‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

How I Define "Science Fiction"


[Note: I'm just back from the Edinburgh Book Festival where I appeared on a panel about science fiction with the great Jo Walton and my friend Farah Mendlesohn: the event organised, and moderated, by the estimable Ken McLeod. The panel was fun—it was lively, which is code for ‘we disagreed’, or more precisely ‘everyone disagreed with me’—and one of the things it entailed was each of us offering a thumbnail definition of SF. Now: it occurs to me that my definition, such as it is, doesn't really exist in one single place. So I thought I'd sketch it here. I used to have a dedicated SF blog, which would have been the natural venue for a post like this, but I've been trying to rein-in my blogging habit, and my relationship to SF criticism is going a bit Dover Beach at the moment. Here will do. To be clear: neither Jo nor Farah agree with my definition of SF; and you should certainly read their respective writings to see what they have to say about the topic. There's a good chance their views will persuade you in ways mine doesn't.]



On those occasions when people ask me to define science fiction, I generally say it's this:


Probably the most famous jump-cut in cinema. You already know the context, so I don't need to spell it out for you: millions of years BC, an apeman throws a bone into the sky. It flies upward. The camera pans with it, following it a little shakily into the blue sky. The bone reaches its apogee and, just as it starts to fall back down, Kubrick cuts to a shot of a spaceship in orbit in AD 2001.

Now, this seems to me an extremely beautiful and affecting thing, a moment both powerful and eloquent even though I'm not sure I could lay out, in consecutive and rational prose, precisely why I find it so powerful or precisely what it loquates. It is, I suppose, something ‘about’ technology, about the way humans use tools, our habit of intrusively (indeed, violently) interacting with our environments, about the splendour but also the limitation of such tools, the way even a spaceship is, at its core, a primitive sort of human prosthesis. But when you start explaining the cut in those terms you become conscious that you are losing something, missing some key aspect to what makes it work so well in situ.

It works, in other words, not by a process of rational extrapolation, but rather metaphorically. I mean something particular when I say that, and I explain what I mean in detail below; but for now, and to be clear—I'm suggesting this moment actualises the vertical ‘leap’ from the known to the unexpected that is the structure of metaphor, rather than the horizontal connection from element to logically extrapolated element that is the structure of metonymy. Kubrick's cut is more like a poetic image than a scientific proposition;——and there you have it, in a nutshell, my definition of science fiction. This genre I love is more like a poetic image than it is a scientific proposition.

Now, if my interlocutor needs more, and if the picture doesn't make my point, I might add something Samuel Delany-ish: about how science fiction is a fundamentally metaphorical literature because it sets out to represent the world without reproducing it.

The danger, here, is that people will take what I'm saying as a statement about the content of the genre, rather than what it is, a statement about the form, about the genre's discursive structure. So, for instance, Darko Suvin's common-sense definition of SF as determined by one or more novums, things that exist in the SF text but not in the real world (and therefore not in texts mimetic of that real world) is too often, I think, treated only on the level of the content of the text. If a given novel or film contains a time machine or a faster-than-light spaceship or radically new concept of gender, then it is science fiction: end of. But what interests me about novums is the way the novum itself is so often a kind of reified or externalised embodiment of the formal logic of the metaphor, rather than just an, as it were, brute marker of difference as such.

Now, I need to acknowledge that most of the fans and critics of SF I know are not likely to be persuaded by what I say. More people, I think, would argue that a science fiction text extrapolates (more, or less, rigorously and quasi-scientifically) from knowns in our world into possibles in its imagined world. This is, on its face, perfectly sensible, and has the advantage of distinguishing ‘science fiction’, where the extrapolation needs to stay within broader guidelines of possibility, from ‘fantasy’ where magic, surrealism and so on may enter in to the equation. If you're writing about a colony on Mars, then you need to stick more-or-less within the bounds of what we know about Mars, and space travel, and humans-living-in-close-proximity and so on. Small deviations from probability may be permissible, depending on what they are and how cleverly the writer handles them; but large deviations are liable to ‘bounce the reader’ out of her reading experience. Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief is harder to sustain (the argument goes) in a story where the protagonist is a captain in the Proxima-Centuraian Space Navy than one in which they work in a shoe-shop in Colchester, so writers need to tread carefully not to tip-over their readers' delicately balanced sensibilities.

