Science Fiction Studies

#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

Roger Luckhurst

Border Policing: Postmodernism and Science Fiction

The topography in which SF criticism operates has been long established. There is, on the one hand, the "mainstream," that "outside" of SF where the literary/institutional determinations of the category of acceptable taste and the constitution of canons are instituted. On the other lies the "ghetto," the site of the containment of the "impoverished" genre of SF, imposed either by external pressures of canon-formation or by the internal waywardness of SF's 20th-century history (condensed into the much-reviled name of Gernsback). Between these two sites lies the border and its policing; a line of inclusion/exclusion which, from the point of view of the literary institution, marks the absolute divide between "high" and "low" literature.1

SF critics, even those who may dissent from such a rigid topographical schema, have been consistently ensnared in its operations. The strategies for legitimating SF as a genre "worth" studying have either been to validate SF in terms of categories perceived to constitute acceptance by the "mainstream," or else to argue a specificity for SF, its peculiar virtues and meaning-effects, and thus establish for it a value independent from the categories of the "mainstream." The first appeals to the values of the "outside," whilst the latter purports to uncover immanent value "inside."

By far the most popular strategy has been the first, usually through arguments of relevance, a shared humanistic imperative, and especially by the elevation of the isolated SF masterpiece. This attempt to elevate is consistently pulled back down by its failure to understand the operations of canonical power, the power of those "tastemaking" intellectuals whose business, as Andrew Ross states, has been "to define what is popular and what is legitimate, who patrol the ever-shifting borders of popular and legitimate taste, who supervise the passports, the temporary visas, the cultural identities, the threating 'alien' elements and the deportation orders" (5). The power to decide remains firmly with the "outside," and if the single masterpiece can be made to "fit," it is at the expense of dismissing the rest of SF as, in words of Scholes and Rabkin, "trivial, ephemeral works of 'popular' fiction which is barely literate, let alone literary" (vii). What this strategy seems to propose, then, is a willing rejection, in deference to the "mainstream," of SF as generic.

Fredric Jameson has criticized this in other terms: "It would be a mistake to make the 'apologia' for SF in terms of specifically 'high' literary value.... SF is a sub-genre with a complex and interesting formal history of its own, and with its own dynamic, which is not that of high culture" ("Progress" 149). Here the second strategy, that of specificity, comes to counterpose the first. It seems, however, particularly in Jameson's use of the term "sub-genre," that the topographical site of the "ghetto" haunts this formulation, even if its value has been switched from the negative to the positive. The structure of outside/inside remains.

It would seem, on first glance, that postmodernist theory may offer an escape from this restricted topography. Jameson, in another guise, that of one of the foremost theorists of postmodernism, has argued that texts in this "category" have "one fundamental feature...the effacement of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture" ("Postmodernism" 54). He continues:

The postmodernisms have in fact been fascinated precisely by this whole 'degraded' landscape of of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader's Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery and science-fiction or fantasy novel.... ("Postmodernism" 55)

It should be noted that Jameson is speaking here to some extent in the voice of what he argues is a now superseded theoretical approach to popular culture; the Frankfurt School, for example, would speak of the degraded mass. In postmodernism, however, such value-judgments—of the "high" and the "low"—are replaced by a recognition of the imbrication of the "popular" and the "serious" such that these oppositions are now virtually meaningless. Although the appearance of SF in this list is somewhat of a backhanded compliment, it nevertheless signals a new attention to SF by cultural critics.

Jameson, of course, has long been associated with SF. It is the purpose of this article, however, to analyze a number of essays devoted to the "conjunction" of SF/postmodernism by writers who are not immediately connected with the SF coterie, who arrive, as it were, from the outside. In reviewing these cases where SF is explicitly invoked in the "effacement" of the border between the high and the low, however, I want to analyze how this border tends to be reinstated at crucial points in the argument. The sophistications of postmodernist theory may be seductive and flattering to SF, but writings need to be sounded in postmodernism's more simplistic formulations.

