One of the least pleasurable things about writing about sf is that non-specialist editors and publishers always want you to begin with a definition. Nowadays, after a few minutes of this kind of thing, I respond by instead discussing the irresolvable fluidity of genres as discursive objects produced by ongoing processes of text-labelling and boundary-construction, by claims and counterclaims, debates and arguments, squabbles and spats (see Rieder for a version of this argument). The discursive agents involved do not necessarily share the same goals, serve the same function or possess equal power, nor does their influence operate across a uniform social field – an sf scholar might expect to be taken more seriously than Asylum Pictures, but not when it comes to pitching a movie about mutant aquatic hybrids to Syfy (or, sometimes, when teaching an sf class). And however idiosyncratic any particular statement about a genre seems, it comes from a complexly-determined social intersubjectivity. Even the most ludicrous statements about sf do not come from nowhere. They do not spring fully formed from monadic subjects, with their stupid minds, stupid, stupid…
Some genre definitions are pungent, pithy or poetic – Brian Aldiss’ ‘Hubris clobbered by nemesis’ (30), Darko Suvin’s ‘literature of cognitive estrangement’ (4), Gwyneth Jones’ ‘green lung of the city of science’ (53) – but even those that are not can offer perverse pleasures. For example, Damien Broderick’s definition is nine lines long and requires an additional page to explicate its terminology (155-156). It’s so unwieldy as to lose all utility. Even though I cannot keep it all in my head at the same time, there is something delightful about it. It’s a fabulously errant contraption, like one of those early flying machines with a dozen sets of wings that collapse in on each other and destroy the plane the moment it tries to take off. It’s a teratological freak, a weird, patchworked hybrid that recognises sf’s ever-shifting complexities but runs smack into a deranged desire to fix everything in its place.
Recently, Neal Easterbrook reminded me – quite rightly – that just because a totalising attempt at definition inevitably fails to capture an entire, evolving genre, it does not follow that it is descriptively or theoretically useless. But to be frank, it’s a relief not to have to work with one – and even more so not to have to formulate one. Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures in writing my most recent book, Science Fiction (2012), was constructing it so as to avoid definition.
Similarly, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008) builds on key strands of sf theory and criticism so as to be able to ‘work outside a specific theoretical model’ (9). He does not insist that his seven beauties – fictive neology, fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, the sublime, the grotesque, the technologiade – are the only ones to be found in sf, or that they are exclusive to the genre; they are just more likely to be found there. His concept of ‘science-fictionality, a mode of response that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction’ (2), introduces one of the ways in which sf has snuck out of the genre and into the world. But his tendency to focus on canonical prose sf and film reveals a couple of potential lacunae. Science-fictionality should be complemented with an understanding of the science-fictionalisation of everyday life and of the sociality of sf. In addition to the beauties of sf, we must also consider its pleasures. And where better to start than with some things I did the other day.
My sf day began late the night before with Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955), the one where Bela Lugosi wrestles a giant octopus in a pond in Griffith Park, struggling to make the stolen prop look like it’s alive. Rather than rewinding the DVD to watch the bits I kept nodding off through, I paused the movie, went to bed. I watched the rest in the morning, after being woken by my alarm clock, which self-corrects via a radio link to the caesium clock. (Have you noticed how hotel rooms no longer have alarm clocks, even those where you can’t set an alarm on the phone or TV? Probably not, because like everyone else you have a cell phone.)
My job is pretty sedentary. There’s an awful lot of sitting in front of screens and books. So I run. All running gear is futuristic. My running shoes are designed to support falling arches, and thus prevent damage to ankles, knees, hips and pelvis. But even better than that, a new pair always feels lighter than the tissue paper in which they are packed.
I strap on my prematurely retro i-pod classic, start the stopwatch and hit play: this time, a pair of episodes from the old US radio show Suspense, starring Orson Welles in a 1944 two-part adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain (1942) – the one where a dead man’s brain, kept alive in a tank, develops deadly telepathic powers. It is a brilliantly clunky metaphor about the Nazi’s use of radio, so playing it straight into my ears has an extra frisson.
The corner of my street is exceptionally science-fictional. It’s a key location in the opening episodes of The Changes (BBC UK 1975), and my house is even visible in one shot. Someone gave me DVDs of the series in summer 2011. When I tried out the discs, the TV went from broadcasting news coverage of the popular uprisings sweeping Britain that week to footage of people in 70s fashions smashing stuff near an overturned car a hundred yards from my house. The dissonance was momentarily vertiginous, like reaching for a light-switch in a Philip K. Dick novel only to find it is not where it always is.
