The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction

by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay


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As the world undergoes daily transformations through the application of technoscience to every aspect of life, science fiction has become an essential mode of imagining the horizons of possibility. However much science fiction texts vary in artistic quality and intellectual sophistication, they share in a mass social energy and a desire to imagine a collective future for the human species and the world. At this moment, a strikingly high proportion of films, commercial art, popular music, video and computer games, and non-genre fiction have become what Csicsery-Ronay calls science fictional, stimulating science-fictional habits of mind. We no longer treat science fiction as merely a genre-engine producing formulaic effects, but as a mode of awareness, which frames experiences as if they were aspects of science fiction. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction describes science fiction as a constellation of seven diverse cognitive attractions that are particularly formative of science-fictionality. These are the “seven beauties” of the title: fictive neology, fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, the science-fictional sublime, the science-fictional grotesque, and the Technologiade, or the epic of technsocience’s development into a global regime.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819570925
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

ISTVAN CSICSERY-RONAY, JR. is a professor of English at DePauw University, where he teaches courses in world literature and science fiction. He is coeditor of the journal Science Fiction Studies and the book Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams (2007).

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Fictive Neology

Signa Novi. Readers of sf anticipate words and sentences that refer to changed or alien worlds. All fantastic genres make some use of fictive neology. Heroic fantasy invents words to evoke the archaic origins of its worlds. Phantasmagoric satire delights in wordplay that simultaneously masks and insinuates the objects of its derision. Gothic and supernatural tales invoke esoteric and folkloric terms to create the sense of a concealed or forgotten past. SF is distinct, in that its fictive neologies connote newness and innovation vis-à-vis the historical present of the reader's culture. They are fictive signa novi, signs of the new. In the real world, any design or fashion motif whose purpose is to refer to a "New Thing," whose meaning depends on its newness, is a sign of newness — from the girder-skeleton of the Eiffel Tower to the fins of a 1956 Eldorado, from a new slang phrase to a new electronic timbre. The signum novi does not signify any particular objective historical content. It is a dialectical trope that implies a conception, at once aesthetic and cognitive, of the difference between the historically familiar and the as-yet imaginary designs and social relations that are supposedly just emerging.

Fictive neologies have a paradoxical function. They conjure up a sense of the inevitability of a new thing, or of a new discourse in which the neologism is embedded. If there is a word for it, it must already exist. And so the future must also already exist. The more convincing it is in creating an illusion of projected historical reality, the more successful the neology. Yet fictive neology also displays that it is fiction. Because the future cannot exist yet, we know that the neology is a playful, poetic conjuring device, suggesting that any imaginable future is always a poetic construction.

Every future inevitably becomes obsolete. A fictive date set in the reader's future, the simplest of all imaginary neosemes, is always superseded by the real historical experience of the calendar: 1984 becomes 1985; 2001 becomes 2002. Every such superannuation reinforces readers' suspension of disbelief about the prospective reality of any futuristic date. SF readers know that different stories depict different conditions for identical time-space niches of the future. Writers sometimes try to link their concepts with those of other works, but even readers of such "shared-universe" tales expect each artist to create at least a few signs that indicate a future never seen outside those works before.

Neology in the Real World

In everyday language, neologies have many functions. They may name phenomena that until recently had no names — things and practices that have been newly discovered, invented, or imagined by a community. Or, they may be less denotative than rhetorical and poetic, drawing attention to a group's style of discourse.

The coining of new words is both an aesthetic and a practical matter. Each new word disrupts the previous flow of language. Roman Jakobson proposed a model for distinguishing the discourse of functional communication from language that is aesthetically charged. In the former, words evaporate as soon as a message is understood; in the latter, the words remain in play in memory and consciousness, even after the practical message has ceased to be pertinent. Neologies call attention to themselves; they are artful. They also call attention to the linguistic power of their users. A new word is a new source of power, which may originate from artistic invention, technical gnosis, or from the user's privileged access to new things at the leading edge of history.

