Forebodings, Visions, and Critiques: Speculative Fiction and the Sciences from the 1890s to the 1930s

‘Speculative fiction’ is a widely used, but not universally accepted, critical category embracing literary presentations of utopias, dystopias, alternative histories, and as yet untried scientific ideas. While any fiction may loosely be described as a response to the question What If? (the title of a widely-used American textbook on creative writing), speculative fiction responds to much more specific questions about the social and physical sciences and their relation to history and society, present, past, and future. In order to distinguish speculative fiction from fantasy on the one hand and naturalism or realism on the other, the theorist and distinguished novelist Samuel Delany offers a set of statements about the ‘subjunctivity’ of these literary modes: a work of naturalist fiction ‘could have happened’, a fantastic one ‘could not have happened’, and a speculative one ‘has not happened’. The value of bringing science fiction under the same umbrella as alternative histories (such as the ‘steampunk’ narratives which imagine a different version of nineteenth century science and technology from that which actually came into being), and literary utopias and dystopias lies especially in its recognition of affinities: thus some but not all science fiction concerns itself with imaginary societies more or less preferable to actual ones, and some but not all utopias or dystopias concern themselves with the consequences of implementing scientific knowledge.

Thinking specifically of dystopian fiction, Delany adds a ‘yet’ to ‘has not happened’. In a literal sense that is the case, for example in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Nevertheless such works also involve an oblique response to what has indeed happened and what is happening in the author’s present; Atwood invokes the stern Puritanism of New England in the seventeenth century and the severe morality of contemporary fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim. Likewise, those on our tentative list of texts and authors deal, most often obliquely, with the present and the past as well as the future. Some are normally categorised as science fiction, some as utopias, some as dystopias, but all incorporate an element of social critique as well as an awareness of the disturbing strangeness of modernity, and the powers of science and technology for good or ill. We may well add some French authors to the list (Camille Flammarion, for instance), but as it stands, we have as possibilities a selection of British and Russian texts by H. G. Wells (The Island of Dr Moreau, The First Men in the Moon, When the Sleeper Wakes, A Modern Utopia), Alexander Bogdanov (Red Star), E. M. Forster (‘The Machine Stops’), Yevgeny Zamyatin (We), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), and Katharine Burdekin (Swastika Night).

We propose four principal topics, each of which explores the common ground of this subject as well as the revealing specificities.

  1. A study of Aldous Huxley alongside his scientist brother Julian, a biologist and pioneer ecologist.
  2. A study of these works in terms of ideologies of globalisation and the commodification of science and technology, with particular reference to the explicit and implicit aims of utopian literature.
  3. A study of ‘Science as hallucination in H.G. Wells’s fiction: mad narrators vs. positivist omniscience’.
  4. A study of entropy, both as a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics and a metaphor for social stultification and decay, drawing on Bogdanov, Forster, Zamyatin, and Burdekin.

All four of these approaches would benefit immensely from collaborations with colleagues in the social and physical sciences. Mindful of the larger project’s emphasis on pedagogy, we consider the works and our approaches to them eminently teachable in both disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts.