Transizion

“Science is a way of thinking about reality that takes its objectivity for granted. Fiction is a way of describing reality that assumes the subjectivity of experience—for every fiction, a different way of seeing things, a different reality. The two words together contradict each other. A thing cannot be both “science” and “fiction” at the same time, any more than it can be both “reality” and “fiction.”

“We don’t talk about “reality fiction”; we talk about “realistic fiction,” literature that seems real even though we know it is fictional. But despite numerous attempts to change the name, we do talk about “science fiction.” I suspect the name evokes the central paradox of the genre; science fiction pretends to take the objectivity of the world it describes for granted, yet clearly does not describe the objective world as we know it to be. It is “scientific,” but clearly unrealistic.

“[Darko] Suvin’s “Cognitive estrangement” is the “factual reporting of fictions.” For Suvin, this has the significant effect of separating or “estranging” us from our usual assumptions about reality. “Estrangement” is Suvin’s version of Bertold Brecht’s “Verfremdung,” usually translated as “alienation.” Brecht was talking about describing familiar things as if they were unfamiliar; not quite logically, Suvin borrows the phrase to comment on how science fiction describes unfamiliar things as if they were familiar. But for Suvin the final effect is the same; by Brechtian distancing or by the unfamiliarity of science fictional worlds, we are estranged from our assumptions about reality and forced to question them.”

Text: Perry Nodelman, The Cognitive Estrangement of Darko Suvin, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly Volume 5, Number 4, Winter 1981.

Video: Transizion, Suna Celik [2013].

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First and last men

“On waking one morning, B was surprised to see that Shepperton was deserted. He entered the kitchen at nine o’clock, annoyed to find that neither his post nor the daily newspapers had been delivered, and that a power failure prevented him from preparing his breakfast. He spent an hour staring at the melting ice that dripped from his refrigerator, and then went next door to complain to his neighbor.

“Surprisingly, his neighbor’s house was empty. His car stood in the drive, but the entire family—husband, wife, children, and dog—had disappeared. Even more odd, the street was filled by an unbroken silence. No traffic moved along the nearby motorway, and not a single aircraft flew overhead toward London Airport. B crossed the road and knocked on several doors. Through the windows, he could see the empty interiors. Nothing in this peaceful suburb was out of place, except for its missing tenants.

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“Thinking that perhaps some terrible calamity was imminent—a nuclear catastrophe, or a sudden epidemic after a research-laboratory accident—and that by some unfortunate mishap he alone had not been warned, B returned home and switched on his transistor radio. The apparatus worked, but all the stations were silent, the Continental transmitters as well as those of the United Kingdom. Disconcerted, B returned to the street and gazed at the empty sky. It was a calm, sun-filled day, crossed by peaceful clouds that gave no hint of any natural disaster.

“B took his car and drove to the center of Shepperton. The town was deserted, and none of the shops were open. A train stood in the station, empty and without any of the passengers who regularly travelled to London. Leaving Shepperton, B crossed the Thames to the nearby town of Walton. There again he found the streets completely silent. He stopped in front of the house owned by his friend P, whose car was parked in her drive. Using the spare key that he carried, he unlocked the front door and entered the house. But even as he called her name he could see that there was no trace of the young woman. She had not slept in her bed. In the kitchen, the melting ice of the refrigerator had formed a large pool on the floor. There was no electric power, and the telephone was dead…”

The Autobiography of J.G.B, The New Yorker. Read more

The numinous dimension

“In keeping with the tendency of science to objectify the natural world, space, the numinous dimension, was gradually stripped of its mythic qualities and made an extension of earthly reality. An atlas of the year 1652 illustrates a halfway point in this process. Peter Heylyn’s World Geography places the moon in the same dimension of reality as the new territories of Australia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands; alongside them are maps of Utopia and Fairyland. New conquests and colonies fueled dreams of conquering space. In 1638 the Bishop of Chester published a book predicting the inevitable conquest of the moon by some airborne Drake or Columbus; what concerned the author was the pressing need for missionaries able and willing to convert the lunarian heathen. In the same year, and in 1659, popular romances by Francis Godwin and Cyrano de Bergerac described voyages to the moon that included the traditional layover in the Earthly Paradise setting. Instead of Eden, however, the paradisiacal locations were St. Helena’s Island and Canada. The numinous dimension had been thoroughly assimilated to the expansion of colonial empires.

the-moon

“The changing view of space paralleled the cultural transition from the belief in maternal nature to the modern concept of inanimate nature. With the objectification of space, nature is physically appropriated, while its numinous aspect is pushed off the map of a newly rationalized world. (An interesting side effect of all this involves the sense of – time. The numinous dimension was timeless and changeless. But when space became conquerable territory, time was also objectified. History became a charted map of exploration and conquest, while the future was more of the same, an automatic extension of the map of conquest. In other words, if you looked at Peter Heylyn’s map, you saw lands that had already been conquered, history and lands that hadn’t yet but would be, in the future.)”

Myths of The Final Frontier in The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality, by Sharona Ben-Tov. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1995. pp 90-91.

Image: FRONTISPIECE: The early modern moon. From Johannes Hevelius, Selenographia: Sive, Lunae descriptio; atque accurata . . . delineatio…. Early Modern Space Travel and the English Man in the Moon

New Vision of a Visionless World

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“Over the last seventy-five years it has been science fiction, more than any other genre, that has appropraited [the Hegelian] vision and continued to develop it. In 1926 Hugo Gernsback published the world’s first magazine dedicated to science fiction, and even in the introduction to that first issue, science fiction was already designated as “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Here, the ideas of “science”, “vision” and “future” (suggested by “prophecy”) are already clearly indicated. From these three ideas emerged the golden age of the forties, followed successively by other grand “prophetic visions” such as Robert Heinlein’s Future Histories series and Issac Asimov’s Galatic Empire series (1950-52).

