An historian on the edge of time.

timelincolnfistsoffuhrercoverA review of Tomorrow World’s: An Unearthly History.  Part 4 – Time (first broadcast BBC2, 13th December 2014).

[Spoiler alert:  This article contains spoilers for Looper and Twelve Monkeys]

Of all the programmes in this series, this last instalment is probably the worst.  It suffers from two particular problems.  The first is that the programme’s theme, the history of time travel in science fiction, is hardly developed in the programme and is examined only in a superficial way.  Instead the programme widens its theme to include visions of the future and other time related stories, it fails to hang together in any coherent way.  The second problem is the selection of material.  There are some obvious SF film and television programmes highlighted including La Jettée (1962), Doctor Who (1963 onward) along with Twelve Monkeys (1995).  A reasonable range of literature is mentioned (often very briefly) including HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder (1952), much of the rest of the material is overtly popularist examples of recent mainstream cinema and TV.  Although there may be a case for including Back to the Future (1985) for its popular impact, it is poor SF.  Similarly, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) may be an amusing film, but it is hardly canonical SF, indeed its SF element is weak and flawed.  (The premise of the film is that people from a future society, based on the harmony brought by Bill and Ted’s music, travel back to ensure that they don’t flunk history and thus would be separated.  This does not make sense, their society could not exist if Bill and Ted had been separated, what’s the point of going back in time to undo something that is already undone?).  Some material is not SF at all, particularly Groundhog Day (1993).  The consideration given to the film Looper (2012) is quite out of proportion to what is, in SF terms at least, a very poor time-travel story (although it does at least create a time traveller’s sense of déjà vu with two films involving Bruce Willis being sent back in time being considered).

Another major problem, implicit through the series, and particularly in evidence here, is that SF has nowhere been defined, but it is important that the stories have some kind of scientific rationale to them.  In many, if not most, SF stories the details of how time travel is achieved are necessarily vague but the stories are grounded in SF narratives through their concentration on dystopian-utopian future, technological and social changes and logical paradox.  The idea that SF narratives themselves have a history, which is surely what a programme promising to be the history of SF should (at least implicitly) provide, is entirely absent.  What is offered instead is, ironically, a timeless vision of time travel stories.  What the programme presents is HG Wells’ The Time Machine as a foundational text, and then some mainstream film and TV treatments of time travel, largely dating from the 1980s onwards.

Time travel and the representation of the future in fiction have a history that predates (and is an important antecedent of) science fiction.  This is well explained in a work important for anyone wishing to understand the origins of science fiction, Paul Alkon’s The Origins of Futuristic Fiction.[1]  Alkon argues that stories about the future were uncommon before the nineteenth century.  This was not simply that the social conditions for people to imagine a  future that was different did not exist: it is commonly accepted that the rise of market capitalism and the technological and social changes that accompanied it laid that basis for such future oriented fiction existed long before the first time-travel stories.  What also needed to be developed were the literary forms of telling such stories.  One key work in the development of such futuristic fiction was Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1771 work, L’An 2440 (rêve s’il en fut jamais) [The Year 2440 (A Dream if ever there was one)], a utopian vision of the future clearly reflecting the political ferment in France in the years before the Revolution.  But what is notable is that while previous writers had framed their utopias as being in some contemporaneous other place, Mercier introduced the idea that it was in the future, and thus was not a timeless alternative but a development out of existing circumstances.  At this stage the weakness of this was that whereas a story of travel to another place could be told with existing literary conventions, stories in the future could not.  Thus, Mercier’s narrator is transported in a dream.  Other early writers have similar mystical framing devices, such as angels bringing letters from the future.

Dominic mentions one notable example of pre-SF time travel by mystical agency, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1843) but fails to understand how it is a fantasy that is different from a science fiction story.  This difference was outlined in a highly prescient work of Félix Bodin’s Le Roman de l’avenir [The Futuristic Novel] (1834) which argued for the development of a “realistic fiction of rational wonders that might be morally useful without giving up the appeal of fantasy.”[2]  It was HG Wells who first achieved this in The Time Machine (1895).

This brings us to a further questionable point made by Dominic in this instalment.  While in the previous three instalments of Tomorrow’s Words he has asserted his view that SF reflects the “hopes and anxieties” of existing society, time travel is presented as “fantasy”, a form of wish-fulfilment to see the past and future.  Although both could be true at the same time, this switch is jarring.  I would take issue with the use of “fantasy” both by Dominic and in the Alkon/Bodin formulation above since the word implies something of the earlier form of futuristic literature, that it is a vision or illusion.  Certainly, Wells did not see himself as a prophet or visionary.  Nor is The Time Machine (as Dominic suggests) a “biting satire” on the Victorian class system.  Wells viewed himself as a scientifically grounded futurologist and used future-based fiction as a popular tool for disseminating those ideas.  He wrote non-fictional futurology, popular science and political commentary too.  In this he was similar to Isaac Asimov who was a trained scientist like Wells, although in Asimov’s case to a much higher level.  Asimov saw his SF writing as informed by hard science and sociology.  Indeed, between 1958 and 1973 Asimov wrote no fiction at all, instead concentrating on the popular understanding of science.

The key section of The Time Machine is set in 802,701 AD where the Time Traveller encounters the infantile Eloi and the troglodytic Morlocks.  Wells had studied under TH Huxley and was immersed in the post-Darwinian eugenics movement, and the Eloi and Morlocks were not simply a metaphor for, or satire of, class.  Rather this was Wells’ view of the outcome of continued class society expressed through evolutionary biology.  This is didactically explained in the Time Traveller’s narration of events in the book.[3]  (Wells’ views on evolutionary biology seem quite odd now, but were very popular, even in some parts of the left, at the time).[4]

In many ways Wells’ book was not foundational, but a development in futuristic fiction.  The time machine is merely a framing device.  Time travel is not the main subject of the story, the future is.  As SF and other forms of future fiction became accepted as a fiction genre, stories about the future could be told without any need to explain how the author knew the future, the reader accepting that SF authors will write about the future since this had become established literary convention.  Time travel in science fiction ceased therefore to be a gateway to the future or past, rather it became the subject itself.  Like so much else in SF, this was developed in the golden age of the pulps.  One of the earliest examples of this was the Charles Cloukey short story “Paradox” published in 1929 in Amazing Stories Quarterly.  A scientist finds the plans for a time machine in the hand-writing of a friend who knows nothing of it.  A machine that will travel to the future is built which the friend uses to travel to the year 2930 where he meets a scientist who has built a machine which can travel to the past.  A copy of the original plans are made and the friend travels back to place the plans in the scientist’s draw so he can find them.  The friend also believes that with knowledge of his death he can avoid it, but he cannot.

This is typical of time travel stories.  They centrally concern the paradoxes of time travel, the consequences of interfering with the past or knowing the future.  The line taken in Tomorrow’s Worlds is not to worry about the paradoxes too much, just enjoy the ride.  But it is the paradoxical nature of time travel that has interested SF writers the most.  So quite contrary to Dominic’s assertion that a major theme of time-travel SF (and it is the only one he identifies) is that “through the power of science, we can make time do our bidding,” I would suggest that one of the major themes of time travel fiction is that we can’t have power over time.  In some cases the past is found to be unalterable and attempts to change an event are inevitably part of the cause of that event; in other stories travel to the past is fraught with danger and intended consequences.

To explore this more fully, it is necessary to understand the different models of time travel that SF has used.  Each creates paradoxes, but of different kinds.  I would suggest that there are three basic paradigms used in time travel fiction (there are some further types that are less common time travel narratives, and I will append a section on these at the end).  In brief, these three are:

  1. There is one immutable time line. Attempts to alter the past (or a known future) are doomed to fail, it has happened and if you try to alter it you will discover that this is already part of the past.  I will call this the fatalistic model of time travel.
  2. The time line is mutable, and the actions of someone who has time travelled to the past (or has precognition of the future) can change the future but this will not change the time traveller themselves. They will continue to be the person from the future that will no longer happen.  I will call this the insulated time-traveller model of time travel.  (This can also be conceptualised a product of the multiverse)
  3. The time line is mutable, but the direct and indirect consequences of the time traveller’s actions will affect the time traveller themselves, they will become the person from the new future. I will call this the feedback loop model of time travel.

Most science fiction that is serious exploring time travel sticks to one of these models and deals with the paradoxes.  Ultimately, science fiction about time travel are thought experiments that suggest that time travel because of its paradoxical nature (meaning something has to be true and false at the same time) is impossible (although it is certainly not the case that all physicists accepts this).[5]  To put a little hard science into this, this is an application of the Novikov Self-consistency Principle.  Developed by the Russian physicist Igor Novikov in the 1980s in response to some hypothetical solutions to general relativity equations that allow the possibility of particles travelling backwards in time, this principle disallows these solutions where a paradox would occur (and in practice that is any change to the past at all).  Technically this allows time travel that affects no change, if the time traveller is a conscious agent aware of the past, this is inconceivable.

Using the categorisation I have developed above, it is possible to say more about time travel than (as Dominic does) “it happens (in SF)”.  Fatalism is common in SF, it underpins Cloukey’s story “Paradox” (see above).  This story contains a “bootstrap paradox”, a closed time loop paradox with where the knowledge about how to build the time machine has no origin.  But more importantly, it contains the most common fatalistic time-travel paradox, the predetermination paradox.  In this paradox travelling to the past to change events leads the time-traveller to become a cause of the events they are trying to affect.  A poetic and rather beautiful version of it can be found in Robert Young’s SF short story “The Girl with the Dandelion Hair” (1961).  Here, a young woman from the future tells the man that she is falling in love with, that, “the book of time has already been written.  From a macrocosmic viewpoint, my father says, everything that is going to happen has already happened.  Therefore, if a person from the future participates in a past event, he becomes a part of that event—for the simple reason that he was a part of it in the first place—and a paradox cannot possibly arise.”  She then travels further back in time and marries a younger version of the man.[6]

The idea of the time traveller becoming part of the cause of the events they seek to stop has long been a theme of SF.  This is central the film 12 Monkeys.  (There is a problem in the relationship posed in Tomorrow’s Worlds between 12 Monkeys and Chris Marker’s short film/photo-roman La Jetée.  The programme suggests that 12 Monkeys is an adaptation of La Jetée, but adaption is perhaps too strong a word, and (as the film credits say) “inspired” is more apposite, 12 Monkeys is essentially different from its inspiration.  In La Jetée the prisoner/time traveller, having been to the past, solves the problems of the post-apocalyptic society by being given a power source on his travels to the future.  It is the future people who aid his escape back to the past and a woman he has fallen in love with there, but he is then killed by his captors from his present who have pursued him to the past.  As in 12 Monkeys the killing of the adult is seen by his childhood self, but in La Jetée there is no element of his attempting to avert the apocalypse.  Rather it is his memory of seeing the shooting that gives him a strong image of a point in time that allows him to travel to it without going mad, an example of the predestination paradox).

