Science & Fiction

On March 29, 2011 by admin

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

What is science fiction and what can the genre give us that other genres cannot? This, of course, is to assume that science fiction is a ‘genre’ – something that has been identified, labelled and samples put in a glass jar alongside many other jars in the laboratory of literature. This however is far from the case. There are many definitions of science fiction, but there is none universally agreed upon[i]. The cynics usually refer to it as a marketing label, while enthusiasts call it by many names depending on which species of science fiction they find most sweet. Considering moreover that the term ‘science fiction’ is not in common usage until the 1930s, although coined as far back as 1851 by William Wilson, might make us a bit suspicious of the pretensions of a genre to emerge suddenly and find its niche in the genre tree. There are no “emergences” in literature – movement of language is a productive process and mutation is law. Genres can at best be perceived as mutable mobiles – they have antecedents, precursors, share family resemblances and are perpetually in transformation; even the most exemplary genre object texts are small pins on the charts and tables of literary influence. Note for instance Hugo Gernsback’s definition of ‘scientifiction’ in the magazine Amazing Stories in 1926, which is often understood to have launched the genre: “By scientifiction I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” (Gernsback 1926: 3) Like the narrator in Borges’ Pierre Menard, it is necessary for the reader of the new genre to know who begat who. What makes the retrospective labelling tick is not merely the pedigree, however important that might be in considerations of canonicity, but that it allows the identification of a preformation within which even the most qualitatively new becomes less bizarre. Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of “cognitive estrangement” relies equally on the balance between the estranged and the quotidian – for the radically new cannot be understood except by means of a reference to the old.

While one may indeed be sympathetic to such claims, and also the attempts to give science fiction a long history going back to Ramayana and Lucian’s True History[ii], it is the specific character of the literature labelled as science fiction that is of interest to us. We might take 1851 as a watershed moment – a label first and then the genre that may be understood to fit that label. Such a model solves certain problems, such as that of chronology: anything prior may be classified as part of the same family but belonging to a different genre. It does not however resolve completely however the problem of definition. For instance, can we call Ibsen’s Ghosts or Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart novels as science fiction, simply because they deal with the now disregarded, but in the late nineteenth century regarded as ‘scientific’, theory of degeneration? There is science and there is a whole lot of fiction. But are they science fiction? Conversely, do we include theories now regarded as unscientific as science fiction?

There are in fact two nested problems in the question of definition. The first is the proliferation of subtypes in science fiction, which makes it possible to label some texts as science fiction from certain perspectives and some other texts from other perspectives; a problem of inclusion and exclusion. The other problem lies in the nature of the alignment between science and fiction, insofar as the definition of science itself is unclear, which makes it impossible to label what is and what is not science fiction[iii]. By resolving (if possible) these two problems we can find the answer to our framing questions. Instead of providing an answer however, this short piece is a less ambitious attempt to identify a possible way of answering these questions. The first I believe can be addressed by means of a classificatory principle, namely that of ‘speculation’, and the second by a methodological principle that clarifies the nature of the science of science fiction.

To begin with the second, constructivism or the sociological approaches to scientific knowledge provide an entry point because these focus on the manipulation of the categories of subjective and objective in the framing of scientific activity. Constructivist approaches, such of Thomas Kuhn, David Bloor and Barry Barnes, highlight the ‘theory ladenness of observation’, that is, what is observed in scientific activity is overdetermined by the theoretical perspective that one utilizes to explain the observation. The Nobel laureate physicist Leon Lederman’s invisible ball metaphor[iv] for scientific activity illustrates this – it is not that the explanation for the invisible ball is not a plausible one or has no connection with the observation, or that the observation itself is dubitable, though any of these is possible depending on the context, but that the explanation is a contingent one. As Bloor explains, reality as perceived through the senses is not denied by the sociologist; however, reality is under-determined by such perception: “because the area of reality being inspected under-determines the scientists understanding, an analysis of their knowledge must further assume the role of organising principles and orientations derived from elsewhere…scientists need their sensory experience of the world, and their natural inductive and deductive tendencies, but these always work through and with their culture, and that is the professional concern of the sociologist” (Bloor 1996: 841). Moreover, there is a continual attempt to establish a static picture of science in which experience and theory form a closed circle of knowledge, with one reflected in the other. Bloor argues that while empirical data does furnish experience and that the reliability of sense data is a precondition for sociological analysis, this experience alone is not knowledge. What gives experience its meaning is a theory, the “organising principles and orientations derived from elsewhere”, which is a social production, and not given along with the experience.

