There have been many attempts to theorize Science Fiction literature. Many of these, however, have been content with defining Science Fiction through the cataloguing of the genre’s thematic material. Such approaches have generated the more or less random relegation of specific texts within or without the corpus of Science Fiction and have brought about further debate as to the specificity of the genre within the broader scope of non-mimetic literature as a whole. Moreover, such thematic definitions do not allow for future developments capable of undermining past and present borders.
Other attempts to specify Science Fiction have relied on definitions wrought from somewhat contradictory historical backdrops. Depending on whether Science Fiction is considered as one of mankind’s oldest forms of literature, as a more particularly modern genre or as a literature born in the United States in the early 1920s, the limits and the very raison d’être of the genre continue to be argued.
Finally, a third approach has placed the originality of SF in its unique rhetoric. Indeed, Science fiction is not so much a genre because of its content or its conventions but because of its specific mode of expression. The main drawback of such an avenue is that it presents Science Fiction as a fossilized whole, impervious to the evolving habits of readers, writers and editors and bases generic creativity on purely oratorical gimmickry.
Thus, any workable definition of Science Fiction must consider the dynamic force underlying the superficial changes having modified the genre on several occasions; and must be capable of explaining critical disagreement as to what Science Fiction is and is not.
In such a context, a semiotic study of Science Fiction offers an alternative method which makes possible the theorization of the themes broached by the genre’s authors and their rhetorical devices without actually having to limit these to a particular number. It also makes allowance for the dynamic identity of the genre.
Indeed, by plotting the evolution of the interaction between authors and readers in the creative process of Science Fiction, Semiotics brings to light the fact that, more than a set of specific ‘themes’, a traditional ‘form’ or a rhetorical ‘mode’, Science Fiction is, above all, a literary genre bent on blending together disparate signifiers in order to create novel systems of signs.
Science Fiction has often been acknowledged as any imaginative text written in a realistic mode about aliens or robots, about interplanetary or time travel, about an alternative past, a virtual present or an extrapolated future. Similar definitions offer slightly differing arrays of themes (Versins 1973; Van Herp 1973; Roberts 2000), but all tend to reduce Science Fiction to more or less overlapping sets of exotic subject matter.
More analytically, Science Fiction has also been considered as a systematic means of “estrangement” from accepted contemporary knowledge (Suvin 1977), as a heroic “refusal of accepted norms and values” (Eizykman 1979) that “confronts the known world in some cognitive way” (Scholes 1975), that elaborates “thought experiments” (Jones 1999).
But if Science Fiction is today celebrated by many as the only form of literature capable of truly fathoming the enormous changes Science and Technology have brought or wrought upon the modern world (Harrison 1973; Parrinder 1975; Ballard 1996; Hartwell 1996), it is because Science Fiction is, above all, a specific literary genre which blends together disparate signifiers to create novel systems of signification.
Science fiction, fantasy and myth
Through unconventional combinations of readily available signs, Science Fiction invents new worlds of imagination by bringing readers to refrain from systematically relying on their everyday representations – those which make daily life so familiar and reassuring -- and keeps open as many of the virtualities of the lexemes used as requires the creativity of the author. Umberto Eco (1985: 109) has explained how this works in fictional and even in non-fictional texts: the properties that a seme includes or implies in a specific text depends on the way the text either “magnetises” or “keeps under narcosis” the manifold “virtualities” of the semes used. In Science Fiction, as opposed to mainstream realistic fiction, it is by offering only fuzzy meanings of a lexeme that authors force their readers to never risk the “narcosis” of any of the virtualities of a seme and thus introduce the possibility of more exotic worlds of imagination and desire.
For example, by juxtaposing the usual and broadest possible meanings of the lexeme ‘intelligent’ and that of the lexeme ‘spider’ (also in its broadest possible sense), Charles R. Tanner creates in his short story Tumithak of the Corridors (1932), a novel sign mediated by the mysterious lexeme “Shelk”. Though inexistent in any reader’s usual encyclopaedia, the word Shelk does have a meaning in Tanner’s text: that of ‘intelligent spider’. Like the Shelks, “hyperspace”, “plasma thrusters”, “time machines” or “dematerializing rays”, or any of the many other outlandish lexemes to be found in Science Fiction stories become meaningful for the reader, though they may have strictly nothing to do with any palpable, referential reality.
Science Fiction, however, is not the only genre that relies on the juxtaposition of heterogeneous signs or systems of signification taken from the referential world to present a third, more unusual paradigm. Other non-mimetic texts, such as those of Fantasy or Myth, also juxtapose bits and pieces from referenced animals or situations to create Egyptian sphinxes, Mesopotamian bull-headed lions, the Sumerian superhero Gilgamesh or the hobbits of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it is because of these that some have considered Science Fiction as one of humanity’s oldest forms of literature (Versins 1973; Van Herp 1973) and have often considered as science-fictional texts written centuries ago such as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638) or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
Today, however, further criteria distinguish Science Fiction from Myth and Fantasy but these, because they are closely linked to the evolution of the specific genre of Science Fiction, are considered here as successive chronological developments springing from the common fountain-head of non-mimetic literature.
