Comparative Literature 342 Introduction to Science Fiction Some Definitions

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Comparative Literature 342

Some Definitions

  • “Science fiction is one of the more secluded parade grounds where private fantasy and public event meet….[It] is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts.” – Brian W. Aldiss
  • “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.” – Damon Knight
  • “Fantasy is the impossible made possible. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.” – Rod Serling
  • “[SF involves] realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” – Robert A. Heinlein


  • Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 500 BC)
  • The stars come into being from burning clouds
  • The Sun consists of burning clouds ノ a mass of little fires
  • Anaxagoras (500-428 BC)-beginnings of the atomic theory
  • Early development of possible-worlds theory
  • Described the moon as “of an earthly nature” (qtd in Butler 19), even possibly harbouring life
  • Plutarch (46 AD) Concerning the Face in the Orb of the Moon (De Facie in Orbe Lunae)
  • Recognized that the moon does not produce its own light
  • Suggested that the moon was the home of “the blessed souls” (21)
  • Ptolemy (2nd c. AD), Greek astronomer and geographer of Alexandria - geocentric model of the Solar system - computational system

Lucian of Samosata (120-200 AD) True Story (Vera Historia), first translated into English in 1634

  • We told him all, and he began and told us about himself: that he too was a human being, Endymion by name, who had once been ravished from our country in his sleep, and on coming there had been made king of the land. He said that his country was the moon that shines down on us. He urged us to take heart, however, and suspect no danger, for we should have everything that we required. "And if I succeed," said he, "in the war which I am now making on the people of the sun, you shall lead the happiest of lives with me." We asked who the enemy were, and what the quarrel was about.
  • "Phaethon," said he, "the king of the inhabitants of the sun--for it is inhabited, you know, as well as the moon--has been at war with us for a long time now. It began in this way. Once upon a time I gathered together the poorest people in my kingdom and undertook to plant a colony on the Morning Star, which was empty and uninhabited. Phaethon out of jealousy thwarted the colonisation, meeting us half-way at the head of his Ant Dragoons. At that time we were beaten, for we were not a match for them in strength, and we retreated: now, however, I desire to make war again and plant the colony. If you wish, then, you may take part with me in the expedition and I will give each of you one of my royal vultures and a complete outfit. We shall take the field to-morrow."

RENAISSANCE (14th - 17th c.)

  • Thomas More, Utopia (1515)
  • Depicts an ideal, imaginary society, meant as a satire of Renaissance Britain
  • (eu-topia = good place; ou-topia = nowhere)
  • Not truly SF, but a formative work
  • Johan Kepler (1571-1630), astronomer Somnium (publ. 1634)
  • Title means “dream”
  • Describes an imaginary voyage to the moon; incorporates Kepler’s scientific theories
  • Considered the first ‘true’ SF text
  • Francis Godwin (1562 -1633): Man in the Moone (publ. 1638)
  • First work of SF in English; a utopian satire
  • Influenced by contemporary travel and exploration narratives
  • Tommasso Campanella, City of the Sun (1602)
  • Distinctive among ‘space utopias’ in imagining its ideal society on the sun, and as a benevolent theocracy
  • May have influenced Godwin

Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (1627)

  • Like Godwin and Campanella, imagines an ideal society where science, religion, and nature are intertwined
  • “We have also perspective houses, where we make demonstrations of all lights and radiations and of all colors; and out of things uncolored and transparent we can represent unto you all several colors, not in rainbows, as it is in gems and prisms, but of themselves single. We represent also all multiplications of light, which we carry to great distance, and make so sharp as to discern small points and lines. Also all colorations of light: all delusions and deceits of the sight, in figures, magnitudes, motions, colors; all demonstrations of shadows. We find also divers means, yet unknown to you, of producing of light, originally from divers bodies. We procure means of seeing objects afar off, as in the heaven and remote places; and represent things near as afar off, and things afar off as near; making feigned distances. We have also helps for the sight far above spectacles and glasses in use; we have also glasses and means to see small and minute bodies, perfectly and distinctly; as the shapes and colors of small flies and worms, grains, and flaws in gems which cannot otherwise be seen, observations in urine and blood not otherwise to be seen. We make artificial rainbows, halos, and circles about light. We represent also all manner of reflections, refractions, and multiplications of visual beams of objects.”
  • "We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmony which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have; with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which, set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly; we have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.”

