essays

Dec 1, 1978

Science Fiction, Science, and Capitalism

Is science fiction at the heart of American literature?

Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century (Revised Edition), by H. Bruce Franklin. Oxford University Press404 pp., $4.95 pb

WHEN H. BRUCE Franklin published the first edition of Future Perfect in 1966, he was working in an almost unexplored field, the critical examination of science fiction as literature. Except for Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell and several volumes of the scholarly journal Extrapolation, writings about science fiction were largely limited to biographical studies and a few histories. But by 1978, when Franklin published his revised second edition of Future Perfect, literally bookshelves full of critical examinations of science fiction had appeared, high schools and colleges had begun offering courses in science fiction, and theme-related anthologies of science fiction short stores with critical prefaces had become commonplace. In addition, between 1966 and 1978, readers have witnessed the publication of much science fiction which is unquestionably literature: Samuel R.Delany’s Dhalgren, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed,, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Frederick Pohl’s Gateway—the list is lengthy. How has Franklin’s book fared in this expanded competition?

Karren Edwards has taught courses in science fiction as literature at both the high school and college level. She is currently doing graduate work at the University of Houston.

Franklin has undertaken a most ambitious project in his book, by attempting to prove two large and unique hypotheses: that science fiction is “somewhere near the center of nineteenth-century American literature,” and that it “provide[s] insights into nineteenth-century America, into the history of science and its relations to society, into the significance of fiction itself, and into the predictions, expectations, and fantasies of the present.”

It may reasonably be doubted whether Franklin actually manages to examine all these insights in sufficient detail in Future Perfect, but certain of them he discusses persuasively and at length. Why should it never have occurred to anyone before that it is science fiction which dealt most directly and, after its own fashion, most realistically, with the principal fact of nineteenth-century American life?—that is, the industrial revolution and the heyday of (relatively) free market capitalism? The emotionless man of science, the marvellous invention, the development of automation—all these ideas appear again and again in the fiction of all the “major” nineteenth-century American writers: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Twain. Now forgotten writers like Frederick Jessup Stimson (1855-1943) fictionalized the common nineteenth-century notion that capitalism would usher in the millennium. And turn of the century writers like Jack London lent artistic form to the then newly current idea that capitalism must eventually give way to a workers’ state.

Franklin describes London as “virtually obsessed with a sense of himself as a proletarian intellectual, rejected and disdained by the rulers of American society, out to prove that he is even more intelligent than the capitalist class that regards him as a mere beast of labor.” He notes that “several of London’s science-fiction works deal with the struggle between the capitalist class, trying to establish a fascist oligarchy, and the proletariat, striving for socialism.” At the same time, Franklin notes, there is the elitist London, with his “self-avowed destiny as a Nietzchean ‘blond beast’” and his streak of “blatant racism”. Altogether, he writes, like many intellectuals in that period of political and intellectual ferment, London espoused “an uneasy amalgamation of the most contradictory social and scientific ideas.”

Franklin is no impartial observer of social ideas, of course. He was fired from a tenured position in the Stanford University Department of English during the 1960s because of his ultra left wing stance on the war and his activities as a champion of campus militants. He reveals in his brief discussion of Ursula K. LeGuin that he considers “anarchism” merely another name for “non-authoritarian communism.” The Dispossessed, he explains, is “a utopia based on anarchism” which “challenges thinly veiled caricatures of a capitalist American dictatorship and a bureaucratic Soviet dictatorship, all as part of … [an] epic of emerging comradeship among the peoples of the inhabited worlds of the universe.”

Franklin is not only a communist; he’s also something of an optimist. In the original edition of Future Perfect, he suggested that the dominant vision of American science fiction had been ecstatic rather than apocalyptic, had reflected a predominant American confidence in the power of technology and the free market to remake the world. But he also saw a trend toward pessimism in post-World War II science fiction: “Since the European and American empires, long ruling the world through their vast technological superiority, [are disintegrating] before mighty forces, fiction in the capitalist world has become a primary form of the doomsday imagination.”

In the new edition, which includes discussion of the science fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Franklin sees a return to greater optimism in the genre. And he sees the genre itself as having reclaimed its birthright as “the principal non-realistic imaginative mode of our historical epoch.”

But Future Perfect is an anthology of short stories, not a critical treatise. It brings together representative science fiction by Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, London, Ambrose Bierce, Edward Bellamy, Washington Irving, and Mark Twain, along with works by lesser-known authors, such as “The Monarch of Dreams” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the memorable “The Diamond Lens” by Fitz-James O’Brien. Franklin has deleted one story and added two for the new revised edition, replacing “Was He Dead?” by Silas W. Mitchell, a verbose and slow-moving work, with Jack London’s “A Thousand Deaths”—a much better story, for all that it serves rather poorly to illustrate Franklin’s aforementioned concept of London as a confused polemicist or contradictory ideas. The second new story is “Men of the Moon” by Washington Irving, whose classic “Rip Van Winkle” Franklin calls the archetypal time travel story.

Consistent with his belief that science fiction is indisputably a serious literary genre, Franklin subjects each of these stories to close critical examination. His explication of the sexual symbolism in the writing of Melville, although certainly not unique per se, is a milestone in the discussion of Melville’s science fiction. His preface to each author also includes relevant biographical material and information about the philosophical and psychological characters of the authors.

Oddly, in the midst of all this scholarship, there is no bibliography. And this is unfortunate not only for the scholar, but for the general reader as well. The stories Franklin has chosen whet the reader’s appetite for more of the same from the same era. But story sources are cited only by author and title, and with such limited information they would be difficult for the average reader to locate. In addition, in his sections of prefatory comment, Franklin offers numerous tantalizing titles and descriptions of works by a great variety of nineteenth-century authors. While limitations of space obviously preclude the inclusion of these selections, bibliographical in formation would make them more readily available to the reader who, through reading this extremely informative and entertaining volume, has decided to read further.

On the whole, Franklin has selected and edited a remarkably complete cross-section of nineteenth-century American science fiction. His comments are insightful and thought-provoking. And the persuasiveness of his argument that science fiction is in the mainstream of American literature is enough alone to make Future Perfect an essential work for any serious reader of the genre. As Franklin puts it, America is an especially fertile ground for science fiction, “because it is a nation that originated in conquest by alien beings who voyaged here from another world.”