Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
Another formative assessment for Science Fiction! I wasn’t happy about it but it ended up being great because we had to pick a chapter from The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction and summarise, in our own words, the argument. So many chapters sounded super interesting, I had so much trouble choosing one! I was really interested in colonialism, gender and sexuality, video games, Darwinism, post-humanism… In the end I chose Darwinism and loved the essay I read! I’m really tempted to read the rest of the book one day… I’m sure a lot in it will be useful when I work on my project!
The first part of my formative piece is a summary of this chapter. For the second part, we needed to apply the chapter’s argument to one of the texts we’d studied: I chose The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells.
The chosen chapter deals with Darwinism in science fiction and Darwin’s direct influence on the creation and development of the genre. Using different examples from older and more recent texts the author, Patrick Sharp, highlights Darwin’s legacy and the difficulties for writers and for the genre as a whole to emancipate itself from it. Darwin’s famous work On the Origin of Species echoes scientific and technological development in the 19th century. At the beginning of his essay Sharp reminds his readers of the importance of reason and scientific discoveries in science fiction. Darwin transformed Victorian society and people’s understanding of the universe. Evolutionary theories, in particular, seem to have always worked hand in hand with the genre. For instance, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, considered to be the first science fiction novel, uses evolution to write a parable about class. Darwin’s work thus raised a major concern for human nature (or its bestiality) and what it meant to be human. His theory on human evolution was very significant at the time, in the context of colonialism – which might explain the reason for Darwin’s popularity. The author then talks about 18th century travel narratives and their focus on the encounter with the ‘Other’ and the descriptions of physical or biological differences. These narratives reinforced changing notions of biological differences and asserted the link between technological power and racial superiority. Later on, Sharp focuses on another book by Darwin published later in the century: The Descent of Man. In this book, Darwin insists not on the process of natural selection but on sexual selection – as a force to counterbalance natural selection. However, these theories proved to be very problematic because he concludes that men are more powerful than woman as a result of evolution. While his theories strongly influenced many science fiction writers, some wrote against them. For instance, Charlotte Perkins Gilman used Darwinism to argue for women’s liberation. Sharp uses other examples to demonstrate how hard it was for science fiction to emancipate itself from Darwinism and beliefs about European power – even when female writers attempted to write strong female protagonists. Sharp argues that although Stone played with race, gender and sexuality, she did not manage to escape evolutionary principles. In recent years, at the end of the 20th century, it was easier for writers to critique sexual and racial hierarchies. In Butler’s fiction, hierarchy impedes on human survival. She implies that a post-human future could be the result of radical evolution and that it must be embraced. Sharp concludes that whether accepted or contested, Darwin’s legacy in science fiction remains immense.
A link can be drawn between this essay and The Food of the Gods. The theme of evolution is essential to the narrative since the giants represent a form of ultra-accelerated human evolution – even though, in the story, it has been forced artificially upon humanity. Many of the issues mentioned in Sharp’s essay can be applied to The Food of the Gods. Indeed, the novel can be read as a metaphor for colonisation and human power, or European assertion of control and authority. While humans in the novels are the ones who make the birth of giants possible – just as Europeans wished to discover the world – they fear the ‘other’ and position themselves as figures of authority. The humans, symbol of the old world or old race, exert power over the new race of giants by imposing boundaries and refusing their access to education. The conflict of boundaries is very literal in the novel: giants are forbidden to walk on some roads because they are accused of damaging them. Similarly, one character suggests the creation of a ‘great reservation’ where these giants could live, away from humanity. Like Darwin, Wells suggests a link between technological or scientific advancement and racial superiority. Indeed, the giants are left uneducated and infantile, which unfairly proves the point that humans have superior mental abilities. Finally, the fear of the new race, the lack of control or regulation over it and the conflict between both species mirrors the struggles of evolution (as well as tensions). The fear of the new race echoes the arguments at the end of Sharp’s essay: post-humanity and evolution must not be feared but accepted. The novel finishes with the promise of conflict, war and perhaps apocalypse – further demonstrating that evolution is inevitable and is linked to power struggle.