Fictions of Non-Fiction: An Overview of Scientific Discursive Genres in ‘Science Fiction’

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

‘Science fiction’ is, obviously, composed of two substantial elements: ‘science’ and ‘fiction.’ In literature, fiction is constituted by any text that generates a possible world where imaginary events take place or imaginary objects exist; it operates as a construct of an artistic nature not expected to be factually true. Fictional worlds are created through language, and often through pre-existing rhetorical macro-devices, or formal genres such as the novel or drama, which are prevalent vehicles for literary fiction today. Fiction can also be expressed, however, through non-novelistic, and even non-narrative devices. There are fictional works entirely written using diverse prescriptive discourses, from legal codes to directions, as well as texts written as mock advertising. In both cases, they may posit alternate or futuristic imaginary worlds, thus taking on the conventions of sf and/or speculative texts and fulfilling the above semantic criterion for fiction.

The main way in which fiction writing masquerades as non-fiction is related, however, to the first element of the sf linguistic formula: science. This is not the place to discuss what science is, or which sciences are, indeed, ‘scientific.’ However, both the human, or ‘soft’ sciences (such as Historiography, Ethnology or Philology), and the experimental and highly mathematized ‘hard’ sciences (such as Physics or Chemistry), are commonly associated with scientific and academic status in our society. More importantly for us here, their textual expression has been well-established from the 19th century onwards, and it is readily recognizable by any reader exposed to the discursive features used to communicate knowledge to the public. Although the manner in which findings, theories and facts are presented in books and journals devoted to science is not fully uniform, a purely expository kind of discourse is now prevalent in most disciplines, even though the argumentative discourse, as well as a greater degree of rhetorical variety and stylistic ornamentation, may also be important in the so-called human sciences. In all of them, however, the scientific text must be seen as devoid of any subjectivity, as well as of any literary self-referentiality, ideally being only a transparent linguistic vehicle for a description of pure factuality. Indeed, drawings, graphs and formulae abound in modern scientific texts, as well as the footnotes and bibliographical information more prevalent in traditional human sciences, in order to enhance the objective tone required, as well as to suggest the objective and extra-textual nature of the phenomena described. These textual devices underline that the reported facts do not result from any form of personal fancy and invention, but are based on documentation and true evidence – this is to say, that they have a scientific basis and, therefore, that the text portrays and expresses ‘science.’ Even when the facts are false, the text which reports them does so in such a discursive way that the reader is invited to see them as ‘factually’ sound, as well as ‘scientific.’ Their textual discourse supposes their ‘factuality,’ or, in other terms, ‘non-fictionality.’ In short, when reading a novel, its fictionality is taken for granted, whereas when reading a scientific report, we assume its factuality.

This reading effect caused by factuality, however, can be used for fictional purposes. We would have then a particular kind of ‘fictional non-fiction’ that could be named ‘scientific fictional non-fiction.’ This encompasses all works where a fantastical content is infused into a text that methodically and consistently presents, in its entirety, as a formally independent written work, the standard rhetorical features of scientific discourses usual in real-world scientific practice. This fantastic content can be of a science-fictional nature (it can include Suvinian nova), and a great number of fictional texts which use factual discourses actually feature contents that can safely be labelled ‘sf.’ The content is, however, of little relevance for a taxonomy of scientific fictional non-fiction. The main criterion to define the genre and its major subgenres is, actually, formal. In all of them, literariness is achieved mostly through the fictionalisation of their contents, while their language imitates the highly formalised, uniform, descriptive, seemingly objective, and un-literary tone commonly used in current natural, formal or social sciences. Each science, however, has its own jargon which in turn generates various discursive subgenres.

Fiction in the natural sciences has brought about a whole genre, the spoof paper, of which examples abound. Many of them are often intended as humorous hoaxes or practical jokes by actual scientists. Others have appeared, however, in literary venues, and they should be studied as literary fiction. Since both the natural and the formal sciences employ a highly formalized prose, fictional non-fiction of this kind leaves little room for rhetorical embellishment. Their literary interest is to be found elsewhere, in the altered views on science and society brought about by their confrontation within the text. A strict adherence to the dry styles of Mathematics or Linguistics can highlight the potential inhumanity of scientific objectivity; for example, George Orwell’s semiotically independent appendix on “The Principles of Newspeak” tacitly suppresses all suffering from the terrible events just narrated in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Also in the natural sciences, the coldness of ‘hard’ scientific discourse can be adroitly imitated to undermine it, as it happens in the two papers collectively entitled “The Marvellous Properties of Thiotimoline” (1948-1952; collected in Only a Trillion, 1957) by Isaac Asimov. These not only demonstrate the linguistic and rhetorical skill of the author, but also allow for readings deconstructing the way in which truth presents itself as absolute, as well as instrumental, at least through the linguistic expression common in the natural sciences. Regarding ‘softer’ sciences, such as Biology, the descriptions of imaginary beings and of their habitats are usually devoid of the irony pervasive in the fictional use of ‘hard’ scientific discourse, often implying attempts at renovating, through the biological discourse as well as through the pure invention of the animals and plants described, the traditional genre of the bestiary, for example, in J. K. Rowling’s textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001).

