The Theme of Science in Science Fiction

For Literature/English 148, Prof. David Clayton, 16 June 1979

©1979,2002 Joseph O. Pearce, Jr. All rights reserved.

[The version of this paper presented here includes suggestions made by Dr. Clayton in his notes on the original.]

     The modern era of thought in science fiction began in 1945. Before that time no one outside of science fiction fandom gave the new literary genre much critical attention; science fiction's part in the age of the pulp magazines had continued to taint its image. 1945 changed everything. As Donald A. Wollheim put it, "Ever since the day that I first heard that an atomic bomb had been exploded over Japan I have had the disturbing conviction that we all live in a science-fiction story." Instead of predicting the far future of science, as they and the general public thought, writers found that they were just talking about next week.

     This new consideration about what it means to write science fiction has had two differing effects. In a negative fashion, some people have been lead to make very bombastic comments about the purpose of science fiction (as will be seen later.) Fortunately, there have also been people who use the new self-conscious attitude to question the customary guidelines under which science fiction has always been written.

     At the most basic level, such introspection must involve the question of how science fiction evolved from the public's reaction to science. To do this, an account of how one science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, learned about the existence of his future occupation might be in order. Asimov explains:

I noted the new magazine Science Wonder Stories on the newsstand. It was the August 1929 issue, the third of its existence… I noticed it because of the word "Science" in the title. That made all the difference. I knew about science; I had already read books about science. I was perfectly aware that science was considered a mentally nourishing and spiritually wholesome study… I picked up the magazine and … approached my formidable parent… I spoke rapidly, pointed out the word 'science,' pointed to paintings of futuristic machines inside as an indication of how advanced it was… He gave me permission [to purchase it.]

Asimov was able to half-trick his father into buying the magazine with the odd stories in it. What does this have to do with the beginnings of the use of science in science fiction?

     Well, one of the earliest uses of science was to pull off a hoax. Edgar Allen Poe conceived this original literary idea. While a writer for the Southern Literary Messenger, Poe found that it was possible to write a piece of fiction and have it welcomed by the public as fact. With this knowledge Poe decided to write an adventure story that would contain a collection of unbelievable events that no person, if given half-a-chance, could possibly accept as true. Yet, Poe would find ways to force his readers to swallow his story. His answer can be found in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

     To see why Poe included science in his hoax, an examination of one of Poe’s tricks will be illuminating. First, Poe has the main character, Arthur Gordon Pym, "write" a preface to the novel. Pym "says" that because he distrusts his ability to write an account of his adventures that will be accepted as the truth, he had allowed "Mr. Poe" to print part of his story in the Messenger "under the garb of fiction." Pym continues to state that "in spite of the air of fable" surrounding his accounts, "the public were [sic] still not at all disposed to receive it as fable." Because the public supposedly accepts the first part of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the reader ought to comfortable with the knowledge that the entire novel is true. By using the fact that public opinion can compel a person into accepting something that is false as the truth, Poe was actually able to fool readers.

     Even with the preface, Poe was still unsure he could complete his hoax. So, just before starting to tell the more incredible section of Pym’s voyage, Poe has Pym say, "… I proceed in utter hopelessness of obtaining credence for all that I shall tell, yet confidently trusting in time and progressing science to verify some of the most important and most improbable of my statements." Here is where Poe calls upon science to lend support to Pym’s tale.

     Why does Poe expect his call on science to produce the same effect as the preface did? Remember Isaac Asimov's tale about his youth? Young Asimov used the authority of science, that had developed in people’s minds since the 18th Century and through the Industrial Revolution, to compel his father to purchase a magazine, that under normal circumstances, he would have forbade his son to read. By the same means, Poe expects his reference to science to influence people’s judgment, thereby placing Arthur Gordon Pym in the shadow of the authority of science.

     This "authority of science" effect is enhanced by the use of a final artifice which in another work would just be good research. Poe made sure that every detail about shipping was precisely correct and that every position of real islands mentioned in the novel was stated exactly in longitude and latitude. These and other examples of truth inserted into the fiction help to heighten the aura of scientific authority in Pym.

     Although Poe has effectively used science to fulfill his goals, Arthur Gordon Pym can not be called science fiction. Fantastic things do happen during the last few pages, but no explanation is offered. Nevertheless, Poe has supplied the tools necessary to create science fiction.

     The tools might have laid unused if Poe’s work had remained exclusively in the United States, where people were beginning to think of Poe as being as insane as some of his fantastic works. Luckily for the cause of diversity in literature, Charles Baudelaire translated some of Poe's stories into French, among them Arthur Gordon Pym. The translations were in-turn read by an author who was already well known for writing librettos and comedies in Paris. But Jules Verne would become famous worldwide by combining his own interest in travel stories and science with Poe's new literary expression.

     Verne's novel Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the direct result of his reading Arthur Gordon Pym, which Verne gleefully acknowledges by having his narrator, Prof. Aronnax, say, "I felt myself entering a strange world in which Edgar Allen Poe would have felt at home." The difference between the two novels would be that Verne uses Poe's means to a dissimilar end.

     For the sake of continuity, though, Verne begins where Poe left off, with a ruse. First, Verne cleverly discounts the possibility that the thing that is destroying ships in his novel is a submarine. He does this by bringing up the point that it could be a submarine and then, using scientific logic, rejects "the theory of an underwater Monitor." This makes the discovery that the "sea monster" really is a submarine even more surprising. By using the authority of science, Verne produces the same effect that Poe did; but the use of logic and Nemo’s submarine will become symbols of extensions in the applicability of the authority of science.

     Once the ruse has been lifted, Verne begins to show how his opinions about science differ from those of Poe. Instead of calling upon science to help trick the reader into accepting a fantastic adventure, Verne uses a fantastic adventure to entreat readers to experience "the glowing wonders of science marveling at its new discoveries." As Nemo says to his captives,

Your mind will be in a continual state of astonishment and stupefaction. It will be difficult for you to get bored with the continual spectacle that will pass before your eyes.

Nemo’s statement is also meant to apply to the readers of the novel. This fascination for the world of science has been called the "sense of wonder," which is usually credited with science fiction's enduring popularity. (A good example of the popularity inherent in the sense of wonder is Star Wars, the greatest moneymaker in motion picture history.)

      Not content in just letting people experience wonderful spectacles, Verne intends to show how useful science can be to people. He does this by having Nemo show-off the inventions that make life under the sea enjoyable (and life on the surface for warships impossible). At least nine of Nemo’s useful innovations have come to pass since Verne's time, from submarine warfare to electrical clocks that are more accurate than other kinds. This is extrapolation, the act of predicting future technology based upon the scientific knowledge that existed at the time the story was written. For example, the submarine warfare that occurs in the novel is based upon the Monitor and other ironclad ships that were used during the American Civil War. These ships could sink their target by ramming, as did the Nautilus. The fact that Verne used extrapolation indicated his belief that science engaged in prognostication.

     Beyond other purposes, the Nautilus's twenty-thousand-league voyage is a statement about the value of science to the future of mankind and of the scientists who do man’s searching. Poe's heroes are laymen caught up in a world where fate is the main master of events. Via science, Verne assures us that people will eventually be able to comprehend the mysteries of the universe. Of the microcosm called the sea and the two scientists that traveled through it, Prof. Aronnax says, "’That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?' only two men now have the right to answer: Captain Nemo and myself."

     Essentially, Verne has offered the first serious set of guidelines on how to write science fiction. Most of Verne’s ideas have remained as core elements for future works. Even when a story is written that appears to have views that are totally opposite from those of Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the structural elements will still resemble Verne’s.

