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Science Fiction and the Future of Criticism Author(s): Eric S. Rabkin Reviewed work(s): Source: PMLA, Vol.

119, No. 3, Special Topic: Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The Next Millennium (May, 2004), pp. 457-473 Published by: Modern Language Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 05/11/2012 07:49
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i i9-3


Fiction and the Future of Criticism




F. McHugh's novel China Mountain

Zhang (1992) in which Zhang, at that point a "daoist engineer" in training (232), experiences what is to him a fundamentally new way of thinking. He is a institute. the world's?leading student at China's?and technological The institute's vast computer system is pervasive. Once one truly jacks in, to inquire is to learn, to think is to do, to play is to create. Or so he is told, for Zhang, born and raised in America, cannot lose himself enough to experience the system fully. To get Zhang there, his mentor sets him the task of designing
of every shape and

doors. By focusing on doors without number, doors

size and material and use and mechanism, Zhang

comes to see the doors around him more vividly than ever before. There is an overwhelming power in the multiplication of perspectives. He no tices that "China is obsessed with walls. The university iswalled, every factory, every school, every office complex or hotel is surrounded by a
wall. And so doors are very important because they represent vulnerabil

ity but also opportunity, which

(228). ration others Eric S. Rabkin, of English at professor of Michigan, Ann Arbor, cultural topics stud And I reach. For a moment alities Zhang But for (door of that realization is not it. Zhang's designers), needs, a beach unwitting and trains house,

is a great metaphor
the exhilarating submission

for every endeavor"

merely of prepa a thousand to the re

moment, to the minds of materials

to the necessities his mind suddenly so



that when

his mentor new happens.



the University on literary theory, ies, and popular culture and

to design


such as He also


is no perspective


I am on

the edge




of panic, but instead I give in, I letmyself be swallowed by the emptiness

and instead I expand, mind's then those the system becomes I know become my how own little memory. I can think huge I fall about and I through. at one I feel my time, and boundaries, boundaries

leads pedagogical and administrative efforts to integrate information tech nology in the academy.









Science Fiction and the Future of Criticism


am myself,




to think



the thing I think inmy mind without holding it,

without system there concentrating, to concentrate for me, because for me. I am using The system the is and

publishes fanzines, supports small presses; is sues critical judgments in many forms, in the commercially crucial annual Hugo cluding Awards; and generally enters into a compelling conversation with professional writers and edi tors even as it functions as a farm club for their ranks. In these regards, science fiction fandom is the exemplar for all later fandoms. its many activities, science fiction Among fandom began to build resources for criticism. Pioneering fan enterprises, such as Advent Pub lishers, based in Chicago, brought out not only criticism by readers, writers, and editors in book works as such groundbreaking The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fan form but also tasy (1974-82), by Donald Tuck, an Australian science fiction aficionado. If one is to do science fiction criticism as fully as possible, like Zhang told to study doors, one must expand oneself by giving oneself up to these resources. The old of literary criticism,
everything and issues

a part of me....

I feel whole,

now it is time to go home. What


so Zhang feared, as we Westerners often do, was losing his self through submersion in the mass. But the in the system, dissolution immense

system becomes
more capable than

part of him, and he


Carl Freedman wrote

that his "thesis about

critical theory and science fiction is that each is a version of the other" (xv). In the voice of sci ence fiction, McHugh urges us as readers to make something more capable than individual can be alone. In the voice of crit any ourselves
ical theory, she asks us as critics, as she asks

Zhang as designer, to make qualitatively more informed, imaginative, capacious judgments, that in their formation draw on a judgments vast, technologically
knowledge and


in which
a personal

the critic


set of collective
is, on a sys



tem. This goal, nearly Utopian to Zhang, is one we may never fully reach, but in my view it is the future of criticism. Science
of any literary

eventually had to contend with the collec of fan critics wielding fan resources, and it tivity still does. Just as the World Wide Web was born at needs to serve the obvious collaborative

fiction has the oldest active fandom

genre. Hugo Gernsback, that hun


of worldwide

gry immigrant visionary, wrote and edited mag that had some azines, like Modern Electrics, science fiction content even before the genre had a name. When he founded Amazing, the first sci ence fiction magazine, in 1926, he sought to en so that they his readers in a community gage in order to dis would want to buy his magazine cuss its contents. active letters columns. He promised, and delivered, In 1934 he and Charles to launch the Sci a

science, appropriations of the power of theWeb served the obvious collaborative needs of worldwide science fiction. When

so the first extrascientific

the Web
efforts of





ready to be ported to digital form, the communi ties of collaborators extended, and the results made widely available. A fine current example Fiction DataBase is the Internet Speculative (von Ruff), a work dependent on volunteer labor that grew from earlier efforts of the New En gland Science Fiction Association valuable scholarly tool. to become a

Hornig used Wonder Stories ence Fiction League (Clute and Nicholls),
more and less successful attempt to give


ture to that community. While mately failed as a commercial Gernsback Science conventions fiction and Hornig, fandom

the league ulti for proposition

fan clubs proliferated. runs over two hundred States alone;

The Web provided us not only with re sources for science fiction criticism but also with new fields for science fiction play. The same technology that supports democratic collabora tion supports multiplayer gaming. Long before

a year in the United

i 19

Eric S. Rabkin


the Internet spawned theWeb, text-based games flourished. And most of these were marked by the same tropes and elements that publishers as sociate with fantastic science adventure, called it, "ratiocination" you are fiction?techno-wizardry and, as Edgar Allan Poe

was not only appealing to the public but also re flective of the modes of modern science, which, unlike those of traditional criticism, are funda mentally networked and collaborative. to develop more They hoped, like Zhang, fully their ideas by opening a door to another system. In ti the organizers alluded to tling the conference, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), rec that one person's Utopia (unlimited ognizing is another's hell (love is forbidden). But did sex) they recall that Aldous Huxley was a grandson of T. H. Huxley, Charles Darwin's most famous adherent? Did they know that contemporary T. H. Huxley, that great promoter of evolution had for nearly two years a young ary thought, lab assistant named Herbert George Wells? Did

strange think your way to safety. When computer games became more visual, and bloody, they by and large continued to feature science fiction ele ments, although now a twitching thumb is often more valuable than a throbbing brain. If we ask what science fiction is, we may find many answers. One that I have promulgated, in The Fantastic in Literature, is that it is the literature that claims plausi a background of science. But that is bility against a narrow definition, quite workable for the text minded but inadequate to a broader criticism, the sort of criticism that science fiction invites, be cause science fiction is not limited to texts. In December igan hosted 2001, the University of Mich the fourth international Wiesner and policy. These sym inspired by Jerome B. branch of fantastic

(299): figure out where in an abandoned collect spaceship, and sometimes helpful objects, and

Symposium on science posia honor and were Wiesner, a University

of Michigan alumnus, a an adviser to United States presidents, physicist, and president of perhaps the most prestigious institute in the real world, theMassa Institute of Technology, which is, not the home of the New England coincidentally, chusetts Science technical


In 2001, a year Association. and filmic resonances around the literary work of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, the year in which the human genome was de Fiction territory, theWiesner Symposium theme was "Braving the New World: Benefits and Challenges of Genetic Knowledge." All the speakers save one, renowned scientists. The the kickoff speaker, were Iwas the kickoff speaker. asked me to introduce a clared known

organizers (1997). Their no showing of the film Gattaca tion of beginning the symposium with science fiction criticism and then with science fiction



Science Fiction and the Future of Criticism


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i 19

Eric S. Rabkin


they notice that Huxley's title in turn alluded to William The Tempest, in which Shakespeare's social order can be restored only after Prospero drowns his books that Shakespeare the term "brave new world" with both irony and hope? The conference subtitle suggests that they were mindful of the ambiguity. But I know from with them that they did not con sider that the object of science fiction criticism might be not only film and novel and play but also nonfiction The (like James D. Watson's conversation Double A Personal Account of the Dis the Structure of DNA [1968]), biogra covery of phy (like Paul de Kruif's The Microbe Hunters Helix: [1926]), Science, President policy the Endless [1945]), studies (like Vannevar Bush's Frontier: A Report to the itself (like (5.1.57)? And did they recall and Aldous Huxley each used


this list we music,

To gedankenexperiments). should add science fiction poetry, industrial design, city planning, architec


