Science Fiction Studies

#64 = Volume 21, Part 3 = November 1994

Elizabeth Hewitt

Generic Exhaustion and the "Heat Death" of Science Fiction

Do everything at the proper time

Keep everything in its proper place

Use everything for its proper purpose.

—Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1861

In 1964 Michael Moorcock replaced E.J. Carnell as editor of New Worlds. At that time, Worlds' subtitle was "science fiction," by 1967 that subtitle had changed to "speculative fiction," by June 1968 it had changed to "fiction," and by October 1968 the magazine had abandoned all generic subtitles (Rønnov-Jessen 80). These generic changes can be marked in the very packaging of the material: what had once been a bimonthly magazine printed on newsprint was transformed into a large-format avant-garde literary journal printed on glossy paper.1 This ugly-duckling tale of New Worlds' coming-of-age can be seen as a metonymy for Darko Suvin's narrative of science fiction's own generative history. According to Suvin, sf rose out of "the compost heaps of...juvenile or popular subliterature," developing by subsuming and outgrowing its discursive foundations (Metamorphoses 22). But this story of maturation is much too easy, for both Moorcock and Suvin agree that there is something efficacious in sf's marginality and always tenuous self-identity—its ambiguous generic distinction from other literary categories—and, perhaps more importantly, in its distinction from what has variously been called realist, mainstream, or mundane fiction. Sf's paradoxical desire—to grow out of its shaky generic status and, yet, simultaneously to maintain the unique status it gains from that marginality—is no mere "academic" issue, exploding as it does into the dangerous ground of the politics of marginality. In this essay I will not speak directly to the larger theoretical problem of identity politics; instead I will consider the question of genre, focusing on the representation of generic identities and dissolutions in a short, and not often criticized or reprinted, story— "The Heat Death of the Universe."2

2. Pamela Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe" consists of fifty-four numbered paragraphs describing California housewife Sarah Boyle's domestic duties on the day of her child's birthday. Interspersed within this domestic narrative are ruminations on entropy, chaos, and the heat death of the universe. Certainly the interjection of scientific speculation into a narrative on the most mundane, the least extra-worldly of subjects—housework—is notable; and yet we still must wonder, as Mark Rose does in his book on sf and genre, why "Heat Death" should be classified as sf:

An interesting piece of fiction, and one that clearly gains resonance and impact by having been published in a context of science-fiction expectations. But is it science fiction? "The Heat Death of the Universe" raises once again, and in a particularly provocative manner, a problem that seems to bedevil everyone who thinks seriously about science fiction. What is it anyway? (1)

Rose's solution to this generic quandary is simply to force Zoline's story into a rather conventional generic formula; he describes it as a classic "alien invades human body" narrative where entropy is the antagonistic alien and Sarah Boyle stands for a generalized protagonistic human will (31). We also could fit "Heat Death" into a generic sf frame by seeing Sarah's "break-down" (where she tosses dishes, jars, eggs, and jam around the kitchen) as a metaphor for apocalypse, a standard sf theme (Lefanu 97). Such readings, however, simply classify Zoline's story as sf by using "science" as analogy for "real world." In such a reading, Zoline's insertion of thermodynamic theories would be merely a metaphoric vehicle for describing the chaos of an individual woman's life.

This sort of analogic critical enterprise would produce a "Heat Death" that thematically resembles sf, but necessarily would squander its metaphoric play value, which is critical to the generic capacity of sf. For if metaphors in "mundane" fiction are ultimately determined by the "real" world, then metaphors in sf are the building materials of the "new" sf world.3 Familiar metaphors signify differently when we read sf. Samuel Delany explains how this alternate reading functions:

Then her world exploded. Should such a string of words appear in a mundane fiction story, we would more than likely read it as an emotionally muzzy metaphor about the specifically emotional aspect of some incident in a female character's life. In SF, we must retain the margin to read this sentence in such a way that a planet, belonging to some woman, blew up. ("Generic" 177)

Following Delany's logic, to insist that Zoline uses thermodynamic theories as metaphors for the social condition of domesticity is to exclude the possibility that her tale is about the heat death of the universe. By including "Heat Death" in the sf genre by way of a thematically structured model as Rose does, critics risk foreclosing the critical possibilities of the genre. Rose's metaphoric reading, although it renders "Heat Death" thematically legible as sf, also forces metaphor to function according to the logic of mundane fiction's reading strategy. Reading "Heat Death" with what Delany calls an sf reading protocol, one would begin from the possibility that the ultimate horizon from which to interpret "Heat Death" might not rest on the domestic landscape.

