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Dangerous Undercurrents

by Sarah J. Groenewegen

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#13, 1993

David Carroll, in Issue the Eleventh's Dangerous Undercurrents, raised a vexing issue when he first stated that Star Wars was not science fiction, and later retracted that statement. Doctor Who has also suffered in the debate over what constitutes SF. Well, in my opinion it is as SF as Star Wars, and Star Wars is as SF as Isaac Asimov's robot mysteries. The reason why I hold this view should become obvious in the following.

First off, a bit of history. Immediately we strike trouble. When did SF begin? I take the position that SF is a product of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and 'modern age' of thought. This makes sense if you consider the marriage of a certain type of literature (the novel) and science (based heavily in modern physics). Both came to the fore during the eighteenth century. Fantasy and horror predate SF, existing as they do in myths and legends the world over. Some argue that Leonardo da Vinci's 16th century sketches of helicopters and other (then) futuristic gadgets are SF, but I think he was actually planning on their construction. Inventive fact rather than fiction. And I concur with Brian Aldiss, Isaac Asimov and the feminist argument that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) was the first SF book. It is a novel and has scientific notions at the heart of its action. People argue over the birth of SF on pedantic points I won't go into here (but if you're interested there's a short bibliography at the end of this article).

Science Fiction, though, was a term not coined until about 1850, according to my Webster's Dictionary. Dirk Strasser, in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (25 July, 1992: 41) claimed that science fiction was invented as late as 1929 by Hugo Gernsback. This was in relation to Strasser's idea that SF booms in times of major economic recession (he talks only of literature so his idea has some empirical merit. Not so for SF on the electronic media...) Whatever, but it does show how contentious even dating the term 'science fiction' can be.

The abbreviation 'sci-fi' is even more contentious, though its dating is easier to verify. Forest J. Ackerman coined the term in the 1950s to replace the awkward 'scientifiction'. Sci-fi does not refer to 'B-grade' SF, so Ackerman asserted in a lively essay in the May 1985 Starlog (Nš 94), and nor should it be frowned upon by fans who hate the patronising way it's used in popular parlance. I, though, prefer the simple SF because it's easier to write!

The search for a label for the literary style came about because of the increasing popularity of the genre, especially with authors like Mark Twain, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, among others. But it was not until the 1930s that SF began what is called its 'golden age'.

I have problems with this idea of a 'golden age', especially one that's been. It presupposes that the best of SF is in the past so we may as well give up right now. Also, the SF of this time is a certain type and peculiarly US-centric. Think about SF from the 1930s to the 1950s and chances are you'll be thinking of pulp magazines (named for the quality of the paper used), cheap paperback novels and Hollywood bug-eyed monster films. The stories tended to be scientist-as-hero battling monsters or evil robots with a bimbo hanging on his arm. The science was often the setting. That is, the tales often took place off Earth, either in a rocket or on an exotic planet. Most of it was pretty dull in terms of innovative ideas (but I'm not being entirely fair. Authors like Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, among others, were innovators, and mostly deserve their status as greats).

Not surprisingly, these traits of US SF reflect general traits seen in the American psyche, especially during its 'golden age' (if you believe Paul Kennedy's thesis then you would accept that this 'golden age' spanned from World War II to the 1960s and has been in decline ever since). Americans love gadgets, and have a strong belief that scientific know-how will get them places. Generally, it has, but not always to places they'd like to be (for example the spiralling nuclear arms race with the USSR during the Cold War).

The infatuation with nasty aliens either out their in space or here invading Earth (usually the USA) reflects another preoccupation of the 'real' world. Not the paranoia of the Cold War years when the USA was desperate to contain the Russians within the borders of the USSR, and the reaction to Communists and socialists within the USA (not to suggest the USA was unique in this, far from it, but it's not really relevant to discuss international political history here).

There is also the pushing-back-the-frontier mentality exhibited in many space settings. It drove the conquest of the USA as is, and fuelled the real space race.

In the 1960s things began to change. In the 'real' world the US was embroiled in Vietnam. Internally, protests were turning into short-lived social revolutions that sometimes did succeed in altering political views (eg. with women and Afro-Americans). Culturally the British were, in the guise of a certain Liverpudlian rock 'n' roll band, reasserting some sort of dominance lost in the post-World War II years. And SF was given Star Trek.

