Contents Index

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Karl Kroeber

Chapter 2 of Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 9-30.

Pardon this intrusion
-- First articulate speech of Frankenstein's Monster
{9} The genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy overlap and interpenetrate. All literary genres are impure, each partaking of diverse formal modalities, but fantasy and science fiction are especially intertwined because they have a common origin.1 Yet only by recognizing how they differ can we understand the significance of their opposite responses to the triumphant humanizing of Western post-Renaissance culture. All commentators on science fiction (and this is a substantial number, for of currently popular literary genres it is the one most systematically analyzed, cataloged, classified, -- in a word, most scientifically studied) agree that the key to the genre is extrapolation2 The writer of science fiction extends or projects or draws inferences from what is known and accepted (and the primary known fact of the modern world is that humanity dominates our globe). The science fiction writer extrapolates scientifically, of course, which means that he or she employs the basic style of scientific discourse -- analytical, reportorial exposition: his basic form is scientific reportage.3

Fantasy responds to the same circumstance of humanity's technological triumph differently, leading some critics to think of fantasy simply as a looking backward. But fantasy, although it may try to recover a lost sense for otherness, turns inward {10} rather than backward. Fantasy is a primary form of literary self-reflexivity. It explores the deepest implication of oxymoron rather than attempting extrapolation. Fantasy involves its author in self-enchantment, which leads the fantasist toward a discourse distinct from the realistic, rationalistic, expository forms that undergird science fiction. Fantasy tends toward self-involuting procedures, and these often result in complex structures parallel to, though totally distinct from, the intricacies of earlier narrational modes, such as the Beowulfian interlacings to which I refer below. But Romantic fantasy is not nostalgic, for it arises from consciousness of a need to go beyond earlier, simpler, less self-contesting beliefs in the possibility of otherness. Romantic fantasy can only use earlier modes for inspiration, as means for focusing the skeptical intelligence on which scientific, technological thinking is founded against itself, thus deliberately and self-consciously creating a reality it understands to be impossible.

The Beowulfian Monster

Most of the multitude of critics of science fiction treat Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) as the premier prototype of the twentieth-century genre.4 Besides making use of the most exciting advanced science of its day, the novel introduces the best-known of the many modern monsters who in science fiction so often replace the commonplace human figures of nineteenth-century realistic fiction. The monster is a key feature of science fiction. In earlier literature monsters are rare. Among the ugly few in our tradition Caliban is the most famous, but Grendel in Beowulf most illuminatingly contrasts with Shelley's creature. The contrast is especially attractive because when Shelley wrote she knew nothing of Grendel, since Beowulf had not yet been rescued by scholarship from its profound obscurity.

Appropriately enough, Grendel inhabits a mist-shrouded borderland, and his appearance is not distinctly visualized, although his habitat is hauntingly evoked.5

Mysterious is the region They live in -- of wolf-fells, wind-picked moors And treacherous fen-paths; a torrent of water pours down dark cliffs and plunges into the earth, an underground flood. It is not far from here, in terms of miles, that the Mere lies, overcast with dark, crag-rooted trees that hang in groves hoary with frost. An uncanny sight may be seen at night there -- the fire in the water! . . . . And the wind can stir up wicked storms there, whipping the swirling waters up till they climb the clouds and clog the air, making the skies weep. (94)
Grendel's "terrible, fearsome" nature is mysterious, except that, because he is linked to Satan and Cain -- some of his epithets are "fiend in hell" (1012) and "demon in hell" (1247a) -- he is unmistakably evil. These features distinguish Grendel from some prominent monsters of classical Mediterranean cultures, say the Medusa, or the Cyclops who appears in the Odyssey. These Grecian monsters are delineated clearly and decisively situated: they are not borderlanders. Even their family connections are well established, Polyphemus, for instance, being respectably related to Poseidon. Nor, though dangerous and destructively frightful, are these creatures presented as evil in the way Grendel is. Medusa and Polyphemus of course are pre-Christian. But in part so too is Grendel, for his marginality and indistinctness arise from spiritual as well as geographical sources.

Grendel's chilling dangerousness is deepened and complicated by his Teutonic heritage: Hrothgar regards him as an intruder, but Grendel may have a better claim to being indigenous. Grendel, in fact, concretizes the intermixing of Christian and pagan cultures which Beowulf as a whole so superbly dramatizes, so superbly that scholars continue to quarrel violently over the dialectical clashing.6 Suffice it to say here that no other poem enables us to feel more keenly how diverse cultures can combine, thereby reminding us that most societies in fact support "impure" cultures consisting of layerings of distinct ways of life.

{12} Indeed, if one has ever wondered, as I have, how Christianity could so successfully have imposed itself on the vigor of Germanic peoples, Beowulf may be especially illuminating, its final lines for example epitomizing the process:

They said that he was of all the world's kings the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame. (151)
Beowulf is heroic both in a pagan, physical sense and in a Christian, spiritual sense, for he is a killer who is kind. Unlike classical epic heroes who are heroic because they succeed, Beowulf's heroism incorporates a final crushing failure into his victory so that his heroism calls itself into question, thereby adding a tragic dimension to the heroic. As Arthur Brodeur says:
It is more than the death of Beowulf which constitutes the tragedy . . . his tragedy is that he dies in vain . . . his death brings in its train the overthrow of his people.7
That the tragic aspect of his career owes most to sources in German mythology is suggested by the circumstance that his great battles are not against men but against monsters, Grendel and his mother, and the nonmonstrous but totally alien dragon. And Beowulf himself is represented as a bearlike man in whose hands the best swords shatter. He thus retains, as Aeneas, Odysseus and Achilles do not, direct links with natural conditions only partially overcome by the cultural achievements of his society, though in its technology and sociological complexity his society is richer than that celebrated in the Homeric poems.

