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  • Of Disembodied Mind Sparks and Speakers of Klingon A New Model of Science Fiction
  • Stephen Burt (bio)
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. x + 324 pp. $35.00.

These are fine times, in some ways, for science fiction. Outside the academy, readers and reviewers of literary novels encounter, and welcome, the devices of SF. Consider not only Jonathan Lethem (who began by writing SF, labeled as such) but Kazuo Ishiguro (who did not); consider Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize. And yet these are troubling times for the genre, too: changes in publishing make it harder for new SF writers to earn a living, even as niche presses and Web-based journals make it easier for them to distribute their work. 1We hear claims that SF has lost its reason for being, because "mainstream" authors appropriate its techniques, or because the pace of real technological change has made SF obsolete. 2

Within the academy, times are both good and bad too. SF has never seemed more important to critics and scholars from other fields: [End Page 599] PMLAdevoted a special issue to it in 2004. Yet when we turn from teaching SF, or from writing about its individual authors, to available theories and overviews, offerings seem limited. Standard histories and anatomies stop in the 1980s, if not earlier: the best of these present not models of science fiction so much as a story about how it grew. 3Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers have emphasized (some still emphasize) SF as a repository of utopias and dystopias, showing how a society may change in drastic, and yet explicable, ways. Darko Suvin, the most important such thinker, defined SF as "the literature of cognitive estrangement" (4); for him, SF properly so-called presents a world set apart from our own by some new thing in science, technology, or nonhuman nature—the invention of teleportation, for example, or contact with space-faring species. That new thing—the "novum"—must be integral to the world or the plot of the fiction, and it must be imagined as subject to rational inquiry (so as to let us imagine that real life might change, too); otherwise we are reading fantasy, for Suvin almost by definition a conservative, regressive, bad thing. 4

This argument had precedents, and problems—one was Clarke's Law, coined by the SF writer Arthur C. Clarke: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." 5Take that [End Page 600]claim seriously and the general distinction between SF (rational, critical, or at least amenable to critique) and fantasy (backward-looking, mystifying) becomes a tough nut. Indeed, most SF proved susceptible to attack (as insufficiently rational or critical) under Suvin's criteria. And yet the working methods Suvin and his intellectual allies developed provided SF's most fruitful research program. To it we owe the journal Science Fiction Studies, now in its thirty-seventh year, one of the few consistent venues (though never the only one) for academic work in the field; nearly four decades of essays on SF by Fredric Jameson, now collected in his Archaeologies of the Future; any number of later monographs, only some of which take "Marx as a theorist of science fiction avant la lettre"; 6and the intellectual underpinnings for at least one major work of SF, the Mars trilogy ( Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) by Jameson's former student Kim Stanley Robinson.

Most later academic approaches to print SF (film is another matter) took on not the whole universe of novels and stories but particular quadrants: nineteenth-century proto-SF; cyborgs, "posthumans," and androids; "hard SF," with its component of science education; the subgenre called cyberpunk; feminist SF. 7Even as SF became an established academic field, overviews of SF could attack it as reactionary, pathologically technophile, symptomatic of a West gone wrong. 8Critics outside academia propounded views more [End Page 601]sensitive to the varied pleasures in reading science fiction, and to the varied world-views its authors assumed: John Clute's hundreds of book reviews (collected in two volumes) work not only as stores of data but as repositories of well...


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