September 21 – History

//September 21 – History
September 21 – History 2018-01-07T15:01:50-04:00

UPDATE: The Bailey excerpt is replaced with this reading:

Gunn, James and Michael Candelaria. 2005. Excerpt from Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. New York: Scarecrow Press (Rowman & Littlefield). (Available online here)

The chapter from Bailey will be available late Monday. It’s brief, but given the constraints on your schedules, reading it is now optional.  //Bailey, J.O. 1947. Excerpts from Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction. New York: Argus.//

Cheney, Matthew. 2009. “Ethical Aesthetics.” From The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, rev’d; Samuel R. Delaney. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan.  (Available online here)

Freedman, Carl. 1987. “Science Fiction and Critical Theory.” Science Fiction Studies 14(2): 180-200.  (Available online here)

Jameson, Frederic. 2002. “Radical Fantasy.” Historical Materialism 10(4): 273-80.  (Available online here)

Williams, Raymond. 1978. “Utopia and Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 5(3):203-14.  (Available online here and for download here)


  1. Sigrid von wendel September 21, 2016 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    This week’s readings discuss the evolution of SF and SF criticism. Williams refers to different “generations of SF.” How can we characterize the other main generations of SF? What generation of SF are we currently in? And what new utopias and dystopias do we imagine in this generation?

    In Freedman’s conclusions, he discusses how a burst of SF texts emerged out of the Cold War stasis in West. What comparisons can we make between Cold War and post-Cold War SF?

    In his introduction to The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Cheney quotes Delany’s argument that “mundane fiction can get by with a clear and accurate portrayal of behavior that occurs merely because it occurs. Science fiction cannot” (p.9). Delany applied this criticism to Le Guin’s deficient (in his opinion) portrayal of sex and sexuality in The Dispossessed. But presenting an entirely new world of sex and sexuality seems like it could be a book on its own, especially as Delany stresses the need to address “the erotic, the exotic, the sensual, and the sexual.” What SF texts successfully meet Delany’s standards in their treatment of sex and sexuality?

    I liked Freedman’s suggestion that we consider a text’s various “SF tendencies” instead of making hard delineations between what is or is not SF. This approach seems useful not just for examining SF, but all genres. Later in the text, however, Freedman makes such a distinction that I’m not sure I agree with. He declares “The Man in the High Castle is certainly SF” (p.197). Having not read or watched The Man in the High Castle, there’s a big limit to how much I can defend my disagreement. But knowing the basic plot and elements of the story, and reading Freedman’s description, it seems more fitting to say that the text has critical theory tendencies rather than SF tendencies. Freedman convincingly draws parallels between SF and critical theory or investigation, but the two are not synonymous. It seems the main SF tendency of The Man is it’s critical examination, but there are plenty of texts that are critical (Orlando by Virginia Woolf to name one), but not SF. “Critical, dialectical interrogation” coupled with an alternative present is not unique to SF. Similarly, it is a SF tendency to be concerned with “psychology and epistemology” over action, but that does not mean that all texts discussing with those topics are automatically SF (p.190). With this in mind, can we instead consider the The Man in the High Castle to have critical theory tendencies, not SF tendencies? Or what makes it more uniquely SF?

    Freedman’s account of SF being left out of the canon made me wonder: what does the establishment achieve by excluding SF?

  2. Johnathan McCauley September 21, 2016 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    In Cheney’s discussion of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, among other insights, Cheney writes that “science fiction is special because of its language.” Science fiction requires a sophistication of the imagination in its readers that other genres may not. I felt that this point was further reinforced through Cheney’s reflection on his inability to grapple with the Delaney stories he found in the library as a young man. On this experience he says, “I couldn’t turn the sentences into images or actions in my head because I didn’t know enough about life.”

