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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Friday, January 13, 2006

A brief note on Moretti and Science Fiction

Posted by Adam Roberts on 01/13/06 at 08:52 PM

Towards the end of ‘Graphs’ Moretti touches briefly on SF: neither Detective Fiction nor SF, he says, are included on his chart ‘although both genres achieve their modern form about 1890 (Doyle, Wells) and undergo a major change in the 1920s, in step with the overall pattern.’ Nevertheless, he concedes, ‘their long duration seems to require a different approach.

Well, I’ve just published the result of several years work designed to argue the case that SF has enjoyed a longer duration even than Moretti is inclined to allow. Not that he takes an unusual position with regard to the genre. There are, in a nutshell, three main views as to when SF ‘began’: it began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818; it began with H G Wells Time Machine in 1895; it began with Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories in 1926, and Gernsback’s prosodically-hobbledehoy coinage ‘scientifiction’. Moretti is arguing, broadly, that novel genres have about a quarter-century lifespan, which, even if we chose the latest possible starting place as a launching point, does indeed give SF a ‘long duration’.

In my book, however, I try to make the case for the ‘long history’ of SF. I argue that science fiction began at the beginning of the seventeenth-century, with Kepler’s Somnium (written c.1600, published 1634). My argument is more complicated than this, and perhaps at some point in the near future I’ll put together a Valve post elaborating it, nutshelling my book and so on. But for now I want to outline one way in which my 400-year version of SF chimes with Moretti’s very persuasive claims for a ‘generational’ structure to the development of novelistic forms. I proceed without teams of researchers, graphs, or indeed anything other than the brain-cram of only recently having finished writing the Palgrave book – which is to say, I proceed tentatively. But if Moretti is right then perhaps we need to be looking at SF not so much as a ‘novelistic genre’ and more as a cultural mode; for we find within it certain approximately generational ‘vogues’, which might be sketched as follows:

1. 1600s-1650s: lunar adventure. [Kepler’s Somnium 1600-36; John Wilkins, The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638); William Godwin The Man in the Moone (1638); Cyrano de Bergerac, L’Autre Monde ou les Etats et Empires de la lune [Voyage dans la Lune] (1657)]

2. 1650s-1690s: Philosophical speculation and ‘the plurality of worlds’. [Athanasius Kircher, Iter exstaticum coeleste (1656); Bernard de Fontenelle, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686); Gabriel Daniel, Voyage du Monde de Descartes (1690)]

3. 1700s-1750s: The alien as fantastical humanoid (encountered on earth, within earth or near above earth) [Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726); Voltaire’s Micromégas (1750); Thomas Gray, ‘Luna habitabilis’ (1737); Ludvig Holberg, Nikolai Klimi iter subterraneum (1741); Robert Paltock, The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1750)]

4. 1750s-1790s. The fantastic voyage as satiric-comic buffoonery (often with pointed political allegory); this is of course something already noticeable in Swift and Voltaire of course, but made much coarser, ruder and more obvious in : ‘Sir Humphrey Lunatic’, A Trip to the Moon: Containing an Account of the Island of Noibla (1764); Tobias Smollett, The History and Adventures of an Atom (1769), William Thomson’s The Man in the Moon; or, Travels into the Lunar Regions by the Man of the People (1783) and the two anonymous works A Journey Lately Performed Through the Air in an Aerostatic Globe (1784) and /i>A Voyage to the Moon, Strongly Recommended to All Lovers of Real Freedom (1793).

