Science Fiction At The End of Its Tether – Continental Philosophy Connections?

by John Holbo on February 9, 2018

Adam Roberts has been fighting the good fight, keeping blogging real. He’s been reading his way through H.G. Wells’ collected works so you don’t have to. You can just piggy-back along for the ride. But all good things must end. He just published the post for Wells’ final work, Mind At The End of Its Tether. I’m no Wells scholar but I actually had read that one. It’s astonishingly pessimistic. Nigh-Lovecraftian. And it isn’t even supposed to be fiction. It’s what Wells was feeling in his last days. Here is the book’s opening:

The writer finds very considerable reason for believing that, within a period to be estimated by weeks and months rather than by aeons, there has been a fundamental change in the conditions under which life, not simply human life but all self-conscious existence, has been going on since its beginning. This is a very startling persuasion to find establishing itself in one’s mind, and he puts forward his conclusions in the certainty that they will be entirely inacceptable to the ordinary rational man.

If his thinking has been sound, then this world is at the end of its tether. The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded. He is telling you the conclusions to which reality has driven his own mind, and he thinks you may be interested enough to consider them, but he is not attempting to impose them upon you. He will do his best to indicate why he has succumbed to so stupendous a proposition. His exposition will have to be done bit by bit, and it demands close reading. He is not attempting to win acquiescence in what he has to say. He writes under the urgency of scientific training, which obliged him to clarify his mind and his world to the utmost limit of his capacity.

You figure he feared the bomb. But that hadn’t gone off. He wrote before Hiroshima, although the book appeared in 1946.

Weirdly, Wells is worried about … well, it isn’t clear. Like a good Lovecraft narrator, he keeps emphasizing difficulty and horror, shying off from direct description.

It requires an immense and concentrated effort of realization, demanding constant reminders and refreshment, on the part of a normal intelligence, to perceive that the cosmic movement of events is increasingly adverse to the mental make-up of our everyday life. It is a realization the writer finds extremely difficult to sustain. But while he holds it, the significance of Mind fades. The secular process loses its accustomed appearance of a mental order.

He was dying of cancer. But it doesn’t really seem like he thinks he’s just projecting his own problems.

Foremost in this scrutiny is the abrupt revelation of a hitherto unsuspected upward limit to quantitative material adjustability. Spread out and examine the pattern of events, and you will find yourself face to face with a new scheme of being, hitherto unimaginable by the human mind. This new cold glare mocks and dazzles the human intelligence, and yet, such is the obstinate vitality of the philosophical urge in minds of that insatiable quality, that they can still, under its cold urgency, seek some way out or round or through the impasse. The writer is convinced that there is no way out or round or through the impasse. It is the end.

But what IS it!

Read Adam’s post. And/or read Wells’ book [amazon]. I sat down to read it again last night, after reading the post.

I noticed one thing I didn’t the first time I read it. Wells quotes Shakespeare:

But the skeptical mind says stoutly, “This is delusion”. “Golden lads and lasses must, like chimney sweepers, come to dust.” “No,” says this ingrained streak of protest: “there is still something beyond the dust.” But is there?

I remembered that Samuel Delany quotes the same couplet – from Cymbeline – in “Science Fiction and ‘Literature'” (You can find it in this volume [amazon].) He mentions that in Warwickshire a local name for dandelions was ‘golden boy’, and ‘chimney sweeps’ names the fuzz they send forth – which does resemble a sweeps’ brush. But never mind that. I wonder if Delany was drawn to the couplet by its occurrence in Wells’ last book? Just a possibility.

The Tether edition I linked above has an introduction by Colin Wilson (also one by Rudy Rucker). Wilson writes about Wells – about Mind At The End of Its Tether, specifically – in his classic book, The Outsider [amazon]. Chapter 1 of The Outsider links Wells with Sartre’s Nausea.

