#102 = Volume 34, Part 2 = July
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Race and Money in Comics.
Brown, Jeffrey A. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. Studies in Popular Culture. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001. xv + 247 pp. $18 pbk.
Through six main chapters and occasional reproductions of comic art, Jeffrey A. Brown argues that the emergence of the black-owned comics company Milestone represented a significant change for the better in the ways race, gender, and heroism are portrayed in mainstream superhero comics. Brown uses data from free-form interviews with the founders of Milestone as well as with a number of fans and retailers to sketch the convoluted relationship of text and community in the subculture of comics fandom. The conclusions of Black Superheroes suggest a way of reading culture as economy, with capital marked by knowledge and visible display of that knowledge.
For the most part, this emphasis on cultural readings, particularly as opposed to the theoretical readings Brown pointedly avoids, is refreshing. Brown convincingly argues that comics is an industry with a network of creator, publisher, distributor, retailer, and consumer that is more actively integrated than that of most other cultural industries. As his references to the role of the comics specialty shop demonstrate, there is something unique about this community’s possession of a ubiquitous meeting place, particularly since that place is both the key to the social connections of consumers and the model of comics distribution that began to form roughly thirty years ago. Through this channel, comics fans can access and add to knowledge about the history of comics both as an art form and as an industry. This means that revisionist projects such as Milestone’s can anticipate a readership savvy to the megatext being revised. With this in mind, Brown’s insight that comics are produced in a context where the lines blur between production, distribution, and consumption of comics is an important one.
Elsewhere, his cultural readings make necessary if reluctant reference to theory, as in the final chapter, where Brown makes the point that Milestone’s manly-but-not-too-manly characters can best be understood in comparison with the hypermasculinity of heroes published by such companies as Image Comics. There is good reason for this comparison, considering that both companies formed at almost the same time and with similar connections to the dominant comics companies. Brown explores the unique qualities of Milestone’s financial relationship with DC Comics, only occasionally pointing to comparisons with Image’s finances elsewhere in the book, but in this chapter he uses frequent comparisons with Image’s stock-in-trade: the exaggerated (even in comic book terms) manliness of its most popular heroes. This necessitates a theoretical framework built from bits of Susan Bordo and Klaus Theweleit, expanded by references to thoughts on race and gender articulated by Kobena Mercer and bell hooks. Within this understanding, Brown makes an interesting case for Milestone as a new middle ground where the traditional split between mind and body can be healed in order to produce heroes who undermine the racist terms in which superheroes have been hitherto conceived.
Brown’s avoidance of theory is only a serious problem on the topic of identification. He says repeatedly that he is not interested in questions of identification, but he has to say this repeatedly because, despite his best intentions, he frequently raises exactly those questions. He relates one interview, for the first of many possible examples, in which a white fan informed Brown that reading Milestone comics had led the fan to look at black schoolmates in a new light. Elsewhere, Brown references the media attention given to Milestone because of the black “role models” the company provided to black boys. His chapter on gender and race, too, makes more than implicit appeals to how black boys will respond to these heroes. In his conclusion, he caps this long-term interest in identification by reproducing as evidence of the success of Milestone a photograph of a man at a convention dressed as one of the Milestone heroes. I feel sympathy for Brown—whose background is in anthropology—and his goal of pushing a cultural studies agenda at the expense of critical theory (even though I think it’s a misperception of the two to conceive of them as oppositional); but as Brown frequently discovers, the concept of identification is absolutely unavoidable in this study, and the very theorists he is trying to ignore have produced the most robust readings of identification to date. Thus, when Freud finally surfaces in one brief quotation in the conclusion about fantasy, that token appearance only makes his absence elsewhere more obvious. In this way, the book’s ongoing struggle between critical paradigms of theory and cultural studies is never satisfactorily solved.
The study is, however, nicely situated in a broader context of earlier textual and race scholarship. Brown places an analysis of the conflicts between Milestone and at least one other black-owned publisher in a long history of conflict between separatist and integrationist models of African-American leadership. This context is revealing, and Brown successfully ties the Milestone debate not only to contemporary arguments about race but also to former debates about uplift and memorable pop culture attempts to peddle a black aesthetic to the broadest audience possible. He also manages to create a sense of a cohesive body of comics scholarship despite the youth of the field and its tendency to rush in multiple directions at once. For this reason, the book will be extremely useful to university libraries, as students can use its bibliography to enter into the critical dialogues about these issues.
Although Milestone had fallen on hard times well before this book appeared, if Brown’s text is viewed as an on-the-ground insight into a rare and important moment in history—the formation of a black-owned comics company in a unique partnership with an overwhelmingly white comics juggernaut—it could come to be seen as a vital chapter of comics history. Further, the model of cultural analysis he provides is a useful one to scholars undertaking projects involving fan cultures. The tone of the book is occasionally too enthusiastic and the terminology is frequently undertheorized, but as a whole the project is one that is both uncommon and useful. —Joe Sutliff Sanders, Missouri Southern State University
Martin Kevorkian. Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2006. ix + 204 pp. $17.95 pbk.
It is no secret that race in sf is red hot, considering the number of fiction anthologies on the subject that have been produced in the past seven years. Now the scholarship is beginning to catch fire. In the realm of Afrofuturism, DeWitt Kilgore’s important 2003 study Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space is one of the finest achievements of this new conflagration. He identifies spaceflight as the key component in changing the social and political realities of human society. Essentially, Kilgore’s argument draws upon the intersections of popular-science writing, social history, and science fiction as they have been projected into an idealized human future where race can be imagined positively or at least differently. Sandra Grayson’s 2003 Visions of the Third Millennium: Black Science Fiction Novelists Write the Future offers basic information on already well-known black sf writers and the use of African themes in their work. Jeffrey Allen Tucker’s 2004 A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference concentrates on Delany and mostly on Dhalgren (1975). Single-author studies are necessary, but so are studies broader in scope. Sierra Adare’s 2005 “Indian” Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction: First Nations’ Voices Speak Out provides a new direction regarding race in sf by offering a critique of Native American stereotypes depicted on sf television.