The mythical power of science
What distinguishes Science Fiction from Fantasy, Myth or mainstream mimetic fiction is that in order to juxtapose two (or more) usually distinct and preferably heterogeneous signs relating to objects or situations taken from the referential world, Science Fiction relies on the holistic power of Science. In Science Fiction, the marvellous possibilities of Science and Technology are used to “declutch” (Cordesse, 1984: 103-137) readers from ordinary representations and to bring them to conceive and accept as genuine, worlds which are structurally very different to the one we live in. By scientifically grounding the scriptural hypothesis of the narration, Science Fiction authors need no longer rely on supernatural explanations or on the “hesitation” of the reader as to the plausibility of their text (Todorov, 1970: 36), but can readily present them as perfectly realistic.
One example of how Science Fiction uses and even abuses of the explanatory power of Science is Jack Williamson’s Moon Era (Wonder Stories, February 1932). In this short story, a technological gadget capable of “shielding” a man-made apparatus and its driver from the effects of gravitation offers a new virtuality to the word ‘rocket’: that of being not only able to travel through space but also through time. The effort of bringing the reader to believe (at least for the time it takes to read the story) in the very practicability of such a mysteriously different rocket is achieved thanks to a lengthy (pseudo)scientific explanation which reconfigures the reader’s prior definition of the word ‘rocket’. Though often largely detrimental to the plot itself, such a ploy adds to the reader’s past representations the idea that rockets can also be vehicles for travelling through time. In other similar fictions, written before or after Williamson’s Moon Era, preambles, postambles, annexes and even footnotes are used to bring readers away from their usual understanding of a word and to add to them more far-fetched but at least pseudo-scientifically grounded virtualities.
For other historians of the genre (Sadoul, 1973; Rabkin and Scholes, 1977;) it is more particularly this aspect of the rhetoric of Science Fiction –i.e. the exploitation of the wondrous powers of Science and Technology- that are at the origin of the genre. The fabulous scientific discoveries of the 19th Century were such that even more incredible change was not simply a future possibility but was in fact highly probable thus preparing the terrain for scientific romance. And indeed, when Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818), when Samuel Butler first published Erewhon (1872) or when Stevenson dreamt up The Strange Case Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), it was in a context of fabulous scientific discoveries in medical surgery, exploration and chemistry.
More often than not, however, the history of modern Science Fiction does not begin with Mary Shelly but with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Perhaps this is because, in 1923, Hugo Gernsback -when developing the term “Science Fiction” from an earlier neologism “Scientifiction”- defined the genre as: “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and E.A. Poe type of story - a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision”. And indeed, in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau , it is through the specification of the more trivial cases of alteration accomplishable by any skilled vivisector of his day– amputation, tongue-cutting, excisions but also grafting that the author develops a tale about humanized animals. P. Hamon (1993: 220-221) has also demonstrated how in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) Mathesis precedes Semiosis or Mimesis in many passages of the original text. Even today, Science Fiction is often seen as the literature of the Age of Science and is systematically linked to the history of scientific discoveries (De Mol, 1998; Lehoucq 2007).
It is thus, always through a highly didactic science-based rhetoric that early readers of Science Fiction could be brought (at least temporarily) to distance themselves from their referential world and accept the creation of completely new signs or even to accept exotic significance for usually homely lexemes. The scientific gadgetry had to be lengthily described and its effects largely detailed and explained so as to enable readers to comfortably suspend their disbelief and accept the innovation. Because of this the Science Fiction megatext is largely an allegory of faith in science (Hartwell 1997) and many historians of the genre link the genesis of Science Fiction to a set of early pioneering texts or “prototypes” (Rabkin and Scholes) which first explored the imaginative possibilities of scientific progress.
In media res
In many Science Fiction texts, however, the initial didactic help - used to bring the reader to little by little revalue ordinary signs and create new ones - is considered as superfluous or at least not immediately necessary. It seems that later readers of Science Fiction were rapidly capable of suspending their interpretation of a situation and were patient enough to let the author explain his full intent only later. Indeed, in another ‘type’ of Science Fiction text, authors are capable of sending readers directly into very alternative and non-mimetic worlds from the very first pages of the text without the pedagogical devices usually used to steer readers away from their referential worlds (and their usual interpretation of the signs used) into the more exotic realms of dream and desire.
For instance, James Graham Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) - to take again just one token example and not the first of its kind - plunges the reader directly into a sweltering and fundamentally alien world where abandoned cities rise above crocodile-filled lagoons. It is only several chapters into the text that the reader is lengthily explained how an abrupt climatic change has transformed the referential world of today into a garbage-filled swamp. Such a text is only interpretable if the reader is willing to keep open the virtualities of the words of the text and if the writer - usually through juxtaposition techniques (such as metaphors and comparisons), a gradual accumulation of descriptive detail and a great deal of cunning auto referentiality - manages to skilfully build up more specific and eccentric meanings. In Ballard’s post-apocalyptic narrative, it is because the possible - though marginal - idea that the material ‘world’ which determines most signs could somehow become ‘drowned’ that Ballard’s The Drowned World does not have to exist in the referential world and yet can still be potently meaningful to generations of readers.
