The Role of Science Fiction

The Role of Science Fiction

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Inhaltsangabe:Abstract: Since Kurt Vonnegut passed away aged 84 earlier this year (11th April 2007), his life and work received considerable media recognition. While FOX-news could not refrain from expressing rather hostile criticism in their Vonnegut obituary, admirers of Vonnegut's works reacted with angry comments to the aforementioned programme. All over the internet bloggers expressed their regrets and wrote their own obituaries commenting on Vonnegut's life as well as his books. Why does the death of an 84 year old author leaving a body of 14 novels, three collections of short stories, one compilation of fictitious interviews with dead celebrities, four works of non-fiction, five plays and one requiem lead to public reactions which differ so widely? How can the works of an author who persisted to write his last book on an old typewriter be so relevant for the technophiles of the blogosphere? These questions alone justify the continuation of an academic discourse on the works of Kurt Vonnegut which has been going on four almost forty years following the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969. Ever since that novel, critics rarely fail to mention the considerable influence of science fiction on Vonnegut's writing. Man's relationship to technology and the effects of technology on inter-human communication are central motifs in science fiction: hence, the web 2.0 generation's reaction to Vonnegut's death provides an extraordinary indication that the problems pondered upon in Vonnegut's science fiction are still relevant today. However, it has to be said that most critics' references to science fiction elements in Vonnegut's works remain limited to a surface level and evoke the impression that either the scholar is not well informed about the implications of the term 'science fiction' or fails to name his or her references. The effect of such an approach is that the works on the subject will either seem to be apologetic annexions of Vonnegut's novels by science fiction buffs and space opera fans or attempts to minimise the role of science fiction in the works of Kurt Vonnegut to mere parody. Neither impression is adequate for a thorough understanding of the role of science fiction in the works of Kurt Vonnegut. Therefore, in this paper a coordinate system discussing the implication of the term science fiction will be set up, in which Vonnegut's works can be located. In order to find a valid reference point, a fixed set of aspects will be analysed not only in two novels by Kurt Vonnegut, but also in two works by Isaac Asimov. Asimov's reputation as a distinguished science fiction author makes him the ideal benchmark in this matter. Incidentally, there are other factors which suggest that a comparison between the works of Vonnegut and Asimov would be fruitful. Firstly, both have been Honorary Presidents of the American Humanist Association. Vonnegut succeeded Asimov in that totally functionless capacity after the death of the latter. He even spoke at a memorial service for Isaac Asimov. Secondly, both started their respective careers as authors of short stories in pulp magazines. While Asimov wrote exclusively for science fiction pulps, Vonnegut published in magazines such as Collier's and Saturday Evening Post. The aim of the comparison carried out here is to reveal differences in the use of science fiction motifs between Asimov and Vonnegut. To ensure a productive mode of comparison, a non-polemic stance towards science fiction will be maintained in this paper. Consequently, a main aim is to avoid both science fiction denunciation as an inferior branch of literature as well as the apologetic stance of science fiction fans that still leads distinguished authors to the assumption that it might damage their reputation and income if their works are considered to be science fiction. A relatively recent 'victim' falling into this booby-trap is Paul Auster who is certainly bothered that his novel In the Country of Last Things has been read as a science fiction narrative. Auster loses no time in stating that this is a crude misreading. Assigning the label science fiction to a text still proves to be a value judgement and additionally, one which is hard to handle commercially and in academic discourse. Vonnegut is also not free from ambiguous feelings about being considered a science fiction author. In an interview conducted by the literary critic ROBERT SCHOLES Vonnegut explains: Well, I wrote a thing in the New York Times last year about this (whether he is a science fiction author or not author's annotation), objecting finally because I thought it was costing me a lot of money in reputation [...]. Interestingly enough, the objections raised by both Auster and Vonnegut against the label science fiction are not based on forthright artistic grounds but mainly on problems of reputation and income. Therefore, the approach of this paper will include a detailled discussion of science fiction features and their emergence. The aim of such a procedure is to establish a coordinate system as little biased as possible. As a next step, a detailed analysis of the four works will be carried out. The aim of a extended discussion of the term science fiction is to lay out the elements which are to be analysed in Asimov's and Vonnegut's fiction. Additionally, to explain the derivation of the science fictions particularities and its questionable reputation might help elucidate its particularities. In a second step the selected works of Vonnegut and Asimov will be scrutinised according to these criteria in order to define the positions of both in the aforementioned coordinate system. The choice of the four texts for the analysis, the two Vonnegut novels The Sirens of Titan