The “World-sharing” Pleasures of SF: From Expansive Universes to Miniscule Details

Matt Hills |

Pleasures taken in any aesthetic object are a slippery and awkward thing to grasp, let alone theorise. In my book The Pleasures of Horror (2005), I argued that enjoyment taken in genre fiction only becomes accessible to others – including theorists – as a result of being placed into discourse. As a result, we need to consider framing discourses of pleasure rather than ‘the experience itself’; it is only via discourses that appreciative genre consumption becomes culturally visible and meaningful. Such a move also means it’s possible to think about genre pleasures as performative – as constructed and performed with certain (other) audiences in mind, as well as iterating cultural systems of meaning and value. Sharing one’s pleasure in horror, for instance, may allow audiences to iterate (or resist) gendered norms, as well as constructing various (sub)cultural belongings.

The ‘pleasures of science fiction’ may, I suspect, be just as performative (and just as mixed and various). Although the genre is not as widely stigmatized as horror, it is striking that such a limited range of affects is often taken to characterize popular fiction’s consumption. Horror is scary; sci-fi inspires wonder, or awe, or a degree of cognitive estrangement. Cognitive theorists tend to work with a somewhat limited palette of “ideal” responses from audiences, whereas empirical audiences, I would suggest, draw on a wider set of discursive ‘pleasures’ (and vocal displeasures, on occasion).

The arrival and normalization of social media further intensifies audience performances of (dis)pleasure. It is all too easy to find – or even be swamped by – tweeted expressions of criticism or excitement in response to the latest SF blockbuster. Discourses of pleasure, and their fine-grained distinctions and differentiated cultural belongings, have become the sine qua non of contemporary media culture, we might even say.

But what particular discourses of pleasure have a specific presence and valence around SF? Science fiction is sometimes thought of as a distinctively “world-building” (or even universe-building) enterprise: it creates races, technologies, languages, planets, and space-opera-style intrigues. ‘Hard’ SF might do this without violating contemporary scientific understandings or theories about the cosmos, but most popular screen SF probably leans toward the fantastical in its world-building. One powerful discourse of SF fandom, then, concerns imaginative “world-inhabiting”, as audiences learn and speculate about the histories and futures of their favoured franchise universes. Indeed, these fictional universes, or hyperdiegetic spaces (Hills 2002), can become so vast that they’re impossible to entirely master, rather like our own real-life “Primary World”:

Doctor Who and Star Trek have both remained actively expanding worlds for over four decades… These worlds, then, are not only quantitatively different from earlier ones, but qualitatively different, in that the audience has an experience of a world which, like the Primary World, not only achieves saturation of mind, but virtually exceeds the audience’s ability to encounter it all in its entirety (Wolf 2012: 135).

In this case, the discursive pleasure of living-with a science-fictional universe across one’s life may be rather different to the pleasures of encountering a new franchise or a new text. Some SF texts might even be consumed by audiences in relatively distracted ways, whereas other “world-building” effectively becomes “world-sharing”, as generations of SF fan audiences co-create and elaborate upon what they’ve consumed. As Derek Johnson has recently observed, of franchise “over-design”:

over-design of the world suggest[s] entire social and economic systems beneath the surface with creative potential waiting to be elaborated upon… dormant, overdesigned detail serve[s] as a resource for later systemic elaboration… The so-called textures that give worlds depth provide resources creators are encouraged to share, developing more content through the elaboration of unseen but schematized and overdesigned off-screen space (Johnson 2013: 119 and 122).

Although Johnson’s emphasis here is primarily on “world-sharing” as one set of producers hand a franchise over to another, his work can also illuminate how ongoing SF worlds are shared, in a significant sense, by producers and audience communities (2013: 109). Dedicated fans’ discursive pleasures of SF are, perhaps, indistinguishable from any other “reflexive project” of the self or sustained self-narrative within late modernity (Giddens 1991:32). As a franchise develops, stalls, is rebooted or spun-off into niche media over many years, so its world-progression accompanies the audiences’ own progression through life – shifting and changing as the audience themselves change and grow. Massively extended transmedia narrative worlds (Star Wars; Star Trek; Blade Runner; Doctor Who; much anime and manga) offer a type – and a discourse – of SF “experience” (Ndalianis 2010) that is, perhaps surprisingly, less genre-oriented and more life-oriented. So it is that lifelong fans can become showrunners and overseers of SF universes such as Doctor Who (Russell T Davies; Steven Moffat) and Star Wars (J.J. Abrams). And ‘ordinary’ rank-and-file fans can recall when they first saw Star Wars, or how they celebrated Doctor Who’s 20th anniversary (Hills 2013): certain films and texts act as “personal event memory” markers across the life course (Pillemer 1998:3). This is not to say that such pleasures of SF are all-consuming, but their vitality and their commemorated status appear to make them the stuff of life rather than a discrete set of aesthetic concerns.

