criticism

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istavan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. a Summary, Discussion, and Review

“…science fiction is more than a literary genre or a social passion. It is a way of organizing the mind to include the contemporary world…SF is an art that delights in vision, intelligence, and the infinite possibilities of change.”

5925031My overall impression of this book was that it was trying so hard to be exclusive and elite that it almost became nonsensical. Yes, I understand that it contributes to a larger conversation. However, if you look at Joanna Russ’s discourse on feminist science fiction, or Sterling’s, LeGuin’s, and Atwood’s nonfiction writing as a writer-critic, or even Auerbach, Marx, and Bakhtin (all names with whom Csicsery-Ronay Jr claims to be ‘in conversation’) they are still trying to reach the public and actually have a discourse. When you purposely make yourself so inaccessible, you might as well be ranting in a dark room, in solitary confinement. It was clear to me that he wanted to fit into the ‘philosophy’ department more than the literary analysis and criticism department, or the literary studies in general. In some sections, he over-complicates topics that are so simple with his verbose and restrictive writing style. For instance, in the section on fictive neology, the entire passage sounds like an anthropology paper on humans as an overview. “Languages have an inherent potential for development through their interaction with the discourses of other cultures and their own internal elaboration.” Yeah…we know. You’d find yourself reading pages upon pages of just common sense knowledge told in a restrictive style. I also found this work to be limited by the few sci-fi works that Csicsery-Ronay has read. While he references certain things here and there from a wider range, he goes into detailed discussion on only a few works (but almost the same ones in every chapter). You can tell he’s definitely (properly) read Solaris, the Kim Stanley Robinson books, few works by Ursula K. LeGuin (if not one) and some of the 19th century classics…but there are so many other works to consider (especially when this was published in 2008). I think he barely dips into science fiction works, extracts a very superficially well-known theme and then starts ranting about it in a way only Philosophy students would understand. This becomes crystal clear the moment you encounter chapters dedicated to Kant, Adorno, and Burke.  Sometimes he just name-drops titles without even discussing them, to get them to fit into his ‘totally-unrelated-to-sf’ thesis.

Those two frustrations aside, the book gets good once you get used to his use of language about mid-end of chapter one. Once he begins to engage with science fiction works (though few) I actually really enjoyed it.

The title for this work is inspired by the medieval Persian allegorical romance The Haft Paykar—a tale of mystical love and moral enlightenment, in which a prince falls in love with seven beauties and upon visiting each of them in a week, each bride tells him a new allegorical story. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. appropriates the seven beauties to the form of “categories” found in science fiction (which he calls science-fictionality)—of which one work may contain several.

This work is not expository or historical. It is a theoretical model of criticism and responding to a rich discourse about the genre. While there are many literary critical lenses through which to examine sf works (feminist, Marxist, etc) Csicsery-Ronay Jr. approaches sf as (what he ‘simply’ describes as):

“a product of the convergence of social-historical forces that has led to the current global hegemony of technoscience, and as an institution of ideological expression on one hand, and on the other, the ludic framework in a culture of game and play in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted.”

The author explains that he wanted to interact with sf works and read closely while trying to not to border on the banal by using popular works, nor slip into obscurity by addressing texts that deserve a wider audience. A great difficulty arises when he wanted to be inclusive of non-Anglo sf works, while the SF genre is predominantly an Anglo-American genre. These are the seven ‘beauties’ or categories he discusses at length (I am paraphrasing some from the way Csicsery-Ronay Jr introduced them, with some examples that were memorable to me):

