Science Fiction Studies


#100 = Volume 33, Part 3 = November 2006


Editorial Introduction

This is the 100th issue of SFS. For us, many of whom have been associated with the journal now for nearly half its span, editing SFS has been an inexhaustible source of surprise, inspiration, and solidarity. It has been a near-utopian co-operative enterprise that has crossed generations and national boundaries, ideologies and techniques; an enterprise that has been free of chauvinism and disciplinary jealousies, and a chance—worth more than gold—for humanists and scientists (social and natural) to collaborate in sketching out our technoscientific culturescape. Whatever sf may be as an art-form, as a pretext for study it offers the universe—literature and special f/x, quantum gravity and Omega points, the Singularity and Paris in 2440. (We’ll take Paris.)

SFS began in 1973 as the brainchild of R.D. Mullen and Darko Suvin. They had, as a later brace of editors would state, "the ambition to open up SF criticism to a number of new points of view, to broaden its horizons, and to break with the comfortable purring of anecdotal and thematic commentary inherited from the Golden Age (or Tin Age) of SF and its fandom" (SFS 17.1, [March 1979]: 4). Fed up with the insularity of both the fiction and the criticism brought so lightly to bear on it, Suvin and Mullen established a venue for genre criticism that would be historical, international, and theoretical. Mullen, an eighteenth-century scholar who was also the son of a newspaperman, provided deep knowledge of the pulps, as well as management and editing know-how. Suvin, who developed into the most productive and influential academic theorist of the genre, provided theoretical energy and a supply of brilliant contributors. The first volumes of SFS regularly featured work by Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Fredric Jameson, Gérard Klein, Patrick Parrinder, David Ketterer, Marc Angenot, Tom Moylan, Peter Fitting, John Huntington, Robert Philmus, Walter Meyers, Albert Berger, and many others who helped establish the contours of our field.

In those first years SFS was unmistakably inspired by the Europe-oriented, Frankfurt School-inflected, cultural New Left, as were many new critical-theoretical journals (such as Telos, SubStance, and New German Critique) that were subverting the Academy at the time. Although Mullen (who was not a Marxist) and Suvin (who was and is) printed many more articles that were not Marxist than those that were, the core belief in materialist cultural critique, internationalism, and the utopian function of sf gave the journal a distinctive identity and something of a mission. The importance of sf needed no justification; what was at stake was "what the genre ought to be doing" (Luckhurst 397, this issue). The normative mission of laying out the ground rules of critique and establishing a critical canon inspired SFS to remain open to theory and international perspectives. SFS regularly published articles on sf of the USSR, the Eastern bloc, France, Germany, and Latin America at a time when the vast majority of sf’s readers considered US sf the only kind worth reading.

Most of the current editors were in school when SFS first began publication. We stumbled on it in library reading rooms, at conferences, in footnotes. The discovery had much the same effect on us as the pulps had for early sf fans. Here was sophisticated criticism of an outlaw genre we loved and believed in. Here also were conceptual tools that were completely distinctive, yet drawn from respected intellectual currents. Here were claims that the genre is not only legitimate, but critically important for this historical moment. The mood was captured in Le Guin’s famous introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1969): sf is not about the future, but the present. All other fiction is about the past.

The founding writers of SFS seemed like Olympians to us. When the journal moved to Canada in 1979, at first co-edited by Suvin, Marc Angenot, Charles Elkins, and Robert Philmus, it became a more accessible institution. Philmus, who eventually managed the journal alone, doing by himself all the work that it takes the current six-person collective to do, acted as a mentor to many of his younger contributors. For us, the once radical new cultural currents were already norms. Science fiction was becoming a credible mode of art as popular culture gained influence in university curricula. In the Montréal years, special issues were compiled on sf by women, sf cinema, utopia, nuclear-war sf, Olaf Stapledon, Lem, a second volume on Philip K. Dick. Groundbreaking articles appeared—Jameson’s "Progress versus Utopia," Katherine Hayles on Lem, Bruce Franklin on sf’s role in fostering the Vietnam War, an intense debate on the validity of Baudrillardian critiques of Marxist analysis, and in #50 our first piece on cyberpunk (Glenn Grant’s essay on détournement in Gibson’s Neuromancer [1984]).

The first incarnation of the current collective took the helm with issue #54, in 1993, when the journal returned to Indiana, where it was once again managed by Mullen. Each of us has brought his or her own area of expertise—feminist and queer theory, the Vernian tradition, the Golden Age, the New Wave and postmodernism, contemporary writing, cyberpunk, and world sf. In this work, we have become firmly committed to each other and to others in our scholarly community. This solidarity is based on the conviction once expressed by Mullen that "literary scholarship is an ongoing cooperative endeavor" (SFS 24.3 [Nov. 1997]: 532).

