Science Fiction Studies

#117 = Volume 39, Part 2 = July 2012


Mark Bould

From Llanvihangel Crucorney and Zagreb to the Stars!: Raymond Williams and Darko Suvin on SF

Andrew Milner, ed. Tenses of the Imagination: Raymond Williams on Science Fiction, Utopia and Dystopia. Ralahine Utopian Studies, vol. 7. Bern: Peter Lang, 2010. x + 243pp. £32 pbk.

Darko Suvin, Defined by a Hollow: Essays on Utopia, Science Fiction and Political Epistemology. Ralahine Utopian Studies, vol. 6. Bern: Peter Lang, 2010. xxxiii + 582pp. £42 pbk.

The latest volumes in the Ralahine Utopian Studies series collect, respectively: sixteen essays, reviews, and extracts from critical works and novels by Raymond Williams, originally published between 1956 and 1984; and fourteen essays and thirty or so poems by Darko Suvin, from between 1973 and 2008. Suvin’s impact on the development of sf studies—particularly his Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (1979) and his association with R.D. Mullen in the founding of Science Fiction Studies—does not really require comment. In contrast, Williams’s work on the genre, scattered across multiple venues and some of it en passant, is not especially well-known; Andrew Milner has performed an invaluable service by collecting it in a single volume.

Williams, the founding theorist of Cultural Materialism (explicated in his Marxism and Literature [1977]), was central to the establishment of Cultural Studies in the postwar period, not least in the challenge posed to British universities’ Leavisite tradition of “judgement and canonization” by his focus instead on “description and explanation” (Milner, Tenses 3). He was an astute critic of Edward Bellamy, Aldous Huxley, William Morris, H.G. Wells, and, above all, George Orwell, but it is more difficult to gauge the extent of his familiarity with genre sf. For example, his 1956 essay “Science Fiction” comments on James Blish, Ray Bradbury, John Christopher, Henry Kuttner, Philip Latham, Katherine MacLean, C.L. Moore, H. Nearing, Jr., Arthur Porges, Eric Frank Russell, A.E. van Vogt, and John Wyndham, but in each case he refers to a story collected in Edmund Crispin’s Best SF (1955) anthology. On the other hand, while his discussion of sf in The City and the Country (1973) also relies heavily on a single anthology (Damon Knight’s Cities of Wonder [1966], with stories by Kuttner, Robert Abernathy, Brian W. Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, E.M. Forster, and Walter M. Miller, Jr.), it does also consider Blish’s Earthman, Come Home (1955) and Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956). Furthermore, Williams did devote one of his 1971 television review columns in The Listener to a discussion of Out of the Unknown (1965-71), Doomwatch (1970-72), and Doctor Who (1963-89); and his thoughts about “Utopia and Science Fiction” (1978), originally published in Science-Fiction Studies, were profoundly influenced by Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974).

Regardless of the precise extent of Williams’s knowledge of sf, he succeeded in proposing early versions of several ideas and problematics—discontinuity, alterity, world reduction, utopia-as-plan versus utopia-as-affect—that would become central to such later sf and utopian-studies theorists as Fredric Jameson. He was also something of a futurologist: after just three years of Thatcherism, his Towards 2000 (1983) clearly discerned neoliberalism’s liquid modernity of perpetual crisis-creation and perpetual crisis-manipulation/management, describing both the “emerging rationality of self-conscious elites” (154) committed to endless jostling for “temporary competitive advantage” within an “indefinite continuation of extreme crises and extreme danger” (151), and the endless cultivation of “skills” rather than the full development of human beings, in an arena of “unending and unavoidable struggle” (152). Indeed, in the time of Occupy and Indignado—movements criticized by mainstream media for lacking a specific agenda, only to have their specific proposals about regulating finance capital, weakening the hold of capital on our putative democracies, and wresting government back from the kleptoplutocracy ignored—Williams’s discussions of the dialectics of systematic and heuristic utopias, and of the need to educate desire, could not be more timely.

Tenses of the Imagination is divided into three main sections that coincide with the phases of Williams’s career (see Milner, Re-Imagining): the “Old New Left” period of “left culturalism,” from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution until the Prague Spring, and May 1968, in which Williams’s break with Leavisism was completed; the “New New Left” period of cultural materialism, responding to the structuralist turn and to the English translation of Antonio Gramsci’s work, which lasted until the neoliberal ascendancy of the late 1970s; and the “Postmodern New Left” period of “(anti-)postmodernism,” which lasted until Williams’s death in 1988 and which responded to the deregulation, financialization, and consolidation of global capitalism.1 This periodization is useful in conceptualizing the relationship between individual pieces and the social, political, and intellectual contexts in which they were written. For example, Williams’s careful historicization of Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) in the 1971 and 1984 editions of Orwell clarifies the logic behind Orwell’s decision to name the Oceanian political philosophy/system “Ingsoc”: “Fascism … had just been militarily defeated. Capitalism, he assumed, was finished and deserved to be finished. What then mattered was which kind of socialism would come through, … democratic socialism [or] authoritarian socialism” (194).

One cannot help, however, but reflect upon Williams’s own skepticism toward a similar tripartite periodization of Orwell: “the thirties Orwell is the socialist, the forties Orwell the reactionary, the radical somewhere in between,” but “evidence for each of the positions can be drawn from each of the periods, though of course with differences of emphasis” (66). Indeed, one of the advantages of no longer having to root around on bookshelves and the internet to find Williams’s writings on sf is that one can more easily trace dominant, residual, and emergent elements of his thinking, and discern the paths by which he discovers the theoretical tools and vocabularies necessary to develop ideas more fully. I will outline just one example.

In “Science Fiction,” Williams describes three “interesting” modes of contemporary sf: Putropia, the dystopian comic infernos exemplified by Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953); Doomsday, the post-apocalyptic fiction exemplified by Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951); and Space Anthropology, exemplified by Blish’s novella “A Case of Conscience” (1953), which deals in sf’s “critical themes [of] identity and culture contact” (54). He dislikes Doomsday for rigging the game so that, for example, it becomes apparently rational and laudable for the sighted minority to abandon the newly-blind majority to Triffids and other less spectacular fates. Similarly, Putropia typically justifies contempt for the masses by siding with a smug, literary minority who believe they are preserving culture. These two kinds of fiction express “certain types of contemporary feeling which are rapidly becoming orthodox” (17)—namely a wide-ranging despite for others, who are reified as a brutal, brutish mass. Williams returns to this idea in his various discussions of Orwell.

In Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1958), Williams outlines the paradox of Orwell:

a humane man who communicated an extreme of inhuman terror; a man committed to decency who actualized a distinctive squalor … a socialist, who popularized a severe and damaging criticism of the idea of socialism and its adherents … a believer in equality, and a critic of class, who founded his later work on a deep assumption of inherent inequality, inescapable class difference … a fine observer of detail, [who] appealed as an empiricist, while at the same time committing himself to an unusual amount of plausible yet specious generalization. (34)

In a 1977 interview, Williams summed up these contradictions: “Orwell seems to have been temperamentally in his element when he was vituperating causes which in another part of himself he hoped to advance” (83).

Williams begins to unpick the Orwell paradox by situating him among a generation in which many, “deprived of a settled way of living, or of a faith, or having rejected those which were inherited, [found] virtue in a kind of improvised living, and in an assertion of independence” (37). This detachment, Williams argues, can result in an exilic consciousness, prone to recognizing its own “felt social impotence [and] inability to form extending relationships” (37); and in The Long Revolution (1961), he suggests that this “experience of isolation, of alienation, and of self-exile is an important part of the contemporary structure of feeling” (45). Thus, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) “is still a moving book … because it is a record of the most deliberate attempt he ever made to become part of a believing community” (38), but Nineteen Eighty-four fails because it has no faith in the proles. Winston Smith, like the Putropian and the Doomsdayist, cannot believe in the masses, or in their lives as being full and meaningful, and pictures himself as part of an intellectual repository devoted, like Bradbury’s book people, to keeping the mind alive for the day when the proles eventually become conscious beings. Exilic Orwell, skilled at the “observation of particular working-class people,” tended to transmute such specific insights into general “observation[s] of all working-class people”—he could discern “what was evident, the external factors,” but could only guess “at what was not evident, the inherent patterns of feeling” (40). Thus Nineteen Eight-four “projects an enormous apathy on all the oppressed,” despite such contrary evidence, which Orwell knew full well, as “St Petersburg, Kronstadt, Barcelona, Warsaw” (60).