Beowulf, unlike the heroes of Greek and Roman epic, literally grapples with the ahuman. Because he does so, his story resonates with the peculiar potency of a Germanic mythological system in which men and gods together struggle against strange if natural beings of another kind, even to final mutual destruction. Such undertones throughout Beowulf endow with powerful complexity the poem's seemingly oversimple Christian morality that pits unqualified goodness against indisputable evil, the godly against the satanic.

Thematic and structural intricacy enable us to imagine how {13} seemingly antagonistic systems may interact and become mutually reinforcing. Grendel is profoundly evil because his links to Satan and Cain simultaneously reflect his connection to the dark forces which threatened Asgard, whose fate was finally Beowulf's violent destruction. Even if one insists that there may be implicit in his death a redemptive idealism foreign to Teutonic mythology, Beowulf's virtue at best is complicated, partaking of diverse, even contradictory, systems of ideals. And the threat posed by his monstrous antagonists is as complicated.

It is not surprising, then, that the poem possesses a remarkably intricate form of structural and thematic self-crossings, an interlacing of antitheses so that diversely intersecting macro and micro oppositions simultaneously contrast and parallel, both reflect and refract one another. It is appropriate that unlike the Homeric dactylic hexameter and its Latin successor, Beowulf's basic metrical unit is two unequal half-lines joined by similar initial sounds in two or three syllables, its line thus shaped with irregular regularity around a caesura, a gap in sound, a silence, an absence. This key linear emptiness, as Tolkien I believe first suggested, is magnified into the fifty-year silence in the narrative line that contains the untold story of Beowulf's successful reign, a silence crucial to the linkage, both linear and cyclical, of elements of the poem's opening section to its conclusion, contrastive parallelism emphasized by the funerals which begin and end the poem and concretize how it dramatizes simultaneous success and defeat. And of course the untold history in the narrative line occurs slightly off center, past the poem's midpoint, so that the whole is constituted by two unequal though interreflecting parts. Such internal symmetry of asymmetry between theme and form recurs in every one of the work's structural systems, most impressively in the intertwining by which stories weave into and out of one another, one temporarily obscuring another as it crosses over it, and even different phases of the same narrative overlapping itself, as events and the telling of events interlace to create a unique vision of a society not merely existing but also being imagined, so that both its past and its future are always darkly but portentously imaged in its present. On the microcosmic level of word and line the poem is {14} most powerful when most self-involuting, as when Heorot is imagined destroyed even as being built.

Boldly the hall reared its arched gables; unkindled the torch-flame that turned it to ashes. (53)
Equivalent formal-thematic catachreses recur throughout the macrostructure of episodes, perhaps most strikingly in the depiction of the defeat and dispersion of Beowulf's people after his fatal triumph over the dragon.
No fellow shall wear an arm ring in his memory; no maiden's neck shall be enhanced in beauty by the bearing of these rings. Bereft of gold, rather, and in wretchedness of mind she shall tread continually the tracks of exile now that the leader of armies has laid aside his mirth, his sport and glad laughter. Many spears shall therefore feel cold in the mornings to the clasping fingers and the hands that raise them. Nor shall the harper's melody arouse them for battle; and yet the black raven quick on the marked men, shall have much to speak of when he tells the eagle of his takings at the feast where he and the wolf bared the bodies of the slain.


Frankenstein's Monster

I have hastily enumerated some aspects of Beowulf's artistry because the poem's structures and deployments of thematic strategies stand in the starkest contrast to systems of science fiction, the contrast providing efficient means for understanding the nature and function of the later genre. Frankenstein, for {15} example, is truly prototypical of later science fiction precisely in owing so little, substantively or stylistically, to earlier epic and romance. Shelley's work is closely bound to the forms of realistic prose fiction, forms that dominated later eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European literature. Epical or romance modes of discourse diverge from those favored in science fiction, because these poetic genres tend away from the simple lucidity of language toward which scientific discourse aspires. As Aldous Huxley puts it, the scientist "uses the vocabulary and syntax of common speech in such a way that each phrase is susceptible of only one interpretation."8 Or, as Parrinder observes, predisposed toward the style of reportage,9 science fiction regularly avoids complexity of form, especially the complexity, I would add, so intriguingly manifest in Beowulfian circling self-intersections. Science fiction's stylistic simplicity is illuminated by the nature of its monsters, of which Frankenstein's is one of the more memorable. Science fiction monsters tend not to be borderland creatures, only temporarily mysterious, and seldom unequivocally evil (however dangerous) -- in short un-Grendelian. The nature of modern monstrousness is quite different from that frightful otherness Grendel embodies, as is revealed by the central portion of Shelley's novel, chapters 11 through 15, the segment usually eliminated from dramatizations, in which the monster's education is detailed.10

In these chapters, Shelley's garrulous creature persuades Victor Frankenstein that he is not, like Grendel, naturally evil, but has been educated into murderousness. As I listen to the monster, I am tempted to regard him as a victim of the myth of the noble savage, for his autobiography is a conventionalized representation of why the self-consciousness demanded by advanced society is a blighting curse, not a blessing. Describing his gradual acquiring of skill in using his senses, for example, he reports that originally he was intensely responsive to the beauties of nature, so uncorrupted that of his first pastoral meal he enjoyed all but the wine (101). His own needs are so benignly simple that he cannot at first understand why the cottagers, whom he secretly watches and learns from, regret the loss of {16} unnecessary luxuries. Nature seems to him so bountiful that even their level of retired life breeds superfluous desires. As he goes on observing the bucolic existence of Felix, Agatha, and their father, the monster's sentiments evolve generously: his empathy with their joys and sorrows is entirely benevolent. When he comprehends that his innocent stealing has caused the cottagers pain, he becomes self-sacrificing and labors to provide selflessly for their needs (106). Sensually, emotionally, morally he is, so he tells his maker, naturally pure, kind, good.

