Science Fiction Studies

#109 = Volume 36, Part 3 = November 2009

Roger Luckhurst

The Productive Convergence of SF Criticism and Critical Theory

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. xi + 317 pp. $35 hc.

This book has been a long time coming. For those who have read Csicsery-Ronay’s incisive essays, reviews, and commentaries in Science Fiction Studies and elsewhere for twenty years, this book has been a really long time coming. And, you know, I need to take at least some of the blame for that. I sent my first piece to SFS in 1991 when I was still a blissfully ignorant grad student. Instead of a clip round the ear, as you might reasonably expect, Istvan, one of the new generation of editors, opened a dialogue about an essay that got steadily better with each draft. The time taken over my rookie prose improved my understanding, not just of sf or critical theory or postmodernism, but also of the academic profession as a sphere of argument, negotiation, and collaboration. Multiply this engagement with however many contributors over the years and one can soon grasp where the time went: helping to shape a generation of scholars in the sf discipline.               

Was it worth the wait? The great news is that you can stop struggling with Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005), that odd, frustrating, and symptomatically obscure tome. Throw it over your shoulder. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is instead the apotheosis of that influential strand of criticism that examines the convergence of broadly postmodern critical theory with sf. Jameson fluffs his lines, in part because he reads so little in the genre and his critical frameworks have become so inflexible, his prose so tortured by unstated agendas and rigid political demands for art. In place of this murky rhetorical performance, Csicsery-Ronay lucidly reveals the rich and diverse analytic potential of this mode for understanding sf within contemporary technoscientific culture. The book overflows with insights, striking readings, provocative stances, productive ambiguities, and eminently quotable phrases, almost to the extent of losing coherence. The introduction warns early on that the book is “not intended to be a systematic exposition of a theory of sf” (9), that instead it is a “constellation” or “map of suggestions” (10). Seven Beauties strains the formal structure of the monograph, reading like a palimpsest of ideas that have been tried out and refined in the essays and reviews produced across the last two decades. The finished product, one suspects, is merely a snapshot that froze a matrix of thought at a certain moment; the kaleidoscope could easily have produced a different pattern. In an era of monographs relentlessly pursuing the single thesis, this overflow of multiple approaches and ideas is to be embraced, even whilst some of its limits are acknowledged. Yet what the book offers is a vindication of the productive convergence of sf criticism and critical theory, once thought so controversial.

The bracing challenge of the book begins with the title. Beauty is not a term associated with sf; indeed, beauty as a normative category of taste in aesthetics is more likely to be defined against the lowly pleasures of popular or mass-cultural forms. To promise seven beauties of the genre is therefore provoking. There is also a Kantian joke here (and those are pretty rare). The taxonomy of seven beauties contains two chapters on the sublime and grotesque, categories that are defined by their very transgression of the decorum of the beautiful. It suggests that there has been a conscious structuring principle not only to invoke a taxonomic ambition to delineate an expanded aesthetic of sf but also to explode or undermine that ambition. The title is in fact borrowed from a twelfth-century mystical Persian poem, an episodic exploration of seven cosmic principles played out in seven different spaces. This echo hints at a core argument of the book: that accounts of sf relying solely on its cognitive, rational, or analytic virtues will need to think about supplementing this approach by attention to the affective and even religious elements that sf can provide its readerships. In this book, beauty does a lot of work.

