Parables of Freedom and Narrative Logics

Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction and Utopianism

by Darko Suvin (Author) Eric Smith (Volume editor)
©2021 Monographs XLII, 666 Pages
Series: Ralahine Utopian Studies, Volume 23


This major two-volume collection presents Darko Suvin’s critical meditations on science fiction and utopia from the late 1960s through the early years of the new millennium, excluding only the landmark monographs Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Victorian Science Fiction, and Defined by a Hollow. From essential programmatic statements charting the parabolic logic of science fiction and establishing the parameters of a theoretically supple and rigorously historical SF criticism to confrontations with both a postmodernist abdication of politics and a «neutral» sociology of literature, these writings reflect the evolving thought of the preeminent contemporary theorist of science fiction. Underpinned by a method of heretical cognition and the steadfast insistence of utopian possibility, the varied essays, interviews, poems, and polemics presented here—encompassing four decades of sustained thought on the topic—offer up the affirmation of freedom as the truest horizon of science fiction.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • D. Suvin, A Comment-Poem on the Cover Xylography by Hokusai
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Preface: Cognition and Event: A Purveyor of Truth’s Possible Worlds
  • Acknowledgments
  • Volume I
  • It Ain’t Necessarily So: An Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Preliminary Theses on Allegory (1977)
  • Chapter 2 The Moon as a Mirror to Man: Or, Lessons of Selenography (1969)
  • Chapter 3 Significant Themes in Soviet Criticism of Science Fiction to 1965 (1969)
  • Chapter 4 The SF Novel in 1969 (1970)
  • Chapter 5 Against Common Sense: Levels of SF Criticism (1972)
  • Chapter 6 A, B, and C: The Significant Context of SF: A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1973)
  • Chapter 7 Four Worries on Science Fiction Contexts (1970–1975)
  • Chapter 8 James Blish, 1921–1975 (1975)
  • Chapter 9 On Philip K. Dick
  • Chapter 10 On Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Chapter 11 On the Strugatsky Brothers
  • Chapter 12 For a Social Theory of Science Fiction: Programmatic Reflections (1977–1988)
  • Chapter 13 (with Marc Angenot) Editorial of Science-Fiction Studies (1979)
  • Chapter 14 (with Marc Angenot) Not Only But Also: Reflections on Cognitions and Ideology in SF and SF Criticism (1979)
  • Chapter 15 Three World Paradigms for SF: Asimov, Yefremov, and Lem (1979–1993)
  • Chapter 16 Pilgrim Award Speech for the SF Research Association (1979)
  • Chapter 17 A Brief Valedictory on Stepping Down (1981)
  • Volume II
  • Chapter 18 Playful Cognizing, or Technical Errors in Harmonyville: The SF of Johanna and Günter Braun (1981 and 1987)
  • Chapter 19 The Science-Fiction Novel as Epic Narration: For a Fusion of “Formal” and “Sociological” Analysis (1980–1985)
  • Chapter 20 (with Eike Barmeyer and Dieter Hasselblatt) A Discussion of Stanisław Lem’s SF Radio-Drama Do You Exist Mr Johns? (1982)
  • Chapter 21 Narrative Logic, Ideological Domination, and the Range of Science Fiction: A Hypothesis with a Test Case (1982)
  • Chapter 22 Science Fiction: Metaphor, Parable, and Chronotope (With the Bad Conscience of Reaganism) (1984)
  • Chapter 23 (with Marc Angenot) On “Post-Modernist” Political Impotence and the Horizons of Fiction and SF: A Response to Professor Fekete’s “Five Theses” (1988)
  • Chapter 24 Science Fiction: A Basic Sketch (1987–1994)
  • Chapter 25 Utopia in the Asian Eighties: Six Songlets (1983–1988)
  • Chapter 26 Visions Off Yamada (1988)
  • Chapter 27 Thinking Worlds of a Liminal Shintoist Cybermarxist: Five Interviews (1987–1995)
  • Chapter 28 Counter-Projects: William Morris and the SF of the 1880s (1988)
  • Chapter 29 We’ve Met the Aliens and They Are Us: Weinbaum’s Parables of Class (1993–2010)
  • Chapter 30 Notes and Memories on Science Fiction
  • Chapter 31 With Sober, Estranged Eyes (1998)
  • Chapter 32 SF Parables of Mutation and Cloning as/and Cognition (2002)
  • Select Bibliography of Criticism on Darko Suvin’s SF and Utopianism
  • Index of Names
  • Series index

Preface: Cognition and Event: A Purveyor of Truth’s Possible Worlds

Eric D. Smith

It is not from the world, in however ideal a manner, that the event holds its inexhaustible reserve, its silent (or indiscernible) excess, but from its being unattached to it, its being separate, lacunary.

