Sometimes everything changes, sometimes nothing changes

The other worlds of sci-fi and fantasy

How do science-fiction and fantasy help us understand reality? James Turley investigates

What do I mean by science-fiction and fantasy? The traditional thing to do is to define your terms, so that everyone knows what you are talking about. When you are dealing with genres, however, that is not strictly possible. You can read all sorts of people from the highest echelons of academia down to the most mundane internet warrior, arguing over whether such and such a book is science-fiction or not. They are trying to divide these genres up into some perfect sort of Linnaean system and, of course, it does not quite work.

There is a wonderful little screen-writing guide which is actually a great work of formalist literature and film criticism in disguise called Story by Robert McKee. McKee sets everything into diagrams, with lots of expositions of ‘the negation of the negation’ in the narrative arc and so forth. When it gets to the subject of genre, all this disappears: it is reduced to the level where an action film has people shooting each other, or a science-fiction film has spaceships ... He loses this great rationalist impulse to systematisation, and it turns out that everything does not go back to Aristotle, as he tells you in the introduction.

When we deal with genres, we have to accept that we are dealing with something that arrives before us as an accomplished fact, an accumulation of texts and features - even sub-cultural attitudes - that have already gone through decades of history at the least, normally centuries. The boundaries, in this situation, are always going to be blurred and there will be overlaps. But nonetheless it is a fact that there is something about, for example, Isaac Asimov where we can open a book up and say, “this is science-fiction”.

What I want to argue is that we are dealing with tendencies in cultural products: you cannot organise them on a text by text basis into a perfect categorical system; rather you have to open the discussion up a bit more and problematise it.

The distinction between this whole field, which you could call ‘speculative fiction’, and literature and film as a whole is that it is avowedly counter-factual. Any given novel will, of course, depart from actually existing reality, but for science-fiction and fantasy that is the whole point. We pose a ‘what if?’ scenario, and throw people in to see how they deal with it. In science-fiction and fantasy, we have two broadly distinguishable modes of taking this approach.

Science-fiction tends to be oriented to the future, often embodied in forms of technology; something irrupts into human history, and then the humans have to deal with it, be it an alien invasion or a great technological advance - something that opens up a space where new problems can arise.

There’s a quite interesting essay by Matthew Beaumont in the book edited by China Miéville and Mark Bould, Red planets: Marxism and science-fiction. Beaumont compares the basic operation of SF to anamorphic painting: the classic example is Holbein’s ‘The ambassadors’, a picture of two worthy looking diplomats in a rather opulent office. Across the front of it is a bizarre thing that does not fit into the picture at all, but if you look at it from the correct angle you can see that it is a skull, a memento mori - this changes the meaning of the whole picture.

Beaumont makes the point that you can either produce the whole painting around an anamorphic perspective that only makes sense if you view it from a peculiar angle, which would correspond to, say, a space-opera where nothing is immediately recognisable from mundane reality. On the other hand, you can have the Holbein model - something incomprehensible enters reality and, in a way, to fix it in your vision is to distort the rest of the picture.

In fantasy there is, broadly, what we would call deformed representations of the historical past. The classic sub-genre is ‘swords and sorcery’ - well, we have moved on in terms of military technology from the sword these days; sorcery is more a retreat to a mythologised past, but nonetheless it is never a work of pure imagination, as it were. There are always humans in these great fantasy novels and they respond as the author wants us to imagine they would respond to the particular problems set by the particular narrative world.

So in science-fiction, I would like to argue, there is a tendency to highlight the dimension of historical chronology; because you are dealing with a historical irruption, you have to have some sort of lurking idea of how history happens. Very often it is a technological-deterministic type of view. In the later Star trek series, it turns out that the Federation of Planets has a basically communist economy because someone invented a way to ‘magic’ infinite food out of thin air (the ‘replicator’). Technology has worked out all the contradictions; that is a fairly typical case.

In ‘high’ fantasy you have worlds that do not seem to change chronologically. Because they are so indebted to folk tales and so forth from an earlier period, they come off as a pastiche of the products of feudal culture, or an ancient Greek or Roman mythology. You get the idea of these perpetual worlds, but then what happens is that a historical dimension is spatialised.

In the typical high fantasy narrative, the protagonist will start off as a peasant on a farm or some such, unaware of all the magic in the world around him; but it turns out (of course!) that he is the long-lost descendent of a mighty king or sorcerer. A close brush with death at the hands of demonic creatures is avoided, forcing the protagonist into flight from the provincial life - usually escorted and mentored by a ‘wise one’ who has been secretly monitoring him.

