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Modernism in SF

Entry updated 22 September 2020. Tagged: Theme.

The advent of Modernism as a literary movement went unremarked at the time, and when that time was remains a matter of debate; for a discussion of the dating and significance of Modernism in Latin America, see that entry. Certainly a break with the realistic fiction of the Victorian era, analytical in manner and unitary in form, was evident by the 1890s in, for example, the middle work of Henry James (1843-1916) and August Strindberg (1849-1912) and in the prose and poetry of Stephen Crane (1871-1900). When Andrew Lang declared his preference for "More claymores, less psychology" in his column "At the Sign of the Ship" (December 1893 Longman's Magazine), he was registering and good-humouredly resisting a change already in the air, although "the hero's conflicts in conscience" that Lang saw as overpowering the plots of contemporary novels were modest enough (the novel under discussion was Robert Louis Stevenson's Catriona [1893]). Certainly by the time Joseph Conrad published the magazine version of Heart of Darkness (February-April 1899 Blackwood's Magazine as "The Heart of Darkness"; in coll 1902; 1925), a shift in emphasis from narrative impetus (of which his Congo journey should have provided enough) to a heightened dramatization of mental states, rendered with great subjectivity, was apparent to readers. Virginia Woolf's later declaration that "On or about December 1910, human character changed" (in Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown [1924 chap]) sets a later point for the beginning of Modernism, but the two dates, bracketing a period that saw the composition (if not always the publication) of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (October 1899-November 1900 Blackwood's Magazine; 1900), Rudyard Kipling's "Mrs Bathurst" (September 1904 Windsor Magazine), E M Forster's "The Eternal Moment" (July-August 1905 Independent Review), James Joyce's (1882-1941) "The Dead" (written 1907; in Dubliners coll 1914), Gertrude Stein's (1874-1946) Three Lives (1909), and Ford Madox Ford's The "Half Moon": A Romance of the Old World and the New (1909), demonstrates that while the full flowering of Modernism began only after the end of World War One, its stirrings were becoming evident over the previous two decades.

Although Modernism had an enormous effect on a younger generation of writers, beginning with those who began to publish in the 1920s (William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Hart Crane in the US; Evelyn Waugh in England), its influence on Genre SF was for a long time negligible. One might argue that the moodiness and slow pace of such works as "A Martian Odyssey" (July 1934 Wonder Stories) by Stanley G Weinbaum and "Twilight" (November 1934 Astounding as by Don A Stuart) by John W Campbell owe something to the fin-de-siècle opulence (see Decadence) that played a role in the emergence of Modernism. But such luxuriance was familiar to readers of Weird Tales and other Pulp magazines. Some of the innovations evident in early Modernism can be occasionally found in early Genre SF, such as the unreliable narrator, the use of multiple first-person narrators, and the narrative assembled from disparate and sometime irreconcilable documents, but these had been variously anticipated in Victorian literature – they are all present, for example, in The Moonstone (4 January-8 August 1868 All the Year Round; 1868) by Wilkie Collins (1824-1889). Writing on the use of myth in Ulysses (March 1918-December 1920 The Little Review; 1922), T S Eliot (1888-1965) said that "In manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him", but sf writers, at least, were slow to join the pursuit. The closest approach to Fantastika as a whole in any Modernist fiction of substance may be Wyndham Lewis's The Childermass: Section 1 (1928).

The signal innovations of high Modernism – its intensive subjectivity, its use of stream-of-consciousness narration as well as disparate and seemingly irreconcilable fragments (often paradoxically welded into a highly determined, overarching superstructure), the ironic use of myths (see Mythology), and its preoccupation with exile – began to appear in Genre SF only in the early 1950s, and most conspicuously with the early mature work of James Blish. Blish had been fascinated with Modernist literature and music since his youth; he had written about such works as Joyce's Finnegans Wake (var mags 1924-1932, var chap; 1939), the Pisan Cantos (1948) by Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and the late operas of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) in sf Fanzines in the late 1940s, though in the last case without much perception. With the appearance of "Bridge" (February 1952 Astounding), "Testament of Andros" (January 1953 Future Science Fiction), and "Common Time" (August 1953 Science Fiction Quarterly), his deeply Modernist sensibility was (after a long apprenticeship) successfully realized in his fiction. The Modernist elements in "Testament of Andros" and "Common Time" have been much discussed, but "Bridge", which dramatizes an enormous experimental structure being assembled on the surface of Jupiter, is at once a more subtle and a more blatant example. With its evocation of an immense structure that serves to connect no geographical features, will never carry passengers and was designed only for disturbingly arcane purposes – it was "easily the most enormous (and in most other respects the most useless) engineering project ever undertaken by man" – the eponymous Bridge may be taken as a metaphor for Ulysses, or for the serious literature Blish hoped to write. In its evocations of displacement (the Bridge is being constructed by remote control from one of Jupiter's satellites, and the protagonists' psyches are lofted agonizingly from one site to the other) and its use of a single governing image through which the characters' personalities, clashing philosophies, and a binary opposition of Eros vs Thanatos are refracted, "Bridge" seems less a Modernist work than an embodiment of Modernism. Brian W Aldiss's observation that the Bridge "represents the joining of two incompatible systems" suggests that Blish's overdetermined image can be seen as mediating between sf and literature (or myth) in the manner described earlier by Eliot.

