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Science Fiction – Academia

Robonaut and a spacesuit-gloved hand

Science Fiction between the ‘two cultures’: a conversation with Pierpaolo Antonello

(University of Cambridge)

Interview by Giulia Iannuzzi
You have worked extensively on the (complex) relationship between the humanistic and the scientific disciplines in Italian culture.[1] Because of its peculiar repertoire of images and themes, do you think science fiction is or can be a tool for building bridges between these ‘two cultures’?

As a genre, science fiction emerged after the industrial revolution and when science became the dominant paradigm for accounting of natural phenomena. It naturally presupposes a certain interest in scientific and technological matters. Its main readership can be situated within a socio-cultural group that tends to be more interested to (or professionally more involved with) science and technology. Science fiction also belong to a cultural and symbolic field which contributes to the, more or less conscious, elaboration of concepts, metaphors, and images that may have some impact on research programmes at the international level, and therefore it represents an important site of intersection between the ‘two cultures’. Furthermore, in those cultural contexts where there is a wider production and reception of the genre, science fiction is used at the pedagogical level, as an instrument to teach science. It helps making science ‘visible’, understandable through forms of imaginary or imaginistic visualization.

Science fiction has remained on the margins of the literary canon developed by Italian academic criticism, meaning both the Marxist currents and those related to Benedetto Croce’s idealism: why do you think that is? To what extent does the presence of science and technology in the genre’s thematic repertoire affect this marginalisation and to what extent is this due to other factors?

In general, there is a lacks of familiarity with non-literary issues within Italian criticism, which is also characterized by a widespread distrust for everything originating from the technical and scientific contexts. This has surely contributed to the marginalisation of science fiction. There is also a complex interplay of various factors: the devaluation of all literary sub-genres — the so called ‘paraliterature’, as it is often labelled with a pinch of critical snobbism (marginally mitigated by specific generational realignments); the strong ideological bias with which genres have been examined and discussed in Italy, and the Manicheistic pigeonholing of science fiction and fantasy as ‘reactionary’ and right-wing (just think about Tolkien’s reception); a protracted difficulty in conceptualising the products of ‘modernity’, which in turn produced a stronger critical interest on themes and representations linked to nostalgia and pauperism; finally, science fiction is a trans-medial genre, with a matrix of creation and reception that pertains to literature, cinema, comics, and television, hence difficult to examine from a strictly literary standpoint.

In your works on Italo Calvino and Primo Levi you repeatedly speak of ‘pseudo science-fiction’, ‘fanta-biology’ and ‘science fiction’.[2] What do you think about the axiological use of genre labels that is often still to be found in Italian academic criticism? Can you see significant differences between the Italian and the Anglo-Saxon context?

With those terms, I was simply surveying the repertoire of definitions (and self-definitions) that have been used for discussing the works of Calvino and Levi. On the one hand this could flag an interest for a more precise definition of the genre, given the peculiarity, for instance, of a text like Le Cosmicomiche; on the other hand, more likely, it reveals the critical ‘unease’ with which scholars have to deal with the ‘unorthodox’ production of two fundamental authors of the Italian twentieth-century canon. The same problem has been encountered with the detective and crime fiction, and the particular use of this genre by authors such as Carlo Emilio Gadda or Leonardo Sciascia.

The mistrust of the Italian intellectual establishment and academic critics towards science fiction is widely renowned – the exemplary case being Levi’s Storie Naturali, published under a pseudonym, with a blurb that sceptically read: ‘science fiction?’ and the lukewarm reception that followed. Might this general critical scepticism have discouraged Italian authors from engaging in science fiction?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. Authors who are interested in science fiction have continued to practice the genre. The fact that critics do not deal much with science fiction is essentially a problem for the critics themselves, and it has only marginally affected those authors or directors who have engaged in the genre.

In a 1963 interview in a well-known Italian science fiction magazine, Elio Vittorini pointed out the positive contribution of science fiction to contemporary fiction in terms of its popularisation of scientific and technical vocabulary: ‘Science fiction has disseminated, that is introduced into the culture of the common man, new linguistic elements which seem important to me. Linguistic elements which imply new concepts. […] Any element can integrate itself with a greater cultural complexity. Science fiction is also effective in this sense, I would say much more effective than works of popular science’.[3] What is your opinion about it? Is this a valid depiction of 1960s Italy? And what about today’s Italy?