It precisely is a cliché - nicknamed, in fantasy fandom, ‘the farm boy of prophecy’ - but what it allows the author to do is present a character in a situation of perfect ignorance, like the reader, and then take him on a grand tour of the wonderful secondary world. This character is a point for the reader to identify with, and share in his wonder. So the historical dimension is spatialised. As the narrative goes from one location to the next, alternative historical formations are presented - absolute monarchies, republics, patriarchal and matriarchal societies, and innumerable other variations (that nonetheless have mostly themselves become clichés).


It is perhaps a little dubious to get into the problems of origins; but there is something to be said about where this stuff comes from.

The generally agreed opening shot of modern science-fiction is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and this appears at a peculiar time for a certain type of radical, ‘progressive’ milieu. Mary Shelley is the daughter of the pioneering anarchist, William Godwin, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and the wife of Percy Shelley, who was something of a democrat/radical. This is also the romantic milieu - Frankenstein was the product of the tail end of the enlightenment, where the forces against it are starting to gather strength.

The plot line is well known - Victor Frankenstein makes a living being out of cut-up bits of corpses. Having made it, he feels utter revulsion and repels it. Most of human society follows suit, and it turns the hypothetical monster into an actual monster that ends up committing acts of vengeful violence. The doctor and the monster end up chasing each other to their deaths. It is not strictly irrationalist: it does embody a certain kind of understanding of the power of scientific knowledge, but it is still a kind of a cautionary tale about the need for moral responsibility for scientific knowledge. It comes out of this moment of crisis and ambivalence in the ideology of the hard sciences.

As far as fantasy goes, there is not really a necessary historical precondition for people to create fantastic creatures and worlds, or indeed recycle pre-existing mythology. Nonetheless, if you take fantasy in its modern form as a mass cultural phenomenon, JRR Tolkien is obviously the most influential figure. Tolkien represents a conservative, Catholic reaction to the intense crisis of the first half of the 20th century, a reaction to the fact that war can no longer be seen as noble and between great forces of good and evil any more - so he writes an enormous novel where it is.

It is not accidental that when we deal with these two genres they come out of a more general cultural crisis, because narrative works on crisis. It would not work if Victor Frankenstein makes his monster and everything turns out all right, because you do not have a story. Conflict is the petrol that these mutations in narrative actually run on - there are actually new problems that calls for these imaginary solutions.

What is lurking in the background here is the very old idea that science-fiction tends to be ‘progressive’ because it is imagining progress in some way, and that fantasy is a reactionary literature of mystification. This does not quite hold up. This view, by the way, originated in its systematic form with Darko Suvin - he was one of the first people to systematically attempt a literary theory on science-fiction in the late 1970s and he happened to be a Marxist (of a slightly peculiar type).

However, he was one of these people with a very clear definition of science-fiction; one characteristic early essay was titled, self-explanatorily, ‘On what is and is not an SF narration; with a list of 101 Victorian books that should be excluded from SF bibliographies’ (www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/14/suvin14art.htm). He was extraordinarily anti-fantasy. In addition, it is more common for science-fiction to flirt with leftwing politics. HG Wells was a Fabian, though he famously despised democracy. More recently there were ‘new wave’ authors, such as Michael Moorcock and later still Ken Macleod, Iain M Banks and so on. That is the general tendency in science-fiction; but if you open up the author’s biography of your average fantasy novel you will find many writers from military and religious backgrounds.

However, you can have reactionary myths of the future. You can perfectly well conceive of the future as a technological expansion in which nothing really changes. There are just more wars, and humanity will always be fundamentally red in tooth and claw. Conversely, in terms of fantasy, it has to be understood there are ways of posing historical problems in a fantastical mode that are not necessarily ‘obvious’ to science-fiction, in particular thematising the unreason that is part of human existence.

A good example would be China Miéville’s Bas-Lag trilogy - magic is called ‘thaumaturgy’, is an object of knowledge and a technical means of production (and, more gruesomely, physical mutilation). Miéville also has a formulation which, despite its Hegelian-Marxism, has a certain truth to it - “‘real’ life under capitalism is a fantasy”. What he means by this is commodity fetishism; but you could conceive of it a different way. The basic point is that there is a certain level at which everyone is always doing this myth-making. Fantasy is maybe in a position to make us conscious of what is going on there.

Two examples

I will take two quite recent series of books to discuss in more depth here: firstly, Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels (Altered carbon, Broken angels and Woken furies). The SF gimmick here is that consciousness can be stored in a ‘cortical stack’ and transferred from body to body, as well as being transmitted from one star system to another (necessary due to the lack of faster-than-light travel).

