Science Fiction Studies

#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994

Roger Luckhurst

The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic

How many times can a genre die? How often can the death sentence be passed down, and when do repeated stays of execution cease being moments of salvation and become instead sadistic toying with the condemned?

SF is dying; but then SF has always been dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution. Birth and death become transposable: if Gernsback’s pulp genericism produces the "ghetto" and the pogrom of systematic starvation for some, he also names the genre and gives birth to it for others. If the pulps eventually give us the "Golden Age," its passing is death for some and re-birth for others. If the New Wave is the life-saving injection, it is also a spiked drug, a perversion, and the onset of a long degeneration towards inevitable death. If the 1970s is a twilight, a long terminal lingering, the feminists come to the rescue. But then the feminists are also partially responsible, Charles Platt argues, for issuing one final vicious twist of the knife. And what of cyberpunk? Dead before it was even born—or rather dead because it was named. "Requiem for the Cyberpunks" aims to finally kill the label (5). And what now? Christina Sedgewick asks "Can Science Fiction Survive in Postmodern, Megacorporate America?" A new decline, or rather a circling back: SF dying because of its re-commercialization. This is also the thrust of Charles Platt’s claim that "we find ourselves wedded to a form that was once provocative and stimulating but is now crippled, corrupt, mentally retarded, and dying for lack of intensive care" (45).

This is a parodic history, no doubt, and yet it seems integral to any putative "history" that SF is haunted by its own death, that it constantly passes through this state of terminal disease. Why? Is this unanswerable? In this I am echoing Derrida’s speculation on philosophy at the opening of his essay "Violence and Metaphysics":

That philosophy died yesterday...—and philosophy should still wander towards the meaning of its death—or that it has always lived knowing itself to be dying...; that philosophy died one day, within history, or that it has always fed on its own agony ...; that beyond the death, or dying nature of philosophy, thought still has a future, or even, as is said today, is still entirely to come because of what philosophy has held in store...—all these are unanswerable questions. (79)

Is SF also only surviving, dwindling in its last days, or paradoxically living on after its death? And is this the fast-fading ghost or the longed-for re-birth? Is it, like "philosophy," living on, an "SF" after-living SF? And yet unlike philosophy, there is no determinable phase of "life": its death is there from the beginning. SF indeed seems to be "always feeding on its own agony." In what follows, I want to analyze the narrative of death integral to SF and perhaps attempt to answer the puzzling question of its constant, haunting presence in critical considerations of the genre. It is my polemical proposal that these regularly issued panic narratives, these apocalyptic warnings and calls to arms, in fact conceal the opposite concern: that SF wants to die, that it is ecstatic at the prospect of its own death and desires nothing else.

As a way of entry, let me begin with the work of J.G. Ballard. There has been a systematic re-vision of Ballard’s work in recent years. His uneasy relation to the genre was initially figured in terms of his unrelenting pessimism, his perversion of the teleological narrative of scientific progress so central to "hard" SF. Blish objected to the passivity in Ballard’s "disaster novels": "you are under absolutely no obligation to do anything about it but sit and worship it" (128). Peter Nicholls condemned Ballard’s oeuvre outright: Ballard is "advocating a life style quite likely to involve the sudden death of yourself and those you love" (31). Ballard’s nihilism is exemplified by his obsessive representations of mutilation, suicidal passivity, and the embrace, the positive willing, of death. One interpretive possibility remains: that the "disaster novels" focus on "the perverse desires, mad ambitions, and suicidal manias of aberrant personalities now free to fulfill fatal aspirations devoid of any rational motivation" (Barlow 32).

However, the re-vision began with Ballard’s dismissal of this "false" reading:

I don’t see my fiction as disaster-oriented...they’re...stories of psychic fulfillment. The geophysical changes which take place in The Drought, The Drowned World, and The Crystal World are all positive and good changes...[that] lead us to our real psychological goals.... Really, I’m trying to show a new kind of logic emerging, and this is to be embraced, or at least held in regard. (Pringle and Goddard, 40)

Peter Brigg and Warren Wagar have subsequently offered the inverted perspective and "perverse" argument that the literal catastrophe is metaphorically "transvalued" into positive narratives of psychic transcendence: that these are fables of "self-overcoming in perilous confrontation with the world" (Wagar, 56). Gregory Stevenson, in Out of the Nightmare and into the Dream, has taken this position to its most religiose extreme: all of Ballard’s work is to be encoded into a pseudo-Jungian-Christian mish-mash of transcendence. Death as the terminus, as liminal facticity and the problematic of finitude, is to be re-figured as the metaphorical transgression of the bounds of the bodily into an ultimate, ecstatic (re-)unification and (re-) integration.

