On early science fiction / SF

There has long been an intimate relationship between science fiction and fantasy; and between them and other kinds of imaginative speculative fictions (perhaps a more useful sense of “SF”) set in alternate worlds and alternative realities. Gothic, dark tales, horror, weird fictions, new weird, cyberpunk,  steampunk, slipstream, utopia, dystopia, ecotopia… And post-forms, splits and splinters and schisms, and pullings back together; in waves and fashions and fads of self-identification and re-identification, struggles with anxieties of influence, and reaffirmations of just being in a long literary continuum: at the end of the day, storytelling that stirs its audience and feeds a basic human appetite: imagination.

Take for example Neil Gaiman’s introduction to the anthology he edited with Al Sarrantonio, simply entitled Stories: All-New Tales (London: Headline, 2010), and dedicated “for all the storytellers and tale spinners who entertained the public and kept themselves alive”:

Al Sarrantonio and I were discussing anthologies of short stories. He had edited a huge anthology of cutting-edge horror, and another of cutting-edge fantasy, each book, in its way, definitive. And in talking, we realised that we had something in common: that all we cared about, really, were the stories. What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. And yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that. We wanted to read stories that used a lightening flash of magic as a way of showing us something we had already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before. […]

It’s the magic of fiction: you take the words and you build them into worlds.

As time passed, I became a more discriminating reader […] But even as I became more discriminating as a reader I started to feel that the thing that kept me reading, the place the magic occurred, the driving force of narrative was sometimes being overlooked. I would read beautiful prose, and I would simply not care.

It came down to four simple words. […] the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show it’s working, and that pages will be turned:

‘… and then what happened?’

(p. 1-3)

Although it might be looking that way, I’m not actually starting out this piece with a Grand Universal Statement followed by an Appeal To Authority. It’s not that kind of piece. It’s about reading and readers: and about fiction as something inclusive, appealing to a wide range of potential readers, across tastes and preconceptions from previous reading, across cultures and physical space, and across time. That dedication in Stories ends by listing some storytellers—mostly from the nineteenth century—the last of them Scheherazade.

It could be that all fiction is in an eternal present through its readers. Looking to its future, to the future, futuristic; and outside time, in its own time, the time of the alternate reality of “… and then what happened?”

It could then be that all fiction, all good fiction, is alternative-world speculative imaginative fantasy. We Are All SF (and I want that on a t-shirt now in its hashtag form.) Back through the merveilleux of medieval French contes, lais, romans. French uses terms like l’imaginaire to include all of these wonderful fictional things, across all of literary history and genres and cultures. The medievalist literary critic Jean-Charles Payen has another nice term, a reminder of universality in a dimension outside this actual one: l’irréalisme. 

So far, I’ve been very cavalier in a sweeping blurring of boundaries between genres. Is that justified or fair?

Is this older fiction science fiction?

Why am I asking? Why should I care? Why should anyone else? Does it matter?

Yes: getting things right matters, and not doing wrong to others, including others who are dead and—in the case of fictions—undead as never alive. They can’t stand up for themselves. Their readers have a moral duty to defend them.

It’s especially important to get things right about minorities, the marginal, and the marginalised. That includes non-mainstream literatures and anything that’s not modern. Including, in turn, the oft-maligned and ignorantly-misunderstood pre-modern; within which the medieval. (Though as a medievalist I have a different perspective: with the medieval in the middle, and so-called modernity as “post-medieval.”) Getting things wrong about misunderstood minorities is in itself not good. It becomes actively bad when it becomes a trend and the conventional norm, and is accompanied by an anti-intellectualism that doesn’t care about (or for) history, knowledge, and learning: consider other kinds of marginalised minority in the actual world right here right now, think about actual marginalised other live human beings (who are also, like you and me, readers).

Why am I talking about this stuff now?

