Darko Suvin

1. This book was first conceived and worked upon in Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 60s; it was written in its present form in North America and England in the 1970s. To those who might know the existential and ideological contexts of those spacetimes in sufficient detail, it might explain most elements of the book’s profile. However, since this may not be very interesting for the impatient reader of the 80s, and since every book ought to be its own best defense, in this brief Preface for my Japanese readers I shall confine myself to two matters only, which strike me as needing some bridging explanation. Appropriately for a book in which one of the main themes concerns the parallels, differences, and passage from spatial to temporal and then finally to a spatiotemporal imagination, these two matters will flow out of the passage of time from 1977, when this book’s manuscript was completed, to today, 1987 (which is, of course, also a passage in ideological space); and with the passage of geopolitical space from the English-language to the Japanese-language reader (which is, of course, also a passage in time since in spite of jet planes we still don’t live in synchronous times all over this shrinking globe, and Japan strikes me as being a very engaging and provoking mix of the 16th, 19th, and 21st centuries in terms of European social-time reckoning).

            Of course, with a total stay in Japan of less than two months, I am not really competent to speak about anything Japanese. I will nonetheless do so out of the sublime ignorance of what the classical Chinese called foreign barbarians and the Japanese, in a geo/graphic spatial metaphor, the gaijin, the outsiders. Those standing outside often cherish the illusion that a glance from a sympathetic, concerned, but not uncritical outsider may stumble on some visions which long familiarity has dulled for the insiders: as Hegel taught us, what is known (bekannt) is not necessarily cognized or properly understood (erkannt). The seamy yet exhilarating aspects of Japanese megalopolis and silicon-chip technology are today in fact being appropriated by the latest interesting US SF development (the only interesting exception, after the feminist SF, within a desert orgy of crass commercial lowering of standards in the SF of the Star Wars era), the cyberpunk of Gibson and Co., as a metaphor for new existential modes of alienated life. For me personally or if you wish intimately Japan is, furthermore, not only a very real nitty-gritty country which is one of the wonders and delights of my life experience (and I don’t mean primarily Nara temples but the back streets of Tokyo, such as at Nishi-waseda, and the people found there) and where I by now have dear friends and esteemed colleagues; it is also the country of a unique tradition culminating, say, in the Bunraku, the Tales of Genji, Hokusai’s Views of Fuji ukiyo-e, and  the subtle Japanese language. All of these I despair of ever mastering yet I persist in studying and  using — and probably abusing — in my other guise of writer of haiku, tankas or sedôkas as well as of some short stories (not SF but parables).

            Among other things Japanese — indeed chronologically for me the first of all the things Japanese — I am a largely ignorant but warm lover of Japanese SF, who has read (I think) all that has been translated into European languages, from Russian to English. The works of Kobo Abe, of Shinichi Hoshi, of my friend Sakyo Komatsu, and of so many other significant SF writers of whom I know only by hearsay since the translations are so few, testify that such experiences must be heard by us all, that they have already added a special poetic shudder to world literature — without imitating the dominant US models. Such works are much too little known by us ignorant foreigners, who should learn much more about your SF works and worlds. Only so can we become engaged in the common enterprise of making our little inhabited world inhabitable.

2. In the light of all this, my reflections will focus on the relationships of SF to technology and to politics.

            Japan has been the first nation to experience the terrible fruits of “value-free” bourgeois science: first at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then in the pollution and ecocide of the beautiful country not only of so many clear cultural beacons of mankind but, most important, of the gentle, long-suffering, patient — sometimes I feel too patient — , talented, and all in all most admirable Japanese people. (I don’t dispute that the terrible societal pressures of school etc. brainwashes most males into good retainers of the large corporations; but allow me for the moment to speak as a lover rather than a critic.) It may therefore be less difficult here to understand what has by many of my (bourgeois or liberal) reviewers been felt as excessive moralizing or prescriptiveness of my position about art in general and SF in particular. I deny that it is moralistic: it simply says that art flows out of and finally (with many crucial mediations which no critic can forget) returns to the encompassing horizon of relationships between people; and that if in proportion to its significance it clarifies such relationships, it makes them more understandable and therefore potentially manageable, and so makes life lighter. This is to my mind a statement of fact, but of course it is also normative in the sense that it establishes potentialities against which all actual achievements cannot fail to be judged. The nature of norms is, I trust, open to debate: mine are, if one needs a label, neo-Marxist, yours, gentle reader, may be less explicit or different: but to positivistically deny the existence of norms strikes me as perverse and deeply alienated. Life progresses through choices, and for us people (Homo sapiens) choice also means responsibility.