Cyrano de Bergerac - Voyages to the Moon and Sun (1647)

  • with Beef-Marrow I anointed my Body, for I was all over mortified from Head to Foot: Then having taken a dram of Cordial Waters to strengthen my Heart, I went back to look for my Machine; but I could not find it, for some Soldiers, that had been sent into the Forest to cut wood for a Bonefire, meeting with it by chance, had carried it with them to the Fort: Where after a great deal of guessing what it might be, when they had discovered the invention of the Spring, some said, that a good many Fire-Works should be fastened to it, because their Force carrying them up on high, and the Machine playing its large Wings, no Body but would take it for a Fiery Dragon. In the mean time I was long in search of it, but found it at length in the Market-place of Kebeck (Quebec), just as they were setting Fire to it. I was so transported with Grief, to find the Work of my Hands in so great Peril, that I ran to the Souldier that was giving Fire to it, caught hold of his Arm, pluckt the Match out of his Hand, and in great rage threw my self into my Machine, that I might undo the Fire-Works that they had stuck about it; but I came too late, for hardly were both my Feet within, when whip, away went I up in a Cloud.


  • John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)
  • David Hume, Isaac Newton, Voltaire and French encyclopaedists
  • Innovations in philosophy and science
  • Believed in the supremacy of reason
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
  • Parody of travel narratives; also satirized British society
  • Book III is most recognizably SF, partly based on actual research conducted by the Royal Society
  • Other three books can be characterized as utopian and/or anti-utopian
  • Voltaire, Micromégas (1752)
  • Title means “small giant”
  • Ironic observer narrative: literal and figurative alien visits and comments upon earthly society
  • “On a planet revolving around the star Sirius there lived a young man of great intelligence, whose acquaintance I had the honor of making during his recent visit to our little anthill. He was called Micromegas, an appropriate name for great people. He had a stature of eight leagues, or 24,000 geometrical paces of five feet each, or 120,000 statute feet.”
  • Ludvig Holberg, The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground (1741)
  • Similar to Gulliver’s Travels, but describes a journey to an underground “inner planet” populated by sentient animals and plants
  • Gives detailed descriptions of each world’s population and society
  • A formative work of modern Danish literature
  • Johan Herman Wessel, Anno 7603 (1781)
  • Time-travel fantasy, also satire on gender roles (roles of men and women are reversed)
  • Was never performed in its author’s lifetime and is not well known today
  • Anonymous, Symzonia (1820)
  • Based on the hollow-earth theory of John Cleves Symmes Jr. (American writer), may even have been written by him, or else inspired by his ideas
  • Inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838)
  • "I declare the earth is hollow, habitable within; containing a number of solid concentric spheres; one within the other, and that it is open at the pole twelve or sixteen degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking."

The 19th Century

  • German romantics: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck, Adelbert von Chamisso
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
  • Borderline between SF and horror/suspense; still often cited in debates of scientific and medical ethics
  • Influenced Brian W. Aldiss’ definition of SF as “a lively subgenre of Gothic”
  • Edward S. Ellis, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1865)
  • First popular work of American SF
  • Early depiction of robots in literature
  • "It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the 'stove-pipe hat,' which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was made to answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler, were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arms, like projections, held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of baseball players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed differed from a human being.”
  • Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888)
  • Set in the year 2000; portrays the new millennium as an age of peace and prosperity
  • A socialist utopia, based on Bellamy’s beliefs of what was necessary to improve American society
  • Very popular in its time but fell out of favour after World War I
  • James de Mille, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888)
  • First work of Canadian SF; a utopian satire set in Antarctica
  • Imagines prehistoric animals surviving in the present day; the human society venerates death and poverty

19th-Century Scientific Romances

  • Jules Verne (1828-1905), Extraordinary Voyages
  • The umbrella title given to his published works
  • Emphasizes the ‘science’ in the fiction, with considerable attention to details
  • Herbert George Wells (1866-1946), The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau
  • Wells’ fiction was influenced by his socialist beliefs
  • Popularized (but did not invent) themes of time travel and extraterrestrial contact

The 20th Century

  • European dystopian novel:
  • Huxley, Brave New World (1932)
  • Zamyatin, We (1923)
  • Čapek, RUR plays
  • Stapledon, Last Men in London (1932)
  • Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), Amazing Stories

  • Artwork by Frank R. Paul (1884-1963), first commercially successful SF illustrator

Post-Enlightenment, post-cognitive epistemology

  • F. Nietzsche (philosophy)
  • M. Heidegger (philosophy)
  • J. Derrida (philosophy of deconstruction)
  • K. Goedel (mathematics)
  • W. K. Heisenberg (quantum mechanics)
  • I. Prigogine (chemistry, non-equilibrium thermodynamics)
  • M. C. Escher (art)