“Ironically, it was precisely at this time that grand narratives like these were becoming obsolete in the real world. The thirties marked the dawn of science fiction and at the same time saw the Nazi’s narrative give birth to Auschwitz and witnessed the Marxist-Lenninist narrative turn into Stalinism. By this time, science fiction’s American consumers were probably aware that it was the uncontrollable spread of these “sciences” and “prophetic visions” that was causing the world to fall apart. Of course, people cannot live without some sort of dream or vision…

“This essence of the genre hasn’t changed much. On its surface, of course, science fiction has gone through a huge transformation since the forties. […]. If someone were to ask what characteristic lies at the core of science fiction, I believe that many fans would still say it is the “grand narrative” or “grand vision.” For science fiction to be science fiction, some kind of vision must be proposed, even if it is a vision of science’s failure or of a dark, foreboding future.In the eighties, cyberpunk filled this role. It was not that the worlds of cyberpunk lacked vision, these authors captured readers’ attention precisely because of their elegant new vision of a visionless world.

“At the core of the science fiction genre lies the paradoxical doctrine that it must continue to depict visions, even when grand visions are impossible. In other words, it is in science fiction that the ideal of the nineteenth century philosophy – the desire for the whole of twentieth century philosophy had to reject – still lives and breathes.”

SF as Hamlet: Science Fiction and Philosophy, Azumi Hiroki [trans. Miri Nakamura], in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Romay Jr & Takayuki Tatsumi [eds]. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007. pp 77-78.

Romance and wonder

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“One of the main reasons for describing science fiction as a form of romance is that its subject-matter is romantic: in Shelley’s words, it is not concerned with ‘ordinary relations of existing events.’ Modern SF has done its best to convey the sheer excitement [and horror] of the vistas opened up by science and technology. Like its literary predecessor, the ‘marvellous voyage’, it has often set out to amaze and astound its readers. But if wonder is the authentic response to much science fiction, it is also a very wide spread mode of literary experience. There is, no doubt, something science-fictional in Miranda’s exclamation in The Tempest:

O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t!”

Science fiction as romance,  in Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching, by Patrick Parrinder. Published by Taylor & Francis, 1980, P52.

Revelation Space

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“The depiction of filmic space in recent years is marked by the possibilities of digital technology to create new worlds and new visions, and yet this creation is accomplished in a predetermined way. While sometimes taking a leap into space, we do so in a way that is both breathtaking and familiar. Consider the remarkable opening shot of Contact [1997], a film that is somewhere between 2001 and Star Wars in its combination of metaphysics and childhood fantasy.

“Digital technology can change the actual in ways impossible for earlier technologies: Whether building upon images of objects from our own reality or starting from scratch, computer graphics and animation have the capacity to bring us into space that resemble the interior spaces of the mind. This realization informs the opening shot of Contact: Begining with discordant and random radio noises, giving us a brief history lesson of recent years, the camera pulls away from an image of the Earth to recede into the space and silence of our solar system, the Milky Way, and other galaxies – only to conclude in the eye of a young girl, Ellie Arroway, who will grow up to be an astronomer and the film’s heroine.

“As Ron Mangid notes, the images of the journey through space are poetic recreations of the digitized images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Unlike other space journeys […] which visualise a forward movement and penetration into space, this one gives us the perspective of receding itno space, of viewing the universe as it rushes past us, ultimately to create the sense of the universe terminating in the girl’s mind. These 5,000 frames create a prolonged three-minute shot that appears to verify [the] thesis that in the midst of new technology and new spatial visions on the screen, filmic space is still under the control of the eyes and the mind of the viewer, a point underscored by the recognisable quattrocentro perspectives that structures the entire shot.”

Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction, by Gary Westfahl, Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. P 74.

Cognition Engine

The debate concerning the proper definition of SF is extensive. The 1979 edition of the The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction gave over twenty definitions. By 1993 editorial staff had whittled it down to eleven. The Science Fiction Reference Book quotes sixty-eight definitions. The majority of such definitions of SF are unsatisfactory, some are flippant and most miss something crucial…

donalddavis_2_standford

The debate concerning the proper definition of SF is extensive. The 1979 edition of the The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction gave over twenty definitions. By 1993 editorial staff had whittled it down to eleven. The Science Fiction Reference Book quotes sixty-eight definitions. The majority of such definitions of SF are unsatisfactory, some are flippant and most miss something crucial. One cannot say that SF is realism because it is not limited to the methods of realistic description: for the same reason SF cannot be classed as naturalism. To define SF as “narratives of the future” is also mistaken. As Philip K.Dick writes, “it is not the job, really, of Science Fiction to predict. Science Fiction only seems to predict. It’s like the aliens on Star Trek, all of whom speak English. A literary convention is involved. Nothing more.”Dick gives another very simple reason why SF cannot be defined as fiction of the Future; namely there can be science fiction set in the present; the alternate world story or novel.

If SF can neither be defined as narratives of the future, nor as technological fiction and if it is not realism, naturalism or myth, then what exactly is it?

Hugo Gernsback’s definition “of a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” identifies only SF’s “lower stages of development”, in the view of Darko Suvin, as does any definition which focuses on advanced technology, rather than on the “social arrangements these advances give rise to.” “Getting the technical details right” is not, according to Parrinder, the defining feature of SF. This is because SF writers deal with non-technologies — namely social and institutional extrapolations: living arrangements, norms of sexual behaviour, religious cults, even future art forms and board games. Williams makes the same point when he states that SF, in addition to exploring new technologies, can explore a new set of laws, such as new abstract property relations — what he terms “new social machinery.”

The Science of Fiction, New Humanist