Science Fiction And Utopia In 'Gulliver's Travels'

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15th May 2017 English Literature Reference this

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Jonathan Swifts Gulliver's Travels is one the most famous satires written in the history of English literature. Many critics consider this satire as one of the earliest science fiction writings, while many others exclude this book from the science fiction genre. Although Gulliver's Travels may not completely fall in to the category of science fiction novels, but it shares some major elements with them that makes them become close together. One this major elements, is the utopian and the dystopian outlook conveyed in this work.

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'Cognition', with its rational, logical implications, refers to that aspect of SF that prompts us to try and understand, to comprehend the alien landscape of a given SF book, film or story. 'Estrangement' is a term from Brecht, more usually rendered in English-language criticism as 'alienation'; and in this context it refers to that element of SF that we recognise as different, that 'estranges' us from the familiar and everyday. If the SF text were entirely concerned with 'estrangement' then we would not be able to understand it; if it were entirely to do with 'cognition' then it would be scientific or documentary rather than science fiction. According to Suvin, both features need to be present; and it is this co-presence that allows SF both relevance to our world and the position to challenge the ordinary, the taken-for-granted. The main 'formal device' of Suvin's version of SF is the novum. (8)

Robert Scholes, while appreciates the cognitivism of science fiction, also tries to add structural elements to make the analysis more solid on the matter. Jones's ideas on science and novum are alo identical with what Suvin says (10-11). Broderick also appreciats the previous idea as Roberts says: "Broderick develops and deepens the Suvinian sense of 'cognitive estrangement' and Scholes's 'structural fabulation'"(13), but he also tries to add more other factors to it and also objects on many science fiction writings that do not have the required quality.

What is evident in all these defintions is that they all agree on the three aspects Suvin defines for science fiction and take them as the foreground of their studies. Therefore relying on these critics, one may conclude that a work of science fiction is the one that uses esrangement as a literary technique in order to achieve a cognitive end in an imaginatory framework or novum.

In Gulliver's Travels, the notion of estrangement can be traced in all four books without difficulty. The first book depicts the journey to Lilliput. The little mans themselves create the estranged effect as well as the setting of their land with small trees and a village with small houses:

When I found myself on my feet, I looked about me, and must confess I never beheld a more entertaining prospect. The country around appeared like a continued garden, and the enclosed fields, which were generally forty feet square, resembled so many beds of flowers. These fields were intermingled with woods of half a stang, and the tallest trees, as I could judge, appeared to be seven feet high. I viewed the town on my left hand, which looked like the painted scene of a city in a theatre. (10)

The size difference although creates an estrangement effect in this book but does not satisfy the notion of "novum", as the Lilliputian world resembles the world of the author or the narrator in this case. Both worlds consist of similar social and political systems of monarchy and hierarchies while one of the main aspects of science fiction is to create a world which is completely different in social and political grounds to the world of the author: novum. This does not happen in this book. As well as this point, one can also add that no scientific matter is also considered in this book to contribute to the science part of science fiction. Therefore this book lacks the notion of novum and the scientific part of the SF genre. It can be concluded in here that this book is merely a satire on the British monarchy and society.

A similar analysis can be done for book two, where Gulliver on his second voyage to "Brobdingnag" meets the "Giants". The setting again has been estranged by the thought of giant men and giant landscape and towns. But the notion of novum can't be concluded from it as it again consists of similar social structures. As for scientific matters, again there are no significant scientific elements to be discussed. Overall both books one and two fail to be considered as a science fiction work.

The third book however can be considered with more concern. The "Floating Island" of "Laputa" itself contains all science fictional elements. It is based on a pseudo-scientific fact that a piece of land may float and move about space via a controlled electromagnetic field. The whole estranged setting of the Laputans reflected in their clothing, language based on abstract sciences such as mathematics and music, their strange anti geometrical behaviors, their interest in celestial bodies contribute to the estrangement effect required for a science fiction work. Their social and political systems also vary greatly, as the king had used the floating island as a weapon to control and punish the disobeying towns-fixing the island on top of their towns and depriving them out of sun and rain; and at the end had failed and is trapped to stay on the island forever.

So Swift is able to present a novum society, a novum world in his third book of Gulliver's Travels where conventional monarchy system has to some limits failed to control its people by implying force. Another important part of this book is "the academy". Gulliver tells us that the Laputans make him feel neglected and that he is bored by their constantly talking about mathematics, music and geometry and etc. He is told that he can visit the academy. In his visit to the academy he finds absurd treatments of science and language and he becomes even more shocked. The position of mad scientist in an educational and research facility itself contributes to an estrangement effect in this book.

