WILLIS E. McNELLY

California State University, Fullerton

Science Fiction and the Academy:
An Introduction

"I am now convinced that science fiction is one of the most unfairly neglected fields in college literature."


These words coming from the editor of a prestigious English journal state the present position of science fiction and the academy quite succinctly. From the inauguration of the initial course in science fiction at Colgate by Mark Hillegas over ten years ago to its proliferation today in over 150 colleges, universities, and community colleges, its serious intellectual acceptance or study by academicians has been grudgingly slow. Despite the steady circulation growth of Extrapolation, the newsletter of the MLA science fiction conference, and a gradually increasing number of articles in various journals, including several in THE CEA CRITIC, most teachers still view science fiction as a stepchild of literature.


In this view, science fiction (hereinafter referred to as SF) is not literature at all; it is trashy trivia filled with one-dimensional cardboard characters, labored plotting, impossible situations, contrived dialogue, action and reaction among the stars, filled with furiously abounding nothing. So hardened to SF is the average professor of English that he might almost be characterized by his vocal, vigorous, and often unreasoning opposition to SF. Indeed, Hillegas over five years ago called the science fiction course "a hope deferred" because of the unrelenting curricular conservatism of English departments. Hillegas asserts, in fact, that the values of literary intellectuals make it impossible for them to admit science fiction into the literary canon (Extrapolation, 9 [December 1967], 18-21).


This bleak prediction about the future of the academic study of SF seems needlessly pessimistic today, however. While English departments may still be largely conservative in their curriculum, the sweeping changes on the campus and in society in general have made their impact. The search for "relevance" however defined, the rediscovery of the importance of pop culture, and the re-examination of the notion of science as god, together with a number of other factors, have caused science fiction courses to burgeon. Tastemakers - or taste reflectors - as diverse as the New York Times, Time, the Jesuit weekly America, the Journal of Popular Culture, the New Yorker, and the rock magazine Crawdaddy have carried serious articles about science fiction or some related topic.

In the face of this type of interest, English teachers at any level might do well to examine this growing phenomenon, discovering perhaps to their surprise that SF has progressed light-years beyond the late-unlamented Buck Rogers. Indeed, to find students willing to write intelligently about, say, Robert A. Heinlein's powerauthority syndrome as reflected in the recurrent father-fixation themes in his novels, comes as a delight. Cynics in the profession of English might hail students who read anything beyond the sport pages or centerfolds.


What then will the English teacher, perhaps a novice to science fiction, find as he approaches the subject with something resembling an open mind? First of all, he will learn that it is virtually impossible to define the term "science fiction." SF can be culture commentary, action- adventure, extrapolation, genre literature, or gadget writing filled with apocalyptic visions, to list only a few of its characteristics. Indeed, its limits appear to be only those of literature itself, its far boundaries being constantly expanded by the quality of its writers. Science fiction, in fact, may well be in the position of the English theater of 1575, awaiting only its Shakespeare or Jonson to give it voice and form.


Like any art, SF has developed its own rules, its standards, its form. Any attempt to impose the rules of another genre upon it can lead to serious misreading. For example, characterization tends to be slighted in SF. This quality may cause some uneasiness in readers accustomed to analyze the psychological complexities of a Hamlet or a Lord Jim. Yet one of the "rules" of SF is the concept of "idea as hero.". The SF writer may isolate one particular facet of contemporary society, ask what might happen if this aspect were carried to its ultimate extreme, and what might be its effect upon humanity. For example, if violence is prevalent today as a solution to contemporary problems, the SF writer may envision what might happen if violence were to be transformed to a way of life, leading to casual slaughter. Perhaps instead of mindless mugging or the agonized thunk of the assassin's bullet, society might develop a ritualized code duello with hunters and victims following rules as precise as a code of courtly love, evolving into a code of courtly death, as in Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. Indeed, depersonalization in society may be reflected in the lack of character development in science fiction. The SF writer thus forces the reader's attention upon the problem of violence as violence, rather than the psychological quirks which impel, say, Camus' Meursault in The Stranger.


To a certain extent, of course, all literature is a type of culture commentary. It views the human landscape by focussing upon one aspect of it, selecting events, human characteristics, motives, actions, or beings. As universal as Shakespeare, Joyce, Chaucer, or Melville might be, even these geniuses select and isolate. But such is the quality of greatness in these writers that the very act of selectivity illuminates the whole. Shakespeare does not give us an anthropological or sociological treatise about Denmark. Elsinore is no Middletown in Transition and Hamlet no organization man. Many critics have noted that Shakespeare's Denmark curiously resembles Elizabethan England, and Hamlet's broodings about royalty or power or the role of ihe individual in a complex society were especially germane to the Elizabethan audience. In other words, Shakespeare universalizes time and space by his genius. He alters the "reality" of both to suit his artistic purpose, thus making his assertions about man and society relevant to virtually any society, regardless of the specific particularizing details of the time and space he purports to be writing about.


