BOOKS IN REVIEW
Lawrence Davis and Peter Stillman, eds. The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005. xxvii + 324 pp. $70 hc; $24 pbk.
Matthew Beaumont, Utopia Ltd.: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870-1900. Historical Materialism 7. Boston: Brill, 2005. x + 214 pp. $76 hc.
William Morris and Ursula Le Guin are separated by a century, yet they have many attributes in common. Both are interested in the fantastic and the political, in practical work in the world as well as in the creation of aesthetic artifacts. Both also gained great renown as creators of searching and sophisticated utopian visions. It is this aspect that is highlighted by Beaumont’s monograph on Morris and by the collection on Le Guin edited by Davis, a British academic who has taught in Ireland, and Stillman, a Vassar political scientist. The Davis/Stillman anthology on Le Guin’s 1974 utopian novel The Dispossessed consists largely of contributions by political scientists, with a good sampling by literature scholars as well. One might wonder, as Le Guin says herself in the afterword, if the essays might be more about the idea of the book than the book itself. But in fact Le Guin is pleasantly surprised by the way the collection avoids “the reduction of fiction to ideas” (305) and the collection’s sixteen essays engage with The Dispossessed as an sf text, not just as a blueprint for an optimal society.
The Dispossessed is an unusual book that does not fit comfortably within its presumed utopian genre. The key to this odd placement, perhaps, is a point Le Guin made in a 1975 lecture, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,” quoted by Davis and Stillman in their introduction. Here, Le Guin reveals that she started the process of writing the novel by first conceiving of Shevek, the scientist-protagonist of The Dispossessed. Le Guin only then placed Shevek in the utopian milieu of Anarres, which she formulated to give him an appropriate background. One way to read The Dispossessed is to see it as a fictive version of “an autobiography of a scientist,” a book that gives the human and social side of somebody whose fame comes from his pioneering of abstract concepts. Le Guin’s intentions with respect to Anarres are not to push it as a totalizing solution to humanity’s ills, but rather to raise questions attendant on telling an individual story of a “compelling imaginary character” (xxiv) who would be unusual in any society. As Terry Burns points out, because Shevek is a scientist, The Dispossessed does not celebrate an “ethical relativist” (208) viewpoint that functions by deconstructing science in the sort of wishy-washy postmodern way the Sokal hoax intended to expose. Shevek, instead, reminds us of scientists such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Richard Feynman, and Stephen Hawking. These are thinkers whose humanity and intellectual achievement make their images meaningful to a broad community. It is interesting that Le Guin’s protagonists in her novels of the 1970s tend to be cerebral, volitional males—Ged in the first three Earthsea books (1968-1972), Shevek, even the far less gender-specific Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and the dreamier George Orr in The Lathe of Heaven (1971).
Le Guin’s more woman-centered later work may seem to position these male protagonists as residual effects of a masculinist sf genre ideology that feminism had not at that point entirely jettisoned. (Le Guin has said as much with regard to Tolkien’s influence on the initial Earthsea trilogy.) Le Guin’s 1970s male protagonists function in these books in very pluralistic ways. They dispel potential authorial certainties even as they find complexities in their own worlds that ironize their sometimes overweening intellectual and attitudinal self-confidence. In other words, Le Guin’s novels of the late 1960s and 1970s maintain a critical poise and cannot be absorbed into a monologic or rigidly gendered posture.
Several contributors argue that, since Le Guin never totally invests herself in Anarres in a polemical way, her utopia is invulnerable to critiques mounted by thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott and Isaiah Berlin, who worry that utopias “deny the possibility of compromise” (268). Claire P. Curtis, in one of the volume’s most interesting essays, says that Anarres is “a work in progress” (269) that “cannot rest on its laurels and claim to achieve perfection” (269). Importantly, Le Guin’s ideological base for Anarres is anarchism, not communism with what Douglas Spencer calls its “sterile and intolerant utilitarianism” (102). Some contributors’ political pulse seems less acute. Winter Elliott speaks of the people who walk away from Omelas, the city that builds the illusion of a perfect society on the foundation of a profound wrong in Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (1973), as serving “to perpetuate Omelas’ evil” (160). Most readers, though, would say they are exercising a kind of nonviolent resistance to the inequality of the society they leave. This behavior echoes the credo of Odo, the founder of Anarres. Odo propagated her thought in circular rather than linear terms, molecular rather than atomic conceptions, favoring indirect over direct action. As many contributors indicate, Le Guin’s novel is as much a critical examination of the capitalist utopia represented on Urras as a friendly probing of the anarchist utopia to be found on Anarres.
Despite Le Guin’s strong association with feminism, gender issues are given little mention in the essays. The words “feminism” and “women” are even absent from the index. This may be because so many of the contributors are political scientists, by disciplinary inclination interested in questions of general social organization that do not foreground gender dynamics. Yet Le Guin’s deployment of gender issues in The Dispossessed is intriguing. This is especially so in parallel to her contemporary, Samuel R. Delany, Jr. Only one essay mentions Delany’s Triton (1976; now reissued as Trouble on Triton). Triton, though, crucially references Le Guin with its subtitle “an ambiguous heterotopia,” as opposed to Le Guin’s “ambiguous utopia.” Just because Delany explicitly echoed Foucault, that does not mean that his cultural vision is inherently more radical or sophisticated than Le Guin’s. Yet Triton is still, if not necessarily a better novel than The Dispossessed (certainly, it is a less teachable novel), a more radical science fiction novel. Triton is more radical than The Dispossessed formally, even if, as the stimulating essays in the Davis/Stillman book show, The Dispossessed can more than keep pace with Triton in philosophical terms.
Indeed, the editors’ greatest achievement is to show that Le Guin is a philosophical novelist, and they see her fiction as a kind of philosophical anthropology. The novel reveals such a rich and multifarious vision of what society could be like and how people could manifest themselves within it that it can yield the complex and rewarding analyses to be found in the book. Beyond this, Le Guin is also a dedicated member of the sf community and her sf tropes are not just window-dressing. Bülent Somay, for instance, examines the novel’s setting within the Ekumen universe—where the Hainish settle a number of planets including Earth, but in which Earth is not the most powerful or normative planet. The Hainish universe manifests a pluralism such that Shevek can open up the field of contestation by “giving away his theory to everybody who inhabits this universe without discrimination” (243)—what in today’s high-tech world would be called an “open source” outlook.
The 1970s saw a proliferation of utopian novels, but they were few compared to those produced a century earlier. Beaumont, who teaches at University College, London, writes a critical study of the heyday of utopian fiction in English. Slightly amending the trajectory proposed by Darko Suvin, Beaumont describes this heyday as existing between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and World War I. The first of these wars ended the era of liberal triumph founded upon the suppression of the 1848 revolutions and signaled “a fault-line that would finally reconfigure the global balance of power” (15) and the “outbreak of global conflict” (13) in 1914 that “dramatically interrupted” (13) social development. Although the Englishman William Morris and the American Edward Bellamy are the central figures in Beaumont’s study, more “mainstream” figures such as the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen and the South African Olive Schreiner supplement the concentration on these overtly utopian writers. In his first chapter Beaumont argues that utopian fiction, which seems on one level to have come out of a belief in steady social progress, is actually a signal of anxiety about the slowing of liberal teleology. Utopia serves as a kind of futuristic insurance against the collapse of Victorian ideas of progress. In his second chapter, Beaumont looks specifically at state socialism, the form of future government often proposed by that era’s utopias. He inquires why in so many texts this socialism is “stillborn” (38). Many utopias offer a vision that is both “a stimulant and a tranquillizer” (60), serving simply to see the utopian future as an only moderately amended capitalist present. But Morris proposed a “utopian praxis” (83) that is sufficiently different from bourgeois capitalism to inspire people rather than just serve as an entertaining but ultimately illusory anodyne.
Beaumont’s third chapter focuses on feminism. It examines now-canonical New Woman writers such as George Egerton as well as still little-known figures such as Florence Dixie and Miles L’Estrange, and works that offer “a feminist epistemology of the future” (113). Against the arguments of Nan Bowman Albinski that feminism used utopias to inspire an agenda as yet unachieved, Beaumont argues that the frustration with respect to feminist achievement actually furnishes ground for utopia. The fourth chapter, on the “cacotopia” or anti-utopia, focuses on the fears instigated by the Paris Commune of 1871, which made even liberal thinkers frightened of social change. Beaumont returns to Morris in his fifth and final chapter, arguing that Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890) reveals a utopian present that allows for a counterfactual view of the contemporary rather than a compensatory projection into the future. Morris renounces what Beaumont, in his brief conclusion, calls “universal fiat” (196) in transfiguring the flawed present into a future utopia. Morris thus jump-starts utopian formations that can defy the clichés of the utopian genre. Almost in what Le Guin might term an “Odonian” way, Morris’s proposals canvass far more actual change by indirect means than the pyrotechnics of conventional utopia can possibly occasion.
