Science Fiction Studies

#19 = Volume 6, Part 3 = November 1979

Charles Elkins and Darko Suvin

Preliminary Reflections on Teaching Science Fiction Critically

In this book there are many things which don't exist in reality at all, I like that. -- (15-year-old German girl, 1971)    

Let's be realistic, let's demand the impossible. -- (Sorbonne students, May 1968)

I see what is, and ask: why? I dream of what could be, and ask: why not? That might be called critical daydreaming. -- (SF writer, July 1979)

The following reflections address some fundamental problems pertinent to teaching SF, and are intended to open discussion of those problems under this new SFS rubric. We are aware of having left out certain aspects of our subject that are no doubt important, and perhaps crucial. But it is our hope that those of our readers who have had experience in teaching will not only agree or disagree with what we have said here, but also communicate their comments on matters we have not dealt with.

1. A Right to Daydream: A Duty to Daydream Critically

We take it that the twin axioms of a useful approach to SF — and therefore to SF teaching — are:

a/ Whatever else SF may also be, it is primarily and centrally narrative fiction, literature, a literary form or genre, a set of stories told in writing. Methods inappropriate for understanding a story may be used to illustrate this or that element within SF, but will be fundamentally inappropriate for approaching it.

b/ Though each short story or novel is — obviously — in our civilization written by an individual author seeking his/her own voice, fictional literature as a whole is much more complex. Social behavior and language itself, along with literary forms and conventions, are products of past traditions, present urgencies, and intimations of possible futures, as well as a collective product created by the cooperation of the writers and their public (and the middlemen in between them). Looked at as a whole, therefore, the basic purpose of fiction is to make human life more manageable, more meaningful, and more pleasant, by means of selecting some believable human relationships for playful consideration and understanding ("playful" being here not the opposite of "serious" but of "rigid"). Methods inappropriate for considering the interaction between particular stories and the audience's common social world may be used to illuminate this or that aspect of SF, but will be fundamentally inappropriate for approaching it.

The first axiom means that fiction is a daydream, with which it is, in principle, necessary and pleasant to identify, because doing so educates us in unactualized possibilities and relationships between people. The second axiom means that fiction is an articulated and collective daydream, toward which it is, in principle, necessary and pleasant to maintain a critical distance, because doing so educates us to compare its possibilities with historical actuality.

Only both of these approaches together — i.e. an aesthetic modulating from identification to critical distance and back again — make full sense of fiction. Separated, each stunts it. Together, they make for a cognitive horizon, which incorporates the viewer (experimenter, reader) into what is being viewed (experiment, text). Only within this horizon can the reader become truly critical, correcting her/himself on the basis of information from social practice. Only within the cognitive horizon, thus, does fiction have a chance — if written and read intelligently — to show realistically both the now-possible (believable and existing) and the now-impossible but not-forever-impossible (believable though not existing, here and now) relations between people in a material world.

2. On Paraliterature as an Open Tension Between Ideology and Utopia

All fiction lies between the poles of playful simulation of utopian (i.e. radically better) relationships and ideological explanation as to why relationships are as they are and can change only for the worse. As a rule, utopian presentation has to be explicit since it presents an alternative, while ideological presentation will best be served by remaining implicit, as an unargued premise that this is how things are, were, and will be. Both the cognitively utopian and the mystifying horizons are intimately interwoven in most stories, often in the same paragraph or indeed the same sentence.

If this is true for all literature, it is most evident in the case of paraliterature ("popular" or "mass" fiction), which does not reduce this constant tension to the straitjacket of individual psychology and experience. On the contrary, paraliterature deals with the tension set up between the utopian and ideological horizons in more or less openly communal, collective terms. In this way, "popular" narrative — and in particular, SF narrative — can be considered as the concealed truth of all modern literature, that battleground of understanding and mystification.

