In current usage a "Gothic" is a romantic novel which has a strong element of the mysterious or the supernatural and which usually features the persecution of a woman in an isolated locale; but this restricted and specialized use of the word has nothing to do with sf. The term "Gothic" entered critical terminology with the publication of The Castle of Otranto (1765), subtitled "A Gothic Story", by Horace Walpole (1717-1797). As in architecture, the word originally referred to a medieval style. Although the Middle Ages had for much of the eighteenth century been thought of as barbaric, a nostalgia had now developed for the romantic splendours of an idealized Middle Ages that never existed. Gothic novels in imitation of Walpole's ghostly tale became quite common as the century drew to a close; indeed their popularity was closely allied to the growth of Romantic literature generally.
The Gothic may be seen as a reaction to the emphasis on reason which prevailed in the Enlightenment, the intellectual world of the eighteenth century. In a world ruled by Order, where Isaac Newton (1642-1727) had explained the mechanics of the solar system, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) had shown how plants and animals could be logically classified, Adam Smith (1723-1790) had written of the apparently immutable laws of Economics, and sermons in church regularly pictured God as a kind of master watchmaker who had wound the Universe up and left it to tick like a perfectly regulated mechanism, some room needed to be left for mystery, the marvellous, the evil, the inexplicable. The movement was probably given impetus at the beginning of the nineteenth century by science itself becoming remystified through all the work being done on the strange forces of electromagnetism, and also by a crumbling social stability, as signalled by many political revolutions across the Western world.
Such is the background against which Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818; rev 1831) should be read. With this book, along with the contemporary works of E T A Hoffmann and a little later Edgar Allan Poe, the use of science in fiction was becoming assimilated into a literary movement which emphasized mystery over knowledge, and the dangers of Man trespassing in a territory rightfully God's. The linking of science with the Gothic may have been partly a historical accident, and the balance was soon to be partly rectified by the sometimes laboured common sense of Jules Verne (even he produced a Gothic hero, in Captain Nemo), but it certainly had repercussions in sf which have by no means died away. Brian W Aldiss, in his critical work Billion Year Spree (1973; rev with David Wingrove as Trillion Year Spree 1986), argues that sf "is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould". That may be putting it too strongly, but Aldiss's view is certainly a useful antidote to the commoner views that sf is a literature either of technology or of Utopias and anti-utopias.
Certainly from Mary Shelley's day to now, much sf has been devoted to secrets, to inexplicable violence and wildness lurking beneath the veneer of civilization and to the Alien and the monstrous bursting in on us from the outside; Gothic sf emphasizes danger, and attacks the complacency of those of us who imagine the world to be well lit and comfortable while ignoring that outside all is darkness. Gothic sf characteristically clothes these fears in quasiscientific talk, but in spirit it is quite opposed to the outlook of the Scientist. The prototype is perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) – which, in its story of a respectable doctor whose alter ego is a brutish sensualist and a living monument to the reality of Original Sin, can be read as an allegory of the violent subconscious struggling with the conscious mind – for the archetypal Gothic story is the tale of the Thing in the Cellar, in which an everyday world of surface conceals the menacing depths (and subtexts). Other sf writers of the nineteenth century who worked in the Gothic mode were Bulwer Lytton, Ambrose Bierce and Arthur Machen.
In the twentieth century, the Gothic mode was largely hived off into the genre of occult/horror, but it never lost its kinship with sf. Weird Tales was the archetypally Gothic Pulp magazine, and several of its authors wrote sf too. H P Lovecraft, of course, is as pure an instance of the Gothic writer as can be found in this century, but some of the same qualities can be found in writers who were much more closely associated with sf than Lovecraft ever was. About two-thirds of all sf films (> Cinema), especially Monster Movies, are pure Gothic. Paranoia in sf nearly always falls into the Gothic mode.
The Gothic idea of the Promethean or Faustian Mad Scientist (> Conceptual Breakthrough; Scientists) punished for assuming the creative powers belonging to the gods or God (sometimes for creating artificial life without a soul) was central to sf early in this century, as in the films Alraune (1928) and Frankenstein (1931). Other sf variants of Gothic images are the renegade Robot (along with all ghost-in-the-machine stories), most Luddite stories, most stories of manipulation by beings who may be Gods and Demons, nearly all stories rationalizing Supernatural Creatures (including Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies), most stories about ambiguous Alien artefacts; indeed, to put it more widely still, most stories in which the Universe proves unamenable to rational (or "cognitive") understanding.
It is so easy to find Gothic elements in even the most celebrated writers of sf that there is little point in listing actual books containing them. Sf writers whose work is consistently Gothic are, among many others: John Blackburn, James P Blaylock, Ray Bradbury, S Guy Endore, Robert P Holdstock, K W Jeter, Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, Dean R Koontz, Richard Matheson, Kim Newman, Tim Powers, Maurice Renard, Sax Rohmer, Dan Simmons, Curt Siodmak, Lisa Tuttle and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; it is no coincidence that nearly all of these have written Horror fiction as well. But there are strong Gothic elements in other sf writers whose work is considered less borderline. These include – again, among a hundred others – Brian W Aldiss, Alfred Bester, James Blish, Algis Budrys, Richard Cowper, Samuel R Delany, Philip K Dick, Thomas M Disch, Philip José Farmer, William Gibson, George R R Martin, Michael Moorcock, Geoff Ryman, Fred Saberhagen, Hilbert Schenck, Lucius Shepard, Lew Shiner, Michael Swanwick, Sheri S Tepper, Jack Vance, Howard Waldrop, Gene Wolfe, John Wyndham and Roger Zelazny. If the case for the prevalence of Gothic sf is correct, then we must see it as so deeply engrained that it cannot be considered a mere sport or mutant form of the genre.
There has always been a tension in sf between the Classical desire for order and understanding – for the Universe that can be known – and the Romantic desire (which fits the observable facts to date) that the Universe should continue to surprise us, hold secrets and malignities. This latter desire (or fear, or both) is the Gothic, and its coexistence with the Classical or cognitive, in most major sf writers of our century, is not a paradox; the place where the two forces meet (Classical and Romantic, cognitive and Gothic) might almost be described as the central place where sf happens, the seeding-ground for its fertility. If this is the case, then Brian Aldiss's above-noted comment (> Definitions of SF) is not as eccentric as some have found it; moreover, those definitions that see sf as exclusively cognitive (like Darko Suvin's) are missing the point; they are prescriptive, not descriptive. Sf remains a Romance literature. Its vaunted Sense of Wonder arises as much from its Gothic as from its scientific elements, and will continue to do so as long as the Thing in the Cellar keeps lashing its tail. [PN]
see also: Fantasy; History of SF.
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