Science Fiction: The Limit Case

by John Holbo on December 11, 2010

Thanks, Cosma, for posting the Haldane and Russell pieces. Let me now offer an elegant proof of Henry’s thesis – “The ancestry of modern SF lies as much in the 19th century ‘condition of England’ novel as it does in more obvious ancestors like Frankenstein” – with reference to the G.K. Chesterton novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which Haldane mocks for its bad prophecy. (Haldane himself confidently predicts that, in the future, people will sensibly acknowledge the tonic, healthful effects of tobacco. Glass houses, stones.) Anyway, the neat thing about Napoleon is that it is imagines, from the point of view of 1904, what the world will look like, 80 years hence. Will 1984 be some sort of utopia, or some sort of dystopia, one asks?

Then the wise men grew like wild things, and swayed hither and thither, crying, “What can it be? What can it be? What will London be like a century hence? Is there anything we have not thought of? Houses upside down—more hygienic, perhaps? Men walking on hands—make feet flexible, don’t you know? Moon … motor-cars … no heads….” And so they swayed and wondered until they died and were buried nicely.

Then the people went and did what they liked. Let me no longer conceal the painful truth. The people had cheated the prophets of the twentieth century. When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

We arrive at the limit case of sf. We tend to assume science fiction is about portraying technological change – or potential technological differences from how things are now. But, logically, one of the possibilities is that things could be pretty much the same. Of course, this is rather silly because it turns every work of fiction into science fiction (because every work of fiction either imagines things to be different from how they are, scientifically, or more or less the same.) Which induces us to pluck the string of motive. What makes something sf is either its foregrounding of technological difference/change or its impulse to indulge the sociological imagination, more generally. Getting back to Chesterton, his world of 1984 is more changed than “almost exactly like what it is now” would suggest:

Very few words are needed to explain why London, a hundred years hence, will be very like it is now, or rather, since I must slip into a prophetic past, why London, when my story opens, was very like it was in those enviable days when I was still alive.

The reason can be stated in one sentence. The people had absolutely lost faith in revolutions. All revolutions are doctrinal—such as the French one, or the one that introduced Christianity. For it stands to common sense that you cannot upset all existing things, customs, and compromises, unless you believe in something outside them, something positive and divine. Now, England, during this century, lost all belief in this. It believed in a thing called Evolution. And it said, “All theoretic changes have ended in blood and ennui. If we change, we must change slowly and safely, as the animals do. Nature’s revolutions are the only successful ones. There has been no conservative reaction in favour of tails.”

And some things did change. Things that were not much thought of dropped out of sight. Things that had not often happened did not happen at all. Thus, for instance, the actual physical force ruling the country, the soldiers and police, grew smaller and smaller, and at last vanished almost to a point. The people combined could have swept the few policemen away in ten minutes: they did not, because they did not believe it would do them the least good. They had lost faith in revolutions.

Democracy was dead; for no one minded the governing class governing. England was now practically a despotism, but not an hereditary one. Some one in the official class was made King. No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely an universal secretary.

In this manner it happened that everything in London was very quiet. That vague and somewhat depressed reliance upon things happening as they have always happened, which is with all Londoners a mood, had become an assumed condition. There was really no reason for any man doing anything but the thing he had done the day before.

Then: everything erupts in glorious medievalism!

Now, let’s run through it again. Logically, it should be allowable for any imaginative treatment of the future of science, or the possibilities of science (up to and including fairly flagrant impossibilities) to count as sf. But that means, potentially: things stay the same. But that’s a silly sort of sf. So we expand our definition to include works of sociological imagination, as it were. But now it’s a bit tail-wags-the-dog. The fact that Chesterton’s novel, framed as it is, is plainly sf, goes to show that sf is a subset of a broader set of works of sociologically imaginative fiction. In much sf, the machinery functions not as a fictional end but a means of getting the sociological ball rolling. Instead of deus ex machina, to end the thing, you have populus ex machina, to get it started. On the other hand, there are problems with doing it this way. But that’s why we have comment boxes.



bob mcmanus 12.11.10 at 4:43 am

“Petrified with astonishment, Richard Seaton stared after the copper steam-bath upon which he had been electrolyzing his solution of “X,” the unknown metal. For as soon as he had removed the beaker the heavy bath had jumped endwise from under his hand as though it were alive. It had flown with terrific speed over the table, smashing apparatus and bottles of chemicals on its way, and was even now disappearing through the open window.”

