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Yesterday was a bit of a shock to the system. I got more than three times as much traffic on this blog as on my previous best day. Obviously the way to get more traffic is to say something vaguely polemical about hard sf and politics. Who knew hard sf was still such a burning topic? I will probably return to the topic in a few days, when I’ve had time to think a little more on the subject. But for now, a complete change of pace. This is another of my ‘In Short’ columns, this time on Pamela Zoline’s utterly wonderful ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’. The column was first published in Vector 268, Autumn 2011.

1. ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ was the first published story by Pamela Zoline. It first appeared in New Worlds 173, July 1967. It has since become virtually the defining new wave story, but it raises one interesting question: is it science fiction?

2. As Zoline defines the Heat Death of the Universe: ‘It has been held that the Universe constitutes a thermodynamically closed system, and if this were true it would mean that a time must finally come when the Universe “unwinds” itself, no energy being available for use.’ (54-5)

3. The story comprises 54 numbered paragraphs, many of which are no more than a line or two long. Some of the paragraphs are given a subhead in small capitals.

4. Paragraph 22 reads in full:

At lunch only one glass of milk is spilled.

5. By the late ’60s, when this story appeared, knowledge of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein had escaped the academy. Wittgenstein wrote all his books in numbered paragraphs; it seems probably that this story is deliberately designed to echo the chill intellectualism of his work.

6. The majority of the paragraphs tell, through disconnected vignettes, the story of one day in the life of a bored, stressed housewife in suburban California.

7. These narrative passages are interspersed with passages which spell out philosophical or scientific notions, including ontology, entropy, light, Dada and love. It is clear that we are meant to bring these notions to bear upon the narrative that surrounds them, though the connection isn’t always or immediately obvious.

8. There is a further disconnect in the language used in the two types of passage. Though the narrative passages are presented in an impersonal, almost anthropological manner, as though written by an outside observer for an audience not expected to have any emotional engagement with the experience or fate of a Californian housewife, their language remains accessible, commonplace. The ‘scientific’ passages, in contrast, casually employ academic terms and constructions. Entropy is ‘A quantity introduced in the first place to facilitate the calculations, and to give clear expression to the results of thermodynamics’ (53); Dada is ‘a nihilistic precursor of surrealism’ (57).

9. Some of these passages read like quotations (paragraph 49 is headed: ‘Weiner on Entropy’ (63), presumably Norbert Weiner), though at no point are we given the origins of the quotations.

10. The central character in the story is Sarah Boyle. The only other named character is her mother-in-law, Mrs David Boyle, who is, significantly, not given her own name. Sarah’s husband does not appear, we learn nothing about him, not even his name. Sarah has children, also un-named (paragraph 31: ‘Sarah Boyle is never quite sure how many children she has’ (58)). The day whose events are recounted in this story is the birthday of one of the children.

11. Had the story been published a few years later, or elsewhere than in a science fiction magazine, it would probably have been proclaimed as postmodern, which it undoubtedly is. That does not resolve the question of whether it is science fiction.

12. The story we are told is, unquestionably, mundane, mainstream, mimetic, realist. We are taken through the events of one day in the life of Sarah Boyle, a day in which she gives the children breakfast, cleans the house, goes shopping, stages a birthday party for one of the children. Nothing overtly fantastic happens at any point in the story. The setting is contemporary with the composition of the story, or even slightly in the past, it takes place recognisably in this world, it contains numerous references to familiar aspects of ordinary life at that time and in that place: ‘“They’re tigeriffic!” says Tony the Tiger’ (51).

13. The story is one of mental breakdown. Sarah is overwhelmed by the very ordinariness of everyday life, the remorseless and inescapable drudgery of a life without intellectual rewards. She is a clever woman, well educated, who knows about Dada and the heat death of the universe. As we are told, in paragraph 30: ‘Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and witty young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family which keeps her happy and busy around the house, involved in many hobbies and community activities, and only occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death’ (58). Only one part of this statement is a lie. But the busyness allows no outlet for her wit, her vivacity, her education. It is the closing in of daily life that she sees as Time/Entropy/Chaos, and these are all forms of Death, whether physical or mental.

