Friday, 25 September 2015

Defining Weird Part III: Weird and the Rise of Science Fiction

For my next article in this series, I had intended to conclude my analysis of DM Mitchell's Starry Wisdom Anthology, looking at the question of literary form in the pursuit of the fundamentally 'Lovecraftian' weird. However, it turned out that in order to discuss this with any degree of conciseness, I would first need to consider a few matters of genre. Distinguishing weird from the canon of horror fiction as a whole is something I'll be glad to comprehensively achieve by the end of this series, but in this article I'm hoping to go some way towards differentiating between weird, and its counterparts in Science-fiction and Fantasy (two labels often used interchangeably).

I'm also planning to put together an entry some time in the next few week to pen an entry on the role of female authors in the canon of weird fiction. This is prompted not only by my ongoing considerations of genre and form, but also by the fact that Autumn 2015 is a momentous time in the history of weird fiction, as it will see published (in quick succession) the first and second ever Lovecraftian anthologies to be written by exclusively female authors – prompting an array of interesting questions concerning weird fiction and gender, and the place of weird fiction in feminist literary theory.


While there are certainly significant crossovers between the world of weird fiction and fantasy, weird and science-fiction have a much closer generic kinship in terms of their philosophical outlook. Weird fiction is, after all, frequently defined as cosmic horror. That is, horror on a cosmic scale, and the smallness of man's place in the universe. Such a setting must necessarily involve some exploration of how this universe works, and very often in weird fiction, this is done on largely secular grounds. As such, much weird fiction, including numerous examples from the Lovecraftian canon, more or less also constitute science fiction.

However, the two genres nonetheless possess a number of categorical differences in content, style, and aesthetic, as well as a very different history.


When defining what constitutes science fiction, I prefer to use Ray Bradbury's definition of the term: That a science fiction story must feature some element of science or technology as the central focus of its narrative, and for which there can be no feasible analogue within any other genre. Any sci-fi that falls outside of this definition is then not so much science fiction as it is fiction wearing the futuristic trappings of science-fiction.

Lovecraft's fiction bears few attributes of futuristic science fiction, presenting an aesthetic and form that often places emphasis folk elements and antiquity. Even so, if one defines Science-fiction along Ray Bradbury's lines, then as narratives, Lovgecraft's works do frequently cross over into science fiction territory. Science is often integral to numerous narrative points in Lovecraft's work. Lovecraft is also quite explicit about these scientific elements of his work – he openly cites Einstein and Rhinemann, and demonstrates at least an in-depth awareness of the (then) cutting edge ideas about trans-dimensional physics when detailing Gilman's trans-locations in Dreams in the Witch House, or Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee The Shadow Out of Time, and optical physics in his description of Yuggothian Mi-Go physiology in The Whisperer in Darkness. Likewise, he ventures contemporary notions of astral-geology in At The Mountains of Mandess. Even the emerging science of genetics gets a reasoned (if improbable treatment) in such stories as Shadow Over Innsmouth or The Dunwich Horror.

Likewise, while later science fiction would come to be associated with a predominantly futurist aesthetic, some of the earliest works identified as science-fiction, nonetheless possess a distinctive, weird flavour. Wells's The Time Machine (1895) immediately comes to mind. Aesthetically, it has a good deal in common with the gothic tale, beginning with a demonstration of a miraculous device by a gentleman alchemist, an image popularised by Dennis Wheatley and MR James. Indeed, much of the emphasis falls not on the actual science of time travel, but the aesthetically marvellous nature of the device. The remainder of the story is taken up with the predominantly biological horrors familiar to Lovecraftian readers – culminating in a scene of terrifying biological degradation and horror, complete with monstrous crabs, and a half-glimpsed, amorphous fleshy entity wallowing in the surf, that fills the narrator with a nameless terror that strikes at the very heart of their being.


It's closest literary counterpart can probably be found in the work of William Hope Hodgson, whom Lovecraft himself cites as an pre-eminent writer of weird fiction. The two main works that come to mind here are The Night Land (1912) and The House on the Borderland (1908). Aside from its remorselessly verbose prose and almost disconcerting absence of characterisation, Hodgson's Night Land is noted for its similarities to Well's story seventeen years earlier. While the means of time travel in this story is dramatically different (in this case a kind of trans-location to the far future through a dream) it nonetheless mirrors the Time Machine in its depiction of the human race at the point of near extinction. All humanity now exists in a single great pyramid structure known as 'the Great Redoubt'. Beyond its protective walls, the earth is now a terrifying wilderness peopled by great ogres and wolves, deadly and drifting incorporeal spirits, and a small number of mysterious barely mobile titan monsters with obliquely sinister names like 'The Thing that Nods'. But as well as these monstrous entities, there are also human terrors in the benighted wilderness. Dubbed 'the Ab-Humans', they mirror Well's fears of genetic degradation, and are perhaps distant cousins of his dread 'Morlocks'.

Hodgson's earlier story, The House on the Borderland is far more explicitly supernatural in its imagery and themes, yet what it shares with The Night Land is a common fear of infinity. Both stories depict vast periods of time, which holds a kind of monstrousness all of its own, a sort of Chrono-Terror, if you will. These themes loom great and terrible over the events of both stories, to which the only things more terrifying are those beings to which time is of no significance. This, again, will be familiar to Wells (and indeed, Lovecraft himself, frequently giving time measurements in the vigintillians) and underlines the terror associated with the sheer minuteness of man's role in this unfriendly cosmos.