Beaumont has written a compelling yet somewhat frustrating book. A brilliant excursus on Edwin Abbott's Flatland (1884), a truly original way to read this work, is far too abbreviated. Conversely, the consideration of the New Woman in fin-de-siècle fiction is overly long. Beaumont also disappointingly converges on Old Leftist shibboleths in its seeming conviction that anything feminist, anything that foregrounds women’s agency in a way that even momentarily brackets other social agencies based on class rather than gender, is inherently deflective with regard to the overall social struggle. But Beaumont’s book is nonetheless important, not only in its material account of the late nineteenth century, but in its historical background to contemporary radical fantasy and sf. The entire problematic of Beaumont’s work is reminiscent of that mooted in the ongoing fictional and political project of China Miéville. The word “cacotopic,” although, as Beaumont points out, used by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, echoes the Cacotopic Stain in Miéville's Iron Council (2004). Furthermore, Miéville himself has contributed a book to the series in which Beaumont’s book is published, and he is on the series’ advisory board. This provides an important hint of linkage between past and present. As in Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day (2006), there is a sense that the social situation of the late nineteenth century is eerily doubled with our own, and that our own sense of social unease amidst the seeming “end of history” is augured or mirrored in the canny speculations of the later Victorians. That both News From Nowhere and Iron Council are wrestling with the same issue of how a thoroughly glimpsed future can transfigure an incomplete present is, on one level, disappointing. But it is also, as Beaumont shows, potentially liberating.
—Nicholas Birns, Eugene Lang College, the New School
Amy A. Doughty. Folktales Retold: A Critical Overview of Stories Updated for Children. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006. xiii + 205 pp. $35 pbk.
At a conference of the Children’s Literature Association, the eminent scholar Perry Nodelman once told me that the most effective way to teach reading to delayed readers was through the use of story. By this he meant that teaching folktales helps children comprehend by offering them an easier grasp of story structure. Because folktales have been retold so many times, they have become linguistically concentrated and in their simplest forms represent the bare bones of story. For this reason folktales have become an important part of the curriculum in elementary and remedial reading classrooms. Sales of colorfully illustrated folktales flourish at teachers’ conferences. Despite their transition from word of mouth to print, however, they have not become static. Folktales are a dynamic genre that continues to evolve. Amie A. Doughty’s book Folktales Retold: A Critical Overview of Stories Updated for Children provides an excellent guide for teachers to the process of folktale revision, redaction, and modernization.
Although her understanding of folktales mirrors that of other scholars such as Jane Yolen (Touch Magic, 1981), Marina Warner (From the Beast to the Blonde, 1994) and Jack Zipes (Fairytale as Myth, 1994), Doughty is not so much a theorist as an explicator, someone who is able to amass and categorize a large number of currently in-print folktales and demonstrate how they have changed to reflect contemporary ethics and attitudes. Although some folklorists such as Alan Dundes have argued that printing has reduced fairytales to “a pale and inadequate reflection of what was originally an oral performance complete with raconteur and audience,” it is Doughty’s major supposition that the innumerable versions and revisions indicate a dynamic flexibility rather than an “inadequate reflection” (10). She goes on to explain that when folktales are altered to reflect modern sensibilities, correcting perceived plot holes or making weak characters stronger, the alterations show how written folktales still reflect the oral tradition, with “new authors bringing to their own cultures new versions ... that may better speak to them than the traditional folktales do” (13). Furthermore, the presence of excellent art by brilliant illustrators such as David Wiesner, Steven Kellogg, and Eugene Trivizas adds a dimension not available to the original storytellers. The book, which includes notes, bibliography, and index, is divided into chapters that reflect outstanding characteristics such as humor, cultural and regional revisions, transgressions, and feminist and postmodern versions, as well as longer narratives, films, and adult retellings.
Picture books for children have contributed much to the contemporary popularity of folktale revisions. Their colorful illustrations effectively enhance and develop the narrative. Many of these, especially those with humorous and postmodernist sensibility, have become popular with adults as well, making them best-sellers for such writers and illustrators as Jon Sciezka and Lane Smith (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, 1999). Doughty analyzes humorous revisions using Julie Anne Peters’s eight characteristics of children’s humor: surprise, exaggeration, word play, role reversal, nonsense, slapstick, satire, and adolescent angst (15). What becomes clear, however, is that these books have become successful through their metatextual transgressions. The back story is so well known to readers that it need not be told, only indicated. In many of these texts there is a delicious Roald-Dahl-like violence and a usually temporary glorying in bad behavior until errant characters eventually meet their comeuppance. For instance, Sciezka’s Big Bad Wolf urges the reader to think of the apparently dead pig brother as merely “a perfectly good ham dinner” (85). At the end of the book it is revealed, however, that Wolf is telling his tale through the bars of the “Pig Pen,”—short, of course, for penitentiary.
Flexibility is part of what has made folktales such a dynamic genre. Tales that have been moved and reshaped to reflect various regions and cultures allow children to explore new worlds while the stories still impart cultural morals and values (42, 51). This is possible, as Jack Zipes argues, because the original tales lack “geographic specificity,” giving them a sense of utopian “timelessness” (37). Stories that readers know well can be interrogated and retold, reflecting postmodern insights. Not only can characters become actors, stepping out of their roles to speak to the reader, but there can also be a metafictional mixing of tales, an assumption in the style of Into the Woods (1989) that there is a place in Story where character archetypes interact on a regular basis. The messages themselves can be adjusted to reflect healthier contemporary attitudes toward sex roles. Sometimes, as in Jane Yolen’s feminist redaction, Sleeping Ugly (1997), the author can become a character, stepping away from the story line to express metacognitive dissatisfaction with traditional tales where girls are rewarded primarily for beauty and passivity. Sometimes, as in literary tales such as Robert Munsch’s Paper Bag Princess (1992), fairy tale traditions and tropes can be borrowed and reversed. Longer narratives such as Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter (1998) can explore how storytelling causes stories to evolve through time (102). Film versions such as A Cinderella Story (2004) can be set in contemporary America where main characters meet in on-line chat rooms. In darker adult versions such as Sheri S. Tepper’s science-fictional Beauty (1993), main character motivations can become complex and possibly evil.
Earlier reviews have criticized Folktales Retold for lacking scholarly rigor. From the viewpoint of the teacher or librarian for whom this book is intended, however, this may be criticizing a tractor for not being a stethoscope. Folktales Retold is enjoyable, interesting, and adequately grounded in theory. For such a slim vehicle, it hauls a heavy load of tales. Furthermore, Doughty has a knack for synopsis, choosing details that reveal the actual depth and complexity of these deceptively simple stories. It becomes obvious, despite manifold retellings, how the power of Story remains
.—Sandra J. Lindow,University of Wisconsin-Stout
Thoughts Were Busy Hatchin’.
Christopher Frayling. Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and Cinema. London: Reaktion, 2005. 239 pp. £19.95 hc. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2005. $35 hc.
In The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy and her companions return from defeating the Wicked Witch of the West to collect their rewards, but instead of courage the Lion is given a medal, instead of a heart the Tin Woodman receives a testimonial in the form of a heart-shaped clock, and instead of a brain the Scarecrow gets a diploma. Delighted at this evidence of his intellect, he declares that “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. Oh joy, rapture, I’ve got a brain!”—a conclusion Pythagoras would dispute.
