Genre Definition Module Week 1: Pre-sf, Scientific Romance, Scientifiction

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

Reading Stuff:
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
H. G. Wells, "The Land Ironclads"
Hugo Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+ (extracts)
William Gibson, "The Gernsback Continuum"

What is sf?

Frankenstein (Penguin Classics, ed. Maurice Hindle)
Brian Aldiss: Trillion Year Spree starts with Frankenstein (1818) as the first sf novel. "Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode". (25) OR "Hubris clobbered by nemesis" (26)

Other contenders for early sf: Satires and "imaginary voyages" -- Swift, Gulliver's Travel (1726) or Voltaire, Micromegas (1750), or even earlier True History of Lician of Samosata (2nd century AD), the first "voyage to the moon".

Mary Shelley (1797-1851). Frankenstein written following summer at Villa Diodati, Lac Leman near Geneva (1816); Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont & Polidori reading ghost stories and challenged by Byron to write one. The horror in Mary Shelley's contribution derives from not the supernatural, but science.

Percy Bysshe Shelley's preface (1818):
"I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it develops, and, however, impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing relations of existing events can lead." (11)

* Psychological "sensation" theory of Locke, expanded on by Condillac. The mind as a "tabula rasa" acted on by sensations: see the creature's account of his first consciousness. (p. 99)
* Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) [grandfather of Charles] explored evolutionary ideas in his poem Zoonomia (2 vols, 1794-96) and other poems [quoted in Aldiss, 30-31].
* Contemporary discussions on whether it is possible to create life. Galvanic currents through a frog's leg seeming to suggest that it is. "Elan vital." [Author's introduction, p. 8] Humphrey Davy the chemist, whose books Mary Shelley was reading in 1816: quoted p. xxxi: "...... who would not be ambitious of becoming acquainted with the most profound secrets of nature; of ascertaining her hidden operations ......?"

* "Ardent curiosity": (Walton's account: p. 14) He is explorer, searching for a North-east passage across Polar seas to the North Pacific. He also later (p. 202-203) tries to get the secret of the monster's creation from Frankenstein.
* Frankenstein's account: thirst for science. First through medieval hermetic/magical science (Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus), then at University of Ingoldstadt is introduced to modern chemistry: Modern scientists have less ambition, but they "penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how he works in her hiding-places". (47) Frankenstein fuses the ambition of the "Magical" traditional with the understanding of the moderns. His technique is not magic. The "old tradition" is rejected. But see Crosbie Smith, "Frankenstein and Natural Magic" in Stephen Bann, ed. Frankenstein, Creation and Monstrosity for a rebuttal of this view.
* "In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder." (49)
* Mary Shelley's description of the creation of the monster is vague and unspecific: "I collected the instruments of life about me ......" (56) but corpse and charnel-houses have something to do with it. (50)
* Frankenstein's hubris is "clobbered by nemesis". His friends and family die at the hands of his creation. He is appalled by its narrative of how it comes to consciousness and its responsible for terror. Development of language from eavesdropping (109). [Cf. Tarzan of the Apes (1912) where Tarzan learns to read from a picture book.] Persuades Frankenstein to create a mate, to inculcate in it the virtues associated with "communion with an equal". (142) But Frankenstein has second thoughts: "Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror." (161) -- [A novel waiting to be written.]
* Stableford ("Frankenstein and the Origins of Science Fiction" in David Seed (ed.) Anticipations argues that Frankenstein is not planned as an attack on the hubris if scientists (pointing out the toning-down of the "scientific" language and the new introduction of the 1831 revision. Ambition still underlies Frankenstein's motives: "I myself have been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed." (210)

The Imagery of Frankenstein:
* Frankenstein is "the modern Prometheus": who stole the gift of fire (life) and was punished for it. NB: "Theft" of electricity from the heavens: Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley. But the generator is a function of the 1931 James Whale film.
* Dramatised for stage 1823?
* James Whale's 1931 film starring Boris Karloff. (Climax here is fire rather than ice.)
* "Frankenstein monster", like Mummy, Vampire, Robot, part of cultural imagery.
* Various sequels, adaptations. Forrest J Ackerman's "famous monsters" zines. The monster -- often called Frankenstein -- is often comic or semi-comic (Herman in The Monsters) but here both creator and created are flawed figures.
* Other interpretations: doppelganger, incest & necrophilia, the "natural man", gender and childbirth.

The 1831 revision deleted some of the "scientific" language: p. 221-222, making the story more of an attack on scientific pride and over-ambition.

19th century introduced further exploration of science:
* Mary Shelley again: The Last Man (1826). Set in the 21st century. Political developments (transition from monarchy to republic) but very little technological development (air travel by balloon, vague references to "machines"). Humanity destroyed by plague. See also M. P. Shiel, The Purple Cloud (1901), George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949), Alfred Bester, "They Don't Make Life Like They Used to" (1963).
* Publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, 1859.
* Tennyson, "Locksley Hall" (1830s): "The fairy tales of science and the long result of time"

"For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heaven's fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nation's airy mavies grappling in the central blue."

* The first use of the term "science fiction" by William Wilson, 1851: "...... Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true." (See Stableford, Foundation 10, June 1976, pp 6-12)
* Lewis Carroll, scientific and logical puzzles in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking-Glass (1872), Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). (E.g., states of consciousness, Time "the outlandish watch", hive-minds, ecologies on other worlds and others of "Mein Herr's" discussions. Also e.g. telepathy, studied by the Society for Psychical Research.)
* Thomas Hardy: the epiphany with a fossil in A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), quoted by Aldiss. (97-98)
* Richard Jefferies, After London, or Wild England (1885): a "catastrophe" novel. See also Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance (1997), homage to After London and The Time Machine widely reviewed without the term "science fiction" ever being used.
* For a non-sf picture of Victorian science, see A. S. Byatt's short stories in Angels and Insects.

* Utopian Fiction: Bulwer-Lytten, The Coming Race (1871): the "underground menace" theme which Wells was to use in The Time Machine (1895). "Vril". Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872), Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1882), William Morris, News From Nowhere (1890).

* Towards end of century, growth of magazines like Strand. "Lost race" stories like Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) and She (1887) or Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912). Latter theme become more science-fictional in its use by Edgar Rice Burroughs At the Earth's Core (1914), etc.

* Future War: Sir George Chesney, The Battle of Dorking (1871). See I. F. Clarke, The Tale of the Next Great War 1871-1914.

* In France: Jules Verne (1828-1905), especially his novels of 1860s/70s: From the Earth to the Moon, etc.

* In USA, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, "The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfall", "The Colloquy of Monos and Una", the cosmological essay Eureka.

And: (entry from SFE)
* MITCHELL, EDWARD PAGE (1852-1927) US newspaperman and writer, associated from 1875 until his death with New York Sun, serving as editor-in-chief 1903-20. EPM's sf, which came from the first decade of his career and most of which first appeared in his own journal, was restricted to about 30 short stories, beginning with "The Tachypomp" (1874), about a sort of humanoid calculator. Their subject matters range widely, from TIME TRAVEL in "The Clock That Went Backward" (1881) to MATTER TRANSMISSION in "The Man Without a Body" (1877) and INVISIBILITY in "The Crystal Man" (1881). EPM's work, which in its variety and imaginative power may have influenced H. G. WELLS and others, came to be noticed in the sf field through the publication of The Crystal Man: Landmark Science Fiction (coll 1973), edited and with a long and informative introduction by Sam MOSKOWITZ. [JC]
* See also Sam Moskowitz (ed.), Science Fiction by Gaslight: stories by Grant Allen, George Griffith, Jules Verne, Frank Lillie Pollock's end-of-the-world story "Finnis", etc plus essay on sf in the popular magazines 1891-1911, and Darko Suvin, Victorian Science Fiction in the U.K.: The Discourses of Knowledge and of Power.

Scientific Romance

A term generally used for the British, Wellsian traditions. The SFE says that of Scientific Romance "the term can be seen as tending to describe works characterized by long evolutionary perspectives; by an absence of much sense of the frontier and a scarcity of the kind of PULP-MAGAZINE-derived HERO who is designed to penetrate any frontier available; and in general by a tone moderately less hopeful about the future than that typical of genre sf until recent decades." Wells is of course the exemplar, but see earlier and later writers, especially Olaf Stapledon (Archive in Sydney Jones Library) and Sydney Fowler Wright (virtually the entire corpus available on the Internet: http://www.sfw.org.uk/).

See also Brian Stableford, Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985). Covers such writers as J. D. Beresford (The Hampdenshire Wonder, 1911), Sydney Fowler Wright (Deluge, 1928), Olaf Stapledon (Last and First Men, 1930; Odd John 1935). Generally these writers were unaware of or antagonistic to the developing genre-sf of the US pulps.

H. G. Wells: "The Land Ironclads"
Published in Strand 1904. A "future war" rather than "scientific romance". New technology (but shortly to be developed). The opposing forces are unnamed. So are individuals: "The war correspondent" / "The young lieutenant". (See The Time Machine). "central interest ...... is on a thing." (Tom Shippey, introduction to The Oxford Book of Science Fiction) rather than people.

First sight of the "ironclad" provokes confusion. What is it? "Something between a big blockhouse and a giant's dishcover". It comes out of the night. Described in terms of a living monster: "The monster had moved ...... it was singing a mechanical little ditty to itself ...... It had humped itself up, as a limpet does before it crawls ...... -- feet!"

Description of the "ironclads" essentially an extrapolation of contemporary technology. They are introduced, dramatically, and then described.

Hugo Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+

SFE says:
[Gernsback](1884-1967) Luxembourg-born writer and editor who emigrated to the USA in 1904. Intensely interested in electricity and radio, he designed batteries and by 1906 was marketing a home radio set. In 1908 he launched his first magazine, Modern Electrics, where he later published his novel Ralph 124C 41+ (1911-2 Modern Electrics, fix-up 1925 (repr 1950)). While deficient as fiction, the tale clearly shows his overriding interest in sf as a vehicle of PREDICTION, being a catalogue of the marvellous TECHNOLOGY of the 27th century.