***

To modern reader of the weird, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) can't help but evoke an uncanny familiarity. After all, it features a number of key elements common to any reader of Lovecraft's fiction: A framing narrative between a sea captain and the doctor (with all its implications of unreliable narration, and emotional detachment), grave-robbing, intellectual vanity leading to inevitable hubris, uncontrollable forces of nature, bracing body horror, and exploration into the most remote and inhospitable parts of the globe (in this case, the northern polar region).


There are also deeper thematic comparisons to be made. Dr Frankenstein's monster is abhorrent to his creator not because he is inhuman, but because he is too human, that instinctive disgust we would recognise as the Uncanny Valley principle. In this all too human entity, Dr Frankenstein sees his own humanity corrupted, and flees just as Robert Olmstead balked the sight of the fish-frog denizens of Innsmouth, and Arthur Jermyn at the discovery of his own abhorrent ancestry. Indeed, so too does Wells's time traveller at the sight of man's own distant descendants.

Yet the key difference here is that in spite of their human similarities, Lovecraft's monsters are fundamentally inhuman, as Dr Frankenstein no doubt thought his own creation. Yet as we see throughout the novel, despite his physical attributes, the creation is extremely human, finding kinship with a family he observes in secret, and seeking after a mate of his own nature. Even his crimes are those of a human raging at the injustices of his fellow men, and seeking vengeance on his creator (over whose death he later weeps, before seeking his own destruction).


In the absence of a more exhaustive comparison, it seems reasonable to conclude that the two genres of weird and science-fiction cannot be distinguished by content alone. It is therefore necessary to ask the more fundamental questions of how both genres came to exist.

With regard for why, I would propose that the two genres are distinguished by their authorial intent. Science-fiction can be both optimistic and pessimistic – it can show the potential wonders for discovery and advancement that humanity may achieve (in science as much as in philosophy), but it can also show the potential terrors that lie in store for them. Weird fiction can only ever be negative. That is not to say that it lacks the scientific or philosophical scope of sci-fi (indeed, as a medium for exploring psychology, philosophy and aesthetics, it is almost boundless), yet the ultimate intention is can only ever be to inspire wonder and terror. These emotions are particular to weird, as they represent the point at which human comprehension breaks down, and beyond which inhumanity begins. One need only consult the immortal opening lines to The Call of Cthulhu to get a sense of this:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

When it comes to looking at how they came about, it is easy to see how both as indebted to the wave of Gothic fiction of the late 18th century. But to understand the nature of this relationship, it is necessary to explore what the 'Gothic' really represented, for its history is a convoluted one. For a long time it was a term of abuse. This originates from around the time of the Renaissance, where Gothic was a short hand for Medieval, which the intellectuals of the time dismissed in favour of a revival of a superior Classical milieu. By the era which has come to been known as the Romantic era, artists and philosophers were questioning the wisdom of Renaissance philosophy, considering new departures in thought. This led [indirectly and in an arguably limited sense] to a the adoption of an idealised mediaevalism as the artistic counterpart to this philosophical movement, imbuing the Gothic with a new-found dignity. Therefore, while the Gothic in fiction was still generally used in a pejorative sense, this was now being done in a rather more tongue-in-cheek, almost complimentary fashion with connotations of inventiveness and rebellion, and the potential for more than just horror.


It should also be noted the enlightenment itself saw the unleashing of countless new scientific ideas, with advances in technology and industry. These, too, were challenging countless old ideas of man's place in the universe. Mary herself was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, among whose radical attributes was a confirmed atheism that impacted much on his writing and personal philosophy. Mary herself would witness a demonstration of these advancements not long before composing Frankenstein. This came in the form of an experiment performed before a crowd, that involved applying an electric current to the head of an executed criminal, causing its facial muscles to twitch, and even its eyes to open. It is easy to see how this may have left an understandable impression on the young writer.

Yet while fear of the unknown is the understandable outcome of these rapid ideological shifts, it would be wrong to say Shelley was concerned only with its negative potential. After all, the full title of the 1818 edition is Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was the god who stole fire from the Olympians, and gave it to aid suffering humanity. This became an allegory for the Enlightenment itself, and Prometheus, though in legend condemned to suffer for his crime, was dignified in art, and celebrated as a hero of the modern age, and was even the subject of Percy Shelley's epic poem Prometheus Unbound. Thus, while Frankenstein suffers for his efforts, he, too is a hero. His tale is thus a cautiously optimistic one, and ultimately constitutes science-fiction more than weird fiction.

In any case, it is important to remember that what the Gothic provided was a medium of transgression, reflecting the dual advances art and science of the age, and providing a potent spawning ground for ideas. Concepts which fell within the scope of Gothic fiction could be used to provoke horror for its own sake, to explore the potential of human comprehension, or to explore the potential of human comprehension in order to provoke horror for its own sake. Thus, it is easy to see how weird fiction is ostensibly Science-fiction's evil twin, separated in their infancy, to which the Gothic was their irresponsible mother.