Genre Definition Module Week 5: Science Fiction -- Critical Spaces

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

The Critical Response to Science Fiction
Critical response to sf is often linked to defining it, or justifying its existence, or describing its history; ususally with respect to a tradition of proto-science fiction (see Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) or a linking sf to Utopias or the "Tale of the Future" (see I. F. Clarke).

Early studies of sf include:
C. S. Lewis, "On Science Fiction" in Of Other Worlds (1966)
Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell (1960) which emphasises the satirical, dystopian elements of sf.

Much of the early criticism, however, came from within the field, either in the form of reviews in magazines or fanzines.

From SF Horizons 1 (1964), edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison:
"[Sf's] antecedents are long and honourable, reaching back to the earliest stories that embody the myth-making capabilities of mankind. Its future is assured because it can satisfy large numbers of the literate on both conscious and subconscious levels. But what sf must have before all its potentials can be realised is a wide and flourishing literature of intelligent criticism."
From within the field, author/reviewers Damon Knight (In Search of Wonder, 1956, 1967) and James Blish, as William Atheling, Jr. (The Issue at Hand, 1964 and More Issues at Hand, 1970) attempted to apply literary standards to the field and present a canon of its significant writers. Knight's famous "definition" of sf as being "what we point to when we say it" implies a readership educated in sf's history and its conventions -- what later writers, such as Samuel R. Delany and Damien Broderick, were to call sf's "reading protocols" or the "mega-text" of sf.

Darko Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1972) brought critical theory from outside the field to bear on it and to explain what actually happens when we read sf. Suvin saw sf as
"a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment."
The difference between the world of the fiction and the author's "real" world is what Suvin calls the "novum" (new thing). "Cognition" implies critical reflection upon: Suvin argues that science fiction is, or can be (because not all that is "called" science fiction actually works at the same level of competence or cherence) the "literature of ideas" that its fans claim it is.

Later critics of sf, both from within the field (Samuel R. Delany) and outside it (Robert Scholes, in Structural Fabulation) were influenced by movements such as structuralism.

Suvin and succeeding "outside" critics were academics bringing to science fiction the critical apparatus they gained from studying other branches of literature, and particularly from the revolution in critical theory which developed through the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the earlier work of the linguistic Saussure, and the Russian Formalists and the "Frankfurt School" of the 1920s, and continued during the 1970s and 1980s with theorists of post-Structuralism and postmodernism. For a good summary of critical theory within examples of what it does and how it does it, see Peter Barry, Beginning Theory (1995). It may, or may not, be significant that this period parallels the growth of science fiction and the battle within it over the "New Wave". Carl Freedman (Critical Theory and Science Fiction, 2000) argues that critical theory and science fiction, with its "cognition" share a similar "project" of explaining or at least demystifying the world.

The first critical journal of sf studies was Extrapolation (1959). See also Foundation (1971), which has always tried to bridge the gap between the "fannish" and the "academic" wings of sf criticism, and Science Fiction Studies (1973) which is more committed to questions of theory and an "academic" approach to sf.

Samuel R. Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977) and The American Shore (1978) (a lengthy study on a short story by Thomas M. Disch) also "Science Fiction and 'Literature'" (Analog, May 1979). Delany is still active, and has developed, modified or changed some of his views: see "Modernism, PostModernism, Science Fiction" (New York Review of Science Fiction 24) which contains a good brief summary of some of these ideas in relation to sf, and the relationship between "High Culture" and sf. "The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism" in New York Review of Science Fiction issues 98-100 is mainly about comic-book art, but can be seen in a more general way.

Sf, or aspects of it, have been picked up by critical theorists such as Jean Baudrillard (see Baudrillard on J. G. Ballard's Crash in Science Fiction Studies 55) and Frederic Jameson (see "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" but also his essays and reviews in Science Fiction Studies). Delany's "Modernism, Postmodernism, Science Fiction" is largely concerned with the response to this essay of the writer Kim Stanley Robinson (who was a student of Jameson's).

The Russian cultural critic Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) is influential because of his notion of "heteroglossia" (different voices) within in text ("Discourse in the Novel"). The "different voices" concept has been applied to sf; it's probably behind much of the concept of sf as a "megatext" or "conversation".

"Indeed, any concrete discourse [utterance] finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist -- or, on the contrary, by the "light" of alien words that have already been spoken about it. It is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgements and accents. The word, directed towards it object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgements and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group; and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate its expression and influence its entire stylistic profile.

The living utterance, having taken its meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participate in social dialogue." (The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, p. 276)

"there are no 'neutral' words and forms -- words and forms that can belong to 'no one'; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents."

Linked with this kind of focus on language is the concept of "intertextuality", coined by the French semiotician Julia Kristeva in the late 60s, a development of structuralism's focus on codes and meaning: "any text is the absorption and transformation of another." ("Word, Dialogue, and the Novel")

While very little of this concerns sfs directly in the sense that few of these theoreticians point to sf, it can be useful in considering how sf works. For example, in speaking of futures and specifically sf scenarios and technologies (such as "the spaceship", "the robot") we're also speaking in the light of other imaginings of these concepts. Note how, for instance, ideas and devices used by one sf writer become part of the vocabulary of others: warp drive, terraforming, cyberspace.

