Guess What? Science Fiction is Art (Really)! By Joe E. Dees
Okay! Sweeping Statement Time! First I’ll make it, and then I’ll support it (in true philosophical fashion, I hope). Ready everybody? Here it comes!
Speculative (or “science”) fiction is not only literary art, but also literary art in the purest relevant prose sense (I would have said prosaic sense, but the term has developed a second and undesirable connotation, implying mediocrity and mundanity), at least in principle.
The first reaction I expect is, “I’m from Missouri, so prove it!” If that supposition is indeed as true as I suspect that it is, then humor time’s over, folks. I shall now get down to the serious business of doing just that.
Even now, this theoretical possibility for creative expression is being, and has been, actualized in the words of acknowledged literary lions. Who, one may ask? Why, of course, I would answer, Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange, The Wanting Seed), Daniel Keyes (Flowers for Algernon), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, Island), Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land), Frank Herbert (Dune), Ayn Rand (Anthem, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged), B. F. Skinner (Walden Two), Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49, V, Gravity’s Rainbow), Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey), William Golding (Lord of the Flies), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (everything fictional he’s done), Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), and even Mary Shelley (Percy Byshee’s wife), in Frankenstein, the first great work of speculative fiction (I didn’t even mention the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells). There are many more, but the purpose of this essay is not to catalogue masterpieces, but to show why the genre of speculative fiction is such a fertile environment for their creation.
The first question to arise is, “What exactly IS speculative fiction?” To answer this question, speculative fiction must be defined, both as an independent entity and in relation to other literature. Although a descriptive definition with objective criteria is, in one sense, an injustice limiting the art form, one must nevertheless try as best one can. After a good deal of thought, my attempt at such a characterization is to assert that speculative fiction deals with possible past, present or future events and their affects on sociocultural, political, economic, philosophical, psychological, anthropological, ecological, religious, personal and interpersonal states of affairs which may or may not be patterned after objective reality, but are relevant to objective reality. Although I’m still dissatisfied with my definition of the genre (or with ANY definition of the genre, for that matter), in order to place speculative fiction in the context of the general literary genre, I shall appeal to a model developed by speculative fiction writer Harry Harrison. Of course, I am limiting this context to prose; poetry is a horse of a different choler, integrating elements of music (such as rhyme, metre (beat), and inter- and intra-relational word sibilance).
Literature includes all written works, and is therefore the broadest possible referential frame. Fiction is that literature which does not describe actual states of affairs to the letter, and therefore is at least partially fabrication, artistic license, and/or creative imagination and conception. For this reason, I do not consider nonfiction literature to be art, but history (“Essence [or what is] is what has been – Hegel). In mainstream fiction, the societal frame of reference either does exist or has existed at some time; however, the characters and/or the interactions between them are conceptions of the writer/author/artist and thus qualify as Etienne Gilson’s “…genuine creation of new being.”
Within this domain is a smaller one, speculative fiction, where both the states of affairs (referential frame) and the events, characters, and interactions within it (referential points) are artistic creations. These creations, although not actual, still must be logically possible, non-contradictory, and remain consistent with respect to present knowledge.
The smallest domain is fantasy. Although it is the purest abstract form of prose literature, by its very definition both its frame of reference and its chains of contingency must be theoretically and/or logically impossible, and therefore both applicability to and relevance to objective reality and society are lost, beyond the purpose of pure entertainment. Author Miriam Allen DeFord’s distinction between the two is that the province of speculative fiction is improbable possibilities, while the province of fantasy is believable impossibilities. Therefore, I have vindicated myself; speculative fiction is the artistically purest relevant literature. Since fiction is already accepted (and rightly so) as an art form, my support of my opening thesis is complete.
There is more than one type of speculative fiction, however; in fact, there are three: Adventure, Gadget, and Social speculative fiction. These three have dominated the genre in the above order and then receded (except for the third), in the same chronological order, as the art form has matured.
