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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.”

(emphasis his)

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.”)

12 Comments on Is There a Fantasy Equivalent to the SF Novum? A Rather Nerdy Exploration…

  1. Isn’t the “Novum” as it’s used here a bit of a tautology? Science fiction is differentiated from other fantastic fiction because of its unique novum, which is unique because it defines science fiction.

    Therefore, the unique fantasy novum is that fictionalization that uniquely characterizes fantasy.

    This kind of literary close reading and deconstruction has its place in literary theory, but I don’t know if it has any real practical application.

  2. Suvin (and his ideological heirs) have this thing that fantasy is mystical/religious (therefore icky–that’s not the term they use, though) whereas science fiction is rational and speculative (therefore superior). It’s mysterious to me where this dichotomy leaves work like Blish’s A Case of Conscience–religious sf written by a self-styled “devout agnostic” ringing out the rational changes on the speculation that Catholic theology might have some sort of real-world validity. Or old-school Unknown fantasy, which is at least as rigorous and irreligious in its speculation as old-school Astounding sf. Or a bunch of other stuff that gets lost in the dust of polemical criticism. China Miéville points out somewhere (the afterword to Red Planets, possibly) that genre definitions which don’t actually include much of the genre under definition might not have much utility. 

    But the idea of the novum itself is intriguing, when applied outside Suvin’s strict intent. “What’s different about this world?” is a question worth asking about any piece of imaginative fiction–along with the closely related “Was this story worth telling?”

    I’d gotten that far in my thinking when I was startled to notice mine was one of the names at the end of your column. I’ll shut up now, hoping this isn’t too intrusive.

  3. I think I am a bit out of my depth with your erudite nature, John, pun intended.


    Anyway, I am curious as to why you are picking those four texts and not others.  One might make an argument, for example, that Urban Fantasy might be similar to SF in Suvin’s formulation. (Take our world, and add a “magical” innovation.  



  4. Paul NYC // March 24, 2011 at 3:02 pm //

    This is way above my pay grade.

  5. I’ve been arguing this for a while, actually.

    Take subjunctivity level as posited in Delany’s “About 5750 words.” The oversight made by Delany (and Clute and Grant following him,) as I see it, is to say that SF has a subjunctivity level of “could happen” versus fantasy’s subjunctivity level of “could not happen.” Actually, if you apply philosophy’s notion of levels of possibility — temporal (technical/historical), metaphysical, logical — *all* fantastika (or strange fiction is my own prefered term) can be *defined* as any fiction that injects events that change subjunctivity level to “could not happen.” Practically, that maps to four flavours of, as I call em, quirks, with events that breach known history (erratum), known science (Suvin’s novum), the laws of nature (chimera) or the strictures of logic (sutura).

    Temporal quirks — the technical novum, the historical erratum — *are*, whatever we might like to believe, *im*possibilities. The novum could not (have) happen(ed) yet. The erratum could not (have) happen(ed) now. These are just, for some, fundamentally more arguable than the metaphysical chimera or logical sutura since both of the latter could not happen *ever* — hence the uber-rationalist’s refusal to recognise the often profoundly rational approach in certain types of strange fiction (fantastika) that are generally parsed as “fantasy.”

    That prejudice is tosh and piffle, depressingly superficial. The chimera need not be some pseudo-religious “magic,” and *is not* in a vast swathe of strange fiction/fantastika. Many canonical works of SF, from before the splitting off of Fantasy as a category in the 70s, use chimera and novum interchangeably. Many works of contemporary fantasists outside the tradition of Tolkien — see any volume of BAF — are working their quirks as conceits in the exact same way Suvin posits with the novum. And as for the sutura of the Absurdist and the Surrealist, that’s *almost never* the excused impossibility of “magic” — such a gloss would be at odds with the whole aesthetic of Kafka, Burroughs, Davenport, Delany in Dhalgren, Pinter in The Birthday Party, and so on.

    Anyhoo, I’ve blathered a shitload on this on my blog, if it’s theoretical tools you want. The post on “Narrative Modality” lays out the basics, if yer interested.

  6. Lou:

    I think Suvin’s decoupled idea, as presented briefly here, is rather tautological. It’s a little more complicated than that, as both James and Hal point out, but on its own it is a spindizzy of a concept. It powers itself by linking innovation very narrowly to material and technological novelty, and really shoves aside any other notion of invention or probability. My curiosity was in how it is put together, how it is used, and if there is utility in such a notion for fantasy. Thus, as an exercise pondering that “what if” and seeing how it would apply to some texts.



    I did not know that about Suvin, but that is pretty obvious in his writings, and I find that others who use his theory reproduce that without a lot of thought. I mean, Csicsery-Ronay does allow for fantasy the possibility of a similar application (and thus some sort of logic), but it does really damn all other genres, and anything remotely interstitial or cross-polinated, in its construction. I agree that the idea of a novum is intriguing, and I wonder if there is, if not some directly “practical” application, something to be gleaned from exploring the idea, whether to add understanding to the literature or to consider how ideas overlay assumptions and agendas onto the act of critical reading.

    Heh, no worries about “the intrusion.” I’ll be curious to hear what you think of the analysis.


    The Pauls:

    I will be a bit less theoretical next week, and I hope to show what I’m talking about more clearly in relation to texts. My critera for what I chose had more to do with what I had read fairly recently and a spread across time and perspectives.  It would be interesting to apply to many other texts, certainly.



