Science Fiction’s Progress to Nihilism

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.

Jules-Verne-007If 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.Union Soldier with Repeater

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.

Chicago World's Fair

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.

Workers of the World

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.

We Can Build You

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.

City of Future

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!


5 thoughts on “Science Fiction’s Progress to Nihilism

  1. These musings about sci-fi and fantasy has me thinking about writing stories in ways that try to present gray morality in fantasy and added emphasis on black-and-white morality (for what is gray if not a mix of black and white?) in sci-fi. And speaking of which, I’ve had thoughts about how there’s always disaster or, at least, a problem happening even with the presence of magic and tech. Those thoughts led me to thinking about the imperfection of humanity and how all that magic and tech are simply means to an end, leading to ruin in evil hands or to improvement in good hands. Following that is my desire to face off against cynicism, something that seems to be infecting the arts of modern times, where concepts like the anti-hero are hypocritically hailed. And if there’s a problem, then there should be a solution. To say that there is no solution is simply our inherent spiritual blindness that requires leaps of faith to overcome. And as for how I would like to show the possibility of actually doing leaps of faith despite the domination of gray thinking…well, I’ve been thinking about focusing on ordinary life and the many little things that come with it in the formation of bigger and more special things. All the focus on the flashy and violent potential of magic and tech have made them seem like total evil, but what if we mused on the socially faceless people who do more good than one would tend to think? How would they use that magic and tech in contrast with all those people who lord their powers around?

    So yeah, what do you think about that?

    • That’s a very interesting line of thought. The idea of the anti-hero has more popularity in modern times due to the idea that traditional society and philosophy has somehow failed modernity. So, modernity needs a new form of society and new philosophies–ideas which are easily traced to Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Herbert Spencer. Not that these philosophers have really done much good!

      You refer to solutions for the problems which have arisen with technology and the grey world in which we live. It’s grey because modernity (or post-modernity, as some would term it) consists of various competing ideologies which claim to hold the solution to life’s problems. It’s hard to show progress without a standard! In the 19th and 20th centuries, this standard was material prosperity, and scientism, democracy, capitalism, and communism were used as metrics to determine material progress. In doing so, they neglected man’s soul and desire for meaning, which can only be given by metaphysical philosophy or religion, most especially the Catholic Church with its twin emphasis on faith and reason.

      I do like the idea of focusing on lowly characters rather than the high and mighty. Tolkien did that to some regard in fantasy by using hobbits for heroes. I imagine its not as often done in science-fiction, which tends to rely upon experts capable of understanding and using science–especially in the novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. But, I suppose that it’s not impossible, and it would be nice to see.

      • Speaking of modernity, as far as I understood through the classes I’ve been taking in uni, the core of it is basically “questioning standards.” With that, it’s meant to end somewhere…though I wouldn’t really call what we call “postmodern” progress, considering how much of a tangled danger zone it is. After all, evil that looks good is evil in its ordinary form, and just taking everything as true really ups the confusion instead of reducing it. For example, all those vague, easily co-opted calls like “Be yourself” and “Dare to be different.” Such statements beg the question of standards, and their subjectivity doesn’t bring the right sort of change.

        As for religion, that makes me think of how everyday, even if one doesn’t believe in God, people run on faith, living on despite not being able to know everything that will happen next. That line of thinking brings me back to the value of religion…and it’s like finding out that I can walk on water! Although I consider myself still more similar to Saint Peter, who had to call for Jesus’ help as he lost himself to fear while trying to follow Jesus as He walked on water.

        As for lowly characters and speculative fiction, particularly science fiction, that makes me think of sci-fi which has the premise of common citizens learning to utilize futuristic equipment and concepts through their own everyday experiences and without much expert assistance. I think it would be interesting, especially considering how people of different standings would work with such things in different ways.

      • One funny thing about modernity is that Christianity provided the template for how to live a moral life in the modern age. Moderns deny the essence of Christianity, try to modify its mores to suit themselves, and then claim to have devised a better system. But, you’re right that people live on faith: the ideas that making the right sacrifices and adhering to the truth will bring happiness is entirely Christian. Though, some post-modern progressives do seem to have gone so far as to deny the idea of truth. I’ve heard such crazy ideas as “objective reality is a white supremacist myth” or “we need to create a true feminist science by taking the idea of truth from science.” Right now, these ideas are only held by loony people inside of colleges, but they can very easily spread in the current climate.

        One of the greatest thinkers in exposing post-modern insanity is the professor Jordan Peterson. He notes that post-modern philosophers hate what they call the “phallogocentric universe,” i.e. Western Civilization. Essentially, they hate the patriarchal notions inherent in God being Our Father, and the notion of the Word–the Logos, Christ, Truth–being the way to the Father or to ultimate reality. What we’re up against is as fascinating as it is tragic.

      • And to be blunt about it, that sort of climate is practically what I’ve been up against at university for years now. I’m not a direct target of it, and it can be said that I’m just being oversensitive about it, but I think I can see the snobbish nonsense I’ve been learning about in class once I see protest signs like a man stabbed with paintbrushes and the Filipino caption “Huwag pagkakitaan ang mga artista!” (which means “Don’t make a profit out of artists!” in English), and even though I know that the underestimation and even abuse of artists really is a real thing, what with people online wanting artists to charge cheaper for commissions that seem like a breeze to do but actually aren’t, science professors asking enlisting students to do art pieces about important figures of science like it were easier to do than science when both art and science are neither easier nor harder than the other – only different brands of difficulty – and artists easily getting pissed about it for valid reasons, I only imagine killing myself or, at least, writing cynical content over and over like most of the so-called “greats” I’ve been taught about in class if I joined the mob desired by the producers of those posters. If I join, then sure, I would find myself having companions, but I would only hate the world over and over, lying to myself again and again with pride and wrath until I only see the evils of others and myself like they’re the only things we have, forgetting how important others are, even if other people can be very hurtful. And moments of reflection like that have been seeming more and more like me having a taste of what Jesus had to go through during His Passion, where He forgave others and even wished them well despite them giving Him their ultimate form of humiliation, which I don’t think I could’ve been able to do without admitting my own weaknesses and my need for God AND other people. And honestly, as an aspiring artist, I want to be called great by other people without selling my soul to the Devil just to get there. Sure, it can hurt to have to deal with nervous professors who say that the crappiest thing to say to a depressed person is “Pray it all away” and angry marginalized people who would figuratively explode upon being told “Forgive and forget,” but what holds me back from trying to do the popular act of putting others down is how I see my darkness in them, followed by remembering how I was saved from the darkness: by faithful people who bore patience and kindness despite my offenses and their own darkness. Sure, it’s a pain to be like those who helped me, but that’s what we have to deal with on the road to true salvation. And since I’ve already found bits of it, there’s no reason for me to stop trying to find the rest of it.

        Also, I feel like apologizing for this. I have honestly been feeling fear and doubt regarding expressing myself more openly as a Catholic who wants to practice his faith, and I’ve also been feeling like an alien while trying not to be a guy who wallows in self-deprecating humor as attempts to make camaraderie. Still, my days are made with the help of people like you, Medieval, who are more than I think, and I pray that God Almighty keep on helping us all. 🙂

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