Fashioned of vovax and adorned with bernital

“By way of illustration, I have chosen more or less arbitrarily the following fragments:

(1) “A young lady with a blue merino dress trimmed with three rows of frills came to the doorstep. She introduced Mr. Bovary in the kitchen, where a big fire had been kindled.” (Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary [1856])

(2) “Around the swimming pool were strangely shaped chairs made of blen- tox . . . . Over her driscoll she was wearing an iridescent gown fashioned of vovax and adorned with bernital inlays.” (B.-R. Bruss, Complot Venus Terre [1963], chapt. 1).

“Obviously the second fragment belongs to SF. The presence of four “neologisms” enables the reader to come to that conclusion unhesitatingly. But can these made-up words really be considered as neologisms? If not, what are they? How is the sentence intelligible through their opacity and “meaninglessness”? What type of message does the text convey, if it is not totally intelligible? What type of reading pleasure is invested here that is different from the one experienced with Flaubert?

“Underlying these questions is another more basic one. The quotation from Bruss, it is true, exemplifies the most mediocre SF (more complex examples will be discussed in the pages to follow). But with its clumsy attempt at estrange- ment (“strangely shaped”), it serves for the purpos of comparison. The ques- tion, then, is how to differentiate a “blue merino dress trimmed with three rows of frills” from “an iridescent gown fashioned of vovax and adorned with bernital inlays.” A reader not versed in the frivolities of fashion in the first half of the nineteenth century would have some trouble in making any distinction. He might find words like “merino” and “frills” just as queer as “vovax” and “bernital.” But this does not mean that an apprehension of the realistic character of a narrative is totally subjective. It only shows that reading requires a code.”

Text: Marc Angenot, The Absent Paradigm: An Introduction to the Semiotics of Science Fiction (Le Paradigmeabsent, éléments d’une sémiotique de la SF), Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Mar., 1979), pp. 9-19

Image: Tom Alberts, Gold Boy, 2011. Charles Nodrum Gallery.

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