There can be no doubt that as far as Wells is concerned, he certainly sees ‘too deep and too much’. Such knowledge is an impasse, the dead end of Eliot’s Gerontion: ‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’ Wells had promised to give his reasons for arriving at such a stupendous proposition [all that ‘this is the end!’ stuff I quoted above]. In the remainder of the pamphlet (nineteen pages) he does nothing of the sort; he repeats his assertion. ‘Our doomed formicary’, ‘harsh implacable hostility to our universe’, ‘no pattern of any kind’. He talks vaguely of Einstein’s paradox of the speed of light, of the ‘radium clock’ (a method geologists use to date the earth). He even contradicts his original statement that all life is at an end; it is only the species Homo sapiens that is played out. ‘The stars in their courses have turned against him and he has to give place to some other animal better adapted to face the fate that closes in on mankind.’

Wilson does not dismiss it as ‘the end is nigh’ sandwich-board fodder:

All the same, the pamphlet must be considered the most pessimistic single utterance in modern literature, together with T. S. Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’. And Eliot’s despair was essentially religious; we should be tempted to assume that Wells’s despair is religious too, if it were not for his insistence that he is speaking of a scientific fact, an objective reality.

It is not surprising that the work received scant attention from Wells’s contemporaries: to make its conclusions credible it would need the formidable dialectical apparatus of Schopenhauer’s Welt als Wille und Vorstellung or Spengler’s Decline of the West. I have heard it described by a writer-contemporary of Wells as ‘an outburst of peevishness at a world that refused to accept him as its Messiah’.

“The Choler Out of Space”! A Lovecraft/Wells mash-up!

Now here’s my question for you. Who else, besides Wilson, explicitly links continental philosophy (I’m being vague here) with SF, before about 1960? I see Wilson himself has a 1978 pamphlet, “Science Fiction As Existentialism”. I’m a bit loath to pay that price for such a slim thing! I think I can guess what’s in it.)

On the one hand, it’s not surprising if there are few significant intellectual links. SF is Anglophone, so-called ‘continental philosophy’ is on the continent. SF criticism is still aborning in the 50’s. Fandom had been doing its best to bubble, brainily, since the late 1920’s – with only intermittent success. It’s not surprising that SF fans weren’t reading Sartre or phenomenology; even less surprising that Sartre didn’t have a subscription to Wonder Stories. Nevertheless, this seems like the kind of linkage that could have happened. Baudelaire went ga-ga for Edgar Allan Poe. There could be some European student of Husserl or Heidegger who had a thing for American SF in the 40’s or 50’s. Adorno could have written about it somewhere. Conversely, it could easily have been the case that Asimov got a bug in his ear about Sartre and wrote about him at some point. What if Heinlein had read Heidegger? Wouldn’t that have been weird? Maybe Wells read Kierkegaard at some point and wrote about it?

What about Nietzsche? H.L. Mencken popularized Nietzsche, in the US, in an admittedly eccentric fashion. Did any SF authors pick up on that and run with it?

I’m thinking about this in a fairly obvious and superficial way. If you check out a book with a title like Basic Writings Of Existentialism, you will find that the table of contents contains works of fiction. And many of those works of fiction have obvious SF analogs. Nietzsche’s ‘Last Men’, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Kafka stuff, questions of technology. I’m not saying it’s a good idea or a bad idea to read SF as existentialism, or rewrite existentialism as SF. I’m just wondering whether it happened. So far, all I’ve got is Colin Wilson before the New Wave in the 1960’s makes for more connections of a new sort. Maybe European SF writers in the early 20th Century have interesting philosophical roots? I dunno. What did Lem read? What phenomenologist penned a review of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis?

I am always tempted to read post-Kantian German philosophy as kind of like SF – if only as a kind of joke. That’s Kierkegaard’s joke about Hegel. If he’d written the darn thing as fiction it would have been brilliant! (That’s why I like Stapledon better than Hegel.)

What have you got for me?



