Is Science Fiction in America Unique?


(This post is technically the last half of the post I started here, though it has diverged from a discussion of Alan Moore.)

What is it about America and science fiction? We seem to have a love affair with the stuff as a society, with most of what we watch somehow associated with the genre. It is one of the largest and most influential genres in the country, secondary only to religious texts and, perhaps, fantasy. While the literary side of things may be lagging behind in terms of sales, its film side, for better and for worse, has controlled the market for the last ten years–with the exception of 2010, which has been heavily oriented towards fantasy titles (specifically, sequels to major franchises). We’re not the only country interested in SF, of course, but America is not exactly like other countries. I’m not suggesting that we’re “better” by pointing out America’s uniqueness, nor I am suggesting, as Alan Moore does in “Frankestein’s Cadillac,” that there might be something
particular to America that has made it (and continues to make it) a breeding ground for science fiction. Instead, I want to suggest that America’s vibrant SF field is not necessarily unique to it, except in terms of its specific cultural eccentricities.

So retro it hurts!

First, I think it’s important to note that SF as a genre1 is, in most cases, the product of an extensive socio-economic process linked to the rise of industrialization (the second industrial revolution for the U.S.) and mechanized material production.  I’m not the only one to suggest the link between genre-production and industrialization, but I may be one of the few to suggest that the same process that spawned SF in America and elsewhere is not only duplicable, but also happening right now.  New, vibrant SF fields are springing up all over the world, most notably in China and Africa, but previously in places like the Caribbean, Latin America, and so on.2  These various “fields” share characteristics, but also differ both because of the cultural context and the ways in which industrialization arises in various parts of the world.

In the case of America, there are few characteristics which make it “different.”  We’re not wholly unique.3  The “melting pot” concept (which is, in part, mythical, but we won’t get into that now) is true of other countries too, such as the United Kingdom, parts of Europe, and so on.  Even the way the U.S. has dealt with immigration (now and in the past) is not all that different from what is going on in other parts of the world.  Our connection to technology is equally shared with other developed/developing/etc. nations, where science and its impact on societal production are desired over other methods of production.  What seems to differ in the America is the way it is divided, which has led to a variety of connected, but unique “identities.”  But because these individual States are “loose” States (the only “hard” border in the U.S. is the one that surrounds it, not the individual borders) and share a cultural background and governmental structure, there is considerable bleeding across lines.  Other parts of the world have similar structures, such as Europe, which has tried, through the European Union, to form a collaborative “national” framework, to varying degrees of success.  The U.S., however, has a rich history of hodgepodge “loose” States, and the linking of the national structure to industrialization, I think, shows how the formation of SF in America is unique, while also not entirely separate from other industralizing(ed) nations.  Again, I don’t think we’re wholly unique, but rather sort of “eccentric.”  America’s culture and history do contain unique characteristics.  American nationalism and Imperialism are not the same as other nationalisms and Imperialisms, though there are, as always, similarities.  Even certain aspects of our culture–like baseball–while now shared elsewhere, are at least inventions of the U.S., even if such things are transfusions (manipulated by America) from other nations.

Like cereal, only spicy.

SF in this country usually has a kind of “American” flavor, but trying to describe it is similar to trying to point out where American culture begins and where it ends.  I like to think of America as an emulation of the world, because the world is already a hodgepodge of States, but America’s loose internal borders are different than those of the world as a whole.  We’re not terribly concerned (right now) with culture bleeding over from other American “spaces.”  But we are concerned with culture bleeding over from elsewhere.  Almost all nations are.  Nations have immigration control, deportation, laws that make explicit the privileging of local culture over foreign culture, and so on.4  But the U.S. has very little of that inside/between its borders (with some exceptions).  Whether we can see that in American SF is hard to say.  American eccentricities certainly show up, but I don’t think they change the core of SF or whether the U.S. is more suited to SF literary production than other nations.

Looks like fun…

But maybe the only reason Alan Moore originally brought this up, and why I’m talking about it here, is because SF in America is enormous in comparison to other places with SF traditions (the U.K., Russia, etc.). In that case, America is only unique in this context because it is one of the top producers of film and literature in the world (notice I didn’t say “good” or “bad”).  But that’s not going to be for long.  China is well on its way.  Why?  Industrialization (old form and new form–i.e., modern technological advances).  Then maybe we’ll be asking if SF is unique to China.

Do you think SF is unique to America?  Why or why not?  What makes American SF a unique literary form to you?


1. By genre, I mean a set of established literary modes that have concretized in the literary landscape; all genres have precursors–texts we refer to as “the beginning of the genre” or “early examples of genre,” but which arise prior to extensive literary production in a particular genre–but these are not the texts I am talking about.  Basically, I’m talking about SF as it appears as a popular genre.

2. Fantastic literary traditions have sprung up in these places before, but I am intentionally dividing fantastic literary forms from science fiction because, while connected, they are separated by socio-economic formations.

3. To be clear:  when I use the term “unique,” I do not mean “better.”  Uniqueness does not necessarily make one “better.”  It’s a neutral term that depends on the context.

4. These are not necessarily bad laws, depending on your perspective.  Protecting children from certain kinds of practices, like female genital mutilation, for example, is something I consider to be good.  I am unapologetic about that, too.  FGM is a disgusting, evil process, and should be eradicated.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

2 thoughts on “Is Science Fiction in America Unique?

  1. John: Thanks for the link. I will check that out. I wasn't familiar with Aliens R Us, but I will absolutely give it a read. I knew this topic had been covered, I just didn't know where. I still think it's interesting to consider how America's literary production is different from other spaces. Comparison studies of literary production and culture are fascinating. Plenty has been said about Russia (Soviet Union) vs. U.S. vs. U.K., but not enough attention goes to these formations in newly industrialized nations.

    Thanks for the comment!

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