ture, politics, fashion, and world's fairs. Science fiction, in other words, is no more limited to sci ence fiction literature than love is limited to love is what I would call, term, a cultural system, and adapting McHugh's the future of criticism lies in exploring cultural fiction systems. Toward this future, science fiction should lead the way. To suggest that science fiction is a system, something much larger than a genre, merely acknowledges Dictionary that it fulfills an Oxford English definition of system: "A set or as associated,
a complex

letters. Science

semblage of things connected,

terdependent, so as to form

or in

Fie. 5
Catacomb in Them! nest

and even science



that assembled

unity when we

..<Ee .ei


Science Fiction and the Future of Criticism


ex speak of Faustian bargains, Frankenstein Star Wars weaponry, and aliens who periments, move faster than a speeding bullet. The stream lining of house trailers may have made some practical sense, although it smacks more of ex oticism than of fuel conservation. The streamlin ing of dinky outboard motors makes no practical sense at all (fig. 1), unless one considers the de sign part of a cultural system in which the motor housing represents the fulfillment of a fantasy of in an alien element (water) and the practi speed cal impact of such streamlining is thus measured


about the definition fiction cultural

and streamlining. Science rally the most influential time like ours, in which

of the human, is quite natu system in a

technological change constantly provokes hope, fear, guilt, and glory. But science fiction is not our only cultural system. The western offers us another, with its typical story so well articulated by John Cawelti and its characteristic landscape so well Its typical values are presented by Hollywood. embodied more in figures fictional, semifictional, and or less real, like Paul Bunyan, Davy and John Wayne;
type fonts, western in country-and-western


by the bottom line of the manufacturer. A cultural system, as Imean the term, may coordinate a set of typical dramatic situations,
recurring elements, even themes and styles, as

western movies;

in western

in west

and western


Fig. 4
Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

science fiction does by including, for example, the encounter with the alien, time machines,

ern cooking; and in western customs, like ro deos, which attract camp followers during the
rodeo season the same way science fiction con


Eric S. Rabkin


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attract fans. Rock system, with

other cultural

and roll is yet an its great attempt to

in 1954 was more

afraid of atomic

Early telephone operators.

capture its history, politics, music, and legends in its own hall of fame in Cleveland. we deal with a cultural system, even if we believe we are dealing only with a novel or When a film, we must look widely. In a post-9/11 issue of theNew York Times, Rick Lyman wrote about the way horror films deal with the fears of their ages. Here is his first example: "In [the] climac tic scene from Them! (1954), the seminal giant bug movie from the age of post-atomic anxiety, ... becomes the Dr. Medford symbolic spokes man for all of the vague unease felt by a prosper ous and complacent American public wrapping its mind around the new, terrifying concept of nuclear radiation" (fig. 2). It is true that America

to the point, America bomb in the hands of the Soviet Union. fifth columnists

radiation, but, was afraid of the Com living

mies were

everywhere, among us, each one mindlessly placable orders from Moscow.

im following It is no accident

that the movie chose ants to be enlarged by radi ation or that they nest underground. The movie
poster's term "catacombs" refers to the ants'

nest (fig. 3). Life for the ants is death for Ameri cans. The poster makes clear that the conflict is a military one. The cultural system of science fic tion here coordinates politics, technology, and more enduring symbolic concerns about gender (ants are female, nests are evil, but men have and poetic space (aboveground flamethrowers) is good; belowground is bad).


Science Fiction and the Future of Criticism


Fig. 6
Long-distance switchboard at Bell Telephone Ottawa, Co.,

The image of the ant is worth considera tion. In the Bible (Prov. 6.1: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise") and the industry of the ant is extolled. In science fiction, the ant represents one unit of a there are hive mind. Such minds, of which in Aesop, countless Martians science fiction examples, such as the inOlaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), are typically anathema: antihuman, evil.

