Existentialist and Science Fiction literature provide entertainment and guidance for a wide range of topics. These topics address social and humanity issues, and attempt to provide answers for difficult situations. Various theorists and literary critics have written compelling and informative works on the importance of Existentialism and Science Fiction. They explored these topic separately and judged them independently. Existentialism is regarded as dark literary form, with Science Fiction also regarded as dark, but in a less intimidating manner. Examining the research conducted on both genres, it could be concluded that these genres are related forms of literature and they serve a similar purpose. Comparative research shows more than some basic coincidences, but a more interdependent relationship between Existentialism and Science Fiction.
The War On Humanity: Conquering the Supernatural With Reason and Responsibility
Literature covers a wide variety of styles, themes and ideas. Many genres of literature focus on the humanities, but Existentialism and Science Fiction are particularly involved in human beings and human nature. At first glance, these genres seem completely unrelated, however they have some similar traits. Existentialism and Science Fiction are inherently related through themes, style, and intent of the betterment of humanity. Each genre addresses social issues in unique and effective ways; providing insight into brighter futures for the entire human race. Their methods of interpretation combine to provided a more complete resolution to a variety of social issues.
Existentialism is a philosophical approach that rejects the idea that a person’s identity can be found or understood by observing other individuals. Identity can only be found through observing a person’s actions. Existentialism reached its height shortly after World War II, but many of the most famous works date back to the 1800s. “Existentialism can be seen as the response to the frightening loneliness that prompted Friedrich Nietzsche to pronounce in the 1880’s that “God is dead.” (Milne 222) There was a sudden loss of religious faith and social order, which prompted people to take on more personal responsibility. This personal responsibility led to literary works that reflected isolation, loneliness, and a fear of pointlessness. The pioneers of existentialistic literature are: Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Inspired by French existentialism, Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre, Simone-Lucie-Ernestine-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus brought in the next generation of existentialist literature.
Defining Existentialism can be difficult, but most existential works have similar characteristics: atheism, freedom, innocence, identity, and alienation. Atheism is the disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. The principle of Atheism is essential to Existentialism because the belief in God or any other divine power contradicts the belief in personal responsibility; the main concept of existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus were atheist, which is obvious when reading their books. The characters in their books struggle with morality in the absence of a divine power for guidance. In The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays, Camus advocates the absurd man and describes his view of morality.
There is but one moral code the absurd man can accept, the one that is not separated from God: the one that is detached. But is so happens that he lives outside that God. As for the others, the absurd man sees nothing in them but justification. (Camus, 1991 p. 68-69)
The absurd man is amoral. He believes that morality comes from God, or through the justification of others. Being an absurd man means not accepting God as a moral compass, but relying on your own integrity and judgment for guidance. Soren Kierkegaard took a slightly different approach. He combined the belief in God with the acceptance of personal responsibility. His philosophical works Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and The Concept of Dread show that there is no contradiction between freedom and God. The basis of religion is the freedom to choose to believe in that higher power.
In Existentialism, freedom goes far beyond religion. Existentialists believe that human behavior is based solely on choices. As humans we have the freedom to choose our own path, and be free of any past experiences. Existential writers believe that external factors such as economic, sociologic, and psychologic systems have no impact on a person’s actions and characteristics. Many writers acknowledge that other views exist, but they don’t find these acceptable explanations for why people behave in a certain way. According to Milne (2009), “Sartre, for instance, was a life long supporter of the Marxist theory of class struggle, but he would not accept Marx's theory that certain behaviors are necessary for certain classes” (p. 229). Sartre tried to explain this behavior by saying that people from similar groups my choose to act similarly because they are unaware of their freedom to choose to act differently. This sense of freedom can lead the protagonists in existential writing to commit what would be considered immoral acts. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Don Juan desired many women. He chose to spend time with each woman he desired, but he never married. Many people would consider this to be an immoral act, but after closer observation you may reconsider.