12 Monkeys, while taking much from La Jetée, is a different film.  La Jetée is atypical  of time travel SF in that it is fundamentally about memory and transience, although it is by no means alone in this, there are elements of this in Cloukey’s “Paradox” and much of Philip K. Dick’s work.  It is also notable in its elegiac and rueful tone that it is similar to The Time Traveller’s Wife (see below).  Rather, like much of time travel SF, 12 Monkeys is more interested in the paradoxes of time travel itself and in building a compelling story around these.  Those sending James Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time take it as read that the past is unalterable, they are seeking information that will help them combat the virus that has devastated humanity.  Even when Cole, at the last, attempts to change events it only makes his witnessing of his own death as a child come about.  (For anyone interested, there is one glaring inconsistency in the film, whereas the phone call made to the carpet cleaning ansaphone by the psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe) has always been in the time line, the corrected information left at the same number at the airport a few hours later by Cole not only appears in the future (in terms of the meta-time of the film) “at the same time”, but those time travelling back from the future can only act on that information “after” the call has been made.  This is completely inconsistent with the way that time travel is treated in the rest of the film, but necessary to set up the dénouement, and an all-too-common example of consistency of time travel being dropped when it conflicts with the need for dramatic impact).

The idea that events cannot be altered is a constant in much time travel SF.  The skill is to weave this into a story.  Some of these fatalistic views were given their strongest early development in the pulp period by Robert H. Heinlein (with both bootstrap and predestination paradoxes in the mix) in his stories “By His Bootstraps” (1941)[7] and “-All of you Zombies -” (1959)[8].   It underpinned the US TV series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), where the characters unable to return to their present hopped between various (mainly past) time periods, but in the past were unable to change the outcome of events.  This concept is central to The Terminator (1984) with Skynet’s attempt to stop its defeat at the hands of John Connor by sending a cyborg back in time to kill his mother leading to his conception (predestination paradox), although this principle fatalism is not carried forward consistently into the sequels.

This is also developed in its literary form in The Time Traveller’s Wife (both its author, Audrey Niffenegger, and the book are featured in this instalment of Tomorrow’s Worlds).  This is a book that was published in 2004 and was not pigeon-holed as SF.  Dominic is right to point out that it combines classic SF time-travelling tropes with a more naturalistic emotional and character-driven literary form (and it might be interesting to speculate that this is not only a product of SF having become hugely popular both on screen and print in the last forty years, but one that has moved from its early almost exclusively male fan base to an audience which, according to some reports, contains a majority of women).[9]  But this misses an important point, about the history of SF.  Nifenegger’s treatment of time travel has something in common with Phillip K. Dick in that time travel results in genetic-neurological disorder, as well as being a descendent of 1960s new wave SF in that it is not centrally about the science.  Most importantly, it shows how science fiction has escaped its ghetto.  The Time Traveller’s Wife is not seen as SF, but is sold and consumed as general fiction.  This is an important development in science fiction.  Many SF authors who wished their writing to be considered beyond the SF ghetto in the 1950s and 1960s struggled (Kurt Vonnegut is one who pushed against this boundary for many years).  What is notable is that many novels that contain elements of what might be considered SF are increasingly seen as general fiction.  Arguably, this goes back to HG Wells, and had its English literary high points in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).  But it is very notable that many books that have elements of SF in them are not seen as SF, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas (2004) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) are examples of this.  These books assume that people can read through the SF context, and use this to build more humanistic stories.  Thus, the time-travel in Niffenegger’s book is used as an extended metaphor for loss and memory.  The time traveller, Henry, witnessed the death of his mother and is forced to revisit it repeatedly, just as his non-time-travelling father is forced to confront his dead wife in his son’s face.

In this context it is easy to accept Niffenegger’s conceptualisation of time-travel as being circular, the past cannot be changed even if the time traveller has knowledge of the events in which they play a part.  They are past events that have happened and cannot be changed (I would argue that this is bad metaphor for memory, where events are replayed in the mind and conversation exactly to change them).  The physics-philosopher Tim Maudlin has argued that this model of time travel is the one that can be internally consistent.[10]  I am not so sure since it creates a predestination paradox.  This means that even with additional information that can only be known after an event, that event cannot be changed.  It reduces human agency to the bearer of some abstract will of history.  If I go back in time, knowing the event I wish to change then it is by no means clear that I will fail.  To use a clichéd example, if I go back to Hitler’s youth to kill him before he can do any harm, I should stand a good chance of succeeding (although this probably would forestall the rise of the Nazis, or something similar, they would not be led by Hitler).  How likely is it that I will simply traumatise the child, leading to latter aggressive paranoid behaviour which has its roots in my botched assassination attempt which the historical record has failed to fully explain.  And if I fail, what if I or my associates continue going back to young Hitler’s time with increasingly heavy armament until they do succeed?  Or more prosaically, what if I go back 30 seconds in my time machine to stop the toast burning?  In short, going back in time would introduce new information into history, and unless one holds an entirely mechanical view of history where the ideas that people have make no impact whatsoever, the fatalistic model must create unsolvable problems.  (It is interesting to note that a fatalistic view of time travel has implications for the historian.  The main thing that the time traveller takes back in time with them is knowledge and ideas, and to believe that these can have no impact is to suggest that ideas have no impact on the course of history.  That is an entirely mechanical view of history being driven by structural forces with the thoughts in people’s heads existing as pure epiphenomenon).

SF has no plausible answer to the problems that the fatalistic view of time travel meets in the face of the time-traveller determined to change events.  It does have plenty of implausible solutions.   For example, one episode of Doctor Who (“Father’s Day” (2005)) has Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) attempting to alter history by saving the life of her father who was killed eight years previously.  Whatever the emotional and dramatic impact of the story from an SF point of view, it was nonsense.  “Time” becomes takes on a conscious personality in the form of pterodactyl-like creatures, “reapers”, which materialise to restore the previous status quo.  This is hardly consistent with the mathematics of space and time, rather it turns time into a mystical consciousness.  This instalment of Tomorrow’s Worlds has a lot on Doctor Who but, oddly, none of it related to time travel.  The focus on recent Doctors’ assertion that they cannot grow old with their (female) assistants is nothing to do with the Doctor being a time traveller (their assistants are too), but because he has great longevity.  On the whole time-travel paradoxical situations are shrugged off, or confined to single episodes (“Blink” (2007), an early example of Steven Moffat’s writing for the show is, I think, as fine an example of the bootstrap paradox as you will find).  Notably, although the novel The Time Traveller’s Wife is seen in the programme, Steven Moffat lifted a story arc starting with “Silence in the Library” (2008) where the Doctor first meets his wife, River Song, but she last meets him, and then used this story through the 2011 and 2012 series.

The non-fatalistic paradigms, where events in the present and thus the future can be changed, are also common in SF.  The most famous example of the insulated time-traveller paradigm, mentioned in this instalment of Tomorrow’s Worlds, is Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” (1952).  (Even here, Dominic makes a complete mess of the issue.  The story concerns time travelling big game hunters who shoot prehistoric big game under carefully controlled conditions so that no part of the past is changed.  One (Eckles) steps off the allotted path and crushes a butterfly.  Dominic describes this as one of the earliest of stories of its kind. But this genre was already well established.  The most personalised form of such a change in the past is the grandfather paradox (a time traveller goes back in time and kills one of their ancestors, thus they could never have been born) which was used in a story at least at early as Nathaniel Schachner in his short story “Ancestral Voices” (1933).  In 1939 L. Sprague de Camp published his short story (and in 1941 a novelised form) “Lest the Darkness Fall” in which a man is transported back to 6th century Rome and through his endeavours creates a more enlightened a peaceful Europe, one that will experience no Dark Ages (thus the title).

Lastly, the feedback loop model is less commonly seen in SF.  An example of this is the prevalent model used in the film Looper.  The premise of the film is that in the film’s present, young assassins kill victims sent back from the future.  Their last job is always to kill a 30 years older version of themselves, to “close the loop”.  A secondary character in the film, Seth, fails to kill his older self who then goes on the run in young Seth’s time zone.  The mobsters who control the process proceed to dismember young Seth, and these injuries (with thirty years of healing) are immediately manifest in old Seth.  This is bizarre, it gives “time” knowledge of events that have not happened and a process of communicating with that hunk of matter that is now old Seth that is mystical rather than physical, and begs the question of how old Seth, who has now been a multiple amputee for thirty years, ever ran anywhere.  An attenuated version of this is also used in Back to the Future where Marty McFly begins to fade after he disrupts his putative parents meeting in the past.

These models have their paradoxes and I would argue that the difference between good and poor science fiction is, first, how consistently the logic of the time travel is applied, and second, how the paradoxes that it leads to are addressed, and third, how these are incorporated into a compelling narrative.  I would suggest that good SF time travel fiction has a consistent logic to its time travel, and addresses the ensuing paradoxes through its narrative.  Thus I would suggest that (for the most part) Twelve Monkeys is good SF since it uses its (fatalistic) notion of the potential of time travel as an integral part of the story it tells, while Back to the Future is poor SF since the narrative selects different and incompatible understandings of time travel to meet its needs at different times.

Looper is a prime example of this inconsistent application of time travel.  While the film is an effective thriller, as far as being a time-travel SF story, it is a disaster.  The central character in the film, Joe, is another looper who fails to close his loop.  The film’s main model of time travel is one that privileges the moment that is being viewed, if something happens in that moment that was not previously the time line, then it is immediately inscribed in that time line (one assumes, at all future and past points on the time line), thus young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is able to send a message to old Joe (Bruce Willis) by scarring it onto his arm.  One has to assume, although the film fudges the point, that old Joe gains new memories of the conversations he has with young Joe that were not previously in his timeline (and at this point has always had those memories).  Ultimately, young Joe stops old Joe killing someone by killing himself, old Joe immediately vanishes although events up to this point do not “unhappen” (which would create a paradox that young Joe would not kill himself in the newly altered time line).

The point here is not that Looper’s feedback model of time-travel is an intrinsically unsatisfactory one, but that the film cannot deal with the paradoxes it causes and instead resorts to papering over the cracks in the narrative using other models of time travel.  One key point is young Joe failing to close his loop by killing old Joe.  The problem is that old Joe has already experienced this moment thirty years previously, and closed the loop.  How can it not be closed (there is not “this time”, it is the same moment).  The same moment has happened twice, with different things happening.  It simply makes no sense.  What has changed?  Nothing, no-one has time travelled back to change things prior to the incident.  It is the same incident in the same time line.

Worse, old Joe has a reason for not accepting his fate.  In the future a new time crime boss, the Rainmaker, is reported to be closing all the loops, killing off the loopers (although surely, this is always the fate of loopers, it is part of the deal?).  In the process of Old Joe being sent back to die, his wife is killed.  Thus, old Joe seeks to kill the child who will grow up to become the Rainmaker.  The problem is that young Joe realises in the dénouement of the film that it is only in old Joe’s failed attempt to kill the child-Rainmaker (an attempt that will leave his mother dead) that he is set on the road to becoming the Rainmaker.  The problem is that this is the single line fatalism view of time-travel (to be precise, a predestination paradox), with the time traveller creating the event that he seeks to avoid.  Thus young Joe kills himself and thus old Joes vanishes (switching back to a feedback loop model of time travel).  It is an inconsistent and unsatisfactory mess.

Back to the Future suffers from similar problems of picking and choosing the form of time travel that it wishes to use.  On the whole, the film uses an attenuated version of the feedback loop (as in Looper).  When Marty McFly travels back to the era when his parents were in high school, and disrupts the events that led to them marrying, he begins to fade (although slowly, conveniently giving him time to address the situation).  But paradoxes of the single-line fatalistic type are also introduced (Marty, it turns out, is named after himself, and by playing Chuck Berry song on guitar, he invents the style which is appropriated by Chuck Berry), while other events change in a non-fatalistic way.  He returns to find his parents and siblings more happy and contented people, although he himself is not changed in any way.  Again, a mess.

There are ways of avoiding any kind of paradox in time travel.  Particularly, it is only time travel to the past that is paradoxical.  Time travel to the future is not problematic (we are doing it now) and it is physically possible to do (by travelling fast).  The science in Planet of the Apes (1968) is quite plausible, astronauts do return to earth having not aged as fast as those that remained behind (although not to the extent of the film).  There are no paradoxes or inconsistencies.  Of course, then travelling back in time (as some of the chimps in Escape from Planet of the Apes (1973) still has all of the problems of travelling back in time.

Stories that involve viewing the past as a passive observer also create no problems.  Isaac Asimov, an SF writer with a zealous regard for ensuring that the science worked, did write one time-travel paradox story (“The Red Queen’s Race” (1949)) which only avoided paradox by human intervention.  His other stories involving time travel avoid any form of paradox.  Thus the short story “The Dead Past” (1956) involves a chronoscope able to look at anything in the past, but since it cannot change the past or see the future it creates no paradoxes.  Similarly, time travel into the past can be paradox free if it is entirely passive, look but don’t touch time travel.

Asimov has another form of non-paradoxical time travel fiction by creating a place outside of time.  In his novel The End of Eternity (1955) “the Eternals” are outside of time and thus see time spread out before as a completed thing (although there are areas that they cannot see).  They can intervene and change time at will, but since they are no longer in time there are no paradoxes (except, perhaps, that since they originated in time, they can change time so that they never existed there while they continue to exist outside of time).

The commonest answer is “lighten up”.  This is the answer often cited in Doctor Who, where time is variously like a river that will keep flowing or a plate of spaghetti and will sort itself out in some way.  I am not convinced that his is the way that the physical world works, and if we are to have science fiction that is based on science rather than fantasy dressed in pseudo-scientific rags it will not do.

Probably the most interesting take on time travel is that of Philip K. Dick.  Philip K. Dick is very poorly dealt with by Dominic in this instalment.  In his usual way, Dominic suggests that Dick’s writing is part of the late 1960s San Francisco drugs scene, as Dominic puts it was “rooted in the political realities of his sixties heyday”.  There is a degree to which this could be considered to be just imprecise, Dick lived in the Bay Area, but never in San Francisco itself.  Certainly, he lived in his teens in Berkeley and hung out in bohemian circles.  But for his most productive period he lived in Point Reyes Point where he moved in 1958,[11] a sedate town thirty miles north of San Francisco.  Only in 1968 did Dick descend into a full on drugs binge surrounding himself with the rougher end of what the late 60s Bay Area had to offer.  By then he was living in Santa Venetia district of San Rafael in County Marin,[12] like Point Reyes Station, considerably to the north of San Francisco.  This period was a result of his writing running into the buffers, he wrote nothing for the four years from 1968.

Nor should Dick he confused with the drug-fuelled writing of William Burroughs.  Not that Dick’s writing was not drug fuelled, but this was largely amphetamines and tranquillisers, not major psychedelics such as LSD (Dick apparently took this only a small number of times in 1964) or even cannabis.  He reportedly took mescaline once in 1970.[13]  After his1968 breakdown he left the San Francisco area, moving briefly to Vancouver and then returned to California but ended up living in the conservative area Orange County near Los Angeles.  This was the least productive period of his writing life, with only five completed novels and virtually no short stories completed before his death in 1982.  I would argue that this late work is amongst his least successful (although many of his fans would disagree).  With the exception of his A Scanner Darkly (1977), a semi-SF and semi-autobiographical account of Dick’s late 1960s descent into the drug subculture, these late writings are dominated by his belief that he had been visited by aliens and that through them he was linked to a meta-religious Vast Active Living Intelligence System, stepping beyond the bounds of classic SF into something informed by theology.  I have always assumed that all the speed that Dick had taken combined with his always fragile mental state had broken his mind by the early 1970s and he never fully recovered.

Thus, Dominic’s comments on Dick’s writing are careless with the facts.  Dick wrote much of his huge body of short stories in the period 1953-1959, and the bulk of his nearly fifty novels from 1952 to 1968.  This was not a product of San Francisco counter culture, not only did Dick not live there was he was agoraphobic and did not get out much.  His writing was influenced by the politics of the time (particularly his negative view of Nixon) but the political paranoia was informed more by the anti-communism of the McCarthy period during which Dick was both investigated and (reportedly) offered the chance to become a double agent.[14]  He became increasingly paranoid that he was under surveillance (he appears to have had propensity for this but it was probably also a side-effect of his amphetamine use).  If Dick’s politics are rooted anywhere, it is rooted in his early 20s liberal response to McCarthyism, a time of life when many of us form our political outlooks.

Dick’s attitude to time travel has something to do with paranoid views, and elements of the meta-religious which was fully expressed in this later writing had long underpinned some of his work.  These combined to create fiction based on the idea that the world of appearance may not be real, and that there may be an underlying reality.  Thus time travel is possible since the world of experience (including the flow of time) is an illusion under which there is a deeper reality.  This is best seen in Dick’s novel Ubik (written 1966, published 1969) where the apparent backwards running of time is (possibly) explained by the people experiencing it being in a virtual reality and the Ubik of the title is a spray that is applied to fix areas where this fabric of unreality is falling apart.  The uncertainty of what is real and what is not is typical of much of Dick’s output.  It is not simply a product of the 1960s, rather Dick is one of the writers who was part of the emergence of such attitudes.

Tomorrow’s Worlds wilfully refuses to address such issues.  Rather the nostalgia for forty-somethings tone continues.  So the main question is not “how has time travel developed within and beyond SF” but “how can we fit in a clip from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Having come to a shaky and unsatisfactory halt in the story that it is telling about time travel, after 27 minutes the programme switches to discuss the idea of visions of the future.  To discuss this Dominic return again to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) although (as with the comments in the “Robots” instalment) nearly every factual statement about the film and its making is wrong.  It was not the case that after visiting New York in 1924 Lang was “inspired”.  Although Lang claimed this himself, plans for the film preceded his visit in October 1924 and some of the designs for the look of the city in Metropolis were already in hand.  Nor is Dominic’s claim that Metropolis was the first feature length SF film true, that accolade probably belongs to the Soviet film Alieta: Queen of Mars (1924).  Nor is the city ruled by rich industrialists, it is ruled by one man Joh Frederson, a father/god/owner of the city.  Nor are the workers’ factories underground, their homes are underground, not the factories.  To point out these errors is not nitpicking, that nearly every factual statement made about the film is wrong suggests that Dominic and the makers of the programme have not bothered to watch the film or carry out the most basic research into how it was made.

Dominic them jumps from this to JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise to suggest that SF has a theme of seeing future dystopian cityscapes as arenas for the collapse of society into class war.  This is certainly not the case in Metropolis where the working class are a geometric mass called into action only by the robotic provocateur acting on the orders of the city’s patriarch, Joh Fredersen, and then pacified by his son and the saintly Maria.  It can be argued that there came a point in SF films in the 1970s where this became dominant, and Bruce Franklin’s study suggests that all films presenting the future after 1970s were dystopian.[15]  There is clearly a case that this became the way that Hollywood used SF, but I would question the degree to which this is more generally true.  There are strong utopian elements in written SF (think, for example, of the Anarcho-socialist society that Marge Piercy describes in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)).  It is questionable whether the Los Angeles of Bladerunner is a dystopia, rather it is a version of now.