Neologogenesis, the production of new words, is a vital process in all living languages. Grammars tolerate few changes over time, so languages usually accommodate social and cultural changes through new vocabulary and usage. This accommodation is especially true when communities establish connections with foreign cultures or undergo techno-scientific transformations. Neology is consequently of central importance for modernizing societies, whose languages must be dynamic and flexible enough to permit new customs, concepts, and objects to become part of collective experience. If they are not so by tradition, they are made to be so.

Scientific-technological development in particular creates its own neologistic momentum. Before the nineteenth century, the provinciality of German and other Central European languages, for example, forced their scientists and philosophers to write most of their works in French and Latin. Eventually, reforms were instituted for bringing them "up to date," and capable of articulating whatever a modern scientific Englishman or Frenchman might know. These reforms were emulated throughout Europe and Asia, wherever the nationalist intelligentsia wished to join the Club of Modern Nations. Much of this renovation was devoted to the translation of foreign terms, the accommodation of loan words within native morphemic structures, and the invention of new words from native roots. This last goal was a particular ambition of modernizing nationalists, for whom a national language enriched with new words could become a vehicle for political consciousness-raising.

Languages have an inherent potential for development through their interaction with the discourses of other cultures and their own internal elaboration. Whether the potential is realized or not is largely a matter of the politics of culture. If a community of speakers cannot agree that the language should be capable of modern intercultural expression, then that role will be filled by another language. The dominant cultures of scientific modernity — Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Japan, and Russia — are endowed with languages that employ many different kinds of lexicogenesis concurrently, from lists generated by Academies to spontaneous informal neology and the easy assimilation of loanwords. It is not an accident that theirs have also been the main languages of sf. Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, and other languages of ascending technopolitical influence, are endowed with a similar flexibility for the development of popular technoscientific discourse, and consequently of sf. Others, like Arabic and Persian, may be constrained by a conservative cultural loyalty to their classical stratum; such loyalty limits the possibilities of sf.

Technolects, Social Exchange, and Slang

In social life, most neologisms are invented and introduced in three areas of discourse: scientific technolects, the language of institutions and markets, and slang. Technical neologisms name concepts and objects brought under careful, systematic organization. Like all languages that emulate legal discourse, technical terminology strives to minimize ambiguity by constructing words that have restricted usage and convey a sense of purified reference. Its technical terms are attempts to construct words sufficiently redundant (by virtue of their likeness to similar terms, their Greek and Latin roots, their conventional system of affixes, and so forth) to be quickly understood by all competent users of scientific language, while also sufficiently narrow to name a single class of referents. They may be intended to denote something so precisely that there is no ambiguity about the referent; yet, until the word is made familiar, it carries with it a connotation of newness that may have nothing immediately to do with the qualities of the reference itself. A new scientific term often calls attention to its linguistic newness independent of the newness of the referent. Perhaps for only a very short while, and perhaps only faintly, it reorganizes discourse around itself. In short, it must be learned, and this terminological learning may be independent from learning about the new phenomenon it names. In its most highly developed form, such learning is the basis for nomenclature and taxonomy, where the system of terms ultimately suggests the rules for the development of further new terms. The theoretical and ideological presuppositions of taxonomic systems are usually evident for anyone who cares to examine them. (Linnaeus constructed his botanical nomenclature on the model of the patriarchal bourgeois family. Some recent emulators have proposed botanical taxonomies based on neoliberal economics.)

The second major domain of neology is social exchange, especially markets and institutions, where new objects and practices are introduced into, and classified for, social life. Here, words for commodities, customs, procedures, and social innovations are generated in a variety of ways. They might be loanwords, if they are of foreign origin; they might be transposed or metaphorical terms from other practices; they might be outright inventions. Their purpose is simultaneously to make the new referent seem fresh and interesting, yet also easy to employ in everyday exchanges. While scientific neologisms connote the power of esoteric language to contain new knowledge, neologisms of exchange promise to enrich the status quo. In our age, the main sources of such neologisms are advertising and commercial discourse, whose language of newness conjures up solutions to existential problems via the commodity-names of putatively new objects.