Well, an article appeared in The Guardian. Here it is:

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It caused some stir among medievalists on Twitter:


Some of those stirring are actual bona fide experts on science fiction and on medieval science fiction. For further reading, for example, there is a forthcoming volume, Medieval Science Fiction, due out with Boydell & Bewer in June and co-edited by one of the Tweeple above, James Paz:


My own stirrings are not as an expert on medieval science fiction.

They are in part the reaction of a medievalist: exposed like all medievalists to daily ignorance and ignominy, to the horrors of our field’s abuse through the perversion of “neomedievalism,” through which “medieval” has become a pejorative in so much common usage. We’re sensitive to that sort of thing. It hurts. And we feel responsible towards the medieval, protective, with a duty of care towards that which we care about and that cannot protect itself. As people who work with and in history, we’re hypersensitive to the dark side of modernity and the blind worship of modernity for modernity’s sake: a vapid vigorous cult of speed, fashion, and shiny newness that’s been seen before, most memorably in the rise of Fascist movements a mere century ago. But memories are short. This piece I’m writing may already be outdated and irrelevant, publishing two days after online discussions…

Mine is the reaction of someone whose work is in teaching French language and literature—all periods—and who reads a lot of medieval French literature; has done the latter for nearly twenty years now, including as a large part of doctoral research; and who has been thinking on and off about the “what is fiction?” question for a quite embarrassing number of years without getting near an answer that’s any more satisfactory that Neil Gaiman’s one above. There’s a nice medievalist version of it, by the way, scattered through several of David Rollo’s works on magic and the marvellous, fiction and fakery and faery, in medieval French romance.

I’m not particularly interested in what was “the first”: I don’t happen to think that’s a valuable quality to have. (Being “the last” is clearly even less desirable, although always a risk if you are “the latest.”) It may be interesting for other kinds of geek (hello fellow geeks!) who collect facts, factoids, Top Tens, and enjoy categorising and list-making. I find that sort of thing divisive and counter-productive, being uncomfortable around macho staking of claims on territory and prizing virginity, and finding that claims to be The Original And Therefore Number One rankle; but I am a woman and a feminist, so of course I would dislike that sort of thing. I do think that the notion of “the first” is still worth thinking about, though, because it’s helpful for making you ask questions about what’s behind it: what are “science” and “fiction,” and “science fiction,” and what’s “a novel”? What is it that attaches these labels to one work and not another? Can a work be more than one thing? Is there more than one way to be something? Are there blurry grey areas? Do the labels themselves change, depending on place and time and culture, or are they human universals? Could this all be even more slippery from a post-human larger-scale perspective?

“The first” pushes back boundaries: in this case, of what some see as our current era, a “modernity” that’s defined by being centred on a certain conception of “science.” Superficially, that could seem inclusive: it’s including more and more of the past in the present epoch, bringing it closer to us, bringing us together in the same time. That could help to make us care more about the past, and that would be a good thing. I remember when I first met this idea of pushing back modernity to include more of the past: it was when as an undergraduate I was first reading Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meun’s Le Roman de la Rose, a 13th-century French romance that happens to be another work that satisfies the “first novel” criteria (“science fiction” too, incidentally). I was very excited about my brilliant idea, that there was nothing medieval about this work, that it was a novel, that the medieval was as modern as anything from the 20th, 19th, or 18th centuries. Like any good little fledgling geek, I went straight to my medieval literature profs with my idea. It turned out to be neither as original nor as good as I had thought; but exciting, as this was one of my first conversations with a prof about an idea, as intellectual equals, seriously. (They were also very nice, gentle, and kind with me; not wanting to dampen or extinguish the flame of juvenile excitement.)

So what were the problems? Well, for one, even back in the 1990s we weren’t modern: we were either post-modern or, in the words of Bruno Latour, we had never been modern. For two: I was thinking in a self-centred and closed-minded way. With one 20th-century country (France in this case; in The Guardian‘s case, England) as the centre of the universe, and Europe a close second. Problem the third: what was so bad about being medieval? Why would being modern be better? Why would being nationalist, colonialist modern be good, desirable, valuable?

Let’s not expunge the medieval. Nor other marginalities and minorities neither. Imagine the elements that compose a medieval manuscript: text, image, decorated capital, rubrication, marginal ornamentation, drollerie, manicula, annotation, doodle. Being before, or after, or between, or alongside, or weaving through and around and about: these are perfectly acceptable and pleasant places to be and this world is a better place for their coexistence, and a richer one for that coexistence being dynamic, lively, and dissonant rather than monotonous in its harmony.

Le Roman de la Rose and the other contenders for “medieval novels” that came immediately to my mind (we’ll come to science fiction in a moment) are romances: longer narratives written in a contemporary vernacular language. French still uses the same word, le roman, for the novel. Many are transposed adaptations, versions of older material transplanted into a contemporary setting, “translations” in the broad sense; as those older originals are or would have been in other languages—Latin, Greek, Irish, Welsh, Breton—these new romances are also translations in the narrow sense. The “romance” business gets its name from the first languages into which these “translations” were made: mainly Old French of the 12th century, but also Old Occitan (the first language in which romans is used in self-naming). And continuations, sequels, prequels, side-quests. So there’s already a sense of renovation and innovation, of making something old new; dusting it off and freshening it up by dressing it up in new clothes and having people behave and speak in clear, comprehensible, coherent ways. The novelty of the novel is already there… and has been in any and all storytelling all along, as any live performing storyteller can tell you. The word novel itself comes to us through a shorter and very lively form of story, the Occitan novas and later Italian novella

Novel, novelty, and newness can be problematic: as no new clothes can necessarily be new for all time, can what lies behind them remain and resist time, generating further new versions and new offshoot stories, seeding the future? There are dangers in being too fashionable, of and for the fleeting present, trapped in it and untranslateable; and in 14th-century Italy and France, and 15th-century England, we have evidence (through readership) of romances’ consumption, in a consumer culture resembling the commodification of modernity and modernism. A brief moment of glory and maybe even enrichment for a writer; then what? Is being (a) novel really that great?

Fiction: to do with Latin facio, facere “to make” and directly from fingo, fingere, fictus “to make up, feign, counterfeit, fake, fabricated.” Made-up stories fit the bill. Any made-up story inviting—nay, requiring—its audience to imagine. (If you don’t want to do this, you can leave; there are no effects or repercussions in the actual world.) To travel in the mind to other worlds. Medieval literature offers some beautiful clever expressions of this idea; brought together with translation, refashioning, and all that a storyteller is doing and making in their crafty crafting: for example Marie de France’s prologues to her Fables and Lais, and Chrétien de Troyes’s prologues to his romances.

In other words: fiction is an open offer, an invitation to the dance; with an expectation and hope for response, and for continuing interactive relationship between teller and audience and tale.

“… and then what happened?”

“And so?”

(Which, for reasons of the Irish storytelling “so” alone, Seamus Heaney got right.)

“Et cric—”
“—Et crac!”

Science and science fiction: this is where the real serious deep questions start. If by “science” we’re talking experimental science of the kind methodologically and epistemologically recognisable to Popper and Kuhn? Then that’s already there in the Medieval Middle, and before, and not just in Europe: Jabir ibn Hayyam, al-Battani, Ibn al-Haytham, Trotula of Salerno, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and a continuum of herbals, bestiaries, and encyclopaedias off and on throughout. Cutting-edge medieval optics work featuring some of the above is crucial to what happens in the Roman de la Rose, and to how it is structured and works as a romance/novel (on optics in the Rose see: Suzanne Conklin Akbari). Colleagues in History and Philosophy of Science and in histories beyond my ken can fill you in for the bigger, global picture beyond my small corner of the world.

