Like a rapacious and relentlessly predatory science fictional entity assimilating all it encounters (the Star Trek Borg come to mind), science fiction in the early twenty-first century is an unstoppable expansive force that is certainly not limited to one particular genre. Science fiction literature, once ghettoized and marginalized, is pervasive and ever more rapidly garnering respect.
PMLA, America's most distinguished literary criticism journal, published its first science fiction issue in May 2004. Stephen King received the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Philip K. Dick once dismissed as a pulp science fiction writer—because of his works' emphasis upon paranoia regarding government, technology, and personal relationships and its attention to what constitutes reality itself—has been lauded as creating the most emblematic fiction of the turn of the twenty-first century. Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude was applauded as one of the most important novels published in 2003, and Star Trek was recognized as the most enduring cultural mythology of the second half of the twentieth century.
The attention lavished upon King and Dick especially exemplifies why science fiction is pervasive and ever more rapidly gaining respect. The National Book Foundation's decision to recognize King's achievements signaled an end to the discrimination popular genre writers automatically suffered. Dick precisely envisioned the world of the early twenty-first century, a world that did not inherit flying cars, but which endures such Dickian devices and themes as implanted memories, commercialized personalities, dislocation, and disintegrating realities.
Literary theory reflects the newfound status science fiction garners. Carl Freedman, in Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000), proclaims that science fiction, one of the most theoretically informed areas of the literary profession, is a privileged genre for critical theory:
I maintain that science fiction, like critical theory, insists upon historical mutability, material reducibility, and utopian possibility. Of all genres, science fiction is thus the one most devoted to the historical concreteness and rigorous self-reflectiveness of critical theory. The science-fictional world is not only one different in time or place from our own, but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes. (p. xvi)
In a 1999 essay for the New York Times titled "Black to the Future," Walter Mosley positions science as one of the most exciting emerging directions in contemporary American fiction; he explains that the newly free black imagination joins with science fiction to create a new force to counter racism. N. Katherine Hayles' How We Became Post Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (1999), in response to science fiction's aforementioned pervasive presence within reality, declares that people are now more than simply human. Posthumans inhabit a brave new postmodern world in which science fiction infused reality ever more increasingly blurs the old comfortable distinctions between the real and the unreal. Via an overview of the development of science fiction literature and science fiction theory from the 1970s to the start of the twenty-first century, this entry will explore how we and our world became science fictionally post real.
Edward James's Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (1994) offers one of the best descriptions of science fiction's historical progression; his ideas form the basis of the historical survey given here. The American New Wave influenced the most innovative science fiction writers of the 1970s (including John Crowley, Joe Haldeman, Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon, and John Varley). The New Wave can be defined as the 1960s generational shift away from the classic writers who began to write before World War II—such as Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon. The New Wave, an attempt to bring science fiction into the literary mainstream by emphasizing style rather than scientific accuracy, consisted of experimental works emphasizing psychology and soft sciences. New Wave writers shared the notion that the world is not improving, expressed a distrust of science and technology, and thought humans unworthy of valorization.
American New Wave writers (Robert Silverberg, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel Delany, for example) wanted to improve upon rather than reject classic pulp science fiction. The word pulp refers to the inexpensive paper used to produce pulp magazines as well as to the characteristics of the fiction the magazines published. Action, romance, heroism, exotic settings, adventures, and positive endings characterize pulp science fiction stories. Pulp science fiction began with The Argosy in the 1890s and proliferated until the 1930s in such magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories (created by Hugo Gernsback, the father of pulp science fiction and namesake of the Hugo Award), and Astounding. Astounding editor John W. Campbell insisted upon hard science as a basis for story acceptance; hence, classic pulp science fiction can be understood as a juxtaposition of science fiction, monster stories, and hero pulp stories. Such clichéd science fiction tropes as Bug-Eyed-Monsters and little green men emerging from the spaceship that lands on the White House lawn epitomize classic pulp science fiction.
During the 1970s, new subgenres arose from the combination of New Wave ideas engaging with the older traditions classic pulp science fiction represents. Larry Niven, the exemplary writer of hard science fiction, emphasized technology, physics, and space exploration. Women writers (such as Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon), in contrast, focused upon such soft sciences as psychology and sociology and produced pure literary experimentation. Much of the soft science fiction written during the 1970s was fantasy, not science fiction. (Critics have generated multitudinous arguments regarding the distinctions between science and fantasy. The rule of thumb is that texts about what can be realized are science fiction and those about what cannot be realized are fantasy. Future generations, for example, might travel in a Star Trek starship, which in the early twenty-first century exists only in science fiction; unlike the protagonists of the fantasy Alice in Wonderland, they will never experience close encounters with a watch-wearing white rabbit.) The rise of both women's science fiction and fantasy rooted in the 1970s, two of the most important developments in the history of science fiction, continues into the twenty-first century. Feminist science fiction provides blueprints for social change, which enable us to rethink and reformulate patriarchal social domination.
