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Science Fiction and Narrative Form coverIn Science Fiction and Narrative Form, authors David Roberts, Andrew Milner, and Peter Murphy aim to show that science fiction has replaced “the novel” as our dominant mode of understanding and expressing the world. In so doing, however, they inadvertently make the case that academic criticism is a kind of science fiction.

This is not their main contention, but rather an emergent property of writing, as they do, on historical-philosophical “forms” of narrative. This may be a project that will not prove the most accessible for average science-fiction lovers, but it nonetheless raises some ideas of use for that secondary audience.

The book’s primary audience, meanwhile—that is, fellow literary scholars—won’t be much surprised by this volume’s four sequences of media analysis through a philosophical lens, which offer a sometimes loosely and sometimes more sharply drawn journey through literary and filmic texts as each serves the grand “what-if” of narrative studies: what if we could organize our storytelling into discrete modes, and what if those modes could help us to tease out deeper, more existential questions?

Narratology has plenty of concrete applications, especially when contrasted with other ways of thinking about literature. When we focus centrally on author biography, we can trip into too-personal psychoanalysis of meaning, or worse: hagiography. When we focus on periodization or genre, we can unintentionally lose nuance through the creation of major and minor canons. But when we reflect on the underlying fabric of our storytelling, the “syntax” taken for granted as simply how one tells a story, we can explore the persistence of tropes across cultural traditions, mark the broader impact of different approaches to conflict or contrast in plot, trace lineages of influence through space and time, and reflect on what philosophical ideas are expressed through our most popular tales.

In other words, narrative analysis is a kind of storytelling about storytelling—with all the strengths and weaknesses that this implies. Academic writing rarely raises a what-if to falsify itself, for example: more often, such scholars are in the business of asserting a possibility to see what more can be generated from accepting a given reading of the text as true.

In this case, the authors’ what-if draws from Georg Lukács, whose The Theory of the Novel (1916) juxtaposed the epic and the novel within a philosophical history of literary progress modelled after Georg Hegel’s view of literary forms—which in turn spanned the epic, the tragedy, and the “bourgeois epic” … that is, the novel. Both philosophers were interested in how literature reveals to us the human spirit as it has been shaped by its societies. Lukács’s work in particular is significant to the Modernist movement: a literary moment when it was strongly felt that meaning was no longer guaranteed, and that humanity stood disconcertingly removed—amid war, the fall of empire, and the ushering in of a new mechanical age of industry—from clear connection with the divine and a clear telos (ultimate purpose) for worldly action. When Lukács picked up Hegel’s critique of the novel, he was wrestling with a perceived end-point for literary forms capable of speaking well enough about the world’s shifting political paradigms.

The problem for Lukács was that, while both the epic and the novel dealt with the world as it is, the essence of the epic offered something that the novel does not—and yet, it was not enough to lament the loss of the epic as a credulous and more complete literary form. Something has been lost since the age of such writing, and knowing that it is lost means we can’t simply return to it again. Something else is needed now, and going forward.

What was lost? Well, for Lukács, there is a unifying force behind even the most episodic epics—a confidence in a god’s presence, guiding all character journeys through the plot. Classical tragedy likewise has an abiding, a priori sense of totality—audiences intrinsically aware of a god or gods responsible for every fate within—while focusing on psychological and individual essence within that paradigm.

Was this state of literary totality supposed to be seen as a kind of Paradise? Not necessarily. With Greek epics especially, that state of affairs was closer to a bowling party for the gods, in which humanity served as pins. But the point still serves: the idea that some literary forms promised a kind of cosmic cohesion, a totalizing natural logic (even if it didn’t work in every character’s favour); and that others not only did not, but could not.

The novel is one such form. It’s the form, for Lukács, that recognizes Paradise Lost: our fall from totality and an acute awareness of our inability to bridge the gap between ourselves and deeper truth, all while we still strive for that impossible reunion. In Lukács’s analysis, the era of the novel finds its beginning in Don Quixote, as a text that rehomes an epic character to great tragi-comic effect in an age beyond all grand, chivalric meaning, and takes as its end the work of Flaubert, whose treatment of time and memory highlights the extent of our gap from a return to more holistic worldly knowledge. Lukács also charmingly takes Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom he famously described as someone who “did not write novels,” as our first artist of a “new world” beyond the form.

