One of my constant readers, Judy (whose blog demonstrates her skills as a photographer), sent me a copy of Brian W. Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (1973), along with some cards featuring her photography. The Aldiss book was an informative and entertaining read, forcing me to think about what science fiction is and what I do. This post examines Aldiss’s historical situation and goals in writing the book, his definition of science fiction, and his treatment of the genre’s history.
But you want the fast version? Read the book: Aldiss is a writer with brains, and it shows.
Part 1: Historical context and aims
Aldiss’s book was published in 1973, so it was probably written a year or two earlier. It came toward the end of one of the more controversial periods in the genre. Emerging writers, especially in Britain, had created a “New Wave” by embracing diversity in styles, abandoning the old linear plots with objective viewpoints for more impressionistic avant-garde storytelling. They also expanded the range of the genre, leaving behind hard science and space opera for “soft science,” social sciences, politics, sexuality, and other topics previously largely ignored by genre writers.
At the same time, the science fiction community was struggling to become respectable. Authors, fans, and academics offered serious critiques of the field. The space race and Star Trek gave the field more visibility. It’s no coincidence that the Science Fiction Writers of America was founded in the 1960s.
Aldiss himself, as he notes in the introduction to Billion Year Spree, was by 1973 a recognized writer, editor, and critic of science fiction. In addition, he had an extensive background in Western literary history and contemporary literature, certainly more extensive than mine!
In Billion Year Spree, Aldiss undertakes to define “science fiction” and identify its proper place in legitimate literature. He’s also intent on defending the New Wave as a proper part of science fiction. These two aims are related. For Aldiss, the strength of the New Wave was that it expanded the range of science fiction by bringing in more mainstream techniques and concerns, and thus made science fiction more akin to mainstream literature.
Part 2: Defining science fiction
Aldiss defines science fiction as “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mold.”[i] There’s a lot to unpack in that definition. First of all, Aldiss is claiming science fiction is serious literature, because it deals with the “definition” or nature of man, ideally by depicting mankind in terms unavailable to other genres of fiction. Second, science fiction engages science and our present reality in a meaningful way, by using, extrapolating, or changing the scientific basis of reality in what are supposed to be scientifically plausible ways. Finally, Aldiss is making science fiction a subgenre of Gothic literature,[ii] by claiming its characteristic means of expression is invoking emotions connected to the distant and unearthly.
Note what this definition excludes. It excludes any literature written prior to the Scientific Revolution. Aldiss is explicitly excluding ancient legends and ancient and medieval fantasies.[iii] For him, the first story that qualifies as real science fiction is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Aldiss also excludes stories that do not explore human nature in any substantive way, by which he means to exclude “bad” science fiction, including the many third-rate space opera and sword-and-spaceship stories from the pulps.
I’ve a problem with any definition that excludes the bulk of the stories that were first called science fiction. I think Aldiss deliberately committed the fallacy of essences with that definition, in order to establish science fiction as a proper literary genre.[iv] Personally, I think it better to define “science fiction” historically by tracing its origin in the pulps of the 1920s-1940s, and then seeing how the term was extended over time. And in fact, Aldiss actually lays out all the necessary information for such a definition in his book![v]
But even if one rejects Aldiss’s definition as a definition, it is still worth considering as an analytic tool. It can do two things for us. First, with Aldiss, we can use it to explain why we feel uneasy about considering any story before Frankenstein as science fiction. More importantly, Aldiss’s definition can serve as a yardstick to measure the aspirations of serious science fiction.
Part 3: The history of science fiction
After two chapters evaluating Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe as founding fathers of science fiction, the bulk of Aldiss’s book is a detailed examination of the history of science fiction, from the pre-Frankenstein forerunners that don’t qualify under Aldiss’s definition, to the Victorians, then to the pulps, and finally the 1950s and 1960s. Sit down and read this.[vi] I guarantee you will find a whole bunch of stories you will want to look up and read. Me, for example, I’ve been avoiding Edgar Rice Burroughs and A. Merritt, but after reading Aldiss, I know I have to tackle at least some of their books.
You’ll also pick up some ideas that will seem obvious in retrospect. Gulliver’s Travels is about as close to science fiction as you can get without a modern sense of science, and it even comes close to that. Poe’s science fiction stories are among his worst, but so many of his non-science fiction stories, thanks to their Gothic element, are borderline sci-fi. In fact, a number of writers straddle the border between fantasy and science fiction to the point of blurring the boundary. I knew H. P. Lovecraft did, but Aldiss points out that Bulwer-Lytton, he of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame, did likewise.[vii] H.G. Wells was torn between being a writer and an educator, and the educator won out, which is why his later books are little read.[viii]
Not that I agree with Aldiss 100% of the time. Claiming Thomas Hardy for science fiction strikes me as a stretch, I don’t care how much he was influenced by evolution; Aldiss is on stronger ground when he claims Nathaniel Hawthorne. His criticism of Clark Ashton Smith as unreadable, standing without further explanation, seems to be more due to Aldiss’s low opinion of Smith’s colleague Lovecraft than to anything Smith wrote.[ix] Conversely, I can understand why Aldiss thinks so highly of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic sagas, but I found them lacking in human interest; I prefer Odd John and Sirius, which Aldiss considers lesser works, myself.
Once we hit the post-World War II era, Aldiss’s treatment changes. He is still trying to trace the changes in the field, most notably by showing how the New Wave legitimately fit into science fiction, often by standing the genre’s conventions on their heads. But it’s difficult to trace changes while they are going on. If I get around to reading Aldiss’s revision of Billion Year Spree, namely Trillion Year Spree (1986), I’ll be very interested in seeing how he has revised his treatment of science fiction after 1945. The other problem with these later chapters is that Aldiss seems determined to name-check as many post-1945 writers as he can, either because he was afraid of missing a notable name, was trying to please the sci-fi authors’ community, or just because he didn’t feel he could pick and choose which ones were notable.
I had never read a book-length treatment of science fiction’s history before. This was worth the trouble, both to gain a solid historical perspective and to use Aldiss’s definition of the genre to think about what science fiction is and should be. Oh, and let’s not forget thinking about the relationship between his definition and my own writing!
[i] Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), p. 8.
[ii] I’ve been leading up to this post by writing previous posts on the Gothic writers Mrs. Radcliffe and “Monk” Lewis, and providing an excellent example of a writer of Gothic novels, Daphne du Maurier, adding science fiction to her work in the novel The House on the Strand.
[iii] Before we go any further, I should note that Aldiss’s analysis is by and large confined to European literature and its American offshoots.
[iv] The fallacy of essences in this context is the belief that a term must have a basic definition that encompasses all legitimate examples of that term, and nothing else. But the English language doesn’t necessarily work that way. People often develop terms that apply to one set of examples, and then extend that term to other things that resemble the original set in significant ways. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the term “game” evolved that way. When you think about it, there are quite a few English terms that are hard to define succinctly, but “you know it when you see it.”
[v] Aldiss, Billion Year Spree, chap. 7-11.
[vi] Or read Aldiss’s later and expanded version, Trillion Year Spree (1986), which I haven’t got to, yet.
[vii] I can’t believe I’m writing this, but thanks to Aldiss I have to read some Bulwer-Lytton!
[viii] A cautionary tale for this historian-author!
[ix] I’ve written a post on Clark Ashton Smith and his influence on me. What I can’t understand is how Aldiss is so critical of Smith, and yet can have a kind word to say for William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, which is well-nigh unreadable due to Hodgson’s use of archaic language.