Adventure speculative fiction is speculative fiction characterized by pure action, without scientific support or philosophical reflections, and was speculative fiction’s first stage. Its second stage was Gadget speculative fiction (the only true “science” fiction), characterized by its focus on detailed and consistent (both within and between themselves and with respect to contemporary knowledge) explanations of mechanical and electronic inventions rather than with the actions or situations surrounding them. The third and present stage is Social speculative fiction, concerned with the moral, psychological, metaphysical, sociological and philosophical ramifications of technically advanced (or just technically different) milieu, interrelationships and lifestyles. Social speculative fiction is the subtlest and most difficult type of speculative fiction to write.
Okay, then, how DO you write it, or how is the speculative fiction work constructed? Basically, it is constructed the same way as is other literature, on two interdependent patterns; conception and evolution.
The basic conception for all fictional literature is what is referred to by mythologist Joseph Campbell as the “…greatest [and only] story ever told.” Practically all of the major literary works, including religious ones, use this pattern as a model. A stagnant culture (a) gives rise to a culture hero or protagonist (b), who journeys through danger, despair and uncertainty (c), driven by purpose and/or fate, to the attainment of new knowledge and/or perspective (d); with which (s)he returns (e) to revitalize his/her parent stagnant culture.
Interconnected with and superimposed upon the conception is the evolution, or plot progression pattern. The major divisions of this template are (a) the Exposition, or establishing Shot (who, what, when, where, why, how), (b) the Generating Circumstances (the cause of everything that follows), (c) Steadily Rising Action (conflicts, complications, involvements, minor climaxes) leading to the Point of Intolerance or Point of No return, initiating (d) the Major Climax or Tipping Point or Turning Point (which may be physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual) involving Revelation and Aristotle’s Shock of Recognition and culminating in (e) the Easing of Tensions, Resolution, and Denouement.
One element that I consider important to include are (my term) “hidden inevitability”, so that the chain of events will appear as they unfold to be contingent but upon reflection when the work has been read through will be seen as necessary. Another aspect of this is that the work should resemble a “fish basket” (my term), so that all the events within the work are inextricably interwoven and intertwined. To accomplish this, the beginning must be written with an eye toward the already predetermined (by the writer) end. Certain literary devices, such as foreshadowing, Freudian slips, allegory, metaphor, simile, and irony may be used; however, while this process can be shown by example (by, for instance, reading a good speculative fiction novel), it is nearly impossible to abstractly categorize the methodology in any depth or with any precision due to its heavy reliance on individual literary style.
The “fish bowl effect” is also extremely useful. Liken the reader to a goldfish and the reader’s gestalt (environment) to the water, bounded by his/her bowl of perceptual and conceptual limits. One must forcefully yank the reader out of his/her “fish bowl” and expose him/her to a radically different gestalt, theoretically kindling fresh perspectives, igniting awe and wonder, and expanding and deepening comprehension. However, my own addition to this tactic is that the improbable element of the story must not coincide with this abrupt shock; otherwise a sense of sudden unreality destroys, or at least damages, credibility. The transition from actuality to possibility must precede the “yank” and be so smooth as to be almost, and if possible totally, imperceptible to the reader.
One might ask, since speculative fiction is by definition relevant, how IS it relevant, and why? It is relevant to society because, since it extrapolates from objective reality, or, in other words, projects estimated or inferred values and/or information from known values and/or information, it is imaginative possibility, and therefore a possible (and sometimes probable) future. Speculative fiction puts a present two and two together to arrive at a future four. Usually this four is a warning, for speculative fiction authors tend to write about contemporary states of affairs or trends that disturb them, and predict possibly catastrophic future contingencies should these disturbing trends present today be perpetuated, pursued, or expanded tomorrow. The track record is a good one. Space travel, the laser, atomic energy (and bombs), the computer, television, prosthetic medicine, ecological dysfunction, and micro-transistorized electronics were all speculative fiction before they became scientific and technological facts. To be speculative about speculative fiction, I would imagine that this trend of fulfilled prophecy and vindicated oracles will continue, and therefore will be of immense predictive value to contemporary and future society. Also, most speculative fiction writers are not merely prophets of hopelessness and doom; contained within the story resolution is usually either a solution to the problem posed, or at least the seeds of a possibly feasible solution, making speculative fiction doubly valuable to humankind.