Science in this model is governed by a paradigm, a way of perception that guides research activity. A paradigm is a theoretical model that is adopted by a community of practitioners across multiple fields of research, and which connects all of these. “Normal science” consists of research activity within a paradigm and aimed at adapting, modifying, or testing the limits of the paradigm; it seeks to fit observations within the “conceptual box” of a paradigm. It is not that scientific observation is not dependent on facts; the point is that ‘true’ and ‘false’ beliefs are equally possible in any context and derive from the same source. As Bloor writes, “the acceptance of a theory make[s] it the knowledge of a group, [and] it makes it the basis for their understanding and adaptation to the world” (Bloor 1991: 43), but it does not justify the theory itself as true. The ad-hoc nature of scientific knowledge is a permanent aspect of scientific activity[v].

Thus the difference between what is considered “scientific” activity and other forms of cultural activity is not that the former is aimed at the truth and other kinds of activity are not – it is rather a division of experience across different orders of truth. Wittgenstein had similarly proposed that what differentiated myth from science was the way in which linkages between word and truth are composed. In myth, the linkage assumes the artistic form of simile or allegory; myth does not state facts in a different way, but does not state facts at all from the scientific way of looking. I would like to extend Wittgenstein’s notion of intermediate cause and argue that science is not merely the study of the causes of the things that have come to be but also that it is a way to use causality in speculation. Like myth, and other forms of cultural production, science is a speculative mode of story-telling based on causal manipulation of experience as much as it is about facts. This causal manipulation, also sometimes called extrapolation is always in the future – even where time travel takes us to the ancient prehistoric times, what constitutes the past can either be from what we know in the present (hence not speculation at the time the story is written – making only the means of travel into the past, to be discovered as future technology, science fiction) or it might posit a past we know nothing about (in which case it is the future itself that will reveal this unknown past to us). While experience has an independent existence outside knowledge systems, the survival of experience as knowledge and its communicable form is dependent on the knowledge system. The survival of scientific knowledge is determined not merely by one narrative of experience (the purely sensory) but linguistic and metaphysical narratives among others, which are designated scientific within the particular knowledge system called science. These are the four criteria of science that concern us for science fiction[vi]:

  1. the knowability, or the condition of being known, of the physical world (sensory experience)
  2. functional similarity and replicable result that enables technological futurism (causal extrapolation where the present state of technology and the future state of technology are connected)
  3. conditions of possibility that underlie epistemological futurism (causal extrapolation where present state of knowledge and the future state of knowledge are connected)
  4. the presence of abstracted conditions, or the conditions of scientificity (speculative element that determines what is considered science in any given period)

 What the science in science fiction does therefore is not so much alter our understanding of science (therefore it is not “speculative science”), as throw into relief the speculative nature of scientific activity itself. Science fiction does not participate in science, but it does have a lot to tell us about science as an activity – the predictions of science fiction that become true are by-products of this process of narrativising the speculative element in scientific activity.

