Metamorphoses of Science Fiction

On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre

by Darko Suvin (Author) Gerry Canavan (Editor)
©2016 Monographs LIV, 472 Pages
Series: Ralahine Utopian Studies, Volume 18


Returning to print for the first time since the 1980s, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction is the origin point for decades of literary and theoretical criticism of science fiction and related genres. Darko Suvin’s paradigm-setting definition of SF as «the literature of cognitive estrangement» established a robust theory of the genre that continues to spark fierce debate, as well as inspiring myriad intellectual descendants and disciples. Suvin’s centuries-spanning history of the genre links SF to a long tradition of utopian and satirical literatures crying out for a better world than this one, showing how SF and the imagination of utopia are now forever intertwined. In addition to the 1979 text of the book, this edition contains three additional essays from Suvin that update, expand and reconsider the terms of his original intervention, as well as a new introduction and preface that situate the book in the context of the decades of SF studies that have followed in its wake.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • “The Suvin Event”
  • Preface to the Classics Edition: Contradiction and Resistance (2016)
  • Acknowledgements for the Classics Edition (2016)
  • Preface to the First Edition (1979)
  • Acknowledgements for the First Edition (1979)
  • I. Poetics
  • 1. Estrangement and Cognition
  • 2. SF and the Genological Jungle
  • 3. Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia: Some Historical Semantics, Some Genology, a Proposal, and a Plea
  • 4. SF and the Novum
  • II. History
  • Introduction to Older SF History
  • 5. The Alternative Island
  • 6. The Shift to Anticipation: Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil
  • 7. Liberalism Mutes the Anticipation: The Space-Binding Machines
  • 8. Anticipating the Sunburst: Dream, Vision – or Nightmare?
  • Introduction to Newer SF History
  • 9. Wells as the Turning Point of the SF Tradition
  • 10. The Time Machine versus Utopia as Structural Models for SF
  • 11. Russian SF and Its Utopian Tradition
  • 12. Karel Čapek, or the Aliens Amongst Us
  • Bibliography
  • Additional Material (2016)
  • Science Fiction, Metaphor, Parable, and Chronotope (with the Bad Conscience of Reaganism)
  • Considering the Sense of “Fantasy” or “Fantastic Fiction”: An Effusion*
  • Circumstances and Stances: A Retrospect
  • Index
  • Series index

← x | xi →“The Suvin Event”


In “What Is an Author?” (1969), Michel Foucault proposes a category of authorship that goes beyond the creation of a single text: the “founder of discursivity,” who produces “the possibilities and rules for the formation of other texts.”1 Founders of discursivity establish both the theoretical template for the works that follow in the tradition they have called into existence, as well as setting the terms for what will not be included in that tradition, what will be thought of as beyond or outside or heretical to the newly created discourse. Foucault’s primary examples, Freud and Marx, suggest a heuristic that might partially distinguish this kind of foundational thinking, the widespread adoption of one’s name as an adjective, which might in turn prompt us to recognize other examples beyond the two he gives: “Nietzschean,” “Lacanian,” “Deleuzean,” almost certainly even “Foucauldian” itself. In contrast to the vision of “foundation” that one might find in the sciences – in which “the act that founds […] is on an equal footing with its future transformations” – the founder of discursivity becomes a “heterogeneous” origin point to which “its subsequent transformations” must situate themselves in relation.2 We do not seek to explain how, despite their apparent gaps in knowledge or incorrect calculations, Galileo or Newton really understood modern physics in its fullness after all – and yet this is precisely the apologetics that is characteristically performed on behalf of the founder of discursivity, whose apparent errors are always only the chance for a new reevaluation. The “inevitable necessity” of this “return to origin” sets discursivity apart from either science (in which foundations lose their validity in the face of new empirical observations or more robust ← xi | xii →theoretical paradigms) or religion (in which foundations are imagined to be unchanging sacred texts); in discursivity, the perpetual reexamination and revision of the founder “constitutes a effective and necessary task of transforming the discursive practice itself.”3 Discourses are vitalized by the continual return (with difference) to origins; this is how they are renewed, and how they adapt themselves to changing circumstances without falling into obsolescence or obscurity.

Darko Suvin’s publication of “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre” in December 19724 – alongside his co-founding of the journal Science Fiction Studies with R.D. Mullen the following year, and the expansion of “Poetics” into Metamorphoses of Science Fiction in 1979 – constitutes precisely this sort of foundational moment for the field of SF criticism. Of course SF studies did not begin with Suvin, nor did Suvin solve all its problems in a single move. But what Suvin did was establish a discourse, in this Foucauldian sense, that subsequent SF critics have needed to contend with, whether positively or negatively. Suvin’s work established contours for the subdiscipline that have come to structure not only SF criticism but the criticism of related speculative genres like fantasy, fairy tales, and horror, the scholarly approaches to which have been defined (usually with significant frustration) by Suvin’s totalizing rejection of them in Metamorphoses. Not all criticism of SF is Suvinian, by any stretch – but the field as a whole is Suvinian, or at least post-Suvinian, in the sense that reaction to his work by his disciples and by his detractors has framed four subsequent decades of the work in the field.

Suvin’s influence can be registered in the way his definition of science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement”5 has become ubiquitous in scholarly introductions to the field, which frequently introduce Suvin’s critical work before mentioning H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, Hugo Gernsback, or any other foundational author associated with the early production of SF texts. In a subfield famously devoted to squabbling ← xii | xiii →over definitions and policing generic boundaries, Suvin’s definition has become a kind of consensus starting point, a place where we might at least begin to speak to one another. Suvin’s name appears in the first paragraph of the first chapter of Adam Roberts’s The History of Science Fiction; the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction and Blackwell’s A Companion to Science Fiction both wait until page two. This tendency can perhaps be especially recognized in those critics who will ultimately find themselves at odds with Suvin’s work; Rob Latham, the editor of The Oxford Handbook, for instance, devotes as much time to enumerating the shortcomings of the Suvinian approach to the genre as he does articulating what that approach entails, even as he admits Suvin’s “enormous influence” as “the signal accomplishment” of the heroic early period of SF criticism.6

Few texts embody this push-and-pull between influence and anxiety more fully than Mark Bould and China Miéville’s edited collection Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009), which examines the relationship between the SF genre and the leftist politics with which it is commonly seen to be in conversation (an understood affinity that exists, as we shall see, in large part precisely due to the critical interventions of Suvin himself). Bould frames the book as a variety of responses to what he calls the “Suvin event” of 1972/1973: “From that moment on, SF theory and criticism have inhabited – not by any means always contentedly – the Suvin event horizon, or attempted to escape it.”7 The deliberate science fictional imagery – Suvin as supermassive black hole, scholars hopelessly caught in his orbit – is soon doubled; Bould writes that Suvin’s 1970s work “itself arrived like a novum, reordering SF theory and criticism around it, idiosyncratically and contingently wedding SF to Marxism.”8 And this too is a book whose chapters are frequently in the “fighting to escape” mode of engagement with the Suvin event – perhaps nowhere more aggressively ← xiii | xiv →than in Miéville’s own afterword, “Cognition as Ideology,” which calls for a radical reconsideration not only of Suvin’s privileged categories of “cognition” and “utopia” but even a reversal of his preference for SF over fantasy! “Precisely to continue the project of theorising a conjoined SF and fantasy,” the afterword and book concludes, “SF, with its tendency to hegemonise the conversation, might have to be temporarily excluded”9 – a particularly revealing demonstration of the way that even a call to abolish Suvin altogether remains fully inscribed within the circuit of discursivity Suvin founded.

Suvin’s early work on SF, beginning with “Poetics” and culminating in Metamorphoses, is thus best understood not simply as a “Big Bang” for SF studies but as an ongoing and highly contested conversation in which even many of those who prefer non-Suvinian approaches to SF are, for better or worse, debating largely within the terms of the argument as he originally established them. Miéville’s call to replace “utopia” with “alterity”10 – or the orthogonal call of critics like John Rieder, Patricia Kerslake, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, and David Higgins to replace “utopia” with “violence,” “racism,” and “empire” as the critical categories at the heart of SF’s generic imagination – frequently replicate Suvin in form if not in content, using parallel strategies of allegorical and analogical reading to cut through SF’s surface disavowal of the real-world political order to which it responds (and frequently discovering, as in the case of the “imperial turn,” a submerged left critique of empire that is not all that far removed from the glimmers of utopia with which Suvin and closely related critics like Fredric Jameson, Carl Freedman, and Tom Moylan have been so concerned all along).

That pull – the pull towards optimism, towards utopia – remains the overwhelming call of Suvinian criticism of SF, which for Suvin is properly understood as a “fundamentally subversive genre”11 that is “wiser than the world it speaks to.”12 His early critical work positioned SF studies as a site ← xiv | xv →where scholars interrogate notions of futurity and difference, and explore the possibility of radical historical change. As Tom Moylan has noted, in the early 1970s, when Suvin began his project, this work was in conversation with a spirit of world transformation nurtured by a political left that seemed, if only for a time, politically ascendant. Moylan links Suvin’s work to “the wider culture of opposition” of the period, a moment when “the Left […] was undeniably strong, when it held substantial cultural, if not political or economic, power” and “when scholarly work in sf and utopian studies (along with utopian sf itself) developed in opposition to the reigning orthodoxies of academic literary studies.”13 Suvin’s work certainly draws energy from the optimism of that moment. But Suvin’s work seems quite able to escape this context as well, speaking directly to a contemporary cultural moment when unleashed turbocapitalism, neoliberal paralysis, renewed and vicious militarism, and foreboding ecological pessimism conspire against all hope for a better tomorrow. In fact in the contemporary moment it seems more urgent than ever to take up Metamorphoses’s excavation of the ethos that permeated SF, in all its media forms, across its two-hundred-year existence as a literary genre: a study of the survival and persistence of utopian thought in unhappy times. Suvin’s work traces the story of that persistence – and has also, through its wide influence, itself become part of the story of utopia’s continued, unlikely, and deeply necessary survival.

It’s unsurprising then that critical interest in Suvin has intensified, even as 1960s and 1970s hopes for utopian historical change have withered. As the world grows more and more science fictional – looking, one might say, more and more like the opening montage to some darkly dystopian SF film – SF studies is experiencing renewed renaissance in the academy, with Suvin still an inevitable and necessary reference in these conversations. Web of Science (a digital citation index) records twenty or more citations of Metamorphoses a year in articles since 2009, up from only 5 a year in 2005, ← xv | xvi →while in 2014 ProQuest’s index of over 300 citations for Metamorphoses saw 117 dissertations citing the book between 2000 and 2009, and 91 in just the first four years since 2010.14 The ongoing influence of this text is all the more impressive given that Metamorphoses of Science Fiction has (until now) been out of print for several decades. Scholarly engagement with Suvin’s work has persisted through a online market whose price now regularly passes $100 for a used copy, or though library recall wars, or through illicit, blurry photocopies of the entire manuscript like the one I used in graduate school to write my own dissertation. All told hundreds of scholarly articles, dissertations, and books have cited Metamorphoses in recent years, the majority of these in the years since the book has been very difficult to acquire. When I polled the online discussion lists for the Science Fiction Research Association and International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts (the two primary organizations for the study of SF and related speculative genres) to gauge interest in this reprint, the result was overwhelming. Scholars told me it was “shocking” and “shameful” that the work was out of print, given its continued importance in the field; Benjamin Robertson of the University of Colorado Boulder perhaps best summed up the general mood of my inbox when he wrote: “Imagine if Watt’s The Rise of the Novel was out of print. That’s what having Metamorphoses of Science Fiction out of print is like.”

