BOOKS IN REVIEW
Less Than the Sum of Its Parts.
Lou Anders, ed.
Projections: Science Fiction in Literature and Film.
Austin, TX: Monkeybrain Books, 2004. 333 pp. $15.95 pbk.
Some day, when enough perspective is available, there’s an important study to
be written on the effect that new printing technologies and distribution
channels have had on fantastic literature since, say, 1990. Sf has always, of
course, had a thriving small-press scene. But the economies from digital
printing and the ways in which the Internet allows writer and reader to identify
common tastes have resulted in a boom in small-press work over the last fifteen
years with far-reaching consequences. The fraying of the edges of sf—certainly
at short-story level—has almost entirely happened through small-press ‘zines,
and collections of such work (no matter how small the potential constituency)
have popped up all over the place. Monkeybrain is one such small press, and
they’ve now started to provide for that most minority of interests, those who
read sf criticism.
Lou Anders, the editor of this book, is a former editor at Argosy Magazine,
has edited fine anthologies such as Live Without A Net (2003), and
currently runs a literate and interesting trade publishing imprint, Pyr.
Projections collects twenty-nine non-fiction pieces about sf and related
fields, all by authors who are to some extent known for fiction writing in the
field. The pieces themselves range between dull-but-competent and extremely
interesting; but the book as a whole is rather less than the sum of its parts.
The reasons for this may be worth examining.
Anders contributes a three-page introduction called "Spectacles and
Speculations." He begins by talking about the recent success of the Lord of
the Rings films (2001-2003), and about the successful work of filmmakers
such as Stephen Spielberg and James Cameron. He draws a distinction between the
pleasures of written sf and filmed sf: "in science fiction literature (also
referred to as ‘speculative fiction’), the reward is often the thrill of
intellectual stimulation. In ‘sci-fi’ cinema, the thrill is a visceral one,
delivered via ‘special effects’" (11). One can quibble with details of this:
"speculative fiction" is not always used as a synonym for "science fiction"—see,
for starters, Harlan Ellison’s introduction to Dangerous Visions (1967);
and Anders’s point about sf cinema is true for all the cases except where it’s
not: just considering recent films, think of the intellectual stimulation of
Solaris (2002) and Primer (2004). But let’s allow the distinction for
the moment. Anders goes on to talk about the history of the science
fiction/speculative fiction genre, and suggests that because of the advance of
special effects, "there is cause to hope that we may stand on the threshold of a
new Golden Age of speculative cinema" (12). He then gives himself a remit for
the book: "Here, then is a selection of those gifted mythmakers who helped bring
[sf’s past history] about and who now carry its torch, sharing their thoughts on
their own field—on the literature of science fiction and on how their genre
fairs [sic] at the hands of Hollywood studios" (12). So we might expect a book,
as he says, "about science fiction by science fiction, the genre turned inward
on itself" (13). What we get is rather different.
The first two essays, by Michael Swanwick and John Clute, say similar things
in rather different terms, setting out the case for science fiction. Swanwick’s
piece, "Growing Up in the Future" (1997), makes the argument—not uniquely—that
many of sf’s dreams have already come true but that this makes the need for it
more urgent. It’s couched in terms that are both bullish and somewhat
That which we [science fiction readers and writers] push against, react
to and oppose, journey away from and return home to, is the future. It’s our
bedrock. It’s our home port. Sometimes in our imaginations we travel far,
far afield. But it’s always there, waiting for us. So long as we keep our
faith in it, we’ll do just fine. (23)
The word faith is the key: this is the sort of persuasion that the
already-faithful hear from the pulpit every Sunday. Perhaps my personal reaction
against Swanwick’s tone is unfair, as the body of his essay has an energetic
historical sweep and neatly conveys a sense of what it feels like to think like
an sf writer. Clute’s essay, "In Defence of Science Fiction" (1999), by
contrast, is clearly aimed at an audience outside the corral (it was originally
published by the web-magazine www.salon.com). It has only four pages to get a
run at its subject, the historical narrative of how genres became separated off
from, and unjustly disparaged in relation to, "real" literature. Within that
narrow compass it makes its points as densely and punchily as one expects from
The next pair of essays is by David Brin and James Gunn, the first a 1999
polemic against the then-newly-released Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom
Menace (1999), the latter a more general canter through the history of sf
film—though it dwells perhaps too long on the filming of Gunn’s own The
Immortals (1962). Moving on, there’s then a brief appreciation of Edgar Rice
Burroughs by Mike Resnick, a long and provocative discussion of the Matrix
films (1999-2003) by Adam Roberts, a piece on sf-as-futurology by Howard
Hendrix, and a three-page piece on horror fiction by Tim Lebbon. At which point,
the reader starts saying: Hang on, wasn’t this book about science fiction and
the movies? Shortly thereafter, we get an overview of 1990s Australian sf by
Sean McMullen, an appreciation of Mervyn Peake by Michael Moorcock, and a piece
on Harry Potter by Mark Finn. You have to wonder whether the book Anders pitched
in his introduction has slipped out into some parallel universe.
That, in the end, is the problem with Projections: lack of focus. If
it had stuck to Anders’s stated remit of writing about the crossover between
written and filmed science fiction, that’d be an ambitious goal for a 330-page
book. But Anders seems to have extended the remit to pretty much any writing
about sf, fantasy, or horror, on print or on film, that took his fancy. And he
manages, in addition, to include quite a bit of repetition: the Howard Hendrix
piece mentioned above covers quite a lot of the same ground as Swanwick’s
"Growing Up in the Future" and Robert J. Sawyer’s "The Future is Already Here."
Fairly or unfairly, the impression is of an editor who grabbed the pieces of
good copy that were close to hand and that had obvious headlines attached
("Science fiction is good!," "George Lucas is bad!," "Australian sf is cool!").
Arguing about the omissions from a book like this is always pretty unhelpful:
one has to accept that the editor has different sensibilities from the reviewer,
and so long as those sensibilities justify themselves in the course of the book,
that’s the editor’s prerogative. I’ll limit myself, then, to two comments.
First, if in a book of 29 representative essays on the history of sf by
practicing writers dating back to as early as 1984, the editor can find room for
only one by a woman, it’s not immediately clear that the author should be
Catherine Asaro. Within her chosen niche of hard sf, Asaro is an interesting
writer of the moment; but given that—just to take the obvious names—Joanna Russ,
Ursula Le Guin, and James Tiptree, Jr. are among the dozen finest and most
influential writers about sf of any period, their omission is simply baffling.
(It doesn’t really help that Asaro’s piece is largely about a male writer, Greg
Egan; I suppose one could find a sort of compensation in the inclusion of a
Michael Moorcock appreciation of Leigh Brackett.) This isn’t just
politically-correct point-scoring: one suspects that many women writers would
have significantly different views of the technophile bullishness present in
many of the pieces Anders does select. Second, if one is going to provide an
anthology of writing about sf by sf writers, then omitting James Blish and Damon
Knight, who pretty much created that arena of discourse, is as big a gap as one
could imagine. Anders might argue back that he was trying to capture a
present-tense sense of what sf is like now: but in that case, why the pieces on
Burroughs, Peake, and Brackett? I’d note also that in the context of these
omissions, it’s grating to see that some writers are represented twice in
Anders’s 29 essays: Michael Swanwick, Adam Roberts, Michael Moorcock, Howard V.
Hendrix, Mike Resnick, David Brin, Robert Silverberg, and Lucius Shepard. Many
of these are fine and influential writers, but that’s not the point.
Almost all of the essays here fall outside the protocols of academic writing:
the pieces by Clute and Roberts, each in a different way, are probably closest
to the kind of work that might be published in SFS. (Roberts’s second
essay here, a detailed and unusually careful analysis of Delany’s "Time
Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" , is probably the best
piece in the book.) I don’t have a problem with that: indeed, I’m in agreement
with Anders that the tradition of sf writers talking about sf is a rich one and
worth celebrating. And, to repeat, several of the pieces here are very good
indeed: of those I’ve not so far mentioned, Jonathan Lethem’s "The Squandered
Promise of Science Fiction" (1998) remains, in effect, a manifesto for all the
literary hybridization we’re seeing on the edges of the genre. But for every
courageous choice like that, there’s another that tells the audience just what
they want to hear. The last piece in the book, again by Michael Swanwick, is a
"Letter to a Young Science Fiction Writer"—in fact, his not-yet-born grandchild.
In this case, one can exempt Swanwick from the charge of sentimentality I
leveled at him earlier: everyone’s entitled to be sentimental when talking to
their grandchildren. But it says nothing substantively different from Swanwick’s
first essay here: sf is a unique form of literature, it demands rigor and faith,
it doesn’t have to be narrowly predictive, and so forth. It exemplifies, in
short, the whole book. On its own, it might be more persuasive: Anders has
managed to give these essays a context that diminishes them.
—Graham Sleight, London
More Timely Than Ever.
The Absolute at Large.
Trans. anon. Intro. Stephen Baxter. Bison Frontiers of Imagination. Lincoln, NE:
U Nebraska P, 2005. xvi + 248 pp. $16.95 pbk.
Továrna na absolutno ("The Factory of/for the Absolute") began
appearing serially on September 21, 1921, in the pages of Lidové noviny,
a Prague newspaper to which Čapek
was a regular contributor. The last of 30 installments, on October 4, 1922, was
presently followed by a book version. In a brief and chatty preface to the
second edition (1926), Čapek
says that the idea for the fiction came to him just as he was finishing his
rewrite of the 1920 text of R.U.R. He also reports that, at some point,
Lidové’s editor persuaded him to go beyond the 13 chapters he’d submitted
and expand Továrna to more than twice the length that
Čapek had originally
had in mind. Each of these facts about Továrna’s composition is conducive
to an understanding of what he is up to in this roman feuilleton.
The first of them, inasmuch as it involves chronology, suggests a link not
only with R.U.R., but also with a third work dating from 1922: Věc
Makropulos The Makropulos
Case). What connects the three is alchemy. Each of their "inventions" (in
H.G. Wells’s sense of the word) corresponds to some one of the ultimate
objectives of the magus. Makropulos, as anyone familiar with the play (or
operatic version of it) knows, deals with the Elixir of Life. In R.U.R.,
the Robot is a science-fictionalized homunculus (Čapek
himself says as much in "The Meaning of R.U.R.," a short essay that came
out in the July 21, 1923, issue of the Saturday Review). And Továrna’s
"Karburator" is an atomic-theory-based equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone,
except that it turns matter into God rather than gold.
Strange to say, Továrna exhibits the fairly neat conceptual
ambivalence typical of Čapek
precisely because of—rather than despite—his having belatedly more than doubled
the length of his initial manuscript. His original draft must have ended,
summarily, with the antepenultimate paragraph of chapter 13. Up to that point
the fiction, while amenable to being read as a satiric exploration of the
utopian and anti-utopian possibilities of letting the spirit of Love Thy
Neighbor (LTN) loose upon the world, so perpetually changes its focus as to have
none. The subsequent narrative, on the other hand, is relatively single-minded
in its reportage of "the Greatest War," a worldwide conflict that ensues once a
host of religio-national(ist) factions become aggressively territorial, each of
them claiming exclusive proprietorship of The Absolute (Truth) as it understands
that. From the perspective of such a development, the very diffuseness of the
previous chronicle bespeaks a diversity that is quite compatible with the
unifying power that the literal deus ex machina otherwise demonstrates by
virtue of its LTN effect.
The translation under review is, so far as I know, the only one available in
English. In this case, however, that is not a problem. Indeed, it’s a pity that
the translator remains anonymous and probably is by now unidentifiable, for she
or he has done a rather good job of conveying the sense of the original Czech,
if not always of rendering the typically Čapekian
shifts in tonality and lexical register. As for the discrepancy between the
Czech and English titles, The Absolute at Large is much more informative
and comprehensive as an advertisement of the actual contents of the book
(inclusive of its structural duality) than is the name that
Čapek came up with.
The one point where the English version egregiously mistakes the Czech’s
meaning comes toward the book’s conclusion: when a certain Mr. Kuzenda is
reported as often saying "the truth can never be defeated" (240). That rewording
of the platitudinous sentiment about truth’s prevailing in the end is, at best,
compatible with what the Czech actually means—viz., "the truth can never be
maintained through fighting" (i.e., armed conflict). Nor is that a minor
translatorial lapse: the passage in question, brief though it is, epitomizes the
moral point of Továrna as a whole and expresses as well
The Absolute at Large was originally issued by Macmillan in 1927. Since
then, at least four other publishers have reproduced it, Nebraska UP being the
latest; but none of them has troubled about instating
Čapek’s 1926 preface
or, for that matter, his brother’s illustrations.
Nebraska’s introduction, by sf writer Stephen Baxter, is better, for example,
than the one that Czech specialist William Harkins did for the Hyperion reprint
(1975). That is most of all true by reason of Baxter’s insistence that
Továrna is contextually Czech at and to its core (ix-x; he might have added
that it is the most Czechoslovakian of Čapek’s
fictions). Baxter is also right, I think, in saying that "[The]
Absolute recalls works such as H.G. Wells’s ‘The Man Who Could Work
Miracles’ and ... Food of the Gods" (viii), though he might have added
"The Lord of the Dynamos" (1894) and The Time Machine (1895) to the list.
