Science Fiction Studies

#53 = Volume 18, Part 1 = March 1991

De Witt Douglas Kilgore

The Blue-and-Not-Yellow Sun

Darko Suvin. Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1988. xviii+227. $26.00.

To readers of SFS the work of Darko Suvin has been both a familiar and a rewarding part of this journal since its founding. Appearing as they did during a time when SF was finding a home within the academic context, his articles have been instrumental in making the serious study of the genre possible. In the project of bringing some clarity to the age-old debate over the nature and function of SF, Suvin's contribution has been invaluable. By bringing to bear a set of critical tools previously unknown inside the SF ghetto, he has helped define and place SF in its æsthetic and socio-political context.

His two book-length studies, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) and Victorian Science Fiction in the UK (1983), may be considered classics of SF criticism and socio-political analysis whether or not they completely succeed in their respective tasks. His shorter work (much of it originally published in SFS), however, may be considered his most valuable contribution, serving both as a guide to this thought and as highly suggestive sketches of what is possible and actual in the genre. After almost two decades of work within the field, the urge to look backward over his work must have been irresistible. To fill this need, we have the book at hand: Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction.

PPISF is a collection of essays which covers an 11-year period in Suvin's critical practice beginning in 1973. For anyone who has followed Suvin's work both inside and outside the pages of SFS, most of the book will have a familiar ring. The chapters on literary social theory, cognition and ideology in SF, and SF as metaphor and parable, as well as those on the work of Le Guin and Dick, have all had previous incarnations in this journal. Most of the concepts and ideas dealing with the historiographic connection of SF to literary utopia, SF as cognitive estrangement, and the broad range of SF as Suvin understands it has received book-length treatment elsewhere. PPISF gains its interest, therefore, not from any shock of the new but from its compact representation of ever-evolving critical oeuvre.

The essays are not arranged chronologically (as in most efforts of this type), but are instead represented as chapters which bear some relation to one another. Suvin's strategy is to allow the reader to rediscover the terms and concepts that he has set forth elsewhere by exploiting their immediate proximity in a single volume. By rethinking and working each article/chapter in reference to its fellows (adding some new material along the way), he is able to provide us with a fresh synthesis which helps us follow his arguments from initial conception, to development, to critical practice, and to an open-ended finale. The result is both a historical retrospective of Darko Suvin's thought and opinion and a new essay at the windmills commonly tilted by critics of SF.

Suvin organizes the material in PPISF into three parts plus a conclusion. The book's structure is designed to take the reader from the initial paradigms (presuppositions) that Suvin uses to organize his work, through the basic theoretical ground (positions) from which he operates, to basic critical practice--showing how his poetics operates in evaluating the work of SF's most famous and/or most perspicacious writers.

Central to Suvin's concerns here are the presuppositions which a reader brings to the genre. Basically a presupposition is what the reader "supposes" about the world--a world-view which is both anterior and posterior to how a text is read and understood. It is not surprising, then, that one of Suvin's central concerns is with how SF is read by the critic (a form of "social addressee" who actively responds to what he or she has read). Any genre involves a communication between the reader and the writer which ranges from complete socio-cultural identification to an oppositional skepticism. Identification and skepticism can be conventionalized within the genre and are informed by the presuppositions that the reader brings to the literature. Since, in Suvin, socio-historical context as it is perceived by both the writer and the reader (the sender and the receiver of a communication) is an important part of SF's æsthetic (every book contains and is contained by the historical epoch in which it was written), how the critic reads "our common world" must inform any interpretation of the possible worlds of SF. These points are foregrounded in the first chapter of PPISF, wherein Suvin emphasizes the social theory that underlies his work. This insight becomes extremely important when we consider the presuppositions that Suvin himself brings to his theory and critical practice.

Suvin's first presupposition has to do with SF's place within the overall body of Western literature and its unique sense of mission. Here he follows a very old tradition in SF criticism that reflects the genre's sense of destiny. In Metamorphoses and in chapter 3 of PPISF, Suvin takes great pains to draw the connections between SF and utopian literature. This is essential because it provides an extensive historical and philosophical groundwork for his feeling that all literature, and "mature" SF in particular, oscillates between "illuminating human relationships, thus making for a more manageable and pleasurable life in common, and obscuring or occulting them, thus making for a more difficult life" (45; italics removed; also 87). Stated this way most fiction, whatever the authorial intention, occupies the axis somewhere between utopian and dystopian imaginings; or, more explicitly, between fiction that imagines radically different relationships and fiction that supports the status quo immanent in the writer's world (cf. 88). If Suvin can be said to be an advocate for certain values within SF, it is for those which move it towards the utopian side of the equation.

