by Matthew Cheney
DePauw University professor of English Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. is one of the most thoughtful and subtle academic critics of science fiction. He is coeditor of the journal Science Fiction Studies as well as the book Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (University of Minnesota Press, $20). His latest book, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, $35), should bring his ideas to a new and larger audience. The Seven Beauties of Science Fictionanalyzes a variety of SF media through seven lenses: fictive neology, fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, the science-fictional sublime, the science-fictional grotesque, and the Technologiade (“the epic of the struggle surrounding the transformation of the cosmos into a technological regime”). In a probing and perceptive review for the online magazine Strange Horizons, Adam Roberts called the use of the “seven beauties” framework “a rather brilliant move” that leads to “a book of unusual range, insight, intelligence and ambition.”
I discussed The Seven Beauties and other elements of science fiction with Csicsery-Ronay via email in June 2009.
Matthew Cheney: Let’s start with an origin story. When and why did you begin reading science fiction, and how did you happen to become an academic SF critic?
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.: I was first attracted by the crude, pulpy television shows I watched as child, growing up in a refugee family just off the boat from Hungary. I was raised in one of those immigrant homes where you speak English only outside; once you step back across the threshold, you have to speak the Mother Tongue. My parents considered themselves political exiles, and expected to return within a year or two, so it was important to maintain the habits and styles of the country they had so recently left. (I was born a month after they arrived in New York.) That country, by American standards, was still in the 19th century. My parents never understood technology or engineering. They were both traditional humanists, for whom art and technology were deadly rivals. So inside the apartment I lived in the Old School. Outside, it was flying saucers rock and roll.
We didn’t have a television. I remember vividly on Saturday mornings I would run at breakneck speed to get a good seat in front of the tiny TV-screen at a friend’s house to watch Commander Cody—Sky Marshal of the Universe, and later Science Fiction Theater. They’re unwatchable now, but then, I was inconsolable if I missed a single episode. Then in college there was Vietnam and Star Trek. The two “shows” went on simultaneously—reruns of the first Star Trek were shown just before the network evening news. In college, the common rooms all over campus were jammed with the same audiences for both. Vietnam was a TV show, but very real, since we were all draft age. Star Trek was the complete antidote to all that. It was utopian and clearly anti-war; it modeled progressive values that both conservatives and liberals could agree on. It took us elsewhere, en masse.
I loved reading stories in SF anthologies when I was in grade school and junior high, and watched every movie I could. But I was raised in an environment where literature was a kind of religion, and after a while most SF compared very poorly with the classical stuff I was discovering. I went several years without picking up any SF. My personal breakthrough happened when I was beginning graduate school in comparative literature. In the depth of the library I discovered my first copy of Science Fiction Studies. As effete as it may sound, it had the same effect on me that other folks say their first introduction to the pulps did for them. I saw that Fredric Jameson, a critic I idolized at the time, was writing articles on SF; and the other titles all showed they were sophisticated literary analyses. I read every issue avidly. I was introduced not only to theorists like Suvin and Jameson, but also writers I hadn’t heard of until them: Le Guin, Dick, Lem, the Strugatsky brothers, Ian Watson, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany. In a short space I read all of these writers’ works I could find. Reading Lem, Dick, and Le Guin especially made me realize that SF had become a sort of philosophical fiction. I started to write about it.
I am not “a fan,” and I didn’t start out be a “critic.” I considered myself a “reader,” pure and simple. European writers have traditionally considered it part of their professional resumé-building to write fantastic, SF, or slipstream fiction. And it’s not hard to connect SF to the big body of fantastic writing. My scholarly work at first was in literary theory and the history of the European novel, but I wrote more and more for Science Fiction Studies. Eventually I was asked to become an editor, and the rest is history. There were moments when I had to choose whether devote my time to more approved areas; I was a student of dead languages and peripheral cultures. But studying and writing about SF forced me to have a second education, this one in science. That’s the best recommendation I can give anyone for studying SF intensively: few other genres will allow one to learn so much so fast.
