AMAZONS at the Moonspeaker
|Type of Science Fictional Mimesis||Cognitively Estranging Referent|
|surrealism||the phenomenon of dreaming|
|utopianism||the ideal polity|
|detective fiction||the mystery of ratiocination|
|slipstream||the partially virtual reality of living in a mainstream hypermediated and rendered half-surreal by technology|
|magical realism||the hybrid nature of realities lived in postcolonial spaces|
|fantasy||the prodigious working of the imagination|
|gothic/horror||the occulted yet irrepressible unconscious|
|young adult supernatural fiction||adolescent subjectivity|
I confess to being unable to take some of these definitions quite seriously, not because they don't reflect truths about the genres, but because the thesaurus levels were so high. So here is the second version, with the thesaurus levels dialled down a bit.
|Genre||Puzzling Phenomenon or Idea|
|surrealism||the phenomenon of dreaming|
|utopianism||the perfect organized society|
|detective fiction||the mystery of formal reasoning|
|slipstream||the nature of a reality made up of both physical action and actions mediated by computers|
|magical realism||the hybrid nature of realities lived in internally colonized societies|
|fantasy||the remarkable working of the imagination|
|gothic/horror||the hidden yet irrepressible unconscious|
|young adult supernatural fiction||being a teenager|
To be fair, this is obviously not all about dialling down the thesaurus. I have serious doubts about Chu's characterization of magical realism, specifically because of the reference to "postcolonial," an adjective I don't believe is applicable to anything yet, least of all to what I have read of magical realism so far. However, magic realism is a complex genre, so there is more to be considered, perhaps in a different essay. Still, this is quite solid in terms of examples to build her argument with, and she does not stop with these. For her more detailed discussion, Chu takes up five examples all from works generally labelled science fiction, each covered in a separate chapter.
|Cognitively Estranging Referent||Example Mimetic Representation|
|the globalized world||spaceship Earth|
|cyberspace in the 1990s||the bridge in William Gibson's works|
|war trauma||involuntary time travel, alien telepathy|
|post memory han, a korean form of grief||genetic transference of han-filled memories|
|robot rights||bestowing humanity on non-human entities|
The ringer is the fifth one, "robot rights." The problematics of it are considered in Gerry Canavan's 2012 review of Chu's book, which at only 6 pages and written with minimal jargon, is well worth reading. I am going to make some related points to Canavan's in the course of exploring some of the implications of Chu's approach, and how this is all related to the current age of mimesis. To get started, let's try making up a fresh table of Genre-Referent pairs. The practice is going to come in handy.
|Type of Science Fictional Mimesis||Cognitively Estranging Referent|
|romance||the phenomenon of falling in love with an abusive person|
|historical narrative||how people experienced events in the past|
|steampunk||alternative paths for the british empire|
|mythology||the origin of the world and reality|
|superhero fiction||what it's like to be a deity|
|alien abduction||the experience of animals trapped and used for experiments|
|alien invasion||the experience of Indigenous peoples invaded by outsiders|
|android/robot stories||the experience of slave owners no longer able to maintain their power over slaves|
This is a fun, if disturbing exercise. I don't find romance novels in the english sense palatable, but never quite appreciated their sinister nature until I identified this referent. It also reveals why Chu's tacked on task of arguing that allegory is not science fiction(al) makes no sense. These are all allegories, and contra Tolkien, they are to be disliked not in general, but when they are hamfisted and clumsy. On the other hand, it may be that Chu is focusing on the standard definition of "allegory", which my trusty OED says means "a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one." The crux then, would be that the science fictional representation is anything but hidden and is not intended to be. This still doesn't work as an argument though, because the meanings in science fiction can indeed be hidden to the reader, especially if they can't make out the cognitively estranging referent for some reason. Chu's discussion of "robot rights" is itself an excellent case in point. Fortunately, this does not neutralize the broader argument, although I am puzzled that it made it into the final book.
