Modern Science Fiction: Definitions and Plot Types

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


Essay: Definitions of SF and Plot Types

So why does Gunn’s thesis classify the genre by plot type?


Science fiction, as we noted in the preceding section, is a medium of ideas, and the only way ideas can work themselves out dramatically is in terms of plot.

Gunn looks at seven different definitions of science fiction from the seven anthologists he mostly relied on in his sample.

The most striking are from Sam Merwin, Jr and Groff Conklin.

Merwin succinctly said, “Science fiction is fantasy wearing a tight girdle”.

Conklin was longer, but I think he hit on something important with needing at least the appearance of rationality:

It may be suggested that science fiction is composed of “supernatural” writing for materialists. You may read every science-fiction story that is true science fiction, and never once have to compromise with your id. The stories all have rational explanations, provided you are willing to grant the word “rational” a certain elasticity.

While Gunn says any literary form that can be confined to a rigid definition has already ceased to grow. (My question when I hear these evolutionary arguments about how the genre must evolve and change is change and evolve to what?  What is the defined standard? Is there no time in that evolution it is more fit for its purpose than other times? If so, what purpose? How will you know you’ve evolved enough?) Continue reading

Pre-Modern Science Fiction

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

Essay: Pre-Modern Science Fiction.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Gunn maintains there are two misconceptions about science fiction (hereafter, when I’m speaking, to be called “sf”) as of the year 1951: it’s pure escapism and it hasn’t changed its character since whatever ur-work you want to cite for the genre. (Gunn himself staked out the Epic of Gilgamesh in his The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells.)

Gunn notes, I think correctly, that pure escapism doesn’t exist. Using the example of Shakespeare and Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can’t even make the case that high vs. low art are correlated to “the possible effect on the reader’s life”. Tarzan and John Carter, as the Burroughs’ worshipping Castalia House crowd would note, can serve as moral exemplars.

But sf can be a peculiar form of escape. Gunn quotes Leo Margulies’ and Oscar J. Friend’s introduction to their anthology My Best Science Fiction Story:

Science fiction is the only literary escape which the bewildered citizen can seek that offers imaginative relief while keeping him in tune with the apparently insoluble problems confronting him and his fellows.

Gunn argues virtually any work has three elements, singly or in combination, which weaken its escapist effect: didacticism, aesthetics, and philosophy. (Why aesthetics would weaken as opposed to, on occasion, strengthen the escapist effect I don’t understand.)

For Gunn the key isn’t whether these elements are in sf but whether they are useful though that’s a subjective judgement. Gernsbackian (Gunn doesn’t actually mention his name at this point) use of sf to teach science “has been somewhat overstressed”. Sf “is not primarily concerned with aestheticism”.

It’s philosophy that is important in sf as a “medium of ideas”.

Like most of the sf critics who came after him, Gunn has to devote some time to definitions of the genre and its history though, obviously, he would extensively develop his views on both in his The Road to Science Fiction series and Alternate Worlds.

As historical markers, he lays down two approximate dates: 1830 and 1930. In between those two dates is sf’s romantic period. Post-1930 is the realistic period.

Pre-1930 works do not, for Gunn, have realism based on rationality. Here he quotes anthologist Groff Conklin’s definition of sf as a sub-branch of fantasy and sharing that relationship with utopian stories, supernatural stories, and fairy tales. Gunn disagrees saying it’s possible to do any of those other three types of story in a science fictional way. It’s just a matter of rationality (or, at least, the veneer of it) and explanation. (In my look at this thesis, I’m going to go light on the examples he uses. You can supply your own or read the actual thesis.)

Sketching out the thesis of his later Alternate Worlds which talked about the proto-science fiction genres of the traveler’s tales, utopias, and satires, Gunn says 1830 is about the time when the industrial revolution started to move fantastic narratives from “wonderful journey” or “wonderful machine” to something that seemed more probable, more possible.

Incidentally, gothics are not considered to contribute much to science fiction since

their mysterious events were presented almost always without explanation and were included entirely for their own sake.

I think Gunn is on weak ground here. After all, Ann Radcliffe’s spooky gothics always end (so I’m told, I’ve only read The Mysteries of Udolpho) with mysteries explained.

There is, it should be said, a distinctly American emphasis in this thesis. That’s understandable given what Gunn had access to and how sf developed. The genre really accelerated into consciousness as a separate genre in the pulps, and the pulps were predominately American. While Brian Stableford has shown how English and French works were significant in terms of philosophy and artistry and theme, they weren’t significant in influence. They were like the Vikings colonizing the New World. Few Europeans paid any attention until centuries later when Columbus arrived in the New World. (That’s my analogy.) Gunn himself tried to rectify this oversight with the last two volumes of his The Road to Science Fiction dealing specifically with stories not from Americans.