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty.”


John Holbo 12.11.10 at 5:02 am

Ah, Skylarking again.


bob mcmanus 12.11.10 at 5:14 am

I am still working on a thesis, and looking for my Adam Roberts (round here somewhere) but I would contend my two examples are instantly recognizable as SF whereas the Chesterton has to tell us what it is. (My original point was that Smith, Burroughs, and Haggard didn’t do sociology.)


I have always liked Darko Suvin. His first (1972) makes me wonder about Pirandello. Although I think Pirandello has more to do with SF than Chesterton) But his second is better.

“SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional “novum” (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic.”[22]

I would go a little farther and say the novelty is entirely in the language. “A hundred year old man in a thirty year old body” is how Burroughs starts, and then has to provide some level of cognitive justification for this abuse of language. Language to include visual images etc. What makes SF different from poetry is the kinds of tools used to bridge the estrangement generated by language abuse.


brian mca 12.11.10 at 5:42 am

I also still working on a thesis, and looking for my Adam Roberts (round here somewhere) but I would contend my two examples are instantly recognizable as SF whereas the Chesterton has to tell us what it is . thank you


bob mcmanus 12.11.10 at 6:17 am

Happy discovery today was that Octavia Butler’s “Blood Child” was online at WaPo.

Blood Child

Now this is certainly accepted very high quality SF, winning all awards. It barely has any extrapolated science, if any at all. It may be about human sociology, but only indirectly. But Butler in an interview pretty much says it came from two words “pregnant man.”

And has sentences like these, pretty much in this kind of repeated pattern of estrangement and return:

“It was impossible to be formal with her while lying against her and hearing her complain as usual that I was too skinny.

“You’re better,”she said this time, probing me with six or seven of her limbs.”You’re gaining weight finally.”


Charlie Stross 12.11.10 at 11:43 am

I’ve been saying for a while that if fiction is the study of the human condition, then SF is merely the study of the human condition under plausibly changed circumstances (while genre fantasy expands the Venn diagram of concentric circles to include the implausible). Add a temporal dimension to the diagram and when you project mainstream “realist” fiction backward you get historical fiction and when you project SF backward you get alternate history: steampunk somewhat straddles the backward projection of SF and fantasy.

(I am not about to stretch this metaphor into four or more dimensional space: I’m not a topologist by trade.)

Anyway: fiction is the study of the human condition (from the inside, through the introspective examination of possible realities), humanity is a social organism, therefore it’s not much of a stretch to include the study of possible social alternatives within the remit of SF.


bob mcmanus 12.11.10 at 12:22 pm

6: So Butler’s giant talking bugs story is…fantasy?


bob mcmanus 12.11.10 at 2:07 pm

Of course, that’s snarky and not intended to devalue Butler. Quite the opposite.

The argument is at least as old as Campbell saying “It’s all fantasy” (It is fun to read the geeky Gernsback intro to Skylark to see how “plausibility” can be stretched.)

Under sciencey definitions we either we consign most of published and acclaimed sf (Butler & Bester) to the ghetto of fantasy or we stretch “plausibility” past reason, to include giant talking bugs, self-teleportation, telepathy, England without religion or metaethics.

Somebody below said something about modernism. The point and purpose of this division going back at least to Gernsback in the 1920s is what kinds of metaphors support and reinforce the prevailing ideology. (Late Yeats just got so weird. Let’s get real.) “Group consciousness” and tachyon tunneling good; elves and dragons silly. You can write or read with the sociology textbook on the side, but you still aren’t doing science.

See I don’t worry so much about any difference between Murakami and Hard SF writers, and most readers haven’t worried much about it either. It’s all metaphors, and “plausibility” in the sense of external justification by the rules of science has never hard much to do with the texts or their uses.

(And I even managed to avoid mentioning “privilege” and gender politics. Oops.)