    My initial question continuously unravels like a ball of yarn. What role does the language of the imagination play in the science fiction writer-reader transaction? What is lost, or even found, when one mis-imagines what is written (or dangerously speaking – what is meant by the author) on the page? Given that science fiction is fundamentally a literature of the imagination, a literature of change, a literature of special language, why should it matter if one imagines that Jabba The Hut looks more like a pile of goop than a slug? Are inadequate or inaccurate reading experiences like Cheney’s as a young man necessary for growth into an “adequate” science fiction reader? Might these reading experiences actually enhance what is found on the page? Do Cheney’s later insights into science fiction, bolstered by reveries from his youth, gesture toward some kind of reading level requirements for science fiction works novel-by-novel? For example, if you can read Huck Finn, you can read 1984, etc. Or can and should we allow young readers to stumble through the difficult, nearly inaccessible reading by clinging to familiar concepts and words while imaginatively exploring the new through their own created meanings? I mean, after a few hundred pages, the context clues should carve out a relatively approximate mold for the inaccessible word or character, right? And if not, if the character or concept is just a ship passing in the night, never to be reintroduced or extrapolated or expanded upon, does it really matter if that ship is a battleship or submarine? This process of falling and grasping through a novel as a young reader is, I feel, much more akin to the process of creating a world of science fiction than what most of us now enjoy as experienced smooth reader. Most of us seamlessly, or at least almost effortlessly, comprehend the concepts of a story as they are offered up to us by the author. But don’t you miss the stumbling? Don’t you miss the mental exertion, the intellectual thrill, of wrestling an idea to the ground and twisting its parts around until it submits? Later on in this introductory essay, Cheney says of a certain literary theory, that “what it leaves out is as interesting as what it includes.” This comment is brought to new heights when considered in light of the aforementioned tangent on young readers misreadings. The inaccurate or inadequate reader will abort ideas from the novel that other more sophisticated readers would never consider leaving out. And I would argue that the same certainly goes for what they might choose to include.

  3. Sam September 21, 2016 at 4:06 pm - Reply

    1. In his “Ethical Aesthetics,” Matthew Cheney, summarizing Samuel Delany’s view of SF writes, “Science Fiction itself is other: It is a paraliterature, a working-class literature with a language different from the language of literature,” (p16). H. Bruce Franklin, cited in “Speculations on Speculation,” argues that “Science Fiction is “not inherently a separate category of literary production,” explaining that “science fiction aims to represent what is real in terms of a credible hypothetical invention.” Candelaria does note that this is not a universally accepted theory. Carl Freedman falls somewhere in the middle, offering a fluid idea of what SF means. If we are to apply a strict definition, such as Suvin’s presence of “estrangement and cognition,” we may discount Star Wars and include Brecht. So then, Freedman proposes that we must define a work as SF if the “tendency is sufficiently strong to be considered dominant,” (p182). The lines are blurred, but, according to Freedman, because literature is “socially determined” and the “powers-that-be have not wished SF to function with the social prestige that literature in the stronger sense enjoys,”(p184). SF remains “ghettoized.”

    Must SF certainly be considered “other” or separate? Is it creators or literary authorities who marginalize the genre, or both? What is there to be gained by wider acceptance as part of the literary canon? Alternatively, is there more to gain, being a form that deals with estrangement, by remaining in a sense estranged?

    2. By the same token, Freedman discusses the inevitability of canonization (of SF within a literary context, and within SF itself) and the fact that this process “may repress much that is generally new and critical within and beyond the genre,” (190). Candelaria, however, considers canonization of SF (in the sense of a continuity of texts and traditions, not acceptance in a greater literary community) to be a “ripening” of the genre, allowing for maturation and understanding. This is also a process which Candelaria notes as having been pretty well developed by the time of Freedman’s writing. In fact, Freedman is writing for a journal that Candelaria points to as a sign of this ripening. And greater consideration of SF in Critical Theory, which Freedman advocates, also aids in this process. He acknowledges these conflicts. This process has continued on since the periods both of these writers discussed. Would we say now, almost thirty years since Freedman wrote, that developments in SF have been repressed or aided by more serious and critical attention, and the canonizing instinct?

    3. These essays and the theories of the various thinkers described therein each moralize SF in some way. Cheney describes SF as having a “speculative responsibility,” (p. 21), which is mirrored by many of the definitions we encountered in these readings. If not blatantly a responsibility, writers speak of political and dialectical presuppositions for works within the genre. Must SF necessarily impart some moral, ethical, or philosophical lesson or idea? Is this necessarily different from our expectations of “mundane” fiction?

  4. Matthew Dischner September 21, 2016 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    Before I begin, let me note that higher level literary criticism is the biggest reason I did not pursue a graduate degree in English, even though I double majored in undergrad. I find it hindering, unhelpful, and obtuse.

    1) Why “SF”? I know the texts go into this a little in terms of SF versus “sci-fi,” but still the argument is unclear to me. It seems, if anything, to reek of elitism. Fiction, for example, is fiction, whether it is good or bad. “SF” seems to be used in a way that excludes science fiction of, supposedly, lesser quality. One may detest the SYFY channel, but its hard to argue most of its content is not science fiction. Is SF then a subcategory of science fiction, or simply an exclusionary way of demarcating science fiction?

    2) Continuing on that thought, why do so many of the authors we read for this week seem focused on extremely specific definitions of science fiction? I understand the need of a genre definition to be limiting, but literally every time I read one of these definitions I can think of a work of science fiction that doesn’t fit within its spectrum. Wouldn’t it be more useful to work on categorizing works within the umbrella of science fiction. Sub genres can be endlessly exclusive without pushing things out of the parent category.