Whether he is also correct in situating Továrna between the Wells of
those titles and Robert Sheckley (as the author of "Something for Nothing"
) is more than I can say. Surely, however, the Lem of Futurological
Congress (1971) owes something to Továrna. Baxter, though somewhat
ambivalent as to how conversant Čapek
was with science (see vi versus x), supposes that he was "well aware of Ernest
Rutherford’s ... experiments in atom-splitting" (vi). I find that proposition
rather dubious, given that the Karburator in itself is surely somewhat
retrospective (as the very term suggests) and all the more so in its use as a
kind of coal furnace. Nor do I think that Baxter makes a strong enough case for
The Absolute as having "deep resonance for our times" (ix). In his
singularly awkward one-sentence paragraph on that subject (offset by his twice
insisting before and afterwards that the fiction is a satire on "human nature":
ix, xi), he barely hints that the fiction probably is more pertinent now than
ever, given a world terrorized by two Great Satans (their chief point of
agreement), each of them claiming to be the sole possessor of Absolute Truth.
—Robert M. Philmus, Montreal
(with thanks to Milada Vlach)
Let’s Get Small!
The Girl in the Golden Atom. Intro. Jack
Williamson. Bison Frontiers of Imagination. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2005. xi +
341 pp. $14.95 pbk.
The University of Nebraska Press’s series of "classic" sf reprints, of which
this title appears to be the forty-second volume, has leaned rather heavily
toward early pulp material, with some ten Edgar Rice Burroughs titles (including
a reprint of Richard Lupoff’s biography) compared, for example, to five by
Wells. While some of these choices may have to do with marketability, the series
has nevertheless brought back into print several little-read but much-cited
early classics by John Jacob Astor, Ludvig Holberg, Edwin Arnold, J.D.
Beresford, Karel Čapek,
and Jack London, along with some quirkier selections such as David Lindsay’s
A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), and no fewer than three novels by Philip Wylie.
This, along with the inclusion of such titles as Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C
41+ (1911-12; 1925), is enough to suggest that the editors are more
interested in providing access to works that have generated some measurable
influence or controversy, than to works of unusual literary merit. By these
measures, and by the measure of pulp fiction as a form (because one can readily
argue that the aesthetics of pulp and the aesthetics of sf aren’t the same
thing), Ray Cummings’s early microcosmic adventure The Girl in the Golden
Atom is an entirely reasonable choice. On the one hand, it clearly looks
backward to earlier sources, such as Fitz-James O’Brien’s 1858 story "The
Diamond Lens," Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Carroll’s Alice in
Wonderland (1865), the late nineteenth-century utopian tradition, and
Wells’s The Time Machine (1895)—a posthumous 1999 essay in this journal
by R.D. Mullen ("Two Early Works by Ray Commings." SFS #78: 295-302)
documented the close narrative parallels between this novel and Wells’s. On the
other hand, it also popularized the worlds-within-worlds theme that later became
a staple of pulp stories (most of them, it sometimes seems, written by Cummings
himself), survived into a few far better-written novels than this one (such as
Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man ), and inevitably became a
staple of Hollywood special effects movies (The Incredible Shrinking Man
, based on the Matheson novel, Fantastic Voyage ,
Innerspace , Honey I Shrunk the Kids , etc.)
The Cummings story itself, originally published in All-Story Weekly in
1919 and combined with its 1920 sequel "The People of the Golden Atom" to form
the present novel, was hugely popular at the time and was never very far from
the awareness of sf readers—and not only because Cummings continued flogging the
theme for the rest of his career. It gained the attention of major publishers,
first appearing as a book from Methuen in England in 1922 and then from Harper
in the US in 1923. When Munsey launched its reprint magazine Famous Fantastic
Mysteries in 1939, "The Girl in the Golden Atom" was included in the very
first issue and beat out A. Merritt’s "The Moon Pool" as the readers’ poll
favorite story of that issue (Mullen 297). Fifteen years later it resurfaced in
Leo Margulies and Oscar J. Friend’s Giant Anthology of Science Fiction
(1954), and sixteen years after that it showed up in Sam Moskowitz’s Under
the Moons of Mars (1970). The full novel itself was reprinted by Hyperion in
1974 as part of a series of classic sf texts. It seems fair to guess that any
habitual sf reader over a period of some seven decades would at least be aware
of the story or its basic premise, if only from the profligacy with which
Cummings himself revisited the theme.
Only a bit of this bibliographical history shows up in Jack Williamson’s
patient and affectionate introduction to this volume, and there is no scholarly
apparatus to address the reported textual discrepancies alluded to in Mullen’s
article (that the opening of the story differs somewhat from the novel, for
example, or that the American edition revised the ending to leave open the
possibility for a sequel). In acknowledging the spectacular scientific
inconsistencies of the tale—the introduction says that Cummings "makes an effort
to deal with such technical matters as the conservation of energy," but in
context this is almost certainly a misprint for "makes no effort"
(vii)—Williamson notes that Cummings simply provides the characters with one
pill to make you larger and one pill to make you small, with both pills
magically having the property of affecting clothing and any articles carried by
the adventurers. He’s being a good deal more generous than I could be, however,
in claiming that "Cummings’s writing has survived the test of time" (ix)—the
writing is pulp-serviceable at best—and he suggests that the description of
laboratory work in devising the two drugs "may reflect the author’s own
experience in Edison’s lab," promulgating the implication, also repeated in the
current edition’s publicity, that Cummings was some sort of personal research
assistant to Edison (a claim originally made in a 1930 Argosy blurb),
whereas as far as we know he merely worked as editor of a house organ at the
already massive Edison labs in New Jersey (Mullen 297), built in 1887, the same
year Cummings was born.
And yet—despite the scientific howlers that were howlers already in 1919,
despite the pointedly stereotypical characters (identified as the Chemist, the
Doctor, the Very Young Man, the Banker,and the Big Business Man, directly
echoing Wells’s the Time Traveler, the Medical Man, the Rector, the
Psychologist, the Provincial Mayor, and the other Very Young Man),
despite the mahogany dialogue and the swooning descriptions of the luscious
micro-princess Lylda—there’s something irresistible about the notion of getting
really small, climbing down inside a scratch in your mother’s wedding ring, and
finding whole new kingdoms there. And surprisingly, there’s a good deal more sf
tradition imbedded in the tale than its initial Wells-by-way-of-Merritt
adventure plot might suggest. As Sam Moskowitz noted in one of the few critical
essays on the novel, the tone shifts noticeably at the point in the narrative in
which the original 1919 story gives way to its 1920 sequel "The People in the
Golden Atom" (Survey of Science Fiction Literature, ed. Frank N. McGill,
NJ: Salem P, 1979. 878-82). The original story, following the structure of
Wells’s The Time Machine, is a club tale: the various characters are
gathered in their club to hear of the Chemist’s remarkable experience of
constructing a radically powerful new microscope, testing it by viewing a tiny
scratch in his mother’s wedding ring, and discovering there a beautiful young
woman in a microcosmic world. He’s fallen so completely in love with her that in
a jiffy he invents a drug that will shrink him to her dimensions and another
that will bring him back. He persuades his companions to wait two days while he
sets out on his expedition, and upon his return, bloodied and filthy, he tells
of his adventures in the microscopic kingdom, where he helped vanquish an enemy
army by increasing his size and—well, stomping on it. Unable to leave his
beloved Lylda, however, he returns to the microworld and this time remains gone
Apart from the microcosmic adventure, there are a couple of allusions in this
tale to other proto-sf themes—the Gulliver-like experience of aiding the
micro-society with his size and some discussion of the size-altering pills as a
potential super-weapon which at all costs must be kept out of the wrong hands
(Germany in particular is mentioned, since this first part of the narrative is
set before World War I had ended). The second part of the novel, however,
becomes a veritable catalog of such themes. The club members gather again five
years later, in 1923, at the behest of the Doctor, who reveals that the Chemist
had entrusted him with a letter containing the size-altering formula and asking
that they attempt to follow him into the ring if he hasn’t returned in five
years. Again the superweapon theme is discussed, and in a scene that could be
borrowed from Wells’s The Food of the Gods (1904), a cockroach that
accidentally ingests some of the growth drug grows to an enormous size and is
beaten to a pulp in a particularly revolting scene (linking the tale to the Big
Bug theme popular in the l920s). Once the adventurers shrink themselves and
clamber down into the micro-world (of course there’s no explanation of how they
enter another universe without traversing empty space), they learn that the city
of Arite, where the Chemist has become a hero following his wartime exploits
(and where he’s married Lylda and has had a son) is a kind of utopia, where
women "have identical rights with men in everything" (173), marriages are
renewable contracts, "kings" are elected for twenty-year terms, and in place of
currency is an elaborate exchange system monitored by the government. Crime is
virtually unknown—largely because of the liberal use of the death penalty for
even minor infractions such as lying. But following the war, a period of
disillusionment has set in—perhaps echoing the post-World War I malaise of
Cummings’s own era—and this discontent is exacerbated by the arrival of the
visitors with their apparent superpowers (the superweapon theme again). Much of
the rest of the narrative consists of the visitors and their hosts trying to
crush (in some cases literally) a rebellion led by a power-hungry demagogue
So about halfway through, The Girl in the Golden Atom, which comes to
us with a reputation as one of the pulpiest of one-note adventure tales, turns
itself into something quite a bit more complex, if not quite coherent, with its
themes of superweapons, postwar malaise, women’s rights, social control,
anti-capitalist economies, and revolutions. One of the potential benefits of a
series such as the Bison Frontiers of Imagination is that it provides us with an
opportunity to re-examine—or perhaps to read for the first time—early works we
thought we knew and to test these works against their reputations. It’s doubtful
that this reissue will do much to rehabilitate Cummings’s overall reputation,
since he famously rehashed his favorite theme for decades (with occasional
forays into space opera), enjoying a brief revival in the 1950s and 1960s (he
died in 1957) when early pulp stories were recycled in Ace and Avon paperbacks.
But for a while, at the very beginning of his long career, he seems to have at
least given some thought to ideas that would later come to play significant
roles in the intellectual history of the genre, as well as in its pulp-adventure
—Gary K. Wolfe, Roosevelt
Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake. Amsterdam/New York:
Rodopi, 2005. ix + 239 pp. €50; US$63 pbk.
"Stuckness," if the word puzzled you as much as it did my spell checker just
now, refers to the condition of a fictional character who is stuck in place,
unable to move or to develop physically or psychologically. To consider how
Peake’s characters find themselves at such an impasse, Mills shifts among the
theories of Freud, Jung, Kristeva, Hillman, and Lacan as they best fit what’s
going on in aspects of a particular work.
Two personal considerations: since Mills finds my own analysis of Peake’s
work simplistic, I may have a grudge here. That’s unlikely, though, since she
dismisses my essay late in the book, well after I’d formed an opinion of how
well her own analysis was working.
Second, and much more seriously, a fair share of my own critical writing has
involved psychological analysis of fictional characters’ actions and thinking. I
understand how necessary—and how much fun—that can be, but also how
difficult it is to distinguish insight from wishful imagination. We critics can
find ourselves unwittingly in the position of Iago, insisting to Othello that
Desdemona’s handkerchief is the final proof of her guilt when it’s part of an
elaborate structure of misinterpretations. It’s also true, though, that a strong
first reaction against some critical reading isn’t necessarily proof that the
critic is wrong. As we try to understand more fully what we read, after all, we
are apt to bump into matters that a writer might not be fully aware of and might
even be more or less consciously concealing. Going under the surface, therefore,
may be discombobulating. But readers’ bursts of startled laughter at some
outrageous interpretation may indicate not that the critic has gone too far but
merely that we’re startled to discover how far this new direction can go.
All this said, it’s still flabbergasting to see what Mills does with Mervyn
Peake. It probably is impossible not to speculate on how the early, unfinished
manuscript "Mr. Slaughterbound" (prepared for Peake’s first children’s book,
Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor , but transferring concerns from
the abandoned story for grownups to the published book) encourages Mills to
speculate on how "the abundance of sexually perverse and homosexual images in
Captain Slaughterboard point [sic] to that form of psychological stuckness
that Freud terms fixation" (38). As proof of this, she uses one of Peake’s
illustrations of the captain striding along his ship’s deck, viewed from below
in order to display the decrepit condition of his shoe. As she notes, "Captain
Slaughterboard’s other leg is shown down to the knee, with the lower leg
presumably bent back and invisible from this perspective." She goes on, however,
to opine that "Looked at again, though, this ‘second leg’ can be seen as more
like a penis with wrinkled foreskin and smooth glans, dangling and gigantic. The
choice of viewing angle, up the man’s leg, now appears sexually charged" (39).
And this allows her, on the next page, to interpret a picture of the Yellow
Creature dancing atop a cannon as a display of "masturbation as well as
exhibitionism," since "both cannon and Creature, as well as Captain, have
already been strongly associated with the erect penis" (40). Unfortunately, a
penis isn’t "erect" when it’s "dangling"; we’re in the company of Iago here.
Elsewhere, Mills observes that "Some [emphasis added] of the crew’s
noses, the erectile equivalent of the penis in a Freudian reading, are
remarkably enlarged, bulbous, or elongated" (38), so it’s also worth noting that
Captain Slaughterboard has a remarkably small pug nose. (Although she finds
homosexual sadism so prevalent in the book and singles out Peter Poop, ship’s
cook, for special attention ["his name ‘poop’ is both nautical and, as a slang
term for faeces, disgustingly excretory, given his profession of cook" (45)],
it’s surprising that she doesn’t comment on his nose having been replaced with a
cork and so go on to speculate about strap-on dildos and butt plugs. But there I
And yet.... Despite laughing hysterically while reading this chapter, I must
admit that Mills has at least part of a genuine point. Captain Slaughterboard
does give an unmistakably fey impression, even apart from the earlier story that
Peake abandoned. Perhaps, realizing that there was no way the grim materials of
"Mr. Slaughterboard" could be shaped to a satisfactory conclusion, Peake
retreated into a more innocent or at least more infantilized world in which a
bloody-handed pirate could simply retire to a tropical island, cuddling his
little chum under a tree in blissful polymorphous perversity. Thus, Stuckness’s
reading, however exaggerated, at least points in interesting directions and
makes a careful reader think about Peake’s writing.
