The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction

The big critical work on the Masterclass reading list, this. so as you can see from that schedule I’m taking it chapter by chapter; the aim not to review it so much as to annotate it with my thoughts. Per the comments, I’m going to post about the first and last sections, and get through as much of the rest as possible. But first: as the book itself has a preface, so I give you a prefatory post.

(1) What the book does and does not attempt, as set out in its preface: “The main purpose of this book is to inspire better ones, not to have the last word” may be fairly standard boilerplate, but we also get:

  • “My greatest challenge has been to design arguments that will account for both refined artistic examples of sf and the popular commodity forms of “sci-fi”.”
  • “My goal is to understand science fictionality as a way of thinking about the world, made concrete in many different media and styles, rather than as a particular market niche or genre category”

We also get this: “My ‘beauties’ … are perhaps cognitive attractions, intellectual gravitational fields that draw our attention. They are perhaps mental schemes, through which we organize our thinking. They are perhaps tools for thought, so well made that we admire their design at the very moment we are using them.” And I’ll try to take them in that spirit.

(2) The table of contents:

  • Preface
  • Science Fiction and This Moment
  • First Beauty: Fictive Neology
  • Second Beauty: Fictive Novums
  • Third Beauty: Future History
  • Fourth Beauty: Imaginary Science
  • Fifth Beauty: The Science-Fictional Sublime
  • Sixth Beauty: The Science-Fictional Grotesque
  • Seventh Beauty: The Technologiade
  • Concluding Unscientific Postscript: The Singularity and Beyond

I should also note, perhaps, that if you want to play along at home it looks like you can read a decent chunk of the book via Google Books. And there’s what looks like a very early version of some of the thinking that went into the book in this SFS article, from 1996.

(3) Resources. Or, mostly, reviews.

(Roger Luckhurst also has a review in SFS, but that won’t be online for another seven months or so. Curses!)

Tools of the Trade

From Farah Mendlesohn’s review of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction:

Yet, as we shall see, Csicsery-Ronay succeeds in incorporating movies successfully only in his chapters on the science-fiction sublime and the grotesque, and, within that, in his discussion on the visual forms. While I accept his arguments (and those of other critics) that sf cinema and games, among other forms, are becoming the dominant cultural conception of what sf is, their values are so different, or so skewed in a specific direction that it seems to me ‘accommodation’ is neither enough nor appropriate, that the tools applied to literary forms of science fiction can only leave the impression that the non-literary forms are inadequate, and that it is past time that the academic community withdrew from a theory of everything in this field, and acknowledge instead that there are separate and immensely valuable critical approaches which place cinema and gaming and graphic novels at the centre, and leave the literary beyond the Pale when viewed through their filters

I actually said something related to Richard last week, that part of the reason I don’t write much about films or TV is that I feel I lack the vocabulary to talk about them seriously: that is, to address their specifically filmic or televisual aspects. So I’m sympathetic to the argument here (and to the criticism of Seven Beauties; although it hinges on what you mean by incorporating “successfully”, and I would allow some of the instances excluded in the review as successful), even as I’m also sympathetic to those critics arguing that visual modes of sf are culturally dominant, and feel that I should write more about film and TV. On the other hand, I can’t be so absolutist as to state that a primarily literary understanding of sf will inevitably cast non-literary forms as inadequate, or indeed vice versa. See, for example, Gattaca, Primer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, films with goals not very different from the types of literary sf I tend to enjoy; and is a generic sf action flick any less “inadequate” as serious sf, or inadequate for radically different reasons, than your average Neal Asher novel? It’s not as though “academics” are out on a limb in placing sf films within essentially the same framework as sf books, either. Not for nothing is the fannish crack about the former being at least a decade behind the latter so familiar. Nor, I think, is it possible to deny that the relationship is a two-way street, and that we have seen an increasing amount of cinema-influenced sf. So I end up thinking that accomodation actually is the correct approach (and that I want to read more film criticism) — that there are enough points of overlap between the two modes to make co-consideration useful, as long as the non-overlapping points are not ignored. Agree? Disagree?

Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass 2010

This just dropped into my inbox:

Science Fiction Foundation announces SF Criticism Masterclass for 2010

Class Leaders:
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay
Roz Kaveney
Justina Robson

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the fourth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2010.

Dates: 11th June to 13th June 2010

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon).

Delegate costs will be £180 per person, excluding accommodation.
Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is available from the administrator (farah.sf@gmail.com)

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at farah.sf@gmail.com. Applicants will be asked to provide a CV and writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Paul Kincaid, Adam Roberts.

Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2010.

Those who have been around a while may remember that I attended this a couple of years ago and had a good time. I didn’t go this year, sadly, in large part because Anticipation and associated travel ate up my holiday budget, but I think I’ll almost certainly be applying for next year. Anyone else considering it?

Quote of the Day

China Mieville:

Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison’s, Leiber’s, Ashton Smith’s and many others’, the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that’s a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen–stories occur–within it.

So dominant is this mode now (as millions of women and men draw millions of maps, and write millions of histories, inventing worlds in which, perhaps, eventually, a few will set stories) that it’s difficult to see what a conceptual shift it represented. And it is so mocked and denigrated–often brilliantly, as in the ferocious attack by M. John Harrison, that outstanding anti-fantasist, wherein he describes worldbuilding as the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism’–that it’s hard to insist that it brings aesthetic and epistemological possibilities to the table that may be valuable and impossible any other way.

