Entry updated 19 December 2017. Tagged: Theme.
Although various literary traditions supplied inspiration and continued support to Proto SF, it was the perception of the power which the new Machines of the Industrial Revolution had to transform the world which gave birth to sf itself, inspiring Jules Verne's imaginary voyages, George Griffith's Future-War stories, H G Wells's Scientific Romances, the hi-tech Utopian fantasies of Edward Bellamy and others, and the mechanized Dystopian nightmares which dissented from them. The demands of melodrama have always ensured that, even in those specialist magazines whose editors were outspoken champions of technological advancement – most notably Hugo Gernsback and John W Campbell Jr – most stories were about dangerous products or about technology running out of control. Many particular aspects of general technological progress require individual treatment as themes in sf: these include Automation, Bionics, Cities, Computers, Cryonics, Cyborgs, Genetic Engineering, Invention, Nuclear Energy, Power Sources, Robots, Rockets, Spaceships, Starships, Transportation and Weapons.
The attitude of sf to technology has always been deeply ambivalent (see Optimism and Pessimism). The eighteenth-century idea that moral progress and technological progress were inseparably bound together has never been universally accepted, and literary images of the future have always recognized doubts as to the essential goodness of technology, even when their purpose has been to argue that technological progress is the principal facilitator of moral progress. Genre-SF writers may take it for granted – it is a central ideological tenet of almost all Hard SF – but writers of futuristic fantasy outside the genre have always been more likely to take the position that moral, social and spiritual values essential to human happiness are actually placed in hazard by technological advancement. Leading genre-sf writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke have become enormously influential apologists for technological progress in an era when many voices are raised in outspoken criticism of the supposed "dehumanizing" effects of technology. More tellingly – as Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) suggests in La Technique (1954; trans John Wilkinson as The Technological Society 1964) – it is possible to argue the high cost to human consciousness of emphasizing means over ends, "technic" over understanding, in a world which is bound to the measurable and blind to the unique.
Sf is, of course, the natural medium of antitechnological fantasies as well as of serious extrapolations of technological possibility. There is a good deal of Pastoral sf which glorifies a nostalgically romanticized quasi-medieval way of life, often with Psi-Power-jargonized Magic thrown in to help with the chores. Such imagery bears no relation whatsoever to the brutal reality of actual medieval existence, but its phenomenal psychological power is even more elaborately reflected in modern genre Fantasy; and stories of Life on Other Worlds and the depiction of Alien societies frequently deal in similar imagery. No doubt the appeal of low-tech societies to sf writers has much to do with the fact that the strategic elimination of known technology is easier by far to accomplish than elaborate technological innovation, but there is clearly also some powerful force at work endowing such visions with a special glamour. E M Forster's question – posed in reaction to Wells's technological utopianism – about what happens when "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 Oxford and Cambridge Review) is by no means purely practical; he and many others who followed in his footsteps were arguing – as Aldous did Huxley in Brave New World (1932) – that the "Machine" will rot our minds down to intellectual compost. It is worth noting, however, that in pastoral writings within genre sf, rather than from outside it, the joy and triumph of technological rediscovery and redevelopment provide a frequent theme – one particularly prevalent in tales of the Holocaust and subsequent Post-Holocaust life.
