Category Archives: critical thinking

On wanting to be astonished by science fiction

boneI’ve been trying to find the perfect way into a series of posts about what I’m grandly calling my ‘critical practice’. The trouble is, I’ve been reading so many different articles lately, and thinking ‘oh that fits with X, and I need to work that into this piece somehow’ I’ve managed to both comprehensively distract myself and stall myself when it comes to writing down my thoughts. It’s a known issue – I’ve been exasperating people with it for years. So, rather than striving to encapsulate Speller’s Grand Unified Theory of Something or Other in one neat, unimpeachable blog post, it seems simpler to invite readers to join me on my meandering journey to achieve a better understanding of what it is I think I’m doing when I sit down to write about science fiction and fantasy.

But even before that, I have a problem. It is a problem I’ve had for a long time but it is only within the last year that I’ve realised I really need to address it in some way. Those of you who have been reading my critical writing for a while will know I tend to employ a very subjective definition of sf and fantasy, deriving from the ‘what I point to’ school of thought. Or, as I sometimes term it, ‘stuff Maureen likes’. It is by no means ideal but over the years it has accommodated my preference for the kind of fiction that blurs genre boundaries and takes more pleasure in subverting or ignoring genre tropes than in reinforcing them.

Yet it is not enough to rely on this when you talk to people who are not familiar with your tastes. But neither do I want to be one of those people who defines science fiction or fantasy in excruciating taxonomic detail, working through layers of subgenre to achieve the perfect description of an individual text. It’s one thing to classify living organisms but I’ve never been entirely convinced that applying this ‘scientific’ approach to a piece of fiction is remotely effective.

Or, rather, it might have a limited use in making the broadest distinctions in subject matter – space opera, or military sf, for example – but I can’t help thinking that the moment you begin categorising titles according to the minutiae of content, it is possibly time to move on. Of course, taxonomy, classification, categorisation, call it what you will, brings with it a pleasing sense of rigour, because it is science of a sort, and as we know ‘science’ is good, and especially pertinent to science fiction. Except, of course, that this is not science but performance. This is not deep textual analysis but prescription, boundary-building, gate-keeping, exclusion, scent-marking, and so on. Indeed, I’d say there’s an unsettling implication of a desire to avoid contamination. I’d go so far as to say it is a form of literary germophobia, and something far more pernicious even than the endless debate about the differences between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction. Hint: there are fewer than you think.

I’m always slightly surprised, though frankly relieved, that no one has attempted an Aarne-Thompson-style classification system for tropes in science fiction (I’m discounting TV Tropes at this stage, for obvious reasons). Perhaps the nearest we come to this is Gary K Wolfe’s Critical Terms for Science Fiction, listing thirty-three definitions of science fiction. I’ve read them but none of them seemed to be entirely what I was looking for, and to manufacture one of my own would be to provoke just one more round of discussion on a topic I have now devoted five paragraphs to trying not to talk about. Well done, me.

It was only when I read a piece by Adam Roberts last autumn that I realised I might have been coming at the problem from the wrong angle entirely. That there was another way of thinking about science fiction and fantasy, and it had been staring me in the face all along. Adam’s blog post is entitled ‘How I Define “Science Fiction”’, but it’s not necessarily what you think. Which is in part why it caught my attention.

Adam begins by discussing what he calls ‘the most famous jump-cut in cinema’, in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know, the ape man throws the bone into the air, and just as it begins to return to earth it is replaced by a shot of a bone-shaped spacecraft. Adam says:

…this seems to me an extremely beautiful and affecting thing, a moment both powerful and eloquent, even though I’m not sure I could lay out, in consecutive and rational prose, precisely why I find it so powerful or precisely what it loquates.

In other words, it would appear that the beauty lies in part in the observer’s inability to properly articulate what that image fully represents, even though the observer, here Adam, experiences the meaning. The image defies interpretation even as it invites it. In fact, I’d happily argue that 2001 is full of such moments. It is visually one of the most beautiful sf films I know, but another thing that distinguishes it, and which is worth taking hold of now, as I pursue the discussion, is how little the film itself engages in interpretation. The elements that are most clearly remembered, I’d suggest, are HAL’s attempt to ‘save’ the mission, and his subsequent demise, because this is fully explained, and the hyperspace sequence, because it is not explained at all, only experienced. The rest is open to interpretation, and therein lies its interest.