But if the minds, pledon's volved with

Star Maker

such as the symbionts in Sta (1937), allow those in individuals, they good. To the extent this distinction?as

them to remain

are glorious, superhuman, that machine minds mimic

1961 (Chris Film

Lund / National

inHar with the vicious emergent consciousness "I Have No Mouth, lan Ellison's and IMust Scream" (1967), tem inMcHugh's contrasting novel?the the computer sys distinction carries

Board ofCanada/ National Archives



...... ..... . te ,1l| _


Eric S. Rabkin


Fig. 7
Aerial view of Levittown, PA,

c. 1959 (Ed Latcham Archives Records Administration). / National and

across from the realm of the biological

realm of the mechanical. We come

to the

to under

system, individ is to be prized, but uality unalloyed individuality or unalloyed community is wanting. The system supports an articulable Frankenstein ideology from Mary Shelley's in community (1818) to the present. Few of us would suggest that Charlie Chap lin was a science fiction auteur, but his Modern in the cul Times (1936) certainly participates tural system of science fiction (fig. 4). The ma chine processes us, threatening to turn us into generalized pulp, the way telephone lines line us up (fig. 5) and eventually turn us into clones repro (fig. 6). In architecture, the homogenized the re duction of homes (fig. 7) homogenizes production of the family (fig. 8). More recently, that decoding our DNA is an the recognition

stand that in the science fiction

important step toward controlling us suggests that heroism may lie in a paraplegic's struggle to climb the double helix, as Eugene does in Gattaca

(figs. 9 and 10).

we become ever more connected, the

system duce a criticism


that is science fiction will pro that is ever more collaborative,

crossing the boundaries of individual contribu tors just as it crosses productive domains from household number appliance to political debate. As the of contributors increases, and as the

increases, criti body of shareable knowledge cism will inevitably add quantitative methods to
its ever-more-capacious qualitative methods.

At the University of Michigan, Carl Simon, a mathematician; Bobbi Low, a population biol ogist; and I, working with about fifteen student researchers each semester since January 1998, have taken a combined qualitative-quantitative


Science Fiction and the Future of Criticism


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Family in Levittown, NY, 1950 (Bernard Hoffman / Time

approach Evolution

to science fiction as part of our Genre Project (Rabkin and Simon). Allow
have been a sam

to code at least ninety-seven

ries encountered.

percent of all sto

me to give one result of this collaborative work.

We reading representative

Life Pictures / Getty Images).

short ple of American science fiction magazine stories. In developing categories for the genres into which they fell, we found (or subgenres) it indispensable form and genre
forms and sixteen

by the student re searchers Adrienne Heckler and Zachary Wright of the possible associations between genre forms The initial examinations and genre contents led to provocative results that prompted Simon and me to explore further. When we consider all the stories (fig. 11), certain combinations of genre form and genre content stand out, particularly that of alien contact and

to distinguish content. With

genre contents,

between fourteen
we were

genre genre


Eric S. Rabkin



Fig. 9
Jude Law in Gattaca.

Fig. 10
Jude Law in Gattaca.


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Science Fiction and the Future of Criticism


FlG.11 Number of EachCombination of Genre Form and Genre Content ina Representative Sample of 1,959 Science Fiction Short Stories Published inAmerican Science Fiction Magazines during 1926-2000 Number of Stories
10 0 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100

contact Alien ?F^ n

1?P_ a HI

^^2^_ZZZ3 Te" Bildungsroman T" _!_[.

Genre Contents
a Alien b i : Alternative history

^ jgjgllgl^_^ n o
__ ?3 P_

c d n e

Capability shift,mental Capability shift, physical

Dystopia f [j Eutopia Exploration Invention Mad scientist ! i Monster Postapocalypse Psi powers Surreal novum Sword and sorcery Time travel

cd Crisis escape


g h i j k I

?, n
V ?*?] e g4_ m

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m n o

p ii Utopia n ^ m



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Eric S. Rabkin


Number of Stories
0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 _^_I_I_I_I_L_I_I_I_I_I

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? _ Each is assigned one genre form and one genre content. A %2 test of these data shows novum occur very far more very far less often ? (p 0.0001). that the combinations often than they would alien in a


contact-alien, random

and domestic-surreal exploration-exploration, occurs distribution and that alien contact-invention





the Future

of Criticism


FlG.12 Number of EachCombination of Genre Form and Genre Content for the 159 Stories from the Set in Fig. 11ThatWere ReprintedMore Than Twice Number of Stories
012345678 _I_I_I_I_I_I_I_I