    3) That all being said, I did find Jameson’s “Radical Fantasy” useful in terms of defining the separation between science fiction and fantasy. My question then, is what do we consider to be “science fantasy”? I’ve often, for instance, heard that Star Wars is better considered science fantasy as opposed to science fiction. Is there a distinction? Should we consider science fantasy a subgenre , of either fantasy or science fiction? Or should it be considered its own, separate genre?

  5. cpeterson September 21, 2016 at 9:06 pm - Reply

    1. ) I’m curious about the science fiction/the third world relationship. What are the social and philosophical implications of the statement that the third world does not have science fiction because it doesn’t need it. Is science fiction therefore a form of privilege? Does science fiction give “first world” readers access to another mode of experiencing the world that is closer to the third world? Does the experience of alienation of living in the third world mean third world writers and readers don’t “need” the experience of otherness?

    2. ) Why does Derrida keep coming up? Is there a relationship fundamentally between the definition of science fiction and postmodernism generally? Is this the historical reason for the academy’s delayed reception of science fiction as a true form of literature?

    3. ) Delaney’s thesis is that “science fiction wasn’t special because of its gadgets and its landscapes…. It was special because of its language, and the assumptions and techniques readers used to interpret that language.” If science fiction is a language of its own – what is the nature of that language? If that language necessarily is necessarily “non-mundane” i.e. un-earthly, can’t it be shown to be equivalent that “foreign worlds” means “special language?”

  6. iautin September 21, 2016 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    Okay, wow. I had no idea that the history of Sci-Fi criticism was this layered! I guess I fell captive to the tradition of aprioristic underestimation of science fiction.

    We saw many perspectives for this week, many of which can be put in direct opposition to each other. I thought the most useful framework for thinking of Sci-Fi was Fredric Jameson. Mostly becasue, although surprisingly for a postmodern critic, his writing was the most simple. Here are some of the questions I was left thinking about:

    Jameson contrasts Sci-Fi against fantasy and historical fiction. Where fantasy fiction reenacts the mentality of times gone, SF speculates about ways to come, and where historical fiction looks at documents of the past to reconstruct a fiction around a “real” past, SF turns to science to justify its direction. But, if whe change the temporality from modern to pre-modern of these genres, which of the two is really the most parallel to Science Fiction?

    Or is it both? Jameson explains that Sci-Fi and Fantasy use similar ways of achieving means that we don’t have present (magicXtech). But looking at the recent appalling success of George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire through it’s television adaptation, I think that it’s more of a combination of the two. Game of Thrones is set on a dystopian (is it dystopian what kind of dystopian? This will be question number three, expanded later) fantasy world based upon the conflict in medieval British history known as the war of the roses. This led to the series being mostly political and very frugal with its fantastic elements, which apparently is what made the show appeal to a massive audience and is now being deserted for its magical elements.

    Question three: I’m sorry, but I think this is relevant.

    There is an old joke that goes “A the Lord of the Rings fan is asked if he would like to live in the world of LOTR, and he responds that of course!He would love to be an elf living in Mirkwood or something. Then they ask a Harry Potter fan if he would like to trade his reality for that one created by J.K Rowling, and the Harry Potter fan responds that ‘Of course!’ he would love to be a student in Hogwartz. And then they ask a Game of Thrones fan if he would like to switch his life for one a characters in the books and the guy responds “No thanks, I’m fine here”.

    Is Game of Thrones a dystopia? Is it a hell-type dystopia? or is it an externally world? willed transformation? or tehcnological transformation (in retrospective)?

  7. Stacy Shirk September 21, 2016 at 9:58 pm - Reply

    Like others in the class, I find myself mulling over the claim that SF is special not because of the gadgets and its ideas of progress, etc., but because of its language. I go back and forth between agreeing and disagreeing with this statement, because part of the reason I think SF is so effective is the gadgets, landscapes, and visions of progress – those are what lead us to the feeling of escapism that, I believe, makes SF unique. I have trouble thinking of SF as a separate language, because truthfully, we still have not decided on parameters for it. Furthermore, how does this account for SF from different mediums? Can we really consider the two War of the Worlds movies as being the same “language”? I feel conflicted.

    I much prefer Gunn and Candelaria’s conclusion that SF isn’t just one thing: “It is the literature of change, the literature of anticipation, the literature of the human species, the literature of speculation, and more. And because it is the literature of change it is continually changing; if it remained constant, it would no longer be science fiction.” Does this answer satisfy? Do we agree? This definition reflects not just what SF is, but also how it portrays the world, which is another reason the genre is so enigmatic.

