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2021 Thematic Issue of Sci Phi Journal for Download as PDF

Our annual thematic issue, this year dedicated to xeno-anthropology and the ends of the universe from entropy to eschatology, is now available for reading on trusty old paper.

For your convenience, here you can download the entire summer 2021 edition of Sci Phi Journal in a printer-friendly PDF layout.

We are also looking into more eReader-friendly formats for future releases.

Enjoy,

the SPJ crew

Sailing The Seas Of Time: What If We Took Alternative History Seriously?

by Jim Clarke

Let’s sail back in time for a moment, to the first century AD. Here we find Livy at work on his one great historical text, Ab Urbe Condita, which he intended as a history of Rome from its foundation to his time of writing, when it had become an empire under Augustus. Primarily it is a history of the Roman Republican era therefore, but as with historians then and now, Livy was prone to the occasional digression.

In Book IX, despite insisting that he wished “to digress no more than is necessary from the order of the narrative”, he spends a considerable time considering the question, “What would have been the results for Rome if she had been engaged in war with Alexander?” Livy, being a good patriotic Roman, and having spent his entire life during one of its peaks in power, assures us that Rome would have resisted the man known as Conqueror of the World.

Let’s then follow Livy back to the fourth century BC. Early in the century we find Rome under siege from the Gauls, who sacked the city and besieged the inner capitol for seven months, before being bribed to leave. By the time Alexander was born, in 356 BC, the Gauls were still raiding Latium, modern Lazio, the province in which Rome is located.

It’s worth remembering, too, that Alexander didn’t hang about. He was 20 years old when he assumed the throne of Macedonia. By that time Rome was slowly rebuilding from the Celtic Gaul invasions and beginning to retake towns in Latium and Etruria it had previously held. As Alexander embarked on his extraordinary 12-year career of conquest, Rome was embroiled in its own backyard, fighting the Samnites in a series of wars in Campania.

When Alexander died, aged 32, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon, having routed the Persians, sacked Persepolis, conquered Egypt, founded the biggest city in the world, crossed the Hindu Kush and taken Samarkand, Rome was still battling the Samnites. It was even humiliated by them in 321 BC at the Battle of the Claudine Forks. This is the force Livy would have us believe would have defeated the Philosopher King. It is not an especially plausible claim, and one wonders what might have happened in reality had Alexander turned West from his Persian campaign rather than continuing into Asia.

It is, in short, one of those apparent hinges of history, a moment in time around which the entirety of the subsequent timeline appears to be contingent. What would our world look like had Alexander taken Rome 23 centuries ago, and had he lived long enough to consolidate a Macedonian empire of the Mediterranean? Livy, by inviting such speculation, bears the honour of inventing alternative history.

Alt-history today has an uneasy relationship with science fiction more generally, though is generally lazily subsumed within its capacious borders. Nevertheless, alt-history has some characteristics which set it apart, not least of which is its interdisciplinary relationship with history, wherein it is known primarily as counterfactual history, or economics, wherein it becomes cliometrics.

Counterfactual history functions as a historiographic approach, restricting itself to hypothetical alternatives to real events, and aims to measure or examine the importance of those events by speculating on the effect of removing or changing them. Cliometrics similarly examines such hypotheticals, but from the perspective of measuring economic, industrial or fiscal impact, as in Robert Fogel’s seminal Railroads and America’s Economic Growth (1964), which speculated that improved canals and roads would have filled the gap economically had there been no railroads.

It may be that the relationship with SF stemmed from the sheer volume of alt-histories written by SF writers in the early to mid-twentieth century, but in fact it has always appealed as a mode of writing to the literati, too. SF historian and novelist Adam Roberts has identified Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy’s 1841 Apocryphal Napoleon as a seminal text in the genre, and is right to do so for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to underline the fact that uchronic speculation extends far beyond the Anglophone world. Among English-speaking writers alone, however, we can trace the tradition back to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and forward to notables like George Steiner, Kingsley Amis, Gore Vidal, Ian McEwan, Peter Ackroyd, and Jonathan Lethem.

As a speculative mode it is not restricted to genre any more than it is to language. It has attracted playwrights such as Noel Coward, Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, generated TV and cinema productions, and inspired a whole constellation of journalists, myself included. Intriguingly, one can trace an upswing in counterfactual reportage to the disputed election of George W. Bush in the US Presidential election in 2000, which literally and figuratively hinged on the validity of chads on votes cast in Florida. As a result, journalists rushed to hypothesise what an Al Gore presidency might have looked like, especially in light of the 9/11 attacks soon afterwards, as well as Gore’s noted involvement in environmental causes.

In fact, the 21st century to date might well be considered a high point for uchronia. Journalistic what-if articles proliferated vastly, to the extent that they now appear in publications like Guitar World. And such is the splintering of political perspectives globally that the concept of alternative facts, as accidentally introduced by US Presidential Counsellor Kellyanne Conway in 2017, seems almost to have superseded the concept of alternative histories.

Uchronic conditionality is now seeping into our present. It manifests as the secret histories and conspiracy theories to which so many are beholden, and is deconstructing and decentring any coherent understanding of world events. Perhaps the best example of this is Vladislav Surkov, advisor to Russia’s President Putin, whose background as an absurdist theatre director has enabled him to reconstruct Russia’s political and public sphere as one large absurdist theatrical performance.

We can see this trend in current alt-histories. William Gibson’s Agency (2020)is an allohistorical sequel to The Peripheral in which Hilary is President and Brexit never happened. There is a certain element of wish fulfilment in such narratives of course, but it also expresses what Jacques Derrida (and later Mark Fisher) referred to as hauntology, the experience of being haunted by futures which did not occur.

Hauntology now saturates our present, as a result of pervasive alternate histories warring over the past. Like time travellers seeking to change the course of events, today’s political class seek to impose their narratives, myths and ideologies upon previous events, up to and including overt lying. As a result, journals like The Atlantic openly speculate whether Americans in particular are now living in an “alternative” history, while physicists at CERN have been forced to issue denials of the widely believed rumour that their experiments with the Large Hadron Collider projected us into an alternative reality. (Speaking personally, I feel that if we are in an alternative timeline, the first evidence of it was Leicester City winning the EPL soccer title in 2016.)

If counterfactual history and journalism seeks to review the present in light of past contingencies, thereby exploring roads not taken in order to re-examine the significance of events which did occur, SF is not so constrained. Murray Leinster’s seminal story “Sidewise in Time” (1934) introduced to a popular audience the concept of the multiverse, an ontology in which all possible timelines in some sense co-exist and could hypothetically influence one another. This idea had been depicted earlier, not least in HG Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1903), but not to the extent that Leinster mined the idea, with Roman soldiers appearing in Missouri, or ships containing Vikings or Tsarist Russians approaching the US coastline.

Multiversality and parallel universes have remained a popular SF trope, though in the vast majority of instances, authors prefer to present a single variant, a narrative set in a world with a Jonbar point, or moment of deviation from our own recorded history. Like historians, SF authors have tended to gravitate to deviations which explore political or military alternatives to recorded events, though they are also more prone than historians to what we might call the Carlylean ‘big man’ theory of history, given fiction’s need for protagonists.

A spectrum exists in alt-histories, ranging from the great man narratives, such as those which pivot around the existence or otherwise of Jesus Christ or Hitler, and its opposite, which posits a history predicated on huge social and historical movements and trends. Counterfactual historians gravitate much more commonly towards the latter. SF has the additional freedom to collide timelines as in Leinster’s story, and even introduce fantastic elements, such as the ongoing existence of dinosaurs, or alien visitations, or have time travellers seek to interfere with timelines.

In examining alt-histories, certain themes come up again and again, exposing a range of cultural anxieties. Probably by far the most common hypothetical is a Nazi victory in WW2, with very mainstream novels such as Fatherland or Dominion sitting comfortably alongside much more science-fictional treatments like The Man in the High Castle. This theme has not only crossed into factual TV (the BBC have addressed it at least twice) but also can be found in fiction from nations such as Spain, Russia, France, Norway, Israel, and further afield.

Other major streams of alt-history seek to undo or sustain predominant cultural forces in global history. There is a whole sub-genre of uchronia in which Christianity, for some reason, fails to take root, or Christ does not exist. Another fantasises about the persistence of the Roman empire, complete with slavery and crucifixion, into the modern era. A latent fear of Islam has perhaps inspired some of the many narratives in which Charles Martel or Charlemagne are not victorious, or in which the Moors retain Spain or the Ottomans take Vienna.

Some concerns are more local and specific. American alt-histories heavily feature Confederate victory in the Civil War. One of the earliest such speculations was a counterfactual written by Winston Churchill. Indeed, prolific uchronist Harry Turtledove must have written at least a dozen, and an entire volume on Alternative Battles of Gettysburg exists. American alt-history also features concerns over its own existence, featuring timelines in which the USA does not exist, either because it became Amerindian, or Aztec, or Chinese or Viking instead, or because the American Revolution never occurred. Another common trope of a more utopian bent is John F. Kennedy surviving assassination and the subsequent extension of his presidency, a form which expresses very similar aspirations as later journalistic treatments of an Al Gore presidency.

Cultural specificity extends further. In addition to Nazi domination fears, English alt-histories feature communist regimes or isolation in the face of a unified Europe. French alt-histories dream of Napoleonic victories, global domination or German invasion, Nazi or otherwise. Russian ones fantasise about Tsarist or White Russian defeat of the Bolsheviks. Israeli ones imagine defeating Rome at Masada, alternatively located homelands or defeat in the Six Day War. Polish ones have nightmares of Soviet takeover (as do the Swedes and Finns), and Brazilian ones dream of alternative World Cup soccer results.

Perhaps due to its linguistic isolation, Hungarian alt-history is intriguingly diverse, iterating a wide range of common uchronic tropes including the earliest known Nazi victory uchronia in global literature, as well as examples of Catholic hegemony and national success in revolutions, but also features uniquely Magyar visions, such as the existence of a Hungarian fascist African colony in a Nazi-dominated world. Ádám Gerencsér’s authoritative article delineates this particular national progression through alternative timelines.

The historical fantasies of different cultures thus express both latent societal anxieties and utopian aspirations left unfulfilled. Only by taking such a macro-view are the real secret histories unveiled. The prevalence of alt-histories which unwrite the Reformation, depicting theocratic global oppression by the Vatican, identify Anglophone SF’s generic anxiety about Catholicism in particular, and revelatory forms of knowledge in general, as I’ve written previously.

What is interesting in relation to this vast welter of alternative histories is the relative lack of identity politics or marginalised identities in uchronic fiction. Almost none deal with, for example, the idea of decriminalisation of homosexuality in earlier decades or centuries. And while African-American concerns, often manifested in terms of earlier slavery emancipation or civil rights, can often be found, Africa itself as a geographic region and collection of cultures remains as politically marginalised and economically depressed in alternative timelines as it is in our own. Afrofuturism may be one of the most vibrant of recent SF sub-genres, but its ideas of a black imaginary do not appear to have yet manifested significantly in terms of alt-histories relating to African success.

Within SF, which has historically been a significantly male-dominated enterprise, alt-history seems to be an exceptionally male interest, with few female creators operating in the mode. Nevertheless, feminist concerns have fared marginally better. One intriguing phenomenon is the significance of Hilary Rodham Clinton in such narratives. The protagonist of Rodham, last year’s alt-history by Curtis Sittenfeld, in which she forges her own legal and political career without Bill, is simultaneously the repository of other aspirations, such as Pamela Sargent’s vision of Hilary as astronaut, or David Bean’s more prosaic imagining of her as presidential candidate in 2008 instead of Barack Obama.

Mike Resnick’s excellent collection Alternative Presidents envisages not one but two separate female presidents in the 19th century, ushering in a much earlier era of universal suffrage and female emancipation. And back in 1983, Neil Ferguson imagined an alt-history which features Marilyn Monroe as president.

Beyond US politics, feminist alt-histories tend towards the darker end of uchronic possibilities. Michael Grant’s Soldier Girl series imagines a universal draft during the Second World War, for example. Joanna Russ’s highly influential The Female Man (1975) goes further again, including a world in which a plague wiped out men, thus leading to female hegemony and autonomy. This likely influenced the creation of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku, a long-running manga series in which Japanese women lead politics and industry following the death of most men from a plague during the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century.