Key Themes and Subgenres

  • “hard” SF: emphasizes the natural and physical sciences
  • “soft” SF: emphasizes the social and behavioural sciences
  • New Wave: self-conscious literary experimentation, meant to break down literary and/or sociopolitical boundaries
  • Cyberpunk: treatment of human/technological interaction, usually dark and dystopian
  • Time travel: allows writers to speculate on the future and/or rethink the past
  • Alternative history (uchronia, meaning ‘no time’): what would happen if history had turned out differently?
  • Apocalyptic fiction: imagines the end of the world as we know it, originally with religious undertones, but nowadays not always
  • Space opera: nickname for an adventure story that just happens to have a futuristic and/or extraterrestrial setting
  • Speculative fantasy and magical realism: may be considered ‘borderline’ SF
  • Other genres such as mystery, suspense, and horror often have SF elements

Possible-Worlds Theory

  • The Atomists: Democritus and Leucippus (4th century BC)
  • “Though the earth is at the centre of our world, that world is merely one of an infinite number of worlds which come into and go out of existence in endless sequence throughout a universe infinite in space and time”
  • René Descartes, Principles of Philosophy (1644)
  • “From this it can also be easily inferred that the matter of the heaven does not differ from that of the earth; and that even if there were countless worlds in all, it would be impossible for them not to all be of one and the same kind of matter. And therefore there cannot be several worlds, but only one.”
  • Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1689, 1710)
  • “best of all possible worlds” (Theodicy, 1710); fictional characters inhabit their own worlds (On Freedom, 1689)

Saul Kripke (1963, 1972): possible worlds and modal logic

  • Possible worlds are logical and/or fictional constructs used to explain hypothetical situations in the actual world
  • Necessary vs. contingent truths: is a statement true in all, some, or no possible worlds?
  • The two basic laws of logic: non-contradiction (a statement and its converse cannot both be true in the same world); excluded middle (every statement in any one world is either true or false)
  • Counterpart theory: can the same entity exist in more than one possible world?
  • Rigid and nonrigid designators: properties true of the same entity in all or some possible worlds
  • Possible worlds can contain entities not found in the actual world, and vice versa

David Lewis (1979, 1986): modal realism, or modal relativism

  • “I believe that there are possible worlds other than the one we happen to inhabit”
  • “You can’t get into a ‘logical-space’ ship and visit another possible world”
  • ‘actuality’ is a relative term: the actual world is actual to us because we are in it
  • Essential properties, not necessarily names, identify transworld counterparts
  • SF works which involve travel to other possible worlds in fact represent part of the same possible universe, part of a larger multiverse

Possible Worlds and Fictional Worlds

  • Jonathan Hart (1988): “Possible world theory is the modal logical delineation of relations. Fictional world theory is the analysis of how fictional texts are read.”
  • Principle of minimal departure
  • Marie-Laure Ryan (1991): “we reconstrue the central world of a textual universe...[and] the alternate possible worlds of counterfactual statements as conforming as far as possible to our representation of [the actual world]”
  • We would assume the fictional world is like the real world unless the author tells us otherwise
  • Narrative/dialogic conventions of SF: characters and/or narrator must make explicit references to phenomena not found in the actual world (expository dialogue/narration; “infodumping”)


  • Began as a movement in art and architecture
  • As literary theory, involves the breaking down of boundaries and power structures
  • Related to deconstruction and poststructuralism
  • e.g. Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Rorty, Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacrum and Simulation (1981)

  • Simulations create their own reality (“hyperreality”)
  • Human experience is thus a simulation and not reality itself
  • Based in part on Borges’ On Exactitude in Science
  • Influenced The Matrix, though Baudrillard himself denied it

Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto (1991)

  • Uses the cyborg as a metaphor for socialist feminism: hybridization of previously binary oppositions
  • “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”
  • Represents not only blurring of the human/machine distinction but also of the human/animal distinction
  • Paradox of technology: the cyborg both liberates and undermines the human
  • “The replicant Rachael in...Blade Runner stands as the image of a cyborg culture’s fear, love, and confusion”

SF and Postmodernism

  • Role of popular culture and new media, in fiction and reality
  • Examination and critique by SF authors of both the actual world and their own literary genre(s)
  • Use of SF texts by postmodern theorists (esp. New Wave and cyberpunk texts)

The New Wave

  • Movement of the 1960s and 1970s
  • Regarded SF as a serious literary form, reacted against ‘pulp’ fiction
  • Began with Michael Moorcock in 1964; reached its height c. 1971
  • British and American New Wave authors generally reacted against the politics of Vietnam War-era America
  • Key themes: left-wing political visions; sexual liberation; philosophical and existential undertones; experimental narrative techniques
  • Ancestor of the cyberpunk movement

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