Another important source of social-exchange neology is the language of social science. Terminology in the social sciences differs from that in the natural sciences, in that it discourages the invention of esoteric words, appropriating instead terms already in widespread use for focused, context-specific meanings. Psychologists, sociologists, economists, and anthropologists often reject the monosemic ideal of natural-science terminology, in favor of terms that are concrete, familiar, and vague. Because their dominant context is general usage, such social scientific terms are easily reappropriated by usage. Ego, incentive, aggression, culture, ethnicity, behavior, attitude, role, tribe, minority — all have been important concepts in the social sciences, and have returned to general usage with new connotations gained from their terminological use. Such technical terms are particularly sensitive to changes in social-political attitudes that produce semantic shifts.

The third domain of neologogenesis is subcultural appropriation, the restless invention of new terms for objects and practices that already have familiar, normal names. Through metaphorical transfer, apocope, combination, and similar tactics, these referents are converted into slang or creolized terms that signify the countercultural power of détournement, wresting control of normal language and using it for a group's own purposes — the linguistic equivalent of William Gibson's famous phrase in Neuromancer: "the street finds its own uses for things." Such terms imply a code, accessible only to initiates, that subverts the accepted meaning of things. This street-level lexicogenesis is the shadow of technoscientific discourse, whose esotericism it imitates while substituting the quite unscientific values of constant creative shape-shifting and the restless self-disguise of liminal speakers.

None of these domains is isolated from the others. At different times, they draw on one another's resources, in tune with different social alignments. All scientific naming, for example, strives to be systematic, but the basis of the system is sensitive to social-cultural power. Planetary naming for our solar system, to take one example, continues to be based on classical mythology and literature. The moons of Neptune are, by convention, named after nymphs and deities taken from Greek and Roman mythology. The moons of Saturn are named for Titans; the moons of Jupiter for Jovian amours. A most peculiar convention has developed around Uranus, whose satellites are all, with one exception, named for Shakespearean characters, a practice begun by William Herschel in 1787 with Titania and Oberon. The names of the so-called icy moons are drawn almost exclusively from The Tempest; they now include Miranda, Ariel, and the recently discovered Caliban, Sycorax, Prospero, and Setebos. (The one exception, Umbriel, is taken from Pope's Dunciad, making it our system's sole satirical moon.) This literary sourcing continues in physics with modern twists, as in the naming of the quark from Finnegan's Wake, and the even more whimsical boojum.

As scientific work became increasingly democratic in the twentieth century, some scientific neology became emphatically playful and antielitist, borrowing its terms from popular rather than elite culture. This greater latitude has been particularly apparent in some areas of molecular biology, many of whose objects are too new to be covered by earlier conventions. Molecules are named after anything the discoverer wishes. Dozens of them are named for places (americanin, yemenimyciin), persons (buckminsterfullerene, mirasorvine) and shapes (birdcage, dogcollarane). The most extravagant populist nomenclature can be found in drosophila genetics. Because most of the many genes discovered in the fruit fly are identified for their phenotypic behavior, their names are treated as temporary until the discovery of deeper structural relationships mandates more systematic naming. In this way, a formidable subculture of joking taxonomy has arisen in fruit-fly biology. The naming of a hedgehog protein (after the spiky appearance of the particular mutation it engenders) has led to the further elaboration of the Indian hedgehog, the desert hedgehog, and inevitably, the Sonic hedgehog protein. (It's not over; there's also a Tiggy-Winklehedgehog.) The massive list found at Flybase, a database of fruit-fly genes maintained by a consortium of research institutions, includes lunatic fringe, radical fringe, Tinman, ZapA (after Frank Zappa), Snafu, Hamlet, amontillado, sevenless, bride of sevenless, crossbronx, Deadpan, fuzzy onions, genghis khan, Godzilla, jekyll and hyde, ken and barbie, Malvolio, king tubby, klingon, out at first, pacman, roadkill, rolling stone, singles bar, vibrator, viking, and the heroic I'm-Not-Dead-Yet. Paleozoologists have sometimes concealed eccentric names for their dinosaurs in Latin formulas, but even this custom has become unusually slangy, as with the Masiakasaurus knopflerensis, named by its discoverers after guitarist Mark Knopfler, whose music accompanied them in their excavations.

