14 April 2016

Review: Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative by Lisa Zunshine

Hardcover, 214 pages
Published 2008
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative
by Lisa Zunshine

I know I have detailed notes on this book somewhere, but I'll be damned if I can find them now, so a cursory review will have to do. Cognitive literary theory is a field I've often struggled with, including an anthology edited by Zunshine herself where I found almost every essay unconvincing, but this is probably the example of the field I've gotten along the best with. Zunshine lays out how "strange concepts" work, especially in the arena of science fiction. A "strange concept" is "counterontological," which means it includes "information contradicting some information provided by ontological categories" (Boyer, qtd. in Zunshine 67). She works mostly with robots: they resist categorization because they have some attributes of machine life, but (in science fiction) they also have many attributes of organic life. Thus they might not be subject to (for example) the rules regarding death that we feel thinking beings ought to follow.

Strange concepts are the foundation of much science fiction (and other kinds of fiction, of course; Zunshine also discusses fairy tales a lot): "Violations of ontological expectations thus seem to be ripe with narrative possibilities. Turn to any realm of ordinary human experience (social, emotional, ethical), and consider it in the light of such a violation-- and there is a story waiting for you" (69). This, if I'm remembering and understanding Zunshine right, makes strange concepts very powerful: by violating our assumptions about how the universe works, they allow us to expose and explore those very assumptions, which is at its base, I think, the appeal of science fiction. (In sf, the counterontologies have an empirical/rational framework, as opposed to fairy tales, where it's all done by magic, which I think convinces us that the counterontologies have some level of real meaning in the case of robots that they don't in the case of orcs.)

It's a well written, clear book, obviously aimed at a literary critic who is not familiar with cognitive literary theory; I could see assigning this book to advanced undergraduates. If I have a complaint, it's that Zunshine betrays little awareness that people have gone before in some of these areas; I found her work pretty congruent with that of Darko Suvin (he claims "cognition" as one of the necessary conditions for sf, after all), for example, yet he goes uncited.

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