#102 = Volume 34, Part 2 = July
BOOKS IN REVIEW
The Truth about Women in SF?
Eric Leif Davin. Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2006. xiv + 431 pp. $39.95 pbk.
The fact that there were women writing sf prior to the 1960s is not news. Nevertheless, the premise of Eric Leif Davin’s volume is that he is dispelling the “mythistory” (ix and throughout) that there were no women in sf before the Women’s Liberation Movement. As a relative newcomer to sf criticism, my reading has included work by Lucie Armitt, Brian Attebery, Marleen Barr, Jane Donawerth, Justine Larbalestier, Sara Lefanu, Joanna Russ, and Pamela Sargent, just to name some of the feminist scholars who have explored the work of women in sf prior to 1960. I was willing to suspend my judgment, however, and accept Davin’s premise that there is—or at least was—a kind of standard narrative of women in sf before the 1960s that claims (or claimed) that they either did not exist or had to hide their gender identities. After all, the research that went into Partners in Wonder is considerable; Davin does provide a comprehensive bibliography of women writers who published in sf magazines from 1926 through 1965. The volume has an introduction; three sections devoted to 1926-1949, 1950-1960, and 1961-1965 respectively; and two appendices providing detailed bibliographic information and short biographies for the women who published sf during the years covered by the text.
Nevertheless, accepting Davin’s shaky premise of a “mythistory” did not mean that I could suspend my critical faculties. From the beginning, Davin’s arguments are founded on oversimplifications. His overarching claim, beyond the existence of women in sf prior to 1960, is that sf was welcoming to “outsiders” in general. For Davin, “‘outsider’ groups” such as “Jews and blacks” (5) were always welcome in the sf community, both as writers and as fans. The differences in religious, racial, and gender-based prejudices are elided and sf is depicted as a nearly utopian world of inclusion and acceptance. There is little middle ground in this text. Either women were welcome or they were not, and the same is true of all other “outsiders.” For example, early in the introduction Davin claims that sf was “a field in which [‘outsiders’] found open doors and no barricades” (7). Overstatements prevent Davin from making a plausible case. By the end of the book, Davin asserts that “the history of early science fiction is not one of exclusion and prejudice, but one of acceptance and partnership” (315).
Davin’s penchants for exaggeration and binary thinking are all the more problematic when applied to the other major argument of his text: that 1970s feminists and their successors are largely to blame for the erasure of early women writers of sf. I lost track of the number of times he addresses “seventies feminists” as the culprits responsible for perpetuating a false history of sf in order to self-aggrandize or to perpetuate a myth of patriarchal hegemony; but anyone undertaking to read this book should plan to be hammered over the head with this particular view. Davin does not engage with feminist scholarship at the level of analysis; that would have been a way to develop his own argument in dialogue with existing approaches. Instead, he simultaneously rejects all feminist scholarship on sf as either ignoring the realities of the history of the genre or being too obscure to really have made an impact, and quotes from relevant scholarship when it suits his points (Barr, Donawerth, Sargent, and Russ are just some of the critics he uses in this way).
One of the points that Davin does get right is his acknowledgement of the existence of stereotypes in sf literature that could be construed as sexist, anti-Semitic, or racist. Unfortunately, rather than work through the implications of such images, Davin has a ready response: since the larger society was all of those things—sexist, anti-Semitic, and racist—it would be impossible for sf to escape those views. In Chapter 10 Davin concedes that “It is true that there were many stereotypical images of women in pulp science fiction” (214). Davin wants to make clear that “There were also many female images that subverted stereotypes and presented women as powerful and independent actors in their own right” (214). All of this makes sense, but contradicts Davin’s larger arguments about sf as a “haven” (163) of equality. Davin further asserts that even the women writers of sf resorted to using female stereotypes because “We live, and have lived, in a patriarchal culture” (216). Whenever he gets into territory that might undermine the validity of his overall claim of female equality in sf, Davin evokes his “contested terrain” thesis. The idea is, simply, that no dominant culture is ever without resistance from within, and that popular culture often acts as an area of “contested terrain.” In the case cited above, Davin explains that the female image in early sf was “contested terrain.” A more nuanced analysis would acknowledge that sf cannot be separated from the larger “patriarchal culture,” and that attempting to claim that early sf contained no sexist (or racist or anti-Semitic) thinking is a waste of effort. The notion that there were areas of contest taking place within sf that related to larger cultural battles over representations of gender is useful, if not entirely new, and it could have been productively explored in more detail given the wealth of literary resources at Davin’s disposal.
In the introduction, Davin clearly positions himself outside scholarly approaches to literature by stating that “this book is not primarily a work of literary criticism in which I ‘deconstruct’ either ‘hegemonic’ or ‘subaltern’ texts and ‘theorize’ about their rival ‘discourses’” (22). I should have taken his words more seriously, because when Davin does begin to discuss the content of the stories in question, it is all too clear that his arguments would have benefited from the kind of detailed critique he caricatures in his introduction. For most of the first half of the book, I was disturbed by a lack of attention to the details of the narratives. Even when Davin does discuss what the stories are about, as in his chapter on “Femalien Empathy,” he offers very little in terms of textual evidence to support his claim that early women’s sf writing displays more empathy than the writing of men from the same period. His unexamined approach leads to further claims about women’s sf writing in the 1950s involving motifs “more traditionally identified as ‘female’ than as ‘male’” (248). While many readers might think that there are numerous cultural and social reasons to explain why women writers in the 1950s would focus on concerns that have been traditionally associated with womanhood, Davin takes an unexpected course and argues that women are biologically inclined toward those things that we associate with femininity, such as empathy and community.
Later in the text, he develops his argument about biological differences when he tries to find an explanation for why women had more difficulty publishing books as sf moved from magazines to paperbacks in the 1960s:
High-powered employers have usually expected much job time from employees, a continuity of effort and productivity throughout the employee’s life cycle, and an overall sacrifice of family life. For the most part, a higher percentage of married men have been willing to live this kind of life than have married women, or even women in general. In a similar manner, was the new book medium too great a poorly rewarded commitment to interest most genre women? (306, emphasis mine).
Men have simply been more willing than women to work long hours and do the hard work necessary to get a book published. According to Davin, men also like to compete more than women do, which explains why “even in the absence of gender barriers, men are more likely to remain a majority of Wall Street traders and corporate leaders” (284). The unexamined thinking here, which disregards decades of feminist scholarship and relies upon scant scientific evidence, is the kind of logic that allows Davin to presume that he has a truth to offer about the history of sf that all other critics and historians have failed to see.
Ultimately, Davin has provided us with useful bibliographic information, but I am highly skeptical of anything else in the text. His approach fails to satisfy my standards for scholarship: the use of newspaper articles to support scientific claims; the way he dismisses the actual words of Katherine MacLean (146) and Samuel Delany (194) in favor of his own interpretations of events; and the repeated distortions of feminist scholarship are examples of how this book goes wrong. Luckily, there are other studies of women in early sf to turn to, and I look forward to more work on the subject.—Lauren Lacey, Rutgers University
Techno-heaven or Techno-hell?
Daniel Dinello. Technophobia!: Sf Visions of Posthuman Technology. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 2005. 329pp. $24.95 pbk.
“I want to elevate the term [technophobia],” Daniel Dinello states of his intention when choosing a title for his work, “beyond its derisive dismissive use by rabid technophiles who believe that questioning technology’s direction is crazy if not satanic” (8). This statement is a prime example of the raw editorializing of Technophobia! Which is to say that the tone is the first indicator that Technophobia! is not sf criticism; rather, Dinello’s work seems much more a long meditation about how those in power use (and abuse) technological discourse. Science fiction is simply Dinello’s occasion.
Technophobia! is composed of an introduction and ten chapters, the titles of which give the reader a fairly clear sense of Dinello’s subject matter and tone throughout: “Dreams of Techno-Heaven, Nightmares of Techno-Hell,” “Technology is God: Machine Transcendence,” “Haunted Utopias: Artificial Humans as Mad Scientists,” “Cybernetic Slaves: Robotics,” “Machines out of Control: Artificial Intelligence and Androids,” “Rampaging Cyborgs: Bionics,” “Infinite Cyberspace Cages: The Internet and Virtual Reality,” “Engineered Flesh: Biotechnology,” “Malevolent Molecular Machines: Nanotechnology,” “Technology is a Virus: Machine Plague,” and an epilogue entitled, appropriately, “Technophobia.”
My first impression of Dinello’s style reminded me quite strongly of journalist Elizabeth Wurtzle’s writing in Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998) and of critic Marleen S. Barr in her introduction to the sf special edition of the PMLA (May 2004). But, from the beginning, I also had the nagging sense that something was amiss in Technophobia! Perhaps it was how Dinello rapidly substitutes the more accepted terms “utopia” and “dystopia” with “heaven” and “hell,” and most often to deride utopian sf as quasi-religious. I also found it unsettling that, from the beginning, Dinello lapses into the very name-calling he purports to correct. He labels, for example, all of Isaac Asimov’s works as the “backlash” movement (10) of a “techno-priest and writer” (36) and lumps utopian creative writers, postmodern theorists, and radical alien and cyborg cultists under the collective term “prophets of posthumanity” (24).
There is also an issue of definition. In the introduction Dinello asserts that “Science fiction serves as social criticism and popular philosophy. Often taking us a step beyond escapist entertainment, science fiction imagines the problematic consequences brought about by these new technologies and the ethical, political, and existential questions they raise” (5). This definition of sf is later elucidated to mean that “good” sf is “hard,” “dystopic,” and “technophobic.” The wary do not lightly enter the debate over what constitutes sf, much less good sf, and I will certainly not debate the terms here. Some of Dinello’s examples of what constitutes good sf may shed some light on the difficulties of his approach, however. For example, Dinello reads Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987) as an argument against the reproductive technologies of the Ooncali and ignores the text’s (and Butler’s) own consistent criticisms of the hierarchical nature of humanism. He also ignores the implication of the Lilith’s Brood series (collected 2000). Dinello seems to identify so strongly in the text with the physical (and particularly sexual) horror felt by the humans towards the Oankali, that he seems incapable of—or, worse, unwilling to—recognize the central tension of the novel, which is the necessity to overcome that fear and revulsion in order to survive as a species, albeit a posthuman one.