This is a debate that needs to be had. These are stories contingent to a world the reader inhabits–full of ‘ideal creations’ that the writer has given, in Tolkien’s words, ‘the inner consistency of reality’. Whatever else it is, that is a strange and unique kind of reading. Tolkien not only performs the trick, indeed arguably inaugurates it, but considers and theorises this process that he calls ‘subcreation’, in his extraordinary essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. It is astounding, and testimony to him, that his ruminations on what is probably now the default ‘fantasy’ mode remain not only seminal but lonely. Whether one celebrates or laments the fact, it is an incredibly powerful literary approach, and the lack of systematic, philosophical and critical attention paid not to this or that example but to ‘subcreation’, world-building, overall, as a technique, is amazing. To my knowledge–and I would be grateful for correction–there is not one book-length theoretical critical work, or collection, investigating the fantastic technique of secondary-world-building–subcreation. This is astounding. In Tolkien, fully 70 years ago, by contrast, we have not only the method’s great vanguard, but still one of its most important and pioneering scholars.

(And four other reasons why “Tolkien rocks”.)

Whither the super-reader?

I’m still slowly working my way through Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, and have reached postcolonial criticism. In true textbook fashion, each chapter includes a “STOP and THINK” section, and this one actually made me do both:

Postcolonial criticism draws attention to issues of cultural difference in literary texts and is one of several critical approaches we have considered which focus on specific issues, including issues of gender (feminist criticism), of class (Marxist criticism), and of sexual orientation (lesbian/gay criticism).

This raises the possibility of a kind of ‘super-reader’ able to respond equally and adequately to a text in all these ways. In practice, for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest.
[…]
Should we, in general, try to become super-readers, with multiple layers of sympathy and awareness, or will trying to do so merely produce blandness and superficiality?

Obviously, it is impossible for anybody to answer this question for anybody else. My own feeling is that while an even spread of awareness across all these issues is theoretically possible, in practice aiming for this, merely in the interests of political correctness, is almost bound to produce superficiality. A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance. These perspectives cannot be put on and off like a suit — they have to emerge and declare themselves with some urgency. (198-9)

Now, Barry’s bias shows through before he declares it — the very term “super-reader” carries connotations of the unattainable, even childish. And when he does declare his bias, he still loads his dice, with that clause about “merely in the interests of political correctness”: yes, obviously aiming to do something merely in the interests of political correctness is doomed to failure.

But leaving that aside, I’m still struck by a number of things. To start with: “for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest”. I’m sceptical of that most (many, I could get behind; but I’m not sure about most), but more than that, this doesn’t seem to leave much room for the idea that a text might shape the way people who read it respond. Surely it is also the case that for most texts, one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest, in either a positive or a negative way. There is a threshold, I think, beyond which reading a text from any particular perspective becomes an act of creation in itself, rather than a useful response to the text; where any given person draws that threshold will vary, but it seems an inevitable limitation of single-perspective criticism.

So I think that limitation has to be put on the other side of the scales to a super-reader’s presumed blandness and superficiality — except, I’m not sure what Barry actually means by those terms, here. The most sensible reading I can come up with is that it comes from what he discusses in his personal opinion paragraph, namely motivation: it’s impossible for anyone to truly care about all these different perspectives at the same time, says Barry, so attempts to accomodate them will of necessity be artificial. There is an extent to which I agree with this (or at least am anxious about it; see below), but I think I disagree with it much more. If nothing else, it’s a position that presumes these different perspectives are indeed separable, and it seems to me that’s only possible in an — pardon me — academic sense. In the real world, and by extension in sufficiently complex texts, they’re going to be interlinked. Parsing them separately has value, but taking that so far as to declare them islands seems damaging.

And then we come down to the nub of it, which is to say Barry’s argument for his position. “A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance.” What is genuine, here? This gets personal: for each of the four perspectives Barry lists in his first paragraph, I fall at the “privilege” end of the spectrum (as, indeed, I do for just about any axis of privilege you care to define). That establishes the terms of my engagement with any of them and, clearly, those terms are never going to be the same as they are for individuals at the other ends. In a real sense, that’s going to limit the depth of my understanding. By the same token, however, the implication is that whenever I do try to adopt one of these perspectives, I will, precisely, be putting it on like a suit; and that my interest can never be “genuine”. Which rather leads you to wonder, why bother?

And the inevitable answer to that is, because I like to think I care. That no one of these critical perspectives seems to declare itself to me with particular urgency — or, put another way, that it costs me nothing to see them as all urgent — is certainly a luxury. I’d like to think it’s a luxury I can take advantage of, though. “Multiple layers of sympathy and awareness” doesn’t seem like a bad thing for me to aspire to, nor does it seem inherently unattainable (though a perfectly even spread of concern surely is). I’d go so far as to say, acknowledging this is as biased a way of putting it as “super-reader”, that to me, right now, it seems the responsible thing to do.

SFRA Award Winners

An email from Lisa Yaszek announces the 2008 SFRA Awards winners:

The Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy scholarship goes to Brian Attebery

The Pioneer Award for the best critical essay-length work of the year goes to Neil Easterbrook for “Giving An Account of Oneself”: Ethics, Alterity, Air

The Clareson Award for for Distinguished Service to SF and fantasy scholarship goes to Hal Hall

The Mary Kay Bray Award for the best essay, interview, or extended review to appear in the SFRA Review in the past year goes to Sandor Klapcsik for his review of Rewired (SFRAR #284 [pdf])

The Graduate Student Paper Award for the best essay presented at the 2008 SFRA conference [pdf] goes to Dave Higgins for “The Imperial Unconscious: Samuel R. Delany’s The Fall of the Towers.”

Congratulations to all the winners. Can we have a reprint of Strategies of Fantasy now, please?