The ideas of guilt and innocence are found throughout all existentialist writings. Without a specific set of rules and guidelines, people are forced to make their own rules and be responsible for their actions. Many consider this problematic because leaving questions of morality in the hands of each individual can lead to vulgar and malicious behavior. Ernest Hemingway’s novels are a good representation of individual responsibility. The characters in his novels set their own rules for behavior. These rules were known as the “Hemingway Codes”. The codes are a set of rules for conduct. They focus on honor, courage, and the ability to endure the trials and tribulations of life. The protagonists in Hemingway’s novels are often referred to as the Hemingway Code Heroes. Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea is regarded by many literary critics as the best example of the Hemingway Code Hero. Hemingway’s along with other existential characters are unique because they see every outcome as self-inflicted, while most characters in other literature believe in fate. Kafka’s The Trial uses an illogical legal system so show the pointlessness of placing your life under the control of others. Joseph K. spends the majority of the novel blaming the corrupt legal system for the issues he faced instead of questioning himself. At the end of the novel he realized that he had control over his life, not the court system.
Was help still possible? Were there still objections he’d forgotten? Of course there were. Logic may be unshakeable, but it cannot hold out against a human being who wants to live. Where was the judge he had never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached? He raised his hands and splayed his fingers. (Kafka, 2009, p. 164-65)
Joseph K. realized that the choices he made led to his death. If he behaved more like Hemingway’s Hero, he may have been able to change the outcome of the trial.
One of Sartre’s most famous quotes is, “existence precedes essence”; meaning that there are no rules determining a person’s identity until they exist. Other forms of literature tend to believe that a person’s identity can come from other factors that are in existence before that person exists. Humans have no value before existence. Everyone has the opportunity to define who they’d like to become through their actions. Beauvoir said, “One is not born, but rather becomes woman.” The choice to act as a woman or a man is not predetermined by your sex. A person must choose to accept the gender roles society has set. During the 1950s, French Existentialism made its way to America. This was exceptionally good timing for African Americans. They were starting to find their voices, and Existentialism gave them a sense of purpose and equality during a very difficult time in American history. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explored existential themes through an African American perspective. The narrator talks about his struggles with identity, and how he is invisible to others. This invisibility causes him to go underground to write the story of his life. The narrator becomes increasing frustrated with being defined by others, and feeling a lack of control.
And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man. (Ellison, 1995, p. 573)
At the end of the book, the narrator realized that he was in control of himself. His destiny belonged to no one else, and his choices alone would determine the mark he made on the world
The narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man was not alone in his feelings of invisibility and alienation. “Alienation is the state or experience of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved” (Terry, Brown, 2007). Many intellectuals believe that the sign of civilized people is alienation or the lack of involvement. Most people feel as if they stand out negatively, and are completely separated from others. Marxist theory describes this separation that people have from the work they do. Theologians say that humanity is becoming more alienated each day as we distance ourselves from God or a divine power as the dominant leader. The lack of guidance can be intimidating for many people. Nietzsche suggests accepting this self governance or finding someone else to follow. “He who cannot command himself shall obey. And many a one can command himself, but still sorely lacks self-obedience” (Nietzsche, 2010, Locations 2545-2546)! Existentialism aims to provide a solution for this alienation. It suggests that this feeling is natural because feeling included in society is an illusion.
Commonly in existential literature the author will use a persona similar to themselves. They usually share goals, ideas, and life experiences. This persona is used to convey the author’s message through their stories. Both Sartre and Beauvoir are known for using protagonists as well as other characters that are directly from their lives. Sartre’s Nausea is filled with characters from his life. The persona in the these novels serve to convey the thoughts and principals of the authors who created them. The word person means “mask” in Latin. Existential writers are not try to cover up themselves, but rather provide a relatable characters to better convey their message. By using a protagonist so similar to their actual personality, they can provide a level of level expertise that would not have otherwise been possible. The persona is given the ideas of the authors as well as the background and intellect of the author. This high level of information give the protagonist more credibility, making the intended message more relatable and believable.