The conflation of race and technology offers another direction for criticism, indicated by the critical anthologies Race in Cyberspace (2000, ed. Kolko, Nakamura, and Rodman) and Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (2001, ed. Alondra Nelson). Technology historian Bruce Sinclair considers the social aspects of technology in his 2004 anthology, Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study. Lisa Nakamura provides us with one way of reading race and technology in relation to the internet in her 2002 study Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Nevertheless, there is much more to say about race and technology and Martin Kevorkian offers a significant addition to the literature.
Kevorkian imagines savvy black computer geeks as natural machines in Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America. These black geeks are non-threatening to whites precisely because they are shackled to the keyboard and, therefore, safely contained. Kevorkian observes, “Behind the impulse for electronic affirmative action, we can see a PC paradox: the goodwill of Political Correctness betrays its unease about race and technology in the realm of the Personal Computer” (2). This is what he identifies as “the color monitoring pattern,” a cultural phenomenon that sees technological work as undesirable and suitable only for minorities, particularly for black men. To Kevorkian, the black male techno geek is a new stereotype at the intersection of race and technology, one that needs to be documented and interpreted as it is represented in American culture, particularly in film, advertising, and literature. He establishes this new black stereotype by outlining the weak and sexless white computer geek on film as the most venerable stereotype for the role, the default position, and by showing how attempts to break this pattern with strong white leading men result in box-office bombs and negative criticism. In other words, a white action star cannot do the work of the computer geek in popular culture. The only feasible alternative is to make the black man the technological expert, and this has become the standard. Kevorkian discerns a fear of technological engagement by white Americans who enlist blacks to deal with the difficulty of computers. These dual fears—of the black male body and the dehumanizing effects of technology—come together in the image of the black male computer adept to cancel out both fears simultaneously. With the pattern made discernible, Kevorkian goes on to analyze attitudes about programming at the keyboard and its menial nature, emphasizing a division between the white heroes and the black techno geeks who work for them.
Using Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) as a literary touchstone, Kevorkian illuminates the intersection of race and technology as depicted in American culture. The black male body is unconsciously raced as a natural machine, invisible to the infotech era from the 1980s to the present. Kevorkian anchors his research by reference to studies such as Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity (1993), N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999), Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks (2003), among many others, before applying his brand of pattern recognition to the junction of race and technology. He carefully documents the development of this pattern across a variety of cultural forms in five chapters. Kevorkian even uses the Turing Test to suggest that computers are black, and that the gap between man and machine is as wide as the gap between white and black.
In the first chapter Kevorkian considers blockbuster action films from Die Hard (1988) and Terminator 2 (1984) to Mission Impossible (1996), critiquing how images of black computer operators are carefully juxtaposed to black computer screens in order to link the black computer expert stereotype with the hardships of computer labor. He is exactly right to assert that this fusion of impulses and the resulting stereotype is most visible where blacks are portrayed as technophiles. In the second chapter, Kevorkian analyzes an uneasy fascination with the power of computers in American techno-thrillers that explore lost worlds, with particular attention to Michael Crichton’s novels and their film adaptations. He first considers the digital divide, how big business has put a black face on it, and how companies are depicting themselves as a civilizing force to the underprivileged by providing them with computers, in an act of cultural imperialism. Kevorkian next discusses how sentimental treatments of race are used to alleviate the technological anxiety in American culture, rearticulating notions of the white man’s burden by joining race and technology to pacify the hinterland, to civilize the savages. Management of difference is achieved through color monitoring.
The first two chapters consider the black computer geek as “a postmodern mutation of the minstrelsy stereotype” and a fantasy about white American technophobias concerning identity (13). Kevorkian shifts to another cultural medium, however, in the third chapter. He explores marketing strategies of the corporate world to display how some American companies make use of race to draw distinctions between white masculinity and technologized blacks through electronic means. This is what he deems the production of the natural machine—blacks performing technological labor. Returning to the medium of film in the fourth chapter, Kevorkian explores anti-corporation narratives in films such as Office Space (1999) and The Matrix (1999), although these works still replicate existing business values concerning race and technology. Technology is still perceived to be demeaning, a kind of slavery, because these narratives construct computer labor as black, with white tech workers appropriating blackness as an identity accessory. Finally, the fifth chapter investigates alternate technological approaches to race taken by writers as diverse as Thomas Pynchon and Walter Mosley, among others. Kevorkian demonstrates how these writers think within the parameters of the black technology box to transform identity and to produce other choices than the racialized technological paranoia of American culture.
The compelling central argument presented in Color Monitors is that whites, as portrayed in American culture, are above technology and its undesirable drudgery as an extension of white privilege. Despite a flattering portrayal of blacks’ innate technological abilities in these cultural productions, they are once again treated as instruments to be made use of by whites. The skillful shifting between cultural registers reflects a deep and stimulating understanding of race and technology. Kevorkian meticulously establishes a fear of electronic presence in American culture, using the work of Hayles and Vivian Sobchack, as well as many others, to indicate how this fear is displaced onto the black male body, another alarming object, as an available other in escapist narratives. The exhaustive footnotes provide excellent points of departure for other scholars interested in this particular intersection. Kevorkian’s assessment of the complexities of the digital divide as it relates to technological access and its perception as a racial issue is well argued. Advertising and the media continually bombard us with a black face as the symbol of this technology gap.
