Science Fiction Studies


#71 = Volume 24, Part 1 = March 1997


David Dalgleish

In Search of Wonder Naive Criticism: Some Objections to Baudrillard and Bukatman

[Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.'s Response]

It is interesting to consider Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz’s Science Fiction and Postmodern Fiction in relation to contemporary science-fiction criticism. Originally published in Germany in 1986, it was not translated into English until 1992, but its concern with the relationship between sf and postmodernism is very much a propos of sf criticism in the 1990s. Puschmann-Nalenz remarks: "Ideological criticism and scientific interpretation of SF represent two approaches which in spite of all the differences have one thing in common: they are founded upon the content of sf and neglect its aesthetic and literary characteristics, as they themselves admit. By doing so they continue the old dilemma of sf-criticism, which for a long time has isolated itself from the methods of literary criticism" (26), and, "the most obvious characteristic of sf-criticism has been for a long time a lack of methods and conceptions" (15). Puschmann-Nalenz is looking for a critical method of discussing sf which is distinct to sf: tailored to the aesthetic, literary, and thematic concerns of sf. She is right to do so, for such a method was largely absent in 1986, and still is largely absent. In fact, the situation has worsened. Where Puschmann-Nalenz postulates some interesting criteria for sf criticism by examining sf texts against postmodern texts, to discover the differences, some contemporary sf critics have leaped on to the postmodern bandwagon, considering sf as just another version of postmodernism. Such critics overlook much that is relevant, indeed unique, to sf, and, in consequence, fail to do the texts full justice. Puschmann-Nalenz criticizes sf critics for a preoccupation with "the content of SF," rather than its "aesthetic and literary characteristics," but a genuinely useful and comprehensive approach should consider content and aesthetic and literary concerns. Aesthetic and literary concerns—in Puschmann-Nalenz’s case, strictly formal concerns—can help illuminate a text, but a consideration of content is still necessary, and, I will argue, central to sf criticism.

As sf has been annexed by postmodernism, a number of critics have heralded sf as gaining its due recognition, comparing its innovative strategies with the experiments of Thomas Pynchon, William S. Burroughs, John Barth, Robert Coover, and others. These authors borrow strategies from sf "by engaging with the received, and authorless, structures of science fiction; Burroughs is able to excavate a new mythology, in which the avant-garde potentials of the genre are finally realized" (Bukatman 77), and Pynchon’s "works are fabulations which resemble sf under some interpretations" (Clute and Nicholls 981). There are links between sf and postmodernism. The postmodern author’s use of genre sf materials comes as part of "the field of tension between tradition and innovation, conservation and renewal, mass culture and high art, in which the second terms are no longer automatically privileged over the first" (Huyssen 216). Sf is linked with tradition and mass culture, of course, and the experimental techniques of the postmodern author are linked to innovation and high art. The supposed collapsing of these distinctions in postmodern times theoretically allows sf a new credibility. But, simply because postmodern authors borrow sf tropes, their work does not thereby become sf, nor does sf thereby become postmodern. Pynchon’s work may "resemble sf under some interpretations," but The Crying of Lot 49 is not sf by any useful definition of the term. Puschmann-Nalenz is right to set sf against postmodernism. There are similarities, true, but the essence of much sf is in the differences. Masses of secondary literature have been written on postmodernism; much current sf criticism tends to be more of the same and so isn’t about sf at all.

One favorite notion is that the reading of sf automatically generates a linguistic gap between reader and text, a discontinuity which results in defamiliarization. This notion comes from Samuel R. Delany, whose work is unfortunately being appropriated to reduce sf to a facet of postmodernism. Scott Bukatman represents the extreme postmodern position: "the distance between the world of the reader and the diegetic construct is always an issue; the text therefore enacts a continual defamiliarization. At its best the language of science fiction, and the distance between its signifiers and the reader’s referents, becomes its ultimate subject" (12). As much as I admire Delany, I think he (and later critics) put far too much emphasis on what Bukatman calls "continual defamiliarization." Quite the opposite is true for most sf. The average sf text—and here is where sf stands in direct contrast to postmodernism— works very hard to familiarize the reader with the sf world. Bukatman misses the point in the following passage:

The reader of [Dick’s] The Simulacra is exposed to the neologistic excess which characterizes the science fiction text. The first pages, frequently defamiliarizing in any SF novel, introduce a pattern of acronyms (EME), abbreviations (Art-Co), and new products (Ampek Fa2) which, in their abundance, render the text less readable. Each condensed form or typographical anomaly opens a hermeneutic gap while emphasizing the signifier’s sign-function. These terms cannot be read through, for the unfamiliarity they engender is precisely their purpose (54).

