Science Fiction Meets the History of Science

April 20, 2016 Mat Paskins 1 comment

Author: Mat Paskins

Our project “Unsettling Scientific Stories” is about engagements between science fiction (SF), visions of the future, and the history, philosophy, and sociology of Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (HoS). Existing scholarship has suggested a number of promising ways of articulating the relationships between these topics and left some significant questions unaddressed. In this series of I want to look at the main ways in which SF has been theorised, with a particular focus on how that relates to HoS. I will begin with some very general observations.


The goal of these posts is to give some sense of the field and to pick out at least a few of the most important themes and approaches. I hope that you will suggest other readings as well; the field is so broad and can be navigated in so many different ways that it is most alive when people can talk to each other about the work which moves them, the clichés which infuriate them, the futures which are meaningful for them, and so on.


The relationship between SF and HoS is ambiguous. Over the last fifty years or so, historians of science have generally sought to demystify accounts of the triumphant progress of scientific knowledge. They have done this in a number of different ways, from exploring the philosophical disunities of different sciences, to tracing the socio-political contexts in which knowledge is made, to challenging the sense that certain scientific arguments win out because they are naturally true.


Detail from a cover for Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘The Door into Summer’ (1957)

Proponents of ‘hard’ SF, on the other hand, seek fictional forms which represent are governed by natural law and which do not supersede the possibilities of science at the historical moment when the fiction is created. Amanda Rees, our Principal Investigator, suggested a phrase from Robert Heinlein’s novel Door into Summer, which captures the sense of determinism to which this can lead: ‘when it’s time to railroad, someone will build a railroad.’ But HoS suggests that ‘what science knows’ at any given time is fraught with social and political judgments and cannot easily be abstracted into a pure scientific core. What does the science of hard SF look like if we accept these perspectives? Of course, hard SF is not the whole genre, and maybe its other forms offer more social critique; or perhaps there is something about the process of extrapolating present knowledge which is intrinsically critical.


Or then again, perhaps the socio-political context of STEM in the making, which historians of science have done so much to elucidate, ‘burns away’ over the timescales which SF makers imagine. So the specific cultures of, say, present-day colour chemistry or evolutionary biology, or space travel won’t leave any meaningful traces on the ways in which those knowledges will exist in the future. Or perhaps SF makers and critics have an inappropriately disembodied sense of how STEM takes shape, and the ways it contributes to historical change.


Or is a focus on the history of science misleading about the ways that SF works, as a fictional genre?


All of which is fabulously exciting to me, as an historian of science, but also very academic. Readers and makers of SF have their ownways of evaluating the plausibility of given fictions. They have often sceptical about the political preoccupations of academic criticism, history, and sociology. As ‘Runmentionable’ put it in a review of the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, on 


3788-1“Let’s get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first. The “critical theory” section purports to examine SF from the perspectives of Marxist, feminist, queer and postmodernist theory. The essays are, as you’d probably expect, jargon-heavy (though by the usual standards of this stuff, they’re relatively transparent), and, as you’d also probably expect, they seem to feel that the core SF canon consists of three books (and if you’re guessing they’re “The Dispossessed”, “The Female Man” and “Triton”, you’re guessing correctly), which of course match the authors’ own cultural agendas. Those are significant novels, to be sure, but it’s an insult to readers and writers to dismiss the rest of the genre because it doesn’t match the political views of the academics. I actually have a reasonably high tolerance for academic abstraction, and my politics are left of centre, but these essays do nothing to counter the view that arts faculties are disappearing up their own neutron stars under the influence of incomprehensible jargon, political agendas and general irrelevance to the wider population.”


This is a bit more direct than many academic critics would usually be, but the claim that certain perspectives on SF have illegitimately limited the number of canon of works worthy of critical attention plays out within academic criticism as well.


416rHiozAKL._SL500_SX341_BO1,204,203,200_The influential views of Darko Suvin and his followers are often singled out as being too prescriptive of what SF ought to be, at the expense of much of what people actually watch, read, play, and otherwise experience. (We’ll come back to Suvin in a future post). In most SF criticism there is a preference for literary works over films and games, though this is changing. Even works which have argued for a more inclusive critical agenda, such as Roger Luckhurst’s Science Fiction: A Cultural History, have, however, generally preferred relatively sophisticated literary works to didactic and overtly commodified ones.


Such works (from Star Wars and all its spin-offs, to superhero films, to fan-fiction) are without question the ways in which most people experience SF at present. Many critics get very sniffy about what they perceive as fantasy overtaking the more hard-nosed genre of SF. Once again, there are sophisticated critical discourses around them, including both academic and popular writing. Academic studies might include the work of Henry Jenkins, Karen Hellekson, and Kristina Busse on fan fiction and fan communities. Some popular criticism which appeals to me, at least, is Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s splendidly eloquent praise for the direct-to-DVD sequels of the Universal Soldier franchise for the AV Club, or Grant Morrison’s self-serving but exuberant autobiographical history of superhero fiction in the UK and America. I’m not sure whether we can relate these approaches to the history of science, however.


posthuman1Finally, it is worth noting that some works have brought together SF and aspects of the history and sociology of science together, by exploring the narrative techniques shared by fiction and non-fiction. N. Katheerine Hales’ extremely influential book How We Became Posthuman, for example, traces three scientific stories associated with cybernetics and computer science through a wide range of different discourses, which combine tropes drawn from fiction with those found in scientific works and policy documents.



It has also often been claimed that certain SF works have provided important political imaginaries, and directly helped to shape certain technoscientific enterprises; examples which are often mentioned are Leo Szilard reading HG Wells’ speculations on the future possibility of nuclear weapons; William Gibson’s stories of the 1980s coined the word ‘cyberspace’ and contributes to its aesthetic and operationalisation; there were good cultural reasons why Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative of the early 1980s was known as ‘Star Wars’.



So it might be that the scientific stories which we aspire to unsettle will be common to SF and documents studied by historians; it might also be that projections of the future can be studied by similar techniques across these different fields. I don’t want to assume that this is always true, or that it exhausts the number of ways of reading and interpreting SF (I am particularly sceptical about claims that fictions are performative in politics, science or technology when there isn’t compelling evidence for those links), but it is an important strand of how SF has been related to history. In view of the discussion of a more populist canon above, it is also pleasingly close to the rather disreputable view that SF is prophetic of the future.


There are a lot of things to talk about, and dozens of different maps to a territory of unclear extent. Fortunately, SF critics are extremely fond of producing schematic taxonomies of the genre and its distinguishing features. My next few posts will give some summaries of critical approaches to SF. I’ll start with a brief overview of possible engagements between SF and HoS, and then in following posts examine one recent, excellent, taxonomy, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Prophecy is not one on Csicsery-Ronay’s beauties: so after spending some time with his book we’ll come back to think about its weird status within SF criticism.


Thank you for reading this far.


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