MC: Are there European writers you studied who are not generally considered SF writers but who provided you with some of the intellectual pleasures that SF writers did, either before or after you immersed yourself in the SF world?
I C-R: I think I stopped reading SF for several years because I was getting the same pleasures in the exotic by reading archaic and non-modern literature. During the Communist period there was a translation industry in Hungary; writers were salaried to translate work by the “fraternal” people of the Soviet bloc, and “Third World” peoples whom the Soviets were actively courting. Since I read Hungarian, on my summer visits to my relatives I acquired tons of non-mainstream literature from Siberia, the Caucasus, Vietnam, Africa, Central Asia, and late antiquity. (I also read Lem and the Strugatskys in Hungarian—many of their works haven’t been translated into English even now.) Some European writers who wrote SF in all but the name—like the Hungarian poet Sandor Weöres, the Russian writers Platonov, Bulgakov, and our contemporary Victor Pelevin, and of course Nabokov and Borges—provide pretty much the same “intellectual pleasures” that SF does. What these writers don’t provide—and why I needed to keep reading SF—was a futuristic imagination.
MC: Do you think SF from countries that do not have publishers devoted specifically to SF, as well as frequent gatherings of readers who identify as SF fans, is different from SF in countries where it is differentiated from other types of fiction in terms of how it is published and, perhaps, received? In a globalized publishing environment, does this, do you think, herald anything for the future of SF as a genre?
I C-R: I’m not sure I have an answer for this. I’m not very familiar with fan cultures, so I don’t know where there are and aren’t fans. I think they are probably everywhere where there are hip students who want to be modern. I also don’t know much about the SF publishing world, other than in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. In Russia and Eastern Europe, which developed along a very different literary track for much of the last century, the SF was indeed different. But this wasn’t because of the publishing industry, but political demands. We’ve seen indigenous SF collapse in most of those countries since the fall of Communism. The “native product” was displaced by translations of U.S. and U.K. bestsellers, and the native writers often write imitations of pulpy magical fantasy/scientific fantasy under Anglo-sounding pseudonyms. The situation is a bit better in Russia now, but not elsewhere in the region. In any case at the moment the main SF- influence isn’t written SF, but mass-media stuff. Japan was already a leader in SF comics and video before the crisis in publishing began, and has tremendous influence throughout the world. Blockbuster U.S. movies, U.S. and U.K. comics, and contemporary U.K. “cozy catastrophe” movies probably have greater influence than any written SF can possibly have, and these easily cross linguistic boundaries. Some emerging SF-cultures, like India for example, produces SF that is packed with allusions to national mythology and folklore—for hypermodern Western readers it reads like naive SF. That’s not a function of fan cultures and publishing, so much as the broader national cultural-historical context.
MC: For The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, you wrote a chapter on “Marxist Theory and Science Fiction.” Do you consider yourself a Marxist critic? What value does a Marxist critical approach have for SF?
I C-R: You don’t have to be a Marxist critic to write objectively about Marxist criticism, but the question is an interesting one. Many non-Marxists probably consider my thinking Marxist, while many Marxists probably think the opposite. Certain Marxist ideas are so much a part of my mental metabolism that I can’t imagine thinking without them—the critique of capitalism, commodity fetishism, dialectics, the material basis of ideology, for example. But I could say the same about my Buddhist ideas, which make some aspects of Marxism (like violent class struggle, a bias toward material production, and materialism per se) untenable. Most people entertain contradictory thought-systems, and how they manage those contradictions is what makes their ideas distinctive. In any case, when it comes to analyzing art I don’t think there’s ever a one-to-one correspondence between one’s religious/political views and the way one responds to art. The traditions of art create their own sphere; art has its own kind of imagination that can’t be reduced to other kinds (though it is always connected to them). So in a way my thinking about SF as a kind of art is pretty conservative. If you’re asking whether my approach is influenced by Marxism, I’d say it is to the extent that I treat it as the product of a distinct historical moment profoundly influenced by its technological and social-economic relations. I can’t imagine analyzing SF without also investigating the hypermodernizing culture it grows in, with its ideological mythologies of technological progress. But if you’re asking whether my approach is Marxist-identified, I’d say not really. A critical appraisal of SF has to include a critical analysis of capitalism and modernization, but I’m much more interested in anatomizing the situation than making a moral or political point. Deep inside, I think I believe that every age is equally capable of enlightenment and toxic ignorance. That’s probably not very Marxist.