Alain Badiou

It follows that nescience is the boundary of what we know, the permanent and permanently moving interface with lived collective and personal history: nothing can be fully known in advance. Lineaments of alternative possibilities may in the best case be drawn. Aristotle thought we cannot know whether there will be a sea-battle tomorrow, but we do know that there either will or won’t be one. As argued earlier, this is only pertinent for exceptional cusps and culminations of battle-readiness, of inevitability, and – most important – of salience or pertinence. But at such points, new Possible Worlds may wink into being.

Darko Suvin

In 1988, preeminent theorist of utopia and SF Darko Suvin published Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction, a brief collection of essays organized by what the author’s preface describes as an endeavor “to both clarify and develop the theoretical and historical conclusions” of his discourse-founding monographs1: Metamorphoses of ←xix | xx→ Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (1979) and Victorian Science Fiction in the UK: The Discourse of Knowledge and of Power (1983) (Suvin, Positions ix). Collecting previously published material, Positions traces the development of an “implicit dialogue” with readers and contributors to Science-Fiction Studies, the journal that Suvin co-founded and co-edited from 1973 to 1981, on the “achievements and lacunae” of these monumental works (Suvin, Positions ix). Three decades after the publication of Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction, debates over what Mark Bould has deemed “the Suvin event” continue unabated (18), as evidenced in his and China Miéville’s Red Planets (2009), a collection that probes the convergences of SF and Marxist thought, for which Suvin’s work stands as the signal illumination; and more recently in the pages of Utopian Studies by Andrew Milner’s pointed review of Gerry Canavan’s Ralahine Classics edition of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (2016) and Phillip E. Wegner’s spirited and generative response essay, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Suvinian?” As new readers from an increasingly diverse continuum of SF and utopian practice enter this scholarly dialogue and encounter Suvin’s monumental early works in the terms of these now firmly entrenched critical refractions – what Gerry Canavan characterizes as the “push-and-pull between influence and anxiety” – it is most instructive to situate their ideas anent the sum of Suvin’s thought, which registers at once the grim imperatives of a transformed historical locus and lateral orientations toward radical new horizons (xiii). Indeed, to reread Suvin’s inaugural SFS editorial essay “The Significant Context of SF: A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation,” his reply to Tony Wolk, or Marc Angenot’s and his refusal of canonic post-modernist taboos, “On ‘Post-Modernist’ Political Impotence,” is to recognize with some astonishment the extent to which so many of the positions taken up within the Suvin debates have already been anticipated and addressed by Suvin himself. As Bould and Sherryl Vint observe, “disagreeing with [Suvin] is a considerable part of SF scholarship” inasmuch as he “set, to an extent, the terms by which ←xx | xxi→ SF has subsequently been studied” (17). To the extent that disagreeing with Suvin takes place within the conceptual horizons that his work establishes – and is irreducible to simple positions for or against – I suggest that renewed attention to the concept of cognition as it develops over his intellectual career reveals where some critiques might risk reduction, however useful, productive, or necessary they may be in their specific and local engagements.

The present collection therefore makes a timely and necessary intervention in a subject of wide, enduring, and increasingly urgent interest: first, in the field of SF and utopian studies, but then also with regard to Suvin’s career-long and increasingly overt reaching for a general epistemological horizon and effort to oppose cognition or depth understanding against ongoing imperialist wars and ecocide, and to affirm the imperious and overriding necessity of collective human being amid the encroachment of instrumentalized and weaponized knowledge. Here are many of Suvin’s most important contributions to the fields of SF and utopian studies up to the beginning of the twenty-first century in the most comprehensive presentation of his work to date, reflecting the dynamic arc of a total intellectual career unfolding within the volatile theater of capital’s savage new age: most generally, from the utopian quickening of the 1960s to the end of history and the global forever wars of the present. Parables of Freedom and Narrative Logics thus brings together for the first time Suvin’s intellectual production spanning a crucial period of historical, political, intellectual, and, for the Zagreb-born thinker, deeply personal transition, one that can be too hastily obscured in critical engagements that abstract the formal and historical labors of Metamorphoses from this complex duration. If Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction refined, clarified, or recalibrated many of Suvin’s most salient contributions to the study of SF and utopian literature in the light of Metamorphoses’s prodigious impact, Parables of Freedom and Narrative Logics demonstrates the generative rigor of the dialectical method and the critical potency of the Brechtian reversal as they inform the breadth of Suvin’s thought – from the exhilarating possibilities of the late 1960s to the grim circumstances of capitalism’s apparently universal triumph. Thus, on one hand, amid the vaunted feat of the 1969 Moon landing and its euphoric techno-hubris, Suvin reminds us of the Hegelian ←xxi | xxii→ specification that truth resides only in the whole in a sober reflection on earthbound necessity:

hundreds of millions of people (to repeat: probably more than 1,000,000,000), one billion people hunger, and have a median life expectancy of between 25 and 30 years. In this context there is no doubt that both Verne and Wells would hold that the Moon landing, this great achievement of human imagination and technique, is used for very ambiguous and potentially very dangerous goals. (“The Moon as a Mirror” 27)

Completing the dialectical reversal is a 1993 excursus, composed in the aftermath of 1989, on the Darwinian parables of Stanley Weinbaum, from which Suvin recovers a surprisingly hopeful resource in an “intelligent pessimism” that, he argues, may usefully counter the vile persistence of Social Darwinism in our own present (“We’ve Met the Aliens” 329). In his introduction to Defined by a Hollow, Wegner situates such strong reversals in Suvin’s later work alongside the 1990s “flourishing of a new generation of engaged political and utopian science fiction visionaries” (Ian Banks, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, China Miéville, and Kim Stanley Robinson among others) as well as the resurgence of radical “universal” theoretical paradigms on the other (those of Hardt and Negri, Agamben, Badiou, Butler, Derrida, Harvey, Karatani, Spivak, Unger, and Žižek) (xxvi–xxvii). These creative and theoretical projects, including Suvin’s own, collectively enact what Wegner describes as “an authentic ‘negation of negation,’ a post-postmodernism or movement beyond the paralyses of the postmodern … and a resurgence of the radical transformative energies of a new modernism.”2 The familiar categories of Suvin’s earlier formalism, the theoretical tools invented to service a unique excavation of SF history, thus take up urgent new diagnostic and creative functions as the prospective horizons of a previous historical dispensation are eclipsed by the mundus obscurus of late capital and its anti-utopian phantasmagoria.

←xxii | xxiii→

Allegories of Conflict/Confirmation

The dialectical crux of Suvin’s formal and ethico-political concerns lies in his thought on allegory, especially as mediated through the allegorical genre of the parable theorized in “Science Fiction: Metaphor, Parable, and Chronotope (With the Bad Conscience of Reaganism)” and as applied here in virtuoso readings of, among others, the narrative SF of Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, the Strugatsky Brothers, and Stanley Weinbaum. In a new prefatory note to “Preliminary Theses on Allegory,” the short chapter that opens this collection, Suvin significantly describes allegory as the “polar star for all my orientation in literature” (17). Emerging out of extensive exchanges with his great intellectual comrade Fredric Jameson in the early 1970s, these eight richly aphoristic propositions on the nature and function of allegory might at first glance appear somewhat remote from Suvin’s more familiar, discourse-founding contributions to a critical anatomy and morphology of SF and utopian literature. Defining the problematic of allegory as the obverse complement to that of fiction, Suvin claims that allegory provides the “via magistra (royal road) to basic questions of human creativity and its historical determinates.” In broadest terms, then, allegory mediates the emergence of the “generically discontinuous,” the profane, the heterodox, or, to put it in Suvin’s more familiar, Blochian terms, the novum, rupturing a normative or orthodox frame (17). What Jameson calls the “reverse wound” of allegorical figuration depends for its effective legibility on the master code that it reproduces, albeit in a potentially estranging or ultimately transformative manner (Brecht 122). Jameson observes in a more recent reflection that:

allegory raises its head as a solution when beneath this or that seemingly stable or unified reality, the tectonic plates of deeper contradictory levels of the Real shift and grate ominously against one another and demand a representation, or at least an acknowledgment, they are unable to find in the Schein or illusory surfaces of existential or social life. (Allegory and Ideology 34)

The mediations of allegory can, Jameson claims, “lead alternately to ideological comfort or the restless anxieties of a more expansive knowledge” ←xxiii | xxiv→ (Allegory 34). Allegory can therefore take on what Suvin calls either a “conflictual” or “confirmational” cast – or, in many cases, some alloy or admixture of the two in which the dominant code is to varying degrees upheld or significantly deviated against. “Conflictual allegory uses mimetic realism on the narrative level,” Suvin argues, “while confirmational allegory tends not to,” a fact that, taken alongside the twentieth-century “collectivistic reintroduction of an ambiguous and elastic allegorical interpretation … accounts for the neo-medievalism of our narrative and dramatic literature” (“Preliminary Theses” 19).