The two societal forms in speculative fiction are utopias and dystopias. Utopias are perfect societies and dystopias are perfectly imperfect societies, or, in other words, Heaven on Earth and Hell on Earth. Dystopias are overwhelmingly more predominant; utopias are usually constructed so they may be subsequently proven to be non-utopian.
Does speculative fiction have a common perspective? Yes, and more; it has its own philosophy – existentialism, the theory that:
“…human life is an intensely individual adventure; that it’s impossible to pin down any ‘absolute truths’; that the primacy of the process is more important than any end result; that a person ‘lives’ the meaning of his/her life; that curiosity should be coupled with concern; that the sense of awe and wonder should be cultivated; that hypothetical ‘closed systems’ should be avoided as false; and that people should realize that freedom of choice exists and entails total and mature responsibility for the consequences of their actions.” (George Elrick, Science Fiction Handbook, 1978).
This stance is usually coupled with the cosmological perspective, whether physically, psychologically, or both. This perspective is equivalent to a universal frame of reference rooted in no absolute (but any arbitrary) point, everything being relative to and co-primordial with everything else via chains of mutual cause and effect, feedback, and feedforward. Mysticism (within bounds) still exists, however, as an invention of sentient physical beings; author Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable by lower technologies from magic.”
As is obvious now, the basic trend of speculative fiction has been and remains heading away from outer space and towards “inner space”, where the major directions taken and changes made are in the minds of the characters (usually the protagonist) rather than in a space war or natural disaster. Here the speculative fiction writer/artist also becomes a moralist, and prescribes as well as describes. Rather than a hypothetical “is” alone, contemporary speculative fiction tends to integrate ethically supportable “oughts.”
This trend toward social, or “New Wave”, speculative fiction has caused resentment and divisiveness within the family of speculative fiction writers, mainly by hard line old guard adherents of adventure and gadget speculative fiction, who accused new wavers of poisoning the entertainment value of the genre with deep thought. Change and progress tend to cause transitional upheaval, but they also tend to win out in the end, as an art form’s burgeoning maturity refuses to be denied, and now the dispute is over; all admit that new wave speculative fiction is here to stay, at least until an as-yet-unimagined further maturation supersedes it, and most wouldn’t have it any other way, myself included. The representative reader of speculative fiction is no longer an adolescent idiot, but an adult intellectual, and that’s as it should be for our most thought-provoking literary prose form.
But who exactly writes such stuff? What motivates an otherwise normal human being to write speculative fiction? His/her psychological makeup, opined speculative fiction author Philip K. Dick. First, the speculative fiction writer is a scientist, but a scientist of the possible or probable rather than of the actual, which restricts him/her too much: a speculator. Second, the speculative fiction writer must be a writer (artist), otherwise he/she would not write. Third, the speculative fiction writer must be a shy warner of the world; shy to redirect his/her warning impulse from active protest, but with a desire for change for the better deeply ingrained within his/her psyche; for otherwise (s)he WOULD not write.
What are this rather singular (if not downright odd) individual’s major themes? Time, space, evil as a palpable entity, other life forms, the mechanization of humanity, oppressive future governmental systems, ecological catastrophe, death, fertility, holocaust, parapsychology, war, genetic engineering, quests, sex, technology as problem (technophobia) and as solution (technophilia), et cetera ad infinitum. There is one necessary and essential element, however: to render the theme (and the work itself) interesting to the reader, the speculative fiction writer/artist must him/herself be interested in it and have something different and subjectively significant to say about it. This is true, I feel, of all good fiction.
In summation, speculative fiction is relevant, prophetic, inexpensive (at the bookstore in paperback) or free (from the library or a friend), can be both enlightening and entertaining (or it wouldn’t command one seventh of the mass market), and is an art form besides. What more could one want?