That said, Chu's treatment of "robot rights" is especially bewildering because excellent work had already been done to unpack the tangled meanings in robot and android stories, including exegeses of Asimov's vaunted "three laws of robotics." Alessandro Portelli wrote a paper on the topic in Science Fiction Studies in 1980, noting "The Three Laws are thus shown to be much more than controls over a potentially dangerous artifact: they are a strategy for controlling productive labour, for keeping the labour force docile." Edward James, in his classic paper "Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled," recently reprinted in Black and Brown Planets reminds us that Asimov's robots "seem to function as the equivalent of blacks" and "...the Three Laws restrain robots, just as the slave owner expected (or hoped) that his black slaves would be restrained by custom, fear, and conditioning to obey his every order." Of course, pulling this thread draws in other uncomfortable questions about racism, but also an entire amazing genre of science fiction writing: afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is the genre reflected in the "alien invasion" entry in the previous table, an approach to science fiction that recognizes alien invasion stories as retellings of the encounter between "europe" and "africa." Its Indigenous counterpart has been exploding with stories, games, and animated works since at least the mid 2000s. The explicit purpose in both futurisms is to insist on the acknowledgement of two key facts: Black and Indigenous peoples are fully human, and they have many futures. Part of the challenge when dealing with such material is that it is unavoidably political. In general, Chu's text is remarkable in its apolitical stance, even though taking up these currently more controversial genres would have added significant reinforcement to her work. This is true even though she discusses works by Octavia Butler, a founding author in Afrofuturism throughout the book.
The absence of any notice of politics in science fiction, even to say, "and we won't be talking about this" is even more glaring towards the end of the introduction. After explaining how science fiction and lyric poetry are similar in that each pushes language to its limits in order to describe the nearly indescribable, Chu remarks:
As noted earlier, "science fiction," unlike the modified noun "scientific fiction," is charged with lyric voltage generated by the shock of catachresis [word misuse]: the noun "science" has denotations and connotations that clash energetically with the denotations and connotations of the noun "fiction." At the same time, the etymological resonances of "science fiction" suggest that the voltage generated by the catachrestic joining of "science" and "fiction" is itself a generating force. "Science" comes from the Latin verb "sciere," "to know." "Fiction" comes from the Latin verb "fingere," "to make by shaping." Science fiction, in other words, equals the making of knowledge. This equation calls attention to the universal epistemological work that science fiction performs. To make something available for representation is to make it knowable.
I don't quite know what to make of the laboured writing style here, which almost overwhelms the point she is making. Knowledge isn't given, we create it, and a key creative method we use is science fiction writing in its many guises. Word "misuse" and the resources of that much maligned genre, lyric poetry, are vital to making knowledge. Indigenous peoples have been patiently explaining this for at least centuries to the lost europeans who managed to blunder into their communities. Resistance to the notion wherever a community has tried to enshrine a belief in platonic forms or divine pronouncements is to be expected. It's scary to take responsibility for what we know. Who would want to admit that android/robot stories are about the putative experience of the slave owners, not the slaves? Or that romance novels almost exclusively depict women being entrapped in abusive relationships where they can never actually tame and reconstruct the abuser? Still, let's not run away from the uncomfortable. Instead, let's use this new understanding of the role of mimesis in science fiction and science fiction in knowledge production, and their ever-present potential for political statement to consider the current explosion of mimetic activity, also known as "the mainstreaming of fandom."
THE AGE OF MIMESIS
Despite many fond hopes, science fiction writers are no better at predicting the future than anyone else, apart from simple truisms such as "there will be a future" and "there will still be diverse sorts of people in the future." To my knowledge, not one predicted the mainstreaming of fandom, which among other things is one last orgy of capitalistic exploitation of a market for toys, bobbles, and general branded junk nearly invisible to the world barely twenty years ago. The merchandising factor, and the accompanying efforts to make former "kid's stuff" like comic books and dolls marketed to boys respectable are merely the most visible and advertised aspects. The genuinely important, and much bigger part, is something else entirely: the achievement of public social respect by at least a part of the population who found themselves persistently labelled "geeks," "nerds," and "fans."