Perhaps the real problem is that Mills doesn’t appreciate the characters in
Peake’s later fiction whose natures or circumstances push them into motion that
could possibly result in their becoming unstuck. On Mr. Pye
(1953), for example, she is good at listing details of the eponymous character’s
simple-minded efforts to do "good," making him sprout wings—which he tries to
get rid of by being "bad," leading to his growing a set of horns. She recognizes
that the novel resists a Christian interpretation, so she tries to give it a
pagan framework (Mr. Pye’s naive conception of God as his "Great Pal" being
replaced by Pan), then realizes that Mr. Pye’s plight doesn’t fit any
pre-existing system. There is no way that Mr Pye or a reader can reduce what
happens to him to a tidy formula. It would appear, then, that Mr. Pye is indeed
stuck and needs to escape. Yet when he abandons his little life on Sark and
soars away on his new wings at the story’s conclusion, Mills is disappointed
because, "Metaphorically, airy inflation that knows no limits is the opposite of
earth-bound stuckness, but it replaces one form of stuckness with another rather
than liberating the psyche" (145).
What Mills wants is for Peake’s characters to stay (or return) home, face
their mothers (embodied in the sea or the castle of Gormenghast), and become
fully-integrated adults. When that doesn’t happen, she is mightily upset. She
does not appreciate what an effort it takes to shake oneself free from
suffocating belief-systems, let alone take the next steps toward maturity. This
demand for more than the characters can give leads her to see the conclusion of
"Boy in Darkness" (1956) as "inconsequential" (191) or "illusory" (192), not
only because she wants to see the Lamb and Titus as morally equivalent but also
because, since Titus does not remember his triumph over the Lamb when he returns
to Gormenghast, he doesn’t achieve a clear system to guide his subsequent
behavior. She cannot imagine that preserving one’s freedom to act on impulse may
be vital simply because it preserves the possibility of development.
In fact, Mills has trouble relating the details she focuses on to an overall
evaluation of Mervyn Peake’s writing. She initially claims that "Peake’s fiction
is magnificently deviant in its memorably expanding architecture, its
caricatures and sexual innuendo, but it holds back from probing the depths of
the psyche and does not touch the heart" (7-8); she even concludes her
discussion of Titus Alone (1959, 1970) by claiming that the novel
transforms "ethical structures to moral sludge" (217). She backpedals a bit
toward the end of her last chapter, perhaps to justify her spending so much
effort on a failed writer, when she says that "The achievement of Peake’s
fiction in terms of the trope of stuckness is ... to remain balanced between
despair and resolution, not taking the path of either transcendence or
individuation and not sinking into metaphysical despondency, but simultaneously
celebrating the quirks and representing the repetitious nature of stuckness
Peake admirers will be dissatisfied with this exercise in damning with faint
praise, but they’ll have to appreciate Mills’s diligence and intelligence—even
when those gifts ultimately seem misapplied. This book deserves a careful
reading, with genuine respect but much caution.
—Joe Sanders, Blissfully Retired
The Culture Wars from Genesis to
Literature, Culture, and Society. 1996. 2nd. ed. New York:
Routledge, 2005. xi + 336 pp. $26.95 pbk.
Milner’s Literature, Culture, and Society traces the emergence of
cultural studies as a discipline and provides an illustration of how its
techniques might be used to read any text, high or low, through the example of
following the motif of "the fall" through a number of texts, beginning with the
story in Genesis and concluding with the Adam story arc in Season 4 of
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1999-2000). In only six chapters, Milner lucidly
covers the debates about the canon and literary studies as a discipline, the
rise of cultural studies, a range of analytical strategies used in cultural and
literary studies, and a history of the forces of production and distribution
that shape the way cultural texts are created and experienced under late
capitalism. This book is the second edition of a text originally published in
1996, but it has been revised extensively and includes a last chapter that is
almost entirely new. For the most part, it covers background material with which
those of us working within the field of cultural studies are already familiar,
but nonetheless Milner’s book is a valuable resource both for its elegantly
concise presentation of a wealth of material and also for its extensive data on
material production, an area often overlooked in more semiotic readings of
popular culture. Its clear and accessible prose makes this book an excellent
resource for students—I have already ordered a copy for my school’s library—but
at the same time there are new things for the seasoned scholar to discover in
this book as well.
Chapter 1, "Literature, Culture and the Canon," outlines the familiar debates
about the canon and other literatures. Milner’s treatment of this topic is
impressive: he traces not only the expansion of the canon to include previously
marginalized voices and genres as a result of "the linguistic turn" of literary
studies but also the original development of an English literary canon,
beginning in the nineteenth century. This strategy allows us to see more
continuity than rupture in the ways that our departments are currently changing
to include courses on minority literatures, women’s literature, and even popular
genres such as science fiction. Milner also distinguishes cultural studies from
the sociological study of culture and introduces the class-based struggles at
the heart of canon formation which began with critics such as Arnold, the
Leavises, and Raymond Williams. The "two sides" of this debate are explored
through an extensive discussion of Harold Bloom, the most active proponent of
the "quality" defense of the canon, and Tony Bennett, who takes the Marxist
cultural theory position that canon construction is an exercise in class power.
Milner is careful never to make either figure into a "straw opponent," which is
one of the things that makes this book such an excellent resource for students.
Here and elsewhere, Milner carefully traces debate, allowing the reader to see
arguments in dialogue. Thus he avoids the twin pitfalls either of being entirely
dismissive of any position or of failing to critique arguments.
The second chapter presents "Analytical strategies" for reading cultural
texts organized around three broad topics: hermeneutics, cultural materialism,
and new historicism. For each approach, Milner traces its emergence through key
thinkers, once again taking care to explain not only the ideas associated with
each figure but also the relationships among them. The chapter includes
discussion of ideology and the turn toward semiotics in literary and cultural
studies, considering Adorno, Horkheimer, Barthes, and Foucault. Finally, he
outlines psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, and postmodernist schools of thought
and explains their impact on literary and cultural studies. Drawing largely on
the work of the Frankfurt School, the next chapter—"Mechanical Reproduction: The
Forces of Production"—outlines a Marxist approach to literary and cultural
criticism, emphasizing the crucial relationship between ideas and their material
modes of production. The chapter outlines Benjamin’s work on "mechanical
reproduction" and adds a materialist dimension to analyses of the high/low
cultural divide in terms of how changing material culture shaped the production
and distribution of art. The book presents an impressively well-researched and
documented history of the rise and changing form of print and audiovisual media.
Milner is careful to note divergent developments in the UK, the US, and
Australia where pertinent. The chapter ends with a discussion of the
relationship between dominant cultural form and historical/national context,
raising the possibility of a "world literature" in our age of mechanical
Chapter 4, "Commodity Culture: The Relations of Production," looks at the
status of art across the history of Western culture, arguing that bourgeois art
under capitalism has led to specific modes of producing and consuming texts.
This chapter contains an important summary of the control of media in the
twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries via a discussion of ownership and
mergers. Milner argues for the importance of the shift "from national publishing
empires to international media conglomerates" (148) as part of late capitalism.
The chapter also discusses shifts in the culture of writing and writers from
early models of support under the patronage system through the rise of copyright
and the emergence of the royalty system. This chapter and the previous one
demonstrate what is vital about Milner’s approach to the field of cultural
studies: he provides essential information that allows us to see the history of
literary studies, as outlined in the first chapter, through another lens, to see
literary culture as part of a wider political, social, and economic context
rather than isolated in a separate realm of aesthetic struggles. The fourth
chapter also provides a similar historical overview of reading and readership.
The last two chapters trace the motif of "the Fall" through a variety of
texts, high and low, emphasizing the relationship between text and context, the
changed literary fortunes of a number of texts as they are assessed by different
standards in different historical moments, and the idea that creative culture is
an ongoing conversation among a variety of texts without respect to the
boundaries erected by the academic study of such culture (nation, period,
high/low). The first of these chapters, Chapter 5,"Texts and contexts: from
Genesis to Frankenstein," discusses intertextual connections from the
Genesis story of the Fall, through Paradise Lost (1667), and on to
Frankenstein (novel  and film adaptations). The following and final
chapter, "Texts and contexts: from Rossum’s Universal Robots to Buffy
the Vampire Slayer," continues the focus on intertextuality, arguing that
with Frankenstein the "fall" moves toward a consideration of the
posthuman, a motif that is taken up in science fiction through the trope of the
android or cyborg. This chapter looks at the emergence and evolution of such
figures in science fiction, discussing Čapek’s
play (1920), Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1989), "The
Postmodern Prometheus" episode of the X-Files (1997),and the Adam
storyline in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (spanning four episodes). Both of
the final chapters demonstrate how meaning and emphasis change depending upon
historical context and mode of production, reinforcing the need for contextual
analysis in cultural studies and also demonstrating (through specific examples)
the value of the theoretical framework outlined in the preceding chapters. The
specific readings are insightful and linked to detailed examination of the
production of each text. For those texts not originally in English, Milner
provides all quotations in both the original language and in translation and,
where relevant, considers the consequences of various translations.
This book is enormously useful and provides one of the most accessible yet
thorough introductions to the discipline of cultural studies that I have read.
If I have any complaint, it would be that given the breadth of Milner’s
engagement with the field—from poststructuralist semiotics to detailed
statistics about reading preferences by class or the educational background of
authors by period—it is difficult to imagine a course for which I might assign
this book as a text. In my experience, the institutional structure of course
offerings does not yet envision our work sufficiently broadly to imagine a
single course that would cast its net as widely as Milner’s book. Literature,
Culture, and Society is, however, of particular interest to those teaching
in science fiction, since Milner develops his arguments about text and context
by using science fiction texts that are themselves becoming canonical. Milner’s
book is essential in bringing together varieties of analyses too often kept
—Sherryl Vint, St. Francis Xavier University
Dunja M. Mohr.
Worlds Apart? Dualism and Transgression in Contemporary Female Dystopias.
Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland,
2005. xii + 312 pp. $39.95 pbk.
This ambitious volume, the first in McFarland’s Critical Explorations in
Science Fiction and Fantasy series, centers on three works of dystopian fiction,
Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy (Native Tongue , The
Judas Rose , Earthsong ), Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast
tetrology (Walk to the End of the World , Motherlines
, The Furies , The Conqueror’s Child ), and
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Mohr provides far and away
the most detailed critical treatment we have seen to date of Elgin’s and
Charnas’s series, paying particular and valuable attention to the last of the
Native Tongue novels, Earthsong (1994), and the two late Holdfast novels,
The Furies and The Conqueror’s Child, and she also finds very
worthwhile things to say about Atwood’s much more widely discussed novel. In
fact, upon its original publication in essay form, Chapter 5 of Mohr’s study
received the annual award of the Margaret Atwood Society. The book, however, is
not without its shortcomings, most of which, fortunately or unfortunately, are
contained in the volume’s Introduction and opening chapters.
Mohr’s central concern, as her subtitle implies, is to argue that all three
writers—and she believes them to be typical of contemporary authors of feminist
utopian and dystopian fiction—move beyond the tendency toward dualism which is
at the core of most classical examples of these two genres. From More’s
Utopia (1515, 1551) to Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), from
Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) to Orwell’s 1984 (1949), both
traditional utopian and dystopian works have tended to portray static societies.
There is no change in utopia because it has achieved perfection and there is no
change in dystopia because the world has attained the worst possible state
imaginable. These works, Mohr argues, see virtually everything in terms of
dualities and opposites—black and white, male and female, self and other. With
Lucy Sargisson’s fine Contemporary Feminist Utopianism (1996) as her
starting point and touchstone, however, Mohr argues that Elgin, Charnas, and to
a lesser (or perhaps more subtle) extent Atwood, avoid this trap. Mohr states
that her book "analyzes in depth transgressive aspects of contemporary feminist
utopian/dystopian literature and argues that these texts form a new subgenre:
that of feminist ‘transgressive utopian dystopias’" (3). Her use of the hybrid
term "utopian dystopias" is of considerable interest. Basically, she is saying
that all of these works—although her case for Atwood’s novel is less
obvious—contain a utopian impulse built into them that gradually emerges as the
books (or, in the case of Elgin and Charnas, the series) continue. Her use of
the term "transgressive," however, is a bit problematic because it takes far too
long for her to define what she means. In fact we never get a definition of the
term. It’s clear that on some level "transgressive" is seen as in opposition to
"dualistic," but, perhaps because she finds opposites so troublesome, Mohr has
difficulty saying this in a straightforward manner. This leads to some confusion
early in the book.
