The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter V

My look at Stableford’s doctoral thesis continues. My review of this chapter, the book’s longest at 48 pages, is going to be shorter than normal. While thematic criticism is my favorite type of science fiction criticism, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this chapter because much of it is very much like the thematic entries in the first edition of The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were cut and pasted from Stableford’s entries for it or vice versa. However, I did not do my blogger due diligence and check my copy of that book. My boxes of books aren’t labelled that exactly and there are scores of them. And I’ve lifted a lot of them lately

I’ll also note that Stableford talks about now more obscure stories because over 40 years of sf history has been added since he wrote this book.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

Chapter V is titled “Themes and Trends in Science Fiction”. 

The first section is on “Machines” and opens with a quote from Miguel de Unamuno stating that Don Quixote was right to attack the windmill as a dangerous enemy. Stableford goes on to say,

Today the marriage of man and machine, after a long courtship, has been consummated. The honeymoon is over, and we begin to doubt whether we have done the right thing. Science fiction tells the story of our passage from infatuation to the brink of disillusionment with remarkable clarity. 

This section includes coverage of things that have been categorized into entries like “automation”, “computers”, “cyborgs”, and “robots” in the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia.  Stableford sees the development, particularly in the case of the robot stories, as largely pro- technology authors losing faith in man and not machines, in our ability to morally and intellectually handle them post-WWII.

In the section on aliens, he does not see aliens as merely different forms of humans in many sf stories – stories against bigotry and for racial toleration – but representing the “unknown and unfathomable” whose contemplation gives the sf reader the novelty and transcendence he seeks in contacting, vicariously, the “ineffable”. This wasn’t true of sf stories in the 1930s and 1940s.  He sees that as another change wrought by WWII and its weakening of civilizational confidence and anxiety about technology and loss of religious faith. It was post-war that the sense aliens had something to offer us grew even when they were primitive, and a growing interest in alien religions started. Stableford cites this change as evidence of broader social change. 

In the third section on “societies”, Stableford quotes Fred Polak’s Image of the Future from 1973 and its argument that our age is surprisingly marked by the decline of utopian stories and the increase of dystopian ones. Stableford quotes at length a lecture by Robert Bloch in 1957 about the banal formula for the future society which involved an individual hero heroically overthrowing a totalitarian order not to bring something new but something like the culture of the mid-20th century. Bloch objected to certain assumptions: that scientists will serve those in power, that Anglo-Saxon culture will rule the world, economic incentives will reign supreme in the future, and that the future holds no fundamental change. He also joked that, if he were to write a sf plot, he would follow this formula – which Stableford says he did two years later with Sneak Preview.) 

While Stableford says this is a fair synopsis, he also says that the element of psychotherapeutic coercion of the populace and scientists aiding tyranny were not large elements of pre-WWII sf.  He also adds that Bloch was too optimistic about scientists not serving those in power. He more importantly notes that Bloch’s formula assumes the heroes of these stories succeed. For a popular genre, an amazing number of heroes fail in this type of stories. A favorite loophole was escaping from Earth via a spaceship at story’s end. But dystopian writers outside of sf never used that device. It was a convention of genre sf. 

Restorative sf has, argues Stableford at the time of this book, been forced out of “the imaginative space of the near future”. (Years later, David Brin noted that the near future as defined by 50 years is a difficult form and not frequently practiced.)

One way to escape the “predicament” of the near future was to “become something different” which segues into the next section on supermen. The psychological appeal of being a superman is obvious, especially to younger readers. These are stories of transcendence which often use religious imagery. 

In the concluding summary to the chapter, Stableford defends his selection of titles and argues that, when attempting a work of this sort, both observation and interpretation are necessary. He says that, when speaking of literature, an object created by humans to be observed (unlike almost any other subject of scientific study) de facto invites interpretation. 

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