The critical possibilities of this specialized sf reading method make it the most suggestive interpretive frame in which to read "Heat Death." Theorizations of such an interpretive strategy, of course, are not unique to Delany. Formulations can be found in the work of several writers, as in that by Teresa de Lauretis: "The sign work of sf, by re-literalizing language and giving it use value, can oppose the entropy of social discourse and re-shape our semantic universe" (169). Here de Lauretis, like Delany, makes claims for the unique potential of sf's metaphoric play, but more interesting is de Lauretis's own choice of tropes. She knows the sf canon well enough to remember that the New Wave sf writers of the 1960s—especially those published in New Worlds —persistently focused on questions of entropy (cf. Greenland). Her choice of tropes would seem to suggest that New Wave writers, like Zoline, were raising questions of genre through their own textual manipulation of entropy and chaos. By reading Zoline's working of these thermodynamic tropes according to such a strategy of heterosemy, we can both survey Zoline's negotiation of genre theory in "Heat Death" and investigate the more general implications of such a negotiation.

3. In paragraph 20, in a notable reversal of the metaphoric directionality suggested by Rose, Zoline localizes her narrative of the effects of entropy (the heat death of the universe) by letting Los Angeles stand for that "universe," which has "unwound" itself—that is, "used up" all available energy:

The Los Angeles sky becomes so filled and bleached with detritus that it loses all color and silvers like a mirror, reflecting back the fricasseeing earth. Everything becoming warmer and warmer, each particle of matter becoming more agitated, more excited until the bonds shatter, the glues fail, the deodorants lose their seals. (¶20)

Here, a "real" Los Angeles functions as a metaphor for a "scientific" universe that remains only implicit. Her apocalyptic depiction of southern California is not simply an ecological manifesto bemoaning the polluted Los Angeles sky; more, it is an attack on the imagination of the generic nature of (poetic) language—an attack on the thought of a world in which all semantic matter has been fricasseed. Two paragraphs later Zoline suggests an alternative recipe to this fricassee, implying that she can "cook" a color that will not merely mirror "Cunt Pink" and "Avocado Green" (¶12):

Sarah Boyle's blue eyes, how blue? Bluer far and of a different quality than the Nature metaphors which were both engine and fuel to so much of precedent literature. A fine, modern, acid synthetic blue.... The chemists in their kitchens cooked, cooled and distilled this blue from thousands of colorless and wonderfully constructed crystals, each one unique and nonpareil; and now that color hisses, bubbles, burns in Sarah's eyes. (¶24)

Zoline's distilled blue raises the possibility that fiction might function critically, which is to say, it might provide for the heterosemic disruption of familiar, all too familiar, "Nature metaphors."

Darko Suvin names this disruptive project "cognitive estrangement," and it is a theoretical invention that Zoline explicitly takes up: "If one can imagine it considered as an abstract object, by members of a totally separate culture, one can see that the cereal box might seem a beautiful thing" (¶5). However, Zoline also ridicules the most conventional means by which sf produces such cognitive estrangement—the alien from outerspace: "Until we reach the statistically likely planet and begin to converse with whatever green-faced, teleporting denizens thereof—considering only this shrunk and communication-ravaged world—can we any more postulate a separate culture?" (¶12). Perhaps Zoline feels that this mechanism, in its overfamiliarity, fails to produce the necessary estrangement, and moreover (and more importantly) betrays sf's marginal status. In any case, Zoline answers her own question ("can we any more postulate?") in the negative ("it seems...less likely") even as her text belies this prediction, proving itself capable of doing this extraterrestrial work without leaving the earth's surface.