MC: What do you hope readers will get from reading The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction?
I C-R: Wow, that is a really big question! I wanted to do a lot of things writing The Seven Beauties, and they kept changing—which probably shows up in the zig-zag way the book is written. My first and overriding goal was to write something useful and stimulating for students and younger scholars of SF. That meant producing a sort of textbook from hell—the opposite of a normal class text. I mainly wanted to generate problems and suggestions that folks interested in studying SF could develop, critique, or just run away with. Early on, my model was the mathematician Paul Erdös, who is known not so much for the originality of his solutions as for the questions he posed. He made a career of formulating intriguing problems that would attract younger mathematicians to solve. So Seven Beauties is supposed to be a sort of compendium of interesting problems. In some cases I stated things more assertively that even I believed them to be, since some folks don’t get inspired unless they feel provoked.
But I also wanted to place SF in a larger historical and cultural context, and specifically an artistic one. I’m trained in comparative literature, and I’m committed to literature as a tradition. There has been a lot of impressive scholarship on SF from cultural-studies perspectives. The main way that students and scholars look at the genre now is in terms of popular culture, gender/race/sexual identity/class critique, postcolonialism, vestiges of New Left Marxism, and the postmodernist notion that SF and contemporary social mythologies are converging. I can’t add much to that rich and diverse work, and fortunately I don’t have to. What I wanted to do was to treat the science-fictional imagination as if it were not just a symptom of some other, more basic social process, but something that audiences consider valuable on its own terms. To find out what those terms are I reversed the normal way of looking at SF, sort of like a Magic Eye picture, so that science-fictionality would be my context, and the historical-contextual forces would be constructed by it. That’s actually a rather Old School approach, which is why I wrote in my intro that the book could be read as steampunk criticism. My premise is that SF has been a powerful imaginative force influencing the social imagination of the past long century.
That meant that I would take aesthetics seriously—though I don’t think the word even appears in The Seven Beauties. By aesthetics, I don’t mean the philosophy of beauty, or whatever, but the branch of thought that deals with design (including, maybe even foremost, narrative as design) and the way the imagination of design pervades our social lives. That was something I felt hadn’t been adequately addressed by other SF scholars. It meant that I would treat SF in all its forms—pulp and elite art, visual and musical SF, as well as literary, full-fledged texts and allusions to SF in political statements, ads, etc.—as if they all shared a certain quality, which I called science-fictionality, for lack of a better term. It also mean that I would treat social history as if it too had an aesthetic dimension made up of all the ideological myths and hypermodern folk stories running through it. It also meant that I would treat SF as if it were a branch of art—a particularly philosophical branch, even in its pulpiest, gaudiest forms—satisfying the needs that art is supposed to satisfy. That’s what led me to emphasize the playfulness of SF over its so-called cognitive, political, or ideological use-value.
