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Entry updated 17 November 2021. Tagged: Theme.


Sf is sometimes considered, especially by its detractors, to be a genre in which machines are more important than people. Definitions of SF often deny this, but the assumption that only Hard SF, dealing with the future of Technology, can be "real" sf is very common. Various kinds of machine have exerted a powerful fascination upon the sf imagination, and the social impact of technology has been a continual concern in sf.

The first major prose work to celebrate the shape of machines to come (although the earlier drawings of Leonardo da Vinci are justly famous) was Francis Bacon's prospectus for the Royal Society, New Atlantis (bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap), which features a catalogue of marvellous inventions. Bacon's contemporary John Wilkins similarly listed inventions – on which he would be prepared to work if someone would finance him – in Mathematicall Magick (1648). These catalogues aimed to be realistic; the metaphorical usefulness of machines was explored for purposes of Satire by Daniel Defoe in The Consolidator (1705), which features a "cogitator" to force rational thoughts into unwilling brains, a "devilscope" to detect and expose political chicanery, and an "elevator" to facilitate communication between minds and with the spirits of the dead. While Bacon and Wilkins extrapolated from contemporary technology to test the limits of practicality, Defoe suggested miraculous purposes and then proposed machines to serve as symbols for the means to those ends; save for the most conscientious hard-sf writers, the modus operandi of modern sf writers has more in common with Defoe than with Bacon. Such staple devices as Time Machines and Faster-than-Light starships, operating in frank defiance of rationality and known science, function as facilitating devices to give writers access to the infinite realms of possibility. As such they are indispensable, and are frequently included in stories otherwise conscientious in their attempts at realism (see Imaginary Science).

With the exception of flying machines – a common concern in speculative fiction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – few of the machines anticipated by Bacon and Wilkins played a significant part in sf until the late nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution lent historical confirmation to their prospectuses for technology. Some Utopian writers made much of the productive capacity of factory machinery, but the first major literary disciple of the futuristic machine, Jules Verne, was primarily interested in vehicles for his imaginary voyages. Transportation remained the chief function of machines in sf for some time, though the role was augmented by all manner of exotic Weaponry as Future-War stories became popular. Miracle-working facilitating devices played a limited role in nineteenth-century sf, although some were employed as means of Communication and others as forms of amusement. Examples of the latter include the sporting contraptions (see Games and Sports) featured in Anthony Trollope's The Fixed Period (1882) and J A C K's Golf in the Year 2000 (1892). Further facilitating devices are found in Edward Bellamy's Dr Heidenhoff's Process (1880), about a machine which erases unpleasant memories, and in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Doings of Raffles Haw (1891), about a gold-making machine; but the most important exemplar was provided by H G Wells in The Time Machine (1895). Another kind of fascination with mechanical contrivance is manifest in various baroque tales and allegories, including E T A Hoffmann's "Automata" (1814) and "Der Sandmann" ["The Sandman"] (comprising volume one of Nachtstücke, 1816), Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad" (May 1843 United States Magazine and Democratic Review) and Herman Melville's "The Bell-Tower" (August 1855 Putnam's Monthly), in which machines play a quasi-diabolical role. This respectful suspicion of machinery is marvellously extrapolated in those chapters of Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872) that present a vision of mechanical evolution. Wells's "The Lord of the Dynamos" (6 September 1894 Pall Mall Budget), too, reflects this sinister aspect; and L Frank Baum's children's fantasy The Master Key (1901) is a cautionary allegory. Enthusiasm for technological achievement and suspicion regarding human relationships with the machine are combined in Morrison's Machine (1900) by Joseph Smith Fletcher, a curiously intense study of technological creativity.

In the last few years of the nineteenth century the potential of technology was drastically transformed by the discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum and the development of the new atomic theory. Vulgar mechanical contraptions were suddenly augmented by the magic of Rays and radio, and there seemed to be no limits to possibility. A new era of imaginative exuberance began which took means of transportation (especially Spaceships) and weapons out of the realms of extrapolation into those of boundless fantasy. One of the prophets of the new technology, and one whose understanding of its potential was more realistic than is sometimes appreciated, was Hugo Gernsback, the would-be inventor who instead became the publisher of Radio News, Modern Electrics, The Electrical Experimenter and Science and Invention, and who founded Amazing Stories as their companion. In Ralph 124C 41+ (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; exp as fixup 1925; rev 1950) Gernsback produced a catalogue of wonders akin to that in Bacon's New Atlantis; though painfully naive in literary terms, Ralph proved less incompetent as a technological prospectus.

