#113 = Volume 38, Part 1 = March 2011
BOOKS IN REVIEW
J.G. Ballard, Englishman.
Jeannette Baxter, ed. J.G. Ballard. Contemporary Critical Perspectives. New York: Continuum, 2008. 151 pp. $29.95 pbk.
In an interview with Jeannette Baxter offered at the end of this volume, J.G. Ballard describes the global appeal of his fiction by noting that, while he sets many of his stories in England, “the ‘England’ and the ‘English’ characters in my fiction have been internationalized”; Japanese readers can identify with them much as French or Polish readers can (123). That self-assessment makes a lot of sense given that Ballard has consistently explored, across his eighteen novels and nearly 100 short stories, a global problematic, namely the new subjectivities produced by the twentieth- and twenty-first- centuries’ new technologies, built spaces, social formations, and physical states. As the essays in this valuable collection show, however, there is a local dimension to Ballard’s writing that may be less familiar to his international readership than his global concerns but that is just as formative of his aesthetic: his sense of himself as an Englishman. The essays collected by Jeannette Baxter for this volume—the third in Continuum’s Contemporary Critical Perspectives series, the first two of which are devoted to Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro—analyze Ballard as an English writer whose subject is, ultimately, the pathologies of the English nation.
This is a refreshing approach for Ballard studies, for it shows how his “internationalized” stories about altered subjectivities, technological spaces, authoritarian societies, and violence are in many ways culturally specific mediations of postwar English society. The essays in J.G. Ballard are arranged chronologically, beginning with discussions of his New Wave short stories and disaster novels, proceeding through considerations of his experimental representations of technological subjectivity and his three semi-autobiographical novels, and ending with explorations of his postmillennial crime fiction. (While Ballard has published over 100 essays, the focus of this volume is his fiction, primarily his novels.) Given this historical trajectory, it soon becomes clear that Ballard is not exclusively a science fiction writer, and indeed may have ceased to be one early in his writing career. Only one of the contributors to this volume focuses on Ballard as a sf writer; the remaining seven locate Ballard within other literary and aesthetic traditions and treat him as exploring the psychological and political concerns of contemporary Britain and Europe.
What emerges in these essays is a celebratory portrait of Ballard as a uniquely contrarian English author who appropriates many artistic traditions in order to fashion a career out of his own alienation. Ballard’s personal experience of being born abroad, traumatized by war, and frustrated by English culture’s conservatism becomes a model for the altered subjectivities found throughout his fiction. In her introduction, Jeannette Baxter emphasizes how Ballard consistently positions himself outside England’s cultural mainstream, first by writing science fiction and later by refusing to receive a Commander of the Order of the British Empire medal following the success of Empire of the Sun (1984). Turning to Ballard’s early fiction, Brian Baker in “The Geometry of the Space Age: J.G. Ballard’s Short Fiction and Science Fiction of the 1960s” shows how Ballard began his career by writing a specifically English form of science fiction derived from “the formula of the British disaster novel” (15), as opposed to the satirical consumerist dystopias then fashionable in American science fiction. Ballard, however, subverts the British formula by embracing the potential of disasters to transform subjectivity. Even when he writes science fiction, Ballard makes the form his own.
In addition to appropriating science fiction, Ballard also appropriated surrealism, the gothic, and cinematic narrative forms. In “Disquieting Features: An Introductory Tour of The Atrocity Exhibition,” Jake Huntley closely reads Ballard’s difficult text to show how the author draws from visual surrealism to dismantle his characters’ identity. Victor Sage locates Crash (1973)in the English literary tradition of the gothic in his essay “The Gothic, the Body, and the Failed Homeopathy Argument: Reading Crash.” While Ballard plays on taboos about the body first voiced by Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley, his appropriation of the gothic is designed to transcend the horrors of the body by positing a logic behind perversity. In “Death at Work: The Cinematic Imagination of J.G. Ballard,” Corin Depper analyzes how three Ballard novels that have been made into films, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash, and Empire of the Sun,exhibit narrative styles that recapitulate the history of cinema: The Atrocity Exhibition is structured like Muybridge’s pre-cinematic time-motion studies, Crash is infused with mid-century Hollywood mythology, and Empire of the Sun exhibits a New-Wave sensibility about the limits of linear narrative. Depper compares Ballard to the painter Francis Bacon, a fellow British artist born abroad who worked his way through the history of artistic figuration and was likewise compelled to violently transform his subjects.
