In a world where science fiction has come to pervade popular culture and its predictions have been partially realised, SF remains unloved or under-appreciated by the guardians of highbrow culture. In a very interesting article Bryan Alexander asks:
“why do so many people disdain the science fiction and fantasy genres?”
I agree with the hypotheses and the global direction of Bryan Alexander’s article, but I wish to concentrate on the problem of the perception of science fiction by the literati culture as lying behind the unreasoning reflex of disdain that amounts to a real phobia.
The question of perception is crucial. Many people who dismiss science fiction just don’t perceive what it contains. Much SF makes use of a seemingly formulaic “pulp” mask to express thoughts that are in fact subversive of popular ideas and beliefs.
Let us take a concrete example: Philip José Farmer’s first published novel THE GREEN ODYSSEY (1957) reads like a formulaic space opera. It surprised and disappointed even SF readers, who were expecting something explicitly transgressive like his earlier short stories dealing with sexual themes.
Instead of being treated to a reiteration of the “subversive” surface of Farmer’s earlier short stories, such as the Hugo-Award winning “The Lovers“, readers were confronted with a partially jocular, partially scientific power fantasy romp over a harsh planet with a caricatural feudal culture.
One of the biggest problems of perception comes from our ingrained narcissism. We have learnt that we are not the centre of the cosmos (Copernicus), nor the pinnacle of creation (Darwin), nor even master in our own psyche (Nietzsche, Freud, Jung). But the narcissism always returns.
Science fiction is THE literature of the narcissistic wound, reminding us again and again that we are not the centre. In fact talk about SF’s “sense of wonder” and “estrangement” is a way of referring to this defeat, or at least weakening, of our narcissism.
In THE GREEN ODYSSEY the eponymous protagonist, Alan Green, learns that humans did not originate on Earth but on a cruel and silly planet, isolated from the rest of the galaxy, that has converted its ancient scientific and technological superiority into ignorance and superstition.
Many people see that science fiction is often mocking or critical of religion (like Richard Dawkins). They often don’t see, led into error by the name “science fiction” that SF can be critical of science (unlike Dawkins), of the narcissism of science.
In THE GREEN ODYSSEY crucial religious architecture, myths, beliefs, and rituals come from forgotten and debased ancient science. If we take out the metaphor of “ancient” we can see a critique (for today) of science as a substitute religion. Detractors miss this SF critique of science.
Another problem in the perception of SF is that many people see science fiction as a form of uncultivated entertainment or escapism. The same people who are so impressed with the formidable culture of James Joyce and who get excited about the correspondences between Joyce’s ULYSSES and Homer’s ODYSSEY cannot see the culture embodied in good SF.
This conscious fusion of the mythological and the mundane is one of the basic structural foundations of SF. We can see it encoded and proclaimed in the title of Farmer’s novel THE GREEN ODYSSEY, “Green” refers to the protagonist Alan Green (and to the verdant plain maintained by the relics of the ancient civilisation).
Joyce could have titled his work THE BLOOM ODYSSEY (less catchy). In fact his attempt to inherit the tasks of past religion and mythology participates in the same aesthetic as that of SF.
Norman Spinrad traced SF’s underlying cosmological aesthetic to its inheritance of , and grounding in, Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville). How many of science fiction’s detractors see the Transcendentalism underneath (or better, within) the pulpy surface?
Philip José Farmer is no unlettered hack who unconsciously channels a few archetypes, transforming them into stereotypes. He is quite cultivated, consciously employing the reverse process of reverting stereotypes to their archetypal source, to free us from their hold.
Another problem stems from people’s perception of mainstream literature, relating great classics principally to their social and historical context, or to supposedly “eternal” and unchanging themes. Perhaps they should attempt to re-perceive the classics as helping us to think about the future.
This task is one of SF’s lessons of perception, rewriting the classics to bring out the future potential of their underlying ideas. The “odyssey” theme is everywhere in SF not just as a cliché but as a resource to be mined and re-worked.
Philip José Farmer is working in the Wellsian/Stapledonian tradition (cf Arthur C. Clarke and many others), re-appropriating the classics to think change rather than eternity. He acknowledges the influence not only of Homer, but also of Melville by writing a sequel to MOBY-DICK, “The Wind Whales of Ishmael”.
SF scholars talk about the “mega-text” of science fiction, an ongoing exchange where one author alludes to, borrows, steals, reprises, criticises, transforms ideas, inventions, and devices of other SF writers. Mainstream scholars talk about inter-textuality. However, these two discussions almost never interesect. This absence of dialogue tends to validate a demarcation between the two, promoting narcissistic inbreeding.
Philip José Farmer’s example shows that for the SF writer the mega-text is not limited to the genre of science fiction alone, but ranges over the whole of the literary canon (and non-canon, for that matter).
Perceiving inter-textuality is a pre-condition for perceiving relevance. The science fiction mindset perceives many more things (literary and scientific) as relevant both to today and to the future.
Talking of the SF “mindset”, this is a crucial idea of science fiction. It is often reduced to the “myth of the competent man”. Whatever”competence” means here, it does not mean mastery of or expertise in a separate discipline, speciality, or genre. Homer’s Ulysses is the archetype of the “competent” man, because he relies on his wits.
Green in THE GREEN ODYSSEY relies on his wits, a critical attitude of thought combined with a pragmatic spirit. He tries to teach his adoptive children this same approach, that he applies to social relations, to religion but also to science itself, in fact to everything.
This critical attitude is not the same as the scientific attitude, but underlies what is living in science, its Popperian speculative-and-critical core. (Religion can be Popperian too, but that is another discussion).
Another thing that science fiction’s detractors don’t see is that they themselves are often portrayed within science fiction. In THE GREEN ODYSSEY they are the religious figures who literally demonise what they don’t understand or what is different.
If you demonise science fiction, or SF themes such as “space” or “space exploration” you are closing your doors of perception, refusing to see or hear what Franz Kafka called the diabolical powers of the future knocking at the door.
Note: I am indebted to Bryan Alexander’s article (https://medium.com/@bryanalexander/why-do-people-still-disdain-science-fiction-and-fantasy-18e0942a7ab9) and to a previous discussion with him on the role of the sublime in science fiction.
It may be that the detractors of science fiction are mostly caught up in the paradigm of the beautiful, whereas SF and horror go for the sublime. Bryan Alexander cites the example of Lovecraft’s “dark” cosmos.