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10 Dichtung und Science Fiction Science fiction is arguably the youngest mode of writing in the West. By “science fiction” I don’t mean the nineteenth-century didactic fables that include not only Victorian utopian writing but also the scientific romances Verne and Wells wrote in response to the ninteenthcentury information explosion. I don’t mean the “fayned histories” and “fayned voyages” of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, before bourgeois fiction and bourgeois science separated themselves out from another set of discourses differently organized—discourses primarily concerned with instruction, moral or factual. I mean that first intrusion of the modern twentieth-century scientific imagination into the very texture and rhetoric of a preexisting fictive field in the pulp magazines of the ’20s, and ’30s, which, taking advantage of that fiction’s paraliterary status, developed a new way of reading language—and a new way of writing it to take advantage of this new way of reading, that is, a practice of writing, a discourse. I In previous essays I’ve discussed the way such sentences as “Her world exploded” or “He turned on his left side” might be read in a science fiction text or a text of mundane fiction; consider also Vonda McIntyre’s SF novella, Aztecs, which begins, “She gave up her heart quite willingly.” On the most basic level of sentence meaning, we read words differently when we read them as science fiction. In the sophistication of the above examples, however, we are about at the same level, vis-à-vis a discussion of the particular way we read science fiction, as the high school English teacher is who tells her poetry class to pay special attention to the sound of “tintinnabulation . . .” Though it is a necessary beginning, it is only a beginning. To go into the 154 starboard wine individual reading protocols that make up the field, the discourse, of modern science fiction in much greater detail in such an essay might become tedious,1 but what we can do is talk about the social factors that have recently moved in to affect that discourse. In 1953 Sam Moskowitz taught a class in science fiction at the College of the City of New York. In the whole American university system there wasn’t another for a long time. In 1951 only fifteen texts appeared in America that could reasonably be called SF novels, and these included the serialized novels that appeared that year in the pulp SF magazines as well as at least one series of related SF short stories published in one volume and cavalierly labeled a “novel”—a label that has been adding confusion to the way people read SF story series ever since. In 1958 the Modern Language Association inaugurated the continuing seminar on science fiction—which continues to this day. In 1979 there were 1,291 SF books published in the U.S.; of these, 689 were originals (i.e., not reprints). And in the various high schools and universities around the country over 500 classes were devoted to science fiction. In summary, then: In 1979, approximately 15 percent of all new fiction in the U.S. was science fiction. In 1980, the figure had risen to 16 percent. I do not yet have figures for 1981. For the last ten years or so I have been on a crusade to make sure people read science fiction—especially in the schools—as science fiction , not as psychological fantasy; not as a kind of limping, if not lame, mundane fiction; not as future prediction; not as a species of popular scientific, or even sociological, journalism; no, as science fiction. Writing about such a crusade here, one recalls that the U.S. is only twenty or thirty years past a similar crusade, finally more or less successful , to make sure that poetry was read as poetry. I want to rehearse that poetic crusade a moment, as one side of a sprawling Homeric simile, if not an overblown metaphysical conceit. 1. Those interested might try my book The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch—“Angouleme,” (Elizabethtown, N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1978). Disch’s SF story is divided into 287 sections, each of which is analyzed separately. I discuss the way we read each specifically as science fiction and the way each works in the textual play of meanings. In general, a great many rhetorical figures (e.g., catalogues, historical allusions, and parodic figures, as well as a whole...


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