"Fandom" is a convenient umbrella term, but it is also deceptive, because it implies homogeneity that doesn't exist. The most commonly acknowledged founding fandoms are predominantly science fiction-based, despite the early communities spawned by the now ever popular Sherlock Holmes and Alice in Wonderland. However, fandom was not quite respectable even in its proto stages in the victorian era, because it was associated with the cheapest printed works, with a few exceptions, and of course, sports. The victorian era had penny dreadfuls, cheap circulars, and numerous magazines providing novels in affordable instalments and a range of short stories. Within a hundred years, there were still magazines but now there were also cheap paperback novels, and of course, comic books. What they all had in common was not necessarily their audience or the (perceived) quality of their content, but their definition as consumables not to be taken seriously. If they were purchased and read, their fate was to be disposed off immediately on being finished. Anyone who took the trouble to save copies or follow their stories more seriously was considered at best rather strange. The "consumptive" aspect is quite consistent, and applies equally to toys. Toys were once exclusively for children, at least officially, now not necessarily. Even strategic relabelling tricks don't quite hide the slippage, as racks of dolls for boys show up in comic book stores where the sight of a person below the age of twelve is rare. "Sports" were not constructed as consumables. Instead, they were constructed as "relationships" and a site of male-bonding, and so were rendered respectable for male adults, although they could slip past the edges of respectability if their associations with the working class or betting became too strong.
The fans of other than sports have succeeded, at least in part, in overcoming the stigma of their interests, although this has worked out best for mainly a white male subsection of fandom so far, and if it weren't for the determined efforts of Fanlore and An Archive of Our Own the pioneering women fandoms would have been elided all together. More importantly, fans have forced the recognition that the various "popular culture" works that they follow, curate, and add to via the whole range artistic pursuits, is important. Neither fans nor anyone else is a passive recipient of "popular culture," and the various works falling under that rubric aren't meaningless. It takes only a few minutes of searching online to find fans' accounts of how they used their preferred genre of works to cope with various life problems and make sense of new circumstances. This is not exclusive to fans, as many people of various religious faiths can attest. The key difference, as already noted, is the social status of the materials they are using and what level of participation they can take in interpreting and creating those materials.
These developments shouldn't surprise us at all, having traced Chu's arguments already, especially her contention that science fictional writing is a means to make what is difficult to represent understandable. We can extend this from writing to other forms of storytelling art, from sculpture and music to paintings and movies. In times of real or perceived intensive social change, it's reasonable to expect to see an accompanying expansion in mimetic activities by which people both make sense of what is new and revise their understanding of the old. So while the semi-serious claim "geeks rule the world!" is obvious hyperbole, something important is going on. An extraordinary number of people are busy attempting make sense of what is happening in the world, and they are doing so in public ways, with the expectation of sharing what they know with others. Furthermore, people are competing over which interpretations and models, which sorts of stories, will be accepted as valid and useful for the future. The folks most used to believing themselves in charge of determining who creates knowledge, what counts as knowledge, and whether knowledge gets created about certain topics at all are being thoroughly challenged and discomforted. If science fictional writing and art making more generally are as tightly tied to the creation of knowledge as Chu suggests, then the mainstreaming of fandom and its current struggles with the existence of oppression within it, exemplified by the wild attacks following even the mildest challenge to "the default narrative" is no trivial phenomenon. We ignore it at our peril.
BACK TO COGNITIVE ESTRANGEMENT
Yet, there seems to be some key aspects of the notion of cognitive estrangement still missing here, meaning this essay, and to find out what they are and integrate them properly, we can do that best by returning to the source. From there, I think it will be possible to get an even better appreciation of the nature and ambition of Chu's project. The original theorist of the cognitively estranging referent is Darko Suvin, a major science fiction critic who insists on taking the genre seriously, including its potential for imagining other futures in our present. In 1979 he published a formative essay, "Estrangement and Cognition," in his book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. He is also utterly fearless in grappling with the politics, overt and covert in science fiction and out, and through his own work engages in an ongoing critique of capitalism. In this early essay, Suvin procedes systematically in good rhetorical fashion, starting by telling us what his argument will be. He will argue that "...SF is the literature of cognitive estrangement," a fundamentally hopeful mode of fiction "distinct from nonfictional utopianism, from naturalistic literature, and from other non-naturalistic fiction." Moving into his argument, he unpacks for us the key second part of science fiction's putative subject, taking up SF's mode of pursuing fictional hypotheses in a logical and systematic way. "The effect of such factual reporting of fictions is one of confronting a set normative system – a Ptolemaic-type closed world picture – with a point of view or look implying a new set of norms; in literary theory this is known as the attitude of estrangement." Here is the first contrast between Chu's thesis and Suvin's. He is arguing about science fiction's ability to create and productively use cognitive estrangement. Chu is arguing that science fiction therefore can be used productively in the inverse, to interpret cognitive estrangement that is already there.
