Lesson 4: Thought Experiments

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain how the growth of the pulp magazine market in the early twentieth century opened new avenues for science-fiction publishing.
  • Describes the effects that science fiction achieves by presenting readers with an unfamiliar look at a familiar human experience, such as gravity or gender.

Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin


As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, the United States was ready for progress and the romance of progress and for the fiction that would sum up these dreams as meaningful human adventures.

Teddy Roosevelt summed up some of the spirit of that time, a spirit that would seep into science fiction as well. H.G. Wells visited Roosevelt in 1906, and the president brought up The Time Machine to disagree with its pessimism. Wells recalled their conversation: "If one chose to say America must presently lose the impetus of her ascent, that she and all mankind must culminate and pass, [Roosevelt] could not conclusively deny that possibility. Only he chose to live as if this were not so." And he continued, as Wells remembered:

"Suppose, after all," he said slowly, "that should prove to be right, and it all ends in your butterflies and morlocks. That doesn't matter now. The effort's real. It's worth going on with. It's worth it. It's worth it—even so." (H.G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography. New York: MacMillan, 1934.)

This kind of environment encouraged the further development of science fiction, and in the early years of the twentieth century, that development took the form of low-priced monthly magazines such as Argosy and All-Story. Although not exclusively devoted to science fiction, these magazines published many stories now recognized as classics of the early genre—stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs (such as Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars), A. Merritt (“The Moon Pool”), and others.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the pulp magazines demonstrated a sufficient demand for fiction to support a variety of cheap monthly and even weekly magazines. In the 1920s the narrowing currents of specialization produced assembly lines, the division and subdivision of professions and disciplines, hobbies, entertainments, fads, fashions, increasing college attendance and proliferating programs of instruction, and the genre pulps, include science fiction and fantasy.

In the middle of the decade, on April 5, 1926, Hugo Gernsback published a specialized magazine featured on the newsstands of the nation. The magazine was Amazing Stories, and it was the world's first science-fiction magazine.

The new magazine exhibited no indecision about what it would publish: scientifiction. Gernsback had invented the word to describe the contents of his new magazine, and his first editorial defined what he meant: "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of a story--a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision." (Gernsback, "A New Sort of Magazine," Amazing Stories. April 1926.) Underlying Gernsback's basic desire to sell magazines and make money was his intent to promote understanding of science and technology through fiction; the fiction was candy coating for a pill of instruction.

Amazing Stories carried the caption:

Extravagant Fiction Today ..................................................... Cold Fact Tomorrow

That was Gernsback's vision, a vision summarized in his formula: "The ideal proportion of a scientifiction story should be 75% literature interwoven with 25% science." The vision may have been narrow, but it launched science fiction into a new era. By dramatically expanding the readership and publishing opportunities for science fiction, Gernsback laid the foundation for many of the novels we will read in this course.

Gernsback lost control of Amazing Stories and his other publications in 1929, and in the aftermath he founded Science Wonder Stories, in which he used, for the first time, the words “science fiction.” The following year the Clayton magazine chain began to publish Astounding Stories of Super Science, edited by Harry Bates. Bates sold the concept to Clayton as its typical adventure story using science or technology as a background instead of crime, the west, or some exotic locale.

In 1934, the Clayton chain went bankrupt and the publisher Street & Smith bought Astounding. Editor F. Orlin Tremaine (best known today for his call for “thought-variant” stories that explored new and previously unimagined ideas) hired John W. Campbell, Jr. to take over as editor in 1937. Campbell would go on to become a central figure of science fiction for decades, and among the many celebrated authors he published was Harry Stubbs, who wrote under the pen name of Hal Clement.

Clement’s Mission of Gravity was serialized in Astounding in 1953, and it seemed like the prototypical Campbell story (although Frederik Pohl, Clement’s agent at the time, recalled that Campbell at first rejected it “because it didn’t break well into three parts”). Mission of Gravity is an adventure story that could only occur on the planet of Mesklin, and only on a planet shaped like Mesklin. Indeed, Clement wrote that he imagined a world in detail (he described the development of Mission of Gravity in an article, sometimes reprinted in the book, “Whirligig World”) and then shaped a story to meet its unusual circumstances.

The unusual circumstance of Mesklin was its gravity and its period of rotation. Mesklin is a heavy planet with a rotation so rapid that the planet resembles a pancake. At the poles the gravity is several hundred times that on Earth; at the equator, only 2.5 times. Intrepid traders who sail the Mesklin seas must adjust their expectations from a gravitation that destroys anything that falls to one in which they must overcome their experience and fear of heights to defy their instincts—and all in pursuit of scientific knowledge.

