Geoff Ryman, et al. – The Mundane Manifesto

I reproduce below the full text of “The Mundane Manifesto,” signed by Geoff Ryman and othersfrom the 2004 Clarion West workshop (the full list of participants here). The Manifesto argued for a science fiction that was squarely centered on humans and the future of planet Earth, including its science and technology, rather than spaceships and aliens. Read a long post by Ritch Calvin on the manifesto and the related controversy here: http://www.sfra.org/sf101mundane

Here is the complete text:

 

The Mundane Manifesto

The undersigned, being pissed off and needing a tight girdle of discipline to restrain our sf imaginative silhouettes, are temporarily united in the following actions:

 

The Mundanes recognize

That interstellar travel remains unlikely. Warp drives, wormholes and other forms of faster-than-light magic are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.

That magic interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also unlikely.

That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.

That there is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe. That absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – however it is unlikely that alien intelligences will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can.

That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely.

That communication with alien intelligences over such vast distances will be vexed by: the enormous time lag in exchange of messages and the likelihood of enormous and probably currently unimaginable differences between us and aliens.

That there is no evidence whatsoever that quantum uncertainty has any effect at the macro level and that therefore it is highly unlikely that there are whole alternative universes to be visited.

That therefore our most likely future is on this planet within this solar system. It is highly unlikely that intelligent life survives elsewhere in this solar system. Any contact with aliens is likely to be tenuous and unprofitable.

That the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.

 

The Mundanes rejoice in

The bonfire of unexamined and unjustified sf tropes that these recognitions piles up and sets alight.

This bonfire of the stupidities includes, but not exclusively:

  • Aliens: especially those aliens who act like feudal Japanese/American Indians/Tibetan Buddhists/Nazis or who look or behave like human beings except for latex.
  • Alien invasions
  • Alien Jesus/enlightened beings
  • Flying Saucers
  • Area 51
  • Any alien who is a vehicle for a human failing or humor
  • Aliens who speak English
  • Devices that can translate any language
  • Radio communication between star systems
  • Traveling between galaxies without relativity effects on a consistent scale
  • Slipping sideways into worlds other than this one where just one thing or all of history is different, only the clothes look a bit better, the hero is more powerful, the drinks are more delicious, and Hitler…
  • Continue at will

 

We also recognize

The harmless fun that these and all the other Stupidities have brought to millions of people.

The harmless fun that burning the Stupidities will bring to millions of people.

The imaginative challenge that awaits any sf author who accepts that this is it: Earth is all we have. What will we do with it?

The chastening but hopefully enlivening effect on imagining a world without fantasy bolt holes: no portals to medieval kingdoms, no spaceships to arrive to save us or whisk us off to Metaluna.

A new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.

The awakening bedazzlement and wonder that awaits us as we contemplate the beauties of this Earth and its people and what will happen to them in time.

The relief of focusing on what science tells us is likely rather than what is almost impossible such as warp drives. The relief will come from a sense of being honest.

An awakening sense of the awesome power of human beings: to protect or even increase their local patrimony… or destroy it.

The number of themes and flavors open to Mundane fiction include robotics, virtual realities, enhanced genomes, nanotechnology, quantum mechanics… Please continue.

The number of great writers or movies which independently work within these guidelines, indicating that the Mundane Manifesto produces better science fiction. These works include:

  • The greater part of the works of Philip K. Dick.
  • 1984
  • Neuromancer
  • Blade Runner
  • Timescape

 

The Mundanes promise

To produce a collection of mundane science fiction consisting of stories that follow these rules:

  • No interstellar travel – travel is limited to within the solar system and is difficult, time consuming, and expensive
  • No aliens unless the connection is distant, difficult, tenuous, and expensive – and they have no interstellar travel either
  • No Martians, Venusians, etc.
  • No alternative universes or parallel worlds
  • No magic or supernatural elements
  • No time travel or teleportation

Not to let Mundanity cramp their style if they want to write like Edgar Rice Burroughs as well.

