Figure 1. Science Fiction Themes Mapped to Human Evolutionary Benchmarks
Figure 1 illustrates this derivation of SF themes from humanity’s path as a species. Scanning left to right, the top sequence of boxes outlines the seven benchmarks of human evolution. The earliest humans to appear on the scene, Homo habilis, exploited tools. They evolved into Homo erectus, who moved out of Africa to occupy Asia and Europe. When newly evolved Homo sapiens did the same, they met the descendants of these older species, and replaced them. Now capable of symbolic thought, H. sapiens wondered about supernatural dimensions. In order to master these, they sought to transcend their own essence. Later, they learned agriculture, and concentrated in cities. Finally, the intensive exploitation of resources modified their environment.
The middle series of boxes identifies each benchmarks’ keyword: tools, setting, others, dimension, essence, rules, habitat. This is followed by their modern extrapolations, then lists of the resulting SF ideas, then the corresponding SF themes in the last sequence of boxes.
Additionally, scanning downward from the top, each column emphasizes the progression from the benchmarks to speculative equivalents. For example, substituting stone tools for future tools results in the most sophisticated of all machines, the robots and A.I.s. Modifying human essence no longer produces shamans but supermen, and the mutant species that may replace Homo sapiens.
In order to determine the validity of using human evolution as a new framework to identify and discuss SF themes, we now evaluate other studies of theme in the corpus of SF literature.
EXISTING SCHEMAS FOR SCIENCE FICTION THEME ANALYSIS
Several schemas have been proposed over the years to analyze/synthesize the themes in SF. The four selected herein represent different approaches to the problem.
The first is an insider’s view. In an interview filmed in 1974, SF authors Gordon Dickson and James Gunn discuss theme in SF, listing eleven in all. Their combined experience as active participants in the vast conversation of written SF brings a semi-historical perspective to the subject, one that remains essential to the understanding of the SF genre. Gunn later published a definitive version of the list (Gunn, 1975). (Another insider’s view is found in Del Rey, 1979, although the proposed list of themes appears somewhat idiosyncratic, with themes like Biology and Stargates).
The second is the anthologist’s view. Using SF extant works in English, many of them classics, senior French editors Gérard Klein, Jacques Goimard, and Demètre Iokamidis put together a multi-volume anthology showcasing the themes of SF, (Klein et al., 1974), with each volume including an essay dedicated to its particular theme. (Such a dedicated thematic endeavour remains unique to this day).
The third is the structural approach. In a book-length analysis, Gary K. Wolfe presents SF as the means by which a technological society deals with the tension between the known and the unknown. Wolfe (1979) summarizes this conflict with five icons: the Spaceship, the City, the Wasteland, the Robot, and the Monster. The strength of this imagery, and how easily we recognize it as SF, suggests a direct link to the genre’s main themes. Inasmuch as the notion of archetype can be applied to genre fiction, Wolfe’s icons provide archetypal images of science fiction. (For a more recent, if less structured presentation of SF icons, see Jones, 2003.)
The fourth approach is multidisciplinary. Author, translator and teacher Élisabeth Vonarburg (Vonarburg, 2012) uses myths, history, and psychoanalytical concepts to derive four clusters of themes, which encompass two-dozen subthemes. While these clusters are somewhat heterogeneous, her text also emphasizes how SF subthemes often merge into each other. (Articles on the psychoanalytical aspects of SF may be found in Thaon (1986), which includes contributions from J. Goimard and G. Klein.)
A. Theme in Science Fiction: A discussion between Gordon Dickson and James Gunn
In 1974, James Gunn interviewed Gordon Dickson as part of SF in Films, a series comprised of twelve 20-minute interviews of well-known authors discussing specific topics important to SF literature. The Dickson interview dealt specifically with themes in SF, as follows:
- Far Traveling: the wonders of the Earth and the universe.
- Wonderful Inventions: the wonders and dangers of science.
- Progress: hope and faith, in science and the future; includes utopia.
- War/Armageddon: future wars, also a final war, perhaps resulting in better humans.
- Cataclysm: total destruction by other means (asteroid, collapse of food chain, etc.) .
- Super Powers: strange talents, a superior ability in one or many individuals.
- Superman: superior in all ways, so almost unlike man.
- Man and Alien: completely unlike man; invaders, also aliens providing guidance.
- Man and the Machine: the wonders and dangers of machines (Robots) .
- Man and Environment: man versus the environments he constructs, or finds elsewhere.