The science fiction writer does much the same thing. He creates a different world so that we may understand our own better. This very technique of creating worlds beyond the "real" limits of space and time apparently makes SF unique and is ostensibly one of its most obvious characteristics. At the same time, however, this characteristic insures that SF remains a part of our culture and our literature. Perhaps one example may suffice here: If Conrad can create the microcosm of Costaguana in Nostromo to examine the effects a substance of incalculable value, the silver, has upon complex, individual persons, so also Frank Herbert in Dune can create a cosmos set 10,000 years in the future to study the system-wide effects of a drug of genuine geriatric, life-prolonging qualities, again a substance of incalculable value. There are major differences between the two novels, of course, not the least of which is that Conrad is a great writer and Herbert merely a competent one. But both thus follow patterns established by generations of others in isolating men in a time and space of their own creation. This is merely one area where science fiction evidences the ease with which it attempts to encounter the great themes of literature.


Modern science fiction, like modern art, begins with a concept in the mind of the artist. The artist must incarnate that concept into some form of reality, whether it be clay, words, pigment, musical tones, or what you will. That incarnation is ultimately a creative process where the artist distorts the surface appearance to create a more genuine and longer lasting reality underneath the surface. To a certain extent, of course, all art is distortion, and science fiction shares this quality. In fact, I would like to maintain that paradoxically there is less distortion in science fiction than in most realistic fiction. Of course the accidentals of time, space, or circumstance are twisted by the science fiction writer, but they are twisted by that writer so that he will be able to portray his artistic vision more accurately, unhampered by apparent exigencies of so-called "real" space and "real" time. Thus, science fiction can speak more truth by being apparently untrue. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby comes to mind as an example of distortion for the sake of truth. As Fitzgerald put it, "[Gatsby] was a son of God-a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that -and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty . . . and to this conception he was faithful to the end."


Science fiction, then, enables the author to work out the logical and symbolic extensions of his artistic vision, seeing the reality below the appearance, the substance beneath the shadow.


In science fiction the techniques used to achieve these ends will vary, just as they do in so-called "mainstream" literature. While any writer may be only a minor creator thinking of himself like Joyce's God, detached, paring his fingernails, often enough the artist becomes the social critic, either directly or indirectly. indeed, some writers may hope that Heisenberg's principle - observation changes the observed - may apply to the human condition as well as the physical universe. If the SF writer, like his more accepted brother, observes society, he may change that society by the act of observation, and any writer will use satire, irony, exaggeration, myth, symbol, language, or distortion to make the observation more penetrating. For example, if Swift's fierce anger is quenched only by his death, the bitterness of A Modest Proposal still provides an example of flaming satire. Irony was not merely a means of escape for Swift, and neither is it for many science fiction writers. In the end, irony was the instrument Swift needed to create the distorted mirror wherein man would finally recognize himself. Ironists ask implicit questions based upon explicit situations, achieving their purpose with exaggeration, outraged or outrageous reasonableness, moral certainty, or quiet innocence. What is the difference, asks Swift of the English, between the slow indirect cannibalism of your actions toward the Irish and actual, direct consumption of human flesh?


Science fiction works in much the same way, albeit with less passion or compassion, although the artist may be involved with humanity far more often than the social scientist or social commentator. The tone the artist adopts affects the very texture of his writing. Thus science fiction, to cite only one noted example, has developed a Kurt Vonnegut whose Slaughterhouse-Five uses science fiction devices as an objective coorelative for his moral indignation and whose anger is no less bitter than Swift's. It has also provided a Ray Bradbury whose Fahrenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles become mythopoeic as Bradbury uses the future of Mars as allegories to support the burden of this new myth.


The fabric woven by skilled satirists, ironists, or myth-makers enmeshes the reader while it pleases or nets him with its subtlety. Science fiction can instruct while it pleases. The specific social situation is broadened or extended and the tensions which illuminate the stories or new myths may vary: hypocrisy and complacency brother each other; contempt and pity turn upon themselves; folly and stupidity gleam darkly. Indignation breeds the intolerable.


In the end, then, the study of science fiction may do as much for the teacher as the student, by providing him with new worlds with which to view the problems of existence and the directions in which mankind may be headed. Science fiction, in fact, may well provide contemplative source material for the modern sociologist, psychologist, theologian, or student of humanity.


Editor's note: CFAers will recall Willis MeNelly's earlier articles in the Critic: "Linguistic Relativi t in Middle High Martian," March 1968, and "Bradbury Revisited," March 1969. Professor McNelly, a member of le Board of Directors of the British Science Fiction Association and of the Science Fiction Writers of America, is the author oi more than a score of SF publications and has been instrumental in building one of the largest SF libraries in the world in the Special Collections Department at Cal-State University, Fullerton.

This art icle is the first in a series of three scheduled for publication in the Critic during the coming year: the second wi 11 deal with several outstanding SF writers and their works; the third will examine the use of science fiction devices bv such "mainstream" writers as John Barth and Vladimir Nabokov. Parts of this initial article are contained in a different form in Above the Human Landscape, ed. Willis E. McNelly and Leon Stover, Goodyear Publishing Company, 1972, and are used with permission (see Jack Williamson's review on page 35).