On Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Holly Lawford-Smith
Abstract, Acknowledgements and Contents
I have always been aware that something very significant can be gained from human
engagement with fiction. Undoubtedly there is good and bad fiction, as there is good and bad
in every artistic field. We all have our preferences – in fiction between genres such as
Adventure, Crime and Mystery, Fantasy, Horror, Human Relations, Historical Fiction,
Romance and Science Fiction. Unavoidably, where there is fiction, there is literary criticism.
In his article “It’s Only A Paper Moon: Fantasy and the Professors”, Frank McConnell
points out the curious culture of the literary criticism with which we engage. He makes
explicit the incongruous fact that ‘we congratulate ourselves on what we do not like more
strenuously than we prize what we appreciate’.
This culture of taking pride in devaluing
work we do not like, of devoting time to negative criticism rather than to explicating the
positive elements of work we appreciate, is a culture that has had severe effects not only on
particular pieces of fiction but also on whole genres. My concern lies with the genres of
Science Fiction and Fantasy, which reside in a marginalized position within the literary field.
In recent years, after learning more about the Philosophy of Literature and looking into the
reasons for our supposing literature (and fiction in general) to hold some necessary
significance for our lives, the fact that some genres are held in both public and academic
esteem to be somehow ‘lesser’ began to puzzle me. What is it about Science Fiction and
Fantasy that disallows their being held in high esteem? Perhaps there is a sociological
reason: maybe readers of Science Fiction or Fantasy gain from their reading some
identifiable character traits which make them less successful or effective in their everyday
lives? Or perhaps there is something about these genres that does not conform to the most
well-established theories about what good fiction is or should be?
Our exploration will begin by presenting some of the most well-established theories
of the value of literature. We will then go on to attempt to loosely define the parameters of
both Science Fiction and Fantasy as literary genres, before looking in greater detail at the
arguments (and, surprisingly, the lack of arguments) waged against them. Once we have
established the main arguments against each we will be able to go on to decide whether the
arguments, against whole genres, are strong enough to deny individual works of Science
Fiction or Fantasy the status usually accorded to great works of fiction in other genres.
2. The Value of Literature
Philosophers as early as Aristotle proposed arguments for the value of literature
What Aristotle said was:
] function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might
happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction […] consists really in this,
that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry
is something more philosophical and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the
nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.
Aristotle introduces what we have later come to call Simulation Theory.
Given a particular
set of starting conditions - particular kinds of characters in particular kinds of situations –
a talented author runs a mental simulation to determine the likely events and outcome.
Aristotle’s argument is that fiction is ‘more philosophical and of graver import’ than history,
because it is concerned with ‘a kind of thing that might be’, rather than merely what is or has
been. Fiction, then, can provide us with knowledge that transcends our experience thus far.
Simulation limits ‘what might be’ to what is ‘probable’ or ‘necessary’. This eliminates
flights of fancy (appropriately called, so we shall see). This line of thought is continued by
Henry Fielding, one of the originators of the novel in the early eighteenth century, who was
‘the first author consistently to have defined the genre of the novel, with reference to
Aristotle, as centrally concerned with probability’,
insisting that it ‘must not deal in the
possible but must limit itself strictly to the probable’:
[T]he novelist must decline the favours of gods from machines; his plot must work itself out by means
of the natural interaction of the characters, the plausible and inevitable sequence of cause and effect.
The ‘probable’ is rigorously and logically constrained. It will not take much consideration
to see that Science Fiction and Fantasy are concerned on the whole far more with the
possible than the probable, and as such meets neither Aristotle’s nor Fielding’s suppositions.
However, this narrow criterion for the novel was soon to dissolve with the emergence
on the literary scene of Laurence Sterne, expressly concerned with the ‘possible’, and five
years later Horace Walpole, predominantly concerned with the ‘miraculous’. In spite of these
developments, some forty or so years later Georges-Louis Buffon was to encourage a shift
back toward verisimilitude in fiction:
Buffon serves as the mirror reverse of Walpole’s attempt to free a space for fancy by hewing to strict
probability of action, characters, and psychology within initially fantastic fictional premises. […]
Fantasy opens space for circumstantial and psychological realism in Walpole’s novel – the space
within which he develops techniques for the first sustained third-person (impartial) narration of
consciousness in English. ‘Fact’ opens a space for speculative thought-experiment in Buffon’s Natural
Buffon rejects the ‘fantasy’ of Walpole in favour of ‘fact’, the latter allowing a more
rigorous exercise of imagination, the Thought Experiment. These examples illustrate the fact
that theory within the Philosophy of Literature has oscillated over the issue of probable
versus possible. However, I will argue that the important defining feature of literature as
opposed to work in some other (non-artistic) medium is its aesthetic qualities, not strictly its
content, whereas the latter has been the focus of these earlier debates.
Perhaps the most well-known modern theory of the value of literature comes from
Martha Nussbaum, who argues that good literature is morally improving. In Poetic Justice,
she maintains that literature and the literary imagination can aid us greatly in our lives, from
individual morality through to state governed issues of justice. She explains that a work of
literature can typically invite its readers to ‘put themselves in the place of people of many
different kinds and take on their experiences’.
What Nussbaum is advocating here is
something slightly different to Aristotle. Instead of gaining valuable insight into situations
of the kind we might one day find ourselves in (and therefore being enabled to enter those
situations better equipped), we are gaining insight into new situations in order to build on
our empathy for others. We understand what it would be like to be somebody else, we are
taking part in John Rawls’ ‘putting ourselves into other people’s shoes’. This is a recurring
theme throughout Poetic Justice; our literary imagination, ‘informed and tethered’ by
technical mastery of social law, is necessary for our being empathetic creatures and avoiding
the kind of cold calculating ethic imagined toward the end of Nussbaum’s The Fragility of
Goodness, where qualitative analysis overrules the problematic nature of today’s morality.
In Poetic Justice she argues that the foundations for building moral knowledge are present
in every person:
What we see in […] human refusals is not a defect in the type of ‘fancy’ I shall be defending here, but
a defect in human beings who do not exercise that type of fancy well, who cultivate their human
sympathies unequally and narrowly.
The implication here is that all humans possess a natural ability to empathize, which can and
should be exercised in an appropriate manner, cultivated and worked at. If it is not, the result
is unequal and narrow human sympathy. This idea is supported by Plato in Protagoras where
he argues that morality is built into a child right from birth.
As humans, we have a predisposition to this kind of ability to sympathize, but we
must cultivate it. Nussbaum supposes literature to be morally improving in that it allows us
to build upon our empathy for others. We must ask whether it is possible that Science Fiction
or Fantasy work against this supposition, denying us insight into another life, disallowing
an improvement in our morality through an increase in empathy.
Even at this early stage, we should make a concession to Science Fiction and Fantasy
in acknowledging that much of the literature advocated by Aristotle and Nussbaum in their
respective theories has content that is largely fantastical. Just consider the content of much
of the work of the writers of Ancient Greece - giants, centaurs, gods and non-human
intelligences etc. - some of which (Aristophanes, Homer, for instance) is still held to be some
of the best literature of all time.
A final theorist of interest is Richard Posner. He often sets himself against
Nussbaum, in that he considers many of her views about the ‘morally redemptive’ value of
literature to be somewhat overblown. Posner investigates the relation of literature to law. He
correlates literature and judicial opinion by showing that they are both intended to make the
reader believe (as opposed to just enjoy) the writer. It is worth quoting him at length:
When science was not very advanced there were poets of science, such as Democritus, Lucretius, the
metaphysical poets, and Erasmus Darwin - a point both consistent with the fact that poetry and other
forms of literature usually deal with subjects not yet annexed by mathematics and science, and
suggestive of an informing as well as an emotive function for literature. We can still learn something
about ambition from Macbeth, about justice, revenge, maturity, conflict and individualism from the
works discussed in Part 1 of this book,[
] about social class from the Victorian novelists, about
religion from Dante, Milton and Dostoevsky, about terrorism from The Possessed, about despair from
the early poetry of T.S Eliot, and about guilt and obsession from Kafka. […] The creative writer can
hold his own with the sociologist, the anthropologist, the political – or the legal – philosopher, the
historian, and the psychologist, in broad areas of their fields. […] Thus I disagree with the idea that
literature is concerned not with knowledge or belief but only with emotion. […] Creating emotion is
an important thing that literature does, but it also persuades, though obliquely.
He goes on to say:
The cognitive, informing, or persuading part of literature operates by presenting the reader with a
dramatic scene that stirs imagination and emotion and leaves a residue of insight (into love, ambition,
revenge, the human condition, or whatever).
In supposing literature to persuade, to provide us with greater knowledge, Posner aligns his
arguments with Aristotle’s; in supposing literature to provide insight and create emotion, he
aligns himself with Nussbaum. Yet he distinguishes himself from both: he doubts that
literature is a better than or even equal source of knowledge to real life. He says that there
is perhaps a surer source in reading in other fields, gaining professional experience, and
having human contact. He concludes by saying ‘whether books are superior to life as a
source of such knowledge is an undemonstrated and not especially plausible proposition’.
He is not denying the immense social value in literature, but merely questioning whether
literature is necessary for moral knowledge.
It is worth noting just briefly here that in presenting these particular theories of the
value of literature I am taking something of a ‘standard line’. There are other qualities which
we can value in literature, some of which we will begin to uncover and discuss in more detail
as this paper progresses.
3. Defining the Genres
Some people think there is very little difference between Science Fiction and
Fantasy. One such person is Albert Wenland, author of Science, Myth, and the Fictional
Creation of Alien Worlds, who says that ‘Science Fiction is Fantasy posing as realism
because of an apparently scientific frame’.
Carl Malmgren comments on Wendland’s
definition that it ‘ignores a wide spectrum of critical consensus’, critical consensus which
says that Fantasy ‘intentionally violates or contradicts the conventional norms of possibility’
while Science Fiction ‘adheres to them’.
Let us look first at an approximate definition of
3.1. Science Fiction
Science Fiction is a form of speculative fiction, which deals primarily with the
impact of imagined science and technology upon both whole societies and individual
There are, of course, many variables of this within the context of imaginative
fiction, such as: the effect of imagined science, the imagined effect of actual science,
imagined technology based on actual science, imagined technology based upon imagined
science, the effect of science and/or technology upon imagined societies, the effect of
science and/or technology upon imagined individuals, etc. Above all, ‘Science Fiction
always has been concerned with the great hopes people place in science, but also with their
fears concerning the negative side of technological development’.
Usually, science is used
as the demarcation point to differentiate between Science Fiction and Fantasy, but:
It can also be argued that Science Fiction is simply a modern form of fantasy, which developed
alongside of the rise of science and technology as driving factors in modern society. In this view, the
elements that would previously have been presented as Fantasy (magic, transformations, divination,
mind-reading, fabulous beasts, new civilizations, higher beings, etc.) are rationalized or supported
through scientific or quasi-scientific rationales (psychic abilities such as telekinesis and precognition,
aliens and their civilizations etc.).
Here we begin to understand the difficulty in providing any sharp definition of the genre,
especially in its relation to Fantasy.
In an article called “On Science Fiction”, C.S. Lewis defines six different sub-species
of Science Fiction, which are ‘Displaced Persons’, ‘Engineers’, ‘Thought Experiment’,
‘Eschatological’, ‘Imaginative Impulse’, and ‘Marvellous’.
‘Displaced Persons’ is the most trivial kind, identified by an unnecessary ‘leap into
the future’, where the author proceeds to use this impressive backcloth to tell an ordinary
Lewis argues that such a leap is only necessary if the story cannot be told
economically in any other way. Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle is one example
of ‘Displaced Persons’ Science Fiction, while Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are two examples of the leap into the future being necessary.
These latter works are satiric or prophetic: ‘the author criticizes tendencies in the present by
imagining them carried out […] to their logical limit’.
‘Engineers’ refers to a group of writers who regard space-travel or other technologies
as real possibilities. Lewis states that their work is an imaginative guess as to how things
might be done.
The third sub-species he identifies is the speculative, or ‘Thought-Experiment’. This
differs from ‘Engineers’ in that the emphasis lies not in how the novel setting was arrived
at but what it is like. He does, however, acknowledge that such a category is only of limited
use: ‘It is only the first visit to the Moon or to Mars that is, for this purpose, any good […]
it becomes difficult to suspend our disbelief in favour of subsequent stories. However good
they were they would kill each other by becoming numerous’.
The ‘Eschatological’ sub-species ‘gives an imaginative vehicle to speculations about
the ultimate destiny of our species’.
Lewis thinks it healthy to entertain such speculations:
‘it is sobering and cathartic to remember, now and then, our collective smallness, our
apparent isolation, the apparent indifference of nature, the slow biographical, geological, and
astronomical processes which may, in the long run, make many of our hopes (possibly some
of our fears) ridiculous.’
It is a sub-species which is sometimes less novelistic and more
pseudo-historical. He provides an analogy of passengers on a ship involved in a heated
conflict in the saloon, and likens Eschatological Science Fiction to taking a breather on deck.
He says: ‘stories of the sort I am describing are like that visit to the deck. They cool us. […]
Hence the uneasiness which they arouse in those who, for whatever reason, wish to keep us
wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict. That perhaps is why people are so ready with
the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me
the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be the most preoccupied
with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: ‘jailers’.’
(Tolkien’s simple question will become of crucial importance when we come later to discuss
the charge of ‘escapism’ against both Science Fiction and Fantasy).
Works in the category of ‘Imaginative Impulse’ take an impossibility as their
starting postulate, and are as much concerned with science and technology as with myth and
legend, ‘not only stories about space-travel but stories about gods, ghosts, ghouls, demons,
fairies, monsters, etc.’
