“Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature continues.

Review: “Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress“, Brian Stableford, 1977.Opening Minds

Combining his training as a sociologist and literary criticism of science fiction, Stableford does a concise summary of the myth of human progress and how science fiction has used it.

Starting in the 18th century, the notion of progress in human affairs, “softened” manners, enlightened minds, and nations being connected by commerce, a move toward “still higher perfection” as French philosopher Turgot put it, started to appear.

It was an improvement sought in knowledge and technology.

However, soon the grandiose idea of “human perfectibility” was espoused by the French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also saw progress in human affairs though not pushed by knowledge but its manifestations in production technologies.

There were two basic camps of thought on where true progress must and would come from: the outcome of scientific knowledge and technology or spiritual and moral evolution.

It’s hard to argue with Stableford’s statement that “Science fiction is the principal literary byproduct of the myth of progress.” I would add that besides science fiction’s literary inheritance from utopian and satirical literature, it is this concern with progress as well as novelty that makes science fiction, by default, a liberal and progressive genre in its assumptions and aims and, its occasional political proselytizing. (I would that it were different.)

Hugo Gernsback, founder of the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, said the stories he published would blaze “a trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well.”

There were, of course, people who skeptical that material progress would lead to a better human condition. William Morris’ News from Nowhere argued that technological progress must be stopped in the name of social and moral improvement. Numerous works argued that man’s increasing reliance on technology would produce civilizational decadence and, in the case of E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops“, end human life itself. Other authors thought that technology could be relied upon to produce useful tools for political power and repression with George Orwell’s 1984 being the most famous example.

The age of atomic weapons didn’t end notions of progress or science fiction’s love of talking about it. It did change how it talked about it though.

Stableford thinks those changes were a reduced emphasis on technology as the power to control environment and a concern with changing human nature.

Stableford argues that there was an increased emphasis on the process of generating scientific knowledge and its use, and this resulted in stories that said technology, particularly space travel, was the solution to tyranny aided by technology.

I don’t see this as a post-World War Two phenomena. Space travel stories, including stories of colonization, existed before the end of the war. What changed was that the twin technologies of atomic power and rocket flight, both proved in war, gave plausibility to the idea of simply leaving Earth and its ills behind as the next stage of human progress.

However, considering all the atomic mutant stories and tales of psi-power post-World War Two as a return to William Morris’ call to improve human strikes me as valid. These would be novels like Wilmar H. Shiras’ Children of the Atom, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

I would add that the 1940s saw stories envisioning some new social science leading the way forward for man. There was A. E. van Vogt’s Null-A books which used General Semantics, psychohistory in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories, and an obscure, but still memorable for me, story called “Pax Galactica” by Ralph Williams which imagined a science of such inductive power that merely observing where a firing hole was on an alien invader’s spaceship leads to military victory by exploiting the aliens’ weakness.

From the perspective of 1977, Stableford thinks that science fiction writers now agree that moral and spiritual progress is more important than technological progress. I think that transhuman stories and stories of the singularity again assume the importance of technology in human progress and also adopt a certain fatalism regarding the inevitability of such progress. No use arguing the merits. It’s going to happen.

Stableford ends by looking at science fiction works that rebel against the linear notion of human progress. He mentions James Blish’s Cities in Flight and Charles L. Harness’ The Paradox Men. Both are influenced by cyclical theories of human history, Oswald Spengler’s and Arnold Toynbee’s respectively. To the list, could be added Walter J. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz which rejects the notion of progress which in the West goes back to St. Augustine.

Stableford concludes with yet another mention of a relatively forgotten writer he finds interesting for his ideas if not their execution: Mack Reynolds. He sees him, in 1977, as being one of the very few science fiction writers who does deal with social progress and historical trends.

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