The announcement of the effacement of the boundary is a consistent element of definitional postmodernism. For Andreas Huyssen, the boundary is a product of modernism "constitut[ing] itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of its contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture" (Huyssen vii). Postmodernist texts, however, simply leap the bounds of modernism's "Great Divide." Leslie Fiedler, of course, seminally "crossed the border," seeing the contemporary novel (in 1970) as converting high art into "vaudeville and burlesque" (478) in an intrinsically political act of transgression. This "contamination" works both ways: it is not just the movement from above, from the high, into the realm of mass art; mass culture also finds its boundaries exposed and erased, a self-consciousness invading the generic and expanding and exploding its confines. This "if anything," says Huyssen, "is the postmodern condition in literature and the arts" (ix).

With the borders down, it would seem that SF critics need no longer offer an "apologia" for their work, and could abandon the seeming necessity to talk in terms of legitimating "masterpieces," a concept now identified with a superceded modernism. And indeed, SF has been considered, particularly in film theory, as a privileged site for the discussion of certain aesthetic forms of the postmodern. Annette Kuhn, for example, has noted that SF cinema has "been hailed as a privileged cultural site for the enactment of the postmodern condition" (178). The French theorist, Jean Baudrillard, often identified as the postmodernist, has written specifically on SF, and occasionally identifies his theoretical strategy as "science fictional."2 The "ghetto" walls come down, and that dream of re-joining the "mainstream" seems achieved.

Such statements of erasure, however, almost universally contain a clause which reinstates a border. Huyssen tempers his initial statement by adding "my argument, however, will not deny the quality differences between a successful work of art and cultural trash (Kitsch)." The necessity of that new line of demarcation is to avoid "the mindless pluralism of anything goes," even as the reinscription of quality to some extent reinstates a modernist divide. Aware of this problem, Huyssen places its solution in the future tense, in the prospective: future work "will have to explore this dimension"; right now "it is time for critics to catch on" (ix). Equally, Fiedler's essay begins with claims for total erasure, but it is to be noted that the movement of high art into the mass "can be mitigated without essential loss by parody, irony" (465). Artists previously working in "high" cultural forms maintain their distance from the mass through critical appropriations of it, not identity with it; there is always a crucial, if dimly perceptible, difference. Other categories of definitional postmodernism institute equivalent moments of re-differentiation: Linda Hutcheon, for example, consistently establishes a line between "genuine" postmodernism and its uncritical "imitations."3

This movement, erasure followed by reinscription, also operates in those texts which specifically deal with SF. SF, previously ignored as a mildly embarrassing form of popular culture, has been "discovered" by the postmodernist taxonomers. Brian McHale's maxim—"Science to postmodernism what detective fiction was to modernism" (16)—initially seems to place SF at the center of any definition of postmodernism, and SF's history is periodized in the familiar tripartite trajectory of postmodernism: realism, 1930s SF; modernism, 1960s; postmodernism, 1970s to the present day. Other such simple gestures of definitional "matching" might also include Anne Cranny-Francis's distinction of "hard SF" as modernist and "soft SF" as postmodernist (Kuhn 220-21). The group associated with New Worlds in the 1960s has the fortune to be historically co-existent with the emergence—on the other side of the line—of writers "who seem intimately and continuously involved with science fiction, or something analogous. Many of the modes of postmodernist fiction and the so-called 'literature of exhaustion' have assimilated aspects of traditional science fiction" (Sutherland 162). A case for the erasure of the boundary between SF and the "mainstream" could thus appear to be made; as Theresa Ebert states: "The result...of the changes in mainstream fiction, on the one hand, and in science fiction on the other—is the blurring of boundaries between these modes of writing which are on the edges of literary experimentation" (94).

If the above statements are read back, however, subtle marks of distinction are being made: SF or something analogous; the blurring of boundaries as opposed to their erasure. McHale has two chapter headings: "The science-fictionalisation of postmodernism" and "The postmodernisation of science fiction." Ebert's essay is called "The Convergence of postmodern innovative fiction and science fiction." Boundaries may blur, but the respective sites do not intersect, co-mingle; a problematic miscegenation is avoided—it is convergence only, of one operating over or through the other.