Christopher Frayling uses this moment—in which the film’s lyricist Yip Harburg diverged from the novel, handing out symbols and scientific-sounding gobbledygook so as to emphasize that our lives are “the images of things rather than the things themselves” (qtd 10)—to open up the gulf that exists between popular representations of science and scientists and the reality of scientific institutions and praxis. His opening chapter details Margaret Mead’s 1957 survey of 35,000 US high school children’s images of scientists (she asked them to complete the sentence “when I think about a scientist, I think of …”) and David Wade Chambers’s 1983 “Draw-a-Scientist” test, administered to nearly 5,000 Canadian five-to-eleven year-olds. The findings of both are relatively unsurprising: white coats, books, and lab equipment provide the visual paraphernalia, regardless of whether the scientist—he was always male—is careful and dedicated, aiming to improve our lot, or dangerously cerebral and asocial. Frayling examines this gulf in relation to Einstein, whose iconic wild hair of the 1940s and 1950s was retrofitted onto the rather more dapper young scientist who devised the special theory of relativity, and whose image was Americanized in the postwar period. In the late 1940s, Byron Haskin bluescreened Einstein and his wife riding a horse-drawn buggy down the main street of a small American town, turning “a European intellectual into a hand-hewn American pragmatic” (12). (It is worth noting that the closing montage of EPCOT’s “American Adventure” presentation includes Einstein in its tribute to twentieth century Americans, and no one seems to bat an eyelid—or inquire about the omission of Wernher von Braun or Edward Teller.) This imaginary “possession” of a scientist and thus of scientific knowledge is not unique: Voltaire noted that Newton “has very few readers, because it requires great knowledge and sense to understand him. Everybody however talks about him” (qtd 34). Stephen Hawking likewise suggested of his widely-purchased A Brief History of Time (1988) that for many people just owning it gave them “the comfortable feeling that they are in possession of knowledge, without their having to go to the effort of reading it” (qtd 31). Using Faust as an early example—the real Faust “was born around 1480 in a provincial German town, probably took a divinity degree in 1509 and blew himself up some 30 years later while conducting a do-it-yourself experiment in the upper room of a public house” (37)—Frayling argues that the gulf between the realities of science and the public perceptions of science have been widened by media agendas of anxiety.
At this point, having established an interesting framework within which to consider filmic representations of science and scientists, Frayling blows it. The book from this point on is never less than well-researched, accessibly-written, and interesting—parts of chapters four and five are particularly good—but it becomes clear that the author is not quite certain what the purpose of it all is. The organization of material veers between arbitrary and stream-of-consciousness, with some passages reading like cut-and-pasted early drafts of an Economic and Social Science Research Council funding application, attempting to prove to philistine bean-counters that his project will have important social policy implications; and the later chapters seem to randomly catalogue anything that will bring the word-limit into sight.
That said, the book does contain a lot of useful information and analysis. Chapter Two discusses early trick films by Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter, as well as J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein (1818). Chapter Three begins with Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) from Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and discusses other monumentalist sf of the 1920s and 1930s before turning to von Braun and his progeny. At the center of von Braun’s success as a propagandist for a US space program were his three television programs for Walt Disney: Man in Space (1955), Man and the Moon (1955), and Mars and Beyond (1957). The conjunction of von Braun and Disney, like the bluescreened image of Einstein, worked to Americanize the dangerous European intellectual—a process emphasized by the release of the cinema version of Man in Space in a double-bill with Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). The whitewashing of von Braun as apolitical and only a scientist continued with the biopic I Aim at the Stars (1960) and was extended to other German rocket scientists in films such as Operation Crossbow (1965) and Apollo 13 (1995). Dissenting voices included Thomas Pynchon, Tom Lehrer, The Right Stuff (1983), and, of course, Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). At the end of this chapter, Frayling returns more overtly to the gap between image and reality, recounting the familiar story of newly-elected President Reagan expecting to find a Pentagon War Room just like the one Ken Adams designed for Dr. Strangelove. But Frayling is merely stringing together this information with only the vaguest sense of purpose.
Chapter Four begins with an account of the various stage adaptations that helped transform Mary Shelley’s novel into James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and then surveys an array of the mad scientist movies that followed in its wake, including the oft-forgotten Mickey Mouse cartoon The Mad Doctor (1933). Frayling insightfully situates this production cycle alongside another—the biopic—that proved successful in the late 1920s and 1930s. While this cycle started with politicians, statesmen, bankers, and writers, it developed to include scientists in films such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), Young Tom Edison (1940), Edison, the Man (1940), Madame Curie (1943), The Great Moment (1944), and Story of Dr Wassell (1944). These biopics had a rather formulaic structure—the daring, imaginative, selfless scientist, ridiculed and excluded by the establishment, struggles on through repeated failures until, finally, success, the accolades of the establishment, and a romantic union of some sort. As Frayling notes, however, these are the conventions not merely of a certain kind of pulp biography but also, if stripped of the happy ending, of mad scientist films.
Chapter Five charts the postwar transformation of the scientist from a dangerous madman to a powerless cog in government, military, or corporate machinery. In the UK, boffins were represented nostalgically in war films such as The First of the Few (1942) and The Dam Busters (1955), or as looking forward into a future of British technological ingenuity and cutting edge research, as in The Sound Barrier (1952). Perhaps recognizing the absurdity of, for example, Professor Quatermass’s British Rocketry Group in the new postwar order, such characters soon became comical—as with James Bond’s Q—or disappeared completely in favor of Hammer horror films’ approximately Victorian meddlers. Chapter Six offers a quick survey of US sf film since the 1950s, but says little of note other than to draw attention to the decline of the scientist, in favor of the entrepreneur, as villain. The Conclusion is an even more cursory effort, although it does include the results of Frayling’s own “Draw-a-Scientist” experiment with 144 seven-to-eleven year-olds from Bath and North Somerset. While none of the boys drew a female scientist, more than half the girls did—which is an improvement, although it is unclear whether their inspiration lay in shifting gender norms and the erosion of sexist obstacles in scientific education and professions, or in the increasingly common film and television images of the sexualized and sexy scientists, from CSI’s backroom gals to Denise Richards, nuclear physicist.
A study of the filmic representation of science and scientists has long been needed to complement Roslynn D. Haynes’s From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature (1994), but for all the fascinating bits and pieces he brings together, Frayling’s book falls far short. Perhaps, after all, there are some things we are not meant to know.
—Mark Bould, University of the West of England
The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.
Ted Friedman. Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture. New York: New York UP, 2005. x + 275 pp. $22 pbk.
That the computer has become one of the icons of contemporary American culture is hardly debatable. That it is an icon for the science fiction literary community—even less. The ways in which it has insinuated itself into the fabric of the dreams our stuff is made of, to borrow the title of Thomas Disch’s 1998 book, are not so obvious. This is where Ted Friedman’s first book is helpful. Even though only a portion of the material under discussion comes from literary and cinematic sources, including science fiction, Computers in American Culture should still hold interest for many SFS readers. Friedman’s method is somewhat reminiscent of Katherine Hayles’s, although his analyses sometimes lack the depth of those in How We Became Posthuman (1999) or My Mother Was A Computer (2005). While several times he fails to draw arguments to their full conclusion, this comparison, generally meant to be positive, should give some idea of how he treats material.
The full title of the book seems to explain sufficiently its contents, an impression Friedman is quick to dispel in the first sections of the introduction. The study is not so much a comprehensive history of the computer in twentieth-century America as the analysis of certain crucial developments that, Friedman claims, have marked American thinking about computing and computers. He is particularly interested in the “utopian sphere” (5), a realm of computer ideologies underlying their awareness and representation, which he locates at the intersection of post-Marxist examination of utopian dimensions of mass culture and Habermas’s conception of the public sphere. Friedman’s self-acclaimed goal is “to drag cyberculture’s utopian sphere into the light of the public sphere—to draw out the hopes and fears implicit in computer culture’s visions of the future, unravel the rhetoric of technological determinism, and evaluate underlying political ideals and assumptions” (7). Central to the discussion is also what the author calls the dialectic of technological determinism, a dynamic between cyberculture’s belief in the necessity of certain developments (“if a machine can be invented, it will”) and the openness of the visions of the future to come.
The author’s preparation for the task seems to be more than sufficient. Judging by the plethora of references he makes, Friedman has read every article about computers in a number of mainstream magazines published between 1950 and 1985 as well as in a number of more insider-ish publications such as The Whole Earth Review and a variety of personal computing journals. This research is especially manifest in the first section of the book, “Mainframe Culture,” in which the author traces the origins of contemporary cyberculture from Charles Babbage’s belated legacy to the eve of personal computing in the 1970s. The two remaining sections— “The Personal Computer” and “The Interpersonal Computer”—are organized around subsequent periods in American computer history. The individual chapters focus on the usual suspects—the introduction of Apple, dot-com politics, Napster, and open-source communities, among others—and mostly depend on the analysis of a range of texts such as books, films, magazine articles, TV shows, advertisements, and software.