The Classification of Science Fiction
Science fiction is often seen as a branch of the Fantastic. Theorists of the Fantastic include Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic, Christina Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal, Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis. Perhaps the best consideration of the work of these theorists and how they apply (or don't apply) to sf and fantasy, is Brian Attebery's Strategies of Fantasy.

While sf is, as a branch of literature, subject to exactly the same approaches as any other literary texts, its criticism has focused upon a number of arguments with traditional literary studies:
1) the idea of canon, the liberal-humanist studying the "best" and arguably most appropriate texts. SF criticism might aruge that the most contral texts are not necessarily the "best" in literary terms, and that in Gary Westfahl's words the scholar of sf must read "everything".
2) The question of whether sf is a genre or a mode: whether it is a kind of writing which is based upon the tightly defined constraints of popular fiction, or whether it is what writers do when they tackle a particular set of ideas. A third possibility is that it is what readers do when they read a book/see a film which reflects what they look for when they read books or see films. This supposes the idea of a reaading community which engages in the act of reflecting upon what it reads. Hence much recent of criticism is concerned with the idea of a "conversation" or "dialogue" of science fiction -- see the essays in Sawyer & Seed, Speaking Science Fiction (2000) or Farah Mendlesohn's introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003).

Sf has proved attractive to modern critics who consider questions of the postmodern experience. Concepts like postmodernism and post-structuralism are often hard to grasp, partly because many of the main theoriests are not English-speakers and are translated from other languages, and partly because much of this theory is based upon ideas of the "slipperiness" and ambiguity of language. Sf, as a literature which plays with our sense of "familiarity" through its use of language, and because it is often explicitly about Otherness and "reality", is attractive to critics who come from these fields. The playful aspect of science fiction, the way it may deal with immense ideas of great importance by speculating about the ways they might be extrapolated in a manner which may not be particularly serious, is another attraction. Writers like Philip K. Dick have received a lot of attraction (see many of the essays on Dick in Science Fiction Studies) and the way Gene Wolfe, for example, is subverting and playing with reader expectation is only just beginning to be tackled. Sf is also "postmodern" because one of the themes of postmodernism is the interplay between "high" and "low" cultural, "canonical" and "popular" art. (See Andrew M. Butler, cited below.)

John Clute is perhaps the most significant non-academic (though he has a degree in literature) and non-writer (though he has published novels, one science fiction) critic of sf. Clute is concerned with sf as story, and with story as the way we make sense of the world:

See Nick Gevers' interview with him in Interzone 166, April 2001, the year his novel Appleseed appeared:
"the literatures of the fantasitic do model how the world works ... they do address how reality is addressed by us, at this cusp moment for the human species, and for the world we increasingly own. Sf, after all, was the 20th-century literature which was about the 20th century... Even the crappiest sf novel or story has embedded within it the absolutely terrifying knowledge that what we see -- through the augmented eyes we now habitually wear in this 21st century whenever we do the mirror gawk of an old species on the make -- is what we have ourselves made. Our gaze upon the world is all that counts now. The world is what we make it."
"[A] crusader's conviction that mimesis was a mug's game underpinned, from the first, the sense I had that sf and fantasy embodies something far more interesting than the devotees of that counter-jumping Great Tradition ever guessed. What they embodied, of course, was Story, the story-shaped world."
"the task of sf writers [in the 21st century] is -- by understanding how we did the last century; by sussing how we characteristically mistook it and equally characteristically, took it right; by getting some kind of metaphorical grasp of the relationship between a genre which was about the world and the world the genre was about."
This concern with narrative and Story rather than language and philosophy in themselves puts Clute outside the mainstream of "Theoretical" criticism. In "Necessary Golems" (Look at the Evidence (1995)) he considers the reaction to an earlier collection, Strokes (1988) in a review by Rob Latham in The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.

"Theory" involves applying particular models of thinking to a literary text. It runs the risk of being rigid, or being perceived as pretentious, or both, but can be rewarding in the way it suggests greater meanings or relationships between a fiction and its literary or social context. Some aspects of specifically "theoretical" applications to sf can be seen in the work of critics cited above, especially Delany, Suvin, and many of the academics associated with Science Fiction Studies.

For a survey of how sf and critical theory are engaged in the same enterprise of "explaining" the world, see Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction.

For a brief general consideration of postmodernism and sf see Andrew M. Butler, "Postmodernism and Science Fiction" in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (ed. Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James)

See also James Anderson and Larry Dickison, The Illustrated Bradbury for a structuralist reading of stories from Bradbury's The Illustrated Man.

See Donald R. Burleson, Begging to Differ: Deconstructionist Readings for "deconstructionist" readings of supernatural fictions by H. P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood and Henry James.

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