(Apparently, Stanley Kubrick shut down the same street for a day to film part of A Clockwork Orange (1971) but, being Bristol, it rained and rained and rained, and he didn’t shoot a single frame.)
Bristol is home this summer to 80 statues of Gromit. At this point, I will lie about the route of my run, implying it takes me close the two most science-fictional ones, Gromit Lightyear and A Grand Day Out.
Back home, I read Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita’s Lunar Braceros 2125-2148 (2009) – a future history of relentless neoliberalism dominated by corporations and the remnants of their comprador states, told by multiple voices. Unemployed Latinos, chicanos, blacks, Asians, Native Americans and poor whites live in indentured servitude on vast reservations. The word cholo has continued to evolve to the point where it has lost any specific ethnic connotations and now describes this immiserated general population. The novel, full of allusions to Zapatistas, Noam Chomsky and other figures and ideas important to a leftist imaginary, figures utopian hope through the recovery and adaptation of an indigenous commons.
Over lunch, I watch ‘Kyoufu no uchuusen’ aka ‘The Terrifying Cosmic Rays’ aka ‘The Space Ray of Terror’, an episode of the Japanese live-action kaiju series Urutoraman: Kûsô tokusatsu shirîzu (1966-1967) – the one where a cosmic ray combines with sunlight to bring a child’s drawing of a kaiju to life. Gabadon reverts to picture form at sunset, and returns at sunrise. The laziest monster anyone has ever seen, he only (accidentally) rampages when attacked by the military. Left alone, he merely sleeps. But when he snoozes in downtown Tokyo, he wreaks havoc on Japan’s economy. Ide, Science Patrol’s comic relief, suggests they just go out that night and erase the picture of Gabadon. But Captain Muramasa dismisses this eminently sensible plan: ‘What a dull solution. … Tomorrow, we’ll have a fair fight with the monster’. In moments like this, ‘bad’ sf reveals generic priorities about which more highly-regarded examples are typically more circumspect. It is a pleasure to watch, and to share.
That night, I introduce a charity screening of Plan 9 from Outer Space for Bristol Bad Film Club. In a jampacked room above a pub, I give the lowdown on Ed Wood and say a few words about the many pleasures of the film. Among other things, it contains some deliriously inept ‘bad’ science. The alien Eros – played by Dudley Manlove, I kid you not – believes that humanity is about to develop the solarbenite bomb, which will destroy the particles of the sun’s rays and thus threatens ‘the total destruction of the entire universe’. Adopting the tone of a presenter on a kid’s science show, he explains this feeble science with a puny analogy:
Take a can of your gasoline. Say this can of gasoline is the Sun. Now, you spread a thin line of it to a ball, representing the Earth. Now the gasoline represents the sunlight, the sun particles. Here we saturate the ball with the gasoline – the sunlight – then we put a flame to the ball. The flame will speedily travel around the Earth, back along the line of gasoline to the can – or the Sun itself. It will explode this source and spread to every place that gasoline – our sunlight – touches. Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, you explode the universe. Explode the sunlight here and a chain reaction will occur direct to the Sun itself and to all the planets that sunlight touches, to every planet in the universe.
Traditionally, champions of sf have used ‘scientific accuracy’ as a critical standard, as a means of policing the borders of genre. Look at what they are missing out on! And again, ‘bad’ sf tells us the truth of the genre – often when sf is overt about its scientific underpinnings, it is merely displaying the authority-effect it looted in a smash’n’grab raid on scientific discourse.
The audience found many other pleasures in Plan 9: the bizarre voiceover narration, poor acting, dodgy special effects, odd dialogue, ropey stock shots, mismatched footage; the copper who waves his gun around with complete disregard for other people’s safety, the chiropractor who pretends to be Lugosi, the failure to explain why Lugosi chose to bury Vampira in that particular dress… Undoubtedly, the bursts of infectious laughter were a product of the sociality of occasion. Watching Plan 9 alone a few days earlier, it seemed to drag on interminably; with fifty other people in a room abuzz, it raced by.
But are these science-fictional pleasures?
They may not be shared by every example of sf, but they are inseparable from an sf text and its sf contexts. Which is not to say that these pleasures are shared by all sf, or that they should be. Although it would be instructive to build a model of sf that takes Plan 9 as its exemplar.
And even more fun to annoy genre purists with it.
Aldiss, Brian with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Paladin, 1988.
Broderick, Damien. Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 1995.
Easterbrook, Neal. ‘Not If, When: Ian McDonald’s African Unsafari’, Paradoxa 25 (2013). Forthcoming
Jones, Gwyneth. ‘The Profession of Science Fiction, 38: Riddles in the Dark,’ Foundation 43 (1988): 50-59.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.