRG. The Brauns, however, were not allowed to
travel to Wetzlar to receive the award in person. Their title story, a biting satire,
ridiculing, among other rituals and phenomena of the dominating political
culture, bombastic monuments and the personality cult of the Stalin era, meant
that this book did not pass censorship and so was not published in the GDR.
When it was published in FRG, the GDR authorities saw this as a provocation
and therefore withheld travel permission for them to go to the FRG. Almost two
decades later, at Wetzlar in their lecture “How Imagination Conquers a
Restricted Form of Reality,” the Brauns commented on their novels and short
stories saying that they went as far as they could. They never withdrew a line
from their plots because of censorship. “We wanted to tell the stories of human
beings in a true way, and fictional fantastic stories are the truest of true stories.
Reality is not truth, truth is not reality.”
To tell the stories of human beings in a true way, but also be published in
spite of censorship, authors had to carefully plan narrative strategies. As Simon
described at Wetzlar, there were many ways in which censorship worked: the
State Ministry for Cultural Affairs did not, for instance, have to declare certain
books illegal but, having control over all printing licenses and paper deliveries,
could simply deny printing permission due to “paper shortages.” In addition to
state authorities, the chief editors of the publishing houses checked all
publications for their political correctness. The decision of which books to
publish and which not to publish often came down to the chief editor’s courage.
If writers were denied publication and decided to publish in West Germany
instead, the situation “could become critical”—as Simon said—meaning the next
book would be censored even more carefully.8
A second science fiction-writing couple Karlheinz and Angela Steinmüller,
both scientists, started publishing in the late 1970s. Their stories combined
adventurous romances with philosophical, scientific, and social speculations in
the tradition of H. G. Wells. For example, Karlheinz Steinmüller’s short story
“Der Traum vom großen roten Fleck” The Dream of the Big Red Spot (1979) is
a dystopia set on a Jupiter satellite in which technology controls all human
relations leaving little room for individual decisions and developments. In this
story, the impersonal and seemingly rational system of administration even
provides sexual partners and family substitutes for the lonesome engineers as
well as simulated adventures for the discontent or frustrated people, creating the
Anatomy of Science Fiction 175

illusion of independent decisions. The themes of system manipulation, illusion,


and human free will are strongly reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick’s stories. They
also constitute the central plot of “Der letzte Tag auf der Venus” The Last Day
on Venus (1979), the title story of this collection where the human experience of
the aging engineer Gilbert is set against the technological sophistication of
robots which are not able to adjust to emergency situations.
One of the couple’s later novels, Pulaster (GDR 1986; FRG 1988) shows
two competing models of civilisation on the planet Pulaster. One model is based
on technological progress and competition, while the other is based on a
deliberate decision made for stagnation, egalitarian structures, and resistance to
technological progress. The human astronauts who come to Pulaster in order to
colonise and terraform it are confronted with the ancient alien culture of the
Hrengs, a race of intelligent hermaphrodite saurians who live in harmony with
nature and have no desire to change their primeval way of living. Because of
medical reasons, the protagonist Fabius Grosser, a space engineer, is forced to
spend the rest of his life on Pulaster and come to terms with the Hrengs. As he
gradually develops understanding, admiration, and respect for their attitude
towards life and their planet, his thoughts about his own civilisation become
more and more critical reflections on ecology, science, and technology. What
will happen to Pulaster is open to the imagination of the reader. In contrasting
the sexuality, the social structure, the attitudes toward ecology and progress of
the aliens with human values and behavior, the Steinmüllers question the written
and unwritten rules of technological civilisations. Style, narration, and plot
sometimes show the influence of Ursula K. LeGuin (The Dispossessed, The Left
Hand of Darkness, and The Word for World is Forest were all published in the
GDR). As Karlheinz Steinmüller stated at Wetzlar, the development of science
fiction during the seventies had some parallels in East and West in dealing with
“the destruction of ecology and the human inner space. Utopia was no longer
searched for in technological or social dimensions.” Consequently, several
authors in the GDR as well as in the FRG turned to topics such as environmental
destruction or the manipulation of individuals by totalitarian social or
technological systems.
In his story “Gespräche unterwegs” Conversations En Route published in the
GDR in 1979 and in the FRG in 1982, Erik Simon features a spaceship scenario
in which all persons present are being manipulated and play roles they are not
aware of: the people aboard believe that they are on their way to distant planets
while they are only part of an earth-based experiment testing their ability to
withstand the pressures of a closed community offering no way out. The team of
scientists, who believe they are testing these people and are in control of the
experiment later find out that they themselves are being tested. State authorities
want to find out whether they are willing to sacrifice their human compassion
176 Chapter Ten

for the enclosed people for the purpose of new scientific insights into human
behaviour. Who will be the first to tell these people the truth? Or is it, on a third
level, really an experiment to test the reliability and loyalty of the state
authorities themselves? (The story occasionally parallels Brian Aldiss’ Report
on Probability A—not published in the GDR at the time.) This artfully
constructed, multi-layered story questions human perception and cognition—the
human ability to grasp reality. At the same time, the story can be read as a
parable depicting the enclosed, cut off state of the GDR with its net of
surveillance and control relying on informants. Its central metaphors can also be
interpreted as mirror images of GDR literature production itself. Besides
political control exerted by state ministries and publishing houses, informants
were used to report on the attitudes and activities of their writing colleagues.
Simon stated that among the professional science-fiction writers of the GDR,
two definitely were informants who reported regularly to state security
officials—as was discovered after the fall of the wall.

The 1980s: Post-Utopian Diversity and the Decline of Party


Omnipotence
In 1987, a GDR anthology of critical essays Science-fiction: Essays used the
term “science fiction” in its title thus openly criticising the didactic borders
established for the genre, rejecting all demands or expectations to forecast
scientific or social developments. Moreover, Olaf R. Spittel, the editor, declared
his intention to publish

a critical inventory of science fiction, of its roots and origins, its poetic rules and
thematic scope, its specific formal means, and finally its incorporation into the
field of literature. . . . An acceptable science fiction can neither avoid basic
political questions of our time nor the battle against the temptation of trivial
botching. (7)

This “critical inventory” to which East as well as West German(!) authors


and critics contributed essays, discusses aesthetic questions (such as narrative
structures in science fiction) as well as philosophical problems (for example, the
relation between scientific knowledge and literary theories of science fiction),
and social contents of contemporary science fiction in the GDR and the FRG.
The very fact that it was possible to openly address these questions and publish
these essays in the GDR shows the new self-confidence and self-awareness of
authors, editors, and publishers and indicates the decline of party omnipotence.
One also has to keep in mind that exceptionally high sales figures for science-
fiction books during this decade were an important economic incentive for
publishing houses to liberalise their publishing politics. By the 1980s, science
Anatomy of Science Fiction 177

fiction has established itself as an acknowledged literary genre. More than ten
titles (novels or story collections) were published each year. The carefully edited
Lichtjahr Lightyear anthologies published by Das Neue Berlin—the first
appeared in 1980—became a forum for national and international stories and
theoretical discussions of the genre and gave newcomers to the field the chance
of first publications (Simon and Spittel 74-78). Lichtjahr introduced several
Anglo-American authors to the GDR readership, including Brian Aldiss, J. G.
Ballard, Alfred Bester, Arthur C. Clarke, Harry Harrison, and Frederik Pohl. The
opening to international contributions also stimulated academic research and
dissertations on Anglo-American and West German science fiction (Steinmüller,
Literatur als Prognostik 102-03) and active participation in the international
discourse of the genre.
In 1988, one year before the fall of the wall Simon and Spittel in their
encyclopedia, Die Science-fiction der DDR—Autoren und Werke GDR Science
Fiction—Authors and Works, explicitly take a stand in the ongoing argument
about the use of the term “science fiction” and definitions of the genre:

