Out of the Gothic

Tom Shippey

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
    Gollancz, 511 pp, £15.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 575 03942 6
  • Eon by Greg Bear
    Gollancz, 504 pp, £10.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 575 03861 6
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts by Douglas Adams
    Heinemann, 590 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 434 00920 2
  • Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K. Dick
    Gollancz, 199 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 575 03875 6
  • The Watcher by Jane Palmer
    Women’s Press, 177 pp, £2.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 7043 4038 0
  • I, Vampire by Jody Scott
    Women’s Press, 206 pp, £2.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 7043 4036 4

Brian Aldiss gives his definition of Science Fiction on page one of Chapter One of a five-hundred-page volume. This is admirably bold of him – more timorous scholars tuck their definitions away inconspicuously, or else develop complex excuses for not giving any – as well as being admirably genial. After all, says Aldiss, the definition may be wrong, but it doesn’t matter: ‘we can modify it as we go along.’ The definition is as follows: ‘Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.’ There is no doubt that this is in the right area. Compare, for instance, Darko Suvin’s now famous definition of 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’, and note the buried parallels of ‘science’ and ‘cognition’, of ‘imaginative framework’ and ‘Gothic mode’. Still, almost any definition of Science Fiction would be in the right area – unless written by a Martian. How precisely correct is Aldiss’s? Specifically, does the genre not strain the notion of ‘Gothic’ too far? And as for the notion of a genre centred on ‘a definition of mankind’, does that not look – remembering Star Wars and Mr Spock – by some way too ambitious? Is Aldiss not, as he was in this book’s 1973 precursor, Billion Year Spree, a trifle over-persuaded by Mary Shelley?

There is of course much to be said for seeing Frankenstein as simultaneously a Gothic novel and a work of Science Fiction, and Aldiss says it well. Mary Shelley had the right scientific background; the ‘Preface’ to Frankenstein, written by her husband, put forward the direct claim that the creation of life was ‘not of impossible occurrence’, citing Erasmus Darwin in support; Mary Shelley’s images have often been picked up by later writers of unquestioned Science Fiction, as if by some mysterious affinity. Even her short story, ‘The Transformation’, which Aldiss mentions, seems to have come to life again in Tim Powers’s award-winning The Anubis Gates of 1985, a book which turns on the concept of exchanging souls, and ends with an amazing scene of Samuel Coleridge strolling stupefied through a London underworld peopled by genetic monstrosities, and releasing them all from their cages under the impression that he is exploring his own unconscious in sleep and that ‘Horrabin’s Horrors’ are all dream visions, allegories not of vice but of his own shackled virtues. But against these similarities of background and tone there stands one argument from content. Victor Frankenstein, having created life, regrets what he has done, from motives which seem irretrievably pious: ‘for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to match the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world’ (Mary Shelley, 1831). A real Science Fiction writer might have let Frankenstein fail, but he would not have written his enterprise off so quickly. Wells’s Moreau creates intelligence, and dies for it, but never shows a flicker of remorse.

Underlying this doubt is not a sterile issue of credit and priorities, but a question – an open question – as to whether Science Fiction can be defined ideologically. Many writers feel it can, and that that is why Science Fiction is a distinctively modern genre, but Aldiss thinks not. He is also against what he calls ‘Disintegrators’: people who believe that Science Fiction has no history at all before this century. His general approach is to open frontiers and admit doubtful cases. On the other hand, he is quite clear that Science Fiction is always about ‘NOW’, no matter how Gothically Medieval its trappings; and he does see the genre as preoccupied with a definition of mankind which will stand – a bold claim which may take one a good way forward.

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