Science Fiction Studies

#86 = Volume 29, Part 1 = March 2002

Rob Latham

A Tendentious Tendency in SF Criticism

Patrick Parrinder, ed. Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia. Duke UP, 2001. viii + 312 pp.$54.95 hc; $18.95 pbk. Originally published in 2000 by Liverpool UP.

Tom Moylan. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Westview, 2000. xix + 386 pp. $30 pbk.

In his afterword to Learning from Other Worlds, Darko Suvin claims to have been told that, "for overriding commercial reasons," the volume should "by no means be called a Festschrift but something functionally analogous to it (as gills are to lungs)" (238)—a statement that goes some distance towards explaining the book’s oddly schizophrenic feel. While it is possible to see Suvin’s career as a vague inspiration for the eleven essays gathered in the volume, only a few touch base with his theories in any substantial way, though a number of them make rather desperate efforts to establish at least tangential connections. The book has some of the usual Festschrift apparatus—Suvin’s synoptic afterword; a chronological checklist of his sf criticism; and a couple of essays that attempt to gauge his historical importance—but many of the pieces seem to have been shoehorned in, as if the editor, Patrick Parrinder, had simply asked several of Suvin’s friends and associates to contribute work in progress. This judgment gains support from the fact that four of the chapters—those by Tom Moylan, Carl Freedman, Marc Angenot, and David Ketterer—have been drawn either from recently published books or from manuscripts currently in preparation. At the same time, the volume cannot be viewed as a freestanding collection since, absent the nominal propinquity of the essays to Suvin’s theories, it has no fundamental coherence.

This is unfortunate since it seems to me that we have reached a point in the history of sf criticism where some rigorous assessment of Suvin’s theoretical legacy is in order—whether in the form of a Festschrift or, perhaps more valuably, an independent scholarly study free of the celebratory animus such enterprises usually entail. While I disagree with many of John Fekete’s specific judgments in his review of Carl Freedman’s Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Wesleyan, 2000) in the March 2001 issue of SFS, I would second his call for an "explicit review of the state of the art in sf theory" that does not simply assume "Suvin’s famous definition" but rather seeks to descry the contours of an emergent cultural-studies paradigm that promises, over the next decade, to transform criticism in our field (83). Such an approach can certainly accommodate a number of Suvin’s major insights into the textual dynamics of sf without privileging formal-historical genre analysis, idealizing the act of reading, or constructing an exclusionary canon—all pitfalls that, so Fekete claims, dog Freedman’s deployment of the Suvinian problematic in his book. Unfortunately, the critical fallout to date of Fekete’s review has been an overly simplistic pitting of Marxists against postmodernists, an outdated casting of the theoretical stakes that is only likely to impede recognition of how thoroughly cultural studies has transvalued this conventional opposition. Obviously, this review is hardly the place to assay such a treatise, though Parrinder’s volume—and also Moylan’s new book, which is even more thoroughly engaged with Suvin’s ideas—will provide much fodder for future inquiries.

For the moment, let me simply address Learning from Other Worlds as a loose assortment of essays whose sometimes sketchy relation to Suvin’s theories is itself unintentionally revealing. Indeed, judging by how airily some of the contributors throw around his basic terms—estrangement, cognition, and the novum being, unsurprisingly, the most recurrent motifs—without any attempt to develop or critique the philosophy that mobilizes and sustains them, one can say either that Suvin has become, in Thomas Kuhn’s phrase, our own "normal science"—a methodology to be dutifully applied rather than skeptically interrogated—or, less charitably, that he has been reduced to a critical caricature, his complex philosophical arguments plundered for flashy vocabulary by critics who have no use for the supporting armature. Whether Suvin’s underlying worldview has been rendered invisible or dispensed with entirely, I think it is fair to say, on the basis of this book, that it is certainly not provoking cutting-edge speculation.

