Toward a New Fantastic: Stop Calling It Science Fiction

 LAST JULY, Pakistani science fiction writer Usman Malik published a clarion call for his home country. In it, he made the claim that “[e]ncouraging science fiction, fantasy, and horror readership has the potential to alleviate or fix many of Pakistan’s problems.” While it would be difficult to disagree with the idea that science fiction is a positive force in the world, many of Malik’s reasons for championing the genre are problematic. To begin with, Malik — along with just about everyone else — still, for some reason, calls “science fiction” science fiction. His essay actually contains a handful of reasons why we should stop calling it “science fiction,” and it also inadvertently addresses how and why we need to liberate ourselves from genre itself — and how “science fiction” can help us do just that.

In 1957, Roland Barthes illustrated how semiotic units are animated by forces outside of themselves by showing how the lack of a pure signifier means that any sign is subject to being taken up and deployed for multiple uses. Barthes used this modulation away from a sign’s apparent meaning — what Barthes referred to as myth — to articulate the ways in which ideology saturates language. The starting point for our inquiry, then, is the question of how the “science” in “science fiction” is taken up and deployed as something other than its apparent meaning.

Take, for example, last year’s animated feature Big Hero 6, in which a group of gifted young students use their skills to fight a bad guy. At a crucial moment in the film, as the main protagonist is about to display his amazing new invention, one of his companions — the wealthy slacker dropout who hangs out with the team — cries out in California-surfer drawl, “SCIENCE! Yeaahhh!” This sentiment saturates the whole film: science will save us; we should be excited about it. The problem is that the ultimate force of victory and liberation is not — strictly speaking — science. And while the point isn’t to speak strictly, it is that we should always be aware of what we might really be saying when we don’t.

This attitude toward science is widespread and can be found in both the resurgence of the popular television show Cosmos, as well as with popular websites like “I Fucking Love Science,” both of which exist in some form to produce questionably accurate infographics for social network sites. In terms of the latter, we are able to see the confusion: When my cousin posts a picture of a wild-looking insect from an exotic part of the world with the caption “I Fucking Love Science,” I am not sure what I am supposed to be celebrating. Is my cousin an enthusiast of the natural world? An advocate of empirical methodologies? Is his participation in a metaphysical polemic willing or unwitting? Either way, science did not give us the tap-dancing mating ritual of the rainbow spider, and it sure as hell is not the gatekeeper for my enjoyment of it.

If this feels nitpicky, consider the trailer for Ridley Scott’s latest blockbuster and adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, wherein what I didn’t realize I was waiting to happen finally happened: The word science became a verb. In the trailer, we learn that an astronaut is stranded on the surface of the planet Mars. This astronaut has a small shelter with 31 days worth of food, and it will take a minimum of four years before anyone might be able to rescue him. Whatever is he to do? “In the face of overwhelming odds,” he says, heroically, he’s “gonna hafta science the shit out of this place.”

Again, the point isn’t that we need to be more specific with our language, it’s that we should investigate the forces that take it up. In the above cases, the situation is almost always one where the historical crises that make the story possible — global warming in WALL-E or healthcare in Big Hero 6 — are effaced in order to highlight how technology, posing as science (itself tied up with those historical crises), will save us in the end. And this claim — the soteriological nature of technology — is always bound up with technology’s relationship to the human, to what it means to be human, with a certain humanism. This is where the significance of Scott’s The Martian comes in as a bid for totalizing affect in the form of a global rescue narrative — but I’ll come back to that later.

For his part, Malik’s science is already a bit more demystified, though still confused. He recounts a story that Neil Gaiman told him about China’s sudden interest in science fiction that resulted in “the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history” in 2007. The party apparently felt that the Chinese did not sufficiently “innovate,” “invent,” or “imagine.” In an effort to solve this problem, they sent a “delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google” in order to observe the people who worked there — people who were “inventing the future” — to find out what their secret was. And what did they find out? They all read SF as kids. Conclusion: Science fiction is good for business; science fiction is good for capital. The confusion occurs because Mr. Malik calls for a “scientific revolution.” I am left wondering if my confusion is disingenuous. Which is it: Science, or science fiction? Is it a distinction worth making?

