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Simon Spiegel:

“Things Made Strange: On the Concept of ‘Estrangement’ in Science Fiction Theory”

Simon Spiegel studied German literature and linguistics, film studies and history in Zurich and Berlin. He
wrote his PhD thesis, which was published in 2007, on the poetics of the science fiction movie. He’s
currently a postdoc at the Department of Film Studies at the University of Zurich. He’s working on his
postdoctoral thesis on utopias in nonfiction films.

Simon Spiegel analyzes the origins of the concept of estrangement in sf criticism,


placing them in the works of academic and critic Darko Suvin who defined sf as the “genre of
cognitive estrangement” in 1979 and made the first major academic contribution to science
fiction (369). Next, Spiegel stresses that the concept of estrangement is part of several aesthetic
theories of the 20th century, such as Russian Formalism or Surrealism, in art, as well as in the
works of various postmodern writers.
In order to define estrangement, Spiegel refers to two of its significant theoreticians,
Schklovsky and Brecht, who had used it mainly to describe how fiction is communicated (370).
Viktor Schklovsky (1893-1984) was one of the major figures associated with Russian formalism,
while Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German playwright and director most renowned for his
“epic theatre”. Although Schklovsky’s theory of ostranenie shared similarities with Brecht’s
concept of the V-Effekt (V for Verfremdung=estrangement), they are not identical. According to
Schklovsky, ostranenie represents the process “of making things to appear strange” in order to
“truly see things again” (369). In contrast, Brecht’s V-Effekt had a “strong didactic and political
meaning” and obstructed the spectator from seeing a representation as “natural” (370). Brecht
also found analogies between estrangement and the scientific process, considering that “both are
based on a naïve, fresh look at the world (. . . ) both ask why the current situation is the way it is
(Weiler qtd. in Spiegel 370). Despite the differences of meaning, both use estrangement as a
stylistic device that communicates “how fiction is being communicated” (Spiegel 370).
While for Schlovsky and Brecht estrangement was primarily located inside “realistic”
texts, according to Spiegel, Suvin argues that the device is a part of the estranged genres, such as
sf, fairytales or myths, which he opposes to the naturalistic ones (Spiegel 371). He defines an
estranged fictional world as a world containing elements which are not part of the world we live
in. But, contrary to Suvin’s definition, in sf the things that he would describe as marvelous
actually happen: they are made plausible because sf employs technology in an attempt to
naturalize its novelty. Spiegel argues that we are able to distinguish between a witch as
belonging to the fairy tale iconography while we can clearly see teleportation as part of sf. And
later he contradicts Suvin’s theory of the connection between sf and estrangement and argues
that sf is actually based on naturalization, since “sf does not estrange the familiar, but rather
makes the strange familiar” (Spiegel 372). In sf, novum is the one naturalized and it can be
defined as “the unexpectedly new which pushes humanity out of its present to the not yet
realized”.
In the case of Star Trek, which is one of the most popular science fiction series of all
time, the machines and devices reflect the tools we use in everyday life, but their technical
possibilities are pushed further. It is quite debatable if there is any real science behind it, and
many ask if the technological advances present in the series will exist in the future. For instance,
the cloaking devices represent one of the technologies closest to becoming a reality today, while
things like artificial gravity or instantaneous matter transport seem highly unlikely to ever exist
(Millis). All in all, Star Trek ideas remain more in the realm of imagination.

Works cited:
Spiegel, Simon. “Things Made Strange: On the Concept of “Estrangement” in Science
Fiction Theory.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 35, no. 3, Nov. 2008, pp. 369-385

Electronical Sources:
Millis, John. “The Science of Star Trek.” ThoughtCo, 21 Nov. 2018, thoughtco.com/the-
science-of-star-trek-3072121, Accessed 03 Apr. 2019.