In “Beyond Actually Existing Socialism” (1980), a review of the first English translation of East German Rudolf Bahro’s Die Alternative. Zur Kritik des real existierenden Sozialismus (The Alternative: Toward a Critique of Actually Existing Socialism, 1977), Williams fastens very quickly on the argument that the Communist Bloc’s failure lay in merely changing the relations of production rather than “fundamentally transform[ing] the overall character of its mode of production, i.e. the productive forces as well” (Bahro qtd. in Williams 128; emphasis in original). It is an intriguing moment made all the more so by its position in this collection. The limitations of Orwell’s imagination suddenly crystallize: he could only imagine a future dominated by an anti-democratic techno-bureaucracy—not actually all that different from the systems of capitalist global governance that subsequently emerged—because he could not imagine a transformation more radical than merely changing the bosses (whether to oligarchical managerialism or state socialism). Simultaneously, Culture and Society’s strong approval of certain of William Morris’s essays and aspects of his News from Nowhere (1890) come into focus:

When we stress, in Morris, the attachment to handicrafts, we are, in part, rationalizing an uneasiness generated by the scale and nature of his social criticism. Morris wanted the end of the capitalist system, and the institution of socialism, so that men could decide for themselves how their work should be arranged, and where machinery was appropriate. (28)

Morris and Bahro come together when Williams contrasts human interests and developments with the logic of capital:

the material task which requires the work of sixty is developed, by capitalist logic, to the point where it requires the work of only six, and the other fifty-four become, in that deeply significant term, “redundant.” In an alternative logic, there would be the choice, from the beginning, of associating more workers than are necessary, at any particular material stage, so that within the labour process itself there is room for other kinds of relationship and reflection, or of so redistributing necessary working time that other kinds of activity and relationship become the emancipatory centre rather than the compensatory margin of social life. It is of course clear that any such plan requires, absolutely, abolition of the current imperatives of capital. (144)

Several pages earlier, Williams offered some apparently more modest proposals for a better world:

A redivision of labour; unrestricted access to general education; a childhood centred on the capacity for development rather than geared towards economic performance; a new communal life based on autonomous group activities; socialization (democratization) of the general process of knowledge and decision. (136)

The longer one stares at these proposals, the more reasonable and desirable—and the more seemingly impossible, or at least incompatible with capitalism—they become; and the clearer becomes the necessity of transforming both the relations and forces of production. And after 25 years, Williams’s dislike for Putropia and Doomsday, and his preference for Space Anthropology, are resolved.

Whenever Williams returns to Orwell, he seems also to be writing about his own exilic consciousness: a Welshman born in an English-speaking part of Wales; the son of a railway worker who went to grammar school and Cambridge University; an outcast from the British Communist Party because he enlisted in the British Army (ironically, in the month Germany invaded the USSR); an officer who became a conscientious objector; a Cambridge graduate who taught at Oxford University; a member of Oxford’s faculty who worked in adult education; and so on. But there is a key difference between Orwell and Williams: the latter’s refusal to see people as masses. It underpins his opposition to Leavisism, his founding of Cultural Studies, his development of cultural materialism—and his brilliant aside, in his final piece on Orwell, that the terms “prole” and “consumer” are “equally degrading” (196). Williams never forgot St. Petersburg, Kronstadt, Barcelona, and Warsaw or, indeed, “Berlin, Budapest, Algiers, Aden, Wattsville, Prague” (60), and later in his career he began to talk of pacificism, feminism, and an ecological world-view as central to the necessary transformation of our world into a home. This more mature socialist vision, this move beyond what Michael A. Lebowitz calls one-sided Marxism, was learned not only from reflecting upon the shortcomings of the Old and New Lefts or the obfuscations of certain postmodernisms, but also from a genre concerned with identity and cultural contact—and with the possibility of radical change.

Suvin, too, possesses an exilic consciousness (born in Croatia, part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which became in turn the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, he emigrated to Canada via the US, and now lives in Italy), and he also refuses to forget: Defined by a Hollow is dedicated to Yugoslavian anti-fascist partisans and to their leader, Josip Broz Tito, “two-fold liberator of my ex-country (which exists no longer)” (x; emphasis in original).

One of two recent hefty collections of Suvin’s writings,2 Defined by a Hollow contains, as one might expect, all the joys and frustrations of his work. There is the compulsion to produce axioms and apothegms; but they only succeed in pithiness about half the time, and sometimes they just stare back at you from the page, insisting on being obvious (and flawed) no matter how long you try to find greater significance in them (e.g., “my first axiom is that SF makes sense by referring to the reader’s here-and-now through not referring to familiar empirical existents” [170; emphases in original]). There are the things you wish he had said more carefully, such as “shun sectarian politics like the plague, even by such potentially large groups like super-exploited women” (312). And there are the diatribes and jeremiads. Some of them are hilarious—the tirade against Disney in “Utopianism from Orientation to Agency,” the slagging-off of sf’s “theoreticians for all constituencies” (193) in “Where Are We? How Did We Get Here? Is There Any Way Out? Or, News from the Novum” (2000)—and some, but perhaps not enough, are genuinely moving, informative, and, for want of a better word, right, such as the denunciation of using GNP, a measure of market activity, as a measure of human well-being: “crime and war officially contribute to riches, while the costs of air, water, health assistance, and all other life-enhancing activities yielding no profit on capital are kept out of its figures” (454). ]

