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

  • Robert Corbett

…plus d’informations

  • Robert Corbett
    University of Washington

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." 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). 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. 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. 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. 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 …

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