Of these, Lewis says ‘it is their wonder, or beauty, or suggestiveness
that matter’. He points out that as we gain greater knowledge of our world we must to go
further to find imaginative settings.
The last category is the ‘Marvellous’. These Lewis defines by their quality. He says
that such stories are ‘actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations
we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience’. We
should keep these distinctions in mind, as it will become quite evident that a lot of criticism
directed toward Science Fiction seems to be actually directed toward just one of these sub-species, Displaced Persons, and that thus much of the criticism can be refuted by providing
examples of the benefit to be gained through engagement with the other sub-species.
In contradistinction to Science Fiction, which usually exhibits an overwhelming
concern with science and technology, Fantasy is primarily concerned with Nature and the
natural. It is a broad category, but best defined by the fact of its going against the laws of
nature or currently accepted general states of affairs occurring in this world:
The natural world has its laws, [which] themselves may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may,
if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws.
The narrative of Fantasy is self-coherent and the worlds obey their own distinct rules and
laws. It is its nature of being contra-real which demarcates Fantasy most sharply from
Science Fiction; Fantasy confronts or contradicts the real while Science Fiction is generally
understood as possible or potentially possible and thus sides with the real. John Chute, co-author of The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy states that before the nineteenth century, no genre
of written literature ‘seems to have been constituted so as deliberately to confront or
contradict the “real”.’
Although Chute’s definition is useful, it is worth commenting that
it is also somewhat problematic. His notion that the nineteenth century saw the rise of
Fantasy, the first genre to deliberately contradict the real, ignores the broad antecedent
history of myth and folklore. Although some works of myth and folklore are grounded in
genuine belief, others are satirical, and others again are just ‘fun’. The high proportion of
deus ex machina in many of these stories indicates something less-serious than genuine
Modern Fantasy [provides] the natural venue for the self-coherent impossible tale, i.e. an internally
coherent impossible world in which that tale is possible. Almost all post-Tolkien Fantasy inhabits this
The characters of Fantasy are often human or elevated humans such as sorceresses
and sorcerers, witches and wizards, but amongst such characters we find also centaurs,
druids, dragons, dwarves, elementals, elves, gnomes, gods, griffins, higher beings, hobbits,
ogres, phoenixes, spirits, the supernatural, trolls, and a whole host of anthropomorphized
creatures. (This list is nowhere near exhaustive). Fantasy literature seems to exhibit a kind
of reductio approach to living, aligning the genre with the pastoral novel or play, with
clothing, equipment and housing all rustic and basic, and a life lived close to the land. The
genre shies away from technology in favour of magic, concerning itself with presenting and
describing nature and the natural. Yet even this needs qualification, in that there is a certainamount of genre-blending in more modern Fantasy (Ann Rice, Laurel K. Hamilton, etc.)
where a combination like Fantasy/Detective/Film Noir occurs. In these types of works,
fantastical characters might live in a completely modern environment and utilize the
technology available, as well as bringing skills or special abilities of their own to the mix.
There are ‘pure Fantasy’ examples which both do and do not conform to this ‘resistance to
technology’ definition. J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, set temporally somewhere near
the present, is a good example of conforming to it (the magical community utilize little if
any of the technology of the Muggle
community). An example of an author who resists the
definition is Neil Gaiman in Neverwhere, in which a social separation between magic and
non-magic people occurs similar to that of the Rowling series, with the primary difference
that the magic-folk do engage with the technology of the non-magic folk, to their own
Resistance to technology in Fantasy seems less something essential to
the genre and more a hangover from Tolkienesque genre conventions.
The essential element of the Fantasy novel is its world. In Raymond E. Feist’s
Magician, the worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan are what invite and sustain our interest in
the novel. And in many works of Fantasy there is some kind of quest, which almost every
example culminates in an epic scale battle between good and evil in which good eventually
There are, of course, works of fiction which resist easy categorization. One example
is a writer like Larry Nivens, who provides a borderline case because while he deals with
magic, an element typical to Fantasy, he does so in a scientific or lawful way. In this case,
we might say that the content of the work is closer to Fantasy, while the method or form
approaches Science Fiction.
4. The arguments
It seemed to me that the negative attitude toward both Science Fiction and Fantasy
was a general one, and as such would have to have been articulated somewhere. So it
became my intention to locate the arguments and consider their soundness. If the arguments
were sound, I would have made a discovery to satisfy my own curiosity that would perhaps
also be of interest to other people. If the arguments were not sound, then my role would be
somewhat more important. In the latter case, I would need to consider whether the
conclusion alone (that Science Fiction and Fantasy really are bad) was true. If it was, then
the major work of this paper would be in finding out whether it was possible to reconstruct
the arguments to make them sound; if it was not, then the major work would reside in seeing
where the arguments went wrong, and perhaps constructing my own arguments in favour of
both genres. I began my research, intent on locating the ‘opponents’ of the two genres.
There was a seemingly unlimited amount of ‘defense’ of Science Fiction and Fantasy
around, published in various journals, in books, and scattered about the Internet. The
bibliography of any discussion of Fantasy I came across would invariably include Tzvetan
Todorov, Roland Barthes, and more recently Rosemary Jackson; while discussions of
Science Fiction would refer to pioneering works by George Slusser and Eric Rabkin, Robert
Scholes, and Brian Aldiss. Unfortunately, the discovery of these ‘big names’ behind literary
theory in Science Fiction and Fantasy constituted no great advance in my research. All of
these writers were already engaging with Science Fiction and Fantasy as literature; debate
raged over the various critical approaches to the texts, not over whether they deserved (or
did not) their place within the literary canon.
My concern was not to become entwined with literary criticism, but rather to look
specifically for cases of writers, critics or public figures speaking out against either genre.
This was to become an immediate problem, in that the most accessible critical material
(apart from the work mentioned above) appeared to centre on answering the charge of the
genres being considered less valuable than others. Although some such articles provided
very good counter-objections to the attacks on the genres, none of the defenses actually
mentioned who they were answering, and what the initial arguments were. Consider the
following, appearing in a Contemporary Review article:
Eighty percent of science fiction may be rubbish, but this is little justification for ignoring the
worthwhile twenty percent… It is, in fact, time that science fiction was released from the “novelty
corner” and included in that class of writing known simply as “fiction” where it would receive the
attention and respect that any serious and competent novel deserves.
What I needed to find out was why Fantasy and Science Fiction had ever been in the
“novelty corner” to begin with. We cannot even extrapolate the argument that Science
Fiction is a lesser genre because such a high percentage of it is ‘rubbish’, because in fact,
this is an argument that applies to all literature, and probably all art. Theodore Sturgeon
pointed out the generality of such a claim in an article in Venture Science Fiction, where in
an attempt to defend Science Fiction he said:
I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense
of Science Fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition,
and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of [it] is crud.
So the argument that eighty percent of the genre is ‘rubbish’ did not serve to differentiate
that genre from the rest of literature. It was of crucial importance to my investigation to
locate arguments which did, and I felt sure that they must exist somewhere – for what a
curious thing it would be for all these writers to be defending something that had never been
attacked to begin with. It seemed that the great majority of literary critics were taking for
granted some deeper argument, an argument assumed but not articulated. It became, then,
my job to articulate it.
The Revelation: Ninety percent of everything is crud.
Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in Science Fiction is admitted and it is
regrettable; but it is no more unnatural that the existence of trash anywhere.
Corollary 2: The best Science Fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field.
In 1960, at the end of Science Fiction’s Golden Age, a student named Michael
Padlipsky submitted a thesis on Science Fiction - considering whether it was more than just
a ‘pulp’ genre - to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the first section of his
thesis, he discussed some of the criticism he had been able to locate in his research. He
mentioned a few critical articles that sounded promising, which I went on to read in an
attempt to extract a few distinct and logically coherent arguments. I found three different
critics whose articles went at least some length toward articulating valid reasons for the
marginalization of the genre.
I also emailed Orson Scott Card – the Science Fiction author whose work was the
original inspiration for this project, who apart from being a best-selling author holds a
Masters degree in Literature and also writes a serious amount of literary criticism – and
asked whether he knew of any key opponents of the genre. He replied with the following:
The problem is that the genre is not under published attack. The attack consists of dismissal and a
sneer. Sci-fi is constantly abused orally in literature classes, and there are dismissive comments
everywhere. But the only people who take the time to attack the genre are usually sci-fi writers who
have decided they are now “above” the rest of us.
His response surprised me, as I had not yet given up hope of locating a well reasoned
published attack. At this point I faced several problems, the greatest of which was my
growing concern over whether there really was a problem to be dealt with in this area. After
discussing this with a couple of my lecturers I realized that just because an argument has not
been formally articulated, there is no reason to suppose its non-existence. The fact that there
is a general ‘sneer’ at Fantasy and Science Fiction is not something many of us would deny.
Whether we simply feel that Fantasy is ‘weird’ and Science Fiction ‘geeky’, or we have a
more intelligent grasp on our categorizations, we can nonetheless admit that there exists a
problem which needs addressing. And if this problem has not been formally addressed then
it is time somebody addressed it.
I don’t have exact references, but… Thomas Disch had one such attack in Harpers or Atlantic within
the last ten years […] One estimation of the worthlessness of sci-fi in the eyes of the literati is the fact
that sci-fi is invariable discussed as “popular culture” and almost never as “literature”…
In order to set about achieving this, I plan to do two things. The first is to read and
consider the cases against Science Fiction put forward in the articles by J. B Priestley, Arthur
Koestler and Thomas McDonnell (mentioned briefly in Padlipsky’s thesis), and Thomas
Disch (recommended by Orson Scott Card). These are predominantly in the form of literary
criticism and opinion pieces, rather than serious philosophical investigations. Thus I will
extrapolate what arguments I am able to from the respective articles, before going on to
synthesize these basic claims with some of my own speculations on plausible reasons for
why Fantasy and Science Fiction might be marginalized in public and academic opinion. I
will not provide any counter-objections to these arguments until a later section, whereupon
I will discuss ways of destabilizing the arguments, and will show that in fact the various
arguments against each of the two genres stem from two main objections, and thus can be
collapsed into two central arguments.
4.1. Arguments against Science Fiction
4.1.1. Science Fiction as Scientistic
McDonnell and Priestley both attack Science Fiction on the grounds of its content,
in two different ways. McDonnell writes from a theological position, accusing Science
Fiction of promoting Scientism and being philosophical in nature. His objection is that
Science Fiction is nothing more than a vehicle for pushing an agenda. Priestley charges
Science Fiction with being escapist and, converse to McDonnell, finds it lacking in
philosophical ideas. We will go on to look in greater detail at both these charges, beginning
McDonnell, writing in Catholic World, differentiates Science Fiction from other
literary genres by explaining that Science Fiction is the genre of ideas:
For the basic distinction of Science Fiction is a philosophical one. To a greater degree than any other
type of fiction, it deals with ideas rather than with plot and/or character.
The basic argument here is that a) Science Fiction deals with ideas, b) ideas are the business
of philosophy, but c) philosophical ideas belong in philosophy books, not fiction, therefore
d) Science Fiction is just disguised philosophy, and as such not good fiction. The conclusion
we have extrapolated here is supported by McDonnell saying ‘it would demand a talent of
the highest order to fictionalize the profound problems of philosophy, or even of science. To
be cruelly frank, the average science fiction writer simply lacks that kind of ability’.
broad assertion of Science Fiction as being primarily concerned with ideas is not the only
ground on which McDonnell criticizes it, and in fact this does not constitute an attack of the
entire genre nor its most urgent problem. He calls Science Fiction a ‘cult’, saying that it
intentionally deifies Science by pushing Scientism (the belief that science confirms the
supremacy of natural law and refutes belief in the supernatural),
yet he explicitly admits
that ‘this is not to condemn the whole field (which would be foolish), but to reveal the cult
(which is urgently necessary)’.
Even in pressing such serious charges against the genre,
McDonnell is not denying Science Fiction the potential to be good literature. His concern
lies more with the kind of agenda pushing he has identified, and he calls for better writers
‘who can lift it out of the gimmick and space-opera stage into something resembling
and better critics ‘who are not easily bamboozled into bowing down before what
] has called the Sacred Cow of Science’.
He ends his article in saying:
The proper place for philosophy as such is, of course, in books that specialize on the subject of
Science Fiction indeed has opened new worlds to the imagination. Let the creations of that
imagination spring from the minds of free men in the image of God. For much more than literature
will be lost when men begin to write and think in the image of the Robot.
McDonnell seems to be urging us not to limit our imaginative worlds to the restrictions
imposed by science. He seems to think that technology poses an imminent threat to our way
of life – ‘much more than literature will be lost’ – in mentioning our becoming robot-like.
The metaphor of the robot is a significant one, indicating a loss of free thought and
imagination. Yet the point he is stressing actually works both ways; a dogmatic belief in
science can limit us when it comes to metaphysical issues, but a dogmatic belief in religion
can limit us when it comes to scientific issues. All we have identified here is the
unproductive nature of being dogmatic – but surely we already knew that. We will come
back to McDonnell (in Section 5.1.5), but for now let us go on to look at further arguments
against Science Fiction.
4.1.2. Science Fiction’s Focus on Externalization
Converse to the arguments put forward by McDonnell come the arguments put
forward by J. B Priestley, which say, far from supposing Science Fiction to be a vehicle for
philosophical ideas, that it in fact lacks philosophy, which is its downfall. In addition to this,
Priestley charges the genre with being escapist. This latter charge aligns Priestley with an
argument extrapolated from an article by Germaine Greer.