While this brief meditation on allegory has, as Suvin suggests, profound implications for the classificatory schemes of literary analysis, not least for the primary category of the literary itself, it most immediately helps to contextualize Suvin’s notorious prioritizing of SF (its cognitive conditionality here registering as a unique species of mimesis that is not mere verisimilitude) over or against generic Fantasy, space opera, or what James Blish calls “science fantasy,” the estrangements of which remain occulted or unverified by the practice of cognition (450). The cognition produced by this turn to the figural operation of allegory should therefore make us hesitate before accusations of Suvin’s scientism (what he himself has dismissed as “scientific vulgarization or even technological prognostication” [“Estrangement and Cognition” 496]), whether construed as being of a Marxist (Renault) or bourgeois (Miéville) variety – positions that mutually oppose and thus cancel one another.3 Miéville’s cautioning against the ideological perils of Suvinian cognition notwithstanding, what Carl Freedman glosses as the cognition effect’s “attitude” of the text toward the estrangement it enacts can best be seen as allegory’s manifestation as either a hegemonic or counterhegemonic narrative impulse (Freedman 18). As Rhys Williams puts it in a recent contribution to this debate, “The science that truly matters for Suvin is the science of historical materialism ←xxiv | xxv→ and the creed of always historicize”; thus, “[f];ar from being a matter of ‘scientific validity’ and so on, or even primarily an esthetic matter, cognition is in fact a matter of ethical imperative for Suvin” and is best understood as that “insight within a text that brings us a step closer to the collective utopian horizon of communism (the rationally organized society), or at the least prepares us in thought for taking such a step in practice” (623). I wish to pursue here the suggestion that Suvinian cognition is less rational verification and more an active process of sustained (narrative) utopian intervention.

Suvin’s formal dichotomies are, one should always emphasize, ultimately subsumed in a process of qualitative evaluation borne out by way of close textual analysis, as powerfully displayed in the selections that follow. The foundational distinction between conflictual and confirmational allegory will later manifest as the opposition of “high vs. low-grade metaphors” or “true vs. fake novum” in Suvin’s 1984 essay “Science Fiction: Metaphor, Parable, and Chronotope (with the Bad Conscience of Reaganism).” Here, he contends, “If we do not confine cognition to analytical discourse only but assume, in a more realistic vein, that it can equally – and in all probability necessarily – be based on imagination, then metaphor is a specific cognitive organon, not an ornamental excrescence” (439). If high-grade metaphor dialectically superimposes two remote and immiscible semantic fields, yielding “a unique presentation of previously non-existent meaning,” or novum, low-grade metaphor merely “transposes pre-existent meaning,” pre-empting the nomination of the novum with the reflexive self-reference of the terms already given (437). Therefore, to borrow Georg Lukács’ still productive opposition, if the novum of proper metaphor tends toward the extensive and intensive adventure of narrative,4 that of pseudo-metaphor founders in hypostatic or naturalist description, a paralytic present stupefied before its own unchanging, unchangeable image (110). Elaborating on ←xxv | xxvi→ the Lukácsian paradigm, C.LR. James observes that naturalism “describes what is taking place,” while what he (along with Lukács) calls realism “brings to the description of what is taking place a critical view of what it supports and what it does not support,” or a provisional “criterion of judgment” (44). The “conjectural” realism of SF, as Suvin’s great colleague and collaborator Angenot influentially suggests, functions by way of an “absent paradigm,” moving the reader from the syntagmatic particulars of the text to the “illusive ‘elsewhere’ of a semiotic nature, to the paradigms both suggested in and absent from the textual message” (14). Of the transitive and ruptural force – both critical and utopian, Lukácsian and Blochian – of the true novum, Suvin remarks,

Exploding literal semantic and referential pertinence, turning heretofore marginal connotations into new denotations, it proposes a new, imaginative pertinence by rearranging the categories that shape our experience. Metaphor sketches in, thus, lineaments of “another world that corresponds to other possibilities of existence, to possibilities that would be most deeply our own …” (Ricoeur, Rule 229). In so doing, it re-describes the known world and opens up new possibilities of intervening into it (“Science Fiction: Metaphor, Parable, Chronotope” 439).

