In Defense of Science Fiction

Upon reading the title of this lecture, “A Defense of Science Fiction,” one might wonder why science fiction, of all things, deserves a defense, of all things. Haven’t we all seen The Avengers or myriad other superhero movies that are based on science fictional comic books? Haven’t we seen Star Wars, The Matrix, Avatar, Inception, or The Hunger Games? Haven’t we watched any number of TV shows, from Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica to Fringe? It’s hard to find a person alive today who watches TV, and/or goes to the movies, and/or illegally streams American entertainment online who hasn’t encountered plenty of science fiction. Through TV and blockbuster films, not to mention video games, science fiction has been embedded in the collective cultural unconscious of the United States, Europe, and even the world. The US is a science fiction nation; Earth is a science fiction planet. Why, then, does such an obviously successful genre need a defense? Aren’t our dollars and Euros and Facebook likes enough?

To help us get a better purchase on this question, I will now turn to a recent and well-publicized debate between two prominent contemporary North American writers, Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin. In addition to being a successful mainstream author, Atwood has written The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel about a future in which women are universally oppressed, and more recently, the “Maddaddam” trilogy, which is partly set in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by a few humans and some genetically modified creatures. While these books may sound like science fiction, Atwood claims that they are in fact speculative fiction. The difference lies in the way fiction relates to reality. Science fiction, she thinks, is about impossible things, like time travel or an invasion of Earth by tentacled monsters. She associates this kind of fiction with the famed British author H.G. Wells, who wrote The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and many others. In contrast, speculative fiction takes possible things, things that are already happening, and imagines them in a more advanced or complete form (a technique commonly called “extrapolation”). Atwood associates this kind of fiction with Wells’s French counterpart, Jules Verne, author of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and many others.

As for the ways her own writing relates to reality, consider the genetic experiments in the first book of her Maddaddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake. In this artist’s rendition, we see the “pigoons,” which in the novel’s future world are genetically modified pigs that grow human organs for transplant.

Orxy and Crake--pigoons

Or consider the “ChickieNobs”, which are “chickens,” if they can still be called chickens, that have been genetically modified so that they are nothing but breasts and a hole in which food can be inserted. If that sounds far-fetched, just think about current bioengineering in the food industry. Chickens are already bioengineered through artificial hormones that make them grow unnaturally large breasts, which supply greater amounts of the white meat that consumers prefer. Animal life is already thoroughly instrumentalized to suit human demands. These are examples of speculative fiction, in Atwood’s view, because speculative fiction speculates about the possible futures of current social processes, providing us with warnings, and sometimes hope, about where our world is headed.

In a review of some of Atwood’s novels, Ursula Le Guin took issue with the “speculative fiction” label. Le Guin claimed that what Atwood calls speculative is in fact science fiction: science fiction imagines possible futures based on the assumption that current trends will continue. The real purpose of Atwood’s refusal to call her writing “science fiction” was, in Le Guin’s view, “to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by [conservative] readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.” We can see part of what Le Guin means by the “literary ghetto” in the example of Wonder Stories, the pulp magazine in which Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved” was published, and to which I’ll return later. Le Guin grew up reading these pulp magazines. When she published her first novels, they were also inhabitants of the science fiction ghetto. They were published in the 1960s as Ace Doubles, which combined two science fiction novels and sold for a mere 50 cents. SLIDE: here we see Le Guin’s novel on the left. When you finish it, you turn the book over and find another, equally trashy-looking novel, shown here on the right. It’s like getting two hamburgers for the price of one. Ace is also the publishing house that published many of Philip K. Dick’s early novels. Why should scholars waste their time with this stuff? Isn’t this just mass entertainment with no literary value?

This is where the label “speculative fiction” comes in handy. Le Guin suggests that Atwood prefers to call her writing “speculative fiction” because it helps her distinguish herself from the low, degraded realm of science fiction kitsch. After all, “speculation” has a respectable philosophical ring to it. It gives scholars a good excuse for reading Atwood, Le Guin, Dick, and maybe even Hamilton, since you can place them on a continuum with more “serious” speculative writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, or Kafka. Fans of speculative, not science, fiction can avoid the embarrassment of association with nerds who dress up for Star Trek conventions.

