Today, I’m going to explore science fiction through one key concept, called cognitive estrangement, and one key work: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.
But firstly, if you missed it, be sure to check out why you should read science fiction here.
Ok, let’s learn some things.
What is cognitive estrangement?
Science fiction is (usually) a radically imaginative and metaphorical literature. And what is it a metaphor of? Our present moment—played out, experimented with, and reflected upon.
The science fiction writer constructs worlds and ideas that alienate us from our own existence, our unexamined assumptions, and the things we take for granted. It casts a spotlight on our world and the way that we live, by turning it upside down or contrasting it with another. Cool, right?
If that doesn’t make immediate sense, then don’t worry. I’m going to give concrete examples in a bit.
Darko Suvin, in his book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, defines science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement, defined as a ‘cognitive and critical’ structuralist effort to ‘estrange the author’s and reader’s own empirical [i.e. observed] environment’.
What Suvin is saying, is that there’s a clear link between our world and the created worlds in science fiction texts—a cognitive continuum. Sci-fi is often a mechanism for social commentary. The worlds that sci-fi authors create do not exist in an uncritical vacuum, but rather wrestle with the author’s own context in which they produce. It’s reflective of and on reality.
And when I say reality, I mean the material nature of reality rather than metaphysical. Although some of the more psilocybin and mescaline-oriented authors enjoy writing about the latter, like in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception!
Imagine a line of string stretching from our present to the fictionalised one created by a science fiction book. The author will stretch this line, ping it and feel the vibrations, artfully weave its course, tighten or loosen the string. Maybe they’ll even knit with it. But the point is that they’re looking at the difference made by changing certain variables—almost like a fictional experiment. Great texts posit hypotheses: what effect would it have if I did this or that?
Science fiction often does this through a “novum”, a device that does not exist in our own reality, and the presence of which compels us to reimagine or reconceive the world. One obvious example would be a time machine.
So, what’s the difference between science fiction and other fiction?
Let’s take fantasy, for example. Why isn’t fantasy cognitively estranging…? The fantasy author creates new worlds, right? What makes science fiction special?
Yes, all fiction creates alternative worlds—by its very nature of being it is fictional, a textual representation of a reality, it’s an alternative world. But not all fiction is cognitively estranging. Harry Potter, for example, is not crafted as an “imaginative framework alternative to the authors empirical environment” (that’s Suvin again). We don’t expect what happens at Hogwarts to generate some significant understanding or reflection of how our society operates.
Sure, people learn lessons from the witches & wizards of Harry Potter and the lions & satyrs of The Chronicles of Narnia, but the reader is not expected critique and question their dominant understanding of the world after the events of the Triwizard Tournament. Structural and societal analysis is often sidelined in favour of moral and didactic lessons.
In Harry Potter, an unchanged representation of everyday human society co-exists unwittingly with magic society, partitioned by spells and enchantments. In …Narnia, the characters pass from the normal world, through a wardrobe, and into this “other” world. Ultimately, the link between reality and fiction is less critical—in fantasy, you don’t really have to think linking Narnia to humanity, because the link is either already there, or largely unimportant.
Let’s use a generalisation to put it simply: where fantasy operates on boundaries, science fiction works through contrast and comparison.
Science fiction, rather, encourage the “distancing” and “pulling back from reality”, “in order to see it better”—in the words of Ursula Le Guin. Science fiction uses technological and interplanetary devices to show drastically different worlds, to shed light on our own. It aims to see the difference that different variables make to our own society. Make sense?
Other genres of fiction may contain elements of cognitive estrangement, but no other genre is as committed to asking fundamental questions underlying our world as science fiction.
It’s not that science fiction is special or better. But it is certainly more disposed towards, and historically structured around, social commentary and critique more than other genres. I don’t know about you, but reading fantasy, I don’t often read fantasy and think:
…Hmm, I wonder what the author is saying when they decided to feature elves and a feudal monarchy in this text?
Hey, maybe we could we restructure our world economic order around The Shire!
Man, I hope I never have to worry about fire drakes burning my town…
Do you see? Fantasy doesn’t beg you to make such sweeping comparisons. But science fiction does. It pleads with you to consider. You’re likely to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and think:
…I guess the future of artificial intelligence and its ethical implications really could shake things up, huh? Hadn’t thought of that way!
Sci-fi is rooted in reality without being tied to it. Fantasy is untied from reality—no one believes in dragons. Except Charlie Day, that is.
Historical fiction, on the other side of the spectrum, is invariably tied to facts and realities. Sci-fi sits is sitting pretty, chilling nicely in between, getting to make comments without being “real”. Lucky genre.
I’m not knocking fantasy or any other literature. If you love imaginative works already, then you’ll likely love science fiction. The line between popularly consumed stuff and science fiction isn’t as big as it might seem.
So, in summary, science fiction offers new perspectives—encouraging us to think of our life through the prospect of possible difference.