And precisely because artistic pleasure was so important for me, I wanted to feel that pleasure in writingThe Seven Beauties, and to convey it, if possible. I expect that most folks will read the book as a fairly deadpan treatise that makes lots of claims, arguing that SF should be subjected to my categories and terms. But I hope that some readers will also get that the book isn’t actually about making truth claims. I hope that most folks will already wonder about the title. Why seven beauties? Who thinks in terms of sevens? Dualities, triads, semantic rectangles, maybe even pentangles can be treated in system-terms. But seven is over the line. You know that someone using a system of sevens has to be somewhat pixilated. The title alludes to a wonderful Persian poem, but that wasn’t my original, first-spark association. In the Hungarian folk-tales and retellings of the 1001 Nights that my mother read to me when I was a child, beautiful princesses and countries would be referred to as “seven-times beautiful”—probably a translation of a Persian and Turkish epithet. I figured that the notion of a “seven-times beautiful” genre of fiction would make it pretty clear that I was not approaching SF in a utilitarian way. I am willing to defend my terms in the book of course, but I hope some readers will also read it as playful, a sort of epic philosophical fantasy in scholarly language, maybe even a bit cracked, in the spirit of Borges, Nabokov, and Lem. There are many moments—the parts I like the best—where the argument flips into fun, and the claims I make are just pretexts for fiction.
So, in a nutshell, I want the book to be useful and useless at the same time.
MC: There have been aesthetic critics, as well as critics who aren’t necessarily identified as aesthetic critics but for whom “close reading” is central, who argue that the text is primary and that aesthetic criticism and social/political/historicist criticism is at best not literary criticism, at worst a distraction or a self-indulgence. How do reconcile your aesthetic and other concerns—or is the dichotomy too false to be useful?
I C-R: Yep . . . too false to be useful. If you pretend that you’re only looking at the words on the page, then you end up importing your own unconscious prejudices. It’s like those conservative jurists who think they have some mystical access to the words of the “founders.” But if you don’t read those words closely, working hard to understand the dimensions of form, rhetoric, usage, and genre-language, you end up using the art to illustrate abstract arguments that narrow the experience of interpretation—often to make political or moralizing points. The first group would like to ignore the social and material contexts from which the text emerges. The second group would like to ignore the complex psychological and spiritual effects that literary language and form can have. I have never felt any conflict between these two approaches. You simply have to keep subjecting what you learn from one approach to the other. It’s how dialectical criticism works.
MC: Your book is one in a small group of SF critical studies I can think of that does not spend a lot of time defending a particular definition or origin for science fiction. Instead of origins and definitions, you write of “the crystallization of SF”, which seems to me a provocative and useful term.
I C-R: The desire to define SF has probably been inspired by a sort of inferiority complex vis-à-vis more established kinds of art. If it has a definition, then it can be included among the other genres that have historical and academic definitions. But because the audiences for SF are so diverse, it’s not only difficult to come up with an academically acceptable definition, but many (most?) SF audiences don’t want one. They don’t give a damn one way or another about literary history or cultural theory. Some of the academic definitions are clearly disciplinary in both senses of the term—Darko Suvin’s notion of SF as a literature of cognitive estrangement is a sheepdog’s attempt to herd the genre toward social usefulness. A lot of the more fuzzy definitions are interesting because they reveal a deep-seated ambivalence about whether SF should be treated as a “serious” kind of fiction, or whether, as the Persuasions used to say, “one should never put a tuxedo on the funky blues.” So SF criticism is filled with definitions that are also parodies of definition; they basically mean “I know what it is when I see it” to insiders, and might look thoughtful to publishers and college administrators. I get the feeling that very few definers really care about the literary system in which such definitions might have a place. They might, however, want to get some of the respect that mainstream or literary writers are accorded.
I see the same complex of motives in looking for foundational texts. The argument goes—or used to go—that once you found the Ur-text, the great original, you could derive a tradition from it. Most of the time these Ur-texts reflect the critic’s area of expertise, the sphere of literature and culture he or she is most familiar with. Until recently, it was also important to show that SF had a pedigree in literature that was already academically acceptable. Lucian, Swift, Poe, and more recently Mary Shelley are all bona fide writers teachable in a literature survey. The Verne, Wells, Gernsback origin stories are a bit more complex, representing as they do different imperial cultural spheres: France, the U.K., and the U.S. But just because these origin stories may strike us as somewhat arbitrary doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely useful. Good cultural-literary historians can tell us a lot by focusing on a single plot. Just because we know that dozens of different stories can be told doesn’t mean we don’t learn from the one or two that actually are told. For the purposes of The Seven Beauties, I found a lot of Ur-texts. I figured it was better to respect all their stories.