Leaving science fiction in Ballard’s past, the remaining essayists treat Ballard’s later fiction as overt critiques of contemporary capitalist England. In “Mind is the Battlefield: Reading Ballard’s ‘Life Trilogy’ as War Literature,” Umberto Rossi reads Ballard’s three autobiographical novels as a kind of war literature that illustrates the “interpenetration of fictional and factual histories” (68) to reflect the waning of British imperial power. Sebastian Groes, in “From Shanghai to Shepperton: Crisis of Representation in J.G. Ballard’s London,” analyzes four Ballard novels set in or near London to show how Ballard variously invokes the master narrative of London (next to which he lived) to subvert the master narrative of capitalism itself. Jeannette Baxter analyzes Ballard’s crime novels, Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000), as “anti-utopias” that appropriate the dystopian mode of Huxley and Orwell to explore “new and insidious forms of power and violence” (96) that operate in capitalism’s work and leisure spaces. Philip Tew, in “Situating the Violence of J.G. Ballard’s Postmillennial Fiction: The Possibilities of Sacrifice, the Certainties of Trauma,” interprets the three novels that Ballard published after 2000 as detective fictions that uncover the violence undergirding seemingly prosperous and harmonious European communities. J.G. Ballard concludes with the interview, in which Ballard observes that “writers in a sense are rewriting their own existences” (122).
Readers of Ballard have long appreciated his ability to rewrite modernity’s technological existence. After reading the essays collected in J.G. Ballard, they will have a greater appreciation of the personal and national entities that Ballard rewrites as well.
—Doug Davis, Gordon College
The SF of Tomorrow Today.
Damien Broderick. Unleashing the Strange: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction Literature. Evans Studies in the Philosophy and Criticism of Literature 47. Rockville, MD: Borgo/Wildside, 2009. 234 pp. $19.99 pbk.
This text is in many ways an embarrassment of riches, featuring theoretical engagements with broad questions of sf in the twenty-first century, passionate (albeit brief) discussions of many different sf texts, and some fascinating commentary about prominent figures such as Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg, and John Clute. Broderick is well positioned to embark on such an ambitious project, being deeply immersed in the world of sf as an author, critic, and popular science writer. He is the winner of five Ditmar and three Aurealis awards (Australia’s top honors for sf literature), and the 2005 Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.
In his opening chapter, Broderick identifies Unleashing the Strange as “a kind of free-standing companion, rather than a sequel” (10) to his 2004 book x, y, z, t: Dimensions of Science Fiction, which exuberantly explored sf of the last two decades of the twentieth century. Unleashing the Strange certainly flows from where x, y, z, t left off in a temporal sense, while simultaneously building on Broderick’s previous work both in and outside of the realm of sf criticism, including Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction (1995), The Last Mortal Generation: How Science Will Alter our Lives in the 21st Century (1999), and Transrealist Fiction: Writing in the Slipstream of Science (2000).
Broderick invites us to read his sf writing and criticism as poetry, to “take what [they] can from context and by osmosis,” even when he goes “off into an apparently incomprehensible aria” (13). There are certainly numerous moments in the text where Broderick’s dense prose weaves in and out of immediate comprehensibility, much as it dances between the extremes of celebratory exhortation and scathing critique of contemporary sf writing and criticism. Yet even in the midst of Broderick’s occasional obscurantisms there is the tantalizing sense that perhaps if those passages are read just once more, new levels of insight and understanding await the patient and dedicated reader.
The discussion that perhaps best illustrates this rich density is Broderick’s exploration of the notion of transrealism, and how that connects to the history of sf literature, as well as to concepts such as postmodernism, slipstream, and the New Weird. Fast-paced, drawing on numerous sf authors and critical scholars, with particular emphasis on the work of Fredric Jameson, this engagement with ways of thinking critically about the study and the writing of sf literature superbly harnesses Broderick’s multi-faceted perspective on sf. While Broderick’s rapid tour through the historical and contemporary contexts of sf authorship and theorizing requires some familiarity with the field, this theoretical engagement provides a fertile foundation from which to explore individual sf literary texts.
The specific texts Broderick explores include novels by Iain M. Banks, Justina Robson, and Robert Charles Wilson as well as short-story collections by Adam Roberts and Liz Williams, as well as over 30 other examples of sf literature published recently in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US. Each of these closer looks is but a few paragraphs in length, and while these are rather brief, they are nevertheless insightful glances at a myriad of contemporary texts. Although they are for the most part quite useful, some of these glances are somewhat inconsistent; one entry will focus on the autobiographical elements of a fictional text, another will focus on how a text connects to other sf texts Broderick recalls fondly (or not), while yet another will focus on a selected theme or moment from a given text, while glossing over or ignoring important elements, themes, or other details that would be relevant to a deeper discussion of the text in the context of sf in the twenty-first century.
Each chapter of Unleashing the Strange, taken on its own, is both intellectually rewarding and engagingly written. It is as a whole that Broderick’s text initially seems to lack cohesion—it certainly possesses a brightness that catches the eye and intrigues the mind, but it comes across as less an exploration of a definable constellation and more an invitation from a devoted stargazer to “look at that one over there” many times over. Yet in directing his scholarly gaze at many different objects in the science-fictional sky, Broderick succeeds at providing a broad and insightful picture of sf literature of the last decade or so, and of how that fits into the past, present, and future contexts of sf.
