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English 373: Science Fiction and Fantasy

A Guide to Critical Terms


Over the course of Maymester, this page will accrue a list of definitions for literary terms discussed in English 373: Science Fiction and Fantasy. I will attempt to add new terms as they are brought up in class, so that by the end of this module the guide will provide a useful resource for students preparing for final papers and exams.




analepsis and prolepsis


discourse and story



dystopias and utopias


frame narrative


hermeneutic and proairetic


in medias res


lap dissolve


match cut




objective shot


prolepsis and analepsis

POV shot

proairetic and hermeneutic



story and discourse

subjective shot



tracking shot


utopias and dystopias


voice-over narration


Here is the definition of allegory from M. H. Abrams' A Glossary of Literary Terms (Fifth Edition):

An allegory is a narrative in which the agents and action, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived so as to make coherent sense on the "literal," or primary, level of signification, and also to signify a second, correlated order of agents, concepts, and events. We can distinguish two main types: 1) Historical and political allegory, in which the characters and actions that are signified literally in turn signify, or "allegorize," historical personages and events.... 2) The allegory of ideas, in which the literal characters represent abstract concepts and the plot incorporates and exemplifies a doctrine or thesis.... The central device in the second type, the sustained allegory of ideas, is the personification of abstract entities such as virtues, vices, states of mind, modes of life, and types of character; in the more explicit allegories, such reference is specified by the names given to characters and places. Thus Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress allegorizes the doctrines of Christian salvation by telling how Christian, warned by Evangelist, flees the City of Destruction and makes his way laboriously to the Celestial City.
An important distinction to be made is between allegory and symbolism. The Romantic poets at the turn of the nineteenth century theorized symbolism as a way of suggesting multiple meanings for the characters and actions of their works in contradistinction to allegory's simple one-to-one correspondance. Of interest is Northrop Frye's definition of allegory in The Harper Handbook to Literature. He explains that allegory became especially important in the Medieval period when it was believed that all of nature represented a "second Word of God." Hence, it was expected that everything, in essence, be read allegorically. According to Frye, "The dramatic rise of science from the seventeenth century onward greatly weakened this attitude of mind. With Romanticism came the revolt of the poets themselves, who could no longer accept the view that it was their duty to be an answering chorus to morality" (13). One thesis of this course is that, although it may be the case that allegory disappeared to large extent from literature after the rise of science, one can nonetheless still find an allegorically driven literature in the very genre that rose up to critique and understand science--science fiction. INDEX

Analepsis and Prolepsis:

Analepsis is the narratological term for what is more commonly called "flashback." It is thus one way in which a narrative's discourse re-order's a given story. The corresponding term is prolepsis, which refers to those instances when a later event in a narrative is presented before it has actually happened in the story. The classic example is prophecy, as when Oedipus is told that he will sleep with his mother and kill his father. As we learn later in Sophocles' play, he does both despite his efforts to evade his fate. Another good example is the first scene of La Jetée. As we learn a few minutes later, what we are seeing in that scene is a flashback to the past, since the present of the film's diegesis is a time directly following World War III. However, as we learn at the very end of the film, that scene also doubles as a prolepsis, since the dying man the boy is seeing is, in fact, himself. In other words, he is proleptically seeing his own death. We thus have an analepsis and prolepsis in the very same scene. INDEX


The best way to remember diegesis is to borrow a term from Star Trek. The diegesis of a narrative is its entire created world, or its "time-space continuum." Any narrative includes a diegesis or time-space continuum, whether you're reading science fiction, fantasy, mimetic realism, or psychological realism. However, each kind of story will render that time-space continuum in different ways. The suspension of disbelief that we all perform before entering into a fictional world entails an acceptance of a story's diegesis. The Star Trek franchise is fascinating for narratology because it has managed to create such a fully realized and complex diegetic universe that the narratives of all four t.v. shows (TNG, DS9, STV, the original Star Trek) and all the movies occur, indeed coexist, within the same diegetic time-space. An important event in one of the movies affects all of the the other shows and films in the franchise. INDEX