John Holbo 02.09.18 at 4:47 am

I just found this:

By Paul Scheerbart
Illustrations by Alfred Kubin
Translated, with an introduction, by Christina Svendsen

“The serene and gentle amazement with which the author tells of the strange natural laws of other worlds, the great cosmic works undertaken there, and the naively noble conversations of their inhabitants makes him one of those humorists who, like Lichtenberg or Jean Paul, seem never to forget that the earth is a heavenly body.”—Walter Benjamin

First published in German in 1913 and widely considered to be Paul Scheerbart’s masterpiece, Lesabéndio is an intergalactic utopian novel that describes life on the planetoid Pallas, where rubbery suction-footed life forms with telescopic eyes smoke bubble-weed in mushroom meadows under violet skies and green stars. Amid the conveyor-belt highways and lighthouses weaving together the mountains and valleys, a visionary named Lesabéndio hatches a plan to build a 44-mile-high tower and employ architecture to connect the two halves of their double star. A cosmic ecological fable, Scheerbart’s novel was admired by such architects as Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius, and such thinkers as Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem (whose wedding present to Benjamin was a copy of Lesabéndio). Benjamin had intended to devote the concluding section of his lost manuscript The True Politician to a discussion of the positive political possibilities embedded in Scheerbart’s “Asteroid Novel.” As translator Christina Svendsen writes in her introduction, “Lesabéndio helps us imagine an ecological politics more daring than the conservative politics of preservation, even as it reminds us that we are part of a larger galactic set of interrelationships.”

Paul Scheerbart (1863–1915) was a novelist, playwright, poet, newspaper critic, draughtsman, visionary, proponent of glass architecture, and would-be inventor of perpetual motion. A member of avant-garde art and architectural circles, his ideas were crucial for participants in the Glass Chain movement, a group that included major architects such as Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, and Hans Scharoun. Scheerbart opposed the naturalism of his day with fantastical fables and interplanetary satires that were to influence Expressionist authors and the German Dada movement, and which helped found German science fiction. After suffering a nervous breakdown over the mounting carnage of World War I, Scheerbart starved to death in what was rumored to have been a protest against the war.”


John Holbo 02.09.18 at 4:50 am

And here’s a likely transmission point for some English SF into German.


Belle Waring 02.09.18 at 5:04 am

Adorno and Horkheimer used to go to the movies all the time in LA, I guess ostensibly for the purpose of conceiving of the Culture Industry properly–but clearly in fact because they just plain liked to go see movies. (I think the best line about it is that “personality” now consists in “shining white teeth and a lack of body odor and emotions.”) I think they liked fluffy comedies and westerns and such. But they saw so many movies that there’s no way they didn’t see some dumb SF thrillers along the way. I don’t know that they talk about it though; a google search goes nowhere and we certainly would have heard already about that section in Dialectic of Enlightenment discussing Men From Mars. It’s funny to imagine them going off together in the golden sunshine to see a double-feature of dross for research purposes; it doesn’t suit one’s image of them. But again, that means there’s no way they didn’t sample some “monster from beyond” movies–they would be missing an aspect of the system they decry.

Do you really like Stapledon better than Hegel? That’s just crazy talk. I…don’t know whether you’re joking.


John Holbo 02.09.18 at 5:07 am

“Do you really like Stapledon better than Hegel? That’s just crazy talk. I…don’t know whether you’re joking.”

They don’t call me Odd John for nothin!


steven t johnson 02.09.18 at 5:57 am

Heinlein imitated Mencken, along with Twain, London, Shaw and Colonel Ingersoll. (And probably vaudeville and comedy acts I’m not familiar with.) His short pieces, Gulf, By His Bootstraps and All You Zombies might be Nietzchean or existentialist.

Speaking of, Jack London of course.

Stanley G. Weinbaum’s The New Adam also seemed kind of cod-Nietzchean.

Philosophically inclined European SF in translation included I think Karel Capek, Franz Werfel (Star of the Unborn,) Kurd Lasswitz (Two Planets,) and Alexander Bogdanov (Red Star.)

Transcendentalism seems to me to be continental philosophy in any meaningful sense of the phrase, as does Theosophy. For these, ignore fiddling distinctions between fiction and essay. Marie Corelli? The Book of Mormon counts as SF in any deep analysis, but as continental philosophy it’s more like The New Science than Nausea.

Poe’s philosophical colloquies, the ones never made into movies by Roger Corman.

