The Philosophy of Modern Science Fiction

The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

Essay: The Philosophy of Modern Science Fiction51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

So what’s special about 1930? Why does Gunn say that was the approximate year that a new type of science fiction was ushered in? And what defines that new type?

1930 was the year Astounding Stories was created.

That was the year when it became clear, albeit slowly, to science fiction sf writers that “industrial, scientific civilization was here to stay and that man must learn to live with it”. “Authors in the main literary stream” may have been still

 . . . yearning and sighing for a return to the safety of the ordered, static civilization where values were firm and fixed and there was no necessity for soul-searching or mental struggle.

Science fiction authors were starting to look for “new viewpoints” and “new answers to new problems”.

Science was to be the answer to man’s problems.

But Gunn views the first examples of this as “near-idolatry” with science just being something mystically or superstitiously evoked. Unthwarted science would produce a desirable future with technological miracles. This sort of thing, Gunn says, peaked with E. E. “Doc” Smith’s space operas and similar work by John W. Campbell, Jr.. Gunn sees the scientist as miracle worker as a “complete reaction” to the villainous mad scientist. Both were simplistic. Sf couldn’t be philosophically significant until it looked at “the doctrine of human and individual responsibility”. That would be more than just a single scientist in a lab.

The modern, the realistic view of science is not as pure evil or pure good. Modern sf views “science as a means instead of science as a goal” and serves, however incompletely, as the “conscience of science”.

Drawing on a John W. Campbell, Jr.’s editorial linking the scientific method to the generation of a good sf story, Gunn says “pragmatism is the basic philosophy” of both science and sf. Both aren’t concerned with truth but utility and the usefulness of advancing towards a goal. Gunn even goes so far as claiming that the best science fiction stories are almost always constructed along the line of the scientific method: gather relevant data, form a hypothesis, make a prediction, run an experiment to check hypothesis, form a new theory for new data, go back to another hypothesis, repeat. (It’s rather more complicated than the usual explanations of scientific method.)

What Gunn means by using the scientific method in story construction is when a protagonist runs into something new, forms a hypothesis about what’s going on, checks it, and then forms a new hypothesis.

Gunn casts the modern genre writer in heroic terms:

Science fiction authors are often trying, manfully and seriously, to probe the depths of our civilization, fishing for the bases of life today and tomorrow, undeterred by traditional concepts of ethics, morality, or philosophy.

Gunn was writing mid-century, probably the strongest time, given its history about speculating about rockets and space travel and atom bombs, to make the claim that sf was a serious tool of prophecy, to “boast” that the genre

 teaches while it entertains, giving its readers not only a foretaste of the future but the knowledge necessary to understand it.

And Gunn talks about several specific stories in this regard.

On the cusp of what editor H. L. Gold was to initiate with sociologically minded science fiction, Gunn talks about philosophical ponderings with “less certain” practical value. He quotes his future friend Jack Williamson’s idea that government and social institutions are “functions of technological progress”. He also mentions Peter Phillips’ “Dreams Are Sacred” (probably the first story to rationalize the idea of entering another person’s mind to effect a therapy and included in The Road to Science Fiction #5: The British Way) as an example of “psychological possibilities” in science fiction.

And, of course, science fiction as a way of dealing with politics is addressed with Robert Heinlein being the predictable exemplar.

One of “the fundamental philosophic positions of modern science fiction”, according to Gunn, is “change or death are the two choices of life”. He even calls this “neo-Darwinism”. (I’m not sure what he means here. I’ve heard the term referring to the synthesis of Darwin’s theory of evolution with the mechanism of Mendelian inheritance.)

The necessity and inevitability of change is what leads Gunn to not consider past utopias as sf. They postulate changeless societies if their plans are successful. Likewise, the middle romantic phase of pre-modern science fiction predicted “eternal progress”. This “naïve viewpoint” became a belief in the “necessity of change”, a faith in “the infinite capabilities of man” – though not necessarily realized capabilities. Life is struggle for betterment. Gunn even calls science fiction “optimistic Existentialism”.

The true greatness modern science fiction calls humanity to is in three areas: conquering the physical universe, conquering himself, and conquest of the non-material universe.

This superior human, physically and mentally and morally superior to us, is what science fiction’s philosophy calls for. (Gunn has been very consistent in this opinion. Sixty years later, his Transcendental trilogy, deals with that ethic.)

Gunn talks about a number of stories, including recent atomic mutant ones, dealing with this theme of homo superior.

All throughout this thesis is the underlying assumption that science fiction has a real world benefit and purpose. It’s there to help us solve problems.

Gunn puts this explicitly:

Science fiction assumed the duty of expressing and attempting to resolve what no other type of literature is attempting – the problem of our era, the relationship between man and his scientific creations.

Realism is essential in this effort though Gunn acknowledges that “realism in character portrayal and dialogue came slowly” and “has not been completely reached except in a sprinkling of better authors”. Gunn says the sf writers should not provide wonders “but a picture of life as it may be today, tomorrow, or a million years in the future”.