Dominic, however, attempts to make dystopia the template for all SF and attempts to force JG Ballard’s High-Rise into that mould.  He sees the book as Ballard’s criticism of 1960s and 1970s architects and planners, whose present-day utopias become “tomorrow’s nightmares”.  The block is “isolated”, a microcosm of class society that leads to class war.  Dominic even links it to his favourite bête-noire, the miseries caused by class struggle in mid-1970s Britain.  He cannot resist slipping in: “If you had been reading High-Rise in the mid seventies, perhaps by candle light during an unscheduled power-cut, you might well have wondered just how far away Ballard’s dystopian future was.”

There are elements of truth in this.  One penthouse at the top of Ballard’s high-rise is occupied by its architect, Anthony Royale.  But this is a post-class society, the lower floors are occupied by “the vanguard to the well-to-do and well-education proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape.”[16]  These are media professionals, doctors and academics.  Their isolation is not imposed by the architecture, but by their own psychology.  Ballard tells us they are, “content with their lives in the high-rise, [they] felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organisations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their purposes … They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with other, and the total self-sufficiency of their lives, needing nothing, were never disappointed.”[17]

It is telling that one of the lead characters in the book is Dr. Robert Laing, whose name echoes the radical psychiatrist Dr. RD (Ronnie) Laing, who from the 1960s argued that it is the world that was mad, the mental problems that people suffered often being the only sane response, RD Laing arguing that the self became divided and that psychiatric practice should seek to reunite these divided selves.[18]  Ballard’s irony is that these new urban landscapes allow a new psychology to emerge, both modern and primitive healing for these divided selves.  As one resident of the block explains to Richard Laing: “It’s a mistake to imagine that we’re all moving towards a state of happy primitivism.  The model here seems to be less of the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection …. Our neighbours had happy childhoods to a man and still feel angry.”[19] (129)  The residents are not imprisoned, they chose to stay, and even while facing violent death and starvation, feel more alive than they ever have (at least, the male characters do, Ballard’s female characters are notoriously underdeveloped).  This is Ballard’s version of the integrated self, integrating aspects of their mind and body in unitary whole that expressed their freedom and autonomy.  It is this concept of freedom not tower blocks, at which Ballard has turned his critical gaze.  It is the idea of small enclosed communities, be that on a piece of land cut off between motorways (Concrete Island (1974)) or an inward-looking suburb (The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)).

Again, in the name of history we are offered no history.  The task of time travel in science fiction is given the most superficial history and is only history in the sense that HG Wells wrote first, then Dr. Who started and then Back to the Future was made.  The idea that time travel in SF has a development, that it changes, is missed out.  A very basic sketch of such a history is what started as a framing device for stories of the future in HG Well’s Time Machine and then became the paradoxical subject matter itself in the time of the pulps, then with the new wave becoming a metaphor for understanding people’s relationship with their own past and future, something that has continued in post-genre SF writing.  But just as this is not developed here, nor is SF’s drive to be both utopian and dystopian.  The overall appraisal of this instalment is that the light that burns twice as glibly lights only half as much, and Dominic has burned so very glibly.

[1] Alkon, Paul K., The Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987)

[2] Alkon (1987), p245

[3] See, for example Section 5, HG Wells, The Time Machine (London: Penguin, 2005 [1895]), pp47-49.

[4] John Partington (2011)  “H. G. Wells and Population Control: From a Eugenic Public Policy to the Eugenics of Personal Choice” (accessed 21/01/2015)

[5] See, for example, Paul J. Nahin, Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics and Science Fiction (Second Edition, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1999).

[6]  The story can be read at : [accessed 28/12/2014]

[7] Can be read here:

[8] Can be read here: [accessed 28/12/2014]

[9] Adam Roberts, Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom (London: Routledge, 2000), p93.  Sadly, Roberts gives no reference for this significant piece of information.

[10] Julian Sancton, “Time Out Of Mind”, Movieline,  September 27, 2012, [accessed 28/12/2014].

[11] Lawrence Sutin,, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (n.p.: Citadel Twilght, c.1989), pp96ff

[12] Ibid., p158.

[13] Ibid.,  p165

[14] Ibid., pp83-84

[15] H. Bruce Franklin, “Visions of the Future in Science Fiction Films from 1970 to 1982″ in Annette Kuhn, Alien Zone (London: Verso, 1990).

[16] JG Ballard, High-Rise (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975).p97.

[17] Ibid. p42

[18] RD Laing, The Divided Self (London: Penguin, 1990 [1960])

[19] Ballard (1975), p129.

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The Shape of Things to Come


I will be posting a review of the last part of the BBC2 series Tomorrow’s World: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction, “Time Travel”, in the next few days, probably a little after Christmas.  This was very thin stuff.  Much as though I like Groundhog Day and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure neither is science fiction in any meaning sense, and Dominic Sandbrook’s further comments on Metropolis have convinced me that he has not bothered to watch the film.

This will be followed up sometime in January with a piece that will integrate the contents of all four reviews into one overall article that will draw out the patterns and delete the repetitions.  I will also take the chance to remove some of the too-hasty judgements and deepen some of the analysis and relationship to existing writing on science fiction in literature, TV and film.  Unless something remarkable crops up, its conclusion are likely to be:

  1. This is not a history, indeed it wilfully ignores the history of SF, particularly the importance of the pulps from the 1920s onwards and then the division of written SF into hard SF and the new wave from the late 1950s.
  2. In the place of history there is a narrative that focuses on the clips from a number of films and interviews with (largely second order) participants in the production of those films. This is overtly popularist, with the films chosen not form their impact or importance on the genre but their retrospectively understood popular appeal.
  3. On top this Dominic Sandbrook places an analysis that suggest that SF is a response to social and political changes in society. This makes SF appear as merely a reactive reflection, rather than (as it is in some cases) part of the cultural invention that redefines the way in which people see themselves, the world and their place in it.

I will be seeking to publish this piece (which might weigh in at around 12,000 words) so if anyone wants it for their publication, drop me a line.

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The Stepford Historian

helm as robot

A review of Tomorrow’s Worlds: An Unearthly History of Science Fiction.  Part 3, “robots”.  First broadcast on BBC2 8th December 2014.

Watching and trying to make sense of the third part of Tomorrow’s Worlds it occurred to me that I might be trying to make more sense of it than I should.  This was, after all, mainly a series of clips from Hollywood blockbusters and a few TV shows peppered with the odd reference to a book where the programmes makers could slot it in.

Over this, a narrative has been created by Dominic Sandbrook, who does not take science fiction (and perhaps history in general) very seriously.  There is no sense that SF has its own development as a genre of literary fiction, and somewhat separately a genre in other media particularly film.  Rather, Dominic deals with SF as entirely a reflection of the world around it.  This is compounded by his adherence to popular history, a coupling in which the popular wins and reduces history to pandering to nostalgia and thus burying the past rather than uncovering it.  For sure we start with a work of literary fiction (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus( 1818)), moving swiftly through the silent film Metropolis (1927) and Forbidden Planet (1956), but the focus is on modern films made in a twenty-three year envelope, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972) Star Wars (1977 onwards), Blade Runner (1982),The Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), The Matrix (1999) and AI (2001) along with a little TV (the Six Million Dollar Man (1973 to 1978) and bit of Dr. Who (episodes from 1967 and 2006 or thereabouts) and the second version of Battlestar Galatia (2003-2012).  A Clockwork Orange (a little isolated here, not being about robots and is not placed with a current of SF that looks at the control of people through technology) is dealt with as both book (1962) and film (1971), and there is an honourable mention of Brian Aldiss’s “Super-toys Last All Summer Long” (1969) and a cursory mention of other books that were the basis of films such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) which was, very loosely, the basis for Blade Runner.  Beyond Frankenstein, only William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is treated as a book in its own right and even that is dealt with as a teaser for The Matrix.

If I were asked to contribute to a series on SF the first thing that I would do is immerse myself in the historical writing.  The naiveté of Dominic’s comments suggest he has not.  Rather, he appears to have decided in advance on his conclusion (SF reflects the hopes, but more commonly, the anxieties of its time) and then structures and interprets (and shoehorns and edits) everything in that light.  What a decent historian would do is to look at the material and attempt to discern the patterns, development and dynamics in it (or at least borrow someone else’s).  So if one looks at the fantastic new Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, edited by Guy Haley, you would get a clear periodisation (forerunners; 1920-1950, ‘”The days of pulp”; 1950-1970, “The day of the atom: the marvels and peril of science”; 1970-1990, “dark futures”; 1990 onwards, “modern SF”).  One has to argue with any periodisation (that’s the fun of them), but it gives the book a clear framework.  Adam Roberts’ valuable histories too offer a periodisation, although he is mainly concerned with the written word.[1]  There is no hint of such a conceptual framework or idea that SF has developed over time, that it has a history, in Tomorrow’s Worlds.

The programme starts, as it probably has to, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Dominic’s comments on Frankenstein constitute the analytic heart of the programme, or rather portrays the shifting chaos as the programme lurches from one clip to the next without any clear notion of what holds them together.  As he says in the programme, he thinks that Shelley’s theme is “the awful responsibility of creation … the unending tension between man and machine” and  “the extraordinary potential of science and the moral dilemmas implicit in our desire to play God”.  He even thinks that Shelley has an “anti-scientific bias”.  It is easy to get Frankenstein wrong since the creature has become a horror staple (and indeed it is easy to see SF as a sub-genre of horror, particularly if too much emphasis is given to the science fiction horror films, most notably of John Carpenter).

