The Enduring Influence of Kafka on Speculative Fiction

It is a rare feat for a fiction writer to so heavily influence both literature and culture that their name becomes an adjective used to describe not only the works that they wrote, but also the worldview and perspective that they possessed and shared us with us. In fact, so rare is this feat that we can count on one hand those writers whose names have become common parlance: Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Dickens, Kafka and Orwell. Say the words Machiavellian, Dickensian or Kafkaesque and you’ll probably see a flicker of recognition, even if a person has never read The Prince, Great Expectations or The Trial. Through a combination of authorial ability, individualistic writing styles and historical circumstance, their fictional versions of reality provided brand new ways of seeing and understanding the world, life and existence itself.

What is truly remarkable is that everyone on this list apart from Kafka achieved great success in their own lifetimes, and saw their works vindicated and celebrated – Kafka was a man whose work received scant critical or commercial attention, whose fiction was too all often consigned to obscure journals, who struggled to finish his fictions and never finished some of his novels, who instructed the executors of his estate to burn the entirety of his unpublished works after his death. In the face of such setbacks and confidence blows, it’s a wonder that he managed to produce the works that he did; the fact that his name has become a kind-of shorthand for an entire way of seeing and interpreting the world is nothing short of miraculous.

If Kafka was writing today, he would more than likely be known as a writer of speculative fiction, magic realism, slipstream fiction or trans-realism. Nevertheless, his influence on science fiction is undeniable and enduring. However, it’s the varied devices that Kafka employed in his fiction that are the most influential, rather than his overall style. While quite a few writers have used his style as the basis for their own fiction, Kafka’s worldview and perspective are so incredibly individualistic that these writers cannot help but be compared to him. Novels like Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat, and short story collections like George Saunders’ Tenth of December, Manuel Gonzales’ The Miniature Wife and the appropriately titled anthology Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, tend to read as either homages, tributes or satires of Kafka’s style. On the other hand, the adoption by so many science fiction writers of the varied stylistic devices that Kafka employed and combined in his fiction have become so commonplace throughout the genre that they have almost become cliches, and so their connections to Kafka have tended to disappear from view.

Take the kinds of names that Kafka used, especially in his two most widely known novels: The Trial and The Castle. Their respective protagonists are Joseph K and K; in both a narrative and technical sense, names like these are almost completely devoid of personality and individuality, functioning more as identifying ‘tags’ or ‘markers.’ But on a thematic level, these kinds of names function in a very different way: they emphasise the theme of dehumanisation that featured so heavily in Kafka’s work, stripping the protagonists of a sense of identity. Joseph K and K are known this way because their actual names don’t really matter, just as they as people don’t matter. All that does matter are the roles that they fill and perform as part of the almost bureaucratic web that binds together their worlds. They exist, to put it more bluntly, as cogs in the machine rather than as the controllers of their own lives, with their ‘designations’ designed to deny their identities. If all of this is starting to sound a little familiar, that’s because names like these, and the reasoning behind them, underpin myriad dystopian science-fiction stories—it’s no great stretch of the imagination to conceive of THX-1138 as a futuristic version of K. As well, often when we encounter an oppressed or subservient class in science fiction, its denizens are referred to by these kind of technical signifiers rather than by actual names, and when the inevitable rebellion occurs one of the rebels’ first acts is often to reclaim their identities by renaming themselves.

Take Michael Bay’s The Island (2005) as a mainstream example. While the film’s initial promise is quickly smothered by Bay’s shock-and-awe approach to movie-making, its central premise is thorough and sturdy science fiction: people have themselves cloned so that ‘spare parts’ are on hand in case of accident; these clones grow up and live in a self-contained environment, believing that they are the last survivors of a terrible war; when the time comes, the clones are told that they are being sent to the last patch of inhabitable land on Earth, but are instead drugged and harvested for their organs, limbs, blood and so on. It should come as no surprise that the clones bear names like Lincoln Six Echo, Jordan Two Delta and Lima One Alpha—although they don’t know it, these characters exist only for their body parts, and to those who have power over them, they are little more than living machines fulfilling a function within a greater machine, exactly K.