14. Sarah is the only living thing in her world. Her husband is entirely absent. Her mother-in-law is clearly nothing more than an adjunct to her own similarly absent husband. The children are things, encumbrances, irruptions into the rational order that cannot even be numbered. They count for nothing. They add nothing to who she is. This is a person for whom the modern world means extreme isolation.

15. Estrangement from the real, isolation, breakdown; these are all things that feed readily into science fiction. But they are not presented as in any way unreal, there aren’t even visions that take us, at least mentally, outside the everyday of the story.

16. Only in the very last paragraph, when the breakdown finally overwhelms her, when she floods the sink, bursts into tears, begins to break the glasses and dishes she is supposed to be washing, does the writing finally break away from the quiet, dispassionate account of Sarah’s day-to-day experience. Only now, right at the climax of her terror and dread, do the sentences begin to stretch and break, does the imagery begin to diverge from the straightforwardly real. She throws eggs. ‘They go higher and higher in the stillness, hesitate at the zenith, then begin to fall away slowly, slowly, through the fine, clear air’ (65). The moment freezes, the story ends, her madness has locked her away from the simple passage of time. It is a small metaphorical moment in a story in which the very lack of metaphor has emphasised the terrible weight of reality under which Sarah is being crushed.

17. But one metaphor does not make the story fantastic. One climactic image that illustrates the way her mind has finally broken away from reality is not enough to transform this story from the mimetic to the science fictional. And yet it was published as science fiction, it continues to be regarded as one of the signature texts of new wave science fiction. How can this be?

18. If the story that we are being told is intensely realist, perhaps we should turn instead to the lens through which we are invited to view the story.

19. In the very first paragraph we are told that ontology is ‘That branch of metaphysics which concerns itself with the problem of the nature of existence or being’ (50).

20. In other words, in the title and the first paragraph, Zoline is directing us how to read her story. It is not so much that entropy is a metaphor that informs the story, as that everyday reality for millions of ordinary women around the world is a direct expression, an embodiment, of entropy. The difference is that entropy offers a potential way out: ‘It is by no means certain, however, that the Universe can be considered as a closed system in this sense’ (55); but reality offers no way out for Sarah Boyle.

21. Entropy was, of course, the tutelary deity of the British new wave. From Ballard’s empty swimming pools to Aldiss’s constant visions of empty existence, the stories that gave New Worlds its peculiar flavour in the late 1960s were crowded with images of things running down, of ennui, of loss, of a universe that does not measure up to the desires and expectations of those of us caught within its web. It was a time of the counter-culture, of drugs and loud music and sexual liberation and a highly coloured rejection of the grey conformity that had come to characterise the post-war world. It was a time when, very briefly, the popular mood and the political establishment shared a sense of liberalism: homosexuality was decriminalised, abortion was legalised, capital punishment was banned. It was a time when science fiction was suddenly awakening to half a century of literary experimentation that had, to this point, passed it by, and modernist devices such as stream of consciousness and unreliable narrators were finding their way into a hitherto conservative genre. It was a time when science fiction writers looked around and tried to encompass the whole multicoloured confusion of contemporary life in their fiction. And the stories they wrote in response were of things falling apart, the centre not holding, entropy ruling the day.

22. Pamela Zoline was an American resident in London, an outsider with an outsider’s sensitivity for the mood swings and manners of her adopted home.

23. The story she wrote as a result pushed every single one of the new wave buttons. If she had set out deliberately to contrive an archetypal new wave story she could not have done a better job. But does that make it science fiction?

24. And while we remember the new wave’s discovery of modernism, let us not forget Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925). Another story that occupies one day in the life of a woman, another story that builds up to a party and its aftermath, another story that involves a breakdown, another story about a woman trapped in a life she feels powerless to escape. Though I would hesitate to describe ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ as a postmodern revisiting of Mrs Dalloway, it is hard not to see one as an influence upon the other. [Thanks to Maureen Kincaid Speller for this insight.]