I’m interested too in Adam’s difficulty in laying out what that sequence means to him. Words are all he has, and are indeed his stock-in-trade as writer and academic, but here somehow they are not, perhaps can never be, quite enough to explicate that experience. Or, maybe, they are too much. Might it be that when Adam starts to try to explain the sequence something is being lost? Obviously, because words are all I have too, I’m going to struggle to fill in what it is Adam cannot articulate, but I wonder if it might go along the lines of the image being so ‘right’, so perfectly wrought, so replete with potential meaning, it almost seems wrong to even begin to essay an explanation.

And if that is true, perhaps I should stop here, now, and never write another thing.

Except, of course, as Adam continued to pursue his argument, so shall I continue with my discussion. I can’t speak for Adam, but if I’m talking about my critical practice, it’s driven as much as anything by a need to make sense, however imperfectly, of the words and images I encounter. So, that is one thing I now know for sure.

Adam’s point is that the ‘bone’ image works ‘not by a process of rational extrapolation, but rather metaphorically [original italics]’. It actualises the ‘vertical “leap” from the known to the unexpected that is the structure of metaphor, rather than the horizontal connection from element to logically extrapolated element that is the structure of metonymy’. For Adam, then, sf is ‘more like a poetic image than it is a scientific proposition’.

This particularly catches my attention because of my own reading background. As a child I read fantasy rather than sf. Such sf as was available to me consisted primarily of Heinlein juveniles and things like the Tom Swift stories. Consequently, sf presented itself very strongly as being ‘for boys’, which probably wouldn’t have concerned me as I tended to run a mile from anything presented strongly as ‘for girls’ (I had no interest whatsoever in the Chalet School, for example). But insofar as I tried most things that came my way, I’m fairly sure I tried Heinlein and Tom Swift and discarded them for one very simple reason – they bored me. They tried to educate me rather than entertain me.

I definitely read some Andre Norton – Moon of Three Rings sticks in my memory, and I think that may be as much because it presented itself as more fantastical than didactic. Slightly later, I read Wyndham but never really thought of it as sf because of the obviously terrestrial settings, then read Foundation to please a friend at school, and hated it. It was only when I started reading Le Guin in my early twenties that I found science fiction that possessed what we might, at this point, think of as poetry. All of which is a slightly overblown way of explaining why I’ve never had much truck with the idea of sf serving as a way of getting children into science, or whatever, so take that, Hugo Gernsback. This is not to say that it might not do so as a corollary, but I still don’t believe that is what science fiction or fantasy are really about. But back to the discussion.

So, let’s run with Adam’s notion that ‘science fiction is a fundamentally metaphorical literature because it sets out to represent the world without reproducing it’. There is a part of me that wants to say, but isn’t that true of all literature, in that even if it is avowedly mimetic, it cannot be fully mimetic, otherwise we’d all be lost in some kind of Borgesian nightmare, all labyrinths, forking paths and no opportunity to forget anything. But seriously, while all fiction is to some extent mimetic, some fiction is more mimetic than it is metaphorical. Unless one wants to argue that some science fiction is mimicking other science fiction … and am I the only person stuck on this solipsistic merry-ground. I do hope not.

But this does bring me to a genuine problem I have with science fiction, or certain strains thereof. The painstaking extrapolation from known to unknown, based on what we currently know about the world, the rivet-counting, the insistence that X cannot happen without Y, and so on. For years I thought I could only be a good science fiction critic if I assiduously read New Scientist every week, and for a long time I did, and watched Horizon (when it was still good), and even made it all the way through A Brief History of Time. Which was, I think now, to miss the point somewhat. It’s one thing to be a science geek, and I like to be informed about science, and am genuinely interested in the history of science, but if I can only fully appreciate science fiction by putting myself through this sort of training programme, then possibly something is wrong. Because it really doesn’t matter how rigorous the science is if a science fiction novel actively sucks as fiction. And bluntly, a lot of it does, even now. A novel that would rather you fawned over the accurate use of equations rather than appreciating the storytelling as a unified thing is not a novel I’m especially interested in reading. But then, that’s not the kind of science fiction I’m interested in writing about.