But because the ‘escapist’
argument is perhaps the most fundamental attack, and equally applicable to both Science
Fiction and Fantasy, we will leave it for the time being so as to be able to discuss it in greater
detail when we come to arguments against Fantasy. Let us go on, then, to look at Priestley’s
lack of philosophy claim.
One of the crucial lacks Priestley identifies in Science Fiction lies in its
There they were, squinting at three suns or five moons, always the same glum and laconic technicians,
all morons away from their instrument panels, illuminated dials, Double-Reverse-Boojum-Gravity-Feedback-Transformers. Never a poet, a philosopher, a scholar, a wit. Just this gang, so many
redundant types from film and TV studios […] If they were all changed to termites, they would hardly
notice the difference.
It is Priestley’s contention that the characters of a Science Fiction novel are at a great
remove from the characters populating our earth today. He identifies art, philosophy, wit,
humour, passion and tenderness as ‘earth stuff’, from which it seems Science Fiction is
running. He reiterates this claim with his admission of his attitude toward scientists (who he
holds responsible for much of the writing of Science Fiction)
[…] No civilized men are wanted in the great age of space. No art, no philosophy, not wit and humour,
no passion and tenderness. None of that silly old earth stuff!
I admit I am beginning to be suspicious of scientists themselves. I don’t like their social
irresponsibility, their fanaticism, their hubris. I think too many of them, the physicists especially, have
spent too much time in a spectral world abstracted from the real one in which we suffer and hope, live
and die. […] They are too anxious to control life before they have discovered what life is about.
Priestley is launching a multi-pronged attack; against the writers of the genre and the
characters in the writing. It is his final claim that really drives home the point of his attack
against Science Fiction:
[…] We are now in such a hurry to press buttons and get somewhere, we no longer wonder who we
are and what we are doing here.
And there they are; the big metaphysical questions. Priestley has identified features of
Science Fiction that are so abstracted they serve to hinder our philosophical progress. As we
have argued previously; philosophy is the business of everyman, but here we have a genre
in which we are forgetting all the things important to being human. He ends his article with
a final plea:
Let us go then […] living if necessary without a button to press anywhere, exploring not empty space
but the magical world within ourselves, not raising the speed of our missiles but the level of our
understanding and feeling.
Priestley’s central claim is that Science Fiction is encouraging externalization – all the
movement within the text is outward, away. He sees such movement as detrimental to
humanity on the grounds that as a people we have too little a grasp on internal issues to be
able to abandon internal search in favour of external. Priestley seems to feel that Science
Fiction is incapable of ‘raising […] the level of our understanding and feeling’. Obviously,
then, proof that this is not the case will be sufficient to undermine his arguments; whether
or not we can do so remains to be seen at this point.
4.1.3. Science Fiction as Science, not Fiction
We come now to an argument waged against the genre by Arthur Koestler. In order
to deny Science Fiction literary merit, he simply denies it the status of ‘art’. There is a strong
base of support for his argument, not necessarily explicitly stated but able to be extrapolated
from various articles, in particular one that uses the same argument to defend the genre. This
comes from Hanor Webb, a Professor of Science Education. To allow the clearest
understanding of the implications of an argument which denies Science Fiction the status of
art, we will employ some theory from an article on aesthetics written by David Ward. This
will occur in a later section, in which we discuss counter-objections to the arguments
Koestler sees Science Fiction as a product of the atomic age, a result of ‘new vistas
and new nightmares which art and literature have not yet assimilated’.
He thinks that
humanity has some kind of apocalyptic intuition, which manifests itself in our ‘sudden
hunger for other ages and other worlds’,
the ‘sudden interest in life on other stars’.
points to Science Fiction’s accuracy and authenticity, which is a result of its employing
physicists, doctors and biologists. But accuracy and authenticity is no guarantee for artistic
quality, a point crystallized in the following statement:
I believe that science fiction is good entertainment, and that it will never become good art. It is
reasonably certain that within the next hundred years we shall have space-travel, but at that stage the
description of a trip to the moon will be simple reportage. It will be fact not fantasy, and the science
fiction of that time will have to go even further to startle the reader.
It is Koestler’s contention that there is a gap left unfilled where art and literature has not yet
been able to assimilate all the new and sometimes frightening developments of the atomic
age. Science Fiction is the answer to this gap, but it is entertainment and not art. Why is it
not art? He answers precisely this question when he goes on to explain that art requires our
being able to identify with or intimately understand something:
Our imagination is limited; we cannot project ourselves into the distant future any more than into the
distant past. This is the reason why the historical novel is practically dead today.[
] The life of an
Egyptian civil servant under the Eighteenth Dynasty, or even of a soldier in Cromwell’s army, is only
imaginable to us in a dim outline: we are unable to identify ourselves with the strange figure moving
in a strange world. And without this identification or intimate understanding, there is no art – only a
thrill of curiosity which soon yields to boredom.
Here we have a perfect articulation of Koestler’s conception of good art, and his reason for
supposing Science Fiction insufficient. In his view, Science Fiction is a prediction of future
events, yet the events occur so far into the future that we are unable to identify with or
understand the characters or the worlds. Such a chasm between our current reality and the
projected reality of the Science Fiction novel is not able to be bridged, and as such disallows
any new insight or understanding into our own natures, or own lives.
[F]or every culture is an island. It communicates with other islands but it is only familiar with itself.
And art means seeing the familiar in a new light, seeing tragedy in the trivial event: it means in the
last resort to broaden and deepen our understanding of ourselves.
Before we go on to discuss the support for this idea from another critic, we should
just briefly consider one last point. For it is Koestler’s assertion that one ‘lesson’ does
emerge from our engagement with Science Fiction, which is that humanity is made aware
of its limitations:
The paradoxical lesson of science fiction is to teach us modesty. When we reach out for the stars, our
limitations become grotesquely apparent. The heroes of science fiction have unlimited power and
], but their feelings and reactions in even the most fantastic situation are limited within
the narrow human range. […] The Milky Way has become an extension of Main Street.
Support for this point comes from C.S. Lewis, who in his article “On Science Fiction”
identifies the sub-species ‘Displaced Persons’, calling it ‘radically bad’.
He states that in
such a sub-species, an author ‘leaps forward into an imagined future when planetary,
sidereal, or even galactic travel has become common. Against this huge backcloth he then
proceeds to develop an ordinary love-story, spy-story, wreck-story, or crime-story. This
seems to me tasteless. Whatever in a work of art is not used, is doing harm’.
difference between Koestler’s point and Lewis’ is that Koestler seems to be implying that
all of Science Fiction is just ‘displaced persons’, ordinary humans performing their ordinary
actions against an impressive backdrop. In contradistinction, Lewis distinguishes (as we
discussed in Section 3.1) at least six different sub-species of Science Fiction, only one of
which is ‘Displaced Persons’. For now let us take Koestler’s central argument, which is to
deny Science Fiction the status of art, and look at another kind of support for this notion.
The title “Science Fiction Writers: Prophets of the Future” should be enough to give
us a clear indication of the kind of defense (as opposed to attack) Hanor Webb provides. It
is his belief that Science Fiction is prophetic:
No science fiction writer expects to live to see the day when his ideas will be accepted by society. He
hopes, therefore, that the seedlings he plants in society’s ground will be nurtured by the next
generation of writers and readers and, if his ideas grow and have vigor, by generation after generation
until they bear fruit. Such has been the history of every established social principle, although centuries
may have been required for a harvest to appear.
He cites John Campbell (editor of Astounding Science Fiction), Isaac Asimov (author of
prolific amounts of Science Fiction) and Gerald Heard (social philosophy writer and Science
Fiction author) to substantiate his contention that Science Fiction is ‘a) prophetic, b)
descriptive of the social impacts of science and c) set in a novel, imaginative, possibly
He admits outright his belief that authors of Science Fiction ‘prefer to
stimulate the imaginations of young adults interested in technology rather than to excite
Webb argues the potential for social transformation inherent in Science
Fiction by citing Jules Verne’s belief that ‘what one man can imagine, another man can
which he supports by saying that ‘a striking number of modern inventors received
inspiration from Verne’s more than one hundred books’.
Patrick Parrinder, in Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching, also argues for the
more sociological interpretation, citing Alvin Toffler, who had said ‘S[cience] F[iction] is
held in low regard as a branch of literature, and perhaps it deserves this critical contempt.
But if we view it as a kind of sociology of the future, rather than as literature, [S]cience
[F]iction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of
Parrinder wants to argue that the critical contempt Science Fiction faces is
not deserved, give that is a ‘mind-stretching force’ more than it is literature.
Webb and Parrinder provide enthusiastic defenses of the genre, but unfortunately in
both cases the defense aligns itself with one of the attacks from the opposition. In claiming
that Science Fiction is prophetic and that it describes the social impacts of science - two
crucial elements ‘pegged’ upon a novel, imaginative, or fantastic setting - Webb, like
Koestler, is reducing Science Fiction to its ‘use’. As is Parrinder, who does not even pretend
to argue for it being literature. Koestler explicitly denies that Science Fiction is literature by
asserting that it is mere entertainment, from which we cannot understand or learn anything
about ourselves, and furthermore will probably in the future become fact. Webb denies that
Science Fiction is literature by showing it to be merely a vehicle to present ideas for social
change. As we will come to see (in Section 5.1), being able to reduce a work of fiction toonly its idea or argument has serious repercussions for the status of that work.
4.1.4. Compensation and Embarrassment
Orson Scott Card’s recommendation of trying to locate the Thomas Disch article paid
off when I finally managed to track down “Big Ideas and Dead-End Thrills”, an attack on
Science Fiction published in The Atlantic Monthly. In the article, Disch states that Science
Fiction is best understood as a branch of children’s literature, for reasons of its various
‘embarrassments’. He has two main arguments, the first of which concerns what he calls the
‘impulse to compensate’, the second of which concerns ‘big ideas’.
Disch identifies a tendency in Science Fiction to ‘compensate’ for ignorance or
inexperience using a kind of speculation. One of his examples is ‘suburban teenagers
writ[ing] sad tales of the deaths of inner-city hookers’,
which he attributes to ‘naiveté
combine[d] with rashness’.
He identifies this same impulse, which he later calls a
‘compensatory mechanism’, as manifesting itself in the fantasy of rags-to-riches, and ill-informed speculations of other social classes, lifestyles, genders and sexualities. Disch says
that ‘the impulse to compensate for the indignities of poverty by fantasizing about the life-styles of the rich and famous is a universal trait’.
He recognizes the compensatory
mechanism in some of his own work, describing a story he wrote at age twenty-three as ‘a
tragic romance of a sort that only young men of pristine inexperience and perfected amour
] have ever imagined’.
Disch seems to view such attempts in the same vein as
some of the more cringe-worthy events of youth: when we look back on them from the
position of experience we are embarrassed by what we had imagined. If we take his idea
through to its widest logical extension, we see that it comes to encompass a wider argument
which calls Fantasy the literature of desire, or wish-fulfillment (being as it is primarily
concerned with utopias and the triumph of good over evil) and calls Science-Fiction nothing
more than a ‘thought-experiment’.
The only difference between Disch’s claim and the
latter arguments occurs in terms of magnitude. For in each case the writer comes from a
position of ignorance or inexperience, using imagination, speculation and simulation to
consider something of which he has no knowledge. The only difference is that in Disch’s
example we can look back and cringe at our inexperience; but it will be some time before
we will be able to cringe at how misinformed our projected future worlds might be. In any
case, the compensatory mechanism may be ‘embarrassing’, but such a charge is not nearly
enough to convince us that either Fantasy or Science Fiction deserve their lesser status. We
will look soon in more detail at some of the theory surrounding Thought-Experiments, but
we must first examine the second of Disch’s criticisms, which states that Science Fiction is
preoccupied with ‘Big Ideas’.
The final and most excruciating callowness of youth is what SF readers particularly prize: Big Ideas.
Now, there are some ideas that genuinely are big, which is to say, full of implication and repercussion.
Copernicus’s remodeled universe is such an idea. […] There is nothing that so militates against the
sense of one’s own vast ignorance as adopting some such Big Idea, and the young, whose ignorance
is largest and rawest and most exasperating, have a natural predilection for Big Ideas. […] To a certain
degree SF provides a natural playground for the harmless exercise of Big Ideas, even those that are
radically unsound. Utopias that could never be implemented in the real world are fun to explore in
simulation. […] However, not all writers approach Big Ideas in a spirit of intellectual playfulness.
Some come to believe in their privileged wisdom and become intolerant of contradiction, and this can
happen at various levels of sophistication. […] Ideological silliness is an affliction more tolerable in
the young, and, for reasons I’ve tried to lay out, exactly the same may be said of a taste for science
fiction. […] The genre as a whole […] has become, as a publishing phenomenon, one of the major
symptoms of, if not a causal agent in, the dumbing-down of the younger generation and the lowering
of the lowest common denominator.
Disch’s criticism here ties in with previous criticism which saw Fantasy and Science Fiction
as being idea-centric. His differs from previous criticism in the fact that he urges us not to
take the play of ideas out of proportion. He encourages a ‘spirit of intellectual playfulness’.
This distinguishes his criticism from the criticism of Koestler and Webb, for the reason that
the play of ideas is neither future-fact nor prophecy. Disch’s ideal for Science Fiction is a
genre which concerns itself with ideas, but in such a way as to provide an outlet for
imagination and exploration, not for ‘privileged wisdom’ or ‘ideological silliness’. This
seems a reasonable enough ideal. Yet in allowing that, I have to say that it is ‘convenient’
that Disch cites no authors or texts in the course of his article. It is hard to imagine a flawless
utopia (‘ideological silliness’) giving rise to a very interesting story. Nonetheless, we will
answer this in the later section.
4.2. The Argument against Fantasy
4.2.1. Fantasy as Escapism
As the search for opponents went on, I continued to read defenses of the two genres,
in the hope that some of them at least would mention exactly what they were answering. I
found several articles on J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings -probably the perennial
example of a work of Fantasy and as such representative of the genre - which mentioned
Germaine Greer as a key opponent.
Each article quoted Greer’s “The Book of the
Century”, an article she had written in response to a poll run by Waterstone Publishers.
Finally, it seemed that an opponent had emerged from which I could extract a concrete
argument against Fantasy. In her article Greer wrote:
[…] it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the
twentieth century. The bad dream has materialized. At the head of the list, in pride of place as the book
of the century, stands The Lord of the Rings. Novels don’t come more fictional than that. Most novels
are set in a recognizable place at a recognizable time; Tolkien invents the era, the place, and a race
of fictitious beings to inhabit it. The books that come in Tolkien’s train are more or less what you
would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic.
These comments seem to implicitly argue against literature which is ‘unrealistic’ in nature,
maintaining that the best type of literature is that which is closest to reality. Nonetheless, we
cannot establish from these few comments that Greer is in fact a key opponent of the Fantasy
genre, for the reason that comments made later in her article go some distance toward
justifying her stance towards Tolkien’s work:
[T]he late twentieth century reader has a penchant for any kind of fantasy, infantile, macabre, sadistic,
pornographic, pseudoscientific, supernatural or tortuous.
I did not myself start prattling about hobbits because in 1964 I was simply too old to succumb to the
prevailing enthusiasm for Tolkien. The books that shape us are the books that we read at a crucial
period in our development, a period that usually, but not always, coincides with the early teens. […]
If we were to ask respondents to tell us how old they were when they read their favourite books, there
would be a strange uniformity in their answers. They might also say that they re-read these books
often, as you might expect when the very atmosphere of the book recalls the most passionate and
optimistic time of one’s life.
These later comments, and the fact that she is enthusiastic in her article about Fantasy author
Roald Dahl, ‘who emerges as the most enduringly important writer of the century’ with four
books included in the list, indicate that Greer does not in fact have any kind of concrete
argument against Fantasy. Regardless, we can take her initial comments as a foundation and
go on to look at a theorist who elaborates further in a similar vein.
Let us return, then, to the arguments which J. B Priestley raised against Science
Fiction. In these, he raises one of the most enduring and damaging arguments against both
Science Fiction and Fantasy. This is the charge of escapism. Greer’s initial comments do
make reference to the type of criticism escapism represents – her phrases ‘novels don’t come
more fictional than that’, ‘flight from reality’ and ‘penchant for fantasy’; and her speaking
disparagingly about Tolkien ‘inventing’ The Lord of The Rings’ era, place and inhabitants.
Her comments privilege Realism as the desirable attribute of literature. If it is true that
literature closest to reality is more valuable, which seems to be in line with an Aristotelian
conception of the value of literature, then Greer’s criticism is justified. But if we can
successfully show that there is value in the contra-real or quasi-real (which we will attempt
to do) then the foundation of such criticism will be undermined.
Rather than contending (or seeming to contend, in Greer’s case) that all escapism is
a bad thing, Priestley distinguishes at least two levels of escapism:
When I was in my teens and we looked to fiction to satisfy our secret desires, we found ourselves
doing something jolly dashing in Ruritania or something even more dashing (though we were never
sure about all the details) with an Elinor Glyn character on a tiger skin. An element of escape there,
no doubt. But we were not running away from this planet altogether, leaving it in the lurch, only to
spread our stupidity and violence as far as they could go. Glum hooliganism traveling at the speed of
light was never one of our dreams. Even when we have made every allowance for the travel part of
it – representing man’s proud delight in this new conquest of space – what remains looks and smells
nasty, like a teenage gang in a basement planning to beat up somebody [My italics].
Priestley asserts that we can use fiction to ‘satisfy our secret desires’. He identifies
such satisfaction as a kind of escapism, yet not to the degree of that which Science Fiction
invites. Science Fiction he charges with ‘glum hooliganism travelling at the speed of light’,
accusing its readers of ‘running away from this planet altogether’. So we can categorize the
two levels of escapism as follows: lower-level escapism, which fulfils a human need; and
higher-level escapism, which seems (at least according to Priestley), to represent something
‘nasty’. We are taking Priestley’s comments, aimed specifically at Science Fiction, and using
them as a base from which to crystallise what seems most likely to be the main objection to
The analogue ‘flight from reality’ would seem to contend that any reader of Fantasy
or Science Fiction is attempting to escape the real world. On one level we can imagine that
the escape into Science Fiction or Fantasy literature actually deflects people from real life.
This may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the real life circumstances being
escaped from. Where an individual is avoiding responsibility and refusing to meet challenges
head on, we can understand that such escape is aiding the pathological response of
distraction and avoidance, and as such cannot be viewed positively. Perhaps we might
invoke the analogy of severe alcoholism, drug addiction, or psychological withdrawal. In
many such cases, people withdraw from reality by choice, or because of an initial bad choice
that leads to dependency and consequent disintegration of character. In such instances we
blame the person for allowing their own disintegration, we blame their self-control for not
avoiding such a decline in the first place. Such considerations as duty and personal
responsibility come into play.
On another level, converse to the first, an individual may be escaping a real life
which is stressful, dangerous, confusing, damaging. In this case, escapism certainly is not
a bad thing. Consider the following passage from Wally Lamb’s novel I know This Much is
True, based on the child psychology of Bruno Bettleheim:
“Do you have children, Dominick?”
Here we find the escapist nature of ‘fables and fairy tales’ (which we can logically extend
to works of Fantasy) defended by virtue of their providing a way to help us cope with the
difficulties of life. Such secondary worlds provide soothing and therapeutic notions of good
triumphing over evil. Most of us lead the kinds of lives we would, at least at some point,
wish to temporarily escape from. We can imagine that without any kind of escape being
available (we need to acknowledge here that ‘escapism’ comes in forms other than the
literary), the pressures and difficulties of life could become like a kind of prison. Sometimes
it is simply necessary for us to ‘get away’.
We lost eye contact. The little girl in the yellow leotard flashed before me. “Nope.”
“Well, if you did,” she said, “you would most likely read them not only Curious George but also
fables and fairy tales. Stories where humans outsmart witches, where giants and ogres are felled and
good triumphs over evil. Your parents read them to you and your brother. Did they not?”
“My mother did,” I said.
“Of course she did. It is the way we teach our children to cope with a world too large and chaotic for
them to comprehend. A world that seems, at times, too random. Too indifferent.”
Tolkien supports this notion that escapism does not have to be a bad thing in his The
Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, saying ‘the world outside has not become less
real because the prisoner cannot see it’.
He says that critics seem to confuse the ‘escape of
the prisoner’ with the ‘flight of a deserter’.
These are in fact two very different things, and
it is on the supposition that they are the same that such criticism arises. We can align the
‘flight of a deserter’ with the first level of escapism we considered, and ‘escape of the
prisoner’ with the second level. We can make the most use of this second example if we
understand it to refer to someone wrongfully imprisoned. In this case we might admire or
respect the individual for temporarily freeing themselves of their constraints.
There is a third level to the escapism argument, which applies to the escape proposed
in the first two levels, and comes from considering one of our initial reasons for supposing
literature valuable. Literature is valuable because it allows us to transcend our experience
and further our knowledge of people and place and circumstances we might someday or
might never encounter. It can teach us about universals rather than particulars. It can allow
us to build upon our empathy for others and therefore increase our personal morality. But
the literary genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy present circumstances which are in many
cases highly romanticised and unrealistic. In such cases we are accessing a distorted
perception of real life, which cannot hope to satisfy the requisites of valuable literature. In
addition to this, works of Fantasy feature a particularly high occurrence of deus ex machina,
of which there is no such occurrence in real life. (If the circumstances presented in the
literature, and / or the characters having experiences in those circumstances differ too greatly
from real life we stand to lose the ability to learn anything from them in terms of life
experience, because we can never hope to experience anything similar). The emotion and
empathy is of little use, being a product of circumstances we will never find ourselves in and
characters we can never identify with. Even escapism which endorses distraction and
avoidance can be justified on some level if the escape is into a world with similar problems
and contingencies, because at least the reader stands to learn something from the way the
characters of the fiction meet their own difficulties under similar conditions. But this last
level of the escapism argument presents Science Fiction and Fantasy with a serious
difficulty, as it illustrates a way in which both genres seem to fail to satisfy the conditions
under which literature is held to be valuable.
4.3. Summary of arguments against Science Fiction
Before we go on to present and discuss counter-objections to the arguments of the
previous sections, we should briefly summarise the arguments so that they are fresh in our
minds. Science Fiction has been charged with being a vehicle used to promote the cult of
Scientism, with being not art but future-fact, with being prophecy, with lacking in
philosophical ideas and conversely with being overly preoccupied with them, with speaking
with a false authority about ‘big ideas’, with being nothing more than a thought-experiment,
with being escapist. In presenting the arguments in such condensed form, we are able to see
what is similar to the majority of them, which is the fact that while the escapism argument
supposes the genre unrealistic, most of the arguments in fact go in the opposite direction and
suppose Science Fiction too realistic. This is to say that these critics (and defenders) argue
that Science Fiction is just an arbitrary form in which a person might choose to present their
political or sociological arguments or ideas. If this were true it would legitimize our
reconceptualizing Science Fiction as a branch of social science, rather than a literary genre,
an art form. I will (in Section 5.1) answer this criticism under the heading of ‘Science Fiction
4.4. Summary of the argument against Fantasy
Using comments made by Germaine Greer and Joseph Priestley as our foundation,
we were able to construct one main argument against Fantasy literature, which was that it
is escapist in nature. The argument of escapism has three levels, which show that the escape
provided by Fantasy literature can be conceptualized in more than one way. These ways are
the ‘escape of the prisoner’, the ‘flight of the deserter’, and the more fundamental issue of
escape in either of these two cases being nonetheless an escape into an unrealistic world
which cannot satisfy the conditions under which fictional worlds are usually supposed to be
valuable under theories of the value of literature.
5. Counter-Objections and Defence
Although we will deal with each of the arguments presented in previous sections, we
are primarily concerned with defending Science Fiction and Fantasy from the two arguments
which have emerged as the most enduring and plausible reasons for supposing the genres
deserving of their lesser status within the wider field of literature. These are the argument
of the Thought-Experiment, and the argument of Escapism. Let us go on to discuss counter-objections to the arguments against Science Fiction, in the order in which they were
presented in the previous sections.
5.1. Defending Science Fiction
We looked at about eight arguments against Science Fiction. Of these, four can be
collapsed into the greater argument which sees the genre as reducible to certain non-literary
(or not specifically literary) elements. These are the arguments that Science Fiction promotes
the cult of Scientism (i.e. is a vehicle for an argument, namely the argument for privileging
science over religion), that it is not art but future-fact (the narrative is being taken literally),
that it is prophecy (as before), and that it is overly preoccupied with philosophical ideas (i.e.
it is a vehicle for the presentation of philosophical ideas). These will be discussed under the
heading of ‘Science Fiction as Argument’, the last charge to be discussed in this section.
Before we move on to this discussion, however, we must consider the three arguments which
do not fall under this heading. Of these remaining three arguments, the first is that the genre
is lacking in philosophical ideas, and the second is that it claims a false authority on ‘big
ideas’. These two arguments are almost polar opposites; regarding ‘ideas’, one is claiming
a lack and one is claiming an over-concern. The final argument we will look at before
discussing the main objection to Science Fiction is the charge of escapism. This is a charge
discussed under the headings of both Science Fiction and Fantasy, for the reason that it must
be answered in two quite separate ways. Let us go on to consider these arguments, and if and
how they can be defeated.
5.1.1. But First, a Concession to the Critics
One curious phenomenon which my research uncovered is the fact that those critics
and writers prepared to speak out against Science Fiction seemed all to do so circa 1950.
There appears to have been nothing in the way of a formal published attack on Science
Fiction or Fantasy since then, yet much of the attitude which caused and legitimized that
initial criticism persists today. One concomitant of this discrepancy between published
attack and public opinion is that we must be careful not to use examples of post-1950’s
Science Fiction and / or Fantasy to refute arguments coming out of a 1950’s context, unless
it can be reasonably established that those arguments would still stand in light of what work
Known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the (roughly) twenty year period
between the forties and the sixties saw the Science Fiction genre gain a much wider public
attention than it had previously held. The ‘big names’ were A.E van Vogt, Robert A.
Heinlein and Isaac Asimov; but other names were to leave their mark: Ray Bradbury, Arthur
C. Clarke, L. Sprague de Camp, Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, Clifford D. Simak,
Theodore Sturgeon and Jack Vance.
What I will do is try to be fair in terms of historical
context in my defense of Science Fiction; some of the criticism leveled at Science Fiction
does reflect some of the shortcomings of work from that period. But other of the criticisms
I believe to be plainly misinformed, and it is these which will be our primary concern. I have
been fortunate enough to stumble across an article entitled “Contemporary Science Fiction”,
published in 1952, which provides a useful and informed scholarly commentary on the
strengths and weaknesses of Golden Age Science Fiction. This should assist us in making
more informed evaluations in the coming section.
5.1.2. A Narrow Reading?
J. B Priestley, remember, had argued against both the writers of Science Fiction and
the characters within it. His issue was with the high level of abstraction from the real world:
‘no civilized men are wanted in the great age of space. No art, no philosophy, not wit and
humour, no passion and tenderness. None of that silly old earth stuff!’ His main contention
seemed to be that the degree of remove from this world apparent in Science Fiction
constituted a move toward externalization rather than human internalization. It was his fear
that such a change in focus from inner to outer yielded the depressing and dangerous fact
that ‘we no longer wonder who we are and what we are doing here’. (The reason I
summarize his argument as being that Science Fiction is lacking in philosophy is because
this last statement concerns the biggest of the metaphysical questions with which the
enterprise of philosophy is concerned).