Another example: like Dawn, the film The Matrix (1999) is arguably set in a dystopian future for humanity, based, as Dinello rightly points out, on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Gnostic thought (175)—among a myriad other texts that the Wachowski brothers weave together. But to argue that The Matrix is simply “technophobic” is to ignore the more complex desire of the audience to be in the Matrix at the same time they fear it. In fact, The Matrix is arguably one of the most technophilic films ever made in its implied desire for humans and machines finally to come together. These were just two examples of a long list of Dinello’s monological readings.
This brings us to the main difficulty with Technophobia!’s definition of good sf and the trouble with its arguments: the answers come all too easily. As the saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail.” Technophobia! is not really a book about sf, nor even a book about the meaning of technophobia in sf. Rather, like Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future (2003), Technophobia! is a book whose primary aim is to warn us about the implications of postmodern technoculture, in this case as seen though the lens of a set of texts carefully chosen to demonstrate a point. That those texts are sf is ultimately incidental.
Like Wurtzle and Barr, Dinello is an engaging prose writer and Technophobia! reads well. He chooses interesting texts and often has moments of insight; but as sf criticism, Technophobia! ultimately sacrifices any close, subtle reading of sf for the pop impact of a wild diatribe.—C. Jason Smith, The City University of New York-LaGuardia
It Does What it Says on the Tin.
Stacy Gillis, ed. The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded. London: Wallflower, 2005. x + 195 pp. $25 pbk.
With respect to a subject as sprawling as The Matrix (1999), its sequels, and all of the related media objects the series has spawned, any attempt at comprehensive coverage is doomed from the start. But no matter—we can still try, and fail, and fail better. If that seems too bleak, remember we are discussing cyberpunk and a series of movies based in a blasted, blighted, post-nuclear world.
As failures go, this one is quite good—let it be clear that ultimate success is not on the table as a possibility. The contributors aim to trace the franchise’s many trailing threads (video games, websites, an animated prequel) to their respective points of attachment in literary and popular culture. The claim that the volume is “an exploration of a modern film phenomenon as a cultural event” is almost too flexible to allow easy judgment of whether the text has met its objective, but Cyberpunk Reloaded does not stretch the claim too far. The Matrix texts can be approached from almost any direction, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It makes any edited volume an exercise in cat-herding. What could have been a diffuse, wandering collection of disparate essays remains centered and tightly organized, however.
Gillis has done a very nice job of getting most of the cybercats going in the same direction, although the fact that there are two strands in the volume shows the considerable difficulty of maintaining focus on a complex entity like The Matrix, which could be described as both multimedia and hypermedia. The first and slightly shorter section of the book tackles “Media Intertexts and Contexts,” and the second is titled “The Politics of Modernity and Postmodernity.” That the book stays with political postmodernity and intertextuality is impressive.
The individual essays are fairly short, which is perhaps the best choice given the source texts. The Matrix met with far better critical reception than The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix: Revolutions (2003). There is some doubt that the sequels and prequel, The Animatrix (2003), could sustain lengthier analysis except as extensions of the original. The video games and websites owe their existence to the original movie and could not by themselves sustain a critical cottage industry. The contributions to the volume are all good, but it must be said that collectively they reveal both the shallowness and breadth of the source texts—and that is not meant to be a slight of the book. The movie and dependent texts were marketed to a young audience, tapping Baudrillard’s theories for intellectual authority and philosophical depth (although the achievement of either is arguable) and employing multiracial characters in hipster bondage gear for an edgy, transgressive feel. The Matrix franchise has its claws in everything from the cutting-edge technical aspects of moviemaking to the high-theory aspect of postmodern literary criticism.
Gillis does not try to go into the territory already covered by other texts, such as Taking the Red Pill (2003), Matrix Warrior (2003), Philosophers Explore the Matrix (2005), or The Matrix and Philosophy (2002), all of which zero in on the movies’ philosophical and religious implications, although Jacking In to the Matrix Franchise (2004) has similar aims and features. This is the book for readers who want a survey of how the Matrix franchise is embedded in recent popular culture, and Gillis places The Matrix and its derived works into cultural context. The book, like many, sacrifices some depth for clear, cohesive, and reasonably thorough coverage of a manageably narrow critical area.
The essays in this collection discuss both influences on the source texts and their collective impact since release, addressing gender and race politics, the body, simulacra and hyperreality, virtual reality, special effects, cyberpunk, cyberculture, and film noir. Several essays are particularly cogent: Thomas Foster’s on hacking reality, Pamela Church Gibson’s on fetish fashion, Dan North’s on the intersection of martial arts and CGI, and Claudia Springer’s on the politics of cool. All the essays are readable, applying theory without being jargon-riddled, despite the postmodern subject matter.
Overall, the book is worthwhile for either academics or extremely keen fans; but despite being comparatively accessible, it is not something for a mainstream audience. Cyberpunk Reloaded is definitely for the fan/academic crossover group, rather than for everyone who liked the movies. I recommend asking potential readers whether they have heard the news that Jean Baudrillard has died; if they answer yes, no, or begin singing the “ding, dong” song from The Wizard of Oz, they will like the book. Anyone who responds with a blank stare should stay away.—Stacie Hanes, Kent State University
Beyond the Outer Limits.
William S Haney, II. Cyberculture, Cyborgs and Science Fiction: Consciousness and the Posthuman. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. x + 192 pp. $48 pbk.
This is an intriguing and inventive exploration of the convergence of posthumanism, consciousness studies, Eastern philosophy, and science fiction. In this convergence, the text manifests a strident conservatism and overall restraint when it comes to any bold new directions in exploring techno-mediated embodiment and the possible implications for subjectivity and consciousness. Haney writes that once
we consider the strong evidence for the capacity of human consciousness to be aware of itself as a void of conceptions, certain invasive technological features of the posthuman, though as yet unrealized beyond the realm of science fiction, may lose some of their appeal. People will have to balance the probable disadvantages of biotechnology against the potential advantages of consciousness in its pure form. (2)
This passage establishes the route the text will travel in mapping the possible dangers pure consciousness faces in the midst of bionic cyborg bodies and an emergent posthumanism that “may undermine human nature ... by forcibly overextending and thus jeopardizing the neurophysiology of consciousness” (vi).
This is an ambitious and extremely challenging project, chiefly because the realm of pure consciousness is the “unsayable dimension of life” (177), which in its unsayability cannot be wholly represented. Haney is attempting to defend a “void of conceptions” (2) from the possible implications of posthumanism, a “void of conceptions” that he admits he cannot definitively articulate or offer conclusive evidence actually exists in the pure form posited by his selections from Eastern philosophy. His text truly charts nebulous terrain; consequently, in spite of his innovative and admirable presentation of the subject matter, Cyberculture, Cyborgs and Science Fiction is not entirely convincing in its conclusions. Although it is a provocative exploration of posthuman/sf scholarship, the text’s failures are the result of its unsayable subject matter, its overly polemical defense of pure consciousness, and its problematic conclusions.
Cyberculture, Cyborgs and Science Fiction can be loosely divided into four units. The first unit—“Preface,” “Chapter One: Consciousness and the Posthuman,” and “Chapter Two: The Latent Powers of Consciousness vs. Bionic Humans”—is central for those (the majority, I suspect) working in science fiction/posthumanist studies who are unaware of such Eastern philosophies as the Advaita Vedanta, Samkhya Yoga, Vedic psychology, panentheism, Zen meditation, extraordinary power achieved through yoga (siddhis), Atman pure consciousness (turiya), and consciousness-as-such (purusha). This coverage of Eastern philosophical traditions is intertwined with an overview of ongoing consciousness studies, including Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness (2004), Robert Forman’s Grassroots Spirituality (2004), and diverse essays in Jensine Andresen and Robert Forman’s Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps, a special issue of The Journal of Consciousness Studies (2000). Finally, the posthuman theory includes Donna Haraway’s“A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999), and Robert Pepperell’s The Posthuman Condition (2003).
The first unit concludes that “pure consciousness qualifies as the most subtle component of human nature” (8). It “is reflected in the mind and manifests in both transcendental and phenomenal forms” (8), and recent research by such neuroscientists as Benjamin Libet “lends credibility to the Advaitan view that consciousness is a unified witness to, and thus separate from, the duality of both mental and physical activity” (9). Given these propositions, the bionic bodies of the posthuman cyborg that technologically enhance mental and physical capabilities “mean to induce a state of hyperarousal that may cause unnatural physiological pressure and even structural damage” (21). These states of bionic hyperarousal are antithetical to the extraordinary powers achieved through meditative yoga and hypoarousal (siddhis), powers that “extend beyond the reach of bionic technology at its most extravagant level [and] are not ends in themselves but serve to stabilize the experience [of] pure consciousness together with the three ordinary states of waking, sleeping and dreaming” (170). Consequently, while the posthuman cyborg may enable the extension of embodied awareness and a transcendence of ordinary identity under the right conditions, “the prospect of telepresence and other forms of bionic technology not only mask the risks involved in becoming posthuman, but also through our embodiment in cyberspace give the illusion of compensating for any losses we might incur” (33).
There can be no doubt that Haney knows his theoretical and philosophical content, and the manner in which he splices ancient traditions with contemporary technoculture presents an original perspective from which to explore the subject matter. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for Eastern philosophy encourages polemical readings of technoculture that weaken his conclusions. Specifically, Haney writes that a negative possibility of posthumanism “is the irreversibly damaging or catastrophic effect it may have on human nature, particularly through invasive technologies” (2). He continues by saying that, “in welcoming the prospect of seamlessly articulating human being with intelligent machines as a form of progress, Hayles and others see the posthuman subject as an amalgam of heterogenous components that will not only supersede but also do away with the ‘natural’ self” (3). I thought Haney could have explored the complex posthumanist content in greater detail because, unlike his intimate exploration of the Eastern philosophical content, the posthumanism tends to be glossed over as he lumps his three chief posthumanists en masse as “welcoming the prospect” of posthumanism, without sufficient exploration of the complexities, divergences, and challenges they individually attribute to technoculture and the corporeal form. Consequently, there is a profound imbalance between the theoretical discipline that prioritizes an Eastern philosophical approach to consciousness and the superficial overview of posthumanism that he generally demonizes.