The volume is divided into two parts, roughly corresponding to Suvin’s major contributions to the field: Part I features five essays focusing on the "theory and politics" of sf and utopia, while Part II gathers six pieces exploring sf in its "social, cultural and philosophical contexts." Predictably enough, the first part is the more cohesive, largely because it is more closely engaged with the Suvinian corpus. Much of the strength of this section derives from Parrinder’s firmer editorial hand in assembling the chapters, which build a trajectory that suggestively (if not systematically) places Suvin’s achievements in historical and philosophical perspective. The first chapter, "Before the Novum: The Prehistory of Science Fiction Criticism" by Edward James, was clearly commissioned specifically for the volume as it outlines the state of the field prior to the publication of Suvin’s pathbreaking essays in the early 1970s. Despite the watershed implications of his subtitle, James shows how much Suvin owed to his predecessors, including his stress on the satirical aspects of the genre (an emphasis he shared with Kingsley Amis) and his extensive canon-building (à la J.O. Bailey and Sam Moscowitz), which gave "modern SF writers a respectable ancestry" and thus "greater credibility in the halls of academe" (33). It is a useful essay so far as it goes, but its sense of the relevant pre-Suvin terrain seems to me excessively narrow—compared, for example, to the more expansive purview in the July 1999 "History of Criticism" issue of SFS.

The editor’s own contribution, "Revisiting Suvin’s Poetics of Science Fiction," is next, and it is in many ways the most valuable (and on-point) chapter in the book. In a dense and probing discussion, Parrinder scrutinizes some of the key premises of Suvin’s narratological model, in the process reframing some of the most influential critiques to which it has been subjected—e.g., the complaint (which Suvin himself has taken to heart in his later criticism) that his theory of the genre’s cognitive function "is axiomatically dependent on a philosophy of scientific materialism" (41). Most cogently, Parrinder asks whether, given Suvin’s persistent concern to segregate authentic uses of the novum from metaphysical fakes and parodic imposters, "the theory of cognitive estrangement is not rather too generously productive of limit-cases" (44), such as the modernist fantasies of Borges and Kafka. Going further, he suggests that Suvin’s obsession with generic purity actually has a paradoxical aspect since it "both affirms and denies aesthetic autonomy in the same gesture" (47). In other words, the capacity of the novum to cognitively estrange and thus potentially critique the author/reader’s given world does not simply provide a basis for judging the artistic success of individual texts, as it would appear to be designed to do; it also establishes a political shibboleth that allows for invidious discriminations, including the casting of entire subgenres out of the canon—for being non-cognitive, mythic, or otherwise "irrational." "Theories—notably, in the twentieth century, Marxist theories—proclaiming the unity of the cognitive and the aesthetic are under suspicion of subsuming the aesthetic into the cognitive" (47).

Parrinder has put his finger on one of the most fraught issues in neo-marxist literary criticism, and it is testimony to the penetration of his argument—if not to the otherwise complaisant character of the volume vis-à-vis Suvin’s doctrines—that it provokes a sharp response from Suvin in his afterword. Suvin resolves the question, reductively I think, into an allegation that his descriptions of the genre are secretly prescriptive, to which he triumphally responds that they are overtly prescriptive and that all honest theories must be. Indeed, the accusation itself "makes no sense" (244), and its misapprehensions can be readily conjured away through the application of "some elementary dialectics": "Facts are co-constituted by frames of recognition, any taxonomic naming of them is a hermeneutic…. [N]ormativity is what founds any and every reading contract and thus makes reading or art possible in the first place; neither my novum nor the fans’ ‘sensawunda’ would be a surprising extension unless extending away from the familiar" (245-46). In short, it is impossible to offer a value-neutral definition of sf that avoids strategic exclusions and more-or-less explicit canon-building; a purely "factual," all-inclusive definition is not only vacuous but ultimately quixotic.

So what is the reason for preferring his definition, with its specific entrainment of histories and classic texts? "SF which doesn’t know it derives from More and Swift—however many other confluents the industrial age has added—is like a severely shortsighted person both of whose eyeglass lenses are thickly pasted over by historical pollution, blinding it [sic] to utopia and satire, the better half of the SF mix" (244). But this begs the very question it purports to answer, namely why this tradition should be preferred in the face of alternatives. I am not advocating an anything-goes relativism here; in fact, I actually agree that a disciplined application of dialectical thinking is the only way out of the seeming fact-value conundrum. Rather than providing a careful refutation of his critics, however, Suvin takes refuge in extravagant and elitist ad hominem attacks: those who claim to eschew normative models merely "embody an unholy blend of US ‘me only’ narcissism and super-normative conformism" (246). Moreover, Suvin imagines himself rising heroically above "our by now obsolete professional standards of isolating culture from politics" (235), standards that encode an ideological posture of "PoMo nihilism" that only serves to "prepare the ground for US fascist ‘militias’" (246). Thus, the political tendentiousness of the theory, which was the original object of critique, is reaffirmed in its very defense: those who agree with Suvin are on the side of the angels (enemies of fascism even), while those who don’t are philistines besotted by "cognitively exhausted" and "unwittingly parodic" pulp garbage written "for white male teenagers" (245). Actually, what Suvin has risen above, in these passages, are the boundaries of respectful intellectual exchange. Given their testy tone, one can only imagine what sort of fireworks might have been touched off if the other essays in the book had been more critically, rather than congenially, inclined.