What the industrial revolution brought to the public’s mind was that things were going to change – for many people and perhaps keep changing. The machines and ideas that changed life weren’t isolated to the heads and labs of crank scientists who were going to come to a bad end. (That’s my bald statement, not Gunn’s.)

Before about 1830

there were isolated men writing isolated stories, inspired individually and more by external circumstances than by any consciousness of writing within a literary movement.

Then came the “elder statesmen of science fiction” – no names are given at this point but presumably he means Jules Verne and H. G. Wells – from about the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1920s.

A “brief third section of science fiction’s romantic period” was initiated in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.

That first phase of the romantic period was marked by Richard Adams Locke and Edgar Allan Poe, literary hoaxers. (Gunn mentions the Shaver mysteries as a “recent and horrible example” of hoaxes in sf.) Poe gets a bit of a short shrift as “running more to dark and mystic fantasy than to science fiction” though Gunn acknowledges Poe’s ratiocination started several trends science fiction picked up on.

Brian Aldiss, years after Gunn wrote his thesis, claimed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first sf story. Gunn certainly thinks she may have started a “significant pattern”, but it wasn’t a good one:

 … the theme of the mad, incautious, or unwise scientist who endangers individuals, a society, or a world through his experiments. With slight modifications, this trend produced a science that could contribute nothing in a moment of crisis. For humor it offered the inept, impractical, or absent-minded scientist.  … The patterns of thought that produced this literature were symptomatic of the attitudes of several generations impressed by the iniquities of early industrialism and sighing for the safe, sane, good-old-days.

To Gunn, the mad scientist is a distrust of knowledge and science, a continuation of the Faust theme that became a stereotype of this period of sf.

Shelley’s novel seems, particularly in its 1831 prologue about the benefits of selectively distorting reality that sf affords in order to better examine something, to be a strong contender as one of the first novels of that genre.

Curiously, Gunn thinks the second period of science fiction’s romantic period is characterized not only by the mad scientist but “world cataclysm”.

The causes were almost always external and unilateral: the machine that gets out of control; the sun which becomes a nova or grows old; the cloud of poisonous gas, sun obscuring dust motes, or meteorites which invades the solar system; the nomad planet which menaces the earth; the natural law which runs wild.

The practioners were a collection of famous and obscure names: H. G. Wells, George Allan England, Charles B. Stilson, Austin Hall, Homer Eon Flint, Garrett P. Serviss, and Julian Hawthorne.

Gunn doesn’t really see the “atomic cataclysm” story – common enough by 1951 that some magazines “placed an editorial ban on all stories involving the threatened destruction of earth” – as a continuation of this. The atomic apocalypse is caused by “internal and/or multilateral” factors, not universal law. It is human centered.

Predictably and validly, Gunn picks three authors of this period as epitomizing a John W. Campbell, Jr. classification system of genre stories:

  • The prophecy story – Jules Verne
  • The philosophical story – H. G. Wells
  • The adventure story – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Gunn argues those types still exist in modern sf, but they didn’t develop a “distinct philosophy” until the pulps.

The next post will talk about what Gunn considers the philosophy of modern science fiction and what makes it “modern”.

28 Science Fiction Stories of H. G. Wells

The H. G. Wells series continues with a look at his short works.

Yes, there are only 25 stories reviewed. I omitted “The Star” which I looked at recently and I’ve also covered Men Like Gods already, and the novel Star-Begotten I’ll be doing a future posting on.

Raw Feed (1996): 28 Science Fiction Stories of H. G. Wells, ed. Groff Conklin, 1952.28 Stories

The Empire of the Ants” — A creepy, frightening story about a race of large, intelligent, tool using ants that began to carve their own empire out of the Amazon jungle. As Wells points out, evolutionary forces threw up an intelligent, tool-using species in us so why not another species even better suited for survival, one that will supplant us? This is another example of Wells’ attacking human (particularly Victorian and Edwardian) smugness and also another example of the perils and wonders inherent in nature. This is another story that fits Orwell’s remark about Wells’ seeing a world subject to change instantly.

The Land Ironclads” — This story’s main claim to fame is its prediction of tanks being invented for military purposes. Wells also has a fairly accurate depiction of future trench warfare in WWI, perhaps based on his readings of the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War (though I have no basis for that observation). However, Wells tanks are used as a moving platform for rifleman and not artillery, and they don’t use a caterpillar tread but sort of mechanical feet. However, what this story is mainly about is Wells’ point that a seemingly effete civilization of “devitalised townsmen” is capable of beating a force from a rustic culture due to superior science. The “smart degenerates” defeat the “open-country men”.