Chapter 1, "The Classical Vision: Utopia, Dystopia, and Science Fiction,"
begins with a good basic survey of utopian and dystopian literature (with a
natural emphasis on feminist works) from More through Wells to Gilman to Russ to
Sally Miller Gearhart and Marge Piercy. Where Mohr begins to go wrong, however,
is when she attempts to generalize about science fiction, a field she knows less
about. She makes a series of errors, some of them factual, some of them matters
of emphasis, that slow the book down considerably. For example, Mohr appears to
be under the mistaken impression that John W. Campbell founded Astounding
Stories (41). She also states that Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon
(1942) and Asimov’s Caves of Steel (1954) were part of the "‘Golden Age’
of juvenile sf" (42). It isn’t clear whether she actually believes that these
novels were published as juvenile fiction (as, for example, was Heinlein’s
The Rolling Stones ) or if she is merely dissing two of the finest
adult sf novels of their era, but neither interpretation of her statement shows
her in a good light. Then there is Mohr’s belief that the inhabitants of the
planet Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) are aliens (76). Sorry,
but they aren’t. Although they’ve been tampered with genetically, the
inhabitants of Gethen come from the same biological stock as we do. That human
beings have been seeded across the galaxy by some ancient advanced species is
one of the basic mysteries of Le Guin’s Hainish universe. There are other errors
of this sort, but perhaps the most aggravating is her repeated misspelling of
Samuel R. Delany’s name as "Delaney" (41). Also annoying is Mohr’s tendency to
repeatedly misuse "[sic]" whenever a writer uses the word "man" or "mankind"
where we more enlightened feminist critics would use the words "human" or
"humanity" (32 and elsewhere). Reading through these repeated mistakes is a bit
of a trial, but Mohr’s ultimate point is worth noting, namely that as innovative
as most feminist sf is, much of it is still caught up in dualism. Where
traditional, masculinist sf puts man at the center and woman on the periphery,
more often than not the work of Sheri Tepper, James Tiptree, Jr., and others
merely reverses things, marginalizing male characters and redefining them as
In Chapter 2, "Demanding the Possible? The Artificiality of Boundaries,"
critical theory takes center stage. Mohr is obviously familiar with the major
figures in utopian studies and presents the reader with a solid survey of their
work. From the Manuels to Kumar to Sargent to Moylan, everyone of importance in
the field gets a mention, as do most of the major postmodernist, feminist, and
postcolonial critics, from Derrida to Irigaray to Cixous to Bhaba, whose
writings have clear bearing on utopian studies. Lucy Sargisson’s ideas, however,
are central throughout. Mohr focuses on Sargisson’s belief that a key feature of
contemporary feminist utopian fiction is "generic blurring, a resistance to
closure, and a movement towards the dynamic process of a pragmatic utopia" (54).
Quoting Sargisson she also, finally, defines "transgression" as "the critique
and displacement of meaning ‘constructed by a complex and hierarchical system of
binary opposition,’" along with "the suggestion of an alternative approach that
values difference and multiplicity" (54). This important point, really, is the
heart of Mohr’s argument; everything else is elaboration.
Chapter 3, "Rewriting the Colonization of Physical and Mental Space," argues
that Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy is a "postmodern counter-narrative" that
"re-positions the colonial object (Aliens) as subject and the Earth/center as
peripheral to the universe" (71). Elgin, Mohr suggests, is combining a
postcolonial criticism of "masculine space imperialism/colonialism" with a
feminist critique of "the patriarchal exploitation of women and the colonization
of women’s minds." She argues further, however, that the entire series includes
an ongoing utopian impulse, as demonstrated first through the development of
Láadan, the secret language of the women linguists, which allows for "a mental
decolonization process," and then, in the third volume of the trilogy, through
the creation of Audiosynthesis, a way of using music to provide nourishment,
thus bypassing a primary control mechanism of both patriarchy and imperialism
(72). Elgin is a linguistics professor by training and Mohr devotes considerable
space to the author’s use of language as a tool of both repression and
liberation. She concludes that the trilogy:
can be summarized as a plea for the allowance of transgression and
progression. By rejecting the imperial masculine discourse and by inventing
their own discourse as well as eliminating the very basis for competitive
exclusion and violence, women, and eventually men, can move towards a global
progressivity that, in turn, will allow an exchange with the alien/other
on terms of equality and difference. (144, emphases in original)
Turning to Charnas’s Holdfast series, Mohr describes the books as "a hard
(eco) feminist comment on extreme dualism, hierarchical patriarchy/matriarchy
and colonialism" (145), and she clearly differentiates Charnas’s work from
Elgin’s, pointing out that, unlike the Native Tongue books, the Holdfast series
makes no attempt to envision utopia. Charnas’s matriarchal societies, although
less horrific than the patriarchal Holdfast, have a full complement of
shortcomings. Mohr also makes the point that Charnas is doing interesting things
with inter-generational attitudes as well and she praises the early books in the
series both for envisioning "hybridity long before Bhabha analyzed these issues"
and for anticipating Haraway’s concept of the cyborg (146). Although Mohr has
interesting things to say about Walk to the End of the World and
Motherlines, the first two books in the tetrology, she is particularly good
on The Furies and The Conqueror’s Child. These last books were
written long after the first two, giving Charnas the breathing room necessary to
ask the next set of questions: "How can men undo their past deeds? How can men
recreate masculinity to acquire full human subject status?" (147). Charnas’s
ultimate intent, Mohr tells us, is not to present a blueprint for the perfect
society, but merely (and more practically) to show the beginning of
"negotiations between fems and men towards a society of parity" (227).
In her award-winning chapter on The Handmaid’s Tale, Mohr describes
Atwood’s novel as the least obviously transgressive of the works under
consideration because it is much closer in form to the classical dystopia than
are Elgin’s and Charnas’s books. Further, Atwood’s use of duality throughout her
fiction has been much discussed by critics, including those writing on The
Handmaid’s Tale. Mohr argues, however, that the book "can be read as a
transgressive utopian dystopia, since a utopian subtext is interwoven into the
dystopian narrative ... and because there are various hints in the novel
pointing towards a transgression of binarisms that critics have so far
overlooked" (232). The most obvious of these transgressions, perhaps, can be
found in the way in which the novel resists closure. We never actually discover
how Offred’s story ends. The Historical Notes at the end of the book, which at
first seem likely to explicate the tale, ultimately do nothing but confuse it,
and the far-future society of the Notes, although decidedly different from that
of the main narrative, is itself hardly utopian. Ultimately, several different
perspectives on the truth of Offred’s story are given voice and none is
substantiated as the ultimate truth. This "polyperspectivism" (269) is the chief
source of the novel’s subtle transgressivity.
In a brief concluding chapter, Mohr summarizes her points and compares the
works more closely. She argues persuasively that "contemporary feminist
dystopias constitute ... a new genre, one characterized by the interweaving of
dystopian and utopian narrative strands bound by the distinctive feature of
transgression" (270). She does, however, differentiate Elgin’s and Charnas’s
work from Atwood’s by noting that the former writers end their tales on a
positive note that is missing in The Handmaid’s Tale, and she then
explores possible reasons for this difference. Mohr also suggests, and I think
that this is an important point, that Charnas’s "demand that men must
participate in and contribute to the imagining and the creation of utopia
renders The Conqueror’s Child simultaneously the most transgressive
utopia and the most realistic among the novels discussed" (277, emphasis in
Ultimately, Dunja M. Mohr’s Worlds Apart? is a valuable book. The
author’s cogent analysis of three major works of dystopian fiction, including
several novels that have heretofore received very little serious attention, is a
significant contribution to the field that far outweighs the factual errors of
her book’s early chapters. One can wish that those mistakes hadn’t been made,
but they shouldn’t be seen as in any way negating the valuable insights
contained in the rest of the volume
.—Michael Levy, University of Wisconsin at Stout
Wondering about Wonder Shows.
Fred Nadis. Wonder
Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America.
Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2005. xiv + 318 pp. $26.95 hc.
For more information than you thought you needed to know about traveling
scientists, electro-therapy, hypnotists, mesmerists, and UFO "scientists," pick
up Fred Nadis’s book Wonder Shows. Nadis provides a cultural history of
the "wonder show," which he loosely defines as anything from a traveling program
to a corporate-sponsored expo that exhibits the wonders of science, parascience,
religion, sleight of hand, and trickery. The text is presented more or less
chronologically, with an initial focus on burgeoning science, mainly through the
uses of electricity (dramatized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century by scientists such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla); followed by a
look at hypnotists, spiritualists, and other para-scientific exploiters who
exemplify the pre- and post- World War I environment; and then finally, in the
third section, a consideration of the combination of rising capitalism and
religious fervor, and (with some UFOs thrown in) demonstrating post-World War II
Nadis’s terminology and vocabulary, using freely and without pretension terms
such as "performing" that are often associated with heavily-loaded theoretical
backgrounds, is startling, but his style is relaxed and his presentation is
organized and free-flowing. Nadis points out in the introduction that he equates
science with technology and religion with magic. And indeed, more often than
not, all four are inextricably intermingled. He explains that this practice
coincides with the general assumptions made by the public from the 1890s to the
1950s. Often he will refer to "science magic," the "science wizard," or doctors
and magicians who employ identical techniques to cure people; but those who find
this offensive should look more to the American mainstream audience of these
wonder shows rather than to Nadis himself. His goal is to present the mainstream
American view of science, magic, and religion. He argues that his text
"emphasizes that a parallel vein of gee-whiz science promotions continually has
surfaced to address the paradox of scientific progress as both wonder-erasing
and wonderful" (20). His text does just that: it shows how the American public
needed these wonder shows to make science and technology palatable and
understandable and how many have used science and technology to try to explain
what science still deems unexplainable: para-science, UFOs, and other still
Nadis presents the history of wonder shows within the broader scope of the
American history of religion, culture, scientific discovery, and technological
progress. This history is told through the various audience reactions and the
presentation of cultural artifacts: posters, advertisements, letters, and
newspaper headlines, among others. Nadis’s choice to emphasize the audience
reception of these wonder shows is undermined, however, by a lack of sufficient
consideration for the socio-economic and gender differences in audience
The text is split into three sections—science, magic, and religion—but
demonstrates that the three sections are interchangeable. For example, Nadis
discusses how many of the wonder showmen used electricity as proof of the
technological superiority of science, as a way to cure diseases, as a way to
communicate with the dead, and as a way to demonstrate social progress. He uses
similar vocabulary to discuss various members of the wonder show community—for
example, equating the various scientific and magic performers to "shamen." The
text can seem repetitive when read straight through, especially when Nadis
repeats information and the biographies of the various performers, but the
reiteration of various important persons and events can be helpful if one is
only looking at particular chapters.
Nadis tempers the dry historical facts of the wonder show with sentimental
personal anecdotes about the various performers and their lives on the road or
in the limelight. Often, Nadis provides an in-depth look at scientists,
preachers, and businessmen that is both interesting and touching. He includes
several letters from Charles Came, a traveling scientist/doctor/wonder showman
who misses his family and does not hesitate to give them medical advice from the
road, telling his wife to have the doctor "let their daughter’s blood" (36).
Nadis describes how Tesla was the model of an erudite, European scientist but
also details Tesla’s obsession with pigeons and the "religious" fervor with
which he cared for them (222). These insights make the wonder showmen more than
just performers or hucksters. Nadis gives each an individual personality that
most history books would not have provided.
The last chapter of the text brings the wonder show to the present. Nadis
discusses a trip in 2001 to the "Whole Life Expo" in Dallas. His personal
narrative succeeds in emphasizing how the wonder show of the 1880s is still
alive today in the booths of expos, where vendors selling the benefits of
electricity to New Age consumers. The final chapter cements Nadis’s main points:
the wonder show reflects the political, religious, and cultural fads and
fashions of the American populace. Americans don’t want hard-boiled science; we
want flash, bang, and wow. In a text that lacks the excitement of a wonder show,
Nadis shows us just how far back into our past this predilection stretches and
how inextricably bound it is with America’s finicky present.
—Holly Savage, University of Iowa
Making a Choice between
Knowledge and Extinction.
John S. Partington.
Building Cosmopolis: The Political Thought of H.G. Wells.
Aldershot, UK/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003. xii + 196 pp. $69.95 hc.
It took H.G. Wells about five years right at the end of the nineteenth
century to save himself by the power of his pen, incidentally founding the
literary genre later to be known as sf. For the remainder of his writing career,
his priority was to save the world—"in a lack of better saviors" (1) as he put
it in 1903, more than a decade before the world became aware that it needed
saving. Wells’s view of the human animal as an evolutionary work in progress—a
view for which he was indebted to T.H. Huxley—enabled him to compute the
trajectory of human history with exceptional accuracy. As a
scientifically-trained man of letters who was also an engaged political thinker
and probably the first fully qualified futurologist, Wells was a true original.
His originality alone is a cause for celebration, even had he been consistently
wrong about how humanity was to be saved from itself. As it is, hindsight
suggests that Wells was not only right that civilization needed salvaging but
that he also had some pretty good ideas about how best to go about it. But his
advice was largely ignored by those in positions of power, and the race between
education and catastrophe remains too close to call. In this context John S.
Partington’s determination to give Wells full credit for forty-five years of
inventive political thought and indefatigable activism is highly commendable.
Building Cosmopolis serves as a salutary reminder that during what was
hitherto the ugliest and most inhumane epoch in history, Wells persisted with
his loud, consistent, and urgent appeal on behalf of human values. For this
alone his tomb deserves the best wreath that we can afford.
Partington’s thesis is clear, his argument is based on thorough research, and
he deploys his evidence rigorously and convincingly. His Wells, with the
occasional misstep inevitable in a man of multifarious interests, passionate
temperament, and prolific output, remained true to the central Huxleyan idea
that human beings have a responsibility to apply humane ethics to their
decision-making, thereby tempering the blind amoral process of cosmic evolution.
