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Rewriting the Past, Imagining the Future: Science Fiction as a Self-Writing Genre Community (2019-2023)

Fabius Mayland, Research Area 3, "Future Perfect"
Doctoral Research Project

If the two most conventional ways of organizing literature used by literary studies are nation and period, the third-most common method is surely that of genre. Crucially, the concept of genre also provides the possibility to move beyond notions of national and periodized literatures. This dissertation will argue that genres such as science fiction or detective fiction come into being when communities of production and reception constitute themselves around constellations of texts. These communities are historically contingent, but once they come into being, they have the potential to endure across time and various media of fiction. Texts of such genre-communities have a strong tendency to react to one another, reconfiguring the genres and re-writing the generic canons within which they are entangled. Texts, in this view, are not simply passive entities to be classified as belonging to a genre; rather, they actively shape and influence the genres with which they have affiliations. Within this project, genres are thus understood as fields of contestation in which new texts react to earlier texts. Texts such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) may initially be conceived and received as one type of text (Gothic novel) only to become canonized both as adaptation material for another (Horror movies) and foundational prototype for yet a third (Science Fiction). As such, genres can be seen as communities with various actors (authors and readers, academics, filmmakers and entertainment companies, individual texts and canonizing anthologies) that endure across time precisely because the boundaries of the communities are constantly re-written by their various actors. The repertoire of texts that a genre provides can always be referenced by new texts, attempting to reactivate long-forgotten generic tropes in times of renewed relevance or satirizing them as they are felt to become precisely too generic. The overall goal of this project will be to make visible the ways in which genres exist as communal machines that endure across time whose constituent parts – texts, writers, publishers, academics, readers – interact in various ways.

The focus of the dissertation will lie on Science Fiction as a genre community. All texts that affiliate themselves with a genre or various genres react to that which has already been written as part of this web of texts. Yet ‘sci-fi’ is a special case: Texts associated with the genre react not only to what they perceive to be their generic past, but also what they imagine to be the genre’s generic future. They react specifically to older texts that in turn imagine near or distant futures. The genre of sci-fi thus can best be understood as a ‘temporal community’ within which texts constantly act to both rewrite the past and ‘prewrite’ the future of the community of the genre.

The analysis will be based on a wide range of texts but commit to three specific focal points of analysis. First, the project will analyse the way in which genre communities construct their own beginnings by tracing the ways in which Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein has been received, incorporated, and adapted by various sci-fi texts. The second major focus will be on intra-genre relations, arguing that two sub-genres of sci-fi – cyberpunk, mostly written in the 1980s, and climate fiction, which has become popular in the course of the 21st century – envision not only competing visions of the future, but in doing so, also produce competing notions of what the genre itself is supposed to be. Third and finally, the project will investigate texts at the interstices of multiple genres – such as sci-fi westerns and sci-fi detective fiction – and the way in which these texts use the auto-mythologies of such other genres to either reproduce or to shift the borders of sci-fi.