Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction

By George E. Slusser; Eric S. Rabkin | Go to book overview

Science Fiction and the Semiotics of Realism

J. Timothy Bagwell

Readers of Aristotle Poetics will recall his assertion in Chapter XXIV that "the use of impossible probabilities is preferable to that on unpersuasive possibilities" ( Golden and Hardison, p. 45). Aristotle is making a distinction between plot and subject matter, and his point seems to be that it is more important for the former to be convincing than for the latter to be believable. Aristotle is talking about epic (and secondarily about tragedy), and he imagines an extreme case in order to make his point. However, this extreme case is precisely that of science fiction. Even allowing for variations in definition or emphasis of the two poles, I think most readers of science fiction would agree that it must deal with what is currently impossible and that it must do so in a way that is plausible or "probable." Because the first criterion is one shared with other literary genres such as the fairy tale, our best bet, if we wish to understand the peculiarities of science fiction is to investigate the second, the probability of its plots. However, if we ignore the first criterion, the impossibility, we will misunderstand the kind of probability we are dealing with.

Any generic distinction that is purely canonical in nature, that is, it attempts to divide works into neat categories, is probably doomed from the start, doomed either to failure or to a useless reductivism. It is more useful to think of genres as in works than the other way around, that is, it is more useful to think of genres in terms of things like narrative functions, structures, and conventions that may or may not be operative in particular works and in various combinations. However, I would like to cite a particular story as an example of science fiction, not so much because the story has great literary merit

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