Size / / /
Locating Science Fiction cover

Stripped of the staged performance of industrial-humanities citing practice imposed on good academics like Andrew Milner (see Appendix below), Locating Science Fiction turns out to be something of a revelation, a book of such calm sly good sense and hard thought about SF that it is even more than usually unfortunate that most of us will only be able to penetrate to its gist through prescription glasses darkly. Liverpool University Press, by pricing the volume at £70.00, may have in fact assumed a priori that Milner's study was couched in too insular a fashion to attract a general reader; let us hope they are wrong. Once we shake his arguments free of their MLA encumberments, Milner's text proves to be a singularly useful guide for general readers out here in the world who may, in truth, be kin to him; and who care about what he cares about; and who should be grateful for the work he has done here. His attentive but disobedient readings of academic SF scholars like Darko Suvin, Carl Freedman and Fredric Jameson—whose institutionalization (he suggests) may have shaped their prescriptive definitions of SF—and his measured rehabilitation of the work of Raymond Williams, make this book the finest assessment of SF theory yet published. This may not be the venue to comment extensively on the dances of location that pace the book's careful progress: its placing of SF scholars with nice precision in terms of their institutional loci; its acute assessments of some of the more famous (and almost invariably ideological) definitions of SF we've had to live with up to now; its creation of a broad-church categorization of SF that the varieties of SF might plausibly fit into; and its placing of the author himself today in relation to his life and his career. But it may be an idea to note in short form some of adjustments Milner has suggested to our understanding of the genre.

We start with Darko Suvin, whose definition of SF—"a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition" [in short, "cognitive estrangement"], couched within "a fictional 'novum' (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic"—has been sedulously quoted by aspirational young SF scholars almost as frequently as Tzetvan Todorov has been by their colleagues in fantasy. Milner very neatly anatomizes the function of this quite astonishing prescription, noting its usefulness as an engine for the creation of a "selective tradition" (Raymond Williams's term) in which very few SF novels—almost none of them American—can be called SF at all. Milner notes that Suvin's classificatory restriction of SF to a sequence of texts heavily weighted towards utopias is peculiarly suited to a university context where credentials must be presented (like most critics of the left, Suvin misreads dystopias in terms of defeatism); and he notes how neatly the greasy kid stuff can be deported from the canon.

He then instances the revisionist work of Carl Freedman, who suggests the substitution of "cognition effect" for "cognition" in Suvin's formulation, hinting with stiletto calm that this substitution may open floodgates that Freedman did not wish to open: I can in fact think of very few novels I'd define as SF (or, more relevantly for this century, as containing SF elements) that do not convey a cognition effect. It is a term that moreover says almost everything that one needs to say about most Hard SF. That there is an underlying essentialism in the formulations of critics like Suvin seems clear enough, a sense that definitions couched with monothetical clarity will necessarily create a "selective tradition" whose examples adhere (somehow, in this fallen world) to the inner contextless reality for which the model—the definition—serves as a kind of litany, halfway between god and us. "Cognition effect" fatally slurs over this clarity: hence its usefulness.

Milner then engages briefly in chart creation, basing himself on Pierre Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977). His four sided graph (West being autonomy, East heteronomy [i.e. tied to circumstances of production, like stage plays], North being High Culture and South being Low) generates some interesting placements of various manifestations of SF activity, including the visual arts, which are heteronomous, and New Waves, which are autonomous to the point of paralysis. Amusingly, his presentation of SF criticism has no place for non-academics like Damon Knight, James Blish, Brian Stableford, Algis Budrys, Gwyneth Jones, Roz Kaveney, Joanna Russ, or Gary K. Wolfe in his Reviewer's Cape, or for that matter me. Us lot would probably fit approximately where he's placed folk like himself, though a bit further down the graph from the High Culture of the North: and just edging towards the West Wall of Autonomy. Odd thing is, if he'd included us, he might have seen the light and shifted academic critics towards the East Wall of Heteronomy, where they clearly belong, certainly in terms of the staged and audience-governed nature of their work (see Appendix below).

The climax of the book—we're dodging around a bit here—comes probably towards the end, where Milner introduces Raymond Williams's concept of the "structure of feeling", a term which partially conflates, to my mind, with "cognition effect", arguing that the creation of SF in the early nineteenth century is born from a complex shift in the European structure of feeling through the secularization of the world, the industrial revolution in general, and the unprecedented capacity of Western minds to think of science in terms of practical (that is to say technological) consequences. The concept is clearly powerful, though I would myself prefer to think of fantastika as a whole as shaping itself around a structure of feeling that allowed—that asked for—an apprehension of planetary terror. In any case, Milner through Williams is able to give short shrift to the countervailing view that SF truly begins with the burning of Giordano Bruno. . . .

In the end, Milner is not much interested in attempting to coin an apodictic definition of SF, being more concerned with, exactly as he tells us in his title, issues of location. This is not his final word, but it may not be a bad place to stop for a bit:

SF is a selective tradition, continuously reinvented in the present, through which the boundaries of the genre are continuously policed, challenged and disrupted, and the cultural identity of the SF community continuously established, preserved and transformed. It is thus essentially and necessarily a site of contestation.


Appendix

I'm now going to have some fun with Milner's superficial but defacing entrapment in the coils of what I'm assuming is standard MLA citation practice, or Harvard, or some other similar cat by another name (I'll refer to it as MLA from this point), a practice which centres on the protocols that govern the infamous Works Cited sections at the end of MLA-compliant texts, and which provide human beings with so much harmless pleasure. But that is being frivolous. Over and above the MLA's contempt for genuine scholarship—every grad student must know that MLA practice is an initiation rite that must be mastered, not an organon for the harmonization of knowledge—Milner's self-subjection to the barbarities of this citing practice constitutes a barrier many potential readers beyond the pale would almost certainly find impossible to penetrate.

But let us get down to cases. We are on page 33. Milner is talking about George Orwell, whose deep admiration for the early H G Wells did not carry over to his megaphone years; I quote at length:

But in The Road to Wigan Pier, he nonetheless denounced Wells at length (Orwell, 1962, 169-72, 177-78). Wells's work had become increasingly irrelevant to the twentieth century, Orwell would eventually conclude: "A crude book like The Iron Heel . . . is a truer prophecy . . . than . . . . The Shape of Things to Come" (Orwell, 1970a, 172; London, 1958). Moreover, he particularly disliked Wells's utopianism. As early as 1935, he had described these "Utopiae infested by nude school-marms" as a kind of "optimistic lie"; in 1941, he objected to the sheer uselessness of "rigmarole about a World State"; and as late as 1946, he repeated his "low opinion" of Wells's writing after 1920 (Orwell, 1970b, 179; Orwell, 1970a, 167; Orwell, 1970c, 293).

Almost entirely in Milner's words—one reason for going on about the weirdly surreal citation chaos exposed above is to emphasize by contrast the calmly eloquent narrative expostion lurking behind the borborygmic gear-loose noise of academy citing style—here is how I might try to calm the waters in the paragraph at issue:

But in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he nonetheless denounced Wells at length. Wells's work had become increasingly irrelevant to the twentieth century, as Orwell would eventually conclude in "Wells, Hitler and the World State" (August 1941 Horizon): "A crude book like [Jack London's] The Iron Heel [(1908)] . . . is a truer prophecy . . . than . . . The Shape of Things to Come" [(1933)]. Moreover, he particularly disliked Wells's utopianism. Several years earlier, in a review of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (14 November 1935 Tribune), he had described these "Utopiae infested by nude school-marms" as a kind of "optimistic lie"; in the 1941 essay, he objected to the sheer uselessness of "rigmarole about a World State"; and in a later essay, "As I Please" (6 December 1946 Tribune), he repeated his "low opinion" of Wells's writing after 1920.

Here is why I made these changes. For ease of presentation, and because I would not have chosen any of Milner's source texts, I've not indicated here how I'd do page references; but they'd follow the protocol used by many historians, and be cited in footnotes.

As I suggested earlier, Milner seems here to be following protocols established by the MLA (Modern Language Association). MLA requires that citations in a text (as above) be subordinately coordinated with a Works Cited section at the rear of that text, which is to say that the primary function of text citations is not to assist in the "narrating" of information in the context of the ongoing exposition, but to transfer the reader—in each instance breaking any narrative continuity—to that Works Cited section. As the imparting of knowledge through the text itself is subordinated in this fashion, it will follow that any citation that readers do not immediately trace to Works Cited will generate a sense of dissociation when they stumble over dates and references that only make sense after Works Cited has been referred to in the middle of the reading process (like the floating "1941" above, which can only be made sense of by those students who've traced a preceding cite—in this case Orwell, 1970a, 172—which gives a 1941 date for the quote it documents: a Rube Goldberg circumbendibus that sort of identifies the floating 1941 in question (though we're not actually told so). (Students' reading experience will be additionally fractured by the fact that, in the case of Locating Science Fiction, Works Cited is divided into seven alphabetical sublists, though the citing practice fails to require that each cite indicate which sublist of the seven should be searched.)