Comparing Williams and Suvin, Andrew Milner focuses on the latter’s description of “genre as ‘a socio-aesthetic entity with a specific inner life, yet in constant osmosis with other literary genres, science, philosophy, everyday socioeconomic life, and so on’” (Milner, “Utopia” 216, quoting Suvin, Metamorphoses 63). Despite its “historicist sense of the possibility of variation over time,” this description nonetheless reveals “an overly formalist, perhaps even fetishistic, conception of the socio-aesthetic: socio-aesthetic a genre may be, but an entity it surely is not” (216). While for Williams an “understanding of genre” is primarily “a matter of … social relationships,” for Suvin it is “overwhelmingly a matter of classification” (216). The 35 years of work covered in Defined by a Hollow certainly demonstrates this fetishistic tendency, reading like an endless fort­-da game, a series of peristaltic pulsations, as Suvin recognizes the need to move beyond, but is unable to let go of, formalism. This tension is most evident, and productively so, in Suvin’s later, more experimental, essays. For example, “What Remains of Zamyatin’s We After the Change of Leviathans? Or, Must Collectivism Be Against People?” (2003) alternates an analysis of the novel—focused around its changing meaning over time: “is it still a living ‘anti-utopian’ novel when nobody can even pretend that the utopia it was ‘anti’ to is still a major, observable actuality?” (326)—with an account of the former Soviet Union’s immiseration in the era of disaster capitalism. One is hard-pressed to imagine a more formalist strategy than this patterned, reinforcing alternation. And, indeed, “Cognition, Freedom, The Dispossessed as a Classic” (2008) devotes its first part to a laudatory analysis of Le Guin’s novel’s structure, which alternates between the planets Anarres and Urasti, and between the protagonist’s past and present, while each pair of chapters shares a “unified, thematic-cum-attitudinal common denominator and trope” (514).

Wegner’s introduction to Defined by a Hollow argues that an “under-appreciated dimension of Suvin’s original theorization of science fiction” is that it enables “us [to] grasp the genre … as a crucial dimension of the great efflorescence of cultural, political, and social experimentation known as modernism” (xxi; emphasis in original). Suvin himself frequently demonstrates the interrelated modern drives, described by Bruno Latour, of purification (which imposes distinct categories onto heterogeneous reality) and of hybridization (which mixes these categories or, perhaps more accurately, uncovers their inadequacy by construing what was previously heterogeneous as hybrid). How else to explain Suvin’s outrage at the “ideological and commercial habit of lumping together SF … and fantastic narratives,” and at science fantasy, the “misshapen subgenre born of such mingling” (72-73)?

And what could be more modernist than Suvin’s ceaseless determination to “clear the ground” (313), to establish critical terminology upon which new theory and practice can be erected? For example, “Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia: Some Historical Semantics, Some Genealogy, a Proposal and a Plea” (1973) offers a magisterial overview of definitions, and traditions of defining, utopia before offering its own, which—along with associated terms—he tinkers with and refines throughout his subsequent career. While these revisions and returns enable later wry insights, such as the observation, in “Utopianism from Orientation to Agency: What Are We Intellectuals under Post-Fordism to Do?” (1998), that “we live today in dystopia as well as in an anti-utopia—perhaps because the dystopia is an anti-utopia, a deliberate project for subalternity” (236; emphasis in original), the historical conjuncture that made this terminological project strategically imperative has long since passed. As Owen Hatherley notes of twentieth-century Left-Modernist architecture, it “was intended not just to be tendentious, but to produce effects, to do stuff. Not as a substitute for political action, but as a component of it” (121). Likewise, Suvin’s insistence that his terms and definitions must be agreed upon before useful work can be conducted: just as the novum must be “hegemonic” (75; emphasis in original) over the sf text, so his anatomizing and naming attempts (borrowing Jacques Rancière’s description of politics) polemically to reconfigure the distribution of the sensible.

Hatherley suggests that the “dormant Socialist Modernism” dotted around British and European landscapes, neglected, crumbling, or—worse—being gentrified, can “offer spectral blueprints for … a future” in which the capitalist system of “destruction, injustice and barbarism” has “finally be[en] given its long overdue burial” (126). Perhaps the Suvinian edifice can do this, too. For example, Defined by a Hollow hints at a confluence between the tradition of Marxist sf theory and criticism Suvin exemplifies and the turn to biopolitical theory among more recent, leftist sf scholars (see, for example, the special “Biopolitics” issue of Science Fiction Film and Television [4.2, 2011] edited by Sherryl Vint). Suvin repeatedly skirts the edges of biopolitical thought, as in his observation that “while the bourgeoisie proclaims each body is a subject, it also remains a manipulable object over which potentially violent power can be exercised” (234), but he never overtly draws upon it. The older paradigm he prefers, however, might enable a vision of transformation that could enhance the still largely negative biopolitical critique of governance. Let me explain.

