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SF Megatext

Entry updated 19 December 2020. Tagged: Theme.

Science fiction is written in a kind of code, a difficult vernacular learned through an apprenticeship. Its decoding depends importantly on access to a megatext – the huge body of established moves or reading protocols that the reader learns through immersion in many hundreds of sf short stories and novels (and, with significantly less sophistication, from movies, television episodes, and games). The sf megatext comprises a virtual encyclopedia and specialized dictionary. For a story to be effective sf, it is insufficient that it invoke futuristic or extraterrestrial locales in ignorance of those narrative constraints or opportunities that already exist. These are embodied in science fiction's century and more of imagined worlds and their inhabitants, created via specific rhetorical moves, tools and lexicons.

Drawing on Philippe Hamon's 1973 study of the mechanisms of reading in "Un discours contraint" (1973 Poétique #16), Christine Brooke-Rose showed in her A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981) how J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955 3vols) works via such a parallel story or megatext. Her own poetics of the fantastic starts with a compressed modification of routine realism:

the realistic narrative is hitched to a megastory (history, geography), itself valorised, which doubles and illuminates it, creating expectations on the line of least resistance through a text already known, usually as close as possible to the reader's experience. Exoticism is reduced to the familiar. This gives points of anchorage, allows an economy of description and insures a general effect of the real that transcends any actual decoding since the references are not so much understood as simply recognized as proper names. (Brooke-Rose, p243)

A crucial role for a distinctive and evolving sf megatext was proposed independently in 1992 – as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, notes in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008), characterizing the megatext as a "shared subcultural thesaurus" – by Brian Attebery in Strategies of Fantasy (1992) and Damien Broderick in "Reading SF as a Mega-Text" (July 1992 New York Review of Science Fiction); the latter had investigated the SF megatext at length in his 1989 PhD dissertation. Its core function is radically unlike that of any realist megatext. While the lack of a single predictable "real-world" anchor threatens the security of sf's textual strategies, such novelties as Hyperspace, Parallel Worlds, Cyberspace, hyper-intelligent AI, Nanotechnology, and plug-in personality agents are very quickly taken up as the common property of a number of independent stories and authors.

As sf has become more accepted as a mass-market mode, certain limited but somewhat overlapping megatexts have emerged within franchised properties such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate SG-1, Terminator, and other series based on lucrative film or television series. The extension of sf and fantasy megatexts into board and computer gaming has developed into a series of virtual cults, such as Halo: Combat Evolved or World of Warcraft (see Online Worlds), whose megatexts, in a continuous state of communal expansion, can be far more ornate than once-and-for-all histories and genealogies.

An extensive sf generic megatext has been built up using a strategy of redundancy and over-coding. Each new work is embedded into an ever vaster web of interpenetrating semantic and tropic givens or vectors. Some of these have been dubbed "icons" by Gary K Wolfe in The Known and the Unknown (1979). Early candidates included the Spaceship, the Robot and the Monster, as well as paradigmatic items shared with the "real" world lexicon, such as the City, the wasteland and the barrier:

It is important to see what a megatextual iconography of sf does not propose. None of the candidates (Alien, robot, spaceship, etc.) has a single conventional weight or meaning even within a given generic timeframe or publishing regime. Familiarity, so necessary in alerting trained readers to the appropriate reception codes and strategies for concretizing an sf text, is in tension with a de-familiarizing impulse absolutely pivotal to the genre's specificity. Basic to the very definition of most other genres is stability in characteristic situations, emblems, actions and types of conflict and personality-response. Sf, by contrast, is – at its best – grounded in an unsettling Novum. Even so, a vast range of connotations hang above or behind any given sf text.

It is the creation of such a shared, icon-echoing, redundant and inconsistent megatext in the collective intertextuality of those works we name "sf" that gives this kind of writing its power, a power verging on obsession or dream and only available elsewhere in other somewhat comparable varieties of textuality: myth, fairytale, surrealism. This said, it is clearly the case in this encyclopedia that a broad-church but not supine understanding of "intertextuality" – according to which sf texts inhabit but are not comprised by the megatext (see also Fantastika) – is consistently applied. Sf texts dice with the mosaic of the given; they do not, even when suicidally submissive, normally drown in it.

This is why only readers inducted into the sf megatext web or intertext – only "native speakers" of its grammar – will be competent to retrieve or construct anything like the full semiotic density of a given text. Most of the rich meaning of sf overflows or escapes the "realistically"-sanctioned definitions of the words in the fiction, not to mention their unorthodox schemata of combination. Only those who care to learn the articulations of the mode will ever benefit from the peculiar coded beauty of its discourse. To theorize this knowledge is a task that has scarcely begun. [DB]

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