Le Guin’s review is a defense of science fiction from “speculative fiction,” that is, from labels that serve to protect intellectuals from science fiction’s nerds, paperbacks with monsters and spaceships on their covers, and mindless Hollywood blockbusters. In discussions with colleagues and students, I sometimes echo Le Guin’s position. Yes, there is plenty of bad science fiction, but that’s true of any genre. Science fiction is worth studying on its own terms. It doesn’t need an alter ego, a secret identity. Give me Superman, not Clark Kent. At times I’ve even played the role of the post-9/11 George Bush on this point: either you’re with us or against us; either you’re studying science fiction, or you’re with the terrorists.

But it’s important to realize that the Atwood/Le Guin debate only appears to be about the proper definitions of speculative and science fiction. When I say that I agree with Le Guin, I don’t mean that I think her definition of science fiction is correct. That’s because I don’t think science fiction can be defined, if by definition we mean naming an essence, a set of objective properties. I don’t think literature itself can be defined, either. This is a tricky theoretical point, but it’s crucial to what I think it means to defend science fiction. So I’ll try to put it as clearly as possible.

When Atwood claims that certain texts, including her own, are speculative fiction, and that these texts share a certain critical engagement with the present and the future, she isn’t defining something that already exists “out there,” like rocks that a scientist might classify according to their mineral or chemical content. Similarly, when Le Guin renames these same texts “science fiction,” and attributes to them the same critical engagement with the present and the future, she isn’t simply correcting a false definition. Rather, both Atwood and Le Guin are trying to persuade the reading community that a specific group of texts should be read a specific way, for the sake of specific intellectual benefits. Neither one is telling us the essence of speculative or science fiction, the way a scientist can tell us the chemical essence of rocks. Instead of a scientist, it’s more appropriate to compare Atwood and Le Guin to a carpenter who is selecting a tool: they are both recommending ways of using texts to perform a certain kind of imaginative “work” in readers’ minds. They are describing not what texts are, but how they can be used or read so that through them, readers can become more conscious of the present and the future.

Of course, Atwood and Le Guin disagree about what texts can be beneficially used in this way, and they disagree about what to call these texts so that they won’t be confused with others that cannot be beneficially used like this. Atwood wants to group herself with Jules Verne and be read as speculative fiction; Le Guin wants to group Atwood and herself with H.G. Wells and be read as science fiction. They need these labels in order to distinguish their texts from fantasies like, say, TheLord of the Rings or Harry Potter, which of course could be read as extrapolations on the present, but probably not to much effect. Yet, in the end, Atwood’s and Le Guin’s positions are basically the same. They are both offering the reading community a kind of instruction manual that could be titled “How to Read, and Why You Should Give a Damn about It.” Only upon reading this instruction manual, and accepting its reading strategies, do the texts become speculative or science fiction.

That’s all literary critics can do, after all. We cannot define literary essences. We can only develop more or less persuasive instruction manuals that recommend to reading communities–our colleagues, students, anyone beyond academia who might happen to listen to us–why certain texts should be read together as a genre, how they should be read, and why reading these texts in this way matters. Without the instruction manuals and readers, genres don’t exist. Samuel Johnson famously kicked a stone in order to demonstrate the existence of external reality, and thus to refute Berkeley’s philosophical idealism. But there are no genres lying around to be kicked. You can kick The Man in the High Castle, but you’ll only be kicking a bunch of paper with words on them. Those words become science fiction only when they’re read as science fiction, “activated” as science fiction. Genre isn’t “in” texts, it happens to them when they’re used in certain ways. Genres are mental constructs that exist only in the more or less shared discussions and practices of authors, critics, students, editors, publishers, and You can’t be a George Bush about them–how can you be a fundamentalist about something that has no fundament? At most, science fiction can have a St. Paul who gathers a community of readers.

Let’s return now to my opening question: why does science fiction deserve a defense? I hope it’s clear by now that a longer, uglier, but more accurate title for this lecture would be “In Defense of Some Particular Uses of Science Fiction,” or perhaps “Science Fiction: A User’s Guide.” To be even more exact, I’m proposing that you, my prospective reading community, use the two texts on your syllabus, Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved” and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, as science fiction. Still, you might be wondering why I’m proposing to read these texts as science and not speculative fiction. I’ve already explained how the Atwood/Le Guin debate was really about ways to use texts, but I haven’t explained why I’ve chosen one label over the other. So here it is: I’m calling Hamilton’s and Dick’s texts “science fiction” because that’s the dominant generic concept that communities of authors, editors, publishers, advertisers, and readers have historically used to understand them. This historical and contextual approach to genre follows from what I’ve already said about the impossibility of defining literary essences. Science fiction isn’t a scientific fact, but the ways that the term was understood within particular interpretive communities is a matter of historical fact. With this point we come to the first, historical use of science fiction that I want to defend today.

