“The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism”

I’ve been digging into my new Library of America copy of The Space Merchants. The book is an outstanding example of science fiction as social criticism. And so it’s interesting to read C.M. Kornbluth’s thoughts on the failure of the science fiction novel as social criticism:

I suggest from this that there is very little fundamental material in the “Skylark” universe which is congruent with adulthood. I suggest that there is much fundamental material in that universe congruent with the attitudes and emotions of a boy seven or nine years old tearing off down an alley on his bike in search of adventure. The politics of this boy are vague, half-understood, overheard adult dogmatisms. His sex-life is a bashful, inhibited yearning for unspecific contact. His cultural level is low; he has not had time to learn to like anything seriously musical. Around the corner there lurks the impossibly malignant black-haired bully who may be all of twelve, and his smart little toady. But Dicky Seaton has a loyal pal, Marty Crane, and together they will whip the bully and toady in a fair, stand-up fight.

What are these wild adventures of Seaton and Crane, then? These mighty conquests, these vast explorations, these titanic battles? They are boyish daydreams, the power of fantasies which compensate for the inevitable frustrations of childhood in an adult world. They are the weakness of the Smith stories as rational pictures of the universe and society, and they are the strength of the stories as engrossing tales of Never-Never Land. We have all been children.

Science fiction struggled with this in the 1950’s (and in the late 60’s New Wave, but today SF writers seem to more comfortably switch between juvenile and adult modes in their fiction), and many of the books with staying power in that era managed to squarely tackle more adult themes. The reason Robert Sheckley’s stories have been reissued in a swanky new New York Review of Books edition is because they use tropes of flying saucers and bug-eyes monsters to efficiently satirize adult society.

Interestingly, Kornbluth highlights Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence as an example of SF social criticism that works:

Let us contrast the Smith novels with Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence. This is an alleged science fiction novel of social criticism in that it is a violent tract against biological warfare. It is the type of novel which says: “I will show you what will happen if you don’t listen to me and do as I say.” It does not have thick symbolic content; its land is our land, its people are us, transposed only a few years and one insane decision into the future. The book concludes with a stark, enormous deed of cannibalism. This takes us back to the animal, before the human being became human enough to define the first and basic crimes—cannibalism general, within the family incest and unregulated parricide. If these three acts, common in the animal world, had not been prohibited, the family, group life and ultimately civilization would have been impossible. The prohibitions seem to be fairly recent as the life-span of the human race goes; the Greek tragedies were largely concerned with the terrible consequences of parricide and incest even when committed unwittingly; the badness of unwitting cannibalism within the family recurs through the Elizabethan drama, and to our own day in a novel by Evelyn Waugh.

Tremendous power is latent in these symbols, and Tucker brilliantly taps it in the scene of his book. He shows us creatures reduced to eating human flesh and therefore non-human; it is all the more horrible that they are capable of speech and reason.

I will cast aside a part-time principle that biographical information has no place in literary criticism to examine an interesting alternative to Tucker’s published ending. Originally he had his protagonist eat his erstwhile mistress, which is pure familial cannibalism. His editor persuaded him to have the two join forces instead to commit cannibalism on stray human beings who crossed their path. I think the editor was wise. We are left not with the substance but with the shadow. We have the taste of familial cannibalism in our mouths, but if we were fed the actual thing we would vomit it out—that is, reject the reality of the book.

I suspect The Long Loud Silence is a book of social criticism which might have had the effect of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It has no inherent defect which could have kept it from sweeping the country, bringing home to citizens and voters the realities of bacteriological warfare, and forcing our leaders to take steps toward lessening the probability that the book will become true. It is legitimate to ask why it was ignored by the nation.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

4 thoughts on ““The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism””

  1. I completely agree with you on how interesting Kornbluth’s thoughts are on this subject. His point about the juvenile nature of much SF in the 50s (and before) is right on target, and his singling out of Tucker’s book just points out that there were a lot of gems hidden within the SF field. I teach SF at Fullerton College and try to point out to my students that the stories that have had staying power, the ones that get anthologized, are generally the ones that had more to say, but that at the time of their publication they were sandwiched in between the bug-eyed monster stories that would have appealed to 12-year-old boys. I think that’s what makes Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout such a perfect figure for the genre SF writer of the time.

    1. What makes 50’s sci-fi so fun is that so many authors at the time were trying to break out of the juvenile constraints. And hence the greater willingness to experiment, to tackle big themes, and to better develop the potential of the traditional props of science fiction. It was really a first New Wave.

      Just to be clear, I’m not knocking juvenile SF. There are clearly excellent works of SF aimed at younger readers, works that can be interesting for adults to read, but those works are not the reason I’m addicted to sci-fi.

  2. It is doubly interesting to see historical context for what remains one of SF’s ongoing concerns (that being the juxtaposition of art/social criticism with entertainment/juvenile fantasy). More than most other forms, SF provides so many toys that it can be tough to write beyond the toys. But increasingly we must, because we want the genre to grow up, and because we understand its relevance. What was SF in the 1980s is now the present day. What is SF today will be reality sooner than we think. Thanks for these excerpts / pointers!

    1. In a way, the writers in the 50’s and 60’s faced a similar dilemma – some of the science fiction of the 30’s and 40’s became a reality in the post-Hiroshima, post-Sputnik years. We’ll probably have this struggle for a long time, because adolescents are voracious readers of sci-fi. But I think its a good sign that writers like Mieville and Bacigalupi are able to switch between juvenile and adult modes so well – much better than most writers in the 50’s, IMHO.

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