But the other important complementary factor needed to put this chapter among SF writings is "cognition". This chapter by showing us a different kind of society and also by the way it presents the academy brings to mind questions about man, knowledge and the limits in them. Questions that initate from the usage of science and technology (the giant magnet of the floating island) and that ends in the mere philosophy of knowledge showed in its absurd end (in the academy). These questions lay among epistemological questions aimed to give cognition. Therefore the third book of Gulliver's Travels can be considered as a science fiction story.

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The fourth book of Gulliver's Travels is perhaps the most favorable among the whole book. The setting is a forest similar to that we find in our own world but what can create an estrangement effect is perhaps the people who populate it: the talking, intelligent horses, "the Houyhnhnms" and the savage human beings or "Yahoos". Nothing scientific again goes on, even though horses speak in their own language, there is no reference to any sort of scientific explanation, so it is considered as mere fantasy. The comparison between the Yahoos who look like man but act like animals and the horses that look like animals and act and speak as man is interesting as it rises questions that lead to cognition. In any how any satirical work leads us to cognition as it questions the way we live, it criticizes our societies, our habits, our ways of life and thinking; but it does not necessarily have to have science fictional elements. This is the case with Gulliver's Travels, except for its third book.

But Gulliver's Travels can easily fall into the sub genre of science fiction: Utopia. Michael Holquist in his article "How to Play Utopia: Some Brief Notes on the Distinctiveness of Utopian Fiction" explains the different aspects of utopia by comparing it to the game of chess and they are: abstraction of the society, the order that reigns in a Utopia, the need for limits, borders and exclusions (time and space),its inflexibility of mending rules as it is perfect in itself and the fact that it takes place in a peculiar time and place, a place "outside our world" and a "time off our clock" and its arbitrariness. (Rose 130)

Utopia has … is a simplification, a radical stylization of something which in experience is of enormous complexity, often lacking any apparent symmetry. Chess substitutes for war, Utopia for society. In each case what was rough is made smooth, what was chaotic is made orderly.(132)

By applying these rules to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, one can see how in the first three books Swift pictures dystopia in three sets of societies of little, giant and normal sized men and how in the fourth book, in a society of horses he pictures a utopia for his readers. All the four societies are found outside our world as a result of a journey to unknown places, unknown lands. So it is obvious that they are all set outside our place and time. They are all abstracts and are arbitrary as they only know their own existence and are cut off from the rest of the world and they even neglect the existence of other worlds.

The societies showed in all four books are to be compared with the society of England in Swift's time. The Lilliputians are smaller creatures; they are depicted in a way to show the falsies of Swift's England. The election of government members done by "rope dancing" for example is showed here to ridicule the election of government members in England. The constant wars between them and the "Blefuscus" that started over the way they should eat an egg resembles the constant wars between England and other countries such as Spain and France and this satire is aimed to show the dystopia that leans on unimportant affairs and loses many men for it.

The second book shows the small mindedness of England's society in comparison to the giants. The giant's king is unable to understand Gulliver's explanations about England, the necessity of wars "gun powder", etc. The line between dystopia and utopia somehow merge in this chapter as the giants' world has its perfect and imperfect sides. Poverty and hierarchies still remain in this society but the notion of peace is something fixed that its lack is not understood by them. The order reigns more fully in this kingdom.

Laputa depicts mans desire for knowledge and technology and shows it as something bad and destructive, which results in force, isolation and madness. The dystopia depicted here is more understandable as this book also possesses stronger science fictional roots. It has been shown that the knowledgably, intelligent people of Laputa eventually used their knowledge for force and power but they failed and they were forced to stay on the floating island and never leave it. The academy again is another good example of how this society and its mere reliance on knowledge lead to destruction and decay. Another important thing that happens is the children who are born with a red mark on their foreheads and are immortal. Swift shows us through these immortals that immortality is not desirable and it again leads to decay.

The "Houyhnhnms" in the fourth book are the only race that has achieved a utopian society. They are wise and are deprived out of all negative desires and qualities. They are shown in contrast to the "Yahoos". The world of the Houyhnhnms is so perfect that Gulliver does not want to ever leave it. But as explained above, utopia is so perfect that it becomes unbendable to change, so the Houyhnhnms refuse to accept him as a part of their societies, because accepting him means a change and may result in the decay of their system. So Gulliver is forced to leave. When he arrives home he buys two horses and wants to repeat the utopian experience by conversing with the horses. But utopia is a place out of our world and its experience is not repeatable.

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels shares some aspects of science fiction genre in its use of the estrangement technique and the use of utopia and dystopia in its context. But overall the thing that brings this satire close to science fiction is mainly the way it makes the readers think. The epistemological questions that are raised in this book among our realization of social faults and the depiction of man in several conditions with its strengths and weakness both in body and mind, all lead to a "cognition" that are promised by a good science fiction story. Therefore although Gulliver's Travels does not fall completely in to the genre of science fiction, but it could have been one of the main inspirations and predecessors of this genre.