As a survey, Color Monitors broadens our perception of what the fusion of race and technology can and should look like in the academic circles of sf and cultural studies. It does exactly what a survey should do: introduce the reader to the breadth of a new subject in an intelligent fashion and suggest avenues for further research. This is an important book for scholars of race and ethnicity as they relate to technoculture and sf in America. It is every bit as valuable as Kilgore’s excellent Astrofuturism. My only complaint is that Kevorkian’s study is a general survey only, but I eagerly await a companion piece that probes specifics more deeply.—Isiah Lavender, III, University of Central Arkansas
A Constellation of Slave Narratives.
A. Timothy Spaulding. Re-Forming the Past: History, The Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative. Ohio State UP, 2005. x + 148 pp. $39.95 hc.
Slave narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are more than just a recounting of the escape from slavery; they are a powerful means of forming and depicting black identities. The men and women who wrote them did so as an historical testimony, a declaration of freedom and selfhood and a literary product tailored for a mainly white audience. Consequently, the slave-narrative is a complex, hybrid form that provides the foundations of the African-American literary tradition. In Re-Forming the Past: History, The Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative, Timothy Spaulding uses this distinct narrative tradition as a means of bringing together a constellation of very different contemporary novels that all reject narrative realism in their retelling of the slave experience. The texts that Spaulding identifies as contemporary extensions to the slave narrative tradition include postmodern satire, a gothic novel, vampire stories, and science fiction.
The great strength of this critical study is the diversity of texts and authors that Spaulding connects through his articulation of the postmodern, the fantastic, and history. The work of Ishmael Reed is placed beside that of Octavia Butler, and the work of Jewelle Gomez is considered alongside that of Samuel Delany. According to Spaulding, these texts can all be considered postmodern because of the ways in which they question the reliance on objectivity, authenticity, and realism as a means of representing the past.
The texts all use aspects of the fantastic to break the constraints of traditional histories that obscure the dehumanizing effects of slavery through claims of objectivity. In his analysis, Spaulding does not adhere to a specific theory of the fantastic. Instead, his definition of the fantastic is strategic, in order to encompass a wide range of non-mimetic narrative devices. Spaulding argues that these varied non-realist elements invest postmodern slave narratives with political force. He claims that rather than being escapist or contributing to typical postmodernist relativism, fantastic devices such as time slippages, anachronisms, the supernatural, and future extrapolations show the tangible interrelationship among the past, present, and future legacies of slavery.
Spaulding’s conception of history is based on black identity. He states that the complex relationships of past, present, and future are united by a coherent black narrative perspective. The traditional fragmented subject position of postmodernist writing is contested by coherent identities rooted in African-American history that draw on black nationalism and black feminism as sources of political agency.
Politicizing the postmodern is a serious ideological project, but one that involves some sleight of hand and some deft positioning of argument. Occasionally, Spaulding’s articulation of the postmodern, the fantastic, and history slips and there is a feeling that the terms of the argument are being restated without a deepening of their complexity or insightfulness. This repetition is unnecessary in such a short book. For example, Spaulding writes of Beloved (1987), “Morrison fuses form and content, aesthetics and politics, history and fiction, in such a way that we must engage the novel on its own terms and within its own structures” (67). This blurring of oppositions could be applied to many contemporary novels, but what is more interesting are the specific ways in which Morrison does this. In a few places, I would prefer less reliance on the discourse of literary criticism, and more explanation of the rich and diverse language of the fictional texts themselves.
Yet the shifts between strategic conceptions of the fantastic and history means that Re-Forming the Past can put diverse texts side by side and consider them on similar terms. Spaulding successfully links these texts with the African-American literary tradition of slave narratives and uses this tradition as a starting point for analyzing how contemporary texts revisit and expand the parameters of this narrative form.
Chapter One brings together two contrasting novels that use non-linear conventions of time to emphasize the physical connections between the pre-Civil-War South and late-twentieth-century America. In Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), the nineteenth-century protagonist recounts how he escaped from slavery on a jumbo jet. Spaulding notes that while many postmodern texts manipulate temporal perspectives, Flight to Canada is one of the few to contain material anachronisms. Ironic references to watching Lincoln’s assassination on television, fleeing the South in an airplane, and aspiring to own a luxury car link the impulses behind the slave system with the ways in which contemporary America commodifies and consumes African-American cultures. Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) is very different in tone and style, but Spaulding places it alongside Reed’s text because it also complicates linear representations of time in order to make physical connections between the past and present. In Kindred, the main character Dana becomes a tangible anachronism as she slips between the present day and the plantation where her great-grandmother is a slave. Dana’s complicity in her great-grandmother’s rape by a white slave owner means that she must confront the legacy of slavery not only through memories of the past, but also through the ways how ancestral ties manifest themselves on her body. Neither text offers any explanation for these conflations of time. Spaulding argues that far from undermining the credibility of the slave experience, such inexplicable fantastic elements emphasize that the physical and psychological impact of slavery cannot be contained within a single historical moment.
In Chapter Two, Spaulding furthers his argument that the fantastic aspects of postmodern slave narratives are the means of informing the text with wider political and historical consciousness. This chapter examines the ways in which Toni Morrison’s Beloved reforms the stylized and abstract elements of the gothic novel in order to invest the text with historical and political dimensions. Spaulding shows how Morrison shifts the focus from gothic tropes, such as the haunted house and the ghost, to the physical emergence of the past in the present in the form of Beloved’s spirit and the concept of “rememory.” Rather than being psychological representations of repressed memories, Beloved’s ghost and rememory are ambiguous but corporeal signs of the difficulty of representing slavery. Spaulding argues that in Morrison’s text it is not the presence of the supernatural that is horrific; the horror lies in attempts to rationalize and justify systems of slavery.