Q: But what does science fiction make us question, then?
A: All kinds of things! What is this world of ours? What are we doing? What’s possible? How do we think, and why do we think this way?
- Margret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake raises questions about misuses of bioengineering through developments in science that leads to an engineered apocalypse.
Maybe there weren’t any solutions. Human society, corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain.
—Margaret Atwood, Orxy and Crake
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—to give one of the oldest, most classic examples there is—comments upon the danger of playing with life and death through the novum of, well… stitching a body together and animating it with life. Then she watches it cry as it realises what a strange, non-human creature it is.
“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”
—John Milton, Paradise Lost (cited in the foreword to Frankenstein)
- The aforementioned Brave New World creates a world where Fordism and eugenics rule. The world is so optimised and drugged that it seems to its inhabitants perversely perfect. By reading it, the reader comes to understand exactly why over-optimisation of society down certain paths becomes dystopian.
But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.
—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
These are all great examples of cognitive estrangement at play in some key texts. Notice how it often looks at things that are somewhat within the realm of possibility, such as bioengineered fallout. The texts then spend time considering the what-ifs, the warnings, and the desirable or undesirable futures of technology and humankind.
Thinking about it, mulling over how you could interrogate the world through a certain change—by cognitively estranging it—would actually be a foolproof method of generating science fiction plots. You’re welcome!
How is cognitive estrangement used in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed?
The author that got me into science fiction was H.G Wells, but I think the work that best illustrates my point is Ursula Le Guin’s incredible book, The Dispossessed!
What Ursula Le Guin does in The Dispossessed, basically, is view a version of our world from an outside perspective. She takes a fictionalised and alternative universe that’s reminiscent, but not the same, as ours. The main character is a human named Shevek. While he’s a human, he is technically an “alien”—because he was brought up on a completely different planet! He’s familiar, yet strange. And he’s a physicist, who has laid the foundations for instantaneous communication across the universe.
He has to visit the planet “Uras” on a scientific mission. Uras is the planet that his moon homeworld “Anarres” orbits around. On Urras there are many cities and regions, but he spends almost all of his time in the city of “A-Lo”, which stands in as a metaphor for an American-style capitalist, patriarchal, and meritocratic society.
The people on Anarres are descendants of the people on Uras—they are the great-grandchildren of Urasi revolutionaries that were shipped to the moon, so as to avoid political insurgency.
Think of Uras as Earth and Anarres as our Moon, if that helps.
On this revolutionary-suffused moon, though, they haven’t declined into barbarism. No, they’ve created their own alternative society where work is cycled and allocated by a supercomputer, where everyone is encouraged to pursue their own passion, where personal freedom is based above everything… but not as we’d understand the term “freedom”.
Le Guin ingeniously uses language as a medium to explore the differences between societies: on Shevek’s moon homeworld, there is no such word as “my” or “mine”; they use the term “more central” over “higher” to signify “better”; it makes no sense for ‘a man to say he had “had” a woman, because such understanding of sex and possession doesn’t exist. Le Guin does this to emphasise power dynamics embedded within our language, by presenting an inverted society that rarely uses singular possessive verbs and pronouns.
On his first visit to this earth-but-not-earth of Anarres, Shevek is shocked and dismayed. Like, straight up distressed. The way he reacts to life on our metaphorical planet is basically the literary equivalent of this famed meme:
We see a representation of society, our economy, and our relations in a new context through Shevek’s eyes. It’s jarring, and often even comical, to see our world held up to inspection from this outsider’s perspective. But it’s also shockingly illuminating.
The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure
— Shakespeare, Hamlet
Le Guin holding up the mirror to our nature has the remarkable effect of seeing the world fresh, as if through new eyes. I would really recommend reading this book for this consequence alone.
The whole text is refracted through Shevek’s anarchist perspective, looking at our world through a new lens. By highlighting Shevek’s shock at our lives, Le Guin elucidates how narrow and incomplete our usual views of humanity may be.
Have you ever wondered what a complete outsider would think of our world?
Well, Le Guin took that idea and ran with it.
Or, are you a little tired of reading through the perspective of the mundane every-man?
OK then, try an anarchist from the moon!
Le Guin contrasts our messy, hierarchal capitalist society with a classless, Kropotkin-styled planet. She doesn’t do this in a preachy and prescriptive way, though: the book was tentatively titled The Dispossessed, An Ambiguous Utopia, if that tells you anything. Shevek’s home planet is not there to say: this is what the world should be like, but rather, this is how radically different the world might look like. Radical imagination, hegemony, utopian impulse etc etc etc. All of those concepts. It makes you think outside the box, basically.
On Anarres, they live by ideas much different to ours. Here are some choice quotes:
You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.
Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to go fulfil my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to go unbuild walls.
The Dispossessed is a textbook example of cognitive estrangement. It’s an incredibly creative approach towards “dynamic transformation rather than a standard mirroring” of the author’s environment, as Suvin writes.