I don't think that's true, actually; but plenty of clever and knowledgeable people do.

This approach to SF tends to lead to prioritising things like: consistency and scope of worldbuilding, plausibility, rationality, the scientific accuracy of the way novums are extrapolated from present-day knowledge and so on. But once we get in the habit of judging SF by these criteria, I would say we are moving away from what makes SF so cool and wonderful in the first place. Put worldbuilding in the driving seat, as writer or reader, and Mike Harrison's clomping foot of nerdism comes stamping down on our human faces, forever.

Don't get me wrong: worldbuilding, the correlative of ‘extrapolation’, certainly has its place in SF. Not in my definition of SF, though, and that's what concerns this blogpost. It seems to me that worldbuilding is ancillary to the crucial thing that makes SF (and Fantasy for that matter), vital, crucial and wonderful. I'm enough of a Tolkien fanboy to enjoy reading the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, but I'm not enough of a fool to believe the appendices to The Lord of the Rings are the point of that novel.

Put it this way: worldbuilding is part of the system of a science fiction text; but the point of SF is not its system. The point is that it transports us—that it takes us somewhere new, that it brings us into contact with something wonderful, that it blindsides us, makes us gasp, unnerves or re-nerves us, makes us think of the world in a different way. I might differentiate a mediocre novum from a great one by saying that the former is embedded in a carefully worked-through and consistent web of worldbuilding, where the latter achieves escape velocity.

Now, if I say the point of SF is transport and you immediately think of a well-integrated network of trains and buses, then it may be you're more persuaded by that view of SF as coherent rationally-extrapolated worldbuilding. But if I say the point of SF is transport and you think rapture, well, conceivably you're closer to seeing the genre the way I do. Sometimes this transport is the full on mindblowing ‘Sense of Wonder’, a phrase I tend to take as a modern-day version of the venerable aesthetic category of the Sublime (to adapt Edmund Burke, we could say: mimetic fiction can be beautiful, but only SF can be sublime). Sometimes it is something smaller-scale, a woh! or cool!, a tingling in the scalp or the gut when we encounter something wonderful, or radically new, or strangely beautiful, or beautifully dislocating: something closer to Wordsworth's spots-of-time maybe. It needs to be at least flavoured with Strange (‘Weird’ as the kids used to say) to be properly SF. Great SF can never situate itself inside its readers' comfort zones, though commercially popular SF can and often does.

Fantasy has a related aesthetic uplift, which we might call ‘enchantment’, which can manifest in several ways, but which absolutely needs to be there, somewhere, in amongst your welter of maps and family-trees and invented languages and costumery and battles and elves and soap-opera-y comings and goings, if your Fantasy novel is going properly to come alive.

Now, I cannot deny that there is an ideological element to my definition here (there's an ideological element to every definition, whether we acknowledge it or not). It's hardly news that the genre I love exists over a particular political fault line. There are many right-wing SF fans, who, speaking socially, prize proper authority, tradition, following the rules and a congeries of what are essentially military values, and who prefer SF that embodies all that. Which is fine; there's plenty of that kind of SF out there. For myself I have little time for the whole ‘the rules of physics prove my ideology is correct!’ crowd: the there's-no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch crew, the ‘the pilot in The Cold Equations was right to throw that girl into space!’ cadre (together with their more deplorable ‘I cheered when the pilot in The Cold Equations threw that girl into space, serves the bitch right’ fringe). But there are many dedicated SF fans who find truth in some or all or those slogans. I can only speak for myself when I say I see SF as more fundamentally about the encounter with otherness, about hospitality to the alien, to the new and the strange and therefore with the marginal and the oppressed. This means it needs to embrace conventional and unconventional things, to be as much about gay as straight, trans as cis, colour as whiteness and so on. In all this I see SF as an art of disclosure, not enclosure. That's my ideological bias, and I'm content to own it.