Unleashing the Strange theorizes how sf has changed and will continue to change, speaks relevantly to the complexities of this century, surveys over thirty specific texts published since around the beginning of the twenty-first century, and reflects (at times explicitly, at times implicitly) on Damian Broderick’s life and work in sf. While sacrifices are certainly made to fit all of these disparate explorations into a single book, in the end Unleashing the Strange is a useful, though by no means exhaustive, companion for further explorations in the science-fictional realm of the twenty-first century.
—Adam Guzkowski, Trent University
Of Cigars and Star Trek.
David Greven. Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek: Allegories of Desire in the Television Series and Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 233 pp. $35 pbk.
Star Trek, in whatever permutation of the franchise, often serves as a gateway text for sf. It can connect with and be meaningful for a large audience because a multitude of readings is possible. David Greven’s Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek: Allegories of Desire in the Television Series and Films offers a queer reading of the franchise, and while the approach opens the text in new ways, the effort is an inconsistent one.
Greven’s book rectifies a curious lack of queer analysis on Star Trek. While there is steady trickle of articles and books on Star Trek in general, particularly as a mythos, a more comprehensive examination of sexuality is needed. Greven’s attempt to fill this gap is laudatory although it falls somewhat short. He believes that a reading of the male gaze destabilizes the heterosexuality in the various permutations of Star Trek and that the allegories in the franchise allow homosexual readings. Greven’s purpose, as outlined in the introduction, is to illustrate how Star Trek permits such readings:
[T]he power of allegorical representation should not be dismissed: it can have an urgency and emotional resonance that make a significant contribution to the effort to challenge normative structures of identity and desire.... Watching Trek with an eye on the queer potentialities of allegories enlarges the significance of many Trek episodes, many of which would appear to have no queer resonance at all. (34)
Encompassing Freudian theory, gender studies, and queer theory, this book “is part of a larger project that I call queer Freudian aesthetics, a synthesis of Freud, gender studies, and queer theory that maintains a belief in the power of sexuality and its importance to culture, representation, and experiential life” (7; emphasis in original). Even as he acknowledges the partial incompatibility of some of these methodologies, Greven maintains a nearly exclusive emphasis on Freud. The text is broken down into an introduction, nine chapters, and an afterword that acknowledges J.J. Abrams’s recent Star Trek movie (2009).
The first chapter, “Lonely Planets: Original Star Trek, the Male Gaze, and the Allegorization of Desire,” unpacks the usual reading of a hyper-masculine James T. Kirk by positing that the original series can be read as a highly stylized and allegorical representation of heterosexuality. By examining camera cuts and points of view, Greven shows how the male gaze, even as it is emphasized, is subverted: “Kirk does not dominate the woman whose spectacular appearance reduces him to a state of gaping awe. Rather he approaches her tentatively, almost awkwardly, in a state of supplication” (21). Greven ties this reaction to Freud’s notion of castration anxiety—to which he will return several times in the remaining chapters. Greven’s frequent and often exclusive reliance on Freud limits his interpretation of Kirk and masculinity in the original series.
Greven’s second chapter, “Futures End: Star Trek Allegory and the Representation of Queer Characters,” examines specific episodes from several franchises, directly addressing the overt representation of queer characters. In Greven’s opinion, however, these representations are limited: the overt characterizations are clumsy or distance the viewer since they do not examine otherness from the perspective of the “outcast.” He lauds the attempts but views them as marginal successes because these episodes move away from allegorical depictions of the queer.
Chapter three, “Projecting Desire: Holograms, Artists, and the Gay Male Allegory,” focuses on the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) as an explicitly allegorical queer identity, the gay male artist. Here Greven relies on Freud’s “mother to the homosexual child” as representing the relationship between Captain Kathryn Janeway and the Doctor. The Doctor’s namelessness and his holographic difference contribute to his allegorical queering. Greven then compares the series to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), ostensibly to foreground the queer text and its relation to a central strong female character, but the discussion of Buffy takes up nearly half of the entire chapter and is out of place.
In chapter four, “Queering Gender: Voyager’s Neelix as the Male Mother,” Greven explores Neelix as a representation of Bruno Bettelheim’s nurturing male. Neelix is traced from jealous, possessive, and overtly heterosexual in the early episodes to the “mothering” character of the later seasons. Greven contextualizes the male mother in Western popular culture before moving to its portrayal in Voyager, concluding that the representation of the male mother “allows men to retain their heterosexual manhood and gendered coherence while still enjoying the benefits of queer sexuality and women’s multivalent powers” (94).