How did this two-headed monster literature/paraliterature arise? Historians are in substantial agreement that the complex and often contradictory development of the 19th-century novel is intimately related to the triumph of the bourgeoisie and modern capitalism, which reshaped all areas of human life. Consider, for instance, the significant and indeed crucial change in the nature of authorship: whereas earlier a writer was working at the behest of a patron and addressing a relatively small, homogeneous readership, by the 19th century he/she was working on her/his own but under the influence of an economic gatekeeper (promoter, publisher, agent) and facing an impersonal, heterogeneous mass market. This market, dependent on the mass production of cheap and diverse reading material, changed literary production, the product, its distribution, and its consumption. Writing became a branch of commerce; by the end of the 19th-century, writers had become wage earners. Some integrated into affluent bourgeois life; others lived in garrets and eked out livings as hack writers for firms bent on capturing the mass market with its insatiable mechanisms of ephemerality and quick turnover. Mass production of fiction thrived under the tyranny of calculatingly induced and promoted fashion. Railway novels, "penny dreadfuls," gothic and romantic fiction were mass-produced in an assembly line manner, where the writer was paid by the sheet if not browbeaten to accept a pittance for a whole manuscript.

At the same time, many bourgeois — especially in England — denounced the democratization of literature and the relative ease of access to it for the poor and working classes. Spokesmen warned against allowing the masses to waste their leisure time reading novels; they criticized those who thought the "lower orders" responsible enough to read essays and fiction dealing with politics or religion, or those novels which favored the lower orders at the expense of their betters. By the time of the Boston Brahmins or of Matthew Arnold, the ideologists agreed that "real" literature was not accessible to all, that it took a degree of culture and "taste," that only a connoisseur could appreciate it. Literature would (and should) be inaccessible to the masses. Only the initiated who possessed a certain education, social and economic status could respond appropriately to literature. Conversely, the possession of this sensibility was in itself a sign that one was a member of an elite. Culture became quite openly a mode of domination.

Caught in these developments, the writers — whether lionized by their society or consigned to oblivion — increasingly exhibited various forms of alienation. Some, such as Scott, Fenimore Cooper, and Bulwer-Lytton, simply denied their vocation, preferring the title of "gentleman." Others, such as Dickens, George Eliot, and Mark Twain, were able to write novels of high quality for a popular audience and to integrate — at a very high psychic price — into bourgeois society, while criticizing many of its aspects. Still others withdrew from the popular audience and social meanings in fiction, either by retreating into the self as the sole source for authentic experience and denying the validity of an external reality, or by treating art as pure form with its own inner logic. For these writers, the major artistic problems became technical, and their techniques, conventions, and language grew increasingly more elaborate and inaccessible to the lay reader. "Art" was seen as a personal expression of a private vision.

However, the creator of paraliterature could afford no such luxury. She/he had to write fiction which, though the author might see it as an end in itself, could nevertheless be used by the audience to deal with the world it confronted every day. One solution to this dilemma was to write fantasy, which allowed readers to express their hopes, dreams, aggressions, and lusts in symbolic terms. Such "popular" fiction furnished an escape from the squalor and drudgery of everyday life and permitted readers a gradual release and displacement of emotional tension, which if contained might have become intolerable. At the same time, these works often drew attention to the discrepancy between the reality of their readers' lives, their ideological underpinnings, and the ideal, the utopian longing. Or the writer could furnish his/her readers with roles for identification, especially those the bourgeoisie felt necessary for maintaining the social order: ideals concretely represented by images of elegance, power, romance, and success, inspiring the reader to overcome obstacles standing in the way of success or to endure what she/he could not change. Again, these depictions often underscored the tension between the reality of the present and the possibility of change.

The author of paraliterature thus expressed what her/his consumers needed or wanted to believe about everyday life or offered them an alternative to the commonplaces of routine existence in the guise of fantasy, adventure, romance, etc. Yet whatever else this author had to do, he/she had to communicate. Thus the tension between the real and the ideal, between the ideological and the utopian horizons, had to be drawn in sufficiently open terms, with formulaic plots and representative heroes. The author had to respond to the capabilities and needs of his/her audience, to name its situations in such a way as to allow it to use fiction for the pleasurable exploration of the possibilities of human relationships.