We understand Science Fiction as that section of fantastic literature which treats


fantastic (that is, not appearing in the reality we all know) developments and
conditions not as caused by supernatural, magic forces but as a result of real
contexts and conditions. . . . Science fiction is not scientific, but takes into
account and uses a view of the world formed by scientific attitudes and
perceptions. Science fiction relies on the plausibility of facts or seemingly
rational plausibility. This is the main reason . . . that Science Fiction did not
develop before the nineteenth century as an independent and coherent genre . . .
(5-6)

Having abolished the earlier principle of scientific forecasting, GDR science


fiction of the 1980s encompasses a post-utopian diversity of trivial adventure
stories as well as a science fiction of ideas, escapism, and social criticism. A
striking example of trivial and artlessly constructed formula science fiction
which boomed during the 1980s is Alexander Kröger’s novel Die Engel in den
grünen Kugeln The Angels in Green Spheres published in 1986. In this space-
invader story, the brave socialist hero of the 1950s and 1960s comes alive
again—just in time to save a peaceful and totally disarmed tomorrow world from
technologically superior alien aggressors. By reconstructing long forgotten
weapons of the Second World War(!), Igor manages to kill the evil and
merciless occupants of the Earth. Another relapse into the cold war spirit of the
1950s is Klaus Klauss’ novel Duell unter fremder Sonne Duel under an Alien
Sun (1985) where a human expedition stranded on an unknown planet finds
itself in an alien slave-holding system. When suggestions made to the exploiting
class to develop a higher form of civilisation, adopt a superior system of social
178 Chapter Ten

exchange, and reform the slave system are ignored, one of the human astronauts
decides to organise the slaves and manages to lead them into a glorious future.9
Quite contrary to these simple and simplifying black-and-white adventure
stories, other novels of the time meet the high international standards of the
genre. Several authors decide to leave heroic astronauts and cosmic dimensions
alone and focus on topics such as environmental pollution, genetic
manipulations, and social crisis. For example, Eberhard Panitz’s novel Eiszeit—
eine unwirkliche Geschichte Ice Age—an Unreal Story (1983) deals with the
effects of a nuclear explosion on a group of people stranded in an isolated
mountain hotel. The ending, however, relies on a Soviet helicopter to rescue the
trapped party while the nuclear winter passes and spring sets in—a possible
metaphor for the political thaw starting in the USSR? The interpretation is left
open to the reader.
No such rescue with a little help from Russian friends and neighbors is
offered in Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller’s story “Der Laplacesche Dämon”
The Laplasque Demon (1988)—a dystopia in which planet earth is deadly ill,
contaminated by environmental pollution and threatened by nuclear war. The
only chance to save the world is to think and act against political authorities,
practice civil resistance, and rely on the independent mind—the lesson the
female scientist Denise has to learn. One of the last GDR science-fiction novels
written when the GDR still existed and published by Das Neue Berlin in 1990,
the Steinmüllers’ Der Traummeister The Dream Master may well be interpreted
as a poetic swansong for the dying state: The City of Miscara, wealthy and
productive in earlier days, is in a state of decay as her inhabitants have lost their
abilities to dream. They merely exist from day-to-day without any hopes or
expectations for tomorrow. A stranger named Kilean who is still able to dream
becomes their dream master, trying to dream up their future for them. He fails,
however, in his endeavours to transform his own dreams and visions into the
specific social reality of the citizens. As he ignores the demands of daily life, he
causes violence, war, and the reduction of the city to dust and ashes. But there is
hope. Gradually, Kilean’s lover Glauke developes her own ability to dream and
to make use of her dreams in reality. The novel ends with Kilean’s new insight:
“Don’t be sad. . . . A city in which all human beings have their own dreams, will
be able to get rid of the dust” (paperback ed. of 1992, 302).
In 1989, the so-called “Wende” (turn of events) in the GDR offered new
chances to “get rid of the dust” and encrustations of the system by dreaming
dreams independent of the visions of state officials. But the fall of real-life
barriers in the GDR—symbolised by the fall of The Wall—ironically created
new literary barriers for GDR science-fiction writers. Disorientation and
confusion result as markets and publishers shift radically after unification with
FRG because the very themes, motives, and style of GDR science fiction were
Anatomy of Science Fiction 179

so much rooted in and captive of its narrow social and political system. As a
result, many authors and titles disappear from the newly unified German
science-fiction market. As Spittel looked back at the past decades from the
vantage point of 1999, he concluded that

GDR science fiction had a kind of fool’s licence within narrow boundaries
because it was officially regarded as trivial adventure literature. Yet science
fiction was a stage for social criticism if this criticism did not confront the system
as such. Finally, GDR science fiction as a whole revealed many weaknesses, such
as too many abstractions, thin plots, loads of ideology, the naive belief in
technological and social progress, simplification, literary ignorance, plagiarism,
and provincialism. (“Die DDR-Phantastik”)

This harsh résumé, however, appears only partly justified as, generalising, it
mixes different periods as well as two oppositional lines in the development of
GDR science fiction. Certainly, Spittel’s statement is an appropriate
characterisation of most works of the 1950s and 1960s when, according to the
aesthetic principle of socialist realism, novels of the future were supposed to
convey scientific forecasts as well as the so-called laws of history. But this linear
and one-dimensional image of the future shared by most science-fiction authors
of the time began to dissolve in later years to give way to individual instead of
collective visions (Steinmüller, Literatur 94-95). Then, although a trivial science
fiction of adventures continues—at least partly—to paint bright pictures of a
technologically advanced and pacified communist world, a new science fiction
of ideas uses the future to deal with the present in a critical and often satirical
way. Authors such as Erik Simon, Johanna and Günter Braun, and the
Steinmüllers actively participate in the international critical discourse, introduce
stylistic innovations to GDR science fiction, and contribute well-constructed,
sophisticated works that fulfil high international standards in dealing with
aesthetic, social, philosophical, technological, and scientific questions not
limited to their time and place.
It was their “misfortune,” one may say, that the primary interest of their
readership in East Germany as well as in West Germany lay in “deciphering”
their literary motifs and metaphors as social criticism and less in evaluating their
general aesthetic qualities. Simon concludes that readers’ interest in their books
was dominated by the “desire to recognize the reality of daily life in the GDR.”
Consequently, this interest subsided when GDR reality dissolved and real-life
barriers fell. In the following years, the interest in reading and studying both
lines of GDR science fiction—the trivial adventure stories loyal to the state
which seem as anachronistic today as do the critical parables and satires—
became more and more a merely historical one as the social reality in which
these stories had emerged no longer existed.
180 Chapter Ten

After reunification, many GDR authors stopped writing science fiction or


ceased writing altogether. Spittel mentioned several reasons for their silence: the
speed of turning out novels and publication procedures in the West; American
competition and dominance of the German book market; and, most importantly,
the vanishing of the social context in which these authors used to write. A
specific East German—as opposed to a GDR—science fiction which dealt with
the challenging experiences of the 1989 “turn of events” did not evolve. Instead,
a new kind of science fiction is gradually developing in the united Germany
which, as Simon contends in a recent essay, “is not specifically German
anymore, as the social education of its audience (and, sooner or later, its authors)
did take place neither in the FRG nor in the GDR, but in Star Trek’s spaceship
Enterprise—which is not the worst place for social education” (“Gespräche
unterwegs” 629). Similarly, Karlheinz Steinmüller ended his Wetzlar speech
with the perspective of a “globalised multi-media science fiction” to which
German authors possibly will contribute.
A glimpse of what this new German science fiction may contribute to the
global discourse may be caught in two near-future novels set in the new, old
German capital of Berlin. Hartwig Hilgenstein’s Digitale Tänzer Digital Dancers
(1998) and Tim Staffel’s Terrordrom Terrordrome (1999)—both are dystopias set
in a hauntingly violent megalopolis which has split up into ethnic ghettos and sub-
cultural undergrounds at war with each other. Disillusioned and bare of any
utopian thinking or moral beliefs, the protagonists fight their way through a world
in which virtual reality has replaced physical experience and direct social
communication. Their only ideology is to adapt to given situations and survive.
It is to be hoped that in later years, readers and critics will re-discover the
works of the Steinmüllers, the Brauns, and other East German authors to re-
examine and revaluate their aesthetic and philosophical qualities. Their visions of
a world in which the future as an “act on orders” is replaced by human creativity,
courage, and compassion are neither anachronistic nor bound to GDR reality. It is
worth remembering the lesson Steinmüllers’ Dream Master teaches: a civilisation
in which the people have lost all ability to dream is doomed to die.