Chapter five yields some compelling ideas concerning race. “The Seething Skin: Star Trek, Masculinity, and Race” explores the allegorizing of race, focusing on black masculinity and the franchise’s “decentering of white masculinity” (8). Throughout the franchise and its permutations, Greven finds a “mythification of race”:
the concept that race relations and racial difference can only be cast in allegorical, distorted, denatured terms, never explicated, always suggested, inferred, symbolically rendered, one thing always representing as something else .... Trek seems to suggest, disturbingly, that racial conflict is a myth. (99; emphases in original)
Greven views the distortion of the body, via visors or prostheses, as a way to erase, inhibit, and thwart “the black gaze” (101). Even the depiction of the black intellectual hides a “seething” core. One example among several is the original series episode “The Ultimate Computer” (1968), in which Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) represents a highly intelligent and logical scientist who descends into violent paranoia. Greven also addresses characters who are other, yet read as white (Data and the Borg Queen). While Greven recognizes Star Trek’s racial radicalism, he feels that Star Trek’s major contribution in the examination of race is “its depiction of a denatured, decentered white masculinity” (117).
He addresses the failure of the last Trek franchise, Enterprise (2001-2005), in chapter six. “The Twilight of Identity: Enterprise, Neoconservativism, and the Death of Star Trek” argues that neo-conservative politics and not a waning interest in the franchise caused the eventual cancellation of the series. He outlines how the series pointedly illustrated that “racial and cultural Others and women are not crucial to the future; institutionalized white male power is” (123). The series downplayed the female characters and featured a near xenophobic portrayal of otherness. Enterprise failed, according to Greven, by turning away from Gene Roddenberry’s humanist future.
Chapter seven, “White Whales: Rage and Masculinity in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek: First Contact,” examines the two films and their connections to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). Greven finds that many critics analyzing The Wrath of Khan (1982) point to the influences of Moby Dick only to sidestep the novel’s racial politics and homoeroticism. To Greven, the film fluctuates between Kirk’s relationship with Spock (the assimilated other) and his relationship with Khan (the troubling racial other). Greven sees Khan as Ahab and Kirk as his white whale, and analyzes Kirk’s relationships with his son and Spock. Greven also considers the Borg Queen as Freud’s phallic woman/mother, with Picard as the Oedipal father and Data as son.
Greven covers the Voyager series in chapter eight, “An Epic for Women: Star Trek: Voyager’s ‘Dark Frontier.’” The analysis of “Dark Frontier” (1999) focuses on the relationship between Captain Kathryn Janeway and Seven of Nine as an iteration of the Persephone myth. The remainder of the chapter explores the gender liminality of all the female roles in the series. Finally, Greven relates the analysis of “Dark Frontier” to Judith Halberstam’s notion of female masculinity.
In chapter nine, “The Echo Over the Voice: Star Trek: Nemesis and the Challenge of Patriarchal Narcissism,” Greven draws parallels among Nemesis (2002), Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), and the Narcissus myth. Greven sees the film’s use of mirroring and mirror images as devices in which notions of gender serve as contested performances between two individuals over one identity. Finally, Greven examines the allegorical ramifications of Captain Picard’s clone, Shinon, and his relationship with Picard, in which normative masculinity is called into question and challenged. The use of Judith Butler’s idea of gendered performance makes this chapter compelling.
The Afterword makes clear Greven’s loathing for J.J. Abram’s 2009 film. Greven objects to the depiction of Spock and Kirk’s initial relationship and fails to see how it could possibly spawn the loving bond of the earlier franchises, neglecting to consider the usual socio-cultural trope of male bonding via shared violence. He also objects to Uhura’s depiction as Spock’s long-suffering girlfriend and to Spock having any heterosexual relationship. Greven relegates the reboot to an example of something that was once edgy and hip lowering itself to mainstream normative standards.
The difficulty with this book comes in part from Greven’s view that all of Star Trek is allegorical. When coupled with Greven’s theoretical methodology, his readings become over-determined, with an analysis that relies almost exclusively on a reductive and old-fashioned reading of Freud. Further, some of his choices for analysis are puzzling. He examines every franchise with the sole exception of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), giving no explanation beyond his admission that he never followed the program. Greven also goes off target extensively, as in chapter three with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but other chapters suffer as well, although to a lesser degree. Greven’s treatment of the Kirk-Spock bond is somewhat rigid. It is certainly a culturally iconic bond of deep and abiding friendship both in spite of and because of the differences between the two characters. Slash fiction on the two abounds and certainly there is a queer reading here, but positing that a close relationship between two adult males must be homosexual is a characteristically heteronormative response. Geven’s treatment of the close relationship between Janeway and Seven of Nine is more nuanced, recognizing that “lesbian subtexts are often read into powerful women’s relationships in an attempt to undermine the women and the relationships, as if to suggest that the only way to be a strong woman or to have a strong bond with another woman is to be a lesbian” (170-71). Making such a distinction dependent on gender works against Greven’s purposes.
This queer reading of Star Trek opens the text in new ways, but Greven’s deployment of Freud restricts the utility of this approach. As Deanna Troi, paraphrasing Freud, says to Data in the Season 7 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Phantasms” (1993): “Sometimes a cigar is really just a cigar.”
—Jennifer Gunnels, The New York Review of Science Fiction
SF = Science Fairy-Tales.
