#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction
Like being hanged, teaching introductory sf courses to undergraduates focuses
the mind wonderfully. Even in small seminars, there's not much space in the
syllabus for the heavyhitter theorists and genre-historians. While Suvin and
Malmgren, Rose and Franklin, Lefanu and Bukatman might make the
"Recommended Reality" list, I believe the central focus has to be on
exemplary texts that serve several purposes at once. Most students come to an
intro sf course because they have experienced sensawonder and would like
to have some more. A typical class at DePauw (where, mercifully, I rarely have
more than 20-25 students per class) will include hipsters and poli-sci majors,
but only very rarely literature majors. My purpose is to provide film and
literary texts that satisfy the craving for extravagant imaginings and the tools
for reflecting on them. By the end of the course, I hope my students will be
able to discuss certain ideas—the sublime, historical innovation (the novum),
the way aliens are modeled from this-worldly others, the cultural changes
reflected in changes in genre-concerns—and to link them to specific moments in
specific texts. So I choose my texts not only for their historical significance
in the history of sf, but for their richness as models: of fantasy, narrative,
linguistic play, social critique.
Some of the texts I use are Wells's The Time Machine, Stapledon's Star
Maker, Zamyatin's We, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Shelley's
Frankenstein, Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,
Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz, Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness
(occasionally Lathe of Heaven), Russ's The Female Man, Dick's A
Scanner Darkly (or The Man in the High Castle), Lem's Solaris,
the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic (and Tarkovsky's Stalker),
Gibson's Neuromancer, Tiptree's The Girl Who Was Plugged In,
Watson's The Embedding, Simmons's Hyperion, Robinson's Red Mars;
films, other than the aforementioned Stalker, include Forbidden Planet,
The Thing, Metropolis, 2001, Close Encounters of the Third Kind
and E.T., Alien, Blade Runner, Videodrome, Terminators 1 and 2, i.e., the
usual suspects. An actual text-list will vary from year to year, depending on
the availability of books and my own interests.
It must be evident from this list that I take the "high" road.
There are few texts here that have what Bruce Sterling calls "genre
virtue." They are all on the borderline between genre fiction and literary
allegory/parable, and I would have no qualms about including them on a list of
"general" works of fiction. Perhaps there is a place for a hardcore
genre course (pulp-to-cultural-riches) in a liberal arts curriculum. But life is
short, and most students won't have the energy or time to read serious works of
any sort once they leave the university and take their places on the chain-gang
of wage-slavery. The time for teaching the hard stuff is the four years of
college. My sf texts must also introduce students to important philosophical,
social, and literary ideas that they might not encounter anywhere else, given
the state of contemporary higher education.
In the first session I give my students the following handout:
WHAT MAKES SCIENCE FICTION SCIENCE FICTION?
(Some hypotheses—check them out)
1. Neologisms—invented words, intended to refer to imaginary "new
2. Novums (or nova, from the Latin for "new things")—imaginary
inventions, discoveries, or applications that will have changed the course of
history. (E.g., hyperdrive, time travel, faster-than-light travel, cloning,
neural-interface computing, artificial consciousness, cyborgs.)
3. Historical extrapolation/historical futurism—historically logical
explanations (explicit or implicit) for how we got from the author's real-time
present to the future. This can apply to the development of a technology, or a
society, or the whole shebang. The present is depicted as the prehistory of the
future. (In other words, supernatural explanations are out; so is the depiction
of a world with no connection to the human earth.)
4. Oxymoron—somewhere at the heart of the tale is an absurd logical
contradiction, at least viewed from the perspective of current common sense.
This oxymoron may be spectacularly interesting. Some writers emphasize it, some
writers keep it in the background. (Time travel is the most obvious; an
alternate universe is another example.)
5. Scientific impertinence (related to oxymoron)—sf tales (even those
written by scrupulous scientists) generally violate currently known scientific
laws at some point. The purpose is not to criticize current scientific
understanding (though that may enter into it), but to create uncanny, sublime,
comic, or metaphysically intriguing dramatic situations.
6. Sublime chronotopes—chronotope comes from the Greek words for space and
time; a chronotope is a literary "space-time" where fictional things
work according their own particular laws of time and space. Sf works generally
depict one or more special chronotopes that are wonderfully strange and
ultimately shockingly vast and powerful. (E.g., cyberspace, "The
Galaxy," "the brain," alien planets, future earths.)
7.) Parable—whatever the scientific content and historical extrapolation of
an sf tale, it is constructed in the form of literary parable. The science and
technology are vehicles for moral tales; the morals may have a lot to do with
science and technolology, but they do not come out of science and technology.
It's not my habit in other literature courses to begin with category lists,
but the sf list has proven useful. I warn my students that there are probably
few works that would check positive for all the Seven Beauties, which leaves
them considerable leeway in investigating the texts.