In the heavily-armed and rapidly-moving modern world, nationalism fostered
division, division led to conflict, and conflict led to catastrophe: the chief
lesson of 1914-18 could hardly be clearer. Wells believed that people needed to
be educated to understand that their membership in one biological species
overruled their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences. He sought to
encourage the growth of cosmopolitanism at the level of the individual in the
belief that once this expressed itself at the societal level it would promote
the formation of supranational entities that would then slowly take over the
roles formerly held by national governments. This evolutionary (i.e., gradual,
non-revolutionary) process would take the form of an "Open Conspiracy" (166) in
which a "competent receiver" (39) would assume the burden of global governance
and the World State, set up to benefit all mankind, would come into being.
Early in his Introduction, Partington establishes his own critical space with
a thorough review of all the existing literature on the subject. He is frankly
aware that his estimate of Wells’s achievements as a political visionary
seriously conflicts with that of Marxist critics such as Christopher Caudwell
and A.L. Morton, for whom Wells was a petty bourgeois dilettante; with that of
the Tory anarchist George Orwell, who in 1941 accused Wells of a naïve idealism
that actually helped nurture totalitarianism; and with that of Brad Leithauser,
who in 1986 dismissed Wells’s political thinking as entirely futile in that it
had had no effect at all on the existing geopolitical dispensation. Partington
efficiently dismisses each of these objections. As his subject overlaps with the
late W. Warren Wagar’s highly regarded H.G. Wells and the World State
(1961), Partington gives due credit to his most eminent predecessor, but
enumerates five aspects of Wells’s political thought insufficiently covered by
Wagar and which, taken together, justify this new survey: the adherence to
Huxleyan values, the Edwardian campaign for social and educational reform, the
consistent anti-elitism, the human rights campaign of 1939-44, and the influence
on later internationalists. It should be noted that, in his intellectual
biography H.G. Wells: Traversing Time (2004), Wagar largely
accedes to Partington’s views on Wells’s lifelong fidelity to Huxley, even while
raising in a long footnote (284-85, n. 38) the interesting philosophical
question about whether the cosmic and ethical evolutionary processes are truly
distinct, the former having given rise to the latter.
Building Cosmopolis is undoubtedly a major contribution to Wellsian
studies. True, it is written in a rather undemonstrative style, in contrast to
which the many inserted quotations from obscure Wellsian tracts fizz with
energy. It nevertheless deserves to become the first port of call for those
seriously interested in exploring the origin, development, and influence of
Wells’s political thought. I will register only two minor quibbles. First, while
Wells’s "groundbreaking advocacy of the functionalist model of global
governance" (2) is referred to frequently, "functionalism" is not actually
defined until the end of the last chapter (164-73). Here Partington belatedly
(but very effectively) explains why Wells should be credited for originating the
idea that functional bodies serving global needs should replace national
governments. (Briefly, this is because Wells laid out the functionalist theory
in The World of William Clissold  long before David Mitrany’s A
Working Peace System .) I point this out chiefly for the benefit of sf
readers who might otherwise confuse this Wellsian "functionalism" with its
Heinleinian homonym, the elitist ideology that in "The Roads Must Roll" (1940)
endangers the modern technocratic state.
Second, I wish Partington had found room for the occasional
strategically-placed polemical paragraph nailing down why the political
views of H.G. Wells are of continuing importance. After all, this is not
self-evident: Wells is a writer sixty years dead and one apparently thought too
inconsequential to be accorded a single mention in the current Norton
Anthology of English Literature. Partington reveals that Wells in the 1920s
referred to the USA as a model for a future European federation (111); it would
have been delightful to have heard his opinion on exactly how clairvoyant (and
how ironic) that seems today. He also tells us that Wells in 1926 described his
putative global functional body as a "world business organisation" (116); it
might have been helpful to have had a pithy reminder at this point as to why we
should not mistake Cosmopolis for globalization. But perhaps such topical
matters should be left to a less scrupulous author than John S. Partington to
elaborate in a future blockbuster subtitled How a Short Fat Science-Fiction
Writer Invented the Modern World.
—Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina
An Explosive Biography.
George Pendle. Strange
Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons.
New York: Harcourt, 2005. 350 pp. $25 hc.
If any book illustrates the thesis—ascribed to H.L. Mencken and Frank Lloyd
Wright, among others—that the North American continent is tilted and everything
loose rolls to California, George Pendle’s Strange Angel, a biography of
John Whiteside (a.k.a. "Jack") Parsons, is definitely it. Parsons was, during
the 1930s, one of a handful of pioneers of practical rocketry at a time when the
science was scorned as Buck Rogers nonsense. Working with a small cadre of
outlaw engineers on the fringes of the CalTech campus in Pasadena, Parsons
revolutionized solid-fuel propulsion, helping to invent the Jet-Assisted
Take-Off (JATO) system widely used by the American armed forces during World War
II. He was also a co-founder of the Aerojet Engineering Corporation, which would
go on to build the Titan and Minuteman missiles and the engine for the Apollo
Command Module used during the lunar landings, thus realizing the dreams of
pulp-era sf. Unfortunately, Parsons would not live to see these triumphs since
he clumsily blew himself up while mixing explosives at his home in 1952.
If that was all there were to his tale, then Strange Angel would be
just another neglected-hero-of-modern-science biography along the lines of
Thomas Streissguth’s Rocket Man: The Story of Robert Goddard (Carolrhoda,
1995). But Parsons was an altogether weirder individual than even that reclusive
eccentric. Experimenting with rocket engines in the Pasadena arroyos by day, by
night he worshipped Pan and conjured spirits as head priest of the Agape Lodge,
the California chapter of Aleister Crowley’s notorious crypto-pagan Church of
Thelema. As Pendle points out, Parsons’s streak of wild imagination was "a
valuable commodity to have" in "a nascent science" like rocketry (83), where
risk-taking was often more important than professional discipline (it’s not for
nothing that his CalTech cohort was dubbed the "Suicide Squad"); at the same
time, Parsons always approached his "magick" rituals (Crowley’s preferred
spelling) "as a strictly literal branch of learning, one that could be mastered
by concentrated scientific application" (148). Of course, as Pendle makes
abundantly clear, Parsons was attracted to Crowley’s half-baked ceremonials in
large measure because they provided license for dissipations he already had a
strong taste for, such as free love, bad poetry, and narcotics. It boggles the
mind to imagine this dapper engineer racing home from his pioneering experiments
to whip up a batch of homemade absinthe, compose avid doggerel celebrating the
wonders of cocaine and peyote, and perform a lengthy divination requiring
focused chanting and ritual masturbation. No wonder such an incendiary life
ended in such an explosive death.
The interest of this book to readers of SFS lies less in its
revelation of the kinky "night thoughts" of a far-from-classical physicist (to
adapt the title of Russell McCormmach’s 1991 novel), than in the fact that
Parsons was not only a follower of both science and magic but also an
enthusiastic fan of a genre that often fuses (if not confuses) these two realms:
science fiction. His abiding fannish interests, combined with his budding local
celebrity as a rocketeer, drew him into the orbit of the Los Angeles Science
Fantasy Society, where he hobnobbed with Ray Bradbury and "number one fan"
Forrest J. Ackermann. He was also befriended by Robert A. Heinlein, whose own
pecadillos included a taste for casual nudism and whose association with Parsons
(as Pendle points out) likely influenced the stories "Waldo" and "Magic, Inc."
(both 1942). Parsons invited Heinlein to his freewheeling bohemian boarding
house for lively fencing matches and Heinlein invited Parsons to meetings of the
Mañana Literary Society, boozy gatherings held at the author’s home in Laurel
Canyon. The Society, immortalized in Anthony Boucher’s 1942
murder-mystery-à-clef Rocket to the Morgue, was frequented by genre
stalwarts such as Cleve Cartmill and Jack Williamson (whose 1940 werewolf tale
Darker Than You Think quite fascinated Parsons), not to mention German
ex-pats including Fritz Lang and Willy Ley (the latter had worked in the Nazi
rocket program under Wernher von Braun and would go on to pen a long-running
science column in Galaxy magazine). It was likely here that Parsons met
inveterate pulp hack L. Ron Hubbard and that’s where the story really starts to
Parsons fell immediately under the glib spell of Hubbard, a charming con-man
who would, as Pendle observes, go on to achieve Crowley’s life-long dream: to
found a thriving cash-cow religion. Hubbard moved in with the sprawling
menagerie of oddballs—waggishly dubbed the Parsonage—and soon convinced the
credulous household of his brilliant magical gifts, which Parsons eagerly
recounted in letters to Crowley (then in the process of killing himself with
heroin in an English seaside resort). Hubbard gamely joined in an epic "magical
working" designed to summon "an Elemental mate" for Parsons (259-60), whose
corporeal girlfriend, Betty, Hubbard had recently stolen. When this plan petered
out, Hubbard talked Parsons into funneling his savings into a venture to buy a
fleet of yachts in Florida, then sail them through the Panama Canal to sell at a
profit in California. As was immediately clear to his friends and associates
(including Crowley), but only gradually to Parsons himself, this proposal was a
massive rip-off, and a frantic Parsons was forced to chase down Hubbard and
Betty in Miami before they sailed off around the world. As Parsons explained in
another letter to Crowley, the pair almost did escape, but the resourceful
magician managed to invoke the demon Bartzabel in a hasty hotel-room ceremony,
whereupon Hubbard’s "ship was struck by a sudden squall off the coast, which
ripped off his sails and forced him back to port" (270). I couldn’t make this
stuff up if I tried.
Strange Angel is an engagingly written and well-researched biography
that I can recommend to anyone who cares to know more about the lifestyles of
the nerdy and perverted who made up the fringe-science/sf scene in 1930s-40s
Southern California. I have only one complaint. Pendle’s book is not the first
biography of Parsons, following as it does in the footsteps of Sex and
Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons, a 1999 Feral House title authored
by the pseudonymous John Carter (named for a famous pulp hero the youthful
Parsons worshipped). Yet Pendle never once mentions this obscure small-press
title, which I must admit to finding ungenerous, if not high-handed, since he
essentially reproduces its basic narrative and a good portion of its core
research. For those who might be interested, Sex and Rockets has even
more detail about Crowleyan sex magick than Pendle provides, and it has
conveniently just been returned to print. Either book is jaw-dropping fun to
High Science Fiction.
Robert M. Philmus.
Visions and Re-Visions: [Re]constructing Science Fiction.
Liverpool Science Fiction Texts & Studies 32. Liverpool: Liverpool UP/Chicago
UP, 2006. xiv + 411 pp. $85 hc.
I was particularly interested in reviewing this volume because I began
reading science fiction criticism at the same time Robert Philmus started
writing it: his was one of the critical voices that shaped my approach to the
genre. A longtime editor of and contributor to Science-Fiction Studies
(in the days when this journal still insisted on its hyphen) and winner of the
Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award for his study of sf’s early
history, Into the Unknown (1970), Philmus has always given science
fiction serious attention as a literature of ideas and a vehicle for social
thought. In this volume, which collects and recasts essays from four decades of
investigation into the genre, Philmus traces its evolution from the 1890s
onward, concentrating on acknowledged masterworks such as Zamyatin’s We
(1920), Lem’s The Futurological Congress (1971), and Le Guin’s The
Dispossessed (1974). He paints a generic landscape that is all mountaintops:
the low-lying regions of pulp sf and the dismal swamps of movie sci-fi are
barely acknowledged. Hugo Gernsback gets two mentions in the text and one
footnote: John W. Campbell doesn’t show up in the index at all. As a result, the
genre described here is not science fiction per se, but a smaller and more
ambitious subset that we might call high sf, by analogy to the term
high fantasy that is often used to distinguish Tolkienesque romances from
formulaic Swords and Sorcery.
High science fiction is mostly European in origin, philosophical in
orientation, and satirical in tone. Its exemplars include Wells, Zamyatin,
Swift, Orwell, Lem, Čapek,
Stapledon, Calvino, Borges, and three US writers: Vonnegut, Le Guin, and Dick.
All these are listed in chapter titles. The table of contents also includes one
writer of anti-science fiction, C.S. Lewis, whose Perelandra books (1938-45) fit
the criteria of Eurocentrism and serious philosophical intent but construct
scientism as heresy and Wells as the Antichrist. Philmus offers extended
readings of major works, focusing especially on linguistic play and utopian or
dystopian social visions. Readers interested in any of these writers would be
well advised to work through Philmus’s analyses. It can be hard work. As one
might anticipate from his acknowledgments to Fredric Jameson and Darko Suvin,
Philmus’s writing tends toward crabbed prose and a high degree of abstraction.
It can also be very rewarding, not only because he comes armed with decades of
thought and research but also because of flashes of illumination such as his
suggestion that we read certain book titles as definitions of genre: sf novels
are time machines; the field as a whole operates as a futurological congress.
Some of the analyses seem a bit dated, although Philmus has reworked the
earliest essays. He acknowledges only at the very end of the afterword what
might seem obvious from the table of contents: that this is not a contemporary
portrait of sf but a slice of its history. The only active writer of sf he
considers is Le Guin, and one would think from this study that her career
stopped in 1974. I wish Philmus had taken his analysis into the 1980s and
beyond: the analytical tools he develops would work well with Le Guin’s
Always Coming Home (1985) and some of her recent stories, and I think he
would have interesting insights about Big Social Idea writers such as Kim
Stanley Robinson and China Miéville. I’m not sure what he would have to say
about writers whose work is more concerned with psychology, technology, colonial
adventure, or myth—important sf concerns that are largely missing from this
As to the book’s central ideas, Philmus deliberately postpones explanation
until the final chapter, though he names them right up front: genericity,
re-vision, and governing conception. He wishes, he says, to draw
the thesis from the examples rather than "fit[ting] my authors to a procrustean
thesis" (xii). This withholding of thesis can be a bit frustrating but it also
gives the book something of the feel of a mystery novel. We get all the clues
but we have to wait for the detective to tell us whether our guesses were
correct. We know that the answers must have something to do with language, with
utopian thought, and with time, for those concerns run throughout the
discussions. Further, we know that Philmus’s interest in language is, first, as
a form of political action (as in the deformation of meaning in 1984
) and, second, as something that can be tested to its limits by sf (as in
Calvino’s ironic wordplay, which Philmus impressively pursues across the
translation barrier to investigate puns and quibbles in the original Italian).
