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Romanticism and Science Fictions - A Special Issue of Romanticism On the Net

  • Robert Corbett

…plus d’informations

  • Robert Corbett
    University of Washington

Corps de l’article

Once upon a time juxtaposing romanticism and science fiction would have seemed absurd. Romanticism meant poets emoting about nature; science fiction meant battles in space. Romantic explorers looked inward; science fiction explorers looked (fantastically) outward. Romanticism was, above all, poetry, while science fiction was, above all, prose. Yet, even then, there remained links between romanticism and science fiction. Both genres might be said to be "literatures of the attic": obsessively consumed by the young, they were meant to be cast aside for more mature pursuits, leaving the books to moldering in storage. There the books remain, to be found by yet another generation to start the cycle over. The criticisms of Irving Babbitt and F.R. Leavis generalized Matthew Arnold's calumny of Percy Shelley to suggest romanticism was the work of "ineffectual angels."  [1] Similar to science fiction, romanticism was read as an escapism dangerously out of touch with reality. The tenor of much early 20th century critical response was, not to put too fine a point on it, "You'll grow out of it!"

The landscape of literature and the Real have shifted, such that linking romanticism and science-fiction no longer seems odd, even to specialists in romanticism (hence this issue of Romanticism on the Net; the very existence of RoN cries out for exploration of this topic).  [2] Despite the differences alluded to above, deriving science fiction from romanticism is fairly uncontroversial. Brian Aldiss devotes several pages in his Billion Year Spree and a whole novel to science fiction's Frankensteinian origins.  [3] William Blake, Samuel Coleridge and Percy Shelley, who remain archetypes of poet as visionary, are more commonly referenced in science-fiction than most other dead white male poets. Even John Keats and Lord Byron have their fans—witness Dan Simmons' Hyperion series, and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine. But the respectability of this genealogy has changed most of all because the canon of romanticism has shifted. Outside of "Tintern Abbey," the most common touchstone for romanticism undergraduate courses is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, the work most often seen as the mother of science fiction. Curiously, the qualities for which Frankenstein has been canonized are precisely not the visionary ones that make it such a tempting precursor of science fiction. Initial readings of Frankenstein, in fact, characterized it as anti-science text, a position later generalized into a critique of male Romantic vision.  [4]Frankenstein's canonization was a critique, both of a male dominated canon and of a poetics derived (in an ad hoc fashion) from the six major poets.

Despite the fact that Frankenstein has often been offered as a critique of the visionary imagination, its inclusion into the canon of romanticism did pave the way for seeing romanticism in terms of science fiction in two obvious, but easily overlooked (because obvious) ways. One is that Frankenstein is a prose narrative. British romanticism, especially through the lens of the New Criticism, was seen strictly as a poetic genre. This is a critical truism, regardless of the generic variety of European romanticism, as well as the vexed notion of what constitutes poetry in the prose of Wordsworth and Shelley.  [5] The canonization of Frankenstein has reawakened critics to the generic diversity that is at the origin of romanticism. Second is that it permitted continuities and affiliations to be seen in texts during the period that were putatively "high" and "low". The irony is of course that this difference was hardly as material to the writers of the period as it has been to later generations of readers, but Frankenstein legitimated precisely the kind of work that would put romanticism and science fiction together.

The clichés about romanticism I mention above have much less purchase now, thanks to newer critical approaches, but in some ways, they have been replaced by others. Rather than being about escape (which may be simply a different name for "transcendence" that our Kantian inflected critical language disdains more often than not), romanticism is more often construed as complicit with various oppressive phenomena (patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism). Studies in romanticism have become much worldlier, such that one of the most productive recent trends has been about professionalism and writing. These new angles reveal much about the thought of the period, but they also tend to dampen exactly how invested in the future romanticism was. More than making a period seem "other" than us, historicism has often had the effect of suggesting it was over; it remains very difficult, in critical discourse, to write historically specific about texts without at the same time jettisoning or damning the very projective tendencies that may have instigated that criticism. Yet a movement that was characterized by Wordsworth as "ever more about to be" was always in some sense about the future, something the most cross-grained reading of the period must admit.

One index of how future oriented even romanticism was is its engagement with science. How many readers have come to the 1802 Preface of Lyrical Ballads expecting an encomium to nature poems and find instead a polemic on diction as well as this choice passage:

The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us . . . If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.  [6]

While not strictly prefigurative of science-fiction, this passage certainly cuts against a reading of Wordsworth as tout court anti-science. It is characteristic of him to suggest that it will be science's "familiarity" that will make it a proper poetic subject, not its strangeness. On the other hand, the passage also suggests poetry must supplement science (in the full Derridean sense of that term) in order for that familiarity to be achieved. Clearly, poetry has priority in Wordsworth's thought, but at the same time he sees little sense in it remaining above science either.

