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The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
Wesleyan University Press, 336 pages

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. is a Professor of English, DePauw University and a co-Editor of Science Fiction Studies and Humanimalia: A Journal of Human/Animal Interface Studies.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. Website
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A review by Paul Kincaid

This is probably one of the best and most significant works of science fiction criticism to have appeared so far this century. This is not to say that Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. is always right and that I always agree with him: he isn't and I don't. But my disagreements are mostly in the way of the continuing dialogue that he calls for.

What makes this book significant is that it marks a necessary, if belated, corrective to the orthodox Marxist view of science fiction that has been the more or less default academic response to the genre since at least the work of Darko Suvin. As such, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is likely to become the central point of sf criticism for some time to come.

It is easy to understand why science fiction in particular has an appeal to Marxist theorists. The western myth of science, ever since the days of Francis Bacon, has been that science represents an inevitable advance towards truth and material well-being. This makes it a very good fit with Marxist ideas of historical inevitability. And as a proponent of, and channel for, much of that western myth of science, science fiction seems to match very closely ideals for how fiction should work. What makes me uneasy about the Marxist approach is the weight it places on the science in science fiction. Let's face it, science fiction bears as much relation to the scientific as realist fiction does to the real. They are at best approximations, at worst gross distortions of what is there, more as an aspiration for the fiction than as its defining characteristic.

What's more, wherever we place the origins of the genre, its history has been one of constant change. The literature has rarely stayed close to its scientific guidelines, and has often wandered off into very different territory. The view of science fiction espoused by Suvin was vital in providing academic authority for the study of science fiction, but the strictures were quite narrow and rigid and bear but a passing relationship to the ever-changing shape of science fiction today. Hence the need for this relaxation of Suvin's views; the only question is whether Csicsery-Ronay has gone far enough.

At the core of Suvin's characterisation of science fiction is the notion of cognitive estrangement, adapted from the Russian Formalists, and the idea of the novum, adapted from the work of the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. Csicsery-Ronay retains the notion of cognitive estrangement, but downplays its significance as a defining characteristic of science fiction. I remain sceptical about cognitive estrangement on several fronts. Estrangement is that literary effect that makes us stop and see things afresh; the cognitive element applies this freshness both to the exercise of our imagination and the product of that imagination. I am not clear that all forms of literary estrangement are not in some degree cognitive. This in turn leads to further concerns: I am unconvinced that cognitive estrangement as such applies to everything that we would characterise as science fiction, or that it applies exclusively to what we term science fiction. Indeed, too rigid an application of Suvin's ideas has, as Csicsery-Ronay notes in passing, prompted some academics to exclude from the genre works that most people uncontentiously identify as science fiction. Even more problematic is the fact that unquestioned classics of science fiction that employ scientific ideas that have since been superseded might suddenly find themselves ejected from the genre. A definition of genre which identifies a novel as science fiction one day and the very next day, due to extra-literary developments such as a chance scientific discovery, is equally insistent that it is not science fiction seems to me to serve no critically useful purpose.

Although he does not dispense with cognitive estrangement, Csicsery-Ronay softens its more rigorous aspects. In part he does this by employing Carl Freedman's idea of the "cognition effect," the way in which scientific language can be employed to give a consistent illusion of scientific validity within the fiction. I'm not sure that this isn't philosophical hand-waving, and there are suggestions that Csicsery-Ronay isn't entirely convinced by Freedman's argument, but it does offer a less rigid approach than Suvin. More interestingly, Csicsery-Ronay insists on the ludic or playful qualities of science fiction. Sometimes we are not just stopping the world to look at it differently, sometimes we are playing with the different ways it can be perceived. This is that most rare and wonderful thing, a work of academic criticism which insists that science fiction should be fun.

But Csicsery-Ronay is more radical in his treatment of the novum. For Suvin this was the one point of material change in the world of the fiction that initiated our estrangement and hence made the work science fiction. In other words, without a novum a story cannot be science fiction; conversely, if a story is science fiction it must contain a novum. And Suvin's novum is always singular.

Csicsery-Ronay challenges this most significantly by proposing that the novum may be plural. In a work such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, for instance, is the novum the colonisation of Mars, the technology of terraforming that fits the planet to humankind, or the longevity treatment that makes all this possible within the lifetimes of his characters? In fact all of these, and to an extent other features of the books, could be characterised as novums. In recognising that this situation is common across science fiction (is the novum of William Gibson's Neuromancer cyberspace or the economic transformation of America that has created the Sprawl?), Csicsery-Ronay is not just opening up a more subtle understanding of what constitutes science fiction, he is also allowing more subtle readings of science fictions.

But he goes further than this by suggesting that the novum may not actually be an essential element of science fiction. A jonbar point in the prehistory of an alternate history story may well not be the material change normally understood as a novum, but alternate histories still fall within our understanding of science fiction. There is, for instance, no single jonbar point, and no material novum, that operates within Christopher Priest's The Separation, yet the moral and psychological changes explored within the different worlds of that novel mark it inescapably as science fiction.

The demotion of the novum within the critical iconography of Marxist responses to science fiction is illustrated by the fact that the novum is only the second of Csicsery-Ronay's "beauties." It is one among several ways of exploring the genre. But the shift in perspective thus marked presents, I believe, a far more useful and revealing approach to the understanding of how science fiction works.

The fact of there being seven beauties in itself represents a more relaxed approach to the genre. As Csicsery-Ronay says: "rather than a program-like set of exclusive rules and required devices, this mode is a constellation of diverse intellectual and emotional interests and responses that are particularly active in an age of restless technological transformation. I consider seven such categories to be the most attractive and formative of science-fictionality." (5) Although one might question the concomitant characterisation of science fiction as a literature of "an age of restless technological transformation," the sense one gets here that science fiction is not a single entity but a variety, a "constellation", of different approaches and devices, seems more fitting to the genre as we now know it.

