Between technophobia and utopia:
Science and postmodern literature

Ursula Heise

Rapidly increasing specialization has led, four decades after Snow's Rede Lecture, to an academic culture in which not only members of different disciplines but even researchers in different subdisciplines of the same field have trouble communicating. Attempts to bridge the gap between science and literature are complicated by literature's self-definition, over the last two centuries, in opposition to science: Writers and critics have viewed literature as representing the imagination, intuition, and emotions, opposed almost by default to the "inhuman," mechanistic explanations of the world that science allegedly offers. The arts, in this view, have turned into bulwarks of the human spirit against the encroachments of industrialization, urbanization, and technology.

As a consequence, science and technology have frequently appeared in apocalyptic scenarios in which scientists create monstrously deformed human bodies or minds Shelley's Frankenstein or Hawthorne's Rappaccini), oppressive environments that degrade humans to mere parts of machinery (Fritz Lang's film "Metropolis"), or totalitarian societies (Huxley's Brave New World). Under the double threat of nuclear annihilation and environmental collapse, such scenarios have intensified in postmodern literature: From the "day after" scenarios of nuclear novels and films to the polluted, overpopulated, or decaying cities and desertified environments of much recent science fiction, pessimism about the impact of science seems to prevail in contemporary literature and film.

In spite of the Cold War and global warming, however, the relation between literature and science has changed. Science generally makes less sweeping claims about its understanding of reality than it did in the last century (whether this be due to a "legitimation crisis," increasing specialization, or the nature of recent discoveries), thereby diminishing the incentive for other cultural forces to articulate counterclaims. Literature, too, has become more ambivalent about its role, and the consequent blurring of the boundaries between "high" and "popular" literature has allowed themes previously confined to certain popular genres, such as science fiction, to spread to a broader spectrum of literary works. With computers transforming the work of visual artists, film makers, and poets as well as physicists and statisticians, a sense of separation between science and art grows harder to sustain.

As a consequence, postmodern literature, so far from associating technology only with apocalypse, also celebrates science's potential to transform human bodies, minds, and cultures-even to effect transformations that might have inspired earlier writers with horror. From John Cage's techno-utopian poetry of the 1960s and '70s to the fascination of cyberpunk novelists with global computer networks and alterations of the human body, science has inspired postmodern writers with scenarios of fantastic possibility. Deserts and moons transformed into livable habitats, hunger crises solved through the cultivation of artificial protein, humans with implanted sensory devices or neuroelectronic interfaces, biological and psychological gender transformations accomplished in less than a week -- all these form part of exhilarating new worlds, crucially enabled by science and technology. Bruce Sterling's "Shapers," genetically engineered and psychologically reconditioned family clans, would have been an object of horror in a Huxleyan world but are by no means terrifying in Sterling's universe; William Gibson's "vat-grown ninjas" may appear vaguely unpleasant but do not call up visions of monstrosity or totalitarian control of human reproduction. The liberation of an artificial intelligence from its creators' control in Gibson's Neuromancer is the kind of plot that would have led to catastrophe in earlier novels: the creation breaking free and wreaking havoc all around it. In Gibson, nothing of the sort occurs; on the contrary, the independence of the AI "Wintermute" from its human controllers heralds positive change.

Far from appearing as mechanistic, deterministic, and inhuman, science in these works frees humans from biological and physical as well as social and cultural constraints. This is not to say that such novels celebrate technological progress wholesale: Samuel Delany's Triton describes a world where people change gender with little effort, but where interplanetary wars also wipe out millions within minutes; and for all the thrill of excursions into cyberspace, Gibson's crime-ridden and decayed city sprawls are hardly desirable places to live. A similar ambiguity often attaches to more high-literary attempts to deploy not only technological procedures and artifacts but scientific theories.

American authors Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, for example, some of whose works are structured around concepts of thermodynamics and information theory, portray societies saturated with technologies that can by turns become liberatory or threatening. Outside Anglo-Saxon literature, writers such as Stanislaw Lem, Arno Schmidt, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, and the French Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OULIPO) group have also experimented with elements of science and mathematics to structure fictional texts. And in the late '80s and early '90s, non-linear dynamics or chaos theory has become a major source of inspiration for writers such as Tom Stoppard, whose play "Arcadia" is explicitly based on chaos theory, and Bruce Sterling, whose cyberpunk novel Schismatrix narrates the future history of mankind following the model of Ilya Prigogine's philosophical extrapolations from his work in chemistry.

Strikingly, many of these texts employ scientific theory as a model for explaining historical processes. Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow are arguably less concerned with order and entropy in themselves than as tools that might reveal secret patterns of 20th century history, even though this search remains inconclusive. The same is true of Stoppard and Sterling's deployments of chaos theory. Inevitably, these texts conceive history less as the outcome of human agency than of the operation of forces above or below the individual's threshold of perception and comprehension-a predicament that British novelist Christine Brooke-Rose has brilliantly fictionalized in Out.

The weakening or even demise of individual intention as a central motor force of history and society is described with fear and despair in some novels, with hope and even euphoria in others. This ambivalence as to whether the human being as conventionally understood should be at the center of literary endeavor links the works that use scientific theories with the more technology-oriented texts that prominently feature robots, cyborgs, and surgically or genetically altered characters. This postmodernist move away from the anthropocentric focus of realist and high-modernist narrative has opened up new avenues for the integration of science into literary texts-not necessarily making literature less human but allowing it to envision the human in a broader range of contexts and histories.

Related links...

  • Yardshow, William Gibson's "ongoing experiment in semiotic drift and HTML meme-wrasslin'"

  • Another OULIPO page

  • From Energy to Information: Representation in Science, Art and Literature, conference at University of Texas, Austin, April 1997

  • Prof. Heise's article "Becoming Postmodern?" -- a review of Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds, Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1992) -- in Postmodern Culture

    URSULA HEISE, Ph.D., is assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia and a specialist in postmodern writing. Her book Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative, Postmodernism will be published by Cambridge UP in 1997.