He is interested in utopias not as societal blueprints but as linguistic
constructions and critical tools. He also combines these first two themes:
Chapter One focuses on the effects of language on utopia and vice versa.
Both utopia and language are often studied as if they were immune to the
effects of time. Linguists tend to follow Saussure’s emphasis on the synchronic
aspects of language over the diachronic, which can give the impression that
languages are static systems. Similarly, utopian writers imply that the closer
societies come to perfection, the less they will be open to change. As Philmus
says, "A society pretending to ultimacy requires closure" (26). Yet the generic
constraints on sf and its immersion in history mean that change is built into
the form. The result is that sf continually dismantles static systems of meaning
and society even as it invokes them. Writers rework other writers’ ideas and
rework their own; texts deconstruct themselves. That is the nature of the genre,
according to Philmus; his examples indicate that re-vision is not just an
occasional by-product of storytelling but the heart of science-fictional
Skipping to the end of the story (spoiler alert!), I will try to summarize
the theoretical discussion at which Philmus arrives in his afterword. I think
that even readers who are not particularly interested in his examples will want
to take a look at what he says about sf as genre. On genre in general, he wants
to steer a course between Todorov and Derrida. He argues with Todorov’s attempt,
in The Fantastic (1970, trans. 1973), to define genre as prior to text,
as a determiner of meaning. Instead, he goes along with Derrida in "The Law of
Genre," in saying that "a text cannot belong to any genre"—or, as he
re-translates the French more literally, "a text wouldn’t know how to belong [to
a single genre]" (290). In other words, even though the reader needs a generic
horizon to make sense of any text, no text is fully contained within its
category: "Genre, in short, always comes with a question mark, even if there be
no disagreement as to which genre is at issue" (291).
Regarding the genre at hand, he says that sf is unique in the way each text
rewrites its predecessors—not the fact of revision, but the degree and manner of
it. Philmus makes the somewhat paradoxical claim that "An engagement of some
other text(s)—sometimes in a fashion now associated with postmodernism—is a
pronounced feature of science fiction’s literary history from the start" (302).
That may explain why it is so difficult to locate the genre’s beginning point:
whether one picks Gernsback’s magazines, Wells’s scientific romances, Shelley’s
gotho-Promethean novel, or Lucian’s True History (Second century C.E.),
the originary work always depends on a pre-text that is also its pretext: both
backdrop and rationale. More interestingly, Philmus identifies the principle at
work in sf as a Borgesian/Le Guinian operation of Causal Reversibility: the
present transforms the past (300). Just as, in The Dispossessed,
"successive chapters make their predecessors precursors in Borges’s sense of the
word" (300), each new science-fictional text alters the history of the genre and
the nature and significance of any previous sf. Hence his selection of the
fiction of H.G. Wells as the epitome of the genre: every sf story is a time
machine, transforming the past while carrying us forward into the future.
I am not certain that I have stated Philmus’s argument accurately: even after
three re-readings I find the afterword tough going. But each time I go back I
find myself trying out new and interesting applications of the meanings I
think I am getting out of it. It’s worth the effort, for anyone who is
interested in linking sf to important philosophical ideas or in pondering its
I still have reservations about approaching the genre from above, as it were.
I don’t think it is possible to understand Dick or Vonnegut without
acknowledging not only their engagement with philosophical and literary
pre-texts but also with their immersion in popular storytelling and Gosh-Wow
science-fictional culture. High science fiction is, in some ways, a
superstructure that could not exist without the substratum of popular culture.
Interestingly, Philmus demonstrates an awareness of this fact not only in the
final pages of his text but also in the extensive footnotes, which I found
generally more engaging, wider-ranging, and more user-friendly than the main
text. In notes, Philmus qualifies his pronouncements, talks back to other
critics, and reveals himself as a personality and a reader. Only in the notes do
we find a mention of a term that I think is implied throughout: mega-text.
Philmus could have used Philippe Hamon’s term (adopted for sf criticism by
Christine Brooke-Rose and Damien Broderick) to summarize his understanding of
sf’s continual revising and re-envisioning of earlier fictions and of scientific
ideas and ways of thinking. As in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr.
Norrell (2004), the real story is often hidden in the annotations.
—Brian Attebery, Idaho State University
Miles Russell, ed.
Digging Holes in Popular Culture. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books, 2002.
xv + 174 pp. $29.95 pbk.
Prehistoric Humans in Film and Television.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006. 322 pp. $39.95 pbk.
According to the late Carl Sagan, we inhabit a "demon-haunted world" riven
with superstition and ignorance masquerading as legitimate knowledge. One
response to the proliferation of pseudo-science has been phlegmatic debunking,
something that you would certainly expect of the scientist. The other reaction
to a world where, as Douglas Adams writes in a decidedly pun-free preface to
Digging Holes, "Cartoon science means more to people than real science"
(ix), is to engage seriously the popular, intervening, as it were, at the
source. These two books adopt the second strategy from the perspectives of
archaeology and physical anthropology, respectively, following, perhaps, on
versions of cultural and social anthropology long sensitive to popular
conceptions of the future. And yet the two books suggest the importance of both
strategies to futures we imagine, an inversion of the Nietzschean dictum where
history is castigated as a stumbling block to revolutionary change. There is in
these two books an acknowledgment that popular and mass-media images of
anthropologists have had a profound effect on both fields in the present. But
despite the gravity of the topic, both books strike a mostly jocular tone, with
contributors alternating between critique and guilty confessions of nostalgia
for even the kitschiest episodes of Dr. Who.
Digging Holes in Popular Culture is a collection of essays based on a
1997 Theoretical Archaeologists Conference held at Bournemouth University in the
UK. It is divided into three parts: popular representations of archaeologists,
sf influences on archaeology, and extrapolations of archaeological practice into
the future. Part 1 excavates the sources of these popular images of
archaeologists, those "celluloid archaeologists" that present pith-helmeted
variations on the general theme of the eccentric scientist-misanthrope (Steven
Membury), as well as related representations in Star Trek: The Next
Generation (1987-94; Lynette Russell) and Dr. Who (1963 ; Brian
Boyd). Russell’s essay in particular, although echoing themes from the corpus of
Star Trek scholarship, handily demonstrates the tendentious uses
to which archaeology is put in the series, where Picard’s archaeological
investigations (particularly in "The Chase" 1993) serve to legitimate the
species/racial domination of the galaxy by the Federation. Yet as Miles Russell
points out in his overview of popular representations of archaeologists, these
images do have some historical precursors in adventurer/tomb raiders such as
Howard Carter and Hiram Bingham, as well as in militaristic
patriot-archaeologists such as Augustus Pitt Rovers and Mortimer Wheeler.
Part 2 of the collection covers ground more familiar to SFS readers,
i.e., fictional deployments of archaeology and material culture, both in obvious
choices such as Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear (1982; Julia Murphy)
and rather less obvious sf works such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series
(1983-) and in Cordwainer Smith’s universe (Alasdair Brooks). A propos of
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), these essays point out the centrality of
material culture to the future; clearly, aliens meant us to excavate! Brooks’s
essay, in particular, suggests how material culture is appropriated in the
service of nationalism and myth. Inevitably, perhaps, in the final essay in this
section, Philip Rahtz tries his hand at archaeologically relevant sf with a
dialogue taking place on "Computus" in the "Sirius star system" (88),
underlining, for me, anyway, that the proper place of academics is decidedly on
the "reception" side of sf studies.
Part 3 of the collection—the extension of archaeology into future
sites—contains the most promising essays in the collection. Two of the essays
(John Hodgson’s and Rob Haslam’s) are archaeologies in reverse, examinations of
the ways in which the past is interred in the future. For example, Hodgson
examines the generic conventions for illustrating futuristic spacecraft, all
derived from our own earth-bound conceptions of ocean-going vessels, while
Haslam illustrates how future or alien scapes owe their form to past
architectural styles, especially modernism (e.g., Frank Lloyd Wright). Fewer,
Walsh, and Matthews, on the other hand, project their archaeologies into space,
laying the groundwork for an "exo-archaeology." Further, an "exo-archaeology"
can be used to debunk tenacious, tabloid images of the "face" on Mars or the
Blair Cuspids through remote sensing methodologies. With adequate pixel
resolution and some trigonometry (using the angle of the sun and length of
shadows to calculate height), many of, say, the "cities" and "pyramids" of the
Cydonia mensae are un-masked as quotidian erosion patterns and impact craters.
Nevertheless, these same techniques can be used to identify the genuinely alien,
although, as Walsh points out, we will need to "de-anthropomorphize" our
understanding of the built environment if we want to recognize the alien. Of
course, how these objective "automatic pattern recognition algorithms" will
avoid being anthropocentric is a vexing question, since other efforts (e.g.,
SETI) have been obdurately grounded in late-twentieth-century US and European
conceptions of what "civilized" beings will be like.
I approached the second book, Prehistoric Humans, with some
trepidation, since I have an almost visceral disgust for "caveman films," which,
to be fair, represent some of the worst films ever made—remember "Encino Man"
(1992)?. Michael Klossner, on the other hand, is a fan, albeit a critical one,
and his wide-ranging, richly annotated guide to the "caveman" genre (both in
fiction and in documentary) is in many ways a paean to kitsch, with lovingly
detailed entries for what I would regard as B movies (One Million Years B.C.
, Caveman ) and an abiding appreciation for cavegirl bikinis.
As such, some of the weakest parts of the book are its more fannish
commentaries. For example, given that dinosaurs, Homo erectus, and Raquel
Welch all seem to co-exist in One Million Years B.C., does it really
matter that Welch "is barefoot in most shots" but is "wearing boots in one shot"
(111)? Additionally—and again attributable to the fannish tone—some of the
lengthy synopses of these films are labored. On the other hand, Klossner is
quite aware that nothing is more ideologically overdetermined than these images
of our evolutionary forebears; his entries for D.W. Griffith’s Brute Force
(1914) and Man’s Genesis (1912) demonstrate the myriad ways that
discourses on evolution are imbricated in racism and pernicious social
The final section of Klossner’s work (also organized along a tripartite
scheme) looks to representations of the prehistoric in sf film, including
more-or-less predictable entries for films such as Altered States (1980)
and Iceman (1984). As before, these discussions come with ample fan
baggage, including a thematic typology (extraterrestrial, fake, fantasy, lost
worlds, etc.) that is neither really needed nor particularly helpful (hmm, do I
rent a "throwback" or a "timeshift" tonight?). Nevertheless, though, pace
earlier sections on prehistory, incursions of Hominidae into the future are
symptomatic of racial and gender coding as well as of a profound ambivalence
about a future that seems simply to extend the present into an endless horizon.
And, à propos of race and nationalism, one strength of Klossner’s work is his
attention to film outside English-speaking countries; courtesy of his work on
film and television, Italian and French movies are well-represented, as are some
Japanese, in particular his incisive discussion of the 1997 film Peking Man
and its touching (in today’s climate of hypertrophic nationalism) anti-national
Ultimately, Klossner’s work is undermined by its shifting registers,
alternately scholarly and fannish. And yet it’s doubtful that an actual physical
anthropologist (Klossner is a librarian) would have had the constitution to slog
through films like Eegah! (1962). Physical anthropologists as well as
scholars of sf may find this guide useful for their own serious explorations of
popular representations, in particular those of a twentieth century riddled with
eugenics, Cold War paranoia, and naturalizations of postwar patriarchy. Of
course, there are lingering concerns: can I overcome my own distaste long enough
to write an article on Encino Man and its even more execrable sequel,
Encino Woman (1996)?
—Samuel Gerald Collins, Towson University
Brainwashing: The Fictions of Mind Control, A Study of Novels and Films Since
World War II. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2004. xxvi + 325 pp.
This book is a continuation of the scholarly interests sketched out in David
Seed’s American Science Fiction and the Cold War (Edinburgh UP, 1999),
offering a well-researched and fine-grained historical analysis of postwar
treatments of mind control in fiction and film. The overarching context is the
Cold War struggle between the forces of Communism and the "free" world,
especially the emergence of "Red China" in 1949 and the subsequent war on the
Korean peninsula (1950-1953). The term "brainwashing," coined by journalist
Edward Hunter and disseminated through works such as his Brain-Washing in Red
China (1951), surfaces during this tense period to refer to the insidious
creation of "a living puppet—a human robot … a mechanism in flesh and blood,
with new beliefs and new thought processes inserted into a captive body" (qtd.
