Review: The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.
When I pulled my copy of Seven Beauties off of the shelf to write this review, I was struck by just how many marker tags protruded from between its pages. Seven Beauties is an exploration of where the genre of science fiction has been, where it is going, and where it might proceed as our society continues its forward hurtle through waves ceaseless technological innovation.
In order to do that, Csicsery-Ronay Jr. tackles the genre's perennial struggle: how to define its boundaries. In other words, how do we tell whether a given work is or isn't science fiction? Does it need aliens? If so, then what of time-travel stories? Does it need to be set in the future? If so, then what of alternate realities? For every “obvious” measure one might choose, a bevy of works stand up in defiance, and which individuals well-versed in science fiction will unanimously agree belongs within the genre.
Hence, the title of Csicsery-Ronay Jr.’s book. The seven “beauties” of science fiction together form a series of litmus tests. It’s okay for a work to lack one or two of the beauties, but it can still be science fiction if it’s strong in three or four or five of the others. I also found the use of the term “beauty” fitting. Instead of decrying what is wrong with genre, as so much literary criticism seems to do, this framework instead celebrates the elements that make speculative fiction wonderful.
The seven beauties are:
Neology, the invention of words, phrases, and even alternative grammars that pull the reader out of their reality and into the story’s alternate world.
The novum, a fictive element that is not present in the reader’s reality, the presence of which signifies to the reader that the fictive world an altered form of the reader's.
Future history, the presence of an imaginary history that proceeds from the reader’s present. In other words, the work is set in the future.
Imaginary science, the presence of scientific discoveries, principles, or apparatuses, which are not present in the reader’s reality. How plausibly the imaginary science extends from the science of the day in which the story was written determines its “hardness.” Fiction with highly plausible imaginary science is considered “hard,” while implausible or pseudo-magical science makes the fiction “soft.”
The sublime, fictive elements which invoke awe.
The grotesque, fictive elements which invoke revulsion.
The technologiade, a narrative mode in which the advancement of science and technology play a strong role in shaping the text’s themes and motifs.
The text of Seven Beauties is extremely dense, but also loaded with great food for the speculative fiction writer’s thought. I have found myself reflecting on these criteria in my own works. The sublime and the grotesque were especially compelling chapters, which I have revisited since my first readthrough. I was also able to add a large number of authors to my reading list because of this book, Stanislaw Lem and James Tiptree Jr. among them. I consider the technologiade a must-read for authors who wish to become self-conscious of ways in which their writing might be subtly invoking the nasty politics of colonialism, albeit with a futuristic veneer.
Some might find the text to be too dense or the language too overwrought, but I would remind such individuals that this is an academic book. Csicsery-Ronay Jr. has, in fact, used the language appropriate for his target audience. It was a very small price for this reader to pay for entry into the theoretical model Csicsery-Ronay Jr. has introduced.
In the aftermath of 2014, I found myself adrift, as all my previous guideposts and metrics for how I understand what I write and why I write as I do had been invalidated. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction did an excellent job of setting up a new framework for me to understand the genre I love. If, as a writer, you want to understand the depth and character of your beloved genre better, Seven Beauties is a great place to start.