"I loathe science fiction," Vladimir Nabokov declared to a BBC
interviewer in 1968, "with its gals and goons, suspense and
suspensories."

Strange to say, Nabokov was putting the finishing touches on
an ambitious science fiction novel even as he made this grand
pronouncement.
Ada, or Ardor was published eight months later,
two weeks after Nabokov’s 70th birthday, to
great acclaim. Alfred Appel, writing in the
New
York Times
, declared that, with this work—the
longest novel of Nabokov's career— the Russian
émigré had established himself as the "peer of
Kafka, Proust and Joyce."

Appel might have justifiably made comparisons
with Philip K. Dick's
The Man in the High Castle,
or Philip José Farmer's
The Gate of Time, or
Robert Silverberg's
The Masks of Time—1960s
works that anticipated the alternate history concept
Nabokov develops at length in
Ada. Most
commentators preferred to downplay the sci-fi
themes that underpin this novel, awkwardly
searching for ways of defusing the intrusion of
pulp fiction ideas into a literary masterwork.
"This description makes
Ada sound like science fiction," Appel admits,
"and in part it is."  But then he prefers to find another term, declaring
that Nabokov is the author of "physics fiction"—a label that seems a
bit more distinguished. Other critics insisted that
Ada was a novel
about language, or a love story, or a puzzle masquerading as a story,
or a commentary on fiction.  

"We should always remember that the work of art
is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the
first thing we should do is to study that new world
as closely as possible, approaching it as something
brand new, having no obvious connections with the
worlds we already know."
             
Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature

Yet, from the very start, readers can tell that Nabokov is playing by
different rules than Proust or Joyce. The book begins in the early
19th century, but characters repeatedly refer to anachronistic
technologies—including airplanes and motion pictures. Yet they
have no electricity, and apparently enforce a strict taboo against
even mentioning it—the result of some ambiguous historical
catastrophe referred to as "the L disaster." Since that time, electricity
has become "too obscene spiritually" to speak about. Many of the
technologies in
Ada are run on water—people speak on the hydro-
powered "dorophone" instead of using a telephone, and get light
from a murmuring "dorocene" lamp (the prefix 'dor' ostensibly a
corruption of 'hydro').

The novel takes place on a planet that is geographically similar to
Earth, but called Demonia or Antiterra by the characters.  Much of
what we know as North America, especially parts of Canada, reveals
a marked Russian cultural flavor—similar to the French influence on
current-day Québécois culture. The United States proper, on Antiterra,
extends down into South America. England is a monarchy ruled by
King Victor, and many parts of the world—including France, India,
South Africa and Scandinavia—are under British control.  

The people on this planet have some awareness of our own Earth,
which they call Terra, but it figures as part of their religious beliefs.  
Instead of God, they refer to
Log, and some believe that they go to
Terra, a kind of paradise, when they die.  A few fanatics or occultists
have visions or dreams of Terra while still alive, but
their descriptions are ridiculed the way we might
dismiss a purveyor of UFO conspiracy theories.
Those who talk too much about Terra can even
find themselves branded as lunatics.  

Yes, this can only be described as science fiction.
Nabokov layers against it a transgressive love story,
evolving over eight decades, between Van Veen
and his sister Ada. This affair between underaged
siblings, presented in intimate detail, is far more
unconventional than even Humbert Humbert's
relationship with Lolita—and it is testimony to how
much censorship enforcement had changed between
1955 (when
Lolita was released) and 1969 (when
Ada came out) that the later novel didn't result in arrests,
book burnings and and public outcry. Yet the prominence of a love story
in the plot does little to change the anomalies of the alternate universe in
which it is set, peculiarities that are brought to the reader's attention on
virtually every page.

So how can we reconcile the reality of this unrealistic novel with
Nabokov's stated scorn for sci-fi?

Long before he began work on
Ada, Nabokov expressed similar
reservations about genre tales. In his 1952 short story "Lance,"
the narrator announces: "I utterly spurn and reject so-called 'science
fiction.' I have looked into it and found it as boring as the mystery-story
magazines—the same sort of dismally pedestrian writing with oodles
of dialogue and loads of commutational humor. The clichés are, of
course, disguised; essentially, they are the same throughout all cheap
reading matter, whether it spans the universe of the living room."

Can we take Nabokov at face value? The very story that denounces
sci-fi, "Lance," deals with space travel. His story "The Visit to the
Museum" involves teleportation. His 1944 tale "Time and Ebb" is
narrated by a scientist who reflects with nostalgia on the wonders
of the past (but the reader's present). "The Vane Sisters" focuses
on parapsychology, and the narrator of
The Eye manages to continue
his story after killing himself. These stories clearly borrow from sci-fi
and fantasy, but the connection in other stories is just as noteworthy, if
less obvious. For example, Nabokov often imagined strange mythical
locales for his fiction, such as the kingdom of  Zembla in
Pale Fire
or the city Padukgrad in Bend Sinister—these fanciful geographies
are only a step away from the alternate universes of sci-fi authors,
and in retrospect can be seen as paving the way for the Antiterra of
Ada.