First Use: The Dream Life of Science and Technology

Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved” belongs to the first batch of stories that were written, published, read, and advertised explicitly as science fiction. In 1926, an American immigrant inventor from Luxembourg, Hugo Gernsback, launched the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. It was the golden age of the pulps, of newsstands crowded with  magazines that were printed on cheap paper made from wood-pulp, which notoriously turned yellow and crumbly. The pulps specialized in all manner of genres: the love story, the western, the detective story, the weird supernatural story, the “spicy” adventure story. As you can see, the sensational covers tantalized and titillated the prospective reader. Given American science fiction’s history with this quasi-pornographic, crassly commercial industry, I can sympathize with those intellectuals who discuss it only when wearing the trenchcoat and sunglasses of more respectable labels.

While Amazing Stories had its fair share of lurid covers, Gernsback promised that it was different from the other pulps. It was the only magazine dedicated to “scientifiction,” which he defined as “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Keep in mind that in 1926, “romance” didn’t only mean love story, the way it does today. Back then it was applied to a wide range of literatures about extraordinary events and adventures. Hawthorne claimed that while the novel dealt with facts, the romance dealt with symbolic inner truths, “truths of the heart.” But in Gernsback’s view, “scientifiction” wasn’t just romantic entertainment or symobolism; it taught readers science, and could even predict the future. A few years later, Gernsback traded the clunky word “scientifiction” for a new one, “science fiction.” For all its importance, though, Gernsback’s invention of the term “science fiction” shouldn’t be confused with the invention of the thing itself. For centuries there had been nonrealistic stories, stories that broke the rules of everyday reality, stories about the future, utopian islands, trips to other planets, robots, the end of the world, and encounters with alien life forms, to name only a sample of motifs. Gernsback’s acheivement was to give the reading and writing public a new lingua franca, a new generic term and a supporting set of literary concepts that could act as an instruction manual on how to read these diverse nonrealistic literatures together, for the sake of specific benefits, namely, entertainment, scientific education, and prediction. Science fiction became a reality when an interpretive community formed around the new concept, used it to identify patterns in a specific group of texts, wrote magazine stories and novels that built on these patterns, discussed it in fan letters and at conventions, used it to advertise new magazines and books, and saw mainstream “realistic” literature as somehow distinct from it. To be more precise, science fiction became a historical reality only when these various practices were sufficiently repeated.

I’m proposing that we read Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved” within the context of pulp science fiction’s interpretive community, not only because this registers the historical reality of how its interpretive community actually saw it, but also because doing so gives us insight into the community’s shared desires and nightmares. As I just mentioned, genres form when certain ways of using texts are repeated, retold, and reiterated. Just as a nasty rumor acquires the force of truth if it’s repeated enough, so too does repetition solidify an interpretive community’s shared sense of genre. But repetition isn’t only a principle of generic formation; it’s a psychoanalytic concept, too. Freud spoke of the “compulsion to repeat,” the Wiederholungszwang that drove his little grandson repeatedly to throw and fetch an object, or that forced his adult patients to relive traumatic experiences from World War I over and over again. Freud developed a number of different explanations of the compulsion to repeat, but they all suggest that repetition is a symptom of some deep trauma and/or wish.

Hamilton’s story was published in 1931 in another one of Gernsback’s magazines, Wonder Stories. The story follows three characters, Pollard, Dutton, and Wright, the narrator, who all studied engineering together at a technical college. Pollard, the eponymous Man Who Evolved, focused on biology. The pulp community surely recognized these characters as examples of the engineer and technical scientist, who were the typical heroes not only in pulp science fiction, but also in an American culture that adored inventor-scientists like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. But while many pulp stories celebrated the elite technical/scientific class as saviors of modern civilization, “The Man Who Evolved” belongs to a competing tradition. The pulp community was not entirely unified, after all. Pollard turns out to be no hero, despite his initial evolutionary jump into a godlike body. His desire for greater and greater scientific knowledge causes him further to evolve into a tyrannical telepathic man with a large head and withered body, then a huge, serene brain, and finally, a puddle of slime. This nightmare vision of the “balloonhead,” as one science fiction historian calls him, was repeated again and again in the pulps. For that reason “The Man Who Evolved” is best read intertextually, alongside similar texts, as part of a collective dream.

