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Sci-fi: The poetics of invisible reality

SONG MINGWEI | 2019-04-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The reality in science fiction may be against common sense, intuitive experience and social cognition, but it is logically consistent.  Photo: FILE


Since the very beginning, science fiction has had a complicated relationship with contemporary, mainstream literary realism. If we agree that fantasy literature, such as science fiction, fairy tales and magical stories, is rooted in transcendental religious literature, medieval legends and northern tribal epics and that it has close ties with romanticism, and since it seems the genre is distinctive from the realism rising in the early 19th century, then we can conclude that science fiction has developed roughly in parallel to literary realism.

However, within its narratives, science fiction includes references to realism. Many of the great science fiction works such as Foundation and Dune have strong realpolitik implications. Liu Cixin has also once said that the narrative of his Three-Body Problem imitates that of War and Peace. Some contemporary Chinese sci-fi novelists have put forward the idea of science fiction realism, so as to shore up the relationship between science fiction and literature.

This article holds that the core of science fiction lies in wonder, which is beyond the conventional expressive scope of realism. Meanwhile, in terms of grammar, rhetoric, narration and worldview, science fiction also has different poetic features from literary realism.


Scientific mode of  ‘real’
Science fiction has its own mode of expression. First, it must have a scientific basis, even if the science and technology it depicts is unverifiable and whimsical. The scientific discourse in science fiction is a kind of discourse that conforms to internal logic and can be proved to be consistent cognitively. The “real” of such a perception provides an alternative way to gaining a sense of reality from experience.

In other words, such a reality may be against common sense, intuitive experience and social cognition, but it is logically consistent. It corrects, challenges and subverts realistic concepts with the aid of logic, scientific principles or quasi-scientific ways of thinking.

From the perspective of science and technology, science fiction is a kind of augmented reality text, due to its strong use of future predictions, so it can even be called “super realism” or “futuristic realism.” Science fiction allows readers to see what is invisible in reality. Due to the limitations of historical location, social constraints, senses, space, time, physical laws and ways of thinking, sci-fi landscapes often cannot be mapped by readers onto reality.

The attitude of modern readers toward science fiction can be illustrated by the works of Jules Verne, a 19th century French novelist. Readers were so convinced by his imagination of hot air balloons, submarines, lunar modules and other novel devices that it seemed as if science fiction were prophetic. With time, most of the technological advances imagined in science fiction decades ago have become reality today. Such an attitude then has extended into 20th century science fiction such as Isaac Asimov’s robots, Clark Kent’s space shuttle, William Gibson’s cyberspace, Michael Crichton’s idea of cloning dinosaurs and Stanley Kubrick’s artificial intelligence.

Science fiction depicts a reality in line with scientific principles and cognitive logic. This reality is not necessarily true on a practical level, since even with submarines, most readers have no first-hand experience of traveling on the ocean floor, let alone seeing a resurrected dinosaur or sailing on a space shuttle to Jupiter. Nor does the reality of science fiction require foreseeability, as the 2001 space odyssey Arthur Clarke imagined in 1968 has yet to happen.

The reality of science fiction makes sense mainly because it is a textual world constructed in accordance with science and logic, which requires a complete and logical presentation in the belief of technological progress, scientific principles and knowledge. This belief and the tradition of literary realism are both the product of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, but they have different modes of expression.

Another attitude of readers toward science fiction is a belief that everything it writes about is outside the real world, having nothing to do with realism. These readers are accustomed to the literary realism established since the 19th century and the modernist literature of the 20th century. To them, the fantasy world depicted in science fiction is too remote from real-life scenarios to relate to. As a result, no matter how much Princess of Mars resembles the wild west, how much the Foundation series has the shadow of World War II, or how much the Dune series reflects on petropolitics, or petroleum politics, science fiction is still treated as an irrelevant fantasy, even excluded from the literary realm.


Reflection of reality
The study of science fiction in North American academia began in the early 1970s. Almost all the scholars who first studied science fiction were Marxist critics, such as Fredric Jameson and Darko Suvin.

Jameson was primarily interested in how the utopian can be seen in contemporary science fiction and how the society’s loss of that impulse relates to late capitalist culture. For Suvin, science fiction and utopian literature can be traced to the same origin. He defined the core of science fiction literature as “cognitive estrangement.” In short, be it utopia or dystopia, in essence it provides an alternative cognition of reality through literary creation.

Utopia and dystopia link science fiction with some major real-life themes, such as human progress, international politics, and the future of the world. After World War II, popular science fiction in Britain and the United States was dominated by a discussion of dystopia, among which a world-ending war was one of the trendiest themes, such as alien invasion, the rise of ape civilization or a biochemical crisis. In this way, science fiction, to some degree, became a reflection of the modern world.


Sci-fi poetics
For a long time, Western literary critics have been trying to construct the “prehistory” of science fiction and to explore whether the themes of science fiction appear in some classic works before the genre was established. It has been suggested, for example, that the full-length novel Frankenstein by the English writer Mary Shelley in 1818 was in some way directly influenced by Paradise Lost and Faust. In fact, there is also a secret science fiction clue in modern Chinese literature.

If we read Lu Xun’s first vernacular short story “Diary of a Madman” as science fiction, we can see its textual features highlight the poetics of science fiction by subverting so-called normal human feeling and leading readers to sense the realness of a society in which people eat each other. This device was against common sense and social customs at that time and exactly what the author intended to convey. The message is clear: Cannibalism is real.

In addition, “Diary of a Madman” actually gives readers two choices: One is to accept the explanation in the preface written in classical Chinese and believe that the vernacular text of the madman is meaningless and crazy. The other is to identify with the madman and become somewhat of a revolutionary like the protagonist. The choice can only be made by substituting logical cognition for realistic thinking. That is to say, even if the appeal of a madman is overwhelming, it is difficult for readers to agree with if they do not use logical cognition to deny the sensation of actual reality.

Scholars quickly attributed the subversive power of “Diary of a Madman” to cultural criticism, on which basis came the statement that “Diary of a Madman” represents the starting point of modern criticism of Chinese literary realism. The unique subversive force in “Diary of a Madman” has since become an alternative origin for the modernity of Chinese literature.
That said, this article does not intend to say that “Diary of a Madman” is science fiction. It has been studied by critics as a pathology, psychoanalysis and neurosis novel.

 In the world of science fiction, what is real does not equal reality. A sense of reality depends on one’s relationship with the inner world or the outer world. The reality is first established at the semantic level. When a science fiction writer such as Ursula K. Le Guin writes “he was fascinated by the landscape,” a phrase that would in literary realism be commonly used to describe a protagonist’s real-life experience, it’s instead possible the landscape could refer to a man-eating monster. Similarly, “Diary of a Madman” uses the term “cannibalism” for a cultural metaphor to amplify its impact.

Science fiction has stirred a debate over whether it is science or fantasy, but science fiction may just be literature after all, only the literary nature of science fiction is based on its scientific discourse, the reality of alternative cognition and a marvelous imaginative world. Only in this sense can we reach the conclusion that science fiction has unique poetic features which are different from those of literary realism albeit deeply connected. The poetics of science fiction points to an invisible reality and a past, present and future that do not exist but still must be closely related to the present.


Song Mingwei is an associate professor of Chinese Literature at Wellesley College.

​edited by YANG XUE