Seo-Young Chu


On her book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation

Cover Interview of June 20, 2011

In a nutshell

The main purpose of Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? is to offer a science-fictional theory of representation.

Most people think of science fiction as a genre devoted not to the representation of reality but to the imagining of places and things that have no real existence.  I argue that science fiction does refer to reality.  The objects of science-fictional representation do have real existence.  But unlike the kinds of objects associated with realism (objects like, say, the apple that you may have eaten this morning), the objects represented in science fiction defy simple comprehension.

Consider, for example, the globalized world.  The main reason why the globalized world resists straightforward comprehension is the fact that its literal dimensions operate independently of its figurative dimensions.

Literally the globalized world is a concrete object that possesses measurable dimensions (e.g., a radius of approximately 6,378 kilometers).  Figuratively the globalized world is a nebulous and ever-changing web where two people separated by vast physical distance might feel as if they’re actually sitting face-to-face while talking to each other through Skype.

Video conferencing, jet planes, inexpensive cell phones, and other globalizing technologies have created a chasm between the literal and figurative dimensions of our world—a chasm that we perceive through hallucinatory effects including culture shock and jetlag.

Realism, or what most people call “realism,” is inadequate to the task of rendering such elusive phenomena fully available for representation.  But science fiction—a narrative universe wherein the literal and the figurative share ontological status—can accommodate representations of the globalized world and other such phenomena that elude the literal/figurative dichotomy.

To cite a well-known instance from popular culture:  the superhuman powers of mutant X-Men (e.g., teleportation) literally embody the figures of speech that we often invoke to describe how globalization has transformed our experience of space and time (e.g., globalization is figuratively “shrinking” our planet).

The five chapters of Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? examine five elusive phenomena that have found a representational home in science fiction:  the globalized world, cyberspace in the 1990s, war trauma, postmemory han (a Korean American type of inherited trauma), and robot rights.

Each chapter of the book addresses (1) what makes this particular referent so elusive and (2) how specific works of science fiction overcome the difficulty of rendering this particular referent available for representation.