Progress and Collapse in Science Fiction

 Image result for nuclear weapons

            In Revelation Space (2000), the name of Alastair Reynolds’ ship Nostalgia for Infinity communicates what was once a systemic view in sf. With his ship’s name, Reynolds invokes the post-war attitudes of the atomic age and its concomitant sf narratives. The reigning monomyth of the atomic age was that with the secrets of science unlocked, progress was inevitable, humans would soon achieve a utopian existence. But instead of achieving utopia in the 20th century, humans irradiated nuclear weapons testing sites and fought endless wars in the name of ideology and for the control of resources. With the dream demeaned, sf dropped its utopian narratives in favor of telling stories that reflected a cultural collapse.
            To properly tell the story of science fiction’s journey from trading in narratives of cultural and scientific progress to those of collapse, we will trace the beginnings of space opera in sf with its connection to Hugo Gernsback and H.L. Gold and then move through its evolution to show how sf tropes were first appropriated to reflect the monomyth of progress and then reappropriated to reflect a collapse in progress as a culturally unifying belief. Reynolds novels reflect the death of progress by reappropriating generic tropes. Reynolds tells alien invasion narratives that reflect contemporary political techniques for colonizing territories. He also presents the once proud image of the space ship to gesture toward cultural collapse. Cyberpunk science fiction emphasizes a disconnect between technological progress and the human condition, demonstrating that scientific and technological progress does not necessarily scale along with improvements to the average person’s quality of life. Cyberpunk even considers the negative effects of postmodern progress. While the 20th century saw great advances in medicine for the common man, pharmaceutical developments are most visible as newly synthesized drugs, available on the street. William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981) exemplifies changes in the cultural outlook coming at the end of the 20th century. Gibson gestures to evidence that the era of an unchecked belief in systemic social, economic, and political progress had thoroughly collapsed, replaced by the autonomy of the individual.       
            Science fiction has long been read as a commentary on contemporary society. Robert
Scholes argues to this end, writing that “fiction . . . offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way” (29). Damien Broderick agrees with Scholes, viewing science fiction as engaging the objective world:     
If English-language science fiction of the last 60 or 70 years began pretty much as   formulaic adventure fiction, it has developed (at its best) into a set of writing and reading protocols articulated about and foregrounding aspects of the objective world (as science tries to do), through the engaging invention of stories about imagined subjects. (xii)
Broderick and Scholes both argue that the imaginative worlds of science fiction are most productively viewed as a commentary on the real world.
            Ralph Cohen says that genre concepts arise, change, and decline for historical reasons. Pawel Frelik qualifies Cohen’s “historical reasons,” writing that “genres are fluid and tenuous constructions generated by the interaction of various claims and practices by writers, producers, distributors, marketers, readers, fans, critics, and other discursive agents” (22). Cohen argues that science fiction consists of texts that “alter the genre by adding, contradicting, or changing” constituent elements such as fictional background, tropes, images, and narrative conventions (204). The sum of those constituent elements make up a genre’s megatext. A megatext can be understood as a topography for the thematic and structural elements that comprise genre fiction.
            Roz Kaveney, in From Alien to Matrix shows that a genre is made up of “stylistic or narrative tropes,” and that writers will “consciously echo earlier use of those tropes” (51). Kaveney says that this process “is a way of taking issue with the political and social assumptions implicit in an earlier use of the material” (51). It is also this process that can cause tropes to either wear out or evolve into something different. Kaveney maintains that “placing tropes in an ongoing dialogue . . . has endlessly refined them” (110). The refinement of tropes causes them to take on the characteristics of a palimpsest. As a particular trope changes its tenor, it continues to convey, even in diminished form, its earlier meanings. So, the space ship works incredibly well as an image of collapse, because of the dissonance between its function as an image of progress and its later function as an image of collapse.

