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“Science Fiction” and Literature – or Thoughts on Delany and the Plurality of Interprative Processes


NOTE: Once again, I apologize for posting this a bit later than usual. I’m abroad for only one more week, though, and then we’re back to our regular Tuesday schedule.

I’ve long believed that Samuel Delany is one of the sharpest, most insightful, and most comprehensive critics in the field of science fiction/fantasy criticism. His non-fiction – from The Jewel-Hinged Jaw to About Writing or Starboard Wine and beyond – are a master-class in exploring the ways in which fantastic literature functions, and I freely admit that a lot of my own thinking is based on insights I eagerly cribbed from his work. But that being said, I think his theories on the relationship between science fiction and literature are due for a re-examination.

In “About 5,750 Words”, Delany draws a very distinct line between how readers interpret science fictional texts and how they interpret mundane texts. His argument is extremely fine-grained, focusing on the words and sentence constructions that are employed in both fictional forms. But he presupposes a certain sequential process by which readers interpret each: “A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.”

Delany’s micro-focus doesn’t work for everyone, and some very smart people have criticised his fixation on sequential reading. They argue that not everyone interprets prose sequentially, that the process may be more fluid than the step-by-step plodding that Delany describes. And to be fair, they are correct: the process isn’t necessarily sequential. But those who focus on Delany’s sequence often miss a simple fact: he uses sequence as a pedagogical tool, a way to illustrate his broader underlying argument for which sequence is actually almost irrelevant.

The Idea of Differing Interpretative Skill-sets

One of Delany’s core points (which he highlights in essay after essay) is that readers of science fiction apply a different set of skills to reading science fiction texts than readers of mundane fiction apply to the reading of mundane texts. He goes on to use this distinction to explain why some readers of mundane fiction find themselves categorically unable to read/interpret/understand/enjoy science fiction.

In his compelling examples, he points out that sentences composed entirely of individually intelligible words (such as “The red sun was high, the blue low.” or Heinlein’s “The door dilated.”) become meaningless if read as naturalistic prose. He argues that a certain imaginative leap must be made, an extension or expansion of our imaginative capacity, to consider events, objects, and actors that do not yet exist and possibly cannot exist. This, he claims, is a process alien to the experience of nnaturalistic fiction.

I am sympathetic to this distinction. I think that for many years, and for many readers, this was exactly the case. But cultural capabilities, and their distribution throughout the population, is not static. And Delany himself realized this fact in his essay “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’ – or The Conscience of the King” (you can find it in Starboard Wine).

There, he explores the question of whether literature will subsume science fiction or whether science fiction will subsume literature. And he makes a very compelling case for the encouragement of a pluarility in the methods of literary interpretation. Though he does so relying on Foucault’s exploration of the author, Delany readily admits that as only one way of looking at the interpretative process of literary criticism. Yet nevertheless, readers are vast and contain multitudes: just as a plurality of interprative modes exist among readers collectively and individually, so too does such a plurality exist among critics and authors.

He makes the case that skill-sets evolve and change, which naturally makes me wonder about how those skill-sets have changed in the reading public since “Science Fiction and ‘Literature'” was first presented thirty three years ago.

Evidence for the Merging of “Science Fictional” and “Mundane” Interprative Processes

Looking at what is being published and analyzed today, I believe that the interpretative processes for science fiction and mundane fiction are merging. This starts with the writer, who weaves in structures modeled after mundane fiction into their fatastical yarns (consider the best works of John Crowley or Tim Powers) or who weaves in science fictional elements into an otherwise naturalistic novel (the whole “magical realist” movement, for example).

To make such novels work, the writer must internalize and integrate the structures and conventions of stylistically and structurally disparate genres: if that isn’t a plurality of interprative modes, I don’t know what is. In many ways, this is a creative process that Delany himself talks about in “Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student” (in About Writing). It is an interstitial and conversational act which purposefully interlocks the building blocks of narrative like jigsaw pieces. Only this is a puzzle with no edges: those are cut by the reader, who bounds his interpretation using his own subjective experiences and interprative processes.