But the initial defamiliarization is, paradoxically, designed to enhance familiarity with the diegetic world of the text. Yes, the first pages are frequently defamiliarizing, but only the first few pages. The reader has to work to make sense of strange references, but the ultimate result, and purpose, of this common technique is to force the reader to become immersed in the depicted world. By Bukatman’s approach, all science fiction continually forces suspension of belief; but most science fiction is attempting to gain suspension of disbelief, to make the reader believe in the fictional world. Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is difficult to read at first, as the reader struggles to come to grips with his happening world; but the novel follows a set pattern—the Happening World, Context, Continuity, Tracking with Close-Ups. The unfamiliar becomes familiar through patterning and repetition. Brunner doesn’t want the reader to be at a distance from the text. When Chad Mulligan is ranting, Brunner clearly is operating on a didactic level; didacticism works poorly when the reader is disengaged from the text. But the effect does not merely apply for didactically oriented sf. Neuromancer, that favorite text of postmodern sf critics, operates in the same fashion. Gibson hits the reader with a barrage of new terms, strange scenes, disorientations; the cumulative effect is to present a brilliant, detailed picture of life in the Sprawl. "It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke," we are told on the first page. But what does that mean? We don’t know. Here is Bukatman’s defamiliarization. But as the novel progresses, the reader puzzles things out, makes connections. The reader is handed a disassembled jigsaw; according to Bukatman, the pieces remain jumbled from beginning to end. Actually, the attentive reader puts the pieces together, forming a whole picture, becoming familiar with the fictional world. Sharona Ben-Tov notes something similar. Having mentioned Delany’s ideas, she says:

Science fiction denies the possibility of otherness.... It is a pseudoreality, a game, with automatically limited depth.... Samuel Delany’s winged poodle is not a gap in the familiar context but, rather, a product of the heterocosm’s artificial evolutionary theory, the rules of the game. Any element in the game points to the rules, and that is its whole meaning. We don’t get a sense of otherness, for example, from a strange creature like Pac Man. We know what he’s about (36).

Likewise, we don’t get a sense of otherness from a strange creature like Case. By the end of the novel, we know what he’s about. Ben-Tov is rather more dismissive of sf than I would prefer, but her point is valid. There is a game, a jigsaw puzzle, and every element in the game, every piece of the puzzle, leads to the rules, or familiarization—understanding of the other world. Most sf is inherently non-postmodern, a point made succinctly and accurately by the ever-useful John Clute:

Sf readers have...grown accustomed to thinking that it was genre sf itself that dethroned the mimetic novel from its position of dominance in 1926, and that the continued popularity of "realistic" fiction is a kind of confidence game. We feel that something like the reverse is true: that genre essentially a continuation of the mimetic novel, which it may have streamlined but certainly did not supplant; and that the onslaught of Modernism (and its successors [i.e. Postmodernism]) on the mimetic novel was also an onslaught upon the two essential assumptions governing genre sf. The first assumption is that both the "world" and the human beings who inhabit it can be seen whole, and described accurately, in words.... The second assumption is that the "world"—whether or not it can be seen whole through the distorting glass of words—does in the end have a story which can be told.... What underlying story is being told is less important than the fact that, for writers of genre sf, some form of "metanarrative" lies beneath the tale, ensuring the connectivity of things (Clute and Nicholls 399-400).

I quote this at length because it cannot be overstated. This is the fundamental issue which some postmodern sf critics ignore, and which leads me to (over)-state that some postmodern sf criticism is not about sf at all. Postmodernism, in the words of the ubiquitous Fredric Jameson (he, Delany, Baudrillard, and Haraway are the idols of postmodern sf critics), is characterized by the "disappearance of the sense of history" (125). A sense of history is equivalent to the "metanarrative," the connectivity of things. That has broken down in postmodernism, leading to the decentered subject, etc. As Clute has noted, a sense of history still underlies genre sf. Indeed it must, for to set a story in the future, you have to be able to get to the future. Linear time, the connectivity of things, is a predicate for getting to a "real" future, one with which we can become familiar. To be sure, not all sf authors assume this faith in the "meta-narrative." But some postmodern sf critics are far too fond of writers like Ballard, who uses postmodern techniques but is an anomaly in the sf field. Ballard is not a useful representative of what sf is about. His assumptions and techniques are not those of the typical sf writer. Even the self-styled innovators of New Worlds should not be equated with Ballard. Writers like Michael Moorcock experimented with Ballardian and Burroughsian collage techniques, but were notably unsuccessful. Genre sf merges uneasily with postmodern approaches. Moorcock’s experimental Jerry Cornelius short stories, such as "The Peking Junction," heavily influenced by non-linear Ballard narrative approaches, are among the worst things he has written. Moorcock has shown himself much more comfortable when taking an essentially traditional approach, with some sophistication of technique—as in Gloriana, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, the DANCERS AT THE END OF TIME stories, and the COLONEL PYAT sequence. This "subdued" postmodernism, where the "meta-narrative" is perhaps questioned but not disowned, is typical of post-New Worlds sf. The New Wave writers were not all Ballard; later sf writers are not New Wave—it was a moment in sf history when postmodern techniques were foregrounded. They have since been largely abandoned, antithetical to genre sf as they are. For every Ballard there are ten Larry Nivens (the distinction here is not of quality, but of approach). Harping relentlessly on Ballard (as Bukatman and Baudrillard tend to do) is an indication of the problem with much postmodern sf criticism: an over-attention to details which loses sight of the wider picture. Ballard is one tree in a very, very large forest, albeit one of the few of towering height. Some sf writers do share his postmodern concerns; most don’t.