In Suvin's view, science fiction is opposed to supernatural and metaphysical estrangement even as it encourages cognitive estrangement. He provides a revised and more detailed definition of science fiction in the second section of this essay, with this laid out, as "SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment." The contrast with Chu's premise still holds. He also observes in his first long footnote to the essay that science fiction is often pigeonholed as nonrealistic. Rather than diving into the philosophical arguments about the nature of reality, he opts to replace the term "reality" with "the author's empirical environment." This is another part of the puzzle, as now we can see source of the premise that Chu wants to knock down more clearly. On second reading of Suvin's essay, I was especially struck by his observation that science fiction has among "its own repertory of functions, conventions, and devices" the "historically crucial shift of the locus of estrangement from space to time." On one hand it is simply true that this has happened. But let us look in a bit more detail at Chu's chosen examples for cognitively estranging and real phenomena in SF.
The globalized world is characterized in major part by the challenge of answering apparently simple questions about what time it is and where a person is. Time is key to many of her examples, the disorientation of jet lag, the attempt to follow through the possible real life implications if a person really could be in two places at the same time. Cyberspace in the 1990s has no fixed chronological status, so William Gibson transcribes it onto space. Chu argues that war trauma and post-memory han are about displacement in time, and these then are transformed in science fiction into time travel, telepathy, and simultaneous time. Telepathy may seem an odd example here, but if we think of telepathic communication as a way of one person experiencing another's time, then it makes sense. It all goes together beautifully. Except, once again, for the ever frustrating example of robot rights. Of course, Chu doesn't have to stick to temporally based estrangements. There is not necessarily a reason to. Except. What if the actual cognitively estranging referent of robot rights is in fact the continuing existence of slavery in the present when we are constantly told it is in the past, When a widely touted claim about the Civil War in the United States is that it ended slavery?
That is one hell of a real life cognitively estranging temporally related referent!
At this moment in the late 2010s to early 2020s, young scholars would be sorely tempted to run with this straight into a discussion of racism. They would probably still be dragged firmly away by one ear from trying to engage with the issues of labour and class, with the attendant requirement to grapple with Karl Marx's critique of capitalism. It is still not quite respectable in the United States to seriously engage with any political or economic ideas from Karl Marx. Worse yet, the intense efforts to deny the reality of class and the actual role of racism among several other well-known ideologies developed to support and render common sense particular class relations have made it almost impossible to carry out such an analysis without being pilloried for ignoring social identities. For evidence of how dangerous to current strands in identity politics such an analysis can be, all a person needs to do is read Adolph Reed, Jr.'s succinct article in New Labor Forum, "Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism." Then look up how he has been repeatedly barred from speaking over the past several years for supposedly denying the importance of racism as a source of oppression in the United States. Never mind that his point is that it is important, just not in the way it is framed and weaponized in identity politics.
My point here is not to make any claim about Chu's reasons for treating robot rights in the way she did in her dissertation and later book. Obviously I have no idea. Rather, my point is that it is worth unpacking and acknowledging how not merely difficult but dangerous for an aspiring, early career academic challenging the burgeoning of identity politics would have been in 2010. This produces a cruel gap in a wonderful and thought provoking analysis. Thankfully, it does not do fundamental damage to Chu's overall argument, which I think she makes resoundingly with her first four examples. The gap is also highly instructive in other ways, than hopefully provoking us to stop and try to figure out what should be there. Darko Suvin in closing his essay "Estrangement and Coginition" muses, "Significant modern SF, with deeper and more lasting sources of enjoyment, also presupposes more complex and wider cognitions: it discusses primarily the political, psychological, and anthropological use and effect of knowledge, of philosophy of science, and the becoming o[r] failure of new realities as a result of it." This suggests a fundamentally optimistic role available to science fiction, a way to try out alternative paths virtually, thereby perhaps finding genuine possibilities for different futures. How cruelly fatalistic then, are the works Chu examines dealing with robot rights.