It was not unnatural that the early sf Pulp magazines should go to extremes in their use of machines in a way that Verne never had. The pulp writers were the product of an age of extremely rapid technological advance in which science was coming to seem mysterious again. It was an age when it seemed machines might do anything, when even the satirical metaphors of Defoe's Consolidator could seem plausible as actual devices. The limitless scope of the machine was reverently translated into a kind of quasi-supernatural awe in such stories as John W Campbell Jr's "The Last Evolution" (August 1932 Amazing) and "The Machine" (February 1935 Astounding) as by Don A Stuart. What was largely missing from all the extravagant accounts of miracle-working machines, however, was a consciousness of the social implications of extravagant technological advance. Writers outside the genre were little better: Gardner Hunting's The Vicarion (1926) features a Time Viewer machine that can look through time to record any event from the past, but in Hunting's blinkered view it is merely a new entertainment medium which might make cinema obsolete; the device in André Maurois's La machine à lire les pensées (1937; trans as The Thought-Reading Machine 1938) is represented as a mere fad. These and many other stories conclude that we might well be better off without miraculous machines. E Charles Vivian's Star Dust (1925), Karel Čapek's The Absolute at Large (1922; trans 1927) and William M Sloane's The Edge of Running Water (1939) are other notable examples of the "no good will come of it all" school of thought. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) is an outstanding attempt to consider large-scale social consequences but it, too, is dominated by the conviction that technological opportunities will be abused. A similar suspicion was widespread in the early sf magazines, particularly in the work of David H Keller, but was balanced by Gernsbackian optimism.

Campbell's prospectus for sf, promoted in Astounding Science-Fiction, demanded more conscientious analyses of the social impact of new machines. Robert A Heinlein was one of the first to take up the challenge, in such stories as "The Roads Must Roll" (June 1940 Astounding) and Beyond This Horizon – (April-May 1942 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1948). The 1940s became, in consequence, the era of the gadget: the small machine with considerable implications. "A Logic Named Joe" (March 1946 Astounding) by Will F Jenkins (Murray Leinster) is an archetypal gadget story prefiguring the personal Computer and even the Internet. World War Two and the bombing of Hiroshima encouraged the notion that machines had become so powerful that humans were simply not up to the task of responsibly administering their use. Several memorable images of the revolt of the machines appeared in this period: Robert Bloch's "It Happened Tomorrow" (February 1943 Astonishing), Clifford D Simak's "Bathe Your Bearings in Blood!" (December 1950 Amazing; vt "Skirmish" in Science Fiction Thinking Machines, anth 1954, ed Groff Conklin) and Lord Dunsany's The Last Revolution (1951). A particularly powerful parable of the power of the machine acting independently of human control is Theodore Sturgeon's "Killdozer!" (November 1944 Astounding). T L Sherred's "E for Effort" (May 1947 Astounding) features a machine similar to Hunting's Vicarion, but goes to an opposite extreme in arguing that its mere presence in the world would precipitate all-out war. Jack Williamson's "The Equalizer" (March 1947 Astounding) is an elegant study of the political implications of free power.

As the 1950s progressed, Genre-SF writers became increasingly prone to show machines out of human control, remaking the world while humanity was swept helplessly along – or left helplessly behind. Philip K Dick's "Second Variety" (May 1953 Space Science Fiction), in which self-replicating, independently evolving war machines inherit the Earth, is a striking example. Later works embodying similar images include Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series (see Berserkers), John T Sladek's satirical The Reproductive System (1968; vt Mechasm 1969) and Stanisław Lem's The Invincible (1964; trans 1973). Anxiety about the alienation of people from their mechanical environment seems to have reached its peak during the 1950s, and the 1960s began a new trend towards uneasy reconciliation, perhaps best exemplified by changes in the typical roles assigned to Cyborgs.

In contemporary sf, as in contemporary society, suspicion of machines remains deeply entrenched, but the inevitability of our association with machinery is accepted. The distinction between life and mechanism often becomes blurred, as in Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The intimacy of the man/machine relationship can only increase still further, and sf stories anticipate this increasing intimacy in all kinds of melodramatic ways; sexual relationships are of course included, as in such stories as Harlan Ellison's "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" (May 1967 Knight) and "Catman" (in Final Stage, anth 1974, ed Edward L Ferman and Barry N Malzberg). The trend towards ever-larger machines was decisively halted by the development of microprocessors, and much contemporary speculation about future machinery is concerned with Nanotechnology: the development of machines which are no more than large molecules and can do extensive work inside our bodies as well as perform complex manufacturing tasks in huge vats. Sf has not yet really got to grips with the possibilities of nanomachinery, but a beginning has been made in such stories as Ian Watson's "Nanoware Time" (June 1989 Asimov's), Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990) and Michael J Flynn's The Nanotech Chronicles (fixup 1991). Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers (1987) brings up to date the older tradition of stories which feature psychologically intrusive machinery.

The growth of the awareness that mankind and machine are inextricably bound together in contemporary society has deflected attention away from the miraculous potential of the machine. The naive assumption that all human problems might be solved by appropriate technological innovations, not uncommon in the 1930s, has been replaced by the assumption that human nature is bound to be remade by new machinery in problematic ways. Machines have largely lost their force as symbols of individual freedom and power, and with this loss the potential of high-tech sf to provide simple escapist fantasies and power fantasies has been eroded. Given this, it is not entirely surprising to find so much late-twentieth-centry sf being set in imaginary pasts (see Alternate History), in futures returned to primitivism (see Post-Holocaust) or on technologically primitive lost colonies (see Colonization of Other Worlds). Formerly, speculative fiction's main concern in dealing with machines was the adaptation of machines to pre-existent human purposes (and this is equally true of Baconian extrapolation and Defoesque fantasy); now the main concern is with the challenges facing our descendants as they are forced to adapt, physically and mentally, to their mechanical achievements and environments. [BS]

see also: Automation; Cyberpunk; Dystopias; Invention; Steampunk.

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