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Conceptual Breakthrough

Entry updated 21 March 2022. Tagged: Theme.


The legends of Prometheus and of Dr Faustus contain a central image which is still vigorous in sf: the hero in his lust for knowledge goes against the will of God and, though he succeeds in his quest, he is finally punished for his overweening pride and disobedience. Adam eating the forbidden apple is another version of the legend. Its reverberations resonate throughout the whole of literature.

The Faustian version of the quest for knowledge – it lives on in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831), in more recent works such as James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958), in Gothic SF and in sf Cinema generally – is no longer the only or even the most important version. The Faust myth did not even survive the eighteenth century unchallenged; the rationalists of the Age of Reason believed that the amount of knowledge in the universe is finite, and the decoding of its emblems is a moral good because it demonstrates the orderly mind of God. The quest for knowledge could be pursued with greater propriety than before.

The romantic movement, particularly its Gothic elements, set the clock back a little, with intimations that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than we can safely investigate, and that the universe was perhaps not so rational after all. But once again, a period of doubt was followed by a period of scientific optimism, and while the Victorians got upset over Darwin's theory of evolution, they were generally blandly cheerful about developments in science and technology. The quest for knowledge seemed in a healthy state, until relativistic and quantum physics came along, and seemed to throw scientific certainty into disarray. It was not that the quest for knowledge was once again seen as evil, though the atomic bomb was a frightening Promethean symbol; rather, knowledge itself no longer seemed so readily definable. Common sense failed to apply to the microcosm. Heisenberg suggested that the act of observation alters the properties of that which is being observed.

This is the ambience of modern sf. The quest for knowledge remains sf's central vision; but while such quests are no longer seen as de facto dangerous or immoral, they are often shown as ambiguous, unsettling, even paradoxical.

Of all the forms which the quest for knowledge takes in modern sf, by far the most important, in terms of both the quality and the quantity of the work that dramatizes it, is conceptual breakthrough. It is amazing that the importance and centrality of this idea in sf has had so little in the way of critical recognition, though an essay by Gary K Wolfe, "The Known and the Unknown: Structure and Image in Science Fiction" (in Many Futures, Many Worlds, anth 1977, ed Thomas D Clareson), points towards it.

Conceptual breakthrough can best be explained in terms of "paradigms", as that term is used by philosophers of science. A paradigm is a generally held way of looking at and interpreting the world; it consists of a set of often unspoken and unargued assumptions – for example, before Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) the scientific paradigm or world-view saw Earth as the centre of the Universe. All the most exciting scientific revolutions have taken the form of breaking down a paradigm and substituting another. Often the old paradigm is eroded slowly at first, through discovery of lots of little puzzling anomalies, before the new paradigm can take over. Such an altered perception of the world, sometimes in terms of science and sometimes in terms of society, is what sf is most commonly about, and few sf stories do not have at least some element of conceptual breakthrough.

An important subset of conceptual-breakthrough stories consists of those in which the world is not what it seems. The structure of such stories is often that of a quest in which an intellectual nonconformist questions apparent certainties. Quite a number have been stories in which the world turns out to be a Generation Starship, as in "Universe" (May 1941 Astounding) by Robert A Heinlein, Non-Stop (1956 Science Fantasy #17; exp 1958; cut vt Starship 1959) – the latter US title giving the game away – by Brian W Aldiss, and Captive Universe (1969) by Harry Harrison. In "The Pit" (in The Gollancz/Sunday Times Best SF Stories, anth 1975, ed anon) by D West the world turns out to be inside an artificial asteroid. Greg Egan's Incandescence (2008) features such a Space Habitat orbiting a Black Hole: the pretechnological inhabitants' required conceptual breakthrough includes understanding general Relativity. In "Outside" (January 1955 New Worlds), by Aldiss, a suburban house turns out to be an experimental laboratory in which shape-changing Aliens (see Shapeshifters) are incarcerated. In several stories the world is artificial, either literally or because its inhabitants have been brainwashed into seeing it wrongly, as in Time Out of Joint (1959) by Philip K Dick. Philip José Farmer's Riverworld books deal throughout with conceptual breakthrough; the first breakthrough is the realization that, despite all the resurrected dead who populate it, Riverworld is not Heaven; the second is the recognition that the inhabitants are being manipulated. There is a touch of Paranoia here ("we are property"), quite common in conceptual-breakthrough stories, as in those where the world turns out to be a construct to aid market research; e.g., "The Tunnel Under the World" (January 1955 Galaxy) by Frederik Pohl and Counterfeit World (1964; vt Simulacron-3 1964) by Daniel F Galouye.

