The Science fiction genre is one that can cross many generic boundaries, often including in its narrative the conventions of other genres such as romance or mystery. Science fiction, like many modern literary genres tends not to stick to any one genre Instead; it tends to be complicated amalgams of various genres. Science fiction has the most in common with the fantasy genre as both deal with the fantastic element, and unbelievable situations.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the science fiction from the fantasy genre, which is very similar in many ways. Science fiction though has its own conventions, which make it unique. It tends to be rooted more in reality than fantasy rather than making up its own rules as the fantasy genre often does, science fiction tends to stick to the rules already in place instead using science to bend them in a way that still makes them believable. This is one of the many conventions, which distinguish science fiction largely from other types of popular fiction.
This essay will both illustrate and discuss these conventions and their effect on texts using close reference to the science fiction classic ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ by John Wyndham. The story is set in the sleepy little country hamlet of Midwich, which experiences a bizarre phenomenon. For a full day, every living thing is rendered unconscious by a mysterious force that forms a perfect circle enveloping the whole town. The next day everyone wakes up from the ordeal, which is referred to as the “Dayout” unaffected by their experience. Until it is revealed that, every woman of childbearing age in Midwich is pregnant.
The women give birth to blonde haired, golden-eyed identical looking children, with telepathic abilities and an accelerated growth rate. The children pose some very interesting questions. How did they get there? Why are they there? Are they part of a new advanced species of humanity, who are destined to wipe out humankind, as we know it? Although the style of the story is old fashioned it is definitely an archetype of all science fiction, the book fits the patterns perfectly and is in fact a perfect example of science fiction at the time.
In fact the book is sometimes very self referential as the main character Gordon Zellaby points out the consequences of Armageddon in a way that very accurately describes a lot of science fiction plot lines both then in the 1950’s when the book was written and now including science fiction movies. ‘Well, there you have the prototype of innumerable invasions. A super-weapon, which man fights valiantly with his own puny armoury until he is saved by one of several possible kinds of bell. Naturally, in America it is all rather bigger and better. Something descends, and something comes out of it.
Within ten minutes, owing no doubt to the excellent communications in that country, there is a coast-to-coast panic, and all highways out of all cities are crammed, in all lanes, by the fleeing populace – except in Washington. There, by contrast, enormous crowds stretching as far as the eye can reach, stand grave and silent, white faced but trusting, with their eyes upon the White House, while somewhere in the Catskills a hitherto ignored professor and his daughter, with their rugged young assistant strive like demented midwives to assist the birth of the “dea ex laboritoria” which will save the world as the last moment, minus one. 1 According to Wikipedia the earliest known usage of the term ‘science fiction’ is in 1851 (in Chapter 10 of William Wilson’s A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject), in which he writes: ‘Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true. ‘ However this appears to be an isolated usage and the term appears to have been recoined in the 1920s where it appeared in Amazing Stories.
According to D. Thompson at the DePaul University, science fiction can be defined two ways ‘A) a relatively recent literary phenomenon that, despite its humble origins, currently finds itself riding a wave of popularity towards a brighter and more lucrative future. or (B) one of the oldest and most respectable of literary genres–a form of imaginative fiction that has successfully reinvented itself from century to century, generation to generation, but which now finds itself frantically striving to keep pace with the dazzling improbabilities of high-tech reality itself. ‘
Due to the age of ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ it can fall into the second category as its views and reasoning in light of recent developments in scientific understanding and philosophy can be seen as archaic. For example, one of the Midwich children makes some remarks about human evolution that can be seen in hindsight as profoundly ignorant, for instance. ‘Cruelty is as old as life itself. There is some improvement: humour and compassion re the most important of human inventions; but they are not very firmly established yet’ such comments made by scientists/creationists now would be fairly ridiculous.
With deeper thought the idea that cruelty overrides all other human emotions is uninformed at best, but it comments like this can be excusable since the science in 1957 wasn’t quite as concrete as it is now; it is clear to see that for its time there was some very forward thinking going on. Science fiction is a very good example of a popular fiction genre in that it is extremely popular in its readership and output is second only to mystery and detective fiction.
It is difficult to identify how and when science fiction actually came about as many early, novels can be classified as science fiction even though they were not referred to as such. It can be said that Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ was the earliest published in 1818. The generic label ‘Science Fiction’ did not become prominent until the 1920’s. Although the term was mentioned before then. John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ came at a time when science fiction was beginning to gain recognition due its expansive readership. 2
The Spectator3 noted that Wyndham ‘provides just that right amount of semi-realistic data … to soothe his readers into a mood of acceptance, and his poker-faced attitude towards the strange and improbable events which he records is also exactly calculated. ‘ This is a typical genre convention of science fiction; the story contains just enough realistic elements so that the story seems plausible. This helps readers to identify with the situation, also posing the ever-present question, what would you do if this actually happened.
