Science fiction, from the mirror of our societies to prospective reflection / Second part


The progress of science today leaves our societies with the feeling of being at a crossroads: technological breakthroughs are announced (nanotechnologies, synthetic biology, etc.) at a time when our models of economic growth seem destined to come up against the physical and environmental limits of the planet. At a time when there is increasing debate about the most desirable development model, how can science fiction and the way it looks at our society enrich the debate?

This analysis explores the different ages of science fiction, from its beginnings to the present day, and attempts to shed light on the scientific and socio-economic context of each era, using a chronological approach. This is the second part.

Part Two: the interwar period / A more powerful humanity thanks to technology, but increasingly dehumanized

sffuse1 - Pulp magazines, superhero stories and space operas

The inter-war period was rich in scientific and technical advances. The period corresponds to the first rockets, the emergence of increasingly fast means of transport (combustion engine for land transport and progress in aviation), the spread of Einstein's theory of general relativity (1915), its theoretical consequences and its subsequent applications in cosmology (models of the universe, black holes, etc.).

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amazingstoriesIt was in this context that the imagination of the authors of pulp magazines, cheap periodicals popular among American teenagers, was unleashed. Hugo Gernsback, a great admirer of Jules Verne, was the first to come up with the idea of creating a magazine specializing in science stories. In 1926 he founded Amazing Storiessubtitled "The magazine of Scientifiction". All forms of literature - western, detective or adventure stories - are featured in these publications. By 1920, more than 120 titles were sharing the American market, attracting nearly ten million readers.

Still unknown to the general public, the greatest masters of the genre took their first steps in pulp magazines: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt, Clifford D. Simak.

supermanSuperheroes appear: Doc Savage (Doc Savage Magazine, 1933), "The Bronze Man," predecessor to Superman (created in 1932... (12)). The Timely Comics publishing house, which would become today's Marvel Comics, was inspired by the success of the latter character and later created, mainly after the Second World War, a palette of superheroes that would make its international success. The powers of these characters are derived from genetic mutations (the X-Men) or are acquired during scientific expeditions, by accident (Spider-man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four), or intentionally (Captain America, Iron Man).

Space opera is the other genre that is born from pulp magazines. Related to epic, it tells stories of adventure in space, or on other planets. Edward Elmer Smith is the first to situate his plots in the galaxy. He is also the first to have developed a cycle of several novels (Fulgur, 1928-1954, in Astounding Stories). National pride and a certain sense of power in American society after the victory of 1918 is reflected in his novels. The galactic empires they portray crush their alien enemies with the assurance of embodying the Good and pursue the conquest of the West in stellar spaces. Moreover, some of the intrigues of the first space operas are the decalque of those already used in the specialized pulps. The space opera, of which the best known example was Flash Gordon, was at that time based on cartoon stories.

tintin2"Tintin", hero of the European SF? A distant equivalent of the American pulps in terms of its success with the younger generation and its periodic publication, the comic strip is also close to them in the forward-looking subjects it tackles. Tintin, published for the first time in 1929 in the supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le XXe siècle, is thus marked by questions about progress.

The scientific and technological advances, at the heart of the plot, give rise to debates or demonstrations and are often the work of Professor Tournesol. In the course of Tintin's adventures, Professor Tournesol becomes a recurring character: Tintin's space voyage fromMoon Lens (1953), a double album released fifteen years before the Apollo 11 mission, preceding the launch of Sputnik I, is undoubtedly the best illustration of this.

Like many authors of SF, Hergé extrapolates from the scientific discoveries of his time. The striking realism of his scenario is due to a thorough study of Alexandre Ananoff's Astronautique (1950). With precision, it represents the conditions of weightlessness, the attraction of astral bodies. In Tintin, no fanciful extraterrestrial monsters, no incredible landscapes: according to astrophysicists Lehoucq and Mochkovitch(13), the trajectory of the lunar rocket reproduces a completely realistic flight plan.

Tintin explores other fields of science: from the existence of extraterrestrials in Flight 714 to Sydney (1968) on colour television, then in its infancy, which Professor Tournesol endeavoured to develop in The Jewels of Castafiore (1961). The film Tintin and the Blue Oranges (1964) - which was not scripted by Hergé - evokes the creation of what resembles genetically modified organisms.

2 - The scientific organisation of work transforms man into a machine

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industrialization2Industrialization is the engine of growth. The fastest growing industry is in the United States. The rise of the Manufacturing Belt, a heavy industry development zone in the Northeast, has thus led to very strong urbanization, of which New York is the best example. This movement has been accompanied by profound changes in the city (skyscrapers, concentration of workers' housing, subway, tramway, lighting, etc.) and in social life (massive arrivals of immigrants, social inequalities, densification, health crises, etc.).

radio1937The search for industrial efficiency was then the key word: it was fuelled by technological innovation, the emergence of mass markets (26 million Americans had radio in 1937...) and the development of new technologies.(14)The first CRT televisions are marketed) and by a new organization of work. This last point was particularly decisive.

It was first F.W. Taylor who recommended a "scientific organisation of work" based on the best way to produce (definition, delimitation and sequencing of tasks), and to remunerate the worker (shift from task-based to hourly wages). Ford drew inspiration from this model to develop assembly lines for the automobile industry, based on the rationalization and standardization of workers' tasks. Despite its success, Fordism, which was used to counter the economic crisis of 1929, did not cross the Atlantic until the Second World War.

metropolis2So when German filmmaker Fritz Lang discovered New York in 1924 during a business trip, the gap was so great that he made it the main source of inspiration for his film. Metropolis (1927)(15). This work presents a city of disproportionate dimensions overhanging an underground working-class town. Man is a slave to the machines that give life to the great metropolis. The image of alienation from technology and the mechanized megalopolis is very strong.

The theme of dehumanisation through the scientific organisation of work inspires another anthology work. In Modern Times (1936), Charlie Chaplin is a workman who sees bolts running on a chain at his workstation, an illustration of the decerebrating nature of repetition of the task: caught in the gears, Charlot cannot stop, even during breaks.

The risk of man's alienation by technology inspires many authors, the two best known being Huxley and Orwell. In The Best of all Worlds (1931), genetic selection techniques make it possible to rationalize the work aptitudes of the different castes in the population and to produce a precise number of people for each function in society. In 1984 (1948), "telecrans" observe and broadcast information continuously, so that human impulses are channelled and controlled. In these works, technology is at the service of a small number of individuals who use it to subdue the rest of the population. Relationships between individuals or between groups are destroyed for the sake of peace. Social inequalities are very strong, with technology being under the sole control of the wealthy.

This image of society partly reflects that of the time: a handful of wealthy industrialists mastered the economy and politics of entire countries. In 1936, in the United Kingdom, 10 %s of the wealthiest Britons owned 88 %s of the country's private wealth and 1 % owned 56 %s. The number of unemployed people also remained above 1 million out of a working population of about 20 million during the inter-war period. (16).

Continued: From the Second World War to the late 1970s: The Great Fears of Postmodern Society

Go to Part 1

(12 ) 'The Reign of the Super-man', Science-Fiction, No. 3.
(13 ) See Lehoucq R. and Mochkovitch R. (2003), But where is the temple of the sun? Scientific investigation in the land of Hergé.
(15) Lemieux P. (2001), "Métropolis revisitée", Ciné-Bulles, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 42-45.
(16) Mougel F.C. (2005), "La mondialisation à l'anglaise dans l'entre-deux-guerre : stratégie planétaire ou repli imperial ? "International Relations, 2005/3, No. 123, pp. 37-50. DOI: 10.3917/ri.123.0037.

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