The 1950’s saw a decline in interest in the realistic novel, which is precisely the kind
of novel Priestley wrote. To examine ‘who we are’ right now and ‘what we are doing here’
right now might well be the central concern of the realistic novel – but to wonder what we
might have been or might become is something which speculative fiction like Science
Fiction and Fantasy can certainly achieve: what is it to be human, under any circumstances?
What are we doing here, as opposed to somewhere else? And would anything change if we
came to be somewhere else, or had found ourselves somewhere else to begin with? You can
begin to see how speculative fiction and the more abstract concerns of philosophy and
theology begin to merge.
Yet even in his arguing against this new genre of novel, Priestley provides a
loophole, in that he calls for work which assists us in ‘raising the level of our understanding
and feeling’. All that remains for his argument against the genre to be defeated is for us to
provide examples of Science Fiction which clearly do raise the level of our understanding
and feeling. There is evidence that at least one of the ‘big names’ of the fifties wrote Science
Fiction that would refute Priestley’s charges. In his article “Contemporary Science Fiction”,
August Derleth lends support to my refusal of Isaac Asimov’s work as ‘literature’, remarking
that he has ‘a woefully pedestrian prose style’
. He also appears to support my intuition
about Heinlein’s characterizations (I talk more about Asimov and Heinlein later in this
section), saying that Heinlein is ‘appreciably less stylistically remarkable’.
identifies Ray Bradbury, however, as one writer in whose work ‘stylistic quality and the
development of character are first considerations’, a writer who is ‘the most literate and
original of writers in the genre’, with exceptional ‘imaginative power’.
After reading his
article, I searched out four or five of Bradbury’s short stories, appearing in various Science
Fiction collections and anthologies.
It was a refreshing experience, with prose style and
thematic concerns in league with Le Guin (especially her short stories Paradises Lost 
and Walking Away from Omelas ), Scott Card (especially his series beginning with
Ender’s Game [1986-2005]), and Terry Bisson (in particular his short story They’re Made
Out of Meat? ).
One story, Mars is Heaven, is particularly good. The protagonists
of the story are the crew of a spaceship recently landed on Mars. The crew find on Mars a
landscape and houses the same as those of the small towns they grew up in, and they find
their long-dead relatives alive and well. It is not until the conclusion of the story, when each
of the crew members are safe in bed in the houses of their families, that one character begins
to question the best defense by Martians of Earthman invasion, asking what the best
weapons a Martian could use against an Earthman would be, given that Earthmen had atomic
weapons. ‘The answer was interesting. Telepathy, hypnosis, memory and imagination’.
[H]ere we all are, tonight, in various houses, in various beds, with no weapons to protect us, and the
rocket lies in the moonlight, empty. And wouldn’t it be horrible and terrifying to discover that all this
was part of some great clever plan by the Martians to divide and conquer us, and kill us.
Bradbury’s The Million Year Picnic and Zero Hour were also very good. I read more widely
through some of the Science Fiction collections and anthologies, and discovered further
work of high quality in ideas, characterizations, imagery, prose style etc. (from the period
Priestley was writing about), by A. E van Vogt (The Weapons Shop and Black Destroyer),
James Blish (The Oath), Phillip K. Dick (The Commuter), Cordwainer Smith (Mother
Hitton’s Littul Kittons) and (surprisingly, after Lord Valentine’s Castle) Robert Silverberg
There may be many others. So although some of Priestley’s comments are true
of some of the Science Fiction on offer at the time he was writing, they are certainly not true
of all the Science Fiction available at the time, and neither are they true of the all of the
Science Fiction written after his article was published. We can, then, draw the conclusion
that Priestley’s arguments might have stemmed from a somewhat narrow reading (or
unfortunate selection) within the Science Fiction genre, and certainly present a limited view
which we have seen to be contrary to many examples.
[…] His hands were shaking under the covers. His body was cold. Suddenly it was not a theory.
It is worth establishing two further considerations with regard to characterizations
in Science Fiction. Oftentimes the nature of the typical Science Fiction story structure (the
‘slow revelation’ of an astonishing fact) necessitates an average protagonist.
protagonist were too intellectually sophisticated, the story would be compromised. This fact
often leads to the pairing of the story’s protagonist with a more intelligent companion (in
Card’s Ender’s Game, Ender has Bean; in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s
Stone, Harry has Hermione; in Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice Fitz has Burrich, Chade and
The Fool. The list goes on.)
The second consideration stems from my personal observation that some of the worst
characterizations I have ever encountered in fiction appear in Asimov’s I, Robot (in plasticity
they are comparable to Dan Brown’s characterizations in The Da Vinci Code); and while the
central character in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is constructed well enough to
satisfy the reader, this only lasts until we read other of Heinlein’s work and find that exact
same character appear again and again with a different name. Yet it seems fair to say that
literary genres can be concerned with different things, and as such we cannot rule that to fail
in characterization is to fail as a work of literature. It is my contention that characters may
serve as ‘pegs to hang the story on’, so long as the story itself, the world, the aesthetic style
and other elements, are strong enough to compensate for this apparent shortcoming.
One final consideration worth making is that Priestley’s criticism contradicts directly
with a defense I will provide in Section 5.1.4. Priestley bewails the reactions of the
characters in Science Fiction as ‘limited to the narrow human range’, which, although he
phrases it pejoratively, is the feature which most redeems Science Fiction from the charge
of escapism. So in an odd way, we can understand his argument as actually lending support
to the proposals I will make in that section.
5.1.3. Science Fiction as Fiction, not Science
Although Thomas Disch makes a good point in showing the concern Science Fiction
seems to exhibit with ‘big ideas’, he in fact answers his own argument when he calls for
better writers and better work, which he himself has attempted to produce. It is not the fact
of engaging with big ideas that concerns Disch, it is the fact that sometimes writers begin
to take themselves too seriously, that the work comes to speak with false authority about
issues that should remain in the domain of ideas, rather than being taken seriously in some
kind of politically applicable sense. So long as ideas remain ideas and Science Fiction
remains the playground for the harmless exercise of certain notions, utopias, and thought-experiments, there is no real problem.
The problem of writers and readers taking the work too seriously is a problem we
have already encountered in our examination of arguments against, and defenses of, the
genre. In many cases readers and critics have been found to be engaging with the work on
a literal level. Disch urges us not to take the play of ideas out of proportion. He encourages
a ‘spirit of intellectual playfulness’. This is of immense significance in answering the
arguments of both Koestler and Webb. The play of ideas is neither future-fact nor prophecy.
Under Disch’s ideal conception, Science Fiction is not social science but art. Thus
Disch’s article, which he wrote as an attack on the genre, actually operates in favour of
Science Fiction, as it rescues it from being taken too seriously in a social science capacity
and restores to it its status as a literary art. It is a genre which concerns itself with ideas, but
in such a way as to provide an outlet for imagination and exploration, not for ‘privileged
wisdom’ or ‘ideological silliness’.
5.1.4. Science Fiction and the Human Condition
Some criticism of Science Fiction considers it to be similar to Fantasy, in that
regardless of the kind of difference in the worlds from this one (i.e. logical-future vs. contra-real) both genres feature worlds, characters, and situations too abstracted from the ‘real’ to
serve any purpose beyond mere entertainment. We have already discovered in considering
the distinction made by J.R.R Tolkien that escape can be both a healthy and useful thing, and
an unhealthy and distracting thing. Something of a defense of the escape provided by
literature comes from his analogy to the escape of the prisoner. The notion of escape,
whether we see it as a good thing, a bad thing, or either depending on the circumstances,
applies nonetheless to all literature regardless of the genre.
The argument of escapism is more easily defeated in its application to Science
Fiction than in its application to Fantasy. The reason for this comes from the fact that
Science Fiction, while sometimes quite abstracted from the world as it is now, is nonetheless
the logical extension of certain states of affairs as we have or might actually find them. Thus
there is no problem in applying to Science Fiction all the usual reasons for supposing that
literature is valuable. The characters are human, or some greatly evolved variety of human:
[…] People whose society differs from ours, even whose physiology may differ from ours, but who
feel the way we do. First to create difference – to establish strangeness – then to let the fiery arc of
human emotion leap and close the gap: this acrobatics of the imagination fascinates and satisfies me
as almost no other.
And the universe is ours. The only difference is the state of technological progress, which
is usually much more highly developed. In some cases, stories of Science Fiction serve the
subversive function of postulating certain future worlds precisely so that we will be
persuaded to abandon current courses of action that will lead us to that future world.
One useful way of framing the senselessness of the escape argument against Science
Fiction is to consider historical fiction. Historical fiction comes under the broader heading
of Realism. It is an imaginative reconstruction of the past; constructed out of real
information about circumstances and speculation about what it was like to live under those
given circumstances. Does the escapism argument apply to historical fiction? In engaging
with it, are we abandoning our current reality for a past which no longer exists? To answer
these questions, we merely need to consider whether we stand to learn anything from
considering who we used to be, what we have become, and the differences between the two.
If we can learn something from this, and it seems unquestionably obvious to me that we can,
then it stands to reason that we can learn just as much in speculating about what we might
become, so long as the speculation is rational and logical. The only difference between the
past and the future is that we have no power to change the past.
Thus we see that Science Fiction fulfills an important societal role: it can speculate
and inform, and it can provoke us to consider the wider implications of some of our current
actions and technologies. I am going to take this argument one step further and argue that
Realism in fact lacks many of the benefits of Science Fiction in that it can never transcend
contingencies. This is an answer which applies to both Science Fiction and Fantasy. Realism
is good at dealing with the way things are right now, or historically; it can showcase the
particular worries and tensions of our time. Science Fiction, and Fantasy where any of its
characters are human, provides us with the necessary scope to consider what it means to be
human. Let us consider an example.
It is hard to meet a stranger. Even the greatest extravert meeting even the meekest stranger knows a
certain dread, though he may not know he knows it. Will he make a fool of me wreck my image of
myself invade me destroy me change me? Will he be different from me? Yes, that he will. There’s the
terrible thing: the strangeness of the stranger.
Ursula Le Guin’s short story Nine Lives takes a fundamental aspect of human nature – our
individuality – and comments on it via negation through the scientific/philosophical issue
of cloning. The issue is tackled in a slightly different way than authors or philosophers
usually deal with cloning, in that Le Guin writes not about a single cloned being but about
a unit of clones, which she calls a ‘tenclone’. The tenclone is cloned from one person’s cell
matter, and the male gene is deleted in several cases so that the unit of ten consists of both
males and females.
‘Self-possessed’, Owen Pugh murmured to his friend, ‘that’s it’. Think of it, to be oneself ten times
over. Nine seconds for every motion, nine ayes on every vote. It would be glorious!’
In reading about the greater cohesion of the tenclone, the ease they show in understanding
one another, and the constant companionship, we are suddenly provoked to consider that we
are not like this, that it is often difficult for us, as individuals raised in very different ways
and possessing very different ideas, to work and live together. By the end of the story, a
tragedy has eliminated all but one of the tenclone. The clone, new to being truly alone,
struggles to understand the complexity of inter-human relationships, asking the story’s
protagonist Owen Pugh how he and his friend Martin can possibly understand one another:
But Pugh could not tell him. ‘I don’t know’, he said, ‘it’s practice, partly. I don’t know. We’re each
of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?’
I use this one example (but there are many more) to show how in Science Fiction we
are often able to escape contingency and access the essential features of humanity, the parts
of our nature which are necessary across any space or time we might have come to exist in.
In this way, as I said before, Science Fiction and some works of Fantasy are actually more
real that Realist literature, in their ability to transcend contingency.
C.S Lewis supports
this idea in his defense of Eschatological Science Fiction when he provides the ship analogy
(discussed in section 3.1).
5.1.5. Arguments and Thought-Experiments, Science and Fiction
Now we arrive at the final and most significant charge against Science Fiction, a
charge which embodies many of the arguments discussed previously. This is the charge that
Science-Fiction represents nothing more than an argument, that the two are mutually
identifiable. McDonnell accuses Science Fiction of pushing the cult of scientism. He is
simply wrong if he intends his charge to apply to all Science Fiction writers. Some writers
are indeed scientistic
(Isaac Asimov, for example, who openly admits an agenda of
recruiting young people to science), but others are not (Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury,
Orson Scott Card, for example). Furthermore, in saying that Science Fiction writers lack the
talent to fictionalize profound problems (he says not that it is impossible, but that it is not -
in his opinion - being achieved at the time he writes) McDonnell’s criticism has effectively
already been answered by Sturgeon, who said that ninety percent of everything is ‘crud’ (see
Section 4.). Sturgeon argues that the best Science Fiction is as good as the best writing in
any other field. Setting McDonnell aside, then, we can proceed with the arguments of some
of the other critics, which we have reduced to the charge of Science Fiction as Argument.
In order to get a clear understanding of exactly what the repercussions are of calling Science
Fiction merely ‘argument’, let us go on to consider part of David Ward’s theory of aesthetic
In his article “A Basic Schema for Understanding Aesthetic Transactions”,
explains that the first requirement of a work of art is that it be recognized as such. Such
recognition means that the work must be somehow distinguishable from the standard
ontological framework, for reasons as simple as it being hung on a wall or put on a pedestal,
or by virtue of the medium. Consider the deliberate movement of a dancer that differs from
the way people usually move, or the authorial presence in a work of literature that can give
us non-standard insight into the inner life of a character.