Dominic is right to distance Shelley’s book from the James Whale horror film Frankenstein (1931), a fine film that helped define the horror genre.  It is reasonable to call this SF, the creature is the product of science.  But this is an early SF story, and after its creation there is no more science in the book.  As far as the overall story is concerned it could have been a golem made from clay.  There are other antecedents for robot fiction as this time.  Particularly, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Der Sandmann”(1814) which contains a mechanical women, who goes on to feature in Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffman (1881).  The intellectual setting of Shelley’s book is not science, but is part of the radical wave of thought after the French Revolution (her mother who she never knew was Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminists, her father, William Godwin holds a similar seminal position in the history of anarchist thought).  As Ursula Le Guin points out on the programme, Shelley does not judge science, rather she judges Victor Frankenstein.  There is a strong theory that one element of Shelley’s thought was that her husband (the poet Percy Byshe Shelley) refusal to take any interest in their still born child.  More importantly, the theme of the creature as Adam/Satan expelled from Eden by God must be understood in term of Shelley’s probable atheism.  This is a humanist parable about us taking our lives from the gods, it is not simply about one man.  It is not, unfortunately for Dominic who  states that the story has an “anti-science bias”, strongly about the science.

Dominic suggests that there was a surge in interest in robots in the 1920s and that this was fuelled by the mechanisation of industry and the fear amongst workers that they would be displaced.  The problem with this claim is that the evidence that he uses to back it up with is riddled with errors, some inconsequential and some not.  There are two works in the 1920s that Dominic thinks show this fear of the machine becoming manifest in the fear of the robot, Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920), the Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis.

There are careless errors in what Dominic says about Čapek.  He did not coin the word ‘robot’ but credited his brother and frequent co-writer, Joseph Čapek, who probably first use the word in 1917.  He did not coin it in 1921 (the year the play was first performed) but in 1920 (the year the play was written).[2]  These small errors demonstrate a carelessness with the facts which is not confined to such inconsequential matters.  Particularly, Dominic describes the robots of RUR as “mechanical”, they are in fact artificial organic life forms, which in modern parlance we would consider to be genetically engineered biological life forms.  These are not a response to the development of the production line.  Dominic is not wrong to point out that “robot” means “forced labour”, but there is more to it than that.  As Adam Roberts has pointed out, it comes from a form of Czech feudal servitude that was abolished in 1848.  The name of the company comes from the Czech word for “reason” (rozum).[3]  This is not a dystopian allegory about man being conquered.   The play’s resolution is exactly the robot becoming human and a new Adam and Eve walking out in the world.

Metropolis: (The film itself has a confused history, with the extant prints being a version rewritten and re-edited under the US screenwriter Channing Pollock from 1927, and a heavily censored version of the German release from 1936.  In 2008 a near complete copy of the original film was found in Argentina.  This along with other found archival material was the basis of a near complete restoration of the original film.  If anything, Dominic’s reading of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is even more confused, so much so that I suspect that he has not seen the film.  He talks about the robot being called ‘Maria’, which it is not (in the German film it is referred to the Maschinenmensch).  Maria is a central character in the film, the leader of the workers.  The robot is given the appearance of Maria to mislead the workers.  The false-Maria lead the workers to their destruction, as Dominic suggests, but leads them in to destroying the machinery of Metropolis and the flooding of the underground city where the workers live (the real Maria saves the children from the waters).

The symbolism of the robot in the film not about fear of technology. The robot is modelled on Freder’s mother (the wife of Joh Frederson), Hel.  The builder of the robot, Rotwang, was also infatuated with her.  Thus there is a decidedly Freudian element to Freder’s mother taking the form of the object of his desire.  The robot’s role in leading the workers to destroy the machines is not as an autonomous agent but as the instrument of the will of the owner/ruler/father Joh Federson.   When the workers burn the false-Maria at the end of the film as a witch, exposing its true metallic form, they do not seem particularly interested and see it as more evidence that she was a witch.  Dominic states that “[False] Maria is the embodiment of our fear of the machine”, it is rather the embodiment of this mother, which has be symbolically destroyed before he can consummate his desire for the real Maria.

It is certainly true that the film shows the dehumanising impact of modern production, but this is shown by the relationship between the workers and the machines, with the workers moving mechanically and becoming dominated by the machines.  At one point the hero Freder appears to be crucified on the machine he is operating, and at another point he hallucinates the machines as Moloch, a god that demands child sacrifice, and here consuming the workers.  But the film does not contextualise this as anti-technology, the city of Metropolis is presented as a marvel, but as a critique of class with the workers being banished from these marvels in a subterranean city (the idea had already been use in the Soviet SF film, Aleita: Queen of Mars (1924)).  HG Wells famously attacked the film not being what he considered proper SF but rather carefully researched futurology.  As Tom Gunning has argued, in a certain sense he was right.[4]  The film is present minded, it was a hyper-realistic view of contemporaneous Berlin art, architecture and above all class, as well as being past-minded with the city being built on the catacombs where the workers meet, the cathedral and the visions of death and Moloch that Freder has.  Indeed, Gunning suggests that the central conflict in the film is between modernism and the gothic, between science and magic.[5]

In many ways Metropolis is the opposite of Frankenstein.  In Shelley’s book man must take responsibility as his own creator in a godless world, in Metropolis (particularly in the novel that Thea von Harbou wrote at the same time as the script) Joh Fredersen is not only the father of Freder, and master of the city but he is an old-testament God who wishes to see his city destroyed so his Christ-son can rebuild it with new-testament harmony.  Neither, however, is about robots as symbols of a fear of the machine age.  Similarly, although neither RUR nor Metropolis is particularly left-wing in the views that they put across, both are about societies divided by class (although in the case of Metropolis, this is nothing to do with robots).

Thus, the idea that robots in the 1920s were used as symptoms of people’s mistrust of technology is not substantiated by the two examples that Dominic gives.  Just because he fails to prove the point, this does not mean that it is not true.  So what of other fictional robots of the period, what do they show?

The first twentieth century robot was in Gustav Le Rouge’s series La Conspiration des Milliardaires (1899-1900) which feature an innocent man whose brain is put into a robot after he is guillotined so he can hunt down his (evil) killers.  Then there is Tiktok (a.k.a Tik-Tok), the clockwork ‘machine man’ in L. Frank Baum’s third Oz book Ozma of Oz.[6]  Tiktok is mechanical and without emotion, but is also an absolutely benign servant.

There are less benign stories.  To be sure, in Ambrose Bierce’s short story ‘Moxon’s Master’[7] an automaton chess player strangles its inventor, but the story is very slight and without clear implications.  The author of The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux, wrote two works that featured robot-ish creatures.  La Poupée Sanglante (the Bloody Doll)[8] (1923) and its sequel La machine à assassiner (the murdering machine)[9] (1923) which feature the brain of a framed and executed man in a mechanical body seeking revenge on the guilty.

It was only with the arrival of the “pulp” SF magazines of the 1920s that the robot story began to take off,[10] firstly with Edmond Hamilton ‘The Metal Giants’ (1926).  I don’t know what this story involves, but Hamilton’s most famous robots are the good guys.  In Captain Future (1940-1951) the eponymous hero is aided by a brain-in-a-box, a robot and a synthetic android called Simon, Grag and Otho respectively.  They are the marvels of science used for good.

There are negative portrayals of robots that begin to emerge by 1930.  S. Fowler Wright was a British SF writer who is now little remembered, but was one of the few keeping the tradition going in the inter-war years although unusually for an SF writer he took a negative view of technological progress, and is one writer who fits Dominic’s thesis well.  Many of his stories are apocalyptic, and this is certainly the case with his 1929 short story ‘Automata’.[11]   Here mankind is not simply conquered by machines but ultimately accepts that artificial life is superior as they die out.

The story could go on.  The point is that there is no substance to Dominic’s claim that the dominant view of robots before Asimov was a ‘mistrust of the mechanical’.  Certainly, on the evidence I can muster, the reverse was true.  If there was a distrust, it was of what people would do with machines (Metropolis) but it was common to find the idea that these machines could be a force for good (Captain Future).  Where the machine did destroy man it was often because they were superior, something not confined to machines.  This superiority could also be invaders (War of the Worlds), artificial life-forms (RUR) or mechanical robots (Automata).  But humanity’s defeat at the hands of the robots was not the only story that SF told in this period, or even the main one.

At this point in the programme, Dominic does a flip.  He suggests that after the second world war under the dual influences of the robotophilic writings of Isaac Asimov and the automation of many tasks of household labour in the USA, a much more accepting attitude to robots developed.  Thus, the appearance of the avuncular Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956), the servant to the planet’s two occupants, Dr Morbius and his daughter, Altaira.  It is wrong, however, to treat Robby as a prototype for Rosie the robotic maid in The Jetsons (1962-1963).  Robby is armed, although programmed not to harm people in the style of Asimov, although he does disarm some of the characters in the film and is apparently willing to use force to stop them passing an entrance it is guarding.  Aside from a manner styled on a butler, it has no personality and plays no role in the development of the plot of the film.  It is one of Dr. Morbius’s technological wonders, but structurally in the film it is an ornament.

What Robby is, is a robot-servant in the mould of Tiktok in contrast with the self-aware autonomous robots of Asimov and Eando Binder’s Adam Link stories (1939-1942).  Tomorrow’s World does make the perceptive point that Robby was an attempt to make robots less humanoid, but it would have been interesting to have more material on the way that this developed, particularly through their representation in illustrations in the pulps.

The importance of Forbidden Planet for the development of SF in film lies not in its representation of robots but in how the technology interacts with the human character.  Broadly, Forbidden Planet can be considered to be an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Dr. Morbius and Altaira standing for Prospero and Miranda.  This casts some light on the way that science is used in the film as modern magic.  In The Tempest Prospero is a magician stranded on an island who uses his power to control both a good spirit (Ariel) and a corrupt create (Caliban) who are native to the island.  In Forbidden Planet the spirit Ariel is replaced by Robby.  Where the film departs from The Tempest is that there is no Caliban, rather the evil in the film is the projection of Dr. Morbius’s subconscious by the advanced technology of the planet’s long extinct inhabitants.  Forbidden Planet thus has the same odd mixture of science as magic and Freudian ideas (although these are much less developed in Forbidden Planet).  The robots are a product of this science/sorcery.

