Entry updated 20 September 2021. Tagged: Theme.
Scientists in pre-twentieth-century sf often exhibited symptoms of social maladjustment, sometimes to the point of insanity; they were characteristically obsessive and antisocial. Some scientists were quasidiabolical figures, like Coppelius in E T A Hoffmann's "Der Sandmann" ["The Sandman"] (comprising volume one of Nachtstücke, 1816) or Mary Shelley's eponymous Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831); others were ridiculous, like those in the third book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735). In Honoré de Balzac's La recherche de l'absolu (1834; 1st trans as The Philosopher's Stone 1844) scientific research becomes an unholy addiction. Such stories make it clear that the scientist had inherited the mantle (and the public image) of medieval alchemists, astrologers and sorcerers, and certain aspects of this image proved extraordinarily persistent; its vestiges remain even today, with science-fictional alchemical romances still featuring in the work of authors like Charles L Harness. The founding fathers of sf, Jules Verne (Nemo and Robur) and H G Wells (Moreau, Griffin and Cavor), frequently represented scientists as eccentric and obsessive; Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll is cast from the same anxious mould, as is Maurice Renard's Dr Lerne; and Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger is not so very different. A detailed analysis of the process of scientific creativity as a species of madness is presented in J S Fletcher's Morrison's Machine (1900).
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, other images of the scientist were beginning to appear. The US public made a hero of Thomas Alva Edison, and this admiration for the clever inventor is reflected in much popular fiction (see Edisonade). The great man himself is featured in Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's L'Ève Future (1886) and Garrett P Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (January 1898 The New York Evening Journal; 1947), and a Dime-Novel SF series featured Tom Edison Jr. Other scientists who attracted hero-worship included Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955), although Einstein's ideas were so non-commonsensical that they were accepted by many as a proof of the oddity of scientists. One wholehearted hero-worshipper of scientists was Hugo Gernsback, and he gave voice to this sentiment in Ralph 124C 41+ (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; 1925). The scientist-as-Hero thus entered pulp sf at its very inception, alongside the eccentric genius – although many of the heroic scientists of pulp sf were simply stock pulp heroes with scientific prowess improbably grafted on: E E "Doc" Smith's Richard Seaton is a cardinal example. Scientists in the early sf pulps were often eccentric and absent-minded, and the demands of melodrama required many to turn their hands to criminal enterprises, but they were rarely outright nuts, after the fashion of such cinematic figures as the title-characters of Doctor X (1932) and Dr Cyclops (1940) and such non-genre arch-villains as Dr Munsker in The Devil's Highway (1932) by Harold Bell Wright and John Lebar.
As pulp sf matured there was a significant shift in the characterization of the scientist hero. Especially in Astounding Science-Fiction, the role of the theoretical genius was de-emphasized relative to that of the practical-minded engineer; archetypal examples of this species were the personnel of George O Smith's Venus Equilateral (stories October 1942-November 1945 Astounding; coll of linked stories 1947; exp 1975 UK 2vols; vt The Complete Venus Equilateral 1976), forever scribbling equations and designs on the tablecloths in Joe's Bar. The presumed essence of real genius remained as wayward as ever, however: Henry Kuttner's inventor Galloway Gallegher always made his marvellous machines while blind drunk and could never remember afterwards how he had done it. Hero-worship of the scientific genius was further extended by Isaac Asimov, whose Foundation series was the first notable work to elevate a social scientist to that status. Outside the sf magazines, a more realistic image of the work and social situation of the scientist was depicted in E C Large's cynical Sugar in the Air (1937), which features a visionary and idealistic scientist at odds with his stupid and irrational employers. In the post-World War Two decade this kind of image became much more common – notably in several novels by Edward Hyams, including Not in Our Stars (1949), and in many magazine stories.