As for the “crystal” of SF, I like the image not only because it evokes the solidification of several forces that have been at work invisibly, but also because a crystal has lots of facets. There were times in writingSeven Beauties when I thought of the book in those terms: the beauties were seven facets of one jewel. (I was way into the Persian imagery at the time.) It’s a given, I think, that different folks will have different views of what SF is. Peter Stockwell argues that our ideas of SF are determined by the prototypes that we were first exposed to. Some people simply can’t include anything that has magic or occult aspects in it as SF; others think that The Lord of the Rings is SF. (Personally, I lean hard to the first position.) But I began my work with the assumption that most people agree that there is something like “science-fictionality,” even if they have looser or tighter ideas about what is included by the term. There are outliers, of course. Some readers think all fantasy is equal to science fiction; Suvinians believe that 99% of what is considered SF (or “sci-fi”) isn’t worthy of the name. But the vast majority of people have an inkling that there is some quality that works of SF share. That’s what I wanted to explore in Seven Beauties.
MC: Within various SF communities there is an anxiety about respectability—the “SF don’t get no respect” canard is still strong, and often seems to be mixed with contradictory desires: the desire for respect and the pleasure of a perceived outsider status. This often seems to be tied to SF’s place in the academy, and there are still panels at (non-academic) conventions arguing about whether academic attention is worthwhile. What has been your experience of this, as someone who came to SF partly through the academy? Is the tension real, and is it productive?
I C-R: The tension is still real, and sometimes it may even be productive. I’m actually pretty ambivalent about it. There are still many academic places where SF is looked down on—especially in Europe. And there are still lots of fans—and even writers—who think that academic attention is some sort of effete fashion, or the actual death-knell of SF—and that’s especially true in the U.S., where scholarship and academic life get little respect in society at large. For writers, this gets knotty. I recall one academic SF conference where Harlan Ellison was a guest speaker. Harlan is notoriously contemptuous of academics, but he was apparently feeling his mortality because he was trying to make nice with the attending professors and grad students. He was open about it: he felt he needed critics and scholars to keep his reputation alive after he was dead, since fans don’t keep up their enthusiasm long for dead people, and publishers even less. He couldn’t keep it up and quickly reverted to the old insulting Harlan, but it was an eye-opener for me. The idea that fans, writers, and scholars are in competition with each other makes zero sense to me. Again, I think this is mainly a U.S., and perhaps U.K., thing. I worked hard to write Seven Beauties without using the jargon and technical terms of some of the more esoteric schools of criticism so that it would reach folks who aren’t familiar or sympathetic with them. I have been surprised, though, that readers sometimes complain about philosophical or critical language that one would expect any educated person to be familiar with. I do believe, though, that there is a danger in making SF into an academic specialty. Most scholars of SF so far have been trained in something else—like American fiction, drama, feminist theory, Renaissance literature, history and so forth—and their work is distinctive because of the way they bring their other expertise to bear on SF. I’m somewhat suspicious of treating SF as if it were a circumscribed subject with a canon and set of reading protocols that students would have to take exams in.
MC: You utilize Darko Suvin’s idea of “the novum” (itself adapted from Ernst Bloch’s use of the term), but your use is not as narrow as Suvin’s. What attracted you to the idea of “the novum” and why did you feel the need to define it differently?
I C-R: I became interested in the novum relatively late in writing Seven Beauties. I had always expected that it would be major concept, but I didn’t think I had much to add to Suvin’s famous discussion of it inMetamorphoses of Science Fiction—unlike the idea of cognitive estrangement, Suvin’s other main contribution to SF studies, which I find problematic. But as I was researching the origin of the term in the writing of Ernst Bloch, I was struck by two things: how different Suvin’s use of the term is, and how little any of the—often New Left Marxist, Bloch-friendly—critics commented on this difference. Personally, I don’t agree with Bloch’s quasi-mystical notion of the novum as something that always presages a movement toward collective human liberation. I don’t go in for eschatology much, and Bloch’s use of the term strikes me as crypto-eschatological. But I discovered I don’t agree with Suvin’s more narrow use of term, either. I was actually surprised how useful the idea is. If modern consciousness is predicated on conceiving of some things as new, i.e., unprecedented and unpredicted by history up to that point, then we need a name for that concept. Suvin argues that the novum in SF—which appears as a new thing that changes all the relations in the fictional world—necessarily implies a progressive enlightenment of sorts, as if historical consciousness is always involved in a struggle between the idea of history as something fated versus something that can be changed by collective human will. For me, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the novum should be viewed as necessarily progressive, since as often as not a historical innovation can demolish previously established beneficial institutions, and also it can change things in a way that dislodges us from all customary ways of thinking. If it’s really new, then it changes values as well as conditions. That’s why more and more SF texts involve more than one novum, and these can lead to splits in history, lateral shifts to unpredicted new conditions, or even parallel universes. But there’s a wonderful, fascinating paradox in novum: the fact that there is word for it implies that there is a category of recurring things that share this quality of newness. It becomes what I called with some irony “the archetype of the new.” That’s where narrative becomes so important, since SF seems to say that every moment of new rupture with the past is then reconfigured into a new history back-propagated from that rupture. Which is probably how myths worked in archaic societies.
MC: You note in Seven Beauties that you have chosen to discuss mostly texts that are generally familiar to SF readers so as to make your ideas as accessible as possible. What are some texts that you might have included if were they more familiar?
I C-R: I would have loved to have discussed stories by Ted Chiang and R.A. Lafferty; Charles Platt’sThe Gas; untranslated texts by Lem and the Strugatskys brothers and other Soviet Thaw writers like Vladimir Savchenko, Olga Larionova, Valentina Zhuravleva, Gennadi Gor, Ilya Varshavsky, Kir Bulychev; movies such as Navigator and Planeta Bur; the Hungarian cartoon series The Mezga Family. My earlier drafts had longer looks at works by Greg Egan, Ian Banks, and Naomi Mitchison. The problem with familiarity is: familiar to whom? If the book had been addressed only to insiders in SF fandom and scholarship, very few things should count as unfamiliar. But I also wanted to reach folks not on the inside, so my criterion became: are they representative? For insiders, that makes for boring reading, but for folks who are new to the genre, it’s a way to steer them to the classics. I respect classics in every sense of the term; I believe there is a reason they stand the tests of time.
MC: The reasons that something becomes a classic—that test of time—I assume you would see as being the product of certain discourses and practices rather than essential features of the texts? Does the SF critical world have someone comparable to (to use a particularly prominent example) Edward Said in questioning canonicity?
I C-R: Practically everyone in SF-studies questions canonicity all the time. In fact, it’s something of an embarrassment that we often return to certain texts. Some of these were simply the ones that were analyzed repeatedly in sophisticated ways when the whole SF-studies enterprise began—like Dick, Le Guin, Russ, Lem, Delany, Wells, and later Gibson . . . the usual suspects. And there’s a similar one for film. Canonicity is a complex thing. It’s easy to attack the Rule of Usual Suspects as too exclusive, especially of marginalized groups. But writers read each other and have their models; when we start reading seriously, we want to read the best examples of whatever we are interested in. We have to examine our standards ceaselessly, but we still want to experience and communicate what gives us the most pleasure and the greatest challenge. And when we are talking to each other about such things, we usually look for the examples that many people agree are good to spend time experiencing.
