If I had to pick a genre that really gets my heart racing, it would be science fiction. Movies, books, and cartoons that amaze with their ideas and insights into technology. Works that speculate about the future and describe both terrifying and mind-blowing events.
During my pursuit of a Master’s degree in Language and Literature, I dedicated a considerable amount of time delving into this genre. My professor introduced me to Todorov, and armed with insights from Freud and C.-Ronay, things truly became fascinating. This journey led me to develop a model outlining various theories on the grotesque (see figure 2). If you’re struggling to grasp the essence of a science fiction text, I believe this model, coupled with the ensuing discussion, could serve as a catalyst for an engaging analysis. Alternatively, this article could inspire you to explore the enthralling theories about science fiction further.
Let me start by posing a rather intricate question: What transpires within the minds of both readers and characters in a text (hereinafter referred to as perceivers, encompassing both) when they encounter emotional contradictions incited by an object of scientific intrigue? And could this, in some way, be the crux of science fiction? These are the types of questions that numerous theorists investigate. Let’s begin with a recent one, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature.
C.-Ronay contemplates anomalies of the 19th century as precursors to the grotesque in science fiction (pertaining to both postmodern and earlier movements’ grotesque qualities, though the distinction lies in anomalies as monstrosities on one end [Romance and Modernism], and norms on the other [Postmodernism]). (Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan, 2002, p. 72). Scientific breakthroughs and methodologies expanded the boundaries of what could be deemed “natural”, and investigating anomalies spurred technological progress. The anomaly becomes the link between the familiar and the often terrifyingly novel, and it’s within this fusion that the grotesque resides. C.-Ronay cites Geoffrey Harpham, who holds a Ph.D. in Modern British and American Literature:
“[the grotesque] arises with the perception that something is illegitimately in something else. The most mundane of figures, this metaphor of co-presence, in, also harbors the essence of the grotesque, the sense that things that should be kept apart are fused together. Such fusions generate the reaction described clinically by Freud, who noted that when the elements of the unconscious ‘pierce into consciousness, we become aware of a distinct feeling of repulsion.’ “ (Harpham, Geoffrey Galt, 1982, P. 11)
According to Harpham, the grotesque comes to life when two factors that should remain distinct become intertwined (think of the literary example of an oxymoron that harmonizes two seemingly contradictory elements to yield a new meaning, like “screaming silence”).
Sigmund Freud and the Uncanny
Elaborating on Harpham’s reference to Sigmund Freud, we can delve into Freud’s exploration of the concept of the uncanny. The German term “das unheimliche” literally translates to the “non-homely”, which provides an intriguing notion I’ll return to shortly. Freud’s concept of the uncanny hinges on the distinction between “das heimliche” (homely) and “das unheimliche”. It’s worth noting the contrast between Freud’s approach and Harpham’s, as Freud employs the prefix “un” rather than “in” (a distinction that carries over into the English translation as “uncanny”). However, this doesn’t negate the presence of an underlying element as a prerequisite for either the terrifying or the grotesque—both revolve around the convergence of opposites. The single “un” is the sole factor differentiating “das heimliche” from “das unheimliche,” and true to Freud’s style, it evolves into a symbol of repression (Tatar, Maria M, 1981, p. 169). In Freud’s own words: “I will say at once that both courses lead to the same result: the “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (Freud, Sigmund. 1919). Put differently: “for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old – established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.” (ibid).
An example from Freud himself helps illustrate this point: “Concerning the factors of silence, solitude and darkness we can only say that they are actually elements in the production of that infantile morbid anxiety from which the majority of human beings have never become quite free.” (ibid).
The pivotal element that liberates us from the grip of the uncanny is knowledge: “With knowledge, the intellectual uncertainty created by an uncanny event yields to conviction, and the fantastic gives way either to the marvelous or to the strange. Once the token of repression is lifted from an uncanny event, what was formerly unheimlich becomes heimlich: the once hostile world becomes habitable again.” (Tatar, Maria M, 1981, P. 182).
Tzvetan Todorov and the Fantastic
The concepts of the fantastic, marvelous, and strange lead me to another theorist who references Freud. This theorist is Franco-Bulgarian historian Tzvetan Todorov, whose descriptions of the uncanny and the marvelous are worth considering. However, translating Todorov’s ideas presents some challenges. In Todorov’s original French, the concepts are referred to as “l’étrange” and “le merveilleux.” In this context, “l’étrange” leans more toward being something strange rather than uncanny. Allow me to explain Todorov’s concepts.
Todorov delves into how a perceiver’s determination of a text’s ending plays a critical role in categorizing the text within the fantastic genre (which can be combined with the subsequent genres), the uncanny genre, and the marvelous genre:
“At the story’s end, the reader makes a decision even if the character does not; he opts for one solution or the other, and thereby emerges from the fantastic. If he decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we say that the work belongs to another genre: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous.” (Todorov, Tzvetan, 1975, P. 41)
The question remains: Does this uncertainty persist throughout the text? In other words, even after the story concludes, do we find the pure form of the fantastic genre? (ibid, p. 44). It’s worth noting, however, that some view the fantastic as a modality rather than a strict genre. Dr. Rosemary Jackson suggests that the fantastic is more characterized by the presence of incomparable codes rather than a simple dichotomy of natural versus supernatural (Jackson, Rosemary, 1981, p. 35 and Johansen, web 1).
