New Words Were Needed

How Modernism and Science Fiction have more in common than I might once have thought.

I spent the past semester teaching two separate courses— one on science fiction, the other on modernism— to some very bright high school students. Having expected to suffer some intellectual whiplash as I shifted several times a day from talking about aliens and cyberpunk to Dadaism and the Harlem Renaissance, I was relieved at how naturally it all came to me. No doubt this is because I like all this stuff and generally know my way around it, but what surprised me was how much overlap these "genres" turned out to have (they're not really "genres," but I can't seem to find a better word)— that is, that I enjoy Ulysses and A Martian Odyssey for many of the same reasons; it's just that these reasons are operating at different levels of the text.

Via Modernism Exhibit

An example: In his 1917 essay "Art as Device," Russian formalist poet Viktor Shlovky gave us the term ostranenie to describe the primary function of art. The term is usually translated as "defamiliarization," though it literally means "strange-making." The job of art, in other words, is to renew our eyes by making the familiar appear strange. Other modernists had— or would— put forth variations on this idea, from Mallarmé's "Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu" (purify the words of the tribe) to Ezra Pound's "Make it new," and modernist critics regularly invoke this idea to illuminate the sorts of linguistic experiments writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce were up to. Certainly it would be difficult to make any sense of Gertrude Stein's poetic experiments in Tender Buttons without recourse to defamiliarization. Here, for instance, is her "definition" of "A DOG": "A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes. Leave with it. A little monkey goes like a donkey."

Another translation of ostranenie I occasionally find is "alienation," making the familiar alien, which brings us to science fiction. Whereas modernists tend to defamiliarize at the level of the image, line, or sentence, sf writers have been in the business of defamiliarizing at the level of story since the very beginning. This seems to be more or less what sf critic Darko Suvin meant when he coined the term "cognitive estrangement" some forty-odd years after "Art as Device," and indeed the idea bears family resemblances to the "sense of wonder" that so often makes its way into working definitions of science fiction. As John Clute and Peter Nichols put it in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, "The 'sense of wonder' comes not from brilliant writing nor even from brilliant conceptualizing; it comes from a sudden opening of a closed door in the reader's mind." There's a passage in Jules Verne's 1864 proto-sf Journey to the Center of the Earth that I like to share with my students because it nicely captures this feeling:

I gazed upon these wonders in silence. I could not find words to express my feelings. I felt as if I were on some distant planet such as Uranus or Neptune and witnessing phenomena which had no equivalent in my terrestrial experience. For such new sensations, new words were needed; and my imagination failed to supply them. I stared, I thought, I marveled, with a stupefaction mingled with a certain amount of fear.

Since at least as far back as Plato, writers had conjured up new societies by way of reflecting back on their own, but Verne here anticipates that one of the primary modes of defamiliarizing—and satirizing—our world in the coming century would be by invoking others. Joanna Russ' feminist utopia, Whileaway, or the gender-ambiguous one on Ursula Le Guin's Winter, are interesting enough in their own right, but all the more so because of what they have to say about gender on our own planet. As Emily Dickinson might have put it, sf tells the truth but tells it slant, and seen in this light, so many of the tropes of sf begin to seem like defamiliarization technology: Cyborgs and AI problematize anthropocentric assumptions about the nature of persons and consciousness, time travel juxtaposes different epochs like Gertrude Stein tying envelopes to fruit trees—so that we might see each more clearly—and post-apocalyptic worlds raise our appreciation for this jewel of a pre-apocalyptic one. 

Infographic via WardShelley

Another commonality I found myself thinking about this semester was the notion of the generative constraint. From roughly 1890-1930, the various avant-gardes turned out manifestos at a ridiculous rate. Many of them are strident, all amount to lists of commandments: the Imagists are going in fear of abstractions, the Futurists are high on onomatopoeia, the Surrealists are prescribing "psychic automatism," and on and on. One gets the sense these are meant as aesthetic programs for all eternity, though history tells us they generally had shelf lives of a few years or so. Nonetheless, for a time each program led to copious artistic production (I am reminded of Robert Frost's likening of free verse to "tennis without a net"—surely a court with a net produces more tennis than a court without one). The reductio ad absurdum of this sort of generative constraint came with the formation of Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature) in 1960. 