Russ’s novel, of course, is on the cusp of alt-history and slipstream, as it features both alternative timelines (Jeanine comes from a world where the Great Depression never ended) and other worlds. Its multiversal hybridity is what permits Russ to explore a multiplicity of gender-related encounters, and by extension identify potential directions in our own world.

The lack of gay or African alt-histories may in fact be because, like Russ, authors have found it preferable to explore hypotheticals in a slipstream rather than strictly uchronic mode. Certainly, Grace Dillon has written about Native American slipstream narratives which date back to Gerald Vizenor’s reconstruction of George Custer from hero to imperialist in a narrative featuring literal rebirths.

William Faulkner is believed to have once said that “the stupidest words in the language are ‘What if?’”, but it is worth recalling that all fiction is, in a sense, an exploration of hypotheticals, including his own. The inherent appeal of alt-history is in part the guilty pleasure of exploring the roads not taken, but it is also, as historians and economists have found, a useful mode of inquiry as well as creativity.

In imagining the nightmare of living in a victorious global Reich, we become better equipped to understand both the contingencies which led to its rise to power, and the contingencies which defeated it. We are also reminded of the dystopian potential in our own past which was averted. Similarly, the utopian potential of alt-history, the reminder that we could have brought ourselves to a better present, refocuses us on the fact that the future starts today, and as Hemingway once wrote, “what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

Samantha Mills once wrote a wonderful short story, entitled “Strange Waters”, which was not an alt-history but rather was set on a planet where the ocean is temporal and keeps washing the protagonist’s fishing boat up in the same port but in different years. Alt-history is our own version of her boat in strange waters, allowing us to sail the seas of time back to Livy, to Alexander, back even to timelines in which Neanderthals rather than we Homo Sapiens inherited the earth.

Alt-history reinforces the miraculous contingency of our existences, perhaps best expressed by Doctor Manhattan in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986),when the godlike superhero realises that the likelihood of his former lover Laurie’s very existence is so preposterous that it counts as a “thermodynamic miracle”, and if her existence is so miraculously contingent, then so is that of all humanity.

There is of course a frisson in envisaging our own destruction, especially if it extends to our entire society or culture or way of being. This is the warning of alt-history, that latent in our present are the dark pasts we have averted. But equally latent are the glorious utopian presents we failed to realise. From those we can take comfort and inspiration. And there is always the possibility, expressed in fictions like The Man in the High Castle or R.A. Lafferty’s clever short story “The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny” (1977), that the alternative histories we can imagine may in some way ultimately affect our own present and futures.

In such reflexive alt-histories, multiversal timelines intersect and clash. This offers us a way of thinking ourselves out of our own contemporary impasse, where alternate timelines seem to exist in the realities described by opposing politicians, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “one screen, two movies”. Often, as in Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry series or Keith William Andrews’s Freedom’s Rangers novels, it seems as if warring factions are trying to delete one another, and their perspectives, from history itself. And, as in Joanna Russ’s novel or The Man in the High Castle, SF alt-histories suggest that what we might consider to be psychosis may actually transpire to be a mode of enlightenment.

By considering the contingency of our own history, and questioning consensus narratives, especially echo chamber consensuses, we need not plunge into the morass of fake secret histories or conspiracy theories. Instead, alt-history teaches us how to question our own assumptions about our centrality in our own histories, and attain the critical distance to examine our timeline objectively. What we find offensive or anxious about alt-histories can help reveal what people from another timeline might find appalling about our own. This is a route to a better future, though we will have to navigate choppy and strange waters to get there.

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Further Reading

Stephen Baxter, Time’s Tapestry series, 2006 onwards.

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, 1962.

Grace Dillon, ed., Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, 2012.

Robert Fogel, Railroads and America’s Economic Growth,1964.

William Gibson, Agency, 2020.

Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy, Apocryphal Napoleon, 1841.

Michael Grant’s Soldier Girl series, 2016 onwards.

Robert Harris, Fatherland, 1992.

Karen Hellekson, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, 2001.

R.A. Lafferty, “The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny”, 1977.

Murray Leinster,“Sidewise in Time”, 1934.

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen, 1986-7.

Glyn Morgan and Charul Palmer Patel, eds., Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, 2019.

Salvador Murguia, ed., Trumping Truth: Essays on the Destructive Power of “Alternative Facts”, 2019.

Mike Resnick, ed., Alternative Presidents, 1992.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man, 1975.

C.J. Sansom, Dominion, 2012.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham, 2020.

J.C. Squire, ed., If It Had Happened Otherwise, 1931 (Contains Churchill’s alt-Gettysburg, as well as uchronias by G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc and Andre Maurois).

Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg, eds., Alternate Gettysburgs, 2002.

Gerald Vizenor, “Custer on the Slipstream”, 1978.

H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, 1903.

Fumi Yoshinaga, Ōoku, 2005 onwards.

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Bio:

Jim Clarke has taught literature at universities in Ireland, the UK and Belarus. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019), and blogs at www.jimclarke.net. He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation: https://ponyingtheslovos.coventry.domains

A First Look At Post-National Olympics In Science Fiction

by Madeline Barnicle

The ancient Olympic games of Greece honored Zeus, caused truces between warring city-states, and became a unit of measuring time. The modern Olympic movement may bill itself as a competition among individuals, rather than pitting nations against each other. But in practice, international conflicts often color or overshadow the games, from world wars preventing competition (the opposite of the ancient truces) to boycotts to terrorist attacks. However, our current geopolitical system is far from the only way to imagine world society. Without the modern nation-state, what does the future of the Olympics look like?

Two science fiction series that touch on this question are Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota and Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle. Both are set in future versions of Earth where governmental systems no longer correspond to geography. In Terra Ignota, there are seven major “Hives” which span the globe. There is not as much balance of power as one might hope, since the Hive leaders tend to be closely related to each other by adoption and familial relationships, but each society is represented throughout the world. In the Centenal books, the planet is subdivided into many small “centenals,” small geographic regions of population about 100,000 each. Each centenal votes for its own “government.” While some governments only contest a few regional seats, many others are world-spanning super-corporations that may serve hundreds of millions of constituents without geographical constraints. If residents don’t like their centenal’s new government, it’s not hard to pack up and start anew elsewhere.

In both cases, the efficiency of transportation is what helps make the world “small.” When routinely travelling among continents is sustainable and affordable to the masses, one’s birthplace tends to have little impact on their culture and preferred system of government.

Though the governments of the Centenal Cycle are not geographically contiguous, they still come different orders of magnitude, which means today’s tensions between small and large countries play out along similar lines. In the third book of the trilogy, two characters use the Olympics as a proxy for conversations about their different home cultures:

“Maryam and Núria are lying in bed, watching a projection of the rock-climbing at the Olympics. ‘Listen to them,’ Maryam says. ‘One athlete from Resilient Tuvalu wins and the announcers can’t stop yammering on about how that proves it’s not all about money, how the games aren’t unfairly tilted towards the big governments. Just because one supremely talented person is able to break through. So hypocritical.’” (State Tectonics, Chapter 18)

Like the present day, the announcers attempt to extrapolate and draw geopolitical meaning from competitions between a few elite individuals. A few pages later, we have: “the Olympic compiler had fallen into a long run on the tragi-triumphant backstories of the two leading climbers, and if there’s one thing Maryam and Núria agree on, it’s that they hate that stuff.” In our world, fans who want to watch competition in the moment may resent attempts at forcing narratives or looking backwards to justify some athlete’s success. In the future of the Centenal Cycle, this is even more striking, because the tendency to perceive order or connection even in unrelated events has been semi-pathologized as “narrative disorder.” Characters with this condition attempt to think twice before jumping to conclusions or trusting their intuition. So while trying to find nuggets in Olympians’ past that retroactively explain their rise to power may be considered frivolous, it may also be a way to satisfy the heuristic-driven, pattern-seeking aspects of the human brain in a setting without major political repercussions. Ultimately, despite many efforts at political and informational reform, “people still care more about their friends, and clothes, and sports, and what to eat for dinner, and whether they can find a better job or where to go on vacation than about any question of governance.” (Chapter 27)

In Terra Ignota, the Olympic movement played an important role in the establishment of the Hive system. Three centuries after “Renunciation Day,” world leaders observe the anniversary by re-enacting the speeches and events that led to a new political order. The Olympic committee was, as of the fictional 2131, one of three organizations with an established worldwide mass transit system; “there were almost a billion subscribers who trusted the Olympic Transportation Union to clear their flights as they jaunted from continent to continent for the World Cup, or the Winter Games or work.” (Too Like the Lightning, Chapter 8) In a world that had been scarred by religious warfare, the Olympic chairman, along with his peers, asked the people of Earth to affiliate with a global organization rather than a nation-state.

The series is set three hundred years later, by which time new Hives have risen, fallen, and merged. For instance, the Mitsubishi corporation has merged with Greenpeace to become by far the largest Hive by land ownership. “The Olympian Hive, which lived for sport, merged with World Stage, which lived for concert and spotlight, to form the ‘Humanists,’ united by the passion to excel, achieve, improve, and constantly surpass the past limits of human perfection.” The Humanist Hive’s system of democracy allows for either concentrated or diffuse systems of power. “Detractors call it a cult of charisma, but the Humanists themselves use aretocracy, rule by excellence.” (Chapter 10) While the early 20th century saw cultural competitions alongside the athletic portion of the Olympic games, Terra Ignota’s Olympians have adapted by fusing themselves with other cultural institutions to remain a global force even when “the Humanist President has more important work on Renunciation Day than assuring a bored audience that there will still be sports teams in this brave new world.” (Chapter 8)

Most inhabitants of the world of 2454 perceive even oblique discussion of sex or gender as taboo, referring to each other as “they” rather than “he” or “she” in dialogue. The narrator bucks this trend, describing another character, “Sniper,” by saying “the delicacy of his build and tightness of his muscles makes it impossible to guess whether this torso is naturally male or an Amazon, a common enough practice among female Humanist athletes who aim at mixed sports early in life, so have the doctors prevent breasts from developing, opting out of their varied inconveniences.” (Chapter 11) Chapter 18 expands on that by mentioning that some women, or developing girls, “aiming early at the Olympic open divisions, chose to grow no breasts.” The existence of “open divisions” suggests that there may be other competitions restricted based on sex. While Olympism may provide a symbolic link to the past, it might also create tension by reminding people of aspects of the past they’d prefer to move past.

The Olympic Games become more of a plot point in the 3rd book of the series, “The Will to Battle.” I have not read that one so I won’t try to summarize it, but Paul Di Filippo’s review in Locus Mag reminds us that the Humanists and all the other Hives were not created from scratch, but were the results of mergers and struggles among many existing organizations. As a society that has lived in peace for centuries prepares for conflict, Sniper’s name indicates his fitness for war as well as for athletic pursuits. And the supernatural arrival of “Achilles” reminds readers how the traditions and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome continue to influence the present and future.

While not sports-related, one other similarity between the Hives and the Centenal governments stood out for me; in both futures, some version of the European Union has survived into the timeframe of the books. In State Tectonics, EuropeanUnion (one word) has “some odd old ideas, but they’re pretty good about protecting the environment, people’s rights…” (Chapter 11) In Too Like the Lightning, “Europe” is one of the seven hives, having been founded with the original Renunciation groups even though it still represented the geographical EU. In the imagined 2060s, the EU “instituted floating citizenship, so children of mixed parents would not be compelled to choose between several equal fatherlands,” and by 2131 had moved onto “offering floating citizenship to any citizen who wants to leave America or any other geographic nation.” Both of these societies look to the multi-national success of the EU as a jumping-off point to imagine the successors of our current states. The EU example reminds us that history is not a one-way march of progress. The convoluted Brexit process has illustrated the power and influence of both supranational, centralizing forces and local, nationalistic ones. Today’s Olympic movement borrows symbolism and ritual from the ancient Games, while trying to balance differences in politics and culture on a scale vastly bigger than the Greek city-states had to deal with. Whatever form sports take in the future, both the Centenal Cycle and Terra Ignota suggest that humans will continue to be captivated by the quest to go faster, higher, and stronger.