The mood of Existentialism is considered dark and hopeless. The absence of an authoritative power gives a sense of desperation when people realize they have nothing to lean on. Existentialist writers argue that Existentialism is not hopeless, but rather hopeful and very positive. Having options and controlling your own destiny put the power where it belongs: in the hands of the individual. By abandoning the traditional avenues of power and hope, many new opportunities will become available. Relying on outside forces for hope and guidance has been proven problematic in many existential writings. Both Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Dread by Kierkegaard offer an explanation for the despair associated with existentialism. Many people often neglect to realize that the despair in these books are followed by a hopeful message. This message is usually how to give life meaning through actions. Hemingway’s short stories give examples on how to giving meaning to life. In A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, the waiters converse about an old man who comes in the café every day. The old man seems to have a meaningless existence, but if the reader looks at the story more closely, they’ll see that the man gives his life meaning through having somewhere comforting to go every day.
What did he fear? It was not fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. (Thomas, Mitchell, Trussler, 1999, p. 208)
This “fear” and “nothing” represent something infinitely indescribable. They represent the meaning of life, and the emptiness that life can bring. Meaning can be found in anything, and finding this meaning can give life a purpose.
Existential literature is not written in linear or chronological order. Existential writers believe that past events have no impact on a person’s actions, therefor it is not necessary to place the events of a story in chronological order. Existential writing is structured in a way that promotes no particular pattern or relation. Most stories feature an alternate version of the current reality. This reality can take the form of slight exaggeration or any alternative to the current circumstances. In both The Trial and The Metamorphosis, Kafka shows an alternate form of world and society as we know it. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning, and finds that he has become an insect. After accepting his new condition Gregor realizes the hardship he has placed on his family because he is unable to work. Gregor experiences some difficulties at home, and eventually dies. The Metamorphosis addresses the absurdity in life. Like most existential writing, the events in the story are completely illogical. They represent a supernatural occurrence. The transformation from human to insect is not only unlikely but physically impossible. This unlikely transformation also shows the mental and physical disconnect that Gregor experienced. Existential writing often explores both the mental and physical disconnect and the mental and physical connect. The connection between the mind and the body is not always positive, as can be seen in Nausea. In the novel, Antoine Roquentin’s illness effected both his body and mind. They were connected. Gregor’s condition left him feeling alienated from his family and the outside world. This alienation was caused by the various form of disconnect Gregor experienced.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary,
Humanism is an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems. (Terry, Brown 2007)
Humanism as a literary movement that took off during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It was a response to the oppressive values of the church. The church viewed humans as weak and immoral. Humanism offered a more optimistic view of humanity. It showed humans as rational and capable of making sound choices without interference from the church. Existentialism is often considered to be the ultimate form of humanism. Existentialism promotes self motivation, and taking credit for your own happiness and achievements. Many existentialism define themselves as humanists, however, some people find this contradictory. It could be argued that the hopelessness and nothingness written by existentialists paints a picture that discourages progress and encourages withdrawal. Having such bleak views of humanity seems to contradict humanism, but it should be noted that existentialist believe that while life is initially meaningless, a person can give their life meaning.
Similarly to Existentialism, Science Fiction has no clear definition. It is described with a collection of categories and descriptive words. “Science Fiction consists of stories, often set in the future and off the planet earth that emphasize scientific, sociological, and especially technological innovation.” (Darity, 2008. p. 360) Science Fiction covers a large area of literature due to its open interpretations. It most closely resembles Fantasy, and focuses heavily on technology. The most commonly reoccurring themes in Science Fiction are the supernatural, time travel, and salvation and destruction. The stories revolve around a utopian or dystopian world to place emphasis on the current state of society. Science fiction began with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in 1818. Other important science fiction authors are: Jules Verne, Herbert George Wells, John Robert Reuel Tolkien, Aldous Huxley, Clive Staples Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Orson Scott Card. Although Shelly is credited for initiating science fiction, the genre gained most of is popularity shortly after World War II. The fear of world distraction provided opportunities for writers to captivate the imaginations of readers and use this power to promote the betterment of humanity.
