Life Writing and Science Fiction: Constructing Identities and Constructing Genres

By Rieder, John | Biography, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Life Writing and Science Fiction: Constructing Identities and Constructing Genres


Rieder, John, Biography


One might at first be taken aback by the juxtaposition of life writing and science fiction that sets the topic for this special issue. Aren't the two simply antithetical to one another--one deeply caught up in problems of authenticity and verifiability, the other premised on its non-reference to the real? Life writing engages in what seems the most commonsensical and inescapable of narratives, the story predicated on the linear chronology of an individual life; science fiction constructs narratives that plausibly and consistently disengage themselves from commonsense reality. Where life writing often presents itself as a form of witnessing or testimony, science fiction is often embraced as a form of escape from the mundane. The differences seem so obvious and so radical as to stymie productive comparison. But if one takes a moment to think about the classics of science fiction, it quickly becomes apparent that, for all their extravagance, they constantly employ the tropes and strategies of life writing. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has the form of an autobiography within an autobiography within a travel diary. H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The War of the Worlds are all first-person accounts bearing witness to traumatic experiences. And the same line of thought should suggest that science fiction has something to tell us about life writing, too. In another classic, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (reprinted in April 1926 in the first issue of the first magazine devoted to the genre, Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories), the straight-faced narrator's journalistic account of the "facts" about an experiment in mesmerism climaxes in the entranced Valdemar's uttering a kind of ultimatum to autobiographical reference: "and now--now--I am dead" (201). Not only do life writing and science fiction share significant narrative strategies, then, but there may also be a worthwhile dialogue between them concerning the epistemological, linguistic, and social parameters of narrative and selfhood. It is with that hope that this collection of essays sets out to rub these two very different types of writing up against one another and see what sparks the friction sets off. This essay will, by way of introduction, take a preliminary survey of what the writers in this volume suggest that science fiction and life writing jointly have to say about the construction of personal identities, and then attempt to articulate some related questions about the construction of genres.

IDENTITIES

The common ground shared by life writing and science fiction that the contributors to this issue focus on most frequently and emphatically is the construction of identities. In one way or another, and in quite different ways, every essay in the issue wrestles with this problem. One could take as the volume's keynote a sentence from Georgia Johnston's analysis of the ways sexuality and identity are constructed in relation to one another in Samuel R. Delany's life writing (Times Square Red, Times Square Blue) and science fiction (the four volume Neveryon series): "autobiography is not the story of subjectivity, but the story of discourse and power systems" (57). The first three essays--Dianne Newell and Jenea Tallentire's "For the Extended Family and the Universe: Judith Merril and Science Fiction Autobiography," Lisa Hammond Rashley's "Revisioning Gender: Inventing Women in Ursula K. Le Guin's Nonfiction," and Georgia Johnston's "Discourses of Autobiographical Desires: Samuel Delany's Neveryon Series"--approach the problem of identity construction primarily from the perspective of its function in life writing, all focusing especially on a particular discourse and power system, gender. Gender ideology is very much the focus of Kim Kirkpatrick's analysis of Alice Sheldon's science fiction in "Begin Again: James Tiptree, Jr.'s Opossum Tricks" as well. The final two essays take up the impact on identity formation of discourse and power systems of different types--the shaping of individual identities within the discourses of education and medicine, in Keith McDonald's "Days of Past Futures: Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go as 'Speculative Memoir'"; and the questions about identity and consciousness raised by the project of creating artificial intelligence, in Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint's "Of Neural Nets and Brains in Vats: Model Subjects in Galatea 2. …

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