Yes, of course. It seems quite obvious to me, although I do not think it is easy to determine whether science fiction could have a more profound effect in disseminating scientific language and concepts than, let’s say, the popularization of science. The to discourses actually intersect. On a conceptual and ideological level, science fiction also incorporates, capsulize, re-elaborate irrational drives, religious symbolism, utopian projections, millenaranist angst, and form of psychological regressions. Science and scientific language is only one of the many features of the genre, and possibly not the most important one.

The success of science fiction in Italy in the late twentieth century is linked to a period in which a lot of translations were carried out, mostly from English. How do you see this phenomenon from a sociological point of view and from that of the history of mass culture? What do you think about the relationships between Italian sci-fi writers and their British or American literary models?

Science fiction was born and developed in the Anglo-American context, and was introduced into Italy essentially by Mondadori with the Urania series, and an extensive series of translations, and thanks to the historical links Mondadori had with the North-American market. Furthermore, in terms of actual production the Anglo-Americans dominated the genre throughout the century. This kind of reception was therefore inevitable, although it is now possible to account for the peculiarities of the Italian production (in its most mature phase), compared to that of the Anglo-American authors.

Are there any contemporary authors you consider interesting?

What is interesting in the contemporary Italian context is the ‘sdoganamento’ of the genre both within the publishing industry and among young authors. Valerio Evangelisti’s works are published by Mondadori in the Oscar and Strade Blu series (the latter also includes works such as Kai Zen’s La strategia dell’ariete); Gianpaolo Proni is published by Fazi in Le Vele; Laura Pugno’s Sirene is published by Einaudi in the L’arcipelago series. The case of Pugno is interesting because Sirene won a mainstream and high-brow prize, like the Dedalus award. She was able to combine a disturbing and fascinating dystopian imagery with a sober, compose, and highly effective language and style. One of the best novels of the past decade.

[1] P. Antonello, Il ménage a quattro. Scienza, filosofia, tecnica nella letteratura italiana del Novecento (Florence: Le Monnier, 2005); Id., La nascita della fantascienza in Italia: il caso «Urania», in Italiamerica. L’editoria, ed. E. Scarpellini and J. T. Schnapp (Milan: Il Saggiatore-Fondazione Arnoldo e Alberto Mondadori, 2008), pp. 99-123; Id., Letteratura e scienza, in Storia d’Italia, annali 26, Scienze e cultura dell’Italia unita, ed. F. Cassata and C. Pogliano (Turin: Einaudi, 2011), pp. 923-48; Id., Contro il materialismo. Le «due culture» in Italia: bilancio di un secolo (Turin: Aragno, 2012).
[2] Id., Il ménage a quattro, pp. 84, 93, 197.
[3] Elio Vittorini interviewed by Inìsero Cremaschi, Futuro 2, no. 1 (July-August 1963), pp. 53-54.

Pierpaolo Antonello is Reader in Modern Italian Literature and Culture at the University of Cambridge and fellow of St John’s College. His research covers a variety of topics including twentieth century writing and intellectual history, Italian cinema, French theory and epistemology, visual arts. He has written extensively on the relationship between literature and science and more recently he has worked on the notion of ethics and commitment in contemporary Italian culture. Amongst his recent books, Il menage a quattro. Scienza, filosofia e tecnica nella letteratura italiana del Novecento (Florence: Le Monnier, 2005); Dimenticare Pasolini. Intellettuali e impegno nell’Italia contemporanea (Milan: Mimesis, 2012); Contro il materialismo. Le “due culture” in Italia: bilancio di un secolo (Turin, Aragno, 2012), the latter was awarded the 2012 AAIS Book Prize, and the 2013 Viareggio Jury Prize. He is co-editor of the Peter Lang ‘Italian Modernities’ series and is a member of the ‘Imitatio: Integrating the Human Sciences’ board of advisors.


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This entry was posted on June 3, 2014 by in Academia.
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