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Parabolas of Science Fiction

Brian Attebery

Publication Year: 2013

As a geometric term, parabola suggests a narrative trajectory or story arc. In science fiction, parabolas take us from the known to the unknown. More concrete than themes, more complex than motifs, parabolas are combinations of meaningful setting, character, and action that lend themselves to endless redefinition and jazzlike improvisation. The fourteen original essays in this collection explore how the field of science fiction has developed as a complex of repetitions, influences, arguments, and broad conversations. This particular feature of the genre has been the source of much critical commentary, most notably through growing interest in the "sf megatext," a continually expanding archive of shared images, situations, plots, characters, settings, and themes found in science fiction across media. Contributors include Jane Donawerth, Terry Dowling, L. Timmel Duchamp, Rachel Haywood Ferreira, Pawel Frelik, David M. Higgins, Amy J. Ransom, John Rieder, Nicholas Ruddick, Graham Sleight, Gary K. Wolfe, and Lisa Yaszek.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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Parabolas of Science Fiction

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pp. vii-xvi

...the aims of this volume to contribute to contemporary genre studies (with a couple of caveats as noted below). Although John Cawelti’s concept of fictional formulas revolutionized popular culture studies, there has been little advance on his method in recent years. The concept of the parabola—combining as it does Cawelti’s ideas with other key concepts in genre theory such as Philippe Hamon’s megatext and Mikhail Bakhtin’s chronotope, as well as a number of approaches...


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1. Science Fictional Parabolas: Jazz, Geometry, and Generation Starships

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pp. 3-23

...presents challenges not only for literary critics but also for popular culture scholars. It spills over into other genres, such as fantasy and historical fiction; it freely exchanges techniques and ideas with nonfictional forms such as scientific popularizations and utopian tracts; and its products range from comic books and computer games to ambitious and elegant novels, some of them by writers best known for “nongenre” or “literary” fiction. The single most useful tool for analyzing popular...

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2. Dancing with Scheherazade: Some Reflections in the Djinni’s Glass

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pp. 24-35

...As a writer working in the field of what is called science fiction (sf ), fantasy, and dark fantasy, I have often gone on public record in interviews as listing among my key formative influences the rich and evocative work of Jack Vance, Cordwainer Smith, J. G. Ballard, and Ray Bradbury. These authors not only render decay and faded glory in a curiously appealing way but also have the gift of putting words into narrative patterns that are...

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3. Breaking the Frame

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pp. 36-50

...contains it—without even closing the quotation mark. It is a move whose shock comes partly from its suddenness and partly from its absolute finality. It is a shift of register, of what is at stake in the story, and of the very rules under which the story is being told. It might be argued that it teaches the readers that the basis on which they have understood the...


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4. Katherine MacLean’s Short Science Fiction and Cytology: Science as Parabola

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pp. 53-69

...for this collection, Brian Attebery offers an overarching term to help explain the pleasure we derive from science fiction as a genre: parabolas are narrative patterns that “integrate narrative needs, scientific information, and metacommentary on the genre itself” (chapter 1). In discussing the relationship of gender to the genre, Joanna Russ posits that science fiction enables women’s writing because these stories...

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5. Second Contact: The First Contact Story in Latin American Science Fiction

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pp. 70-88

...science fiction parabola of first contact, their own stories of first contact might better be described as stories of second contact due to the degree to which the original historical circumstances and the colonial legacy inform content and perspective. This chapter explores the effects of the Columbian first contact and its aftermath on Latin American works of this type. These Latin American narratives rewrite, shanghai, and subvert both historical and science fictional accounts of contact, thereby...

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6. Parabolas of SFQ: Canadian Science Fiction in French and the Making of a “National” Subgenre

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pp. 89-105

...dominate the genre but also with continental French sf and, especially, with the sociopolitical and cultural debates in Québec during the 1970s and 1980s, the decades of its development. SFQ writing reflects, then, a dual dialogue carried on first through the appropriation of sf’s major tropes and story types—what Brian Attebery refers to as its “parabolas”—and then through their adaptation to a locally specific historical,...

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7. The Domestic SF Parabola

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pp. 106-122

...As its name suggests, domestic sf shares characteristics with two storytelling traditions that emerged in the nineteenth century: domestic fiction and science fiction. Domestic fiction was a wildly popular form of literature written by, for, and about women in response to the dangers of industrial capitalism and the new division of labor that located women’s...


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8. Mad Scientists, Chimps, and Mice with Human Brains: Collapsing Boundaries in Science Fiction

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pp. 125-142

...and animal eggs to make stem cells with genetic faults linked to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and motor neuron disease. “Studying how the cells grow,” they claim, “could yield unprecedented insights into disease, leading to cures for the otherwise untreatable conditions” (Sample 2011). Laboratory researchers also produce hybrids in order to make animals more “human-...

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9. Coded Transmissions: Gender and Genre Reception in The Matrix

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pp. 143-160

...however, how ideologically flexible are these parabolas? What is the range of openness available, what are the limits of this openness, and what structures such limits? In order to explore these questions, this analysis examines the narrow reception of a specific iteration of a given parabola in order to investigate how engaged...

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10 The Mad Scientist, the Failed Experiment, and the Queer Family of Man: Sirius, Frankenstein, and the SF Stockroom

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pp. 161-179

...Frankenstein’s creature, is a one-of- a- kind success who laments his loneliness and upbraids his scientist-creator for making only one of him. Both experimental creatures come to consider themselves outcasts and enemies of humankind. Finally, both turn violent and engage in a series of increasingly horrific killings...

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11. Back to the Filthy Workshop: “Faithful” Film Adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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pp. 180-202

...For a generation, instructors have assigned Shelley’s novel in science fiction (sf ) courses, as it is unquestionably the genre’s most important precursory text. Though most students look forward to reading this originating work of a major modern mythology, many are disappointed. Student A, a lover of classic sf, considers Victor’s experiment...


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12. The Future of the Past: Science Fiction, Retro, and Retrofuturism

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pp. 205-224

...presence in the genre. Diegetic temporal dislocations centrally inform the subgenre of uchronias or, more narrowly, alternate histories. Although they can segue into less disciplined historical fantasies, “aligned more closely with a postmodern relativism” (Ransom 2010, 275), alternate histories have long been considered a subset of science fiction, the qualification at least partly justified by their more or...

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13. Babylon Revisited: Alternate Cosmologies from Farmer to Chiang

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pp. 225-241

...This story introduces us to a world in which Columbus’s ships are inexplicably equipped with telegraphs, shortwave radios, electric lights, and other evidences of technology that we know to have been impossible in 1492. Only a few pages in, however, we are given some clues as to what might be going on. Friar Sparks, the telegrapher...

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14. Science Fiction as Archive Fever

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pp. 242-260

...own meditations on memory, repression, and the death drive; just as Freud’s work provides Derrida with a metaphorical foundation on which to construct his logic of the archive in the digital age, so Derrida’s archive theory provides me with a foundation of metaphors through which to think about science fiction’s narrative logic in the context of post/modernity. Derrida writes of the passion that drives the institution...


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pp. 261-278

Works Cited

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pp. 279-298


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pp. 299-302


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pp. 303-312

E-ISBN-13: 9780819573681
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819573667

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2013