In their comments published in this issue, Roger Luckhurst and Patrick Parrinder both suggest that the journal began a second phase with that change, from a normative, founding project to the treatment of sf as "less a genre than a mode of apprehension" (397). As the things scholars had observed in the fiction appeared increasingly in the real world, the tools of sf critique proved transferrable to cultural theory. For Luckhurst, "Jameson, Baudrillard, and Haraway almost seemed legitimated by sf, not the other way around" (397). If this is so, the political-technical culture of the West made it inevitable. The effects of postmodernism, the ground-level technoculture incited by personal computers and the Net, the mutation of Left theory into cultural studies, and the attendant respectability of queer theory, seemed to make sf the privileged art of the age—as Brian McHale, for one, has argued in Constructing Postmodernism (1992). Events were changing the world dramatically, too, at an irrecuperable pace, dissolving the verities of the post-World War II techno-political world system. US economic hegemony was being challenged by Japan; commercial nuclear power was collapsing in America; Pershing missiles were deployed in Central Europe; the Soviet bloc fell, freeing up capitalist technoculture to occupy all the global niches; Yugoslavia disintegrated into a shocking war in the midst of Europe; microprocessing and the Web began the process of transforming any human activity that could be digitized. In sf, cyberpunk and the cyborg had taken center stage almost simultaneously. (Neuromancer appeared in 1984; Haraway’s "Cyborg Manifesto" a year later.) Together they gave sf what it craved most, an image and a language that could make the real seem natural again. They infected scholarship, too, as the agenda of theoretical criticism was almost entirely determined by the interpretation and interrogation of cyberculture.

If SFS has changed, it has been gradual. We have preserved a strong sense of continuity with the journal’s past and its original mission. Materialist critique now comes mainly from cultural studies, queer theory, and race theory; and we have welcomed them. We have worked hard to keep our international focus, both in publication and readership. And we have encouraged historical scholarship of many kinds. We have devoted much more space to popular media than did our predecessors; sf itself has taken us there. To the degree that relevant theory is still being produced, we strive both to assimilate it and to make it accessible.

If culture is a great stream, scholarship’s job is not to keep abreast of the speedboats and paddle-wheel casinos of artists and entrepreneurs, but to lag behind. Our job is to map, to collect, and now and then to push things out of the way for the slower boats behind us. SFS has changed slowly over the past thirty-three years. Our cover still looks like that of the Journal of Medieval Agronomy. We only recently, grudgingly, acknowledged that fantasy can have a healthy relationship with sf. We have tried to keep up with (i.e., to lag not too far behind) the waves of theories, novums, media, and styles that sf mediates for us; but none of these, for better or worse, has seriously affected our faith in scholarly rigor, honesty, and art.

Some of our friends in the Roundtable on the current state and future promise of sf criticism included in this issue wonder what our putative "third wave" will bring. Most likely, it will bring whatever the world brings. Science fiction itself will surely change as it appears in new forms: games, television, digital video, web-forms and public installations. On-demand publishing will probably allow literary sf to live on. As long as ftl drive, time travel, and consciousness downloads remain out of reach, our technoculture will still have need of sf’s plausible impossibilities. Science fiction will still be needed to manage the unmanageable boundaries of our existence, sf criticism will still be needed to place it in context, and sf artists will still need critics and scholars to give them an audience after they go back to clay. We will continue with special projects, with forthcoming special issues on Afrofuturism, animals and sf, and sf and history.

Still, it will probably not be business-in-the-future as usual. The postmodern moment may be over, simply because the relentless de-historicization of the present described by Jameson has also completely evacuated the good old modernist future. We find ourselves between, on the one hand, a posthumanity few believe in, entranced by the prospect of a technological transcendence that will make the future mute and inaccessible; and, on the other, a future that has collapsed so completely onto the present that our most influential sf artist, William Gibson, has excised it entirely from his latest, most artistically ambitious novel. The hard-core actual state of our world, between these poles of the presentless future and the futureless present, is war. We have explored the posthuman in recent articles on Greg Egan, Charles Stross, nanopunk, and the gendered technobody. We are exploring the collapsed future in this issue, in three fine articles on Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003). We have not yet talked about the war.

Mark Bould reminds us in his comments in the Roundtable, that SFS was founded in wartime and that its utopian core values were forged in response to global violence made possible by a technoscientific war-machine. Much as we might want to avoid it in safe havens (offices and pages), it is becoming ever harder to look away from the violence and irrationality on a world-historical scale, pushed by cynical Realpolitik, self-intoxicating nationalism, and religious fanaticism. The challenge to construct cultures and technologies that can transform the converging crises in ecology, democracy, poverty, economic imperialism, work, and technologically administered mass-hypnosis may yet inspire a new sf with a future for real people. It may also inspire a new criticism, which, if not precisely utopian, yet may still look for hope with eyes open. If that is to happen, we expect SFS to be a part of it.


Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace, 1969.

McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Allen A. Debus

Re-Framing the Science in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth

Abstract. -- The erroneous geological theory of Humphry Davy (1778-1829) is a pillar supporting Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. The updated 1867 edition of Journey may be viewed as a fictionalized paleontological treatise, or odyssey through Life’s history. The apex (or climax) of the story occurs on the shores and waters of the Lidenbrock Sea, an oracular cave setting where Axel has his waking dream, brilliantly reinforcing Verne’s life-through-time motif. Fossils and the waking dream foreshadow later appearances of living antediluvians as certain paleoanthropological debates of the day are incorporated into the novel.

