The Fantastic in Literature

Eric S. Rabkin


[Key: Text in brackets = notes by R. Dumain. Indented text and diagrams are by Rabkin. Footnotes are omitted.]

[Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Preface    ix
Bibliographic Note   xi
I: The Fantastic and Fantasy   3
II: The Fantastic and Escape   42
III: The Fantastic and Perspective   74
IV: The Fantastic and Genre Criticism   117
V: The Fantastic and Literary History    151
VI: The Scope of the Fantastic    189
Index   229-234]

One of the key distinguishing marks of the fantastic is that the perspectives enforced by the ground rules of the narrative world must be diametrically contradicted. [p. 8]

IV: The Fantastic and Genre Criticism

One definition that seems to encompass the diverse works we have mentioned is this: a work belongs in the genre of science fiction if its narrative world is at least somewhat different from our own, and if that difference is apparent against the background of an organized body of knowledge. Some qualifications may make this definition clearer.

As with the fantastic, the notion of difference, though generally definable in relation to “our” world, actually must be defined in terms of the world outside the text as that text recreates it. Although today we have speedy and deadly submarines, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) is still science fiction for two reasons: first, Professor Aronnax makes clear that the science of Verne’s day would never expect ships to be sunk by submarine (“the theory of an underwater Monitor was definitively rejected”), and second, the grapholect of the text recalls the pre-submarine era. Difference then, in defining science fiction, refers to a microcontextual variation. When this variation is a full 180° reversal of a ground rule (for example, in a quantum mechanics dominated tale, the action might suddenly depend on the anti-expected phenomenon of speeds faster than that of light) then the science fiction tale is fantastic. If the variation is merely a use of the dis-expected (for example, intelligent life that reproduces by fission), then the tale is much less fantastic. The variation from accepted knowledge is one of the defining characteristics of the genre of science fiction, and it is a characteristic that we can use to subdivide carefully the genre for purposes of analysis.

A second qualification to our definition concerns the notion of an organized body of knowledge. The term science calls hardware to mind, but much science fiction really makes only subordinate use of technology. The real “science” behind Ursula K. Leguin’s study of the social importance of sex as a role indicator (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969) is anthropology, not physics or chemistry or even biology. In Pavane (1966), by Keith Roberts, we have a world set in the mid-1960s, but it concerns the history of a world that shared our history until 1588, at which point the Spanish fleet conquered the English. The consistency of Roberts’ alternative world depends on extrapolations of the laws of history, economic determinism, scientific evolution. What is important in the definition of science fiction is not the appurtenances of ray guns and lab coats, but the “scientific” habits of mind: the idea that paradigms do control our view of all phenomena, that within these paradigms all normal problems can be solved, and that abnormal occurrences must either be explained or initiate the search for a better (usually more inclusive) paradigm. In science fiction, these habits of mind and their associated bodies of knowledge determine the outcome of events, regardless of which science most obviously informs the narrative world. In that regard, like the puzzle tales of detective fiction, all science fiction is to some extent fantastic.

A special case of this definition by difference and organized body of knowledge is this prescription: a good work of science fiction makes one and only one assumption about its narrative world that violates our knowledge about our own world and then extrapolates the whole narrative world from that difference. In letting the Spanish armada win, Pavane satisfies this reduced definition (though many other works, like A Voyage to Arcturus, do not). This truncated prescription has great heuristic power. Modern science fiction developed most strongly in the United States, and then England. For both these communities, the primary antecedent was H. G. Wells, and Wells followed this prescription instinctively. In The Time Machine (1895), for example, we are told in italics:

There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it!

Granted this fantastic assumption, Wells proceeds to journey to his famous future in which industrialism has made the leisure class into effete and useless children (Eloi) and the working class into loveless and ruthless monsters (Morlocks). Wells had studied (1884-1887) with evolutionist T. H. Huxley, and was to be one of the most distinguished members (1903-1908) of the socialist Fabian Society. The Time Machine uses the fantastic idea of time travel (a reversal of the perspectives of classical mechanics) to present a vivid social warning based on orthodox extrapolations of the biology and political science current at the end of the century.

