Science Fiction Studies

#36 = Volume 12, Part 2 = July 1985

Takayuki Tatsumi

An Interview with Darko Suvin*

Takayuki Tatsumi: Part of your Metamorphoses of Science Fiction has already been translated into Japanese and many critics there have been influenced by your critical system. Therefore, I think, it will be quite useful if you would inform your Japanese audience of what you are currently thinking about SF, SF criticism, and SF academics.

Your definition of SF is "cognitive estrangement." It is very fascinating because the concept clearly springs from Bertold Brecht's theory of drama, which was your earlier major interest and is the topic in one of your newest books, To Brecht and Beyond (1984). On the other hand, I notice that you begin Metamorphoses with a very strict generic definition of SF. Allow me to ask how you conceive the generic relationship between SF and drama.

Darko Suvin: I have used the concept first introduced by the Russian Formalists and later developed further by Brecht. But then, I think, this concept, although particularly clear in theatre, is in fact of more general, cultural and potential usefulness. If it were not, obviously I should not have applied it to SF. O.EL? Although I didn't quite know what I was doing when I was using this concept, why I was using it, I think I could give you a theoretical justification today. I think it is caught up with what both the SF community and also logicians in their latest investigations call "possible worlds." As you may know, this is a concept now discussed in semiotics by people like Eco and so on. A "possible world" is a little space time island which is in some ways complete in itself, rounded off and set off against other possible worlds —which applies equally in the Einsteinian physical system, in logics, and in literary theory. Now, of course, a play, including its performances, is clearly a little rounded off world. And obviously SF is also, within the epic genre and the novel, that form which usually most clearly represents a different possible world. Therefore, there are some strong internal and formal—even formalizable—kinships between SF and drama, because both are possible worlds. And by pure luck, being a theatre critic to begin with and then a theoretician of drama, I stumbled on this idea which Brecht had developed. But as you know, Brecht took it from the Russian Formalists, who developed it in analyses of the novel—developed it on Sterne, Tolstoy, and so on. So it's not confined to drama: I simply happened to have gotten it from Brecht.

TT: Doesn't this mean that you have noticed an essential connection between the form of SF and the form of drama?

DS: I didn't know why I was using it. I just intuitively used it—in the '50s when I began writing in Yugoslavia and then in the '60s in English. But now I could give you a theoretical, semiotic defense of that, if you want, based on the notion of possible worlds.

TT: O.K. And yet, my opinion is that, as far as the genre of SF is concerned, the very concept of "world" is binary—"world view" and/or "world mechanics." Do you understand?

DS: No. Explain, please. Do you mean any particular work, or the whole genre together?

TT: For example, if we appreciate Clarke's Childhood's End very much, we must agree with his "world view." On the other hand, if we appreciate Lem's Solaris very much, we are fascinated by its "world mechanics."

DS: Do you mean the way he describes the world—the Ocean in Solaris and all that? Is that what you mean?

TT: Put simply, there are, I think, at least a couple of ways of reading SF. One is a reading on the basis of "world view," that is, "ideology," while the other on the basis of "world mechanics," namely, "law."

DS: And you want to know how this relates to my opinions?

TT: Yes.

DS: I think the distinction you established only goes so far. That is to say, it is an analytically useful distinction, but, you know, all analytically useful distinctions break down after a certain stretch of use. So, I would say that if you want to understand any work of SF, of course you have to begin with what you call world mechanics—space time, the plot developing in this space time, the narrative agents, and everything else. O.K? But, then, the space time is always a choice among possibilities. You say "there is a blue sun," which means "there is a blue, but not yellow, sun." Even if the author says only "blue," the reader will translate this; for us yellow is normal and we translate it as "blue, but not yellow." Therefore we are not in the Solar System. "Blue Sun" is a choice among possible sun colors and systems from which a lot will then follow: a type of planet atmosphere, climate, geology, and so on. But, then, these mechanics really begin to serve as a delineation of a possible world, which is made up by choices of what to show and what not to show, what to focus on and what to leave on the periphery. That choice is an ideological choice, and at that moment the distinction between mechanics and ideology breaks down.

Now I can appreciate, therefore, up to a limited point, Childhood's End, let's say (since you mentioned it); but I don't have to agree with Clarke's ideology, which is a kind of English Non Conformist mysticism. I don't have to agree with Clarke's ideology in order to be able to read the book. I can say his ideology has certain limits, and I'm willing to follow him up to his limits; but, then, I would not like to stop at his limits, going no further. Therefore, I will not accept this book as a final value statement. So, I think there are two matters here: one is a technical matter, while the other is a value decision. Technically, I think you can't read the book longer than three sentences before mechanics begins to interfere with value, choices, ideology, and so on. Ideologically, I think that I absolutely refuse to be bound by the ideology of any particular writer. Moreover, I think it is very pernicious when SF becomes an ideology for the subculture of SF fans. This is terribly bad in my opinion. Then they become a kind of sect which can be manipulated for semi political, semi religious ends, which often happens to SF fans as we know, unfortunately. And I think the healthy attitude is that you have your own point of view, an ideology which is based on your life experience and which can be, then, in a dialogue with the ideology of the novel by Lem or the novel by Clarke. Maybe you can learn something from them and change a part of your ideology. Maybe you cannot—in which case, you simply say, "I don't like this ideology."