To burn this manifesto as soon as it gets boring.

 

-          Geoff Ryman; The Clarion West 2004 Class; & whomever will join us in Mundanity

 

A short note on Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote”

The other day, while getting rid of some old papers which had been occupying the shelves for a while, I discovered a short piece I wrote about 6 years ago for a seminar on Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine master. A search on my email folders gave me a soft-copy which I post today. This essay is on “Pierre Menard,” which, while not strictly science fiction, shares with a lot of Borges’ other stories strong elements of fantasy, and is one of the most important texts for addressing questions of genre in postmodern theory. I don’t intend to rework or publish this essay as it was written during a phase when I used to be incredibly fond of jargonese. So I share it freely instead. Who knows, there might be an idea or two here!

Into the Labyrinth
“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939) is regarded as one of the key object-texts in postmodern theorizing (1). Object-texts are texts which become the locus of philosophical analysis, and seem to best represent a particular kind of aesthetic ideology. The term “postmodern” for the author, Jorge Luis Borges was first employed by a literary critic (2), and perhaps the deepest irony of the story lies in that it is a self-reflexive discourse on and a parody of the process of literary criticism, raising a number of questions about the structures that literary critics take for granted, such as the “author” and the “work”, and which allows them to maintain the industry of literary criticism. Indeed one of the problems that one faces with object-texts is their saturation with theory, which makes it difficult to say something “original” about them unless originality itself is no longer considered in terms of idea but in terms of arrangement of pre-existing statements, the laws of the Library (Labyrinths, 81); déjà-dit becoming the fundamental principle of this theory of originality. In this paper then what I will say may be considered neither new, nor “original”, even a statement about the impossibility of there being an original statement will be considered most unoriginal. Thus my paper will also lack the so-call “thesis statement”; I can neither prove nor disprove anything nor say anything new that would require primacy effects. If this seems to be a rather blatant statement in defence of the style I employ, I believe the event “Menard” itself calls for it.

“Pierre Menard” belongs to the category of the pseudo-essay. The term is employed by Borges himself, in “An Autobiographical Essay”, to refer to works that are “halfway house between the essay and the true tale” (The Aleph, 171). A pseudo-essay exhibits the formal characteristics of the essay: it purports to be non-fictional, it is structured around a single idea/event which describes without employing the means of a story, its narrator and the implied narrator coincide and people described within it have their real life counterparts; that is, the essay claims to a dissimulated connection to the Real, while fiction can at best be a simulation (Baudrillard 167). At the same time its non-fiction status makes it a receptacle for multiple enunciations which can in themselves be fiction but are non-fiction within their new modality; in short, the essay is the neutralising zone where fiction is un-fictionalised (cf. Foucault, Archaeology 65). The pseudo-essay however, is a reversal of strategy – it fictionalises while claiming to be non-fiction. The naturalization which takes places in the story/tale is of a different order from the naturalization that takes place in the pseudo-essay – in the one the fiction is rendered meaningful by its reference to reality, in the other, fiction is consumed as the real. The questions then that “Pierre Menard” raises through its formal characteristics are aesthetic (genre, narrative) as well as ontological (what is work, whose work).