Yet the economics of book publishing don’t lie (in the longterm): if readers could not employ a plurality of interprative modes, then they would not buy books which rely on it, and so publishers wouldn’t sell them, editors wouldn’t buy them, and writers wouldn’t write them. However much artists might cringe at the sharp palm of the invisible hand, it does provide some insight into both the state and direction of literary culture.

Possible Reasons for Increased Interprative Plurality

So why now, after close to a hundred years of “modern” science fiction, do we see science fictional texts coming in out of the critical cold? What drives this increase in interprative plurality? I think the answer lies in pop culture.

Though I might be misremembering (since I’m currently in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel and don’t have my books close to hand), I believe Kingsley Amis wrote in The James Bond Dossier that popular literature should be judged as significant literature precisely because of its very popularity. The popularity of any individual or class of work might not translate into “classic” status (whatever that means), but it nevertheless engages in a dialog with the art and culture that preceded it and the art and culture that will follow. Pop culture is a window into the values and priorities and concerns of the culture that consumes it.

And for the past two generations, pop culture has increasingly been adopting the devices and concommitant interprative techniques native to science fiction. Whether it is Star Wars, any of the successive incarnations of Star Trek, the science fictional music of Rush (which, to be fair, I don’t particularly care for), or the near-universal and growing interest in super-heroes doesn’t matter: the net result is that as a society our imaginative vocabulary is increasing.

When Delany first wrote “Science Fiction and ‘Literature'”, he included an example sentence: “Then her world exploded.” Back in 1979, a relatively limited population might have had the cultural vocabulary to interpret that sentence plurally as metaphor and/or literal event. But since then, at least two generations (and soon three) have grown up having seen Alderaan scattered across the stars. Don’t believe me? Check out this three year old exclaiming how “They blowed up Princess Leia’s planet!” Our parents and grandparents do not necessarily have the same interpretative facility, as their formative cultural touchstones were perforce different.

Though one might get fancy and call this an increase in the plurality of interprative processes, I actually think that its foundation is deeper and more basic: it is an increase in our cultural vocabulary, which is itself the ontology that underlies our interpretations. Ray guns, space ships, spells – these are no longer exotica. In the west (and in much of the rest of the world as well), they have become part of our cultural lexicon.

And writers across all genres are benefiting, as it offers them more space to play in. It increases the size of the board, and gives them new puzzle pieces with which they can construct new dreams. But nevertheless, there remains and always will remain a farther frontier.

The New, The Weird, and the Unknown

Even if the “meat and potatoes” of science fictional narrative have been incorporated into our literary vocabulary, science fictional narrative is no more static than the culture which creates it. People continue to write, and so they continue to innovative stylistically and thematically.

While “spaceships” and “parallel worlds” and “time travel” and “alternate history” might be reasonably understandable and familiar even to mundane readers, there remain authors who stylistically carve new pathways into the narrower science fictional vocabulary.

Authors in the New Weird, for example, titillate and enthrall with their twisted and unusual constructs, coupled with stylistic flourishes that often draw from more poetic or literary roots than mundane readers might expect. But because of their strangeness, that crucial “weirdness”, their interpretation relies on a vocabulary that many mundane readers will simply lack. Time travel they might grok, and even grok they might grok, but human/insect hybrids? For the moment, those may be a bridge too far for many.

The same difficulty holds true in “harder” (as in more science-laden, not necessarily more challenging) science fiction texts: the stylistic techniques employed by writers like Peter Watts or Greg Egan push the boundaries of science fiction’s own vocabulary. Is it any wonder, then, that readers not quite fluent in that vocabulary would have difficulty enjoying them?

Yet, culture rolls on. Literary vocabularies shift and share, and I believe that some of what is strange and difficult today will gradually find its way into popular culture, and from there it will enrich the broadly-held cultural vocabulary, and as a consequence the multiplicity of our interprative processes will increase. At the same time, other elements of our cultural vocabulary will fade out of use, leading to a further decrease (Delany offers a great example of this in the added dimension offered to Shakespeare by a familiarity with 16th century Warwickshire slang).

Such has been the history of our cultural development, I think. And such – broadly and with enough remove – has been the history of literary criticism. Is there any reason to suppose that would change?

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