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Genre and Its Discontents

Piggybacking on Sean Lovelace’s post about genre, I offer this provocative recent interview with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., coeditor of the journal Science Fiction Studies and writer of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. According to Matthew Cheney, the interviewer, his new book “analyzes a variety of SF media through seven lenses: fictive neology, fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, the science-fictional sublime, the science-fictional grotesque, and the Technologiade (‘the epic of the struggle surrounding the transformation of the cosmos into a technological regime’).” Responding to what he hoped readers would get rom reading The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, he states that he wanted to stimulate and provoke, and that he

wanted to place SF in a larger historical and cultural context, and specifically an artistic one. I’m trained in comparative literature, and I’m committed to literature as a tradition. There has been a lot of impressive scholarship on SF from cultural-studies perspectives. The main way that students and scholars look at the genre now is in terms of popular culture, gender/race/sexual identity/class critique, postcolonialism, vestiges of New Left Marxism, and the postmodernist notion that SF and contemporary social mythologies are converging. I can’t add much to that rich and diverse work, and fortunately I don’t have to. What I wanted to do was to treat the science-fictional imagination as if it were not just a symptom of some other, more basic social process, but something that audiences consider valuable on its own terms. To find out what those terms are I reversed the normal way of looking at SF, sort of like a Magic Eye picture, so that science-fictionality would be my context, and the historical-contextual forces would be constructed by it. That’s actually a rather Old School approach, which is why I wrote in my intro that the book could be read as steampunk criticism. My premise is that SF has been a powerful imaginative force influencing the social imagination of the past long century.

That meant that I would take aesthetics seriously—though I don’t think the word even appears in The Seven Beauties. By aesthetics, I don’t mean the philosophy of beauty, or whatever, but the branch of thought that deals with design (including, maybe even foremost, narrative as design) and the way the imagination of design pervades our social lives. That was something I felt hadn’t been adequately addressed by other SF scholars. It meant that I would treat SF in all its forms—pulp and elite art, visual and musical SF, as well as literary, full-fledged texts and allusions to SF in political statements, ads, etc.—as if they all shared a certain quality, which I called science-fictionality, for lack of a better term. It also mean that I would treat social history as if it too had an aesthetic dimension made up of all the ideological myths and hypermodern folk stories running through it. It also meant that I would treat SF as if it were a branch of art—a particularly philosophical branch, even in its pulpiest, gaudiest forms—satisfying the needs that art is supposed to satisfy. That’s what led me to emphasize the playfulness of SF over its so-called cognitive, political, or ideological use-value.

I like most though when he mentions that he hopes “some readers will also read it as playful, a sort of epic philosophical fantasy in scholarly language, maybe even a bit cracked, in the spirit of Borges, Nabokov, and Lem. There are many moments—the parts I like the best—where the argument flips into fun, and the claims I make are just pretexts for fiction.”

Read the rest of the interview HERE.

And for more heady examinations of science fiction check out the treasure trove at Science Fiction Studies.

Fredric Jameson is in the house HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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