I'm working my way round to writing an Aesthetics of SF monograph, though I'm some way away from being ready to do so. Some of the conceptual pieces are in place. Here's one: I have already written stuff about the metaphor being central to SF (often formalised: the spaceship; the robot; the time-machine; sometimes not), and about the way this does more (pace Delany) than determine a mode that seeks to represent the world without reproducing it, it also (pace, er, me) makes SF essentially a poetry, built around the eloquence of the image, often oblique, fascinated with transcendence (the sense of wonder; the motion up from reality into higher reality, as at the conclusion of Childhood's End; the apocalyptic sublime, as in the 'Nine Billion Names'), and at its best actively corrosive of reality (Dick). It is, to use Jakobson's terminology, a literature that uses metonymic extrapolation from the everyday in order to enable radically disconnected (transcendent) metaphoric effects. So, here's another conceptual component of my thinking on this topic: SF as a small-world subculture, as in the Golden Age, dominated by a rational 'literature of ideas' aesthetic has been superseded by SF as the single most important cultural mode of today, dominated by cinematic and televisual visual excesses. Fans raised on the former often deplore the onset of the latter (roughly: Star Wars and all that followed its success), but I don't. This is not because I especially love Star Wars, but because the written SF I most value has shared that imagistic, often visual spot-of-time intensity that, I'd say, has achieved a kind of glorious florescence in the last forty years. For me the Platonic Form of SF is the bone thrown in the sky that transforms instantly, amazingly, eloquently into a spaceship. (There's yet another conceptual component, about SF Music, and about SF generally being much more a literature of a particular affect, and much less a literature of cognition, estranged or otherwise. But I'll keep that for another time). This is one reason why taxonomies of the genre, or any of that Structuralist nonsense, seems to me peculiarly ill-fitting to the topic of study. But I would say that, wouldn't I.*
Now, one consquence of this theoretical approach to the genre is that I'm always interested in interventions into general poetics, less on their own terms, and more (against the grain, as it were, for SF is almost always the last thing on the minds of critics who write such studies) for what contemporary poetics can usefully say about Science Fiction. Hazard Adams' new book is more than just a really neat title; although it is also a really neat title, a splendid rejoinder to the many Defences of Poetry that have been constructed.
Here's what the University of Washington Press page for the book says about it:
There is something offensive and scandalous about poetry, judging by the number of attacks on it and defenses of it written over the centuries. Poetry, Hazard Adams argues, exists to offend - not through its subject matter but through the challenges it presents to the prevailing view of what language is for. Poetry's main cultural value is its offensiveness; it should be defended as offensive.That's right, broadly, I think: Adams emphasis is not on 'offense' as 'outrage' or 'harm', or even as 'attack' (though all those have their place); but in what he identifies as the word's 'root sense': 'stumbling block' or obstacle. According to Wallace Stevens, 'poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully'. Science Fiction even more so, I'd say.
Adams specifies four poetic offenses - gesture, drama, fiction, and trope - and devotes a chapter to each, ranging across the landscape of traditional literary criticism and exploring the various attitudes toward poetry, including both attacks and defenses, offered by writers from Plato and Aristotle to Sidney, Vico, Blake, Yeats, and Seamus Heaney, among others. "Criticism," Adams writes, "needs renewal in every age to free poetry from the prejudices of that age and the unintended prejudices of even the best critics of the past, to free poetry to perform its provocative, antithetical cultural role."
Poetry achieves its cultural value by opposing the binary oppositions - form and content, fact and fiction, reason and emotion - that structure and polarize most understandings of literature and of life. Adams takes a position antithetical to the extremes of both abstract formalism and the politicization of literary content. He concludes with an appreciation of what he calls the double offense of "great bad poetry," poetry so exceptionally bad that it transcends its shortcomings and leads to gaiety. He reminds us that Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, identified angels with the settled and coercive and assigned the qualities of energy and creativity to his devils. According to Adams, poetry, in its broad and traditional sense of all imaginative writing, may be identified with Blake's devils.
Adams breaks poetry's 'offense' into four categories: gesture, fiction, drama and trope. This latter is basically metaphor and apostrophe: A is B on the one hand (as it might be: 'reality is a gigantic consensual hallucination engineered by malign machne intelligences') and 'be thou X!' on the other (something I'd say SF addresses to Reality, particularly in its Utopian or Dystopian mode); and I find Adams' reading of 'offensive' poetic troping very congenial to what I want to argue. Adams take on 'gesture' in complex, and a little involved; but I've a mind to appropriate it as a way of approaching SF Fandom, and the positive, creative urge it manifests not only to consume its favoured genre, but to perform it: which is to say, to engage in everything from fanfic to cosplay. Drama, as Adams parses it, is another way of talking about this performative function.
I particularly liked the chapter on fiction, which rehearses the many argument against fiction as 'lying', and the counter-arguments in favour of it. The neat thing about this line of critical approach is that if a regular novel (about, say, a social worker living in Hackney) is 'a lie', then an SF novel (about a religious messiah on a desert planet) is doubly a lie: not only because Hackney 'actually' exists where Arrakis doesn't, but because Sf predicatively prioritizes the fictive: the mainstream novel is fiction; SF is a fortiori fiction. This also has an inside-the-tent-pissing-out aspect to it: Hard SF purists, instead of embracing this fictionality, attempt to reintegrate the genre back in the mainstream by insisting it adhere to 'actual' Science. To them, as to those who knock SF from the outside, I would repeat Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" dialogue, which Adams quotes several times, in which 'Vivian argues that nature fails to accomplish what art does and ... goes on to condemn "careless habits of acciracy". His conclusion is that "Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art".'  We need more of that in the genre.
*Structuralist approaches to SF overwhelmingly dominate the secondary literature about the genre, I suppose because people have this wrong-headed but fixed idea that SF is all about 'science', or 'the scientific mindset', or 'taxonomy' or something. Although patently it is not so. Or perhaps the ubiquity of Structuralism reflects the fact that it is easy to do, and so appeals to the many amateur critics who have been drawn to this field: I mean that it makes a virtue of wide reading, and tickles the pattern-recognition node in the brain, to line up your collection of thousands of space operas and separate them into neat little piles dependent upon the gender of the main protagonist, or the colour of the books' spines, or whether the author was over six feet tall, between 5'5" and 6', or under 5'5" and so on.
There are some other aspects to my maggotting, or nascent, Aesthetics of SF about which I am a little less sure, but which will probably find their way in. One of these is a sense that the preeminence of SF's 'epiphanies' (those moments of sense-of-wonder Sublime, those transcendings of reality, and rational signification) also entails a preeminence of laughter, as a physical response that similarly breaks through rational cognition into a place of glorious jouissance; such that Douglas Adams seems to me as significant, or possibly more significant, a writer of SF in the 80s than William Gibson. But this could equally be me projecting my own personal crotchets onto the genre.
It's also worth noting that I may never get around to this project; since, despite the fact that I'd quite like to write it, it's possible that publishers, and readers, would have no interest in it.