Monday, June 22, 2009


In the back matter to an issue of Science Fiction Studies (#20 volume 7, pt 1: March 1980), Darko Suvin takes note of a new journal of science fiction poetry. He writes, "Starline raised the question of whether there waws such a wordbeast as SF poetry, and if so how was it to be defined or delimited: a theoretically and practically fascinating questsion, so far unanswered (e.g. is something like "the door-handle opened a violet eye, and blinked at him" SF, or poetry, or both?)."

Like Adorno, Suvin is dedicated to genre, and some of his fascination eludes us if we don't acknowledge this preoccupation. His work on the "poetics" of Science Fiction has classified it as a genre that is based on "estrangement and cognition" ("On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre"). Leading scholars following him to adopt the term "cognitive estrangement" in their descriptions of science fiction, Suvin also acknowledged the role of the novum in the construction of the SF text (or "word-beast," following Samuel Delaney). The novum, a concept taken from Ernst Bloch, is an element of novelty or innovation that structures the narrative--"an imaginative framework." For Suvin, it is important both that this framework is something other than the author's "empirical environment," and that all of the fantastic elements are controlled by the logic of this framework. Returning to the question of science fiction poetry, this framework is relevant because it is the distinction between a efficacious (i.e. cognitive) metaphor and its non-cognitive other. The compelling question of SF poetry matters to Suvin because it concerns the role of metaphor. The possibility of SF poetry seems to be something that excites Suvin--something that, unlike poetry, would not merely be metaphor, but that would transport the cognitive aspect of science fiction, its logical narrative unfolding into a poetic form. And though this possibility excites Suvin, it also pushes at the strictly defined generic conventions, for it poses the question: what would ineffacious metaphor look like? In other words, how do uncontrolled "fantastic" elements interact?

The example Suvin gives --"the door-handle opened a violet eye, and blinked at him"-- presents several options for reading. To read it realistically, as SF, it presents the creation of a world in which door-handles have eyes, in which perception is located in structuring objects. Thus, the "violet eye" is a fantastic element, but as part of the novum, becomes a metaphor for the habitation of the faculty of perception within door-handles, suggesting that the inanimate world has agency. To read the "violet eye" as simply an image--that is, to read it as a fantastic element that is not part of a greater framework--would be to read it as an element of fantastic literature, and I would wager that this is what Suvin means by poetry. But if this image takes place within a Science Fiction poem, then it is not simply an image either, that is, it becomes a metaphor that might not be taken literally. In this case, one of the literal referents would be non-literal, the tenor of the metaphor. It could be that "door-handle" is a metaphor for an abstract concept (if we think of something like "love is like the door-handle that opened a violet eye and blinked at him"), in which case we are asked to think about the literal meaning through a fantastic example, without having to take the fantastic element seriously, perhaps, without having to think through the possibility of its logic. Cognitive, or estrangement, or both?
picture: violets, on the Balkon

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