Abstract of PhD thesis entitled
Beyond the Sense of Wonder
Science Fiction as Adventure Fiction
A Giridhar RAO
|Table of Contents
Chapter I: "Looking Backward": The Adventure Mode
Chapter II: Metamorphoses of Adventure Fiction
Chapter III: Some Conclusions
"Dat ole sensawonda", as the Science Fiction writer Gregory Benford says, "is the essential SF experience". While the phrase has often been used to describe SF, discussions of the "sense of wonder" in SF are difficult to come by. This thesis examines the sources of this sense of wonder in SF. It seeks to demonstrate that the sense of wonder is and always has been a crucial part of adventure fiction in general, not just SF. Further, we also argue that significant instances of adventure fiction in all genres, including SF, "go beyond" the creation of this sense of wonder: that is, one can claim no very special significance or achievement for a piece of fiction unless it clearly transcends this sense of wonder.
However, different genres have different ways of "going beyond". Our focus will be on the metamorphoses of adventure fiction in SF, its characteristic ways of evoking a sense of wonder, and the recurrent patterns of meaning-making in some significant SF that takes the texts beyond any simple definition of the sense of wonder.
Considering the obviousness and extensiveness of Science Fiction's debts to the adventure mode, it is surprising that so little has been made of the links between them. This lack of attention on the part of writers and critics of SF seems even more remarkable when one considers the energy they have expended in trying to define and justify SF. Thus, after some preliminary remarks on the sources of the sense of wonder in adventure writing, the first chapter of the thesis surveys the numerous attempts at defining SF. This exercise is followed by a brief literary history--the "Looking Backward" of the title--of the "shapes" that the adventure mode has taken in various genres from the epic, through the medieval Romance and the Gothic, to the various genres of the modern novel, especially SF. The third section of this chapter then attempts a thematic discussion of the adventure mode so as to examine various aspects of the creation of the sense of adventure. We examine the creation of setting, a prime source of the sense of wonder that adventure writing evokes; the creation of character, especially the creation of the figure of the hero, which gives narrative focus to the adventure; and the relation of both character and theme to narrative setting and our own real-life setting as an indication of the "significance" of the adventure. The history of adventure writing sketched in the first chapter ends with the suggestion that SF constitutes a modern mutation of adventure writing. The second chapter, therefore, examines SF's metamorphoses of characteristic adventure themes and narrative techniques.
Because our interest is in the metamorphoses of adventure writing in SF, we do not attempt a chronological survey of "major" SF texts, although for reasons to do with patterns of adventure writing, we do begin with the works of Jules Verne, one of the early practitioners of the field. Thus, our examination of the genre-specific metamorphoses of adventure writing in SF involves discussion of such disparate texts from various periods of SF history as Jefferies' After London (1885), Zelazny's Damnation Alley (1969), Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Chrysalids (1955), Stewart's Earth Abides (1950), Wells' The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), Stapledon's Star Maker (1937), Clarke's Childhood's End (1953), Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975), and Herbert's Dune (1965).
In our discussion of all these novels, as of the other SF that we cite, our focus is on the patterns of adventure fiction that these texts typify; in other words, we have tried to not lose sight of the larger frame of reference, i.e., locating SF in the history of adventure fiction. The final chapter of the thesis summarizes the metamorphoses of the adventure mode that emerged during the detailed attention paid to various SF texts in the second chapter. We argue that examining SF as a genre that both continues and elaborates patterns inherent in the adventure mode offers the singular advantage of a genric and modal context or of a history within which SF may be read, with the possibility of the (occasional, unexpected, creative) insight into the meaning-making power of SF: an insight into how the word both fashions and is fashioned by the world.
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