In aesthetic terms, the genre of the short story is transformed into a self-reflexive discourse; “originality” does not emerge from the level of plot but from the level at which statements are arranged and organized in the text. The distance between the implied author and the real writer no longer needs to exist (note that the narrator in “Pierre Menard” is unnamed) since there is no longer a contract between the writer and the reader to maintain the “fictionality” of fiction: fiction need not be a story, and characters need not be fictional; as such story narrative may be suspended since it is now the fictionality of relational identities between statements that is at stake. The epistemic status of object “Menard” is determined by its absence in spaces marked as true: it is precisely because it does not exist.
Equally significant is the notion of work, which now comes under scrutiny. Hack-writing and criticism fall under the categories of parasitic literature. Hack-writing depends for its success on the existence of “serious” literature: the hack appropriates the “true”/”original” and multiplies it (hackneyed); it thrives on repetition. Criticism is directly parasitic; it seeks to present the “truth” of the work by means of repetition. The parasitic is always sacrilegious, it appropriates by creating a distance between creator and creation, and destroying the distance between the creation and itself. It is significant that Menard in the story conceives the project of writing Quixote under the influence of parasitic literature. Within the fictional oeuvre of Menard moreover parasitic literature overwhelms “original” work: criticism, theoretical essays and translations. Even creations themselves derive meaning from and fit into structures that ostensibly precede the creation (“symbolist”, “sonnet”). While the nature of Menard’s visible work is parasitic, and hence repetition only to a certain extent, the invisible work strives for total verbal identification. Moreover, the invisible work does not exist except as a conceptual space on the basis of which more works are generated. One can extend this further to say that the invisible work serves as the palimpsest of the visible – the former exists in total identification, the latter as the understanding of the difference in meaning in spite of identification. Thus we have different orders of “work”, each of which question the relation of originality to work, and thus the ontological validity of the category of “work” itself; a) visible and invisible work, b) works of and works not of Menard, none of which may be considered unambiguously original; c) works of “Borges” on “Menard”; d) works on “Borges” by Borges and so on to us.

Connected directly to the notion of the work is the notion of the author, as Michel Foucault notes in his 1968 essay “What is an Author?” In this essay, in part influenced by the object-text “Pierre Menard,” Foucault challenged the Barthesian notion of the work as a site of unity, but he carried the examination of the “spaces” of absence further to the figure of the “author”. Foucault claims that authorship is a function, that only certain texts possess the “author-function”. The author is not an indefinite source of significations, he is a certain functional principle, that of restriction, the “principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning”. He is used to reduce the danger of infinite meanings, a regulator of the fictive. Foucault calls for a form of culture in which fiction would not be thus limited, indeed, since the form of the author is tied to the subject, Foucault predicts a future in which discourses will be free of the tyranny of the author, and would develop in the anonymity of murmer.

This brief interlude, the discussion on Foucault is part of my strategy of revealing what “Pierre Menard” itself uses. The meaning of Foucault is clarified with the example of “Pierre Menard,” and vice-versa. It is not merely the reversal of chronology that is at stake in the question of authorship and influence, it is rather the reversal of the semantic order. Is the Borges who writes “Pierre Menard” an author or a writer? Is the Menard who writes Quixote an author or a writer in the process of writing? To whom does Quixote, as inscription, as a locus of meaning, belong: Cervantes, Borges, Menard, Me? What is the status of the traces that constitute the author (the names, the quotations, the references, the footnotes, and the personal pronouns) and the fine line between reason and unreason {making “Pierre Menard” fiction and not non-fiction a guarantee of Borges’ sanity, dans et dehors (The Aleph, 171)}? The reader, functions as a trap network (3), a grey area between the poles of passive reception and active generation of meaning; anything but the “ideal reader”. In an essay titled “Kafka and his Precursors”, Borges claims that a writer creates his own precursors, a statement that means several things. A writer creates his own precursors might mean that a writer chooses to write within a particular tradition and emulate its practitioners, as Menard chooses the Symbolists (“a devote of Poe, who engendered Baudelaire, who engendered Mallarme, who engendered Valery, who engendered Edmond Teste”). It can also mean contradictorily that a writer literally makes his own precursors, that he determines the ways of reading works that he brings within his own, that is, “his work [will modify] the past as it does the future” (Labyrinths, 236). This is a hat-tip to T. S. Eliot, whose “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1922) is the template on which Borges constructs his essays “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” and “Kafka and his Precursors”, and whose understanding of traditions informs Borges’ own. In the double gesture of tradition however, it is not Eliot, but Menard who is the precursor of Borges, a “fictional” Menard who is perhaps the stand-in for a “real” James Joyce (Rice 47-62).