- Man and his Society: society itself as antagonist, with man either bearing it or altering it.
- Man and the Future: the future history of mankind, which opens infinite possibilities.
Note that the theme of Superman is missing in the opening credits list, but it is discussed on camera as a separate theme, and is formally included in Gunn (1975).
To a large extent, the themes flow from one to the next, partly because Gunn structures the interview to highlight natural sequencing. Wonderful Inventions is linked to Pandora’s box, from which comes both despair (War) and hope (Progress). Super Powers describes almost inhuman abilities, leading to Man and Alien, the truly inhuman. In that last segment, Dickson points out the purpose of many an alien environment in SF is to be dominated by the protagonist, a meaning very similar to that assigned to Man and his Environment – which one of the two will dominate – that suggests there is some overlap between themes. The mention of several H. G. Wells novels in six categories, along with more recent treatments by contemporary authors, also hints at the staying power of the themes listed.
Gunn presents the same list in the Appendix of his 1975 history of SF, Alternate Worlds, except for minor rewording and the addition of Man and Religion. Dickson uses the expression “the wonders of science, the wonderful inventions” in the interview. The film’s editor chose to list the latter as a theme, and Gunn settled on the former in the book, also shortened the film editor’s War/Armageddon to simply War. The book makes the interdependence of certain themes much clearer: Man and His Society is defined as “similar to Progress, except…” (Gunn, 1975, p. 242). The same goes for how Man and the Machine resembles The Wonders of Science, as Man and his Environment does Cataclysm, and Superman does Super Powers.
Another interesting difference is how Dickson and Gunn define Man and the Future as a thought experiment that takes a contemporary problem, and puts in a completely fresh context. Since this is precisely how they defined science fiction itself at the onset of the interview, Man and the Future becomes a catchall. The definition given by Gunn in Alternate Worlds does restrict its meaning to a variant of Progress. By either route, however, this would obviate Man and the Future as a theme unto itself.
In their treatment of Wonderful Inventions, Dickson and Gunn cite two novels they later ascribe to other categories: The Invisible Man, later in Super Powers, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, later in Far Traveling, though it is unclear whether the novels’ main themes are being changed, or new themes added. Furthermore, the discussion gives a sense that either Progress or Armageddon is the usual outcome of Wonderful Inventions. Finally, to define the latter as the wonders and dangers of science is another way to say it is about consequences, and this surely applies to most of SF, rendering Wonderful Inventions a questionable theme unto itself.
Many of Gunn’s SF themes from Alternate Worlds result from his application of the previously described Metaphor of Change: Far Traveling stems from changing the scene, Man and Alien from changing the cast, Super Powers from changing their abilities, and Wonderful Inventions from changing the tools. Substitute the latter for props, and the metaphor of a play on stage comes to mind. However, the success of this metaphor quickly unravels, as detailed below.
War/Armageddon would result from changing the weapons or nature of war, except that weapons are specific tools, particular props for the play, as it were: there is no more reason to single these out than for having côté cour and côté jardin as distinct types of scene. As for changing the nature of war, Armageddon is just as easily derived as a subset of Cataclysm (changing the physical conditions). Progress would be the outcome of changing change itself. However, the acceleration of change is what led to science fiction in the first place, so we are once again faced with the dilemma of a meta-theme that could conceivably apply to all of SF (except for utopia/dystopia, which are specific outcomes).
These last themes exemplify the problem with the Metaphor of Change as used in Alternate Worlds: the apparent success with scene, actors, abilities, and tools indicates some principle should be at work, yet the uselessness of themes one would extract from changing costumes or lighting reveals the metaphor in and of itself to be insufficient. A rationale for its application is missing. Which conceptual objects can the metaphor be legitimately applied to in order to yield valid SF themes? If changing man’s beliefs yields Gunn’s theme of Man and Religion, should we envisage a change in social conventions, or political systems, or the laws of physics? (Or love, for that matter, a topic from which much literary ink continues to flow.)
As pointed out earlier, several themes in Alternate Worlds may also be paired: Man and His Society with Progress, Man and the Machine with The Wonders of Science, Man and his Environment to Cataclysm, Superman with Super Powers. Gunn further confirms this by applying the change principle to only one member of each pair, another clue that one theme subsumes the other.
With Progress and The Wonders of Science already deemed too general, and Superman defined by Gunn as a subset of Super Powers, this group yields four themes: Man and His Society (includes utopia/dystopia), Man and the Machine, Man and his Environment (Cataclysm), and Super Powers (Superman). Adding Far Traveling, Man and Alien, and Man and Religion, the Dickson and Gunn/Alternate Worlds list is synthesized to a total of seven major themes that can be considered truly independent of each other.