  1. Fictive Neology: new worlds, variations and combinations based on the actual process of lexicogenesis (ways words are coined) experienced in social life. Imply linguistic-symbolic models of technological transformation. They engage audiences to use them as clues and triggers to construct the logic of science fictional worlds. In this chapter he looks at the way language is used to construct a novelty but also how the absence of it can also achieve the same results. For instance, he uses the example of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical compound of which we never get to know the name. “By refusing to give his novum a scientific name Stevenson kept his tale from engaging with the discourse of science.” He also examines ways in which Tolkien’s well-constructed Elvish gives the fantasy epic a scientific foundations, while other ‘languages’ referenced in sci-fi with few words here and there and a name do not. Parseltongue isn’t a language, Elivish and Klingon are (in a scientific way).
  2. Fictive Novums: coined by Darko Suvin, the term refers to a historically unprecedented and unpredictable ‘new thing’ that intervenes in the routine course of social life and changes the trajectory of history. According to Csicsery-Ronay Jr., every sf text supplies fictive novums and responses to them, and thus engages the sense of real inhabitants of technorevolutionary societies. Here we learn about negative apocalypse predictions, or we find that something we knew in the past or present to be true, in the future it won’t be so. For instance Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Vinland the dream” contains the idea that the Vikings’ landing in North America is a recent hoax. This chapter has a deeper study of Lem’s Solairs.
  3. Future History: most sf is set in the future, though it does not need to be. The genre relies on the techniques of realism. Maintaining a sense of connection between the present and future, sf constructs micromyths of the historical process, establishing the audience’s present as the future-oriented ‘prehistory of the future.’
  4. Imaginary Science: introducing technoscientific ideas and events among the value-bearing stories and metaphors of social life. “We make science of our metaphors.”
  5. The Science-fictional Sublime: here Csicsery-Ronay Jr. explores several branches of the sublime like the Kantian sublime of temporal and special infinitude of the mathematical, the sense of overwhelming physical power of the dynamic sublime, David E. Nye’s coined American technological sublime where it’s the sense of access to, and control of, the powers of nature that typified the Americanpopulace’s responses to the monumental engineering projects of the nineteenth century, and last the technoscientific sublime, popularized post-WWII which entails a sense of awe and dread in response to human technological projects that exceed the power of their human creators.
  6. The Science-Fictional grotesque: the inversion of the technosublimeàcollapse of ontological categories. This is the domain of monstrous aliens. The grotesque is implosive, accompanied by fascination and horror at the prospect of intimate category-violating phenomena discovered by human science.
  7. Technologiade: transforms popular cultural materials by reorienting their concerns toward its characteristic horizon: the transformation of human societies as a result of innovations attending technoscientific projects. This chapter is similar to Jung’s models of the archetype, only he appropriates it here for the Gothic vs. Adventure. What I found interesting in this chapter was the presentation or idea of the Gothic as a mere inversion of the adventure tale.

He writes:

“Where modern adventure narrates the projection of discovery and invention further and further away from the home base, the metropole and the ‘motherland,’ into exotic venues, the Gothic imagines the subject position of the victim of these cognitive interests…the field of values is reversed…the Gothic inverts the dream world of thrilling travels among wonders into nightmares of abduction, imprisonment, and victimization by barely controllable archaic passions.”

I recommend this  book to people interested in philosophical discourse, rather than people interested in the history, analysis, or in-depth study of science fiction literature/film.

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

“I have been asking for thirty years why most critics are afraid of dragons while most children, and many adults, are not”

“fantasy is not primitive, but primary”

6380284This book contains a series of essays on fantasy by Le Guin written in a highly assertive and critical tone. I think I will re-read this every year because it’s a little manifesto worth memorizing. The dominant essay in this collection is the central one (also the longest) focusing on animals in children’s literature and fantasy.

Le Guin begins the series of essays in debunking three stereotypes attached to fantasy like: (1) the characters are white (2) it’s a fantasy land in the middle ages (3) fantasy by definition concerns a battle between Good and Evil. She explores the reasons why some children’s literature is often in a pre-industrial setting, and how fairy tale retellings don’t necessarily mean changing the story, rather, poaching at it and getting into it.

“it interests me that most of these ‘lifelong’ children’s books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche.”

Le Guin questions what the making of fantasy really entails. For instance, a woman may turn into a troll in fantasy, but what does it really mean for a woman to turn into a troll? She compares it to “realist” literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Could one say that she has morphed into something monstrous?

Le Guin then turns her attention to the fantastic elements in other novels we consider great ‘realist’ and ‘serious’ literature like Moby Dick.

“The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism…Melville’s white whale isn’t a real whale, he’s a beast of the imagination, like dragons or unicorns; hence Moby Dick is not an animal story, but it is a fantasy.”

In the main essay focusing on animals Le Guin examines how we used to be around animals in our earlier stages and what fantasy tries to capture:

“Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.”

“As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We are a like in the food chain…each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl.”

In literature we find interdependence between animals and nature, coexisting with humans in the same spaces. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things shows us, Le Guin emphasizes, that “Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation.” As we distanced ourselves from nature an animals with cities, and passed the industrial period, we separated ourselves from other species “to assert difference and dominance.”