The one time I had a copy in hand I had no money in pocket, but judging from the skimming, Bernard Wolfe Limbo.


Adam Roberts 02.09.18 at 7:15 am

Thanks for linking, John. Blogging is dead, I know, but there are a few dinosaurs still lumbering. And your wider speculations are very interesting, and deserve a more substantial response, to which I’ll try to get around, sooner rather than later. For now a few notes.

I don’t think Wells read much Kierkegaard, but he did read Schopenhauer (I daresay S. doesn’t count as an existentialist, Or does he, in a proto-sense?); and he certainly read philosophy, in general. He even rewrote Plato’s Republic as a science fiction novel. Others have done that since, of course, but he was the first, I think.

Obviously I share your sense that German philosophy and SF are weird versions of one another. I rewrote Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a science fiction novel, after all.

Mind at the End of its Tether is a strange little book, isn’t it? One detail I don’t mention in my post is that his publishers asked him to update his History of the World (originally published 1920, and then reissued many times in abridged versions that went into schools) to bring it up to 1945. The first draft of Tether was a stab at that new chapter, but too pessimistic for the publishers, so Wells rewrote it (Wells’s biography David C Smith counts 80 substantial changes between the two versions) and published it alone. It doesn’t read, now, like a final chapter in a world history; it reads, as you say, like a sustained but oddly opaque iteration of gloom-gloomy-gloom. But that’s its intellectual provenance, if you like.

One small thing: Delany’s wrong. The idea that Shakespeare’s “golden lads and lasses/chimneysweeps” lines have anything to do with Warwickshire slang for dandelions is a famous hoax, and has no basis in Shakespearian reality. Though we’re always entitled to print the legend, I guess.


Adam Roberts 02.09.18 at 7:45 am

In the interests of the dissemination of knowledge, I’ll add that you can read Wells’s 34-page Mind at the End of its Tether free online here, if you don’t fancy buying the Colin Wilson/Rudy Rucker edition.


Alison P 02.09.18 at 8:06 am

You haven’t all done a symposium on any of Adam Roberts’ works have you? It would be good to see one on The Thing Itself.

I think there is a second pun in the Cymbeline quote ‘…like chimney sweepers, come to dust’. I can imagine it’s what chimney sweepers would say – perhaps coming back at the end of the sweeping process to make good. ‘Who’s that in the front room?’. ‘The chimney sweeper, sir. I’ve come to dust.’


John Holbo 02.09.18 at 8:39 am

“Philosophically inclined European SF in translation included I think Karel Capek, Franz Werfel (Star of the Unborn,) Kurd Lasswitz (Two Planets,) and Alexander Bogdanov (Red Star.)”

Yes, I’m happy to get a list of non-English SF in translation. I know the big names but there are a lot more. But I am also interested in the narrower question: what SF authors were consciously inspired by named continental philosophers. I’m ok with likely inspiration/influence. I don’t insist on signed confessions. But I am asking about the influence rather than affinity question. Also, what continental philosophers – thinkers – were actually influenced by reading SF?


John Holbo 02.09.18 at 8:43 am

“I daresay S. doesn’t count as an existentialist, Or does he, in a proto-sense?”

Proto. Sure. Kind of a stretch. But he influenced Nietzsche, so he has to count as a grand-daddy. I didn’t know Wells read him. He probably hated him, right? Made fun of him?

I know Wells studied everything so he surely studied philosophy, but I haven’t read enough Wells.

That’s great about the dandelions. I will make sure not to spread false rumors further. Alison P points out that there is another ‘come to dust’ sense, and that seems right, even if the first pun fails.

What were Jack London’s philosophical influences? I can probably google this up, but I’m hoping for bright tidbits that might not be so obvious to those who haven’t delved deep, biographically.


Gabriel 02.09.18 at 9:29 am

An Adam Roberts symposium would be faboo. Just sayin’.