Nor will it be surprising that books (which may be named in the text) and essays (which according to the MLA should not be named at all) are normally given without date of publication: the date which does appear (like the Orwell, 1970a above) will only provide only the year of the text its author happened to use (see below), because, whatever its worth, provenance, critical status, relatedness to the original edition, or availability, that text will serve as the starting point and hinge for the entire Works Cited contraption, the prime datum from which these listings are constructed, sorted, and foregrounded. The end result has a certain loony grandeur: for it must require enormities of sang froid to create (and maintain) so perfectly useless an edifice of "learning".

I won't go on about how my own Works Cited would work, except to say it wouldn't be subdivided, unless exceptional circumstances suggested on, but that any fiddling of this sort would must be justified and tagged; and that each text would be listed in order of original publication, not according to the date of a random reprint the scholar happened to have on hand (see next paragraph). Each citation would moreover reverse MLA practice by putting everything in the proper order: first the original publication data, followed by subsequent editions where recommended and/or when more easily available. Page references would refer to original edition; only optionally to subsequent iterations.

There are reasons why this simple alternative is unlikely to win friends in the Groves. Let us try to work out why, before going to the pub, by looking at a single case of citation practice from the paragraph above. The Road to Wigan Pier—given here as (Orwell, 1962, 169-72, 177-78)—is to be found, after a search, in Works Cited in the section entitled 1. Texts: Novels, Short Stories, Poetry—not perhaps the reader's first choice where to look, as Wigan Pier is nonfiction, a work of journalism originally published by the Victor Gollancz New Left Club. In any case it's only after the reader has finally located Orwell, 1962, 169-72, 177-78 (on page 203, 22 pages from the remaining Orwell cites) that the nightmare really begins. "1962" turns out not to be the date Wigan Pier was published, which is 1937, nor does it refer to the repaginated uniform edition from Secker in 1959, nor to the re-edited and consequently repaginated version in 1987 from the Secker Complete Works, nor to the 2001 Penguin Modern Classics edition, once again edited and augmented and in print. "1962" refers instead to a repaginated 1962 Penguin reprint of the original text. It has no textual authority and in 2013 it is more difficult to find, in library or online, than any other edition of the book. Milner's meticulously protocol-compliant page references—169-72, 177-78—refer solely to this 1962 Penguin, and are therefore almost perfectly useless. They are a reification of anecdote ("This happens to be page 169-72, 177-78 of the book I read! Now try to find it!!"). I'm picking on Milner here: but he has done nothing wrong according to MLA lights. This sort of thing is perfectly normal in Cloud Cuckoo Land: though the MLA requires of academics that they cite the edition used, it does not require them to justify the use of that edition, which means that any crap edition from any date whatsoever can be the primary dated cite for a text made use of in a work of "scholarship" (see above): which (as I hinted) is a pure recipe for shovelling shit back into the stables. Nor are academics even required to state the original publication date of a book or essay at any point, either in the text or in the Works Cited. (Milner voluntarily gives 1937 in his own documentation for Wigan Pier, in square brackets at the end of the screed, though with no additional information; but even that is a courtesy on his part.)

This is all too stupefying to be accidental. There must be some underlying philosophy governing these procedures, and I think this might be it: that this instance of MLA practice, like many others, constitutes a deliberate attempt to essentialize texts by treating the circumstances of their existence in the world (i.e., date, location, context) as a kind of veil obscuring the autonomous reality within. If this is the case (as I think it must be), if content is essentially abstractable and therefore contextless au fond, what edition you choose doesn't really matter. Essence trumps existence. The citing procedures Milner obeys are essentially gestural, like punching a time-clock: they affirm that the scholar has walked the scholar walk. They are essential components in the minutely staged, peer-reviewed, heteronomous freemasonry required of scholars (see above), and they are both sad and comic. They have nothing to do with scholarship. And their mimicry of scientific exactitude in order to describe vacuum is uncannily prescient as far as the coming doom of the humanities is concerned.

This sort of thing is immensely difficult to describe without going mad, and I must apologize for adding so massive a screed to a review of a fine book. Milner himself is of course too strong a writer to be destroyed by his obedience to essentialist citing (and all that it implies), but its dismissive barbarism about context (a devastating failure as regards fantastika) has wasted decades of scholars' time, mutilated a great amount of honest work, and alienated almost any reader not previously recruited into the Worshipful Company.




 John Clute (jclute@gmail.com) has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
No comments yet. Be the first!

 

%d bloggers like this: