Thursday, October 4, 2012

Noted: Joanna Russ on frames, subjunctivity, and disbelief in sf

Here is a passage from Joanna Russ's "Speculations: The Subjunctivity of Science Fiction," an article following on Samuel R. Delany's discussion of that subjunctivity (Russ's elision of which I have quoted before) which was originally published in Extrapolation in 1973; I quote it as collected in To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. As implied in the title, Russ's article is largely made up of a series of "speculations" set off by Delany's notion of sf's subjunctivity.
Science fiction usually begins in medias res; we are plunged instantly into a strange world and we never return from it. A common pattern in science fiction is The Dislocated Protagonist--that is, the protagonist who finds himself in a strange place or a strange world at the beginning of the story with no knowledge of how he got there. He usually does find out how he got there, but he also stays there. An even commoner pattern is The Dislocated Reader--that is, the story begins as if it were a naturalistic story, and the reader must find his own way through the strange world: to the characters in the story, of course, it’s not a strange world at all....

In science fiction the frame is sometimes in evidence but more often not. A reader judges the science-ficitonal-ness of what happens by what he himself knows of the actual world; that is, the reader carries his frame with him. What, in naturalism, would be the frame--the most “real” part of the story (future histories, quotations from encyclopedias, newspaper reports, and so on)--becomes the most bizarre and the least believable. Such elements are pure Brechtian alienation: they are not so and they pretend extra-hard to be so. Furthermore, they are science-fictionally not-so; that is, they are not related to actuality by negative subjunctivity, but by some other kind of subjunctivity. Like satire, science fiction proposes a dialectical relation between the model and the fictional exaggeration/extrapolation/whatever. Consider, for example, the effect of referring to “the barbarism of the twentieth century”; or more drastically still, “the pastoral peacefulness of the twentieth century.” The little shock such a phrase gives a reader comes from the reader’s own knowledge of the twentieth century and from nowhere else...

In science fiction the relation between the “secondary universe” of fiction and the actual universe is both implicit and intermittently more or less perceivable. It consists not of what is on the page but in the relation between that and the reader’s knowledge of actuality. It is always shifting.

One does not suspend one’s disbelief in reading science fiction – the suspension of disbelief (complex to begin with, as it is with satire) fluctuates constantly. That is, the relation with actuality – what Delany would call the subjunctivity of the story – fluctuates constantly.

2 comments:

Richard said...

"In science fiction the relation between the “secondary universe” of fiction and the actual universe is both implicit and intermittently more or less perceivable. It consists not of what is on the page but in the relation between that and the reader’s knowledge of actuality. It is always shifting."

It occurs to me, not for the first time, that this is true of non-sf too. I often find myself becoming aware that I'm bothered by something in a novel because it seems that the reality in the novel, which is supposed to be more or less our own, is nevertheless based on a very faulty reading or understanding of, say, history. Perhaps an obvious point, but there it is.

Ethan M.R. said...

Interesting association there--I too have often had the problem you describe but it didn't occur to me to think of it in the terms Russ is using here. Actually I have had half in mind a post about deliberate versus accidental "alternate history," inspired by a dreadful story in a recent F&SF which thought that its "fantastical" element was a character with psychic abilities, but for me was more its presentation of the received version of Hurricane Katrina...