Suzanne Magnanini. Fairy-Tale Science: Monstrous Generation in the Tales of Straparola and Basile. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2008. ix + 221 pp. $45.00 hc.
In early modern Italy, as Suzanne Magnanini argues in this book, the stories that we have traditionally labeled “fairy tales” might more accurately be called “science fictions,” since Renaissance science emphasized inventive rationalizations of the wonders of the natural world. For all those historians of science fiction who reflect on its origins, this book should be required reading because it captures the sense of imaginative playfulness that bound together science, fantasy, and more realistic fiction in early modern Europe. Magnanini’s book, a case study of the science interwoven in the earliest fairy tales, Giovanni Francesco Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti (1551-1553) and Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de li cunti (1634-1636), moreover, is meticulously researched, carefully and wittily argued, and presented with sympathy for our very human hunger for the marvelous.
In her introduction and the first chapter, Magnanini outlines Renaissance developments in modern science—experimental methods, the practice of collecting exotic plants and animals as well as local “monsters” for display, and the development of scientific instruments (such as glass beakers, the microscope, and the telescope)—linking them to the general appetite for wonder in early modern fiction and the transition of the fairy tale from oral to print circulation. During the Renaissance, she cautions, phenomena that we think of as fantastic still might seem “natural” and, while unicorns and centaurs were consigned to myth, spontaneous generation and basilisks were still ubiquitous in scientific treatises. She argues, then, that Straparola’s and Basile’s short-story collections amounted to wunderkabinette (wonder cabinets), sites to display “terrifying prodigies, pleasurable marvels, or Nature’s unsightly mistakes” (12). In chapter 2, Magnanini discusses the development of the fairy-tale genre in print as connected to the Renaissance understanding of wonder as a main purpose of literature, analyzing the source of wonder in Straparola and Basile as an abnormal mixture of human and other and as a mixture of science fiction and fantasy in terms of genre.
In the remaining chapters, Magnanini unravels the intimate connections between scientific explanations of natural phenomena and the fantastic and magical inventions of these early Italian fairy tales. In chapter 3, Magnanini explores the sources in natural philosophy and classical science of the story in Straparola’s collection of a girl whose body swells at puberty and produces a penis; while we would see this as fantastic, early modern Europeans viewed this form of hermaphroditism as scientifically substantiated by numerous accounts. Similarly, Magnanini uncovers the science underpinning the story of the baby marked by its mother’s desires in Basile’s collection (chapter 4), the story of the mother giving birth to a pig in Straparola’s collection (chapter 5), the story of the many-headed dragon in Basile’s collection (chapter 6), and—my favorite, chapter 7—the story, also from Basile’s collection, of the ogre who farts in his garden and thinks he has begotten a girl from his wind. In the Renaissance, Magnanini convincingly argues with many curious illustrations, medical treatises discussed the danger of a fetus being marked by what a mother looks at, natural philosophers recorded instances of humans giving birth to monstrous animals, and scientific collectors included many-headed dragons in their collections of preserved animals. Often, these fantastic events in the fairy tales had begun to be contested: there was a huge debate, Magnanini argues, about whether or not Lucretius’s account of a mare impregnated by the wind could be accurate. Thus, like much comic science fiction of today, Straparola and Basile used the science of their time to evoke the wonder of problem solving and discovering the causes of things, and to uncover the false reasoning and too-human ambitions behind many scientific accounts. The ogre, however wrong in his “scientific” conclusion about the generative capability of his fart, is nevertheless a supportive and caring father for his daughter, who is in reality a human girl tossed to the ogre by her jealous sisters.
In her provocative conclusion, Magnanini argues that fairy tale and science in early modern Italy were not opposites, but intertwined. Indeed, she has convincingly shown in her study that the authors of these fantastic fictions used the intersection of natural philosophy and fiction to explore the politics of the marriage market, the dangers of interclass unions, the susceptibility of the populace to scientific hoaxes, and the rigidity of classical science as it was sometimes taught in schools. Finally, the fairy-tale authors show us through their mixing of fantasy and science that metamorphosis is more likely to occur through language than through magic.
—Jane Donawerth, University of Maryland
Mythmaking Myths and New Realities.
John Perlich and David Whitt, eds. Millennial Mythmaking: Essays on the Power of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Films and Games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. x + 202 pp. $39.95 pbk.
This study is editors John Perlich and David Whitt’s follow-up volume to their 2008 collection, Sith, Slayers, Stargates ,+ Cyborgs: Modern Mythology in the New Millennium (New York: Peter Lang). Like many such collections of independently written critical essays, connections between analyses are sparse; in this volume, for example, the reader faces repeated summaries of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Nevertheless, the book’s overall thesis that modern myths are changing as our world grows more complex does provide a bit of glue for the book’s three sections and nine essays, and some of the essays appear both innovative and useful, especially for undergraduate students interested in the works discussed.
