In his 1953 essay ‘The crisis in the growth of Science-Fiction’, writer Michel Butor talks about the conundrum of Science-Fiction, where Science has become so advanced and specialized that no author can fully grasp its latest developments, let alone its consequences, unless perhaps he/she is a scientist him/herself. This has lead to a series of approximate speculations, with erroneous facts and misconceptions. Long gone are the days of the polymath scientists, he adds, and science fiction writing now lacks the rigour and the element of truth it should rely onto.
He concludes his essay with the following positive note however, which is of much interest to the architect:
“But the Last word has not been said, and it is certainly possible that SF will surmount this crisis in its growth.
It has the power to solicit our belief in an entirely new way, and it is capable of affording, in its description of the possible, a marvelous precision. But to realize its full power, it must undergo a revolution, it must succeed in unifying itself. It must become a collective work, like the science which is its indispensable basis.
We all dream of clean, well-lighted cities, so that when an author situates a narrative in such a place, he is certain of striking a sympathetic note. But we find ourselves, in the present state of SF, facing an enormous choice of barely sketched future cities among which the imagination hesitates, unsatisfied.
Everyone knows Heraclitus’ famous fragment: “Those who are awakened are in the same world, but those who sleep are each in a separate world.” Our dreamers’ worlds are simultaneously without communication and very much like one another. The classical mythologies united the common elements of these dreams into unique and public myths.
Now let us imagine that a certain number of authors, instead of describing at random and quite rapidly certain more or less interchangeable cities, were to take as the setting of their stories a single city, named and situated with some precision in space and in future time; that each author were to take into account the descriptions given by the others in order to introduce his own new ideas. This city would become a common possession to the same degree as an ancient city that has vanished; gradually, all readers would give its name to the city of their dreams and would model that city in its image.
SF, if it could limit and unify itself, would be capable of acquiring over the individual imagination a constraining power comparable to that of any classical mythology. Soon all authors would be obliged to take this predicted city into account, readers would organize their actions in relation to its imminent existence, ultimately they would find themselves obliged to build it. Then SF would be veracious, to the very degree that it realized itself.
It is easy to see what a prodigious instrument of liberation or oppression it could become.”
Michel Butor, La crise de croissance de la Science-Fiction, 1953, in ‘Répertoire 3’, Editions de Minuit, translated by Richard Howard, in ‘Inventory 3’
Now remember that the text was written in 1963 (!)
The allusion to all-clean and well-lighted cities seems to limit Science Fiction to a specific category when we’ve seen in fact an emergence of dystopias in Architecture, but the main argument nevertheless remains pertinent; in particular the notion of precision in the depiction of the future city. The city he envisions is enriched by a degree of complexity as an accumulative – and collective- process.
And although the collective enterprise he mentions here is possibly more difficult to achieve where individuality and authorship are still prevalent, the relationship between the imagined city and the real one, implied as a necessary consequence, is one to note.