To turn now to the fiction of science fiction, the above discussion tried to show that the scientific element is less important in science fiction than the speculative element. The task would be to determine and classify the speculative element. This would automatically exclude all those texts in which science forms an integral part but the scientific elements or the scientific theory utilized is taken as factual at the time the text is produced. This criterion would allow us to separate for instance Ibsen’s Ghosts from Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column and Wells’ War of the Worlds from Conrad’s  Heart of Darkness. Conversely, something that is speculative in its own period but subsequently ceases to be so will also be considered science fiction due to its contemporary nature. Everett Bleiler’s massive compendium is perhaps a good starting point, as it lists over 3000 works of science fiction from the earliest times to the present, and he divides his stories into 9 distinct categories, each with several further divisions and subdivision, each of which can stand as a distinct species of science fiction. Critics such as James Gunn have noted the hybrid nature of science fiction: the fact that science fiction may not be understood as one genre but as a hybrid – for instance there can be SF-Western, SF-Crime Thriller, SF-Detective Story and so on. This argument can be used to suggest that science fiction might not perhaps be a genre like other genres – it is a classification of a higher order that encompasses many genres. This argument however is not very useful because the same argument can be used in reverse for these other genres. It is not even necessary to classify SF with reference to other genres – it serves little purpose when genres themselves are constantly under definition and redefinition, and the genre elements under constant distribution and redistribution in the different species. Bleiler’s compendium is a useful toolkit because of its volume and detailed synopses that allow us to isolate speculative elements, but the problem of variety and subtype is highly complex and Bleiler’s charts, despite their rigor, do not cover and are not meant to cover all of science fiction, being merely a study of early science fiction.  If we do indeed reject the sui generis model for literary genres and instead speak about a process by which certain kinds of expressions begin to represent genres, then the issue of transformation becomes as important as the question of difference that allows these representations. We have to understand the relationship between transformations without (transformations as the marks of social change that act upon genres as well as the alteration of ‘forms’ of expressions for the presentation of content) and transformations within (in content itself as it comes to be represented in genres). In other words, we have to locate the nature and situate the basis of speculation itself to speak of science fiction, the genre of transformation par excellence that cannot exist without transforming the nature of our relationship to our own future, and by extension, our perception of the order of things in the material world. As the world transforms, and new sciences come into being, the genre will continue to grow and transform.

Thus, firstly by means of chronology and the creation of a timeline with prospective rather than retrospective labelling, secondly, by a close analysis of the speculative nature of activity termed scientific in any given period, and thirdly by a careful analysis of the speculative elements to separate one kind of narrative utlizing scientific activity or theory from another (even though they might employ the same theory), perhaps we may hope to arrive at a preliminary definition of this genre.

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay is Kultrans Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages, University of Oslo.


[i] Consider the numerous definitions, some mutually contradictory, given in the 16 page chapter in The Science Fiction Reference Book, edited by Marshall B. Tymn.

[ii] As argued for instance by Adam Roberts in his history of the genre.

[iii] The problem of science of science fiction has hardly received critical attention, despite several volumes with arresting titles and chapter names called “the science of science fiction” or “the science in science fiction”. Martin Willis is one of the few exceptions, and has provided in his recent book Mesmerists, Monsters and Machines: Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in The Nineteenth Century (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2006) an invaluable critique of the science of science fiction, although limited by his particular choice of historical period.

[iv] Lederman, writing about the quest for the ultimate indivisible particle, or “God particle” higgs-boson, gives the interesting analogy of an alien who can see all colours except white and black watching a football match on earth. The alien is unable to see the football; however, by looking at the apparently random motions of the footballers, the curve on the net when fans shout goal, among other things, the alien is able to hypothesise about the presence of an invisible ball.

[v] More recent work, such as Bruno Latour’s actor network theory further problematise the relationship between science, human agents and technological apparatus used for scientific activity. For Latour, there is no fact outside the artefact – humans and technology exist in ever extending and intertwined networks and what is considered as scientific knowledge depends on the resources that can be channelized in order to transform local experience and knowledge into universal knowledge.

[vi] While some of the arguments presented here talk about science and scientific activity in general, I wish to distance myself from these perspectives and talk only of science to the extent we are dealing with science fiction. Science is a term used for many different kinds of activity, but not all these are relevant for the limited analysis I am attempting here.

Select References:

Bloor, David. Knowledge and Social Imagery. Second Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991

—. “Idealism and the Sociology of Knowledge.” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 26, No. 4, (Nov., 1996), pp. 839-856.

Gernsback, Hugo. “A New Sort of Magazine”. Amazing Stories: The Magazine of Scientifiction, vol. 1, No. 1 (Apr., 1926), p. 3

Gunn, James. The Science of Science-Fiction Writing. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Kuhn, Thomas S. —. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Third Ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Lederman, Leon and Dick Teresi. The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the  Question? New York: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.

Suvin, Darko. “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre.” College English, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Dec., 1972), pp. 372-382.

Tymn, Marshall B. (ed.) The Science Fiction Reference Book. Washington: Starmont House, 1981.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “I: A Lecture on Ethics I: A Lecture on Ethics.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jan., 1965), pp. 3-12.

Bleiler, Everett F. Science Fiction: The Early Years. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1990.

Roberts, Adam. The History of Science Fiction. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

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