Utopian and SF re-description thus couples an estranged perspective on reality with sustained cognitive intervention, or manifest fidelity to the evental punctum of estrangement, one that escapes the moribund gravity of naturalist reflection.

Cognition as Truth

It follows that if Suvin’s much-discussed formal categorizations are seen as dialectical permutations of this elementary allegorical and metaphorical process, his elaboration of the generic requirements of a provisional SF canon based on the principle of cognitive estrangement is not wholly reducible, as Andrew Milner suggests, to a “selective tradition,” at least not as this latter is defined by Raymond Williams (Locating Science Fiction 37). While Suvin’s “SF tradition” is undoubtedly and necessarily ←xxvi | xxvii→ “an intentionally selective version of a shaping past and a pre-shaped present, which is then powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definition and identification,” it is clearly not, as Williams further delineates the concept, “a version of the past … used to ratify the present” (115–16). Indeed, for Suvin, the ratification of the present is the function of allegory in its confirmational mode, while the selective SF tradition that he formulates is, for all its prescriptiveness and decisive exclusivity, resolutely – if complexly – conflictual and undertakes a thoroughgoing de-ratification and disalienation of the present, what Adorno calls “the determined negation of that which merely is” (12). Empiricist or objectivist inventories of the present, claiming the view of SF practice according with “the vast majority of what most fans consider to be SF” (Milner “Review” 423), therefore incline toward a sociological or naturalist production of pure or disinterested description that Bloch associates with the omission of utopia’s “prospective horizon,” where “reality appears only as what it has already become, as the dead,” and where “it will be the dead – namely the naturalists and empiricists – who will bury their dead” (Principle of Hope 223).

Wegner similarly locates Roger Luckhurst’s negative critique of what the latter deems Suvin’s politically interested “high cultural disdain for popular culture” within the naturalizing practice that Roland Barthes names mythology (Luckhurst 8). If, for Barthes, mythologies are “diverse cultural significations … that work to ‘transform history into nature,’ ” Wegner argues that Luckhurst’s “politically neutral historicist approach,” claiming an innocent and inclusive survey of its object, might “have far more kinship with the mythological form of high culturalist attitudes” than Suvin’s own, which has rather deeper affinities with Barthes’s revolutionary “language of man as producer” (“Crossing the Border” 15–16). Thus, as Wegner cites Barthes, “wherever man speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image, wherever he links his language to the making of things, meta-language is referred to a language-object, and myth is impossible” (qtd. in “Crossing” 16). Similarly, of utopia’s cognitively estranging imperative, Bloch contends that it “confutes and judges the existent if it is failing, and failing inhumanly; indeed, first and foremost it provides the standard to measure such facticity precisely as departure from ←xxvii | xxviii→ the Right; and above all to measure it immanently” (A Philosophy of the Future 91). This productively totalizing judgment on the present from the vantage of an immanent estrangement is, I want to suggest, the ineluctable substance of Suvinian cognition, its manifest truth content.

What distinguishes the career of Suvin’s thought, then, is a concrete commitment to the dialectical operation of annunciation/denunciation that Tom Moylan identifies with utopian strong thought, in which a hermeneutic of suspicion is joined indivisibly to a hermeneutic of faith in a praxis of radical hope and militant decision (“Denunciation/Annunciation” 44). If Suvin’s work has taken on the status of an event in Badiou’s sense (the implications of which Wegner productively explores in his Shockwaves of Possibility [51–2]), then it does so precisely in Badiou’s terms as a flashing forth of the impossible or unrepresentable void of a situation (what Badiou describes as an “immanent break” [Ethics 42]) that induces a “crisis of calculation” in the dominant order (Hallward 123). As the incalculable or non-ontological exclusion of a given situation – “something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in ‘what there is’ ” – (Hallward 41), the event cannot be reckoned (or described) within the ratio of that situation and compels the intervention of a decision that cleaves through the static taxonomies of the merely given and stimulates a sustained and constituent fidelity, which we might see as figured in the mediating labors of narrative itself as “the material course traced, within the situation, by the evental supplementation” (Badiou, Ethics 42). The decisive encounter of the event, to which one is either faithful or not as to the absolute terms of the axiom, animates a strong antagonism or intolerance toward the situation in the unutterable name of its “void,” which Hallward, glossing Badiou, describes as “that aspect of the situation that has absolutely no interest in preserving the status quo as such” (Ethics 114).

