Science Fiction Studies

#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:


(Some hypotheses—check them out)

1. Neologisms—invented words, intended to refer to imaginary "new realities."

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 philosophical conundrums.

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.

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