Seo-Young Chu


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

Cover Interview of June 20, 2011

The wide angle

Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? challenges two key misconceptions about science fiction.

The first misconception, which I already addressed, is the notion that science fiction is devoted not to the representation of reality but to the imagining of places and things that have no real existence.

The second misconception:  science fiction and lyric poetry are two unrelated art forms.

Poems rarely show up on syllabi for courses on science fiction.  Anthologies of science fiction consist almost exclusively of short stories and novel excerpts.  Many literary dictionaries explicitly define science fiction as a prose genre—despite the verifiable existence of science-fictional verse.  If you ask a colleague to name one science-fiction poem, he or she will likely be unable to produce an answer.  If you ask the same colleague to name a science-fiction novel or film, he or she will likely be able to offer at least a few titles.

The absence of poetry from discussions of science fiction has long puzzled me.  Both poetry and science fiction resound with voices that speak from beyond linear time.  Both are inherently musical art forms.  Both are vividly expressive of heightened or eccentric states of consciousness.  Perhaps most important:  both are characterized by an intensity of figurative language.

Science fiction is an art form in which lyric figures of speech are systematically literalized and consolidated as features of narrative worlds.  Personification, for instance, is literalized each time a humanoid robot comes to life.  And apostrophe—a lyric trope whereby a speaker addresses an absent or inanimate person as though the “you” were alive and attendant—is routinely literalized in science fiction as telepathy, whereby a speaker addresses an absent person who is actually alive, mentally present, and capable of listening to the speaker without the aid of telephones or even ears.

In the process of writing Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? I came to the following realization:  lyric poetry is so pervasive in science fiction, so thoroughly characteristic of science fiction, that its presence need not take the physical shape of verse in order to make itself felt in a science-fiction narrative.

Paradoxically, then, the presence of lyric poetry in science-fiction narrative is an absent presence.

I believe that this paradox helps to explain why the study of science fiction in lyric terms has remained a largely unexplored territory—one that I open up to investigation.

Furthermore, I believe that science fiction’s dual status as both narrative and lyric is precisely what enables science fiction to do such massively sophisticated representational work.  Only a narrative form thoroughly powered by lyricism possesses enough torque—enough twisting force, enough verse (from “vertere,” Latin for “to turn”)—to convert an elusive referent into an object available for representation.  Only a form in which poetic tropes (from “tropos,” Greek for “turn”) are systematically turned into narrative literalities can accommodate referents ordinarily averse to representation.

Let’s return to the example of the globalized world.  When we talk about globalization, we inevitably resort to metaphors:  globalization “compresses” distance; we live in a “global village,” etc.

In ordinary discourse, such metaphors are left un-literalized; they stay at the level of abstraction.  Science fiction activates the explanatory power of such metaphors by literalizing them as features of coherent narrative environments.

For instance, in Karen Tei Yamashita’s 1997 novel Tropic of Orange, the latitudinal Tropic of Cancer literally collides with Los Angeles, where widespread disorientation ensues.  It’s one thing to say metaphorically: “Globalization compresses distance.”  It’s another thing altogether to literalize this metaphor into a richly elaborated narrative experience of spatial warping that kinesthetically makes sense to the reader’s nerves and muscles.

Science fiction allows lyric figures to operate on a kinesthetic/literal/narrative level without losing their conceptual/figurative/lyric power.

Consequently, science fiction can accommodate representations of phenomena that are themselves neither purely literal nor purely figurative (e.g., cyberspace, globalization, war trauma).