Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction

I’ve not read a lot of fiction by Joanna Russ, The Female Man and a couple of short stories, and while I liked them all well enough I didn’t feel a rush of love for a writer held up as a premier feminist science fiction author. There was something too technical and cold to make me love what I had read, at least that is how I remember it since it has been years since those readings. When I came across a mention of her book, To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction I was eager to give it a go. This is not a review of the whole book as I have not finished reading the whole book yet. Far from it, I have read just one essay. But I read it twice so that’s something, right?

The essay is called “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction” and was published in 1975. In it Russ attempts to create a framework for critical approaches to reading science fiction. She asserts that SF is not like other literatures and needs a completely different approach. She is very stern about this and does not leave any room for wiggling right up to saying that those who make critical assessments of SF should have a science background. This makes a bit of sense when she lays out what SF is. SF, from Russ’s viewpoint has to be grounded in actual science and meet certain standards of plausibility. Science can be “hard” sciences like physics and chemistry as well as “soft” science like psychology and sociology. If a book lacks scientific plausibility then it is fantasy with SF elements and not actually SF.

Russ explains that SF is a “quasi-medieval” literature. The reasons: SF is didactic, protagonists are always collective and never individual people, the genre emphasizes phenomena, and SF often has a religious tone.

Yes, you SF readers, I can hear your squawks of protest and know you are busily refuting and making lists of books to back you up. I know because I did the same thing. Allow me to elaborate a little further on a few of her points and then we can squawk some more.

By didactic Russ means that SF writers take great pleasure in explaining science in their novels. By the protagonist being a collective she means that s/he represents and idea or concept and not a unique individual. And by religious she means a couple things. There is often, says Russ, a religious tone to SF, science as theology. Also, SF tends to have stories about messiahs of one kind or another (I immediately thought of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land).

Because of all these elements critics who have no idea what they are doing often misread SF. Take, for example, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Critics not grounded in science and who are not familiar with the medieval qualities of SF misread the book. The wrong reading is to say the book is about a lost Eden. The correct reading, asserts Russ, is that the book is about the laws of thermodynamics with evolution and social Darwinism tossed in for good measure.

What to make of all this? My first thoughts were to consider whether it was still a valid way to describe SF 37 years later. I’d say yes and no. There is definitely the religious bit going on still. However, while protagonists sometimes do represent a collective, I think current SF also provides a good dose of the individual and instead of the protagonist representing an idea, s/he is an individual working out ideas, rejecting and/ or creating new ideas, and even fighting against ideas gone bad.

As for the didactic bit, while I have read a lot of SF that dwells on the nitty-gritty of scientific explanation, I have also read plenty of books that work under the assumption that the reader already has a basic understanding of physics or computer science or what have you and so the only explaining going on is the details that belong to that particular novel’s vision and not science in general. If every SF book these days explained relativity or Schrödinger’s cat and quantum entanglement, frequent readers of the genre would be bored silly.

In terms of misreading SF books, I found Russ’s example of The Time Machine lacking in persuasion. I see no reason why the lost Eden reading and Russ’s thermodynamics reading can’t coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Actually, I’d say both readings on their own, while valid, are incomplete, to get the whole picture and value of the book, one needs to have both. And besides, isn’t it in the nature of academic critics to disagree with one another?

Russ’s essay was interesting and thought-provoking but I don’t know that it’s arguments still hold. Anyone out there who studies or has studied SF as an academic have some insight? I am thinking that an essay like this was important in 1975 before SF managed to gain a strong foothold in academia. It was a way to create a space and legitimacy for academic SF criticism. I’m sure there are still plenty in academia who think studying SF literature is frivolous, but overall, it seems that SF has wormed its way in and won’t be leaving anytime soon.

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