Using Formal Elements to Reaffirm Meaning

I’ve just about finished my reading list. I read Sphinx (Anne Garréta), Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman), The Argonauts (Maggie Nelson), and Triton (Samuel R. Delany). I’m almost done with The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.), a critical work that aims to define what makes science fiction science fiction.

I purposely steered this project away from critical works: my goal is to see what the books say, and to use literary analysis as my main tool. I’m interested in the words and how different authors use them differently. I want to draw my conclusions through looking at the words themselves. How do the characters in different works talk about concepts of gender and sex? How do those characters perceive the relationship between different genders? How do different authors use formal elements like pronouns and sentence structure to ground their concepts and ideas—and, alternatively, how do formal elements detract from the ideas and concepts? These are the questions I am pursuing. That said, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction has been a formative read. The book doesn’t really talk about gender, aside from one or two examples; the “seven beauties” it discusses are fictive neology, fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, the science-fictional sublime, the science-fictional grotesque, and the technologiade. However, I think that fictive neology, fictive novums, and future history are especially relevant to many of the works I’m reading.

The term “fictive neology” refers to “new words,” or the words that a sf author invents. How do these formal elements—these new words—shape the narrative? The author uses The Left Hand of Darkness as an example, specifically citing “kemmer,” which is the temporary state of estrus during which the Gethenians become “sexed” and “gendered.” According to The Seven Beauties, “kemmer is thus also a heuristic device posed to inspire real human people to think about their own gender qualities, and to imagine how gender influences every aspect of culture and consciousness” (43). Kemmer is an idea, but the word itself is a fundamental part of that idea. The idea of fictive neology also applies to things like pronouns. In the works I’m reading, pronouns aren’t always new—In Butler’s trilogy, “it” is the pronoun of choice for the ooloi. But sometimes they are invented: “ke” is the pronoun for the unsexed, androgynous prepubescents in The Golden Witchbreed, and “per” is the pronoun for everyone in the utopia of Woman on the Edge of Time. In Sphinx, there are no pronouns at all (for the two main characters)—Sphinx isn’t really science fiction, but the lack of pronouns serves a similar (though maybe subtler) purpose as the fictive neologies in other sf works: linguistic structures reaffirm and sometimes create social structures.

Moving forward, my plan is to continue to read and re-read. I’m also planning on starting the writing stage of my research: it is going to be a challenge to sift through everything I’ve read and am going to read and write something coherent about all of it.

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