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356 SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, VOLUME 15 (1988)

Raymond Williams

Science Fiction
First published in 1956 and never reprinted, this little-known brief essay by
the late Raymond Williams is a pioneering example of the kind of criticism
that SFS in particular exists to promote. lt combines an ideological critique
of the genre with some pithily individual observations and an avid curiosity
about SF as perceived by a British observer 30 years ago. "Science Fiction"
first appeared in The Highway, the journal of the Workers' Educational
Association (vol. 48 [Dec. 1956]:41-45). We are reprinting the essay with
the kind permission of Mrs Joy Williams.-Patrick Parrinder
Fiction is a kind of fact, although it takes some people centuries to get used
to it. To point out that its substance is imaginary, or fantastic, is no criticism
of it, for that is the kind of fact it is: a thing man has thought or imagined,
rather than observed or made. In practice we value fiction over a very wide
range, from the obviously realistic to the evidently miraculous. When we
look, then, at a contemporary phenomenon like SF, we must be careful not
to dismiss it because it is fanciful, extravagant, or even impossible, for, on
the same limited grounds, we could dismiss The Odyssey, The Tempest,
Gulliver's Travels, or The Pilgrim's Progress. The facts of SF are fictional,
and can only be assessed in literary terms.
Many of us know SF mainly from our children's comics, in which, for
example, the inhabitants of the planet Phantos, tall purple bipeds with the
heads of cows, led by the Super-Phant Gogol, are invading the planet Cryp-
tos, whose inhabitants are a kind of dun biped sheep. Repulsion guns, aqua-
detectors, artificial suns, and the suspension of gravity abound. Yet the
literary bearings, here, are easy, for the space-gun is just a new kind of
tomahawk, and the Super-Phant is our old friend the sheriff of Nottingham.
If this were the whole of SF, it would not call for comment.
In fact, in SF written for adults, the Cowboy and Indian, Earthman and
Martian type is now quite rare. Wells'[s] War of the Worlds keeps being
filmed, under various titles, and with varying degrees of acknowledgment,
but, in print, the subjects and emphases are now normally different. SF has
been put to service in almost every kind of traditional story. There are the
stories of war and banditry, like War of the Worlds or Mr E.F. Russell's A
Present from Joe. There are stories of adventure and exploration, beginning
perhaps with Poe's story of a flight to the Moon, The Unparalleled Adven-
ture of one Hans Pfaal, and continuing through nearly all the stories of
Jules Verne to a recent example like Mr Arthur Porges' The Ruum. There is
at least one ordinary murder story, Mr John Wyndham's Dumb Martian,
which is also a common kind of love story. Men from flying saucers have
SCIENCE FICTION 357

been used as a contemporary deus ex machina in an otherwise realistic


story, such as Mr Henry Kuttner's Or Else. There are humorous stories,
like Mr H. Nearing's The Cerebrative Psittacoid, and trick stories like
Katherine MacLean's interesting Pictures Don't Lie. Poe wrote a Thou-
sand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade using 19th-century scientific and
technological wonders as a continuation of Sinbad: Scheherazade is stran-
gled, for although the king believes in a sky-blue cow with 400 horns he
will not believe in photography or the steamship. Earlier, Mary Shelley, in
Frankenstein, had added SF to the Gothic novel, and this horrific strain has
been very widely exploited. Mr C.L. Moore's No Woman Born is a recent
"Frankenstein" type, and in the general field there is such a profusion of
monsters from outer space or the ocean depths as to constitute an entire
20th-Century Bestiary. This element, from the giant octopus to the tiny
alien voice at the base of the skull, is commonly present, also, in stories of
a different basic type.
The types, and most of the examples, that I have given, belong, ordi-
narily, to the levels of magazine fiction, and are rarely of much literary
interest. Traditional appeals have been exploited with new, or apparently
new, material, and the result is neither much better nor much worse than
the long line from Horace Walpole through Conan Doyle. The general level
compares quite favorably with that of the detective story, and there are the
same "literary" exercises in it, in which "style" is put in as a grade-jumping,
artificial element: Mr Ray Bradbury doing for SF what Miss Sayers or Mr
Michael Innes have done for crime. But these exercises in magazine fiction,
whether decorated or not, are not, in my view, the really interesting things
in SF. An octopus on Saturn is still an octopus, and a Phant is still a bandit:
the interesting new things lie elsewhere.
There are three types of SF which, while varying greatly in the merit of
particular examples, are, nevertheless, important to the critic as new modes
or norms. These are what I will call, for brevity, Putropia, Doomsday, and
Space Anthropology. I dislike, intensely, most of the examples of at least
the first two of these modes, but then, in the magazine fiction, intensity of
either like or dislike is very rare. These modes are interesting because they
belong, directly, to a contemporary structure of feeling, whereas the rest of
SF, for the most part, is merely the profitable exercise of a formula. So, I
suppose, these modes will in tum become, are already becoming; but the
trace of feeling is still on them, and this is determining.
By Putropia I mean the characteristic 20th-century corruption of the
Utopian romances. Stories of a secular paradise of the future reached their
peak, perhaps, in Morris's News from Nowhere, and since then have been
almost entirely converted into their opposites: the stories of a future secular
hell. Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, and Orwell's 1984 are
the most famous examples, but there are countless examples among lesser-
known writers. Mr Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is at once articulate and rep-
resentative. The title indicates the temperature at which book-paper will
bum, and the central character is a member of the Fire Brigade charged
with setting fire to all houses in which books are found. The fireman hero
starts reading and secreting books, has his own house burned down, kills
358 SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, VOLUME 15 (1988)