A truism about human psychology is that nobody notices the commonplace. One of the narrative strategies of science fiction is to estrange the domestic (as opposed to domesticating the strange); by making gravity a significant factor in Mesklinites’ lives, Mission of Gravity makes readers think about the fact that they are under the influence of gravity almost every moment of every day. By dramatizing how the Mesklinites respond to gravity and are shaped by it, the novel asks the reader to consider how they respond to their environment and are shaped by it. And by showing how the Mesklinites rise above their conditioning to perform heroic acts, it hopes to inspire readers to do the same.

The Left Hand of Darkness performs the same acts in a somewhat more subtle way, perhaps because gender, although just as fundamental to human experience and just as often accepted rather than questioned, is a more delicate topic to discuss.

Unlike Clement, Ursula K. Le Guin, the daughter of an anthropologist, was primarily a novelist; her work seldom appeared in magazines. The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969 as a paperback original and reprinted the same year as a hardcover, was Le Guin’s attempt at “working her way through feminist issues.” She accomplished that end by imagining a world, Gethen, in a wintry cycle in which (possibly as an experiment by an earlier galactic civilization) the human Gethenians can be either sex, depending on their encounter with another Gethenian in a state of sexual readiness called “kemmer.” As a consequence, Gethenians have no sexual identity and can both father and mother offspring.

Le Guin explores, through the mechanism of an envoy named Genly Ai sent by the Ekumen to invite Gethen to join the galactic civilization, the differences created in history, politics, psychology, and mythology by the absence of gender.

Although Mission of Gravity and The Left Hand of Darkness have many differences in subject, language, plot, and tone, they both offer different world as contrasts to Earth, and they work by persuading readers to consider how their attitudes are not intrinsic but are shaped by their circumstances, physical or physiological.
Writing Assignment 4
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • How are the Mesklinites shaped by their environment? Physically? Psychologically? How do the events of the novel force them to break their conditioning? How is this dramatized in Barlenan’s experiences? Heinlein has described one plot of the science fiction human-interest story as “the man who learns better.” How does Barlenan learn better, how does his education escalate, and how does this influence the reader’s response to the novel? What does this say about the relationship between adaptability and rationality?
  • What is the motivation of the humans orbiting Mesklin? What is Barlenan’s motivation? Poul Anderson has suggested that readers of any story aim for the twin pleasures of “surprise” and “rightness”; how is Barlenan’s motivation both surprising and right? How does Clement prepare the reader for the revelation of Barlenan’s motive? How does the revelation make the reader feel?
  • In The Left Hand of Darkness, is the sexual arrangement of Gethenians a good way to approach the topic of gender and its influence on attitudes, institutions, and behavior?
  • Perhaps the most explicit discussion of the role of gender in Le Guin’s novel occurs in Chapter 7, “The Question of Sex”—the report of Ong Tot Oppong. It describes the unique sexual arrangements of the Gethenians and humanity’s unease with it, as well as how necessary the identification of gender is to people (“What is the first question we ask about a newborn child?”). Why is this chapter placed seventh? Is it relevant that Ong Tot Oppong is (at least by name) Asian? Is it relevant that Ong Tot Oppong’s gender is never identified?
  • The opening chapter begins by describing the medieval culture of Karhyde and leads into a quiet supper meeting between Genly Ai and Estrevan in which Estrevan reveals that he has failed in persuading the king to agree to the Ekumen proposal. Genly Ai fails to understand Estrevan. Why is this (there may be several appropriate answers)? In spite of ourselves, we perceive Estrevan as being mostly one gender or the other. Do you see Estrevan as male or female? Why? Is the name “Estrevan” significant? Would it make a difference if Genly Ai were female? If he were smarter or more experienced? Does the reader have a different reaction to Estrevan’s revelations than Genly Ai?
  • The events of the novel, like those of Mission of Gravity, are an example of “the man who learned better.” In this case, that applies both to Genly Ai and Estrevan. At what point can we say that they have learned better?
  • The novel also has a tragic arc as the events lead the characters inexorably to the doom of one and the enlightenment of the other. Does the movement of the characters from Karhyde to the Commensal to the epic journey across the Gobrin ice and back to Karhyde have an epic feel and epic consequences?
  • Does the alternate name for Gethen (“Winter”) have thematic significance? How does that relate to the Gethenians’ sexual cycle? What does the Gethenians’ sexual cycle lead them to think of Genly Ai’s sexual situation? How does Genly Ai react to his own Ekumenicals when he rejoins them? Compare that to Gulliver’s reaction when he leaves the land of the Houyhnhmns and returns to London.
  • How can we justify the interpolated chapters, particularly “On Time and Darkness” and “An Orgota Creation Myth”? Le Guin has said that “Truth is a matter of the imagination.” Le Guin’s philosophy has been described as Taoist. How does the title of the novel support this? The symbol of Taoism is the circle divided in half by a curved line separating the dark side from the light but conceived as a whole. How would you relate this to the male and female genders? And to the Gethenian androgyny?

Submit your assignment following the email instructions.