Thus, in Suvin’s terms, an imaginative expression either mostly confirms the situation or mostly conflicts it. Yet even these tendencies, one should note, are simply heuristic poles by which Suvin orients a careful textual analysis discerning the specific and complex narrative currents expressed within these opposed polarities. The conflictual manifests, by way of the metaphoric textual novum or event, as the decisive impulse toward the praxis named utopia. On the other hand, the confirmational, ←xxviii | xxix→ formulated from the self-assured lexicon of the situation, presents as an ultimately descriptive or metonymic reshuffling of already given terms. The latter’s foreclosure of the event in the name of what is results in utopia’s absolute negation. And it is anti-utopia – not only in its narratively realized form, but in the lived or existential anti-utopias of present global immiseration – against which Suvin’s extended intellectual project militantly decides with a fidelity to truth in Badiou’s unique sense of that term: not merely as something objectively affirmed by recourse to the dominant doxa or even the canons of populist common sense, but as something that must continually be made, the deliberate production of which convokes a new historical subject and alters the very coordinates of the knowable: something that is as true for the mobile canons of art as for the provisional combinations of politics – which, along with love and science, mark the sites of Badiou’s four designated truth procedures (Badiou Ethics 28).

For Badiou, a truth is thus “heterogeneous to the instituted knowledges of the situation” and “punches a ‘hole [trouée]’ in these knowledges” (Ethics 43). Perhaps it is not too great a leap, in fact, to claim that Badiou’s redefinition of truth – which exceeds the specified content of the objectively known by nominating its occluded term – formally coincides with Suvin’s much-examined category of cognition. Defined as depth consciousness and a labor of the imagination that does not so much seek empirical verification or legitimation from the rational terms of the present as it undertakes the latter’s utter and systematic transformation in the name of an estranging novum, Suvin’s cognition is thereby freed from the prescriptions of instrumental or demonstrable reason in much the same way that Badiou’s truth refuses epistemological definitions rooted in traditional categories of coherence, correspondence, or confirmation. That is, perhaps we can view Suvin’s cognition less as a passively reflective knowing than as a dynamically inventive doing, less as a rational tether to the merely plausible than as the committed intervention of Possible Worlds into this one that likewise refuses the temptations of simple escapism and militantly unites, in Bloch’s idiom, the abstract utopian horizon of estrangement to the concrete utopian orientation of decisive commitment or docta spes (“educated hope”) (Principle of Hope 153). Like Badiou’s exemplary and historically rare subject, whose revolutionary fidelity to the ←xxix | xxx→ encounter of the event demands the invention of new ways of perceiving and being, Suvin’s cognition “implies a creative approach tending toward a dynamic transformation rather than toward a static mirroring of the author’s environment” (Metamorphoses 22). Thus, he observes, “the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is also a transforming one, virgin womb and alchemical dynamo: the mirror is a crucible” (Metamorphoses 17). Positing a third way beyond the epistemic binary of a “Unique Final Truth (divine or asymptotically scientific)” and an equally absolute relativism in which the true cannot be intelligibly differentiated from the false, Suvin’s model suggests that we “can begin by recognizing that right and wrong persist, but that rightness can no longer be identified with correspondence to a ready-made, monotheistic Creation; it must be created by us, with skill and responsibility” (“Cognition, Freedom” 226).

On Decision

The germinal provocation that Suvin derives from this cognitive nucleus is thus twofold: on the one hand, a ruthless (for some readers, intolerable) evaluative discrimination between “good” and “bad” SF and, on the other, a rigorous analytical distinction between cognitively estranging and non-cognitively estranging texts. In either case, Suvin’s categories are not simple reductions but function in concrete practice as heuristics that both actively frame and are subsumed within the practice of textual analysis and literary criticism hinging on a discernment between the freedom of utopian intervention (truth, cognition) and the nonfreedom or false freedom of anti-utopian reiteration (expressed in “subliterature[s]; of mystification”):