Notes
All translations from the original German are my own.
1
Less than a half-dozen science-fiction films were made during these decades,
mainly because the financial and political risks were regarded as too high in this field of
ideological uncertainty. Specified lists and diagrams of science-fiction book publications
are included in Angela and Karlheinz Steinmüller’s valuable analysis Literatur als
Prognostik (84). East German professional science-fiction authors are listed by editors
Anatomy of Science Fiction 181

Erik Simon and Olaf R. Spittel in their encyclopaedia Die Science-fiction der DDR (93-
289).
2
Hermand summarisies this discussion (see 73-99).
3
My characterisation of the development of East German science fiction until the
1980s, closely follows Horst Heidtmann, who distinguishes between the “GDR
foundation period,” 1945-50, the “period of the Cold War,” 1950-61, a “period of
consolidation,” 1961-1971, and a “period of liberalisation,” following the year 1971 (92-
99). Since only four science-fiction novels were published in the GDR before 1950 and
another eleven between 1950 and 1959 with related plots, I have treated them all as
falling under the 1950s.
4
See, for example, Dominik’s Der Brand der Cheopspyramide in which the
magnificent results of German engineering art are the main object of an international
conspiracy.
5
Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) from
1949 until 1963.
6
Until the 1970s, GDR science fiction was dominated by two female role models: the
female protagonist would either act as the charming and beautiful assistant in support of
the male hero or as the stubborn and not very attractive scientist with an independent
mind, but without much of a social life. During the 1970s, these two options were
ridiculed and transcended by authors such as the Brauns and the Steinmüllers. It is not
possible to include a detailed analysis of gender roles in GDR science fiction in this
essay—that would be a topic for a separate essay. (See Blume for a discussion of texts of
the seventies and eighties. See Steinmüller, Literatur for a short analysis of earlier texts
81–85).
7
The history of science-fiction fandom in the GDR and reactions of the state are
documented in Both, et al.
8
A detailed analysis of the mechanisms of censorship in the GDR is included in
Kruschel (152-73). In “Die befohlene Zukunft” (1994), the Steinmüllers point out that
censorship in the GDR did not mean control by a single state authority: The whole
publishing procedure was influenced and controlled by the state’s “ideological agents”
such as publishers, editors, critics, and so forth—all loyal to the state. Consequently,
many authors developed their own self-censorship in anticipation of this ideological
control (Jeschke 207-25).
9
A detailed analysis of human-alien relationships in GDR science fiction is included
in Breitenfeld.

Works Cited
Anderson, Edith, ed. Blitz aus heiterm Himmel Bolt of Lightning out of a Clear
Sky. Rostock: Hirnstorff, 1975
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1957.
———. Titanus. Berlin (Ost): Neue Berlin, 1959. New ed. 1985.
Bagemühl, Arthur. Weltraumschiff The Space Ship. Berlin (Ost): Altberliner
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182 Chapter Ten

Beuchler, Klaus. Einer zuviel im Lunakurier One too many in the Luna Shuttle.
Berlin (Ost): Der Kinderbuch Berlin, 1964.
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Literatur der DDR seit 1970 A Study of Female Role Models in GDR
Science Fiction Since the 1970s. Diss. Leipzig U, 1989.
Both, Wolfgang, Neumann Hans-Peter, and Klaus Scheffler, eds. Berichte aus
der Parallelwelt. Die Geschichte des Science Fiction-Fandoms in der DDR
Reports from the Parallel World. The History of Science Fiction Fandom in
the GDR. Passau: Erster Deutscher Fantasy Club, 1998.
Branstner, Gerhard. Zu Besuch auf der Erde Visiting Earth. Halle:
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of the Great Magician. Berlin (Ost): Neues Leben, 1972.
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Suhrkamp, 1985. 15-64.
———. “How Imagination Conquers a Restricted Form of Reality.” Unpub.
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Sept. 1999.
———. “Unser lieber Versager” Our Dear Failure. Der Utofant. 1981. Frankfurt
am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983. 110-32.
Breitenfeld, Annette. Die Begegnung mit außerirdischen Lebensformen—
Untersuchungen zur Science-Fiction-Literatur der DDR Encounters with
Extraterrestrial Forms of Life—A Study of GDR Science Fiction. Wetzlar:
Schriftenreihe der Phantastischen Bibliothek Wetzlar, Band 6 Vol. 6, 1994.
Burmeister, Klaus, and Karlheinz Steinmüller, eds. Streifzüge ins Übermorgen.
Science Fiction und Zukunftsforschung Excursions through Tomorrow´s
World. Science Fiction and Futurology. Weinheim: Beltz. 1992.
Dominik, Hans. Der Brand der Cheopspyramide The Burning of Cheops
Pyramid. Leipzig, 1926.
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Literaturgeschichte History of German Literature. Ed. Wolfgang Beutin, et
al. Stuttgart: Metzlersche, 1979. 341-420.
Fahlberg, H. L. Ein Stern verrät den Täter A Star Reveals the Culprit. Berlin
(Ost): Neue Berlin, 1955.
Förster, Werner. “Ansprüche und Angebote. Zur jüngeren SF-Autoren-
Generation der DDR” Offers and Demands. The Younger Generation of GDR
SF Authors. Spittel, Science-fiction 132-41.
Friedrich, Hans-Edwin. Science Fiction in der deutschsprachigen Literatur
Science Fiction in German-language Literature. Tübingen: Internationales
Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur International Archives
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for the Social History of German Literature. 7. Sonderheft (7th spec. ed.),
1995.
Gross, Richard. Der Mann aus dem anderen Jahrhundert The Man from Another
Century. Berlin (Ost): Neues Leben, 1961.
Heidtmann, Horst. “A Survey of Science Fiction in the German Democratic
Republic.” Science-Fiction Studies 6 (1979): 92-99.
Hermand, Jost. “Das Gute-Neue und Schlechte-Neue: Wandlungen der
Modernismus-Debatte in der DDR seit 1956” The Good New and the Bad
New: Changes in the Modernism Debate in the GDR since 1956. Hohendahl
73-99.
Hilgenstein, Hartmut. Digitale Tänzer Digital Dancers. Hamburg: Argument,
1998.
Hohendahl, Peter Uwe, and Patricia Herminghouse, eds. Literatur und
Literaturtheorie in der DDR Literature and Literary Theory of the GDR.
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976.
Honecker, Erich. Reden und Aufsätze Speeches and Essays. Berlin (Ost): Dietz ,
1979.
Jeschke, Wolfgang, ed. Science Fiction Jahr 1994 The Science Fiction Year
1994. Munich: Heyne, 1994.
Klauss, Klaus. Duell unter fremder Sonne Duel under an Alien Sun. Berlin (Ost):
Militär der DDR, 1985.
Kruschel, Karsten. “Zwischen Vision und Banalität: Die SF-Literatur der DDR—
ein abgeschlossenes Gebiet. Ein Rückblick. Ein Countdown” Between
Visions and the Trivial: SF Literature of the GDR—a Closed Subject. A
Review. A Countdown. Jeschke 152-73.
Krauss, Werner. “Geist und Widergeist der Utopien” The Spirit and Adverse
Spirit of Utopias. Sinn und Form Idea and Form. 14. Berlin (Ost), 1962: 769-
99.
Kröger, Alexander. Die Engel in den grünen Kugeln The Angels in Green
Spheres. Berlin (Ost): Neues Leben, 1986.
Krupkat, Günter. Die große Grenze The Vast Frontier. Berlin (Ost): Das Neue
Berlin, 1960.
Kunkel, Klaus. Heißes Metall Hot Metal. Berlin (Ost): Das Neue Berlin, 1952.
Müller, Horst. Kurs Ganymed Course Ganymed. Bautzen: Domowina, 1962.
Panitz, Eberhardt. Eiszeit Ice Age. Halle: Mitteldeutscher, 1983.
Rottensteiner, Franz, ed. Die andere Zukunft The Other Future. Frankfurt am
Main: Suhrkamp, 1982.
Sckerl, Adolf: Wissenschaftlich-phantastische Literatur. Anmerkungen zu ihrem
Wesen und ihrer Entwicklung, Überlegungen zum Umgang mit ihr in unserer
Gesellschaft Scientific-Fantastic Literature. Comments referring to its
184 Chapter Ten

