Science Fiction Studies

#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987




Carl Freedman. Science Fiction and Critical Theory

Veronica Hollinger. Deconstructing The Time Machine

Naomi Jacobs. Person and Persona: Historical Figures in "Recombinant" Science Fiction

H. J. Schulz. Science Fiction and Ideology: Some Problems of Approach

Antoni Smuszkiewicz. Props and Their Function in Science Fiction

Carl Freedman

Science Fiction and Critical Theory

Abstract.--Noting the tendency of virtually every school of literary criticism to privilege, expressly or implicitly, a particular genre, I argue that SF constitutes the generic space exalted by genuinely critical--that is, dialectical--theory. SF, like dialectics, refuses any simple acceptance of the mundane; and in evoking a world which is not ours but which could, at least in principle, become ours, it estranges the actual through an insistence on the primacy of historical specificity. After considering the near-identity of SF and utopian generic tendencies, I go on to suggest some reasons why SF has yet to receive the kind of serious scrutiny which its own intellectual challenges would seem to warrant. I then offer readings of four exemplary SF texts, and conclude with some speculations about the relationship between SF and Third-World literature.

Veronica Hollinger

Deconstructing The Time Machine

Abstract.--Both SF and deconstruction are involved in the processes of defamiliarization, the former through its displacement of the social/political/cultural present, the latter through its attempts to expose the conventional nature of the "gestures of thought" of the Western metaphysical tradition. In addition, time travel itself always achieves a deconstruction of certain classical notions about the nature and structure of time.

It is first necessary to "read" time before writing a time-travel story: within the terms of a set of metaphors suggested by Roland Barthes, one can conclude that stories which support the classical Newtonian definition tend to read time as "work" ("oeuvre"), while stories which explore the Einsteinian paradigm of physical reality tend to read time as "text" ("texte"). Within the classical paradigm, time is linear, homogeneous, and uncentered. Relativity may thus be identified with free play and différance, the (non)principles of the Derridean "post-structure. "

At first glance, H.G. Wells's The Time Machine appears to be an exemplary reading of time as classic "work." Wells's novella is structured around an extrapolative reading of time future, and seems to support the conviction that the powers of science will ultimately uncover the secrets of the natural world. However, because it is a time-travel story, The Time Machine necessarily deconstructs any notion of absolute time, displacing the concept of "now" from its fixed point on the time-line, and subverting the privileged position of public over private time. In addition, Wells's text undertakes its own particular deconstruction of the classical world-view. In his early essay, "The Rediscovery of the Unique, " Wells demonstrates his anticipation of several key Derridean concepts, in particular the conviction that metaphysical structures must be undermined from the inside. This, in effect, is what is achieved in The Time Machine, which, as a consequence, is a profoundly ironic text. The subversion of 19th-century scientific values which it undertakes on the level of narrative event is complemented on the level of textual discourse by its deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence. The end result is a play between narrative metonymy (The Time Machine as extrapolative work) and textual metaphor (The Time Machine as figurative text), which is as integral to its structure as is the play between present and future.

Naomi Jacobs

Person and Persona: Historical Figures in "Recombinant" Science Fiction

Abstract.--Perhaps the most audacious of the many contemporary novelists using historical figures are the practitioners of "recombinant" fiction, who combine figures from all time periods and levels of reality within new fictional contexts. The technique dates back at least to the Greek satirist Lucian. Such cultural icons, whether historical or mythical, are powerful fantasy figures as well as ready-made type characters, and their anachronistic conjunction can establish the cognitive disorientation central to much SF. However, the variability of contemporary readers' responses to such figures implies certain limitations to their use. Philip Jose Farmer's "Riverworld" series (1971-80) demonstrates the difficulties of treating historical figures both as types and as realistic characters in fiction intended for a general audience. Robert Nichols' use of three historical figures as observers in his utopian series, Daily Lives in Nghsi-Altai (1977-79), is better focused and ultimately more successful.

H. J. Schulz

Science Fiction and Ideology: Some Problems of Approach

Abstract.--Traditional English-language criticism of SF has largely avoided the question of the ideological functions of this genre, especially of paraliterary SF. West German "ideology criticism," on the other hand, has concentrated on paraliterary SF as a vehicle of ideological obfuscation and containment. The basic assumptions of both schools are ill-suited to account for the ideological complexity of commercial SF: the homology of high-literary SF (e.g., the classical dystopian novel) and paraliterary SF in the case of the former, the changeless homogeneity of the paraliterary SF system and its products in the case of the latter. The first (essentially formalistic) view suppresses the special socio-cultural environment of SF and the special forms of production and reception which prevail in it; the second view, a form of content-analysis formalism, ignores the evolving differentiation process of this system and the dissimultaneity of its ideological and generic ingredients. Both approaches operate with the classical concept of text as centered, homogeneous and semantically closed. The concept of text as "contestation" of ideological and generic components, advanced by Macherey and Jameson for instance, seems much better suited to identify and analyze the ideological discontinuities of SF texts and of the entire paraliterary system of SF. The SF criticism of Jameson, Suvin and others has prepared the way for an approach to the ideological functions of SF which is sensitive to both its peculiar socio-cultural milieu and its formal and ideological complexity.

Antoni Smuszkiewicz

Props and Their Function in Science Fiction

Abstract.--This essay discusses the function of props in (the creation of) the presented world of fantastic fiction and of SF in particular. "Props" are understood as objects furnishing the space of the presented world and/or accompanying the narrative agent. They can be "real"--i.e., a mimetic reflection of an object existing in the empirical reality--or "fantastic"--i.e., lacking any counterparts in the extraliterary world. The first category of props may be found in realistic as well as in fantastic narratives; the second type, however, appears only in fantastic texts--SF and fantasy. The fairy tale and Gothic fiction mainly employ real props, though some of them are endowed with magical qualities (e.g., a flying carpet or the "monkey's paw"). The latter do not change the nature of the real props in the fairy tale and Gothic fiction, whereas in SF they do. The fantastic props introduced in the presented world of SF impel the reader to perceive that world as being fantastic in its entirety an thus even the real props become to some degree endowed with SF coloring. For the purpose of this paper, props have been divided into three groups in relation to the historical period in which they were contrived (i.e., historical, contemporary and futuristic/fantastic), and in relation to the narrative time (i.e., past, present, and future). Thus nine "pure categories" of narratives have been distinguished and discussed with reference to some appropriate literary examples.

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