Others were not so moderate in their attitudes towards science: one thread of romanticism emphasized the goal of poeticizing science (and scientizing poetry, as Schlegel might have said). The last genuinely scientific work as poetry belongs to the period: Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (illustrated by William Blake). It is of course easy to quote various writers against science in the period, but it would be more accurate to say writers wrote against tendencies in science, rather than science as such. Goethe famously not only criticized Newton's theory of optics, but also devised one of his own. Furthermore, developments in astronomy, geology, and chemistry fascinated writers as different as Shelley and Coleridge. Curiosity itself, of course, does not beget what we now know as science fiction, however, and much of what characterizes present day science fiction—including endless serial fictions, the creation of wholly imagined universes, the topos of the alien in general—have few if any parallels in the romantic period.  [7] Brian Aldiss even suggests that Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe essentially invented science-fiction by mistake. At the same time, a fundamental premise of science fiction is at the core of Frankenstein: that is, posit a "what if" (say that a scientist can create a being out of corpses) and ask what follows from that premise. Frankenstein rests uneasily in the gothic because the novel's narrative telos and imaginative sympathy with the creature are opposed to it fundamentally. Shelley's method is indebted to the experimental poetics of her mother and father, but like her creature, her novel is something entirely different.

In the final analysis, though, searching for the origins of a genre is bedeviled by the hermeneutic paradox of what an origin is to begin with. This paradox bedevils Aldiss in his admirably literal minded search for predecessors. It is more often the case that a precursor will offer a range of tendencies, some of which bear fruit in other works mixed up with others that don't. To go into the past seeking for oneself often eliminates the saving difference of the past. This applies to ideological as much aesthetic criticism. Furthermore, recent historical work has not enshrined one romanticism (or rather, romantic ideology) in place of the old, but given us a real sense of many "romanticisms." While I would argue that we have not yet proved A.O. Lovejoy correct in a way he could hardly imagine, it seems hardly productive to argue for a single, monolithic romanticism, any more than for a single, monolithic definition of science fiction. What I do hope this issue will do is give us a better sense of the conditions of possibility for science fiction in the romantic period. This task, I would argue, becomes a matter of understanding the science fictions of romanticism: rather than one mode of approaching the genre, there were multiple developments that portend and influence its modern appearance. The essays that follow suggest what those developments might have been.

The first three essays focus on technology, beginning with Robert Mitchell's comparison of Humphrey Davy's Royal Institution and Percy Shelley's Queen Mab on the usefulness of science. While the Royal Institution marks the technologization and professionalization of science, Queen Mab in its footnotes argues for the interdependence of art and science. Mitchell notes that this moment is both an intersection and a parting of the ways, in part prefiguring the science wars as well as science fiction. Marjean Purinton finds an overlooked source for science in a genre she calls "techno-gothic" drama. Just as medical teaching theatricalized science, playwrights like Joanna Baillie and Jane Scott took advantage of technology to bring to "life" gothic bodies—both monstrous and absent (that, is ghosts). In doing so, they also crossed the same line that Mary Shelley did in making the gothic give birth to a new form. Daniel Burgoyne's essay confronts us with the paradox of the scientific hoax, as elaborated by Edgar Allan Poe through Coleridge's theory of disbelief. Hoaxes both indicate the appetite for technical narratives on the public's part, but also reveal the generic assumptions of purely fictive accounts. Much like Poe's work in the mystery, his stories become early instances as well as critiques of the genre.

The last four essays focus more on speculation, beginning Penny Bradshaw's account of female dystopic poetry by Charlotte Smith and Anna Barbauld. In Beachy Head and 1811, both poets practice a prophetic poetics normally gendered as strictly masculine. Bradshaw finds both a root for feminist dystopias (Marge Piercy and Joanna Russ immediately come to mind) in these poems, but paradoxically the apocalypses Barbauld and Smith imagine are also empowering. What becomes ruined are the imperialist institutions of wartime Britain, letting nature (and thus poetry) reassert its power. In the most wide ranging (textually and theoretically) essay included in this special issue, Timothy Morton traces the beginnings of "spicial" poetics/politics of Dune back into romanticism and earlier. The topos of spice is heady, indeed, connoting both imperial adventure and poetic abundance. His essay reveals a connection between science fiction and romanticism through the unlikely connection of practices of consumption: romanticism, it seems, helps create the cultural consumer who at one and the same time reviles and revels in the objects of his consumption, a process that Morton calls "metalepsis." Morton's metalepsis seems to have more than a little common with romantic irony, suggesting perhaps that William Gibson's hackers may be belated and dissipated romantic poets. The final two essays look at representations of gender by romantic writers and Hollywood directors working in science fiction modes. Lauren Fitzgerald sketches a history of female property by comparing Ann Radcliffe's work to the Alien series. One is both reminded of how science fiction film often returns to the genre's gothic roots, but also how both are venerable mediums for representing female subjectivity. Finally, Andrea Austin looks at Mary Shelley's and William Gibson's cyborgs in their Hollywood transformations. She finds that the print versions are far more subversive of gender conventions than Hollywood's version. She uses Laura Mulvey's notion of woman as Pandora to explain the Hollywood's domestication of romantic and cyberpunk cyborgs. Provocatively, she links this phenomenon with arguments about the Turing Test. It seems that the test requires a male, a female, and another subject who determines which is which based on their answers. That gender difference becomes a model for human-AI differences suggests that our notions about technology have not evolved much since Frankenstein galvanized his creature. This is not to suggest that romanticism is an entirely angelic critique of our fallen modernity. It is to suggest however that it was fully engaged in imagining the future in a way that is useful to remember and which certain texts, particularly science-fiction, continue to remember. The world as romanticism imagined and as we imagine it, however different they are, are still "ever more about to be."

Parties annexes