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Gothic SF

Entry updated 29 November 2021. Tagged: Theme.

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In current usage a "Gothic" is a romantic novel with a strong element of the mysterious or the supernatural which usually features the persecution of a woman in an isolated locale; but this restricted and specialized use of the word, and the marketing category associated with it, have little to do with most sf. The term "Gothic" entered the English language as a descriptive term for a particular kind of story with the publication of The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764) by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) [for Gothic Fantasy and Walpole see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. 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, a flood of titles that did not begin to taper off until 1820 or later; indeed their popularity was closely allied to the growth of Romantic literature generally. But although critics and readers readily identify these romances as Gothics, it cannot be argued that this mass of tales necessarily revealed their authors' conscious understanding of what might be joining them together, even though it is clear in retrospect that deep affinities linked these myriad tales.

As with most genres, several things can be said: (1) no one tale will fit perfectly any structural definition (such as Gothic SF); (2) genres (like the Gothic, or its even more artefactual offspring Gothic SF) are normally defined most clearly in retrospect; (3) almost every story written makes some use of what, in this encyclopedia, is described as an Equipoisal manipulation of more than one genre at the same time, though "equipoise" is normally used here to describe works of the past several decades where that mixing of genres seems to be a conscious strategy; (4) any heuristic use of generic definitions, though necessary to any understanding of Fantastika in general, should be embarked upon with a due respect for the profoundly slippery relationship of any tale to any theory.

The arguments of a critic like David Punter, in his important The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (1980) [for revs see Checklist below], base themselves on an astute (though inevitably hindsighted) claim that what we may call the Gothic exudes, manifests, grounds, displaces, and even glories in a range of cultural anxieties (and angers) characteristic of the closing years of the eighteenth century. In this encyclopedia, the congeries of texts which those arguments seem to describe closely comprise an essential element of that mulch out of which Fantastika – itself avowedly a hindsight generalization – begins to take proper form as that century ends (see also Ruins and Futurity), a period when it becomes much easier for authors (indeed, for Western culture in general) to conceive of the past as shaping a narratizable future. It becomes natural for an author like M Volney to compose something like a Future History that is arguably continuous with the present; it also becomes natural for authors, when the future is contemplated (see also Félix Bodin's later arguments about the habitable future), to brood over quite possibly terrible mysteries of change. Here – where Gothic imageries of the imprisoning past are leveraged into Gothic SF, where the present attempts to imprison the future – it is possible to detect beginning to take form something like modern sf as we know it. The spatial focus of traditional Proto SF begins to fade around now; it is from this point that the Fantastic Voyage risks belatedness, and authors of what is becoming Fantastika begin to create narratives that plausibly address the central concern of the sf to come, which is Time.

It is only a few years, therefore, before an author like Mary Shelley can begin to treat Gothic models as actively predictive, and to create in Frankenstein; Or, the New Prometheus (1818) what Brian W Aldiss has defined as the first sf novel. Her novel can be seen as a climax of the Gothic in general; and certainly as a central text in the dramatization of future-anxiety typical of Gothic SF. A later critic like James Watt, in his Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832 (1999), may focus on the stated intentions of authors about works described (even in his own title) as Gothic, and upon a centrifugal emphasis on the discordant range of meanings their texts were meant to convey; but a disinclination to address the transgressive effect of Gothic, or to grant that nightmares once conveyed are unharnessable (not least by those who compose them), leads him to climax his argument, perhaps somewhat bathetically, not with Mary Shelley or even Charles R Maturin, but with the works of Sir Walter Scott [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], an author beyond the remit of this encyclopedia.

There has always been a tension in sf between the Classical desire for order and understanding – for a Universe that rewards our knowing it – and the Romantic need for surprise and sublimity – for a Universe that rewards our knowing bits of it by dismantling our species confidence that we are capable of bearing all knowledge. The coexistence of these opposing principles, in most major sf writers of our century, is not a paradox. The place where the two forces meet (Apollo versus Dionysus) might almost be described as the central place where sf happens, the seeding-ground for its fertility. If this is the case, then those definitions that see sf as exclusively cognitive (like Darko Suvin's) are missing the point; they are prescriptive (arguably an Apollonian cast of mind), not descriptive. Sf at its purest may seem a genre devoted to cognition rather than impulse-generated recognition; but in so far as its origins (and its current focus) are concerned, it is an integral array of iterations (see SF Megatext) of Fantastika as a whole, which is to say it is 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.

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 (see also Ruins and Futurity). 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 from its practical beginnings 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 (though 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" (see Definitions of SF). 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 (see Dystopias).

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 – and its more recently coined stablemate Imperial Gothic – 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); the Doppelganger topoi, which may be boiled down to the threatened surfacing of the buried Other, had been clearly latent or manifest in Gothic literature from its beginnings, but perhaps gained its definitive and most unmistakable iteration in Stevenson's novella [for Doubles and Twins see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. 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 Genre SF as distinctively shaped by Hugo Gernsback; 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 that 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 (see 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 (see 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 the twentieth century, as in the films Alraune (1928) and the central work of James Whale, including Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). 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: Angela Carter, 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, China Miéville, 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. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, opening with The Bad Beginning (1999), is perhaps best described as mock-Gothic.

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, as demonstrated by an assembly like The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction (anth 1991) edited by Bradford Morrow and Patrick McGrath. Kenneth R Johnson has compiled an online Bibliography of modern Gothic novels which contain actual elements of Fantastika [see under links below]. [PN/JC]

see also: Fantasy; History of SF.

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