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.

On the face of it, the claim seems thoroughly unjustified. Star Wars, as has been said, is certainly Science Fiction: but it has no interest in defining mankind, indeed it appears in the most wooden-headed way to assume that people have always been everywhere, always dominant, and always much the same. Yet if not universal, defining humanity is surprisingly common as a theme. It is a critical moment in Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) when Prendick wades out to throw himself to the sharks, and is called back only by Montgomery’s stumbling explanation that the listening Beast Folk ‘non sunt homines, sunt animalia qui nos habemus ... vivisected’. Prendick, who has feared that he will be turned into a Beast Man, is reassured. At least he is safe from Moreau. But the personal reassurance holds a deeper ideological threat. If Moreau can turn, not men into beasts but beasts into men, then men – all men, and all women too – must be no more than evolved or fortunate beasts. Wells’s redefinition of mankind in Moreau is certainly one meant to ‘stand’ in the light of the post-Darwinian state of knowledge. But it also interestingly turns on the rejection, indeed reversal, of familiar literary images – Caliban, Comus, Circe. In the same way, when Prendick returns to London and finds himself assailed by visions of the Beast Folk, with women ‘mewing’ after him in the streets and scholars in libraries ‘but patient creatures waiting for prey’, one cannot but remember Gulliver and his Yahoo-fears. The difference, as Aldiss notes, is that Gulliver was mad. Prendick, by contrast, appears to have penetrated ominously through to sanity. There is no doubt, in short, that Moreau fits every word of Aldiss’s definition. At the same time, however, it shows up the difference between itself and its many rejected ancestors, ancestors though they may have been. No one would claim that Science Fiction sprang from nothing. In literary terms, though (and despite the fact that this does not fit Frankenstein so well), it does seem to be a parricidal form, free of ‘the anxiety of influence’, to an almost irresponsible degree.

Aldiss gives a good deal of evidence both ways, for and against ‘Disintegrators’, in Part One of this book, the nine chapters collectively titled ‘Out of the Gothic’. It is fascinating to see Powers rise out of Shelley, Vonnegut’s ‘ice-nine’ prefigured ninety years earlier in Verne. The images persist. The conclusions swing like weather-vanes. But the force that drives them, one could well argue, comes from the changes in attitudes to humanity. It is a coincidence, but not a very unlikely one, that the first issue of Astounding Science Fiction (July 1939) accepted by Aldiss as ‘Golden Age’ material should have contained the start of A.E. van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle. The presence of Darwinism can then be felt everywhere, from Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (very clearly a novel about conflict between species) to James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (surely the only novel ever to have been based on a thorough reading of George Gosse’s Omphalos, his totally discredited reconciliation of Darwin and the Book of Genesis). Yet the questions remain, are even stimulated by Aldiss’s account: is the Aldiss definition not aimed too sharply at ‘intellectual’ Science Fiction? Would it not also hold a good deal of non-Science Fiction?

Test-cases are easy to spot as one turns over Aldiss’s vastly inclusive pages. To begin with, there are quite a few works accepted and advertised as Science Fiction which do not seem to fit definition or common patterns at all: most familiarly, C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet Trilogy. This has space travel in two volumes out of three, once arranged scientifically, once angelically. It also has a very clear attack on Wells/Darwin (or at any rate on Wellsian Darwinists, as Lewis insisted) in the ‘translation’ scene on Mars, when a strongly evolutionist account of humanity has to be rendered, with disastrous effect, into the plainer language of Malacandra. This could simply be an aspect of the ‘parricidal’ character of good Science Fiction, except that underlying the whole trilogy is a view of the nature of man – even more, of woman – which has not changed since the days of St Augustine. Aldiss suggests that Lewis is trying ‘to answer the Wellsian position in vaguely Wellsian terms’, but this does not ring true. William Golding perhaps did that in Lord of the Flies (cp. Moreau), in The Inheritors (cp. ‘The Grisly Folk’), in ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ (cp. Wells’s Outline of History): but Lewis would deny every one of Wells’s fundamental propositions.

