During the spring semester of 1957, the University of Chicago invited a number of distinguished speakers to campus to lecture on the meaning and significance of science fiction as a genre. Robert Heinlein, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Bloch, and Alfred Bester each gave insightful speeches, all of which were collected by Basil Davenport and published in his collection, The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (Chicago, IL: Advent, 1959). This was one of the first times that anyone—aside from the efforts of C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, and Sam Moskowitz—had attempted at any systematic level to define the admittedly elusive concept of science fiction.
The very term, science fiction, though first employed in the second half of the 1920s, had only recently become an accepted label. Extraordinary voyages, scientific romances, scientific fantasies, off-trail stories, different stories, impossible stories, scientific fiction, weird scientific stories, scientifiction, and scientification had all competed with it. That the University of Chicago—arguably the greatest university in the world in the 1950s—was attempting to define the genre offered great weight and credibility to it.
The four presenters, though, disagreed with one another profoundly, and several dismissed the title of “science fiction” as wrong-headed and misleading. Heinlein, arguably the best known of the presenters and the standard-bearer of the genre, preferred the term “speculative fiction.” Regardless, he especially wanted his work to be seen as something quite separate from “fantasy.”
“I am not condemning fantasy, I am defining it. It has greater freedom than any other form of fiction, for it is completely independent of the real world and is limited only by literary rules relating to empathy, inner logic and the like,” Heinlein claimed, arguing rather directly against J.R.R. Tolkien’s beautifully-crafted argument for fantasy in 1939. Still, he continued, “Its great freedom makes it, in the hands of a skilled craftsman, a powerful tool for entertainment and instruction—humor, satire, gothic horror, anything you wish.” Science fiction, however, had to be rooted in both the possible and the probable, with the rules of engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and biology in play. “A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” Science fiction, as such, is always and everywhere, then, possibly if not probably, prophetic. Sometimes that prophecy is coincidental, but, in many cases, it is transformative, guiding the very evolution and science of a thing. It inspires as well as predicts. The downside to this, Heinlein laments, is that while science fiction writers know science and engineering, they only very rarely know how to write well. Still, Heinlein claimed with no small amount of bias, science fiction is the most important literature in existence, for it is the history of the future rather than the history of the dead past. Even more so, he continued, it runs counter to the dark and perverted pessimism of “realism,” which, more often than not, he claimed, is really just a label to cover the psychologically sick and demented, “stuff that should not be printed, but told only privately—on a psychiatrist’s couch. . . . I, for one, am heartily sick of stories about frustrates, jerks, homosexuals, and commuters.” In science fiction, Heinlein concluded, every social experiment ever conceived can be tested safely, free from actual harm in society. That which works in literature, then, can be implemented, and that which doesn’t, should remain only on the printed page.
Bitterly, C.M. Kornbluth, the second presenter, vehemently disagreed, stating without equivocation that the genre “is not an important medium of social criticism.” Much like Hitler, Kornbluth complained, the adherents of science fiction treat the genre like a religion and lay claim to anything and everything they admire. Yet, for all its pretentions, science fiction rarely if ever actually criticizes anything prevalent in the world, and, when it does, its criticism remains rather tame. Anticipating the social radicals of a decade later, Kornbluth feared that science fiction fails in its power to change the consciousness of a reader, as the novels of the genre do “not turn the reader outward to action but inward to contemplation.” Then, he complained, there’s the horror genre, a supposed subset of science fiction which merely rolls all of our fears “up in one ball of muck” and thrusts “them into the reader’s face.” This is especially true in cinema, he continued, and “if the day ever comes when the shriek movie is a really major type, up there with, say the pretentious Western, the implications for the future of democracy will be bad.” Yet, one should never give any of this too much thought, he concluded, for “science fiction is socially impotent.” Tragically, Kornbluth died a year later, of a heart attack, only age 34.
Author of two of the best science fiction novels of the 1950s—The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination—Alfred Bester argued that as the genre is deeply rooted in romanticism, it can serve as a literature that explores all of the goodness of the human person, in a fashion similar to the arguments made in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “I believe that everyone is compelled, but no one is bad. I believe that everyone has greatness in him, but few of us have the opportunity to fulfill ourselves.” At this point, Bester is simply anticipating Star Trek‘s Gene Roddenberry, yet he took his argument into a more theological realm. “I believe that everyone has love in him, but most of our loves are frustrated.”
We are also, Bester thought, natural lovers of science fiction because it is a mechanized form of romanticism. “We’re a nation of amateur mechanics,” he wrote. “We’re simpatico to science and invention, and can identify with mechanical genius.” After all, he reasoned, at least four out of every five Americans longed to become a famous inventor. Even sitcoms, he continued, appeal to Americans because they are mechanical comedy, based on situation rather than character.
The final presenter, Robert Bloch, most famously the author of Psycho (and, thus, exactly the type of science fiction writer that Kornbluth despised), proved to be the most interesting. Contrary to almost everything that Kornbluth had claimed, Bloch argued that science fiction, more than any other genre, offered both the best and the most complex forms of social criticism. After all, in the ability to imagine, the individual is let loose to counter the conformity—in business, in government, in education—so rampant in post-World War II America. As a genre, science fiction allowed authors fully to explore three critical themes: “Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself and Man Against Man.”
Still, he cautioned, there’s the danger of science fiction merely becoming the repetitive story of the unusual man brought forth to right some mediocre wrong. In these stories, there is the “reassuring Father-Image of the all-wise scientist and psychotherapist. With his aid, the hero triumphs.” It is rather difficult for the modern reader not to imagine Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in Bloch’s caution. “Science fiction thus reassures people that they are the masters of their fate, and that every mushroom cloud has a silver lining,” he joked.
Whatever its faults, science fiction has the ability to explode all limits and allow us to see the world (and worlds) in a million-plus ways.
While The Science Fiction Novel is by no means a perfect book, it is a fascinating one. Most importantly, though, it offers us a brief but powerful glimpse into the role of imagination at the same time and in the same era that conservatives such as Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet are so vehemently claiming that only imagination will save us from the morally and ethically desiccated ideological forces unleashed by the first two world wars.
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The featured image is “The Meeting” by Michael Boehme and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image has been slightly modified for color.