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chapter three Dramas of Interpretation Haggard’s and Conan Doyle’s self-conscious delight in trumping up quasi-scientific evidence is typical enough of the emerging genre of science fiction that Hugo Gernsback, not someone who normally would be counted as a proponent of irony, included Edgar Allan Poe’s pseudojournalistic hoax, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” in the first issue of Amazing Stories. The possibility or even probability that Gernsback did not think of the story as satirical or as partaking in Poe’s penchant for hoaxes only makes the generic edginess of Poe’s story all the more striking. As the discussion of cognitive appropriation in lost-race fiction in the preceding chapter began to show, playing with the equivocal nature of “facts,” and the corollary problem of comprehensibility, of bringing the exotic and alien into the realm of the representable, are central to the formation of science fiction. The facts raise both discursive and ideological problems by implying entire fictional worlds whose assembly depends in varying measures on rational cognition and ideological fantasy, and these scientific and ideological energies engage the stories, or entangle them, in the discourses and ideologies of colonialism. The protagonists’ confrontations with enigmatic others and the reader’s confrontation with generic borders—the riddles posed by early science fiction’s impossible facts—are the main topics of this chapter. Since we are dealing with facts, let us proceed, like the narrator of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” along good journalistic lines. After a preliminary exposition of the status of the factual and the impossible in critical discussions of science fiction, we will proceed to ask who, where, when, and what are the interpretive dilemmas or dramas of interpretation produced by the impossibilities of early science fiction. Impossible Facts and Science Fiction The status of “facts” in science fiction is a crux in much of what has been written about the genre because one of science fiction’s givens is that some of a story’s facts must be not only counterfactual—which is true of realist fiction as well—but not currently possible, producing a category that ranges from plausible extrapolations of current technology or social conditions , like the submarine in Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or the class warfare in Jack London’s near-future The Iron Heel (1907), to far more extravagant but theoretically possible developments like the post-human species in the distant future of Wells’s The Time Machine, to flat-out impossibilities like the time-travel device itself. The contrasting views of Darko Suvin and Mark Bould should clarify the dimensions and consequences of this problem. One of Suvin’s most emphatic positions in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction is that, in order to succeed as a “literature of cognitive estrangement,” science fiction has to order its impossibilities (or not-yet-possibilities) with rigorous and coherent scientific rationality .1 Bould, in a recent essay articulating a broad theory of literary fantasy that includes science fiction as a special instance, emphasizes ideology rather than rationality in the construction of science fiction. Bould suggests that the totalizing rigor with which science fiction and fantastic narratives integrate impossible facts into a coherent version of the world resembles the psychic mechanism of paranoia. His purpose is not to pathologize such narratives, but rather to connect fantasy with literary realism by way of the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan’s, thesis that paranoia’s insatiable drive for coherence makes it the appropriate paradigm for the construction of personal identity and social reality as such.2 Since conventional reality itself is fundamentally fantastic, Bould argues, fantasy as a genre is not distinguished from realism by its world-building but by its deliberate foregrounding of its untruth: “what sets fantasy apart from much mimetic art is a frankly self-referential consciousness . . . of the impossibility of ‘real life’” (83). That is, the way that science fiction handles the impossible introduces a self-consciously “paranoid” construction of the world that tends to expose the unself-consciously fantastic nature of socially accepted reality. Although Suvin stresses discursive articulation and Bould focuses on ideological disclosure, both critics argue that science fiction’s aesthetic success and critical power turn on the relation the story achieves between the impossibilities it posits and conventionally accepted, normal reality. 62 ❍ COLONIALISM AND THE EMERGENCE OF SCIENCE fiCTION They agree not only that science fiction’s impossible “facts” must be pieces of a coherently imagined world...


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