Corruption results from the development of the monster's reasoning intellect. He begins as a natural poet delighting in the songs of birds (99), and he is delighted when first exposed to the cottagers singing and playing. But when he hears prose read aloud he describes it, ominously, as "sounds that were monotonous" (104). When he learns French, he is taught to his dismay by Volney's Ruins of Empires that human societies are distinguished by arbitrary social inequities, and that men are usually esteemed only for their wealth, social position, or physical beauty (p. 114). These observations turn the creature's mind to self-reflection. He realizes with agony that poor, outcast and ugly as he is he cannot expect to be esteemed by mankind. Miserable, he wishes he had never left his uncultivated condition and that he could forget his learning. And the more he advances in knowledge, the more he is afflicted. The Sorrows of Young Werther teaches him to anticipate emotional isolation because of his acute sensibility, while Paradise Lost suggests that although he may be a type of Adam, because he possesses no chance of redemption, he is closer to the position of Satan, but even more painfully situated than the archfiend because he lacks companions in woe (p. 124). Growing self-awareness encourages growing self-loathing. His self-alienation is climaxed by the cottagers' horrified rejection of him. The creature had dared to hope his refined sensibility, keen intellect, and benevolent feelings would attract their sympathy, for he knows that they themselves have undergone unjustified suffering. But they are revolted by his physical appearance. So culture, intellect, and civilized sensibilities lead to the destruction of his naturally good, kindly, pure being and turn him into a monster.

Victor Frankenstein as Monster

{17} The decisive event of the creature's life, then, is his rejection by human beings dwelling in rather idyllic conditions, their rejection precipitated simply by his ugliness. His deformity masks profound goodness, just as the handsomeness of the cottagers, he learns, conceals their essential timorousness and repressed rage. If we decide to believe the monster (though his tale is uncorroborated, because it is his enemy who reports his account, we are not unreasonable in accepting his story), we are then compelled to wonder how accurately Victor Frankenstein's story of his idyllic upbringing accords with genuine reality. We must wonder whether his autobiography may not unconsciously reveal a deceptiveness in civilized life, if the beauty he describes may not conceal some ugly attributes, as does the ideal life of the cottagers. Victor's story, in fact, displays to us, though not to him, why and how respectable bourgeois society produces creators of monstrousness.

Of reciprocal understanding, let alone love, there is scarcely a trace in the noncommunicating Frankenstein family, whom we are told are leading figures in Geneva's commercial society. Victor's father saves Caroline Beaufort, because their society allows a woman no means to support herself, and her father dies because of his shame at his mere bad luck in mercantile ventures, a shame that apparently prevents him from perceiving how selfishly he ruins his daughter's existence. Any doubts about the older Frankenstein's true motives in marrying Caroline are erased when the happy couple in effect buy Elizabeth Lavenza as a "pretty present" (35) for Victor, justifying their action by contemplating the advantages they thus bestow on her, a most dubious one being betrothal to Victor. Victor aptly describes Elizabeth as the "inmate of my parent's house" (18), but being prisoner there may be better than being subjected to his possessive affection: "I . . . looked upon Elizabeth as mine -- mine to protect love and cherish. All praises bestowed on her I received as made to a possession of my own." (35).

The true quality of Frankensteinian affection and responsibility is dramatized by the family's effective abandonment of {18} Justine, a faithful servant wrongly accused of the murder of William on the basis of flimsy evidence. Despite her long service to the family and the absence of serious motive, Victor's father, while professing confidence in her innocence, does nothing to save her. He urges Elizabeth (who not being a Frankenstein is passionately concerned for Justine and tries to act in her behalf) to "rely on the justice of our laws" -- which promptly condemn the innocent girl to death -- "and the activity with which I shall prevent the slightest shadow of partiality" (77). The meaning of his final phrase appears in his, and Victor's, failure to speak any word at the public trial in defense of Justine's character. This nonaction disguised by specious concern for judicious procedures is of a piece with the placing of Victor's father over the mantelpiece in his dressing room a painting he had commissioned of Caroline Beaufort "in an agony of despair; kneeling by the coffin of her dead father" (75). Presumably this charming memento will keep his "beloved" wife mindful of how much she owes to him.

The Frankensteins produce a full-blown monster in Victor, who climactically manifests the family's morbid traits. In a manner worthy of his father he extols calm rationality, "a human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity." (54), while behaving with uncontrolled violence. He becomes obsessed with his monster, obsessed because he refuses to acknowledge it openly, resists confronting the reality of his relation to it. He creates the monster with little thought of any consequences beyond that of securing his fame and the gratitude he would be able to "claim from those he created" (52, 53). He literally rushes away from the creature as soon as he has produced it, frightened by behavior that to a neutral observer seems an appeal for comfort and affection. Thereafter Victor tries to forget the creature completely. He tries so hard that he finds it virtually impossible to speak of it. He passionately desires to believe that the monster does not actually exist, that it is but a product of his imagining. Victor's attitude produces disastrous consequences, but it is exactly that of most modern critics, of whom Harold Bloom is representative when he observes that "the {19} monster and his creator are antithetical halves of a single being."11 Bloom thus accomplishes for Victor the derealization Victor desires, in effect denying the reality of his responsibility to another being -- a leading trait of the Frankenstein family.12

Mary Shelley's novel is prototypical of subsequent science fiction because it represents so powerfully how our modern, scientific technological society dehumanizes itself -- even in its literary criticism. In Frankenstein one observes how human beings have become the sole -- but quite sufficient -- threat to humanity, self-destroyers through their own creations. And the essential modernity of Mary Shelley's vision is nowhere plainer than at the climax of Victor's scientific career, when he decides finally not to make a mate for the monster. One could say that he may be Oppenheimer but will not be Teller, because Frankenstein's motive for deconstructing his female monster is concern for the survival of his species.

