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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, November 19, 2006

SFS roundtable on science fiction criticism

The current issue of Science Fiction Studies has an interesting "roundtable" on the current state and possible future of science fiction criticism, with contributions by many of the journal's editorial consultants.

My own contribution slips in a complaint that some science fiction criticism makes the mistake of treating science fiction as just another field of popular culture, more or less interchangeable with others.

However, that is not the main thrust of my argument. I argue that science fiction has been made possible by the widespread (though by no means universal) acceptance of two theses:

First, we inhabit an incomprehensibly vast universe whose origins lie deep in time. Our beginnings as a species are temporally remote and our final destiny unknown.

Second, all known social and cultural forms, including those we have experienced in our own lifetimes, are mutable.

Not all science fiction fully embraces these theses - some sf displays a degree of resistance to them, whether intentional or merely incidental and perhaps unconscious, as when people in future societies seem to show concerns and psychological characteristics that resemble those of current Westerners. Still, the genre could not exist without the development of these great ideas over the last few centuries - especially with the nineteenth century's double-whammy encounter with Darwinian evolutionary theory plus the process of rapid industrialisation and accompanying social change.

Another contributor, Nicholas Ruddick, makes a similar point: "I understand sf as an unprecedented literature emerging from the Darwinian revolution, and expect the good stuff to grapple with the predicament of the human species in a scientifically conceived universe." He suggests that the best science fiction of the Golden Age (the late 1930s to late 1940s when science fiction developed as a self-conscious genre under the editorial guidance of John W. Campbell) showed this kind of awareness.

Finally, I identify a third thesis about the human situation that is addressed (but sometimes resisted, rather than embraced) in much current science fiction:

Third, we, as individuals or a species, are technologically alterable, and may even be superseded by our posthuman mind-children.

I suggest that science fiction critics need to grapple seriously with this last claim on something like its own terms. Critics need not, of course, have personal opinions one way or another about the truth of the third thesis - which is highly controversial. In that sense, it is not like first two theses, which I think any educated person must now accept. However, scholarly critics of the genre should be aware of it, and be able to explicate how it appears, is endorsed, resisted, qualified, or complexified (or some or all the above) in science fiction texts.

Engagement with the three theses I've identified would give science fiction criticism a heart of its own, rather than being just the application of critical practice to one more area. Without this kind of focus, there is a risk that, as still another contributor (Brooks Landon) puts it, we may lose sight of the possibility that "science fiction might truly be a different way of constructing and interrogating our lives."


Blake Stacey said...

All three of these thesis seem to connect with evolutionary and/or biocultural literary criticism. See in this context Brian Boyd's essay in the Autumn 2006 American Scholar, "Getting it All Wrong: Biolculture Critiques Cultural Critique", summarized by Jason Rosenhouse here and here. I managed to scrounge a PDF copy, here.

Russell Blackford said...

I'll read it when I get a chance.

Blake Stacey said...

Along the same lines, I find this unaccountably funny:

It may be that much literature makes sense in the light of the current warhorses of critical analysis: Marx, Freud, textualism, postmodernism, "queer theory," and so forth. But it is equally likely that a good deal of literature (just as life itself) makes more sense in the light of evolution. Accordingly, literary critics might well profit by adding Darwinian analysis to their armamentarium. After all, whereas Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Jung, Foucault, Derrida, and others offer intellectual richness, so does Darwin. Moreover, Darwin has an additional appeal: He was right. To be sure, evolution is only one discourse among many, but there is something to be said for the benefits of basing an interpretive project on empirical validity rather than on idle speculation, airy disquisitions on indeterminacy, or the presumed impossibility of any rational discourse whatever.

Russell Blackford said...

LOL. That said, Marx and Freud did get some things right in my humble opinion. Still, I agree that Darwin has a much better track record overall.

I read the article by Boyd. Part of the trouble is that such debates are held at a level of abstraction so high that it can be difficult to know what is really at stake for critical practice. Still, I do agree that a thorough grounding in Darwinian theory is likely to be more useful to almost anyone than a grounding in Marx or Freud or someone like Derrida.

When it comes to criticism of science fiction, I think the important thing is to be well grounded in the ideas that have actually influenced science fiction writers and people who have been influenced by science fiction.

Just before the sentence I quoted, Brooks Landon says: "We're much more likely to encounter interrogation of issues identified in postcolonial studies, queer studies, or cultural studies rather than issues associated with the concept of the novum, much less the 'sense of wonder' - no matter how fraught we know those chestnut concepts to be."

I think this exactly right, though I don't think the concepts are chestnuts. They are important to how science fiction is organised structured and read. What Landon is describing is a bad thing, in my view, because it obscures an investigation of sf as sf.

Landon adds, "Of course, in most respects that's a very good thing" - well, I disagree - but then he concludes with the words I quoted in the blog: "but it does to some extent divert our critical attention from the possibility, if not the fact, that science fiction may be a truly different way of constructing and interrogating our lives." This bit seems to me to be exactly right, and well said indeed.