Evolution, Literary Theory and Science Fiction

Baker, Brian (2008) Evolution, Literary Theory and Science Fiction. Essays and Studies, 61. pp. 131-150. ISSN 0071-1357

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In his Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005), based on articles published in the New Left Review, Franco Moretti proposed two types of literary study: 'interpretation', which is text-based; and 'explanation', which focuses on structures of literary production over time. In his book, Moretti concentrates not on textual analysis, but on the 'rise' and 'fall' and 'morphology' of literary genres. In his third chapter, 'Trees', Moretti uses diagrammatic 'evolutionary trees' to explain the 'survival' and 'extinction' of sub-genres of the novel. The marketplace for literature acts as a kind of environment that brings to bear evolutionary pressures: some books succeed because they find an evolutionary 'niche', while others disappear from the literary-historical record. What produces these adaptive morphologies, argues Moretti, is cultural and historical forces: an 'evolutionary' approach is here actually more properly a historical one. This chapter will interrogate this collapse of 'evolution' onto 'history'. In terms of genre, 'evolution' has often been used as a synonym for 'development' or 'history'; alternatively, in another borrowing from the Natural sciences (which Moretti and Steve Neale have both used), a 'life cycle' of a genre. In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti rather curiously excludes one of the major sub-genres, science fiction, on the grounds of its longevity or 'long duration'. As Christopher Prendergast has argued in his NLR response to Moretti, it is precisely 'long duration' that is at issue in using evolution as a model for literary history: the time-scales are not analogous. This chapter will supplement Moretti's arguments by attempting to sketch an 'evolutionary tree' of science fiction, drawing on four critics/ historians of SF: Aldiss, Suvin, Roberts, and Luckhurst. It will also question Moretti's decision to exclude SF when it seems to offer a test-case for generic 'evolution', and will attempt to test whether Moretti's argument holds true for science fiction. In terms of science-fiction world-creation, evolutionary models have often been used by writers imagining other forms of life, or the future of humanity, from Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and Star Maker to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This chapter will finally move from models of 'explanation' to 'interpretation' to look at implicit 'evolutionary' models or discourse in the genre, and in the genre histories mentioned above, and to connect Moretti's argument with what Prendergast has called the 'mildly noxious babble' of sociobiology- influenced literary critics such as Joseph Carroll. In a rhetorical manoeuvre to emphasise 'history' (or 'truth' or even 'common sense') at the expense of 'Theory', both Moretti and Carroll manifest a problematic relation between literary study and evolutionary science, in their emphasis on science (however imperfectly translated) as a meta- discourse for literary and cultural analysis.

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28 Oct 2011 10:29
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21 Nov 2022 21:48