Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 31 March 2021. Tagged: Theme.

By virtue of its nature, sf has one foot firmly set in each of C P Snow's "two cultures", and sf stories occasionally exhibit an exaggerated awareness of that divide. Charles L Harness's notable novella "The Rose" (March 1953 Authentic) takes the reconciliation of an assumed antagonism between art and science as its theme, the author adopting the view that the emotional richness of art is necessary to temper and redeem the cold objectivity of science: at its climax, the harsh equations of science's ultimate "Sciomnia" formula are translated into brutalist music which is then reinterpreted by the artist heroine as ravishing harmony. Most sf writers argue along similar lines; even when they cannot celebrate the triumph of art they lament its defeat. The decline of theatrical artistry in the face of mechanical expertise is the theme of Walter M Miller Jr's Hugo-winning novelette "The Darfsteller" (January 1955 Astounding), and there are similar stories dealing with other arts: sculpture in C M Kornbluth's "With These Hands" (December 1951 Galaxy), fiction writing in Clifford D Simak's "So Bright the Vision" (August 1956 Fantastic Universe) (see Wordmills), even Comic-book illustration in Harry Harrison's "Portrait of the Artist" (November 1964 F&SF). Such pessimism was not, however, universal: Vernor Vinge's early story "The Accomplice" (April 1967 If) happily imagines the use of stolen Computer time to create an ideal animation of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955 3vols), anticipating the very extensive use of CGI in Peter Jackson's film trilogy (2001-2003); and the coveted sculpture/collage "boxes" (in the manner of Joseph Cornell) which are a McGuffin in William Gibson's Count Zero (1986) prove to be AI creations.

The concern of sf writers with the arts is almost entirely a post-World War Two phenomenon; early Pulp-magazine sf writers and writers of scientific romance paid them little heed. Some nineteenth-century stories about artists may be considered to be marginal sf because of the remarkable nature of the particular enterprises featured therein: Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful" (June 1844 United States Magazine and Democratic Review) concerns the making of a wondrous mechanical butterfly, and Robert W Chambers's "The Mask" (in The King in Yellow, coll 1895) is about a "sculptor" who makes statues by chemically turning living things to stone; but these are allegories rather than speculations. Scrupulous attention to the arts is paid by many Utopian novels, although some utopians overtly or covertly accept Plato's (ironic) claim in The Republic that artists comprise a socially disruptive force and ought to be banished from a perfect society. This thesis is dramatically extrapolated in Damon Knight's "The Country of the Kind" (February 1956 F&SF), where the world's only artist is an antisocial psychotic and is necessarily expelled from social life. Karl Marx's related dictum that in the socialist utopia there would be no painters but only men who paint is similarly dramatized in Robert Silverberg's "The Man with Talent" (Winter 1956/1957 Future). Most utopians find the idea of abundant Leisure without art nonsensical, but they have sometimes been hard-pressed to find material appropriate to fill the gap; nor, vulgarly, have most depicted utopias grappled very convincingly with the perhaps disputable but certainly prevailing belief that great art tends to the transgressive.

The enthusiasm expressed in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) for the wonders of mechanically reproduced music reminds us how dramatically our relationship with the arts has been transformed by technology, and the treatment of arts and crafts in such novels as William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) now seems irredeemably quaint, despite being echoed in such twentieth-century works as Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). More ambitious attempts to represent the artistic life of the future are featured in Hermann Hesse's Magister Ludi (1943; trans M Savill 1949; retrans Richard and Clara Winston as The Glass Bead Game 1960), in which the life of society's elite is dominated by the aesthetics of a "game", and in Franz Werfel's ironic Stern der Ungeborenen (1946; trans Gustave Otto Arlt as Star of the Unborn 1946). The aesthetic life and its possible elevation to a universal modus vivendi are, however, mercilessly treated in some utopian satires – notably in Alexandr Moszkowski's account of the island of Helikonda in Die Inselt der Weisheit (1922; trans H Stenning as The Isles of Wisdom 1924) and André Maurois's Voyage aux pays des Articoles (1927; trans David Garnett as A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles 1928). An early sf novel which deals satirically with the arts is Fritz Leiber's The Silver Eggheads (January 1959 F&SF; exp 1962), in which human literateurs use Wordmills generating literary pabulum called "wordwooze", and authored fiction is strictly for the Robots.

In The Return of William Shakespeare (1929) Hugh Kingsmill used an sf framework for a commentary on Shakespeare, audaciously crediting his interpretations to the revivified bard himself. Isaac Asimov used a similar idea for a brief joke, "The Immortal Bard" (May 1954 Universe), in which a Time-Travelling Shakespeare fails a night-school course in his own works. More earnest stories of scientifically resurrected artists include Ray Bradbury's "Forever and the Earth" (Spring 1950 Planet Stories), which features Thomas Wolfe, and James Blish's "A Work of Art" (July 1956 Science Fiction Stories as "Art-Work"; vt in Science Fiction Showcase, anth 1959, ed Mary Kornbluth), in which the resurrection of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) into the brain of another man is hailed as a work of art in its own right, although the pseudo-Strauss discovers that rebirth has failed to re-ignite his creative powers. Time Travel stories featuring the great artists of the past include Manly Wade Wellman's Twice in Time (May 1940 Startling; 1957), whose hero becomes Leonardo da Vinci; Barry N Malzberg's Chorale (1978), whose hero becomes Beethoven; Lisa Goldstein's The Dream Years (1976), which features the pioneers of the Surrealist movement; and Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983; rev 1984), whose hero becomes the fictional early-Victorian poet William Ashbless.

