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November 4, 2006 8:29 PM   Subscribe

Is Science Fiction primarily an American genre of literature?

Today I visited the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle (I am in town to do some work with a software company in Redmond) and was listening to a display which divided eras in Sci-Fi and included the post Vietnam war as as "era"

Now this bothered me, because I believe Sci-Fi is relevant to other English speaking countries that were not involved in the Vietnam war and would not be affected by it in any direct way. I'd call myself a sci-fi fan, and I've even lived in Vietnam - but the Vietnam war doesn't take much space in my intellectual framework and I would tend to think this is true of most English speaking countries.

So did this museum have a US bias, is Sci-Fi primarily an American form of literature, or were they using the Vietnam war reference as a historic signpost?
posted by Deep Dish to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm no scholar but there is a lot of French Sci-Fi dating back to the early part of the 20th century.

And of course American and British sci-fi go hand in hand what with their rich, often shared, 19th and 20th century histories of colonialism, science & industry, and westward expansion.

Meh... yeah Sci-Fi is American heavy... but also generally a western style of writing. With the exception of Japan I can't think of much eastern literature that could be called Sci-Fi.
posted by wfrgms at 8:44 PM on November 4, 2006

H.G. Wells was British, and he's considered the father of science fiction. Jules Verne isn't American, either.

The only "modern" sci-fi writer that comes to mind is Arthur C. Clarke, who is (I believe) also British.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:45 PM on November 4, 2006

Just a couple of years after the cessation of activity in Vietnam, there was Star Wars.

That kind of says it all.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 8:49 PM on November 4, 2006

I believe Sci-Fi is relevant to other English speaking countries that were not involved in the Vietnam war and would not be affected by it in any direct way.

You're thinking of Vietnam in a literal sense, when the museum is using it as a marker of several cultural memes, such as:

* A modern-day image of dystopia, a metaphor of the technological collision between modernity and not-modernity. A first-world power using B-52s to fight soldiers that didn't have any shoes. Agent Orange and all that.
* The pinnacle of the American space program.
* A handy marker that divides the 60s from the 70s, the latter of which known for a re-emergence of the auteur in film-making, which has had a massive influence on recent science fiction.
* The rise of computers in everyday life.
posted by frogan at 8:57 PM on November 4, 2006

Some thoughts, because I'm sure there's no right answer here.

If we're talking zeitgeist, the Vietnam War affected every English-speaking country, and these themes tend to work themselves out through fiction. Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock spring to mind.

It's an American museum, and is going to have American biases. (An aside: do other English-speaking countries talk about Victorian and Edwardian periods, as Brits do? I'm guessing Victorian yes, but Edwardian not so much).

As a Brit, I don't see a "post-Vietnam" era, I more think of the 70s as the "heavy, turgid, earnest" era sandwiched between the raygun era and the cyberpunk era.

From the end of WWII onwards SF was certainly an American-led genre, if not an exclusively American one. So if "post-Vietnam" provides a useful handle... why not?
posted by Leon at 9:10 PM on November 4, 2006

Science Fiction is overwhelmingly English Language, and the majority of SF writers are American.

20 years ago I attended the World Science Fiction Convention the year it was held in The Hague. Two thirds of the attendees were Americans. A lot of the rest were Brits. (Of course, the entire convention was in English.)

Most of the SF authors you've heard of are American. But there are some notable exceptions.

Arthur C. Clarke was born in Somerset but has spent most of his life living in Sri Lanka. Michael Moorcock is a Brit. Spider Robinson is Canadian.

One of the best early SF writers was Karel Čapek. In 1921 he completed a play called Rossum's Universal Robots, written in Czech. (He invented the word "robot", by the way, for that play.)

Probably the best silent-era SF movie was "Metropolis", from Fritz Lang (an Austrian).

One of the very earliest SF books was Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (a Brit).
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:41 PM on November 4, 2006

Oh yes that museum had a bias. Oh no no no no no no no no no science fiction is not a primarily American literature.