What one needs, perhaps, is two ‘outrider’ categories, to escort the main body of Science Fiction, as Aldiss defines it, on either flank. One is ‘anti-Science Fiction’, like Lewis’s trilogy: it has the trappings, but is antagonistic to the central enterprise of redefining ‘mankind and his status’. The other is ‘near-Science Fiction’, which shares the goal but is uneasy about the methods. Aldiss produces an impressive list of books which have approached the ‘Science Fiction condition’ in this way since 1945, including works by Amis, Burgess, Coetze, Durrell, Frayn, Golding, Hartley – and that is just flipping through the alphabet. What they have in common is unease, a refusal to content themselves with the themes of individuality and the social condition, a conviction that social conditions are epiphenomena. Aldiss cites David Lodge’s argument that Tony-Bungay is a better novel than it appears because it insists on spreading its focus from the Ponderevos and Bladesover House to ‘the Condition of England’ itself. In similar style, one could argue that much ‘near-Science Fiction’ gets misread because it too spreads its focus from society and nationality to older and larger questions: ‘What is this world’? (as Chaucer’s Arcite inquired), ‘What is mankinde?’ (so Palamon).

Finally there is the question of Science Fiction as ‘cultural wallpaper’. Aldiss has enormously strengthened the second half of his book, on the modern period, from the highly compressed two chapters it occupied 13 years ago. But often the data he provides are appalling. Some authors – the ‘Dinosaurs’, Aldiss calls them – have written continuously from the time of Astounding’s ‘Golden Age’ to now, or almost now – for instance, Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt, the late L. Ron Hubbard. The gap between old celebrity and present ability is barely credible. Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge of 1982 sold a million copies in one year: the kindest thing one can say about it is that its author (who has written over three hundred books in under fifty years) could not be relied on much for a definition of humanity, since he has had so little time to meet any of the species. Robert Heinlein’s totally self-indulgent The cat who walks through walls (to be acquitted of malignant sexism only on the ground that it is also so innocently pubescent) has made its author two million dollars so far. The first volume of the new decalogy by ‘Scientology’ Hubbard has sold a million and a half copies already (and he wrote the other nine volumes before he died, so they are still in store). What does this say about the market? Have we reached the ‘day of the dumpbin’, the marketing of words like the marketing of dogfood (the words, like the dogfood, largely offal)? So it seems. But this makes nonsense of ‘intellectualist’ claims.

One explanation might be that Science Fiction, having been born through parricide, or at least in a profound state of sibling jealousy, has now reached a period of holy reverence for father figures. Another equally likely explanation is that the images of Science Fiction have proved more compelling than their narrative or argumentative syntax: the robbers are now the robbed, the borrowers borrowed from. Aldiss notes anguished but unprovable cries of plagiarism round the making of Star Wars; Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard et al now self-plagiarise heavily. Meanwhile if one considers audiences rather than authors, it is surely all too true that many teenagers, bemused by cartoons, documentaries, NASA projections and ‘factoid’ reporting, are no longer very sure what is Science Fiction, and cannot reliably tell Lucas’s Star Wars from Reagan’s version. Such readers are not looking for definitions so much as opinions; it is hard for them to sort out any of their own. So Science Fiction expands to fill a vacuum – attenuating as it goes.

Yet matters are not universally so gloomy. One bright spot is the attempt by many authors to rewrite Aldiss’s ‘mankind and his status’ in terms of ‘womankind and her status’, or (Marge Piercy, Fred Pohl) ‘perkind and uz status’. Aldiss soft-pedals feminist Science Fiction, quite rightly, because the best of it – as in the stories of James Tiptree, alias Alice Sheldon, author of ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ – has got past social concerns and the bewailing of present conditions to redefinitions (again), and a search for future propositions that will ‘stand’. This has nothing in common with ‘dumpbin’ Science Fiction except ancestry. Other authors are also turning healthily on their ancestors: William Gibson, for example, head of the ‘Cyberpunks’, whose story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ savages every ‘Golden Age’ cliché it can find right down to the classic line: ‘John, we’ve forgotten our food pills.’ Try that in the high-fibre age! The list of mid-Eighties new authors is incomparably stronger than that of the mid-Seventies: Benford, Gibson, Crowley, Powers, Shea, Brin, Wolfe, Morrow, Elgin, as opposed to what then seemed to be a Le Guin solo. The reason is unknown. Nevertheless, Science Fiction does seem to be back on course – exploratory, confused, scientific, even post-Gothic (so far with Aldiss), but also disrespectful, parricidal, un-awed by its brushes against literary celebrity.

To all this, Aldiss’s book is from start to finish an excellent guide. It is wholly reliable on points of fact, continually and provocatively engaging on matters of opinion. The scale of the enterprise is awe-inspiring (over two thousand books and authors mentioned). And – a rare accolade for a survey – it does look as if the authors have read every single word of them, with no trace of paraphrase or evasion in over five hundred pages: it could only have been done as a labour of love.