That sets up a certain number of expectations - primarily that we will be dealing with the liberation of humanity from the narrow corporeality of its existence; but Morgan is an incorrigible pessimist. What this actually allows is an enormous expansion of the means of destruction.

Now there are several planets colonised by humans, so it does not really matter if there is a nuclear war on one of them - and, sure enough, there are nuclear wars. If you can store someone’s consciousness on a disk, imagine the possibilities for virtual-reality torture (of course, we do not have to imagine, as Morgan explains in considerably graphic detail).

Beyond that, there is an abiding sense that, although you can transfer your consciousness from body to body, your behaviour is still determined more by the body you are in than by your free-floating consciousness; that nobody has escaped anything and that, despite all human efforts, we are always going to be stuck in a biological condition where exploitation and mass violence are inevitable.

This actually turns out to be a little too depressing even for Morgan. By the end of the third novel the main character has been thrown back into a revolutionary milieu; a series of increasingly outlandish plot contrivances leads one to the conclusion that an inscrutable and apparently dead race of super-advanced aliens has taken an interest in the future of humanity. You then have this strange deus ex machina, where the only possibility for change lies is a bizarre god-race that left this sort of stuff laying around.

It is a science-fiction novel, and Morgan delights in detailing the uglier bits of his ‘science’. But his world is strictly Nietzsche’s eternal repetition of the same, with the only possibility of breaking the cycle coming from some sort of pseudo-god (in spite, it must be said, of Morgan’s ultra-Dawkinsite hatred of religion).

On the contrary, there is presently a moment in fantasy where the old Tolkienesque moral certitudes are breaking down with some rapidity. The turning point was George RR Martin’s Game of thrones, now adapted for television by HBO; though it was a secondary world fantasy broadly in the Tolkienesque tradition, its cynicism about the stakes and consequences of war is in stark contrast to Lord of the rings, and has been widely influential in the genre. In its wake has arisen a wave of what you could call the ‘spaghetti swords and sorcery’ novel - a much more ambivalent and critical variant of the older, high-fantasy template.

I want to touch upon Joe Abercrombie briefly - he has written five novels, including a trilogy, set in a secondary world basically recognisable from older novels in the Tolkienesque tradition; there are barbarians in the north, there are mysterious, Oriental types with malign intentions at the gates, and in the middle there is an imperial capital, which seems to be in an advanced state of late-feudal decadence.

The main characters, broadly speaking, are a barbarian, a torturer from the capital and a self-absorbed minor aristocrat. The barbarian - Logen Ninefingers - has never been outside his homeland of snowy wastes, but at the outset of the trilogy he is rescued by an ancient sorcerer called Bayaz. It seems that we will see the classic relationship and Ninefingers will be taken under the wing of the archetypal ‘wise one’, be shown the world and introduced to his great historic mission.

But, as the trilogy goes on, everything slowly flips around and it becomes clear that Bayaz does not have the best interests of humanity at heart. By the point this becomes obvious, everyone else is entrapped in his scheme and he engineers the transition from this decaying feudal absolutism. The final state of affairs: the minor aristocrat inherits the throne, but is only a puppet for Bayaz, the torturer gets to keep his job, and the world is now to be ruled by money.

So what you have is this bizarre myth of class exploitation surviving historical transitions; and this very transition is an alien irruption into a genre that has not really wanted to deal with this problem. It is nonetheless a very provocative piece of work.

Literary v ‘genre’

These books are not treatises on political economy, nor are they great works of modernist literature, where you have to check where you are in a 15-page paragraph. This is mass-market fiction, which is something which must be said about both fantasy and science-fiction: this is what they share.

This is why they end up on the same shelves in Waterstones, much to the annoyance of Darko Suvin. There is a quite grown-up, quite substantial sub-culture around SF and fantasy. Obviously there is the overlap in the audience generally, but it is also embodied in the whole culture of ‘fandom’, such as it is, with its convention circuit, the extremely devoted cult followings of authors - Robert Jordan, a classic high-fantasy author, must have sold 20-odd million books. Every teenage boy goes through a point of reading one of these endless series (mine was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld).