Mystical creatures including aliens and dragons make the dividing line between Science Fiction and Fantasy literature very hard to distinguish. One great distinction is the purpose of Science Fiction writing. It serves to point out the flaws in society and offer views of an alternative lifestyle or society. After the war, people were in search of a new start, and Science Fiction offered this start. It provided an avenue to explore both the positives and negatives of living in the atomic age through time travel, space travel, the possibility of alien life forms, and the existence of utopian societies. Science Fiction became a large part of popular culture during the 1950s and 1960s, and it still remains popular today. Its massive popularity gave Hollywood an opportunity to exploit not only the genre of Science Fiction, but also people’s fears of the atomic age. Movies such as The Thing (1951), The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), and War of the Worlds (1953) gave Science Fiction a great foundation. These movies paved the way for some globally successful television series such as: Tales of Tomorrow, Out There, and The Twilight Zone. The success of these television shows opened opportunities for Science Fiction writers to become popular. Science Fiction stories could be found in magazines and in some of the more popular newspapers. The popularity of magazines led to paperback houses, prompting Ace and Baltimore to start Science Fiction publishing programs. According to Milne, “New American Library reported that individual Science Fiction novels sold over two hundred thousand each in 1951, and hardcover anthologies sold as many as thirty-five thousand each” (2009, p. 50). Science Fiction would not have gained its popularity without dedicated fans. Science Fictions fans are distinguished by their eccentricity and devotion. Science Fiction fans attended yearly conventions where they dressed as their favorite Science Fiction characters, exchanged stories and ideas, and met some of the prominent actors in the Science Fiction community. At each convention an author was awarded a Hugo, an award named after Hugo Gernsback the creator of the magazine Short Stories in 1926. By the end of the 1950s there were more than twenty-thousand devoted Science Fiction fans.
Science Fiction is always reflective of the time period in which it was written. During the early twentieth century, society was still heavily focused on industrialization and technological advances, so the literature during this time reflected these advances and ideas. In the 1950s, Science Fiction focused on natural sciences such as astronomy and physics. Society was concerned with spaceships and evolution. By the 1960s, the focus had shifted to pseudosciences. These theories and practices were without scientific foundation. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land experiments with pseudoscience. In the novel, a space crew is sent to Mars, but is never heard from again. 25 years later another crew is sent to Mars, and they find Valentine Michael Smith (referred to as Mike), the child of two of the first crew members. He had been raised by Martians and is returned to earth. Upon arriving on Earth, it is discovered that Mike as special powers from antibiotic injections from the Martians. Many people find these powers alarming. When Mike’s life is in danger, Douglas (the reporter) gathers help to save him. It is believed that Mike is the only one who can save humanity. Mike is chastised for his beliefs and eventually is murdered. He becomes an archangel along with the other prophets. Stranger in a Strange Land shows an alternate place, and explains the barriers that exist when going form once culture to another. These barriers make communication difficult and demonstrate some of the fundamental issues that led to the Civil Rights Movement as well as other global concerned caused by a lack of communication and cultural understanding.
"It is later than you think" could not be expressed in Martian—nor could "Haste makes waste," though for a different reason: the first notion was inconceivable while the latter was an unexpressed Martian basic, as unnecessary as telling a fish to bathe. But "As it was in the Beginning, is now and ever shall be" was so Martian in mood that it could be translated more easily than "two plus two makes four"—which was not a truism on Mars.(Heinlein, 1961, p. 57)
Many Science Fiction purists argue that the genre should stick with absolute science and omit the pseudosciences. They feel as though including various forms of pseudoscience crosses the line into Fantasy literature, such as can be seen in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Fantasy remains separate from Science Fiction with it’s ability to have not only magical people, but also magical creatures and objects. Science Fiction’s main focus is humanity as apposed to mystical creatures.