Even if they [monster and mate] were to leave Europe and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the demon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations? . . . I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race. (158-59)
Frankenstein thinks of neither his family nor local community, because in fact neither for him have any reality. He thinks in terms of self and race. But given the self-deceptions in his social and domestic behavior, one is forced to look skeptically at his claim of noble motive, which is an appeal, after all, to an abstraction. The very force of the monster's argument that his singleness makes him monstrous should cause us to reflect that a person such as Frankenstein, a self-isolating being apparently incapable of meaningful relations with anyone else, merely {20} conceals his emotional impotence from himself by asserting his special responsibility to mankind at large. A man who, when the monster warns him, "I will be with you on your wedding night" [3.3.4], ignores even the possibility of a threat to his betrothed, seems committed to socially menacing self-deception.

Frankenstein's concern for his race is the obverse of his solipsistic egoism. To define one's humanity in terms of an abstract universal such as one's species, whether the reference be biological or psychological, and not in any way in terms of what is limitedly and contingently shared with other specific individuals -- the way, of course that the monster wished to define himself -- is to risk making the concept of humanity a mask for monstrous behavior. Beginning with dreams of being celebrated as a benefactor -- "I should . . . pour a torrent light into our dark world. A new species would me as its creator and source; . . . No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs (51,52-53) -- Victor concludes his idealistic account with an act, destroying the female creature, that ominously foreshadows Mr. Kurtz's epilogue to his idealistic treatise on bringing enlightenment to the African natives in Heart of Darkness: "Exterminate all the brutes!"

Science Fiction's Desocialized Narrative

Interpretations of Shelley's novel that treat the monster as Frankenstein's double, now perhaps the favorite interpretation, make impossible any ethical condemnation of Frankenstein. Modern critics like to define Victor as he would prefer to define himself, as victim, not as someone necessarily engaged in specific personal and particularized social responsibilities. But the cogency of the issue Shelley poses harshly -- what is the validity of an appeal to the good of the species? -- in our century of nuclear and chemical weapons is beyond dispute.13 In fact, objections to the hydrogen bomb were couched in terms drawn from Shelley's novel: James B. Conant opposed construction by saying, "we built one Frankenstein."14 An important function of science fiction, though it has been little remarked upon by literary critics, has been to pose such issues to our imagination, issues which in {21} earlier times unafflicted and unbenefited by triumphs of scientific/technological powers one could scarcely raise.

Once again a contrast with Beowulf helps to clarify the special significance of science fiction, because sociofamilial relations are so central to the Anglo-Saxon poem. Fratricide threatens the Beowulfian world at every turn, though fratricide's possible psychic causes are not explored. Feuds, which the poem represents as an extended form of the fratricidal impulse, are terrible precisely because they disintegrate the center of social relations: broken family and broken society are in Beowulf intrareflective. Feud, the self-conflict of the social group, is the focus of ethical issues in the poem as appears even in its form. For Beowulf consists of a third-person narration by a teller never unwilling to proclaim that his story is a retelling of what he had been told by others --

Straightaway -- as I have heard the son of Weoxstan obeyed his wounded lord . . . I heard of the plundering of the hoard in the knoll --

just as he begins "We have heard of the thriving," only gradually moving into first-person narration as the poem progresses. The interlocked chain of retellings of retellings that constitutes the poem itself helps to hold society together. Public renarration is a form in which ethical self-examination and affirmation help to establish continuity of the group. Indeed a narrative's "expressive intonation" (to use Bakhtin's terminology) reveals with peculiar clarity the actually functioning -- as distinct from abstract definition of -- the ethical dynamics of the society that sponsors its retelling and rereception. The teller is author of this particular telling, but the preexistent story he tells "authors" him. For such a teller solipsism is impossible.15 Frankenstein, in absolute contrast consists of an encapsulated series of solipsistic monologues which at decisive points are linked only by coincidence. Walton's chance encounter with Frankenstein in the Arctic, for example, is meaningful chiefly through symbolic parallelism, his ambition parallels Victor's, or symbolic contrast, icy waste against cottage in verdant woods. Such thematic {22} symbolizing reinforces our sense that what is most monstrous in the novel is neither its strange creature, nor even his diseased creator, but a basic moral incoherence in the society that produces both.

To display social incoherence pretending to sophisticated organizedness seems a driving force behind much of the best science fiction -- Zamyatin's We being an outstanding instance. The observation helps to explain why the genre's aesthetic basis has persistently remained expository realism.16 Science fiction appropriately uses language in unrecursive narrative forms and a direct style of reportage because it extrapolates from scientific and technological conditions favoring such modes of representation as closest to reality. The literary form adapts from its technological model an assumption of uncomplicated relations between language and what it represents. But the assumption, in fact, manifests how through science and technology humans dehumanize themselves, for a denial of the intricate dubiety of linguistic representation of either physical or psychic phenomena denigrates the complexity of human communication and the awesome diversity of its functions.

The predominant style of science fiction then alerts us to the profound paradox of its favored themes: it seems to deal with alien forms, monsters, Martians, green spores from Alpha Centauri, mutants in distant galaxies, and the like, but all these are in fact only means for dramatizing how our world has become so exclusively humanized as to be self-diseased. The Martians, mutants, and intelligent spores are extrapolations of our frighteningly practical imaginative power as it is expressed in a technological and scientific progress that annihilates otherness.