Substance and Development, Reflections on How to Deal with it in our


Society. Kulturbund der DDR, 1976.
Seghers, Anna. “Sagen von Unirdischen” Tales of Extraterrestrials. Sonderbare
Begegnungen Strange Encounters. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1984. 7-38.
Simon, Erik. “The ‘Blessings’ of Censorship.” Unpub. lecture. Conference on
Fantastic GDR Literature. Wetzlar, Germany, 18 Sept. 1999.
———. “Die Science-fiction der DDR 1991 bis 1998—und davor” GDR
Science Fiction 1991-1998—and before. Science Fiction Jahr 2000 The
Science Fiction Year 2000. Ed. Wolfgang Jeschke. Munich: Heyne, 2000.
616-29.
———. “Gespräche unterwegs” Conversations En Route. Fremde Sterne Alien
Stars. Ed. Simon, Erik. Berlin (Ost): 1979. Rpt. in Rottensteiner 106-21.
———. ed. Lichtjahr 1 Lightyear 1. Berlin (Ost): Neue Berlin, 1980.
———, and Olaf R. Spittel, eds. Die Science-fiction der DDR Science Fiction of
the GDR. Berlin (Ost): Neue Berlin, 1988.
Spittel, Olaf R. “Die DDR-Phantastik: die endliche Geschichte” The Fantastic in
the GDR: A Story of Finite Dimensions. Unpub. Conference on Fantastic
GDR Literature. Wetzlar, Germany, 17 Sept. 1999.
———. Science-fiction: Essays. Halle: Mitteldeutscher, 1987.
———. “Wie denkt Science Fiction? Utopie und Realität, Science Fiction und
Zukunft—made in G.D.R.” How does Science Fiction Think? Utopia and
Reality, Science Fiction and Future—Made in the G.D.R.. Burmeister and
Steinmüller 165-78.
Staffel, Tim. Terrordrom Terrordrome. Berlin: Ullstein, 1999.
Steinmüller, Angela, and Karlheinz. “Der Laplacesche Dämon” The Laplasque
Demon. Zeitreisen Time Travels. Ed. Gerda Zschocke. Halle:
Mitteldeutscher, 1986. 162-78.
———. Der Traummeister The Dream Master. 1990. Munich: Heyne, 1992.
———. “Die befohlene Zukunft: DDR—Science Fiction zwischen
Wunschtraum und (Selbst-)Zensur” Future as an Act on Orders: GDR
Science Fiction Between Wishful Dreaming and (Self-) Censorship. Jeschke
207-25.
———. Literatur als Prognostik. Zukunftsbild der utopischen Literatur der DDR
in den fünfziger und sechziger Jahren Literature as Prognostication. Images
of the Future in the Utopian Literature of the GDR during the Fifties and
Sixties. Gelsenkirchen: Sekretariat für Zukunftsforschung, 1994.
———. Pulaster. Berlin (Ost): Neues Leben, 1986; Frankfurt am Main:
Suhrkamp, 1988.
Steinmüller, Karlheinz. Der letzte Tag auf der Venus The Last Day on Venus.
Berlin (Ost): Neues Leben, 1979.
Anatomy of Science Fiction 185

———. “Der letzte Tag auf der Venus” The Last Day on Venus. Steinmüller,
Venus 5-20.
———. “Der Traum vom großen roten Fleck” The Dream of the Big Red Spot.
Steinmüller, Venus 91-108.
———. “Leben wie im Paradies” Living as in Paradise. Unpub. lecture.
Conference on Fantastic GDR Literature. Wetzlar, Germany, 18 Sept. 1999.
Turek, Ludwig. Die goldene Kugel The Golden Sphere. Berlin (Ost): Dietz,
1949.
Vieweg, Heinz. Ultrasymet bliebt geheim Ultrasymet Will Be Kept a Secret.
Berlin (Ost): Volk und Wissen, 1955.
———. Die zweite Sonne The Second Sun. Halle: Mitteldeutscher, 1958.
CHAPTER ELEVEN

WHEN THE HUNGARIAN LITERARY THEORIST


GYÖRGY LUKÁCS MET AMERICAN SCIENCE-
FICTION WRITER, WAYNE MARK CHAPMAN

DONALD E. MORSE

During the heyday of Communism in Hungary György Lukács, the Marxist


potentate of literary criticism and theory, led “the fight against decadence” by
championing realism in fiction and drama at the expense of the fantastic that he
classified either as a form of sentimentality or as a nostalgic yearning for various
bourgeois values.1 As the historical drama was the acme of theatre, so the novel
of realism alone fulfilled the potential of that form. Such views effectively
banished James Joyce and most of the modern writers.2 Another casualty was
popular culture in general and science fiction in particular, especially utopian
writing. Perhaps the most famous victim of this decree in Central Europe was
Polish science-fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem whose novel Hospital of the
Transfiguration, for instance, although completed in 1948 could not be
published until 1955 and—worse yet—could not be translated into English until
late 1987 after which it was finally published in London in 1989 following the
collapse of the Soviet system. (Obviously, there was no need to speculate about
utopia in either Poland or Hungary since it had already been achieved with the
brotherhood of the proletariat.) Similarly, communism downplayed all
Hungarian national history, folklore, distinctive arts and crafts, and music. As
Csilla Bertha argues, for decades after World War II, “national identity, national
traditions, culture, art or literature was suppressed” (179). All was subsumed
under the brotherhood—rarely did anyone mention a sisterhood—of the
workers.
Moreover, communism often exhibited a fairly wide Puritanical streak.
“According to the communist value set, idly entertaining literature was poison to
the mind” (Sohár 32) and so to save the reading public from its inherent bad
taste all such literature, including science fiction, fantasy, and detective stories,
was banned. As a result, the act of reading science fiction and/or fantasy became
Anatomy of Science Fiction 187

in itself for Hungarians a form of protest against communism and


totalitarianism. Anikó Sohár in The Cultural Transfer of Science Fiction and
Fantasy in Hungary 1989-1995 (1999) succinctly argues that

science fiction, by definition, deals with the most important questions raised in a
given society/civilisation, shapes many potential futures elaborating these
problems, investigates their implications, and seeks possible responses or even
solutions, etc: hence its opposition to any kind of totalitarian ideology (34).