In adjudicating on these competing frames, death is undoubtedly pivotal. The issue comes down to what form of death the Ballardian text proposes. Clearly the narrative of transcendence is attempting to shift from the "wrong" (literal) death to the "right" (metaphorical) death. Being-towards-death is replaced by Being-beyond-death. But it is not as simple as this straightforward substitution of deaths suggests. There is a certain violence in trying to elide Ballard’s oeuvre into a singular narrative, which tends to erase important differences between The Drowned World and The Crystal World, where textual evidence for transcendence is clear, and The Drought, which is more rigorously existential in concentrating on what Jaspers would call the unreadable and unattainable "cipher-script" of the Transcendent.1 Such a narrative is also uncomfortable with The Atrocity Exhibition where the concern for violence and death is displaced onto the figure of the Woman. It is also useful, I think, to retain Ballard’s clear debt to Freud’s speculations on the literal fact of human aggressivity and violence in Civilization and Its Discontents,2 especially as it is central to the book which so influenced Ballard, Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo.3

It needs re-emphasizing that the literal and figural readings of death are inextricable and intertwined; transcendence of the bodily clearly depends on the facticity of the body in order to have any productive meaning. Why is this so important? Because in terms of SF criticism this re-visioning of Ballard forms a kind of meta-commentary on the project of legitimating SF as a whole genre.

Elsewhere I have argued that the attraction of "postmodernism" for SF critics is its apparent transgressive aesthetic, its erasure of the borders between disciplines, discursive regimes, and crucially for SF the boundary between the high and the low. With postmodernism, it would appear, the ghetto walls of the popular can be dismantled and SF can (re)join the "mainstream" of fiction, no longer being equated with the embarrassing and degrading label of popular genre fiction. The longing for (re)entry to the "mainstream" is the enduring central element of SF criticism. Ballard’s texts in effect perform this desire figured both as literal death (of genre) into a transcendent unity (with the mainstream). In "The Voices of Time," the language of Powers’s dissolution is crucial: "he felt his body gradually dissolving, its physical dimensions melting into a vast continuum of the current, which bore him out into the centre of the great channel, sweeping him onward, beyond hope but at last at rest" (39-40). This is the literal entry into the main stream. Indeed, rather than criticism reading Ballard, Ballard’s text could be seen to read and expose the fantasy of criticism: release from the bondedness of genre into the undivided stream of Literature. One could read the text’s evocative description of the terminal lapse into narcoma as the death throes of generic SF and this final vision as the ecstatic release, the abandonment of generic boundaries. In Derrida’s terms, Ballard exposes the "generic law" by performing that very law: SF is marked by, and Ballard re-marks, the genre’s desire for its own death.

This might seem a provocative and peculiarly perverse argument, but I intend to demonstrate that this fantasy of death is crucial to how SF critics legitimate SF as a genre. It is vital to emphasize that this death-wish is the result of the structure of legitimation. The paradigmatic topography of ghetto /mainstream marks a border on which is transposed the evaluations popular/serious, low/high, entertainment/Literature.4 One might expect SF critics to formulate evaluative criteria specific to the site of SF and the generic. However SF critics tend to take their criteria from the "high" and then proceed to denigrate SF in its relational, constructed position as "low," as failing to achieve "literary" standards. That this topography is imposed by largely invisible and unexamined categories of "worth" (the evaluative designations of "high," as I demonstrate below, are the products of an historical moment) is left unquestioned. The only way, it is proposed, to legitimate SF is to smuggle it across the border into the "high." And for the genre as a whole to become legitimate paradoxically involves the very destruction of the genre.

Before the tribunal of the "high," SF legitimates itself in three ways: by the implementation of internal borders; by a certain narrative of its (in/ glorious) history; and by the appeal to the rigor of the scientific. The first two apply for citizenship in Literature, whilst the latter claims partial guilt on the grounds of diminished responsibility. And one could polemically argue that these, in very different ways, all propose a form of death.

SF critics often want to make grand claims for the genre. For Scholes and Rabkin, it "create[s] a modern conscience for the human race" (vii); it fits, indeed supersedes, the great humanistic claims for literature as a whole. At the same time, and on the same page, they are equally aware that SF is constituted out of "trivial, ephemeral works of ‘popular’ fiction which is barely literate, let alone literary." Most of the subsequent work of their text is dedicated to affirming these two contradictory statements by separating them out, divorcing them from each other as distinct and "pure" sites within SF. An internal border is constituted whereby, on the one hand, the "grand claim" is asserted and so entry to Literature can be gained, whilst on the other, SF can, in alliance with the categories of the legitimate, be condemned.