To the extent that Suvin’s “optimal SF” corresponds to what Wegner calls an “evental genre” (Shockwaves 70–3), or, indeed, to the extent that Suvin’s intellectual project is itself evental,5 Suvin identifies four pessimums by which sub-optimal SF (and its criticism) can betray the constitutive fidelity of the subject to truth: the banal, the incoherent, the dogmatic, and the invalidated. The banal pessimum effectively neutralizes the novum through a process of general dilution. It is “drowned in the non-SF details and/or plot gimmicks of a banal mundane tale – adventure story, love story, etc.” Similarly, in the incoherent, vague or disparate narrative details obfuscate the nature of the estrangement and the text’s attitude toward it. If the first two categories diffuse or divert the novum in sheer mundanity, the dogmatic pessimum substitutes for the utopian impulse a rigid blueprint, overbalancing in favor of a feebly estranged and instrumental cognition: “the reader is referred directly to the relationships in the empirical environment (which, conversely, severely limits the possible Other in the tale, the kind and radicalness of the novum employed).” Finally, the invalidated pessimum “oscillate[s]; between a cognitive and a non-cognitive or anti-cognitive validation – in genological terms, between SF and Fantasy, fairy tale or kindred metaphysical genres” – such that the novum persists in a state of indeterminate flux “between physical and metaphysical explanation” (“Narrative Logic” 422–3).

←xxxi | xxxii→

Rather than rehearse or engage here the numerous and admirable discussions about the merits and limits of Suvin’s formal verdicts or the endless train of worthy exceptions to them, I want simply to underscore the way that, in providing the decisive criterion of cognition to assess the freedom content of SF as its formal ultimum, Suvin’s pessimums also echo the significant deviations from the truth event that mark what Badiou identifies as evil – which, crucially, is not a metaphysical a priori, but always a specific and material perversion of the good: simulacrum, betrayal, and disaster. If truth forces the situation in the name of the inadmissible void (novum), then evil pre-emptively forecloses the void with the extant terms of the situation itself (metonymy short-circuiting the metaphoric novum of the event). In the deviation named simulacrum, a pseudo-event is posited that appears to offer the emergence of the new (in Suvinian terms a “fake novum”) but that does not actually force the situation (which Badiou also calls a “world”) in the name of its void; rather, it enables the former’s sustainment by strategically fortifying it against the latter ( Badiou, Logics 12). Fascism, which has historically appropriated and continues to appropriate the language of the Left, is the prime example of a simulacrum of truth. The betrayal of the truth event is a capitulation to mere Being, ultimately a denial of the event, which is effectively diminished amid the clamor of everyday obligations, banalities, and mundane distractions. Conversely, in the final deviation of disaster, the truth event is apotheosized as absolute, ossifying into a rigid blueprint that collapses the space of pure possibility with uncritical dogmatism (a static Socialism in One Country, for instance, over a dynamic permanent revolution6) (Badiou 72–87). Badiou’s category of truth thus coincides with Suvin’s utopian “possibility of something truly different coming about,” while evil names the ways in which this impulse is variously diverted, denied, or hypostatized. In the language of Suvin’s esthetic and ethico-political model, such betrayals of truth are also therefore read as failures of cognition and mark the site of a capitulation to or ratification of the social evil that is anti-utopia.

←xxxii | xxxiii→

Political Epistemology

In a final mutation of the concept, cognition will, in Suvin’s more recent thought (beyond even the broad chronological sweep of the present collection) mark his efforts to approach a “political epistemology.” If basic cognition, defined as knowledge acquisition through both abstract thought and empirical or sensory experience, is the inescapable horizon of human consciousness, the pressing question for human social and planetary existence today, Suvin declares, demands a cognition defined as both valuative and agential: “How does knowledge or understanding mesh with and into actions of our individual and collective bodies; or, what do we do?” (Defined by a Hollow 271). However, this is not a question that can be satisfactorily answered in the language of the situation or present world alone. As Hallward notes of Badiou’s truth procedure, “every crisis of calculation means precisely that an answer to the question ‘What is to be done?’ can be not discerned but only decided, as Lenin well knew” (123). Cognition as decisive doing (i.e., as truth) is thus “usefully to be understood not only as open-ended but also as codetermined by the social subject and societal interests looking for it: the horizons are both moveable and multiple” (Suvin, Defined by a Hollow 293). Moreover, it is the process of a “heretical cognition,” in which “the object of any praxis can only be ‘seen as’ that particular kind of object (Wittgenstein) from a subject-driven – but also subject-modifying – standpoint and bearing,” that re-describes the lineaments of the cognizing subject and opens up new possibilities for collective and individual becoming (Defined by a Hollow 293). Any criteria of cognition/truth today must therefore entwine with a capacity “to shake off capitalist corruption and listen to political experience from below” (Defined by a Hollow 313). Bearing out Marcuse’s observation that “any erroneous understanding of truth is simultaneously an erroneous understanding of freedom,” Suvin’s cognition – the lodestar of all his thought – is the imaginative and material copula that arduously joins the novum’s evental break from empirical reality with the utopian Ultimum in the form of praxis as truth (Qtd. in Suvin, Defined by a Hollow 313). Moylan observes ←xxxiii | xxxiv→ of the operation of cognitive estrangement that “the novum has revolutionary effect only if it functions in dynamic relationship to the changing, historically specific structures of feeling out of which it develops and the unnameable horizon of an ongoing history toward which it tends” (Scraps of the Untainted Sky 49). Inasmuch as Suvinian cognition is the name for this dynamic imaginative and historical mediation of Possible Worlds – a process, I suggest here, cognate with Badiou’s philosophical reinvention of truth – we may reclaim for it Derrida’s infamous censure of Lacan as “le facteur de la vérité” provided that we shamelessly affirm that formulation’s denotation of maker (413).