This rerelease, then, offers SF scholars a long-delayed opportunity for a collective return to origins, a chance to revisit Suvin in light of the years of SF criticism that have come since.

* * *

The theoretical intervention at the center of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction has already been mentioned: the defining of “SF” as “the literature of cognitive estrangement,” a superficially oxymoronic formulation that matches the paradoxical relationship between “science” and “fiction” in “science fiction.” This has always been a notoriously thorny problem for writers, critics, and fans of SF; indeed, as Gary K. Wolfe has suggested, the widely adopted move ← xvi | xvii →to use the initials “SF” has been motivated in part precisely by the desire to sidestep this issue altogether.15 Is science fiction mostly about “science,” or mostly about story? Is it an extrapolative genre offering us “tomorrow’s headlines today,” or an unrestrained flight of fantasy and goofy irreality (as in the ubiquitous ledes in popular journalism that proclaim the latest gadget “not science fiction, but science fact)? Should we, as some have suggested, replace “science” with “speculative” to denote that not all (or perhaps not even most) of what is called science fiction has genuine investment in what actual real-world science tell us is true, preferring instead what it tells us is almost certainly not: time travel, FTL drives, mutant superpowers, and on and on? Suvin’s restatement of the oxymoronic relationship between “S” and “F” in his proposed conjuncture between cognition and estrangement does more than simply restate the problem: it is a judo-like embrace of this opposition that reorients SF around this very paradox, and in the process transforms both horns of the dilemma, opening the S of “science” into as much sapientia (wisdom) as scientia (knowledge),16 and remaking the “F” of “fiction” not so much as “falsity” but as “possibility,” or, even more precisely, as “theoreticity” – “fiction” better understood not as deviation from truth but as an alternative orientation towards it.

Suvin thus develops not simply a consensus definition of SF for SF studies (from which discussions, debates, and further differentiations can then proceed) but the larger critical apparatus that makes SF studies (as we have come to know it) possible. He also, in the process, produces a robust history for the genre that reaches back much further in time than the niche marketing practices of mid-twentieth-century publishers. Suvin’s SF includes within itself not only Verne and Wells (two natural starting points for the genre) but also More’s Utopia, Swift’s Gulliver, and pre-modern tales of far-off voyages to lost islands or cities on the Moon. Early in Metamorphoses Suvin even suggests both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the myth of Eden as at least quasi-science-fictional, proto-SF,17 a move which suggests SF as in ← xvii | xviii →some sense intrinsically related to the imagination of alterity, difference, and the unknown as such. Such stories are characterized by their interest in the figure of what Suvin calls the novum, the “strange newness” around which a “strange-covariant coordinate systems and semantic fields” might be organized18 – the imagination of which is an almost inescapable facet of human life.

It seems easy to understand what makes such visions of alternative worlds an example of “estrangement” – but what makes them “cognitive”? For Suvin it is precisely the fact that these historical, pre-modern reports of alternative worlds are supposed to be, and presented as though they are, “factual”: SF “takes off from a fictional (‘literary’) hypothesis and develops it with totalizing (‘scientific’) rigor.”19 Estrangement – which Suvin points out is indebted to both Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie and the famous Verfremdungseffekt of Bertolt Brecht – is the principle of difference that fuels the soaring imagination of science fictional difference, while cognition is the reality principle that adheres to our real conditions of existence and thereby keeps the imagination honest. SF thus operates precisely in the paradox of the realistic dream, the dream that is or might be (or could yet become) real. This complex interrelationship between cognition and estrangement produces a “feedback oscillation” that “moves now from the author’s and implied reader’s norm of reality to the narratively actualized novum in order to understand the plot-events, and now back from those novelties to the author’s reality in order to see it afresh from the new perspective gained.”20 Together cognition and estrangement thus produce SF as something intellectually distinct from mere fantasy on the one hand) or nonfiction and mimetic “realism” (on the other): SF is a “dynamic transformation” of our history rather than a “static mirroring” of it, “not only a reflecting of but also on reality.”21

A crucial correction here is required for those who have mistakenly taken Suvin’s use of cognition to be scientistic, or even a form of science fetishism. In fact what Suvin means by cognition is closer to the German ← xviii | xix →word Wissenschaft, including “not only natural but also all the cultural or historical sciences and even scholarship,” crucially the Marxist intellectual tradition chief among them.22 Cognition in a work of SF requires not simply mastery of the “cold equations” of physics, chemistry, and biology but a full accounting of capital-H History as such, how the world got this way and how it might yet become different – if, that is, its attendant estrangement is to have any more weight than a mere dream. Carl Freedman, whose Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000) has been one of the most successful extensions of the Suvinian paradigm in recent years, has proposed that cognition be replaced with cognition effect to indicate that the most important aspect of the “cognitive” in “cognitive estrangement” is “not any epistemological judgment external to the text itself on the rationality or irrationality of the latter’s imaginings, but rather (as some of Suvin’s language does, in fact, imply, but never makes entirely clear) the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements being performed.”23 I would argue that the vision of cognition that Freedman elaborates is, in fact, what Suvin was always talking about in Metamorphoses: the central role of cognition in SF is not to facilitate squabbling over the rightness or wrongness about this or that limited scientific claim, but rather to facilitate our return from the science fictional estrangement back to the context of the world in which we all actually live and work and struggle.24