Here's Northrop Frye et al's definition of this term in The Harper Handbook to Literature :

An alter ego; a second passional self haunting one's rational psyche; from German, "double-goer." G. H. Schubert, a follower of Franz Mesmer's psychotherapy and forerunner of Freud in seeing dreams as symbolic of repressed subconsciousness, predicted this psychic doubleness in Die Symbolik des Traumes (Bamberg, 1814--The Symbolism of Dreams ). Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had already seen a perpetual contention between humankind's evil heart and rational head [Note: Kant is also one of the important figures in defining the sublime.] and romances had for centuries paired good and evil identities.... Nevertheless, E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) specifically embodied Schubert's psychology in his supernatural tales collected as Die Serapionsbrüder (4 vols., 1819-1821--The Serapion Brethren ) and Die Lebensansichten des Katers Murr (2 vols., 1820-1822--Katers Murr's Views of Life ), widely translated, and much of nineteenth-century fiction followed suit. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), for instance, grew out of reading ghost stories--among them presumably Hoffmann's--with Byron and Shelley during a rainy Swiss summer, with all three trying a hand at writing some. James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) are notable examples of the shadowy Doppelgänger that haunts a great deal of subsequent fiction, as in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) and Conrad's great story "The Secret Sharer" (1912). INDEX

Frame Narrative:

A story within a story, within sometimes yet another story, as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The form is significant in Mary Shelley since it seems to echo in structure the thematic search for something deep, dark, and secret at the heart of the narrative. The form thus also resembles the psychoanalytic process of uncovering the unconscious behind various levels of repressive, obfuscating narratives put in place by the conscious mind. In each of the frames, a different individual is narrating the events of a story. This structure of course also leads us to question the reasons behind each of the narrations since, unlike an omnicient narrative perspective, the teller of the story becomes an actual character with concomitant shortcomings, limitations, prejudices, and motives. The process of transmission is also highlighted since we often have a sequence of embedded readers or audiences, like Jose Chung who interrupts Dana Scully's narration in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space". Such an audience, by necessity, reminds us of our own reading or viewing process. "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" underlines the fact of its narrational presentation by various visual and aural means (shots of Scully's skeptical face within the filmed depiction of events; cut backs to her discussion with Jose Chung, voice-over narration, the "bleeping" of one character's "colorful phraseology," the use of special camera lenses during the abductee's rendering of her "alien experience," etc.). See also the definition for narration. INDEX

Hermeneutic and Proairetic Codes:

These terms come from the narratologist Roland Barthes, who wishes to distinguish between the two forces that drive narrative and, thus by implication, our own desires to keep reading or viewing a story. The hermeneutic code refers to those plot elements that raise questions on the part of the reader of a text or the viewer of a film. For example, in the Star Trek episode that we saw in the first week, we are led to ask why the enterprise is destroyed. Indeed, we are not satisfied by a narrative unless all such "loose ends" are tied. Another good example is the genre of the detective story. The entire narrative of such a story operates primarily by the hermeneutic code. We witness a murder and the rest of the narrative is devoted to determining the questions that are raised by the initial scene of violence. The proairetic code, on the other hand, refers to mere actions--those plot events that simply lead to yet other actions. For example, a gunslinger draws his gun on an adversary and we wonder what the resolution of this action will be. We wait to see if he kills his opponent or is wounded himself. Suspense is thus created by action rather than by a reader's or a viewer's wish to have mysteries explained. INDEX

in medias res:

This is the technical term for the epic convention of beginning "in the middle of things," rather than at the very start of the story. In the Odyssey, for example, we first learn about Odysseus' journey when he is held captive on Calypso's island, even though, as we find out in Books IX through XII, the greater part of Odysseus' journey actually precedes that moment in the narrative. INDEX

Lap Dissolve:

This is the technical term for when a director has one scene fade into the next. A good example is the sequence of lap dissolves in La Jetée that ends with the protagonist's love object opening her eyes. INDEX

Match Cut:

This is the technical term for when a director cuts from one scene to a totally different one, but has objects in the two scenes "matched," so that they occupy the same place in the shot's frame. He thus makes a discursive alignment between objects that may not have any connection on the level of story. A good example is the match cut in "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" between the Tarot card for death and the poker hand held by Clyde Bruckman (aces over eights, which is called the "dead man's hand" according to Patrice Krauss). INDEX


Here is a strong definition of narration from The Harper Handbook to Literature, edited by Northrop Frye, Sheridan Baker, and George Perkins:

[Narrations] take their names from the grammatical stance employed by the narrator: first-person narration for a narrative perspective inside the story, third-person narration for one outside. The first-person narrator speaks as an "I" and may be identified in one of three roles; first person as protagonist, the hero or heroine of the story; first person as participant, a character in a subsidiary role; first person as observer, a character without essential function except to observe and record, sometimes developed fully as an individual with a name, history, and personality, sometimes almost nonexistent except for the "I" that appears occasionally as a reminder of the individual's personal relation to the story.... [A] third-person narrator... stands outside the story, speaking of those within it in the grammatical third person (he, she, they).... [One kind of third-person narration] is called THIRD-PERSON OMNISCIENCE, because the [third-person] narrator assumes the privileges of omniscience, moving about in time and space, entering freely into the unverbalized thoughts and motives of the characters.... All-knowing should not, however, be confused with all-revealing, in either traditional or modern tales.... [T]he third-person omniscient narrator will seldom reveal the mysteries and secret motives of the story before the moment of greatest effect. Knowing all, the story teller teases the reader with bits and pieces until all comes together at the end. [In other words, the story teller discursively re-orders the chronological events of the story.]

In THIRD-PERSON LIMITED OMNISCIENCE, the narrator frequently limits the revelation of thoughts to those of one character, presenting the other characters only externally. As a result, the reader's experience is conditioned by the mental state, the qualities of perception, ignorance, or bias of the filtering or reflecting mind.


Objective Shot:

An objective shot is the most common camera shot. We are simply presented with what is before the camera in the diegesis of the narrative. We are not seeing the scene through the perspective of any specific character, as we do in POV shots or subjective shots. The objective shot corresponds to "third-person narration" in literature. INDEX

POV Shot:

A POV shot is a sequence that is shot as if the viewer were looking through the eyes of a specific character. The shot is a common trick of the horror film: that is, we are placed in the position of the killer who is slowly sneaking up on a victim. (Note that horror directors sometimes "cheat" with this device; that is, after a building of suspense, it can also turn out that we weren't in the position of the killer after all.) A good example is the proleptic sequence in "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" when it appears that we are looking through the eyes of the killer who is sneaking up on Mulder. INDEX


Perhaps the best representation of this concept that we have discussed in this course is the restaurant scene in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, particularly the shots of colored gruel served up in front of the photographic representation of "actual" meals. Jean Baudrillard in "The Precession of Simulacra" defines the term as follows: "Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.... It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real" (1-2). His primary examples are psychosomatic illness, Disneyland, and Watergate. Fredric Jameson provides a similar definition: the simulacrum's "peculiar function lies in what Sartre would have called the derealization of the whole surrounding world of everyday reality" (34). INDEX

Story and Discourse:

These terms refer to the basic structure of all narrative form. Story refers to the chronological sequence of events as they actually occurred in the time-space (or diegetic) universe of the narrative being read. So, for example, in the Odyssey (Book XXIII, pages 467-68), Odysseus presents the story of his adventures to Penelope in almost pure "story" form, in the chronological order of occurence. Discourse refers to all the manipulations of the story that normally occur in a narrative. So, for example, in the Odyssey, we do not begin at the chronological start of the story but in medias res, when Odysseus is about to be freed from the isle of Calypso (which actually occurs nearly at the end of the story which Odysseus relates to Penelope on p. 467). Discourse also refers to all the material an author adds to a story: similes, metaphors, verse or prose, etc.. INDEX


