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July 9, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Why IJ Doesn’t Really Count as Science Fiction

Before reading Infinite Jest, I had not heard it described within the framework of quote science-fiction. But naturally there are a number of relevant characteristics that emerge, such as the “advanced” technological gizmos (many of which are or could be available were there market demand, such as videophony). But more interesting than the predictive capacities of the novel is the question of the significance of quote science-fiction within a quote meta-fictional work.

Before I delve into the purpose of the quotes around science-fiction and meta-fiction [3], let me point you to the spur of these questions, from WKH at Human Complex: WKH contrasts IJ with Philip K. Dick, mostly, indicating some interesting complementarities and promising possible contrast analysis-to-come. He highlights three possible uses of the science-fiction motif: prediction, comic effect, and dystopia, each of which provides a helpful if limited answer.

1. Clearly, DFW is not really going for a serious predictive focus. What is key is not the content of the different world he paints: in which Vermont has become the Great Concavity (where noxious fumes are restrained by huge fans and feral hamsters roam, see p.93); in which the U.S. has “experialized” its useless territory while drawing Canada into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N) [4]; in which teleputers serve as an analog to our iPhones and Blackberries and Skype and the interweb. Prediction creates a vertical shift extension from time-a to time-b, whereas in IJ we see instead a horizontal shift to an “alternative near-future,” from world-a-time-a to world-b-time-a+n (where n < 15, say). A horizontal shift is one performed mostly for the distanciation – or estrangement – effect it produces on the reader. And this effect is one of the central devices of all science-fiction. Only when we are able to take a critical distance on the practices, arrangements, relationships and values of a fictionalized world are we able to reflect critically on the practices, etc. of our own. And thus while traditionally science-fiction has presented in the mode of entertainment, it is almost always skeptical of the way things are and desirous of providing warnings, alternatives, or simply insight into the morality of our world.

2. Neither is the comic effect that much of a draw. The humor in the novel seems to come from all sides, and often from the use of language itself, and not from the specifically “sci-fi” characteristics. While readers will naturally differ, I find the passages on U.S.S. Millicent Kent’s seduction of Mario (pp. 121-126) to be some of the very funniest in the novel so far, though there are sly jokes on prettty much every page. But also consider the humorous passage on the market changes of videophony’s rise and fall. What is humorous about this is not in any way slapstick or comic resolution (based typically on a confusion of one word or act with a different one, producing unexpected outcomes that were of course logical the whole time – “who’s on first” being a classic example of this, the skit not really being that funny by itself but serving as a remarkable and proficient commentary on the very nature of comedic expectation). Instead, it is ironic humor in which we recognize our own tendencies or potentials toward Optimistically Misreresentational Masking, the clinical term for social anxieties that emerge from videophonic interaction (p. 149). And ironic humor of this sort, though it might use a not-yet-existent technology, doesn’t depend on that technology for its humor.

3. The possibility that DFW is going for a dystopia, on the other hand, is an intriguing one, but one that certainly requires me not only to have finished the novel but to go well beyond any spoiler limits. But I will nonetheless express some skepticism about IJ turning out to be a dystopia. A dystopia, whether placed in a distant or near future, has a pretty clearly defined standard: it takes one specific social dynamic and magnifies it, showing the overall effects of the evil that lies at the heart of that dynamic. So, for instance, a feminist dystopia (e.g. The Handmaid’s Tale) locates the pole of gender oppression and magnifies it so that it becomes the dominant social characteristic, allowing it to be dissected and turned back to the viewer/reader for analysis [5]. Other dystopias may focus on political power, the role of historical memory, the rampages of capitalism, robotics and technology, racial or caste re-enslavement, etc., but in almost every case you find a dominant pole and (depending on the sophistication of the book) possible secondary dynamics that may also be investigated.

IJ has no intention of drawing out a single, unique strand of social opposition or disarray and magnifying it. Just the opposite: it is in the vast, plural cacophony of issues that his own creative voice emerges. What is perhaps most remarkable through the current spoiler limit (p. 200) is that this cacophony has not drowned the reader. Rather, although I find it somewhat slow-going (my reading pace has declined gradually over the past decade), the overall coherence is quite surprising.


Leave a Comment
  1. William.K.H / Jul 10 2009 7:47 am

    Thanks for the link. This is a very interesting post and I will be revisiting the subject as well sometime.

  2. G C / Jul 30 2009 9:04 pm

    I’m a little late, but I respond to this post here


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