#36 = Volume 12, Part 2 = July 1985
An Interview with Darko Suvin*
Takayuki Tatsumi: Part of your Metamorphoses of Science Fiction has already been
translated into Japanese and many critics there have been influenced by your
critical system. Therefore, I think, it will be quite useful if you would inform
your Japanese audience of what you are currently thinking about SF, SF
criticism, and SF academics.
Your definition of SF is "cognitive estrangement." It is very fascinating
because the concept clearly springs from Bertold Brecht's theory of drama, which
was your earlier major interest and is the topic in one of your newest books, To Brecht and Beyond (1984). On the other hand, I notice that you begin
Metamorphoses with a very strict generic definition of SF. Allow me to ask how
you conceive the generic relationship between SF and drama.
Darko Suvin: I have used the concept first introduced by the Russian Formalists
and later developed further by Brecht. But then, I think, this concept, although
particularly clear in theatre, is in fact of more general, cultural and
potential usefulness. If it were not, obviously I should not have applied it to
SF. O.EL? Although I didn't quite know what I was doing when I was using this
concept, why I was using it, I think I could give you a theoretical
justification today. I think it is caught up with what both the SF community
and also logicians in their latest investigations call "possible worlds." As you
may know, this is a concept now discussed in semiotics by people like Eco and so
on. A "possible world" is a little space time island which is in some ways
complete in itself, rounded off and set off against other possible worlds —which
applies equally in the Einsteinian physical system, in logics, and in literary
theory. Now, of course, a play, including its performances, is clearly a little
rounded off world. And obviously SF is also, within the epic genre and the
novel, that form which usually most clearly represents a different possible
world. Therefore, there are some strong internal and formal—even formalizable—kinships
between SF and drama, because both are possible worlds. And by pure luck, being
a theatre critic to begin with and then a theoretician of drama, I stumbled on
this idea which Brecht had developed. But as you know, Brecht took it from the
Russian Formalists, who developed it in analyses of the novel—developed it on
Sterne, Tolstoy, and so on. So it's not confined to drama: I simply happened to
have gotten it from Brecht.
TT: Doesn't this mean that you have noticed an essential connection between the
form of SF and the form of drama?
DS: I didn't know why I was using it. I just intuitively used it—in the '50s
when I began writing in Yugoslavia and then in the '60s in English. But now I
could give you a theoretical, semiotic defense of that, if you want, based on
the notion of possible worlds.
TT: O.K. And yet, my opinion is that, as far as the genre of SF is concerned,
the very concept of "world" is binary—"world view" and/or "world mechanics." Do
DS: No. Explain, please. Do you mean any particular work, or the whole genre
TT: For example, if we appreciate Clarke's Childhood's End very much, we must
agree with his "world view." On the other hand, if we appreciate Lem's
very much, we are fascinated by its "world mechanics."
DS: Do you mean the way he describes the world—the Ocean in Solaris and all
that? Is that what you mean?
TT: Put simply, there are, I think, at least a couple of ways of reading SF. One
is a reading on the basis of "world view," that is, "ideology," while the other
on the basis of "world mechanics," namely, "law."
DS: And you want to know how this relates to my opinions?
DS: I think the distinction you established only goes so far. That is to say, it
is an analytically useful distinction, but, you know, all analytically useful
distinctions break down after a certain stretch of use. So, I would say that if
you want to understand any work of SF, of course you have to begin with what you
call world mechanics—space time, the plot developing in this space time, the
narrative agents, and everything else. O.K? But, then, the space time is always
a choice among possibilities. You say "there is a blue sun," which means "there
is a blue, but not yellow, sun." Even if the author says only "blue," the reader
will translate this; for us yellow is normal and we translate it as "blue, but
not yellow." Therefore we are not in the Solar System. "Blue Sun" is a choice
among possible sun colors and systems from which a lot will then follow: a type
of planet atmosphere, climate, geology, and so on. But, then, these mechanics
really begin to serve as a delineation of a possible world, which is made up by
choices of what to show and what not to show, what to focus on and what to leave
on the periphery. That choice is an ideological choice, and at that moment the
distinction between mechanics and ideology breaks down.
Now I can appreciate, therefore, up to a limited point, Childhood's End, let's
say (since you mentioned it); but I don't have to agree with Clarke's ideology,
which is a kind of English Non Conformist mysticism. I don't have to agree with
Clarke's ideology in order to be able to read the book. I can say his ideology
has certain limits, and I'm willing to follow him up to his limits; but, then, I
would not like to stop at his limits, going no further. Therefore, I will not
accept this book as a final value statement. So, I think there are two
matters here: one is a technical matter, while the other is a value decision.
Technically, I think you can't read the book longer than three sentences before
mechanics begins to interfere with value, choices, ideology, and so on.
Ideologically, I think that I absolutely refuse to be bound by the ideology of
any particular writer. Moreover, I think it is very pernicious when SF becomes
an ideology for the subculture of SF fans. This is terribly bad in my opinion.
Then they become a kind of sect which can be manipulated for semi political,
semi religious ends, which often happens to SF fans as we know, unfortunately.