            Does this mean we should abandon the technology that led to Hiroshima and today’s physical and mental pollutions? Not necessarily. But I think the much more terrible prospects of molecular engineering, computer control of all our financial transactions (the Gestapo and the Belsen doctors were naive in comparison to that!), etc. etc., all mean that we must put it under rational control and wrest it out of the hands of the mad military and the capitalist profit-makers. We must resolutely abandon the notion of a purely mathematized, quantified, value-free, non-qualitative science. We cannot and should not go back to the Middle Ages, to magic and alchemy: I for one would not want to live in a world without water closets, electricity, smallpox vaccine or even telephones and airplanes (how could I come to Japan or talk to my Japanese friends then?). But we can learn from the derided “qualitative physics” that we are not masters but stewards of our planet, which will finally rebel if we vex it too much (we can already see that in the new diseases, the failing of the ozone layer, the African drought, etc.). We keep it in trust for humanity as a whole, comprising not only the powerless nations and classes of today (the four whales that hold up the world: women, the workers, the lovers, the learning) but also the past and the future generations. Writings which cannot speak (in the properly oblique, roundabout, parabolic ways of fiction) to the relevance of our existence in such a world are irrelevant to the world. Writings which do speak about and to it are exercises in mental hygiene: they are what I mean by liberating cognitive statements. And only cognition, true understanding, can lead us to an intelligent politics of the human species — which has nothing in common with the derisory antics of parliamentary parties but means, as in ancient Greece (and China or Japan), “the affairs of the polis, the community”, its sickness or health. Marx has as much in common, for me, with Aristotle and Confucius or Me-ti (as their negation but also dialectical absorption of the positive aspects of a genuine conservatism) as with Jefferson. But all of them would have agreed that (as the ancient Romans put it) salus rei publicae suprema lex, the salvation of the body politic is the supreme rule. While I don’t at all wish to have art (nor SF) be deadly earnest preaching, while I think there is a place for readable escapism of non-pernicious kinds for our voyages on the Yamanote subway line or the Shinkansen high-speed train, I must impenitently maintain the stance of this book that there is no value-free description, either in SF or in SF criticism. Pretending that there is one means simply that you are unwilling to discuss the presuppositions of your values. This seems to me unworthy of an intellectual (and as Gramsci and Brecht noted, every being that plans for tomorrow and makes choices is an intellectual).

            How do I, then, think one should approach SF? Perhaps this can be in brief explicated here  by transcribing the speech I sent to the SF Research Association when it gave me its annual Pilgrim Award:

     “From my earliest reading of Verne, Wells, Thomas More, and the Groff Conklin anthologies which circulated from hand to hand in postwar Yugoslavia, I have as a socialist been fascinated by the “it ain’t necessarily so” aspect of SF — which, for me does not start with Gernsback, Verne, or even Shelley, but with the universal legends of Earthly Paradise and the Promethean impulse toward a knowledge to be wedded to self-governing happiness on this Earth.  Of course, this embraces also all the narrations which deal with analogs to such radically new relationships among people — however narratively estranged into other worlds and other figures such relationships might be, for the good and sufficient reason that one needs a complex optical system in order to see oneself.  Bearing in mind that every SF narration is a dialog with the reader here and now, this also embraces all the stories that deal with radically worse relationships than the reader knows, since his/her reaction to such stories — by the rule of minus times minus makes plus or of negating the negation — recuperates these new maps of hell for the positive vision.