I'll say two more things about my definition of SF as a fundamentally metaphorical literature. The first is to stress I'm not saying that (for example) SF's novums are symbols that can be decoded. I don't think so at all—that, as it were, the rocket ships are all symbolic penises, Hydra is a straightforward translation of Hitler's Nazi party and so on. This strikes me as a reductive and foolish way of reading texts. To repeat myself: it is not the content of any specific metaphor that defines SF for me; it is the structure of the metaphor as such. Mine is a formal, not a content-driven, definition. In order to explain what I mean by that, I'm going to bring in a little theory. Bear with me.

So here goes.

Roman Jakobson, one of the most influential linguistic theorists of the last century, makes what seems to me a really interesting and important distinction between metaphor and metonomy. Indeed, I hang my definition of science fiction upon that dyad. Metaphor is that trope that refers something to something it is not, invoking an implicit rather than explicit similarity between the word or phrase used and the thing described (a related but different trope is that of the simile, where words such as like or as are deployed): Achilles is a lion, all the world's a stage, chaos is a ladder and so on. Metonymy, on the other hand, is the rhetorical device by which a part of something is used to refer to the whole of something: a parish of a thousand souls, a hundred head of horse, calling the monarch ‘the crown’ and so on.

On a simple level, we recognise these rhetorical devices, and they take their place amongst the scores of other rhetorical devices that constitute our discourse. Jakobson, though, makes much more of them than this: although speech-acts and stories and novels only occasionally contain metaphors or metonomies, language as communication (he argues) is structured on a larger scale by the interplay between metaphor and metonomy. This is what he argues:
The message construction is based on two simultaneous operations (the terms metonomy and metaphor are not used as figures of speech but rather as pervasive forces organizing language):
Combination (horizontal)——constructing syntactic links; contexture.
Relation through contiguity, juxtaposition.
METONYMY: implying time, cause and effect, a chain of successive events

Selection (vertical)——choosing among equivalent options.
Relation on basis of similarity, substitution, equivalence or contrast; synonym/antonym.
METAPHOR: implying space, a-temporal connection, simultaneity.
In poetry the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection (metaphor) is used as the major means of constructing a sequence (combination; metonym). This projection is the defining characteristic of poetry, and it expresses itself in rhyme, meter, symmetries, repetitions, motifs.

The dominant mode in the poetic is therefore that of metaphor. Whereas in Prose the metonym prevails, the chain of events, the plot, successive actions, a sequence of occurrences. (The opposition is not an absolute one, but rather a mark of a tendency).
In fact, Jakobson developed his thought when he was working with autistic and asperger's-syndrome children. What he discovered was that these kids tended to understand metonymy, but tended to be baffled by metaphor. So, as it were, you could show them a headline that says the White House today issued a statement on immigration, and they would understand that ‘the White House’ was a metonym for the US Government. They wouldn't assume the actual building was talking (they're autistic, they're not stupid) but would, on the contrary, grasp the connection between the US Government and the White House, since the head of the US Government lives in the White House. In this case there's a logical connection, a conceptual copula, between A and B. But Jakobson discovered that if you said to them Achilles is a lion, they were liable to reply: no he's not, he's a man; and if you said Chaos is a ladder they'd stare at you like you were bonkers. Not, of course, that Jakobson's actual research involved him quoting Game of Thrones to autistic children. But you take my point.

I don't have hard data, and stand ready to be proved wrong by people who do, but I suspect that SF fandom contains a higher proportion of asperger's people than society as a whole. To be clear: such a statement is not a judgement. I have several friends on the spectrum, asperger's-wise, and they're clever, sensitive and wonderful people, precisely as worthwhile and valuable as people not on the spectrum. I make this observation to ask whether this might have something to do with why my way of defining SF is so marginal to how most of the fans and critics I know see the genre. Mine is an eccentric position, in the strict sense, and I know it: most fans who are happier with a metonymic model of the genre (extrapolation—which is to say, cause and effect, a chain of successive events—and worldbuilding: coherence, links, contexture). It may be they're right,of course. But that's not how I define science fiction.