The beauties he has chosen, therefore, are representative but not exhaustive of science fiction's characteristics. There could be (indeed, there almost certainly are) more than seven. None takes priority over any of the others, and none is essential. A science fiction story might have any combination of these characteristics, or none of them, and still be science fiction. These are, he says, "formative" in the creation of science fiction, but at no point does he say they are definitive. The relativistic approach suggested here doesn't quite extend through the rest of the book, but bearing it in mind does help as we work through what follows.

In fact, although seven beauties are presented to us, they can be gathered into four loose groupings. The first grouping deals with how science fiction is written, and consists of the first beauty: neology (Csicsery-Ronay extends this beyond the creation of new words, neologisms, to cover the different ways sf uses language, including for instance an interesting discussion of the debased language of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker). Language is vital to the way science fiction works, both establishing and explaining the ways of the fictional world, and it is encouraging to see it get this level of critical attention. But though the argument here extends to such things as the use of Arabic words in Frank Herbert's Dune, I still feel there are gaps in the story. Science-fictional language comes across in an almost wholly positive light, and it might have been worthwhile to look also at the negatives, such as the way language can close off science fiction books to readers not familiar with the genre. There is also an issue with the examples explored here; other commentators have already noted that Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin gets no mention in this chapter where it so clearly belongs (though it is referred to in a brief section on feminist literature later in the book). This is unfortunate not because it represents any particular prejudice on the part of Csicsery-Ronay (it doesn't), but because it limits the discussion.

Throughout this book the examples are well chosen, but they are few (particularly in comparison to the number of theorists quoted) and they do come from a narrow and fairly predictable band (Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and the films 2001, A Space Odyssey, Alien and its sequels, and The Matrix crop up with alarming regularity). On language, for instance, in addition to the Elgin it might have been nice to see some discussion of Gene Wolfe's use of genuine but archaic terms in The Book of the New Sun, Robert Silverberg's excision of "I" in A Time of Changes, and possibly even Brian Aldiss's playful alien vocabularies in stories such as "Confluence."

The second grouping deals with the content of science fiction and consists of the next three beauties: fictive novums, future history and imaginary science. Typically, Csicsery-Ronay begins each chapter with a discussion of the theoretical position, gradually moving on to apply those positions specifically to science fiction, and eventually applying the ideas to a handful of specific examples. But in these three chapters there is rather more theory than example, because it is in these three chapters that the core of his argument is to be found. I've already looked at his treatment of the novum, and the chapter on imaginary science, which incorporates his discussion of Freedman's cognition effects, doesn't really add much to the familiar debate about what actually is the role of science in science fiction.

However, the third beauty, future history, is interesting because of the persuasive argument that all science fiction has an historical dimension. Simply because change is such a fundamental part of what science fiction does, even a story set in the here and now about a wonderful invention has a deep history represented by the way the idea reaches into the future even if the story does not. Of course, presenting history in this way also provides further demonstration of why science fiction is so amenable to Marxist theorising.

The third grouping deals with the effect of science fiction and consists of the fifth and sixth beauties, the science-fictional sublime and the science-fictional grotesque. Though to be honest I am not convinced that these two are actually different. Just as utopia and dystopia are mirror images of each other dealt with by the same theoretical equipment, so the sublime and the grotesque seem to be mirrors of each other. Both correspond to feelings of awe generated within us, though the sublime manifests that awe as wonder while the grotesque manifests it as horror.

The sublime, which takes us back to the Romantic philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, is usually taken as a realisation of the smallness of humankind against the immensity of nature. It is a notion that has been seized upon by science fiction, where it tends to be known as sense of wonder (a term that seems to be returning to common usage after a period during which it was rarely heard). In particular it suits space opera, where the vastness of space and the strangeness of other worlds is such an important part of the thrill of the stories; and it suits hard sf, where the typical story arc concerns the smallness of humankind brought up against the immense and impersonal laws of nature. But science fiction moves beyond the traditional romantic view by proposing that the same awe might be instilled by the works of man. Csicsery-Ronay, who makes great play of "techno-culture", "techno-society", and the like throughout this book, seems to think that such a technological sublime is the most common form in science fiction, but I remain to be convinced of that. In one curious moment, for instance, he seems to suggest that the sense of wonder generated by Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" lies in the use of the computer to call up all the names, whereas, of course, the sense of wonder really lies in that romantic last line about the stars going out.

Finally we have the character of the science fiction story in the seventh beauty, to which he gives the name "techno-logiade." In a book notable for the many ugly ways in which words have been crammed together into new forms, this is a particularly dispiriting coinage. It is even more dispiriting to discover that what he means by this is a conflation of space opera and robinsonade that he presents as the distinctive form of science fiction. This doesn't really work, the only way that he can extend this new hybrid to even half of what we would normally consider science fiction is to expand its component parts beyond the point where they become fuzzy and imprecise. Nevertheless, the discussion in particular of the constituents of the robinsonade, or modern adventure story, and how these features are translated and transformed into science fiction, is absolutely fascinating, and might have been worth expansion into a book in its own right.

We have, then, a book that offers an essential corrective to Suvin's previously dominant view of science fiction. Whether, to go back to my earlier question, Csicsery-Ronay goes far enough in his radical reworking of Marxist critical theory I somehow doubt. But in the absence of anyone else being even this radical, I suspect that we will be arguing with this book for many years to come.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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