Scholes and Rabkin justify their own critical text on the basis that SF has ceased to be wholly popular now that "a sufficient number of works of genuine merit" have been written from within it (vii). The logic of legitimation through the implementation of internal boundaries can be stated thus: SF is a popular genre which yet contains within it a movement of profundity; in order to secure that "serious" element a mark, a line of division, must be approved, by which the ghetto can be transcended. If, as Darko Suvin insists, "The genre has to be evaluated proceeding from the heights down, applying the standards gained by the analysis of its masterpieces" (Poetics 71), and yet these very heights transcend the genre, such texts could be said to no longer belong to SF. SF-which-is-not-SF is the apotheosis and judge of SF.

The internal border is usually implemented at the site of the definition. It involves isolating a central definition through which all other cases can be rejected or shifted to the edges as impure. These marginalia are, unsurprisingly, identical with precisely the elements that might mark the genre as popular; their displacement de-contaminates it of the pulp, leaving the "serious" works as the central representatives of the genre. Darko Suvin is the exemplar of this strategy. SF as "cognitive estrangement" defamiliarizes the empirical environment by foregrounding the artificiality of its "natural" norms. This cognitive utility of SF is based on the rigor of applying scientific laws; such worlds must be possible. Suvin presents a definition that appeals to the specificity of "hard" SF—which is also asserted by Scholes in Structural Fabulation, Charles Platt, and many others. The law of science, however, superimposes on the law of genre; this strict definition is the basis for a wholesale deportation of categories which surround, indeed interpenetrate inextricably, SF. Hence SF "retrogressing into fairy committing creative suicide" (Poetics 62); fantasy is a "sub-literature of mystification" (Poetics 63). What is truly astonishing in Suvin’s system is his dismissal of virtually all, if not all, SF in itself. "Narrative Logic, Ideological Domination and the Range of SF" draws a fan-shaped diagram, in which the bottom point, the convergence of the range, is marked as the "optimum" SF. Above it are borderlines marking "good" and "most" SF. This "most" is "debilitating confectionery," and, he asserts, "there is only one ideal optimum" (Positions 70). Is the ideal here a Platonic one? Does it imply that the optimum is unattainable in fact? Those falling short of this ideal are discussed under the titles "banal," "incoherent," "dogmatic," and "invalidated": "all uses of SF as prophecy, futurology, program or anything else claiming ontological factuality for the SF image-clusters, are obscurantist and reactionary at the deepest level" (Positions 71).

Suvin’s final and deathly judgments are proscriptions which result from the desperate desire to decontaminate and inoculate SF. If the rigor of his definitionalism is an attempt to isolate a singular utility for SF, it is also a logic that prescribes a death. The cordon sanitaire of legitimacy constricts so far as to annihilate SF.

Suvin’s writings on the history of SF are more valuable than this harsh imposition of borders, yet in some senses they are also exemplary of the strategies of legitimation that operate in the histories of SF. SF history serves two functions: that of embedding SF in the mainstream (the historical erasure of the boundary) and of serving to eliminate, or at least displace, the illicit site of the naming of SF—America. This narrative can be parodically summarized in the following way: once there was an Edenic time when SF swam with the mainstream, was inseparable and unidentifiable from it; then came the Americans who walled it up and issued a proclamation of martial law. This is the self-imposition of the ghetto, the "40 years" (rather than days) in the wilderness (see Merril, 54). This narrative ends prophetically: there will come a time when the walls will be demolished, when SF will rejoin the mainstream and cease its disreputable existence. Conclusions to such histories are the sites where the longing for death becomes most explicit.

Historical legitimations can in fact begin in prehistory; SF is merely a modernized version of the "innately" human need for "mythology" by which to orient experience. The biological need for SF is asserted by Scholes, who argues that the desire for narrative, once satisfied by myth, can now be provided by popular forms, given the decadence and abandonment of narrative by the mainstream. This explains why normally respectable readers "resort secretly and guiltily to lesser forms for that narrative fix they cannot do without" ("Roots" 53). SF, it is seemingly argued here, is restoring an imbalance afflicted by the loss of narrative (the language of chemical compulsion is also used by Kingsley Amis, although in a different context: SF is an "addiction" which is "mostly contracted in adolescence or not at all" [16]). The more properly historical mode, however, attempts to embed and entwine SF into the mainstream. Legitimation comes from appropriating, say, Swift, Thomas More or Lucian to SF; history saves the illegitimate child by discovering its "true" parentage. This is a fascinating strategy: it is not the attempt to find a fixed identity or essence of SF; it is concerned precisely with constructing a non-origin, to disperse it, to deny specificity. SF does not "begin" anywhere as such, and the disreputable generic can be displaced to become a mere bit-part in a larger historical unfolding.