The general theme, the selection of subjects, and the methodological approach make Electric Dreams a very attractive title, even if the overall quality of the discussion is not uniform. As indicated above, the chapters covering the early history of computing are very enlightening, partly because they draw on sources not readily accessible to many readers and involve painstaking browsing of old volumes of magazines. Outside the initial section, “The Rise of the Simulation Game” is probably the single best chapter, in which Friedman, discussing the genre of video games represented by SimCity (1989) or Civilization (1991), traces fascinating connections among simulation games, new world travel narratives, Harawayan cyborg consciousness, and reader-response theory.
Unfortunately, not all chapters demonstrate the same flair and incisiveness. Friedman’s reading of cyberpunk seems to be at least debatable in its complete omission of the intra-sf context, while his reading of Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) as a milestone in the changing representations of cyberspace can hardly be called “close analysis” (13). Similarly, the chapter devoted to Linux and the open-source movement appears somewhat cursory in its reduction of the wealth of discourse to the positions represented by Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman. In general, Friedman seems to be far more thorough and analytical (as opposed to engaging in mere date-checking) in the areas pertaining to the pre-1990s history of computer representations. This is at least partly understandable. The lack of depth in the discussions of post-1990s representations is clearly due to the lack of distance in time from the subject and the astounding diversity of forms cyberculture has taken in the last decade. Both factors make it considerably harder to make balanced evaluations.
The above shortcomings do not in any way compromise the book as a whole. Electric Dreams is a very solid cultural studies offering, smoothly written and largely steering clear of heavy-duty theory, making it an almost ideal candidate for undergraduate courses and as an introduction for newcomers to the field.
—Pawel Frelik, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland
The Opposite of Literature.
Ken Gelder. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. London: Routledge, 2004. 179 pp. $28.95 pbk.
In Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field, Ken Gelder attempts to define popular fiction as a “field,” separate and distinct from literary fiction, whose definitive characteristics are industry and entertainment. “Popular fiction,” Gelder begins, is “best conceived as the opposite of Literature” (and that is Literature, he is quick to note, with a capital “L”) (11). Gelder, in fact, devotes his opening chapter to enumerating how popular fiction should be understood as “not Literature.” First, Literature is crea.ted by Author-Artists; popular fiction by writer-craftsmen. Second, readers of Literature read vertically (“seriously,” slowly, skeptically); popular fiction is read horizontally (for “leisure,” quickly, credulously). Third, Literature eschews commercial success; popular fiction embraces branding.
As the above examples might suggest, the distinctions Gelder draws between Literature and popular fiction amount to little more than stereotypes. This, ultimately, is the book’s most significant shortcoming: Gelder does not offer a substantive explanation of the logics and practices of popular fiction, but rather a shrill insistence that “popular fiction and Literature inhabit different worlds” (159). It therefore follows, he argues, that academics must apply different reading practices and logics in evaluating popular fiction. Criticism of academic practice is not unwelcome, but Gelder’s effort to distance himself from “literary academics” is uncomfortable at best, particularly given that this is an expressly academic book, written expressly for academics. At some level Gelder seems aware that his vaguely accusatory style—literary academics are “outsiders who know very little about popular fiction,” readers of Literature are “politely restrained creatures”—may undermine his project, for he takes pains to insist that he is not “taking a kind of ‘anti-Literature’ position,” nor is he claiming that one field is “any better or worse than the other” (5, 41, 11, 159). When all is said and done, however, there must be a “there” there for the academy to take seriously a critique of its endeavors. And here, there isn’t.
For the sf scholar (or fan, for that matter), Gelder covers little if any new ground. He does devote one third of his second chapter (“Genre: History, Attitudes, Practice”) to sf, but one is unlikely to unpack the logics and practices of anything in eleven pages (and Gelder’s history of the genre is unsurprisingly cursory). The other two genres covered in this second chapter, romance and crime fiction, get similar treatment: short, generic overviews, intermingled with a few superficial observations about the “attitudes” of the genres in question. Gelder concludes the chapter by declaring that “each genre has distinctive cultural and industrial, as well as formal and historical, features” (74). This, while accurately indicating the general drift of the chapter, simultaneously exposes why the chapter does little to advance the notion of popular fiction as a distinct literary field.
Gelder’s third chapter investigates the “processing” of popular fiction—from fanzines to fansites, bookshops to book clubs, and beyond. As with the previous chapter, Gelder alights in a cursory fashion on several unrelated genres. His larger point here? Popular fiction does not need the academy; it has its own apparatus for producing cultural capital, its own, as Gelder puts it, “para-academic activity” (75). All this “processing,” according to Gelder, creates a body of generic knowledge that is absolutely crucial to writers of popular fiction. Gelder has little time for academics who praise the occasional work of popular fiction for “transcending genre.” Generic transcendence, he argues, is inimical to the field of popular fiction and “writers of popular fiction need as much cultural capital as they can get precisely in order not to transcend genre” (92; emphasis in original).
In his own exuberance to embrace non-academic cultural capital, Gelder hastens to cite numerous online sources, pausing only to point out “the oft-derided value of the internet for popular fiction research” (6). Making use of non-traditional source material is one thing, but a reliance on fan sites and writers’ homepages as research material may not be the most defensible stand in academic work (even if popular fiction is a commercial venture that depends on para-academic activity).
SFS warrants mention in the third chapter, though from Gelder’s tenuous perspective, the honor is a dubious one. “Of the [sf] journals,” Gelder writes, “Science Fiction Studies is the one that most enjoys its theoretical associations, with special issues actually devoted to SF academic criticism and contributions from some of the heavyweights of literary theory” (95). Seen from Gelder’s point of view, this is tantamount to accusing the journal of misreading the genre. “Academic studies of SF spend a lot of time reviewing and revising the history of the genre,” he writes, “but they still read the fiction itself both formally (e.g. ‘The Monomyth as Fractal Pattern in Frank Herbert’s Dune Novels’) and in relation to Literature (‘Uses of Madness in Cervantes and Philip K. Dick’), as well as in terms of its social role and cultural politics” (95). According to Gelder, what academic readers of sf should be doing—and apparently only be doing—is taking an “interest in the industrial and commercial aspects of the genre” (95).
The second half of Gelder’s book is devoted to readings of five popular writers: John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, Jackie Collins, and J.R.R. Tolkien. The readings are short, and not the least bit cumulative (that is to say, the readings are entirely independent of one another, and they seem neither to build to something larger nor to demonstrate the validity of Gelder’s loose theoretical underpinnings). That being said, the short readings that conclude the book constitute perhaps the most engaging section.
Taken as a whole, Popular Fiction contains a number of reasonable, albeit superficial, ideas on the nature of popular fiction. Ultimately, however, while many of Gelder’s assertions make intuitive sense, the book fails to deliver on its promise to map out, in any meaningful way, “the logics and practices” of popular fiction.
—Justin St. Clair, University of Iowa
Die Hard Fan.
Sherry Ginn. Our Space, Our Place: Women in the Worlds of Science Fiction Television. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2005. xvi + 178 pp. $31 pbk.
As an experimental psychologist, Sherry Ginn brings a formidable set of skills to bear on the examination of science fiction television and its psychological impact on female viewers. As a science fiction fan, her enthusiasm is truly contagious. For example, after reading Our Space, Our Place, I was compelled to re-watch the episodes of Farscape (1999-2003) I had already seen and eventually to buy the entire DVD set. A female fan of SFTV myself, I found Ginn’s readings enlightening, proactive, and supportive of the female viewer. The sf critic in me, rooted as she is in literary and film theory, however, must point out some problems with Ginn’s text that may make it less than satisfactory for science fiction scholars.
In her preface, Ginn uses the following conditional clause to support her view that science fiction is a beneficial genre for “girls and women”: “If science fiction has been noted for providing a backdrop against which adolescent boys can achieve a sense of masculinity ... it is no less a background for adolescent girls and women to explore their identity and find a space and a place to call their own” (xii). While it is certainly a noble and worthwhile undertaking to locate women’s liberation in sf, Ginn’s use of the umbrella term “science fiction” to make a claim that would later apply to specific SFTV programs must give the sf critic pause, as it ignores the enormous differences in production, target audiences, consumer cultures, and fandom of different science fiction media. Also, since Our Space, Our Place focuses on the quest for identity of female SFTV characters and how these quests may serve as positive models for (female) viewers, a key concern for the feminist sf critic should be Ginn’s assumption that sf narratives that model masculinity for boys also allow girls to have “a room of their own.” While it is true that characters such as Lt. Uhura, the one lonely female protagonist in Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69), inspired the real-life actor Whoopi Goldberg to exceed the expectations of American society for a woman of color, Ginn’s statement needs much more critical discussion than she offers in the slim introductory chapters that follow.