The introduction is a resounding statement of the central cultural relevance of sf in what is called “This Moment.” For Csicsery-Ronay, sf provides the narrative and iconographic templates best suited to grasping the “daily transformations” of technoscience. More, This Moment is typified by a bleeding of the science-fictional into the world that has, since the 1960s, reached the end of nature and risen to a new order of technological saturation that he calls “artificial immanence.” The object in question is less sf than “science fictionality,” “neither a belief nor a model, but rather a mood or attitude, a way of entertaining incongruous experiences” in fully technologized environments (3). Csicery-Ronay’s contention that sf is less a genre than a “mode of apprehension” has been central to his work at least since his essay “The SF of Theory” in 1991. In our technologically saturated world, the cultural value of sf is that it navigates between providing the language to articulate “the current global hegemony of science” and the ability to operate as a form of refusal, play with possible future scenarios, or critique. It is “a ludic framework, a wide-ranging culture of game and play, in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted” (10). Sf is a “complex hesitation” (4) then, which means that its cultural work cannot be explained with a single thesis or the routine critical business of sorting progressive from reactionary forms. Things are immensely more subtle than this. The introduction offers a strong defense of the genre, although it ties this relevance almost entirely to contemporary (post-1960) culture, risking a kind of presentism. Perhaps more oddly, the book that follows does not seem especially interested in science-fictionality as such, sf in an expanded definition, but instead presents a narrower concern to map out an aesthetic centered on avowedly canonical literary works of sf. The prospect of expanding into gaming or virtual worlds and their new narratives, or of comparative work with national traditions beyond the Anglo-American, is raised as an urgent project only to be reluctantly shelved at the very end of the introduction. What follows takes the rather traditional shape of an aesthetic taxonomy for literary sf, albeit of a theoretically turbocharged kind.                

Seven beauties in seven densely argued chapters. The first, “Fictive Neology,” explores how sf creates the reality-effect for its imagined futures through initially disorienting neologisms or the coining of new “technolects.” This is a disarmingly formalist start, beginning at the level of the linguistics of the science-fictional sentence. The book states its intention to rebuild things from the ground up. Csicsery-Ronay touches base with the central literary experiments in neology (Orwell’s Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949], Burgess’s invented future-slang in Clockwork Orange [1962], Hoban’s post-apocalyptic language in Riddley Walker [1980], and so on) and discusses the expected instances where new words articulate new concepts that challenge ideological constructs embedded in grammatical usage (the famous instance of the transitional gender state “kemmer” in Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness [1969]). These capsule readings are always smart and always laced with pleasingly eccentric illustrative material: the Martian language invented by the medium Hélène Smith in the 1890s that so confounded the psychologist Theodore Flournoy; a commentary on the invention of Klingon for Star Trek by the academic expert in Amerindian languages, Mark Okrand. There is a very loose historical framework, suggesting that early sf used only limited neologisms, employing conventional language, the frequency of neologisms increasing as technological innovation, linguistic conventions, and the megatext of generic futures expanded. As often happens in the book, an apotheosis of sorts is reached in the 1980s, when rapid technological innovation and transformation of everyday life result in a convergence of fictional and scientific neology, sf writers and scientific experts entering into a frenetic mutual exchange of languages for the barely just invented. William Gibson’s “technolyricism” exemplifies the “feverish linguistic atmosphere” (26) of this moment, uneasily intertwining with a countercultural critique, a figuration of the technosphere influentially adopted by computer industries. Gibson is the touchstone in this argument as he is elsewhere, although there is surprisingly little sustained treatment of the cyberpunk trilogy. Csicsery-Ronay’s earlier important essays on Neuromancer (1984)and Count Zero (1986),for instance, are not integrated into the architecture of the book; the arguments presented there about Gibson’s apparent commitment to “modernist nostalgics” only surface fleetingly along the way.                

After the formalism of neology, the second beauty, “Fictive Novums,” constitutes the major conceptual engagement with Darko Suvin’s definition of sf as a literature of cognitive estrangement through the introduction of fictional novums. This is a kind of Oedipal struggle with SFS’s founding father and with the particular neo-Hegelian Marxist critical mode that dominated the first two decades of SFS criticism. On the one hand, Csicsery-Ronay is clearly indebted to Suvin’s crucial insight that the novum can help define the cultural and critical specificity of sf. (One might also describe the theoretical stance of the book as residually Marxist.) On the other hand, this chapter offers a brilliant counter-reading of the novum that identifies everything that limits Suvin’s elaboration of the concept. As Csicsery-Ronay observes, Suvin borrows the novum from Ernst Bloch’s pre-war Marxist theory, as that which is “unexpectedly new, which pushes humanity out of its present toward the not yet realized” (47). The imagination of the future, or even of a different present in popular detective fictions, for instance, was for Bloch a resource of hope. Like Walter Benjamin’s, Bloch’s work on utopia and hope was saturated with Jewish messianic and mystical elements. These aspects Suvin ruthlessly suppresses, insisting that the novum always be strictly cognitive, meaning rational and scientific, but also, crucially, that it belong to a strict Marxist program of critique. What begins as a descriptive term becomes a prescriptive and punitive concept that condemns the majority of sf for its various transgressions into the fantastic and the uncanny, since the only acceptable route for the imagination is to instantiate the lessons of materialist rationality. Suvin’s writings resemble Medieval taxonomies of heresies, obsessively described, the prospective punishments for transgression deliciously detailed. Csicsery-Ronay is typically more generous than this, refusing to limit imaginative possibilities. He defines the novum as “a device that creates a playful vertigo of free possibility in response to radical imaginary changes in readers’ consensus physical and ethical worlds” (57). The trajectory cannot be pre-determined: the possibilities include fully elaborated rational critiques, but also gothic horrors and fantastic transformations irrecuperable to critique.                