Only after we recognize
something as art can we go on to engage with and attempt to understand the work.
What both Koestler and Webb are doing, albeit from different motivations, is failing
to recognize works of Science Fiction as art. As a result their respective attacks and defenses
engage with the works on a literal level – Koestler saying ‘it will be fact not fantasy’, Webb
saying that Science Fiction is ‘prophetic’ and ‘descriptive of the social impacts of science’.
Their literal engagement limits their response to finding the work either useful or harmful
in some sort of social science capacity.
Denying Science Fiction the status of art generates some major problems. It was one
of my initial assumptions that attacks on the genre would be attempting to prove that Science
Fiction is not good fiction or good art, and that defenses of the genre would provide counter-objections to show that it is. But here we have found a defense which claims that it is not art
at all. Can such a defense possibly be beneficial to the genre? For there are many things in
the world which are useful and defensible but not art; what we are here concerned with is
that the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction are not taken seriously as good fiction, which
is to say, good literary art. Simply showing how useful something is (in some sort of social
science capacity) does not go any distance in solving our original problem.
The ‘Science Fiction as Argument’ charge poses two distinct questions. It is
popularly understood that the method of Science Fiction is thought-experiment. Willard van
Orman Quine assumes this mutual identification in saying ‘the method of science fiction has
its uses in philosophy, but… I wonder whether the limits of the method are properly
He is discussing the problematic nature of the thought-experiment in philosophic
method, but taking for granted that thought-experiment is the method of Science Fiction.
Ursula Le Guin instead views thought-experiment as the foundation of a particular story:
The germ of the story was in an article I read […] out of irrational and insatiable curiosity, in a
thought-experiment that became a story […] the experiment was not a happy one.
So the first question we need to answer is whether the assumption that thought-experiment
is the method of Science Fiction (and Fantasy, for that matter) is a secure one. If we answer
that question in the affirmative, then our next question is whether a thought-experiment is
the same thing as an argument. If the answer to this second question is affirmative, then we
will have some evidence for the ‘social science’ interpretation of the genre, in that it merely
reflects one person’s aesthetic choice to present their argument in a certain form, namely the
form of fiction. My initial intuition would be that defining a work of fiction as ‘literature’
(i.e. implying a value-judgement) has less to do with content, and more to do with form or
style. This is an intuition supported by long-time literary critic Harold Bloom, who, in
debates over the literary canon, ‘openly berates feminists, Marxists, and multi-culturalists
for ranking books according to their social agendas’
, concluding that ‘greatness in
literature arises exclusively from spiritual sublimity and aesthetic intensity, qualities […]
fundamentally unrelated to politics or morality’.
When we have found some answers to
the questions posed above, we will be free to discuss whether fiction being argument affects
its merit, or whether (and this is much more likely) fiction being merely argument affects its
merit. This latter point I will argue using an analogy to philosophic method.
The first issue is whether or not it can be successfully shown that all Science Fiction
takes the form of a thought-experiment. The most popular definitions of the genre of Science
Fiction say that it takes existing states of affairs through to their logical extension. Consider
Orwell’s 1984 as the logical extension of communism.
Some might say that works like
this possess more of an agenda, are more persuasive, than work which just explores the
likely outcomes of a certain set of given starting conditions. Consider John Wyndham’s The
Trouble with Lichen. In this novel, lichen with anti-ageing properties is discovered. The
novel examines some of the likely social and political ramifications of such a discovery. In
this way we can see that we might categorize a work like 1984 as an ‘argument’ (able to be
reconstructed as a statement like ‘if you take this action, then these undesirable consequences
will follow; therefore do not take this action’), while we would categorize The Trouble with
Lichen as a ‘thought-experiment’ (‘what if x?’). If all that is required for something to be a
thought-experiment is for us to ‘make a judgement about what would happen if the particular
state of affairs described in some imaginary scenario were actually to obtain’,
then we can
conclude that the majority of fiction and literature is a thought-experiment, and certainly all
Science Fiction. Under this definition, even Science Fiction which features a strong and
persuasive argument takes the overall form of a thought-experiment. So we will answer the
first of our questions in the affirmative. The issue is, then, whether or not thought-experiments and arguments are the same thing.
There is a vast amount of literature on thought-experiments. The thought-experiment
is a tool often employed in philosophy and science, to gain results from an experiment we
are unable to physically perform. Perhaps the most famous thought-experiment in science
was Galileo’s, regarding the speed of falling bodies, which he used to refute the well-entrenched Aristotelian conception. Examples of famous thought-experiments in philosophy
are Descartes’ ‘Evil Demon’, popularly reconceived as the ‘brain-in-a-vat’ of Skepticism,
Frank Jackson’s ‘Mary’s Room’ and John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ in the Philosophy of
Mind, and many others. Thomas Kuhn (in the Philosophy of Science) believed that a well-conceived thought-experiment is able to bring about crisis, crisis being the primary
contributor to paradigm-shift. In this way ‘thought experiments can teach us something new
about the world, even though we have no new data, by helping us to reconceptualize the
world in a better way’.
The greatest charge against thought-experiments is that they are merely arguments
in disguise, ‘sound arguments dressed up in heuristically appealing clothing’.
The idea that
thought-experiments are always arguments is a view advanced by John Forge, Andrew
Irvine, John Norton and Nicholas Rescher.
Perhaps the most concise of these (according
to Michael Bishop and Tamar Szabó Gendler, at least) comes from Norton. In her article
“Galileo and the Indispensability of Scientific Thought Experiment”, Gendler discusses and
attempts to refute Norton’s Elimination Thesis. The Elimination Thesis argues that ‘any
conclusion reached by a (successful) scientific thought experiment will also be demonstrable
by a non-thought-experimental argument’.
Gendler identifies two branches of Norton’s
claim: the Dispensability Thesis and the Derivativity Thesis. The former of these says that
a thought-experiment can be replaced by an argument without losing any of its
demonstrative force, while the latter says that the justificatory force of the thought-experiment only comes from the fact that it can be replaced by an argument. Gendler makes
explicit her own idea of the distinction between thought-experiments and arguments:
To draw a conclusion on the basis of a thought experiment is to make a judgement about what would
happen if the particular state of affairs described in some imaginary scenario were actually to obtain.
Gendler uses Galileo’s famous thought-experiment to deny both the Dispensability Thesis
and the Derivativity Thesis, showing that a thought-experiment and an argument are two
quite distinct entities. She says:
[…] By contrast, to draw a conclusion on the basis of a non-thought-experimental argument is to be
lead by a process of inductive or deductive reasoning from a set of explicit premises which make no
reference to particular hypothetical or counterfactual states of affairs to a correspondingly general
[…] So thought experiments differ from non-thought-experimental arguments in two crucial respects:
first, they are not presented as arguments, but rather as invitations to contemplate a way that the world
might (have) be(en); and second, they make essential reference to particular hypothetical and
counterfactual states of affairs.
The thought experiment that Galileo presents leads the Aristotelian to a reconfiguration of his
conceptual commitments of a kind that lets him see familiar phenomena in a novel way.
And furthermore, that:
[…] One way of thinking about how the thought experiment works is this: it brings the Aristotelian
to recognize the inadequacy of his conceptual framework for dealing with phenomena which – through
the contemplation of this imaginary case – he comes to recognize as always having been part of his
Gendler concludes that our ‘analysis and appraisal’ (and here she is quoting Norton) of
thought experiments ‘need not involve reconstructing [them] explicitly as […]
She says that thought-experiments are similar to arguments in that the
validity of procedure is of paramount importance, but that thought-experiments are
distinguished further by ‘their ability to direct the reader’s attention to inadequacies in her
conceptual scheme that she herself recognizes immediately’.
Gendler quotes Ernst Mach
in order to find support for the notion that:
We have stores of unarticulated knowledge of the world which is not organized under any theoretical
framework. Argument will not give us access to that knowledge, because the knowledge is not
propositionally available. Framed properly, however, a thought experiment can tap into it, and – much
like an ordinary experiment – allow us to make use of information about the world which was, in some
sense, there all along, if only we had known how to systematize it into patterns of which we are able
to make sense.
Gendler concludes her article by asserting that ‘the success of the thought experiment may
be a result of the way in which it invites the reader’s constructive participation, depicts
particulars in ways that make manifest practical knowledge, and describes an imaginary
scenario wherein relevant features can be separated from those that are inessential to the
questions at issue’ [my italics].
The italicized passage serves to remind us of Simulation
Theory, where an author runs a mental simulation to discover what kinds of things might
happen in given situations with given characters (which we discussed in Section 2.).
Gendler’s assertion that thought-experiments and arguments are two different things
is supported by Michael Bishop. Bishop uses the Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr ‘Clock-in-the-Box’ thought-experiment to show that one thought-experiment can yield more than one
He shows that both Einstein and Bohr followed the same
thought-experiment but constructed different arguments from them, which he uses as proof
that a thought-experiment is not, and cannot be, an argument.
What, then, are the implications of this outcome for our conception of Science
Fiction? As we discussed earlier, if Gendler and Bishop had been unable to prove that
thought-experiments and arguments were distinct entities, we would have been forced to
admit that if it is true that Science Fiction takes the form of a thought-experiment, and
thought-experiments are always arguments, then it is true that Science Fiction is always an
argument. Thus we would face the problem of defending Science Fiction from being merely
a vehicle for presenting arguments. This would result in arguing over whether an argument
can ever take on narrative form and constitute good fiction. We are not forced into this
predicament, however, because Gendler and Bishop have strong enough arguments to allow
us to admit that thought-experiments are something quite different to arguments.
than ‘follow[ing] the path of a recognized argument form’, the reader has ‘performed an act
of introspection that brings to light heretofore inarticulated and (because he lacked a
theoretical framework in which to make sense of them) heretofore implausible tacit
We should note here that denying fiction the status of ‘argument’ does not deny it
the power to bring about change. As Koestler said, good literary art means ‘seeing the
familiar in a new light, seeing tragedy in the trivial event: it means in the last resort to
broaden and deepen our understanding of ourselves’.
When we say of art that its specific function is to bring about change, we are saying
too much, for then we get into the kind of trouble resulting from Webb’s argument. Because
it is not the task of this paper to discuss the requirements of art, it will suffice for our
purposes to draw the loose conclusion that any agenda in a work of art ought to be secondary
to the art form.
In order to make this suggestion more convincing, I would draw an analogy to the
discussion of the previous section. What was at stake between thought-experiments and
arguments was whether or not the former could be reduced to the latter. In the same way,
I argue that if a work of fiction or literature can be reduced to an argument, or a plot, or an
agenda; if it loses no demonstrative or emotive force in the re-telling (or reduction); then it
is of sub-standard literary merit. It is, in such a case, either not fiction at all, or very bad
fiction. In either case, it is certainly not literature. Under such a conception, Asimov’s I,
Robot would fail as literature. The bad characterizations and worse-than-bad prose style are
lifted up only by the good ideas; all of which unfortunately entail that I, Robot is better in
the re-telling, or in reduction to those foundational ideas.
As a brief aside, one very interesting question has been put to me in discussing this
fiction-as-thought-experiment view, which is the question of how we can know when to take
an argument or thought-experiment made via fiction seriously. Kathleen Wilkes is one
philosopher who has written against thought-experiments, from the area of personal identity
theory, saying in fact that thought-experiments are fine in fiction because the purpose of
fiction is different to the purpose of philosophy or science; fiction’s purpose is to entertain.
She is saying in effect that the kinds of thought-experiments used in fiction, which she aligns
with those employed in identity theory, are never philosophically useful. She contrasts these
with a few very useful thought experiments from science such as Stevin’s frictionless planes
and Einstein’s oscillating light fields.
[W]e cannot extract philosophically interesting conclusions from fantastical thought experiments. We
cannot do this because we have the following choice: either (a) we picture them against the world as
we know it, or (b) we picture them against some quite different background. If we choose the first,
then we picture them against a background that deems them impossible – that insists that hemisphere
transplants (for instance) violate fundamental biological and physical laws. If we choose (b), then we
have the realm of fantasy, and fantasy is fine to read, but it does not allow for philosophical
conclusions to be drawn, because in a world indeterminately different we do not know what we would
want to say about anything (pp. 46).
Wilkes makes a good case against many thought experiments used in personal identity and
ethics. She talks about the often-cited Gyges ring example, which is the idea that there would
be no morality if there existed a ring of invisibility. She points out that such a thought-experiment does not answer enough questions to be conclusive about human nature. She asks
whether the owner of Gyges ring is to be intangible as well as invisible, whether there is
anything that would count as punishment for an invisible, intangible agent, whether, if prison
walls could not hold you, you could hold a gun, a caseful of banknotes. She asks if other
people would know such a ring existed, and points out that if they did, and they knew who
owned it, unsolved crimes might be ascribed to the ring-owner. Wilkes says ‘the point is that
the purpose of the thought-experiment cannot be met unless such questions are answered:
they are deeply relevant. The background is inadequately described, and the results therefore
So in response to the question of when we should take the thought-experiment in the
Science Fiction or Fantasy novel seriously, my answer is: only when the thought-experiment
enacted by the work of fiction is of the same kind as the successful thought-experiments of
science, when, as Wilkes would say, the background is adequately described, the experiment
is rigorous and controlled, and the results, therefore, are able to be conclusive. This ‘taking
the thought-experiment seriously’ would also have to be a separate issue to the success of
the fiction as literature, which would be based upon other criterion such as the successful
execution of the thought-experiment in narrative form, and other aesthetic criterion.