Science fiction has enough elements to lull the reader into a sense of security; science is what makes the stories realistic. Even though most of the scientific elements are completely fictional, the discourse is instantly recognisable. So a reader not entirely proficient in scientific jargon would still be able to recognise it, this gives the story legitimacy, heightening the entertainment for the reader as they are able to achieve a sense of catharsis from the Armageddon situations they would never want to experience themselves.
With the fictional stories, the reader can be the scientist who discovers the cure or the solution to humankind’s crisis, whereas in a real life situation, they would not be so able. Although it should be stated that the science aspect alone is not what makes science fiction a genre, there are many literary works that feature science prominently but cannot be classified as true science fiction. Science fiction as a genre tends to lean toward the hypothetical and has a decidedly more prophetic or apocalyptic goal.
Science fiction is more concerned with future scenarios extrapolating from reality and providing exciting possibilities. It is not a naturalistic record of existing circumstances. Science fiction is visionary writing about science and technology, choosing instead to envisage where science could lead us and the effects it could have on the human race or entire planet as a whole. Wikipedia identifies these ideas as the some of main imaginings of science fiction. * the impact of imagined science * the imagined impact of actual science imagined technology based upon actual science * imagined technology based upon imagined science * the impact of science and/or technology upon imagined societies * the impact of science and/or technology upon imagined individuals The idea that most likely applies to John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ is ‘the impact of science and/or technology upon imagined societies’. Science fiction tends to deal with an existential interpretation of the meaning of life something that John Wyndham does effectively with the character of Zellaby.
Zellaby’s random musings on the effect the children’s appearance will have on today’s society and what this may mean to existence as we know it is an adept and typical response for science fiction. The genre tends to explore how we see life today in retrospect of a disaster or new technology. It can sometimes be seen as a warning on the part of the author, especially if the story tends to lean to a more dystopian point of view as many classic science fiction works do. Dealing primarily with our own fears of technological advancement.
In a way, science fiction is a commentary on contemporary views on science even though many are set in the future or in the middle of some fantastical event, which has inevitably led to humankind re-evaluating their existence. Science Fictions mode or relation to reality seems in most cases is a worse or dystopian view. This is another way in which science fiction greatly differs from the fantasy genre. Fantasy in many cases tends to better our perception of reality. People are enhanced, possessing special abilities. The worlds are filled with magic and wonder, in a way that can be perceived as the natural order of things.
Science fiction’s fantastical elements do not feel normal they are a product of forces meddling with nature, affecting the world in mostly negative ways. Technology can only take us so far. The Midwich Cuckoos poses some interesting questions. Is the arrival of the children natural? Or the result of some alien race meddling with the nature and balance of our world. The Science fiction genre poses these questions numerous times. What is the relationship between nature and technology? How does this adversely affect the human race?
When discussing science fiction, it is important to include type of science fiction that has emerged which deals with an alternative history. This is a type of speculative fiction which rather than dealing with the technology of the future it instead deals with past events and then extrapolates what sort of 20th century would result if certain historical events had turned out differently. Novels such as Phillip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’ has the allies losing World War II, or George Orwell’s 1984, which deals with the resulting dystopia after World War I/II.
Although many dystopian science fiction novels do not deal with science predominantly, they deal with sociological and psychological extrapolations and due to the methodologies used, these two states are often classified as sciences. Although ‘The Midwich Cuckoo’s’ deals with technology it also deals with the sociological and psychological effects the introduction of the children has on the town and the world around them taking into account the media and the government as well as the psyche of a small rural village. Science fiction often uses scientific procedures for example extrapolating certain scientific idioms.
Mainly emphasising observation, the heart of scientific research. All science is based on concrete eyewitness reports. It because of this that many science fiction novels are often told from the first person point of view. In many cases, the narrator is completely passive. Such is the case with ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ the character of Richard Gayford, rarely takes action choosing instead to observe and listen. The main mouthpiece of the story is not in fact Richard himself but the character of Gordon Zellaby; the character that comes up with the theories and observations.
Gayford merely watches and relays this information to the reader. It seems that the story may as well have been written in the third person pronoun. Upon revision though, it seems that the passive first person is very appropriate as it places the reader in the story without the improbable notion of them being active in any way. They are Richard Gayford, observing the events unfolding in front of them. Unlike fantasy (the most similar genre to science fiction), there is usually no explanation for the events that take place whereas in science fiction there is usually a pseudo-explanation for them.
In ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ this explanation comes from Gordon Zellaby. Science fiction is an important genre, one of the most lucrative genres in popular fiction today. With one of the most devoted fan bases in history. Science fiction is a fluid genre, changing along with new discoveries and serving as cautionary tales against humankind’s constant need for knowledge, specifically technological advancement. What makes science fiction a fascinating genre is that while it deals with times we have not nor may never experience it serves as a comment on current society and the way in which we as a culture think.