Truth residing in the whole, Parables of Freedom and Narrative Logics thus presents Suvin’s evolving perspectives over the expanse of his decades-long and continuing intellectual career on the allegorical labors of cognitive estrangement and its foremost facteurs: Philip K. Dick (1975, 2002), Ursula Le Guin (1973, 1975, 2007), and the Strugatsky Brothers (1972, 2003), among many others. Yet, not the least compelling feature of this career-spanning collection is its inclusion, alongside Suvin’s major programmatic statements and scholarly disquisitions, of more occasional writings: prefaces to editorial collaborations with Angenot, his Pilgrim Award Acceptance Speech of 1979, poignant tributes to Dale Mullen and James Blish, critical reflections and correspondences on the SF publishing industry, “Notes and Memories on SF,” interviews, and rich provocations like “A Goodbye to Extrapolation,” which each invite with poetic economy innumerable intellectual adventures. In a moving message to Boris Strugatsky in recognition of the author’s 70th birthday, however, we find a reflection that says as much about the career of the critic – his possibilities and historically conditioned limitations – as about his object:

It need hardly be added that Suvin’s enduring body of work, serving as tenant lieu for the “salvational science” that it seeks, describes its own Virgilian progression – from allegory to political epistemology – ruthlessly engaging the desperate underworld of necessity while nevertheless insisting in Leviathan’s belly on the ardent truth of Possible Worlds.


Adorno, Theodor W. “Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing,” in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays (MIT, 1988): 1–17.

Angenot, Marc. “The Absent Paradigm: An Introduction to the Semiotics of Science Fiction,” Science-Fiction Studies 6.1 (1979): 9–20.

Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on Understanding Evil (Verso, 2001).

. Logics of Worlds (Continuum, 2009).

Blish, James. More Issues at Hand: Critical Studies in Contemporary Science Fiction (Advent, 1970).

Bloch, Ernst. A Philosophy of the Future (Herder and Herder, 1970).

——. The Principle of Hope, Vol 1 (MIT Press, 1986).

Bould, Mark. “Introduction: Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet, from Nemo to Neo.” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (Wesleyan UP, 2009): 1–26.

Bould, Mark and Sherryl Vint. Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction (Routledge, 2011).

.Canavan, Gerry. “The Suvin Event,” in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (Peter Lang, 2016): xi–xxxvi.

Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (U of Chicago P, 1987).

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Wesleyan UP, 2000).

Hallward, Peter. Alain Badiou: A Subject to Truth (U of Minnesota P, 2003).

James, C.L.R. Marxism for Our Times. Ed. Martin Glaberman (U of Mississippi P, 1999.)


XLII, 666
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XLII, 666 pp., 6 fig. b/w, 4 tables.

Biographical notes

Darko Suvin (Author) Eric Smith (Volume editor)

Darko Suvin is Professor Emeritus at McGill University and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of numerous books and hundreds of essays on topics in utopianism and science fiction, comparative literature, dramaturgy, theory of literature, theatre and cultural theory. He is also the author of three volumes of poetry. Eric D. Smith is Professor of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He is the author of Globalization, Utopia, and Postcolonial Science Fiction: New Maps of Hope and many essays on postcolonial literature, Modern British literature, and popular cinema.


Title: Parables of Freedom and Narrative Logics
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702 pages