We have now come to what may be called the central symptom or source of all the questions we have raised so far, and that is the Quixote itself. Menard does not “want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself” (Labyrinths, 65), and produce it from a context distant by three centuries, arguably, freeing the meaning of a literary text from its context: the “infinite richness” of Menard’s Quixote is because the difference of context allows the “contingent” text to become the “inevitable” text. Borges is undoubtedly ironic here. Both Cervantes’ and Menard’s Quixote are parodies of the excesses of literary fantasy, including the fantasy of reading infinite meanings to the point where the real and the fictional coalesce. However, the latter is meta-parody in relation to the former; it acknowledges Cervantes’ Quixote as its ancestor, and at the same time anticipates that Quixote in its readings by taking its meanings to a state prior to its existence. The raising of a parody of reading to canonical status is for example latent in the Cervantes text, while the actual philosophic history of reading the Cervantes text as well as its future is overtly apparent in Menard’s text, making the existence of meaning possible in Cervantes, accounting for “truths” (and “texts”) which might not have existed before, including the additional “ambiguity”.

Yet one knows that Menard’s text, the object of the foregoing analysis does not exist. But its existence as a work is no more contingent than is the Quixote. And this marks a shift from the notion of work to the notion of discourse. In his 1971 essay “De l’oeuvre au texte” (Revue d’esthétique 3, 1971), Barthes moved from a notion of work to Text (capital T), the latter term approximating the discourse in Foucault. According to Barthes, the work is a physical entity that can be catalogued, ordered, and placed with respect to other such works, in a library. The Text, however, is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed. It is rather a “methodological field” which does not, and cannot, stop on a library shelf. The work bears the inscription of the father; the Text operates without the inscription. The Author may come to the Text but as a guest, his inscription too is tied to the field of play; “his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work”. The work is held in hand, the text held in language, existing only in the movement of a discourse. Barthes writes: “the Text is not the decomposition of work; it is the work that is the imaginary tail of the Text”. The Text can only be in its difference (not in individuality but in relational identity), “woven with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages”. Nonetheless, this intertextual is not to be confused with origins, as “the citations which go to make up a Text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas” (Barthes 155-164). This relativisation of meaning extends to where a work is not only freed of its context and its author, but to where a work is freed of itself to become Text: we can “read a work by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it is by Madame Henri Bachelier” (Labyrinths, 71) . This is more than an advancement of “the art of reading”, it is rather, a new aesthetic of intertextuality.

Thus an aesthetic of intertextuality may be formulated on the basis of a belief in the fundamental polysemy of the linguistic sign. Repetition is relocation of meaning, making obvious the difference in the same: spatial distribution and temporaldisplacement prefigure the “Gutenberg galaxy” (Virilio 37). There is Menard, who is dead, whose works are catalogued, and who is friend to a Borges. There is Menard, whose works are un-scribed by a Borges, revealing the repeated as non-repetition. There is Menard, the son of al-Mu’tasim (4), who is the father to Borges and Pierre, the latter in turn the progenitor of Mirrors, as Foucault explains, like a discourse, it maintains not a single and exclusive meaning but the simultaneous existence of multiple meanings, a vertical system of mirrors that keeps reflecting and multiplying itself onto infinity (cf. Foucault, Aesthetics 113) . The legion exploit the possibilities offered by a variety of enunciations – visible and invisible, inscribed and un-scribed, biographical and critical, extant and lost – symbolised by the form itself: the essay, “the attempt”, a path towards the transcendental signified (5), vital, labyrinthine. In this essay, in itself a mirror to the mirror that is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” I have chosen a few spectral threads to lead me, not out of but into the labyrinth: work-Text, author-reader, intertextuality. These spectres I choose for my protection, for what I choose to write about writes about me, threatening to un-scribe me.

Notes

1 Jorge J. E. Garcia, Jorge Luis Castillo, Deborah Parker and others mention a number of writers who have written on or used Pierre Menard; to name a few, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, John Barth, Paul de Man, Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard.

2 Suzanne Jill Levine mentions that the term “postmodernist” for Borges was first used by the critic John Barth (Levine 344).

