The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction
by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 2008
339 pp. Trade, $35.00
Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
School of Literature, Communication & Culture. Georgia Institute of Technology.
Science fiction (SF) is a tricky genre to talk about. There is an aspect of SF that is associated with low-brow aesthetics and pop culture - this is the terrain of the fan. But there is also a high-brow, elite culture aspect to SF, especially as scholarship in literary and film studies has begun to look at SF as a relevant mode of cultural expression - this is the terrain of the scholar. Ideally, the fan is minimally aware of the scholar, at least insofar as one gains a historical appreciation of SF. Likewise, the scholar must be minimally aware of the fan, especially since SF has been, for a large chunk of its history, a "pulp" phenomenon. But this is the ideal situation; the fact is that one rarely sees scholars at fan conventions such as DragonCon, and one rarely sees fans at academic conferences such as the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts.
There are, however, signs that this is changing, and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay's book The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is an indicator of how we might move beyond the gap between the scholar and the fan, the elite and the popular notions of SF. In a way, Csicsery-Ronay's book signals a third kind of figure beyond the scholar and the fan, which we can, a bit tongue-in-cheek, call the SF "dweller." Whereas both the scholar and the fan are beholden to the specialized, genre-based status of SF, the dweller is not only the person who lives in SF story worlds, but the person who takes it for granted that the actual world must be understood in terms of SF. It is this expansion and diffusion of SF that constitutes the overarching concern of Csicsery-Ronay's book. Today, the increasing ubiquity of SF in culture stimulates "science-fictional habits of mind, so that we no longer treat sf as purely a genre-engine producing formulaic effects, but rather as a kind of awareness we might call science-fictionality , a mode of response that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction" (2).
That said, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is, first and foremost, a book about SF as a genre. Csicsery-Ronay has done something remarkable - he has posed a number of philosophical questions concerning SF itself, while, at the same time, providing a set of conceptual tools for understanding SF as a genre and as a narrative form. Csicsery-Ronay is in a good position to do this; for a number of years he has edited the journal Science Fiction Studies , and SF scholars are well-aware of his important essays on SF, in which he has consistently tried to think about SF outside of the genre itself (his essays on globalization and SF, and on postmodern theory and SF, are noteworthy in this regard). Csicsery-Ronay avoids the more predictable routes of deliberating over the definitions of SF, as well as re-telling the history of SF. Instead, he borrows from classical aesthetic theory, to talk not about definitions or history, but the major figures that together constitute SF - this is something like the "poetics" of SF.
As its title indicates, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is organized along seven core figures. In each chapter Csicsery-Ronay not only discusses them conceptually but also provides plentiful examples, including a number of insightful close readings of key SF texts or films. Csicsery-Ronay also takes up ideas from thinkers such as Kant or Burke, as well as engaging with SF critics such as Darko Suvin, Carl Freedman, Frederic Jameson, and many others. Briefly, the "seven beauties" of SF are: (i) "fictive neology" (the signs and language of SF, from the technical jargon and the language of future politics, to futuristic slang and alien linguistics); (ii) "fictive novums" (borrowing from Darko Suvin's use of the term "novum" to mean the central imaginative novelty in an SF story world, which may be at once eschatological and highly rationalized); (iii) "future history" (the way that SF often narrates the future in terms of the past - a "future past" tense - that may involve representations of history in SF, representations of the future in the form of a history, or forms of a prophetic or visionary future); (iv) "imaginary science" (the poetics of scientific and technological world-building, which invites comparison between science and fiction; (v) "the science-fictional sublime" and (vi) "the science-fictional grotesque," two related affective modes in which science and technology are represented, the former overwhelming in its complexity, the latter overwhelming in its failures or break-down; and (vii) the "technologiade," which is the narrative form specific to SF, "the epic of the struggle surrounding the transformation of the cosmos into a technological regime" (217).
Csicsery-Ronay's book does what good SF criticism should do - it offers clear explanatory models, but also invites further speculation. The chapters on the sublime and the grotesque, for instance, raise philosophical issues that directly pertain to "science-fictionality" today. Whereas for Kant, the sublime was principally evoked by nature (e.g. vast oceans, tumultuous storms, high mountains), in SF we have a technological sublime, which, in a Kantian vein, exceeds either by power (the "nuclear sublime") or complexity (the "informatic sublime"). But Kant's discussion on the sublime is also about the need to preserve the boundary and the relation between the self and the world. The affect of the sublime is the threat to this distinction, in which self and world threaten to dissolve into each other. These aesthetic modes intertwine poetics and politics. Note that this is also the key aspect to the grotesque in Bakhtin as well - except that in SF the grotesque occurs not through natural monstrosity but the aberrations of technoscience. As Csicsery-Ronay notes, the sublime and grotesque are two sides of a single page: with the sublime, there is some thing "out there" that cannot be incorporated into a subject "in here"; with the grotesque, there is a some thing "in here" that cannot be repulsed or pushed away into an object "out there." SF explores precisely this boundary management between the grotesque and sublime, the "out there" and the "in here," the self-world relationship that is fundamental to our ability to think the world "out there" at all. Furthermore, SF is replete with examples that do away with this boundary altogether, from the cosmic visions of Camille Flammarion's Lumen or Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker , to Stanislav Lem's Solaris (which Csicsery-Ronay discusses at length), to Brian Aldiss' "Hothouse" or Ursula LeGuin's "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow," to Greg Bear's Blood Music , Greg Egan's Diaspora , and Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain - this interplay between the sublime and the grotesque dovetails on a problematic that is central not only to philosophy, but to the discourses of, for instance, global climate change.
The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is a good textbook, yes. But I would argue that the real impulse of the book is to pose, again, the question of genre - not just as a literary or formalistic question, but also as a cultural and political question. SF, among all of the genres, seems to be characterized by its propensity to exceed its own genre. This process is perhaps similar to what philosopher Alain Badiou calls the "generic": "The term 'generic' positively designates that what does not allow itself to be discerned is in reality the general truth of a situation...as considered as the foundation of all knowledge to come" ( Being and Event , 327). "Generic" here means something different from its colloquial usage (e.g. banal, typical, unoriginal); it means that which has no specificity, precisely because it is functional, even pragmatic. So, while The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction has may relevant things to say about SF as a genre, the broader question it raises is whether the shift from science fiction to science-fictionality is also a the shift from genre to the generic . So, while Csicsery-Ronay does provide a clear discussion of the formal properties of SF that any reader can engage with, he also poses the question of the disappearance of SF when the genre becomes so pervasive that it ceases to be a genre at all, and becomes something like a way of understanding the world.
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