But, while styling itself as a sequel to The Theory of the Novel, Roberts, Milner, and Murphy’s book offers a different solution to the problem, by proposing science fiction as the form that can pick up where the novel left off. If the “God” of the epic is a given, and the “God” of the novel is hidden but still sought after, then perhaps science fiction, as a modality with a tendency to turn its characters into god-like beings in their control over nature, is a natural inheritor to the literary crisis. After all, as Roberts writes of the form,

[S]cience fiction is still a mythology because it is the historical-philosophical form born of the death of God. The hidden God of the novel has exited the stage to leave man as the new god, the Prometheus who has stolen the fire from heaven.

This fire-stealing role for science fiction is then linked to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818); but despite some conventional descriptions of the genre in this analysis, the study’s authors are decidedly more in conversation with Lukács, and a Modernist view of literature, than any notion of science fiction unto itself. This is because,

[s]ince science fiction is a posited form, it can neither transcend nor supersede the novel. We can think of it rather as the abstraction of the novel that liberates the form from the constraints of reality and elevates it to the a priori of the mega-imaginary of science fiction, which offers the imaginative space to address all the potencies and possibilities of technoscience that lie outside and beyond the scope and interest of the novel.

(And yes, please safely stow your elephants-in-the-room until the seatbelt sign has turned off. We will address the problem with this what-if once the thesis is fully airborne.)

In this reading of science fiction—which for Roberts involves a deep dive into Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised (1998) and its influences in Elias Canetti and Aldous Huxley, and which in Milner’s and Murphy’s sections involves reviews of the historical novel, the climate change novel as future-history, the epic, and the complexities of “world” science fiction—this posited narrative “form” rounds out the unfinished work in Lukács’s treatise. If the epic has a God-behind-the-plot that the novel loses, then these authors argue that science fiction recreates the absent god as a “god in the machine”: one that doesn’t just show up to save the day, but also reasserts a new totality, a new internally coherent telos in place of the old.

Or … does it actually replace the old? That’s another philosophical question explored in this text, in large part through Martin Heidegger’s negotiation of art, technology, and the world from which both emerge. Let’s say the world is a divinely created totality. If so, that presents an immediate contradiction of terms, because a creator would be infinite, so the world as we see it could not be everything; in the creator would also exist every other possibility, including that which natural creations (like us!) could bring forth either by making them—through technological achievement—or by revealing them—through artistic achievement.

This is all a very fancy way of posing the old chestnut: Could God create a burrito so hot that even He couldn’t eat it? But the paradox of infinite possibilities from an infinite being has legs when it comes to imagining how science fiction sits within our philosophical-literary tradition. Does modern science fiction “replace” a notion of the cosmos shaped by a divine creator, or does it simply manifest more of the totality that exists within a divinely created nature—if not through technology, then through art about technology? In short, by creating more out of what exists, are we defying or fulfilling a mandate given to us by our natural world?

Yes and no, say these three authors. For Roberts and Murphy, science fiction is part epic (in its creation of new, internally consistent cosmos that contain their own latent totalities) and part novel (in wrestling with whether or not we actually want to resolve our psychological estrangement by fully realizing nature’s possibilities through technological advancement). Science fiction also supposedly answers a hunger for more expansive writing, which the authors claim can no longer be met by the novel alone. As Murphy writes, in a Part 3 that breaks science fiction into a few formal subcategories:

The ambition to imagine the extensive totality of societies and the world of distances is rare. The desire or ability to blend fact and fiction, history and characters occurs, but only sporadically. This is not so though in the case of genre fiction, and notably science fiction which, since the middle of the twentieth century, has been drawn to the mix of empiricism and epic, fact and fiction synthesized in future histories. With their large attentive readerships and audiences, these works evidently fill a gap left by literature including literary science fiction, and in particular by literary novelists un-attracted to exploring vast non-psychologized worlds of expanse and distance in which natural, social or metaphysical forces … figure as the ultimate focus of the story affecting everything and everyone in their wake.