It is entirely possible that most of the sci-fi authors you've heard of are American, but the best science fiction novels that I've read were authored by Stanislaw Lem and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Please please read Solaris, His Master's Voice, Peace on Earth, The Cyberiad, Mortal Engines, Roadside Picnic and Far Rainbow. Beautiful, wonderful books.
posted by cog_nate at 10:07 PM on November 4, 2006

The obvious answer to the question is "no, certainly not," for the reasons already mentioned and many more (Stanislaw Lem? Tarkovsky's Solaris? etc. ad nauseam). I'd guess that, as you suspected, the museum is using "post-Vietnam" as a convenient historical signpost that most of a largely American (and probably not all that historically literate) audience will be able to identify and relate to.

It is true, I think, that sometimes a science fiction milieu of a certain kind is used as a marker of American technocratic ambition (I'm thinking of Godard's Alphaville here), but this is a far cry from identifying sci-fi tout court as an American possession.
posted by RogerB at 10:08 PM on November 4, 2006

And Stanislaw Lem was a highly influential (and insufficiently translated) Polish sci-fi author.

I suppose the question needs clarification—do you mean primarily in terms of number of authors? Number of books sold? Number of significant literary figures working in the genre?
posted by cortex at 10:08 PM on November 4, 2006

I've lived in Germany for a good portion of my life, and I can say that Science-Fiction and Fantasy are both popular genres there. Admittedly most scifi books don't make the top 10 booklists in either the United States or Germany, but there is still a pretty strong following in both countries.

As for Science-Fiction in other nations, one could look at Japan as a good example. Most anime might not be classified as traditional science-fiction, but many of the stories involve futuristic scenarios, some of which are pretty plausible.
posted by Aanidaani at 10:23 PM on November 4, 2006

It may help to know that the Science Fiction Museum (as well as the Experience Music Project itself) has been managed as though it were only a place for Paul Allen to store his memorabilia. The collections housed there reflect, first and foremost, Allen's personal tastes, not an attempt to make a fair statement about either music or science fiction in a general sense.
posted by Hildago at 10:30 PM on November 4, 2006

The earliest roots of Science Fiction maybe not have been American, but the modern genre we know as post-Gernsback SF was indeed dominated by American authors for quite a long time. There are, of course, non-American giants (Arthur C. Clarke? Stanislaw Lem? and so on) but SF could rationally be argued to have been a predominantly American genre.

Lately, however, that is most certainly not the case. And in the last 5 years almost all of the action has been happening across the Pond in the U.K. American SF is currently in the doldrums with not much sign of recovering; Recent British SF is exciting, innovative, and often brilliant.

Why this is the case is the subject of some debate in the SF world. Charlie Stross (to pick one example) believes a lot of it is due to the damaged American psyche post-911. Okay, that's a rather large simplification, but you get the idea.

So; there is some justification for viewing what we currently see as science fiction as, historically, an American genre. But the earliest roots are not American, and it is no longer in any real sense dominated by American authors.
posted by Justinian at 10:31 PM on November 4, 2006

I'm with frogan -- they were just using the Vietnam war era as a marker for things like disillusionment, imperialism, rebellion, technology being used for destructive purposes and so on.

And I think you're also underestimating the degree of involvement that other countries felt with the Vietnam War. It was the key moral and political issue of that era, or a tie with the nuclear arms race perhaps. Just because someone lived in, say, Belgium and wasn't about to be called up to serve, doesn't mean they didn't see the images or follow the news of the war.

The children and grandchildren of those people are following the Iraq war now and I'm sure they don't see it as something that doesn't affect them, just an issue between America and Iraq.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:38 PM on November 4, 2006

So did this museum have a US bias

Can't say. Never been.

is Sci-Fi primarily an American form of literature

Nope. Certainly not to the point that SF authors worldwide would think of work as "post-Vietnam," and certainly not to the point that "post-Vietnam" is a useful way to describe an "era" of SF.

or were they using the Vietnam war reference as a historic signpost?

Probably that. "Post-Vietnam" = "seventies in all their glory."

More to the point, it's likely that "post-Vietnam" is just how the exhibit designer happens to understand the flow of time, so we get that in the exhibit.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:49 PM on November 4, 2006

posted by sourwookie at 12:24 AM on November 5, 2006

Recently, the cream of the SF crop have been almost all British, with the possible exception of Stephenson, Bujold and Vinge. I think it's all Iain M. Banks' fault.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:41 AM on November 5, 2006

With the exception of Japan I can't think of much eastern literature that could be called Sci-Fi.

In China, there's a guy called Ni Kuang. He's basically the father of Chinese SF; he's written dozens of books worth of the stuff. In fact. he's so prolific that Chinese SF is only just starting to crawl out of his shadow. My impression is that most SF Chinese people are exposed to falls into three categories: stuff by Ni Kuang, Japanese manga and anime, and translations from English-language stuff.

"SF" is also a culturally-laden term, so Ni Kuang's stuff (for example) strays a bit more into fantasy or horror than most Western folks would think of as being SF. There's a particularly horrible bookstore in Taibei that I used to go to a lot where the Science Fiction section included all kinds of goofball UFOlogy, Loch Ness Monster studies, ghost stories, etc. etc.


I think there are also SF writers in the Scandinavian countries.
posted by jiawen at 3:28 AM on November 5, 2006

I actually remember hearing once that there was a post-WW2 divide in sci-fi (more specifically, post A-bomb) when authors/films started dealing with the powers/horrors of radioactivity. But other literary movements started as a reaction to WW1, and the grand scale of impersonal war there. So it's unsurprising that someone would break sci-fi into sections by major military engagements, and with a US museum, likely they saw Vietnam as another. (Although I also agree those people who mentioned changes in filmmaking - that's definitely going to have an impact on writing.)

That being said, I've read some interwar and post-WW2 period Soviet sci-fi in translation and it was very interesting.
posted by cobaltnine at 4:57 AM on November 5, 2006

The father of French paleolithic archaeology, François Bordes, wrote Francophone SF under the pseudonym Francis Carsac. As far as I understand, they were quite popular in France. According to Wikipedia, they were also popular in the USSR, having been translated into Russian and Latvian, though his work was never translated into English.
posted by The Michael The at 5:49 AM on November 5, 2006

i think it's more likely that sf is actually seen as a seperate genre in english speaking countries, where in other societies, such works might be considered as literature first, and sf 2nd ...

i think one of the problems sf has been having these days is that we are actually living in one of the potential sf worlds that sf of the 50s and 60s predicted ... that kind of makes things awkward
posted by pyramid termite at 6:26 AM on November 5, 2006

It seems that most people who are saying "No, it's not a primarily American genre," are either not giving any proof to back their beliefs, or giving one or two authors.
posted by zhivota at 8:41 AM on November 5, 2006

It seems that most people who are saying "No, it's not a primarily American genre," are either not giving any proof to back their beliefs, or giving one or two authors.

Not knowing the meaning of the word "primarily" in this case makes it difficult to come up with sufficient proof. Primarily by volume, primarily by number of authors, primarily by mindshare? Primarily today, or historically? I for one am satisfied by the responses in this thread.
posted by Hildago at 9:06 AM on November 5, 2006

Science Fiction is overwhelmingly English Language

What an ignorant statement. "I only know English-language sf" does not equate with "sf is overwhelmingly English-language."

It seems that most people who are saying "No, it's not a primarily American genre," are either not giving any proof to back their beliefs, or giving one or two authors.

Oh for fuck's sake. OK:

France: J-H Rosny aîné, Louis Boussenard, Maurice Renard, Jacques Spitz, Régis Messac, René Barjavel, Boris Vian, Francis Carsac, Philippe Curval, Albert Higon, Jacques Sternberg, Jean Hougron, Stefan Wul, B.R. Bruss, Kurt Steiner, Daniel Walther, Jean-Pierre Andrevon, Jean-Pierre Huber, Dominique Douay, Pierre Pelot, Philippe Goy, Seerge Brussolo, G.-J. Arnaud, Joel Houssin, Richard Canal, Pierre Stolze, Raymond Milési, Colette Fayard.

Germany: Robert Kraft, F.W. Mader, Carl Grunert, Albert Daiber, Oskar Hoffmann, Robert Heymann, Hans Dominik, Otto Willi Gail, Otfried von Hanstein, Thea von Harbou (Fritz Lang's wife), Werner Illing, Walter Ernsting, K.H. Scheer, Otto Basil, Carl Amery, Wolfgang Jeschke, Thomas Mielke, Werner Zillig, Georg Zauner, Heiner Rank, Gerhard Branstner, Gert Prokop, Erik Simon, Wolfgang Hohlbein.