TT: In that case, you don't recognize any possibility of misreading?

DS: Oh, of course. I'm assuming that you are a careful reader, and I was speaking about the case of the ideal reader. Even then, I think you cannot say that in order to be an ideal reader I must agree with Clarke. I don't see why. I must understand what he said, but I can also say I disagree.

TT: The reason why I'm asking this question is that you yourself are using some two fold structure in writing your Metamorphoses, trying to combine or fuse poetics with history. Here we cannot mistake your effort to dialectically unite the formal and the historical aspects of SF, and what I meant by the term "world mechanics" is quite similar to your "formalism."

DS: But I would not totally agree with your analogy between an explicit work of conceptual theory, such as my book, and a work of fiction, which is not an explicit, formalized conceptualization, but rather is more akin to a metaphor or a parable—a developed metaphor or a sustained parable. By the way, I don't defend the structure of Metamorphoses too much. I think it would have been better not to divide it into two parts, but I didn't know how to manage otherwise.

TT: Let me ask again, more intelligibly: what did you try to do in that book, using poetics and history—mere combination?

DS: More exactly, juxtaposition. I want you to know the history of how this was written. I first had some kind of idea and wrote a theoretical essay. Then I wrote a historical sketch—both of these in Yugoslavia. Then, thinking more about theory, I wrote the first three chapters of theory. Then I wrote the historical part, which is based on definitions from the first three chapters. And when I finished all that, I wrote the fourth chapter of theory, "Science Fiction as Novum." That's the way the book was written—after which I wrote the Preface, of course.

If you want to see the way I would do it now, you should look at my book Victorian Science Fiction in the United Kingdom, whose last 200 pages show no (or at least much less) division between poetics and history. There are some preliminary discussions of what a social addressee is, what narrative logic is, and so on, simply to clarify the terminology. That work is more homogenous and applied to only one particular socio historical phase; it attempts a social theory of literature—for one genre, in one historical period.

Furthermore, if my book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction ever gets translated in its entirety in Japan, I hope they would include a new theoretical essay which I have published, in English, in Métaphores, no. 9/10 (1984), a special issue devoted to papers given at a colloquium on SF held in Nice in 1983. My essay is called "Science Fiction: Metaphor, Parable, and Chronotope"; as you can see, it is influenced by Bakhtin especially and ends with an analysis of a story by Cordwainer Smith, "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul."

TT: One of his anthologies was recently translated into Japanese, and succeeded in giving rise to a lot of Cordwainer Smith "maniacs."

DS: Well, I have all kinds of doubts about Cordwainer Smith, because he was ideologically a very strange person. He was a CIA expert on psychological warfare, for Asia especially—a specialist on Indonesia, China, and whatever. Nonetheless, or because of that, I think he is very representative of American ideology, especially today.

TT: How do you connect Cordwainer Smith with American ideology?

DS: Cordwainer Smith is today in a very privileged position, because the ideology he represents in some idealized pure ways is the ideology that came to dominate America with Reagan. He was eccentric in his own time, but today he can serve very well to elucidate something central within America. But, by the way, I'm not saying that Cordwainer Smith is the same as Reagan; as Marx said, Rousseau is not the same as a normal petit bourgeois but, nonetheless, he is the ideal and theoretical representative of the petty bourgeois. I can substantiate my claim about Cordwainer Smith by my analysis of that story of his.

TT: Are you now talking in an ironical sense?

DS: No, no. I think Smith/Linebarger meant this to be so. For instance, his heroine is called Helen America—she is an allegorical heroine. She is saved by the apparition of an unknown lover, which is obviously a transposition of the Christian idea of heavenly bride and bridegroom, Christ who comes to save America.

TT: But, I think Cordwainer Smith has usually been grasped from the viewpoint of aesthetics.

DS: I don't believe there is aesthetics outside of ideology.

TT: This is just what has confused me very much in your system. Although you are dealing with writers like Lem, Dick, and Cordwainer Smith, who all seem to me quite aesthetic, your book itself excludes such writers, emphasizing the ideological tradition from More down to Capek.

DS: Well, the book had to stop sometime. It had become very long, so I stopped at the point of Wells and a couple of things after Wells.

TT: But, as a reader, I hope you would propose a total vision of the New Wave and after, because the New Wave served as the first aesthetic movement in SF.

DS: By New Wave you mean whom: Harlan Ellison, or Thomas Disch? Or—?

TT: J.G. Ballard in particular.