In some ways, this places Forbidden Plant in a tradition that stretches back to an early science fiction classic overlooked in this series, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).  This story of the unleashing of the repressed bestial wide of Jekyll’s personality has clear parallels to Forbidden Planet.  It is odd that this is not developed in the programme, since it does touch on concerns of altered human states in its discussion of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of it (1972) (these certainly belong in the discussion here, although there is little science in the story, they are dystopian views of a not-too-distant future).  This theme of the control of people in future/parallel society is not developed any further, although an interesting discussion could be had about Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World and, perhaps pushing the definition of SF beyond its limit, George Orwell’s 1984.  This is not, I suspect, simply a symptom of the anti-literary bias of this series, but of its anti-political bias.  However, it is a major theme in much SF that the powerful in society might use technology to control us (or already do) and although this is mentioned (Omni Corp in RoboCop), this theme is not developed at all.  But as Per Schelde has argued in his book Androids, Humanoids and Other Folklore Monsters (1993), various forms of corporate power have become the main villains in many modern SF works.

Instead of such a discussion, the programme becomes bogged down in what shape robots are.  It is a little obvious that 3-CPO is modelled on the Maschinenmensch of Metropolis.  What is not spelt out is that Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s designs for the Maschinenmensch drew not on any scientific source, but German art deco sculpture, particularly Rudolf Belling’s Skulptur 23 and Oskar Schlemmer’s Abstract Figur.[12]

We are also told that the drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie, in Silent Running (1972) had non-humanoid robots that inspired R2-D2.  All of this is true, but through this Dominic imposes an entirely fallacious narrative, arguing that because the film’s depiction of robot from 1956 to 1978 has been Robby, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and R2-D2 and 3-CPO, the depiction of robots in films by 1982 had become positively cuddly, and thus the arrival of The Terminator in 1984 presented a shift.  However, there were plenty of evil robots prior to The Terminator’s T-800, even if Dominic sees fit to ignore them.  Even if we look only at films in the 1970s we have robots turning on human’s in Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1975); The Stepford Wives (1975) in which the eponymous women are replaced by compliant robots; Demon Seed (1977) in which on A.I. computer imprisons and rapes a women to reproduce; Black Hole (1979) has a human commander and a robot commanding a ship manned by the lobotomised bodies of its previous crew; and Saturn 3 has a homicidal robot on the loose in a space station.[13]  This latter robot looks a lot like the fleshless T-800 seen at the end of The Terminator.

It is simply not the case that robots have ever been universally cuddly, and I think that Dominic is simply talking about one piece of SF he is familiar with, Star Wars, and over-generalising from it.  I would suggest (as a tentative hypothesis rather than a fully supported theory) that Star Wars was part of a movement away from the mechanical Robby the Robot to anthropomorphised beings.  Thus, Tomorrow’s Worlds makes the point that both Douglas Trumbull in Silent Running and George Lucas in Star Wars thought it important to have actors inside the robots.  The implications of this point are not developed, but what it leads to is that even the non-human non-speaking R2-D2 shows human traits.  This desire to make robots more like humans in films is best shown by the move from the cold killing of T-800 in The Terminator to the learning-to-be-human T-800 of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992).  The evil robot with its emotionless death ray eyes is now has a retro, comic book feel: two of the more recent not examples of robots in film that I can recall being the omnidroids in the Pixar superhero film, The Incredibles (2004) the eponymous robots in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).  I would suggest (still in tentative mode) that this is not part of a move away from dystopian, action or horror SF films, but because organic foe can be darker, slimier and more otherworldly than a shiny, inflexible, lumbering robot.  CGI makes organic beasties easier to represent on the screen.  It is thus one of the more reasonable points that Dominic makes that particularly the androids and cyborgs are now more frequently used to question what it is to be human (or perhaps, what it is to live), but again he over generalises

The narrative that Dominic places around The Terminator is unconvincing in other ways too.  He claims that the overarching intelligence in the future society, SkyNet, is a reflection of the Strategic Defence Initiative (a.k.a  “Star Wars”).  This is certainly possible, SDI was first announced during a speech made by the US President Ronald Reagan in March 1983, while Terminator was scripted in 1982 and 1983.  But the two systems have little in common.  SDI was a proposed early-warning counter missile defence system which many saw as making nuclear war  more likely since it would create the illusion that it was winnable and undermined the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.  The fictional SkyNet put the nukes in the hand of computers to strengthen the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (a similar idea can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1962)).  So Dominic’s linkage of SkyNet and SDI reflected a heightened anxiety about nuclear weapons as the Cold War ratcheted up in the early 1980s.  But again Dominic shows his poor knowledge of SF since the idea of the super-intelligent controlling computer system is an SF trope with a longer pedigree, most famously in Jean Luc Goddard’s Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965).  It is very notable, that Metropolis aside, the series entirely ignores such non-Anglophone SF.

In a rare excursion of looking at a book without a TV or film adaptation, the programme does (rightly) find time for William Gibbon’s Neuromancer.  Again, Dominic finds it necessary to attempt to make SF a reaction to technological change, particular the fear of its rise of digital technology (and confuses the idea of the internet in general, which has been outlined by Arthur C. Clarke in a non-fiction article in 1970) and the idea of cyberspace.  As Gibson himself has commented, the word cyberspace as he used it in the early 1980s was “evocative and essentially meaningless”, it was not a technological predication but a musing about forms of shared consciousness in other realities.[14]  Dominic suggests that Gibson’s great achievement is to write a book that is fundamentally about people, but for me that misses the point about what the best SF does.  It uses a fictional alternate reality (defined by its science, social institutions or even nature) to tell a story that would not be possible without it.  Thus, in Neuromancer, the possibility of consciousness existing in two planes, reality and cyberspace, is a story that could not be told in a naturalistic setting.

The writer who Gibson looks to most as an inspiration in this is William Burroughs, and it is no coincidence that both develop their ideas while taking bucket loads of drugs.  Philip K. Dick, another prolific drug-user,[15] shared some of these concerns with false realities in Time Out of Joint (1959) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).  Sadly, Dick’s body and mind were both ultimately damaged by the drugs, and he came to believe in the literal truth of this false reality, reflected in his difficult (and to my mind broken) late VALIS books (1981).  The work of Burroughs, Dick and Gibson all make the Matrix series seem pretty weak stuff.  But Tomorrow’s Worlds is fixation with the false-SF world of the Hollywood blockbuster, and the programme ends up with a long interview with someone who made the tea on the set of The Matrix (which is very unfair to Owen Paterson who I am sure is a fine artistic director, but really, is that the best they can do?).

Which brings us back to the conclusion of this instalment.  This sums up Dominic’s three themes that he has developed: that science fiction monsters started out as scary (Frankenstein’s creature, false-Maria), became cuddly in the middle (Robby, 3-CPO) before becoming scary again at the other end (The Terminator).  Secondly, this reflected fear of technology in industrialisation in the 1920s, the rise of the digital age in the 1980s but not the nuclear age of the post-war period (which quite contradicts the view that he has expressed elsewhere that people where most fearful of technology at the height of the Cold War).  And lastly, that it is this fear of technology that drives science fiction.  It is this last thought that perhaps we should end on.  Does anyone who has ever read any science fiction believe that its animus is fear of science?  No, rather it is a question of what people and society will do with it.  Again, Dominic’s ignorance of SF seems near complete.

[1] See Adam Roberts, A History of Science Fiction (New edition, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2006) and Science Fiction (The New Critical Introduction) (Rutledge: Abingdon, 2005).

[2] ‘Who did actually invent the word “robot” and what does it mean?’, http://Č [accessed 10/12/2014]

[3] Adam Roberts, “Introduction” in Karel Čapek, RUR and War with the Newts (London: Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2011).

[4] Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: BFI, 2000).

[5] Gunning, pp66=67

[6] The book can be read here: [accessed 10/12/2014]

[7] The story can be read at [Accessed 10/12/2014]

[8] Can be read in French) here: [accessed 10/12/2014]

[9] Can be read (in French) here:

[10] For a thorough listing, see Alan Roseanne’s list here:

[11] Can be read here: [accessed 10/12/2014]

[12] ref

[13] Can be seen at

[14] Scott Thill, ‘William Gibson, Father of Cyberspace, Wire,  17/03/2011, [Accessed 11/12/2014]

[15] Philip Purser-Halyard, The Drugs Did Work, The Guardian (online), 12/8/2006, [accessed 11/12/2014]

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I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe (but only if you haven’t been to the cinema in the last thirty years)


Review of the latest installment of Dominic’s “history” of SF, “Robots”,  (it really not just a collection of clips from films and interviews with some interesting, and some not so interesting, people involved) will be posted here on Tuesday (OK, Wednesday).  You may hold any breath you have.

[Image from the Boston Lyric Opera production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman (1881) featuring Olympia, a “mechanical doll”.  This was in turn based on Hoffman’s story, “The Sandman” (1816).]

[This will be up on Saturday morning now, got a bit interested and decided I needed to read Rossum’s Universal Robots and watch the restored version of Metropolis.  This is rather ironic since I don’t believe that Dominic bothered to do either before standing up on TV and opining to millions, whereas my audience is in the hundreds (or thousands at best), but it is the principle of the thing.]

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The Profane Invasion or: How I Stopped Caring and Learned to love Steven Spielberg.


Review of Tomorrow’s Worlds: the Unearthly History of Science Fiction.  2: Invasion.  First Broadcast on BBC, 29th November 2014.

I have to admit that I found the second programme in the Tomorrow’s Worlds series rather dull.  The selection of material was obvious, most explanations trite.  Or rather, the only explanation offered is that these invasion stories “reflected the anxieties of their day” which is sometimes true and often not true.  The structuring is a little better than the first instalment, working with a rough chronological narrative starting with HG Wells War of the Worlds (1898) weaving through a number of themes (invasion, alien infiltration, a diversion on British TV, invaders of human creation, a diversion on the X-files and aliens as a metaphor for racial and ethnic conflict).  Pointedly, the programme finds no room for humanity invading the planets of others (Dominic has already rudely dismissed the content of Avatar in the previous episode as visually stunning but otherwise “Dances with Wolves in space”).  Thus there is no room for Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) with its story of humanity’s colonisation of the already inhabited Mars with some strong parallels of colonialism on Earth.