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Bio:

Madeline Barnicle holds a PhD in mathematical logic from UCLA, and now lives in Maryland. Find her stories at madeline-barnicle.neocities.org.

Breaking Dawn

by Brett Abrahamsen

It was the year A.D. 2020, and history had gone more or less exactly the same. Shakespeare, Milton, Joyce, Pound, Proust, Flaubert and a handful of others – and this was the point of difference – had all died in infancy. In this alternate history, then, Hamlet simply did not exist, as Shakespeare and the
handful of others listed above had all died before the age of 2.

Meyer’s great Twilight series then was considered in popular estimation to be the most significant work of literature since the Bible. Meyer Academies taught classes of Meyerology. “Meyer-ian” themes were the law of the land. The world clearly had a dearth of great literature – and no one even knew it.

It might be objected, and should be noted here, that if Proust hadn’t written Swann’s Way that perhaps someone else would have someday written it, or something similar to it, but this was not the case. Whenever anyone tried to write something meaningful, for example “To be or not to be?”, the paper
would inevitably shrivel up and its creator would fall as if knocked over by a strong gust of wind. The god of this alternate history, clearly, was no fan of great literature.

One day while reading Twilight, for example, a reader prayed to Meyer that he might write something greater, and this reader met the same unfortunate end. Following the incident, Meyerologists debated whether anything could hypothetically be written that was greater than Meyer, and the answer was uniformly this: “No”.

There remained the odd discussion about how to write something superior. Some people even dreamed greater scenes in their heads – but these were doomed from ever seeing paper. “I see great lines in my head – of war and love and death”, said a reader. “They cannot be greater than Meyer”, replied his friend, “or Meyer would have written them already”. It should be noted that this peculiar attitude toward literature extended to cinema as well. The Twilight movies were considered the best in the world.

“Great literature is an enigma – the coldly calculated riddles of masterful sentence structure surely are not conductive with the wild flow of creativity”, one would say to the other. “Masterful sentence structure and wild flow of creativity are both realized in Meyer, and they shall always be synonymous with Meyer”, the other would retort.

The two continued to converse – speaking aloud the plots of untold great novels never written, filling their heads with dreams of love and death and war. They covered more ground in an hour than had any novelist since Meyer, but since nothing remained written one said to the other, “Alas – we are no better from where we started”. The two ceased talking and, as if in stupors, began to turn certain ideas around in their heads. One melted his mind trying to find his answer during Twilight reads, which culminated
with his fatal prayer to Meyer. The other, however, left his company and retreated into another room. He began to speak softly, as if to no one. He was speaking to someone he believed was really out there: his Reader.

He said: “And surely, what you have just read – that brief work which you have just read and are now finishing, some of which you have heard spoken aloud by me, Dear Reader – does this not count as great literature?”

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Bio:

Brett Abrahamsen resides in Saratoga Springs, NY, and has written a number of speculative science fiction stories. His favorite themes include the nature of reality, evolution, and alternate histories. He prefers the flash fiction medium, at under 2000 words.

Horizontal Totalitarianism in Life and Literature

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

There once was a society in which horizontal totalitarianism was so successful that, without any need for a State or institutions, simple social pressure from friends and neighbours was sufficient to conserve a culture and its customs, perhaps for over forty thousand years. One could even speculate that if Captain James Cook had not disembarked in Australia it may have lasted even longer. The indigenous people of this island-continent are suggestive of the power of horizontal totalitarianism as a form of organisation capable of formatting people so that practically any individual initiative that may alter traditional world-views and customs virtually disappears. Aboriginal Australians did not need to burn at the stake those who broke taboos or refused to respect and follow traditional rites. It was enough that their peers would exclude them from the community, and that they would then perish in the desert (see, for instance, Philip Clarke’s comprehensive anthropological history Where the Ancestors Walked, 2003).

In other societies, more technologically advanced and on the whole ideologically less monolithic, institutional repression has been necessary to eliminate ideologies and behaviours that diverge from horizontal totalitarian norms. In many places, professionalised clergy quickly assumed responsibility for fixing community laws and seeing that they were obeyed, using prosecution analogous to criminal trials against what was considered sinful conduct. These sins were widely understood as crimes against society, or rather, against the maintenance of totalitarian control over individual minds. This is the case, for example, of the ancient Hebrew priesthood, whose sentences were carried out collectively by the people through stoning, a fact that indicated that the punishment was not purely the responsibility of an authority that enforced its will from top to bottom, but also that of the neighbours and acquaintances of the sinner/offender. It was the community that took on and carried out the right to punish. Over time, the State increasingly assumed this power for itself, substituting a vertical order for the earlier horizontal one, which ultimately culminated in modern forms such as fascism and communism. Nowadays, aside from its use by the Cuban dictatorship for its own interests, as well as those who aspire to imitate it in other parts of Spanish-speaking Latin America, horizontal totalitarianism has lost its institutional power in almost all geographical locations and civilizations. This includes Australia, where the aboriginal people, like those of New Guinea, have had to accept modern respect for the individual and the separation, at least in theory, of church, State and ethnicity. However, this does not mean that horizontal totalitarianism is a thing of the ancient past. Even without an established institutional power, its social manifestations continue to oppress people in all too many places, and the modern Western world is no exception. In contrast to the vertical kind, horizontal totalitarianism does not by any means need to dominate public institutions in order to come into being, or to crush the individual, because it pre-dates and exists independently from these institutions.

 In fact, horizontal totalitarianism may also arise without availing itself of institutional agency, since it does not require any institutions in order to repress or eliminate dissidents. It is difficult to fight against this type of totalitarianism because anyone could be one of its agents and its workings can remain opaque even to those who enthusiastically practice it in their daily lives. Horizontal totalitarianism represents a totalitarianism exercised by the majority (or a dominant minority able to sway and manipulate a majority) of a given community by oppressing other members of that community who do not adhere to its unwritten rules. It oppresses minorities as well as those who are seen as disturbing or threatening the homogeneity of the community as a unique and complete entity. In horizontal totalitarianism, there is no need for external authorities to impose their will, against whom the community of the oppressed can, in turn, rebel. Since the majority, made up of oppressors and their conformist followers, and the minority of oppressed people live on the same social plane, the persecuted can hardly rely on the solidarity of their fellow dissidents because they find themselves isolated and disempowered among the mass of individuals who apply the unwritten laws of uniformity, and of the totalitarian unity of the community.

It may seem excessive to some to term this horizontal oppression ‘totalitarian’. However, its consequences for people and societies are even more serious than those of vertical totalitarianism. An incalculable number of people have died at the hands of their neighbours and countrymen since the beginning of time. How many Muslim women have been stoned to death by their neighbours for not adhering to their society’s sexual mores? How many Hindu men and women have been murdered by their relatives for daring to marry outside their caste? How many individuals have died for not believing in their tribe’s chosen god? How many have died for daring to question the beliefs and prejudices held by the majority of people in their community? And we are not talking about primitive societies here, nor solely those of the past. Today, homosexual people still commit suicide in communities where widespread homophobia turns their existence into a living hell. We still see people exiled or forced to seek asylum because they refused to partake in the religious or political ideas of their people, or because they do not belong to the predominant ethnicity or ideological affiliation of their region. Criticism, whether more or less open; social vacuums; and the impossibility of leading a life of one’s own, continue to hound all those who, for whatever reason, are seen as being abnormal.

Even our private lives are threatened, and not only by corrupt and opportunistic politicians who take advantage of people’s prejudices to limit minority rights and secure their own power. This power, built on populism, is but the political face of horizontal totalitarianism. Thanks to the development of the surveillance methods and mutual control structures offered by information technologies, before long we might begin to receive scores (c.f. China’s social credit system) and, consequently, punishments and rewards, based on our neighbours’ or communities’ opinions of us. No longer will anyone wish to be original, extravagant or creative, nor outspokenly contrarian, because this may cause that group of people who judge us with each passing moment to turn against us. This phenomenon can be observed in the actions of existing successful public silencing initiatives, which confront questions and divergent opinions with insults, as seen in the unfortunate social media lynchings perpetrated in recent years by fanaticised supporters of MeToo or Black Lives Matter, or by similar movements with equally extreme ideologies. While it is true that these phenomena are not new, in the past they were only dangerous once they crossed into the physical realm, when people became a policing mass, as explained by Gustave Le Bon in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (Psychologie des foules 1895). Thanks to current technologies and the eternal social instincts of the human being, the ‘mechanical solidarity’ of closed, traditional communities, as described by Émile Durkheim in The Division of Labour in Society (De la division du travail social 1893), may even accumulate more repressive force today than it has already enjoyed for millennia.

The Internet has been and continues to be a powerful tool for unleashing self-expression and individual creativity. In theory, anyone can propose anything online, and by the same token, can oppose anything. Then again, it is important to ask oneself how many people might maintain their silence, or hide their convictions for fear of the aforementioned media lynchings. We are also aware of numerous children and adolescents who have committed suicide to escape cyberbullying perpetrated by their neighbours and classmates, for their apparent lack of conformity to some ideal or principle of normalcy prevalent at the time. For horizontal totalitarianism, social harassment is a powerful weapon that the Internet has not deactivated; one could even argue that its power has intensified, since the Internet makes it easy for the number of bullies to increase exponentially.

The danger appears even greater when taking into account that neither writers nor intellectuals wish to denounce it. On the contrary, the modern and postmodern idealisation of all manner of closed societies, from primitive tribes to rural villages, has inspired numerous texts precisely condemning that one place where the individual may, to an extent, escape horizontal totalitarianism. That is, the great modern city in which economic and political freedom prevail, as well as freedom to practice traditional customs. In the city, it is not possible for everyone to know and control you. Unlike the village or tribe, in which everyone knows everyone else, no one has any reason to know anything about you and thus you can carry on your life without fear of criticism or attacks from other members of the community. No one will disapprove of you because you do not attend mass or believe in the God or gods that the village or tribe dictates you should, make love in a way that is condemned by the ruling community’s morality, or fail to profess belief in your nationality being superior to that of foreigners. Aside from mandatory compliance with laws and the reciprocal respect essential to a peaceful coexistence, the individual is sovereign and is no longer a mere component of a mechanical social body that nullifies free will, creativity or, indeed, individuality. Nonetheless, nowadays those who should be the most interested in preserving their individuality, since their writing depends on it, are publishing a steady stream of dystopias instead. These works no longer describe the workings of vertical totalitarianism (imposed from above, by a ruling government, party or all-powerful person), as was the case in the modern classic dystopias against fascist or communist regimes, despite the fact that these still exist today, albeit in marginal countries such as North Korea.

Conversely, it seems very few writers have addressed the oppression of dissident individuals by horizontal totalitarianism either in ‘primitive’, traditional communities or in complex, modern societies. In dystopian literature, following a strict definition of the genre, there are hardly any examples of complex descriptions of this type of totalitarianism. In the context of anarchist movements that aim to eliminate all vertical institutions so that horizontal organisation becomes all-inclusive and, as a result, total(itarian), one can call to mind dedicated anarchists who have warned, through their fiction, against the danger to the individual, as well as to technological and cultural development, posed by conformism horizontally imposed by a libertarian community. One supreme example is the destiny of the scientist who discovers a device for interstellar communication in the novel The Dispossessed (1974), by Ursula K. Le Guin. The reaction of the utopic anarchist society in which he lives is so negative that he is forced to go into exile on another planet, just like countless peers who have had to escape their closed-minded villages in order to avoid being stoned to death.

In Western literature horizontal totalitarianism has mostly been described in a single setting: the countryside, despite the frequent idealisation of rural life from Ancient times until our contemporary intellectuals who seem to be incapable of getting past the noble savage stereotype, or rather the stereotype of the virtuous peasant, which mainly originated in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s widely read and imitated novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse [Julie, or the New Heloise] (1761). The traditional European village and its oppressive mechanical solidarity feature primarily, and almost solely, in realist narratives written mainly between 1850 and 1960. At this time, both progressive positivists and Marxists were aware that modernisation and development would be impossible if there were to be no break with the inertia and resistance to change that dominated the most traditionalist areas of countryside. In this way, these writers entered into conflict with the defenders of traditional closed societies, those in which one did not question ritual, archaic religiosity as a collective phenomenon closely tied in with the consciousness of each individual, nor the patriarchal nature of customs, nor the ethnic purity of a group of peasants as the repository of national spirit, unlike the ungrateful strangers of the city. In a context in which the actions of the modern State and its laws penetrated further and further into the countryside, in which urban influence was making itself known in progressive freedom and diversity of ideas and customs, the authors of rural dystopias knew how to narrate, using expressive realism, the way in which villagers could resort to collective repression against those they perceived as contrary to a mechanical solidarity threatened by liberal individualism and the latest capitalist organisation.