Joanna Russ, the most important representative of the rise of 1970s feminist science fiction, is best known for The Female Man (1975), a startling, brilliant feminist novel which presents four female protagonists who inhabit four alternative worlds. Ursula Le Guin's equally important The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) is more inspired by anarchism than by feminism. Delany's Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976) echoes Le Guin's political emphasis and builds upon Russ's feminist breakthroughs. Tiptree/Sheldon's feminist short stories (such as "The Women Men Don't See"—1973) are important contributions to the feminist and soft science fiction surge characterizing the 1970s. In international science fiction, the first English translations of the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem began to appear in the 1970s (for example, Solaris [1961, translated 1970] and The Invincible [1964, translated 1973]).
The new New Wave called cyberpunk dominated the 1980s. Cyberpunk is derived from the words cybernetics and the 1970s rock term punk. Cyberpunk arose in response to a discrepancy characteristic of the 1980s: the glaring difference between the gleaming pristine future cities traditional science fiction portrays and depressing real-world urban landscapes. Cyberpunk fiction, which portrays people dwarfed by machines in a technological world and alienated from nature, contributes a rethinking of the military-industrial complex's hegemony. Pat Cadigan, best known for Synners (1991), has been called the "Queen of Cyberpunk." William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) epitomizes cyberpunk in its portrayal of seedy and dark urban environments in which protagonists literally enter cyberspace.
In 1990, the U.S. president George H. W. Bush announced an intention to place people on Mars by 2019, inspiring some science fiction writers to focus upon Mars; such works as Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), Blue Mars (1996), and The Martians (1999) reflect this focus. Ben Bova's Mars (1992) and Paul J. McAuley's Red Dust (1993) are other noteworthy novels about Mars. In addition to Robinson, Nicola Griffith and Gwyneth Jones were important writers who debuted during the 1990s. Attention to politics, ecology, feminism, and extraterrestrial soft science fiction dominate the science fiction written during this decade.
The surge in black science fiction, reflected in Walter Mosley's "Black to the Future" and Sheree R. Thomas's anthology Dark Matter (2000), was the most important development in science fiction at the beginning of the new millennium. Mosley's Futureland and work by Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due, and Stephen Barnes build upon the tradition of black science fiction literature Delany and Octavia Butler pioneered. Darko Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (1979) is the most significant critical work about science fiction published since the 1970s. Suvin famously defines science fiction as
a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment. (pp. 7–8)
In concert with Suvin, Robert Scholes defines fabulation as "fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way." Marleen S. Barr, in Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction (1992) defines feminist fabulation as feminist fiction that offers a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the patriarchal world we know, yet returns to confront that known patriarchal world in some feminist cognitive way. There is an intergenerational science fiction critical lineage between Suvin's and Scholes's corollary definitions and Barr's "feminist fabulation" that brings their influential definitions to bear upon feminism and postmodernism.
In the manner of their marked influence upon imaginative science fiction, feminism and postmodern are integral to science fiction criticism. Brian McHale in Postmodernist Fiction (1987) states that science fiction "is to postmodernism what detective fiction was to modernism: it is the ontological genre par excellence (as the detective story is the epistemological genre par excellence), and so serves as a source of materials and models for postmodernist writers." While McHale reads postmodernism in terms of science fiction, Larry McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction (1991) reads science fiction in terms of postmodernism. Scott Bukatman's Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993), a compendious study of contemporary science fiction, positions techno-culture as the focus of the discussion about the relationship between postmodernism and science fiction. Donna J. Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" (1985) links postmodernism and technoculture to the feminist analysis of science fiction.
Barr's Future Females: A Critical Anthology (1981) was the first essay collection devoted to feminism and science fiction. Sarah Lefanu's In The Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (1988), which followed Barr's Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory (1987), asserts that
the plasticity of science fiction and its openness to other literary genres allow an apparent contradiction … it makes possible, and encourages (despite its colonization by male writers), the inscription of women as subjects free from the constraints of mundane fiction; and it also offers the possibilities of interrogating that very inscription, questioning the basis of gendered subjectivity.
The 1990s saw the appearance of Jenny Wolmark's Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism (1994), which analyzes the "shared theoretical moments" between feminism and postmodernism; Russ's To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (1995), which collects her most important essays; and Jane Donawerth's Frankenstein's Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (1997), which places Frankenstein as integral to science fiction written by women. In 2000, Barr, in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, collected the work of young feminist science fiction theorists who analyze science fiction's relevance to disenfranchising patriarchal master narratives and social institutions. Brian Attebery's Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (2002) carries the torch of feminist science fiction criticism into the new century. Race and queer theory are discussed in Elizabeth Anne Leonard's edited collection Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic (1997), Daniel Leonard Bernardi's Star Trek and History: Race-ing toward a White Future (1998), and Samuel Delany's Shorter Views: Queer Thought and the Politics of the Paraliterary (2000).
Two aforementioned scholars, Freedman and Hayles, respectively explain that science fiction is crucial to the entire enterprise of producing critical theory and that at the start of the twenty-first century human beings hold being posthuman in common with science fiction protagonists. As both the scholarly works about science fiction and science fiction literature itself indicate, the boundaries between literature and life drawn in terms of fixed definitions of what constitutes the real and the science fictional are becoming increasingly blurred. We might, sooner than we expect, find ourselves on the cusp of telling Scotty to beam us up.
Marleen S. Barr
- History of Science - General Works, Preclassical Antiquity, Middle Ages, Scientific Revolution, Biological Sciences, Feminist History Of Science
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