Suvin's understanding of SF and utopia as "kindred estranged genres" (35) not surprisingly informs the range and quality of his socio-æsthetic analysis of writers within the genre. When, in part three of PPISF, he applies himself to writers like Asimov, Dick, and Le Guin, we can see how it operates in placing their work between the poles of his central opposition. Asimov, not surprisingly, comes up short because he generally fails to imagine that the future might be completely different from mid-20th-century America in terms of human relationships and social structures. Le Guin, on the other hand, wins Suvin's approval because she is able and willing to make the imaginative leap from our common world to "ambiguous utopias" that are truly different in their figuration of human relationships.

What makes Suvin's critical practice so attractive is not necessarily the critical artillery that he can bring to bear but the fact that, using his socio-æsthetic (coming from a rich tradition in Marxist criticism), he is able to use standards which SF itself has evolved to evaluate whether or not the genre succeeds in its task. It is a measure of how far we have come--through the work of Suvin, Elkins, Jameson, et al.--that we understand SF to mean something quite different from what was intended by the writers of SF's "Golden Age."

While Campbell-era writers imagined that science and technology might bring about great changes in social/political institutions, these were imagined within the narrow confines of shifting power among white, male elites. As a result, the status quo ascendent in mid-20th-century America was never really challenged by a medium which often claimed a future-focussed oppositionality to "things as they are." The idea that science and technology might force a redistribution of power from traditional elites to formerly disenfranchised populations, thus creating institutional relations founded on very different cultural and psychological assumptions, is of relatively recent vintage. By this reckoning, a truly "social" SF, with its implication of sociopolitical as well as technological movement, did not occur until the resurgence of utopianism in the '60s. It is at this point, as Suvin would have it, that American SF joins the larger Western utopian tradition, infusing it with the dynamism inherent in its reliance on an ideology of progress.

This leads to something that a historian of SF must keep in mind when evaluating Suvin's work in itself and in its relationship to the genre. The dominant tendency in SF has been to frown upon utopian speculation as something outside the technocratic matrix that is the proper concern of "hard" SF, the kind of SF considered by many to be at the genre's core. In his 1963 book Profiles of the Future, for example, Arthur C. Clarke stated his belief that social progress in the future would be exclusively governed by science and technology. For him humanity's ever-growing empirical knowledge and subsequent command over the environment would supplant the "softer" and less reliable realms of economics and politics as directive influences on society and its environment. While Clarke's scientism is liberal in its expression and is often leavened by a countervailing mysticism, his position is still common among writers in the genre. It is axiomatic that while the conceptual breakthrough in science and technology can be routinely imagined from this point of view, any equivalent social/political leap of the imagination is often extremely timid. As a result, it is the relationships of the social present and near past that are valorized in the great bulk of genre SF, its dominant tenor being what Patrick Parrinder has called "transferred imperialism." That is, the socio-political structure of the future is routinely imagined to be that of the Western Industrial Powers from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. The work outside of the limited confines of Suvin's "optimum" rarely strays from redressing this period and setting it on a future stage. In terms of American visions of the future, one is reminded of the unintentional hubris of the magazine whose title was The Nineteenth Century and After.

That the 19th century still holds a special place in both the past and the present of the genre Suvin makes clear in what can be considered PPISF's nodal chapter, "Narrative Logic, Ideological Domination, and the Range of SF: A Hypothesis." Previously incarnated as part of Victorian SF, it presents us with a descriptive model of SF which places the genre as part of an intertext, a literary communication between reader and writer, which supposes: (1) an ideal reader and a shared field of social discussion; (2) the importance of the consistency of relationships within a novum as an essential part of the pleasure of an SF text; and (3) the socio-æsthetic range of SF from the optimal to the pessimal (the one comprising those texts which fulfill the promise of the genre, and the other designating those works in which that promise is turned into a betrayal). In terms of Suvin's understanding of SF as a sociology, it becomes clear that the poetics he has proposed for the genre are only honored by a very small range of work. The question then becomes: What do we do with the rest?

For the student of the vast range of SF that lies outside of what Suvin has identified as the "significant" or "optimum" products of the genre, the most suggestive part of PPISF is the "Narrative Logic" chapter. It is here that Suvin makes clear that the value of "cognitive estrangement" represents an optimum against which the majority of SF production within the genre can be measured. It is only in optimal work that socio-political relationships are "significantly different from the relationships assumed as normal by the text's addressees" (69). According to the scheme that he sets up, the rest of SF production--i.e., the vast bulk of it--can be ranked at "good, middle, or most" levels in terms of the text's ability to push beyond the hegemonic dominant in our common world. It is in these areas, I would argue, that more work needs to be done by the SF critical community.