Now that the field has been surveyed, it is interesting to see how the Science Fiction currently available matches the theory. Greg Bear’s Eon has everything: a hollow asteroid, visitors from the future, from an alternate future, a giant scientific puzzle, stargates and aliens. Aldiss (who must have seen an advance copy) picks out from all this the book’s ‘genuine concern’, and it is true that Eon contains one of the now too haunting major images of the genre: people in space looking down on the cloudy globe of Earth as the flashes proliferate and the Nuclear Winter sets in to end all life. Along with that go a cluster of provocatively understated ideas: the failure of Soviet Russia to compete in computers, the technophobe future, the polarising of humanity into homorphs and neomorphs, the use of clones to achieve a kind of immortality. Deep inside the book, though, one may note the notion of a psychic ‘superpattern’ which no future science can duplicate, not a ‘soul’ but a ‘Mystery’. Even in this paean to technology the Moreau dynamic, of partial success and ultimate failure, is still working, possibly without the author’s volition.

By contrast with this classic central statement, two recent releases from Douglas Adams and the late Philip K. Dick take station as ‘outriders’. Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has the four familiar books in one volume. It looks, to be blunt, like a highly entertaining case of ‘cultural wallpaper’. One might, for instance, note the way in which Mary Shelley’s ‘stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world’ has dwindled down to Slartibartfart, the jobbing planet-contractor with a weakness for fjords – he won an award for Norway. But the basic joke of Hitchhiker’s Guide is wildly unfamiliar territory, totally ordinary motivations. The Vogon spaceships that come to destroy the Earth are building a bypass (plans filed at Alpha Centauri); if you can’t pay for your Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters you pretend to work for the equivalent of Egon Ronay. Adams keeps it up incredibly well – till very near the end. But speaking ideologically, it reminds one quite strongly of Winnie the Pooh. Marvin the Paranoid Android is just Eeyore redivivus; Arthur Dent has more than a touch of Piglet.

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is a remarkable example of ‘near-Science Fiction’. It acts as a kind of sequel to The Grapes of Wrath. What did the Okies do when they got to California? They ran beat-up garages and used-car lots, there to sour and parody the American dream. In Dick’s stunning evocation of this seedy world – forgotten now behind the Silicon Valleys – Science Fiction just occasionally shows its head. The man selling lots on the new development is reading it – ‘this stuff’, as he calls it. He needs to. It’s a better guide to the future than looking out of his dreary window. Meanwhile, the man behind all the developing is a Science Fiction superstition, ‘the man who can spot the trend’, as it were a luck-diviner (they bred for them in Larry Niven’s Ringworld sequence). In this world of change and confusion Dick touchingly identifies with the people who can’t follow, who are always behind the market – the majority. They are, he says, humpty-dumpties; they ‘just perch and watch’. This is a true and painful definition of mankind’s status.

Finally, and back within Science Fiction proper, the female writers of the Women’s Press (which has now brought out a dozen volumes by nearly as many authors) show an interesting oscillation between ancestor-rejection and underlying re-creation. Jane Palmer’s The Watcher is billed as ‘another joyous send up of the sf genre’, which seems to be borne out by the way it keeps cutting from winged hermaphrodite energy-drinkers on the far side of the galaxy to the utterly mundane concerns of the heroine on Earth. The link between the two worlds is an emissary, an android disguised as a detective, whose duty may be to eliminate any danger to his masters. In true Frankensteinian style this emissary is contaminated by humanity, sinks into the everyday, and becomes ‘the first android to acquire a spirit’. The Watcher may be another cosy denial of/withdrawal from the alien and incomprehensible. But this is very much not the tone of the series, which stresses female ability to cope with the weirdest of upheavals – as in Jody’s Scott’s I, Vampire, which takes another classic image of the rejected daughter, and traces her through vampirism, successful Cosmopolitan-style female executivehood, and a business as a Famous Donor Sperm collector, to galactic war and resurrection by an avatar of Virginia Woolf.

Sometimes, one has to say, Science Fiction just seems too crowded. Too many people have had too many ideas, and now they come too cheap. Just the same, two things in which the genre has become pre-eminent have been the creation of archetypes (Moreau, Frankenstein, Dracula, Tarzan, the Mule, the mutant, the wolfchild) and the invention of images. In this at least there is direct continuity from the Gothic: from giant hands to deadly crystals, invisible men, hollow worlds, hyperspace. These have never existed, are ideas totally without referents: yet they mean something, now, to everyone. It has been a massively successful collective exercise in fictionalising. Could it ever be fitted into any satisfying overall generic scheme?