(Notes toward something bigger – if I get the chance to write it)
Sixty years and one day ago (March 8, 1957), Robert Bloch delivered a paper at the University College of the University of Chicago. He was one of four authors asked to make presentations on the subject of science fiction and social criticism. The other three were Robert A. Heinlein, C. M. Kornbluth and Alfred Bester.
Among such luminaries, you would think, perhaps, Bloch would take a back seat, but it is Bloch’s essay which spoke most clearly to me when I read it again just recently.
The best way to appreciate it, of course, is to find a copy of The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (1959, Advent:Chicago, Third Edition 1969). You’ll avoid any impressions gathered more from my selections and interpretations.
Every now and then, I stick my nose in a book and find something interesting. There’s no rhyme or reason to it; no plan. I grab a book off the shelf because I hear it calling to me. Many books call to me, and they do it all the time. But some call louder than others.
I’ll look at a book and it looks back at me. You have a few dozen other things to read, but you pull it off the shelf because it looks back at you in that certain way. I’m sure it’s happened to you as well.
With this book – well, the series occurred in the 1950s, when science fiction (at least in the short form), was a bastion of social criticism. Literary trends were moving away from the gritty realism of the pre-war years. And U. of C. was a natural place to have this kind of confab, because the faculty and students (if not the administration) always leaned pretty strongly to the left (except in the Economics department, even pre-Milton Friedman). U. of C. also had one of the first science fiction clubs in the area. The stars were aligned.
Heinlein’s speech reads like a speech from Robert Heinlein. The funny thing about Heinlein is that, whether you find him entertaining or infuriating (or both), he writes like a man who has worked out his story and is damn well going to stick to it. It reads like either an “official statement,” a cover story, or an alibi. You can chain him to a rack, apply red-hot pokers to any part of him, but he won’t break his story, so don’t even try.
Kornbluth starts out stating that there’s no social criticism in science fiction, then he goes into a very effective close reading of 1984. What he accomplishes, mostly, is demonstrating that he maintains high literary standards, knows the territory of any able literary critic of the time, and concludes that most contemporary science fiction, with notable exceptions, doesn’t quite make the grade.
Bester, in his sly way, tries to dissuade his audience from looking to science fiction for social criticism. He values science fiction as a necessary diversion. He’s not writing off science fiction, because that diversion, he believes, is important to intellectual growth. It’s as if he’s trying to say, if you’ll excuse my summarizing, that science fiction works better when it doesn’t deliberately try to address important topics, but rather, unconsciously, touches the sympathetic vibrations of the human experience.
Bloch, however, is forever casting a leering eye at the entire process. He jokes and puns, as if he wishes to impress you that he is the least serious of this volume’s contributors, but almost from the outset he delivers the most serious message of them all.
After making a few initial jokes and puns, he very briefly outlines a number of American novels that may be considered social criticism. He then presents a long list of science fiction novels and places them into three categories: Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself, and Man Against Man.
Throughout his speech he mentions exceptions, but he finds the majority of science fiction novels that engage in what can be considered social criticism somewhat simplistic
And just how does this wide assortment of writers view the world of the present and the extrapolated society of the future? Ignoring the extra-terrestrial invaders, ignoring the gadgetry, ignoring the universal disaster background, one encounters a fundamental dramatic premise known to all eminent critics who are six years old or older. The world is plainly divided into ‘cops and robbers,’ ‘cowboys and Indians’ or ‘good guys and bad guys.’
There’s a reason, of course. People who have come to revere science almost as a religion place great faith in the ability of technologists to safeguard our future.”
The criticism, as it were, in many “socially critical” science fiction novels, is that the bad guys are not paying enough attention – or too much attention, in the wrong way – to science.
Bloch lists and annotates a number of common elements he finds in these novels. All the words in caps come from Bloch, so excuse me if I don’t put them all in quotes. 1.) There’s a TOTALITARIAN STATE; 2.) there’s an UNDERGROUND bent on toppling said state; 3.) the use by one side or the other of FORCIBLE PSYCHOTHERAPUTIC TECHNIQUES; 4.) the assumption that SCIENCE WILL GO ALONG WITH THE GAG – especially when it involves brainwashing; 5.) ECONOMIC INCENTIVE – the motivation on either side of the battle is to make a buck (Milton Friedman would be proud); 6.) A VARIATION OF PRESENT DAY ‘ANGLO-SAXON’ CULTURE WILL CONTINUE TO RULE THE WORLD; 7.) when it comes to space exploration WE WILL COLONIZE AND RULE THE NATIVES; 8.) THE FUTURE HOLDS LITTLE BASIC CHANGE in human nature; 9.) INDIVIDUALISM IS DEAD.