Malik prefaces his claim with a definition — not of genre writ large but of science fiction itself. It involves, as genre definitions always do, placing a set of possible terms into a hierarchical structure in order to subsume some kinds of literature beneath other kinds of literature. Malik’s model, wherein he subsumes “science fiction, fantasy, and horror” beneath the master term “speculative fiction” is not uncommon. But then he does something odd: He says he’s going to call it all science fiction anyway. Why? Why call one thing something else? Especially after we’ve already seen the multiple ways in which the key term in the naming exercise — “science” — is taken up and deployed for ideological purposes?

Here is a better question than what defines a genre: What do these particular works do? How do they function? Malik both asks and answers in a manner that ends up working — perhaps ironically — for both science fiction and science, and reveals a crucial interface between the two concepts. “Science fiction,” says Malik, “includes the word ‘science’ for a reason: It is supposed to be largely about exploring the boundaries of knowledge.” The strength and weakness of this statement is that it can be true for science fiction, but isn’t always, nor is this literary activity solely the property of science fiction. Even while Malik claims that the subgenres included beneath science fiction are oriented toward knowing different “class[es] of knowledge,” confusion in the genre-structure, caused by and coupled with the ideological forces that animate both science and science fiction, articulate a sort of positivism, wherein all things are able to be known — explained, solved and saved — by science.

A portion of the answer to the question of what constitutes science is found in an example that complicates Malik’s assertion that “science fiction is the literature that explores the boundaries of knowledge.” Simon Ortiz’s 1999 short story “Men on the Moon” bears none of the fantastical elements of a traditional science fiction story, yet it manages to include space travel and monsters, and it could even be considered a work of realism. “Men on the Moon” is included in Grace L. Dillon’s Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction; in it, an elderly Indigenous man, Faustin, is given a television by his grandson Amarosho on the eve of an Apollo mission to the moon. Bemused by his grandson’s explanations of the astronaut’s endeavors (and preferring instead to watch a wrestling match between “Red Apache” and a “Mericano”), he listens:

They’re trying to find out what’s on the moon, Nana. What kind of dirt and rocks there are and to see if there’s any water. Scientist men don’t believe there is any life on the moon. The men are looking for knowledge, Amarosho said to Faustin.

Faustin wondered if the men had run out of places to look for knowledge on earth.

Do they know if they’ll find knowledge? he asked.

They have gone already. They’ve gone before and come back. They’re going again.

Did they bring any back?

They brought back some rocks, Amarosho said.

Ortiz renders a fiction that at once enables the reader to step back and take a look not only at the nature of knowledge (and science as a means of attaining it), but also of its historical politicization and the very real consequences of “science” as something that is done in — and to — the world. It is through the visceral and violent truth-effects of this narrative that the portion of the answer to the question of what science is — and what it actually has in common with science fiction — can finally be answered.

Science is an epistemology. It is a way of knowing the world and certain things in the world. Science fiction is genre fiction, and genre, too, is an epistemology. The things that science fiction and genre know in the world are different, as are the modes, methods, and determinations of each.

Genre has always been an ethical and political issue; remembering this will help us transcend the illusion that genre-mapping is an objective activity. Genres emerge when a multitude of forces conspire to place creative works into a schematic model; the problem arises when we treat genre categories as givens rather than as constructed classification systems. The irony is that “science fiction” is the genre with the potential to disassemble genre and to articulate a new, more fantastic way of knowing the world.

Science fiction contains the potential to abolish genre precisely because of its commitment to exploring boundaries. The imperative to explore limits is closely related to, if not always followed by, the knowledge necessary to transgress, and eventually abolish, those limits. Even ideology understands this. If science fiction is to do this, however, then the first step will be to jettison the term “science fiction” itself. While we still operate within a system that demands categories, “fantastic fiction” is the best possible working term, but only as an interim one that works quickly to efface itself and to make room for what comes next.