Genre-sf writers mostly responded to the widespread popular opinion that Technology had got out of hand by putting the blame on machine-users rather than machine-makers, claiming that it was not Mad Scientists but mad generals and mad politicians who were the problem; nuclear scientists were often represented as isolated paragons of sanity locked into a political and military matrix that threatened the destruction of the world (see Nuclear Energy). The US security clampdown of the 1950s emphasized the new social situation of the scientist and provoked a wave of sf stories dealing with the morality of carrying out research which had potential military applications, and with the difficulty of making scientific discoveries in such circumstances. An effective vignette dealing with the conscience of the scientist who watches his discoveries in action is C M Kornbluth's "The Altar at Midnight" (November 1952 Galaxy); the most dramatic depiction of the conflict between scientific interests and military security is Algis Budrys's Who? (April 1955 Fantastic Universe; exp 1958). Later tales of scientists in conflict with the demands made by society include Theodore Sturgeon's "Slow Sculpture" (February 1970 Galaxy Science Fiction), Bob Shaw's Ground Zero Man (1971), D G Compton's The Steel Crocodile (1970; vt The Electric Crocodile 1970) and James P Hogan's The Genesis Machine (1978). Non-genre writers continued to have less sympathy with scientists; irresponsible or outrightly Mad Scientists continued to appear in some profusion – notable examples include Peter George's Dr Strangelove in Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) and Felix Hoenikker in Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Cat's Cradle (1963). Outside the protective walls of the sf genre these sinister figures easily outnumbered scientists credited with the noblest of ideals and motives; Pierre Boulle's Garden on the Moon (1965), which shows German rocket scientists thinking only of the Moon and Space Flight while working on the V2, is a vivid exception. The advent of technologies like Genetic Engineering has helped sustain the routine demonization of scientists in films and horror stories.
In modern sf, scientists have become rather less common, at least as major characters. Writers who are not scientists themselves have become increasingly wary of the difficulties involved in presenting a convincing picture of scientists at work in the laboratory. Sf writers who are scientists are far more ready to accept the challenge – see Great Science Fiction by Scientists (anth 1962) edited by Groff Conklin and The Expert Dreamers (anth 1962; cut 1966) edited by Frederik Pohl – and the fictions of many science-trained writers are regularly featured in the pages of Analog. But even they often find it difficult to picture the kinds of equipment which will fill the laboratories of the future, and the kinds of work which will be done there. Scientists who have written notable sf about the scientists of the future include Gregory Benford, David Brin, Paul Davies, Robert L Forward, Fred Hoyle and Philip Latham. Many Eastern European writers are practising scientists. (Communist sf characteristically put forward a determinedly positive image of scientists and their endeavours, although there are some very uneasy compromises with this orthodoxy in the work of Arkady and Boris Strugatski.) Many writers of Hard SF are also popular-science writers of note, and they too have useful expertise which they can and do deploy in their fiction; notable examples include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and John Gribbin.
The most effective picture of near-contemporary scientists at work in later twentieth-century sf is probably Gregory Benford's Timescape (1980); other notable examples are Kate Wilhelm's The Clewiston Test (1976), Hilbert Schenck's A Rose for Armageddon (1982), Paul Preuss's Broken Symmetries (1983) and Jack McDevitt's The Hercules Text (1986). A particularly memorable attempt at characterizing a scientific genius is Ursula K Le Guin's Shevek in The Dispossessed (1974); there are several charming but less earnest portraits in the work of Vadim Shefner.
Scientists are of course not exempt from sf Satire. One effective trope is the science-cult whose practice of scientific method has degenerated into empty ritual, more Religion than science, as with the Asteroid-dwelling Scientific People of Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996). Another such cult, with academic trappings, appears in Sheri S Tepper's Necromancer Nine (1983).
A useful article (with a bibliography listing various earlier sources) on the theme is "Scientists in Science Fiction: Enlightenment and After" by Patrick Parrinder in Science Fiction: Roots and Branches (1990) edited by Rhys Garnett and R J Ellis. A good book on the subject is From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature (1994) by Roslynn D Haynes; it deals with Genre SF as well as mainstream fiction. [BS/DRL]
previous versions of this entry