25. Even at the height of the magazine’s proto-modernist, pseudo-avant garde experimentation, most New Worlds stories retained some link with the expected characteristics of science fiction. Ballard had his dead astronauts in orbit around the earth, Aldiss played with time or the nature of reality. They were doing something different with the form, but they were still recognisably within the continuum of science fiction. Zoline’s story does not conform in that way.

26. If science fiction purely lies in the application of any of a set of commonly recognised tropes or characteristics – space travel, aliens, robots, the future – then ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ is not science fiction. If science fiction lies purely in the furniture of the story, then ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ is not science fiction.

27. And yet, the story belongs so clearly within the context of the leading science fiction magazine of its day that it seems perverse to declare that it is not science fiction.

28. The answer, I suspect, is that science-fictionality lies not, or not solely, in the story being told; but rather, in the way we choose to read that story. Science fiction is as much a reading protocol as it is a set of characteristic tropes.

29. Pamela Zoline very carefully and deliberately constructs the lens through which we are meant to read this story, the protocols we are intended to employ. She calls her story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, so before we even begin to read we are clued to expect something entropic at the heart of what is coming up. The opening paragraph does not introduce a character or an action or even a location. Rather, the first words of the story proper that we encounter are: ‘1. Ontology’, and the paragraph then touches upon ‘the problems of the nature of existence’ (50). This, we can tell immediately, is no conventional narrative, and the idea will be central.

30. Science fiction is the literature of ideas. We don’t hear that so often these days, but in the 60s and 70s it was a commonplace. Here we are clearly meant to see the idea as hero.

31. Paragraph 2 introduces a setting: ‘a pale blue morning sky’, but the conventionality of this setting is immediately subverted. ‘The earth rolls and the sun appears to mount, … babies’ fingernails grow as does the hair of the dead in their graves, and in eggtimers the sands fall and the eggs cook on’ (50). We are located and dislocated at once, we are in a specific morning, but one that is also universal, a morning that embraces birth and death, all of which is subsumed into the domesticity of boiling an egg. We are introduced to domesticity before we are introduced to any character. We must read this story as being more about the situation: ordinary life that is itself a facet of the universal, that is thus in its turn about the entropic nature of existence.

32. Only now do we meet our Mrs Dalloway, Sarah Boyle; only now do we encounter a human face (literally so; the first thing we are told about her is that she ‘thinks of her nose as too large’ (50)). Clearly the human is not intended to be central to this story.

33. What we are reading, therefore, is not the story of one day in the breakdown of Sarah Boyle. That is the mainstream story that is presented to us, but it is the illustration of what this fiction is about rather than the true core of it.

34. What we are reading, rather, is the story of how the universe works, and how those workings can be identified in the very ordinariness of one woman’s life. Entropy is not a metaphor for her story; her story is a metaphor for entropy. It is a paradigm shift: if we read this story properly we are forced to change our perspective. It is easy to recognise entropy as one of those scientific truths that operate on the macroscopic level of the stars and planets and the long history of time itself, one of those big philosophical ideas that we don’t really have to understand because it operates on a scale we need never interact with. It is less easy to see that entropy is something that affects us all. But entropy is precisely the force that shapes Sarah Boyle’s life, and it is a life we all recognise because it is so ordinary, so like the lives we all lead. And that realisation forces us to see her life, our lives, entropy itself in a new light.

35. Does that make it science fiction?

36. I don’t know, but it is doing something that I associate with science fiction, employing devices and metaphors that I am most used to encountering in works that I am prepared to consider science fiction. The story is not science fiction, but the protocols I use to read the story most certainly are.

37. Does that make it science fiction?


Quotations taken from ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ in Pamela Zoline, Busy About the Tree of Life,London, The Women’s Press, 1988.