Of course I’m not claiming that texts have essential features that make them classics. One of the dominant current materialist views of genre is that it is entirely a matter of a historical moment and the social-economic formation that produces it, and to speak of a genre as having any transhistorical existence is a category error. The same sort of argument would work for canons, and for “classics.” We wouldn’t read dusty old Greek dramas and Shakespeare plays if we weren’t forced to by conservative sheepdogs. In some cases this is probably true. But how does that explain that we see the same sorts of comic constructions on TV sitcoms that Roman comedians used? Some things don’t change much. We all still die. Tyrants oppress the weak. The worst laid plans sometimes work out. Lovers think they are the first to feel real passion. Parents still fight with their kids. Sometimes a work of art articulates feelings and thoughts about these “human condition” things that strike us as powerful experiences, and sometimes we have to be educated in their language to experience those things. And we believe we gain by sharing that experience. Of course not every classic lasts, and the body of classics should expand. But it seems like a presentist prejudice to deny that they can exist.
MC: In The Seven Beauties you note that SF readers “tend to give writers the benefit of the doubt that the science brought forward is accurate—a trust that is abused, but perhaps no more than in realistic fiction that lays claim to readers’ trust and yet delivers images of life from distorted class, gender, or racial perspectives.” Is SF less prone to distorted class, gender, and racial perspectives—or does it just add inaccurate science to them as well?
I C-R: No, I don’t think there’s anything about the genre that necessarily liberates it from social prejudices. In fact, as fiction with popular roots, it tends to respond quickly to changes in social attitudes, and these are often new distortions rather than mere expansions. My point was not to condemn realistic fiction in comparison with SF; quite the contrary, I just wanted to note that readers buy into the illusion world of realistic fiction, suspending social disbelief, and that the same sort of thing happens with SF with regard to scientific disbelief. Even Leninist critics venerated Tolstoy’s War and Peace, even though it presents the world as if only aristocratic consciousness matters. Some critics, like Carl Freedman, argue that we shouldn’t critique a past work of SF just because the science it purports to base its story on is has been superseded. I would argue that there is no sincerity test for judging whether a writer truly believes the science in his or her story, or is ironic about it. The truth of the science in SF is not an essential part of it. SF’s raw material is not science, but a culture’s understanding of it. Not the same thing.
MC: The concept of the sublime seems central to a lot of what you have to say about science fiction. Why is this concept one that particularly appeals to you when discussing SF?
I C-R: I wasn’t aware that it was more important to Seven Beauties than, say, the grotesque. In fact, I think of the two as going hand in hand in SF. For me, the sublime and grotesque are the areas where traditional aesthetics articulates the “sense of wonder” that so many folks consider a core quality of SF. Artists know that they have to stimulate these two senses if they are going to make successful SF; and audiences are drawn to SF in order to feel them. I want to stress that SF’s sublime and grotesque are very specific. The experiences are always linked to scientific invention and discovery—as opposed to the traditional (classical) forms of the concepts, which are linked mainly to nature. One of the functions of SF—maybe the most important one for its audiences—is to express the senses of surprising magnitude, force, and metamorphosis that science keeps producing. But since SF is a mainly mass-produced popular art, after a while the representation tends to become ironic. Adult viewers of SF may first go to SF to feel childlike awe and shock, but they go back to observe how those feelings are constructed and used.
MC: I didn’t mean to misrepresent the book—you’re right that the idea of the grotesque is paired with the idea of the sublime. I think I was so taken with the latter simply because it links the famous “sense of wonder” venerated by so many SF readers to a literary and philosophical history that I found particularly interesting. China Miéville brought up the concept actually in an interview he did with Jeff VanderMeer for Weird Tales:
I’ve been thinking about the traditional notion of the "sublime," which was always (by Kant, Schopenhauer, et al) distinguished from the "Beautiful," as containing a kind of horror at the immeasurable scale of it. I think what the Weird can do is question the arbitrary distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime, and operate as a kind of Sublime Backwash, so that the numinous incomparable awesome slips back from "mountains" and "forests," into the everyday. So . . . the Weird as radicalized quotidian Sublime.
Miéville’s use of it here seems perhaps the opposite of yours, which would be an interesting way of differentiating between science fiction and other types of fantastic literatures. That got me wondering about the grotesque, which is obviously linked to fantasy and horror and weird fiction. Do you see the grotesque operating in a fundamentally different way in science fiction from other sorts of fiction?