However, it isn’t just names that are regularly missing in Kafka’s work. Quite often, his stories are also devoid of a concrete sense of time, place and historicity. Withholding this kind of information was simply narrative necessity—these things did nothing to advance the themes of his stories, and so didn’t need to be included. In fact, their absence often strengthened his stories, adding another facet to Kafka’s obsession with the threatening and impersonal nature of modern society and the unconscious fears of an individual living in an anonymous landscape. A consequence of this is that Kafka’s ‘voice’ often became cold and detached, as if his protagonists were spectators in their own stories rather than active participants. It is this combination of withheld information and detached narrative voices that has proven influential on a certain style of science fiction, though rarely is the withholding so extreme as that employed by Kafka, and can most prominently be seen in what some have dubbed ‘psy-fi’ (psychological science fiction), best exemplified by the work of J G Ballard. Psy-fi is typically more interested in examining the emotional and psychological ramifications of whichever science fiction idea lies at the core of each story, in contrast to science fiction’s usual focus on exploring the ‘ripple effects’ of the idea itself. Because this examination involves emotional and psychological spaces, once the science fiction device at a story’s core has been established, a concrete sense of time, place and historicity become somewhat insignificant. After all, emotions and psychological states are universal to a large degree, and often tend not to rely on specific geographies and times. In fact, if these kinds of stories are too reliant on these factors, their universality is reduced: These kinds of factors often do nothing to advance the stories and so their relative absence is a narrative necessity, and consequently the narrative ‘voice’ can be read as detached. Supporting this sense of detachment is the fact that authors of psy-fi also often further the exploration of their interests by drawing upon the vocabulary and concepts of psychology, which are necessarily technical and scientific, and thus somewhat dry and detached.

The third device of Kafka’s that has heavily influenced science fiction is his way of structuring the plot of his stories. Rather than using a typical Aristotelian plot—protagonist, antagonist, rising action, climax, denouement—Kafka tended to structure his plots around the elaboration, qualification and evolution of a new and fantastical fact that contradicts the ‘reality’ of his stories. The result is an almost obsessive focus on and examination of one single fantastical idea, rather than a broad observation of the ripple effects created by this idea. Books like William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters, William Sleator’s House of Stairs, Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside, Paul Hardy’s The Last Man on Earth Club and Max Barry’s Machine Man are all, to varying degrees, more concerned with the fantastical idea at their core rather than in exploring the ramifications, consequences and ripple effects of the ideas, as are films such as Cube (1997), John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982), Source Code (2011), Primer (2004) and David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly (1986).

However, much like Kafka’s use of a detached voice, the influence of his abandonment of a traditionally Aristotelian plot is rarely as extreme as that which he employed in his own stories. There are some notable exceptions to this, of course, with Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work being perhaps the best example. At face value, it seems like just another ‘Last Man on Earth’ story, but within the first dozen or so pages we soon realise that Glavinic is barely interested in exploring the ‘event’ that caused everyone but the protagonist to disappear. Instead, his focus is on the emotional and psychological ramifications of the event solely as it pertains to the protagonist. There are no other characters and hence no antagonist, no traditional character growth experienced by the protagonist, no real narrative arc or conflict-driven action, and no climax, denouement or actual resolution. Another notable exception is J G Ballard, who employed an obsessive focus on and examination of one single fantastical idea time and time again throughout his career. His novel High Rise is perhaps the best example of this, detailing as it does the descent into savagery and barbarism experienced by the occupants of a futuristic high-rise apartment block. This is Ballard’s focus from the very beginning, and the remainder of the book explores the evolution of this descent in great and painful detail. And while Ballard does use a facsimile of a protagonist-antagonist relationship, this relationship ultimately has little relevance to the book as a whole and is instead presented as just another symptom of the occupants’ descent.

As we have seen, Kafka’s influence on science fiction can be found almost everywhere. From obvious homages, tributes and satires to the more subtle use of the literary devices that he employed, science fiction writers have shown this influence almost since the genre’s inception, even if they didn’t consciously know it. If only the sickly, depressed and ultimately unsuccessful Kafka could have lived to see how heavily his works have influenced those who came after him.

(Originally published in Aurealis #98, March 2017)

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