The suppression involved is that of a name: Gernsback. I am not suggesting that the origin of SF lies with him, but his originating of the site is crucial. Gernsback is ritually vilified: for Aldiss, he was "one of the worst disasters ever to hit the science fiction field" (63); for Blish, he is solely responsible for ghettoization (118); for Clareson, he initiated the abandonment of literature "to propagandize for technology" (20); for Merril, the 40 years in the wilderness begins in 1926 with Amazing. What follows is a movement either backwards to predate a baleful influence, or forward to celebrate his supersession. The attempt at erasure, however, cannot ignore Gernsback’s initial elaboration of the conditions on which the genre has come to be defined: "to publish only such stories that have their basis in scientific laws as we know them, or the logical deduction of new laws from what we know" (scientific rigor/extrapolation); that the fictions would "supply a very palatable form" (legitimation through educative role—also seen by Janice Radway to be a crucial mode in which women readers of popular romance fiction legitimate their reading); the grand claim for its cultural significance—"Posterity will point to [the SF story] as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well" (my emphasis).5 These have all been widely used subsequently. Amazing was also instrumental in constructing a community through reader participation. Whether seen positively or negatively, SF as a genre can only be understood with reference to where its conventions and limits were inscribed, despite the constant attempt to displace it.

It might seem to be the most naive SF historiography to mark Gernsback as the initiator; naming, however, is different from origin. Gernsback did not appear sui generis. The constitution of the site of the specific SF magazine in the 1920s was a product of some 40 years of socio-cultural re-alignments around the "literary." H.G. Wells has been cited as both the progenitor of generic SF and the last instance of an "SF" text being accepted into an undifferentiated field of Literature before the ghettoization effected by Gernsback. This is inaccurate, however; the latter decades of the 19th century were the crucial phase of the development of the categories of the "high" and "low" as they now operate institutionally. This is an incredibly complex moment in the construction of cultural value in, as Peter Keating observes, a publishing field that had explosively expanded into a bewildering diversity. The "popular" or "low" was not simply the demonized Other, the defining negative, of an emergent Modernism;6 moral panic over the links between "penny dreadfuls" and working-class criminality had developed in the 1870s (see Bristow). If Thomas Wright had divided the high from the low in 1881, and 20 years later the Times Literary Supplement was set up to distinguish the "better authors" from the "rubbish heap of incompetence,"7 it should not be forgotten that there was an equally belligerent assertion for the moral superiority of the re-vivified "Romance." Largely in the pages of The Contemporary Review, Andrew Lang, Rider Haggard, and others attacked the effete etiolation of the modern "serious" novel and argued for the "muscular" romance or adventure story. Against the diseased interiority of the "analytic novel," the romance "deliberately reverted to the simpler instead of more complicated kind of novel," and, in an inversion that prefigures Scholes’s attempt to displace the "mainstream," Saintsbury also argued that "romance is of its nature eternal and preliminary to the novel. The novel is of its nature transitory and parasitic on the romance" (415-16). Literary histories tend to emphasize this late Victorian phase as the construction of the Modernist "Art-work" in opposition to the now degraded "low." It was also, just as significantly, the moment in which the sites (increasingly low priced, increasingly specialized fiction magazines), terminology (Wright entitled his essay "Popular Fiction" in 1881; "bestseller" was coined in 1889), and the very forms and genres of the modern concept of popular literature were founded.

Two things require clarification about this in relation to SF. Firstly, it cannot be said that texts that could be nominated as "SF" at that time existed in an undifferentiated "mainstream"; the very spaces in which they found publication were products of a rapidly fragmenting concept of fiction, quickly becoming figured in terms of civilized "high" and degenerate "low."8 Wells’s anxiety to depart from being identified solely with the "scientific romance" and his deference (at least in their letters) to Henry James mark his awareness of the emerging equation between the popular and the "degenerate." Secondly, the very use of the term "SF" is already a retrospective extraction of texts out of a mass of "romances." Cross-fertilizations between juvenile adventure stories, imperialist narratives, Gothic revivalism, and the supernatural, as well as pseudo-scientific adventures deriving either from simple technological advance or sociological inflections of Darwin have been traced by Patrick Brantlinger and Judith Wilt. A text like Jekyll and Hyde could be said to be premised on a scientific "novum," but it is equally overdetermined by Gothic, melodramatic, and imperialist elements; this is no less the case for Wells. Even if this was the moment in which modern popular genres gradually emerged (in the sense of specialist sites, formulated conventions, formulated plots, and reader coteries), SF was a relatively late development in relation to the detective genre, the spy novel, or even the Western. As Andrew Ross notes, even the pulp term "science fiction" had to fight, in the 1920s, for predominance amongst other magazines publishing what were variously termed pseudo-science, weird science, off-trail, or fantascience fiction (415). What must be asserted here concerns two stages: that SF is elaborated as a distinct genre only with Gernsback’s and other subsequent specialist magazines, and that its "pre-history" is one of fundamental impurity. This impurity, however, does not mark an undif-ferentiated "mainstream," but is an impurity within the emerging concept of the "popular."