Perhaps because the high formalism of written expression in the natural and formal sciences imposes a rhetorical discipline that many writers are unwilling or unable to adopt, spoof scientific papers constitute only a small part of scientific fictional non-fiction, at least if compared to the high number of imitations of human/social sciences discourse. Among them, historiography has provided the discourse most extensively used in the formal macro-genre of fictional non-fiction, from the 19th century onwards. Imaginary history written in the historiographic style has three main varieties, according to the chosen time frame: past, present or future. If set in the past, the historiographic narrative may describe events that had occurred in an imaginary country or civilization, such as the ancient Eurasia described by Robert E. Howard in “The Hyborian Age” (1938). Alternate history initially employed a true historiographical form, in Louis Geoffroy’s Napoléon et la conquête du monde. 1812 à 1832. Histoire de la monarchie universelle [Napoléon and the Conquest of the World, 1812-1832: A Fictional History] (1836), before being replaced more recently by alternate history in the form of mostly novelistic ‘stories.’ What could be called ‘anticipated history’ is a narrative usually by a future historian which uses the verbal past tenses of past events to present readers with future events that we know to be imaginary. Among fictional historiographical works of anticipation, some are classics of scientific romance, such as Gabriel Tarde’s Fragment d’histoire future (1896), whose English translation appeared in 1905 as Underground Man with a preface by H. G. Wells; to this we may add Olaf Stapledon’s history of the successor species to humankind along many millennia, Last and First Men (1930), and Wells’ socio-political history of The Shape of Things to Come (1933). Anticipatory history, which is the kind of fictional historiography closer to sf proper, has been relatively popular among speculative writers for both intellectual and formal reasons. Imagining future history as if it were past has allowed them to directly show, with the persuasive power of the factual ‘true’ discourse, the evolution of human societies had any particular trend prevailed, from the ‘yellow peril’ in Jack London’s “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910; collected in The Strength of the Strong, 1911) to technocracy in Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). Moreover, although its narrative is of a descriptive nature, historiography also tells a story, which can be expanded in time and detail until it reaches novelistic proportions. The same applies to mythopoeias such as Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegāna (1905).

Both the discourses of narrative historiography and of mythography are, therefore, less alien to the usual patterns of the readers’ novelistic consumption than other subgenres of fictional non-fiction based on plain descriptive social sciences, such as Geography and its sibling discipline Ethnography. These are often combined in fictional works on the conditions and customs of imaginary peoples – in the present, on Earth or otherwise, or in the past, when the borrowed scientific discourse is that of Archaeology, such as Andrew Lang’s “The Great Gladstone Myth” (1886; collected in the same year in the volume In the Wrong Paradise and Other Stories). True geographic/ethnographic accounts have offered a rhetorical model for world-building in the descriptive mode such as the famous tongue-in-cheek study on reverse anthropology entitled “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” (1956) by Horace Mitchell Miner, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’ description of the workings of social groups in “La secta de los treinta” [The Sect of the Thirty] (collected in El libro de arena [The Book of Sand], 1975). This latter ‘fiction’ could also be considered an example of fictional Philology, since it is presented as the translation of an ancient text with a short introductory note. Philology is, unsurprisingly, an academic discipline also quite popular among literary writers. As readers at least, many of them must be familiar with the presentation features of critical editions of classics, and some have imitated them in reviews and studies on imaginary works, such as “A prophetic account of a grand national epic poem, to be entitled The Wellingtoniad, and to be published A.D. 2824” (1824) by historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, and the “History of the Necronomicon” (1938) by H.P. Lovecraft. The latter has inspired a number of alternative, but equally philologically-oriented histories of that mythic grimoire.

A superbly representative example of science fictional non-fiction is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics” (1974; collected in The Compass Rose, 1982). This work conflates the concepts and rhetoric of the three main groups of sciences (formal, natural and social) into the framework of a model scientific paper, endowed with all the intellectual and rhetorical features that make this genre culturally and literarily significant. Divided in three parts, the first one offers a version of a text written by an ant, the second explores languages written by groups in moving media, and the third speculates about the possibilities of plant languages and literatures. Le Guin’s fictional science ‘Therolinguistics’ combines linguistics, literary criticism and biology in order to invite readers to consider the almost infinite possibilities of both nature and culture beyond any limiting human-centred perspective. As scientific fictional non-fiction usually does, this fully academic text shows how fictionalising science can be used to expand both our minds and our literary sensibilities, thus increasing our awareness of the literary potential of any kind of written discourse, including the scientific one through the fusion of scientific discourse and fictional contents – this is to say, science and fiction: ‘science fiction.’


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