The structure of metaphor as such is the knight's-move, my favourite manoeuvre in chess. It leads you in a certain metonymic direction, and indeed sometimes leads you quite a long way down that consecutive path, in order to leap suddenly, not arbitrarily, but poetically, expressively, marvellously, in its unexpected direction. It's the way the carefully worldbuilt society of Asimov's ‘Nightfall’ falls apart under stellar Sublimity, or the way the intricate anthropological detail of Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness is leavened by actual supernatural foretelling—a.k.a. magic—as a correlative to love, which is that novel's wondrous theme, wondrously handled. It's the way the scrupulously rational computational logic of Clarke's ‘Nine Billion Names of God’ steps, in its last sentence, into amazing impossibilities. It can be the beautifully unexpected outgoing, as when Ellie Arroway enters the alien world-construct at the end of Contact, or it can be the beautifully unexpected homecoming, as at the end of Kij Johnson's superb ‘26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’. It doesn't need to happen at the end of a text: it might occur at the beginning (as when Timur's scouts ride through a wholly deserted Europe in Stan Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt) or anywhere in the text, actually. It is more affective than rational, more lyric than narrative (though the narrative is usually needful to generate its lyrical affect, I think). It is the hurled bone that turns, unexpectedly, impossibly yet somehow rightly, into a spaceship.

I'll finish on a personal note. I write, as well as write about, science fiction, and have been doing it for long enough to know that the kind of science fiction I write does not find favour with the majority of SF fans. How I define ‘Science Fiction’ may well have something to do with this: although it's just as likely that my relative lack of genre success is (Okham's razor and so on) because what I do just isn't very good. But this structure I'm describing here as formally constitutive of science fiction is also formally constitutive of the joke, and jokes are very, possibly unhealthily, important to me. The structure of a joke is a knight's move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer's flourish of the unexpected. The joke can't be capped with a merely random or left-field unexpectedness, or it won't be funny: but the flourish at the end (the, to deploy a term invented by a giant of genre, prestige) must work. Here's a joke:
A man walks into a library, goes up to the counter and says brightly: ‘I'd like fish and chips, please!’

And the woman behind the counter replies: ‘but ... but this is a library.’

The man's eyes go wide. ‘Oh, I'm sorry!’ he says. Then he leans forward and whispers: ‘I'd like fish and chips please.’
Here's another: my 9-year old son's favourite joke, as it happens.
There was once an inflatable boy. He lived in an inflatable house with his inflatable parents. He went to an inflatable school with all his inflatable friends. But one day he took a pin to school.

The headmaster summoned the boy to his office. Shaking his head sorrowfully he said: ‘you've let me down, you've let the school down, but most of all you've let yourself down.’
I'm absolutely not saying that SF needs to be full of jokes. Indeed, on the contrary, successful comedy-SF is very rare indeed (The Hitch-Hiker's Guide is really the only undisputed classic in this narrow field). I am not talking content, I am talking form; and the point of this form is that the unexpected twist releases a quantum of joy. That's why jokes are great, and that, although its content is very different, is why SF is great.

So when I call SF a metaphorical mode of art I mean it in that Jakobsonian sense: as a structural or formal constitution rather than anything content-level. And, in the unlikely situation that such a thing should be of interest to you, it provides the key to my own creative and intellectual exercises. Structuralism, metonymic and procrustean, interests me less than various poststructuralist freaks and shakes; irony (though it's currently rather out of fashion) interests me more than earnestness, play more than preachiness, epiphanies more than consistencies. I think our genre needs more Keatsian negative capability and fewer grids, hierarchies and certainties. SF is in the prestige, not in the setup and the performance, although the setup and the performance are needful for the prestige to come off. SF should transport us or what's the point of it. At any rate, that's how I define ‘Science Fiction’.


17 comments:

  1. Adam, your definition has a number of moving parts, and I'm not sure that they all work in concert with one another. For instance, is the "hospitality to Otherness" part compatible with the "knight's move" part? Maybe it is, but if you're always headed for the Hospitality square then it may not matter so much whether you're getting there by a knight's move or the more direct path of the rook.

    More substantively, I think, the stance of hospitality presupposes a certain superiority: an ability as well as willingness to offer generous attention or help to someone in need of it — even if their need is only temporary, like that if E.T. But isn't one of the most time-honored SF tropes the exact reverse of that? — by which I mean, human beings who might desperately want hospitality from alien beings but don't get it, who are imprisoned and abused or experimented upon, etc. One might argue that the prevalence of this kind of theme exhibits an unfortunate tendency towards xenophobia (one in the American context especially is, as has often been noted, related to the Cold War); on the other hand, it would at least be possible to write such an encounter in a way that would generate empathy for the insulted and the injured.