That The Martian Chronicles are ignored is indicative not just of the strong apolitical current in the series, but this instalment’s near complete focus on film with a secondary concern for TV.  The only work of literature that was the primary focus of attention was War of the Worlds, although quickly moving onto the 1953 George Pal/Byron Haskin film.  Other than this the only literary works that are mentioned are as brief introductions to films that were based on them.  Other than this, there is no literary dimension at all (and no room for Jeff Wayne’s 1978 concept album, War of the Worlds, which was a huge relief).

Dominic’s discussion of Wells’ War of the Worlds is not convincing.  He places it in the context of the anti-German (and, of a degree, anti-French) jingoistic literature (although he is careful to say that the novel goes beyond this genre, but leaves out precisely how it goes so unsaid).  The first example of this genre was George Tomkyns The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer (1871) wherein an unnamed but very Prussian country invades Britain.  Because of Britain’s lack of preparedness, it is defeated leading to its annexation and the break-up of the Empire.  The book, like others in the genre, is exactly as Dominic describes, fuelled by a belief in Britain’s military weakness and a call for rearmament.  In the years that followed this became an increasingly popular genre, particularly through the work of William Le Queux, most noted for the Franco-Russian invasion fantasy The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) and the anti-German invasion fantasy The Invasion of 1910 (1906).

It is wrong to suggest, as Dominic appears to, that War of the Worlds is part of this genre.  Certainly, Wells borrows from Chesney: the alien invasion in Wells’ book starts in Woking, a few miles away from the Dorking of Chesney’s book.  This device (to which Dominic alludes several times) of placing war in a familiar suburban setting, predates its SF usage.  Wells was also to borrow from Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (1906) for his own War in the Air (1908),[1] thus proving that all science fiction writers steal their ideas, and only when this proves impossible do they resort to the sneaky practice of making their ideas up.[2]

Dominic states that Wells did not share the Jingoism of such authors, but leaves the idea hanging in the air that he too was concerned about the stability of the British Empire.  This is in line with Dominic’s refrain through the series, that SF reflects the anxieties and hopes of the age.  This is dull and reductionist view which at best is half-truth.  What Wells, Chesney and Le Queax have in common is that they are writing speculative history and it is likely that anyone writing this will have some kind of political agenda.  Why else show possible futures?  The difference between them is exactly their political intent, and Wells was the opposite of that of the jingos.  There are many strands in Wells’ War of the Worlds, but it is almost impossible not to read it as, at least in part, a critique of British and European colonialism with its destruction, disregard for life, enslavement and importation of alien crops (the Martian’s “red weed”).[3]  Unlike many late Victorian social democrats and progressive liberals, at the time of writing War of the Worlds Wells was no supporter of the Empire and thought it worthless unless it formed the basis of a world government.  Certainly, by the time of the First World War, Wells was clearly for the dissolution of Empire and the end of the subordination of colonial peoples[4]

The problem is that Wells’ political book is confused with the apolitical 1952 film adaptation.  Dominic states that the end of the film is true to the end of Wells’ book, in that the aliens are killed not by human endeavour but by earthly bacterial infections, and while the film does quote Wells’ line that the Martians were defeated “by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth,” notably the element of the feeling of religious deliverance is common to the book and the film.  What is lacking in the film is the book’s political message, understated as it is, that in order to face an uncertain future earth most be united in its common humanity.

Just as Dominic attempts to put Wells’ book in the context of the tensions leading to the First World War (Wells did this much more in his War in the Air (1908)), he continues to see future alien invasion films as responses to the fear of real war.  He goes on to report that Orson Welles’ 1938 Radio production of War of the Worlds caused panic in the USA because of the existing tension in the USA about the build up to war in Europe.  This is taken as more evidence of SF reflecting the “anxieties of our times”.  There are only two things wrong with this.  Firstly, as Joseph Campbell has shown in his Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (2010) the impact of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast has been hugely inflated, and while some listeners were disturbed by it there was no mass panic.[5]

Secondly, the level of anxiety over the war in the USA, while often cited in connection with the Welles broadcast[6] is overstated.  While there was a degree of anxiety in the USA, not just over the situation in Europe but of Japan’s action in the Pacific, I can find little evidence that this had a decisive impact on US public opinion at that time other than accepting that the USA should build up its military resources as a preventative measure.[7]  Fear of the possibility of a return to depression was a much greater fear.[8]  (The USA in the 1930s is far from being my area of expertise, so if anyone can give me further guidance here it would be appreciated).

As with a broken clock being right twice a day, sometimes Dominic’s analysis hits home.  It is difficult not to read the 1953 film version of War of the Worlds as Cold War anxiety.  Indeed the film makes the point before the opening credits; it follows footage of the destruction of the two world wars not with the threat of the third world war, but a war of the worlds fought with the weapons of “super-science”.  But by taking the analysis up to Independence Day (1996) it is unclear what the present day anxiety might be.  The mid-nineties was the nadir of anxiety, the heyday of a post Soviet world, where the USA had flexed its military might in its first major post-Vietnam operation in a limited policing operation in Kuwait.  The USA was now a hyperpower basking in the new world order a fin de histoire legitimacy.  The film can be read as a reassertion of individual masculinity, and an unabashed call for the US to use its superpower status in a masculine way.  Dominic’s reading of the tone of the film as hubristic is fair enough, but this does not explain why the film was made as it was.  The film is filled with cinematic clichés and ones that ignore Wells’ key point that once a species can build space ships and cover huge distances to reach us, if they want a fight they are unlikely to lose.  The plot is riddled with holes and is so implauible to make it unworthy of serious consideration as SF.  Rather, it is Top Gun with aliens.

Dominic then moves on to an alien infiltration film.  Here, Dominic is right to be cautious about reading Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a straight reds-under-the-bed parable, since (as he suggests) the evidence is that (like all good story telling) this is far wider in its story of the fear of losing individuality which could be read as a Stepford Wives (1975) style criticism of US society.  He is much less sure-footed with his reading of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and the film adaptation of it, The Village of the Damned (1960).  Dominic sees these as a reaction to the youth rebellion and the growing feeling of a generation gap in Britain.  I am not sure what the evidence for this might be.  The limited disorder around the film Blackboard Jungle and “Teddy Boys” was in May 1955, and may have influenced the writing of the Midwich Cuckoos, published in October 1957.  But the children in the book are no teddy boys, they are demure, polite, over-worldly, self-controlled and anything but wild.  Their power is in their minds, not their fists.  If it was a metaphor it was one that no-one picked up on at the time, or since.  The themes that run through the book are altogether different.  As Dominic comments (quite rightly) elsewhere in the programme, it was the Notting Hill riots of 1958 that shook people up (and the first literary expression of this followed, most notably Colin McInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959)).  More generalised anxiety about youth rebellion and the generation gap is really a 1960s phenomenon.

The themes of the Midwich Cuckoos are those of morally ambiguous choice (humanity is saved only by a savage choice of the local intellectual who has won the children’s trust to kill them in a suicide bombing).  As Dan Rebellato points out in a notable essay on Wyndham, the book can also be read as a struggle between men and women.[9]  There is no evidence that the book is informed, either consciously or sub-consciously, by the fear of growing intergenerational conflict.  There is a some discussion of The Thing from Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s remake, The Thing (1982) but these are more horror films with an SF slant.  But by this point the programme lapses into being little more than a series of clips of well known films.

The distinct impression is given that Stephen Spielberg is the most important SF auteur with time spent on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T (1982) and Jurassic Park(1993).  There are, amongst this, some important points where the material bears up to the explanations offered up.  So the discussion of Godzilla as reflecting Japan’s wartime experience of nuclear bombing is fair enough.  As John Landis puts it “All monster are metaphors.  Godzilla is the most obvious one”

Nowhere does the selection of material become worse than with the section on aliens to Earth as migrants, with its potential to act as a metaphor of racism and xenophobia.  Two of the films picked to look at this are poor choices, Alien Nation  (1988) attempts to look at racial politics in the USA though human-Alien encounters.  This is remarkable only in that it mimics the inter-racial police buddy film Lethal Weapon (1987) without being as good (or the cop-convict variant 48 Hours (1981)).  Alien Nation deals with race less well through its heavy handed and obvious metaphor than many other films already had through a naturalistic means (think of comedy’s record in Blazing Saddles (1974) and The Jerk(1979))  Worse, the programme then moves onto The Men in Black (1997), before only returning briefly to something of any quality in the South African film District 9.

This does not add up to a great deal, and I skim past this since here it is the structure of the programme that is at fault, leaving Dominic with very little to comment about.  But the problem is not fundamentally his.

The point is where there is substantial material to work with, nothing is made of it.  This series purports to be a history of science fiction, but it is not.  “Invasion” has its moments where it could have started to do this.  HG Wells took the conventions of the imperialistic anti-German and anti-French future-war novels of the late Victorian period and turned these right-wing speculative fictions on their head (as Dominic states at the last, but no analysis is built around this) with a political work that can be taken as a critique of colonialism.  (Or perhaps the aliens can be seen as our future selves.  Wells was influenced by eugenics, and this is a man grown heartless in a society that selects for callousness: without a rational global society this is what man might become).  A similar point is made about Daleks, they are fictional tin-pot dictators based only on our own inhumanity, a point that is stated but then not woven into a compelling narrative in any way.