One of the earliest representations of the balloonhead is H.G. Wells’s satirical essay “The Man of the Year Million,” which is a fictional book review. Wells claims to be quoting  a book in which a “Professor Holzkopf” argues that future humans will lose their noses and ears, and become quadrupedal again. “Great hands they have, enormous brains…. Their whole muscular system, their legs, their abdomens, are shriveled to nothing, a dangling, degraded pendant to their minds.” When Wells wrote his famous War of the Worlds a few years later, he drew on these ideas to imagine that the Martians had evolved in a similar way: “the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to two tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body.” Wells was writing in the late nineteenth century, when the idea of degeneration swept through Europe. Whereas previous interpreters of Darwin’s theory of evolution had thought it implied biological progress, the development of more perfect species out of simple ones, Wells and others contemplated the evolutionary future of humanity as a grotesque amplification of the mind at the expense of the body. SLIDE: this illustration, called the “March of Progress,” is probably the most popular visual depiction of evolution. Notice how it implies a linear progression from ape to human, from bad to best, from primitive to fully developed, creating the impression that the human form is the pinnacle of evolution. This way of imagining evolution is still quite popular. Wells speculated that if humans became more intelligent, more technological and less muscular, evolution would look less like linear progress and more like a circle. Only the hands have physically strengthened in Wells’s vision, for these will be necessary in the future in order to work the machines. To cite a possible link to The Man in the High Castle, some scholars have argued that Nazi eugenics and the project to build a “master race” was a response  to similar fears of degeneration.

Then, in the 1920s and 30s, the balloohead became ubiquitous in the American science fiction pulps: “The Machine Man,’’ “In 20,000 AD,’’ “Alas, All Thinking,” to cite just a few examples. The balloonhead’s body is always withered, since in the stories’ common future, machinery has made physical movement virtually unnecessary. With no need for muscles, the balloonhead has become spindly or amorphously flabby. His fingers are exceptionally long, or have become tentacles. As his intelligence grew, he became telepathic, coldly logical, unemotional, even asexual. In the most extreme visions, as in “The Man Who Evolved,” he is nothing but a huge, pulsing brain.

Why was the pulp community so obsessed with the balloonhead? How can we account for this compulsion to repeat? In a book I’m writing about the cultural history of the body, I argue that the balloonhead provides a lens into the conflicted desires of the pulp communities of the 1920s and 30s, and perhaps even of American culture at large. On the one hand, these communities celebrated the popularization of scientific and technical knowledge, and idolized scientists and engineers as visionaries and social reformers. On the other hand, they were deeply troubled by the march of scientific invention, which threatened to create a world of machines that made the human, or more specifically, male body obsolete. Let’s not overlook the gendered and racial nature of this technopobia, nor the fact that the professions in question were largely composed of white men, as was the pulp magazines’ readership. One of the stories I just showed on the screen is about a horrifying future in which a man can no longer seduce a woman, since she is, gasp, too intelligent to care about sex. Another one I showed makes some of the racial undertones of the balloonhead stories more explicit: here the balloonhead is the master of an army of four-armed black slaves. In other words, this future channels the anxieties of working-class white men that everyone except the most elite white “heads” will be reduced to the role of the black slavehand.

The pulp community’s anxiety about the evolution of intelligence at the expense of muscular strength thus gave shape to their fear that heads and hands were separating in American society, that intelligence was concentrating in an elite class of technocrat-scientists, whose expertise gave them unprecedented power over the working class. This technocratic-scientific ruling class is represented in “The Man Who Evolved” when the balloonhead Pollard threatens to kill his companions and enslave the world. It seems that the only thing that can stop him, or the master class that he represents, is evolutionary time itself, which ironically turns the very thing that makes him superior, his intelligence, into the cause of his demise.

In sum, I interpret the balloonhead as a figure in the dream life of the pulp science fiction community, a figure whose repeated appearances across a number of texts not only helped to establish their generic identity as science fiction, but who is also a symptom of the community’s, and perhaps the nation’s, hopes and nightmares about modern science and technology. Why does that matter? I’m recommending that we read “The Man Who Evolved” and related pulp stories within this framework because it reveals, if not the actual future of human evolution, then the ways that particular historical communities imagined their evolutionary future under the impact of modern science and mechanization. That matters not only for our understanding of the past, but for our understanding of the present as well.

Wall-E humans

For as the obese, immobile, perpetually distracted slobs in Disney’s Wall-E demonstrate, Americans and other members of the advanced capitalist world are still using science fiction to express their anxieties about technology and the body, although today we tend to fear that our media is creating stupider brains, not bigger ones.