But “science” essentially just means understanding and knowledge: from scio, scire “to know.” So for any given time, place, and culture: “science fiction” would be made-up stories, dependent on imagination, built on and out of contemporary cutting-edge knowledge, and building an alternative world in which that knowledge has been pushed hypothetically, futuristically, beyond its contemporary bounds. This definition avoids limitations of exclusive cultural normativity, to open up an idea inclusively. It shouldn’t detract from what makes European and North American science fiction of the modern era; just as it doesn’t currently exclude later 20th- and 21st-century writers and writings from elsewhere: Russia, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Mexico, First Nations here in North America, Australia, Japan, … In all cases, we’re looking at longer stories that work around technologies that are a step ahead, a day away in the future (ex. Roman de la Rose); and travel to other worlds (ex. the Alexander romances), where wonders beyond our understanding may be observed, from more technologically-advanced cultures: automata and AIs in Floire et Blanchefleur—a popular pan-European hit—and in exotic Eastern scenes in the earliest Western European medieval vernacular romances, the Romans de Troie, Thèbes, & Enéas (in a piquant premodern-postmodern take on Orientalism).

The latter are already sources of wonder—sometimes downright made-up and stretching the bounds of imagination into the comedy of credulity—and may be wonders of alien cultures, such as in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and other travel literature, and in another form of SF imaginative writing: maps. Meanwhile, the more obviously “other” medieval aliens of faery, and other places or worlds, populate Chrétien de Troyes’s romances and their kin in the Arthurian corpus; their very name related to fiction, their glamour and magics in the borderlands between advanced natural sciences and the unnatural. The distinction between alchemy and chemistry will remain to some extent unstable well into modernity, with magic as the border, through to the time of that other Crowley… And what should we do with travel to other other worlds like the world of the dead? As toyed with so subtly in the location and dislocation of Gorre in Chrétien’s Lancelot?

A final other-worldliness and “science”: dream visions, and the supernatural paranormal otherworldly othertimely knowledge beyond of religious and spiritual writing, from saints’ miracles to ecstatic transports. Allegory as a form of knowledge that works through imagination, hypothesis, thinking forward and outside and beyond. Exemplary cases: the Roman de la Rose again; the writings of Machaut and Froissart; and at the other end of the medieval, some 5th century allegorical works: the Comentarii in Somnium Scipionis of Macrobius, and Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. The latter, much read over the next thousand years, might perhaps have some influence on Johann Valentin Andraea’s Chemical Wedding.

Consider what we think of most naturally as the “science” in “science fiction” from an outsider’s point of view. As a system of knowledge, “science” in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries would seem as lofty, venerated, and mostly unknown to most of the population as Christianity and Church doctrine were to our parallels in 12th- to 14th-century Western Europe. A cult that’s central to a culture and to what defines it; mediated by a priesthood; but with populist and popular other expressions; and as a source for creative “… and what happened next?”


I’m also reacting to the Guardian piece and the commentary on and around it as a reader. A reader like any other reader. That was what struck me most, yesterday. A reminder that, notwithstanding all that academic training and the day-job, I am still a reader. I still read things and marvel. Thank all the deities for that: there’s a very real danger of losing the fun in reading when you have to do it for work.

Discussions like this one remind me of my current reading and side-reading (that is, speculative fiction I’m reading and watching that has nothing immediately to do with “work-work”) and my past reading history. Which is a long one. The first speculative fiction I was aware of reading as such was Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (as was) when I was seven to eight years old. I was also reading a lot of myth, legend, folktale—Roger Lancelyn Green, that sort of thing—and conscious of similarities and differences between the two. Between eight and nine, there was massive consumption of horror and “hard” science fiction (ex. Asimov) when my parents were ill and a kind neighbour lent them a large boxfull of “cheap trashy paperbacks he’d bought for work travel” amongst them the classic Pan anthologies of the late 1970s. I would return to Le Guin with The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness when eleven. First year of secondary school, all very grown-up, and bam: welcome to anarchism and feminism in one fell swoop and to the next thirty years’ questioning where the lines lay between various sorts of SF, whether such questions mattered, and how on earth (or beyond) one figured out which questions were good ones that mattered and which ones weren’t.

Which lands me here, and now, and pretty much where I started.