Mmi^^^B Adventure ?^-^Jh

o _________________

HMHHIc _____^L.Jd Alien contact _________________*

."^."i ____ __ e Bildungsroman

Genre Contents
a Alien Alternative history Capability shift, mental Capability shift, physical Dystopia Eutopia Exploration Invention Mad scientist Monster Postapocalypse Psi powers Surreal novum Sword and sorcery Time travel Utopia b c d a e f g h i j k


_ __________ c ? n ?^ !_____Z^________________M _ ..____________!...1 j c_k nm i mmm

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Eric S. Rabkin


Number of Stories
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c ^H Political e

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A x2 test of these data philosophical


that the combinations occur far more often


satire-dystopia; than they would

shift, mental; philosophical tale-capability in a random distribution (p < 0.005).








of Criticism














of new



measure other



(fig. 12)?a
over as such satire

time? and

of marketplace combinations


ogy, and just as it has again shown the way in of the many of the possibilities exfoliating Wide Web, itwill show the way in criti World cism. This leadership is already apparent in the new attempt by the Oxford English Dictionary to use the Web to enlist readers in its citation re search. In what field did this new sort of word the lexicographers study? Science fic

dystopia. It seems as if, to get a science fiction story printed at all, one is best advised to write
an alien contact-alien story; however, if one

hopes tomake a lasting contribution, one is best advised to write a dystopian satire.Why is that? in the scope of this argument pur sue a detailed answer to that question, but I can suggest quality that the answer will lie neither in some of each story's style or execution nor directly in what people like to read, since alien occur at the first publications contact-alien
same time as satire-dystopia republications. We

I cannot

begin tion (Prucher and Farmer). Science fiction right now is the cultural system from which systemic criticism is being born (fig. 13).

Works Cited
Carter, Paul A. The Creation azine Science Fiction. Cawelti, mula of Tomorrow: Fifty Years ofMag New York: Columbia UP, 1977. For U of

tion and


to know much




times, about what different modes

consumption mean, and

of distribu
in general

John G. Adventure, Stories

about the cultural system of science fiction. We do know this about the cultural system of science fiction: it is rich, broadly useful, and just as the God of apparently self-contradictory, the flood and the rainbow the Bible sends both fiction was born in part out of distrust of science, a distrust it continues to covenant. Science manifest
sters maine


and Romance: Mystery, as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: P, 1976.

The Encyclopedia Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls. ence Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1993. Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory ver: Wesleyan UP, 2000. Lyman, Rick. "Horrors! Time phors? From Bug Movies Times 23 Oct. 2001: El. McHugh, Tor, Maureen 1992. and Science Fiction.

of Sci Hano

for an Attack to Bioterrorism."

of the Meta New York

in works

like Gattaca,
editor plan so

but it also bol

F. Orlin twenty Tre years that

F. China Mountain




a faith. said,

the pioneer

"We must

served 16).

itwill be said that Astounding

as the cradle fiction of modern text, in other

Stories has
(Carter con

science" words,

Tales, by Nathaniel Poe, Edgar Allan. Rev. of Twice-Told Hawthorne. Graham's Maga Lady's and Gentleman's 1842:298-300. zine May Prucher, tions for Farmer. Science Fiction Cita Jeff, and Malcolm the OED. 30 Jan. 2004 <http://www.jessesword S. The Fantastic UP, 1976. Simon. Genre Evolution Proj in Literature. Princeton:


sciously has been part of a larger cultural system in the early twentieth almost from the moment
century when the genre was first named.

.com/SF/sf_citations.shtml>. Rabkin, Eric Princeton Rabkin, Eric

that ultimately, as we see by com parison with critical writing about the western and about rock and roll, science fiction criticism, I believe like one of Zhang's doors, will open us to a more expansive criticism, one that will be more
systemic, tative. Just more as collaborative, science fiction and more showed quanti the way in

S., and Carl 2003.

ect. 2 Oct. ~genreevo/>. Def.

30 Jan. 2004 < 2nd ed.

"System." 1989. von Ruff,

1. The Oxford



Fiction DataBase. Al, ed. Internet Speculative 11 Jan. 2004. Cushing Lib. Science Fiction and Fantasy and Inst, for Scientific Computation, Research Collection Texas A&M U. 30 Jan. 2004 <>.

i 19

Eric S. Rabkin


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Fie 13
Launch of the first rocket from Cape Canaveral, July

1950 (NASA).