Texting Man

We still think evolution is progress, but we also still fear that smart phones are withering us, bending us, overdeveloping our hands, returning us to a “primitive” form. Using science fiction to interrogate the dream life of science and technology, which is the first of the two positions I’m defending in this lecture, can ultimately help us learn to be more than simply subject to this dream life. Our dreams are rooted in real political alienation from science and technology, and in real inequalities, but they tend to be reactionary, anti-science and anti-technology. As a result, they often compensate for our fear with suspect images of masculine power, of a return to “real” manhood and womanhood, “real” manual labor, and a pastoral garden from which technology is banned. But let us transcend our reactionary fear, and our nostalgia for the way things never were. Let us use science fiction to become more conscious and responsible social dreamers who dare to imagine better futures.

Second Use: Cognitive Estrangement

In 1941, a twelve-year-old boy named Philip K. Dick read his first science fiction magazine, the pulpy Stirring Science Stories. A decade later, Dick published his first story in Planet Stories, which he described as “the most lurid of all pulp magazines on the stands at the time…. As I carried four copies into the record store where I worked, a customer gazed at me and them, with dismay, and said, ‘Phil, you read that kind of stuff?’ I had to admit I not only read it, I wrote it.” Although science fiction’s social status rose a bit in the 1950s, due to its claims to have predicted the atomic bomb, Dick’s experience in his workplace–in fact, his life as a whole–exemplifies science fiction’s cultural struggle for respectability. In order to make a living as a writer of pulp science fiction stories and cheap Ace paperbacks, Dick regularly wrote for days on end without sleep, eventually becoming addicted to the pills that gave him energy. Even without drugs, he was an inspired, some would say “crazy,” visionary who saw the devil’s face in the sky and often wondered if reality was just a vast illusion. Try as he might to escape the pulp ghetto, Dick’s failure as a mainstream novelist was sealed in early 1963, when the post office returned a big stack of his manuscripts that mainstream publishers had rejected. In the frenzied two years that followed, he dashed off an astounding eleven science fiction novels. A pulp writer had to be a writing machine. No wonder that androids abound in Dick’s fiction: he was forced to write like one. Sadly, he was widely recognized as one of the most important science fiction novelists of the twentieth century only after his untimely death in 1982, just before the movie Blade Runner started a long line of cinematic adaptations of his fiction.

One of Dick’s best shots at respectability came in 1962, when The Man in the High Castle was published by Putnam, a mainstream press that published notable American novelists like Vladimir Nabokov and Norman Mailer. Putnam didn’t advertise the book as science fiction. The cover calls it “an electrifying novel of our world as it might have been.” Gone are the zap guns and half-naked women. The mainstream press didn’t read the book as science fiction, either. The LA Times described it as “a terrifying novel of what-if?” To this day, some scholars refuse to recognize The Man in the High Castle as science fiction, and treat it instead as part of an independent genre, the alternate history novel. How can it be science fiction, after all, if there’s so little science in it?

But this view is ahistorical and acontextual, and thus counter to the historical usage of science fiction for which I’m advocating. Not only was Dick immersed in the science fiction community, for whom he understood himself to be writing, he also modeled The Man in the High Castle on fellow science fiction author Ward Moore’s “Bring the Jubilee,” an alternate history about the South’s victory in the American Civil War. Moore’s story was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which also published several of Dick’s early stories. Moreover, if it hadn’t been for the science fiction reading community, The Man in the High Castle might have fallen out of print. We can imagine another alternate history in which the novel has disappeared from cultural memory, leaving scholars from our timeline who insist that it isn’t science fiction with a mysterious blank chapter in their anti-science fiction books. In real life, the book’s first printing sold badly, despite positive reviews. It was then published in the Science Fiction Book Club, read with great enthusiasm by the science fiction community, and nominated for the community’s highest honor, the Hugo Award, named after Hugo Gernsback, which it won in 1963. I think this proves that anyone who takes history seriously should read The Man in the High Castle as science fiction. Science fiction has taken many forms in the reading and writing practices of historical communities of interpretation, including forms that don’t emphasize science. If any further doubt were possible, Dick’s own characters should lay them to rest. One character claims that the book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate history novel within The Man in the High Castle, isn’t science fiction because it’s not about the future and science. Another character, in whose voice I hear Dick’s own perspective, replies: “But it deals with [an] alternate present. [There are] many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.”

History is also the focus of the second use of science fiction that I want to defend today, but again, I have to introduce some tricky theoretical concepts to explain it. Let’s start concretely, with the text itself. Your assignment was to read the first three chapters, so I’ll mostly limit myself to this selection.

