To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. The following essay was first published in Meanjin Volume 13 Issue 2, 1954.
The literature of our age is rich in sub-species like the western, the novel of crime and violence, the cheap love story, and others, forms which flourish between the brilliant covers of pulp magazines, and which, for the greater part of this century, if not longer, have catered to the demands of a wide and constant audience. None of them, however, has ever experienced anything quite like the sudden and enormous increase in popularity which science fiction, seemingly a cognate form, is enjoying at the moment. Since the war, science fiction has captured the imagination of the public, especially the American public, in an amazing way. Circulation figures for the magazines in which for years it has pursued its lurid bypath have soared; and authors whose work formerly appeared only in publications with titles such as Fantastic Adventures, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and others as bizarre, now find their names in Argosy and the Saturday Evening Post. On both sides of the Atlantic reputable publishing houses have begun to bring out hard-cover editions of science-fiction novels and anthologies, which are duly reviewed in dignified journals like the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, and the New York Times. At the same time all over the world a parasitic and subterranean ‘fan’ literature has sprung up, fostered and distributed by hundreds of science fiction clubs and societies.
Even though the bookseller and the devotee insist that science fiction is now a literary force to be reckoned with—a ‘form of imaginative literature … demanding recognition for its style, quality and originality’1—its reception by the serious literary critic has been rather frigid. This is not surprising: the majority of science fiction stories published each year are of little value either as science or as literature, and even the better authors and editors (and there are not many of them ) are, for sound economic reasons, still tied in some ways to the pulp magazine market. Much of the stuff which calls itself science fiction is as childish and crude in conception as the average comic strip.
The discriminating reader of science fiction is aware of this, however, and he can appreciate only too well the feelings of bewilderment and contempt which a casual browse through some of the more alarming magazines could arouse in an unsympathetic or unprepared reader. A. C. B. Lovell’s angry ‘Counterblast to Science Fiction’ in a recent issue of the New Statesman is understandably scathing. It is not, however, completely just. After examining a random sample of fifty stories, Lovell (himself a scientist) comes to the conclusion that:
the majority of these stories can be rejected immediately as worthless they are simply humdrum gangster stuff, generally on an interplanetary scale. In these the clap-trap of science is used without understanding and their themes are scientifically inane. Some of the remainder are readable – a few show considerable understanding of scientific possibilities, but are worthless as literature.2
Lovell’s statement reveals at once the potentialities and limitations of a statistical approach to literature: it is significant that out of his random sample of fifty he should be lucky enough to find five or six stories which are ‘readable’; it is not so significant, however, that these five or six should be ‘worthless as literature.’ A quantitative estimate of literature has only a limited value: the important question ultimately is not how many readable stories have been written in the field of science fiction, but how good the best of these stories are. In any case I am rather suspicious of Lovell’s competence in purely literary matters. His reasons for dismissing as worthless even those stories which have a sound scientific basis are a) that the prose used in them is not as colourful as that used by H. G. Wells, and b) that their authors offer the reader none of the Utopian visions with which Wells always concludes his stories of cosmic catastrophe. Wells’s prose doubtless has its virtues, but his visions of a world set free usually have little connection with political and social realities. The anti-Utopian note in modern science fiction is if anything, a mark of maturity rather than decadence.
Although science fiction seems in many ways to have attained some sort of maturity it still bears the marks of adolescence. Its rise in the literary world, for instance, has been so rapid and unexpected that its social success has gone slightly to its head. Like all parvenus, it now tends to take itself with unwonted seriousness, going to great lengths to prove that it is respectable, and to demonstrate that it can boast ancestors as distinguished as those of any other literary form. The genealogical enthusiasts have, in fact, a surprisingly easy task: it is remarkable how many authors now established as classics tried their hand at stories which may without any impropriety at all be included in the science fiction canon. H. G. Wells and Jules Verne have, of course, always been recognized as authors of scientific romances. It is perhaps not so well known, however, that stories and novels just as scientific and fantastic have been written by Butler, Stevenson, Conrad, Kipling, and even E. M. Forster. Some people try to trace the line back further, to Swift, Sir Thomas More, Rabelais and even Homer, and ridiculous as such attempts may appear they are neither completely stupid nor completely unjustifiable.