3. On Some Specific Characteristics of SF

SF shares with other paraliterary genres some aspects very important, indeed crucial, for the teacher and student. First, a large number of people actually read it — regardless of the official educational requirements. Therefore, assigned texts will usually be presented to a group of students heterogeneous in respect of their previous familiarity with that kind of text: some will be familiar with whatever books are chosen, some will not. More importantly, some will have notions (sometimes strong notions) about what kind of writing — what characteristic genre or category — these books belong to. Second, the economically and indeed anthropologically (philosophically) crucial aspect SF shares with other paraliterature is that it is primarily a commodity. (Every book published under capitalism is a commodity; but remnants of pre-capitalist notions of prestige, glory, etc., qualify the commodity status of much "high lit.") This means that the book publishers and the TV and movie producers have to enforce certain strongly constricting lower-common-denominator clichés in strict proportion to the capital invested and profits expected (rather than to a mythical audience-taste); the constricted narrative patterns, plots, characters, language, etc., in turn prevent paraliterature from giving a full and lasting satisfaction to its consumer. However, this also means that the book-as-commodity acquires a certain financial independence of its ideological content: it will be subject to promotion, hypes, etc., and conversely it will often be excused anything as long as it brings in the profits. Third, this makes for its twofold dominant societal function: financially, that of selling well (to many readers); ideologically, that of momentarily entertaining and pacifying its readers. This helps the social status quo both economically and politically, by addicting the reader and/or viewer to further reading/viewing for further momentary compensation (see Joanna Russ's "SF and Technology as Mystification," SFS No. 16 [Nov. 1978]) and by defusing active or at least radical civic discontent, in favor of mass social mythologies of an anti-rational kind (see Roland Barthes' Mythologies).

However, while this can be said of SF too, along with such crass ideologies this genre has also in a small minority of its most significant texts managed to preserve cognitive aspects opposed to this market ideologization (as is argued at length in part 1 of D. Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction.) In its basic technique of evoking the possibility of different relationships among people (even if these are masked as nautiloids and cosmic clouds), SF breaks down the barriers of a closed and immutable world. If its action is simply a substitute for the reader's activity, if relations among its figures are simply escapist surrogates for different relations in the reader's life, then that SF is much the same as other kinds of paraliterature — ideological and mystifying. It can, however, be faulted because it is SF, because it wastes the chances for presenting genuinely different possibilities which are latent in the genre's basic assumptions. Bad, mystifying SF can — and should — be criticized by criteria taken from inside the SF genre. The universe of the SF narrative does not necessarily — in all significant cases does not — make the reader a passive escapist. The wish gratifications of SF can be critical of reality, even if they rarely are.

Thus, we see SF as a genre in an unstable balance between the cognitive potentialities (political, psychological, philosophical) growing out of its subversive (and historically lower-class) tradition of inverting the world, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, powerful upper and middle-class ideologies that have sterilized the bulk of its texts. This means, first, that a teacher will have to disentangle in each text the elements or aspects belonging to pleasurable cognition from those belonging to ideology, and second, that she/he will have to be severe with the latter in proportion to the chances presented by the former.

4. On the Goals of SF Teaching

The main and the highest goal of SF teaching — as of all teaching — ought, in our opinion, to be a specific form of civic education. We propose that, though SF can be used for popularizing science or religion or city planning, or for promoting cathartic togetherness, this does not do justice to its possibilities.

First, it is quite possible that SF can be used for awakening interest in science (hard or soft) or religion, in literary form or sociology, or in anything else one cares to mention. But we deny that this is its most efficacious and most fruitful use, and we therefore deny that this should be its main use. Second, by civic education we don't mean an instrumental use of literature and art as "a disguise for morality or prettification of knowledge" but (to continue the quotation from Brecht's Messingkauf Dialogues) "as an independent discipline that represents the various other disciplines in a contradictory manner." This emphatically does not mean propagating uncritically any values taken for granted today. It means something that can be heard in the very word "civic" if one listens to it carefully: that we are all cives, "citizens," of the same Earthly City, which will not survive unless we learn that we all belong to one another, and that this belonging in our scientific age is to be demonstrated by understanding how the science which deals with people living together ought to inform all the other sciences. This ideal of civic education would thus be located somewhere between Jesus of Nazareth's "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and Karl Marx of Trier's "The world has been merely explained, the point is to change it." But even such an ideal cannot be "served" by SF texts; they can only be explained as (in the best cases) in their own way leading to it (if and when they do).

In any event, we trust that even those who do not share this goal — which we are aware of having expressed in a provocative, because abbreviated, fashion — will agree that no good teaching can come about unless the teacher in her/his daily practice knows what the goals of his/her teaching are. These goals shape the teaching from the beginning; they influence the choice of texts we teach, our scholarly and pedagogical approaches to those texts, our role as teachers, and our criteria of evaluating class success. Therefore, at least in this explicit discussion, we would articulate our purposes as clearly as possible.

No doubt, a fair number of questions still remain to be asked: Who establishes these goals? If there are any conflicts over them with administration, students, parents, etc., who has the power to resolve such conflicts? How are the goals related to students' goals and to the traditional or non-traditional functions of education? And what methods are adequate to the goals desired?

5. On Our Roles as Teachers

SF is (as all literature) taught within an institutional context — a university, college, high school, evening school or writing course. The institutional regulations — teacher qualifications, registration fees, the category and number of students who take the course, its duration and frequency, course requirements if any, etc. — are, as a rule, basically beyond the control of the teacher and the students. Most frequently, the students can only take or refuse to take such a course, while the teacher, even should he/she consider some important regulations such as class size, composition, or timing to be stultifying, often does not have the option of refusing to hold it. The undoubtedly greater flexibility of, say, North American university teaching in the last 20 years did not change this basic context. For, institutions as well as individuals are shaped by the larger social environment within which SF is being taught, and are permeated by its values. Writers, teachers, and students do not exist in a vacuum. Our attitudes toward matters dealt with by SF, and toward SF itself; our roles as teachers or students, and our concepts of these roles; all of these are — to an extent much greater than most of us are willing to acknowledge — determined by the society within which we live and our relationships within that society. They are meanings and values which are organized and lived as social practices, and which constitute for us that "reality" on which any personal variants of ours will be grafted.

In particular, we would like to put up for discussion the following propositions:

a/ SF is being taught within a particular dominant culture, which is not god-given but the result of a social choice among possible alternatives.

b/ Teaching SF either reinforces, questions, or rejects the dominant culture by (tacitly or openly) endorsing the values and norms upon which the dominant culture rests or by endorsing alternative norms and values of past, residual cultures or future, emerging cultures (see for those concepts Raymond Williams's masterly overview in Marxism and Literature.)

c/ The acceptance, doubting, or rejection of a dominant culture will be overwhelmingly influenced by the teachers' and students' positions within that culture, their class, status, role, sex, age, financial position, etc.

Nonetheless, for all the constraints upon us as teachers, in this age of doubt and of faltering or competing value-systems there is sometimes — and we invite SFS readers to tell us just where and when — enough manoeuvering room for us to make our pedagogical decisions important, and thus practically and ethically meaningful. In that situation, our understanding of our own role as teachers is of crucial importance. True, our independence is most often illusory, for our role is for the most part not personally created but given by a particular social system to suit its own interests (which upon closer inspection turn out to be the interests of a particular dominant group within that society). That teaching role is then further shaped by our audience, which determines the limits of what we can intelligibly say: for all their important individual differences, our students' roles and values will produce a few groups, each of which will have its own fixed response to SF — as we have all experienced. Teaching nevertheless remains always a drama of communication, with the teacher as one of the protagonists struggling to establish meanings (cognitive cum imaginative cum emotional), to evaluate them, and to communicate them to the class.