The opening chapters showcase Dick’s typical narrative structure. Like nearly all of Dick’s novels, The Man in the High Castle has several foci, or points of view, which eventually combine into a complex web. This narrative web resembles the interconnected universe of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text that several characters consult throughout the novel (and that Dick himself used to write the weird ending). The first three chapters introduce Robert Childan, who deals “American traditional ethnic art objects” to Japanese collectors; Frank Frink, a Jew who is hiding from the Nazis, and who initially works in a factory that produces counterfeit objects that Childan sells in his store; Tagomi, the trade commissioner of Japanese San Francisco, and an irritated customer of Childan; Juliana Frink, Judo instructor and ex-wife of Frank Frink; and Mr. Baynes, who appears to be a Swedish businessman on his way to meet Tagomi (but who is in fact someone else entirely). Oddly, we don’t meet Hawthorne Abendsen, the eponymous Man in the High Castle, until the end of the novel. If you continue reading, and I hope you do, you’ll encounter one of Dick’s ingenious double reversals: Abendsen is the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel within the novel that reverses the plot of The Man in the High Castle, just as The Man in the High Castle reverses the historical plot of World War II. This is an alternate history novel about characters who read an alternate history novel.

Gradually, we learn how the novel reverses our actual history. President Roosevelt was assassinated; the Axis powers won World War II; Japan controls the Western United States, Nazi Germany controls the East, and in between lie the semi-autonomous Rocky Mountain States. I want to focus on how an American reader might respond to this alternate world, but of course, The Man in the High Castle is also particularly relevant to German readers. (Audience question: what’s it like to read this novel in Germany, or as a German? To see your past, which you’re taught from such an early age to remember so critically, portrayed as triumphant? How do Dick’s ideas about Nazism relate to what you learn in school about it?) Dick had a lifelong fascination with German culture. He loved German classical music. He often gave his characters weird German names. In The Man in the High Castle, he becomes a theorist of Nazism. He imagines that the victorious Nazis would have kept going, developing ever greater, more “efficient” technologies, colonizing space, and exporting the Final Solution to Africa. Dick suggests that the Nazis were driven by a collective pathology, rooted in sexual perversion, that distorted their sense of limits. Perhaps most intriguingly, toward the end of chapter 3, Baynes speculates that Nazism was not an aberration of German culture. It grew out of the abstractness of German language and thought:

Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honorable men but of Ehreitself, honor; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good, this good man.

This critique of the culture of Dichter und Denker resembles the argument of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, which the German-Jewish exiles wrote in Dick’s own California around the time that he was reading Stirring Science Fiction. Horkheimer and Adorno claimed that Nazism was not only the betrayal of Enlightenment rationality, but its culmination. In their view, as in Baynes’s, the disregard that abstract thinking shows toward particular things is similar to the inhuman disregard that Nazis showed toward individuals, especially their victims: “Abstraction, the instrument of enlightenment, stands in the same relationship to its objects…as liquidation.”

Although I’m not German, I’ve taught The Man in the High Castle in Frankfurt, where our department is in the old I.G. Farben corporate headquarters. The novel chillingly asked us to imagine that our classroom didn’t exist, that it was part of a company that still manufactured chemicals for the gas chambers, and that had grown into a global cartel with headquarters in New York City. It’s that strange dissonance, that weird double vision through which readers compare their world to the novel’s alternate world, that makes The Man in the High Castle such powerful science fiction.

As we read the first paragraph, one sentence should give us pause: “The shipment from the Rocky Mountain States had not arrived.” The Rocky Mountain States? The Rocky Mountains are real, but there are no Rocky Mountain States. Throughout the first chapter, we see the characters treating things that should be regarded as normal old objects, if not junk, as though they were precious antiques: an ice cream maker, a framed picture of a 1930s actress, a Mickey Mouse watch. The reader slowly learns through an accumulation of odd details that the novel’s world is significantly different from his or her own, yet not radically different. This is not quite the United States, but it’s certainly not Middle Earth, either. This isn’t reality, but it’s also not patently unreal. There is a continuity between the actual America and the novel’s colonized America that most people probably don’t find in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, which rarely, if ever, invite us to see concrete parallels between real history and their fictional worlds. Instead, fantasies typically invite us magically to leap into different universes that have their own independent histories, their own animal kingdoms and bestiaries, their own natural and supernatural laws.