3 The reader is both the field of constitution of meaning [in the Barthesian sense (Barthes 148)] and the one for whom “writing is inaugural” [in the Derridean sense (Derrida 11)].

4 The pseudo-essay which preceded “Pierre Menard” is titled “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim” (The Aleph, 171).

5 The word essay derives from the French verb “essayer”, to attempt.

 

Pub Talk and SF

This post is different from the others. I have been kind of caught up in all kinds of work, and will continue to be till the uni semester’s over. Anyway, met some friends who also happened to be sf buffs and we decided to spend the last night of this long weekend at a pub. Naturally, we spoke about sf. Here’s a list of the kind of topics that came up, some old, some new:

1. Sustainability and Martian Nightclubs
2. Harnessing the Mjolnir for Green Energy
3. Ecotopian Concepts as Contemporary Technomarxism
4. Hanging Gardens in Space
5. The world as an aquarium versus the world as zoo, and how drinking makes everyone appear as either a fish or an elephant

Until next time!

The social function of SF

“Science fiction then should be an effective literature of social criticism—but I have said that it is not. I will climb onto Limb Number Two in an attempt to explain why it is not. I believe that in science fiction the symbolism lies too deep for action to result, that the science fiction story does not turn the reader outward to action but inward to contemplation. I think the unwitting compact between the writer and reader of science fiction goes, “We are suspending reality, you and I. By the signs of the rocket ship and the ray gun and the time machine we indicate that the relationship between us has nothing to do with the real world. By writing the stuff and by reading it we abdicate from action, we give free play to our unconscious drives and symbols, we write and read not about the real world but about ourselves and the things within ourselves.”

- C. M. Kornbluth, “The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism” (1957) in The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1959) (link)

——-

“[S]cience fiction, like critical theory, insists upon historical mutability, material reducibility, and utopian possibility. Of all genres, science fiction is thus the one most devoted to the historical concreteness and rigorous self-reflectiveness of critical theory. The science fictional world is not only one different in time or place from our own, but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes. It is also a world whose difference is concretized within a cognitive continuum with the actual – thus sharply distinguishing science fiction from the irrationalist estrangements of fantasy or Gothic literature (which may secretly work to ratify the mundane status quo by presenting no alternative to the latter other than inexplicable discontinuities.”

- Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Wesleyan, 2000)

The Aesthetic Effects of Science: Three Voices

Three voices in today’s post: Bertrand Russell on the aesthetic effects of science, Stanislaw Lem on the possibilities of science fiction, and, as the last word, Ursula LeGuin on science fiction as a “thought experiment”. All three describe, in different ways, the impact of science on the literary imagination, and thus raise awareness about science fiction world-building.
———-

“Science as knowledge advanced very rapidly throughout the whole of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it was not until near the end of the eighteenth century that it began to affect the technique of production. There was less change in methods of work from Ancient Egypt to 1750 than there has been from 1750 to the present day. Certain fundamental advances had been slowly acquired : speech, fire, writing, agriculture, the domestication of animals, the working of metals, gunpowder, printing, and the art of governing a large empire from a centre, though this last could not attain anything like its present perfection before the invention of the telegraph and steam locomotion. Each of these advances, because it came slowly, was fitted in, without too much difficulty, to the framework of traditional life, and men were at no point conscious of a revolution in their daily habits. Almost all the things that an adult man wished to speak about had been familiar to him as a child, and to his father and grandfather before him. This had, undoubtedly, certain good effects which have become lost through the rapid technical progress of modern times. The poet could speak of contemporary life in words that had become rich through long usage, and full of colour through the embedded emotions of past ages. Nowadays he must either ignore contemporary life or fill his poems with words that are stark and harsh. It is possible, in poetry, to write a letter, but difficult to speak over the telephone ; it is possible to listen to Lydian airs, but not to the radio; it is possible to ride like the wind upon a fiery steed, but difficult, in any known metre, to go much faster than the wind in an automobile. The poet may wish for wings to fly to his love, but feels rather foolish in doing so when he remembers that he could order an aeroplane at Croydon.