Adam Roberts 02.09.18 at 9:29 am

It’s partly a question about the canon of philosophers, isn’t it? So nowadays you intellectual heavyweights are interested in (let’s say) Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Adorno et al. But to read Wells’s engagements with philosophy is to encounter a completely different set of names, often now eclipsed: William James and J W Dunne are two big influences on Wells’s thinking, for instance. Does anybody read Dunne anymore? He had some interesting ideas about time. (James and Dunne were both personal friends of Wells, and that fact rather than, say, Wells joining a particular metaphysical school, explains their influence. He was also pals with Jung, and worked Jungian ideas and sometimes Jung himself into his novels. Plus 1940s-era Wells also became convinced that Pavlov had unlocked the key of human subjectivity).

Incidentally, Wells published his own book of philosophy First and Last Things in 1908, and this was several times revised. Indeed a new version was issued a couple of years before Wells’s death under a new title, The Conquest of Time.

Alison P is much more convincing on chimney sweepers than Delany.


Phil 02.09.18 at 10:33 am

I cannot for the life of me picture a chimney sweep – proverbially covered in soot – popping back to do the dusting. (They’d need to have a shower and everything.) (Incidentally, I’m convinced I’ve seen the “golden lads”/dandelions connection in one of Orwell’s columns – presumably in “As I Please” in Tribune – which would antedate Hugh Kenner and thicken the plot nicely. But can I find it in the CEJL? Can I heck.)

On the OP, I think there’s a natural affinity between Golden Age (USAn) sf and the distinctly American philosophical spectrum that runs from Emersonian transcendentalism via William James to Deweyan Pragmatism. You can extend the map of Pragmatism until you find yourself in existentialism (I know, I tried it once; you make landfall at Merleau-Ponty), but mid-century sf had much better connections with the “what is to be done and how shall we know when we’ve done it?” end of Pragmatism. And Asimov reading Sartre – bluff old Dr A who knew all about science but neither knew nor cared where his ideas came from? I think it’s a mercy that he didn’t.

Also, I thought I was keeping up with Wells ATWE, but I now seem to have eleven new tabs open – how did that happen?


Z 02.09.18 at 11:02 am

But I am also interested in the narrower question: what SF authors were consciously inspired by named continental philosophers?

Boris Vian by Sartre, surely (even with the signed confession). Especially L’écume des jours, L’Arrache-coeur et L’Herbe rouge (respectively Froth of Daydreams, Heartsnatcher and The Red Grass in translation, or so Wiki tells me). Flying cars, artificial intelligence, robots, virtual reality, mind-reading and dream-exploring machines as well as existentialism (complete with a Sartre cameo) and psychoanalysis. All that between 1946 and 1953.

And jazz, of course.


Lee A. Arnold 02.09.18 at 11:05 am

I have kept two of Dunne’s books on my shelves for the last 4o years. An Experiment with Time. Nothing Dies.


Adam Roberts 02.09.18 at 1:07 pm

Lee #15: I’m with you. I think Dunne is fascinating. Indeed, I appeared as a talking head on a BBC Radio documentary about him a couple of years back; but one of the things that came out of that is that the only way he’s at all known today is because of his influence on Priestley Time Plays, because those plays are still current (still performed from time to time and so on).

I suppose what interests me is how these sorts of in-out decisions get aggregated. Why is it that so many people today take (say) Heidegger’s crazy-idiosyncratic theories of time so very seriously, where nobody today takes Dunne’s crazy-idiosyncratic theories of time in any sense at all? They were both dudes who sat in a room and thought about time. (By which I mean, they were neither of them individuals who came up with hypotheses and then tested them via their equivalent to the big accelerator at CERN).


steven t johnson 02.09.18 at 2:04 pm

“Also, what continental philosophers – thinkers – were actually influenced by reading SF?” That requires more biographical knowledge of philosophers than I possess.

I will still venture a guess that Jack London’s Before Adam was extremely influential, either directly or in imitations. The political regimentation of literary criticism requires that London be dismissed today, but he was huge. London’s influences included Nietzsche and Marx.

(Well, Marx doesn’t count as a continental philosopher, as it is being against Marx that defined the serious philosopher then, just like being against Marx defined the serious social scientists like Weber and Durkheim. And now, Post-Modernism=Post-Marxism.)