Combined with that is an overlap in ostracism. Despite the fact that this is mass culture, because of the way that the cultural economy surrounding literature goes it has an element of ‘outsider culture’ to it as well. Speculative fiction is forcibly separated from ‘literary fiction’ - in a bookshop (and on the awards circuit), there is ‘fiction’ and then there is science-fiction, crime-fiction, fantasy and so forth. Being on the ‘fiction’ shelf is either an indication that they have not quite made up a name yet for the micro-genre or represents a spurious sense of increased seriousness and closeness to ‘real’ concerns.

In this regard, the literary fiction/‘genre’ fiction opposition is worth a few comments. Genre fiction, such as it is, is able to be radical partly because it is cut off from this mainstream circuit and it is very visible. I should say in the first instance that literary fiction is quite as formulaic as any genre - just as I laid out ‘the farm boy of prophecy’ fantasy storyline earlier, the standard ‘literary’ fiction quite as commonly covers the travails, neuroses and relationship issues of an abstract middle class milieu. Iain Banks calls it the Hampstead novel, and he is absolutely right to do so - it is a genuine phenomenon.

In places, the Hampstead novel tries to encroach on science-fiction - but it very often gets into all sorts of problems. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never let me go, recently made into a nicely shot film, is a case in point. The idea, in brief, is that children are being bred in order that their vital organs can be farmed in early adulthood; they all go to this idyllic public school, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

It is particularly clear, in the film more than the novel, what the problem is: at various points the narrator muses to the effect that ‘We always kind of knew we were going to grow up and be killed and farmed for organs, but also kind of didn’t’. There is a moment in the film where one of the rebellious teachers at the school confirms this fate to the room of teenagers, who sigh briefly in disappointment, and just get on with their lives.

There is also the great science-fiction high concept, which is roped to a plotline about a perpetual love-triangle that goes on and on. The issue is that Ishiguro is trying to do two things at once: he cannot quite separate them and he cannot quite put them together. He wants to write the love-triangle, but this pesky science-fiction concept that he refuses to follow all the way through just makes it look a bit ridiculous. He has the science-fiction concept in it basically so he can have a hard time limit on the three characters working out who they fancy, so he can make a broad point on the transitory nature of love. He is stuck with these opposed narrative elements which never quite gel.

This is a kind of point that China Miéville makes again and again: you have to believe in your monsters. If the big metaphors come first, the result is an insufferably boring novel that is not half as profound as it thinks it is.

Having said all this, it is worth wondering actually what the point is. Why is it that there has been this peculiar, persistent flirtation between science-fiction and left politics - is it actually rooted in anything real? More to the point, I have come through five years of the literary academy, such as it is, being told at every turn that what we are doing is terribly radical and terribly important.

The issue is that it is not half as radical as academics think it is, in the sense that nothing we can say about science-fiction is politically actionable in even the most broad sense. Even doing the theorisation and close reading of texts to find out what is secretly revolutionary about them is of dubious value - it will not even help you write a more revolutionary science-fiction novel. After all, the novel is a work of language and endless signifying codes and that is not something you own as an author, or something intrinsic to the text - it is a product of history and largely extraneous to any given act of literary production itself.

What you can do, however, is force people to think - and what you have with science-fiction and fantasy are two pretty well worn but nonetheless useful tools for forcibly estranging people from their normal surroundings. You cannot just prescribe solutions in literature, but if you frame things in the right way people have at least to come to conclusions that they might not otherwise have done.

In terms of the theoretical aspect, the analysis of genre sheds some light on particular historical moments, regarding the way people relate to their culture. I argued that Frankenstein came out of an initial crisis in enlightenment ideology. The Lord of the rings and Tolkienesque works come out of moments of general human history, of crisis, of economic crisis, of horrendous and pointless wars and so forth. So there is one relationship going on here within the strictly contemporary context of these texts. But then there is the genre itself as something that persists through time - you can trace the strange mutations where the production of these things becomes industrialised. There is much to be said about how people relate to them now, which may turn out to be important.

At the end of the day we want a movement that has a serious cultural cachet, that can impose a frame of consciousness where ‘pulp’ culture can add up to something greater than bourgeois culture allows it to - products that had previously been thought of as useless pulp trash later reveal a radical underside that can reinforce a kind of critical consciousness. Raymond Chandler is a great example. In the 1930s he just wrote ‘trashy’ novels; but I would argue that he was the greatest writer of the 20th century, and that his novels are richly political and intellectually engaged.

It is part of building up a culture that is distinctively our own; but that inevitably involves appropriating other aspects of culture that aren’t strictly ‘ours’. The writings of Marx, in fact, are an object lesson in picking up material - Balzac, More, Shakespeare - that by no means belongs to the workers’ movement, and turning it against official bourgeois culture.