Almost simultaneously with Blish, Theodore Sturgeon began in the early fifties to employ some of the techniques of Modernism. The influence of Faulkner is apparent in More Than Human (October 1952 Galaxy; fixup 1953) in its dramatization of the inner consciousness of an "idiot" and in its division into major sections governed by differing points of view, while "The Man Who Lost the Sea" (October 1959 F&SF) presents the confused thoughts of a traumatized individual (it is an injured astronaut, dying on Mars) as a stream of consciousness.

It is possible to identify some Modernist elements in the 1950s novels and short fiction of such sophisticated writers of American magazine sf as Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip K Dick, Damon Knight, Fritz Leiber, and others. Special mention should be made of Aldiss, whose ebullient and ironic short stories showed a Modernist flavour from the early sixties, perhaps most notably in "Old Hundredth" (November 1960 New Worlds) and "A Kind of Artistry" (October 1962 F&SF). With Report on Probability A (1968) and Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia (var mags 1967-1969; fixup 1969), Aldiss undertook formal experiments in Modernist manner, and his large oeuvre shows an assured facility with Modernist sensibilities and techniques.

By the mid-sixties the British New Wave had been identified by name, and while its programme (never as unified as its detractors claimed) was usually expressed in terms of writing sf that permitted itself the freedoms and stylistic resources of Mainstream literature, a great deal of the fiction (and Illustration) published in New Worlds after Michael Moorcock assumed its editorship in 1964 was overtly modernist. Collage, a concern with Inner Space, disregard of market pressures and the other elements cited above were variously reflected in the work of J G Ballard (whose version of Modernism was an acknowledged influence on various later writers, including Will Self), Thomas M Disch, M John Harrison, Christopher Priest, John T Sladek, Pamela Zoline and others.

Much of the work published in New Worlds and in American original Anthologies in this period showed a preoccupation with the formal apparatus of Modernism, and of the literary avant garde generally, that could at times resemble an excited dabbling with newly-discovered toys; Blish testily observed in 1970 that Philip José Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison) relied on "daring innovations taken lock stock and barrel out of the 'Cave of the Winds' chapter of Joyce's Ulysses", while John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968) "confessedly borrow[s] techniques wholesale from John Dos Passos". A number of the stories in Harlan Ellison's original anthology Again, Dangerous Visions (anth 1972) (see Dangerous Visions) and in some of the Original Anthologies in the late sixties and early seventies indeed evince a preoccupation with the apparatus of Modernism, and few are remembered today.

Though less ostentatiously, much of Gene Wolfe's fiction employs Modernist strategies, most notably The Fifth Head of Cerberus (fixup 1972), whose opening sentence (as well as numerous other elements) echoes that of Marcel Proust's A La Recherche de Temps Perdu (1912-1927 7vols; trans C K Scott Moncrieff as Remembrance of Things Past 1922-1930; vt In Search of Lost Time rev 1981 Terence Kilmartin; rev 1992 D J Enright). Wolfe's use of Modernist strategies is most overt in his works of the seventies, as seen in "Cues" (in The Far Side of Time, anth 1974, ed Roger Elwood), "Hour of Trust" (in Bad Moon Rising, anth 1972, ed Thomas M Disch) with its epigraph from Proust, and "Forlesen" (in Orbit 14, anth 1974, ed Damon Knight). His later work, however, has so thoroughly assimilated these strategies that they cannot be easily teased from other influences: The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) reflects as much Wolfe's desire to write a Dickensian novel of childhood and youth as it does a work of Modernist artifice and cunning.

By the mid-seventies, the self-consciousness with which ambitious sf writers raided the Modernist toolbox had faded, and with notable exceptions (such as Samuel R Delany's Dhalgren [1975; rev 1977; rev 2001] and much of the fiction of Carter Scholz), modern sf rarely shows a marked affinity with Modernism as such. In any event, by this period the emergence of Postmodernism makes it difficult (and usually unproductive) to identify specifically Modernist elements in a new work of fiction. While most of the Genre SF published in the twenty-first century continues to observe the conventions of commercial fiction that developed during the Victorian era and have undergone few changes since, sf and Fantasy that undertake any mode of stylistic or structural innovation (see New Weird; Fabulation; Slipstream SF) can more effectively be discussed with the vocabulary of Postmodernism. [GF]

see also: Oulipo; David Markson.

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