This means that Csicsery-Ronay can have intelligent things to say about the glorious irrational lunacies of “sci-fi” entertainments without having to use the language of condemnation. He has elsewhere offered a superb set of reflections on the cognitive and affective enablements of fantasy against the dismissals voiced by Suvin and such Suvinian Marxists as Carl Freedman, attitudes disappointingly parroted by Fredric Jameson in Archaeologies. I constantly cite Csicsery-Ronay’s argument against this “cognitive” rationale for dismissal: “The value of much fantastic fiction may be in the respect it pays to the enormous paradox of living history that cannot be expressed as history, but only as myth or the repudiation of rational explanation” (“Lucid Dreams” 295). In book form, the focus is kept rigorously on sf. Here, Csicsery-Ronay notes the limits of a Suvinian theory unable to deal with complex, “multinovum” sf, such as Philip K Dick’s work from the 1960s, where the novels can offer a “chaotic interplay ... in which the only comprehensive novum is the indeterminate and volatile relationship among several autonomous novums” (70). These proliferating novums in Dick or contemporary fiction by Paul McAuley or China Miéville tend towards the phantasmagoric rather than a critique that simply mirrors one’s own cherished political project. Implicitly again, the complexity of contemporary sf outstrips concepts built for an earlier age of generic development (single novum “thought experiments” being typical of the pre-1960 short story that dominated the magazine form, Csicsery-Ronay suggests). The insights in this chapter offer a convincing reinvigoration of the concept of the novum, stripped of Suvin’s limited conceptualization.                

Another surprise within this aesthetic taxonomy is how often Csicsery-Ronay employs formal schemata to organize his chapters. The third beauty, “Future History,” is essentially a schema of narrative forms for unfolding futures in genre sf. There is a great pedagogical clarity to this chapter, which explores why imagined futures possess less weight than historical or realist fictions until modernity begins to accelerate in the late nineteenth century. He offers a crisply articulated justification for reading a genre that addresses the shock of perpetual revolution alongside cultural forms more interested in trying to find narrative salves for this wounding speed. Sf emerges out of such territory: “Modernity is conditioned by this overdetermined dialectic in which historical continuity is fractured by new kinds of knowledge and technique, which then make possible the reconstruction of civilization in a secular, future time” (81). Csicsery-Ronay then suggests a three-fold schema for narrative formulations of future history: revolution, evolution, and dispersive futures. Revolution ruptures the future from the past with clean breaks and firewalls, envisioning new orders typical of the utopia. Evolution provides the great nineteenth-century gradualist meta-narrative that can unite natural, social, and technological development under an allegedly indifferent cosmic principle. Progressive perfectibility motors some of the great ideologues of evolution, from Julian Huxley’s synthesis of Darwin and Mendel to Ray Kurzweil’s posthuman ecstasies and also some of the central grand future visions of sf. The impish H.G. Wells, at least in the 1890s, undercuts this vision with ambiguous narratives of devolution and decline. Dispersive futures are those that refuse unitary or linear future trajectories and imply multiple, chaotic trajectories. These reflect less confidence in meta-narratives (echoing Jean-François Lyotard’s famous incredulity towards Marxian or Hegelian models of a single trajectory for the future), the fracturing and niche marketing of post-Fordist capitalism, or the non-linear, plural relativism introduced into the study of culture by post-Victorian anthropology. Complexity again favors sf from the post-1945 era, and particularly work since the 1960s. Csicsery-Ronay suggests in a familiar argument that genre sf reaches a certain point of self-consciousness from which it then can knowingly, and often ironically, use “the archive of obsolete futures” (98). This owes much to Jameson’s postmodern reflections on history, now reduced in his view to a set of styles available only for pastiche or ironic recirculation. Within this framework, the chapter ends with a couple of really useful mini-essays on “Alternative Histories” and “Retrofutures,” models of incisive reflection on striking trends within the genre that are symptoms of a condition of temporal disadjustment.                

