Science fiction essay sample (1 Viewer)


Sep 25, 2014
South Wales (the new one)
If you find yourself struggling with writing an essay for science fiction, this could be of use. It's the one I wrote last year.


Science fiction references a body of literature and film connected by their disorientation from the technological and anthropological norms of the author’s context. It is traditionally constructed as a genre, which superficially serves as a pragmatic label of the style, theme, audience, or any other quality of a text. However, genre can also implicitly constrain an author, as argued by L. Alloway: “one of the dangers of genre theory is that the categories may be taken rigidly. When that happens […] they assume a normative function.” This manifests in the recurrence of generic conventions such as technological usurpation, and in an identifiable set of values that slowly evolve to conform to the social conditions conducive to the popularity of the genre. George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer both reflect and subvert these features in their discussion of humanity, the machine, and the alien.

Traditionally, science fiction has been distinguished by its use of symbolism. The machine emerged as a potent symbol of modernity in the Industrial Revolution, its use in the genre tracing back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster, a devilish “archfiend” in conservative 19th century England. It then morphs into the fanciful submarines of Verne and spaceships of 1920s pulp magazines, before acquiring a dualism in the 40s, becoming both the oppressor in the dystopian subgenre, such as in Orwell’s 1984, and the prophet of an optimistic future in the 'Golden Age' literature, which includes works such as Isaac Asimov's Robot series. 1984 (1949) reveals that this futurism is merely an æsthetic, that the values of texts reflect the author's present, in the maxim of the ruling Party of the Oceanian superstate: ‘who controls the present controls the past, who controls the past controls the future.’ This shows that technology is intimately linked with power, especially in a context of paranoia in the early Cold War, which saw the beginnings of a nuclear arms race. Orwell's novel, like much sci-fi, is heavily didactic, and in creating this imagined world, he uses the machine as a metaphor for the type of soulless society that totalitarian regimes fantasised of, thus, by contradiction, valuing the liberating enlightened ideals traditional of the genre. This is embodied in the symbolism of telescreens, devices that forced one to live in the ‘assumption that every sound … was overheard, every movement scrutinised.’ By resurrecting the panopticon, described by Jeremy Bentham as ‘a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind,’ Orwell highlights the genre’s ability to connect present anxieties to past ideas through a futuristic æsthetic. Whilst he is obviously caricaturing Stalinism, his novel remains relevant, as the telescreen is also a prophetic vision of the modern surveillance state established post-9/11.

Ray Bradbury's 'There Will Come Soft Rains' (1950) examines the second aspect of technological fear: that it progresses for its own sake, devoid of human intervention or meaning, eventually overrunning the world with simulacra. Jean Baudrillard states, in his seminal treatise Simulation and Simulacra, that it creates "the desert of the real itself." Central to the short story is the motif and setting of an automated house, which Bradbury personifies as having an "old maidenly preoccupation with self-protection": this simulation of human traits is incongruous with normality, embodying the genre’s ability to disorientate its audience from cognitive norms. Through this æsthetic, Bradbury creates a technological society, which he portrays as obsessed with absolutes: the house cleans by placing rubbish in an "incinerator which sat like evil Baal in a dark corner." Alluding to a prince of hell from Occult writings rebukes the totalitarian values that technology is often used to impose, and by echoing Orwell, this emerges as a generic convention. Bradbury's context of Cold War paranoia contributed to the genre's popularity, and he, like Fritz Lang in his 1927 film Metropolis, subverts the old values of technology as progress. The dominance of this paradigm further manifests in the anaphora of a clock announcing the time: the clock, a mechanical deconstruction of time by humans, ironically structures and dictates their lives. The subversion of traditional assumptions of technological subservience ultimately adds to a sense of meaninglessness, one that shows a verisimilitude with the state-enforced solipsism of Orwell’s society where ‘2+2=5’.

Stanley Kubrick's 1968 epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey mixes the traditions of "hard" and "soft" science fiction: the former rational and realist, focused on substance, the latter fantastical and stylistic, revealing the fluidity of genre. Hard sci-fi surfaces in the slowness of scenes of spaceflight, and in the stark silence of the vacuum against an astronaut’s breathing, even during death, and it alludes to the inhospitable desolation of space. It contrasts the romanticism of space travel both in earlier works and in a '60s psyche inspired by a race to the moon between the US and USSR, significant factors contributing to the genre’s popularity at the time. The rejection of older conventions counterbalances Alloway’s feared normative effects, and was pivotal in shedding the genre's baggage of "B-grade" adolescence, symptomatic of the reproachful use of genre as a superficial indication of a text's value. However, 2001 does retain the convention of the alien as a signifier of the unknown. Its context of counterculture, the seeds of postmodernism, influences its speculative depiction of the alien as enigmatic monoliths, contrasting older, animal representations such as H.G. Well's octopusesque Martians in The War of the Worlds. This depiction is evident in the filmic techniques that surround the monolith - eerie modernist micropolyphonic music and facial expressions of entrancement. It parallels Bradbury’s quasi-fantastical fire, which attacks a house “as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver,” in illustrating that the boundary separating science & speculative fiction can be blurred. Further, the ‘60s counterculture valued hallucinogen-induced surrealist experiences, stimulating synæsthesia, and influences the film’s depiction of the recurring generic theme of transcendence. This is epitomised in the chapter ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’: the uncontrolled shaking of the camera as astronaut David Bowman is brought into the ‘infinite,’ as well as moiré patterns of receding colours, present an abstract and formless interpretation of transcendence, disoriented from the cognitive norms of society.

In William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, the alien and the machine are brought both within us, from outer space to the “inner space” that '70s New Wave writer J. G. Ballard proselytised for; and also between us, a defining aspect of the cyberpunk subgenre of the '80s, reflecting the inexorable evolution of the genre. A subgenre generally assumes the parent genre's values and conventions, but cyberpunk, comparatively, has a fragmented and less optimistic set of values, reflecting an Internet-inspired postmodern genesis. It treats computer-manipulated worlds as a phase of simulacra above ‘Soft Rains's’ “aluminum [sic] roaches and iron crickets,” creating a pervasive electronic culture that displaces old reality. This is evident in the abstract symbolism of Gibson's hyperreality of “constellations of data […] in the nonspace of the mind,” emphasising the genre’s ability to offer socio-political commentary through its imagined worlds; the unique literary æsthetic thus generated validates the generic distinction of science fiction. Shelley, in Roger Dodsworth, introduced its trope of immortality through cryogenics, but this is rejected by Gibson, who describes it as ‘a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter,’ the metaphor of winter suggesting lifelessness, showing generic conventions are mutable. He reflects his context of unprecedented technological progress in his portrayal of a cybernetic realisation of the singularity, the point where the posthuman transcends the mere human, in ‘With the AIs, we would be immortal, a hive, each of us units in a larger entity.’ The juxtaposition in tone suggests that Neuromancer values the unfathomable consciousness over the barrenness of biological non-death, like 2001, which embodies these values in the monoliths and in Bowman's rebirth into a deistic 'Star Child,' revealing a fundamental intertextuality within science fiction that offers profound insights into the human condition.

In conclusion, a deep intertextuality in conventions and motifs weave together texts of the science fiction genre.

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