Even then, Ballard is not as postmodern as some (like Baudrillard) would have him be. The danger of postmodern and post-structuralist thought—the ideology that pervades the work of a writer like Baudrillard—is that, as Martha Nussbaum writes, ethical concerns have "been constrained by pressure of the current thought that to discuss a text’s ethical or social content is somehow to neglect ‘textuality,’ the complex relationships of that text with other texts; and of the related, though more extreme, thought that texts do not refer to human life at all, but only to other texts and themselves" (60). Nussbaum is criticizing contemporary literary theory—poststructuralism—and its lack of "the sense that we are social beings puzzling out, in times of great moral difficulty, what might be, for us, the best way to live—this sense of practical importance, which animates contemporary ethical theory and has always animated much of great literature" (60-61). Her criticism of post-structuralism relates also to a problem with postmodernism, with its notion that we can no longer define what is ‘real.’ Baudrillard writes, "there is no real and no imaginary except at a distance" (309), and "there is no more fiction" (310), and "the era of hyperreality has begun" (311). Bukatman writes, "the world has been refigured as a simulation within the mega-computer banks of the Information Society.... A new subject has emerged: one constituted by electronic technologies, but also by the machineries of the text" (22). The real and the fictional collapse; we don’t control the technology—it controls and conditions us. At which point, when there is no real and no fictional, nothing has any meaning. One must believe that there is some meaningful reality to believe anything at all. The real is the basis for any form of social or ethical concern. Thus, like poststructuralist criticism, much postmodern art and theory refuses to talk about human lives as if they had any meaning. We are subjects constructed by the media landscape—end of story. Such an outlook leads to statements like this: "contrary to what the author himself says in his introduction when he speaks of a new perverse logic, one must resist the moral temptation of reading Crash as perversion" (Baudrillard 315). I do not care to meet the person who doesn’t read Crash as perversion; the ethical and social implications of Baudrillard’s statement epitomize the dangers of postmodern thought. The real and the meaningful are eliminated, leaving no room for moral readings, moral judgments, and moral interpretations. The only reason I can justify spending several hours reading Crash is that I believe Ballard when he says, "needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against the brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively from the margins of the technological landscape" (6). Yes, Ballard sounds very post-modern with statements like "the most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction—conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads" (5). Again, I protest against the conflation of reality and fiction—it is an extremely dangerous mode of thought that leads to the sort of amoral perception that Baudrillard advocates. But, Ballard does allow us "one small node of reality." Baudrillard doesn’t. That is where he misses the point, and where Ballard remains, however far removed, an sf author. For Baudrillard, everything is now on "the margins of the technological landscape." There is no center, no meaningful reality. For Ballard, the margins are still on the margins, and there is a center —a moral center. Crash is perverse: we must read it as such, in moral terms, contrary to what Baudrillard says, for it to have any meaning. As a self-styled "pornographic novel based on technology" (6), Crash is not pornographic in the sense of soft-porn titillation, but is appropriating hard-core pornography which is extremely perverse and, one hopes, disturbing to the average individual. There is a moral judgement implicit in Crash—it has a cautionary role, a somewhat didactic purpose—and although it is not sf, it reveals something which lies at the heart of sf. Most sf has an explicit or implicit didactic thrust, however weak or disguised. Its fundamental concerns are the social and ethical concerns Nussbaum looks for and finds lacking in poststructuralist literary theory. When Baudrillard writes, "true SF...would not be a fiction in expansion, with all the freedom and ‘naïveté’ which give it a certain charm of discovery. It would, rather, evolve implosively, in the same way as our image of the universe. It would seek to revitalize, to reactualize, to rebanalize fragments of simulation—fragments of this universal simulation which our presumed ‘real’ world has now become for us" (311; my emphasis), he is completely wrong to use the term "true SF." For me at least, true sf, as Clute has said with regards to genre sf, still presumes a "meaningful ‘real’ world" which is not simply a "universal simulation." There is a center, a continuity of things, in most sf. And when there isn’t, as in Dick’s Ubik, the search for the center matters. Baudrillard wants us to stop searching; true sf, as I define it, is always searching. There is a moral concern in Dick’s work, for all its postmodernity, which is completely lacking in Baudrillard. Baudrillard, epitomizing the extremes of postmodernism, has given up questions of ‘real’ meaning as meaningless. Dick—and this is what makes him an sf author, not a postmodernist—hasn’t given up. Baudrillard uses the word "naïveté" with regard to the old, false sf. It is a key concept. Sf, on the whole, is a naive literature, and when it ceases to be so, it is no longer typical of sf. Baudrillard acknowledges this, saying that Crash is "the contemporary model for this SF which is no longer SF" (312). Well, Crash is not sf by any definition, nor is it the "true SF" Baudrillard is looking for. Baudrillard’s "true SF" is not sf at all, and should be called something else entirely. Bukatman, evaluating Dick’s work, says that "with a reduced emphasis on the broader social formations through which ‘reality’ gains meaning, works such as VALIS (1981) are, to my mind, less compelling and surely less relevant [than the earlier, more fractured works]" (55). This judgement of Dick’s work is based on one criterion: how postmodern is it? The earlier novels have layered realities, multiple protagonists, fractured point of view; the later VALIS trilogy is more convinced of a central reality, and determined to understand its meaning. More naive, in other words. When the moral, Christian theological underpinnings of Dick’s earlier work come to the fore, it is no longer "compelling and relevant." Perhaps it is true of these novels. What should be acknowledged is that the naiveté was always present, in one form or another. For all the postmodern complexity, the underlying thought that the search for reality matters is always there. But that most valuable element in Dick, whether it be The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, that moral and philosophical questioning, is missing from Bukatman’s discussion. "Dick’s subject was always ontological" wrote Kim Stanley Robinson (qtd Bukatman 53), and Bukatman agrees. But for Bukatman, ontology is strictly a matter of the way in which technology produces us; he praises Dick for "foregrounding the quest for elusive meaning" (55), but doesn’t praise him for seeking the elusive meaning. But the issue of moral certitude, not simply the difficulty of gaining moral certitude, is crucial to Dick’s work. I also think it is crucial to sf as a whole; like Ballard, Dick allows for there to be a meaningful center. We may not be able to find it, but it is meaningful, it is ‘real,’ to try to do so.

