Science Fiction and Alterity

By Brydie Kosmina

Science fiction is a cultural phenomenon, coming to prominence following the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, in response to technological and scientific advances of the era. A relatively young genre, science fiction (or sci-fi) is arguably the literature closest aligned to the modern human experience, examining not just present-day society, but future iterations of the human condition, and the inescapable influence of technology on humanity. Science fiction is, by its very construction, an exploration of difference: between reality and the world of the text, human and inhuman, science and fiction. This preoccupation with difference extends to identity and subjectivity in sci-fi literature, embodied in academic discourses of alterity, alienation, abjection, or the Other. The sci-fi genre’s historical and modern engagement with discourses of alterity and Othering mark science fiction as a potential vehicle for social justice movements. The radical potential in sci-fi’s imaginative comparisons to reality and examination of the Other creates space for subversive criticism of dominant hierarchical ideologies.

692949_origSo what is science fiction? Initially, there is debate as to whether sci-fi is a genre at all – arguments can be made to say sci-fi is, in fact, a mode, and not a genre. This is how we can have science fiction romance, and adventure sci-fi, how we can have historical sci-fi (e.g. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick) next to stories set in the future, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, also by Dick, to give you an easy comparison. Without getting stuck in an ongoing debate about genre or mode, there are distinguishable patterns and “rules” within science fiction writing, which most sci-fi critics see as indicative of genre. Sci-fi is a genre of contradictions, nonetheless – lurking monsters clash with superhuman heroes, ships travel through space and time, aliens live with human beings… Perhaps the endless scope of the imagination is why science fiction is so unclear, and yet so easily-identifiable. Even defining science fiction is difficult: how can one genre cover such broad experiences as androids, zombies, space travel, time travel, vivisection, evolution, devolution, dystopias, utopias, the list goes on. Science fiction can be seen, somewhat facetiously, as what is labelled as such in bookstores. A clear example of popular mass media’s influence on literature, science fiction is, to at least some degree, what the general public says it is. Academic criticism has historically portrayed the genre as “a historically specific social and cultural form,” given its “low-culture” position (Tudor 2).  Slowly, however, critics are coming to acknowledge the inherent patterns and “rules” of the genre, and identify the genre’s origins and evolution from previous literary movements and events. Evident in sci-fi is the influence of Enlightenment thought, Gothic and Romantic writing traditions, the Industrial Revolution, rapidly advancing scientific discovery and technology, theories of the Fantastic, the Abject, and of Alterity, cross-culture (and –period) pollination, and the growth of literature as social criticism. However, despite all of these clear literary influences, it cannot be denied that science fiction is primarily still a concept that exists in the cultural psyche. Genre “exists in the conceptions of its audience as much as in the artefacts of which it is apparently composed,” and science fiction is no exception to this (Tudor 5).

Edward Gorey’s illustration for H.G. Well’s ‘War of the Worlds’.


Despite the apparent popular appeal and apparent consensus on what can be classified as science fiction, actually defining the genre with concrete terms and boundaries seems to be an impossible task, replying primarily on instinct. Paul Alkon, for example, in Science Fiction Before 1900, rather simply defines science fiction as “the narrative use of science to create myths allowing novel points of view to the imagination” (7-8), a definition which denies any aesthetic features of the genre. Brian Aldiss, in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, gives more depth to his definition of sci-fi, seeing it as “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) and is characteristically cast in the Gothic and post-Gothic mould” (8). While this is a far more comprehensive definition, acknowledging the philosophical premise of science fiction, and the use of science as a narrative feature, and not the narrative feature, Aldiss was writing in 1973, and thus his definition cannot account for modern shifts away from the Gothic mode. Adam Roberts, in his very comprehensive introductory book, Science Fiction, incorporates theories of the Fantastic, defining science fiction as “a genre or division of literature [which] distinguishes its fictional worlds to one degree or another from the world in which we actually live: a fiction of the imagination rather than observed reality, a fantastic literature” (1). However, this seems to cast the genre in a manner that removes all rationality or internal logic, inherited from its Enlightenment roots, and lumps it in with fantasy. Further, George Slusser, a noted science fiction academic, bases his definition on this scientific rationality, seeing the genre as a bridge between the separate humanistic and scientific literature traditions that arose from Francis Bacon’s division of culture and science (28). While Slusser does incorporate science fiction into broader humanist literature, this definition is again vague about aesthetics.