The sublime can be best distinguished in contradistinction to the beautiful. The beautiful is that in nature which can be admired calmly and appreciated for its surface appearance (color, depth, material, balance). The sublime is that in nature which is so much greater than man that its attraction actually includes a certain degree of fear and trepidation on the part of the beholder, although a fear not so immediate that it traumatizes. The stolen boat episode in Book I of the Prelude (starting at line 372) relates Wordsworth's first experience with this terrible, frightening side to Nature's otherwise gentle and calming beauty. Natural landscapes that often evoke the sublime include mountains, chasms, Northern wastelands, massive waterfalls, etc.. Consider, for example, J. M. W. Turner's painting "The Passage of the St. Gothard" (1804) to the right of this text. (Note: if you click on the image, you will link to a larger reproduction of the same painting with slightly better resolution.) You might also have a look at Clerval's defense of the beautiful against the sublime in Shelley's Frankenstein, pp.182-83. Here's the definition of the sublime in Hugh Holman's A Handbook to Literature:

Edmund Burke in 1756 wrote A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful . Kant followed Burke's line of thinking in his Criticique of Judgment (1790), where he linked beauty with the finite and the sublime with the infinite. Burke's doctrine of the sublime was powerfully influential on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers. He believed that a painful idea creates a sublime passion and thus concentrates the mind on that single facet of experience and produces a momentary suspension of rational activity, uncertainty, and self-consciousness. If the pain producing this effect is imaginary rather than real, a great aesthetic object is achieved. Thus, great mountains, storms at sea, ruined abbeys, crumbling castles, and charnel houses are appropriate subjects to produce the sublime. INDEX

Subjective Shot:

This shot is related to the POV shot but is quite different. Whereas in the POV shot we are looking through the eyes of a character in the present and seeing something that is happening in the diegesis of the narrative, in a subjective shot we see through the "mind's eye" of the character. We might be seeing a vision, a memory, or a hallucination. A good example are the many examples of subjective shot in "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" whereby we are presented with the proleptic visions of the psychic, Bruckman. INDEX

Tracking Shot:

In such a shot, the camera is literally running on a track and thus smoothly following the action being represented or perhaps thus giving the viewer a survey of a particular setting. INDEX

Utopias and Dystopias:

Here's the definition for these terms that one can find in M. H. Abrams' A Glossary of Literary Terms (Fifth edition):

Utopia was the title of a book about an imaginary commonwealth, written in Latin (1515-16) by the Renaissance humanist Sir Thomas More. The title plays on two Greek words, "outopia" (no place) and "eutopia" (good place); and the utopia has come to signify the class of fiction which represents an ideal, nonexistent political state and way of life.... Another related but distinctive form is that of science fiction, represented by the works of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and many current writers, which explores the marvels of discovery and technology. There are also diverse cross-forms; for example, an aspect or tendency of scientific research is attacked by imagining its disastrous conclusion, as in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Cat's Cradle (1963) and the motion picture Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The term dystopia ("bad place") has recently come to be applied to works of fiction which represent a very unpleasant imaginary world, in which ominous tendencies of our present social, political, and technological order are projected in some future culmination. Examples are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's 1984 (1949), and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974).

Some texts of interest include Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia (1934), Nell Eurich's Science in Utopia (1967), and the anthology Utopian Literature: A Selection, edited by J. W. Johnson (1960). INDEX

Voice-Over Narration:

In voice-over narration, one hears a voice (sometimes that of the main character) narrating the events that are being presented to you. A classic example is Deckard's narration in the Hollywood version of Ridley Scott's Bladerunner. This technique is one of the ways for film to represent "first-person narration," which is generally much easier to represent in fiction. INDEX



Last Revised: May 21999

Turner painting,
The Passage of the St. Gothard,
courtesy of Carol L. Gerten