Reading List: “Science Fiction and This Moment”

For someone used to spending most of their time reviewing, dealing with specific texts, rather than thinking about sf in general, there’s a small shock to be gained from the abstractness of the thought in the opening chapter of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Some words are impressed on the brain by their repetition: technoscience, critical, utopian, play, which define Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s angle of attack. I note this sentence, from the section justifying the book’s subject as being worthy of study:

Since the late 1960s, when it became the chosen vehicle for both technocratic and critical utopian writing, sf has experienced a steady growth in popularity, critical interest and theoretical sophistication. (4)

And a parallel one slightly later, from the section about the giants on whose shoulders Csicsery-Ronay stands:

Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, Peter Fitting, Marc Angenot, and Carl Freedman, among others have established a major body of Marxist sf criticism connecting sf with ideology-critique and utopian theory. (9)

He goes on to list other notables in other traditions of sf criticism (postmodern, feminist, queer, structuralist, and so on), but it’s surely significant that this one comes first. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course.

I don’t want to say too much about the Beauties themselves, because hopefully I’ll get to post about each of them in turn, and the brief summaries of them here are necessarily partial, even with, or because of, the gloss that these are “beauties of a mind incapable of making itself up” (8). But in case I don’t, it’s worth saying that my first impression of them, at least, is that they make up an extended phenotype for sf that I recognise. The least convincing is “The Technologiade”, Csicsery-Ronay’s attempt to describe narrative shapes that sf stories take, because sf wriggles around too much to be so pinned. The others are all hard to argue with as vital characteristics of sf: neology and novums are straightforward; the description of sf as a “future-oriented” genre that creates “micromyths of historical process” (6) rings true; the suggestion that science is always transformed by sf for “cultural myth and aesthetic play” (6) is worth thinking about (and comparing and contrasting with Eric Van’s proposed taxonomy of science in sf); and if the technologic sublime is obvious, the technologic grotesque (sensahorror, if you will) is its insufficiently discussed counterpoint.

What this chapter covers, though, is the foundation on which this approach to sf is all built: an argument about the way the world is today, specifically that “the world has grown into sf” (1). This is the familiar argument that stuff that used to be sf has become the stuff of everyday life. (For another riff on this, see here.) In turn — as a response — this has lead, Csicsery-Ronay argues, to the mainstreaming of sf entertainment; and “This widespread normalization of what is essentially a style of estrangement and dislocation has stimulated the development of science-fictional habits of mind” (2) as when Csicsery-Ronay suggests that sf is culture’s “primary source” of neology, and that its use of novums engages our awareness of novums in the real world. These habits of mind are a way of dealing with unexpected technologically-related intrusions into our “normal” lives; or, in the book’s terms:

So it is that, encountering problems issuing from the social implications of science, and viewing dramatic technohistorical scenes in real life, we displace them into a virtual imaginary space, an alternate present or future that we can reflect on, where we can test our delight, anxiety or grief, or simply play, without having to renounce our momentary sense of identity, social place, and the world. (5)

This process is driven, the argument goes, by two “linked forms of hesitation”, the distance between what is conceivable and what is possible, and the distance between what is possible and what is moral.

The questions here, I guess, are: is this an accurate description of how we react to certain aspects of life; are those aspects of life distinct to the present historical moment as compared to other historical moments; and is science fiction an expression of this behaviour and a vehicle that encourages it? (I don’t think it can be one and not the other.) My answers are yes (but it would have to be, since I am indelibly shaped by umpteen years of reading sf); don’t know; and “I’m willing to buy that for the sake of argument”.

How much hangs on that “don’t know”? Not too much, I think. If what Csicsery-Ronay is arguing about our moment is accurate (and I think it’s certainly one way of looking at the situation, although he does threaten to head off into a dead end when he starts talking about how the advent of information culture has replaced existing standards with “an as yet inchoate worldview of artificial immanence” [4]), for the macro-scale success or failure of his book it’s not hugely important whether or not it’s generalisable or unique.

That is to say, here —

In this book, I shall approach sf on the one hand as a product of the convergence of socio-historical forces that has led to the current global hegemony of technoscience, and consequently as an institution of ideological expression; on the other, as a ludic framework, a wide-ranging culture of game and play in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted. (10)

— I’m more interested in the latter than the former; the understanding of sf as “a wide ranging culture of game and play” does not seem to me to be dependent on a particular socio-historical understanding.

The chapter ends with a couple of notes on method, or, if you like, laments for what could not be included. Csicsery-Ronay repeats that “a study of science-fictionality should not restrict itself to one medium only”, but notes that his bias in this book is for the literary form; and, a little more frustratingly, he notes that he has gathered “the usual suspects” in terms of “texts, styles, artists and themes”. This choice, he argues, is to avoid obscurity, that it’s better to test new arguments on works people are familiar with, and there’s something to that, even if it reinforces existing imbalances. But at the same time, he raises a tantalizing prospect:

Other national traditions of scientific fantasy have existed parallel to the Anglo-Saxon mainline, and they should be included in an overview of the genre, not as evolutionary exceptions or atavisms, but as legitimate cultural expressions and, indeed, as possible alternate lines along which the genre may develop in the future. However, that must wait for another book. (11)

I’d buy it.