Mary Shelley's novel, composed of intersecting and symbolically related yet isolated narratives, foretells the essential form of science fiction as desocialized narrative. Whether employing impersonal reportage or private monologue, science fiction is a form ill suited for articulating dialogic consciousness. Again Beowulf supplies a handy contrast, for when in the 1970s John Gardner retold the story in Grendel he limited himself, or, better, the circumstances of the time limited him, to telling from Grendel's point of view. Gardner's narrative perspective, that is {23} to say, humanizes the monster, which, of course is to make the monstrous human. Gardner thereby dramatizes what most decisively separates science fiction from fantasy, for fantasy seeks to develop a vision of a world in which humans cohabit with nonhumans, rather than extrapolating as science fiction does, contemporary processes of self-dehumanizing. Because the fantasist gains some sense of sharing existence with the other-than-human, the fantasist arrives at a formal position analogous to that of the Beowulf poet, who dwells where strange creatures are natural, even though they may be hateful to man and god. Because the science fiction writer, like the fantasist, starts from an enchantment-deprived condition, by extrapolation he cannot arrive at significant otherness, for in the modern world there is nothing that matters but rationalized humanity and its products. Extrapolation can lead only to revelation of more extreme effects of human success, the ultimate being humanity's self-destruction.

The paradox that our progress can dehumanize us may be clarified by an analogy with biologists' explanation of extreme variations in species' populations. One form of caterpillar, say, begins to flourish. Its numbers expand each year and it increasingly overwhelms competing organisms, until, finally, a particular environment is dominated by this one kind of caterpillar. The result is rapid exhaustion of food supply and desperate intraspecies struggles. Climactic growth of numbers is followed by a quick collapse that diminishes the population below its original normal level. Cultural dehumanization, of course, is neither so mechanical nor so purely a material process, but that it is subtler in its operation makes it no less dangerous. What is perhaps most pernicious about technological progress is that it brings indubitable intellectual as well as physical benefits, so that literary responses to it are driven into paradoxical modes, such as the subversive oxymoron of fantasy.

That progress may all too effectively dehumanize us must be seen as a fundamental problematic at the heart of science fiction's extrapolations. The genre's sustaining paradox is that its aliens are not really strange. They are, most commonly, disguised human beings of different times, places, or metaphysical {24} persuasions. These false aliens are, at best, foreigners, not others: "rather than a confrontation with a radical other . . . we have to do with an outsider constituted as such within a specific historical situation."17 By time or space travel we are carried away from the earthly otherness of fantasy, for the creatures of fantasy are not foreigners; they are native, however alien to humans. The dragon in Beowulf, for example, has lived in Beowulf's kingdom longer than the hero.

The Future of The Time Machine

My distinction between science fiction and fantasy exalts neither at the expense of the other. The forms embody two responses to the same historical circumstance, humankind's domination of the natural world, so completely that it becomes difficult to conceive of beings other than humans, or of nonhuman modes of existence, or even to imagine what might be termed "magic," in the sense of occurrences not answerable to humankind's rational analyses and naturalistic explanations. So it is not surprising that science fiction has become the more popular and often attempted genre in our century. Of this trend the most spectacular settings of Frankenstein are prophetic -- the highest Alps, the remotest Hebrides, and arctic wastelands: even by 1818 there was very little unhumanized space left on the globe. And the pace has accelerated. The original film King Kong of the early thirties presented Kong as a danger, but in the remake of the early 1970s he appears as an endangered species to be protected. And Kong's transformation into something like an oversized snail darter calls attention to the importance of the life sciences to science fiction, as is apparent already in Frankenstein, which also displays a bias toward the kind of technology favored by science fiction. But both of these features are even more vividly illustrated in H. G. Wells's first "scientific romance," commonly treated as paradigmatic of the genre in the twentieth century, The Time Machine.18

Wells's title says it all. Science fiction does not require much gadgetry, yet the genre can flourish only in a technological civilization, for the machine is the preeminent manifestation of {25} humankind's capacity for dehumanizing itself. And processes of mechanical reproduction are always important to the genre -- Frankenstein could have made another monster, and very nearly did. The making of one time machine implies the possibility of others, even, perhaps, mass production and finally inexpensive Japanese models. So, too, the seemingly unique adventure of a typical science fiction story possesses a peculiar quality: it, or something very much like it, could happen to someone else. A second time traveler who reached the year 802,701 would face essentially the same situation with Eloi and Morlocks as Wells's original traveler. This repeatable quality is not a defect but a sign of the genre's adherence to realism, as our scientific society defines reality. Without a potential of reiterability the experience of a distant place or time could not to a scientific mind seem entirely authentic.19 Extrapolation of scientific attitudes implies emphasis on replicability, and the work of art of an age of mechanical reproduction appropriately diminishes the importance of uniqueness. In this regard, science fiction is the opposite of myth, myth being timeless because it represents the beginning of time; in myth a unique event establishes a future pattern.

The replicable and unmythic character of science fiction is interestingly suggested by the most poetic touch in The Time Machine, the flowers the traveler inadvertently brings back in his pocket, whose origin could well be a speculation of Coleridge's, "If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found the flower in his hand when he awoke -- Aye! and what then?" But the year 802,701 is unmistakably not paradise, so that the poignance of Wells's flowers lies in their suggestion of a possibility of return, whereas Coleridge's flower reminds us of the mystery of the gulf separating fallen man and lost divinity. We are asked to imagine Wells's flowers as real, meaning testable by scientific means, as in the story it is suggested that they be so scientifically tested. Coleridge's flower is other, something belonging nowhere in our botany.

