Science fiction has often been defined by its use of overt allegory. While it refuses to reproduce reality, runs the thinking, it certainly goes out of its way to represent it. And through extended allegory, continues the thinker, it can become a scaffolding for socio-political critique, portraying experimental what-if worlds that reflect badly on our own. Ursula Le Guin’s 1973 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” has recently been making the rounds on the internet; its advocates are encouraging people to read it as the parable best representing the Occupy Wall Street movement’s cause.
But the S-F genre, it turns out, has an unexpected, uncomfortably close relationship with reality despite its outright refusal to reproduce it and not just through its tradition of representing it.
[Complications arise, for example, when photographs depict reality reproducing science fiction.]
In 1897, H.G. Wells serialized The War of the Worlds in Pearson’s Magazine. The Martian invasion that brings turmoil and fear to the inhabitants of England fizzles out when the aliens’ immune systems fail the test of Earthly pathogenic bacteria. Narrated by a fictional scientific journalist and set in e suburbs of Victorian London, the chapters were even formatted to look like newspaper headlines. Nobody was fooled: the visual regularity of the text effectively framed it, and the extreme nature of the its events, as fiction. The War of the Worlds was an obvious parody of invasion literature, an inverted tale of colonialism, a reflection of Britain’s anxiety that their international prestige might be slipping, a story that anticipated pending virological discoveries, bordering on proto-biotic-invasion fiction.
H.G. Wells became “a man of genius,” clearly engaged in the comic re-functioning of preformed material.
In 1938, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds resulted in New York panic as listeners believed the meticulously briefed performances to be actual news bulletins describing a real invasion. Radio spun the story into reality as a tense audience, fearing an imminent German invasion, and only tuning in half-way through the performance, believed New York to be under attack. Since people believed the fictitious events it is now described as a hoax.
Not for the first time, science fiction crossed the line from improbable technological fantasy to actual technological possibility.
Were 1930s New Yorkers naïve to fear that some nameless, out-of-earth, advanced technology was capable of turning their city into dust from across the Atlantic?
From 1935-1941, under the auspices of the Amerika Bomber Program, German scientists were working hard on a secret project, Silverbird: a rocket designed for supersonic, stratospheric flight that would skip across the Earth’s atmosphere, drop bombs on New York, and then land, some tens of thousands kilometers away. This was not a hoax nor was it an aggrandized science fictional concept buoyed by overly-optimistic funding. Just before the end of the Second World War, Silverbird was well on its way to being successfully tried and tested.
Fredric Jameson, on the subject of utopian science fiction novels, writes that when we read them retrospectively their visions of future are obviously dated:
These visions [visions of wonder-working, properly "S-F" futures of technological automation] are themselves now historical and dated – streamlined cities of the future on peeling murals – while our lived experience of our greatest metropolises is one of urban decay and blight. That particular Utopian future has in other words turned out to have been merely the future of one moment of what is now our own past.
But there are times, like with Silverbird, where the terms are reversed: a moment of our own history reads like a moment in a science-fiction vision. These moments are rarely utopian though; they are either filled with dread, threats to human existence or to human autonomy – dystopian, horrifyingly familiar worlds where the socio-political infrastructure has collapsed into the unfamiliar, where people’s fears are real and there is nowhere left to go; or they are moments where our own science has somehow surpassed what was understood to be possible, breaking free from, rewriting our (what we thought were) the laws of physics or biology.
While science fiction provides us with its awkward, often graceless, technologically advanced futures, we arrive, haltingly, at our past, surprised that we have actually, as a race, lived through science fiction: Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine and his Difference Engine, B2 stealth aircraft bombers in the 1930s, Nikola Tesla’s Magnifying Transmitter.
Somewhere in the 1970s or 1980s though, writers began to realize that the intimacy between science fiction and reality is actually never more complicated, true, or unavoidable than in its language, and not due to the allegory it describes but, conversely, due to its ability to be literal (an ability made possible because of allegory).
Samuel R. Delany recently re-explained how the difference between science fiction and regular fiction lies in sentence conventions:
‘Then her world exploded.’ If you say that in a piece of naturalistic fiction, it’s a metaphor for the emotional state of one of the female characters. However if you say that in a piece of science fiction you have to retain the possibility that it might actually mean that a planet, belonging to a woman, blew up.
In science-fiction, language can sign differently.
When Susan Howe changes the question around, not unlike Wittgenstein writing on the slipperiness of certainty, her concern lies with language and poetry. Yet in her reformulation of how things can signify names she brings her discussion tremblingly close to the story of Avice Benner Cho – the protagonist of China Mieville’s Embassytown (2011). Avice must undergo a horrific act as a child in order to be used as a simile in her local alien community’s language, a language that can only be used literally, that is incapable of lies. She becomes “the girl that ate what was given her.”
Is science fiction the other place, other than poetry, where language can refigure its rules and practice?
Deep in the unfathomable pockets of space, Captain Picard and his crew come across the Tamarians: an odd alien species that can only speak in metaphor, relating their sentences always in reference to their mythology. Picard is baffled but slowly learns their language, meaningfully forging friendship through the telling of Gilgamesh.
We are the sacerdotal clowns
who feed upon the wind and stars
and pulverous pastures of poverty
Our wills are formed
by curious disciplines
beyond your laws
From “Apology Of Genius,” Mina Loy
Time to open up more conversations, more languages, more vocabulary, more forms. Science fiction isn’t just an explosion of pulpy production on an otherwise pristine book shelf. And while its language marks its separation from reality or from other literatures, it is also where it can begin to engage with them. Time to figure it out.
Lt. Commander Data: I have encountered 1,754 non-Human races during my tenure in Starfleet.
Counselor Deanna Troi: And we still can’t even say hello to these people.