Closely allied to the above are stories where information about the world turns out to be not so much wrong as incomplete. The classic example here is "Nightfall" (September 1941 Astounding) by Isaac Asimov, in which the constant presence of suns in the sky of another planet has prevented knowledge of the stars, and everyone panics every 2,049 years when five suns set and the sixth is eclipsed. Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956) has two breakthroughs, the first out of a beautiful but static Utopian city into the greater world, and the second into a knowledge of civilizations in the stars. Another post-World War Two classic is "Surface Tension" (August 1952 Galaxy) by James Blish, in which the hero breaks out of his underwater microcosm to discover a great world arching over his puddle. (Blish always recognized the shift from one paradigm to another as the essence of sf, and said as much in "The Science in Science Fiction" [May 1951-May 1952 Science Fiction Quarterly; complete version April 1971 Quicksilver #2; reprinted in The Tale that Wags the God coll 1987 ed Cy Chauvin]. His historical novel about Roger Bacon, Doctor Mirabilis [1964], which takes conceptual breakthrough as its theme, has, therefore, the flavour of sf even though based on historical fact.) Daniel F Galouye's Dark Universe (1961) is perhaps the best of many stories in which an underground community has lost its memory of the surface. Walkers on the Sky (1976) by David J Lake is a lively variant on the theme of a hero discovering the true nature of an artificial world. In Lord of Light (1967) by Roger Zelazny the breakthrough is into an understanding of the true nature of an artificial heaven.

All stories where the apparently complete world of the story's beginning, whether a generation starship or an underground community, turns out to be only part of a greater whole can be termed pocket-universe stories. (see Pocket Universe, where the case is made that many conceptual-breakthrough stories of this sort can be linked with the passage from the constrictions of childhood to the freedoms of adulthood.) The archetype of all such stories is Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson, in which the hero, walled into a tranquil Abyssinian valley by mountains, finds his yearning for knowledge of the outside world obsessing him, not letting him enjoy the happiness he sees all around him. He escapes; the world outside is less happy than his own, but it is interesting. Rasselas provides the template for the whole subgenre; moreover, the intellectual discontent and formless yearnings of its hero are among the commonest qualities of sf Heroes, and Johnson's mild pessimism – which recognizes that, even though the new world-picture may be uglier than the old, we need to know about it – captures exactly the accepting tone which was to permeate so much sf. It is a romantic, if often melancholy, form of striving, and sf never reveals its romantic origins more clearly than when it uses the tropes of conceptual breakthrough.

Sometimes the breakthrough is transcendent, and can be given to the reader only by analogy, inasmuch as the new state cannot be described in a terminology which itself belongs to the old paradigm. Such a state is commonly attained by the heroes of A E van Vogt and Alfred Bester, and more recently those of Ian Watson, all of whose works centre on a conceptual breakthrough of some kind. Such, too, are the end of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where kaleidoscopic imagery of hypnagogic intensity is an emblem of the incomprehensible, and the vastly superior Intelligence attained by the hero of Camp Concentration (July-October 1967 New Worlds; 1968) by Thomas M Disch, a book which alludes with some subtlety to every celebrated literary variant of the Faust myth. In Algis Budrys's extraordinary novel Rogue Moon (1960) conceptual breakthrough (in the attempt to understand a labyrinthine artefact on the Moon) seems invariably accompanied by death, and this too recalls the Faustian theme, transcendence being linked to mortality. A similar consequence occurs in The Black Cloud (1957) by Fred Hoyle.

Sometimes conceptual breakthrough is ambiguous: the objective nature of the new paradigm cannot be understood because of the subjective nature of Perception. A joke version of this occurs in "The Yellow Pill" (October 1958 Astounding) by Rog Phillips, where one character believes himself to be in a room, the other in a Spaceship, and each attempts to break down the other's version of reality; one walks, fatally, through what he believes to be an ordinary door. Paradoxes of this kind were enjoyed by Philip K Dick, as in "Impostor" (June 1953 Astounding) – where a man who believes himself unjustly persecuted as a machine breaks through to the realization that he is indeed a Robot with a bomb in his belly – and also in, among others, Eye in the Sky (1957), Martian Time-Slip (August-December 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow as "All We Marsmen"; exp 1964), Ubik (1969) and A Maze of Death (1970). A subjective, disturbing form of conceptual breakthrough is the basis for many of J G Ballard's stories, such as "Build-Up" (January 1957 New Worlds; vt "The Concentration City" in The Disaster Area, coll 1967), "Manhole 69" (November 1957 New Worlds), "Thirteen to Centaurus" (April 1962 Amazing) and even "The Drowned Giant" (in The Terminal Beach, coll 1964; vt "Souvenir" May 1965 Playboy). Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook) is entirely constructed around the attempt by a Space-Station crew to break out of their anthropomorphic world-view into an understanding of the enigmatic nature of the Living World Solaris around which they circle. One of the most remarkable conceptual-breakthrough stories of the later twentieth century – whose author, Christopher Priest, saw the work as in part a homage to Aldiss's Non-Stop – is Inverted World (1974). In this book a city is constantly and painfully pushed forward on rails because the world-picture of its inhabitants is of a hyperboloid where time and space are progressively distorted both north and south of an always moving optimum line. The probable truth turns out to be very different. As in many such stories, the breakthrough is inner as well as outer; the book adopts the Berkeleyan view that the world is what we see it as being; changes in objective truth are changes in perception; there is no such thing as pure scientific truth.