Russia: Alexander Kuprin, Valerii Bryusov, Alexander Bogdanov, Alexei Tolstoi, Marietta Shaginian, Valentin Kataev, Evgeni Zamyatin, Vladimir Obruchev, Alexander Grin, Alexander Belyaev, G. Adamov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Ilya Ehrenburg, Ivan Efremov, Viktor Saparin, Georgi Gurevich, the Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris), Genrikh Altov, Dmitri Bilenkin, Kir Bulychev, Mikhail Emtsev, Eremei Parnov, Sever Gansovsky, Viktor Kolupaev, Vladimir Savchenko, Vadim Shefner, Evgeny Voiskunsky, Isai Lukodianov, Ilya Varshavsky, Sergei Snegov, Olga Larionova, Vladimir Mikhailov, Pavel Amnuel, Alexander Kazantsev, Vladislav Krapivin, Sergei Pavlov, Oleg Korabelnikov, Sergei Drugal.

My fingers are getting tired. Will that do for now? I can add other countries or more names from these, whatever will be more convincing.
posted by languagehat at 9:26 AM on November 5, 2006 [9 favorites]

Other countries, but with links for each name. :)

And I'd agree with the folks who are saying the Brits are where the action has been recently.
posted by mediareport at 11:24 AM on November 5, 2006

I ain't doing links; use Google.

Spain: Antonio Ribera, Francisco Valverde, Juan G. Atienza, Domingo Santos, Carlos Buiza, Luis Vigil, Tomás Salvador, Manuel de Pedrolo, Gabriel Bermúdez Castillo, Carlos Saiz Cidoncha, Elia Barceló, Rafael Marín Trechera, Javier Redal, Juan Miguel Aguilera, Angel Torres Quesada.

Italy: Paolo Mantegazza, Emilio Salgari, Luigi Menghini, Vittorio Catani, Lino Aldani, Sandro Sandrelli, Inisero Cremaschi, Gilda Musa, Roberta Rambelli, Ugo Malaguti, Gianni Montanari, Roberto Vacca, Daniela Piegai, Vittorio Curtoni (also the author of a history of modern Italian sf, Le frontiere dell'ignoto, if you want to know more).

Japan: Shunro Oshikawa (his Kaitei Gunkan [1900] predicted the Russo-Japanese War), Juza Unno, Kobo Abe, Hisashi Inoue, Makoto Shiina, Shin'ichi Hoshi, Sakyo Komatsu, Yasutaka Tsutsui, Ryo Hammura, Ryu Mitsuse, Taku Mayumura, Masaki Yamada, Baku Yumemakura, Chohei Kambayashi, Yoshiki Tanaka, Motoko Arai, Mariko Ohara (she writes cyberpunk), Kaoru Kurimoto. (For more info, try Robert Matthew's Japanese Science Fiction and the anthology The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, both published in 1989.)

Argentina: E.L. Holmberg (author of Viaje meravilloso del señor Nic Nac [1875]), Horacio Quiroga, Leopoldo Lugones, Borges of course, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Angélica Gorodischer (her two-volume Kalpa Imperial has been translated by Ursula Le Guin), Edurardo Goligorski, Carlos Gardini, Magdalena Mouján Otaño, Emilio Rodrigué, Daniel Barbieri, Alberto Vanasco, Marcial Souto, Sergio Gaut vel Hartman. (I'm tossing in a link just to show that weird name isn't a typo.) I have the first dozen or so issues of Minotauro, an excellent sf magazine.

I think I've made my point.
posted by languagehat at 12:05 PM on November 5, 2006 [6 favorites]

I think it depends what you mean by "science fiction."

If you think of it as a genre of novels and short stories, it's entirely fair to say that it was never predominantly American, to say the least of being so now.

If you think of it as a broader cultural category, you've got concede that it is predominantly American beause of the overwhelmingly American provenance and signification of science fiction film and television. The relative importance in the cultural category of film and television (where the genre is at the very beating heart of the commercial mainstream) versus short stories and novels (where the genre is at the very fringe of commercial relevance in terms of readership and sales) seems to me rather clear.
posted by MattD at 12:22 PM on November 5, 2006

I'll chime in again in support of MattD here; the answer to the question indeed heavily depends on how you define "science fiction". As a written literary genre? As a publishing category? As a cultural category?
posted by Justinian at 2:08 PM on November 5, 2006

Is SF exclusively American? No, and others have provided plenty of non-American SF writers as examples.