Throughout Re-Forming the Past, Spaulding asserts that the majority of postmodern slave narratives establish a black subjectivity that draws on black nationalist and black feminist identity politics. This stable subject position opposes the shifting indeterminacy of postmodernism with a distinctly African-American historical authority and agency. In Chapter Three, however, Spaulding analyzes an exception to this convention in Charles Johnson’s work. Both Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990) question the idea of a unified black identity by highlighting the conventional first-person slave narrator as a textual device open to deconstruction. According to Spaulding, Johnson wishes to avoid racial essentialism; hence, his texts show the slave narrator and the slave narrative to be a mix of transcultural influences, as opposed to the product of a distinct African-American tradition. Johnson’s work uses non-mimetic devices to emphasize the ongoing, difficult process of forming transcultural identities, a process engendered by the Atlantic slave trade. For example, in Oxherding Tale, Bannon, the slave-hunting Soulcatcher, reveals his chest, showing a palimpsest of thousands of individuals, all the beings he has killed, moving across his skin. Yet, at the end of Johnson’s two novels, the protagonists seem content to accept a limited identity governed by the racial binary of black and white. Spaulding claims these resolutions undermine Johnson’s advocation of the transcultural process of slavery.
Chapter Four analyzes how Jewelle Gomez and Samuel R. Delany use the popular genres of the vampire tale and science fiction to project the legacy of slavery into the future. Gomez’s and Delany’s texts offer the most radical rejections of realism in order to interrogate the possibility of freedoms that stretch beyond the pull of slavery. The parasitic vampire seems an obvious allegory of the white slave-owning class, but in Gomez’s The Gilda Stories (1991) it is an escaped slave who becomes a vampire. This forces us to refigure the location of violence and evil in the text, much like the realignment of horror in Morrison’s Beloved. Spaulding notes how The Gilda Stories reforms the traditional figure of the vampire, who stands untouched by time, by making the vampire a means of tracing slavery throughout history. Gomez’s vampires resist their marginalized and hunted position by forming communities that cross racial, ethnic, class, and sexual divisions. The novel ends in the year 2050, when widespread disease and famine have led to the capture of vampires for their ability to grant immortality. Despite this resurfacing of slavery, the hybrid communities formed by vampires as a means of survival still endure, enabling a positive view of vampirism as resistance. Unlike the other texts studied by Spaulding, Delany’s Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand (1984) is a narrative of slavery set in an entirely alien, futuristic world. Spaulding argues that Stars in My Pocket establishes connections between the experience of slavery in this estranged world and our own world by using the galactic as a metaphor for the globalized. He compares the difficulty of securing an identity in a postmodern present characterized by alienation and difference with Rat Korga’s struggle to live as a former slave in an alien and fragmented culture.
Re-Forming the Past is useful for students in a number of different fields, including African-American literature, postmodernism, fantasy, magic realism, and science fiction, especially because it encourages them all to make connections outside those fields. From the perspective of sf criticism, Spaulding shows the importance of Butler and Delany within a tradition of African-American writing, as opposed to their familiar position as the figureheads of black sf. This wider, connective approach is valuable, as it is a reminder of how inward looking the sf community can be in its consideration of black sf writers and their work. It is true that there are still relatively few black sf writers, but it is also true that this assertion often leads to an insular assessment of what it is about science fiction that discourages writers of non-white origin. There is a need to look outward to the many writers who are using fantastic and science-fictional tropes, but who, for a variety of reasons, are not explicitly identified with science fiction. Spaulding’s strategic conception of the fantastic as a set of non-realist devices that widen the historical and political dimensions of a text is very useful for showing how the patterns of sf criticism can be re-formed into different constellations.—Michelle Reid, University of Reading
The Long and Winding Road of Argentine SF.
J. Andrew Brown. Test Tube Envy: Science and Power in Argentine Narrative. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2005. 262 pp. $47.50 hc.
When I first picked up Brown’s book I was hoping that his discussion of “the strategies by which Argentine narrative shapes scientific discourse and through which popular science determines narrative from over 150 years of the country’s writing” (inside jacket) would address the intersection of science and narrative in the emergence of sf in that country. While Brown’s book does not deal with sf per se, it does frame the science-power relationship in a way that obliges the author to at least consider, albeit not until the last chapter, how sf fits into the narrative strategies he outlines.
As the title of the book suggests, the principal focus of Test Tube Envy is how, by engaging scientific discourse to suit a particular political, social, or philosophical agenda, Argentine narrative becomes empowered with a cultural legitimacy that it otherwise would not have. Brown clearly states in the introduction that his interest lies more in “the function of science as a discourse of power and control than in its ability to enunciate an objective truth about nature” (19). This should serve as a warning to the reader that not all of the authors Brown has chosen will exude scientific objectivity and that, more often than not, such radically different sciences as phrenology and quantum physics are treated as equally infallible bodies of knowledge. Finally, I am left wondering why the majority of the texts that Brown examines are non-fiction essays, while he gives relatively little attention to fiction. The non-fiction essay is certainly an important genre in the Latin-American literary tradition, as is prose fiction, and often writers work in both. But they are very different genres that require different analytical approaches, and to categorize both under the rubric of “narrative” is misleading.
In his Introduction, Brown borrows extensively from Foucault’s work on the function of power within human culture to set up the point of entry into his thesis that, early on, Argentine writers injected scientific observation and jargon into their texts as a way to establish cultural and political superiority over an adversary within the context of the narrative. Thus, the tension between what Brown describes as “the perceived absence of scientific tradition” (leaving open the possibility that this is a false perception?) and the notion that a scientific presence legitimizes cultural, social, and political discourse, seems to be the main focus of Brown’s study (14). From this dichotomy Brown derives the title of his book—Test Tube Envy—a concept that describes the co-opting of a non-existent power (that is, the Western notion of science and scientific knowledge) by Argentine writers in their struggle to create an authoritative narrative tradition. Brown dedicates much of his book to promoting the neo-colonial idea that science is the maximum expression of truth and the guiding light for Argentine writers, even in his discussions of Borges and Cortázar, two writers whose anti-scientific discourse blazed new paths for Argentine narrative.
