Malachronism

Tagged: Theme

See the historical note at the end of this entry.

Without attempting a comprehensive Definition of SF, one may safely say that most sf stories and novels present an imaginary record of the human condition at some future time and, further, that the events recorded are usually of an epic dimension, either overtly or by implication. That is, that even when the protagonists are not of heroic stature they inhabit a landscape differing from our own in historically significant ways. At the least, they confront the possibility of such a radical transformation. Almost any sf story can be considered, therefore, as a Prediction or an agglomeration of discrete predictions. While only the most naive readers would measure a story's success chiefly by its predictive accuracy, even the most sophisticated may have difficulty keeping a straight face when a story guesses wrong on a scale of any magnificence.

Most risible are near misses. That Time Travel or Antigravity have yet to be perfected is no embarrassment to H G Wells or later traffickers in such notions. But who can resist a friendly sneer at Jules Verne when he proposes to propel a spaceship From the Earth to the Moon (1865-1870 France 2vols; trans 1873) by firing it from a gigantic cannon on a mountain-top in Florida? A boner of similar period charm is Edward Bellamy's pneumatic-tube broadcasting system in Looking Backward (1888). Bellamy, like Verne, knows the result he's after – something like the early BBC – but the means he envisions seem ludicrous to our latter-day view.

Lack of technological sophistication by itself does not yield the most memorable failures of prediction; there must be, as well, an earnestness and gravity of prophetic purpose. An author who adopts a whimsical or even satiric tone has thereby secured himself against the failure of his prophecies. No one feels a comfortable superiority over Cyrano de Bergerac for the means he proposes for reaching the Moon; though his scheme is more preposterous than Verne's, it is only a fancy.

The heyday, therefore, of malachronism (if we may coin a word) was the era of Gernsbackean "scientifiction", when the prediction of future Technology was considered the specific and defining virtue of the genre. The pages of the early Pulps are a virtual patent office of malachronistic Inventions, and the interested reader may sample them in such collections as Isaac Asimov's Before the Golden Age (anth 1974), though the flavour of that era comes through just as well in its artwork, which has recently been reproduced in a number of books (see Illustration).

Aside from its malachronisms, the Gernsback era produced little to command the attention of latter-day readers. Only with the advent of such writers as Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and James Blish, who combined scientific literacy with literacy of a more ordinary kind, does (Pulp) sf begin to possess an interest of other than an anthropological nature. These writers are not immune to malachronism, but even where such exists (as in Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" [June 1940 Astounding] which gives a detailed timetable for the replacement of the automobile by "mechanized roads", a process commencing in 1960), there is seldom the sense of a mighty pratfall, since, as Heinlein himself has pointed out, these fictions are intended not to be prophetic but only speculative.

Malachronism need not be limited to imaginary hardware. Prophets may err with regard to the Zeitgeist even when their hardware is substantially "correct". In another early story by Heinlein, "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (in The Man Who Sold the Moon, coll 1950), it is not the mechanics of space travel that defies the wisdom of hindsight but rather Heinlein's all-informing assumption that Space Flight – and Colonization of Other Worlds – will be accomplished by private initiatives for the sake of financial profit. Scarcely a bull's eye, yet the story's interest is not really vitiated thereby, for its relevance (and that of every sf story, ultimately) is as a realization of the spirit of the age in which it was written. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is a harrowing picture not of some hypothetical Dystopian future, but of 1948.

The most potent malachronism – and that which gives Pulp sf its special vertu as a collector's item – is style. Broadly enough considered, there may be no distinction between style and Zeitgeist, the former being merely the fleshly form of the latter. The protocols and conventions of the earliest pulp sf – both the stories and their illustrations – are of a simplicity and guilelessness that in many instances partakes of the character of genuine folk art rather than (as it would become in the 1940s and 1950s) that of commercial art. Tattooing as against advertising.

When all three forms of malachronism coincide – technological, Zeitgeist-ish, and stylistic – the result, for latter-day readers, is one of total escapism, for one is constantly reminded that the events being described belong wholly to the realm of the impossible and the irrelevant. E E "Doc" Smith's Skylark and Lensman series are splendid exemplars of such a perfect confluence of malachronism and have maintained a merited popularity as such.

So powerful is the charm of malachronism that several recent writers have set out to produce it (or reproduce it) with, as it were, premeditation. One of the first such deliberately malachronistic sf stories is John Sladek's "1937 A.D.!" which appeared in New Worlds in July 1967. Subsequently, there have been entire malachronistic novels by Michael Moorcock (The Warlord of the Air [1971] and The Land Leviathan [1974]), Richard Lupoff (Into the Aether [1974]), and Brian W Aldiss (The Eighty-Minute Hour [1974]). Some of the above fictions take the ostensible form of Alternate Worlds, but what all of these authors clearly hope to achieve is the distancing effect of total malachronism, of irony in equilibrium with silliness. [TMD]

Note. The above entry by Thomas M Disch appeared in the first edition of this encyclopedia in 1979 under the not entirely apt heading "SF Overtaken by Events", and was cut from the second edition in 1993. It is now restored in its 1979 form: not only does the coinage "malachronism" seem well worth preserving, but the entry interestingly prefigures the charm of Steampunk in the present era when knowingly self-ironized presentations of retro sf themes protect themselves from the dissonance of accidental malachronism by pre-emptively embracing it. [DRL/JC]

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