29). As the language here suggests, the concept is radically mechanistic, and
Seed efficiently tracks its underlying assumptions to the behaviorist psychology
of Pavlov and Watson. He also explores how the concept came to inform official
ideologies guiding what CIA director Allen Dulles called the "brain warfare"
needed to combat the Communist threat (31): if the Red Chinese were, as Hunter
and others alleged, re-programming native dissidents and captured enemies with
powerful new techniques of propagandistic persuasion, then the US and its allies
needed to mount similarly sophisticated counter-measures. The pioneering of
experimental drug therapies by the CIA—including the administration of LSD via
the clandestine project Artichoke—had its roots in this competition between
global superpowers for ideological dominance. Moreover, as Seed shows, the
public clamor over Communist indoctrination fused with debates about the
influence of "hidden persuaders" such as advertising, which also sought to mold
dutiful subjects responsive to behavioral signals. By the mid-1950s this nascent
discourse had crystallized in a series of "brainwashing narratives" that
collectively staged "an encounter between subject and ideology and between an
individual and different kinds of authoritarian structures" (xvii).
In ten densely-packed chapters, Seed offers consistently illuminating
readings of major and minor texts in this tradition, beginning with precursor
works such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), with its critique
of normative mechanisms of hypnotic suggestion and pharmacological manipulation,
and culminating with cyberpunk treatments of personality modification via
wetware implants during the 1980s and 1990s. As Seed convincingly demonstrates,
a persistent concern for the limits of subjective autonomy and external control,
rooted in the postwar debates surrounding brainwashing, links 1950s tales of
body-snatching and aliens-among-us with 1960s visions of valiant resistance to
mental regulation (especially by Beat writers such as William Burroughs and Ken
Kesey) and satirical stories of state-sponsored experimental modification (e.g.,
Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange , Thomas M. Disch’s Camp
Concentration ). Science fiction emerges as a privileged corpus in
Seed’s analysis because it pushes anxieties about unwilling deconstructions of
self, especially through technological means, in particularly nightmarish
directions, as the chapter on cyberpunk demonstrates. Alfred Bester’s The
Demolished Man (1953) provides something of a paradigm for postwar
depictions of the concerted breakdown and remolding of identity. At the same
time, sf writers have on occasion been centrally involved in the development of
brainwashing discourses, from Cordwainer Smith’s research for US army
intelligence on methods of Psychological Warfare (title of a 1948 manual
by his alter ego Paul Linebarger) to A.E. Van Vogt’s work as a Dianetics
counselor during the 1950s, helping to "clear" troubling "engrams" programmed
into the subconscious. Van Vogt’s interest in brainwashing was even more overt
than this, since he also authored a 1962 novel about Chinese-Communist mind
control, The Violent Man, which Seed examines insightfully.
Indeed, what is most impressive about this study is the sheer wealth of texts
Seed discusses. These include not merely obvious classics on the topic, such as
Richard Condon’s 1958 novel The Manchurian Candidate and the 1962 film
based upon it, but also important neglected works (e.g., Bernard Wolfe’s
Limbo ), significant cult titles (e.g., the British television program
The Prisoner [1967-1968]), and a host of second- and third-rate efforts
(techno-thrillers, medical melodramas, pop memoirs with titles like I Was
Brainwashed in Peking) that provided the cultural background noise keeping
the theme alive during the postwar decades. Seed’s coverage is virtually
encyclopedic, the result of diligent and wide-ranging research. My only
complaints are that provocative theoretical conjunctures—linking notions of
brainwashing with, for example, Althusser’s theory of interpellation or
Foucault’s Panopticism—are not as developed as they might be, and that the book
lacks a conclusion sorting and synthesizing the various strands of the argument.
All in all, though, this is a wonderfully rich and incisive literary/cultural
study that I can strongly recommend to anyone interested in the literature of
the Cold War period, including relevant works of sf.—RL
Don G. Smith. H.P.
Lovecraft in Popular Culture: The Works and Their Adaptations in Film,
Television, Comics, Music and Games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland,
2006. ix + 173 pp. $32.00 pbk.
Jason Colavito. The
Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture.
Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005. 398 pp. $19.00 pbk.
A few years into the twenty-first century, there is no doubt that H.P.
Lovecraft persists as one of the most prominent figures in horror and sf. Taken
together, these two recent books complement one another in making a case for his
work as a continuing influence in contemporary popular culture.
Beginning with an overview of Lovecraft’s fiction, Smith outlines its
defining characteristics and traces their influence in a variety of
popular-cultural forms. With an extensive range of lively plot synopses and a
selected bibliography to point the reader towards further works, his book serves
as an entertaining and accessible introduction to this most florid of authors.
Moving on from the first chapter, which details the plots and publication
details of the short stories, the author continues with an examination of
Lovecraft’s wider impact on popular weird fiction in the form of the Cthulhu
Mythos. Chapters concerned with the various filmic depictions of Lovecraft’s
work strive to give detailed accounts of all genuinely faithful adaptations as
well as of those films such as Alien (1979) in which his trademark
anti-humanist, cosmic world-view can also be noted. Similarly, the chapter on
television tackles programs directly taken from his fiction and also examines
the Lovecraftian references in more mainstream programming, such as Star
Trek. The later chapters, encompassing such diverse topics as comic
books, music, and role-playing games, serve further to bolster Smith’s portrayal
of Lovecraft as an author whose characters and ideas have become deeply embedded
in popular culture.
By its very nature, this work is narrative and descriptive rather than
critical: it provides summaries rather than offering fresh insights. As a
result, the evaluative ratings assigned to the films appear somewhat arbitrary
and fail to really convince. For scholarly purposes, it would have been helpful
if Smith had been able to include a chapter on critical works. There are, of
course, a range of books, journal articles, and critical pieces that have been
published both on Lovecraft himself and on his fiction over the years. More
extensive inclusion of these works in some fashion, even if simply as a
bibliography, would round the book out as an even more valuable research tool.
Nevertheless, this text clearly achieves the goals laid out in its title by
providing descriptions of Lovecraft’s original fiction and insights into its
continuing legacy for popular culture. When read from cover to cover, it makes
an engaging and informative introduction to a key figure in twentieth-century
horror fiction: Smith’s case for the significance of Lovecraft in this field is
clear, particularly in the final chapter on "The Lovecraft Legacy." Scholars of
the subject may find the book useful chiefly as a fact-filled overview of
Lovecraft’s work. It works best as a reference, useful for checking Lovecraftian
facts and sketching Lovecraftian influences.
By way of contrast, Colavito’s book offers an extensive argument for
Lovecraft as originator of the twentieth-century fascination with
extraterrestrial life-forms. To support this claim, Colavito makes connections
between Lovecraft’s life and a variety of views ranging from a belief in lost
civilizations to the assertion that ancient alien astronauts were responsible
for the genetic engineering of the human race. Colavito does this via
explication of such landmark texts as Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the
Gods? (1973), Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods (1975), and
Räel’s The Message Given by Extra-Terrestrials (1998). Examining the
reasoning and evidence (or, more typically, lack of such) behind their theories,
he explains how they interconnect, the manner in which they came to be
discredited, and how they can be traced back to the fiction of Lovecraft.
The observations about the place for a pseudo-scientific belief in
extraterrestrials in an increasingly-decadent Western world sit nicely with
existing Lovecraft scholarship, perhaps most notably with S.T. Joshi’s work on
Lovecraft’s fears about the decline of Western civilization. In arguing that
modern society is only too ready to embrace the scientifically-unfounded
possibility of aliens having played a significant part in the evolution of
humanity, Colavito points to Lovecraft’s "compelling and terrifying vision of a
society in terminal decay and living on the brink of destruction" (339).
Overall then, these books work well to place Lovecraft in the forefront of
not only popular fiction but also popular culture. The authors show that his
legacy of sf depicting intelligent alien entities and ancient civilizations
continues to fascinate both fans and the wider public, leaving its imprint on
the popular psyche.
—Rebecca Janicker, University of Nottingham
Lisa Yaszek. The Self
Wired: Technology and Subjectivity in Contemporary Narrative.
Literary Criticism and Cultural Theory: Outstanding Dissertations. New York:
Routledge, 2002. vii + 209 pp. $85.00 hc.
Toward the end of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) a great scene occurs.
After Ripley, Newt, Bishop, and Hicks have returned safely to the mothership,
Cameron re-ratchets the tension with the dramatic reappearance of the alien
queen, who promptly severs Bishop in half and goes after Newt. Distracting the
queen and docking into the loading bay, Ripley reemerges, suited up in a garish
yellow fork-lift loader, complete with rotating, head-mounted warning light,
hissing hydraulics, and swivelling fork-lift hands. Up to this point, Ripley has
been, in cyberpunk parlance, all meat—all sweat-soaked, running, gun-toting
body—but here, in the carapace of the loader, she is the
technologically-enhanced figure of the cyborg, who, after she dispatches the
alien queen, earns the patently ironic praise of the incapacitated android,
Bishop: "Not bad, for a human." Ripley in the loader seems, in many respects,
the techno-embodiment of the sublime and grotesque cyborg Donna Haraway
celebrated in her famous "Manifesto for Cyborgs," which was published in
Socialist Review in 1985, the year before Cameron’s film appeared.
Aliens does not feature at all in Lisa Yaszek’s The Self Wired.
This is odd, because Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) does—despite the
fact that those "cyborg" dinosaurs are considerably less convincing examples of
"technologically-mediated subjectivity" (15) than is a character like Ripley.
Yet predictably, Haraway figures large in Yaszek’s book, given that its stated
project is to "contribute to the development of a new narrative genre: ‘cyborg
writing’" (3). Taking Haraway to task for proposing a "cyborg canon" that is
"surprisingly limited" and "fails to extend ... much beyond" such writers as
Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, and Vonda McIntyre, and for "linking cyborg
writing to a select group of authors who began publishing in a relatively
specialized field in a relatively narrow time period (extending only from the
late 1960s to the 1970s)," Yaszek argues that "Haraway seems to re-entrench
conventional narrative boundaries in problematic ways" (15).
Just as the opening of this review might strike some as unnecessarily
retro—there have, after all, been many representations of the cyborg since
1986—so too does Yaszek’s fashioning of a polemic around Haraway’s "surprisingly
limited" cyborg canon strike me as belated. Offering a corrective to Haraway’s
manifesto, which is now twenty years old and was, no doubt, written in the early
1980s when texts "extending only from the late 1960s and 1970s" were pretty well
the only ones available, Yaszek herself chooses only one text from the
1950s—Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952)—and hardly strays from the
"relatively specialized field" of sf. To provide the "foundation for a more
comprehensive cyborg canon" (15), she examines Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of
Lot 49 (1966), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Octavia Butler’s
Kindred (1979), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Neal
Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991),
Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner
What her analysis of Ellison and Pynchon’s novels affords—and neither writer
really participates in the realist genre, even if neither writes sf, strictly
speaking—is an expanded consideration of the postwar emergence of technology,
via the usual technocritic suspects: Marshall McLuhan, Herbert Marcuse, Norbert
Wiener. But this expansiveness, like the establishment of a polemic with Haraway,
is rather unnecessary, given how well tracked that history was throughout the
1990s, with such books as Mark Poster’s The Mode of Information:
Poststructuralism and Social Context (1990) or Andrew Ross’s Strange
Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits (1991).
Despite making large statements about the new cybernetic citizen-subject in the
context of the much-reviled "culture industries" and the "electronic wasteland"
(37) they produced, Yaszek does not generate a very convincing argument for
Invisible Man’s or The Crying of Lot 49’s participation in a more
inclusive cyborg canon, mostly because neither the Invisible Man nor Oedipa Maas
really presents even a proto-cybernetic citizen subject. As if in recognition of
their uneasy position in relation to the other works in The Self Wired,
Yaszek offers a vague disclaimer at the chapter’s end, suggesting that the
Invisible Man and Oedipa Maas "seem to be waiting on the verge of a new
relationship with a new America," waiting to "enact a ‘new (cybernetic)
humanism’" (47); but the parenthesis does not make it so.
Yaszek is on much firmer ground with her subsequent sf chapters and the
question of technologically-mediated subjectivity. Russ’s Jael in The Female
Man is a fairly obvious cyborg identity, who "embodies the form of identity
and agency most appropriate to life in the contemporary high-tech world" (73)
and thus enables the utopic Whileaway to exist. Butler’s Dana in Kindred
is less obvious, but Yaszek fruitfully uses bell hooks’s notion of the
commercially produced black consumer, the black replicant subject, to argue for
Dana’s progression to cyborg subjectivity through a re-encounter with history.
Probably the strongest chapter in The Self Wired focuses on what Yaszek
calls the ‘literally hybrid or cyborg other" (95), whom she conceives smartly
as, above all, a worker. Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy (1984-1988) trilogy,
Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and Cadigan’s Synners offer examples of
Haraway’s figure of the "ironic cyborg," who is "always connected to multiple
narratives of work and identity" (104). Yaszek argues that, as laborers,
Gibson’s Case and Molly are ultimately circumscribed by postindustrial
capitalism, whereas the Rastafarians in Neuromancer and the voodoo
practitioners in Count Zero (1986) offer the possibility of alternative
narratives of work and identity. Although Gibson might "simplify and romanticize
‘blackness’" in order to "suggest subaltern narratives of resistance,"
Stephenson explores "how ‘race’ itself may be commodified in the high-tech era"
(111): Enki, Hiro, Raven, and Enzo are racialized cyborg subjects who, in their
very commodification, are opposed to or coopted by late capitalism. For
Cadigan’s, Gibson’s and Stephenson’s cyborgs are yoked explicitly to
"‘masculine’ grand narratives of technological progress," while the ironic
cyborg subject is connected to "‘feminine’ narratives of everyday history"
(119): the commodified Virtual Mark is superceded by the embodied, female
cyborgs, Gator and Sam, whose labor reorganizes the net to usher in Markt, the
new sentience who "represents the newly revised socioeconomic system ...
indicated by the way that his very name revises the word ‘market’ itself" (125).