Side note alert: there’s a whole thing about science fiction versus sci-fi and soft science fiction versus hard science fiction. It’s basically all about whether the books are 100% scientifically accurate, or possible, rather than taking liberties with science. Also, whether the stories take place in a world that currently, technically exists or if they’re entirely speculative. Think of the books we’re looking at today as speculative fiction, or as science fiction, or even fantasy if you like—I don’t care, doesn’t matter. I’ve used whatever term. As Atwood herself said, when you get up close to genres, it’s like “nailing jelly to a wall”.
Nick Hubble, a science fiction academic, terms what Le Guin does in The Dispossessed as “defamiliarisation of taken-for-granted reality”; there’s certain liminality to the genre in the way that it “pushes to the edges to better illuminate the centre.”
Similarly Ernst Bloch, in The Spirit of Utopia, says that we, as a people, are “located in our own blind spot, in the darkness of the lived moment”. In other words, we have to look at what is not the current reality, in order to gain a novel perspective on our contemporary moment.
I think that what Le Guin is doing, put simply, is using Shevek’s perspective to critique…
The wall around our thoughts that we are utterly unaware of.
The way she writes the book, the way Shevek ruthlessly interrogates the world around him—it challenges our unexamined opinions in a way that’s reminiscent of the way children—free from social, economic, and political biases—can ask questions from a uniquely untainted, and often jarring perspective.
Le Guin uses this very device/phenomena in The Dispossessed, when a flashback young Shevek and his friends question the concept of prison, struggling to understand the notion of coercion. The children ask, innocently:
Why did the prisoners not just leave? How could they be forced to do work?
These are examples of unexplored assumptions in our society: self-evident truths that require an outside perspective to demystify rather than exist unquestioned as truisms.
Le Guin does a remarkable job of allowing the reader to see things differently. She reverses questions around how a society based on voluntary cooperation could work, by positing the opposite question from a reverse perspective. Shevek argues that “initiative” is “the natural incentive to work” and contends that “the strongest in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social”. Le Guin thereby asks the reader to examine their most basic beliefs and rejects, in the modern age, such as man’s inherent need for competition.
Essentially, Le Guin wants to raise the problem of how we take for “granted certain relationships which the other [cannot] even see”—she wants us to peer over those walls.
Reflections on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and our world today
There’s a whole discussion on the modern versus the postmodern here, too. On how it’s theorised that when we were in the modern age, we believed we could change and shape the world—and in the postmodern age, we’re certain that things never change. But everything I could say on this has already been said best by Fredric Jameson, who’s written whole books on our “windless present”. Science fiction, for me, is so interesting because its a cure to political and social atrophy—it empowers us to confront how fragile a sense of continuity is; how fleeting the status quo, how flexible the future. How prime for inventing, rather than forever tumbling toward more of the same.
I think that COVID-19 is one of the few events in my recent memory that shocked people into realising that we’re part of an ongoing history made by humans, a real historical process, and that things always can and always will change. It violently forced a whole word to realise that our sense of “normal” can be pierced like a bubble drifting toward an unknown sky. It made us accept that our normal was a young, delicate fiction—that next year won’t look like this year, and made us examine seldom-questioned assumptions about reality. Just like science fiction does.
Anyway, back to Le Guin. She explores the nature and limits of what it is to be human, through a very imaginative, lucid, and engaging format; she pushes our understanding as far as she can; she explores the consequences and processes of new or possible technologies; she looks at our own lives and customs from an alien perspective. Can you ever say you’ve read something that does all of that? So much of what we read looks at human relationships, as they exist in our current society, through the perspective of, well, a human. And that’s great! But it’s great to look elsewhere, too. Our imaginations love the change, and so many great things are born in our imagination.
Le Guin said her aim was to go into the “inner lands” of imagination, to supply readers with “the best and purest nourishment that it can absorb”. Because…
“If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there’s no way you can act morally or responsibly”, she says in an interview…
“Little kids can’t do it; babies are morally monsters—completely greedy. Their imagination has to be trained into foresight and empathy.”
What a woman, eh? Her book, Tales From Earthsea, inspired the Miyazaki Studio Ghibli film of the same name, on which she had a fair bit to say. Her Left Hand of Darkness series is oft-regarded as the best example of feminist science fiction, considered by many to be the book that changed everything.
I think that’s all today. I’ve gone on for too long. But ultimately, I’d like to say that cognitive estrangement is a great way of conceptualizing science fiction and the value that it offers. How powerful it can be, and how engaging when done right.
When you read it now, you’ll know exactly what it’s doing and how it achieves it. Probably.
And if you take anything from this article, I hope it’s to give The Dispossessed a read. I promise, you won’t regret it. I would offer you a money-back-guarantee or something. But that would really miss the point of the book.
If you enjoyed, and are looking for some great texts to start with, read my top 5 science fiction books to get you hooked!