State of the Art

The Semiotics of Science Fiction: Mirrors without referents?

By Stephan Kraitsowits

Umberto Eco (1985, 109) has explained how the properties that a seme includes or implies in a specific text depends on the way a specific text either “magnetises” or “keeps under narcosis” the manifold “virtualities” of the seme used. In Science Fiction this exercise in the actualisation or not of the virtualities of a seme is a more particularly delicate one and one well worth studying.

Science Fiction has been seen as a heroic refusal of accepted norms and values (B. Eizykman, 1979) and a systematic means of distanciation from accepted contemporary knowledge (D. Suvin, 1977) but, more than this, it is also a formidable machine enabling the blending together of disparate signifiers allowing the creation of truly novel signs.

For example, by juxtaposing the usual and broadest possible meanings of the lexeme “intelligent” and that of the lexeme “spider” (also in its broadest possible sense), Charles R. Tanner creates in his short story Tumithak of the Corridors a novel sign: mediated by the mysterious lexeme “Shelk”. Though inexistent in any reader’s usual encyclopaedia, the word Shelk does have a meaning in Tanner’s text: that of “intelligent spider”. Like the Shelks, plasma thrusters or dematerialising rays, or any of the many other exotic lexemes to be found in Science Fiction stories become meaningful though they may have strictly nothing to do with any palpable, referential reality.

Science Fiction, however, does not simply rely on the juxtaposition of two (or more) usually distinct and preferably heterogeneous signs (relating to objects from the referential world) in order to create a third, more exotic, hybrid one. In Science Fiction (as opposed to Fantasy where such juxtapositions can also create dragons composed of bits and pieces from referenced animals) it is above all the marvellous possibilities of Technology and the holistic power of Science which are used to “declutch” (G. Cordesse, 1984, 103-137) readers from ordinary representations and to bring them to conceive structurally very different words and worlds. In fact, what Science Fiction does, beyond inventing new words, is to bring readers to stop systematically relying on their ordinary representations -which make daily life so familiar and reassuring- and to keep open as many of the virtualities of the lexemes used as requires the text. Said otherwise, by offering only an initially fuzzy meaning of a lexeme the writer forces the reader to never risk the ‘narcosis’ of any of the virtualities of a seme and thus introduces the possibility of more exotic worlds of imagination and desire.

It appears, however, that at least four further levels of semantic creation should be distinguished in Science Fiction novels to explain how the worlds of Science Fiction find meaning in a reader’s mind (i.e. sufficiently determine the interpretant’s thoughts) even though they relate to worlds which have no material form. These several levels of semantic creation are, it seems, closely linked to the evolution of the rhetoric of the narrative genre called Science Fiction and are considered here as successive chronological developments. All four levels, however, have existed since the very birth of Science Fiction in the early thirties, when Hugo Gernsback first coined the word Science Fiction and first started publishing such literature in his successive magazines Science and Invention and Wonder Stories.

A first example of how science fiction creates significance from signs that are not materially grounded is Jack Williamson’s The Moon Era (Wonder Stories, February 1932). In this short story, a technological gadget capable of ‘shielding’ a man-made apparatus and its driver from the effects of gravitation offers a new virtuality to the word “rocket”: that of not only being able to travel through Space but also through Time. The effort of bringing the reader to believe (at least for the time it takes to read the story) in the possibility of such an exotic “rocket” is achieved thanks to a lengthy (pseudo)scientific explanation –largely detrimental to the plot itself-, which reconfigures the reader’s prior definition of the word “rocket” so as to add to past representations the idea that rockets are also vehicles for travelling through Time. In other similar fictions, written before or after Williamson’s The Moon Era, preambles, postambles, annexes and even footnotes are used to bring readers away from their usual understanding of a word and to add to them more far-fetched virtualities.

It is thus through a highly didactic rhetoric that early readers of Science Fiction could be brought (at least temporarily) to accept the creation of completely new signs or even to accept exotic significance for usually homely lexemes.