Time is as important to science fiction as the machine, and Well's romance makes it plain that it is essentially Darwinian time on which the genre depends.20 The Time Machine is a {26} brilliant imagining of a course of evolution on earth given the scientifically understood nature of our solar system. Hence the story's most compelling episode is not the main one involving the Eloi and Morlocks but the brief trip beyond to the cooling globe where all but the most elementary life forms have perished. This apparently unfunctional passage (originally added by Wells at an editor's request) powerfully seizes the imagination because it portrays the inevitable end of earthly life as biological and geological sciences must extrapolate it.21 Without denying the influence on Wells of the depressing second law of thermodynamics, I would suggest that his principal orientation is determined by his recognizing that the scientific imagination, because it is scientific, is obligated to rigorous following through of a particular sequence of causes and effects to their farthest foreseeable consequences, however unpleasant these may be. Entropy aside, the true darkness implicit in evolutionary thinking is not that it implies humankind emerged from lower organisms, but that it must postulate man's transiency. Evolutionary thinking is frightening because it expands our capacity to imagine our inevitable natural doom. Only man, it has often been observed, imagines his death. Perhaps only modern man has been able fully and exactly to imagine the natural extinction of his species. It is this awful power that science fiction taps.

Revealing of how deeply Darwinianism enters into Wells's art is his fine though little-known story, "Æpyornis Island," first published in 1894 (see Appendix 1). The story, out of print for more than seventy-five years, not only points up Wells's fascination with zoology but his shrewd insight into the commercialization of scientific collecting empowered by Darwinian ideas. That commercialization serves, furthermore, to focus attention on the apparent paradox of the modern western European's brutal contempt for primitive people manifesting itself in a scientific endeavor to preserve fossil evidence of earlier forms of life. Few brief stories illustrate so vividly the savage paradoxes of progress that are the secret springs of science fiction, while providing so cogent a stylistic contrast of the genre's realism with self-involuting intricacy of the best fantasy writing, manifested, for instance, in Garcia Márquez's "The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship."

{27} The Time Machine, however, displays more poignantly how germane to science fiction is Frankenstein's representation of the impossibility of our ceasing to use our imaginations, even when so imagining tends to our distress rather than satisfaction. And the genre is best understood as literature focused on why science is now our fate, because science is our most systematized effort to realize the unique capabilities (for good or ill) of humankind. What the modern age must face more directly than any earlier epoch is the threatening pressure exerted on us by our very gift for conceiving future possibilities.

Well's novel proves that Victor Frankenstein's inconsistency foretells our own. Condemning scientific accomplishment on the ground of its catastrophic results one moment, the next Victor endorses scientific aspiration:

Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes yet another may succeed. (206)
Nuclear destruction appears our likely destiny today, yet how many blame Einstein for writing to Roosevelt the letter that started us along this road? If we would condemn Victor Frankenstein, as I believe we should, we must recognize that in so doing we condemn ourselves -- and some such critique, I believe, lurks in the depth of the best science fiction.

With the development of modern scientific thought, imagination was liberated to explore the future. It is only with the emergence of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century, however, that this mode of imagining could reach fulfillment. Only then could a literary genre thoroughly engaged with rational conceptions of our species' destiny elaborate itself. This is why virtually all the best science fiction is, explicitly or implicitly, a kind of time travel, an exploration into possible significances of living beings functioning in a transformatively developmental fashion. Both the individual and groups of individuals are represented in a perspective of species evolution, which, as in Wells's Time Machine, may of course become devolution. Most works in this genre focus on a projected future, {28} or on the collocation of individuals or groups at diverse evolutionary stages, these defined either in directly biological terms or with cultural stages superimposed. And because science fiction is thus a post-Darwinian genre, its affiliations with earlier literary forms are at best tenuous. Earlier travelers to the moon, or shrewd visitors from exotic lands certainly encountered cultural differences, but never were these represented as involved with evolutionary processes. Whatever Beowulf's dragon may be, it does not in the Anglo-Saxon poem appear as a primitive life form. Science fiction, significantly, begins to flourish when the concept of the primitive emerges as a potent intellectual force, at the end of the nineteenth century -- an event, as I observe later, destructive to fantasy.

Plain Style and Depersonalized Characterization

Science fiction's evolutionary tendency, along with its bias toward the repeatable and away from the unique, helps to explain why the genre, as shrewder critics have pointed out, so seldom develops individual characterizations.22 Technological development may seem to make the individual independent of social needs. But in a technological society, in fact, differentiation of individuals is of negative value. A computer, for instance, works best if its operators all behave in the same way. Science fiction is perhaps the literary form that most vividly reflects the increasing devaluation of individuality and resistance to social arrangements founded on respect for heterogeneity. Wells's time traveler, like Frankenstein's monster, is, prophetically, nameless. This feature deserves attention, if only because the narrative form of science fiction owes much to realistic prose fiction, the genre that throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries abounded in richly individualized characterizations. But exactly what is most scientific in science fiction is its exploitation of the impersonal discourse favored by scientists. Science fiction goes beyond realistic fiction in that it may with perfect propriety address us solely in the nonmetaphoric, unselfconscious, simply referential prose that has been the preferred language of science since the {29} founding of the Royal Society. This aggressively plain style contributed much, as scholars like Ian Watt have shown, to the growth of realistic fiction, but in a work such as The Time Machine the style of expository realism gains special thematic significance. The substantive wonders of the story must be represented in a manner which will transform their remarkableness into probability. A genre that extrapolates can only be thus cooly sensational. In this form we are not to be lost in wonder or enchanted by marvels, least of all those arising from the very texture of verbal representation.

