Science Fiction

and the American Dream

By Dr. Willis E. McNelly

When J. 0. Bailey's pioneering study of science fiction, Pilgrims Through Space and Time, was published in 1947, his distinction between the literature of character and the literature of ideas made immediate sense to long-time readers of the science fiction genre. Unfortunately too few academicians were willing to recognize the validity of this distinction in regard to their own appreciation of science fiction. At the same time, ironically enough, they would insist that it be applied to the writing of Swift, Pope, or Bunyan.

With the recent surge of academic interest in science fiction, it is a distinction that must be made once more. Science fiction, as Mark Hillegas has observed, is a "genre of extended prose narrative whose defining inner and outer conventions are quite different from those of the usual novel or short story" (Extrapolation, 10 [December 1967], p. 19). Thus the controlling convention of science fiction is specifically the fact that it is a literature of ideas. To put it another way, it substitutes the convention of "idea as hero" for the more traditional "hero as person." Yet it is precisely this substitution of idea for hero that places science fiction within the mainstream of American literature. The rise of serious interest in the genre may indeed place it at crucial point in prophesying about our objectivized, impersonalized society.

Recall, for instance, the central thesis of R. W. B. Lewis' The American Adam: ". . . the indestructible vitality of the American vision of life - and what that vision can contribute to the alchemical process of the narrative art . . . the vision and the process ... continue to present us with the means of grasping the special complexities, the buoyant assurance, and the encircling doubt of the still unfolding American scene" (p. 198).

It is my thesis, then, that in the hands of skilled writers like Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Frank Herbert, Harlan Ellison, or John Boyd, the literature of ideas known as science fiction has become a contemporary version of the Adamic myth: it can be illuminative, cautionary, or optimistic by turns, and, indeed, perhaps redemptive in its nature. Let us examine this briefly. The notion of the Adamic hero revivifying, now ironically, now passionately, the innocence of American life needs no elaboration here. Indeed, the concept of the hero receiving his very raison d'etre from the existence of the frontier has been commented upon by Turner and his followers for decades. But as has been often observed, the Frontier was not merely geographic; it was symbolic. The vitality of American life, epitomized by the phoenixlike Adamic hero, became incarnated into "Tomorrow will be better," or the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us."

The hero walked through the pages of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, Updike, becoming more and more attenuated as a person until he became transformed into the ideal he fantasized. It is at this point that science fiction finds him, thrusting him into the future, an alternate universe or a probability existence.

In the hands of a Vonnegut, for example, the central character of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five may lack all individuation as he shuttles back and forth in time, affecting no time and no place. He is acted upon rather than acting and he remains essentially uninvolved even in the face of personal death or the casual slaughter of innocents. Billy Pilgrim remains an adolescent, unaware, indecisive, lost in the arms of Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack, the incarnation of the American playboy's dream. So it goes, mutters Vonnegut as he unleashes his mordant wit and brilliant invective upon an American Adarnic hero that is neither redemptive nor fallen, merely uncommitted. And as I have indicated elsewhere I Vonnegut finds the science fiction medium particularly adaptable for his bitter message.

Another example of the Adamic hero-frontier myth transformed by science fiction may be found in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 . The idea undergirding the novel is an obvious one: book burning emasculates the mind, disrupts society, and destroys personal freedom. Bradbury is proud to note that the original magazine version of the story called "The Fireman" was published at the height of McCarthyism in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1951. The then unrecognized writer felt that censorship was a clear and present danger. Montag is only the nominal hero of the book, of course. He exemplifies at once the worst and best of western man who is capable of terrible incomprehension as the fallen man; and as the risen or redemptive man becomes illuminated, capable of decision and, ultimately, ethical commitment. Indeed, it is an Edenic vision that Bradbury draws at the end of the novel: Montag and the others are refined by the purgative fire and are "reborn" to a new consciousness.

Bradbury's other works provide many examples of this visionary experience. In an earlier article on Bradbury (The CEA Critic, March 1969) 1 cited his little short story "The Highway." Hernando and his wife and child live in a prelapsarian world, and utilize the gifts from the highway - a hub cap, a tire, hence all the artifacts of civilization - in primitive, uncorrupted simplicity. True, Bradbury may well be a fantast, evoking a past that never was, redolent with a nostalgia for the future, but the hero of his works is, essentially, Bradbury, the uncorrupted man restating his own faith in the ability of man's center to be restored and healed. Why go into space? he asks. The answer is implicit in much of his writing: Space is the inexhaustible Frontier, looming before us like Gatsby's "fresh green breast of the new world"; it is the final Frontier where man's seed will make him truly immortal.

Arthur C. Clarke's secular vision is no less chiliastic. In Childhood's End Clarke portrays a future world basically extrapolated from our own: "mankind" as the hero who becomes ultimately transformed in destiny through the intervention of quasi-mystical Overlords. This is a modern version of the deux ex machina of course, and the Overlords are to us as we are to the great apes, but in the end, for all their wisdom, the Overlords do not consider the creative process of selftransformation. Our future, implies Clarke, may not be as mankind, but as mankind translated, mankind resurgens; if a man's childhood must end, its adolescence, and ultimately adulthood, must begin. Wisely, Clarke makes no attempt to indicate and specific aspects of the maturity of man; such is not his story. He says only that man must not only mature, but in maturing, also die as man to become "superman."