5. 1760s-1800s. Utopian, and future fictions. These two things, perhaps unsurprisingly, go together and reflect feed into the climate the produced the French Revolution and its aftermath: the anonymous The Reign of George VI: 1900-1925 (1763); Louis Sebastien Mercier, L’An 2440 (1771); Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne, La découverte australe par un homme volant (1781); John WesselAnno 7603 (1781); restif Les Posthumes (1805)]

6. 18teens-1850s. Monsters, Mummies, Automata: Gothic Heritage SF. [Hoffman, Der Sandmann (1816); Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818); Jane Loudon, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827)]

7. 1800s-1850s. Tales of the far future/last man tales. [Cousin de Grainville Le dernier homme (1805); Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826); Felix Bodin, Le Roman de l’avenir (1834); Prince Vladimir Odoevsky, ‘4338 i-god’ (‘The year 4338’, 1840); R F Williams, Eureka: a Prophesy of the Future (1837); Tennyson ‘Locksley Hall’ (1841); Anon, The Air Battle. A Vision of the Future (1859)]

8. 1860s-1890s: travel through the solar system by Anti-Gravity devices: [the first novel to use this device is Joseph Atterley, A Voyage to the Moon (1827), but it doesn’t really get going until later in the century with: ‘Chrysostom Trueman’,The History of a Voyage to the Moon (1864); Percy Greg, Across the Zodiac: the Story of a Wrecked Record (1880); John Jacob Astor, A Journey to Other Worlds (1894); Frank Stockton, ‘A Tale of Negative Gravity’ (1884); H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (1901)]

9. 1870-1900s. Near-future Invasion fictions [Chesney, The Battle of Dorking (1871); Horace Lester’s The Taking of Dover (1888); Louis Tracy, The Final War (1896); Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (1903); William Le Quex, The Invasion of 1910: With a Full Account of the Siege of London (1906)]

10. 1880s-19teens: Utopias. [Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888); William Morris, News From Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest (1890); H G Wells, A Modern Utopia (1905); Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)]

11. 1890s-1920s. Interplanetary conflict. Kurd Lasswitz Auf Zwei Planeten (1897); H G Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898); Edgar Rice Burroughs, Under the Moons of Mars (published in book form as A Princess of Mars, 1912)

12. 19teens-1930s. Gernsbackian SF: first phase of Pulp SF.
Hugo Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+ (1911-12); E E Doc Smith The Skylark of Space (1928); Triplanetary (1934); Jack Williamson, The Legion of Space (1934)]

13. 1920s-1930s. Spectacle and Monsters: first phase of SF cinema. [Rene Clair, Paris qui dort (1923); Fritz Lang, Metropolis (1926); James Whale, Frankenstein (1931); Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack, King Kong (1933); William Cameron Menzies, Things to Come (1936)]

14. 1920s-1940s. Machinic Dystopia. [Yevgeny Zamiatin, We (1920); Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927); Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932); Rene Barjavel, Ravage (1943); Hermann Kasack, Die Stadt hinter dem Strom (1946), George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949)].

15. 1930s-1950s. Cambellian or ‘Golden Age’ SF. [John W Campbell becomes editor of Astounding (1938); Robert Heinlein, ‘The Roads Must Roll (1940); Isaac Asimov ‘Nightfall’ (1941); A E Van Vogt Slan (1946); Robert Heinlein Starship Troopers (1959)]

16. Late 1930-1960s. Superhero Comics. [Superman (from 1938); ‘Captain Marvel’, (Whiz Comics from 1940); Batman (from 1940); ‘Captain America’ (from 1941); John Broome and Gil Kane’s reinvention of ‘The Green Lantern’ (from 1959); The Fantastic Four (from 1961); Spider-Man (from 1962); X-Men (from 1963); Silver Surfer (from 1966)]

17. 1950s-1960s. Classic SF Cinema. [Irving Pichel, Destination Moon (1950); Inoshiro Honda, Gojira (1954); Fred McLeod Wilcox Forbidden Planet (1956); Don Siegel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); George Pal, The Time Machine (1960)]

18. 1950s-1960s. Cosy-catastrophes. John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids (1950); Arthur C Clarke, Childhood’s End (1953); John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957); John Christopher The World in Winter (1962)]