The polemical juxtaposition of consciousness-as-such and the negative effects of posthumanism also highlights a puzzling incongruity in the text. Haney often dismisses corporeal politics that affect people’s material lives because, while the conscious content is “indispensable for both the human and posthuman condition,” he argues that “the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of this content do not encompass a vital aspect of human nature” (2). How can pure consciousness, the void of conceptions, be in danger from posthuman (re)configurations of the corporeal body while, in the dismissal of the vitality of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, it simultaneously remains transcendentally above corporeal/material politics? Consciousness is presented as a higher-level unsayability, a transcendent dimension divorced from the mundane world of physical and mental realities, while strangely losing its transcendentality when potentially threatened with physical and mental re-shapings of the corporeal body through bionic interventions. This incongruity is never fully resolved, and the text remains in limbo in its presentation of an unsayable dimension that is simultaneously apart from and a part of corporeality.
Another stumbling block has to do with the ubiquity of “nature” and “natural” as an unproblematic designation of human experience. The first page of the “Preface” sets the tone for the entire text: “Posthumanism envisions a biology/machine symbiosis that will promote this extension by artificially enhancing our mental and physical powers, arguably at the expense of the natural tendency of the mind to move toward pure consciousness ... [and] the posthuman condition may undermine human nature” (vii; my emphases). Haney argues that human nature is “the effortless capacity for transcending the mind’s conceptual content” (vi) and “hinges not on specific qualities such as morality, rationality, feelings and general patterns of behavior, but rather on the neurophysiology of metaphysical insight into the ground state of consciousness beyond cultural attributes of any kind” (vii). Haney’s human nature appears specious: is not identifying the “metaphysical insight into the ground state of consciousness” as the formative principle of human nature embedded in cultural attributes? An acultural perspective allows Haney to “approach human nature through a third-person objective ontology based on sacred texts, dogma, theology and philosophical support as well as through a first-person subjective ontology based on non-dualistic spiritual experience” (vii). Yet are not conclusions based in part on third-person objective ontologies that rely on sacred texts, dogma, theology, and philosophical support in fact subjective cultural articulations of those sacred texts, dogmas, theologies, and philosophies? Even Haney’s selection of Eastern traditions to explore posthumanism is a cultural application grounded in subjective interpretation: one cannot help but notice how often he must preface his analysis with “[f]rom an Advaitan perspective.” Haney seems to need an essentialized pure consciousness that resides somewhere beyond the outer limits of cultural experience with which he can refute the dangerous possibilities of posthumanism.
Chapters Three and Four of the second unit—“Derrida’s Indian Literary Subtext” and “Consciousness and the Posthuman in Short Fiction”—introduce a literary direction for the text and move the reader from theoretical terrain that is the foundation for his study towards the close readings of the five science fiction novels of the final unit: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985, trans. 1993), and Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991). While the chapters on Derrida and short fiction—e.g., Kate Chopin, James Joyce, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov—are interesting, the final chapters give Cyberculture, Cyborgs and Science Fiction a critical focus that is the central selling point to readers of SFS.
At this point, however, the readings he offers of higher-level consciousness, Eastern traditions of meditation or hypoarousal, and the potential dangers of posthuman bionics are predictably conservative. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shows that the attempt “to construct consciousness exceeds the power of technology, of whatever paradigm” (173); the creature’s composite body results in it “[identifying] with the content of its awareness and [showing] little tendency to transcend the material body and the thought of its condition” (172). William Gibson’s ambivalence regarding technology in Neuromancer demonstrates that “although computers will never be able to replicate human brain functioning, humans may end up radically undermining their natural capacity to move toward a state of hypoarousal if they overtax the connection between brain/body and consciousness through bionic technology” (173). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is “driven by the metaphor that ‘humans are computers,’ [but Gerald] Edelman persuasively argues [in Wider than the Sky, 2004] on the basis of neuroscience that ‘the brain is not a computer, and that the world is not a piece of tape’” (174). Working from this hypothesis, Haney constructs a compelling reading of Snow Crash that concludes that the novel “demonstrates that to lose your physiological purity means to undermine the essence of human nature” (174). Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World “shows that any attempt to enhance brain functioning by technologically interfering with consciousness can only have devastating effects for human existence” and “the posthuman situation of turning part of the brain into a computer involves the extreme loss of the mind’s conceptual component, or the mind itself” (175). Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It “metaphorically depicts the ultimate outcome of the posthuman tendency for humans to evolve toward becoming radical cyborgs—a bionic human that has lost touch with human nature” (176).
These chapters shift attention away from the problems of an “unsayable dimension” and allow the study to become grounded in textual analysis; yet there is the distinct feeling Haney has already come to his conservative conclusions regarding the disastrous possibilities of posthumanism and is now twisting the narratives to fit his polemics. There are also some moments where consideration of content needs to be bolstered. For example, in his discussion of Frankenstein, Haney chooses to include a discussion of Kenneth Branagh’s film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Aside from Branagh’s rewriting of key elements from the source text and his laughable depiction of Elizabeth (who is decapitated, her head placed on Justine Moritz’s body, and then revived), comparing the two media poses difficulties. These are different artistic conventions produced for different audiences separated by nearly two centuries; it seems prudent to eliminate the Branagh film to keep the discussion on science fiction literature. Neuromancer, Haney claims, “suggests that in becoming posthuman, we could go from being cyborgs like Case and Molly, who still have the innate capacity for attaining a void in thought, to becoming increasingly like Wintermute, which cannot even boast of the capacity for primary consciousness, much less higher-order consciousness and beyond” (111). There is barely any mention of Molly in Haney’s analysis, however, and this absence is a notable omission given the extent of her cybernetic modifications and her central function in the novel. A closer editing of the novel would also help eliminate some of the minor narrative hiccups. For example, while Case does use “Dix” in the novel, the construct is more commonly referred to as the Dixie Flatline; thus, Haney’s repeated use of “Dix” or “Dix Flatline” is distracting. Also, Haney describes Michèle as “a member of Tessier-Ashpool” (105) when she is actually a member of the Turing police. In his earlier reading of “Burning Chrome” (1985) he repeatedly mistakes Tiger for Rikki Wildside.
Haney’s final chapter before the concluding summary is an analysis of Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It. By making this the last novel studied in the text, the chapter leaves a final impression before Haney re-summarizes his ideas. It was a less-than-satisfying final impression. Why finish the study with Marge Piercy? Would not the work of Greg Egan, Stephen Baxter, Justina Robson, or Charles Stross, for example, have been more effective as a concluding chapter? Or perhaps the chapter on Stephenson’s Snow Crash (published after He, She and It)? Piercy is a talented writer whose Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and He, She, and It are important contributions to the sf canon; aside from these two novels, however, she remains an Atwoodian-style visitor who dabbles in sf conventions. In fact, the absence of contemporary full-time sf authors who have more recently tackled the issues of posthumanism, bionic technologies, and consciousness limits the efficacy of the text.
Haney’s Cyberculture, Cyborgs and Science Fiction concludes with the following statement: “Today possibly more than ever before, people are beginning to sense that the unsayable dimension of life is under threat from outside interference and needs to be revitalized” (177). In defending this “unsayable dimension” Haney has written an ambitious and highly original exploration that provides keen insight into consciousness, posthumanism, cyborgs, and science fiction. Besides its weaknesses/oversights in narrative analysis, the greatest challenge it faces is articulating the “unsayable dimension” and then defending this “void of conceptions” from the possible dangers of posthumanism. Haney writes that it is “far better to practice patience and develop pure consciousness and evolve into a higher being than to fall prey to the Faustian temptations of biotechnological power.” He argues that “each person must choose for him or herself between the technological extension of physical experience through mind, body and world on the one hand, and the natural power of human consciousness on the other as a means to realize their ultimate vision” (ix). It is this polemical approach that I find untenable and, unless the reader subscribes to the “Advaitan perspective” that underpins Haney’s analyses, the efficacy of his warnings, while certainly an interesting thought experiment, is diminished and limited. Cyberculture, Cyborgs and Science Fiction requires its Western readers to take a leap of faith into Eastern orthodoxies as prerequisites to the conservative conclusions it formulates and the warnings it urges. Without those Eastern perspectives (ones I can appreciate but certainly do not adhere to), the text remains an interesting critical analysis of posthumanism and science fiction, but not an indispensable one.—Graham Murphy, Trent University
So, Where Have You Been All These Years?
Darren Harris-Fain. Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Age of Maturity, 1970–2000. Columbia, SC: U South Carolina P, 2005. 120 pp. $34.95 hc.
After more than a century of living at the outer limits of respectable literature, drifting in the twilight zone of serious scholarly interest, being relegated to an alternate world where its value was recognized only by the dwellers therein, science fiction near the end of the twentieth century landed on the banks of the mainstream. Contemporary films with a science fiction premise—time travel, artificial intelligence, robotics—have been marketed as strenuously and with as much serious attention as any action film or melodrama, and with as much financial support. Popular writers such as Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Crichton have ventured off the traditional path into the realm of “things to come.” Sf fandom has long been freed from the stereotype of the socially awkward loner poring over pulp magazines and comics. Much to the satisfaction of its longtime supporters, the genre of science fiction has come to be recognized as a primary force providing serious examination of our human construction, our technological present and future, and our connections to the universe we inhabit.
Thus, Darren Harris-Fain’s Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Age of Maturity, 1970-2000, part of the series Understanding Contemporary American Literature, is a work to be read by all, not just by those of us who come to literature with an affinity and an affection for a genre that appeals to our speculative nature and our sense of wonder. Harris-Fain’s book is dedicated to the late Thomas Clareson, and follows in the series Clareson’s own Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Formative Period, 1926-1970 (1990).
In his introduction, Harris-Fain considers the oft-proposed question of how a work of science fiction can be identified. He provides us with many examples of writers, past and present, who have asked the question and proposed an answer, showing how these various proposals conflict, agree, and/or supplement each other. Harris-Fain himself provides a workable definition by identifying a dual purpose in science fiction: “The imaginative exploration of possible change” and “satire, critique, social commentary, or warning” (7). These purposes exist in the areas of both “hard” and “social” science fiction identified long ago, and provide Harris-Fain with the criteria by which he has chosen his subjects. In the thirty-year span this book covers, and out of the thousands of works and writers, Harris-Fain has had to select for examination “a fraction of those works and writers deserving of attention.”
