There is a gaping rift that divides post war 20th century science fiction which often goes unacknowledged. American critics and cultural historians love to focus on Golden Era science fiction in the U.S. as representative of mass paranoia; a phenomena manifesting itself as hate and bigotry, fueled by consumerism. No doubt this vision of Cold War America’s relationship with commercial art exposes certain truths, but a greater lesson can be learned from the Cold War’s influence on science fiction. One which embraces the Russian cultural dimension much more than the American counterpart.
Where the science fiction produced by the postwar 20th century U.S. indulged in notions of space exploration and conquest——often mirroring historical arguments for Manifest Destiny——the science fiction of the U.S.S.R. entertained more nihilistic visions of space exploration, despite the strictures of socialist realist censorship. A comparison of two specific cultural artifacts, namely Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, will demonstrate the dialectic of Western and Eastern attitudes towards space exploration and contact with alien life, recognizing the science fiction of current pop cultural inclinations as the outcome, or synthesis of the American status quo with the Soviet antithesis.
By acknowledging this influence of the U.S.S.R. on science fiction, one begins to notice much more the philosophical schism which divides the Eastern and Western approaches to visions of space travel, contact with distant intelligent life forms, or human relationships with digital technology.
There are many rifts that deviate and divide the multitude of branches spiraling away from the core of science fiction. A core that, while nebulous, obsesses over what could be or what could have been. Though Asimov hesitated to describe SF as speculative fiction, preferring instead science fiction, or sci fi, it’s more fit to lean toward the speculative, and less on the science.
While there are certainly explicit, hard core sci fi books and movies, those works live under a larger umbrella which tends to encompass other genre categories that don’t really have any science inclinations. To some extent this includes horror, as many authors of science fiction don’t limit themselves to outer space, but dare to penetrate that inner, psychological space which is most vulnerable to the bette noirs that give the spooky genre its name. Lovecraft, initially, drew attention to the possibilities of combining speculative science with quasi-mystical creatures of destruction. His legacy manifests in the works of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Brian Lumley, Mike Mignola, Guillermo del Toro, Alan Moore—to name only a few. And these authors and creators don’t limit themselves to Lovecraftian fare, but also explore traditional space opera, Japanese sci fi tropes, and elements of fantasy.
Likewise, alternative history or slipstream fiction appeals broadly across science fiction fandom. As do Dying Earth tropes and genres. Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun, a major influencer in this science fiction subgenre, best fits the label “science fantasy,” if a label need be applied. Though elements of the novels appear to be magical or mystical, in actuality, the settings of the books take place so far into our own future that technology has availed and failed many times over, leaving the unbelievably advanced ruins of an “ancient” civilizations in the hands of the mere cavemen that inherit it in the wake of its destruction. The aesthetics of the entire series wear the wardrobe of a fantasy novel, but at heart the characters, the environment, the stars, all adhere to an explicitly science fictional conceit: it’s post-post-post-post-apocalypse dystopia. Yet it resembles none of the tropes which have steamed rolled post-apocalypse/dystopia into YA hero quest pornography. The enigmatic qualities of the text and the environment which make it so hard to pin down are the same qualities which mark the work with the stamp of science fiction.
And even fantasy genres, which throw off the shackles of science entirely and to dare to explore worlds whose very physics differ from our own, share that same speculative core, daring to ask a “What if?” no one else has ever asked before. Whether sword and sorcery or urban fantasy, there’s a reason that bookstores shelve the science fiction and the fantasy in the same aisle. The readers and the authors of science fiction and fantasy know each other quite well, often participating in both circles, creating a broad community of people who embrace wild forms of self expression and cognitive exploration. And yes, that means cosplay. But more as a symbol of the general fandom community that creates a shared space for comic books, pulp novels, costumed shenanigans, and all kinds of (closet) nerds.
Given the many branches on the tree of science fiction, one of the greater divergences in the trunk often gets lost in the cloud of tributary twigs and leaves. The great rift, the schism which ideologically divides along the lines drawn during the Cold War—–but not for the reasons you’d suspect. American science fiction was not overtly capitalistic, nor was Soviet science fiction overly communistic. Instead, each citizenry demonstrated their own disenchantment with their particular system, or brands of cynicism and criticism that are blatant products of capitalist decadence or communist oppression.
As convenient as it would be to have a lighting strike moment to reference, one which rent the trunk of the tree in twain, the great fork in the limbs was likely congenital. The benevolent white space colonists of Golden Era American sci fi resonated uncomfortably with colonial tendencies. Though some works are unfairly lumped in with these space-faring exploit(ation)s, especially in literature, the popular conception of American sci fi is largely characterized by pop culture’s simplifications and misconceptions, along with Hollywood’s often short-sighted realizations of seminal SF works.
With science fiction from behind the Iron Curtain, there’s always the question of what material was influenced by the censors, and which was the pure intent of the artist. Though there are many that claim that does not matter, and the work must speak for itself, that attitude does not exclude the possibility of a justified paranoia that certain elements of a book or movie are pure propaganda. Therefore, Soviet-produced science fiction cannot shrug off the influence of their government, but can still provide the reader with the unique joy of fulfilling the artist’s vision by finding the message behind the propaganda. Or hell, maybe some of the propaganda actually espouses some sensible wisdom (doubtfully fulfilled or adhered to by the political apparatus, but sound advice nevertheless).
French New Wave influence on, resulting in films like BladeRunner with noir-influence.
Featured image via mdwhitle