Under dictatorial communism, twentieth-century literatures in Central Europe,


but especially in Hungary, reverted to techniques, developed and perfected under
the 400 year-long Habsburg rule that effectively encoded national and religious
values along with moral precepts in symbolic and allusive language. Instead of
reading or listening to what was officially handed out, people paid attention to
what was not printed and listened to what was not said.
After the tanks brutally put down the Revolution of 1956, Hungarian
restrictions were eased on publishing what was officially classified as “light
reading.” Nevertheless, the official literary critics and cultural commentators
continually attacked the degenerate reading habits of workers who by 1968 were
reading pulp fiction—a category that included science fiction—in ever greater
numbers. A decade later, pulp fiction alone accounted for 28% of all books
published in Hungary in 1978 (Sohár 33). But for all of that surreptitious reading
“there was hardly any . . . [science fiction] and fantasy translated into or
produced in Hungarian before the political changes in 1989-1990” (35). And
when works did gradually appear from the sixties on, they did so without the
rigid marketing labels so familiar in the United States—no “hard” or “soft”
science fiction and—what may be even more surprising—no clearly drawn
distinction between science fiction and fantasy.
Unfortunately, western readers, even with the best of intentions, often
misread and misheard, or simply failed to catch the significance of the huge
social, political, and economic changes that occurred in the late 1980s in Central
Europe. For example, the entry on Hungarian Science Fiction in The
Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction published in 1995 is identical to the one in the
earlier 1992 edition despite the enormous changes that occurred in publishing
and in the reading public after 1989. Surprisingly, that entry mentions no writer
born after World War II. Perhaps worse, the person commissioned to write the
entry on Hungary had considerable power under communism and almost alone
was responsible for those decisions “on which authors, novels or short stories
would be brought out” (Sohár 39). Unlike most of the authors he chose to
publish or not publish, this person could travel relatively freely to the west
before 1990 and so participate in, for instance, science-fiction conventions—a
privilege conspicuously denied to other writers. By relying on him, The
188 Chapter Eleven

Encyclopaedia actually—if perhaps inadvertently—appears to endorse his views


and, worse, his former control over science-fiction publishing.
In contrast, Sohár’s thorough and up-to-date study reflects exhaustive
research in Hungarian publishing, translating, and marketing of science fiction
and fantasy. She discusses at length the strengths and weaknesses of numerous
translations such as, for instance, the one a young translator made of William
Gibson’s Neuromancer. Before he could begin his translation, the translator,
Örkény Ajkay “had to create the Hungarian cyberpunk language use and style”
(153). On the other hand, Stephen Donaldson, unfortunately, fared less well with
his translator. Lord Foul’s Bane was given to a well-known highly respected
contemporary writer to translate with disappointing and questionable results.
“The text in Hungarian is often indecipherable, unmeaningful [sic]” (see Sohár
108-12 for a catalogue of examples). Sohár concludes: “in my opinion Tandori
[the translator] utterly failed to convey Donaldson’s meaning” (112).
Probably the most interesting finding in Sohár’s study for readers of
contemporary science fiction, especially for readers in the West, is her discovery
and documentation of the phenomenon of pseudotranslation. Her research reads
in part like a detective novel as she traces one science-fiction book after another
supposedly published in America back to a blank wall—one author after another
disappears into the American hinterland. Finally, after a lot of ingenious
sleuthing, she traces several “American writers” and one “Canadian author”
back to Hungary where she discovers that a whole science-fiction series,
supposedly written by various American authors, is actually “the work of a
group of Hungarian writers, most of them translators specialising in . . . [science
fiction], who shared the same imaginary world, a phenomenon unheard of in
Hungary” (178-79). Nor was this an isolated example. Hungarian authors wisely
claimed that their original science-fiction novels and stories were actually
translations of various made-up American writers because the American science-
fiction or fantasy writer’s name guaranteed the sizeable sales that no native
Hungarian writer of science fiction could produce. “Pulp fiction with a
Hungarian name on the front cover is regarded as unsaleable, hence the
distributors’ requirement to make the author out to be the translator” (181).
Sohár’s assertion provides clear evidence for the truth of Thomas Disch’s
observation that “[s]cience fiction is one of the few American industries that has
never been transplanted abroad with any success” (2), hence the need to attribute
these novels to an American rather than a native Hungarian author. Whole
publishing houses were built on the work of such pseudotranslators. In the five
years covered by the study, Sohár claims “out of 712 science-fiction and fantasy
novels published in this period I could identify, beyond doubt, 94
pseudotranslations (approx. 13 percent)” (186). (She also identified a large
Anatomy of Science Fiction 189

number of similar cases of pseudotranslations of romance and detective fiction


[186].)
The most famous creation of these Hungarian authors was the “American”
writer, Wayne Mark Chapman who, beginning in 1989, became one of
Hungary’s most popular science-fiction authors. “His novels are published in
print runs of approximately 15,000 and are quickly sold out, usually within a
month; two of them have had second editions, which is very unusual for any
popular fiction in Hungary nowadays” (176). Although the pseudotranslation of
science fiction in Hungary appears a unique method of publishing something for
which there is no market, namely locally produced works of science fiction, it
actually has several antecedents. These include a collection of folk poetry
published in Germany just after 1800 by Clemens Brentano and Achim von
Arnim who not only embellished existing poems so as to make them appear
“more antique and authentic” but also added several poems of their own to the
volumes of Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) (Steinberg 303).
A second, slightly earlier—and perhaps more famous—example is James
Macpherson’s famous “editions” of Ossianic poems published in England and
then distributed throughout Europe.3 A third still earlier instance is of Antoine
Galland who from 1704 to 1717 gave Europeans their first glimpse of the
Arabian Nights in his French translations. As reported by Marina Warner in her
Introduction to the Arabian Nights (2003) ‘one or two of the most famous tales
of all, such as “Aladdin: and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” do not exist at
all in Arabic texts before Galland: it is pretty much excepted no[w], by the best
scholars in the field that Galland wrote them himself’ (370). Whatever the
antecedents, the publication of Sohár’s book ended Wayne Mark Chapman’s
career—along with that of several other well-known but equally non-existent
American authors—as pseudotranslations then proved no longer publishable.
Sohár’s discovery of the pseudotranslations has considerable implication for
evaluating the introduction of science fiction and fantasy into the Hungarian or
other non-western book market. She concludes that “[p]seudotranslations, texts
with no original in another language, seem to play a very important role in the
cultural transfer during the transition from a communist regime to a market
economy” (245). Certainly, “to borrow the prestige of a foreign literature [is] to
get a better reception” (251). Yet, while they used American names, most
writers did not opt for that famous American optimism nor were they
preoccupied with—what Ursula Le Guin has rightly termed—“[a]ll those
Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British Empire of 1880. All those
planets—with 80 trillion miles between them!—conceived of as warring nation-
states, or colonies to be exploited . . . the White Man’s Burden all over again.
The Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri” (94). Instead, these anonymous writers
maintained their Hungarian sense of tragic fate so universal in their culture
190 Chapter Eleven