19. Late 1950s-1980s. Messianic and Religious SF. [Blish, A Case of Conscience (1958); Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959); Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961); Frank Herbert Dune (1965); Zelany, Lord of Light (1967); Moorcock, Behold the Man (1969); Sheri Tepper’s Grass (1989); Simmons Hyperion (1989), Gene Wolfe, Book of the Long Sun (1993-96)]

20. 1960s. Psychadelic or Hallucinatory SF. [Philip K Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965); Michael Moorcock, (1968); Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Philip K. Dick, Ubik (1969); David Bowie, ‘Space Oddity’ (1969)]

21. 1960s-1980s. Gender SF. [Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969); Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975); Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985); Sheri Tepper, The Gate to Women’s Country (1988)]

22. 1977-2000s. Blockbuster SF Cinema. [George Lucas, Star Wars (1977); Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); Ridley Scott Alien (1979); Spielberg E.T. (1982); James Cameron Terminator (1984); SpielbergWar of the Worlds (2005)]

23. 1980-2000s. Cyberpunk. [Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (1982); William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984), Masamune Shirow, Kokaku Kidotai (‘Ghost in the Shell’ 1991), Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1994), Wachowski brothers, Matrix trilogy (1999-2003)]

A couple of notes on this. Firstly, of course there’s a lot of wiggle-room in these little categories. They’ve been subjectively arrived at; and are meant to identify the core vogues for their respective topics rather than the exhaustive categorisation of the field (so for instance, obviously, plenty of utopias were written after 1915; although I’d still argue that the immediate wake of Bellamy’s book saw the real heart of the vogue). Secondly, I’m aware that were I to plot these out on a graph they’d look extremely like the graph in “Graphs” … Figure 9, to be specific. Make of that what you will.


But if Moretti is right then perhaps we need to be looking at SF not so much as a ‘novelistic genre’ and more as a cultural mode.

Off hand, this seems reasonable. One might make a similar case for detective fiction, that there are multiple subcategories waxing and waning over time.

* * * * *

Your inclusionn of Kokaku Kidota raises another issue, as it exits is a cultural form, manga, that has been highly developed in Japan but has only recently be widely available in the West (and less so in the US than in Europe). Not only is manga a different cultural form, but the interest in robots and AI advanced within that form seems somewhat different from similar concerns in the West. Frederick Schodt has written an interesting book on this:

Inside the Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics, and the Coming Robotopia, Kodansha International, 1988.

By Bill Benzon on 01/13/06 at 10:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No Jules Verne?

By on 01/13/06 at 10:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that my problem with this idea of vogues is approximately the same as the one I have with Moretti’s genre cycles, and the way that e.g. “historical fiction” doesn’t really disappear when it is supposed to.  Once you reach the 20th century, there are so many works published that someone can do major work in a subgenre (or whatever you want to call it) that is not currently in vogue.  They never really die out.

Examples off the top of my head: Iain Banks (space opera “Pulp SF” crossed with utopia), Mervyn Peake (gothic heritage, and yes if you read to “Titus Alone” then the series really is SF), John Crowley in his straightforward SF like _Engine Summer_ (Cambellian? it’s a post-civilization-fall novel, which I associate with that era) plus the sort of unclassified by this system writers like Stanislaw Lem.  I picked these people because I consider them to be some among the best writers in SF that weren’t mentioned above; a system of subgenres or vogues or what have you that doesn’t include them may still be good for some things (as Moretti wrote, a system that included 50% of the work would still be interesting), but there is still something odd about it.

By on 01/14/06 at 12:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lots of names missing from this, of course, as Thomas and Rich point out.  It’s not exhaustive.  In fact, it’s not even indicative ... there are several other ‘vogues’ I could have added to it, including an 1850-1900ish vogue for Big Machine SF, which would include everything from Verne to Steam Man of the Prairies.  Plus a New Space Opera category for the 90s and 00s; Musical SF (Pop from the 1960s to the 90s); Video games (80s to present).  And so on.  But I figured I’d spooled out a tedious-enough list of sub-categories.