In the words of the Croatian science fiction theorist Darko Suvin, The Man in the High Castle “estranges” the reader. Suvin borrows the concept of estrangement from Bertolt Brecht, who wanted his plays to produce a Verfremdungseffekt, an alienation effect that causes the audience to view the play with critical distance. But while fantasies like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter also estrange us with their dragons and flying brooms, Suvin insists that science fiction’s estrangements are fundamentally different. They’re not magical, they’re cognitive. Their relationship to reality is plausible, probable, reasonable. It’s plain impossible that Middle Earth has ever existed, but it is possible that the Allies could have lost the war, that the United States could have been occupied, and so on. All this could have happened if historical events had occurred differently, sometimes even only slightly differently. To believe in Middle Earth, you have to pretend that everything we know about history is totally wrong, but to believe in the plausibility of Japan’s and Germany’s victory, you only have to believe that history is the effect of accumulated decisions and circumstances, none of which are fated.

In other words, we’ve come full circle and returned to Atwood’s and Le Guin’s definitions of speculative and science fiction, respectively, only now we’re looking at them backwards, as it were. Disagreeing about what texts belong in their categories, Atwood and Le Guin nonetheless share an emphasis on the way certain literature can meditate on real social trends in the present, and show us what the future will probably look like if these trends persist. Of course, The Man in the High Castle is about an alternate past, not about possible futures. Yet Dick’s fictional world is constructed in basically the same, cognitive way. Remember that a reader in 1962 would have experienced The Man in the High Castle as an alternate 1962, an alternate present. While writers like Atwood draw a line from the present to a hypothetical future, Dick drew a line in the other direction, from a hypothetical present in which Japan and Germany are superpowers, to a hypothetical past that explains how this version of history arose, using basic cognitive ideas of cause and effect and probability. This past is basically the same as real human history, except that a few major incidents from the war years turned out differently. The alternate past and present estrange the reader, but the estrangement is cognitive, grounded in a controlled thought experiment that reminds the reader that history is a material process. The alternate past exists not in a radically different, magical and mythological universe, but strayed from our actual timeline because circumstances and human actions worked out differently, producing another timeline through a series of causes and effects. For an American reader in 1962, living in the aftermath of the so-called Good War, in which “America” had defeated the Nazi evil (never mind the immense sacrifices of the Soviet Union), the idea that America could have lost, that the dominance of the American Way of Life was not the destiny of the planet, was potentially a powerful estrangement of American exceptionalism.

Yet for all the persuasiveness of Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement, I haven’t forgotten, and hope you haven’t forgotten, what I said earlier: that science fiction has no definition, only different possible uses, and that these uses are to be judged according to the particular benefits they afford. Suvin’s theory isn’t immune to this truth; it, too, is ultimately a pedagogical tool, an intervention in the practices of a reading and writing community that promises a particular learning experience if texts are used according to its instructions. Indeed, in order to stress the cognitive aspects of Dick’s alternate history, we have to deemphasize the competing idea in the novel that history really is fate, as the characters’ use of the I Ching implies. The Man in the High Castle affords several possible uses. I’m trying to defend one of them.

To be precise, the second, and final, use of science fiction that I’m defending in this lecture builds on Suvin’s ideas and recommends that we read The Man in the High Castle as science fiction, not only because, again, that registers the historical activity of its most important interpretive community, which may have saved the novel from oblivion. This reading protocol can also produce a powerful, cognitively estranging effect in the reader’s imagination. Allow me to demonstrate this point with one final example.

In order to grasp the full utility of cognitive estrangement as a reading practice, we need to come to terms with the opacity of the present, with what the American philosopher William James called its blooming buzzing confusion. No matter how up to date we are with the latest tweets, the present is always too close to see clearly. We are all too culturally farsighted to see the lived moment. Like a fish in water, we are engulfed in the present, surrounded by it, permeated by it. But by reading science fiction with the tools of cognitive estrangement, we might momentarily acquire enough distance from the present to gain a perspective on it, to become flying fish. A reader in 1962 who read The Man in the High Castle not as a radically different fantasy world, but as a plausible alternative to his or her present, might acquire an estranged double vision. This double vision holds up two worlds for comparison: the fictional 1962 in which the Axis won the war, and the actual 1962, in which the Allies won. The two presents are different, but also somewhat similar.

Why is this double vision a beneficial learning experience? Because by reflecting on the similarities and differences between the two presents, the reader can become more critically aware of his or her actual present, and of the historical processes that created it. The tragic reality of climate change, scientists tell us, is that we could only really know how it will affect us if we had another Earth on which to run a full simulation. Unfortunately, we have only one Earth, and the full simulation of climate change that we are currently running by steadily raising our carbon output is not a test case, but the real thing. The power of science fiction lies in its ability to provides us with test worlds, doubles or copies that we can imaginatively inhabit, and thereby gain a basis of comparison with which to understand the original better. To really know what you have, you must also know how it feels when it’s gone, and compare. Not being there is the key to being there. A fake present, or more precisely, a cognitively fake present, tells the secrets of the real present.