And I think the healthy attitude is that you have your own point of view, an
ideology which is based on your life experience and which can be, then, in a
dialogue with the ideology of the novel by Lem or the novel by Clarke. Maybe you
can learn something from them and change a part of your ideology. Maybe you
cannot—in which case, you simply say, "I don't like this ideology."
TT: In that case, you don't recognize any possibility of misreading?
DS: Oh, of course. I'm assuming that you are a careful reader, and I was
speaking about the case of the ideal reader. Even then, I think you cannot say
that in order to be an ideal reader I must agree with Clarke. I don't see why. I
must understand what he said, but I can also say I disagree.
TT: The reason why I'm asking this question is that you yourself are using some
two fold structure in writing your Metamorphoses, trying to combine or fuse
poetics with history. Here we cannot mistake your effort to dialectically unite
the formal and the historical aspects of SF, and what I meant by the term "world
mechanics" is quite similar to your "formalism."
DS: But I would not totally agree with your analogy between an explicit work of
conceptual theory, such as my book, and a work of fiction, which is not an
explicit, formalized conceptualization, but rather is more akin to a metaphor or
a parable—a developed metaphor or a sustained parable. By the way, I don't
defend the structure of Metamorphoses too much. I think it would have been
better not to divide it into two parts, but I didn't know how to manage
TT: Let me ask again, more intelligibly: what did you try to do in that book,
using poetics and history—mere combination?
DS: More exactly, juxtaposition. I want you to know the history of how this was
written. I first had some kind of idea and wrote a theoretical essay. Then I
wrote a historical sketch—both of these in Yugoslavia. Then, thinking more about
theory, I wrote the first three chapters of theory. Then I wrote the historical
part, which is based on definitions from the first three chapters. And when I
finished all that, I wrote the fourth chapter of theory, "Science Fiction as
Novum." That's the way the book was written—after which I wrote the Preface, of
If you want to see the way I would do it now, you should look at my book
Victorian Science Fiction in the United Kingdom, whose last 200 pages show no
(or at least much less) division between poetics and history. There are some
preliminary discussions of what a social addressee is, what narrative logic is,
and so on, simply to clarify the terminology. That work is more homogenous and
applied to only one particular socio historical phase;
it attempts a social theory of literature—for one genre, in one historical
Furthermore, if my book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction ever gets translated in
its entirety in Japan, I hope they would include a new theoretical essay which I
have published, in English, in Métaphores, no. 9/10 (1984), a special issue
devoted to papers given at a colloquium on SF held in Nice in 1983. My essay is
called "Science Fiction: Metaphor, Parable, and Chronotope"; as you can see, it
is influenced by Bakhtin especially and ends with an analysis of a story by
Cordwainer Smith, "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul."
TT: One of his anthologies was recently translated into Japanese, and succeeded
in giving rise to a lot of Cordwainer Smith "maniacs."
DS: Well, I have all kinds of doubts about Cordwainer Smith, because he was
ideologically a very strange person. He was a CIA expert on psychological
warfare, for Asia especially—a specialist on Indonesia, China, and whatever.
Nonetheless, or because of that, I think he is very representative of American
ideology, especially today.
TT: How do you connect Cordwainer Smith with American ideology?
DS: Cordwainer Smith is today in a very privileged position, because the
ideology he represents in some idealized pure ways is the ideology that came to
dominate America with Reagan. He was eccentric in his own time, but today he can
serve very well to elucidate something central within America. But, by the way,
I'm not saying that Cordwainer Smith is the same as Reagan; as Marx said,
Rousseau is not the same as a normal petit bourgeois but, nonetheless, he is
the ideal and theoretical representative of the petty bourgeois. I can
substantiate my claim about Cordwainer Smith by my analysis of that story of
TT: Are you now talking in an ironical sense?
DS: No, no. I think Smith/Linebarger meant this to be so. For instance, his
heroine is called Helen America—she is an allegorical heroine. She is saved by
the apparition of an unknown lover, which is obviously a transposition of the
Christian idea of heavenly bride and bridegroom, Christ who comes to save
TT: But, I think Cordwainer Smith has usually been grasped from the viewpoint
DS: I don't believe there is aesthetics outside of ideology.
TT: This is just what has confused me very much in your system. Although you are
dealing with writers like Lem, Dick, and Cordwainer Smith, who all seem to me
quite aesthetic, your book itself excludes such writers, emphasizing the
ideological tradition from More down to Capek.
DS: Well, the book had to stop sometime. It had become very long, so I stopped
at the point of Wells and a couple of things after Wells.
TT: But, as a reader, I hope you would propose a total vision of the New Wave
and after, because the New Wave served as the first aesthetic movement in SF.
DS: By New Wave you mean whom: Harlan Ellison, or Thomas Disch? Or—?
TT: J.G. Ballard in particular.