and GalAipagos and the two Asimov texts Foundation and Robots and Empire is based on a multitude of reasons. Firstly, for both authors it can be concluded that the two works discussed in this context were written at rather different stages of their respective careers. Foundation (1951) a collection of early stories published in Astounding between 1942 and 1945, offers an outlook on Asimov's early writings, whereas Robots and Empire (1985) marks an example of his late career during which he tried to pull together the strings of his writing, aiming at leaving a self-contained body of cross-referential works. By comparison, The Sirens of Titan (1959) also offers an example of its creator's early career as a novelist, however, GalAipagos (1985) can hardly be assumed to be an attempt to interconnect Vonnegut's uvre. Secondly, The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Foundation (1951) were published in relative temporal proximity, which is even more true for GalAipagos and Robots and Empire (1985). This highly interesting temporal setup constitutes a rich and enlightening body of works, allowing contrasting reading of the works of both authors at a certain stage of their respective careers, as well as a thematic comparison between the works of each author in the early and a later part of their careers. This should suffice to allow a diachronic scrutiny of continuity and paradigmatic change over a timespan of about twenty-six years between The Sirens of Titan and GalAipagos and even thirty-five years between Foundation and Robots and Empire. Furthermore, a synchronic comparison of the two authors use of science fiction elements will be carried out. Themes that are not particular for science fiction texts but which are used in this context by both authors must have left specific repercussions in the selected works. To analyse to which extent they are effected by the science fiction themes will be the main concern in this part. In a fourth, and last, step dimensions of postmodern artistry and their connection to science fiction will be examined. Since Asimov has hardly been considered a postmodernist, a reading of Asimov's works looking for phenomena discussed under the premisses postmodernism might yield interesting reflections back upon the scrutiny of the Vonnegut texts. Inhaltsverzeichnis:Table of Contents: 1.INTRODUCTION7 2.TOWARDS A DEFINITION OF SCIENCE FICTION13 2.1SCIENCE FICTION AND ITS CRITICISM: A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW14 2.2DEFINING FEATURES/FEATURES OF DEFINITIONS24 2.2.1A Scientific Fiction?24 2.2.2Science Fiction a Scientific Romanticism26 2.2.3Science Fiction and Epoch28 2.2.4The Science Fiction Mode31 2.3CONSEQUENCES FOR THE DISCUSSION32 3.SCIENCE FICTION: IMPLICATIONS a EFFECTS34 3.1VONNEGUT AND ASIMOV AS SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS34 3.2THE SPACE OPERA37 3.3SCIENCES AND SCIENCE FICTION45 3.4THE NOVUM: FICTION AS A 'WHAT-IF' GAME53 3.5PROGRESS59 4.NON SCIENCE FICTION MOTIFS IN SCIENCE FICTION70 4.1RELIGION a MYTH: COMFORTING CONCEPTS VS. HANDICAPS OF PROGRESS70 4.2FREE WILL AND DETERMINISM: HOW MUCH IS THERE TO DECIDE?78 5.POSTMODERN SCIENCE FICTION84 6.RESUMEE90 7.References94 Textprobe:Text Sample: Chapter 3.1, Vonnegut and Asimov as Science Fiction Writers: Ever since the publication of Marooned off Vesta in 1939 in Amazing Stories, Isaac Asimov has been a proud writer of science fiction. Although he increasingly concentrated on science popularisations from 1952 onwards, he always remained in contact with the science fiction community. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to pigeonhole Asimov as a one-dimensional science fiction author like Kurt Vonnegut's recurring character Kilgore Trout, since Asimov built himself a reputation outside the 'science fiction-ghetto.' Between 1958 and 1965 he published more than thirty books of non-fiction Some critics even claim that no other author ever produced more books on different subjects, including commentaries on the Genesis and on Shakespeare's works, collections of lecherous limericks, works of astronomy, mathematics and science fiction. However, after devoting more time to his science popularisations from 1952 onwards, Asimov focused on science fiction writing again in 1982 with the publication of the fourth Volume of his Foundation Series. Robots and Empire falls into that period which could be described as Asimov's late career and clearly aims at providing its readers with answers to questions which remained unanswered from his earlier novels. He wants to explain the following unsolved mysteries that had puzzled his readers for decades: why Earthpeople and not Spacers have settled his universe, why there are no robots in the Empire/Foundation novels, what the explanation for the radioactivity on earth is and how Earth happened to be forgotten? Apart from the interstellar setting of his fiction, this attempt to organise all of his previous narratives under a large umbrella of a single meta-narrative clearly underlines Asimov's status as a science fiction writer. He attempts to construct a cosmos in which all his works fit together. Here, the outside world loses relevance and the meta-narrative takes its place as a frame of reference within the cosmos of a system of science fiction narratives. On a stylistic level there can also be no doubt that Asimov has to be considered as an archetypal science fiction author. The opening sentences of Robots read: HARI SELDON ...born in the 11, 988th year of the Galactic Era; died 12, 069. The dates are more commonly in terms of current Foundational Era as 79 to the year 1F.E. (Foundation. 