The Man in the High Castle gives the 1962 reader another 1962, a bent reflection of the actual America that brings the real into relief. And do you know what shocking secret this fake present tells us? Or put more precisely: do you know what the reader might see if he or she followed the instruction manual of cognitive estrangement, and held the mirror of alternate history at just the right angle to reality, not too far off center, but not too directly parallel, either? The reader would see that, for all the profound differences between the alternate history and real history, parts of the alternate America are remarkable similar in racial outlook to parts of the real America.

Of course, in the Japanese-controlled West, whites are no longer the dominant race. The frustrated perspective of Childan provides a powerful cognitive estrangement of something that is almost as pervasive and invisible in America as the present itself, namely, white privilege. In Nazi America, however, the racial ideology of white supremacy isn’t all repression. In the South especially, Nazism seems perfectly at home. Thus, if The Man in the High Castle presents the 1962 reader with an image of America transformed into a racist dictatorship, hellbent on imperial expansion and the creation of superior military technology, the double vision of cognitive estrangement can lead the reader to a startling question: how different, really, is the United States of the early 1960s, with its rampant racism, imperial war in Vietnam, and military-industrial complex, from Nazi America? This isn’t the cognitive estrangement of difference, but of similarity. Indeed, for many contemporary African Americans and Latin American immigrants, the United States today is a racist, blood-and-soil police state. As the rapper Killer Mike says, “still spell ‘America’ with a triple K.”

I think the new adaptation of the novel captures this aspect very well.

In this scene, we see what appears to be a friendly, polite police officer, who embodies traditional, small-town community values. When he casually refers to the falling ashes from the local hospital ovens, which burn cripples and other “burdens on the state,” we see that acceptance of Nazi ideology can come quite naturally to people whom we regard as “typical” Americans. The scene suggests that “good old-fashioned American values” are good if you’re part of the group, but yet they’re rather compatible with inhuman disregard for the lives of people who are different. Indeed, what I find particularly estranging is the way the police encounter parallels racially charged police encounters in today’s America. The majority of white Americans believe that police are friendly, hard-working people who are just trying to do their job. They’ll only harm you if you deserve it somehow. That’s initially how the friendly policeman in the clip initially appears. But the people of Ferguson and Baltimore and other cities that are currently fighting against police brutality against African Americans are trying to tell white America that the picture isn’t so clean, that in the background are police departments that practice systematic violence against black and brown people, whom they associate with thugs, illegal immigrants, or terrorists. In the TV clip, I can imagine that it’s their ashes too that are floating down from the Nazi American sky.

To summarize, what I’m defending with my second use of science fiction is a reading practice that cognitively estranges the reader from the present. This way of reading produces a double vision that, by way of comparing reality and fiction, enables us to see through the darkness of the lived moment, and become politically conscious of it.


In fact, in closing, I want to stress that the two uses of science fiction that I’ve defended today are ultimately oriented toward encouraging you, my student reading community, to cultivate a style of analytical engagement with American literature and culture that is political. Both uses of science fiction, as the dream life of science and technoloy, and as the cognitive estrangement of the present, are intended to foster critical awareness of history, power, inequality, and collective desire. That’s why I began this lecture with all those science fiction movies and TV shows that have conquered American, and world, culture. No, our dollars and Euros and Facebooks likes are not enough. Science fiction deserves a defense not so much from speculative fiction or fantasy, but from the commodified, consumerist relationship toward it that I fear dominates today’s interpretive communities. It is precisely because science fiction is so culturally successful that we need to develop a critical relationship with it.

This doesn’t mean disavowing the thrills of science fiction, the sheer pleasure of imagination. I saw Pacific Rim. I liked watching giant robots fight giant sea monsters in 3D. But liking isn’t enough, and this point seems to me to be all the more important in the age of social media, which is systematically programming us with the ideology that clicking on something is a robust social act. Clicking isn’t enough. Enjoyment isn’t enough. Being a consumer of entertainment isn’t enough. “Cool,” “Whoa,” “I liked it,” “I didn’t like it,” aren’t enough. We need to reflect on our enjoyment, critique it, be responsible for it, educate it, teach it what the good life really is, and what it really means to  be free.

Thank you.

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