Le Guin spends the rest of the book showing us the many ways in which fantasy as genre, found often in Children’s Literature brings us back to this imagined past where animals are integrated in society as equals. She examines Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, among many others and discusses how these points reinforce her thesis, and why they have been so successful. Le Guin uses some of her own stories and shows how she has tried to capture certain things and for what purpose.

Lastly, a part of this book that stayed with me, is Le Guin’s reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Granted, this collection came out the same year as The Deathly Hallows, and didn’t examine in detail the overall effect and its subsequent ‘merchendise, Potter-world, Fantastic Beasts, and  Jack Thorne’s Cursed Child‘ but Le Guin has a bone to pick with the critics who had for years shunned fantasy and all of a sudden went along with the main crowd. Le Guin writes that she finds it normal for the public to fall in love with Rowling’s fantasy because they found something they missed out on since childhood, but she says:

“How could so many reviewers and literary critics know so little about a major field of fiction, have so little background, so few standards of comparison, that they believed a book that was typical of a tradition, indeed quite conventional, even derivative, to be a unique achievement?”

Le Guin blames the modernists, realists, and curriculum builders as well as the Edmund Wilson and his generation who labelled ‘realism’ and its various forms as the only kind of ‘serious’ literature. I love her criticism, brutal honesty, and analysis. All Cheek by Jowl has made me want to do is to read her all her essay collections and all her Science Fiction and Fantasy which is all now on my immediate TBR.

This book is one really well-written argument. The whole time I was highlighting and thinking of all the professors to whom I would like to send a copy. I think this book is perfect in how it’s written and how it delivers its argument. I was trying to think of a retort and couldn’t because her argument was that well done. Even in parts that I felt differently towards going in, I found myself converted by the end. Everyone should read this book.

The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory | Poetry Review

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Okay, let me paint you a picture:

You know that friend you have—you know the one—the individual who peaced out a few times to go find themselves in the East by being spiritual in Buddhist monasteries for a few weeks, the one who smokes pot and talks about the peace at parties, the one who thinks about attending protests, is probably vegan, and every time you’re with them they listen to Kurt Cobain, and Jimi Hendrix, and somehow is also insanely pretentious because they drop references to Charles Bukowski, any of the confessional poets, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Wordsworth, the pot-lord David Foster Wallace (who they suggest is far too pretentious and unreadable, but they themselves sounds like), the Great Gatsby, and who deep down thinks they’re Jack Kerouac?

If you miss that friend (who you love very much and wish you could have their courage and go with them) because they probably left you again to have another adventure without you (because you suck for reducing them to a stereotype in book reviews), then just read this poetry collection. It’s a textual embodiment of that person.

The weird thing is, that while that hipster friend who has become a trope right now is already a cliché, I think Chris Banks is actually an original because he was born in 1970. He actually did those things BEFORE they were cool. So let’s get into the collection:

This book really is for everyone, as the dedication suggests. It’s filled with references, which most avid readers or English majors will pick up on.

My personal favourite is the simplest one, devoid of any of the things listed above, which has the most honesty. It’s called “Fossil”

“To match in words

The impression

Some extinct creature

Left in mud long ago

To be that permanent

And still not there.”

The collection is divided in four parts:

  1. All Night Arcade
  2. The Cloud versus Grand Unification Theory
  3. Selfie with Ten Thousand Things
  4. Finders Keepers

The poem which starts this collection is called “Progress” and is representative of the kind of ‘protest-poetry’ that Banks offers:

“Gene-targeting and molecular cloning. The shrine /Of the genome has broken into—Glo Fish /…Insulin-producing bacteria / are grown in large fermentation tanks to provide / medicine for diabetics  / …demand / Big Pharma give us an alturistm patch, one to create / more empathy in politicians, say, or nasal spray, / to make children more resistant to fear-mongering, / and body shaming.”

The collection is filled with contemporary references like ‘selfies,’ society-accepted norms that mean nothing in the large scheme of things, and criticisms of capitalist-driven-corporations, and their lack of empathy, eco-love, or humanity.

There are some knock-out lines scattered throughout this collection like:

“most poems I read feel like I’m walking / through someone’s private zoo.”

– “Roadside Attractions”

Overall the collection is good, and it’s worth a try. It doesn’t take too long to read. I do wish that the collection had a well-written introduction to the poems and a better outline of Chris Banks as a poet. I wish there was more context.

Many thanks to ECW Press for sending me an ARC for early review. This collection will be published on September 5, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.