(I realise I’ve failed to reply to comments on several posts, by the way; I’m hoping to get to them over the weekend.)

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 (

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at 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?


I’ve posted my additional thoughts about “Divining Light“; thanks to everyone else who read the story and commented. Hopefully discussion will continue …

What’s interesting to me about Clute’s review of Half a Crown, and the reason it has made sure what was already pretty likely beforehand, that I will read the Small Change trilogy, is that it seems to me to contain or imply an interesting set of ideas about what dystopian fiction is and does, and how it works. For starters, there’s the implied question of whether you can write a dystopia with a happy, or even relatively happy, ending. A friend of mine observed recently (in a separate discussion) that there’s a reason most dystopias end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, forever; it’s because dystopias are almost always intended to warn in some way, and if they end with a boot stamping on the face of humanity, for a while, the force of that warning inevitably gets dissipated in some way. Is that the case? How might a story get around it? What might be gained that might compensate for that lack of force, if it does occur? There are also the arguments Clute advances about formula and technique. It’s Clute’s argument (as I read it) that, however effective the narrow perspective is in the first two books, by the time you get to the third book it starts to look like avoidance. This seems plausible; it also seems like something that might vary from reader to reader. (Indeed, based on the fact that Clute’s is the only reaction to Small Change even remotely this negative, it seems that it certainly dose vary from reader to reader.) Why? Similarly, Clute argues that Small Change’s adherence to a formal structure makes its ending — however historically grounded it may be — unconvincing as fiction because it makes the fall of a fascist government look like “a plot twist”; in other words, makes it look in some sense unearned, or trivial, which retroactively diminishes the achievement of the trilogy. This may just be a potential pitfall of fiction that wishes to adhere to a formula, even in homage; or it may be something that particularly afflicts dystopian fiction. I find it more interesting to think about, at any rate, than Benjamin Kunkel’s article about dystopianism. (See also.)

I’m still rather enjoying Isvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. I mentioned the “novum” chapter in this post; the book as a whole is built around discussion of a number of “attractors” that Csicsery-Ronay Jr has identified as characteristic elements of sf, and contains a version of the argument that we are living in inherently science-fictional times that’s a bit more grounded than most I’ve read. Had I been a bit more patient, however, I could have used more of the book with reference to my discussion of Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, namely some of the comments made in the discussion on “Future History”. Csicsery-Ronay Jr (yes, I have to check myself every single time I write that name, why do you ask?) is particularly attached to sf as a venue for various kinds of play; so although he identifies several kinds of future history common to sf, including utopian/revolutionary (change brought about by conscious action on the part of humanity) and evolutionary (change brought about as a result of unconscious, adaptive forces), his clear favourite is what he terms “dispersive” histories, in which change is essentially random, or (and this is what made it seem relevant to Blonde Roots) somehow walled off from the real we know.

It is sometimes said that any prophesied future that does not come to pass becomes a divergent reality. […] The more of these a public is exposed to, the less naive they become about projections, and the more comfortable with alternate histories that lack causal connections with the familiar present. Quantity turns to quality: so many predictions have been made, so many fictive prophecies have become uchronias and “fantastic philosophy”, that they rival the number of sincere predictions. Reading sf now incorporates the discounting process of already viewing it as an alternative timeline or retrofuture.
By disrupting the temporal logic of continuity with the present, alternative histories appear to renounce the ethical seriousness of the revolutionary and evolutionary paradigms. If there is no connection, how can there be responsibility? On the surface, such dispersed worlds lack even the minimal gravity of other kinds of uture history. It makes sense to view this scattering as an example of the flattening of historical consciousness that Jameson considers a defining quality of postmodernism. The sense of the continuity of unidirectional time lived toward death and succeeding generations, which links the experience of individual life with collective history, is replaced by an infinite array. […] The abstract dispersal of realities frees them not only from the burden of an inexorable past, but from the resistance of nature and embodiment altogether. (97-8)

That last sentence, in particular, seems a good way of summing up what I think Evaristo was aiming for — freedom from the burden of an inexorable past — without losing the ability to comment on that past, and on our present.

I’m not happy about this change to the David Gemmell Legend Award rules [pdf]:

After receiving lots of feedback from fans, readers and industry alike, we at the
DGLA have – after much deliberation – come to the decision to make the David
Gemmell Legend Award completely publicly voted.

This means that once the Longlist closes, the top 5 novels will be put forward to the
Shortlist Poll and YOU will be able to have the final say about who should win, by
voting once more on the shortlist! Readers and fans will be involved at every step to
produce our winner.

What was interesting about the Award, to me, was precisely that the final stage was juried; I was looking forward to seeing how the judges evaluated the award’s criteria. While popular vote awards certainly have their place, I can’t muster the enthusiasm for another one right now.