In other instances, the initial didactic help -used in other texts from the very start of the story to both revalue ordinary signs and create new ones- is considered as superfluous or at least not immediately necessary. It seems that later readers of Science Fiction were capable of willingly suspending their interpretation of a situation and were patient enough to let the author explain his full intent only later. Indeed, in another ‘type’ of Science Fiction text, authors are capable of sending readers directly into very alternative and non-mimetic worlds from the very first pages of the text without the pedagogical devices usually used to steer readers away from their referential worlds and their usual interpretation of the signs used. For instance, James Graham Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) -to take again just one token example and not the first of its kind) plunges the reader directly into an exotic and fundamentally alien world where whole cities rise above crocodile-filled lagoons. It is only at several later stages in the text that the reader is brought to understand how the referential world has been transformed into a garbage-filled swamp. Such a text is only possible if the reader is willing to keep open the virtualities of the words of the text and if the writer -usually through juxtaposition techniques (such as metaphors and comparisons), a gradual accumulation of descriptive detail and a great deal of cunning auto-referentiality- manages to skilfully build up more specific and outlandish meanings. In Ballard’s post-apocalyptic story, it is because the possible -though marginal- idea that the material ‘world’ which determines most signs could somehow become ‘drowned’ that Ballard’s The Drowned World does not have to exist in the referential world and yet can still be meaningful to generations of readers.

Perhaps it is because Science Fiction has largely developed within the scope of fan magazines (where there is a constant interaction between authors, editors and readers) and is often published in either the very economical short story format or in that of the serial that readers are willing to read texts that are, in fact, difficult to interpret.

In William Gibson’s Burning Chrome (1986), an even more recent short story and a well-known token of yet another type of Science Fiction called cyberpunk, even the belated explanations as to the author’s meaning of the words used are never actually made clear. The readers of this short story are forced to accept (at least while reading) that traditional definitions and thus interpretations of the words used by the text are incomplete, that the words used by the author have in fact far more exotic meanings than those usually accepted, and that there are also new signs that should be accepted as commonplace without any explanation at all. In Gibson’s worlds cyborgs and simstims (simulated stimulations?) are an everyday occurrence and virtual reality can have corporeal effects.

Perhaps it is because Science Fiction readers have come to accept that their encyclopaedias are of no definite use when reading Science Fiction that they are today able to read texts which abuse of usually well-anchored signs and are filled with coined terms.

More recently still, Science Fictional ‘artefacts’ have now become commonplace. A Science Fiction artefact is a system of signs which does not relate to the cultural context of the planet Earth in 2007 but to some more or less radically alternative culture. These are texts which refer not to a reader’s usual encyclopaedia but to a completely different set of values, where strange representamen determine in the minds of even stranger interpretants, objects that can no where be found on Earth. The signs in such texts are not the usual representamen / object / interpretant triads or the everyday Saussurian diads. The reader’s referential world, his or her practical experience and education, is more often than not completely useless. ‘Atlases’ of Middle Earth refer to Tolkien’s imaginary world. A Klingon-English dictionary (and Institute) is only understandable, and indeed conceivable, in the minds of truly embedded Star-Trek fans.

To conclude, from a situation where the fresh signs of Science Fiction are generated through the undermining of commonplace interpretations through pedagogical devices, we arrive today in a situation where a large lectorate is capable of appreciating texts which resemble mirrors that have, somewhere along the line, lost their referents.

Specialists in Science Fiction will most certainly argue that what is here described as a progressive literary development existed from the start and that the phases of Science Fiction underlined coexisted in several texts right from the start of the genre in the 1930s and can even be found in even earlier texts. This is absolutely true. The spread and evolution of Science Fiction, however, has brought marginal texts of the past to the fore and what thrives today is what has followed the path of this evolution. Today, readers of Science Fiction, like semioticians, are perfectly aware that the signs that vehicle meaning depend more of the relationship between different elements of a same system of signification than the relationship between these elements and a so-called exterior objectivity.


  • BALLARD, James G. The Drowned World. New York: Berkley, 1962; London: Gollancz, 1963.
  • BARTHES, Roland. Mythologies. Paris : Seuil, 1957. 247 p.
  • G. CORDESSE Gérard. La nouvelle S.F. américaine. Chapitre IV. Paris: Aubier, 1984. pp 103-137.
  • EIZYKMAN, Boris. Inconscience fiction. Kesselring Editeur, 1979. 318 p.
  • ECO, Umberto. Lector in fabula : le rôle du lecteur. Paris: Grasset, 1985. 315 p.
  • GIBSON, William. Burning Chrome. Originally published in OMNI, 1982, Omni.
  • SAINT-GELAIS, Richard. L’Empire du pseudo. Modernités de la science-fiction, Quebec: Editions Nota Bene, 1999, 399 p.
  • SUVIN, Darko. Pour une poétique de la science-fiction. Presses Universitaires du Québec, 1977. pp. 12-20
  • TANNER, Charles R. Tumithak of the Corridors. Teck Publishing Corporation, 1931. First published in the January 1932 edition of Amazing Stories.
  • WILLIAMSON, Jack. The Moon Era. Gernsback Publications, Inc., 1931. First published in the February 1932 edition of Wonder Stories.