    So, in short, I'm wondering whether the emphasis on hospitality both narrows the imaginative possibilities unnecessarily and consigns a pretty substantial part of SF's history to the margins of the genre.

    It seems to me that there are at least three valid ways of treating otherness. One is to maintain complete otherness and portray it as a source of horror (the Lovecraft Option); a second is to maintain otherness and treat it as a source of wonder or fascination or delight (the Miéville Option); a third is to pursue a kind of Aufhebung of otherness, a transcending of it that does not simply erase it — which I think is happening to the humans/replicants distinction at the end of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner.

    I could also just be full of shit.

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    1. Well, of course you're not full of shit!

      There's a good chance you're right, that my meanderings here pull in a series of incompatible directions. I mean, it's interesting to me that you're picking up on the question of hospitality to Otherness (yes, of course: Heinlein's Starship Trooper, and ten thousand other SF texts, manifest precious little of that, of course) -- which is to say, that you're picking up on what I identify as an aspect of my personal ideological perspective on genre. I don't think right-wing SF fans are any less valid as fans than left-wing ones. But if it seems to me that this (specifically tagged!) ideological element of my post runs parallel to, or slightly disconnected from, the more substantive formal or structural argument I make about genre, then you'd be entitled to reply: that's exactly what I said you were doing! But I'd cling to this shred of my tattered flag: that there seems to me, speaking non-judgementally, something more metonymic about conservativism, in the sense that it's about palpable connections between the past and the present, social coherence and context and so on, and something more metaphorical about the more revolutionary ideologies. But I daresay that strikes you as weak beer.

      Your tripartite mode of how to encounter otherness is very persuasive. I might suggest the wrinkle that you need a broader range of reactions in your first category: racist Whites in apartheid South Africa, or the antebellum South, might disparage, despise and even hate Blacks whilst still being happy with them doing all the cooking and cleaning, and raising their babies. 'Horror' doesn't seem like the right descriptive term, there.

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    2. That's helpful, Adam. I'm going to mull all this over further, because what you've written interests as well as puzzles me, but two quick points for now:

      1) When I return to this I'll be thinking about the elements of your definition that are descriptive and those that are either regulative or aspirational, because in typical rhetorical situations most definitions contain all three elements in various proportions. I see now that yours is more of the third than either of the first two.

      2) About otherness, I was referring only to otherness in SF, that is, situations in which humans have to deal with aliens or with other humans who are so different (through bio-engineering or the taking of separate evolutionary paths or whatever) that they might as well be nonhuman. Though what you say about disdain as opposed to horror clearly applies in SF as well, for instance in the attitudes towards the “creechies” in The Word for World is Forest.

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    3. One more thought: I'll need to complicate my Scheme of Otherness by thinking about otherness of place, which similarly must be either accepted (with horror or pleasure) or somehow altered. I have this in mind because I have just read (for the first time!) Priest's The Inverted City — a sober counterpart of Lafferty's comic "Narrow Valley" — but the obvious point suddenly strikes me that this is fundamentally what KSR's Mars trilogy is about.

      Now back to mulling metonymic conservatism and metaphorical leftism....

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    4. Inverted City is a nicely expressive misprison: for who's to say the city isn't the world, in this day and age? But I shouldn't be facetious: Priest's Inverted World, together with Fugue on a Darkening Island, Dream of Wessex and, though he repudiates the title now, Indoctrinaire, were immensely influential on young me in the 1970s. I've even written the introduction for the Gollancz masterworks reissue of the former title. This isn't particularly relevant to your comment, but I thought I'd share.

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    5. That's what happens when I'm paying more attention to closing my HTML tags than getting the title right. Sigh. Your edition of Inverted, as I shall henceforth call it, is not available here in the States — I'm having to make do with one with an afterword by John Clute. Slumming it, I am.

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  2. I would ask what practical difference it makes. What actual works do you consider end up being classified as science fiction using your definition that are not classified as science fiction using the definition about extrapolation from knowns to possibles, or vice versa? If you can list a few such works, it will help to illustrate the difference between your definition and the more accepted one. If you can't, then I submit that you've not defined science fiction at all; you have instead made an interesting statement about what science fiction can do and how it can do it.