The largest failing is that the series fails to take SF itself seriously.  Whereas in the first programme it did at least have the virtue of introducing the casual viewer to a side of SF that they may not have known.  Particularly it looked as the anthropological and sociological worksof Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson, but this instalment was a compendium of the predictable and well known.  That we have three Spielberg films is a give-away, this is a history of the blockbuster.  Missing was the concept of SF as a genre in fiction.  It was one that moved from the popularist comic books and quickly written pulp-fiction of the 1930s  (although much transcended its genre and their were outliers), to one that split in the late 1950s into the less science driven literary and social new wave (Michael Moorcock, JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss and perhaps Philip K. Dick) and the more science driven hard core (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert A. Heinlein).  Explaining this would have set up some idea that there is an internal dynamics to SF as a literary form.  This could then be used in tandem with looking at it in relation to the existing social world it relates to (although to assume it reflects it is simplistic).  The way that both sides of this split have informed SF on film and TV since the 1960s could them give the series conceptually some underpinning, it could challenge the viewer rather than comfort them with clips of the familiar and often bland.

This is an opportunity not so much wasted, as one that has been abused, shot and dumped in a popularist ditch.

[1] See Simon James, “Introduction” in H.G Wells, The History of Mr. Polly (London: Penguin, 2005).

[2] Naturally, I have stolen this line from Brian Stableford Space, Time, and Infinity: Essays on Fantastic Literature (n.p: Borgo, 2007), pp9-10.

[3] See, for example, John Rieder Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008) p10.

[4] Partington, John, ‘H.G. Wells: A Political Life’ in Utopian Studies, 19.3 (2008)

[5] A view supported by Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow, “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic”

[6] Ref

[7] ref

[8] ref

[9] “John Wyndham: The unread bestseller”, Guardian Books Blog, 20th December 2010 []

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Tomorrow’s World: Invasion


I will be reviewing this week’s helping soon.  Hopefully up sometime on Monday.

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Gender, religion and estate agents in science fiction

religion and sci fi

Dominic Sandbrook speaks to the nation on science fiction.  Some reflections, BBC Radio 4, Start the Week 24th September 2014.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

(Ursual Le Guin, speaking at the National Book Awards, 2014)[1]

The latest edition of Start the Week[2] had an intriguing line up of guests: the seminal fiction novelist William Gibson and the less well known Michel Faber both of whose works includes science fiction; the academic Judy Wajcman who has previously written about feminism and technology and whose new book examines the way that capitalism makes technological change a force over people’s lives rather than a straight-forward libratory force; and Dominic.

Dominic struggled to get a word in, although he did initiate one of the more interesting discussions in the programme about the way that technology is sold now is pervasive in a way that it has not been in the past, he only did so by saying the opposite.  And typically, this was at the end of the programme and the idea was left hanging like an unfulfilled promise.  What is notable is that nearly everything that Dominic said specifically about science fiction was wrong.  I will highlight three points he made here.

Science fiction speculates in a way that other forms of fiction cannot.

Dominic’s first mistake was to suggest that it is science fiction’s ability to be speculative that defines it.  For example, he argued, it is hard to explore the “what ifs” of gender in a more naturalistic form of literature.  Sticking with the example of gender, there is clearly an element of truth in this.  Gender is so deeply embedded in our thinking and social practices that to portray alternatives to it is necessarily anti-naturalistic.  But it is by no means the case that this is done uniquely in SF.  Music hall and burlesque drag is a long-standing form of gender-bending practice, and was one of the more important underpinnings (rather than SF) of the best pop-cultural transgender expression in the early 1970s, The Rocky Horror Show (1973).  In English literature it is hard to escape the gender role comedy in Shakespeare, particularly Viola in Twelfth Night.  In more recent literature the most notable example of playing with gender is in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928) where her hero changed gender in his/her long life through English history.  In part the book was based on Woolf’s (probable) lover Vita Sackville West’s journey around Europe dressed as a man.

Of course, any form of fiction that is realist in content can only show the disruption of gender identities (as Shakespeare does).  To show a different set of social relations requires some form of speculative fiction.  Some science fiction is speculative, but so is fantasy and any form of fiction that through shifting its setting away from here and now creates an alternative vision of the world.  As Judy Wajcman pointed out during this edition of Start the Week, often science fiction fails to create this shift presenting a vision of the future which is the present plus gadgets (I think it is William Gibson who makes the point that it is possible to put a mobile phone into science fiction, but to write about how they transform daily life never happened – Captain Kirk doesn’t text on his communicator while a visibly irritated Scotty is explaining that the dilithium crystals willnae stand it and I wull hae tae quickly prepare tae stairt the infinitive splitting reactor).  One only has to look at the stultifying fixed gender relations in the original series of Star Trek to see the unevenness of how alternative futures are imagined.  As Ursula Le Guin has pointed out, science fiction stands or falls in the completeness of the alternative worlds it creates.[3]

Science fiction is the new religion.

Tom Sutcliffe, the presenter, sprang a question on Dominic that he struggled with, asking whether the rise of SF was contingent on the decline of religion.  This clearly threw Dominic since his answer to most questions is (I paraphrase) “but it has always been like that”.  Thus Dominic reacted against Judy Wajcman’s idea that new technology has become dominant in forming self-identity, desire and in shaping our sense of what the future by arguing (wrongly) that this has always been the nature of advertising.  Similarly, he asserts that technological change always has unintended consequences, and at all points in history people always see their technology as the last word on modernity.  (This last point is highly debatable. Firstly, it is only relatively recently that people have lived through a number of major technological changes and this sense of constant revolution is bound up with modernity.  The condition of modernity is not just that more change will happen but that this change may not be altogether good .  This is the tension in modernity and modern science fiction).

Dominic struggled to find an answer to the religion and SF question.  Eventually, he did through asserting another unchanging truth, that there is always a need for moral guidance and as religion declines, SF has taken up at least some of the need.  He thus treats as static what is changing.  The decline in religion can be seen in number of ways.  For example,  it is a decline in the rigid moral orthodoxy that traditional imposes on people.  This is replaced with  a more flexible moral order with a sense of rationality, and here through refection  the individual was expected to reach their own moral conclusions (this being expressed in the rise of Protestantism in part of Europe).  The growth of fiction in general (and not SF in particularly) is part of this moral individualism.[4]

The belief that SF can fill the moral void in modern life had been held by some, particularly L. Ron Hubbard who moved from being a second-rate SF novelist to become a first-rate charlatan and new age religious guru of Scientology.  Not many SF writers would go with him.  Philip K. Dick satirised Hubbard in his short story “The Turning Wheel” wherein fragments of a book by a science fiction novelist, known as Elron Hu from its damaged cover, are taken for religious wonders.  The point is that SF (or fiction) are not the new Bible, society and the role of idea and the individual in it have changed (and, as Dick’s story point out, a society would have to be very damaged before it started taking its moral guidance from SF).  The point that Tom Sutcliffe was getting at, asking if the promised land shifted from one delivered by prayer to one delivered by the technology presaged in SF, seems to have gone over Dominic’s head.

Estate agents in space

Dominic interjects at one point that no-one’s vision of the future has estate agents in it.  This point is just slipped in to suggest that SF does not deal with the prosaic, but it is more evidence of Dominic’s near complete ignorance of the genre.  Famously, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the Golgafrincham B Ark is filled with all the people that the other Golgofrincham’s believe are useless, telephone sanitizers, hair dressers and estate agents.  “The Marching Morons” by Cyril Kornbluth (1951) is a clumsy satire in which a cryogenically frozen estate agent uses his skills in the future to become a dictator.  A more wild imagining comes from James Tiptree, Jr (writing as Racoona Sheldon) in her novella The Screwfly Solution (1977) which has intergalactic attackers described as “real estate agents” clearing Earth of its human inhabitants by unleashing the implicit violence of male sexuality.  And the opening line of Rudy Ruccker’s 1994 novel The Hacker And The Ants, Version 2.0 is “Monday morning when I answered the door there were twenty-one new real estate agents there, all in horrible polyester gold jackets.”  I am sure the list could go on.

The Last Man at the End of History.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the programme came not when the historian was talking about science fiction, but when the science fiction writer commented on history.  William Gibson commented that “we constantly reknow the past …  History itself is an utterly speculative discipline … The history of our past one hundred years from now will scarcely resemble our idea of the history our past”.  In short, as Gibson has previously said “it is harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future”.  This is fairly standard postmodern, post-structuralist stuff, that past is unknowable and all we can do is create present-minded constructions of it that are little different to fictions.

These words are no surprise coming from a novelist, their path to understanding is exactly in the creative reimaging of the source material they find around in contemporary life and history.  What is more surprising is that Dominic wholeheartedly agreed (“absolutely”).  I have long seen Dominic’s history as a form of fiction, taking his current right-wing concerns and creating a narrative of the past around them that has the purpose of settling the reader in their feelings about both current society and its history – like a historicising Jeffery Archer.  The point is that the historian has sources (the marks that the past has left behind, on paper, film, in memories) and it is the historian’s job to develop methods to allow a critical dialogue with the past through an interrogation of the source material.  Without the concept that there are patterns, generalisations and insights to be gained – in other words there is historical truth to be worked towards – the pursuit of history becomes a highly problematic game that can only be understood as a power-play between different discourses.  If it were, I certainly would not choose Dominic’s Daily Mail view of the world.  The point would appear to be that this comment suggests that Dominic has chosen his past, and now seeks to construct it.  However, the past is not as pliable as some imagine it to be.

There are many other points thrown in by Dominic that could be countered if I had the time.  He suggests that HG Wells expressed a fear of science (no, he feared where it would lead in some forms of society, and Judy Wajcman began to pick up the point to the question about technology and how it is developed in the interests of those who are powerful in society, the military or the corporations).  Another is that Frankenstein is about robots (although I think that Dominic’s point is that like many more modern robot stories, Frankenstein asks the question about what it is to be human, this is not the point of Frankenstein, it is Frankenstein’s humanity, not his creature’s, that is in doubt).

The problem is not so much that Dominic seems to know very little about science fiction.  The problem is that it is damaging the pursuit of history with simplistic answers and one dimensional thinking.


[1] Can be seen at

[2] Start the Week. BBC Radio 4, 24/11/2014.  Can be heard at

[3] See Hari Kunzru, “Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’”, The Guardian Saturday 22nd November 2014 (

[4] See, for example, the work of Ian Watt, particularly his The Rise of the Novel (1957)

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