Within that fraction, Harris-Fain makes extensive comment on approximately two dozen writers, from Larry Niven, Robert Silverberg, and Philip José Farmer as leaders of an emergent literary branch of science fiction, through the diverse cultural and political challenges found in the novels of Frederik Pohl and John Crowley, and on to those he celebrates for having contributed to the maturing of the genre, including Octavia Butler, Joe Haldeman, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Such close attention to specific writers makes Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction more than just a reliable historical overview (which it is). Harris-Fain creates a context in which the newer reader can feel solidly grounded, and at the same time presents provocative closer analyses of some of the giants of the genre. The book is thus not a simple broad map of the science fiction world, but a book of smaller maps leading us more deeply into the writers and works that, in their concerns and themes, their techniques and methods, demonstrate the purpose and impact of science fiction.
As he guides the reader through these literary thirty years, Harris-Fain takes us as well through the history of the time, showing in the process that some of the directions science fiction has taken reflect the time of their inception. His third chapter, “From Science Fantasy to Hard Science Fiction,” proposes that the tensions and crises of the 1970s and 1980s helped to lay the groundwork for the popularity of escapist films such as George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001-03).
Harris-Fain is as concerned with the problem of quality vs popularity as he is with historical fundamentals. He commends those writers (Joan Slonczewski and Gregory Benford, for example) who successfully combine “imagination ... with scientific rigor” (143). In his penultimate chapter, entitled “Anything Goes, 1993-2000,” he not only brings his historical overview to a conclusion, but also draws the views and theories of other critics—Brian Stableford and Gary K. Wolfe, among others—into conjunction with his own, providing a critical context to set beside the literary and the historical.
There are no quirky choices here. Harris-Fain selects writers he sees as representative and worthwhile. While we know this compilation and examination reflects our critic’s taste, we also know his taste is not the determining factor. This is a straightforward and reliable history/analysis of contemporary American science fiction—clear, informative, and interesting. Written by a scholar, it does not presume a scholarly reader, but one who is ready to approach the genre seriously. This book is a valuable addition to any reader/student’s collection of literary criticism.—Marian Parish, Nassau Community College
The Future is Now!: Historicizing SF Cinema.
David J. Hogan,, ed. Science Fiction America: Essays on SF Cinema. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006. viii + 280 pp. $45 hc.
If—no, no, when—I get to teach an sf film course, Hogan’s Science Fiction America: Essays on SF Cinema might be a viable option as one of the required textbooks. To be realistic, I teach at a two-year college and my narrative or media studies courses are not highly theoretical, nor are they meant to be. Hogan’s edited collection is not highly theoretical either, but it is useful as historical reference book for an sf media studies scholar or for students in an sf media studies course.
SF America focuses on historically situating sf films in the time and culture from which they emerged. For example, in Leonard J. Kohl’s “Flash Gordon Conquers the Great Depression and World War Too! The Flash Gordon Serial Trilogy,” Kohl places the Flash Gordon films (1936, 1938, 1940) as motivators for a depressed American public who needed to feel, during the Great Depression, that the American Dream was still obtainable. For a media studies instructor who has a very difficult time getting students to recognize that art is always historically situated, I find that these types of analyses are useful. What troubles me with Kohl’s essay, however, is his use of historical information without providing any citations. Kohl also refers to information from crew members on the sets of the various Flash Gordon films. Did he actually interview these individuals? Did he get the information from another source? Alan Dirk Lester’s essay “Godzilla vs. the Military-Industrial Complex” explicitly lists as “unpublished sources” interview dates with specific individuals quoted in the text (137). Further, Godzilla (1954) is a Japanese film, not an American one, so why is it being discussed in this volume?
Kohl and Lester are not alone in this lack of scholarly attention to detail. Although every essay in the text includes a detailed bibliographic citation of the analyzed film, including information on the production company, cast, and crew, of the twenty-two essays in the book, only eight have a list of secondary sources. How in good conscience could I critically engage an essay about Alien (1979) or Aliens (1986), for example, that does not acknowledge the literature that already exists on the topic?
In spite of these serious flaws, Hogan’s Science Fiction America: Essays on SF Cinema might nevertheless be a viable option as one of the required textbooks for that sf film course I will teach one day. The essays do a good job of providing detailed historical settings, describing when and how different sf films emerged from their cultural contexts. Ted Okuda does a wonderful job of opening “The Atomic Kid: Radioactivity Finds Andy Hardy” with a description of how grade-school kids in the 1950s and early 1960s were normalized to air-raid drills and safety films such as Duck and Cover (1951) (120-21). With the average length of each essay running twelve pages, these are short introductions to the films for undergraduate students. The casual style makes them easily accessible.
Another strength of SF America is its wide range, including some films that were new to me. The films discussed in the twenty-two essays include Alien, Aliens, Atomic City (1952), Death Race 2000 (1975), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), the Godzilla films, High Treason (1929), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Logan’s Run (1976), Nude on the Moon (1962), Rollerball (1975), Starship Troopers (1997), The 27th Day (1957), The Atomic Kid (1954), The Black Hole (1979), The Flying Saucer (1950), The Iron Giant (1999), The Man from Planet X (1951), The Omega Man (1971), The Satan Bug (1965), The Space Children (1958), and X (1963). Further essays discuss other types of sf visual media, including the Superman television series (1952-53), the Flash Gordon serials, and two cartoons—The Mad Doctor (1933) and Dancing on the Moon (1935).
When I began this brief review I said I might adopt this book as a textbook in an sf film class. To be honest, however, I do not think I would. Although I appreciate the variety of authors that contributed to this collection—scholars from different disciplines, painters, screenwriters, and other “popular” or free-lance authors—the fact that the editor of the collection is more closely associated with popular or fan-directed works ultimately says the most about this text. I enjoyed reading this edited collection because I enjoy watching sf films. This collection is not really necessary, however, for either my personal or my school’s library. That being said, if—no, no, when—I do teach that sf film class, I’ll be sure to skim these essays if I screen one of the covered films.—Rochelle Rodrigo, Mesa Community College
Continuing the Debate of the Canon.
Suman Gupta and David Johnson, eds. A Twentieth-Century Literature Reader: Texts and Debates. New York: Routledge/Open U, 2005. xii + 320 pp. $33.95 pbk.
David Johnson, ed. The Popular and the Canonical: Debating Twentieth-Century Literature 1940-2000. New York: Routledge/Open U, 2005. vi + 452 pp. $34.95 hc.
It all seems rather far from our academic collective memory, but in the 1980s the literary canon was at the center of a hot and controversial debate. On one side stood the old guard of English professionalism and its unofficial leaders William Bennett and E.D. Hirsch. The situation in English departments according to Bennett was a dire consequence of a “collective loss of nerve and faith on the part of both faculty and administrators during the late 1960s and early 1970s” (qtd. in Mazurek, “Courses and Canons: the Post-1945 US Novel,” Critique 31.3 [Spring 1990]: 143). On the other side stood the so-called “canon assaulters” such as Barbara Foley, Barbara Hernstein Smith, and Paul Lauter, who were eager to continue the canon-busting that had begun in the 1960s. For these writers, agitating the hegemony and its canon was hardly as productive or as strong as it should have been. The debate seemed to culminate in what is largely regarded as the debate’s seminal text, John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993). In it, Guillory exposes the fallacies and problems of both camps. His thorough and penetrating analysis was the Enola Gay that flattened the debate and brought on a comfortable and most likely mistaken status quo. Meanwhile, the 1990s and postcolonialism’s theoretical dominance arrived and with them the alleged attention to texts of real and human “Others.” But unfortunately, much of the postcolonial enterprise did not make any claims regarding the issue of canon formation but rather addressed itself to the colonial bias found in the way that canonical texts were read. Consequently, the real and legitimate questions regarding literary and aesthetic value raised by the debate died away in a haze of academic re-direction.
It is legitimate to wonder if sf scholarship today still needs to bother itself with the canon question. Surely that discussion has come and gone. Surely enough sf texts are taught in English courses. Carl Freedman does not seem to think so. In his influential Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Wesleyan, 2000), he posits that the issue of canonicity is central to the study of sf. Freedman believes that in order to realize the critical and cultural potential of sf, we must recognize that the genre has been excluded as a result of “a wholesale generic dismissal of a kind organic to canonization as a practice” (29). Freedman’s work has made us aware that sf must remain cognizant of the process of canon formation if it wishes to maintain its relevance beyond the fantastic worlds of vampire-slayers and androids and the conferences that discuss them.
To those of us still interested in canon formation and sometimes driven by the strange yet powerful motivation of social and literary equality, two recent books offer help. The Popular and the Canonical: Debating Twentieth-Century Literature 1948-2000 (ed. David Johnson) and A Twentieth-Century Literature Reader: Texts and Debates (ed. Suman Gupta and David Johnson) are part of a three-volume series for the third-level Open University course A300, “Twentieth-Century Literature: Texts and Debates.” The third book in the series and not under review is Aestheticism and Modernism: Debating Twentieth-Century Literature 1900-1960 (ed. Suman Gupta, 2005). These volumes are textbooks meant to be read and taught together: the Reader offers short passages from primary texts along with short introductory material to situate the reader, while the other two volumes add a focused and extended analysis of the primary authors discussed.
The Reader spans the full trajectory of twentieth-century literature, moving quickly from short pieces by early twentieth-century figures such as George Orwell and Lewis Grassic Gibbon to pieces by Pat Barker and Abdulrazak Gurnah. The Reader’s companion, The Popular and the Canonical, aims, through question-and-answer exercises and close textual and historical analysis, to introduce readers to the varieties of popular literature and to different approaches to judging literature. Ultimately, the different writers of The Popular and the Canonical’s chapters succeed in the editors’ stated goal of avoiding “definitive readings of the selected literary texts” and placing the emphasis on trying to “develop critical reading skills and convey a vivid sense of the contested nature of critical interpretation” (v). One can certainly see how new readers of the texts in question and even more experienced teachers could find the different discussions helpful and insightful.
The more specific relevance of these volumes to sf scholarship lies in the fact that a section in each book is dedicated to Philip K. Dick and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). In the section dedicated to Dick in The Reader we find excerpts from Darko Suvin’s classic Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979), as well as from essays by two other critics, Kevin R. McNamara’s “Blade Runner’s Post-Individual Worldspace and Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1997) and Patricia S. Warrick’s “Mechanical Mirrors, the Double, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1987). These excerpts from previously published articles are especially effective in the way they present readers with situations in which sf scholarship intersects with twentieth-century concerns about race and gender.
Dick’s work is suitable for the type of analysis that sf is subjected to in the texts. The editors of these volumes focus on sf, whether correctly or not, as an example of popular literature, and there is perhaps no better writer to use as a conduit to the discussion of popular literature, literary value, and the canon. Since Dick’s meteoric rise in academic circles and, more recently, in popular culture, his work has come to embody literary art that stands at the crossroads of the canonical, the popular, and the problematic of literary and artistic value. As we know, Dick’s “sloppy” and pulpy writing still continues to fascinate, in part, because it does not undermine the intellectual efficacy of his messages.
In The Popular and the Canonical, Andrew M. Butler offers first-time readers a well-structured and instructive reading of Dick’s oeuvre while it focuses, in correspondence with The Reader, on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Butler’s informed questions and insights into the novel and the critical material should give both teachers and students an entryway to the novel and to Dick’s other work. Butler’s discussion of genre should also be helpful to the discerning teacher who might use it, especially with Suvin’s articulations, to work through and understand the discussion of other writers who are not generally considered sf writers. For example, the consideration of genre in relation to the section on Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot (1952) should raise productive questions regarding the often arbitrary and erroneous borders placed around genres and writers.
Not much else in these texts is unambiguously sf. But their valuable discussion of literary value and aesthetics should provide a helpful guide to any teacher looking for ways to penetrate issues of literary aesthetics and the possible sf aspects of writers such as Beckett and Daphne du Maurier. The editors have not forgotten the centrality of women in twentieth-century literature. Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, du Maurier, and others find their way into these volumes, though they are outnumbered by their male peers.
Professors in the sf field or those who use sf in the classroom may not find the modest inclusion of sf sufficient. And for many, I am sure, Dick does not—and perhaps never did—represent sf in its purest form. The popularity and recognition of his work, particularly Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?, owe much to the success of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and the numerous other movie adaptations of Dick’s work that have been flooding cinemas everywhere. Furthermore, it is more than obvious that many other worthy works of sf should become part of the English curriculum in the twenty-first century. Therefore, this limited inclusion of sf might infuriate some, but it could also simply be another sad reminder of the place that sf ultimately takes in the English department curriculum. Though some programs and professionals in the field have made sf a central part of their curriculum, in the majority of English departments, the old canon, together with its biases and ideologies, still maintains a hegemonic hold, disregarding sf and other so-called popular genres.
Throughout these volumes, the editors correctly point to the fact that the future struggle about the boundaries and the flexibility of the canon should and will most likely take place at the locus of literary aesthetics and value. It is perhaps in these areas that sf scholarship faces its boldest challenge. The hold of tradition over the way we look at, teach, and value the written word, the syntax of sentences, and the structure of plot has been crucial in evaluating a work’s literary value. Perhaps sf scholarship, as Carl Freedman has argued, should also question what it values and the reasons it does so. That is, if sf continues to privilege one aesthetic form while dismissing another, it may miss out on the educational and perhaps even emancipatory potential of some truly valuable literary content. Sf scholarship must ask itself if it wants to privilege modes of reading that have shunned and continue to shun sf. Maybe we should constantly remind ourselves, as Dick does at the end of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, that “electric things have their lives too. Paltry as those lives are” (New York: Ballantine, 1968, 241). Dick’s work should always be a reminder of the problem of using the tools of the old hegemony to understand innovation.—Eyal Tamir, Brandeis University
James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, eds. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2006. xv + 286 pp. $14.95 pbk.
Slipstream is the genre label Bruce Sterling minted in 1989 in a panicked screed about the impending brain-death of science fiction that he wrote for SF Eye. Sterling argued thenthat another sf written by mainstream authors was rising to take science fiction’s place. These authors were stealing our sf’s best tricks to produce a kind of postmodernist speculative fiction that made its readers feel very strange. It is high time, Sterling concluded, that somebody capitalize on this so-called slipstream literary phenomenon and market it properly. The competition would be good for the old sf.
Seventeen years later, the competition has arrived. Except, what is it? Short answer: slipstream is a kind of sf too. Now for the long answer. In four installments spread throughout Feeling Very Strange, collectively entitled “I Want My 20th Century Schizoid Art,” Kelly and Kessel reproduce a month of blog entries from David Moles’s “Chrononautic Log” in which a gaggle of writers and fans debate with a great deal of nuance and lucidity the meaning and utility of the concept of slipstream. This is a volume for people who enjoy these kinds of debates and who want to see sf go off in new, extra-scientific directions. Slipstream mashes science fiction with tropes and techniques from other popular genres and literary styles to produce a new kind of genre sf whose identity accumulates with each new mash-up. The experience of reading Feeling Very Strange will leave you feeling knowledgeable yet also uncertain about the identity of the new genre. If you are the kind of person described above, it will also leave you feeling pleased and hungry for more of this new kind of sf.
If you read the contents of Feeling Very Strange in linear order (I recommend that you do, more or less) you will actually have a non-linear, information-building, increasingly exhilarating experience. Kelly and Kessel have assembled not so much a collection of great stories (although some are) as a great variety of story types that cluster around the concept of slipstream. The only thing that unites them is that not one of them is science fiction (insofar as science fiction is defined as a literature of scientific extrapolation and discovery). At the same time, none of the kinds of sf storytelling collected here is unfamiliar to readers of science fiction. I can imagine every one of these stories being published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, although none of them were. Indeed, when considering each story on its own, reading Feeling Very Strange feels like reading a good issue of that venerable genre-crossing magazine. (By the same token, I cannot imagine a single one of these stories ever being published in Analog.)
Yet to take each of the stories on its own is to completely miss both the educational aspect and the funhouse effect of this volume. Kelly and Kessel have arranged their stories and blog streams in a sequence of five mind-altering feedback loops. First you read the editors’ hyperintelligent introduction, in which they announce that they are not sure what kind of fiction they are anthologizing, but then go on to historicize and formalize it anyway. In one sentence, slipstream is not a kind of literature but “a psychological and literary effect that cuts across genre.” In the very next sentence slipstream is back to being “a literature of cognitive dissonance and of strangeness triumphant” (xi; emphasis in original). Next come God, Saturday Night Live, and the zeitgeist. It all makes sense, and you read the following three very strange stories accordingly. But seven more critical voices then chime in as you read a block of incisive blog entries that problematize Sterling’s original concept of slipstream and relate slipstream to magical realism and Venn diagrams—all of which prompts you to rethink Kelly and Kessel’s introductory comments and what you thought of the stories you just read. The blog entries also recode your expectations for the next three very strange stories. You then read more bloggers who critique the previous block of blog entries, leading you not only to reconsider the past six stories but also to rethink what kind of storytelling you have been experiencing and reconsider what is next in store. So you read four more very different and strange stories, followed by another block of blog entries—and so on. In effect, the anthology becomes a strange attractor. Each iteration of the feedback loop piles on another level of complication that expands the idea of slipstream. The genre deepens and grows, becoming a complicated and beautiful beast.
Slipstream is not an entirely strange animal for sf readers. It is recognizably different from science fiction, though. For example, the first and last stories by Carol Emshwiller and M. Rickert respectively are stylistically experimental new-wave tales without much science in them. Emshwiller is a smart pick with whom to begin this anthology. She started writing these kinds of slipstream stories (and publishing them in F&SF) when the guy who invented the term was still in diapers. Emshwiller’s “Al,” for its part, is a modernist otherworldly anti-love story related in multiple typefaces and blocks of text with shifting first-person narrators. Rickert’s story is also stylistically bold, using a second-person narrator to produce a sense of dislocation that mirrors the dislocation of its hospitalized and perhaps radiation-poisoned protagonist. The best part of this story is that the gender of “you” is not specified, so your experience of the story depends on who you are. This final story is a good pick, too, because the way it genders you—the reader—will make you feel strange.
Sf readers will recognize other story types in this anthology, too, such as alternate histories and alien invasions. Admirers of postmodernist fiction will note its contributors’ uses of metanarrative techniques and tropes such as secret histories and conspiracies. The combination of these tendencies frequently produces a different attitude towards scientific explanation and world building than that found in much canonical science fiction, and a different attitude towards questing and bravery than that found in heroic fantasy. Jonathan Lethem’s “Light and the Sufferer,” for instance, is a classic science fiction story about an alien invasion, except it is not science fictional. Aliens have decided to live on earth and no human can stop them. Nothing in the world has changed much as a result, however, and nobody knows why the aliens are here nor do they really care. As one character explains to another in a sentence that sums up the scientific ethos of many of these stories, “All the explanations [about what the aliens are doing] are bullshit” (79). The aliens are meaningless and the drama of the story remains grimly human. Nevertheless, Lethem’s remains an alien story. Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter” also offers a glimpse into an alien world, a gruesome secret history of ancient societies and lost gods. But at story’s end, instead of heroically exploring this strange new world and secret history, the narrator turns away from it and the narrative comes to a dead stop. Evoking a real secret history, Karen Joy Fowler gives a magical twist to Albert Einstein’s thought experiments in “Lieserl.” She explores Einstein’s relationship with his illegitimate daughter, unknown to history until the 1980s, and the significance his neglect of her may have had upon his understanding of relativity. While fantastic, this story rings true.