If genre sf needs a defence, it is quite simply that technological progress has allowed us to become in almost every way healthier, wealthier and in some senses wiser, and may well continue to perform that role. If Gernsback's advocacy of that case was naive and Campbell's eccentric, the writers for whom they created a home were sufficiently various, intelligent and heterodox to make sure the question was examined in all kinds of ingenious ways. The wide-eyed optimism of Gernsback's own Ralph 124C 41+ (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; fixup 1925) and the curiously convoluted explorations of Campbell's "Don A Stuart" stories were soon supplemented by David H Keller's fabular cautionary tales, Robert A Heinlein's celebration of all-purpose problem-solving aptitudes and Asimov's die-hard championship of technical improvisation as the favourite offspring of maternal necessity. Even if the conventions of melodrama demanded that things must go wrong in story after story, true sf writers always put the blame on the greed and vainglory of rogues, politicians, military men or business tycoons, never on the march of progress itself. Criminal Scientists or Mad Scientists were often required as Villains, but scientists figured more prominently in genre sf as Heroes – or, at least, as key supporting players whose endeavours enabled Everyman heroes to succeed. It was perhaps unfortunate that Campbell developed in "Forgetfulness" (June 1937 Astounding) as by Don A Stuart – and was ever after willing to play host to – the notion that human society might one day "transcend" technology by developing powers of the mind which would obviate its necessity. And genre sf has also generated its own perverse brand of technological scepticism, enshrined in images of technology literally moving beyond human control by establishing its own independent processes of Evolution, an idea first broached satirically in Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872) but given a new edge by genre stories of self-replicating machines which – as, for instance, in some of Gregory Benford's recent works – may become involved in an ultimate and universal struggle for existence against biological organisms.
Like the Romantics before them, genre-sf writers have generally been on the side of Faust, convinced that the quest for knowledge was a sacred one, no matter how fondly a jealous God might prefer blind faith. Characters in bad Hollywood Monster Movies might be able to sign off with a resigned admission that "there are things Man was not meant to know", but nothing could be more alien to the ethos of genre sf. Even in early pulp sf, technology was a means rather than an end, and, however much Campbell's writers were inclined to the celebration of the competence of the engineer, there remained a visionary element in their work which centralized the Conceptual Breakthrough as the peak experience of human existence. The hi-tech future of pulp sf was not the "Utopia of Comforts" so bitterly criticized by such sceptical writers as S Fowler Wright but rather a reaching-out for further horizons. Space Flight became and remained the central myth of sf because it was the ultimate window of opportunity, through which the entire Universe could be viewed – and, ultimately, known. In genre sf, the ultimate aim of technological progress is, in the words of Mack Reynolds, "total understanding of the cosmos". This is clearly reflected in the increasing interest which post-World War Two sf has taken in the traditional questions of Religion and in the evolution of science-fictional ideas of the Superman.
Genre sf has played a key role in the development of modern images of future technology. The Illustrations of the pulp magazines were remarkably potent in this respect – particularly the cityscapes of Frank R Paul. The imagery of futuristic vehicles and cities, especially spaceships, has a glamour all of its own, carried forward in the work of artists like Chris Foss and Jim Burns. Much of this has, of course, been absorbed into the Cinema, although technical limitations put a severe restraint on its evolution until films like Star Wars (1977) were able to deploy models which looked far more real than the impressive but obvious fakes used in, say, Metropolis (1926). William Gibson's dismissal of much of this imagery as an obsolete dream of "The Gernsback Continuum" (in Universe 11, anth 1981, ed Terry Carr) is not altogether fair, although Gibson has played a leading role in updating and supplementing sf's visual imagery by providing Cyberspace with "inner-spatial landscapes" reflective of the types of graphics which modern computers are particularly adept at generating.
As anxieties about impending ecocatastrophes increase (see Ecology; Overpopulation; Pollution), sf stories which focus closely on controversies regarding the goodness or badness of technology have inevitably increased in number, and will presumably continue to do so. Such debates are the central issue of such novels as Norman Spinrad's lyrical Songs from the Stars (1980), Poul Anderson's dogged Orion Shall Rise (1983) and Marc Laidlaw's satirical Dad's Nuke (1985). Perhaps the most apt verbal image of modern humanity's relationship with technology is that enshrined in the title of Marc Stiegler's collection The Gentle Seduction (coll 1990); the title story "The Gentle Seduction" (April 1989 Analog) is one of the more eloquent of the many contemporary sf tales arguing that the development of Nanotechnology will eventually bring us into a much more intimate and rewarding association with our machines than we could ever, until recently, have imagined. [BS/PN]
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