Ebert's general claim about the blurring of boundaries is negated when it comes to the specific case. Samuel Delany's Dhalgren falls off the far edge of SF and reappers on the side of the mainstream, or nearly does: "Delany's narratives in certain sections are hardly distinguishable from...postmodern innovative fictions" (95; my emphasis). This plaudit, this near entry, is recorded at the expense of slamming the gates shut behind him: Delany "transcends the restricting didactic and entertainment functions of mimetic science fiction" (99). It can be seen here how the strategy of the elevation of the individual work, and all its problematic requirements of distinction between "high" and "low" within genre, returns in a postmodernism said to erase such effects. The only "blurring" here is that created by the squint of the theorist attempting to evade the necessity of the border in producing Delany's transcendent specificity.

McHale's theory of postmodernism does not place the effacement of the high/low distinction at the center of his thesis, but it remains a haunting presence. Defining postmodernism through a Jakobsonian dominant of modernist epistemology replaced by the ontological, McHale uses SF to stage his argument because it is the simplest expression of this shift. SF is postmodernism's "noncanonised or 'low art' double, its sister-genre" (59). If the quotation marks around "low art" might be meant as a warning, an awareness of its now problematic status, he nevertheless finally comments: "as a noncanonical, subliterary genre, science fiction has tended to lag behind canonised or mainstream literature in its adoption of new literary modes" (69). This teleological view of popular culture (to be analyzed below) is slightly strange, since in the largely historically undifferentiated conception of SF as "ontological," his view of SF as an identifiable genre since the 1930s could thus be said to predate the mainstream shift of dominant.

This reaffirmation of the low art status of SF is nevertheless disturbed by one name: J.G. Ballard. Ballard is seen to lead SF out of the "subliterary" and into the mainstream. The Atrocity Exhibition, with its "ontological" concerns, is a "postmodernist text based on science fiction topoi" (69). This is something of a quantum leap, for McHale characterizes Ballard's early work as definitively SF, although with mainstream pretensions; The Atrocity Exhibition has become a mainstream text with SF residua. Given that McHale absolutely insists on SF and postmodernism's "parallel development, not mutual influence" (64), Ballard's sudden leap is nothing short of extraordinary.

In this brief summary of postmodernist theory's explicit dealings with SF, it is worth mentioning Fred Pfeil's essay "These Disintegrations I Am Looking Forward To: Science Fiction from New Wave to New Age." SF is once more periodized according to a postmodernist trajectory. The 1960s marked the appearance of "unprecedentedly literary SF" emerging out of a genre previously concerned with "pre-pubescent technotwit satisfactions... masculinist space jockeying...for sexually terrified twelve and thirteen year-old boys" (83, 84). This modernist explosion of "self-consciousness, autotelic form" was a necessary aesthetic shift on which to stage SF's response to the "epochal paradigm shift" of postmodernism. Pfeil's article foregrounds the question, as does McHale's, of whether it is adequate or even possible to transcribe the terms of postmodernism into the specific case of SF, a genre with (as Jameson says) its own temporality. With the New Wave, SF becomes "briefly" modernist for Pfeil, almost as if this stage were necessary not to SF itself, but to the argument of SF's development in the terms of postmodernism's periodizations. If in the 1960s SF becomes modernist, there is an inevitable sense of imposing a teleological history of popular cultures. That is, it is "backward" but it will catch up; it must, because there is only one possible narrative of development, the one inevitably imposed retrospectively from the "highest" stage. This is not so much a border, then, as a series of hierarchical stages through which, shamefaced, SF must drag itself, belatedly arriving behind the more advanced.

In this formulation I am not, of course, proposing entirely autonomic historical trajectories for SF and the mainstream; some moments of conjunction, some elements of hybridity, of transgressions of the border, must inevitably occur. Such transgressions, in fact, serve to demarcate the site of the boundary. What is to be objected to, however, is the one-way traffic which the enforcement of the postmodernist trajectory imposes; SF borrows from the mainstream, always belatedly, derivatively, and in degraded form.

An alternative history of the development of postmodernism, however, can be posed: that Modernism's attempt to construct a purely autonomous aesthetic realm to preserve its politics from contamination fails, and a post-Modernism, therefore, actively seeks its forms and modes of enunciation in the popular as a more effective and engaged site of the political. In this "alternative history," then, the relation is reversed and popular forms, including SF, become central to the transition from modernism to postmodernism. If this new relation is seen as mutually influential, a two-way traffic across a border, this need not appear as a form of "cultural plunder" of popular forms; as the other narrative history (SF finally arriving at where the mainstream has already been, and often already left), its teleology dangerously approaches an "anthropological" form, with the "civilized" mainstream praising the belated mimicry of "primitive" SF.