Charlie Stross 12.11.10 at 3:00 pm

bob, #7: trivially, if the bug’s an alien or a time traveller or the product of some barely-hinted-at mechanistic process, it’s SF; if the bug’s been summoned up by magic, it’s fantasy. (And if it’s a metaphor it’s magical realism or mainstream or something.)

All that genre tells us is which shelf to file the book on so as not to confuse the punters: a serious critical taxonomic tool it ain’t.

Oh, and it also tells us what playbook the author was working to. The mainstream playbook says a giant talking bug is a hallucination or a metaphor; it’s not allowed to be an alien visitor or a demon or, heavens, a talking bug. SF lets you play with the bugs as long as you’ve got a superficially plausible rule of thumb for how the damn thing got here. And fantasy makes up its own rules as it goes along (as long as they’re internally consistent). Where do you draw the SF/fantasy dividing line? Better leave that kind of hard intellectual enquiry to the marketing department.

((In other words: pay no attention to the loud cracking sound of the overstretched metaphor breaking apart behind me.))


Cranky Observer 12.11.10 at 4:50 pm

> I’ve been saying for a while that if fiction is the study of the
> human condition, then SF is merely the study of the human
> condition under plausibly changed circumstances

Well, that’s exactly what John W. Campbell encouraged Asimov, Anderson, van Vogt, del Ray, etc. to try to write in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s when he had great influence over the entire field of modern science fiction.



Ben JB 12.11.10 at 5:07 pm

If we’re taking “condition of England” novel as a form of contemporary historical novel (“historical” here not marking “oh, that was in the past,” but “this moment is a part of a history”), then I don’t think anyone would argue with the idea that sf is a relative. Wells himself pretty early on twigged to the idea that sf and the historical novel were cousins in terms of descriptive needs (though he’s mostly thinking about the past historical novel, like Waverly, not so much of Felix Holt, though I think we can easily make that leap).

(Also, as for sf novels that trade on unchanging stability, I can’t help thinking about Asimov’s breakdown of sociological sf into three trends–what if, if only, and if this goes on (intro to More Soviet Science Fiction. Well, “if this goes on” certainly has some serious change, but it is trading on the idea of some aspect being unchanged. I’d also probably look at Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, where one of the characters makes the point that most of their tech would be recognizable to their grandparents. And that’s part of the problem in that book.)


bob mcmanus 12.11.10 at 5:16 pm

10: Well, I happen to think that is very important to remember the boy’s adventure icky roots of science fiction in some kind of parallel chain that runs from Salaambo Thais Haggard Burroughs Rohmer E E Smith === Orientalism Othering === countering by Delany et al and Butler’s sympathetic (?) giant talking bugs.

Was Campbell racist or Orientalist? “Bugs never win” I think he said.

The question is whether the Western technocratic rationalism at the core of (safer histories of) SF is the flip side of Orientalism/othering/imperialism/hegemony. A question I am not qualified to answer. Are we back to Steampunk yet?

And I think Holbo wanted to talk about something else.


Charlie Stross 12.11.10 at 7:14 pm

Bob #12: Was Campbell racist or Orientalist? Yes to both — and very, going by his portrayal (in passing) in Patterson’s recent Heinlein biography.


Kaveh 12.11.10 at 7:23 pm

@12 re “boys adventure” and the bugs never winning: remember that it’s (stereotypically) boys and not girls who are fascinated by bugs. Fighting giant bugs is a way to encounter bugs while remaining anchored. But this creates the temptation to get drawn further into the bugs’ world. I think this has played out over time in the most popular pulp fantasy (e.g. the oevre of RA Salvatore and probably scifi too though I’m less familiar… ) where there is much fascination with getting immersed in the world of the monsters. Also, notably, the ironically-titled movie “How to Train Your Dragon”. So if scifi uses deus ex populus as a different way of justifiying a journey into the icky/strange, maybe that analogy w bugs and pulp fantasy can tell us something about where exactly (a lot of) scifi wants to take us.


Shatterface 12.12.10 at 1:03 am

“SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional “novum” (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic.”[22]

John Clute wryly observed Suvin’s definition is a recipe for writing like Lem.

