ENG237: Science Fiction
What is "Science Fiction"?
How did we arrive at the term "science ﬁction"? It wasn't widely used until the late 1920s. Wells
called his novels "scientiﬁc romances". In this sense "romance" referred to any sort of
narrative or story with an unrealistic element to it. Wells was focusing his on scientiﬁc
aspects. In the 1920s Hugo Gernsback started out with "scientiﬁc ﬁction", then changed it to
"scientiﬁction", and then coined "science ﬁction". The subculture consolidated around that
term.Around this time the SF community really was a subculture, and everyone involved in it
was in contact with each other. Nowadays we also use "speculative ﬁction", "SF", and "sci-ﬁ".
The community today (with blogs, internet, etc.) in a way recalls the SF subculture in the
Science ﬁction is almost an oxymoron in a sense. Science is a particular practice/discourse/
ideological perspective. It is a rational understanding of the world. On the other hand, ﬁction
is made up. The label science ﬁction suggests stories that imagine and respond to the impact
of science as a means by which we understand and shape the world. The label arises from
sociocultural conditions, founded upon a techno-centric world view. This view became
dominant by the late 19th century. The key tropes and images in the genre are expressing this
"Science Fiction" - Historical/CulturalApproach
Origins of SF have been pinpointed as far back as ancient Greece, or more recently in the late
Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction suggests that SF can be traced back to ancient
Greece, but it especially began in the 17th and 18th century: the period of enlightenment. In
the 16th and 17th centuries we begin to see stories that deal with planetary travel. In 1634,
Kepler wrote a novel that presents a view of Earth from the Moon. Roberts argues that after
the Protestant reformation, religious splits lead to splitting between fantasy and science
ﬁction. He says that SF developed "as an imaginatively expansive and "crucially" materialist
mode of literature..." SF deals with real-world objects, with physical properties of the world,
as opposed to magic. With science ﬁction there is usually an explanation, but this is not the
same with fantasy. SF perhaps has a focus on the "how". SF may not be possible now, but it is
plausible. SF involves machines, physical things that physically affect the nature of our world
or our beings. Roberts also suggests that the idea of science as a way of understanding the
world dates way before the 17th and 18th centuries, and that it can be traced back to as far as
Roberts: "SF is better deﬁned as 'technology ﬁction' provided we take 'technology' not as a
synonym for 'gadgetry' but...as a mode of 'enframing' the world, a manifestation of a
fundamentally philosophical outlook.As a genre, therefore, SF textually embodies this
'enframing'..." SF can be used as a lens through which we can look at issues our society faces
Luckhurst: SF is a literature of technologically saturated societies. It is a genre that can only
emerge late in modernity. It is a popular literature that concerns the impact of Mechanism on
cultural life and human subjectivity. Late Victorian life was very involved in Mechanism. Science and technology were rapidly and radically changing the world. There is a sense of
wonder in progress. Things will keep moving upward and getting better, and Victorians used
this idea of progress in terms of everything in their lives. There was also a sense of trauma and
terror to this advancement: things had changed so fast and rapidly that it was difﬁcult to
process fully. The late 19th century is an intriguing time in terms of science ﬁction.
The "trauma and terror" aspect can be seen in H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Things had
changed so much that it was hard to understand, and his novel reﬂects this.
Luckhurst:All of this is what lead to a new type of popular scientiﬁc ﬁction in the late 19th
century: mass literacy, new print vectors, a coherent ideology and emergent profession of
science, everyday experience transformed by machines and mechanical processes.
Increased literacy: happening since especially the 1840s. So by the end of the century there is
a sort of explosion of literacy. There was an appetite for reading material, for being
Cheaper printing methods: made more reading material available, and made it cheaper.
Science as a profession, and as an authoritative ideology. More and more people turning to
science over religion.
Visibility of science and technology. The world was changing in a very noticeable way.
Roberts and Luckhurst are both aiming to legitimize science ﬁction by focusing on its cultural
and historical context.
"Science Fiction" - Formal/AestheticApproach
Tropes and conventions of SF:
- spaceships, interplanetary/interstellar travel
- aliens, the encounter with the alien
- advanced or unusual technology
- mechanical robots, genetic engineering, biological robots (cyborgs)
- time travel
- alternative history
- futuristic utopias and dystopias
Gwyneth Jones says that the icons of SF announce the genre: they warn the reader that this is a
different world, and at the same time constitute that difference. These icons signal that we
have science ﬁction. Example: the shoulder laser. This tells us that the world is different in
some way, and this difference is what is crucial to science ﬁction. SF is fundamentally
invested in that difference.
SF frequently gets called "the literature of the encounter with the difference" or "the literature of
the encounter with the other".All of the strategies of SF function to defamiliarize a story's
world from our own. We could say that all ﬁction relies upon some kind of degree of
difference. That is, all ﬁction relies upon the fact of its ﬁctionality.
Difference in SF is signaled by:
- setting: i.e. space, a future or alternate Earth, another planet, a spaceship, alien environments
and cultures, a technologically highly advanced society, etc.
- characters: i.e. robots, machines,AIs, aliens, trans-humans/post-humans, cyborgs (and other
kinds of altered humans), etc. - subjectivities: SF explores, presents, and challenges us with a variety of "other" (even alien)
subject positions: i.e. perspectives, identities, individualities, consciousnesses, selves, etc.
All ﬁction is a metaphor, and science ﬁction is a metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of
ﬁction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our
contemporary life--science, etc. The future in ﬁction is a metaphor--but for what? Ursula K.
Le Guin says that SF is a distinctly modern genre.
When reading SF, ask what these things suggest or imply. What is a spaceship a metaphor of?
What is an alien a metaphor of? What is someone's temporal autism a metaphor of?
Weinbaum:Aliens and/as Others
Alien stories are central to science ﬁction. Th