5.2. Defending Fantasy
In the previous section, we discussed the nature of the escapism argument, and its
application to Science Fiction. We noted that it was easier to answer in relation to Science
Fiction than in relation to Fantasy, for the reason that Science Fiction is often a logical
projection of the future of this world. The point at which the escapism argument becomes
a critical problem for the Fantasy genre comes when we consider that any engagement with
‘realist’ literature is at least an engagement with situations and circumstances that readers
might actually find themselves in, an engagement with characters similar to themselves, or
at least only dissimilar to a certain degree.
The problems faced by characters in realist genres are problems which might
logically be faced by the reader, and thus any engagement is useful in that it stands to
broaden our understanding, allow us to transcend the limits of our own physical experience,
build on our empathy for others, aspire to emulate certain characters or given characteristics
or modes of behaviour that we recognise as desirable or ‘right’. These are some of the basic
reasons provided by theorists in the Philosophy of Literature for supposing literature
valuable; in some views essential rather than merely useful or enjoyable.
This poses a serious threat to our finding any value in the genre of Fantasy, for the
following reason. Fantasy is the domain of the contra-real. Fantasy worlds are worlds that
specifically do not exist, containing states of affairs that have not and will never come to
pass. The events which occur in a Fantasy world are in accord with the laws of nature
established for that world, not our own. Thus the characters of a Fantasy world exhibit
behaviour particular to the pressures and circumstances of the world they find themselves
in. But we as readers will never find ourselves in a similar situation because we will never
find ourselves in any universe but this one.
Obviously when we take these things into consideration, we find that Fantasy
literature can not be defended on any of the usual grounds on which we usually find
literature valuable. We need to consider, then, other reasons for it being valuable. In order
to do this, we will look at two separate arguments. The first comes from Joseph Priestly, and
involves what I call the Iceberg Theory, looking at the fact that the secondary worlds of
Fantasy still come from the minds of men (and women) of this world. The second is what
I will call Comparison Theory, which simply asks whether or not there is something to be
gained from comparing what is with what is not.
5.2.1. Priestley’s Iceberg
In his article “Thoughts in the Wilderness”, Joseph Priestly makes a point which I
think is crucial to our understanding of Fantasy literature and might easily, without
explication, escape our consideration. For it is easy, when considering the proliferation of
secondary worlds brought into being in the space of the human imagination through
literature, to fall into the trap of imagining the false dichotomy of ‘this’ (real) world and
‘those’ (imaginary) worlds. What we must not forget is that ‘those’ worlds are a product of
this one. This is a fact which cannot be avoided. However different the worlds of the artistic
imagination, we must not forget that they come out of the minds of the men of ‘this’ world,
and thus are a product of these circumstances, this time. Without getting too far into
psychoanalytic theory and theories of the unconscious, we can just briefly say that there is
support for this notion of the importance of ‘what is really happening in men’s minds’
Jungian theory in his idea of the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious, and
also in Rosemary Jackson’s work Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, which frames
Fantasy as the literature of desire, of fulfilling our deep-seated desires for the triumph of
good over evil, as providing us with the utopias we unconsciously yearn for. What Priestly
specifically says is:
Science Fiction and Flying Saucer legends seem to me important because they show us what is really
happening in men’s minds. Like the sexually sadistic thrillers now so popular, they are the myths and
characteristic dreams of our age, and are psychologically far more important than our more rational
accounts of ourselves. They take the lid off. They allow us a glimpse of what is boiling down below.
They may be the first rumblings of the volcano that will overwhelm us. Of course our political leaders,
solemn experts, pundits of platform and Press, do not concern themselves with such trivialities, for
they still imagine, against all the evidence, that men are as rational as they like to think they are, are
moved by a limited set of obvious motives, and consciously direct their affairs. And to imagine this
[is] as sensible and safe as it is to assume that what we can be seen of an iceberg is all there is of it.
If we are all in the same boat, then its name is Titanic.
So let us take this as the first step in our defence of Fantasy from the argument of escapism.
It is to answer that the work of our imaginations, the myths and dreams of our age, are just
as important, if not more so, than our rational accounts of ourselves. And Fantasy, as its
name indicates, allows a formal expression of some of these myths and dreams. Thus there
is much to be gained not only from considering the individual manifestations of these things
in particular works, but our own reactions and sympathies in engaging with these particular
narratives, what we like about Fantasy worlds which are particular to one book or series, or
one author, and what we like across all Fantasy literature. If Fantasy really is about wish-fulfilment, perhaps in taking the writers writing and our own reading more seriously we
might put ourselves in a position to learn more about what we really lack, what we really
wish for, and if we are in any position to make these desires come true.
One concession does need to be made to Priestley here though, and it concerns his
frustration with the ‘externalization’ of Science Fiction which appears to be distracting
people from internal (or self) exploration. It is one of my more controversial assertions that
one of the elements that makes Fantasy ‘good’ is the level at which we can identify with it,
what it illuminates about the human condition. We are often interested in alien species, but
I would argue that this interest only comes via negation; we are not interested per se in this
strange and distant creature, but rather our interest comes from being provoked to thought -
via this device of the ‘other’ - about the kinds of things we lack, what we are not, and how
these sorts of considerations change or reveal our understanding of ourselves.
One of my lecturers explained to me recently that in running a philosophy workshop
he had students consider what it means to be human. The first thing the class did was
imagine things that were specifically not-human, and consider the difference. Sometimes the
best way of gaining greater understanding is through the consideration of difference; we can
learn a lot in considering all the things that we are not. Thus on this issue of externalization
versus internalization, I would be inclined to side with Priestley and Koestler and say that
literary art ‘means in the last resort to broaden and deepen our understanding of
5.2.2. Fantasy (and Science Fiction) and the Other
This section works to elaborate upon the point made in the previous section (5.2.1.)
and also presents a contrasting view to that which is elaborated in Section 5.1.4. In that
section, I argued that Science Fiction was illuminative (often by negation) of the human
condition. The success of this argument depends on the application of a mode of reading.
There are two ways a reader could understand Le Guin’s Nine Lives (see pp. 52-53). One is
in the way I explained earlier, which is to say that the reader gains insight into the human
condition by considering the differences between humanity and the Other of the story (in that
case, the clone). By this reading, a story is either explicitly about being human, or it is
implicitly about being human, precisely because it is about not being human. One particular
difficulty of this view is that it is all-encompassing.
The other mode of reading we might adopt is to say that these works really are about
the Other. In this case, rather than reading Nine Lives as a commentary (by negation) on
being human, we would say that it is about being a clone. We can apply this kind of reading
to Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, in particular the later books where four different species
are in communication; Ender (a human), Jane (a super-computer), the Formics (ant-like
workers, connected psychically to their Hive Queen), and the Pequeninos (pig-like creatures
with third-lives as sentient trees). This second kind of ‘about-ness’ is more open to debate
within Science Fiction, because it can always be argued that maybe, just maybe, the world
might go the way the author imagines. But what happens when we look at an example from
Many of the human characters of Robin Hobb’s Assassin series are endowed with
two additional senses, the Wit and the Skill. The Wit is a psychic bond to one particular
animal; the Skill is a kind of telepathy which allows its users to enter other people’s minds
and relay information, lend strength, or conversely cloud judgement, present illusion,
mislead, drain of strength, damage and destroy. The Wit is a sense both loathed and feared.
Hobb uses the Wit and the Skill as useful devices for greater psychological insight into the
minds of her various characters, but more than this, they allow the reader a familiarity with
three ‘kinds’ of Other – the human psychic, the human telepathic, and the animal (in this
case, a wolf). Perhaps we could allow that this insight into the inner life of a wolf is valuable
in that wolves really do exist in the world. But what of the Witted, the Skilled? It is at this
point that my first argument looks more intuitively appealing. One element essential to being
human is that we are inescapably mentally alone: we do not share our consciousness. This
work of Fantasy illuminates several interesting and thought-provoking elements of the
human condition through its engagement with characters who surpass our abilities in
communication and understanding. Thus I would like to conclude that it is what we can learn
about ourselves, and furthermore what we can be provoked to consider about ourselves that
Realist genres lack the ability to address, rather than any intrinsic interest in the Other
(where the other does not really exist) that creates and sustains our interest in Science
Fiction and Fantasy.
In his article “Against Genre/Theory: The State of Science Fiction Criticism”, Carl
Malmgren makes a similar point, outlining two basic ‘concerns’ of Science Fiction: the
relationship between self and other, and the relationship between self and society. He says
of the first kind that ‘the reader recuperates this type of fiction by comparing human and
nonhuman entities, typically exploring what it means to be human. The cognitive thrust
involves a better understanding of self and other’,
and of the second kind that ‘the reader
is invited to draw comparisons between the fictional society and originary [sic] one and to
establish normative frameworks’.
So while (disappointingly) I am not the first person to
make this observation about Science Fiction, Fantasy and the Other, at least (happily) there
exists support for the idea.
5.2.3. Fantasy Gone Stale?
It is quite possible that one of the main motivations for the attitude of the public and
those within academia toward Science Fiction and Fantasy is the historical progress of the
genre forms. To a certain extent, especially pre-1980, both genres saw a high proportion of
‘formula writers’. This is to say, writers were achieving commercial success by writing to
a formula (Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, Raymond
E. Feist’s post-Magician series, to name a few) rather than writing anything fresh or new.
The familiarity of such works appealed to a certain audience, but this audience was a
minority, and many readers who might have embraced either genre when they first emerged,
and were doing new and exciting things with new and exciting material, probably abandoned
them at this point.
The ‘staleness’ of Fantasy, and about twenty years earlier, Science Fiction, was
remedied to some degree with the emergence of Fantasy authors like Robin Hobb and Terry
Pratchett (and J.K Rowling, dare I say it), and Science Fiction authors like Orson Scott Card
and Ursula Le Guin (among others, in both cases).
This raises an interesting point about fiction in general. According to Kant’s account
of genius in The Critique of Judgement, an artist is inspired by something in the world, some
idea. The artist then attempts to express this idea, this ‘something’, in their chosen
It does not fit with this account of artistic genius at all that a writer should write
according to a formula, or recipe. Someone like Terry Pratchett has been able to attain
considerable success in satirizing the obvious conventions of the Fantasy genre form at its
Genre classifications should be, at the most, marketing tools; useful ways of grouping
certain kinds of things together. Perhaps instead of the arbitrary classification system we
currently employ, which is based entirely on content, we should instead group novels
together under atmosphere headings like ‘Heavy-Going but Thought-Provoking’, or ‘A Bit
of Mindless Nonsense’.
What would be really useful is a system which tells us what works
are actually good within any given atmosphere.
But that would be to begin an entirely different project. For the purposes of this
paper, we need only take into account that the ‘staleness’ of the genres over a certain period
in the not-too-distant past as one of the probable motivations for the marginalized position
of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
5.3. A Final Defence of Both Science Fiction and Fantasy
There is one final argument which I wish to raise in defence of the genres. This is the
argument that Science Fiction and Fantasy are the closest of the literary genres to the
discipline of Philosophy. This is to take McDonnell’s original criticism and turn it on its
head: he said that Science Fiction was nothing but disguised Philosophy and as such not
‘real’ literature. Here I wholeheartedly agree that both of the genres and Philosophy are
similar to a degree; and I can agree without risk because we have shown in our previous
discussions that the content and subject of a work of literature has little to do with whether
it is art and whether it is good. What I do wish to argue is that it is precisely in its
identification with philosophical enquiry and its ability to communicate some of the more
complex philosophical dilemmas and issues that we find the most value, the most ‘use’, in
both Science Fiction and Fantasy. As we learned from Aristotle, the value of a work of
literature comes not from its presentation of particulars but from its presentation of
universals. Rather than rehashing the same set of everyday and extraordinary (but not
fantastical) emotions and circumstances in love stories and crime thrillers (for example),
Science Fiction and Fantasy fiction take a more imaginative stance and look at more
fundamental human issues. Their epic scale, and remove from scientifically-defined current
‘reality’, allow the raising of profound and interesting questions about human nature, good
and evil, complex ethical situations, our past, and the future of the human race. Two tools
integral to the discipline of Philosophy are ‘implication’ and ‘repercussion’ – the
consideration of these in light of some argument we have made or are making. This ability
to consider implications into the distant future is a key feature of the rationality of human
and is a tool or thought process mirrored in Fantasy and Science Fiction, perhaps
by virtue of something as simple as their epic scale. These genres ask us to open our minds
and consider issues and possibilities which concern far more than our mere hundred or so
years of life, at this particular time, in this particular location.
To provide an example of a work of Science Fiction which exemplifies some of these
criteria, let me briefly list some of the philosophical issues which come up throughout Card’s
Ender series. The Ender series (beginning with Ender’s Game and concluding with Shadow
Puppets) is a fresh take on the Science Fiction genre, steeped in religious, historical,
philosophical and military detail. Some of the philosophical issues which come up in the
series are: utilitarianism, self-sacrifice for the greater good, power and use (might vs. right),
the Napoleon Idea or Nietzsche’s ubermensch, historical detail – Lenin / Stalin / Alexander
/ Napoleon / Eisenhower, organic ethical theory (individuals as part of greater organic
whole), theology (God as God of humans, or all sentient species?), respect (automatically
accorded or earned?), moral issues like responsibility and blame in the case of lack of
knowledge, love and friendship, bullying and pre-emptive strikes, language (good and evil
as contingent upon language and understanding – the case of a great honour being
misconstrued as sickening violence). This list is nowhere near exhaustive of the issues and
discussion points which come out of such a series, but should go at least some distance
toward illustrating my point.