deriving as it did from the conquests of the Ottoman Turks, Austrian Hapsburgs,
German Nazis, and Russian Bolsheviks. With such history no or very few
Hungarian authors would share “the whole Galatic Imperium” or what Tom
Disch calls “the American Dream (or Nightmare) writ large” (2). In most of
these novels there is little science when compared with American science
fiction. The reasons are not far off and may be found both in the culture and in a
society in transition from a controlled to a market-driven economy and from a
dictatorship enforced by the secret police to a more open and, hopefully, to a
democratic nation. The resulting political, economic, and social situation after
1990 could be accurately described as precarious or uncertain at best. “When
everything becomes contingent and ambiguous, it is hardly surprising that
people turn [not to science but] to the supernatural. In this regard, . . . [science
fiction] and fantasy holds up a mirror to current reality. The frequent occurrence
of the supernatural is also related to the fact that most pseudotranslators write
fantasy, not ‘pure’ science fiction,” maintains Sohár (253). Finally, the
introduction of science fiction by way of the pseudotranslations became linked
inextricably to the necessity of selling books in the new market economy—an
economy that has virtually decimated traditional book publishing, distribution,
and sales.
While the reception and creation of science fiction and fantasy in Hungary
during and after the fall of communism thus becomes a case study in the
globalisation and relentless marketing of popular literature, the implications of
Sohár’s investigation extend far beyond science fiction considered either as
mode or market. Science fiction and the fantastic having flourished in England
and America during the twentieth century take with them an accumulation of
values and cultural baggage when transported into another language and culture.
When the transfer occurs between the, perhaps, late—but more likely middle—
capitalist west and the definitely late communist east of the newly emerging
democracies in Central Europe, then the results can be complex and the effects
often surprising and unexpected. In Central Europe in the twenty-first century
there is now little in the way of home-grown science fiction since almost
everything published is imported and translated from the United States. It
appears that science fiction may be transported but not, as Thomas Disch rightly
maintains, transplanted.

Notes
1
In 1956, the first issue of the only Hungarian periodical devoted to world literature,
Nagyvilág (Great World), carried an editorial in which Lukács issued his warning
“against decadence” even as he welcomed this modest importation of foreign literature
under the “very strong dominance of political consideration”—that is, conforming to
communist values and goals (Bertha 175). For a succinct discussion of the reception of
Anatomy of Science Fiction 191

foreign literature under communism, see Csilla Bertha, “The Literary Scene in Hungary
since 1945,” especially 175-82.
2
See, for example, the eminent Hungarian critic Péter Egri, James Joyce és Thomas
Mann: Dekadencia és Modernség.
3
Macpherson (1736-1796) believing that the original Gaelic poetry could be vastly
improved, set about writing long epic poems ostensibly translations from the Gaelic but
actually his own work. Writing in the standard British literary history, The Concise
Cambridge History of English Literature, George Sampson concludes that “Macpherson
was original enough, in a peculiar way, to touch and thrill the whole of Europe, and he
takes his place in the history of literature as well as in the history of imposture” (446).

Works Cited
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to Anglo-Irish Literature.” Literature(s) in English: New Perspectives. Ed.
Wolfgang Zach. Frankfurt amMain: Peter Lang, 1990. 175-85.
Clute, John, and Peter Nichols, eds. The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. New
York: St. Martin’s, 1995
Disch, Thomas M. The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of: How Science Fiction
Conquered the World. 1998. New York: Touchstone, 2000.
Egri, Péter. James Joyce és Thomas Mann: Dekadencia és Modernség (James
Joyce and Thomas Mann: Decadence and Modernity). Budapest: Akadémiai
Kiadó, 1967.
Sohár, Anikó. The Cultural Transfer of Science Fiction and Fantasy in Hungary
1989-1995. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1999.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “American SF and the Other.” Science Fiction Studies 7
(1975). Reprinted in Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science
Fiction. Revised edition. Ed. Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: HarperCollins,
1992. 93-96.
Lem, Stanislaw. Hospital of the Transfiguration. Trans. William Brand. London:
Andre Deutch, 1989.
Sampson, George. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. 3rd
ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Steinberg, Michael. The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1995.
Warner, Marina. “Under the Executioner’s Sword.” Introduction to the Arabian
Nights, Folio society Edition. Signs and Wonders: Essays on Literature &
Culture. London: Chatto & Windus, 2003. 366-73.
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS

BRIAN ATTEBERY’s first scholarly publication was on Emily Dickinson,


but he soon turned away from canonical topics. Since that first effort, he has
written on fantasy, science fiction, film, childrens literature, and
interdisciplinarity. His article on Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, and the
theoretical basis for their pioneering work in American Studies appeared in
American Quarterly in 1996. He received the Distinguished Scholarship Award
from International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts and won the
Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Myth and Fantasy Studies for his book
Strategies of Fantasy (1992). Along with co-editors Ursula K. Le Guin and
Karen Joy Fowler, he produced the groundbreaking Norton Book of Science
Fiction, for which he also wrote a teachers’ guide. His most recent book is
Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, published in 2002. He and his wife,
folklorist Jennifer Eastman Attebery, live in Pocatello, Idaho, where he directs
the graduate program in English at Idaho State University and edits the Journal
of the Fantastic in the Arts.

TAMÁS BÉNYEI, senior lecturer at the Department of British Studies, Institute


of English and American Studies, University of Debrecen, Hungary, has
published numerous articles and chapters in Hungary and elsewhere, mainly on
literary theory and contemporary British authors, from Iris Murdoch and
Anthony Powell to Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd and Jeanette Winterson. He is
the author of six books, including one on metaphysical detective stories
Rejtélyes rend (Mysterious Order 2000), another on magic realism (Apokrif
iratok (Apocryphal Writings [1997]), and one in English (Acts of Attention:
Figure and Narrative in Postwar British Novels (1999).

KEVIN ALEXANDER BOON, an Assistant Professor at Penn State University,


is the author of books on Kurt Vonnegut and Virginia Woolf and the editor of a
number of collections including At Millennium’s End (SUNY Press, 2001). He just
completed a book on the Human Genome Project and is now at work on a new book
about the screenplay as literature.

ÉVA FEDERMAYER, Associate Professor of American literature, Eövös


Loránd University in Budapest and the University of Szeged in Szeged, is
currently co-president of the Hungarian Association for American Studies. She
published a book and numerous articles ranging from deconstruction,
Anatomy of Science Fiction 193

psychoanalysis, gendered discourses of Hungarian home design to African


American literature, American studies methodology, and cultural studies. Her
main area of research is American discourses of race and ethnicity. She is
currently engaged in a project on the representations of the colorline in African
American fiction and film.

URSULA KIAUSCH, M.A., works as an independent scholar, critic, publicist,


editor, author, lecturer, and translator mainly in the field of international science fiction.
She lives in Mannheim, Germany. Among other publishing houses, she works for
Heyne Munich and Spektrum Heidelberg. Since 2002 she has organized and hosted
a number of symposia at Neustadt/ Weinstra (supported and financed by state
government and city administration) for authors, artists and scientists titled
"Science meets Fiction," including on the occasion of the Einstein Year and
Year of Physics 2005.

KÁLMÁN MATOLCSY, doctoral student at the University of Debrecen,


currently researches on the interplay between the language of scientific analogy
and paradigm shifts in the cosmicist fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. His published
essays include “The Simulated Body in a Gerontocratic Culture: Homeostasis,
Genome, and Fashion in Sterling’s Holy Fire” (2006), “Liberation through
Atavism: Post-Human Figures in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Novels” (2005);
“The Innsmouth ‘Thing’: Monstrous Androgyny in H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Thing
on the Doorstep’” (2004); and “Naturalizing the Supernatural: H. P. Lovecraft
and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror” (2003). His essays on the Japanese horror
cinema have appeared in critical volumes by Sapientia Könyvek in Romania.