The first essay, “Sorting Heroic Choices: Green and Red in the Harry Potter Septology,” by Kirstin Cronn-Mills and Jessica Samens, traces Rowling’s use of the two title colors (and several others) from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), along with discussions of a few historical precedents (e.g., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [c. 1380]). The authors’ overall conclusions are rather inconclusive; sometimes green or red is “good,” sometimes not:
Rowling’s textual choice to mix up the references is unique and intriguing. Given that she starts readers out with clear references to Harry’s green and Voldemort’s red eyes, it would seem she has made her stand: green is good and red is bad. However, just as in life, Harry has to choose how various objects are allied (or not) to his cause. (15)
As a review and running analysis of the seven Harry Potter novels, however, the essay contains many supporting examples and suggests interesting connections.
Jason Edwards and Brian Klosa’s essay, “The Complexity of Evil in Modern Mythology: The Evolution of the Wicked Witch of the West,” traces the title character’s “badness” from her original L. Frank Baum appearance in 1900 through Fleming’s 1939 film portrayal (and her re-imaging as Elphaba in Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked) to her depiction in the current musical of the same name. As with colors in the previous essay, the nature of the Wicked Witch/Elphaba’s “evil” turns out to be rather complex, “a reflection of the more complex world in which we live” (34). Nevertheless, this essay fills something of a void in critical analyses of this character, especially as she morphed during the previous century into Elphaba. It is a very useful essay for undergraduates interested in the Oz series, assuming they can find and access this volume.
Richard Besel and Renee Smith Besel argue that the “success” of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes film (and its sequels), as opposed to the “flop” of Burton’s 2001 remake, was primarily due to its wider variety of perspectives and “social and political tensions” (54). Again, the essay’s value, it seems to me, resides in its detailed reviews of each cinematic production rather than any of its thematic conclusions about “polysemous” mythmaking.
The next three essays posit somewhat more interesting theses about recent gender modifications in Joseph Campbell’s monomythic hero. Dee Goertz’s “Miyazaki’s Girl Quester in Spirited Away,” co-editor David Whitt’s “The Odyssey of Madame Souza: A Heroine’s Quest in The Triplets of Belleville,” and co-editor John Perlich’s “Rethinking the Monomyth: Pan’s Labyrinth and the Face of a New Hero(ine)” not only offer detailed analyses of their cinematic foci but also seek to demonstrate the evolution in these films of “new contributions to comparative mythology, particularly with regard to the heroine’s journey” (103). Whitt, for example, suggests that “instead of analyzing female heroes based exclusively on Campbell’s male-dominated monomyth, scholars should also consider Pearson and Pope’s formula for a more gender-inclusive analysis of women and myth” (98). This middle section of Millennial Mythmaking should thus be of interest both to instructors and students studying particular films and also to those wishing to explore the challenges feminist readings can offer to traditional western paradigms.
The same is true of Ellen Gorsevski’s “Running Free in Angelina Jolie’s Virtual Body: The Myth of the New Frontier and Gender Liberation in Second Life” in the book’s final section. Gorsevski’s essay examines the problems arising from that virtual world’s bias toward gender-stereotyped avatars and nineteenth-century “Manifest Destiny” language, as well as the potential for new myths of gender liberation inherent in that cyberworld’s premises. Also, the multitude of “References” at the end of this essay provides an excellent basic reading list for students and scholars interested in feminist theory and cyber-reality.
The other two essays that end Perlich and Whitt’s volume seem less connected to the general theme, as the third section’s title of “No Boundaries” might imply. Djoymi Baker’s “Actors and Their Mythic Heroes: From the Doctor to Captain Kirk” finds new images of the mythic hero and his/her quests arising from the multiple appearances of recognized actors in different films and tv series, such as William Shatner’s appearance in both Star Trek (1966 +) and Boston Legal (2004-2008) or the re-emergence of Star Trek’s George Takei and Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston (2005) in tv’s Heroes (2006-2008). Baker does acknowledge that “the inclusion of Boston Legal in this anthology may at first strike the reader as an odd one” (139). The author of the final essay, Jay Scott Chipman, asks: “So Where Do I Go from Here? Ghost in the Shell and Imagining Cyborg Mythology for the New Millennium.” Chipman, citing Carl Silvio and Donna Haraway, connects everyone who uses text messages, word processing, Facebook , Twitter, or even LZR Racer-garbed Olympic swimwear as people who “celebrate cyborg identity” (169). And thus such users will find “cyborg genealogical pursuit[s]” ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to the title Japanese anime and manga series (1989 +), and its Man-Machine Interface sequel (1997), as “explorations [within which] cyborgization may even be viewed as a potentially positive, even ideal, outcome” (173). “It is evident,” writes Chipman, “that the post-human moment has been ‘this moment’ for quite some time” (189). So, interested in any new titanium implants?