Todorov has devised a diagram to illustrate the transition from the uncanny to the marvelous (I’ve inserted the pure form of the fantastic in the middle):
The fantastic-uncanny becomes recognizable when events that appear supernatural throughout the story are ultimately given a rational explanation by the end (Todorov, Tzvetan, 1975, p. 44). Conversely, the uncanny in its pure form pertains to events “which may be readily accounted for by the laws of reason, but which are, in one way or another, incredible, extraordinary, shocking, singular, disturbing or unexpected, and which thereby provoke in the character and in the reader a reaction similar to that which works of the fantastic have made familiar.” (ibid, P. 47). The crucial distinction lies in the aftermath of reading the text (Todorov cites the Crime Novel as an example): one feels confident that no supernatural events have occurred (ibid, p. 49). What matters in this genre are the reactions it evokes, particularly fear, which the pure uncanny brings about—rather than “a material event defying reason.” (ibid, p. 47). Todorov places Freud’s entire uncanny theory within this genre (ibid). Fear is engendered by something rational, such as repression, and an individual’s knowledge and conscience dictate whether something is uncanny or not.
Yet, I find myself pondering why Todorov positions science fiction all the way on the right of the diagram under the category of the marvelous in its pure form, characterized by the lack of specific reactions to supernatural elements (as they are “natural” within the text’s universe—think of fairy tales) (ibid, p. 54). Todorov terms science fiction “instrumental marvelous” (ibid, p. 56), implying that the supernatural is rationalized but based on laws not yet recognized by the contemporary scientific community. He explains: “Contemporary fiction, when it does not slip into allegory, obeys the same mechanism: these narratives, starting from irrational premises, link the ‘facts’ they contain in a perfectly logical manner.” (ibid).
This contradicts the concept of the technological grotesque as a defining feature of science fiction—namely, the fusion of the familiar and the provocative that triggers the perceiver’s senses. For instance, consider a text by Jules Verne, where its technology may be termed marvelous since it wasn’t achievable in Verne’s era, yet its logic often alludes to existing 19th-century technologies, as seen in “From the Earth to the Moon” where a gun shoots passengers to the moon.
Niels Dalgaard, a Danish Ph.D. in Nordic Literature, points out a recurring issue every time Todorov discusses science fiction:
“The main problem that pops up every single time Todorov mentions sf, is that he does not distinguish between the metaempirical and the metaphysical (or supernatural). That leads to nonsense about SF working out of laws that the contemporary natural science does not recognize. That is not true, at least for the “core” of SF, the technologically toughest part, which is exactly the part that is busiest explaining the metaempirical rationally. On the contrary, here you find room for events that are not known in real life, but can be lead back to known laws or laws that do not defy known laws.” (Dalgaard, Niels, 1997, p. 28, translated from Danish)
Todorov’s final genre, the fantastic-marvelous, concerns stories that conclude by accepting the supernatural (Todorov, Tzvetan, 1989, p. 52). This acceptance contradicts Dalgaard’s view of science fiction. It’s interesting to note that while science fiction could be argued to lean toward the far right of Figure 1 as more marvelous, this contradicts the narrative of acceptance that the fantastic-marvelous genre implies.
Another criticism of Todorov’s theory revolves around his reliance on the ending to classify something as uncanny or marvelous. If one were to stop watching a movie or reading a book after only 10 minutes and never finish it, would the genre remain unresolved? While delving deeply into this discussion isn’t my intent, it’s plausible that a story could contain clues along its course that aid in determining its genre. Similarly, as dramaturgy employs foreshadowing regarding conflict escalation, one could consider the presentation as the phase where readers or viewers are educated and primed to follow the unfolding story.
Now, let’s delve into the concept of the grotesque. For Harpham, the grotesque emerges in the space or interval situated between the object and the perceiver (Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan, 2002, p. 77). Within the object, a gap exists between the form it originates from and the form it is evolving into—a developmental phase. The perceiver’s mind grapples with comprehending the entire form of the object, placing them in the middle of this gap. As Harpham articulates: ”although we have recognized a number of different forms in the object, we have not yet developed a clear sense of the dominant principle that defines it and organizes its various elements.” (ibid)
C.-Ronay extends Harpham’s theory by introducing yet another interval: ”whether the imaginary changes are possible or not, and on the other, what their social and ethical implications are.” (ibid, p. 79). The perceiver is confronted with the task of comprehending the object, even as the object undergoes a transformation that renders its final state unpredictable. Only because something about the object seems—using Freud’s terminology—“homely” are we even capable of passing judgment on it. Thus, one could argue that this movement might encompass both Freud’s “heimliche” and “unheimliche,” making repression a possible explanation for the experience of the grotesque. This also supports the idea that an object is not universally perceived as grotesque.