Sf writers who have a considerable personal interest in one or other of the arts often reflect this in their work. Fritz Leiber's theatrical background is less obvious in his sf than in his fantasy, though it is manifest in "No Great Magic" (December 1963 Galaxy) and – obliquely – in The Big Time (March-April 1958 Galaxy; 1961 dos). Samuel R Delany is one sf writer in whose works artists play prominent and significant parts; their aesthetic performances, especially their music, are sufficiently central to shape the meanings of the stories – a method taken to its extreme in Dhalgren (1975; rev 1977; rev 2001). Another is Alexander Jablokov, who makes much of the cultural significance of artistry in "The Death Artist" (August 1990 Asimov's) and Carve the Sky (1991).

Music is the art most commonly featured in sf, as discussed under Music. Theatre is also widely featured, and much easier to deploy convincingly. Sf novels which use theatrical backgrounds for various different purposes include Doomsday Morning (1957) by C L Moore, John Brunner's The Productions of Time (1967) and Showboat World (1975) by Jack Vance, while the hero of Robert A Heinlein's Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956) is an actor. The single work of art most often featured in sf stories is Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which receives respectful treatment – at least from the author – in Ray Bradbury's "The Smile" (Summer 1952 Fantastic) and disrespectful treatment in Bob Shaw's "The Giaconda Caper" (in Cosmic Kaleidoscope, coll 1976). W Holman Hunt's "The Hireling Shepherd" features enigmatically in Brian Aldiss's Report on Probability A (1968). Perhaps the most extravagant use of a work of pictorial art as an anchor for an sf story is Ian Watson's Bosch-inspired The Gardens of Delight (1980).

When it comes to inventing new arts, sf writers are understandably tentative. The aesthetics of time-tourism are elegantly developed in C L Moore's "Vintage Season" (September 1946 Astounding as by Lawrence O'Donnell), but the mask-making art of Jack Vance's "The Moon Moth" (August 1961 Galaxy), the holographic sculpture of William Rotsler's Patron of the Arts (in Universe 2, anth 1972, ed Terry Carr; exp 1974) and Ian Watson's The Martian Inca (1977), the music-and-light linkages (see Synaesthesia) of John Brunner's The Whole Man (stories 1958, 1959 Science Fantasy; fixup 1964; vt Telepathist 1965), the sculptures created by blind Aliens for tactile appreciation in Larry Niven's "Grendel" (in Neutron Star coll 1968), the sartorial art of Barrington J Bayley's The Garments of Caean (1976), the psycho-sculpture of Robert Silverberg's The Second Trip (1972) and the laser-based artform of J Neil Schulman's The Rainbow Cadenza (1983) are all fairly modest extrapolations of extant arts. More intriguing is the "shout artist" who can materialize vocal creations as solid objects, though only temporarily, in Serge Brussolo's "Aussi lourd que le vent ..." ["As Heavy as the Wind ..."] (in La frontière éclatée, anth 1981, ed Gérard Klein, Ellen Herzfeld and Dominique Martel).

Perhaps the most commonly depicted class of new artform in later twentieth-century sf involves the recording of dreams. An early use of this notion was Isaac Asimov's "Dreaming is a Private Thing" (December 1955 F&SF); subsequent and much more elaborate explorations of the idea are Hyacinths (1983) by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and The Continent of Lies (1984) by James Morrow. An amusing Fantasy variation by Diana Wynne Jones – in which the imagined cast of the heroine's highly commercial, soap-operatic dreams rebels against living through an endless round of Clichés – is "Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream" (in Dragons and Dreams, anth 1986, ed Jane Yolen, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh).

The aesthetic uses of Genetic Engineering techniques are featured in several stories by Brian M Stableford, including "Cinderella's Sisters" (1989 Gate #1) and "Skin Deep" (October 1991 Amazing). The female protagonist of Iain M Banks's late Culture novel Surface Detail (2010) has – in her first-shown incarnation – skin gene-engineered into elaborate fractal patterns as both decoration and a mark of Slavery.

There have been several notable attempts by sf writers to portray the artists' colonies of the future, an early example being Fritz Leiber's "The Beat Cluster" (October 1961 Galaxy), depicting future beatniks in the titular Space Habitat. Many such tales are imitative of J G Ballard's lushly ironic stories of Vermilion Sands (coll 1971), which includes a story about the novel art of cloud-sculpting, "The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D" (December 1967 F&SF). Lee Killough's Aventine (coll 1982) is the most blatant exercise in Vermilion Sands pastiche; more obliquely influenced items are Michael G Coney's The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers (fixup 1975; vt The Jaws that Bite, the Claws that Catch) and several stories by Eric Brown, including "The Girl Who Died for Art and Lived" (Winter 1987 Interzone). Pat Murphy's The City, Not Long After (1989) is more original and more interesting.

Anthologies of sf stories about the arts include New Dreams this Morning (1966) edited by James Blish and The Arts and Beyond: Visions of Man's Aesthetic Future (anth 1977) edited by Thomas F Monteleone. In Pictures at an Exhibition (anth 1981) edited by Ian Watson, the contributors base their stories on selected works of art: for example, Michael Bishop's "A Spy in the Domain of Arnheim" is inspired by René Magritte. [BS/DRL]

see also: Games and Sports.

previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies