Friday, May 27, 2011

More of my initial thoughts on Science Fiction Studies

More material from my initial thoughts on the study of the genre of science fiction.  

     The feminist response has largely eschewed the methods introduced by Suvin, and the formal questions of the genre as well. Instead, critics such as Jane Donawerth in Frankenstein’s Daughters have focused on the impact that women have had on the themes of the genre, focusing on the utopian possibilities for women contained in scientific exploration, and structures of alterity in the form of the alien. Lisa Yaszek in Galactic Suburbia takes on the question of images of women in domestic science fiction of the 1950’s to explore the critical role these narratives played in exploring domesticity, activism, and capacity of women to contribute to the field of science. Similarly, Donna Haraway used themes from utopian and dystopian science fiction in order to critically reveal the narratives of apocalypse and millenarianism contained in the logic of techno-science. Within the terrain of the study of genre, Marleen Barr offers an alternative reading of the feminist engagement of the genre, reading it through Robert Scholes concept of structural fabulation, which encompasses science fiction in a larger literary form, defined by Scholes as a mode of fiction that is aware of ‘the nature of the universe as a system of systems, a structure of structures”[1] and by Barr as a way of linking feminist science fiction into the broader structures of feminist thought and literary production.

     Although these critical engagements bring out a set of specific concerns around the questions of representation of women, domesticity, and the reproductive labor of the household left out of the Marxist readings of the genre, they miss out on examining the specific socio-historical trajectory of the genre contained in its engagement and mutation of the genre. The introduction of these concepts can’t be understood merely in terms of theme, but they also need to be thought of in terms of how the concepts reshape the form of the genre itself. The exploration of the transformation of this form will allow for a more substantial engagement with the relationship between the genre and the social crisis that marks the time. It points to a shift in the forms of capitalist exploitation and its resistances that have not as of yet been fully engaged within in the context of the subgenre.

      There has been a considerable amount of work done on the subculture aspect of science fiction, although most of that work has been created within the fan communities themselves. This is historical work has been started by science fiction editor and author, Sam Moskowitz, and continued in any number of fanzines, and now within any number of websites and blogs. Along with the partisan informal labor of fans, a number of academic works have been written, notably Justine Larbalstier’s Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, as well as Camille Smith- Bacon’s more anthropologically oriented Science Fiction Culture. Despite engagements with figures such as Leguin, Russ, and Delany, there has been very little discussion of this aspect of the genre in Science Fiction Studies, and in general within the conversation between the Marxist critics of the genre, which seems to miss out on a substantial dimension of the socio-historical dimension of the genre.

     The U.S. context becomes particularly important for creating the link between the literary form and the question of subculture because of the construction of fan communities. Although the origins and early practices of the genre of science fiction opens itself to multiple narratives, there is a general consensus that science fiction as a subculture can be linked to a series of practices with their origin in the letters section of pulp magazines published in the United States, beginning with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. The section allowed for fans of the genre to communicate with each other, debate the meaning of the genre, and within that context, the merits of particular stories. As these networks developed, fans began to produce independent publications to continue the conversations started in the larger magazines, and to create a venue to produce other narratives. In addition, the groups that were formed out of these meetings began to set up conventions for fans (who were generally aspiring writers) and professional writers to interact. All of the authors involved in the project have some link into this subculture, whether through attending conventions or through writing for or being interviewed in fan publications.

     However, the translation of science fiction fan subculture into the conventions of cultural studies takes a rather ironic turn. The study of subculture by Dick Hebdige, Stuart Hall, and others is linked to a broader shift in the discipline, from the focus on the category of experience in the work of Richard Hoggart and the early work of Raymond Williams to the focus on semiotic formations. The Birmingham school reads the formations of fashion and music critically through the work of Roland Barthes and Antonio Gramsci, seeing those formations as nascent forms of resistance, ‘reading’ those formations analogically through semiotic work of Barthes, the subculture becoming a sort of distorted deconstruction of the commodity form. The ‘style’ of science fiction fan subculture takes the form of prose, the creation of new short stories, novels, and criticism, literalizing the semiotic analogy produced in Hebdige’s analysis of punk.

      The collective work of the subculture is then linked up with this production of prose, in the form of criticism and literary production. Criticism exists in the tradition form of commentaries, polemics, and reviews, as well as debates within letters columns.[2] Other than the close relationship between reader and author, this dimension of literary production is fairly conventional. However, the level of collective literary production and intertextuality only has a parallel in the various schools of the avant-garde. Unlike the conventions of literary intertextuality mapped by Harold Bloom in his work of the 1970’s, the intertextuality of science fiction is not caught up in the structures of erasure and displacement that seek to hide the literary influences of the work. Instead, the tropes, themes, and narratives of the genre are available as common pool to the writers of the subculture, and those appropriations are made openly, explicitly marked in the texts. Within the logic of Barthes, this marks the shift from the work to the text, but within the logic of cultural studies, the work of textual production becomes a mode of stylization, a way for the subculture to identify itself, and critique the social formation that it exists within.

[1] Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 41.
[2] For the importance of the letters column, see Justine Larbalstier, Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002)

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