     One example of this is H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In content, Wells' and Verne's novels are total opposites. A quick synopsis of The Time Machine goes like this: A time traveler ventures far into the earth's future. When he arrives, he finds a race of fragile and child-like humans, who call themselves Eloi, living in the ruins of some beautiful buildings. The Time Traveler conjectures that the ancestors of the Eloi had managed to completely control nature through science and had created an apparent utopia. With the struggle for survival ended, strength and intelligence were no longer a useful asset. So, humanity was fading "into a contented inactivity." Then the Time Traveler discovers the existence of the Morlocks, ape-like creatures that live underground with the last of the world's machinery. To explain this, he theorizes that the Eloi are the remnants of England's aristocratic class and the Morlocks are the descendants of the laboring class. The lower class had been pushed into more and more subterranean conditions, until finally have come to live totally underground. "[The aristocracy's] triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man." In this future present the Morlocks merely care for the Eloi’s needs from millennial-old habit. A trip down a Morlock air shaft shows the Time Traveler the real horror of the situation: "These Eloi were mere fatted cattle, which the ant-like Morlocks preserved and preyed upon -- probably saw to the breeding of." A miserably unhappy Time Traveler returns to the present when his Eloi friend disappears in a Morlock attack.

     As can be seen, the mood of The Time Machine is contrary to that of Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea; the disparity is generated by the type and extent of the failures each novelist sees in the world. Nemo can attempt to correct humanity by offering it the utopia of the sea, by aiding revolutionaries with gold or by destroying warships in a fit of revenge. The Time Traveler has no such hopes; he can not change the flow of history. Nemo’s actions are based upon the bright future of science; the Time Traveler can only observe how the misuse of technology has made humanity inhuman. As if rebutting Aronnax's statement, "May the judge disappear and the scientist continue his peaceful exploration of the seas!" Wells demonstrates what happens when nobody judges.

     The dissimilarity of the moods in the two novels is paralleled by Wells' adherence to Verne's science-fictional conventions. Traveling in time, though different than motion through space, produces the same sort of estrangement as the Nautilus's voyage does; and both involve technological devices. The evolution of the Eloi and Morlocks from nineteenth century England is justified through extrapolation of the physical sciences, the biological sciences, and sociology. To be exact, each of the Time Traveler’s theories about the future is a social extrapolation of the one that came before. Wells' use of extrapolation shows he is not anti-science, just aware of its problems; and by using social extrapolation, Wells adds to Verne's foundation for science fiction. Finally, both novels use scientists as narrators. The practice of having scientists as main characters will remain a major trend.

     Wells' belief in science actually assists in producing the depressing mood of The Time Machine. This is best seen when Time Traveler, before returning to his present, goes even farther into the future to see the end of life on the earth. Wells recognizes what is now called the second law of thermodynamics; a theory that says the universe will eventually die because of heat loss. Knowledge of science expresses hope for Verne, for Wells hopelessness.

     The next influential writer in science fiction is important mainly because his type of story was weeded out during the "Golden Age" of science fiction. E. E. "Doc" Smith, Ph.D., wrote during a time where most writers were just filling out the areas between Verne's and Wells' novels, with spaceships added for good measure. Smith's novels were of this type, even Poe-like in quality. His most famous (or infamous) novels compose the Lensmen series, which was noteworthy for the lengths to which Smith went to make each new novel in the series more pyrotechnic then the last. Smith's work-typified the sub-genre called "space opera." At its worst space operas are merely westerns with ray guns. The pulp magazine's space-opera image is what Isaac Asimov had to overcome with his father.

     John W. Campbell began his career in January 1930, when his first story appeared in Amazing Stories. Before the year ended Campbell had made his mark as a writer of Smith-style stories, but his real fame was yet to come. As Asimov relates:

… There was this difference between Smith and Campbell. Smith, having found his métier, never left it. To the end he wrote the super-science epic, changing it only to make it ever larger, ever more colossal. Campbell had no métier he wished to call his own; or, rather, having found one, he could not help looking about for a better one.

