What Provides Science Fiction with its Critical Power? Three Levels of Voluntary Exclusion

Jonathan Liraz


In this short essay, I will rely on two canonical texts of science fiction (SF) studies in an attempt to explicate how three phenomena of voluntary exclusion constitute the genre's ability to generate a critical socio-cultural discourse.

In the famous Shakespearean play, Hamlet invites a cast of actors to perform for the queen, and her new husband's court, presenting a scene he wrote, which actually describes his uncle's crime – murdering the king and wooing the queen until their marriage and his coronation as the new king.

In his meeting with the actors' representative, Hamlet claims:

"the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."[1]

Accepting Hamlet's assertion, it remains to be told in what way acting and, by extension, literature and performative art in general achieve this purpose.

Two months after his father's murder, Hamlet feels sufficiently secure to present the new killer-murderer and his court with his accusation regarding the murder, not fearing the ramifications of this presentation. This feeling of security is derived from the way in which Hamlet presents his accusation – a play, an event clearly segregated from the general reality and bound in space and time. In T.A.Z.[2], limiting the space and time, and the creation of a clear distinction between what takes place inside and out of the T.A.Z., makes possible an extreme form of freedom. Similarly, presenting the accusation in a form bound in space and time and segregated from the broader reality – the exclusion of the message from reality[3] – allows Hamlet to accuse his uncle and mother without exposing himself to a direct violent response.

As previously stated, this characteristic of acting, which Hamlet wisely expoits, is not unique to acting or to a specific literary genre, but is common to art and literature in general – or at least to fiction. The second level of exclusion, however, is unique to one specific genre – SF. In 72', Darko Suvin, a Croatian-Canadiam literary critic, published a founding essay[4] in SF studies, intended to provide, for the first time, a structural definition of SF. According to Suvin, the basic feature defining SF is "cognitive estrangement".

Suvin coins the term "zero reality" for the reality in which the author and readers live, and defines "estrangement" as the gap between the zero reality and the reality described in the work of literature. A certain degree of this gap exists in every work of literature[5] – even if a historical novel will describe the major historical happenings relatively accurately, the day-to-day details of the protagonists' life are fiction and constitute such a gap – but certain genres and literary styles include this gap as one of their central defining features. Thus, the genre of fantasy, or fairy-tales, relies on a large gap between zero reality and the described reality as one of its essential characteristics. In addition to the size of the gap in the fantasy genre, the gap is qualitative – it cannot be bridged by explanatory or logical means, it is a jump to another world.[6]

In SF literature, by contrast, the gap between zero reality and the described reality can be logically explained or historically bridged. In a popular SF subgenre, 'alternative history', a change in a specific past event generates a historical development distinct from ours and creates an alternative current reality, essentially distinct from our own.[7] Another subgenre is 'future history', in which a possible future reality is described, based on a plausible historical development originating in the author's zero reality.[8] Thus, while in fantasy literature estrangement gap is qualitative, in SF the gap is quantitative and cognitive estrangement occurs.

In 2000, Carl Freedman, an American literary critic, published a book titled "Critical Theory and Science Fiction".[9] According to Freedman, cognitive estrangement creates a privileged link between the SF genre and critical theory. The description of an alternative, but possible, socio-cultural reality, as occurs in this genre, generates for the reader a realization that his experienced reality, his zero reality, is not 'natural', i.e. is not necessary and is not the only possible option. This realization provides the reader with the possibility to imagine and discuss plausible alternatives to the way he lives and to criticize his actual reality, in the same way critical theory acts. Non-cognitive estrangement, on the other hand, acts in an opposite direction. Describing a world in which dragons, elves and mages reside, and in which the socio-cultural reality is different, will generate a feeling of strandedness of the form: the only way to change the socio-cultural reality is to bend, or break, the basic laws of nature. Thus, while fantasy literature generates a conservative-essentialist conception of the socio-cultural reality, SF literature, through cognitive estrangement, allows a critical, and possibly even subversive conception of reality.


The third level of exclusion is not a structural feature of SF or literature in general, but a contextual characteristic of the SF genre in the 20th century. The bloom of SF started in the 1930's in pulp magazines targeting a teenaged audience. The genre's modest beginning in American popular culture, in addition to certain stylistic characteristics[10] led to it being perceived by theoreticians and cultural critics as an inferior genre. The summary of Suvin's essay, for example, clarifies that his intention is to protest against this perception, and situate SF as equal, if not superior, to any other major literary genre.[11]

This exclusion of SF from the company of literary genres considered to be of high quality, and from the canon of literary works, generates a sense of insult for some of the genre's authors and researchers. But I claim that it is precisely this exclusion which acts as the third element providing the genre with its power. Literature that is received with high praise and appreciation gains many privileges, but will find it difficult to pose a critical statement regarding the same elites and society in which it appears. SF, because of it being received and perceived as an inferior genre, as teenage pulp, allows the posing of statements strongly critical towards the reality in which it is written/read.

In 53' American McCarthyism had already passed its peak, but it is still difficult to imagine a historical novel published and largely successful in this year, presenting blatant socialist ideology – but Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's "Space Merchants" did exactly that. The 60's brought sexual liberation and a gender revolution to the United States, but it is likely that the sexual and gender contents present in Robert Heinlein's "Time Enough for Love" (73') or "Friday" (82') would have been perceived as highly controversial had they been published in a more highly praised genre.

Thus, we see that the SF genre's ability to generate critical statements and discussion is based on three level of, largely voluntary, exclusion. First, the basic exclusion of any piece of fiction from reality – i.e. bounding into space and time distinct from the actual reality; Second, the cognitive estrangement, which is SF's defining feature and generates the affinity between it and a critical perception of the socio-cultural reality; Third, the historical circumstances of SF, i.e. its being considered an inferior genre, which allow it to go beyond the norms of its time and to present socio-cultural subversion.

[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1985, Act 3, Scene 2, p. 153.

[2] T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, Autonomedia, 2003.

[3] Similarly, in his essay of Greek religion, Paul Veyne discusses how a person 'believes' the events contained by a novel only as long as he is immersed in the novel's reality, and returns to his general reality as soon as he puts the book aside. See: Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths: An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination (translated by Paula Wissing), Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988, p. 22.

[4] Darko Suvin, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre", College English, Vol. 34, No. 3, 1972, pp. 372-382.

[5] A critical view of historiography, such as that promoted by Hayden White, will claim that this gap is always present in historical writing, as the historian is never able to grasp the actual historical event, but only provide an interpretation based on surviving evidence. See, for example: Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

[6] See, for example, the Narnia series (by C.S. Lewis) or His Dark Materials trilogy (by Philip Pullman), two series of fantasy novels which make use of the estrangement-gap and describe passing between 'our reality' and a fantastic reality  via a magic-portal; C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, New York: HarperCollins, 2001; Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials Omnibus, New York: Random House Children's Books, 2012.

[7] A classic example for such a novel is Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle" from 62', which describes the resulting reality in 60', following Nazi Germany's victory in WW2; Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

[8] For example, Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress describes a rebellion of Earth's colonies on the moon, and the colonies' attempt at establishing political and economic independence – a future paraphrase of the American colonies' rebellion; Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, 1997.

[9] Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

[10] Freedman, for example, discusses how a "technical language" separates SF from "high literature". See: Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000, pp. 33-43.

[11] Darko Suvin, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre", College English, Vol. 34, No. 3, 1972, p. 380.

Jonathan Liraz completed his B.A. studies in History and Sociology in Tel Aviv University, and is a graduate student in Tel Aviv University's department of History. His thesis will discuss the conceptions and discussions of historiography present in American science fiction literature following the Second World War.

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