Yet, if Zoline does provide the means for us to see the world differently even as she describes it from the domesticated perspective of suburban sprawl, supermarket shopping, and kitchen cleaning, does the generic peculiarity of "Heat Death" provide any special leverage towards a new critical perspective? That is, could any genre besides sf generate a critique on the idyllic domestic scene: "Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and intelligent young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family which keeps her happy and busy around the house" (¶9)? Because Zoline neither offers us any alternative worlds nor any alternative times (the conventional means of negotiating "cognitive estrangement") in her narration of one day in the life of Sarah Boyle, it is difficult to discern from where the estranging function, unique to sf, could emerge. Perhaps we should look at the oscillation between the familiar and unfamiliar—between the drudgery of housework and the icy death of the universe: an oscillation, which, once it gets going, disrupts those epistemological categories that serve as the ideological ground for regulating familiarity and displacement. Unlike Suvin's description of this oscillation as a movement between an author's "implied reality" and a categorically defined "new reality," this vacillation, in "Heat Death," threatens to subvert the very ability to make such distinctions. After all, to take a simple example, models of cognitive estrangement would depend a good deal on who is performing the reading: for sf fans, the domestic scene of "Heat Death" would be the alien environment—the "new world"—not Zoline's rather conventional description of the heat death of the universe.

Thus, cognitive estrangement in "Heat Death" is not so much an "escape from constrictive old norms" as an entrenchment in a textual space produced from these norms. This is not to say that I do not agree with Suvin's argument that sf produces a historical displacement whose target is always the author's —and by implication the reader's—cultural reality. However, I want to articulate more precisely what he labels "escape." By juxtaposing entropy with housewifery, Zoline disrupts a model that would make either "science" or "sociology" metaphor for the other: her text raises the possibility that we may not know what should be read "literally." Is Zoline depicting an early manifestation of the end-of-the-world or is she commenting on the social fact of unpaid female labor? It is never clear; the point is that Zoline's story establishes, if only ambiguously, an alternative generic reading model that disrupts our conventional metaphorical machines such that even that which is most mundane can also be read as extra-worldly. In Carl D. Malmgren's recent consideration of sf generic theory, he cites the reluctance of critics to classify as sf the work of Zoline's fellow New Worlds author J.G. Ballard. Malmgren cites David Ketterer, "Such works may be apocalyptic in a psychedelic or surrealistic sense, but in many cases where the science-fictional landscape has the ontological status of metaphor, I would deny that they belong to the genre of science fiction" (132; Ketterer 187). Malmgren argues contrarily that it is this very metaphoric-play that classifies Ballard's work as "speculative sf," a "mongrel" breed of sf:

speculative SF in general tends to blur, obliterate, or cross over the lines separating the "pure" SF types. This "mongrelization," I would argue, is inherent in the very act of speculation which, because it is based on metaphoric substitution at the "deep structure" level, acts upon the worlds it transforms in a radically wholistic way. (137-38)

Ballard, according to this logic, obliterates the distinction between the inner or outer world; this obliteration, in which the "science" is not scientific but metaphoric, excludes his novels, according to many critics, from the sf genre. Malmgren, however, claims that the metaphoric substitution is so "deep" that both worlds (inner and outer) are revised—that is, neither is merely allegorical for the other. Thus, although Malmgren locates Ballard within the auspices of sf on the basis of allegory, he posits a definition of allegory that resists, as I am claiming Zoline also resists, a model in which there is a stable dichotomy between real and speculative.

It is this desired dichotomy that makes it seem unlikely that Suvin would include "Heat Death" in his own generic definition of sf. For Suvin, any text that can be labeled sf must have what he calls, after Ernst Bloch, a "novum": "SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fiction novum (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic" ("SF and the Novum" 141). It is the "novum" that, for Suvin, allows sf to distance itself from naturalistic or realistic fiction, producing a historical displacement capable of evaluating the here and now. Lacking such a "novum"—for both suburban housework and thermodynamic theory are very much part of contemporary social organization and physics—"Heat Death," by Suvin's logic, lacks the necessary cause to be sf. It is this necessary cause that occasions my reservations about this construction of the sf genre. As was the case with Rose, Suvin's analysis would restrict our reading to the figural events in "Heat Death." In other words, it would posit "cognitive estrangement" as the figural marker of sf, and from this vantage point we would make inductive decisions concerning the story's genericity. This type of analysis is based not on a reading strategy but on a generic marker. David Clayton says as much in his commentary on Suvin's theoretical mill: "Suvin polemicizes against 'positivism' but he raises his theoretical edifice by means of a positivistic device par excellence, sanctioned by the practice of philosophers such as Carnap or Popper hardly more favorably disposed to dialectics than to 'metaphysics'" (205). Clayton usefully critiques Suvin's unambiguous use of the definitive mode. I am not interested finally in whether or not "Heat Death" should be allowed into the sf corpus (according to Suvin or anyone else), but rather, I am concerned with the implications of any given genre theory's ability to purge individual texts on the basis of figural dissimulation. In the case of sf, in particular, such a practice threatens to foreclose the estranging possibilities of sf in the very name of a generic law that ostensibly pledges allegiance to sf.

