Science Fiction Studies

#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987

Fredric Jameson

Shifting Contexts of Science Fiction Theory

Luk De Vos, ed. Just the Other Day: Essays on the Suture of the Future. Antwerp: Restant, 1985. xxx + 556 pp. $27.50.

George E. Slusser & Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Hard Science Fiction. Carbondale & Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1986. xvi + 284pp. $21.95.

Wolfgang Kasack, ed. Science-Fiction in Osteuropa. Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1984. 150pp. DM25,00.

The fictional framework for my remarks on the first two of these books is that they allow us to compare the state of SF criticism in Europe and the US. De Vos's enormous collection includes scholars from Belgium, above all, but also from England, France, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere, writing in English, French, German, and Flemish; the second includes the papers from the fifth Eaton Conference on Fantasy and SF, held in April 1983, at the University of California, Riverside. A basic distinction must therefore also be noted between a book which covers a wide variety of topics and a symposium devoted to a single theme. Still, the classic difference between Old and New World SF criticism remains: the Europeans, writing in the absence of a pulp tradition, do not feel the need to justify their critical activity, and handle their various texts according to various academically accredited categories--the semiotics of SF, the "prehistory" of the genre (Renaissance texts, Russian- and Spanish-language utopias and SF texts), etc. They also give some needed attention to Swedish SF and the British Utopian tradition, to the "last man" motif in Granville, and to a set of individual works of uneven interest: the very interesting peasant utopia by Chayanov, the great Soviet theoretician of a "peasant" mode of production; Kasack's 1947 philosophical dystopia, Die Stadt hinter dem Strom; Hesse's Das Glasperlenspiel. The De Vos tome also includes a rather insubstantial introduction to Martinson's Aniara and clusters of essays on David Lindsay and Doris Lessing and on Dick, Calvino, and Lem. These later offerings then begin to pick up post-structuralist resonances, particularly in a heady piece on J.G. Ballard by Jonathan Benison; or they otherwise move beyond the merely critical-evaluative into outright ideological analysis, as in a resounding piece on gnostic-fascist ideology in E.E. ("Doc") Smith. But with the exception of Dick (who, canonized by the Europeans, looks as "literary" as Borges or William Blake) and of a few interpolated interviews with American and British SF writers (which seem oddly out of place here), the fact of the pulps, the "original sin" of SF's emergence from entertainment and mass culture, does not impose itself here, so that the defensiveness often present in American SF criticism, and in particular the Hollywood-type affirmation of the "serious business" of entertainment and commercial media (or its inversion, the academic transformation of SF writers into "great literature"), is also absent. These traits are, I hasten to say, only residually present in the Slusser-Rabkin volume, yet as I'll try to show in a moment, its very interesting focus on the question of "hard science" still seems to me to carry around with it the nagging question of the "justification" of SF as a form as a kind of ground-bass anxiety.

The Belgian collection inspires different kinds of mixed feelings: I wish that there were English translations of some of the Swedish and Russian authors talked about; and I am gratified to find Lessing's novels discussed with the seriousness they deserve, even if the discussions do not arouse the urge to wade back at once into the rather long "Canopus" series. But I could do without Hesse or the references to Huxley and Orwell in considerations of otherwise less familiar British material; the one token feminist study (on Russ and Tiptree) is hardly sufficient; and while it is gratifying to find some serious attention to Lindsay (e.g., interesting material on the significance of music in A Voyage to Arcturus), the more expertly the allegorical meanings of this work are here teased out, the greater is one's sense of disappointment--that it meant only that! (I fear I have the same reaction to the equally expert essays on Dick; De Cuyper's little piece on the entire opus is something of a tour de force.)