Here, though, we will at last hit pause on credulous summation of the what-if that these authors are playing out, and bring out the elephant in the room that we stowed during takeoff—the one that Milner’s final section, on “World Science Fiction,” skips through as quickly as it can, and that Roberts’s first section evades with differently careful phrasing. Before we can name that elephant, though, we must ask in general: does the authors’ what-if hold up? Or have the authors compounded Lukács’s oversimplification of both the epic and the novel by forcing this nebulous concept of “science fiction” to serve as a series-closer in a trilogy of narrative forms that together recapitulate the highly Christian-informed story arc of Paradise, Paradise Lost, and Paradise Found (But at What Cost)?

Consider Milner’s thoughts in Part 4:

… SF and fantasy have become a primary locus—perhaps the primary locus—for our culture’s speculations about its possible futures, both its dreams and its nightmares. In this important sense SF has supplanted religion and prophecy.

Lukács could write the theory of the novel, precisely because he believed the novel’s essential history already lay behind it and that it was destined to give way to a new epic form presaged by Dostoevsky. … A century later we can conclude with Ghosh that the realist/modernist novel has indeed exhausted most of its aesthetic potential, and proceed to add that SF will almost certainly prove an important stimulus to the eventual unity Lukács envisaged.

Can we conclude with Ghosh, though, that the realist/modernist novel is “exhausted”? Or that “SF has supplanted religion and prophecy” and will “prove an important stimulus to the eventual unity” of current disharmony in some other phase of literary and societal life?

The replacement theory at the heart of this text is odd when one considers the role of the imaginary across literary fiction. Milner, for instance, treats Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) as a science fictional text because it imagines a plague wiping out humanity. However, it certainly didn’t “supplant religion and prophecy” at the time—it was very poorly received—and it was followed by whole eras of expansive psychological and social-realist novel-writing, along with fantastical writing that sought to reassert a role for Christianity in late-Victorian life.

Milner is arguing that this situation changed—that today, the replacement is at or nears completion—and yet, the work he raises from our current era, as so-called exceptions to the novel’s exhaustion (by virtue of their fantastical elements), excludes a wealth of texts exploring liminal spaces and expansively globalist or historical thinking without the use of SF elements: work like Rabih Alameddine’s The Wrong End of the Telescope (2021), Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (2014), Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (2017), and Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (2018, trans. Daisy Rockwell), all of which have met with great international acclaim.

In general, there is no need to claim one narrative form (or form of prophecy) as spent, simply to create a sense of urgency for another. But when one is expressly building off the work of philosophers who treat history as progressive, and societal consciousness as necessarily moving through discrete phases to arrive at a more enlightened state, the obligation to kill off an old phase to make way for something new becomes a touch more pressing.

This tenuous notion of narrative-form replacement, which tail-ends a collection of literary analysis that began by presenting science fiction as that which “elevates” the plain old stodgy realist novel, gives us our big ol’ elephant in the room: namely, the rigid Western definition of “the novel” on which these three authors have so precariously set their notion of science fiction as the obvious next step in the Hegelian evolution of aesthetic forms. Nor can this narrowness be blamed solely on Lukács, who recognized at least two forms of the novel in his own analysis: the “adventure novel,” heir to the chivalric novels of the past, and the “novel of disillusionment,” which was his main concern.

(Would focusing solely on the “novel of disillusionment” have solved this definitional problem for Roberts, Milner, and Murphy? Unfortunately no, because quite a bit of work of disillusionment—including Shelley’s The Last Man—manifests science-fictionally as well.)

Meanwhile, the world “as it is” has never been an objective construct, absent magical thinking. At best, we move in sequence through eras in which we have strong convictions about what is objectively true—and these verities are ultimately readily rebutted by future generations and concurrent cultural contexts with different cosmological truths, who instead select from their own stores of competing “facts.”

Shelley, for instance, wrote The Last Man a decade after “the year with no summer”—an event with Biblical overtones as the sun itself seemed to dim. Europeans would not know for many generations that this fright had come to pass because of a super-volcano halfway across the world. Theirs, then, was a “reality” of many extraordinary facts absent clear empirical explanation, and literature of the era necessarily wrestled with the tension between the two—the fantastical and the mechanical; the search for meaning beyond the veil of nature, and within its strangest signs and portents.

