Detective epistemology and science fiction ontology

by Frances Kafka

It’s Brian McHale’s suggestion in Postmodernist Fiction (1987) that postmodernist fiction is to modernist fiction what science fiction is to the detective tale.

I will formulate it as a general thesis about modernist fiction: the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as those mentioned by Dick Higgins in my epigraph: How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?” Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are the limits of the knowable? And so on.

This brings me to a second general thesis, this time about postmodernist fiction: the dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like the ones Dick Higgins calls post-cognitive”: Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?” Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world which it projects, for instance: What is a world?; What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? And so on.

We can leave aside for now McHale’s characterization of both postmodern and modernist fiction and focus on the opposition between science fiction and detective fiction. Both genres, in their highest levels, offer the pleasure of ratiocination, but in different directions. The classic scene involves an exposure when the reader is invited to recollect all the facts of the story and realise how she could have known the culprit, but didn’t. The analogous scene in science fiction is the conceptual breakthrough. The conceptual breakthrough is almost always ontological, concerning not just the characters, but the stakes of the entire world, as the Science Fiction Encyclopedia points out:

An important subset of conceptual-breakthrough stories consists of those in which the world is not what it seems. The structure of such stories is often that of a quest in which an intellectual nonconformist questions apparent certainties.

In the world of the conspiracy, though, the question of the ontological becomes blended with the epistemological, because the structure of the world itself begins to seem like the effects of some set of motives, a particular crime. We first get our inklings of this in Frederick Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World”, in which a small town which is accidentally destroyed has its members resurrected as miniature robots, minds wiped every twenty-four hours for market research. There’s something here, a touch of paranoia, which isn’t there in 2001’s Star-gate, or even in Heinlein’s Universe”, where the characters discover that they live on a generation ship. There is perhaps a striking break when there is no longer just the modernist epistemological sundering but also the postmodern epistemological sundering.