Lecture 6: Some Characteristics of SF
13 August 2013
“I think that the central issue of philosophy and critical thought since
the eighteenth century has always been, still is, and will, I hope,
remain the question: What is this Reason that we use? What are its
historical effects? What are its limits, and what are its dangers?
How can we exist as rational beings, fortunately committed to
practicing a rationality that is unfortunately crisscrossed by intrinsic
— Michel Foucault, “Space, Knowledge, and Power”
Atomic radiation, for Lippit
● … renders the human body inside-out (90-91).
● … is an unimaginable event that can only be
figured as a symbol, but not as an assimilable point
in an intelligible historical narrative.
● … produces records of this unimaginable event by
leaving behind visual traces, in the deconstructivist
sense – Lippit’s example in chapter 4 is atomic
shadows (which he also calls skiagraphs).
● … cannot be directly figured in postwar Japanese
cinema, due to both (external) U.S. censorship and
(internal) cultural prohibitions (83).
● … restructures our understanding of visuality as
such by making externally apparent what was
already implicit in our understanding of visuality.
“Within the depths of what one might call the
ideology of photography was a desire to make the
invisible visible, but also to engender a view of
something that had no empirical precedent.
Something never before seen.” (93)
“X-ray photography produced a view that exceeded
the conventional frames of photography, destroying
in the process the limits of the body, the integrity of
its interior and exterior dimensions.” (93)
The deconstructionist trace
● Deconstructionist theorists note that language and other
systems of meaning present themselves as complete,
closed systems, based on meaning created through
● However, semiotic systems are never, in the final
analysis, closed systems that are grounded in actual
things comprehended as they are in “the real world.”
● There is no transcendentally guaranteed connection between
a signifier and “the thing itself.”
● Instead, as we discussed yesterday, signifiers always refer
merely to other signifiers, in an endless chain that slips
through our fingers as we attempt to connect them to actual
entities “out there.”
● To put it another way: languages privilege a
“metaphysics of presence,” as Jacques Derrida
puts it. However, what is found to be present as
we search for the referent of an idea is simply
the absence of the presence we’re searching for.
● This is a necessary characteristic of language
itself (and of other semiotic systems). Derrida
claims that “language bears within itself the
necessity of its own critique.”
● The deconstructionist “trace” is, then, the mark
of the absence of the presence that we’re
searching for, because revealing this trace and
interpreting it is a crucial move in deconstructing
the binary oppositions that allow semiotic
systems to create meaning in the first place.
An example of a trace in Wyndham
“‘Mrs Wender, if it’s just Sophie’s toes,
couldn’t you have cut them off when she was a
little baby? I don’t expect it would have hurt her
much then, and nobody need have known.’
“‘There’d have been marks, David, and when
people saw them they’d know why.’” (46)
● History is also a narrative that we process
through our understanding of how narratives
operate in general.
● Because historical narratives are, in fact, semiotic
constructions, they carry within them the general
semiotic tensions and can be revealed to be
structured as a chain of endlessly slipping signifiers.
● Skiagraphs are literal traces left behind in after
an unimaginable event that allows for that
unimaginable event to be processed and
understood – and deconstructed.
Hence, Lippit’s interest in skiagraphs
“The entire west face of the house was black,
save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint
of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a
photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still
farther over, their images burned on wood in
one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into
the air, higher up, the image of a thrown ball,
and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a
ball which never came down.” (Bradbury 477)
With a few texts under our belts, we
can say that SF ...
● … grows out of strands of literary traditions that reach back
quite a long way.
● Critics who strongly advocate the “SF grows out of very old
traditions” argument will point to Plato’s Utopian Republic and
Syrian author Lucian’s True History (which describes space travel,
alien life, and interplanetary war in the second century CE), as well
as such things as folktale, myth, Gothic novels, travel narratives,
● … establishes itself firmly as a prose fiction-based genre in
the 19th century.
● Three novels are generally taken to be strong candidates for the
“beginning of real SF” label:
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
– Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)
– H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895)
Major periodic divisions
All dates are approximations.
All characteristics are overgeneralizations.
