The following essays counts as the musings of a novice better versed in history than science fiction. To illustrate the point, my list of most read science fictions authors consists of Jules Verne, C. S. Lewis, and Gene Wolfe. I lean far more towards fantasy. Nevertheless, I like to ponder some ideas about the historical context behind the waxing and waning of science fiction as a genre. For, one cannot help but notice that science fiction has lost popularity vis-à-vis fantasy. Once again, my reading in science fiction is but slight, and the comments posted after the article may be far more illuminating; but, let me get our dear readers’ gears turning.
If we look at the birth and death years of the Father of Science Fiction, Jules Verne (1828 – 1905), we see that they extend through most of the 19th century into the Progressive Era and cease nine years before the outbreak of WWI. As 18th century thought was marked by individualism and liberty, the 19th century is marked by the rise of nationalism and collectivism. Jules Verse was born thirteen years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which unleashed the forces of nationalism and democracy across Europe. The greatest conflict of nationalism vs. localism counts as the American Civil War, pitting the nationalist Northerners against their sectional Southern brethren. Jules Verne’s novels feature a great affection for Americans–more specifically Northerners and Yankees, who count as the main characters in The Mysterious Island and From Earth to the Moon. The zeitgeist of the North was more in line with the spirit which Jules Verne inherited from the French Revolution and which Verne imbued his novels.
The two chief means of bettering international prestige in the 19th century counted as military prowess and scientific progress. The interplay of these two things appear in From Earth to the Moon, where The Gun Club constantly worked at bettering Union cannon but with the end of the Civil War must turn to peacetime goals for this technology. And, indeed, the North showed more technological innovations in their armaments during the war, including things like repeating rifles and brass cartridges. (Though, the South did develop the first successful attack submarine–the C.S.S. Hunley, which was unfortunately a one shot deal.) The importance of technology tied into the theories of evolution and Social Darwinism prevalent at the time. Societies with the most advanced technology were considered to be at the pinnacle of human evolution.
By all this, I mean to say that science fiction had its birth in nationalism and owes its original raison d’etre to that zeitgeist. At the same time, let me say that Jules Verne himself was far from being a jingoist. He delighted to learn about other cultures and places and often wrote novels were the main characters were not French. It is more exact to describe Verne as a patriot rather than a nationalist.
The nationalistic spirit into which science fiction was born gradually shifted to a more universal human perspective. The shift is best observed in the writings of H. G. Wells (1866 – 1946). The year of his death corresponds with the closing of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1938 – 1946). (Though, some place the end at 1960.) H. G. Wells was a socialist in his worldview. Marx’s Das Kapital came into publication the year after Wells’s birth, and greatly influenced the rest of the 19th century and 20th century.
To a large extent, the works of H. G. Wells exist in tension with Verne’s. The socialist worldview is internationalist in scope rather than nation-based. When Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895, most of the Western world was firmly in Verne’s camp. By the time Wells wrote Men Like Gods in 1923, most men were longing for the kind of Utopia he describes in that novel with its end of politics and exaltation of science. Such was the crisis of faith brought about by the First World War.
The blame for the World Wars was laid largely upon Western Civilization itself, especially the ideology of nationalism. The science fiction of the mid-20th century rather denigrated the idea of nationalism. In discarding nationalism completely, a new tension developed within the genre. It passed from nationalism vs. universal human progress to collectivism vs. nihilism. These two are not necessarily perfect opposites. The nihilists of the 19th century, rejecting traditional Western Civilization, fueled the rise of socialism and communism. Refer to the hero of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or the villains of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Devils for examples of this type.
Yet, there is a different sort of nihilism opposed to communism though sharing the common soil of materialism. This deeper sort of nihilism finds its expression in the writings of Philip K. Dick. All the effects of scientific progress and devotion to the scientific worldview have deprived people of a metaphysical framework to the world. People have replaced the true, the good, and the beautiful with material comfort, which does not satisfy in the long run.
Isaac Asimov and other collectivists counter the nihilistic school with the ideas of class struggle and revolution leading to a better state for humanity. These two things give a metaphysical shape to reality and are much more appealing than the existential angst of the true nihilist. However, we saw the bloody horrors communism accomplished in the 20th century, still enacts in communist countries, and the scars it left on formerly communist countries. Who wants that? People who study communist history realize that the material paradise offered by Marx is but an illusion and that pure capitalism or a combination of capitalism and welfare do much more to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. Nihilism and living comfortably turns out to appeal to the masses much more than bearing la Croix sans Christ offered by communism.
This emphasis on the intrinsic meaninglessness of existence took much of the driving force from scientific progress and hence science fiction. With nihilism infecting science fiction, people now turn much more towards the universals provided by fantasy. Fantasy has always provided people with the moral conflict of good vs. evil, the importance of individual action, and wonder at the world. Much of the reason Star Wars stands as the most popular science fiction franchise lies in its borrowing these elements from epic fantasy.
So, my questions to the readers are: if Dick killed the raison d’etre of science fiction, what new raison d’etre can be found for the genre? Also, how badly have I understood the general progress of science fiction and its current state of affairs? I’m eager to hear your thoughts on these questions!