Science Fiction and Narrative Form

By | September 18, 2023

The premise of the present book is simple. Like the epic and the novel, science fiction is a literary form. By that we mean a historical narrative form, which is at the same time a narrative form of history—history understood, as in French or German, in the double meaning of story and history. The subject of the present book is an investigation of the specificities and possibilities of science fiction as a generic form, through comparison with the novel, the historical novel and the epic dimension of narrative. Our guide in this investigation will be the Hungarian philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács.

Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel establishes the concept of form integral to our approach and sets the parameters for the investigation of the relationship between the science fiction and novel, based on Lukács’s comparison between the epic and the novel as the key to determining the generic specificities and possibilities of the novel form. For Lukács the novel is the genre of a godforsaken world, a world suspended between the gods of the past and gods to come. It is the antithesis of the epic as the form of organic communal life, in which meaning is immanent (a god guides the path of the epic hero). From Achilles to Beowulf, from Hector to Siegfried, the hero is one with his (tragic) destiny because he is the representative of his tribe, his people. Lukács can therefore define the epic form as a complete organic expression of the extensive totality of life. The protagonists of the novel by contrast no longer inhabit an epic, heroic world, because the novel is the form of the prose of society as opposed to the poetry of community. Its hero is the ‘problematic individual’, confronted by a reality in which he is tasked with discovering the meaning of his life experience. The corollary of this emancipation from the closed organic circle of meaning is the entry of time as a reflection of the growing historical consciousness of change and hence of the growing self-consciousness of a genre, for which time is of the essence, a genre situated between the horizons of the past and the future. Thus when The Theory of the Novel appeared in book form in 1920, it was prophetic of the crisis of the novel and its problematic individuals, which expressed the more general crisis precipitated by World War I. However, beyond the novel lay not Lukács’s anticipation of a new collective epic form but something quite different: science fiction, neither the successor nor inheritor of the novel, as the novel was of the epic, but rather a companion form both close and distant to the novel and to the traditional epic.

The form itself is the key to any theory of science fiction, based on Lukács’s understanding of the great literary forms as the resolution of a fundamental dissonance of existence. This makes form the answer to a question and the unity of question and answer provides in turn the a priori of the form (whether narrative or dramatic). A prioris are historical. Lukács’s starting point is the epic form, in which meaning is immanent, so the question of meaning remains latent. The a priori of the novel form, by contrast, is the question of meaning. The novel can only resolve this question through the spirit of irony, in response to a social reality that no longer offers self-evident meaningful goals to individuals. And science fiction? As opposed to the open question of the novel, its form is closed. This formal closure is the a priori of the science fiction form, dictated by the fact that the history it narrates is future history, that is, a form of narrative history predicated on invention and imagination. Apart from this fundamental difference in their respective relationship to historical time, in what other sense can we say that science fiction lies beyond the novel? Besides its formal temporal transcendence of the novel form, science fiction is also defined by a substantive difference, which makes it co-existent with the novel and at the same time defines ex negativo the limits of the novel. Where the novel deals with individual biographies, the protagonists of science fiction find their function as epic representatives of larger destinies. Their narrative predestination is expressed in terms of future history, but is carried by a dynamic belonging to the present but exterior to the novel: the development of humanity’s collective powers over nature through science, technology and industrial production—developments that not only signal a coming transcendence of the historical form of the novel, but more fundamentally threaten the survival of the human values, including individual human being, that give meaning to science fiction itself .

Authors of Science Fiction and Narrative Form:

David Roberts is Emeritus Professor, School of Languages and Cultures, Monash University, Australia. His publications include History of the Present: The Contemporary and its Culture (2021), The Total Work of Art in European Modernism (2011), and Dialectic of Romanticism: A Critique of Modernism (2004).

Andrew Milner is Emeritus Professor at Monash University, Australia. His publications include Locating Science Fiction (2012), Again, Dangerous Visions: Essays in Cultural Materialism (2018), (with J. R. Burgmann) Science Fiction and Climate Change: A Sociological Approach (2020).

Peter Murphy is Adjunct Professor at La Trobe University and James Cook University, Australia. His publications include The Political Economy of Prosperity: Successful Societies and Productive Cultures (2020), The Collective Imagination: The Creative Spirit of Free Societies (2012) and Dialectic of Romanticism: A Critique of Modernism (2004).

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