Friday, September 12, 2014

Noted: Delany on sf's "fictivity" and "double futurity"

As I begin slowly to make my way through Samuel R. Delany's recently reissued The American Shore, I am gratified to see him approaching — from his very different directions, for his very different reasons — many of the same issues I discussed recently in my two posts on what I called the fictional writer and the fictional reader. (I'm also glad that I wrote those posts before I read this passage, because if I hadn't they probably would have turned into still more thoughts-on-passages-from-Delany lingering in my drafts and notes, along with countless others; and too I might have lost some of those aspects of my thought not directly relevant to Delany's here.)

From the commentary on lexia 2:

With the reader located firmly at the only real present, and the object and the speaker organized out from that present, we see that the fictivity of the science fiction story is structured differently from the fictivity of the mundane fiction story. In a third-person, past tense tale of mundane fiction, the incidents are "false" but the telling is "true." The incidents take place "before" the telling; the telling takes place "before" the reading. In a third-person, past tense mundane fiction, therefore, a simple temporal path leads away from the (present) reading back through the telling into a past that becomes more and more fictive (i.e., "false") the further back it goes. In a third-person, past tense science fiction tale, however, this path is looped into a bizarre knot in which we find the first tensions of that special charge unique to the s-f genre; we find it with the occurrence of the first verb. The incidents, which are false, occur in the future. But as the narrative voice places them in its past, the telling must (fictively) occur farther in the future than the incidents. Therefore, the ordinary fictive voice of science fiction is even more fictional than the incidents; the telling is less true than the incidents recounted. The narrative voice of science fiction (unlike the narrative voice of mundane fiction) is more fictional than the incidents it recounts. (A number of s-f writers have conscientiously exploited this: the "telling" of Asimov's Foundation series takes place specifically several thousand years after the incidents — the series posits itself as an historical reconstruction. Several of Cordwainer Smith's tales launch from a distance at least a generation beyond the major fictive occurrences.) The futurity of science fiction is not single, therefore: it is essentially doubled, supporting itself, interwoven with itself, creating a dense fiction by the same process with which it severs itself from the substance of the mundane. In one sense science fiction is a discursive image of futurity speaking of its own exhaustion. In another, it is a luminous interim, where projections from the past may dazzle us in transformation, hung between a real and a virtual limen, a reading and a telling, displaced about a proairetic axis. (The temporal fictive framing of other modes — first-person mundane fiction, for instance, where the telling is fictive, and so forth — is all suggested here: but we must progress.)
[At the word proairetic, Delany provides this footnote explaining the term as he's using it: "Proairesis (Greek, προαίρεσις pre-choice), largely through Barthes's S/Z, has become the term for the acts of fictive characters, e.g., going to the park, plotting, taking pills, dancing, etc.)"]


Chuckie K said...

He doesn't have the time anchoring quite right. Tense is referntially anchored to the moment of utterance. So the "present" changes constantly.Not that this quibble affects his argument. I'm just felling like a wasted Phd in theoretical linguistics today.

Ethan Robinson said...

When it comes to linguistics I'm an interested layman at best, but I definitely had the sense reading this that it needed to be more complicated...