DONALD E. MORSE, University Professor of American, Irish, and English


Literature, University of Debrecen and Professor of English and Rhetoric, Emeritus,
Oakland University, USA, is the author or editor of a dozen books including The
Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American (2003), and over 100
scholarly essays on a wide variety of subjects including science fiction, George
Orwell, William Gibson, James Joyce, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, the Irish fantastic,
James Stephens, Flann O’Brien, various Irish playwrights, and Csaba Laszlóffy. The
recipient of several Fulbright and Soros Professorships, he also received a
Rockefeller Study Fellowship to co-translate Hungarian drama. Debrecen University
awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his international scholarship,
his diplomatic work in helping to establish the Hungarian-American Fulbright
commission, and the László Országh Distinguished Fulbright Chair of American
Studies in Hungary.

AMY NOVAK, English Department at California State University,


Fullerton, does research in exploring the intersections between contemporary
194 Contributors

American and World literatures, philosophies of history, and the representation


of cultural trauma. She is currently working on a study of traumatic narratology,
titled “Encrypted Histories, Trauma, Narrative and Ideology.” She has written
and published work on such authors as William Gibson, Michael Ondaatje, Ariel
Dorfman, and Edwidge Danticat.

KÁROLY PINTÉR, Associate Professor of English and American Culture


at the Institute of English Studies, Péter Pázmány Catholic University, Budapest,
did his doctoral dissertation, The Anatomy of Utopia, on two seminal works of
the English utopian literary tradition, Thomas More’s Utopia and H. G. Wells’ A
Modern Utopia, attempting to find an approach that is based on the distinctive
generic characteristics of utopias and the close reading of texts rather than broad
ideological speculations. He has published introductory textbooks on British and
American culture, essays on Samuel Beckett in HJEAS, Aldous Huxley and
Thomas More, and is an active translator. His other professional interests
include modern English-language science fiction as well as the separation of
church and state in the United States. Recently, he was a senior Fulbright scholar
to the United States.

NICHOLAS RUDDICK, Professor of English and Director of the


Humanities Research Institute at the University of Regina, teaches
undergraduate courses on science fiction, fairy tales, and horror fiction, and
graduate courses on Darwinism's influence on the literary and cultural history of
the later nineteenth century. He is the author of Christopher Priest (1989),
British Science Fiction: A Chronology 1478-1990 (1993), and Ultimate Island:
On the Nature of British Science Fiction (1993), and the editor of State of the
Fantastic (1992), The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (2001), Caesar's Column
Ignatius Donnelly (2003), and The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen (2004). He
has published more than eighty other pieces including recent essays on Margaret
Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and on Charles Perrault's "Bluebeard," and the
chapter on fantastic fiction in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Fin
de Siecle. He was appointed University of Regina President's Scholar, 2002-04.
INDEX

Adenauer, Konrad, 169, 181 Borges, Jorge Luis, 54, 63, 92


Aldiss, Brian, 3, 8, 43, 73, 109, 110, Boyer, Paul, 92
121, 176-77 Bradbury, Ray, 5-6, 85-92, 170
Allison, Dorothy, 97, 107 Fahrenheit 451, 5
Anderson, Edith, 172 Bradley, Marion Zimmer, 71
Andor, Csaba, 65-66 Branstner, Gerhard, 169-70
Antonio, Eberhardt del, 167 Braun, Johanna and Günter, 172-73,
Antor, Heinz, 113, 122 179-81
Arnason, Eleanor, 77 Brauns, The, 174
Arnim, Achim von, 189 Brecht, Bertolt, 12, 30, 44
Asimov, Isaac, 5, 14, 16, 54, 70, 170 Verfremdung, 30
Bacon-Smith, Camille, 78 Brentano, Clemens, 189
Bagemühl, Arthur, 168 Brians, Paul, 91
Ballard, J.G., 53, 67, 177 Brooke-Rose, Christine, 52
Banks, Ian M., 76 Bujold, Lois McMaster, 76
Baudrillard, Jean, 131, 135, 141, 148, Bukatman, Scott, 154
152, 154 Burgess, Anthony, 54
Bear, Greg, 76 Burroughs, William, 52
Beardsley, Tim, 122 Butler, Octavia, 2, 4, 76, 95-107
Beckett, Samuel, 52, 118 Butler, Samuel, 146
Bell, Daniel, 160 Calvino, Italo, 67
Bellamy, Edward, 170 Cameron, James, 73
Benford, Gregory, 74 Campbell, John W., Jr., 14, 20
Benjamin, Walter, 136, 141 Çapek, Karel, 75
Bertha, Csilla, 186, 190-91 Carpenter, John, 20, 23
Bester, Alfred, 177 Carter, Raphael, 6
Beuchler, Klaus, 170 Casares, Adolfo Bioy, 54
Blake, William, 146 Chapman, Wayne Mark, 186-89
Blish, James, 18 Charnas, Suzy McKee, 95
Bloom, Harold, 91 Chernobyl, 87
Bohr, Niels, 110-11, 118-20, 123 Clarke, Arthur C., 14-15, 22, 43, 177
Bolter, David, 137 Clute, John, 3
Bonestell, Chesley, 83-84, 91 Collier’s, 5, 83, 85, 91
Bontempelli, Massimo, 54 Cornwell, John, 122
Booker, M. Keith, 142 Cortázar, Julio, 52
Bordo, Susan, 153 Cramer, Kathryn, 91
196 Index

Creeley, Robert, 91 Franklin, H. Bruce, 91


Crichton, Michael, 55 Frayn, Michael, 109-23
Cronenberg, David, 152 Freedman, Carl, 7-8
Csicsery-Ronay, István Jr., 91, 142 Frye, Northrop, 28-29, 43-44
cyborg, 2, 70, 80, 95-107, 152, 161 Galileo, Galilei, 11-12, 22
Darwin, Charles, 13, 110, 116-17, 121, Garber, Marjorie, 77
153, 159, 161 Gearhart, Sally Miller, 102
Davidson, Max, 118 Gernsback, Hugo, 14, 77, 126-27
Davies, Elmer, 84 Giacometti, 22-24
Davies, Paul, 66, 84 Gibson, William, 2-4, 20, 72, 74, 99-
Davis, Mike, 161 107, 131-47, 188
Dawkins, Richard, 150-51, 159 Gifford, Don, 89-90
De Lillo, Don, 70 Gilbert, Sandra, 96
Debord, Guy, 128-29, 135 Gloss, Molly, 76
Deery, June, 31, 33, 44-45 Godwin, Tom, 18
Delany, Samuel, 26, 53, 76, 96 “The Cold Equations,” 20
Demastes, William, 122 Gould, Stephen Jay, 150, 159
Dery, Mark, 79, 80, 147, 149, 152-53, Greenblatt, Stephen, 72, 75, 77
155 Greenland, Colin, 53
Descartes, René, 22 Griffith, Nicola, 6, 81
Dick, Philip K., 6, 20, 39, 85, 175 Gross, Richard, 170
DiGaetani, John L., 121 Gubar, Susan, 96
Disch, Thomas, 6, 85-87, 91, 188, 190 Gussow, Mel, 122
Disney, Walt, 84 Gustavsson, 79
Dominik, Hans, 166, 168, 181 Haldeman, Joe, 71
Donaldson, Stephev, 188 Haraway, Donna, 99, 102, 147, 152
Douglass, Frederick, 104 Harpham, Geoffrey Galt, 106
Dresden, 57, 59, 88, 172 Harrison, Harry, 177
Edward James, 3, 27, 73, 77, 189 Harsnett, Samuel, 72
Egan, Greg, 76 Hart, Linda, 135
Einstein, Albert, 5, 85-86 Hawks, Howard, 20
Elliott, Robert C., 30, 43 Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 12
Ellison, Harlan, 18-19 Hayles, N. Kathryn, 150, 152-53
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 2, 4, 86 Heidtmann, Horst, 181
“Self-Reliance,” 2 Heisenberg, Werner, 109-23
“The American Scholar,” 4 Hilgenstein, Hartwig, 180
Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, The, Hillegas, Mark R., 44, 122
187 Hiroshima, 17, 23, 85-86, 88, 121
Eskridge, Kelley, 77 Hodges, Andrew, 122
Fahlberg, H.L., 168 Hollinger, Veronica, 2, 121, 134
Faraday, Michael, 13 Honecker, Erich, 171
Feynman, Richard, 66 Hopkinson, Nalo, 6, 81
Fiedler, Leslie, 51, 67 Hughes, David, 44, 46
Fitting, Peter, 98 Huntington, John, 45
Foucault, Michael, 10, 12, 22 Hurley, Kelly, 151-53, 159
Frank, Pat, 6, 43, 88-92 Hutcheon, Linda, 96, 106
Index 197

