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» » The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction
The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction


Istvan Csicsery-Ronay


The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction


Literature & Fiction

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Wesleyan University Press (November 28, 2008)




History and Criticism



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The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay

As the world undergoes daily transformations through the application of technoscience to every aspect of life, science fiction has become an essential mode of imagining the horizons of possibility. However much science fiction texts vary in artistic quality and intellectual sophistication, they share in a mass social energy and a desire to imagine a collective future for the human species and the world. At this moment, a strikingly high proportion of films, commercial art, popular music, video and computer games, and non-genre fiction have become what Csicsery-Ronay calls science fictional, stimulating science-fictional habits of mind. We no longer treat science fiction as merely a genre-engine producing formulaic effects, but as a mode of awareness, which frames experiences as if they were aspects of science fiction. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction describes science fiction as a constellation of seven diverse cognitive attractions that are particularly formative of science-fictionality. These are the "seven beauties" of the title: fictive neology, fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, the science-fictional sublime, the science-fictional grotesque, and the Technologiade, or the epic of technsocience's development into a global regime.
This is a very productive approach to science fiction studies. Instead of dwelling on problems of definition (and exclusion), Csicsery-Ronay explores seven qualities that combine to varying degrees in all the genre's works.

You don't need to be an academic to read this book (although academics are its audience). You do have to be well versed in science fiction, though. For those who know the classics of SF film and literature, Csicsery-Ronay both deftty explores the themes, styles, and literary effects that have recombined over the past two centuries to create SF, as well as discusses the many social and historical reasons for the genre's various shifting forms and interests.

I have found his seven-fold approach especially useful for organizing undergraduate classes on SF.
This book is an extension of Csicesry-Ronay Jr.'s article he published in 1991, I think. But his SF arguments are nevertheless interesting.
Sci-Fi Lit Crit! And just amazingly well done sci-fi lit crit. This book is a must for fans ready to think about the mechanics of the pleasure.
In chapter 5 of this book, author Csicsery-Ronay draws parallels between the "sense of wonder" in science fiction and the notion of "the sublime" in the philosophical writings of Emmanuel Kant and Edmund Burke. That one point of discussion is typical of the book, and I think it stands as a good way to encapsulate what sort of a book this is and where it's coming from.

"Seven Beauties" is a piece of scholarly academic writing, and therefor is dense in style, laced with jargon, sometimes convoluted in sentence structure, and formidable in its vocabulary. While I wouldn't say that a graduate degree in philosophy or literary theory is a requirement to understanding this book, it sure would help. But on the other hand, with enough patience, enough willingness to read some sentences and paragraphs 2 or 3 times over, and perhaps with the help of a dictionary or two, any reasonably educated SF fan should be able to struggle through it.

Personally, I often didn't have the patience to reread and re-reread the book's many difficult passages, so I'm afraid quite a few of Csicsery-Ronay's ideas went sailing over my head, their presentation too stratospheric to even ruffle my hair.

But certainly not all of his ideas. At times I found Csicsery-Ronay's prose quite lucid, and at those times his ideas were usually interesting and enlightening. I remember in particular finding his discussion of the use of language in Dune quite intelligent and informative.

So if you're interested in science fiction studies and you're undaunted by the prospect of a lot of viscous, scholar-ese writing, I think you'll find this book quite rewarding. For impatient plebeians like myself, the operative word might be more "frustrating" than "rewarding."
Csicsery-Ronay's epigraph for his Preface, "I wanted to have a bird's view; I ended up in outer space," encapsulates how he came to write this work on science fiction--or rather how he tumbled into it, might be more apropos. A professor of science fiction at DePauw University, editor of the periodical Science Fiction Studies, and author of previous books on science fiction, he started out to write a book on the philosophical and historical aspects of the literary field he had devoted most of his professional life to which would be in the style of and the broad, diverse category of academic literary criticism of interest to both specialists and general readers. Instead, with no guidance from major literary theorists and critics such as Georg Lukacs and Northrop Frye and others who had little or nothing to say about science fiction; deepening insights and novel perspectives; clarification of his own, singular grasp of science fiction; and the increasing merger of the mentality inherent in science fiction and the culture dominated by technology and media, the author produced (in his words) a "work of steampunk criticism."

The title is also that of a medieval Persian poem in which a king discovers a secret room in his palace where there are portraits of seven beauties. The portraits are allegories for seven cosmic principles. The king falls in love with each portrait/allegory, searches the seven areas of the known world for them, and builds a palace with seven domes on honor of the beauties. Csicsery-Ronay's seven "beauties" of science fiction are: fictive neology (words), fictive novums (new thing), future history, imaginary science, the science-fictional sublime, the science-fictional grotesque, and the technologiade. These "beauties," cognitive attractions or perhaps tools for thought or however they might be regarded, "compose a constellation of thoughts that sf helps us to become conscious of." For Csicsery-Ronay, sf is not just entertainment in popular culture, but a trailblazing, inventive attempt, and often successful one, to disclose the principles and the basics and realities of modern life and a picture of the future rooted in these.

Csicsery-Ronay extrapolates from science more than than analyzes it. The book is not conventional literary criticism. It is as if the author was affected by science fiction, not simply probing it for insights or satisfied with an explanatory perspective. His goal is to "understand science fictionality [phrase in italics in original] as a way of thinking about the world, made concrete in many different media and styles, rather than as a particular market nice or genre category." Not quite sure what he ended up with, Csicsery-Ronay says the main purpose of this book is "to inspire better ones, not have the last word." It remains to be seen if anyone will or can follow the unusual, idiosyncratic, yet germane and illuminating path he has gone down. But whether or not, science fiction readers will find their own understandings and in some cases, convictions affirmed here.

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