There is no inherent restraint on ordinary novelists in the language they use, or in the narrative structures they may employ, so novelists have regularly experimented, innovated, and developed increasingly reflexive stylistic modes. But science fiction is committed to linguistic and structural conservatism. If it becomes adventurous in manner it endangers its scientific standing. It cannot be hospitable to writers exuberantly adventurous with language, a Charles Dickens, a Henry James, or a James Joyce. Science fiction cannot easily incline toward making its own artistry its principal subject. This stylistic and formal limitation is connected to the genre's thematic conservatism. Many think of the genre as speculatively future-oriented, but much of it duplicitously presents us with pictures of the past as if they were images of the future. H. G. Wells, in fact, is unusual in the intensity with which he imagines future evolutionary processes. It is more common to find that the fastest spaceships carry us to the farthest galaxies to enjoy visions of past history -- sword-play, hunting-and-gathering social groups, natural medicine and so forth. This presentation of the human past disguised as a future or faraway life is symptomatic of a more important feature: science fiction's reluctance to look inward. It is not a self-questioning, self-challenging genre. Inwardness, self-reflexivity, and the exploration of self-recursive modes are the characteristics of fantasy. Fantasy responds to the modern conditions of rationalized civilization, culture deprived of enchantment by seeking to uncover magic possibilities, especially in the processes of linguistic articulation and narrative in themselves. To put the distinction perhaps too simply yet with clarity necessary to effective criticism, fantasy is self-fantasticating as science fiction is not. To cast a spell, fantasy must be a spell, the texture of its enunciation must be magical, in the sense of bringing forward the amazingly transformative, because self-transformative, powers of language, exactly what science, and so science fiction, seeks to exorcise.


1. Claudio Guillen, Literature as System, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971, deals incisively with the impurity of literary genres.

2. Patrick Parrinder, "Science Fiction and the Scientific World View," Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching, ed. Patrick Parrinder (London: Methuen, 1980), 67-88, treats this matter, and in so doing quotes the now legendary John W. Campbell: "to be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolations must be made" (76). Probably the most intense and intellectually ambitious of science fiction specialists is the Marxian Darko Suvin, whose major work is Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979). Less daunting and a good introduction to his approach is "Narrative Logic, Ideology, and the Range of Science Fiction," Science-Fiction Studies 9, 1 (1982): 1-25, and his essay in the volume he edited with Robert M. Phelen, H. G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1977). Suvin's grasp of the history of the genre is well displayed in his essay "Victorian Science Fiction, 1871-85: The Rise of the Alternative History Sub-genre," Science-Fiction Studies 10, 2 (1983): 148-65). This essay is a useful corrective to some of the superficial surveys mentioned below. Simpler and intellectually less aspiring, Patrick Parrinder is responsible for two useful volumes, the one cited above and Science Fiction: A Critical Guide (London: Longmans, 1979). Kinglsey Amis, New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960) is now only of historical interest. Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree (New York: Schocken, 1973) is a kind of compendium written with verve and intelligence. Other popular surveys include Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin, Science Fiction (New York: Oxford, 1977), and Scholes' Structural Fabulation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), along with Leslie Fielder's anthology with commentaries, In Dreams Awake (New York: Dell, 1975). Two journals, Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy and Science-Fiction Studies have for some years published a high percentage of the best criticism and scholarship in the field.

3. J. P. Vernier, "Evolution as a Literary Theme in H. G. Wells' Science Fiction," in Suvin and Phelen, 70-82, quotes Wells's observation of his use of "material based on extrapolation": "The value of the story to me lies in this, that from the first to last there is nothing in it that is impossible" (72).

4. Scholes and Rabkin speak of "The First Century A. F. (After Frankenstein)" (7). See also Christopher Pries, "British Science Fiction" in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. Parrinder: "The first literary work which was indisputably a science fiction novel in the modern sense was Shelley's Frankenstein" (187).

5. All citations of extended passages from Beowulf are from the verse translation by Michael Alexander (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973) with page references given in my text. For the original I have used Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3d ed., ed. Frederik Klaeber (Boston: Heath, 1950), which provides my citation by line number. I am grateful to my colleagues David Yerkes and Richard Sacks for their help in understanding the poem.

6. Arthur Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959), 188-89, is rather hostile to comparisons with Ragnarok, but for other views see Paul B. Taylor, "Heorot, Earth, and Asgard: Christian Poetry and Pagan Myth," Tennessee Studies in Literature 11 (1966): 119-30, Ursula Drake, "Beowulf and Ragnarok," Saga-Book of the Viking Society 17 (1969-70): 302-25, and Daniel G. Calder, "Setting and Ethos: The Pattern of Measure and Limit in Beowulf," Studies in Philology 69 (1972). For the mythical background, one may consult John Stanley Martin, Ragnarok: An Investigation into Old Norse Concepts of the Fate of the Gods (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1972).

7. Brodeur, 76.

8. Aldous Huxley, Literature and Science (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 12. A locus classicus for this distinction is René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, 3d. ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975 [1942]), 22-23.

9. Parrinder (1980), 108.

10. Here and throughout the chapter I cite from the New American Library edition of Frankenstein, ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1963), simply because it is the most easily available; its text is that of the third edition, published by Collum and Bentley in London in 1831, this being the most often reprinted text. There are significant differences between this edition and the first of 1818, for which James Rieger's modern edition is useful (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974). Changes between the first and third editions, which Rieger discusses at length, even the shift in the relation of Victor and Elizabeth, in no way disturbs my evaluations of the Frankenstein family and its behavior. E. B. Murray, "Shelley's Contributions to Mary's Frankenstein," Bulletin of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association 29 (1978): 50-69, provides the most thorough analysis of Percy's effect on the 1818 text -- the preface to that edition, of course, being entirely his work.

11. Harold Bloom, "Afterword," Frankenstein (1963), 213. Critics such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 221 who emphasize the literariness of Frankenstein by treating it as a rewriting of Paradise Lost in fact attenuate the cogent severity of Mary Shelley's social criticism.

12. The pervasive contemporary psychological explanation of Victor is paralleled by adulation of the monster unjustified by Mary Shelley's text. Not only is the creature's self-representation suspect for its Rousseauvian sentimentality, but the monster perpetrates three brutal murders, even gratuitously implicating Justine in William's killing. Larry J. Swingle is almost alone among modern commentators in recognizing that Shelley has constructed a novel out of self-justifying narrations whose absolute truth or falsity is indeterminable: see his "Frankenstein's Monster and Its Romantic Relatives: Problems of Knowledge in English Romanticism," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 15, 1 (1973): 51-65.