In a linguistically dynamic culture, where language is constantly being invented and recast in tandem with social-technological changes and cultural contacts, people become accustomed to learning new terms quickly. Such rapid acquisition has complex and varied social effects. A culture of speakers skilled in learning new words and concepts learns to anticipate linguistic newness; indeed, it may be difficult for them to distinguish between the expectation of new discourse and the expectation of material changes. This indeterminate balance is a spur to different kinds of creativity and play. Subcultures strive to keep pace with transformations in society at large by absorbing them into their alternative universes of discourse, and revaluing them. These subcultures themselves mutate under the pressures of larger social transformations, and the terms that might once have been used to establish playful and distinctive shibboleths of particular groups may attain currency across dissolving subcultural boundaries. With each transformation, political power is redistributed, dissipated, and reconsolidated. The creation of language is a source of power.

Imaginary Neosemes and Neologisms

The etymology of a science-fictional neologism reflects imaginary laws of social evolution. Some writers, like J. G. Ballard, may insist on the zero-degree plausibility of untransformed language to evoke a frozen reality. Others may use satirical, symbolizing, uncanny, or prophetic registers. In all cases, science-fictional neologisms will represent the social-evolutionary powers that dominate that fictive world's history.

Artists must consider whether their audiences will be willing to process their aesthetic information in the ways they wish, and whether audiences will be willing (or even able) to break away from routine interpretations to construct new designs that will accommodate the new techniques. These new designs may make many demands: historical familiarity with artistic expression, generic competence, openness to new information, and a willingness to reflect. Beyond these personal tasks is the encompassing social question of what forms and mutations of discourse are intelligible to a given interpretive community. A coterie of scientists or hipsters might find it fun to decode an array of imaginary terms, but the majority of even educated readers may have a consensual limit to how many new words and neosemes they can entertain, beyond which the experience seems empty, pretentious, or mad. It is rare to find many early sf works in which imaginary neologisms are common currency, while in post–World War II — especially post-1960s — sf the saturation of real social discourse with neologisms licenses writers to increase their density in their fiction.


Excerpted from "The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Science Fiction and This Moment
First Beauty: Fictive Neology
Second Beauty: Fictive Novums
Third Beauty: Future History
Fourth Beauty: Imaginary Science
Fifth Beauty: The Science-Fictional Sublime
Sixth Beauty: The Science-Fictional Grotesque
Seventh Beauty: The Technologiade
Concluding Unscientific Postscript: The Singularity and Beyond

What People are Saying About This

N. Katherine Hayles

"Csicsery-Ronay brings together a wealth of material to demonstrate the transformative power of the 'seven beauties.' Highly recommended for all readers interested in the ways in which science fiction relates to our past, present, and possible futures."
N. Katherine Hayles, author of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary

From the Publisher

"Csicsery-Ronay brings together a wealth of material to demonstrate the transformative power of the 'seven beauties.' Highly recommended for all readers interested in the ways in which science fiction relates to our past, present, and possible futures."—N. Katherine Hayles, author of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary

"This remarkable book is full of fascinating ideas, resolutely stripped of academic jargon, and a worthy addition to the growing body of work devoted to deciphering the ancient ancestry and the many-faceted aesthetic of science fiction."—Gwyneth Jones, author of Bold as Love

Gwyneth Jones

“This remarkable book is full of fascinating ideas, resolutely stripped of academic jargon, and a worthy addition to the growing body of work devoted to deciphering the ancient ancestry and the many-faceted aesthetic of science fiction.”

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