It is worth mentioning the French novel Les Paysans [The Peasantry] (1855), by Honoré de Balzac, the story of a wealthy outsider who buys and moves into a mansion and the corresponding agricultural estate, before ultimately having to leave due to the opposition to, and even criminal action taken against, his presence and productive activities by both wealthy and poor locals. A similar collective reaction is narrated in La barraca [The Cabin] (1898), by Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, in which, in order to survive, a very poor family moves into a small farm that has been declared off-limits by the people of the village. They are eventually forced to leave after their neighbours burn down the farmhouse. In Switzerland, Gian Fontana also shows, in “Il President da Valdei” [The Mayor of Valdei] (1935), the way in which village peoples’ xenophobia violently defends the homogeneity of the community with such fanaticism that they would rather destroy their home than open it up to the world: in this Romansh novella the arson of the house rented by Gypsy families spreads and ends up burning down the whole village. In Italy and Romania, Giovanni Verga’s story, with the title “Libertà” [Liberty] (1882) and the novel Răscoala [The Uprising] (1932), by Liviu Rebreanu, are more than just two examples of tales of peasant revolt. In both, the blind violence of the masses illustrates the instinctive character of a village’s mechanical solidarity which reveals itself in an irrational (and counterproductive) collective violence directed against landlords and their administrators, who in the community are perceived as outsider elements. Being outsiders, they must be removed from the community with a fury akin to that reserved for the poor individuals who, due to their physical appearance, are removed from the bosom of society. This is the case, for instance, of the dwarf in the Portuguese short story “O anão” [‘The Dwarf’] (1893), by Fialho de Almeida. In other examples they may become outsiders because of their behaviour, like the elderly characters of Victor Català’s “Idil·li Xorc” [‘Barren Romance’] (1902) who are stoned to death in a Catalonian village for having married at such an advanced age. To these realist examples one could add Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play Der Besuch der alten Dame [The Visit] (1956), which demonstrates how within a given community horizontal totalitarianism can be stoked and exploited by external elements in order to eliminate certain individuals. In English, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948; collected in The Lottery, or, The Adventures of James Harris, 1949), is worth mentioning, as well as Dorothy K. Haynes’ “Fully Integrated,” a horror story written around 1949 and published in 1976. The former is a masterful gothic parable dealing with the sacrificial nature of collective justice in societies subjected to mechanical solidarity. The latter is also a parable, this time of the rejection of outsiders by a rural community so closed and mutually bound that outsiders can only be integrated into it in the form of cannibalistic food for locals.

These classic works of modern fiction have never been studied as a thematic whole, a sub-genre capable of examining the mechanisms of horizontal totalitarianism with the same penetration and mastery of dystopias such as those of Yevgeni Zamiatin and George Orwell, which investigated vertical totalitarianism. But, how could those studies have been carried out if the very concept of horizontal totalitarianism is practically unknown beyond studies in crowd psychology, which are generally limited to those rare moments of paroxysm in which the masses become collective agents (violent protests, lynchings, etc.)? Perhaps the answer lies in that our herd instinct is so strong that we do not even notice its terrible effects. Sometimes, in the name of integration and equality/uniformity, we do not hesitate in treating misfits or abnormal peoplewith cruelty. Millennia of discriminatory religiosity, centuries of equally exclusive and discriminatory nationalism and an eternity of collective prejudices have desensitised us to horizontal totalitarianism, especially when one considers the all-pervading influence of its latest manifestation: peer-enforced political correctness.

In our postmodern times, it is fashionable to critique Popperian open societies and liberal economic and political systems, which are precisely the only ones having proven that mechanical solidarity and the ensuing communalism and horizontal totalitarianism can actually be curbed. But postmodern intellectuals usually prefer to imagine the downfall and disintegration of those classical liberal societies as demonstrated by the staggering amount of contemporary anti-capitalist dystopias from early cyberpunk fiction to the ones written, for example, in Spain in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession (see Diana Palardy, The Dystopian Imagination in Contemporary Spanish Literature and Film, 2018). There are even intellectuals who have condemned tourism (see, for instance, Andrea Víctrix, a 1974 dystopian novel written in Catalan by Llorenç Villalonga targeting mass tourism in his native Majorca), followed by influential left-wing activists and politicians (most notably in Barcelona), for whom tourists represent a threat to ethnic integrity and economic self-sufficiency, in other words, two underlying ideals of traditional society, which are contrary to the globalisation and cosmopolitanism that tourism implies.

Currently, instead of humanist cosmopolitanism, it is multiculturalism that seems to predominate among hegemonic intellectuals in the academic sphere and the mainstream press. Underpinning this mode of observation is a form of cultural relativism that regards cultures as discreetly delineated, separate realities; their blending or co-experience thus often draws accusations of ‘cultural appropriation.’ Following this logic, the practice of horizontal totalitarianism becomes acceptable if it is part of ‘their culture,’ as an internal reflection and quasi justification of the superimposed civic community enforcing its overarching diversitarian narrative in an analogous process of higher-order horizontal totalitarianism. What is important is the group and, for multiculturalists, there is nothing wrong with formatting the mind of its members to such a point that they will accept, for example, that it is fine to riot, stone to death adulterous women, enslave members of neighbouring communities or sacrifice and eat prisoners of war, as long as it is or was done by ‘minority’ groups or communities subjected to mechanical solidarity, especially if these are believed to be ‘indigenous.’ Anything would seem to be better than individualism and liberal humanism, terms that today have become words with negative connotations for the postmodernists who dictate what is politically correct from their cosy North American university campuses or for the opinion-makers who reside in regions culturally dependent on the Anglosphere. Now perhaps it is time for humanist and universal reason and conscience to once again shine their lights upon society, in life and in literature, against the communitarian ‘politically correct’ obscurantism of a totalitarian nature that seems to continue to dictate much of our current way of thinking, as well as our behaviour, in the regions of Western culture and throughout the globalised world, including on the Internet.

Translated from Spanish by Josephine Swarbrick

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English translations of quoted works

Balzac, Honoré de: The Peasantry, translated by Ellen Marriage, introduction by George Sainstbury. London: Dent, J. M. Dent and Co., 1896.

Blasco Ibáñez, Vicente. The Cabin, translated by Francine Haffkine Snow and Beatrice M. Mekota, introduction by John Garrett Underhill. New York (NY): Alfred A. Knopf, 1919.

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich: The Visit, translated by Patrick Bowles. London: Jonathan Cape, 1962.

Durkheim, Émile: The Division of Labour in Society, translated by W. D. Halls, introduction by Lewis A. Coser. New York (NY): Free Press, 1997.

Fontana, Gian: “The Mayor of Valdei,” in The Curly-Horned Cow: An Anthology of Swiss-Romansh Poems and Stories, edited by Reto R. Bezzola, translated by W. W. Kibler. London: Peter Owen, 1971, p. 70-116.

Le Bon, Gustave: The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T Fisher Unwin Ltd, 1896.

Rebreanu, Liviu: The Uprising, translated by P. Crandjean and S. Hartauer. London: Peter Owen, 1965.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques : Julie; or, The New Heloise, annotated and translated by Philip Stewart and Jean Vache. Hanover (NH): Dartmouth College Press, 1997.

Verga, Giovanni. “Liberty,” in Little Novels of Sicily, translated by D. H. Lawrence. South Royalton (VT): Steerforth Press, 2000, p. 125-134.

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Faith in the Future, or, Does Religion Have a Place in Science Fiction?

by Jim Clarke

I write this while in lockdown due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, amusing myself by reading Dune and Nnedi Okorafor. Perhaps, when you read this, the lockdowns will have been lifted. This period, stuck at home and making the most of it by catching up on reading what I like, reminds me of being a doctoral student at Trinity College Dublin. What would any sensible person do, if they had access to a copyright library holding millions of volumes, and most of their thesis written? Obviously, borrow and read as many SF novels as possible!

No more than people today can foresee how the world will look or function post-Corona, I had no idea where my policy of bulk-reading science fiction would lead. The human mind is probably the world’s greatest ever pattern recognition system, and I got tripped up when I noticed, in about the third novel in a row, that the protagonist (or antagonist, very often) was a Catholic priest, specifically a Jesuit.

In novel after novel, I found priests in space. Priests converting aliens. Priests condemning aliens. Priests who were scientists and priests who were bitterly opposed to science. There were robot popes. There were alternate histories where the Reformation never happened and the Vatican ruled supreme over the globe. Sometimes they even dominated the entire galaxy. A kernel of an idea formed. Perhaps there might be an academic curio in this, a novelty paper about the prevalence of Jesuits in space, or more broadly on the relationship between SF and Catholicism? I vowed to explore further. I borrowed some more novels. Over seven years later, I published my findings: Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy (Gylphi, 2019).

What began as a side-project, a thin veil of legitimacy to justify reading hundreds of SF novels, had spiralled into a 100,000 word monograph. And even that was highly selective. It could have been three times as long. What surprised me during those years was that almost no one had written about this. Or to put it another way, my own pattern recognition wasn’t astonishing, but the fact that apparently so few other scholars had spotted the pattern was.

There is, of course, a reason for this. Unlike SF writers, who habitually incorporate the existence of religion into their work, SF scholars are often extremely antipathetic. For some, immersed in a tradition of Marxism, SF by definition must be kept pure from the taint of religion, a kind of exercise in Enlightenment values, narrowly defined. Those values are perhaps best expressed by British journalist Francis Wheen in his excellent book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. Wheen’s theme is that the values of the Enlightenment are in retreat in the modern era. He defines those values as “an insistence on intellectual autonomy, a rejection of tradition and authority as the infallible sources of truth, a loathing for bigotry and persecution, a commitment to free inquiry, a belief that (in Francis Bacon’s words) knowledge is indeed power”.

These are of course fine values, indeed firmly intertwined with the Enlightenment period. But concomitant with them, in some eyes anyway, is the idea that they are antipathetical to religion in almost all forms. God, it seems, is unreasonable, and faith in God or Gods all the more so. The perception, however, that the main thinkers of the Enlightenment were atheist is somewhat erroneous. D’Holbach and Diderot certainly were and proudly so. It becomes fuzzier when people ascribe atheism to philosophers like David Hume or Spinoza, however. Both, after all, vigorously defended themselves against the accusation. However, there is a broad perspective, running from the Enlightenment period, or indeed even earlier, through to the critics of contemporary and recent SF, that the Enlightenment and religion are diametrically opposed, because they utilise different methods to pursue similar aims.

In this sense, Enlightenment values such as free inquiry are apparently not possible if an ancient text defines the parameters of research, and there is little point in pursuing knowledge if it has already been delivered in revelatory form. As James McGrath has acknowledged, “Both religion and science fiction tell stories that reflect on the place of human beings in the universe, good vs. evil, humanity’s future, and at times about the very nature of existence itself.” In proposing answers derived from revelation, religion relies upon transcendental authority, whereas science proposes provisional answers derived from the scientific method of observation, investigation, experimentation and analysis.

As a result, religion can be cast as antipathetic to knowledge, and hence to scientific inquiry, and ultimately to SF, the literary form which pursues ideas and which predicates itself on the propagation of science and the emulation of the scientific method in its production. This position is well summarised by the critic Paul Kincaid: “If we recognize SF as a literature forged in the rationalist revolution of the Renaissance and tempered in the secularist revolution of the enlightenment, then … as religion becomes a major issue in the world … a literature espousing rationalism and secularism seems more and more out of step with the world.”

What I’d like to question is whether that is indeed the only way to recognise SF? Certainly it seems to be the dominant way that critics have recognised it. Farah Mendelsohn, in a rare instance of a critic acknowledging religion in SF, notes that “SF is full of stories in which superstition is defeated by explanation; the immaterial is tamed by manifestation.” If religion must appear in SF, it must do so in order to be a whipping boy, a straw man opponent against the march of rationalist progress, as it does in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. But this is not the entirety of SF by any means.