His first new métier was what he called the "mood-concept" story; the best examples "Twilight" and "Who Goes There?" Both of these stories showed how science could be used to produce pure emotional reactions from the reader. Wells was able to do this with hopelessness, but Campbell does his mood-concept stories to a mechanical perfection.

     "Who Goes There?" is an attempt by Campbell to put "over to the reader a feeling of the inescapable tension and fear brooding in the Antarctic camp." The Antarctic camp in question has found an extraterrestrial being frozen in a block of ice. When the being is thawed out, instead of being dead, it gets up and starts attacking people and dogs. They manage to electrocute "the Thing," but then discover that parts of it have survived by infecting and taking over all of the animals and some of the people. The humans now have to find a way to tell a human-human from a Thing-human before they all become Thing-humans. By the end of the story, with a little scientific logic and electricity, this deadly game of "who is what" is solved. Every Thing-human is turned into a pile of ashes. "Who Goes There?" is a case of applied paranoia.

     The Thing is not the direct result of a scientific extrapolation, but once created the Thing's abilities and properties remain scientifically consistent over time. Campbell does not see any paradox in doing this; and by doing so, Campbell's "non-mechanical gadget" can provoke a scientific anxiety.

     In "Twilight" the situation is somewhat like the one in The Time Machine. A time traveler goes into the earth's far future. There he finds gigantic cities that operate as one enormous machine. The descendants of the builders are Eloi-like humans, who are dwindling away because "man had lost the instinct of curiosity." Though similar to Wells' novel, there are two major differences.

     First, Campbell outdoes Wells by showing the real irony of the future world. The future people are displayed against their superb machines: "men who had forgotten their greatness, lonely and puzzled and unimportant in the immense majesty of the past accomplishments of their race." Man's science was going to outlive him.

     At the same time that Campbell emulates Wells, he also contradicts one of the ideas from The Time Machine. In Wells' novel science is seen as having been misused by humanity, so Wells places the machinery of that science in the horrible darkness of the Morlocks' home. In "Twilight" the machinery is beautiful, caring and visible. This difference in viewpoint originates from Campbell's belief that the people are to blame not science. As a final statement to this effect, Campbell has his time traveler restart the machines that had been designed to think. "They [were] trying to make a machine with something that man had lost," the time traveler relates. "It sounds rather comical. But stop to think before you laugh."

     Because of his success in writing stories of the mood-concept variety, Campbell became editor of Astounding Science Fiction, now called Analog. With his editorship a new meaning of the term 'authority of science" came into being. The first thing Campbell did was change the type of fiction his magazine printed. As Albert I. Berger noted,

Although previous editors had experimented with serious themes, Campbell's regime at Astounding was the first to encourage intelligent, logically consistent speculation upon the social implication of technical progress.

To this end Campbell managed to mostly eliminate the space opera from printed science fiction. He was able to accomplish this because he paid the most money for stories, which meant that writers used his standards so as to get the larger earnings. In this way Campbell's Astounding was the only viable magazine for many years.

     Campbell's virtual control over the genre allowed him to fit science fiction's guidelines to his own taste. If one studies the type of heroes used in works edited by Campbell, one finds that the trend of using scientists still remained from the nineteenth century; but these scientists' methods were "not methodical or disciplined, but intuitive." Their method is not the deductive "scientific method;" their discoveries are products of an almost magical flash of insight. To these scientists were added inspired administrators, technicians and lawyers. All are part of Campbell's idea of a technocracy where ten percent of the most intelligent people run the world, and these ideas filtered down to his stable of writers as story elements. His insistence on stories involving technological progress as it applies to society is a reflection of the idea of a scientist-run world. Campbell's conception of what the authority of science means actually affected his view of science fiction. In one editorial Campbell wrote:

Science fiction rose when men reached that stage of civilization that looked forward gladly. I think then that science fiction is … a characteristic symptom of this stage in evolution a type of entertainment that would, inevitably, arise in any civilization that reached this particular level of advance.