In “Cognition, Freedom, The Dispossessed as a Classic,” Suvin makes an analytical distinction between what he calls Science 1, “humanized science-as-wisdom,” and Science 2, the science we actually have, “whose results are mixed but seem to be increasingly steeped in the blood and misery of millions of people” (528). Fixated “on domination and the consubstantial occultation of the knowing subject” (529; emphases in original), Science 2 “is Power (over people),” whereas Science 1 “is Creativity (within people)” (530). Although Suvin is familiar with the work of Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding, he does not engage directly with feminist Science Studies (would that be too sectarian?), choosing instead to evoke the barely glimpsed utopian potential of science freed from capitalism and the other forces that transform it into Science 2.

Tracing the roots of this distinction back through Suvin’s writing, one can again see the formalist achieving hegemony over social relationships—but also, simultaneously, the former’s abstraction being driven by a desire to speak for, and transform, the latter. For example, “What May the Twentieth Century Amount To: Initial Theses” (2002) argues that “[t]ruly democratic science … has to espouse being publicly taken to account as to each and every one of its uses and consequences:” (373). “Where Are We? How Did We Get Here? Is There Any Way Out? Or, News from the Novum” emphasizes Marx’s argument in Capital (1867) that industry transforms science from labor into a separate and thus alienated/alienating productive force. And “Science Fiction and the Novum” (1977) describes the divorce of the “industrial revolution … from the democratic one” as “the fundamental political event of the bourgeois epoch” (79). In a similar vein, “Living Labour and the Labour of the Living: A Tractate for Looking Forward in the Twenty-First Century” (2004) draws on Marx’s Grundrisse (wr. 1858, pub. 1939) to distinguish between Production 1, which creates surplus value for capital, and Production 2, creative human activity. Just as Science 2 subsumes and perverts Science 1, so Production 1 subsumes and perverts Production 2. Therefore, utopia, “an overstepping of the boundaries given to humans, hence a quality inherent in all creative thought and action” (18), is a synonym for Science 1 and Production 2. This utopia is not to be mistaken for zoe, the “simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods),” but rather an argument for a particular kind of bios, “the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group” (Agamben 1)—a bios that does not reduce full human creative being to labor-power (Suvin 442), which does not denature “living labour by measuring it in time as an exchangeable quantity” (446; emphasis in original), and which does not find “the purpose of economy … compatible with mass dying and unhappiness, … while it clearly ought to be the survival of the human species and other species ecologically linked to us (which means practically all)” (456).

How might this bios be described? For Suvin, it is an “opposed and normative value-system based on use-values,” a “redefined communism” (13) shaped by the knowledge that, while “there is no liberation that only knows how to say I,” there is “no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through,” but there is, and could be, a “We—who are not the same,” “who are many and do not want to be the same” (342; he is quoting Adrienne Rich). And if this seems as hopelessly utopian as Williams’s modest proposals, then in Brecht’s words, “reflect on the reasons which render it utopian” (qtd. in Suvin 133), recognize with Kafka that “[t]here is infinitely much hope, only not for us,” and like Gramsci combine “Pessimism of reason, optimism of will” (qtd. in Suvin 485).

1. A fourth section contains extracts from Williams’s sf novels, The Volunteers (1978) and The Fight for Manod (1979).
2. See also Phillip E. Wegner, ed., Darko Suvin: A Life In Letters, a special issue of the journal Paradoxa (#23, 2011), which contains mostly shorter pieces.

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Hatherley, Owen. Militant Modernism. Winchester, UK: Zero, 2008.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. 1991. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.
Lebowitz, Michael A. Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, 2nd ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2003.
Milner, Andrew. Re-Imagining Cultural Studies: The Promise of Cultural Materialism. London: Sage,2002.
─────. “Utopia and Science Fiction Revisited.” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould and China Miéville. London: Pluto, 2009. 213–30.
Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Ed. and trans. Gabriel Rockhill. 2000. London: Continuum, 2004.
Rich, Adrienne. “Notes toward a Politics of Location.” Women, Feminist Identity and Society in the 1980s. Ed. Myriam Diaz-Diocaretz and Iris M. Zavala. Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1985. 7-22.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1979.
Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society: 1780-1950. 1959. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.


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