The hero rebels, yes – but not superimpose his own notions upon society; merely to restore the ‘normal’ culture and value-standards of the mass-minds of the twentieth century. You won’t find him fighting in defense of incest, homosexuality, free love, nihilism, the Single Tax, abolition of individual property-rights, euthanasia or the castration of the tonsils of Elvis Presley. Stripped right down to the bare essentials, our hero just wants to kick the rascals out and put in a sound business administration …
When we review these premises, we discover that most social criticism in science fiction novels is not directed against present-day society at all … Our authors, by and large, seem to believe wholly in the profit-incentive; in the trend to superimpose obedience and conformity by means of forcible conditioning; in the enduring liaison between the government, the military and scientists and technologists; in Anglo-Saxon cultural supremacy, if not necessarily outright ‘white supremacy’; in the sexual, aesthetic and religious mores of the day. Their criticism of the totalitarian states they envision is merely a matter of degree. They attempt to show the apparent dangers of allowing one group to ‘go a little too far’; actually, reduced to its essence, they merely echo Lord Acton’s dictum that ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
Hence the necessity of rebellion in the form of some sort of Underground movement. But this is always assumed to be just a temporary measure; ruthless because one must ‘fight fire with fire’ and the ends justify the means. The implication is that once Law and order are restored, everything will settle down to a general approximation of life as it is lived today – if not in actuality, at least in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.
Science fiction, as it were, rebels against the status quo when it is not the currently-recognized status quo.
When it comes to scientific and technological progress, the science fiction of his day is brilliantly inventive. But whether it occurs fifty, one hundred, or a thousand years in the future, the basic social structure remains the same – or an effort is made to restore it.
But when it comes to a question of personal ethics, when it comes to a question of social justice – again and again we run right smack into our old friend Mike Hammer [Mickey Spillane was referenced earlier] in disguise.
How, in this marvelous world of the future, does one go about settling an argument?
With the same old punch in the jaw … the same old kick in the guts … the same old bullet in the same old belly.
The suggestion throughout his talk is that if the world can change in such striking ways technologically, why would it not change human behavior as well? And why doesn’t the current (for his time) science fiction novel address this possibility?
The science fiction field has often been likened to a literary world in miniature. But one searches in vain through that world for a Jesus Christ … a Sydney carton… or even a George Babbitt or a Leopold Bloom.
The common man is seldom the hero; if so, he doesn’t remain so very long, but becomes a Key Figure …
Isaac Asimov recently pointed out that science fiction heroes are permitted to be intelligent. This is admirable. And yet, emotionally, most of them are primitive and immature.
Where is the science fiction novel with the ordinary family man as hero … or the teacher … or the creative artist … or the philosopher? Where is the science fiction novel that contents itself with showing us the everyday world of the future, devoid of Master Spies and Master Technicians and Master Psychologists and Master Criminals?
He hastens to mention the exceptions. He also hastens to exclude short fiction from his admitted generalizations. And he states a possible reason for the shortcoming of science fiction novels (as opposed to short fiction): publishers won’t allow much more than this sheltering of the status quo in its content; readers won’t buy such highfalutin (and “radical”) books.
And here I am, in 2017, sixty years into Robert Bloch’s future, fascinated that Bloch is the only author among the four concerned that in the decades proceeding from 1957 a few differences may arise in the social order and that science fiction might address those differences.
Bloch himself, on the subject, seems rather sanguine.
But is science fiction, therefore, failing in its function of social criticism?
Quite the contrary.
When a literature of imaginative speculation steadfastly adheres to the conventional outlook of the community regarding heroes and standards of values, it is indeed offering the most important kind of social criticism – unconscious social criticism.
With its totalitarian societies, its repudiation of individual activity in every role save that of the self-appointed leader and avenger, science fiction dramatizes the dilemma which torments modern man. It provides a very accurate mirror of our own problems, and of our own beliefs which fail to solve these problems.
Gazing into that mirror, we might find it profitable to indulge in a bit of that reflection.
Of course, much in this essay puts me in mind of the recent battles within the science fiction community: the calls by some to return the field to its 1950s “heyday,” or perhaps to “make science fiction great again.” What does that really mean?
I wouldn’t speculate as to whether Bloch would be gratified to see a move to greater representation of diversity in the field, but I wonder if the generalizations he made in 1957 would be true in 2017. Maybe not in the media, which still seems tied to the conventions of the previous century, but at least in its literature. Wouldn’t it?
And what about now? What generalizations could we make about science fiction and social criticism today?
And, presuming that we have made some progress, how does the future look from here? It may still prove profitable to regard that mirror reflection.