Many of the stories in Feeling Very Strange are familiar kinds of fantasy stories, but their authors use an encounter with the fantastic to foreground realistic human characters and situations rather than heroes, villains, and combat. George Saunders’s “Sea Oak” is a sad zombie story whose protagonist is a male stripper heading a dysfunctional household and whose zombie falls apart. Aimee Bender’s “The Healer” concerns two troubled girls with magic healing powers and the different directions in life that their powers take them. Bruce Sterling’s “The Little Magic Shop” is about exactly that, a little magic shop, but with a contemporary economic twist. Jeff VanderMeer’s “Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist” is a heavily footnoted maximalist tour guide to the fantastical city of Ambergris where mushroom people are the victims of racism. Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” is perhaps the most familiar kind of story in the volume, a ghost story set in the contemporary world. Yet the story’s drama derives not from its ghost but from the broken family situation Link reveals. Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God,” on the other hand, is a rigorously extrapolated alternate contemporary America that gives terrifying meaning to the liberal Christian cliché of its title. Chiang imagines a world where the medieval planes of heaven, earth, and hell are real visible places and where angels blast into the mortal plane accompanied by fireballs and tornados that destroy buildings and kill people. God demands love, His acts are arbitrary, grace is random, and glass broken during an angel visitation is not covered by insurance.
Several of the stories offer alternate histories mashed with other story types from fairy tales to metafiction. Theodora Goss’s “The Rose in Twelve Petals” is a fairy tale about a magic spinning wheel and a cursed princess, but it is set in an alternate history where England is a communist state. Howard Waldrop’s “The Lions are Asleep This Night” is an intertextual Afrofuturist alternate history set in 1894 wherein Africa has freed itself from colonial bondage and taken charge of its future (it even has a happy ending). Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air Planes,’” is an alternate-history metafiction in which Hindu mysticism has supplanted Western materialism as the world’s reigning philosophy and Brahmanic fields power flying cities. The story’s narrator, also named Benjamin Rosenbaum, is himself a writer of alternate histories in which material causation is the world’s mover. Finally, Jeffrey Ford combines metafiction with secret history in “Bright Morning,” and in the process provides some good insights into the nature of slipstream. Its narrator (who meets author Jeffrey Ford in the story) contemplates the significance of Kafka to contemporary writing and in the process learns the haunted history of one of Kafka’s tales. At the same time, we learn that Kafka is a progenitor of slipstream’s realist attitude to the fantastic. Kafka, Ford writes, “employed only one really weird element in each story (a giant mole, a machine that inscribes a person’s crime upon their back) that he treats as if it were as mundane as putting your shoes on” (160). By and large, slipstream exhibits a similar attitude to the fantastic and science-fictional elements its authors employ. As with Lethem’s aliens, they are integrated into our real world. And when the authors of slipstream fiction write of other worlds, those are worlds where real people must put on their shoes.
All of the stories in Feeling Very Strange are sf of a sort. Just as Sterling predicted, storytelling such as this is pushing genre sf—whatever it now is—into new twenty-first-century territory. But it has not arrived in the competitive capitalist way Sterling predicted. The slipstream authors in this anthology are writing (and debating) their kind of fiction in a communal world-building way in dialog with the genres and artists that they appropriate. Writing slipstream has ultimately proved to be a very science-fictional thing to do. Its authors seem to be extrapolating a new genre by extending the boundaries of existing ones and asking “what if” of their literary forms. Sf writers have always dreamed of other worlds; now they dream of other science fictions too.—Doug Davis, Gordon College
Lee Kovacs. The Haunted Screen: Ghosts in Literature and Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006. 183 pp. $29.95 pbk.
Lee Kovacs’s The Haunted Screen offers a brief look at nine films featuring celluloid specters. She opens with seven spooky stories from the 1930s and 1940s, including 1939’s Wuthering Heights and 1948’s Portrait of Jennie, and closes with two more recent phantoms as featured in 1990’s Ghost and 1992’s Truly, Madly, Deeply. Her short analyses of the role of haunting in each of the films and their source texts are conceptually and chronologically divided into four sections, “The Gothic Ghost,” “The Romantic Ghost,” “The Theatre Ghost,” and “The Contemporary Ghost.” Each section is meant to signify a critical shift in the representation of ghosts and haunting in the twentieth century from the “gothic ghost,” which Kovacs asserts is “born of the romantic idealization of death and solitude” (174), to the “contemporary ghost,” which she calls “a pale shadow of his predecessors … forced to share the crowded, anxious space of the living” (147). Kovacs claims that “each successive novel and film under discussion will depict how the ghost genre emphasizes man’s gradual and ignoble descent” (28).
Although seven of these films are adapted from literary sources, and Kovacs considers the source text as well as the film in her chapters, she gives only cursory attention to the particular challenges of adaptation and the critical difference between literary and cinematic texts. Furthermore, her closing statement that in the “current ‘visual’ culture, the ghost has evolved from novel to film because people value the exterior look over content” (175) comes out of left field, since in the preceding chapters Kovacs has neither considered literary ghost stories apart from those that have been adapted to film, nor shown how filmic versions of these tales are less complex than their literary siblings.
Kovacs’s writing has a tendency toward totalizing language, representing certain elements in one film or another as characteristic of all temporally-related films, while ignoring notable exceptions. Her choice of films is not entirely self-evident, as many well-known and critically acclaimed cinematic spook stories, including those adapted from literary sources such as The Haunting (1963), are conspicuously absent. Additionally, the more than forty-year chronological leap from the earlier films, which span 1934 to 1948, to 1990’s Ghost seems capricious in a work that attempts to make a broad argument about the figure of filmic haunting generally. Finally, the paperback release of this volume, seven years after the initial publication, without a section considering how cinematic ghost stories have evolved since 1992 (perhaps most notably 1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2001’s The Others), seems like a missed opportunity.
The work’s greatest weakness for professional scholars, however, may be that it is not written for an academic audience. Although Kovacs occasionally turns to Foucault, Lukács, or Bakhtin to illustrate a critical point, for the most part this is a work that seems to exist outside the critical tradition, a fact made clear by the near-total absence of footnotes. Academics may also grow frustrated by Kovacs’s propensity to veer away from deep critical engagement with the works under analysis. The author shows an uncanny ability to brush up against the uncanny itself without once mentioning it by name, or exploring its critical relevance to her work.
Kovacs’ work is at its strongest when she is making small observations about individual films and at its weakest when she attempts to bind these observations into a unified theory of haunting in literature and film. For the general audience, however, or for academics with only a passing interest in the topic, the clear and fluid prose of The Haunted Screen makes for a pleasant and interesting read and offers a good introduction to each of the films under consideration, even as it leaves the more serious scholar longing for something more substantial than the ghost of critical analysis.—Melissa Stevenson, Georgia Tech
Skimming a Wide, Disconnected Surface.
Ira Livingston. Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2006. xiii + 192 pp. $18 pbk.
Rhetorically influenced by both Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rhizomatic structures and the new scientific paradigms of self-organization, complexity, and chaos, Livingston’s text evinces these principles in its structure as well as its message. There is no introduction or conclusion, and chapters refuse to build upon each other in a linear fashion (readers are invited to read the text in any order, yet ironically the interlude chapters can only act as such if the book is read in the traditional order). Chapter subjects range from breezy personal anecdotes (which often seem completely unconnected to the rest of the text) to dense criticism, and the voice of Livingston’s text also evinces a postmodern playfulness by slipping from formal to informal and back again.
Accordingly, the book presents no clear argument. Livingston explores a multiplicity of ideas; judging by the book’s subtitle, the most important appears to be autopoetics—a play on the biological concept of autopoiesis and the metaphorical essence of poetics: “An autopoetic system is, like a wave or a whirlpool, a self-sustaining pattern, but it does more than merely use what is already present; it actually produces its own components” (79; emphasis in original). Language, Livingston argues, needs to be seen as an autopoetic system; it is performative (as per J.L. Austin), and neither referential nor self-referential, but containing qualities of both.
Livingston also recasts part of the war between C.P. Snow’s two cultures as a disconnect between language and the world. Scientists privilege things over words, while literary critics (especially New Critics) favor words over things. The difficulty, Livingston argues, is that both attempt to divide language artificially from the world, and he hopes to address this division by exploring the interzone between the things of science and the words of literary studies.
Partway through the text, the discussion of language, which at least initially appeared to be the thread connecting the various nodes of the majority of the chapters, disappears. Livingston turns to a discussion of cultural studies, some of it an introduction to the construction of sexuality, bodies, and the labor economy. Other themes that have run throughout the text become more prevalent: the limitations and violence of modernity, realism, scientific rationalism, and romanticism, and how each of these plays into a system of capitalism and colonialism via rigid hierarchy. A postmodern turn towards horizontal structures, a loosening of disciplinary boundaries, complexity, and interposition are seen as steps in the right direction, but have not we heard this all before?
Where Livingston offers something new is also where his argument is most speculative and controversial. Briefly discussing the emergent theories of chaos, complexity, and self-organization, he states that these changes in scientific paradigm are due to their coevolution with the culture of global capitalism. Livingston speculates that if such radical changes in physics and biology continue to develop (which would feed back into culture and nurture its alteration), it could lead to a change in language at the smallest level—grammar: “all parts of speech would become the participles that these theories tell us they are” and/or “an intermediate form between singular and plural would arise in recognition of the someness of all constellated entities” (154; emphasis in original). He notes, however, that it is more likely that any alterations will occur in metaphors and disciplinary categorizations.
In terms of sf studies, the chapter “Fact and Fiction” uses the sf movies Men in Black (1997), The X Files (1999), and They Live (1988) to discuss epistemology. 2001: A Space Odyssey (film version, 1968) pops up here and there to illustrate various points about tool use and monolithic structures. Livingston discusses globalization using William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985), arguing that the former retains a modernistic privileging of “Self” over collectivity, while the latter creates “an amazing new range of ways to experience and enact selfhood and community” through complexity and self-organization (144). The most in-depth exploration of sf occurs when Livingston juxtaposes Samuel Delany’s short story “The Star Pit” (1965) with his memoir The Motion of Light in Water (1988) in order to insert them into the “intersection of cultural studies and theoretical biology” (161). Yet the result seems a more autobiographical and cultural reading of the story than one informed by biology. Sf comprises less than a fifth of the book, and these sections reference no other sf critics or theory.