“Frankenstein at work in his laboratory”

Ultimately, the sheer scope of the genre renders most attempts at definition incomplete. Science fiction, as a culturally-determined phenomenon, can be better understood through tracing the development of the genre through its many incarnations over the past few centuries. Of course, there remains debate about what can be considered the first science fiction text. Many academic and popular authors claim Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) (hereafter Frankenstein) as the originator of the genre. However, some see this as anachronistic: Frankenstein was not recognised as a work of science fiction at the time of publication, but as Gothic. “Science fiction” as a self-conscious genre was not to emerge for another two centuries, evolving from the Gothic tradition, and forged in the crucible of Enlightenment thought and scientific advancement. This argument, however, fails to account for the hindsight required in genre designation: it is unfair to expect authors to self-consciously designate themselves as part of a newly emerging genre when genre itself can only really be determined looking back in hindsight at developing trends and themes. The argument that Frankenstein is, in fact, an early science fiction novel, then, holds. Very briefly, it is strange that scifi emerged from Gothic, given the opposing views on reality the two genres provide. Botting argues that this is because Gothic “looks back […] to superstitious and barbaric “dark” arges without the enlightened reason and empirical technique so important in science fiction’s imaginings of human progress” (111). The rationality and scientific logic embedded in scifi from its Enlightenment roots “ground[s] […] science fiction in the material rather than the supernatural” (Roberts 5). Where the two genres merge is in their portrayal of the monstrous, their engagement with what Freud called Das Unheimlich, or the Uncanny. The cognitive dissonance of the familiar become peculiar, of the known becoming recognisable but different, permeates both Gothic and science fiction literature. Where Gothic looks back to an ancestral monster, science fiction looks ahead (Botting 111).

Illustration from Eagle Annual, c. 1963.


If sci-fi is, to quote renowned author and critic, Robert A. Heinlein, “imaginary-but-possible” (18), then how does this mesh with our construction and representation of human and Other? Prominent in classical mythologies, the figure of the monster “continue[s] to play an active and important role in the contemporary popular imagination” (Creed vii). The monster has taken many forms, from the “ancient notion of “foreigner” (xenos) to the contemporary category of alien invader,” and “frequently operates as a limit-experience for humans trying to identify themselves over and against others” (Kearney 4). We define ourselves against the monstrous Other that society and the individual has classified as abnormal or outside proper boundaries. Explorations of alterity and Othering exist in most humanities discourses – for example in historical or sociological approaches, discourses of alterity are encompassed by discussions of in-and out-groups. In literary studies, alterity is usually discussed through ideas of alienation, the Other, and of abjection. The shape and form of the Other depends on shifting cultural understandings of difference and hierarchy. Most communities have been predicated upon the myth of the Other, as a means of creating a binding communal identity, the “us’ to the Other’s “them,” and the characteristics and symbol of the Other shifts according to socio-cultural developments and necessities.

Mary Shelley’s portrait by Richard Rothwell c. 1840.

It is important to discuss Kristeva’s theory of abjection when exploring alterity in science fiction.The abject represents our visceral reaction to a breakdown in meaning the subject, our Self, and the object, the Other, and the dialogue and interplay between I and not I. Outlined primarily in Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, and further explored in Strangers to Ourselves, abjection is defined as “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva, Powers 4). Where we use language to construct subject and object, Self and Other, abjection cannot be quantified linguistically. The most illuminating example Kristeva provides to identify the place of the abject as both my Self and not is in imagery of the corpse and of bodily fluids – both human and part of the body, and no longer human, and expelled from the body (Kristeva, Powers 4-10). When confronted with something that is not quantifiable in language, something that is both I and not I, there is a revulsion or horror, which is rendered as monstrous. Abrahamic religious constructions of sin and the body, along with Freudian and Lacanian theories of the unconscious, internalised abjection in the human body and mind, and “integrate[d] within the assumed unity of human beings an Otherness that is both biological and symbolic and becomes an integral part of the same” (Kristeva, Strangers 181). This unconscious self recognises and recoils from its own alterity, projecting that which is unpleasant or fearful onto others (Kristeva, Strangers 183; Kearney 5). The Other transformed from a scapegoat monster constructed to rid society of its ills and reinvigorate the community, to an external reflection of our own fears and phobias, predicated upon cultural trends.

