back to

Fredric Jameson on the origins of science fiction


In the current issue of the London Review of Books, Fredric Jameson reviews Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative by David Wittenberg, which he calls “a stimulating contribution to literary theory.” In the course of evaluating the book, Jameson shares his own hypothesis about why science fiction emerged as a literary genre in the late nineteenth century. Here’s an excerpt:

It is probably not immediately obvious what interest a new theoretical study of science fiction holds for the mainstream adepts of literary theory; and no doubt it is just as perplexing to SF scholars, for whom this particular subgenre of the subgenre, the time-travel narrative, is as exceptional among and uncharacteristic of their major texts as SF itself is with regard to official Literature. To be sure, so-called alternative or counterfactual histories have gained popularity and a certain respectability; my personal favourite is Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, in which John Brown’s raid succeeds and a black socialist republic emerges in the South, as prosperous and superior in relation to its shrunken rust-belt northern neighbour as West Germany was to the East in the old days. And there remains the lingering mystery of what would have happened had the time traveller not stepped on the butterfly: this is from Ray Bradbury’s immortal ‘Sound of Thunder’, but the idea is adaptable to any number of wistful daydreams – had Lincoln not been assassinated, or Bobby Kennedy – or more sombre fantasies, like Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, in which Germany and Japan win the Second World War and divide the US between them. But these historical variants are not genuine time-travel narratives on the order of H.G. Wells’s Time Machine (1895), which inaugurates the standard narrative of the history of science fiction, to the detriment of Jules Verne or that other increasingly popular recent candidate, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

But where did the genre come from? My own hypothesis is a very general one: namely, that the late 19th-century invention of SF correlates to Walter Scott’s invention of the modern historical novel in Waverley (1814), marking the emergence of a second – industrial – stage of historical consciousness after that first dawning sense of the historicity of society so rudely awakened by the French Revolution. David Wittenberg does much better than this, but his remarkable hypothesis is only one of the conceptual breakthroughs in this stimulating contribution to literary theory. I will dwell mainly on the three that interest me the most: the relationship of SF to modernism in the arts; the historical periodisation of the genre; and the dramatic challenge to narratology as a field, with implications for the theory of ideology as well as for the analysis of narrative structure itself (of which the time-travel story, with all its ineradicable paradoxes, suddenly becomes the fundamental paradigm). Nor is philosophy itself untouched by the fallout from these dramatic revisions: after all, the phenomenological ego is a temporal matter, and time itself one of its fundamental paradoxes, which neither Husserl nor Heidegger ever laid to rest.

Image of Fredric Jameson via