Is There a Fantasy Equivalent to the SF Novum? A Rather Nerdy Exploration…
“Even more influential in sf theory than cognitive estrangement is Suvin’s concept of the novum. The novum is the historical innovation or novelty in an sf text from which the most important distinctions between the world of the tale from the world of the reader stem. It is, by definition, rational, as opposed to the supernatural intrusions of marvelous tales, ghost stories, high fantasy and other genres of the fantastic. In practice, the novum appears as an invention or discovery around which the characters and setting organize themselves in a cogent, historically plausible way.” – Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., “Marxist theory and science fiction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction pp. 118-119.
“[I]n SF, ‘the idea’ is the hero.” – Farah Mendlesohn, “Introduction: Reading Science Fiction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, p. 4.
The differences between science fiction and fantasy have been characterized and analyzed in many different ways, from very simple bifurcations (science vs. humanities, material vs. spiritual, etc.) to more complicated formations that try to discover the core logic of each genre’s narrative strategies (logic in this case meaning “convincing forcefulness; inexorable truth or persuasiveness“). Some observers have argued for its uniqueness while others have averred that it is part of a broader genre, such as fantastika (that would be me, for example). As I read more criticism, academic and descriptive, I see an odd trend, where SF obtains a more rigorous attention that sets it off not just from “fantasy,” but from all other forms of fantastic literature.
This is not problematic on the face of it, but as I read more about genre, narrative, and the relationship of the reader to the text, I see a hierarchy emerging where SF is (explicitly or implicitly) characterized as the pinnacle of fantastic literature and the rest exist in a sort of unruly mob below it. While there have been some excellent discussions of how fantasy literature is structured and how it works, it seems that SF is bestowed with an imprimatur of greater validity by being analyzed with a theoretical tool that grants it a privileged status, not just unique but better, for a variety of reasons.
The example that I encounter over and over is that of the novum, which is defined in the quotation that opens this column. This is a theory of scholar Darko Suvin, who has over the past several decades elaborated and reified the concept to the point where it has spread more widely in SF criticism as both a heuristic and descriptive device for formulating and contrasting SF’s primary difference from other sorts of literature. For Suvin
“SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance of a fictional novelty (novum, innovation) validated both by being continuous with a body of already existing cognitions and by being a ‘mental experiment’ based on cognitive logic.”
SF is thus a very particular sort of literary production, grounded in empirical fact, referring back to the “real world” by positing a different fictional world that is not demonstrably of the past or present but that can be inferred as possible.
That all sounds well and good, but the language of “logic” and rationality is often contrasted with the implicitly unreal and language-bound worlds of fantasy. Take, for example, Csicsery-Ronay’s explanation of the difference:
“All fantastic genres make some use of fictive neology. Heroic fantasy invents word to evoke the archaic origins of its worlds. Phantasmagoric satire delights in wordplay that simultaneously masks and insinuates the objects of its derision. Gothic and supernatural tales invoke esoteric and folkloric terms to create the sense of a concealed or forgotten past. SF is distinct in that its fictive neologies connote newness and innovation vis-a-vis the historical present of the reader’s culture. They are fictive signi novi, signs of the new.” – The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, p. 13
Fantasy is granted “some use” of fictive neology, but consider how the fantastic genres are characterized: as relating to the past, the archaic, and the comic. They are folk categories, ephemeral next to the reasoned, material novum of SF. They lack the groundedness and authoritative connection that SF has to “the real world.” They are not “signs of the new;” they are timeworn veneers and regurgitations drawn from the past, but lack actual historical foundations. SF is “innovative” while fantasy is, clearly, not.
This is not a dismissal on my part of the SF novum; Csiscery-Ronay’s book is a fantastic elaboration of several different criteria for delimiting and understanding SF. In applying this formulation, however, there is essentially a degradation of other genres of fantastika. This is not, however, inherent in the idea of the novum, as Bo Fowler points out:
“Crucially it is not the mere presence of a novum that distinguishes SF from the rest of literature, since as McHale points out; ‘any fiction of any genre involves at least one novum — a character who did not exist in the empirical world, an event that did not really occur’. What distinguishes SF is the type of novum it utilises.”
The novum can be a broader tool for understanding the central fictive conceit that sets a literary work apart from, yet connects it back to, the real world. There is a level of engagement that all works of fiction work at, a level of both abstraction and concretization. As Carl Malmgren put it:
“In the concretization process, the reader verifies the motifs that have been decoded by comparing them with a preacquired encyclopedia of knowledge encompassing the modes and laws of physical phenomena, the orms of versimilar behavior, and a compendium of ‘real world’ information brought to the text.
All narrative invokes and provokes this primary act of concretization.”
He then goes on to reiterate the Suvinian idea of the SF novum with its “novelty. . . unlike the worlds of realistic fiction.” But even though he leaves out other forms of “non-realistic” fiction, he does point out the basic action of comprehension that the reader must utilize to make sense of the novum and the story that it dwells within. In all acts of reading, regardless of a text’s identification with reality, all readers hypostatize the world that is signified in the text, picking up those clues and checking them against their own knowledge and competencies. This is how a reader apprehends and integrates the novum into their imagination, as a primary template for understanding the rules of the world conjured in the text.
I emphasize this because I think that within this play of ideas we can begin to tease out an idea of a fantastikal novum, the particular novelty or innovation that powers fantastic literature. Later in his book Csicsery-Ronay leaves a clue for germinating that idea. “A well-constructed work of fantasy, for example, might develop its magical premises with compelling narrative logic” (p. 63). While qualifying that idea, he does open up the possibility that other genres of fantastika can have a sort of logic. He lodges it in the “narrative,” and thus at the level of language rather than knowledge, but this creates a conceptual aperture that can be used to revise the idea of novum into a broader, but not diffuse, analytical device.
Farah Mendlesohn has said “I believe that the fantastic is an area of literature that is heavily dependent on the dialectic between author and reader for the construction of a sense of wonder, that it is a fiction of consensual construction of belief” (Rhetorics of Fantasy, p. xiii). Her work has given us a set of tools for examining the structure and workings of fantasy literature, but can we get to its core logic as has been done for SF? I think this is possible, and I believe that we can also establish linkages to the real world in crafting a novum of the fantastikal. It requires putting more emphasis on that elementary dialectic and considering how our imaginations take in the particular sort of information that the fantastikal novum communicates to us. Rather than just try to reformulate it in purely theoretical terms, I want to put it together in relation to fantasy texts. That will be the subject of next week’s column.
(For those who want a preview, the four texts will be Hope Mirlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, James Enge’s The Wolf Age, Ursula LeGuin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and Amal al-Mohtar’s story “The Green Book.”)
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