B. Science Fiction anthologies by Gérard Klein, Jacques Goimard, and Demètre Iokamidis
From 1974 to 1976, the twelve-volume collection La grande anthologie de la science-fiction was published in France. The editors’ avowed intent was to exemplify the major themes of SF using stories, sixteen per volume on average, selected to cover a wide range of possibilities on that particular theme, and with a five to fifteen-page introductory essay tracing the theme’s link to history or literature, and its importance in the SF corpus. The anthologists were quick to point out that many stories addressed more than one theme, making the choice of the volume in which it appears an editorial decision.
There is a dialectic aspect in the selection and ordering of texts, which is made explicit in each story’s introduction. For example, the Time Travel stories are presented in order of increasing complexity, making this collection a practical treatise on the subject. The second half of its Table of Contents reads: “The Man Who Came Early” (by Poul Anderson), “Dark Interlude” (Mack Reynolds and Fredric Brown), “Vintage Season” (C. L. Moore), “Experiment” (Fredric Brown), “Me, Myself and I” (William Tenn), “Hindsight” (Jack Williamson), “The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway” (William Tenn), “Time Patrol” (Poul Anderson), “Of Time and Third Avenue” (Alfred Bester), “All You Zombies” (Robert A. Heinlein).
The twelve volumes are as follows:
- End of the World
- Time Travel
The Wrong-Way theme relates to humour. By the anthologists’ own admission – in the general introduction to the series, reprinted in each of the twelve volumes – this is a mixture of the other eleven themes, not a theme unto itself. Cultural biases may explain why humorous stories must be segregated from the others, so as not to contaminate serious analysis. This general introduction also makes clear that the anthologists consider the eleven subjects to be the most representative themes of science fiction, the ones that give it unity as a genre.
The singular advantage of Klein et al.’s framework is that there are sixteen stories, which serve as exemplars of any given theme, functioning in essence as an extended definition. More than any essay or volume label, the stories demonstrate the multiple facets and vast scope of the particular SF themes.
With the initial success of the with twelve volumes, the editors published another twenty-four between 1983 and 1985, all prefaced according to the new topics they were meant to exemplify:
- End of Time
- Space Travel
- Medical Doctors
- The Divine
- 4th Dimension
- Future Societies
- Strange Worlds
- Year 2000
- Future Wars
- Sex Fiction
The general introduction to the series has disappeared, leading one to conclude that these twenty-four new volumes either develop the original major themes, or explore related subthemes. Indeed the titles and contents of many volumes suggest immediate pairings to that effect: Powers with Supermen, Automatons with Machines, Space Travel with Astronauts, Extraterrestrials with Invaders, Rebels with Future Societies, Survivors with End of the World, and so on.
Examining the tables of contents, as reflected in the volume titles, elucidates less obvious themes. The End of Time, nominally about the ultimate fate of humankind in the very far future, often implies that eons alone will provide the necessary impetus for the transformation of humans, a subject matter similar to Mutants.
Ecological stories are, as the title suggests, about the environment we unwittingly damage as we modify it to suit our needs. They are modern Catastrophes of the slower kind, with pollution or global warming replacing a nuclear End of the World as the immediate threat. The Mirages theme contains stories that question reality or explore other dimensions of space. Most stories in the 4th Dimension volume do the same, with a few using time as a fourth dimension, à la Einstein, and therefore relating to Time Travel. The Medical Doctors theme is about life and death, and science’s push to extend one and prevent the other. This puts it in the realm of transforming humans, the same category as stories about Immortals.
The volume on The Divine deals with our relationship to it, although it also contains stories about local gods, meaning very powerful aliens. As for the even more unusual volume titles, Untrue contains more humorous stories, and Sex Fiction encompasses future sex, not with aliens but in different social contexts.
A comparison of the volume titles with their actual contents also reveals a stated intent that quickly gives way to a more creative, some would say loose, interpretation of the anthologists’ own guidelines. Naturally, this does not alter the value of any given story.