The fourth beauty, “Imaginary Science,” returns to more thematic and conceptual engagements. The central contention is that whilst science is sf’s pretext, it is fatal to the playfulness of fiction to demand that sf conform to the protocols of scientific proof (or even, more loosely, scientific method). The educative potential of sf’s scientific rigor has long been a defense of the genre, variously argued by Verne, Wells, Gernsback, Campbell, Heinlein, and others. It remains lurking in Suvin’s insistence on “cognitive” critique, too, and Csicsery-Ronay has some sharp things to say about such “extratextual demands” in Suvinian sf criticism. Scientific rigor is a weak and ultimately self-abnegating defense for a cultural form, since no imaginative fiction could ever survive strict adherence to these protocols. Rather than dismiss it out of hand, however, Csicsery-Ronay argues that “science fiction is an oxymoron that names a productive tension” in which the fiction riffs on scientific ideas and speculations, yet always in “a ludic mode to affirm the freedom of the artistic imagination” (112). It therefore takes its parameters from technoscience (this is why it retains its association with geeks and nerds), but engages in games of consent and transgression with accepted scientific and technical knowledge. More than this, sf can be a cultural place that processes emergent newness, providing narrative shapes and ethical inquiries for potentially shocking or transformative breakthroughs. Thus, in another eminently quotable formulation, sf “engages the worldview of scientific materialism and supplements it with quasi-mythic narrative to make models relevant to cultures on the ground” (116). Some of the most productive conceptual work in this chapter derives from Tatiana Chernyshova’s wonderful SFS essay “Science Fiction and Myth Creation in our Age” (2004)—indeed, there are substantial chunks of citation generously inserted into the middle portion of the chapter. This work allows sf to be theorized as a form of “free myth” or as a prosthetic machinery, giving narrative or iconic body to proleptic scientific and technological speculations. By the era of cyberspace and nanotechnology, Csicsery-Ronay argues, the feedback loops between science and fiction make the borders between them sometimes difficult to determine. William Gibson maps out a mythic terrain of cowboys and frontiersmen that an industry then geekishly rushes to occupy; nanotechnologists write brochures for prospective investors and government funding bodies that read like a Greg Bear novel.               

Towards the end of this chapter, Csicsery-Ronay observes that Enlightenment and Romantic philosophy was thoroughly intertwined with scientific developments. Progressive specialization and professionalization in science (and cultural study) have meant the separation of current critical theory from science. He reads the French poststructuralists as engaged in writing an ironic counter-discourse, working to subvert the dominance of technoscience in the contemporary world. Their post-philosophy seeks that which exceeds positivist quantification of the world (Derrida’s supplement, Deleuze’s de-territorialized energies, Lyotard’s “inhuman,” etc.). Their discourse resists the scientistic demands for empirical proof or zero-degree linguistic transparency. Csicsery-Ronay has typically read different critical theorists as writing forms of science fiction (it began with Baudrillard and Haraway, and has since swept up texts like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire [2000]). To see these as “powerful examples of meta-science fictional détournement”(144) is a brilliant inversion. It means that sf is not to be legitimized by being processed through the latest critical theory fad, but rather that critical theory is read as a symptom, alongside sf, of a technoscientific world. Yet, although absorbed and fascinated by science, Csicsery-Ronay does still share some of that post-Marxist/structuralist animosity towards science that bears the traces of “two cultures” hostility, something perhaps fueled by the “Science Wars” of the 1990s. In this chapter, it is self-evident that value accrues to the liberties of the imagination: it escapes “the constraints of deterministic and oppressively systematic ideas” associated with science (112). The very last pages of the book refer to “the technoscientific empire” and “the domination of technoscience” (265). Systematic ideas can be pretty useful, as the taxonomic elements of this book demonstrate: they need not be always deterministic or oppressive. And I would hesitate to suggest that there is a singular “technoscientific empire” or that within it there is some unified ideology. Even the dark conspiracy of the military-industrial complex imagined by Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) was more plural, complex, and riven than this. Missing here is any engagement with science studies, perhaps particularly the work of Bruno Latour, who has done much to wrestle the messy activity of sciences (plural, lower-case practices) from the Science (the singular, capitalized monolith) as remorselessly promoted by head-banging ideologues like Richard Dawkins. Csicsery-Ronay has certainly got beyond the uniform condemnation of the institutions and practices of science typified by Marxist critics such as Stanley Aronowitz, but there are still traces of this suspicion. Perhaps it is the subsequent generation of critics who carry less baggage: a good place to start on this new work might be Sherryl Vint’s introduction to science studies in the new Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (2009).                