The Other has occupied a place in artistic representation as monster or demon – religious beliefs and cultural fears around the supernatural were deemed entirely plausible, and the Other was not an abstract idea, but could tangibly be placed in the form of the Monster. The Enlightenment, however, prompted a call to rationality, exiling the monster from the conscious world (Kearney 117). The Other was banished to the psyche, and artistic representations of the Other shifted from monstrous creaturesBeowulf’s Grendel, Shakespeare’s Caliban – to monstrous humans (or humanoids) – Dracula, Mr. Hyde, Voldemort. Scientific discovery and rising intellectualism moved the shadows of the abject from the external supernatural and religious demonic to the internal psyche, creating monsters of our Selves.

Richard Mansfield in a stage adaption of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. C. 1895.

Works of the fantastic – that is, literature such as fantasy, science fiction, epic, adventure, etc. – presents a rejection of pragmatic, realistic ideas of possibility, a “violation of dominant assumptions [that] threaten to subvert rules and conventions taken to be normative” (Jackson 14). Fantastic literature is a genre of the Other, a genre that rejects the normative laws of our world: it “makes visible the un-seen [and] articulates the un-said” (Jackson 48). In the increasingly rationalised post-Enlightenment scientific landscape, fantastic literature became the new home for the monstrous Other, banished from realistic literature. I want to go back to Frankenstein, briefly, to demonstrate how sci-fi presents a shift in the artistic representation of the Other. When the Creature speaks, he self-consciously constructs himself through literature, and associates himself (the monstrous Other) with humanity, and Frankenstein (the rational human scientists) with monstrosity:

Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous (Shelley 103).

This reversal of monstrosity between human and Other, between what should be “us” and what should be “them,” indicates the aligning of audience sympathies with the marginalised inherent in science fiction.

If science fiction, as fantastic literature, is a safe place of subversion for the Other to inhabit, it also becomes a place for Othered groups to critique social norms and rules that cast them as villains. Historically, science fiction has reflected social and cultural norms; society’s Other is science fiction’s monster. The origins of the genre, as discussed earlier, are debatable, but are considered to lie somewhere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the so-called Age of Empires. As colonial powers established themselves around the world, they utilised the very theories of the Other so prevalent in modern-day science fiction to create Others of native peoples and cast difference as a threat to the empire, and thus justify eradicating or suppressing difference. Gothic-horror and “scientific romance” (science fiction, for all intents and purposes) emerged in this era of colonialism. Science fiction can be seen as the “expression of the subconscious aspect of this official ideology” (Roberts 49). The suppressed Other – people of colour, women, non-Christians, queer people – any who did not conform to imperialistic stereotypes of good and right came to be embodied in the science fiction’s text strangely sympathetic monster.

Science fiction conceits, such as space or time travel, conceits that are not scientifically possible in reality (yet), are referred to as nova or novum, and function as narrative embodiments of alterity in the text, as clear signifiers to the reader of the difference between the world of the text and our own world (Roberts 17). They provide unique opportunities in social justice criticism as literary features that explicitly draw attention to, and celebrate, their Othered nature. Self-conscious science fiction authors, then, use these nova to “provide a symbolic grammar for providing the perspectives of normally marginalised discourses of race, or gender, of non-conformism and alternative ideologies” (Roberts 17). While not necessarily always a radically progressive representation of marginalised out-groups – indeed, sometimes the exact opposite – there has always been present in science fiction a necessity for alterity, and an inherent celebration of difference, that is not seen in other genres.

Science fiction, then, has the potential to be a vehicle for social change, although this potential is rarely recognised. Literature of the fantastic has often been regarded as “low-culture,” and social criticism contained within is often disregarded, or is heard by too few to effect change. Despite recognising the potential of the genre, widely-acclaimed sci-fi authors disregarded their position as instigators of social change, and instead saw it as a theoretical investigation of difference, which had not, and could not, provide real-world applications of the social critique it created. Robert A. Heinlein, mentioned earlier, claimed that science fiction “is the most alive, the most important, the most useful, and the most comprehensive fiction being published,” but nonetheless, claimed it is only capable of comprehending social difference, and not of creating it (40-41). While science fiction “contains a high percentage of explicit and implicit social criticism,” scifi authors form the so-called Golden Age, the 1940s to the 1060s, claimed it would never measurably change the world in much the same way as other novels (Kornbluth 51-52).

