Science Fiction Studies

#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987

Editorial Introduction

What, you may ask, can be special about this Special Issue? Essays dealing more or less expressly with theoretical matters have hardly been exceptional in these pages over the years; on the contrary, they constitute the rule among the articles we have published. And not by accident: it has been our long-standing editorial policy to encourage such theorizing, and not just of a narrowly literary, let alone a specifically generic, sort. Even so, "Critical Approaches to SF" can claim to be unique inasmuch as all of the essays herein concentrate on theoretical questions (all of them bearing upon SF's generic peculiarities). In the aggregate, then, they make for a quantitative difference between this issue and its predecessors. It is arguable, moreover, that the first four pieces which follow differ from all but a handful of our previous articles in kind as well as in degree, and this not on account of their level of theorization so much as by virtue of their being "meta-critical."

The first of the four might appear to be just another interview, but in fact it turns out to have far greater affinities with the kind of self-interrogation that Samuel Delany is offering on the lecture-circuit these days. "The Semiology of Silence" may be deceptive in another—and more significant—way as well. Much of it is ostensibly a restatement of ideas that Delany has articulated elsewhere (cf. Kathleen Spencer's review of Starboard Wine); but as he obliquely addresses his title-subject, he does not merely say, perhaps more clearly and forcibly than hitherto, things that he has said before: his reconfigurations also contain much that is new, either in itself or by reason of his manner of expressing it. His observations on the current situation of SF publishing is an obvious case in point, especially as they figure in his wide-ranging considerations of genre. Perhaps most suggestive, however, are his comments on how the sentence "There's a chair in the corner" can be variously elaborated upon so that it serves to model authorial choices which are, in the broad(est) sense, political. Connected as it is with some moving autobiographical reminiscences about his childhood, this sentence-paradigm does not simply clarify what Delany's own work is about; it also offers an entirely novel way of identifying and negotiating the "political" in texts and perhaps (as its context implies) of distinguishing SF from other genres in that regard.

In urging (once again) that SF be looked upon as distinct from "literature," Delany in effect opens a three-cornered debate with Carl Freedman and Fredric Jameson. Whereas Freedman would traduce that distinction in favor of treating SF as literature (revealed, however, as a problematic concept), Jameson sees it as a usually unstated premise operative in the otherwise contrasting, if not opposed, "critical staging" of SF by Anglo-American and/versus Continental academics—as a matter of tacit agreement which serves to locate the inadequacies of both approaches and thus demands the tertium datur for which, in his view, East European SF affords the basis and corpus. Yet Freedman's remarks on the whole perhaps complement more than they contradict Delany's and Jameson's. After all, his main argument is that a true (and truly) "critical theory" (lineally related to the Frankfurt School's) ought to "privilege" SF because "the SF world is not only one different in time and place from our own, but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes"—a point that Freedman substantiates through "critical readings" of four exemplary texts.

Much of what H. J. Schulz has to say also bears on matters that Delany, Freedman, and Jameson deal with. Like Jameson, Schulz views SF as being the victim of two seemingly antagonistic modes of proceeding towards it: the one constituted by English-language criticism in general, the other by West German Ideologiekritik. The former tends to neutralize the critical impact of SF (largely in Freedman's sense of critical) either by ignoring the genre's ideological component (the "insider" version of this practice) or by segregating certain works of SF for thematic and formalistic analysis as (if they were) "high" literature (the academic variant; cf. Delany). Ideologiekritik, on the other hand, attends to ideological content, but mostly of the overt sort in a genre which it (mis)represents as undifferentiated, or monolithic, in its affirmation of the status quo. From this dialectic emerges Schulz's appeal for a criticism which will transcend the "binary absolutism" of "high-literary" vs. "paraliterary," or "commercial," SF (cp. Jameson) and come to terms with the "contestation" between "affirmative" and "subversive" ideological forces within the genre.

Veronica Hollinger's remarks also apply to the play of ideological forces in SF, particularly in The Time Machine and cognate time-travel stories. She draws syncretically on a number of theorists (and not only or predominantly those concerned with SF), but especially on Jacques Derrida and his concepts of supplementarity and différance, to make the case that fictions such as Wells's in effect participate in the deconstructionist project of defamiliarization as they operate subversively upon the complex of binary oppositions attaching to time-travel as "a sign without a referent": Newtonian time as oeuvre, which lends itself to metonymic extrapolation, versus Einsteinian time as texte, which tends to proceed by analogy and metaphor (the French terms come from Roland Barthes in his post-structuralist phase). Nor does Hollinger's argument necessarily confine itself to "the motif of time-travel." It can additionally be taken as pertaining to SF in general, and the more so to the extent that it be read as supplementing (perhaps in Derrida's sense) both Freedman's essay herein and Marc Angenot's "The Absent Paradigm" in SFS No. 17—in the same way that Delany's comments on "the political" supplement Angenot and Darko Suvin's "Not Only But Also..." (in SFS No. 18).

The prospects that these first four essays hold for the understanding of SF as a genre largely come out of their consideration of previously available theories. By contrast, the articles by Antoni Smuszkiewicz and Naomi Jacobs are far less retrospective in their orientation. Yet if neither of them is, properly speaking, meta-critical, each decidedly qualifies for this Special Issue by reason of the concepts which it introduces. Smuszkiewicz outlines a new categorial scheme which would classify and associate fictions according to the kind of props they employ (relative to their temporal setting) and how they deploy them. Jacobs instead focuses on a certain kind of character that makes for what she calls "recombinant" fiction—personages appropriated from their nominally extratextual existence (in history, legend, or myth, or in earlier literature) and placed in a novel context. Both of these essays, moreover, tie in with the trends of those preceding them: of (re)locating SF in relation to other literary genres, and chiefly from a "post-modernist" standpoint.

Finally, it is worth noting that virtually all of the articles and review-articles that follow, including Carlo Pagetti's report on the Italian scene, register a shift in SF criticism, whose central question now seems to be not "What is SF?" but "How is SF (best) to be dealt with?"

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