I am sure that the Seven Beauties can be criticized. They do not form a
system of logically interlocking categories. I do not provide a theoretical
explanation for them to my classes. It is a pragmatic list, which inspires
students to make game-like searches, and also to reflect on certain challenging
concepts. In what way could ftl travel change history? Why does Gibson's
cyberspace have a sublime perspective? Why do sf writers (even the scientists)
gleefully violate conventions of science? What is the connection between
language and the way folks perceive the world?
Of the Seven, there is (at the moment at least) probably little disagreement
about the first three. Although Suvin has broken off completely with
extrapolation,2 it is not difficult to show that extrapolation and
analogy are inextricably entwined, like East and West, metonymy and metaphor,
Balzac and Stendhal, Miles and Coltrane. Historical extrapolations are made via
analogies. Only certain models of historical change will be used to project a
line of development into the future. Inversely, a social-historical analogy is a
form of modeling projection, a mapping of one structure onto another, from one
time-space to another. As long as there is a concrete setting with socially
meaningful objects and codes, the analogy assumes the reader will imagine some
process through which the objects of his or her reality become those of the
analogy-world. When the setting is sharply isolated from the reader's reality,
its objects lose their social significance and gain "magical,"
essential, putatively nonhistorical qualities. The purer (i.e., the less
extrapolative) the analogy, the closer to fantasy it is.
Oxymoron and scientific impertinence may need some justification. Eric Rabkin
and most recently Timo Siivonen,2 have made the case that there is
something inherently oxymoronic about sf—that it mixes social, cultural and
ontological category-domains as a matter of course. In its simplest terms, sf
assumes that all aspects of experience can eventually be comprehended and
perhaps even manipulated by human minds operating according to
"rational" rules. The putative rationality is not the rationality of
the present, for (true to the humanistic ambitions of science) one of the
fundamental expectations of the Enlightenment-scientific world-view is that
human beings' minds "expand" as they increase their knowledge and
their powers of manipulation. This expansion leads to understanding that will be
fully rational in that future time, but in terms of the current limitations of
consciousness, seems paradoxical, oxymoronic, or absurd. Some sf texts will play
with this on the thematic level (as when "men" become like
"gods"), while others assume that this is the basic device of sf and
use it to create detailed oxymoronic worlds (like cyberpunk).
Scientific impertinence is perhaps the only category here that I have not
seen elaborated elsewhere, though it is implied in many writers' and critics'
works. Its assumption is that sf is inherently and essentially ludic, and
therefore nonscientific, that the goal of the sf writer is to play with
scientific and logical concepts, but in a way that asserts the writer's (and
reader's) freedom from a material universe. Comic sf is inherently impertinent.
It's hard to call the great works of comic sf satires, since their jokes are at
the expense of realist and quasirealist fiction's (like sf's) use of logically
and scientifically justified narrative devices. All the scientific explanations
for sf-phenomena are forms of inspired doubletalk, even such sublime,
poker-faced explanations as the tachyon-communication of Benford's Timescape
or the Teilhardian nanotelos of Bear's Blood Music. The privileged status
of mad scientists, handy-man geniuses, and advanced alien interlocutors is a
sure sign that the science practiced by our normal scientists, pertinent as it
is, is dull stuff.
Sublime chronotopes are almost identical to what Delany calls paraspaces.3
I add to Delany's idea only the point that in sf sublime chronotopes are
dialectically related to common space, the shared sense of material, immanent,
realistically conceived bourgeois timespace. As the common space is depicted or
evoked in familiar, and even oppressively confining terms, so the paraspatial
chronotope is depicted in sublime terms. This sublimity is often obvious and
physical, but it can also be conceptual, in the concretization of certain
The final category, parable, is also fairly obvious, although people may
differ in what importance they wish to ascribe to it (which is true of all the
Beauties in question). By including it last I don't mean to imply that it is the
essence of sf, and the most important and inclusive category.
None of these categories is specific to sf, except perhaps the novum.
However, the socialist production novel, especially in its Stalinist variety,
uses the technological novum as a history-changer in non-sf terms; thus a dam or
a dynamo may have the same structural role as a time machine or an interstellar
spaceship. Furthermore, in some situations, basically sf devices are considered
real science—the most extreme example being Lysenkoism, a motif lovingly
ridiculed by the Strugatsky brothers, but foreshadowed in Swift's lampooning of
the Royal Society.
1. Darko Suvin, "Goodbye to Extrapolation," SFS
22:301, #66, July 1995.
2. Eric Rabkin, "Undecideability and Oxymoronism," Fiction
2000, ed. George Slusser and Tom Shippey (Athens: U Georgia P), 262-78; Timo
Siivonen, "Cyborgs and Generic Oxymorons: The Body and Technology in
William Gibson's Cyberspace Trilogy," SFS 23:227-44, #69, July 1996.
3. Samuel R. Delany. Silent Interviews (Hanover, NH:
University Press of New England, 1994), 168.