In her first chapter, entitled “Psychology and Women,” Ginn defines her method for exploring the psychological development of female characters in SFTV. After a summary of different psychological perspectives on behavior and mental processes, Ginn chooses psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of adult psychological development as the main model for her analysis (12-15), later noting that a few modifications to Erikson’s theories must be made to take into account the different developmental stages of women and men (153). In other words, Ginn proposes using a theory that explains actual human psychological development to trace the psychological development of fictional characters in television programs without pointing out the very different methods by which real-world and fictional psychologies are produced. Thus, some readers might be put off by Ginn’s “inside the narrative” reading that discusses characters as if they were not the collaborative product of writers, directors, producers, and actors. Others could contend that human psychology cannot explain alien subjectivities (as, for example, Rebecca Riggs argues in a “Behind the Scenes Interview” about the Sebacean character she played in Farscape, Commandant Mele-On Grayza [Farscape, Starburst Edition, 2006, DVD, 4.1]).
Chapter 2, “Women in the Worlds of Science Fiction,” glosses over four types of feminism (liberal, Marxist, radical, and psychological) and provides a brief overview of sf fiction and criticism from Mary Shelley to Pamela Sargent and Marleen S. Barr, again briefly connecting the lessons of feminist sf to those of SFTV (31-32). Ginn follows these theoretical introductions with five chapters on the various female characters of The X-Files (1993-2002), Babylon 5 (1994-98), Farscape, the five Star Trek series (1966-69; 1987-99; 1995-2001; 2001-2005), and Andromeda (2000-05).
The concluding chapter, “Sci Fi Explores Identity,” summarizes the identity development of the female characters discussed in the previous chapters and defines the general messages of the various shows. For instance, while Scully’s story in The X-Files might caution women who were taught by the Women’s Movement that they “could have it all” to be careful about their choices (142-143), the lessons learned from the female characters in Farscape are that people can “overcome their past lives and create new ones for themselves and their loved ones” and that “friends and family are important, even if the family is created by choice and not by blood” (148).
Ultimately, though I enjoyed much of the book, I was somewhat confused about the intended audience for Our Space, Our Place. If one is to be guided by Ginn’s introductory chapters, which assume that the reader has little knowledge of psychology or feminism, and by her interpretive thematic summaries of the television shows, which indicate that her target audience might not watch the shows regularly, one must conclude that Our Space, Our Place is an entry-level book. Yet her chapter analyses of the shows are written assuming the familiarity of the fan. Characters such as “the Lone Gunmen,” “Maldis,” “Crichton-Black” and “Crichton-Green,” or “the Caretaker” are mentioned without previous background or context, so unless the reader has seen a show regularly, she or he may lack clear referents.
Two other problems overshadow Ginn’s arguments. First, Our Space, Our Place covers such an enormous amount of information in a mere 156 pages that some of the analyses are, inevitably, rather general. Ginn acknowledges, for example, that her exploration of the Star Trek franchise cannot be detailed, but she goes ahead anyway (twenty-two pages for five series), leaving the reader with only the most introductory understanding of the series’ female characters. Second, there are problems with the organization. Ginn’s thematic analysis sometimes requires her to backtrack through some series’ timelines, as she does with several episodes of The X-Files when she wants to focus on Scully and Mulder’s professional relationship (41-43). The disorder also applies to entire series. The chapter on Star Trek, for instance, examines the most recent series, Enterprise (2001-05), before Voyager (1995-2001), and the concluding chapter discusses the last of Gene Roddenberry’s projects, the series Andromeda, before his first creation, the Star Trek franchise. While Ginn’s organization is perhaps necessary for the type of analysis she is making, its most severe shortcomings are that it breaks up a series’ development and makes it harder for the reader to follow a character’s progression along with that of the series.
Our Space, Our Place is nevertheless an engaging study by an intelligent psychologist and die-hard sf fan. Followers of the television shows Ginn discusses will find much to like here, particularly if they are women or are interested in women’s issues. Sf scholars will find less to like.
—Ximena Gallardo C.,The City University of New York-LaGuardia
Philosophizing the Matrix (in extremis).
Christopher Grau, ed. Philosophers Explore the Matrix. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. v + 341 pp. $19.95 pbk.
As a superstylized pastiche of sf clichés, motifs, and devices reaching from the post-cyberpunk age back to Frankenstein (1818), the Wachoski bothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003) actively problematizes questions of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, subjectivity, semantics, phenomenology, techno-capitalism, and religion, among others. The films have triggered a critical tsunami, beckoning analysis and commentary from multiple disciplines. To date, over fifteen books have been devoted to the films. Varying in quality and perspective, these include anthologies as well as books by philosophers, cultural and literary theorists, film critics, theologians, and sf writers. This is not to mention the proliferation of books in which the films appear as peripheral sources of study or the scores of short articles and essays that gauge their speculative bulk. The majority of criticism has been written by philosophers (with theologians and Christian moralists in second place), as is the subject of this review, Philosophers Explore the Matrix, a collection of essays concentrating on the first film in the trilogy. According to editor Christopher Grau, The Matrix “succeeds best at merging philosophical issues with cinematic spectacle” (3). While I disagree with this point, thinking The Matrix’s sequels are significantly more resonant texts, Philosophers Explore the Matrix is superior to its counterparts in terms of the quality of its authors’ writing. The themes it addresses, however, have been addressed before in extremis, especially as they manifest in the first film.
Contrary to its title, Philosophers Explore the Matrix doesn’t explore The Matrix, per se, so much as it uses The Matrix as a vehicle to explore philosophy. Grau is explicit about this in his introduction:
What you will find ... are essays that both elucidate the philosophical problems raised by the film and explore possible venues for solving these problems. Some of the chapters are more pedagogical in nature—instructing the reader in the various ways in which The Matrix raises questions that have been tackled throughout history by prominent philosophers. Other contributors use the film as a springboard for discussing their own original philosophical views. (3)
Looking awry (à la Žižek) at The Matrix isn’t necessarily a shortcoming, but some readers may be disappointed to find that here the film functions as facilitator more than focal point. The two dominant figures in the book are Descartes and Plato. Also invoked are Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Berkeley, Nozick, Putnam, Sartre, Wittgenstein and, for the religious, Jesus and Buddha. Topics of discussion are limited, for the most part, to the philosophical subfields of ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics, the latter in particular, which is often examined through dream theory (e.g., Colin McGinn’s “The Matrix of Dreams” and Andy Clark’s “The Twisted Matrix: Dream, Simulation, or Hybrid?”). The effects of technological excess on subjectivity, perception, desire, and the body are explored in little depth except for one essay (Kevin Warwick’s “The Matrix—Our Future?”) that engages the human/machine binary; additionally, several authors employ the “brain-in-a-vat” scenario in order to address some technosocial concerns. Technology dominates the Matrix trilogy’s diegetic and metanarrational universe. The hi-tech dystopia represented by the Wachowskis was created by means of hi-tech filmmaking methods (namely “bullet-time” CGI). The collection’s inattentiveness to technology might seem lax. But again, Philosophers Explore the Matrix is not really about The Matrix, but about philosophy, and the book successfully accomplishes its goal, providing an insightful, provocative entryway into the study of historical philosophy and its contemporary applications.
That said, other books do likewise. For instance, the earliest Matrix anthology, The Matrix and Philosophy (2002), and its successor, (not-so-) cleverly titled More Matrix and Philosophy (2005), both engage ideas raised again in Philosophers Explore the Matrix in addition to discussing other issues. Edited by William Irwin (like Grau, an assistant professor of philosophy at an American university), they measure the roles of ethics, epistemology, religion, and metaphysics in the trilogy as well as exploring such topics as technological selfhood, genre splicing, Marxism, postmodernism, race, technocapitalism, and mediatized violence. Granted, Irwin’s anthologies exhibit an unabashed pop sensibility and are clearly marketed for a wider audience than Grau’s, not to mention being flawed by errors that range from poor grammar and misspellings to larger conceptual problems and superficial analyses. But what about Glenn Yeffeth’s Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in the Matrix (2003), Matt Lawrence’s Like a Splinter for Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy (2004), and Stacy Gillis’s The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded (2006)? To varying degrees, all three contain canny philosophical insights and readings.
