Monday, June 10, 2013

Noted: Samuel R. Delany on something I hope I'm not doing

The title of this post is slightly off from what I really mean, which is more like this:

I know I do what Delany describes here. The narrative in this passage ("What usually happens at this point...") about the sf critic reading other literature and going "Eureka" is embarrassingly dead on, particularly about how I feel when I read Gabriel Josipovici (though I'm not, I think, so fixated on "terms" as the critic in the narrative, and I'm certainly no more interested in "defining" sf than Delany is--except sometimes as a fun, pointless game). I think, though, that insofar as I do do what Delany diagnoses my enterprise is nonetheless valid. But this passage is a strong reminder of how limited, and potentially limiting, my "sf is comparable to modernism" (for example) is as a critical stance. I've always known it can't be the entirety of my stance--I focus on it so much mostly as an antidote to the "sf is genre" or "sf is [better than] [the same as] [the only alternative to] realism" or "sf is just entertainment" or "sf is postmodernism" stances and others I dislike--but Delany here has given me a strong challenge to come to terms with its limits and explore beyond them, which I'm not sure I've done, or even if I know how to, as yet.

Anyway, to the passage. From the "Letter from Rome" to Science Fiction Studies, as collected in Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction.

Science fiction traditionally appropriates its critical terminolgy from a literary discourse foreign to its paraliterary position in the constellation of discourses that constitutes the contemporary cultural array.

[Here I have elided several paragraphs in which he gives examples: sense of wonder via Auden, literature of ideas from Balzac, cognition and estrangement from the Russian formalists, etc. -ER]

If a modern SF critic goes back to the sources of any of these phrases...that critic will certainly be struck by a frisson of recognition. Something being described in all those sources clearly describes something in the workings of science fiction that, as clearly, justifies the appropriation.... But these critical borrowings entail a certain danger....

The SF critic reads his range of literary texts, her range of SF texts, and soon senses an immediate and intuited difference between them. Against this intuited difference, points of correspondence are noted, illuminated by the different surrounds. This correspondence point often generates a term; often this term is appropriated from the literary field to the SF field.

What this ultimately produces in the SF critical field is an array of terms that discuss only similarities. The field of critical terminology, because it is appropriated, suggests the similarities are much more pervasive than they actually are.

Thus SF criticism presents a field of critical similarities through which the critic, who reads both science fiction and other works, intuits a difference. But discussion (and finally perception) of the difference is limited by the vocabulary of similarities. The critic who wishes to fix that difference is likely to assume that it is simple, singular, and fundamental (as we so often assume about what is perceived as intuitive or instinctive). A critic of greater theoretical sophistication may even suspect that the difference is possibly totalizing; that, once located, it will give the simple, singular, and fundamental pattern, repeated endlessly among all SF texts, that constitutes the grid against which the similarities can be thrown into proper perspective. What usually happens at this point is that the critic, reading another theoretical analysis of literature, will be struck by yet another term that appears there to indicate a process at least as significant in science fiction as in mundane fiction, if not more so. Sighing "Eureka," our critic drafts an article, perhaps destined to end up in the pages of Science Fiction Studies, on how science fiction accomplishes x, y, or z. Our critic hints (or declares, depending on natural modesty) that x, y, or z is now put forward as a possible definition of science fiction--although what has occurred, of course, is simply that another term, suggesting yet another similarity between literature and science fiction, has been appropriated into the rhetorical battery of SF criticism, furthering a process I hope we can all agree is counterproductive.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Moratorium desired

On "striking" first sentences in sf stories.

A reminder:

that the first appearance of Jorge Luis Borges in English* was a translation of "The Garden of Forking Paths" by Anthony Boucher--science fiction writer and reviewer, early mentor to Philip K. Dick, founding co-editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction--for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

*I think. It's possible that it was just the first American appearance, but many sources say or heavily imply first English-language. If not first, then very, very early.

This isn't intended as some juvenile pissing-contest "genre wins" neener-neener. Honestly I don't care that much for Borges, though conceptually I know I should (in practice I usually find him off-puttingly smug and macho); I care far less for "genre," at least as usually constituted and discussed; I have no interest in Ellery Queen; and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Boucher's translation were poor, for though he was an important and often an exceptionally good editor, he was at best a middling writer.

If I have a point, it's simply to remind us that literary history is a lot more complicated, a lot messier, and a lot less rigid than we usually allow it to be.

P.S. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia also tells me that Borges wrote an Introduction to American Literature that mentions (though I have no idea in what context) H.P. Lovecraft, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and, be still my heart, A.E. van Vogt.
P.P.S. If anything could finally motivate me to learn Spanish, it might be the prospect of reading translations of van Vogt.
P.P.P.S. That was probably a joke.