The underdog of American Fiction: SCIENCE FICTION

 Science Fiction (to be abbreviated SF here) continues to be a misappropriated and misunderstood genre that for its complex history should at least merit a few more writers than George Orwell (“1984”), Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”) and Ray Bradbury (“Fahrenheit 451.”)

In the 1850s, reading at American schools became a requirement. As American children continued to learn how to read, a cheap form of literature was necessary to fulfill this need. Thus, the dime novel (or in England, the penny dreadful) emerged on cheap paper made from mulch and filled these fertile minds with dreams of adventure. Just like the Netflix of its day, more novels were needed and nascent writers were fixed on fantastical escapes from everyday life. With that focus, these adventures were the actual first to break the color lines (The Frank Reade Library, published  weekly beginning in 1876, took two boys and a companion to another continent in a balloon before Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad did in 1894.) Adventurous novels like the French writer Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1870) and later British writer H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine restored a sense of intrigue and exploration to literature just as countries were claiming new lands and using technology to advance their civilizations.

The serialized style of the dime novels allowed for the invention of inventions. While “flying machines” date back the Ramayana in 11th Century Nepal, this realistic use of technology and embrace of science began to set them apart from their gun-slinging, crime-solving counterparts. As literature grew from Romanticism into Realism, Mary Shelley’s chilling “Frankenstein” (1818) is widely regarded as the beginning of SF. However, its study generally is necessary to acknowledge this work as the archetypal Gothic novel.

Dime novels were the laboratory for SF allowing for utopian futures that even celebrated female heroines and allowed for readers to examine the past by taking this glimpse into the future. “The Brave and The Bold” (1907) by Weldon J.Cobb sees a giant winged ship lowered on ribbons from one of the moons of Mars to Earth for an invasion. Within these stories, the pattern of inventions whether to fly, travel or even fight back was occurring in parallel with real inventions emerging from the labs of Thomas Edison. As art further imitated life, the interest in Western stories waned and the more scientific adventures grew.

After the horrors of World War I led Americans back into the fantasy world of these novels, four publications took precedence – “Argosy,” “Blue Book,” “Short Stories” and “Adventure.” Publisher Hugo Gernsback in 1926, saw the need to combine all of these into one larger issue and the Pulp novel was born. With the mulch illuminating all the bright colors from the printing process, these stories collected first in “Amazing Stories” (1926) and then later in John W. Campbell’s “Astounding Stories” (1937) set the stage for SF’s Golden Age.

In the transition from Dime Novels in the 1920’s to the Pulp books of the 1930’s, writers were needed in short order and to write longer stories (eventually growing from short stories into novellas.) It is estimated that the average pulp writer was to produce around a million words in a single year – for sometimes as little as a penny a word. John W.Campbell organized SF around a group of writers who he wanted to be as accurate as possible and present their ideas in writing that would rival the greatest writers of the day. Gathering Isaac Asimov, Arthur C.Clarke, Robert Heinlein and many more, Campbell’s “Astounding Stories” gave readers the greatest collection of writing ever in SF. Asimov’s famous “Foundation” series and writing about robots began here while Ray Bradbury began work toward writing his first novel “The Martian Chronicles.” (1950)

The Fifties were a field day for Science Fiction as they began to reflect societal issues like the overarching fear of Armageddon from the Cold War and a myriad of laboratory experiments gone wrong, alien invasion, failed missions and more. As the country enjoyed the Post-WWII economic boom. SF presented paranoia, fear, and mistrust for the first time. In addition, women began to write SF for the first time (usually under a male pseudonym) and the genre dealt with issues of race and gender through the lens of examining some foreign world.

The Space Race stole the thunder and number of SF magazines dropped from 23 in 1957 to just 4 in 1960. When the optimism of the 1950’s faded into the huge societal and sociological changes of the 1960’s, SF was the only genre to keep up with the dramatic shifts as the New Wave of SF launched in the UK in 1963, came stateside with Harlan Ellison in 1967 (A Boy and His Dog (1969) soon to be echoed by Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing The Road (2006)).

Like the haunting works of England’s J.G.Ballard, the 1970’s were dominated by dystopia thanks to writer Philip K.Dick. A continuum of his works merits close study as he presents a different version of history (The Man In The High Castle (1962)), flirts with the duality of reality and false reality (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and establishes the standard for a grim future world while continuing to question Asimov’s robot theories (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968)  Dick further develops his alternate reality into a sort of half-life in 1969’s thought-provoking UBIK before mixing classic hardboiled detective prose with SF for the pitch-black humor of A Scanner Darkly (1977).

As SF grew into popularity thanks to works like Frank Herbert’s Dune series and Arthur C.Clarke was so inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s version of his 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that he wrote three more books for the series, women began writing as themselves. The late great Ursula Le Guin examined gender issues and androgyny in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) while Octavia Butler began work on her union of the slave narrative and time travel novel in 1968 with Kindred.

(Canadian Margaret Atwood’s chilling The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) would also be great for inclusion, except that Atwood prefers her works to be referred to as “speculative fiction.”)

Changes allowed SF to encompass Utopian, Gothic, Satire as well as encourage intense scientific and philosophical debate. So as Dick’s detective work becomes Cyberpunk in the hands of William Gibson (Neuromancer (1984)), SF regenerates its idea to only take their central arguments farther. Fiction is often an author recreating a world in which they lived to communicate and express a myriad of emotions and inspire empathy. SF is always creating one world after another and rigidly obsessed with every detail (one has to consistently learn new words in most works, i.e. Dune is accompanied by a glossary and an appendix)

SF often functions as an allegory. The standard studied examples of SF, Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 all use the future as a means to illustrate what is wrong with the present. The 20th Century being “The American Century” should have some room for an elegant short story or three especially when so many of their motifs have continued to be used in all of entertainment (let’s say Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers For Algernon” (1959), Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” (1983) or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s “Harrison Bergeron” (1968).)

What if Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, which are both seen as adventure stories and classic literature today, were the Star Wars of their day? So the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez can be included in this classic realm, but Billy Pilgrim being kidnapped in the middle of the War by the Tralfamadorians who see in four dimensions in Slaughterhouse Five (1969) is not? Finally, literary analysis of SF often hints that space and time travel as well as visiting distant planets are too far-fetched. Yet, we must read Jane Austen with the unspoken understanding that these letters took weeks to pass back and forth even as some device of yours likely received a message while reading this article. 

J.G. Ballard said “Earth is the alien planet.” SF treats all storytelling with that level of unfamiliarity and automatic mistrust. While certainly not romantic or fanciful, give some of these works a try because we all read for the same reason - we long for that great escape.

Mik Davis writes to entice. Not browbeat or pontificate. He tries hardest to avoid didacticism and the insertion or implication of opinion. However, as criticism and enjoyment are both based on opinion - it slips in there. His only hope is to inspire you to listen, read, watch and then pass it along. Thank you.