For sure, a lot of SF authors have indeed been ardent atheists, or at the least, tended to show a greater faith in science than in any revelatory belief system. H.G. Wells loudly proclaimed his atheism and socialism to anyone who would listen, and this can easily be detected in the forms of utopia he expressed in his less interesting novels. In America, the maturing pulp tradition under the editorial eye of firstly Hugo Gernsback and later John Campbell firmly located the stories they fostered in a milieu that envisioned technological answers to all of humanity’s problems. The atom bomb blew a sizeable hole in this vision, no less than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it was decades later, with the advent of JG Ballard and the New Wave, before SF finally adopted a less than cheerleading position on scientific development.

SF came to prominence as a popular literary genre in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries alongside the rise of professional science, and insofar that it too sought to speculate about ontological possibilities and often featured scientific development and a positive attitude to mechanism and technology in its content, SF allied itself closely to science in any developing cultural arguments. In a culture slowly emerging from the legacy of Christian hegemony, SF came to associate itself with a progressivist, even radical, perception that science could and would supplant religion as the guiding societal and cultural ontology. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), this stance is illustrated by the alien overlord Karellen’s dismissive speech about the religious Wainwright:

“You will find men like him in all the world’s religions. They know that we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods. Not necessarily through any deliberate act, but in a subtler fashion. Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets.”

Even the very title of Clarke’s novel suggests an arrogant progressivism; the scientific miracles offered by mankind’s alien mentors are, rather than simply swapping a faith in one higher power for another, presented as growing up out of a lengthy cultural adolescence that is defined at least in part by its religiosity. And yet, it is curious that in so many of Clarke’s novels, a certain transcendental mode is achieved which, though often argued away as a secular sense of wonder (or sensawunda), often specifically identifies Buddhism as exempt from its inherent antipathy to religion. Even Childhood’s End permits Buddhism to survive as a faith when all others fail in the face of the rational alien overlord. Buddhism too permeates The Fountains of Paradise, the 2001 cycle and many of his short stories too. We lose something important by reading Clarke solely through the prism of atheism. Not for nothing was he praised by the Dalai Lama and once accused of being a canny theologian by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane.

But not all SF authors are as atheistic as Arthur. And even he, slyly, often referred to himself as pantheist or crypto-Buddhist. Leaving aside the whole welter of consciously religious SF, written by adherents of various faiths, there are reams of SF classics in which religious themes and the issue of faith are not present as mere whipping boys for atheism, but as a central motif and concern. To take three of the greatest mid-60s English language SF novels, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light may posit advanced humans playing at Gods via technology, but the religious milieu is foregrounded much more so than the techno-explanation. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land introduces the idea of an alien religion, a theme also explored by Philip José Farmer among others. And Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best-selling SF novel of all time, presents a Messiah, syncretically generated from a combination of Jesuitism, Arab Islam and the Zen Buddhism which Herbert himself followed.

One might have thought that these three novels, appearing within a few short years, might have put to bed the idea that SF was intrinsically incompatible with religion. But it seems that every generation must reconsider the carefully policed borderlines of SF. In 1974, Theodore Sturgeon was moved to write in justification of the presence of religion in SF: “religion and science fiction are no strangers to one another, and the willingness of science fiction writers to delve into it, to invent and extrapolate and regroup ideas and concepts in this as in all other areas of human growth and change, delights me and is the source of my true love for the mad breed.”

Sturgeon, writing nearly a decade after Dune, insisted that SF should accommodate what he called the “infrarational”, a supralogical mode which includes religion. The infrarational, he wrote, is “that source of belief, faith, and motive which exists beside and above reason. So conditioned have we been by Aristotle, Kant, and Freud that we tend to believe that any force, object, or problem will yield to rational processes; when they don’t, we blame the process and call up yet more logic. The infrarational, however, is a very large component in us, and while reason calls it ignorance and stupidity (viz, trying to talk someone out of a fear of the dark or of snakes), it is neither. It is the infrarational, source of many of our motivations and the tint reservoir of much of our thinking. We will never succeed in reaching our optimum as a species until we learn the nature of the infrarational. We may fail as a species unless we do.”

However, we may still be failing as a species. In late April, Nnedi Okorafor took to social media after reading one too many well-meaning tweets that praised her novel Lagoon: “I wake up to someone saying Lagoon is an ‘amazing fantasy story’. Whyyyyy is it so hard for people to say my name and science fiction?? What is that? “Unfamiliar cultures” does not equal fantasy. “Different spiritual worldview” does not equal fantasy. Check yourself. If the story has aliens in it invading Lagos, it’s science fiction. And that’s my TED Talk for today.” Does the presence of aliens alone designate SF? Even according to Marxist critic Darko Suvin, aliens would qualify as a novum, his defining characteristic of SF. Yet there appears to be confusion among Okorafor’s fans. This is, perhaps, understandable, since mainstream critics like Gary Wolfe and Alexandra Alter have firmly, and perhaps sloppily, located Okorafor within the fantasy genre. Clearly Okorafor, quite legitimately, sees herself as writing in both genres, or perhaps even across them.

Her earliest novel, The Shadow Speaker, is set in a post-apocalyptic future with alien planets, but also has a peace bomb made with magic, and features many religious references. Zahrah the Windseeker, which won the Wole Soyinka prize in 2008, features magical children who express some of the myths of West Africa. Who Fears Death, her first adult novel, won the 2011 World Fantasy Award and obtained nominations for the Locus and the Nebula, despite its post-apocalyptic setting. Again it features magic and African mythology strongly. Akata Witch, as the title suggests, again features a magical female child protagonist. It is arguable, therefore, that Lagoon’s appearance in 2014 was a paradigm shift of sorts for Okorafor, from fantasy to more science fictional material. Certainly, the Binti trilogy which followed, with its space travel, tentacled aliens and Hugo and Nebula awards, is indisputably SF.

She is hardly the first writer to move seamlessly between fantastical sub-genres, and she has recognised in the past that she writes on the borders of cultures, which perhaps inspires her ability to traverse those carefully-policed genre borders also. She told NPR in 2016: “That’s very much a part of my identity, and it’s also very much a reason why I think I ended up writing science fiction and fantasy because I live on these borders – and these borders that allow me to see from multiple perspectives and kind of take things in and then kind of process certain ideas and certain stories in a very unique way. And that has led me to write this strange fiction that I write, which really isn’t that strange if you really look at it through a sort of skewed lens.”

That skewed lens seems to be throwing some of her fans, who seem incapable of acknowledging a SF novel from an author who had previously delivered fantasy novels inspired by the mythology of her Nigerian heritage. However, they are in good company, no less purblind to the obvious than those critics who insist that religion is misplaced in SF. Perhaps the critics are the more culpable because theirs is a willing blindness to the necessity of the infrarational. It is a necessity that has been explored by Frank Herbert, and Nnedi Okorafor, and a myriad other SF writers. SF inflected not only by Catholicism, but by Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Islam, Judaism and any number of indigenous belief systems has existed for a very long time and continues to thrive today.

The origin myth of SF told by many of its critics is erroneous. The Enlightenment was mostly the product of religious minds, and was not antipathetic to religion, though religion was often antipathetic to it at times. The scientific method is a method for closing in on truth, not a faith-based belief system in itself as so often misunderstood. And insofar as SF emulates that method, it is not the in-house literature of ardent atheists, but of all future-focused readers interested in speculation and ideas.

It’s time for the logical fallacy to come to an end. SF is not only the legacy of HG Wells but also of CS Lewis. At its best, in novels like Dune or Lagoon, it embraces the infrarational which Sturgeon wrote about, the “different spiritual worldview” which some of Okorafor’s readers, and many SF critics, find uneasy. Yet religion is an inherent part of SF – not its totality, but far from something to be denied or excluded. It’s okay to have some faith in the future.

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Bibliography:

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End, London: Ballantine, 1953.

Arthur C. Clarke, The Fountains of Paradise, London: Gollancz, 1979.

Jim Clarke, Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy, Canterbury: Gylphi, 2019.

Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1961.

Frank Herbert, Dune, Boston: Chilton Books, 1965.

Paul Kincaid, “Fiction since 1992”, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, London: Routledge, 2003.

Farah Mendelsohn, “Religion and Science Fiction”, in Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Eds. Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn, Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.

Theodore Sturgeon, “Science Fiction, Morals, and Religion”, in Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow, Ed. Reginald Bretnor, New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Francis Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, London: Fourth Estate, 2004.

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light, New York: Doubleday, 1967.

~

Bio:

Jim Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University, where he teaches SF. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019). He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation: www.ponyingtheslovos.wordpress.com/

For a Truly Multicultural Science Fiction: Do Translations Matter?

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Science fiction is arguably becoming truly cosmopolitan today. After this genre was baptised in the United States and its fandom developed there, it was soon forgotten that scientific romance (or its equivalent forms of fiction often called utopian in non-English literary areas) had existed for decades, and that this truly international form of mainstream fiction was cultivated by critically acclaimed writers from Argentina to Japan, from Sweden to Bengal. Many soon believed that science fiction was only, or mainly, a US invention, that science fiction did not exist as such elsewhere and, if it existed, it could not be but a slavish imitation of American models. It might have been so in some instances, as the Perry Rhodan serial pulps from Germany amply demonstrate. Focusing only on the products of cultural ‘coca-colonization’ failed however to do justice to science fiction written in different languages by many gifted writers. Non-Anglophone science fiction was ignored in most instances. Hardly a couple of international authors, namely Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, succeeded in getting wider recognition, perhaps thanks to their being considered representatives of an allegedly alternate way of writing science fiction coming from the Eastern Bloc, a way that was moreover quite similar to contemporary New Wave literary and ideological experimentalism. By contrast, similar science fiction writers from the Western Bloc were little known, unless their speculative stories were received as mainstream literature written by authors having acquired a high critical reputation for their previous non-science fiction books. This was the case, for instance, of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, whose novel Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, 1995) about a pandemic outbreak and its societal consequences was, however, rarely received as science fiction, despite its clearly speculative approach and subject matter.

Fortunately, this situation appears to be changing in the 21st century. Following already existing trends, in recent decades science fiction has been the subject of extensive historical surveys, and by no means limited to the Anglosphere. Bibliographies, encyclopedias, literary research by both fans and scholars still tend to emphasize works in English but there has always been an awareness of the international dimension of science fiction history. It was widely known that one of the fathers of science fiction avant la lettre was Jules Verne, or that one of the greatest prospective dystopias is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924). Now these are not just token international names as they used to be in the first considerations of science fiction as a particular genre of fiction. Competent translations into English having appeared in series such as ‘Early Classics of Science Fiction’ from the Wesleyan University Press, among other academic initiatives, are showing the variety and originality of European and Asian scientific romances. Thanks to these and other translations Anglophone readers can find quality renditions of significant science fiction classics from China, Bengal, Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia and other literary regions. Furthermore, Brian Stableford has undertaken a colossal task of translating into English a cross-section of the huge French output in scientific romance and related genres. He has translated into English dozens of novels and stories, some of which are quite difficult to come by in France and other French-speaking countries. Many of them have appeared with his own prefaces, where his astonishing literary learning and critical acumen make of them examples of what science fiction scholarship should be about.

Contemporary international genre science fiction has not fared equally well, though. Liu Cixin’s success can be explained by Ken Liu’s adaptation of the original works to the American pop style of writing, as well as the chance of having occupied the same niche as the Strugatsky brothers as ‘the’ representative of science fiction coming from the main geopolitical, ideological and economical rival of the United States: earlier the Soviet Union, now China. There are signs, however, that science fiction with different origins will not be ignored this time. One of the main Anglophone publishing companies, Penguin, has a new collection called ‘Penguin Science Fiction.’ Among its titles so far announced, almost half of them are translations from languages as varied as Japanese (Kobo Abe), Russian (Yevgeny Zamyatin, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky), Spanish (Angélica Gorodischer) and German (Andreas Eschbach). It is hoped that this catalogue will continue to be internationally balanced as it seems now. There are still many fine science fiction works awaiting translation under the good editorial and marketing conditions that Penguin and similar corporations can afford. Only if they are translated into English, the lingua franca of science fiction, this genre could become truly global and multicultural in a meaningful way. A monolingual multiculturalism, with supporters unable to read anything but English, as it is unfortunately the case in all too many instances, is a contradiction in terms, a mockery of true diversity. Does it genuinely serve multiculturalism that scholars and critics eulogize science fiction works by ‘non-white’ writers produced in English following postmodern-leftist American biases while ignoring genuine world-views from other cultures, ‘white’ or not, expressed in their own languages and conceived having their own local readerships in mind? An example among those appearing in the above-mentioned Penguin science fiction collection comes especially to mind.