I’d say this in my Moretti-ish defence.  My first assumption was that you get ‘clumping’ because writers come up with cool new tropes which other writers then rush to utilize, until all the permutations have been exhausted and it dries up: like Sonnets in the 1590s, say; or Gothic in the late C18th; or (a more SF-y example) Time Travel.  No-one had really thought of this before Wells; but it’s a really neat idea, so after his book there are various imitations &c. &c.  But--I don’t think this really accounts for it.  In the first instance people are still writing and filming time travel stories, some merely derivative others innovative (I’ve just read Baxter’s new one, Transcendent) so the trope has hardly been exhausted.  But secondly, more importantly, even though these forms may make appearances over really long time scales (if you count ‘popping up from time to time’ as making an appearance), they still exhibit the sort of generational clumping that F.M. is on about.  Take utopias.  People have been writing utopias ever since More coined the term in the early C16th.  Fine: but even accepting that I think there are two demonstrable clumps of utopian cultural production, roughly around the time of the French revolution first off, and then in the wake of Bellamy’s book at the end of the C19th.  Suddenly everybody loves utopias, everyone’s writing and reading them; and after a couple of decades it sinks back into the cultural background noise.

This, as far as I can see, is what Moretti is arguing with eg Silver Fork novels: it’s possible to pick out such novels written in any decade of the C19th you like; but at the same time they had a distinct and prolific vogue in the 1820s and 1830s.  And that’s what’s interesting.

[Apologies for the various typos and omissions in the post by the way; blame haste, and a four-year-old tugging continually at my elbow as I typed saying ‘Da-a-ad I want to go on the Narnia site ...’]

By Adam Roberts on 01/14/06 at 08:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Moretti’s work on genre cycles is about 18th and 19th century British novels. I wouldn’t simply extrapolate it to the 20th century. What’s the 20th century data say?

OTOH, using very different empirical methodology, on different kinds of materials (e.g. music, poetry), Colin Martindale has discovered cycles over long periods of time.

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/06 at 08:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The idea that cultural vogues spring up and then trail off seems pretty basic. If they don’t spring up or if they last forever, we don’t call them vogues. The more intriguing aspect of Moretti’s chart of English novel genres over a century-and-a-half is, as he notes, the way that multiple vogues seem to trail off at the same time, making quasi-generational mega-clumps. That doesn’t seem to be the case in this twentieth-century list. It’s true that “Cozy catastrophes” and “Classic (i.e., 1950s) science fiction movies” both fade in the early ‘60s, but an awful lot of cultural vogues turned over around them—that would be a uncommonly well-recognized generational marker, no?

“But if Moretti is right then perhaps we need to be looking at SF not so much as a ‘novelistic genre’ and more as a cultural mode...."

Surely only when writing a history, though? There are other things that can be done with books besides graphing their categories. And why break out sf as a special case? In such a history, wouldn’t all “novelistic genres” be treated as cultural modes?

Adam, as a reader, I like your “long history” approach and my main fear is that your tentative fuzzy clumps of trendy tropes will be misused by those who aren’t as interested in reading: “How can you bother with The Purple Cloud? They stopped writing ‘Last Man’ novels fifty years earlier!”

Genre doesn’t just consist of shared traits in texts, though. There is a sense in which “science fiction” as a genre only starts in the 1910s, since that’s when it became delimited as a more-or-less continuous marketing category and community of readers and writers, ret-conning some earlier works with some shared traits into precursors or inspirations, with “fellow travelers” such as Aldous Huxley or Jack Kirby usually embarrassing one side or the other. On the genre-as-production side, I’d also suggest that literary sf has had more connection with literary fantasy and literary horror than with science fiction movies or superhero comic books.

Of course, you know all this, and none of it is meant to disparage your 400 page book, which I look forward to reading—congratulations, by the way!—but only to note that, given its terms, it could have been a 800 page book or a very different 400 page book.

