112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Science Fictionality Beyond Science Fiction: Reading Lydia Kwa’s Trans-Pacific Novels Through Novums and Slipstreams

Weihsin Gui, University of California, Riverside

The concepts of novum and slipstream developed in science fiction criticism can be productively applied to foreground the formal innovativeness of non-science fiction texts. They enable a reading of Singaporean-Canadian writer Lydia Kwa’s novels as formally complex trans-Pacific narratives rather than ethnographic texts of historical or cultural authenticity.


Given that discussions of science fiction have often focused on questions of form, style, and technique, is it possible to adapt certain ideas emerging out of science fiction studies to the formal analysis of non-science fiction texts? This paper suggests an affirmative answer: a productive engagement with the concepts of the novum (mooted by Darko Suvin and further elaborated by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay) and the slipstream (coined by Bruce Sterling and developed in depth by Pawel Frelik and Victoria de Zwaan) can offer new insight into two trans-Pacific novels by Singaporean Canadian author Lydia Kwa, This Place Called Absence (1994) and Pulse (2010).

 Neither of these novels falls into the categories of “hard” or popular science fiction: This Place Called Absence tells the tale of a Singaporean psychologist living in Canada who suffers a traumatic breakdown after the suicide of her father and tries to recover her subjectivity by researching and ventriloquizing the lives of two female sex workers in early twentieth-century colonial Singapore; Pulse recounts the story of an acupuncturist residing in Canada who returns to Singapore to reconcile with her estranged female lover whose son has committed suicide, only to find out that the deceased son was gay and the victim of parental sexual abuse. Of the two novels, only Pulse has any reference to science fiction texts (the Japanese monster film Godzilla and the anime film Voices From a Distant Star), and they become central thematic points as the novel unfolds.

 Most reviews of Kwa’s novels have focused on them as Canadian or Singaporean texts, emphasizing either 1) their ethnographic authenticity and historical veracity as migrant or diasporic narratives penned by a writer who looks back at Singapore from Canada; 2) their role as feminist and queer narratives resisting Singapore’s state authoritarianism and official multiculturalism. These readings of the novel are not incorrect, but they seem to be unable to account for the novels’ narrative complexity and formal innovation. I argue that adapting science fiction’s concepts of the novum and the slipstream can help illuminate the textual transformations and cross-hatching of multiple literary and cultural strands in both novels. The novum and the slipstream help set up a reparative rather than a paranoid reading (to use Eve Sedgwick’s terms) of Kwa’s novels as trans-Pacific rather than merely Canadian or Singaporean texts, and they help us pull away from the lure of ethnography and native information that surrounds much anglophone writing from outside North America and Europe.

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