The Wikipedia article on the history of science fiction isn’t a bad place to go to next. It’s less long-winded than I am, which may be a mercy.

My other recommendation would be to read Ursula K. Le Guin. If you like essays and literary criticism, then start with The Language of the Night and then read everything else. It is all wonderful. If you like stories, of any length, and of any shape and shade of “SF,” then there’s plenty to choose from. Looking for an expert? You don’t get more expert on SF than her. But if I were doing all this again and coming to this SF thing anew I might start with where I ended up, after years of reading pretty much all her other work, when I found this one “novel unlike any ever written” (according to the back cover of my copy) that I kept avoiding or missing because it just sounded too experimental, difficult, and weird. I know: what an admission. I am ashamed.

I found Always Coming Home—or it found me—eventually and inevitably, because as well as SF I also read essays by SF writers, because they write fascinatingly about their reading. Back in the early ’90s when reading as a digression from a first non-literary degree, SF writers writing about reading was the first place I saw the bringing-together of reading, writing, commentary, rewriting, continuation, and so on in a continuum of literary activity and as a whole unified literary thing. And this seems to be a favourite novel of these actual writers.

As Always Coming Home is SF in every sense of SF, and inclusive of all the pluralities that are often excluded—spaces, times, people, cultures, technologies, sciences—it’s a useful test case for any theory about SF. And yes, this is the SF book to which I always return and that always feels like home. My consolation; Boethius’s De Consolatione philosophiae for our time. (Like Always Coming Home, this is a prosimetrum; it’s another early medieval allegory, from a little later than Macrobius and Martianus, that might like them be SF.) So my second-last word is one of thanks to writers, without whom it might have taken me even longer to find “the masterwork of a constantly inventive career.”



Last word: over to fellow readers. Being that sort of geek, I read comments. I also read them for reasons of literary criticism: because—when things go well—that’s where commentary, conversation, and community happen. This is audience and reader-reception, in live action. It’s as much a part of literature and literary activity, as a live interactive dynamic ever-changing thing, as is any literary work itself; or its other layers of creative participants, from authors and other compositors to more distant critics and historians.
You’ll see that, in the race to Be The First, Lucian is up there. It is one of two items that a certain very interesting kind of discerning troll picks up and rolls with; the other is the Bible, which attracts and incites a range of kinds of discussion. All of which are, in my humble opinion, worth reading and interesting in their own right: this isn’t reader-reception theory, it’s the live kind in actual practice. You’ll also see that, like #medievaltwitter, Guardian commentators also ask questions about the nature and definition of “the first,” “science,” “fiction,” “science fiction,” and “novel.” (And indeed “ever.”) And ask questions about why these things would matter, and ask questions of questions, …

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  1. AN UPDATE: via Kickstarter this morning (because I have supported projects on there in the past, so I receive such emails): promotion of this new “Chemical Wedding.” I’m not sure about this as part of the (very real present and) future of publishing, The Book Itself, bookishness, the collection and propagation of information, and knowledge as a whole. It’s bold, and I mean that as much in the Hiberno-English sense as the standard one. I’m still deeply uncomfortable about the “First Science Fiction Novel” business.


    Declarations of vested interest and acknowledgements of prejudice:

    1. I would never do this, just as I would never work with a vanity press. I find the sales and marketing—that other S&M—wince-triggeringly vulgar, and much of the verbiage innacurate and ignorant. I know that this wincing is very prejudiced and I PROUDLY “OWN” IT.
    2. I don’t approve of people buying and having books as investments.
    3. I try to be understanding and tolerant towards people who enjoy books purely as physical objects, as I do towards all ethical consenting fetishism and sexual preference that I don’t necessarily share but feel I should respect, out of common humanity.
    4. I am actually working on two new translations myself as it so happens. Both were choices For The Common Good, because I know they are useful (as well as marvellous fun works): one for a course in September—it will be free online, the intent is for it to be for students and so as to save them money—and the other for further in the future.

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