DS: To answer your question, let me first say that I'm presently writing not about SF but about literary theory, theatre, and culture. So I doubt if I shall ever give you a general overview of SF—fortunately. I say fortunately in large part because I'm very unhappy about the general turn of events in the last 12 years of SF in the US, which is the dominant power in world SF. (I'm also unhappy about the general turn of events in Russian SF, by the way.) Given that unhappiness, what I could write about US SF would be negative and ironical, except in regard to some exceptions—Disch, much Delany, early Russ, Piercy, some Bishop perhaps, etc. It would not be pleasant either for me to write or for the reader to read a book which would be 90 % negative or ironical. I prefer to do other things.

As far as the New Wave writers are concerned, they no doubt brought in some interesting things—notably a concentration on psychology, which had been much neglected in SF, though I think SF cannot have the 19th century's Balzac Tolstoy type psychology. Therefore I disagree with Ursula K. Le Guin, who thinks it should have—I think it cannot have that kind of psychology by definition. The New Wave brought in a number of tricks—devices, if you want a nicer term—which, I think, were useful and renewed the genre some. But these attitudes or devices basically seem to me the photographic negative of attitudes used by people like Asimov. That is to say, Asimov, Heinlein, and their ilk love technology, while the New Wave hates technology, a phenomenon already prefigured in some earlier writers, like Bradbury. Asimov and Heinlein write a utilitarian radio mechanics kind of prose, while the New Wave people write a buoyant, purple and decadent, fin de siècle type of prose. If you react to somebody, you are still conditioned by that somebody. You are just a photographic negative and she or he is a positive, or vice versa. So, I refuse to take sides in a battle between the older writers and the New Wave, because each side has good aspects as well as bad aspects. Basically it's a family quarrel. Finally they all coexist in the same subculture and the same magazines, some of which, nevertheless, liked to specialize in one side more than in the other. But people like Asimov and Heinlein got the message and stuffed in passages about sex, usually in very silly ways. All in all, that was a storm in a teacup really.

TT: How about the post New Wave writers?

DS: I would really prefer not to discuss the last 12 years because I have not been reading systematically, with some exceptions—most of whom are people not printed in SF magazines. I really don't think I am competent to talk about this period.

TT: Then, the next question. Attending your last lecture, "William Morris and the Science Fiction of the 1880s," I was astonished at your employing even "reconstruction."

DS: In quotation marks, as you might remember. I'm not a follower of deconstructionism.

TT: But you have apparently used Formalism and Structuralism, being very conscious of their methodologies. If the very act of reading, writing about, and/or criticizing SF cannot be separated from methodology, don't you find validity even in Post-Structuralist poetics?

DS: I think that any critic uses whatever method he or she can find in order to understand and elucidate a text. No method should be forbidden. Some methods give better results with some texts than with others. Would you apply Reconstruction to Gernsback? On the other hand, there is less difficulty applying it to Delany, because there is an inner kinship.

TT: You mean Dhalgren?

DS: If you read Dhalgren, for example, there you can find a pre-Derridean deconstruction of New York City (Bellona), I think. But personally, I suppose that the method which suits me best is what I would today describe as some kind of socio historical semiotics, which tries to do better what I already started in Metamorphoses: fusing the formal and the socio historical. That will be my approach: let everybody else use whatever they want, and I wish them luck. But I wouldn't do that, and I would even have some ideological objections to some methods.

TT: How, then, do you define the role of language in SF? Because Post-Structuralist poetics as well as Formalist methods seem quite useful to high light the linguistic aspect of the genre.

DS: I think much too little work has been done on that, partly because SF was usually very shoddily written on the level of sentence—which is the level of linguistic inquiry. SF became tolerable on the level of paragraph and very interesting on the level of chapter, but was usually very bad on the level of sentence. But with the advent of Lem, Delany, Le Guin, and so on, this is no longer true. Now we can begin seriously talking about the stylistics of SF, even that of Burroughs—if you wish, of course—who is a reasonably brisk writer on the level of sentence. But I think there are other problems connected with SF— e.g., neologisms; and in general, how does language form very different possible worlds? That should be a privileged theme of investigation, probably by other people.

TT: I quite agree with you. By emphasizing the poetics of SF, did you think it is possible to cognitively estrange your own history of SF itself? With this question, I'm asking you whether you can apply your definition of SF even to your own socio historical methodology.

DS: I think that is a very intelligent and very witty question. I have never thought about this. But I suppose that when the subject defines an object, she or he also auto defines her or himself.

TT: You mean a self referential system?

DS: Unconsciously. It's unconsciously self referential. Yes, I'm interested in cognition and estrangement, and the book is done that way. Yes, I think you're absolutely right, and I think that was a very interesting question [laughs].

TT: Let me ask one last question. Are you an academician or a critic?

DS: I guess I'm both. I work in archives and write with a lot of footnotes sometimes, and I also wrote theatre criticism in circumstances where I went to the theatre in the evening and at 12 o'clock next day the critique had to be in a newspaper. So, I did both, and I don't feel uncomfortable in either.

TT: Thank you very much.

*This interview by Takayuki Tatsumi, a graduate student at Cornell University, was taped on December 28, 1984, at the Washington Sheraton Hotel, for a Japanese SF magazine. Mr. Tatsumi and DS hold the copyright.—eds.

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