Personally, I’m unhappy with any definition of SF which excludes Ballard’s Crash. Since that novel contains no actual content which is specific to SF and yet is *read* as SF this suggests to me that ‘SF’ is as much the practice of reading SF *as* SF as it is of writing it.

My English teacher always insisted 1984 wasn’t SF it was a satire and he was right – he wasn’t interested in Orwell’s diagesis as an exercise in world building or the Sapir-Worfe inspired notion of linguistic determinism, he just saw the entire novel as an extended allegory. What makes it SF to SF readers is that we are schooled in metanymy and synechdoche as well as metaphor: we build complex worlds from the scant clues a writer supplies us with. Its a skill we develop as young readers of SF and involves situating the book intertextually with other similar books the non-SF fan might be entirely unaware of.

In the case of Ballard’s novel the SF reader interprets the novel according to schemata alien to the non-SF reader, as a SF novel situated intertextually with the more obviously SFnal work of Ballard as well as Moorcock, Aldiss, Harrison, Sladek and the other New Wave writers exploring similar themes of alienation, entropy, etc. around the same time.


Keir 12.12.10 at 1:48 am

The mainstream playbook says a giant talking bug is a hallucination or a metaphor; it’s not allowed to be an alien visitor or a demon or, heavens, a talking bug.

But see Kafka. Kafka’s bug isn’t a metaphor or a hallucination or an anything; it’s a bug.

It is quite obvious that the ancestry of sf lies in Victorian and Edwardian fiction (actually, Third Empire is a more accurate descriptor of the time period, I think), but it isn’t just the `condition of England’ novel, it is the entire complex of early modernist literature. (This is mindnumbingly obvious; it is a great shame that there is almost no one competent at writing literary history involved with sf.)

It is hardly `crankery’ to assert that the industrial revolution was essentially the quickest greatest change that happened in the history of Europe.

This is just modernism.

Instead of sticking up odd essays by Haldane and Russell, mightn’t it be more useful to just read any half decent book on modernism, and proceed from there? (Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Productivism. Cubism. Hell, there’s even the Orient/alienation lurking right there in Cubism. And that is only looking at the visual arts.) Brecht, for fuck’s sake, is essentially to any discussion about alienation, but nobody seems to mention him at all.


Shatterface 12.12.10 at 5:00 pm

Suvin ‘s a Brecht scholar, as I recall.


Keir 12.12.10 at 8:59 pm

— yes, which is obviously where his argument comes from. But it all seems to disappear as it gets handed along, if that makes sense?


Nick L 12.13.10 at 4:59 am


Yes, the Kafka-case is missing from Stross’s bug typology. I would hazard that this is because science-fiction and fantasy are (alongside detective fiction and much mainstream fiction) realist in nature in that any talking bugs that turn up are rationalised somehow within the putative universe in which the narrative takes place.

This splits them off from forms of a-realist literature. In some forms of (I’m using the terms here broadly and probably ignorantly) modernist literature like Kafka, narrative entities such as talking bugs aren’t rationalised within the fictional universe (the protagonist just wakes up as a cockroach). But they are rationalised symbolically, as entities which have meaning for us, the reader. So they are rationalised from a literary point of view.

Magical realism is slightly different from fantasy as it isn’t always internally coherent – that is fine because the fantastic narrative entities it employs make sense either from a literary point of view or within the symbolic universe that the writer draws upon. Post-modern (or whatever has replaced that term) novels don’t need to rationalise fantastic elements at all as there is no pretence that the narrative is set within a putatively real fictional universe. Nor do post-modernist narratives attempt to assert a true and definitive meaning. So rationalisation goes out of the window.

Science-fiction is somewhat limited in that it is usually forced into adopting a strict realism. The fictional universes it creates are fantastic but supposedly plausible and so introducing fantastic [i]areal[/i] elements on top of that threatens to turn the whole narrative into a mess. Not to say that there aren’t some successes in accomplishing this: Philip K Dick, Moorcock, Ballard, and Banks (specifically ‘The Bridge’) are a couple of examples.


yoyo 12.15.10 at 5:08 am

This thread was entirely aimless wank until comment 15, which was very good.

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