In Grau’s defense, Philosophers Explore the Matrix is the only book of its kind that deals exclusively with philosophy and is by far the most suitable text for students and teachers of that discipline. Perhaps its greatest contribution to the Matrix library is its reference material. Each of its fifteen essays culminates with a “Further Reading” section in which authors underscore sources related to their topics. Even more helpful are the appendices at the end of the book, which include excerpts from key philosophical works by Plato (The Republic, circa 350 B.C.), Descartes (Meditations of First Philosophy, 1641), Berkeley (Of the Principles of Human Knowledge, 1710), Nozick (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1974), and Putnam (Reason, Truth, and History, 1981). These excerpts are useful tools, particularly for philosophical newbies. Still, I can’t shake the idea that Philosophers Explore the Matrix is symptomatic of the Matrix trilogy’s fundamental underlying critique of commodification and consumer-capitalist villainy. This critique extends to the films’ credits, as John Shirley points out in an essay in Exploring the Matrix: Visions of the Cyber Present (2003), yet another essay compilation, this one edited by Karen Haber and written entirely by sf authors: “In his commentary on the DVD, one of the special effects men says that the Wachowski Brothers were firm about showing the logos of their financiers, Village Roadshow Pictures, and the corporate monolith, Warner Bros., in their own digital styling, colored sickly green and digitized to mesh with the tone of the [first] film. They wanted to co-opt the logos and thus somehow repudiate the power of these media despots” (53). Curiously, many critical works about the trilogy (including Grau’s) exhibit this same sickly green color on their covers, a tactic that calls attention to the films they study and inevitably subjects them to the critique (of socioeconomics, of technoculture, of corporate power, etc.) made by those films. But in the end, I suppose, what matters is the quality, purpose, and use-value of books written on the Wachowski’s decidedly thought-provoking films. Grau’s specialized book is as good as they come. But how much is too much?
—D. Harlan Wilson, Wright State University-Lake Campus
Something In the Way She Moves.
H. Rider Haggard. She. Ed. Andrew M. Stauffer. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview, 2006. 360 pp. $12.95 pbk.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this new Broadview critical edition of She is that it places the book not only in its historical and ideological context, but in its graphic context as well. H. Rider Haggard’s She originally appeared in serialized and illustrated form in the London weekly periodical, the Graphic (July 1886-January 1887). This edition attempts to recreate that context by reprinting each of She’s fifteen original serial breaks, each “To be continued,” each of the fourteen original illustrations by E.K. Johnson, and by adding other texts from the period. Since She’s afterlife has lasted for 120 years, influencing readers and writers of the fantastic for over a century, it is the additional context with which we should be most concerned.
Editor Andrew M. Stauffer has done yeoman’s work here, collecting and collating a treasure-trove of fascinating interconnected documents. No text exists in a vacuum, but in his evocative and insightful (if overly brief) introduction, Stauffer makes a strong case that She in particular only fully lives and breathes when wrapped in the gauze of its own history, a history that includes the venue in which it was first enshrined. The Graphic printed stories, yes, but also articles and pictorial spreads focused on the interests of the day. Since many of these stories and pictures mined the same terrain She itself excavated, a Victorian reader would have been immersed in a peculiarly recursive process. One can imagine a reader, freshly breathless from finishing one installment, exploring the rest of the weekly, killing time, waiting for the next issue. Or, perhaps even more likely, one imagines the reader taking side trips while reading She, excursions into territory very near the adventure in question, into, say, “Royal Mummies Recently Unbandaged” or “A Visit to the Kimberly Diamond Fields.”
Haggard’s She comes from an age fascinated by new discoveries in archeology, a country obsessed with empire, a hegemony troubled by race and “the woman question.” All these issues inform Haggard’s novel, but Stauffer’s conceit is that they also would have informed Haggard’s original audience before, after, and during their “safari” amongst the leafy pages of the Graphic. In order to immerse a modern readership more fully in this particularly British, particularly Victorian, particularly contextual mindset, Stauffer has provided excerpts from articles and books that illustrate the era’s keen interest in all of these arenas, as well as samples of its contemporary critical reception. Of special interest here are Haggard’s contributions to the discussion of art, archeology, “the new woman,” and his book.
The appendix on “Victorian Archeology” is a wonder, full of exacting descriptions, interviews, first-person accounts of real life discovery—all dark corridors, delirious descents, and dust. The appendix on “Race and Empire” is far less comforting, if no less extraordinary. It is sometimes hard to imagine just how facile, how seductive, how “normal” the face of colonialist, nationalist, racist hubris must have been. These excerpts remind us how to cringe, but they also put She into its appropriate paradigm. Many might use this opportunity to vilify Haggard and his work, but these nuggets, along with Stauffer’s introduction, suggest a more complex reading of race and rule than might otherwise be forthcoming, a reading that makes us question just exactly what we are to make of Queen Victoria and Ayesha, “two white queens who rule dark-skinned natives of the African continent” (20). Similarly, the excerpts related to “The New Woman,” ranging from John Stuart Mill to Olive Schreiner to Haggard himself, suggest that we marvel at She-who-must-be-obeyed, that we see her as more than mere pulp extravagance, as an indeterminate signifier who may at once represent or advocate, nullify or elevate the idea of Woman. Unfortunately, these suggestions are just that, mere suggestions, hints, implications.
As an introduction to Haggard, his time, and his creation—to “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” one of the most influential characters, ever, in the realm of the fantastic—this Broadview edition provides an interesting, loving, and broad-netted trap for the casual explorer, i.e. the typical armchair scholar or undergraduate. As an ostensibly critical text, however, the book could provide much more in the way of extended commentary and multivalent symbol analysis. The rich and thoughtful introduction Stauffer provides only just begins to whet our appetites for his many pregnant observations (the connections he draws between Ayesha and Victoria/Britain, Ayesha and the New Woman, Ayesha and Haggard’s great lost love, Lilith, for example) when suddenly it is done. The contemporaneous materials, too, set the stage for deeper discussion, but without further extended critical studies, modern studies, the discussion is unidirectional, the past speaking to the present alone. It could/should go both ways. One understands the limitations an edition such as this must encounter, but three things would serve to make this text much stronger: a longer, far more expansive and thorough introduction; a sampling of modern scholarship and literary analyses from a variety of theoretical perspectives; and, if possible, a few actual photostats from the Graphic.
As a whole, this critical edition of She conquers a significant portion of the promontory it attempts to scale, even if its greatest strength—incredible specificity of focus—is also its largest if laudable weakness. Stauffer’s telescoping technique takes us across the savanna, to the edge of the jungle, and down among the catacombs of the Cave of Life. Indeed, we see She here, unbound bit by bit from the confines of her misty past, but eventually such resolution makes the blank spaces on “her” map all the more visible. And all the more desired.
—Bryan D. Dietrich, Newman University
Take No Logic.
Gray Kochar-Lindgren, TechnoLogics: Ghosts, the Incalculable, and the Suspension of Animation. The SUNY Series in Postmodern culture. Albany, NY: SUNY UP, 2005. x + 222 pp. $75.50 hc; $24.95 pbk.
You know that you are in trouble when you disagree with the first line of a book’s acknowledgments. The first sentence of Gray Kochar-Lindgren’s all too frequently baffling TechnoLogics is “Writing is an act of gratitude” (ix). Is it? The thank-you letters I owe my Nana would certainly be acts of gratitude, if I ever got around to writing them. And certainly most writing invokes some kind of debt, as inevitably ideas and even phrasing have been shaped by other people. Most of the time we elide this debt, even in the conventional acknowledgement that all errors are the author’s own, as if the people we beg, steal, or borrow from are paragons for accuracy and sense unique in this world. Emmanuel Levinas writes about writing as an act of ingratitude, about how the critic has to betray the author she is parasitic upon: “Gratitude would in fact be the return of the movement to its origin” (“The Trace of the Other,” Deconstruction in Context, ed. Mark Taylor [Chicago: U Chicago P, 1986], 349). The critic is “the one that still has something to say when everything has been said, that can say about the work something else than that work” (Levinas, “Reality and Its Shadow,” Collected Philosophical Papers [Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987], 2).
