On The Boredom of Fantasy



I have just read an essay on the subject of science fiction that I found both spectacularly wrong-headed and completely astute. It was published in 1953, in Harper’s Bazaar, by the Hungarian-American author Arthur Koestler, about whose oeuvre I have zero prior knowledge. Because I can’t find the essay reproduced anywhere online, I hope to crib from its ideas for years. But I’ll let you in on some salient passages, more or less illustrating the arc of Koestler’s argument, and which I hope you might find to be as niggling as I have.


In 1953, science fiction was experiencing its first major boom, and it’s likely that Koestler was sharing his two cents on what was—at the time—a very topical subject. Being a literary figure, his stance is about on par with most literary figures in 1953: that science fiction is objectively less than art, and seems to be the side-effect, like a nasty rash, of the burgeoning atomic age. Koestler writes that the “developments and vistas of the last fifty years have created new vistas and nightmares, which art and literature have not yet assimilated.” He continues, “In a crude and fumbling fashion, science-fiction is trying to fill the gap.” In the age of Buck Rogers, ray guns, and bug-eyed monsters, few people understood the critical power of science fiction. Koestler is being progressive, I think, by even seeing how the anxieties of any moment need to be absorbed into the culture in order to be overcome; even more canny is the observation that our specific anxieties might be developing more quickly than the culture can make room for. Technology, that is, lapping us—then as it is now.


But from here on out, Mr. Koestler and I disagree. He acknowledges that some critics might see in science fiction a light at the end of the traditional novel, but he cannot see it developing into a serious art form. Although Lucius, Samuel Butler, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell all wrote science fiction of some form or another, he notes, those works are only “literature precisely to the extent to which they are not science-fiction.” Time is on my side here: in the 1950s, Wells might have been best known for his works of social criticism and history, but he has gone down in the canon of literary history as—above all things—a science fiction writer, or one permanently stained with the genre’s pen. Same goes for all these guys.


Regardless, Koestler sees novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World as isolated instances—“literary extravaganzas,” he quips—which amount to not much more than day dreams among the serious thoughts of serious writers. The idea that we should make small incisions into the bibliographies of these writers, quietly excising those works which don’t fit into the narrative of straight literary history, is utter nonsense, as is Koestler’s conclusion that “day-dreaming is not poetry, and fantasy is not art.” Seriously, what is poetry if not day-dreaming? And what is art which doesn’t include at least an awareness of fantasy?


The next point raised in this essay—did I even tell you what it was called, the essay? I didn’t: it’s called “The Boredom of Fantasy.” The next point raised in “The Boredom of Fantasy” is an interesting one. A pure fantasy, Koestler writes, can never be as interesting, as engaging as a work of literary art, because it contains no correlation to the world. It has no footholds, no tethers to grasp onto. There is nothing to identify with in a quivering, slack-jawed Martian. And without identification, “there is no art, only a thrill of curiosity which soon yields to boredom.” It doesn’t matter how spectacular the invention is; when there is no there there, it can do little more than briefly titillate the reader. “We are tickled by them for a few pages,” Koestler writes of Martians, “but because they are too strange to be true, we soon get bored.”


This is a fascinatingly weird assumption. For one, what does “true” even entail in this scenario? If a Martian is too strange to be true, then how about a woman? A Russian peasant? I’m not quite sure where the line falls, as Koestler seems to suggest that one must identify at the outset with a character in order to care about him, her—or it. I suppose it must have been an unusual punishment, in 1953, for a white male human reader to suffer through the travails of non-white male human characters, but in my estimation, identifying with someone (or something) other than yourself is exactly the point of reading. The more different, the more complex and powerful the development of familiarity becomes. The higher the art. One of the primary roles of The Novel is to evoke the inner world of the other; of The Reader, to somehow absorb, though the ephemeral medium of language, something from beyond the perimeter of our cranium. Great novels are those which create lasting instances of communion with another soul. Often an entirely imagined soul, to boot. That is the fantasy inherent to art. You cannot escape this specific and rudimentary truth.


Here—and because this essay is self-indulgent—I can’t help but think of Philip José Farmer and his poignantly lurid stories of human-alien relationships, Strange Relations. In Farmer’s stories, marooned astronauts form, over time, sexual bonds with their alien captors. But these are not stories of three-breasted women a la Total Recall. These are bonds forged with fungal gastropods, with gelatinous membranes the size of a room, with parasitic worms. It takes a complete disavowal of the centrality of human experience to forge such connections. Farmer’s lovers manage to take that herculean conceptual step away from themselves, to face the anthropocentric prejudice deep within themselves and prevail over it. They go native. And since because to love something is to lose a little of yourself to it, it’s really just an extreme version of what literature does to us.


Lastly, Koestler writes that “when we reach out for the stars, our limitations become grotesquely apparent.” So, science fiction demonstrates our failings; and those who write science fiction are fighting a losing battle against their own, inherently human, incapacity to imagine anything completely outside of human experience. Koestler makes a great little conceptual joke about asking a space cadet on the third planet of Orion if his journey from a drugstore in Minnesota was “really necessary.” Because, of course, nothing differentiates an astronaut from a druggist but the scenery. That’s true, of course; in novels, space cadets and druggists alike are reflections of whoever invented them.


How Koestler misses the point that this is also precisely their value is beyond me. Science fiction is a mirror for the present, as is any literature. If it creates fantasies, it does so by extrapolating from the tools, attitudes, and anxieties of the present moment. That’s why there’s no such thing as an alien, incidentally. No writer can propose a creature genuinely too strange to be true; in the proposing, we inevitably shape our creations with the mold from which they emerged. If it can be imagined by the relatively limited capacities of the human brain, then it’s not alien—by definition. And incidentally, I would bloody well hope that literature demonstrates our limitations; god forbid we might think we’re infallible. Then nobody’s making any decent art.


The druggist bothered to make the trip to the third planet of Orion because there might not have been much left to talk about in Minnesota. If, as Koestler seems to indicate, art must have a one-to-one relationship with the world, then to say anything meaningful about the space age one must rub elbows with it. Or perhaps there’s something important to be said about Minnesota, except a slightly different vantage is required—it helps to put some space between the writer and the subject he or she is aiming to be reflexive about. Anyway, even the most rudimentary rebuttal works here too: we should talk about space like the ancients talked about heaven. Not because it doesn’t include so many fantasies, but because we need something big for scale.


“Travel is no cure for melancholia,” Koestler writes, “space-ships and time-machines are no escape from the human condition. Let Oedipus triumph over gravity; he won’t triumph over his fate.” And yet we travel, in our reality as in our art, as we always will.



“The Boredom of Fantasy,” and many other fascinating critical genre essays, is anthologized in Science Fiction: The Future, a musty ol’ paperback you can buy on Amazon before the drones destroy them all.

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One Response to On The Boredom of Fantasy

  1. Paul says:

    Nice review. It seems relevant to point out also how much literature, since the 50s, has gravitated towards science fiction, placing what are implicitly unknowable objects, characters, and systems in what would otherwise be traditional novels as a way to point out things about the present. It seems pretty short sighted of Koestler to assume that the space age wasn’t actually going to change anything about the human condition.

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