Leonaert Bramer (1596 – 1670): Iphigenia at Aulis (1630)
[NOTE: This article — or sequence of linked essays — appeared in the journal Anthropoetics nearly twenty-five years ago. Its prose leaned too heavily by far on the first person and in re-reading it, it came across to me, on that account, as a bit narcissistic. It was also burdened by too many sidebars. Nevertheless, the main argument and the literary analyses seemed to me to retain their validity. I have extensively edited and re-written the original in order to present it here, in a more seemly form, at The Orthosphere. This is Part I — Part II will follow immediately.]
Science fiction is by widespread consensus the prose genre devoted to representing the precepts of the physical sciences – the precepts of materialism – in narrative: Standard definitions of science fiction typically explicate the genre under the related rubrics of extrapolation and plausibility. Those seeking to understand science fiction in its generic particulars will therefore find its paradigm, according to this received definition, in the texts of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In confronting the recalcitrant physicality of the ocean’s depths, Verne for his part carefully imagines a device, Nemo’s submarine, which can subdue watery resistance and lay clear abyssal mysteries; the Nautilus does this, importantly according to the consensus, without violating any known limitations of physics or mechanics. In speculating on the future of warfare, H. G. Wells for his part posits slight increases in the dependability of traction-engines and in the versatility of dirigible airships and he then puts in prospect, in “The Land Ironclads” (1897) and The War in the Air (1906), eminently credible scenarios of technologically enhanced combat in the European near future of the time. This branch of “hard” science fiction finds extended life, and indeed appears to become the core of the genre, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, especially in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, where Campbell himself, E. E. Smith, and Eric Frank Russell enthralled readers by describing the instrumentality of space travel, planetary conquest, and interstellar warfare. Campbell’s planetary machinery might be less “plausible” than Verne’s submarine or Wells’s battle-tanks, but the principle of story-construction remains the same: The saga finds its purpose in the careful delineation of mechanical details and in the equally minute depiction of spectacular havoc.
I. The Discovery of Superstition. It is important, in fact, to assert what criticism commonly denies: Namely that science fiction originates not in industrial modernity, although that is when the genre, latent for many centuries, at last fully revived, but in Late Antiquity and that it is cognate with the advanced forms of speculation of those days.But Late-Antique fantastic narrative also partakes in the spiritual developments of the time, especially in the consolidation of the mystery-cults and the proliferation of Gnostic systems. Whereas the speculation of a materialist like Epicurus creates a picture of the universe as a plurality of worlds, the speculation of religious thinkers, like Plutarch and Valentinus, creates a world-feeling somewhat paranoid in its basic attitude, distrustful of a cosmic dispensation that it finds inhospitable, and vigilant against demonic forces. In the words of Hans Jonas from his study of Gnostic religion: “Cosmos thus becomes… an emphatically negative concept, perhaps more strongly because more emotionally charged than it had been a positive concept in the [older] Greek conception.” The Epicurean and Plutarchian worlds are the same world, differentiated through divergent evaluations. Plutarch is neither so unscientific nor Epicurus so de-divinized as casual acquaintance might imply. There are religious elements in atomism and scientific elements in neo-Platonism. Plutarch, for example, contributes to astronomical speculation in his dialogue On the Face in the Moon and to itinerary fantasy, a voyage to remote islands, in the dialogue On the Decline of Oracles.