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    1. In reply (and whilst, of course, conceding the point you, diplomatically but firmly, make here: viz., that there's a high probability I'm wasting my own and everybody else's time) I would submit that your request is by its nature embedded in the very logic of taxonomy, of structuralist pigeonholing and pseudo-Linnaean categorisation, that I am, fundamentally, trying to get away from.

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  3. Possibly it makes a practical difference the maker of the science fiction much more than the reader. I've found all of this (including comments) interesting to read because I have come to much the same conclusion about painting over the last six months -i.e. my favourite paintings, and those I want to make, are closer to poetry than anything else (if that doesn't sound hugely pretentious). Success is in combination, and not in description (for me, anyway), and should contain an element of wonder. Which is odd, when you think how far figurative art is from science fiction, and how boring the vast majority of science fiction/fantasy art can be - something about a depiction seems to take the mystery out.

    My other thought re: you being the minority, one of the reasons I largely gave up on science fiction in my late teens was because of the frequently sexist majority. It has been a real pleasure to find my way back to Le Guin and yourself and the other eccentrics out there.

    p.s. gah I wish I'd been in that audience, especially as I love Jo Walton's work, and Ken Macleod, too, and clearly need to look up Farah Mendlesohn.

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    1. It doesn't sound pretentious at all: and, if it didn't look a little too mutual-admiration-society, I'd say that the paintings of yours I've seen (only mediated, I'm afraid; never in the flesh) do indeed have that extra something that lifts representation into a special place.

      Jo Walton's a great writer, isn't she?

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  5. Adam, your sketch of a definition/theory of SF continues to fascinate me. My thoughts seem to be coming in pairs these days…

    1) I was, and still am, taken aback by your association of my comments with conservatism — I didn’t think I was speaking or thinking as a conservative. Essential to my understanding of Christianity is the belief that I am commanded to love my neighbor and to welcome the stranger (and by welcoming her, accept her as my neighbor); and I do have a preference for the words “neighbor” and “stranger” rather than Other, and have ever since I saw Kierkegaard’s sardonic reply to the question “Who is my neighbor?” — “‘Neighbor’ is what philosophers call the ‘Other.’” But none of that seems conservative to me (which is not to say that there aren’t respects in which I am a conservative). Maybe my self-knowledge is limited in this respect. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    But what I was trying to do was to figure out the relationship between your stance of hospitality and openness to the Other with the strong tendency in SF to reinforce and even take delight in otherness. And here I’m not thinking primarily of Heinlein stuff or the (later-to-be-repented-of) othering of the Buggers in Ender’s Game. Rather, I’m thinking of Tepper’s Grass, where the alien creatures turn out to be quite a bit stranger, and to have quite a different relationship to one another, than the humans assume. Cross-species eroticism, even, turns out to be possible, but only after those false assumptions are cleared away, and even then the radical strangeness is intrinsic to the erotic experience. Or Miéville’s Embassytown, where the accommodation of the Hosts to human thought and language is positively destructive to them. And neither Tepper nor Miéville are exactly conservatives! One need not be to find it interesting to explore the limits of understanding across certain barriers, or in some cases the impossibilities. “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”

    By the way, Embassytown is an interesting book to consider in light of your metaphor/metonymy theory, since the mental deterioration of the Hosts is addressed by teaching some of them to use metaphor — and to lie. ("Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth”? Maybe. Maybe not.)

    2) Now, about that theory: it strikes me as an elucidation or refinement of my elementary distinction between accommodating and perverse texts. Am I going too far to suggest that your Jakobsonian distinction between metonymy and metaphor offers a kind of discourse-analysis account of what makes some texts accommoding and some perverse? You say you love the knight’s-move of metaphor; I call you perverse; aren’t we (especially if we read “perverse” etymologically) saying precisely the same thing?

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    1. In haste (more detailed response later): "You say you love the knight’s-move of metaphor; I call you perverse; aren’t we (especially if we read “perverse” etymologically) saying precisely the same thing?"

      Yes! I think we are ...