Aware of some of the possible implications of his heuristic model of sf, Suvin attempts to explain why such a model does not depend on a transcendental theory of the Real. Hence, according to Suvin, he can reject charges of positivism by underscoring his rejection of the category of real conditions.

A heuristic model is a theoretical structure based on analogy, which does not claim to be transcendentally or illusionistically "real" in the sense of mystically representing a palpable material entity, but whose use is scientifically and scholarly permissible, desirable, and necessary because of its practical results. An example might be the construct according to which the molecules of a gas behave like minuscule elastic billiard balls in random motion. (Metamorphoses 17)

Significantly, Suvin chooses thermodynamic theory as the privileged analogy for genre theory; and whether or not Suvin meant for this analogy to resonate with the thermodynamic concerns of writers like Zoline, J.G. Ballard, or Moorcock, his suggestion does provide a useful departure point for reading "Heat Death." Suvin invokes thermodynamics in an effort to illustrate how theories, even if later they are found to be false, are useful as catalysts for theoretical and practical investigations. Clayton criticizes Suvin's choice of analogies, claiming that "the relation of genre to a literary text is not that of a scientific concept to a body of data but that of one kind of discourse to another..." (203). On the contrary, I believe Suvin's decision to draw an analogy between genre theory and thermodynamic theory is quite telling, and that such an analogy is precisely what is at issue in "Heat Death."

Suvin claims that heuristic models are useful in constructing genre theories; Zoline is much more wary of regulating categories. This is not to say that Zoline does not find them remunerative; after all, Sarah Boyle's livelihood as housewife is grounded in classification—her life is dedicated to ordering the household. Zoline renders these taxonomical projects as somewhat absurd when she describes Sarah's attempts at labeling household objects, buying one of each kind of cleanser at the supermarket, or posting a labyrinth of definitions and slogans around the house. These "hysterical" ordering exercises—"a desperate/heroic attempt to index, record, bluff, invoke, order and placate" (¶14)—are not, however, generically different than the "normal" daily chores of the housewife, who segregates and maintains the categories of clean/dirty and raw/cooked. Zoline's insistence on listing the objects Sarah sweeps up from the kitchen floor—"a triangular half of toast spread with grape jelly, bobby pins, a green bandaid, flakes, a doll's eye, dust, dog's hair and a button"—is not so much interesting for its narrative precision as it for its announcement that housework is a project of classification. To make such an announcement is to risk stating the obvious (although, obviousness may be a risk sf must take) so as to represent the contingency of the housewife's categorical decisions.

Sarah Boyle's duty is to determine what should be allowed in the house and what should be thrown away. Such judgments are not inconsequential for, as her mother-in-law reminds her, cleanliness is the grounds for epistemological agency:

She is talking about her neighbor who has cancer and is wasting away.... The doctor says her body's chaos, chaos, cells running wild all over, says Mrs. David Boyle. When I visited her she hardly knew me, can hardly speak, can't keep herself clean, says Mrs. David Boyle. (¶38)

According to this formulation, knowledge, speech, and cleanliness are commensurate—cleaning is the only means of preventing the wasting away of both body and mind. Waste is a chronic threat: "Housework is never completed, the chaos always lurks ready to encroach on any area left unweeded, a jungle filled with dirty pans..." (¶36). The impulse to order this chaos is not only found in Sarah Boyle's cleaning rituals, but in Zoline's authorial style, which numbers paragraphs and organizes textual inclusions with headings and captions.