The forms taken by conceptual breakthrough in sf are almost impossible to enumerate. David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) is structurally an ironic series of such breakthroughs, with each new truth seen in turn to be as inadequate as the previous one, until the grim, rather nihilistic and ultimate reality is revealed at the end. John Fowles's The Magus (1965; rev 1977) achieves a similar effect in a non-sf context. C S Lewis's Perelandra (1943; vt Voyage to Venus 1953) has some moments of startling beauty when the hero tries to accommodate his perceptions to the alien configurations of Venus. William Golding's The Inheritors (1955) has the breakthrough symbolized in the confrontation between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon. Many of Ray Cummings's Pulp-magazine stories deal with the realization (based, ironically, on a now discredited paradigm) that an infinite series of worlds can exist, each within the atoms of the next higher in the series. Various conceptual leaps take place in most of Samuel R Delany's stories, notably "The Star Pit" (February 1967 Worlds of Tomorrow) and Babel-17 (1966). In the latter story the breakthrough, ultimately conceptual, is initially Linguistic. Delany sees paradigms as actually existing within, and created by, language itself, a common view in linguistic sf and one found also in Ian Watson's The Embedding (1973). In Theodore Sturgeon's "Who?" (March 1955 Galaxy; vt "Bulkhead" in A Way Home, coll 1955) a Spaceship pilot, frightened of the unknown outside his ship, is cheered by the voice of his unreachable companion beyond the bulkhead; only at the end does he find that the other crewman is a mental projection of his own younger self, and that the bulkhead is, metaphorically, in his own mind. Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity (April-July 1953 Astounding; cut 1954; text restored with additions and one added story, as coll 1978) takes place on a high-gravity planet whose natives are forced to understand their world through human eyes, and vice versa. The Sword-and-Sorcery milieu of John Crowley's The Deep (1975), accepted by the reader as a literary convention, turns out to have a quite different explanation, necessitating a wrench to the reader's view of the novel as well as the hero's view of his world. Ursula K Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) is structured around parallel breakthroughs in political understanding and fundamental physics; the crossing of walls is the book's central image. The hero of Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966) begins as a moron, comes to understand the nature of the world as no other human can, then tragically has the gift of intelligence taken away. The breakthrough in "Strangers" (in New Dimensions IV, anth 1974, ed Robert Silverberg) by Gardner Dozois is in cultural understanding, and is accomplished only after the death of the protagonist's alien lover. The breakthrough at the end of Orbitsville (1975) by Bob Shaw takes place in an almost unimaginably huge Dyson Sphere, whose nature puts human evolutionary struggle into a new perspective.

Examples could be multiplied endlessly, and have been given extensively to demonstrate how all-pervasive the theme is in sf; no adequate Definition of SF can be formulated that does not somehow take it into account. It is present, regardless of the usual boundaries, in old wave and New Wave, Heroic Fantasy and Hard SF, Genre SF and sf by Mainstream writers. It recurs so compulsively, and so much of the feeling and passion of sf is generated by it, that it must be seen as springing from a deep-rooted human need: to reach out, escape mental traps, prefer movement to stasis; to understand. Sf is pre-eminently the literature of the intellectually discontented, those who need to feel there must be more to life than this; and therein lies its maturity, which by a paradox can be seen as a perpetual adolescent yearning.

The breakthrough is often merely implicit in the text, and sometimes easy enough to miss. In these cases it is the readers themselves whose perceptions are shifted through their reading of clues. An extreme case is that of Gene Wolfe, whose The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) is set in a quasimedieval-seeming heroic-fantasy milieu, but the readers' genre expectations are rudely broken as they realize that the book is pure sf, not fantasy; that the time is the far future, not the distant past; that the tower in which apprentice Torturers are educated is in fact a derelict Spaceship. Wolfe enjoys such coded jolts, as in the third section of The Fifth Head of Cerberus (fixup 1972), in which the narrator who at the outset was a human anthropologist has towards the end been supplanted by a Shapeshifting native of the planet. The exact textual point of the breakthrough can be identified, but only by a careful reader. Thus conceptual breakthrough is not just the subject of much sf: it is also, quite often, its designed effect.

Conceptual breakthrough remained as popular a theme as ever in the 1980s and 1990s, though seldom provoking quite the same shock of surprise. The breakthrough in recent sf is often catalysed by confrontation with alien artefacts (see Discovery; Macrostructures). The pre-eminent conceptual-breakthrough writer of the 1980s is Greg Bear, notably in Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985), a story of evolutionary Transcendence mediated by a new form of microorganism. Nancy Kress's An Alien Light (1988) contains a whole string of conceptual breakthroughs as two rival human cultures and one alien culture make a series of discoveries about each other's initially incomprehensible modes of thinking and patterns of behaviour.

Robert Silverberg is an interesting case of a writer who – often – no sooner evokes a conceptual breakthrough than he morosely contemplates its drawbacks for people who just want to be ordinary human beings. Such is his The Face of the Waters (1991), in which the revelation that all native life on a planet is linked in a single, godlike, transcendent organism is followed by angst on the part of the humans who may be allowed to join it. One feels that had Silverberg overheard Galileo muttering "Eppur si muove" ["And yet it moves"] he would have responded: "Yes, I agree, but I wish it didn't." [PN]

see also: Arrested Development; Star Ocean.

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