Defamiliarization and Science fiction, or, It All Makes Sense Now

Anyone who’s known me over the past few years can testify to my growing love of science fiction. Though I’d dabbled in the genre previously, it’s only over the last few years that I truly began to realize its potential – and this interest, I think, came to a culmination with my love of Star Trek. It’s what truly revealed to me that science fiction was the literature of ideas, more so, I think, than any other genre.

But, for the longest time, I struggled to understand why this was; to come up with a general, unifying principle for what quality of science fiction gave it the depth and perspicacity to explore ideas and possibilities so well. I began to get a small inkling with Star Trek: The Original Series, and the way it constantly used myth, metaphor, and allegory, such that the story transcended the events of the narrative to reach a greater height of symbolism and allegory that made it meaningful on several levels at once. That’s particularly evident in episodes such as “The Enemy Within,” where a transporter accident divides Kirk into two halves, good and evil. In a Jekyll and Hyde sort of story, the plot itself centers around putting Kirk back together, because he needs both his good and evil sides in order to function; but on another level, it serves as a sort of metaphorical examination of the good and evil in every human being, as a product of our human complexity.

But this, too, I didn’t feel truly capture the possibilities of science fiction, or what made it so good at probing the depths of really complex ideas. Seeing plot as metaphor and allegory is all very well, but it didn’t feel like the full extent of what I was looking for.

Yesterday, I had a bit of a eureka moment. I figured out how science fiction works.

I’m aware that what I’m doing here is reinventing the wheel, so to speak. There’s been a lot of theorizing done on science fiction already, and some preliminary research has led me to find the words – and the theoretical framework – for what I came up with myself. So, this post is not in any way a claim to innovation; it is rather my own attempt to work through these ideas for myself. I’m aware that I have a lot of reading ahead of me on these topics, and I would hazard a guess that much of what I’ll say here will coincide with that reading. Still, I’d like to offer these thoughts for what they are – a simplified version, perhaps, of an already existing theoretical framework. I’d also like to, in keeping with the theme of this blog, apply that theoretical framework to a few of the shows I’m devoting this blog to, as a way to comment on certain episodes as well as to illustrate what I mean.

So…drumroll….the way I conceive of science fiction as working, the fundamental, driving force behind it, is, in my view, the concept of defamiliarization. It likely applies equally well to fantasy, which, along with science fiction, forms a genre I like to call speculative fiction; in fact, I see much of fantasy doing with magic what science fiction does with science and technology, but this is both a point of contention for some people and a bit peripheral to my argument.

Defamiliarization – or, in the original Russian, ostranenie – was a concept first theorized about by a Russian formalist critic named Shklotsky. It is exactly what it sounds like – the process of making the familiar unfamiliar in order to reveal something about it. Of course, Shlotsky himself wasn’t talking about science fiction, and he limited his theory to things like poetry and drama. He was interested in the political possibilities for social critique that this offered, and he focused mostly on things like language and style as ways to make something unfamiliar. But, despite the limited application he seemed to see for these ideas, I think it’s one of the most brilliant concepts in literary theory. Only by taking something that we’re intimately familiar with – so familiar that we can’t really see it and comprehend it for what it is – and making it strange and unfamiliar, portraying it from a different perspective, can we really learn something new. An incredibly simplistic analogy would be the idea that one must step back from a work of art to really see it; however, here it’s not really a process of stepping back so much as fundamentally re-orienting the direction from which one sees the work of art in order to see it in a new way.

Science fiction, I think, expands this possibility of making the familiar unfamiliar so much further than Shklotsky originally envisioned, precisely because the possibilities and tools offered by science fiction to make something unfamiliar range so far beyond things like style and language. Science fiction opens up, literally, a universe (or more) of possibilities. Anything can be made unfamiliar not simply from being described in a different way, but from being portrayed in a completely different setting. Things we’re familiar with on earth can be displaced onto other planets, human characteristics can be projected onto alien races, things like gender, sexuality, and race can become aspects of alien civilizations in order to appear strange or alien, anachronism can about as the civilizations of other planets develop different from ours, and the scope of possibilities – all of time and space – is simply astounding.

That is not to say that “literary fiction” doesn’t have its values (I guess literary fiction is the term for things that aren’t genre fiction, like science fiction and fantasy, but don’t even get me started on categorizing fiction). There’s certainly validity in realistically, believably describing characters, events, and historical (or contemporary settings). An intimate psychological portrait of a character or an incredibly perceptive description of a historical or physical setting can be incredibly revealing, and certainly science fiction, too, strives to be psychologically believable and realistic in its worldbuilding. But, no matter how detailed, and perceptive, and accurate and well-written the stories of literary fiction are, we are going to inevitably be insiders to them. We’re going to come with pre-conceived notions about a historical setting or figure, a culture or nationality, class or race, gender or sexuality or profession, or any number of things. They’re going to come to us attached to current political debates or ideological and political histories that we simply cannot escape.

Science fiction gets rid of that. It offers us a completely new perspective, removing many of our political, social, and cultural preconceptions, because while we can project those prejudices and preconceptions onto the familiar, it’s a lot harder to project them onto the unfamiliar.

For example, a novel such as War and Peace is historically detailed and psychologically intense, and in so doing, reveals things like the nature of war and the structure of society and social relationships. It’s revealing because it’s intensely descriptive and psychologically perceptive, but any reader reading it will still come to the novel with preconceptions – about the Napoleonic Wars (which we’ve all studied in history class), about nineteenth century social institutions, about Russian culture (if one is an American reader), about realism in the Russian novel. We’ll have a certain familiarity with the content and certain categories to think through it – we’ll understand it through the lens of the European history we’ve learned, through our understanding of social institutions, through our conception of how gender was understood in the nineteenth century.

But what science fiction does is remove a lot of those categories and that framework, so that we can think about some of the same issues (for example, the nature of war, or social institutions, or psychology and gender) without the cultural and historical and political baggage that is inevitably going to be attached from setting something in a “real,” familiar world.

The most poignant example I can think of this is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled “First Contact” – the episode from which this blog derives both its name and its theme. The episode shows the Enterprise trying to do exactly what the name implies – make first contact with an alien civilization, the Malcorians. They monitor the Malcorians’ media, go undercover to try to understand their culture, and finally, they make contact. The Malcorians are just on the verge of discovering warp travel (which seems to be Star Trek’s criterion for making first contact), and while some parts of their society are excited by the possibility of going out into space and meeting new cultures, there are other factions that are frightened and confused, both by the technology involved and by venturing out into space. We learn that Malcorian culture is founded on the belief that they are superior beings in the galaxy, and naturally there are factions who believe in a better use of resources than venturing into space. Some characters are portrayed fairly steadfastly anti-technology in the first place.

Of course, from the viewer’s perspective, it’s incredibly easy to judge the Malcorians. After all, we’re invested in watching a show that’s about “going where no one has gone before.” We’re emotionally attached to the concept of exploration and the wonder of discovery and of other civilizations, which Star Trek is based around. Of course we’re going to sympathize with the Enterprise crew rather than the more judgmental opinions of the Malcorians.

But that’s precisely what makes this episode so brilliant – because the Malcorians are a reflection of us. The point takes a while to hit home, but eventually it becomes evident. After all, humanity itself is a pretty self-centered species. It took us until the Renaissance to figure out that the Earth went around the sun – and, consequently, that our little planet was not the center of the universe. It caused a lot of controversy at the time. Even today (and, presumably more so in Roddenberry’s day), there are still people (even in countries with access to very good education) that insist that the Earth does not go around the sun. In my experience living in the United States, that’s more true, perhaps, than in other countries; despite out much-lauded first amendment, our culture is still pervaded with religion and anti-scientific rhetoric. We’re constantly arguing about how much money we should give to NASA. There’s a very American belief that we’re the best country in the world (despite statistics to the contrary), and if we did go to space we’d presumably carry that belief with us. The first thing we did when landing on the moon, after all, is stick an American flag there. We’re used to conceiving of ourselves as the only beings in the galaxy, of our planet as the be-all and end-all. Which really kind of makes me shudder about what would happen if we ever did meet an alien civilization – humanity doesn’t exactly have a good track record with meeting the new cultures they discover.


Which is precisely what makes this episode so effective – this process of defamiliarization. Malcorian culture is fundamentally similar to ours – from the fear and unwillingness to venture out into a universe of which we might not be the center, in some factions, to a love of discovery in other groups of people. And yet, at the same time, the Malcorians are just different enough, just unfamiliar enough, that we feel, to a certain extent, removed. We’ve never heard of the Malcorians. Their appearance is different from ours. Their physiology is different, a point brought home in the beginning, when Malcorian doctors attempt to treat Riker and find his heart “in his digestive tract.” Their technology is different  – they’re on the verge of warp capability, which alienates them from us humans in the real world (presumably NASA hasn’t built that warp drive yet) as well as from the humans we’ve come to love in Starfleet. They live on a planet we’ve never seen. In essence, the Malcorians are fundamentally different – and yet not. And that’s what causes this defamiliarization, this double-take when the viewer realizes they’re at the same time familiar and unfamiliar, like us and yet not us.

And, given this unfamiliarity, we can take these issues for what they are, removed from our preconceptions. We can see the issues that plague our humanity while removing all the cultural, religious, and political baggage that such an issue would inevitably raise in our society. The issue of our place in the universe, of humanity venturing out into space, of how we would view alien civilizations – is removed from the problems of how big a budget we can afford to give NASA, or the limitations of Earth’s resources and economy, or the religious rhetoric that’s inevitably going to trickle in when we discuss the nature of the universe. The whole issue that is so important to humanity is addressed, and yet taken completely out of its context, made unfamiliar, so that we can reconceive of the way we see ourselves and address these problems. As a viewer, we’re set up to judge the Malcorians, to some extent, to disagree with the anti-scientific rhetoric of some members of its society and feel pride at their discovery of the warp drive – and then, upon seeing ourselves in the Malcorians, reflect upon ourselves. The episode sets us up to almost judge ourselves, us humans, in the same way we’ve judged this alien civilization, to see our own pride, egotism, fear, and hesitation, and reconceive these flaws and our priorities as a race of beings.

And, hopefully, we become inspired to do better, to venture out into the stars after getting rid of the conception that we’re better than everyone else that might exist in the galaxy. The episode ends with the Malcorians deciding to put off going out into space, to dedicate more money to education, to make the youth of their civilization understand the marvels of science and technology and the possibilities in the universe that lies beyond. And perhaps that’s what this episode is telling the viewer, too, in a more subtle way – that perhaps we should embrace science and technology more, become more open minded, learn about the universe out there from down here on the planet – before we dare venture out. We need to grow up as human beings before we can explore what’s out there, and the episode tells us that precisely by taking everything out of context.

Many of Star Trek’s episodes use precisely this process of defamiliarization to address a variety of issues; this approach pervades the series. This episode is only one of hundreds of examples, perhaps one of the best ones because it’s so relevant to the core themes of Star Trek and how the show affects us as humans. But this approach is evident everywhere – not just in the plots, but also in the characters. For example, each Star Trek series has a non-human character as part of the main cast, a character who reflects our humanity to us precisely by not being human (Spock on TOS, Data on TNG, Seven of Nine on Voyager…). In these characters, our humanity is so often defamiliarized by being projected onto another. Spock, though a logical Vulcan, is constantly attempting to reconcile his Vulcan and human sides, reflecting back to us our own conflicts between reason and emotions. Data, though not human and incapable of feeling, constantly seeks to be human and do what humans do – he dates, creates a child, forms friendships, has sex, and tries to make jokes, all in the name of understanding these aspects of being human. But he comes to them from an outsider’s perspective – in dating, he has to write protocols for his conduct within the relationship; he’s not capable of feeling amusement, and so tries to make jokes though he cannot actually experience the concept of humor; he creates a child by making a copy of his positronic brain because he cannot truly reproduce, but seeks to recreate himself. These things lead us to question why we value all these activities, why they make us human, what it is that we value about them. And, taken out of their context, approached in different ways (such as reproducing through, quite literally, copying one’s brain), it asks us, for example, why we want to reproduce. What is it about our humanity that we want to perpetuate every time we have a child? Why do we laugh? Why do we need humor?

These questions are endless – as endless as the universe itself (which, according to Bill Nye, “fucktuples in size” every second or so), and so is science fiction’s ability to address them.

And now that I’ve briefed you all, do excuse me. I have a distant planet to visit.


Posted on February 25, 2014, in Star Trek and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I really, really liked this post. There is much I agree with and little I find disagreeable. I think I might address it in a blog post of my own.

    For now, I’d like to point out that Seven of Nine is technically human–what makes her different and defamiliarizes her is the fact that she is a human that was freed from the Borg Collective. I think from Voyager you could also consider Neelix (Delta Quadrant alien), Tuvok (Vulcan) and the EMH. The interactions between Tuvok and Neelix are very revealing.

    • I look forward to whatever you have to say in response, whether it’s on your blog or here!

      Certainly, Seven of Nine is technically human – except that, having been a Borg and then become ‘human’ again, it’s debateable whether she’s completely human, or whether that experience has fundamentally changed her to move her past our understanding of human. Despite not being a Borg anymore, it’s possible that she can never really completely return to being ‘human’ unless we redefine what ‘human’ means, and all that. I mean, she is, for example, a lot smarter than most humans and is constantly commenting on things humans do (at least, that’s my impression, I haven’t even seen Voyager so maybe my views will change when I do). I also forgot to mention Picardo’s doctor – he probably qualifies as well, but I’ll have to comment on both more when I watch those shows.

  2. Great post. I felt the need to heap praise on it & add that my experience (especially in the internet age) of coming to a conclusion & looking for the key search words to bring me the volume of work already done on the subject so I don’t have to, as you said, reinvent the wheel. So, thanks for the informative & contextualized synthesis of the concepts I was looking for: Scifi & defamiliarization. 🙂

    • Thank you! I admit, I did (or tried doing) a lot of research for this post, but it’s shocking how little there is to be found on defamliarization and science fiction put, well, that simply. I once took a course with an excellent science fiction scholar (Eric Rabkin) who’s essentially written about defamiliarization in speculative fiction, though he called it “the unexpected,” and the book is now out-of-print, and the Wikipedia page for defamiliarization doesn’t really talk about sci-fi and it’s the kind of things you think are obvious that you can never really find scholarship for, you know?

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