It seems vital that this material production of spaces for the constitution of the modern "popular" be addressed; SF histories, however, either pass over it in the search for legitimate parentage or mark it as the precarious latency of ghettoization.9 Notions of impurity also contravene the operation of internal borders. Sources—a historical continuity that would embed SF in the mainstream—are sought that would manipulate an isomorphism of method between the legitimate and the generic: utopic estrangement, say, or extrapolative rigor. And yet it is plain that the attempts to claim Swift or More as SF can only be retrospective ones; they are only "SF" insofar as they intersect with generic conventions. Such histories have to arrive (and then pass over) the moment of the historical constitution of the pulps because SF as a demarcation is only comprehensible in relation to them. Even if More and Swift historically predate, in the internal temporality of the genre they can only arrive subsequently into the arms of an SF genre determined after they were written.

The SF history strenuously seeks to elaborate a fantasy of non-origin, of being indistinguishable, identical, to the "mainstream": in such narratives of embedding SF into a larger historical unfolding there is clearly a desire to return to an earlier state of things, before the genre divide, before the boundary of high and low. To restore an earlier stage of things: this is how Freud formulates the death instinct in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The pleasure principle operates according to an economy of stabilization: excitation causes imbalance and disturbance; this energy is bound and neutralized. Prior to this, Freud hypothesizes, are instincts which "do not belong to the type of bound nervous processes but of freely mobile processes which press towards discharge" (306). The instincts are not concerned with a homeostatic economy, but seek to entirely evacuate from the organism: "It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things" (308)—that state being the inorganic, the inanimate: death. This "first" instinct is seeking a quick return to the organic state; however, external stimuli keep arriving to disrupt this path of return to the immanent "proper" death. External influences "oblige the still surviving substance to diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicated detours before reaching its aim of death" (311). Life is in fact merely the result of the detours enforced by external stimuli, and the threat of "returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself." Freud can thus state: "the aim of all life is death" (311).

Peter Brooks has already proposed Freud’s essay as a model for the process of reading: for the classic realist text at least, the opening of the novel causes excitation which the text then attempts to expel, to return to zero, at the close. To finish, to complete the text, is to restore an earlier state of things. Narrative is, in effect, the detour between two states of quiescence: "The desire of the text (the desire of reading) is hence desire for the end, but desire for the end reached only through the least minimally complicated detour, the intentional deviance, in tension, which is the plot or narrative" (292). But this is also the desire of SF as a genre. Placing generic SF in a historical trajectory, in which there is no origin or name or site of SF, sees the imposition of the "ghetto" as an intolerable blockage to energy which is seeking absolute discharge, the return to zero. The history of the genre is the history of the attempt to die in the proper way. This gives a new importance to the question of whether it is the "right" or "wrong" death represented in Ballard’s "disaster" novels; it also questions the more Jungian interpretations of his texts as movements towards wholeness and plenitude. That Powers constructs a huge Mandala at the center of which he finally transcends his body can be taken as a Jungian image; equally the circular mandala could be seen to draw a zero, a figure which is the precise opposite of plenitude, signaling rather emptiness, nothing, the return of the inorganic. This is the double-edged death of SF, as literal destruction and metaphorical transcendence: the return to the mainstream.

The history of SF is a history of ambivalent deaths. The many movements within the genre—the New Wave, feminist SF, cyberpunk—are marked as both transcendent death-as-births, finally demolishing the "ghetto" walls, and as degenerescent birth-as-deaths, perverting the specificity of the genre. To be elevated above the genre is a transcendent death and the birth of Literature, but as these movements harden, coalesce, are named, they fall back as subgeneric moments of SF. They become detours on the road to the proper death of SF.

History as the passage between two equivalent states of quiescence displays, evidently, that birth and death become interchangeable. If the projection back, as a fantasy of non-origin, is SF’s past, its complement in the future is the fantasy of non-being. This is the circular detour back into the mainstream where the fantasy of non-origin had situated it before the interregnum of the generic. The most enthusiastic claims for approaching non-being came with the New Wave. The explosion of the New Wave was the explosion of the genre itself. Aldiss senses a "rapprochement" with the mainstream, the return from the "ghetto of Retarded Boyhood" and asserts "Science Fiction per se does not exist" (306-07). Scholes and Rabkin end their history with the problematic "place" of Ballard and Vonnegut: "A writer like Vonnegut forces us to consider the impending disappearance of the category upon which a book like this depends... science fiction will not exist" (98-99). The introduction to Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions evokes two deaths: that of the Golden Age being superseded by science itself, and that of the New Wave, which "has been found, has been termed good by the mainstream, and is now in the process of being assimilated.... Science fiction is dead" (xxii).