Understanding that the field is broader than the prescriptive definition we can use to locate the works of Wells, we can still take The Time Machine as a paradigmatic work of science fiction. Another work that satisfies even the Wellsian purist definition of science fiction is Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953), a novel of the emergence of man’s superior future. A comparison of this work with ’s Childhood’s End (1953) will show one of the ways by which consideration of the fantastic can complement normal genre criticism.

[pp. 119-122]

This comparison indicates that genre labels, even when carefully attached to definitions, may play us false. In this example, it was important to know not only that these works were science fictions but that one was more fantastic than the other. Further, by comparing the use of the fantastic not to another work in the genre but to another work (Exodus) that makes the same use of the fantastic, we can better understand how Clarke’s book functions, better see its hidden artistry, and better understand its effects on a large readership.

One can imagine a continuum of the fantastic that arranges all works within the genre of science fiction according to their degree of use of the fantastic. At one end of the scale we would find I, Robot, at the other A Voyage to Arcturus. This exercise in arrangement is hardly frivolous. Just as the application of genre distinctions has often led readers to new insights about literature, so application of continuum distinctions may also, as in the Sturgeon/Clarke comparison, yield new insights also, insights that directly complement those of normal genre criticism.

[p. 133]

[p. 136]

[137: problem of defining fantasy]
[139: distinctions in utopian fiction]

To complete our dissection of the genre of utopias, we should note that so far we have made use of three criteria in distinguishing works within the genre:

1. Does the narrative world seem to have the author’s approval?
2. Is the work an extrapolation or a reversal of contemporary ideas?
3. Do those ideas recall an organized body of knowledge, or are they an unstructured collection of contemporary perspectives?

[p. 142]

[p. 144]

[Utopia overlaps satire.]

Satire is inherently fantastic. Not only does it depend on narrative worlds that reverse the perspectives of the world outside the narrative, but the style usually depends on irony, “stating the reverse of the truth as though it were clear truth.” Such structural reversal is at the heart of science fiction as a genre and at the heart of utopian literature as a genre. It is small wonder that these three genres overlap. Zamiatin gives us many passages that are equally satiric, dystopic, and science fictional.

[p. 146]

[p. 147: super-genre]

[149: implicit orientations behind different genres.]

Chapter V: The Fantastic and Literary History

[How the fantastic illuminates the worldly assumptions between literary works in different historical periods.  (E.g. changing role and attitudes toward science, industry and technology. Wells vs Doyle. Doyle  → Chesterton → Agatha Christie → Ellery Queen → Nero Wolfe)]

[170-175: Borges]
[175-179 : Robbe-Grillet]

Our literary history is much more complex than a mere ordered series of reflexes to cultural needs. Genres in part serve cultural needs by providing escapes from prevailing perspectives and in part create new needs by inventing new escapes to replace those that have worn out. [p. 181]

[182ff: Gothic → vampires, Frankenstein, naturalizing the supernatural  → satire → romanticization]

Chapter VI: The Scope of the Fantastic

[Parallel Gothicism in poetry. Poetry’s higher status. Parallels in architecture. William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites.]

The fantastic worlds of Gothic fiction were paralleled by the worlds of Gothic poetry, Gothic architecture, Gothic landscaping, Gothic theology, and Gothic painting. Indeed, there was even a movement that might well have been called Gothic politics. [Ruskin...] [p. 202]

[Tenniel and Lewis Carroll. Carroll as photographer.
209: flying saucers, imaginary beings.
Games, Westerns, wholeness of the imaginary world: order vs chaos.
217: Escher
219-221: Borges: “Emma Zunz”
221-222: Solaris
222-223: Vonnegut
224: Queneau
224-225: Freud & Shaw]

[Considering the category of the fantastic with respect to literature categorized according to customary genres alters conceptions of all literature and its historical development. In the chapter on genre criticism Rabkin analyzes the presence of the ‘fantastic’ in science fiction and detective novels and expands this analysis into other genres of fiction. The final chapter generalizes this inquiry into poetry and non-literary artistic genres and human activities.]

13 May 2020

Borges, Magritte, & Escher
by R. Dumain

Gary Saul Morson: Genre, Utopia, Sideshadowing, Tempics, Prosaics, Parody,
Misanthropology, Philosophy, Literary Theory, Borges: Select Bibliography

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Surrealism: Selected Links

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine: Selected Bibliography

Frankenstein at 200: A Very Selective Bibliographic & Web Guide

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources:
A Selective Work in Progress

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