Homer’s name can be invoked with impunity in most literary discussions, and with more justice, perhaps, in this one than in many. The field of science fiction is large and elastic enough to include an extremely varied group of writers. Wells, for instance, even had objections to being placed in the same category as Verne. In the preface to an omnibus volume of his scientific romances published in 1933,3 he distinguishes sharply between his own stories and the ‘anticipatory inventions of the great Frenchman.’ Jules Verne’s work, says Wells, ‘dealt almost always with actual possibilities of invention and discovery, and he made some remarkable forecasts… . But these stories of mine … are exercises of the imagination in a quite different field. They belong to a class of writing which includes the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the True Histories of Lucian, Peter Schlemil and the story of Frankenstein … They are all fantasies.’ One could add to this list such things as Mandeville’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe and, of course, Gulliver’s Travels. Wells, in fact, acknowledges his debt to Swift in this same preface: ‘it is particularly evident,’ he says, ‘in a predisposition to make the stories reflect upon contemporary political and social discussions.’ Gulliver’s Travels, The First Men in the Moon and the Odyssey have much in common: each satisfies the reader’s taste for the marvellous and bizarre, and at the same time each offers him a well told and exciting story. And each of these stories, fantastic though it may be, throws some light onto the general condition of humanity a light which, in the works of Swift and Wells, is perhaps more pitiless since, as Wells put it, they ‘look at mankind from a distance.’ Although there is no modern author of science fiction who can be equated as a writer with Homer, Swift or even perhaps Wells, there is nothing ridiculous in pointing out that his work fulfils for the modern reader functions similar in many ways to those fulfilled by Swift and Homer for their contemporaries.
There are differences of course. Odysseus and Gulliver are able to find their Phaeacians and Brobdingnagians by voyaging to some unmapped corner of the earth. The modern writer who wishes to find his perfect civilization—his men like gods—has to send his heroes travelling out through space or onward in time. In this era of rapid transport and practically instantaneous communication our globe has shrunk—become small and familiar. For the bizarre, the monstrous or the marvellous to be credible today, they have to be set on another planet or in another age. It is not merely because we live in the age of the atom and the rocket that all our brave new worlds are imagined as existing in some future interplanetary era. Our civilization is conscious of time as perhaps no other has ever been—certainly no other people have ever lived so thoroughly in the future. Even in advertising and politics the emphasis is perpetually on the novel, the revolutionary and the progressive. At no other time has a body of popular literature existed which finds its subject almost entirely in the future: science fiction is one of the most significant manifestations of the restlessness and hunger of modem civilization, and of the elements within it which mark it off from any civilization of the past.
It is not surprising that many of the early science fiction novels of the nineteenth century found their initial inspiration in the Darwinian and Spencerian theories of evolution. Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race, Butler’s Erewhon, and Bellamy’s Looking Backward, made some interesting predictions about the mechanical developments which could possibly take place in our society. As science and technology began to take their gigantic and rapidly accelerating strides into the future, however, people started to become more and more fascinated by the potentialities which lay in the tremendous technical powers man was so suddenly acquiring.
The science fiction which began to appear in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties of this century, and which was sufficiently self-conscious to distinguish itself by its title from the rest of what was being written, found its inspiration mainly in the exciting material and technical possibilities of this new age. Within a few years, after all, wireless and television, together with the whole new science of electronics, had been developed, and man had at last fulfilled the dream of centuries and had learnt to fly. The air had been conquered—why should not space be next? Men were already talking of the tremendous power which lay locked within the atom—is it any wonder that the imagination was fired by the idea of mechanically miraculous utopias, of ‘the world set free’ and, above all, of space travel? ‘Dim and wonderful is the vision …’ wrote Wells in 1897, ‘of life spreading from this little seed-bed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space.’4
The attempts to express this vision that began to fill the pages of Amazing Stories and the other magazines which soon joined it are for the most part crudely written. The stories vary enormously not only in literary merit, but also in the subjects with which they deal and the ways in which they are presented. Not all of them, for instance, have space travel as their subject, although it is generally assumed that interplanetary travel will be part of the society of the future. The best of the early stories—and of some of the later ones, too—are prophetic or problem stories of the Jules Verne type: fascinating enough if one is interested in scientific possibilities, but of no great literary value in themselves. The ‘pure’ science fiction story can, in fact, almost never hope to be of any real significance as literature, simply because it is concerned with abstract or mechanical problems rather than with the affairs and emotions of individual human beings.
