Entry updated 14 March 2022. Tagged: Theme.
In his important early work of sf theory, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (1979), Yugoslav-born Professor Darko Suvin situated sf as a literary form as marked by two unusual devices: Cognitive Estrangement and the Novum. The former is distinctive in creating and understanding the imagined world as different from our own, by means of scientific observation, theorizing and empirical experiment. Such new textual worlds are set off from ours chiefly by means of a drastic disruption, an anomalous breach in accepted verities; in short, an intrusive novelty so strange, and at first inexplicable, that it deserves a category of its own: the novum.
Examples of the sf novum include Time Travel, Invasion from space, mutation (see Mutants), Disaster, radical scientific and Conceptual Breakthroughs, Psi Powers, hyperintelligent AI, the Singularity, and many others of a more idiosyncratic kind. For example, John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (6 January-3 February 1951 Collier's Weekly; as "Revolt of the Triffids"; 1951; rev 1951; orig version vt Revolt of the Triffids 1952) has two novums that reinforce each other: sudden almost universal blindness, and a subsequent fight for survival against lethal mobile plants, the Triffids. Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook) takes humans to a planet with an incomprehensible global mind, which science proves incapable of comprehending. At the farthest extreme, the immense cosmographies of Olaf Stapledon, especially Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937), comprise almost nothing but a sequence of cognitive shocks and novums as he traces the Future History of life on Earth and then the whole universe.
For Suvin, whose theoretical approach to sf derives from non-communist Marxism, the novum is a device for casting light on ourselves: "All the epistemological, ideological, and narrative implications and correlatives of the novum lead to the conclusion that significant sf is in fact a specifically roundabout way of commenting on an author's collective context." For many sf writers, admittedly, use of a novum is less grandly ambitious: it can be just a Big Dumb Event or Big Dumb Object (a Starship as big as a planet, say, or a traversable Wormhole through space and time) that permits genre-specific kinds of exploration, adventure and displaced fantasies of omnipotence or at least supreme competence. In the strict sense, though, the novum is a conceptual challenge to everything we hold dear, often including today's hard-won scientific knowledge and activities, and even the nature and worth of human consciousness, individual and social alike. The sometimes epiphanic moment common to Hard SF in particular, when the novum is seen to comprise a platform through which a new understanding of the world can be gained, is a central marker of Conceptual Breakthrough. [DB]
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