Perhaps it is because modern Science Fiction –starting with Hugo Gernsback’s Science and Invention- has largely developed within the scope of the short stories or serials of American fan magazines, where there has always been a certain necessity to get quickly to the point (Asimov, 1978), that later Science Fiction narratives have done away with most of the didactic help initially considered as essential. A further explanation is that from its birth within the American pulp magazines constant interaction between authors, editors and readers was systematically encouraged, creating a network of clued-up fans sharing common references (Rabkin and Scholes, 1977:39). Taken together, these explanations elucidate how Science Fiction readers, even more so than learned academics, were willing to read texts that are, in fact, difficult to interpret for unacquainted readers.
In William Gibson’s Burning Chrome (1986), an even more recent short story and a well-known token of yet another type of Science Fiction called Cyberpunk, even the belated explanations as to the author’s meaning of the words used are never actually formulated.
The readers of this short story are forced to accept (at least while reading) that traditional definitions and thus traditional interpretations of the words used by the text are incomplete, that the words used by the author have in fact far more exotic meanings than those usually accepted, and that there are also new signs that should be accepted as commonplace without any explanation at all. In Gibson’s world, “cyborgs” and especially “simstims” (simulated stimulations?) are an everyday occurrence; and events taking place within a virtual reality or Tarot-like predictions can have corporeal effects. Finally, nothing is done to bridge the gap between the reader’s mundane circumstances with Gibson’s magically high-tech environments though -as with Verne- lexical series allow readers to gradually familiarise themselves with the alien surroundings into which they are thrown and auto-referentiality helps domesticate the many unruly concepts forwarded.
It thus seems that Science Fiction readers have gradually come to accept that their everyday encyclopaedias are systematically redesigned by the genre’s production and are of no definite use when reading Science Fiction that they are today able to read texts which abuse of usually well-anchored signs and are filled with coined terms that readers must assimilate as they read on.
More recently still, Science Fictional ‘artefacts’ have now become commonplace.
A Science Fiction artefact (Saint-Gelais, 1999) is a system of signs which does not relate to the cultural context of the planet Earth, past or present, but to some more or less radically-alternative and alien culture. These are texts which refer not to a reader’s usual representations but to a completely different set of values, where strange representamen determine in the minds of even stranger interpretants, unearthly objects or concepts. The signs in such texts are not the usual representamen / object / interpretant triads or the everyday Saussurian diads. The reader’s referential world, his or her practical experience and theoretical learning, is more often than not considered as completely useless.
A Klingon-English Dictionary (and Institute) is only understandable, and indeed conceivable, in the minds of truly embedded Star-Trek fans. If such a text can find meaning in a reader’s mind (i.e., sufficiently determine the interpretant’s thoughts) even though they relate to a world which has no material form (the Klingon Empire), it is because Science Fiction readers today have accepted as a possible ‘referent’ the prior semiotic creations of the Star Trek TV series.
Another example of a Science Fiction artefact is a history textbook first published in 1930 by Olaf Stapledon called First and Last Men. This is another token of one of the more recent, dynamic stems of Science Fiction’s phylogenetic tree. It is a chronicle of the human saga from the rise of the First Men (Reptiles) to the Last Men (mutated human beings living on Neptune and awaiting the final annihilation of our solar system). Presented with time lines covering known periods of the past but also historical ‘facts’ concerning the centuries to come, it is the work of a historian of the future for the benefit of readers not yet born in Stapledon’s time.
Today, readers of Science Fiction, like semioticians, are perfectly aware that the signs that vehicle meaning within such texts depend more on the relationship between different elements of a same system of signification than the relationship between these elements and any so-called exterior objectivity.
Conclusion: Mirrors without referents
From a situation where the new signs of Science Fiction were generated through the undermining of commonplace interpretations thanks to cumbersome pedagogical devices, we arrive today at a situation where a large lectorate is capable of appreciating texts which resemble mirrors that have, somewhere along the line, lost their referents.
Specialists in Science Fiction will most certainly argue that what is here described as a progressive literary development from early Myth to Science Fictional artefacts existed from the start and that the ‘types’ of Science Fiction more or less chronologically exposed here, pre-exist the very term ‘Science Fiction’ or can coexist in a same text.
This is absolutely true, of course, but the spread and evolution of Science Fiction has brought the rhetorical devices and structure of marginal texts of the past to the fore and what thrives today is what has followed the path of this evolution or what can be nostalgically linked to one or another of the ‘Golden Ages’ of Science Fiction.
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Related Internet sites
Science Fiction Studies: http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/