By Ray Davis on 01/14/06 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

...to note that, given its terms, it could have been a 800 page book ...  It could indeed have been 800 pages.  Perhaps it should have been.  It was my publishers, not I, who decided on the shorter length.  Nor, I could add, do I do any Moretti-ish stuff in the Palgrave History itself, except possibly by implication.  The above post was spun off the event here.

This is not to disagree with what you say, Ray; which seems to me spot on.

By Adam Roberts on 01/15/06 at 08:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m working on an article about Stapledon, who, along with Haldane and Bernal, would seem to require a “scientific romance” 20s-30s block, or are the numbers not there?

By Jonathan on 01/15/06 at 11:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s tricky: Stapledon (whom I rate as one of the very greatest writers to work in the genre, incidentally) didn’t regard himself as an SF writer and wasn’t received as such by most readers in the 20s and 30s: his SF rep built later, particularly in the 1960s.  If anything I’d bracket him with the mystic/quasi-religious or even psychadelic sf of that decade.  But it’s a slightly random call.

Which of course is the problem with all these quasi-structuralist ‘bracketings’ and ‘definitions’.  They exist only in the tidy mind of the critic, not in the ‘reality’ of SF, which has always been enormously messy and complex and promiscuous.  My take on the SF of the 19teens/1920s (for what it’s worth) is that the two main genre manifestations were a sort of High Modernist SF, like Huxley or like Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, on the one hand and the populist Pulp stuff of the magazines on the other.  Stapledon, obviously, goes with the former crowd.

By Adam Roberts on 01/15/06 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Absolutely fascinating material, Adam. Congratulations on what sounds like a wonderful volume. I hope I will be able to take a look at it.

...or (a more SF-y example) Time Travel.  No-one had really thought of this before Wells; but it’s a really neat idea, so after his book there are various imitations &c. &c.

I’ve been curious about the history of the time-travel idea for some time. In your reading, did you come across Martin Rudwick’s book Scenes from Deep Time? Rudwick is one of this generation’s best historians of geology, and the book is an account of the development of visual reconstructions of past environments: dioramas of the Ice Age complete with mastodons and early humans, etc., etc. One of the earliest such drawings is a clever image of a *modern* geologist carrying a light into a cave and seeing therein the family of extinct dogs whose fossil bones he had discovered. This is a genuine time-travel image, from circa 1830 or so. (Rudwick reproduces it with all the details; I don’t have it at hand.)

This of course is travelling *backward* in time; my intuition is that this is an easier mental leap (since factual data about the past exist) than is the leap required to travel into the future.


By Bob O'Hara on 01/16/06 at 03:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know Rudwick’s book I’m afraid; but googling it just now makes me want to read it.  It looks fascinating.

Time.  My understanding here is that the key name is Charles Howard Hinton (1853-1907) who was either the first writer or the first Anglophone writer to conceptualise ‘time’ as a fourth dimension (in Scientific Romances 1884-5).  Once you’ve done that, it’s almost inevitable that people will start thinking ‘but if we can travel up and down along length and left to right and back again along breadth, then mightn’t we travel forward and backward along time?’ Wells distinction is that he read Hinton and saw the potential; and then wrote a brilliant little story on the premise.

...a clever image of a *modern* geologist... Yes, there are lots of images like this from the C19th; both backwards in time and forwards (cartoons in Punch of evolutionary futures after the Darwin fuss).  But these follow a pictoral logic at least as old as the Bayeux Tapestry [oh, much older, of course] in which events that happen at different times are all represented in the same visual field.

By Adam Roberts on 01/16/06 at 08:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Many thanks for the Hinton reference - that looks very interesting.

I think you would enjoy the Rudwick book. If I remember correctly, he identifies one root of the illustrative tradition in geology as the “hexaemeral literature” - the body of works imaginatively describing the six days of creation.



By Bob O'Hara on 01/16/06 at 08:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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