Noncognitive estrangements, however stirring, interrupt that principle of return. Suvin’s rejection of fairy tale, fantasy, supernatural or occult narrative, and other modes of “noncognitive” estrangement has been an undeniably contentious part of the reception of his theorization of SF since the publication of Metamorphoses (and as such is the subject of one of the three additional essays included in this Classics edition). Suvin reserves special ire in the text for “science fantasy,” space operatic or psychic superman stories which masquerade as SF with regard to producing (a purely rhetorical) plausibility and suspension of disbelief but which are in fact indelibly hostile to either ← xix | xx →physical or socioeconomic reality. Such stories are “misshapen,”25 “organized around an ideology unchecked by any cognition, so that its narrative logic is simply overt ideology plus Freudian erotic patterns”;26 thus “SF regressing into fairy tale (for example, “space opera” with a hero-princess-monster triangle in astronautic costume) is committing creative suicide.”27 Suvin’s later, partial reconsideration of fantasy can be seen in “Considering the Sense of ‘Fantasy’ or ‘Fantastic Fiction’: An Effusion,” discussed below; however, a potential line of interest in fantasy can be seen even in his original discussion of fantasy in Metamorphoses. “The thesis could be defended,” Suvin writes, “that the fantasy is significant insofar as it is impure and fails to establish a superordinated maleficent world of its own, causing a grotesque between arbitrary supernatural phenomena and the empirical norms they infiltrate,” suggesting Nikolai Gogol’s “Nose” as one possible example of this “significant” fantasy done right (and Lovecraft as a version done very wrong).28 However, Suvin’s position (in both Metamorphoses and “Effusion”) is that most fantasy does not reach this level of reflexive sophistication, and that the mixing of genres implicit in the combined “Science Fiction & Fantasy” category frequently found in bookstores thus does severe disservice to SF.

But this is only one particular case of a ubiquitous issue running across SF publication, which is that for Suvin most work published under its name (or under related names like “science fiction” or “speculative fiction”) is unworthy of serious critical consideration. In the original preface to Metamorphoses the number is said to be as high as 90 to 95 per cent “strictly perishable stuff, produced in view of instant obsolescence for the publisher’s profit and the writer’s acquisition of other perishable commodities” – though even this rejected mass is said to be sociologically significant given its influence and popularity. Only 5–10 per cent of SF is aesthetically significant, in Suvin’s view, a list that produces a stable of authors that, we have seen, is seen by many scholars as far too narrow a canon: “Lem, Le Guin, Dick, Disch, Delany, the Strugatsky brothers, Jeury, Aldiss, Ballard, ← xx | xxi →and others.”29 In these authors we see the interplay between cognition and estrangement reaching its highest literary-aesthetic formulation, as well as the political valence of SF, and its historical affinity with a leftist, socialist politics, most fully and generatively produced.

The claim that the study of SF is indelibly inmbricated with the study of utopia is another provocative one, perhaps Suvin’s most radical intervention in the field (and also one that has been subject to significant reconsideration and revision by subsequent scholars). For Suvin, utopia and SF stand in close, quasi-science-fictional familial relationship to one another. He describes utopian fiction as “early and primitive branch of SF,”30 while suggesting that today the two genres stand in a daughter-mother and niece-aunt relation, each simultaneously parenting the other – and Suvin’s articulation of the mutual imbrication between science fictional futurity and utopian political speculation has certainly invigorated criticism in both fields. Suvin’s work has been nearly as influential in the field of utopian studies as in SF studies – particularly as so much utopian speculation and dystopian/apocalyptic warning in our moment is now, from a genre perspective, SF. In our time – with the world now fully mapped, and no hidden islands or isolated valleys yet lurking that might hold the secret of another sort of history – it is the imagination of the science fictional chronotope (the future, other dimensions, outer space) that yields the opportunity to both imagine radical social difference and connect that radical difference to our own situation in the here-and-now. Cognitive estrangement constitutes precisely this twofold move: we transport ourselves to the other world (estrangement) so that we can better think about this one (cognition). Neither cognition nor estrangement is necessarily utopian in its own terms, by definition – however, cognition’s close relationship with leftist social and historical theory, when paired with estrangement’s irrepressible yearning for historical difference, somewhat inevitably produces utopian speculations, whether in positive form as eutopia (the good place) or in negative as dystopia (the bad place).

← xxi | xxii →Similarly, as Moylan has persuasively argued in his own reading and extension of Suvin, the trope of the novum figures not only as the engine that “generates and validates” the diegetic milieu of the SF text, and not only as the “common denominator” between the SF text and the utopian text, but as the Archimedean point that allows us to evaluate whether a text “effectively intervenes in the author’s historical context.”31 We should, as Suvin says, judge the “degree of relevance” of a novum not on its fidelity to this or that physical law but on its relation to the ongoing struggle for liberation and justice. “A novum is fake,” Suvin writes, “unless it in some way participates in and partakes of what Bloch called the ‘front-line of historical process’ – which for him (and for me) as a Marxist means a process intimately concerned with strivings for a disalienation of people and their social life.”32 Likewise, so-called utopias that affirm existing injustices and inadequacies are unworthy of the name: “All utopias involve people who radically suffer of the existing system and radically desire to change it.”33 SF in the Suvinian mold speaks to that suffering, and to that radical desire. As Fredric Jameson (still another critic whose work on SF and utopia has importantly extended and transformed Suvin’s) has famously said, “history is what hurts”34 – and the intersection of cognition and estrangement in properly Suvinian SF thus directs its readers precisely towards that space of hurt, with hope it will be overcome.