Other critics have commented on the dangers of conflating postmodernism and sf. Roger Luckhurst observes that "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" (365). This is precisely my point; the postmodern sf critic is distorting sf, stripping it of its own values, in order to accommodate it to the postmodern mainstream. As Luckhurst points out, "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" (365). Jenny Wolmark takes Jameson to task for regarding "SF as very much part of the ‘increasing dehumanization’ of life, rather than a genre capable of making meaningful social and cultural interventions. This view fails to recognize the potential of science fiction to offer alternative and critical ways of imagining social and cultural reality" (10). Notably absent from Luckhurst’s critique is any definition of "the specificity of SF." Wolmark takes a step in the right direction. "Meaningful social and cultural interventions"—stressing "meaningful"—are not allowed by the postmodern critic, be it Jameson or Baudrillard. The ability to imagine social and cultural reality implies a difference between imagination and reality, likewise denied by the postmodernist. Sf is an "alternative and critical" way of approaching the world—it is an alternative to postmodernism. That is one of its strengths. Baudrillard denies ethical reality; most sf affirms it, often in a "naive" manner. Sf critics seem to shy away from this because, applying a sort of double standard, the "naive" beliefs which underlie sf are not permissible in the postmodern value system (if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms). But if you don’t want sf to be the same as postmodernism, don’t apply postmodern standards, such as the refusal to accept the "metanarrative" or the denial of any central moral meaning. Sf accepts these things as basic premises; naive it may be, but there’s nothing wrong with a little naiveté once in a while. Sf is, for me, a welcome antidote to the absurdities found at the extremes of postmodernism. One of the great strengths of sf, one of its justifications as a genre, has always been the ability to dramatize metaphysical, eschatological, and philosophical issues in a way realistic fiction cannot—"one of the qualities of sf that sometimes baffles new readers is the relative infrequency, despite its label, with which it deals with the hard sciences; indeed, sf deals as often with metaphysics as with physics" (Clute and Nicholls 803). One has to allow metaphysics some sort of meaning for this to be valuable; postmodernism denies the validity of this reality, never mind a higher one, thus making contemplation of metaphysical questions an absurdity. Yet contemplation of metaphysical questions animates much great sf: Childhood’s End, the works of Olaf Stapledon, A Voyage to Arcturus, Solaris, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, to name just a few of my favorites. Such issues have become "naive" in the postmodern world, yet they remain at the heart of sf. As Ursula K. Le Guin writes, "Fantasists, whether they use the ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist—and a good deal more directly—about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived" (53). Sf becomes just another branch of postmodernism when it loses such speculation entirely. Cyberpunk is leading sf that way; Brian Aldiss’s critique of Neuromancer raises some issues which have not been considered often enough:

It’s a garishly violent book with a wholly unsympathetic protagonist. Case is a cold fish with more in common with his console than with the equally degraded humans around him. Such coldness between people is somewhat reminiscent of William Burroughs’s The Wild Boys (1971).... What makes it a remarkable debut, other than a remarkable novel, is Gibson’s style ....

