Media and Imagination:
A Short History of American Science Fiction

by Henry Jenkins 

853  words
posted:  july  7,  1997 

Science fiction, sometimes called "speculative fiction," has long provided "thought experiments" which imagine alternative worlds where current developments -- social, political, scientific, technological, cultural -- are pushed to their logical extremes. In some cases, these visions of the future embrace the dominant American ideology of technological utopianism -- that is, the belief that technological advances (especially in communication and transportation) will dramatically improve human social and cultural relations. Other writers have offered more pessimistic and apocalyptic visions, linking advanced technologies with concentrations of political power, coercive mechanisms of social control, or weapons of mass destruction. Science fiction writers have rarely sought to "predict" the future in a literal sense. Rather, they have used their imagined futures to question, challenge, and comment on changes they observe or intuit in contemporary society. One notable exception: Arthur C. Clarke, recognized as a significant influence on the development of global communications satellites. 

As a genre, science fiction has provided a space for popular debates about change, including increasingly changes in our media culture. Science fiction writer Alan E. Norse explains, "The science fiction reader is encouraged by his reading not to fear or dread change, but rather to accept it as a fresh and exciting challenge. After all, science fiction seems to say, the winds of change -- however violent they may seem -- are of man's making in the first place, and it should be within man's power to temper them." Norse argues, provocatively, that science fiction readers may be better able to adjust to "future shock" because they have worked through alternative futures in their imaginations and have come to accept that change is part of all human societies. 


From the start, the American science fiction tradition has been linked to the increasingly visible role of communications media in our national culture. The technological utopians, a group of late 19th-century social reformers who wrote utopian fictions about future societies, often saw improvements in communication as vitally linked to the restructuring of the social order. Edward Bellamy's Looking  Backward (1887), for example, included speculations about credit cards and broadcasting. 

Hugo Gernsback, founder of the American science fiction tradition, was himself a key figure in promoting radio as a socially transforming technology, and the earliest American science fiction appeared alongside articles on amateur radio and popular science. The writers who contributed to Gernback's magazine Amazing  Stories were technophiles, translating the ideals of the technological utopians into colorful entertainment. 

The Gernsbackian tradition reached its zenith at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where corporations and governments sought to construct their own visions of "the world of tomorrow," based on technological utopian ideologies. It is no coincidence that the first public display of television in the United States occurred at the 1939 Fair, in the context of this highly publicized attempt to translate the visions of science fiction into reality. The World's Fair moved science fiction's speculations about the future out of the pages of the pulps and into broader national consciousness, where it would remain for the remainder of the 20th century. 


The representations of technology, science, and media in American science fiction grew darker in the wake of the Second World War. Science fiction of the 1950s, including works by Henry Kuttner, Cordwaner Smith, Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, offered satirical perspectives on the rise of television and advertising. Not unlike the radical cultural critics of the Frankfort School, these writers were disturbed by the ways in which the mediated culture of the post-War era seemed to encourage mass conformity and blind consumption. Yet at the same time, such fiction also envisions characters that use new media to resist dominant social institutions and to challenge state and corporate power -- themes that will find their fullest expression in the cyberpunk of the 1980s and 1990s. Other science fiction writers have examined the place of surveillance technologies and information management in the modern political and economic bureaucracy. 

The 1960s saw the broadening of science fiction to embrace new social and political visions and to reach new constituencies. Media theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler embraced science fiction themes and imagery as part of their attempt to anticipate change in our technological environment. Their theoretical works were read alongside science fiction written by and for novels the counter-culture and helped to shape the images of mediated culture that ran through the genre. This period also saw the increased participation of women as both readers and writers of science fiction, resulting in alternative visions of utopian futures, grounded in transforming social relations rather than changing technologies and in alternative conceptions of media. Some of this fiction deployed a feminist critique of the media's exploitation of women's bodies and emotions. 

William Gibson's Neuromancer (1989) and subsequent "cyberpunk" short stories and novels have dealt with the "digital revolution," the expanding roles of multinational corporations, the proliferation of alternative subcultures, and the centrality of information management to modern life. Gibson coined the term, "cyberspace," and his conceptions of virtual reality have influenced the development of digital media. Some science fiction writers, such as Bruce Sterling, Orson Scott Card, and Vernor Vinge, have published powerful critical essays on real-world media in addition to their speculative fiction about the future of media. 


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