The Country of the Blind” — This is Wells’ classic allegory about people with superior, more complete knowledge being denounced as insane (and also being handicapped in certain situations). On this second reading, the ending seems ambiguous. Does Nunez live or die at story’s end?

The Stolen Bacillus” — This story reminds me of Wells’ “The New Accelerator” – a basically humorous tale about some invention that does not ignore the serious implications of it but just refers to them in passing. Here the science is bacteriology, and the plot involves a humorous chase to recover a stolen culture – which turns kittens blue. However, there is a decidedly serious undertone here since the theft is by an anarchist determined to gain fame and spread death, and the culture he thinks he’s stolen is Asiatic cholera. Biological-terrorism is certainly not a science fiction idea that has lost interest or plausibility since Wells’ wrote the story. If anything, it has gained both.

The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” — Another typical Wellsian tale – though humorous – of a wonder of nature threatening man. Here a rather dull orchid grower runs across a blood sucking orchid.

In the Avu Observatory” — Another Wellsian tale of people discovering new threats in nature. Here a man in an observatory in Borneo is attacked by a mysterious creature.

A Story of the Stone Age” — I’m not a fan of prehistoric tales, and this seemed, at least for a Wells story, rather pointless unless it was intended to simply show the brutality – and incipient tenderness – that existed in stone age man. It also ends on ironical, fairy-tale like note of hero Ugh-lomi eventually being killed and cannibalized “in the fullness of time”.

Aepyornis Island” — The adventures of a man and the extinct bird he finds (unhatched), befriends, and lives with after being shipwrecked on an uninhabited atoll. Eventually, he has to kill the bird after it attacks him. (It’s about 14 feet in height.) The story is told in a humorous tone and seems to have little point (not that that’s bad, but Wells usually has a point) beyond saying that wild animals have violent instincts which can not be suppressed.

The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” — This story operates in one of fantasy/science fiction’s older traditions (I don’t know how old): an adventure in alien dimensions usually rationalized by some mathematical talk of bent space and the Fourth Dimension. [The “Parallel Worlds” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia says it’s one of the earliest tales where a character experiences alternate perceptions of the real world.] Here protagonist Davidson’s eyes are speculated to have entered the “Fourth Dimension” via the influence of a jolt of lightning on an electromagnet. Davidson goes blind in the usual sense of being able to see his surroundings, but he does visually see the landscape of a South Seas island. As he moves about – up, down, side to side – his vision shifts a corresponding amount on the island. Thus his vision sometimes goes underwater or into the blackness of solid ground. Eventually, normal vision returns. This is a neat, entertaining version of the Fourth Dimension tale.

The Plattner Story” — This story is closely related thematically to Wells’ “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes”. Both feature displacement into the Fourth Dimension. Here a school teacher enters the Fourth Dimension via a chemical explosion in the lab. When he emerges, the external and internal features of his body have reversed symmetry, e.g. his heart goes from the left to right and his hands switch places. His adventures in the Fourth dimension have a creepy, vaguely proto-Lovecraftian feel to them. The “Other World” has dim, buildings that resemble sepulchers. It is inhabited by “Watchers of the Living”, creatures of human-like heads and “tadpole-like” bodies. They keenly watch the bright reflections of our world and protagonist Plattner speculates they are the dead who watch the consequences of their influence in the living. (A neat idea.)

The Argonauts of the Air” — A somewhat humorous story of the first powered, heavier-than-air flight, and its tragic consequences. I assume it was written before the Wright brothers made their historic flight. [The story was published in 1895.]

The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham” — A competently told tale of body switching (involuntary) by an old philosopher hoping to avoid death. (The story ends on a farcical note with the young victim committing suicide, and the philosopher dying in a traffic accident.) There is enough talk of mathematical symbols and psychology to probably provide a science fictional rationale.

In the Abyss” — An effective story about the discovery of an intelligent race on the deep sea floor. (In retrospect, Wells’ bathyscaphe seems needlessly complicated with its clockwork and weights suspended by cords.) Wells provides a wonderful image of cities built with the wreckage of ships and the bones and skulls of their crew. To them, humans are gods that occasionally fall from above bringing useful artifacts, and protagonist Elstead is particularly revered for his brilliantly lit, alive presence and bright ascent.

Under the Knife” — The hallucinations of a man being operated on. At first, it seems like a post-life experience (proving the notion is an old one) but then is revealed to be just a hallucination. This story seems to have little point other than to show the vast scales of time and space in the universe.

The Sea Raiders” — Story of a group of newly-discovered octopi preying on humans.