There is also a doubt as yet concerning Gibson’s range: he has still to write much that falls outside his near future scenario, or to provide a moral or philosophical dimension even to that (411-3).

Neuromancer is much overpraised as a novel, despite many excellent qualities; the lack of a moral or philosophical dimension perhaps explains why it is so favored by the postmodern sf critic, as is the subgenre it booted up, cyberpunk. Nicholas Ruddick muses, "there is always the possibility that we are in an age in which style is content...of which the characteristic artistic product is beautiful, but thematically empty. Perhaps this is what William Gibson’s Neuromancer really exemplifies" (180). Ruddick may be right. Cyberpunk is so postmodern and fashionable because of its frequent postmodern reality-denying, subject-denying nihilism. It is not especially "naive," and as such, is not particularly true to the spirit of sf. What seems to have escaped a number of critics, including Bukatman, is that cyberpunk is not the only sf being written today. Many critics seem to think so, or else (worse) think that everything else is uninteresting. Cyberpunk is so close to postmodernism that it may soon become more postmodern than science-fictional, but it remains sf for the moment because of certain essential sf qualities. This is noted by Bukatman: "there is a reactionary face to cyberpunk, as technology becomes incorporated with a subject position that is strengthened but otherwise unchanged—a highly romantic view" (315). Bukatman notes this, but fails to discuss the fact at any length, preferring to discuss the postmodern qualities of cyberpunk, ignoring the values which make cyberpunk a branch of sf, not postmodernism. Bukatman’s point is worth discussion, if only in Sharona Ben-Tov’s terms. She criticizes Neuromancer, and cyberpunk in general, for postulating that "the body isn’t only mere natural matter, the diametric opposite of human identity; it’s also a consumer commodity. In Neuromancer’s world the body, eroticism, and generativity are the sites of alienated nature" (179). She sees cyberpunk as a participant in a nigh-universal sf ideology which alienates the natural and elevates the technological transcendent. But the technological is not transcendent, here; "in Case’s vision people don’t generate information; information generates people" (180), which sounds like Baudrillard and Bukatman. But Ben-Tov realizes that in "the cyberpunk novel cyberspace fulfills every promise that space travel did, in a fashion as ideologically orthodox as any space romance" (177). Cyberpunk attempts to fulfill the promise, but undermines its own premises: when "information generates people," the fulfillment of the promise is much less satisfying than an orthodox space romance, and much more troubling. It raises questions of the subjects’ autonomy, their "reality," questions whose answers are generally, generically taken for granted in much sf. As Ben-Tov rightly points out, the technological transcendent is false, but she is wrong to think that all sf bases its transcendence on contradictions. Much of it doesn’t—including the novels I listed earlier as examples of metaphysically oriented sf. And the pre-cyberpunk sf which does feature technological transcendence—Dune, for example—does so in violation of its own desires. Dune carries the generic assumptions of sf—that the individual and the world can be "told"; it works against itself by failing to note the inherent contradiction which Ben-Tov shrewdly notes. But Ben-Tov has a much too narrow, Suvinesque definition of sf (although it is never stated outright), and much sf features some sort of mysticism or irrationality carried over from the fantastic tradition it is so closely allied with. Thus, works like Childhood’s End do not fit Ben-Tov’s schemata. My point is that there is a quality to most sf, cyberpunk and otherwise, which can be described as a non-postmodern naiveté which is ingrained in its fundamental assumptions about the world. Those works may unwittingly work against themselves, as do Dune and others discussed by Ben-Tov, but they are notably going against the grain of postmodernism. And, like Ben-Tov, I believe that these issues are rooted in the question of natural, transcendent Nature vs. technological, dead Machinery or the mystic vs. the postmodernist. As Bruce Sterling has noted, "cyberpunk has risen from within the SF genre; it is not an invasion but a modern reform" (xiii). The reform is to strip sf of its naiveté, replacing it with a postmodern sensibility—no longer do people generate information; information generates people. In earlier sf, the subject constructed—in cyberpunk, the subject is constructed. How postmodern it really is is an interesting question, too, for the cyberpunk ethos tries to reconcile genre sf’s assumptions with postmodernism’s assumptions—but as Ben-Tov demonstrates and Bukatman mentions in passing, the attempt fails. While postmodern sf critics seize upon the postmodern elements in cyberpunk, they do so (as always) by ignoring the sf elements, which are still present. And it is not only metaphysical issues that animate sf, and thereby separate it from postmodernism; there is also a prevalent concern with socio-ethical issues.

Sf’s historical links to utopian fiction have often been noted: "SF is at the same time wider than and at least collaterally descended from utopia; it is, if not a daughter, yet a niece of utopia—a niece usually ashamed of the family inheritance but unable to escape her genetic destiny" (Suvin 61). From Ben-Tov: "Science fiction inherits the structure and the ideology of utopia" (23). Wolmark writes, "the clear-cut distinction between utopia and dystopia...does little to explain the way in which feminist science fiction both contests the dominant ideology to celebrate female agency but also recognizes the profound limitations on that agency. This is the ‘doubled vision’ that makes it difficult to label the narratives either utopian or dystopian—they are essentially a mixture of the two modes" (90). Her remarks on feminist sf are relevant to sf as a whole. Taken together, Suvin’s, Ben-Tov’s, and Wolmark’s statements point to an important factor in sf: its relationship to utopian/dystopian writing. As Suvin points out, this is part of sf’s genetic destiny: unavoidable. For, when one sets a narrative in the future, there will always be an implicit (and often explicit) comparison with our world, here, now. This value judgment—weighing the worth of one time and place against another—is inherent in sf, and confers upon the subject (the reader) the ability to make meaningful judgments, something which many postmodern critics deny. Again, we find sf’s implicit ideas run contrary to those of postmodernism; again, they are more "naive," as construed by postmodern theory.

The utopian/dystopian element is also linked to sf’s fundamental reliance upon "meta-narratives" and the belief that the world and its inhabitants can be accurately described by words. What’s the point of writing a utopia or dystopia if you don’t have faith in words—if you don’t believe that the society you imagine can be truly described? A great deal could be said about the difficulties of reconciling utopian/dystopian literature with postmodern theory—the basic assumptions of the two sides are almost mutually exclusive. Thus, in the case of sf, generically and genetically related to utopia/dystopia, there is a fundamental element of the genre strongly resistant to postmodern thought— something that Bukatman and others largely ignore. Of course, relatively little sf, strictly speaking, is outright utopia or dystopia. But as Wolmark points out (and her remark applies to most sf), sf is essentially a mixture of utopian and dystopian narratives. When one imagines the future, things are going to be different—and whenever there is difference, there is comparison. Even a work which attempts to portray a society which is realistically complex, no more utopian or dystopian than our world, will nevertheless be judged according to the values of the reader, regardless of the author’s intentions. Much sf contains overt utopian and/or dystopian elements. Stand on Zanzibar, many Philip K. Dick novels, and myriad near-future scenarios (including cyberpunk) are overtly dystopian; alien planets are explicitly contrasted with our world in many works, such as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, or A Case of Conscience; other works present social developments which will improve matters, as in More than Human or The Chrysalids; even a work which shows history repeating itself, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz, urges an ethical judgment upon our society, which is recapitulated in the future. The variations are numerous, and by no means simplistic—irony and ambiguity abound—but an sf text is almost inevitably positioned in some sort of utopian/dystopian discourse, by virtue of being set elsewhere. Comparison is unavoidable. Even works which seemingly have little didactic socio-political content cannot evade the utopian/dystopian issue. Lem’s Solaris and The Invincible, for example, say little about their future societies, seeming to concentrate on other issues. But the fact that there are no women astronauts in either of Lem’s future scenarios may well invite value judgments on his future worlds. "Pure" utopian/dystopian discourse would seem to depend upon a belief in narrative, linear historical time—to extrapolate into the future, you have to be able to get there. Whether it’s Looking Backward, 1984, or Venus Plus X, a past situation and a future situation are linked by a progression through time; a "metanarrative" links past, present, and future. While postmodernism may question such historical narratives, utopian/dystopian works depend upon them, and, given its strong links to the utopian/dystopian genre, sf also depends upon the existence of narrative continuity. Even a work like 1984, which calls into question the meaning of "reality" in very postmodern terms, nonetheless is based upon a belief in narrative. Winston may be a postmodern subject, whose reality, identity, and past history are capable of being completely remade, but the nature of the work itself asks the reader to look at what has happened in the novel, the progression of events from Orwell’s 1948 to the future, and question the possible consequences of certain courses of action. The existence of a "meta-narrative" is implied in the novel’s title; there must be a linear, continuous progression of time if 1984 is to be reached from 1948. The "metanarrative" lies behind all utopian/dystopian literature, and likewise is behind much sf.

Thus, the postmodern sf critic who discusses sf from a purely postmodern approach, appropriating the genre as "cutting edge," does so by ignoring two fundamental principles of sf: the "naive," pre-postmodern belief in words and meta-narratives and the autonomy of the subject and the correspondent ability to make meaningful moral and social judgments. The second element is bound up with the famous "conceptual breakthrough" and/or "philosophical apocalypse" which occurs in much sf. When one writes of a conceptual breakthrough, when one attempts to show our world in a different light, there is an implicit belief that this matters, that a "truth" can be revealed. In postmodernism, there is no truth: everything is relative. The conceptual breakthrough represents a fundamental, often metaphysical, truth (as in A Voyage to Arcturus) or a step on the path to a fuller understanding of the ultimate truth (as in The Man in the High Castle). Either way, even when the author is being ironic (for then, a truth is merely being posited in reverse, so to speak— pointing obliquely to truth by undermining or mocking what is not true), sf has faith in the ability of words to convey truth. Such a viewpoint doubtless seems exceedingly naive to a postmodernist, and the postmodernist, wanting to complicate everything, therefore ignores the obvious. I believe some rather obvious, simple points about sf are being ignored by critics because they refuse to take anything simply. An example is this passage from Bukatman: "the body in science fiction can be read symbolically, but it is a transparent symbol (as well as a symbol of its own transparent status), an immanent object, signifying nothing beyond itself. It is literally objectified; everything is written upon its surface.... the body has become a machine, a machine that no longer exists in dichotomous opposition to the ‘natural’ and unmediated existence of the subject" (244). For something that signifies "nothing beyond itself," the body certainly signifies a great deal. The one thing Bukatman, in true postmodern fashion, does not allow the body to be is simply a body: everything has to be elevated to a realm of abstract discourse removed from the real world. Metaphorically speaking, most sf allows a body to be a body. That is but one example; it is not true of cyberpunk, but it is true of much other sf. Sf allows the simple, everyday reality—the familiarity and comprehensibility of everyday things—that postmodernism denies. Most sf is concerned with the "meat" that the cyberpunks leave behind. While the postmodern critic and the cyberpunk live happily ever after in their meaningless, disembodied postmodern cyberspace, most sf (and most literature in general, except for the minority of aggressively postmodern texts) continues to debate fundamental issues in life, granting those issues the possibility of real meaning. Sf uses its many tropes to debate those moral, social, and metaphysical issues in ways unavailable to "mundane" fiction—this is its strength. To reduce sf to being of interest only for the postmodern elements of the cyberpunk genre is to ignore the genre’s most compelling works: the cyberpunk movement has notably failed to produce many genuinely superior works of science fiction. They may be postmodern, but they are not profound. Perhaps because they are postmodern, they cannot be profound. Cyberpunk has had a useful influence on the genre, but cyberpunk is decidedly a subgenre, an isolated movement: not the apotheosis of sf, as Sterling and others would have us believe.

But postmodern sf criticism is not the only form of sf criticism being practiced these days—feminist criticism is the other favorite at the moment. And feminism is much truer to the "naive" spirit of sf than postmodernism. Feminism engages with the real world in the same way that sf does: "feminist fabulation concerns female writers who create postmodern work relative to real-world women" (Barr xviii; my emphasis), as opposed to postmodernism’s use of "Woman as catalyst to discourse that male theorists generate" (Barr xviii) —theorists like Bukatman and Baudrillard, "infatuat[ed] with the ‘crisis of the subject’ and the ‘feminine’ as a pre-oedipal discursive mode" (Catherine Stimpson, qtd Barr xviii). Socio-ethical issues are a vital concern; the struggle to establish meaning and truth animates both feminism and much sf. They were made for each other; the strength of sf, as I have said, resides in its recourse to other ways of representing the world than mimetic, realistic fiction. In that way, it is a perfect vehicle for feminist argument, as Le Guin, Russ, Tiptree, Piercy, Charnas, Sargent, McIntyre, Butler, Delany, Varley, and others have amply demonstrated: "only in science fiction can feminists imaginatively step outside the father’s house and begin to look around" (Roberts 2). Russ’s The Female Man may use a fractured, experimental narrative style—very postmodern and chic—but in contradiction to postmodernism’s nihilism, her style is secondary to the uncompromising didactic feminist thrust of her novel; the meaning of The Female Man is more important than its stylistic liberties. Russ does not fragment her narrative in order to refute the possibility of fixed meaning, but rather to reinforce her point from a variety of perspectives. At the center of her novel there lies an expression of truth, one which Russ dares the reader to refute. Not just the possibility of truth, here, but rather the certainty of truth is manifest. Russ has overt socio-political concerns, and her polemical novel hopes to inspire change. Feminism has allowed itself to become diverted by postmodern overcomplication; however, at the heart of the movement, and of fiction like The Female Man, lies an engagement with the real world which presumes that human beings matter, that they can make change, and that there are certain things in life that are true (for example, women being equal to men). Consequently, feminist sf criticism shows an engagement with real issues which postmodern critics like Baudrillard ignore. Baudrillard dwells in the realm of the hyperreal; feminist sf remains in touch with the real. Thus, Sharona Ben-Tov’s The Artificial Paradise is a far more useful critical work than Bukatman’s Terminal Identity, for the latter remains wholly removed from any sense of a tangible, meaningful real world, while Ben-Tov discusses fiction in relation to the real world. Bukatman conflates real and fictional, body and information, thereby precluding the possibility of the fictional illuminating, changing, or representing the real, because fiction and reality, for him, are one big, tangled, indistinguishable mess. Ben-Tov, a feminist critic, allows for fiction to be a reflection of the real, or indeed a shaper of the real, but still allows the real, the true, to exist independently.

