I Finally Read Darko Suvin. Now, I Can Explain How Some Fantasy Resonates with Me and Some Doesn’t.
My Ph.D. is in biochemistry, not in literature. Although science fiction writers without any advanced degree abound, and some are terrific, when I hear academics speak, I have trouble avoiding the sense that I’m missing a critical insight. This perceived background deficiency leads me down rabbit holes. I follow my pirate’s treasure map, searching for gold, often finding rocks, but today, it paid off.
To contextualize, I enjoyed a convention-heavy July, attending both ReaderCon and NASFIC. The name Darko Suvin came up at both, not for the first time. Before drawing conclusions, I decided to read the paper in which he laid out the idea of “cognitive estrangement” (reprinted by Strange Horizons at this link). In a nutshell, estrangement in literature is the inclusion of any element that forces the reader to confront what isn’t real. The word is an alternate translation of verfremdungseffekt; Berthold Brecht’s use is rendered in English as “alienation.” For Brecht, a playwright, alienation stemmed from the elements that made it clear the audience was viewing a play (monologues, breaking into song, showing stage elements typically hidden, supertitles, etc.). Brecht expected his audience to pause and think about what they were seeing rather than merely enjoy the story.
For Suvin, in science fiction, estrangement results from the “novum”—the novel feature upon which the fiction depends that is clearly different from our reality—and the estrangement forces the reader to ponder the corresponding real-world element. In Suvin’s original paper, he argues science fiction deserves serious study because estrangement gets the reader thinking, holding up a funhouse mirror to some aspect of society or culture and examining it through a lens that distorts it. With science fiction that functions as social criticism—all real science fiction in Suvin’s opinion—this examination supports the fight for societal change/revolution.
In the paper I cited, written in the late ‘70s, Suvin derides fantasy as worthless because although estrangement is even greater than in science fiction, often to the point of rendering the real unrecognizable, it serves the goal of escapism rather than provoking thought. He added a footnote to the version reprinted in Strange Horizons, making it clear that this judgment preceded fantasy’s modern era. He had clarified his meaning a few years earlier: “Let me therefore revoke, probably to general regret, my blanket rejection of fantastic fiction. The divide between cognitive (pleasantly useful) and non-cognitive (useless) does not run between SF and fantastic fiction but inside each − though in rather different ways and in different proportions, for there are more obstacles to liberating cognition in the latter.” In other words, hey, even my buddy Karl Marx used fantasy tropes as parables, so perhaps these newer folks can do so too, but most of what they are writing is still worthless. Suvin decided not to deal with anything written after the mid ‘70s because he hadn’t read it, so I won’t link to the article, as it probably won’t interest anyone reading this post.
Yet, his idea bears consideration. Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” In that vein, please stick with me, even if you are a lover of fantasy with a knee-jerk distrust for Suvin. To sum up later Suvin, fantasy can be worthwhile if cognitive estrangement happens. My insight: Suvin’s principle has relevance both in classification of fantasy and in how readers engage fantasy.
I came to speculative fiction in my forties through cyberpunk. While endeavoring to read what others considered great science fiction before attempting to write it, I largely skipped fantasy. Then I discovered fantasy that reads like science fiction. Jarred by this revelation in reading Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, I thumbed to the back cover and found William Gibson had blurbed it. Why was Gibson commenting upon urban fantasy? Because Beukes’ read like cyberpunk. It was gritty; it was the same sort of exploration of low-life albeit not combined with high-tech, instead fused with one fantasy element: the animal that accompanied the human guilty of a horrible crime. The odd punishment focused the reader on the underclass in South Africa and forced consideration of why society was structured to create criminals.
For a more recent example, R.F. Kuang’s Babel, this year’s Nebula Award winner, creates a realistic picture of Great Britain in the era of imperialism, with the child protagonist stolen away from the colonies to be brought up as a proper English gentleman and scholar. Language and linguistics are the “tech,” rendered realistically, with some cool insights into the process of translation. Estrangement derives from the one magic element—using silver-working to extract energy from non-exact word translations. In embedding the unreality in a realistic (albeit historical) context, Kuang spotlights the racism underlying colonialism and imperialism.
No entitled white boys fight against monstrous stand-ins for “the other” in either of those novels. Or in many other fantasy stories. Hell, even in his original article, Suvin claims Jonathan Swift as science fiction. Seriously? Gulliver’s Travels isn’t fantasy? It seems if Suvin respected the work, he deemed it SF-passing. To view Suvin fairly and in context (the late 1970s), his going out of his way to call space opera, fantasy transposed to space, stupid (he indeed used that word) reflects perception of a threat to his favored genre: Star Wars supplanting the New Wave as defining “science fiction” for the masses. Well, that was before cyberpunk.
Although Tolkien bores me, some modern fantasy gets me examining and thinking just like Suvin-approved science fiction does: via cognitive estrangement. That this matters to my reading enjoyment says a lot more about me than it does about modern fantasy.
Allow me to digress. For the past three years, I have participated in a Zoom-based short story reading group run for members of Codex (a truly awesome and beneficial group of people) by Arley Sorg. Each session, it hits me in the face how differently other writers read speculative fiction. Some of the primarily fantasy writers often remark how they aren’t understanding a story, but the vivid world building and gorgeous prose draw them in anyway.
Wait, what? How can you not search for meaning in the story? What does the tale critique—to what is the funhouse mirror applied? You don’t care? You didn’t even Google to ascertain the cultural context the writer assumed or look up the foreign-language words employed?
Still, I can’t call their praxis illegitimate. Why not enjoy beautiful words and an immersive setting? On a deeper level, John Darnielle has argued (convincingly, in my opinion) that escape via fantasy can play a critical role in the survival of those with mental health issues.
Horror enthusiasts read to be unsettled (several horror-writer friends consider Freud’s essay on the Uncanny to be essential reading), creeped out, grossed out, or just kept awake at night. We’re hardwired for the stuff; recent neuroscience finds an overlap in brain activity between what frightens and what gives pleasure. And sure, much of 1980s horror was conservative in that returning to the comfortable status quo was the protagonists’ goal, but recent stuff has turned the paradigm on its head and made the status quo the source of the horror (e.g., Jordan Peele movies).
That’s not cognitive estrangement? Of course, it is.
My conclusion: I enjoy speculative fiction, including fantasy, more when it employs cognitive estrangement. The story I read during my readings at the two conventions I attended this month was comic fantasy, with a snarky genie, but I used the lone fantasy element to examine law as an archetypal profession where morality depends upon how one runs one’s professional life. Cognitive estrangement. And it was satire—a category with the Darko Suvin stamp of approval. (Both readings went well. The story comes out in two days in the Dragon Gems anthology series from Water Dragon Publishing—watch my social media for ordering information.)
I’ve searched for a term for the type of fantasy I enjoy and write—reality-adjacent fantasy is the best I’d previously come up with. Cognitive estrangement fantasy would be more accurate, but it would require too much explanation. My dabbling in fantasy, like my science fiction stories, should be read with an eye for social criticism. If I’ve enticed you, I recently put a free comic fantasy story on my website. Enjoy it here.
Still, there are other ways to write worthwhile speculative literature, and if you like them better, who am I to dispute your preferences? If there was a purpose to this blog post, it was to prompt the reader to ask themselves to what extent they value and enjoy cognitive estrangement in their speculative fiction. The questioning may prove valuable regardless of your ultimate answer.