3.) The temporal reference point only makes sense seen in the context of a science fiction meta-narrative. The term Galactic Era suggests to a reader who is familiar with the usual tropes of science fiction that the birth of Hari Seldon obviously took place 11, 988 years after mankind developed a means of intergalactic travel. Thus, Asimov tunes the reader into the kind of fiction he or she has to expect: a story that is going to take place in a future so far ahead of his or her time that current technological and scientific rules do not necessarily apply. In Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan the reader is also made aware of the fact that it is better not to base expectations on any real-life experiences: EVERYONE now knows how to find meaning in life within himself. But mankind wasn't always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle box within them. They could not name the fifty-three portals to the soul. (Sirens. 7.) The manner in which the reader is made aware of the fact that he or she is not going to read a novel which takes place in his or her empirical environment is similar to the one applied by Asimov. In both works a certain fact is introduced the birth of Hari Seldon and the fact that meaning can now be found within oneself which are accompanied by explanations that provide the reader with a temporal point of reference. Although not based as far in the future as Foundation the reader of Sirens is also made aware of the fact that he or she is going to expect a science fiction novel. However, the next paragraph Gimcrack religions were big business. (Sirens. 7.) seem like a punchline undercutting the dignified tone of the paragraphs beforehand. They could not name even one of the fifty-three portals to the soul sounds just like stereotypical pseudo-wisdom of a gimcrack religion. This short example already suggests that Kurt Vonnegut's stance towards science fiction seems to be harder to define than Asimov's. Although Vonnegut rejects the idea of being a science fiction author since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal, his approach towards writing at least suggests that Vonnegut is more of a science fiction author than he wants to be. This observation is based on two main components. Firstly, Vonnegut vehemently demands writers to include technology in their fiction since he felt that we are living in a time of Victorianism of technology rather than sex. Secondly, and even more relevant than a mere inclusion of questions concerning technology, Vonnegut's understanding of fiction as an enormous 'what if'-game just reads like a description of the novum and its implications. Vonnegut often mentions that the experimental mode of writing is his only option since, It's in the nature of my education. I was educated as a chemist and as an engineer, and my elder brother, my only living sibling is a reasonably famous scientist, Dr. Bernhard Vonnegut. The experimental method has always been very much in my mind. The astonishing degree to which Vonnegut's understanding of the experimental method resembles academic science fiction critics parameters of the novum leaves no doubt that Vonnegut's understanding of writing makes him a science fiction writer in a literal sense: It's a form of practical joking. An experiment is a practical joke involving nature. You build an unnatural situation and Nature's bound to stumble over it and reveal something about herself. Such a gadget doesn't ordinarily exist unless my brother builds it, unless the scientist builds it. He will turn things upside down and inside out and say 'What if?' and that's essentially what I do. To a large extent assuming that, Vonnegut sped right out of the field [of science fiction] as soon as he had the cash for gasoline is only based on critics who locate fiction written according to the grammar of a scientific experiment on one level with tales of sexy space kittens and extraterrestrial monsters resembling octopuses. In one of his most furious statements on this matter Vonnegut says that, English majors are encouraged, I know, to hate chemistry and physics, and to be proud because they are not dull and creepy and humorless and war-oriented like the engineers across the quad. Nevertheless, Vonnegut also makes it perfectly clear that, for him, writing science fiction and science fiction are two fundamentally different things: [Science fiction writers] are happy with their status quo because their colleagues love them the way members of old-fashioned big families were supposed to do. Science fiction writers meet often, comfort and praise another, exchange single-spaced letters of twenty pages and more, booze it up affectionately, and one way or another have a million heartthrobs and laughs. [...] They are joiners. They are a lodge. If they didn't enjoy having a gang of their own so much, there would be no such category as science-fiction. Vonnegut's understanding of science fiction is quite similar to that of HEINRICH KEIM and MARTIN SCHA„FER who would like to see the term science fiction restricted to the pulp-magazine market. Conceiving science fiction writers as the joiners described above, it is no wonder that Vonnegut rejects the idea of belonging to this extended family of 'Kilgore Trouts'. Interestingly enough, Vonnegut's second novel The Sirens of Titan is clearly related to the least reputable sub-branch of the science fiction mode: the space opera. Since this form of science fiction writing also had considerable influence on Asimov's Foundation, the next chapter will deal with the particularities of this branch of science fiction and how they are applied in Sirens and Foundation.1 Introduction Since Kurt Vonnegut passed away aged 84 earlier this year (11th April 2007), his life and work received considerable media recognition. While FOX-news could not refrain from expressing rather hostile criticism in their Vonnegutanbsp;...

Title:The Role of Science Fiction
Author:Stefan Weißhampel - 2008-02-25


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