The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter III

My chapter-by-chapter review of this Stableford work continues.

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

Chapter III, “The Evolution of Science Fiction as a Publishing Category”, starts out with some possible definitions of sf and, thus, its origins. 

If sf is just fantastic tales, the beginning is Lucian of Samosata’s True History. If it is mythology for a modern age, one can go back to Homer’s Odyssey. If sf is a “didactic medium” to popularize science and awaken dull minds to new vistas of imagination, you can go back to Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae. If you see sf as intimately tied to scientific thought, you go with Johannes Kepler’s Somnium. If you are interested in sf as a means of social speculation, you cite Plato’s Republic as the origin point. An “etymologically-minded critic” might insist that the term science fiction loses all meaning before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. An American reader of pulp magazines would trace it to 1926 and Astounding Magazine

However, Stableford argues that it wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century that enough kinds of things we would call sf were produced for it to be recognized as a literary genre, and that label basically starts with H. G. Wells’ work. (I’m not sure if his work on French romans scientifique have changed this.) 

Sociologically, there were four trends Stableford sees as sparking the popular imagination and setting the ground for the public to be interested in sf as a genre:

the revolution in transportation; the theory of evolution; the socialist movement; and the anticipation of large-scale war.

The inclusion of the socialist movement is a significant addition to usual theories of sf developing as a genre.

Continue reading

“The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.

Review: “The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”, Brian Stableford, 1980.Opening Minds

In this long essay, Stableford presents a taxonomy of man-made catastrophes presented by science fiction.

The sense that humans could compete with nature in creating catastrophes started in the latter part of the 19th century.

There were works hostile to the growing effects of technology like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and William Morris’ News from Nowhere, but they didn’t present notions of true catastrophe at the hands of man’s machinery. Stableford claiming that Richard Jefferies After London (1872) left the reasons for a pastoral, medieval like England being created as “deliberately unspecified” doesn’t quite jibe with my memory of that novel.

While he doesn’t nominate it as the first work of man-made catastrophe, he notes that Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column had a world wrecked by the capitalist system. (And, I suppose, I should clarify that catastrophe does not equal a literal doomsday or human extinction.) Continue reading

“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. Continue reading

News from Nowhere

I mentioned this novel in my review of H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia.

Raw Feed (1996): News from Nowhere; Or, an Epoch of Rest: Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance, William Morris, 1891.News from Nowhere

This book may very well have been on the Unabomber’s bookshelf. [Probably not given that it’s not on the list of books he wanted back from the FBI.]  This communistic, arts and crafts tyranny would appeal to the anti-technological Unabomber with his hand-crafted bombs. Communism is the explicitly stated philosophy at work here, and Morris was famous for his works on artistic aesthetics.

Morris is resolutely anti-technological and explicitly and frequently evokes his beloved 14th century Europe as a model for living. He even dismisses their more reprehensible laws as at least being sincere unlike Victorian laws which, according to him, are repressive and hypocritically justified. To be fair to Morris, two of 14th Century Europe’s problems – plague and famine – were not yet really being alleviated by contemporary science – not that Morris really mentions them as problems of 14th century life.

This is not really, despite being frequently mentioned in sf histories, a sf novel. Essentially, it’s a dream vision (more echoes of Morris’ medievalism) of Morris’ utopia. As with all utopias, it has to be criticized on two levels: the literary merits and the merits of the ideas. Continue reading

Stealing Other People’s Homework: William Morris and H. G. Wells

A review of Political Descent, a non-fiction work about Victorian disputes over Darwinism, Lamarckism, and Malthus.

H. G. Wells and William Morris are covered and some insight is offered about the political disputes going on behind their respective Victorian science fiction classics The Time Machine and News From Nowhere.

The debate was along two axes: Malthus’ validity and the mechanism of evolution.

Oh, H. G …

No, if human beings were cleverer. It would be a good thing to invent a Five-Year Plan for the reconstruction of the human brain, which obviously lacks many things needed for a perfect social order.[Laughter]


That would be one H. G. Wells chatting with one Joe the Georgian (to reference an Al Stewart song) in 1934. You can see the whole interview here.

Nothing really shocking here.  Wells was a Fabian socialism so you’d expect him to argue with the Man of Steel about the merits of violent revolution. And Wells the political thinker was not unknown to me. I’ve talked a bit about the politics of Wells in his fiction, particularly in his When the Sleeper Awakes and, much more in his A Modern Utopia. The latter is, as far as utopias go, better than most in holding your interest. However, William Morris, definitely not a Fabian socialist, wrote a more interesting utopia with News from Nowhere.  He was with Uncle Joe on the need for violent revolution.

I think of Wells’ as being a sort of Dr. Moreau. He couldn’t ultimately tame the beasts of his island through laws and surgery. Wells never figured out how to reconstruct human brains to create his utopias either.

Stalin and Wells make reference to the organizing talents of Henry Ford. The matter of Soviet imitation of centralized capitalist systems is briefly covered in Michael Flynn’s Babbage Engine secret history, In the Country of the Blind.

We Soviet people have not a little experience of the technical intelligentsia. After the October Revolution, a certain section of the technical intelligentsia refused to take part in the work of constructing the new society; they opposed this work of construction and sabotaged it.

That’s the most jolting bit in the interview. As Greta Garbo said in Ninotchka, “Fewer but better Russians.”

Of course, the bright world glimpsed in 1934 never really panned out.  There or anytime since then.