Eliminating duplications/subcategories and the two multi-themed humour volumes, the 36 categories of the Grande Anthologie are reduced to nine thematic groups (the original eleven titles are underlined):
- Extraterrestrials – Invaders – Creatures
- Robots – Machines – Automatons – Mechanical
- Astronauts – Space Travel – Planets – Strange Worlds – Galactic
- End of the World – Survivors – Catastrophes – Ecological – Future Wars
- Powers – Mutants – Parapsychological – Supermen – Immortals – End of Time – M.D.s
- Tomorrow – Future Societies – Rebels – Year 2000 – Sex Fiction
- Time Travel – Paradoxical
- 4th Dimension – Mirages
- The Divine
C. The known and the unknown: Gary Wolfe’s icons of Science Fiction
In a book-length analysis published in 1979, scholar Gary K. Wolfe proposes five “icons” of science fiction based on the images generated and popularized in the developmental period of SF as a literature – defined as the 30s through the 60s, the same period used by Klein et al. These symbols evoke the essence of science fiction to the public at large.
Wolfe writes that the function of SF is to “provide technological society with a ritual methodology for action” (p. 4), meaning one that is related to, but not strictly bound by, the scientific method. In this view, SF is indeed a tool that familiarizes the strange, with icons that illustrate specific aspects of this opposition between the known and the unknown. A barrier isolates the two, much like the threshold in Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Unlike its function in the Campbell (1968) monomyth, however, the barrier isolates us from hypothetical worlds, not mythical ones, and is either a puzzle to be solved or a factor that helps contrast cultures.
Three of the five icons are “images of the environment”: the Spaceship, the City, and the Wasteland. The other two are “images of humanity”: the Robot, and the Monster.
The Icon of the Spaceship represents the entry into the unknown. From the novels of Verne and Wells to the illustrations that graced the covers of countless magazines and books, to movies such as Destination Moon, the Spaceship has always been more than transportation, it also functions as a portable habitat, a world in miniature. If only because space is a far harsher environment than the sea, the spaceship is a mini-world in ways sailing vessels were not, as evidenced in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Icon of the City represents the subjugation of the unknown, with the City providing a controlled environment in which to live. One paradox is that the Spaceship is surely the most controlled place of all, though environment-sized ships would become cities, a point paralleled by Blish’s decidedly un-metaphorical Cities in Flight novel series title. The City does play an iconic role in SF, Fritz Lang having paved the way in Metropolis. However, its environmental control is arguably a surface feature. The underlying societal control – which allowed cities to arise in the first place – is the most potent quality of the City, as it cannot possibly survive without the kind of structured behavior that maintains it. In SF literature, Asimov’s planet-sized city, Trantor, typifies this parallel between the physical city and its underlying social control apparatus.
The Icon of the Wasteland represents a re-emergence of the unknown and focuses less on the cataclysm itself than the survivors, starting anew. This is viewed from the perspective of a society fallen from civilization, which makes the Wasteland the other extreme of the control spectrum, a total absence thereof. The Wasteland is the most iconic form of a ruined environment, and the cinema of the fifties provides the clearest examples, from War of the Worlds to This Island Earth. Of course, more subtle means of devastation than Armageddon have also been explored, for instance in No Blade of Grass.
The Icon of the Robot represents the image of technology in Wolfe’s view, although the same could conceivably be said about the Spaceship. Wolfe points out that robots commonly symbolize slavery, this from their first appearance in the 1921 Karel Čapek play R.U.R. to their modern version in Star Wars. Wolfe’s Robot icon also comprises A.I. and machine self-awareness. Note that Klein et al. venture further by having a separate volume for Machines, of the black box kind, those that evoke Clarke’s Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke, 1973, p. 21).
The Icon of the Monster represents images of human transformation, and inasmuch as cinema has fed us a steady diet of monsters, many of whom are human-derived mutants, the Monster does encapsulate the concept of otherness. Unfortunately, intelligent aliens are subsumed in this same category. Whereas a transformed human immediately poses the question of its continued humanity, the lack of which equals monstrosity, an alien leaves room for more subtle aspects of otherness, as is clear from a monster-less story like Sturgeon’s “A Saucer of Loneliness”, or the Chanur novels by C. J. Cherryh.
Undeniably, Wolfe’s five icons relate to the themes found in SF, yet three of them do not really encompass enough to qualify as themes. For one, the City requires the underpinnings of societal constructs. Without roles and rules, the necessary maintenance of a city-sized man-made environment is impossible. Secondly, the alien that behaves as a Monster is but a single type of the many aliens found in SF. Thirdly, the vast thematic possibilities of far travels and space exploration are not entirely accounted for by the icon of the Spaceship, as neither can the richness and complexity of exotic lands of Earth’s past centuries be properly represented by ancient sailing vessels.