Otherwise my feeling is that the pieces describe a trajectory from what I will overhastily call "structuralist" or "semiotic" concerns towards post-structural ones, and that seems to me instructive in and of itself. The "semiotic" pieces predictably turn around the generic effort to define SF or to characterize its specificity; and these--with two signal exceptions (and a wild contribution by Ben-Yehuda on the occult)--strike me as tiresome in a way which makes me wonder whether this line of inquiry is worth pursuing any longer (unless it is inspired by some real need or crisis: see below). One of the exceptions is Suvin's important essay on metaphor, which extends his theory of "cognitive estrangement" to the links between narrative and the micro-systems of the tropes (the essay will be reprinted in his forthcoming collection, Positions and Presuppositions in SF). The other is the editor's own contribution, which argues for the paradigmatic status for the genre not (pace Aldiss) of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but rather of her The Last Man : De Vos's argument may be undecidable, but it is certainly curiously symptomatic, and leads me on into the shift from a more static semiotic theory of the genre to what I have called a more poststructuralist framing of SF texts which tends, whatever the theoretical references--psychoanalysis, deconstruction, power, schizoanalysis, the simulacrum--to stage them in terms of the historical originality of our moment in our "system." This perspective obviously involves a shift away from the consideration of what all "generic" SF texts have in common towards a more "symptomal" attention to what certain heightened textual configurations show us about the contemporary conjuncture, and in particular about our own world of images and simulacra. I've mentioned Benison's essay on Ballard as a particularly intense and concentrated exercise in this vein, bristling with a wide array of theoretical references (Baudrillard is central), which in my opinion work better on Ballard than on more self-consciously "philosophical" and paradoxical writers like Lem or Calvino. (Perhaps I should put this in a different way: namely, that Benison's theorization itself approaches the state of a kind of SF in its own right--in which case, however, it approaches a paradoxical and "philosophical" SF more like Lem or Calvino than Ballard.) None of this theoretical delirium has any particular equivalent in the more sober American collection.

This kind of post-structuralism involves, as I've said, an approach to history and to our history, a sense that both modern SF texts and modern theories offer privileged modes of access to our peculiarly peculiar current alternate universe. But now I must also say that the American collection is somehow a good deal more real than this and is anchored in present history (perhaps a different kind of present history) in a more palpable way, not least because the writers are present and because the reader understands at once that the issue of the status of science is a practical one which will have effects on the kinds of books written in the future. Not that the theme is particularly fashionable (although Benford's presence and work--which becomes paradigmatic throughout the sessions--along with the cumulative weight of the other references, come to convince the reader at length that a revival of "hard" SF is currently under way). But perhaps for that very reason it provides a fresh and stimulating focus for developing new problems (always the most interesting result of theoretical discussions). It is not, one wants to say at once, a replay of the older debates, if only because the newer "hard science" fiction (Benford, again) has little in common with the Golden Age variety, while the newer "soft" SF has even less in common with its equivalent in that period (Bradbury? Van Vogt?). Oddly, however, although some interesting new distinctions emerge in these discussions (Brin reminds us of the potentially very useful distinction between a "scientific" and an "engineering" SF), there is surprisingly little acknowledgment here of what seems to be the crucial fact of life for discussions of science in other areas (in the history of science, in Marxism, in the question of the relationship of scientific models to philosophy or historiography): namely, the conception of a "great transformation" in the very character and operations of science itself today. Actually the proposition comes in two forms: either that science as it is pursued today is operationally and qualitatively very different from what it was during the heyday of Positivism, not to speak of Newton or Galileo; or, alternatively, that it was always practiced this way but that this essentially "anarchistic" character of scientific praxis (Feyerabend) was until now obscured by a whole range of philosophical or pseudo-philosophical ideologies of science (among which Positivism is only the most notorious). If either of these propositions is so, then perhaps in conjunction with them the evolution and the transformations of "scientific" SF can usefully be illuminated. (To be sure, some of the contributors to the Slusser-Rabkin volume do take cognizance of the other key feature of contemporary accounts of science, namely the fact of the scientific community, the social basis of science; but obviously that fact has itself changed greatly since the founding of the English Royal Academy in 1662.)