13. Even the subtitle of Shelley's novel, "A Modern Prometheus," may suggest a question as to the moral value of appealing to the good of our species. Mary's husband thought any sort of reconciliation between Prometheus and Zeus abominable, since for him there was little admirable about Zeus, whom he even called Jupiter. Aeschylus, a better playwright, felt otherwise, perhaps because for the Greeks Zeus, unlike the god of the Old Testament, was not responsible for the creation of mankind. He thought he could produce something better; from Zeus's point of view, Prometheus interfered with progress. David Ketterer, Frankenstein's Creation: The Book, The Monster, and Human Reality, English Literary Studies of the University of Victoria 16 (Vancouver: University of Victoria, 1979), 19-20, discusses the double mythology of Prometheus pyrophoros and plasticator.

14. This among other uses and misuses of the Frankenstein reference by modern scientists are cited by Theodore Ziolkowski in "Science, Frankenstein, and Myth," Sewanee Review 89, 1 (1981): 34-56.

15. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, (New York: Methuen, 1982), has much to say of relevance to this point, for example, his observations on "orality, community, and the social" (74-75), leading to a discussion in the following pages as to why the spoken word is not a sign.

16. Thoughtful critics of science fiction such as Suvin and Parrinder have observed this linkage and illustrated it cogently, as has Scott Sanders in "The Disappearance of Character in Science Fiction," in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. Parrinder, 131-49, noting science fiction is "a dialectical extension of realism," and "modern" in that it sides with Henry James in his objections to R. L. Stevenson's "romances" (146). Mainstream critics such as Scholes and George Levine who have taken up science fiction have not adequately emphasized this connection of the genre to realism. Levine in "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein" in the volume edited by him and U. C. Knoepflmacher, The Endurance of Frankenstein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), for example, argues that the nineteenth-century novel "seriously rejected the kinds of excess that make the very substance of Frankenstein" while admitting that several nineteenth-century novels are "a kind of mirror image of Mary Shelley's story" (21). On the whole, feminist critics such as Judith Wilt and Ellen Moers, both with essays in the volume edited by Levine and Knoepflmacher, and Mary Poovey in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) are more perspicuous in recognizing the relation of Shelley's novel to realistic fiction.

17. John Reider, "Embracing the Alien: Science Fiction in Mass Culture," Science-Fiction Studies 91 (1982): 26-37, develops this point to show that science fiction is an accessory of leisure, "linked to social conditions in which freedom shrinks into the negative and exclusionary enjoyments of privacy" (26).

18. Although Fredric Jameson, "Progress Versus Utopia," Science-Fiction Studies 9,2 (1982): 147-58, simply takes Wells's position for granted, (see 149), Wells's scientific romances, and The Time Machine in particular, have been carefully studied. Bernard Bergonzi, The Early H. G. Wells (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961), for instance, has analyzed the relation between The Time Machine and The Chronic Argonauts, published in 1888. Suvin, who has taken the trouble to learn much both about Wells's literary forerunners in England and about Wells's view of Huxley and Darwin, is ponderous but useful both on The Time Machines paradigmatic role for twentieth-century science fiction and on the nature of Wells's "imitation" of the scientific forms (The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, chaps. 9 and 10). Suvin adds to this earlier description of how exactly Wells contributed to the evolution of science fiction in the essay "Narrative Logic, Ideology, and the Range of Science Fiction" cited above. The best book on Wells I've found is John Huntington, The Logic of Fantasy: H. G. Wells and Science Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), especially helpful in defining Wells's relation to Darwin (8-15). Parrinder in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, 69, is cogent on evolution and the second law of thermodynamics.

19. The view that the "real" is "reiterable" was more prevalent in the early years of the modern era, when most scientific endeavor was more crudely positivistic that it is today.

20. Aldiss, 26, emphasizes the influence on Mary Shelley of Erasmus Darwin, whose evolutionary views in several respects anticipated those of his grandson Charles. Ketterer, 26, cites even more evidence, including entries in Mary's journal. The essay by Laura E. Crouch, "Davy's A Discourse, Introduction to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry: A Possible Scientific Source of Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Journal 27 (1978): 35-44, is persuasive in its suggestion of Mary's knowledge of Humphrey Davy's popularizing work, which supports the idea of her sensitivity to central tendencies of the science of her day, a sensitivity that would have been encouraged by her husband.

21. The "extraneousness" of the travel beyond the year 802,701 has rightly been seen as critically pivotal by the best commentators, all of whom recognize the conjunction in it of an editorial and a scientific crux. The issues it raises are too complex to explore here, since they necessarily engage one in problems of Wells's intellectual development, but an interested reader should consult the documents and commentaries in H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction, edited with critical commentary and notes by Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), esp. 5-11 and 49-55. Illustrative of the ambiance in which Wells's scientific thinking developed is the following from T. H. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, published in 1893:

The theory of evolution encourages no millennial anticipations. If, for millions of years, our globe has taken the upward road, yet some time, the summit will be realized, and the downward road will be commenced. (T. H. Huxley and Julian Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, 1893-1943 [London: Methuen, 1947], 83)
It is in part because the story displays Wells's understanding of various kinds of implication in evolutionary ideas (as well as illustrating the reportorial style of science fiction), that I have include in an appendix his "Æpyornis Island" as a science fiction contrast to Garcia Márquez' "The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship."

22. The most thoughtful analysis of this characteristic is that Scott Sanders in Parrinder, 131-49. Sanders describes "science fiction as a genre . . . centrally about the disappearance of character" (131), and demonstrates how individuals without any need of society constitute the "central predicament of characters in science fiction" (145).