If you drop the idea that continental philosophy is left-wing, then Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Karl Popper and, most of all, Ayn Rand were hugely influential in SF.


casmilus 02.09.18 at 2:08 pm

For recent “continental” philosophy, see Quentin Meillasoux’ recent work, which includes an Isaac Asimov short story for consideration:

J.W.Dunne was a huge influence all over the place, referenced by Wyndham Lewis as well as J.B.Priestley, C.S.Lewis, etc.

Gender theorists may also be interested in “Proud Man” by Katharine Burdekin/Murray Constantine, which deserves to be at least as well known as “Brave New World”, and also her other “Swastika Night”, which we all know was ripped off by Orwell for “1984”.


casmilus 02.09.18 at 2:11 pm

Henri Bergson was a huge figure in his day, and still important enough for Russell to give him a chapter in his History Of Western Philosophy. Bergson is discussed by Dunne in “Experiment With Time” (also by Wyndham Lewis in “Time And Western Man”).

According to a book about Nelson Goodman I saw a few years ago, Bergson’s visit to New York was a major event at the time.


steven t johnson 02.09.18 at 3:01 pm

J.W. Dunne (and Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) were explicitly referenced in James Blish’s ESPer/Jack of Eagles novel, as the variant title suggests about ESP.

(Blish addressed ESP again in Midsummer Century, but his primary reference there was John Lilly.)

But then, Blish wrote a Star Trek novel in which Uhura quotes Finnegan’s Wake. No doubt he is justly forgotten, and this should be retroactive.


Adam Roberts 02.09.18 at 3:39 pm

Coming at it from the other angle there’s Guy Lardreau, an actual Continental Philosopher of the playful Deleuze sort (though he wasn’t a card-carrying Deleuzian, I think): his Fictions philosophiques et science-fiction. Récréation philosophique (1988) looks at the sorts of crossovers John is interested in, in the OP. So for example, Lardreau has a lot of time for Frank Herbert — many of those wonderful, pretentious little chapter epigraphs you get in the Dune novels, attributed to Princess Irulan and other in-story characters, were actually lifted directly from Herbert’s reading in Nietzsche, Hegel and so on.


casmilus 02.09.18 at 4:25 pm

Blish should be remembered just for the “After Such Knowledge” sequence:

1. “A Case Of Conscience” (Jesuit scientist on board with a mission to an Edenic planet where the lizardly aliens have no sense of evil).

2. “Doctor Mirabilus” (concerning Roger Bacon)

3. “Black Easter” (a Satanic arms dealer starts WW3 for laffs)

4. “The Day After Judgement” (the sequel to “Black Easter”, includes a superbly loony chapter where Hell materialises in Death Valley and the US Marines are sent in with the latest laser weaponry to destroy it, with lamentable results.)


Joseph Brenner 02.09.18 at 5:11 pm

The sweeping nature of the claim, involving a rapid change in “all self-conscious existence” puts it beyond any kind of reasonable conclusion except “Wells clearly lost it”.

He often seemed to be prone to depression– a common ailment among people who try to save humanity from itself, I suspect. His own proposed epitaph was “I told you so, you damned fools” (there largely referring to the use of aircraft as weapons of war).

By the way: James Blish didn’t turn to prefunctory “Star Trek” novelizations until he too was dying of cancer. He was a pretty brilliant SF writer in spite of (or because of?) his tendency toward more-literary-than-thou snobbery.


Raven Onthill 02.09.18 at 5:17 pm

Blish was widely read and erudite, a science editor, music critic, and minor poet, if a bit of a cranky conservative autodidact. In his later writings I find a puzzlement over just why he loves science fiction and yet, there he was.


dave heasman 02.09.18 at 7:23 pm

“Sartre didn’t have a subscription to Wonder Stories.”

I suppose it’s not totally surprising that Fritz Lang did.


John Holbo 02.10.18 at 12:33 am

When I said SF criticism was still aborning in the 50’s I obviously had in mind Blish, who is probably the starting point for seriousness there.