This group of writers and mathematicians established for themselves the most arbitrary of constraints and then followed them like divine writ. The most notorious example is probably George Perec's novel La Disparition, a three-hundred page novel written without recourse to the most common letter in the French alphabet: e. As if this weren't formidable enough an achievement, a perverse translator named Gilbert Adair later rendered the novel in English (as A Void) while, somehow, preserving the lipogram. If this sounds like an exercise in pointless masochism, consider Perec's take on it: "I set myself rules in order to be totally free."

Just as sf transposes defamiliarization to the level of the story world, so it does with its constraints. The injunctions of the avant-gardes, though inevitably bearing on content to some degree, were concerned primarily with formal and methodological concerns. SF rarely adheres to specific aesthetic programs at the level of form, but at the level of story its operative constraint is right in the name. Sure enough, if we view sf as a sub-branch of fantasy, it is precisely that constraint—science—that marks it off. 

That's not to say that an sf story needs to be plausible, but it does need to be, strictly speaking, possible with reference to known science or reasonable scientific conjectures about the nature of reality. No one knows for certain whether backwards time travel is possible, but it's fair game in sf as long as it's supported by some sort of scientific or quasi-scientific idea—tachyons, wormholes and such—whereas in non-sf fantasy, it suffices for one to enter a wardrobe or go down a hole. In sf, the net is—sooner or later—physics, and to be sure, it's no limitation at all. In fact, SF plots often depend on them. Take Tom Godwin's classic "The Cold Equations," for instance. In it, an astronaut discovers a stowaway aboard his spaceship. The ship's fuel supply has been carefully calculated, and the extra mass of the stowaway—who happens to be a naive teenaged girl—is enough that she'll need to be jettisoned if the ship is to make it to its destination: "To himself and her brother and parents she was a sweet-faced girl in her teens; to the laws of nature she was x, the unwanted factor in a cold equation." The constraints of physics aren't merely incidental to the story, they are the story. 

Via Retromash

I have no idea how original or convincing or even interesting any of this is, but once I identified this pattern of sf "transposing" modernist formal concerns to the level of story, I began to see examples everywhere. Proust is obsessed with the remembrance of things past; H.G. Wells gives us a machine to take us there. Faulkner experiments with multiple, limited points-of-view; William Gibson's characters "jack in" to other characters' sensoria. Joyce's stream-of-consciousness captures the mind's "incessant shower of innumerable atoms" (as Virginia Woolf described it); Greg Bear puts cities of sentient, communicative cells in his character's bloodstream. And those are just some of the techniques of modernism; I won't even mention postmodernism.

One last epiphany I had this semester: in its way, modernist fiction, like sf, is engaged in a kind of scientific extrapolation. As far back as 1880, Émile Zola made his argument for the experimental novel—experimental not in the current sense of artsy and esoteric, but in that he conceived of his novels as experiments, verbal laboratories in which he subjected his characters to different forces and meticulously documented what happened. That seems to me an apt description of what "high modernists" like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner were up to. 

The underlying science would have been the then-developing, now "soft", science of psychology, so the nature of their extrapolations was different from the "hard" physics- and technology-oriented what-ifs of sf, but in some ways they were less different than marketing conventions would have us believe. To put it simplistically, modernism explored inner space while sf explored outer space, but both, in their way, responded to Verne's call: new words were needed, and they gave them to us. And lest we get too comfortable with the binary, witness such writers as Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Vladimir Nabokov, and "New Wave" writers like J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delaney, and Thomas M. Disch, who managed to work in something like both modes at the same time.

King of the Worlds by M. Thomas Gammarino

This dark comedy by M. Thomas Gammarino explores the lost universes of disgraced idol Dylan Greenyears. At first, life beyond Earth seems uncannily un-wondrous. As he tries to balance a transdimensional midlife crisis against family life, Dylan encounters a cast of extraordinary characters: a supercomputer with aspirations of godhood, a Mormon-fundamentalist superfan, an old-school psychoanalyst, a sampling of his alternate selves, and, once again, the love of his lives. King of the Worlds combines technology, cosmology, culture, and religion.

M. Thomas Gammarino
M. Thomas Gammarino

Author of King of the Worlds, 'Big in Japan,' and 'Jellyfish Dreams.' Received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Hawaii's highest literary honor. Website:

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New Words Were Needed