These implications of Suvin’s study of SF suggest that the relationship between SF (as Suvin defines it) and the larger project of political leftism is in some sense unavoidable. When Karl Marx dedicates himself to “the ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be”35 – or, for that matter, when he projects ← xxii | xxiii →the creation of a technologized future world of progress and plenty that has been freed from the class struggle corrupting our own – is it so strange to think he is writing SF? Carl Freedman, taking up the Suvinian perspective in an essay in Red Planets, has suggested as much. The interplay between cognition and estrangement, Freedman says, is not only the formal principle that produces SF but is also in some sense the buried logic of Marxism more generally, which seeks to destroy all the illusions that sustain our miserable world precisely in the hopes of someday creating a new and better one: “visionary transcendence is the necessary completion of astringent demystification.”36 A novum which fails to produce such a politically charged vision of genuine historical difference will be “of brief and narrow” relevance, precisely because “they make for a superficial change rather than for a true novelty that deals with or makes for human relationships so qualitatively different from those dominant in the author’s reality that they cannot be translated back to them merely by a change in costume.” This is the key not only to “aesthetic quality in SF but also to its ethico-political liberating qualities, its communal relevance.”37 What we ultimately long for in SF, Suvin argues, and what makes SF an important literary genre, isn’t its ray guns or its hyperdrives or its novel patent laws but its vision of a radically different social order that in the end is always a critique of our own very flawed one, alongside the dream of our flawed order’s supersession. “Significant SF” – that 5 per cent or 10 per cent worth celebrating – “is in fact a specifically roundabout way of commenting on the author’s collective context – often resulting in a surprisingly concrete and sharp-sighted comment at that.” But this “better vantage point from which to comprehend the human relations around the author” is simultaneously “a device for historical estrangement” and “an at least initial readiness for new norms of reality.” The most essential, and most radical, novum – the exhilarating dream that characterizes the very best of SF – is “dealienating human history.”38

← xxiii | xxiv →* * *

Suvin’s definition, though having come to function as a kind of consensus starting point for literary critical discussions of SF, is certainly not without its critics, many of whom describe it as overly narrow, overly specialized, overly political, and (perhaps most problematically) not sufficiently in conversation with the self-identity of science fictional and speculative writing that had been developed by SF’s own writers, editors, and fandom. Gary Westfahl’s critique perhaps is emblematic: he says Suvin’s use of the term “science fiction” “must be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to replace […] the traditional concept of the genre” with “his own ideas.”39 Suvin, for his part, has conceded to some degree the legitimacy of this critique, writing in Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (1988) that “genre traditions are legitimately established in retrospect” and that his study “(as any other study) was normative in the sense of possessing norms of value induced from both the critic’s presuppositions and the texts […] and reapplied to texts.”40 Suvin’s calculated dismissal of most of the domain of SF in the name of a selected, curated, and privileged few is, unquestionably, the imposition of his values upon a larger field – though one might also take Suvin’s point that this is what any critic does in the formation and articulation of aesthetic judgment.

Nor is Suvin’s definition so far out of step with the mainstream genre’s own definitions and aspirations. It was Ray Bradbury – a writer whom Suvin spends little time on in his work, and who he twice names within the pages of Metamorphoses as a frequent purveyor of “science fantasy” – who once provided a definition of science fiction that is largely identical to Suvin’s: “That’s all science fiction was ever about. Hating the way things are, wanting to make them different.”41 Isaac Asimov (a personal favorite author of my childhood, whom Suvin critiques within Metamorphoses for his ← xxiv | xxv →“metaphysical gobbledygook”42), typically offered a much more bloodless definition of the genre: “Science fiction is that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings.”43 But when Asimov was pressed to elaborate, he would often describe the sense of futurity implicit in such “impact” in quite Suvinian terms: “SF teaches that there are numerous changes and that mankind by its actions can pick and choose among them. We should choose one which is for the better. That is the proper interpretation of the role of SF.”44 When Asimov said that there are only three science fictional scenarios – “what if, if only, and if this goes on”45 – we have utopia and dystopia (which is only ever utopia in negative) as two of our three options, with the cognitive estrangement implicit in the radical difference of “what if” almost always in practice producing a political charge as well. It would be very strange if it did not – if we were to imagine alternative worlds with literally no interest in the ethics, politics, economics, and hedonics of those times and spaces as compared to our own.

To draw a line from these thoughts to the more explicitly resistant politics of the authors Suvin tends to privilege, like Ursula K. Le Guin – who once said the “smear-word” of “internal émigré” deployed against Zamyatin by the Stalinists “is a precise and noble description of the finest ← xxv | xxvi →writers of SF, in all countries”46 – or Philip K. Dick – who said he wrote science fiction as a “way to rebel”47 because “the world we actually have does not meet my standards”48 – and deliberately place political struggles over futurity at the heart of the generic imagination hardly seems like an overly aggressive rewriting of SF history. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a genre SF that acknowledged its articulation of radical change (estrangement) tempered by the reality principle of what is physically, biologically, and socially possible (cognition) that didn’t, in some way or another, charge itself with evaluating which alternative histories and potential futures were better or worse (utopia). Suvin’s definition has been so overwhelmingly influential because it names, clearly and succinctly, the two overlapping philosophical operations that really are at the core of the “speculative,” while leaving ample room for his intellectual descendants to quibble about the specific boundaries and limit-points of either term.