SF may have gained a new visibility outside its own coterie in the discourse of postmodernist theory, but the old distrust, the old embarrassment of being associated with the genre still has its traces in these critical texts. This must explain Pfeil's sudden, disarming and distressingly violent dismissal of pre-New Wave SF. The link to "adolescence," especially male adolescence, so often associated with SF, may be the cause of this embarrassment; Pfeil is certainly trying to distance himself from any contamination with SF even as he discusses it. "Adolescence," however, is surely an advance on the notions of SF/the popular's infantilism, which remains the hegemonically dominant locus for the discussion of SF outside specialist journals. Alien Zone may delineate SF cinema "as a privileged cultural site" for postmodernism, but the majority of contributions to the collection either favor a simplistic Marxist reflectionism or deploy sweeping psychoanalytic statements that aim to contain the genre in its entirety—e.g., Vivian Sobchack's statement that "Most American science fiction films play out scenarios which focus on infantile experience while pretending to adult concerns" (Kuhn 114). In-fant, literally "without speech," SF must be spoken (up) for by analysts with the competence to do so, since it cannot speak of/for itself. These arguments move dangerously close to the position that popular cultures are somehow closer to some concept of a national collective unconscious, and that because they are popular (that is, "simple") they transparently reveal it. Postmodernist theorists may move beyond such problematic positions, but the rhetoric of de-differentiation, the flattening out of hierarchies and vague announcements of literary "democracy," is undercut when it comes to explicit and detailed discussions of SF.

Definitional postmodernism, therefore, has much work yet to do (remembering Huyssen's future tense, prospective promise) if it is to establish its own proclamation of the erasure of boundaries. Any definition, however, must set limits, must itself finally decide merits of certain texts and the possibility of inclusion or exclusion. It would seem, therefore, structurally impossible to avoid any ultimate reinscription, somewhere, of borders said to be erased. Postmodernism itself, in the form of constructing an "aesthetic" or taxonomy of determined texts, must remain within that traditional business of judging, legitimating, and "drawing a line between and around the categories of taste" (Ross 61).

Before concluding, it might prove worthwhile to enlarge on the effects the introduction into cultural analysis of the term postmodernism has had on those critics "inside" SF. The erasure of boundaries is not so much asserted as the hybridity of a certain set of texts (often identified as "New Wave" or latterly "cyberpunk") in crossing and recrossing the border dividing ghetto and mainstream. The tendency, however, has been to valorize such transgressive texts at the expense, again, of dismissing all other SF as superseded. Colin Greenland, for example, states of Ballard and Moorcock that "Each is neither wholly in nor out of the broad 'field' of SF, or even the vague compass of the 'New Wave.' They come under that most awkward of provisional labels, 'post-modernism'..." (194). Greenland's explanation for the eventual failure of the New Wave is telling: the work failed to receive "serious" attention because their authors' names continued to adhere to that label "SF," a place where, Greenland argues, "the tastes of the readers [are] not in the least concerned with serious literary intentions and literary movements" (204). The equation implied here is that postmodernism is "serious," identified solely with the mainstream, whilst SF and its readers are "simple" and of the pejorative "popular." Postmodernism here, then, replaces the strategy of elevating SF "masterpieces," but serves the same end: access to the mainstream.

More recently, Bruce Sterling has proposed collecting a group of texts under the name "Slipstream," the short-hand term for "Novels of Postmodern Sensibility" (78). Hybridity is again emphasized, the "fringe" nature of such texts meaning that bizarre works from both the mainstream and SF meet in the "non-space" between the two. Sterling's delineation of the nature of these texts follows many tenets of taxonomized definitional postmodernism: the intermixing of historical and fictional discourse; the sense of periodic "quotation"; the fantastic and illogical mundanely treated alongside everyday life. Sterling's list is convincing in collecting works which could unite both SF and mainstream—I have argued that these transgressive moments assist in determining the very site and effects of the border. However, Sterling opens his essay with the pronouncement that SF is dead: "Why? Because other writers have now learned to adopt SF's techniques to their own ends" (78). Once again, SF is identified as a stagnating and degraded "ghetto" (it is compared, in fact, to the Soviet Communist Party) from which the only solution is to escape into the postmodernist non-space of the Slipstream. Even as hybridity is emphasized, Sterling asserts that Slipstream works are "definitively not SF" (80). If a certain number of works succeed in marrying SF and the mainstream, this is not without renouncing the majority as ghettoized.