Campbell has transformed the authority of science, using a Wellsian social extrapolation, into the authority of science fiction!

     Even with all of Campbell’s eccentric notions about science, he still performed a great function for science fiction by completing a structure on Poe's foundation. By having an established image, people could begin to discuss and criticize the genre. The dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan added to the necessity of being able to comment about science and science fiction.

     An excellent example of a critical science fiction novel is Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. Solaris is a planet that has been a topic for scientific discussion for over one hundred years. Questions about the planet’s physical and chemical properties have been resolved, but the main question still remains -- Is the planet’s giant ocean alive and sentient (and sane)? The question of sanity arises when the ocean starts to create people from the memories of the small, residual crew of the Solaris base. Kelvin, who had come to the base to discover what has been happening to the crew, finds that the ocean has recreated his wife, who Kelvin thinks committed suicide because of him. Kelvin attempts to discover the reason for the ocean's actions by reviewing the history of Solaristics, watching his "wife" and delving into his own reactions to her presence.

     From studying his wife Kelvin learns a couple of things. The ocean creates more "perfect" humans; they survive damage better. Yet, the copies only know as much as the person from which they were created. This means the ocean is not omnipotent, as some Solarists might want to think. When Kelvin blasted the first copy of his wife into orbit, the next copy was exactly the same; the ocean did not correct any deficiency in from the "original" copy. Did this mean the ocean had not learned anything from its experiment?

     Kelvin's review of Solarist publications offered more insight into the human mind, not the ocean’s. The present state of Solarist studies is summarized by Kelvin's thought on all the theories about the ocean:

Reading all these names, and adding up the sum of the intellectual efforts they represented in every field of research, it was tempting to think that surely one of the theories quoted must be correct, and that the thousands of listed hypotheses must each contain some grain of truth, could not be totally unrelated to the reality.

Kelvin believes that the problem with Solarist theories is that people have a "compulsion to superimpose analogies with what we know."

     Examing his own reactions to the copy of his wife, Kelvin realizes that the ocean is probing their unconscious thoughts, not their conscious ones. The three men on the base devise a way to transmit their conscious thoughts into the ocean. This causes the ocean to stop making copies. Soon after that, Kelvin's "wife" commits suicide believing it would be the best thing for Kelvin. Now, Kelvin must come to grips with why he loved the copy and why the ocean created her in the first place. His love for the copy was attempt at redemption, in the same way that Solarists have made Contact a form of religion where Contact means Redemption for the entire human race. The ocean's reaction to this searching is similar to what Snow thinks the purpose of the copies were;

Suppose, I'm capable of reproducing the architecture of a symmetriad, and I know its composition and have the requisite technology … I create a symmetriad and drop it into the ocean. But I don't know why I'm doing so, I don't know its function, and I don’t know what the symmetriad means to the ocean…

Basically, the ocean is unsure of how to contact the creatures on its surface; the same problem the humans have!

     Solaris is Lem's statement on how science is being thought about incorrectly in the post-World War II era. Scientists assume that by using science it will be possible to understand the entire universe. Lem says that there will be situations where science will not be able to uncover the answer. Specimens will exist that defy explanation through logical extrapolation of known facts; science is limited by man's anthropocentricity. Human ideas can not be applied to every planet that man discovers in his voyages.

     Lem has questioned the gguidelines under which science fiction is written. If extrapolation is always tainted by man's preconceptions, can science fiction always examine the future of mankind? To Lem science can not be an end in itself, and the same can be said for science fiction. Solaris does not warn (like Wells) or solve (like Verne); Lem uses it to reflect the times he lives in.

     In the beginning, the authority of science was used to pull off a hoax. Lem argues that the hoax is the authority of science. Lem displays a more realistic attitude towards science -- a view that will change how science is applied to society in science fiction. This new science fiction will, like mainstream novels, reflect the world we live in.

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