This same vision informs 2001: A Space Odyssey, which as a novel illuminates some of the murky symbolism of the motion picture. Leon Stover hag perceptively observed that the World Riddle theme of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss indicates the scope of cosmic mission which underlies Clarke's screenplay (Above the Human Landscape [Goodyear, 1972], p. 377). If the monolith transforms the ape into man, it can also transform man into Superman, about to be born, and ultimately to dominate all space. Thus the Adamic rebirth is again shifted from earth to space, the eternal Frontier.

While the myth of the Frontier is normally associated with American life and letters, the notion of the Adamic hero is not limited by continental bounds.

So Brian Aldiss, perhaps the most articulate contemporary successor to the great British science fiction tradition of H. G. Wells, C. S. Lewis, Huxley and Orwell,
invokes the fallen Adam whose problem after the holocaust is simple survival. In a
mood and style deliberately reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, Aldiss in Greybeard
permits his hero only sullen endurance as he rails against a blind, unmitigating
fate. Man may endure, but mankind becomes brutish as he enters his twilight,
not his dawn.

The concept of the hope-filled Adamic myth has obvious connections with the typical nineteenth-century American dream of Utopia, the "new heaven," the good place. Bruce Franklin's Future Perfect, the indispensable study of American science fiction of the last century, has documented this relationship well. Citing Utopic visions from such diverse writers as Melville, Edward Bellamy, Fitzjames O'Brien, or Mark Twain, Franklin further suggests that the mirror image of the nineteenth-century dream vision will become the nightmare found in twentiethcentury dystopia. The two themes of the Adamic hero and the Frontier here become linked. If the Frontier becomes exhausted and the hero is shown to have feet of clay, the dystopia theme will inevitably emerge.

Here perhaps is science fiction's genius, its ability to isolate those idealized characteristics of the American dream which, if continued to an ultimate extreme, could bring about its own downfall. And science fiction portrays that downfall, whether through the device of the apocalyptic anti-utopia and fallen anti-hero or the collateral technique of the alternate universe or probability world. A superior example of the former is Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! Set in a New York City in 1999 populated by 35 million people, Make Room! Make Room! tells the dreary story, in exacerbating detail, of several families grubbing to survive as civilization shambles to self-destruction. Harrison's reasoning behind the novel seems to be this: The American dream of affluence for all, of conspicuous consumption, of unrestricted birth and no population control, combined with a blind exhaustion of natural resources, carries the seeds of inevitable destruction. If we are kept from the anarchy of violence by our affluence today, we may soon find ourselves in a more brutalized generalized anarchy as present abundance becomes future scarcity. The fresh green breast of the new world has become dried dugs by 1999.

Another and scarcely more optimistic dystopic vision may be found in John Boyd's The Last Starship from Earth. It is not, as its title might suggest, merely another mindless space opera; rather it asks some elemental questions about our society. The novel portrays an alternate universe or probability world, much like our own, but one where behavioral psychologists and sociologists are in absolute control of society. Like Orwell in 1984 and Huxley in Brave New World, Boyd envisions a rigidly stratified society - the logical extension of Skinner's Walden 11? - where even sex must be held sacred to the purposes of the state, where the ,'miscegenation" of a mathematician and a poet is a crime punishable by exile to hell .2 The resolution of this problem is at the heart of Boyd's novel, but Boyd's passion is specifically inflamed by, in his words, "those who would come to us with persuasive smiles and irreproachable logic in the name of religion, mental hygiene, social duty, come with their flags, their Bibles, their money credits." The allusions to the concepts of the American dream and the Puritan ethic are obvious.

Two other probability worlds might be cited here, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle or Ward Moore's Bring the jubilee. While there are certain external resemblances in the two works - Dick's novel is a study of what might have happened if Japan and Germany had won World War II, and Moore's is a popular study of the results of a Southern victory in the Civil War - the two books provide interesting contrasts in the use of similar material. Filled with a brooding melancholia, The Man in the High Castle studies many so-called "American" character traits exemplified by a number of characters, no one of whom is the hero. For both style and originality, Dick's book may well be among the best novels that science fiction has yet produced. Moore's novelette (Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1952) is more obviously a "what if" story as he concentrates on a logical extension of northern and southern American ideals, rather than individual character traits.

In all of these books, and dozens of more examples could be cited, there is no single, genuinely distinctive, memorable character. Even Winston Smith snivelling before Big Brother in 1984 may be remembered not for himself, but for the ideas he incarnated. These very ideas are the hero or anti-hero. Thus the science fiction genre is enriched as a result of their utilization, and this fact of hero transformed into idea, whether by Adamic hero or incarnated Frontier, is the alchemy of the art of science fiction as well as one of the great themes of American literature.


I "Science Fiction: Ile Modem Mythology," America, 123 (Sept. 5, 1970), 125-12T.

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of three essays concerning the teaching of science fiction; the first, "Science Fiction and the Academy," appeared in the November Critic; the third, "Archetypal Patterns in Modern Science Fiction," Avill appear in May. Professor McNelly has been recently honored by appointment to the board of judges for the new John W. Campbell Memorial Award; the first award, for the best sf novel of the year, will be announced in April 1973, under the sponsorship of Illinois Institute of Technology.

2 For a detailed examination of this problem see Jane Hipolito's "The Last and First Starsbip from Earth," in Clareson's SF. The Other Side of Realism (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1971). pp. 186-192.



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