Michelle Reid

Urban Space and Canadian Identity in Charles de Lint’s Svaha

Abstract. -- This article analyzes Charles de Lint’s 1989 novel Svaha as an example of how distinct national identities can endure in the globalized future espoused by most cyberpunk texts. Instead of imagining a generic urban sprawl in which it is increasingly difficult to maintain a stable social or communal identity, Svaha addresses issues of Canadian identity based on the division of living spaces by various social and cultural boundaries. The article begins by assessing Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s argument that science fiction shows little interest in the future of nations, a notion I counter by means of Anthony D. Smith’s claims for nationality as an enduring connection to history (time) and homeland (space) that extends both before and after the current political incarnation of the nation-state. The article then offers a reading of the segregated urban space in Svaha as a response to the legacy of Canada as a settler colony that prioritizes immigrant identities over First Nations identities. In the novel, the mosaic model of Canadian multiculturalism that resulted in the fragmentation of the country is replaced by a more integrated model based on a First Nations land ethic. The article ends by considering some of the problems with the optimistic conclusion of the novel, in which space is used to overcome historical legacies of dispossession.

Paul Kincaid

"A Mode of Head-On Collision": George Turner’s Critical Relationship with Science Fiction

Abstract. -- George Turner (1916-1997) was one of the most important science fiction writers Australia has produced, but before he published his first sf novel he had established his notoriety as one of the most acerbic of genre critics. This essay looks at Turner’s genre criticism and detects within it signs of an antagonistic relationship with sf. He had been an award-winning mainstream novelist, and his criticism often comes down to attacking science fiction for not being sufficiently mainstream. Starting with his attack on Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man, and demonstrating that Turner exaggerated the affront his attack provoked, the essay goes on to examine his problems with any suggestion of the fantastic in relation to sf as well as his sharp exchanges with Stanislaw Lem and Lucius Shepard, both of which hinged on Turner’s attempt to see the genre as if it were based on exactly the same principles and ideas as mainstream literature. Finally, the essay looks briefly at how these attitudes impinged upon the sf novels Turner would subsequently write.

Veronica Hollinger

Stories about the Future: From Patterns of Expectation to Pattern Recognition

Abstract. -- It is not news that "science fiction" has come to refer in the past few decades not only to a popular narrative genre, but also to a kind of popular cultural discourse, a way of thinking about a sociopolitical present defined by radical and incessant technological transformation. William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) is both a realist novel set in 2002 and an sf novel set in the endless endtimes of the future-present. It brilliantly conveys the phenomenology of a present infused with futurity, no longer like itself, no longer like the present. In this essay I discuss Pattern Recognition in the context of two other contemporary novels, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder (2001), that also address the complexities of contemporary technoculture’s interactions with the future. Oryx and Crake, an apocalyptic satire by an author most often associated with the realist novel, is a telling demonstration of how non-genre writers turn to science fiction as a way to characterize the lived experience of technoculture. Schild’s Ladder, situated at the centre of genre, captures the fascination with which some contemporary hard sf views the potential of technoscience to transform human history in radically unforeseeable ways. In his latest novel, meanwhile, Gibson has traded in the tropes of sf for the strategies of mimetic realism to dramatize the future as a kind of impossibility. I read these three novels as a series of significantly interrelated stories about the increasingly complex nature of the future in technoculture.

Christopher Palmer

Pattern Recognition: "None of What We Do Here Is Ever Really Private"

Abstract. -- In this article William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is read as a response to issues raised by 9/11 that concern the power and obscenity of images. The main character has lost her father in mysterious circumstances at the fall of the towers, but the novel approaches the event obliquely, and it does not name Al Qaeda or terrorism at all, although it has a lot to tell us of the aftermath of the Cold War and of post-Soviet Russia. This article assesses these omissions and interprets what is offered in their place: Cayce Pollard’s quest for the mysterious internet footage; the connections with old technologies and old disasters that her quest traces; the novel’s thoughts about art, and the ambiguities of these thoughts. Much of this can be read as a response to the challenge issued by 9/11: a rethinking of when we should disclose and when withhold (or tantalize), and an ambiguous reassessment of the relations of the producers and receivers of a work of art, the footage, which is here read as ambiguously romantic and postmodern.

Neil Easterbrook

Alternate Presents: The Ambivalent Historicism of Pattern Recognition

Abstract. -- Pattern Recognition, Gibson’s most recent novel, is purportedly set in "the present," and so purportedly marks a significant break both in his own work and in the way sf is conceived. The book’s treatment of the concepts of past, present, and future, however, is inherently ambivalent—that is to say, simultaneously oriented toward several possible alternative positions, some of them mutually exclusive. To clarify this ambivalence, this article engages notions of alternative history, counterfactual conditionals, and historicism to show that Gibson’s novel demonstrates a fundamental fact about fictional discourse: that it necessarily forms an "alternative present" of the readerly now.

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