The publisher’s brief states that the book is an introduction to cultural and literary theory for nonspecialists, but I find this somewhat misleading. Livingston does more than merely write a primer—he propounds original theory as well; conversely, the book fails as an introductory text in that it does not cover the range of cultural and postmodern theory that one would expect. There is an unevenness in the development of its argument from chapter to chapter that may well be intentional, yet the weaker sections read more like short articles from a middle-brow webzine than rigorous academic work. Concomitantly, his brief discussion of many of the topics covered lacks the depth desired in academic work. He jokingly notes that one could write ten books based on one particular paragraph presented in this one; similarly, his argument(s) throughout could stand to be more fully fleshed out. If, as he playfully asserts, autopoetics will be studied in the future, it is because this text served to start the discussion, and weightier support of the theory will have followed.—Krista Kasdorf, Florida Atlantic University
A Lively Return.
Richard A. Lupoff. Master of Adventure: The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs. 1965. Foreword Michael Moorcock. Bison Frontiers of the Imagination. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2005. xl + 307 pp. $16.95 pbk.
When Richard A. Lupoff sat down to write a biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1964, he had not even begun his own extraordinarily prolific career. Republished in 2005, Master of Adventure: The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs is as much a time capsule of the state of science-fiction scholarship in 1965 as it is of Burroughs’s own life and times, chronicled in lively detail by Lupoff.
Lupoff, just prior to his thirtieth birthday, was the editor of Canaveral Press, where he was busily preparing new editions of Burroughs’s work, many out of print since their initial publications in pulp magazines. Lupoff sorted through Burroughs’s manuscripts: jungle stories, science fiction, historicals, Westerns, literary novels, even a few detective stories. He went through Burroughs’s notes and papers to determine the best way to publish the flood of material he found available.
In the 1960s, sf criticism was in its infancy. James Blish had collected his critical writings in Issues at Hand in 1964. Some of the essays were quite scathing of Blish’s contemporaries and were originally published under the byline of William Atheling, Jr. The preeminent sf scholar at that time was historian Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz’s essays and interviews, collected in Explorers of the Infinite (1963), Seekers of Tomorrow (1966), and Strange Horizons (1976), included fascinating portrayals of sf’s earliest pioneers. Because Moskowitz relied heavily on his own unpublished and undocumented interviews, his criticism, though historically important, has been somewhat unjustly neglected.
In Master of Adventure, Lupoff makes a better effort than most of his academic forerunners to acknowledge his sources. Attempting to verify the veracity of a report by Moskowitz on an ancient feud between Burroughs and Otis Adelbert Kline, an unabashed Burroughs imitator, Lupoff tracks the account to its source, writer and editor Donald A. Wolheim:
I asked Wollheim what his source was and he replied simply, “I made it up!”
Asked if he did not regard this as somewhat irresponsible journalism, he explained that by “made it up” he did not mean out of whole cloth, but rather that he viewed the circumstantial evidence and concluded that there was indeed a feud, or “war,” between the two authors. (109)
When this exchange between Lupoff and Wollheim took place, Wollheim was editing Ace Books and publishing a number of Burroughs’s books himself, many of which were reprints of Lupoff’s Canaveral Press editions. Lupoff could talk to Wollheim any time he wanted by either picking up his telephone or dropping by Wollheim’s office. Lupoff, to his credit, does appear very much aware of the occasionally faulty methodology of his contemporaries. And even if he, too, sometimes relies too heavily on his own experiences and conversations, Lupoff makes every attempt to expose his own assumptions, his sources of information, and his personal insights.
Many additions have been made for the release of this new edition, including a short, rather sweet introduction by Michael Moorcock in which he chronicles his personal debt to Burroughs’s work. Philip Burger, a freelance writer and consultant to the Burroughs estate, adds a final chapter, detailing 40 years of further developments in the saga of Burroughs and his creations.
What shines through these pages most clearly are the agile thoughts of the young man who edited Burroughs’s papers and made key decisions about how his work would be presented. Lupoff delved deep into what was known about Burroughs’s life and when he didn’t have the information he needed, made very astute conjectures. The journey Lupoff undertakes, to discover the secret past of one of the grand masters of sf, propels the book forward as we share his insights and frustrations.
In Master of Adventure, Lupoff attempts to follow “a middle ground between uncritical admiration and unfair condemnation of Burroughs” (xl). He chases Burroughs through the printed page, through the ups and downs of his life, and chronicles both Burroughs’s literary predecessors and his descendants. It is a remarkable achievement from the dawn of sf scholarship.—Jacob Weisman, Tachyon Publications
Reading as a Critical Process.
Farah Mendlesohn. Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition. Children’s Literature and Culture 36. New York: Routledge, 2005. xxxiii + 240 pp. $95 hc.
Like many people I first came to Diana Wynne Jones’s novels as an adult rather than as a child. More than twenty-five years later, I still read her fiction with the greatest pleasure, as do many other adults I know. I mention this specifically to support Farah Mendlesohn’s introductory contention: while Diana Wynne Jones may be a writer of children’s books, her audience is much broader, and it is therefore entirely legitimate “to discuss her not as a children’s writer but as a fantasy writer” (xiii). I cannot speak for anyone else, but I always found Jones’s fiction to be “different” in a way that was not easy to explain but that was good to read. It was well-wrought, which always brings satisfaction for an attentive reader, and I was pleased with the way Jones often employed mundane, contemporary settings and characters; but there was also a sense that Jones was doing something else with the fantastic, something really unusual, and doing it in plain view of the reader if she could but understand what was going on. This sense of “doing something else” is what Mendlesohn sets out to examine.
I have more than once described Jones’s work as subverting fantastic tropes, and that is why I find Mendlesohn’s overall thesis so intriguing. She argues that “Jones is both a fiction writer and a critic,” and contends that “her fiction can be viewed as a sustained metafictional critical response to the fantastic” (xiii). This suggests then that Jones is not so much subverting the genre as holding it up to scrutiny in a subtle but distinctive way. As Mendlesohn puts it, “Fiction as written by Diana Wynne Jones is a critical process” (191). We know from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) that Jones is both critically aware and critical of the construction of fantasy as a genre; some of the entries in the Tough Guide were memorably scathing about the assumptions made by those writers who use the trappings of the fantastic without understanding what makes them work. Jones’s approach, Mendlesohn argues, is very different from those writers she criticizes.
Jones’s fiction constantly tests the reader’s expectations and assumptions about fantasy and also about reality. The magical and mimetic worlds both operate according to certain conventions, but nothing is quite as it seems. We might wish to operate according to a comforting binary opposition of real and not-real, magical and mundane, good and bad, but Jones points out time and again that nothing is ever that straightforward. Mendlesohn suggests that, in Wilkins’ Tooth (2002), Jones is developing “an alternative cartography of fantasy” (7), employing the concept of the rough Tough Guide. In other words, Jones is teaching her readers how to read fantasy and, more importantly, how to interpret and question what they are reading as they read. Even more than that, she is also engaging with what might be considered to be the standard fare of “children’s fiction” and querying how it is presented to a child reader.
The themes of agency and the passage to adulthood figure in both children’s literature and fantasy. The acquisition of power is often used to signal a move into adulthood; too often, however, the author assumes that power automatically confers maturity. By contrast, Mendlesohn argues, Jones “reverses the route map to adulthood” (21). It is, therefore, the acquisition of agency that brings power, and Jones is concerned in all her novels to address the notion of what it means to acquire agency and gain access to power. If agency is, therefore, about making conscious choices, with choice comes consequences and also responsibility. As Mendlesohn points out, Jones’s characters constantly have to address the meaning of power and indeed are learning to operate within moral constraints in order to exercise their powers most effectively. Throughout Jones’s work, characters learn that intent is as important as action when they attempt to use magic. It is far too easy to assume that magic confers agency when, in fact, to use magic effectively one must be aware of how power can and should be used. “It is the intelligent negotiation with magic, rather than magical power, that leads to agency” (44).
The most complex chapter of Mendlesohn’s study focuses on the way in which Diana Wynne Jones uses time in her novels. Jones’s use of time travel is itself complicated; Mendlesohn notes that her approach is “distinctively that of the writer of science fiction” (53), rather than merely using time-travel as a fantastical convenience. Here, Mendlesohn draws on John Ellis McTaggart’s theory of A-Series and B-Series (relative and absolute) time to examine the ways Jones uses past events to establish the story in the present and also destabilizes the use of a linear narrative in order to move back and forth through the story, presenting it from different viewpoints. For anyone used to a straightforward presentation of a series of events, one after the other, the time shifts in Jones’s writing can be an unwelcome challenge, but for those who relish complexity, Jones’s fiendish plotting is a joy. Here, Mendlesohn’s theoretical exposition opens up the beauty of the narratives’ construction in a whole new way and effectively demonstrates the skill behind the plotting.
For me and for many other readers, the most striking feature of Jones’s narratives is the way in which she makes the mundane fantastic. This is sometimes achieved through the setting but just as often through the kinds of domestic dilemmas her characters encounter. She was one of the first writers I ever encountered, along with Ann Halam (Gwyneth Jones) and Alan Garner, who seemed to be comfortable about placing characters in worlds recognizably analogous to our own, worlds with characters for whom the encounter with the magical, the inexplicable, was damaging rather than comfortable and easily resolved. The key seems to be that “the dividing line between magic and reality is deliberately blurred, unassailable by logic” (136). As Mendlesohn notes, Jones’s novels “manipulate irony and equipose to challenge the presumptions behind the concept of realist fiction, and to reverse some of the conventional patterns of fantasy” (137). This I think is at the heart of Jones’s work, that desire to challenge and test conventions.
As Mendlesohn notes, “Each novel Diana Wynne Jones has written takes children through the art of logic, the nature of story, a writing and editing course, and a discussion of ethics. She demands of them that they continually question the assumptions on which any happy ending rests” (193). This is true, I think, for all readers of Jones’s work, whatever their age, if one accepts that reading at its best is a serious engagement between reader and author. I began this review by saying that for me there was also a sense that Jones was doing something else with the fantastic. As a result of reading Mendlesohn’s book, I genuinely feel I have a better understanding of what that something else is. If Mendlesohn’s argument is correct—and it is extremely convincing—the implications of Jones’s undeclared project are breathtaking. Mendlesohn has done a great service in laying them out for further discussion. One can only hope that other authors will help shoulder the burden of trying to teach everyone to read critically.—Maureen Kincaid Speller, University of Kent at Canterbury, UK
Wong Kin Yuen, Gary Westfahl, and Amy Kit-sze Chan, eds. World Weavers: Globalization, Science Fiction, and the Cybernetic Revolution. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2005. xi + 307 pp. $22.95 pbk.
