Suvin, Darko. Defined by a Hollow: Essays on Utopia, Science Fiction and Political Epistemology. Ralahine Utopian Studies, Vol. 6. Bern: Peter Lang, 2010. xxxiii + 582 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-3-03911-403-0. $68.95.
I should preface these remarks with a health warning: when considering the work of any commentator, it is well to bear in mind the lens through which they view their topic. In the case of Darko Suvin, his lens is obvious, not to say blatant. It is supplied by Bakhtin, Bloch, Brecht, and behind them Karl Marx; so prominent a role do these names play in these essays that most of the time we seem to be reading a hymn of praise to their ideas, occasionally leavened or illustrated by a reference to sf. In this respect, my own lens is more obscure, even (perhaps particularly) to me, but while on the left, I am not so ideologically bound as Suvin, who at one point insists that Walter Benjamin is "a much less dubious role-model than Foucault, since he was not desperately reacting against the Communist Party, leftwing phenomenology, and Marxism but maintaining a fruitful critical dialog with them" (219). Though there is much in his work that I find myself applauding in general, there is equally much that I find myself in disagreement with in detail.
The point about the lens is that it provides context, and much of Suvin's work is about placing utopian and science fictions within the context of Marxist thought. In this he has been particularly successful, using ideas abstracted on the one hand from Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists and on the other from his beloved Bloch (the most quoted author in this collection other than Suvin himself), to create a two-pronged approach to the study of sf that is still the default academic position today. Indeed, Suvin's notions of cognitive estrangement and the novum gave the genre the sort of theoretical heft that made it worthy of academic study in the first place. It is probably fair to say that without Suvin sf would not exist as a subject of academic study the way it is today, which makes him one of the most important commentators in the modern history of the genre. I also happen to believe that in the detail of his system he was wrong, but I'll come back to that later.
To start with, this new collection is a conspectus of his views over the last forty years. It consists of fourteen essays dating from 1973 to 2007, interspersed with four sets of poems that cover roughly the same period. The second set of poems, "The Doldrums," dating from the late '90s and haunted by repeated references to the war in the former Yugoslavia (his birthplace) marks a caesura in his writing and thought. The war seemed to have as profound an effect upon Suvin's worldview as the earlier collapse of the Soviet Union or the later attack on the World Trade Center did on other intellectuals of left and right. From this point on, his essays become longer, looser in structure, less confident, as if he is trying to convince himself that his ideas haven't really changed. "When the ground inevitably shifts from under our feet, what may remain constant is our orientation" (273) he muses not long after the Balkans war, though I note the hesitation in that "may." The six earlier essays contain these insights; the eight later essays re-examine those insights and ponder their application without really taking us into fresh territory.
I doubt if it is entirely coincidental that these later essays have a new emphasis on "the long duration" (a phrase taken from the historians of the Annales school, though, so far as I can see, without attribution). The phrase crops up in just about every one of these later essays, as if current disappointments necessitate a new, more patient perspective. Coupled with this is a sense of a return to basics: two of the essays, "Living Labour and the Labour of Living" and "Inside the Whale," reconsider and, in the end, draw renewed energy from the works of Marx himself. …