On Teaching Science Fiction Critically by Darko Suvin addresses some fundamental problems pertinent to teaching SF, and are intended to open discussion of those problems.
The first section of the essay “On Teaching Science Fiction Critically” is named as “A Right to Daydream: A Duty to Daydream Critically” which suggest that SF is basically a “narrative fiction” which represents “an articulated and collective daydream” as reading SF critically means “to show realistically both the now-possible (believable and existing)and the now-impossible but forever-not-impossible (believable though not existing here and now) relations between people in a material world.” Thus, Suvin starts from the basic premise of SF which is to understand that SF deals with a certain kind of fantastical extension of science which borders on the realm of impossible or nearly impossible. But for that matter, all literature deals not with the realm of the supposed real; but with “what should be” (Aristotle, Poetics) and if literature pursues “the ideal” or the impossible and if poetic truth cannot be related to the truth of this reality then what is the point of studying literature. To answer this question, Suvin states – “Looked at as a whole … the basic purpose of fiction is to make human life more manageable, more meaningful and more pleasant, by means of selecting some believable human relationships for playful consideration and understanding …”
The Second Section of the essay “On Teaching Science Fiction Critically” is named as “On Para literature as an Open Tension between Ideology and Utopia”. Probably the name rings in your ears the name of the essay by Christopher Pawling which we have dealt with in Unit I, where the same words “Ideology” and “Utopia” are being used, suggesting to us the fact that in the study of popular fiction or SF, these words and the “tension” between these concepts have far reaching consequences. Suvin is of the opinion that “As a rule, utopian presentation has to be explicit since it presents an alternative, while ideological presentation will best be served by remaining implicit, as an unargued premise that this is how things are, were and will be. Both the cognitively utopian and the mystifying horizons are intimately interwoven in most stories, often in the same paragraph or indeed the same sentence.” Thus, the tension between ideology and utopia is manifest in all literatures and in case of Popular fiction or SF it is not reduced in any manner, leading to it being the battleground of “understanding and mystification.”
To understand this further, Suvin then goes on to discuss how writers from being a patronized lot and talking to a small group of homogenized audience/readers became subject to the market forces when in the nineteenth century, there started a popularity of supposedly cheap “reading materials” which were mass produced for an impersonal heterogenous mass market. Writers became subject to commerce and economic gatekeepers (promoter, publisher, agent) and started getting pittance for their writings. These writings were then derogated by the cultural elites starting from Matthew Arnold by stating that “real literature was not accessible to all” leading to the binaries of literature and para literature, elite versus popular, came into being. In that sense “Culture became quite openly a mode of domination”
when it was assumed that a certain degree of education, erudition as well as social and economic status are prerequisite for assessing what constitutes literature. (In Unit 1, we have discussed how the growth of the discipline of English literature as an academic discipline also let to the derogatory state of Popular fiction and thus denigration of whatever is read by the mass, working class, women and children as not fit for academic exercise and thus paving the path for elite vs. popular and also an understanding of culture as whatever is best written and thought about).
Another aspect that Darko Suvin states in this section is that when this kind of dichotomy between the elite and the popular was in the process of being constructed, there evolved a kind of writing which primarily dealt with fantasy “which allowed the readers to express their hopes, dreams, aggressions and lusts in symbolic terms.” And within this realm Popular Fiction as well as SF belongs. SF is a genre which manifests in itself use on scientific premises often in a fantastical manner in a narrative which is highly seeped into the reality (read ideological structures) of this world and therefore it is often suggested that “cognitive estrangement” is a necessary means through which the SF is usually understood. We cognize some aspects of a SF narrative with the realities of this world and some elements (especially the scientific pretensions and fantasy) is estranged from the reality so take us to a world which seems too far away from us. This contrapuntal amalgamation of both these opposing things make SF so appealing, similar to what we have discussed in Popular Fiction when we discussed following Antonio Gramsci that it is the most advanced technological innovations (often yet to come) are being put together with the core traditional values that a narrative/ a text/ a film becomes a best-seller as it appeals to the popular sensibilities.
Review any text of popular culture and you will notice that somewhere the text is highly grounded in the ideological structures of this world which makes the readers/ viewers identify with the narrative. SF similarly is structured in a similar manner where behind the scientific fantasy, there is a connection with the everyday reality of our world. As students of literature engaging ourselves critically with the texts/ narratives/ films, we need to look both at the fantastical science and the ideological aspects to make sense of how SF narrative appeals to the public.
Only when we will be able to critically engage ourselves with the SF texts and look beyond the apparent and see how they are potent ideologically that we will be truly engage with them academically. Our critical gaze towards these texts need to unearth the ideologies manifest and make us relate it to the popularity of these texts. These days, the popularity of SF has reached to such a level that many of the children’s literature also deals with SF.