Gorodischer’s Trafalgar (1979) deconstructs in one of her stories the Whig stereotype of Anglo-American good imperialism versus Spanish evil imperialism (beware the Spanish inquisition!). Its eponymous hero intervenes on an alternate Earth to ensure that the Spanish Empire does not neglect the Northern subcontinent during its colonization of the Americas. He thus prevents future US interventions in Latin America like those supporting the dictatorship oppressing Argentina at the time when the book was published. Such an approach is nowhere to be found in alternate histories in English, which tends to portray any victorious Catholic Spain as intrinsically evil (c.f. Keith Roberts, Harry Turtledove, etc.). Exposure to translations of speculative and science fiction written in languages other than English (for example, Italian alternate histories re-assessing Benito Mussolini’s rule) by authors averse to the current politically correct consensus would be helpful to achieve a truer form of multiculturalism. We might want to embrace that consensus for its being perhaps fairer and more (post)humane; but democracy as well as literature thrive in a varied cultural ecosystem. It is this wealth of dissenting voices that science fiction can tap into through the power of the translated word.

We might well rejoice, while still regretting that the number of translations remains lower than desirable. There is the huge obstacle of the diminishing linguistic skills of all too many Anglophones, who seem less and less willing to make the necessary effort to learn foreign languages. What is the need for memorizing thousands of exotic words and difficult grammar when English is, at least in theory, understood everywhere? Is there anything interesting to read or talk about that it not produced in English? Laziness being a fundamental feature of human nature, there is now little use of trying to convince anybody of the pleasure, if not the convenience, of learning how to encounter foreign ‘others’ as they really are, even if only to enjoy holidays abroad, in a more humane way than just getting drunk and suntanned (or burned, rather) in, let’s say, Benidorm. When classic languages are no longer treasured by educated Anglophones, when French is no longer the language of diplomacy, when cultural studies and various postmodern ideologies have displaced philological research at most universities, it is perhaps understandable that quite a few native speakers of English dismiss foreign languages as an utter waste of time, unless they are encouraged to learn them by enlightened entities such as the Irish Republic or the Mormon churches… Nevertheless, there still remains a sizeable demographic able to translate all kind of texts into English including, dare we say, literature. Globalization is increasing the number of bilingual people due to international marriages. Growing proficiency of English allows native speakers of other languages to skillfully translate texts from theirs to the current global tongue.

For many of them, the issue might be either to be paid for their endeavors or, if they translate for the sheer love of languages and culture, to find a publishing venue. Sci Phi Journal is one of them, at least for short fiction. Translators have, however, rarely answered this journal’s call, perhaps for obstacles that no publication can overcome on its own. Students and scholars able and willing to translate foreign science fiction into English are not encouraged to do it in a competitive academic environment where the principle of ‘publish or perish’ prevails and translations are not acknowledged as highly as, say, original scholarship. Writers able to translate seem to have forgotten that their earlier peers found translation to be an excellent school for good writing. The formidable rhetorical and stylistic resources of English seem to remain all too often untapped simply because writers forget that literary fiction requires a deep understanding of its raw material, language. The act of translation makes writers transcend the comfort zone of their mother tongue. When trying to reproduce the effects that arise from foreign authors successfully exploiting the rhetorical potential of their native language, translators are forced to reflect on the resources of their own language, and use them, both in their translation and eventually in their original writing. Is monolingualism an explanation for the limited rhetorical skills and the flat (“easy listening”) language now sadly prevalent in Anglophone (science) fiction? Is that the reason preventing us from having more stories written using sophisticated syntax, rich vocabulary and effective rhetoric? Such a statement would be a risky contention. It is not, however, that translation helps to improve one’s linguistic proficiency and therefore literary abilities, what more, it opens one’s mind to the world through the deep identification with the Other that literary translation always entails. The increasing numbers of translated science fiction works suggest that these advantages are being understood. Let us hope that many more will follow this path. Because the science fiction universe is too vast to reduce it to the literature produced in one single language.

~

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bug?

by Mina

The words “virus” and “pandemic” are all around us. The media is constantly bombarding us with them and friendly acronyms such as “COVID-19” and “SARS”. We are currently living in a climate of fear and anxiety most of us would prefer to find only in SF movies about alien invasions and post-apocalyptic futures. It is a fear of the unseen because we cannot see the virus that has become part of our everyday lives, as have lockdowns, confinement and isolation. We have lost our freedom of movement and countless small liberties we used to take for granted. Have we entered an era of mass hysteria or are the measures imposed upon us right and reasonable? Are we on the verge of a breakdown in our social order? These are the sorts of questions often posed in Sci-Phi, so I set myself the task of finding parallels in SF. I have tried to avoid horror fiction, but all good disaster SF has an element of horror and formless fear to it.

The best place to start is with the classics of this genre: H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) and John Wydnham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951). The War of the Worlds is, on the surface, an alien invasion story. Digging deeper, it is an exploration of societal and personal collapse. The narrator and other main characters are never named, giving it a universal feel: this could happen to you or to me. The Martian invasion in this story can be likened to the spread of a virus, just with the unseen made viscerally visible. Wells himself drew parallels to the social devastation wrought by British imperialism and, today, we could draw parallels to rampant globalisation obliterating all resistance in its path.

The alien tripods protecting the fragile bodies of the Martians come armed with “heat rays” and a poisonous “black smoke” – we cannot help but think of chemical warfare today. This thought comes with uncomfortable questions for – are not humans an infestation that needs to be wiped out from the point of view of the “superior” Martians? As well as their deadly weapons, the Martians bring with them the “red weed” to take over the surface of our planet like a vibrant parasite. In the end, the Martians are killed by simple pathogens, unseen infectious agents. This is the closest parallel to COVID because we too, in our hubris, could be wiped out by such microscopic organisms.

My favourite adaptation of the novel is Jeff Wayne’s 1978 rock opera with the mesmerising voice of Richard Burton as the narrator. The basic plot of the novel was maintained in the rock opera but several details were changed, for example if we look at the SF anthem, “The Spirit of Man”. In it, the nameless pastor from the novel becomes Nathaniel whose wife Beth, a character that does not exist in the book, argues with him as he despairs. Nathaniel has been driven mad by the invasion and is ranting and raving about the end of times:

“Listen, do you hear them drawing near
In their search for the sinners?
Feeding on the power of our fear
And the evil within us?
Incarnation of Satan’s creation of all that we dread
When the demons arrive those alive would be better off dead!”

The pastor is lost in his fear: for him the world has descended into hell and there is no hope of salvation, not even for a chosen few. Beth refuses to accept this:

“No Nathaniel, no, there must be more to life
There has to be a way that we can
Restore to life the love we used to know
(No) Nathaniel, no, there must be more to life
There has to be a way that we can
Restore to life the light that we have lost.”

Beth believes in the spirit of man, that humanity will survive somehow. As Nathaniel sings of darkness and demons, she clings to love and light with unwavering faith. Interestingly, the power of religious faith is not really part of the original story. In the novel, the narrator has a nervous breakdown after the ignominious end of the Martians and is helped by kind strangers, so there is perhaps some faith in basic humanity. Upon his return home to find his wife alive and well, the narrator still cannot shake off the anxiety caused by his recent ordeal, as humanity cannot hope to survive a disaster of such proportions unscathed. Unlike a great deal of disaster SF, we have no hero saving the world; humanity is saved by pure chance.

Nightmarish as Wells’ scenario might be, it remains small in scale. All the action occurs in and around Woking, touching briefly upon South London. The scale of Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids is much larger – it is a global disaster. The aliens are replaced by a manmade enemy: bioengineered carnivorous plants capable of locomotion, armed with stingers and poison. The triffids could be compared to an opportunistic virus that spreads after a freak “meteor storm” blinds most of humanity (the protagonist wakes from an eye operation and several weeks with bandaged eyes to a world gone to hell, ironically spared permanent blindness because he could not witness the lights in the sky). Social order breaks down completely and the triffids sweep through like a ferociously efficient pandemic. These monsters do not seem particularly intelligent, acting mostly on instinct, but they only have to bide their time and strike at the weakest, just like COVID kills those with the lowest defences.

There is much ordinary courage in The Day of the Triffids with the protagonist/narrator and the small family unit he manages to build surviving against all odds. There is even a love story which, although it is a pragmatic partnership in many ways, is real and solid in a disintegrating world. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist reflects without bitterness that humanity probably brought the disaster on itself, theorising that the “meteor shower” was actually the result of manmade satellite weapons systems being set off by accident and producing blinding radiation. He hopes that future generations will learn from the mistakes of their ancestors. He and his family unit will retreat with others to an island they can defend (the Isle of Wight) until they can find a way to fight back. The spirit of man does survive in this novel.

The zombie apocalypse film 28 Days Later about a rage-inducing virus spreading from animals (chimpanzees) and causing societal collapse in the UK clearly borrows a lot of ideas from The Day of the Triffids (for example, the protagonist wakes up from a coma to a devastated world). The infected can no longer function cognitively and simply starve to death. The sequel 28 Weeks Later shows the “Rage virus” being spread to Europe (the pandemic originally having been contained within Britain) by an asymptomatic carrier – one of the biggest fears in any pandemic scenario.

Ray Bradbury’s short-story collection The Martian Chronicles(1950) contains a short story that also touches upon disease, “And the Moon Be Still as Bright”. In this story, the fourth manned expedition to Mars discovers that the Martians have been mostly wiped out by chickenpox (an infection caused by a virus), brought by one of the previous expeditions. It is ultimately a story about colonisation. Bradbury ponders on whether there is a right or wrong form of colonisation, with wrong being an attempt to recreate Earth (thereby repeating old mistakes) and right having respect for the fallen civilisation (and learning from it). We are left with the question – are humans an infestation on Mars or will they become the new Martians in a brave new world? This question is highlighted in another short story in this collection, “Night Meeting”, where two characters meet outside time but without us knowing which one represents the past and which the future. It is almost irrelevant as civilisations will always rise and fall and disease will always be one agent of change.

The Star Trek canon also examines viruses in different contexts. The most fun episode is “Macrocosm” in Season 3 of Voyager. In it, we see Captain Janeway single-handedly fighting giant viruses in a spoof of Aliens. She is combating the result of a viral infection with insect-like macro-viruses flying around the ship infecting the crew and propagating from their living flesh. The doctor and Janeway manage to exterminate the giant bugs in the end with an antiviral gas. In reality, antiviral medication cannot be produced in less than one hour.

In the episode “The Quickening” in Season 4 of Deep Space Nine, Dr Bashir tries to find a cure for the “blight” caused by biological warfare, where the series’ archenemy, the Jem Hadar (the military arm of the Dominion), infect a planet that resisted them. Bashir is unable to cure it but finds an anti-viral treatment that acts as a vaccine – when injected into pregnant women, the baby is born disease-free. This is the hope in any pandemic, that a vaccine can be found to preserve at least the next generation. Ironically, Earth later hits back at the Dominion by infecting an unwitting carrier who, in turn, infects other Changelings like himself. Deep Space Nine does not shy away from the tough questions of whether anyone (including humans) has the right to use biological warfare to potentially wipe out an entire race.

The most interesting viral analogies are the indirect ones made by the existence of the Borg. We first encounter them in Star Trek – The Next Generation. In the double episode, “The Best of Both Worlds” (which ends season 3 and begins season 4), Captain Picard is “assimilated” and briefly becomes Locutus, a mouthpiece for the Borg Collective’s hive mind. The Borg are clearly presented as a militaristic virus – taking over entire races, using “nanoprobes” to infect their technology, and disposing of the weak.

