Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A Defence of Science Fiction

I wrote this about a year and a half ago for a student-run online magazine called Qwerty, for the second issue that never got published. I was writing my dissertation at the time (which was, unsurprisingly, about the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) against the advice of my dissertation supervisor: "it's not what you'd call literature, is it?" He also made some sexist comments about girls liking science fiction which I won't repeat; suffice to say that I wrote the dissertation, it got an A, and I graduated with a First from one of the top universities in the world. Up yours, prof.

This accusation of Hitchhiker's not being literature did gall me though, and it's one that I come across a lot from people who think all science fiction is without depth. I wrote this short article for Qwerty to try and get my feelings on the matter down on paper (or on a laptop screen, anyway), and to put some of my dissertation research to further use. Now I'll leave it for you to read. You can make up your own mind.

A Defence of Science Fiction

My love of science fiction started at eight years old. I was upset, struggling to get to sleep, and my father gave me a home recording on audio tape (yes, tape – I am that old) of the first two radio episodes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I instantly fell in love with Douglas Adams' writing and the comedic talents of the actors involved, and I've listened to the whole series at least twice a year since then (including the three later series made with the original cast in the early 2000s). 

Whether or not this counts as science fiction is the subject for another time – my dissertation, in fact – but there is a more worrying question I often encounter: whether or not it counts as literature.

Science fiction is, to a lot of people, synonymous with space opera: a tiny part of science fiction, exemplified by the big franchises Star Trek and Star Wars. They are long stories about men in ships looking for stuff and killing people. They are masculine, plot-driven, simplistic and, worst of all, enjoyable. Surely this can’t be literature? Well, if you take it out of space and put it back on earth, you have the plots of two of the most celebrated texts in European literary history: Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.

Space opera owes a lot to Homer. Every long-running sci-fi series of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Babylon 5 – re-iterates the classic tropes of the epic, only the gods have become aliens and there are a few more women aboard. Just as Odysseus searched for home, so the crew of Battlestar Galactica seek a new planet to colonise, so the crew of the Enterprise seek ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. Intrinsic in all of them is the somewhat imperialistic way in which humanity spreads through the universe. Humanity conquers planets everywhere, bravely slaughtering whole civilisations of aliens (foreigners) who have the audacity to pre-exist the (predominantly British and American) human race. Even in Star Trek, which claims to respect alien traditions, the earlier episodes were mainly about Captain Kirk shagging his way around the universe. Postcolonialists would have a field day looking at some of the earlier ‘epics’ of science fiction.

But science fiction isn’t just space opera. SF, as it is sometimes called, has its own canon shaped by changes in society. The debate continues as to when SF began, but it undoubtedly stretches back as far as H. G. Wells and his stories about time travel and alien invasion. Like a lot of literature in the latter half of the nineteenth century, H. G. Wells engages with ideas of Darwinism in his work. The Morlocks in The Time Machine are ape-like, seen by the time traveller as degenerate and evil (another common image for other non-white races), with the more child-like Eloi idealised as naive descendants of man. This is also a study of class – the Morlocks are descended from the working classes, forced underground in some later Industrial age, and the Eloi are descended from the lazy aristocracy.

These obvious dichotomies continued to influence SF into the twentieth century, and it was in the 1920s that what is now commonly recognised as SF began to emerge. The period from the 1930s to the 1950s has become known as The Golden Age of Science Fiction, with a key figure of this time being John W. Campbell. He was editor of several science fiction magazines (especially Astounding) and his name inspired the phrase Campbellian: deeply conservative science fiction, hard-SF, that placed man at the centre of the universe. This tendency for SF to be anthropocentric was a point against which later writers rebelled, and which the New Wave of the sixties and seventies detested. J. G. Ballard was one of the most prominent writers of this time, credited with creating the ‘mad astronaut’ archetype. His stories were concerned with the infinity of space, the insignificance of man, and the internal landscape externalised.

The 1980s heralded a new way of reacting to political and social change. Cyberpunk was born, a subgenre that explored the anxieties of a society under threat of nuclear war. It is largely concerned with body and mind invasion: the characters’ lives are dominated by technology, often inserted into the body through invasive surgeries. Governments infiltrate the lives of characters through mind control and drug abuse. SF becomes the literature of paranoia, rather than the somewhat propagandistic literature of previous movements.

A potted history of SF such as this cannot cover everything, but it does illustrate the presence of a canon. Science fiction is more than mere space opera: it can be used to explore profound questions about the human experience. In the past twenty years, SF writers have drawn on all these influences and more to create hybrid works of literature. One such writer is China MiĆ©ville, who identifies himself as a writer of ‘Weird Fiction’, because of the ambiguous nature of the term ‘SF’. It does not merely stand for science fiction, but also speculative fiction: a mode of literature, in which the author conducts a ‘thought-experiment’. The author poses a ‘what if?’ scenario and extrapolates an alternative present or future. What if there was no gender, as there is none in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)? What if all children were genetically engineered, as they are in Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? What if Big Brother saw all like in 1984 (1948)? Science fiction is the literature of prediction and philosophy, looking forward through the lens of cynicism. If the ‘what if?’ scenario is based on real past events, the structure is an alternate history, the extrapolation of an alternative present or future based on a changed past. These texts can often hit a little close to home; they are unsettling depictions of the dystopias we only just missed.

And so we come back to Hitchhiker’s. No, it is not a plausible scenario, but it does pose a question: what if the earth was destroyed by Vogons? Apparently, a quintessentially English man would escape with the aliens and be continually bemused by his friends’ enthusiasm, whilst searching desperately for a decent cup of tea. In Arthur Dent, Douglas Adams is mocking the Campbellian archetype of the romantic hero: rather than courageous and triumphant, Arthur is confused and succeeds purely by luck. Adams satirises the body and mind invasion of cyberpunk, the earnest counter-cultures of New Wave, the self-importance of speculative fiction. Through satire, he proves what many people wish to deny: that science fiction is worthy of literary analysis. It is significant enough to have a self-contained intertextuality and to attract satirical imitation. It is serious. It is literature.

The OED defines literature as ‘writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect’. Even if the naysayers deny the high standards of writing in science fiction, they cannot deny its emotional effect. Especially on an eight-year-old girl who can’t get to sleep.

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