● “Adventure” period: pre-1920.
● SF is often (not always) a pretext or mere setting for
stories that otherwise fit pretty neatly into the adventure
genre or some subgenre of it.
● “Modern” science fiction: 1920–1935.
● Puts the “science” a bit more solidly in “science fiction.”
● Science fiction as a genre begins to stabilize and
reflect upon its own generic conventions.
● Pulp magazines increasingly important in defining the
● “Golden Age” of science fiction: 1935–1950.
● Hard sciences dominate in defining the genre’s own
● Acrimonious critical debates about “hard” vs. “soft”
● Author John W. Campbell, Jr. is incredibly important
– primarily as an editor (of Astounding Stories)
● “Classic Period” of science fiction: 1950–1965.
● The “science” in SF expands to include the various
social sciences, especially sociology.
● Increasing shift towards novels and films as
dominant literary forms, though short stories
published in magazines continue to be an important
influence and distribution mechanism.
Some typical SF characteristics
● Explores the consequences of some
transformation to the basic parameters of
existence (usually human existence).
● To put it another way: SF can be seen as
fundamentally a “series of mythologies of power”:
– the power to travel through time (and/or space, often for
great distances or at great speeds)
– the power to communicate telepathically
– the power to cheat death
● (In part) for this reason, SF is often seen as a
“literature of ideas.”
● Presents its story lines against a background of
concern with Enlightenment-derived scientific
thought, as “scientific thought” is understood at
the time it is composed.
● Is typically a “liberal”-leaning genre that
● Democracy; and/or
– In some cases, combinations and permutations of
various understandings of these terms lead in unpleasant
directions, as we have seen regarding race in Lovecraft.
Major SF sub-genres
● Utopian (and dystopian) fiction.
● Science adventure.
● “Hard” SF.
● “Soft” SF.
● Space opera.
● Numerous crossovers with other genres.
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas
Beynon Harris (1903-1969)
● Probably best known for
The Day of the Triffids
(1951) and The Midwich
Cuckoos (1957), filmed
twice (1960, 1995) as
Village of the Damned.
● Published prolifically in
the science fiction (or
“logical fantasy”) genre
combinations of elements
of his long name.
Image from en.wikipedia.org
Changed basic parameters of existence
“Close to her like that I could catch her thoughts.
They came faster, but easier to understand, than
words. I knew how she [Mrs. Wender] felt, how
she genuinely wished I could go with them.” (47)
“Everybody knows that if you walk on Badlands
you die.” (59)
“Since any close approach to [the Badlands] is
likely to be fatal nothing can be said of them with
certainty but that they are entirely barren, and in
some regions are known to glow dimly on a dark
A background of scientific thought
“A dream isn’t much evidence of anything.” (25)
“The world, I was able to tell her [Sophie], was
generally thought to be a pretty big place, and
probably round.” (38)
“I found it hard to see how the very small toe on
each foot could make much difference.” (55)
Uncle Axel: “But when people are used to
believing a thing is such-and-such a way, and
the preachers want them to believe that that’s
the way it is; it’s trouble you get, not thanks, for
upsetting their ideas.” (57)
“People in our district had a very sharp eye for
the odd, or the unusual, so that even my left-
handedness caused slight disapproval.” (5)
“WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!” (18)
“You blasphemed, boy. You found fault with the
“I tried to explain that a person with a deviation
– a small deviation, at any rate – wasn’t the
monstrosity we had been told. It did not really
make any difference.” (53)
“‘I’m telling you,’ he [Uncle Axel] went on, ‘that a lot
of people saying that a thing is so, doesn’t prove it is
so. I’m telling you that nobody, nobody really knows
what is the true image. They all think they know – just
as we think we know, but for all that we can prove,
the Old People themselves may not have been the
true image.’ He turned and looked long and steadily
at me again.
“‘So,’ he said, ‘how am I, and how is anyone to be
sure that this “difference” that you and Rosalind have
does not make you something nearer to the true
image than other people are?’” (64)
● The photo of John Wyndham (slide 9) is a low-
resolution copy being used only as a teaching
tool, and is irreplaceable. Original source: