One could easily point to some of the most important twentieth-century novels, all of which concern events that seemed similar to events likely to transpire in the future, including Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. However, as Tom Shippey has pointed out in his study of the fantasy novelist J. R. R. Tolkien, none of those novels is considered science fiction by mainstream literary critics. What, then, is science fiction?
One answer, based on history, is that science fiction is a genre that first appeared in U.S. pulp magazines in the 1920s. Bearing titles such as Astounding or Galaxy, these magazines represented the most important part of Clarke’s reading during his adolescence—and were where almost all of his early novels and short stories were first published. For example, ‘‘Dog Star’’ premiered in Galaxy. In that sense, Clarke is definitely a science fiction author. Moreover, he has received major awards from organizations representing science fiction writers and fans rather than mainstream literary awards, like the Booker or Nobel prizes. In fact, Clarke is usually considered one of the great science fiction writers, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein.
As a genre, science fiction tends to concern itself with subjects such as space or time travel, contact with aliens, and the like. Since the majority of the readers of the science fiction pulps were boys in their teens, characters tended to be supermasculine heroes fighting evil, natural forces, or some other extraterrestrial opponent. Factors like literary style and character development were secondary. In the 1960s, in the context of the space race, science fiction seemed to overlap with popular interests. Clarke used the occasion to defend science fiction against attack by mainstream critics:
“Science Fiction is often called escapism—always in a negative sense. . . . Of course it’s not true. Science fiction is virtually the only kind of writing that’s dealing with the real problems and possibilities; it’s a concerned fiction. Its’s the mainstream that escapes from these things into small anxieties—away from fact, away from things that threaten or enrich our lives.”
What Clarke’s statement reveals is that science fiction and literary fiction are quite different from each other. Science fiction is primarily concerned with finding meaning at the highest level, namely, in the structure of the universe rather than anything comprehensible on a human scale, while literary fiction is insistent that only in creating the likeness of individual human lives can any meaning be embedded in a work of fiction. In Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the reader sees the action of characters in a future whose events might seem all too predictable because of their palpable reality. In ‘‘Dog Star’’ the narrator feels uncomfortable and awkward and abandons human feeling in favor of pure science. Clarke thus reduces his work to a prediction of the future, one that fails to deal with ‘‘ real problems and possibilities ’’ in a meaningful way.
The anonymous narrator of ‘‘Dog Star’’ cultivates a technocratic persona. Part of this image involves assuming an identity as a skeptic, someone who only believes anything on the basis of evidence and its reasoned interpretation. This is almost inevitable for a scientist and astronomer, who must work in his professional life with a physical universe and purely mechanistic explanations, although many working scientists simultaneously maintain private religious beliefs. In the case of the narrator, skepticism is a core part of his identity. For this reason he can state, ‘‘It is hardly necessary for me to say that I do not believe in the supernatural.’’ When confronted by the seemingly uncanny events involving his dog warning him of the two earthquakes (in person in Berkeley and through a dream on the moon), the narrator offers up what at first appear to be rational explanations. In fact, these are poorly thought out and badly reasoned rationalizations. At best the two incidents are anecdotes, not scientific evidence. His interpretations seem geared toward erecting an emotional barrier between himself and necessary human emotion.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Arthur C Clarke, Published by Gale Group, 2001.