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    2. Alan: a quick further comment on your comments. When you say 'taken aback' I hope what I said didn't come across as personal. At the risk of over-rigidly applying the metaphor/metonymy distinction to politics and religion, I'd say that however (as it were) metonymically a given person might like social and political life to be situated within a connected grid of rules and precedent and so on, the very core of Christianity involves a metaphorical leap of radical and absolute unexpectedness: from death to (impossible) life, from the way things were before -- bricks connected one-upon-the-other to build the temple, the way of life that sustained the religiously observant -- to a sudden, radically new logic in which not one brick is left standing on another, the last are suddenly first and the hated Samaritan is suddenly revealed as more in tune with the logic of the universe than the pious Levite. It could hardly be less metonymic, all that. It seems to me (from my admittedly imperfect outsider's perspective) that the moral of the Gospels is, in a nutshell: Everything Is Different Now. I certainly take the force of your preference for 'neighbour' over 'Other', and might carry through what I take to be implicit in your observation, that these sorts of narratives are often best realised in terms of real, rather than abstract, love. One of the reasons I think Grass is a better novel than any of the Enders sequels is that its central story is a passionate and believable love affair between human and alien, where in the latter Ender wanders around a slightly abstract drama of remorse and repentance.

      I've known you long enough now to appreciate how imprecise traditional political labels such as 'conservative' are when it comes to describing your principles. I'd say something similar about myself, actually: I mean in terms of the label 'socialist' (which still claims my affiliation; although, as facebook used to say, 'it's complicated'). But I would have to concede that my atheism is, like the atheism of quite a few of my infidel friends, at root an incapacity to take that Kierkegaardian leap of faith, to follow the bone as it transforms into a glittering orbital future. Which is to say, it's a mental process that extrapolates so far and no further, and can't see a place for (as it might be) God in the web of directly linked connections. Being triumphalist about this, as some New Atheists are, has always struck as a puzzling attitude to take. It's celebrating an inability by which others, and in point of fact the overwhelming majority of others who live on this planet, are not hampered.

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  6. I don't think sublimity is too much to insist on. In my youth I'd tell anyone who listened that the sf short story was the highest form of literature (I did an English degree, too). What I had in mind was the affinity between the sf short story and the thought experiment - 20-30 pages is a good length to set up a thought experiment and work it through. Which doesn't of itself get us to sublimity - as a kid I'd graduated from Asimov to Larry Niven, with only occasional detours into Ballard or Harlan Ellison, and a lot of the appeal of those authors was that they set up thought experiments and solved them. But something happens when you put a thought experiment into fiction, when you make somebody live there: a thought experiment can be a cold and cruel place to be (what's the Cold Equations but a thought experiment?), but more importantly it can be something that simply baffles, exceeds understanding. Something sf can do extraordinarily well - and something on which I think a claim to superior literary merit can genuinely be grounded - is bring the reader to a wondering, horrified halt, contemplating how a situation has developed to a point that just can't be survived, literally or psychologically. I think of Nightfall, but also The Screwfly Solution, Pollock and the Porroh Man, The S-Bomb, Christopher Priest's The Watched...

    But actually, all but the most straightforward, crossword-clue-like thought experiments have a seed of the sublime in them - imagine actually living the Cold Equations. Anyone rooting for the pilot in that one has come out against sublimity - and in favour of non-survival, broadly speaking, on the basis that it'll always be somebody else who has to face it.

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    1. Well, I agree heartily with what you say here Phil. I suppose I wonder, a little, if the resurgent Trumpist who really really likes The Cold Equations isn't experiencing as mini-sublimity the inner leap of elation at the thought of all those tedious liberal restrictions of being nice to people, especially women, being swept away by the Iron Logic of Physics. But, you know: fuck them.

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  7. Have you considered there is a sci fi probable blunder in Out of the Silent Planet, since all space round the space ship could be simply bathed in sunlight, but as long as there was neither reflection nor refraction towards it, the space in question would be dark?

    Now, in the Charn chapter (4, not 5) of MN, CSL makes up for it.

    A red sun gives no blue light = no refraction = dark sky BUT the sun may even so be shining fairly bright and light up the throne room with all the dresses.

    I thought he had blundered first, but he hadn't.

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