I myself tend to find the focus of the symposium slightly blurred. For one thing, it could have used an infusion of some of the European concerns that I denigrated earlier--and particularly some attention to the "semiotics" of the narrative discourse of  "hard" SF and how that discourse produces its effects, which are surely not without some relationship to the referential illusion (we have to have, as in the historical novel or film, some sense that the "laws" in question lead a life outside the text). But mainly I would suggest that there is something a little too defensive in the stance reflected in James Gunn's title, "The Readers of Hard Science Fiction," which first presupposes a hostile audience consisting of the readers of something else out there and then speaks from within the "scientific" faction in what has to remain an apologetic (no matter how belligerently the particular writer stages it). Again speaking for myself, I don't quite think that that is an accurate model: my private analogy would be with some of the debates within Marxism that turn on "orthodoxy," especially vis-à-vis Brecht's notion of plumpes Denken ("crude thinking," the vulgar approach) which suggests that even the most subtle and abstruse forms of neo-Marxism must adhere to some hard core of "vulgar" or "orthodox" Marxism to remain Marxist at all. Something like this may have its equivalent in SF, and I would be tempted to suggest that even within the most devoted reader of "soft" SF--of sociological SF, "new wave" aestheticism, the "contemporaries" from Dick to the present-- there has to persist some ultimate "hard-core" commitment to old-fashioned "scientific" SF for the object to preserve its identity and not to dissolve back into Literature, Fantasy, or whatever.

My own experience of the specific pleasures of hard SF seem to turn on the experience of discovery, the Great Deduction (or is it induction or abduction, I never remember)--an experience not at all as closely related to the problem-solving form of detective stories as one might imagine. There are, for instance, the climactic moments of Brunner's extraordinary Total Eclipse, or of Lem's Eden or The Invincible, or even the more conjectural climax of Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. All of these, I think, involve a mimesis of scientific discovery, although the alert reader will have noticed that in all the books I mention, it is a question of the discovery of the nature of alien life (the discovery of physical laws does not seem to work as well, at least not for me)--and that is perhaps a kind of cheating (to which I will return in a moment). But perhaps this kind of content explains why I find the engineering/science distinction attractive, since the "solutions" of the former are so different in their appeal from the "great deductions" of the latter (if Niven is ranged in the engineering category, then clearly I like that too, although The Mote in God's Eye also has a kinship with the "discovery" novels I've mentioned above). At any rate, I miss this kind of discussion, both more personal (since it must start from our own reactions to various kinds of books) and more Aristotelian (since it does very specifically raise the issue of kinds, however clumsily).

The conception of a multiplicity of "kinds" or genres, however, would have helped us escape from the dualism which tends to menace this Eaton symposium at every turn in the path--the inevitable moment in which the "opposite" of "hard SF" is sought (and found in various places). The contributors are well aware of the double-bind into which they have been locked (or programmed), and they complain about it, worry it, try to shake it off without avail, knowing that it will eventually turn everything back into yet another discussion of the "two cultures" type--at its most innocuous, "science" vs. the "humanities," and at its most ominous, Pournelle's vacuous glorification of violence vs. Le Guin's humanism and all its anti-urban and anti-scientific bias (but let's also take a minute to applaud her for her militancy and for continuing to say the things she says and to attack the things she attacks). Benford's political permutation scheme (left/right, statist/anti-statist) is an interesting way of staging all this and of bringing out its political implications; but what he finally ends up demonstrating is that all these dualisms (including the hard/soft one) are essentially ideologies--and ideological double-binds, at that--within which we should refuse to situate ourselves. The other and more Hegelian approach to such dualisms is Slusser's, stunningly executed in his concluding essay, which develops a complex dialectic from the standpoint of each of the opposing terms. This makes for the richest review of the debate in question; but it also inevitably steers us towards a synthesis (Benford) which not all readers may find satisfying or definitive.

I have had to omit mention of a number of worthwhile essays (on the city, on computers, on information theory in Lem, etc.), but want to single out three which do seem to steer us in a somewhat different direction. First of all, there is the remarkable "archaeological" piece on 17th-century "popular science" or "cosmology" by Alkon, who begins to raise the issue of discourse itself (sounded above and then again postponed)--the issue of the essentially narrative character of seemingly scientific exposition, as, for example, in a writer like Burnet, author of The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681). Next is a forthright piece by Huntington, who returns the whole issue of "hard" SF to its proper place among the ideologies of science. And finally, there is the virtually monograph-length study by Philmus on Lem's "cybernetic paradigms" which seems to me to move us towards questions that Philmus does not explicitly raise as such, but which I have already mentioned here--i.e., concerning the semiotic status of the content of hard SF. SF of that sort necessarily involves the construction of something like a "referent," the outside reality which the reader is called upon to project out there somehow, even if the point is to be, as with Lem, that that "referent" is undecidable and unknowable. Still, the writer must cunningly put this infernal machine together with his language--and that certainly entails a kind of cheating, whether aesthetic, discursive, or ideological (Huntington scores an effective point on something similar when, speaking of the ideological proposition of "The Cold Equations"--that the laws of the universe are fixed and cannot be changed by mortals--he observes: "after all, there is one person 'in the universe' who could change such things, and that is the author himself"). The aesthetic problem of such "referential" construction is related to that of some of the literary existentialisms (most notably, to the structure of Sartre's Nausea, which has to use words to show that they don't work); and perhaps the disappearance of narrative in Lem's work of the late '60s and '70s is (like the "plotlessness" of Nausea) a recognition of this aesthetic dilemma, which must use "sense" to construct "reference" and language to construct some non-linguistic "reality" on which language and thinking is not supposed to be able to "take." At any rate, what I am getting at is an aesthetic and a linguistic dilemma which is also historical; it happens at a certain moment of the genre as such, and ought therefore ideally to direct our attention both towards history and towards the generic problems of SF (specifically including "hard" SF) as "discourse."