DS: To answer your question, let me first say that I'm presently writing not
about SF but about literary theory, theatre, and culture. So I doubt if I shall
ever give you a general overview of SF—fortunately. I say fortunately in large
part because I'm very unhappy about the general turn of events in the last 12
years of SF in the US, which is the dominant power in world SF. (I'm also
unhappy about the general turn of events in Russian SF, by the way.) Given that
unhappiness, what I could write about US SF would be negative and ironical,
except in regard to some exceptions—Disch, much Delany, early Russ, Piercy, some
Bishop perhaps, etc. It would not be pleasant either for me to write or for the
reader to read a book which would be 90 % negative or ironical. I prefer to do
As far as the New Wave writers are concerned, they no doubt brought in some
interesting things—notably a concentration on psychology, which had been much
neglected in SF, though I think SF cannot have the 19th century's Balzac Tolstoy
type psychology. Therefore I disagree with Ursula K. Le Guin, who thinks it
should have—I think it cannot have that kind of psychology by definition. The
New Wave brought in a number of tricks—devices, if you want a nicer term—which,
I think, were useful and renewed the genre some. But these attitudes or devices
basically seem to me the photographic negative of attitudes used by people like
Asimov. That is to say, Asimov, Heinlein, and their ilk love technology, while
the New Wave hates technology, a phenomenon already prefigured in some earlier
writers, like Bradbury. Asimov and Heinlein write a utilitarian radio mechanics
kind of prose, while the New Wave people write a buoyant, purple and decadent,
fin de siècle type of prose. If you react to somebody, you are still conditioned
by that somebody. You are just a photographic negative and she or he is a
positive, or vice versa. So, I refuse to take sides in a battle between the
older writers and the New Wave, because each side has good aspects as well as
bad aspects. Basically it's a family quarrel. Finally they all coexist in the
same subculture and the same magazines, some of which, nevertheless, liked to
specialize in one side more than in the other. But people like Asimov and
Heinlein got the message and stuffed in passages about sex, usually in very
silly ways. All in all, that was a storm in a teacup really.
TT: How about the post New Wave writers?
DS: I would really prefer not to discuss the last 12 years because I have not
been reading systematically, with some exceptions—most of whom are people not
printed in SF magazines. I really don't think I am competent to talk about this
TT: Then, the next question. Attending your last lecture, "William Morris and
the Science Fiction of the 1880s," I was astonished at your employing even
DS: In quotation marks, as you might remember. I'm not a follower of
TT: But you have apparently used Formalism and Structuralism, being very
conscious of their methodologies. If the very act of reading, writing about,
and/or criticizing SF cannot be separated from methodology, don't you find
validity even in Post-Structuralist poetics?
DS: I think that any critic uses whatever method he or she can find in order to
understand and elucidate a text. No method should be forbidden. Some methods
give better results with some texts than with others. Would you apply
Reconstruction to Gernsback? On the other hand, there is less difficulty
applying it to Delany, because there is an inner kinship.
TT: You mean Dhalgren?
DS: If you read Dhalgren, for example, there you can find a pre-Derridean
deconstruction of New York City (Bellona), I think. But personally, I suppose
that the method which suits me best is what I would today describe as some kind
of socio historical semiotics, which tries to do better what I already started
in Metamorphoses: fusing the formal and the socio historical. That will be my
approach: let everybody else use whatever they want, and I wish them luck. But I
wouldn't do that, and I would even have some ideological objections to some
TT: How, then, do you define the role of language in SF? Because
Post-Structuralist poetics as well as Formalist methods seem quite useful to
high light the linguistic aspect of the genre.
DS: I think much too little work has been done on that, partly because SF was
usually very shoddily written on the level of sentence—which is the level of
linguistic inquiry. SF became tolerable on the level of paragraph and very
interesting on the level of chapter, but was usually very bad on the level of
sentence. But with the advent of Lem, Delany, Le Guin, and so on, this is no
longer true. Now we can begin seriously talking about the stylistics of SF, even
that of Burroughs—if you wish, of course—who is a reasonably brisk writer on the
level of sentence. But I think there are other problems connected with SF— e.g.,
neologisms; and in general, how does language form very different possible
worlds? That should be a privileged theme of investigation, probably by other
TT: I quite agree with you. By emphasizing the poetics of SF, did you think it
is possible to cognitively estrange your own history of SF itself? With this
question, I'm asking you whether you can apply your definition of SF even to
your own socio historical methodology.
DS: I think that is a very intelligent and very witty question. I have never
thought about this. But I suppose that when the subject defines an object, she
or he also auto defines her or himself.
TT: You mean a self referential system?
DS: Unconsciously. It's unconsciously self referential. Yes, I'm interested in
cognition and estrangement, and the book is done that way. Yes, I think you're
absolutely right, and I think that was a very interesting question [laughs].
TT: Let me ask one last question. Are you an academician or a critic?
DS: I guess I'm both. I work in archives and write with a lot of footnotes
sometimes, and I also wrote theatre criticism in circumstances where I went to
the theatre in the evening and at 12 o'clock next day the critique had to be in
a newspaper. So, I did both, and I don't feel uncomfortable in either.
TT: Thank you very much.
*This interview by Takayuki Tatsumi, a graduate student at Cornell University,
was taped on December 28, 1984, at the Washington Sheraton Hotel, for a Japanese
SF magazine. Mr. Tatsumi and DS hold the copyright.—eds.
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