Science fiction, to my mind, becomes really interesting only when it deals not so much with scientific or pseudo-scientific problems in themselves as with the problems which arise out of the attempts either of individuals or of societies to adjust themselves to this new sort of civilization which modern technology is creating. Many of the stories which have appeared in science fiction magazines over the last few years belong to what critics have perhaps rather pretentiously called ‘sociological’ science fiction. Brave New World and 1984 are probably the most famous examples of this sort of writing. Most people who have read these books, however, probably do not realise that during the last ten or fifteen years hundreds of similar stories have been appearing from time to time in the pages of apparently worthless magazines.
It would be wrong to give the impression that most science fiction stories are either fairly soundly based scientific syntheses or serious social studies. But all science fiction stories, no matter how good nor how bad they may be from either the literary or the scientific standpoint, have one thing in common: they represent both for the writer and the reader an attempt to come to terms with the new and fantastically different material environment which the machine has begun to erect around society. Even in the most trivial story of inter-galactic adventuring or millenial time-travel, this fact is accepted, and it is this which makes science fiction as a whole interesting and significant at the social if not at the literary level.
The inhabitants of other planets in early stories are usually looked at in two ways. Either they are imagined as inferior to human beings, in which case they are treated as ‘natives,’ and the social attitudes revealed in the stories are those of a mid-Victorian white imperialist; or else they are imagined as being in some way superior. Their superiority, however, is almost always of a scientific and technological nature. Rarely are the Martians and Venusians thought of as being, in the cultural sense, more civilized. Almost invariably, too, any form of life which is imagined as non-human, is imagined as being horrible and completely alien in form.
During the last ten or fifteen years, however, things have changed very considerably. A few magazines, of which Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction is the most famous, have set a new standard both in scientific accuracy and literary competence,5 and at the same time a new and extremely interesting note of political and social awareness has entered into science fiction. This awareness reveals itself most strikingly, perhaps, in the attitudes which are expressed towards alien types of life and the forms in which these non-human beings are imagined. The prototype of the ‘bug-eyed monster’ sort of story is probably Wells’s War of the Worlds, a novel which gives a vivid account of the invasion of Earth by creatures from Mars physically repulsive octopus-like organisms of ruthless intelligence who regard humanity as a species of life significant to them only because of its edibility. Mankind is saved from extermination when the Martians suddenly succumb to disease bacteria to which, since there are seemingly none on Mars, they have developed no resIstance.
It is interesting to compare Wells’s version of the first contact between Martians and Earthmen with the picture offered to us by a more modern writer. Ray Bradbury, one of the most popular science fiction writers to have appeared in recent years, imagines the Martian people as beautiful, civilised and highly sophisticated beings. According to the story as he tells it in The Silver Locusts, it is the Earthmen who invade Mars. The members of the first three rocket ships to reach Mars from Earth are killed, more because of the inability of each race to understand the other than because of any deliberate policy. But the dead men have their revenge. When the fourth rocket arrives it finds that the population of Mars has practically all been wiped out by chicken-pox—a disease unintentionally transmitted to them by their interplanetary visitors. The heroic spaceman as Bradbury presents him is a man so enmeshed in the mechanical glory of his earthly civilization that he is unable to understand the fineness of the culture he has desecrated and destroyed.
Bradbury, although a competent and ingenious writer, is too much of a sentimentalist to survive any serious comparison with Wells. Nevertheless his popularity among all sorts of readers is interesting, especially when one considers the values he insistently advocates in his stories, and the further fact that on our present knowledge of Mars his conception of the planet and its inhabitants is not only scientifically inaccurate but probably impossible.
It is amazing how often, in the better sort of story which is now being written, the inhabitants of other parts of the universe are imagined as infinitely more superior to humanity in a cultural, moral and ethical way. The mark of their superiority lies usually in the fact that they have learned to live among each other, that instead of being slaves to themselves and to their machines they have risen above both. In Bradbury’s story, the Martians whom humanity had destroyed had discovered the secret of life ‘They knew how to combine science and religion so that the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other.’