That death is so central to the history of SF, that death propels the genre is, I must insist again, the effect of the structure of legitimation: SF is a genre seeking to bury the generic, attempting to transcend itself so as to destroy itself as the degraded "low." The third strategy of legitimation, however, that promoting the rigor of the scientific, apparently refuses this deference to the mainstream. Nevertheless, it posits its own kind of death.

Robert Heinlein’s definition of SF as "realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method," allows him a "rigorous" future projection, one prediction of which is the disappearance of "the cult of the phony in art.... so-called ‘modern art’ will be discussed only by psychiatrists" (Worlds 22, 17). Contemporary literature is "sick, written by maniacs...the degraded, the psychotic" ("Science Fiction" 42). The poles are inverted, as are imputed pathologies. One suspects, however, that this adversarial disrespect is a defensively aggressive response to illegitimacy.

Legitimation by science continually fails by its own allegedly rigorous demands. If Heinlein places a border between SF and fantasy by declaring that fantasy is "any story based on violation of scientific fact, such as space ship stories which ignore ballistics" ("Science Fiction" 19), his point that time-travel stories are legitimate because "we know almost nothing about the nature of time" is exceedingly weak. The depressing litany of rejections and exclusions of certain texts because their science "doesn’t work" (as Aldiss chastises Ballard ["Wounded" 128]) insists on a purity that, by the very standards of the science it invokes to judge, fails. The science element of SF is of interest, in fact, exactly as it fails, as it "misses" rigor; as Andrew Ross maintains, Gernsback and Campbell’s claim to be at the "cutting edge" of science is not so much anachronistic as mediated and ideological. The adherence to a positivistic, technocratic science was scientifically outdated but politically current: the populism of technological futurism, the scientist as social engineer. Stableford is right, I think, to assert that the rhetoric of scientific rigor was a crucial palliative for early SF: "What seems to have been essential is the illusion of fidelity to science and responsibility to the principles of logical extrapolation, probably because it is this illusion that permits...the suspension of disbelief which allows the reader to participate in the fiction by identifying with its endeavour" (59). "Science" must miss its mark, because to be accurate is to risk destruction. With a ceaseless regularity in this mode of legitimation, the name of Cleve Cartmill is invoked. Cartmill’s atom-bomb story, "Deadline," published in Astounding in 1944, was deemed to be so accurate with respect to the research program of the Manhattan Project that the FBI raided Astounding’s offices. The frequent appearance of the anecdote indicates its utility for claiming the scientific accuracy and importance of SF. This may be true, but it also marks a death. Cartmill’s fiction was overtaken within a year; it survives only as an anecdote, not as a read text. There is a sense, in the insistence on scientific rigor, that SF is fighting a limited shelf-life: "one danger threatening science fiction is that the progress of science itself answers so many questions raised by science fiction, thereby removing one idea after another" (de Camp, 128-29).

This may be banal, or trivializing of SF’s vitality in its consistent confrontations with contemporaneous technological issues. However, the scientific legitimation aims to sidestep the claims of the mainstream on the ownership of the "proper" text through another, far more important strategy: "Even if every work were on the lowest literary level...the form would still retain much of its significance—for the significance...lies more in its attitudes [the scientific method], in its intention, than in the perfection of its detail" (Bretnor, 287). This retreat, this surrender of "fiction" for the claims of science, shifts the emphasis from "science fiction" to "science fiction": one wonders how SF as such can survive this shift. In Lyotard’s model of language games invoked in The Postmodern Condition, the scientific statement is a denotative, an assertion of a truth claim on a real referent. Its conditions of acceptance are that it must be open to repetition by others, and that the language of the statement is judged relevant and "good" by the consensual community of experts. Science is, on first glance, a "pure" game in that the conditions of proof can only be established through denotatives. If the legitimation of SF emphasizes science such denotative proofs are invoked. As fiction, however, this claim is problematic; invoking the "agonistics" of language games, Lyotard says: "This does not necessarily mean that one plays in order to win. A move can be made for the sheer pleasure of its invention: what else is involved in that labour of language harassment undertaken by popular speech and by literature?" (10). The "purity" (or at least minimally determinable conditions) of scientific legitimation murders the fundamentally ludic and "impure" statements of the fictional. How could proofs ever be established for the fictional? For Roland Barthes, having no real referent is something like the "torment" of literature: that it is "without proofs. By which it must be understood that it cannot prove, not only what it says, but even that it is worth the trouble saying it." However, "at this point, everything turns around, for out of its impotence to prove, which excludes it from the serene heaven of Logic, the Text draws a flexibility which is in a sense its essence" (495). The essence of the fictional is its inessence. The insistence on the rigor of the scientific, then, negates the very condition of fiction; another kind of death. It cannot be so, it will be objected. But, to return to Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, this objection can already be found inscribed there: "It cannot be so" (312). Beyond the Pleasure Principle is written as a complex shuffling dance—taking one step forward, withdrawing it, stepping forward again. Indeed the essay ends with the image of limping—as if this extension and retraction of "wild" speculations had made Freud footsore.10 Freud partially withdraws the sole dominance of the death instinct: "the whole path of development to natural death is not trodden by all the elementary entities" (312); there is also the question of the sexual instincts. This begins to elaborate the struggle between Eros and Thanatos, the life and death instincts. And once again this leads us to a merry dance:

It is as though the life of the organism moved with a vacillating rhythm. One group of instincts rushes forward so as to reach the final aim of life as swiftly as possible; but when a particular stage in the advance has been reached, the other group jerks back to a certain point to make a fresh start and so prolong the journey. (313)

It may have been a misreading, then, to have seen the history of SF as the detour between two deaths: who is to say that this continual renewal, these new movements, cycles of regeneration within SF are not a clawing back from the abyss of death rather than a passage towards it? And yet how would it be possible to tell the difference? The death instinct has not been recognized, Freud posits, because it masquerades as an apparent propulsion forward, the assertion of life.

The "vacillating rhythm" between instincts, between death and life, recalls the structure of the fort/da game that Freud analyzes in an earlier chapter of Beyond. The child throws the bobbin out of the cot, shouting fort, then reels it back in, shouting da. Freud’s interpretation is that this stages the absenting and return of the mother: it opens the suggestion of a "beyond" to the pleasure principle because there is more investment in the unpleasurable absenting of the mother than in her pleasurable return. One can see a structurally similar game played by David Pringle with the name of Ballard. Pringle wants to assert that Ballard is a writer without that embarrassing pre-modifying "SF" attached to the title. Lists of plaudits, from Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, and Susan Sontag, are emphasized because "what almost all of these accolades have in common is that they do not refer to Ballard primarily as a SF writer." Ballard has performed the fantasy desire of ecstatic death: he "transcends genre stereotyping" (Bibliog. xii). Elsewhere, however, Pringle notes that Ballard’s earliest (unpublished) attempts as fiction in the mainstream failed because "Ballard needed science fiction: the pressure of his imagination demanded a freer outlet" (Alien Planet 7). Pringle’s criticism reveals an anxiety which presents itself as a kind of fort/da game, whereby SF reveals its legitimate offspring, who, in the processes of legitimation is orphaned from its parents, and so is reeled back to the hands of SF once more.

Freud’s question, the impetus for his "extreme line of thought" (310), is why there is this constant repetition of unpleasure—in the child’s game, in traumatic neurosis constantly returning to the traumatic event, in the repetitious "acting out" in transference. And equally it might be wondered why the SF community, so often belligerent in its defense of the genre, nevertheless constantly entertains fantasies of death. For it remains a fantasy. The fatality for this death is that to push towards it is forever to defer it, to perpetuate the detour. In Freud, the detour that is life is in fact propelled by death; in a curious way death ceases to be an end, the termination of the system, and becomes inscribed within the economy. And if "life" is a transitional state between two deaths, this "ultimately subverts the very notion of beginning and end, suggesting that the idea of the beginning presupposes the end, that the end is a time before the beginning.... Analysis, Freud would eventually discover, is inherently interminable, since the dynamics of resistance and the transference can always generate new beginnings in relation to any possible end" (Brooks, 279). The death of SF is that which is endlessly desired and yet endlessly deferred.

What, then, can be said about this death? One can either view it positively as, paradoxically, the very motor of SF. But one can also suggest that such fantasies are produced out of the structure of legitimation, SF’s perpetual deference to the criteria of worth elaborated for "mainstream" literature. The death of the genre is the only way in which SF could survive as literature. We have grown used to the language of "crisis" in relation to SF—but the term, as in so many other disciplines, has had its urgency, its punctual (and punctural) immediacy eroded. SF moves from crisis to crisis, but it is not clear that such crises come from outside to threaten a once stable and coherent entity. SF is produced from crisis, from its intense self-reflexive anxiety over its status as literature, evidenced partially here by Ballard’s re-marking of the law of genre. If the death-wish is to be avoided, we need to install a crisis in "crisis," question the way in which strategies of legitimation induce it. The panic narrative of degeneration might then cease its tediously repetitive appearance, and its inversion, the longing for ecstatic death, might be channeled into more productive writings.