By the last paragraph it would appear that Sarah Boyle (and perhaps Zoline —but we will get to this later) has lost her battle against the encroaching disorder. Crudely speaking, she does nothing more than make a mess, but when one's identity is founded in cleaning, making messes is apocalyptic. Like her mother-in-law's neighbor, Sarah is wasting away—she is becoming detritus —her identity fractured like the scattered dishes on the floor. If Sarah's identity is premised on her ability to construct taxonomies, which is to say, to construct a heterogenous universe, then such an identity is impossible to maintain in the face of the metastasis of homogenous matter. This suggestion is commensurate with the second law of thermodynamics: the entropy of a closed system tends toward a maximum while available energy tends towards a minimum. In other words, the universe tends toward homogenous and unusable energy (entropy) and more energy is used up to make heterogenous and usable energy than is produced; hence, the universe is constantly spending more than it makes: "if this were true it would mean that a time must finally come when the Universe 'unwinds' itself, no energy being available for use. This state is referred to as the 'heat death of the Universe'" (¶19). Both the universe and Sarah Boyle, quite literally, are exhausted.

5. This deficit economy is not a consequence of a failure to order but the necessary outcome of order. Zoline explains this paradox in her description of cancerous California:

Sarah Boyle imagines a whole world which has become like California, all topographical imperfections sanded away with the sweet-smelling burr of the plastic surgeon's cosmetic polisher; a world populace dieting, leisured, similar in pink and mauve hair and rhinestone shades. A land Cunt Pink and Avocado Green, brassiered and girdled by monstrous complexities of Super Highways, a California endless and unceasing, embracing and transforming the entire globe, California, California! (¶12)

Here, Zoline figures the California landscape as a woman's body trussed up with female foundations, regimented by diets, and carved up by plastic surgeons: it is a body that is hyperbolically systematic, yet it is a body that exemplifies entropy. Again, this paradox corresponds to the second law of thermodynamics, which speculates that an increase in entropy is the necessary result of a thermodynamically closed system. Therefore, the "order" of entropy would tend towards a homogeneity—"endless and unceasing"—incapable of constructing distinctions, categories, or indexes. Such is the order Sarah Boyle "imposes" when she attempts to label household objects. "Sometimes she labels objects with their names, or with false names, thus on her bureau the hair brush is labeled HAIR BRUSH, the cologne, COLOGNE, the handcream, CAT" (¶15). Sarah lists and orders, but not usefully; which is to say, her language of classification is incapable of consistently making "proper" differentiations—it is incapable of excluding what does not belong. It is, in other words, a generic failure.

According to some genre theorists (I think Suvin would be included among them) such a chaotic model would make for bad theory because it would not be able to generate clear distinctions—to exclude differences from categories of identity. This, however, is not where I want to locate the failure, since to find fault with a genre theory's inability to fortify its borders would seem to lead us right back to the original problem of closed systems and increased entropy. Instead, I would like to suggest that the problem with a theory of genre that is so inclusive so as to be homogenous is that it disables what I (along with Suvin, Delany, and Frederic Jameson) take to be the generic possibility of sf—to construct a historical alterity capable of displacing both the reader's and author's ideological norms of reality (cf Jameson). To paraphrase an argument Zoline makes in "Heat Death": it is the metastasis of a domesticated Californian horizon that obviates the possibility of "postulat[ing] a separate culture" (¶12).

6. Sarah's collapse at the end of the story would seem to attest to her enclosure in a contained domestic sphere. Moreover, it would seem that Sarah recognizes this confinement and represents it in the maze of notes posted around the house: "The nitrogen cycle is the vital round of organic and inorganic exchange on earth...." and "Many young wives feel trapped" (¶14, emphasis added). Sarah is trapped in a domestic order that insures her generative failure, yet this does not vitiate necessarily Zoline's generic project. Zoline writes that the heat death of the universe—the exhaustion of usable energy— depends on whether the universe is a thermodynamically closed system; but she also writes that "it is by no means certain, however, that the Universe can be considered as a closed system in this sense" (¶19). Likewise, I am not certain that Zoline is trapped in a closed system whereby her own fifty-four "posted notes" would represent a hermetically sealed textual space.

Zoline worries about generic closure, and she has every reason to worry since, according to the logic of "Heat Death," such closure would foreclose the possibility that Sarah Boyle's blue eyes raised—the possibility of critical fiction, of cognitive estrangement. Thus, my essay has come full circle, returning once again to the question of whether or not "Heat Death" can properly be included in a generic category called sf. The question has returned, I would suggest, because generic questions are embedded in Zoline's story. Zoline explicitly criticizes the generic circle that would exclude her text in its critical negotiations: "she thinks of the Heat Death of the Universe. A logarithmic of those late summer days, endless as the Irish serpent twisting through jeweled manuscripts forever, tail in mouth, the heat pressing, bloating, doing violence" (¶20). Such critical "violence" is neither merely allegorical nor merely textual; it represents the very real threat that generic categories potentially pose to Zoline's story. Depending on where we draw the battlefront, we might imagine an attack on sf in general (as Kurt Vonnegut has often been quoted: "I have been a sorehead occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction'...and I would like out, particularly since so many critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal"); or we can imagine an attack coming from within sf, attempting to expunge an sf writer who writes stories about housewives and who somehow has managed to slip into a genre that is not supposed to be about housewives and entropy.4 In imagining this generic war, however, we should be careful not to restrict our depiction of Zoline to helpless victim or passive outcast. Nor would Zoline necessarily be positioned as the victim in this generic war; after all, the New Wave writers were often viewed by the sf establishment of the late 1960s as the agressors, as those who were transforming the landscape of sf. Isaac Asimov, for example, reproves these sea changes: "I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth and receded, the vast and solid shore of science fiction will appear once more."5 Delany sympathetically describes sf writers like Zoline as waging an assault on the not yet fortified sf genre: "As a young genre, our borders are being battered, encroached on, or pushed out, and generally sustaining the most likely sorts of attack every day" ("Reflections" 235). I do not take Delany's description of these territorial disputes to be pejorative, but rather as an attempt to evoke the problematics in constructing a viable generic theory of sf.

Zoline argues that we need to construct a theory of genre that will allow for more than simple reproductions of the same—more than an inclusion of texts based on some fundamental rhetorical generic identity:

Sarah thinks from time to time; Sarah is occasionally visited with this thought; at times this thought comes upon Sarah, that there are things to be hoped for, accomplishments to be desired beyond the mere reproductions, mirror reproduction of one's kind. (¶32)

Sarah wants genres to do more than reproduce texts of a singular type and she wants the female gender to do more than reproduce uncountable clone babies. Thus, although Zoline refers to Dada artists throughout "Heat Death" in what appears to be a celebration of their promotion of the contingency of aesthetic categories, she also seems to suggest that Dada's failure is its inability to look beyond mere mirror reproductions. This is the danger of a closed system, which can allow for nothing more than a circulation of monological reproductions: the genre will exhaust itself. Clayton insists that this repetition is the necessary by-product of a genre theory that imagines itself as circular—be it a classical and "natural" circle or a new and improved hermeneutic one (223). Sarah's imagined manifesto of composing a new and mechanical symphony, painting an astonishing and transfiguring painting, or writing a new novel that will refurbish language (¶44) is an explicit attempt to push at the limits of such critical circles.

Zoline attempts to defeat generic entropy by resisting the closure of generic categories. This does not mean, however, that Zoline can abandon generic prescriptions altogether; to do so would be to succumb to entropy's homogenizing force, albeit from the other direction. Delany makes this point nicely, and it is worth quoting at length:

For those critics who would make SF or fantasy "literature"—who would deny them their history and nurturance outside the subject-dominated precincts of literature as specific practices of writing with their specific and complex codic responses to the complex object of modern culture—seduced by the nonbelonging of the text to its generic mark, seem to me to be trying to snatch SF and fantasy out from under their mark to drag them through some genreless, unmarked space in which they will, it is hoped, become "just a text," before relocating them under another mark, which in its illusory separability from the text, proclaims an innocence, transparency, and purity, free of all history, that no such marking can have. ("Gestation" 72)

The solution to generic limits is not the anarchical and unlimited productivity of Sarah's womb—"Sarah Boyle is never quite sure how many children she has" (¶31). Neither is it the limited infinity of the Russian dolls that is only capable of reproducing identical generic marks—"The wooden Russian doll has bright, perfect round red spots on her cheeks, she splits in the center to reveal a doll smaller but in all other respects identical with round bright red spots on her cheeks, etc" (¶32). Zoline adheres to a theory that would make genre a classificatory land of survival:

But while the Universe as a whole, if indeed there is a whole Universe, tends to run down, there are local enclaves whose direction seems opposed to that of the Universe at large and in which there is a limited and temporary tendency for organization to increase. Life finds its home in some of the enclaves. (¶49)

She intends for this marginal generic enclave to open up a critical distance that can counteract the imagined irreversible progress of entropy. Sf would allow for disruption and novelty, but not foreclose such disruption with heatless, which is to say homogenous and genreless, oblivion. Clayton similarly argues, "Science fiction, the prisoner of genre, has the honesty to expose this horizon for what it is: the shadow of our own limitations" (224). We need, in other words, to think genre not by the logic of identity, but by its liminality—its aura and shadow. Zoline offers her enclaves as fluctuating, yet containing, structures—structures that maintain the possibility of distinction at the same time as they postpone the icy death of homogenous identity.

7. In 1967 New Worlds published "Heat Death." This bit of publishing history is important because, as I began to suggest at the beginning of this essay, New Worlds was explicitly concerned with those generic questions that Zoline is negotiating in "Heat Death." In his article on New Worlds, Peter Rønov-Jessen outlines Moorcock's generic project that imagined sf as the catalyst for a literary renaissance—an attempt to "revitalize the literary mainstream" (79).6 As Moorcock explains, he saw New Worlds as a "platform [from] which they could expand out of the genre into doing things that were personal for them" (79).7 The danger of such a project was that its success might cost sf its generic identity. Certainly in the case of New Worlds, this vision eventually led to the magazine's financial demise. Always in dire financial straits, New Worlds relied on Arts Council grants, increasingly feeling the commercial backlash against the Avant-Garde movement as, for example, when Britain's largest bookseller, W. H. Smith, refused to sell the magazine because of its "pornographic" content (Aldiss 300). In many ways, then, the demise of New Worlds was the consequence of economic, and not generic, dissolution. Yet, New Worlds' implicit revisionary generic project—the articulated desire for its writing to move beyond "the stockades of ordinary science fiction"—cannot be extricated from the pragmatics of marketing genre fiction (Aldiss 301). Norman Spinrad, describing Ballard's The Crystal World, puts the point rather bluntly: " a far cry from what makes Hugo- or Nebula-award-winning sf succeed, and has very little to do as well with what makes commercial fiction, sf or otherwise, move off the racks" (187). Moorcock's editorial decision to expand outside the generic confines of conventional sf (circa 1965) was both an economic and a generic risk. "In commerical terms, Moorcock was quite willing to see the circulation of New Worlds shrink to the natural audience for the sort of fiction he wished to publish," but this "natural audience" proved incapable of subsidizing the experiment (189). And, in terms of genre, the risk Moorcock took was the possibility that this new sf would dissolve into the more general, and perhaps even more closed, genre called "literature."

New Worlds' publishing record suggests that sf was not a closed category —that the heat death of the (literary) universe might be subverted. But was the price of this subversion simply the abandonment of a fruitful generic distinction in exchange for another more general and perhaps less fruitful one— one even more likely to be closed by way of a totalizing generic marker? This, I am arguing, is Zoline's project: to sustain a generic identity that will not overdetermine the many texts seeking its shelter and, at the same time, will not give up a fruitful critical difference in the imagination of a utopian field of textual equality. Delany, in a reflection on Derrida's "The Law of Genre," argues:

Genres are not pure. They come to us, always already mixed. But that does not mean they cannot be studied in the specificity of their difference.... [Such a study] preserves a field where critical distinction can develop—in a larger field where too many of the greater social forces militate for an instant and insistent homogenization at the lowest possible denominator. ("Gestation" 73)

Whether or not we believe that Zoline manages to realize Sarah's dream of writing "a new novel that would refurbish language," she does suggest the possibility for a generic theory that would resist the production of yet another domesticated hermeneutic strategy. In so doing, Zoline provides us not so much with a generic theory of science fiction as a science-fictional theory of genre.

NOTES. I thank Jared Gardner, John Guillory, and Jonathan Kramnick for their help with this essay.

1. New Worlds (founded in Britain in l946) had a small circulation and looked like any number of American pulp magazines. See Aldiss 298-99.

