Five Possible Engagements between Science Fiction and History of Science

Author: Mat Paskins

This post is an attempt to tease out some possible connections between Science Fiction and History of Science. I’m not aware of anyone having tried to do this before so this is necessarily quite a tentative list; you may see many more, or completely disagree! Obviously, these kinds of taxonomies can only be a starting point.

I think that existing scholarship entertains five main models for thinking about how Science Fiction and History of Science might relate to each other. They can overlap to a significant degree but also have rather different priorities. These models are also not always conceptualised explicitly in terms of relating the two fields, but they are interpretive frameworks within which SF and HoS can be brought into meaningful dialogue. Here are the five models. I’d be delighted to learn about others you can think of:

  • Performative prophecy. Science Fiction meaningfully predicts ‘the future’ and in some cases directly contributes to the development of some sciences. The role of history of science is to trace that direct influence; reading Science Fiction can help to articulate the most important trends in present and past science and technology. This is perhaps a bit of a straw-man position, as I’m not sure that any critic or historian consistently endorses it. It is nevertheless an important actor’s category for some significant figures in the field, such as Hugo Gernsback, and claims about prophecy are often treated as a measure of SF’s cultural significance and cognitive vitality. Various attempts have also been made to enlist SF in futures studies, usually with the assumption that it has at least potentially a role in forecasting.
    Hugo Gernsback demonstrating his television goggles in 1963 for LIFE magazine
  • Co-construction. Science and SF emerge from and contribute to a common culture. Reading and interpreting them together allows us to trace the linkages, and to cast light on topics which are neglected by one or the other. There is an interchange between the concepts found in each, though there isn’t necessarily a direct causal link. As mentioned in the previous post, an eminent example of this approach is N. Katherine Hayles’ book How We Became Posthuman, which explores literature focused on cybernetics alongside the development of its techno-scientific practices. Hayles presents this as a process of re-membering, restoring questions of embodiment and historicity which are forgotten by the more extravagant advocates of cybernetic transformation. For earlier in the century, Ronald Schleifer’s problematic but stimulating book Modernism and Time explores ways the ‘crisis of abundance’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries impacted on twentieth century science, literature and philosophy. These works are not cultural histories because they do not aim to give a coherent background narrative in terms of which scientific developments or literary works can be explained. Much work in the field of literature and science – such as Gillian Beer’s studies of Darwin – is co-constructionist in its outlook.
  • Cultural History. Ostensibly about the future, SF is permeated with the anxieties and energies of the age during which it is produced. The genre of cultural history allows us to grasp the cultural conditions of the emergence of SF’s yearnings and material imaginings. Moreover, cultural history can help us to appreciate that SF is a popular, mass form of cultural production. The most eloquent advocate of this approach has been Roger Luckhurst, whose Science Fiction: A Cultural History situates British and American SF in the twentieth century histories of the two countries. Luckhurst opposes cultural history to analyses based on critical theory, which praise the virtues of some SF works and exclude most others for falling short. The historicist approach allows him to trace how SF came to be regarded as a minor form of literature in the early twentieth century and its entanglements with public attitudes and organisation around technoscientific transformations – particularly around nuclear physics and environmental activism. Luckhurst concludes– rather touchingly, I think — that he hopes his work ‘has at least succeeded in providing a matrix in which SF writings can come historically alive’ (p. 244).
  • Cultures of Science. Talking about the historical context of SF is not enough. Through a sustained engagement with the histories of specific scientific cultures, we can see how imaginative writers represent and critique the politics of knowledge and the variant practices embodied in different ways of knowing and manipulating the world. Also a form of contextualisation, readings in terms of cultures of science go beyond the socio-historical to look at the shifting power dynamics and material, social and cognitive practices within particular scie51rsHCP-7AL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ntific fields or communities. In this it is guided by histories of science which have unpacked the dynamics of past scientific controversies. As an approach, it can only work if the critic can show persuasively that a given imaginative author is aware of the details of the scientific communities which she has chosen to represent. The best exemplar of this approach is Martin Willis’ book Monsters, Mesmerists and Machines, which gives detailed readings of Jules Verne, HG Wells, and other canonical late nineteenth century SF authors in terms of very specific developments in the sciences of their times. Willis contends that these authors write, in large part, to critique prevailing regimes of knowledge.
  • Pasts Seen from Possible Futures. The postmodern condition is such that people do not experience themselves as historical subjects. SF has the great virtue that it encourages us to look at the present moment as it might be seen from the future – that is, in historical terms. This line of argument is particularly associated with the baroque and masterful work of Frederic Jameson. Jameson contends that late capitalism produces forms of sociality and culture which are saturated with estrangement, disturbance and novelty and allergic to the possibility of historical change. Against such a condition, SF is supposed to allow for the development of alternatives and utopian possibilities. This is an obvious challenge to those visions of SF which privilege its powers of defamiliarisation. A related line of argument belongs to Nuclear Criticism, which is concerned with how the horizon of nuclear annihilation over-determines all attempts at writing and its preservation. Such arguments are historicist, premised on the importance of meaningful social change in time, but not necessarily historical, in that they do not require engagement with the details of particular histories, and may be actively suspicious of archives. How the possible future of scientific knowledge may reshape our understandings of its past and present is not, I think, a question which historians of science often ask.

giphySo that is a preliminary attempt to relate the two fields. To recap, the five are: Prophecy, co-construction, cultural history, cultures of science, and pasts seen from possible futures. In subsequent posts I’ll try to unpack their relationships further, and with more specificity. Comments, as always, are extremely welcome.

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