Jonathan Swifts Gulliver's Travels is one the most famous satires written in the history of English literature. Many critics consider this satire as one of the earliest science fiction writings, while many others exclude this book from the science fiction genre. Although Gulliver's Travels may not completely fall in to the category of science fiction novels, but it shares some major elements with them that makes them become close together. One this major elements, is the utopian and the dystopian outlook conveyed in this work.

'Cognition', with its rational, logical implications, refers to that aspect of SF that prompts us to try and understand, to comprehend the alien landscape of a given SF book, film or story. 'Estrangement' is a term from Brecht, more usually rendered in English-language criticism as 'alienation'; and in this context it refers to that element of SF that we recognise as different, that 'estranges' us from the familiar and everyday. If the SF text were entirely concerned with 'estrangement' then we would not be able to understand it; if it were entirely to do with 'cognition' then it would be scientific or documentary rather than science fiction. According to Suvin, both features need to be present; and it is this co-presence that allows SF both relevance to our world and the position to challenge the ordinary, the taken-for-granted. The main 'formal device' of Suvin's version of SF is the novum. (8)

Robert Scholes, while appreciates the cognitivism of science fiction, also tries to add structural elements to make the analysis more solid on the matter. Jones's ideas on science and novum are alo identical with what Suvin says (10-11). Broderick also appreciats the previous idea as Roberts says: "Broderick develops and deepens the Suvinian sense of 'cognitive estrangement' and Scholes's 'structural fabulation'"(13), but he also tries to add more other factors to it and also objects on many science fiction writings that do not have the required quality.

What is evident in all these defintions is that they all agree on the three aspects Suvin defines for science fiction and take them as the foreground of their studies. Therefore relying on these critics, one may conclude that a work of science fiction is the one that uses esrangement as a literary technique in order to achieve a cognitive end in an imaginatory framework or novum.

In Gulliver's Travels, the notion of estrangement can be traced in all four books without difficulty. The first book depicts the journey to Lilliput. The little mans themselves create the estranged effect as well as the setting of their land with small trees and a village with small houses:

When I found myself on my feet, I looked about me, and must confess I never beheld a more entertaining prospect. The country around appeared like a continued garden, and the enclosed fields, which were generally forty feet square, resembled so many beds of flowers. These fields were intermingled with woods of half a stang, and the tallest trees, as I could judge, appeared to be seven feet high. I viewed the town on my left hand, which looked like the painted scene of a city in a theatre. (10)

The size difference although creates an estrangement effect in this book but does not satisfy the notion of "novum", as the Lilliputian world resembles the world of the author or the narrator in this case. Both worlds consist of similar social and political systems of monarchy and hierarchies while one of the main aspects of science fiction is to create a world which is completely different in social and political grounds to the world of the author: novum. This does not happen in this book. As well as this point, one can also add that no scientific matter is also considered in this book to contribute to the science part of science fiction. Therefore this book lacks the notion of novum and the scientific part of the SF genre. It can be concluded in here that this book is merely a satire on the British monarchy and society.

A similar analysis can be done for book two, where Gulliver on his second voyage to "Brobdingnag" meets the "Giants". The setting again has been estranged by the thought of giant men and giant landscape and towns. But the notion of novum can't be concluded from it as it again consists of similar social structures. As for scientific matters, again there are no significant scientific elements to be discussed. Overall both books one and two fail to be considered as a science fiction work.

The third book however can be considered with more concern. The "Floating Island" of "Laputa" itself contains all science fictional elements. It is based on a pseudo-scientific fact that a piece of land may float and move about space via a controlled electromagnetic field. The whole estranged setting of the Laputans reflected in their clothing, language based on abstract sciences such as mathematics and music, their strange anti geometrical behaviors, their interest in celestial bodies contribute to the estrangement effect required for a science fiction work. Their social and political systems also vary greatly, as the king had used the floating island as a weapon to control and punish the disobeying towns-fixing the island on top of their towns and depriving them out of sun and rain; and at the end had failed and is trapped to stay on the island forever.

So Swift is able to present a novum society, a novum world in his third book of Gulliver's Travels where conventional monarchy system has to some limits failed to control its people by implying force. Another important part of this book is "the academy". Gulliver tells us that the Laputans make him feel neglected and that he is bored by their constantly talking about mathematics, music and geometry and etc. He is told that he can visit the academy. In his visit to the academy he finds absurd treatments of science and language and he becomes even more shocked. The position of mad scientist in an educational and research facility itself contributes to an estrangement effect in this book.