Tzvetan Todorov defined “The Fantastic” as located within “the duration of uncertainty” that occurs “between a natural and a supernatural explanation” for strange encounters within texts. According to Todorov, once this uncertainty is surpassed the reader is met with either a world in which supernatural explanations are required — the marvelous — or one in which possible explanations are available — the uncanny. By using Freud’s concept of the uncanny, Todorov establishes a logic that persists to this day: the fundamental dogma that texts are either realistic or unrealistic. Both concepts — both the uncertain space of the fantastic, where explanations elude the reader, and the dizzying fluidity of that which is both familiar and unfamiliar in Freud’s uncanny — work to divide the world of texts according to what we know to be possible.

Todorov considered his work to be a science, and the act of naming things in the world became the act of organizing them into categories — an effort that often seems to us now to be a hopelessly tautological endeavor. It is this sense of tautology that leads to a crisis for science fiction today. But what is at stake here? And how might one articulate a new fantastic, one that values the sorts of possibilities that are actually produced by fantastic literature and fantastic readings of literature?

We can articulate a new fantastic, by rearticulating — retaining, but modifying — the logic of the fantastic, in order to say something like the following: The new fantastic is evinced by the ways in which something deviates from a normativity. When practically applied, this takes the form of a question: In what way does something deviate from a specific particular normativity?

This new fantastic would not be a theoretical foundation, nor would it be concerned with the establishment of a proper object of study. Its function, to borrow terminology from Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett, would be to enable “practical responses to changing conditions brought about by specific problems.” As such, it could both widen the purview of the fantastic, while at the same time providing specific tools for examining fantastic texts. If we are able to articulate the various ways in which specific elements deviate from specific precedents within a specific text operating in a particular tradition, then we might be able to do something along the lines of what Bill Brown says Shawn Wong accomplishes in his first novel Homebase: “discover the uncanniness of everyday life.

It is fitting that what this everyday life is shot through with is uncanniness, that “class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar,” simply because we have a hard time apprehending the world. It is in the nature of genre to occlude what might be apprehended in a text and to obstruct the possibilities produced by our reading of it. Todorov was correct in suggesting that the further a work moves from the warm center of a genre’s fold, the harder it becomes to see those things about the text that defy its placement into a genre in the first place. A new fantastic, one fantastic enough to eschew genre epistemologies, would reorient us toward the plurality of ways in which the various characteristics of a text deviate from its panoply of contingent normativities. This fantastic would not be hindered by problems of territory, for what is a boundary to the fantastic but that which should be crossed?

Genre primes us and orients us toward a mode of apprehending things according to its own determinations. We don’t know what to make of something that hasn’t come with the metadata of its genre affiliations; often we don’t even know what to desire. And we need to, if we are to be able to make the sort of ethical decisions — and take the political action — that our historical moment demands of us.

This occlusion of political possibilities can be illustrated by the fact that in order to say what he wants to say about science fiction, Malik seems forced to make claims of human universality. “Except in the rarest of circumstances,” he says, “no child is born without curiosity, hope and imagination.” Interestingly, the opening lines of the trailer for Scott’s The Martian makes a similar gesture:

Every human being has a basic instinct — to help each other out.

If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people coordinate a search.

If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world send emergency supplies.

This instinct is found in every culture.

Without exception.

Both of these sentiments display a movement away from the singularity of texts and events toward a generalization that is characteristic of genre. As a movement against this homogenizing force, a new fantastic could address the question of the relationship between what is at stake within the text and what is at stake outside of it.

For his part, Barthes was similarly unbothered by the inside/outside-the-text distinction. For him, “historical criticism” would be less “sterile” if it weren’t so scared of the “spectre of formalism,” which actually makes texts more “amenable” to historical criticism: “A little formalism,” he says, “turns one away from history,” while “a lot brings one back to it.” If this is true, then it must be possible to identify, in our inquiry into genre, analogical relationships to our present moment.

One extremely important and timely example of this is the nature of the discourse surrounding the unprecedented numbers of black people who are being killed by police in the United States, which is often structured by the opposing truth statements of #BlackLivesMatter versus #AllLivesMatter.

The first analog to be found is in the overwhelming sense of the givenness of the statement “All Lives Matter,” specifically as a response to the original assertion that “Black Lives Matter.”