Several of Millennial Mythmaking’s essays, especially its gender-oriented discussions and the Edwards and Klosa analysis of the Wicked Witch character, offer some solid foundations and innovative insights for students who can find them through careful, and sometimes creative, database searches. The essays might also be useful for instructors seeking supplementary reading materials, and thus be a resource undergraduate librarians might wish to consider for purchase. Whether Perlich and Whitt’s third volume in this series, promised in the book’s closing pages, will contribute additional innovative and perhaps more tightly-connected critical insights remains an open question.
—Adam Frisch, Briar Cliff University
Elizabeth Russell, ed. Trans/Forming Utopia: Looking Forward to the End. Vol. 1. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. 235 pp. $66.95 pbk.
─────, ed. Trans/Forming Utopia: The “Small Thin Story.” Vol. 2. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. 235 pp. $66.95 pbk.
This two-volume collection of essays emerges from the seventh International Conference of the Society for Utopian Studies, held in Tarragona, Spain, in 2006. Comprising thirty-three essays in total, plus a separate introduction for each volume, the collection attains significant breadth and provides often insightful readings of utopian and dystopian subject matter in many forms. The volumes’ subtitles indicate that each is arranged thematically, though it seems to me that a central distinction is one of methodology: Volume 1 is generally characterized by cultural studies approaches, while Volume 2 is more heavily indebted to literary studies. Both distinctions are somewhat arbitrary, however, as numerous themes and approaches run consistently through both volumes.
The first volume includes essays ranging through analyses of films, novels, historical utopian communities, theoretical tracts, social movements, and more. The authors’ readings unpack themes such as the ironies of (“totalitarian”) employment at Disneyland, the politics of globalization, and some very fruitful considerations of the dynamic interplay between seemingly disparate social movements such as anarchism, feminism, and utopianism. Russell’s introduction to the first volume highlights a practical and compelling treatment of utopia, a circular view that stretches through numerous essays. She begins her introduction with a characteristic Churchill witticism that helps frame this circularity: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning” (9). The introduction thus seeks to establish at least two key things: first, the tone of the volume is unabashedly political; and second, Russell nonetheless means to leave room for hope through the constitution and dissolution of power structures, and the dynamic interplay of utopia and dystopia, that the volume posits overall.
Since there are so many essays in this collection, I will not attempt to account for each of them here, instead canvassing a representative sample. Saul Newman’s essay, “Anarchism, Utopianism, and Politics of Emancipation,” is an excellent contribution and one of three in the collection that deals directly with relationships between anarchism and utopia. Newman intends the essay, by developing his suggestion that “there has always been a utopian dimension in anarchist thought” (70), to theorize a contemporary radical political utopianism. He considers two primary utopian dimensions: “scientific utopianism,” which shares with Marx a grounding in positivism, as opposed to the “utopianism of revolt,” which for Bakunin meant “an absolute break with existing conditions” (80), one that would result in “utopia as a radical disruption of the present rather than a deferred projection into the future” (81). For Newman, this deferral presents one of the primary obstacles to realizing a livable utopia.
Saskia Poldervaart’s essay, “The Relationship between Anarchism, Utopianism, and Feminism: Utopianism as a Strategy of Social Movements,” is another excellent contribution. She begins with her own experiences in social movements of the 1960s, moving through a very brief (about twelve-page) but illuminating outline of the interrelationships among anarchism, utopianism, and feminism. Arguably, such a brief treatment of major social movements as these will be necessarily reductive, but Poldervaart nonetheless persuasively argues for at least two advantages of recognizing the overlaps and interplay among these movements. First is “the potential of reaching a more just world through self-organized networks, so that democracy from below can be practiced,” and second, “the very definition of ‘the political’ can be stretched to include daily struggles, caring for each other, looking for a new moral and a new ethics” (122). The essay is insightful and provides a rich framework for analyzing social movements.
Perhaps the most provocative essay here is Francis Shor’s “A Better (or, Battered) World Is Possible: Utopian/Dystopian Dialectics in the American Century.” Shor begins by (justifiably) attacking media mogul Henry Luce’s pre-World War II ethnocentric proclamation of the “American Century.” The essay then unfolds as a harshly cynical (at times over the top) reading of the role and aims of the US in world politics, and some of her conclusions seem foregone, based largely on the perspectives of disenfranchised South American social activists. Still, the essay is thoroughly researched and effectively argued, asking compelling questions about how much a US vision of utopia at home must necessarily translate into dystopia abroad.
Before moving on to the second volume, I will very briefly treat a few more essays in order to better demonstrate the first volume’s reach and scope. Sara Martín Alegre’s “Apocalypse Soon? The Uncertain Utopia of Steven Spielberg’s Adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds” reads the film as implicitly dealing with 9/11 and the war on terror. Alegre argues as well that globalism as a new economic system has disempowered historical/traditional masculinity in the US by refiguring masculinity as necessarily white collar. Annette M. Magid’s essay, “Intricacies of Intertitles in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” is perhaps the odd fit here. While its attention to detail is revealing in its comparison of intertitles in the original script to the censored version originally released in the US, Magid is somewhat vague about the significance of this comparison for either an argument about the film or for utopian studies in general. Of course, with the 2010 re-release of Lang’s classic and pioneering sf film, augmented by the restoration of significant amounts of formerly “lost” footage, the project might prove valuable for scholars wishing to compare its various versions. The next two essays, Ian Donnachie’s “A New Moral World? International Dimensions of Owenism 1815-1830,” and Maria da Conceiçao Meireles Pereira’s “Iberia and Euchronia—A Portuguese Federalist Project (1854),” will be of interest to scholars of historical utopian social experiments.