From an analysis of these essays, those by postmodernist taxonomers approaching SF and those by SF critics, distinct meanings of postmodernism emerge: postmodernist theory makes global claims about the erasure of boundaries, which are surreptitiously reinscribed when it comes to SF; SF critics take postmodernism to be the aesthetic of a small number of transgressive texts which depart from, whilst leaving intact, the SF ghetto.

Returning, then, to the topography of SF criticism proposed at the outset, this analysis would seem only to re-affirm its impasse: the "mainstream" and the "ghetto" remain. And yet I would suggest that these specific sites, if not the values attached to them, are indeed necessary. The movement has traditionally been to find an entry for SF in the mainstream, a move which of its nature leaves the mainstream intact and necessitates the distortion of SF texts. But it is not a question of evacuating sites. The specificity of SF, its forms, temporality, and modes of enunciation, must be retained in order to say anything meaningful about it. Its generic status cannot be evaded. As for the "mainstream," it should be noted that this term frequently remains unspecified and unanalyzed. The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that its contemporary usage developed in the 1950s principally in jazz and SF circles; that is, the "mainstream" is a fantasy projection by SF, the construction of its own "outside." This fantasy, frequently discussed in terms of difference of character, representation, or mode is, I would suggest, intimately connected with the displaced factors of institutional and canonical power, the processes of inclusion and exclusion by which SF has been traditionally dismissed. Those processes, the inscription of borders, even as they are necessary, are what must be subject to analysis. Postmodernist erasure only evades them, and by evading reinscribes their effects. The border need not mark the switch from positive to negative value or the steps of a hierarchized ascent. What is required is not the evasion of borders but a constant attention to their productivity of meaning, on the one hand, and how they are implicated in construction of value on the other. The crucial questions remain as to whether these two effects can be divorced and whether the "mainstream," as sole repository of value, can be re-constructed to accept different criteria of "worth" as analyses move over and across the borders marking different generic sites.


1. I am aware that this formulation constructs SF as in some senses outside the institution; this is certainly the reflection of writing in the British institutional setting, where SF has less status in Humanities departments than is the case in North America. That being said, it is interesting to note that the high/low divide frequently imposes itself on existing national boundaries: America the ghetto, Europe the marriage of SF and mainstream. This does not get over the paradox that British universities have very few formal SF courses, while North America has hundreds.

2. Jean Baudrillard's writings on SF include "Simulacres et science fiction," the first English translation of which can be found above, on pp. 309-13. This and other texts are discussed by Jonathan Benison in "Jean Baudrillard on the Current State of SF," Foundation #32, November 1984. In addition I would add that Baudrillard's "The Year 2000 Has Already Happened" (in Body Invaders: Sexuality and the Postmodern Condition, ed. Arthur & Marylouise Kroker—London, 1988) takes SF strategies and images to explore a number of hypotheses about the state of history.

3. See Hutcheon's A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theatre, Fiction (London, 1988) and The Politics of Postmodernism (London, 1989).


Ebert, Theresa. "The Convergence of Postmodern Innovative Fiction and Science Fiction." Poetics Today 1.4 (1980): 91-104

Fiedler, Leslie. "Cross the Border—Close the Gap." The Collected Essays. NY, 1971.II: 461-85.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism. London, 1986.

Jameson, Fredric. "Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?" SFS #27, 9 (1982): 147-58.

—————. "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Capitalism." New Left Review #143 (1984): 53-94.

Kuhn, Annete, ed. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Culture. London & NY, 1990.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London, 1987.

Pfeil, Fred. Another Tale to Tell. London, 1990.

Ross, Andrew. No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. London, 1989.

Scholes, Robert, & Eric S. Rabkin. Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision. London & NY, 1977.

Sterling, Bruce. "Slipstream," Science-Fiction Eye 1.5 (July 1989): 77-80.

Sutherland, J. "American Science Fiction since 1960." Science Fiction: A Critical Guide. Ed. Patrick Parrinder. London 1979. 162-86.

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