US pulps increasingly focussed on "niche" marketing. Frank Munsey changed Argosy from general to fiction-only. Detective Story Monthly, 1915 started specialising in genre. Weird Tales, 1923. In April 1926, Gernsback launched Amazing Stories, devoted to "scientifiction". Gernsback wrote in Amazing: "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story -- a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision ...... Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading -- they are always instructive. They supply knowledge ... in a very palatable form." Amazing published Gernsback's stable of "instructive" writers, and also reprints of Wells, Verne etc. (Unpaid, until the lawyers stepped in.)

* Gosh-wow technology. Radio as the "cutting edge" technology -- cf. computers nowadays. See Ralph Milne Farley's The Radio Man (1924 Argosy), The Radio Beast (1925 Argosy) etc. (later published in novel form.)
* Wooden style. Technology almost indistinguishable from magic. The point of the story is to show off marvels with a little melodrama and romance to keep the reader reading. "Language rectifier". "Telephot". "Teleautograph" (fax?) Weather control. The girl is in trouble but Ralph's know-how saves the day. Ralph is gadgeteer, engineer rather than speculative scientist. Stableford: "The hero on which he is modelled ...... is clearly Thomas Edison, the very model of the practical experimenter and accumulator of patents." (Interzone Dec 1997, 47)
* Final chapter has Ralph bringing Alice back to life. He needs the "rare gas" Permagatol but there is none. Naturally, he invents a substitute. "The gas he evolved was Armagatol ......" (181) "And then we were saved ......" Is there a parallel with Frankenstein? Climax here is the power over life and death, but there is no agonising over its morality. The science is equally glossed over, but Mary Shelley is perhaps deeper involved in the scientific background to her story.
* Gernsback parly responsible for fandom: Science Fiction League launched in 1934 through Wonder Stories.
* Compare the utopianism of Wells, etc. with the upwardly-mobile technological capitalism of Gernsback. Aimed at male audience (but not insignificant female readership: pulp writers/artists included Leslie F. Stone, "Francis Stevens" (Gertrude Barrows Bennett), Lilith Lorraine (Mary Maude Wright) and Margaret Brundage, noted for her covers for Weird Tales.

Mike Ashley, The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950
Brian Stableford, "Creators of Science Fiction, 10: Hugo Gernsback". Interzone Dec 1997 47-50.
Gary Westfahl, "Cremators of Science Fiction, 1 & 2: Brian Stableford & John Clute". Interzone Apr 1998 51-53.
Gary Westfahl, "Evolution of Science Fiction: the textual History of Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+". Science-Fiction Studies. 1996 Mar, 23(68): 37-82.
Gary Westfahl, "'An Idea of Significant Import': Hugo Gernsback's Theory of Science Fiction". Foundation 1990 Spring (48): 26-50.
Gary Westfahl, "'This Unique Document': Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+ and the Genres of Science Fiction". Extrapolation 1994 Summer, 35(2): 95-119.
Gary Westfahl, "Wanted: A Symbol for Science Fiction". Science-Fiction Studies, 1995 Mar, 22(65): 1-21.

William Gibson, "The Gernsback Continuum" (1981) in Burning Chrome. First published in T. Carr (ed.), Universe 11

The "semiotic ghosts".

The shiny gadgets and cityscapes of the narrator's hallucinations: straight from covers of Amazing and Wonder. The "smug, happy and utterly content" people who live in the dream (p. 47): "It had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda". Gernsbackian imagery is embedded deep in our culture. Since then, of course, cyberpunk is equally embedded.

* Is the postmodern imagery of cyberpunk now equally a fashion term?
* What other kinds of "continuua" border the present baseline world?
* Does this story undercut both traditional genre sf and contemporary speculation?
* Is our version/vision of public territory one which is stable, or fragmentary; one which confirms or conflicts?

* The architecture of the 30s: see Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (London: Architectural Press, 1947)
* Popular images of science fiction: how are the images from the pulps portrayed?
* Modern shopping malls and urban spaces. See Mike Davis, City of Quartz on Los Angeles.
* Crossover genres like steampunk: images from 2000AD strips like "Nemesis the Warlock".
* The different covers of the same book over its publishing history.
* The viewpoint of science and technology (the "semiotic ghosts") of Omni Magazine, where a number of Gibson's stories first appeared.

Do we possess an image of the future? How far has this been formed by sf, or does it form different versions of sf?

Dr Andrew Wood of San Jose State University has some interesting web pages in "The Gernsback Continuum" (http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/wooda/149/149syllabus2gerns.html)

With Gibson's story in mind, it's worth looking at the cultural theorists Gille Deleuze or Jean Baudrillard, especially Baudrillard's influential essay "Simulacra and Simulations". Many critics of cyberpunk and sf as postmodernism have approached the field in the light of these and other writers: see, for example, the Nov 1991 issue of Science Fiction Studies.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...