My final example is a less well-known film, Daybreakers. It is an interesting mix of SF and vampire tropes, where a plague caused by an infected bat has transformed most of the world’s population into vampires. The remaining humans are captured and harvested for blood but, as the human population shrinks, there is a shortage of blood for food. Vampires deprived of blood and who drink their own blood instead become psychotic and increasingly bat-like “subsiders” – a whole underworld culture is suggested with blood as the currency. The protagonist is a vampire scientist attempting to create synthetic blood. He discovers that an accidental cure has been found for vampirism – using the right amount of sun and water. Drinking the blood of a “cured” vampire will cure the drinker too, but the protagonist must fight against the corporate powers that do not want to change the status quo and lose their profits.

To summarise, SF is full of disaster scenarios involving viruses beyond our control, whether they kill humans or alien enemies. Sci-Phi also goes further, where humanity itself may be seen to be the disease, asking hard questions about colonisation and colonialism. Viruses can also become a much more abstract agent that may transform rather than kill us, although the transformation is rarely a desirable one. I expect that this is partly because a plot where we all are infected with, for example, love and peace, would make for a very short story.

The fears and anxieties triggered by COVID are primal ones and, as we have seen, ones that are widely explored in SF and Sci-Phi fiction. So how can we best respond to the panic arising both at a social level (e.g. mass hysteria or a breakdown of social systems) and a personal one (e.g. people suffering from increased anxiety and compulsive disorders, or depression due to isolation)? I would like to finish with this quote from C. S. Lewis. As you read it, replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus” in your head:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year… or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me… you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways…

… If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Of course, C. S. Lewis had not met the concept of “social distancing” but the central tenet stands: we must face our fear of death head on, whatever form it takes. And Sci-Phi gives us a safe forum in which to stare straight into the eye of the monster.

[My thanks to Ian H for drawing my attention to the quote from C. S. Lewis.]

~

Bio:

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

Can Science Fiction be Conservative?

by Jim Clarke

O, weep for Adonais for he is dead! The great defender of the Western literary canon, Harold Bloom, recently passed away aged 89, after a lifetime of arguing the legitimacy of studying what he considered to be the greatest works of literary merit emanating from Western culture. Bloom was a formidable figure, ferociously learned, astonishingly well-read, and the author of some 40 books. His obituaries were perhaps coloured by this range and breadth of his knowledge even after his death, because they were tentatively scornful, much less critical than one might expect from the obituary of someone who spent a lifetime defending the concept of Western culture and a core canon therein.

Bloom’s core list would be unlikely to attract many supporters today, a mere quarter century after he created it. Indeed, he himself even disowned the appendices, often treated as an ultimate TBR list by many, because he felt they distracted from his actual intention of defining the characteristics of the Western literary tradition. Bloom’s list of worthies, the 26 writers The Western Canon focuses on, are almost all white, and mostly male. He can be regarded as an unashamed elitist, disregarding literary traditions of lowly or pulp origins, as SF might be considered.

Indeed, in the nearly 600 dense pages of 1994’s The Western Canon, there are precisely two references to science fiction in the main body of the text, both relating, somewhat bizarrely, to the estranging quality of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Bloom did not appear to consider a genre with such pulp origins sufficiently high-brow to enter his sacred canon. Well, that’s not quite true. What’s more true is that he recognised quality SF without necessarily recognising it as SF.

Hidden in those discarded appendices are a wide range of texts many would regard as science fictional. Perhaps we might dismiss book 18 of the Iliad, wherein Thetis visits Hephaestus’s forge and witnesses his golden servant-robots, as too much of a stretch to be thought of as classical era SF. We might similarly consider Leonardo’s notebooks to be ill-fitting.  But more plausibly, Thomas More’s Utopia is included. And what of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Or the tales of Edgar Allen Poe? In what he calls the Chaotic Age (what most of us call modernity), his list includes Calvino’s Invisible Cities, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Kafka’s Amerika, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, all often cited as SF texts by scholars.

The case is effectively closed when we encounter HG Wells, Capek’s RUR, and War with the Newts, Lem’s Solaris, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker on Bloom’s extended list. The elitist Yale scholar’s apparent disregard for the genre of SF did not extend to excluding excellent SF texts from his canon. Similar applies to the more commonly identified sectors considered underregarded by canonical approaches to literature. Four of his 26 featured authors are women, and his extended canon includes African, Arabic, Yiddish and Caribbean authors. It could even be argued that, despite an predominance of pale, stale males, Bloom’s purview of what Western literature warrants preservation and attention is unexpectedly broad.

What we can be sure of is that Bloom was not engaged in tokenism. As many of his obituaries noted, he railed while alive against what he called the “school of resentment” that he saw coming to prominence in literature departments of universities. This school was defined by its predeliction for identity politics over other considerations, including aesthetics, which Bloom himself cherished above all. For Bloom this was a category error. As he saw it, the resenters were engaging in progressivist activism under the mask of aesthetic analysis of literature. Indeed, he says as much in The Western Canon:

“Either there were aesthetic values, or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class, and gender,” he writes.” You must choose, for if you believe that all value ascribed to poems or plays or novels and stories is only a mystification in the service of the ruling class, then why should you read at all rather than go forth to serve the desperate needs of the exploited classes? The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted by or in our schools.”

Of course, Bloom faced significant pushback on this position. In fact, his doorstop of a recommended reading list was only one salvo in a battle which had already been going on for some time within Anglophone academia in particular. The canon wars, as they are now known, raged mightily in the late 80s and early 90s, as progressive scholars sought to diversify and ‘decolonise’ literature curricula in American schools and universities, while scholars like Harold Bloom fought back in defence of the concept of the traditional literary canon.

His namesake (but no relation) the political philosopher Allan Bloom had been motivated, as early as 1987, to publish The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that encroaching cultural relativism in education was not merely shortchanging students but actively eroding American democracy. This so-called ‘dumbing down’ argument extended far beyond an attempt to preserve literature as a bastion of dead white guys. Allan Bloom railed against cultural relativism in all forms, condemning for example the teaching of rock and pop music in the place of classical music. His provocative attempt to conserve his understanding of Western culture, and by overt extension Western civilisation, was accompanied by similar screeds by other scholars, such as ED Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1987), Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990) and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (1991).

These writers traced the cultural relativism back to the counterculture of the Sixties, when various forms of activism and liberation, primarily identity-based, inspired educators to challenge the concept and content of established cultural canons for the first time. Driven on by French poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Althusser, who were simultaneously derided by Allan Bloom as second-rate philosophers, new faculty entering American universities began the war on Western Civilisation, which went overground in the general public’s eyes when US presidential candidate Jesse Jackson joined students at prestigious Stanford university to chant “Hey, Ho! Western Culture’s got to go!”

By the time Harold Bloom entered the fray in 1994 with his lengthy treatise in favour of reading authors like Milton, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Samuel Beckett, it was almost the final sally forth for the conservative position. Bloom himself knew that the argument had to some extent been lost. A mere four years later, he acknowledged this defeat, in an article for the Boston Review.

Referencing Thucydides’ famous account of the Spartan commander Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, Bloom mischievously claimed “They have the numbers, we, the heights.” Ranked against him, like the hordes of Persians against those famous 300 Spartans, were “the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp- followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists.” Bloom was of course an avid and familiar reader of the classics. He knew the lesson of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his men held out bravely against vastly larger forces. But ultimately, they lost.

I reprise these hoary old academic arguments at some length primarily because the scale of the defeat is no less total than that at Thermopylae, as Bloom foresaw. Young scholars and readers of literature nowadays, studying the humanities not only in America but across the entire world, are entirely familiar with diversity quotas in curricula, decolonised perspectives and the essential centrality of identity concerns in any scholarly attempt to analyse or examine cultural outputs. They are perhaps aware that in ye olden tymes of yore, white men sought to triage their own cultural work above all others, and to the exclusion of all others, or so they are taught. They are perhaps less aware that a mere generation ago, these issues were still a matter of hot cultural debate. Nowadays, they seem entirely settled.

And if there ever was a literary genre in which the issues were argued first and settled first, it was science fiction. Even as the canon wars were raging, scholars like Tom Moylan were proposing that not only was science fiction fundamentally utopian, but that it actually functioned as a literary arm of politically progressive activism. In the previous decade, Darko Suvin had identified Marxist estrangement as a core descriptor of the genre itself.

Practitioners of SF were hardly divorced from the interests of scholars either. The New Wave, which came to prominence alongside the 60s counterculture and can in some ways be seen as analogous to it, was overt in its aspirations to transgress not only established cultural and literary norms, but established genre traditions too. Out went Tolkienian fantasy – too Christian, inherently racist – and the space opera narratives of a previous generation were abandoned for pessimistic inner space narratives, in which psychological insight and experimentalism reigned.

But the genre that the New Wave were writing in response to had in their turn thought themselves to be at the vanguard of progressivism. The aspirations of space travel, and the ever-present technophilia of the kind of SF fostered and promoted by firstly Hugo Gernsback and later John Campbell in the US pulps was not a backward-looking endorsement of the status quo but a radical attempt to imagine into being a future-focused, technologically enhanced existence via literature.

They too had been influenced in their turn by earlier writers, most especially the utopian fictions of the late 19th century. Texts like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) were so influential over the general public that his socialist ideas for a future 21st century led people to create hundreds of Bellamy clubs to bring his ideas to fruition. For those, like me, who consider SF proper to have become fully established as a literary genre only alongside the development of professionalised science and engineering, this brings us back to the very origins of SF itself.

So has SF always been progressive? Yes, insofar that its future focus predicates it towards topics and ideas which envisage different, better existences (or warn against possible worse ones.) In this sense, it is the truest emanation of the cultural revolution that began back in the Age of Enlightenment, in its attachment to the idea that our existence, assisted by science, ratchets ever forward. But that is not the same as saying that it has always been progressive in the contemporary political understanding of the term. Far from it.

As Jeanette Ng’s acceptance speech for John W. Campbell award for the Best New Writer at this year’s Worldcon in Dublin indicates, the progressivism of the past is far from sufficiently enlightened for many readers and writers of SF today. Condemning the genre-definer after whom her award was named, she slammed the history of SF as “Stale. Sterile. Male. White.” This is an intriguing set of critiques worth examining, especially in light of its mostly enthusiastic reception.

Stale is a legitimate value judgement, though one Harold Bloom would no doubt resist. Every cultural product is of its time and may go stale eventually. Sterile is much less easy to justify. Ng writes in the genre that Campbell helped to bring into being. She is ultimately, like it or no, his cultural offspring in that sense. Male and white are identity descriptors, teetering on the brink of discriminatory judgement. The audience that enthusiastically cheered Ng’s speech was, by odd curiosity, also largely male and white, as SF audiences often tend to be.

With Campbell denounced as a “fucking fascist” from the podium, it was perhaps inevitable that the award was almost instantly renamed. If he was a fascist, and by contemporary standards he certainly held unsavoury views about women and Jewish people in particular, then he was far from alone in his generation. Modernist scholars are well aware of this particular minefield of judging past luminaries through current political perspectives. Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Knut Hamsen and a host of other highly regarded writers all harboured fascist sympathies in that time.

So extensive were those views among the literati of the 1930s that critics like Mark Antcliff have questioned whether Modernism and Fascism might even be considered somewhat synonymous. Is it then truly impossible to disentangle John Campbell, the revolutionary author and editor of SF, from John Campbell, the man with the unsavoury views on Jews and women? Is it not possible to hold two simultaneous perspectives that each have validity? This is the kind of unnuanced judgement Jeanette Ng proffered, and the kind of ideological argument that our current culture wars force us into.

Harold Bloom’s warning from The Western Canon now becomes salutory. We do not right the wrongs of the past by consciously overdetermining race, class or gender. And the best way to serve exploited classes is indeed to serve them without mediation, rather than via some spurious ‘decolonising’ of an entity which by definition was never colonised in the first place. But that is beside the point.

Only an utterly blinkered individual would refuse, on grounds of race or gender, to read the scintillating SF emerging from writers like Cixin Liu or NK Jemisin, or movements like Afrofuturism or Ricepunk. Ng is perfectly correct to note that SF has evolved into a much broader and different space in our contemporary globalised world, with new audiences and authors from far beyond the genre’s Anglo-American origins.