From communication technologies, The Self Wired moves, with spotty
results, to consider new reproductive technologies. In the same way that she
could have used Katherine Hayles more fully and earlier on to avoid the
redundancies of retracing technohistory, Yaszek could have used Kathleen
Woodward to arrive much more economically at her readings of Jurassic Park
and Blade Runner. Instead, she wades through Freud’s "oedipal theories"
(131), making no reference to any actual writings by Freud, before arguing that
Scott disrupts the normative oedipal accounts of sexual development; and she
reviews other critics’ examinations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
(1818), before arguing that Spielberg "highlight[s] the excesses of unnatural
reproduction" (137). Although Yaszek is a sensitive reader of Jurassic Park
in particular, there is something a bit off about ascribing, however implicitly,
(cyborg?) subjectivity to the "unnatural female" dinosaurs who "have breached
the security of patriarchal authority" (138). And it is unfortunate that she
chooses the director’s cut of Blade Runner (1992) to speculate, again
rather implicitly, on the subjectivity of the Nexus-6 cyborgs, because, without
Deckard’s voice-over introjection of possible subjectivities for Roy and Pris in
particular—without the tension between their dialogue and his constant need to
attribute his own, putatively normal, human responses to them—there is
considerably less to go on in determining their subject positions. Technology
plays an unquestionably major role in both films and cybernetic types abound,
but the wired self seems rather absent as a crucial component in either film.
Such an absence is odd, given the overall focus of the book on cyborg
Published in Routledge’s Literary Criticism and Cultural Theory: Outstanding
Dissertations series, The Self Wired has the hallmarks of a pretty good
dissertation—a promising subject, fluid and engaging writing, and smart critical
interventions in interesting and timely debates; it also has a rather plodding
review of historical and critical precursors, a somewhat dated polemic, and, I’m
afraid, a poor index and an unfortunate number of typos, with missing, doubled,
or misspelled words. It may be an outstanding dissertation, but The Self
Wired is not an outstanding book.
—Nicola Nixon, Concordia
Centennial Scholarship on Jules
have been remiss in not writing reviews on the many excellent books on/by Jules
Verne published during his centenary in 2005. There has, in fact, been a
veritable flood of them—more than fifty titles in all—first appearing on
the market in late 2004 and continuing into 2006. For a comprehensive listing,
see Norbert Spehner’s "Verne: publications autour d’un centenaire" (Solaris
156 [automne 2005]: 95-102) and his periodic bibliographical bulletin
Marginalia 46 (septembre 2005), 47 (décembre 2005), and 48 (mars 2006). To
receive a free digital copy of the latter, one need only write to him at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
and ask to be added to his mailing list. In this review, I shall identify and
briefly comment on several of these Verne-related works that I consider to be
important additions to the existing scholarship in the field. A more detailed
review of certain titles may be forthcoming in a future issue of SFS.
1. Biographies and biography-related:
Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography. Intro. by Arthur C.
Clarke. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2006. xxxii + 369 pp. $28.00 hc.
Dumas, Olivier, Volker Dehs, and Piero Gondolo della
Riva, eds. Correspondance inédite de Jules et
Michel Verne avec l’éditeur Louis-Jules Hetzel (1886-1914). Tome
I (1886-1896).Geneva: Slatkine, 2004. €44 hc.
Jules Verne. Paris: Perrin, 2005. 562 pp. €24 pbk.
Margot, Jean-Michel, ed.
Jules Verne en son temps. Amiens: Encrage, 2004. 254 pages.
Although, to my mind, no biography can ever be truly "definitive," the two
new biographies on Verne by Butcher (in English) and Dusseau (in French) far
surpass previous efforts—such as those by Jean Jules-Verne (1973) or Herbert
Lottman (1996)—by their accuracy, balance, and familiarity with the latest
discoveries about the personal life of this sometimes secretive author. Both are
highly recommended. Many such secrets pertaining to Verne’s complex relationship
with his publisher and "spiritual father" Pierre-Jules Hetzel have been brought
to light during the past few years by the publication (in three volumes) of
their voluminous correspondence by Dumas, Dehs, and Gondolo della Riva (see my
review in SFS 28.1 [March 2001]: 97-106). The above-listed book by the
same trio of Vernian researchers is the first of two more volumes in this richly
revelatory series that will now reprint all Verne’s correspondence with Hetzel’s
son after the latter took over the business following his father’s death in
1886. The final volume of the series should be especially fascinating: the
letters exchanged between Verne’s son Michel and Hetzel fils throughout
the period when Jules’s posthumous works were being published—works that have
triggered great controversy when found to be as much by Michel’s hand as by his
father’s. Finally, Margot’s book is a wonderful anthology of book and theater
reviews, newspaper stories, magazine articles, entries from literary journals,
short book chapters, and obituaries that were published on Verne in France from
1863—the date of publication of his first novel—to his death in 1905. These many
nineteenth-century témoignages [eyewitness testimonies/evidence] clearly
show to what extent, during his lifetime and among his own countrymen, Verne was
a well-loved celebrity but recognized mostly (and erroneously) as a writer for
children and a prophet of science and technology.
2. Critical studies and monographs:
Boia, Lucian. Jules
Verne: les paradoxes d’un mythe. Paris: Belles Lettres, 2005. 304
pp. €19 pbk.
Jules Verne face au rêve américain. Paris: Houdiard, 2005. 90 pp.
Picot, Jean-Pierre, and Christian Robin, eds.
Jules Verne: cent ans après. Actes du Colloque de Cerisy.
Rennes: Terre de Brume, 2005. 494 pp. €25 pbk.
Jules Verne: Journeys in Writing. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2005.
xi + 242 pp. 50.00 hardcover, 20 paper.
Several important critical studies of Verne were published last year, the
most impressive of which was by Unwin, whose scholarly monograph treating Verne
as a writer "who renews and revitalises the genre" (6) offers a refreshingly
new, text-based approach to understanding Verne’s oeuvre and literary legacy.
Consistently intelligent and insightful, Unwin’s book is a worthy successor to
(and rival of) Daniel Compère’s magisterial Jules Verne, écrivain (1991),
the acknowledged gold standard for this type of analysis of Verne’s style. Picot
and Robin’s hefty volume contains over two dozen scholarly papers that were
presented at the prestigious ten-day conference on Verne at the chateau of
Cerisy-la-Salle on August 2-12, 2004. As with most conference volumes of this
sort, the quality of the contributions is somewhat uneven. Yet collecting
together as it does a broad selection of essays by some of the field’s top
scholars such as Jean Chesneaux, Butcher, Compère, Dumas, Gondolo della Riva,
and Picot and Robin themselves, this book must be considered as one of the more
noteworthy publications of 2005. Boia’s breezily deconstructionist study
investigates the many paradoxes of Verne’s "mythical" life and works—his
conflicted personality (both clown and pedagogue, optimist and pessimist),
ambiguous sexuality (woman-chaser and closet homosexual), contradictory
political views (extreme right and extreme left, idealist and racist), and even
the problematic question of his authorship (Hetzel’s input, Grousset’s
manuscripts, son Michel’s rewrites). Guillaud’s short and concise book also
seeks to explore an apparent paradox: Verne’s simultaneously pro-American and
anti-American attitudes as expressed in his public persona and/versus his
Voyages extraordinaires (a particularly relevant topic today as strained
political relations between France and the USA continue to be fraught with
misunderstanding and knee-jerk ethnocentrism).
3. General reference and large-format, coffee-table books:
Dictionnaire Jules Verne, Paris: Pygmalion, 2005. 1000 pp. €29.90
De la Cotardière, Philippe, and Jean-Paul Dekiss,
eds. Jules Verne: de la science à l’imaginaire.
Preface Michel Serres. Paris: Larousse, 2004. 192 pp. €35 hc.
Mellot, Philippe, and Jean-Marie Embs.
Le Guide Jules Verne. Paris: Ed. de
l’Amateur, 2005. 320 pp. €38 pbk.
Jules Verne: un univers fabuleux. Lausanne: Favre, 2004. 320 pp.
Centennial celebrations tend to generate "guide" books on the commemorated
subject as well as a host of handsome "souvenir" coffee-table books. The Verne
fête of 2005 was no exception to this rule. The very best of the former include
Angelier’s Dictionnaire and Mellot/Embs’s Guide; the very best of
the latter—published in oversized (9½" x 11½") format and magnificently
illustrated—are the Weissenberg and Cotardière/Dekiss. All four closely resemble
encyclopedias of Verniana with their overviews of biographical and
bibliographical information, detailed inventories of Verne’s fictional
characters and plot locales, descriptive discussions of the dominant themes in
his works (travel, food, cannibalism, race, volcanoes, colonialism, electricity,
etc.), listings of the film and TV adaptations of his novels, reproductions of
Hetzel’s advertising posters and the famous red/gold covers of the octavo luxury
editions, etc. Of the four, the Weissenberg stands out as the most authoritative
and has the additional advantage of offering the most in-depth coverage of
Verne’s love life (pre-marital, marital, and extra-marital) that I have read
4. Special issues of scholarly journals:
Europe #909-910 (janvier-février
2005). "Jules Verne." 384 pp. €20.
IRIS 28 (2005). "Jules Verne entre Science et Mythe." 260 pp. €15.
Revue Jules Verne #19-20 (septembre
2005). "Mondial Jules Verne." 240 pp. €8 .
SFS 32.1 #95 (March 2005). "A Jules Verne Centenary." 224 pp. $5.00.
In the periodical scholarship sector, 2005 witnessed a number of special
issues devoted to Jules Verne. In addition to the one published in March by
SFS, the eminent French literary/arts journal Europe (which had
earlier produced special issues on Verne in 1955 and 1978, celebrating the 50th
anniversary of the author’s death and the 150th anniversary of his birth,
respectively) contributed yet another containing nearly two dozen analytical
essays by the most respected French scholars in Verne studies—Robin, Picot,
Chesneaux, Butcher, Marc Soriano, Roger Bozzetto, Robert Pourvoyeur, Dumas,
Gondolo della Riva, Volker Dehs, Weissenberg, Guillaud, et al. The Revue
Jules Verne (funded by the Centre International Jules Verne in Amiens and
the Bibliothèque municipale and Centre d’études verniennes in Nantes) published
a special double-issue covering the "Mondial Jules Verne," an international
conference and celebration held in Amiens on March 20-24, 2005. It includes
papers presented there by several members the North American Jules Verne Society
such as Jean-Michel Margot, Andrew Nash, Terry Harpold, Peter Schulman, Norman
Wolcott, Brian Taves, and others. Finally, the academic journal IRIS
(sponsored by the University of Grenoble) published a special issue that
features essays on Verne by veteran French experts such as Picot, Margot, and
Simone Vierne and also a variety of other international scholars such as Harpold
(USA), Ian Thompson (Scotland), Boia (Romania), Dimitri Roboly (Greece), and
Gianni Crippa (Italy).
5. New Verne translations and critical editions:
(published in 2005)
Jules Verne. The
Adventures of Captain Hatteras. Trans. and ed. William Butcher.
New York: Oxford UP, 2005. xliii + 402 pp. $15.95 pbk.
Jules Verne. The
Begum’s Millions. Trans. Stanford L. Luce. Ed. Arthur B. Evans.
Introduction and notes Peter Schulman. Wesleyan Early Classics of Science
Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2005. xxxix + 262 pp. $29.95 hc.
Jules Verne. The
Mighty Orinoco. Trans. Stanford L. Luce. Ed. Arthur B. Evans
Introduction and notes Walter James Miller. Wesleyan Early Classics of Science
Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2005. xvii + 426 pp. $19.95 pbk.
Underground City. Trans. Sarah Crozier. Foreword by Ian Thompson.
Edinburgh: Luath P, 2005. xvii + 220 pp. 13.95 pbk.
(published in 2006 or after)
The Kip Brothers. Trans. Stanford L. Luce. Ed. Arthur B.
Evans. Introduction and notes Jean-Michel Margot. Wesleyan Early Classics of
Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP (forthcoming 2007).
The Lighthouse at the End of the World. Bison Frontiers of
Imagination. Trans. and ed. William Butcher. Lincoln, NE: U Nebraska P
Jules Verne. Mathias
Sandorf. Trans. Edward Brumgnach. Ed. Arthur B. Evans.
Introduction and notes Timothy Unwin. Wesleyan Early Classics of Science
Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP (forthcoming 2008 or 2009).
The Meteor Hunt. Bison Frontiers of Imagination. Trans. and ed.
Frederick Paul Walter and Walter James Miller. Lincoln, NE: U Nebraska P, 2006.
Jules Verne. The
Secret of Wilhelm Storitz. Bison Frontiers of Imagination. Trans.
and ed. Peter Schulman. Lincoln, NE: U Nebraska P (forthcoming 2008).
Jules Verne. Travel
Scholarships. Trans. and notes
Terisita Hernández. Ed. and introduction Arthur B. Evans. Wesleyan Early
Classics of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP (forthcoming 2008).
Lastly, brief mention should be made of the growing number of new English
translations and critical editions of Verne’s works that were published during
2005 or are scheduled to be published over the next few years. Much credit
should be given to Oxford UP, Wesleyan UP, and the U Nebraska P for their
pioneering efforts to provide accurate modern translations of Verne’s texts in
affordable, scholarly editions. These new editions are helping to restore
Verne’s reputation in the Anglophone world and constitute an important milestone
in the recent "Verne renaissance" in contemporary literary studies.—ABE