Simultaneously, the uncertainty described by C.-Ronay and Harpham isn’t far removed from Todorov’s concept of marvelous hesitation. Indeed, it’s in this interval that the perceiver contemplates the gap between the uncanny (the rational) and the marvelous (the supernatural). In this sense, the pure state of the fantastic becomes grotesque, as both involve a similar ambiguity. When this ambiguity concludes, it is no longer grotesque (I’ll revisit this shortly). The same can be said for the hesitation Freud delineates between “das heimliche” and “das unheimliche,” even when it is rationally explained as repression.
Therefore, to do justice to these ideas, it’s quite relevant to incorporate both Freud and Todorov, as they contribute to our comprehension of the perceiver’s uncertainty when confronted with an object that casts doubt on its rationale. This model should shed light on the theoretical inspiration and broaden the terminology system. This model is my own:
Interestingly, “das heimliche” is now positioned above the uncanny (which is why I use the German term—to avoid having two “uncanny” terms positioned differently), and “das unheimliche” is situated above the marvelous, which isn’t as strange as it might initially appear. The central point of “l’étrange” and “das heimliche” is something rational (it adheres to the laws of nature—only the feeling is strange, as discussed earlier). “Le merveilleux” and “das unheimliche” both involve the experience of something irrational.
The choice to label the title/the hesitation as “grotesque” is based on a straightforward decision. Alongside linguistic similarities, all the theories center on the perceiver’s consciousness. Whether it’s the uncanny, fantastic, or grotesque, we’re dealing with extremes that trigger what C.-Ronay terms “interpretative anxiety” (ibid, p. 78).
Science fiction plays on this very anxiety, stimulating its readers (ibid). While other genres such as horror and fantasy can also feature grotesque elements, the unique aspect of science fiction is its scientific perspective. Joanna Russ underscores this: ”Science fiction is not fantasy, for the standards of plausibility of fantasy derive not from science, but from the observation of life as it is – inner life, perhaps, in this case. Mistakes in scientific possibility do not turn science fiction into fantasy. They are merely mistakes.” (Russ, Joanna, 1975, p. 112).
So, how do we apply this model when analyzing science fiction? First and foremost, it’s crucial to identify the grotesque object(s) within the story. This grotesque object can be recognized by the anxiety it evokes in the perceiver. It’s identifiable by its inherent contradictions, allowing for an interpretation of how the perceiver is affected by the story’s viewpoint on technology, along with the ethical implications and the changes brought about by the object in the created world. Moreover, the model serves as a backdrop for interpreting the internal conflicts experienced by characters interacting with the technology—crucial elements in science fiction.
However, it’s worth noting that this doesn’t imply that an interest in the perceiver and rationale is unique to science fiction. Many perspectives exist on this matter (for instance, take a look at Kandel, Michael: Is Something New Happening in Science Fiction? Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar., 1998). SF-TH Inc.).
Concluding Thoughts: Law Set Free of Life
To bring this article to a close, let’s reflect on what occurs when the perceiver truly comprehends the grotesque. C.-Ronay proposes that the grotesque either sheds its defining characteristics or, more aptly put, transforms into the sublime (Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan, 2002, p. 80). The sublime doesn’t necessarily indicate full understanding of the grotesque; rather, its capacity for boundless interpretation allows the perceiver to immerse themselves in its cosmic power (ibid, p. 85). In essence, the sublime emerges when the terrifying becomes magnificent
This notion recalls Aristotle’s concept of catharsis at the conclusion of a tragedy—where the protagonist recognizes their error, leading to a purifying effect on the audience. It echoes the tension that the grotesque evokes within the perceiver. The grotesque offers a means to gain perspective—when encountering an anomaly, our senses are provoked, and we evolve. This process mirrors the study of anomalies versus regularities in the 19th century, which laid the groundwork for the modern (Western) comprehension of the world. Thus, science fiction becomes a manifestation of humanity’s aspiration to understand the world we inhabit (note that I’m not suggesting other literary genres lack the same aspiration; science fiction merely accentuates the role of science). Similar to anomalies, regularities provide crucial insight into the relationship between the sublime and the grotesque, as articulated by C.-Ronay: ”The sublime is law set free of life; the grotesque is life set free of law.” (ibid, p. 82). Consequently, if life suddenly equates to law, both the sublime and the grotesque dissipate, and hesitation comes to an end.
Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan: On the Grotesque in Science Fiction. In ”Science Fiction Studies”, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Marts 2002). SF-TH Inc.
Dalgaard, Niels: Den gode gamle fremtid. 1997: Museum Tusculanum Press
Freud, Sigmund: The Uncanny. 1919
Jackson, Rosemary: Fantasy. 1981. Methuen
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt: On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. 1982: Princeton: Princeton UP
Russ, Joanna: Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction. Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Jul., 1975). SF-TH Inc.
Tatar, Maria M.: The House of Fiction: Toward a definition of the Uncanny. 1981. Comparative Literature
Todorov, Tzvetan: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. 1975. Cornell University Press
Web 1: http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/forskning/konference/tekst.html?id=9724&oph=1