Which brings me back to my rhetorical question – can SF be conservative? This is a term no less loaded than its mirror image, progressive. SF has never sought to conserve anything. It has always aimed to radically envisage different realities and new futures. And as scientific discovery unveils new technologies and understandings of how our world and universe work, so does it render older SF defunct. Where are the Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Philip K Dick? We now know they never were and never could be.

Yearning for the SF of the past therefore runs the risk of becoming somewhat hauntological, to use Derrida’s term. We become haunted by nostalgia for futures that never came to pass. Such things are impossible to conserve, because they never were. But if we accept the argument that SF should aim to accommodate wide-ranging perspectives in order to inspire readers from global cultures, then we must also accept that some among the predominantly white male fandom attending Worldcon may also require authors representing them too. Directing them to authors of the past is simply hauntological.

There is room in the vast halls of SF, to paraphrase what HG Wells once wrote to James Joyce, for us all to be wrong. Despite the astonishingly prescient writings of authors like Arthur C Clarke and JG Ballard, most SF will not prove to be predictive of the future, and indeed nor does it aim to be. The divisive votes for, inter alia, Donald Trump as US President and Brexit in Britain indicate that we live in increasingly polarised societies with world views that often radically clash within the same societies. SF will inevitably emerge from all of these perspectives, and it is only the ideologues among us who view SF as adjunct to political activism who will refuse to engage with writing from alternative viewpoints.

SF may not seek to conserve, but in some ways it has always been conservative. It is, as I have argued in my recent book Science Fiction and Catholicism, deeply anti-Catholic as a genre and always has been. This is by definition a reactionary position. Similarly, the political arguments that can be derived from authors like Robert Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle are notably militaristic and imperialist.

One particular text I have found intriguing in the context of considering the possibility of conservative SF, amid the welter of dystopian SF warnings about the possibility of future theocratic rule, is Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. Wilson’s vision is of a future theocratic America ruled by an imperium, the kind of territory familiar to us from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

In his novel, a new emperor comes to power with a radical yet antiquated vision. Like the Emperor Julian of antiquity, he seeks conservatively to turn back the clock and reinstate a previous mode of governance and thinking. For the classical Julian this was an attempt to displace Christianity with the old Gods of ancient Rome. For Wilson’s hero, it is an attempt to rehabilitate the technology and liberal polity of the 20th century, which has been disowned and lost in his future theocracy, itself a throwback to the 19th century.

The tools of radicalism, liberalism and progressivism in other words may be used to propagate a profoundly conservative world, Wilson argues. He also argues the contrast, that it is possible to seek to conserve radical and progressive world views. Julian Comstock’s reign fails ultimately because he spends too much of his time haunted by the forbidden archives of the banned 20th century. For those who view SF as an adjunct to progressive activism, this can be read as a call to arms, when in fact it is a warning. As John Campbell begins to be memory-holed out of SF history, it is worth recalling that in such divided societies as we now live in, those tactics may operate in two directions.

Harold Bloom’s Western Canon was condemned as an attempt to preserve a narrow and antiquated view of culture, when in fact it had hidden within it a broad range of texts from all sorts of eras, authors, cultures and perspectives, including SF. We dismiss the past at our peril, but fetishizing it is in itself a hauntological danger. SF needs to be both progressive and conservative all at once. Perhaps in doing so, it can also help to dream of futures which could lead our wider polities out of their current destructive polarisation.

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Bibliography:

Antcliff, Mark, “Fascism, Modernism and Modernity”, The Art Bulletin Vol. 84, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 148-169.

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1986.

Bellamy, Edward, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, 1888.

Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987.

Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon, 1994.

Bloom Harold, “They Have The Numbers, We, The Heights”, Boston Review, April 1st 1998.

Clarke, Jim, Science Fiction and Catholicism, 2019.

Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx, 1993.

Moylan, Tom, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, 1986.

Ng, Jeanette, “Acceptance Speech”, Worldcon, Dublin, August 18th, 2019.

Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, 1979.

Wilson, Robert Charles, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America, 2009.

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Bio

Jim Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University, where he teaches SF. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019). He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation: www.ponyingtheslovos.wordpress.com/

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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Against Fat Literature

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Obesity has become a pandemic of worldwide proportions. Apart from a limited percentage of congenital propensity, bad eating habits, lack of physical exercise and a general want of self-discipline seem to be the main causes, while medical warnings are paid little heed. Similarly few seem to be concerned by the parallel pandemic of excessive fat in contemporary literary fiction. Shelves at bookshops are on the verge of collapsing under the weight of huge volumes, each containing thousands of pages, many of them part of series composed of equally ponderous bricks of print. It could be argued that these displays of written thickness are nothing new. In the 19th century, three-deckers were usual in Victorian Britain, and they were avidly read, not only bought to sit pretty on shelves as current best-sellers often are. But the three-deckers of yore tended to be leaner than the hefty best-sellers of today, as their considerable body was composed of muscle rather than fat. They offered a highly diverse and controlled prose combining detailed, atmospheric descriptions, relevant reflections, a slow but fully functional narrative and, above all, meaningful dialogue. What do we find in best-sellers today, for example, in Stephen King’s brick-like books, as well as in most commercial speculative fiction? Mountains of literary fat around a thin narrative backbone hardly able to sustain all that heavy weight.

Readers are forced to swallow page after page of banal conversations adding virtually nothing to the plot or to the sense of the story, narrative utterances enlightening us about actions devoid of any interest, cushioned in lengthy and plain functional novelistic prose entirely lacking the rhetorical devices that have graced literary texts from the dawn of written history. It often seems that computers have eased the physical task of writing so much that these creators of pot-bellied fiction feel that writing is just endlessly putting one word after another in order to outdo each other regarding textual length, without considering that the most useful key on a computer is the ‘delete’ one. Even short stories published in magazines, be it off- or online, suffer from this disease of literary obesity, since the utter banality of best-seller writing has spread to every corner of conventional narrative fiction. One may even come across one-page ‘flash’ stories composed in the gossipy vernacular of discussions by the water-cooler, as if authors were unwilling to appreciate that the art of fiction, as a branch of literature, requires the weighing of each word in such a way that readers intuitively realise that not a single virgula could be altered without changing the meaning and the effect of the whole. One can try this exercise on Ursula K. Le Guin’s or Ted Chiang’s best short stories. The truly literary nature of their language will then become obvious. If we submit George R. R. Martin’s notorious ongoing fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire to the same treatment, we might find that perhaps hundreds of pages of text could be replaced with no stylistic loss; directly suppressing them could constitute a sort of slimming cure that readers keen on the wordsmith’s craft would probably appreciate.

            Who is to blame for this literary pandemic? Publishers would point the finger at readers (or rather, buyers of books). Many of the latter seem, indeed, to acquire books for their weight. They do not see them as works of art, but as merchandises to be valued by the quantity-price ratio, as if they were apples or steaks. Still, relatively short novels were much into fashion from the Edwardian age through the 1950s; for example, the thin early scientific romances by H.G. Wells certainly increased his (and his publisher’s) bank account balance. Popular taste in literature can be changed if big publishing corporations with the power to define the book market decide to do so. Literary magazines, online or otherwise, can also shape the taste of readers by proposing valuable texts created free from undue financial considerations. As television shows such as the refreshingly lean A Game of Thrones (based on the above-mention door-stopper) demonstrate, there is a large public able to appreciate high art in fiction when they are offered it. Why then do so few writers, at least in supposedly commercial genres such as science fiction and fantasy, go ahead and try it? I am afraid that many of them produce fat literature because they choose the path of conventional bliss over the rigour required to build literary muscle: authors who attend workshops on writing formulaic best-sellers, who do not read any other language than their own and are thus unable to understand how their own mother tongue works by comparison, who begin producing works without any direct knowledge of literary classics, including in the particular genre they try their hands on, and above all, who want to write for a living, instead of having the freedom to write only when they feel the inner need to do so. They force themselves onto a perfunctory and mercenary trajectory to pay for their bills, following publishers’ directions instead of their own heart and literary conscience. It is not to be denied that some professional writers, especially in the past, were able to produce apt literary works on command. However, reading anthologies for which authors have been asked to write on a particular topic indicates that it is rarely the case nowadays. The same applies to texts where each word is paid for: it is all too human to fill up the page with as many as possible, even if unnecessary, in order to receive a few more cents. Under these conditions, literary fat is unavoidable.

            Describing an evil is always easier than devising ways to fight it. Textual obesity is so pervasive today that it is hard to escape it. Nevertheless, some familiarity with literary history can yield hints for possible solutions. Firstly: greater length does not necessarily imply greater literary value, and sometimes brevity achieves the best impact. A couple of examples might suffice. Augusto Monterroso’s “The dinosaur” is a masterpiece of fantastic/speculative fiction thanks to its generating, through just one line of text, several distinct imaginary worlds, depending on the perspective and the context to be imagined by the reader: “Upon awakening, the dinosaur was still there” (my translation). In its mere seven surviving lines of verse, the Old Armenian song of Vahagn can boast of a literary intensity rarely seen in longer epic/mythological poems from anywhere in the world. Certainly, shortness is not a guarantee of value either, but at least less of the readers’ time is wasted.

            Another radical measure would be to submit fiction writing to a discursive discipline akin to the one to be found in non-fictional reports by transposing to fiction the diverse rhetoric of non-fictional genres, from prescriptive texts such as Mark Twain’s “Etiquette for the Afterlife: Advice to Paine” to fictional documents written using the style of natural (e.g. Isaac Asimov’s “The Marvellous Properties of Thiotimoline”) or formal sciences (e.g. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics”), as well as of social sciences such as historiography (e.g. Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyborian Age”), mythography (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Ainulindalë”), philology (e.g. H.P. Lovecraft’s “The History of the Necronomicon”) or anthropology (e.g. Horace Mitchell Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”). Being highly formalised, the ‘factual’ writing of fiction imposes a linguistic discipline preventing the risk of imprecision and arbitrariness all too common in current novelistic writing. Particularly in science fiction, what can convey the idea of science better than ‘scientific writing’? Through the fusion of scientific discourse and fictional contents, this is to say, science and fiction, fictionalising science can be used to expand both our minds and our literary sensibilities. Thus we may grow to appreciate the literary potential of a variety of written discourses, without the inherent limitations of the incorrect, but nowadays commonly held belief that ‘fiction equals novel’, especially the fat kind. It is high time to let readers find tastier fiction off the well-trodden paths, just as they can find tastier food if they make the effort to look beyond the hamburger, pizza and soda diet with which multinationals are fattening us to premature death. Fat literature does not kill our body, but it threatens our taste and spirit. Literary obesity is an affliction worth combatting, and Sci Phi Journal is pleased to re-join the fight.

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Of infinity, literature and math

Magazine reader Gene pointed everyone in the Facebook discussion to this interesting article on Infinities in literature and mathematics by Jorge Alejandro Laris Pardo. I’ve always found the idea of the infinite interesting, but i’m a theist so the question comes up a bit when thinking about things like omnipotence and eternity.

During this past month, I was having a conversation with a couple of friends who study Latin-American Literature, and I noticed that they were having a hard time understanding how a literary work can have infinite critical interpretations, while at the same time not all its interpretations are critical. Apparently they found this to be contradictory.
I was shocked by their confusion, because to me the idea in question is almost self-evident. But later I came to acknowledge the fact that my friends, who are schooled in the humanities, have little if any notion of the mathematical idea of the infinite. For that reason, I suggest in this essay that the humanities can learn something from the concept of infinities in mathematics.
The problem with Romanticism’s concept of the Infinite
According to Alain Badiou, the history of Western philosophy can be divided into two great periods. First, the era before and including Kant, when mathematical reasoning was considered a singular way of thinking that interrupted the predominance of opinion — or, to put it in philosophical jargon, of Doxa — in philosophical reasoning. And second, the post-Kant era, which gave birth to Romanticism, which was consummated by Hegel, whose philosophical system is powered at its core by the schism between math and philosophy. Following Badiou [1], this schism also lies at the core of 19th century positivism and modern radical empiricism — because arguments put forth by these movements just flip to the other side of the same coin without really solving the problem — and has greatly impacted contemporary thinking, especially in the humanities.

Read the rest.