Kochar-Lindgren, on the other hand, circles back—or completes his line of thought—a couple of hundred pages later to say that “All writing is ghost-writing, ghosts writing to ghosts about ghosts, traces of ash and smoke on the wind” (200). Whooo, scary. But still not convinced—I reckon it is probably that janitor dressed up in a rubber suit. There is that tempting link of medium as in séance with media as in TV, film, newspapers, novels, and so on, and the old story—not retold here—of the recipient of the first phone call being convinced that he was actually hearing spirit voices rather than Bell. But of course that old absent/present paradox was in the late Jacques Derrida’s line of work/thought— with his signature guaranteeing his absence from the scene, or rather guaranteeing that he can be absent.
TechnoLogics is a meditation on the lineage of the posthuman and the breakdown of linear time and space that we allegedly face in these end times. The logic of technology is supposedly “a supplementary appearance of the uncanny” (2)—and I have no idea whether we are here using “supplement” in the Derridean sense of addition and/or replacement, but there is clearly a sense of the irrational at the heart of the rationality claimed here for technology.
Towards the end of the volume, Kochar-Lundgren offers a four-fold mapping of the posthuman: the uncanny wavering between animate and inanimate, real and unreal, and production and reproduction; and how to deal with time in an era of automation (124). Did anyone say “abjection”? Nope, I thought not. There is just a wavering and an uncanniness, the sort of uncanniness that science fiction is so well placed to deal with (although we tend to link it to cognitive estrangement). Indeed, Kochar-Lingren admits as much: “This process appears in a number of recent novels organized for the most part around the genre of cyberpunk, as well as films such as Bladerunner, Alien, Gattica, The Matrix, Minority Reports, and AI” (14, sic). The realization that he can’t spell the titles of three of the films he lists is balanced by the fact that this is their only mention, although he does refer in passing to William Gibson (such as on page 185, where Gibson unexpectedly collides with Gertrude Stein). Did anyone think of Philip K. Dick? Sorry, my mistake. Move along with the line, there is nothing to see.
So if Kochar-Lindgren evades these latter-day films, he instead focuses on readings of “Dr Heidegger’s Experiment” (1837) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Mortal Immortal” (1833) by Mary Shelley (Frankenstein  being too obvious?), “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853) by Herman Melville, and The Glass Bees (1957) by Ernst Jünger. Along the way he also discusses Plato (of whom, more soon), Marx, Freud, and Heidegger. If this risks being precisely the linear history of the posthuman that Kochar-Lingren says is impossible or wishes to evade, then the linearity is disrupted by the tossing of figures such as Baudrillard and Derrida into the mix. These explorations of ideas are carefully shorn of context so that the unfamiliar reader of, say, a quotation from Levinas described by Kochar-Lindgren as being “next in line” (20) and dated 1987 might assume it to be a response to Derrida, when in fact Levinas’s monograph dates from the 1940s. (Or does Kochar-Lindgren’s phrase “next in line” need to be taken as ironic, as the linear is not as straight as it once was?)
His ahistorical post-hoc teleology is that the posthuman is “a product of the research project launched by Plato” (42). Here he is specifically referring to teleportation, but the rhetoric of this ahistory yokes together teleportation, cloning, IVF (in vitro fertilization), genetic engineering, telephones, answerphones, fax machines, and photocopiers. Personally, I am not convinced that teleports and photocopiers are the same thing, unless I missed the episode of Star Trek where Scottie has to sort out a paper jam.
The machinery of reproduction is an expression of “the wish to escape death” (16)—the answerphone tape is an equivalent to filiality then, I would guess.To misquote Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb,” “What will survive of us is textmessages.” Sometimes this immortality offers the horrors of a handful of dust—industrial capitalism, technocapitalism, turns the human into a machine, gives us Bartleby the Borg. There is that old uncanny castration anxiety one more time. Didn’t Haraway argue for the cyborg as a post-gender, non-Oedipal being? Well, there is no mention here; she is not in the bibliography, and the index only covers concepts, not proper names.
After reading this book three times, I’m frankly not much wiser than I was when I started. It veers from the scholarly PoMo learned to the vulgar demotic as if the book is co-written by a poltergeist with Tourette’s. Of course the exciting ideas around the posthuman were kicked around by Plato, but they were also the cultural capital of the Presocratics. And why should these ideas simply be the playground of the sf critics? Others can play, too, and good luck to them. But I kept missing the point.
—Andrew M. Butler, Canterbury Christ Church University
Anthologizing a Century of Feminism.
Justine Larbalestier, ed. Daughters of the Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2006. xix + 397 pp. $24.95 pbk.
Justine Larbalestier had a great idea: to publish an anthology matching feminist short stories with critical essays about them, letting the stories span the decades of the twentieth century (and a little bit of the twenty-first) and the critical approaches acknowledge how feminist criticism has evolved along with the fiction. The result is a collection of short stories full of real treasures from the almost forgotten to the deservedly famous, with no clunkers in the bunch. The criticism, too, is strong, though not as uniformly successful as the stories. This book will bring pleasure to fiction fans while appealing also to scholars; it would also serve well in a classroom that has the luxury of devoting time to the stimulating subject of feminist sf.
Grand as the organizing principle is, the editorial follow-through is not always as meticulous as one might hope for from an editor. The introduction is quite brief and breezy, sometimes carelessly written and never going very deeply into either the process of selection or the resulting commonalities of the stories and essays. Although the introduction announces that the book is “aimed squarely at newcomers to feminist science fiction” (xvi), the varying tones of the individual essays suggest that the editor might have striven for more consistency from the contributors in interpreting this aim: newcomers to sf? to feminist sf? to criticism? to feminist criticism? These problems make the book less appealing to scholars and teachers, since some essays are either too rudimentary for scholars or too advanced for beginning students.
In spite of these caveats, and the editor’s acknowledgment of the inevitability that “many extraordinary, important, brilliant feminist sf stories” must necessarily be omitted (xvii), this is a fine collection of stories, many otherwise unavailable. It includes, in chronological order: Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fate of Poseidonia” (1927), Leslie F. Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola” (1931), Alice Eleanor Jones’s “Created He Them” (1955), Kate Wilhelm’s “No Light in the Window” (1963), Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967), James Tiptree, Jr.’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1972), Lisa Tuttle’s “Wives” (1976), Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” (1987), Octavia Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987), Gwyneth Jones’s “Balinese Dancer” (1997), and Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” (2002). The list itself raises stimulating questions. Why is there a two-decade gap between 1931 and 1955, for instance, and why are there two stories from 1987? Does that say interesting things about the general state of feminism during those times? Why are there no stories, as Larbalestier points out, by Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Samuel R. Delany, Carol Emshwiller, or Judith Merril? Do those omissions suggest that the critics are avoiding writers who have already been over-analyzed, or that other writers deserve more attention? Do they suggest that the feminism of 2006 makes different precursors than the feminism of some previous date? This book need not address such questions but it raises them, which is good, and they are useful questions to consider.
As for the essays, they represent a range of approaches and styles. Jane Donawerth writes about Harris’s story in a somewhat dry but clear style, includes some fabulous illustrations from the story’s original publication in Amazing Stories, makes intriguing points about the story’s exploration of mechanical reproduction; this is the first of several essays to consider the story in the context of its publication. Brian Attebery’s essay on Leslie F. Stone’s story is written to teach, defining terms and suggesting other avenues for the reader to explore while comparing the story’s pulp context to jazz in its collaborative nature and considering postcolonial implications of the story’s “planetary romance scenario” (55). Lisa Yazek, who writes about Alice Eleanor Jones’s story, first discusses “‘diaper’ or ‘housewife heroine’ SF” in women’s magazines (76), placing the story in its 1950s milieu before somewhat belatedly addressing the story itself. Josh Lukin contextualizes Wilhelm’s story in terms of, as his title announces, “Cold War Masculinity,” analyzing how the story connects “a serious critique of gender norms ... to a more general suspicion of authority” (107). Mary E. Popke provides a new-critical close reading of Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” while offering some wonderful quotes from her email correspondence with Zoline, including the following pertinent observation: “I believe that we bonny clever humans have outsmarted ourselves into a massive downward spiral, into the Age of Drastic Simplification as to the loss of species and of human languages and culture” (Zoline qtd. 147).
