BY Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Frieze | 04 MAR 02
Featured in
Issue 65

Weird Science

Crossing over to the dark side

BY Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Frieze | 04 MAR 02

'There I went one day, walking down the country road to my shack, looking forward to eight hours of writing, in total isolation from all other humans, and I looked up at the sky and saw a face. I didn't really see it, but the face was there, and it was not a human face; it was a vast visage of perfect evil ... it was immense; it filled a quarter of the sky. It had slots for eyes - it was metal and cruel and, worst of all, it was God.'

Philip K. Dick, describing the initial inspiration for his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964).

Back in 1888 an American ex-lawyer called Edward Bellamy published a novel about an insomniac who falls into a mesmeric trance and awakes in the utopian world of the year 2000 to find that his native city has been utterly transformed. The 'glorious new Boston' that he sees before him, 'with its domes and pinnacles, its gardens and fountains, and its universal reign of comfort', is idyllic. A revolution (in which no one is hurt) has swept America. War and money are things of the past. And everyone, apparently, is perfectly happy.

When it first appeared, Looking Backward, 2000-1887 was a worldwide sensation, spawning numerous translations and imitations. Now largely forgotten, past its sell-by date and proved ridiculously wrong by the test of time, Bellamy's gleaming, idealized utopia is also a quaint reminder of how the future used to be. It seems to stand as one of the last in a line of essentially optimistic (if inhuman) utopias in the noble tradition of Plato; a final dream of a better world, before things all went horribly wrong.

From here on in, a wave of premonitive darkness, bad karma, and pseudo-scientific voodoo swamps the fiction of the future, as dystopias, invasions, aliens, robots, sinister machines and apocalypses begin to flood a whole array of now classic texts: H. G. Wells' dark, sceptical triad The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898), Eugene Zamyatin's We (1920), Karel Capek's R.U.R. (1921), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's 1984 (1949). Science fiction as we now know it was off to a flying start.

Of course it's not as simple as all that. Perhaps because the genre has never really been admitted on to the hallowed turf of Literature, few attempts have been made to trace its birth, or even to define it - even when a 'proper' writer tackles the subject, as Kingsley Amis did in New Maps of Hell (1961). Is Thomas More's Utopia (1516) science fiction? Or Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1627)? In his history of the genre Billion Year Spree (1973) Brian Aldiss argues that it all started with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), which in turn was influenced by the abandoned castles, ghosts, cliffs and storms of the 18th-century Gothic novel, originated by Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1765).

By this account science fiction really began with two nightmares. Walpole was inspired to write his book after a dream in which he saw 'a gigantic hand clad in armour, gripping the bannister of a great staircase'. The genesis of Mary Shelley's monster was similar: one night she glimpsed 'the hideous phantasm of a man stretch out, and then on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion'. The genre, at least in Aldiss' eyes, has been half in love with panic, phantasmagoria and paranoia ever since.

The term 'science fiction' was coined much later by Hugo Gernsback, an inventor and marketer of radio sets who began publishing the magazine Amazing Stories in 1926, with a first issue featuring stories by Verne, Poe and Wells. The pulps that followed in their profusion were to define, and ultimately plague, the critical reception of science fiction. Attracting a weird mixture of cranks, hacks, pseudo-nerds and the occasional good writer, they gave sci-fi a forum, but also placed it in a specialized literary ghetto, from which it has not yet fully emerged.

As the author of his own supposedly futuristic, deeply technical and sublimely dull novel Ralph 124C 41+: a Romance of the Year 2660 - (1911), Gernsback preferred supposedly hard scientific fact to the seemingly crazier, though often more accurately predictive, notions of mere writers. The editor of Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell, who took charge from 1938 to 1971, felt the same way (and wrote sentences such as 'there was also a focused atomic flame of two-inch aperture, sufficient to fuse about twenty-two tons of steel per second').

During World War II, flying the flag for science, Campbell presided over an apocalyptic array of stories about Mars splitting in two, robots, time travel, fourth dimensions and poisonous clouds of gas. Sometimes, though, some of these stories did make some uncanny predictions. The Astounding Science Fiction office no doubt got the shivers when military intelligence agents paid them a visit in 1944, after they published a story about the development of an atomic bomb. Naturally, they had no knowledge of the Manhattan Project, which was working along these exact lines.

Anecdotes such as this are manna for die-hard science fiction buffs: a scary kind of vindication that they were right all along. And when sci-fi writers cross over from the margins to the mainstream, critics describe their work as 'prophetic'. J. G. Ballard, the so-called 'seer of Shepperton' who wrote for Michael Moorcock's New Worlds in the 1960s, has experienced this kind of critical rehabilitation. A recent review of Ballard's weighty Complete Stories (2001) praised him for his 'instinct for catastrophe', and described how, whenever there was a national disaster, the cry 'call J. G. Ballard' would echo around the newsroom of The Times.

Perhaps the real king of literary paranoia, however, is Philip K. Dick, an astoundingly prolific writer who began his career penning stories for the pulps in the early 1950s at the height of the Cold War. Throwing the conventions of science fiction out of the window, his reality-stretching, mind-bending vision of humanity and alternative worlds is sometimes confused but looks set to last. And it's somehow realistic. As one commentator put it: 'When reading Dick you don't much see mile-long spaceships flaming in the sun. What you do see is one broken-down robot in a ditch.'

The revelation that Dick was a stool-pigeon who repeatedly wrote letters to the FBI stating that colleagues in the sci-fi field (both writers and academics who championed his work) were agents of a KGB conspiracy to dominate science fiction has quelled the enthusiasm of some devotees for his work. Around the time he made these accusations Dick was spinning out on drugs - he took amphetamines for years to keep up his productivity and was no stranger to LSD. Like so many of the best sci-fi writers, Dick may hardly have been a rigorous scientist, and his imagination was a messy whirl of paranoid darkness. But compared to the pristine utopias of bygone eras, his dysfunctional visions sadly seem to make a strange kind of sense these days.

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London.