The aesthetic effects of science have thus been on the whole unfortunate, not, I think, owing to any essential quality of science, but owing to the rapidly changing environment in which modern man lives.”

-Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook (1931)

———-

“As in life we can solve real problems with the help of images of non-existent beings, so in literature we can signal the existence of real problems with the help of prima facie impossible occurrences or objects. Even when the happenings it describes are totally impossible, a science fiction work may still point out meaningful, indeed rational, problems. For example, the social, psychological, political , and economic problems of space travel may be depicted quite realistically in science fiction even though the technological parameters of the spaceships described are quite fantastic in the sense that it will for all eternity be impossible to build a spaceship with such parameters.”

- Stanislaw Lem, “On The Structural Analysis of Science Fiction”(1970) (Trans. Franz Rottensteiner and Bruce R. Gillespie) in Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (Mandarin, 1991) (Read the complete essay online in SFS)

———-

“Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.’ A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why people who do not read science fiction describe it as ‘escapist,’ but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because ‘it is so depressing.’

Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.

Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in this laboratory; let’ say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens . . . . In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger’s and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.”

- Ursula K. LeGuin, “Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969), reprinted in The Language of the Night, ed. Susan Wood (Berkley Books, 1985)

SF, Time, and the Death of Time

In the following extract. J. G. Ballard, unarguably one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, speaks on the future in an interview with Rosetta Brooks:

——-

BALLARD: I think that time, in the strict sense, is dying. The whole progress of the twentieth century has been described in terms of death and decline. But I remember, too, that the late thirties and forties were periods of enormously accelerating change. That was the period when the twentieth century really invented itself. The super technologies, the military technologies and so on; the changes were absolutely colossal. Time just seemed to race past and govern everything. And this change continued until after World War II. Since then, however, everything’s begun to slow down. Probably the first casualty of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the concept of the future. I think the future died some time in the fifties. Maybe with the explosion of the hydrogen bomb.

In the thirties and forties people had an intense interest in the future. They saw the future as a morally superior world to the one in which they lived. All the great political movements – the New Deal, socialism, fascism, communism, whatever – were all highly programmatic systems, symptoms of a better future. But there was so much scientific change too: from the discovery of antibiotics, to jet travel, consumer society, television. One had a tremendous sense of the future. Magazines in the thirties were full of articles about the fastest train or the fastest aircraft in the world; of how the first passenger planes would revolutionise life on the planet. Yet some time around the end of the fifties, the future somehow lost its hold. I think it died.

BROOKS: Didn’t it just become shorter-term?

BALLARD: Yes, partly. People certainly lost interest in the future. They began to fear the future. And partly, I think, the prosperity in the sixties and seventies induced a kind of infantilism. People stopped dealing with a timescale that lay outside of their immediate present. They began to have no sense of what had happened yesterday or of what would happen the day after tomorrow. So people became immersed in the fulfilment of their own needs and their own satisfactions. They literally lost interest in the future. But by the same token, they also lost interest in the past. These days most people’s idea of the past is a rerun of Casablanca. They have very little idea of history nowadays. So time has dismantled itself.

I can see a time, probably about midway into the next century, when time will virtually cease to exist. The present will annex both the future and the past into itself. All desires will be fulfilled and people will live in a perpetual present. It may be a bit like the movie Star Wars where you have a peculiar surface of events taking place. Star Wars is very unlike the science fiction movies of the forties and fifties which always incorporated an intense feel of change; of how technological progress was going to radically alter life on this planet. But in Star Wars, events take place in a timeless limbo. They don’t impinge on anything outside themselves. The events could be taking place far, far into the future or far, far in the past. I imagine life itself is in danger of becoming like that.

(from “1988: Rosetta Brooks. Myths of the Near Future”, in Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (eds.) Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967 – 2008, London, Fourth Estate, 2012, 243-244)

(Note: Ballard gets it wrong about Star Wars, because the opening credits clearly state that it happens “a long time ago.” In other related Star Wars news, Disney shut down LucasArts game development a couple of days ago and laid off 150 workers)

——-

The transhumanist author Warren Ellis analysed this phenomena at a keynote speech in Brighton last year (a transcript of the speech is available here: http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=14314 ) Ellis’ piece succinctly shows why the future has started to seem banal and stopped unfolding in all its beauty in the imagination, and he concludes his piece with a passionate response:

“To be a futurist, in pursuit of improving reality, is not to have your face continually turned upstream, waiting for the future to come. To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better. Act like you live in the Science Fiction Condition. Act like you can do magic and hold séances for the future and build a brightness control for the sky. Act like you live in a place where you could walk into space if you wanted. Think big. And then make it better.”

Hugo Gernsback: The Father of SF?

In April 1926, Hugo Gernsback used the term “scientifiction” to refer to the content of his new magazine. In his profile piece on Gernsback in the September 1960 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories, Sam Moskowitz concludes his encomium thus:

“‘His editorial in the first, April, 1926, AMAZING contained the statement, “Edgar Allan Poe may well be called the father of ‘science fiction’.” Everyone today knows that the real “Father of Science Fiction” is Hugo Gernsback and no one can ever take the title away from him.”

This is the famous editorial:

AmazingStories n1_Announcing Science Fiction

Nonetheless, while the status of Mary Shelley’s status has hardly faced a significant challenge from the science fiction community, Hugo Gernsback’s position has never been that secure. For instance, it is now generally accepted that Gernsback did not coin the term, “science fiction”. It was coined by William Wilson in A Little Earnest Book Upon A Great Old Subject (1851). In the tenth chapter on this book on poetry, after considering “the poetry of science” in the previous chapter, Wilson writes:

“Campbell says, that “Fiction in Poetry is not the reverse of truth, but her soft and enchanting resemblance.” Now this applies especially to Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true — thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of life. The influences of Science inter-penetrate the whole Earth, breathing eloquently through the framework of Creation.” (London: Darton and Co., Holborn Hill, 1851. 138-140). (see also Sam Moskowitz’s notes on Wilson: http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/10/notes10.htm)

Wilson himself was echoing other authors before him, particularly those of the Romantic period, who often considered the roles of poetry and science together. Wordsworth in his famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800) meditated that science was a fit subject matter for poetry:

“Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge — it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.”

Clearly then, a genre label alone cannot qualify Gernsback as the father of science fiction. This is especially relevant because the genre label alone does not limit the genre production, otherwise, Russian fantastika would be considered a different genre, exclusive to the Russian context. Different languages have different words for science and fiction, as well as ways of understanding what the terms science and fiction mean.

Gary Westfahl has considered the roles of Gernsback and John W. Campbell in creating the genre of science fiction in The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction (Liverpool University Press, 1998) and like Moskowitz, credited Gernsback as the father of the genre. For Westfahl however, it is not as an author but as a critic that Gernsback helped birth the genre. In the introduction, he states that:

“Though there were anticipatory comments throughout the nineteenth century, and a crucial prelude to the idea of science fiction in the form of the ‘scientific romance’, the first true critic of science fiction was Hugo Gernsback, who offered a complete theory of the genre’s nature, purposes, and origins. By doing so, he made science fiction a recognized literary form and launched a tradition of science fiction commentaries that would be carried on by various writers, editors, and fans who, despite a lack of literary training, were attempting to analyse and describe the works they were familiar with. “

Westfahl’s argument is very convincing, and it is undoubtedly true that it was not William Wilson’s accidental coinage, or the British tradition of ‘scientific romance’ (that includes the works of H. G. Wells) that Brian Stableford and others have written about, but Gernsback’s use of the term that actually stuck as the genre label we use in English today. Note, it is the genre label, not genre. Gernsback might very well be the father of “science fiction”, the term itself, and the father of the critical analysis of the genre in the Anglophone world.