However, I would argue otherwise. It was perhaps inevitable that during the social and civil upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw the success of the Civil Rights movement, second-wave feminism, and the swell of the LGBTQA+ movements, literature of all varieties would follow. Mid-twentieth century shifts in science fiction towards an incorporation of the Other in the norm, then, can be seen as of a broader cultural upheaval. However, modern science fiction has continued this move towards social justice, with many authors of marginalised groups now self-consciously choosing science fiction as a ground for exploration of worlds without oppression.

Octavia’s Brood represents a growing move in science fiction to writing “visionary fiction,” literature that “has relevance toward building new, freer worlds from mainstream science fiction” (Imarisha 4). Imarisha argues that:

Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organising is science fiction. Organisers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world, or many other worlds – so what better venue for organisers to explore their work than science fiction stories? (Imarisha 3)

The stories included in Octavia’s Brood are intended to include the marginalised, both as characters and as authors. All of the pieces in the work reflect a conscious reversal of monstrosity in the Other/same dichotomy. While the Other remains the marginalised or oppressed group, monstrosity resides in the majority and the dominant ideologies. This engagement with monstrosity, alterity, and social justice is not merely seen within new sci-fi texts, but within the science fiction community itself, demonstrated through the last few years’ Hugo Awards in the so-called “Puppy Wars.”

Science fiction’s very construction, then, allows it to be a genre about reading the marginal experience, as science fiction’s nova are constructed to point to, and celebrate, their own alterity. Freudian constructions of the Other as an external representation of internal socio-cultural anxieties inevitably place marginalised groups as the Other of the science fiction text. This would be a highly problematic construction of Otherness, if it were not for the necessity and acceptance of the Other in science fiction – the monsters of sci-fi are often the protagonists, or at least the instigator of the plot, and are often (although admittedly not always) reflections of the “hero.” What seems monstrous and Other at first – “them” – is seen as a mirror image of the safe and heroic – “us.” Where traditional fiction is bound by its adherence to a realistic representation of society, for good or ill, science fiction’s imaginative exploration of alternative worlds and societies holds up our own societies and constructions of Otherness for comparison and critique. While science fiction does have conservative texts, factions, and features, as does any genre, the vast majority of works classified as science fiction have been radical for their time. Imagining fictional worlds and beings inevitably require some examination of our own society, and what it means to be human. By its very construction, science fiction is a breeding ground for pre-imagining change: the world will probably not change due to one book, but in sci-fi, inequality can be rejected, prejudice can be examined, and utopias can be imagined. The revolutionary disposition of a genre that requires a hierarchically dominant human monster marks science fiction as an ideal genre for social justice movements and authors to work within. Science fiction, the enthusiastic imaginative response to increasing technological and scientific influence on the human condition, has grown up, and has grown a conscience in doing so.


Brydie Kosmina presenting on Science Fiction and Alterity.  21/04/2017. Photography by Olivia De Zilva.


Works Cited:

Aldiss, Brian. Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973.

Alkon, Paul K. Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. Twayne, 1994.

Botting, Fred. “‘Monsters of the Imagination’: Gothic, Science, Fiction.” A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed, Blackwell Publishing, 2005, 111-126.

Brown, Adrienne Maree. “Outro.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements. Edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree brown, AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2016, 279-281.

Creed, Barbara. Phallic Panic: Film, Horror and the Primal Uncanny. Melbourne University Press, 2005.

Heinlein, Robert A. “Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults, and Virtues.” The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism, 3rd ed., edited by Basil Davenport, Advent, 1969, 14-48.

Imarisha, Walidah. “Introduction.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown, AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015, 3-6.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. Methuen, 1981.

Kearney, Richard. Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. Routledge, 2003.

Kornbluth, C.M. “The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism.” The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism, 3rd ed., edited by Basil Davenport, Advent, 1969, 49-76.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, 1982.

–. Strangers to Ourselves, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, 1991.

Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction. Routledge, 2006.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. 1818. Penguin Classics, 1992.

Slusser, George. “The Origins of Science Fiction.” A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed, Blackwell, 2005, pp. 27-42.

Tudor, Andrew. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Basil Blackwell, 1989.


Further Reading:

Irwin, Matthew. “REVIEW: Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.Briarpatch, 44, 4, 2015, 35.

Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1, 1994, 237-254.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Cornell Paperbacks, Cornell University Press, 1973.

Wallace, Amy. “Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters.” Wired, 23 Aug. 2015, Accessed 21 April 2017.

Published by Dylan Rowen.


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