Science fiction is a cumulative literature

In my writing about the Golden Age of science fiction, I occasionally receive some criticism. Most of it is perfectly legitimate, after all, people are entitled to their opinion. You may not like the stories from the Golden Age. You may think they were poorly written, contained silly ideas, were culturally insensitive, all of which are true to some extent. Usually this criticism doesn’t bother me. It is part of an ongoing dialog about the genre and these dialogues are important. But there is one criticism that has stuck with me, that gnaws at me from time-to-time, and that I feel the need to exorcise once and for all.

Someone once observed (I can’t recall who or where, possibly in a discussion group or comment thread) that if science fiction is supposed to be about the future, why are we always looking to the past?

I think the premise is flawed to begin with. Science fiction, for me at least, is not about “the future,” it is about the affect of changes in technology on society. To say that science fiction is just about the future eliminates whole swathes of the genre. Lester del Rey’s outstanding story, “The Day Is Done” (Astounding, May 1939) is about the last of the┬áNeanderthals and the rise of homo sapiens sapiens. This is about the past, not about the future, but it is still science fiction. Alternate histories, steampunk, time travel stories would all fall by the wayside if science fiction was just about the future.

I suspect, however, that is not what the critic meant in his criticism. He meant that if we are supposed to be looking forward, why are we always looking back? The implication is that clinging to the past is some kind of leash that prevents us from moving forward. This is where I disagree most vigorously.

Science fiction is a cumulative literature. The stories that are written today are highly influenced by the past. The stories may be a reaction to a particular era, but the reaction itself implies an effect. The optimism of science and technology in the 1940s (the Golden Age) was spurned in the 1960s (the “new wave”). The stories in the New Wave looked on technology as dangerous. Science was suspicious, people were wary of its benefits (after all, scientists created the atomic bomb). I believe that there could not have been a New Wave without the Golden Age. Then, too, the Golden Age itself was a reaction to the “superscience” stories of the 1930s. Those stories were filled with frail, shrieking women captured by mad scientists who had to be rescued by the hero of the story. John W. Campbell reacted against these stories. He looked to publish stories where scientists were real people, flawed perhaps, but who nevertheless had to work hard to invent new technologies and make their breakthroughs. Heroes were transformed from muscle-bound brutes, to geeks in lab coats struggling for knowledge.

All literature is cumulative in this respect, but I think in science fiction it is especially so because science itself is cumulative in nature. It relies on previous successes and failures to inch its way forward, gradually building up more and more layers of knowledge that probe deeper and deeper into the universe. Current discoveries rest upon a pile of previous discoveries. As Newton is alleged to have said, “If I have seen farther than those before me, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Science has its giants: Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Einstein. So does science fiction: Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, to name just a few. Over time, new giants are added but the old are never forgotten and it is against all of these figures and their stories that science fiction reacts and evolves. We have thrown off some of the shackles of the past. Women have become a more prominent force in the genre, as have people from diverse cultural backgrounds, giving us stories from points of view that science fiction sorely lacked throughout its history. Science fiction evolves with the culture. To turn a blind eye on the past is to not see its weaknesses or its strengths. Science fiction is what is today because of its past history.

Perhaps this is why science fiction is so insular. It has been observed many times that science fiction is incestuous, keeps outsiders out. When someone outside of science fiction writes something that looks and feels like science fiction (but is not necessarily called┬áscience fiction) we take umbrage at the intrusion. Why should this be? I suspect it is because we have internalized our past, we see it as one vast tapestry, we identify the patterns within it. But here comes someone who has none of that background intruding into our territory. It shakes us to our core. But instead you could look at these “outsiders” as potential Einsteins, recreational mathematicians who on rare occasion have the potential for a conceptual breakthrough that our own insecurities blind us to.

Science fiction clings to its past in order to propel itself into the future. The Grand Masters of the genre 50 years hence will look nothing like Heinlein and Bester and Clarke and Silverberg and that is a good thing for it shows the evolution of a living, breathing literature. But you can bet that those Grand Masters will have a strong connection to the Grand Masters of the past because they will have ridden on their shoulders, either in accordance with or reaction to what came before them.

4 thoughts on “Science fiction is a cumulative literature

  1. Huh. You’ve said that well enough that there’s nothing to much add. I do think you might be treating such general criticism of the field with more respect than really it deserves.

    This idea that the past must be abandoned would be anathema in almost any other field of art. Suggesting to a classical music devotee that it’s somehow wrong to still listen to those works that are universally acknowledged as supreme achievements in the field won’t get you very far. (“Beethoven’s Ninth? You need to listen to something more fashionable, mate. Try Lady Gaga.”) Similarly for suggesting something analogous to somebody who likes “literature.” (Oh, no. That Dickens stuff is rubbish. It used to be good but being good wears out after a while and once that happens it’s rubbish.”)

    “Mona Lisa? Dude, please. Boring. Look at this awesome picture I got on my iPhone of Phil setting fire to one of his farts. Now that’s art.”

    I don’t know who it was that originally made the criticism to you, but maybe you should buy a taser for next time it happens.

    Also, I’ve always thought that the reason for science fiction readers’ sour opinion of a “literature” author’s ingress into the field is that, with very few exceptions, what the author presents is an idea (yes, usually only one idea) that perhaps would have been interesting to a science fiction reader when it was first done, sometime between 1940 and 1960, but now comes freighted with the contempt that only long familiarity can breed. Couple that with the fact that taken out of their comfortable literary zone and set down in a place that’s used to authors who understand something of the physical underpinnings of the world and write with a probing analytical intelligence, and a troublingly high percentage of “normal” authors suddenly start to look as though they have neither of those things going on. Or, in other words, they start to look a little bit like dimwits.

  2. My problem with individuals from within the genre who dismiss the past (usually readers, sometimes authors, infrequently editors) is
    that they are forgetting about the shoulders they are standing on. More often than not out of ignorance, which doubly annoys me because we are, collectively, ‘readers’ and that ignorance becomes more easily curable every day. Instead we get smugness and dismissal

    My problem with authors from outside the genre who dabble, or who seem to dabble, is not so much with the ones who just wrote a story with SF elements, but those who try to distinguish their work from having any connection to SF.

    I think this stems in large part from their own belief that their work was “original” and they just won’t engage with the history of a literature that would prove them wrong.

    I think that anyone in the genre who doesn’t have a minimally passing familiarity with works that comprise the genre’s history is doing themselves a disservice and doing us one if they are working in the field. There still remains a great wealth of material to mine, refine and play with.

    The collective works of the genre are the tools of the genre. Carpenter’s don’t build houses without hammers – and they don’t give nailguns to neos.

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