The next two chapters in this section are probably the most serious attempts in the volume to sympathetically extend Suvin’s theories—and Suvin has nothing but praise for them in his afterword: Carl Freedman’s "Science Fiction and Utopia: A Historico-Philosophical Overview" is "bold and sweeping" (244), elaborating "an important and perhaps fertile hypothesis" (247), while Tom Moylan’s "‘Look into the Dark’: On Dystopia and the Novum" earns Suvin’s "undying gratitude for hitting what I fondly believe is the wellspring of my work" (246). I will discuss Moylan’s argument more fully below when I review Scraps of the Untainted Sky, from which the chapter has been culled, but suffice it to say here that he extrapolates Suvin’s understanding of utopia to the dystopian strain that has become so pronounced in recent sf, following "the ravages of counter-revolution in the 1980s" (53). While Moylan’s excerpting of his book manuscript shows an attentiveness to the fresh context of publication (he closes with a reverential analysis, not featured in Scraps, of a 1994 poem by Suvin), Freedman’s essay is basically lifted, with some light editing, from the second chapter of Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Suvin is barely mentioned at all, probably because his theories are taken for granted in the discussion (having been covered in Chapter One); instead, Freedman turns his attention to one of Suvin’s own core influences, the theoretical work of Ernst Bloch.

Pace Fekete’s assessment in his review, I think Freedman’s summary of Bloch’s perspective on utopia is cogent and valuable. A "dialectic of immanence and transcendence" (75) that moves within history yet reaches beyond the privations and aporias of the present towards the radical futurity of an "unalienated homeland where we have never lived," Bloch’s "utopian dialectics" provides a compelling model for reading sf’s tactics of formal estrangement, its capacity "to foreground and to demystify the actual" (82). My problem with this Suvinian formulation, however, is that its enshrinement of sf as "a privileged object of utopian hermeneutic" (81) comes at the expense of other popular forms and genres, which are either seen as pale shadows of sf’s inherent radicalism or else consigned to the outer darkness of mere ideology. Freedman’s attempt to argue that sf is basically a fictive version of critical theory I find unconvincing, not only because it scants the importance of other utopian tendencies in capitalist mass culture, but also because it idealizes and thus distorts sf as a properly cultural-historical object of analysis.

I do not share Fekete’s concern that Freedman’s Blochian inclination to transvalue "the regressive pseudo-utopian wish" into a displaced "utopian hope" (76) may contain totalitarian implications because it redeems the collective longings expressed even in racist and fascist "utopias." I do agree, however, that the application of this perspective to the genre itself tends to produce reductive readings of specific texts. Freedman’s composite treatment of Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), and Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freedhold (1964) is a case in point. In order to make his argument, Freedman must first reduce the texts to sociopolitical statements (on a spectrum ranging from Cold War liberalism to neo-fascist libertarianism), then show how these positions constitute "major retreats from the potential radicalism intrinsic to science fiction," and finally intervene to dialectically salvage the disguised "reserve[s] of utopian energy" (80) they express despite themselves. The argument hangs on a dubious distinction between the genre’s allegedly "critical" form and the ideological content of particular works—such that the former can strategically supervene to trump the latter—and also strongly implies, à la Suvin, that the aesthetic worth of individual stories may be resolved more or less without remainder into their (manifest or latent) ideological postures. Not only is the critic then forced to do dialectical somersaults saving major historical texts from themselves in order to maintain them within the definitional borders of the genre as a critical-theoretical enterprise, but he is also predisposed to value explicitly left-radical works since these ipso jure display the genre at its essential best. Yet, as Samuel Delany’s grudging admission (echoing André Gide on Victor Hugo) that the greatest modern sf author is "Robert Heinlein, alas" serves to indicate, a writer’s aesthetic accomplishments may not tally neatly with a reader-critic’s cherished political dispositions (see The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction [NY: Berkley, 1977], 135). These are critical dilemmas that Freedman has inherited from Suvin, and both have derived, in their separate ways, from a narrow revision of Bloch’s utopian hermeneutic (they also bedevil Moylan’s Scraps, as we shall shortly see).

Marc Angenot’s "Society After the Revolution," a condensation of some of the conclusions of his recent book L’utopie collectiviste (UP France, 1994), engages with utopia as social blueprint rather than fictional dream. In a careful anatomy of the revolutionary agenda of the Second Socialist International, Angenot argues that its utopianism was driven by the "will to coherence" of an abstract "rationalism" that led its defenders to "construct closed social systems" (102). In reaction, dissenting theorists such as Karl Mannheim and Georges Sorel sought to recast utopianism as a "myth" or "representation" designed to mobilize and inspire, not schematize and predict. Though the discussion never really touches on literary-critical issues, one can easily see its applicability to key trends in the Suvinian canon: e.g., his resistance to defining sf in terms of mere extrapolation and his emphasis on openness and novelty. What Angenot usefully provides is an intellectual-historical portrait of the strains and struggles within early-twentieth-century radical politics that would eventually give rise to Brecht’s aesthetics of estrangement and Bloch’s utopian hermeneutic—and, through them, to Suvin and his critical disciples. Of all the self-borrowings from existing work that form so much of this volume’s contents, Angenot’s is the most forgiveable since it makes its argument available in English for the first time.

Thus ends the first section of Learning from Other Worlds, which is, despite a few hiccoughs, overall a useful, if rather uncritical, response to Suvin’s career as an sf/utopian theorist. Part II is another story, featuring six disparate essays whose relations to Suvin—and to one another—are shadowy at best. The section opens with Gérard Klein’s "From the Images of Science to Science Fiction," whose only real connection with Suvin’s work is that it too offers a global hypothesis regarding the genre’s dependence on historical "science"; unfortunately Klein’s notion (one can hardly call it a theory) boils down to the fairly banal observation that sf texts reflect and encode popular images of and ideas about scientific endeavor. Peter Fitting’s "Estranged Invaders" retreads the by now familiar critical view of Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898) as a tale of (what Stephen Arata has called) "reversed colonialism" in order to develop an understanding of First Contact stories as displaced reenactments of "the encounters of the European ‘discovery’ of the New World" (126); yet, though Fitting’s range of reference to subsequent texts is admirably broad, he makes no effort to locate them in their historically specific neo- or postcolonial contexts. More disturbingly, his essay inaugurates the practice—which Ketterer’s and Barr’s will duplicate—of using some cognate of the word "estrangement" in its title in order to suggest an affiliation with Suvin’s theories, a relation that is never really argued for.

Ketterer’s study of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) as "estranged autobiography" is, at 32 pages, the longest piece in the book (save for Suvin’s garrulous afterword, about which more below). The result of his ongoing research for a biography of Wyndham (a.k.a. John Beynon), it should have been more judiciously edited, given the reams of trivia Ketterer persistently marshals to make even the most basic of points (his footnotes are longer than Klein’s entire essay). Very few readers, I suspect, will share Ketterer’s intense enthusiasm for every twist and throb of Wyndham’s life history. More to the point here, Ketterer’s half-hearted attempt to defend a genre of "estranged autobiography" more or less abandons the Suvinian model, which views the novum as marking a horizon of collective possibility. Certainly Ketterer could have connected the mutant-child fantasies of Wyndham’s classic work with prevailing social trends of the postwar period, but this was obviously not his fundamental concern. Still, a canonizing fascination with the careers of major sf writers has always informed Suvin’s scholarship, and this is the only explanation I can find for the inclusion not only of Ketterer’s piece but also of Rafail Nudelman’s thematic study of Stanislaw Lem. While Nudelman suggests how Lem’s central motifs of "Labyrinth, Double and Mask" are related to "the cognition of something new and unknown" (181), he never develops Suvin’s model of the novum to account for their textual operations—and, indeed, only mentions his scholarship once, glancingly, in the essay’s final sentence.