The manipulation of time has been one of the most frequently used themes in Science Fiction. Science Fiction stories take place in either the past or the future. In some cases characters may travel back and forth between past and future. One of the most popular Science Fiction novels of all time is Well’s The Time Machine: An Invention. The time traveler can travel to what is known as the fourth dimension. The traveler describes his experience with time travel as “excessively unpleasant” and undesirable. This unpleasantness led to experimentation with other form of time travel such as near-light-speed space travel. This form of travel was found to be more physically pleasing for the traveler. Shortly after Albert Einstein’s theory of relatively, Science Fiction writers created spaceships that were capable of reaching speeds equal to the speed of light. To compensate for the aging process, time is slowed down form the passengers of these ships. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman shows the consequences and benefits of this type of time travel. The characters in the book retain their youth by traveling at near-light-speeds. In the conclusion of the book the protagonists finds that the world has ended 221 years ago. This type of time travel is not always present in Science Fiction. Many authors prefer to stay in the past or the future instead of traveling between the two.
From the origins of Science Fiction, authors have chosen to express one of two opposite ideas: science and technology will save humanity, or it will destroy it. Most classic Science Fiction books fall into the latter category. Science Fiction initially had a dark nature, and worked best when issuing some type of warning for humanity. Many Science Fiction authors felt they had a personal responsibility to warn readers of both the benefits and dangers of technology. Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys novels paint a positive picture for Science Fiction and the progression of humanity. The novels describe a man’s use of medicine to explore new possibilities and save lives. An opposite view is Wells and his descriptions of Science Fiction gone terribly wrong and ultimately destroying humanity. Most Science Fiction authors following World War II accepted this viewpoint as the strongest possibility. This is most likely due to the atomic age and the real possibility of total human distraction. Card’s Ender’s Game is one of the most chilling expressions of world destruction. In the novel, the protagonist Ender is the third child in a family of geniuses. He is implanted with a chip by the military so that they can read his mind and see the world through his eyes. Ender is hated by his brother Peter as well as all the children in school. Valentine tries to protect him from a brutal beating, but Ender is only saved when he is taken away to battle school. He is forced to levee Valentine behind in order to save the world by destroying the buggars. After learning that Ender could visualize gravitational effects, Graff isolates him from his class. Ender is promoted several times, until he has control of his own army. He attempts to save the world with Valentine, but they both soon realize that they have grown apart. Peter eventually takes over the world and Ender and Valentine decided to colonize some of the other worlds that the buggars had left behind. Upon arriving to the new world Ender realizes that the buggars had no intention of destroying humanity. The despair of the novel is shown when Ender realizes that the military has tricked him into launching a weapon that destroys an entire life form. This is an extreme example of the power of technology, but other Science Fiction writers use a less extreme form of the model to expose the problem of technology.
The setting of a Science Fiction work is essential to the structure of the story. Because there are predetermined rules from past authors, the setting is not as open ended as other literary genres. Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” set the president for robotics centered Science Fiction stories. The “Three Laws of Robotics” are:
(1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. (2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (Asimov, 2004, p. 85)
While it is possible to bend or break these rules, it’s extremely difficult without a compelling alternative. Setting is the biggest differentiator between Science Fiction and Fantasy. In Fantasy you will find a rural and nature filled setting. It usually resembles the countryside and nature. In Science Fiction there is more metal and plastic. It gives off a very futuristic vibe. There are machines and highly advanced pieces of technology. When it comes to setting, Science Fiction and Fantasy are usually on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Both Existentialism and Science Fiction reflect humanity and human behavior. Each genre is unique, however they feature interdependent characteristics. Existentialism teaches the importance of self empowerment and Science Fiction shows the importance of using that power in a responsible way that helps society instead of hindering it. In both genres, the separation from religion is important. Existentialists promote atheism because it puts the responsibility back in the hands of the individual. Science Fiction writers would agree with this philosophy and made the addition of the individual focusing on the greater good. By truly accepting this personal responsibly, humanity can minimize the risks of technology impacting the world in a negative way. Removing religion from the equation gives people the opportunity to think independently. This is especially important as technology advances. By following the existential theory, humanity will develop the skills needed to fight against the possibility of a technological advancement gone wrong and assuming the position of God or a divine ruler. Technology would not be capable of destroying humanity without the assistance and submission of its creators. The existential theory does provide avenues for vulgar behavior, but the general idea would be getting to a point of total self-disciple by the entire human race.
