An essay I co-wrote with Iver B. Neumann, ‘Worlds of Our Making in Science Fiction and International Relations,’ has just been published in a volume entitled Popular Culture and World Politics: Theories, Methods, Pedagogies’. The book is published by E-International Relations, and is edited by Federica Caso and Caitlin Hamilton. The book is available on Amazon, or as free-to-download PDF.
The piece is largely devoted to the question of defining science fiction, and its interest to IR scholars. Here’s an excerpt:
“Taking this broad array of artefacts seriously, then, as artefacts proper to the literary genre of science fiction, the question becomes one of how consumer expectations are subject, among other things, to the expectations generated by the conventions of this genre. Following Cultural Studies theorists like Darko Suvin, we recognise that science fiction is ‘a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment’ (suvin, cited in Freedman 2000, p. 16). The term ‘estrangement’ (rus. ostranenie), coined originally a century ago by russian formalist Shklovsky, is that which gives the text the power, implicitly or explicitly, to give the reader over to a sense of the possibility of another reality. By contrast, ‘cognition’ refers to that which enables the text to rationally account for the way this alternative reality actually works. It performs this operation by posing explicit differences between the inner workings of its narrative world and those of our own.
As Freedman (2000) stresses, however, operations of estrangement are not in and of themselves all that politically significant. Texts orientated more towards estrangement, such as tolkien’s Lord of the rings, can be read for all intents and purposes as fantasy. Texts that focus more on cognition, on the other hand, tend towards realism at the expense of imaginative difference, thus potentially stretching the limits of the genre too far in the opposite direction. For this reason, as freedman cautions, the exact parameters of science fiction as a genre are somewhat difficult to nail down. For freedman, what is essential ultimately is the ‘cognition effect’, that is, ‘the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements being performed’ (Freedman 2000, 18, emphasis in original). Thus, even though actual science may someday supersede the cognitively rational elements of a particular science fiction text, it should remain a part of the genre because the author originally understood what he or she was writing to have a potential cognitive validity. On this account, a definition of the genre would necessarily exclude the Lord of the rings, but it would feasibly include the more traditional estrangement-centric ‘pulp’ of Hugo Gernsback’s 1929 Amazing Stories, of which Star Wars would naturally be considered a contemporary exemplar.
For the sake of precision, however, we might want to narrow this definition down a little. By the time Shklovsky came up with the term ‘estrangement’, the idea that alternative realities were not only part of literature’s remit, but one of literature’s defining traits, was already firmly ensconced. A romantic such as Coleridge defined poetry in terms of a willing suspension of disbelief. Thomas more’s Utopia was first published in 1516. Indeed, taking into consideration that older literary traditions are basically part of religious traditions, and noting that religion is a social phenomenon that by definition operates with more than one reality – there is the profane and visible reality, and then there are one or more alternate realities – we would argue that the existence of what Suvin refers to as ‘an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment’ is the historical literary rule. It was only with the coming of modernity that the possibility of a wholly disenchanted literature emerged. In light of this, the oft-heard throwaway line that all literature is science fiction cannot be written off without argument.”
Thanks to all involved for putting this together!
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