Barr’s chapter on cloning as a form of "Technological Cognition [that] Reflects Estrangement from Women" (as her rhetorically tortured title puts it) is perhaps the volume’s low point. Less an engagement with Suvin’s ideas than a display of the so-called "new discourse practice" elaborated in her book Genre Fission (U Iowa P, 2000), the essay is composed of a scattershot series of cloning images drawn from sf and the mass media, basted in a polemical stew of confused (and confusing) accusations. At first, with her claim that cloning gives rise to fantasies of the "eradication" of women (197), Barr’s target seems to be "patriarchy’s efforts to control women’s natural reproductive role" (195)—though it is unclear, from her treatment, whether this control is effected via the actual science of cloning or by means of its ideological recuperation in popular journalism. By the end, however, she is inveighing against the notion that women are reproductive vessels, claiming that they "might want to use an artificial womb to clone" in order to avoid the pain of childbirth (203). Unfortunately, her references to sf stories about clones—principally, Le Guin’s "Nine Lives" (1968) and John Varley’s "Lollipop and the Tar Baby" (1977)—only serve to muddle rather than solidify the argument, not only because they involve odd misreadings (Barr seems to think, based on Le Guin’s metaphorical evocations, that the planet Libra in the story is actually sentient) but also because she never makes an effort to discriminate the varying protocols of the discourses within which clones are constructed. Indeed, such distinctions are precisely what her "genre fission" model is designed to elide, collapsing disparate materials into an analytic cuisinart, the ensuing mixture ruminated by means of awful puns (pun here intended, since one of Barr’s touchstones throughout the essay is Dolly the sheep).

By contrast, the book’s closing chapter, Fredric Jameson’s study of Kim Stanley Robinson’s MARS TRILOGY (1993-96), provides, despite its dense surface texture, a veritable beacon of clarity. Characteristically erudite and provocative, it is, considered on its own terms, the best piece in the volume, though its connections with Suvin are, once again, largely implicit—probably because Jameson has, over the years, developed his own theoretical model for the analysis of sf and utopian literature that, like Suvin’s, derives in substantial measure from Brecht and Bloch. To the extent that this richly allusive and meditative essay advances a specific thesis, it is that "all of the scientific problems described in the [trilogy], without exception, offer an allegory, by way of the form of overdetermination, of [modern] social, political and historical problems also faced by the inhabitants of Mars" (210-11). This thesis provides the basis for a supple, sympathetic, and brilliantly illuminating reading of the texts, from their formal organization in terms of "uneven sequence[s] of great sheets of material" (211)—a structure that formally recapitulates the thematic emphasis on overdetermination—to the sweeping ideological struggles that make up the story’s plot. Along the way, Jameson casually tosses out a textual theory of terraforming as "the fundamental dividing line between realism as the narrative of human praxis and ontology as the traces of Being itself" (218), and he shows such a familiarity with a broad range of sf texts (e.g., Robinson’s representation of political microcultures "scarcely knows the frenzied baroque formations one finds, extensively, in Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, or, intensively, in Delany’s Trouble on Triton" [229]) that I began entertaining utopian hopes for the trailblazing book on sf this critic has long been uniquely positioned to write.

Last comes Suvin’s afterword, and if one is looking forward to a pugnacious, spirited defense of his critical legacy, he certainly does not disappoint. The problem is that no one in the book (save, mildly, for Parrinder) is really attacking him, so the pervasive tone of wounded dignity seems oddly misplaced. Perhaps the editor would have served Suvin better by featuring sharper takes on his work, since in order to maintain his embattled stance he is forced to revive ancient squabbles and even at times to conjure imaginary antagonists (on the evidence here, it would appear as if he conducts an ongoing mental dialogue with "dogmatic postmodernists" [249]). Still, this book is a (sort of) Festschrift, so some fond indulgence of its subject in his closing ruminations is clearly in order, even if, for much of the length of the piece, he tends to namedrop rather shamelessly and to substitute attitude for analysis. In its final pages, though, after he has settled outstanding accounts, Suvin does manage to offer a series of probing observations about the relationship of sf to science as a historical and ideological project, alleging that "the hegemony of scientism is the central conflict in SF criticism" (262) and calling, in visionary utopian fashion, for "a salvational science" (265) that will escape the material and spiritual deformations implicit in its capitalist-technocratic organization. It is a stirring conclusion that, given how much Suvin’s earlier work had seemed to draw upon an objectivistic view of scientific discourse, shows he has not been afraid to rethink and refashion basic planks of his theory over the years. (Incidentally, this afterword has been recently reprinted as a "Working Paper in Cultural Studies" in a series published by the Department of Comparative American Cultures at Washington State University.)

In the final analysis, I think it is fair to say that, whatever failings this volume may have as a Festschrift, Darko Suvin is one of the very few critics of sf who actually deserves such a singular tribute. You would not be reading this journal right now were it not for his (and Dale Mullen’s) perspicacious perception, some three decades past, that sf criticism needed to grow up and face the world in all its complexity of theories and cultures. To say that current (and future) work on sf needs to outgrow some of the constraints built into his critical models is only to acknowledge how deep and abiding his influence has been. We have all learned from him, and we can all be grateful.

Tom Moylan has certainly gleaned a great deal from Suvin as well as from numerous other critics of sf and utopian literature, as evidenced by the ninety-odd pages of apparatus that cap his new book, Scraps of the Untainted Sky. As a result of its near-exhaustive scholarship, it is a very difficult work to summarize since to do so would be to rehearse most of the major trends in genre criticism for the past two decades. Indeed, the book is basically a meticulous synthesis of existing theories, its own critical contribution being comparatively modest. In my view, Moylan is perhaps too modest, too committed to parsing and sorting the claims of other critics, and as a result he never quite achieves an argumentative voice of his own.

On the surface, Scraps would appear to be a companion volume to Moylan’s pioneering study Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (Methuen, 1986), updating its coverage of the "critical utopias" of the 1970s to address the explosion of dystopian writing over the past two decades. Yet where the first book was compact and penetrating, the second is turgid and discursive. Indeed, the first hundred pages could easily have been condensed at least by half, if not omitted entirely, devoted as they are to a systematic review of most of the major concepts deployed in the study of sf (Suvin’s "cognitive estrangement," Angenot’s "absent paradigm," Jameson’s "cognitive mapping") and utopian writing (Bloch’s "utopian hope," Lyman Tower Sargent’s "social dreaming," Ruth Levitas’s "education of desire"). Neophyte readers may welcome this comprehensive anatomy of criticism, but seasoned critics in these fields will find it familiar turf—though the sheer scope of the synthesis may have some pedagogical utility in introductory classes. Still, there are altogether too many sentences structured more or less like the following: "In their own studies, Raffaela Baccolini and Ildney Cavalcanti agree with Sargent’s historically informed nomination, and like [Jenny] Wolmark, they note…" (188). By means of such rampant citation, Moylan so qualifies and defers his own judgments that one feels continuously impelled to ask him to cut to the chase.

So let us attempt, in the interests of brevity, to do just that. What the first two sections of the book (roughly 200 pages) set out to do is to provide a theoretical and historical genealogy for the "critical dystopia," a new sf subgenre that emerges in the face of rightwing hegemony during the 1980s. Forsaking the explicit fervor of the counterculturally inspired work of Russ, Le Guin, Piercy, and Delany, the best of these texts nonetheless preserve a reservoir of utopian hope in their fierce satire of the existing order and their sometimes muffled but always smoldering commitment to social transformation (the worst of the breed, meanwhile, capitulate to nihilistic despair). Synthesizing Sargent and Suvin, Moylan encapsulates his model as follows: "the distinction can be made between the limit case of an open (epical) dystopia that retains a utopian commitment at the core of its formally pessimistic presentation and a closed (mythic) one that abandons the textual ambiguity of dystopian narrative for the absolutism of an anti-utopian stance" (156). Of course, Moylan is aware that this stark contrast is overstated, since individual texts generally "negotiate a more strategically ambiguous position somewhere along the antinomic continuum" (147), but it serves him as a powerful heuristic nonetheless. Fully deploying it in the book’s final section, he reads quite closely (I am tempted to say minutely, given the extensiveness of the plot summaries) Kim Stanley Robinson’s ORANGE COUNTY TRILOGY (1984-90), Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), and Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It (a.k.a. Body of Glass, 1991).

I could quibble with his selection of authors and texts—wondering, for example, why he only touches on cyberpunk in passing and never mentions the work of Jack Womack or Richard Calder (for my money, the finest dystopian writers of the period)—but I would rather focus on a more telling problem that I think Moylan shares with (and, in large part, owes to) Suvin. Throughout the book, Moylan’s stress on sf and utopia as fundamentally didactic genres leads him to overestimate their ethical-political calling to remake the world while ignoring their specifically literary qualities—or, rather, he essentially conflates these two aspects of critical evaluation, such that ideological commitment becomes the very criterion of aesthetic worth. A characteristic passage will illustrate the problematic:

As a fictive mode that not only mirrors but actively interrogates and intervenes in the processes of history, sf offers more than a pleasurable trip through its pages. When the book is closed and the reader looks out at the world, the even more satisfying experience (now both delightful and didactic) of investigative reading so privileged by sf lingers as one more skill, one more intellectual habit, by which to make sense of social reality itself. In this way the popular cultural form of sf makes an empowering critical practice available to its readers. (27)

Later, he expands on this claim to assert that the "sf imaginary" generates "critiques of and alternatives to the prevailing social order (which if not fully oppositional or emancipatory are at least contrary in some unsettling fashion). With its disturbing visions, critical sf … generates a distanced space that can draw willing readers away from the society that produces and envelops them" (30).

This implicit equation of the pleasures and delights of reading with a "distanced" interrogation of the social world authorizes Moylan to subsume aesthetic concerns into social-critical ones: to enjoy an sf text is—if only implicitly or potentially—to explore counter-hegemonic possibilities. This transformative engagement can so radically energize a reader that "she or he might …, especially in concert with friends or comrades and allies, do something to … make th[e] world a more just and congenial place for all who live in it" (5). Leaving aside the interesting empirical question of how many people have actually had their consciousnesses raised in this way through their experience with sf (a vanishingly small number, I would wager), the critical assumptions at work in this argument lead to narrowly political evaluations of literary "success" or "failure" and unidimensional treatments of the interpretive transaction between readers and texts. Thus, Moylan criticizes Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) because "it satirically cycles around in a critical account of mythic closure in a seemingly endless present rather than offering an open-ended parable … with a utopian horizon that might provoke political awareness or effort" (163); in other words, it fumbles its evangelical mission to produce revolutionaries. Such "dystopias of resignation embrace an anti-utopian pessimism that allows authors, and willing readers, to reinforce their settled preference for the status quo or to help produce their capitulation to it as all hope for change is shattered" (181)—as if one reads (or writes) merely to have one’s prejudices confirmed or shaken. On the flip side of the evaluative coin, Moylan strongly implies, in his terse discussion of cyberpunk, that John Shirley’s ECLIPSE TRILOGY (1985-90) and Sherri Lewitt’s Cybernetic Jungle (1992), because more "politically confrontational" (197), "more sensitive to diversity and more engaged with direct, collective challenges to the system" (198), are superior as fictions to the work of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, a judgment that strikes me as patently absurd—though clearly dictated by the terms of Moylan’s critical method.

This method—I’d call it simple ax-grinding if it weren’t wielded by such a perceptive scholar—also tends to deform the otherwise sensitive and intelligent long readings in the book’s final section. Butler’s Parable of the Talents, for example, is unfavorably compared with its predecessor because it "sets aside questions of immediate political opposition in favor of the abstract alternative of a stellar journey" (238), thus implying that "the only move forward must be an apocalyptic leap, not through the present but out of the present, out of this world" (243). On the other hand, Piercy’s He, She, and It is a brilliant masterpiece because it dares to "look at current conditions and explore ways of moving forward that activists and theoreticians—perhaps caught in the limitations of nostalgic agendas or the pressures of immediate disputes—may not be ready to acknowledge or imagine" (249). This didactic accomplishment apparently overcomes what I at least take to be the novel’s literary failings: its derivative mock-cyberpunk milieu, its superficially self-reflexive narrative, and its sickly romance plot featuring a hunky male cyborg. Obviously, these objections of mine are debatable, but they are worth debating as aesthetic judgments independent of one’s endorsement (or not) of the author’s putative ideology. I am fully prepared to grant that the categories of aesthetics and politics are deeply implicated in one another, but they are also relatively autonomous (to use the Althusserian jargon) and this crucial gap permits them to enter into mutually transformative relationships. Political tendency is not the final yardstick of aesthetic value any more than artistic aspiration is a magical shield against ideological critique.

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