And the fantasy worlds of screen SF are shared and made materially, dynamically present in another way too: through replica prop creation and practices of cosplay. Here, the discursive pleasures of science fiction are not only about imaginatively inhabiting an expansive other world, but also about bringing it into ‘our’ world as a set of physical artefacts. What Derek Johnson refers to as “over-design” facilitates fans’ imitation of textual detail. Here, “elaborate props” are more than simply glimpsed, they are re-created: “the attraction of deep staging is both that it provides a sense of the depth of the story world, adding to its illusion of reality, and that it invites audiences to multiple viewings” (Cubitt 2008: 188). But commercial “invitation” assumes overly-disciplined audiences who will only perform the pleasures – and the discourses – allotted to them by the media industry. Even though fans may “mimic the officially sanctioned form of the object of affection” (Johnston 2011: 153), their creation of replica props and costumes exceeds a purely commercial logic: these audiences are crafting and manufacturing rather than simply consuming. Such practices simultaneously reinforce the value of a branded universe and yet do not quite operate within the brand’s commercial reach or purview. Pleasures of prop-making and costume design are both discursive and material performances of SF, importantly reminding us that science fiction’s fantastical worlds do not only code or allegorically transform social realities. Details of the mise en scene can also become real-world markers of fan skillfulness, observation and dedication.

As such, these pleasures are just as performative as horror audiences’ displays of “toughness” or genre knowledge. Enjoying ‘hard’ SF can be a way of performing one’s alignment with Enlightenment values or particular communities of (scientific) knowledge. But beyond the science of science fiction, prop-builders and cosplayers are able to perform their status as an attentive, knowing audience, as well as aligning themselves with certain fandoms, or even specific sections of a fandom (i.e. focusing on characters/relationships/mythologies). Gendered identities can also be iterated through these discourses of SF enjoyment, with prop-builders drawing on culturally masculinized notions of craft, for example. Prop-building and cosplay are often celebrated and disseminated via online discussion – whether through forums, Facebook groups, or tweets – making these pleasures of SF significantly social, and performed with imagined audiences in mind. Genre-derived pleasures are not simply “invited” (or interpellated) by texts; it seems plausible that, in the age of social media and pervasive media culture, discourses of pleasure can and do circulate just as keenly among and between audiences. What we might want to think of as “pleasures of science fiction consumption” are thus rooted, at least up to a point, in the histories and practices of fandom that new audiences performatively (re)produce and revitalize. In this further sense, SF pleasures again involve a kind of “world-sharing” – sharing the cultural worlds of other, prior audiences, as well as sharing diegetic worlds.

Perhaps fittingly, then, “world-sharing” pleasures of SF can be expansive and vast – as hyperdiegetic creations run alongside audiences’ lives – and miniscule and detailed, captured in the precise reproduction of a lightsaber, say, or a costume fabric. But these discourses of pleasure, embedded in peoples’ ageing, self-continuity, community and creativity, can’t simply be read off from SF texts and assumed as some kind of “ideal” cognitive processes. The discursive pleasures of SF (at least in these modes of zooming out/in) call for further empirical audience study, and further consideration of just how multiple and diverse SF’s appreciation can be. Rather than conceptualizing the pleasures of SF as a matter of readers and viewers relating purely to media content, so-called web 2.0 pushes us to consider how pleasures are discursively framed, iterated, and transformed by audiences responding to (self-)mediations and (self-)performances from other viewers/readers. Almost science-fictionally, such pleasures are discursively “out there”, one might say, rather than being straightforwardly ‘interiorized’ or private experiences of popular genre fiction.

 

References

Cubitt, Sean (2008) ‘Realising Middle-earth: production design and film technology’ in Harriet Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King and Thierry Jutel (eds) Studying the event film Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York: pp. 185—91.

Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity Polity, Cambridge.

Hills, Matt (2005) The Pleasures of Horror Continuum, London and New York.

— (ed) (2013) New Dimensions of Doctor Who I.B. Tauris, London and New York.

Johnson, Derek (2013) Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries New York University Press, New York and London.

Johnston, Keith M. (2011) Science Fiction Film Berg, London and New York.

Ndalianis, Angela (2010) Science Fiction Experiences New Academia Publishing, Washington, DC.

Pillemer, David B. (1998) Momentous Events, Vivid Memories: How unforgettable moments help us understand the meaning of our lives Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Wolf, Mark J. P. (2012) Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation Routledge, New York.

One thought on “The “World-sharing” Pleasures of SF: From Expansive Universes to Miniscule Details

  1. Matt Hills considers the pleasures of science fiction in discursive and performative terms, reminding us that science fiction worlds are ones that are not just encountered but also shared. Beyond aesthetics or cognitive experiences, Hill argues, science fiction pleasures are guided by how texts are communicated about and shared, how they take on life beyond the text, how they are, in a wonderful sense, “the stuff of life.”nn1

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