Wendy Pearson uses Tiptree’s powerful story, “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” that describes “some cargo-cult of the soul. We’re built to dream outward” (Tiptree, 167) to offer an introduction to queer and postcolonial theories as they apply to sf in general and Tiptree’s story in particular. Pearson’s tone is ideal for the collection, since it has plenty to offer both new and experienced readers. Crystal clear, with deceptively simple language as it defines basic terms and discusses Tiptree’s identity, it is nevertheless theoretically wise in its handling of ideas. Pearson believes that “it is precisely the abjection of humanity in the face of the indifferent imperialism of the alien that links the feminist critique of gender to the queer critique of sexuality to the postcolonial critique of the colonized condition” (182). Even the novice to critical theory has been adequately prepared to understand this statement by the unfolding of the essay; the scholar finds much to ponder as well.
While Cathy Hawkins offers illuminating quotations from Lisa Tuttle about her work, Hawkins herself writes in a somewhat static and prolix style, and pitches her essay exclusively to the initiate without offering any perceptions that go beyond the obvious. Joan Haran uses the critical lenses of “Feminist Science Studies and Cyberculture” (249) to examine “Rachel in Love,” and makes the excellent point that “the setting of the story draws on tropes from westerns, romances, coming-of-age stories, and tales of animals finding their own way home,” adding to this generic list “the critical stories told by feminist science scholars” (255).
I said that the essays represent a range of approaches and styles. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the critical essays is the one on Butler’s story by Andrea Hairston, herself a fiction writer and, not irrelevantly, a theater director. The title of her essay is “Octavia Butler—Praise Song to a Prophetic Artist,” and the essay sounds like a sermon, full of rhetorical drama, as it introduces new readers to African-American sf and points out to seasoned ones how Butler’s work can be seen as “meditations on agency and change” (288). Like Pearson’s, Hairston’s essay is accessible and useful at many levels.
One expects clear and sophisticated analysis from Veronica Hollinger’s essay, and one is not disappointed as she discusses Gwyneth Jones’s story in the context of gender studies, queer theory, British politics, and Jones’s own body of works, concluding that “the biological foundations of humanity are not static and sexual difference has its own evolutionary history, just as gender difference has its history in culture” (336). Less successful, though still with plenty to offer, is L. Timmel Duchamp’s somewhat combative and sometimes confusing analysis of Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See,” because it begins by examining how the Tiptree story “The Women Men Don’t See” (1975) would have been mis-interpreted by people unaware of the author’s gender or biography. Once she begins her discussion of how the “experienced feminist reader” such as herself would interpret Fowler’s story (367), the essay becomes much more stimulating as she explores how “Fowler’s nonmimetic treatment of the material allows her to put gender, race, and simian orientalism [she has already explained this rather fabulous hybrid term] at the heart of the story” (373).
Having read all the stories, a real pleasure, and all of the criticism, often pleasurable as well, I was able to see some patterns in the choices that suggest current trends in sf criticism. Most striking for me was that the last six stories in the anthology explore feminism in ways that push not only the gender barrier but the species barrier as well; the present evolution of interest in animal studies (SFS is planning a special issue on the subject) is reflected in this anthology. The first five stories, and the critical essays accompanying them, remind us that each age has its own feminism, that the historical context is crucial in considering how fiction explores the problems of its time, and that many critics are presently more and more concerned with contextualizing sf within the magazines and social milieus where they first appeared.
The quality of the stories and their historical sweep, the quality of the essays and their critical sweep, make this a very attractive anthology. Many of the essayists refer to one another’s arguments, so the sf conversation carries over from the fiction in which authors write back to one another, to the criticism, and that too is attractive. Finally, the physical object itself is very attractive, using for its cover images of women by the artists Ed Emshwiller and Earle Bergey on a background that outlines the constellations. While I wish it had been more aggressively edited so that its parameters were clearer, its introduction more substantive, and its style and format more consistent, Daughters of the Earth is nevertheless a fine anthology for the casual reader, the sf scholar, and the sf teacher.—JG
A Grab Bag Worth Grabbing.
Joe Sanders, ed. The Sandman Papers. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2006. ix + 196 pp. $18.95 pbk.
Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (1988-1996) has been acclaimed by critics and fans alike and was at the forefront of the transformation of the comic-book genre into something literary, respectable, and worthy of academe’s attention. The Sandman Papers is a collection of essays proving that such attention is truly worthwhile. The volume covers a wide variety of readings and is a great addition to any modern academic library. For Sandman fans, it is also a wonderful companion to the comic books themselves.
First, a major complaint—at least, major for me as a former editor and proofreader. For an academic collection, this volume is, plainly put, poorly edited and proofed. This is the kind of thing that readers can get past, but there are a few moments when meaning is obscured or potentially lost altogether due careless editing or proofreading. I lay the blame at the feet of the publisher, but regardless of fault it really pushes my buttons.
We can, as I’ve already stated, get past that, although B. Keith Murphy’s opening paper, “The Origins of The Sandman,” gets the whole thing off to an unfortunate start. The title makes a certain promise, but only a few of the paper’s nineteen pages actually address the origins of the book and its main character. It should have been called “A History of the Gothic in Comics” or “How Vertigo Comics Came into Being,” as Murphy spends an awful lot of time on these topics. Interesting stuff, especially for those interested in the origins of literary comics in general, but not really relevant—the essay could have been written more effectively in perhaps half the space.
To my mind, the collection really begins with the second paper, written by volume editor Joe Sanders, a past SFRA president. “Of Stories and Storytellers in Gaiman and Vess’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’” is a wonderfully insightful examination of a single Sandman story; the essay also manages to explore the questions of why humans tell stories and enjoy hearing them. This is followed by a sensitive treatment of characterization in the Sandman tale “A Game of You.” David Bratman convincingly refutes critics Rachel Pollack and Samuel R. Delany regarding what, precisely, it means for a character to die—and, with that, what makes for real tragedy in fiction.
Immediately thereafter we begin to move from the generally literary or philosophical to the truly academic (in the best sense of the term). Renata Sancken tackles Edward Said’s theory of the Other (from his Orientalism ) in terms of Sandman stories that take place in Asia, and she draws some interesting and profound conclusions. K.A. Laity’s paper takes a hard, Cixous-based feminist look at the Sandman story “The Kindly Ones.” In doing so, she exposes and explores a tension between the portrayals of women in the narrative versus the accompanying images in the comic book. “Illusory Adversaries?” is strong, feminist criticism that will make scholars and fans alike look at the series a little differently.
Joan Gordon’s paper, “Prospero Framed in Neil Gaiman’s The Wake,” culminates the book’s first section (“Episodes & Themes”) with a masterful close reading of this final chapter of The Sandman. Her reading, covering both themes and formal structure (in terms of art and frames), is remarkably in-depth, and shows that The Sandman, at least—if not comics in general—not only stands up to the kinds of analysis used on authors such as Jane Austen or Robert Heinlein, but that Gaiman’s work deserves this careful attention from academia.
The second section, “Larger Contexts,” showcases essays that work more with outside influences. These cover some of the same academic ground addressed in the first half, though definitely from different perspectives. It is at this point that the real value of the entire volume becomes clear. In addition to simply subjecting the comics to analysis or criticism, these essays are—though it hardly seems intentional—in conversation with each other. Laity’s gynocriticism is strong on its own, but it takes on added significance in light of Stacie Hanes and Joe Sanders’s discussion of the role of the Triple Goddess archetype (the maiden, mother, and crone) in “Reinventing the Spiel: Old Stories, New Approaches”; likewise, readings of both papers affect and are affected by the linguistic analysis of Joe Sutliff Sanders’s “Lesbian Language, Queer Imaginings, and Death: The Time of Your Life” (that is a different Joe Sanders). Similarly, Orientalism returns again in “Omnia Mutantur: The Use of Asian Dress in the Appearance of Dream from The Sandman” by Lyra McMullen, and the comparison between this and Sancken’s paper is fascinating. With the several references in the comic series to The Tempest (1611) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595)—not to mention Will Shakespeare’s presence as a character—several essays deal with The Bard’s influence both within and without the world of The Sandman.
Such a conceptual confluence is exciting to experience whether you are a fan, an academic, or both. From close readings to psychological analysis to feminist and postcolonial criticism, The Sandman Papers offers a diverse, thoughtful, and useful set of essays that will challenge and broaden the ways in which we see not only the Sandman comics in particular, but comics, literature, and art in general.
—Bola C. King, University of Northern Iowa