I C-R: I think I’d approach things differently from China. I’m surprised actually that he would use the Sublime/Beautiful distinction for his kind of fantasy. I’m curious to see how he makes it work. I think the sublime/grotesque dialectic works much better for his New Crobuzon books—The Scar emphasizes the sublime, the other two the grotesque, but they interpenetrate throughout. My argument in Seven Beauties (such as it is) is that the sublime and the grotesque are interrelated “senses of wonder.” The one concerns uncontrollable vast things greater than human awareness, the other the constant metamorphosis of things that human minds think are stable and under control. I think the dialectical distinction works fine for fantasy, too. What differentiates SF is that the sublime and the grotesque are inexorably associated with science and technology. In fantasy, that’s not necessary. Perdido Street Station, to take an example from China, has both science-fictional and non-SF elements of both. The principles of crisis energy and the water-engineering of the vodyanoi I’d consider science-fictional sublime, since they are clearly associated with the imaginary science of that world; the Remades and the Construct Council are examples of scientific grotesque, since they reveal surprising metamorphoses predicated on imaginary technologies. The Slake Moths, however, seem fantastically sublime, since they apparently exist and do their dream-vampirism “in nature,” while the Khepri, for example, seem fantastically grotesque: scarab-headed humans. China is a master of sliding from one to the other. But since the “nature” of his world has undergone a metamorphosis from the one in ours (if only in our imaginations), I’m more inclined to treat it as fantasy than SF.
MC: You have written previously about SF’s relationship to colonialism, imperialism, and empire, and the topic comes up in The Seven Beauties as well. Has SF had a different relationship to these ideas than other types of fiction? What must be kept or thrown away if a writer wants to create postcolonial SF?
I C-R: It all depends on what one means by “postcolonial.” There have been many diverse attempts to write SF in one sense of the term, from the perspective of a historically marginalized culture now liberated from cultural imperialism. It has been a major theme—I can think of a varied slate of works: Mike Resnick’s Kirinyaga, Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and No Longer Coming Home, Geoff Ryman’s Air, practically everything by Nalo Hopkinson, Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt, Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Watson’s The Embedding, much of Ballard, Lem’s Fiasco, on and on. These are all varyingly successful. One problem is that the term postcolonial can be interpreted in at least two ways: as a term of merit for thought that asserts the dignity and culture of populations that have been oppressed by European colonial overlords, or a descriptive term for any kind of thought produced after the end of official colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s. Most folks tend to use the term in the first sense. So if we are talking only about that first sense, I think SF has had postcolonial themes for a long time, at least since the Third World liberation movements became news. If we include the Soviet Union, there have been anti-colonial themes in Soviet and East European SF for the past fifty years—even longer if we include Capek. (Of course, one might argue that the Soviet bloc just excluded its own colonialism from the definition of the term.) Since postcolonialism represents not only a popular field of inquiry in universities, but is also a rich market niche, we will certainly see lots of “postcolonial SF.” But I’m not completely comfortable with that way of approaching the problem. “The Postcolonial Condition” is a complex thing, but it tends to be defined almost entirely in terms of historical and cultural identities that are being mixed up and hybridized. The most relevant imperial force for SF isn’t political or national-cultural, however, it’s the global rationalization of techno-science. It’s one thing for folks to assert their independence from foreign occupiers or their banks, quite another to assert independence from the webwork of interlocking technologies that gain greater and greater momentum in global relations, and which are served by an international elite. Of course, SF has been in the forefront of expressing that theme, too, on both sides: pushing the programs of the imperial dominators, and critiquing them too.
MC: Finally, what’s next for you?
I C-R: Idle hands are the devil’s playthings. I’m working furiously to prepare the first issue of a new online journal that I’m editing: Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies, which will appear at the beginning of September. I’m focusing on animal/human studies for a while, though I’m finishing up some articles on SF and music, SF and pornography, and SF’s relationship to surrealism.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009