    Thanks for the detailed comment, and for the pointer to your blog. This really advances the idea that grabbed my curiosity, and I appreciate the basic division of the quirks as you’ve laid them out.  I certainly agree with your characterization of the rationalist prejudice of Suvin’s novum which exemplifies what Gary K. Wolfe discusses at the start of Evaporating Genres about Suvin’s Marxist, utopian enterprise. He wants to elevate a privileged genre grounded in empirical, material hypotheses, his “cognitive logic,” which strikes me on some level as a daft idea, and on another as a sort of universal that exceeds his idea of the SF novum.  The idea itself mirrors a more classical conception of SF as posited by some pracitioners of “hard SF.” That is the more obvious tautology: that the genre is EXACTLY what one faction thinks it is, and that’s that.

    I’d like to play with that idea, which is part of what I hope to do next week.

  7. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. // March 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm //

    John, you’re embarking on an exciting project. I just wanted to make a small comment about your description of my understanding of the novum in The Seven Beauties, and how it affects the relationship of sf to other fantastic genres. I don’t think that the paragraph you quote about the specifically linguistic tools of different fantastic genres does say that sf is better or higher than other genres. That is certainly Suvin’s position, but it isn’t mine. I think you might have jumped the gun, not because I claimed that scientific materialism is superior to folk, archaic, religious, or phantasmagoric ways of thinking, but because you somehow assumed that I must think that because I spend so much time on the novum. I don’t think I tied the novum to empirical reality, the real world, or scientific observation. I just said it indicates newness vis a vis a culture’s understanding of the way things are. That understanding might be empirical or a consensual hallucination. I think sf is interesting because it does link itself to scientific materialism and critical thinking; but that’s not a judgment, unless you believe that other kinds of imagination are somehow less valid.  I’ve written (not in the 7 Beauties, but elsewhere) about the need for Left thinkers to get away from the prejudice against other kinds of fantastic writing than sf. I do think sf is a specific kind of fantasy; the novum is one of its main tools; and it is bound up with a certain broad world-view. As a matter of fact, I don’t share the world-view. I just enjoy the fiction and studying it. (And thanks for the kind words about the book.)

  8. This article was really interesting.  It brings me back to my days in grad school English!  I can see why science fiction, or at least good science fiction, would need a novum.  However, although certain types of fantasy can use a novum, in my opinion I think too much of a novum in any fantasy work would destroy the otherworldly illusion that great fantasy conveys. 

  9. Istvan (since I have used everyone else’s first names so far):

    Thank you so much for your comments; I’m glad that you like this project and I appreciate the clarification of your understanding of the novum. In the wider context of your book this makes sense, and I think in this instance I was reacting more to an implication within the idea of the novum in the context of SF’s comparison to other fantastic genres.  The SF novum often becomes contrasted with undertandings of other genres as something more coherent and rational, which is quite clear in Suvin and is something I have encountered in other critical writings. In hindsight I was reacting more to that notion when I responded to the quotation from your book, and the juxtaposition of the SF novum’s newness with other designations that lacked that same implied consistency. It struck me that the use of the novum in contradistinction to genres that have not been analyzed through such a lens makes those genres look more amorphous and lacking in internal logic.

    I think your use of the novum is more critical of the idea itself, and I’ve found it very helpful in looking at the idea from a different angle.

  10. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. // March 29, 2011 at 2:15 pm //

    John, the interesting (and new) aspect for me in the novum and sf is how much it is tied to the idea of the historically new itself. Other forms of fantasy prefer to go to the side (alternative worlds) or to the past. Of course, there are meta-science fictional pasts and presents; these would still follow the formal idea that history (as opposed to myth, say) depends on radically new things emerging. That’s actually pretty demanding for writers — how do you depict the radically new in narratives that like to tie things up in a familiar way? Often it’s a way to ironically point out that history/newness itself might seem mythlike when viewed from a world view that doesn’t buy into it. A Buddhist would consider the novum to be a collective delusion, but one that follows very familiar paths of delusion-creation. At one point or another all of these fictions start joking with each other and cutting into each others’ turf; they usually come to a point where they’re trying to talk about fictionality in the middle of fictions. That can be hilariously comic, or anxiety producing. The thing about the Suvinians is that they want their own extra-textual narrative of social struggle (I’m not unsympathetic to it, but still…) to be exempt from this dissolving process. I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a strong de-Suvinization in sf theory. Your project looks like part of that.

  11. Istvan:

    Thank you for that very thoughtful comment. I went back into your chapter on the novum and I’ve been reflecting on the question of newness the last few days, on the varieties of novelty and innovation that infuse fantastic literature. These ideas that texts have a sort of joking relationship, that there are struggles between renovation and convention, and that there are border wars and turf intrusions in both the production and reception of texts are all notions that I think we can usefully apply to the novum to de-Suvinate it. The extra-textuality of some super-organic “cognitive logic” erodes in the dynamism of applying the novum to both explicitly SF works and to other works of fantasy (which I hope to at least hint at in tomorrow’s column).  It seems essential to turn the novum into an idea that arises from the text rather than being imposed on it (which I think Suvin does).  Opening up the novum like that might allow for it to be utilized more fruitfully for thinking about the various historicities that a text references or re-interprets, and fertilize a more performative range of concepts (like Hal Duncan’s) that increase our understanding of how texts generate meaning and stimulate imagination.

  12. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. // March 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm //

    Well said.

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