while resisting arrest, and is chased through the city by a[n] electronic
Hound (which Sir Henry Baskerville would have recognized). He gets away
to the country, where he meets a band of scholars turned tramps, who pre-
serve literature by committing it to memory. Meanwhile, behind him, the
city is bombed.
Fahrenheit 451 is characteristic of books of this type in that, under the
emblem of a story of the future, it presents not so much an observation, but
a current form of feeling, related primarily to contemporary society. Here
the "myth" is the defense of culture, by a minority, against the new barbar-
ians. In 1984, the "myth" is the struggle between clean and unclean intel-
lectuals, who determine the future without reference to the dumb "proles."
The form of feeling which dominates this putropian thinking is, basically,
that of the isolated intellectual, and of the "masses" who are at best brutish,
at worst brutal. The stories are defended as an extension of obvious con-
temporary tendencies, and it is here that the SF element-telescreen, elec-
tronic agent, videophone-most crudely operates. These things, which are
properly the extension of existing tendencies, serve as a form of external
realism, offering to authenticate and persuade, within which the subtler,
and more questionable, version of extension can appear to establish itself.
For while atomic war, organized lying, political persecution, and the burn-
ing of books exist, as facts, on our side of the worlds of 1984 and Fahren-
heit 451, they are distinguished by being human, and social, activities, and
are thus subject to a different order of calculation. The tendencies to adul-
terate or destroy civilization are evident enough, but their extension is sub-
ject to a different process from that which will give us the telescreen. The
extension of social tendencies is a doubtful process, and any substantial writ-
ing of this kind will commonly be rooted in an actual and developed world
rather than in the given, unconnected future, the fixed distortion, which the
SF convention, confident in its authenticating gadgetry, here so misleading-
ly allows. I am not disposed to modify this adverse criticism by the fact that
the apparent values of such works are liberal and humane. The gentle read-
er, and the consciousness of the writer, are certainly, by these terms,
assuaged. But the tone of all such work that I have read, from Huxley to Mr
Bradbury, bears its own, and different, witness. The psychological strains
of the isolation from which the myths are endorsed can be seen, very clear-
ly, in much of the actual writing. The preoccupied realization of various
extremes of cruelty and disgust is the finally dominant feeling-tone. It is
said that these things are warnings; but they are less warnings about the
future, or even about television, than about the adequacy of certain types of
contemporary feeling which are rapidly becoming orthodox. I believe, for
my own part, and against this central myth, that to think, feel, or even
speak of people in terms of "masses" is to make the burning of the books
and the destroying of the cities just that much more possible.
Putropia, however, stops a little short of Doomsday. Doomsday is the
immensely popular genre which, with considerable ingenuity and variety,
disposes of life altogether. There are catastrophes which stop just short of
this, and move into putropia. Mr John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids is an
example. Here, the great majority of human beings are struck suddenly
SCIENCE FICTION 359