Huxley, Aldous, 54, 170 Marx, Leo, 154, 162


Huxley, Thomas H., 109, 150 McCaffery, Larry, 1, 4, 96-98, 132-33
Jacobs, Harriet, 104-105 McCurdy, Howard, 83, 86-87, 91
James Tiptree, Jr. Award, 77 McHale, Brian, 53, 55-56, 121, 143
Jameson, Fredric, 7, 128, 141-42 McIntyre, Vonda, 95
Jenkins, Henry III, 78 McKenna, Terence, 147
Johnson, Lyndon Baines, 84 McMurtry, Larry, 8
Jones, Gweneth, 76 Melbourne, Lucy, 114, 122
Joyce, James, 186 Mendlesohn, Farah, 3
Judt, Tony, 8 Mercier, Sebastien, 27
Kagel, Stephen E., 91 Merril, Judith, 90
Kellert, Stephen R., 155 Merritt, Abraham, 14
Kelly, James Patrick, 77 Miller, Walter, 73
Kepler, Johannes, 11 Morgner, Irmtraud, 172
Keyes, Daniel, 17 Morris, William, 34
King, Martin Luther, Jr., 17, 23 Morrison, Toni, 105
Klauss, Klaus, 177 Mosley, Walter, 70
Klinkowitz, Jerome, 5, 55 Muir, John, 150, 161
Kramer, Prapassaree, 122 Müller, Horst, 170
Krauss, Werner, 169 Musser, George, 92
Kress, Nancy, 76 Myers, Robert, 122
Kröger, Alexander, 177 Nabokov, Vladimir, 52, 54, 67
Krupkat, Günther, 169 Nagasaki, 17, 86, 88, 123
Krupnik, Joseph, 120-21 Nagy, Péter H., 52
Kubrick, Stanley, 73, 82 Nash, Christopher, 52, 60
Kunkel, Klaus, 168 Newton, Isaac, 10, 11, 22
Kuttner, Henry, 73, 75 Nicholls, Peter, 14
Landon, Brooks, 125-26, 132 Nietzsche, Frederick, 13
Lasswitz, Kurd, 166 Orwell, George, 54, 170
Lazar, Mary, 1 Palmer, Christopher, 149, 161-62
Le Guin, Ursula, 18, 71, 77, 95, 100, Panitz, Eberhard, 178
157-58, 161-62, 189 Parrinder, Patrick, 28, 38, 41, 44
Leary, Timothy, 22-23 Pavel, Thomas, 143
Lem, Stanislaw, 20-21, 172, 174, 186 Pelyvás, Agnes, 68
Leopold, Aldo, 155 Penley, Constance, 78
Lessing, Doris, 67, 70 Perkins, Timothy, 79
Lethem, Jonathan, 70 Pfaelzer, Jean, 98
Levi-Strauss, Claude, 155 Piercy, Marge, 95
Levy Vacuum Cleaner Company, 87 Poe, Edgar Alan, 8
Li, Huey-li, 155 Pohl, Frederik, 177
Lilienthal, David E., 92 Poliakoff, Stephen, 110, 114
Locke, John, 10-11 Powers, Thomas, 119-20, 123, 161
Lück, Harmut, 166 Prae, 106
Lukács, György, 8, 166, 186, 190 Pringle, David, 86
Manuel, Frank E. and Fritzie P., 43 pseudotranslation, 186-91
Marin, Rick, 118 Quantum Ethics, 3, 109-23
198 Index

Reagan, Ronald, 84, 91, 98 Steinmüller, Angela and Karlheinz,


Robbe-Grillet, Allain, 52 166, 174-75, 178-81
Robinson, Kim Stanley, 75-76 Steinmüller, Karlheinz, 174-75, 180
Roddenberry, Gene, 77-79 Stephen, Richard, 91
Rorty, Richard, 7 Sterling, Bruce, 106
Rose, Paul Lawrence, 123 Stewart, Victoria, 119, 121
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 34, 102 Stoppard, Tom, 110-22
Russ, Joanna, 95-96 Strauss, Lewis L., 17, 87
Ryan, Marie-Laure, 142 Strugazki, Arkadi and Boris, 174
Sagan, Carl, 153 Suvin, Darko, 26, 28, 30, 43-44, 74
Sampson, George, 191 Teasdale, Sara, 92
Sargent, Pamela, 95, 102, 106 Tennessee Valley Authority, 87, 92
Sartre, Jean-Paul, 17, 19, 21, 23 terraforming, 75
Saturday Evening Post, The, 85 The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 84
Schacter, Daniel L., 143 Thoreau, Henry David, 3, 19, 147, 152
Schatt, Stanley, 55 Three Mile Island, 87
Schmidt, Arno, 52 Tipler, Frank J., 147
Scholes, Robert, 51-52 Trout, Kilgore, 4, 5, 48, 49, 55, 57, 60,
Science Fiction Research Association, 61, 62, 63, 64
the, 70 Truman, Harry S, 91
Sckerl, Adolf, 169 Truth, Sojourner, 100
Scott, Melissa, 6, 73, 81, 154 Turek, Ludwig, 167
Seghers, Anna, 171 Turing, Alan, 110-13, 122, 137
Shakespeare, William, 67, 72 van Braun, Dr. Werner, 84
Sheldon, Alice, 95 Van Vogt, A.E., 73, 75
Shelley, Mary, 2, 8, 10, 12-13, 106 Vieweg, Heinz, 168
Shephard, Paul, 155 Voltaire, 10-11, 22
Shinn, Thelma, 97 Vonnegut, Kurt, 2-5, 8, 18, 19, 48-67,
Sigman, Joseph, 56-57, 67 90, 93
Simak, Clifford D., 14 Warner, Marina, 189
Simmons, Dan, 3-4, 146, 150-62 Warwick, Kevin, 148, 153-54, 161
Hyperion Cantos, 3, 150-62 Watson, Ian, 72, 73
Simon, Erik, 165, 170, 172, 174-77, Webb, Janeen, 149, 161
179-81 Wells, H.G., 2, 13-14, 26-45, 72, 104,
Simpson, George Gaylord, 155-56, 159 109, 160, 170, 174
Slonczewski, Joan, 74, 102 Wells, William, 104
Sohár, Anikó, 186-90 Wertenbaker, Timberlake, 110, 116-17,
Spittel, Olaf R., 170, 172, 176-81 121
Sponsler, Claire, 139-40 Whalen, Terence, 160
Sputnik I and II, 83 Whitemore, Hugh, 110-12, 116, 122
Staffel, Tim, 180 Williams, Raymond, 8
Stanesby, Derek, 11 Wilson, Edward O., 155
Stapledon, Olaf, 147, 170 Wittig, Monique, 95
Star Trek, 23, 77-80 Wolf, Christa, 172
Stebbins, G. Ledyard, 150 Wolfe, Gary, 71, 92
Wolmark, Jenny, 96, 106-107
Index 199

Wroe, Nicholas, 118 Zamyatin, Evgeny, 54


Xenogenesis, 2, 76, 95-102