However, Gunn excludes a couple of famous types of science fiction from “the purest type”: satirical and propaganda stories. To Gunn, they must manipulate their subjects too much to be truly realistic.

As you would expect, Gunn is pleased about mathematicians and scientists bringing an understanding of science to the cause of realistic sf.

And, plotwise, anything goes in realistic science fiction: “a tragic ending, an inconclusive ending, no ending”.

Gunn wraps up this section, part one of his thesis, with

Science fiction today is written for and by the impatient, Everywhere are new possibilities for conquest: physical, sociological, psychological, philosophical. No one need weep with Alexander; everywhere are new challenges to the human spirit. Tremendous tradition-shattering and soul-charging things may happen in the not too far distant future. But the ‘not too far distant future’ is too distant for science fiction writers and readers. They don’t want to wait – and won’t wait – fifty or even ten years for the first rocket to conquer space. They want to live the experience now …

Some Thoughts of My Own

Starting with at least this thesis, in 1951, Gunn has been consistent with the idea that science fiction has utility value for “saving the world” even though he acknowledges the hyperbole in that statement. Constantly, Gunn emphasizes the uses of science fiction in avoiding and solving problems of mankind.

Now, I have certainly read sf with that utility value. If I was making a list of things the perfect sf story should have, I’d include it. But it’s not essential to sf or even good sf. I’m more of the mind of Robert Silverberg saying, when frustrated by all the “save the world” sf anthologies of the late 1960s and 1970s, that it is an art object.

While Gunn certainly does not argue that sf should not entertain – and the range of what people find entertaining is quite wide – he doesn’t hold that, it seems, as the highest value when emphasizing utility. However, I would argue the old truism that nobody is going to read your solution to the world’s problem if it isn’t in a narrative that holds their interest and entertains. Entertainment, even escapism, is the bedrock of the genre keeping in mind that sf can hold peculiar forms of escapism as Margulies mentioned.

This is a thesis written in a peculiarly optimistic time in modern history. By optimistic, I don’t mean no dread of the future – just look at all the nuclear war stories. I mean optimistic about the power of sf to predict significant things, specifically that its predictive record about atomic weapons and energy and spaceflight would continue in other areas. But, I’d argue, those two technologies are special cases in several ways. Obviously both were considered by both sf writers and scientists and engineers before they exploded, quite literally, into public consciousness. Both are not incremental improvements over past technologies. They are entirely new technologies. That said, with Sputnik still in the future, real spaceflight had not yet been achieved at the time of Gunn’s thesis though it seemed a plausible next step.

But it’s hard to find any analogues of that relationship between other technology and sf. You can point to the internet and personal computers and drones and cloning and genetic engineering, but they either didn’t have a single dramatic debut like a V-2 rocket falling on London or a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima to batter their way into the public mind or were foreseen by very few sf works. And those technologies developed incrementally and have many varied uses.

I’d also argue that, lurking behind that mid-20th century optimism of Gunn’s, there’s a blank slate view of humanity being endlessly moldable by institutions and culture. A belief that a literary genre based on rationality can change the world seems limited by the deep biological drives and limitations of humans. “Traditional concepts” of ethics and morality may not be dispensed with so nonchalantly, the tradeoff of costs and benefits not be favorable. The possibilities of how to create a good life may not be that unlimited, in fact may be rather narrow. No one has yet figured out how to construct a functioning society in the real world by building on rational and empirical principles. Of course, the counterargument is that sf can imagine modifying the biological underpinnings of humanity.

It’s interesting to see Gunn’s later work in terms of this thesis. Crisis! is Gunn operating most explicitly in the vein of science, particularly technology, solving contemporary problems. Station in Space tackles the social costs and benefits of space exploration. The Immortals and The Joy Makers tackle philosophical questions about man’s nature by looking at spiritual crisis fostered by seemingly benign technologies while The Listeners is much more optimistic in the effects of its scientific speculation. Through much of his work the theme of life as a necessary struggle exists in keeping with his “optimistic Existentialism” statement.

Gunn was consistent in his opinion of satire weakening realistic sf. He regarded his Kampus as satire and not sf though it certainly contains speculative science and technology. However, I’m not sure what he thinks now about satire weakening realistic science fiction. Some of the most famous works of sf are satires. That includes not only 1984 and Brave New World but The Space Merchants. It seems to me that satire, like any sf, could find truth in its distortions of reality though there is certainly a valid point about realism and satire being inversely related.

I think he’s on firmer ground with sf as propaganda. (There is, of course, a merging of satire and propaganda in works, like Orwell’s, that are warnings against a course of action. In the classical definition of satire, there must be a call to reform. Changing the vector of social or political trends would count.) There are plenty of turgid utopias and dystopias out there that sway no opinions, only preach to the choir. Other polemic works have the same problem. Writing effective propaganda, the kind that changes the mind of the opposition, requires making the oppositions’ best arguments. That’s hard to do. Attempting it, though, brings the fiction closer to realism.

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