Week 10 (October 27 – November 2)

Reading and Writing Imaginative Futures: (Post)Cyberpunk / (Un)Intelligent Machines

“Science fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places. It often concerns itself with scientific or technological change, and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger.” – James Gunn, The Road to Science Fiction: Volume 2: From Wells to Heinlein, 1

“Science fiction is What If literature. All sorts of definitions have been proposed by people in the field, but they all contain both The What If and The Serious Explanation; that is science fiction shows things not as they characteristically or habitually are but as they might be, and for this “might be” the author must offer a rational, serious, consistent explanation, one that does not (in Samuel Delany’s phrase) offend against what is known to be know.” – Joanna Russ, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” Vertex 1, 32

“A revealing way of describing science fiction is to say that it is part of a literary mode which one may call ‘fabril’. […] Fabril literature (of which science fiction is now by far the most prominent genre) is overwhelmingly urban, disruptive, future-oriented, eager for novelty; its central image is the ‘faber’, the smith or blacksmith in older usage, but now extended in science fiction to mean the creator of artifacts in general-metallic, crystalline, genetic, or even social.” – Tom Shippey, Introduction, The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, ix

“Materialistic cause and effect; the universe conceived as comprehensible object of exploration and exploitation; multiculturalism; multispeciesism; evolutionism; entropy; technology conceived as intensive industrial development, permanently developing in the direction of complexity, novely, and importance; the idea of gender, race, behavior, belief as culturally constructed; the consideration of mind, person, personality, and body as objects of investigation and manipulation; such fundamental assumptions of various sciences or of the engineering mind underlie and inform the imagery and the discourse of science fiction.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction, Norton Book of Science Fiction, 23

“A number of times I have written extensively about the way the discourse (the way of understanding, the way of responding, the way of reading) called science fiction differs from the discourse called literature, particularly that bulk of literature we SF readers call mundane fiction […]. There are clear and sharp differences right down to the way we read individual sentences. “Then her world exploded.” If such a string of words appeared in a mundane fiction text, more than likely we would respond to it as an emotionally muzzy metaphor about the inner aspects of some incident in a female character’s life. In an SF text, however, we must retain the margin to read these words as meaning that a planet, belonging to a woman, blew up.” – Samuel R. Delany, “‘Science Fiction and ‘Literature’–or, The Conscience of the King,” Speculation on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, 102-103

Tom Shippey has called science fiction “hard reading.”1 It’s hard reading, he explains, because it relies upon the devices of cognitive estrangement and the novum, two terms introduced into science fiction criticism by Darko Suvin.2

In Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Suvin argues that we can classify all literature through the use of two binary oppositions: naturalistic/estranged and cognitive/non-cognitive. By naturalistic, Suvin means literature that has a more-or-less straightforward relationship with the world of the author (“SF and the Genealogical Jungle” 61)3 The novels Tom Jones, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, and Huckleberry Finn, Suvin explains, are all examples of naturalistic fiction in which the goal “is to create a significant statement about the human condition by holding a mirror to nature” (61). Estranged literature, on the other hand, is set in a world that is fundamentally different from that of its author, and includes myths, folktales, the pastoral, science fiction, and fantasy (62-63).

While the naturalistic/estranged binary relies upon whether or not the work is a realistic reflection of the author’s own world, the cognitive/non-cognitive binary relies upon the physics and ethics of that world. In non-cognitive literature, the physics and ethics of the world are neutral or indifferent to the characters. In terms of ethics, this means that good and evil aren’t rewarded or punished by the natural order, and in terms of the physics, the characters of that world are subject to the laws of physics rather than the laws of physics being subject to them.

To better understand what this means, let’s look at how physics and ethics play out in non-cognitive literature. In non-cognitve literature, good and evil are rewarded or punished by the natural order: the good will always triumph because they are good and the evil will always be punished because they are evil. In a non-cognitive world the heavens may open up and storm when the protagonist is in turmoil, or the land itself may violently shake by an earthquake when a king dies. Likewise, in non-cognitive literature, the characters in that world might be able to manipulate or otherwise control the laws of physics through the use of magic. Suvin explains that a naturalistic, non-cognitive work of fiction might be an otherwise realistic story that has a “Hollywoodian happy-end,” whereas an estranged, non-cognitive work of fiction would be in the realm of myth, folktale, or fantasy (62-63).

On this naturalistic/estranged–cognitive/non-cognitive schema, science fiction falls into the real of estranged-cognitive, or, as Darko Suvin defines it, “cognitive estrangement.”

The other device used by science fiction, the novum, is a concept – an event, a technology, a condition, a thing – that is so radically different from that of our world and our own lived experience that it requires us as readers to reframe our expectations of what is possible, at least within the context of the work we’re reading. (Novum is a portmanteau of “new” and “datum”). While some novums have become so familiar that we can readily understand them without much effort even if their implications are still radical within the context of the narrative – time travel, faster-than-light travel, invasion by an alien species – other novums are so unfamiliar to us that we might have to simply struggle along – suspend our desire for immediate understanding – and grow accustomed to the concept as the narrative unfolds. While some novums are radically unfamiliar because of their novelty, other novums are the not-so-unfamiliar made intentionally unfamiliar for the purposes  of having us look at it anew.



  • Review the Textual Interventions  and Electronic Edition assignment guidelines.
  • Begin work on the Electronic Edition Proposal. Proposals are due by 10:00 PM, Monday, Nov. 10.
  • Read lecture posts for the week. The most recent lectures can always be found on the front page for the course or using the Lecture category. Short lectures will be posted throughout the week.
  • Review and begin weekly Participation assignment forum posts.
  • Reading Response and Community Response blog posts (Online Writing Activities).
    • Group 1 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 1.
    • Group 2 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 2.
    • Group 3 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 3.
    • Group 4 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 4.
  • Graduate students: Continue working on the Annotated Bibliography assignment. Due: Dec. 2, 10:00 PM.


  1. “Hard Reading: the Challenges of Science Fiction,” in A Companion to Science Fiction, ed. David Seed, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 11-26.
  2. Both cognitive estrangement and the novum are introduced by science fiction critic Darko Suvin in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
  3. Originally published in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction and reprinted in Gunn, James, and Matthew Candelaria. Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2005. 59-79.
  4. The online version is actually a slightly rewritten version of the short story used as the first chapter of Stross’ novel Accelerado.

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