John Holbo 02.10.18 at 12:33 am

“Lardreau has a lot of time for Frank Herbert — many of those wonderful, pretentious little chapter epigraphs you get in the Dune novels, attributed to Princess Irulan and other in-story characters, were actually lifted directly from Herbert’s reading in Nietzsche, Hegel and so on.”

That’s great! Too bad my French sucks.


John Holbo 02.10.18 at 12:36 am

Guess I’d better check out some Dunne, too.


steven t johnson 02.10.18 at 12:53 am

My remark about Blish being justly forgotten was bitter and ironic, not sincere and approving.

That said, Blish wrote two juveniles, The Star Dwellers and Mission to the Heart Stars, long before he had cancer. And he devised an elaborate rationale for having young people in starring roles. He wrote a short novel, Titan’s Daughter, to fit an illustration, with an equally elaborate rationale for the wacky helmets. That’s the one where the dog comes to the rescue at the climax. (Yes, it is.)

Delany is too recent to count for the OP, but there is no denying the close relationship between “continental philosophy” and his fiction and criticism.

Speaking of unjustly obscure SF writers, Cordwainer Smith often came across like someone who read people like Teilhard de Chardin. Perhaps it’s foolish of me but A Planet Named Shayol certainly seemed like the product of someone who in particular read Camus and Sartre.

A sort of vaguely Neo-Thomist Catholicism showed up here and there, perhaps most notably in A Canticle for Leibowitz.


Yan 02.10.18 at 12:58 am

Z@14 “Boris Vian by Sartre, surely (even with the signed confession).”

I never really thought of Vian as science fiction, though i see how a strong case can be made. But he’s so uncategorizable, he could be anything, since he includes everything. In any case, he should be so much better known. The piano that makes cocktails according to what song you play. “Jean Sol-Partre” riding into a lecture on an elephant with machine gunners keeping the groupies at bay. Such a wonderful weirdo.

His ethnography of the 40s cellar culture, “The Manual of St. Germain des Pres,” is also something. We learn, for example, that the standard existentialist outfit is Chuck Taylors and a loud striped shirt unbuttoned to the navel.


Yan 02.10.18 at 1:01 am

ETA Hoffmann took classes with Kant, and “The Sandman” is an early robot story.


John Holbo 02.10.18 at 2:32 am

“ETA Hoffmann took classes with Kant”

He did?


John Holbo 02.10.18 at 2:35 am

“Delany is too recent to count for the OP, but there is no denying the close relationship between “continental philosophy” and his fiction and criticism.”

Yes, Delany is a perfect example of how the New Wave (if you want to call it that) changed a lot.

Here’s a good way to mark it. Wilson’s “The Outsiders” appears in 1956. Barthes “Mythologies” is 1957. And there’s stuff about SF in there. Jules Verne. Einstein’s brain. I’m looking for pre-Barthes stuff. (Not that there’s anything wrong with studying Barthes!)


Yan 02.10.18 at 2:40 am

Thus spake Wikipedia:
“Around 1787 he became friends with Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel the Younger (1775–1843), the son of a pastor, and nephew of Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel the Elder, the well-known writer friend of Immanuel Kant. During 1792, both attended some of Kant’s lectures at the University of Königsberg. ”


John Holbo 02.10.18 at 2:51 am

“I never really thought of Vian as science fiction, though i see how a strong case can be made. ”

Wikpedia just informed me that he was the French translator of A.E. van Vogt “World of Null-A”. Huh. Also, he translated Raymond Chandler.


Gabriel 02.10.18 at 6:52 am

Was Wilson’s ‘Outsiders’ really ’56? Read it for the first time a few years back and it seemed so very late ’60s / early ’70s. Wow.


Phil 02.10.18 at 1:00 pm

His own proposed epitaph was “I told you so, you damned fools”

Hmm. Was Robert Conquest borrowing from Wells?


Adam Roberts 02.10.18 at 2:29 pm

John H: “Too bad my French sucks.