The second analog is found in the obfuscation of the force of the statement “Black Lives Matter” by the response that “All Lives Matter.” On one hand, the statement “Black Lives Matter” can simply not be understood without the historically precedent idea that “All Lives Matter”; while on the other hand, the potency of the declaration that “Black Lives Matter” is derived specifically from the irony that it evokes by highlighting the tacit moral failure of the somehow false yet somehow given idea that “All Lives Matter.”

In the world of texts, the presence of things that cannot be apprehended as normative in any given historical moment — Wookies, Lightsabers, Midichlorians, etc. — are placed at the far end of a generic spectrum, so that the division of possibilities in fiction reflects and reifies the division of possibilities outside of the text. This would not be a problem if the worlds in which Ewoks battle were not taken up and animated by the logics of power and politics in our own world — but they always are. (One of the reasons, if you recall, Obi-Wan was upset with Anakin was his betrayal of democracy.)

To take up again the case of Simon Ortiz’s “Men on the Moon,” we are met with spaceships, absurd battles, and mythical monsters, all of which are both actually possible and common. Furthermore, Ortiz’s story presents another metric along which we might measure the text’s fantasticity: the fact that it was written by an Indigenous person, about the experience of Indigenous people. If we are unable to apprehend the fact that this work is not a piece of science fiction, then how are we supposed to apprehend its cultural and political message, meaning, or significance? And how are we to articulate that “Men on the Moon” is more about science than traditional science fiction, while not being traditional science fiction?

In the same way that the force of the statement that “Black Lives Matter” is obfuscated by the statement “All Lives Matter,” Simon Ortiz’s “Men on the Moon” is eclipsed by the schematic parent category of “science fiction.” The point is that what I’ve called Ortiz’s “cultural non-normativity” is not to be thought of as separate from the work’s genre positionality, but that the two facts are tied up together. In the same way that “Black Lives Matter” immanently critiques the failure of the ideology that proclaims “All Lives Matter,” “Men on the Moon” pulls apart the structure of science fiction as a genre while at the same time challenging the historical ideology which put it there in the first place.

To return to the contemporary, we can see how the truth-statement “All Lives Matter” stems from an inability to apprehend the present moment precisely because it is taken up and animated by — among other things — a humanism that erases the singular and historical reality of actual, structural racism in the world, the suffering it inflicts, and the lives that it takes with it. “Black Lives Matter” exists and has force precisely because “All Lives Matter” is not a given. 

Against the brittle givenness of those forces that continue to eclipse literary and political possibilities stands our beloved science fiction. It is in this sense that science fiction is good for the world because it seeks to not only explore, but also to transgress and abolish the boundaries and constraints that gave it form in the first place. And though it is probably not a novel claim that various forms of ideologies are endemic to genre epistemology, I feel as if it would be an especially tragic irony if science fiction were to never follow its own logic and overcome itself, precisely because it engenders the conceptual mechanics to do so. My hope is that a new fantastic could do for the literary object something analogous to what Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality did for articulating subjectivity. Placing literary works at the nexus of a wide range of possible vectors along which its various fantasticities could be evaluated could open up a whole host of political, aesthetic, and critical possibilities. If we are able to make that happen, then we might be able to apprehend that which the act of establishing it as science fiction in the first place ultimately occludes: the possibilities that we won’t be able to see until we stop calling it science fiction.


Works Cited

20th Century Fox. “The Martian | Teaser Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX.” Online Video Trailer. YouTube. YouTube, 8 Jun. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Blonders. “TJ Miller ‘Science Yeah.’” Online Video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Jonathan Cape. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.

Brown, Bill. “How to Do Things with Things (A Toy Story).” Critical Inquiry. 24.4 (1998): 935-964. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. London: Vintage Classics, 2001. 217-256. Print.

Gaiman, Neil. “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media., 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Malik, Usman “Rocket, robots and reckless imagination.” The Herald. Dawn Media Group., 3 July. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Ortiz, Simon J. “Men on the Moon.” Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science

Fiction. Ed. Grace L. Dillon. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2012. 85-95. Print.

Rabinow, Paul and Gaymon Bennett. “Contemporary Equipment: A Diagnostic.” Anthropological Research on the Contemporary, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973. Print.


Joshua Anderson is a graduate student at UC Berkeley working on mid-20th century children’s literature and contemporary modes of literary inquiry.