  8. jexcell September 21, 2016 at 10:00 pm - Reply

    Frederic Jameson asserts in “Radical Fantasy” that the emergence of science fiction as a genre signaled “a kind of uneasy and even painful mutation in historicity and the consciousness of the evolution of human society” (277). H. Bruce Franklin, as quoted in Speculations on Speculation, describes the aim of science fiction as an attempt “to represent what is real in terms of a credible hypothetical invention … extrapolated from … present reality.” In “Utopia and Science Fiction,” Raymond Williams contextualizes almost all of his assertions regarding the evolution and distinction of the science fiction genre within a historical frame of social and class struggle. This repeated acknowledgment of the influence of historical conditions on the generation of science fiction made me wonder- Is SF’s relationship to the social conditions under which it is written closer, or at least different, from that of other forms of fiction?

    Samuel R. Delaney states that science fiction “wasn’t special because of its ideas about technology or progress: instead, it was special because of its language” (13). I love this idea even though I’m not sure exactly what to make of it. I understand the concept that in order to read science fiction you must be able to “crack its code” (16), but I wasn’t sure where to go from there in terms of critical evaluation of the genre. How can we use language itself to distinguish science fiction from all other genres?

    From James Gunn’s definition of SF as “the literature of change” to Matthew Cheney’s insistence that it is its “speculative responsibility” that sets it apart from other forms of literature (21), to David Ketterer’s assertion, as cited in Speculations on Speculation, that SF belongs to a larger category of “Apocalyptic literature”, it is evident that theories on the essential nature of science fiction cover a large terrain. In attempting to sift through this wide spectrum of opinion, I was intrigued by Raymond Williams’ comment in his description of utopian fiction in “Utopia and Science Fiction” that community is “the keyword, centrally, of the entire utopian mode” (211). While I know that opinions as to what keywords might attempt to represent the mode of science fiction (if one can even claim that it has a distinct “mode”) I still found myself wondering what words might best fit. Extrapolation? Speculation? Othering?

  9. jpetinos September 21, 2016 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    1) On page 5 of the excerpt from Excerpt from “Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction,” we learn that David Ketterer places science fiction under the umbrella of apocalyptic literature. This raises the question: how finely can science fiction be divided into other genres – utopian fiction, apocalyptic fiction, clone fiction, artificial intelligence fiction, etc. etc. Why do we speak of science fiction as a genre of its own instead of breaking it up into smaller categories, the way Raymond Williams focuses on Utopia?

    2) Raymond Williams analyzes the concept of utopia through a Marxist lens (I think?! – or at least focuses on resource allocation and labor participation in the utopia) – how else might we define ‘utopia?’

    3) On page 21 of “The Jewel-Hinged Jaw : Notes on the Language of Science Fiction,” the author writes, “ fiction, by its different relationship to the referential world, has different requirements for its prose than does literature.” How is science fiction different from literature and what might these different prose ‘requirements’ be?

  10. Arline September 21, 2016 at 10:10 pm - Reply

    In order to define science fiction, one must define science. In “Science Fiction and Critical Theory” by Carl Freedman, he rings up two viewpoints on defining SF, one of which reads: “takes a progressivist and positivistic view of ‘science’ (i.e. the physical sciences)” (197). “Science” is in scarequotes which seems to denote an understanding that the physical sciences does not define the entirety of Science but since SF is so often linked with technology, how does cultural anthropology fit into the equation?

    “Either mode leaves open the question of the social agency of the scientific spirit and the applied science, though it is the inclusion of some social agency, explicit or implicit…” Utopia and Science Fiction by Raymond Williams
    What role does SF play in how the philosophy of science is understood?

    “Science Fiction is what we mean when we point at it…” For a public who equates science fiction with silly, do we need to redefine or reorient in order to gain cultural reception?

  11. smishara September 28, 2016 at 2:53 pm - Reply

    1) If, as James Gunn in his introduction to “Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction” suggests, science fiction has “no recognizable action,” then how do we distinguish it from other genres?

    2) H. Bruce Franklin writes in his 1966 work “Future Perfect” that “all fiction seeks to represent some sort of reality.” Franklin refers to the reality of the late 1960s, one extremely different form reality today in 2016. Thus, is a present reality malleable or do we rely heavily on the past to create our present, and therefore science fiction becomes an amalgamation of both past and present realities? Or yet again, is it merely a representation and reflection on one specific moment in time?

    3) According to Samuel R. Delaney, “like poetry, science fiction is impossible to define,” and so why do we attempt to define it along with many other complex genres? What academic purpose does this serve and how is it useful?

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