If this is polemic, it rests on a conceit: the analogy of SF criticism’s thrust and Freud’s hypothesis of the death instinct. This is not, however, as bizarre a linkage as it may at first appear. Just as SF was the "guilty secret," an unanalyzed and repressed element of the fictive, so the institution of psychoanalysis sought to repress Freud’s embarrassing speculations. Like the death drive itself, the disruptions caused by Beyond the Pleasure Principle had to be reduced to zero, to be excluded, expulsed. Now, for Pefanis at least, the death instinct "forms a major underlying thematic" (108) to much contemporary theory. And perhaps this has an equivalence to the growing visibility of popular literary forms in the academy. There is one more link, then: Freud wrote to Eitingon, "For the Beyond I have been punished enough; it is very popular, brings me masses of letters and encomiums. I must have made something very stupid there" (Gay, 403). To be popular is somehow to be denied entry to the legitimate—for SF, for Freud. If the economy of such legitimations, the deathly equation of the "popular" and the "stupid," is exposed, perhaps analysis can move into more constructive areas.


Thanks to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. for his advice and support. I would also like to thank the anonymous readers of an earlier draft of this piece for their invigorating hostility; I have tried to meet some of their concerns—to meet them all, however, would have negated the very purpose of a polemic.

1. The long closing section of Jaspers’ Metaphysics is called "The Reading of Ciphers." It presents a fascinating prospect to read The Drought, a text obsessively remarking on the unreadable "ciphers" that litter the desert, against Jaspers. The "cipher-script" is the tremulous evidence of the Transcendent, but it remains only a signifier; to attempt to grasp the meaning of the cipher, to convert it into any form of knowledge, is immediately to see its destruction. In a sense, to "decipher" Ballard’s texts in a single explanatory model is to effect a violent de-cipherment. On this, see Roger Luckhurst, "‘Between two walls’: Postmodernist Theory and the ‘Problem’ of J.G. Ballard," Ph.D. diss., University of Hull, England, 1993.

2. Ballard has a long citation from this work in the marginal comments to the Re/Search edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, ed. Andrea Juno and Vale (Re/Search Publications, 1990), 76.

3. Wolfe, of course, theorizes 20th-century man as "The Masochistic Man," bent on a course of self-destruction.

4. This is of course an overly rigid structure, which is not meant to impose a fixed topography. Passages between are always possible; the border could be determined by the elements which transgress it. However, transgression is meaningful only once an interdiction has been elaborated. The border presupposes transgression just as transgression presupposes the border.

5. Citations from Gernsback from Andrew Ross, "Getting Out of the Gernsback Continuum," Critical Inquiry 17:419, Winter 1991, and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. Peter Nicholls (London, 1979), 159.

6. This is Andreas Huyssen’s thesis in "Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other," in his After the Great Divide (London, 1986), 44-62. Huyssen is perhaps too formalistic in suggesting that the "low" was constituted by the "high"; in Britain, at least, the equation of mass literacy with degenerating literature was part of the anti-democratic discourses of the time, prompted by the 1870 Education Act—some time before a determinable "modernism" could be said to have come into existence.

7. This was in fact the project of the immediate precursor to the TLS, the Literature journal, set up in 1897. Quoted from Keating, p. 76.

8. The specific moment of equating the "low" with the degenerate at this time is effectively established when Keating notes that both Thackeray in the 1830s and Payn in the 1850s looked upon the "Unknown Public" that read "cheap" fiction as laudable and sowing the seeds of a potential democracy of literary taste (401-03).

9. On the latter, see the opening comments in "Introduction to Newer SF History," Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven, 1979), 205-07.

10. See Jacques Derrida, "Speculations—on ‘Freud,"’ in his The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1987), 257-409.


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Abstract.—One notable element of SF criticism is the constant repetition of pronouncements suggesting the impending death of the genre. From academic criticism to magazine columns, the threat of the death of SF is a persistent motif. The polemical proposal of this article is that these panic narratives are not attempting to arrest this death, but in fact desire nothing else. SF is ecstatic at the prospect of its own death. This is argued by attending to the way in which SF "legitimates" itself according to criteria derived from "high" art. In accepting these criteria SF accepts the equation of the generic with the "low," and thus must proceed to "kill" itself in order to be considered legitimate literature. In the three modes of legitimation that are considered, a particular emphasis is given to narratives of the history of SF which posit some kind of prior mythic moment of SF as undifferentiated from the "mainstream" of Literature. In that the prospect of death promises a return to that state, the desire of SF is to "restore an earlier state of things." This in fact proves to be the exact definition Freud accords to the death drive. The article proposes, then, to follow the curious logic of the detours that constitute the death drive of SF. (RL)

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