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The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is a book written by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, a professor of English at DePauw University and published in 2008.

I wanted to have a bird's eye view;
I ended up in outer space.
(Preface)

There's something inexpressible about sf1. This inexpressible something, the author suggests, reflects the role of sf in helping us parse and express the role and change of science in our world. Although counter-intuitive, it rings true to say that more than any other genre sf is about the here and now, divulging our struggle to come to terms with the ever-expanding possibilities of the world.

It is from sf's thesaurus of images that we draw many of our metaphors and models for understanding our technologized world, and it is as sf that many of our impressions of technology-aided desire and technology-riven anxiety are processed back into works of the imagination. (Introduction)

To help consider how sf reflects and refracts our perception of the world, Csicsery-Rony describes an attitude he calls science fictionality. Science fictionality is characterised by a pair of gaps: (1) the gap "between the conceivability of future transformations and the possibility of their actualization"; (2) the gap between the immanent possibility of those transformations and "reflection about their possible ethical, social, and spiritual consequences".

Having explained sf as an attitude towards our perception of science in the world, the author goes on to outline the seven eponymous beauties of the book; seven categories that are are used to construct and express sf. Elaborating on these forms the bulk of the book. I'll be summarising these briefly below, skipping the many tangential discussions aside from a few.


I Fictive neology

These are the new words and signs that show up in sf. They reflect our expectation that changes to the world, whether technological or social, impact language. They're important not only for representing something new, like a new product, but by directly being new. There is something tantalising about new words, and doubly so when we we need to integrate both the word and what it represents into a modified world view.

If sf is a quintessentially estranging genre, it is in imaginary neologies that this estrangement is most economically condensed. Imaginary neologies stand out from other words as knots of estrangement, drawing together the threads of imaginary reference with those of known language. (First Beauty)

It's interesting to note that in practise, fictive neologies are predominantly nouns. This is no surprise: for every newly coined verb that's permeated our language in response to technology (from "google" to "text"), there are countless nouns, especially products (everything from "iphone", "stem cells" and on).

Familiar verbs allow unfamiliar objects and concepts to be handled in familiar ways, but a novel verb presents a nearly physical challenge of having to imagine new ways of actively experiencing and manipulating a world[.] (First Beauty)

II Fictive novums

The idea of the novum in sf originates in Darko Suvin; it is an "unprecedented and unpredicted 'new thing' that intervenes in the routine course of social life and changes the trajectory of history". More obviously, it is that (or those) technologies or discoveries that drive a sf tale (whether it be a Death Star or a hostile AI, etc).

The novum is a narratological mega trope, a figural device that so "dominates" [its] fiction, that every significant aspect of the narrative's meaning can be derived from it: the estranged conditions caused by a radically new thing, the thematic unity of the work, and even changes in readers' attitudes towards their own world, after reading. (Second Beauty)

Thus a novum is useful for explaining what it is about an sf story that makes it tick. It also suggests a distinction (with exceptions) between sf and fantasy. Sf rewards a sparsity of novums while fantasy revels in them; fantasy opposes sf in romanticizing the lawlessness, and so plurality, of the world. The concept of the novum is similarly opposed in sf vs sci-fi1:

[T]he popular quasi-novums of sci-fi are both less and more than rational. They are arbitrary devices constructed for spectacular effects that use the image and jargon from the archive of conventional science-fictional performances of the past. They are intended to create the feeling that novums are intrusions from the anima mundi or supernature that have been forced to adapt to contemporary conditions. They also exceed scientific rationality by claiming that scientific discourse can comprehend and penetrate the supernatural and the surreal. In this sense, they merely exaggerate the inherent rationalization at the heart of sf's novum-construction, calling attention to the fact that novums in sf are novum effects, just as sf's putative provision of rational cognition is itself actually a cognition effect. (Second Beauty)

III Future History

The sf novum trails its future behind it, transforming the reader's present from just another moment continuous with the past into the prehistory of the future. In that move it also initiates a new past. As the novum breaks up an old history it founds a new one, back-propagated to be continuous with the future implied by the novum's potentials. New things reverse the flow of historical time. They create the past from the perspective of the future. Each sf tale embeds its action in a history told from the future, sometimes explicitly explained, more often artfully implied. (Third Beauty)

IV Imaginary Science

This is the most obvious facet of sf: it is the fiction of science. Sf may refer to real world science, or attempt to derive from it, or even completely invent it, the important thing is that its still science. The sf world is one predicted and predicated by the scientific viewpoint.

It is here, in imagining science, that sf most tangibly affects the real world. On one hand sf expresses our fears to affect our society's dialogue (eg. fear of genetic eugenics influencing anti-genetic-discrimation legislation), and on the other hand sf props up fields of research by imagining their future value (eg. nanotechnology). Less obviously, sf's imaginations provide a mythology of the future that can justify the present (consider the popularity of Star Trek and its techno-utopianism).

For nonscientists, the only thing that distinguishes exotic matter from Flubber is the sophistication of its rationalization, and the only difference between exotic physical theories and sf is the social authority behind the former. (Fourth Beauty)

V The Science-Fictional Sublime; VI The Science-Fictional Grotesque

These are the "mind blowing" and "freaky" of sf, corresponding likely to our respective awe and horror in the face of scientific developments.

The sublime is a response to a shock of imaginative expansion, a complex recoil and recuperation of self-consciousness coping with phenomena suddenly perceived to be too great to be comprehended. The grotesque is a response to another sort of imaginative shock, the realization that objects that appear to be familiar and under control are actually undergoing surprising transformations, conflating disparate elements not observed elsewhere in the world. The recoil and recuperation of the sublime responds to things that are overpowering and dominating; of the grotesque, to things that are near and intimate, yet that prove to be strange. With the sublime, consciousness tries to expand inward to encompass in the imagination the limits to its outward expansion of apprehension. With the grotesque, consciousness tries to project its fascinated repulsion/attraction out into objects that it cannot accommodate, because they disturb its sense of rational, natural, and desirable order. In both, the perceiver enjoys a sudden dislocation from habitual perception. Both attitudes have been deeply connected to sf from the start, because both are concerned with the states of mind that science and art have in common: acute responsiveness to the objects of the world, the testing of the categories conventionally used to interpret the world, and the desire to articulate what consciousness finds inarticulable. Fifth Beauty

The author plays off Kant's definition of the sublime, differentiating between the mathematical sublime and the dynamical sublime. The former involves the experience of infinity and is exemplified by 2001: A Space Odyssey and its celebration of the enormity of space and mind-distorting possibilities of technology and (human) development. The dynamical sublime is a response to overwhelmingly powerful phenomenon, and an example is The Matrix's focus on the spectacle of manipulating space-time. At its vague periphery, the sublime must appear transcendent and so never fully perceived: the totality of the cosmos in 2001 and the mechanism of Neo's power in The Matrix.

Just as the sublime in sf is an attempt to come to terms with the absoluteness of technology or discovery (whether in its mathematical or dynamical nature), the grotesque in sf is an attempt to appreciate the intersecting fields of technology/discovery. The sublime looks at the transcedental outlines of science, the grotesque at its category-defying permutations. Hence the cyborgs and aliens in sf, as well as the appearances of the absurd in sf.

VII The Technologiade

The technologiade forms a somewhat ambigious and apparently multifaceted dimension of sf. The technologiade is the form of the sf story: "an epic of the struggle of the transformation of the cosmos into a technological regime".

This chapter has a somewhat ad hoc feel to it, and betrays an obsession with categorization which ironically make the categorization of the "seven beauties" appear all the more arbitrary. The chapter begins by explaining the technologiade manifests itself through the space opera and the adventure story, and then proceeds to describe half-a-dozen motifs often found in the latter, ranging from "wife at home" to "handy man".


Final comments and review: This is undoubtedly an enjoyable and recommended read. The author is inevitably descended (and likely still partially rooted) in a tradition of critical theory - which I blatantly dislike - but manages to keep his hands out of his pants for the most part. Insofar as "what is book good for", I'd suggest that it offers criteria to explain our responses to sf. It's not uncommon to know that one sf work is preferred to another without being able to articulate why. I find it interesting to think about how these aspects of sf fit into my own preferences. Why do I prefer X to Y? How do they differ in their capacity as sf, and what does that difference, tied in my preferences, say about my expectations for sf?


1 "SF" is contrasted with sci-fi; the latter referring (according to purists such the author of this book) to pop-science fiction with makes up the majority of Hollywood science fiction and which uses the fiction of science primarily for its décor value.

tanktop put me onto this review, it's worth linking to for a couple of reasons: it gives a good explanation of how this book differs from previous sf literary theory books; it mentions a number of flaws and limitations (incl. paucity of examples, omissions, and the poor nature of the last chapter); and finally, it has a useful categorization of the seven beauties.

SciFiQuest 2011: The Undiscovered Nodegel

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