2. While Zoline's story was both popular and anthologized at the time it was written, she has been ignored by the critics in recent years. Most suprising, however, is Zoline's absence from any new work on feminist science fiction. For example, Robin Roberts's A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993) and Marleen S. Barr's Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) (to name only two of the most recent examples) do not mention Zoline at all. It should be noted that these books do not consider the New Wave writers at all; yet Zoline's absence nonetheless seems conspicuous—not because she is a female author, but because Zoline's implicit critique on domestic conditions makes her an excellent example of a science-fiction author whose perspective is "feminist."

3. My use of "mundane" corresponds neatly with the conspicuous "mundanities" of domestic housework that Zoline depicts in "Heat Death."

4. In her introduction to Barr's Lost in Space (note 2), Marge Piercy provides a wonderful example of this critical violence in her description of the feminist literary community's response to her science-fiction writing: "If you doubt the fear of that label [women's science fiction], when my novel He, She and It won the Arthur C. Clarke award for the best work of science fiction published in the United Kingdom, my American publisher would not sticker the books for fear winning this prize would actually hurt sales. You don't want it shelved among science fiction, she said. Indeed, of all my novels, this one—one of the most ambitious and complex—received the fewest reviews in the feminist press, because of its genre" (x).

5. Asimov cited in Aldiss, 308. See Aldiss, esp. 298-308, for the importance of New Worlds to sf literary history.

6. Rønnov-Jessen 79. For more on the importance of Moorock's editorial vision see Aldiss 298-306 and Spinrad 185-87.

7. Rønnov-Jessen 80; quoting a taped interview with Michael Moorcock, 7 December 1983.


Aldiss, Brian, with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree. London: Gollancz, 1986.

Clayton, David. "Science Fiction: Going Around in Generic Circles." Slusser and Rabkin. 201-24.

De Lauretis, Teresa. "Signs of Wonder." De Lauretis et al. 151-74.

De Lauretis et al. (Teresa de Lauretis, Andreas Huyssen, and Kathleen Woodward), eds. The Technological Imagination: Theories and Fictions. Madison, WI: Coda Press, 1980.

Delany, Samuel R. "Generic Protocols." De Lauretis et al. 175-93.

—————. "The Gestation of Genres." Slusser and Rabkin. 63-73.

—————. "Reflections on SF Criticism." SFS 8:233-39, #25, Nov 1981.

Greenland, Colin. The Entropy Exhibition. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1983.

Jameson, Fredric. "Science Fiction as a Spatial Genre: Generic Discontinuites and the Problem of Figuration in Vonda McIntyre's The Exile Waiting." SFS 14:44-59, #41, March 1987.

Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1974.

Lefanu, Sarah. Feminism and Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Malmgren, Carl D. Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Rønnov-Jessen, Peter. "Science Fiction in the Market Place." The Dolphin 11:73-91, 1985. Special issue, "Inventing the Future: Science Fiction in the Context of Cultural History and Literary Theory," ed. Ib Johansen and Peter Rønnov-Jessen.

Rose, Mark. Alien Worlds: Anatomy of Science Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Slusser, George, and Eric S. Rabkin. Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

Spinrad, Norman. Science Fiction in the Real World. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

—————. "SF and the Novum." De Lauretis et al. 141-53.

Zoline, Pamela. "The Heat Death of the Universe." 1967. The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories. Kingston, NY: McPherson & Co., 1988. 13-28.


Pamela Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe" (1967), in which a domestic narrative of a day in the life of California housewife Sarah Boyle is punctuated by ruminations on entropy, chaos, and the heat death of the universe, often has been argued to belong only marginally to the category of sf. Zoline, like many other New Wave writers who were publishing in New Worlds, is claimed to occupy only a liminal status in sf. By situating Zoline in the context of her New Worlds' publication as well as within the thermodynamic concerns of the 1960s New Wave writers, I argue that questions of generic identity and dissolution are precisely what is at issue in "Heat Death." The thematic structures that organize "Heat Death"—housework and the exhaustion of Sarah Boyle and the second law of thermodynamics and the exhaustion of the universe—offer an elegant allegory for reading Zoline's generic theory of sf, which is to sustain a generic identity that will not overdetermine the many texts seeking its shelter and, at the same time, will not give up a fruitful critical difference in the imagination of a utopian field of textual equality. (EH)

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