            The definition and scope of space opera has developed over its history. At its onset, space opera was a narrative form for mapping cultural progress. In 1926, Hugo Gernsback laid out his idea of progressivism in science fiction:                
[Sf stories were] always instructive. They supply knowledge . . . in a very palatable form . . . New adventures pictured for us in the scientification of today are not at all impossible of realization tomorrow . . . Many great science stories destined to be of historical interest are still to be written . . .   Posterity will point to them as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well. (Clute 311)
Gernsback upheld sf as a genre of progress. He believed sf writers should prophesy a better world borne of technology. This credo of sf, to consider cultural and environmental changes in human society as a result of new scientific and technological developments, is why the idea took precedence over individuals in sf’s pages. Over sf’s history, most critics have largely supported the position that the idea is king in sf, including David Ketterer who describes sf as concerned principally “with the expression of ideas rather than with character” (Brooks-Rose 81) and Kingsley Amis who views the idea as the hero in science fiction. In sf, the idea is tantamount to progress, meaning that progress is often read as the hero in sf. While Gernsback and Gold championed sf as the literature of progress through the vehicle of scientific discoveries and their application in new technology, over the course of several decades of the genre, progressivist views in sf have gradually faded away.
            A move away from science fiction as the genre of progress came from realist science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov. Instead of viewing technology as a portal into the future, Asimov was interested in the practical applications of technology. Asimov explains that his hard sf stories “feature authentic scientific knowledge and depend upon it for plot development and plot resolution” (6). Certainly, Asimov thought that much of the proposed futures in sf would one day become reality but, unlike Gernsback, this didn’t necessarily translate to a brighter world of progress; rather, it merely pointed to a different, changed world carrying all of its social and political ills forward.

            The Gernsback Continuum (1981) reconsiders the effects of historical narrative as material reality, suggesting that any attempt to negotiate the past through a single frame of reference can have deadly effects in the present and future [197]. - Lisa Yaszek
            The early days of American science fiction were marked by an Americentrism reflecting a strong sense of American ingenuity and progress. Aldous Huxley summed up this rampant Americentrism, claiming that “the future of America is the future of the world” (Jones 4). But the belief in pure progress fails to hold up against the backdrop of anthropogenic climate change, coal ash waste, drones as assassination bots, and twenty-first century America’s antithesis of universal healthcare. An important break with the narratives of progress came in the 1980s with the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, George Alec Effinger, and Bruce Sterling. Since the ‘80s, space opera has taken from cyberpunk a sense of fragmentation lifted from the pages of the postmodern condition.
            In William Gibson’s “The Gernsbach Continuum”, a photojournalist is assigned to document modern architecture in the American West for a work called The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was. The photographer discovers an odd vision. He sees a utopian city full of images of progress patterned after a cultural projection of the future from the ‘30s and 40’s. The vision was too simple; it missed the glaring problems of organizing society. The photographer considers that the dreamers of the past never considered “pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars” (33). The photographer saw:
The illuminated city: searchlights swept the sky for the sheer joy of it. I imagined them thronging the plazas of white marble, orderly and alert, their bright eyes shining with enthusiasm for their floodlit avenues and silver cars. It had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda. [33]
Here, overreaching expectations of the future betrays the era’s missing sense of realism.
            More than commenting on the unreal expectations for progress in the atomic age, Gibson comments on a shift that took place in the science fiction genre. During the atomic age, Hugo Gernsback proffered a vision of technology leading to utopia, but as the Cold War and ideological differences between communist and capitalist societies continued over the course of the 20th century, it was clear that sf’s utopic dream was unreachable. After witnessing the reality of such sf ideas as space travel, nuclear capability, computer technology, and satellite communications and realizing that none of these things, on their own, alleviated human problems, it was clear that the old Gernsback brand of expectations for the impact of technology on humanity was askew. Once it was clear that nuclear capability--as energy and weaponry--did not place a boon in the hands of mankind leading to utopian life, it became obvious that any technology would similarly fail to provide access to utopia.
            In “The Gernsbach Continuum”, Gibson compares the past’s grammar of the future to the covers of pulp science fiction magazines from sf’s golden age. The magazines gave birth to a series of iconic images; they branded sf. What the photographer in Gibson’s story finds difficult is that in the ‘80s there are completely different culturally encoded meanings invested in all the old iconography. While the golden era represented sleek technology like starships, super computers, and ray guns--all of these being various sf tropes--, decades later, new meanings for the images emerged. The photographer is most surprised by the similarity to a euro-fascist utopia as evinced in his comment about, “the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda.”