To object to Suvin’s definition of the genre on the grounds it diminishes or omits certain tendencies within the history of the field (for instance, the obvious presence of liberal and right-wing speculations alongside his preferred leftist, utopian SF, to say nothing of the militaristic, hypercapitalist, overtly racist, and deeply misogynistic fantasies that have been and frequently still are published within the genre49) is in this sense both trivially true and largely besides the point. Any proposed canon is always subject to debate; the loathed possibility of the construction of alternative and inferior canons is precisely the reason why one forms a canon in the first place! ← xxvi | xxvii →What Suvin proposes is a strategy of focusing on what he sees as the best of the genre first and foremost: “The genre has to be evaluated proceeding from the heights down, applying the standards gained by the analysis of its masterpieces.”50 And Suvin’s criteria for determining what qualifies for those lofty heights of SF is unrepentantly inscribed by contact with utopia, by the possibility of radical, and rational, world-transformation.

Criticism of Suvin’s method is thus in many cases precisely a dispute about the consequences of his strategy of hierarchization, as much as anything else. Such a strategy somewhat inevitably produces pushback in the name of saving this or that author (or this or that book, or this or that trope, or this or that sub-sub-genre) from the scrapheap – and indeed much of the criticism that presents itself in opposition to Suvin does so out of a desire to reject his dismissal of particular SF texts that do not meet his criteria, and/or to rescue fantasy and horror texts from second-class designation. But of course the formal and political principles that Suvin advances in Metamorphoses are only one of many possible versions of a core “SF canon” that might be formed, either using his definitions or finding some alternative; that task, and the inevitable incompleteness, over-specialization, and bottomless debatability of any such list once formulated, has always a crucial component of SF as a collective intellectual project, both in and outside the academy.

That project of canon construction – the casting back from the present into historical forebears, assigning some importance and leaving others aside – actually constitutes the bulk of the work of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, especially in its second part, “History,” which has frequently been overlooked in favor of the more theoretical interventions of part one, “Poetics.” Suvin’s longue durée, four-hundred-year history of the genre finds unexpected progenitors, for instance, in the form of the pastoral, whose stirring “imaginary framework of a world without money economy, state apparatus, and depersonalizing urbanization” stands in relationship to SF “as alchemy does to chemistry and nuclear physics: an early try in the right direction with insufficient foundations.”51 Unsurprisingly, he places especially close emphasis on the genre’s relationship with More’s 1516 Utopia, ← xxvii | xxviii →tracing the work of SF first through that novel and then into trips to other imaginary isles and (even off-planet alternatives, as in the roman planétaire of Lucian and Cyrano.) Suvin’s history of SF also finds close affinity with Gulliver’s Travels, particularly in its closing voyages to the floating city of Laputa and the pseudo-paradisal country of the Houyhnhnms (the sentient horses) – as well as the distinctly science fictional ethos of its satiric commentary on the fallibility of human (or “Yahoo”) institutions. Swift is in fact an exemplary case of how even “extreme anti-utopian despair” can be transmogrified “into a critique of the anti-utopian world which it mirrors” in the hands of the science fictional imagination: “The more passionate and precise Swift’s negation, the more clearly the necessity for new worlds of humaneness appears before the reader.”52 And on the story goes, through Shelley, Poe, Verne, Wells, Twain, Bellamy, onward to the crystallization of science fiction as a discrete and recognizable literary genre in the early part of the twentieth century. The crucial turn here is the turn towards anticipation of possible futures, “aesthetically structured by a ‘positive’ scientific cognition.”53 This sense of anticipation can be located, Suvin argues, even in SF that seems to transgress the general rule, as in the quasi-Gothic Frankenstein, which recoils from revolutionary novum of the future in horror at what the French Revolution had wrought.54

A similar gap can be located in the time of Jules Verne, and especially his contemporaries and successors, whose work is discussed in a chapter called “Liberalism Mutes the Anticipation.” The period between Frankenstein and The Time Machine marks for Suvin an era when “any significant novum, in space as well as in time, grew untenable within liberal horizons.”55 Verne himself is presented as a genuine innovator producing significant SF, but most of his imitators are producing only “subliterature”56 – and on the whole the birth of liberalism coincides with the temporary squashing of SF’s capacity to imagine radical difference in favor of flattened continuations ← xxviii | xxix →of the present. This antipathy is only the start of the mutual antagonism between liberalism and Suvin’s “significant SF,” an antagonism we can see quite clearly from our vantage point at (or after) “the end of history,” a time in which our own capacity to imagine alternative futures to capitalism has become deeply impoverished. This extended historical examination has important ramifications not only for Suvin’s later work but for the work of theorists working in a similar register, like Jameson and Slavoj Žižek – both of whom have been credited with the now-ubiquitous aphorism that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and Mark Fischer, whose theory of capitalist realism describes precisely contemporary liberalism’s corralling of all possible horizons for the future.57 At a 1997 meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies, Suvin argued that that the “most daring utopia” we might yet hope for today is no longer “Earthly Paradise” but only “the prevention of Hell on Earth,” articulating the possibility of an alternative future as a kind of desperate prayer: “May the Earth remain our habitable mother, rather than being pushed by greedy classes and imbecilitated masses (as today) the way of ecological catastrophe, and the ensuing great Migration of Peoples, the bitter State and corporation wars, the civil wars of constructed racism and ethnicity!”58 But all those crisis, our crises, were their crises too – class struggle, ecological devastation genocide, war – and Suvin’s assertion contra Thatcher that “there is no alternative – to utopia”59 finds its echo across the longer history of early SF as he first articulated it in the 1970s. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dawn of SF, the “increasing closure of liberal bourgeois horizons” produced a firce backlash, a “thirst for anticipations – fictional pictures of an excitingly different future”60 – produced, that is, a period of experimentation in and intense fascination with SF and its alternatives that is still reverberating today. When SF finally and fully erupts, Suvin argues, in the key turn-of-the-century texts of Bellamy, Morris, Twain, and especially Wells, it erupts as a blow against liberalism, ← xxix | xxx →against the world as it is, in an insistent, ecstatic cry that another sort of world than this must be possible. The history of SF’s utopian development inside and against liberalism that Suvin recovers here is thus highly relevant to the way we understand the ongoing metamorphoses of our own possible futures, as we contest the hopelessness of our own deeply troubled times.