But the other important complementary factor needed to put this chapter among SF writings is "cognition". This chapter by showing us a different kind of society and also by the way it presents the academy brings to mind questions about man, knowledge and the limits in them. Questions that initate from the usage of science and technology (the giant magnet of the floating island) and that ends in the mere philosophy of knowledge showed in its absurd end (in the academy). These questions lay among epistemological questions aimed to give cognition. Therefore the third book of Gulliver's Travels can be considered as a science fiction story.

The fourth book of Gulliver's Travels is perhaps the most favorable among the whole book. The setting is a forest similar to that we find in our own world but what can create an estrangement effect is perhaps the people who populate it: the talking, intelligent horses, "the Houyhnhnms" and the savage human beings or "Yahoos". Nothing scientific again goes on, even though horses speak in their own language, there is no reference to any sort of scientific explanation, so it is considered as mere fantasy. The comparison between the Yahoos who look like man but act like animals and the horses that look like animals and act and speak as man is interesting as it rises questions that lead to cognition. In any how any satirical work leads us to cognition as it questions the way we live, it criticizes our societies, our habits, our ways of life and thinking; but it does not necessarily have to have science fictional elements. This is the case with Gulliver's Travels, except for its third book.

But Gulliver's Travels can easily fall into the sub genre of science fiction: Utopia. Michael Holquist in his article "How to Play Utopia: Some Brief Notes on the Distinctiveness of Utopian Fiction" explains the different aspects of utopia by comparing it to the game of chess and they are: abstraction of the society, the order that reigns in a Utopia, the need for limits, borders and exclusions (time and space),its inflexibility of mending rules as it is perfect in itself and the fact that it takes place in a peculiar time and place, a place "outside our world" and a "time off our clock" and its arbitrariness. (Rose 130)

Utopia has … is a simplification, a radical stylization of something which in experience is of enormous complexity, often lacking any apparent symmetry. Chess substitutes for war, Utopia for society. In each case what was rough is made smooth, what was chaotic is made orderly.(132)

By applying these rules to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, one can see how in the first three books Swift pictures dystopia in three sets of societies of little, giant and normal sized men and how in the fourth book, in a society of horses he pictures a utopia for his readers. All the four societies are found outside our world as a result of a journey to unknown places, unknown lands. So it is obvious that they are all set outside our place and time. They are all abstracts and are arbitrary as they only know their own existence and are cut off from the rest of the world and they even neglect the existence of other worlds.

The societies showed in all four books are to be compared with the society of England in Swift's time. The Lilliputians are smaller creatures; they are depicted in a way to show the falsies of Swift's England. The election of government members done by "rope dancing" for example is showed here to ridicule the election of government members in England. The constant wars between them and the "Blefuscus" that started over the way they should eat an egg resembles the constant wars between England and other countries such as Spain and France and this satire is aimed to show the dystopia that leans on unimportant affairs and loses many men for it.

The second book shows the small mindedness of England's society in comparison to the giants. The giant's king is unable to understand Gulliver's explanations about England, the necessity of wars "gun powder", etc. The line between dystopia and utopia somehow merge in this chapter as the giants' world has its perfect and imperfect sides. Poverty and hierarchies still remain in this society but the notion of peace is something fixed that its lack is not understood by them. The order reigns more fully in this kingdom.

Laputa depicts mans desire for knowledge and technology and shows it as something bad and destructive, which results in force, isolation and madness. The dystopia depicted here is more understandable as this book also possesses stronger science fictional roots. It has been shown that the knowledgably, intelligent people of Laputa eventually used their knowledge for force and power but they failed and they were forced to stay on the floating island and never leave it. The academy again is another good example of how this society and its mere reliance on knowledge lead to destruction and decay. Another important thing that happens is the children who are born with a red mark on their foreheads and are immortal. Swift shows us through these immortals that immortality is not desirable and it again leads to decay.

The "Houyhnhnms" in the fourth book are the only race that has achieved a utopian society. They are wise and are deprived out of all negative desires and qualities. They are shown in contrast to the "Yahoos". The world of the Houyhnhnms is so perfect that Gulliver does not want to ever leave it. But as explained above, utopia is so perfect that it becomes unbendable to change, so the Houyhnhnms refuse to accept him as a part of their societies, because accepting him means a change and may result in the decay of their system. So Gulliver is forced to leave. When he arrives home he buys two horses and wants to repeat the utopian experience by conversing with the horses. But utopia is a place out of our world and its experience is not repeatable.

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels shares some aspects of science fiction genre in its use of the estrangement technique and the use of utopia and dystopia in its context. But overall the thing that brings this satire close to science fiction is mainly the way it makes the readers think. The epistemological questions that are raised in this book among our realization of social faults and the depiction of man in several conditions with its strengths and weakness both in body and mind, all lead to a "cognition" that are promised by a good science fiction story. Therefore although Gulliver's Travels does not fall completely in to the genre of science fiction, but it could have been one of the main inspirations and predecessors of this genre.

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