Large deviations from what is permissible in science fiction are, Adam suggests, more liable to bounce the reader ‘out of her reading experience’. I take that point then I found myself thinking, well why not? Why shouldn’t the experience of reading science fiction be as ‘alien’ (not about aliens) as the concept of sf itself? Suppose we take that to mean that sf invites some sort of detachment from the truly mimetic. Adam invokes Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief; it seems to me that surely the very notion of sf is to invite the willing suspension of disbelief, to think ‘what if’ in the broadest way possible. What does it say about readers if they don’t want that? And yet, too often, I suspect they really don’t. Half the problem with ideas such as ‘the genre heartland’ is that they reinforce the status quo rather than challenging it. The city on the hill is transformed into a citadel. None shall enter, none shall leave. Another version of M John Harrison’s ‘clomping foot of nerdism’, perhaps. Or, as Adam suggests, while ‘worldbuilding is part of the system of a science fiction text […] the point of sf is not its system’. Certainly, I don’t think it should be all about the system.

The point [of sf] is that it transports us – that it takes us somewhere new, that it brings us into contact with something wonderful, that it blindsides us, makes us gasp, unnerves or re-nerves us, makes us think of the world in a different way.

Good science fiction should, Adam suggests, achieve ‘escape velocity’. It should achieve ‘rapture’. It would, I think, be tiring if all science fiction were to go for the full-blown Sense of Wonder, though it would be wonderful if more of it even aspired to that condition. I also really like the way that Adam equates the idea of Sense of Wonder with the Sublime, prompting us to look back to Romanticism. The concept of the Sublime has been overlooked of late and I’d love to see it come back into critical play. But Adam is making a serious point – where is the science fiction that is ‘wonderful, or radically new, or strangely beautiful, or beautifully dislocating’. Or ‘at least flavoured with Strange’. And this, which should be tattooed on the forehead of every science fiction writer, in mirror image so they can read it when they look at themselves in the morning:

[g]reat sf can never situate itself inside its readers’ comfort zones, though commercially popular sf can and often does.


We encounter a bump in the road at this point. Not all sf is great. It’s the way things are. On the other hand, not all less-than-great sf is actively bad. It’s just ‘not great’. Often, the most rewarding things to write about are those which have aspired to greatness but, for whatever reason, have not quite achieved it. The gaps in the carapace are inevitably far more revealing than a smooth, shiny surface. As the oyster requires grit to make a pearl, so a critic often requires less than sublime science fiction on which to work. There is also science fiction that isn’t necessarily great but does what it does incredibly well. We might call that commercial sf. It’s very saleable, and while it may not be elevating it’s very satisfying to read. Maybe it’s the difference between a rare and exotic vintage and a decent workaday wine. You yearn for the one but happily accept the other because it’s fine to drink on a daily basis.

But having said all that, there’s a difference between science fiction that is trying to do something interesting and not quite making it, or that knows what it’s doing and does it to the absolute utmost of its ability, and science fiction that refuses to even look for the way out of the comfort zone. I’ve already mentioned the phrase ‘genre heartland’. It may be an attraction for some but to me it smacks of ‘comfort’ and ‘more of the same’, and I’m not here for either of those things in my reading or writing.

Returning to Adam’s post, for now I’m skirting the discussion of Roman Jakobson’s theories – that’s not an area I want to go into at present – but I find the metaphorical model of science fiction that Adam lays out much more to my taste than the metonymic model that holds so many of us in its thrall.

I want to be surprised by science fiction. Always. I want to be surprised by everything I read, but science fiction and fantasy more than most kinds of fiction seem to offer such a promise, only to all too often snatch it away at the last moment. Having acknowledged that need, that desire, for metaphor, the sense of wonder, even the barest nod to the sublime, this seems to provide a starting point for how I might write about science fiction and fantasy literature in the future.