Test Tube Envy could be divided into two sections, with the first three chapters comprising the first section and the last four chapters the second. The first section is the more problematic in that Brown’s study of the power relationship between science and Argentine narrative is more speculative than substantiated, although the author has done painstaking research in finding and attempting to connect his sources. In chapter one, “Butting Heads: Phrenology as Weapon in Facundo and Amalia,” the author emphasizes the importance of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific travelogues, as well as phrenology/physiognomy. He uses this emphasis to support his categorization of scientific discourse in early nineteenth-century Argentine narrative as a weapon of postcolonial nation-building via Domingo F. Sarmiento’s lengthy essay Facundo: Civilización y barbarie, Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga (1845), and to a lesser extent, José Mármol’s novel Amalia (1844). Brown argues that Sarmiento’s work is modeled after the writings of “European traveler/scientists who had come and written scientific truth about Latin American nature” and “established a format for further writing about all kinds of reality in Latin America” (30). Brown goes on to make some basic observations about the ability of science to describe absolute truth and capture realities that heretofore had been beyond the grasp of narrative traditions. Brown has some difficulty supporting his discussion of the influence of phrenology/physiognomy on nineteenth-century Argentine literature in the second part of chapter one. He uses such phrases as “Rivadavia here uses Gall in a manner that suggests a familiarity with the theories ” (37); a “ knowledge of phrenology and its prestige could easily have reached Latin American intellectuals not only appearing in Spanish, but through … foreign newspapers and journals as they searched for models” (41); “the connection between phrenology and social dissent as well as its promise of a new understanding of human nature likely acted as important factors in the kinship the romantics felt between phrenology and their philosophy” (43); and “while we should not underestimate the power of physiognomy as a model for Sarmiento’s adopted scientific stance, we must also admit that such a stance is implied and insinuated rather than stated outright” (44; emphases added). This type of observation, upon which the first three chapters are largely based, does little to strengthen the author’s objective.
In chapter two, “A Dandy New Scientist: Lucio V. Mansilla,” Brown turns his discussion of the cultural-ideological narrative paradigm towards the influence of ethnography and ethnology (although he still retains the importance of the travelogue) as a discursive model in what amounts to a justification for xenophobia and racism in Argentine narrative. Brown uses Mansilla’s essay Una excursion a los indios ranqueles (1870) as an example of how science can be turned into a political weapon. Brown’s categorization of “test tube envy” in Argentine narrative rests mostly on the assumption that passing references to science are sufficient enough to privilege the scientist-narrator and empower his work as an artifact of high culture.
Chapter three, “Argentine Naturalism’s Test Tube Anxiety,” consists of a short analysis of the influence of Émile Zola, whose most important contribution, it seems, is the “objective gaze of the experimental scientist” (87) that empowers science by avoiding a moralizing position. Brown asserts, however, that Argentine writers were deliberate in their avoidance of Zola’s scientific socialism, leading to “what one might call ‘test tube anxiety,’ where authors evoke scientific theories and then dilute them with decidedly less scientific language, imagery, and a subjective narrator in order to avoid unwanted ideological implications” (90).
The second section of Test Tube Envy brings us into the twentieth century. The tone of these four chapters is quite different, entering the realm of the metaphysical as the attitude about science evolves from a feeling of objectivity to one of ambivalence in the wake of new technologies. In chapter four, “Test Tube Terror: Science and Society in Roberto Arlt,” Brown examines the intersection of science and narrative in the work of Arlt, whose textual authority was derived from his own work as an inventor as well as the scientific fervor in 1920s Buenos Aires. Brown points out that during this period science became at once a source of wonderment and of evil, setting the backdrop for much of the sf written by Quiroga, Lugones, and Arlt. Rather than focusing on how sf responded to new technological horrors, Brown focuses on Darwinism. He makes the case that the treatment of scientific discourse in Arlt’s novels anticipates a more sophisticated critique of power (108), but then asserts that the intellectual debates of the time point toward a scientific truth that is ultimately self-defeating. Brown seems to be telling us that we will eventually find “a world without an overarching meaning, one reduced to an existential struggle between its members that ultimately results in their literal fall” (115). He falls short of supporting his belief that Argentine authors continue to subscribe to the authority of scientific rhetoric that he describes in the first part of the book, while they break the pattern of dependence on the cultural authority of science.
At first glance, chapter five, “Borges’s Scientific Discipline,” promises to be the most interesting, since Borges has long been considered a precursor to Latin American sf, and the intersection of science, philosophy, and fiction in his work continues to inspire scholarship. Instead, Brown focuses on how Borges uses mathematical probability to discredit the ability of science to predict outcomes with any reasonable certainty. In the collection of essays Discusión (1932), Borges challenges such philosophers as Zeno (of the rabbit and the hare paradox) and Nietzsche (whose work Borges was known to despise, according to Brown) as he demonstrates science’s (in these particular cases, mathematics’s) inability to grasp objective realities. This discourse is best illustrated by three short stories: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940), “El etnógrafo” (The Ethnographer, 1969), and “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941). Each of these texts plays a role in destabilizing scientific objectivity by (mis)leading the reader to an outcome that is not supported by conventional logic or the scientific method. Brown oversimplifies Borges’s manipulation of language, itself a cultural construct that falls short of describing truth, and his discussion becomes convoluted as he tries too hard to make these three stories fit the strategy of science used to critique and discredit science.