I come back to this because of my ultimate discontent with the theoretical frame of the Eaton symposium, which stages our current dilemma in terms of a distinction within SF (hard and soft), whereas I would have thought the most urgent matter was the demarcation of SF from all those things which it is not but which increasingly impinge on it: fantasy, on the one hand, and the "bestseller" or 450-page "major novel" format on the other. Surely the issue of science in SF is strategically crucial in the first of these generic distinctions at the very least: whatever "fantasy" is, some far more constitutive repudiation of science is at work within it than in anything here termed "soft" SF. But oddly, this topic is never raised (nor is the related one of feminist SF and fantasy). As for the even more appalling "major novel" syndrome, I don't know that we have begun to discuss that openly (the problem is not the same as that of series novels); but it is certain that many of our best SF writers are being ruined by this temptation (including some writers of "hard" SF--another very basic historical change from the Golden Age, and thus, I would have thought, at least a minimally relevant topic here).

Still, the collection is exciting for raising issues about the production of SF today; and it may therefore be not at all irrelevant to conclude with a note on yet a third volume, which, like the Belgian collection, is European and theoretical-historical but is also very much concerned, like the American one, with contemporary production. I am referring, of course, to the publication, edited by Kasack, of studies by West German scholars on East European SF--and not only to the historical or archeological essays in it (informative pieces on Bogdanov and Eherenburg and Capek), but even to those concerned with the lineage of contemporary Eastern SF and the role of the early utopias or dystopias in that (living) tradition. The book also contains a welcome article on Aitmatov's 1980 novel The Day Lasts More Than One Hundred Years (to use the title of Indiana UP's 1983 translation); an inconclusive but interesting interview with Arkady Strugatsky (he tells us that the religious and allegorical Tarkovsky film Stalker took that form because the first, more faithful version of Roadside Picnic shot by the film-maker proved technically unusable); an able and useful review of Polish SF by Rottensteiner; and finally, a 40-page bibliography of criticism of Soviet, Polish, and Czech SF.

Kasack's is not a particularly theoretical volume; still, it raises one fundamental issue not even touched on in the other two collections, an issue explicitly treated in Christine Engel's initial paper. Her essay serves to dispel an ethnocentric illusion that we are often oblivious to-- indeed, an illusion that my own remarks thus far have accepted. She reminds us that in the world today there exist not two types of SF (viz., the living and "popular" American mass-cultural tradition and the isolated and "literary" European texts) but three. The third, as "popular" and widely read as the American, nevertheless originates not in the commercial pulps but rather in a tradition of political pedagogy or didactic art (and beyond that, perhaps, in the peasant fairy-tale). This third type primarily comprises Soviet SF (or nauchnaya fantastika --"scientific fantasy"), and its best works are by no means to be limited to "dissidence" and the disguised critique of the "state." "Unlike you," says its principal practitioner in the interview already cited, "we believe that communism will eventually become a reality." Engel's rather rudimentary comparisons between two traditions (Soviet and American) are as useful a beginning as her projected "synthesis" is: an SF uniting the moral commitment of the Soviet tradition with the elaborate narrativity and excitement of the American. What is therapeutic about that synthesis, particularly for readers concerned with "alternate worlds," is its recognition of the existence elsewhere today of an "alternative" SF culture, one radically different from our own.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)  Back to Home