#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987
What, you may ask, can be special about this Special Issue? Essays dealing
more or less expressly with theoretical matters have hardly been exceptional in
these pages over the years; on the contrary, they constitute the rule among the
articles we have published. And not by accident: it has been our long-standing
editorial policy to encourage such theorizing, and not just of a narrowly
literary, let alone a specifically generic, sort. Even so, "Critical Approaches
to SF" can claim to be unique inasmuch as all of the essays herein concentrate
on theoretical questions (all of them bearing upon SF's generic peculiarities).
In the aggregate, then, they make for a quantitative difference between this
issue and its predecessors. It is arguable, moreover, that the first four pieces
which follow differ from all but a handful of our previous articles in kind as
well as in degree, and this not on account of their level of theorization so
much as by virtue of their being "meta-critical."
The first of the four might appear to be just another interview, but in fact it turns
out to have far greater affinities with the kind of self-interrogation that Samuel Delany
is offering on the lecture-circuit these days. "The Semiology of Silence" may be
deceptive in anotherand more significantway as well. Much of it is ostensibly
a restatement of ideas that Delany has articulated elsewhere (cf. Kathleen Spencer's
review of Starboard Wine); but as he obliquely addresses his
title-subject, he does not merely say, perhaps more clearly and forcibly than
hitherto, things that he has said before: his reconfigurations also contain much
that is new, either in itself or by reason of his manner of expressing it. His
observations on the current situation of SF publishing is an obvious case in
point, especially as they figure in his wide-ranging considerations of genre.
Perhaps most suggestive, however, are his comments on how the sentence "There's
a chair in the corner" can be variously elaborated upon so that it serves
to model authorial choices which are, in the broad(est) sense, political. Connected as it
is with some moving autobiographical reminiscences about his childhood, this
sentence-paradigm does not simply clarify what Delany's own work is about; it
also offers an entirely novel way of identifying and negotiating the "political"
in texts and perhaps (as its context implies) of distinguishing SF from other
genres in that regard.
In urging (once again) that SF be looked upon as distinct
from "literature," Delany in
effect opens a three-cornered debate with Carl Freedman and Fredric Jameson. Whereas
Freedman would traduce that distinction in favor of treating SF as literature (revealed,
however, as a problematic concept), Jameson sees it as a usually unstated premise
operative in the otherwise contrasting, if not opposed, "critical staging" of SF by
Anglo-American and/versus Continental academicsas a matter of tacit agreement which
serves to locate the inadequacies of both approaches and thus demands the tertium datur
for which, in his view, East European SF affords the basis and corpus. Yet Freedman's
remarks on the whole perhaps complement more than they contradict Delany's and Jameson's.
After all, his main argument is that a true (and truly) "critical theory" (lineally
related to the Frankfurt School's) ought to "privilege" SF because "the SF
world is not only one different in time and place from our own, but one whose chief
interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes"a point that
Freedman substantiates through "critical readings" of four exemplary texts.
Much of what H. J. Schulz has to say also bears on matters that Delany, Freedman, and
Jameson deal with. Like Jameson, Schulz views SF as being the victim of two seemingly
antagonistic modes of proceeding towards it: the one constituted by English-language
criticism in general, the other by West German Ideologiekritik. The former tends to
neutralize the critical impact of SF (largely in Freedman's sense of critical) either by
ignoring the genre's ideological component (the "insider" version of this practice)
or by segregating certain works of SF for thematic and formalistic analysis as (if they
were) "high" literature (the academic variant; cf. Delany). Ideologiekritik, on the
other hand, attends to ideological content, but mostly of the overt sort in a genre which
it (mis)represents as undifferentiated, or monolithic, in its affirmation of the status
quo. From this dialectic emerges Schulz's appeal for a criticism which will transcend the
"binary absolutism" of "high-literary" vs. "paraliterary," or
"commercial," SF (cp. Jameson) and come to terms with the "contestation"
between "affirmative" and "subversive" ideological forces within the genre.
Veronica Hollinger's remarks also apply to the play of ideological forces in SF,
particularly in The Time Machine and cognate time-travel stories. She draws syncretically
on a number of theorists (and not only or predominantly those concerned with SF), but
especially on Jacques Derrida and his concepts of supplementarity and différance, to make
the case that fictions such as Wells's in effect participate in the deconstructionist
project of defamiliarization as they operate subversively upon the complex of binary
oppositions attaching to time-travel as "a sign without a referent": Newtonian time
as oeuvre, which lends itself to metonymic extrapolation, versus Einsteinian time as
texte, which tends to proceed by analogy and metaphor (the French terms come from Roland
Barthes in his post-structuralist phase). Nor does Hollinger's argument necessarily
confine itself to "the motif of time-travel." It can additionally be taken as
pertaining to SF in general, and the more so to the extent that it be read as
supplementing (perhaps in Derrida's sense) both Freedman's essay herein and Marc Angenot's
"The Absent Paradigm" in SFS No. 17in the same way that Delany's comments on
"the political" supplement Angenot and Darko Suvin's "Not Only But Also..."
(in SFS No. 18).
The prospects that these first four essays hold for the understanding of SF as a genre
largely come out of their consideration of previously available theories. By contrast, the
articles by Antoni Smuszkiewicz and Naomi Jacobs are far less retrospective in their
orientation. Yet if neither of them is, properly speaking, meta-critical, each decidedly
qualifies for this Special Issue by reason of the concepts which it introduces.
Smuszkiewicz outlines a new categorial scheme which would classify and associate fictions
according to the kind of props they employ (relative to their temporal setting) and how
they deploy them. Jacobs instead focuses on a certain kind of character that makes for
what she calls "recombinant" fictionpersonages appropriated from their
nominally extratextual existence (in history, legend, or myth, or in earlier literature)
and placed in a novel context. Both of these essays, moreover, tie in with the trends of
those preceding them: of (re)locating SF in relation to other literary genres, and chiefly
from a "post-modernist" standpoint.
Finally, it is worth noting that virtually all of the articles and review-articles that
follow, including Carlo Pagetti's report on the Italian scene, register a shift in SF
criticism, whose central question now seems to be not "What is SF?" but
"How is SF (best) to be dealt with?"
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