(Note: this journal is gonna be dealing with very academic definitions of science fiction and me basically waffling on in a terribly pretentious manner. You’ve been warned.)
One of the courses I take in my Honors year is Literature and Technology: the Fiction of Utopia and Dystopia. It’s fascinating stuff – examining the critical discourse surrounding science fiction, particularly attempts to define such an often ephemeral genre.
The most-cited and discussed definition is, naturally, Darko Suvin’s ‘Estrangement and Cognition’, where Suvin argues that science fiction is the literature of cognitive estrangement: he argues two halves to the whole of science fiction. The first half is the estranging half, whereby the author uses the fiction as a crucible to present a world that is like our own, but different, strange, allows us to view aspects of the world in a new light. The second half is the cognitive half, where we are invited to think about this estrangement in a critical manner.
Utopias are good for cognitive estrangement (even if they’re not particularly fun bedtime reading) – most utopias are satirizing some aspect of the current cultural climate by estranging the reader, asking the reader ‘What is it about our culture that makes us so invested in this? Why are we invested in gender roles, or capitalism, or religion, or love?’
You can get too invested, however, in Suvin’s definition, forgetting that he borrowed them from the Russians, whose definition merely ends at estrangement.
In particular, there’s one lovely gentleman in my class (I’m not being sarcastic – he really is a lovely fellow) who I’ve noticed took a bit of a dislike to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. In fact, I don’t think he really did – I think he liked the book fine, but agreed strongly with Delaney’s observations in ‘To Read The Dispossessed‘ and felt that Le Guin had not estranged her utopias and dystopias far enough.
Which seemed an odd argument to me. If you’ve read The Dispossessed, you know that the main utopia – or the place we’re meant to clearly read as a utopia – Anarres, is a world wholly unlike our own, while the dystopia is deliberately presented as a lush, verdant version of our own world. There is estrangement happening, but in spectrums, versions, calculated layers, to make us think about why. Why is the land so different from ours utopic, and the land so similar dystopic?
Our course co-ordinator did gently rebut him, but I think it’s a thought that bears engagement. How far does estrangement have to go to be considered ‘true’ estrangement? Do sci-fi authors have to create worlds totally unlike our own before they are allowed consideration as truly cognitively estranged? Are subtle shifts not allowed?
I think, sometimes, academics get too caught up in definitions, and not enough caught up in subtleties. It is possible to be too close: to be unable to see the forest for the trees.