This essential difference, epitomizing the difference between feminist and some postmodern criticism, lies in their approach to the notion of the transcendent, the numinous, the natural. Bukatman is uninterested—these things, for him, smack of the metaphysics which imbue most sf, but not the hip, postmodern cyberpunk. Georges Bataille writes, "faced with a precarious discontinuity of the personality, the human spirit reacts in two ways.... The first responds to the desire to find that lost continuity which we are stubbornly convinced is the essence of being. With the second, mankind tries to avoid the terms set to individual discontinuity, death, and invents a discontinuity unassailable by death—that is, the immortality of discontinuous beings" (qtd Bukatman 281). Bukatman’s response: "both methods of coping with the discontinuity of being have analogues within SF" (281). True enough, but Bukatman never discusses the first method. The second method is the rational, technological approach of the cyberpunk: get rid of the limited body, and live forever as disembodied consciousness in cyberspace. The first method is the mystical, natural, transcendent approach—the approach of Childhood’s End. Bukatman isn’t interested. Yet, most sf, with its conceptual breakthroughs, its metaphysics, its trust in the "meta-narrative," is indeed attempting to recuperate "that lost continuity which we are stubbornly convinced is the essence of being." That excellent phrase sums up the spirit of sf, for me; Bukatman isn’t interested in spiritual notions, however, and is therefore uninterested in the spirit of sf. Ben-Tov, on the other hand, is interested in how sf attempts to deal with Bataille’s first option; her conclusion is that sf offers a false resolution, which is in truth an enactment of the second option disguised as the first. She is right, regarding the texts she has chosen—but she limits herself, rather like Bukatman, to texts which fit the Darko Suvin definition of sf, thereby ignoring the masses of sf with quasi-mystical/fantastic elements. Ben-Tov, like Suvin, has "attempted to define the genre of sf in terms which would in fact logically exclude most genre sf from serious consideration" (Clute and Nicholls 484). But, significantly, Ben-Tov considers relevant sf issues which Bukatman ignores, just as most feminist critics discuss relevant issues which postmodernists ignore. The meaningful approach to sf taken by feminists, granting the genre socio-ethical relevance, is an approach that comes closer to sf s real concerns; as opposed to the postmodern approach, which is a self-perpetuating debate about mostly superficial matters. What would be useful for sf criticism would be an approach that mimics feminist criticism, but with a wider scope. Whether or not one believes in notions of the transcendent, the sublime, the apocalyptic conceptual breakthrough, the existence of central truth, one cannot ignore the preoccupation of sf with those issues, and one misrepresents the genre by focusing exclusively on whatever is fashionable in contemporary literary theory. That is not, fundamentally, what sf is about; take it or leave it as it is. I began with Puschmann-Nalenz, and the conclusions of her study, defining sf by its differences from postmodernism, are wholly appropriate:

SF assumes functions formerly fulfilled by the "realistic novel" and enhances its objectives: "the representation of an orderly and explicable universe..., enlightenment by insight into the nature of the reality"....

"Innocent realism," as Stephan Kohl calls it, has become alienated to postmodern fiction. In spite of innovative tendencies which are fully grown into New Wave SF I come to the conclusion that there is a specific affinity between SF—the literature of change—and the skills and crafts of writing a "good story," with characters, plot, and closure. The postmodern "surfiction" or "metafiction" is still separated by a gap from SF, but this gap is narrowing.... The more demanding and intricate products of SF are postmodernizing [i.e. cyberpunk], so that it is certainly unjustified to call the whole genre "trivial." On the other hand the conventional way of narrating a story, which still characterizes the bulk of SF, is not a sign of "triviality," it is more a sign of lack of those innovative inclinations that often lead to auto-destructive fictional texts (225-6).

Indeed. I would substitute "naiveté" for "triviality," but agree wholeheartedly with Puschmann-Nalenz’s argument, although having reached her conclusion from a different direction. Her comments illuminate a crucial point about sf which is being ignored by many postmodern sf critics but understood to some extent by feminist sf critics. But, for a criticism that does justice to the genre, on its own terms, more critics will have to appreciate this truth.


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