A crucial component of this underrecognized portion of Metamorphoses is its wide international scope, anticipating later movements within an academy that has only just begun to catch up. Unlike much SF criticism, Suvin’s Metamorphoses reaches far outside the constraints of the narrow Anglo-American publishing market, often bemoaning the possible traditions of SF that might have emerged had French, German, or Russian authors been more widely translated or read (as well as emphasizing important precursors to the contemporary SF genre in pre-modern Europe and in antiquity). Indeed, the book unexpectedly ends outside the Anglosphere altogether, first with a chapter on “Russian SF and Its Utopian Tradition” – an important part of the history of SF which contemporary SF studies has largely ignored – and second with a lengthy exegesis and celebration of the Czech writer Karel Čapek, who has received too little critical attention given his development of several crucial SF tropes (chief among them his co-creation of the term “robot” itself). It is the unlikely and too-much-forgotten figure of Čapek who (“rather than Edgar Rice Burroughs or Hugo Gernsback”) provides the “missing link” between Wells and the present form of SF as “a literature which will be both entertaining (which means popular) and cognitively (which means also formally) avant-gardist.”61 In this way the too-neglected end of Metamorphoses speaks directly (if forty years early) to the current moment in SF studies, which has at last become very interested in the SF imaginary outside Britain and America.

* * *

This Ralahine Classis edition reissues Metamorphoses of Science Fiction as it was originally published while offering additional material that reflects Suvin’s own expansion, revision, and further consideration of the ← xxx | xxxi →propositions advanced in Metamorphoses at later points in this career. These were selected, in consultation with Suvin himself, to indicate crucial ways in which his theory of SF has not only adapted to changing times but also in response to both his allies and his critics. Our hope is that the presence of these appendices will mark the extent to which “the Suvin event” remains vital and ongoing, even thirty-five years after Metamorphoses’s original publication.

The first essay originates in Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction, the book Suvin considers a companion to Metamorphoses (not sequel or successor so much as continuation). “Science Fiction, Metaphor, Parable, and Chronotope (with the Bad Conscience of Reaganism),” the thirteenth and concluding chapter from that book, originally published as an essay in 1984, takes up the thorny status of metaphor within SF, which inevitably arises in any discussion of the necessary dialectic between similarity and difference that manifests in the attempt to construct a science fictional world. This dialectic is matched by a new and equally difficult tension, that between metaphor and the concept of narrative as such. Suvin’s answer is to read SF through the mode of the parable which (following Ricoeur) is the “conjunction” of “narrative form” and “metaphorical process.”62 SF parables work by establishing a chronotope (a time and space that is both internally coherent and always importantly distinct from our own), which is then transformed in some fashion on the levels of diegesis or interpretation (or both) by the unfolding of the narrative. The intersection of these levels of presentation is structured by their mutual and necessary incompleteness; in accordance with Marc Angenot’s articulation of the “absent paradigm,” we never grasp the full chronotope, the full narrative, or the full metaphor, but always rather have “the feeling that more is going on under the surface.”63 This gap is a constitutive part of SF, rather than a flaw to be corrected: Suvin writes that “SF, just as parable and metaphor, relates to a significant problem of the social addressee in indirect ways, through estrangement into a seemingly unrelated concrete and possible set of situations; thus “the strange new chronotopes” of SF “always signify human relationships in the ← xxxi | xxxii →writer’s here and now,” but not in reductive, ossific, or uncomplicatedly one-to-one relationships.64 These remarks thus become the occasion for a redemptive reading of the Cordwainer Smith and Genevieve Linebarger story “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul” in which the story’s particular weaknesses and Smith’s own bad habits as a writer do not detract from its articulation of one of the most important implications of SF today, that politics might yet be “salvation” even in the dire context of “the bad ethical conscience of Reaganism” (and, from our perspective, post-Thatcher and post-Reagan neoliberalism more generally). SF – as much through its gaps and its implicatures as through its careful and deliberate expositions and confabulations – becomes here a particularly vital instance in the formal interplay between “utopianism and ideology” that characterizes “all significant stories.”65 Suvin here inverting Bloch, he argues that SF directs us through both its affirmative constructions and its dialectical negations to the exhilaratingly radical proposition that – even in the bad years of Reagan (or Carter, or Nixon, or Thatcher, or Bush, either one, or Blair, or Clinton, either one, or Obama, or Putin, or…) – “in the stories things sometimes turn out right because we might and all might still be right.”66