In chapter six, “Cortázar’s Quantum Values,” Brown describes what might be considered a science of the absurd as represented by Julio Cortázar’s ridiculing of the scientific authority of quantum physics and attack on Cartesian rationality in his seminal novel Rayuela (1963). Cortázar creates what Brown refers to as “a participatory narrative universe where characters participate in the construction of their narrative reality and the reader is obliged to contribute to the construction of the text” (165). Thus, perspective and reader participation become essential ingredients in Cortázar’s narratives, an idea that Brown supports with a brief discussion of the Copenhagen interpretation, whereby the physical perspective of the observer-reader is thought to shape and even alter reality. Rayuela’s subversive structure allows the reader to choose the order in which the chapters will be read. Brown builds his case for the novel as an attack on cybernetics, an image inspired by Cartesian thought that becomes a metaphor for the exchange of information in Cortázar’s novel. Brown’s discussion of the cybernetic aspects of Cortázar is certainly interesting, but does not suggest continuity with the nineteenth-century writers who sought cultural authority through a dependence on a more structured system of, or approach to, the act of reading. Beginning with Arlt, I would argue that the second half of Test Tube Envy develops a rejection of science as a tool, shifting the authority to the relationship between the author and reader.
Chapter seven, “Test Tube Envy at the Turn of the Century: Convergences and Divergences,” is the most relevant for sf scholarship. Touching briefly on the writers Ricardo Piglia, Ana María Shua, and Angélica Gorodischer, and giving more consideration to Mempo Giardinelli, Brown acknowledges that Argentine science fiction in the late twentieth century appears as a key protagonist in subverting the scientific discourse/cultural power paradigm that he spent the first three chapters building. The author submits that what differentiates the narrative strategy of test tube envy from that of sf is the flow of cultural power, as the science in sf “is used to aid in the suspension of belief rather than an attempt to garner cultural authority for a particular literary position” (192). What began in chapter four as an incipient metaphysical quagmire finally settles on solid ground in the last chapter as Brown points to writers who have openly embraced sf as a mechanism for subverting structures of power: Piglia, who manipulates science-based political authority in response to the institutionalized terror of the recent military dictatorship; Shua, by shunning any dependency on scientific discourse, exploring themes such as gender roles through a narrative based on fantasy; and, in a similar fashion, Gorodischer, who creates futuristic and fantasy worlds that do not depend on scientific discourse for textual authority but rather serve as a springboard for examining racial and social power hierarchies from varied perspectives. Referring to the important study on Hispanic sf by Andrea Bell and Molina Gavilán, Cosmos Latinos (2003), Brown reminds us that the absence of scientific detail and the lack of scientific plausibility stand out as characteristics of Argentine science fiction. I do not agree with Brown, however, when he uses this analysis to reconnect the nineteenth-century strategies of Sarmiento, Marmól, and Mansilla with the politically and socially subversive techniques of Piglia, Shua, and Gorodischer. The three writers in the second group represent, in one way or another, a narrative tradition that has taken control of the scientific discourses they incorporate, leaving behind in the nineteenth century any notion of test tube envy. Brown’s discussion of Mempo Giardinelli, however, is a refreshing change from the general tone of cultural dependency on science that dominates the first part of Test Tube Envy.
Giardinelli’s novel Imposible equilibrio (1995) takes its inspiration from Ilya Prigogine, who won the 1977 Nobel Prize for his work on thermodynamics in non-equilibrium systems. Prigogine’s theories have been used to explain societal change and postmodern reality (201). Giardinelli reflects on principles inspired by Prigogine as a way to describe a postmodern conception of reality where order emerges unexpectedly from chaos. While I thought that Brown might try to relate Prigogine to Darwin, I was pleasantly surprised by his focus on Prigogine’s concepts of bifurcation and unpredictability. The meta-literary subtext of the novel complements nicely the strategy used by Cortázar to subvert traditional narrative structures and reading idiosyncrasies with Rayuela (an idea that Brown does not touch on), while at the same time improvising on the theme of Prigogine’s theory of chaos by challenging the boundaries between reality and fiction. With this final chapter, and contrary to his insistence on clinging to the nineteenth-century strategies until the very end, Brown releases once and for all modern Argentine narrative and Argentine sf from the shackles of test tube envy.
Brown fails to develop fully the possibility that narrative and science might be two equally legitimate—and powerful—systems of discourse that can evolve alongside each other, perhaps coinciding at certain points, but not mutually dependent for cultural legitimacy or authority. What Brown does do is arrive at a distinction between sf as a genre and other types of literature that have incorporated scientific discourse, either to establish an authoritative voice or to discredit science as a monolithic source of truth. While Test Tube Envy is sometimes tedious to read, the author does a good job of providing 150 years of historical context and resources for further study of scientific discourse in the narrative tradition of Argentina. The reader should take precautions when working through the text, however, since Brown’s determination to make the case for a continued test tube envy often overshadows the evolution of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Argentine scientific narrative and sf away from the nineteenth-century ethnographic, scientist-narrator model and toward a more metaphysical and postmodern structure.—Aaron Dziubinskyj, DePauw University
At the Margins, the Center.
Andrew M. Butler, ed. Christopher Priest: The Interaction. Foundation Studies in Science Fiction 6. London: Science Fiction Foundation, 2005. 185pp. £13; $20 pbk.