blind, and the Triffids-locomotive stinging plants, sources of vegetable


oil, developed by Russian scientists-take over. The sighted minority has
to decide whether to try to save the blind masses, who, characteristically,
have taken to drink and so on, or to abandon them, to regroup the few who
can see, and start making a better society. The myth is satisfied, of course, by
the choice of the latter alternative, which has an apparent rationality once
the SF convention has created the appropriate circumstances.
Doomsday used to have a God; it has none now. The Solar System
bums itself out, after an atom bomb has been dropped on a strange rock
which is an extra-planetary device of the same kind (Mr van Vogt's Dor-
mant). The universe contracts to virtually nothing, and color, light, and
finally life vanish (Mr Philip Latham's The Xi Effect). The former, perhaps,
is to be rationalized as a warning against combined science and war, though
the burning-out is described with brio, and not, I think, without pleasure.
The latter is the familiar nightmare of mechanism; nobody does anything
wrong, but we are finished all the same. More significant, I think, than
either, is Mr John Christopher's The New Wine, in which the human race is
suddenly, by deliberate scientific intention, made fully proficient in telepathy.
A hundred years later, life is almost over, for when people can see and
know each other as they really are, they prefer to die. Mr Eliot, operating
from the same form of feeling, might have been well advised to put The
Cocktail Party into SF, for the sake of external credibility. With him, how-
ever, some at least of the traditional sanctities and renewals are retained, as
counter-process. SF, by its definition of an arbitrary discontinuity, can dis-
pense with these, and, selecting the tendencies that suit its purposes, and
extending them, make an end of the human complexity.
Much SF is really anti-SF. An unbearable personal tension, or a partic-
ular sterility in social thinking, at once use and make a villain of a large
part of man's organized attempt to know and to control. Humanism is dis-
carded in the very affirmation of the familiar contemporary myths of
humane concern. Man, in many of these stories, reaches his lowest point;
even Faust was eagerly damned. The convention powerfully supports this.
Not only catastrophe, but social breakdown, is a donnee. Under new adver-
sity, man and society at once break down (with a few favored exceptions),
but the evidence for this is not from the record; it is, rather, unconsciously
from the writer's feelings, consciously from the convention of the thrilling
story, which needs trouble; (the central character of an adventure story is
usually so criminally careless that he would not survive a day of real dan-
ger, but this makes for trouble, and for more story, and so here, with the
unacknowledged underlying aim). I conclude myself from this kind of SF
(look at the logic of extending tendencies) that we are all still in the caves.
I have left until last my recommendation of Space Anthropology. The
old traveller's tale dealt in men with heads in their chests. In deep space, as
I have observed, we find beasts and ghoulies and articulate vegetables, but
these are the pre-history of the form. There are several moderate stories,
and a few good ones, which consciously use the SF formula to find what
are essentially new tribes, and new patterns of living. Some tribes are dull,
like Mr Ray Bradbury's Martians-passionless blue balls-in The Fire
360 SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, VOLUME 15 (1988)
Balloons. Passionless blue balls we have at home. But the Lithians, in Mr
James Blish's A Case of Conscience, are a beautifully imagined tribe, in
spite of being erect eight-foot reptiles. Here, for once, among the limitless
claims of SF, we find a work of genuine imagination, and real intelligence.
Reading all fiction is like that: after the long susurrus, at last a human
voice, but here far away, among the galaxies.

RESUME

Raymond Williams. Science-Fiction.-Hormis Jes Operas de l' espace, la sci-


ence-fiction doit etre prise au serieux comme on le ferait, disons, Des voyages de
Gulliver. /I y a trois sortes de science-fiction qui meritent d'etre lues: la
putropie, le recit apocalyptique, et l' anthropologie de l' espace. La premiere,
comme Fahrenheit 451 de Bradbury, est une alteration de l'utopie; la deuxieme est
une fiction apocalyptique telle que The New Wine de Christopher; et la derniere
(celle que je prefere), comme Un cas de conscience de Blish, traite d' especes et de
cultures imaginaires. (RMP)

Abstract.-Exclusive of space operas, SF deserves to be taken seriously-as much


so as Gulliver's Travels, say. The SF worth reading most ly falls into three cate-
gories: Putropia, Doomsday, and Space Anthropology. The first are corruptions of
Utopia like Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451; the second, apocalyptic fiction like
Christopher's The New Wine; and the last-my own preference-deal in imagi-
nary species and cultures as in Blish' s A Case of Conscience. (RMP)