As someone who shuttles back and forth between the worlds of science and technology studies (sts) and science fiction studies (sfs), I’m always pleased to encounter fellow travelers. Of course, our numbers have been steadily increasing ever since Donna Haraway invited us to consider feminist sf authors as technocultural theorists in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985). Somewhat surprisingly, however, there haven’t been many collections demonstrating both the variety and importance of scholarship at the interface of sts and sfs. In fact, I can only think of two that have been published since the turn of the millennium: Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth’s ReLoad: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture (2002) and SFS’s own special issue on “Technoculture and Science Fiction” (March 2006). But now, after reading Wong Kin Yuen, Gary Westfahl, and Amy Kit-sze Chan’s edited essay collection World Weavers, I am delighted to amend that “two” to “three.” The international perspective of this collection makes it a particularly welcome addition to a dynamic but still under-represented field of inquiry.
As Westfahl notes in his brief introduction, World Weavers is the product of a “genuinely global” effort on the part of scholars from five continents and twelve countries who gathered together at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2001 to discuss globalization, science fiction, and the cybernetic revolution (1). He also clearly and succinctly explains the need for such discussion, arguing that “our world has grown more and more interconnected due not simply to technological advances but to a shared interest in those advances, and to a shared interest in what those advances might lead to in the future” (2).
The three main sections of this book admirably illustrate both the shared interests outlined by Westfahl and the narrative practices they engender. The first section, “Global Perspectives,” illustrates the diverse perspectives that scholars working at the interface of sts and sfs bring to bear on their subjects of inquiry. For example, in the first two chapters of this section, George Slusser uses the concept of the Emersonian monad to connect Asian action cinema with Jamaican reggae and American sf, while Howard V. Hendricks mobilizes modernist and postmodernist architectural theory to explain the image of the global city in Western sf. In the next two chapters, Takayuki Tatsumi draws inspiration from Japanese sf fandom to complicate standard critical interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Sharalyn Orbaugh uses Japanese history and its expression in manga and anime to complicate Western thinking about cyborg identity. Finally, while Wong Kin Yuen explores the Heideggerian hermeneutics of Taiwanese sf, N. Katherine Hayles examines the mutation of utopia in Neal Stephenson’s fiction. Broadly put, then, we might say that the authors featured in this section are bound together by a mutual interest in using critical theory to better understand the emergence of a complex and sometimes contradictory global cultural imaginary.
The second section of World Weavers, “History Lessons,” demonstrates how sf has always been global. Given that sf is widely perceived as a Western genre, it is not surprising that three of the five essays included here explore what European authors of the early and mid-twentieth century may or may not have known about the rest of the world as they wrought their own visions of global culture. Andy Sawyer opens this section with a compelling overview of the shared narrative strategies that sf authors have used to make the notion of global culture palatable to Western audiences; next, Lisa Raphals and Jake Jakaitis use case studies of Cordwainer Smith and Philip K. Dick to illustrate how individual writers were inspired by everything from firsthand experience of Chinese culture to casual perusal of Zen gardening manuals. These essays are nicely balanced by offerings from Thomas Schnellbächer and Gary Westfahl that demonstrate how Japanese authors and filmmakers have freely transformed Western sf narratives to suit their own needs in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To some extent the essays gathered in “History Lessons” feel more unified than those in any other section of the book, perhaps because they are all deeply informed by the methodologies of cultural history and literary analysis, but the sf texts under consideration clearly take priority in each one. This is not to say that the cumulative effect of this section is better or worse than that of “Global Perspectives,” but that it yields very different—and highly complementary—results. While the first set of essays in World Weavers illustrates the wide range of cultural objects produced by global culture, the second set maps the wide range of cultural relations and aesthetic sources that serve as inspiration for science-fictional depictions of global culture itself.
The third group of essays, gathered together under the heading “Contemporary Case Studies,” brings the differing critical approaches of the first two sections to bear on contemporary sf, political theory, and film. It is also the most wide-ranging in its objects of study, including Gerald Gaylard’s study of African speculative fiction, Chris Palmer’s consideration of diasporic subjects in Australian sf, Amy Kit-sze Chan’s explanation of the resonance between ancient Chinese philosophy and present-day cyberfeminism, and Véronique Flambard-Weisart and Susanne Rieser and Susanne Lummerding’s two very different takes on the development of World Cinema. Much like their counterparts in “Global Perspectives,” the authors featured in “Contemporary Case Studies” show how a wide range of theoretical perspectives and cultural objects can inform our thinking about globalization. And like those authors included in “History Lessons,” they provide fascinating glimpses into the historical and material conditions that facilitate certain representational trends in global culture as well.
In their conclusion Yuen and Chan propose that further work at the highly productive interface of sts and sfs might address the concept of virtuality, “which traverses the past and the future in such a way that puts together globalization, science fiction, and the cybernetic revolution into a hermeneutic circle, a feedback loop of non-linear folds, and a projection-reciprocation dialectics” (256). This will enable scholars to adopt more global perspectives as they shift critical paradigms from “cultural studies per se to intercultural studies” (256). It seems to me that this is both an admirable and appropriate goal, and one that appears to be already well under way in the current volume.
Editors Yuen, Westfahl, and Chan have named their volume wisely in that almost every one of the authors included here employs the strategy of weaving Eastern and Western texts together to produce new knowledge about life in our still-emergent global village. They have also done an excellent job of selecting essays that demonstrate the wide range of ways that scholars might undertake world weaving. Taken both individually and together, the essays included in World Weavers are analogous to a good game of cat’s cradle, the string game—played all around the globe!—in which two people work together to create a series of alternatively simple and complex string figures looped around their fingers. As an American sf reader and scholar, I particularly enjoyed this game when it taught me something about non-Western sf, especially in Orbaugh’s essay on Japanese cyborgs and Gaylard’s essay on African sf. I also appreciated how this world weaving produced new ways of thinking about familiar Western texts (as in Tatsumi’s reading of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hayles’s reading of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age , and Sawyer’s reading of what he calls the “the Kipling Continuum”) and equally familiar Western authors (as in Raphal’s and Jakaitis’s case studies of Cordwainer Smith and Philip K. Dick). To a certain extent, the essays I single out here resonate with my own scholarly interests, and so I expect that readers particularly interested in, say, reggae music, cyberfeminism, or Hong Kong action cinema will find much to enjoy here as well.
I also applaud the editors’ careful selection and arrangement of the essays included here, the aggregate effect of which is something of a cat’s cradle itself. Or perhaps more appropriately, we might think of World Weavers as modeling the virtual space described by Yuen and Chan in their concluding remarks as “a feedback loop of non-linear folds.” The authors included in this collection consider a wide range of cultural objects from a wide range of critical perspectives, but the fact that they return to key theorists (Haraway, Deleuze and Guattari), authors (Arthur C. Clarke, Ted Chiang) and cultural icons (Bruce Lee, the Terminator) throughout the collection enables the reader to consider these theorists, authors, and icons from diverse perspectives—and to consider how the various interests of the critics included in this essay converge at certain tightly woven intersections as well.
Of course, as with almost every game of cat’s cradle, the world weaving collected in this anthology sometimes runs the risk of getting tangled up in knots. I found this to be particularly true of the more theoretically dense essays, such as those offered by Yuen, Chan, and Rieser and Lummerding. The problems I encountered with these essays did not stem from the authors’ treatment of critical theory—if anything I was rather dazzled by their deft handling of dense concepts. But in weaving intricate theoretical patterns, the authors sometimes lost a grasp of the threads pertaining to the sf and other cultural texts also under consideration in their work. When I began reading World Weavers I was excited to learn about Taiwanese sf, ancient Chinese medical texts, and Hong Kong action film, and somewhat disappointed that these subjects seemed to take a back seat to the theories employed to describe them. It very much made me wish I had attended the conference; after reading their essays I wanted to ask each of these authors how they saw Eastern texts as not just instantiating Western theory, but as bringing something new to and thus modifying our shared understanding of critical theory itself.
I also wanted to learn more about what might lie between East and West. True to the spirit of rhizomatics that informs much of this book, the authors herein work hard to explode conceptual binaries and avoid hierarchies. But for all that, there is surprisingly little discussion of theories, authors, or cultural objects from the great land masses between and below, say, Europe and China or the United States and Japan. Slusser’s discussion of Jamaican reggae and Gaylard’s essay on African sf (which includes what must be the best closing line written by a cultural critic since Haraway’s declared preference for cyborgs over goddesses), are both important steps toward addressing this silence. (And what was that last line? “The white cyborg speeds through the desert to the virtual new Jerusalem which chimerically shimmers on the horizon; a surreal dancing African scrap heap shadows it far behind; vultures monitor their progress” ). But still—I wanted more. In particular I wondered: where are the representatives of South America and India? As political leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales step onto the world stage to resist and renounce global capitalism, what new futures might they inspire artists to create? And as Bollywood directors ensure their positions within the world’s largest and most lucrative film industry by resisting Western realism and appropriating Western narratives for their own ends, how might we rethink the concept of World Cinema as it currently derives from Hollywood and Hong Kong aesthetics?
If World Weavers’ authors and editors are silent on such issues, it may be, of course, a simple artifact of publication lag—after all, the original essays were first presented in 2001, well before the ascendancy of Chavez and Morales into Western consciousness or the arrival of films like Bride and Prejudice (2004)on Western shores. Furthermore, as the editors of this volume rightly point out in their framing remarks, in many cases the pieces collected in World Weavers represent first attempts to think through issues of technology, identity, and futurity on a global scale, and so they cannot—and should not—try to do everything.
In fact, as I write these last few sentences it occurs to me that perhaps this volume has done exactly the work it needs to do—after all, it succeeded in getting me to play the game of world weaving myself.—Lisa Yaszek, Georgia Institute of Technology
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