Thus, overall, the first volume argues for the importance of the sometimes apparently futile pursuit of utopian ideas and ideals. In the closing sentences of his essay, James H. Read perfectly elucidates this sentiment: “No utopian ideal is ever fully achieved in the world. But that does not make such ideals powerless. How one thinks about a better world directly shapes how one acts in the imperfect world we know” (109).
Russell’s introduction to the second volume attempts to focus readers on the roles of language and storytelling in shaping and transforming our lives, and accordingly the volume relies primarily on literary texts to produce a balance of utopian and dystopian readings. Though the major focus is on the contemporary novel, other essays explicate children’s literature, travel writing, Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852), Gary Ross’s 1998 film Pleasantville, eighteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese utopian writings, and a brief but rewarding discussion of The Virtuous City, an academic exploration of utopia and dystopia by tenth-century Iranian scholar Farabi.
This volume’s first essay, “Utopia and the Living Body: Drought, Flood, Terror, and Engineering in the Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Maggie Gee, explores as possible sites of utopia “the present moment” (in the spirit of Eckhart Tolle et al.) and the environment. Gee also makes a compelling preliminary move toward exploring a sort of utopia of embodiment, though, oddly, “the body” devolves primarily into a function of reproduction, both in the semi-autobiographical sections of the essay and in the discussion of her novels The Flood (2004) and The Ice People (2008). Scholars of Gee’s work may find some insights in her discussion of her novels, though the essay itself, fraught with pessimism about the seemingly unavoidable detrimental effects of human agency on the environment, seems unable to escape the dystopian gravity of her fiction.
Celia Wallhead explores the effects of terrorism on multicultural societies in her essay “Two Takes on Terrorism in Kashmir: Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown and Justine Hardy’s The Wonder House.” Wallhead presents a reading of Kashmir as Edenic in both novels, but gives a more substantial treatment of Rushdie’s work (2005). Arguing that “Rushdie fears that multiculturalism will become mere cultural relativism” (98), Wallhead sees the novel as implying that the West and Kashmir can learn something about social justice from each other. This essay is paradigmatic of the collection in that it is a compelling reading but one constrained by the limits of the short conference-paper format.
Renata Koba’s “The Other Side of History: Alternate World(s) of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick” posits Dick as presenting an alternate version of history in order to interrogate contemporary social values. Koba goes on to argue that Dick weaves the ancient Tao Te Ching and I-Ching through his novel to indicate the value of non-Western blueprints for utopia. Such an approach seems valuable, but it also has hints of Orientalism.
I will briefly treat one last essay here, Merce Cuenca’s “‘My Heroine Would Be Myself’: The Promise of a Queer Utopia in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” Cuenca very nicely contextualizes the novels in terms of Cold War era discourses on lesbianism to persuasively argue “that the young female protagonists in both novels ... pursue a form of individual utopia fuelled by their hunger for freedom,” and that they “(re)construct their gender and their desire in queer terms” (152). Though Plath’s protagonist’s “cure” for lesbianism remains problematic (but untreated as such in the essay), Cuenca contends that the novels still managed to “break the silence surrounding female homoerotic desire in a homophobic culture” during the Cold War era (159).
Though I cannot recommend the texts as essential for utopian-studies scholars, I do think they are valuable additions to the field through the collective vision the compiled papers present. The two volumes reveal the many, many possible inflections of utopia, the diverse trajectories of utopian studies (textual, political, social, personal, queer, historical, international, fantastic, science- fictional, and more), the futility and necessity of utopia as an active, ongoing project, and the role of dystopian narrative in attempting to motivate change. Still, I want to stress that the essays’ origins as conference papers are evident in numerous ways. Though these are described as rewritings of the original presentations, there is evidence that the revisions have been quite thin in some cases. Most of the essays are still at about conference length (7-10 pages), which often translates to good readings too briefly treated.
Of course, as one would typically find when attending a conference in person, some of the essays will be of greater or lesser interest to individual scholars. Likewise, the quality and sophistication of argument varies among the essays. Most of them are good. Some are outstanding. But a handful would have benefitted from greater rigor in research or revision, or perhaps a firmer editorial hand. The collection might have been more valuable had Russell commissioned half the number of submissions for greater development. Nonetheless, this diverse, sometimes compelling collection is sure to provide rich reading for almost any scholar of utopian studies.
—Richard Hunt, University of California, Riverside
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