Throughout its history, science fiction has been routinely denied the cultural prestige granted to other major forms of modern literature. Even today, when the classic status of selected works of science fiction is generally acknowledged, an unfortunate image of science fiction as a genre preoccupied with quaintly ‘futuristic’ gadgets, wobbly B-movie-style flying saucers, and tentacular Martian overlords still persists in the popular imagination. There are various reasons for this, including, among other things, the development of literary studies as an academic discipline and unofficial taste setter, the politics of literary canon formation, and ingrained preconceptions about ‘high culture’ – as well as a dose of plain old-fashioned snobbery. In this post I want to offer a counterview of the genre by saying something about what makes science fiction such an exciting and relevant form of literature and why I think we should read more of it.
In his influential study, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979), the literary scholar Darko Suvin introduced the term ‘cognitive estrangement’ to capture science fiction’s distinctive way of portraying reality. The best science fiction, Suvin argues, serves to ‘estrange’ us from the world we inhabit, rendering many of the things we take for granted in our everyday lives questionable, problematic, and, at least potentially, open to change. It does so by furnishing us with examples of what Suvin calls the novum or ‘strange newness’ – a catch-all term for the social, cultural, and technological innovations which are characteristic of the genre.
The considerable subtleties of Suvin’s argument need not detain us here. All we need to hold onto is his key insight that science fiction confronts us with forms of life, applications of science, and types of social organisation that depart significantly from our own and that, in so doing, it can help us to take a reflective distance from our own social world and its dominant priorities and assumptions.
Examples of cognitive estrangement in science fiction abound: a single example will have to suffice here. In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin envisages a planet, Gethen, inhabited by a race of aliens who resemble humans in every way, with the exception of being ambisexual, becoming male or female only once a month during a period of sexual receptivity called ‘kemmer’, and displaying no inherent disposition towards either sex. Throughout the novel, the protagonist, Genly Ai, an emissary from a world where binary sexual difference is the norm, is shown struggling to make sense of the alien social and cultural dynamics to which ambisexuality has given rise, most notably Gethen’s unfamiliar patterns of erotic and familial life. As another investigator of the planet notes, Gethen children have no psycho-sexual relationship with their parents, with the consequence that, ‘There is no myth of Oedipus on Gethen’. There is, likewise, ‘no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive’.
One thought-provoking suggestion put forward by Le Guin’s novel is that an ambisexual civilisation would be one in which many of the prevailing dualisms of Western culture – thinking and feeling, mind and body, order and chaos, science and art, sacred and secular – would have no application, or at least be much less sharply polarised. Genly Ai’s sense of estrangement on Gethen mirrors in this respect that of the novel’s readers: Le Guin’s vivid depiction of a social order structured around ambisexuality posed a clear challenge to binary thinking about gender, sexuality, labour, power, and the family when it first appeared in 1969. Despite aspects of the novel which now strike us as somewhat dated, The Left Hand of Darkness arguably retains much of its disruptive force almost fifty years on.
In her introduction to the novel, Le Guin comments that in her science fiction writing, ‘I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing.’ Le Guin is not, in other words, attempting to foretell what the future will be like: as she concedes, ‘I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.’ Rather, she is employing ‘strange newness’ to distance and estrange us from what we know in order to make room for alternative possibilities.
Why read science fiction, then?
Firstly, and most obviously, because the genre includes some of the most original and prescient writers at work in modern and contemporary literature: Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Karel Čapek, H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Stanisław Lem, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Doris Lessing, J. G. Ballard, William Gibson, Harlan Ellison, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Alan Moore, Margaret Atwood, China Miéville, Nalo Hopkinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Nnedi Okorafor – to name just a few of the most prominent.
Secondly, though, and above all, science fiction is worth reading because it can help us to break with prevailing ways of seeing, thinking, and valuing – including those, perhaps, which limit our collective horizons today as we confront a range of urgent challenges on a global scale. At its best, science fiction encourages us to cease to see the current order of things as inevitable and to start to imagine how it might be transformed.