The second additional essay, “Considering the Sense of ‘Fantasy’ or ‘Fantastic Fiction’: An Effusion,” first published in Extrapolation in 2001, is the most radical revision of Metamorphoses of the three additions, and likely the most welcome to those critics who found Suvin’s hard line between SF and related speculative genres (especially fantasy) too difficult to maintain. “Let me therefore revoke, probably to general regret,” Suvin writes, “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.”67 But this is not the occasion for a retraction or an apology, or even for a significant rewrite of the conclusions of Metamorphoses, but rather an opportunity for further thinking about why the genre divide seemed so definitive and insurmountable in that time (and ← xxxii | xxxiii →why it persists today, reinscribed in myriad ways across academic and editorial practice). The result is a provocative and rich – and, undoubtedly, still quite controversial – revision of Suvin’s originary refusal of the fantasy and the fantastic, one that now admits certain types of fantastic texts (Samuel R. Delany’s, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s, or the pre-Disneyfied folk tales lauded by Marxist scholar Jack Zipes as the proto-utopias of suppressed communities) while still insisting that many or most or nearly all fantastic texts commit the sins of Howard’s Hyborian Age or Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or Lovecraft’s many nightmare cities: crafting a world defined by essences and capital-E Evils that cannot allow the possibility of progressive historical change.

Suvin’s extended engagement with his pro-fantasy critics opens a door, but not all that wide, and without excessive enthusiasm, insisting in the end that the cognitive estrangement associated with his proposed vision of SF (now, perhaps, admitting some fantastic texts in) remains politically galvanizing in a way Fantasy generally is not:

I’d think SF appeals to social groups with confidence that something can at present be done about a collective, historical future – if only as dire warnings […]. To the contrary, in a situation where people’s entire life-world has in the meanwhile undergone much further tentacular and capillary colonization, Fantasy’s appeal is to uncertain social classes or fractions who have been cast adrift and lost that confidence, so that they face their own present and future with horror or a resolve to have a good time before the Deluge – or both.68

In either its “Heroic” or “Horror” modes, by and large Fantasy for Suvin forecloses intervention points in favor of melancholy and political paralysis. And while the appeal of this sort of depressive thinking is undeniable, he concedes, it is not what we need. The essay thus closes in a somewhat unexpected place: a celebration of the greatness of Franz Kafka, and his literary descendants, in whom we see a kind of “indirect parable” confronting “grim times” in term that cannot be said to be SF, or even to possess much utopian courage, but which at the same time seem utterly necessary as a response to the many disasters of modernity (perhaps something on the order of the primal scream that, for Adorno, constitutes the spirit of poetry after Auschwitz): ← xxxiii | xxxiv →“the nightmare from which we cannot awaken into a dream.”69 Kafka’s fantasy is worthy precisely because it does not translate us to some fantastic world of magic or of horror, but rather excavates the horrors that so deeply infuse our own.

Suvin himself slides against his own more hopeful tendencies as a critic into the role of “the bearer of bad news” in the final supplementary essay, “Circumstances and Stances,” written for PMLA in 2004.70 Suvin’s strident articulation of the anti-utopian forces that have conquered and corrupted the university (and knowledge production under capitalism more generally) has become only more relevant in the decade since its initial publication. The stirring short essay names our present world as a dystopia – a difficult proposition to refute – and then dares us to respond. Suvin argues here that knowledge, and the practices that structure knowledge production, cannot be held independently from the need to respond to the ongoing disaster of history; epistemology and politics do not function independently, as we pretend, but rather as a kind of double helix, each one patterning the other: “Thus our answers can be found only in feedback with potential action.”71

“Those who do not put an explicitly defensible civic cognition at the heart of their professional cognition,” he goes on, “at best adopt the dominant epistemology of the time when they were students, and at worst adapt their cognition to the new epistemology of the Powers-That-Be.”72 For the study of SF, or the study of utopian thought, or the study of literature, or for work across the humanities in the broadest sense, here then is Suvin’s charge to us in our collective moment of danger; now let us get to work.

Gerry Canavan

Marquette University

October 2015

← xxxiv | xxxv →Bibliography

Asimov, Isaac. More Soviet Science Fiction. New York, 1982.

Bould, Mark. “Introduction: Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet, from Nemo to Neo,” in Mark Bould and China Miéville, eds., Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Middletown, CT, 2009. 1–26.

Bradbury, Ray. “No News, or What Killed the Dog?”, in Quicker than the Eye. New York, 1996. 158–169.

Dick, Philip K. “The Lucky Dog Pet Store,” in Vintage PKD. New York, 2007. 123–135.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Blue Ridge Summit, PA, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?”, in Josué V. Harari, trans. and ed., Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ithaca, NY, 1979. 141–160.


LIV, 472
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
aliens time machine satirical literature
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. LIV, 472 pp., 10 charts

Biographical notes

Darko Suvin (Author) Gerry Canavan (Editor)

Darko Suvin, scholar, critic and poet, was born in Yugoslavia, studied at the universities of Zagreb, Bristol, the Sorbonne and Yale and has taught in Europe and North America. He is Professor Emeritus of McGill University and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of numerous books and articles on literature and dramaturgy, culture, utopian and science fiction and political epistemology, as well as three volumes of poetry. In recent years he has been writing mainly about SFR Yugoslavia and communism. Gerry Canavan is Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University, specializing in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature. His research focuses on the relationship between science fiction and the political and cultural history of the post-war period, with special emphasis on ecology and the environment. He is an editor at Extrapolation and Science Fiction Film and Television, as well as the author of Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Octavia E. Butler (2016).


Title: Metamorphoses of Science Fiction