The themes of guilt and innocence in Existentialism are also important in Science Fiction. Science Fiction address guilt and innocence through salvation and distraction. In both genres these ideas are not simple concepts. They are often complicated by various forms and ideas of morality. In existential writing, the protagonist is faced with a decision to make based on the questions of guilt or innocence. Kafka’s The Trial represents the struggle of guilt and innocence for both Existentialism and Science Fiction. In terms of Existentialism, Joseph K. should have been more proactive about taking control of his destiny. His innocence was always in question. Even after his death, the reader is still unaware of his crime. The reader is left to wonder who the truly guilty party is in the situation. Is Joseph K. guilty because he didn’t accept responsibility for a crime he was unaware he committed? Was the court system guilty for assuming K. had committed a crime? Should the court have been more open with K. about the crime he committed. This novel shows the gray areas presented in existential writing. Looking at the novel from a Science Fiction perspective, a different set of question arise. The examination of the court system is more prominent in the Science Fiction interoperation of the novel. Exploring the possibilities of salvation and destruction in terms of how the court system is impacting humanity both globally, and in their society is important. The court system appears to make decision that work best for everyone in the community. If these decisions destroy humanity would they be considered immoral choices? Does the court system have the right to make decisions that effect everyone? Is there a potential that this type of system could both save and destroy humanity? How would we prevent this type of system from causing any more destruction?
Most novels have a hero. The protagonist is one of the main elements of any story. The Existentialist hero and the Science Fiction hero each have unique struggles. One thing that they both share is alienation. In Existentialism, the protagonist may face conflicts with morality, religion, or identity. These conflicts create a separation between the protagonist and society. Following the existential path always leads to individualism and self governance. The Science Fiction hero has a slightly different conflict. In most cases the protagonist is responsible for saving humanity. They inherit this responsibility because they have been given some power or a unique ability. The Science Fiction protagonist is the only one capable of saving humanity and if they fail or turn down their mission, humanity will cease to exist. This great deal of pressure creates the ultimate form of alienation. There is one distinct difference between the Existential protagonist’s alienation and the Science Fiction protagonist’s alienation. The Existential alienation results in betterment of the individual. The Science Fiction alienation results in the betterment of humanity.
The mood and setting of a story is important to the overall plot and message the story conveys. Both Existentialist and Science Fiction literature have very dark and hopeless moods. In both genres, the dark vibes given off by the novels are misunderstood. In Existentialism, life can be given meaning through productive actions. This view should be seen positive because you are returning control to the individual and returning the hope that didn’t exist while giving hope to the divine power. Science Fiction is seen as grim because of the way it portrays technology and the future of humanity. Like Existentialism, Science Fiction offers a way to remedy the dismal future of humanity. Personal responsibility and self control are the answers for both Science Fiction and Existentialism.
Existentialism and Science Fiction share many themes and styles. Both genres became popular as a response to social crisis. The need for guidance drives both forms of literature. Existentialism provides answers for those people looking for guidance on separating from a divine power and taking control of their actions. Science Fiction provides answers for controlling technology and using it for the good and not the evil. Alienation is present for both Science Fiction and Existentialism. Isolation gives the protagonists a chance to evaluate their circumstances on an individual level so that they can make the most sound choice. Choices are continuously being made, even after the completion of the novel. The choice usually involves guilt and innocence or salvation and distraction. Both genres aim to teach a lesson through writing, and ultimately save humanity.
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