October 23, 1995

From Gerald R. Lucas

The famous opening notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 announce the vicissitudes of fate and have become a popular representation of dread in Western culture. Some interpret this familiar theme as marking the beginning of Beethoven’s realization of his impending deafness. While this biographical event surely had some impact on Beethoven’s art, it is the universality of his Symphony No. 5 that concerns the rest of humanity. Perhaps his popular symphony signifies the ending of the period of Mozart’s classical genre and ushers in a new period of romanticism; for, an end always portends a new beginning. It is of ends and beginnings that are the concern of epics.

Olaf Stapledon, at the end of his science fiction epic Last and First Men, states that

Man, like music that he makes, is beyond simple definition. Man and his feats are as infinite as he can imagine. Only when seeking to penetrate beyond this “infinity” can man create art and understanding through that art. Man is not content with a mere otiose existence, happy with what is around him; like Odysseus and Gilgamesh before him, man is a seeker after the infinite—after that which is beyond reach.

Sf-Planet-System.jpg

The tradition of the epic was born to tell of this ostensibly intrinsic desire to transcend—to travel beyond the boundaries allotted to man on this earth. The epic addresses this longing for more, it tells the stories of those adventurers and pioneers that struggled in an attempt to go beyond their present situation for whatever reason they felt was noble: Gilgamesh and Beowulf sought immortality, Aeneas knew it was his destiny to perpetuate his culture by founding Rome, Achilles fought for fraternity — to avenge the death of his friend, and Odysseus was filled with that Promethean desire to know more.

Mikhail Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, suggests that the epic poem, as a genre, has long since completed its development and has become antiquated as a poem that concerns the “reverent” past. This past, according to Bakhtin, is inaccessible and irrelevant to contemporary discourse; it is a “congealed and half-moribund genre … its completedness, its consistency and its absolute lack of artistic naïveté bespeak its old age as a genre and its lengthy past.”[2] Bakhtin speaks of an absolute “epic past” that cannot be accessed by the contemporary reader’s mind — we, essentially, are cut off from epic times, and they remain but a memory, a perfect past. Yet Bakhtin does not consider the genre of science fiction in his survey of the epic and the novel. Science fiction, by its very nature, can put the human mind in touch with ideologies and events from an absolute past through its technology and mystery.

Science fiction is a natural product of a society that is developing scientifically and technologically. Frank Herbert states, in his essay “Science Fiction and a World Crisis,” that science fiction contains the “stuff of good stories” and they work at “solving unsolvable problems” that the writer created and can solve entertainingly.[3] The mission of sf writers is to not produce real crises, but to amuse and provide fodder for speculation. Yet, this food for thought is naturally grounded in cultural concerns. In “Science Fiction as a Cultural Phenomenon: A Re-evaluation,” Mark R. Hillegas avers that sf expresses two common cultural concerns: that any systematic exploration into the universe can provide an understanding of all of its mysteries and improve the human condition, and, naturally following, that the universe is a machine which is capricious and indifferent to humanity and lacks any semblance of divine direction or purpose.[4] Sociologist S. E. Finer opines that sf’s popularity lies in the fact that it transcends the “Unities” of Space, Time, and Being by putting its trust in a new popular faith: i.e. science and technology.[5] Finer suggests that sf is a cultural reaction to the despairs of the world, but that it gives a new hope that technology, while presently unable to cope with many cultural crises, will eventually be able to solve all problems.[6] Therefore, sf relies on its ability to entertain and to offer science as the prevailing force, as the new God on which society can depend. This definition is accurate and encompasses much modern sf, but it is inadequate to describe what I call epical sf.

Like the epic, epical sf resists any definition that attempts to label, and thus limit, the genre. It would seem that the most pressing question at this point is: just what does sf have to do with epic literature? In this project, I hope to accomplish (eventually) a modern definition of the epic, one, hopefully, that is able to speak to contemporary audiences through sf. By examining prevalent ideas concerning the epic genre, Bakhtin’s discourse on the epic and the novel, and two modern, sf epics, I intend to show that the epic tradition has both metamorphosed from Bakhtin’s “congealed and half-moribund genre” into something that is as relevant to contemporary readers as those ancient epics were to their contemporaneous audiences.

This completed project will have three main sections: a contemporary, working definition of the epic, an examination of contemporary societal concerns that must needs be addressed in any study of the modern epic, and indications of the synthesis of the first two criteria exemplified in epical sf, namely Frank Herbert’s Dune and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.

Notes

  1. Stapleton, William Olaf (1930). Last and First Men. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 304.
  2. Bakhtin, Mikhail (1983). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. University of Texas Press. p. 14.
  3. Herbert, Frank (1974). "Science Fiction and a World in Crisis". Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow. New York: Harper and Row. p. 70.
  4. Hillegas, Mark R. (1971). "Science Fiction as a Cultural Phenomenon: A Re-evaluation". In Claredon, Thomas. Science Fiction: The Other Side of Realism. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Press. pp. 272–273.
  5. Finer, S. E. (1954). "A Profile of Science Fiction". Sociological Review. December (2): 242–243.
  6. Finer 1954, p. 243.