Teaching SF, we would like to propose, involves description and assessment, interpretation and evaluation; teaching SF is an act of literary criticism fused with the communication of that criticism. Thus, the teacher of SF is centrally dealing with the interaction between text and context, the unique literary work and the class's common social world: she/he is doing so, because even not dealing explicitly with this interaction is a very effective form, the "zero form," of dealing with it — and "zero form" or limiting messages get to the class most quickly ("in this class we don't do such-and-such"). In this situation, we believe it is both the more honest and the more fruitful course to relate literary production explicitly to its social meanings, so that these may be opened up to everybody's scrutiny and contestation. A first step in literary analysis, on paper or in class, is of course to identify the actual development of significant features in the story. But even this beginning is only possible because there are some prior assumptions about people and the world with which all of us approach the act of literary analysis itself. And furthermore, such an indispensable first logical step will remain useless if it is not integrated with identifying at least summarily what has been excluded from the text at hand. If we are dealing with an SF text where a matriarchy develops on the planet of a blue sun, a full reading of it must note that it is not only a matriarchy but also not a patriarchy or egalitarian society, that it is not only the planet of a blue sun but also not the planet of a yellow sun or any other star type (see on this technique Marc Angenot and Darko Suvin's "Not Only But Also," SFS No. 18 [July 19791, from which we repeat some arguments). All modern sciences, from linguistics to physics, are not absolute but relational: any element in a structure receives its significance from its relative position toward and differences from other elements, whether we are speaking of a phoneme or a space/time island. In other words, against all "positive" common sense, a text is constituted and characterized by what it excludes as well as by what it includes. In practice, of course, one has to start from what is in the text; but as we have just argued, it is impossible to evaluate/understand it unless by comparison with other elements — both those inside and those outside the text. In direct parallel to its value, a literary text contains its historical epoch as a hierarchy of significances within itself.

This means that the teacher of SF, just like the critic, cannot simply be the writer's or even the text's advocate. No doubt, he/she has to be able not only to function on the text's wavelength in order to understand it but also to point out its strengths (if it has no strengths, it should not be taught). But the teacher should, we believe, properly be neither for nor against the writer, and the cult of personalities so rife in SF should be staunchly resisted, whether we are dealing with Asimov or Le Guin. The teacher's loyalties are not even to the text, except as the text is the privileged tool of class investigation. In our opinion the teacher should finally be the advocate of the provisional yet meaningful truth and value that she/he and the class will come to at the end of the investigation which started from the text, but passed through its confrontation with our common social reality in order to return to the text with a full understanding of its values. Since there is no eternal truth in and by itself but only a truth-in-context and truth-for-a-historical-group we believe the teacher should be the advocate of an ideal non-alienated and libertarian reader who has the right to receive all the evidence of how, why and in whose interest the text has interpreted our common universe. Such an ideal reader is only an imaginative heuristic construct, yet we believe it to be an indispensable one in order to counter both shipwreck in day-to-day pragmatic concerns and flying off at private, quite eccentric and idiosyncratic, tangents.

All of this means, in other words, that the teacher cannot choose not to be the advocate of some values: all presentations of human relationships (however disguised these may be in SF parables) are heavily fraught with values. The teacher can only choose which values to identify, stress, or deny, and how to go about it — first of all, implicitly or explicitly. This should stand, of course, at the opposite pole from preaching or indoctrination, which would mean picking out only those value-systems one agrees with for explanation and proclamation as valid. Though we personally believe the teacher should declare her/his ideological or value-positions early on in the course, he/she should have the fundamental intellectual honesty and loyalty to point out, in the discussion of any particular point, alongside those arguments she/he would agree with also the strongest arguments that could be presented against such an evaluative position. Only from this stance, practicing what is "preached," can the teacher be the advocate of the ideal libertarian reader described above.

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