The Crystal Egg” — Story of a mysterious crystal egg that is sort of a television transceiver to a world of intelligent, bird-like aliens on Mars. The story gets some humor from storekeeper Mr. Care being berated by his wife. Did this view of a small business owning family come from Wells’ youth?

The Man Who Could Work Miracles” — A fantasy of man who suddenly finds he can work miracles but gives the talent up when his miracles have disastrous, unintended consequences. This is a humorous story in which Wells tells the reader that he was “killed in a violent and unprecedented manner” by one of Mr. Fotheringay’s miracles.

Filmer” — This is another of Wells’ tales dealing with heavier than air flight (not strictly true since Wells postulates a hybrid lighter and heavier than air vehicle in which the volume – and, therefore, the density – of the air bags can be changed for control purposes like a fish ascends and descends using an air bag) and was written, I assume, before the Wright flight of 1903. [The publication date was 1901.] This is actually a character study in a shy, nervous scientist successfully obsessed with developing powered flight. (Wells interestingly has the principle tested on a radio controlled model first.) It is assumed by the public he will pilot the first powered flight. He is terrified to but wants to please his girlfriend. Ultimately, he commits suicide as a way out of the dilemma. Perhaps Wells was making a comment on the fragile personalities often behind great scientific discoveries and inventions.

A Story of the Days to Come” — This is a sequel of sorts to Wells’ “A Story of the Stone Age” (Stone age man Uyu is mentioned in both) and is an impressive story that reminded me of several other sf works. Critics have rightly noted (I don’t know the publication date of this story) [it’s 1899 so after 1895’s The Time Machine] that this story of the travails of a couple’s courtship and marriage depicts a polarized society reminiscent of the origins of the Eloi-Morlock split in Wells’ The Time Machine. Poor workers live in serfdom to the Labour Company and inhabit the gloomy lower levels of a vast city while rich people inhabit the sunny heights. This depiction of polarized class societies has made a modern comeback in Nancy Kress’ Beggar series and George Turner’s Drowning Towers and The Destiny Makers. When Mwnes and Denton go to the city’s lower levels, I was reminded of the former Turner novel. When the couple tries to live in the country and discovers they are not suited for a primitive rural life, I was reminded of the couple fleeing their city in the novel Logan’s Run. The public ways lined with human and electric billboards and mirrors reminded me of some cyberpunk visions of media saturation. Each section opens with some sociological predictions of the future in (I assume) the vein of Well’s non-fiction Anticipations. Wells’ predictions at the beginning of the century for increased urbanization made possible by new transportation technology and necessary for the industry proved correct. I liked the brief bit showing that medical men hope to build a utopia (shades of Wells’ later preoccupation). I also liked the cynical prediction of commercial religions with their banal tenets and easy penance.

The Magic Shop” — Gentle fantasy about a magic shop that sells real magic.

The Valley of the Spiders” — Another of Wells’ tales about strange lifeforms – here large spiders that ride the wind via bundles of their webs. There is an element of class struggle and aristocratic exploitation in the conflict between the party of three pursuers beset by the spiders.

The Truth About Pyecraft” — A fantasy about an obese man’s attempt to lose weight. He’s all too successful at losing weight but not his ugly volume. Wells does a good job evoking the character of a club bore in the obese man.

The New Accelerator” — As James Gunn notes in his critique [in his The Road to Science #2: From Wells to Heinlein] of this story, this is a light-hearted use of a new technology – a drug that speeds up the metabolism greatly. Yet Wells, in the conversation between the narrator and the inventor of the New Accelerator, considers in passing some of the drug’s many uses for good and ill. Wells expresses his typical attitude that change, however much feared or unpredictable, will happen when his narrator, at story’s end, says the drug will be sold in a few months “ … and, as for the consequences – we shall see.”

The Stolen Body” — A tale of astral projection and possession. As in his “The Plattner Story”, Wells’ presents an alternate dimension full of mysterious inhabitants, malignant entities waiting to snatch the bodies vacated by astral travelers. I liked the idea that these entities are “the rational souls of men … lost in madness … “

A Dream of Armageddon” — I suspect, given the description and nomenclature used for “flying machines”, that this story was written prior to 1903. [It was published in 1901.] It also features a common feature of Wells’ early fantasy and sf story – transport mentally to another dimension. Here we are clearly to believe that the dreamer actually lives vicariously in the future. Wells’ theme of a man who may very well doom civilization in order to live with his lover fits in well with his call for utopian reforms in later years. Wells seems to think his future diplomat should lead the selfless life of the samurai of Wells’ A Modern Utopia. This point is further driven home by having the diplomat and his lover die in the resulting war.


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