Thursday, January 23, 2020

One More Thing . . .

So, what we have so far:

In working on this series, I have quoted from a website, which shall remain nameless:
A member of the Pulitzer Prize jury, the late Frank McConnell helped science fiction gain standing as serious literature. [. . .] Initially believing that science fiction is primarily one of many forms of storytelling, McConnell gradually recognized science fiction as a modern expression of Gnosticism, rejecting bodily concerns for an emphasis on spirituality. [Emphasis added.]
In one of my replies to a comment from a reader, Randy Stafford, I wrote:
Harold Bloom [. . . .] wrote on Gnosticism, too, including in a book called The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (1992, 2006). In that book (I haven't read it), he evidently proposed a unified-field theory of his subject, saying that American religion is essentially Gnostic.
In various political movements, science and religion have become wed: any science fiction that is progressive, leftist, socialist, or Marxist in nature would seem to have been born from that union. Science fiction certainly has its gnostic progenitors and practitioners, including Joseph Smith, Madame Blavatsky, Richard S. Shaver, L. Ron Hubbard, and even Charles Fort. In one of his comments, Mr. Stafford pointed out that Philip K. Dick "is frequently cited as gnostic, especially [in] The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch." I'm sure there are other gnostic authors, novels, and characters, including Weston, the villain in C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy.

Randy Stafford also wrote: "I think Brian Aldiss had the notion that [science fiction] was essentially gothic." Mr. Aldiss put forth that idea, I think, in his book The Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (1973). (Unfortunately I don't have a copy of this book.) Here is a quote from that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, from Mr. Aldiss' book:
Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.
There is plenty of gothic science fiction to be sure, from Frankenstein (1) to Neuromancer to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which might be the most gothic of all of the Star Wars movies so far. (This is assuming that Star Wars is science fiction and not something else.) (2) Now I have this, from a book I picked up over Christmastime:
Science fiction does not tend to support a given political establishment, but on a deeper level it almost invariably backs the basic tenet of Western civilization: that is, the concept that the individual man is worth more than the organization--whatever it may be--and that nothing is more important than human freedom. (3)
So according to whom you believe, science fiction is essentially gnostic, or gothic, or classically liberal. I'm not sure that any two of these things are easily reconcilable. I'm more inclined to think that some science fiction is gnostic, some gothic, some classically liberal, and some other things altogether. It's probably too simplistic to say that science fiction is all basically one thing--not that anyone is saying that, I guess.

And here's a thought: why do we not have theorizing like this about weird fiction? Could it be that weird fiction comes from a pre-intellectual or pre-academic culture? Is weird fiction, being an essentially conservative genre, necessarily anti-intellectual and so defies this kind of theorizing?

(1) Frankenstein is subtitled The Modern Prometheus. I think that like Frankenstein's monster, Mary Shelley's book is a hybrid: a proto-science fiction novel and a gothic romance. Well, as it turns out Ayn Rand's protagonist in Anthem, Equality 7-2521, takes the name Prometheus once he has gained--or made--his freedom. The theme, I think, is much the same in both books as in so much of our popular literature: a man reaching for godlike power. In Frankenstein, written perhaps by a closeted conservative, he falls short, but in Anthem, a book by an atheist and innovator, he may yet succeed. In any case, Anthem is a dystopian/post-apocalyptic novel, a genre that is very often gothic in its mood and imagery. Even 1984 has its gothic elements.
(2) The scenes in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that take place on the planet of the Sith are obviously infused with gothicism. They remind me of the drawings of Piranesi, more yet like images from Barlowe's Inferno by Wayne Douglas Barlowe. As for the Sith themselves, well, they are ghost-like or wraith-like figures in black robes and hoods (hoodies like the guy pirating the movie in the public service announcements before it begins) and chant like they're in Carmina Burana. Their world waits in darkness and drips with decay. William Basinski could easily have composed the score for their part of the movie.
(3) From "The Role of Science Fiction" by Ben Bova in Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow, A Discursive Symposium, edited by Reginald Bretnor (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 11.

Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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