Although Star Trek embodies the 'golden age' facets of gadget-science, bad aliens and that pioneering spirit, there were some things that were different and remarkable. Gene Roddenberry attempted to redress racial and gender questions (Uhuru, Chekov, Sulu), as well as presenting a positive picture of the future -- we will survive and survive gloriously. Marion Zimmer Bradley has argued that Star Trek was more important in another way. Star Trek fans were mainly female (before this, most SF fans were male). Many of these women broadened their Star Trek interest to SF more generally. And a fair number of these women began to write. Mostly this was fan fiction, but some managed to successfully submit material to the Star Trek novel series, and some of them have become successful SF authors (Vonda McIntyre, Ann Crispin, to name two). In other words, Zimmer Bradley has credited this short-lived SF TV series with balancing the gender inequality endemic in SF to this point.

With this relative explosion of women into SF the genre began to change. A common observation is the growth industry of fantasy, and if you check out the fantasy section in any bookstore you'll discover most of the authors are female. An argument that has accompanied this observation is that fantasy is undermining SF, that it should be regarded as a sub-genre. Calling something fantasy rather than SF can be interpreted as an insult. Also, some fans have wondered where the SF has gone. Kristine Kathryn Rusch in one of her Fantasy & Science Fiction editorials recently pointed out that while it's true that a lot of today's fantasy isn't up to scratch, neither was the bulk of SF in the so-called 'golden age'.

The 'soft sciences' also get a look-in. Anne McCaffrey, Vonda McIntyre and others introduced heavy doses of psychology, genetics, biology, even musicology to SF. Social Sciences were explored (Ursula Le Guin) and religious mythology (Tanith Lee). If you read fantasy like McCaffrey's Pern series you'll discover a definite SF bent (genetic engineering, colonising an alien world). Speculative fiction with a political aim has also seen a revival with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and feminist SF published by the Women's Press.

This is not to suggest that women were to sole movers in this change and growth. Authors like Michael Moorcock and Philip K. Dick (among a lot of others) experimented with philosophical questions. More recently William Gibson has achieved status as the creator of a new breed of SF -- Cyberpunk.

But perhaps the most stunning innovations for SF have occurred in the electronic media. TV has a lot to answer for. In the 1960s Britain experimented with The Prisoner, Doctor Who, Thunderbirds etc. In the USA there was the aforementioned Star Trek. Cinema had amazing successes with the likes of 2001, a Space Odyssey, and later Star Wars. SF became popular, mainstream, and while some examples were tedious, others were surprising. Without Star Wars, Alien probably would never have been made the way it was (and probably would have been pure B-grade schlock). Budgets wouldn't have been wasted on genre masterpieces like Bladerunner, let alone a revival of the magnificent 1920's German film Metropolis.

SF has moved away from the narrow defining principles that marked its 'golden age'. Science isn't always the hero. Gadgets can break down and, sometimes, work to our disadvantage. Aliens aren't always bad guys. They're getting as complicated as us. And it isn't only 'out there' that needs to be explored. Quite a bit of SF now explores the human condition from inside and investigates out socio-political and economic situation.

The science in science fiction now captures the wide definition of that world -- the search for knowledge. SF questions, probes and explores what 'reality-based' genres often can't (well, if it's good it does!) By its very definition it should push boundaries, constantly. Claiming that something isn't SF because it doesn't adhere to a strict definition is counter-productive and a waste of time. So, anything that questions and explores in ways reality-based fiction can't is SF to me, even if its base isn't hard or 'good' science.


Please note that this is very brief, and only include books and magazines that I have found interesting. I don't necessarily hold with their views, nor think you should race out and read them.

  • Lucie Armitt (ed.), Where No Man Has Gone Before. Collection of feminist essays on SF.
  • Denise DuPont (ed.), Women of Vision. Female SF authors in their own write. Includes Anne McCaffrey, James Tiptree Jnr (really Alice Sheldon), Pamela Sargent etc.
  • Fantasy & Science Fiction. Monthly US magazine that I think is the best.
  • Alan Frank, Sci-fi Now. Large format ten year 'history' of SF in film and TV, spanning from about 1968 to 1978.
  • Robert Holdstock (ed.), Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Large format hardcover from the late 1970s. Mainly on US SF literature.
  • Anette Kuhn (ed.), Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. Some fascinating views on Alien and The Terminator, and a few other odd flicks. Only for those who comprehend post-modernism.
  • Ursula Le Guin, The Language of the Night. I find Le Guin's essays more enthralling than some of her fiction. Very handy for budding authors.
  • Peter Nicholls (ed.), The Science in Science Fiction. Large format hardcover. Useful, but a little dated, reference book.
  • Starlog magazine. I'm sure most of you are familiar with this. You never know what you'll find in it.
  • Jane B. Weedman (ed.), Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yep, more feminist analysis on SF.

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