But is SF predominantly American? Yes, I think, if you're looking at SF as a self-contained commercial genre of popular fiction, with a history traced back to the pulp magazines of the 1920s onward, and developing from there into books and visual media. SF existed before then, and outside the U.S., but Wells, Stapledon and Verne didn't operate in a literary ghetto.

As MattD points out, it does depend on what you mean as "science fiction." Discussing whether literary outsiders count (e.g., Borges, Atwood) is one of the favourite pastimes of the genre.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:59 PM on November 5, 2006

If you think of it as a broader cultural category, you've got concede that it is predominantly American

is SF predominantly American? Yes, I think, if you're looking at SF as a self-contained commercial genre of popular fiction, with a history traced back to the pulp magazines of the 1920s onward

Jesus, there's no convincing some people. Amazing what a stake y'all have in believing in the sacred primacy of American sf. You'll just have to take my word for it that Russia, say, is just as steeped in sf imagery and tradition as the U.S. And all the countries I made author lists for have sf traditions going back to and beyond the '20s; the first names on each list go back to the nineteenth century. Do a little investigation before you make assumptions, and for chrissakes don't assume that because you personally are not aware of something that it doesn't exist.

Oh, and as for the "broader cultural category" thing, I could make long lists of sf movies for most of those countries, but I'm beginning to think there isn't any point in providing evidence, because people believe what they want to believe. You're right, it's an American thing! U S A!
posted by languagehat at 5:57 AM on November 6, 2006

LH, we're not in disagreement here, though it may seem otherwise, and please note my own nationality before you accuse me -- risibly -- of cultural jingoism on behalf of a country that is not mine.

And I'm pretty well read in the SF genre, know its pre-Gernsback history, and am fully aware of the SF traditions in other countries. (Yes, I read Locus's international coverage.)

The point I was trying to make is that predominance does not equate with exclusivity. The dominance of American SF does not preclude other national traditions, nor render them insignificant or nonexistent. But consider how much American SF -- written, TV, film -- is translated into other languages and published/shown in other countries, versus the opposite.

Does the large British contingent count? Does Lem? Do the Strugatsky brothers? Of course. But in the aggregate -- in the aggregate -- American SF is a quantifiably larger part of the genre, and has an influence beyond national borders. Maybe it's only 51 per cent, but it's a honking big part of the field.

Believe me, I'm not looking at this as a matter of pride. It's a point of some nuisance that Canadian science fiction was largely seen as a product of expatriate Americans (Merril, Robinson, Gibson) until recently. (Yes, there were exceptions even then, and I know their names. My point -- broadly -- is that exceptions do not necessarily disprove the rule.)
posted by mcwetboy at 6:39 AM on November 6, 2006

Nice work, languagehat. You couldn't draw up a list for Brazilian SF could you? I've read a bunch of Portuguese-language SF and it's fascinating in its own way - but I've not yet come across anything that's not thoroughly derivative of Anglophone SF.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 7:18 AM on November 6, 2006

OK, sorry for being quick on the trigger (though I imagine you can understand my assumption). Yes, American SF is a quantifiably larger part of the genre, but surely that's because there are 300,000,000 Americans and they had more money for frivolities like sf after WWII. We eat more burgers and fries, too. So you're right, we're not in disagreement, and I owe you a beer.
posted by languagehat at 7:20 AM on November 6, 2006

hoverboards: I'm afraid I don't know anything about Brazilian sf (I lived in Argentina, where they mocked all things Brazilian), but the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (which anyone interested in this stuff should own) lists Jeronimo Monteiro (who founded the Brazilian Society of SF), Dinah Silveira de Queiroz, André Carneiro ("perhaps the senior living Brazilian sf writer"), Rubens Scavone, Fausto Cunha, Jorge Luiz Calife, Henrique V. Flory, Roberto Schima, Ivanir Calado, and Braulio Tavares, as well as various mainstream writers who have dabbled in sf (Marcio Souza, Herberto Salles, Flora Freitas de Andrade). Hope this helps!
posted by languagehat at 7:25 AM on November 6, 2006

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