Science Fiction and Personal Narrative

Oryx and Crake

This post is part of CSI’s Thoughtful Optimism and Science Fiction project. To learn more about the project, visit http://csi.asu.edu/category/optimism/

Like any genre, science fiction has changed over the years. Just as romance novels evolved from sociopolitical fairytales to the popular, racy stories of today, so too science fiction has transformed. In the Golden Age, science fiction stories were mostly forays into the fantastic, the unreal: they were sweeping epics; they were grandiose space operas; they were explorations of sublime worlds, outlandish technologies, futuristic and expansive societies. Characters in this kind of science fiction were often merely vehicles for traversing strange narrative universes, the author’s intricately-fashioned galaxies and dreams.

Take CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner (1994): her protagonist Bren Cameron is defined purely by his role as an observer and analyst of alien cultures: through him, we the readers are able to experience and examine the myriad alien societies that Cherryh so carefully invents. But do we see much about his personal development as a character? The answer (throughout eight novels): No.

Or what about H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898), whose nameless protagonist offers almost no personal information about himself, who undergoes little transformation or change, and who serves only as our surrogate eyes while the events of an alien invasion unfold before him? By and large, the star of classic science fiction has always been the world-building, the invention, the spaces and stretches of speculative imagination.

The science fiction of today is different. Much of our contemporary SF has now adopted the personal narrative as its focus. The human experience, in all of its intimacy and individuality, has become the most important aspect of many science fiction narratives; the science fiction itself has been relegated to the periphery, while the personal narrative occupies the spotlight.

One example of this change is found in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003). A majestic, provocative, and visionary exploration of bioethics, social detachment, and human nature, and a fresh reimagining of the apocalypse, Oryx and Crake integrates science fiction elements as side notes – they are shadows shifting at the corners of the stage. The novel instead focuses almost exclusively on the growth and emotional journey of its protagonist, the hapless and good-natured man-boy-lout Jimmy. Atwood traces Jimmy’s development from a baby to a middle-aged adman, exploring the effects of his childhood, social surroundings, sexual exploits, and interactions with sardonic genius Crake and the elusive girl Oryx.

There is an apocalypse in this story. An apocalypse, along with an entire created world with its own rules, technologies, social norms, and cultural nuances, but all of these things are entirely peripheral to Jimmy’s personal narrative. Atwood focuses so heavily on Jimmy’s internal mechanisms and first-hand perceptions that the science fiction part of the science fiction story is almost a bonus. This is by no means a bad thing, but it does indicate the trend that science fiction and speculative literature has taken – it has moved from the scope and scale of worlds and planets to the intricate and intimate movements of the human mind.

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974) is another example of this tendency. The title and blurb implies that the novel is about the interstellar war between humankind and an enigmatic alien species, but this conflict and its potential for science fiction mayhem is set aside in favor of the protagonist’s personal struggle and reactions. The Forever War is less about a sweeping space battle and more about the displacement felt by a soldier when he attempts to rejoin society after his war is over (the novel’s writing and publication in the wake of the Vietnam War is important to consider here). The novel zooms in on the protagonist’s feelings of isolation and detachment as he confronts changes he can’t keep up with and roles to which he can no longer conform. Again, the immensity and exoticness of science fiction is narrowed to the emotions and growth of a single protagonist who just happens to exist in a futuristic world.

Finally, we must include Cormac McCarthy’s infamous The Road (2006). The granddaddy of “literary” science fiction, The Road is a grim, shuddering post-apocalyptic tale about the journey of a father, known only as The Man, and his Son as they travel across the wasteland of the United States. Though considered science fiction, McCarthy’s work won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and is widely disputed for its categorization. There is, famously, no explanation for the cataclysm that has annihilated the world. None of the characters dwell on it or any other science fiction elements; the novel clings fastidiously to the thoughts and concerns of the bleak-minded Man, and takes no notice of the universe beyond. The Road moves along as if trapped in a bubble, a sphere of influence focused solely on the Man and the Boy. Science fiction here becomes literary fiction with a speculative tint; personal narrative crowds out the fantastic with impunity and impatience.

These are, of course, sweeping generalizations and overviews. There was always exceptions to both sides of the scale—there were deeply-personal narratives during the older days of science fiction and there are still jaunty space adventures now. But there can be no denying that there has been a trend towards the personal, the interior and the psychological in contemporary SF, and that many ambitious contemporary works present themselves as more literary, more concerned with exploring the human element even within the realms of the speculative. Is this an attempt by the genre to disentangle itself from its inherited image of sometimes-cartoonish laser gun shoot-‘em-ups? Is the convergence of science fiction with literary narrative a natural blurring of genre boundaries or a concerted attempt to be taken more seriously? Or an effort to use personal prose to communicate the human consequences of advancing and expanding science, technology, and human ambition? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain. Nowadays, for better or for worse, anyone who examines science fiction must also examine its newfound partner: the personal narrative.

Other science fiction and speculative fiction novels with strong personal narratives:

  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005)
  • Christopher Priest, The Prestige (1995)
  • Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World (2008)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1993)
  • Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
  • Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles (2012)

Editor’s note: For a recent example of short fiction that exemplifies Lena’s argument, check out Zadie Smith’s short story “Meet the President,” published in The New Yorker in August 2013.  

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