It is at the level of "good" or "middle" SF that we see most dearly the tensions and ambiguities that mark the socio-political discussion that often takes place both within and outside a text. While Suvin notes that a consistently drawn alternative world is one of the central pleasures that SF can give the reader, in optimum SF that consistency may create a world so alien to the reader's that it outruns "the matrix of social discussion" which provides the essential intertext of a story. In part, this explains why many SF readers find a radically estranged parable on the level of a Lem or Delany virtually unreadable. However, I would argue that the insights and the sociopolitical alternatives that are generated in optimal SF are not completely missed by the less than "ideal" reader of the genre. They often become part of the material which "good" writers of SF have to address in their mediated alternatives between the radically alien and the common world.

This is the level at which, as Suvin points out, the ideal type collides with the body of SF as it is practiced. The most difficult and, perhaps, rewarding project in SF criticism lies in the realm of examining "how the models mingle and contaminate in each particular case" (72). This is how optimal product both defines the directions in which the genre might go--by making new relationships permissible within the normative range--and is co-opted by the less cognitively visionary. Even more important perhaps, for the critic, is the job of defining the steps or the levels that lead a writer or a reader from the common world to any possible world that represents a true novum.

What we need, then, at the beginning of this century's final decade is a way of approaching that great body of SF that is actually out there--or at least practice looking at it. This is critically important in understanding the forces that make the genre what it is and how most SF readers are responding to its concepts. It is true that many habitual readers of SF will have read the optimal works of SF that Suvin valorizes. However, they only take up a small part of any active reader's time. What we need is what Suvin might call more cognitive criticism of that broad middle range where the social discussion is often muddled but especially revealing in what it says about the moment of its production, and particularly about what future relationships are considered permissible at our moment in time.

For example, an almost virgin field that resonates greatly with the texts Suvin studied in Victorian SF are those books which belong to the relatively recent sub-genre of "military SF." This is an extremely popular area which has spawned a large number of anthologies, shared-world series, and bestselling authors in recent years. Usually the action plays itself out in a Cold War environment similar to that used by techno-thriller writers such as Tom Clancy (whether or not set in the near future). Most of it is in direct opposition to the literary, political, and critical developments that renewed SF in the '60s and too much of it exists at the level of cynical (pessimal) formula. Many of its mainstay writers, such as Jerry Pournelle, consider themselves part of a counter-revolution whose purpose is the maintenance of the genre's "traditional" values and technocratic focus. (It is interesting that military SF often marches under the banner of "hard" SF.) Military SF writers generally present a reaffirmation of the socio-political hegemony of mid-century America with some off-stage references to gender equity and racial equality. In the hands of some authors, however, this sub-genre becomes more than an endless repetition of formula; it serves for a social dialogue ranging from the thought-provoking (S.M. Stirling's series on the Domination of Draka) to the oppositional (David Mace's Fire Lance).

The result seems to be that in some of this work, ideas from the Left which entered the genre through the pens of New Wave and feminist writers have trickled out of the optimal into the more normative range. This means that the SF reader who is or has been made suspicious of "significant" authors like Le Guin (by the writings of Norman Spinrad, among others) might be exposed to some of the relationships which she or her compeers pioneered in the genre through work that is considered less "important." Other sub-genres such as "alternative history" (as in George R.R. Martin's Wild Card series) and "cyberpunk" (through authors like Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and Steven Barnes) could profit from investigations similar to what Suvin attempts in Victorian SF. Especially in the case of cyberpunk, where the socio-politics are often explicitly counter-cultural. What the critic would be working with here is not the radically estranged novums of a Delany or a Lem but with what could be called gradualistic novums occupying a middle landscape between the mundane and the utopian. Since the futures contained in this type of work are relatively close to the empirical world of the reader, the social discussions offered and the alternative visions that might occur are more readily comprehensible to the less-than-ideal reader.

Perhaps the way towards creating an anatomy of gradualistic novums may be found in the final chapter of PPISF, "SF as Metaphor, Parable and Chronotype." There Suvin defines SF as a metaphor or series of metaphors placed within a dynamic understanding of space-time. This is a slightly different direction than he took with his older notion of cognitive estrangement. Here the focus is not on the overarching scheme that we use to define SF but on how the SF text builds the world it embodies. Using metaphors as the essential building blocks for recreating the world, Suvin uses the primal SF element of dynamic space-time as the mortar which creates what he calls a "multiple chronotope." The SF story is then a parable which models the common world of its creation but profoundly altered. If the metaphoric materials from which an SF parable is built are of a high grade --following Suvin's axioms of coherence, richness, and novelty--we have a sub-creation (cf. Tolkien), a cognitively realized alternate world. Through its short-hand direction of our attention, parabolic SF creates alternative worlds that refer back to the common world through the medium of its metamorphic elements. Focusing as it does on world-building, this emphasis on "metaphoric cognition" is a looser concept than cognitive estrangement, placing a wider range of SF within critical reach. It implies a critical focus on how new worlds are built out of old ones, opening up the possibility of a developmental awareness of the distance that must be traveled between pessimal and optimal futures.

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