     Looking back upon my criticism of SF, it seems to me that I have tried to mimic in it this stubbornly contrary and contesting backbone of the narrations I was writing about.  I have contested Henry Ford’s saying “History is bunk,” and tried to persuade my readers that an understanding of the living, even if subterranean, traditions of the past is the only way to give the present a chance of evolving into a tolerable future.  I have contested the saying, whose equally immortalizable author I forget at the moment, “SF is what I mean when I point at some books,” and tried to persuade my readers that any general statements about SF have to be a negotiation between empirical evidence and logically as well as sociohistorically defensible notions and systems of notions.  I  have contested the twin orthodoxies that SF is either the singer of technological progress/breakdown (as the case may be) or a thin disguise for the expression of eternal and mythical human-cum-cosmic verities.  Instead, I have tried to at least approach a systematic argument on how history and society are not simply the contexts of fiction but its inly interfused factors,  shaping  it at least as intimately as shores shape a river or blanks shape a letter.  Finally — and possibly as a premise to all the other stances — I have contested on the one hand the academic elitism wrinkling its none too perfect nose at the sight of popular literature and art, and on the other hand the fannish shoreless ocean of indiscriminately happy passages to continents full of masterpieces miraculously emerging year upon year.

      And yet, SF is not only ‘it ain’t necessarily so’ but also ‘things could be otherwise’; not only militant but also (at least in approximation) triumphant.  Taking my cue from the matter at hand (as any materialist should), I  too have tried to be positive about it and about its criticism, and to say something about those writings which help us to illuminate our interrelated existences: of More, Cyrano, Morris, Wells or Zamyatin, but also of Čapek, Dick, Le Guin, the Strugatskys or Lem.  How much I may have succeeded in that in my own writings, or in coediting some books, but above all the journal Science-Fiction Studies, is for you to say.”

3. But then, some of my well-meaning middle-ground critics asked, if you think SF should do such-and-such, why don’t you deal with the significant modern SF? Why stop at theory plus ancient history? I have two answers to this correct question. First, the present cannot be understood outside of a double perspective, synchronic (theoretical) and diachronic (historical). This book tries to supply such perspectives for future work. Second, we are all limited by time, money, sympathy, and so on. I did here what I could with the means at my disposal, and I am happy to see that some of my colleagues, in particular (though not exclusively) many of the collaborators of the periodical Science-Fiction Studies, have been able to use some of my instruments for work of their own. Furthermore, I have after 1979 committed two more books on SF which not only apply but also, I trust, significantly build on the horizons of this one.

            The first one is Victorian SF in the UK: The Discourses of Knowledge and of Power, published in Boston 1983. This monster of 500 pages focusses on all the SF books published in Britain between 1848 and 1900, beginning with an annotated bibliography of ca. 400 titles, continuing with an identification of most of the authors, and ending with a long study of the social discourses involved: who (which social groups) was in these texts talking to whom and for what axiological and ideological purposes; and finally, how can such books therefore be most usefully read as participants in this social discourse, which I found polarized between Power and Knowledge. This second book could thus supply a partial answer to those of my critics (mainly from the Left) who have rightly, if somewhat impatiently, complained about the lack of concrete institutional discussions in the present book. But that book is a frame-setting overview, and it never pretended to be a complete and detailed history (which would have to be written by a team with the necessary, and today non-existent, financial and other presuppositions, rather than by a single immodest know-it-all).

            The second book, just appearing as I write this (London, 1987) is Positions and Presuppositions in SF, a collection of my essays written at the same time or after the present book. They  attempt to deal, first, with further developments in SF theory, in particular with the thesis that all SF narrations are extended metaphors and parables about the relationships in the author’s world. They also discuss, second, some central modern writers in the world (Lem, Dick, Le Guin, Yefremov, Asimov, the Strugatskys, the Brauns, C. Smith) as well as some crucial issues in SF criticism and teaching. Both of these two later books of mine would then explain further how I think one should approach SF.

            In an ideal world, of course, they — as well as some further essays not collected in them, about Weinbaum, utopias, etc. — would have been presented to the Japanese reader at the same time. In the real world of commercial and other strictures, I can only hope that such curious readers — who would take the moldy slogan of “a sense of wonder” so seriously that they might in its name be willing to put into question their own presuppositions while weighing those of the present book — will like the book whose Preface I am now concluding so much that I will be able to say to my kind Japanese publishers: “Now, since you had a succes with the first book, why don’t you publish what I’m writing in the 1980s?”.

Dômo arigatô!

                                                                       Darko Suvin, Montreal, March 1987

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