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five The Artifact as Icon in Science Fiction Science fiction, like many forms of popular literature, boasts a repertoire of recurring images that are emblematic of the major concerns and underlying anxieties of the genre. The most familiar of these icons, such as the intelligent machine, the spaceship, the alien or monster, and the futuristic city, gain power from their peculiar property of both revealing knowledge and withholding it; they are familiar, while at the same time they remain estranged from us in some significant aspect. The robot, for example, is supposed to operate by understandable mechanical and electronic principles and frequently is portrayed in a pseudohuman form, but is clearly not human and its ‘‘intelligence ’’ is therefore of an alien kind. (A more extensive exploration of such ‘‘icons’’ is the focus of my The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction.) Many of these science-fictional icons derive from both mythological and technological sources; there is room in the history of the spaceship for Icarus as well as Robert Goddard. In fact, many readers of science fiction have come to regard the genre as having an oddly bifurcated history, drawing at once on ancient myth and modern technology, on pop culture and arcane science. Science fiction does owe a great deal to the mediating and formulizing influences of earlier forms of popular narrative, and it shares at least one of its most enduring icons with narrative formulas as diverse as the Gothic romance, the horror story, modern fantasy, the mystery, and the espionage novel. This is the icon of the artifact, and the means by which science fiction has appropriated this image and invested it with new meanings is an interesting study in how a particular genre adopts and transforms broader conventions of popular narrative. I am taking ‘‘artifact’’ to mean not just any manufactured object, but rather (in the more popular archaeological sense) as a manufactured object embedding evidence of some specific (usually remote) time and place, and invested 84 GENRES with some indeterminate value—be it material, pedagogical, or spiritual—to those who receive or discover it in some other time or place. The artifact implies and interacts with three distinct historical systems: the system surrounding its manufacture, the system of its own history, and the system of the receiving culture. If either of the first two systems is unknown or insu≈ciently understood, the artifact also implies a mystery, and a mystery particularly well suited to the dynamic of science fiction. Like other sf icons, it partakes of the known (the circumstances surrounding its discovery and its observable characteristics ) and the unknown (the circumstances surrounding its creation and its history). The solution to this mystery almost always involves decoding or ‘‘dissecting ’’ the artifact itself; as folklorist Henry Glassie writes, Dissected, the artifact becomes understandable: its parts, past, and associations become traceable: the artifact can be viewed as the product and source of meaning. The assignation of meaning to a thing brings it value in the same way to the people who make and use it and to the people who study it. A thing is only a thing until a man wanders into the picture and begins relating the thing to other things; then, the thing becomes an icon. . . . The conceptualization of associations, relations, and meaning is the recognition of the thing’s functions and of the icon’s powers.∞ Glassie is writing primarily of the artifacts of folk culture, but his observations might as well apply to the imaginary artifacts that so liberally populate popular fiction. Even at its most mundane—a potsherd or an arrowhead—the artifact carries with it a wealth of associations, invites speculation, and implies whole systems of thought, alien cultures, and historical processes. At its most ambitious , the imaginary artifact in science fiction may embed many of the genre’s most popular icons—it may be a spacecraft, a machine, a city, a marvelous invention—and thus it becomes emblematic of the systematic ‘‘sense of wonder ’’ that many regard as the genre’s most potent source of appeal. While the artifact may seem a natural device for science fiction, there is nevertheless evidence that this icon entered the genre gradually, even though it had long been a staple in many forms of popular literature. The vast, complex artifacts in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1974), Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970), Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville (1975), Gregory Benford’s In the Ocean of Night...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780819571045
Related ISBN
9780819569363
MARC Record
OCLC
726747951
Pages
280
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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