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” ), 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.)