Christopher Priest: The Interaction is the latest entry in what is emerging as the Science Fiction Foundation’s attempt at mapping the contours of post-New Wave (British) speculative fiction. The project began in 1998 with a consideration of the popular television series, Babylon 5; its next volume (2000) found fantasist Terry Pratchett “guilty of literature”; and its third collection (2003) investigated sf writer Ken MacLeod’s “true knowledge.” A Celebration of British Science Fiction (2005) presented essays on a wide range of postwar writers; also in 2005, Parietal Games brought together critical writings by and on M. John Harrison. As the third volume released in 2005, Christopher Priest: The Interaction rounds out one of the more remarkable years in recent criticism of the genre.
Editor Andrew Butler begins his introduction to the volume by conceding that Christopher Priest has not been considered a central figure in the British science fiction of the last several decades; indeed, he notes that Priest was essentially left out of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003), as well as the Science Fiction Foundation’s own Celebration of British Science Fiction. Together with the writer’s expressions of ambivalence towards the genre, this may make Christopher Priest seem a somewhat odd choice for a collection of critical essays. Yet, Butler argues, Priest’s very marginality makes him of interest: because so much of his fiction has played at the edges of science fiction, it helps the critic to discern the borders of the field, as well as some of its more offbeat and intriguing possibilities. Butler employs the term “interaction” to describe Priest’s general creative practice, then lists several more specific manifestations of it that the collection’s essays will consider: interaction with the tradition of science fiction (especially British science fiction); interaction with mainstream contemporaries (such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan); interaction with psychology (Freudian) and politics (leftist); interaction with the reader through the use of understatement and unreliability; and a related interaction with problems of interpretation. Butler’s introduction concludes with a compelling argument for Priest’s significance: namely, that he does not repeat himself, that with each successive novel he sets himself new challenges which he meets, often brilliantly.
Graham Sleight’s “‘Don’t Believe in these Dreams’: Power and Story in the Novels of Christopher Priest” complements Butler’s introduction by framing Priest’s novels in terms of a pair of related obsessions: with storying the world and with the liability of such stories to act as agents of (repressive) power. Sleight divides Priest’s fiction into three periods: an initial stage extending from his first efforts as a writer in the 1960s to 1976, in which his concerns are present in nascent form; a middle stage from 1977 to 1990, in which Priest begins to develop his themes more (self-) consciously; and a third stage extending from 1995 to the present, which might be called the writer’s maturity. From his middle period onward, Sleight argues, Priest has been interested in the costs of the fantastic; in this regard, Priest is cousin to M. John Harrison. Sleight’s discussion of Priest’s middle stage is especially strong: his comparisons of A Dream of Wessex (1977) and The Quiet Woman (1990), and of The Affirmation (1981) and The Glamour (1984, rev. 1985), showcase the manner in which Priest’s thematic concerns become increasingly important in and as his work (i.e., the means by which the arrangement of his novels enacts his obsession with storytelling and its perils).
Graham Sleight’s overview of Priest’s oeuvre is followed by Gilles Dumay’s 2005 interview with Priest, in which the writer examines his life. The discussion focuses on Priest’s life up to his involvement with Michael Moorcock and other members of the British New Wave. This provides a great deal of fascinating information about Priest’s younger years, suggesting a number of connections between his biography and his fiction; strangely, though, the interview does not address Priest’s subsequent decades as a novelist. Such a conversation would have provided an opportunity to learn the history of Priest’s work as he conceived, created, and now judges it. While it is of interest to hear of the young Priest’s growing unease with the back-biting of Moorcock’s social circle, it would have been of greater interest to know what went into the composition of Indoctrinaire (1970), The Space Machine (1976), or The Quiet Woman.
Nick Hubble’s “Priest’s Repetitive Strain” offers another survey of the writer’s fiction, this time with an eye to the question of how we are to read Priest’s novels without falling into the trap of oversimplifying them. For an answer, Hubble suggests we turn to those novels whose recursive structures offer the key to their interpretation. Drawing on Freud’s theories of repetition as the means by which the psyche accommodates itself to the traumatic, Hubble argues that Priest makes use of repetition so that his characters may assert control over and even escape their situations. Through repetition, Priest’s characters appreciate the complexities of their dilemmas; such appreciation, in turn, offers them the best chance for moving beyond those dilemmas. Hubble’s reading of The Extremes (1998) through this critical lens is particularly compelling. As Hubble presents it, the structures of Priest’s novels embody the process of cognition his characters (and we readers) must undergo; in this sense, they seem deeply science-fictional. Hubble concludes with the recommendation that the best way to respond to Christopher Priest’s fiction is to re-read it, to repeat its repetitions in hopes of approaching its full complexity.
With Andy Sawyer’s “Christopher Priest’s Fractal Fugue for a Darkening Island,” the collection’s focus sharpens, as Sawyer addresses Priest’s second novel, published in 1972. Beginning with “fugue’s” meanings of musical composition and mental state, and its etymological link to “refugee,” Sawyer considers the novel’s debt to the musical fugue for its arrangement, its use of psychological fugue in representing the consciousness of its protagonist, and the importance of the refugee to the narrative. In its treatment of race, Fugue for a Darkening Island remains one of the Priest’s most challenging works, and it is to Sawyer’s credit that he engages this difficulty directly. Given the achievements of Priest’s later novels, it is easy to overlook the fact that, from the outset, his work has gambled much, and Sawyer’s essay serves as a welcome reminder that there is much to recommend his early books.
Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s “‘The Event’ and ‘The Woman,’ or Notes on the Temporality of Sex” picks up some of the threads that have already been teased out of Priest’s fiction—especially its non-linearity—in an attempt to argue that Priest’s conception of character-in-time is in opposition to the (West’s) historically-mainstream view of time as linear and apocalyptically-inflected. Instead, Wolf-Meyer asserts that Priest’s presentation of character shares more with the theories of Giorgio Agamben and of Gilles Delueze and Félix Guattari. In so doing, Wolf-Meyer strives to position Priest as part of a larger, liberatory project aimed at the reconfiguration of the individual’s relation to time. As Wolf-Meyer sees it, the typical Priest character exists outside the dominant ideological apparatuses, and has the possibility—particularly through sexual contact—of transformation, of entering one of the states that Deleuze and Guattari prefix with the participle “becoming.” In support of his reading, Wolf-Meyer offers interesting analyses of The Affirmation and The Quiet Woman. Certainly, his essay presents a provocative view of Priest’s novels, but it is hard to avoid the impression that Wolf-Meyer is more interested in appropriating Priest for his own critical preoccupations than he is in trying to ascertain Priest’s concerns.
In contrast, Nicholas Ruddick’s “Reticence and Ostentation in Christopher Priest’s Later Novels: The Quiet Woman and The Prestige” advances the view of Priest as a more traditional moral novelist, using his fiction to examine the relationship between the individual and the society/species. Ruddick grounds his thesis in readings of The Quiet Woman and The Prestige (1995), finding in the former novel the most extreme instance of Priest’s tendency towards narrative restraint, while the later work is distinguished by its flair. Despite their apparent differences, Ruddick identifies important congruities between the books, especially their examination of the role of the artist and the socioeconomic pressures on that role. In the sophistication of their construction, their lacunae, Priest’s novels demand much of the critic, and Ruddick meets these demands admirably. His discussions of The Quiet Woman and of The Prestige are outstanding, and if one is unsure whether Priest needs to be read as a moral writer, the essay nonetheless makes its case well.
Ruddick’s essay on Priest is one of the collection’s most successful; the essay that follows it, Thomas Van Parys’s “An Unusual Suspect: The Novelisation of eXistenZ,” is less so. Van Parys’s subject—Priest’s decision to write the novelization of director David Cronenberg’s 1999 film, eXistenZ—is of great potential interest. Priest’s choice of this film to adapt, not to mention the adaptation he produced, might be scrutinized for the insight they offer into his compositional processes; beyond that, Priest’s and Cronenberg’s respective bodies of work might be compared profitably. Van Parys treats these subjects in passing, but his essay spends too much time on the cultural status of the novelization, onto which is heaped a heavy load of significance that it is ill-equipped to bear. This is compounded with a discussion of science fiction as an extra-literary genre that is over-simplistic at best. The essay wants to say that the joining of two such outside forms as the novelization and science fiction yields a result that somehow goes through their marginality to arrive at a revolutionary center, but it never manages to build a convincing structure of argument to support that claim. It is a missed opportunity.
Victoria Stewart’s “The Other War: Christopher Priest’s The Separation” is the collection’s other study of a single Priest novel, 2002’s The Separation, and with it, the collection recovers itself. Drawing on Freud’s theory of the uncanny, Stewart addresses the novel’s use of doubles and doubling, as well as amnesia and anamnesis, exploring its vision of an alternate history in which the catastrophe of the Second World War might have been avoided. Stewart deftly places The Separation in relation to other narratives engaging the history of World War II, from Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) to Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) to Howard Brinton’s The Churchill Play (1974, rev. 1984), showing Priest participating in an ongoing (re)assessment of the war. Stewart rightly identifies the importance of the invented archive to the novel, and her consideration of the troubled relations between personal memory and public history is nuanced and compelling. Given Stewart’s focus on amnesia and anamnesis, it is unfortunate that she does not say more about one of the novel(ist)’s central acts of amnesia: namely, regarding the Holocaust, whose absence from Priest’s alternate history plays a major role in making that history seem in any way palatable. There is enough else in the essay, however, to make such shortcomings minor ones.
From study of a single work, the collection returns to survey, in this case, Andrew Butler’s “Beyond Beer Money: The Criticism of Christopher Priest,” which examines Priest’s non-fiction writing. This allows Butler to trace Priest’s involvement with sf culture and the writer’s views concerning science fiction as literature. Butler sketches Priest’s attitude to such predecessors as Wells and Wyndham, his involvement with Stanislaw Lem’s famous feud with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and his relation to the (British) New Wave. Butler does a fine job tracing the development of Priest’s attitude towards the literary potential of the sf novel, connecting that to the foment of the New Wave. As of yet, there is no collection of Priest’s critical writings, which Butler’s essay leads one to conclude would be a welcome thing.
Christopher Priest: The Interaction ends with one more survey: Paul Kincaid’s “Blank Pages: Islands and Identity in the Fiction of Christopher Priest.” Kincaid starts by identifying three figures at the heart of Priest’s fiction: the book, the double, and the island. His essay discusses the island, which he argues serves Priest as a trope for the individual. Specifically, the island represents the individual’s insularity, isolation literal or metaphorical. Kincaid is thorough, tracing Priest’s use of the island from Indoctrinaire through Inverted World (1974), A Dream of Wessex, several stories, and The Affirmation. His attention to Priest’s stories is a reminder that Priest’s accomplishments in fiction are not restricted to the novel, and raises the question of why no comprehensive collection of his short stories exists. Kincaid’s case for the importance of islands to Priest’s art is hard to dispute; it ends the collection well.
Taken together, the essays in Christopher Priest: The Interaction stage a convincing argument for their subject’s significance; indeed, after finishing the book, it is difficult to believe that Priest could be considered in any way a marginal writer. Without a doubt, there is much more work to be done on Priest’s writing: his debt to John Wyndham’s fiction bears further examination, as does his relation to Philip K. Dick. That said, any such future studies of Priest will benefit immensely from the work Andrew Butler has assembled here. There are a number of writers who would benefit from the critical attention given to Priest—Ramsey Campbell comes immediately to mind—and one looks forward eagerly to the Science Fiction Foundation’s next volume.—John Langan, CUNY Graduate Center
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