One of the greatest benefits of Science Fiction and Fantasy fiction is that they prompt
a consideration of philosophical and religious issues. Because the kinds of questions and
dilemmas raised by philosophy are often unanswered (and in some cases probably
unanswerable), and yet because we often use their supposed answers as defining grounds for
the way we live and behave, they should be brought from the specific field of Philosophy
into the public domain – and what better way than by means of literature, giving the dual
benefit of involving more people with more great literature and so not only fostering an
interest in wider reading but also lending the other benefits supposed by theories of the value
We can use the rise of the Philosophy for Children movement in Australasia as
evidence for this shift of philosophy into mainstream education and thus public life.
secular nation like New Zealand where we teach neither philosophy nor religion in primary
or secondary schools, there is a lot to be said for people being provoked to consider issues
relevant to both. People need fantasy, creativity, and imagination to escape the sometime-drudgery of everyday life; for who would choose to live in a work-eat-sleep world?
Without the fantastic imagination we could not achieve technological progress.
Without it we could not achieve what we have as a nation and a species in art, music, poetry
- any artistic endeavour. The conclusion we took from McDonnell’s criticism (in Section
4.1) was that what we should aspire to in Science Fiction is a non-dogmatic stance on
thinking and reasoning (to imagine and consider rather than to be persuaded), a quality
which can be built upon using the critical thinking developed within the discipline of
This link between the genres and the discipline of philosophy is further strengthened
by the consonance between thought-experiments and literature. I would like to venture the
suggestion that the criterion by which we judge thought-experiments could in fact be a
universal criterion by which we judge works of literature. We can distinguish good thought-experiments from bad thought-experiments in the same way we can distinguish good fiction
from bad fiction. Good literature expands our ability to reflect on ourselves and our lives;
thought-experiments are more than arguments because they can elicit intuitions, engage us,
mobilize our emotions, all of which both Science Fiction and Fantasy can do more or less
adequately. So perhaps what can be bad about works of Science Fiction and Fantasy is what
can be bad about thought-experiments: when they are bad, they can produce significant
distortion, and deflect us from reflecting on things in any important way.
In Structural Fabulation, Robert Scholes talks about this kind of distortion with
reference to fiction of the more ‘realistic’ kind, which he sees as more dangerous than the
so-called escapism of Science Fiction and / or Fantasy:
It features a strong narrative line, characters with whom readers identify, and a comforting “realism”
that purports to explain how things really work in contemporary society […] This sort of fiction has
one important thing – readers. But it pays a high price for its readership, and they pay a high price for
their pleasure, for they are led to believe in a “reality” which is irrelevant to our actual situation in
many respects. And precisely because they believe in this reality, they are dangerously uninformed
as citizens and human beings who must face real problems.
Kathleen Wilkes shows us in Real People: Personal Identity Without Thought
Experiments that certain good thought experiments have allowed us to go beyond current
limits, citing examples from Heisenburg, Galileo, Einstein and Stevin. There is no reason
we could not add to this list the names of a few very good authors. I would argue for an
exactly parallel dimension of evaluation between successful thought-experiments and
successful works of fiction.
It is with these final thoughts that I conclude that we should treat the best of Science
Fiction and Fantasy as much more than good entertainment, we should treat it as a tool to
open our minds and provoke intelligent, logical and critical thought. I hope the necessarily
brief quotations, from some of the best Science Fiction and Fantasy I have encountered in
reading for this paper (scattered wherever possible throughout this work) provide enough of
an example of the high quality of some of the best works in each genre.
6. An Empirical Application: Science Fiction and Fantasy in Education
Philosophy for Children (or P4C) and Philosophy in Secondary Schools (or PSS) are
two education movements gaining increasing momentum throughout Australasia, aiming to
introduce the ‘thinking skills’ of Philosophy into mainstream education. It occurs to me that
although my main task in this paper has been to drag Science Fiction and Fantasy ‘out of the
corner’ and over to ‘play with the big kids’ (as it were), there is a further application which
comes out of considering some of the strengths of the genres. So while we have discovered
that there is nothing about genre-classifications that permits a value-judgement about any
individual piece of work, we have found that there are certain characteristics about works
of Science Fiction and Fantasy (such as scale and content) that distinguish them from other
What I would like to argue in this section is that we can take a piece of empirical
research, in this case research regarding the enduring nature of religious ideas, and apply it
to Science Fiction and Fantasy to support the claim that both genres are highly defensible
in Education. So let us go on immediately, then, to look at the research of
Pascal Boyer and Justin Barrett, and its immediate application to the genres we are
concerned with here.
In Religion Explained, Boyer explains that as humans, we have a few ontological
categories which we use as templates: ‘animal’, ‘plant’, ‘tool’, ‘person’, ‘number’, ‘natural
object’. Boyer and Barrett show that the quality which makes a story or myth memorable and
transmissible is the fact of its containing a violation of an ontological category. Boyer
provides the example of a ‘table made of chocolate’ contrasted with a ‘table that feels sad
when you leave the room’. The first is unusual but does not constitute a violation, while the
second is surprising and does constitute a violation. Without going into too much detail here,
we can see how such an idea is immediately applicable to Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Literature that is realistic does not violate natural categories; this is just true by virtue of the
label ‘realistic’. In Science Fiction and Fantasy we suddenly encounter violations en masse:
sentient trees, strange mixtures of animal and person, inanimate objects endowed with some
magical property, people who can see the future, aliens and ghosts. Where most of the
arguments against Science Fiction and Fantasy saw such combinations as escapist and
useless, we can now see that the very fact of their making the story more transmissible and
more memorable goes a great distance toward making them defensible for their use in
education. There is no reason to suppose that violation of ontological categories affects
literary merit, so we easily avoid previous problems. Empirical tests show us that when it
comes to stories, realism is less memorable.
Boyer’s research attempts to explain religion. But religion is conditional upon truth,
faith and belief. What is interesting for us is that when we apply his research to Science
Fiction and Fantasy there is no such condition. We willingly suspend disbelief and immerse
ourselves if the work is good enough to hold our attention. We approach fiction in an entirely
different spirit to religion; we pretend and we play. This is why fiction is entirely more
enjoyable than other modes of thinking: we are not working to solve some problem. We are
simply being provoked to consider and imagine.
We have arrived at the rather commonsense conclusion that there is no justification
whatsoever for judging works of literature according to their genre rather than on their
individual merits. Form and content are necessary conditions to a work of literature. There
are many examples of fiction in which the ideas or arguments (content) are good while the
form is not, and vice versa; there are examples of fiction where both form and content are
lacking; and, finally, there are examples of work where the form and the content are both
very good, in which case we might judge the work to be ‘literature’. We have seen that none
of the existing arguments against Science Fiction or Fantasy are sufficient to warrant
marginalizing entire genres, and none of the extrapolated or constructed arguments remain
undefeated. Although ‘form’ and ‘content’ remain as categories in need of some fleshing out
in terms of specific detail, suffice for this paper to say that we have shown the majority view
against Science Fiction and Fantasy to be unsupported by any philosophical argument.
Asimov, Isaac and Greenburg, Martin. The Great SF Stories (Volumes 8, 9, 10, 11). New
York; Daw Books, 1982-1984.
Bender, John. “Enlightenment Fiction and the Scientific Hypothesis” in Representations
(No. 61, Special Issue: Practices of Enlightenment, Winter 1998). California;
University of California Press, 1998.
Bishop, Michael A. “Why Thought Experiments Are Not Arguments” in Philosophy of
Science (Vol. 66, No. 4, Dec. 1999). Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained. New York; Basic Books, 2001.
Bradbury, Ray. Mars is Heaven in The Great SF Stories: 10. Ed. Isaac Asimov. New
York; Daw Books, 1983.
Brooke-Rose, Christine. A Rhetoric of the Unreal. Cambridge; Cambridge University
Brown, James R. The Labotomy of the Mind: Thought Experiments in the Natural
Sciences. New York; Routledge, 1991.
---- “Thought Experiments” (2002) in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.Website
http.//plato.Stanford.edu/entries/thought-experiment. Accessed: 09/06/05.
Bywater, Ingram. The Works of Aristotle Translated Into English. Ed. W. D. Ross.
Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1946.
Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. Great Britain; Atom, 2002.
---- Ender’s Shadow. New York; Tor, 2000.
---- Children of the Mind. Great Britain; Orbit, 2003.
---- Shadow of the Hegemon. New York; Tor, 2001.
---- Shadow Puppets. New York; Tor, 2003.
---- Speaker for the Dead. London; Legend, 1992.
---- “The Problem Is”. Personal correspondence via. electronic mail. (2005).
----. Xenocide. New York; Tor, 1992.
Chute, John and Grant, John. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London; Orbit, 1999.
Derleth, August. “Contemporary Science Fiction” in College English (Vol. 13, No. 4,
Jan. 1952). Urbana; National Council of Teachers of English, 1952.
Disch, Thomas M. “Big Ideas and Dead-End Thrills” in The Atlantic Monthly (Vol. 269,
No. 2, February 1992). New England; Academic Research Library, 1992.
Gendler, Tamar Szabó. “Galileo and the Indispensability of Scientific Thought
Experiment” in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (Vol. 49, No. 3,
Sep. 1998). Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1998.
Greer, Germaine. “The Book of the Century” in W. (Winter/Spring 1997). London;
Waterstone Publishers, 1997.
Harding, Lee. Beyond Tomorrow: An Anthology of Modern Science Fiction. Australia;
Hardy, Michael. “Science Fiction” in Wikipedia. Website:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/science_fiction. Accessed: 29/06/05.
Henry, Jim. “Golden Age of Science Fiction” in Wikipedia. (Last modified 2005).
Website: www.en/wikipedia.org. Accessed 22/08/05.
Jowett, Benjamin. Plato: Protagoras, Philebus and Gorgias. New York; Prometheus
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1952.
Koestler, Arthur. “The Boredom of Fantasy” in Harper’s Bazaar (August 1953). New
York; Hearst Corporation, 1953.
Lamb, Wally. I Know This Much is True. Australia; Harper Collins Publishers, 1999.
Le Guin, Ursula. “Nine Lives” in Beyond Tomorrow: An Anthology of Modern Science
Fiction. Ed. Lee Harding. Australia; Wren, 1976. pp. 23.
---- The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. Great Britain; Gollancz, 2003.
---- The Earthsea Quartet. London; Penguin, 2003.
Lewis, C.S. “On Science Fiction” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter
Hooper. London: Bles Publishers, 1966.
McConnell, Frank. “It’s only a Paper Moon: Fantasy and the Professors” in Genre at the
Crossroads: The Challenge of Fantasy. Ed. George Slusser and Jean-Pierre
Barricelli. Canada; Xenos Books, 2003.
McDonnell, Thomas. “The Cult of Science Fiction” in Catholic World (October 1953).
New Jersey; Parnasus, 1953.
McPheron, William. “Harold Bloom” in Stanford Presidential Lectures in the
and Arts. (1998). Website: http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/bloom.
Malmgren, Carl D. “Against Genre/Theory: The State of Science Fiction Criticism” in
Poetics Today (Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 1991). Durham; Duke University Press,
Methold, Kenneth. “Science Fiction” in Contemporary Review (March 1959) London; A.
Miller, Henry Knight. “The Voices of Henry Fielding: Style in Tom Jones” in The
Augustan Milieu: Essays Presented to Louis A. Landa. Eds. Henry Knight Miller,
Eric Rothstein, G.S Rousseau. London; Oxford University Press, 1970.
Mooney, Chris. “Kicking the Hobbit” in The American Prospect Online. (June 03, 2001).
Website: http://www.prospect.org. Accessed 13/06/05.
Murray, Penelope. Classical Literary Criticism. London; Penguin Books, 2000.
Nussbaum, Martha C. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life.
Massachusetts; Beacon Press, 1995.
---- The Fragility of Goodness. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Padlipsky, Michael A. More than Pulp (?): Science Fiction and the Problem of Literary
Value. Ph.D for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1960. Website:
http://www.lafn.org/ba213/tt/01about.html. (2003). Accessed: 13/05/05.
Parfit, Derek quoting Quine, Willard van Orman, cited in Ward, David. “Imaginary
Scenarios, Black Boxes and Philosophical Method” in Erkenntnis (Vol. 43).
Netherlands; Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995.
Parrinder, Patrick. Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching. London; Methuen & Co.
Pearce, Joseph. Tolkien: Man and Myth. London; HarperCollins, 1998.
Posner, Richard A. Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation. London; Harvard
University Press, 1988.
Priestley, J. B. “Thoughts In The Wilderness” in New Statesman (Dec. 1953). London;
New Statesman Ltd., 1953.
---- “Who Goes Where?” in New Statesman (Sept. 1958). London; New Statesman
Scholes, Robert. Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future. Notre
Dame; University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.
Slusser, George and Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. Genre at the Crossroads: The Challenge
of Fantasy. California; Xenos Books, 2003.
Sturgeon, Theodore. [Title Unknown] in Venture Science Fiction (March 1958) ed.
Robert P. Mills.
Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. Cited in Parrinder, Patrick. Science Fiction: Its Criticism
and Teaching. London; Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1980.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays.
London; George Allan & Unwin, 1983.
Upstone, Sara. “Applicability and Truth in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the
Silmarillion: Readers, Fantasy, and Canonicity” in FindArticles. London; Gale
Group, 2003. Website: http://www.findarticles.com. Accessed: 22/03/05.
Ward, David. “A Basic Schema for Understanding Aesthetic Transactions” in Homepage
David Ward. Website: http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/staff/david_ward.html.
Webb, Hanor A.. “Science Fiction Writers: Prophets of the Future” in Library Journal
(December 1955). New York; R.R Bowker Co., 1955.
Wendland, Albert. “Science, Myth, and the Fictional Creation of Alien Worlds” in
Studies in Speculative Fiction (No. 12). Michigan; University of Michigan Press,
Wilkes, Kathleen V. Real People: Personal Identity Without Thought Experiments.
Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1988.