Needless to say, such examples reflect Nabokov's willingness to
depart from the conventions of strict realism, and embrace far-
fetched concepts, whether technological or metaphysical, when
they fit his needs. Indeed, on the opening page of his posthumous
Lectures on Literature, we encounter a statement that could easily
represent the dominant ethos of the sci-fi writer: "We should always
remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world,
so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely
as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no
obvious connections with the worlds we already know." That advice
might apply to the reader of Nabokov's
Ada or Pale Fire, but just as
aptly to the audience for
Dune or The Left Hand of Darkness.    

And did Nabokov really despise science-driven storytelling by other
authors? He expressed admiration for H.G. Wells. He assigned Robert
Louis Stevenson's
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to his
students at Cornell. And Nabokov once noted that, during his youth,
Jules Verne ranked among his favorite authors, although these books
later, he was quick to add, "lost the glamour and thrill they held for me."

Yet Nabokov’s most revealing comment on sci-fi comes in the context
of an remark to an interviewer about Shakespeare. "After all," he admits,
"if we start sticking group labels, we’ll have to put
The Tempest in the
SF category, and of course thousands of other valuable works." Here
we get to the crux of Nabokov's sci-fi problem: it's not the books that
upset him, but the label, which brings with it expectations of the
aforementioned "goons and gals."

By temperament and background, Nabokov was perfectly equipped
to write sci-fi—indeed one might even see him as
destined to do so.  
As a storyteller, he had only a half-hearted commitment to realism,
and delighted in the improbable and fantastic as literary spices that
could enhance a narrative's flavor. He was a scientist himself, and
the curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative
Zoology.  A scientific paper, published in 2011, drew on gene-
sequencing technology to vindicate Nabokov's theory of butterfly
evolution. "It's a fitting tribute to the great man," commented
evolutionary biologist James Mallet, "to see that the most modern
methods that technology can deliver now largely support his
systematic arrangement."

This interest in science permeates
Ada. Our protagonist Van
Veen is a professor and renegade scholar, whose expertise
encompasses literary techniques, philosophical musings, the
debunking of psychology, and a bold reframing of the concepts of
space and time. Veen frequently takes the reader on awkward
detours from the story of his love life in order to present his defiant
theories of physical reality.  In truth, these are the most sluggish
parts of
Ada, and Nabokov seems to forget for long stretches that
he is writing a novel, not competing with Bergson, Whitehead and
Einstein. He clearly has the precedents of Proust and Mann in mind,
two other novelists who incorporated reflections on time into their
novels—and both referred to in the pages of
Ada. But their poetic
reflections on
la durée intérieure are more art than philosophy, while
Nabokov abandons his own greatest virtue, namely his quirky and
fanciful mode of expression, during these turgid sections of
Ada, and
adopts the severe tone of a tenured pedant. Even so, his willingness
to disrupt his own carefully developed narrative with these dense
theoretical passages reveals just how much he valued the
conceptual elements underpinning his novel.   

When he is not trying to improve on Einstein, Nabokov dazzles with
all his trademarked bag of tricks: wit and wordplay, sex and cynicism,
a precision bordering on parody, and a vocabulary and allusions that
will send even lifelong lexicographers to their library. If you aren't willing
to play this game by Nabokov's rules, you ought to seek out another
book right now.  Many things in
Ada are deliberately obscure at first
glance, but pleasingly explicated later in the book, while other remain
submerged in mystery, or hover in the background half-explained.
Okay, Nabokov offers his own footnotes, credited to a 'Vivian
Darkbloom'—but that anagram should signal immediately that
these points of clarification are simply another level of the same
multilevel game of bluff and bluster. Yet if, like me, you are drawn to
texts that offer secret riches to the persistent and perspicacious,
Ada
ought to be on your reading list.

And nowadays, when the concepts of sci-fi increasingly show up in
highbrow fiction, we have another reason to admire
Ada, or Ardor.  
Here is the proud forerunner of David Mitchell's
Cloud Atlas and
Michael Chabon's
The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Haruki
Murakami's
1Q84 and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.  I'd
like to believe that, if Nabokov had lived long enough to see this
powerful merging of genre concepts and progressive literary
techniques, he would have reconsidered his curt dismissals of
science fiction—and maybe even have admitted that he had been
writing it all along.  


Ted Gioia's next book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, forthcoming
from Oxford University Press.


This essay was published on April 17, 2014
Vladimir Nabokov, Sci-Fi Writer

by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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The Foundation Trilogy

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I, Robot

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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The Kingdom of This World

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

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House of Leaves

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Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

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The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

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The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

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Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

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Dune

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Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

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Nine Hundred Grandmothers

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Le Guin, Ursula K.
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The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

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Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

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Hell House

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What Dreams May Come

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The Road

Miéville, China
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Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

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Dangerous Laughter

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Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

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1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
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Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

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Gravity's Rainbow

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Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

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Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

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Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

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The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

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The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

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The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

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Bug Jack Barron

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Glasshouse

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More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

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Warm Worlds and Otherwise

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The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

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Slan

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The Voyage of the Space Beagle

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Emphyrio

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Around the Moon

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From the Earth to the Moon

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Journey to the Center of the Earth

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Cat's Cradle

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Slaughterhouse-Five

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Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
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The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
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Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

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The Bear Comes Home

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Lord of Light

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This Immortal



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