Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Infinite Summer #7: Is ‘Infinite Jest’ Science Fiction?

with 2 comments

There have been some interesting Infinite Summer posts about whether Infinite Jest “counts” as science fiction—see, for instance, these two at Infinite Tasks and this from Chris Forster)—so I thought it might be interesting to run through some of my standard classroom definitions of science fiction and see how the book shapes up. (My notes on this are older than the Wikipedia page and mostly cribbed from Fred Chappell, but most of these definitions appear there as well.)

To begin with, there are a few classic definitions it clearly doesn’t meet.

…a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.
—Hugo Gernsback

Versions of this notion of “scientific prophecy” pop up whenever science fiction is discussed, and Infinite Jest pretty clearly meets neither criteria; its speculations are philosophical, not scientific, and it is surely a satire, not some coherent futurism.

Another take:

Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the “willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy.
—Sam Moskowitz

I would defy anyone to claim that their willing suspension of disbelief is not frequently and fatally challenged by the hyperbolic “hysterical realist” elements throughout IJ. “FREAK STATUE OF LIBERTY ACCIDENT KILLS FED ENGINEER: BRAVE MAN ON CRANE CRUSHED BY 5 TON CAST IRON BURGER” (398) is not a sentence calculated to brace a spirit of credulity.

Still another:

Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.
—Norman Spinrad

This is usually the last definition I offer my students in my introductory SF lecture, and the one I usually argue is the most important. SF is, as much as it is anything else, a discrete, recognizable set of consumer practices and preferences—and here, too, Infinite Jest is clearly not science fiction because it isn’t branded as science fiction in the marketplace nor is it consumed as science fiction by “science fiction fans.” IJ pulls in dollars under an entirely different brand, mainstream literary fiction—which is a perfectly cromulent brand, if that’s what you’re into, but it’s not SF.

So, then, 0 for 3. Not a great start. But there are other definitions of science fiction that do cast a strong light on Infinite Jest:

Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mold.
—Brian Aldiss

Here science fiction collapses into a special category of existential literature, in which the SF aspects are merely the engine motivating the text’s more-central philosophical speculations. The science-fictional elements in Infinite Jest, it seems clear to me, are operating almost entirely on this level—each inventive speculation in the novel drives existential speculation about how we might be able to live in ultratechnological modernity in the shadow of the death of God. (Side question: is Infinite Jest “in the Gothic mold”? I’d have to pull out an entirely different set of quotes to discuss that question fully, but in its massive textual sprawl, its strong tendencies towards melodrama and hyperbolic excess, and its palpable atmosphere of both individual and familial tragedy I think we could have the start of a fairly strong case.)

We come now to the two definitions I use most commonly in my writing and teaching, which are (I concede) are completely in conflict with one another. But I think—I hope—it’s a productive tension. First is Darko Suvin, who inspired Fredric Jameson and most of the Utopian school of SF theorists I primarily read:

SF is, then, a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficent conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment. —Darko Suvin

There’s a lot to pull out there, but the key words are “estrangement,” “cognition,” and “imaginative framework alternative.” What Suvin argues in his work is that the defining characteristic of science fiction is the pwower of defamiliarization that allows us to see our own world more clearly (and maybe for the first time), which is accomplished through the sort of intricate, even obsessive world-building confabulations SF is famous for. In particular, Suvin and his successors argue, SF expresses the desire for another kind of life, whether explicitly (as Utopian fiction) or implicitly (the desire for a plausible alterity expressed in negative in most dystopian, anti-Utopian, and apocalyptic fictions).

Infinite Jest, it seems to me, is pretty deep in the murky swamp that divides this sort of SF from more generic Utopian/dystopian political satire. The trouble for any Suvinian analysis of Infinite Jest, I think, comes in the unstable irony I was going on about earlier in the week; as Infinite Tasks lays out in detail, O.N.A.N.-ite politics is not in any sense a imaginative framework alternative to the present. It’s a series of gags. Wallace’s world-building just isn’t on the level. It’s no coincidence, to take but one example, that a close reading of DFW’s references to the Gentle administration and the start of Subsidized Time c. the year 2000 would seem to place the “Limbaugh administration” around the year of the novel’s composition in the mid-1990s, and therefore somehow impossibly concurrent with the Clinton administration that is also occasionally referenced. Infinite Jest is our cracked self-reflection, not another world.

And finally there’s Delany, who rejects political readings of SF in favor of a definition focused on wordplay, and really on the pleasure of the text itself:

In science fiction, “science”—i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourses—is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. Such sentences as “His world exploded,” or “She turned on her left side,” as they subsume the proper technological discourse (of economics and cosmology in one; of switching circuitry and prosthetic surgery in the other), leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy metaphor, abandon the triviality of insomniac tossings, and, through the labyrinth of technical possibility, become possible images of the impossible.
—Samuel Delany

This literary-linguistic pleasure, I think, is quite clearly a huge part of the pleasure of IJ for those of us who are enjoying it; the way in which, 400 pages in, we find ourselves now able to parse a sentence like this one:

All this until the erection of O.N.A.N. and the inception, in Clipperton’s eighteenth summer, of Subsidized Time, the advertised Year of the Whopper, when the U.S.T.A. became the O.N.A.N.T.A., and some Mexican systems analyst—who barely spoke English and had never once even fondled a ball and knew from exactly zilch except for crunching raw results-data—this guy stepped in as manager of the O.N.A.N.T.A. computer and ranking center in Forest Lawn NNY, and didn’t know enough not to treat Clipperton’s string of six major junior-tournament championships that spring as sanctioned and real. (431)

There is surely something Delany could recognize in this sentence and the subtle mental acrobatics required to make sense of it; if this isn’t quite science fiction, exactly, it seems to me it’s something very close.

2 Responses

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  1. […] Further during the conversation, I maintain that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a genre sci-fi novel. This may anger those who like to haul their copies around college coffee houses in an effort to look smart and try to score coed tail, but I am not the only one who thinks so. […]

  2. I just dropped in via Google looking for comment on my own private supposition that IJ can be read as SF, and I like this post a lot–I’m itching to find out what has happened in post 1-6; I’ve just started IJ, and am on p. 70 or so.
    The ubiquity of the InterLace network of videos seems like some combination of YouTube and Netflix. It’s as if the high point of computer-network technology happens in the early 90s, while in our reality things were just starting to get into hyper-gear as IJ was being published. I think the various narratives that are playing out with this network goes right to the heart of many of the ideas so well-articulated in this post. (I’m a huge Delany fan, and I am so glad to see this quote.)

    P.S. I’m also fascinated by the idea that annular quantum optics could lead to all the places that James Incandenza took it!

    Michael Kelly

    September 29, 2015 at 7:22 pm

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