The fifth and sixth beauties, the Sublime and the Grotesque, are paired studies that do important work in trying to articulate the affectivepleasures of sf that have been so overlooked during the dominance of cognitive models of criticism. The two concepts are configured in inverse relation. The sublime is a response to the shock of a sudden expansion, the encounter with the overwhelmingly vast or new that prompts a crisis of cognitive grasp but which (in Kantian theory at least) is ultimately introjected and mastered. The grotesque is a result of the shock that familiar objects are transforming or spilling over conventional categories, a transgression that prompts a horror or revulsion usually managed by projection outwards or abjection (Julia Kristeva’s term for the revolted expulsion that is nevertheless constitutive of the subject). The sublime is typical of the science-fictional “sense of wonder.” The grotesque is typical of Gothic horror, but is now often attached to the transgressive conflation of human, animal, and machine in the hybrid zone of Gothic sf. Once more, Csicsery-Ronay organizes the chapters as a taxonomy. A capsule reading of Frankenstein (1818)suggests how the reader is shuttled between the sublime and grotesque over the body of the scientific monster, beginning an ambivalence that resonates throughout modernity. Whilst carefully delineating how sf needs to be understood as something tied to technological developments after Kant—using David Nye’s theory of the American technological sublime to track how sublimity migrates from natural to technological worlds—Csicsery-Ronay does use Kant’s categories of the mathematical sublime to read Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) and the dynamical sublime to read The Matrix (1999). (The switch to sf cinema comes with only the passing suggestion that visual culture is a stronger vehicle for registering the affective modes now subject to analysis.) The second chapter breaks genuine new ground in using Geoffrey Harpham’s definition of the grotesque to navigate around the convergence of genres viciously segregated in the Suvinian paradigm. The grotesque thus accounts for category disturbances from Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), via cyborgs, to the fusions suggested by the Alienquartet of films (1979-1997).                

After these densely theorized chapters the seventh beauty, called “The Technologiade” (a coinage on the model of the “Robinsonade”), is, weirdly enough, the most formalist chapter of all. The genre of the technologiade is defined as “the epic of the struggle surrounding the transformation of the cosmos into a technological regime” (217). This is divided into the expansive space opera and the intensive “techno-Robinsonade,” which retools the modern adventure tale, the bourgeois epic of world-construction, on a cosmic scale. What happens then is a surprise: Csicsery-Ronay dusts off narrative morphology, of the kind practiced by Vladimir Propp on the Russian folk-tale, and offers his own “drastically simplified abstraction” of the technologiade through a schemata of character types (the handy man, the fertile corpse, the willing slave, the shadow mage, etc.). This is the sort of abstracted model typical of basic grammars of genre proposed by critics such as John Clute or Farah Mendlesohn. These models can be incredibly enabling but always feel at least semi-arbitrary, generating all kinds of problems and anomalies that are actually products of their own structural method. Such a formal/structural approach seems rather rudimentary after the sophistication of the previous chapters. Placed last (where it might have been positioned earlier, perhaps after Neology), it tends only to reinforce the sense that the book is a patchwork of registers and approaches, stuffed with more insights than a dozen other books on sf, but whose trajectories are sometimes difficult to puzzle out.                

