English 192
Science Fiction
Spring 2002
Professor William Warner

Course Overview



Study Materials

Course Policies

Introducing Science Fiction: A Genealogical Approach

Science fiction is a type of formula fiction:


Two enabling conditions of formula fiction ( e.g. romance, gothic, detective fiction, science fiction...)

  • wide-spread literacy
  • cheap print formats

7 traits of formula fiction:

  1. The main characters are parsed into heroes and villains, the good and the evil.
  2. Action, incident and plotting take precedent over ideas or character.
  3. In formula fiction the big payoff in reader pleasure comes from the surprising and wonderful reversal that answers the question "how will things turn out?"
  4. Formula fiction is rife with didactic messages, often enforced by the plot.
  5. Formula fiction, as its name implies, follows pre-established formulas that require no justification on grounds outside the fiction.
  6. Formula fiction accommodates incompleteness, fragmentariness, or last-minute revision.
  7. With formula fiction the basic exchange is entertainment for money.

Canon Wars: formula fiction under attack:

  1. abject status through comparison with high cutlure
  2. predictably mechanistic, trite, and just plain "vulgar:"

Formula fiction defended:

  1. high cultural genres also rely on formulas
  2. predictability and repetition are not obstacles to reader pleasure but its source
  3. aesthetic defense: literary writers raid formula fiction for motifs to incorporate in their "high" art

Q: Questions/ comments? Do you agree with this way of situating science fiction? Do you see problems with it?


Example: Early American Science Fiction as Formula Fiction

Hugo Gernsback, editor of Amazing Stories

  • Inventor, distributor of radio parts, a visionary (one of his stories predict how radar will work)
  • Edits scientific magazines to educate:
    Modern Electronics
    The Electrical Experiementer
    Science and Invention
    Gernsback aims to take his readers beyond stories of fantasy "to teach the young generation science, radio, and what was ahead for them."
  • In response to reader interest, in 1926, Gernsback gathers "scientifiction" stories into a new magazine named Amazing Stories.
  • The new format:8X11", cheap paper, gaudy cover art = 100,000 copies sold.

The Cover Art of Frank R. Paul

How does one visualize the new worlds of science fiction?


Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. (1818)


Myths in the background

  • Prometheus the fire stealer
  • Faust: trading his soul for knowledge
  • willing to defy conventional limits, and stand utterly alone
  • The sublime landscape of s/f: vast, stark, extreme

Frankenstein's scientific question:

"One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal enbued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries." (Chapter 4)


After the success of his experiement, he imagines the gratitude he will receive:
" No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs."(Chapter 4)


The Monster as the prototype of the alien in science fiction

  • Technology's unintended consequences
  • Challenges human primacy and superiority
  • Functions as a mirror


The monster's demand of his "Father":
"We may not part until you have promised to comply with my requisition. I am alone, and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create." (end of chapter 16)

Frankenstein destroys the almost completed female "mate" he is making for the monster:
" I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighborhood of man, and hide himself in deserts; but she had not;
Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?" (Chapter 20)


The central moral problem of science fiction

  • the attractions of the powers of scientific knowledge
  • unintended consequences (monsters) & knowledge breeds arrogance
  • neglecting the moral question: is this science and technology going to promote human good?


Metropolis (1927): Director, Fritz Lang

Key features of the film:
  • Biggest budget film to date
  • Science fiction and the medium of film: a deep affinity
  • Dystopia: Extrapolation from Capitalism as interpreted by Marx

Main characters of the film
  • John Frederson: the master of Metropolis
  • Freder: his son
  • Maria/ the robot
  • Rotwang: the "mad" scientist
  • Joseph: the assistant to John Frederson
  • Grot: the foreman


Scenes important for the history of science fiction

  • Setting: Metropolis as a the layered city
  • The factory as Moloch
  • The metamorphosis of the robot into a simulation of "Maria"
  • Robot/ Maria's dance (the techno-erotic)




This page was composed by Professor William Warner. Last changed 4/2/02. This course is part of the Transcriptions Project of the Department of English at UC /Santa Barbara.