To further complicate this arbitrary delineation between notions of “reality” in the novel and science fiction, Shelley’s grief-song of a book, heavy with her personal mourning, also offers no replacement god for its absent one: there is only the feared end of all meaning, through the end of its meaning-makers. Yes, one might say that this is a common preoccupation in future-history—a subgenre explored especially in Part 3, around climate change—but it also shows up in work like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, where civilization falls away and man self-immolates in the jungle), or books by Thomas Hardy, in which characters routinely see themselves at the end of meaning within impossible-to-bear socioeconomic realities, and take self-destructive steps to match. What separates the existential dread in The Last Man and other such future-histories of human downfall from the existential dread facing protagonists at the more “realist” thresholds where civilization also breaks down?

Outside the expressly Modern-Western paradigm, too, other intersections between what we might call the fantastic and the quotidian are routinely normalized within “the novel” as a literary form. And Milner knows this—he must!—because in his writing on the historical novel, in Part 2, he rightly highlights that Lukács’s “predictions of the [historical novel]’s decline are clearly falsified by the evidence of the continuing vitality of what his former postgraduate student, Agnes Heller, would later describe as the ‘contemporary historical novel’,” before invoking Umberto Eco, one of our best writers on how what might seem fantastical to us now would be seen as mere reality to those living through other eras.

In other words, the death of another narrative form has been greatly exaggerated for want of a better understanding of what that form already includes, as a propulsive energy sufficient to carry it forward. What keeps the authors from recognizing the same when it comes to the novel? Milner also notes the role of “Latin magic realism”—a different cultural vocabulary for trauma in the real world—in a postmodern genre turn in literary fiction. So is it really “science fiction” that somehow inherited historical-philosophical authority from the supposedly exhausted novel: a literary form that hadn’t even produced most of its best fictions when the first modern science fiction entered the canonical fray? Or are these three authors more concerned with the impact of postmodernity and transhumanist thinking—to say nothing of the role of such a commercial century on narrative promises of human fulfilment? [1]

The most urgent and relevant issue for both this book’s primary and secondary audiences is simply this: Roberts, Milner, and Murphy have hung their thesis about science fiction’s relationship to other narrative forms around an extremely narrow definition of the novel, which has to shrink to just a few psycho-dramatic “realist” texts to make space for science fiction, as a merely “posited” narrative form, to do all the exciting and transformative work in our canon.

In fairness, though, most academic what-ifs are intended as tightly bounded philosophical exercises—and therein lies the unintended delight of the work. When an academic asserts that they are working within the world of a specific theorist, they are embracing that theorist’s essentialism, or notion of cosmic totality. Here, this means that Lukács is a kind of “god in the machine,” who must from time to time manifest on the page to guide the journey of the text. This is because, as Roberts notes:

The deus ex machina is this open secret of the closed form, which manifests the intelligence of the plot. In the novel it appears as the irony of the absent god. In science fiction it takes the form of an intelligence that is formally omniscient (it can confound the reader but it cannot surprize itself). Its function, however, is not to deliver answers but to pose by means of the posited form questions of a “difficulty worthy of a god’s unravelling”: in other words, questions, which are unanswerable but nevertheless supremely meaningful. [My emphasis.]

I have yet to come across a better formal definition for great swaths of academic writing on literature. Science Fiction and Narrative Form is a work that emulates the presumed totality-seeking nature of science fiction even as it writes in the more immediate context of philosophical history—and in the process, for all its limitations, invites a deeper appreciation of both worldbuilding forms.


[1] This last is an odd omission in a text drawing so significantly from Hegel and Lukács, two theorists more commonly read within Marxist thought, which pays close heed to the materialist construction of social history. I didn’t expect a full materialist critique in this volume—there are whole other fields of literary study for such things—but neither did I expect the modern zeitgeist of commercial science fiction to be presented as merely passively answering a need formed by the psychological novel’s inadequacy, and not also emerging as a market-seasoned continuation of Lukács’s “adventure novel” in new guises. [return]

M. L. Clark is a Canadian immigrant to Medellín, Colombia, and a writer of speculative fiction, reviews, poetry, and cultural essays.
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