            The photographer perceives that the architects of the atomic age wished to give all of their works a grand scale. The grand scale reflects a belief in the limitlessness of human achievement. In the photographer’s vision, the technology of the past functions perfectly. But reality often dispels the power of dreams. As an example, skyscrapers of the ‘30s added zeppelin docks to their roofs. Zeppelin docks crowned skyscrapers of the era in New York City. But not long after making the futuristic docks, it was discovered that wind shear from super tall buildings made docking zeppelins there impossible.
            The future in Gibson’s cyberpunk world is one of disillusionment, a collective vision that everything is falling apart. For example, consider the computer as image. Technology itself changes over time and while that particular image would have been a social one with connotations for larger society, now it has become an image standing for the individual. In space operas of the ‘30s and ’40’s, like A.E. Van Vogt’s World of Null A (1945), the fortress of the computer dominates the city. Vogt’s computer was a socially organizing entity, rationally ordering society. Vogt’s computer embodies Plato’s idea of the philosopher king and is responsible for the evolution of human society.
            In the ‘50s the computer retained a larger social significance, gesturing to Van Vogt’s computer that orders and controls society. In Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1959) a supercomputer organizes the overthrow of despotic rule. Decades later, however, the computer was stripped of this particular investiture. In practice, the computer functioned as a tool to be used by individuals, not as a socially-organizing overmind. In earlier decades, before computers were a reality (other than basic calculating programs like the Turing machine) they were completely uncontextualized, meaning that there was still the ability to map onto them whatever meanings an sf writer might dream up. But now, we know what computers do, and it is not, as is the premise of Heinlein’s aforementioned novel, to lead a coup d’etat or, a la Van Vogt to subtly influence the thinking patterns of an entire society.
            In the world of technology as both a sign and promise of progress the jet and spaceship became a great icon. In the ‘50s, jets were made to look fast, and, in the ‘60s, spaceships were supposed to give off the visceral feel of seeing the future. Built with chrome and steel alloy, spaceships served as a pure image of progress. The ‘80s image was a lot different. Technology like the walkman and the personal computer, while images of motion and power, were utilitarian looking, serving their intended purpose rather than advertising for some future time. In the ‘80s, technology came to symbolize corporate control and authority.
            The spaceship is a site of the changing trope in space opera. The trope of the spaceship in earlier science fiction might refer to progress and unhindered expansion. As an example, the unfathomable speed of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s ships symbolize such unlimited progress. Getting into and exploring space was a great social project in the twentieth century. The spaceship was the emblematic focus of such a project, and early sf was informed by cultural feelings of the greatness of a nation through their achievements in such spheres as space travel. Adam Roberts says that “spaceships are the emblems of the technology that produces them; a technology of cultural reproduction, rather than science” (154). In America, the ship most certainly referred to the automobile and the ease in which anyone could now get beyond old borders, especially with the building of highway systems across the continent. The great speed of ships, with their ability to cover sidereal distances between worlds and stars, had its analogy in making this world smaller, lessening the distance between cultures - in effect, heterogenizing the universe. But by the ‘80s, the space ship had become a signifier for unchecked Republican spending. Multimillion dollar space toilets and the explosion of the 196-billion-dollar Challenger in 1986 scuttled much of the previous decades’ wonder and excitement about space travel. As the nation collectively watched the Challenger explode on their TV sets, the feeling that the government was flushing taxpayer’s money down space-as-toilet was palpable. Thereafter, NASA has seen diminished funding. The ship also came to stand for competition with America’s great atomic and space age enemy, Russia. Russia’s space program had achieved several firsts ahead of the US space program, including Yuri Gagarin’s 108-minute flight in space. So, while the space ship stood for progress, it also carried the anxiety of the progress of the other as well as a drain on the overall resources of the US economy.
            Reynold’s ships, often hidden and capable of faster than light speeds, indicate an altered expectation of progress through technology. One of Reynold’s ships in The Prefect (2007), the Accompaniment of Shadows, is given a discrete name as opposed to Smith’s Skylark, a symbolic name meant to draw attention to itself and to broader cultural links. Another one of Reynold’s ship names, Nostalgia for Infinity, from Revelation Space, carries a yearning for something that cannot be grasped. But the Nostalgia is infected by the melding plague, a virus infecting nanotechnology. The plague, though mostly checked by Ilia Volyova, threatens to destroy the massive ship. Here, Reynolds points out that the greatness and capacity for the infinite that ships of this caliber were, in an earlier genric time, supposed to signify is no longer possible. Now, these ships can only remind us of the utopian and progressivist ideas that ships once evoked. Reynolds’ great ships are not piloted by emissaries of a great culture or nation-state either. They are in the hands of self-interested groups called ultranauts, enterprising capitalists trying to out-compete all with no sense of a larger social conscience.
            The image of the ship has been undercut by a cultural shift in science fiction. Now, the gigantic is no longer automatically awe-inspiring. The big dumb object is now understood as too big to matter or, worse, a waste of resources. As in the case of big things in the real world like the Titanic or the world trade centers, big things are often very susceptible to destruction. In the new wave genre of sf, authors became fascinated with inner space, drawn to molecular elements because of their staggering impact on life. Nikolas Rose’s treatment of molecularization in The Politics of Life Itself discusses how the gaze of the sciences turn to the molecular level became a way of redefining life itself. Rose finds that “life as information has replaced life as organic unity” (45). This understanding undercuts the superiority of the vast. From it, we get images where small things destroy huge things. Consider Independence Day, in which a huge alien ship is crippled and rendered useless by individually-piloted fighter ships. The conflict between big and small reads as the modern image of a virus attacking hulking biotic life.

            Another trope that has shifted over time is the alien invasion narrative. Alien invasion narratives are related to lost race narratives. Lost race narratives celebrate the achievements of Western civilization. The lost race tale, like the invasion narrative, typically brings a technologically advanced group into the domain of an underdeveloped species. By juxtaposing the two groups, the primitivism of the lost race underscores the intellectual, social, and technological achievements of the West. On the other hand, alien invasion stories generally pit a supposedly superior race against mankind, so that man can demonstrate his ingenuity while triumphing over his would-be oppressor. Though outmoded in every aspect, man, the problem solver, uses reason, courage, and willpower to outmode the invaders. But the alien invasion trope, unlike the space ship trope, did not always signify progress. Early appearances of alien invasions include H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897), which comments on British colonialism. Wells’ aliens represent British colonial forces, thereby making British people stand in for colonized groups. This forced change in perspective allows us to question the colonial project. But Wells is not interested in human agency with his invasion tale. The superior Martian power is not stopped by any human effort, but by their own lack of a developed tolerance for earthborn pathogens. Generally, of course, aliens in invasion narratives are stereotypically “bad.” Aliens have stood in as an analogy for the Nazi and the Communist alike. Often, as writes Darryl Jones in It Came from the 1950s, the “paranoid fantasies of invasion and mutation” of the ‘50s symbolized the real fear of, say, a Russian invasion or nuclear attack (3). However, the alien invasion cycle began to get overworked by lesser themes. Kaveney writes that while it had initially been a way to discuss how:
colonialism and racism had become by mid-century a way of discussing the cold war, American spy paranoia and the fear of a leveling mass culture. At the century’s end, its discourse had come to deal almost entirely with a purely personal autonomy and specifically with embattled heteronormative masculinity. (51)
In recent years, it has become commonplace to conflate the apocalyptic tale of invasion or destruction, whether by aliens, zombies, or nuclear holocaust with the narratives Kaveney describes that deal with “embattled heteronormative masculinity,” Sean of the Dead, Bubba Ho’tep, The Road, and Independence Day all serving as examples of the trend. In Shaun of the Dead, the ever encroaching zombie hoard is a vehicle for bringing the male protagonist into a moment of catharsis, in which he must deal with his social failings, whether as a son, friend, or boyfriend. In Independence Day, Captain Steven Hiller, played by Will Smith, is frowned upon for his relationship to a stripper. Successfully deflecting the alien attack makes up for his morally questionable relationship choice, proving his rightful place as head of his family.
            In Schismatrix (1985) Bruce Sterling’s take on the entrance of aliens into human society functions as the balancing intervention of a wiser, more enlightened other. The aliens are purely beneficent. When they arrive, unexpectedly, they create a new source of trade and wealth, immediately ending internecine struggles between the Shapers and Mechanists. But the era of peace ushered in by the aliens does not last. Despite the economic intervention of an intelligent species, humans are incapable of overcoming their nature. The Mechanists and Shapers eventually resume their antagonistic relationship. The perpetual conflict of Sterling’s future races is analogous to the state of the world stage. After the atomic age, after the space age, and well into the digital age, conflict remains. Cyberpunk demonstrates that no amount of progress can prevent human conflicts.
            Alastair Reynolds’ alien invasion in Revelation Space is a frightening vision of progress. His aliens, the Inhibitors, are an ancient machine race and the creators of a cosmic system for the detection and destruction of technologically advanced species. Even though the inhibitors are long gone, they continue to enforce their hegemony. The system they created scans for evidence of intelligent lifeforms capable of space travel. To maintain equilibrium in the universe and ensure their own hegemony, the inhibitors destroy intelligent species before they can spread beyond their home planet. Reynold’s describes how this alien system of invasion works in Revelation Space.
            The Inhibitors seeded the galaxy with machines designed to detect the emergence of life and then suppress it. For a long time it looked like they worked as planned - that’s why the galaxy isn’t teeming today . . . Their machines worked fine for a few hundred million years, but then stuff started to go wrong. They started failing; not working as efficiently as intended. Intelligent cultures began to emerge which would have previously been suppressed at birth. (539)
This form of power has its echoes in the political history and contemporary political mission of Western nations that maintain power by toppling governments and setting up puppet regimes. Reynolds, tipping his hat to Wells, sets up his aliens as an enemy, with their oppressive way of dealing with nascent powers. This trick of cognitive estrangement forces the Western reader to take sides ideologically against themselves, to see that their own culture is oppressive to other groups.
            With the inhibitors, Reynolds comments on the replication of Western capitalism that forces itself onto underdeveloped nations. While invasion narratives based on colonialism placed importance on occupying particular spaces, the aliens in these stories must maintain a physical presence. For example, In Wells’ The War of the Worlds, the aliens even bring their own plants along with them. The plants, along with the Martians and their tripods, illustrate the takeover of physical space. In this old system of takeover, the topos of colonized space must be changed to, as closely as possible, approximate the topos of the homeland. It is not enough to take over a region, it must be physically altered in the image of the homeland. This physical alteration is a move toward understanding the more complete takeover of regions first practiced by colonial Empires and now the standard practice by modern Empires. Rather than altering the physical space to look like the homeland, these modern invasions seek to alter political, economic, and cultural systems in the project of reproducing the conditions of the metropole.
            Ever since the British Empire created the British East India Company, the most successful invasions have not figured around occupying physical space, but about winning ideological battles, culturally indoctrinating the youth of occupied regions, and pacifying citizens through the wealth of an improved economy. Invasions patterned after the British East India Company are more mercantile than militaristic. It costs far too much in hard currency and human lives to march armies into battle. By influencing target populations ideologically, colonial powers exert influence over regions while minimizing cost and risk. The image of a military invasion like that found in Ender’s Game can provide the shock and awe required to get a 19-and-counting-series book deal, but it resonates most strongly with images out of history, whether of Persians pouring into Greece, the Golden Horde on horseback, or Nazis pillaging Poland. While the 21st century has continued to see bloody civil wars and military force applied to regions, the future of politics is in ideological invasions and economic interventions. This is why science fiction narratives rarely bother with the old alien invasion model. Roz Kaveney notes that the plethora of alien spaceships in Mars Attacks and the shadow of an alien spaceship cast over the American flag planted on the moon in Independence Day is now just a joke (46). That model of invasion is over and done with. The new model, where the invading force is visible in the form of corporations and political emissaries, is now the more powerful one. Reynolds’ narratives focus on the pervasiveness of controlling systems of power long after the physical presence, or even existence, of the cultures that first birthed the controlling ideas have disappeared.
            Reynolds has updated science fiction tropes, including the spaceship and the alien invasion, encoding into them cultural commentary apropos to the contemporary world.

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