Science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangeletment

We all know Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement”. This is a bold hypothesis (in the best of the Popperian tradition of conjectures and refutations) and so capable of falsification, and thus more scientific, because falsifiable, than nominalist definitions of the sort “science fiction is whatever I point at when I say this is science fiction”. Not only is this nominalist, but it is also definition by authority, as we do not pay attention to just anyone’s ostensive definition, which at best can only give us a more or less consensual list.

Darko Suvin’s definition is science-influenced at the level of method, but unfortunately not scientific at the level of content, and so needs updating. We have the good fortune of being able to refer to a meta-fictional update from within the best of the “high concept” hard science space opera canon, by solidly established authors in this universally respected paradigmatic sub-genre.

Enter the strangelet.

A “strangelet” plays a key role in Gareth L. Powell and Peter F. Hamilton’s LIGHT CHASER. As described in Wikipedia: “A strangelet is a hypothetical particle consisting of a bound state of roughly equal numbers of up, down, and strange quarks”.

Metaphorically read this is a good definition of a certain type of “high-concept” science fiction: it binds together “up” metaphysical concepts (religious, spiritual, philosophical) and “down” scientific concepts along with the strangeness that intensifies the sense of wonder inherent to such conceptual experimentation.

This definition also indicates a specific danger that arises when the highly unstable strangelet decomposes into up and down components and loses its strangeness. We then get transcendence (up) alongside reductionism (down) without binding into a coherent whole.

The ever possible decomposition of the metaphoric, or cognitive, strangelet, gives us a typology of this sub-genre of science fiction. Too many “up” concepts (C.S. Lewis or some Orson Scott Card) or too many “down” concepts (say Greg Egan) or too many “strange” conceits (some Jeff VanderMeer) and the bound state does not last in practice as long as it could in theory.

Hamilton and Powell’s novel LIGHT CHASER is a compromise pulsation between the bound and the unbound states of such a cognitive strangelet. See: LIGHT CHASER: towards a cognitive strangelet? | Xeno Swarm (

Disclaimer: no intentionality is attributed to the authors, all intentionality, if at all detectable, is my own. SF authors are spontaneous strangelets (as are philosophers), and have lived through the death of the author so many times that … (uh oh! I have just unintentionally brought up another concept explored in the novel).

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