The conclusion confronts how the book has consistently suggested that theories of the Singularity exemplify Csicsery-Ronay’s argument but that no sustained reading of singularity and post-singularity fiction has been offered in the Seven Beauties. A four-page conclusion cannot hope to do that either: entitled “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” it is generous and open to future developments. This unconcluding conclusion also articulated for me my greatest worry about an otherwise very brilliant book. The defense of the genre mounted here is one that intrinsically ties its value to being the privileged artistic form that can address the bewildering, technologically-mediated experience of advanced Western modernity. It is anxious to claim that sf is at the cutting edge of contemporaneity: the introduction, after all, is called “Science Fiction and This Moment.” Yet presentism is a dangerous thing: as soon as one writes “this moment” it is already past, already “that moment.” The lack of space given to singularity fiction, that trend of works written in the wake of Vernor Vinge’s famous essay on the technological singularity in 1993, means that this critical book is already not quite coincident with the contemporary genre. The hero of Seven Beauties is undoubtedly William Gibson: Neuromancer commonly returns as a kind of apotheosis in nearly every chapter. Needless to say, whilst Neuromancer was received as bringing sf into the center of cultural theory, it is now twenty-five years old and represents only one element of a complex and multiform field. Gibson’s ambivalent relation to genre has only intensified; like Ballard before him, he can appear to exemplify a field that, arguably, he never really entered. His breakthrough novel was also coincident with a theory of postmodernism that is now looking like the historical emanation of a particular conjuncture of economics, conservative politics, and the place of critical theory in the academy that was very specific to the 1980s. Csicsery-Ronay’s theoretical framework is sometimes very Jamesonian—very eighties, in other words. There are lots of gestures towards contemporary sf, but very few detailed readings of books from the last twenty years. The risk, then, is that this book ties sf to a moment of apotheosis that is already past. This is what the cutting-edge, presentist defense will always risk—and it is perhaps what has also ironically delayed the publication of Seven Beauties, since, as Csicsery-Ronay fears in his first pages, he must always be running to catch up because he is always already out of date, a steampunk critic, retrofitted to a contemporary situation that has morphed beyond capture.                

The very great insights of this book did not need to be married to this presentism. At least three of these chapters are pedagogical beauties that deserve to be given to all students and critics of the genre because of their wonderfully crisp and orderly formulations, the product of a lifetime of reading deep into the history of the genre. Another three include genuinely new, exciting work at the very forefront of sf criticism and are littered with conceptual bombs that will be exploding in my head for many years to come. I hope that Csicsery-Ronay will publish some of his earlier essays in a separate collection, where it would be possible to track the shift of his attention from postmodern paradigms towards his more recent concerns with the post-national, the matter of Empire, Japanese sf, and also his new work on animals and kindred species. I also hope that the prospect of a different kind of mapping of contemporary sf, hinted at in the introduction, an investigation of new narrative multiplicities in television arcs and gaming worlds, and a new sense of the globality of sf, will be forthcoming. I will stop short of advocating that everyone stop sending in material to SFS in orderto give Istvan the time to write, but please do stand back, stand back: give the doctor the space he needs to work.

Chernyshova, Tatiana. “Science Fiction and Myth Creation in our Age.” SFS 31.3 (Nov. 2004): 345-57.
Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “The SF of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway.” SFS 18.3 (Nov. 1991): 387-404.
─────. “The Sentimental Futurist: Cybernetics and Art in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.” Critique 33.3 (Nov. 1991): 221-40.
─────. “Antimancer: Cybernetics and Art in Gibson’s Count Zero.” SFS 22.1 (Mar. 1995): 63-86.
─────. “Lucid Dreams, or Flightless Birds on Rooftops?” SFS 30.2 (July 2003): 288-304.
─────. “Science Fiction and Empire.” SFS 30.2 (July 2003): 231-45.
Vint, Sherryl. “Science Studies.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint. London: Routledge, 2009. 413-22.

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