If an academic press gave me a pin, or maybe even half a pin, I’d gorblimey up a translation of that Lardreau book on SF and Philosophy. It’s got an interesting neo-Leibnitzian thing going on.


steven t johnson 02.10.18 at 3:39 pm

Atlas Shrugged was 1957, so I suppose that’s out. But Brave New World was 1932, and I’m pretty sure that Huxley and philosophy were acquainted. 1984 was also pre-1956, and notions of totalitarianism were very much continental philosophy in their origin. 1984 had some degree of influence. There is the problem that if it’s good, it isn’t science fiction, but I can’t solve that one to anybody’s satisfaction.

There was a 1916 novel called A Voyage to Faremido, which was a sequel to Gulliver’s Travels. The original language was Magyar, author Frigyes Karinthy. And there was the 1941 sequel to Gulliver’s Travels by Sandor Szathmari, Kazohinia. (Translated into Esperanto!) Absent a law that utopian novels aren’t ever SF, it’s hard to see how there hasn’t always been a two way street between philosophy and all the SF that wasn’t boys’ adventure stories. (Gullivers’ Travels is early SF the same way The Last of the Mohicans is an early Western, and looks different from its successors for the same kind of reasons the latter looks different from The Virginian.)

In the visual arts, both Italian Futurism and Surrealism seem to me to have an SF influence. It largely went from the continent to the magazine illustrators I would think.


Yan 02.10.18 at 8:46 pm

“Also, he translated Raymond Chandler.”

See, I have an easier time imagining Vian as a crime novelist than a science fiction writer–even if he hadn’t written crime novels (haven’t read them, heard they’re pretty awful). I guess it’s the 40s-ness of it all. So much smoking, so much Ellington, so much existentialism.

I’m wary of expanding the definition of sci-fi too widely, because it overlaps in so many places with other genres and that risks coopting interesting themes and innovations they made. Take an obvious sci-fi candidate like Frankenstein. It’s so closely connected to Romanticism, and like a lot of literature in that vein, there’s a deep critique of the enlightenment that sees science not as a break from superstition and the pre-scientific world but a continuation of it, a form of magic, or the perverse violation of nature’s secrets and laws (which is why, say, Metropolis or Hoffmann are as much Romantic as sci-fi.

I’m inclined to say that Romanticism (and its related genres like Gothic) ends and science fiction begins only when literature starts to accept the modern distinction between science and non-science, reason and superstition, enlightenment and counter-enlightenment.

It’s true, of course, that science fiction is as suspicious and critical of science and technology as romanticism is, but in the form of immanent critique–science often fails to be truly scientific, enlightenment is often not sufficiently enlightened–so the critique depends on the acceptance of its object’s core values and of the strong line it draws between the scientific and the pre-scientific, which I don’t think the Romantic precursors to science fiction really do.

By calling romantic literature science fiction, this important difference in format of critique risks being overlooked, and perhaps the deeper, more radical critique of modernity that Romanticism offers is given softer edges.


Belle Waring 02.11.18 at 12:53 am

Cordwainer Smith is indeed criminally underrated, and most certainly read Kafka.


Bruce Baugh 02.12.18 at 7:03 pm

Just to note, Delany is on Facebook and seems really happy to get questions outside the terribly predictable and repetitive.


Alan Bostick 02.12.18 at 7:40 pm

I don’t know if it counts as Continental philosophy, per se, and I can’t provide an actual cite. But I have a recollection of reading an interview with Alfred Bester in the 1970s, published in a fanzine (I think Andrew Porter’s Algol) in which Bester asserted that his cohort of writers in the early 1940s was enamored of J-K Huysman’s A Rebours. Bester asserted that Huysmans was an influence on many of them, certainly Bester himself, and that A Rebours was a secret subtext of science fiction of the 1940s and 50s.


Donald 02.13.18 at 4:25 am

I don’t know much about important philosophical influences on various SF writers, but I can contribute to the conversation on a trivial level. I read Lesley Blanch’s history of the 19th century Chechen wars “ The Sabres of Paradise” as a teenager right after I had read “ Dune”. Pure coincidence that I read it— the book appeared in the department store book section and it looked cool, but once I read it the influence on Herbert was more than obvious. I just googled and someone wrote an article about this recently.

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