A great deal of ink has been spilt trying to define the Science Fiction genre. Its importance waxes and wanes in the larger literary community. Reaching early peaks with proto-Science Fiction like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the collected works of H. G. Wells before falling drastically in the pulp novels. Various times over the years authors of a more literary bent have tried to ‘rescue’ the genre from its self-imposed exile to the racks of paperbacks.
I suppose there could be a debate here and there about whether there needs to be such a rescue, and perhaps more importantly whether a rescue to the somewhat lackluster halls of Literature would be wanted by the fans and authors of the genre.
Certainly spacemen and little green monsters along with giant radioactive insects of various sorts have only so much to offer the universe in the way of understanding humans or of helping humans understand each other. However, along the way there have been various parts of human endeavors captured in those paperback pages that touch on truths that literature rarely finds.
If Science is the search for a kind of truth, then the fans of Science and it’s fictions shouldn’t shy away from the bitter truths of our collective history. The first, and perhaps most pervasive one is that Science Fiction finds itself awash in Eurocentrism. The hero is often tall and blond, a chiseled face, and a handsome visage counterbalanced by the swarthy enemy or the vaguely ethnic alien. Every vaguely racist trope can be found somewhere in the pulp canon.
Where does this history of Eurocentrism come from? Well, quite naturally from the popularity of the genre in Western Culture, but also from the birth of modern science in Europe. Sometime ago the relatively backwards Europeans started to move forward technologically and scientifically at an incredible rate compared to the rest of the world, and at an especially incredible rate compared with their own history since the Greek philosophers. Soon surpassing in understanding and utilizing the various forces of nature, bringing with it struggles against the religious orders and the historic reverence for the Greeks whose sway had been a stranglehold on Western learning for 15 centuries.
As problems began to be solved with natural forces, so it began to be believed that any and all problems can be solved by natural philosophy. Proof became more and more important in learning. Truth moved from a religious meaning to a natural one. There is no Priest at the dinner table in The Time Machine, though there is a Doctor, a Psychologist, and a Journalist. Science Fiction certainly isn’t anti-deity, it merely redefines the areas of discourse distinguishing between the physical and the spiritual in ways that were rare in popular fiction.
Given that history what does it mean that stories of the fantastic began, albeit slowly, to move from the magical, mystical, and spiritual, toward the natural and the physical and finally the scientific?
There is an argument to be made that science fiction has become the myth of modern times. So all these stories of giant radioactive lizards destroying Tokyo are mythologized to teach the dangers of nuclear weapons in the same way that other myths aimed to teach lessons to the following generations. If so then those myths must become as universal in scope as the scientific laws they mirror.
Lest we get too far down a path too critical of SF, we should also remember that Science fiction many times posited a united human future, devoid of the kind of racism or regionalism that we’ve discussed. And certainly some of the bland European male hero archetypes were driven by market forces, or at least perceived market forces of the era.
They are properly satirized today but whole generations of fans grew up with them. And pointing out this flaw shouldn’t be seen as a condemnation of the entire genre any more than pointing out the brutal cruelty of the Illiad takes away from the power of the verse of Homer and the epic poets. Seen through the lens of the time and place there are lessons aplenty.
When we return again we’ll touch on some other problem areas in the genre, but again we’ll end with hope. Don’t worry fellow travelers, the good guys are winning.