In place of the nineteenth century evolutionary optimism with which Wells and the great majority of science fiction writers who followed him were tinged, there is now appearing in science fiction an overwhelming sense of man’s limitations, a realization that our political and moral development—our sociology—has not kept pace with our technological development. Although the planets may be within our grasp—and perhaps, eventually, the stars—it is suggested now more often than not that humanity is not worthy of them. There is occasionally a surprising and usually quite unconscious religious undertone in the imaginary pictures which science fiction writers now give of non-human life-forms. There is an unvoiced but ever-present hope that when the first galactic flying saucer lands a god will step from the machine—or if not a god, then at least a being who despite his five eyes and eight legs is an expert sociologist.
The dei ex machinis and the bug-eyed monsters are both products of man’s imagination—extensions and projections of his own desires, fears and hopes about himself, often revealing more about the sorts of things he believes in or unconsciously wants to believe in—than he himself recognises. Often, however, the science fiction writer does not bother to cloak these feelings under the symbolic guise of visitors from other worlds—under the guise of Brobdingnagians, Houyhnhnms or purple octopods from the other side of Arcturus. Many of the best science fiction stories are fairly sober visions of what the world might be like in the future if certain social and technological trends now evident were ever permitted to develop to their logical limits.
Not all the stories published in Astounding Science Fiction are as overtly concerned with political and social matters. A certain proportion of them are not concerned with such things in any way at all. But it becomes obvious once one has read a fair number of the stories which appear in this and one or two of the other leading science fiction magazines, that there are certain attitudes towards life and assumptions about society which seem to be held—either consciously or unconsciously—by the people who write them. There are, for instance, very few villains in this sort of science fiction: it is assumed that ignorance, superstition, intolerance, fear and hunger—spiritual as well as physical—are the real enemies of society. As might be expected, many stories deal with war, or the threat of war, but in almost all of them war is envisaged as a useless method of solving the problems of mankind. Education and freedom, especially freedom of thought, are seen as the only solution to our difficulties. And when there are villains in these stories, it is amazing how often they are soldiers—arrogant, dogmatic and limited men who are unable to understand the empirical and detached approach of the scientist. The conflict between the soldier and the scientist has appeared so often in science fiction in the last few years as to have become almost a cliche.
Even though the salvation of man is seen ultimately to lie in education, this realization does not spring from any blind belief in human perfectibility. Indeed a large proportion of contemporary science fiction is not only anti-Utopian but completely pessimistic. The vision of the future it gives us, however, is not always apocalyptic. There is a growing awareness in the best science fiction that there is no glory in splitting the atom or conquering space if man cannot first conquer himself. Man’s greatest enemy is seen to be himself, and his greatest problem now and in the future the problem of learning how to control the tremendous forces and techniques which he has so recently discovered.
It would be wrong to give the impression that this maturity of vision can be discovered throughout the field of science fiction. The best work is competently written and often very entertaining, but as I have already remarked, much of what is called science fiction is not worth considering seriously as literature at all. Even those writers who have some insight into the social problems which must arise in a technological era such as ours often express their ideas and feelings crudely and sentimentally. When one considers the growing popularity of science fiction, however, and the unusually wide cross-section of the community to whom it appeals, the appearance within it of such ideas and feelings in any form at all is of some social significance.
1. Donald A. Wollheim, Introduction to Prize Stories of Space and Time. London, 1953.
2. New Statesman and Nation, 13/3/1954.
3. The Scientific Romances of H. C. Wells, London, 1933.
4. The War of the Worlds, Penguin Books, p. 207.
5. Some idea of the sort of audience aimed at by Campbell can perhaps be gained by a glance at a few of the articles he publishes. In the last six months the following have appeared (among others) in Astounding Science Fiction: ‘How to talk to a Martian,’ by G. R. Shipman (an account of the linguistic methods used by modern anthropologists in learning the languages of native peoples). ‘Thinking in Men and Machines,’ by Joseph A. Winter, M.D. (a popular but balanced and apparently well-informed discussion of the psychological differences between the functions of largescale calculating machines and the mental processes of human beings). ‘The Logical Parallax,’ by Dr. Gotthard Gunthard (a discussion of multivalued logic abridged by the author from his paper, ‘Die philosophische Idee ciner nicht-Aristotelischen Logic.’ Proceedings of the XIth International Congress of Philosophy. Vol. V-8-4) .
The full Meanjin archive can be accessed at www.informit.com.au/meanjinbackfiles