In other words, while Icons are truly representative of the imagery of SF, their use in lieu of themes carries with it the risk of becoming over-simplistic. (Their very effectiveness as icons may also explain the difficulty writers encounter when tasked to translate the subtleties of great SF literature into a screen version palatable to the uninitiated and aficionado alike.)
D. Élisabeth Vonarburg’s Psychologie (sauvage) des grands thèmes de la science-fiction
In a recent essay on the psychological resonance of SF themes, author and teacher Élisabeth Vonarburg presents four thematic clusters: Elsewhere, Elsewhen, Otherness, and Utopia, which deal respectively with space, time, living beings, and societies (Vonarburg, 2012). Each comprises several “motifs” (subthemes), defined as a set of setting, situations, characters that give a specific flavour to the broader cluster, as detailed below.
- Plausible Space: realistic, science-based conjecture, such as living on Mars.
- Symbolic Elsewhere: similar settings used for personal/mythological concerns.
- Voyages: the ship as access to elsewhere, especially other star systems.
- Vital Adventure: heroic survival, à la Crusoe (i.e. To Have);
- Metaphysical Adventure: initiation journey, à la Galahad (i.e. To Be).
- Other Dimensions of Space: 4th dimension, macro/microcosm as atoms.
- Inner Space: bio/socio/psychological, stories about human foibles and desires.
- Witness Other Times: passively, the past and future never change.
- The Time Machine: events change in principle (despite Wells’ avoidance of such).
- Temporal Paradox: at its worst, the risk of self-cancellation. Some solutions:
- Circularity: trips to the past are already included as loops in the time stream;
- Elasticity: the time stream exhibits resilience, and self-corrects in the long run;
- Time Patrol: guardians use this elasticity to correct deviance from history.
- Parallel Universes: the traveller switches to another potential present.
- Alternate History: in which some crucial past event had a different outcome.
Vonarburg goes on to detail the psychoanalytical, or personality growth implications of time travel to the past: knowing future events gives power and gratification – megalomania; meeting oneself in the flesh wreaks havoc in the formation of Ego – narcissism; going to the past to bed one’s own mother is a twist on Oedipus – incest, as is killing one’s father – patricide. She adds the conundrum of free will: the circularity variant’s unchanging past means tragic determinism; elasticity of the timeline suggests the Marxist view of interchangeable individuals; and a Time Patrol implies totalitarianism.
- Utopia—tomorrow: the perfect society, usually set in Earth’s near or far future (there is an infrequent Utopia—elsewhere variant set on other worlds).
- End of the World: collapse of civilization, with survivors, reconstruction, and an eventual better world. (Note that the subsuming under Utopia is unusual, as most assume a rupture with prior social order, whereas utopias are in continuity with it.)
- Extraterrestrials: invaders or guardians, with a strong first contact subtheme.
- Mutants: physical, i.e. monsters, or psychic, as in super/post-humans with powers.
- Androids: organic artificial humans (a divine lèse-majesté for daring to create life).
- Cyborgs: humans with mechanical parts, less sacrilegious than mutants/androids.
- Robots: fully mechanical (after Asimov, monster robots become perfect humans).
- Artificial Intelligence: sentient computer variant, with modern subthemes:
- Virtual Reality/Cyberspace: otherness via an avatar;
- Virtual Immortality: survival by download of personality in a machine.
The grouping together of Extraterrestrials and Mutants parallels Wolfe’s icon of the Monster. However, the implication that Androids and Robots tread on the divine ground of creating life or perfecting humanity seems a more relevant psychological tenet than their Otherness.
It is notable that psychological analysis elicits few actual SF subthemes overall, beyond the implication for free will embedded in the various solutions the time travel paradox. The growth of personality parallel emphasizes using knowledge of the future to gain power, meeting oneself in narcissism, and living the Oedipus story as incest and/or patricide, all of which are time travel plot points, none of which is a thematic variant in Vonarburg’s list. Furthermore, the wish for power is not limited to time travel; all super power stories use a fictional device that fulfills it.
When psychology does yield subthemes, as with Elsewhere, the result is not SF-specific, and could apply to all of fiction, a point Vonarburg makes herself. Metaphysical Adventure and Symbolic Elsewhere tell us more of the intent of the story’s author than what SF is about, a point Vonarburg also highlights in the Inner Space subtheme. To argue this from another perspective, if the psychological resonance of time travel does not of itself yield themes, why should space travel be any different?