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Lecture 06 - Some Characteristics of SF


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Sixth lecture for my students in English 192, "Science Fiction," summer 2013 at UC Santa Barbara.

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Lecture 06 - Some Characteristics of SF

  1. 1. Lecture 6: Some Characteristics of SF English 192 Summer 2013 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 dangers?" — Michel Foucault, “Space, Knowledge, and Power”
  2. 2. 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).
  3. 3. ● … 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)
  4. 4. The deconstructionist trace ● Deconstructionist theorists note that language and other systems of meaning present themselves as complete, closed systems, based on meaning created through semiotic difference. ● 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.”
  5. 5. ● 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.
  6. 6. 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)
  7. 7. ● 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
  8. 8. “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)
  9. 9. 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, etc. ● … 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)
  10. 10. 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 genre.
  11. 11. ● “Golden Age” of science fiction: 1935–1950. ● Hard sciences dominate in defining the genre’s own self-understanding. ● Acrimonious critical debates about “hard” vs. “soft” science fiction. ● 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.
  12. 12. 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 – Etc. ● (In part) for this reason, SF is often seen as a “literature of ideas.”
  13. 13. ● 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 valorizes: ● Progress; ● Tolerance; ● Democracy; and/or ● Rationalism – In some cases, combinations and permutations of various understandings of these terms lead in unpleasant directions, as we have seen regarding race in Lovecraft.
  14. 14. Major SF sub-genres ● Utopian (and dystopian) fiction. ● Science adventure. ● “Hard” SF. ● “Soft” SF. ● Space opera. ● Cyberpunk. ● Numerous crossovers with other genres.
  15. 15. 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 under various combinations of elements of his long name. Image from
  16. 16. 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 night.” (60-61)
  17. 17. 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)
  18. 18. Tolerance “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 Norm.” (27) “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)
  19. 19. Rationalism “‘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)
  20. 20. Media Credits ● The photo of John Wyndham (slide 9) is a low- resolution copy being used only as a teaching tool, and is irreplaceable. Original source: _Parkes_Lucas_Beynon_Harris.jpg